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"The Valley of Decision" Excerpts


Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision!

The Book of Joel, iii.xiv

He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters.

Jesus Christ

 

Prologue

 

The clear mountain stream fell noisily over its rocky bed. Fed from the snowy heights above, it rushed down to lose itself in the rolling slopes below.

 

The hunter looked down on the stream through the thick foliage, and he could imagine the water cold in his mouth. It aggravated his thirst, but he held himself still. The sun had been low in the east when he set out; when he hid himself in the thicket, it was high in the heavens. It slowly crossed the sky and sank in the west, and still the hunter waited. He held a bow to which he loosely fitted an arrow, and he watched the banks along the stream.

 

Finally—when the sun was shining orange through the trees—he saw it. The great cat padded heavily along the bank, its tawny, dark-streaked hide unmistakable. The hunter kept his eyes on it, slowly lifting the bow, slowly, slowly drawing it taut. By seconds, by hairbreadth movements he shifted position, drawing the bow ready and aiming the arrow for a clear path between two branches.

 

The animal crouched down to drink. As it raised itself up the hunter leaned forward, drawing the bow as taut as it would go.

 

The cat jerked its head up toward the thicket and then reared away, springing across the stream. The hunter’s arrow sang after it, and struck into its belly. Its roar rumbled the mountain air, full of fury. The great cat ran wildly away, quickly vanishing into the trees.

 

The hunter came to his feet and broke through the thicket, speeding toward the stream. His muscles were stiff from disuse, but he forced himself on. The stream was just narrow enough to be crossed in a long jump. He took a leap, landed hard on dry land, and ran on. His eyes tracked the path left by the cat, and he followed it into the trees.

 

A little distance in he slowed, then stopped. He looked at the tracks turning in between two trees, and he listened. There was no sound. Some of the mighty cats—the younger ones, the less cunning ones—roared and growled through the wounding to their deaths. But the longer-lived cats, the craftier ones....

 

He heard only the slightest rustle, and if he had been a lesser huntsman, it would have been the end of his life. But he knew his prey, and he leapt away. He felt a massive bulk fly past him, and he turned, lifting his javelin. The cat was feet away from him, standing where he had been moments before. For a moment they faced each other—the great cat, the hunter with upraised javelin. The beast snarled at him, baring all its teeth. The teeth in its mouth were sharp and powerful, but they were nothing compared to its two great fangs. There was one on each side of its mouth. They were thick, and longer than his hand from the tip of his middle finger to the heel of his palm. In that moment, the hunter felt an almost prideful pleasure in those teeth.

 

Then the great cat sprang at him. He turned his javelin, and the beast drove straight into it. He felt the resistance as the javelin pushed through muscle and struck bone, and he released it and jumped away. As he circled away from the animal, he slipped his knife out of its sheath.

 

The hunter stopped, holding the knife aloft in his fingers. He waited for the great cat to lunge at him or flee, but it stood, and staggered, and tried to keep its feet. The hunter watched it stumble, an arrow in its belly and a javelin in its throat. And, for a moment, he almost felt sorry for it.

 

He quashed the sentiment. He had seen the length of the great cat’s fangs; he knew it had had a long life. It was a wily, brutal, ravening creature; for many years it had torn animals and devoured its prey. It deserved no pity. It certainly had never shown any.

 

The hunter watched the beast crumple. When the death throes had passed, he reached up and drew the sword he had slung across his back. He would deal a final, fatal blow. He thought it was already dead, but he entertained no chance of failure.

 

One

 

The tree-crowned mountain, aflame with the westering sun, rose above the vale. Tents filled the valley, a vast and orderly array, and smoke from the fires drifted up over the vale and twisted slowly into the golden sky.

 

One man stood on the lip of the vale, gazing up at the mountain. He watched for a long time. At length another dark figure came from the camp and approached him. “Caél?”

 

Caél looked behind and acknowledged the man with a nod. “What is it, Lachann?”

 

Lachann came up to stand beside him. For a moment they stood in silence, looking at the mountain. “It’s been a fortnight.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Shall we send out hunting parties tomorrow?”

 

“Does the army need provisions?”

 

“No, but it needs work. The men are restless. It is not good for them to have nothing to do.”

 

“I know, Lachann. But if we send out hunting parties, they will bring back game. Then the men will have to skin, clean, and cook it. And we will no longer be ready to move out at once.”

 

“The dead animals could be abandoned.”

 

“Animals are a resource. Do not waste it. And they are living creatures. Do not kill uselessly.”

 

“If the killing cools our soldiers’ blood, it will not be useless.”

 

“If our soldiers do not have the virtue of waiting, they can learn it.”

 

Lachann looked at the mountain. “I do not understand what the Captain is doing. If it takes so many days to find one of the cats, they are probably not on the lower slopes. Autumn grows old. The great cats may already be high up on the mountain, among their dens.”

 

Caél looked at him. “What are you saying?”

 

“I don’t question the Captain’s prowess as a hunter. But he may not be hunting. He may not be doing anything at all.”

 

“You’re saying he’s dead.”

 

“I am saying it is a possibility—a possibility to be considered. Artek thinks he may be wounded. He suggested that we send out search parties.”

 

Artek had always believed that he rather than Caél should have been right hand. Neither his ambition nor his scheming had ended, and Caél suspected everything he did. “The Captain ordered us to see to the provisioning of the army, to repair the equipment—and wait for him. To violate that order is to usurp command of the army.”

 

“If the Captain does not return, you will have to take command.”

 

“I have faith in the Captain.”

 

“We all have faith in the Captain. But he is not a Fay, Caél. He may be outwitted, or overmatched, or just unlucky. He may not come back.”

 

“I know.” And yet Caél didn’t believe it. Keiran had a higher and harder destiny than being Captain of the Hosts of Belenus. He might die trying to fulfill it, but not before.

 

The sound of a trumpet broke through the night. Caél tensed as the signals called every man to arms, then relaxed a little as the next note declared an enemy in the camp. He turned and sprinted toward the camp.

 

Lachann kept pace beside him. “Our Alamiri got loose, do you think?”

 

“I imagine.” The two men ran down the valley. As they reached the outskirts of the camp, Caél saw, in the light of the sentries’ torches, four or five men struggling together. He increased his speed, but in a moment the men fell apart from each other. Two men forced a third to his knees between them. Another soldier went for a spear lying some feet away. Returning, he stood in front of the subdued man and turned the butt of the spear toward him—

 

“Hold!” At Caél’s shout they turned to look at him. He dropped his pace and walked up to them.

 

The soldier with the spear began, “Master, the prisoner tried to escape....”

 

“I have eyes,” Caél cut him off, “and a mind.” He looked at the other two soldiers. “Get him to his feet.”

 

The men pulled the prisoner up. Caél looked at him, saw anger and defiance on his face, and thought they were a mask for fear. “Attempting to escape from one’s captors is both reasonable and honorable. I cannot blame you. But neither can I let you succeed. You understand.”

 

Caél looked at the soldiers. “Take him back, and this time chain him to a guard. And hear this, all of you.” Caél turned, raising his voice. “This man is not your prisoner. You are only keeping him for the Captain, so keep him well. And if I find a mark on him there will be twelve lashes for every man who guarded him.” He dismissed them with a motion of his hand—a sharp, hard gesture. They saluted him and hurried on.

