The Warrior From Batuk: Chapter 13

The Warrior from Batuk
by Aardvark

A final encounter with Dana. Ketrick and Tyra in a last stand at Alexander's castle. A fitting end for Heydar. Marco hunts for Tyra with a crossbow. Angel makes a surprising revelation. (Much violence)


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The Legal Stuff: The Warrior from Batuk  © 2004, 2007 Aardvark
 
This work is the property of the author, and the author retains full copyright, in relation to printed material, whether on paper or electronically. Any adaptation of the whole or part of the material for broadcast by radio, TV, or for stage plays or film, is the right of the author unless negotiated through legal contract. Permission is granted for it to be copied and read by individuals, and for no other purpose. Any commercial use by anyone other than the author is strictly prohibited, and may only be posted to free sites with the express permission of the author.
 

This work is fictitious, and any similarities to any persons, alive or dead, are purely coincidental.

 
Photo Credit: 3.bp.blogspot.com


 
Chapter 13
 
 
When Angel and I were alone, I wrote down the names and descriptions of the lady Borodins and gave them to her to study. While she was busy with that, I left my quarters to look for Malchor. Fighting and thoughts of battle brought forth the urges faster than seeing a company of handsome men, and seeing Ketrick again hadn’t helped. I didn’t have to have a man now, but I’d need one before I went to Alexander’s Castle if I wanted to stay sharp.

I found Malchor inspecting the perimeter on the east side of the castle from his horse. Malchor waited for me, tipping his hat as I came close.

“Lady Dana, it’s nice to see you again. What can I do for you?”

“I’m just out for a ride — and to see you.”

He was not a fool. “Does this mean that your door might be open around midnight tonight?”

I pretended to think for a moment. “Why, I believe that it does.”

“Does this mean that you wish to be reduced to a rolling mass of quivering gelatin, allowed only helpless, desperate, screaming, unending orgasms?”

The man was outrageous, but accurate enough. “Malchor, please!” I laughed. “If you keep this up, my door will be open before dinner.”

“Duty forbids me that, but you may be certain that I will be at your door at the appointed hour.”

“And I will be inside waiting, quivering, perhaps, in anticipation.”

“You know, you’re different than I expected. I won’t delve into the past, but you’re more lively as a woman than I would have thought.”

“Does that displease you?”

“Not at all. You are just -- different. I wish that you wouldn’t take so many chances riding alone.”

“Is Marco causing problems, or do you have another threat in mind?”

He grunted. “I worry about Marco. Only the welfare of the castle restrains him. Other than he, there are no specific threats that I’m aware of. But no specific threats killed Ivan, Paolo, Tam or Mario.”

“I’m glad you’re having him watched. As for the rest, I don’t think that the people who did this to me would kill me now. I’m one of their successes, a walking nightmare for any man.”

“No nightmare for me, and I hope you’re right about being safe.”

After dinner, back in my quarters, I told Angel the rest of what I knew about the Borodin women, which wasn’t as much as I liked. I didn’t know the Borodins as well as the Giovannis, and the women, far more than the men, stayed inside the castle walls and formed social circles among themselves. I knew a few basic facts about them all, but very little personal information, particularly their rare meetings with Drago. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was what exactly the knowledge I needed to establish a solid alibi as Dana so that when Angel switched with me, no one would question who she was.

I didn’t like where my thoughts were taking me, but I didn’t see an alternative. I might get by without knowing more, but the opposite, that I might miss a key piece of information, ‘forget’ a memory that ‘I’ would never have forgotten, was just as real, and I had no way of knowing which was more likely. All our lives could depend on it.

“Angel, I need to find out more about the Borodin women,” I decided at last.

“Goddess. Tyra, we don’t have much time,” she said nervously.

“I’ll have to talk to Dana,” I sighed, dreading what that was likely to mean. “We’ll ride to Tulem early tomorrow.”

By the time Malchor stole through the door, I was sick with worry. I didn’t feel much like a warrior that night. He sensed that I didn’t want to talk. It was a time I was glad to be a woman. I didn’t have to be strong, just soft and desirable, and he was strong enough for us both. For hours, he took me to places where deceit, lies, and death were not a part of the world. He fulfilled his promise made earlier in the day, and I did my part, giving him as much as he gave me. Malchor left me well before dawn, warm and content, kissing me gently on the lips. I fell asleep almost instantly.

***

Dawn in Tulem is different than almost anywhere else in the world. A reddish sheen to the sky is the first indication, if it is cloudy, suffusing the valley in faint rose, turning to amber as the sun rises. When the sun strikes the chilly heights of the western mountains, light reflects brilliantly from the snow and ice. It was at that time we left the castle, just as most were beginning to awaken.

The fog was unusually thick that morning on the lake, a sure sign of changing weather. It was dense enough that the mountain light cast a white glow on the road to Tulem, rather than penetrating all the way to the ground, making distances hard to judge. Few shared the road that early, just a few farmers on their way to market, passing in and out of white shadow like wraiths. Angel rode up beside me when the way was clear.

“You enjoyed yourself last night,” she hissed. “I have needs as well, you know!”

And so ended the calm contemplation of an ethereal morning after a good brolling.

“Malchor is not a means to your satisfaction; he's a man risking his life to be with me. Likely, Ketrick will fill you before you leaving for the castle — if only to shut you up.”

The thought of Ketrick produced a smile on the ex-slave’s face. “True.”

After leaving our horses at a stable a block away, we climbed the outside stairs of the The Queen’s Cup, making sure we were alone before I knocked on the door.

“Who’s there?” Wanda asked from behind the door.

I made a final look down the alley. “Wanda, this is Tyra with Angel,” I said.

She opened the door just wide enough to see. I dropped the veil and she nodded, allowing us to enter. “My Master is with Dana,” she said. “Please wait.”

A moment later, Ketrick appeared in a brown tunic and loose cotton pants. He closed the door behind him and motioned for quiet. “You are early.”

I explained what I needed from Dana.

“How long will this last?” he asked without expression.

“Maybe the rest of the morning. When she sees me, she’ll know I betrayed her. It won’t take her long to figure it all out.”

His face was like granite. “Yes.”

My heart sank into my stomach; I knew what that look meant. “Ketrick, please don’t kill her.”

“If you walk through that door, she dies. Once she knows about us, she would kill us all with a word at the first opportunity.”

“Wait!” I said, grabbing his wrist. “I have an idea, or at least I have the beginnings of one.” And, to my surprise, I actually did.

He watched me as if I’d gone soft-headed. “I’m listening.”

“Why don’t we continue this discussion in a couple of days, after we finish what we came here to do? That will give me time to work out the details.”

He mulled it over for a while. “It can wait that long. I can drug her. If we don’t return she won't wake up. Do you want to do this now, or do you need to prepare?”

Pulling out a small stylus and notepad from a side pocket, I said, “I’m ready.”

Dana was in a collar, naked in Ketrick’s pelts, chained to a link in the wall. She didn’t look unhappy; likely, Ketrick had been with her all night. Her eyes lit up when she saw me, and she leaped to her feet.

“Tyra! Oh, thank the Gods that you’re all…” Dana’s voice froze when she had a good look at my face, and she looked on in horror when she saw Ketrick’s.

