Kushiel's Justice (Page 28)

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Around noon, Urist pointed to a stone marker along the roadside. It was old and worn, half covered in lichen, and I had to squint to make out the symbol on it, a spiral ending outward in a pointed arrow. “Taisgaidh,” Urist said briefly. “Here we turn north.”

“That means the path we follow is held freely in trust for all the folk of Alba,” Eamonn whispered to me in his helpful way. “No man may bar another from travelling on taisgaidh land, and no man may do violence to another.”

“I know what it means,” I said. “I spent several hundred hours with the Daughter of the Grove learning such things. Would you care to know the fines levied against a man who bars another's passage? It varies depending on whether or not he was bringing cattle to market.”

“Sorry.” He grinned. “I forgot.”

“It's not so much the fines as it is the heresy,” Dorelei offered quietly. “The taisgaidh places are old, as old as the Cullach Gorrym. One does not violate the old ways unless one wishes to invoke a curse.”

“Oh, aye,” Eamonn agreed. “That, too.”

I shaded my eyes with one hand as we turned northward. We'd left our fine carriages behind in Terre d'Ange, but the wagons bearing our stores and tribute for the Lady of the Dalriada creaked behind the plodding mules, wheels leaving damp ruts in the grass. The sky was a soft, luminous grey. Beneath it, unending greenness stretched in every direction, broken only by the occasional outthrust promontory of rock and the distant glimmer of an inland lake. I could discern no path, no further marker. “Well, there's somewhat the ollamh never mentioned. How does one avoid getting lost?”

Eamonn shrugged. “Practice.”

If it was true, Urist must have had a good deal of practice. We found a second taisgaidh marker before nightfall. An odd business, a squat stone column set in the middle of nowhere atop a shallow rise. This one was covered with moss. Urist had to scrape at it with his fingernails to bare the symbol. He sighted along the direction the spiral arrow pointed and nodded in satisfaction. “We'll make camp here tonight.”

It was the first time since we'd left the City of Elua that we'd made camp under the open skies; or at least that I had. In a way, it reminded me of happier times. We dismounted, staking the horses and mules, allowing them to graze on the abundant pasturage. As the sun dipped toward the horizon, several of the D'Angeline soldiers set themselves to erecting tents for their royal charges, while others spread out to gather firewood in a nearby copse. Armed with short bows, Urist's Cruithne set forth to shoot for the pot, bagging several hares, soon efficiently butchered.

A handful of campfires blossomed along the hillside.

From one, the familiar strains of a D'Angeline marching-song emanated. It had originated here in Alba, long ago, with a contingent of Admiral Rousse's men who dubbed themselves Phèdre's Boys.

“Man or woman, we don't care! Give us twins, we'll take the pair!”

“Name of Elua!” In the firelight, Phèdre looked dismayed and amused, and a good deal younger and more beautiful than she had any right to. Beneath a canopy of stars, we might have been anywhere. We might have been in Jebe-Barkal, making our way toward forgotten Saba. “Am I never to be free of it?”

“No.” Joscelin smiled at her. “Not likely.”

My heart surfaced, aching. I watched them, watched her raise her face to his. Watched him kiss her tenderly, his lips lingering on hers. Once upon a time, after Daršanga, it had seemed to me that if what was broken between them could be healed, all would be right with the world. It still seemed true to me; only it hurt too much to feel it, because I hadn't trusted myself to love that strongly. So I pushed the feelings away, looked away, letting my gaze fall on the tribute-wagons, silhouetted in the distance.

“What did you choose as a tribute-gift in the end?” I asked Eamonn. “I never heard.”

“Books.” He looked smug. “We mean to start an academy, Brigitta and I.”

Brigitta nodded.

Eamonn's arm was slung around her neck, and she was curled against him, her long legs intertwined with his, stretching toward the campfire. They looked as indolent and comfortable as a pair of basking leopards, the two of them. I smothered a pang of envy and glanced at my wife. “An academy filled with dangerous books” I said. “What do you think?”

” 'Tis a good thing, I think.” Dorelei considered. “I know the ollamhs' concerns, but is knowledge not a gift in any form?”

“Spoken like one of Shemhazai's descendants!” Joscelin said in approval.

