At the sound, Sir Maligard DuVania looked up. Behind him the brush rustled as some creature made its way through the growth to the small cliff-side clearing, known as Aspegad Tor, where he crouched watching the pass below. He turned to peer through the trees, cursing himself for neglecting to bring a sword. On this lonely cliff high in the wilds of the Darst Range, he hadn’t expected to face outlaws or enemy soldiers, but a bear or mountain cat could be just as deadly if it caught him unprepared.
“Sir?” came the questing voice from somewhere down the path.
“Taela,” DuVania identified his squire’s voice. He felt a wave of relief and hastily hid it. “I’m here,” he called back, keeping his voice firm. He had learned long ago that a knight could not openly display emotion, even to his trusted squire. His role in the military was too important to let something as fickle as feelings show. A proper knight was as hard as the armor he wore.
Turning back to view the pass once more, DuVania narrowed his eyes and tried to pick out the group of travelers he had been observing. The sun was quickly nearing the horizon, bringing the slanting shadows of the western mountains almost completely over the pass. Squinting and staring, the knight was finally able to pick out the dark shapes moving in the darker shade of the few trees that grew in the rocky vale called Arvre’s Coombe. The group of twenty black-cloaked figures marched east on foot, out of Gribbane Barony, which sat in the mountainous eastern edge of Narragan, and into his own: Castigale Barony, which occupied the western hills of Asbridge just south of Nulain.
In times past, DuVania would not only have been suspicious of people trespassing from his lord’s most hated enemy’s lands; he would have immediately saddled to meet the potential foes. But times were changing. With the marriage of Baron Kelleman Castigale’s daughter, Evelain, to a nephew of Baroness Veronie Gribbane, the longtime feud between the baronies was likely at an end. So, DuVania merely watched as the group made its way into the forested eastern part of the pass, entering Castigale without challenge.
Behind him the rustling grew louder. He turned to see Taela appear between two birch boles. Her face was narrow and full of angular shapes unlike his own, which, apart from his high cheekbones and pointed mustache and goatee, was mostly round. As customary in informal situations, his squire wore a tabard with the red and gray Castigale colors over a sleeveless tunic. Her thin arms belied the strength he knew she possessed as she pulled herself up onto the rocky platform.
“A message just arrived for you,” she said when she stood before him. DuVania saw that she had slung a light sack over one shoulder. She opened it and took out a sealed scroll.
DuVania frowned. “Couldn’t it wait until tomorrow?” He was in one of his rare melancholy moods this evening and had come to Aspegad Tor partially to be alone, away from the soldiers he led and the hired workers that they were escorting. In coming sennights, after the workers had finished building a barracks in the only village in the area, Parsain’s Peak, the soldiers stationed there would be performing this watch.
Taela looked uncomfortable for a moment, her normally bright and defiant brown eyes shifted to one side and she pursed her lips. “The messenger nearly killed her horse to bring this message to you tonight. She only left from Castigale Keep last night. I decided it should be brought to you right away.”
“From Castigale Keep? That journey is more than a day-and-a-half by anyone sensible.” The knight arched one eyebrow with partial surprise and took a closer look at the scroll Taela held. The seal was the official seal of Castigale, usually reserved for military orders. He was about to take the scroll, but then decided it wasn’t necessary. It was probably just some proclamation about the coming alliance with Gribbane.
He turned back to the view and gestured over his shoulder. “Go ahead and read it to me.”
Taela broke the seal on the note. “Sir Maligard DuVania,” she read. “His lordship Baron Kelleman Castigale of Asbridge regrets to inform you of the passage of his beloved daughter, the fair Evelain Castigale.” DuVania whirled around to face Taela. She met his gaze, her eyes wide.
“Read on,” the knight said.
“In respect to your current assignment, Baron Kelleman nevertheless requests that you make haste to bring your soldiers to Castigale Keep immediately.” Taela looked up again. “It is signed in Captain Dagny Ludoran’s own hand.”
“Damn me,” the knight swore. “We must return to the camp and rouse the soldiers immediately. We’ve only a few bells of riding we can make today before it becomes too dark.” He stepped past Taela. The trail back to Parsain’s Peak was almost as steep as the cliff face that overlooked the coombe, so he turned back to her to use both hands and feet on the slope.
