Riss knelt by the water and rinsed gore off her hands. They waited at the rendezvous point, a bend in the Deel far enough away from the wreckage of the trees that she could breathe. The air smelled clean here, no longer clogged with years of pent-up decay.
She wasn’t sure she’d ever fully wash it off, the different kind of stink that sorcery left behind. Part of her felt unclean, having let Calay do those things to her weapon. But the larger, more rational part of her knew that it was no worse than what he’d done to her person when she’d been incapacitated. The only difference being she’d let it happen that time, knowingly wielded his talents.
She had her justifications. Their backs had been to the wall. They’d had no other choice, save for leaving Vosk to his fate.
Anyone could justify anything, couldn’t they. She was starting to see how. Starting to imagine how it might get a little bit easier each time.
“He’ll come,” Gaz said to Adal, the two of them watching up and down the river. “Maybe they got jumped by something.”
They’d been waiting on Calay for close to an hour. It gave everyone time to scrub up, at least. The moa foraged. Torcha tended the dog.
But they were losing daylight.
“I’m not saying he won’t.” Adal tugged on his gloves after drying his hands. “I’m saying he has the means to track us. We could get moving. I’m certain both that he can catch up and that he’ll understand.”
Riss wasn’t enjoying sitting still. They’d caused quite a ruckus back there. She wanted out of the swamp before anything further could be drawn to their noise and lanterns.
Gaz rolled a shoulder at Adal, obstinate. “Don’t disagree with any of that. You can all go on ahead.”
Riss spoke up, not in the mood for squabbling. “We’re not splitting up.” She did some numbers in her head, tried to estimate how much sunlight they had left. “We’ll wait another quarter-hour.”
“I’m fully confident that he can handle himself out there,” said Adal.
Now that they’d all seen the true extent of what Calay’s powers could accomplish, Riss didn’t doubt that either. He’d been holding back before, when trying to go undetected. Once he threw that veil aside and got down to business, it was like nothing she’d ever seen. He could have taken a four-galania war wagon on his own. And now she had to hang the outcome of this expedition on him, hope he returned with their prisoner intact.
“Of course he can handle it.” Gaz sounded peeved.
Riss hesitated, watching him, expectant.
“I’m not leaving him because that’s not what you do. Even to people who can handle it.”
Adal didn’t have a good counter to that. None of them did. Fortunately, it wasn’t necessary. A couple minutes later, Adal spotted two figures trudging toward them over the stony riverbed.
Calay was recognizable enough, but Riss did a double-take when she looked at the man beside him. He was Vosk’s height, sure, and he wore Vosk’s clothes, but the similarities ended there. The man that walked before Calay was shrunken in against himself, arms wrapped around his own torso, his face drawn and lined. His eyes bulged wildly, pupils shifting left to right, gaze never settling on any one thing. And his hair had gone grey-white, bleached of all color. He looked decades older.
Whatever had befallen him, it made him compliant. When Calay stopped walking, Vosk stopped too.
“Our friend here showed me a shortcut to the road,” Calay said. “Let’s get the fuck out and never come back.”
Gaz relaxed at the words and he was the first to jog up to meet them. Riss observed him and Calay from a distance. How close they stood to one another. The way Gaz regarded the sorcerer with such evident concern despite his being far and away the deadliest thing in the forest. There was a story there, to be sure. She’d probably never hear it.
There would be a reckoning later. There was no avoiding it. Soon, Riss would have to set terms and figure out exactly what to reveal to Tarn about what Calay was capable of. Or whether to reveal any of it at all.
For now, though, she agreed with the man’s sentiment completely.
“Pack up,” she told Torcha and Adal. “I don’t want to spend another night here.”
Calay led them upriver, then up a rocky, root-tangled slope. It was a short walk from there to the road, and if Riss was being honest, the moment was kind of anticlimactic. She expected to feel sun on her face. To hear the noise of traffic on the road, see sign of a passing caravan. Instead, they merely stepped out onto a dusty road, its surface rutted with deep old wagon tracks.
She glanced up the road, then down it, then toward the setting sun.
