Chapter Fourteen: Advice and Ambush

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“Master Ti,” Quillmaster’s deep firm voice startled me  where I stood  by the barracks and watched with a critical eye the sparring of new-come recruits.

“I had business in this part of town,” she said to me with a half-bow, her green ribbons moving a little in the net of gold over her russet hair “and I had thought to see your Master Mell. Instead I am told she travels upon a mission in the Outside. May I have your company home, that I might speak to you of her espousal to my son?”

That was not why she wanted me at all. Her smile had some trick in it.

“I am off shift,” I said. “I would be honored to go with you, if you believe that I may help.”

“Why does the young woman resist setting a firm date for her marriage?” Quillmaster said me as we walked to her carriage.

“I do not know,” I said, feeling like a very poor co-conspirator indeed as I shouldered my way after her. “Can she have difficulties with her parents?”

“They matter little in this, now that she belongs to the Wall. There’s no inheritance to quibble over, no groom-price to pay. She’s all the advantage in that.” Quillmaster settled herself in the carriage and gestured me to take a facing seat before the doors closed. Even after she was seated she had to adjust the fullness of her patterned green silks.

As the carriage began to move, she closed her eyes a moment, then opened them to look at me, her face altering from common arrogance into the alert focus I had seen before.

“Will Prince Daniel live?” she asked.

I looked at her and said nothing.

“Oh I know he has some ailment; anyone who cares to know such things can discover so much as that. But he is needed for this City,” she said. “For this Kingdom there can be no substitute. Do you think it possible that we could see a new king-line arise? No family stands above the rest. The contest would ruin our people. Dismiss the thought.”

“I never think things like that,” I said.

She glanced at me but let it pass.

“It would mean bloodshed, civil war. We have too many equally powerful families who would contend for the prize. In the meantime, Saahr…” she broke off.

“Let me give you no history lessons,” she said. “You are by all report a good enough historian that I’d be a fool to try. What I must know is whether we can be sure we can pin our future to his.”

“Quillmaster,” I said, interrupting even as her lips parted on another word. “What I can tell you of Prince Daniel is that he has the will of a great prince with both spirit and generosity. He will have my loyalty, in all things. He has earned it by nature of his character. He understands both suffering and the suffering experienced by others, and in his soul, he is no child.”

Her green eyes frowned at me with unspoken contentions. I looked back at her, keenly aware of how out of place I was in my spare soldier’s garb, black and gray leggings with stained tunic, my sword hilts under my hand. A very crow of a human, thin and small, black hair tied back, pale-faced with a bruise from an ill-blocked blow from sparring yesterday. I looked at her beautifully painted face, the jeweled flower made of chip garnets and beryl set into her cheek piercing, the brilliance of her large eyes lined in maroon. She sat opposite me, opposite in more than her position, in her rich sea green and emerald silks, her flurry of gold netted ruddy hair over her shoulders, high color on her skin.

“Nor,” I said deliberately, “have I found any weakness in his heart.”

“You have made yourself very clear,” she said. I felt she did not like what I had expressed. Had she hoped to angle for support for some new king-candidate? Despite her specific declaration for Prince Daniel, had she been sounding the waters? Any family with the Wall backing it might rise to rulership.”I shall think over what you have said, and what you have not.”

She rapped on the roof to stop the vehicle. I backed out of her carriage with what politeness I could manage. When I was little my mother had made me practice such moves, but I had worn skirts and petticoats to cover the movements of my feet. I had no such graceful concealments now.

It took me a good forty minutes to make my way back to barracks. People like the Quillmaster do not remember the convenience of others, and if I had been less occupied with holding my tongue, perhaps I would have served my own interests better by reminding her that I could use a ride back home again after I had ‘kept her company’.U to Z

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What came next made no sense to me at the time. But it held importance in a very different direction than I imagined.

A night attack caught us Outside the Wall with barely a dozen warriors, and we had no warning. Mell, Berann, Nathada, Hret, Glima, big Macc, Datch and Cascada all came from my same year and I knew them particularly well. The group had been selected by lot but now I believe there was no accident in their choosing. The enemy were not an extremely large force, and their assault made no sense. It was as if they executed an assignment rather than attempted a raid for profit. Every raid should make sense to both sides, and if it doesn’t, take warning.

Word had come from the Fortress that my own corps must meet a company of riders whose arrival at the Gate had been delayed until after dark. All our scouts had reported the hills inactive, the road clear. Considering it good practice, I ordered my people to treat this as an exercise in stealth, and when we departed the Wall, we moved like erratic shadows across the naked Arena and into the woodland. As I took point and headed along a side trail, the hair on the back of my neck prickled. The woodland felt too silent to me; there were none of the cries of owls that I would expect in these summer months, nor the snarling hiss of a woodcat. Wrong. Something other than ourselves roamed. I slowed down, using every sense I had, even smell. Five miles down the way, it was my nose that gave me first warning. An inelegant savior, but effective.

I had climbed a slight rise naturally bereft of trees because of a landslide two years ago. Half-standing, I looked over the silent woods and tested the air. I smelled sheep’s tallow. We do not use it in our City; sheep are too destructive to the land to set loose anywhere in our Innerlands and we only purchase the products of sheep from the nomads of the North. The guests King Matthew had sent us to meet were not Northerners. I chanced a shrill split whistle of a nighthawk to warn a retreat for my people and nearly collected an arrow between my teeth for my pains. I ducked and slithered from the rise down through thickets of berry vines until I could crawl into the woodland.

After that it was a long way home, with the bitter confusions of a half-moon’s light complicating our fight. A whistle of arrows, a clash of swords and then a panting run until they intercepted us again. At the time I assumed the riders we had been sent out to meet had already been ambushed and killed, but later on I realized that there could be another explanation.

In the beginning the enemy seemed to have mingled with us in a surprising way, as if they had been advancing into our line before I’d given warning, but we began to beat them back, and while they fought us sword to sword, we were spared their arrows. They seemed decent fighting troops to me. It was not their fault we were better.