“By the time we’re ready to move, it will be dark,” Taela said quickly. “When the messenger arrived, many of the men were passing around a jug of ale. Surely Dagny didn’t mean we should leave this very moment …”
DuVania looked at her sharply. “Dagny meant what she wrote in the note, Taela. I’m a knight, and when given an order I don’t question it, I just obey. You should learn that yourself.” Taela held his eye for a moment then dropped her gaze to the ground.
“It could be that Baron Kelleman wants to announce his loss with all of his knights present,” she persisted. “The note doesn’t even say how Evelain died. Is there really call for us to begin travel tonight?”
“It also does not give mention to the wedding or Gribbane’s reaction to the tragedy,” he said. “Read between the lines, Taela. Evelain’s death was no accident; the baron suspects murder.”
Taela looked about to protest again but DuVania held up a hand. “Any other soldier who questions my orders would get a fortnight’s worth of cleaning stables, Taela. I respect you and your opinion; you’re closer to me than any mere soldier.” She looked up at that, a peculiar expression on her face that DuVania could not read.
He continued, “But in this my decision is final. We rouse the men now and tie them to their saddles if we have to. I want to be in the valley before we rest, and it will be an early rise tomorrow to finish the journey.” He did not shout his reprimand as he would at any soldier, but was kind and almost fatherly to his squire. For a moment he wondered at his own lenience. Ever since Taela had come into his service, he had given her more patience and kindness than he gave even to his wife or daughter. He occasionally thought that he spoiled her; but, for all the lack of angry discipline she received from him, she continued to be the best squire he had ever had. So he dismissed his attitude towards her as only fitting for one who had earned his respect through years of dutiful service.
He turned his attention away from her and back to climbing down the path when she said, “I have to talk to you.” DuVania looked up at her, surprised not by her request to talk, but by the absence of his honorary “sir”, which she almost always used when she addressed him.
“Yes?” he asked. “Talk as we climb. I’d like to get the troops up and riding before they’re too full of ale.”
“I’ve been your squire for four years now,” Taela began, pausing occasionally while she grappled with handholds on the steep path. “I was with you through the Beinison War and countless other quests.” Taela’s voice was flat and serious. One of the things DuVania liked most about his squire was that she kept her emotions completely in check. However, he could still detect some carefully hidden sentiment behind her words. He had reached a more level ground where he could walk upright, but he looked over his shoulder at her. She kept her eyes lowered. He watched her face as she continued, “Next spring, I will be eighteen years old and would like to apply for full knighthood at the year’s Castigale conclave.” She finally looked up at him.
DuVania blinked as her eyes met his. He felt a quick response jump to his lips but fought it back. Her unexpected announcement confused and annoyed him such that he wanted to carefully screen what he said. Conscious that his thoughts might be clear on his face, he turned away and increased his pace.
Keeping his back to her, he said over his shoulder, “Of course, Taela. You have been the best of squires and will have my sponsorship at the conclave.” He thought his own voice sounded a little overly leaden and took a breath. Damn emotions! Why should he feel this sense of loss at the natural course of things? A squire should become a knight when she was ready, and Taela was more than ready.
The silence after he had spoken stretched uncomfortably and DuVania said, “I knew you would make a great knight someday. I’m happy I’ve had the honor of instructing you.”
She still did not speak as they made their way down another steep descent. Then she said, “Will you choose another squire?” Her question was softer than usual: her flat, business-like tone replaced by one that sounded almost pitying.
Gritting his teeth, he stopped and turned to face her, his eyes now hard as steel. He was surprised to find her eyes downcast, but his voice was still curt as he said, “Squires in Castigale are usually picked for a knight by his liege lord. It is rare for a knight to express a preference and have it granted.”
“You chose me,” Taela countered, coming to a stop before him.
DuVania’s annoyance was beginning to grow into anger, but he hid it in the same place he held his other feelings. He regarded his squire for a moment and tried to consider her words and situation rationally. She had only spoken the truth, of course; he had told the late Baron Tilber Castigale he wished Taela as his squire four years ago, and the baron had immediately accepted.
He had seen her then as a scrawny page, obeying the shouted orders of ranking soldiers, and he had been impressed with her determination and endurance. Though less than half the size and weight of some of the other pages in Castigale Keep, she had held her own without complaint, tirelessly lugging heavy armor, leading stubborn mounts, and caring for playful hounds: duties that exhausted or bored the larger and stronger boys and girls.
