At gray dawn we entered through the Gate of the Wall; we had been counted lost until the soldiers saw us cross the Arena. I had our loss of Hret, Glima and Nathada to report, but wrenched though I felt, I’d have been a fool to ignore how we had beaten the odds. Still my voice clenched tight with grief.
A hooded and cloaked figure sitting weary in the corner by the east benches rose, then stepped forward with Quillson’s characteristica limp. Mell turned, took two swift steps. Quillson grasped her dirty bloodied hands with both of his. I felt ready tears rise in my throat, and told myself that I was tired past bearing. It would be a toss-up between the baths and bed.
“Sign us all out,” Macc’s big voice growled to Adarte, this morning’s Head of Duty, “and let’s to the baths. We can keep each-other awake,” he said, leering at Zanel and placing one of his huge hands upon my shoulder, “so no one drowns before he’s clean.”
I had never touched him before except in battle training. Now he made me smile, I thumped him on his back, gesturing to Cascada and the rest.
“We have an invitation to the baths,” I shouted, my voice cracking a bit, “And Macc just said it was his treat!”
Forenoon two days later, I was writing accounts when a shadow passed over my papers and I heard the quick rap of a knuckle against my open door. One of my brindled rat’s children had lain in the sunlight on the desk, and he jumped at the interruption. I gentled him with my hand feeling how thin he still was from the ravages of pox. Very tame, more so than his predecessors. I called him Slate, because of his color. I looked up. Sylva’s fair hair shone in the brilliant sunlight, her head backlit so that I could not see her face.
“Master Ti,” she whispered. “Please come.”
At first I thought she came from the King, that he finally would approve my plans to harry the troops of King Saahr whose coming was rumored in the Outside now. I was tired, another long night out in the field and upon the Wall had left me ready in this period of freedom to take an afternoon of sleep. I looked at her ready to question, but she turned her face and her urgency stopped the questions on my lips.
Kassh rested in the stables, so I took another post horse from the corral. Sylva looked at my horse and a startled frown told me she had not expected a different beast. I wondered that it mattered Surely she did not expect me to walk. I did not ask, for I assumed we served a Royal command. However, when she had us leave our horses in a side alley tie-up, and took me into the Fortress by the tunnel that leads past the underground kitchens, I walked more warily, reassessing my expectation.
When I stepped into the large sunny room of the Fortress where King Matthew sat his throne on audience days, my eyes dazzled with light. Those who come for audience pass through a maze of corridors towards the center of the Fortress, and all the passages, though lit by various means, seem tall and gloomy, filled with a permanence of shadows. This day, the summer sun shone into the central courtyard of the Fortress, and the room filled with hot light, made me hesitate and blink again.
No one stood waiting but it felt bad in this room. There was a scent here, maybe of iron, a sound, and dread. More adrenaline pulsed in me; I placed my hand upon the hilts of my sword and I stopped. Blood.
“Please,” said Sylva, reaching towards me, not quite touching my sleeve. Her face bleached white with anxiety and stress had a staring look. I had helped train her for the Fortress and her skin bore some permanent marks of my dagger and my sword, and still she feared my strangeness. Now from her look I knew that she feared more than that and more than me.
I came into the huge room, drawn towards a tangle of draperies someone had cast upon the floor. I smelled blood, both dried and new. I heard a muffled panting of dying breath. Sylva bent to the piled cloth and dragged it brutally aside.
Haemerick had not been gutted, as my first thought told me. She lay spread-eagled, clamped to the floor pins that are sunk into the wooden floor by the King’s dais. The black cloth of her tunic and undergarments had been shredded with a fine knife, now drying crisp-edged with blood. Blood, seeping slowly and puddling even though no one cut ran deep enough to kill. Repeated slicing, done with great deliberation, had left open cuts up and down each arm and leg so that bone glinted in places, long cuts up and down abdomen and chest, that bared bone and the smoothly shining membranes that encase the inner organs. No cut had been done to deal a direct death; indeed care had been exercised to avoid the large vessels. Bleeding like this, from so many parts, would eventually kill her–she was in shock, near death now. I estimated even as I knelt down into her blood that she had been lying in this state more than an hour. You could see from marks on her wrists how she had strained against the pins as she felt the edge of cold steel. The gag that held her mouth stuffed closed had been bitten repeatedly, deeply, until the wood under the padding had splintered. I pried the bloodied thing out so that she could better breathe, but she made no noise except her rough breathing, still unconscious.
