Kushiel's Justice (Page 82)

— Advertising —

I didn't care, much.

Not really.

After I burned Berlik's body, I studied the peaks of the Narodin Mountains. There was the one, hook-shaped and memorable. So long as I kept it over my left shoulder, I thought, I could chart a course back to civilization. I might miss Miroslas, but I had enough supplies now to reach the village beyond.

I set out the next day. Elua knows, I could have used a day of rest, but the thought of lingering there was unbearable. My purpose was finished. All I wanted was to go home. And I was afraid that if I thought about the effort it would take to get there, I'd lie down in exhaustion and die.

So I went.

When I was training under Gallus Tadius' command in Lucca, some of the men complained about how hard he made us work. He told us that in the old days Tiberian foot-soldiers were expected to carry loads of sixty or seventy pounds, and that we should be grateful we had it so easy. I hadn't thought so at the time, but in hindsight, the long, grueling days of drilling seemed like a pleasure-jaunt. The only thing I dared abandon was the hunting bow, reckoning that with one arrow, it wasn't likely to save my life. Between the salted meat, the kettle I needed to melt snow, my blankets and arms and the bag containing Berlik's frozen head, which I lashed to my belt, I was carrying a load worthy of a Tiberian foot-soldier. And I was doing it in deep snow, without the benefit of a proper pack.

Once again, my days dwindled into an endless blur of trudging, frozen and footsore, through good weather and bad. Making camp, breaking camp. Boiling strips of frozen meat and gnawing on it, drinking the weak broth for its warmth. Shivering through the endless nights, struggling through the all-too-fleeting hours of daylight. I didn't count the days. Once again, there was no point. On horseback, I might have been able to gauge the distance to within a day or so, having a rough idea of how far I'd travelled. On foot, I couldn't begin to guess with any degree of accuracy; and the days were so much shorter than they had been when I'd left Miroslas. I'd been at this for a long time.

I kept going.

My progress varied from day to day. Some days, I made good time, at least while there was daylight. On others, I chose my course unwisely and found myself floundering in waist-deep snow, my thighs aching as I forced my legs to move, the saddlebags slipping from my shoulders as I tried to use my arms to break a path. There had been times before when I'd had to break a path for my mount, but I hadn't been carrying sixty pounds of gear.

I did stop, once. Just stopped. I leaned back, resting my weight against the snowdrift in which I was mired, and closed my eyes. I thought about what a profound relief it had been to give up the first time. Although the sun never seemed to reach its apex anymore, it was a bright day. The slanting sun beat against my face, turning the private darkness behind my eyelids to red brightness. After my exertions in the snow, I almost felt warm. It wouldn't last. It would go quickly if I never moved again. Freezing wasn't supposed to be a terrible way to die.

Just come home.

I'd sent that damned ring back to Sidonie. She hadn't asked me to make any promises I couldn't keep, and I'd done it anyway. Tell her it's a pledge, I'd said to Deordivus. That I would be back to claim it.

Brightness, a dazzle like diamonds.

I keep my promises.

I pried my eyes open, squinted at the sun, and kept moving, flailing and struggling through the deep snow.

Most of the time, I simply trudged without thinking, my exhausted body working like a pack-horse. I was too tired to think, too tired for prayer. Later, if I survived, I would think about my encounter with Berlik. I would ponder what it all meant, whether what I'd done had been right or wrong. Whether there was a right or wrong in this matter, or only a long series of tragic events that hadn't needed to occur.

Later.

Like the priests of Miroslas, I did without speech. I hadn't spoken aloud since I burned Berlik's body. Before, I had. I'd talked to my horse until it bolted and left me stranded on foot; all the better with which to approach killing Berlik with a humble heart, I supposed. Even then, I'd been wont to speak aloud. Betimes to utter an involuntary curse; at others, for the solace of hearing a human voice, even if it was my own.

Now I wore silence like a shroud, and there was comfort in it. Why, I couldn't have said. Berlik's death had made a silent, still place in my heart, where the only words spoken were I'm sorry. My last words to the man whose sacrifice I'd accepted. Berlik, to whom I'd administered Kushiel's justice. The words echoed in my heart. I couldn't bear to hear any others.

