Chapter Twenty-Six: A Ghost Walks

 

I took Kassh from startled horrified handlers at the stables in the late morning, and rode with Mell and my people to the great assembly that King Matthew had ordered. We talked little, so I felt keenly the disturbance my presence made in the streets of the City. A ghost upon her favored steed. I urged Kassh as swiftly on as could be without causing a danger to the citizens about their business. The whole City seemed so much in its usual way that I felt I went in a dream. To look upon the people in the streets one would have said that the King in his Assembly Room would only conduct the usual hearings of cases and minor matters. Surely it could not be true that we rushed into a battle where we could not feel the ground.

I wonder now if some even now think me returned from the dead, like the legendary kings under stone who are supposed to ride when their old lands face great threats. Maybe in a way, I was one on that day. I do not say that in any form of pride, but wincing at the blasphemy even as I write it.

We tied our horses and went quickly in to the Fortress, down the long corridors and eventually to that sunlit room of  Assembly. Here I mingled with my soldiers, not wishing to bring great attention to myself.

Eventually, King Matthew entered the room, followed by the Knight Rebmun, Prince Evandir with a face like murder, and the lords Aquitan, Devon and GrosRupel, the latter three tight and uneasy, with perplexity in the way they held their shoulders. Indeed what had passed had puzzled them all, and you could see in their faces that they wondered if they stepped into some elaborate maze of deceit. Only the Knight Rebmun moved like an untroubled warrior, and I knew he had held the leash of this encounter in his gauntleted hands from the first day of his arrival at the Wall.

The King stood before his throne and the drums sounded for silence. Such a silence it was that I could only hear the slight rustle of cloth and the bated breathing of hundreds.

“Let it be known that from this day forward, we shall sign treaties with King Saahr of the North testifying that this Kingdom has become a part of his. The treaties will bring peace, opportunities for trade, for the interchange of knowledge and sharing of resources and not least, the cessation of threats of war from other kingdoms. He has pledged to secure the great roads for traffic, to eradicate the brigands that plague what we call the Outside, to send us troops for our defense at any call of need, and he sends in token of this the Princess of Gethen, his cousin’s daughter, to be wife to your King. Prince Daniel shall become King Saahr’s foster son, and travel to the Kingdom of Saahr for his education. Rejoice, for war is at last over.”

“No!” I cried and I found myself pushing forward, thrusting Cascada and big Macc out of my way.

“No peace can be made with Saahr. No peace is possible. He will eat us alive and change the very Gods in their places. He brings abomination. He desires a dominion which brings ruin to our world and all humankind.”

“I had thought you dead,” King Matthew said to me, looking down from the dais as I went forward. I saw then just a glimpse of Quillmaster’s face and under her red hair her face seemed whiter than her neck cloth.

“Dead in battle by the sword of Prince Evandir of Saahr,” he repeated, his eyes showing a rim of white.

“I am not yet dead,” I said, “My liege, my King, do not desert us. We are loyal to you, and we shall fight to our last if need be, but do not give us over to the King of Saahr for his chattel. We are of the Wall. We have our loyalty and our strength; we have the Wall and the Innerlands and we shall prevail. We need no protection. There is no need to make peace at this price. We need only shut our gates and fire the woodlands to drive these warriors away.”

“You will now be my tutor and teach your King the ways of negotiation, the necessities of state, Corpsmaster Ti? We can be gracious and forgive once, knowing your past service. Perhaps a blow has addled your wits. Return to the hospital where you belong and we shall judge you later.”

“Wait,” I said, and I stepped close to him, my hands crossed at the wrists and offered palm up before me in open submission.

“Sire, your son is cured. He is truly your own son, your own blood. It is the Fortress itself and the properties it bears from times past that harmed him in his gestation and made him bear the illness that is now cured from him. There is no need for this bitter peace you have made. You have your own true heir, and he will keep this kingdom in a strong hand and continue your line into centuries to come.”

I spoke this low, meaning it only for the King’s ears, but I could see that both Prince Evandir and Knight Rebmun heard it, and afterwards Mell told me that more than they were privy to my speech. As if I had shouted, it ran like water through the corridors and into the streets and down even to the Wall, passing from mouth to mouth.

“So you would defy your King and defend his kingdom against an enemy who is no more an enemy. Who indeed has shown himself as a new friend to that King?”

