The sauce was sturdy with wine and greasy onions but not thick enough to mask the dark veins staining the slivers of banewood nut. They looked near enough like almonds, save for that. Sloppy. Had Dagn given the instructions herself, she would have ordered the use of mushrooms or a few drops of banewood essence—far more precise ways of poisoning someone.
She leaned back in her seat and pushed the wooden plate toward the edge of the table, signaling for another. A tainted plate was only a minor hiccup, on this day of all days. Keeping up appearances as the loyal lairdguard at the Boar’s court needn’t to go on much longer, thank Fate. Only until she opened the gate for the rebels camped in the snowy hills.At the far end of the smoky great hall, Rille, the second of the Boar’s three repugnant offspring, raised his mug high in toast, taking full credit for Dagn’s recent ‘victories’ against the rebels. He had the strained bellow of a man trying to cover fear with rage, doubt with contempt, and all the fake-feral bluster that made tales exciting and yeomen dead.
“Death to those pus-sucking curs!” he shouted, to cheers. How could a man claim to love his dogs and use the same word for his enemies? The nobles pounded the tables hard enough to slosh the chouchen, a sweet bee-venom cider, in Dagn’s own mug.
Halfway down the huge table, braziers cast a warm veneer over Ulti’s own gang of fools. She was the youngest of the heirs, the most insecure, and she had adopted an aspect of smug disinterest toward Rille’s speeches. But now her heavy oak chair was empty. How had she snuck away without Dagn noticing?
And where was Spana? Her place at the table was vacant except for a discarded chicken bone, of interest only to one of Rille’s many wolfhounds. A quick glance toward the far alcove near the dim tapestry-hung walls revealed only drunk nobles and a few patient wolfhounds roaming past the feast. Spana was the eldest, the poisoner among the family, and Dagn expected her to be nearby, smirking as her plan unfolded. Unless Ulti had arranged for the nuts in the gravy, hoping to implicate Spana?
Dagn stabbed her knife into the table between planks, earning a startled look from the shit-plowing landowner on her left. The chatter in the hall grated, the furtive whispering and raucous boasting. Elegance, eloquence, elocution... abstractions, fractions, factions; every breath thick with the heady blend of human sweat and crackling animal flesh.
Dagn kept the Boar’s peace by quelling rebellions and quelled rebellions by promising a coup. While her mother, Dagnija, mustered fighters in the field, Dagn’s agents had nudged the Boar’s senility into dementia and then a coma using banewood essence, quietly prolonging her reign in absentia. In a little over an hour, everyone in the keep would be full-bellied, drunk, and unprepared for the onslaught. In a little over an hour, Little Moon would lap Elder Moon and Dagn would swing the keep’s gates wide. Dagnija’s rebels would swarm the keep, execute the Boar’s family, and free the starving countryside from their vile reign.
Dagn’s heavy wool tunic chafed her collarbone. It was too hot indoors, and the smoke and the heat exacerbated her prickling nerves. The years-long feud between the Boar’s heirs might have been amusing, if there hadn’t been so much collateral damage. She’d been dropped into pits with fighting dogs (who liked her), found her swords and shields sabotaged (teaching her to improvise), and been locked in rooms with beauties of all genders who expected to seduce and poison one of the heirs (which Dagn wasn’t, and they were never her type anyway). Over and over, one sibling had framed another, letting the unintended casualties pile up.
All three agreed on one thing: with one heir dead, and another blamed and hanged for treason, the last could freely ascend. Two birds for one throne, birth order be damned.
Peace would never hold if any of these lunatic children took power.
Something stroked Dagn’s left thigh, then became a too-warm weight. She peered under the table, ready to spear the landowner’s hand, but the shaggy face of a wolfhound peered up at her. Dagn pointed at the floor by her feet. The massive dog lay on his belly under the table, eyes shining like black beads, begging for scraps.
A soft squeeze on Dagn’s left shoulder, and over her right came a fresh plate of lamb without sauce. It smelled divine. Servants weren’t usually that attentive. Dagn glanced back, just in time to see Ulti drop into the vacant chair beside her.
Welcome home, Ulti mouthed, her smile as bright and cold as snowfall across the plains.
Dagn inclined her head in greeting, guts tightening. She couldn’t follow the moons while indoors or count time while distracted by Ulti’s preening. She had to find a way to slip free of Ulti without drawing suspicion.
So many lives and months knotted up in the careful scarf of planning. And, in Dagn’s experience, something predictably, stupidly, always went wrong. One hidden rock, one hurt paw, and the whole sled flew off the trail.
“Give that to Rille’s dog,” said Ulti, nudging the poisoned plate. “He’ll appreciate it.”
