Chapter 66

The last time Calay had been a guest of honor at a hanging, it had been his own. That meant that the festivities surrounding Vosk’s execution were already an improvement. Yet despite the fact that he stood firmly in the good graces of Adelheim’s ruler, he woke with apprehension stewing in his stomach and no good explanation for its presence.

The whole town was gripped by hanging fever, an excitement heard and seen as many furtive conversations and knowing glances around the castle grounds all morning. Adelheim hadn’t witnessed any executions since the war, one of Tarn’s staff had explained, so Vosk being run up a tree was an event for the whole population. Plus he’d been one of the Baron’s own men. An extra layer of intrigue!

“It’s an event for me, too,” Calay had said, showing off his bandaged arm. “He’s the bastard who shot me.”

Gaz had been less enthused. And his attitudes hadn’t changed over the last few hours, despite Calay’s attempts at cajoling. They’d spent the morning running errands, sorting through their payments from Riss and organizing laundry and mending and all the little domestic minutiae that Calay had forgotten completely about. Now, though, the sun was drawing close to its highest point and the hanging was nigh.

They sat in one of the Baron’s many sitting rooms, occupying a pair of plush brocade chairs. The small, high-ceilinged chamber was decorated with hunting trophies: great mounted boar tusks, racks of many-pronged antlers larger than Calay thought deer ever got, and finely-tanned pelts from creatures he didn’t recognize. Truthfully, he could have done without all the animal bits. They reminded him a little too freshly of the ordeal he’d just been through. A small frown tightened his mouth–he wondered how long it would be before he could set eyes on something that triggered memory of the swamp without feeling an instinctual twinge of revulsion. Were there some associations doomed to be tainted forever? He focused on the conversation at hand, determined not to let his thoughts stray too far inward.

“I can’t blame you for wanting to skip it,” Calay said. “Just as I’m sure you understand why I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Slumped back in the chair opposite his, Gaz ticked down a nod. “He almost killed you.”

It was so, so much more than that. He almost elaborated right then and there. But the words got stuck on the tip of his tongue. If there was anyone he didn’t need to explain himself to, it was Gaz. So instead, he decided to ask one last time.

“So that’s definitely a no?”

Wrinkles of visible discomfort edged in at the corners of Gaz’s eyes and mouth. He looked away from Calay, gaze climbing up toward an ornate matchlock rifle mounted on the wall.

“Don’t take this as an insult,” he said. “But I don’t think I need it the way you do.”

Calay fought back a reflexive scowl. Hellpits, what was that supposed to mean? There was a time when he would have violently rankled at the idea of being told he needed something. Would have seen it as an unbearably patronizing notion. Now, though, he had to concede that perhaps a person finally knew him well enough to say such things. Still discomfiting.

“You’re right,” Calay said after some silent consideration. “I don’t know if need is quite the right word, but it will make me comfortable and put me at ease to see him dead.”

“You annoyed you won’t be personally slitting his throat?”

“Eh.” There was a time that he was, back in the swamp. Now? The vindictive had been set aside in favor of the practical. “It mattered a great deal to Riss, being able to march him back to her Baron. More advantageous for us to help her succeed than to piss in her porridge for the sake of a personal grudge.”

Oddly, Gaz smiled.

“What?” Calay prodded.

“Nothing.” His smile turned thoughtful. “Just… it’s interesting, how people change.”

Calay tilted his head. His friend could be awful puzzling at times. For all his lack of education and his unpolished accent and his beat-to-shit face, Gaz had a brain that was full of little observations Calay never bothered to make. He saw things Calay never paid attention to. And that made Calay deathly curious as to what exact ‘interesting’ changes he’d undergone. Precisely what aspects of his behavior were on the pedestal here?

“For the better?” he asked, self-indulgently.

“Yeah.” Gaz’s smile was lazy, a little smug. “Suppose.”

At that moment, the door swung open and Riss strode in. She wore a new cloak, a handsome piece made of some durable, dove-grey fabric that held shimmering threads of embroidery in a tight, repeating key pattern. It looked like silk but less flimsy. Calay whistled and made an approving hand gesture. She glanced his way with a puzzled squint, then looked to Gaz as well.

