Kushiel's Justice (Page 66)

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As in Terre d'Ange, we got a lot of curious stares. How not? A lone D'Angeline travelling with a handful of tattooed Cruithne was out of place almost anywhere in the world. Still, no one troubled us.

By the second day, the landscape flattened. Despite its lack of variety, it was a pleasant land, laced with rivers, dotted with farms and villages. The weather was mostly clear and the summer sky seemed to hover low over the land, suffused with hazy golden light. It was a small territory, heavily domesticated, lacking the wild, untamed places the Maghuin Dhonn favored. Small wonder Berlik had chosen to travel as a man, if choice it was.

Somehow, I thought not. If he'd swum across the Straits in bear form, surely he could have forded the Rhenus. And there was enough unpopulated land along it that he could have managed the crossing unnoticed. No, he'd crossed the bridge as a man, on foot, out of necessity.

I was surprised to note that the farther north we went, the more travellers we encountered, including caravans with numerous wagons of goods. Many of them seemed bound for the western coast. Thinking about it, I remembered seeing Flatlander trade-ships in Bryn Gorrydum's harbor.

“Oh, aye,” Urist said when I asked him about it. “More trade than ever, every year.” He didn't sound pleased about it. “Not just Flatlanders. They've petitioned the Cruarch on the behalf of others. He's allowing a bit.”

There had been a Skaldic dragon-ship in the harbor, too. A recent development and a cautious one, Talorcan had said. “The Skaldi?” I said. “Well, there's naught to smooth over old quarrels like mutual profit. Mayhap it will help if we need to cross their border.”

Urist grunted. “Mayhap. Not deep inside Skaldia, I'll wager that much.” He rode without comment for a few minutes, then added, “It's not just the Skaldi seeking trade, either.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Northerners. Wild folk.” He shrugged. “Names I've never heard before. Too many to recall, speaking all manner of odd tongues. Some Flatlanders brought a shipment of goods a while back, I heard. Furs, amber. New markets and such. We're that, all right.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“If you say so.” Urist surveyed the landscape. “It's always the fellow in the middle takes the least risk and the biggest cut, isn't it? These Flatlanders aren't stupid.”

“Well, they don't look like they engage in cattle-raids for fun,” I said, and he laughed.

On the third day of our journey through the Flatlands, we followed the Issel River and reached the town of Zoellen, which lay nestled alongside its banks, just south of a second river, the Voorwijk, that ran east to west. It looked to have been a small market-town that had found itself at a crossroads during a time of burgeoning trade, and grown accordingly. The narrow streets were laid out in a haphazard fashion, and we wasted a good deal of time wandering them on horseback until we found the inn the bridge-keeper had indicated, sporting a sign with a goose wearing a pointed crown.

Urist and I went inside.

After we had been outdoors, it was dark and close inside the inn. I was vaguely aware of a dim figure seated at a wooden table hopping down from a stool. “Gods and goddesses of Alba be thanked!” a voice said in Cruithne, somewhat drunkenly. “You're here.”

I squinted and made out a youthful face, bearing a single warriors mark on its brow. I knew him, he'd been one of Alais' favorites at Clunderry. “Selwin? Where are the others?”

“Hunting.” His voice turned glum. “We lost the trail.”

“Doubt it's at the bottom of a tankard of ale,” Urist observed dryly.

Selwin drew himself up with drunken dignity. “Kinadius left me here to wait for you or Talorcan,” he said. “And it's very, very tedious.” He nodded at the innkeeper, who smiled pleasantly at us, and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Doesn't speak a word of Cruithne or D'Angeline. I don't know how I was supposed to leave a message if we had found the bear-witch's trail.”

“No mind,” I said. “Can you take us to Kinadius?”

He hiccoughed. “Aye, my lord.”

Before we left, I settled his account with the innkeeper, a business conducted largely in pantomime. I spoke some Skaldic; bits and pieces Phèdre had taught me during the learning-games we'd played when I was younger, and some gleaned from Brigitta, when we'd played similar games on the journey to Alba. Still, it was far from my mother tongue, and I had a hard time making out the innkeeper's dialect. In the end, he wrote down the tally on a slate tablet with a piece of chalk. I withdrew a few D'Angeline coins from my purse, and we pushed them around the counter together until we'd come to an agreement.

