Despite the sleepless night she had endured, Chris made fast work of closing
up the house. The fires were put out, the food that would spoil was given
away, the house and animals were placed under the care of a neighbor, and
finally, the shutters were latched. Packing was the next chore, and one that
she tried to hurry through. The childrens clothes were carefully rolled
into one bundle and hers into another. Choosing what to take for clothing
was easy, but when the time came to deal with her equipment, she was more
The heavy armor she had locked in a closet when she retired was left behind even though she had spent her entire military career wearing it. In the years that followed her resignation, she learned to favor lighter, more flexible defensive gear such as chain mail or leather. It served her better, she thought, and she wasnt even sure the armor would fit, given the inevitable changes that came with bearing children. From under her bed she took the light, brass hilted sword she was famous for wielding and slit her finger on the blade to prove it was still sharp. Satisfied that it was, she fastened it to her side, hoping her skills would be somewhere near as polished. Although her life had changed quite a bit since her marriage, she had continued to practice whenever she could. Despite these intermittent workouts and the changes the years brought, she still felt confident that she could give an opponent a fair degree of trouble.
After finally completing the mundane chores, she gave the house one last inspection. Percivals sword still sat on the table in the keeping room cradled in its burlap shroud. Chris felt a sudden warmth on her back, and turned. A small beam of sunlight peeked in from between the closed shutters reflected onto her from the blade. The tiny bit of hope that suddenly waltzed upon the hardened steel reaffirmed that her faith in him being alive was not misguided. Heartened by this small sign, she went to join her traveling party, leaving the sword where it was.
Chris walked out into the dirt street to find Salome, the two knights that made up his escort, and the children waiting amidst a group of curious neighbors. Nothing was really private in this village, so she had to endure their well-meaning inquiries and words of sympathy. They were all good people. They all had known Percival since his childhood, and while their concern was genuine, it still just seemed trite. Again something her husband had told her pierced her mind; Words alone cannot comfort a person, no matter how kind or well crafted they are.
She wasnt even listening to the townspeople anymore. She just kept hearing that sentence spoken in Percivals playful, yet wise, tenor. Her eyes started to burn, even as they turned toward her children. Geoffrey had sought refuge from the crowd behind his older brother, who was hiding his own nervousness as he patted his ponys neck. She wondered if she was making the right decision by deserting them and embarking on this adventure or if she should just take them into her arms and protect them forever. She felt her heart begin to tear apart again as the emotions fought within her.
Chris didnt notice the crowd leaving, nor did she feel Salomes hand on her shoulder. She was lost in her thoughts, fighting her conscience about her decision. Was it right? What if she didnt come back? What then? The previous night, she had been too absorbed in thoughts of Percival to even consider the consequences of leaving the children.
She glanced over again at her sons. Ryan was looking at her with impatience. He wanted this to begin. He had told her that the night before. She needed to do this, but not just for her own benefit. She needed to do this for all of them.
Are you ready, milady? Salomes tired voice asked as he looked over at his knights and the children.
She looked up at him. His eyes were weary and the lines on his face were chiseled into exhaustion, telling her that he hadnt slept at all the night before. While his escorts had most likely stayed comfortably at the inn, he had remained in her house, sitting on the couch and probably cursing himself until dawn. He never was one to take mistakes lightlyespecially when those mistakes cost him the lives of friends.
I am, she whispered to him.
Your voice tells me youre having second thoughts, milady.
Yes, but I know this is what I must do. She sighed, Besides, I want to be the one to tell Torrie. She doesnt need to get one of those awful impersonal messages.
He took her hand and gripped it tightly. Then let us get you to Vinay del Zexay. Should you change your mind after that, I wont fault you, milady.
Thank you, Salome, but I wont, she said with a slight shake of her head. Im sorry that it had to be you to share this burden.
Its no trouble at all, milady. But we should get going. You know its a days ride to Brass Castle and another half a day to the capital.
Chris nodded and began to walk back towards the group with Salome following. Ryan smiled at them and led both his brother and pony over to her. When they were just a few strides away, Geoffrey ran from the comfort of Ryans shadow and all but leapt into his mothers arms. She lifted him effortlessly and felt him trembling in her embrace, clearly scared to death of all the sudden and confusing activity. She ran her fingers through his ash-blonde hair and kissed his cheek, but it only calmed him slightly. She whispered, Its all right. Remember at breakfast when I said we were going on a trip? Were going to leave now. Youre going to ride with me, all right?