“Well,” she said. “I suppose we’ll run into Adelheim if we head north from here, no matter which road we’re on.”
They trudged up the road side by side, six weary souls who were not the same people who’d walked in.
She tried to get a closer look at Vosk while they walked, but he kept to himself, his head down. Blood had trickled down the corners of his chin and dried, like he’d devoured a too-rare steak too quickly. His eyes never ceased their frantic dance. Through all his searching and looking all about, he never found anything to settle down and stare at. Calay had done something to him. Riss decided she was content not knowing what.
A sharp bark sounded from behind her. The hound, which had limped along quietly at Torcha’s side for the entire walk, threw back its head. Barking again, it perked up its ears, then swished its tail. It loped in a small circle around Torcha, then trotted off down the road, still impeded by a slight limp.
Deja-vu swept through Riss like wind. The dog had circled them in a similar fashion when they’d first neared the crossroads. It had looped back around to Vosk, who’d lied to them from the moment he met them, claiming it as his. She strayed a look to the man, now pale-haired and blank-eyed. Whatever havoc Calay had wreaked on both his body and mind, he’d brought it upon himself.
A low baa sounded from up ahead. Then another. Around a bend in the road, they came upon a bridge. And on that bridge was a weathered man in a broad-brimmed straw hat, attempting to coax a flock of sheep across it. He shooed the dog away, glowering, then froze completely when the mercenaries walked into view. Riss could understand why. They were ragged, caked in mud. Her nose had grown used to it, but they likely reeked of ten kinds of death. Calay had blood splashed all down his front. Oh, and they were armed to the teeth.
Riss slowed up, too. They all stopped and stared at one another, the silence broken only by burbling river and bleating sheep. Riss never imagined she’d be glad to smell livestock, but the scent of lanolin and wool stoked something in the coals of her mind: you’re back where people live.
“I don’t want any trouble,” said the shepherd, his voice edged with an aged wariness.
With a single soft, disbelieving laugh, Riss shook her head. “Me either, old timer.”
“Tell that to your dog.”
The old man’s eyes strayed to the hound, which continued to pace in a perimeter around the sheep, eyeballing them eagerly.
“He’s not–” Our dog, Riss started to say. But she caught herself, glancing sidelong to Torcha.
Well, perhaps he was their dog now.
“Eight,” she tried, recalling the name Vosk had used. “C’mere, boy.” She gave a whistle. The dog looked at her with a cant of its long-whiskered snout, but it stayed put. Eventually, Torcha was able to tempt it away from the sheep with some jerky from her pack.
“All’s well at the village?” asked Riss, looking across the bridge. She was fairly sure Adelheim lay that way, given the position of the sun.
“Far as I’m aware,” said the shepherd.
So they walked into town together, a motley band of old soldiers and hired hands and about two dozen sheep. The sky darkened, but they made it to Adelheim before torches began to sparkle in the windows. The shepherd didn’t bother to say goodbye, driving his herd off toward the shearing quarters on the outskirts of town.
Riss stopped at the foot of the road that rambled up toward Tarn’s castle. She stared at it in the half-light, the crumbling masonry and fresh new wood, the figures that moved through its central gate and loitered at its rampart.
They’d made it out. She felt she ought to say something to the others. She recalled the way Gaspard would address the Fourth, the easy confidence of his voice, the way he molded human morale like clay. He always seemed to have words for a situation, be it a celebration or a dire moment when a rallying cry was desperately needed.
Riss looked sideways to Adal, pursing her lips. He was already unlashing his pack from the moa, hauling it up onto his shoulder, working through the motions like this was just another pack-down before making camp.
When he saw her, he paused, scritching at an eyebrow with his thumb. “Orders, boss?”
Torcha likewise looked her way. Then Gaz, then even Calay.
Riss spotted a figure at the apex of the hill, a short silhouette that slipped free of the castle’s gates and then began to jog down the path. It appeared to be heading toward them.
Riss didn’t have to say anything at all, did she. She turned that thought over in her mind for a moment, marveling at it. Just because Gaspard had done something didn’t mean she had to. Just because she’d learned from him didn’t mean she had to imitate him in all things.