“So,” the innkeeper said cheerfully. “Pelgrim?”

I frowned. “Pelgrim?”

He pointed northeast. “Yeshua?”

I shook my head. “Jäger. Hunter. We're hunting …” I didn't know the word for murderer, or witch, or even bear. I spread my hands helplessly. The innkeeper blinked at me, good-natured and uncomprehending, blunt-cut blond hair falling over his broad, sweating brow. I sighed and thanked him, and we took our leave.

Selwin led us, weaving slightly, to a site a few hundred yards beyond the outskirts of Zoellen, where Kinadius had made camp. I brooded as we rode the short distance. I'd not put a great deal of thought into the difficulties posed by a lack of a common tongue until now.

Save for a few bedrolls and items of little value strewn about, the encampment was empty. Selwin assured us that Kinadius and the others would return well before nightfall to report, so we set about picketing the horses and making ourselves comfortable. While we worked, Selwin grew sober enough to relate the tale of their journey to date, how they'd ridden from the border to Zoellen, crisscrossing the land and asking questions, following the rumor of Berlik's passage.

“How are you managing to communicate?” I asked.

He fished in his pack and withdrew a piece of birch-bark. “Like this.”

I studied the images on it, incised with the point of a hot knife. A crude bear, its eyes white and staring. A man's face, staring eyes bracketed by claw-marks. “Clever.”

Selwin stowed the bark. “We ask, they point. No bears, but there were sightings of the magician, all right. At least until we got here.”

Within the hour, the others began returning in groups of two and three. Their faces lit upon seeing us, but our arrival was the only good news the day brought. Berlik's trail remained cold.

Before the sun set, Kinadius gathered his men around a patch of hard-packed dirt where a crude map had been sketched, depicting a swathe of land south of the Voorwijk River. Comparing tales, they extended the map's boundaries, adding the territory covered that day. I was impressed by their innovation and thoroughness.

“It's no good, though.” Kinadius shook his head. “We've gone over every inch of country within a day's ride.”

“So what do we do?” I asked. “Backtrack to the last sighting?”

He sighed. “Or forge ahead and hope to get lucky. Betimes it works.”

“But if it doesn't, we lose days,” one of his men added. “It's happened.”

Urist peered at the map. “Where was he last seen?”

Kinadius pointed to a spot in the dirt to the southwest of his crude map. “It was around here, I reckon. A little more than a day's ride. Some lad herding cattle saw him crossing a field near sunset. Thought he was going this way.” He traced a line that angled more or less northeast in the direction of Zoellen town. “So we reckoned this was a good place to make camp and cast a net. No luck, though.”

“You've not crossed the river to the north?” Urist asked.

“No.” Kinadius tapped his drawing-stick on the map. “There are bridges here and here, and here to the west of the Issel. No bridgekeepers, but lots of people around on foot and in boats. We spent the whole first day covering those. No one saw him cross.”

“Lots of people coming and going, aye,” Urist observed. “Not staying in one place. How far ahead of us is he? Weeks? Months?”

“Hard to say.” Kinadius shrugged. “At a guess, two or three weeks.”

“And more if we backtrack.” Urist scowled in thought. “I'm for trying our luck across the river.” He glanced over at me. “Unless you disagree.”

I shook my head. “You're the tracker.”

Kinadius grinned. “It's good to have you back, Urist.”

With our course decided, we turned our attention to dinner, which consisted of cold biscuits purchased in Zoellen, and peas and salt pork simmered over the fire in a large kettle. I swabbed the inside of my wooden trencher with a hunk of biscuit, sopping up the last bit of stew, listening with regret and amusement as Deordivus described the meal he'd eaten at the Shahrizai hunting manor to the envy of Kinadius and his companions.

