Fennla rode out through the gates with Daruk close behind. She could almost feel the stares focused on them as they rode, some curious, some hostile. She relished the attention, secure in the knowledge that she would not be challenged. Daruk also sensed the attention, and wished he could crawl away and hide. He had given his word, however, and he would now live with it. He had promised his manhood for a place at her side.
As they rode from the courtyard they passed the spot where the Beinison archers practiced. Daruk had come from the sunny south to the colder north with them, and they watched as he passed. After the gates closed, once again sealing the courtyard from the outside world, the Carver and his archers closed ranks, huddling around a well-riddled target billet.
“He’s out of touch, then, is he, Carver?” asked the tallest, Yarak.
“Aye, we’ll not be able to reach him,” agreed the Carver. “So we plan around him. From here on, consider him as one of them.”
“Then he’s to know nothing of it?” asked Knot, so called because of his early clumsiness with stringing a bow.
“Not a word,” agreed the Carver. “The less he knows, the less he’ll be able to betray. We may call on him when the time comes, but until then he knows nothing.”
Daruk and Fennla rode for a bell before she reined her horse in near a stream in a field. She slid to the ground, with him at her side almost immediately.
“I wish you would allow me to help you down, Milady,” he commented. “I’d hate to have to explain to Lord Claywall how you twisted your ankle, if it came to that.”
“I’m not going to be twisting any ankles,” she replied, smiling wryly. “I’ve been riding this horse ever since I broke him to saddle.” She removed a small, wooden cage from her saddlebag. “Let’s see if you lost your skill with a bow when you lost your arrow. Draw and wait,” she commanded. She opened the door to the cage without waiting for him and released a gray pigeon, which took to flight. “Shoot it down,” she commanded.
Without a word he fired. The shaft passed through the bird, sending it tumbling out of the air. She walked over to where it lay flapping on the ground. She picked it up and wrung its neck, then spread its wings, examining it carefully.
“Not a square hit, but good enough. How long have you been an archer?”
“Since I was old enough to watch my father and brothers doing it,” he replied.
“You were the youngest?” she asked.
“That explains why you are here, and not at home making more noblemen.”
Daruk paused. “Why do you say that?”
“That you are of noble blood?” she countered, smiling. “No mere peasant would ever be able to shoot like that. That takes years of training, not just some farmyard marksmanship.” She returned to the saddle, stuffing the dead bird back into the cage and taking another cage down. “This time, you will wait for my mark before firing.” She again opened the cage without waiting and released the bird. His bow creaked as it bent, but he held his mark, tracking the bird.
“Now,” she said, and the bow snapped. The shaft missed, the bird flying on. He slapped another into place and fired. This time the bird tumbled and fell.
“Again, good enough,” she said. “Fetch the bird.” She mounted as he ran off. She gathered his horse and trotted over to meet him. He stuffed the bird away as she waited.
“So what will your father say now that his son is a capon?” she asked, a malicious glint in her eye.
“As the youngest, it’s my duty to find my own way in the world,” he replied easily. “It is of no consequence to him how I do it. He already has an heir, who has an heir, and brothers, and nephews, all ready to take his place when he should die. Anything you have taken from me was merely for my benefit.”
“Have you ever had a woman?” she asked.
“No,” he replied. “I never had the time in the Order.”
“And now you never shall,” she commented, quietly. “Doesn’t that make you angry?”
“I surrendered all that so I could serve you, Milady. So I guess you can say that I have had a woman.” He looked her in the eyes. “I have you.”
The look in his eyes gave her pause. She actually swallowed hard before continuing. “Some men would be vengeful after what I did. You could kill me now, and get away before my father found out. Have you ever thought about that?” As soon as she said that she regretted it. Suddenly she felt exposed, and very, very vulnerable.
“Never,” he replied, and his honesty made her feel immediately ashamed of her own fear. “I gave it up, if you’ll remember, of my own free will. This was my choice.”
“Of course it was,” she agreed quickly.
“In fact, had it occurred to me first, I might have cut them off myself, to serve you.”
“What?” She was genuinely surprised.
“I have wanted to serve you since the first day I saw you, Milady,” Daruk explained. “It is a joy and an honor to serve as your bodyguard. I would do it all again if I had to.”
For once, Fennla didn’t know what to say. Uncomfortable with the silence, she spurred her horse into a gallop. Daruk did likewise, keeping pace with her without ever seeing the strange tear that gleamed in her eye.
The two rode in silence to the peasant farm where Fennla’s own personal garden was tended. The whole family, Flew, Drow, and Getta, met the two as they arrived. This time Fennla waited for Daruk to assist her in getting down. She noted the satisfied look in his eye, filing it away for future reference. She toured the garden again, noting with displeasure that weeds were threatening to choke several species. She scolded the couple, instructing them not to rest until the weeds were cleared. She also noted that the wall, though it now stretched across the front of the garden as she wanted, was not tall enough. She directed Flew to begin churning mud immediately. As an evil afterthought, she directed Daruk to assist. She almost laughed at the sour expression in his eyes as he joined Flew, laying aside his clothes. Flew’s eyes grew wide as she examined this strange specimen.
“What sort of woman are you?” she asked, taking in his measurements.
“I’m no woman,” he stated. “I’m a man.”
She looked him over, comparing the smoothness of his anatomy to her own. “No you’re not!”
“He’s a eunuch,” Fennla commented, as she again exchanged her fine dress for a peasant skirt. “He’s like a man, but he keeps his parts in a bottle!”
Flew’s eyes grew wide. She made a sign against evil, trodding the mud beside him, but keeping her distance.
Later that evening, as the peasants cooked the two dead pigeons for dinner, Daruk silently drew water for Fennla and himself to wash with. Not until she was almost finished did he speak.
“Why do you work in the dirt with them, like a peasant?”
“I must,” she replied, flicking the water from her hair with quick movements of her fingertips. “They must be shown how to do the tasks correctly, as only I know how.”
“Surely they know how to grow things,” Daruk said. “They’ve been doing it all their lives.”
“But not always the best way,” she commented, motioning for him to pour more water. He did so silently, watching as she again brushed the drops from her skin and hair. Flew approached, offering her skirt to Fennla, who dried herself with it. “A noble must always be willing to teach the peasants the right way, whether in gardening, or in war, or in worship. That is the duty of a noble.”
Daruk walked silently beside her back to the hut, pausing to retrieve his clothes on the way. As they walked he again spoke.
“Why did you embarrass me in front of Flew?”
Fennla looked at him, as if startled that he would ask such a question. She knitted her eyebrows together in irritation. “Why do you care? As a soldier, and as my bodyguard, you will do as I ask. Why should I explain myself to you?”