She flushed prettily. “Alba fears change, but not all change is bad. Brigitta has told me somewhat about the University of Tiberium. It would not be a bad thing, I think, if the young men of Alba sought honor in exchanging words and thoughts, and not raiding cattle and avenging blood-feuds.”

“It hasn't stopped the Caerdicci,” I observed.

“No, but it slowed them down,” Eamonn said. “Without scholarship, there would be no agreement among the city-states, no Caerdicca Unitas.”

We talked for a while longer before turning in for the night. I lay awake for some time, listening to the breeze rustle the walls of the oiled silk tent I shared with Dorelei. I thought about war, knowledge, and change, and all those things we used to discuss under Master Piero's guidance. Tiberium seemed long ago and far away, which wasn't entirely bad. At least here in Alba, I was freed from the suffocating coils and snares of intrigue that bound me, both in Tiberium and in Terre d'Ange.

The Unseen Guild had no foothold here.

No one cared that Melisande Shahrizai was my mother.

Life would be a good deal simpler. If I tried hard enough, I might even learn to like it. And mayhap with time and distance, the heartache would grow bearable; the boulder dwindle to a pebble.

In the way that happens when one lets one's thoughts drift, I fell asleep without knowing it until the sound awoke me. A huffing sound, deep and guttural, followed by a low, drawn-out groan. Something was moving around the outside the tent, something large.

I sat upright in my bedroll. Beside me, Dorelei was sound asleep. I eased my sword from its scabbard and got carefully to my feet. Another huff and snort, somewhere to the right of us. When I stooped and touched the ground with my fingertips, I could feel it tremble beneath the creature's heavy tread.

A bear. It had to be a bear.

My palms broke out in a cold sweat, rendering my grip on the sword-hilt slippery. I glanced at Dorelei in an agony of indecision. No time to wake her, no time to explain. I doubted a lone man could kill a full-grown bear with a sword, but at least I could draw it away. I could die an inept hero, and let the sentries explain to my loved ones over my mauled body how a bear had wandered undetected into the heart of our campsite.

If I thought about it for another instant, I'd lose my nerve. So I didn't. With my blood roaring in my ears and my heart thundering in my chest, I dashed through the tent-flap; darting left, then whirling right to face the bear, the sword braced in both hands, angled across my body.

There was nothing there.

Not a bear, not even a dog. Nothing. Only our tent standing beneath the stars, its walls rippling softly in the breeze. I sidled around it, crossing one foot carefully over the other, sword at the ready. The grass was cool, not yet dewy. There were no tracks, no prints left by anything larger than the soldiers who'd erected our tent. Nothing heavy enough to make the ground tremble had been here.

There was an odor, though. A rank, musky odor.

I circled the tent, my nostrils flaring. Was it real or was it the spectre of Daršanga that haunted me; the stench of fear and ordure, the coppery tang of blood, the decaying vegetable reek of the stagnant pool? I couldn't tell.

The stars were high and bright overhead. I could make out the whole of our campsite. There was nothing to see. No vast, shambling shadow moving among us. The horses and mules were dozing in their picket-lines. Our tents and wagons stood undisturbed. Men slept wrapped in bedrolls around the glowing embers of our campfires. Here and there around the outskirts, sentries were posted, gazing out into the quiet night.

Feeling like a fool, I lowered my sword. Even the odor had vanished. I must have dreamed of Daršanga without realizing it, somehow conflating my memories with tales of the Maghuin Dhonn. I'd done such a good job of burying my feelings, I wasn't even aware of my own nightmares anymore.

Well, at least I hadn't awakened the entire camp screaming at the top of my lungs, which was my usual response to haunted dreams. Although I daresay it wouldn't be much less embarrassing if one of the sentries took notice and came to ask why I was prowling around in my underdrawers and waving a sword.

I slipped quietly back into the tent. Dorelei was still sleeping. I sheathed my sword and lay down beside her, keeping my sword close. For a long time, I was too tense to sleep, my body buzzing with alarm. I made myself listen to my wife's slow, steady breathing, to the rustling of the tent walls, to the ordinary sounds of camp beyond. Bit by bit, my racing pulse ceased to thud and my tense muscles relaxed. With my right hand resting on the hilt of my sword, I slid slowly into sleep.