 

Lachann came and stood by him. “I had thought,” he said, “that we would run through any Alamiri we found. The Captain had us scour the eastern range for two months, and he spared the only enemy we found.”

 

“The Captain has a use for a living Alamiri.”

 

“And Muireach has a certain delight in dead ones.” Leaving him with that thought, Lachann turned on his heel and walked into the camp.

 

Caél straightened his shoulders, walked between the sentries, and made a path for his tent. His night had been thoroughly soured; he might as well go to sleep now.

 

-----------------------------

 

The sun was beginning to burn the horizon when Caél thrust back the tent flap. As he stepped out, he was hit by the cool of the early morning. He looked up at the pale sky and enjoyed the freshness of the day for just a moment. Then he turned to his left where Artek, Lachann, and Torradan stood waiting for him.

 

The three came to attention as he walked up to them. “At ease,” he said. “Reports?”

 

“None from the camp, sir,” Torradan answered. He was the newest lieutenant, having been commissioned right after the Rhugarch campaign. “Not since the attempted escape.”

 

Caél looked at the other two. Lachann shook his head. “I have nothing to raise.”

 

Finally Caél focused on Artek. He was a handsome man—handsomer than Caél, handsomer than Keiran. He lifted his shoulders in a marginal shrug. “Nothing, Caél.”

 

Caél turned to Lachann. “I want you to question the prisoner and the guards on duty last night. I want to know how he managed to get away.”

Lachann nodded. “And if I find—”

 

A sudden rush of voices went up from the western end of the camp. Lachann stopped, then muttered, “What agitates the men so early in the morning?”

 

“The sound is not of war or fear,” Caél answered. He hurried toward the uproar, his heart pounding with hope—and the expectation of his justification.

 

Men all over the camp were running toward the noise, and at the western end they found soldiers thronging together. Caél slowed as he came near the crowd, and then Artek’s voice rang from behind him, “Way for the right hand! Way for the masters of the army!”

 

Caél plowed onward, Artek’s strident voice clearing his way. In a few moments he broke through, standing at last at the front of the crowd. He looked out, and saw a horse and rider galloping toward them from the mountain.

 

Keiran, the Captain of the Hosts of Belenus, had returned. The strong dappled horse he rode ran swift and hard, its mane streaming into the air. Keiran’s dark cloak billowed behind him, and a javelin pierced the sky above his head. Soon he was near the camp, but Keiran kept his horse at its headlong speed. Some of the men backed away, but Caél stepped forward. Horse and rider came within a few paces of the men and then swerved and slowed in one fluid motion. In a thunder of hooves, in a cloud of dust, they came to a halt right in front of Caél.

 

Caél took hold of the horse’s bridle. Keiran nodded to him and passed down the javelin. Caél grasped it firmly—Keiran’s javelin was unusually heavy—and then spoke in a clear, loud voice. “How went the hunt?” It was the question all of them—every soldier, every officer, the Captain himself—wanted him to ask.

 

Keiran made no answer. He reached beneath his cloak and brought out a small bundle. The cloth was heavy, dark green, so worn it was fit to be either a master’s rag or a poor man’s cloak. The Captain unwrapped it and held it out for his men to see.

 

There, swaddled in the battered cloth, were six fangs of the great cats.

 

A murmur of surprise shook the crowd. Killing one great cat in an expedition was an accomplishment, two was a rare feat, but who had ever heard of three? Caél looked at the fangs, judging their thickness and their length. The longer a cat’s fangs, the longer its life—and the stronger, the cleverer, the crueler it was. The fangs Keiran had taken from the great cats showed that his prey had been mature adults, formidable even among their own kind. Caél felt the awe of the men around him for the Captain, and he felt a sudden, unwelcomed spike of envy.

 

Keiran patiently held out the fangs, letting the soldiers feast their eyes on his prize. Then he quietly wrapped them up and slipped the bundle beneath his cloak. He dismounted, and Caél looked around for Keiran’s personal servant. He found him standing at his elbow. Caél nodded to the man, passing to him the reins and the Captain’s javelin.

 

Keiran looked at the men gathered about. “About your business,” he ordered. As they dispersed, he turned to Caél and jerked his head. The two men walked through the camp to Keiran’s tent. On entering, Caél went to the table and spread out a map. “The army sets out soon,” he said, turning back to Keiran. “Should—” Caél stopped, staring.

 

Keiran met his gaze. His eyes were a remarkably clear blue, but they were as cold as the ice that clung to the high cliffs of the Black Mountains. There was a severity to the well-cut lines of his face and a hardness to the set of his mouth. Keiran was handsome enough, but few people who saw him carried away that impression. “What is it?” he asked.

 

Caél tipped his head, looking at him. He had shed his cloak, and Caél could now see a reddish stripe slanting down his neck and disappearing beneath his tunic. “What happened to you?”

 

Keiran brushed the wound with his fingers. “The first principle of hunting the great cats is to stay out of range of their claws and teeth. I misjudged.”

 

“Ah.” Caél squinted at the wound. It looked like it was healing, and he couldn’t see any infection. Caél motioned to the map spread over the table. “Do you want me to halt the army at Slad or bring them down to the Crown?”

 

“I want Artek to bring the army down to the Crown.”

 

Caél looked at him. “And me?”

 

“You will come with me to Rhugarch.”

 

Caél rolled up the map. “And the prisoner?”

 

“He will stay with the army.”

 

“And when they come to the Crown, what will Muireach do when he hears an Alamiri prisoner is within a league of his palace?”

 

Keiran looked at him and turned away. “He will take the Alamiri, put him into his dungeons, question him—and then do whatever he fancies.”

 

“Captain, we have no way of knowing in what condition we will get him back—if we get him back at all.”

 

“Muireach is Belenus’ deputy—and a Fay, what’s more. We can’t disobey him. If he wants the prisoner, he will get him.”

 

“I know. But if we keep the prisoner out of his hand’s reach, he is less likely to take him.”

 

“That would mean taking him to Rhugarch—a short walk to his native land.”

 

Caél took a breath. “Captain, the prisoner tried to escape last night. Make me personally responsible for him. I will take charge of him, and he will go wherever I do.”

 

“You’re my right hand, Caél, not a jailer.”

 

“Keiran, we will—” Caél stopped, instinctively looking toward the entrance. He dropped his voice. “We will need him when we get to Alamir.”

 

“I need you more than I need him. If I make you the Alamiri’s keeper and he escapes, Muireach might decide to make you pay the penalty.”

 

Caél looked him steadily in the eye. “This is the best way to keep the Alamiri from Muireach and Belenus. Let me do it.”

 

Keiran returned his gaze—and his eyes were emotionless and flat. “I will consider. Now have the soldiers prepare to break camp.” He turned and left the tent.

 

Caél did, too. He went to the watchman’s post and ordered the man on duty, “Send out the signal for decampment.”

 

The watchman bowed. “As you order, master.” He took the trumpet at his side and raised it to his lips.

 

Caél turned back to the camp and looked at it as the watchman sounded the notes. He looked back and thanked the watchman with a nod, and then walked away. He hiked up the valley and wandered over to a copse of trees; there he drew out his sword and settled on a fallen log.

