Roric put his sword across his knees and his back to the guesthouse wall. When they came to kill him in his bed asleep, they would find him neither in bed nor asleep.
Swallows swooped through the twilight air, then disappeared back toward the barns as the sky went from yellow to darkest blue. He shifted on the hard bench, listening but hearing nothing. Even the wind was still. He reached into the pouch at his belt and absently rubbed the charm there with his thumb: the piece of bone, cut in the shape of a star, that had been tied into his wrappings when he was first found.
It would be good, he thought, to see Karin one more time. But it did not matter. They had said their farewells as though they knew they would not meet again short of Hel.
The moon rose slowly above the high hard hills to his left. His shadow stretched at an angle, dark and liquid, across the rough surface of the courtyard. He bent to tighten a shoelace and turned his head to be certain the soft peep off to his right was nothing more than a night bird. There was another shadow next to his. Someone was sitting beside him.
He was on his feet with his sword up in an instant. But the other, seeming for a second less substantial than his shadow, did not immediately move. When he did, it was to stretch out weaponless hands, palms up. “Would you attack me unprovoked?”
Roric did not relax his guard. “You intended to do the same to me!”
The other gave an amused chuckle. He wore a wide-brimmed hat that shadowed his face from the moon. “So that is why you are sitting outdoors when all others are asleep.”
“If you are not come to kill me,” said Roric cautiously, “and you have not come to warn me, why are you here?”
The other did not answer for a moment, and when he did it was in a soft voice. “Perhaps it is because we could use you.”
“Me?” said Roric bitterly. “A man who may be dead before morning, and if he lives will be an outcast at least, and probably outlawed as well at the next Gemot? No one needs me.”
“I do not think you will be dead before morning. But I must agree,” with another chuckle, “that you will be of less use to us if you are. I need to ask you several things, and I am interested in your answers.”
Roric leaned on his sword, listening but still hearing nothing ominous among the quiet sounds of the night. The other person, whoever he might be, was not a wight or he would not cast a shadow. But his soundless materialization on the bench suggested someone of great voima: a Weaver, perhaps, or a Mirror-seer-even a Wanderer. But if he were one of these, he should already know the answers.
“All right, then,” said Roric, and a smile came and went for a second across his face. “We may as well talk while we’re waiting for the attack to come.” In the moonlight this man-if he was a man-seemed so unreal, so much a product of his own vision, that he could have been talking to himself.
“Then what have you done, Roric No-man’s son, to make your fellows want to kill you and cast you out?”
“I’ve loved a high lord’s daughter,” shortly.
“And so your king has come to kill you?”
“How did you know a king wants me dead?” demanded Roric, raising his sword again. This person who knew his name but apparently not much else could in fact be one of the king’s men, here to distract him from the coming attack, only seeming insubstantial because of night and moonlight.
But the other again gestured with upturned palms. “This is a royal manor, and the crown on your shoulder-clasp suggests royal service. Is your king planning to kill you himself?”
“No, not with his own hands. He couldn’t!” with a grim laugh. Roric lowered his sword again; whoever this person was, he did not seem one of Hadros’s men. “The king is my sworn lord, and he would be outlawed himself. But I wondered at the time why he sent me to this manor on such a trivial errand. Still, I did not suspect treachery until I saw the warriors arrive by stealth: three of them, my king’s fiercest fighters. I would not have seen them at all if I had not forgotten my knife in the hall at dinner and gone back for it.”
“Sit down by me,” said the man. Roric had still not seen his face. “I do not like having to look up at an armed man when I’m trying to talk to him. Now tell me,” when Roric had slowly seated himself, his sword again across his knees, “do you intend to kill these warriors?”
“I will not stand quietly while they kill me!”
“But are they not beneath your notice?”
“One of them I could certainly outfight,” said Roric, “probably even two. Three I think will be harder… My tale is already short, because it starts with me, but the end should be very interesting.”
There was another faint chuckle from beneath the broad-brimmed hat. “So your intent is to give up your life to make a glorious song? I would not have thought a life for a song a good bargain. The song will not cause your king much distress, nor comfort the lady.”
Roric did not answer but stared straight ahead at the moonlit side of the barn on the far side of the courtyard.
