Authors: Ken Scholes
Winters finished her stew despite the tangle of worry in her stomach. She ate it quickly, and left still chewing the bread. When she reached the caravan, she noticed all eyes turned to the north, and she turned to see what everyone was watching.
Walking across the snowy plain, surrounded by mounted soldiers and Gypsy Scouts, marched a column of people. They struggled toward a solitary figure sitting, straight-backed, atop his horse at the crest of a hill. The green turban of the Gypsy King’s office was bright in the winter sun, as were the rainbow-colored scarves of his houses as they ribboned on the wind.
She reached Adrys and saw the look of anger and sorrow in his eyes as he watched. She came alongside him and turned to watch them as they approached Rudolfo. “Who are they?”
He glanced at her. “Y’Zirites,” he said. “From the forest.”
At first Winters wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly. They looked like any other band of refugees, only moving away from the Ninefold Forest rather than toward it. She could pick out elderly couples and young families with children in the large crowd that moved slowly toward Rudolfo. “How have they come to be in the forest?”
“I do not know. But they’ve been there, secretly, for years. Building shrines and holding their blood-loving ceremonies beneath our very noses.”
“And now where do they go?” But even as she asked the question, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.
The scout shrugged. “I do not know where they’ll go. But the general has ordered them from his lands. I suppose the Machtvolk will take them in.”
If she hadn’t personally witnessed the brutality of the Moon Wizard cult firsthand, she might’ve felt sorry for them. But she found she grieved instead for Rudolfo. Beset on all sides and wronged by many, saturated by losses among his friends and his family … and now his people. Her eyes went to the man on the hill, and she wondered how a life shaped by loss over so many years could retain such strength. Even the strength for something such as this.
As much as she hated knowing, she suspected she would learn that answer on her own if her life continued the path begun with her mother’s death so long ago. Sighing, she gave one last glance to the shuffling group of refugees and their waiting, brooding king. Then Winters whistled her people forward to begin the last leg of their most recent journey through losses of their own.
They gathered around him, shivering in the cold, and Rudolfo forced himself to make eye contact with as many of them as he could from where he sat in his saddle. His dark mare stamped and snorted, steam jetting from her nostrils.
He knew everything now. At least everything that Kember knew.
It really didn’t change anything.
They’d been in the forest in small numbers since before Rudolfo’s birth, quietly living their faith with ritualized cuttings using paints and inks so as to not betray their practice with their scars. They still held secret bloodletting ceremonies for the Mass of the Fallen Moon, where a proxy was chosen by lottery to take the Y’Zirite gospel upon their skin in payment for the sins of many. His father—but not his mother—had converted before Rudolfo and his brother Isaak were born. Kember thought the faith came to Jakob through Mardic or through Vlad’s father, Ben Li Tam. Rudolfo’s father had never talked about the experience, but the house steward had seen the scar; and soon Jakob was gathering small groups together to study the gospel of Ahm Y’Zir. The faith had taken root quietly and had become what it needed to in order to survive in the Named Lands. According to Kember there were quiet pockets of worshipers all over the northern regions. But he’d sworn over the blood of his wife that he knew nothing of Windwir or of the darker conspiracy that brewed throughout the Named Lands—the intricate Tam-influenced plot interwoven through the houses to bring down the Androfrancines and sow discord among the nations in preparation for what Rudolfo thought surely must be an invasion.
There was no doubt now that his father had betrayed his kin-clave with the rest of the Named Lands and—directly or not—had participated in the Desolation of Windwir.
“None of us knew of Windwir,” the sobbing house steward had insisted during his final interview with Rudolfo.
And I believe him.
But that, too, changed nothing.
He saw Kember now, shaken and hollow-eyed from his interrogation, and when their eyes met, the old man’s filled with tears before he looked away. Beside him, Ilyna stood, her face a mask of white rage but for a single red line running along her jaw.