 

Down in the camp the soldiers were getting ready to march—collapsing tents, gathering their possessions, loading the supply caravan. He had no such duties. Even his own tent, his own clothing and pallet he had no responsibility for. There were people who did such things for a master of the army.

 

Caél had put on a cloak against the cold of an early morning in autumn, but now he tugged it off his shoulders and, taking hold of a corner of it, began polishing his sword. He ran the cloth down the blade, over the hilt. It hardly needed it, and he didn’t care.

 

Eventually he looked up and saw Keiran walking toward him. He stood up, the cloak falling to the ground. “Captain?”

 

Keiran came up to him and sat down on the log. “Sit down.” Caél obeyed, and Keiran went on, “I have decided you were right—about keeping the Alamiri as far away from Muireach as possible. To that end I will allow you to take charge—for now.”

 

“Thank you, Captain.”

 

“You believe in my cause.”

 

At that Caél looked up and studied the Captain. “Devoutly.”

 

“But you have other motivations for wanting to be the Alamiri’s keeper.”

 

Caél arched his eyebrows and waited for the Captain to go on.

 

“I spoke with Artek, Caél. He tells me that you saved the Alamiri from being beaten. He said that you threatened the whip to any man who harmed him.”

 

“I did.”

 

Keiran leaned forward. “Our lieutenants—and our men—think you were wrong. They are saying that the Alamiri should have been flogged, to be taught not to run.”

 

“They are wrong.” Caél didn’t bother to inquire if Keiran agreed with them; if he did, he was wrong, too. “There was no need to make the Alamiri suffer.”

 

“Artek has told me how he disagrees.”

 

“I don’t defer to Artek’s opinions.”

 

A hint of amusement colored Keiran’s features. “I know. Everyone knows. But the point is that you are not protecting the Alamiri only for my sake, or for our people’s. You are protecting him for his own sake.”

 

“I am. Do you tell me I’m wrong?” To deliver the challenge—to receive the answer—Caél lifted his eyes to meet Keiran’s.

 

Keiran shook his head. “No. Just a warning, Caél. Protect the Alamiri if you like, but don’t carry it too far. He’s not worth your life.” With that, Keiran stood up and walked away.

 

Caél stayed where he was, turning Keiran’s words over in his mind. He looked around him—at the half-bare trees, the dying grass, the cool, clear sky. The last birds of summer shook the branches above him. After a long time he asked aloud, “What is the worth of a stranger?”

 

Neither the trees, nor the sky, nor the chirping birds gave him any answer.

 

-----------------------------

 

The Black Mountains divided the land of Alamir from the kingdom of Belenus, the undying lord of the north. Two of the mountains formed, where they met, the only pass that gave a clear and reasonably safe way to the country on the other side.

 

The forbidding mountains—steep, treacherous, prowled over by wild beasts—created whatever peace existed between these unhappy neighbors. Belenus hated the Men of the South with a cold and relentless hatred. He hated them because they were mortals; he hated them far more because they were free mortals. The Alamiri, for their part, had the most reasonable attitude toward Belenus possible: They feared him.

 

The pass opened up and led down into Alamir at a place called the Rhugarch Gap. The Alamiri, in common prudence, had fortified and held the Gap for many years. Two springs ago Keiran had attacked them, driving his soldiers in a hard and dangerous campaign. On the third day of battle he seized Rhugarch.

 

Since then he had been devoted to eliminating every Alamiri foothold in the Black Mountains. With their last search they had driven every Man of the South out of the mountains. Still Keiran and his masters worried that the Alamiri would try to take Rhugarch back. So Keiran journeyed up the Gap and inspected its fortifications.

 

There was a curious plateau at the Gap’s highest point, just above where the pass turned sharply down. It didn’t seem possible that it was natural, or that it was man-made. Keiran guessed that it was, in some measure, both.

 

A fortification had been built over the plateau. A watchman stood there, and archers, too. Keiran walked across the plateau and looked out toward Alamir. He saw a league or two of open land and then a forest—the Northwood, the Alamiri called it, so tall and thick Keiran’s skin prickled at the sight of it. He turned toward Rhugarch’s commander. “Where are their defenses?”

 

“In the forest, Captain. Sometimes we see the smoke of their fires.”

 

“How many men?”

 

“We don’t know. They try to stay hidden.”

 

Keiran stared at the distant forest. The trees crowded so tightly together they cast out sunlight, and he could see nothing besides the trees and their reaching branches. “Archers?”

 

“We have never seen any, but we don’t doubt it.”

 

Neither did Keiran. He tried to imagine riding across the open land—vulnerable to their arrows. It could be trouble, but he would handle it when the time came. He looked back to the commander. “Any movement?”

 

“Patrols have come within a stone’s-throw of the pass five times. Nothing else.”

 

A new voice came from behind them: “It surprises me that they have not tried to get their stronghold back.”

 

They turned to see Caél standing at the head of the stairs roughly hewn out of the rock. “Their blood may be running thin,” Keiran answered.

 

“Maybe. We may yet see.”

 

The commander spoke up. “It will not matter—if Belenus wants to make them part of his dominion. No mortal can stand against a Fay.”

 

Keiran looked at him—and decided he could get away with not agreeing. He turned back to stare at the dark, shielding forest of Alamir, and in a few moments he felt Caél come alongside him. The two men looked at each other, and acknowledged their secrets in a glance.

 

 

Two

 

He was in the bed of a wagon, and the horses were going fast. Every time the wagon slowed to a comfortable pace, he heard the crack of a whip, and the horses ran hard again. No straw or blankets had been spread over the floor of the wagon, and he was jostled ruthlessly. He couldn’t even brace or catch himself. He was bound hand and foot, his body was chilled by the wind and sore from the ride, and he desperately wished he had a dagger.

 

Two of his captors were at the front of the wagon. About a dozen more rode on horses around it. Every step took him farther from home, every step took him deeper into the cursed land. He almost felt the power of the black Fay growing around him. He told himself his imagination cooked up the sensation, but moments still came when he suddenly felt as though he were being suffocated.

 

He fantasized about that dagger—not very long, but very sharp. He could saw through the ropes, crawl up and attack the soldiers in the front....

 

No, it would never happen. The riders would see him. But if he had the dagger when they camped— No. It would do him no good even then if they chained him to one of his guards again. Sighing to himself, he tried to rub his hands together, and the rope chafed his skin.

 

The wagon jolted and knocked him against the boards. He winced as they drove against his back and decided he needed to think of something besides the bruises he was getting. He closed his eyes. Jarmith. Jarmith of My’ra. He said his name to himself perhaps because it had been so long since anyone else had. His captors had never spoken it, were impatient when he told it to them. But who are you?—and they meant only, Are you Somebody?

 

Not that he cared to hear his name from the servants of the black Fay. Not really.

 

He tried to turn his thoughts away. Memories came to him as pictures—a house by a lake, the charred stones of a hearth, sunlight slanting through green leaves....

 

The movement of the wagon stopped, and Jarmith opened his eyes. One of the soldiers seated in the front turned and jumped into the bed of the wagon. He approached Jarmith and unbound him. He heaved him to his feet and pushed him to the back of the wagon. Two soldiers had dismounted and stood behind the wagon. They reached up as the soldier behind Jarmith pushed, and in a moment he made a rough but safe landing.

