And we are near the end stretch. One more chapter and an epilogue to go. Usual caveats: Typos and grammatical, as well as stylistic glitches, abound. Editors haven’t seen it. They’d probably club me with a hardback Strunk and White if they did. So this is the bed hair version. You’ve been warned.
I’m behind on everything for Christmas preparations, and the BIG DAY is only a couple of days away. I would like to get the remainder of RADIANCE finished prior to New Year’s Eve, but don’t hold me to that.
Thank you all for reading! If I don’t post again before X-mas day, I wish those of you who celebrate it like I do, a very Merry Christmas. Hope Santa is good to you this year. And now, on with the show.
by Grace Draven
Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven
All rights reserved
The trees did their best to claw Ildiko and Anhuset from the saddle, their outstretched limbs whipping and scratching as Anhuset’s gelding galloped hard into the dark forest. Ildiko, wedged between Anhuset and the saddle pommel stared blindly into the blackness, its edges feathered away by a distant glow that teased the corner of her eye.
Her last glimpse of him had been a wavering view of his back as he plunged into the chaos of frightened horses, blind Kai and a hail of arrows. She’d struggled in Anhuset’s hold to break free, to run back to her husband, to do something other than flee. The Kai woman’s unyielding grip proved unbreakable. Ildiko had been a breath away from vomiting after the violent pitching she suffered while thrown across her captor’s shoulder. Her vision spun when she was upended and slung into the saddle of the still galloping horse.
A metallic glimmer caught her eye—moonlight on steel. Anhuset thrust the handle of a dagger into her hand.
“Take this,” she ordered in a grim voice that warned against argument. “Stab anything that moves.”
Ildiko barely had her fingers around the handle when a rippling shadow shot out of the dark from her left side and rushed the horse. It emitted a screeching cry, one echoed by Ildiko. Grasping hands tore at her skirts, her leg while the horse neighed and danced sideways.
She did exactly as Anhuset instructed, plunging the dagger toward the figure hanging off the saddle. An agonized scream, the give of flesh as the dagger sank deep and the warm wash of blood coating her hand were her rewards.
Their attacker fell away only to be replaced by another and another who swarmed out the underbrush like insects from a disturbed mound. Anhuset’s mount joined in the fight, kicking and rearing. One attacker slammed into a nearby tree and curled into the fetal position, clutching his belly.
Anhuset shoved the reins into Ildiko’s hands. “Guide the horse!”
Ildiko grabbed the reins, lost the dagger and kicked the gelding hard in the sides. He leapt into a gallop, dragging someone beside him. Behind Ildiko, Anhuset twisted one way and then the other, her arms stretched out on either side, swords in hand as she swung at their attackers. She slammed hard into Ildiko’s back with a grunt once, twice but held her seat to slash their way free.
They plunged through the wood, Ildiko as blind as a Kai at noon and praying she hadn’t turned them around and rode straight for the ravine and a fast descent to their death. Escaping the last raider, they rounded a copse of trees and into a clearing.
Wide open and awash in silver moonlight, the clearing left them more exposed. Ildiko turned the gelding back toward the tree line. They couldn’t go back the way they came, but if they hugged the border that traveled an eastern path, the low-hanging branches of some of the trees would shield them. She had, at least, led them away from the ravine instead of toward it.
Her companion was ominously silent behind her. Ildiko glanced over her shoulder. “Anhuset?”
The other woman answered with a slow exhalation and promptly slid out of the saddle, taking a startled Ildiko with her. The both hit the ground, Ildiko’s fall partially cushioned by Anhuset’s arm. The exhausted horse tossed his head and pranced to the side before trotting a small distance away, reins dragging behind him.
Ildiko stumbled to her feet and gasped.
Anhuset lay on her side, facing Ildiko. An arrow shaft protruded from her left shoulder, another just above her left hip. She inhaled and exhaled slow breaths, and her gold-coin eyes were dull.
Ildiko crouched before her, bloodied hands drifting over, but not touching the places where the arrows had embedded themselves in armor and flesh. “Anhuset! Why didn’t you say something?”
The woman tried to shrug but only managed a twitch of one shoulder. “Because there was nothing to say. I think the arrows are dipped in marseret sap.” Her voice was as dull as her eyes, the words oozing off a thickened tongue.
Ildiko closed her eyes. If the arrowheads were dipped in marseret as Anhuset predicted, she’d be numb from her shoulders to her feet in moments, unable to move. Even if she weren’t dead weight from the poison, she was far too heavy for Ildiko to lift and hoist onto the horse. They were doomed, stranded here while whatever surviving raiders lurked in the woods caught up to them.
A gust of hot air, thick with the green scent of grass, flooded her neck and the side of her face. She opened her eyes to find Anhuset’s horse had ambled back to them, one liquid-dark eye trained on her as if to ask how long they planned to sit there. Ildiko might have laughed if she didn’t so badly want to scream.
Anhuset’s head lolled. “I can’t feel my arms or legs.”