No time to ask Sylva if she could secure the room, and probably no chance her answer could be reassuring. I took Haemerick’s cold wrists in my hands and bent myself down into healing with a curse on my lips. Maybe it was stupid, maybe I should have asked for explanations, tried to understand how I should act, but the urge to do this thing was so great as to kill my other mind in this moment of need.
I remember using my hands to reshape the gaping wounds, to hold muscle back in its proper place, to draw drying damaged skin carefully back over clear membranes. She drew energy out of me until I could feel all my body tremble with weakness. Eventually I had done what I could, and I sat back upon my booted heels, noticing of a sudden that both my legs were asleep, full of pins and needles of the most trivial and yet annoying type of pain. Nothing to what had happened earlier in this room, and yet in this moment, straightening and easing the torture of my petty discomfort was all my brain could care about. That and sleep.
I looked around, blinking to clear my eyes and found Sylva, hunched on the other side of Haemerick, her large eyes fixed on me while I struggled to my numb feet. She leaned forward then, laying a shrinking hand upon Haemerick’s breast as if afraid of what she would learn by that, and I realized as I watched the expressions fleet across her suddenly vulnerable face how she loved Haemerick. Thus all the terrible urgency that had driven her to seek me. No longer had she the mask of uncaring superiority.
“So Thane Gehir lied when he told my Queen you had only one healing left in you, and that one for the Prince.”
“Maybe it was a good lie. She will be all right,” I said hoarsely, “if we can get her out of here and far from the City. Can you release her from the pins?”
She said nothing, unclipping the steel rods and setting them back into their slots so that the fetters could be pressed back into the floor where they normally rested. Without another word, she picked Haemerick’s slack body up in a carry over her strong shoulders and we stumbled from the empty sun-filled room with its heavy scent of drying blood. My legs trembled under me as Sylva went before with her burden. I followed her along a small dark passage that led down a flight of stairs. I could not offer to steady her progress, but Sylva seemed possessed of remarkable sureness and did not falter upon the narrow deeply-dished steps. I had to catch at the stone walls repeatedly like a drunk, though I carried nothing save my sword.
We avoided all the normal routes. I wondered even through my tiredness how Sylva had planned this. But I did not know how long I had been unaware in my healing state, and it could be that she had friends she had contacted, or perhaps there might be others who would not tolerate what the King had done. I had not heard it from Haemerick nor from Sylva, but I knew from handling the wounds who had wrought them. The feeling was like a smell, a reek that I recognized without explanation, and it belonged to King Matthew as surely as I lived.
Finally we entered an unlit room, and I heard Sylva slowly release her burden onto some surface. My eyes adjusted. We must have come to a chamber deep under the Fortress. Sylva had placed Haemerick upon a low couch or cot in the cold room.
“Make sure that she is kept warm. I have only started the healing and she has far to go,” I said.
“You must take a message from me to my own,” I added. “We cannot afford a search for me now, and I cannot keep from sleep. I had meant to sleep this afternoon away before this venture, and now I cannot do anything else. Even to save my life I could not stay awake.”
My words slurred even as I finished them.
“As you would have it,” Sylva answered. “You should not remain with her, though. If by mischance you should be found with her it would mean two deaths then.”
“Three,” I corrected. “No sane person promises to keep silence when Questioned. I could not swear to protect you however much I wanted to do so.”
She fell silent, then her strained voice spoke again, in a whisper so soft that it seemed she feared the Fortress itself might hear her.
