Kushiel's Justice (Page 68)

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Urist pointed at the wagon. “Aye, and the tanner's wife said the pilgrims had a wagon. Easy enough to hide a man in a wagon, even a big man.”

“Why would they do such a thing?” Kinadius argued.

“Money?” Urist suggested. “He traded his robe to buy goods for them.”

“There was a Yeshuite family hid Phèdre and Joscelin in a wagon, once,” I said slowly. “They might do it out of kindness.”

Domnach spat on the ground. “For that one?”

“They don't know what he's done,” I said. “The tanner's wife liked him well enough.”

“Aye, and he showed his face at the tannery,” Kinadius observed. “Why? Makes no sense if he's trying to pass unnoticed.”

“Mayhap he reckoned there was little risk,” Urist said pragmatically. “Outside of leather merchants and folks in dire need, who in their right mind visits a tannery?”

There was no way of knowing for sure. By midday, when we'd failed to encounter any definitive sightings of Berlik, Urist and Kinadius conferred and called a halt. We made camp and split our forces, riding out in pairs. Doubling back, riding forward, casting a wider net toward the north. For all we knew, Berlik and the pilgrims had parted ways shortly after leaving the tannery.

I rode with Cailan, the wise-woman's son. The course we were assigned lay due north. We stopped and made inquiries at every farmstead and hamlet we encountered; asking at every mill, of every drover and goatherd. Over and over again, we showed the drawing of Berlik. Der Bär-Mann, I asked, remembering what the tanner had called him. Heads shook. I asked about pelgrims, too, to no avail. It seemed the tanner's wife was right on that score. The pilgrims' route lay east, heading toward Maarten's Crossing.

It was a tedious business, and it filled me with new admiration for Kinadius and his men, who had already put in so many long, tireless days. I hadn't reckoned until now what a truly daunting task it was, seeking a single man in a strange land. By the time Cailan gauged the angle of the sun and reckoned we'd best turn back, I was filled with relief.

There was a good stretch of empty meadow we'd crossed on our outward journey. I gave the Bastard his head there, letting him stretch his legs. Cailan's grey worked hard to keep the pace, sides laboring, hooves pounding. I took pity on him and slowed.

Cailan came alongside me, smiling. “You're feeling better.”

I hadn't thought about it. “It still hurts, but it doesn't pull like it used to.”

He nodded. “That's good.”

Unfortunately, it was the best news of the day. We straggled back to the campsite in pairs, everyone tending to their own mounts. I led the Bastard to the river and let him drink his fill, walking him for a while before picketing him. There was good grazing here, and although we carried grain, we doled it out only as necessary. I checked his striped hooves, peering at them for stones. He snorted, snuffling my hair.

One by one, everyone reported.

Nothing.

No sightings of Berlik, not anywhere. No sightings of pelgrims, either, except along the eastern road. We sat around the campfire, discouraged, eating stewed peas and salt pork with stale biscuits.

“So!” Urist slapped his knee and glared at us. “We have a choice.”

I listened to them argue. In the end, it was simple. If Berlik had stayed with the pilgrims, they were bound for Maarten's Crossing. We were travelling light. We could make up days riding there straightaway. And if we were wrong, we'd have to double back. All the way to the tannery to begin the process over again.

“What do you choose?” Urist asked me.

I spread my hands. “As I said the other day, you're the tracker. I'm willing to defer to your judgment, Urist.”

“You know what I know.” His face was implacable. “Either way, we gamble. This choice lies with the lord of Clunderry”

I tilted my chin, gazed at the emerging stars. Somewhere, mayhap not very far, the same stars looked down on the magician. I wondered if Berlik knew we were after him. I wondered if he'd already seen how it ended, there in the stone circle. I thought about the glimpse of the future that Dorelei had seen during the early days of our marriage. Hyacinthe had seen it, too. A snowstorm, a barren tree. Me, kneeling, sword in hand.

Weeping.

I wondered why.

“He's bound for a cold land,” I said. “Mayhap the pilgrims' route suits his purposes as well as any. Let's try it.”

Urist nodded. “So be it.”

