Traitor to the Blood, страница 1
The Noble Dead
J.C. & Barb
About the Author
A half-elf lay shivering on his bed, unable to get warm. His mother was downstairs in the kitchen, but he couldn't go to her for comfort. Instead Leesil sat up and looked down at his dog lying on the floor.
Chap's silver-gray fur shimmered by the light of a single candle in the dark room. He raised his head, blinked once at Leesil, and whined softly as if to ask what was wrong.
Leesil's stomach churned, and his hands trembled. A feeling he couldn't name crept through his body. He was a spy, an assassin, enslaved to the warlord Darmouth, who owned both him and his parents. He served his lord without question to protect the lives of his mother and father. But this day had been different.
Thirteen days ago, Darmouth sent Leesil to spy on an old scholar named Josiah. The old man had been kind to him; not everyone would have taken a half-elf into his home. Leesil had betrayed Josiah, giving Darmouth a letter the old scholar had written to his sister. There was no malice in it, only concern for the state of the province, but it was enough for Darmouth to claim sedition. Josiah was arrested, and Leesil was paid for his services. Darmouth called it a "reward."
Leesil couldn't erase the image of Josiah's smiling violet eyes. His chest constricted with a faint hope that Josiah might be cleared. Perhaps one of Darmouth's ministers would petition for the scholar's release.
He ran a hand over his face, shivering and sweating at the same time. He needed air. He needed to get out of this room, out of this house. He reached for the drawstring pouch of coins that Lord Darmouth had given him, then got up and snuffed the candle before walking quietly into his parents' room. His father was out, and his mother was in the kitchen, so he laid the pouch on their bed.
Few people could step softly enough that his mother wouldn't hear, but she had taught Leesil how. His footfalls down the stairs were so silent even she would never hear him. Halfway down, he paused and looked back. Chap was there behind him, his paws making no noise either.
Leesil would've preferred to slip out the back door facing the lakeshore, but that meant passing through the kitchen. He didn't want his mother to see him and ask questions. So he went out the front door, opening it silently, and Chap followed.
The moon was high, and Leesil looked about at the city of Venjetz, and up and down Favor's Row, the street on which he'd lived his whole life. The only times he'd been beyond the city walls was in service to his lord or while training with his mother or father. Their house stood among others along the lake's shore, and in those waters rested Darmouth's keep, with its front portal connected to the shore by a fortified bridge. Leesil's eyes strayed to the keep's massive basalt walls, and then he stopped breathing.
Hanging from the wall was a body in soiled cream-colored robes, barely visible by the massive fire braziers burning atop the towers.
Lord Darmouth hadn't waited to hang the old man.
The world grew dim before Leesil's eyes, and his knees almost buckled as he tried to suck in air.
I did this, he thought. I am the one who did this.
On the first gasp of air, he started to run.
Leesil lurched through the streets, not caring who saw him. It was two city blocks before he heard the click of claws on cobblestone that told him Chap still followed. He ran out into the main route and stared toward the city gates before he finally regained control of himself. He slipped behind a shop, watching passing travelers.
The night was half gone, but a few wagons still entered and left the city. What trickle of commerce and trade came to Venjetz often ran both day and night.
This life had to end. If Leesil even disobeyed Darmouth, let alone tried to flee, his parents would be arrested and executed. He had nothing. No money or spare clothing. No water or food. But in this moment, nothing mattered more than escape.
The house that Darmouth had given his parents was no "favor" but a cage close enough to the keep to be watched. Close enough for Leesil to see Josiah's body each day and night, until it rotted and fell to sink into the lake. Even the old scholar's bones would be lost, mingled among those who'd died before him and lay tangled in the water's depths.
A wagon passed by, heading for the gates with a heavy load covered by a canvas tarp. Leesil dashed after it, and he climbed in the back before anyone saw him, and then waved for Chap to follow.
Chap's shocked expression was almost human. The dog took two hesitant steps as the wagon pulled away. He looked back once into the city, but the house was far out of sight and only the towers of Darmouth's keep were visible above the rooftops. Chap bolted after the wagon, leaping into the back. Leesil pulled the tarp down as they both squirmed deeper among the crates and sacks.
The wagon slowed to a creaking stop as someone called out to the driver.
"Hallo, Vireck. Headed for the south?"
"Better trade down there," came the driver's answer. "The provinces are getting thin."
"See you in a moon?"
"Probably two. But I'll bring you some pipe weed to smoke on your watch."
The wagon rolled out of the city gates, and no one bothered to check in its back.
The reality of his situation crept in on Leesil. He closed his eyes and saw the faces of his mother and father. The wagon moved down the road, and he didn't peer upward to see the walls of Venjetz finally blocked out by the night. The only sound was the clop of hooves upon the dirt road.
Chap struggled to gain more room, and a crate toppled toward them both. On instinct Leesil rolled out of its way and slipped halfway out from under the canvas tarp.
"You!" a voice shouted. "What are you doing in there?"