It was over. There was no reason to deceive her any longer.

“I came here from Batuk to stop the invasion. I gave you the Ruk’s Serum myself. You will remain a slave for the rest of your life. I have questions and you will answer them.”

She stared at me, and within her beautiful blue eyes, I saw her world die, replaced with so much pain I could barely breath. The former man, Drago, now a slave girl named Dana, sagged in her chains to the pelts.

She might have killed my family. She might still kill us all. I darted a glance towards Ketrick. His countenance was as cold as winter. He nodded for me to continue.

I wiped my eyes dry, then went to the first woman on my list. “Tell me what you know of Deana Borodin and her relationship to you as Drago.”

She said nothing. I stepped forward before Ketrick could reach her and I slapped her head back. “Answer me!” I screamed into her face.

A line of blood trickled down the corner of her mouth. Dana covered it in shock; then she gazed at me, saddened beyond anything I’d ever seen, beyond hope and, only now realizing the totality of her betrayal. “I ... I,” she said in a weak voice.

Ketrick sprung forward and roared at her, “Answer your mistress!”

Dana never stood a chance. I'd seen grown warriors jerk to attention when he shouted that way. The vaec on her thigh, the days under Ketrick's control, dominating her as few men on the planet could, and, most of all, her natural slave nature, all conspired against her. She cowered instinctively, so much a woman, now, smaller, weaker, with her master practically breathing in her eyes. “Yes, Master!” she cried.

She sobbed once and began. With Ketrick looming at her side with all the menace he could supply, she went on and on, unable to stop herself even as she glared at me in hatred. I despised every filthy second of it. When I had everything I felt I needed, I left the room. Angel made to approach me, but backed away when I glared at her. I wouldn’t, couldn’t share this shame with her! Collapsing into the divan, I sobbed into a pillow for long minutes.

Ketrick left the room with Dana wailing, a sound that ripped my heart. He motioned Wanda inside, and closed the door.

He settled down beside me and placed his large hand on my back. “Dana will be as dangerous as a wounded lion now. Do you really have a plan for her?”

I nodded, wiping my eyes on my sleeve. “I have a man with a reason to take her far away. If we survive, I should be able to come up with some way to put them together.”

He squeezed my shoulder. “Good. We have little time. I have to prepare Angel for her trip.”

I gave Angel a summary of what I had learned from Dana, as Ketrick prepared a special crate with marble blocks arranged and buttressed to conceal her. I hugged her, and reminded her not to drink anything before being bundled, kissed Ketrick goodbye and walked back to the stable alone. I rode my horse hard, and made it in time for lunch, where I ate and conversed with lords and ladies. I said less, and had almost no appetite, but no one saw enough amiss to say anything.

After memorizing the notes from Dana, there was nothing to do but wait. Late in the afternoon, not long before the shadow of the sun crossed the castle, I saw a shimmer of light at the wall. I ran to the window, I waved and saw three flashes followed by three more, the signal that Ketrick had been successful. Angel was in the castle store room. We were committed.

Malchor did not visit me that night and in truth, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to face him. For once, my urges were quiet.

I made everything as normal as possible that day. After a breakfast where I continued to mystify my fellow nobles with my new fondness for Gina, I coasted through my duties. In the afternoon, I made last preparations for my appearance in Alexander’s castle with a pair of maidservants who fussed over my dress and hair until I lost patience and sent them away.

By late afternoon, the weather had turned. The sky darkened with threatening clouds. It seemed that the Borodin celebration was to be welcomed with a deluge from the Gods. Urban knocked on the door just before it was time to go. I embraced him as an old friend. “Good afternoon, Urban. Fine, bracing weather for tonight’s event!”

“Lady Dana,” he said, nonplussed, “you are in a fine mood.”

“Why not?” I had a sudden suspicion. “Urban, are you here to wish me luck?”

“In a practical sense. I urge you to consider bringing a pair of guards with you when you visit Alexander’s castle.”

That would have ordinarily been a good idea, but not on that night, and not for me. I shook my head. “I want everyone to stay inside tonight.”

He sighed, exasperated. “Lady…”

“Doesn’t a set of Giovanni guards on Borodin ground violate protocol?”

I thought he might out-dour himself for a moment. “Well, technically, but no one would hold you to that standard, considering the murders of late.”

“I will ride alone. The only real threat I have is within these walls.”

“As you wish, Lady Dana.” He bowed and left me. Walking away, I heard him mutter, “I tried!”

I donned my green weather cloak, walked to the stables where my mount awaited, and rode away. By the time I arrived outside the main gate to Alexander’s castle, it had begun to rain. Stablemen took my horse to the stables outside. Five guards stationed just inside the portcullis were polite but thorough, and a woman finished the inspection behind a partition.

I strolled out into the courtyard. Blue-striped awnings formed four voluminous open-ended tents centered about the garden and its central fountain. Ladies in pastels, and for the daring in this wet weather, white, all with distinctive Borodin blue trim, mixed with their male counterparts in hose, doublets, and blue sashes. I lifted a glass of wine from a passing tray and took a sip. Keeping my cloak on to cover my hair in the rain, I cruised the perimeter of tents, and observed.

All four sides of the interior were guarded about equally. Except for the side opposite the main gate, all sides had balconies on all three floors extending their length. Staircases rose from the corners on either side of the main gate. A single guard stood watch from the center of the central balconies, their spears grounded at parade rest. Most of the other guards were scattered throughout the crowd of over three hundred, most of them invited guests and well-wishers from the surrounding villages as well as servants and entertainers.

Two of the tents sheltered musicians, one, a small band, played music suitable for light dances, although this early in evening, really the last gasp of afternoon, no one had as yet taken the floor.

The meeting room was in the South Hall, as expected, to the right of the main gate. As I had surmised earlier, there were two guards at the entrance, each with a heavy spear. From what I had seen from the outside on the way in, there were about a dozen guards for the perimeter. All in all, the castle was well guarded, and I approved it as a professional job.

“Lady Dana?” a feminine voice called out to me.

I whirled in my cloak and faced the source. It was Barbara, blond haired and blue-eyed like the rest of her ilk, and one of the nicer Borodins. From Dana’s notes, she had known Drago since he was born and was thirty years older.

I smiled behind the veil. “Barbara. I haven’t seen you for a while, since the last time I was here, in fact. Are you all packed and ready?”

That disconcerted her a bit, since it was Drago, not Dana who had met her then. “Ah, well, no, but you know that. Until Batuk is secure, the ladies will remain behind, probably a week or so. I came to ask you about Batuk. Your slave is from there, I understand.”

I nodded. “She is, the little minx.” I took another sip of wine. “You want to know what you can expect in Batuk? Honestly, I wouldn’t worry. My slave has been known to exaggerate. If the people there are not as tractable as those of Tulem, after a period of beneficial rule, they should come around.”

“I’m glad to hear it. There was some talk … Dana, why don’t you visit with us in the North Hall while the men have their meeting? We shouldn’t part as enemies, and you were always a decent sort -- for a Giovanni.” She smiled to take the sting from her barb.

“Thank you. I think I will. When will the men meet?”

“Oh, about the eighth hour or so.”

