He was everything the stories claimed, only smaller.
I met him among the turbid shadows outside of camp, the golden watch fires seeming but a dim reflection of the laughter in his soot-smeared face. He hardly seemed to notice the mountain pony pirouetting beneath him, nor the swirling chaos of horses and men around. My heart tripped, then its pace quickened.
“The great bard, Marcoen!” Havoc grinned, his raven’s-wing hair tossing on the evening breeze and teeth gleaming in twilight. “We are in the presence of legend, brothers! Get him a horse!”
I could tell that this was to be one of his infamous raids, but I had no time to ask questions. His men obeyed without hesitation, saddling a horse for me and making sure I didn’t fall off, because Havoc had made clear I was to join them on their venture. But they knew I’d come across the lines from Cumbera, and Commander D’Strigides had been correct in his assessment of my welcome. Havoc himself might accept me at my word, but his followers were wolves. Were I to give them any cause to doubt, make any gesture scenting of betrayal, Havoc would find himself apologizing to D’Strigides for my ‘fatal accident.’
In no more time than it took me to blink, it seemed, I found myself included in an avalanche of horses thundering south along the military road through Roenish Mirze-side. Horses, and a few men…a dozen, I estimated, despite the dark and the constant movement, but more than twice that many horses. Everyone but myself led at least one spare on a line. I noticed quickly enough that the mounts carrying riders were the sturdy mountain stock Havoc favored, while all the spares were full-sized. But it wasn’t until we were passing yet a third encampment, in the dark evidenced as the previous two times only by the bugling of officers’ stallions, that I realized: the mountain stock were geldings, but all the spares were mares. And all the mares, including the one I bestrode, were in estrus.
Half a watch into the ride, our party left the road and angled east toward the Mirze River that separates Roen from her Cumberan adversaries. We dropped down a defile that led to a swift but shallow section of river between looming banks. The riverbed was paved with fist-sized stones, but the run had taken the edge off the horses’ nervous energy and they were tired enough to be careful. So preoccupied were they that I might have been the only one of our party to feel terrified when we headed back north, downstream now, into deeper water that picked us up and swept us away down a gorge at speeds rivaling a gallop.
Perhaps I wasn’t as alone in my terror as I felt. The horses seemed pathetically grateful to stagger out onto the little beach we found just before the water downstream churned white against submerged boulders.
A stream had cut the gully that led us east. The horses struggled, fetlock-deep, up its course. By the time we found ourselves once more on level ground, among a scattered grove of buckeye, the horses were more than ready to stand quiet and blow.
We went slowly from there. The night was so dark, I found my way solely by dint of staying with the herd. Havoc must have been part cat to find his path. But, invisible in the darkness, the horses passed downwind on the southern edge of a Cumberan encampment—though it was only later events that proved this the case. I believe that was where I saw one of our party dismount and slip away north. At the time, I half convinced myself it was a trick of the shadows; a sliver of moon had just peeped over the Cumberan peaks to the east.
Still at a walk, our herd swung around to the north again and hooked back to the west. The moon rode thrice its span above looming crags by the time we once more approached the encampment, this time from the southeast. Without any signal that I could detect, the herd increased its pace. Rested by the long walk, the mares were willing and able when pushed to a flat gallop.
We found ourselves among Cumberan tents, plowing through Cumberan watch fires…and sweeping up their picket lines, which had inexplicably become detached from their posts. The stallions of the officers were more than willing to join our remuda, while the mares and geldings in their company followed out of habit.
One of the newcomers swung into stride along beside my own mount, and a dark form clinging to its otherwise bare back flashed me a jubilant grin.
I loved him, then, as well as ever I’d loved The General. Well I understood the free rein his Roenish commander allowed him. I understood, too, the prevailing sense of frustrated good humor with which the Cumberan army viewed him, despite the ‘havoc’ he wrought upon them.
Once the Cumberan encampment had fallen behind, the men on the southern flank of the herd whistled and the horses angled north.
We reached the vicinity of the river with the thin moon high above us. Ahead I could see watch fires again, and the flame-lit façade of the twinned towers guarding either bank of a ford. Their path cluttered by another Cumberan force, the horses thought to slow. But Havoc’s men, with cries and whistles, drove them forward.
In panic, the horses lunged through the camp. Tents collapsed, and men and fires scattered. Then the spray flew as the herd hit the ford and plunged across.
“Roen!” shouted the raiders as the lead horses approached the guards posted on the western shore. “Roen!”
I feared the men on duty there would be run down. They held their post as their Cumberan counterparts had not. But the water had cooled the herd’s vigor and they were willing to be shunted around the camp, to settle among the picketed steeds in the pasture beyond.
The thunder of hooves drummed on in my ears, in the stream of my blood. My lungs were a bellows and the air carried the bite of mint, of cool water in the face on a sere afternoon. The raiders whooped and called, and cursed each other with rough affection. Havoc’s laughter rained on my soul like spring showers on the dry Mydicean lowlands.
We were still drunk on adrenaline, though the horses settled as if they belonged. A contingent of Roenish officers made an appearance. I recognized the banner of Duke Strigides, and realized we were back where we’d started at the beginning of the evening.
