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Rules of Ascension Book One of Winds of the Forelands
By Coe, David B.
Tor Books Copyright © 2003 Coe, David B.
All right reserved.
Galdasten, Eibithar, year 872, Mornai's Moon waxing
After the bright glare of the dirty road and sunbaked fields, it took Pytor's eyes some time to adjust to the darkness of the tavern. He stood at the door waiting for the familiar shapes to come into relief: the bar with its dark stained wood and tall wooden stools, the rough tables and low chairs, the thick, unfinished pillars that seemed to groan beneath the weight of the sagging ceiling, and, of course, Levan, stout and bald, standing behind the bar. The air was heavy with the scents of musty ale and roasting meat, but Pytor also smelled Mart's pipe smoke. It seemed he wasn't the first.
"Starting a bit early today, aren't you, Pytor?" Levan asked, filling a tankard with ale and setting it on the bar by his usual place.
Pytor sat on his stool and took a long pull. "I'll do without the commentary, Levan," he said, tossing a silver piece onto the bar. "I'll just thank you to keep the ale coming."
The barkeep held up his hands and shrugged. "I didn't mean anything by it."
Pytor frowned before draining the tankard with a second swallow. He set it down on the bar sharply and pushed it toward Levan, gesturing for more with one hand and wiping the sweet foam from his mustache with the other.
"Got yourself a thirst today, do you, Pytor?" came a voice frombehind him.
He turned and saw Mart sitting at a table in the back, pipe smoke hanging like a storm cloud over his head and curling around his gaunt face.
"Since when is my taste for ale the whole world's concern?"
Pytor glanced back at Levan and shook his head. The barkeep grinned like a ghoul and handed Pytor his ale.
"Don't be sore, Pytor," Mart called. "I was just talking. Come back here and join me."
He took another drink and sat still for a moment. Mart wasn't a bad sort. Back when Kara was still alive, she and Pytor had spent a good deal of time with him and Triss. Mart and his wife had been good to them when they lost Steffan. Better than most, if truths be told. They'd looked after Pytor's crop and beasts while he cared for Kara, and even for some time after she finally died. And Mart had continued to be a reliable friend since, accepting of Pytor's quick temper and rough manner.
Still, Pytor wished that he had been the first to arrive that day. Since early morning he'd been restless and uneasy, the way he sometimes felt before a storm. Perhaps it's only that. Morna knew they needed the water. But he knew better. Something was coming, something dark.
Kara used to say that he had Qirsi blood in him, that he had the gleaning power, like the Qirsi sorcerers who traveled with Bohdan's Revel. They always laughed about it, Pytor reminding her that he was much too fat to be Qirsi. Still, they both knew that he was usually right about these things. He didn't doubt that he would be this time, too. He was in no mood to talk. But Mart was here, and it wouldn't have been right to just leave him back there alone.
"Come on, Pytor," Mart called again. "Don't be so stubborn."
Pytor tugged impatiently on his beard. There was nothing to be done. He pushed back from the bar, picked up his ale, and joined Mart at his table.
"That's it," Mart said, as Pytor sat. He tapped out his pipe on the table and refilled it. Then he lit a tinder in the candle flame and held it over the bowl of his pipe, drawing deeply. The leaf glowed and crackled, filling the air with sweet smoke. "What's new, Pytor?" Mart asked at last, his yellow teeth clenching the pipe stem.
Pytor shrugged, not looking him in the eye. "Not much," he mumbled. "Grain's growing, beasts are getting fat." He shrugged again and took another drink.
"You seem troubled."
He looked up at that. Mart was watching him closely, pale blue eyes peering out from beneath wisps of steel grey hair.
"Is something brewing?" Mart asked.
Pytor held up his tankard and forced a smile. "Only this," he said, trying to keep his tone light.
Mart just stared at him.
"Nothing I can name," Pytor finally admitted, looking away again. "Just a feeling."
The older man nodded calmly, but Pytor saw his jaw tighten.
"It's probably just my imagination," he said a moment later, drinking some more ale. "We've been almost a fortnight without rain and I'm starting to fear for my land. It's affecting my mood."
Mart nodded a second time and chewed thoughtfully on his pipe. "Yes," he agreed after some time. "That's probably it."