Remembering Taela when he first saw her brought back the feelings of impending loss more strongly than before. Struggling to maintain equanimity, he said, “I don’t know if I will pick a squire or have one assigned to me. I don’t even know what pages there are at Castigale Keep this year.”
Taela still didn’t look up. Finally, DuVania said, “I will sponsor you at the conclave. What more do you want?”
“I didn’t ask to talk to you to see if you would sponsor me,” Taela said. “What I wanted to ask is how you feel about me leaving.”
“Feel?” DuVania’s anger burst forth and he spoke in a choking shout. “What do feelings have to do with anything? I thought you understood this one aspect of being a knight, Taela, and I’m disappointed that you ask about feelings. A knight has duty, honor, chivalry, compassion, and bravery, but he has no room for feelings.
“On the field, how would your soldiers react if they thought you were making decisions based on feelings? How would your enemies? How can anyone be a proper knight if they trust in such things?” Taela looked up finally. Her eyes were as hard as his. She took his censure as she did all other things: with stoic acceptance and soldierly endurance.
DuVania was partially ashamed that he should be so obviously angry with his squire while she maintained a calm bordering on indifference. He turned away from her. “Come, there is nothing more to talk about on this subject.” Grunting, he scrambled down the path while Taela, unmoving, watched him. He did not turn to see if she followed.
Assigning two of his ten soldiers to stay with the workers at Parsain’s Peak, DuVania left with the rest of his small company that evening, much to the dismay of the men. They rode hard until it was too dark to see, then made camp by the side of the road.
The sun had not crested the hills before them when DuVania roused his soldiers. They ate a hasty meal and mounted up for a long day of travel. DuVania saw little need to have anyone wear full armor in the mid-summer heat while riding through their own lands. He wore comfortable riding clothes himself, his shield stowed behind his saddle where it would not bump him as he rode. Beside him, Taela sat on her own horse, engrossed in thought.
He had avoided her for the most part of the previous night’s march, and as far as he could tell she did her part by staying out of his way. They had not spoken to each other except for when DuVania gave orders to everyone, including his squire.
He was not mad at her, nor was he particularly upset by the fact that she wanted to leave his service to become a knight herself. The previous evening he had been surprised by the idea, but after having thought it over he felt more and more comfortable with the fact. What bothered him was that Taela had asked about his feelings. He had thought both of them knew their roles together, and feelings had no place therein. But now he wasn’t sure what she thought of him, nor did he like the fact that it should matter to him what she thought.
He was musing over this when Taela said, “Sir?”
He nodded mutely, not meeting her eyes, and she said in a lower voice, “I apologize for questioning you last night, sir. I should not have spoken after you gave me an order.”
DuVania frowned and looked at her. “Think nothing of it,” he said, softening his features with effort. “You should know that I respect your opinion and admire your boldness in speaking it.”
Taela’s features were unreadable, so he went on, “Besides, you were right. The note did not mention how Evelain died. But the very omission of that fact speaks much more plainly than a simple explanation would have.”
“What do you mean?”
“Baron Kelleman would want to put his soldiers at ease and would quickly state any clear cause such as sickness or accident. The fact that he did not shows that he at least suspects foul play. What’s more, the fact that her death has come during the same sennight that she was due to be married to Lord Sagrie Gribbane tells me that we may be headed for another war.”
“A war between baronies?” Taela asked.
“It has happened before, and more often than you may think.” The knight became pensive for a moment. “Did you know that I had received an invitation to the party at Evelain’s dower-house four days ago? I could have been there …” He clenched his jaw and grunted. “If my duties had not kept me in Parsain’s Peak I could have been helping by now.”
“Your duties didn’t keep you there,” Taela said after a moment’s hesitation. “We were on more of an honor mission than anything else. The workers didn’t need a full ten soldiers and a knight to guard them.” He shrugged and didn’t answer her. She took a breath and said, “Besides, your wife would have been glad to see you, I’m sure.”
At the mention of his spouse, DuVania’s lips pursed. This was another subject he had little wish to discuss with his squire. It was no secret among his men that he didn’t get along with his wife. He took every opportunity to avoid her, and many guessed that he had volunteered for this mission as just one more excuse to be away from home.