“We return the mares we borrowed!” Havoc hailed the duke. “These others we present to your brother, Commander D’Strigides, with our regards. He brought us a gift earlier this evening, the Bard Marcoen, and it is our honor to return the favor!”
Well. Travan D’Strigides merely guided me to prevent my wandering at will through Roenish territory. He trusts me no more than Havoc’s men do. But it made a great story, and who am I to interfere with another’s telling?
I collected my kit and rejoined Havoc’s party, in the dark before dawn, atop a low bluff overlooking the river. All were gathered about a small fire, where chunks of meat roasted on stripped willow twigs and tins of water heated on the rocks of the periphery.
“You don’t sleep?” I inquired, worn by my long day and the excitement of our adventure.
“Oh, certainly!” Havoc smiled, his back to the river and his comrades around him. The budding legend stretched booted feet to the fire and mended a stocking.
“Sometime after dawn,” he allowed. “Whenever we get tired.”
He’s young, I reminded myself, feeling all of my two-score- and-five years.
“Great Bard,” he said, “will you share with us the news from Mydicea?”
Did he have memories of that far land? His speech bore the rhythms of its tongue, but he must have been very young when Daphed was recalled to accept the throne of Roen.
So I sang to them of the Adamantine Empire’s last days, news five years stale but something of which these men could’ve heard nothing more than rumors. Songs of the past these were, of the dead, and therefore harmless. I sang of Solanum Adamanté, Emperor Divale’s third son, raised as an assassin in the service of the nether god Datura; of how he crossed the lines to visit General Hanbel one night, promising victory. I drew pictures with my words of Solanum’s signal for the final assault: the fiery destruction of Datura’s temple on the heights above the walls, how it looked to us in the waiting army watching from without the city. And I sang, my voice roughened with grief, of the great General falling even as the gates to the city were thrown wide.
As I spoke, the laughter stilled in those eyes so like the trailing edge of dusk. Havoc gazed southeast, beyond the impassable Tonoman Mountains where a gilding of the year-round snow on the peaks gave first hint of the rising sun. I knew his thoughts weren’t on the war he now fought, but on the one he’d missed. The needle in his hands moved unerringly, reweaving a worn heel, and the firelight glinted off a tarnished silver ring on the smallest finger of his left hand, his only adornment.
What a tragedy, I thought. The preeminent scout of the century missed the greatest campaign of the age by but a handful of years!
I told of the populace rising up, pulling down Lord Marshal Hellebore, and storming the palace. By the time the throne was taken, the entire royal family, down to Queen Aelania and her infant son, lay dead.
“They killed her?” While his comrades looked solemn, even grim, Havoc’s naturally pale face now looked almost translucent. The needle stilled. I recalled his reputation for unfailing chivalry toward the weak.
“Divale did it, or had it done. Not even applying a statue as a battering ram got us in the throne room fast enough. We could hear the queen screaming for the life of her child, but were too late.”
The violence shocked him. Or perhaps it was my tone, hardened by guilt and five years of retelling. He couldn’t know the tender wound it concealed.
“In the four centuries of their rule, the Adamantés fed thousands of innocents to their pet demon,” I reminded, fighting to keep my voice the gentle polished tones of a storyteller. “Two more tallied are hardly worth mentioning. The queen was mourned, right along with General Hanbel. But it’s as well her child died.”
He just looked at me, innocent despite his reputation at war, a lad who hadn’t been born when I joined Hanbel’s campaign over two decades before. He might have been thinking of a beloved mother, a baby brother, and I had to explain.
“You cannot know, who weren’t on the campaign, the horror of Datura’s assassin priests. You’ve never wakened at dawn to find your shield-mate beside you, cold and dead, his heart gone to feed that dark god’s altar. You’ve never seen your commanders falling in swathes, your comrades turning against you mindless as ravening wolves.
“You have heard the song and know the debt owed to Solanum Adamanté. Without his efforts, the campaign would have failed. The Adamantés would yet rule, or at the least threaten, a quarter of the known world. But had he survived, our army would have seen the city razed. No man who participated in that campaign could have rested while even a drop of that bloodline survived.”
A log broke, and newly minted sparks sizzled into the sky to hang among the hard diamond stars. The early morning breeze blew from the south, cooling the land. The men waited, and I spared them my attention now because after my last statement, I couldn’t look at him.
I found myself truly in the company of wolves, lean predators with nothing to lose, who watched me with eyes that glowed in the firelight. Such lawless men might as easily have become bandits, but had joined a mercenary company for money...and perchance to shed blood. I’d survived a full score years of the mud, fevers, disasters, and assassins that plagued the Adamantine Campaign. The entire world knew my songs and my name. Yet a word from this stripling youth and I’d have died.
Though he held only the rank of scout, Havoc claimed a loyalty as absolute as it was unquestioned. He held his band to a standard of conduct the Royal Guard of any country could envy. And the chaos he wrought upon his enemies was ingenious, devastating, and only in rare and truly deserving cases fatal.
The needle again nosed through the stocking’s fabric, tugging the yarn after.
“You said ‘we’. You saw the throne room? You were there?” he asked.
“My apologies. I have the tale from Dirk Alzarin’s men. Three of them were with him in that final assault.”
A horse stamped.