Any other team of warriors but my own would have left their blood and livers strewn in the bushes. However, I had never pardoned myself for the sloppy way my group had met our own teachers in battle on the day of my First Oath, and I had practiced with my soldiers every trick we could invent and test by night or day on uneven terrain. This twelve were my best, my old sword-mates, and we knew our jobs. And we had mapped the unevenness of the woodland for seven miles along and around the road. On this night we used these things. Some of our enemy simply fell, but their falls were long falls, down rocky crevasses we knew so well. We left three of our own dead in the first miles of our running retreat. I know two of them, Hret and Glima, used their personal blades to keep from slowing us down. I think their wounds from the enemy were mortal, but I remember them with the other old and loyal friends who died by their own blades whenever I speak now with the Simple God. Nathada, though, she died fast, by big Macc’s side, he beheading her with a cutlass blow when he saw the nature of her wound.

We had some lead by the time we reached the Arena. There we had to cross open space. I saw Mell look again over her shoulder and duck as another flight of arrows hissed by. One nicked her shoulder, but she did not hesitate and I hoped it had only caught cloth. Poisoned arrows are not impossible in our world, though few warriors with any pride use them. I looked ahead and saw that the unexpected had occurred, and I did not understand. Enemy soldiers were sprinting now across the Arena, coming towards us as if they had been concealed near the Wall itself. Not so many of them, twice our nine. How had they come there? No mortal could have outpaced our fighting retreat. We couldn’t have the Gates opened to us now; we’d been cut off, the enemy were too close, their reinforcements coming through woodland and road. Had they been there waiting all this while for us to be driven into their arms? If so, they must have waited in hiding while we passed them on our way out and that was hard to believe. We must have known of their presence by their smell. They must have moved into position after our departure.

Impossible, but I did not stop to think. I yelled an order to regroup, and my people came, knotting into a fighting unit. We had several bare boulders, rocks just larger than horses against which to set our backs. We stumbled to a halt, catching our breaths. I heard Cascada waste a little of hers in a quiet line of cursing, but I did not bother to quibble.

Pay attention. Like a door opening in my mind, I saw with eyes that knew nothing of it being night, that there was a door that would open to my touch if I simply moved three steps to my left and tapped, just so, the tall boulder standing there. Maybe it was a memory from one of the people I had healed; it had that flavor of brilliant conviction without context. So convincing were image and feeling, that I moved before I could question, and tapped. Even as I had seen it in my mind, the boulder grated to one side. I saw a dimly glowing hole slanting away down into earth. My one glance into it saw no bottom, only a tunnel. No time for other chances. No time for indecision.

“In and down,” I snapped, shoving Cascada, and then Mell who were closest to me. They jumped into the maw of this unknown, unhesitating. Datch bit off a nasty word as she fell in, tucked and rolled, two of my men, then Berann, and the two youngest warriors, Ratcatcher and Liit tumbled after. The enemy could not see us well enough to be sure of what we did, and they had slowed their advance in wariness. I hit the boulder twice with my palm and it began to shift back again as I somersaulted down into the hole, wondering as I did so why I had not even thought that we might have trapped ourselves by this move. The right thing to do, said the voice in my head.

It seemed to me that I rolled over fifteen feet of smooth steep slope before I stopped. I rose to my feet. I found that I stood in an enlarged cavern, square-cornered, about seven feet in height, with three openings leading further. Two of these emitted a low glow.

“JeKri, Corpsmaster,” Berann said. “What is this fewking place?”

I knew only an unnatural calm within, as if my brain were too busy with some other kind of information to waste its energies in panic.

“Datch,” I said, ” you and Liit return down the passageway we entered and listen to see if our enemies can find a way in. Give us warning. If they come, we can kill them one by one as they enter this place. I must go further in.”

For the first time under my command, Datch and Liit both hesitated in the odd faint light, their eyes gleaming wildly in the darkness of their painted faces. Then they turned and obeyed.

“Quiet,” I gestured to the others and shouldered my way through them to follow the source of vague light. I took the right hand glowing passage out of some half-superstitious memory, as if that choice might bring me luck.

“Gods be saved,” I heard someone behind me whisper.

The surface of this place was polished in appearance, though not slippery to walk upon, and all of the corners stood at right angles so perfect that I wondered if they could be the product of human hands. Perhaps this place was old, as old as the Fortress. The air seemed cold, but fresh, as if channels of some kind communicated with the outside world,. The place didn’t smell of earth despite the depth at which we walked. I came to another room, this one far larger than the first. This was where I stopped, and I realized the source of part of my unease. There was no dust; not in the passages, nor in these rooms, and while there were tables made of waxy white stone here, and the walls dimly glowed like those in the Halls of Hearing within the Fortress, there were no seats, as if whatever or whoever had built this place had not needed any. The tables stood empty, and I found no sign of any other information and no other exit.

I turned back and found both Mell and Cascada close behind me, their bloody swords in their hands, and I looked down at my own with a shock of remembrance. We hadn’t even cleaned our swords. From night battlefield filled with urgency and the smell of fresh blood, to this eerie calm gray place under the earth. How could one believe this was reality?

I returned to the first room, and looked up the passage to the surface where Liit and Datch stood warily listening.

“Any sign?” I asked.

“We have heard nothing,” Datch whispered. “I cannot even hear their feet. How shall we know when we can go home?”

“Let me look about down here for a little longer,” I said, and passing through the small room, entered the left-hand way with Mell and Cascada again following me. The others had settled to wait, their slowly drying swords still unsheathed and ready in their hands.

To my astonishment the left hand passage was brutally short, with  a swinging door to one side which opened to my touch, leading into a little nearly empty room. I looked around and giggled. It is an embarrassment to me to say such a thing, but it is true. Cascada and Mell looked at one another as I walked through the room, and nervous smiles bared their teeth in response to my undignified sound. I had no doubt about the room’s use; it was an indoors outhouse, with a rectangular unit in one corner that had faint stains of water. I put my hand in and startlingly, rain fell from above. I backed out fast, shaking off the drops as if they were caustic. But no harm ensued, and I smelled it carefully. When I tasted what had fallen on the back of my hand, it was water, a little stale in taste, seemingly good enough.