“Either of you seen Torcha?” She sounded hurried.

“Not since breakfast,” Gaz said.

“She say she needed to talk to me about something?”

“We only saw her in passing,” Calay butted in. “She and Adal went off somewhere.”

Riss sighed and conked the heel of her hand to her brow. “Great,” she said. “I know they were both asking after me, but I have no idea where they are. I suppose we’ll see them at high sun.”

“Suppose so.”

She turned and stepped halfway through the door. “I’m heading out now,” she said. “You’re welcome to come with.”

Calay glanced back over his shoulder, tracking her on her way out. “Suppose I oughta,” he said. “I’d hate to miss it.” He heaved up out of his chair and stretched, rolling out his wrists and shoulders.

To his surprise, Gaz rose alongside him, falling into step and following him toward Riss.

“Change of heart?”

The sudden seriousness in Gaz’s eyes was just as odd as the cryptic smile he’d put on earlier. “Yeah,” he said. He did not elaborate. And since they were heading out of their private sitting room and into the endless, open-doored march of chambers that composed the castle’s second floor, Calay didn’t ask.Sound travelled easily in those vaulted halls.

###

A contrast to the high buildings and tiered seating that surrounded Vasile’s hanging tree and all the ages-old ceremony that went with it, Adelheim’s village green was positively provincial. The village green itself scarcely deserved the name–it was a flat, well-stomped square of scraggly, spiky grass just outside the inn, the town’s largest building. Calay hadn’t noticed the old wooden gallows on his first trip through town–it was worn and warped, built up against the fat trunk of a squat old tree that was just beginning to unfurl new leaves. It blended in, a seldom-used piece of wooden backdrop.

Now that he stood before it, though, he couldn’t tear his eyes away.

The crowd pressed in eagerly, a few hundred thick. Excited murmurs skittered past his ears, too far off and too numerous for him to pick out any words. Riss was spared the press of the crowd at least. She stood up front with Tarn and a dozen of his men, who graciously created a cordon with their bodies. Gaz hadn’t wanted to stand that close, so Calay had scouted out a spot at the very rear of the crowd, upon a little rise of hill that gave them a view over the masses.

Overhead, the sky was a gorgeous sapphire blue, not a cloud in it.

“Cracking blue sky that is.” Calay leaned in a little toward Gaz at his side. “Beautiful day to say goodbye to the asshole who cost me my arm.”

Gaz gave an affirmative grunt. He was watching the crowd more than the sky or the tree.

A pair of uniformed guards led Vosk down the hill, his hands bound at the small of his back. Calay watched him walk, soaking up the details: the scraggly hair, the sunken eyes, the disheveled face, the way he shrank in against his own body as if trying to disappear. The sight gave him a visceral satisfaction, a sense of final triumph.

Piercing the murmured conversation like a blade, a sharp cry rose up from somewhere in the crowd. A woman’s voice, low and distraught. Vosk’s head jerked up at the sound and his eyes searched the faces. Calay couldn’t see her, but he guessed it must be a wife, perhaps a daughter.

Beside him, Gaz breathed out hard. He averted his eyes from Vosk and took a step toward the fence that ringed the inn’s yard. Putting a hand to a fencepost, he picked at the wood, suddenly very interested in it. Calay felt the echo of that small frown returning to his mouth.

“Hey,” he said. “If this is going to be that hard for you to watch–”

Gaz shook his head, silencing the offer before Calay could even make it.

Vosk’s escort reached the gallows. They marched him up the steps and one of them unfurled a length of rope from a bag. He slung it up over the frame with a lackadaisical ease, as if running fishing line. The woman wailed again.

Tarn’s voice rose above the din. “You are all in luck,” he said. “I was not made custodian of these lands on account of my speeches.” Nobody laughed. But that didn’t stop him. “The man before you is a traitor of the lowest order. Apart from his role in the murder of my son, he wore the colors of my garrison while engaging in petty brigandage. He left his brothers in arms to die in that wretched swamp–men that you all knew.”