Pytor could see that Mart didn't believe this either, but the man seemed as eager as he to let the matter drop. Draining his tankard again, Pytor motioned for Levan to bring him another.
"Can I buy you one?" he asked Mart, noticing for the first time that his friend had no drink.
Mart hesitated, but only for a moment. "No, thanks," he answered with a shake of his head. "Triss will thrash me if she smells it on me. She's stingy enough with my time without having to worry that I'm spending all of our money on ale."
Pytor looked at the man with genuine concern. That wasn't Triss's way, and they both knew it. Anyone who spent even a few minutes chatting with her could have seen that.
"Things that bad then?" he asked.
This time it was Mart's turn to shrug. "They've been worse." He paused, then gave a wan smile. "Though not in some time."
Levan walked over to their table and placed another ale in front of him, but Pytor hardly noticed, so great was his surprise at what Mart was telling him. True, they needed rain, but things weren't that bad. Not yet. Another turn of it would be a different story, but the planting season had been generous, and the ground still had a good deal of moisture in it.
"What happened?" Pytor asked. "You're not having trouble with mouth rot in your herd again, are you?"
Mart shifted uncomfortably in his chair and stared at his hands. "Actually, we are," he said at last, his voice barely more than a whisper. "But not 'again,' as you put it. It's still the same problem."
Pytor narrowed his eyes. "I don't understand."
"I'm sorry, Pytor," Mart said, his eyes meeting Pytor's briefly before flicking away again. "I should have told you at the time how bad it was."
Pytor just stared at him. He knew what was coming. He should have been used to it by now, but it still stung. "So?" he finally managed. "How bad?"
"We've lost all but three of our beasts. Most of them died at the end of the planting, just as the grain was starting to sprout, but four more of them died during this past waning."
"Your crop's all right though, isn't it?" he asked dully. "You can get through the cold turns."
Mart nodded. "Barely, yes. The crop's fine, and Brice has just sold me a half dozen of his beasts at a low price. It's been a hard time, but we'll get through."
"Why didn't you tell me the truth?" Pytor demanded, struggling to keep the ire from his voice. He knew the answer, but he wanted to make the man say it. "Why didn't you come to me? I'm doing fine; I could have helped you."
Mart looked away, his face reddening.
"We would have, Pytor. Really. But after all you'd been through..." He trailed off, making a small helpless gesture with his hands.
It didn't matter. Pytor could finish the sentence for him. We didn't want to trouble you. He could hear the words in a dozen different voices. It had been a constant refrain in his life since Kara's death. His friends had been so considerate of his feelings that they'd made him an outcast.
"The others know?" he asked.
"By now, they do. They didn't right off. At first I only told Brice. But now..." He shrugged.
Pytor nodded and pressed his lips together. He wasn't certain why he felt so angry. Mart hadn't done anything wrong; certainly it was nothing the rest of them hadn't done as well. Besides, the man's herd was no business of his. He couldn't fault him for going to Brice, either. Brice was a decent man, despite his bluster. He and Pytor spent much of their time together baiting each other, but even Pytor knew that he could be counted on when times got rough. And it was no secret that he was the most prosperous of them all. Had Pytor been in Mart's place he might have turned to Brice too, in spite of their past quarrels.
So why was he so offended?
"Well, I'm glad it's worked out for you," Pytor said at last, breaking an awkward silence.
"Thank you, Pytor." Mart smiled, looking relieved.
Pytor returned his smile, though he had a sour feeling in his stomach. He drank some ale and Mart puffed on his pipe, sending great billows of smoke up to the ceiling.
They sat that way for some time, saying nothing. Mart filled his pipe a second time, and Pytor drained yet another tankard of ale, which Levan dutifully replaced with a full one. He wanted to leave, but it was early yet. The others hadn't even arrived, and there was nothing back at his house except the beasts and his now-too-big bed. So instead the two of them just sat, keeping their silence and trying not to look at each other.
When Brice and the rest finally walked into Levan's tavern they both nearly jumped out of their chairs to greet them. The comfort Pytor took in their arrival was fleeting, though.