“We could stay here for a long time,” I said, “if the water doesn’t run dry. There must be a cistern of some kind in the roof of this place. I believe from the direction in which we have walked that we are approaching the boulders that stand in the center part of the Arena.”

I retreated out of the little room and continued down the corridor, Mell and Cascada following.

“Who told you this place was here?” Mell asked. “How many times we could have used this bolt hole…”

“I think not. The time for its use was never right before,” I said. “This was an unusual circumstance. We were in trouble in just the right way and time for this to be our refuge. I never knew of it before. It came to me as I stood readying for our last fight that I had only to step over two paces and tap on the boulder just so, for a door to open. I still feel as if I dream.”

“But who gave you the knowledge?” Cascada asked me, the black skin tight around her pale eyes.

“I do not know. Maybe one of the people I healed?”

“Ever since you were touched by the blood of Thane Gehir,” Mell said in a very even voice, “you have been changing. Once you asked if honor would live in the dark. Now I ask you if honor can live in such a light as this.”

“We need to go on,” I said. “I have no answer for you Mell,” I added, and possibly a little of the strange grief in me entered my voice. “I do not know myself.”

I went down the corridor a stranger, following the light.

This room stood very large and wide but low, pillars of squared stone supporting the ceiling. In this room tables and barrels and boxes scattered all about the floor, as if a fight had left this disorder. I stood in the doorway with Mell and Cascada and looked across into a field of flickering uncanny colors on the far wall. Without further word, we backed up into the corridor, returning to the room where all but Datch and Liit waited. I went to Datch. I touched her shoulder and looked into her blackened face, remembering her talk of dreams and  strange machines so many years ago.

“I ask you to go down the left-hand way and see the room at its end,” I said. “It is not an order, it is a thing I ask.”

Then I waited with Liit, straining my ears for any sound that we might catch from the world above. It seemed a long time before Datch returned.

“Corpsmaster,” she said, and I heard a thrill in her voice. “Come with me to see this place.”

I had no clear argument against her, but I had to fight my unwillingness. I called Cascada to take my place by Liit, then followed Datch. As we passed through the little central room, I saw with relief that several of my soldiers had begun cleaning their swords with the little bits of oiled rag that many carry in their pouches for exactly such use during the inevitable delays in fighting. They glanced up as we went by, and I could not bring myself to meet their eyes.

“Is there another way out?” Macc asked in his deep growl.

“Possibly,” Datch said, “But it isn’t easy.”

When we entered the room, she reached for my arm and grasped it. “This colored wall will make you dizzy,” she said, “Don’t look into it. Instead, stare at the floor. Or perhaps to the side.”

“This place is familiar to you in your dreams,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “The tools I used in dreams are gone, or maybe stored in these holding containers, but the place has a sense of home to me. Maybe it is merely similar. That familiarity is enough to let me cross this room, even though I can both sense and understand how it will disturb the others.”

I did as she asked, my head bent, watching my black boots step over and around the containers and fragments that littered the floor, with the presence of the flickering colors just beyond the range of my sight. But the awareness itched at me, and it took real effort to keep my gaze averted.

“Here,” she said, and lifted my hand in hers to touch the contour of another door.

“Can you see where this leads?”

“No, but when you think about where we are under the Arena, this way should bring us back towards the woodland. Those who used this place made it a long time past, and while I am unsure of its uses, they must have had to pass back and forth as any other physical beings would.”

“Let us try it then,” I said, wanting to escape the shivering of light that seemed to beat upon my left cheek.

This door too, swung open to a touch, but this passage had no light in its walls and grew darker and darker as we moved down its straight way. I felt that our progress took much time, but in truth no more than a half hour later, we encountered a door that seemed not to be a door, but a wall of earth.

“Do you know how this is opened?” Datch asked me. “Do your strange seeings tell you what to do?”

I stepped forward and tried to listen. Nothing came to me. Finally I put my hands to the rough earth and pushed slightly. The earth slid  in a low block, sideways, as easily as if on wheels, and I found myself looking out on trees and scrub, clustering thickly over this exit. With no word to Datch, just a gesture that she stay where she stood, I slipped out, low and crouching and made my way carefully into the wood for some distance before I rose high enough to take some reckoning of my position. The stars told me it was near midnight already. More time had passed in our explorations than I had realized. I stared out through the branches at the pale grounds of the Arena, and saw no figures moving there. I did not trust this. Once already tonight we had been caught unwarned. I worked my way with slow care around to the south, wishing in the back of my mind that Mell was with me, for she had superb abilities as a woodsman, with a better sense of the natural life of the night.

I heard crickets and nearby to me an owl spoke. That at least had changed for the normal. Still I spent nearly an hour observing before I returned to where Datch waited.

practice best

When we had made our way back and through that terrifying room with its wall of changeful light, we heard the others talking quietly as we came down the passage.

“I know the Corpsmaster comes. Why should I hush?” Macc’s tone challenged. “This is too important.”

“Indeed,” Zanel said in his beautiful voice, “of all people we must talk to, our Corpsmaster comes first. We have been betrayed. It is no treason to say what is true. Our enemy knew we came; they had members hidden to wait for us as if they knew the terrain too. One group by the Wall, the others driving us back to them. And at first contact in the woodland, they were approaching us as we approached them. That is why Glima, Hret and Nathada are dead.”

“Would you keep secrets from your sword mates?” Mell stood in the circle, not looking towards us as we emerged from the passageway, yet I believed her fully aware of our presence. “For do not deceive yourselves, that is where this talk takes us. Into deceit, into secrecy, and into dishonor.”

“No, of course not,” Ratcatcher said. “No secrets between soldiers. This refuge is too valuable to keep secret from our swordmates.”

They looked at us as we approached the circle.

“Datch,” I turned and called low, “Liit, join us. I have been out and seen that our enemies are no longer to be found near. We can take some little time for this coil.

