The next day was a long, tense one. I rode in the wagon, hunched over staring at the floor. I hadn’t slept. I should have made up for that over the course of the day, napping like I had been, but I found I didn’t have it in me. Every time I closed my eyes I saw the needle slipping into the child’s vein, over and over, in excruciating detail. Sleep was impossible.
I hadn’t been there when they “found” Mathias dead, apparently of heart failure while he slept. I’d heard them, though, the sharp screams and sudden activity. I’d been lying awake in the wagon, staring into space and waiting for them to find him. I’d stumbled out with the rest, pretending to be shaking off sleep, and stood at the periphery while the rest gathered around the body.
We had considered a burial out here, on the road. But we were only two days out from the city, where they would be able to perform an actual ceremony. Heinz had decided that was preferable, and so that was what would happen. In the meantime, the body was in the wagon with Trevor and Heinz. I didn’t envy them that. Riding with the corpse of your dead son staring sightlessly at you from across the wagon had to be awful.
I knew how they felt. I felt like he was staring at me too.
Even Derek was less talkative than usual as we traveled on, one fewer than we had been the day before. He had little to say and we had less, so the ride passed largely in silence.
Did he know, I wondered? Did he suspect what had happened last night? Did he know what I had done, in the dark hours of the night? Did he know about the needle in the dark, covered in black fluid too thick to be blood?
Probably not. Probably it was just my imagination.
When it came time to break for dinner, I was guilty and exhausted. I found myself looking around for an unknown threat as we sat down around the fire, paranoid and twitchy. Every time someone looked at me I was sure they knew, that they would call me out as the murderer I was.
But they didn’t. And by the time I was finished eating the spare meal of beans and bread, I realized they weren’t going to. They didn’t know, and while I’m sure some of them suspected that Mathias’s death hadn’t been entirely the result of the Change, they weren’t going to say so. They were too afraid, or unsure. Or they simply didn’t want to believe it. It was nicer in their world of peace and sunlight, where you never had to kill people who didn’t deserve it.
After the meal I found Erik and the varg, out at the edge of the firelight, and sat with them instead of the main group of the caravan. Neither of them commented on it. Erik had apparently spent his store of words yesterday, and the varg was even more a mute than I was.
I spent some time studying the varg, as I sat there. He was still as fascinating as the first time I’d seen a varg, body and mind alike so close to familiar, and yet so far away.
It was hard to say quite what the varg looked like. He was similar to a canine, certainly, his general body something like a fox but between the size of a large fox and a small wolf. But there was something almost feline about his movements, the grace with which he carried himself. His head was larger than I would expect to see on an animal of his size, with large eyes and a long muzzle.
I didn’t know that much about vargs. Most people–most humans–didn’t. Vargs mostly kept to themselves. Intelligent as humans, give or take, but they had little to interact with humanity. They couldn’t speak in any way that a human could understand, and they had little use for human products. Mostly, from what I’d heard, they lived in packs in the wilderness, hunting together to bring down prey far larger than they were.
Every now and again, though, a varg decided that she was interested in the benefits of civilization. There were many things that they weren’t interested in–they didn’t have hands to use tools, and they were too carnivorous to eat much in the way of human food. But they got as much use out of a warm bed and a good meal as anyone else. They were much in demand as ratcatchers, scouts in the army, and in any other position where their speed and small size were more important than hands. There were difficulties in their employment, of course, but commerce always found a way.
This one didn’t look particularly civilized, up close. He looked a great deal like the Dierkhlani he habitually sat with. The rich red fur covering his fur was marked with dozens of thin scars, one of which had removed his left ear, and he was missing several teeth. It gave him a dangerous, almost feral look.
I went to bed early that night, and dreamed of bloody needles.
The next day, with the city of Hasburg looming on the horizon, we were attacked by bandits.
I had to appreciate the placement of the ambush. It was quite clever, really. Only half a day’s travel away from the city, most caravans would already have lowered their guard in expectation of a day’s rest in the city. They were just far enough away that the city guard wouldn’t likely get in the way, though. And between caravans, they could go back to the city to spend their loot. These people likely weren’t full time bandits.