 

One of the men brandished a spear and prodded Jarmith. It didn’t even prick his skin, but it wounded his pride, and he simmered as he complied. Their strange procession moved, the soldiers walking in silence, goading their prisoner like an animal in front of them.

 

They didn’t travel long. Close beside the wagon were three beech trees growing close together, and two men stood in front of them. Jarmith’s heart clenched as he recognized the captain of the army and his second-in-command.

 

The soldiers brought Jarmith forward and pushed him to his knees. Jarmith looked up at the men and found both staring down at him. He had heard rumors in Alamir about the great captain of men who had arisen in the North, and he had been little impressed. With a Fay to contend with, how much did a Man matter?

 

Now he was impressed. He had a daunting air, this stern-faced Captain with the cold eyes. It disturbed Jarmith that his fate was in this man’s hands.

 

The Captain turned to his second-in-command. “If you find it too onerous to keep him, you can send him to Muireach. You know how deep his dark dungeons are. The Alamiri will never escape.”

 

“Muireach can hold him, but so can I.”

 

“As you wish.” The Captain looked at Jarmith. “Alamiri,” he pronounced, “you have been mine since my men captured you. Now I give you to Caél, my right hand. He will deal with you as pleases him until I or my masters want you. We may yet make use of you.” He turned away, making it apparent he considered any response from Jarmith irrelevant.

 

Jarmith’s soul burned, and he heard himself mutter, “Savages.”

 

The word was low but quite distinct, and the Captain looked back at him. Jarmith saw his face and it chilled him. He seemed capable of doing anything to Jarmith and doing it in perfect calmness. The Captain gazed at him for a very long moment, then looked at Caél. “He has much to learn, but perhaps you will be able to mold him. It would be a pity if we had to get a new one.” And he turned his back to Jarmith and left.

 

Caél addressed the soldiers: “Bring the Alamiri around. I want him to see one of the marvels of Belenus, so that he may learn his ignorance.”

 

Hands clapped down on Jarmith’s shoulders and dragged him to his feet. He felt the spear against his back again, and he obeyed. They went around the trees, and for the first time he had a clear view of the country beyond. A monstrously large gorge tore open the land, leaving it ragged and gray. For miles around—as far as any eye could see—there were no farms or fields or houses, only blank ground and lonely trees and piling rocks. A stone bridge spanned across the gorge, so wide eight men could march abreast with room to spare.

 

Jarmith stared, astonished. His eyes fastened on the large gray stones, and he wondered who had built them into a bridge over the perilous chasm.

 

As he looked, he saw six men riding out toward the bridge—Keiran, Caél, and four soldiers in a row behind them. Less than halfway to the bridge the four halted, and only Keiran and Caél went on. They stopped a short distance onto the bridge, and Jarmith watched the leaders talk alone. After a little while Caél turned and rode back. When he did, the four soldiers started forward. As they approached him, Keiran reared his horse into the air and leapt forward. The five men galloped across the bridge and vanished into the land beyond.

 

Jarmith shifted from foot to foot, stretched back his stiff shoulders. So the Captain was going away again. He was occupied with trying to guess what that meant for his future when Caél drew his horse to a stop in front of him. “Tell me, Alamiri,” he said. “Do you have anything like it in Alamir—or could you, if you wanted?”

 

Jarmith looked up at him. He knew that it was Caél who had protected him from being beaten for his ill-fated escape attempt, and he felt no gratitude at all. Grudgingly he gave the truth: “I don’t know.”

 

Caél lifted his arm, pointing toward the bridge. “Once you cross that gorge, the land will be empty but not for long. In this region are the dwellings of my people, the Dochraitay. Here, in the south of Belenus’ kingdom, we live. Past us are the Ushleen Moors. Beyond the Moors, in the hill country, Belenus lives in a great palace of silver and gold. Further north, what do you find? More territory ruled by Belenus. You have barely reached our borders, and already you are amazed. You pass judgment on us, but you know little.”

 

“I know what you do. I know what you are.”

 

Caél’s eyebrows rose ever so slightly. “You will come to know better.” He turned his attention to the guards. “Take him back. We will travel on. Artek has already begun.”

 

-----------------------------

 

Keiran was glad when his way turned west and Caél’s went north. He knew their decision not to put the prisoner on a horse was right, but the wagon had slowed their pace terribly. Now he had left it behind, and he could ride free, flying over the land.

 

The four soldiers rode with him as his guard. They traveled into the night, and early the next morning he sent one of the soldiers on ahead of him. As the afternoon faded into evening, Keiran reached the Crown.

 

Muireach had built his palace on the crown of a hill. It was heavily fortified; massive bulwarks and soaring ramparts stood fast against a danger that never came. Keiran didn’t know how many centuries ago the palace had been built. The years had not taken away its strength, but they had taken its beauty. An air of dreariness enshrouded the whole palace, and it had the degraded look of something that had been made better than it had become.

 

The iron gates opened ponderously. Keiran rode through into the courtyard, its heavy white stones grayed by dirt-encrusted chips and cracks. Even before he finished drawing his horse to a halt, a groom ran up and grabbed the bridle.

 

Keiran didn’t look at the servant as he dismounted and walked up the steps of the palace. There, between the pillars and the wall, guards stood at intervals. The door warden came forward, a man Keiran knew well—a light-haired man of Gouth, with a quick blade and a sharp eye and a dead heart. Of all the duties of the door warden, the greatest was to ensure that no mortal carried arms into Muireach’s palace.

 

Not even the Captain of the Hosts.

 

Keiran unstrapped his sword with an air of ritual. He and the door warden had done this countless times, and it had become almost a ceremony for them. The warden took the sword and propped it against the wall, then returned for the other weapons. Keiran unsheathed his knife and gave it to him. Then he reached down and slipped out the dagger he had hidden in his boot.

 

The warden laid down the weapons and turned back. “Your men were here not long ago,” he said. “I heard rumors. Did you really kill three great cats?”

 

“As surely as I stand here.”

 

He signaled to his deputies. “No wonder you are the Captain of the Hosts.”

 

The men pulled open the high, heavy wooden doors, and Keiran passed through, satisfaction spreading in him. The men had carried the report of his exploits, as he knew they would. His legend grew, as he knew it would.

 

The passageways of Muireach’s palace were lit by torches. The red light glittered dully off of gemstones, off of lintels and walls trimmed with silver. So Keiran went through half-darkness to the great hall. He stood outside while a servant called out his name and title, and then they ushered him in.

 

The hall of Muireach was long and very high. Windows were built into the south wall, much closer to the ceiling than the floor, and Muireach allowed no lights lit until sundown. So the hall was customarily dim. There was no part so well-illuminated as the north wall, on which Muireach displayed, in a grim parade of triumph, his trophies. Weapons—many of them notched and stained—hung alongside dinted, discolored armor. Royal jewelry was scattered among the gear of war.

 

None of it was Muireach’s. His own weapons, his own treasures were hung on the east wall, behind his throne. These he had taken from his enemies. The make and style of much of it was familiar to Keiran. Some of it he himself had, under orders, sent to the Crown. But many of the pieces were strange and ancient, and Keiran had spent much hopeless curiosity on them.