“You say we were betrayed. By whom and for what purpose, and in what way? Say on.”

“Our coming was known. The terrain was better understood by our enemy than it should have been. I say they lay in wait for us, fully prepared for our coming. And they had prepared a reception at the edge of the Arena for us, awaiting our return to the Wall, making as sure as they might that none of us would return home. We should all have died, caught between two forces, Corpsmaster Ti, if it had not been for your magical tunnel in the ground and your moving rocks. And if it had not been for the ways in which you have prepared us. We used to joke about that,” Liit said.

“Yes, we joked that you saw enemies behind every bush and in every bird’s nest. That you would have us able to fight through a forest in the pouring sleet, and not have a speck of rust on our blades save that which came from hot blood. We made much fun of your drills where we swung from branches like woodcats to make war, or fell on purpose to roll and stab the rushing enemy from below. I reek of innards tonight because of that notion,” Zanel said.

“Yes, you stink,” Cascada told him. “But it was well done. You went down as if you were sore wounded and he had not the wit to think otherwise in the moment before your blade ripped him. It was very well done.”

“You allege betrayal. Have you suspicions? Is this a betrayal, or is it that we are better observed than we know by those Outside?” I asked.

No one said anything for a moment, frowning to themselves, their blackened faces sweat-streaked in the dull glow.

“There is no proof,” said Datch. “But what say you all? This came from inside our Wall.”

The others made a sound of uneasy agreement.

“There is no proof,” Mell said, “but there is suspicion.”

“Who are we?” I asked. I looked around at them. I knew each of their bodies very nearly as well as I knew my own. Reflex and habit, mood and manner. It was a curious blend; I had injured nearly every one of these people seriously at one time or another. I had saved their lives or been saved by them, and we had shared loss of temper, hunger and thirst, illness, strains of waiting, both pain and weariness beyond easy words. Losing Hret, losing Nathada, losing Glima, I felt like I had lost parts of my own body. Each one’s favorite jokes, their skill, their ferocity, their needs, had been part of mine.

“We are of the Wall, we are of the forty,” said Liit.

“We are Corpsmaster Ti’s first corps,” Ratcatcher said.

“For whom do we fight? For ourselves; for pleasure? For our profit?”

“For our Oath,” said Mell. “For the people of the City and our King.”

“For you,” Cascada said. “For all of us.”

“Then who are we? And if you can answer that, who is against us?” I looked around.

“We are the soldiers of the Wall. The enemies of our City and our King and our Corpsmaster stand against us.”

“Drop that,” I said. “Your oath is to the King and the City and each to the other; never to your Corpsmaster, you fight at my side and I at yours, to do honor to that oath.”

“Though you have no oath to the king,” Mell said thoughtfully. “Nor to the City. Corpsmaster Ti belongs to the Thane Gehir.”

“Yes,” I said, and waited to see what the others would do.

“Master Mell, you have been remembering this difference and reminding us all along of it. Now is the time for you to say what is in your heart, my friend,” Cascada said.

“I have this to say, that of all the members of our Wall, Corpsmaster Ti belongs the least and gives most. There have not been many like her because to have members of any body whose loyalty lies outside the group is too dangerous. She owes her First Oath to a man she barely knows, having pledged it in her pride and anger when she knelt whipped upon the open road. If he had denied her she would have taken her own blade and spilled her life. But he did accept.

“He has left her here to serve until the day comes when he will claim her service. If that service runs against us, or against the kingdom of King Matthew, she will either burn her sword or break between two wills. She is the best of us in battle, excepting Berann’s bow arm. She has drunk more deaths with her sword than even I, yet she stands before you in constant jeopardy. Because she is not Firsted to the King, she has a free mind and free judgment. Freedom to commit crimes against the City, the body of the whole, and more than that, freedom to justify them.” Mell went on.

“I talk of this, I remind us all of honor, because we do not think, we who are Firsted to the King. The necessity is gone; we are become parts of a whole and we obey its need and we assume that is the entire tale. Master Ti has only herself and her own judgment to rely upon until Thane Gehir’s direct command claims her.

“In these past months we have been challenged in our perception of our Corpsmaster. She has become again and again foreign to us, from her service in healing, to even the incident of this night which saved us. I think this is a matter of the Gods, and that there is purpose in it.

“I know this human,” Mell said, and her voice which had been as sharp as a knife softened. “I knew her when she still had a family and a warm place in their hearts. I knew her in the first bitterness of her loss of them, and her early commitment to the Wall. I knew her anger, her rage, and I saw how this matter of belonging to the Thane Gehir changed her. She is not done changing. She’s a danger to us because nothing she ever does will be safe for her, and nothing will come easy. She stands upon an edge between honor and dishonor.” Mell took a breath before she continued.

“I think she’s all the more ours, for that reason. We need her. And that is why I have spoken, because it seems better to me to have these things said openly among us than to shy from half-perceived fears, or to depend on assumptions. We need to know who we are. We need to know who she is. And we need to know and accept that even our trust will always have a potential to betray us.”

“We cannot be responsible for our enemies,” Cascada added, her light eyes on my face. “But we shall be responsible for ourselves. That is all we can do.”

“All trusts have the potential to betray,” Macc rumbled. “It may even be possible that the King …”

No one picked up that thread, but we understood each other.

“How be it then,” Datch said, lifting her head from her knees, “if we hold silence upon our discovery here and see if any rumor of it still comes to our ears? For any who ask, we have been hid in the woodlands this night, avoiding our enemies. It is only a few feet from reality,” she said. “The Corpsmaster and I have found another way out which leads into the woodland.”

“Should we not oath ourselves to this silence?” Berann queried.

“No,” I protested. “We must all go free. If we raised new oaths who would be able to take any step without entanglement?”

“So, ” Mell said softly. “Maybe honor will survive another day. Or another night.”

I wanted to say many things that crowded in me and I could not speak. I merely gestured and my people rose, ready for the next part of our journey. Datch and I led them down the passageway towards our escape.

