Talion: Revenant Chapter Five
The goal of the 10,000 copy sequel challenge is to sell copies of Talion: Revenant so I can afford to take the time to write Talion: Nemesis. As of the end of December we’re at 750 copies, or 7.5% to the goal; but with all the ebook readers folks snagged for the holidays, sales are heading toward an uptick. To build up momentum for the effort, I’ve decided to serialize the novel to the web. In this way I can let readers who’ve not had a chance to read the book to get a taste of it and decide if they want to buy a copy to support my writing the sequel. Thanks to everyone who has blogged about this effort—share the book with your friends, then we can all share in the sequel.
Talion: Revenant is ©1997 Michael A. Stackpole
“That’s most interesting, Talion. I would not have thought Talianna a place of such broad training.” Selia, mounted upon a bay gelding, reined her horse around the end of a log fallen across the woodland path we took and watched my profile for a reaction. The sunlight, where it pierced the green, leafy forest pavilion above us, burned white highlights into her hair. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves, both cooling us and making enough noise to make me nervous.
After Grath’s execution I stopped at the tavern long enough to change into some dry clothing. I wanted to head back for the pass just west of Pine Springs as soon as possible. Even though the rain would have wiped out Morai’s trail, I knew that pass was the one he’d taken. Like the Pine Springs pass it led to Memkar, but it was a harder trail, full of twists and turns ideal for bandits and ambushers.
When I’d gathered all my things together, and the tavern-keeper’s son Drew had fetched Wolf for me, I found Selia ready to leave as well. She asked if she could accompany me and, while I wanted to refuse her, I guessed she had it in her mind to follow me to Morai, so I welcomed her along. With her riding in my company, I could keep her safe, and she was certainly more talkative than Wolf.
“Selia, you think of Talianna as a big military camp. Everyone does. Warriors are forged of steel, Justices are demons in human form. We’re not supposed to understand philosophy or have a grasp of more than military history.” I watched the trail up ahead of us and slowed our pace a bit. The trail wound up and around a hillside, then disappeared into a woody tunnel of darkness. “We are instructed in more than purely martial disciplines.”
“My apologies. I’ve never spoken with a Talion who is so candid about his life.” Her smile was genuine and friendly. “It’s a very enlightening experience.”
I shot her a sideways glance and snorted a laugh. “I certainly hope so. We’ve ridden for two days and other than comments about the weather or food the only thing you’ve done is ask me questions about Talianna.” I turned in the saddle and faced her smiling. “If I didn’t have this death’s-head on my jerkin I’d think I was the minstrel and that you were the taciturn and mysterious Talion.”
Selia threw her head back and laughed. “I can see your point. Shall I tell you about myself?”
I bowed my head and faced forward again. “Please do. I’ll need the time to rest my voice so I can tell Morai to stop running.” I also needed to concentrate on the woods and watch for Morai and his compatriots. They traveled at a slower pace than we set and we were no more than a half day behind Morai, Brede, and Tafano.
“Very well, Talion, I will tell you my life story.” She shifted, sat a bit taller in the saddle, and hooked a strand of blond hair behind her right ear. “My full, true name is Selia ra Jania ulPatria.”
That remark caught my attention much as finding a scorpion in a boot might. I jerked my head around and studied her. “You’re ulPatria?”
She reined her horse up and fixed me with a very surprised stare. “Come now, Talion, you can’t be superstitious about the ul!”
I recovered quickly and shook my head. “I don’t think I am, but not many people run around admitting they are ul as openly as that. And, given who we’re chasing, these woods are fairly thick with them.”
She frowned and gently dug her heels into the gelding’s ribs to start him walking again. “Morai is ul?” There was a bit of disappointment in her voice.
I grinned and shook my head. “No, not him. Brede ulRia.”
Selia sighed with relief. “He is not truly ul.” And though she didn’t say it I could tell she was relieved Morai had no such simple motivation for his actions.
“How can you refuse to claim Brede? He was royalty and he’s been disinherited. And you certainly can’t deny his litany of crimes rivals that of the greatest ullords.”
Selia shook her head violently. Through a curtain of blond hair I could see tightly closed eyes and a grim, thin line of a mouth. “I can’t believe you’d judge the uls by a few distorted legends. Talions—Justices in particular like yourself—should understand how the truth could get twisted into fearful and unfounded stories.”
I snorted. “Oh, then none of the bloody tales are true?”
She opened her mouth to protest, thought, then closed it again. “All right, I’ll concede first blood to you, but the fight’s not over. Might I explain?” She took my nod as agreement to both points and continued. “You know from the legends that ul families are those families of nobles who were ousted from power during the Shattering. Rebels or other nobles drove the rulers out and their families, when they escaped, were left to wander the Empire and beyond looking for aid. Since virtually all the provinces had new leadership and proclaimed themselves sovereign states, no one looked favorably upon the uls. Just harboring them could be seen by a neighbor as a hostile act, so the disinherited families had to keep moving and remain constantly vigilant against attacks.”
I laughed lightly and relaxed. We’d reached the top of the hill and the trail below wound through a grassy meadow where any ambush would be difficult to stage or execute. “Selia, you make it sound as if the old nobles just kindly left their nations when asked. As I recall there were many brutal civil wars at that time. Even today tyrannicide is still considered justifiable.”