It was easy to see why Tarn had achieved such success in the army. His voice carried easily, buttressed with a natural commander’s charisma. He yelled without sounding like he was yelling.

His bad arm still bound to his torso with the sling, he lifted one glove toward the gallows. “To die by hanging is a kinder fate than he gave others. Harlan Vosk, your crimes are numerous and your sentence is death.” He intoned the words with little anger or ceremony, as if simply glad to be rid of the man.

Tarn addressed Vosk directly when he said that last bit, but Vosk gave no indication of having heard. He stared at the ground, tangled white-grey hair veiling his face from onlookers. A sneer twitched its way onto Calay’s mouth at the sight of him. Pathetic, the way he shrank up there rather than facing his judgment like a man. Calay recalled his own walk to the gallows, the measured calm he’d felt, the way he’d looked the guards in the eye.

Vosk was a weak man. It was a miracle he’d survived all he had. Calay was delighted to be the one who caught him in the end.

The hangman looped the noose around Vosk’s neck and tightened it. Calay’s heart quickened in his chest. Gaz had gone awful quiet.

Someone in the crowd lobbed a rock through the air. It struck Vosk in the temple, causing him to teeter sideways. The guard at his side caught him before he could topple over. One of Tarn’s other men bellowed a warning to the crowd to settle down. Others laughed.

A few stragglers joined the audience at the rear, closing in near where he and Gaz stood. Someone jostled Calay’s shoulder. He jostled them right back, used to having to jockey for space against those who saw his height as an invitation to body him out of the way. Gaz, who must have been suffering similar indignities, let out an irritated little growl.

Then something cut that growl abruptly short. He went quiet. A too-abrupt kind of quiet. Calay turned to face him–

–and immediately felt the press of something hard and metallic against his spine. Barrel of a pistol, unless he was mistaken. It wasn’t sharp enough to be a blade.

Gaz was in a similar position. He had his hands up at his sides and a short, stocky man crowding in close behind him. Calay couldn’t quite see his gun-hand, but the posture was telltale. The man holding Gaz up was paler than the norm around these parts, dressed in steel-studded leather and a heavy leather duster. He looked like he’d just hopped off a horse after a week-long ride. His cheeks carried a faint hint of sunburn.

“That’s right,” said a voice behind him. “You get the picture. No sudden movements.”

Someone up at the gallows was addressing the crowd, but Calay missed the words. He sought faces in the crowd nearby, trying to gauge how many assailants there actually were. A third person–a woman–lingered close to the man accosting Gaz. Her eyes were hard and her posture tense.

Three versus two. That’d normally be easy. But in a crowd this big, Calay would have to be smart. He had a vial of blood on him, of course–never left home without it–but all hell would break loose if he wove magick here. He could take three mercenaries–he was less certain about his fate versus an entire village of spooked, superstitious peasants. Not to mention Tarn and his men.

Slowly, Calay surveyed his surroundings. Plenty of peasant assholes close by, but they wouldn’t be any help. Riss was up front with Tarn, far too far away to see anything or assist. He couldn’t see Adal and Torcha–they were likely up front as well, but on the other side of the gallows where the crowd was too thick to see.

Gaz met his eyes. His expression balanced on the tightrope between apology and annoyance. Calay gave him a tight-mouthed smile.

“Just relax, big fella,” said the woman, eyes up toward Gaz. “The two of you are gonna talk a walk with us.”

The gun jabbed into his back. Calay figured that meant turn around and start walking, so he did. His faceless assailant marched right along behind. They were out of the crowd in moments.

“Here’s how this is going to go,” said the man behind him. “We’ve got a wagon in the yard, and you’re going to climb aboard it. If not, you’ll be loaded aboard it in a sack. Are we clear?”

Finally, he’d spoken enough that Calay could peg his accent. Vasa, without question.

But these three leather-clad twerps didn’t look like agents of the Leycenate. Nor did they look like Syl’s compatriots, the Cult of Charvell. Bounty hunters, then. He’d known they’d come. He and Gaz had made it further than he’d thought. Someone was bound to catch up to them eventually.