“Master Ti,” Quillmaster’s deep firm voice startled me from my post by the barracks where I stood and watched with a critical eye the sparring of the new-come recruits.

“I had business in this part of town,” she said to me with a half-bow, her green ribbons moving a little in the net of gold over her russet hair “and I had thought to see your Master Mell. Instead I am told she travels upon a mission in the Outside. May I have your company home, that I might speak to you of her espousal to my son?”

That was not why she wanted me at all. Her smile had some trick in it.

“I am off shift,” I said. “I would be honored to go with you, if you believe that I may help.”

“Why does the young woman resist setting a firm date for her marriage?” Quillmaster said me as we walked to her carriage.

“I do not know,” I said, feeling like a very poor co-conspirator indeed as I shouldered my way after her. “Can she have difficulties with her parents?”

“They matter little in this, now that she belongs to the Wall. There’s no inheritance to quibble over, no groom-price to pay. She’s all the advantage in that.” Quillmaster settled herself in the carriage and gestured me to take a facing seat before the doors closed. Even after she was seated she had to adjust the fullness of her patterned green silks.

As the carriage began to move, she closed her eyes a moment, then opened them to look at me, her face altering from common arrogance into the alert focus I had seen before.

consultation wi Quillmaster

“Will Prince Daniel live?” she asked.

I looked at her and said nothing.

“Oh I know he has some ailment; anyone who cares to know such things can discover so much as that. But he is needed for this City,” she said. “For this Kingdom there can be no substitute. Do you think it possible that we could see a new king-line arise? No family stands above the rest. The contest would ruin our people. Dismiss the thought.”

“I never think things like that,” I said.

She glanced at me but let it pass.

“It would mean bloodshed, civil war. We have too many equally powerful families who would contend for the prize. In the meantime, Saahr…” she broke off.

“Let me give you no history lessons,” she said. “You are by all report a good enough historian that I’d be a fool to try. What I must know is whether we can be sure we can pin our future to his.”

“Quillmaster,” I said, interrupting even as her lips parted on another word. “What I can tell you of Prince Daniel is that he has the will of a great prince with both spirit and generosity. He will have my loyalty, in all things. He has earned it by nature of his character. He understands both suffering and the suffering experienced by others, and in his soul, he is no child.”

Her green eyes frowned at me with unspoken contentions. I looked back at her, keenly aware of how out of place I was in my spare soldier’s garb, black and gray leggings with stained tunic, my sword hilts under my hand. A very crow of a human, thin and small, black hair tied back, pale-faced with a bruise from an ill-blocked blow from sparring yesterday. I looked at her beautifully painted face, the jeweled flower made of chip garnets and beryl set into her cheek piercing, the brilliance of her large eyes lined in maroon. She sat opposite me, opposite in more than her position, in her rich sea green and emerald silks, her flurry of gold netted ruddy hair over her shoulders, high color on her skin.

“Nor,” I said deliberately, “have I found any weakness in his heart.”

“You have made yourself very clear,” she said. I felt she did not like what I had expressed. Had she hoped to angle for support for some new king-candidate? Despite her specific declaration for Prince Daniel, had she been sounding the waters? Any family with the Wall backing it might rise to rulership.”I shall think over what you have said, and what you have not.”

She rapped on the roof to stop the vehicle. I backed out of her carriage with what politeness I could manage. When I was little my mother had made me practice such moves, but I had worn skirts and petticoats to cover the movements of my feet. I had no such graceful concealments now.

It took me a good forty minutes to make my way back to barracks. People like the Quillmaster do not remember the convenience of others, and if I had been less occupied with holding my tongue, perhaps I would have served my own interests better by reminding her that I could use a ride back home again after I had ‘kept her company’.

#

What came next made no sense to me at the time. But it held importance in a very different direction than I imagined.

A night attack caught us Outside the Wall with barely a dozen warriors, and we had no warning. Mell, Berann, Nathada, Hret, Glima, big Macc, Datch and Cascada all came from my same year and I knew them particularly well. The group had been selected by lot but now I believe there was no accident in their choosing. The enemy were not an extremely large force, and their assault made no sense. It was as if they executed an assignment rather than attempted a raid for profit. Every raid should make sense to both sides, and if it doesn’t, take warning.

Word had come from the Fortress that my own corps must meet a company of riders whose arrival at the Gate had been delayed until after dark. All our scouts had reported the hills inactive, the road clear. Considering it good practice, I ordered my people to treat this as an exercise in stealth, and when we departed the Wall, we moved like erratic shadows across the naked Arena and into the woodland. As I took point and headed along a side trail, the hair on the back of my neck prickled. The woodland felt too silent to me; there were none of the cries of owls that I would expect in these summer months, nor the snarling hiss of a woodcat. Wrong. Something other than ourselves roamed. I slowed down, using every sense I had, even smell. Five miles down the way, it was my nose that gave me first warning. An inelegant savior, but effective.

I had climbed a slight rise naturally bereft of trees because of a landslide two years ago. Half-standing, I looked over the silent woods and tested the air. I smelled sheep’s tallow. We do not use it in our City; sheep are too destructive to the land to set loose anywhere in our Innerlands and we only purchase the products of sheep from the nomads of the North. The guests King Matthew had sent us to meet were not Northerners. I chanced a shrill split whistle of a nighthawk to warn a retreat for my people and nearly collected an arrow between my teeth for my pains. I ducked and slithered from the rise down through thickets of berry vines until I could crawl into the woodland.

After that it was a long way home, with the bitter confusions of a half-moon’s light complicating our fight. A whistle of arrows, a clash of swords and then a panting run until they intercepted us again. At the time I assumed the riders we had been sent out to meet had already been ambushed and killed, but later on I realized that there could be another explanation.

In the beginning the enemy seemed to have mingled with us in a surprising way, as if they had been advancing into our line before I’d given warning, but we began to beat them back, and while they fought us sword to sword, we were spared their arrows. They seemed decent fighting troops to me. It was not their fault we were better.

