|Home|||||Welcome to Glorantha|||||Virtual Glorantha|||||Sun County|||||Songs|||||Stories|||||Vinga|||||Game logs and scenarios|||||Research|
It's almost dark. But there's enough light for the three people behind the hedge to see their target, though not for anyone else to make out their features. And there's no-one close enough to hear the whispers.
"All right. She's being held in that new building, somewhere. One guard. The pendant she was trying to get back's with the rest of the taxes, main hall, two guards. Elusu does the distraction, Insterid goes for the pendant and enough other bits to cover it being missing, I'll get Olava from the cell. No kills, just knock them out, we don't want reprisals on the locals. Meet here, Elusu gets us all back to the hills. Clear?"
"Clear. But I still think this is overkill. Any of the new kids could have handled this job as a training exercise."
"I know, but she was a good friend, years ago. I'd rather do it myself."
A whining mutter becomes gradually audible.
"elusu make noise, Elusu not-drink, Elusu make hide, Elusu no fun!"
He stands up, a skinny, scruffy little man, shaking his arms wildly.
"Elusu make gate, Elusu make tea, Elusu make hole, Elusu not-drink..."
"Elusu, shut up."
"Elusu shutup, Elusu sit-here." He flops to the ground, silent.
Talin was bored. They'd told him the army was ninety-nine percent boredom and one percent terror, and he was starting to believe it. Maybe even to look forward to the terror. Standing here in the dark, guarding some old woman, just in case she somehow broke her chains and tried to escape - what was the point? There was no way she could get away, and she must have known it when she tried to steal her taxes back. Daft. Like all of them around here.
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, since there was no-one to see, and, feeling very daring, loosened his helmet strap. It was giving him a headache. That was the point, do the job well when your superiors were looking. Then you could get noticed. Get promotion, even. At least he was on the winning side. Not like his parents. And that daft old woman.
He had learnt that as a very small boy, when the Lunars took Pavis. They had won. They got all the best food, the best houses, the best uniforms. They were the winners, no question. He wanted to be a winner, so he joined them and wore their uniform. And now he was back in Sartar, the place his parents had said was so wonderful, and it wasn't. Just wet, and miserable, and squalid. They didn't even have proper buildings. All wood, no adobe or stone, though the new place they were building for the tax inspectors was being done properly, with brick walls and a tile roof. And the village was so quiet: back at home there would have been noise from the taverns, musicians, singing, fights - you'd have known the place was alive. Here, just sullen silence.
Well, almost silence. Now he listened carefully, there was an odd noise approaching from one of the alleys. He clutched his spear, images of a ferocious warband coming to rescue the prisoner filling his mind. But what emerged was a single, small figure. Making a very odd noise, and waving what looked like a wineskin. Oh... They couldn't even get drunk in style. Still, at least this he could cope with. The noise-maker came out into the moon-lit square, and Talin got a better look at him. "Shabby" did not begin to describe it. What his mother would have described contemptuously as a "stick-picker", a phrase he had only understood since he got to wooded Sartar, where sticks were not the precious commodity they were at home. He moved forward to intercept him before anyone else heard the noise and blamed Talin for not keeping order.
"Here, you. You can't..."
The little man turned vaguely in his direction, almost falling over. "My frien'! Loves ya! You wanna drink?" The wineskin was thrust into his face and Talin recoiled from the sour reek, both of stale wine and unwashed body. Ancient patched tunic, no shirt, just a rag tied round his throat, and the whole apparently harbouring some sort of infestation - didn't they wash around here?
Beyond him, a middle-aged woman carrying a basket crossed the square, heading for the hall. Supper for those on guard there, no doubt. Lucius and Berlanth always seemed to arrange for extras, somehow. Talin was too occupied to take much notice. "No, I do not want... will you stop that?" The drunk had wrapped an arm around him, whether from affection or a need for support was hard to tell.
"Less' sing. My frien' Lunar." He took another swig from the foul skin. "We like the moooooon...."
Talin pulled away, revolted, and the little man staggered sideways, giggling and pointing. "She's behind yooo..." Talin started to look round, imagining for a moment that he'd seen a flicker of movement, but then filthy fingers had grasped his arm and were digging in.
How much longer before one of the officers heard and blamed him? Heavy footsteps from the side, oh no...
"All right, kid, we'll handle this." Normally Talin would have resented that "kid", Lucius at seventeen was only a year older than him, after all, but at the moment he was too grateful for the support to care.
The drunk raised his voice in "song" again, some of the words distinguishable this time. "Raise the tri.." Lucius clamped his hand firmly over the offender's mouth. "Wrong ditty, my friend. Singing that could get a man into a great deal of trouble, if you get my drift." He removed the wineskin from his victim's uncertain grasp, handed it to Berlanth, who tasted it carefully and nodded.
"Of course, under certain circumstances, we might find it difficult to remember what we'd heard", he observed.
Lucius nodded. "Amazing how things can weaken the memory. Wine, for instance. A single skin wouldn't be enough, of course, but two...."
"Or even three?" Berlanth suggested.