A dog’s triumphant howl followed her declaration and sent Ildiko’s heart drumming in her chest. “Oh gods, more magefinders.”
“Run.” Anhuset’s eyes gave a slow owl’s blink. “They’re scenting me, not you. Take the horse. Run,” she repeated.
Ildiko sprang to her feet. “I’m not leaving you here.” The glimmer of moonlit steel caught her eye, and she found the two sabers Anhuset had wielded against their attackers during the wild ride through the woods. They lay in the grass, one behind Anhuset, the other near her outstretched fingers. Blood, made black in silver light, streaked the blades.
Ildiko retrieved the one closest to her, surprised by its overall lightness in her hand and the weighted tilt toward the tip of the blade.
“Stupid human woman.” Anhuset’s words slurred together. “You’ll die if you stay.”
“Silence.” Ildiko scowled but kept her eyes trained on the stretch of tree line from where the canine sounds originated. “Obviously the sap doesn’t work on your disrespectful tongue.”
Stupid or not, she had no intention of abandoning a helpless Anhuset on the cold ground to be savaged by a pack of magefinders. The sword no longer felt light in her grasp, and she gripped it with both hands.
Her stomach plummeted to her feet when the first magefinder shot out of the tree line, a fur-clad lightning bolt built of long legs, glistening fangs and eyes as yellow and fierce as any Kai’s, but far more bestial. It was followed by another and then a third, and they loped across the clearing, their bays muted to snarls as they closed the distance between them and Ildiko.
“Bend your knees and swing as hard as you can.” Anhuset’s voice sounded far away in Ildiko’s ears, but she did as the other bid and braced herself. Her lungs felt starved for air though she breathed harder than an exhausted horse. Rivulets of sweat streamed down her sides under her clothes and made her hands slippery on the sword grip. She forced herself not to flinch and close her eyes when the first dog leapt at her.
She screamed and swung just as a blurred dark line flew past her vision, followed by a meaty thunk. The dog’s legs snapped together in midstride before it hit the ground and skidded to a stop, an arrow sunk deep in its neck. Another whine of air teased her ear before the second dog met a similar fate.
Ildiko pivoted in time to see a horse and armored rider gallop past her to take down the third hound with a sword.
“Highness, are you all right?”
Still clutching the sword, Ildiko turned toward the familiar voice. “Serovek?”
He strode toward her, lightly armored and carrying a bow. He’d been the one to kill two of the dogs, his soldier the third. His gaze assessed her for injuries, and he nodded once, as if in approval, at the sight of her clutching one of Anhuset’s swords.
A half dozen more mounted Beladine warriors emerged from the trees across the clearing, one leading a riderless horse. Anhuset’s own mount whickered a greeting as they surrounded Ildiko and the fallen Kai woman.
Serovek knelt before Anhuset who watched him with narrowed eyes gone from glowing gold to muddy yellow. He glanced at Ildiko. “We tried to reach you at the bridge. Too late. We killed the two handlers following the dogs, but expect more dogs, more sell-swords.” He motioned to one of his men who dismounted and handed him an axe similar in size to the one she’d seen Brishen carry.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
He removed the blade guard. “We’ll travel easier if I can cut down the arrow shafts sticking out of her ladyship here.”
Poisoned and immobilized, Anhuset still managed enough movement to curl her fingers and take a weak swipe at Serovek. One claw caught a fold in his breeches near the knee and neatly split it open. “Don’t touch me, pig,” she mumbled.
Serovek sighed, and quicker than Ildiko could blink, snapped his knuckles against Anhuset’s chin. Her head jerked before her eyes closed, and she went completely limp.
Ildiko gasped. “She’ll kill you for that when she wakes up.”
Serovek winked and took a flat rock one of his soldiers handed to him, along with a folded blanket. “No she won’t. I’ll tell her you did it.”
He braced the blanket, with the stone on top, against her back. Ildiko flinched when he brought the ax down on the bone shaft, shortening it to the length of a small spoon handle. Quick, efficient, and steady, he did the same with the arrow at her hip. The unconscious Anhuset twitched a little.
Serovek stroked her silver hair with a big hand. “Easy, my beauty. I’m done.” He looked to Ildiko. “Can you control her mount?”
“Yes.” The shock of facing certain, brutal death only to be rescued by the sudden appearance of Serovek and his men, left her lightheaded and unable to utter more than monosyllabic responses.
If the Beladine lord noticed, he didn’t remark on it. “Good. Anhuset will ride with me.” He scooped the Kai woman into his arms, his features darkening as he slowly lifted her. He staggered and exhaled a harsh breath. “Damn Kai,” he said in a strained voice. “Heavier than a sack of wet bricks.”
His reaction to lifting Anhuset confirmed what Ildiko guessed. There was no possible way she could have moved her wounded companion or gotten her back on her horse.