She smiled. “Your point is well taken, but your caution is a sword that cuts with both edges.” Some of the anger I’d sparked left her and she relaxed into a more comfortable, storytelling mood. “Do not assume, Talion, that all the provinces fell in violence. Patria is a perfect example. The King realized neither of his legitimate sons was competent. After destroying the corruption in his government he turned the power structure over to the rebel Marcherlords. He even arranged for his two sons to be executed so they could not be used by others to seize power. On his deathbed he legitimized all his children, creating the ulPatria, but they never made any stab at power and settled elsewhere in great peace.”
I frowned. “Having his own sons slain does little to make the King a hero in my eyes. No offense intended, but that’s just another story of court intrigue and murder.”
Selia nodded her head. “It is that, but it’s hardly the bloodiest tale from those times. Take Hamis as an example. There Prince Roderick killed his father and eldest brother to take the throne. His other elder brother, Uriah, was out of the country at the time, and remained in exile for over three decades. Roderick’s own son Roderick, after years of putting up with his father’s mad plans for assassinating Uriah, killed his father. He invited Uriah back to Hamis to heal the family rift. Uriah returned and Roderick murdered him.
“The legends have it that Uriah fathered a family while in exile, and that the House of Hamis is always afraid that an ulHamis will come to reclaim the throne. The ulHamis are one of the few families that have a legitimate blood tie to the current Throne House.”
I controlled my emotions concerning Hamis and dismissed them with a laugh. “I’ve yet to hear a story from you that does anything but strengthen the case for Brede being ulRia. He’s disinherited nobility with a record of bloody crimes so horrid that the King sealed the records and outlawed the name ‘Brede’ within Ria’s borders.”
Selia shivered with disgust then smiled ironically. “Actually, Talion, the Bastard of Ria has no claim to the throne. As you will recall his mother, Queen Candra, confessed in the King’s Court that Brede was the product of an adulterous affair, even though that admission made her life forfeit.”
I nodded slowly. Again our trail took us into a dark woods, where it slithered through high, shadowy tunnels of overarching trees and around brush strewn hillocks. I had a bad feeling about this stretch of the trail, and as the time was right, I suggested we stop for a rest and some food. We dismounted and let our horses graze while we ate some of the bread and cheese we’d brought from Pine Springs.
If someone waited to ambush us, I was content to let him lie in wait a bit longer during the heat of the day.
“Selia, you know as well as I do that Queen Candra’s testimony was a lie. It was the only way her son could be kept from the throne without a civil war.” I finished the last of my cheese and tossed a crust of bread to a chipmunk daring enough to pop up on the end of the fallen tree I was using as a bench.
The minstrel smiled. “Can’t have it both ways, Talion. If he was a noble they couldn’t have disinherited him, and if he’s not a noble he can’t be ulRia.”
I bowed my head to her. “Now you’ve blooded me. I do acknowledge that not all uls have a family history drenched in blood, and that grouping Brede with any people is a grave insult indeed. Still, and getting back toward my original surprise, you don’t strike me as typical of the ul. Uls roam the Shattered Empire in great colorful caravans. They stop wherever they want and set up little tent-and-cart villages. They claim that they have enough blood of each royal family in them to have a right to any land they want. They tell fortunes, sing forgotten songs, and keep ancient traditions alive. Was your life like that?”
She shook her head, growing a bit more quiet. “No, my life was not like that at all. Truthfully, most uls do not wander with the ulbands. Those are for the footloose, the ones who prefer lamenting their losses to trying to build a new life for themselves. I actually pity them, for they cling to an old way of life, hoping for something to sweep away a thousand years of history so they can lead again. What they do not realize is that if they were capable of leading they never would have been thrown out of their homelands in the first place, or they would have long since made a new life elsewhere.”
I nodded. “Interesting observation. In many ways they are like those who refuse to try the tests to become a Talion.”
“Exactly. They were deposed because they could not effectively rule. My father was not caught in that trap—of hoping for something beyond hope. My father is a good man; an artisan in Trisus, the capital of Jania. He crafts the finest musical instruments ever made. He made my lute.” She smiled proudly and swept crumbs from her lap.
I stood and untied Wolfs reins from the tree where I’d hobbled him. I swung up into the saddle and patted Wolfs neck. He turned his head enough to stare at me with his left eye and let me know that a friendly pat on the neck was not suitable recompense for so short a stop.
I saw Selia had mounted up, so we headed out. The trail here was wide enough for us to ride abreast, so we did. “I assume if your father made your lute he also taught you to sing?”
She stiffened. “No.” Sucked down by sorrow, her voice dropped an octave.
I was watching the trail in front of us intently; as a result I did not react to her statement immediately. I turned to look at her, but her long golden hair shielded her face from me. “I’m sorry for whatever I said. I meant no offense.”
She brushed her hair back from her face with the same motion that wiped a tear from her eye and gave me a brave smile. “My father cannot talk. He was not born mute. In fact, as my mother tells it, he had a beautiful singing voice. He grew up in Trisus, apprenticed to an artisan who made musical instruments, but really wanted to be a minstrel. He applied himself very hard to learning how instruments worked, how to make them do whatever he wanted, and he learned how to sing. My mother said he would work from dawn to dusk in the shop, and then sing half the night away in taverns or at celebrations.”
I frowned. “Few men are able to do what they love and still afford a family. With a wife and child his life would have been complete enough for most men. What happened?”