Dagn’s mind raced. Did Ulti know it was poisoned? Was this some casual cruelty Ulti wanted to inflict on her brother’s dog, in Spana’s name? Where was Spana?
There was no time to mull things over. Ulti was watching her and had just given an order. Rille liked to bluster, Spana liked to outwit, and Ulti liked to be obeyed. Dagn’s rise from conscript to lairdguard had not given her any veto powers. She set the plate on the ground, praying to Fate that the hound would smell the danger—that this living, feeling creature wouldn’t end up a broken toy.
But the dog trusted Dagn, had just been given a plate, and couldn’t refuse either. He snatched a bite, head twitching and jaws working. It was supposed to be a happy sound, like the crunch and smack of sled dogs face-deep in their food. With a pang, Dagn wished she was far from this court intrigue and at the snowy rebel camp, where dogs—and people—were treated with respect. Working with the sled dogs hadn’t taught her patience, exactly, but how to read another’s nature and meet them there.
Ulti chuckled. Then she leaned close, breath tickling Dagn’s neck and making her skin crawl. “I need your help.”
The hound lay by the now-empty plate, his flank warming Dagn’s boot. She wanted to force her hand down his throat and make him vomit, but she held still. She imagined the black tongue lolling, the blue gums, the convulsions the poor thing would suffer. A nibble of poison might make him sleep, but that much... Soon it would all be over. Dagn would subdue the guards, open the gates. These brutal poisonings would cease. Ulti would cease to be.
Ulti plucked a lamb rib from the plate she had brought, bit off a chunk, set it down, then sucked her finger; a disgusting, smacking pop. “Come with me. Please?”
Nothing said trap like please.
“One lives to serve.” Dagn replied, with the appropriate lowering of eyes amid a flare of acid in her stomach. Fate was not with her tonight. The rebels and Utheyn’s reinforcements were moving into position, as she should have been. Her failure was going to get them all killed. The rebels would either flail against the walls and die or disappear into the snow-covered mountains to starve.
Ulti stood, frowning.
Dagn ruffled the fur on the wolfhound’s neck. An apology. A final kindness. A promise.
Ulti led the way out of the hall with Dagn in tow, ignoring the others’ enquiring glances. “Spana meant that plate for me,” she murmured as soon as they were alone. “I want to know what else she was up to.”
“You must have spies for that,” said Dagn. She could have listed off their names, but Ulti didn’t know that.
“I do. They’re watching Rille.” Ulti headed toward the stairwell to the royal suites. The Boar’s family kept themselves above others, even in their architecture.
Dagn gritted her teeth as they passed by the side table piled high with the guests’ swords. Courtesy had demanded she set hers down upon entering the great hall, and now it demanded she not bring it upstairs. She eyed its battered pommel jutting out from the heap. She could leave the keep right now, steal a dogsled, race to the mountains. A hermit’s life of deprivation, but a life all the same.
A falter in her stride, then she continued after Ulti.
Together, they wound up the stone stair. The keep was inaccessible from this side, insulated and protected by the bones of the hill. The outer entrance boasted sharpened posts and treacherous knee-breaking pits. The Boar had completed what her forefathers built, and Dagn prayed Fate would be kind and spare her works, if not her children, in the turmoil to come.
Dagn kept her eyes level with the belt knife hung horizontally at the small of Ulti’s back, watching it bob as they walked. Nothing good ever happened in the upper chambers of the keep. The last time Dagn had been invited up here was a summer ago, when the largest and stupidest of Rille’s hounds had eaten half of a ceremonial tabard. All that fine, soft wool and silver thread became an indigestible wad. The dog howled and whined, trying to either pass it or run from his mistake. While Dagn calmed him, it had taken a midwife to end the struggle. Manually.
Ulti’s golden hair shone in the light of the wall torches. She paused outside Spana’s room, and the hairs at the back of Dagn’s neck stood up.
Ulti must have sensed something too. She twitched her head and gestured at the door.
Dagn’s palms began to sweat. She clenched and unclenched her fists, willing the ache of anxiety and old injuries to stop tugging at her. She knocked once, twice. “Spana? It’s Dagn, I was sent to... fetch you down to the feast.”
Ulti pursed her lips.
“Liege?” Dagn called again.
Dagn pushed the door open and stepped inside. It was dark within, the scents of chouchen mixing with Spana’s musk and the faint odor of an unemptied chamber pot. The bed was rumpled and empty. Half-burned candles stood in pools of spent wax on the night table. The desk to the left of the door was stacked with several piles of books in the process of being copied, along with a silver carafe and a spilled cup on the floor beneath. At the far side of the room, under the shuttered window, a wider and more disorderly desk stood in the dimness. Backlit from the hallway. Dagn’s shadow split the view of the desk in half. One side was littered with twelve glazed jars that looked medicinal and a number of scrolls, and the other side had an array of carved bone boxes that wealthy heirs used for combs, jewels, and more precious cosmetics.