“I shall defend the Kingdom of the Wall.”

“Let us understand,” he said, baring his old teeth, “Ti of the Wall who has been ever loyal to Thane Gehir will deny her King his will. But Thane Gehir bade you serve the Wall, so now you burn your sword and defy his word also in this one betrayal.”

“He bade me serve the Wall,” I said, and my voice came out strangely loud. “I do so in this act, in my defiance, while you, who have been my King and who has had my service, do not. You have broken the trust between master and servant, between lord and warrior, between King and people.”

I lifted my crossed wrists to him. I panted even as I tried to steady myself, and the air had never seemed so sweet as in this moment when I knew he would kill me. He looked down at me with his brows knit.

“I shall give you what you desire, remembering what you once were to this Kingdom. You will not lie on the stones of Methen Square. Instead let your blood spill outside our gates where the blood of our other enemies has fallen. You, and all who ally with you–for I would purge this ill from this kingdom before we begin our new day–assemble yourselves in the Arena before the Wall and tomorrow at dawn we shall see you fight for this Kingdom exactly as you desire against the armies of the kingdom of Saahr. We shall watch this spectacle for our amusement, my loyal subjects and I. For the demonstration of the justice of the Gods. And for you, tomorrow, the gates will not open when you run for sanctuary.”

I did not even ask him for safe passage as I left, and I was blind and deaf as I walked away. I held my head up. I could not bear to look at Prince Evandir or Knight Rebmun or even at Lord Aquitan’s glittering lenses. I could not see anything but the light that glowed along the corridors. My eyes stinging, I blinked as I stood out in the windy bright afternoon. My heart had slowed and now I felt only a heaviness as I stroked Kassh’s cheek. I could not mount him, this gift from the people of the City. I would leave him tethered here for his next master. I turned and took down my saddlebags and my helmet from his back, pulled the saddlebags over my shoulders and began the long walk to the Wall. I did not dare to look about me in my progress, keeping my head high, schooling my face to a semblance I hoped, of quiet.

Circles within circles, and deceit cinching the rings. I felt the numbers of people crowding the streets through which I passed but no one stepped into my way. I could not see them; it seemed to me my eyesight had blurred mercifully so that I did not recognize person nor naiman, the ones upon whom I had laid my hands, the ones I had chivvied with my sword when I had to keep order in the streets during some trial or public demonstration, the face of the meat pie man on the corner of the Street of the Fountains, the fat owner of the Westside baths.

I knew what I had to say to my people when I reached the barracks. Orders were orders and I knew what orders to give. I would take no one down with me. Tomorrow would be no spectacular display, an uneven battle of this sort never lasts long. It would not even be worth the pie man changing his place of trade.

I walked on. I had come twenty streets at least, and I measured in my mind how much more I had to endure. Fifty some streets would be half the distance, I supposed. The City noises seemed quieter than those of the normal day, still I sensed movement, and the sound of horses’ hooves and voices muttering.

Then someone shoved me in the small of my back and I turned, ready to explode at this last unbearable touch. It was Kassh. His soft whiskered muzzle, was outstretched, his purple brown eyes regarding me quizzically, his ears pricked forward. He shoved me again, experimentally, as if he were boasting about his facility at getting loose from the hitch, but the reins had been looped up on the saddle horn. Someone had released him deliberately. Only then did I begin to focus on the faces around me, to see formal ranks of silent troops arrayed behind my horse, all following where I led. Noise seemed to have stopped at the moment when I swung about and now an uncanny silence stretched through the streets. I saw citizens in their doorways, not even whispering, looking at me as if their eyes could own me. Had I walked so slowly, or had runners spread the news? Never before had I realized just how fast rumor can race through the streets with ragged feet, although Gods know I had wondered at such things before.

Not one of my soldiers would meet my eyes. They stared into that never world that the soldier on parade masters young. I could not speak to them then. My mouth was closed. I resettled my saddlebags, mounted Kassh and rode on, hearing the sounds of the street rise again behind and around me, and I kept remembering Prince Evandir saying to me, “We will meet in your Arena and I will raise sword against you.” So it would be, then. Again.

All that long march back to the barracks, no one interrupted what we did. I did not dare to look back any more. I only felt the press of people, and it seemed to increase as we moved through the streets. Vendors and merchants quieted as we approached and passed, then their voices rose once more after we had gone by. Kassh’s hooves made a rhythm like the bones of some deserted song.