“So Dirk Alzarin led the assault on the throne room,” Havoc said, his voice cool and calm as the river he’d dammed that spring to impede cross-border raiding.
I thought that would get attention. That same Dirk Alzarin, not a moon past, was assigned command of this border dispute by his older brother, Cumbera’s new king.
“He did. And by then not an officer survived who ranked him. He commanded the army, and through it the city and empire.”
“Why’s he here?” inquired a man to Havoc’s left, a Tonoman busily engaged in mending tack. “Why isn’t he Emperor of Mydicea?”
“That, I cannot tell.” Even having known Alzarin a score of years, I didn’t understand. “He established a ruling council of the guild masters and city officials, then took most of the army on a tour of the provinces. I go where the stories are, and the city was at peace. We ranged farther and farther afield, until nothing remained of that once vast army but the Cumberans and a few who owed Alzarin their loyalty. And eventually I realized we weren’t going back.
“You know what Dirk Alzarin found in Cumbera: a usurper on the throne, and most of his relatives dead by assassination. King Glaive sent Dirk to command the front, dissatisfied with Duke Cudgel’s waiting game.”
“Or hoping some accident might befall the returning hero?” offered a swordsman to Havoc’s right, sighting down the blade of a gleaming rapier and applying a strop yet again.
I smiled, as was my habit. I am but a chronicler, after all. The fate of nations and kings touches me not. I remind myself of this often.
“Dirk Alzarin could’ve been absolute ruler of the greatest nation in the known world, and he walked away,” mused Havoc, the needle quiet in his hands. “It’s a dangerous enemy you have brought us, great Bard.”
“I have brought you nothing but tales, O Havoc,” I replied serenely.
“Why then have you come?” He met my eyes across the cook-fire, and in the shadows of the mountains in the earliest dawn the dark blue of his gaze appeared pools of gleaming shadow.
“I go where the stories are.”
Never, other than the days immediately following the fall of Mydicea, have I felt so alive as I did that summer. Everything fascinated Havoc. He might lie on his stomach a watch or more observing a wasp burying a spider four times its size, or wade waist-deep in a meadow gazing rapt at leaves and flowers. We’d saddle up and travel all day down the valley, just so he could gaze on the trees or an outcrop of rock. Often these trips were on Cumberan soil...and came to nothing.
More commonly he would stop to help some peasant gathering wood, or repairing a roof, and our band would pitch in to see the task done. He’d listen enthralled to a child’s tale or a granny’s ramblings, and ask questions. Though he was a foreigner who had been on the front little more than two years, the insular valley folk considered him one of their own.
Everywhere he went, he asked for things. Children gathered fungi and flowers at his request, or reported wasp-nests to a beekeeper who collected them in tightly woven baskets made by farm wives. Huntsmen trapped polecats, cowherds gathered flux-weed and nettles, and lasses of every age bedecked gate trees with courting ribbons for him. But of this last, he was oblivious.
Havoc reported, every few days, to D’Strigides. Even that was at irregular intervals and never, as far as I could tell, at prearranged sites. We ranged at will, slept a few hours at whatever time of day or night we found a spot with suitable cover, and carried only those possessions which wouldn’t burden the stocky hill-bred ponies we rode.
And then some night we’d cross the river. Cumberan soldiers would discover that someone had insinuated flux-weed into their pottage greens, and in the dark end up with handfuls of nettles with which to wipe. Nosegays of dreamflower, hung in trees north of an encampment, would dry through the long summer days so the breeze inland, up the river in the early night, shook loose the pollen and spread it over the camp. Baskets, lobbed into a bivouac as supper was served, broke apart, freeing swarms of hornets. Spores of certain fungi, introduced into casks of wine, sent soldiers shrieking and stumbling in panic through the woods. And the polecats....
The gods spoke to me once, long ago. “Only your silence can preserve whom you most wish to apotheosize,” they told me. In the brashness of youth, I discounted the geas. Then The General fell, and for five years I sang only of the dead.
Now, at last, I forgot my haunting guilt and my soul took flight once more. I had three new songs within the first fortnight, and two more by the moon’s waxing. The price offered for Havoc’s head was fifty crowns when I crossed the river from Cumbera to join Havoc’s band. It went up to seventy-five, and then one hundred. Still we ranged the valley at will, and the peasants in Cumberan Mirze-side were as free with their well water as were their cousins in Roen.
Roenish soldiers and peasants alike sang my Havoc songs, rollicking pieces that pulled tired men out of their seats and made a matron’s heavy feet light as a lass’s. Cumberan guards, on watch in the night, could be heard to sing them under their breath when no officers were about.
“Your songs will be my death,” Havoc said to me, once. His bounty went up: one-twenty-five, one-fifty, and I wondered if he was right.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to look far for alternate inspiration.
We swung through Rose Hill town about mid-day and stopped in the market, making camp shortly thereafter within easy sight of the north gate. Since we usually picked secluded areas to sleep, I deduced two things: we wouldn’t be staying longer than for a leisurely meal, and we could expect company.
We rubbed fresh fish with herbs, coated them with clay from a convenient bank, and buried them among the coals, drowsing by the fire as we waited for them to cook. Sure enough, by the time the hardened mud was the only thing preventing the fish from falling apart, the lean form of Travan D’Strigides appeared. He and Havoc spoke together a time, then he joined us for an early evening meal.