The first warning I had of it was when Erik rode alongside the wagon I was in. Rose was asleep; she’d relaxed further in her sleep than she would while awake, and was leaning against my shoulder. I was holding very carefully still, trying to avoid disturbing her fragile peace.
Erik was very much the Dierkhlani, this morning. That long sword was strapped to his back, and I could feel the presence of other weapons as well–knives, daggers, the chain coiled at his hip. I was sure there were others, as well, that weren’t metal. He would be ready for channelers.
He rode up, easily keeping his seat on the horse he always rode, and looked at me. Without speaking, he beckoned slightly to me. The horse kept pace with the wagon, without any obvious instruction. It was, I thought, very well trained. He had brought it himself, rather than borrowing a horse from Konrad as I had first expected.
I wasn’t sure what he was doing there, but I knew better than to think the invitation was an idle one. I’d gotten something of a feel for Erik, and he wasn’t the sort to do anything without reason. So I slipped out from under Rose, delicately lowering the sleeping girl to rest against a sack of flour, and slipped over to the edge of the wagon, beside Derek. The driver was clearly curious about what was happening, but for once he was silent. Likely he was too intimidated by the Dierkhlani to ask.
Erik reached out his hand as I got close. I took it, and he swung me over to his saddle behind him. I barely even had to move. He had to be almost as strong as Black.
I wasn’t much of a rider. It wasn’t something I’d had a great deal of opportunity to do. My family hadn’t owned a horse back in the Whitewood, and riding had been a rare luxury on the trip south, one usually bought at a dear price. This saddle wasn’t ideal for it, either; it clearly hadn’t been designed to hold two, leaving me perched on the edge. Erik was rock steady in the saddle, so I settled for clinging to him to keep my precarious balance. I’m sure it looked ungainly and embarrassing, but I didn’t particularly care.
He didn’t explain what this was about. He seemed to prefer to let his actions speak for themselves, most of the time. I didn’t question him. I was confident I would find out what was going on soon enough.
We moved forward, passing Trevor’s wagon and then Konrad’s, to ride out in front. It was where Erik normally rode while we traveled, sweeping the road in front of us.
Once there, about thirty yards in front of the lead wagon, we settled in to a steady walk. It was a bit easier to stay seated now that we were moving more slowly. I even let go of Erik with one hand.
Less than ten minutes later, I paused and looked up, away from the saddle I’d mostly been staring at. There was something…off. I couldn’t put a finger on it, couldn’t place what was bothering me about it, but there was something wrong.
Ten seconds later, I saw the bandits.
There were four of them in front of us, stepping out of the trees that lined this section of the road. They were hard-looking men, all of them, and hard-used. They wore a mixture of simple leather and Legion-issue armor. Deserters, most likely. A quick glance back showed a similar number behind us, stepping out to block the retreat.
A complicated wave of emotions swept through me at the sight. Rage and hate and fear melded together inside me to form something more subtle and multifaceted than the sum of its parts. It was tempered, more surprisingly, by satisfaction.
I was already in so much emotional pain. I felt guilty, scared, helpless. I couldn’t forget what I’d seen, what I’d done, and it hurt. There was a sick pain twisting inside me. These people, these thugs, they were…scapegoats. I could take my own pain out on them. I could hurt them without feeling bad about it.
Was this how the legionnaires felt as they massacred us, I wondered? Taking out their own guilt and pain on us? Trying to erase the things they’d seen?
I shivered, felt the metal hatchet at my back, waited.
“You know the drill,” the apparent leader of the bandits said. He was a tall man, narrow, with a hungry cast to his features that had nothing to do with food. A vivid red scar crossed his forehead just below the hairline, and his nose had been broken in the past and healed poorly. His stance was cocky, his walk a strut. “We go through your goods, take our pick. No need to make this any uglier than it has to be. We’ll let you carry on once we’re done, promise.”