He wasn’t one to openly announce his domestic disputes to his subordinates. Still, he felt comfortable enough with Taela to let a little sarcasm through. “Yes, I’m sure she would have delighted in my company,” he said sourly. “I can just hear her nagging about every ignoble detail of my attire, manners, posture, and pronunciation.”
“Sorry, sir,” Taela said.
Taela’s expression did not change, but she did look away. Thinking of his wife, DuVania wondered what she would have done if she said something that offended him. She would not have dropped the subject as Taela had. No, she would have kept pushing it on him, grinding it like a torturer rubbing salt into wounds. Where Taela was bold but respectful, his wife was bold and belligerent.
Realizing that he had been mentally comparing his squire to his wife, DuVania felt a moment of embarrassment and self-reproach. He was a knight, and should act like it even in his thoughts. There was an awkward moment of silence when both knight and squire seemed equally alone in their thoughts, then Taela said loudly, “Sir, a plume.” She pointed above the trees in the distance.
DuVania squinted in the evening sun. They had just crested a steep hill and could see some distance. There, rising several leagues ahead from behind the next hill was a plume of black smoke. DuVania frowned and called back towards his troops, “Lieutenant! What village lies there?” He pointed toward the smoke.
Lieutenant Sern spurred his horse forward and imitated the knight’s squinting glare. “I believe that’s Dalper’s Dell, sir. Little more than a hamlet, though. Damned if that be quite a bit o’ smoke for mid-day.” His voice was gravelly and he scratched his shaggy gray hair as he spoke. His eyebrows almost hid his beady eyes as he squinted. “Something ain’t right,” he added with a frown.
DuVania nodded to him and they continued to lead the column down the hill until the trees were too high to see the smoke. After several menes of riding, he turned again to Sern. “How far off our track is Dalper’s Dell?”
“About a ha’bell, sir. We’d just turn right at the next fork and continue up for nigh ten menes.”
“Straight, then,” DuVania said with a nod. “We’ll stop briefly in Dalper’s Dell to make sure all’s right. I’d like to hear what news they have before we reach Castigale Keep anyway.”
Lieutenant Sern’s oath echoed in the clearing around which the buildings that made up Dalper’s Dell still smoldered. DuVania’s troops had smelled the thick smoke as they had descended the path and the knight had called for them to speed up. Now they stood at the edge of the small community, staring at the destruction.
In the wagon-tracked center of the clearing, two bodies lay in pools of blood. Crows had landed and begun investigating them, cackling to each other as they worked. Around the clearing, six meager but sturdy buildings had stood. Most were utterly destroyed, charred beams jutting up from under collapsed roofs and walls. The only one still standing was also the largest, which, apart from the soot stains that showed arson had been attempted, bore relatively little damage.
No one spoke for another moment before DuVania turned to Sern. “Have the men dismount and draw arms,” he said in a voice strained with anger. “I want two groups scouting the woods around the dell in opposite directions.”
As Sern began shouting orders and his troops scrambled to follow them, DuVania got off his horse. He marched across the clearing and scattered the crows with a clap of his hands. When he reached the center, he knelt down to examine the bodies.
They belonged to two men, one of whom held an axe handle and the other a rusty dagger. Both were dressed in simple tunics of rough wool and worn trousers, but the knight noticed that one man’s fabric was dyed a deep blue with light blue stitching, at least suggesting that the man was a landowner or of some influence. Both men had died of slash wounds to their chests, now crusted with blood dried black.
DuVania turned the men over to lie respectfully on their backs. A shadow fell upon them and he heard Taela’s voice behind him. “Brigands, do you think, sir?”
The knight straightened up. His jaw was clenched in anger but he forced himself to be calm. He glanced around the clearing and answered without looking at his squire, “It’s impossible to say for certain. But for brigands, those who attacked here were very bold to sack a hamlet.”
He knelt again and finished arranging the bodies so that their hands lay crossed over their chests. In death, their muscles had stiffened and the task was not easy, but he was determined and forced the arms into the right position. “These men deserve to be buried. Do we have any cloth with the supplies?”
“None but our cloaks, sir.”
“Straight, then. Go to that house, the large one, and see if there is some cloth. If I meet my guess, one or both of these men were the former occupants, and they’d thank us for pilfering their belongings to bury them.”