“Is it true what we hear about the Duchess Questre?” asked Vinaldi, a master swordsman from Alcora who was known to speak bitterly of a certain Alcoran prince. “That she’s managed to shame the Royal Council into more troop levies, and rides at the head of her own?”
“It is,” D’Strigides replied, dryly. “Thanks to her, we’ll be seeing more of the nobility leading their troops. Means we’ll be getting better supplies. The drawback is that the idiots will try to run the war. Between that, and Dirk Alzarin apparently missing the bloodshed of the Mydicean Campaign, we’re in for one hot summer here in Mirze Vale.”
“I wouldn’t worry much,” said Vinaldi, casting his shield-brother Zahn a grin. “The Duchess will keep them in line.”
The commander only raised his brows. I smelled a story.
“We’ve met her. Haven’t we, Zahn?”
Zahn, a squat Tonoman with the dark hair and eyes of the native population and a once badly broken nose, squirmed uncomfortably.
“Well?” I demanded. I could fairly taste a story on the air.
“Zahn tried to steal her horse.”
“You helped,” grunted Zahn, not looking up.
“We had horses. I suggested we lift coin to get us to Kingsport where we’d be able to find employment. You went for the horse.”
“You didn’t see that horse!” Zahn glared at me, eyes flashing with passion and nostrils flared like one of his beloved steeds.
Zahn losing his head over a horse was something I could easily conceive of. He lived and breathed horses, and could ride anything with hair. It was Zahn who taught our steeds to leap off the lower cliffs into the river and swim across to a more sloping shore. This was the secret to our free movement back and forth across the flooded riverbed.
But I knew that story.
“You didn’t succeed?”
“Wasn’t but a handful in the party, all told. I held a crossbow on them and Zahn went for their purses. Except that he got distracted by that horse, Mist take him.” Vinaldi grinned again at his friend, but Zahn just ducked low over his braiding.
“He grabbed the near rein and told the rider to get down. ‘You’re not man enough for a horse like this,’ says he. Didn’t realize it was a woman. Who’d expect to see a noblewoman riding astride in surcote and breeches? Wasn’t ‘til she spoke we knew our mistake. ‘You’re not man enough to take him from me,’ says she, and kicks poor Zahn in the face!”
“You laughed,” growled Zahn, “and let them ride off!”
“And a good thing, too.” D’Strigides let slip a wry grin. “She is a Justice of Roen, in the process of rewriting our laws. You might have gotten away with taking her money, but she’d have hunted you down and hanged you if you’d taken her horse!”
“We didn’t even get the money!” laughed Vinaldi. “But goddess of Glory and Horses, what a woman!”
“I’ll tell her you said so,” D’Strigides offered.
“You know her?” Vinaldi demanded. Zahn watched, tense, as if waiting for a serpent to strike.
“Strigides lands border Questre’s. Her Grace was engaged to my eldest brother before he was killed in the last conflict with Cumbera. Our families are close.”
“If I’m right, she was once engaged to Dirk Alzarin as well,” I said.
D’Strigides’ thoughtful frown was all I needed to confirm my suspicions.
“Was she?” Vinaldi demanded. Clearly the unconventional duchess had won at least one unworthy mercenary’s admiration.
The commander nodded slowly, his gaze never leaving me. “She was. But how you heard, I couldn’t guess. Not from Alzarin, surely.”
“From then-Prince Daphed, but at the prompting of Dirk Alzarin. Perhaps he felt the story of a woman who came of age outplaying her king at politics would inspire General Hanbel’s little daughter. Or it may have been some subtle jab at Daphed. I don’t claim to be privy to any private thoughts but my own.”
“And few enough of those,” muttered Zahn, to generalized laughter. I took a bow, acknowledging the point.
But the tales took root in the fertile soil of my brain. I presented my first paean in Her Grace’s praise several nights later. Within a fortnight, a squad of Dirk Alzarin’s finest was taken attempting to abduct the duchess from her tent in the watch before dawn. It was said she returned their leader naked, tied backward on a bony mule.
When I managed to converse with one of Questre’s officers, I found him and his men ready to rhapsodize without even a bottle of wine to loosen their tongues. She lived among them, they said, in a tent differentiated only by the Questre standard. She ate what they ate, and rode on patrol. What’s more, she did not pretend to know more of warfare than her veteran commanders, but listened in council and asked intelligent questions and, in most cases, only confirmed the strategies that were presented.
I admit it: I was minded strongly of The General.
Can you believe, for a moment I felt homesick for Mydicea? For the Adamantine Campaign, and the sand and the toil and even the assassins? But what I missed were the living legends I had immortalized and spent half my life in the company of, most of whom were now five years dead.
My second hymn was one of praise for Questre’s wisdom, patriotism, and courage in the face of personal danger. I drew on local mythology, painting an analogy with a goddess of dawn who symbolized Hope in rising above the grey mists that so often shrouded the Mirze dale and mountains of a morning. Mists were symbolic of the grey-eyed god of the Dead who ever pursued the elusive goddess, and occasionally overcame her...but never for long.
