The child shivered against Ryn’s shoulder. A damp chill had bitten deeper as the sun sank behind a haze of frost, but he knew fear had the tighter grip. It had him, too, he just couldn’t let her know it.
“Easy, Sara,” he said. “Almost home.”
She’d fled into the Frosted Wood to escape a scolding from her grandda for fighting. Tracking her down had taken longer than expected. Ryn blazed a trail back to Sablewood as quick as he dared without making too much noise. Neither moon would rise tonight—that always drew grenlich scouts out of the deep wood.
The stilted air bore traces of wood smoke and deer piss. What mattered was that Ryn didn’t smell crushed juniper. Grenlich used it when hunting to smother their musk. The time hadn’t come to run, not yet. Holding Sara with his left arm trapped his longsword. He teased the contours of the doglock pistol that rode his other hip, primed and cocked. Hard walnut and cold iron offered little comfort, but he felt gratitude for their company all the same.
Her warm breath tickled his ear. “Can I ask you something?”
“Softly.” Their scent and the crunch of snow underfoot threatened to give them away long before whispered conversation.
“Will they eat me?”
If only being quartered, cooked, and served was the worst Sara could expect. But she would never suffer such horrors. He’d make certain of it, no matter what happened before they reached the river.
He hoisted her higher to ease the strain. “No, they won’t eat you.”
“You’re gonna keep me safe.”
“I thought it was your duty to keep me safe,” Ryn said. “Your mother told me about the lumps you gave that boy for being such a brat.”
“Momma says you’re like Aegias, the Prince Messiah.”
That drew a smile, even as he kept alert for any flicker of a threat. Aegias had said a man should aspire to become the best of himself and no other, and trust in the Virtues to guide him. Honoring that while also fulfilling his duty to the Holy Clerisy gave Ryn challenge enough.
“He killed this evil sorcerer named Xangpe … Xanga …”
“Xangtemias,” Ryn said.
“Yes, Xangtemias, with a magic sword—it was alive, you know.”
He answered her grave earnest with a somber nod. “So, they say.”
“They don’t just say—it’s written.”
So, it was. Told and retold till there was little chance of pulling fact from myth. Maybe the Clerisy’s version was the truest, maybe it wasn’t. Ryn had never been the sort to swallow doctrine without chewing on it first. He’d long since made peace with the notion that some things could never be known for certain. What Aegias and his paladins stood for mattered more than what they’d done ... or hadn’t. An opinion he seldom shared, considering how it could be twisted to accuse him of blasphemy.
The damp char of burned wood thickened on the air. Whole trees gave way to axe-bitten stumps. Safety lay only a mile away. The villagers had already left for the day and smothered their fires under a grubby mush of snow. In the quiet stillness, Ryn found only a false serenity meant to hide death.
“Rufus said Xangtemias could come back,” Sara said. “To steal our souls.”
Rufus—the boy she’d given the lumps to. “With his last breath, Aegias ordered his paladins to destroy Xang’s remains, starting with his skull.” Ryn’s gaze roved between every stump and drift. “So, tell Rufus it would be rather hard to come back short a head.”
Sara giggled. “Just think, tripping and bumping into things …”
Ryn’s nose caught a whiff of stale skunk and moldering compost—grenlich musk. Some brazen bastard hadn’t even bothered with juniper. In a blink, he had his pistol drawn and trained on a pile of cut branches the villagers had left. Nothing else nearby offered cover enough to hide. The pistol’s muzzle didn’t waver despite the wild thump of his heart. Sara’s sharp breaths rang loud.
“Show yourself, or I’ll know you for a coward,” he said. No grenlich warrior would risk that.
A figure stood and stepped out from behind the pile, short and broad, clad in buckskin and cloaked in bear. Curved tusks glistened with condensed breath. A forked tongue tested the air. Serpent eyes meant for night squinted at them. Sara whimpered and buried her face in Ryn’s shoulder.