Rudolfo drew in his breath and then released it in a shout. “I am Rudolfo, Lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses and General of the Wandering Army. By my edict, the Y’Zirite faith is unwelcome within my forest, and those who practice it are beyond my grace.” He let the horse step to the right and then to the left as he took in the crowd. “To be beyond the grace of your king is to be removed from his territories, and so I utter now this Writ of Banishment upon you.”
He waited then and let his lieutenants and sergeants, distributed throughout the crowd, repeat his words. The faces below him looked up, some broken in sorrow and others livid with rage. He studied them, bidding himself to not forget this moment.
“You are to leave my lands,” Rudolfo said, “and you are not to return. Should you return, you will be killed. Let any among you who do not understand this writ say so now.”
He heard the thunder of quiet gasps and sobs; somewhere beyond that he heard a voice shouting. “Bring him in to me,” Rudolfo shouted, and watched as armed men waded through the crowd to escort the young man to the front.
He couldn’t have been more than fifteen—not much younger than the boy Neb was when Rudolfo had met him. Rudolfo could see the fear on the boy’s face, widening his eyes and flaring his nostrils. There were white streaks from tears recently cutting across the grime of his face.
“What have you to say?” Rudolfo asked, and as he did, he felt the stirring of sympathy and did his best to quell it.
The boy’s lower lip quivered. “I said I wish to recant.”
He’d wondered if any would, and for a moment, he hated that it was this boy in particular. Still, he knew that how he responded would send a far stronger message than even his earlier words. “No,” Rudolfo said in a loud voice. “There is no recanting.”
The boy lunged forward. “But Lord, I—”
He nodded, and a Gypsy Scout shifted, knife in hand, to block him. “Telling me you no longer believe a thing is not a fact I can verify. I could never know for sure that it was so.”
The boy burst into tears and tried to fall to his knees, but the scout held him up and pushed him back into the crowd.
“Anyone else?” Rudolfo shouted, and he stared at Kember as he did.
Kember met his glare, and his hands moved and posture shifted.
This is the wrong path.
Rudolfo took the man and his wife in one last time and tried not to remember how like parents they’d been to him when he’d been orphaned. They and Gregoric’s father had been his family during those first critical years beneath the turban. He forced himself to meet Kember’s eyes and give no acknowledgement of his message. And he kept the eye contact until Kember finally looked away.
Rudolfo raised his hand to the sky and called down a pronouncement that had not been uttered in the forest in well over a thousand years. “Be gone,” he cried out. “You live now beyond my grace. You are no longer welcome in my house.”
Then, he waited there upon his horse and watched as the Y’Zirites were marched across his border by fresh-faced recruits of the new Forester army.
When they were well across, he dismounted and whistled for an aide to take the reins. “I’m not to be disturbed for the rest of the day,” he said. The man nodded his understanding and left with the horse.
Rudolfo took the most direct route back to his tent, and this time, he went to the palatial tent he’d been more accustomed to rather than the command tent he’d taken to sleeping in. Another aide met him at the entrance, and Rudolfo told him the same thing he’d told the other. “And find me a bottle of firespice,” he added.
He went inside, kicked off his boots and untied the rainbow-colored scarves of rank—one for each of his nine Forest Houses—from the sleeves of his long coat. He was peeling off the coat when the aide arrived with the bottle and a single cup. The aide placed both on the table near Rudolfo’s reclining pillows, inclined his head, and then left.
When Rudolfo was certain the young man was out of earshot, he drew in a long, ragged breath and let it out. He could feel the anger shifting now back into the sadness it covered, and he kept his eye on the bottle as he slowly reached up and unwound his turban of office, draping it over his coat. He followed it with the matched set of knives—the ones his father had carried before him—and he paused there, contemplating them. Then, he continued stripping until he was down to nothing but his silk undertrousers and tunic, pushed his feet into waiting wool slippers, and walked to the large pile of pillows. He stretched out on them and took another deep breath.
He felt the tears now, and he reviled himself for them, reaching for the bottle and then pausing, his hand poised above it. It was the same bottle he’d requested for the last several nights, and still it remained unopened.