"But if not.... You don't want to know what they do to anyone caught with the wrong song. You'd be singing much higher after that, wouldn't he, Berlanth?"
Talin couldn't quite believe what he was hearing, and definitely didn't want to get involved. They couldn't really think that stuff was drinkable, could they? "I'll erm, just leave him to you, then, shall I? Got to guard the prisoner, see..." He backed off to his proper post, ignoring what he suspected was laughter and trying not to blush.
The woman with the basket was coming back out again, supper delivered. All right for some. He wondered if that had been due to threats and bribery, too. The discussion reached a conclusion while he tried to regain his composure, and the stickpicker scuttled off down the alley he had come from, silent, and without his wineskin. Lucius and Berlanth, laughing, returned to the hall. Supper and wine. All right for some.
Silence returned to the square, and Talin brooded over what he'd have said and done if he'd just had a bit more time to think, re-running the conversation in his mind. Lost in his thoughts, the blow from behind caught him completely by surprise. Somehow he was lying on the ground, stones grazing his cheek, and with a sharp pain at the base of his skull, below the regulation helmet. Rapid footsteps headed into the distance. Two sets. He choked, tried not to throw up, staggered to his feet, the square spinning.
He didn't care how childish it sounded now, he just wanted someone, anyone, to make everything all right. He stumbled out into the square, looking around wildly. There, further up the hillside. Something moving. Lots of them. Getting away. There were voices behind him now, help was on the way. One was deeper, barking orders - oh, no, the Centurion was here - but the dread was only habit, and what he really felt was relief. An adult. Someone who knew what they were doing. A hastily formed squad trotted past him, still pulling equipment into place, and he joined them, tagging along at the end.
The fugitives had heard the pursuit, such as it was. A white flash of a face turned towards them. Then one, the shortest, turned back. Yelling something. "Can't catch.... mothers... nyahhh." That voice - the drunk. Talin realised how he'd been fooled, and went crimson with shame. Just like in the stories, and he'd never thought. The little man wasn't even running, he was just standing there gesticulating. Bending down - for a weapon? Now up again, but turned to run...? no, still standing, but something pale showing.... Talin cringed and looked away as he realized what he was seeing. They called it "mooning", back home, doing that to a Lunar. The drunk was being dragged along with the others, now, one of them had come back for him. But they were still far ahead, they were still going to get away into the darkness.
A sudden bright light, further up the hill, hurt his eyes. White, like day light, only even brighter. A tall shape, like a flame, only not flickering - he winced, his night vision gone completely. It hurt, it shouldn't be there. As if someone had cut a slit in the night air and incredible brightness was showing through from beyond it. They were heading for it. Something they'd done, some Orlanthi magic? He'd thought only the Lunars could do anything that powerful.
A few javelins flew, dropping far short of their targets. Talin hadn't even been holding a javelin in the first place. He was going to miss out on being a hero again, and it wasn't fair. Frustrated and angry, he grabbed the first thing that came to hand - a tile from the heap next to the new building - and skimmed it, as he'd skimmed flat stones across the river at home. There was no chance. He knew there was no chance. But somehow the last fugitive staggered and fell as that slit of light vanished.
They tumble through the slit in reality onto a grassy hillside, panting, and it blinks shut.
"Drop that illusion, too. It itches."
"Aww. You're no fun." But the stick-picker, suddenly sober, waves his hand, and changes - still a short, skinny man, but now even scruffier and more disreputable than before. Only the filthy rag tied about his throat remains the same. The woman who spoke is no longer a middle-aged cottar, but a much younger red-head. Her elderly companion stays unchanged. And the fourth...
"Hang on. Where's...."
They stare at each other in horror, then at where the gateway no longer exists.
"Oh, no. And you took the disguise off her, too, didn't you?"
He nods, miserably.
"We'd better get back there."
"You see, sir, you've been too soft on them."
The word spoken was "sir", but it was clear to Gemellus that the meaning was "boy". Centurion Olafsson knew better than to show any open disrespect to a nominally superior officer, especially one with his political connections, but there were times when his feelings about lawyers with no military experience became very obvious. This was going to be one of them. And since Acting Tribune Gemellus knew he had no chance of controlling the troops without his support, he would just have to put up with it, and go through the same tired old conversation once more.
"You let them pull the wool over your eyes with the tax rate, any fool could see they were hiding most of their harvest. So they think you're a fool. So they see what else they can get away with."
"Rulf, we're supposed to be bringing these people into the Lunar Way, not taxing them into starvation and rebellion. They knew I was deliberately turning a blind eye, they're not idiots."
"So, they think you're soft instead of stupid. That's worse. You've got to show them who's in charge. Don't let them get away with a thing, or they'll just see how much further they can push it."
Well, Rulf should know. Hs own people, in Tarsh, had done just that.
"You can see it's true - they got away with trying to steal taxes with no execution! Now they think they can attack whenever they like, stealing, killing - we could all have been murdered in our beds!"
Gemellus refused to rise to that snide dig. It was pure chance that at the time of the attack, Rulf had been on duty and he had been asleep. But he agreed that escalation was something to be avoided. That was, after all, why he'd been doing his best to be sympathetic to the Sartarites, to give them the benefit of the doubt when it came to their ability to learn civilisation. But perhaps Rulf was right, and he was wasting his time. They seemed to have "violence is always an option" ingrained into them, even when it was obviously going to work to their disadvantage.