“And tell me,” added the other, “why loving your king’s daughter should be such a crime.”
“She’s much too high-born for a man without kin, but she is not really his daughter,” he started to say, then stopped. He thought again that if this person with a shadowed face-if he even had a face-was a Wanderer, he should already know this. For someone of great voima, he seemed remarkably ill-informed. “And you tell me, who it is who wants to use me, and for what purpose!”
“We have enemies,” said the other, still in that mildly ironic tone, “whom we made deliberately, made ourselves, and are now finding a little harder to un make. We have watched you for some time, Roric No-man’s son. If you come with us, it must be of your own free will. A mortal, a man like you, may be able to help us, as well perhaps with another issue we are considering…”
“Then you are not a mortal yourself?” Roric asked slowly. It was sometimes said that warriors on the field of battle saw the Wanderers striding in their midst, but his battle was not yet joined-and he himself had never expected to see one of the lords of voima out of legend come to meet him.
But before the other could answer there came the sound Roric had been straining for the last four hours, of stealthy feet scrunching on gravel.
He was on his feet in an instant, his back pressed against the guesthouse wall. The moon in rising had left a slice of darkness here, and he would see the warriors well before they saw him. No time now to wonder about the lords of earth and sky. “It’s been pleasant having this little conversation,” he muttered to the person beside him, “but I think we will have to postpone the rest.”
Good, they had brought a torch with them; the fir rosin smoked and sizzled, and the flame burned orange. Their dazzled eyes would never pick him up. Especially now: clouds came up abruptly in a clear sky and darkened the moon.
He breathed very quietly, thinking fast. He had intended to sell his life as dearly as possible, but now he had another plan.
The guesthouse door was around on the side. They knocked; the sound was of a sword hilt wrapped in a cloak. “Open the door for us, Roric,” called a guttural voice. He recognized it; it was Gizor One-hand, whom he had distrusted even when still a boy. “We just want to tell you something.”
I’m sure you do, he thought. The note in Gizor’s falsely friendly voice would have been a warning even if he had been lying inside asleep.
They knocked again when they got no response, then tried the handle and seemed surprised to find it unlocked.
“Be ready,” Roric hissed, glancing back over his shoulder. “We’ll move as soon as they go inside.” But the other had disappeared so thoroughly into the darkness he could no longer see him.
Then all three warriors shouted together and crashed through the door, the torchlight flashing from their naked blades. Roric moved like lightning, across the courtyard, past the barns toward the stables, with no spare attention to wonder where the other had gone.
He had, he thought, something under a minute. No time for a saddle. He found Goldmane’s stall in the dark, took a few precious seconds to rub the startled stallion on the neck and say some calming words, then led him out by the halter.
The housecarls had been roused by the shouts and were running toward the guesthouse, and he thought he could see the provost of the manor silhouetted against the doorway to the great hall. But the bobbing torch was already starting toward him.
“Is he there? He’s there! He’s got his horse! Don’t let him get away!”
He leaped onto the stallion’s back, and Goldmane began to run even before he had his balance again. He lay sprawled across the horse’s neck, levering himself into position with his legs. Goldmane whinnied and sprang upwards-clearing a wall or a ditch, he could not see what-almost losing him in the process.
“Good horse, good boy,” he muttered, seizing handfuls of mane to pull himself up. “Are you still mine, or have you joined Gizor’s employ?”
But then he laughed, the night air whipping across his face. Clouds tore away from the moon. He could see now where they were, coming out of the lane onto the high road. He slapped the stallion joyously and settled down to ride.
Even if the king’s warriors managed to get away from the manor without answering the questions the provost would doubtless pose them, they would never catch him before he reached the castle. Goldmane was a stallion of voima, who had triumphed in every race against every horse since Roric had won him from the troll.
The king might be plotting his death in new ways within the week, but he was not yet an outcast, and he would see Karin again. The moon floated in a clear sky as the stallion’s long strides ate up the miles.
It was dawn when he came out of the dense woods at the top of the sandstone cliff, and Goldmane slowed to a walk for the narrow and steep descent among the ledges. Roric shifted his stiff fingers in the stallion’s mane, now matted with sweat. It had been a long run even for a horse like this, but after the first mile all sounds of pursuit had been left behind. King Hadros would not be expecting him unless he had had a raven-message, and Roric did not think Gizor One-hand was one who spoke to ravens.