I’d have to find another direction to continue my travels when my time here ended. Grey eyes were far from unknown in the royal house of Cumbera, and Dirk Alzarin himself fit the Mirze folks’ description of Severan, god of the Dead, so well I felt confident that history played a significant part in the formation of this theology.
Dirk Alzarin’s response was prompt and in force. Once more the duchess managed to escape the attempted kidnapping, this time by dint of having the faster horse. Too, her horse had the lighter burden by far, but I didn’t realize that ‘til later.
Commander D’Strigides appeared one evening when the sun hung in a baleful glare over the west hills. We were downriver, almost to the lake where the Mirze found its exit on the valley’s north end, heading seaward. The biting flies were fierce. He’d never sought us in so isolated an area. Thus I knew his visit an urgent matter.
My eye went to the lad accompanying him, a slender youth in surcote and breeches with a deliberate stride. White-gold swans’ down hair looked as if it had been cut short to be worn under a helm but allowed to grow out. The firelight picked out features too fair and fey for a lad of any age, and I empathized with the grim expression that sat so poorly on that delicate countenance.
The figure’s left hand rested on the hilt of a light and business-like dueling rapier. That hand had been injured and was wrapped in cloth the same shade as the russet surcote. Only the quality of the cloth, and of the tailored riding boots, spoke of wealth...those, and the black diamonds glinting on the hilt of the dagger at her right hip.
By that dagger, I knew her. Only three existed. One was lost in the destruction of Datura’s temple. One, Dirk Alzarin kept for himself. The third he’d bestowed upon a loyal liegeman who’d served him since birth. That was when I realized Sergeant Henders had been the one assigned to capture the duchess that first failed attempt.
The Duchess Questre had to be near forty. She didn’t look it. The only signs of her age were crow’s-feet at the corners of her lilac eyes, and that happened young on pale-eyed foreigners in sun-bright Mydicea.
Vinaldi was the next to recognize her. It was his gasp of awe and dread that got the attention of the others. Zahn leapt up to flee, but Havoc caught his arm. Zahn and Vinaldi both stayed, obedient to Havoc’s silent command, despite Questre’s narrow-eyed recognition. She said nothing to them, but addressed me instead.
“So, you’re the bard, Marcoen.” Her voice held the music of the harp’s plucked strings. She was a soprano, and I’d wager my gittern she could sing to make the birds cry in envy. Tonight, though, she spoke in a key suitable for a threnody.
“We share many of the same heroes,” she said. Her glance sparked on Havoc, bringing a blush to his cheeks as his gaze skittered away. I’d never seen him nonplused before.
Envy thrust a knife at my heart. I parried it and nursed the wound.
For the sake of my art. I’ve done so many times, and the greater the emotion the more triumphant the ballad. But the pain never fades.
“Do you take requests?” she asked of me.
A song? I’d played for royalty before. None had discomposed me as much as she, but I nodded, knowing I’d find my voice when my fingers touched the strings.
“I request that you not compose anything about my nephew, King Daphed,” she said. “While he is worthy of such an honor, I greatly fear the consequences would not be to your liking or mine. For myself, I appreciate your work, dear Bard. But I could wish that I had never become the subject of your verse.”
I glanced at Havoc, who once more gazed at me steadily. He was still holding Zahn by the arm.
I remembered his words, and his ever-rising bounty.
I glanced back at the diminutive duchess, at hair rough-shorn too short for another’s grip, at the scarred throat and the wrapped hand that rested like a crippled bird on the hilt of her rapier. They say she levered away the knife at her throat with her own hand. I wondered for the first time at the damage done, and at how much blame I bore for having provoked that attack.
“I can make no promise, Your Grace. But I will give the matter sober consideration.”
She gave a short, sharp nod, accepting my concession. Then she turned her regard to Vinaldi and Zahn, before setting her focus on Havoc, himself.
“These are your men?” she demanded.
“They are,” Havoc replied, this time meeting her gaze.
“You name yourself responsible for them, and for their actions?”
Again, that sharp nod of recognition, and she turned away. D’Strigides gave Havoc a solemn look before following. It was the last we saw of the commander.
Havoc released Zahn slowly. The horseman sank to the ground, eyes closed, dealing with his close brush with the Mist.
But Havoc’s eyes were on me, and troubled. “I have only my life to lose, Bard. If you must write songs about one of us, let it be me.”
I thought of my kidskin journal and the fragments of Havoc songs not yet completed. I thought of one hundred fifty crowns and the life of ease they might purchase. I thought of the duchess’ ragged hair and mangled hand, and again heard that whisper of the gods:
“Only your silence....”
Perhaps it was that we made our move before midnight, and the threatened rain had the Cumberan guards jumpy. The camp roused and we pulled back prematurely, leaving our tasks undone. We didn’t realize Zahn was taken ‘til he failed to show at the rendezvous.
Havoc slipped away on foot, and we waited.
Rain came down in tubs and buckets, and the horses churned the ground to mud despite heavy leaf litter under the trees. Havoc never showed.
We returned to the Roenish side of the river, concealed by the pre-dawn mists, but kept watch from under the forest’s edge.
We weren’t disappointed.