With the decision made, we turned in, wrapping ourselves in our bedrolls. Urist hadn't said it, but all of us knew he'd drive us hard on the morrow, and the next day and the next, as long as it took to reach Maarten's Crossing.

I slept soundly and rose early enough to perform my Cassiline exercises. Cailan was right, I was feeling better. I concentrated on ignoring the pain, and for the first time in weeks, the movements felt smooth and natural. Not effortless, not anywhere near it, but my body was remembering what it was like to be whole. When I finished telling the hours, I wasn't trembling. Urist eyed me without comment, then gave the order to break camp and saddle our mounts.

We rode to Maarten's Crossing.

It took five days, during which time the terrain grew wilder and less domesticated. Our road followed the Voorwijk, and it was still fairly well travelled by merchants, but to the north, we began to pass forests instead of farmsteads. It made me uneasy. I daresay all of us had the same thought. If Berlik was minded to part ways with the pilgrims, he could have done it anywhere. And once the magician plunged into the forests, there was little hope of finding him. The Maghuin Dhonn were at home in wild places, more so even than the Cruithne.

Although it was a futile task, Urist kept his eyes sharp as we rode, his gaze fixed along the roadside for any signs of a big man's tracks breaking away and heading north. If anyone could spot them, it would be Urist. He didn't, of course. If we'd been a day or two behind Berlik, he might have had a chance. Not after three weeks, not along a well-trodden road.

Still, he tried.

For my part, I prayed. The responsibility for the decision weighed heavily on me. I held rank here and I'd claimed this quest for my own. Urist had been right to push me into making the choice. But I couldn't help fearing I'd chosen wrong, couldn't help fearing we'd lost Berlik's trail. And I was acutely aware, the farther we rode, that we were headed for the border of Skaldia.

On the sixth day, we reached Maarten's Crossing. It was a big place, bigger than I'd reckoned. Once, I daresay it hadn't been much more than an outpost in the woods, but like Zoellen and Bryn Gorrydum and so many other places, it had grown a great deal in the last decade. Unlike other places, its growth appeared planned.

We'd thought to make camp on the outskirts, but the entire town was enclosed in a vast wooden palisade with guards posted at the gate.

Skaldi guards.

There were only two of them, but there was a gatehouse above the entrance, and I'd no doubt other guards were within shouting distance. Our company drew rein, eyeing the guards. They regarded us with sharp interest. Not hostile, but not welcoming, either. There was nothing to do but present ourselves.

“They might grant you a warmer welcome,” I said to Urist. “Terre d'Ange isn't trading openly with Skaldia yet. There's a lot of bad blood lingering.”

He grimaced. “It's not like we can hide your pretty face, lad! You should have listened to me and gotten your warrior's markings. Besides, I don't speak a word of Skaldic.”

I sighed. “Right.”

Urist deigned to accompany me. We dismounted and approached the guards on foot. Tall and strapping, the both of them, one blond and one ruddy-haired. They towered over wiry Urist, and stood a half-head taller than me. Small wonder Eamonn had been able to pass himself off as a Skaldi. The blond folded his arms across his chest and stared down at me.

“D'Angelina,” he said with distaste. “Was wünschen Sie?”

At least it was a familiar dialect. I explained in my mangled Skaldic that we were following the pilgrims, hunting for the bear-man. I showed them the drawing of Berlik. The blond laughed and bracketed his eyes with splayed fingers, then nodded and with one hand indicated a big man, a few inches taller than he was. A profound wave of relief swept over me.

“Is he here?” I asked. “Ist hier?”

They shook their heads and conferred, looking amused. The ruddy-haired one pointed at the sun and held up both hands, twice. Ten fingers, twice. Twenty days. He made a dismissive gesture and said something that clearly meant, Go away, D'Angeline.

“Adelmar,” Urist said slowly and deliberately. “A-del-mar.” He pointed at himself, then me, then the other Cruithne, making a sweeping gesture toward the west. “Alba. Cruarch. Adelmar.”

The blond cast a dubious eye over us. “Cruarch?”

“Do you see this, you hulking idiots?” Urist said in a firm, reasonable tone. While I prayed silently that neither guard spoke a word of Cruithne, he tapped the golden torc around my neck. “Drustan mab Necthana, the Cruarch of Alba, gave this to him with his own hands. He's a Prince of Alba, and he's here on the Cruarch's business. And if your sodding Adelmar wants to continue enjoying trade rights with the Cruarch of Alba, believe me, he will see us.”