Any other team of warriors but my own would have left their blood and livers strewn in the bushes. However, I had never pardoned myself for the sloppy way my group had met our own teachers in battle on the day of my First Oath, and I had practiced with my soldiers every trick we could invent and test by night or day on uneven terrain. This twelve were my best, my old sword-mates, and we knew our jobs. And we had mapped the unevenness of the woodland for seven miles along and around the road. On this night we used these things. Some of our enemy simply fell, but their falls were long falls, down rocky crevasses we knew so well. We left three of our own dead in the first miles of our running retreat. I know two of them, Hret and Glima, used their personal blades to keep from slowing us down. I think their wounds from the enemy were mortal, but I remember them with the other old and loyal friends who died by their own blades whenever I speak now with the Simple God. Nathada, though, she died fast, by big Macc’s side, he beheading her with a cutlass blow when he saw the nature of her wound.

We had some lead by the time we reached the Arena. There we had to cross open space. I saw Mell look again over her shoulder and duck as another flight of arrows hissed by. One nicked her shoulder, but she did not hesitate and I hoped it had only caught cloth. Poisoned arrows are not impossible in our world, though few warriors with any pride use them. I looked ahead and saw that the unexpected had occurred, and I did not understand. Enemy soldiers were sprinting now across the Arena, coming towards us as if they had been concealed near the Wall itself. Not so many of them, twice our nine. How had they come there? No mortal could have outpaced our fighting retreat. We couldn’t have the Gates opened to us now; we’d been cut off, the enemy were too close, their reinforcements coming through woodland and road. Had they been there waiting all this while for us to be driven into their arms? If so, they must have waited in hiding while we passed them on our way out and that was hard to believe. We must have known of their presence by their smell. They must have moved into position after our departure.

Impossible, but I did not stop to think. I yelled an order to regroup, and my people came, knotting into a fighting unit. We had several bare boulders, rocks just larger than horses against which to set our backs. We stumbled to a halt, catching our breaths. I heard Cascada waste a little of hers in a quiet line of cursing, but I did not bother to quibble.

Pay attention. Like a door opening in my mind, I saw with eyes that knew nothing of it being night, that there was a door that would open to my touch if I simply moved three steps to my left and tapped, just so, the tall boulder standing there. Maybe it was a memory from one of the people I had healed; it had that flavor of brilliant conviction without context. So convincing were image and feeling, that I moved before I could question, and tapped. Even as I had seen it in my mind, the boulder grated to one side. I saw a dimly glowing hole slanting away down into earth. My one glance into it saw no bottom, only a tunnel. No time for other chances. No time for indecision.

“In and down,” I snapped, shoving Cascada, and then Mell who were closest to me. They jumped into the maw of this unknown, unhesitating. Datch bit off a nasty word as she fell in, tucked and rolled, two of my men, then Berann, and the two youngest warriors, Ratcatcher and Liit tumbled after. The enemy could not see us well enough to be sure of what we did, and they had slowed their advance in wariness. I hit the boulder twice with my palm and it began to shift back again as I somersaulted down into the hole, wondering as I did so why I had not even thought that we might have trapped ourselves by this move. The right thing to do, said the voice in my head.

It seemed to me that I rolled over fifteen feet of smooth steep slope before I stopped. I rose to my feet. I found that I stood in an enlarged cavern, square-cornered, about seven feet in height, with three openings leading further. Two of these emitted a low glow.

“JeKri, Corpsmaster,” Berann said. “What is this fewking place?”

I knew only an unnatural calm within, as if my brain were too busy with some other kind of information to waste its energies in panic.

“Datch,” I said, ” you and Liit return down the passageway we entered and listen to see if our enemies can find a way in. Give us warning. If they come, we can kill them one by one as they enter this place. I must go further in.”

For the first time under my command, Datch and Liit both hesitated in the odd faint light, their eyes gleaming wildly in the darkness of their painted faces. Then they turned and obeyed.

“Quiet,” I gestured to the others and shouldered my way through them to follow the source of vague light. I took the right hand glowing passage out of some half-superstitious memory, as if that choice might bring me luck.

“Gods be saved,” I heard someone behind me whisper.

The surface of this place was polished in appearance, though not slippery to walk upon, and all of the corners stood at right angles so perfect that I wondered if they could be the product of human hands. Perhaps this place was old, as old as the Fortress. The air seemed cold, but fresh, as if channels of some kind communicated with the outside world,. The place didn’t smell of earth despite the depth at which we walked. I came to another room, this one far larger than the first. This was where I stopped, and I realized the source of part of my unease. There was no dust; not in the passages, nor in these rooms, and while there were tables made of waxy white stone here, and the walls dimly glowed like those in the Halls of Hearing within the Fortress, there were no seats, as if whatever or whoever had built this place had not needed any. The tables stood empty, and I found no sign of any other information and no other exit.

I turned back and found both Mell and Cascada close behind me, their bloody swords in their hands, and I looked down at my own with a shock of remembrance. We hadn’t even cleaned our swords. From night battlefield filled with urgency and the smell of fresh blood, to this eerie calm gray place under the earth. How could one believe this was reality?

I returned to the first room, and looked up the passage to the surface where Liit and Datch stood warily listening.

“Any sign?” I asked.

“We have heard nothing,” Datch whispered. “I cannot even hear their feet. How shall we know when we can go home?”

“Let me look about down here for a little longer,” I said, and passing through the small room, entered the left-hand way with Mell and Cascada again following me. The others had settled to wait, their slowly drying swords still unsheathed and ready in their hands.

To my astonishment the left hand passage was brutally short, with  a swinging door to one side which opened to my touch, leading into a little nearly empty room. I looked around and giggled. It is an embarrassment to me to say such a thing, but it is true. Cascada and Mell looked at one another as I walked through the room, and nervous smiles bared their teeth in response to my undignified sound. I had no doubt about the room’s use; it was an indoors outhouse, with a rectangular unit in one corner that had faint stains of water. I put my hand in and startlingly, rain fell from above. I backed out fast, shaking off the drops as if they were caustic. But no harm ensued, and I smelled it carefully. When I tasted what had fallen on the back of my hand, it was water, a little stale in taste, seemingly good enough.