Behind Dagn, Ulti pushed the door wide, spilling light all the way toward the desk and onto Spana herself.
The eldest heir, once a figure of beauty and poise, sprawled most ungracefully on the floor next to her overturned stool. Dulled eyes stared up at the ceiling, her lips parted, a trickle of dark staining the hair just below her neck.
Dagn backed away a step, mind racing. Suddenly, death by starvation in a snowy mountain hut seemed almost desirable. Had Ulti done this to frame Dagn, or had Rille done it without Ulti’s knowledge?
Ulti crept toward her sister, just beyond the reach of the torchlight. Her hands fluttered to her mouth. She curled into herself, making a strange squeal—a manic, triumphant giggle wearing a shoddy impression of horror.
True horror settled over Dagn when Rille’s distinctive heavy tread scuffed on the hall’s stone floor, drawing nearer. Just her luck. On the eve of the invasion’s final stroke, of course she’d be standing inside a dark room with the Boar’s eldest child dead on the floor. Stupid and predictable.
Rille loomed at the threshold, shadow obscuring his face. He clutched a plate of lamb between his hands—a gesture of fraternal affection as absurd as it was false. He set this prop on the writing table, nudging a small stack of volumes to flutter and thump on the floor.
As if in a festival theatre performance, Rille and Ulti turned to each other, eyes wide with hurt and betrayal, and spoke in voices that shook just so.
“What have you—”
“How could you?”
It was all Dagn could do to stop her eyes from rolling. Stupid. Predictable. Spana, Rille, and Ulti had everything, and they had squandered it on this.
Rille, or Ulti, could instantly order her imprisoned or killed. She shouldn’t have come up here. She shouldn’t have come back to the keep. Now, there was only one choice. Like the hound—and the tabard for that matter—the only way out was through.
“Clearly I’m meant to be a witness,” she hazarded. “So tell me what I’m seeing.”
Rille pounced. “Spana has been poisoning mother for months, she must have flecked some of the dose into her own oils. Or is that what you were planning to say, Ulti?”
“I had nothing to do with this,” she answered, taking a challenger’s step toward him.
“You need our champion at your side to visit our sibling? You knew what you’d find,” he retorted, closing in on her.
“Dagn, detain him immediately,” said Ulti.
Rille took another step toward them both, larger, broader. “She’ll do no such thing.”
Fear crept under Ulti’s voice, “Dagn, he just murdered the heir and he’s next in line. I gain nothing from this. Do you not trust your own eyes?”
Dagn stepped to the side, out of both their shadows.
“You planted this,” said Rille. “For Spana’s sake, and mine, in the Boar’s name—”
Ulti’s voice shrank even further. “For honor’s sake, Dagn, please!”
Trap, she thought, but whose? Ulti had brought her here for a reason, and Rille’s appearance was too convenient. One of them had killed Spana. But which?
Rille kept boasting as Ulti if hadn’t spoke at all. “You will hang for this, and then I’ll feed your corpse to my dogs!”
Ulti’s voice was soft and sensual. “And where is your dog, brother?” Her knee shot toward his groin. He scooted back, bending forward just enough for Ulti to grab his hair. His hand covered hers, and his other went to her throat. He inhaled, deep, ready to shout. Quick as a trick, Ulti flicked her dagger from her belt.
Dagn stumbled back against a bookshelf, not wanting to get splattered.
Ulti jammed the blade up under Rille’s jaw.
He folded, still clutching her.
She sliced at both his arms and he released her. Then she drove the knife into his belly to push him back.
As Rille sagged onto his face, Ulti gathered up her skirts and stomped on the back of his neck. A twitch and he went still.
“Ah, Dagn, I knew it was you the moment you pushed your plate away,” said Ulti, only slightly out of breath. “Spana knew mother was being poisoned but not by whom. You’ve got rebels in the foothills, waiting on Utheyn’s men to come down and double your forces? One word from me, and he will butcher all of you.”
Dagn’s blood turned to ice, fingers edging toward a weapon that wasn’t there. She’d made the same mistake as the wolfhound, eating the plate he was given; coming up here with Ulti, trusting an outsider like Utheyn to help them when he could help himself instead. All her internal bargaining, her convincing of herself that the invasion was not treachery, was not conspiracy—none of that had changed her actions tonight. Dagn had shown throat to her leader without even realizing it, because loyalty to the pack, any pack, was better than being hungry in the snow, alone.