Before the barracks I finally turned Kassh and looked over the troops, and my heart hurt. I had to pause before I could raise my voice. Not only the black clad warriors of the Wall were here. Civilians as well had joined the soldiers, trying hard to form up ranks and dress lines like those trained to it. Motley arms. Not so great a number, maybe two hundred in all, but I would not have dreamed twenty would follow so vain a cause. And as we stood there and I hesitated, the barracks doors opened and the rest of the Wall’s soldiers came out and joined the lines until I can only know from the books how many there really were.

“Soldiers of the Wall,” I shouted to them. “Let me remind you of your allegiance. I am no longer your commander, no longer your Corpsmaster. My First Oath lies in the hand of Thane Gehir. I answer to that oath. You answer to yours. We are apart. You have your orders from your King, and you are dismissed to obey them. So the law speaks. So do I.”

I dismounted from Kassh, and tied him firmly to the hitching post. Someone would care for him, he had too much quality and too great a value to be neglected. But I did spare one quick touch to his warm smooth cheek before I reclaimed my saddlebags and turned away. Do not look back, I told myself. If you do not, they will not follow. Like dogs or horses: make no eye contact. You will break their assurance. Show no attachment and no feeling.

The walk to the Wall seemed long. I came up to the Gates and the Gateguard pulled the pins and opened the doors wide — so wide for one woman to pass through, and I knew then that I still had some sort of following I dared not face. Still I could hope, if I did not turn, if I met no eye, they would not follow those last steps. Too great a distance, I thought, between a broken oath for sentiment, and the warmth and securities of righteousness. They should be safe where they belonged, as I never had been. I went out through the Gates into the barren rocky Arena, and turned myself West to claim the higher ground and the boulders where I would make my camp until the morning. I could see the fires of my enemy among the trees and smell the sour barley meal they cooked in their cauldrons, and the richer scent of some meat stew, perhaps provided by the deer of the woodlands. And then, so trivially, a voice spoke just behind me.

“Gods, Ti, why the grand gesture? We should have stopped for dinner at the Tavern before we exiled ourselves. We fight on our bellies, remember?”

I turned and saw Cascada, her gravely chiding expression so familiar and so unwelcome. Her useless arm had been bound with spotted bandages against her breast, and she carried her helmet by its straps and her unsheathed sword in her left hand. Behind her Berann, and Mell, big Macc with his bandaged skull, Datch, Adarte, and Zanel, Liit with her blonde hair unbound and her round face smiling inappropriately. All of them with dressings and bandages, a joke of an officers corps. Had they not already suffered enough? And behind them, surely at least the majority of my masters, another sixty or more from the ranks, a line of Guards, plus a small admixture of civilians trying to look as if they belonged here among us. I saw Glinka and he saluted me, his black face somber and not particularly worried. He had never been a man to bear feelings on display.

“Actually,” Macc grumbled, “I had more forethought than you, Master Cascada. My little team has enough grain and jerky and dried fruit to make an acceptable stew for the evening feed, even if Liit here forgot the barrel of ale I had in my room. But Zanel has two bottles of something stronger and I believe if we shook this ragtag army upside down some other bottles might roll out. I had thought,” and he looked with mock disdain at the following, “that we would have twice this number. If Master Mell had guessed right and we had had another twenty-four hours of grace to spread the truths of these days, we should have emptied the barracks and not a few apartments and shops in the City as well. But that luck was not with us.”

“Then it would not have been so simple a business of just being slaughtered before the Gates for the principle of the thing,” Mell said. “As Macc says, we had not the luck this time. It’s a pity your Thane Gehir could not have worked some delaying magic upon these negotiations, Master Ti.”

“Well,” Datch offered, “it will make a good story. I’m hungry. Let’s be about our work.”

We camped among the rocks as the dusk fell, and I walked around our campfires. My people sounded just as they ought the night before any battle, even the few civilians, like Quillson, sitting next to Mell on a large boulder, and I looked at all of them spooning up the camp stew that Macc had contrived, rich with dried apricots and long-simmered beef, joking among themselves as if they were glad to be here. Black jokes, to be sure, full of the mordant humor of such times, but they still laughed and poked fun at each other. I walked away and I stood for some little time in the darkening Arena among the lavender shadows, knowing the enemy would not trouble us in spite of our vulnerable position tonight. They might be looking forward to the main event tomorrow, I supposed, however the sounds from their camp seemed subdued, not as merry as that of soldiers looking at certain victory.