He put his hand into his mouth and bit on it as he nodded to her.
Good, she said. Salome is going to hand you to me. You remember him, right?
Again Geoffrey nodded, cooperating as he was passed to the kindly knight.
Chris checked the security of the pack behind her saddle and then the tightness of her saddles cinch. With one elegant and flawless motion, she swung herself atop the chestnut mare. The horse tossed its head as it pranced in place. A pat on its neck calmed the animal, and a moment later, she took Geoffrey into her arms. His anxiety was gonelike his brother and father, riding seemed to calm him more than anything.
Ryan mounted his chubby pony and poised himself as if he were sitting astride a regal charger. The portly bay wasnt interested in playing the part, though. Without warning to its young rider, the animal stretched its stumpy neck down for some grass, yanking the child forward onto its neck. Chris gave a small laugh at seeing this and teased him gently, Ryan, do I need to put the lead on?
He frowned at her and shook his head, the thick mass of dark brown hair flopping across his face as he pushed the pony forward to pick its head up, a clump of grass now hanging from its mouth.
It might be for the best, Salome said as he turned his own mount to face the child. The plains have been overrun with all sorts of beasts lately since we havent had time to hunt them down. At the boys disappointment, he softened his expression. I know you are a capable rider, but your pony isnt battle trained. We wouldnt want him to get spooked and run off with you.
On any other day, Ryan would have protested, but today he just nodded solemnly as the man produced a length of rope from his saddle pack, leaned over, and tied it to the ponys bit. Salome gave a tug to get the animals attention before nodding a cue to his knights to take their positions on opposite sides of the party.
The morning mist had finally lifted, but the haze around Borus Redrum was still fresh. Standing on the western bridge of Brass Castle, he was hoping the breeze would help sober him, but it didnt. Nothing was really helping. Nothing at all.
Whatever denial he had about the horrible situation had been melted away by the wine, but the guilt and anger remained with the mornings headache. He wasnt sure which of the two was worse, or even if they were within comparison, but they still consumed him. Losing men in battle was a way of life, but losing a friend was something of an entirely different caliber, even for one hardened by years of service in the army.
Friend perhaps that was too light a term for the relationship. Friends were people one saw on occasion, and if time permitted, shared a drink with. Friends might chitchat about some inane happenings in their pathetic lives. But this went deeper than requisite socialization. This was a camaraderie bound by duty, friendship, and the shared love of a woman. This was a brotherhood.
If their similarities started with their swordsmanship, and ended with their adoration of Chris, it was everything in between that defined them as individuals--and complete opposites. Borus was intense, and Percival laid back. Borus was raised by wealthy traders and Percival on a farm. Borus was always the one to overreact and Percival the one to put things in perspective.
And overreacting was just what he was doing now. He clutched a piece of folded paper in his fist and shook it at the water below him. Youre going to make me deliver this, arent you!?
The only answer he garnered was his reflection taunting him about having to fulfill their pact. It was something the two of them had started years ago, a morbid but crucial custom. Before they marched into battle, they would each write a letter to their families, seal the notes, and finally exchange them. In the past, it was part of their survival celebration to burn them while cursing the hells demons they were at war with and drinking the coarse fortified wine from the nearest tavern. With a sigh, he replaced the note into his shirt, realizing that if there was a hell, and he wasnt in it already, he would be living it shortly when he handed the letter to Chris.
Chris, the woman he loved so much that he did all he could to ensure her happiness, even if meant shed never love him.
Almost ten years ago, on this very bridge, he confessed his feelings to her. The world stopped at that moment as he anxiously awaited her response. When it finally did come, he was devastated. She couldnt love him because she was in love with another. He didnt have to ask whom. He knew, and it made him realize the cause of her depression that past year.
Although being rejected was shattering, all he could think about was her. The man she loved had left nearly a year prior to attend to some personal business, and she never did tell him how she felt. Seeing her so distraught made him decide what to do. In that second, he vowed to bring Percival back to her and just like a fairy tale; they had lived happily ever after, until this.