And then everything changed.

I was so accustomed to silence and solitude that when I first heard men's raised voices arguing in Rus, I didn't understand what it meant. There was no one there. I felt bewildered, like a man who couldn't read being asked to decipher a page of writing. I paused on the rocky incline up which I was trudging, which had the virtue of being windswept and almost clear of snow, and wondered if I'd gone mad.

It slowly dawned on me that the men were on the other side of the incline, which was why I couldn't see them yet. I was downwind, and their voices carried in the quiet wilderness. By the sound of it, they were growing closer, and swiftly enough that I guessed they were mounted.

I was in the open, and there wasn't anywhere to run; although I don't know that I would have if there had been. I wasn't scared. No one knew I was out here except the Rebbe of Miroslas, and he was the one who had told me where to search. It must be, I thought, that my horse made it back safely to the last warm stable he remembered. That Rebbe Avraham had been compelled by a Yeshuite sense of duty to send someone to search for me despite his dislike of my mission, reckoning I might be half frozen and dying in the wilderness.

A spark of gratitude warmed me; and in its wake, a sense of relief that abruptly weakened my knees. Elua, I'd been out here a long time! Surely the weeks had turned to months. I'd no false illusions of pride, not after what I'd endured. I'd gladly be rescued.

I managed to keep my feet and watched three men on horseback clear the crest of the incline some forty yards away. They paused, staring. I felt a grin split my wind-burned face and raised one hand in greeting.

All three of them drew their swords.

And one of them shouted in D'Angeline, his voice clear and carrying. “Imriel, run!”

I didn't.

I stood, gaping like an idiot, while the lead rider kicked his mount to a gallop and bore down on me. Atop the crest, the other two were circling each other, blades flickering and flashing. The oncoming rider leaned down from the saddle, sword in hand, his face grim and furious. I knew it, although I couldn't put a name to it. He was one of the guards from Tarkov.

At the last minute, I dropped my packs and ducked under his blow. “I'm not a spy!” I shouted at him. “I can explain! Wait!”

Or at least, that's what I tried to say. What emerged from my mouth was a dry, croaking sound. And it might have been in D'Angeline or Cruithne. I wasn't even sure. I swallowed frantically, backing away as he wheeled his horse, putting up my mittened hands in a gesture of surrender.

“Wait! ” I got the word out in Rus.

He didn't wait.

I cursed with steady fluency in any number of tongues as he bore down on me for a second time, the dam of my long silence broken. I shook off my mittens and drew my sword. He gave me a fierce battle-grin as he brought his sword down in a stroke meant to split my skull from above.

I daresay he didn't expect me to parry it, at least not as strongly as I did. But the Cassiline fighting style is based on spheres of defense, and there is more than one series of forms designed to defend against a mounted enemy or an enemy on higher ground.

I used them all.

“Stop!” I shouted at him. “Talk to me!”

He didn't. He panicked, heeling his mount and jerking its head, seeking to circle around and make another pass at me. His mount stumbled, going to its knees, and threw him. Atop the crest, the D'Angeline who'd shouted a warning and the other man were still battering at one another.

“Wait,” I said softly in Rus, approaching the fallen guard. “Listen.”

He scrambled to his feet, shook his head, and charged me, sword extended.

I didn't mean to kill him. I didn't want to kill him. But I had been trained, very well, to defend my own life. At such times, it is the only thing that matters. I sidestepped his charge and angled my blade low, cutting him deep across the thighs.

He grunted and fell.

“I'm sorry” I said in anguish. “Damn you! Why wouldn't you listen?”

“Imriel!”

Another clear, carrying shout. I raised my head. Now the second Vralian rider was coming, howling in fury, the D'Angeline hot in pursuit. Fair hair streamed under the D'Angeline's fur hat, a hat much like the one I'd lost. I hoped it was Joscelin, except it didn't sound like Joscelin. And if it was, I couldn't imagine he'd have let his man get away. Not with my safety at stake.

The Vralian guard at my feet writhed, clutching his wounds. There was blood, a great deal of blood, gushing between his fingers. I'd cut one of the big veins. He wouldn't live, this one. Not in this wilderness.