Oddly enough, I believed him. It was more efficient for them to leave some, if not most, of the goods. Try to take everything, and you pushed the merchants into a corner. Even a rabbit bites if you corner it. Take too much, and you put yourself at risk–not just from the merchants, but also from the legions. They didn’t treat highwaymen kindly. As long as your thefts were small, though, they had no reason to care.
Not that it would necessarily be a pleasant experience. I hadn’t missed the way that his cold black eyes had lingered on me, or the fact that one of the men with him was openly leering. It was a simple reality that girls didn’t often fare well at the hands of men like this. I didn’t even want to think about what they might do to, say, Rose.
“Counteroffer,” Erik said. His voice was so icy it could have frozen water. “Let us pass and no one gets hurt.”
One of the bandits, the one that had been leering at me, guffawed. The leader, though, smiled in a vaguely patronizing way. He’d clearly been expecting something like this. “Be reasonable, mate,” he said, in a tone that sounded affable enough but had a dark undercurrent to it. “Eight of us, and only one of you. Fighting won’t get you anywhere but a ditch.”
The Dierkhlani dismounted. His motions were smooth and slow, fluid. I followed his lead, though considerably less gracefully. I managed to keep my feet on landing, which was all I felt I could ask for. He slapped the horse lightly on its flank, and it trotted back to the caravan.
“Last chance,” he said. He didn’t sound cold now. He sounded blank, analytical. The way he had sounded while determining that Mathias was dead and didn’t know it yet. “Get. Out. Of. My. Way.”
The lead bandit smiled. It was a nasty sort of smile. “Looks like we got a hero here, boys,” he said. He drew a sword from his side. It was a Legion blade, standard issue. Deserters for sure.
Erik started walking forward. He didn’t run, didn’t draw his blade. I could tell that the deserters were confused. Probably they thought he was suicidal, and they were happy to oblige him.
I never saw him move, not really. He was too fast to follow. One moment, he was walking towards the deserters empty handed. The next, that long sword of his was in his hand. He took two swift strides forward, getting within reach of the bandits’ leader. The other man raised his sword to block.
Too slow. He might as well not even have tried. The Dierkhlani flicked his sword in a tight circle, so quick and precise it might have been a willow switch. It worked around the deserter’s sword with lethal grace, the kind of maneuver that looked simple but which only an expert could perform with such speed and grace. He thrust forward, up under the defending sword and into the bandit’s chest.
He never even slowed down. He stepped forward and around the other man, flowing into a pirouette as he pulled the sword free. It looked like a dance, except for the part where the man he had been fighting collapsed into a pool of blood.
Just barely too low to have been the heart. To have dropped him so quickly, it must have hit the big vein just below the heart. Erik had gotten around the bandit’s defenses, landed a clean thrust through the ribs into a blood vessel with an anatomist’s precision, and then sliced him open inside and moved out of reach as he freed his weapon, all without breaking stride.
There were reasons people feared the Dierkhlani.
The other three standing there stood still for a moment, shocked. It had all happened so fast.
They recovered their composure and started moving. One closed with him, drawing another Legion-issue sword. The other two fell back.
I ignored the fool moving to close with the Dierkhlani. He was foolish, or else hadn’t yet processed what he’d just seen and was moving on instinct. Either way he would be dead in moments. The other two were more dangerous. They had crossbows.
The weapons weren’t Legion arbalests. They were nothing so dangerous as that. But they were still quite, quite lethal. They had to be dealt with.
The one on my left was closer to the Dierkhlani, closer to death. For no more reason than that, I focused my attention on the one to the right.
Metal wasn’t a common channel. You could only channel through something you had a connection to, on a fundamental level. Most people didn’t have that kind of bond to metal. It wasn’t something that people were surrounded by, immersed in, fascinated with the way they were the other elements. Earth, fire, air, those were the things people tended to be bound to.
Because of that rarity, people usually didn’t bother protecting themselves against us. It just wasn’t worth the trouble. Sure, metal armor left you vulnerable to someone who could channel metal. But it protected you against everyone else, and the vast majority of the time, that was more important.
Most of the time. Not all.