To this day, nothing pained him more than to see her cry. She was the only thing hed thought of when the news reached camp that her husbands battalion was gone. That was seven days ago. But seven daysfour on the return to the fortress and another three stuck in ithadnt done much of anything for him. The bottles of wine these past few days might have taken the edge off but did nothing to erase his feelings of guilt, nor resurrect Percival.
Borus leaned on the wall of the bridge, propping his head up on his hands as he looked down again at his reflection. He looked like a monster; his normally well-groomed blonde hair was frazzled, and his face was rough with torment. Three days' worth of stubble, combined with the dark circles under his eyes, made his cheeks look sallow.
He heard someone approaching, and even though the sun obscured the persons face, he knew who it was. The intruders long, pointed ears revealed the identity of one of the few people who would dare to interrupt his sobering moments.
Roland faced him, and then asked a gentle question. Too much to drink, Borus?
Not quite enough, if you must know, he growled in reply.
This isnt going to make it better, the elf said sagaciously as he leaned on the wall with the other knight.
Nothing will make it better.
I have yet to grasp the human concept of drinking to remove ones problems. It doesnt seem to do you much good. And what does it yield as its sole reward? A headache?
Borus eyes were half-hooded in anger as he snarled, Leave me alone.
As you wish, Roland said, turning to depart.
While the elven archer was irritating, he was at least someone to talk to. Borus grabbed his arm and spun him around. Salome should have let me go.
The reply was clipped, but still delivered with the utmost compassion. The decision was made and has been executed. Regret at this point seems futile.
Shes probably coming here, he retorted, annoyed at Rolands completely detached answers.
Probably. Why would she remain in that village? Theres no one there for her save her children, and I doubt she would leave them behind and unprotected.
Maybe. But I dont think shes just coming for a social call.
You dont think shes going to march up to the Council and demand for them to hand over the Army so she can run off on a personal quest? he asked as he gave Borus a sideways glance full of skepticism.
You know Chris. If she wants something, shes going to get it, Borus said with certainty.
I also know our Council.
Borus snorted. That wont deter her. It wont even slow her down. You know shes not going to let this rest as long as theres hope hes still alive.
An apprehensive silence held between them. Then Roland spoke. Can I ask you something, as a friend?
Of course, was his quiet response as he looked back down at his disheveled reflection.
Are you not just jealous?
What the hell is that supposed to mean? The blonde man glowered viciously to the elf.
I mean what I say, Roland replied simply. Are you not envious of the fact that its not you shell insist on looking for?
Shut up! Borus snarled. I wouldnt wish this on anyone. I dont want to see her putting herself in needless danger.
So you dont wish for her return? Im confused.
Im not surprised, he snapped. You expect too much selfishness out of humans! Glancing away and taking a long breath, he calmed himself before continuing in a morose tone. I want her to stay out of this. Percival wanted her to stay out of this.
So how does your not going to see her today have anything to do with that?
Salome never could talk her out of anything, Borus said flatly.
Neither could you, as I recall, was the chilling, yet accurate response from the elf.
Warm magenta and orange skies provided a dramatic backdrop for Brass Castle as the group approached it. Over the treetops, Chris could see the merlons chewing at the sunset, and after another few turns, the massive structure in its entirety came into view. Even though she had spent most of her life at this place, its size and simple elegance always astonished her. The last time she had ventured here was nearly five years ago when Louis had been hurt. She didnt particularly care for it anymore; it was too reminiscent of her past life and perhaps too tempting.
That time before, there had been no light and no escort. She had made the ride alone in the darkness with Ryan seated before her on the saddle. It had been long and exhausting, but she pressed herself to do it. She wouldnt let Louis die without saying a final goodbye. She owed him that much. Fortunately, the information had been inaccurate, but it led to another absurd argument between her and Percival though one that caused her to be more careful in the long run
Having a room to himself was one of the few benefits Percival had earned, one that Chris was thankful for as she tucked the already sleeping Ryan into some blankets on the small sofa. The quarters werent large by any stretch of the word, but they were certainly serviceable. The sparse furniture of a bed, dresser, sofa, desk and chair were arranged as attractively as they could be in the small space.
After she finished adjusting the covers on their son, she turned to see her husband standing before a small basin set atop the dresser, most of his face covered in a thick lather of soap. Youre still angry at me. I can tell.