“You know I am the son of a noble, now, and yet you treated me like a mere archer. Which is it to be?”
She stopped and gazed on him, appraisingly. He stopped and waited, the last of the water dripping cold from his limbs.
“You are my eunuch,” she said finally. “There is no other category.” With that she turned to enter the hut, and he followed obediently.
“Drow,” she began as she entered, “I’ve noticed that we’re missing something from the garden.”
Drow cast a worried glance at Getta. “What’s that, Milady?”
“We have no tree-laurel,” she replied, taking her seat at the head of the table. “The large, bush one, with the white flowers.”
“We’ve never had any, Milady,” Drow assured her, his brows knitted with worry.
“Oh, of course, I know that,” replied Fennla dismissively. “I’d like you to get some.”
Drow ducked his head obediently, while Getta got a puzzled concerned look on her face. Fennla continued.
“I happen to know that there are some bushes growing up past Tinker’s Hollow. If you leave tonight, you could have one back by the morning.”
Getta’s and Drow’s worry turned to near terror. Getta took a step toward Drow, who himself turned to Fennla with pleading in his face.
“Tonight, Milady? There are wolves in the forest near Tinker’s Hollow. Could I make the trip in the day?”
“Ah!” Fennla half-laughed, cutting into her roasted bird. “There are no wolves that close to the keep. You’ll be fine.”
Drow glanced at a worried Getta, then his face lightened. He turned back to Fennla.
“Perhaps Milady would like several of the bushes.” He carefully stepped a bit closer, his tone cajoling. “They are quite nice when they bloom.” His tone lowered. “Perhaps if your man there came with me, together we could bring back several.”
“My *man* must stay here to guard me,” Fennla explained firmly, with a hint of heat in her voice. “One will do, and I will be displeased if it is not here by tomorrow.” She did not look up from her food.
Drow ducked his head and set about gathering some cord, a shovel, and some scraps of bread. Daruk watched, appalled at the callous display he had just seen. Fennla continued to eat, pointedly ignoring the emotion in the air. Getta was in tears by the time Drow stopped to give her a hasty kiss goodbye. Daruk stopped him briefly as he passed through the door. He clapped the sturdy peasant on the shoulder and stealthily passed him a dirk, the companion to Daruk’s own sword. Gratitude showed through the anxiety in the man’s eyes, then he was gone. For a long moment the only sound in the hut was Fennla’s cutting.
“Daruk, pour me more wine,” Fennla ordered. Daruk moved to do so, looking hard into her face. She refused to meet his stare.
The day dawned clear and warm. Fennla and Getta resumed the gardening, with Flew and Daruk returning to the mud pit. Several bells passed and there was no sign of Drow. They labored in silence, Fennla pointedly avoiding anyone’s gaze, with Getta and Flew becoming more and more agitated as time passed. Daruk and Flew mixed and applied several batches of cob for the wall, stopping only when the straw ran out early in the afternoon. As Flew picked up her skirt and headed into the field for more hay, Daruk stepped into the hut to fetch Fennla some wine. As he did, he saw a figure slowly approaching from the north. It was Drow. With a shout Daruk dashed to meet the peasant. Drow was barely able to stand, with a small laurel bush lashed to his back and many severe gashes on his arms and legs. Daruk helped him into the hut, as Getta and Flew began a worried wail.
“The wolves,” Drow muttered as they lay him on the cot. “They came out of nowhere, silent like. If I hadn’t seen them first … I got one with the knife, but there were so many … ” He looked at the gashes in his hands. “They were at me all over. ” He looked up at Getta with pride in his eyes. “I knew you would want me to come home, so I fought them off. I climbed a tree.” He smiled an exhausted smile as they pulled off his tattered clothes and began washing and bandaging his wounds. “They tried, but they couldn’t reach me. You’d have been proud, Getta.”
“Oh, Drow,” Getta cried.
“You’ve lost blood, Drow,” Daruk said, examining the man’s wounds, “but these wounds can heal. You need to drink some wine, now.” He held up the jug he had fetched for Fennla. As Drow drank, Daruk looked up to see Fennla staring at the tableau. As he watched, she turned and walked away, a blank look on her face. When Drow finished drinking the wine, Daruk eased him back down. “You need to drink some water, too. I’ll go get some. Getta, cover him with the blanket.”
Daruk dashed for the well. On the way back, he met Fennla, still in the peasant skirt, astride her horse, with the reins to his horse in her hand.
“Daruk, saddle up. We must go.” Her face held no expression, her voice no intonation.
Daruk looked up at her for a long moment, then set the bucket on the ground and stepped up to the side of her horse. He reached up and seized her by the waist. With a sudden yank, he pulled her off the horse, which sidled skittishly away.
“Wha … what!? Daruk!” she exclaimed loudly as she landed on her hands and feet, roughly. “What are you doing?!” She stood up and angrily confronted him. “I said we are leaving!”
“No, we are not,” he replied firmly. “You made this mess, and you’re going to see it cleaned up.”
Fury flashed into her eyes. “You dare disobey me!?”
“You have made me your guardian, to care for your life,” he replied. “Well, I intend to care for your spirit as well as your body. I cannot allow you to do something this horrible and then just walk away, as if it didn’t matter at all.”
“You dare!” she lashed out, the palm of her hand crashing against the side of his head. He stood there a moment, a stern look on his face, then his arm flashed out, sending her to the ground. She looked up at him, first in astonishment, then in fury.
“I’ll have your head!” She leaped to her feet, only to have his hands clamp like iron vises on her upper arms, fixing her in place.
“You are welcome to it, if I do not protect you from yourself today!” So saying, he dragged her into the hut, thrusting her at the bed where Getta and Flew wept with Drow. All looked up, startled, as the pair arrived.
“This is a man, just as I … am,” Daruk began, his words marching out as if to war. “He has dedicated his life to serving you, as I have. He serves you, and he serves his family, and his family serves you, and you have nearly thrown this away with your foolish request.” He paused, breathing deeply in his fervor. “He has suffered wounds for you, Lady Claywall, grievous wounds, as have we all,” he commented, noting that she flinched at that last, “so that he might serve you, so that we all might serve you.” He drew her close to him, but she turned her head away, refusing to look. When he spoke again, his tone was quieter, pleading. “Please, Milady. Honor our wounds.” She stood there, tense in his grip, not looking. The four held their breath, waiting. Slowly, Fennla drooped, her head falling to her breast. Daruk continued. “Honor our wounds, and help us to mend them.”
Slowly, slightly, without looking up, she nodded. Daruk released her, carefully stroking her arms where the white marks of his fingers stood out. “He needs water. I drew some earlier in the bucket. If you’ll fetch it, I will wash and bind his cuts.” She nodded, and walked out.