Serovek made his way to the one horse with no rider. Bigger than the others, it snorted in protest and laid back its ears as its master mounted with his burden. Their party gathered supplies. One of the Beladine soldiers retrieved Anhuset’s second sword where it lay in the grass and gently pried the other from Ildiko’s stiff fingers. “Do you need help onto the gelding, Your Highness?”
She shook her head. She wasn’t much good with blades, but she could at least swing into a saddle by herself.
Serovek eyed her as she rode up next to him. “Whose blood stains your hands? It isn’t Anhuset’s, and I see no wound on you.”
“We were attacked in the woods. I stabbed one of them when he tried to pull me off the horse.”
A flicker of amusement softened Serovek’s somber face. “Soft Gauri noblewomen with hidden savagery.” He kneed his horse forward. “I should visit Pricid one day.”
Ildiko trotted next to him. “Where are we going?” Free from the forest’s labyrinthine darkness, she had regained her sense of direction. They were riding away from Saggara and help.
Serovek pointed to an unseen path somewhere within the trees. “There’s a hidden sanctuary not far from here, an old temple bound by magic to confuse the dogs. We’ll stay there for now. I sent messengers to Saggara. If my guess is right, we’ll have my men and more of the Kai here by tomorrow.” He gently adjusted the sleeping Anhuset in his arms. “Did you see what happened to the herceges?”
It was impossible to speak around the sudden knot of tears lodged in her throat. Ildiko swallowed several times before answering. “No. He was in the thick of the fighting when I last saw him, and that was only a glimpse.” For all she knew, the Kai would arrive, with one bearing the news that he or she carried Brishen’s mortem light within them. The grim thought made it hard to breathe.
“Don’t lose heart, Ildiko.” Serovek abandoned his formality in an effort to comfort her. “They won’t kill him. Not yet at least.”
His words did nothing to lessen her fear for Brishen.
The ruins Serovek led them to butted up against a gentle slope surrounded by trees. Ildiko didn’t possessed a drop of magery, but even she sensed the presence of power here. The Beladine mounts balked at riding closer. Accustomed to the thrum and whisper of magic that every Kai possessed, no matter how weak, Anhuset’s gelding picked his way among the stones, unconcerned. The other horses soon followed.
Serovek motioned to the other riders, complicated hand signals that confused Ildiko but were a language understood by his soldiers. Some dismounted and melted into the shadows that ringed the temple’s perimeter. Others gathered up the horses and led them further into the ruin’s sanctuary. In the far distance a familiar howl rode the moonlight. Ildiko shuddered. Not again.
Ildiko followed Serovek who carried his unconscious burden through the low doorway of a small shrine room. The blackness inside hung thick enough to pour from a bottle, and the skitter and squeak of disturbed rats played on her ears. She leapt aside at the suspicious slither of something gliding along the floor near her foot.
“No light yet, Ildiko.” Serovek’s deep voice was more vibration than sound. “We wait.”
They stood in the suffocating silence, listening the rustle of leaves stirred up by running feet crackled nearby. Long sniffs and quiet growls joined them. Nothing moved within the temple. Even the horses were still.
Ildiko clenched her teeth together and tried not to breathe. Her heartbeat drummed so loud in her head, she was certain their pursuers could hear her.
“Anything?” a voice called out in the Common tongue.
Another answered. “Fresh tracks, but it’s a big party and the hooves are shod with shoes stamped with High Salure’s seal.”
“Patrol then. They won’t be too friendly if they come across us. Let’s go.”
“Don’t you want to search the temple?”
Ildiko felt Serovek tense even more beside her, and his soft breaths stopped altogether.
“Why bother? Look at the dogs. They’re just whining and sniffing about. Probably smelling badger or deer scat. The girl is riding with a Kai. If they were here, we’d know it by now. We’ll keep going. I’m not too keen to cross a patrol anyway.”
“I’m not keen on crossing the Kai. You saw what she did in the clearing. Took down all three hounds.”
“Just means you need to be on your guard. Let’s go.”
The minutes of silence stretched into an eternity of stillness until a night bird’s call sounded outside.
“They’re gone.” Serovek spoke in conversational volume. Shuffling noises accompanied his statement. “Outside, Highness, where we can see our hands in front of our faces.”
The moonlight seemed like the noonday sun after her time in the shrine’s sepulchral darkness. Ildiko blinked and caught sight of Serovek as he crouched to lay Anhuset gently on the ground. The Kai woman lay ominously still, but her chest rose and fell in easy rhythm, and Ildiko exhaled a relieved sigh.
Serovek rose. “Stay with her,” he said. “I need to get supplies from my horse.” He paused to give instructions to the two soldiers who stood guard nearby before disappearing into the foliage surrounding the temple grounds.
When he returned, he carried a small satchel, a blanket and a flask. He dropped down next to Ildiko who was stroking Anhuset’s hair from her face. He fished inside the satchel and retrieved an oddly shaped utensil. Diamond-shaped with a shallow lip folded inward on all sides, it vaguely resembled a spoon, though Ildiko couldn’t figure out how such a design might adequately hold porridge and would never contain broth.