Selia stared off into the leafy canopy above us, and the smile got a bit stronger. “He was not married at that point. He was hired to sing at a wedding feast in Trisus, which he saw as a chance to show his skills off to a host of willing patrons. My father went gladly, as most of the nobility in Jania would attend even though the marriage was a strained, arranged affair. The groom was a minor noble and the reluctant bride was the daughter of a merchant who had the money the noble needed to bring his family back into prominence.
“The bride was rather melancholy at the feast. She had not wanted to marry the noble, but her father urged her to do so because he wanted titled grandchildren. The noble asked my father to sing a song to cheer his bride and lift her spirits so she could at least appear to be pleased with the arrangement. My father had a song that never failed him when he wanted to please a woman, so he sang it. He sang his heart out. It’s said a dozen ladies of nobility fell for him that night.” Selia hunched over in the saddle to avoid a low-hanging tree branch.
“Unfortunately,” she continued, “one of them was the noble’s new bride. She couldn’t take her eyes off my father, and she looked far too happy to suit her new husband. The noble knew everyone felt the forced union a shameful fraud, and what little honor his family had left burned in him for satisfaction.
“So while everyone else congratulated my father on his fine voice, the noble brooded. My father was the center of attention and the feast seemed to be more in his honor than the host’s, and the host’s wife was more than properly attentive to my father. The noble was not pleased and his rage finally exploded. He said the song offended his wife’s honor and he would duel with my father to gain satisfaction.”
I sighed. “And the noble stabbed your father in the throat, ending his career.”
“No.” Selia grinned broadly. “If this was a song that would be the ending, but life seldom works out so simply. Lord Joachim was not as good a fighter as he thought, and my father had some training in swordplay because of a mercenary uncle who thought Father ill prepared as a minstrel to head out traveling. Father fought the noble to first blood and won by inflicting a small cut on the back of the noble’s right hand. My father then dropped his guard. The noble advanced and lunged at my father. Father dodged away from the blade, but caught the sword’s guard in the throat.
“My father never sang again. I never heard him raise his voice above a whisper, yet even a whisper was painful for him.” Selia smiled. “In his eyes, in the fluid grace of his hands when he plays a lute or a dulcimer, I have seen what it must have been like to hear him, but that has not stopped me from wishing I could have listened to his songs or have sung with him.”
“I can understand that desire. What happened to the noble?”
“The noble claimed he did not feel the cut on his hand. He paid my father three hundred Imperials, a fine levied by a brash, young Count Rudolf ra Blackwood, the ranking court member in attendance.”
A picture of Lothar’s uncle flashed before my eyes. “Three hundred Imperials is not much reparation for what happened to your father. He should have had more for that night and his injury.”
Selia smiled—a cruel smirk that blossomed into a bright grin. “He did. The woman was my mother. She bore three children, all of them sired by my father, not her husband. I think Lord Joachim knows we are illegitimate, but he says nothing. My mother controls him, and does as she pleases. Lord Joachim is a laughingstock among the nobles of Trisus. Everyone believes he has been dealt justice.”
I nodded in agreement with her verdict. I stopped Wolf. We’d just come up a hill, and the trail entered a small clearing before plunging again into a thicker stand of woods. In the morning the sun would have blinded any rider coming up the hill, but after we took the time for our lunch, only shadows greeted us.
Wolf’s ears flicked forward a half second before I saw the motion. I slipped my left foot from the stirrup and kicked Selia off her horse. She grunted, folded forward over my foot, and fell back off the gelding as the crossbow bolt hissed through the air and tugged at her shoulder. She dropped from sight before I could see how badly she had been wounded. In the same motion I twisted from my saddle and fell off Wolf to the right. Leaving my tsincaat in the saddle scabbard, I rose, ran forward, and dove into the brush wall to the right of the trail.
I caught a glimpse of Brede, the Bastard of Ria, before a root caught my ankle and dumped me to the ground. He’d only ever been able to kill something tied up for him and had no illusions about honor or fairness—hence his attack from ambush. I gathered myself into a low crouch, trusting in the fact that my lack of helplessness would put him off killing me immediately.
Selia was very right, he could not be ulRia. For that he had to at least be human.
“Come on, Talion, come to me.” Brede filled his voice with forced levity. He had to be trying to reload his crossbow, and his anxiety made that task difficult. Under normal circumstances reloading a crossbow would present no one a problem, but usually the archer is smarter than the bow and he does not have a Talion, a Talion he just tried to murder, in such close proximity.
I pushed on through the scrub and reached an area that was relatively clear of underbrush. The evergreen trees in this stretch of woods had blanketed the ground with pine needles—all orange-brown and dead—that smothered any undergrowth and strangled most sounds. Because the lowest branches were six feet over my head, nothing but tree trunks blocked my vision. Many of the recently trimmed branches littered the ground and gave me a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. Brede, or Morai for him, had chosen well the site for this battle.
I ran to a tree and stood with my back pressed against it. The rough bark felt smooth beneath my leather tunic. Few enough of the pines had sufficient girth to hide Brede, but I still could not see him. A breeze threaded its way through the grove to steal any sound that might have pointed me toward Brede’s haven. I crouched low to make a smaller target and armed myself.
Out of the pouch at my belt I drew my sling and a stone. I looped one leather thong around my hand, placed a stone in the pocket, grabbed the second thong, and whirled the sling. Prepared, I rose up and looked out around my tree. From behind a thick tree fifteen yards ahead and off to the left, Brede did the same thing.