“I’ll be there. I may not be welcome with all the ladies, but I still want to say goodbye to you Borodins. After all, Giovannis and Borodins will still be neighbors.”

“True. I hope to see you there, Dana.” With a wave, she retired into a tent where bright music played, and Borodin men drank, laughed, and plotted my city’s destruction.

I waited for more than an hour just under a tent flap, out of the rain, aloof with my drink in hand, watching. The guards on the balconies changed on the hour. It would be tricky to get by one. There were no true blind spots on the third floor, just shadows that would deepen as the night went on, and there were few reasons to go there during the party.

An event at the main gate diverted my attention: another figure in green had just appeared from the torch-lit entrance. The deep cloak concealed his face, but his shape and confident stride announced him. It was Lord Niccolo, and he had seen me. I left my sanctuary under the tent to meet him.

“Good evening, Lord Niccolo. I’d heard that you would be here.”

His eyes were cool. “Why are you here, Dana?”

“I didn’t want to be unfriendly to the Borodins. This is the last chance to reassure them that we mean them no ill will.” My tone added an unspoken “of course.”

“You aren’t planning to settle old scores with insults or practical jokes, are you?”

“Absolutely not, Lord Niccolo!”

“No one is easy with what you are. Your presence here is a practical joke. It’s too late to ask you to return without offending our hosts, but you and I will continue this conversation.” He pulled out a finger and directed it at my chest. “In the meantime, you will behave yourself.”

I lowered my head demurely and curtseyed. “Whatever you say, Lord Niccolo.”

He glared at me, then left to enter a tent with several prominent Borodin men. I returned to my place under the awning to wait and watch. Several more women and a few curious men approached me to exchange pleasantries and sometimes faintly mocking repartee.

Worsening weather forced me further inside. Narrow blue and gold flags above the roof, dimly illuminated in the lights of the courtyard, whipped and snapped in the storm that had descended suddenly into the valley. The castle’s high walls smoothed the winds in the courtyard, with only an occasional swirl bringing a deluge of rain onto those incautious enough to stand too close to the tent openings. Far from dampening the revelers' spirits, the rain and thunder buoyed them; it would be the last time they would all be together in Tulem, their home for a millennium, and what better way, they seemed to think, then to end the era with tumultuous style?

Night fell; siolat and wine flowed; dancers filled the open spaces under the tents. I nursed a second glass of wine and smiled as necessary. An over-stimulated Borodin, feeling the moment, even asked me to dance, which I accepted graciously. He was good-looking and polite, and if not for the nature of my mission, I would have enjoyed it.

I took a turn around the perimeter. Men about to go to war and the women who wished them well paired-off, seeking privacy. There were no good places in the tents, so a few took the stairs to the balconies or, for the serious, left for interior rooms. The balcony, it turned out, wasn’t a bad choice. From there, a couple could watch the tents below beneath the overhang, and, should a lord take minor liberties with his lady in the wind-sputtered torchlight, it would likely go unnoticed.

Just before the eighth hour, twenty-five Borodin lords and Lord Niccolo, entered the South Hall. They came laughing, many bringing drinks. All wore swords, and most were sober enough to give a good accounting of themselves if given the chance. Two guards stood in the rain outside the main entrance, and one manned the smaller entrance by the stairwell.

I had seen enough. I hitched my hood around my head, and hiked my skirts, jogging through the rain and avoiding puddles, as I made my way to the North Hall and the women. A bolt of lightning struck nearby, blasting the flags and the roof in white light. Thunder slammed the air around us nearly instantaneously, then echoed twice more from the mountains. Men laughed and women cried out in surprise and delight. The Gods themselves seemed to be in the mood for death and mayhem.

I entered the women’s meeting room, and passed my cloak to a servant girl. The laughter and conversation I’d heard in this packed room dropped as the Borodin women saw me. I pretended not to notice, and refreshed my glass with wine from the long central table.

I spotted Barbara in a chair at by the wall, speaking to Ludmilla, a Borodin that Drago had disliked mildly, and Alanna. Alanna was one I had hoped to avoid, but she was already rising to speak with me. She didn’t look happy.

“Good evening, Alanna,” I said.

“How dare you show up here,” she hissed, her voice dripping venom. “I could barely stomach you as Drago, and now you have the effrontery to appear before me on this final celebration?”

“You must concentrate on being more forthcoming, Alanna. In any case, I’m not here to meet you, although that is always a joy.” I raised my glass and looked around the room. “I’m here in the spirit of goodwill, to say goodbye to the Borodins as you prepare to depart Tulem to rule your new city. I celebrate the end of strife between our families and to wish you good fortune!”

Alanna shook her fist under my nose. “You are a perversion! You are an insult to women!” she shouted. Up close, her breath brought me the sweet smell of expensive wine.

Barbara and another woman took her arms and held her. I backed away a few feet to a safe distance. I was there to be recognized as Lady Dana, but the last thing I wanted was this kind of attention.

Alanna shrugged off the arms restraining her. Glaring at me the entire time, she yanked her cloak from the servant, and marched from the room in a huff. The room heaved a collective sigh, and slowly all returned to normal.

Barbara placed her hand on my forearm. “I’m so sorry for that. When I invited you, I had no idea she’d be so antagonistic.”

“A lot has happened since we pledged each other. I can’t blame her for feeling the way she does.” I assumed the slave pose, “sorrow,” and shed a tear.

She collected me in her arms, and allowed me a few sniffles on her shoulder. “Oh, Dana, this is not your fault! Please, pay no attention to Alanna. She can be heartless at times.”

“Perhaps I should return to the tents.”

“No,” she said firmly. “I invited you and we will give you courtesy.” She brought me to her corner of the room and soon, several friends of hers engaged me in conversation.

Dana’s notes were useful, and I held up my end of the conversation with barely a stumble. I listened more than I spoke and made a few comments that only Dana would know. When I judged that about a half-hour had passed, I begged off, laughing that I had to return to the tents to the legions of men who wanted to dance with me. I picked up my cloak at the door and waved goodbye. They had been polite, but I was sure that I wouldn’t be missed.

I had just left the bright confines of the meeting room when I felt my veil ripped away by a dark figure from the side. “You filthy serum girl, pretending that you’re a lady! We’ll soon find out what you look like underneath the veil!”

It was Alanna, of course, and her eyes danced in the glimmer of the lamps. She laughed wildly when she saw me. “A slave! You look like your slave!” she shrieked. She thrust me away and staggered towards the meeting room.

In a few seconds, my secret would be exposed. A smart investigator might make something with it, and even worse, Alanna had picked the worst possible time to link me with another who looked like me.

I grabbed her cloak from behind and jerked her onto her back. She cried out in alarm and pain. When she saw my expression she looked back in terror, and started to shake her head. It was too late for her. I knelt beside her then twisted her neck and cracked the back of her head with my elbow just above the ear. Her head fell back to the hard stone of the courtyard with a sickening thud.

I dragged her into the neighboring stairwell, praying to the Gods that no one was there. This time my prayers were answered. There was a small locked storage closet under the first flight of stairs. A blow with my foot cracked the flimsy bolt fastenings and another brought it away from its mounting. I stuffed her inside over someone’s box of tools and covered her with her cloak. She wasn’t dead, just unconscious, but a complication to be fixed later.