"So what were the casualties?"
Rulf's reply went on in impassioned detail for some time, but by the time Gemellus had disentangled the events that might have happened, but in fact hadn't, not much was left.
"One boy got a slight head-ache? You know, given the opportunities they had and their well-known homicidal tendencies, one can almost admire their restraint."
And that decided it - he would stick to his principles. These barbarians were capable of acting reasonably, it was just a matter of giving them time to learn. The stories of their savagery were just that - stories.
Though something was wrong here. Rulf should have been much smugger than this, should have been saying "I told you so" with much more confidence. Instead, between the diatribes, he seemed to be uneasy, as if expecting a reprimand. Perhaps he thought he would be blamed for allowing the rescue and robbery to occur at all, on his watch. Under normal circumstances no doubt this would have been reasonable, but undermanned as they were, with all the experienced troops down at Whitewall, Gemellus thought they had been remarkably lucky to even spot what was going on before it was over. Any guilt Rulf felt was unnecessary, and he'd have to be coaxed out of it if he wasn't to go into another of his sullen fits.
"So, did you catch any of them?" he asked encouragingly.
"Yes, sir. That is to say, we caught one of them. The other two escaped, along with the prisoner."
"Oh, well done. And has he given a name?"
"She, sir. And no, sir, not exactly, but..." He shifted uncomfortably. "You'd better come and look, sir."
A woman? He still couldn't get used to the way these people let their women take all sorts of risks instead of protecting them as they should. He hoped Rulf hadn't been too rough in capturing her, he had all sorts of strange tales about monsters in female form in his homeland.
The regulation prison had been built, but little used since he took over command. He'd always tried to avoid that option. So the place was at least clean, without that dreadful smell of despair that hung over the similar but much larger block in Boldhome.
"End cell, sir."
Rulf unbolted the door, and Gemellus stepped inside.
"Oh, no. I don't believe it."
"That makes two of us, then." The red-haired captive pushed herself upright on the bench as he entered, despite the chains holding her to the wall, blood trickling down over the crystal in her forehead. "A thrown rock, of all things. How stupid can you get?" She raised an eyebrow at his horrified expression. "'Oh, no'? Are you sure that's what you meant? It isn't what Lunars usually say under these circumstances."
"No, I suppose not, but..."
The one all the stories were about. Here. Real. It was all he could do to stand there, not running, and not whimpering with fear. He'd heard that she'd massacred thousands of troops, back in that rebellion. He'd been in school then, and the reports coming in had been used to scare him and his fellow pupils into a proper appreciation of the benefits of the Lunar Way, and especially the importance of not letting barbarians get out of hand. And even since then... constant raids, and the stories from the siege - they said it was her who'd killed the Bat. Personally. And a good job too - he still remembered the relief he'd felt at knowing that that horrible creature was no longer contaminating the Empire by its existence.
Still, that just proved how incredibly dangerous she was. He should kill her. Now, before it was too late. He tried to picture himself doing it, to get the nerve to try, but he couldn't make the pictures fit. She didn't look like a monster, she looked human. It was hard enough picturing himself killing anyone, he'd never done it, after all, but killing what looked like an unarmed woman....? Think first. The instinctive reaction was usually the wrong one. And straight killing, now, without trial - no. He was a lawyer first, and a soldier second. Trial first. Execution afterwards. Reacting blindly, out of fear, was what barbarians did. If he let himself sink to their level, then they'd won.
She'd mentioned "what Lunars usually say". This had happened before, and from what he remembered, she always escaped. So whoever had captured her before hadn't killed her immediately, either. Why not? Because they couldn't? Maybe the swords just bounced off... Or... oh, of course. A good job he'd thought first. Interrogate your witness before executing them, not afterwards. She wasn't the whole of the rebellion, there were others as well. Useful information. He shied away from picturing quite what that would involve - after all, that wasn't his job. He'd have to report it to Boldhome, and they would take it from there. Unpleasantly. Sinking to barbarian level, again. Disgracing the real aims of the Empire. And, of course, that would mean admitting that he couldn't handle the situation himself.
Could he handle it here? He was a lawyer, after all. A simple trial, followed by an execution, shouldn't be beyond him. No interrogation - well, nothing that would work, which might get him into trouble. There was no way he was doing anything like that. Just execution, the way they did it here, would be bad enough. Visions of the reactions of the natives to his dozen green troops, once they did what they would have to do, danced through his mind. Yes, they were unarmed, but a hundred cowed peasants were very different from the same men fuelled by murderous fury. And crucifixion wasn't instant by any means, they'd have time to find out what was going on and react. But if he didn't, he'd have to explain to Boldhome why he'd done nothing himself. If only there was another avenue of appeal... and there was, but explaining to Boldhome why he'd done that...
"Have you any idea how much paperwork this means?" he blurted out.
Startled amusement crossed her face. "I can't say it was the first thought that came to mind, no."