Fennla walked to where the bucket sat beside the patient horses. She looked back into the hut, where Daruk and the others were huddled. Tears of grief, anger, frustration, shame, and guilt all welled up in her eyes. She placed her hand on her horse’s saddle. She moved to face the horse, preparing to mount, to ride back to claim her vengeance. But those tears would not be denied, and all her woe poured out, blurring her vision and drowning her in remorse. Her rage at Daruk turned to loathing for her actions, and grief for the hurt she had given to Drow, and Daruk. A shuddering sob heaved up her throat, and she covered her face. Then, steeling herself as she imagined her father would, she bent to pick up the bucket, and headed back to the hut.
When Fennla returned with the bucket full of clean water, Daruk was tending Drow’s wounds, listening to Getta talk as she smoothed Drow’s brow and clasped his hand tight.
” … just moved into the area and I hear she’s good and I think I know where she lives by Hammer Stream and knows how to heal this if she’s home because Sadie is having her third and it’s a hard one they say but we could just go to Sadie’s to get her if she’ll come …”
“Flew, do you know where this stream is your mother is talking about?” Daruk asked, interrupting Getta. The young woman nodded. “Could you run there in a bell?” Again she nodded. “Go then. Hurry. Promise her an extra few Nobles if she hurries.” Flew jumped up and dashed out, pausing only to snatch up her skirt from the pile of grass as she ran.
“Where do you want the water?” Fennla asked meekly. She half feared a harsh answer, and she knew she deserved one.
“Oh, Milady, thank you,” Daruk replied, taking the bucket from her. He set it on the ground beside Drow’s head.
“Getta, why don’t you get a cup, and give Drow a drink of water?” Daruk said, more instructing than asking. Getta nodded and ran for the cup. Then Daruk surprised Fennla by kneeling at her feet and kissing her hand. She pulled it away, ashamed, but he stood and embraced her, pulling her outside the hut and kneeling again.
“Thank you, Milady, for hearing my words.”
Fennla didn’t know what to say, and wasn’t sure she wanted to hear what he had to say, but he continued on.
“For a noble, giving your life for someone means more than just being willing to die for them, and it means more than just being willing to give up your freedom for them,” he said, looking longingly into her eyes. “When I give up my life for you, I do it so that you can have more life than you had before. Not just more life, but a better life.” He stood, lowering his voice and clasping her hands in his. “When I see evil attacking you, no matter where it comes from, I will defend you, even if that evil comes from inside of you. I can do this because I know that you are not truly evil, and that you want to do good even when that good is not in your power to do.”
Fennla began to weep, and Daruk put his arms around her. They stood a moment before Getta called from inside the hut for further instructions. He led Fennla back to Drow’s side, where Daruk began to carefully unpack the bandages he had applied and began to wash Drow’s cuts. Drow suffered silently, but his eyes were aflame with agony. Fennla saw, and took Drow’s hand.
“You’re a good man, Drow,” she said.
Drow looked at her in wonder. “Thank you, Milady. Thank you indeed.”
Fennla felt tears running down her cheeks and breast again, and tried brushing them away, but the day’s dust mixed with them, and she smeared mud across her face and torso. “Oh, Drow,” she wept, “I’m sorry I made you go. I never wanted this to happen.” She began to weep again, and Getta joined in. Drow stroked Getta’s head, and, when Fennla laid her head on his shoulder, he stroked hers too, although uncomfortably at first. For many menes they stayed there, the women weeping, Daruk washing and binding, and Drow the center of it all.
Fear and anxiety had given Flew speed, and soon she reappeared at the homestead, riding behind the young healer on her horse. The two assembled inside the hut beside Drow’s bed. The young woman examined Drow’s hurts quickly.
“These are bad, but not too bad,” she commented, patting the older man on the thigh. She re-examined each one more slowly, listening to his breath quicken when she pressed too hard, noting when and how the blood flowed. As she worked, Getta and Flew moved in to watch, their anxiety visibly diminishing. Daruk took the opportunity to pull Fennla outside. The sun was beginning to set.
“Milady, you should wash now, and prepare for the evening,” he said.
“I’ll not leave his side until his is well,” she admonished, wanting to go back. Again, Daruk would not let her go.
“Milady, you have stepped down from your office today, so you could undo an evil you had done,” he said quickly, not wanting to anger her. “That was right, and good. But you cannot stay down with the peasants too long, for you have other roles to play.” He saw confusion in her eyes, and hastily explained himself. “You have cried with the hurt, and have salved their wounds, as you should. But they still need a noblewoman, Milady, to guide them and lead them.” She wasn’t fully understanding yet, so he continued. “You yourself said that it is the duty of the noble to teach the peasants the right way. You cannot do that as a noble unless you act like a noble. The peasants must see you acting as a noble acts.”
She finally nodded in agreement, but stared longingly back into the hut where Drow lay.
“Now, let me draw water for you, so that we can wash you clean, as a noblewoman would be.”
She agreed, and they moved off to the well, leaving the others to their consolation. But this time, Fennla insisted that Daruk be clean too.
Two days later, dawn found the Carver and his men practicing with quarterstaffs in the courtyard. Daruk stepped out of the keep and advanced on the group. They stopped as he drew near. The Carver stepped forward as Daruk approached.
“Greetings, Daruk,” he said, looking his former charge over appraisingly. His eyes lingered predictably over Daruk’s smooth crotch. “How are you feeling now?”
“Better, Carver,” he replied. “The healer is really quite good.”
“And how is the lady?”
“She sleeps yet, so Lord Claywall is permitting me to rejoin practice, so long as I return before she wakes.”
The Carver looked around at the other archers. What he saw were vacant stares. He turned back to Daruk.
“Are you sure you’re up to it, Daruk? We’ll be going pretty hard at it, you know.”
“I must maintain my skills even more, now that I am Milady’s bodyguard,” he replied, stepping past the older man and taking his old staff off the rack. He did not notice the frowns in the group as he did this, nor did he note the Carver’s eyebrow as it arched up his forehead at the younger man’s disagreement.
“Well,” remarked the Carver, “I can see that you’re going to join us anyway.” He glanced out at his men, his eye lighting on one of the older archers. “Maybe you can spar with Yarak, then.” He nodded, and Yarak stepped out of the group, a hard look on his face. “Yarak, why don’t you run through a few of the drills with Daruk, here. You do remember them, don’t you, Daruk?”
“Of course, Carver,” Daruk replied smiling. He did not notice Yarak winding up for a blow. “How could I …”
Daruk hit the ground hard when Yarak’s staff struck him behind the knees. He was up in a moment, staff in hand, circling, facing his opponent.