My heart pounded now, and every sense was ablaze. I took off my cloak, shook it free of water and turned it inside out to reveal the dull black of an assassin. I stood in the shadows of the stairwell and waited, watching men and women, arm-in-arm, traipse up and down the stairs. Finally, a couple, laughing and inebriated, took a step towards the third floor. It was a chance and I took it, lifting the hem of my skirts and flying up the stairs as silently as I could. As they stepped onto the third floor I wasn’t far behind. I followed them, using the woman’s skirts and voluminous cloak as a shield from the guard's idle curiosity.

The first door was the one I wanted. I crept quickly to it, taking only a few seconds. Standing up in the doorway, I was nearly invisible in shadow. I knocked three taps followed by a pause, and then three more. Nothing happened for several seconds and I cursed under my breath. I tried again and this time the door opened a crack. I slipped inside and closed it as quickly as I could. I turned to face Angel, whose newly dyed brown eyes watched me anxiously.

I brought her into my arms, and gave her a reassuring hug. “Nearly everything went well, Angel. Did you get the window open?”

“Well, not exactly,” she said vaguely, averting her eyes.

“Not exactly?” I grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. “Angel, we don’t have much time!” When I saw her fright, I let her go. “All right. What’s wrong?”

“I cut the bolt off, but the window is rusted shut. I loosened it almost all the way. I can feel it want to move, Tyra, but it won’t open!”

“All right. We’ll both try to pull it open. If we can’t then I’ll have to use the hammer.” I went to the window and examined it quickly. It definitely opened inward. From its position in the wall, there was no way to effectively use the block and tackle and winch Angel had already laid out. When the lighting struck across the valley I saw the considerable work Angel had done. I pulled on it and felt it move on the top, but the base stayed frozen. We tried together, putting everything we had into it, but it still wouldn’t budge.

I searched the floor in the dimness. “Where’s the Gods-cursed hammer?” I demanded, searching the floor.

“It’s by the winch. I didn’t dare use it because it’s very loud and the guard isn’t far away.”

“Right. We’ll have to do it when the thunder strikes.”

It was agony, waiting for lightning to strike and timing the thunder. A few nerve-fraying minutes later, Angel spotted lightning strike Mario’s castle across the lake. I waited and smacked the chisel with everything I had, feeling it give. We strained at the window and finally, it budged. One more solid effort and it creaked on its hinges and swung inward.

There was no time for congratulations. We switched clothes in the darkness. She had already dyed her hair black. I changed my eyes back to their original blue, washing the hair dye out from a bucket of water and remover, and then threw it all out the window to mix with the rain on the roof. Now wearing the tight black garment Angel had worn, I put on the black hood and pulled my hair through a hole in the back.

I buckled a belt over my hips, and attached a set of pulleys and the end of a braided steel cable, which led inside to a winch. Grabbing a special three-pronged hook and line, I rolled it up my hand. I jumped to the window and turned around, grinning. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

I swung around the side of the window, my left hand holding onto the window grating while my right paid out the hook’s line, measuring it against the roof. I needed to use just the right length for the hook to swing over the top of the roof and slide down the other side to catch against the overhang. Too far, and I would risk the hook being seen by a guard on the balcony, too little and it would catch in a shingle, possibly too weak to support my weight.

The dormer window was almost exactly halfway up the side of the roof. I figured three times the amount of line to the edge of the roof on my side, leaned over as far as I could, and threw. The hook, with its line trailing, made it over the top, the weight of it dragging it down the other side. When it reached the end, I pulled on it, finding it stuck almost immediately, a good sign. It was the moment of truth. I let go of the window and put all my weight onto the hook’s line. It held and I pulled myself up the steep wet roof as fast as I could.

Once on top, the full force of the wind forced me to straddle the rooftop. I yanked on the release line. When the hook’s claws folded back, I drew it in; then crawled as fast as I safely could, realizing that I was a black break in the outline of the castle’s peak for anyone who bothered to look up. Lightning smote a huge tree several hundred yards away, the crack of thunder following almost instantaneously. The thought that it could easily have been the roof with me attached to a metal line added to the chill of the wind and driven rain, and I tried to move faster.

I almost slid down the side of the roof when the cable I dragged caught somewhere, but I freed it with a shake and moved on until I was directly adjacent the second of four dormers. I fed out the line with the hook and let it slide down the interior side of the roof until I saw it slip over the side. I let myself down to the dormer window and connected one of the pulleys, threading the cable through it. I pulled my way up the roof again and repeated the process, threading the cable through pulleys on each dormer window. Finally, I paid the cable over the side of the roof on the end and then measured forty feet more to the ground.

I returned tired but elated, immediately going for the winch. “Come on! If Ketrick was watching me, it might not be long.”

A minute later, we felt three sharp tugs against the cable. We turned on the handle, one on each side, and winched him in with all our might for fifty revolutions. At this stage, Ketrick should have been just below the last window. Seconds later, he tugged again and we reeled him in a little more to the next window. Two more times, and Ketrick, dressed in gray to match the wall, was at the bars. He swung in and dropped to the floor with his backpack. Angel, dressed as Lady Dana, wanted to rush into his arms, but this time I didn’t let her.

Death was in his eyes; his grin against the blackface was frightening. He opened his backpack and pulled out an arsenal. Coolly, he changed from gray to a black matte outfit like mine, and wrapped a thick leather belt around his waist that bristled with knives and a sheaf of arrows to go along with a double-curved bow of wood and steel.

“That was well done on the roof, Tyra. Were there any unforeseen problems?”

“Alanna.” I explained what I did with her as I strapped on my darts.

“That is a problem.” He thought for a moment. “It can’t be helped. I don’t want to risk being seen there. Angel, you must kill her with a dart.”

Her mouth dropped. “What?” she said faintly.

Ketrick’s face was cold, black, and hard. “Take the dart and stick it in her chest,” he growled right in her face. “Then drag her from the storage room, place her a short distance away and drop her. If it isn’t safe to do that, then kill her and leave her where she is. Our lives depend on it.”

She lowered her eyes and nodded numbly. “All right, I’ll do it.”

I reached into my thigh belt and pulled out a small dart. “Be very careful with it,” I said as I handed it to her.

She gritted her teeth and took it as if it were dipped in deadly poison, which was certainly true.

We waited with the door ajar, watching the balcony with a small mirror, until a couple passed by. Angel slipped out quietly, using the woman’s dress for cover until she reached the stairs. We waited a few interminable seconds, but there were no shouts. Ketrick grinned, but it wasn’t one of the more pleasant varieties.

“Be ready with the cords as soon as the lovers leave the balcony.”

I cleared my throat; then: “I’m ready.”

After a few minutes of embracing and liberties, the couple turned back and passed out of sight below the level of the stairs. Ketrick waited until the guard turned his head, and then moved, almost leaping from his crouch in the door. He was upon him in a flash, and in the pouring rain, I’m sure the guard never heard him coming. I was right behind. Ketrick thrust his long, black knife through rear armor plate, mail, and heart with incredible power all the way to the hilt. His hand over the guard’s mouth prevented any outcry, and I prevented his heavy spear from falling. Between the two of us, he was soon secured to a balcony post and balustrade in an upright position that would probably fool the casual observer from below. With luck, his death wouldn’t be discovered for the next twenty minutes, the time of the next shift change.