While Taela turned to obey, he strode back to the ring of horses being corralled by two of the younger soldiers. Fury burned behind his carefully controlled features. This kind of destruction should not occur in civil lands. Though his duty demanded that he bring the villains to his lord to be justly tried, he felt that nothing short of a violent death would serve as justice for those who had burned this hamlet.
His thoughts were abruptly interrupted by a shout. He turned just in time to see the door of the remaining building burst open and an old man run out, followed closely by Taela. The man seemed confused by the horses and soldiers outside, and in his moment of hesitation the squire grabbed him. The old man emitted a strangled squawk and tried to pull away from her.
DuVania trudged over to the struggling pair. “You there, old man! Be still!” he said.
At the knight’s command, the man instantly dropped to his knees. “Oh, thank the Stevene!” he moaned. “Oh, but my lord has sent law back to this savage land!”
“He was filling a sack in one of the rooms,” Taela said with a sharp glare at the man.
DuVania accepted this with a nod. The man continued to grovel at his feet, ignoring Taela’s accusations. “What’s your name, old man?” the knight asked sternly but with less force than before.
“Marrus, am I called,” the man said.
“On your feet then, Marrus,” DuVania commanded.
As the old man climbed laboriously back to his feet, the knight watched him carefully. His head was bald but for a ring of gray hair that clung to his cranium like shrubs around a windy hilltop. His bushy eyebrows hovered too close to his narrowed eyes and his lips trembled over the toothless gap that was his mouth. He was dressed in a heavy shirt and trousers that seemed more patches and rips than actual fabric.
“Did you live in Dalper’s Dell, Marrus?” the knight asked when the man was finally upright.
Marrus did not look at DuVania as he spoke, but instead his eyes shifted around the hamlet. “Aye,” he said, then looked confused. “I mean, nay, sir, nay. I live but a short walk north of here.”
“In another village?”
Marrus looked even more nervous and began rubbing his hands together obsessively as he answered, “Nay, sir, nay. I’m an eremite, sir. Recluse from the ways of folk. I’m seeking Stevene in solitude.”
The knight clenched his jaw again. “And since when does a devout follower of the Stevene go about looting? Isn’t there enough misfortune here without you pilfering the dead?”
Marrus began crying pitifully and almost fell back to his knees, but the knight grabbed his arm and held him up. “Nay, sir!” he wailed. “I’d not seek possessions but to keep the Light, sir!”
“What do you mean by that?” DuVania asked.
The hermit regained some of his composure, wiping his eyes on his filthy sleeves. “As I said, sir, this is a savage land, far from the ways of law. The way I sees it, those who sacked this place can’t be in Stevene’s Light, and they’ll take what they want for their troubles. If I takes it and hides it in my home, then they can’t find it, and I’ve kept what’re a good man’s possessions from falling into the hands of evil.” At this he looked up hopefully at the looming knight.
“Blasphemer,” DuVania growled, his rage slipping through. “How can you call yourself a man of god and then blame him for your depravity?”
Marrus had begun blubbering and crying again and this time did fall to his knees. DuVania felt an urge to hit him, but controlled it with considerable effort and said, “Enough of this, Marrus. Tell me what you know of what happened here.”
The knight waited patiently as Marrus took a few deep breaths to calm himself. “It happened a bell or two after dusk yestereve,” he said. “I was washing in the stream near my home when I heard screams and shouts carried on the evening wind like ghosts.” The old man’s eyes had taken on a theatrical light, widening with not quite fear, but definitely sincerity.
“I dressed up and headed off to see what I could do to help. The sounds stopped, but I saw the red of flames in the horizon rising up ‘gainst the gathering dark. It happened fast, sir, so fast that the shouts began and ended and the buildings burned before I had taken two steps from my home, within a handful of menes at the most.”
“Did you see anything at all of the people who did this?” the knight asked, grinding his teeth in fury.
“Aye, sir, aye. Even in the dark, I headed towards Dalper’s Dell, all thinking of the good people who dwelt here and fearing what might have occurred. Then there was a ramble of voices and footsteps in the dark. So I stopped and hid. And that’s when I saw them, sir.”
The hermit paused, as if for dramatic effect, and DuVania snapped, “Well? Out with it, old man! What did you see?”