Ulti pointed at the floor, where Rille’s blood was seeping into the thick carpet. Her dark eyes gleamed as she stood between the corpses of her siblings. She spread her hands, clean flesh pale and warmed by the light from the hall, bloodied arm still holding the blade in shadow. “Give me your oath, or this was all your doing.”
Dagn knelt, obeying as the hound had obeyed.
Ulti came to her, touching the flat of her blade to Dagn’s shoulder. It was the first time Dagn had ever seen a real smile spread across her face, and it had taken the deaths of her entire family to do it.
Dagn swallowed, a wet sound, like poison sliding down the gullet of the loyal. Embers in her heart flamed. She had to finish this.
A grab to the back of Ulti’s knee and Dagn launched herself forward, slamming her shoulder into Ulti’s gut.
Ulti fell backward, landing on her brother’s back, and his broken neck made a wet snap beneath her. Dagn scrambled on top, just as the dagger swiped upward. Dagn’s block was clumsy as she twisted, but she managed to drive a teeth-cracking punch into Ulti’s face.
Before Dagn could right herself to punch again, Ulti’s dagger hammered into Dagn’s side. Ulti was half-crying, half-screaming, loud enough for the sound to travel from one end of the keep to the other.
In a mad burst of adrenaline Dagn pulled Ulti’s dagger free, nearly threw up all over her, gripped the hilt in both hands, and dropped the full force of her weight blade-first into Ulti’s sternum.
Ulti’s scream died. She jerked once, and warm blood flecked Dagn’s ear. Dagn lay atop her, shaking from the rush, the knife tip scraping the stone beneath Ulti’s body. She shoved herself up, away, back to the wall, ears cocked for new threats even though she knew no one was there. No one but three corpses, leaking fluid across the stones, all stupid plans and exit wounds. This was a mess. All their intentions and sophisticated planning coming to naught but a bloody, sloppy mess out the other end.
She had come so close. The Boar’s children were dead, but there was a traitor taking up position at the rebels’ back. She had almost succeeded, but the gates were still shut; and now she was going to die. Along with the rebels. Along with the cause.
Voices grew nearer, followed by the sound of heavy boots on the stair.
She climbed onto the desk, crushing Spana’s vials of perfume, and lifted the bar off the great wooden shutters. They blew open, and fat flakes of snow swirled and danced, scattering papers across the floor like farmers fleeing an invading army.
She paused, fighting nausea, and squinted through the wind and the dark. She couldn’t see either of the moons.
The great hall’s roof was a steep and uncertain climb, even in dry weather. The hall itself was an obstacle, packed close against storehouses, equipment sheds, and servants’ quarters that spread further in a half-circle, leaving only one direction to run. She would have to get down from the roof, beyond the main cluster of buildings, and across the open plain of the ward without being stopped or questioned—as for the gate itself, if the alarm went up before she reached it, it would all be over.
Guards darkened the door. Before they could take in the extent of Ulti’s butchery, Dagn hurled herself out the window and into Fate’s hands.
An eave, then hard tiles, and she lost her footing. The icy, bruising tumble sent her right off the edge, an eight-foot drop into a drift over frozen ground. Fate saw fit to land her on her wounded side, and the pain sent an offering of vomit sputtering into the snow.
She cooled herself there for a moment, listening to the shouts above and the quiet in the courtyards around her. No alarm yet, but that would be next.
She dragged herself toward the gates. The darkness and falling snow might conceal her for the moment, but the drifts on the ground were too deep to hide her tracks, and she left a clear trail with every crunching step.
Ahead, warm light spilled from an open door where a courier was loading supplies onto a sled while the dogs stood obediently in their lines. The courier was unfamiliar, but she recognized the dogs. Outpost dogs, replenishing food, oil, and tools to border stations that littered the countryside. The nearest was on a rise two miles south of the keep. She could get word to her mother about the traitor Utheyn from there, if she could get there before she froze. Or bled out.
She hugged the wall in a patch of shadow, panting. The rebels’ plan might be dead already, but she had no way to tell. It was only two miles. In high summer she could’ve run there. She had to try.
The courier finished his work, shut the door, and drew on his mittens, preparing to head out.
Breath smoking, side burning, Dagn crept up behind and snatched him backward. With his throat against the bone of her wrist, her other arm levered his head down. She squeezed, holding him until he stopped thrashing, then let him fall. She stole his cloak and mittens, then eased onto the sled’s nearest runner. A final glance back at him reassured her he was still breathing. Killing a servant never sat well with her.