On the bright side, they were taking him to a wagon. It would be much easier to kill them all there.

Walking calmly, his eyes forward and his steps leashed by the prod of muzzle against his spine, Calay behaved himself.

Something wooden snapped in the distance behind him. A murmur rose through the gathered population of Adelheim. Vosk had taken his drop off the gallows, then. And Calay’s chance to watch it had been rudely yanked out from under him by these tough-talking idiots who didn’t even realize they were marching themselves into an early grave.

“I was hoping to watch that hanging,” he said with a sigh. “So tell me–how much does the Leycenate have on me, hm? Or is it House Talvace that sent you? House Bellecote?” Vain though it might have been, he was curious who’d ponied up the gold.

“Quiet,” the bounty hunter hissed. “We can make this less pleasant if you force our hand.”

Before Calay could speak another word to the man, gunfire ripped through the village green. A shot rang out and something warm and liquid splattered against the back of Calay’s neck. He leapt forward. For a single, insane moment, he had the terrified impression that he’d been shot and what he felt was his own brains, somehow. He touched the back of his head and his hand came away red. Stumbling and turning, he spun around in time to see the bounty hunter behind him fall to the ground, a limp and lifeless sack of meat clutching a dented matchlock in one hand.

He stepped in something soft. Bits of brain and skull decorated the grassy ground. The screaming started, first right beside him and then rippling outward through the crowd as if contagious.

By the time the second shot rang out, the village green had erupted into full-blown pandemonium.

<< Chapter 65 | To Be Continued >>

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Chapter 65

The castle at Adelheim was much the same as the others in the region–at least the ones that weren’t heaps of rubble. It was older than the town itself, its basement levels built of entirely different stone. Walking down the corkscrew staircase into its depths was like a journey back in time, or a journey through the sediment of the earth itself. Riss could see the layers where old construction ended and new began. The whole stairwell reeked of damp stone and iron.

“Boy,” she said to Tarn’s back, trying to soothe the tension in her own stomach more than anything. “How many times you figure they’ve knocked this thing down and built it back up again?”

“Hopefully no more now that I live in it,” he said.

She thought back to the attempt on his life. He was so unfazed by it. Was this not the first time?

“Suppose the region’s always been a little unstable,” she said.

Tarn grunted agreement. “There’s a reason why Medao is the closest city of any note. Nothing large enough to constitute a proper port survives down here without someone or another attempting to annex it, even if it’s just the bastard with the next-largest plot of land down the road.”

At the termination of the stairs lay a heavy, iron-barred door. Veslin unlocked it and heaved it open, beckoning both Tarn and Riss inside. A pair of guards in the livery of Tarn’s garrison manned the hallway. Their expressions read boredly professional at first glance, but if Riss looked longer, she could spy the relief that snuck into their eyes upon the sight of their commander. They straightened as Tarn passed.

Only one of the cells appeared to be occupied, judging by the single guard stationed outside it. Despite the fact that logic told her no harm could reasonably come to her or Tarn in this situation, her hand wandered to the sheath at her hip. She hadn’t worn her machete, heavy as it was, but in a pinch she’d made quick work of a man with much smaller blades before.

Riss wondered how the soldiers were taking it, having to watch after one of their own. How Vosk was taking it, being imprisoned by people who were once his brothers and sisters in arms. She recalled the empathy she’d felt for him when they’d shared a fire, when she’d looked into his eyes and thought she’d seen the same loss she suffered. Her jaw clenched involuntarily.

There’s no threat here, she tried to tell herself, even through the wary goosebumps that rose on her arms. He’s going to get his.

“Baron.” The guard outside the cell door straightened.

Through the narrow slits in the wood, Riss saw only inky blackness. The interior of the cell was completely without light. Tarn peeked through, one thick eyebrow aloft, then glanced to the guard in wordless enquiry.

“He cries like crazy whenever we light the lamps,” the guard said, disdainful. “We grew tired of it.” Cruel, Riss thought, but understandable. She was relieved to see they appeared to rightly see Vosk as the traitor he was rather than a figure deserving of sympathy for having once shared their colors.