“What is that?” she asked.
Serovek took the knife belted at his side and cut away the laces on Anhuset’s hauberk. “An arrow spoon. If our luck holds, I won’t have to use it.” He didn’t expound further and cut away the armored plates surrounding the shortened arrow shaft sticking out of Anhuset’s shoulder.
He cut through the quilted gambeson next and the clothing underneath. He set the knife aside. “I’m going to lift her up. I need you to peel away the armor and clothes. Quick but gentle. Can you do it?”
She nodded, and the two set to work. Anhuset rested still in Serovek’s embrace while Ildiko eased the hauberk, gambeson and shirt off her shoulders and away from the arrow shaft. Serovek eased the Kai woman to a reclining position and bent for a closer look at the shoulder wound. I think it’s a bodkin tip. I won’t know until I cut into her.” Ildiko blanched, and Serovek’s responding smile lacked all humor. “It’s a mercy she’s suffering through marseret poisoning. I’ll have to work fast before it wears off.”
He cut away Anhuset’s trousers while Ildiko removed her boots. Naked in the cold air, her gray skin pebbled, and she shivered lightly. Ildiko covered her legs with the blanket for warmth and added her own cloak for protection.
Serovek doused the blade with the contents from the bottle he’d brought back with him. Smoke rose in tendrils from the blade. He glanced at Ildiko whose eyes had rounded at the sight. “Peleta’s Tears. Good for drinking and keeps wounds from poisoning.”
“You drink that?” She’d heard of Peleta’s Tears. Named after the goddess of dragons, it laid low any who dared to taste its brew. Surely something that made metal smoke wasn’t safe to imbibe.
“Sometimes. When I want to forget.” Serovek positioned himself so that Anhuset lay between his knees, her chest press against one of his thighs while he braced her back with the other. He trickled more of the drink onto the wound. Ildiko flinched, right along with the unconscious Anhuset. While the drink might smoke metal, it didn’t burn the skin.
Serovek’s legs flexed against his patient as he made incisions with the knife and widened the wound. Ildiko poured Peleta’s Tears over his bloodied fingers as he felt for the arrowhead. Anhuset didn’t move, but a small moan escaped her lips.
Serovek’s shoulders sagged in obvious relief. “Bodkin,” he said. “Not broadhead. Bad enough but easier to remove.”
Blood ran in thin rills down Anhuset’s back, staining Serovek’s breeches as he worked. The arrow shaft fell away from the tip but not before he managed to extract the bodkin from the wound.
Ildiko gave up her overskirt to use as bandages. Serovek packed the wound with moss he pulled from his satchel and bound it with strips cut from the skirt. They repeated the process on Anhuset’s hip. By the time they were done, her clawed fingers had begun to flex and relax against her palm and dawn gilded the edges of the eastern facing trees with pink light.
“Will she be all right?” Ildiko tucked the blanket and cloak more closely around Anhuset. The shivering had stopped, but her breathing had turned more erratic.
Serovek stood and wipe away the perspiration on his brow with his forearm. “I think so. Kai are hard to kill.”
“Have you killed them?”
His mouth quirked. “A few. We have our raiders; they have theirs. Your husband and I deal with both. It’s just a matter of who gets to them first.” He took a seat next to Ildiko, grabbed the bottle of Peleta’s tears and tipped it to his lips. The first swallow made him gasp and shake like a wet dog but didn’t stop him from taking a second swallow. He offered the bottle to Ildiko who shook her head, preferring not to torture her already queasy stomach even more. Serovek passed her flask of water instead so she could rinse the blood from her hands.
“Why didn’t the dogs sniff us out?” she asked.
Serovek placed the bottle of spirits between them and draped his arms over his knees. His gaze drifted to Anhuset’s face and stayed. “They did, but their task was to hunt Kai, not humans. The sorcery lingering here confused them and made Anhuset hard to detect.”
“Didn’t their handlers know that such a thing might happen?”
He shrugged. “Only if they were familiar with this land or a Kai. This temple sits inside my borders, but it’s Kai-built and once Kai-worshipped. Brishen told me about it a couple of years ago while we shared a bottle of Tears between us and commiserated on the vagaries of volatile mistresses.” He winked at Ildiko.
Ildiko tried to smile at the idea of the two men crying on each other’s shoulder over women, but her lips refused to obey. She couldn’t get the image out of her mind of Brishen’s set features when he thrust her at Anhuset and shouted for them to ride for the bridge. She’d seen death in that glowing gaze—his death.
She blinked to fight back the tears that suddenly blurred her vision. “How did you find me and Anhuset?”
Serovek tipped the bottle again before answering. “A rumor about the ambush reached High Salure. By the time I dispatched a rider to Saggara to warn the herceges, you were already at Halmatus township. We set out to meet you but were too late.”
It did no good to dwell on what-ifs, but Ildiko couldn’t help but wonder how their fate might have differed if they had waited one more day before leaving Saggara. “I wonder if this is the same pack that attacked us on the trade road after Brishen and I were married.”