And the other meant to kill me.

“Blessed Elua forgive me,” I murmured, plucking my dagger from its sheath. I'd had time to think, this time. I wasn't standing gape-mouthed and stupid. I tossed the dagger in the air, catching it by its tip. I watched him loom large in my vision. He wasn't a fox or some quick-moving forest animal to dodge when my arm came forward, laughing at me with parted jaws before vanishing into the deep cover of the forest. Just a man, misguided. Nor more innocent or guilty than the rest of us.

Angry that I'd killed his comrade.

I didn't blame him for that. I was, too. But I didn't want to die.

His face was set in a rictus of fury. I recognized him, too. He was the one who had attempted to play my flute. The one I'd mocked. He rode a swift, surefooted mount. The D'Angeline pounding behind him was laboring to keep pace.

“I'm sorry,” I whispered, and threw.

The dagger took him in the throat, the hilt protruding. He rocked back in the saddle, gurgling. Slumped, fell heavily to the ground. His mount cantered to a halt and began snuffling the stony ground. I walked over to him. There was blood trickling from the corners of his mouth.

He gestured to his throat.

I nodded and set my hand to the hilt. “Yeshua's mercy on you.”

Everyone dies alone and no one wants to. Mayhap it is the one way, in the end, in which all of us are alike, no matter what our faith. I knelt beside the Tarkovan guard and plucked the dagger from his throat. His back arched, his body rigid as a bow. Blood and air bubbled from the wound. His hand scrabbled for mine. I held it, hard. I bowed my head, my trailing hair growing sticky with his blood.

“I'm sorry,” I whispered.

He didn't answer.

He was dead.

I got to my feet. There was the D'Angeline on horseback, pulling up hard. I didn't acknowledge him yet. I couldn't. I walked over to the other Vralian, the man I'd struck with my sword. I was right, I'd hit one of the big veins. He lay in a pool of blood, already freezing into crystals at the outer edges, his open eyes staring at the blank sky. I knelt beside him, closing his eyelids tenderly.

“I'm sorry,” I said. “I wish you'd listened.”

He didn't answer either, of course.

“Imriel.” A D'Angeline voice said my name. It sounded tight and strange.

I looked up into the face of Maslin de Lombelon.

Chapter Sixty

When I saw Maslin's face, somewhere in the back of my mind, a part of me wondered if I truly had lost my wits. But it seemed whatever wits I yet possessed functioned without any conscious awareness on my part, for when I opened my mouth, what came out was “Are there others?”Maslin stared blankly at me. “What?”

“Others!” I shouted. “Other guards!”

“Others?” He shook his head. “No, no others.”

“Elua be thanked.” It was my turn to stare. It was Maslin's face beneath the fur hat. No matter how hard I stared, it didn't change. “What in the seven hells are you doing here?”

“Rescuing you.” His mouth twisted as he glanced at the scene. Two Vralian guards dead, both slain by my hand. “Or at least that was the idea.”

“Why in the world—” I stopped. “Never mind. I'm too tired to talk. Lend me a hand.”

He dismounted without comment. Together, we managed to calm and secure the two Vralian horses. I found my mittens and donned them; found my packs and slung them over the crupper of one of the horses. It wasn't until I bent down to take one of the corpses beneath its arms that Maslin stared again in frank disbelief. “What in the seven hells are you doing?”

“Take his legs.” I pointed with my chin. “We can make camp over there on the verge of the woods. It's as good a place as any to built a pyre.”

“A pyre?” He kept staring. “Are you out of your mind?”

“It's possible,” I said. “But these men aren't guilty of anything except believing, for fairly good reason, that I was a spy. And they treated me well enough, until I escaped. I didn't want to kill them. At the least, they deserve better than being left for carrion.” I struggled to hoist the Vralian's body. “I'll do it myself if you won't help.”

Maslin shook his head and cursed under his breath, but he helped. Together, we got the bodies of both Vralians slung facedown over the saddles of their horses, limbs dangling. The smell of blood made the horses nervous, but they were well trained and didn't spook.

“You are mad,” Maslin muttered.