“Are you sure you remember them all, Daruk?” the Carver chuckled humorlessly. “Seems to me you’ve already forgotten one of the more important ones.”
The two men circled for a moment, then Yarak swept in, staff singing. Daruk blocked, but this blow was no mere tap, as in the customary training spar. The shot landed hard, driving Daruk back, raking the knuckles of one hand. A few of the other archers chuckled quietly. Daruk backed up a step, anger in his eyes, and blocked the next attack, a short jab. But Yarak was giving no quarter, and in a moment Daruk was on the ground, stars in his eyes from a solid strike to the forehead. His training saved him a further blow, as he flailed about from the ground in a feint, driving back Yarak. Then Daruk was up again, the set of his jaw showing that he finally understood what he was being given. When Yarak came in again, it was Yarak who landed in the dirt, his blood gracing Daruk’s staff. Again they circled, and Daruk took a painful rake on the ribs. Then Daruk counter-attacked, and with a hail of blows fueled by fury he sent Yarak’s staff flying. Yarak stepped back, taking himself out of combat, and after watching his opponent concede, Daruk turned back to the Carver.
“Training with you is always a good thing,” he snarled. “I’d like some more. Perhaps two this time — one just wasn’t enough.” He spat in the dirt and spun his staff. The Carver’s mouth was set in a tight line, and he nodded at two other archers. They came at Daruk, who proceeded to assail them with a cold ferocity that found him being truly creative with the staff for the first time in the Carver’s memory, bringing his sword training and his knife training into play with a style that neither of the other two could decipher or match. When it was over one lay in the dust, blood running from his scalp, the other hopping away on one foot, cradling his right hand in his left. Daruk turned back to the Carver, determination and ice in his eyes.
“I’d best be going now,” he commented, looking over the group. “My real work awaits me. I’ve no more time to spend with you.” With that he set his foot against the staff and snapped it in half, tossing the halves at the Carver’s feet. He turned and headed back for the keep. Behind him the other archers clustered around a silent Carver. As Daruk walked away, he glanced up at Fennla’s window. She stood there in her evening robes, watching silently.
A few days after that Fennla and Lord Claywall headed down the road to the great hall of Arno, their neighbor to the south. While Claywall drank ale and discussed policy with Arno, Fennla joined Arno’s daughter in her apartment in entertaining some guests. At Arno’s insistence, Daruk remained outside with the rest of Claywall’s men. He bided the time by making the acquaintance of Arno’s bodyguards. They knew of his unique state, but as men of war they were used to seeing their comrades with strange wounds, and they were far more accepting than Daruk’s travelling companions. Before long they were instructing Daruk on some of the finer points of ieonem wood as it related to the making of bows, and sharing in some of his Beinisonian wine.
Claywall and Arno ended their drinking early, as Arno got sick and began vomiting violently. Claywall and his guards saddled up and readied to ride as the last of the light hung in the sky. Claywall studied the sunset for long moment before turning to Daruk.
“Fennla will no doubt want to stay late,” he growled, “and I have no desire to fight with her over it. She might win.” He wheeled his horse about, heading for the road. “See to it she returns straight to Clayhold. Dross won’t come this far east, and you make sure she goes no further west.” He glared down at Daruk, who merely nodded acknowledgment. Then the three were off down the road.
Daruk checked his horse, stood for a while, checked his horse again, listened to Fennla’s laughter from above in the apartments, checked his horse again, then finally surrendered to boredom and wandered about the barn. Except for a single guard posted in the loft, no one was about. He moved from room to room, trying to pick out objects in the dark. At the rear of the barn, he passed an open window. Through it drifted a voice.
“… can’t wait to tell Dross about it in the morning!” a man was saying, and quiet laughter erupted from without. Daruk froze. The barn was darker than the outside, and he had not been seen, so he backed up into the darkness and listened.
“Straight!” another male voice was saying. “Dross loves to hear those sorts of stories! Especially if you really build them up!”
“Let’s see,” the first replied, “we could say that they fought a lot … ”
“No,” replied a strong, female voice. “That doesn’t work. They’re supposed to want it, remember?”
“Oh, straight,” replied the first. “So, maybe we could say that the one was so drunk, she started doing it with the other woman too!”
“That’d be a good one!” the second man agreed. “He loves to hear that sort of thing!”
“You two are even sicker than I am,” replied the woman. “I mean, I can handle setting up a couple of highborn bitches to whelp a bastard or two, especially for what Dross is paying, and I don’t even mind lacing the wine to make the pudding run hot, but I just can’t stomach the idea of those two coming onto each other, no thank you.”
“That’s just ’cause you’re a woman,” the first man said. “Just imagine it’s two men.”
“That’s even worse!” That brought more laughter.
“Does it really take three men to get two women pregnant?” griped the second man. “I could do a couple all by myself.”
“Got to be sure,” replied the first. “Dross wants her fat when he goes up to Dargon. If one misfires, the others will cover him!” More snickers.
“So how’re we supposed to know it’s over?” asked the second.
“They’ll stage it,” the woman said. “Ordelly and Garen will hang out the window, like they’re going at it, yelling to attract attention. That’s when we come running up and discover them in the act.”
“Are you sure Arno’s down for the night?”
“We put enough in his wine to keep him heaving for a sennight.”
“Are you sure that’s safe? I …”
Daruk wasn’t waiting for more. He dashed out of the barn and to the great hall. The guard at the main door moved to block him.
“I must take a message to Mistress Claywall!” he exclaimed.
The guard wavered, uncertain, and Daruk dashed in. The main hall was empty, so he ran down to the kitchen. A few cooks looked him over suspiciously.
“You must get help,” he blurted out. “Arno’s been poisoned, and Mistress Claywall is in danger!”
“Who are you?” demanded an older woman, reaching for a large knife. “I’ve never seen you before!”
“He’s one of those Beinison,” commented a younger cook, and the guard stepped in from outside.
“What are you doing in here?” he demanded, but Daruk was already moving. He dashed back into the main hall and up a staircase. It opened out into a hallway. On a hunch, he chose the most ornate doorway. It opened onto a strange tableau. A naked woman was dancing on a low table, with three men and two women sitting around it. All were mostly undressed. All had wine glasses in their hands. One of the women was Fennla. As Daruk burst in, one of the men stood up.
“Who the hell are you?” he demanded, but Fennla staggered to her feet.
“Straight, straight,” she admonished, unsteady on her feet. “He’s just my bodyguard.” She giggled. “He can’t hurt us, and he can’t help us either.” She snickered, covering her mouth with one hand while swinging the wine goblet around with the other.
Daruk sized up the situation. The three men all had weapons within easy reach, and he could hear the guard coming up the stairs behind him. He had to leave with their blessing, and he needed to do it soon.