The goddess of Hope set the Cumberan peaks afire and spread diaphanous veils of peach and blush, and a lilac like Questre’s eyes, billowing overhead. Severan’s mist lay like a woolly grey serpent between the riverbanks, rearing its multifarious heads above damp treetops and straining to reach her from the very flanks of the mountain peaks. And failing.
We heard hoof beats, muted thunder rolling through the dale, growing ever louder. From the mists, coiling over the field across the river, burst a glorious black brute. One figure strained forward over the horse’s muscular neck, face flagellated by the whipping mane. A second, hunched figure, held on tight with bowed head and a black mane of his own flying.
Zahn never slowed as he took the approach to the river.
I can only tell myself that, in the fog, the horse didn’t know how far down the water was. He gathered those powerful haunches and leaped from the cliff’s edge...to be swallowed by the swollen serpent of mist, lost but for an equine scream of terror and an enormous splash.
Victor, the horse, came surging out of the water with Zahn sticking so close they might have been wearing the same skin. I recognized Victor immediately. Of Havoc, I saw no sign, nor heard splashing from the river.
Zahn slid from the steed’s back, his movements stiff, pained. He patted Victor approvingly on the withers, and the stallion lowered its head to shake the water from its mane.
“Where’s Havoc?” I demanded. It wasn’t unlike Zahn to be distracted by horses while our leader drowned only a rod away.
“Here,” quothe said leader, swimming silently to shore with only his head breaking the surface of the water, his hair streaming behind like black algae. He pulled himself up onto a rock at the water’s edge and ran his fingers through his hair, squeezing out the water.
The local populace has a legend of a horse that lives down in the river, one that comes ashore to steal young maids. Some insist that the horse can become a man. I filed away the image for later use, perhaps in a romantic ballad.
“Where were you?” Vinaldi demanded of Zahn.
“How’d you get him away?” someone else tossed at Havoc.
“Of all the horses in Cumbera, did you have to steal Dirk Alzarin’s own?” I asked.
Vinaldi thumped himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand.
“Is it?” Havoc sighed, dumping water out of a boot. “I was afraid of that.”
“How’d you get him?” I inquired.
“The Cumberans were...enthusiastic,” Havoc said, his eyes straying to the limping Zahn. “We wouldn’t be able to move fast enough on foot. Take note: if you are captured you won’t be held for ransom. Zahn was chained to the courtyard wall of Mirze-March Keep, to be turned over to Duke Cudgel at dawn.”
My shudder had nothing to do with the night’s rain and morning chill. The Red Duke’s dungeon was notorious.
“How’d you get him away?” asked Vinaldi.
“I learned to pick locks as an apprentice,” smiled Havoc, unlacing his doublet and hanging it from a branch. “The guards took cover from the rain, just giving their prisoner occasional glances. We put Zahn’s cloak over a barrel. Through the rain, it looked just like him.”
Zahn snatched an oak gall off a limb and lobbed it at Havoc, who laughed and deflected it with a negligent hand. Havoc started digging through his saddlebags and pulled out a dry shirt.
“The gate was the tricky part. I suspect they recognized the horse and opened for him out of habit.”
No chance, I thought, would anyone mistake even the two of you together as Dirk Alzarin. Even in the rain. A worm of doubt squirmed. Mydicea, and the tricks of perception attributed to Datura’s assassin priests, were too deeply engrained in my soul. I actually opened my mouth to question—
But then Havoc stripped off his shirt.
I lost all thought of Alzarin and the improbabilities of the story. That bared back, before he covered it with the dry blouse, was a network of ridged scar tissue. The gullies between were deep enough to bury a lass’s fingers.
How had he gotten such a beating? Beatings, for some of the scars were clearly older. He could’ve been no more than a child for those earlier ones. It was a wonder he’d survived.
Had he been a slave? It would explain the sheer joy with which he dove into every experience, the reason he drank life down like water on a summer day. But, no. Surely not?
He turned to face us, lacing up the yolk, and paused at our regard. Havoc raised his eyebrows, tilted his head, and waited.
“The scars?” I ventured, when no one else dared ask.
He relaxed visibly, and with a self-deprecating smile said, “I was an unsatisfactory apprentice.”
It wasn’t until fortnights later, when other events recalled my unasked questions, that I realized he’d let us see the scars as a distraction.
Havoc grew more sober after that. Not that his habits changed, nor our tactics. But I’d catch him watching us with concern, glancing around at the troop before calling a halt at mid-day, or ordering a change of clothes if someone got dunked during a night crossing. And he began encouraging us to talk about our plans, our hopes and dreams. One of the lads had a knack for carpentry, and Havoc found him a place among the Roenish army’s engineers. Another confessed to a farmer’s love of the land, and shortly found himself employed in the vineyards.
No one had to ask where Havoc was when he disappeared after Travan D’Strigides was captured by the Cumberans. But three days with no word left us wondering if our leader were in Duke Cudgel’s dungeon.
It was a sober Havoc, indeed, who returned to us on the third evening. He declined to say where he’d been, but asked me how he might arrange a meeting with King Daphed to convey a message from Commander D’Strigides. All my forgotten suspicions from the moon before swept like a flash-fire through my brain.