“It was the King,” she said. “It was the King himself. He had her pinned, though she did not contend with him nor defy him. He dismissed us all from the room. High treason, he said, but he held no trial…. High treason by my commander?”
She covered Haemerick with blankets and furs she had apparently supplied to the room earlier, then led me out and up a curling stairway into one of the towers. The way was not familiar, but I realized that I had a fair idea of where I was, and that the Prince’s bedchamber lay only a corridor away.
“Here,” she said, pointing through at a small empty room and would have left me, carrying my scribbled note for the Wall, but I stopped her.
“Let her rest two days, perhaps three if possible. Do not come to see me again either in this room or at the Wall. I shall be on rotation duty here at the Fortress three days hence and I shall speak with you then.”
I believe I was asleep upon the floor before she had closed the door.
Someone had covered me while I slept, though it took me long drowsy minutes to realize that. I stretched, yawning until my jaw cracked, and heard a small sound.
I saw Prince Daniel almost before my sword had cleared two inches of steel, and I slid it back into the scabbard at my side.
“My Lord Prince,” I said, rolling to my feet and saluting him. “If it was your hand that covered me, more shame to my unwariness, and the more thanks to your grace.”
“You are more interesting when you are not polite,” he said, and grinned at me. “And I am surprised you have survived so long as a warrior with such a loud snore.”
“Your mother the Queen could have warned you of that,” I said. “She should excuse me because it is her fault that I snore. When we served the Wall together she hit me in the nose during sparring and broke cartilage there. It still makes a small crunching noise when I push it with my hand. I never snored before that blow.”
He watched me move towards the door.
“I will not ask you why you were here,” he said gravely, and I turned and looked at him. Funny that I had not even thought to wonder if his knowledge of my sleeping on this floor would put me or the other two in any danger. I had assumed he would protect the knowledge, and I felt my eyebrow rise in direct query as I met his gaze. Then he looked down at my hands and I felt the dried tightness of blood upon them. I looked too, and saw how the blood had been worked into the very grain of my skin.
“Indeed,” he said, “I shall not speak of it. The hallway is clear of guards. Take the third stairwell on your left, then be wary for I have made no arrangement beyond its foot. When you know me better I shall not have to reassure you. Godspeed, Corpsmaster Ti of the Wall.”
He saluted me formally as I mirrored him. I puzzled all the way back to my barracks through the lengthening light of early evening, why he seemed always to present more than one meaning. I did not think it was mere affectation, or some impulse to impress me with his foreknowledge. I sensed no pretense in him, and no strut. It would have been comforting to believe that someone on this green summer day knew where we were going, and what our future held, but whatever the Prince’s conviction, I would pin no hope there.
I knew I wanted to avoid the consideration of the King’s ill. I thought of it as madness, still of course I did not know. I had only acted as I did because I felt Haemerick was one of my own, and I had faith that whatever she might have done it hid no true evil. I did not know if Prince Daniel had knowledge of the day’s blooding, or if he suspected what healing I recovered from there on the floor like some drunken servant. I had felt from him no need to know, and that perhaps was more troubling than the rest. That implied he already knew it all.
“Master Ti,” Mell said to me as I entered my room, and I stopped in my tracks to see her waiting there.
“I have put you down for this night’s foray,” she said. “We leave in an hour’s time, so be ready for departure at the Gate.”
“I hear you,” I said, looking sharply at her quiet face. Again I felt its beauty, an austerity of control, and a purity of line that was accentuated by the binding of her brown hair in a knot at the top of her head. She did not meet my eyes as she left the room silently, and I sat down upon the edge of my bed.
So, I said to myself. This is my time, this is my place, and tonight my judgment. I felt as if I bled within my skin. Left alone, I would have slept this night hoping for clarity in the morning, but to go out as Master Mell intended, became another step I did not want to take. ‘The times we know have terrible ends,’ I remembered Thane Gehir saying. I also remembered that his voice had given no quarter to despair. He had spoken as if knowledge did not excuse resignation, as if the worst things clearly seen should only make for a more dedicated and desperate, but never a hopeless fight.