Percival glanced up at her in the mirror, as he pulled a blade down his cheek. I wouldnt call it anger, my dear.
Well what would you call it? She asked as she positioned herself next to him.
Concern, he said gently.
She frowned and leaned on the edge of the dresser. Id assumed the messenger was correct and that Louis was going to leave us shortly.
He rinsed the blade in the bowl, shaking the water from it before continuing the conversation and the chore of shaving. You cant believe a messenger that was sent for another reason, Chris. Besides, if that were the case, dont you believe that I would come get you myself?
I didnt care what he was there forI wanted to know about you and the others.
You should care, he scolded. The whole reason we sent them was to warn the outlying villages of the attacks on the plains.
Attacks? Her stomach sank as she realized she was going to lose this battle.
He splashed some water on his face, rinsing away the remains of the soapy lather, and spoke to her through closed eyes. Some spies killed a few of our knights while they were on routine patrol. We still havent hunted all of them down. Thats why two men carried the warning to Iksay and were ordered to remain there until dawn.
She handed him the small towel that hung on the side of the dresser. Oh, she said as a silent prayer of thanks formed on her lips. Still slightly annoyed, she attempted to change the subject. When will you be coming home? Its been almost six weeks since your last leave.
He patted his face dry, replaced the towel, and then responded to her. Im sorry. Its just been an incredibly busy month. With a wry smile, he added: Its rather difficult to plan your vacation breaks around the demands of war, as you may recall.
She nodded, slightly ashamed of the complaint. I just hope this ends soon so youll be with us more.
It will, he said, taking her hands. But in the meantime, I implore you to be more careful. You cant believe the fright I had when they woke me to tell me that you were here. I feared the worst. I thought Ryan was ill, or worse.
Her frustration was returning, and it carried in her voice. You worry more than an old woman! You know I consider Louis to be my brother. Had the information been accurate and I had not made it in time, I would have never forgiven myself.
I understand that, but again, what if something had happened to Ryan? Would you have forgiven yourself then? I dont know if I would forgive you if our child were killed because of your imprudence. It was a very foolish thing to do.
Are you calling me a fool? She hissed as she pulled her hands from his grasp.
No, but your actions were certainly not wise, he said with gently raised brow. Besides, if you insisted on making this trip alone at night, why didnt you leave him with one of the neighbors?
She gave him a glare that could melt steel as she folded her arms across her chest and spoke in a tone full of righteous anger. I didnt want to wake anyone! And I can certainly take care of myself! Did you forget who you married? Or do we need to go down to the training yard so I can remind you?
He chuckled. No, I havent forgotten. I would never want to forget, but you being who you are doesnt make Ryan any less vulnerable. It just makes you a larger and more tempting target for the enemy.
Still frustrated, she glanced at Ryan, who was curled up in a content little ball on the sofa. You dont need to worry so much.
A moment passed before he answered her, a quiet sadness reflected in his dark eyes. Youre asking me to do something impossible, you know.
What are you talking about? Its a simple concept. Dont worry so much. Put some faith in me.
His voice didnt raise a notch as he responded; he spoke to her in the same velvet tone he always used. Its not that simple, Im afraid. I cant pretend I dont love you or Ryan. I cant pretend that leaving you two alone all the time doesnt bother me, and I sure as hell cant pretend that I dont worry about you putting your life in danger! I couldnt before, and I cant now. After a breath, he continued with a grin, I guess Im just a little more willing to admit it to you now.
Her face still held a scowl, but she didnt say anything. He had the annoying habit of making good points, even if they made her look foolish. It was one of the things she loved about him. A perfect silence embraced them as she mulled over his words. Finally, she relented. Im sorry, Percy, she said, calling him by the nickname only she was allowed to use. Im sorry I caused you such grief.
His arms folded around her delicately, and he whispered into her ear, I dont want to fight with you, Chris. I just hope you can see the issue through my eyes, and my heart. My mind knows how capable a soldier you are, but my heart sees my wife, not the Silver Maiden of Zexen. He took a breath and then gave the balance of his sentiment as he looked into her eyes. And believe me when I say that my heart always defeats my head when it comes to the two I love most in this life.
He was right; there was no need to argue anymore. She knew that while he respected her ability to defend herself, he had every right to worry. Resting her head on his chest, she sighed. Six weeks was a long time, a very long time.