“Milady,” he stated firmly and clearly, “Lord Claywall has charged me with getting you safely back to Clayhold. Tonight.”
The three men looked at each other in consternation. Fennla took another swig of wine.
“Nonsense,” she giggled. “I’m to stay here tonight. Isn’t that right, Garen?”
One of the men nodded, uncertain. “Yes, we’re all staying here tonight.”
The guard clattered up behind Daruk, but at the sight of his mistress in an advanced state of nudity, he snapped to attention, and swung away, taking up station just outside the door.
“I’m afraid that’s changed, Milady,” Daruk replied firmly. “We really must leave, now.” He stepped forward and took her hand.
“Mind your place, man!” snapped one of the other men, but Fennla waved him away.
“Don’t worry,” she said, in a deprecating tone. “He’s my eunuch, he sees me like this all the time. Don’t you, Daruk?” She patted his groin. “He doesn’t care anymore.” He could smell wine on her breath, but it wasn’t strong enough to account for her giddiness. She had been drugged.
“Milady, we must go. *Now*.” He wrapped his arm around her waist, trying to catch her eyes. “Your father has already left. We can’t let him get too far ahead of us.”
“You’re right,” she replied suddenly, “we can’t let the old crow get ahead of us.” She frowned suddenly. “Where’s my dress?”
The dress was not to be seen, but the younger Lady Arno cheerfully donated a blouse, to the disapproving frowns of the other four, none of whom looked even slightly intoxicated. Daruk tried not to notice, hustling Fennla off under the watchful and leering eye of the guard. He got her onto her horse without much difficulty; she retained most of her facilities, if not her judgment. As they rode into the darkness, he saw three figures also scrambling in the barn for their horses. He whipped both their horses to greater speed for a way, then suddenly stopped, veering off the road and taking to the fields. He stopped and dismounted, hauling Fennla down as well.
“Why are we stopping?” she asked, just a hint of ire in her otherwise cheerful voice.
“We need to stop for a moment, to let some riders pass. They must not hear us,” he admonished. She nodded, and they led the horses behind some bushes. They stood there quietly, and soon three horses thudded past. They stood quietly for a while longer.
“I have to pee,” whispered Fennla, and giggled. Daruk nodded, impatient, watching the road. Behind he heard silence, then splashing, then more giggling. “Straight, I’m done. Your turn.” She giggled, then stopped. “Oh, that’s right, you can’t pee. I’ve cut off your prick!” She convulsed with quiet laughter. “Hey, I’m starting to feel hot.” Daruk was suddenly worried: what if the drug was poisonous?
“Let me feel your head, Milady,” he said, pressing his hand to her forehead. If anything, it felt cold.
“Mmmmm, not there,” she said, taking his hand and dropping it down between her legs. “Here!”
He snatched his hand back. “We need to be quiet, Milady. They might come back.”
“I want to go back,” she moaned. “We were going to have fun.”
“We can’t go back, Milady, the riders will see us.”
Suddenly she was pressing against him. “Do you ever want me, Daruk?”
“Milady, please. We must be quiet.”
“Oh, go screw yourself,” she suddenly said. “You can’t screw anyone else. I’ll ride my horse.” So saying she climbed back on her horse, and began rocking back and forth against the saddle. Daruk shrugged, and, taking both horses by the reins, began to lead them into the night.
The next day was a chilly one, even though the weather was warm. When Daruk and Fennla returned to the castle with their story, Claywall was furious. They had met the baron in the courtyard that night as he was gathering a search party to look for his tardy daughter. He didn’t believe Daruk’s story about the plot to rape Fennla, and he was angry with Fennla for getting involved in the plot, which he didn’t believe in. Fennla didn’t believe Daruk either, and refused to let him in her apartment. Daruk slept that night in the hall outside Fennla’s door. He awoke when Fennla left her room early and stepped on his head. That set the pattern for the next few days, some of the least pleasant of Daruk’s life. Then came word that Mistress Arno had gone into seclusion for reasons unmentioned. Daruk was reluctantly welcomed back into the apartment, and Claywall stopped spitting on him every time he passed.
A few sennights passed, and Fennla was back out at Drow’s hut. Drow was healing nicely, and Fennla was much more careful about the work she assigned the peasant people. She also was looking at Daruk with new eyes. After the evening meal they all settled into their places for the evening: the peasants outside, Fennla in the cot, with Daruk on the floor by her side.
“Daruk?” she asked quietly.
“Do you remember when we stood in the field, after Arno’s?”
There was a pause. “I … I’m sorry I abused you so, that night.”
There was another pause. “It was my pleasure, Milady.”
“No,” she rolled up onto one arm, “it wasn’t. No man would enjoy that sort of abuse.”
“Milady, my pleasure comes slowly, over time. That night you asked me if I wanted you. Milady, I make love to you every day — by serving you with all my effort. That is how I want you. I want you to let me serve you.”
“Daruk, if I could give you back your manhood, would you leave me?”
“Milady, I would give it up again, so that I could serve you longer.”
Even as Daruk and Fennla slept in a peasant hut far away, the guard posted in the courtyard of Claywall’s keep listened with annoyance to the sounds coming from the makeshift barn where Levy Barel was housed. Since being kidnapped by Claywall’s men, Levy had been working loudly in his makeshift prison. Claywall came every few days, demanding to see progress in the construction of the engines of war he was forcing Levy to create, and Levy would drag out various parts and show them. Then he would go back to his banging. Tonight the sounds had continued past the fall of darkness, unlike other nights when the sounds had ceased at nightfall. Finally the guard could stand no more, and walked over to the rickety building. He pounded on the slatty door.
“Ho, you in there!” he shouted. “What’s all that racket?”
The noises stopped briefly. After a moment Levy’s voice could be heard from the other side.
“Just finishing up the day’s work,” he said calmly. “I’ll be done soon.”
“See to it you are,” admonished the guard. “I can’t properly keep watch with all that commotion. Anyone could attack, and I wouldn’t hear it!” So saying, he returned to his post.
Inside the barn, Levy shook his head. If anything, the guard’s complaint made Levy want to make more noise, not less. Nonetheless, he was almost finished. He continued his arrangements, finishing within a few menes. When he was done he stepped as far back as possible, admiring his handiwork, amazed that Claywall had been stupid enough to give him free reign and secrecy inside the locked barn. Claywall would soon regret his foolishness. Levy carefully filled a large gourd with water, noting how fast the water dripped out a tiny hole in its bottom. He then hung the gourd on a balance beam, asked a prayer for success, and fell asleep.
The morning dew had not yet fallen when the gourd had finally drained enough to overbalance the delicate arrangement Levy had set it in. The balance tipped, spilling a handful of string onto Levy’s face. He gasped, awaking and bolting upright on his cot. He stared into the darkness for a moment before remembering where he was. Once awake, he got up and set his plan into motion.