“What passed there in the City, my lord?” Kinadius asked me curiously. “I know Urist made Dorelei a promise to see you home, but I never understood why.” His voice softened when he spoke Dorelei's name. Still, despite his feelings for her, he'd never shown any jealousy or animosity toward me. I glanced at him. He was a handsome young man, with a direct gaze and clean, bold features beneath his warrior's markings. And clever, too. They would have made a good pair, I thought, and guilt stopped my tongue.

“By the Boar!” Deordivus said. “I'll tell you, it was a hell of a scene I walked—”

“That's enough, boy!” Urist raised his voice. “Politics are a hard business,” he continued in a quieter tone. “For Alba's sake, Lady Dorelei wed a man she barely knew, a stranger. And although he loved another, Prince Imriel did the same for Terre d'Ange. The lass wanted him to be happy, that's all.”

“Oh.” Kinadius blinked. “I see.”

“I'm sorry,” I said to him. “Truly sorry.”

“Don't suppose you could help it.” A muscle in his cheek twitched. “Funny, I thought you'd come to care for Dorelei. Lug knows, she thought the world of you.”

I held his gaze. “I'm here, aren't I?”

“I suppose so,” Kinadius said slowly. “So who is she?”

“Hah!” Urist gave a fierce, mirthless grin. “That's where it gets interesting. Would you rather I tell it?” he asked me, and I nodded.

It was better coming from Urist. He was one of them, Cruithne. He put it to Kinadius and his men the way he'd put it to me the night he'd given me the mannekin charm to destroy and cut my bindings. I was in love with the Cruarch's eldest daughter, the heir to Terre d'Ange. And Queen Ysandre reckoned I was good enough for Dorelei mab Breidaia, good enough to breed an heir for Alba, but not good enough for her own daughter. It stung their pride; and well it should. When all was said and done, Urist was right. I sat and listened, staring into the campfire.

When Urist had finished, the mood had eased. With Urist's indulgence, Deordivus told the tale of the scene he'd witnessed upon his arrival at the manor house, relating it with relish. There were more than a few chuckles. Kinadius came over to sit beside me, his shoulder brushing mine. For a time, neither of us spoke.

“I'm sorry,” he said presently. “I didn't mean to judge you.”

“My thanks.” I fiddled with a dry branch, breaking off bits and tossing them into the campfire. “You were right. I did come to love Dorelei. A great deal.”

“We all did.” Kinadius propped an elbow on his knee and rested his chin on his fist, gazing into the crackling flames. “Remember the Day of Misrule? I've known Dorelei since we were children, and I don't think I'd ever seen her happier. I was, too. Gods and goddesses, I nearly pissed myself laughing at the sight of you wearing her kirtle.”

I smiled. “I remember.”

“I didn't expect that from a D'Angeline,” he mused. “Didn't expect you to be willing to make a fool of yourself. Didn't expect you to care for Clunderry's honor.”

“Didn't expect much,” I said wryly.

“I do now,” Kinadius said. “We are going to catch this bastard, aren't we?”

I lifted my head and looked toward the northeast. Somewhere in the darkness beyond our campsite, Berlik's trail awaited us. Urist's decision was right. I could feel it, a stirring in my heart. The sound of bronze wings, rustling. North. The Maghuin Dhonn had come from the northeast, so long ago the Straits were covered with ice. “Yes,” I said. “Oh, yes.”

Kinadius laid a firm hand on my shoulder. “I'm glad you're here.”

“So am I,” I said.

Chapter Forty-Five

We broke camp on the morrow and rode east along the bank of the Voorwijk River.I'd thought Urist would want to cross at the first opportunity, but I was wrong. He frowned at the busy, well-travelled stone bridge and shook his head. We passed it and rode onward. The second bridge was smaller, wrought of timber and not brick. Here we paused. Urist cocked his head, watching a heavily laden wagon cross the wooden bridge. His tattooed nostrils flared. “What's that stink?”

Kinadius pointed downriver. “A tannery.”

“Huh.” Urist shaded his eyes and stared. There were figures working on the far side of the river, turning hides with large wooden paddles. “Promising.”

“Why would the bear-witch visit a tannery?” someone asked.

“He wouldn't,” Kinadius said. “But I'll wager those fellows working are there every day. That's your thinking, isn't it?”

Urist shrugged. “Worth a try.”