“Probably not. That attempt failed. Whoever is moving the pieces on this board doesn’t want to fail twice. They’ve supplied this party with mage hounds—an expensive weapon and far outside the means of even the most successful raiders. I suspect half this group isn’t even Beladine, so they’re bringing in sell-swords with no allegiance except to the sacks of coins paid to them.”
Ildiko recalled the brief exchange between Brishen and Anhuset when the night’s darkness had exploded into blinding flashes of light. “They have a battle mage with them as well.”
Serovek scowled. “That will be a problem when we retrieve your husband.”
When they retrieved him, not if. His matter of fact reply gave her hope despite its dire prediction regarding the mage. “Do you really think Brishen’s still alive?” She held on to hope that he was. Her husband was a formidable fighter, but who knew how many raiders they faced or the sorcery used against him and the other Kai by the mage.
Serovek held up one of the two arrowheads he’d extracted from Anhuset. Coated in dried blood, its dagger-like point bounced a stray beam of anemic sunlight off its tip. “These are marseret-tipped bodkins. If they wanted to kill Brishen—and you—right away, they would have used broadheads. The bodkins pierce armor and bring down horses, but a man shot with one can survive longer than if he were shot with a broadhead. Had it been the second, Anhuset would have bled out before she’d even fallen from her horse.”
He tossed the arrowhead aside. “I have no doubt that Brishen is alive and a prisoner. Your escape put a knot in their plans. They were in a better position to force either the Kai or the Gauri to renegotiate or break their alliance in order to save you. They only have one of you now, but that’s enough to begin negotiations for his life with the Kai royal house of Khaskhem.”
Ildiko almost burst into tears at that. Her hand trembled as she reached for Serovek’s bottle of Peleta’s Tears. The drink set fire to her tongue and throat and sent the tears pouring down her cheeks. Serovek snatched the bottle out of her hand and hid it behind his back.
She wiped her streaming eyes and gave a bitter laugh. “Then he’s dead already. Neither of us is of any real worth to our families. The Kai throne is secured by Brishen’s older brother and more sons than you can count on one hand. Brishen is a spare without value. Secmis will turn her back on him, and her husband will follow her lead.
Serovek looked beyond her into the ever-brightening tree line. “I’ve never met her and hope not to, but rumors abound. It’s hard to believe that the Shadow Queen of Haradis birthed such a man as Brishen Khaskhem.”
“It’s hard to believe anything with a soul came out of that womb.” In that moment Ildiko hated Secmis more than any person she’d ever known.
“Whoever in Belawat is paying these sell-swords doesn’t know there’s no love lost between them. So we have time. Not much. A few days only but enough to find their hiding place and rescue your husband.”
Ildiko twisted her tunic in her hands. “What can I do? Surely, there’s something I can do.” She hated the helplessness, the lack of martial skills. Common sense dictated that no one could have foreseen such circumstances for her, but the knowledge offered little comfort.
Serovek gained his feet and helped her rise as well. “There is, but I want Anhuset’s opinion first. The effects of the marseret should fade, and she’ll awaken soon.”
“What about her wounds?”
He had kind eyes. A soft brown the color of roasted chestnut with flecks of gold radiating from the edges of the pupils, his eyes smiled as much as his mouth. He was a good man, a brave one, and his attraction to Anhuset was palpable. “You should know by now the toughness of a Kai. Those wounds won’t slow her down anymore than flea bites would.” He patted Ildiko on the arm. “I’ll bring you extra blankets. You can rest beside her.”
“I can’t sleep.” There was no possible way she could sleep, not with Brishen out there somewhere, a hostage of Beladine mercenaries.
“Try,” Serovek said. “I need you alert and sharp later.”
She did as he requested and rolled into the blankets he gave her. She was asleep as soon as her eyes closed. It seemed like only a handful of moments before the sound of voices arguing in bast-Kai awakened her. Ildiko rubbed her scratchy eyes and squinted at the couple glaring at each other not far from where she lay alone. Anhuset, wrapped in a blanket tied at her good shoulder, was awake and arguing fiercely with Serovek.
“It’s a sound idea,” he said and crossed his arms.
Anhuset mimicked his actions, her features drawn into a scowl. “Until someone skewers her or puts a bolt in her.”
“I saw her handle your horse. She’s an adept rider. She can do this. If you want this to work, she needs to do this.”
“Brishen sacrificed himself to save her. We risk making that sacrifice for naught.”
Serovek blew out a frustrated breath. “Stop being so eager to kill him off. He isn’t dead!” His body tensed as a furious Anhuset rounded on him, fangs bared.
Ildiko threw off her blankets and leapt to her feet. “Please,” she said. The two forgot their fight and turned to her. “I’ll do whatever you ask of me. Anything. I’m sorry I’m not a warrior. I wish I were.”
Serovek gazed at her with an implacable face. “We don’t need another warrior, Highness. We need bait.”