If Marrus was cowed by DuVania’s words, this time he didn’t show it. “Twenty-odd men in clothed in black, even their cloaks. They were marching afoot like demons in the night. Two columns of ten, well armed with steel and carrying torches. They spoke to one another easily enough, joking and jostling. There was one who led them, who was always silent.”
“Twenty men?” the knight said in astonishment. He abruptly remembered the group of travelers he had seen passing from Gribbane lands into Castigale.
“As I live and breathe, sir,” Marrus said. His voice raised angrily. “I swear it on the Stevene!”
“That is the last blasphemy I’ll hear from you, knave!” DuVania shouted. He grabbed the hermit under his forearm and propelled him into a stumbling roll back towards the road. “Get back to your prayers, old man, if you at all value your soul!”
Marrus hobbled away quickly, disappearing into the forest beyond the boundaries of the hamlet in a blink.
“Sir?” came a voice behind the knight. He whirled around with a snarl, ready to answer anyone who questioned him. Lieutenant Sern, who had spoken, stood next to Taela with several other soldiers. Some of them were carrying bodies, which they laid next to the two DuVania had arranged.
“What did you find?” DuVania asked, smoothing his riding vest and getting a grasp on himself again.
“Several more bodies in the woods, sir,” Sern reported. “Seems the people here tried to run. Most were chased and cut down from behind. If there were any survivors, there’s no sign.”
DuVania nodded mutely and watched as the soldiers laid the bodies side by side and arranged the arms similarly. “Taela, bring whatever cloth you found. Sern, divide up any tools we have and get the men digging. We’ll give these people a proper burial before we move on.”
The hole took a full bell to dig, during which Taela and a few of the soldiers prepared the bodies. Using water from the well, they cleaned the chest of each of the victims, so that their souls might more easily fly to heaven. Then they wrapped the heads of the dead in cloth so that the souls would not be reminded of their corporeal life should they look back. Finally, the hands were tied around the throats in a representation of the Stevene’s own execution. When all was ready, the soldiers carefully lifted and reverently laid each body in the hole before it was filled in.
The entire company stood silently in a ring around the grave for a mene to show their respect, then they dispersed and began to ready their horses to depart. The knight stood staring at the broken earth when Taela approached him. “What of the house, sir?”
DuVania looked up and at the remaining building. “Whatever Marrus’ motivations, he was right about one thing: looters will come. It seems that is the natural progression of things when this happens.” He thought back to the pickers who waded through the battlefields after the Beinison War and searched the dead soldiers for valuables. “Whether the looters are men of Stevene or not, it matters little in the end.”
The knight sighed and turned his gaze towards Taela. “Did you notice anything that would pass as an heirloom within the house?”
“There was a statuette on the mantle,” Taela said, after a moment’s consideration. “And a coat of arms on one wall.”
DuVania nodded. “Take them, then. Maybe at Castigale Keep the scribes can find a relation to Dalper to receive them.” He turned one last time to look at the house, then said, “Burn the rest. We’ll at least grant the departed that no one other than themselves will find joy in their possessions.”
He was about to march back to his horse when Sern cleared his throat nervously. “Ah, sir?” he said, scratching his head. “Where will we head now?”
“Marrus said he passed the marauders as he made south from his home, so they were heading north,” the knight mused.
“Aye, sir,” Sern said hesitantly. “Are we to chase them, then?”
“Dagny’s letter said to return to Castigale Keep at once,” Taela ventured from where she still stood. DuVania frowned but did not argue.
In the silence while DuVania thought, Sern added, “Marrus also said he counted twenty men, sir. We have only eight soldiers apart from ourselves. I’m sure we could defeat mere brigands, were we to chase them, but shouldn’t we gather more men from Castigale Keep first?”
“No,” DuVania said suddenly and forcefully. “Those who attacked Dalper’s Dell were not mere brigands, Sern. Marrus said they marched in two rows of ten, like soldiers. They wore all black; they carried steel weapons. Those men were trained and supported.”
He turned to Taela. “Yes, we were ordered to return to Castigale Keep, but I’m a knight first, and my duty is to all of the king’s people. These men did not attack for spoils, nor out of desperation. They attacked merely to destroy, and now they are heading north through Castigale lands. They are a danger to the people whom I am here to protect.