"But sir..." Rulf's face was a picture of confusion. "There's no paperwork to do. It's just like the first one. She stole Imperial taxes and attacked Imperial soldiers. So we execute her. Only this time it's not some old granny who the locals might be sorry for. We'll be heroes!"
"Will we, indeed?" Goddess, the man seemed to really believe that. "So when we announce who we've got, and what we're going to do, how do you think those 'locals' will react? Tell all their friends to come and watch the show, perhaps? Yes, we'd be heroes, and that's another way of saying "dead"!"
"Oh. Yes." Rulf's eyes widened. "But sir, that's the rules. If we don't follow the rules, we'll be in a lot of trouble. Well, you'll... ahem."
"It's the rules..." Gemellus paced the cell, thinking. "Just a moment. You didn't actually catch this lady stealing, or attacking people, did you? Just running away, along with several others."
"Well, yes, but...."
"And you didn't find any of the stolen goods on her, I assume."
"So we don't actually have any proof that she's guilty of anything at all. Certainly not enough to justify execution without a trial."
"But sir, everything else she's done, and the rewards, and....!"
"Everything else? I thought you said she hasn't given a name? There's a certain superficial similarity to a description, yes, but that's not proof."
Just how close was that description? He looked again. It hadn't included the amused, superior smile, but was too close for comfort. He needed something more. And he resented that air of superiority. He was in charge here, dammit!
"Anyway, this can't possibly be any great rebel leader. Not if we captured her that easily."
"How very true", she said ruefully. The smile was one of wry agreement, now. "No prizes for catching anyone quite that careless, I'm afraid."
"We can find out who she is, sir! And where the others went, and everything!" Rulf was desperate, seeing his imaginary reward vanishing from his grasp. "Just let me try, I'll make her talk."
"No!" Gemellus' instant revulsion at the idea overcame the careful, logical planning, the word out before he could think. Then, before his subordinate could interpret his reaction as weakness: "What would be the point? You wouldn't have any reason to think she was telling the truth. Orlanthi lie all the time, everyone knows that."
Ignore that insult, he thought. Please.
"Lady Lavinia's a priestess, sir, she can tell if it's true. Can't she?"
He was grasping at straws, but he might have a point.
"You need two of them." The prisoner sounded interested, helpful, not the least bit intimidated by the threat of torture.
"Two truth-seekers. A rule Euglyptus put in, just after he found one of his pet magistrates had been paying more attention to gold than to accuracy. Two truth-seekers, cross-checking each other, or the result isn't legally proven. I don't know if it's still valid, but you might want to make sure."
Rulf's crestfallen expression was almost laughable. Gemellus suspected that the story had just been invented on the spur of the moment, but he wasn't going to argue. "I think I do recall something about that, yes. Thank you for the reminder."
He turned back to his subordinate. "It's no good, Rulf, we don't have the facilities to handle a case like this here. We need advice from an senior magistrate, and the nearest is in Boldhome. I'll just have to send for orders, and hold the prisoner in custody until they arrive." And take her off my hands.
He looked round the little cell, as if seeing it for the first time. If he was going to use the letter of the law as a shield, he would have to be sure he obeyed it in every detail. The place had been built and equipped according to regulations, and it was clean. Food and water would not be a problem, there was no rationing needed here. And no-one was even going to think about abuse, under the circumstances. Would the standard restraints be adequate? Probably not, but they were all he had. And she didn't look as dangerous as her reputation. In fact...
He studied her more carefully. That lucky tile to the back of the head had been thrown hard enough to knock her out, and the cut was still bleeding. Now he looked, she wasn't quite focusing properly. And the way she was leaning back against the wall looked relaxed - far more relaxed than anyone else present! - but might just be that she needed the support to stay upright.
"I'll send Lavinia to Heal that."
She shook her head: a quick movement, stopped almost immediately, confirming his suspicions. "So she can use some other magic as well without me resisting? I'll pass, thanks."
That brought him up with a jerk - he hadn't even got as far as thinking of that possibility, but she was already guarding against it. Half-stunned, maybe, but still two steps ahead of him in the game. And it was a game. Just like the careful politics he had played at home, the jockeying for position in the various courts, playing bluff against counter-bluff. He would have to wake up fast, if his brain hadn't gone completely to mush in this backwater. He was surprised to find that he was rather looking forward to the challenge. But playing against an injured opponent, even a barbarian, was unfair.
"I could give you my word that all she would do would be healing."
"Would you now?" She studied him, as if he was a new servant who had just said something stupid. "And would she keep to your promise? Is there any reason why I should believe either of you? Lunars lie all the time, we all know that."
Ouch. The insult had been ignored at the time, maybe, but not forgotten. "It's the law on treatment of prisoners. I'm obliged..."
"To offer healing, yes. You've offered, I've declined. That's as far as you have to go. And if you try to push it further, there will be arguments." It was just a hint of a warning, no more, but enough. What he had by the tail might be purring, but it was still a tiger. And the sooner he could hand it over to another keeper, the better.