The sun had burned away the last of the lingering morning fog. Ildiko reclined against one of the temple walls and tried not to gnaw her fingernails down to the quick with worry. Instead, she worked to repair the laces on Anhuset’s gambeson and watched as the Kai woman paced back and forth with a hitched gait, her lips drawn back against her teeth as she glared at Serovek.
“This is taking too long,” she snapped.
Seated cross-legged near Ildiko, he didn’t bother to look up from his task of sharpening a knife on the whetting stone he held. “It’s taking as long as it needs to,” he said calmly. “You might as well sit down before you wear a path in the stones.”
No sooner had he finished the sentence than Anhuset went still, listening. “Horses,” she said after a moment.
The scrape of blade on stone halted as Serovek joined her. “But no dogs,” he said. A bird’s whistle carried through the trees, and Serovek answered back with a similar whistle. He stood and sheathed the knife at his waist. “We’ve company, and it’s friendly.”
The temple ruin was soon filled with both Beladine and hooded Kai warriors and their horses. They split into two groups, the Kai to gather around Anhuset and Ildiko, the Beladine around Serovek. One of the Beladine bowed before Serovek.
“We think we know where the raiders are hiding. A honeycomb of caves no more than a league north of here.”
Serovek’s lip curled, contempt souring his words. “They’re moving farther into my territory, thinking it safe.”
One of the Kai addressed both Anhuset and Ildiko. “We recovered our dead on the other side of the ravine. Two fallen. The raiders fought only long to capture the herceges and flee.”
Ildiko’s shoulders sagged. She glanced at Serovek. “You were right.”
He nodded. “Right now he’s more valuable alive than dead. Now we just need to discover how many we’ll face when we rescue him.”
The soldier who gave the raiders whereabouts spoke up again. “We’ve captured one of them.” He gestured with a nod over his shoulder when Serovek’s eyebrows rose. “We broke up a raid on a lower holt just within our borders. They massacred the family steading there and stole the sheep and grain. We killed all but one and hanged them from the trees as a warning.”
Ildiko closed her eyes. So much killing and over two people who were never supposed to matter.
The crowd parted as a Kai shoved a human to his knees before Serovek. An impromptu circle formed, caging in their captive. Filthy, lice-infested and splattered with blood, the man glared at Serovek before spying Ildiko who recoiled at the lascivious, black-tooth smile he gave her.
One of the Beladine grabbed his arm and shoved the dirty sleeve past his elbow, revealing a patterned marking tattooed in blue and green ink on his arm. “Clansman out of the Serpent’s Teeth,” the soldier said.
Serovek crouched before his prisoner. His voice was mild, almost friendly. All the hairs on Ildiko’s nape rose in warning. “You’ve traveled a long way to butcher farmers for their grain and a few sheep. How many of you are hiding in the caves?”
The man’s eyes slid away. “I don’t know about any caves. We was just stealing because we were hungry.”
“So the four of you made off with an entire herd of sheep and a full wagon of grain? You have big stomachs.”
“Why do you care?” The raider thrust his shoulders back and his chin forward. His bloodshot eyes glittered. “They’s just farmers.”
Serovek’s mild tone didn’t change. “Because they were farmers under my protection, and now they’re dead. I’ll ask again. How many of you rats are hiding in those caves?”
The man clamped his lips together and refused to say anything more. He fell back on his haunches with a gasp when Anhuset lunged at him, claws curled.
“He’ll talk for me,” she snarled in bast-Kai.
Serovek checked her advance with one arm. “Patience,” he said in the same tongue. “Here, I am the law, and he’s broken it by murdering and stealing within my territory.”
He turned to the captured raider and switched back to Common tongue. “You’re far from home, and I know there are no Kai from where you hail, so let me enlighten you.” The circle of Kai and Beladine tightened around them. Ildiko was unable to dredge up a drop of sympathy for the suddenly pale prisoner. Serovek smiled a small, cold smile. “A long time ago the Kai hunted humans for food. If you refuse to talk, I’m going to feed you to them. From what I know, they aren’t concerned about whether or not their meal is alive or dead when they start eating.”
Were Ildiko not used to the toothsome Kai after months of living amongst them, she would have fled in terror at the sight of so many fanged grins that flashed at the raider after Serovek’s threat.
The man whimpered and promptly lost control of his bladder. The pungent odor of urine saturated the air. Words tumbled out of his mouth, so fast and stuttering that Serovek had to make him repeat himself several times over. By the time the interrogation ended, they all knew the number of enemies hiding in the caves, how many magefinders remained and which cave held Brishen.
Serovek stood and motioned with one hand. The raider was jerked to his feet. Ildiko gasped as the Beladine lord moved with breathtaking speed. A flash of hands, the brittle snap of bone and the dead raider dropped in a heap to the floor. In the time it took for Ildiko to inhale a breath, Serovek had killed the raider with one swift, practice motioned. She swayed and clutched Anhuset’s arm, overtaken by dizziness and a distinct buzzing in her ears.