"It doesn't come at the best of times," Eddya was saying as she walked in. She stepped to the bar, gave Levan a silver, and took her ale. "But it's certainly not the worst either."
"There's never a good time for it," Jervis said sullenly, buying an ale of his own.
The others got their drinks as well and all of them walked back to the table. None of them looked happy, but Davor least of all: He was the youngest of the group, and the most prone to worry. Brice, too, was easily disturbed, despite his money. If they had been the only ones who were upset, Pytor wouldn't have been concerned. It was the others who had unnerved him. Eddya had been through four husbands, eleven childbirths, and more difficult times than he could count. Little bothered her anymore.
Jervis and Segel were even tempered as well, Jervis and Pytor had often been mistaken for brothers. They had the same coloring--red hair, fair skin, green eyes--and though Jervis was far taller than Pytor and a good bit leaner, they had similar features. They also reacted to things the same way. They were quick to anger, but kept their wits about them in hard times. No matter the trouble, they always managed to muddle through.
Segel was a stranger to Eibithar; no one who looked at him could have doubted that. He was small and wiry, with dark skin and darker eyes and hair. He even spoke with the hint of an accent, although not one that any of them could place. Some said that he was from Uulrann. Eddya was convinced that he came from the Southlands. Pytor had never asked him, though he'd often wondered. It had never really mattered. In the important ways he fit in just fine. He was quieter than the rest; he tended to listen more than he spoke, and he rarely worried unnecessarily.
So when Pytor saw the dark expression on his face, and on Eddya's and Jervis's as well, he knew something had to be wrong. He felt his stomach tightening like a fist.
"Looks like you shouldn't have bothered with those beasts after all," Brice said to Mart as he sat.
Mart glanced at Pytor uncomfortably before answering. "It wasn't a bother, Brice," he said awkwardly. "Your price was more than fair."
"Price doesn't matter anymore," Eddya told him, with a chuckle. She always seemed to be laughing when she spoke, even when she didn't mean it.
Pytor frowned. "What does that mean?"
"The timing couldn't be worse for Bett and me," Davor said to no one in particular. "What with having just put up the new shed and all."
"The timing of what?" Pytor demanded, his voice rising. "What's happened?"
Jervis looked at him for several moments, licking his lips. Then he shook his head.
"We just saw a posting at the meeting hall," Segel finally said in a low voice. "The duke has called for a Feast on the tenth night of the waxing."
Perhaps Pytor should have expected it. But the ale had begun to work on him, and he wasn't thinking clearly. Or maybe that was just an excuse. Maybe on some level he had expected it, but didn't want to admit it to himself. Here, after all, was confirmation of his premonitions. He could almost see Kara standing before him, nodding with that sad, knowing smile of hers. He had to clamp his teeth together against a wave of nausea.
Davor was saying something else about his new shed and how many days it had taken him to build it, but Pytor was hardly listening. There was a noise like a windstorm in his ears, and his head had begun to throb. He wished he hadn't drunk that last ale.
A Feast, and on the tenth day no less. The duke had given them only four days to prepare, not that they could do much. This was the last thing they needed. With the weather working itself into a drought, mouth rot killing their animals, and the duke taking more than his share of what they managed to make, it was amazing that they got by at all. But a Feast, that was too much. Pytor had been through seven of them in his lifetime, including one the year he was born, but there were just some things a person couldn't get used to.
"Has it really been six years already?" he heard Eddya ask.
"I believe so," Jervis answered. Pytor heard surrender in his words, and he hated him for it. In certain ways, he and Jervis were nothing alike.
"Hard to believe six years can go so fast," Mart said softly. He would go meekly as well.
"It's been five," Pytor said, his voice cutting through their chatter.
None of them argued with him. None of them dared. Steffan had died on the eve of the last Feast. Indeed, his death had prompted it.
"Five years rather than six," Segel said thoughtfully. "It may be that the duke's Qirsi has gleaned something."
"I remember back some years we had an early Feast," Eddya said, cackling. "Turned out there were people dead of the pestilence in Domnall."
Segel nodded. "That could be it as well."
"That doesn't excuse it," Pytor said, not bothering to mask his bitterness.