Levy Barel walked to the door, peering out the slits at the courtyard, checking for any movement. Next he trimmed the lamp, which had burned quite low, to have a larger flame. He then walked to where a heavy cord descended from above and was tied to the ground. He took a pitcher of fluid and poured it over the cord. The cord immediately began to smoke. Levy then hurried to where two large, iron kettles lay on their sides, mouths together. He pushed them apart and climbed inside. He took a rope from nearby and threaded it through the handles of the kettles. Settling himself into the straw that lined the kettles, he pulled on the rope, drawing the two kettles together. Once they were tightly bound, silence fell on the workshop. That silence was broken only when the smoking cord parted with a loud snap, setting off a pandemonium chain of events.
The burnt cord had connected to a series of ropes, wound about pulleys as in his earler demonstrations for Claywall. At the other end of the ropes hung a massive stone block, suspended from two upright posts that reached to the roof of the barn. So massive was the block that it had taken two teams of oxen to draw it into the courtyard for Levy’s use. With the cord broken, the block was free to drop. A series of ropes connected the block to the keep’s exterior courtyard wall, however, so instead of merely falling it swung down at the stone barrier.
The keep wall was designed with an outward curve, to resist a pounding from an external force; it was not so well equipped to resist a blow from the inside, however. It bore the weight of Levy’s stone block, even as it swung down from its previous perch, but the wall could not resist the thunderous impact of that same stone. With a loud roar the falling stone and the standing stones all shattered, bringing a large section of the keep wall tumbling down. Helping in the destruction were two beams Levy had laid against the wall, laden with weights and tensed against it with taut cords. Once the wall failed, these two beams pushed it out, helping to bring down an even greater span. Not only that, but one of those beams was attached to Levy’s cast iron cockleshell. As that beam fell outward, laden with a heavy burden of stone, it tossed the metal sphere clattering and clanging out through the ragged hole. The stout iron resis ted the occasional blow from falling stones, and came to rest at the bottom of the dry moat surrounding the keep.
As a finale to the evening’s symphony of destruction, Levy had lined the walls of the barn with straw, and had positioned a cruse of oil where it would upend into the brightly burning lamp. Before the last beam had fallen, fire was already spreading fast, wiping out the last vestiges of Levy’s handiwork, denying Claywall the very thing he had imprisoned Levy to create. As the flames began to appear through the shattered walls of the barn, Levy emerged from his ferrous shell, bruised but unbeaten. He ran off into the darkness as soldiers arrived from both inside and outside the keep.
Claywall awoke at the moment the block struck the wall. Indeed, most of the keep awoke at the resounding boom. In an instant Claywall was at the window of his room, watching in horror as the wall was breached. His voice blended in with the general alarm that sounded. He thrust himself into fighting gear and soon emerged from the great hall, armed and armored, to lead the investigation. Word quickly came to him that Levy had been seen riding north on his horse. Claywall ordered the keep gates opened and rallied his bodyguard around him. They mounted their horses and set off in pursuit. Within mere menes, quiet again settled on the keep. This time, however, it was the court of Claywall that slept uneasily.
It was late the next day before Fennla and Daruk again rode into the keep. They were greeted by a scene of chaos. The steward Gefaron greeted them, babbling almost incoherently. Fennla made him stop and begin from the beginning.
“Last night, Milady!” he sobbed. “Barel! He knocked down the wall! Your father, he went after him! He …” Gefaron sobbed, more from fear than sorrow. “He went after him! At night. They say he reached the northern woods in the dark. They say he had almost caught him. They say …”
“Gefaron!” Fennla shouted, a sudden fear dawning in her heart. “Where is my father?”
“In the great hall, Milady,” he cried, actual tears finally falling from his eyes. “He’s dead.”
Fennla did not hear any more of the man’s words. She was running into the hall, not aware even of dismounting or of her own mother wailing beside her father’s vacant seat. All she could see was the black gloom, all she could smell was the final odor of death and blood, all she could feel was her own heart beating in her chest, as her father’s never would again. Indeed, there he lay, sightless eyes cocked up at the ceiling, savage gashes in his neck sealing forever any hopes that this was some simulacrum of death, a mere sleep of sorts. The soldiers had not even attempted to bind his wounds, nor had anyone tried to close his eyes. They had laid him in state they way they had brought him: cruelly killed.
“They say the wolves came at them in the dark, silently,” explained Gefaron. “Your father was in the lead, and they pulled him from his horse. He never had a chance. By the time enough soldiers arrived to fight off the wolves, he was dead.”
Fennla swayed, but remained upright. “Where are those who were supposed to protect him?” she asked in a dead voice.
“There,” Gefaron replied, pointing to the foot of the great table. Fennla followed his glance, expecting to see bound prisoners. What she saw were mangled bodies. “The wolves killed all your father’s party before those following could help.”
“And Barel?” Fennla’s eyes were beginning to water.
“They did not even find a body.”
The enormity of it all finally overwhelmed Fennla. She found herself sobbing uncontrollably. In an odd, detached way she listened to herself cry, wondering why she was crying, trying to stop. Then she actually thought about her father, dead, and all her world dissolved into loss, hopelessness, grief. All was gone. When next she looked up, Daruk was beside her in the great hall, his cloak around her shoulders, his arm cradling her. She looked up into his eyes, expecting condemnation, triumph, contempt. Instead she saw compassion and grief. She steeled herself and arose, handing him back his cloak. Gefaron arose from his knees where he, too, had been crying.
“What has been done?” she asked him.
“Men are standing ready to attack,” he replied, a thin, hot note of anger emerging in his voice. “The Barels will pay for his death!”
“Don’t be a fool,” she replied, coldly. His jaw dropped, and he hastily ducked his head, ashamed. “The last thing we need to do is mount a raid against one of Dargon’s prized villages with a breach in our wall you could ride a battalion through. We must repair the breach, immediately.” Gefaron nodded submissively as she continued. “We dare not wait for our enemies to hear the news. If we are lucky, Dross and Callen will not find out for a few days. Maybe we can have a short wall up by then.” She turned back toward her father’s body and almost collapsed again. “Call for the surgeon. Have him embowel my father for burial.” She stepped up to her father’s side, taking his cold hand and pressing it to her lips briefly before closing his eyes. With Daruk at her side, she took her mother’s hand and led her, weeping, back to her chambers.
There followed several tense sennights. Men and women worked continuously to raise the wall back up, to protect Clayhold. Fennla directed the effort, with Gefaron leading the building teams and with Daruk directing the remaining men-at-arms. All the patrols were pulled back, with as many peasants as could be gathered poured into the construction teams. Finally a single wall of stones was in place, and the patrols were again released. The first one had hardly been gone a bell when it came riding back into the keep.