“Veslin says he’s been causing trouble?” Tarn glanced aside to his houseman now, who simply nodded. Riss felt like an unnecessary card on the table, not relevant to anyone’s hand. But Vosk could cause real harm if he’d somehow figured out a way to share what he knew.

Tarn instructed the man to open the door with a tick of his chin. Riss’ stomach tightened.

Crashing a fist against the door in a warning knock, the guard twisted a key in the heavy iron lock. The sound of it was refreshingly mechanical, secure somehow in a way that set Riss’ pulse at ease: click, scrape, creak. As the door swung outward, an immediate waft of foul air hit their noses. Tarn and Riss both coughed, though the guard did not. Perhaps he was used to it. The cell smelled–atop the usual damp earth and sour, metallic odor–of decades of human filth. Nothing new or fresh, but the persistent odor of neglect and suffering had been all but baked into the stone it was hewn from.

Behind them, the guard helpfully held a torch aloft, allowing light to spill into the interior.

Each cell was designed to house far more than a single prisoner. Sets of disused manacles dangled off the walls, splotched with rust. Straw-stuffed pallets lined one wall, but the bedding had been torn from many of them, scattered around the floor and resembling nothing so much as the floor of a stable. Straw crunched under their boots as they stepped inside, Tarn at the fore.

A lone figure slumped on the pallet in the farthest corner, distinctly human but only half-lit. It didn’t move when they neared, though they could hear the rasp of its breathing.

“He’s restrained?” Tarn and Riss realized it in the same moment, though only Tarn asked aloud.

Behind them, Veslin and the guard stepped closer. Once they did, their fire further illuminated the dark stone walls, which Riss only just noticed were shiny.

She craned her head back for a better view. Slick writing glistened on the walls, warningly dark even against the rock. Her breath caught in her throat. Tarn studied the wall above the pallets, its bricks similarly slippery. Each crudely-drawn character caught the light, gleaming still-wet. Reflecting the fire, the writing looked like molten copper.

The words were completely indistinguishable. Riss wasn’t sure whether that could be put down to the writing surface, the frenzied nature of the strokes that drew them, or unfamiliarity of the language.

The smell told her all she needed to know about what Vosk had used for ink: his own blood.

They stood over the man curled on his heap of straw. Crude bandagings wrapped his arms, and he hugged himself in a loose fetal position. Unlike the rest of the mercenary party, he hadn’t been offered a bath or a change of clothes upon arriving at the castle. He still reeked of the swamp. He didn’t stir when they drew close.

“You’ve sedated him?” she asked.

“Aye.” Veslin spoke behind her. “When they mentioned he was mutilating himself, I sent the house physician down. Once I checked in, I sent for you immediately. Things looked… unusual.” Turns out it wasn’t just Adal’s servants who had a gift for understatement.

Tarn made a sound like he’d just bit into a sour fruit. He beckoned for Veslin’s light, then swung it around, examining the bloodied characters strewn all over the walls. For a moment, worry seized Riss in a deathly-tight, clenching grip–had Vosk detailed her treachery here? Written about all Calay was capable of? But prolonged study of the markings revealed no new insights. She couldn’t make heads or tails of them. Judging by the blank expression on his features, Tarn couldn’t grasp them either.

“Anyone understand this gibberish?” he asked, glancing back to Veslin.

The houseman stepped into the center of the cell, turning his head this way and that. His mouth compressed as he studied the walls. Riss saw recognition flash in his torchlit eyes. She minded her expression, betraying nothing even as curiosity scratched at her innards like a rat in a trap.

“Huh.” Veslin made a soft sound of comprehension. He spun in a slow circle, studying the bloodied walls, then returned his eyes to Tarn and lifted a tight-shouldered shrug.

“It’s just one sentence in Sunnish,” he said. “Repeated over and over again.”

Riss felt an odd sort of relief–one sentence could cause a lot of damage, but it couldn’t reveal all of what she’d concealed.

“Well?” Tarn, impatient. “Out with it.”