Simultaneously we let fly. His bolt thudded solidly into my tree and scattered splinters of sappy wood into the air. My stone tore bark from his tree and just nicked his right ear before he ducked back to safety. Without a second thought I cut around my tree and headed straight for him. I knew I was much better suited to unarmed combat than any Rian bowman, especially when he was trying to reload his crossbow.
I advanced unopposed and that only struck me as peculiar when I rounded Brede’s tree and stopped like a wagon with a broken wheel.
Brede stood there grinning like the fool he felt I was. At his feet lay one crossbow and in his hands he cradled a second. The bolt in the second crossbow had a nasty looking head with twin razor edges spiraling around like ivy on a post. It was designed to drill into its target—usually large game like deer—and core a hole large enough to let the target leave a blood trail if it ran off. He aimed that bolt at my stomach but did not shoot.
“Morai told me you’d fall for that trick. ‘Keep a bow loaded at all times, Brede, and you’ll have him.’ He didn’t think I could do it.” His grin was mirthless, like the bolt, and a look of ecstasy flashed through his large brown eyes.
I held my right hand out, moving it slowly and easily, and let the sling slide through my fingers to the ground. “Brede, give me the crossbow. Give me the crossbow and we can get this over with easily. You don’t want to kill a Talion.”
He narrowed his eyes and flared his nostrils. He did his best to live up to the Rian stereotype of stupidity and bovine looks. “Why not? Think of the reputation I’d have.”
I shook my head gently and tried to swallow. “You’ll have a hundred Talions after you, and you don’t want to end up like the last man who killed a Talion. They say he, or most of him anyway, is still alive in a dungeon in Talianna. Even you don’t want to endure that much torture.”
Brede grinned and his eyes went blank as he thought back to fond memories of times in the foul torture pits of Ria. His attention wavered for a second and that gave me all the time I needed. I concentrated.
My tsincaat came to my hand just as Brede triggered the crossbow. I lunged at the bow and tipped it away from me. The bolt slammed into the tsincaat’s blade with a loud ringing sound and raced up to the crossguard. It tore the tsincaat from my grasp—utterly numbing my right hand in the process—and sent the blade flying back over my right shoulder.
Brede was stricken. He screamed in rage and charged forward with his crossbow raised like a club. I dodged to the right and side-kicked him in the stomach, though with considerably more force than I’d used on Selia. His quiver of bolts sailed off and rained quarrels all over the ground.
Brede reeled backward and slammed into his tree. He dropped the crossbow, then fell to his knees. He reached down, grabbed a bolt, and clutched it like a knife. Scrambling to his feet, he rushed at me again. Anger masked his face and flushed his skin to a bright red shade.
I sidestepped his clumsy low slashing attack and this time planted my right foot on his chest. I heard a crunch and sympathetic pains rippled through my chest, but Brede didn’t even notice. He dropped back two steps and turned to charge me again.
I fell back as the bolt slashed past my face. I planted my right foot in his ample stomach and grabbed his shirt with my left hand. Deliberately continuing my fall, I rolled onto my back and dragged him with me. As he came over the top of me, I kicked up and sent him flying over my head. He sailed into his tree, glanced off it, twisted, and fell to the ground. He tried to rise once, but a ribbon of blood trailed from his mouth and he lay back down, very still.
I stood, shook my numb right hand, and tucked it in my left armpit. I was puzzled, because my kick might have cracked some ribs, and the tree might have bruised his shoulder or arm, but that should not have stopped a man as big as he was. I cautiously walked over to the body, taking care to see he was not trying to trick me, and, with some effort, managed to roll him over with my right foot. Brede had fallen on his bolts. Two of them had twisted their way into his back, doing to him what he would have done to Selia and me.
The Bastard of Ria was no more and I felt sorely tempted to record his death in my journal as involuntary suicide.
I broke his neck to prevent any chance of revivification. Normally that was not a worry, but even the Talions did not know the full extent of Brede’s crimes and who his friends were, or how powerful they might truly have been. I recovered my tsincaat and sling, then walked from the grove back to Selia.
Wolf and the gelding grazed in the small clearing somewhat away from where Selia sat. She looked a bit pale and had torn her tunic away from the top of her right shoulder. She winced as she gently probed the gash on her shoulder with her bloodstained left hand.
I dropped to one knee. “Let me take a look.”
“Why?” She smiled a bit and her lips trembled nervously. “I think my ribs hurt more than my shoulder.”
“Ah, I’m sorry for that, but I had no choice.” The bolt, probably another one of the bleeders, had stitched three cuts across the top of her shoulder just above the collarbone. It looked worse than it was and I had no doubt her ribs did hurt more.
“You don’t think he poisoned the bolt, do you?” She asked the question hopefully, and a great deal more calmly than I would have if our roles were reversed. She was very brave and I smiled to reassure her.
I stood and walked to Wolf. “No, I don’t think it was poisoned. Brede would have prefered you to scream and suffer while he killed me. You know how some people hum or sing to themselves while they work? From what I understand of him, Brede liked a stranger accompaniment.”
“Yeah, not the sort of music you want to add to your repetoire, I imagine.” I took a crusty green bottle and a rag from my saddlebags. “This will clean the wound up and prevent you from getting bloodfever.”
I knelt beside her again. “Tell me what happened to your father after the fight.” I wanted her to concentrate on anything other than the wound so I could treat it without interruption.