 

There were many people in the hall—servants, officials, supplicants, those under summons. Keiran made his way to Muireach, pleased at how the eyes of those in the court turned after him. He had won his greatness at some cost and much peril, and the day was coming when he would use it for the purpose he had gained it.

 

Muireach sat on his throne. His long robe was green and purple, and streaked with gleams of gold, but his head was bare. His thick, brown hair fell across his forehead, and his features were inhumanly elegant. Keiran presented himself to him, going to one knee and bowing down. His knee began to ache before Muireach finally recognized him: “Stand, Captain.”

 

Keiran stood. “I have fulfilled all the commands I was given on the Black Mountains.”

 

Muireach studied him, faint light glinting off his dark eyes. “I made your lieutenant, Artek, tell me everything that happened. Where is this Alamiri you found?”

 

“I gave my right hand charge of him. He is with him now, attending the Ingathering.” Keiran kept his eyes raised, even as tension crept into his muscles.

 

They gazed at each other. Finally Muireach lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug. “So be it. How is Rhugarch?”

 

“As strong as it can be. There is still no sign from Alamir.”

 

“As I said,” Muireach answered, “I have already held counsel with Artek. Go to the Ingathering. When you return, it will be to present my spoils.”

 

The words roused an old feeling in Keiran—heavy, burning, bitter. But he bowed again, kneeling down in front of Muireach. Then he rose and walked out. He went as fast as he decently could through the passageways, taking no heed of the riches around him. Out in the free, cold air, the sky had grown dark; it was nearly night.

 

His soldiers were in front of the palace, standing by their horses. One held the reins of Keiran’s stallion also. He came quickly down the steps and ordered, “Mount up. He has commanded us to depart for the Ingathering.”

 

Even in the fading light he could see their features turn to sulkiness. As he mounted his horse, he heard one say, “Even this late he sends us out.”

 

Another muttered, “I had hoped to sleep in a bed one night.”

 

Keiran didn’t rebuke their grumbling, nor did he share their disappointment. He was glad to go. He hated Fays. He hated their luxury and their treasures and their complacent power. He hated, above all, their greatness.

 

-----------------------------

 

The soil of Dokrait, the dwelling-place of the Dochraitay, was rich. The people worked hard and raised abundant crops. As they finished harvesting, it came time for the Ingathering, and the soldiers came to collect Belenus’ share. They began in Slad, and they were still going through the villages when Caél joined them.

 

He assumed his duties the next morning, summoning all the men of the village to the circle of assembly. There, conferring with the elders, the officers settled accounts with each man. Caél stood with them, overseeing the monotonous, soul-killing work until the dull voices rang in his ears: Five sheep, twelve chickens ... Two of every eight, nine of every twenty, sixteen of thirty, thirty of fifty ... Six bushels, old man, and three goats ... One hundred ducats, for Belenus has no use for your pots. Finer has he, from the forges of the Trow.

 

Finally Caél turned over authority to Lachann and left. He returned to the encampment, going to the tent where they held the prisoner. The guards saluted him as he approached and held it until he passed into the tent.

 

The tent was small and dark, and the air was stale. Three men were there, much too close for comfort: The Alamiri, the guard he was chained to, and another guard, just for good measure. The Alamiri was sitting on the floor, and Caél squatted in front of him. It brought him close enough to see his expression—not that, in all its surliness, it was really worth seeing.

 

Caél glanced at the chain, aware that all three were watching him. “See what you have gotten yourself into, Alamiri?”

 

The Alamiri didn’t answer, and Caél stood up. “Release him,” he ordered the guard. The guard did so and then took a rope to tie his hands. “No,” Caél said. “Not at the moment. I want to talk with him, and he can walk freely while I do.”

 

“Master”—the guard’s voice was very steady—“I am not sure that is wise.”

 

Caél looked down on the foreigner, at the dark, tangled hair of his bowed head. “He is no more than I can handle. In fact, I would call him a good deal less.”

 

The guard put the rope aside and gathered his bow and quiver from a corner of the tent. “We will come behind you, master.”

 

“Do so, then. But not too closely. Come, Alamiri.” Caél stepped out of the tent. The Alamiri followed, and the guards filed out behind him. But they stopped and didn’t follow for a long while.

 

Caél walked in silence, watching with amusement as the Alamiri kept looking behind him. The guards were out of earshot but well within aiming distance; even unfettered, he had no chance.

 

They came to a field of shorn wheat-stalks. A large wagon was on the rutted country road, some way ahead of them, and a couple soldiers stood by while peasants—so their clothing showed them—loaded sheaves onto it. The peasants seemed quietly disconsolate, and the soldiers, bored.

 

Caél stopped, letting the Alamiri absorb the sight, this image of the Ingathering. “Those sheaves,” he said, “will be stored in the garners of Belenus or his deputy, Muireach.” Caél went on, turning away from the field, taking a route that would bring them through empty land. “You must have a name, Alamiri. What is it?”

 

“Jarmith.”

 

“Jarmith,” Caél repeated, rolling the word over his tongue. “Jarmith, I want to speak with you about your purpose.”

 

Jarmith looked at him, wariness and disgust mingling in his face. “The purpose for which you are keeping me alive?”

 

Caél wondered if he had come to that idea himself or gathered it from his guards, but he didn’t care to pursue the question. “Jarmith, I want you to see and remember. This is the Ingathering. See, understand, know. The time will come when your knowledge will be useful.”

 

“I don’t understand you.”

 

“It is not yet time for you to. All that is required of you now is that you watch and listen.”

 

They walked in silence for a few minutes. Finally Jarmith spoke. “You think I belong to you.”

 

Caél couldn’t quite tell if that was a question or a statement. “Tell me, Jarmith. Do you think you belong to yourself?” Caél let his eyes wander behind him—to the soldiers.

 

Jarmith looked at them and turned savagely back. “I have rights. Even if you deny them to me, I have them.”

 

The words—the thought—reverberated to the depths of Caél’s soul, but now was not the time for it. He smiled mildly—almost dismissively—at the Alamiri. “Say what you please. You’ll serve my purpose all the same. When I go my rounds you will come with me. It need not go badly with you, Alamiri. Serve well and you will be treated well.”

 

The Alamiri looked at him—for once without anger or fear or sullenness. There was quietness in his face now, and in that quietness was dignity. “A slave who is fed by his master is better off than a slave who is beaten. But he is still a slave. I am Jarmith of Alamir. I am a free man.”

 

Caél looked at him—and saw a man who would never have come from his own people. “You are not in Alamir anymore, Jarmith of the Alamiri. You are in the kingdom of Belenus, and no one here is free.” Caél turned on his heel and left Jarmith behind, hearing a voice taunt him as he went, I am Caél of the Dochraitay, and I am a slave of Belenus.

 

-----------------------------

 

Keiran followed his officers to the Ingathering, but it took him a while to catch up with them. He devoted his attention to the logistics of the operation. The army went ahead, taking the wealth of the Dochraitay, and he lingered behind, overseeing what was done with it. He directed the soldiers in their work. He sent off the first caravan to Belenus, the second to Muireach. Finally he came upon the city where his army was settled like locusts—in numbers and purpose.