I opened myself to the magic, invited it in, and it flooded in to fill me. There were no wards here, no protections against people like me. It came easily, a raging torrent of power rushing into me. Through it, I could feel the metal all around, sparks blazing against the darkness. I found the bandit’s armor, the hodgepodge of chain mail over the leather, and I let the magic pour through me into it.
I couldn’t push him over, or at least not easily. Probably I could have managed it had I really tried; I had, after all, done much more during the escape from Branson’s Ford.
But why do things the hard way?
The push, the sudden unexpected shove, knocked him off balance. He stumbled, then straightened, looking around in confusion at what had happened to him.
As he straightened, the blast of coins took him in the face. They weren’t very precise in their placement, several of them going past him entirely.
But the ones that hit were more than enough. Blood sprayed into the air, droplets flying from the holes in his cheek, his shoulder, his throat. Caught in the moment, the magic, time seemed to stand still. I could see the individual drops as they fountained out. I could see him begin to fall.
I could see the Dierkhlani. He had his sword in his left hand, in a high guard. He had just parried the bandit’s sword, it looked like.
His other hand snapped out, impossibly fast, and grabbed one of my coins in flight. He continued the motion, turning it into flipping the coin.
While it was in the air, as time was beginning to return to normal for me, he burst into motion. He ducked under their crossed swords, putting both hands on his weapon, and brought it into a slash across the bandit’s back. It severed the spine, and the man fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.
The Dierkhlani kept moving, spinning, sword snapping up in front of his face. It intercepted the crossbow bolt flying at him from less than five feet away, deflecting it harmlessly aside. The momentum of the spin flowed seamlessly into a slash, putting so much force behind it that it carved the crossbowman almost in half.
In the sudden silence that followed, I could hear my coin hit the ground.
I was still gaping when he was turning, running back towards the other end of the caravan. He was fast, faster than he had any right to be. I wasn’t entirely sure if he wouldn’t have been slower if he were still on horseback.
I followed at a dead sprint, still losing ground fast. He crossed the distance in a blink, reaching the back of the caravan at about the same time as I reached the front. He turned the sprint into a lunging thrust, his body rolling to the side of the guarding spear at the same time as his sword slipped over it into the throat of the man wielding it.
I realized that I wouldn’t have time to get anywhere near them before the fight was settled, and instead turned towards the wagon next to me. I was a fast climber; it only took a pair of heartbeats before I was on the top of it.
In that time, the Dierkhlani had dropped another of the bandits. This one was a woman, the only one in their group. She was missing a head. The next bandit was more skilled, or luckier. He crossed blades with the Dierkhlani twice. On the second parry, though, Erik swept his blade out and around, taking off the other man’s hand and then on the backswing slashing his throat.
And then another voice shouted “Freeze!” from my right.
I turned to look at the source of the shout. So, I expect, did everyone else. Even leaving aside the unexpectedness of it, there was a sort of commanding quality to it. It demanded attention.
Another man swaggered out of the trees, where he’d evidently been waiting through the initial ambush. Between that and the air of command he carried himself with, I was guessing this was the actual leader of this group of highwaymen. The one who’d spoken earlier had been a decoy.
He had an arbalest–an actual arbalest, not one of the lighter crossbows his men had used. Also unlike them, he wasn’t pointing it at the Dierkhlani. He was pointing it at one of the wagons, the last in the row.
“You can dodge bolts,” he said to the Dierkhlani. “She can’t.” Which told me who he was aiming at–it wasn’t me, Reika was on the other side and closer to the front of the caravan, and Rose was still under the cover of the wagon, so it had to be Olga. “And I can pull the trigger before you reach me. So put the bloody sword down.”
Erik carefully lowered the blade to the ground and let go of it. I gaped.
“Smart man,” the arbalist said. “Damn good with a blade, too. Shame we’re on opposite sides.”
Erik said nothing. His head turned, very slightly, to look at me.
Ah. This would be why he’d brought me with him, then.
I considered for several heartbeats. In principle I was fairly confident that I could do what he wanted. It seemed like a simple enough application of my talents. It was nothing I hadn’t done before, really. Doing it with someone’s life so clearly in the balance, though…that made it harder.