I went to my pack on the wall and pulled out a few strips of dried meat and a handful of nuts and raisins. Good. Slate had not had the energy to climb up to the hook and plunder my rations. Just enough to restore energy, not enough food to confuse the brain. I sat on the edge of my bed and ate quietly, considering.
As I had surmised, when our night foray left the Gate we moved quickly into the darkening night, only to swing around under cover of the woodland. About an hour later we stood waiting by the boulder that had saved us before. I felt no stirring in my mind this time. I touched the rough surface as I had before and the rock moved beneath my hand. Only when we had again searched the rooms and passages of the glowing hole and found it without presence of any kind did we come together in the small room where we had conferred before.
“We cannot do this frequently,” said Cascada. “Even this may be one meeting too many. Master Ti,” she turned to me. “there is much more that could have been said before, that must be said now.”
“I have a message for you,” Datch said, and handed me a twist of paper. I unrolled it and glanced down while the others spoke.
“The birds,” Liit said quickly. “The King’s message birds have been used more and more heavily. The pigeons that come to us have cages made of the Northern larch. So they will be returning to the place those trees grow.”
“The Burgmasters ask questions about the Prince. They ask what is the nature of his illness and if he will die of it,” I told them. “They look to see how our rulership will continue, or if it is time to make new friends.”
“We hear rumor of an army, the greatest of this age of humankind, coming down from the north,” Mell must have heard that from Quillson.
“Tell us, Corpsmaster Ti, ” Macc asked very quietly, rumbling like rock, “what happened today in the audience hall of the King?”
Are any secrets ever kept for more than a day and a night?
“Sylva of the Fortress called me and took me by back ways to the audience hall of the Fortress. She made sure none saw us. There I found Haemerick fettered to the floor, grievously wounded in such a manner as to inflict mutilation and eventually death, were she left to bleed. Repeated cuts, some bone-deep, none so placed as to give a quick death. Torture work. She slipped into shock. I worked a healing that may save her. Sylva concealed her in the deeps of the Fortress and found me a place to sleep as I need when I have done something of this kind. I have told Sylva that I shall see her when my tour of duty next brings me to guard the Fortress. Then I hope to bring Haemerick out from the Fortress. She must flee to exile. I do not know what else to do. I think Sylva will burn her sword and go also. Not in Assembly though; she will want to keep her life and serve her commander in exile, so she will burn it in secret to free herself.
“When I woke, ” I continued, “Prince Daniel stood by me. He asked me nothing of my business, only helped to conceal my departure from the Fortress. I cannot tell you what was in his mind. I cannot guess, though I trust him.”
I repeated to them what he had said to me, as nearly perfectly as my memory would allow.
I looked at all their blackened faces as I finished, Mell stood a little outside the circle, as if her position mirrored her mental distance as she tried to analyze the material now presented. Cascada was closer in, also standing, while my men, Macc and Zanel sat upon the floor in apparent relaxation, Liit and Ratcatcher with them. Both Berann and Datch crouched on their heels. Like hounds waiting for the word of release to begin the hunt, to course their prey.
“What kind of King turns upon his own?” Liit asked.
“How may we be certain it is the King’s doing? Do we know Sylva well enough to trust her word? I do not remember her with any warm affection,” Berann commented.
“It’s the King,” I shivered. “I could feel it on the wounds. The wounds were made with malice and with rage, and carefully, as deliberate as diplomacy.”
“A King has loyalty to his line, his people and his land. If expediency of diplomatic or other royal kind dictates it, would you fault him for valuing those needs above individuals? That is precisely what a King is for.” Datch said.
“What the King did, he did in anger because he felt he had the right on his side,” Cascada said.
“We never treat our criminals so without trial,” Liit shook her head. “Right has no easy definition, and a single man’s conviction, whatever his rank, cannot substitute for justice.”
“Is the King a man in the eye of the law? Or above it? Does he make what is legal?” I asked. “I am no expert; have any of you family in the practice of the arts of law?”