"Come now, Pytor," Brice said. "We all know how rough the last one was for you. But that doesn't mean that we should abandon the whole practice."
"The Feasts are a barbarism! They always have been, and I'd be saying that no matter what!"
Brice shook his head. "They're a necessity," he said. "And getting all riled up about it doesn't do you or the rest of us a bit of good. There's nothing that can be done."
"You have to admit," Davor added. "It has worked."
"Davor's right," Eddya agreed, grinning like a madwoman. "Galdasten hasn't had a full-blown outbreak of pestilence in my lifetime. And my father never saw an epidemic either. Say what you will, but it works."
"'It works!'" Pytor mimicked angrily. "Of course it works! But at what price? They could kill us all with daggers beforehand and that would work too! 'No pestilence there,' they'd say. 'Killing them ahead of time works just fine!'"
"You're being foolish, Pytor," Brice said. "No one's been killed. The Feasts are a far cry better than that."
Pytor took a breath, fighting to control his temper, struggling against the old grief. "And what about those the Feasts don't save?" he asked in a lower voice. "What about them? The Feasts don't always work."
"No, they don't," Brice said. "But that's all the more reason for us to be thankful that the duke is being vigilant. Better we should do this a year early than wait and let someone else lose a child. The risks of doing nothing are just too great. And the Feasts aren't nearly as awful as the fever itself. You of all people know what the pestilence can do. You and Kara were lucky to escape with your lives last time. All of us were." He looked around the table and the others nodded their agreement. All, that is, except Segel.
"Yes," Pytor said, nodding reluctantly. "I know what the pestilence does." He shuddered in spite of himself. He wasn't stupid. The pestilence was no trifle. Murnia's Gift it was called, named for the dark goddess by someone with a twisted humor. It had wiped out entire villages in less than three days. One particularly severe outbreak two centuries ago had killed over half the people in the entire dukedom in a single waning. It had taken Steffan in less than a day.
But though it worked quickly, it was far from merciful. It began, innocently enough, with a bug bite. It didn't matter where--Steffan's had been on his ankle. If the bite just swelled and then subsided, there was no need to worry. But if a small oval red rash appeared around the bite a person was better off taking a dagger to his heart than waiting for what was to come. Within half a day of the rash's appearance fever set in, and with it delirium. The lucky ones lost consciousness during this stage and never awoke again. Such was the one grace in Steffan's case. But those who didn't pass out--those whom the goddess ordained should remain awake for the entire ordeal--could expect one of two things to happen: either the vomiting and diarrhea would leave them too weak to do anything but waste away, or they would spend the last hours of their lives coughing up blood and pieces of their lungs. In either case, they were as good as dead--and so was anyone who came near them within a day of the bug bite. Given their unwillingness to leave Steffan when he fell ill, Pytor still didn't know how he and Kara managed to survive.
"I'm no stranger to the pestilence either," Segel said softly, a haunted look in his dark eyes, "but I must say that I agree with Pytor: there ought to be another way."
"There!" Pytor said, pointing to the dark man. "At least one of you has some sense!"
"But what could they do?" Brice demanded. "The duke has healers and thinkers, not to mention his Qirsi. If there was another way, don't you think they would have thought of it by now?"
"Why would they bother?" Pytor asked, throwing the question at him like a blade. "Their solution doesn't cost them a thing. And as you pointed out yourself, the pestilence hasn't reached the city in ages. If a boy dies here or there, who cares? They're still safe as long as they get their Feast in soon enough. They have no need to look for another way."
Brice shook his head. "Other houses have to deal with it, too. They haven't come up with much that's better. Some of them just let the pestilence run its course. Is that what you want?"
"I'd prefer it, yes!"
Brice let out an exasperated sigh and turned away. "He's mad," he said to the rest of them, gesturing sharply in Pytor's direction.
"They've been doing it this way a long time," Jervis said, his eyes on Pytor, the words coming out as a plea. "Longer than any of us have been alive. I don't like it either, Pytor. But it has kept our people alive and healthy."
"'Our people'?" Pytor repeated, practically shouting it at him. Jervis flinched and Pytor realized that Brice was right: he was starting to sound crazed. But he could barely contain himself. Surely Jervis and the others knew the origins of the Feast.