I made the arrangements he asked by offering to play for the court, and then taking Havoc along to the Royal encampment. Night found us in the great hall of Duke Setigera’s Keep as his noble guests finished their evening repast. I sang of events that King Daphed would remember from his time on the Mydicean Campaign, of disasters large and small and the horror of Datura’s assassins slipping amongst us unseen. Then I sang of the last offensive, of the fall of General Hanbel and Mydicea City. And I sang my Ode to Solanum Adamanté, of his great sacrifice, and saw not a dry eye in the hall...except Havoc’s.
He gazed into the distance, absently turning the ring on his finger. I admit I was disappointed, but I could not help the desire to know his thoughts at such a time.
I planned to wrap up with a song or two about the present campaign. Under the gaze of the duchess, and mindful of her request, I couldn’t sing ‘Questre’s Ride’. But ‘Old Soldier’ and ‘Havoc’s Band’ set things up nicely. I introduced my inspiration, and gave him opportunity to deliver his message. It turned out to be on a scrolled parchment he produced from up his sleeve.
King Daphed turned grim as he perused the missive. The Duchess Questre, when he handed it to her, might have been stone.
“Where is he being held?” King Daphed inquired, after solemn contemplation of the mercenary scout before him.
“In the hall occupied by the Lord Marshal’s personal guard; chained to the wall. He believes himself in no immediate danger, safe from Duke Cudgel.”
“This is by his hand?”
“It is, your Highness. He said you would recognize the necessity.”
For the first time, Havoc paused. “He explained it, Your Highness.”
And just how had he had personal communication with a prisoner kept chained to the wall in the hall occupied by Dirk Alzarin’s personal guards? I knew those men. No chance would a stranger be permitted to slip into their private domain for a chat with their prisoner. Unless....
But, no. Another case of mistaken identity involving the too-distinctive Havoc was beyond all probability. The worm of doubt squirmed again. I quashed it, resolving to have a long talk with Zahn.
Then, “Until such time as Commander D’Strigides returns to active duty on our behalf, you will report to the Duchess Questre on all matters pertaining to your activities.” King Daphed gave us three days to formally report.
It wasn’t ‘til we’d rejoined the rest of the troop and were settled by the fire that I managed to inquire as to the contents of the message.
“Unless it’s a secret,” I added, hoping he’d tell anyway.
“I don’t suppose it is,” Havoc conceded. “He requested King Daphed disallow Questre to offer ransom on his behalf.”
“I could see it being a bad idea to allow Dirk Alzarin any suspicion he holds one whom the duchess values,” I mused. “But why would she offer such ransom?” This was the secret, and Havoc’s answer was a long time coming.
“You are an honorable man, Bard,” he said, those dark eyes pinning me like a lance. “You’ve shown me that you care whether any words of yours might bring others to harm. I will tell you this, and you must breathe word of it to no one: Travan D’Strigides is Questre’s heir.”
Dirk Alzarin had in his hands the perfect tool to force the much-sought duchess’ cooperation, and he didn’t know it.
I couldn’t breathe. The significance of this filled my head; tried to squeeze out my ears. I bit my tongue and kept it inside.
The following evening we reported to Questre’s camp. She made clear she’d leave our activities and planning in Havoc’s hands, as D’Strigides had done.
And the story Zahn told in private contained a richness of detail his rescuer had left out, but differed significantly in no feature from the tale Havoc told us that first morning. It wasn’t reassuring.
Why is it that a lass’s scream draws no attention, but a man’s brings on the cavalry?
Perhaps I’m pessimistic. Perhaps the cavalry was already on its way, having heard her cries for help. Perhaps we only got there first.
In the darkness we heard them coming. We finished off the last of the perpetrators quickly, and may have been a bit sloppy. Several of us took injuries, and Vinaldi hopped on one leg when Zahn brought his horse, but the eight culprits lay dead.
With no time for gentler considerations, Havoc swung the rescued lass up behind him. We lost our pursuit by ducking aside and waiting silent in the inky depths under the trees as they thundered past. Ever unpredictable, Havoc led us deeper into Cumberan Mirze-side, dodging patrols and encampments, to the Sisters of Light convent where they practiced the healing arts. It didn’t surprise me to find the gate trees festooned with ribbons.
Havoc waved us back and rode directly to the portal.
Repeated pounding brought a portress to the gate...and a bevy of novices to the walls, despite the early hour. Or maybe because of it. Life in a convent can’t see a great deal of excitement, and a pre-dawn visitor meant something unusual afoot. Women peered from the walls, their faces pale blurs in the dimness.
The tearful lass kissed Havoc’s fingers as he handed her down. I saw him pass his purse to the portress, and knew it contained a fortnight’s wages. But I didn’t see more of what passed at the gate because at that point Zahn gave a cry. I only realized Vinaldi was leaning in time to see him tumble silently from his horse.
He hit the ground without so much as a groan.
Zahn, dropping to kneel at his side, lifted Vinaldi’s hand and bit off another cry. By dawn’s milky light the hand was black with blood, having been pressed to an injury to staunch the bleeding.
When my hand touched his leg, I found it sopping and sticky. A nasty gash above his knee gushed blood. I pressed the lips of the wound together with my hands while calling for something to use as a tourniquet.
Half a furlong distant, Havoc heard me. He snagged a long, pale streamer from the gate tree, galloping back to dismount on the fly.