“Sern, order the men to don armor and keep their arms at ready. Taela, see to setting that house alight. We leave immediately.”
Sern saluted smartly and turned to carry out his orders. When he left, Taela said, “Do you suspect Gribbane, sir?”
DuVania cast a warning glance at his squire. “I’ll have no one think that until we know for certain, Taela. What I said to you of my suspicion about a coming war is for no one else to hear. All we know about this enemy is that they are trained and dangerous. Trained by whom and for what purpose is not ours to decipher, at least not right yet.”
The column of soldiers rode north the rest of that day. The tracks of the marauders were not hard to follow; for all their apparent soldierly training they lacked much in woodskill, leaving a clear trail of broken branches, trampled brush, and disturbed earth in their wake.
By late afternoon, however, the forest grew sparser and the terrain more rocky. DuVania, being himself no expert in tracking, finally lost the track when there was no longer brush to trample or branches to break. However, by this point the destination had become obvious, a prosperous village that Sern identified as Aerberry.
They had ridden about twenty menes after losing the trail when DuVania noticed a plume of smoke rising in the north. Spurring his horse to the top of the hill, he saw the village at the bottom of the slope. Round huts rested like eggs in a nest, standing amidst acres of muddy farmland. Just north of the dwellings, the southern edge of another forest loomed. A narrow brook wound from past the hills to the west, around the village, and into the forest.
The light of the day was beginning to wane, but DuVania’s sharp eyes could still make out the events transpiring below. The black-clad men were ravaging the village. Several villagers were resisting, but their meager work hammers and ploughshares were of little comparison to the steel swords and maces that the marauders wielded. While they fought in tight knots, other men in black cloaks ran through the streets tossing burning brands onto the thatched roofs, which caught fire immediately.
Amidst the battle, a single man walked calmly through the chaos that surrounded him. He was a full head taller than any of the other marauders and carried a stout, iron tipped spear. As DuVania watched impatiently, waiting for his troops to catch up, a screaming woman burst in a panic from one of the burning buildings and crossed the tall man’s path. Without a change to his stoic expression, he thrust the butt-end of his spear out, tripping the woman, then trod upon her back as if she were dirt. The knight could hear her groan of pain even from where he stood.
Hearing his troops crest the hill next to him, he said savagely, “Show them no mercy.” Then, drawing his sword, he bellowed, “Charge!” and then he was moving.
For an instant he and his horse were one, their movements fluid. DuVania deftly steered around the gaunt trees and clumps of rocks or shrubbery without losing speed. The wind whipped through his hair, fanning it out behind his head.
By the time he and his troops reached the edge of the farmlands, the brigands had realized the coming attack and turned to meet the riders. Most of the peasants who had been fighting with them scurried out of the way.
DuVania chose his target and angled his horse to the right so that he would approach the man on the same side that he held his shield. The man was a slight thing: skinny and short. He looked barely past his twentieth year. He held his sword adeptly, though, and his eyes were narrowed and determined under yellow locks.
As DuVania swept past him, he brought his sword down like a smith upon glowing steel. The man blocked the attack skillfully, but the strength with which it was delivered must have stunned him. He hesitated rather than riposting, and DuVania turned his horse and struck again. This time the man’s guard came up too late, and the knight’s sword slashed through his chest and into his heart. The man fell in a spray of red blood.
DuVania turned away from the gore and stood high in his stirrups, breathing heavy. All around him his soldiers were fighting earnestly with the marauders. Though they were outnumbered more than two-to-one, they had the advantage of horses and armor. He spotted Taela being flanked by two men a short way off. He was about to ride to her aid when she struck out and severed the arm from one of her two assailants. DuVania smiled at her humorlessly even though she didn’t look up. She could take care of herself.
As he continued to scan the battle, his eyes came upon the strangely silent leader of the bandits. One of DuVania’s soldiers swung at him while riding by, but the large man was quick. He blocked the attack with his spear, then turned the blade up for a quick thrust. The guard barely dodged the blow as his horse continued to run, carrying him back towards another group of combatants.
DuVania opened his mouth and bellowed out a wordless war cry, spurring his mount in the same instant towards the leader. When the marauder saw the advancing knight, his lips peeled back into a vicious snarl and he stood his ground. DuVania drew back his arm for the strike but the man braced his spear against one foot and pushed it forward into the neck of the knight’s horse.