“There’s a column of men approaching from the south!” came the shout as the two rode back through the gates. Trumpets blared, and the battlements were manned. The gates were shut the moment the patrols were back, and another tense wait commenced. This one ended when the column hove into sight. At the head of the column was Clifton Dargon, his banner fluttering in the breeze. The gates were opened, and Daruk rode out.
“Greetings, Lord Dargon,” Daruk said as he was allowed to approach. “How may we be of service to you?”
“We have come to help you bury your dead,” Dargon stated plainly. Daruk was speechless, so Dargon continued. “We received news a sennight ago that Lord Claywall had died. We came to bury him, and to name his successor.”
Daruk nodded, stunned. “Lady Claywall has asked me to tender our gracious hospitality to you and your men.”
“Thank you. I accept.” With that, Dargon and his advisors followed Daruk into the keep.
The funeral was as elaborate as Fennla could stand. Claywall himself had not been one for spending money on the dead, and she had inherited more than just his castle. Indeed, after interviewing the unnaturally placid elder Lady Claywall, Clifton Dargon quickly and simply named Fennla the successor. He then rode back to his ducal seat, leaving Fennla to fend for herself.
Late that evening, after Dargon had left, Fennla returned to her chambers. She walked to her bed as Daruk closed and locked the doors. She allowed the chambermaid to undress her, as she often did, but then shooed her out before the lamps could be extinguished.
“Daruk, thank you for helping me get through today,” she said, not looking at him.
“You’re welcome, Milady.” He arranged his cushions and settled down to polish his sword, wondering only slightly why she was staying up.
“There were times I was not sure I would make it,” she remarked quietly. Daruk got up and knelt at her side, taking her hand and patting it.
“Daruk, I must ask you now to help me again,” she continued.
“With what, Milady?”
“I need a husband. I cannot keep this holding alone. I need a man.”
Daruk nodded. “I agree. What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to marry me.”
There was a moment of silence. “Milady, that’s not possible.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Milady … there is more in a marriage than …”
“Than … well …”
“There is more in a marriage than love?” She took his hand and stood, pulling him to his feet. “There is nothing more in life than love, Daruk. What else could a man bring me?” She continued as he tried to speak. “I don’t need a man to tell me what to do. My father tried and never managed it. This is my holding and I intend to keep it that way. I don’t need a man to protect me. I have a whole army to do that now. And I don’t need a man to tupple me — if my saddle worked in the field, it’ll work for me here.” She stared into his eyes. “I need a man to love me, to help me, to counsel me, to support me. And I don’t know any man better to do that than you, Daruk. So I want you to marry me.” She swallowed hard. “Please.”
He gazed into her face for a moment. “Nothing would please me more, Milady.”
The next day Fennla announced her intention to wed Daruk to her mother and to Gefaron. Her mother took the announcement with the same lack of interest that she displayed toward all events that did not directly involve her. Gefaron was aghast. For only the second time in memory he raised his voice to Fennla. By the end of the day he was gone from the keep, on a badly packed horse headed south. By that time the news had left the keep and had reached the neighboring villages. The resulting stir in the surrounding holdings was unprecedented. That Daruk was a gelding was well known; that his emasculation was complete was also well known. Within three days all of Dargon was abuzz with speculation.
Fennla was watching the guard spar in the courtyard six days later when Daruk approached her with a scroll in his hand. He handed it to her silently and waited as she broke it open and read it.
“He approves,” she said simply, glancing up at him. She stared at him intently for a moment. “But you knew that.” She glanced back down at the scroll, fingering the freshly broken seal.
“The courier was unusually polite to me as he delivered it,” Daruk replied.
They stood there for a long moment, studying each other’s face. Then, carefully, Fennla moved close to him, reaching out with her arms. Daruk took her gingerly and kissed her lips. They held each other that way, and the sound of sobbing began to fill the room.
The day of the wedding came and went. Few other nobles attended. Dross sent a gift of flowers — with all the petals removed. Nonetheless the day itself passed as it should. Just as Lord Claywall’s funeral was small, so was Fennla’s wedding. Substituting a gown of her family’s colors for the traditional wedding garb, Fennla presided over the ceremony herself. There was a banquet in which all the keep participated, and gifts were distributed to the peasants. Afterward, little changed. Daruk had always slept in her bedchamber after being cut. The only difference was that now he slept in her bed. But still he kept his blade ready.
It had been barely a sennight since the wedding, and the night was dark. It happened gradually at first, with no noise or commotion. One by one, the guards disappeared. Finally there were few enough left that the guise of secrecy was dropped, and a few, short screams echoed through the courtyard. Only then did the Carver and his archers emerge from the shadows where they had been picking off the other men-at-arms. Silently, they moved to the ground floor of the keep, stopping at certain doors that were seldom locked, opening them, and killing whoever was behind them. They reached the first level with some difficulty — there were many men on the ground floor, and most were armed. Surprise was a great weapon, though, and only three archers died on the ground floor. The assassins paused on the landing on the first floor. The Carver turned to his men.
“The young bitch and her gelding die, but save the old woman Claywall. None of this will work without her.”
The first door on the first floor belonged to Fennla. With most of the fighting men dead, the raiders were more bold. They smashed open the door and moved in with a hail of arrows. They found a bed riddled with shafts, but no Fennla. They rushed down the narrow chambermaid’s hall, only to get caught in a deadly hail from a murder hole above. They hastily backed down the hall, leaving behind two more of their number.
“He’s taken them up to the next level,” the Carver explained, pointing to the stairway up. His men took the steps in bounds, but they were met by several fast, well-aimed arrows, and they backed down, at the cost of a man. They huddled at the end of the hall, wondering what to do. It was only then that they noticed the Carver was missing.
The ledge outside Fennla’s first floor window was quite strong and relatively wide, having served as a walkway during the keep’s construction. The Carver ran down it now. He leaped for and caught a drain-pipe, shinnying up it to gain the next level. He could see a light in a window ahead, and could hear talking. He slipped his bow off his shoulder and nocked an arrow. He crept up to the window and leaned in, bow drawn. Fennla was inside to his right. As he aimed a hand grabbed his bow and pulled him in the window. The Carver fell in onto the floor, rolled, and came to his feet, his knife out. He was facing an open door leading to an outer chamber which held several determined, female bodyguards and two startled, older women. He immediately decided to keep them out of the fight, so he slammed the door with his foot, putting his back to it. The latch, spring loaded, clicked shut. He found h imself facing Daruk and Fennla, alone. Daruk had a sword, and Fennla looked unarmed. The Carver hesitated only a moment before throwing the knife at Daruk.