The Kai woman pressed a supporting hand to her back and leaned to whisper in her ear. “Strength, hercegese. Brishen needs you.”
The words worked a magic no sorcerer could mimic. The dizziness evaporated, and Ildiko’s back stiffened. She refused to look at the still body crumpled at Serovek’s feet, but she no longer wanted to faint.
The charming, jocular man she’d first met at High Salure and danced with at Saggara was gone. The ruthless Beladine marcher lord stood in his place, judge and executioner of any who committed crimes within his borders. He nudged the dead man with his foot. “Take him back to the holt and hang him in the trees with the others. If they haven’t soiled their clothes too badly, strip them. We need their garb.”
Ildiko trusted whatever plan he had in mind, but thought of wearing a dead man’s clothes made her skin crawl. “What will we do now?”
The wolfish smile he gave her made her glad they were on the same side of this particular conflict. “Play raider,” he said. “And you don’t even need to ride a horse.”
“Are the knots too tight?” Anhuset tugged on the strips of cloth that bound Ildiko’s hands together.
Ildiko shook her head. “No. I can twist out of them quickly if necessary.”
They stood within the concealment of heavy underbrush and the overcast shadow of rocky outcropping. Within the shelter of the forest, Kai and Beladine waited together as Ildiko prepared to act as the bait Serovek needed.
Her clothes were ripped and filthy, her hair a wild mat of tangles, her face smudged with dirt and streaks of dried blood. Anhuset strengthened the look by shredding random spots of Ildiko’s tunic. “I still don’t think this is the best idea.”
Ildiko shrugged. “I think Lord Pangion is right. If we want to be sure of entering the right cave, I’m the best thing to draw them out.”
“Brishen will never forgive me if you die under my watch.” Anhuset tied one of her daggers to the sash encircling Ildiko’s waist.
The Kai woman’s skin was clammy under Ildiko’s fingertips, hints of fever in the darkened flush on her cheekbones. “I think he would forgive you anything, sha-Anhuset,” she said softly. She smiled into Anhuset’s yellow eyes. “Besides, I have no intention of dying today.”
The other woman stared at her in silence for several moments. “I once thought you weak. I was wrong.” She finished strapping the dagger in place. “Are you afraid?”
Ildiko nodded. “Terrified.”
“Good. You’ll stay alert that way.”
Serovek joined them, accompanied by one of his men dressed in the clothes of one of the dead mercenaries. “Ready?”
Ildiko exhaled a shaky breath. “As much as I can be.”
Their plan was simple. They’d ascertain the captive raider hadn’t lied about his information by luring some of his compatriots out of the caves. Serovek’s man, acting as one of them, would lead her before them in full view, the captive Gauri woman they so eagerly sought. That was all they needed from her. A Beladine soldier would pair up with a Kai—one to fight in the light, one in the dark, neither helpless as long as the other covered their backs. They’d rush the caves, fight their way in and back out again, hopefully with a living Brishen in tow.
Twilight engulfed the sky by the time a stumbling, weeping Ildiko followed her captor as he jerked her by a lead rope across the clearing toward the caves. Her stomach did somersaults under her ribs, and she peered through the screen of her ragged hair at the cave openings that seemed to watch them from eyeless sockets.
She stubbed her toe against a jut of rocks hidden within ankle-high wisps of yellow grass and fell to her knees. The soldier leading her slackened the line. “Highness?” he whispered.
“Pull the rope,” she whispered back. “Call me names.” If they heard his earlier question, the masquerade was finished.
The soldier yanked hard on the rope, dragging her across the ground. She yelped as gravel abraded the exposed skin of her side and the rope welted her wrists. “Get up, bitch,” he snapped at her. “I don’t have all night.”
She stumbled to her feet, weaving drunkenly at the end of her tether. A flutter of movement caught her eye. Two figures emerged from one of the smaller cave openings, cautious in their approach, until her “captor” waved and raised the rope. “I caught her,” he called out in a triumphant voice. Exultant whoops answered, and the two figures became a pair of bedraggled raiders who raced toward him.
Their celebration was short-lived. The ambush they’d earlier set upon the Kai was turned on them. Beladine and Kai warriors swarmed from the forest and rushed the cave opening. Ildiko caught only glimpses of Serovek and Anhuset as they plunged into the cave’s darkness before a Kai warrior lifted her off her feet and fled with her into the forest.
This time she didn’t struggle as she had with Anhuset. Instead, she waited amidst a circle of tense, heavily armed guards and watched the cave with eyes that watered because she was too afraid to blink.
Light flashes illuminated the darkness in brief bursts. The ring of metal on metal mingled with shouts and cries of pain. Her heart paused in its thunderous beating when the noise died, and all she heard were the soft hoots of howls and the rustle of rodents hiding in the leaves.
It was full dark, and the moon planished the landscape in silver armor. Ildiko laced her fingers together and prayed to gods she hoped would be merciful this night. Her prayer was answered when Serovek’s and Anhuset’s warriors spilled out of the cave. She cried out, feet flying across the brittle grass toward the war party.