Veslin folded his arms across his middle, hugging himself loosely. His voice was soft, reedy, reluctant to speak the words.

“Come unto the ground,” he said.

Though Riss hadn’t the foggiest idea what it meant, the words snuffed her relief like a breath to a candle. If asked, she could never explain precisely why they sent that frigid chill up her back. But now that she’d heard it, she wanted to be out of that basement. She did not want to be in, as Vosk had put it, the ground.

It felt like he’d beckoned them downward and they’d answered. Which felt like playing into someone else’s hands.

Tarn shared none of her worry. His eyebrows scrunched and he glanced back to the prone man in the straw.

“Means bugger all to me,” he said. He directed his next order at Veslin: “Have them call us me back when he’s awake. Restrain him further if you must. Can’t have him slithering free of the noose now.”

Riss was glad to step through the door, though the hallway was only marginally less oppressive. She thought of the heavy tons of earth that pressed in against the dungeon’s stones, had an insane moment of worry over whether the walls would be strong enough to hold it all back.

It was soil. It was completely inert. Shaking her head, Riss palmed at her face. With each step she and Tarn took toward the surface, she could breathe a little easier.

They reached an alcove in the narrow stairwell where light shone through a window. Aboveground again, then. Tarn waved Veslin on, then cornered Riss for a moment, gesturing for her to wait.

“Riss,” he said. He cradled his injured shoulder for a moment, then straightened.

“Yes, sir?” Again, she fell back on the sir. He let it slide.

“You’ve done me a great service.” His stare turned heavy, solemn. “Though the news wasn’t what we wanted, it was close to what I expected. Nobody expected you to retrieve Lukra from that marsh alive.”

Riss, who’d been so wound up in the character of the expedition and what it stood for, had scarcely thought of it in those terms since embarking. Less so since returning. Once they were knee-deep in the mud, the whys behind why she was out there had ceased to matter. Survival had come first. Survival and seeing Vosk brought to whatever justice they could manage.

“There were some close calls,” she said, unwilling to dwell on the details. “I’m pleased you found my conduct sufficient.”

“Never a doubt in my mind,” said Tarn. He released a breath that seemed to settle more of his weight upon his bearish shoulders. “The townsfolk here, they prefer their hangings at midday. They say the further you are from dark, the less chance of ghosts escaping and hanging around or some nonsense.”

Riss gave him a skeptical look, retaining her silence.

“We’ll hang him tomorrow and be done with this. If you and your company fancied remaining in Adelheim longer, I would certainly have use of you. For starters I’d like to track down the swine who did this.” He tapped the dressing upon his shoulder.

“I think Adal would be amenable,” Riss said. They’d have to circle the wagons and discuss it, but for the time being she had no business elsewhere. Adelheim was as good a center of operations as any.

“Thank you, Riss.”

Before returning to the courtyard, she paused and glanced up into Tarn’s face.

“No,” she said. “Thank you. I needed this. You knew I needed it. This is the last I’ll speak of the matter, but I appreciate what you did.” She couldn’t bring herself to say any more of it aloud, how she’d doubted herself and her capabilities. How she’d immersed herself in that wrong-headed, self-pitying thinking for lack of a better exit strategy.

“I chose you because you were the right one for the job,” Tarn said, ever willing to lend her plausible deniability.

“You offered me a drink, back when this all began.” Riss’ mouth curved in a short lived smile. “I believe I’ll finally take you up on that.”

###

It was halfway through her glass of wine, a viscous and pleasantly sweet concoction that glimmered gold in the sunlight, that the wrongness of come unto the ground returned. Riss sat at Tarn’s side, laughing at one of his long-winded recollections, and then the world around her seemed to still. Color seeped from the tablecloths, the sky, the booze-ruddied cheeks of her friends.

Riss had spent days in the field with Vosk. She’d spoken to him at length.

Vosk had never used the word unto. Come unto the ground wasn’t just an eerie beckoning to something that felt wrong, it was an invitation written in words the man who wrote them would never, ever use.

<< Chapter 64 | Chapter 66 >>

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