Nearly two centuries ago, the pestilence struck the House of Galdasten, just as it had every few years for as long as anyone could recall. Kell XXIII, who later became the fourth Kell of Galdasten to claim Eibithar's throne, hid himself and his family within the thick stone walls of his castle, praying to the gods that the pestilence might pass over the ramparts of his home and remain only in the countryside. But while Galdasten Castle had repelled countless invasions and endured sieges that would have brought other houses to their knees, its moat and fabled golden walls were poor defenses against the pestilence. The duke and duchess were spared, but not their son, Kell XXIV.
In the wake of the boy's death, Kell ordered the razing of the entire countryside. It was, most had long since concluded, an act born of spite and rage and grief. But because the pestilence is carried by the mice living in the fields and houses of the countryside, and spread by the vermin that infest the rodents' fur, Kell's fire actually ended the outbreak. Realizing that he had found a way to control the spread of the pestilence, Kell made a tradition of it. For a time, he looked to his sorcerers to tell him when outbreaks were coming, but it soon became clear that the interval between outbreaks remained remarkably constant: six years almost every time. So that's when the burnings came. Every six years.
Kell's younger son, Ansen, continued the practice after his father's death, but the new duke added the Feast as an appeasement of sorts, a way of softening the blow. It too became a tradition. All in the dukedom were invited into Galdasten Castle to partake of a meal that was unequaled by any other. The duke had his cooks prepare breads and meats of the highest quality. He had greens and dried fruits brought in from Sanbira and Caerisse just for the occasion. And of course he opened barrel after barrel of wine. Not the usual swill, but the finest from Galdasten's cellars.
All the while, as the people ate and drank, dancing as the court's musicians played and fancying themselves nobles for just one night, the duke's Qirsi sorcerers, accompanied by a hundred of Galdasten's finest soldiers, marched across the countryside, burning every home, barn, and field to the ground. Nothing was spared, not even the beasts.
In the morning, when the people left the castle and shuffled back to their homes, sated and exhausted, still feeling the effects of the wine, they invariably found the land blackened and still smoldering. Pytor still remembered the last time with a vividness that brought tears to his eyes. Steffan had been dead only a day and a half. There hadn't even been time for Pytor and Kara to cleanse him for his journey to Bian and the Underrealm. But when they returned to their land they couldn't find the walls of their home, much less Steffan's body. Such was the force of the sorcerers' flame.
No, the pestilence hadn't swept through Galdasten in generations. Instead, they had their Feasts.
"'Our people,'" Pytor said again, more calmly this time. "The duke doesn't do this for us. He couldn't care less about us. He does it to protect himself and his kin, just like old Kell did, and Ansen after him. If the Feast comes a day or two late to save the life of someone else's child, so what? That doesn't matter to him. This Kell, our Kell, is no different from any of the rest."
"Fine!" Brice said, the look in his grey eyes as keen as the duke's blade. "He does it for himself! And never mind for a minute what we all know: that the Feasts have spared us more suffering than you can even imagine! What do you suggest we do about it? You've seen what Qirsi fire does! You think we can stand against that? You think we can fight it?"
Pytor glared at him, not knowing what to say, feeling the color rise in his cheeks.
Brice grinned fiercely, though his face looked dangerously flushed beneath his thick silver hair. "I thought so," he said at last. "You're all bluster, Pytor. You always have been. I thought maybe now that you were finally alone in the world, you might have balls enough to back up all the dung you shovel our way every day. But I guess I should have known better."
"That's enough, Brice!" Mart said sharply.
The wealthy man looked away and said no more.
Mart turned to Pytor, concern furrowing his brow. "Brice didn't mean anything by it, Pytor. He just doesn't always think before he speaks." He cast a reproachful glance Brice's way before looking at Pytor again. "Steffan was a fine boy, Pytor. We all liked him. And we know that losing him still pains you. But," he went on cautiously, as if he expected Pytor to strike him at any moment, "Brice does have a point. I hate the Feasts as well. We all do. But what alternative do we have?"