“I do,” rumbled Macc. “I think they sent me to the Wall because they were afraid they would otherwise spend fortunes on defending me from it.”
Zanel grinned briefly and I saw Mell’s mouth quirk.
“The law is full of change,” Macc said. “That’s not how we think of it, but each finding in each Hearing changes precedent, and all our law is built of precedent. So many years have gone since the last King acted as if his will overrode precedent, that I would have to employ my own brothers, and at a very high price, let me assure you, to tell us what the precedents were. We would need time to determine the right.”
“Does any soul here know what Haemerick of the Wall did today that might bring wrath upon her? It is the form of punishment and its secrecy that make me angry and afraid. I remember standing in the audience hall one night when our King Matthew sprang from his throne and slit a soldier’s throat for rage at his insolence and not one of us felt the King did any wrong then.” Datch shook her head.
“We do not govern ourselves,” Cascada said quietly. “We have oathed ourselves to the Wall and owe it our loyalty.”
“To the Wall or to the King? My hand yet bears a scar. Are you saying that the time is come to burn our swords?” Mell shook her head.
“That we cannot do,” I said. “Who just spoke of the armies coming out of the North? They are real. And if there’s communication between those armies of the North and our King, it may be in some service to his people that our King has done these things. Liit’s birds indicate that correspondence from the North comes to our King and is answered by him. Know that I have repeatedly urged the King to loose us upon this oncoming enemy. I have wanted to harry them, reduce their confidence and numbers before they reach the Arena. He tells me there are reasons of state for continued delay,” I swallowed before going on.
“Let me give you another interpretation, though it puts me in a black light. What if Haemerick of the Fortress is a Northern spy, and the King’s torture was devised to pull from her the information he needed to defend us all? If that be the case I should do my duty, find her in her hiding and slit her throat and Sylva’s too.”
“How did you find her,” Mell asked.
“Spread-eagled upon the floor, braceleted and ankleted to the pins that are installed by the King’s dais.”
“What else?” asked Mell, looking at me from under her lids, and then I remembered.
“Gagged,” I said. “Gagged, and the wooden center beneath all the gag’s padding was splintered with her clenching. Indeed, some of her teeth had broken. You are right Mell. She was not cut to elicit information.”
“So we are gagged too,” Mell said very softly. “Let any speak who see this otherwise.”
Zanel wanted to say something, but he shook his head in frustration as if he knew his words already inadequate.
“We cannot be a cabal, a tumor that chokes away the life of the body. We are part of the whole,” I said. “We must do what we can to serve that body without drawing our interests larger than they should be for the health of the whole. We cannot know the King’s motive yet. It may be that on the morrow he shall make some clarifying statement. Your oaths are to the King and the Wall; to the people of the City.”
“And what if these are three, not one?” I could not tell who said that. No one answered.
“By helping Haemerick to escape death, I commit a criminal act, even as Mell warned you I would when we last spoke here. Each one of you,” and I looked around, meeting their troubled eyes, “has the freedom to report that crime, according to your oath, whenever you see fit.
“I have no magical knowledge that what I do is right,” I added. “I see no other way that I can act. As Ti of the Wall, first-oathed to Thane Gehir, I have no choice.”
They did not speak. I stepped back and drew my gloves back on.
“This is a cold place,” I said. “Let us be gone. We can cast far down along the road and hunt for brigands to justify our outing.”
“Corpsmaster,” Cascada said, serious as she met my glance. “I have something to report…”
“And so have I,” came a chorus of other voices.
“Make your report,” I said, saluting with my hand to my breast, but the tears stung my eyes.
“I report that a transgression has occurred. To you as my superior officer I report that Ti of the Wall, First-Oathed to Thane Gehir, has conspired against the King’s will. She has released, healed and aided the escape of Haemerick of the Fortress, found guilty by the King of crimes unknown, undeclared and unjudged.”
“I hear you,” I said as clearly as I could. It was hard, as hard a thing as I have ever done to hear their soft laughter and their triumph and not show all the raw emotion they awoke in me.