The last thing I heard was the sound of pipes and a woman's laughter.

Surely, another dream.

In the clear light of morning, it seemed all the more absurd. I contemplated mentioning it to Eamonn or Joscelin or even Urist, but when I took a surreptitious turn around the tent, peering at the grass to confirm that there were no inhuman tracks, I found nothing. Whatever I'd imagined, it was clearly the product of my sleep-addled mind. There had been no bear here. By daylight, it was obvious that I'd dreamed the entire thing.

Dorelei caught me at it. “Did you lose something?” she asked, puzzled.

“Only my wits.” I picked a bright yellow sprig of buttercup and tucked it behind her ear, belatedly noticing the short hunting bow she carried and the quiver over her shoulder. “Were you planning to shoot someone?”

She smiled, flashing a dimple. “A grouse or two, mayhap. We've a bit of time before they strike camp, and a bird for the pot never goes amiss. Will you come?”

“Why not?” I agreed.

I knew Cruithne women were skilled with the bow, but this was the first time I'd witnessed aught save Alais attempting to shoot at targets. We made our way across the down to the hazel copse. Along the way, Dorelei bade me collect a number of good-size stones. I obeyed with cheerful perplexity. At the edge of the copse, she grew intent and focused, staring at the underbrush.

“There.” She nocked an arrow and pointed with the tip. “Throw a stone.”

I cocked my arm to throw, gazing at her for a moment. The bow described an elegant arc, her hands steady on it, upraised arms unwavering. Her face was rapt with concentration, lips parted. The yellow buttercup looked pretty against her black hair. I wondered if I could ever bring myself to have feelings for her.

“Imriel!” she whispered. “Now!”

I hurled the rock into the underbrush. A trio of grouse burst from the cover, wings rattling. Dorelei's bow sang, and one of the birds plummeted. She laughed aloud, girlish and delighted, and I found myself grinning. “Well done, my lady.”

Dorelei curtsied in the D'Angeline manner. “Thank you, my lord.”

We stood there, smiling at one another. Back at the campsite, a long blast sounded on Urist's battle-horn, alerting us that it was time to depart. I was almost sorry to hear it. “One grouse it is,” I said lightly, retrieving the bird. It was warm and still twitching. I eased her arrow free and broke its ruffed neck with a quick twist, putting an end to its spasms. I wiped the arrow clean with a hank of grass and handed it to her. “Here you are.”

“My thanks.” Dorelei returned the arrow to her quiver. She glanced toward the camp, then back at me, hesitant. “It is…it is going to be better here in Alba, isn't it? You and me?”

I nodded. “Better, yes.”

“Good.” She flashed another dimpled smile, filled with relief. “I thought so, too.”

We returned to camp without delay, delivering the grouse to Galan, the Cruithne warrior who had taken it upon himself to serve as chief cook for the royal contingent. He clucked his tongue approvingly, promising a fine luncheon of spit-roasted fowl. I caught Phèdre's gaze on me, wondering.

I felt guilty at it, and wasn't sure why.

And then Urist blew the summons, and we were off, riding across Alba.

Chapter Nineteen

Such was the pattern of our journey.By day we travelled the taisgaidh paths under Urist's expert guidance, and I marveled that such vast expanses of hospitable land remained uninhabited. Betimes we caught sight of distant farms and villages, and once we intercepted a raiding party of Tarbh Cró warriors who fixed us with hard stares, but declined to violate the unwritten rules that governed the old ways. For the most part, northern Alba was a green gem, unspoiled and untrammeled.

By night, we sat around the campfire and talked.

Those were my favorite times.

“What do you think, Lady Phèdre?” Dorelei asked one night, greatly daring. “Should Master Hyacinthe pass on his knowledge?”

Phèdre was quiet for a long time, gazing at the crackling embers. If Joscelin had an opinion, he didn't voice it, choosing instead to regard her in silence. “I don't know,” she said at length. “I truly don't.”

“All knowledge is worth having,” I quoted. Joscelin smiled.

Phèdre didn't. “It's not the knowledge,” she said slowly. “It's the power. 'Tis an unnatural thing for any mortal to wield. A dangerous thing.”

“You did, love,” Joscelin reminded her softly. “You spoke the Name of God.”