The grenlich spread his arms wide. “No harm meant, Sergeant.”
Ryn eased his finger on the trigger, but kept the pistol trained. He knew how quick those thick hands could fling the axes hooked on the grenlich’s belt. “Why have you come, Ostath?”
“I have words for Lieutenant.”
“Then speak them to me and go.” The Clerisy claimed grenlich were demon-spawned—another truth buried in time, to be taken on faith. Demons or not, Ryn had seen for himself their brutal savagery. He didn’t know what Ostath had done to be outcast from his clan and didn’t care. If it were up to him, the vrul would have been dead months ago.
But it wasn’t.
Familiar boots crunched in the snow from behind. Ryn kept his attention fixed on Ostath.
Quintan’s hand landed on his shoulder. “Stand down, Sergeant.”
“How’s our back trail?” Ryn asked.
“Clear, for now.”
Ryn let his pistol sink. “He’s got something to tell you.”
Ostath’s head bobbed up and down, quite a feat for a creature with no neck to speak of. “Yes, Lieutenant Arias—important to know.”
Quintan stepped past Ryn, hands resting easy on his hips. “Are we alone, Ostath?”
That forked tongue tested the air. “For now.”
“Then speak,” Ryn said. He’d known Quintan too long to be deceived by his casual manner. They both wanted clear of this damned wood without delay.
“This winter has been hard, the clan hungers,” Ostath said.
He clearly did, considering how gaunt his cheeks had grown since they’d last seen him a fortnight past. Ryn hefted Sara to ease the ache in his shoulder. “You’re an outcast—how would you know?”
“I see things you can’t from towers of stone,” Ostath said.
Ryn eyed the darkening sky. They needed to get back to those towers.
An edge crept into Quintan’s tone. “Like what?”
“Preparations, when clans go to war, but peace holds between them,” Ostath said.
“A raid across the river then,” Quintan said. “When?”
The vrul’s ears flattened. “I know not, but soon.”
Ryn had yet to figure if the shift of those ears meant Ostath lied. “How many?”
“The vruls of the clan number many times the people of your village, would all come?” Ostath shrugged. “Hard to say.”
Ryn’s finger caressed the pistol’s trigger. “Is that all?”
“That is enough for you to keep weapons sharp and nose to the wind, Sergeant,” Ostath said.
Quintan unstrapped his ration pouch and tossed it to the grenlich. “Our thanks, Ostath. Let your way be clear and your back untouched.”
The grenlich tapped his brow. “Make haste—our time comes.” Then he bolted off.
Ryn started off with a brisk stride before Ostath was out of sight to burn off his irritation. “It’s bad enough you’ve made a pet of that inbred vermin, must you speak to him as an equal, on his own terms, no less?”
Quintan followed. “I could have you on charges for giving me lip like that.”
“Yes, you could, Sir,” Ryn said. “But then it might prove embarrassing if I stopped pulling my hits and left you on your arse in the practice yard every morning.”
Sara glanced around, eyes wide to rival a startled deer. “He’s gone? He didn’t even ask about eating me.”
Quintan graced her with that damnable smile. That’s all it took for one of her own to blossom and her fear to fade. The charmer had melted hearts and won trust with that smile since he and Ryn had first met as plebes in the temple. People often mistook them for brothers with their dark eyes and curls, but when it came to women, Quintan left him feeling like an awkward buffoon. Still, Ryn couldn’t begrudge the power of that smile if it put Sara at ease.
“Eat you?” Quintan said, with mock astonishment. “You’d be a sour little morsel, with prickles too, I’ll warrant. No child, he won’t eat you, but, heed me well, other grenlich would not be so kind.”
“This … relationship could cost your command if the abbot found out,” Ryn said.
“Serving and obeying shouldn’t come at the expense of common sense,” Quintan said. “Ostath’s a source of insight on the grenlich we’ve never had.”
But now they had a witness. Ryn stowed his pistol and shifted Sara to his other arm. “You know how Aegias would send his paladins on secret missions to help defeat Xang?”