Talin liked being on horse back. Up here, he felt tall, powerful, adult. And the Tribune must think well of him, too, giving him his own horse and entrusting him with an important message. Not that he was too sure of controlling the little mare. The Tribune had looked doubtful, but he was still a better rider than any of the others. He'd thought he would be sent to Boldhome, but instead he was headed much further away. He would meet the main road soon in any case, and then turn south, but for now, he was on the only track out of the village. He was past the fields, going into the woods - and he still couldn't believe how many trees there were here, and how wet it all was.
The mare shied at something only she could see, and he struggled to bring her back under control, suddenly aware of how far away the ground was. The placid zebra he'd sat on at home had never acted like this... and then someone had taken the reins, and the silly creature stopped trying to throw him off.
"Thank you", he gasped, trying to regain his balance and look a bit more like an Imperial courier.
The red-haired woman holding the bridle snorted with laughter. "That's a first. Come on, get down, we haven't got all day."
"Down. Or she shoots, and so do all her friends." She nodded towards the next bend in the path, where another woman was holding a bow - rock steady at full draw, and aimed right at him.
"What? But I..."
She sighed with exaggerated patience. "It's called an ambush. Something that happens to silly little boys who don't look where they're going. We can do this the hard way or the easy way. You'd prefer the easy way."
Ten minutes later he was being dragged up a steep hillside, hands tied and a gag in his mouth. He still hadn't spotted the rest of the archers. He'd heard the outlaws here were good at hiding, and he believed it. And now he recognized the one he'd seen - the prisoner he'd been supposed to be guarding. Positions reversed, now. This was so embarrassing. Then he was being pushed down a steep slope, losing his footing and tumbling to a painful halt against a tree root. And a knee. Someone else was already tied to the tree.
"Lucky we spotted him on our way in. We've lost enough time getting back here. That gate was a great way out of trouble, but landing us a day's journey away was a damned nuisance."
"A lot could have happened in a day." The older woman moved stiffly, tending the horse. "And I know I slowed you down."
"Couldn't have done the ambush without you, though. No way I'd have trusted this thing with it, after the way he screwed up back there." She aimed a kick at the tied man - small, smelly, somehow familiar?
"She shouldn't have come for me. I'm not worth the risk."
"You try telling her. She reckoned there was a debt to pay, and that was it."
"There was no debt! All I did was my job." She fell silent, moving to build up a small fire. "If anything's happened to that little girl..."
"Little girl?" It was almost a bark of laughter. "She's grown up, you know. A bit." Then, curious: "What was she like, back then?"
"Always in trouble. Always taking on more than she could handle. Always going back for another go."
"Ah. No change there, then." She bent over the fire, handling some long, dark object carefully. "We know she's still alive. Elusu's still bound." The little man pulled at the rag around his throat, whining through the gag, and she back-handed him across the face. "Shut up. Or you get the irons as well."
"Are they hot yet?"
"Just about." Small but strong hands pulled Talin onto his back, and a knee on his chest pinned him to the ground. The gag was ripped from his mouth, and he gasped, breathing suddenly easier. "Now. Like I said, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. You're going to tell me where you were going and why, and everything that your bosses have done since we left. We haven't got all day, and no-one but us can hear you scream."
Talin stared at her, eyes wide, unaware of how much he resembled a frightened rabbit. A hero wouldn't talk. He knew that from the stories. "Won't." His mouth was almost too dry to speak.
She shrugged. "Suit yourself." She turned to the fire, then back to him with something glowing in her hand. "Sure?"
He nodded. He would be a hero. He would. Then something incredibly hot bit into his leg, and there was a smell of burning cloth: and burning meat. He screamed. Oh gods, this wasn't a story. And it hurt, it hurt so much....
It was perhaps half an hour later when the mixture of incoherent babbling and sobbing died down, and the two interrogators exchanged glances.
"It was sheer bad luck, from the sound of it."
"Plus this idiot." The younger woman kicked her original victim again, almost out of habit. "Singing. And just wandering off with the job half done! Some good luck too, though. That Tribune's got a brain on him, and that's saved us for now. But why's he sending a messenger to the army at Whitewall, and to a senior member of the College of Magic at that? He should be reporting to Boldhome."
"That'll be his uncle the Professor, I expect." Olava's calm remained unruffled by the incredulous stare directed at her. "Just something I heard. That's why a Heartlander got a post like this. His uncle pulled some strings for him, made sure he was somewhere safe."
"So that signet ring..."
"A family token. He's calling on his bloodline."
"And he believes his uncle will drop everything and help." She tossed the ring from hand to hand, watching it glint in the sunlight. "I can think of a few uses for a trinket like that. And Broyan will think of even more."
"When he gets it. There's no rush."
"That's the trouble. There is. I know when we were last down there, the magical attacks in particular were getting rough. The place can't possibly last much longer. And this Professor was doing a nice job of taking our defences apart, the last I heard."
She looked up at the sun, calculating. "It's midmorning now. We know they're changing guard patterns, but not how, and it'll take a full day and a night to find out. Even if we go in the next night, that's nearly two days lost. And we already know that they're not going to do anything - final - until their courier comes back."
"You can't leave her there!"
"I don't have a choice! For fuck's sake, Olava, you think I like this?"