We crept quickly towards the stairwell and hugged the shadows past the 2nd floor and an unsuspecting guard. Ketrick was ready with an arrow as we came in sight of the guard at the stairwell entrance to the meeting room and skewered his head with it. I jumped the railing at the same time and managed to catch most of him as he collapsed to the ground, preventing a clatter of armor.

He followed me over the rail and helped me move the guard out of the way of the door. With all the people moving around, we probably had seconds. He pulled out two balls from his belt. “These have a five-second charge. Make sure you close your eyes until the effect is over.”

We had been over this before, but I didn’t complain; the next minute would be the most hazardous of my life. I took a few deep breaths, and became purpose. “Let’s do it!” I hissed.

I opened the door. He crushed the top of the balls and tossed them inside. I shut the door, closed my eyes, and started counting. Shrieks and powerful oaths replaced laughing and conversation as the powerful flares expired in an incredible white blaze. Ketrick moved instantly to the side of the meeting room to cover the guards there. As soon as the time was up, I opened the door again and shut it with a kick. The flares left an acrid haze that hurt the eyes and burned the lungs, but I barely noticed. Of far more importance was killing the men inside.

I threw the darts with both hands as fast as I could down both sides of the table. The first two struck helpless men in the sides as they rubbed their eyes. The next pair went down the same way. They howled in agony as they collapsed to the floor, writhing and twisting, after a few seconds unable to control their limbs, even to pull the poison from their bodies. I cast a third and forth set, and the room filled with a terrible din.

All were not completely incapacitated. One saw me early and grabbed his sword. There was trouble unsheathing it in the tight spaces with dying men jerking about, and I made a dart appear in his chest before he managed to climb over the first three bodies as they convulsed their lives away. He wasted his last few seconds scrambling to remove it. I rolled to the floor below the level of the table as more recovered their sight. Legs were as good as arms or a chest in a pinch and I hit several more.

Screams and curses mounted as the poison paralyzed limbs. They lost bodily functions, and noxious stenches mixed with the burning haze. A guard burst through the main door, sword in hand, and looked around wildly. I took a heavy dart from my thigh and threw it with all my might from under the table. He bellowed in fear when it pierced his chest armor and he went down several seconds later. The other guard appeared in the door, but flopped over with a shriek from an arrow in his side; Ketrick had already killed him.

It was more dangerous now as the men, perhaps half still alive, discovered the killer in their midst. I stood to throw more darts and nearly died as a dagger creased one of my ribs, only a desperate twist to the side saving me. I threw four more darts, hitting three and had to dodge a dart coming back, pulled from a dead man. A few escaped through the main door, but from the screaming outside, it appeared that Ketrick’s arrows had handled at least some of them.

I dove under the table as another dart flew past me. Rolling quickly to the other side, I spotted movement. I tossed two darts in his direction and was gratified with a scream of horror. Another movement and another dart, this time under the table with a sidearm motion. The table vibrated as a body slide on the tabletop and I flicked a dart over the top into his leg as his sword passed beyond me.

“Gods!” he shouted, a startled cry. He writhed, and whined like an infant by the time he slid off the end of the table.

It was time to leave. I had two darts left, both heavy guard killers. There were only three men left in the room alive, all hiding behind the dead, none of them Borodin leaders or Niccolo Giovanni. That group had been at the head of the table, and had been among the first killed. Niccolo stared at me with gray eyes frozen in death, the frothy mouth, characteristic of shalimar, drooling onto the floor. I yanked the dart from his side and a dart from another, and ran through the stairwell door, vaulting a man who stared uncomprehendingly at his killer, helplessly twitching his last.

I waved my hand around the corner, signaling Ketrick not to shoot me and stepped out. A crossbow bolt came from somewhere in the dark rain and whizzed past my head. I ducked instinctively, too late to have prevented it killing me if it had been better aimed. Ketrick was already running towards me. I dashed to the stairs, ran to the 2nd floor and threw a heavy dart into the guard there before he could run me through with his spear. Ketrick’s arrow sank into a guard’s chest I hadn’t seen coming from behind. I ran upwards, my heart beating like a hammer as another quarrel struck the balustrade on the 3rd floor with a loud “thwack!” and ricocheted upwards past my arm.

All I had to do now was run past a Borodin man and his lady on the wrong floor at the wrong time. The man had a sword and I couldn’t take the chance that he would remain befuddled as I passed him. I struck him with a light dart and he fell, as his girlfriend, a woman I had just met that evening, shrieked in horror. I pushed her down and Ketrick did the same as he passed her just behind me. I beat him to the door an instant before he arrived. The door was as open as we had left it and he slammed it shut and shoved the bolt home just as a quarrel smashed into the door, its point protruding through a couple of inches.

The grin was still there, but there was an edge to it. “I had hoped that our escape wouldn’t be so obvious.” He ran to the window and threw it open, grabbing the lines and hooks we had prepared. He turned to me and yelled through the pouring rain. “Let’s hope the commander is incompetent enough to let us slide down the cable!”

If that was a joke, then it sounded too much like last words to crack a grin.

He climbed onto the edge of the window and swung wide, flinging his hook over the roof. A second later, he passed from my sight.

I leaped to the window and stepped out into the raging storm. Grabbing his line, I followed after him towards the top of the roof. I yelled, “There is an option I had considered, but I always thought that it was too risky to try, until now!”

He called back, “Tell me. I’m unusually open to risky ideas this evening.”

“It involves the placement of certain decorative pools!” I explained as quickly as I could.

He laughed. “Tyra, should I meet you in the afterlife, we will have a drink. Why not?”

We stayed close to the top of the roof, scuttling along just barely on the inside part of the castle to avoid being outlined against the sky at every lightning strike. The glow of torches refracting through the driving rain illuminated everything below the roof. The commander was not incompetent; guards surrounded every point on the wall. They weren’t sure where we were else we’d been meat on the ground, already, but it was a matter of time.

When we came to the point on the roof I remembered, I shouted, “This is the place, at least one of them! You can’t see them from the top of the roof, but the pool is about twenty feet from the wall! It’s about fifteen feet long, about ten feet wide, and maybe four feet deep!”

“Shall we go on the next lightning strike?”

I nodded, taking lunatic comfort from his calm. We would live or die in the next few seconds. Then I yelled when I realized he couldn’t see me. “Yes!”

“Good. I don’t like delaying this too much. I figure about two seconds for the fall and about three seconds for the slide and jump. If lightning strikes near your castle then we go after five seconds. If it strikes close to Franco’s Castle then we go immediately!”

I grinned; his mood was catching. “Right!”

Fate decided for Franco’s castle. We rolled over the roof and slid rapidly, riding our butts down the rain-slick slate until we approached the end. I saw Ketrick out of the corner of my eye as I launched myself fifty feet into space. For a moment, I felt like a bird with my arms spread wide. I saw a guard with a torch burning dimly in the rain pass below me, his concentration all on the wall. Then I flew beyond. As the blackness approached, I braced for impact.