I turned back to the fading gold of the Wall rising against the violet sky and wondered if Thane Gehir could still be near and whether he knew to what pass we had come.

“Hail, Caesar,” I said to the Wall, “we who are about to die salute you.” The words come from a very old text which we study in our military exams. It felt right to me then. Ghosts all around me.

I went back to my little shelter among the rocks. Here I had drawn an old blanket over the tops to give myself a semblance of privacy, and I lit a small bright fire a distance before it. I knew that in a while Mell, Cascada, and perhaps others would come to me.

“So what advice do you have for me tonight, my masters,” I asked as they wandered up quietly in the night to settle about the dancing cosy flames.

“Eat, drink and be merry,” said Mell, and leaned comfortably against Quillson’s side as he placed his arm about her shoulders. Big Macc bent forward and passed her a heavy ironware bottle.

“Sure,” I said and looked at Datch’s perfect profile, outlined in the warm and flickering light. “Will you not listen to me this time? Bind me and slit my throat and put me out in the Arena. Go and surrender to Prince Evandir, and at the least we will save a few dozen lives between us, and you can be comforted not to have left me to the Four-Way Death in Methen Square.”

“There is one problem with that,” a deep voice spoke harshly from beyond our circle. “Prince Evandir is not in his camp. He is here,” and he stepped forward, as big and ugly and real as possible, his mouth set in as stubborn a line as I have ever seen on any man’s scowling face, and he had his hand on his hilts as if he expected us to leap up and repel him.

“And I would say for my part, Ti of the Wall,” he said, “that it is time to accept the thing that has been offered to you without trying any longer to shove it back down the throats of your friends. They will not let you sidestep either their friendship not their loyalty. They do not deserve that, and you do them wrong.”

Big Macc looked up at him and a long slow grin curled his mouth. He shoved Zanel over with one hearty push, moved himself, then slapped the ground next to him in invitation. The scowl on Evandir’s face softened then, and with what almost looked like an defiant sniff in my direction, he stepped over and sat himself down by the fire next to Macc.

“So,” Berann said with rich amusement in her voice, “I would imagine a simple line of battle, one deep is all the preparation we need to make to make our point tomorrow, since we cannot carry the day.”

“Almost as good as the configuration King Matthew ordered us to take when we first fought your troops,” Liit said pointedly to Prince Evandir. He grunted in understanding, meeting her level challenge without rising to it. She sighed then and looked away.

“I suppose I have to like you now,” she admitted plaintively, “even if you did kill my Corpsmaster and haul her body like a sack from the field. But I hope you understand that this takes a bit of noble effort on my part.”

She stood up and thrust her hand out to Prince Evandir who took it in an equally savage grip.

“Let us put down the swords,” Macc said. “I think we are due some ceremony and celebration this night,” and the others rumbled their assent. I heard then other voices joining in, and when I looked beyond the firelight I saw the rest of our people assembled, watching us as people might go to see a street play. But they felt warm to me in their feelings, not spectators. Kindred.

Macc rose up and laid his own sword in the open firelight, then pulled from his bundle a slender black-hilted sword.

“Nathada’s blade,” he said quietly. “She and many others should have been with us this night.”

He arranged them, crossed blades with the hilts out. Then Quillson got to his feet, and not troubling to hide his limp, he took Mell’s hand and together they stepped over the swords.

We whistled and laughed at them when they kissed. I had never seen Mell blush in all our decades together, but even by the wavering light of the flames you could tell. Liit sprinkled salt upon their right palms and pressed them together.

“May you ever fight on the same side,” Prince Evandir shouted.

After the cheer, an odd silence fell. It hung on, and Mell and Quillson stepped back and waited. Evandir stood up, hunching his shoulders as if easing the stiffness out of them, looking into the fire. Still no one spoke as he turned and reached out a hand to me, the fingers a little crooked as if repeating a question, his scarred face tender.

I did not move. I saw no compulsion, no command, only the intensity of what he asked. He did not care how he looked at this moment to anyone except me, and his face was bare. I came to my feet with my hand out, he folded warm fingers around mine and we stepped over Macc and Nathada’s swords.

What more do I need to tell you? Only a fool talks about her own kiss.

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