“We could stay here for a long time,” I said, “if the water doesn’t run dry. There must be a cistern of some kind in the roof of this place. I believe from the direction in which we have walked that we are approaching the boulders that stand in the center part of the Arena.”

I retreated out of the little room and continued down the corridor, Mell and Cascada following.

“Who told you this place was here?” Mell asked. “How many times we could have used this bolt hole…”

“I think not. The time for its use was never right before,” I said. “This was an unusual circumstance. We were in trouble in just the right way and time for this to be our refuge. I never knew of it before. It came to me as I stood readying for our last fight that I had only to step over two paces and tap on the boulder just so, for a door to open. I still feel as if I dream.”

“But who gave you the knowledge?” Cascada asked me, the black skin tight around her pale eyes.

“I do not know. Maybe one of the people I healed?”

“Ever since you were touched by the blood of Thane Gehir,” Mell said in a very even voice, “you have been changing. Once you asked if honor would live in the dark. Now I ask you if honor can live in such a light as this.”

“We need to go on,” I said. “I have no answer for you Mell,” I added, and possibly a little of the strange grief in me entered my voice. “I do not know myself.”

I went down the corridor a stranger, following the light.

This room stood very large and wide but low, pillars of squared stone supporting the ceiling. In this room tables and barrels and boxes scattered all about the floor, as if a fight had left this disorder. I stood in the doorway with Mell and Cascada and looked across into a field of flickering uncanny colors on the far wall. Without further word, we backed up into the corridor, returning to the room where all but Datch and Liit waited. I went to Datch. I touched her shoulder and looked into her blackened face, remembering her talk of dreams and  strange machines so many years ago.

“I ask you to go down the left-hand way and see the room at its end,” I said. “It is not an order, it is a thing I ask.”

Then I waited with Liit, straining my ears for any sound that we might catch from the world above. It seemed a long time before Datch returned.

“Corpsmaster,” she said, and I heard a thrill in her voice. “Come with me to see this place.”

I had no clear argument against her, but I had to fight my unwillingness. I called Cascada to take my place by Liit, then followed Datch. As we passed through the little central room, I saw with relief that several of my soldiers had begun cleaning their swords with the little bits of oiled rag that many carry in their pouches for exactly such use during the inevitable delays in fighting. They glanced up as we went by, and I could not bring myself to meet their eyes.

“Is there another way out?” Macc asked in his deep growl.

“Possibly,” Datch said, “But it isn’t easy.”

When we entered the room, she reached for my arm and grasped it. “This colored wall will make you dizzy,” she said, “Don’t look into it. Instead, stare at the floor. Or perhaps to the side.”

“This place is familiar to you in your dreams,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “The tools I used in dreams are gone, or maybe stored in these holding containers, but the place has a sense of home to me. Maybe it is merely similar. That familiarity is enough to let me cross this room, even though I can both sense and understand how it will disturb the others.”

I did as she asked, my head bent, watching my black boots step over and around the containers and fragments that littered the floor, with the presence of the flickering colors just beyond the range of my sight. But the awareness itched at me, and it took real effort to keep my gaze averted.

“Here,” she said, and lifted my hand in hers to touch the contour of another door.

“Can you see where this leads?”

“No, but when you think about where we are under the Arena, this way should bring us back towards the woodland. Those who used this place made it a long time past, and while I am unsure of its uses, they must have had to pass back and forth as any other physical beings would.”

“Let us try it then,” I said, wanting to escape the shivering of light that seemed to beat upon my left cheek.

This door too, swung open to a touch, but this passage had no light in its walls and grew darker and darker as we moved down its straight way. I felt that our progress took much time, but in truth no more than a half hour later, we encountered a door that seemed not to be a door, but a wall of earth.

“Do you know how this is opened?” Datch asked me. “Do your strange seeings tell you what to do?”

I stepped forward and tried to listen. Nothing came to me. Finally I put my hands to the rough earth and pushed slightly. The earth slid  in a low block, sideways, as easily as if on wheels, and I found myself looking out on trees and scrub, clustering thickly over this exit. With no word to Datch, just a gesture that she stay where she stood, I slipped out, low and crouching and made my way carefully into the wood for some distance before I rose high enough to take some reckoning of my position. The stars told me it was near midnight already. More time had passed in our explorations than I had realized. I stared out through the branches at the pale grounds of the Arena, and saw no figures moving there. I did not trust this. Once already tonight we had been caught unwarned. I worked my way with slow care around to the south, wishing in the back of my mind that Mell was with me, for she had superb abilities as a woodsman, with a better sense of the natural life of the night.

I heard crickets and nearby to me an owl spoke. That at least had changed for the normal. Still I spent nearly an hour observing before I returned to where Datch waited.

When we had made our way back and through that terrifying room with its wall of changeful light, we heard the others talking quietly as we came down the passage.

“I know the Corpsmaster comes. Why should I hush?” Macc’s tone challenged. “This is too important.”

“Indeed,” Zanel said in his beautiful voice, “of all people we must talk to, our Corpsmaster comes first. We have been betrayed. It is no treason to say what is true. Our enemy knew we came; they had members hidden to wait for us as if they knew the terrain too. One group by the Wall, the others driving us back to them. And at first contact in the woodland, they were approaching us as we approached them. That is why Glima, Hret and Nathada are dead.”

“Would you keep secrets from your sword mates?” Mell stood in the circle, not looking towards us as we emerged from the passageway, yet I believed her fully aware of our presence. “For do not deceive yourselves, that is where this talk takes us. Into deceit, into secrecy, and into dishonor.”

“No, of course not,” Ratcatcher said. “No secrets between soldiers. This refuge is too valuable to keep secret from our swordmates.”

They looked at us as we approached the circle.

“Datch,” I turned and called low, “Liit, join us. I have been out and seen that our enemies are no longer to be found near. We can take some little time for this coil.