The older woman watched her, silent.
"I know what she'd tell me to do. No point pretending I don't." She turned, decisive. "That mare any use?"
"Yes. Not lame after all, just a useless rider. Waste of a good horse."
"Right. I'll take her. You move these two, hide them. Where's a good place?"
"There's an abandoned stead, a mile, maybe two, up the valley." She smiled, remembering. "The miles seem to be longer these days. But no-one's been there for years."
"Fine. I'll see you there as soon as I can. Watch the village if you get the chance, find out what the new routine is, but don't try anything. Well, unless you have to."
"No! Not alone! Olava, I know you used to be good, but that was twenty years ago!"
"Sixteen. And I could still ride south. You might get her out, alone or not."
The younger woman hesitated, tempted. "Maybe... But you don't know anyone at Whitewall, you wouldn't even get in, much less get listened to. No, it'll have to be this way. And you be careful!"
She mounted, swung the horse's head south, then paused. "Oh, and treat that boy's leg. Only a glowing stick, and I've taken more damage snuffing a candle, but you know what she'll say if she thinks we've been beating up children."
At dusk, Gemellus strolled across the square for what had, over the last week, become a regular part of his routine.
He had been relieved to see that his prisoner was recovering from the head blow without help. It would have been politically embarrassing to have her die accidentally - and he somehow disliked the idea, in any case.
He was still a little surprised that she hadn't escaped. His extra security measures, the doubled guards and the care taken with the keys, must be working better than he'd feared. Of course, his visits, alone, and potentially open to being used as a hostage, were a risk in themselves. Rulf disapproved, insisted on taking over the outside guard position instead of letting one of the troops do it, whenever he was in here, but it was a gamble Gemellus he felt he had to take. He had to learn more about the Orlanthi he was supposed to be bringing to enlightenment. Since he had a reasonably intelligent specimen at his disposal, it was only sensible to make the most of the opportunity. And, rather to his surprise, he was enjoying it.
When he had been a child, a traveling circus had stopped near his home, as a short break on the journey to Glamour. There had been acrobats, horse-riders, strange beasts. There had been a caged tiger. Some of the older boys had enjoyed poking it with sticks, rattling the bars, then jumping back in semi-mock terror when it sprang. He had been small enough to actually get his hand between the bars. For him, the challenge had been feeding the tiger scraps. Would it ignore him, would it take the offered treat, would it take his hand off? The fascinated terror had drawn him back night after night. This felt a great deal like that.
Simply talking had got him nowhere, though he suspected she had learnt more than he had intended. He had brought along a chess board, but while she knew of the game, she wasn't interested.
Tabula however, had been a success - he was surprised to find she already knew of it by other names, though the doubling cube was new to her. Once it had been explained, she took to it with glee, raising the stakes at every opportunity. He'd laughed, and said something about typical Orlanthi recklessness, and she just picked up one of the counters and handed it to him. "These don't bleed." An important distinction. He sometimes wondered if his own commanders understood it.
Even if he wasn't learning any of the things he'd hoped for, it was an education for him, relearning the paranoia and elaborate pretence of combining civilised converse with total distrust.
This time he had brought a bottle of wine and two goblets.
"Here." He put them on the bench between them. A risk, yes. Raising the stakes. "You pour, you choose, I drink first. Will that be enough to convince you, or are there other precautions I need to take?"
"I hope you remembered to take the antidote." But she poured, and pushed the nearest goblet in his direction. "So, what am I being bribed to do? Or not to do?"
"Bribery is illegal." He drained his wine, not just a nominal sip, and returned the empty goblet to the bench. At least he'd managed to obtain a decent red, not the local swill. "No, this is the standard attempt to get you to tell me all your secrets. In vino veritas, and so on."
"On half a bottle?" She sniffed it, sipped appreciatively. "You'd be better off sticking to bribery."
"It's an idea. How much would it take to get your parole?"
"More than you could possibly afford." Her light tone turned a trifle bitter. "A bit redundant anyway, isn't it? Rulf doesn't have your gentle touch with these matters, but he made it quite clear what happens to Olava if I try anything, parole or not. Now, bribe me with better conditions for her and you might be getting somewhere."
"I'll think about it."
His mind raced. What had Rulf said? Whatever it was, it had been effective. Crude, no doubt, but effective. If they had still held the original prisoner, then yes, using her as a hostage might well have been a good idea. But as it was.... He had underestimated Rulf, had never thought that the Tarshite would have tried to play the Game, much less come up with a winning move. That explained why she hadn't even attempted to escape, and might even stop any external rescue attempts. He was safe. She would still be here when someone with authority arrived to take her off his hands.
But somehow, his imagination refused to stop there, at the point where his involvement ceased. She would be taken to Boldhome. Questioned - no, let's be honest, tortured. Killed, eventually. She had to know that. He watched her hands move as she refilled his goblet, then her own. All he had to do was stay silent. He wasn't even the one telling a lie.
He hadn't even realised he had spoken aloud until she looked up. "What, no illegal bribery?"