Pytor didn't answer him at first. What did Mart know of his pain? What did any of them know? Instead, he kept glaring at Brice, watching him grow more uncomfortable by the moment. In spite of the tone he had used and all he had said, Brice was afraid of him. He had been for some time now. Not because Pytor was bigger or stronger than he. He was neither. Brice feared him because Pytor had lost everything, or at least everything that mattered. Brice still had his family and his farm and his wealth, so he was vulnerable.
He kept his gaze fixed on Brice for a few seconds more, allowing the man's discomfort to build. Then he looked at the others. They were all staring back at him. Davor looking frightened and confused, Eddya with her crazed grin, and Jervis just looking sad, like an old mule. Segel was watching him as well, but speculatively, the way a man might regard a piece of land that had been offered to him at a good price. He was appraising Pytor, considering what he might be capable of doing. Pytor grinned at him, but Segel's expression didn't change.
"There are always alternatives," Pytor said at last. "It's just a matter of having the will to find them."
Brice let out a high, disbelieving laugh. "And I suppose you have such will!"
Pytor heard the goad in his words, and he knew then what he would do, what he had to do. None of the others would act. They weren't capable of it. But he was. Realizing this, he felt more alive than he had since he'd lost Kara. He turned slowly to face Brice again, allowing himself a smile. "I guess we'll see, won't we?"
"I'll tell you what we'll see," Brice replied. He looked scared still, but it almost seemed that he was unable to stop himself. "We'll see you at Galdasten, lining up at the gates while the sun's still high so that you'll be assured of getting your fair share of wine and mutton. That's what we saw at every Feast before the last one. This one won't be any different."
Pytor bared his teeth like a feral dog, hoping Brice would take it for a grin. "And you'll be there right next to me, won't you, Brice?"
"Absolutely," he said, laughing nervously. "Absolutely. We'll sit together and have a good chuckle over this. And we'll fill our cups with the duke's wine and drink to our good health."
The others tried to laugh as well, but they were looking at Pytor, trying to gauge his reaction. When he joined their laughter, their relief was palpable. Pytor just laughed harder. He had made his decision.
He glanced over at Segel and saw that the dark man was still eyeing him closely, a strange expression on his lean features, as if he could read Pytor's thoughts. Pytor was surprised to find that this didn't bother him, that in fact he found it comforting. Segel, of all people, might understand.
The others had begun to talk among themselves, all of them in great humor now that the unpleasantness had passed. But Segel's expression remained grim as he moved his chair closer to Pytor's and signaled Levan for another ale.
"I'm concerned about you," he said in a voice that only Pytor could hear.
"Concerned?" Pytor replied lightly.
"I like you, my friend. I think I understand you. I'd hate to see you come to harm."
Levan arrived with Segel's ale and placed it on the table. The barkeep pointed at Pytor's empty tankard and raised an eyebrow. Pytor shook his head and watched the barkeep return to the bar before speaking again.
"I like you, too, Segel. I respect you." He turned to face the man. "I wouldn't want anything to happen to you or your family."
Segel's eyes widened slightly, but otherwise he offered no response. When he reached for his ale, Pytor saw that his hand remained steady. After another few moments, Segel turned his attention to what the others were saying.
Pytor left the tavern a short time later. He was tired, he told the others. He wanted to check on his beasts before nightfall. But all the way home he could only think about Segel and their brief exchange. He hoped that he had made the dark man understand.
The next several days dragged by, like days spent waiting for sown seeds to sprout. Pytor didn't change his mind about the decision he had made, though given time to think about it, he felt fear gnawing at his mind like mice in a grain bin. He tried to keep himself busy by tending to his beasts and his fields, but knowing what was coming, he couldn't help but wonder why he bothered. Occasionally he would pause in the fields and stare beyond the pasture and the low roof of his own house to the towers of Galdasten, which rose like a thundercloud above the farms and the low, gnarled trees.
He didn't return to Levan's tavern. After what he had decided, he couldn't bring himself to face the others again. He should have known that they wouldn't let him off so easy. The day before the Feast, Mart stopped by.
"I was concerned about you," the man said, sitting atop his wagon and chewing on his pipe, even though it wasn't lit. "We all have been."
"I'm fine," Pytor said. He was putting out grain for the animals, and he avoided Mart's gaze. "I've just been busy."