A tremendous boom of thunder greeted my arrival to the pool. The force of the water pounded the wind from my lungs and stung my legs and breasts. But I was alive! I surfaced slowly, lifting my eyes and nose out of the water, half-expecting to find guards with spears in my face. The guards were there, but not facing us. A hand touched me on the shoulder, and I almost died from shock. Ketrick had survived the jump, too.

He sidled up close to me, his head barely out of the water. “I have a plan, Tyra.”

I nodded, still elated that we lived. Every shake and shiver from the cold pool was like a gift from the gods.

“Plans are good — when they work.”

His eyes and teeth showed white in his blackened face. He gave me a quick squeeze. “The hard part is over, but we’re not done yet. I have four arrows. Do you have any heavy darts?”

“I have one left.”

“That’s good. I see exactly five guards.”

“This seems a simple plan, Ketrick.”

“Your part is simple. You need merely kill the guard on the end closest to us. I will do the rest.”

The furthest guard was about fifty yards away, well within his range. “Fine. Do you want me to kill him first?”

He shook his head. “No. Wait until he runs by.”

“Very well.” I pulled out my last heavy dart from my thigh pocket. “I’m ready.”

He pulled his bow from the water and shot. The first guard went down with barely a whimper. He hit the second guard, but this one managed a scream. The third guard went down when he thought the arrows were coming from the roof. Ketrick’s fourth guard fell despite running because he was so close. My guard ran past me towards the main gate and I hit him squarely in the back from about twenty feet from my hidden position.

Ketrick rose from the pool and pulled me out. He pointed towards the tree line to the south, the side towards Tulem. “Now we run for the trees. I have some unfinished business there.”

With no more guards to delay us, we made it easily. Behind a tree, gagged and tied securely, in clothes similar to Ketrick’s, was a familiar face. “Heydar, it’s time,” Ketrick said coldly.

Heydar thrashed in his bonds ineffectually, his demeanor pure hatred. Ketrick pulled a crossbow from behind the tree and cut him free. “Go. I’m curious to see how far you make it before you die.”

“I’ll see you in Hades, Ketrick!” Heydar snarled. Then he ran, dodging fairly well through the rain and darkness.

Ketrick raised the crossbow slowly and waited for him to lurch left. When he did, he loosed, catching him below the shoulder blades. Heydar staggered forward for another twenty yards or so, but finally fell.

I shook my head. “I wish that hadn’t been necessary. It seemed cruel to play with him like that.”

“It was. But we needed a dead man killed by a Borodin quarrel in black clothes who has connections with the King. Heydar, dressed properly, fit the specifications.”

“He also lied about you to the King.”

“It’s true that I didn’t like him overmuch. He also lacked a sense of humor, and his language was too often crude and unattractive. Let’s go; Angel might be at the rendezvous sooner than we think.” He crouched to stay low and jogged silently towards the lake. I increased my speed to pace him.

“I’m going to be thinking about those faces for a long time, Ketrick. I hope I never have to do that again.”

“I hope we killed enough. The nobility here is more resilient than most.”

We crossed the road to Tulem and skirted the area between the lake and trees, always staying to the shadows in the departing storm. We came to a copse on the north side of the lake, close to the road to my castle. There, Ketrick had tied a pair of horses to a low branch. Ketrick donned his normal garb, stuffing his other garments into a hole, and I, a cloak for warmth.

The storm faded quickly. The rain thinned to a trickle and then cleared until the brighter stars shone through breaks in the clouds, reflecting crisply against wet leaves, grass and small ripples in the lake. It was as if nature had cleansed the valley of the horrors of an hour before.

I couldn’t get the image of the man on the third floor out of my mind, the last man inside the castle I had killed. His name was Horace, I recalled, and the woman I had pushed aside as she wailed over her fallen love was Beata, his fiancée. I remembered his face as the dart found its mark, changing from confusion to pain to understanding that he’d been poisoned. I would never know if it was necessary to kill him. Beata’s anguished cries echoed in my memory. She would never completely get over him, not the way he had died. There would be deep, never-ending hatred for me, the unknown woman who had so casually stolen her betrothed’s life and destroyed her dreams.

I closed my eyes to the beauty of the valley. My hand twitched in sympathetic remembrance of that last toss. I didn’t want to think about it any more. Was it necessary? Stop it! I must have said it aloud, or cried out, because he took me in his arms. I wanted to cry and sob against his chest, but he didn’t permit it. Instead, he forced me to look at him. His eyes were warm but firm.

“Later. There will be time for it later. We still have a job to do.”

I took a long, deep breath. “I know. This isn’t as easy to do as it was before.”

“There isn’t anything easy about this, but it is necessary.” He turned me around to face the expanse of the lake and held my waist from behind, drawing me to his warmth. His long, powerful right arm pointed over my shoulder to the city across the lake, clear and shining bright after the rains. “There is great beauty here, Tyra. Fine people, little crime, great organization and management, but where would you rather live, Tulem or Batuk?”

“Batuk,” I replied without hesitation. “With all its faults, it has a presence, a sense of destiny, hope, and pride. There are few there who would hesitate to defend it. Tulem works because its citizens have no choice; they are almost bred for the life. Some of the farmers labor in the fields with all the placidity of a cow. They work neither to expand their holdings nor to improve their lives, yet they are content.”

“And they would spread this peculiar method to other places.”

I shook my head. “It wouldn’t work in Batuk. The people would never go along with it.”

“Maybe. Maybe it would turn into something even worse.”

The harshness in his voice startled me. I turned and looked up. “You being here is more than loyalty to Batuk or a desire to own me. You have another reason.” It hit me then: as hard as it had been in Tulem, it should have been much harder. “This is more than experience in a war. You’ve done things like this before!”

“I’ve had a long life. I admit doing more than studying my navel.”

“Hah!” His glibness notwithstanding, he looked caught, as if he had let on something he hadn’t intended. I was thinking over the portents of that when I heard a woman’s scream in the distance, towards Alexander’s castle. There was no mistaking that scream -- it was my own.

Ketrick released me instantly. “Tyra, what weapons do you have?” he called as he ran for the horses.

“Just a small dart!” I exclaimed, running just behind him.

He grunted. “That will have to do to protect yourself. I have a dagger. Try to let me face whatever it is and stay out of sight as much as possible. It would not do for two Lady Danas to meet on the road.”

We mounted seconds later and rode hard. I stayed by the lake just out of the trees, while Ketrick stayed parallel with me on the main road. I saw the dark outline of her horse about a minute later walking through the gloom of the trees. Angel looked terrible. The feathers of a crossbow quarrel protruded from her back. She lay, leaned over her horse, barely conscious and ready to fall.

“Gerras!” I called out, not willing to shout Ketrick’s name in the dark. “She is here, shot with a crossbow!”

I jumped from my steed, managing to catch her in my arms before she tumbled to the ground. I brought her to sit, leaning against a tree. I almost wept at the sight. The bolt had just missed her heart, but there was no question that it had hit a lung; the head was through her chest. She barely breathed, and then, only with heavy wheezing. She saw me, and I spotted a spark of recognition through what must have been horrendous pain. “Tyra,” she moaned, “I hurt!”