Anhuset emerged from their midst to catch Ildiko about the waist and spin her around. “We have him, Highness,” she said in a tight voice.
Ildiko’s features dug into the woman’s arms. “Where is he?”
“Ildiko, he’s been tortured.”
Her knees gave, and she sagged in Anhuset’s arms. Shock quickly gave way to rage. “I want to see him. Now,” she said in a flat voice.
Anhuset nodded and guided her through the flow of soldiers until they reached a small knot gathered near the cave entrance. Serovek stood when he caught sight of her. He blocked her path and her view.
“Do you have a strong stomach?” he asked. He looked even more severe than when he’d snapped the raider’s neck. Blood dripped off the sword he held, and his dark eyes glittered hard as diamonds in the moonlight.
“Get out of my way, Lord Pangion,” she snapped. He stepped aside, and she brushed past him to fall to her knees beside the prone figure in the grass.
Brishen lay before her, quiet and still. At least she thought it was him. A scream swelled in her chest, roiled into her throat and seeped through her clenched teeth, an inhuman cry of anguish.
Anhuset hadn’t lied, but she didn’t expound either. Brishen’s face, elegant, regal, and sublime by Kai standards, was swollen beyond recognition, mottled with bruises and cuts and washed in blood. It streaked his cheeks in cracked black ribbons that ran from his hairline to his chin. His mouth had been split multiple times, the high bridge of his nose crooked and swelled to twice its width. His right eye had swollen shut, and where his left eye should have been, only a sunken eyelid over an empty socket remained.
She clapped a hand over her mouth but refused to close her eyes. Bruises covered every part of his body she could see, and her gaze froze on his hands. They hadn’t stopped with his eye. Ildiko traced a delicate line over the back of his left hand. The lethal claws that could split a man from gullet to navel yet tease her skin with the lightest touch, were ripped out, leaving behind only bloody, mangled nail beds.
Ildiko stroked a trembling hand just above his head, afraid to touch him, afraid his beaten, brutalized body would disintegrate before her eyes. She didn’t know what she wanted to do more—scream her anguish or shriek her rage. “My poor love,” she whispered. “Why?”
Serovek spoke behind her. “We think the leader got away. We slaughtered all but a half dozen who say they can tell us who hired them in exchange for mercy. What do you wish to do, Highness?”
Ildiko stared at Brishen, at the shallow rise and fall of his chest as he breathed gurgling breaths. He stank of blood and agony. The wind lifted a strand of his hair, and she caught it between two fingers. It stuck to her skin, sticky with gore. She didn’t care who hired animals to unleash their savagery.
“Kill them,” she said in a dull voice. “Kill them all. Leave none of them alive.”
When they returned to Saggara, she sequestered herself in Brishen’s chamber and didn’t leave for four days. She bathed there, ate there, and dressed there. Except for brief dozing spells, she didn’t sleep there.
The small troop of healers who tended her husband came and went, each time assuring her that time, rest, and regular doses of marseret tisane would see him through his ordeal. Ildiko found it ironic that the poison sap used to bring Anhuset low served a more merciful purpose in staving off Brishen’s pain.
He slept peacefully, his bandaged hands resting across his stomach. More bandages covered the arrow wounds in his shoulder and legs. Ildiko sat for hours in a chair next to the bed, content to watch him. The swelling had slowly receded, and the blood and dirt were gone. His right eyelid twitched as he slept. The left she couldn’t see. White cloth swathed that side of his face, hiding the deep cut that ran from below his lower lashes to the top curve of his cheekbone, testament to the brutality used when his captors cut out his eye.
Delirium didn’t plague him, and he drank the tisanes the healers coaxed on him without waking. Ildiko read to him sometimes and ventured a song or two before her voice warbled too much to continue. Anhuset often visited, updating him on the fortress’s daily activities as if he sat before her, awake and demanding a status.
She didn’t stay long. Ildiko always knew when Anhuset was about to bolt from the chamber. Her hands flexed on her sword pommel as if she wanted nothing more than to kill Brishen’s torturers a second time. Ildiko knew exactly how she felt.
“You’ll send for me as soon as he wakes?” The same question each time before Anhuset escaped.
“Of course,” Ildiko promised each time she asked.
No longer afraid to touch him, she caressed the unbandaged side of Brishen’s face. “This should never have happened, Brishen.” The inevitable, annoying tears threatened, and she blinked hard to force them back. “We were unimportant, you and I. We weren’t supposed to mean anything to anyone.”
A slow, deep sigh escaped his lips, and his right eyelid opened, revealing a glowing, lamplight gaze. Brishen’s voice was hoarse from disuse but still clear. “Woman of day,” he said slowly. “You mean everything to me.”
No amount of blinking this time held back Ildiko’s tears. They streamed down her cheeks to drip off her chin and onto Brishen’s shoulder. “Prince of night,” she said in a watery voice. “You’ve come back to me.”