Rudolfo sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Gods,” he whispered. “What have I done?”
“What you’ve needed to, Lord.” Rudolfo started, his hand already sliding beneath the pillows to the small but sharp knife he kept hidden there.
It was a woman’s voice, and his first thought was that it must be Ria again violating his borders. But he’d heard that voice under the muffled blood magicks of her people, and this voice was different—oddly accented and slightly higher of pitch.
Blood Guard, then?
He’d seen their handiwork in the north and had taken one of them prisoner after they’d mowed through his best men in their pursuit of Isaak and the other mechoservitors. They were a tough lot; the prisoner had proved resistant to their more polite interrogations, and in the end, Rudolfo had killed her with his own hand, finding a type of satisfaction the bottle couldn’t give him as he watched her die.
His voice was taut with rage. “Who are you?”
“I am Ire Li Tam, thirty-second daughter of Vlad Li Tam,” she said. “Your sister by marriage.”
Winters had told him of this woman; she was the one who’d compelled Jin Li Tam to take his son and leave in the care of Eliz Xhum for reasons unknown. His eyes narrowed. “My borders are closed,” he said. Your presence within them is unacceptable.” He paused, slowly easing the knife free of its sheath beneath his pillows. “And coming magicked into my tent further compromises your position with me.”
He felt the breeze shift, and he realized she moved closer, not farther from him. “I realize this,” she said, “and I offer my deepest apologies for this intrusion. It would have been …
… for me to approach you in any other way.”
He measured the distance between them by her muffled voice. Scouts knew to change position as they spoke, never within reach unless they intended harm. But this woman was not following typical scout protocol. He licked his lips and chose his words carefully. “I’m told that you approached my wife as well and that you are responsible for her departure with Xhum.”
Another step closer. “She also did what was needed. What she was made for. Just as I have.” She paused. “Just as you have, too, Lord.”
Rudolfo lunged forward, the knife up and ready. He felt himself collide with a solid form. His free hand sought her throat even as his left foot hooked behind her and toppled her.
She did not resist, not even as he put the tip of his knife to her throat. “Where,” he said, his voice a low growl, “is my son going?”
“He travels by ship to Y’Zir,” she said slowly.
She lay still beneath him, and he became aware suddenly of her warm, muscled body. “I do not know,” she said. “I only know it was my life’s work to bid her take him and go.”
“And to await further instructions from Tam’s metal bird?”
“Yes,” she said.
She is not going to resist.
Yet he knew she could’ve easily tossed him aside if she were under the same blood magicks as the others he’d encountered. It perplexed him, and he relaxed his grip upon her throat. “And why are you here in my presence after sending that which I cherish most from my sight?”
“I have come, Lord,” she said, “to pledge my strength and my blades to your service and protection.”
An unexpected reply.
He thought for a moment, shifting his weight carefully. “And why should I wish your strength or your blades?”
“Because,” Ire Li Tam said, “you will need them in the days to come.”
“I doubt that very much,” he said.
And when she moved, she was as fast and as strong as he’d expected, lifting him easily and throwing him into the pile of pillows. “They are yours regardless of your doubt, Lord.” She was on him, her hand easily twisting the knife from his wrist even as she pinned him soundly.
He puckered his lips to whistle third alarm, and he felt her breath in his ear. “Don’t,” she said. “I don’t wish to fight my way out of your camp.” Her hands were strong upon his wrists as she shifted on him. “And how many more scouts can you afford to lose, Rudolfo?”
I’ve lost too many as it is.
Rudolfo lay still, now feeling the firmness of her as she lay over him, feeling her breath hot upon the side of his face, and he found his body’s unexpected response to her alarming. “How do I know you are who you claim to be? How do I know your pledge is true?”
She released him and moved away. “The Y’Zirite emissary is near,” she said. “Accompanied by a squad of Blood Guard. They await the last sign fifteen leagues south and west, just out of reach of your patrols. The honor guard is magicked, armed with knives and dreamstones for casting in the aether. When the last sign is given, they will approach you.”