With feet planted on the footboards and her grip secure, Dagn whistled the command for home. The dogs took off, and the sled, fishtailing at first, steadied behind them. With a shaking hand, she pulled the cloak’s hood low over her eyes.
They had made it all the way across the grounds, within sight of the locked gates, when the distinctive sound of a mallet clanging furiously on iron bells rang out across the courtyard.
The watchmen on the ramparts grew rigid at the alarm, but Dagn didn’t slow her approach. “Food for the field troops,” she barked. “Let me through!”
The guards knew an order, as sure as the dog team did. They obeyed and lifted the bar, shoving the gates wide.
Dagn slid through. Wind roared, the sled hissed, and the guards shouted as hundreds of waiting rebels surged out from the knee-break pits under the shadow of the walls and poured into the keep to begin the slaughter.
She could not stop and help, and she couldn’t breathe without pain. The ride across the stubbled hayfield was chaos, but she shouted the dogs onward. The snow and the pain made every freezing moment stretch. All she had to do was get there. From the outpost south of the keep, she could signal all the camps—warn them, before Utheyn’s forces fell on them like an avalanche.
The sled bumped and wobbled in the wake of the team. Dagn held fast to the handlebar, keeping her balance as best she could with the wind icing her hair and snowflakes slicing her cheeks. She wanted to stop, to pack snow against her side, but her fingers and toes would freeze long before the cold deigned to numb her wound.
By the time she saw a faint glimmer ahead, some of the ropes had dribbled loose beneath the sled. The outpost was situated up a lookout hill, and if anyone was watching for smoke signals, they’d see hers above that rise. The soldier stationed there knew her. Respected her. Maybe enough not to ask why she’d come or how she’d been wounded.
The dogs took the hill, and a third of the way up Dagn spotted a rock jutting up from the snow. It must have rolled there since the track was last used. The lead dogs flowed around it as they’d been trained to do on level ground, and the wheel dogs followed, but sometimes Fate was unkind. The incline was too steep. Like a snapping neck, the brush bow at the front of the sled caught on the rock. The sled jerked to one side and tipped.
Dagn wasn’t certain when she lost her grip. She landed in crunching snow, skidded, and toppled down the steep rise.
Above, the dogs yapped, making slow progress with the overturned sled. Once the lead dog had sighted home, she would pull the team and sled along or die trying.
Dagn lay face down, shivering, at the end of her strength. She couldn’t rise. Perhaps Fate would be kind—perhaps Utheyn had been delayed. Perhaps Fate would stop her mother from welcoming an enemy force into the keep the moment she’d taken it. Perhaps Dagn’s frozen remains would be found and burned before wild pigs tore her apart.
The dogs’ yips softened into the distance. The snow would cover her, her tracks, and her stupid, predictable mistakes.
Then, crunching boots broke the silence. One set, then two, then more.
The first soldier didn’t recognize her, but the third one did. Dagn’s name traveled down the line as they turned her over, prodding her injuries. She wondered if Fate would let her warning die here, a gift to the traitor’s forces.
Then she heard a voice she recognized, summoned from the back of the column. A voice she thought would be howling on the front lines of the invasion force. Her mother’s voice, rasping her name.
Hands pressed her, lifting her. Dagn wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck and made a tiny sob only her mother could hear. She wasn’t going to die. Not tonight. No more poisonings. No more games.
Dagnija secured her into an unfamiliar-smelling sled and tucked the furs tightly around her. Then she grabbed one of the rebels. “Send a runner to Utheyn, tell him my daughter has escaped.”
“No!” Dagn worked spit into her mouth. “He’s Ulti’s dog, he’s—”
Dagnija patted Dagn’s cheek with a grin. “Utheyn is loyal to me. Ulti heard what she needed to hear, so she’d let his forces through.” There was no anger in Dagnija’s growl; just an eager, playful impatience. “I’ve been at this longer than you. Keep up.”
Dagn blinked grit from her eyes and stared at the clouds. Somewhere beyond them, Little Moon was passing Elder Moon. Fate had hidden their race, forcing Dagn to race instead. It had sent a knife deep into her side, battered her, frozen her. Fate was not kind, but neither was this sort of work.
“You got the gate open at least, even with the weather hiding the moons. Well counted.” Dagnija’s playfulness sharpened to a hungry edge. “By morning the Boar’s piglets will be spitted.”
Dagn’s dry laughter lanced through the wound in her side. “There’s no need.”
“We’re nearly at the end. The Boar’s family must be—”
“Destroyed?” Through cracked lips and a sore jaw, she smiled her first real smile in a long time. “Let me tell you how I got this little cut.”