Time seemed to slow down and DuVania saw what was happening with maddening clarity. He even flashed back to his own lessons as a squire in which his lord had told him of the terrible dishonor of killing an opponent’s mount. Then the world became a crazy blur again as he found himself flying off the back of his bucking horse, then crashing to the ground. Though the fall was enough to take his breath away, instinct and battle training made him roll away to prevent from being crushed. He quickly regained control of his breathing and surged to his feet.
Furious at the leader’s ignominious tactic, DuVania whirled around, intent on making him pay. But he was nowhere in sight; only his spear jutting out from the still struggling horse showed that he had ever been there at all.
Frustrated, the knight turned his attention back to the battle behind him. Most of the marauders had been killed. The three that remained fought back to back against Sern and four other soldiers. He started towards them but the battle was over before he arrived, the marauders cut down by the fury of the soldiers.
Sern saluted when DuVania reached them. “Are you wounded, sir?” he asked.
“No.” DuVania frowned. “Have you seen their leader? He killed my horse, then ran off.”
Sern was about to answer when one of the other soldiers shouted and pointed off to the other side of the village. Three men in black cloaks were running across the field. The tall one was unmistakably the man who had killed DuVania’s horse.
DuVania cursed. “Get them!” he shouted to his soldiers. “Take them alive if possible but don’t let them get away!”
“Would you like my horse, sir?” Sern said hesitantly.
“It’ll take too long. Just get them!”
Sern nodded and, calling to his troops, charged off to where the three men had just disappeared into the forest.
DuVania was about to call for Taela when he felt a hand on his arm. He looked down and a pudgy, balding man flinched away from him.
“Oh, great knight!” he said. “Glory to Stevene that he would send a hero to save us! I am the eldest in this village and –”
“Your houses are still burning, man.” DuVania interrupted. “Get together all who can carry buckets and form a line from the brook to bring water. Get those who remain to separate the dead from the injured.” The man hesitated and DuVania barked, “Now!”
The elder jumped and ran towards some of the houses, crying for people to get buckets. The knight was about to go help when he noticed that some of the bodies in the street wore the red and gray colors of Castigale soldiers.
Frowning, he moved closer to one of the fallen soldiers and pulled the helmet off, then gasped. It was Taela.
DuVania froze. He felt as if he were fighting to breathe while a sense of panic threatened to overwhelm him. He fell to his knees before her body and reached for one of her hands. It was cold and heavy. Her eyes were closed and her cheeks had lost all color, but she still had the resolute expression that she so often wore when he would ask her to ready his armor or wake the troops.
He continued to kneel as the activities of the villagers seemed to swirl around him like wind-tossed leaves. He dropped the cold hand but continued to stare at the pale face. Within, he felt emotions warring; feelings he had long ago learned to control and suppress threatened to explode. The knight threw his might into that internal struggle, forcing emotions down, willing his breath to come normally and his heart to beat softer, commanding his fists and jaw to unclench. But his own mind was his enemy, and his thoughts scattered every time he rallied them to sustain another assault by his heart.
Throughout the internal chaos, bits of odd memories came to him as clearly as if he were watching them through a window in his mind. He remembered seeing friends and soldiers dead after the battle of Gateway. They had been dear to him, but he had shrugged off mourning, saving it for after the war was done. He remembered seeing Taela fighting two of the marauders and how he was proud of her, certain that she could handle herself such that he even smiled at her and turned away. He remembered the fight he had with her the previous night.
What had they fought about? What was it that made him angry? He couldn’t remember and the whole idea of fighting with her seemed so worthless now it stung him. He did remember how he felt then, and it was the same feeling of panic and loss that he felt now. But then he had only wished Taela would stop talking about feelings, now he only wanted her death to be a lie.
The knight took a great shuddering breath. The world still seemed distant around him, but his sense of reason was finally winning over his guilt and remorse. He hadn’t killed Taela; she died bravely and heroically by the hands of a cowardly bandit. But there was a reason that the bandits attacked; someone sent them or led them to destroy and to kill. That leader was his enemy.
Silently and mournfully, DuVania murmured over the body of his fallen squire: “He will die. I will not rest nor take another squire until then, Taela.”