“My father immediately won the sympathy of all Trisus. No one who was anyone would order an instrument made if he did not offer the job to my father first. At least the first orders were sympathy orders, but after that—OUCH!—they came for his talent….”
“Sorry, I forgot to tell you this stuff would sting.” I poured more of the liniment on a cloth and wiped the wound clean. She cried out again and Wolf nickered in sympathy. The cut cleaned up nicely and closed easily enough that I didn’t think she’d carry much of a scar away from the wound. I wrapped the shoulder in a clean bandage torn from the rag.
“Your father knew his craft, then?” I helped her stand. The color returned to her face and she walked without any problem to her horse. She mounted easily. I placed the bottle back in the saddlebags, climbed into my saddle, and we set off.
“Yes, he did know his work. It seemed that all the energy he put into his singing now went into his instruments. He created instruments to be his voice. I remember sitting spellbound as he told a story through song with each character performed by a different instrument. The performance was wonderful. He’s wonderful.”
I smiled. “Good, I’m glad for him, and for you. I’d like to meet a man of such ability.”
“You cannot unless Jania lifts the interdiction.” Selia laughed. “I find it hard to believe a nation would ban all Talions and call Talions of their own nationality home. The Talions must have grossly insulted the Janian Royal House.”
I shook my head. “Nations do that from time to time. They kick us out for fifteen or twenty years, then call us back in. It’s not common, but it’s not unknown either.”
Selia rode with the reins in her right hand, her left hand probing the bandage.
“Is it hurting?”
She shook her head. “It really was Brede?”
“In the flesh.”
She raised her eyebrows. “The wound doesn’t seem to hurt enough to have been caused by him.”
I smiled and tried not to think about how much the bolt he had aimed at me would have hurt. “You’re one of the lucky ones. He did not have you and a room full of tools at his disposal. The bolt was meant to cripple or kill slowly, though two worked quickly enough on him.”
The tall, forest trees kept the trail moist enough to retain hoofprints, and those we followed were very fresh—less than six hours old. Tafano’s big horse—the only creature capable of hauling him and his armor around—made the deepest hoofprints. A lighter horse, probably faster than any horse I’d ever ridden, was Morai’s mount and, because the larger prints sometimes obliterated the smaller ones, I knew it led the way along the trail.
We covered another mile of the forested trail as it wove in and around hills. Finally we topped one hill flecked with granite fangs and fingers, as if some huge stone monster were digging itself out of a grave. A hundred yards down the shadowed trail, the tunnel opened up into a brilliantly lit meadow. The very bright sunlight initially burned all color and detail out of the meadow, but bees and butterflies swam into view quickly enough and lent an air of tranquility to what I was uneasily certain had to be another trap.
Unfortunately, I was not wrong.
We cautiously rode into the meadow and stopped in the warm sunlight. Off to my right, leaning against a maple tree, stood the stripped trunk of a small pine. Tafano had chopped all the branches off and sharpened the narrow end. Despite its crude manufacture, it was clearly meant to be a lance.
Across the meadow, riding from a darkling copse, came Tafano. Bright silvery armor encased him, and green peacock plumes garnished his full helm. He carried a real lance with finely shaped shaft of oak and a brightly polished steel claw on the end. The claw, a three-pronged lance head designed to look like a metal eagle talon, existed solely to shear through my chest and tear my heart out. The sight of it set my stomach roiling.
“Selia, listen carefully to what I’m about to say. Tafano will charge me when I pick the lance up. If he wins, and he’s much better at this than I am, ride fast in the other, any other, direction.”
Selia nodded and reined her horse off to the left. I pulled a pair of leather gloves from my left saddlebag, then leaned down and picked up the pine lance. Tafano raised his lance above his head and pumped it upward three times. I imitated his gesture, found the proper balance point for my lance, and hugged the butt end of it to my ribs. We spurred our horses forward and galloped at each other.
As I thundered through the meadow at Tafano, a thousand lessons echoed through my head. We’d pass each other on the left and target the other’s shield or chest. Tafano, with a glittering triangular shield on his left arm, gave me a choice of targets—a choice I denied him rather reluctantly. I noticed he cocked his head to the right, so much so that he could only see me with his left eye, so I hunkered down even lower in the saddle to make myself a difficult target to hit without full depth perception. Even with that added advantage, though, I did not honestly think the battle would last beyond the initial pass.
Imperianan warriors, as a class, are simply the best heavy cavalry in the world. Most of them learn to ride before they can walk, and some of the nobles wear mail once they start walking. An Imperianan is a demon on horseback, riding only the best-bred and best-trained warhorses in the Shattered Empire outside Talianna. Their warriors are even well versed in infantry battling with their massive greatswords. In fact, if most of them were not so arrogant because their nation had once been the capital province of the Empire, their customs and abilities might well have been widely admired.
Wolf raced forward with his ears flat back against his head. Sunlight slithered across Tafano’s armor and leaped away flashing from the curves and joints of his silver carapace. The plume rising from his helm—far too brilliant a green to be lost in the dark woods behind him—danced and bounced like a cat’s paw striking at a dangling piece of string. I would have laughed, but the extended claw tore all possible humor from the situation.
I twisted in the saddle and eluded the lance’s tempered grasp while I stabbed out with my own lance. It struck home on Tafano’s shield, then exploded into a cloud of splinters with a loud, wet crack. Tafano rocked slightly in his saddle but sped past, fully recovered before the tip of my broken lance even hit the ground. Disgusted, I threw aside the butt end of my lance and rode to the end of the field where Tafano had begun his charge.