"No." He felt sick, but he couldn't go through with this. He'd have to live with the knowledge of what his silence had done, and he couldn't do it. "If I actually held Olava, I might try it. But since she escaped, and we didn't recapture her - no, no bribery."
She went very still. "I see." She might have been about to say something more, but then the door burst open.
"You, you... traitor!"
Rulf was red in the face, shaking with rage. "It was all going to work, we'd get the glory, and then you let her seduce you. That's why you've been sneaking in here every night! Traitor!"
"No! I didn't..."
But he had. What he had just done was technically treason. The rest was laughable, but...
Rulf was advancing, scimitar drawn. He meant it. This should be just like on the practice field, but his scabbard was caught behind him, he couldn't even manage to stand up, and never before had he faced someone who actually, truly, wanted to kill him. This wasn't just a game, he really was going to die. He tried again to stand, stumbling, but he wasn't going to be in time, and the scimitar was coming down, and....
There was a crash, and a soggy thump, and Rulf gasped and staggered backwards. How? What? How had she moved that fast? The bottle she was holding was broken, and the red liquid on the sharp edges.... wasn't wine. Oh. Yes. He was supposed to be afraid of her, wasn't he? The thought floated past, irrelevant in the face of the very real threat.
Gemellus got to his feet. Only a few extra seconds, the big man had only been slowed, not stopped, but that was what he needed. Now draw. One hand on the scabbard, the other on the hilt, just like in practice. Centre guard. The Tarshite was coming back in, blind with fury, one hand clutching at his wound, the other swinging the scimitar in a vicious overhead arc. Oh, goddess help me... He held his scimitar out straight, both hands on the hilt, trying not to shake, not to flinch, his eyes squeezed shut as the charge hit... there was a sudden impact on his sword, almost pushing it out of his hands, and then something was dragging it down. A beat attack, something like that, they'd done it in class. Any moment now, he braced himself for the pain of the descending edge... but nothing.
Nothing? He opened his eyes. The thing dragging on his sword.... was Rulf's body. He must have run right on to his point without even stopping. He looked... surprised? Glazed. Blank. Oh - dead. So that was what it looked like.
"You all right?"
The sharp urgency of the question snapped him out of the frozen horror. "I - yes. Yes. I think..."
Her voice softened a little. "First time?"
He nodded, still unable to take his eyes off the body.
She half-stood, as far as the chains would let her move, pulled him round away from it. "No need to watch that, it's not going anywhere. Sit down."
He obeyed, numbly, his legs buckling beneath him.
"You don't need that thing." The scimitar vanished from his unresisting hand. "Now, breathe. Slowly. In... out... that's it." Somehow he forced his lungs to move past the paralysis that gripped him. "Better?"
"Yes." He could move again. The frozen scream was no longer blocking his throat. "Thanks." He looked back at the thing on the ground. "I messed that up, didn't I?"
"You're alive, he's dead. For a first time, that's good enough."
He stared at the body, at the Centurion's uniform, fascinated. Rulf wasn't coming back. It was no good saying he was sorry, that he'd try again. He was past the point of no return. "Somehow I always thought the first man I killed would be an enemy."
"He was trying to kill you. Sounds like the definition of an enemy to me."
"But he was on my side!"
"That depends on what you mean by "side", doesn't it?"
"Yes..." He realized, with that, how much things had changed in the last few minutes. "You didn't have to do that. Help me, I mean."
"You didn't have to tell me about Olava. But you did."
"I suppose..." he shook his head, still not really understanding why he had made the choice he had. "And once I'd done that, he didn't have a choice. It was treason, he was right."
"You're going to be in trouble over that, then, if they find out. And there's taxes involved, if only loosely - don't your people have some rather nasty enforcers they use if they suspect anything odd's going on with their precious taxes?"
"The Tax Demons. Yes." That sick terror was back again, only this time he knew that what he feared was very, very real. "If they find out I've killed my second in command, the first thing they'll want to know is what I was trying to hide. And when they find the lowest tax rate in Sartar, and half of that missing... they won't be happy." He had heard what the Tax Demons did when they were unhappy. He'd even seen one of their victims displayed, once.
"In that case, there's an easy answer. You didn't kill him. I did. While escaping. He died heroically trying to stop me, right?"
"Oh, come on. How did you think this was going to end? You can't keep delaying for ever. Sooner or later things would have got messy, and this way the only one hurt is the one who asked for it. And the only person blamed for it is me. No reprisals, just a few additions to the charge sheet."
"So how did you get out of those chains and away?"
"I must have tempted him in close, then taken the keys from his belt, I expect. Careless of him to carry them there, not leave them outside, despite your orders." She looked at the empty belt, then at the hook on the wall where the keys hung, well out of her reach.
A crossroads. He sat still, looking at the keys, trying to think of a way out of this, something that wasn't so obviously, explicitly, treason. Once he did that, there was no turning back. But then, that much was already true. He'd already made his decision. And this felt right, on many levels. He walked out into the corridor, weighed the keys in his hand. So heavy, for something so small. He re-entered the cell, turned Rulf's body to reach his belt-hook, ignoring the mess that a bottle and a sword had made.