The ribbon proved to be a white one, half the width of my hand, made of silk thread woven with long pale hair, as I saw later. Havoc doubled it, wrapped it around Vinaldi’s leg above the wound, tied it off, and tightened it by thrusting a stick through the knot and twisting.
The bleeding stopped, but now the big bronze convent bell was tolling alarm. The strident peal was bound to draw the nearest Cumberan encampment.
Havoc looked around, his face pale and eyes pools of desperate darkness. “Marcoen, hold him! Zahn, see to our horses! The rest of you, go! If we don’t catch up, report to Questre. Move!”
No one questioned or hesitated. A few moments later, we were alone in a sunrise, silent but for a tolling bell and chorus of novices begging us to flee.
Havoc never noticed. He knelt, neck bent as if in prayer, with his hands spread over the severed tissues of the swordsman’s knee.
“Hold him!” Havoc ordered, and I applied all my weight and leverage to keeping our patient down and his leg still.
“Severan! Stop!” gasped Vinaldi, conscious again despite his death-like pallor.
“Be still!” snapped Havoc. With my help, the swordsman managed.
Havoc raised his hands from the wound, and Vinaldi whimpered. Havoc’s knife slashed a wider cut in the fabric of the breeches; he wiped clear the unbroken skin beneath.
And it was unbroken. Only a thin, reddened line remained of the crippling wound. Havoc loosed the tourniquet, then bade Vinaldi stand.
Vinaldi stood, though he swayed a bit. I felt hollow and shaky, myself.
Havoc stepped back, waiting.
Vinaldi shifted carefully, staring in awe at his knee. At last he swung the leg forward in a full stride, bent it in a swordsman’s lunge...and slowly, slowly dropped to his other knee, gazing fully on Havoc’s face.
“A crippled swordsman is a dead one, no matter how good he has been,” Vinaldi pledged as Zahn, too, fell to his knees in fealty. “My life is yours to command.”
“Live it well,” Havoc ordered. He raised his eyes to mine, then, bleak and tragic, awaiting my verdict.
For a word, a name from me, and he was dead. It all came together, his uncanny talent for passing unseen among the enemy hosts, his penchant for miring the shreds of their morale. I knew who he was.
Solanum Adamanté, who’d slain a nether-god and toppled the ruling dynasty of the most powerful empire in the known world, all at the ripe old age of fifteen.
“We all believed you died,” I said.
I understood, then, the joy with which he reveled in being alive. No, he hadn’t been a slave. Perhaps he’d been worse. Now, having survived the destruction of Datura’s temple, he was free to be his own man, to create himself anew without the bonds of his heritage—but only if that heritage remained secret.
The bell ceased its plangent toll, but its damage must already be done. “We’d best go,” I said.
Havoc nodded as Zahn and Vinaldi rose to their feet. As he gathered the reins of his steed, Havoc gazed in perplexity at the fluttering tails of smudged, pale ribbon in his hand. He glanced back toward the gate tree as if to return it.
“Too late,” said Vinaldi, recovering a weak semblance of his usual humor. “Even if we kept it quiet, they’ve all seen.” He gestured toward the top of the convent wall where the nuns were trying unsuccessfully to roust the novices.
“It’s ruined,” Havoc admitted. “Should I buy her another? How will I know who to return it to?”
“You don’t return it. You’re engaged!”
Horror washed over Havoc’s face. “You mean I’ve taken the token some girl has set out for her love to claim?”
Zahn snorted, and Vinaldi laughed aloud. “It was there for you!” Vinaldi guffawed, pounding his liege on the back and then carefully mounting the shaggy pony Zahn led over.
“They’re all for you,” I said. “Every ribbon in the valley! You never noticed?”
He stared at the limp ribbon lying like a dead thing across his palm, then in dismay up at the novices gathered, now silent, on the distant wall.
“Relax, my liege,” chuckled Vinaldi. “She must know you have no idea who she is and can never claim her. It’s the best kind of betrothed to have,” he tossed over his shoulder as he reined his horse away. “The kind you’ll never marry!”
It’s with irony that I recall those words, all these years later. The gods have a bitter sense of humor that it was Vinaldi who said them, poor man.
I’ve written no more songs of Havoc. My journal contains scraps and notes of his later deeds, his rise to nobility, his growing family, but I dare put none of it into song for fear I’ll lose myself in the trance of performance and something irretrievable will slip out.
For I know I have already said too much.
On the edge of the territories of the Mydicean Republic, in a tavern, sits a group of Hanbel’s veterans who work for the Mydicean Council keeping peace. The night grows deep as a minstrel plays for the thinning crowd. To the last hangers on, he offers the latest of my creations to make its way south: a tale of a mercenary scout who’s got the great Dirk Alzarin chasing his tail.
They know me, and they know Dirk Alzarin. They laugh in appreciation of the scout’s cleverness, and comment on how I have woven in my experience with Hanbel’s army being devilled by Datura’s assassins.
Except...no killing. It almost sounds as if Solanum, the rebel Adamanté, is alive and applying his training....
They look one to another, suddenly sober despite the night’s excesses. Silent.
Nervous, denying laughter breaks the mood and they drink deeper than ever.
May all my songs, forever after, be taken as a joke, if only to keep that laughter alive!