 

He went searching for Caél and found him on the south side of the city. He and the men with him were watching soldiers go from house to house down the street. They were all on horseback, and they came to startled attention when Keiran rode up to them. “At ease,” he ordered, scanning the men around Caél. He stopped when he caught sight of the Alamiri—loose, and on horseback. Keiran ran his eyes over the rest—soldiers, all sensibly armed with bows.

 

“We have finished with the surrounding farms and villages, Captain,” Caél reported. “We are almost done with the town.”

 

“Good.” The sooner they finished the better. “And what of our Alamiri?”

 

“He is learning.”

 

Keiran brazenly assessed the Alamiri, as if he were a horse Keiran had half a mind to buy. There was something altered in his manner. He seemed—that was it—freer, more at ease than Keiran had ever seen him. It was written in his very posture.

 

“Captain,” Caél said, “may I speak with you?”

 

“Yes.” Keiran turned his horse away, and Caél followed him. Keiran took them beyond the houses, onto the country roads. When he was certain of their solitude he slowed his horse to a walk. “I hope you are keeping a firm hand on that Alamiri.”

 

“I am, Captain.”

 

“Why do you have him out?”

 

“I am making him our witness.”

 

“We haven’t acted yet.”

 

“I thought he should know how it is for the Dochraitay.”

 

Keiran mulled that over. Perhaps it would be good for the Alamiri to have an understanding of what he would later see. “That may be for the best.”

 

Caél leaned forward. “Keiran—”

 

Something in his voice made Keiran really look at him for the first time, and he saw the edge in his eyes that he had learned long ago meant trouble. “What is it, Caél?”

 

“The soldiers are going through the last part of the town. But ... there is one last thing to do. In the city—in these villages and farms—there are families that could not pay the tribute. I told them to gather in the assembly circle for the Choosing this afternoon.”

 

“Are they the first this year?”

 

Caél nodded. “The harvest was plentiful.”

 

Keiran sighed. “When the people raise enough crops to pay the tribute, Belenus only raises it.”

 

“Captain,” Caél said, “by the time we get back to the city, the soldiers will have finished.”

 

Keiran didn’t want to look at him. He didn’t want to see his right hand’s desire not to do the Choosing, because he didn’t want to do it, either. He didn’t want to be Belenus’ boot on the necks of his people, didn’t want to carry this, too, in his soul.

 

Keiran looked back at Caél. He would do what he told him to. He was loyal to Keiran, devoted to their cause. He knew what they had to do.

 

Keiran turned his horse back toward the city. “I’ll do the Choosing.”

 

-----------------------------

 

Jarmith had expected the cursed land to look more, well, cursed. He was not expecting this rich land—abundant wheat, prospering grape-vines, flowing olive-presses. He rode through parts of Dokrait that looked so much like Alamir it made him homesick. Then he came to a farmhouse or a sad village, and he knew he was in the land of the Dochraitay. He could have wondered why there was such prosperity in the fields and such poverty in the homes. But he had come to the Ingathering, and that was his answer.

 

Caél had done as he said: He took Jarmith with him and showed him what the army did. Now Jarmith watched as the soldiers plundered the latest city. The Captain had returned and then left with Caél. Jarmith felt a faint sense of freedom at that—at being out from under the careful eye of Caél and the hard eye of Keiran. He took careful glances at the faces of his guards. They appeared bored, and no one showed any particular interest in him. If he could slip away into the narrow streets and close buildings he might be able to escape. Of course, if he could sprout wings and fly into the sky, he might escape, too. He had been surprised when Caél permitted him to ride. Now he suspected that Caél had always known what he had come to learn: It is impossible to slip away from a small group of people when you have to either dismount a horse or take it with you.

 

The men around him began stirring. He looked where their attention was focused and saw the soldiers dispersing. Soon their group was watching no one, and dead stillness settled over the dirty streets. No one came out of the houses, no voice drifted from them, no rustle of movement or flame of fire could be seen in the windows.

 

Jarmith wished, for a moment, that he could hide, too, waiting behind closed doors until the Dochraitay army moved on. That desire, faint as steam, thinned to vanishing just as quickly. When he got away from the soldiers of Belenus, he would run all the way back to Alamir. These people, the Dochraitay, would remain where they were, and the army would come to fleece them again. Belenus had always made an uncomfortable neighbor, but Jarmith had begun to feel how much worse it was for his people, over whom he loomed always, like a baleful sun.

 

Jarmith sensed the rise in feeling around him. The guards began shifting with impatience and staring off in the direction Keiran had gone.

 

He kept his peace. The Dochraitay treated his words like the clanging of an old wheel—annoying noise, but best to learn to ignore it. Caél would speak with him occasionally, and Jarmith had learned he could ask him questions. But he knew that he might as well ask his horse what was going on as his guards—and the horse, at least, wouldn’t flash irritation at the sound of his voice.

 

Jarmith waited with less knowledge than his captors, but with more serenity. They did not wait long. Soon Keiran and Caél returned, galloping over the roads. To Jarmith’s surprise they came close and then rode past. But as they went by, Caél signaled to the soldiers.

 

They formed up—three behind Jarmith, two flanking him on each side, two leading the way. They followed the two commanders through the city streets, coming upon an open area. Stone pillars—worn by the rain and wind of many years—formed a circle. Their path—opened by the Captain of the Hosts—was clear, but people stood pressed together all around the circle. Within the pillars was another crowd.

 

Keiran and Caél had halted their horses in front of the circle’s archway. Keiran dismounted and entered, but Caél remained where he was. The soldiers joined him, and Jarmith was beneath the vigilant eyes of the right hand once again. His guards gave him his usual position beside Caél, and he was grateful for it. He leaned forward, curiously looking at the people gathered for Keiran’s special attention.

 

He drew back, startled. They were youths—none younger than twelve, few older than twenty. He guessed there were five boys for every girl. They stood in tight but orderly rows, and Keiran began inspecting them.

 

A horrible feeling started fluttering in Jarmith’s chest. What could Keiran want with them? None of them looked happy. Some were near tears; some looked like children trying to be brave. Jarmith jerked his head to look at the faces of the crowd, suddenly realizing how quiet they were. There were tears on some of those faces, too, but more often dark silence. They looked like mourners at a funeral.

 

Jarmith didn’t think. He reacted. He grabbed Caél’s arm as he leaned over and hissed, “What is this?”

 

From behind came the unmistakable sound of weapons being drawn. Caél himself looked briefly shocked, like a man who had been startled out of a private world of his own. Then he shook off Jarmith’s hand and waved to the soldiers. He turned back without a word or even a look to Jarmith. Just when Jarmith was sure he wasn’t going to answer, he said, “This is the Choosing.”

 

“For what?”

 

“For the Ingathering.”

 

“The Ingathering?”

 

For the first time he saw impatience flash across Caél’s features. “The tribute must be paid. Usually in goods or money, animals or crops of the land, but if the people do not have these....”

 

It fell terribly into place. “Belenus takes humans as part of his tribute?”

 

“You still don’t understand? This is the kingdom of Belenus. Everything here is his. The land, the trees, the lakes, the animals, the people. We are his tenants. He takes the share he wants.”