Her face lit up. “You mean quests?”
He had her now. Life under the Clerisy had eased considerably across the Four Kingdoms since the time of Ryn’s grandfather. But a shadow always lingered—the threat of penalty or even persecution by the Inquisitarem for straying from a virtuous path. Hard lessons had left people of that generation strict and fearful. Sara’s grandda was no different, and she suffered the brunt of it. The mischievous twinkle in her eyes left little doubt she hungered for a chance at adventure, even if it risked a painful switching.
“The Lieutenant and I are on a quest of sorts right now,” Ryn said, glancing sideways at Quintan. “The safety of the village, and your momma, depends on it. We needed that grenlich’s help. But this is all very dangerous—it has to be kept secret.”
“Oh, like when—”
“Yes, just like that,” Ryn said. “Now, can we trust you to—”
Sara’s hand shot to her brow in a perfect salute. “Yes, Sergeant.”
Ryn didn’t care for lying to the child, but if what Ostath had told them bore even a grain of truth, it wasn’t a lie. And letting it be known that information about a threat to Sablewood had come from an outcast grenlich would only complicate matters and cast Quintan in a poor light. It wasn’t the first time Ryn had to play lose with the truth to keep the headstrong fool out of trouble. Given Quintan’s loyalty as a friend, he accepted it as a fair trade … most of the time.
Sara’s nose wrinkled up. “Is this to protect Rufus, too?”
“I’m afraid so,” Quintan said. “But you can always smack him again if he crosses you.”
Sara considered it for a moment. “That’s decent if it keeps momma safe.”
Jaryk’s raspy old voice trembled more with relief than anger. “Gods’ Grace, child, don’t give your mother a fright like that again.”
Sara faced her grandda in the middle of Sablewood’s common, chin high and fists planted on her hips. As Jaryk stood there, shaking so much Ryn feared his old heart might fail, her bold posture crumpled. “I’m sorry, poppa,” she said. “I didn’t want a beating.”
Jaryk clamped those gnarly miller’s hands on her shoulders, eyes wet. His mouth moved, but words failed.
A knot between Ryn’s shoulders began to loosen. She hadn’t let slip about Ostath. Not yet, at least.
Tamantha barreled through the crowd, skirts hitched in one hand, raven hair flying. She dropped to her knees, though the frozen ground must have bruised, and swept her daughter up in a fierce hug. “My darling girl.”
“I’m fine, momma,” Sara said. “The sergeant kept me safe.”
Tamantha wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand and looked up at Ryn. “Thank you, Sergeant.”
Her breathless tone roused a blush in Ryn’s cheeks. She’d lost her husband barely a year ago. Trackers had found him. Evidence suggested wolves. With grenlich roaming the woods, Ryn figured nothing could be certain. But he found that look in Tamantha’s big brown eyes hard to mistake. He caught Quintan grinning and steadfastly ignored him. The village’s headman nudged his way toward them. “Master Borek,” Ryn called out, grateful for the distraction. “We have to talk.”
“Those few sacks of moldy grain Borek saw fit to spare are bound to encourage a raid,” Ryn said to Quintan as they covered the mile back to the abbey. He kept his hands shoved under his armpits for warmth, heedless of how their quick pace left his longsword bouncing against his hip. Nightfall had added fresh bite to the air. The sort of brittle cold that trapped the world so Lady Death could creep up easy. Starlight left their breath sparkling and the snow-covered fields that bordered the road painted blue.
“Sablewood isn’t fit for a serious fight and Lord Consten won’t spare it more than a few men-at-arms,” Quintan said, with a testy edge. “What would you have them do?”
“The question is what can we do.” Ryn couldn’t bear the thought of a garrison of trained men sitting by and doing nothing.
“Precisely,” Quintan said. “But you know how he is—have to be careful with how we frame it.”
“Well, you’re the one blessed with charm.” It did have its practical uses, from time to time.