At first Leesil thought the driver had seen him, but the man only turned about at the voice coming from back down the road. The driver jerked the reins, and the wagon shuddered to a halt.
Leesil still heard the clop of a horse and looked back toward the city.
Three horses came up the road toward the wagon. The lead rider was a tall, slightly built man with reddish hair. Leesil knew him. Baron Emêl Milea was one of Darmouth's nobles and a minister on his council—one of his lackeys.
Emêl's eyes widened. You, he mouthed silently and halted his mount. Companion guards pulled their horses in beside their lord.
Leesil had seen this man only a few times. Though his parents were known as only servants to Darmouth, anyone close to the warlord had suspicions concerning their duties. Leesil had his mother's coloring and hair. The baron could easily guess who—if not what—Leesil was.
He'd hoped to be long gone before any but his parents realized it. The coin pouch on their bed would be enough to assist them. They could run before Darmouth learned anything. They could…
Leesil's whole world slowed as Baron Milea yelled at his men, "Take him!"
Leesil rolled from the wagon bed and dashed into the trees, Chap following. His mother's teachings
* * * *
Cuirin'nen'a heard the front door click and turned to welcome her husband home. But Gavril's face was strained and nearly white, and the welcome died on her lips.
"Nein'a," he panted. "Leesil is gone. He's run from the city." Her husband's disheveled hair hung forward across his sweating brow. Gavril was nearly the same height as she, but there the resemblance ended. Plain-featured with dun-colored hair and eyes, he wore a short beard peppered with gray that hid the lower half of his face. No one who met him once would ever remember him. As a spy and assassin, this was but one of his strengths.
Nein'a was his contrast in all ways—tall compared to humans, with silken white-blond hair tied in a coil. More often she wore it loose down her back and rucked it behind her elongated ears whenever she wished to accentuate her strange appearance. Her skin was a golden brown. Almond-shaped amber eyes, larger than a human's, dominated her triangular face. They captivated any human male who stared at her too long. As a spy and assassin, this was her strength.
Nein'a served as a distraction at Darmouth's rare evening events, putting off guard any noble or officer her lord suspected of duplicity. Such men eagerly tried to impress her with whispered words of their affluence in the province, and how much they could offer for her favor. But her whole world had just shifted—hers and her husband's.
Her heart pounded slowly inside her narrow rib cage, and she shook her head. "Leesil is upstairs, asleep in his bed."
"No." Gavril looked in her eyes. "He is gone."
Nein'a closed her large eyes. Leesil had abandoned them?
"Darmouth will hang us from the keep walls," Gavril said, and he pointed at her. "Change, and grab weapons. I will retrieve our store of coins."
Of the three of them, one always remained in the house. The only exception was when she was called to one of Darmouth's evening gatherings and remained under her lord's watchful eyes. Only then were her husband and son both free to leave their home. Gavril sometimes took Leesil to a little inn at the backside of the merchant district. But one of them was always a hostage to ensure the others' obedience. Yet Leesil, her son, had fled the city of Venjetz.
"Where did you hear this?" she asked.
"Byrd warned me and—"
"How did he know?"
"There's no time," Gavril said too sharply. "We must run!"
He hurried out of the kitchen.
Nein'a followed him upstairs, but before she ducked into their room she went to Leesil's. It was empty, and the covers lay rustled. Chap was nowhere to be seen. She suppressed panic, turning cold inside, and rushed back to her own room.
She tore open her dress, snapping off buttons, and let it drop upon the floor. Standing naked in the cold room, she looked briefly toward the rear window. Their lord and master's massive keep loomed offshore in the lake. She hurried to gather clothing for a cold night's travel. Then she spotted something lying upon their bed.
Nein'a snatched up the small drawstring pouch. It was full of silver shils and pennies. A sharp pain rose in her chest as if she had been stabbed. Leesil had left this for them. Did it mean he'd been forced to leave? Had he planned for this?
When she glanced back to the open door, Gavril was climbing onto the railing of the stairs to the third floor. He reached for the hallway's ceiling lantern.
When Nein'a had breeches, a wool shirt, and boots on, she kicked the dress under the bed and retrieved a cloth-wrapped bundle from beneath the dresser. The last thing she grabbed was a charcoal wool cloak. By the time she stepped out, Gavril stood before her with another small pouch in hand. He reached out and gently touched her arm.
"Leesil was spotted hiding in a wagon beyond the city wall. The alarm was sounded, and the wall patrol has been alerted. We'll never get out that way. We have to go back inside the keep."
She knew what he suggested, and the risk was great. "The guards at the bridge gatehouse may be alerted as well. We will be caught in the open."
"We have no choice. Our only hope waits in the belly of that keep."
He was correct, and she knew it.
They slipped out the kitchen door and into the night. Darmouth's keep stood out upon the lake, its tower braziers casting burning reflections upon the water.
"Why would Leesil do this?" Nein'a whispered, pulling her cloak tighter.