Soft kisses breezed along her neck, one, then another, and another. When he found her lips, he hesitated just before touching them and said with a tender smirk, You should never go to bed angry, my dear.
She returned the grin, knowing where this was headed, but didnt resist himshe couldnt, and didnt want to, despite her fatigue.
And so now, riding up to the fortress once more, she could count three things that came out of her last visit to Brass Castle. Her acceptance of his concern was one, Louiss new role was another, but the most important, the most sacred, was Geoffrey. With that memory in her heart, she squeezed the child tighter against her chest as the party moved forward into a trot. His hair bounced in rhythm with the horses stride, and the jerky gait caused him to giggle, a sound which brought a smile to his mothers tired face.
As they neared the eastern bridge, Salome slowed the group to a walk. The horses hooves clipped loudly on the stones, announcing their arrival. Softly glowing torches lined the way through the portcullis, their light creating a ghostly, shadowy passage into the commons. A few men were standing there involved in a deep discussion. Upon noticing their Captain and his harshly whispered command, they snapped to attention.
The party dismounted, and the sentries saw to the horses. The children were fed, put to bed, and plans for the morning were set. She was thankful for the discreet arrival; being mobbed was not something she needed at the moment. No, a group of people harassing her about her plans or offering stale words of sympathy was the last thing she wanted. She knew that what she needed was to talk to a friend, and she knew exactly where to find him.
Down she went to a small tavern inside the castle proper that had always been favorite place for many of the ranking knights. At a table in the back corner he sat, his only company a bottle of wine. She knew hed be there; he never did like to drink in the solitude of his quarters, although drinking alone never bothered him. As she approached, he rose to his feet and bowed his head in greeting and respect. She took a seat in the chair opposite to him as he waved to a barmaid for another glass.
Returning to his seat, Borus asked, The children are asleep, then?
Yes, they were exhausted. Salome is graciously letting us use his quarters. She nodded in gratitude to the girl who brought the glass, and she watched as her friend poured her a measure of the wine.
Good, he said, handing her the drink. What about you?
I dont want to sleep, and I doubt I could even if I wanted to. She fixed her gaze on him over her glass as she brought it to her lips. You must tell me what happened. Salome couldnt give too many details, since he wasnt there for most of it, but I know you were.
The grimace on his face and the way he took a large swallow of the vintage said that he didnt want to discuss this, but since she asked, he would divulge. What did he tell you?
Only that he wasnt sure you were fighting the Tinto army.
We werent. We havent been for some time now, but the Council doesnt want that information getting out.
I dont understand, she said, taking another sip of the wine. It was quite good, far too good to be something the tavern would serve, so she guessed he had probably taken it from his collection.
Neither do I. Our Councils motives never made any sense to me, and they still dont. Regardless, for the past year or so, our enemies have been fighting more like ruthless mercenaries than any army Ive ever encountered.
Yes, and highly trained. They snuck up on us, Chris. They snuck up on us in the middle of the day!
Start from the beginning, Borus. Dont leave anything out.
He ran a hand through his blond hair and poured himself another glass before starting the tale. All right. Part of the land Tinto recently acquired is Dubios. I dont know who had it last. I never was good at keeping up with things like that. Anyway, its a small port town surrounded by forest on three sides and by sea on the other. We thought it would be a good place to strike since the terrain would be something we were used to rather than their dusty mining towns.
That morning we left camp, with a plan to ride into the city gates and attack. Our scouts had told us that the road through the forest split at a glade, and that from there one went to the citys main entrance, one to the eastern entrance and one to the western gate. So we split up as planned. Leo went down the center, Roland and Salome stayed right there, I went to the left and Percival to the right. He paused, and then added, We expected to encounter resistance, but not so far out in the forest.
I took my men down our path, and we stayed on the ready. Suddenly, they sprang out of the tree limbs and jumped down on us. There was no sound from above, no warning, no nothing. They were ruthless and even stooped to using poison darts on usit was anything but an honorable fight.
I called a retreat and we left, but they didnt follow. I thought they would, after having seen how little regard they had for the rules of war.
War has never had rules, Borus. You should know that by now, she interrupted and held up her glass for him to refill.
Protocols, then. Call them what you will, but even those damned Grassies showed more decency than these people.