 

Jarmith looked at the boys and girls, horrible possibilities spinning in his mind. “What will you do with them?”

 

“Whatever Belenus pleases,” Caél answered. Then he added, “Most of the boys will be made mine-thralls in the Ushleen Moors. The girls will become household servants, or weavers, or perfumers.”

 

Slaves. They would be slaves. Jarmith looked at Keiran as he walked among the youths. He paused by a girl, went past two scrawny young boys, stopped at a young man. Keiran beckoned, and he stepped forward. He seemed to assess his height, then clasped his arm, feeling the muscle. He spoke a word, and the young man separated himself from the others. A sound Jarmith had never heard passed through the crowd—a kind of repressed, mournful murmur. Keiran moved on, his face entirely unchanged.

 

Jarmith looked with growing horror at the people ringed around the pillars. He looked at the youths being chosen for slavery, and he turned to Caél. “In my country they call Belenus the black Fay, and you his servants. You’ve shown me how right we were.”

 

To his credit Caél perceived Jarmith’s insult. He looked at him sharply and ordered, “Hold your tongue.” But Jarmith thought that even as he spoke Caél’s face was pale.

 

-----------------------------

 

Keiran drew out his sword and looked at his reflection in its blade. It was not something he often did, looking at himself. He wasn’t entirely sure why he was doing it tonight, but the Choosing had something to do with it.

 

Keiran ran his fingers against the blade, carefully avoiding the edge. He had taken up the sword twenty years ago. He had lived and worked to one purpose since that day, and he was working still. What he had suffered—what he had made others suffer—would not be in vain.

 

Keiran cut the air with the sword. He slashed and arced and his blood ran faster. Then he was moving, turning, thrusting, and swinging on every side. He moved lightly, swiftly, making the sword in his hand flash through the air. He spun toward the front of the tent, sweeping the sword with great force at a non-existent enemy—

 

He barely saw a person standing just inside the tent, and then a loud clang filled the air and the shock of iron blade against iron blade ran up his hands into his arms. Caél had drawn his sword and blocked Keiran’s blow, and now he looked at him across the blades and smiled.

 

It was not a sentiment Keiran could share at that moment. He lowered his sword, unsettled at having unwittingly directed a death-blow at Caél. He tried not to feel it, telling Caél, “Nicely done.”

 

Caél’s smile widened a little. “How often does the Captain of the Hosts give a compliment?”

 

Not often. “What is it?”

 

“A messenger came from Lachann. They’ve finished in Lokshi; they’re going on to Cruach.”

 

“Good. Have you heard from any of the Forty?”

 

“Not since early summer.”

 

“It’s been long enough. Summon Bahor and find out how things are with them.”

 

“Very well.” Caél sheathed his sword and reached toward the tent flap. “Good night.”

 

“Good night.”

 

Caél left, and Keiran was alone again. He looked at his sword and thought of all the years he had lived by it and what had brought him to it. He thought of the Choosing of that afternoon, and of another Choosing many years before. And it all flowed together in a real and unhappy continuity.

 

Deep in thought, he twisted his sword through the air in large, slow circles.

 

Three

 

Keiran sometimes regretted that he didn’t stay in his house more often, usually when he was actually there. When he was in the field, he accepted tents instead of houses, army provisions instead of good food, pallets instead of beds without perturbation. He was not a man to waste his thoughts on amenities that could not be had.

 

As the Ingathering drew to a close, he returned home and settled immediately into the comforts he had gone months without. He slept in his bed and, in the morning, had his breakfast served to him in his east-facing chamber. While he was eating—real food, fruit and fresh bread and seasoned meat—Caél came in. “May I speak with you, Captain?”

 

“Of course. Do you want breakfast?”

 

“I already had it.”

 

Keiran glanced out the window, measuring the position of the sun. “Industrious this morning, are you?”

 

“I wanted to finish this business. Here are the final tallies.”

 

Keiran didn’t take the paper; he had no interest in how many bushels of wheat and vats of wine, how much livestock and how many humans had been taken from the Dochraitay. “More than last year?”

 

Caél drew the paper back. “Yes. A fair bit more.”

 

“That will please Muireach.” Keiran tore a chunk from the loaf of bread and dipped it into the jar of honey.

 

Caél stood and watched him for a moment, and then sat down. “We can send the last caravans in the next two days.”

 

Keiran nodded, a brooding thought snagging him. “According to Muireach’s whim we’ve kept back the silver and the gold and the slaves. Now I must travel to the Crown and present them to him. If he’s in a hospitable mood he may invite me to take my leisure for the night. I prefer him in his inhospitable moods.” Then, noticing Caél’s expression, he stopped.

 

Caél moved into the silence. “Captain, I would like permission to go home.”

 

So that was what was on his mind. “Caél, I had planned for you to come with me to present the tribute. It’s been a long time since you paid obeisance to Muireach.”

 

“Not as long as it’s been since I saw my wife. Let me go, Keiran. My son is growing up without me.”

 

“He isn’t even five, is he?”

 

“He’s almost four. Last time I came back from a campaign, he didn’t recognize me.”

 

Keiran had seen Caél’s homecoming. He himself had never married. His life—his precarious life, built on a passion that demanded all he had—left no room for it. He saw no reason to regret that. But when he had seen Caél take up his small boy into his arms, he envied him.

 

Keiran was holding that image in his mind when he looked back to Caél and nodded. “You may go.”

 

A smile overcame Caél’s face. “Thank you.” He stood up. “What do I have to do before I can go?”

 

Keiran looked at him with amusement. It was either that or more envy. “Just have—”

 

Someone rapped sharply on the door, and Keiran called, “Come.”

 

A soldier opened the door, stepped inside, and bowed. “Masters,” he said, “a messenger has come to you with great urgency.” He moved aside, admitting another man.

 

The messenger had the bedraggled look of a man who had rode hard and long. He came close to Keiran and bowed. “Master, I have been sent to deliver this to you.”

 

Keiran accepted the missive. “Are you under orders to return immediately?”

 

“No, master.”

 

Keiran looked at the soldier. “Have him given wine and food.” He dismissed both of them with a gesture. After they were gone he turned over the missive, looking for the seal.

 

He saw it, and his heart skipped a beat. In scarlet wax, an ancient symbol—or, for all Keiran knew, a letter—had been stamped on the paper. The seal of Belenus. Keiran drew his knife out and slid it under the seal. He dropped the knife, letting it clatter among the dishes of his meal, and read the message. When he finished, he looked up at Caél. “I’m sorry.”

 

His face fell. “I’m not going home.”

 

Keiran shook his head. “Belenus has summoned us.”

 

Caél shifted uneasily. “For what?”

 

“He doesn’t say.” Keiran cast a look out the window, at the young day. “We should be gone before noon. Summon the lieutenants. I must speak with them before we go.”

 

“Shall I order a guard to saddle?”

 

“No. We’ll travel alone.”

 

Caél nodded and left. Keiran sat in thought for a moment before getting up and going his own way. His house didn’t have only a cellar; it had a whole underground of rooms. Two of the rooms—perhaps by accident, but more likely by design—were ideal as dungeons. They had put the Alamiri into one of these cells and posted a guard. Keiran walked down the stone steps and to the Alamiri’s dungeon. The guard turned the lock without a word and pushed open the heavy door.