She’d gotten them out. Well, they’d all gotten one another out. But in the end, everyone was still looking to her for orders. That meant they trusted her to see this through to the very end.
The Baron’s man arrived, kicking up dust as he hurried to where they stood. He was out of breath by the time he reached them.
“Sergeant Chou.” She had no idea why he was using her rank. Wasn’t as though she’d worn the same colors. “The Baron is in the field, but our doors are open to you. Quarters and facilities at the ready.”
Riss tilted a look up the darkening walls of the keep, pursing her lips. Well, it beat another night in the woods.
Tarn’s household staff were ludicrous in number. Riss had stretch her mind to imagine that they all belonged to him. She and her company were led up the hill, past the low, heavy-roofed dwellings of the village and through the imposing gates. Castles like these were old, relics of an age when wars were far more common and it made sense to sling thick stone walls around everything one valued. Riss had never liked them. A gate that big could keep a lot of people penned in, too.
They were shown what must have been the height of what passed for hospitality in Adelheim, busied into the castle by a series of silent, efficient footmen.
Finally, a man out of House livery appeared. He was narrow, almost as tall as Riss, dressed all in tidy black silk. Several flyaway strands had escaped the ponytail at his neck, lending him a harried, rushed appearance even when standing still.
“Sergeant,” he greeted her. “I’m Veslin. I mind the house when the Baron is on his tours.”
Riss ticked a nod of greeting. “Just Riss,” she said. “The war’s over. Pardon the state of us, Veslin.”
The man grimaced visibly as he looked each of them over. If he wondered at what horrors had transpired to lend them their current appearance, he didn’t say so.
“We have plenty of rooms to house you. If you follow me, we’ll launder your things. And I imagine baths and a warm meal might be in order.”
Each of those propositions sounded better than the last.
“There’s one matter of business first,” she said. Glancing past where Calay lurked, silent and watchful, she set her eyes on Harlan Vosk.
“This man,” she said, summoning up as much disdain as her weariness would allow, “is responsible for the death of Lukra Gullardson. As well as several of the Baron’s men. He confessed to his acts of betrayal and we’ve dragged him back so that appropriate justice can be meted out.”
She likely hadn’t needed to go full pomp and circumstance for that. But it felt good.
Veslin’s brow lowered. He looked Vosk over, studying the shaking husk of a man that Calay had marched through his door.
“I’ll prepare a cell,” he said, his voice chilly.
It wasn’t until Veslin showed Riss through the door of her room–a handsome, well-appointed chamber with its own sitting area and its own hearth–that reality sunk in, that Riss really felt it.
They were out.
Up the hallway, she heard Torcha arguing with one of Tarn’s men about whether the dog could lodge in her quarters.
Leader of the expedition though she might have been, Riss decided Torcha could fight that battle solo.
She swung the door closed, then slipped her cloak off over her head. One piece at a time, she loosened straps and buckles on her armor, shedding it piecemeal. A carved wooden armor stand stood near the door just for organizing such things, but she was far too tired to bother. Everything she stripped off ended up in a pile on the floor. Fuck it.
The soft thunk of leather and metal onto the rug sounded too loud. Silence felt unusual, uncomfortable. When she glanced to either side of her, there was no headcount to make, no packbeasts to mind, no wounded or afflicted friends to tend, no sorcerer to watch from the corner of her eye.
When Riss next exhaled, it felt like she’d exhaled the last of the swamp with her. That each breath she now took was solely her own, no longer fraught with duty.
Opposite the sprawling bed in her chamber, a heavy bookshelf sat waiting. Its many volumes were as varied a collection as one could imagine, only about a third of which even bore languages she recognized on their spines.
She could read, then, until the servants arrived with her bathwater. In fact, she took a moment to envision her entire evening: selecting a volume off the shelves, sinking into warm water, scrubbing the grit and blood away, then retiring straight to bed.
If they let her, she’d take her evening meal under the covers. As nice as it would be to break bread with Torcha and Adal in a safe haven, all of them healthy, Riss needed the peace and quiet more. They’d cope.
How strange, to walk once more among the living.