I reigned up short. Morai blocked my path.
I nearly smiled at him, because, standing there so boldly, he looked very much the roguish hero Selia’s song made him out to be. He wore a blue silk tunic and red silk breeches tucked into the tops of high riding boots. A red silk headband circled his brow and got lost in the tangle of dark hair, though the ends emerged to float gently in the light breeze coursing through the meadow. He wore a neatly trimmed and fashionable moustache that combined with his clothing to make him appear more a noble out riding than a criminal pursued by a Talion. His eyes, a brown so light it appeared gold, sparkled as he smiled.
“Greetings, Talion, it has been some time.” He bent down and brought up another pine lance from it hiding place in the long grass. “I assume you can use this?”
I couldn’t help it, I had to smile. “If you have no immediate need for it, I would like to borrow that lance.” I looked back over my shoulder at the mountain of man and horse on the field. “I can’t promise I’ll return it in good shape.”
Morai shrugged. “No matter.” He waved a hand and encompassed the whole forest with the gesture. “I can always make another.”
It wasn’t until he held the lance up to me that I remembered how small he was. I was easily a head taller than he was, and Tafano was at least that much taller than me. Still I knew, from people like Morai and Lord Isas, that judging a man by physical size alone was a bad mistake.
I turned Wolf so we faced Tafano again. “You realize I will be back for you.”
Morai nodded. “I expect it. Bring your compatriot with you when you finish Tafano. Oh, did you notice how he held his head?”
I smiled. “Is he half blind?”
Morai shrugged and rubbed the knuckles of his right fist. “Temporarily. We had a disagreement this morning. His right eye is swollen shut.”
A low laugh rumbled in my chest and Morai joined me. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“Could I do less?” Morai’s smile brimmed over with memories, and I blushed.
Turning from Morai, I raised my new lance and pumped it three times in the air. Tafano returned the signal and again we started our horses hurtling toward each other. Grass and trees flashed past in a blurred wave. Each hoofbeat pounded up into me and started a sympathetic rhythm pulsing in my temples. I ground my teeth together and stinging sweat seeped into my eyes.
I waited until we were close enough that Tafano set himself for impact and, with pressure from my knees, I cut Wolf to the left. For the barest of seconds we sped directly at Tafano and his mount and I envisioned the tangled, broken, screaming mass of horseflesh and man we’d become if I allowed us to collide. More pressure and Wolf moved left again. We would pass on the right.
Tafano twisted his neck even further in a futile attempt to spot us. At the last second he tried to bring his lance up over his horse’s head and strike out blindly at us, but his attempt was too late and far off target. Sweeping past on his right I stood in the stirrups and, wrapping two hands around the lance’s butt, I swung it like a massive club.
The blow caught Tafano square in the chest, dented his breastplate, and snapped the lance cleanly in two. His lance arced up into the air and sailed from his slackened grip as the Imperianan reeled in the saddle and tipped to the right. Somehow he kicked free of his stirrups and avoided being dragged by his horse. Even so his fall from the saddle was heavy and hard. Accompanied by a loud, metallic din, he rolled up into a silver ball.
I vaulted from Wolfs saddle as soon as the horse had slowed enough for it to be safe, summoned my tsincaat, and slapped Wolf on the rump. He headed off, wary of Tafano’s horse, and nervously watched while I circled toward Tafano. The warhorse moved at me and effectively cut me off from his fallen master.
“Tafano ra Imperiana,” I shouted. The armor stirred and straightened itself. It looked for all the world like a metal warrior arising from a steel egg. “Tafano, send the horse away. Let this be between us.”
The Imperianan shucked his gloves and pulled off his helmet. Blood ran from his nose and ears to streak his brown moustache and beard with scarlet. His right eye was swollen and blackened but his left one burned with an intensity that cut at my spine like a cold grave wind. He spat blood. He tried to rise, stumbled, and caught himself on one hand and one knee.
He spat again. “Rasha, kill him.” He stabbed a finger at me, coughed and sat down abruptly.
The horse charged at me to ride me down, but I dodged out of the way. I circled back across the path he had taken, forcing him to turn even more for another pass, but he stopped in midturn and watched me. The stallion had been ordered to kill me and he would do so unless I killed him first.
“Tafano, call the animal off.”
The warrior laughed. “He is as much a weapon to me as my sword. You are dead, Talion.” His laughter continued, then dissolved into a racking cough.
The horse started forward again. This time he was cautious and herded me gently. He played with me and for a second lost all sign of being anything more than a high-spirited horse. Then he charged quickly and I barely dove from beneath steel-shod hooves.
I rolled to my feet and wrapped both hands around the hilt of my tsincaat. “This is the last time, Tafano. Send Rasha away or anything I do to him I do to you!”
Tafano looked at his horse. “Rasha,” he commanded, balling a fist and slamming it into the ground, “stomp him!”
Blindly obedient to his master, Rasha charged and reared up in front of me. Eyes wide and nostrils flared, he kicked out at me. I dodged back as a hoof slashed past my left ear. I brandished my tsincaat, but the horse ignored it and kept coming. He reared, then stomped and jumped forward. With each motion he drove me back.