Daruk saw the throw coming. Instinctively he tried to block it, and he succeeded, but found himself with a knife stuck through his right forearm. There was no pain immediately, only shock. As the Carver charged across the room, Daruk felt the strength drain from his arm, and his sword-grip loosen. Only when the blade fell from his hands did Fennla finally scream. Daruk dropped his right arm out of the Carver’s reach, and twisted his body to the left so that the Carver’s lunge would not strike him. He lashed out with his left arm at the Carver’s face. The Carver, intent on seizing the knife again, took the blow and stumbled. As the Carver thudded into the wall behind Daruk, Daruk kicked the sword away toward Fennla.
The impact with the wall had disoriented the Carver. He turned back around fast but Daruk’s left hand was around his throat, slamming him to the wall. The Carver snapped his knee up hard into Daruk’s crotch. Daruk smiled a nasty smile and fell back, dragging his assailant by the throat and throwing him across the room. As the Carver tried to stand, Daruk kicked him hard across the face. The Carver rolled over and saw Daruk reaching down for him with both hands. The Carver snatched the knife out of Daruk’s arm and raised the blade over his head. He might as well have been moving in slow motion; before he could strike Daruk’s arm lashed out, and the world banged shut like a coffin lid.
Yarak stalked up the stairs slowly, holding a crossbow out in front of himself. His finger was on the trigger, pressing lightly. He knew that there were two archers above, with short bows. Behind him came three of his own archers, carrying crossbows. Attack had a cruel math to it. Four crossbows against two short bows equaled four dead people, with two to spare. The rest of the archers followed behind, arrows nocked. It would be a slaughter, to be sure, but Beinison had the numbers now. Victory was assured. All that remained was the counting.
Step by step Yarak drew close to the top landing. He crouched low as he reached it, the crossbow aiming down a hallway he knew had to be there. He reached the last few steps, took a deep breath, and popped up, ready. Before him stretched a hallway. It was empty.
“Go!” he whispered, waving his men ahead as he aimed his weapon down the hall, ready to pick off anyone who might appear. The three fanned out against the wall, aiming their weapons at the various doorways that opened off the corridor. Below, the crowd of remaining archers pressed upward. Yarak stood and waited for them to reach him. He knew an ambush awaited behind one of those doors. He did not want to die in it, but he wasn’t going to just wait for it either. The night would not last forever. A creak came from nearby, and the nearest door began to open. Four crossbows focused on it. It swung inward, leaving behind a dark opening. Just a moment too late, it occurred to Yarak that the dark was just a bit too black.
Daruk stepped out of the door, and four crossbows snapped. The bolts thudded into something behind that dark opening, but Daruk kept coming. A moment later, another Daruk also stepped out of the door. Yarak’s heart skipped a beat, then began thudding double hard as if to make up for it. Magic.
“Come on!” He shouted to the men coming up the stairs below as he himself tossed the crossbow aside and reached for his own bow slung across his shoulders. A third Daruk appeared, following the first two. The lead Daruk was assailed by the first of the crossbowmen, who swung his empty crossbow in an overhead arc. The weapon and the bowman passed harmlessly through the phantom. The third Daruk threw something at Yarak, who ducked. It was a ball, dull and rough. The ball struck the landing and cracked with an odd sound. Suddenly the air around Yarak was filled with flashes of red, green, blue, and gold. He covered his dazzled eyes to shield them from the glare, but even with his eyes closed, he could still see the flashes. Suddenly he knew this was just an illusion. Somehow the Claywalls had arranged for some sort of magical defenses. His training took over, an d he raced forward, arrow nocked, staring hard past the blinding lights. The strategy worked. He was past the cloud of confusion, and suddenly he could see Daruk and two women, kneeling in the corridor with empty bows. Yarak suddenly stumbled, falling to his knees as the trio reloaded. He tried to aim at Daruk, but his left arm failed him, dropping the bow. He watched it fall, suddenly noticing the feathers of three arrows sticking out of his own chest. He looked up to see the last of the three shoot past him, and then he fell on his face.
It felt to the Carver as if only a moment had passed, but when he next opened his eyes Daruk was gone, and it was Fennla leaning over him. He knew his first impulse ought to be to attack, but it was as if his body had gone, leaving his mind behind. Fennla stared down at him. He waited for the death blow, but it didn’t come.
“Why did you do it?” she asked. Her voice seemed almost irrelevant, and he didn’t reply at first. From outside he heard screams. His men would be in soon to finish the game, he knew.
“An outpost. For Beinison.”
“But why?” she asked, more distant now. “Why here?”
“For the war,” he replied, getting tired of the wait. “Hide here, and wait. Hide … with old Claywall.” Then he had a question of his own.
“Why? Why marry … the eunuch?”
Fennla looked sober for a moment before replying. The Carver felt beyond caring, beyond concern. It didn’t matter now. He barely caught what she said.
“Because he loved me before I ever loved him.”
Three seasons later, the bloodstains were gone, washed away. The tower chamber had been transformed into Daruk’s aerie, a place to watch the land and think. He stood there, wondering how much had changed in the last year. The keep was again populated, the summer was again beginning, the wall had been fully repaired, and Barel had even emerged from the cold north with a bride of his own. A year of marriage had also restored Daruk, but in ways he wasn’t quite able to see. Still, he could think about it.
Behind him a door opened. He turned to see Fennla’s maid bowing to him.
“I’ve come to take Betta to her lessons,” she said.
“She’s in her room,” he replied, gesturing to a door. The maid nodded and went to the door. Daruk turned back to the window for a moment, looking back when the maid emerged with a young girl. They both turned to face him and dipped in a neat curtsy. Daruk frowned a bit at this, then nodded back. He watched as the maid led the girl out. When he had persuaded Fennla to adopt the slave girl from the kitchen, she had been cheery and bright, but lately she had begun to withdraw. He would have to talk to Fennla about it. But at least she had begun to grow again, starting to catching up in size with the children her own age. Like the whole barony, she needed time to recover from the effects of Baron Claywall’s rule. Fortunately, time was something they all had.
Daruk heard footsteps behind him, and he turned to look. It was Fennla. He took her in his arms and embraced her. They moved to sit in the window, holding each other. Daruk looked in her eyes.
“Are you all right?”
“I love you, Daruk.”
He kissed her, happy. “And I love you too, Fennla.”
She gave him an odd look. “Did you once swear that you would give your life for me?”
“Yes, I did. Why?”
“Do you know that you have done it?”
“I have?” he smiled.
“Yes,” she replied. “I never had life until I met you. Now I have all the life I need.”
Together, they sat in the window and watched the land grow.