“Hold on, Angel, we’ll get you to a physician!” I scrambled to help and stripped off her cloak. The bolt was of the lighter variety, a thick wooden shaft with a double triangle point. I needed to pull it through, but had nothing to strip the feathering and lacked the strength to snap the end. Even the attempt might cause her terrible damage. It was difficult to watch her blood soak through the dress and do nothing. I swung my focus to the trees anxiously; we could only wait for Ketrick to arrive.

And then he did! He cleared the trees in a reckless gallop and saw us almost immediately. Leaping from his horse, he saw the problem and knelt to her side.

“Angel, this is going to hurt a lot. Try not to scream too much.”

She calmed at the sound of his voice. “I will try,” she said. And then she smiled. If there was ever a doubt that she truly loved him, there was none then. In the starlight, I recognized the force of it, having felt it myself. Even as a freewoman, her heart and her very being belonged to him. A glance to his face showed that he felt himself to be her true owner. I dropped my head and fought the tears.

There are some things in life better left unseen, some truths better left unknown. For an unworthy instant, a part of me wished her dead. My dishonor was fortunately brief; I remembered times that Ketrick and I had together, and moments we had shared. In truth, I did not think our love was lessened by its difference. If it wasn't the all-consuming deepness of Angel’s for Ketrick, it was wider.

Angel did scream, but not very loud. Ketrick held the razor edges of the bolt in a hand wrapped with his cloak and snapped the other end in a single flex of his powerful hand. One side now smooth around the shaft, he drew it slowly through her until finally it was out, the bolt black with blood and the wound oozing freely. There was no time to waste. We removed her clothes quickly. I tore the hem of my dress and Ketrick ripped two pieces of heavy leather from a saddlebag. We placed them front and back and tied them down tightly just under her breasts. It was cool then and I wrapped her shivering body in two cloaks. It was all we could do.

“Ketrick, the man who did this…”

“I know. If he were on horseback I would have seen him. If I were to guess, it was probably Marco Giovanni.”

“If it is Marco, he must be stopped before he reaches my castle. There will be no way to explain how I arrived unharmed when he had seen Lady Dana with a quarrel through her. He would ask questions that could not be answered.”

He mounted his horse. “I’ll get whoever it was. Even running, he wouldn’t have had time to return yet.”

“He has a crossbow,” I reminded him.

“If he still has it, it will slow him down.” He bent over the saddle. “I may be long coming back and Angel will die if she doesn’t get help soon. And you must get back to the castle soon as well.”

I nodded, understanding. “I think I can save her without risking the mission unnecessarily.”

He touched my cheek gently and nodded. “Good.” And then he was gone, riding north, keeping to the land between the lake and trees.

I didn’t envy him, going against a man with a crossbow in the darkness, but if there was anyone better, I didn't know his name. In the meantime, I’d decided what I had to do before he disappeared. “I’m going to get you to a doctor, Angel, but we have to switch now.”

She moaned, holding her side, but nodded her understanding. I applied the neutralizer to her eyes and washed her hair with the remover. I also reverted to my own appearance as Lady Dana. I removed my clothes and dressed Angel in a slave tunic as carefully as I could and then moved, naked, to the few yards to the lake to remove the worst of the blood from the cloak and the front of my expensive dress. The hair color remover worked well enough with the water to get most of it, or at least it looked a little lighter in the starlight.

I splashed quietly in the shallows, my back to the woods, and listened for sounds. Actually, I had been listening all along. It was hard to tell in the light rustling of the leaves from the storm’s aftereffects, but I thought that I’d sensed movement among the trees. I imagined Marco as he would come across this strange scene; the woman he thought he’d killed or severely injured was now a blonde, and another, with his transformed sister’s customary black hair, washed clothes at night. There would be sharp questions and suspicions. I was betting that if the movements were his, he would demand a few answers before killing us.

I knew instantly when he came onto the grass. The deluge had made the ground wet, and his first step squished. He paused and perhaps even took a step back, but I thought I had his position. I removed the dart from my hair while sweeping the wet mass out of the way of my eyes. If I was correct, he was on the ground with a crossbow pointed at me less than twenty feet away. I dared not even look in his direction and forced myself to walk casually.

“Hold, whoever you are…!”

I had him! I threw the clothes towards where he lay and jumped to the side, simultaneously tossing the dart into the dark. I rolled at his curse and hot fire skimmed my leg as the bolt creased me, but no more. I stood, knowing that he would have to reload to shoot again. If I had missed, I would almost surely die, but the throw had felt good. I heard screaming, violent thrashing, painful gurgles, and then the eternal silence of death.

There was no time to recount Marco’s virtues and faults, now forever lost to this world. I removed the dart from his shoulder and tossed it into the lake. Then I dragged him over the lake wall. Filling his pockets with rocks, I towed his body out into the lake until I felt the bottom fall away. He sunk slowly and then faster as his lungs filled.

After drying off quickly, I put on the dress. I bent to Angel, who moaned miserably. “Angel, we have to move now. I’m taking you to a physician, but I need your help to get you into the saddle.”

She clenched her teeth and nodded. “I’ll do what I can. I have things to tell you on the way.”

I helped her to her feet and assisted her to the horse. I had to lift her leg to the stirrup, but she managed, with great pain, to lift herself over the side. Springing up behind her, I held her carefully upright. I squeezed my horse forward, slowly at first until I felt stickiness under her tunic.

I kicked the bay into a trot. “It won’t be long, now, Angel,” I whispered in her ear. On horseback, it was only a ten-minute ride, but it felt interminable. I winced with her at every jolt. I passed my castle and took the next road to a village I’d been to before. The roads were quiet after the storm, about half of the well-maintained stone and mortar houses lit from the inside. But the help I wanted would be in the village center.

“Tyra, I have to tell you something,” she said breathlessly.

“Can’t it wait? I’m trying to save your life.”

She reached back and squeezed me feebly on the leg. “I’ll live! Slow down, Tyra,” she panted. “I can’t say anything like this.”

I slowed the horse to a walk. “Is that better?”

“Yes, thank the Gods. I killed Alanna with the dart as ordered. I managed to pull her from the closet and left her under the stairs when the mayhem started.”

“Angel…” I hugged her a little closer. “I’m sorry that it had to be you.”

She shook her head weakly. “She was a bitch.” She paused to wheeze and take a few breaths. “She woke up in the closet and poured out filth and evil. It was easier to thrust the dart into her chest than I thought.”

I leaned back, puzzled. I was relieved that killing Alanna didn’t bother her too much, but it was a strange thing to tell me now. “Is that what you wanted to tell me?”

She coughed several times. “No. I cried after it was over. Shalimar does not lend itself to elegant expiration. After it was over and you had escaped, there was an incredible ruckus -- women screaming, men shouting, demanding death and swearing oaths. I wept over Alanna’s body. I believe that’s why they left me alone.”

I squeezed her hand firmly. “I understand, but now it’s over. You must stay silent until we get to a doctor. Try to relax.”

She shook her head. “There's more: I promised to lead them in a war against the King.”

I froze. “You what?”

“It was an emotional time, and I’m afraid I was caught up in the moment. I promised to lead an attack against the King before the night was out. I asked who would follow me. Many, most there, actually, were enthusiastic. There will be a meeting at your castle tonight at midnight to plan for the attack. The Borodins expect a lot of Giovanni help.” She stopped to cough a few more times. Her injury didn’t sound good, but I decided that she would live -- at least for the moment.