"You shouldn't listen to Brice, Pytor," Mart said, no doubt trying to be kind. "He's an old fool. I can say that even after all he's done for me. He had no business saying what he did."
Pytor glanced at him briefly, making himself smile. "Don't worry about me, Mart. I've already forgotten it. As I said, I've just been busy."
Mart nodded. "All right. I'll leave you. We'll see you at the Feast though, right? Triss has been asking after you."
"I'll be there," Pytor said. "Right along with you and the others."
Mart had picked up his reins and was preparing to leave, but he stopped now. "Not all of us," he said.
Pytor froze, his heart suddenly pounding like the hooves of a Sanbiri mount. "What do you mean?"
"Segel told us yesterday that he's heading south for a while. He says he's going to see his sister in Sussyn."
Pytor felt himself go pale, in spite of his relief. Apparently the dark man had understood well enough. "Well, the rest of you then," he said, fighting to keep his voice steady. "I'll see the rest of you tomorrow."
Mart smiled. "Good." He whistled at his ox and the animal started forward. "Good night, Pytor," he called as his cart rolled away, raising a thin haze of dust.
Pytor lifted his hand in farewell, but couldn't bring himself to say anything.
* * *
The day of the Feast dawned clear and warm. Pytor rose with the sun and started out into the fields without bothering to eat. Now that this day had finally come, his fear had vanished, to be replaced with a sense of grim satisfaction. At least he was doing something. At least he was proving Brice wrong. Indeed, he thought with an inward smile, Brice was to be wrong about a good many things.
Pytor didn't line up outside the castle gates with the rest of the horde. He spent nearly the entire day in his fields, and though his arms and hands were covered with bites from vermin by midday, it took him several more hours to find what he had been searching for.
As he approached Galdasten Castle, the prior's bells tolling in the city and the sun hanging low to the west, he had to keep himself from scratching his arms. He wasn't certain which had been the killing bite--there were rashes around several of them--but it didn't really matter. All he cared about now was getting past the guards before delirium set in. He had his sleeves rolled all the way down and his hands thrust in his pockets to hide the red welts on his skin. But the day had grown uncommonly hot, and with the fever coming on, he was sweating like an overworked horse by the time he reached the great golden walls of the castle. If it hadn't been for Pytor's girth, and the fact that the guards could see him hurrying up the path that led to the gates, they might have suspected something and not let him inside. As it was, he felt rather unsteady on his feet as he walked by them.
This at least he had anticipated. He had forced down some ale on the way to the castle, and now he endured the guards' snide comments about his drinking with a good-natured smile and a deferential bob of his head. It was a small price to pay. Once he was past them he had nothing to fear.
Pytor made his way slowly through the outer ward to the great hall. The illness was fully upon him now. He had hoped that the pestilence would attack his lungs--that was said to be the quicker death. But it was not to be. He had to close his throat hard against the bile rising from his gut, and he stumbled through the doorway into the hall, barely able to keep his balance.
This is what Steffan went through, he thought, bracing himself against the open door. And one last time he thanked the gods for allowing his boy to slip into unconsciousness before the illness was at its worst.
He shook his head violently, as if the motion itself could rid him of such thoughts. He needed to concentrate. He had come for a reason.
Still leaning on the door, Pytor surveyed the scene before him. It was early still, but already there was food on all the tables and empty wine flasks everywhere. Though his vision was beginning to blur, he could see that the duke and duchess had arrived and were dancing near the front of the room. That was all he needed to know. It would have been nice to see Brice's face as well, but he didn't have the strength to look for him. He could feel himself starting to fall. It was all he could do to reach into the small pouch that was strapped to his belt, pull out the three mice he had found in his fields, and throw them into the middle of the room.
He fell to the floor retching, his body racked by convulsions. But he heard the music stop. He heard the incredulous silence and he could imagine the look on all of their faces as they stared at the tiny creatures who had brought the pestilence to their Feast. And then, just before another wave of illness carried Pytor toward his own death, he heard the screaming begin.
Copyright 2002 by David B. Coe
Excerpted from Rules of Ascension by Coe, David B. Copyright © 2003 by Coe, David B.. Excerpted by permission.
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