I glanced at Urist. He gave a slight shrug.

And against all odds, it worked. After a good deal of rapid deliberation, the guards admitted us. The blond pointed in several different directions, giving me information I could only guess at. I thanked him graciously.

“What was that all about?” Urist asked.

“Damned if I know,” I said.

Inside the palisade, I began to piece it together. There was a large cleared area where pilgrims and merchant caravans alike were encamped. Beyond lay the town proper, timber-built, laid out in a neat grid. It looked to be bustling, filled with Skaldi and Flatlanders and wealthier Yeshuite pilgrims. Many of the latter were wearing caps of bleached muslin embroidered with a flared crimson cross. Somewhere near the center, a great hall loomed. Adelmar, the guard had said, pointing toward it.

I explained what I thought the guard had meant. “We can camp freely or seek lodgings at an inn. The great hall, that's where we petition for an audience with Adelmar.”

Urist shrugged. “Why waste time?”

I glanced around at our company. “We don't exactly look like a delegation from the Cruarch of Alba, Urist. We look like twenty-odd men who've been riding hard and living rough.”

He snorted. “You just want a bath.”

“It wouldn't hurt you, either,” I retorted.

In the end, we decided that the bulk of our company would make camp, while five of us lodged at an inn. I picked Urist and Kinadius to accompany me, while the others drew straws for the privilege. A smug Deordivus drew one, while the other fell to one of the older veterans, a solid fellow named Brun. A good balance, I thought.

We left our mounts in the picket-line at the camp and entered Maarten's Crossing on foot. I felt pricklish and wary. Skaldi sauntered along the streets, longswords strapped to their backs, staring openly at us.

Get used to it, I told myself.

We were in Skaldia.

There was no trouble finding an inn. I picked the place at random, simply because the sign above the door—a proud rooster—reminded me of the Cockerel at home. It was run by a heavyset blonde Skaldi woman who took one look at me and beamed. “D'Angeline!” she cried, with considerable more enthusiasm than any of the men had showed.

“D'Angeline,” I agreed, ignoring my companions' snickers.

I was just glad to be ensconced peaceably. The proprietress, Halla, had no husband in evidence, but several tall daughters, ranging in age from some sixteen years to a few years older than me. They were fresh-faced and bright-eyed, eager and curious, and uncomfortably attentive. When I pantomimed filling a tub and bathing, they laughed and led me to a small room with a wooden tub, bringing buckets of cold, clean water.

“Baden?” one asked hopefully, holding a sponge.

“I'll manage,” I assured them.

They lingered, watching me undress, oohing and ahhing at the sight of my wounds when I managed to get the bandages off. Since they didn't seem inclined to leave, I gave up on any attempt at modesty and asked them questions while I sat in the tub and scrubbed away the layers of grime that a dunk in the river never seemed to erase. I didn't learn much—none of the innkeeper's daughters had seen the bear-man—but my efforts to communicate amused them. There were worse ways to practice Skaldic, I suppose.

Once I'd finished, Urist and the others had a turn, albeit without the same level of solicitous attention. We rummaged through our packs to find our least filthy attire, although there wasn't much to choose from. Everything I owned smelled like horse. Well and so, I thought; if it doesn't trouble the innkeeper's daughters, I suppose it won't bother Adelmar of the Frisii.

Clean and combed, we departed the inn and made our way to the great hall. I'd expected another confrontation, but to my surprise, the guards admitted us without any argument, pointing the way to a large antechamber filled with petitioners.

There we waited.

And waited.

There was a man in charge, a burly fellow with a heavy silver chain around his neck, trailed by an assistant carrying a scroll. He took our names on our arrival, giving us a long, hard look before bidding his assistant write them down. I made a point of repeating “Cruarch” and “Alba” several times, but it didn't appear to make an impression on him.

“Petty official,” Urist said sourly. “He wants to make us sweat.”

“Why don't we just go?” Deordivus asked. “We know the bear-witch was here. All we have to do is follow his trail like before.”