Quintan snorted and said nothing for a spell. “So … what about Tamantha there?”
Ryn rolled his eyes, in no mood to take the bait. “What about her?”
“A well-to-do miller’s daughter? A man could do worse.”
“So, what are you waiting for?”
Quintan punched him in the shoulder. “Come one—I see how she looks at you, and you at her, or parts of her, at least.”
The fire that burst out in Ryn’s cheeks left him grateful for the dark. “Do you think I’m ready to settle in this backwater? I’ve got more ambition than that.”
“Ryn Ruscroft—Lord General of the Order.” Quintan huffed loud. “For Glory’s sake, we’re the Clerisy’s loyal hounds. We go where we’re told, do what we’re told, and fight who we’re told—that’s all. Keep reaching and the disappointment will leave you bitter.”
“We are palatars.” Ryn took a breath before his temper got the better of him. They’d trod this ground too many times. “I didn’t break with my family to be a grunt who cares for nothing but his next pay and a full belly. There has to be more.”
Quintan slapped him on the back. “You were the hero today, Ryn. Be content with that—it’s the small victories that matter.”
“Come closer, gentlemen, but please don’t touch,” Father Abbot Karkre said, in a tone better suited for unruly children than seasoned soldiers.
They’d come to Karkre’s study to make their report, not for a history lesson, but Ryn’s curiosity for the ancient vellum spread across the worktable overpowered the growl from his belly. Contraptions of polished mirrors and prisms focused the light of a few smokeless candles.
“Can you believe it—found in the attic of a brothel in Teglion? But see the cursives here, and here. It’s a perfect match.” Karkre’s voice grew giddy with excitement. “Written by Martyred Afrek’s own hand—the only known direct account of the Battle of Outrenar—the first time Our Lord Aegias wielded the Sword in battle against Dreaded Xangtemias.”
Quintan dutifully leaned over the worktable for a look. He’d never shared Ryn’s passion for history. “So he did, and wiped out a third of his own army as a result, Father Abbot.”
Karkre snorted with indignation and puffed out his narrow chest, resembling nothing less than a startled gray owl with those spectacles perched on his nose. “An unfair and unfounded accusation repeated through the ages by scholars who should have known better. An error we can at last correct.” He pointed to a line of text. “Afrek stated the Kingdoms’ casualties attributable to the Sword’s hunger at only ten per cent.”
Quintan winked at Ryn, head cocked so the abbot wouldn’t see. “Oh, is that all? Just a few thousand, then.”
“Unfortunate, for certain, but a lesson in which Our Lord Aegias discovered the key to Dreaded Xangtemias’s eventual defeat,” Karkre said.
Ryn ground his teeth. What incensed him even more than the way Quintan teased their superior was how Karkre never seemed to notice the disrespect. One of Quintan’s “small victories.”
“Father Abbot,” Ryn said, more sharply than he intended. “What of this grenlich threat?” He would be happy to pour over the manuscript later. Now, they had more pressing concerns.
“Yes, that.” Karkre leaned on his knuckles as his bookish look turned shrewd. “You’re both sure of this?”
Quintan cleared his throat. “The recent trail activity close to the woodcutting is convincing, Father Abbot.”
Ryn verified the fabrication with a solemn nod.
“Hmmm,” Karkre said. “They do tend to keep to the depths of the forest unless they plan to raid.”
“It looks like they’re massing for something big, a full-out attack,” Quintan added.
“’Full-out,’ you say. There hasn’t been such a thing in years.” Karkre removed his spectacles and polished them on the hem of his cassock, heedless of how it exposed spindly pale thigh. “What are you asking for, Lieutenant?”
Quintan looked him square. “I want to station half our men in the village under Sergeant Ruscroft’s command.”
Half? Ryn winced on the inside and hoped it didn’t show.
The abbot’s eyes widened. His mouth gawped open. A nerve began to twitch under his jaw. He turned away with hands tight behind his back. “Absolutely not.”