But she was as good as dead if I didn’t. I had no illusions there. The bandits might have been planning to leave us alive. But with six of their number dead in the dirt, the need for revenge would outweigh the fear of the legions. He had no intention of letting any of us leave alive.
In a way, that simplified things. It meant that whatever I did, I wasn’t making things worse.
Again I opened myself, and again power flooded through me in a rapid, intense flood. I focused, feeling forward.
The arbalist had clearly put a lot of thought into this. He’d planned this ambush very carefully, even planning what to do if an eight-to-one advantage weren’t enough to decide things.
He hadn’t thought to use a nonmetallic arrowhead.
I hit it with a carefully focused, extremely intense spike of magic. It was challenging, affecting something so far away, but it was small and I had practiced. The arrowhead jerked violently upward, dragging the rest of the bolt with it. The arbalist reacted quickly, pulling the trigger, but it was already too late. The bolt was well out of alignment, and it went far wide. I didn’t even have to try to stop it. It soared harmlessly into the trees.
I was guessing that he’d thought having the Dierkhlani lay down his weapon had bought him a modicum of safety. If so, it had been a foolishly misplaced sense of security. The Dierkhlani didn’t need a sword to slaughter them. Probably he didn’t need anything but his hands.
Being a practical man, he instead used knives.
The first of the bandits hit the ground before the bolt had vanished from sight. Erik had produced a dagger, a narrow stiletto, and thrust it to the hilt into the bandit’s skull. Before the body hit the ground, he had produced a knife and flung it at the bandit leader.
The man dodged, and the blade glanced off his Legion-issue armor. He had been an officer before he deserted, I thought. He was certainly fast enough to dodge to suggest that he was a veteran.
It didn’t matter. He hadn’t even gotten back on balance before the Dierkhlani was on him. A quick slash and he was on the ground, bleeding out from a slit throat.
It couldn’t have been a minute since they first attacked, and nine people were dead. I was reminded, as I looked around, that I’d killed one of them. I could still see so clearly the droplets of blood spraying from the holes in his face, his throat.
I knew the memory would fade, just as the memory of bloody needles in the night would. I’d killed so many. What was one more?
Moments passed in stunned silence in the wake of the attack, broken only by the soft whisper of Erik retrieving his sword. He wiped it clean on one of the fallen bandits and then returned it to its sheath.
Underneath me, Konrad was swinging down from the wagon. “Seems you were a good investment,” he called, clearly speaking to Erik. The caravan master’s voice was cool and casual. You would never guess from listening what had just happened. Perhaps he’d been ambushed on the road so many times that it had ceased to matter to him.
“What should I do with the bodies?” Erik replied. His voice didn’t suggest any particular reaction to the violence, but then, he wouldn’t. He was Dierkhlani.
“Leave them for the ghouls,” Konrad replied dismissively. “They’d have done the same for us if they had half a chance. Come on, let’s push forward. We should be able to make it to Hasburg by nightfall.”
I opened my mouth to protest. Something about it seemed so wrong. I knew I shouldn’t care, that they had tried to kill us. But the memory of Branson’s Ford was too fresh and sharp in my mind. I had seen the monsters get enough people for a lifetime.
I closed my mouth a moment later. I didn’t know what to say, and anyway, the wagons were already starting into motion. The horses looked disturbed, but the drivers were experienced, and managed to soothe the beasts enough to get them moving. They would forget soon. It was a luxury I wished I had.
I leapt down from the wagon and went to stand by the edge of the road. It seemed easier to wait for my normal wagon to catch up than to walk back to it. As I stood there, I walked up to look at the man I had killed. It seemed the least I could do. I had, after all, ended his life. I owed him the respect of at least facing what I had done.
He had been a legionnaire. He’d murdered before. He’d attacked us. I tried to convince myself that meant he’d deserved what I had done to him.
I saw a coin lying in the road, its iron surface stained bright crimson with the blood it had been covered in. It had landed facing tails after the Dierkhlani had flipped it, and the stylized flower was still visible through the blood.
I looked at it for a moment, and then picked it up and put it back into my pouch.