Through my growing rage at my former slave, I tried to be objective. We had sought to start a war with assassinations. That had failed. We had tried to kill enough Borodins in Alexander’s castle to make a war with Batuk impossible. Yet, if the Borodins were still cohesive and felt strong enough to challenge the King, it would appear that we had failed again. Our last chance to save Batuk might be a war with the King, and Angel might have provided the necessary spark.

A war against the King would require both families’ help, as neither trusted the other. The Borodins would have gone to the head of the Giovannis, but I had killed him earlier that evening. Alfredo was now senior and would normally be expected to take over Niccolo’s role.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. As a woman and junior to Alfredo, I could just hand over control to him. He would fight the King using whatever forces were required and I could protect my castle, sleeping well until the war was over.

We rode past the last house and entered a cobblestone circle of shops and businesses surrounding a heroic bronze statue of Luigi and Angela Giovanni, the historic founders of Tulem, set in a pose when they first viewed the valley.

I saw the sign I was looking for: “Angus Gerard, Physician for Men and Women” and altered course. Angel was weak and weakening, but was still conscious when I brought her from the horse to her feet. Lights still lit the small apartment above. I banged on the door with my free hand. “Open, physician!” I yelled. “You have a patient in dire need of your skills!”

I heard movement from above. A stocky man with sleep-tussled brown hair in night robe and slippers opened the door. He nodded quickly as he saw Angel in the lantern’s light. Placing it to the side, he applied his shoulder to Angel’s other side and helped her inside.

“What happened?” he asked abruptly, as he examined her on the table, ripping away her garments to expose the wound.

“She was shot with a quarrel. I’m Lady Dana from the castle.” I lowered my hood and parted the cloak, permitting a view of the thick green trim of my hem.

He backed away and began to bow. “Lady Dana…”

“There’s no time for that, Physician. I need to leave her in good hands.”

“I’m confused. Physician Ovid in your own castle is a fine physician with excellent…”

I raised a hand. “I have my reasons. I have to know if you can save her life.”

He sighed. “Probably. I can drain her lung, re-inflate it and apply the anti-infection agents, but she has lost a lot of blood.”

I rolled up my sleeve. “Can I trust you, Physician?”

“Of course, Lady Dana!” This time he did bow.

I removed my veil and allowed him a good look. “We have the same blood. Take what you need from me, and keep this quiet until I retrieve her.”

I left a little weaker, drinking a restorative to replace the lost fluids and minerals. Angel had recovered enough to smile and the drugs had made her comfortable. I tried to give the physician a gold, but he refused, insisting that it was an honor to serve his Lady.

Galloping by starlight, I rode to the main road just off the turn off to my castle, yelling, “Garras!” from time to time. I rode a little further, looking for suitable points to ambush a man, and found Ketrick watching me approach.

I rode fast and pulled up beside him. Grinning joyfully, I exclaimed, “Success! Marco now feeds the fish. Angel is in the village by the castle, under the care of Physician Gerard, and should recover. And there’s a meeting tonight in my castle with the Borodins to attack the King!”

“I waste my time in Tulem. I should have just sent you. And when did you decide to attack the King?”

I threw back my head and laughed. “Angel decided to attack the King while she was in Alexander’s castle, and the Borodins fell in right along with her!” I turned my horse towards my castle, already thinking of the tasks ahead. “I must return to the castle immediately.”

He held up his hand. “Hold! What do you plan to do?”

“I’ll give command to Alfredo. Let him worry about fighting the King!”

“I wouldn’t count on it. Be prepared to take over the fight if he declines.”

I frowned. “Why would he do that? As far as he knows, the King has been killing Giovannis, his own family. Any man would want revenge.”

“Consider: Alfredo’s instincts were to hide in his castle when Giovannis were dying around him. Take into account also that he despises Borodins. Is this the man who would risk his life to fight the King and help avenge the murderer of his hated enemy?”

I didn’t like what I was hearing, but it might be true. Even at the meeting with Niccolo, Alfredo had been less than heroic, whining and demanding protection. On reflection, he didn’t sound like a bold war leader, one to lead Borodins and Giovannis into the palace against formidable opposition.

Newly thoughtful, I thought of alternatives. If the attack were to occur, it would have to happen tonight while the hate burned and nerve was greatest. The more Borodin casualties there were, the less likelihood there would be that there would be enough Borodins to conquer Batuk or to hold it. With three new Borodin leaders, it was doubtful that one of them would be up to the challenge of fighting the King.

I ground my teeth until they hurt. This wasn’t fair. I should have been celebrating our survival and Batuk’s freedom; instead, I might have to lead a Gods-damned war against the Gods-damned King.

“I’ll do what I have to, but I know next to nothing about the palace and its defenses. I couldn’t make an effective plan.”

“You’re a woman; they won’t expect strategy from you. If Alfredo refuses to lead, have the others make a plan and modify it as necessary. Provide the forces to get it done and execute.” He turned very serious for a moment. “Just don’t be an idiot and lead the charge; you would die against any warrior.”

He was right, of course. My days of fighting warriors were over. Yet, I had to be honest with myself; I was not as discontented with that as I once was. I was, rather, sickened with death, and longed for its conclusion. I glared at him and clenched my fist. “The only thing that pleases me about this night is that it will end! Somehow, this will be finished before morning!”

“It will. I won’t be idle either. You’ll have an ally inside the palace before you get there.”

“I won’t say goodbye because we will see each other again.” I raised my fist high in the air. “Until it’s over!” I dug in my heels and the bay leaped forward.

My cloak covered the bloodstains, and I passed through the gates unchallenged. Malchor and Urban met me just inside as I dismounted. I told them of the slaughter in Alexander’s castle. Their faces acquired a deathly cold aspect.

“There will likely be an attack on the King this morning. I need messengers to Franco and Alfredo’s castles immediately. Franco and Alfredo must be here by midnight.”

Malchor nodded. “I’ll take care of it, Lady Dana.” He moved away, probably glad for something to do.

“Lady Dana.”

“Yes, Urban?”

He pointed to an opening in the cloak. “Your dress; are you bleeding?”

“It isn’t my blood. By the way, Marco escaped the castle this evening, but don’t worry; he’s dead.”

Both eyebrows rose, for him an indication of high excitement. “Who killed your brother and where is he?”

“I was fortunate enough to kill him after he tried to kill me, and the rhadus lies at the bottom of the lake. I’m going to take a bath now. I’d like you and Malchor to be at the meeting with the rest of us.”

He paled. “Of course. Naturally I’m happy to see you alive. Would the guards I offered you earlier this evening have been of service?”

I laughed. Even now, Urban was still upset about being turned down. “Yes, they would have, Urban.” I lowered my head, acknowledging his good advice. “I’ll pay more attention to your recommendations in the future.”

“Then I recommend that you do, Lady Dana.”

A joke, from Urban? I smiled. Urban was an acquired taste, but I liked him.
 
 

To Be Continued…

 
The action is by no means over. I hope you liked this chapter. I'd love to see what you think. ~Aardvark



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