Anyway, I was surprised they let us retreat. We made it back to camp, took care of the injured, all of that. And then we waited. Roland came back. So did Salome. Then Leo. We were all getting anxious, but Salome kept saying that maybe they had made it into the city. He took another sip from his glass and stared down into it. Then darkness fell, and we still waited.
She ran the tip of her finger around her glass and looked at him, her eyes begging him to finish the tale. And what then?
He reached across the table and gently held her hand. Chris, I wanted to go right then. It had started to rain, and there were sounds of thunder, but I didnt care. I was already on my horse by the time Salome found out. He grabbed my reins, and we argued. He kept saying by leaving I would give away our position, I would put more lives in danger, and that before we did anything we should wait until the morning, just like we usually didjust in case.
He was right, she said tersely, taking another drink.
He didnt bother to argue the point with her; both of them knew Salome had made a sound decision, even if Borus was reluctant to admit it. He squeezed her hand just a bit tighter as he continued the gruesome story. I waited all night at the front of camp. I didnt even care about the rain. I just kept hoping someone would come back with news, or something.
He took another hearty sip from the winein front of him before going on. Finally, it was morning. Leo and I set out with some men. Roland and Salome stayed behind to start packing up camp, since we had suffered many losses and needed to just get out of there. Eventually we came to the place where we had split up. All of us rode in the direction Percival had gone, being extra careful, since our enemy was cowardly enough to not grant us a fair warning the day before.
About half a league from that place, we found signs of a battle. Although the night rain had washed most of the blood away, we could still tell it had been fierce one, judging from the look of the scarred ground, and the number of dead enemies. They were laying on the ground where they fell, as if their own people had considered them of no importance, even in death.
He took another breath, followed by another sip of his drink. At that point we found hope. Since there wasnt a piece of Zexen armor to be seen, or any of our dead, we thought that maybe they had made it into the city. So we rode on, and less than a quarter of a league away, our hopes were dashed.
You found the weapons, she said flatly.
Yes milady, but did Salome explain about them?
Explain? I could tell he used the sword most of the blood had washed off, but the nicks were still in it.
No, not that. When we found the weapons, they were arranged in a pattern.
Yes, he said, taking another as if to fortify himself. All of them were stuck in the ground, set in four concentric circles.
At her puzzled look, he explained further, Percivals sword was in the center, then twenty, forty, sixty and finally eighty. All two-hundred-and-one weapons were left there, placed to look like a bulls eye.
So he surrendered, she said, trepidation creeping into her voice.
He shook his head. I dont think so, but Im sure that the weapons were deliberately set that way. The circles were too perfectnot like he and his men had just thrown their weapons to the ground.
He poured the last bit from the bottle between their glasses, and they spent a few moments sipping the fine red wine in silence. Such a vintage was too nice for this occasion, but neither of them mentioned the waste. This was a time for somber thoughts and reflection, not wine tasting.
Finally, to break the silence, Borus asked a question. It was delivered in such an acidic tone, that it had obviously been bothering him. So does knowing any of that change your mind?
Change my mind?
Dont play innocent, Chris. It doesnt suit you. He narrowed his dark eyes at her. I know you are not here to just pass through to Vinay del Zexay. Youll go there, Im sure, but to see the Council and to reclaim your position as Captain.
So what if I am? she asked, an edge forming on her words.
He finished his glass in one uncouth gulp. You have children. Take them home and stay with them.
She glared at him. I cant. I have to do this. I have to stop this. Cant you see that?
He shook his head at her. You honestly think they are just going to take you back? You think you can walk in there and expect the Council to hand you everything you want on a silver platter when they barely give us enough money to feed our men?
Ill do what I have to do, Borus, she said, putting the full authoritative tone from her days of command into her voice.
He gave her a grin full of good-natured contempt and conceded. Of course you will. You always have. He reached into his shirt and produced the cursed piece of paper, then slid it across the table to her. I promised Id deliver this to you.
She stared at it for a moment, and then let her fingers trace the hardened seal it bore. It seemed premature, and the texture of the seal told her it was wrong to accept this unwelcome gift. With a shake of her head, she pushed it back to him. No. Not until we know hes dead. Keep it for now.
With a slight nod he replaced it in his shirt. Yes, milady.