“You say we were betrayed. By whom and for what purpose, and in what way? Say on.”

“Our coming was known. The terrain was better understood by our enemy than it should have been. I say they lay in wait for us, fully prepared for our coming. And they had prepared a reception at the edge of the Arena for us, awaiting our return to the Wall, making as sure as they might that none of us would return home. We should all have died, caught between two forces, Corpsmaster Ti, if it had not been for your magical tunnel in the ground and your moving rocks. And if it had not been for the ways in which you have prepared us. We used to joke about that,” Liit said.

“Yes, we joked that you saw enemies behind every bush and in every bird’s nest. That you would have us able to fight through a forest in the pouring sleet, and not have a speck of rust on our blades save that which came from hot blood. We made much fun of your drills where we swung from branches like woodcats to make war, or fell on purpose to roll and stab the rushing enemy from below. I reek of innards tonight because of that notion,” Zanel said.

“Yes, you stink,” Cascada told him. “But it was well done. You went down as if you were sore wounded and he had not the wit to think otherwise in the moment before your blade ripped him. It was very well done.”

“You allege betrayal. Have you suspicions? Is this a betrayal, or is it that we are better observed than we know by those Outside?” I asked.

No one said anything for a moment, frowning to themselves, their blackened faces sweat-streaked in the dull glow.

“There is no proof,” said Datch. “But what say you all? This came from inside our Wall.”

The others made a sound of uneasy agreement.

“There is no proof,” Mell said, “but there is suspicion.”

“Who are we?” I asked. I looked around at them. I knew each of their bodies very nearly as well as I knew my own. Reflex and habit, mood and manner. It was a curious blend; I had injured nearly every one of these people seriously at one time or another. I had saved their lives or been saved by them, and we had shared loss of temper, hunger and thirst, illness, strains of waiting, both pain and weariness beyond easy words. Losing Hret, losing Nathada, losing Glima, I felt like I had lost parts of my own body. Each one’s favorite jokes, their skill, their ferocity, their needs, had been part of mine.

“We are of the Wall, we are of the forty,” said Liit.

“We are Corpsmaster Ti’s first corps,” Ratcatcher said.

“For whom do we fight? For ourselves; for pleasure? For our profit?”

“For our Oath,” said Mell. “For the people of the City and our King.”

“For you,” Cascada said. “For all of us.”

“Then who are we? And if you can answer that, who is against us?” I looked around.

“We are the soldiers of the Wall. The enemies of our City and our King and our Corpsmaster stand against us.”

“Drop that,” I said. “Your oath is to the King and the City and each to the other; never to your Corpsmaster, you fight at my side and I at yours, to do honor to that oath.”

“Though you have no oath to the king,” Mell said thoughtfully. “Nor to the City. Corpsmaster Ti belongs to the Thane Gehir.”

“Yes,” I said, and waited to see what the others would do.

“Master Mell, you have been remembering this difference and reminding us all along of it. Now is the time for you to say what is in your heart, my friend,” Cascada said.

“I have this to say, that of all the members of our Wall, Corpsmaster Ti belongs the least and gives most. There have not been many like her because to have members of any body whose loyalty lies outside the group is too dangerous. She owes her First Oath to a man she barely knows, having pledged it in her pride and anger when she knelt whipped upon the open road. If he had denied her she would have taken her own blade and spilled her life. But he did accept.

“He has left her here to serve until the day comes when he will claim her service. If that service runs against us, or against the kingdom of King Matthew, she will either burn her sword or break between two wills. She is the best of us in battle, excepting Berann’s bow arm. She has drunk more deaths with her sword than even I, yet she stands before you in constant jeopardy. Because she is not Firsted to the King, she has a free mind and free judgment. Freedom to commit crimes against the City, the body of the whole, and more than that, freedom to justify them.” Mell went on.

“I talk of this, I remind us all of honor, because we do not think, we who are Firsted to the King. The necessity is gone; we are become parts of a whole and we obey its need and we assume that is the entire tale. Master Ti has only herself and her own judgment to rely upon until Thane Gehir’s direct command claims her.

“In these past months we have been challenged in our perception of our Corpsmaster. She has become again and again foreign to us, from her service in healing, to even the incident of this night which saved us. I think this is a matter of the Gods, and that there is purpose in it.

“I know this human,” Mell said, and her voice which had been as sharp as a knife softened. “I knew her when she still had a family and a warm place in their hearts. I knew her in the first bitterness of her loss of them, and her early commitment to the Wall. I knew her anger, her rage, and I saw how this matter of belonging to the Thane Gehir changed her. She is not done changing. She’s a danger to us because nothing she ever does will be safe for her, and nothing will come easy. She stands upon an edge between honor and dishonor.” Mell took a breath before she continued.

“I think she’s all the more ours, for that reason. We need her. And that is why I have spoken, because it seems better to me to have these things said openly among us than to shy from half-perceived fears, or to depend on assumptions. We need to know who we are. We need to know who she is. And we need to know and accept that even our trust will always have a potential to betray us.”

“We cannot be responsible for our enemies,” Cascada added, her light eyes on my face. “But we shall be responsible for ourselves. That is all we can do.”

“All trusts have the potential to betray,” Macc rumbled. “It may even be possible that the King …”

No one picked up that thread, but we understood each other.

“How be it then,” Datch said, lifting her head from her knees, “if we hold silence upon our discovery here and see if any rumor of it still comes to our ears? For any who ask, we have been hid in the woodlands this night, avoiding our enemies. It is only a few feet from reality,” she said. “The Corpsmaster and I have found another way out which leads into the woodland.”

“Should we not oath ourselves to this silence?” Berann queried.

“No,” I protested. “We must all go free. If we raised new oaths who would be able to take any step without entanglement?”

“So, ” Mell said softly. “Maybe honor will survive another day. Or another night.”

I wanted to say many things that crowded in me and I could not speak. I merely gestured and my people rose, ready for the next part of our journey. Datch and I led them down the passageway towards our escape.

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