Gavril's voice was soft as he gestured toward the keep. "I think our son could bear no more."
Nein'a looked up. With her elven night sight, she could see clearly and did not need the orange light of the tower braziers. A limp corpse in a cream robe hung upon the nearest wall. For an instant she felt the cold stab in her chest once again.
"He left us to die because an old scholar was hanged?"
Gavril's softness vanished. "Leesil wasn't meant for this life, but you insisted…"
Nein'a knew the words hanging on his stilled tongue. She had been the one to insist on their son's training, though Gavril would have preferred Leesil remain nothing but a hostage, the leash Darmouth used to bind them. She had trained their son in the ways of her caste, the Anmaglahk.
There was no time left to defend or regret what was past. Nein'a grabbed Gavril's hand and hurried along the water's edge toward the bridge. They fled toward the keep and their only chance of living through the night.
"Where is that girl?" Magiere muttered. "And that conniving four-footer?"
"Wynn and Chap will be along," Leesil answered. "The day's almost gone, so we might as well stay in the city one more night."
Leesil didn't look at Magiere and barely heard her impatient footfalls smack upon the wet street behind him. Instead, he stared out the massive northern gate of Soladran, the northernmost city in the nation of Stravina. As he raised his eyes to the distant snow-covered peaks of the Crown Range, his gaze passed over the forested foothills of Lord Darmouth's province at the eastern side of the Warlands.
He closed his wool cloak against the late afternoon chill as a gust of wind slipped through the stone archway with its massive timber gates swung wide. The wind rustled his hood, and he tucked escaping strands of white-blond hair back into hiding.
Full winter had come during their long trek up the continent. Patches of lingering snowfall marked the ground inside and outside of the city walls, and lightly dusted the shake-and-thatch roofs of the nearest shops and other buildings. The open land beyond the gate sloped down to a wide ice-fringed stream running east to west. On the water's far side, the ground rose to an open field of browned wild grass partially matted by the earlier cold rain. Farther out was the tree line of firs and pines marking the edge of the foothills.
There lay the forested reaches of Darmouth's domain within the War-lands, still and quiet below a gray sky. The naive might find the sight serene, but it was a deceit to the eyes, and Leesil knew it. Across the border stream waited the haunts of his first life.
Son and slave, spy and assassin.
Never walk backward through your own life. At least, that was the truism Leesil made up for this moment, but he had little choice if he was to continue his search.
No visible road ran out from the gate, and no matching path could be seen on the border stream's far side. Sparse travel and trade came here from the north. None of the Stravinan border guards in their white tabards and fur-trimmed helmets stepped beyond the gate's threshold. The citizens of Soladran didn't even glance out the opening as they went about their daily routines. The opening of the gate each morning was a ritual rather than a necessity to the life of the city.
Leesil was so absorbed that he barely noticed Magiere cease pacing. She peered at him around the side of his hood with an impatient scowl, and then followed his gaze toward the tree-shrouded land and the white-capped mountains beyond. Leesil turned his eyes just enough to watch her search for whatever had captured his attent
Her wool cloak's hood lay in bunched rolls across her shoulders, and her black hair was pulled back by a leather thong into a dangling tail. She glared out the gate, dark brown eyes in a face too pale for the living. In profile, her nose ran straight and long down to the clean, neatly chiseled wedge of her mouth, lips barely tinted with life compared to her complexion. Her scowl faded in realization.
Magiere's smooth brow furrowed again but not in irritation. She put her hand firmly upon his far cheek to pull his face toward her. Her voice was soft yet firm.
"Quick and quiet, as always. No one will know we passed." Her hand slid down against the chest of his hauberk. "I'll let no one out there touch you."
Leesil tried to smile for her but couldn't.
Fleeing her homeland of Droevinka had been hard for Magiere, much as she openly detested the place. He'd made her understand why they had to leave so quickly.
In a clearing near Apudalsat, deep in the southeast of Droevinka, Magiere had faced the mad necromancer Ubad. In all the years since the night of her birth, he'd awaited her return. Ubad had called up something old and forgotten in the shape of massive black coils like a serpent. By all Leesil could guess, the necromancer's minions—or those of the coils among the trees—still searched for Magiere. And so she'd fled north with Leesil all the way through Stravina.
Now the province of Leesil's old lord and master, Darmouth, lay before them. Leesil knew it was now his time to return "home" if they were to find passage by land through the untracked Crown Range and into the territory of his mother's people, the Elven Territories. Somewhere in that hidden realm, his mother might still wait. Cuirin'nen'a—Nein'a, as his father had called her—was a prisoner of her own people.
And if his mother survived… if she hadn't died because her son had fled slavery… then what of his father, Gavril?
Startled, he looked at Magiere. She now faced inward toward the city, and he followed her gaze.
Leesil saw nothing but people on their way to somewhere else. They wandered or strode purposefully in and out of shops and stalls along the main way from the gate. But one short figure dodged awkwardly through the others, drawing closer by the moment.