I retreated from five attacks before I had the pattern. On the sixth assault, as two hooves pounded and tore the ground at my feet, I dodged left and forward. Rasha reared and just missed my right shoulder with a futile kick as I rushed along his flank. Even as the horse roared furiously and twisted to bite at me, I slashed through the powerful muscles bunched on his gaskins and he went down in a dusty heap.
I reeled away from the horse and my mouth soured. The animal lay there and thrashed, screaming. Blood spurted from his hindquarters, yet he still pawed the ground with his forelegs and tried to drag himself toward me. I wanted to turn away from the pitiable sight, but I had to respect the fierce determination in the beast’s eyes. The horse would never surrender while he had a duty to perform, making it clear to me that I, too, had a duty to perform. Numbed by his suffering, I circled the horse and pressed my right palm to his broad, starred forehead. In seconds I took Rasha beyond all pain.
I laid Rasha’s head on the ground and heard the squealing protests of dented armor as Tafano tried to get up again.
“For that, Talion, you will die very slowly!” His voice was weak but full of venom and arrogance. I had to pay because I’d done something I’d begged him to remove from me.
Utter rage flashed through me like fire across a puddle of lamp oil. I spun, pounced on Tafano, knocked him to the ground, and rained blow after blow on his face. I shattered his aquiline nose and pulped his full, noble lips. I kicked his hands from beneath him as he tried to rise and I stood with one foot on his chest until his struggles taxed his strength so heavily that he could not rise against the weight of his armor.
Tafano lay there in the hot afternoon sun like a beetle trapped on its back. I stalked over to Rasha and tugged Tafano’s greatsword free of the saddle scabbard. Twice the length of my tsincaat, the blade was as dull as an old paring knife. It needed no edge because it cut through nothing; it smashed through anything it hit. A warrior wielding the sword in battle could crush armor and shatter the bones beneath it. It was a terrible weapon, one that granted lingering death as opposed to something more swift and merciful, but at that moment I could think of no more perfect weapon in the world.
I looked down at Tafano and studied his blood-smeared face. He stared at me with his left eye. There was no fear there, only anger. And the grand arrogance of his people.
“I warned you. What you forced me to do to the horse …” I took one solemn step toward his feet and raised the greatsword. I held it there, for a heartbeat, and brought it down as Tafano raised his head just in time to look, and just in time to scream.
The armor over his thighs dented as easily as a tin tavern cup hurled against a wall, and his legs broke as simply as my lances had. Tafano clawed at the ground and threw great clods of grass and earth into the air as he writhed in pain. Then some god showed Tafano the mercy he’d denied Rasha. The Imperianan fainted.
Tossing the greatsword aside, I summoned my tsincaat and stalked across the field. Morai sat on a log back beneath the growing shadows of the forest. Selia sat beside him, and they were laughing. Something inside of me, something touched by the horse’s death and the events in Pine Springs, just snapped. “Enough, Morai, enough. I’m tired of chasing you all over.”
The both of them stopped and stared at me as if I were an intruder in some noble’s love garden. Selia started to speak, but Morai laid a gentle hand on her forearm and she stopped. He stood. “Whatever do you mean, Talion?”
I stared at him with disbelief. “I’ve got at least a dozen warrants with your name on them in my saddlebags.” I looked back toward Wolf. “You’re wanted in every nation west of Imperiana—Memkar just being the most recent. Go read them for yourself.”
The bandit laughed easily and shook his head. “You know I eschew reading those things.”
I snorted and rubbed my left hand against my sweat-slick forehead. “Them, and anything else, you illiterate fraud.”
Morai shrugged easily, then stared at me. “Talion, are you serious?”
I screwed my eyes shut and tried to massage away the pain throbbing through my head so I could think clearly, but it was no use. “Yes, Morai, its over. It was one thing for you to head up a pack of bandits stealing things here and there. Selling your services to nobles who want to overthrow their government is another thing entirely.”
“But common banditry was getting boring. At least when intriguing you meet a much better class of people.”
“That may well be, Morai, but you can’t be allowed to bring governments down.”
A hint of irony threaded its way through his reply. “Better a bandit than a power broker, is it? Is that because upsetting peasants is preferable to upsetting nobles—perhaps because the nobles can read?”
I opened my eyes just a bit. “You know better than that. I’ve chased you before this, remember?”
“You have, Talion, and your point is well taken. I’ll heed your advice.” Morai smiled, held his hands up, then clapped them together once. “As I was telling Selia here I’d decided to abandon political intrigues and leave off banditry. I will leave this area and become a jewel thief. There’s always some bauble worth stealing somewhere.”
I shook my head. “No! I mean it has to stop—all of it. Your career is over. This is the end, Morai.”
The smile on his face melted into a thin, grim line. “Swords, then?” I nodded, and he drew a pair of gloves from his belt and pulled them onto his hands. He freed his swept-hilt longsword from its scabbard—which had been belted to a low tree branch—and scythed through golden grass stalks with some idle cuts.
He looked up at me and moved to my left. A breastwork of long grass stood between us. “If you want me, Talion, come and get me.” He struck a guard and waited.
I took three steps toward him and the ground fell away beneath my feet.
I hit the bottom of the pit in a shower of branches and grass clods. I coughed out the dust and spit out the grit grinding and crackling between my teeth. I’d broken nothing in my fall and my pleasure in that turn of events shattered the dark mood that possessed me. I stood and saw that the hole was too tall for me to jump out of, and the walls too weak to support any attempt to climb out.