 

A window—too small for a child to go through—had been built where the wall reached the ceiling. The Alamiri sat right beneath this window, in a pool of light. He watched Keiran with what seemed to be mild curiosity, and he didn’t rise.

 

Keiran stood in front of him. “Stand up, Alamiri. I want to talk to you.”

 

The Alamiri stood obediently, but then he spoke. “I want to talk with you, too. I don’t think much of these accommodations.”

 

Keiran bent a hard gaze on him, irritated at the interruption and even more at the complaint. “You would think a great deal less of them if my right hand had not been here.” Keiran glanced down at the abundance of straw softening—and warming—the stone floor, but he didn’t need to look at it; he knew by the smell how fresh it was. “Unfortunately for you, the right hand is leaving. Your new keeper will be my lieutenant, Artek.”

 

“May I ask what happened to the old one?”

 

“More important things require his attention. I have given you over to Artek. Remember that you are in his hands now; don’t expect mercy.” Keiran turned away, but the Alamiri answered him.

 

“Why would I? I’ve seen what mercy you show your own people. Why should I expect it from any of you?”

 

Keiran turned back. “You don’t think Caél has shown you mercy?” The Alamiri stayed quiet, and Keiran, who had to this point regarded him with indifference, conceived dislike for him. “You should acknowledge kindnesses shown to you, even if they come from people you despise. You may yet learn gratitude toward Caél—if not from Artek, then from Muireach. I have a revelation for you, Alamiri. You think you are better, but the truth is that you are only lucky.” Keiran turned away and stormed out.

 

-----------------------------

 

Jarmith was sick of the Dochraitay. He was sick of their distorted understanding of the world, their ignorance of divine holiness and human worth. He was sick of these pawns of the black Fay treating him as their own pawn. He resented their casual use of him, the infuriating assuredness with which they traded ownership of him. And he resented receiving righteous lectures from them as they held him captive.

 

He was wrapped up in these thoughts when the lock of his dungeon turned again and the door opened. Caél stepped in, and Jarmith looked at him with little good temper. “What do you want?”

 

“The Captain told me he talked to you already. I thought I should talk to you also.”

 

Further discussion of how Artek owned him now? Jarmith folded his arms and waited.

 

“Jarmith, I will be gone for—I can’t say how long. More than a month, I would guess. You will have to wait here—until I get back, until other things happen, too. But don’t despair. All this will end in time. The Captain and I do not intend to harm you. Muireach and Belenus don’t care about you, or they would have told us to give you over by now. So you are safe from them.”

 

“I’m safe, Caél, but I am not free and I am not home.”

 

“You must serve our purpose, Jarmith. And after that ... when we no longer need you, why would we keep you?”

 

Jarmith simmered, but tried to think past his anger. “You have some great plan, don’t you?”

 

Caél turned back to the door. “Wait, Jarmith.”

 

“If you intend to use me against my people, I will fight you to the death.”

 

Caél rapped hard on the door and looked back at Jarmith. “Wait,” he repeated simply. The guard opened the door for him and he left.

 

Jarmith sat down against the wall. He wondered about Caél’s plan, and his part in it, and whether Caél would really let him go when it was over.

 

And he wondered why he believed the answer to his last question was yes.

 

-----------------------------

 

Caél slipped off the bridle and watched as the horse bent his head down to drink. He rubbed its strong neck affectionately. “Drink well, Aoir. We have four more hours before we stop for the night.” He fell back into thought and, finally, sighed. “It’s a rum deal, Aoir, a rum deal. I was going home for one minute. Now I am going to Belenus. I’ve seen him before. Made my skin crawl. I felt as if I had swallowed ice whole. I haven’t seen my Glynna in four months. And Nahir ... how can I raise my son if I’m never home?”

 

Aoir went on drinking, unmoved by this outpouring of his master’s confidence. But his master didn’t take offense. He continued to rub his hand against its neck. “I wanted to save my people. I have taken so much from my family. But I am doing it for them, too. When Nahir is a man, he will be a man—not a slave.”

 

Caél lapsed into contemplation—for a moment. Then Keiran’s voice came from behind him: “If I were sensitive, I might take offense that you have deeper conversations with your horse than you do with me.”

 

Caél kept his eyes on the horse, trying to hide his embarrassment. “Take it as a reason to send me home.”

 

“Because you are pouring your heart out to a horse?”

 

“Exactly.”

 

Keiran joined Caél by the stream. “I truly am sorry, Caél.”

 

Caél watched the running water and the sunlight shifting on its fluid surface. “Do you think we’re in trouble with Belenus?”

 

“It may be. More likely someone else is—our people, or Alamir, or the western islands....”

 

Caél laughed humorlessly. “Maybe. He already terrifies them; I suppose he may want to own them, too.”

 

Keiran looked at the sun. “We should be on our way. Ask Aoir if he’s done.”

 

Caél ignored this directive, bridling his horse. He felt an absurd twinge of sympathy as the bit slid cold and hard into the horse’s mouth. He clapped his hand against its neck once more and mounted. Keiran brought his horse back from the tree it had been tethered to, and they returned to the road.

 

-----------------------------

 

For seven days they traveled north through Dokrait. Then they reached the Ushleen Moors, and the roads ended. They traveled over the rough uplands, and their horses trod over bracken and stiff grasses. Their pace slowed as they threaded their way past the bogs—and were obliged, on occasion, to go through them. Finally they came to the rolling green hills where Belenus had his abode.

 

Night had fallen. The moon hung bright in the dark sky, filling the world with shadows. Keiran and Caél journeyed on, traveling the last mile to Belenus’ palace. Caél kept his silence, and Keiran brooded as they rode.

 

Keiran heard a rustle, a sound that could not be explained by the wind. He reined his horse to listen, and Caél’s voice whispered at his side: “Keiran!”

 

Keiran looked toward him and saw that he had twisted around. Keiran tried to follow whatever direction he was looking in—

 

A phalanx of small shadows crept down the hill they had just passed on the right. There was a jagged irregularity to their shapes that betrayed the weapons they carried. For a confused moment he thought he saw candles flickering in and out among the shadows, muted and cold.

 

Then he realized he saw eyes, glowing through the gloom of the night—large and round like a bat’s, yellow like a cat’s.

 

Keiran was, in the most conscious part of his mind, amazed. Whatever the creatures were, they were wholly alien to him. But another part of his mind—a deeper part, a primal part—recognized the look of an ambush. He dug his spurs into the horse’s sides. As the horse sprang away, a horrible clamor filled the air. There were no words in the ugly sound; perhaps there were not even voices.

 

For a few moments Caél and Keiran galloped side by side. Then a horse neighed—neighed in terror. Keiran turned to Caél—and then his own horse went wild. It bucked and reared and frantically tore the earth with its hooves. It neighed—it almost screamed—and Keiran couldn’t tell if it was out of pain or fear. He tried to keep his seat, but madness was on the animal. Its frenzy grew wilder and wilder, and finally it threw him. He hit the ground and was jolted by the force of it, but he had no time for pain. He scrambled away from the horse’s flying hooves on his hands and knees. Then he pushed to his feet and ran....