"As you say. Careless of him." He turned his back, wanting to be sure he honestly didn't see what happened next, and paused, thinking. "He was the only guard on, while I was in here. When I leave, he'll take the inside post, and I'll send one of the youngsters to watch the outside. I'll pick the lad carefully, check his equipment is in order, and make sure he knows his duties before he takes up his position. It might take a few minutes."
"Good plan." The surprised respect in her tone gave him a warm glow of self-approval, before he wondered why the opinion of an enemy barbarian should matter to him. "But you missed one point."
"Yes." Her voice was studiously neutral. "When your people really want to ask someone questions, him merely being dead won't be enough to stop them."
"It won't?" He racked his brains, trying to cover this new development. If the entire body vanished.... But that was even worse than having it found, dead. "So what do we do?"
"What I do is make sure he can't talk. And you look away while I do it. Everyone knows Orlanthi take heads, it makes the story even stronger."
"Yes, of course..." then he remembered how that phrase "everyone knows" had been used before. "You mean you don't?"
"Not for generations. It's a good story, but that's all it is. Unless of course we're forced into it by people so barbaric they interrogate bodies."
"Oh. Yes, that makes sense." And thank the Goddess he wouldn't have to do it himself. There were some things he didn't want to know about, much less be responsible for. Though, when he phrased it like that...
"Just a minute." He took a deep breath, clenched his fists. "This makes no difference to you, whether he talks or not. It saves my career, probably my life. If I permit it to happen at all, I should do it. I'm an officer, I'm in command here, whatever happens is my responsibility." He could do it. He had to do it. He turned back to face her - free, now. And armed. And he still couldn't manage to be as afraid of her as he knew he should be. "Tell me how?"
There was a long pause. Then she picked up his scimitar from the floor and presented it to him, hilt first, with a degree of formality that he didn't understand. "You do it like this."
It's well after dark the night Insterid returns, on an exhausted horse. She eats hungrily, listening to Olava's report on movements in the village, then pushes the empty bowl away and pours the last of the ale from a captured jar. "Right. We'd better sort out how we're getting her out of there."
"Don't bother." The newcomer ducks under the doorflap and swipes Insterid's tankard with practiced ease. "Were you planning on leaving any of that for me?"
"Boss!..." For a moment Insterid's face lights up with relief, joy, guilt.... then she regains her normal cynicism. "Nope. If you wanted some, you should have got here earlier. What kept you?"
"Once I'd worked out what was keeping you, I realised you probably didn't want troops scouring the hills looking for fugitives while you were trying to hide a prisoner or two. I thought I'd stay put and keep them amused until you got back."
Insterid relaxes, her previous tension only apparent as it evaporates. "I'd wanted - but I can't be in two places at once."
"I know. Don't worry about it." She drains the tankard. "Still, we'd better get moving. The Lunars are going to get over-excited quite soon."
"They change watches an hour before dawn", Olava mentions.
"Exactly. So we'd better be gone before they find the body."
"Oh." Insterid sounds resigned. "Anyone in particular?"
"We've got a trophy to dispose of." She pulls out the bundle she's carrying, holds it up by the hair. Rulf's eyes glare blindly across the room, and Talin's stomach churns. "Not a nice man", she says reflectively. "And careless."
"Careless?" Insterid repeats, more thoughtfully than the word would seem to warrant. "I see. So what do you want doing with young Talin?"
"Talin? The boy with the lucky throwing arm?" She considers him, and Talin flinches back from that direct, too-accurate assessment. "Let him go - at least, leave him a knife for those ropes. He's only a kid, and I'm sure his masters will want to hear what he's got to tell them."
"You're sending him back to report having lost the Tribune's horse, his message, and his token? He'll be crucified!"
"I don't think so. I don't see Gemellus being unfair or unkind, under the circumstances. He'll want to know the situation, and won't shoot the messenger. This guy", she swings the head thoughtfully, "would have been another matter."
"Gemellus being the one with the useful uncle. Worth snatching him, do you think?"
"No need. We've got the token, that'll be enough for hostage purposes. It's already in use, for all we know. We don't need to really hold Gemellus, just convince his uncle that we might do."
"Oh, come on! Even a Lunar won't be stupid enough to fall for that for long."
"Long enough. And you'd be surprised at the risks people will refuse to take for someone they care about. Or he may just use it as a face-saver to avoid doing something he didn't want to do anyway, that's been known. Anyway, that's Broyan's problem. Play-time's over. Come on, we've got work to do."
"... and so I can assure you, my dear Uncle, that I am in the best of health and expect to remain so. While no replacement for Centurion Olafsson has as yet been appointed, there is no real need for the post to be filled until the Century is somewhat closer to full complement."
Gemellus dipped his quill into the ink again and considered that last sentence. It was true. He'd started off wondering how he could possibly handle the men without Rulf's experience to guide him, but found that basic common sense covered most eventualities. As long as you looked and sounded as if you knew what you were doing, they didn't question it. If you believe firmly enough that you're in charge, everyone else around you will believe it, too. Though pulling that off while disarmed, injured, in chains, and surrounded by enemies... Maybe that would take a bit more practice.
And Kallyr, for haunting my dreams.