Morai did not laugh when he looked over the pit’s edge at me. “I am truly sorry I had to do this to you, Talion. I did not want to fight you. If I killed you your Master would send more Talions after me. That would be inconvenient.”
I laughed and dusted myself off. “Others would be more bother than I have, I imagine. Had the possibility that I might beat you arisen?”
Morai smiled. “Yes, and it was dismissed in due course.” He pointed at the pit. “I estimated that you could collapse a wall of the pit, digging with your sword …”
“Tsincaat in four or five hours. In that time Selia and I will be long gone. You won’t hear of me for a month or two and then who knows?”
Selia appeared at the edge of the pit. She smiled weakly and a bit apprehensively. She tossed my canteen down to me.
“I thought you might like that. I’ve hobbled Wolf in the shade where he can get some grass.”
I smiled back at her. “Thank you. You are going with Morai of your own accord?”
For a second she was shocked, then she smiled at my concern. “Yes. Accompanying him is my choice.”
I looked over at Morai. “Let her get hurt and after I take apart those who hurt her, I’ll find you.”
“I will take good care of her, Talion.” He held his hand out to her and she took it. “Just so you know, I didn’t take my people in to Memkar because the nobles who purchased my services were buffoons. Their enemies found them out, which is why a ship burned and sank on Lake Tiakly with loss of all the conspirators on board. I’m not above exploiting political fantasies, Talion, but I have no intention of triggering wars to enrich myself.”
I nodded up at him. “I believe you, oddly enough.”
“As well you should. You know I’ve never lied to you.” Morai tossed me a quick salute. “And I wish you the best until we meet again.”
I’d worked at the pit wall for the better part of two hours before the first shadow passed overhead and blotted out the sun. I heard a Hawk cry and Wolf whinny in response. I redoubled my efforts to collapse the wall and climb out in four or five seconds. The task was impossible and I cursed Morai for it. I knew I was doomed.
Two smiling Elites looked down at me and laughed. I was covered with dust and dirt that my sweat transformed into a muddy coat. I’d tossed my tunic and jerkin up out of the pit earlier and it was impossible to tell that my pants and boots had once been the same dark shade. I rubbed my right forearm across my brow and succeeded only in transferring the dirt on my arm to my face.
“I told you, Erlan, it couldn’t be mantrap. It caught a Justice. ” A young blond Elite looked across the pit at Erlan and they both burst out laughing.
I growled. “Don’t tell me you Elites couldn’t find something else to amuse you between Talianna and here.”
Erlan stopped laughing and smiled at me. “Careful, Nolan, or we’ll leave you there.” Erlan dropped to his knees and reached a hand down for me. “Tadd, get my legs so I don’t slide in there with him.”
The joking Elite complied with Erlan’s wishes and they had me out quickly. I stood and scraped as much of the dirt from me as I could. Beyond Erlan I saw two Imperial Hawks hooded and hobbled in the middle of the meadow. One was preening itself while the other was trying to get to Tafano’s horse.
“Can I feed Fleet some of the horse?” Tadd walked toward his Hawk.
“Go ahead.” I turned to Erlan. “Can you ride with Tadd back to Talianna, or ride Wolf? I need about two hours to catch Morai.”
Erlan shook his head. He pulled a sealed letter from inside his jerkin and handed it to me. It had the Master’s personal seal.
I broke it open and walked a pace or two away from Erlan. The message read: “Return to Talianna without delay. Stop shaving.” I extended the message to Erlan. “The Master weaves with invisible thread.”
Erlan shrugged his shoulders and refolded the paper. “Who can tell the Master’s mind? Tadd has orders concerning Wolf he’s to open once we leave. You’ll fly Fleet and I’ll take Val back. We’re to leave now, and I was told to use any means necessary to get you there.”
I shot Erlan a sidelong glance. “That sounds like words from Lord Eric’s mouth.”
The Elite nodded. “He told me I would not be disciplined if I had to use physical force on you.”
“Oh. I’ll feel threatened if you wish.”
Erlan laughed out loud and caught me with a playful cuff. “Let’s go.”
I got my saddlebags and swordbelt from Wolf. I led him to the Hawks. Tadd held the reins while I sat down and pulled off my riding boots. Erlan tossed me a pair of soft-soled boots used for riding Hawks and I put those on while he stowed my boots in the saddlebags.
Tadd swung up into Wolfs saddle. “Hey, Nolan, that guy over there is still alive.”
“I know.” I pulled a shirt on but did not button it up.
Tadd looked a bit puzzled. “I can take him to a town. They might be able to fix him up.”
I shook my head. “No, leave him.” I climbed onto Fleet’s back and reached up to unhood him.
“But he’s in pain. He’s struggling to get out of that armor.”
“Tadd, leave him.” My voice was harder than before.
Tadd turned toward Erlan, who had mounted Val. “But leaving him in such pain is cruel.”
I used the Call. “It’s justice, Talion.”
Tadd turned back and faced me. The motion was slow. My words dragged him around and he resisted it as much as he could. He lost the fight.
I slid my tsincaat into the saddle scabbard. “Tafano had his cavalry ride through a Bosal village, killing anything that moved. He’s caused untold suffering and pain. He chose to defend himself with that horse over there, refusing to call it off when I asked. I had to cripple it before I could kill it.”
Erlan and I took to the air. We left Tadd staring at Tafano. I knew he’d leave the meadow alone, but I could only hope, when he left, he’d understand.