The rising sun glinted on the sea, several miles off. But as the road reached the cliff’s base the sun was hidden again. Here oaks grew on sandy hills, with nothing but long grass between their massive trunks. Roric urged his horse into a trot for the final stretch through the trees and across the stream on the old stone bridge. Goldmane’s hooves rang hollow, but this morning there was no sign of the troll.
The hall of the castle and the walls that surrounded it were built of yellow sandstone from the cliff. The whole great mass, including the weathered oak outbuildings within the walls, seemed to grow naturally out of the hill. Smoke rose from the cooking fires in the kitchen as he clattered through the open gate and into the courtyard, then slid from his stallion’s back at the entrance to the stables.
Goldmane’s head drooped, and now that he had arrived exhaustion seized Roric as well. The man-if it was a man-who had spoken to him, four hours of tense waiting, the long ride, were all jumbled together. But he forced himself to stay on his feet long enough to rub down the stallion, put a blanket over him, and be sure there were oats and water in his stall.
His thought had been to burst in on the king in the hall, flaunting his escape from treachery, defying him openly before his sons and his other sworn men. But at the moment sleep seemed even better. He tried to remember precisely what he had planned to say.
As he started out the stable door, there was a quick step outside, and then Karin was in his arms.
She pressed her face against his chest, filthy and sweaty as he was, and for a second he felt her shoulders quivering under his hands. But then she lifted her face, cheeks smudged but eyes clear.
“I knew you would escape alive,” she said in a voice that just barely did not tremble. “I went to the Weaver who lives by the cliff and burned an offering. But- But dare you be here? They’ll say you killed the men unprovoked.”
He pulled her back into the stables and kissed her slowly and thoroughly. “I did not kill anyone. Did the king boast to you that I would be dead?”
“Of course not,” she said sharply, as if irritated for a moment. “It was only because he has been acting so oddly this last week that I was watching, and I saw Gizor One-hand and those thugs of his slip away-even Hadros may not have known when they left.”
“The king must have hoped at a minimum I’d be outcast for wounding or killing one of them. Maybe he intended to get rid of Gizor and me at the same time.”
They were talking in low voices, their arms tight around each other. “But are you sure they really meant to kill you?” she murmured. “After all- You escaped.”
He pulled his lips into a thin line. “Are you doubting the strength of my voima when it’s three against one?”
She shook her head hard. She had hair the color of wheat fields in July, gold tinged with russet, and it was undone and tangled as though she had been up all night.
“I ran,” he added, then stopped, feeling it was less than honorable to tell her this. He shook his own head. “Come, and we will face King Hadros together.”
But she stepped away from him as he went into the great hall. King Hadros sat with his warriors and housecarls around him, finishing his morning porridge and beer. Roric spotted the red hair of Valmar, the royal heir. The king was bent over his flagon, his elbows out as though to keep the others away. He gave a great start as Roric walked toward the table, and his brows rose sharply. Although he managed to put the flagon down without spilling any more beer his eyes stayed round. A strange expression went across his face-was it relief?
Roric changed all at once what he had planned to say. “I finished my business at the manor more quickly than I expected,” he said loudly. His heart was beating hard though he strove to keep his tone casual. Exhaustion was gone.
“So I left last evening,” he continued, “and rode all night to be here today. Oh, I happened to spot three of our warriors arriving when I was leaving. One was old Gizor One-hand. I hope they’ll think to bring Goldmane’s saddle home with them; I must have left it at the manor. I expect they had come on some special errand or other, but I knew it could have nothing to do with me, so I didn’t wait to speak with them.”
He let it hang in a profound silence, wondering how many of them knew, letting them wonder how much he had guessed. As long as he did not say openly that he had been attacked where he slept, he should be able to resume a normal life here at the castle. King Hadros would not want his other sworn men to know he had plotted the death of one of them, and certainly not that his plot had failed utterly. Not only had he escaped Hadros’s thugs alive, he had put the king in his debt by not accusing him here.