Authors: L. E. Modesitt
But the shield he’d raised had helped.
“Good. Best of fortune.” Meinyt turned his mount.
“The rest of the wounded are back this way, sir,” offered the squad leader. “But before you start back, we need to get a field dressing on that wound. Otherwise, you’ll bleed out.”
Quaeryt winced as he eased the mare around. The ride back was likely to be far longer than the ride out had been. Far longer.
Quaeryt had been right. The ride back to Boralieu took slightly more than three glasses, and along the way, another ranker collapsed over his saddle, and the one captive, a broad-faced youth in brown leathers, died.
Since he was one of the least badly wounded, Quaeryt waited another glass in the anteroom to the surgery. One of the aides to the surgeon checked the field dressing on his wound and cleaned the edges while he waited along with a white-faced older ranker with a broken arm.
He had a chance to think while he waited, and the princeps’s words—those from his first meeting with Straesyr—came back to him. He’d wondered about archers, and now, unhappily, he understood. The brigands had been out of sight the entire time of the attack. Archers with the company would indeed have been useless. He wanted to shake his head, but feared even that would increase the pain.
After a time, the ranker looked at Quaeryt. “Sir … you took a bolt in the chest, didn’t you?”
“That’s where it hit.”
“You worked it out, the squad leader said. Most men die if they do that. The flanges on those bolts are back-barbed tools of the Namer.”
“I didn’t know that. I didn’t know what to do.”
That’s certainly true.
“You must be stronger than you look. Sometimes, it takes two men to get one of those out—but that’s after whoever’s hit is dead.” The young ranker winced as he moved.
“How is the arm?” asked Quaeryt quickly.
“It hurts. Seen enough of these … it might be shattered. Hope not. Sometimes you lose the whole arm.”
“I hope not, too.”
What else can you say?
In hopes of distracting the man, he asked, “Have you been with the regiment long?”
“Too long. Trying to finish a second term and get a stipend.”
“How are things now, with the hill holders, compared to when you first came?”
“They’re the same nasty bastards. Helped a lot when the governor built the post here. Helped more when he added another squad to each company.”
Before Quaeryt could ask more, one of the assistants to the surgeon came and led the ranker away, and Quaeryt sat there alone, but not for long, because the surgeon/healer—a gray-haired captain—appeared. “This way. We need to take a better look at that wound, scholar.”
In another small room, the surgeon captain removed the field dressing, carefully, and inspected the wound. “Hmmm … fair amount of bruising…” He frowned, then touched Quaeryt’s collarbone to the left and a touch above the wound. “Does that hurt?”
“It’s sore. Everything there is sore.”
The surgeon lifted a needle with blackish thread attached. “We’ll need to stitch this. Otherwise, every move you make will rip it wider. It’s already ripped some. You’ll need to keep it in a sling for a few days, too.”
The stitches weren’t pleasant, but they didn’t hurt nearly so much as either the quarrel hitting him or removing it had.
When he finished, the surgeon shook his head, then smiled. “I wish more turned out like this. You’re a fortunate man, scholar, thank the Nameless. Most bolts that hit the collarbone break it. Even a glancing blow will do it. That’s just the beginning of the damage. Some slice the big blood vessels, but when that happens, you die right then. The one that hit you didn’t do either. It’s not shallow, but it’s not all that deep, either. It must have been slowed by leaves or small branches. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to worry, but there’s a tincture in there, or spirits, I’d guess. How did you manage that?”
“I had some. How … I don’t really know. I’d heard it might help.”
“Sometimes. At least, the bolt wasn’t in the flesh all that long.”
“How did you know that?”
A wry expression appeared on the captain’s face. “I have seen more than a few wounds like this, scholar.”
“I’m sorry. No one even asked me, but you knew.”
“Sometimes, I do. It’s fairly clean. Clean as possible. Keep it that way. Watch the dressing … if there’s any greenish pus … any smell … we’ll have to cut and drain … If it looks to be healing, don’t fool with it. Are your guts upset?”
“They were after I got hit. After that, they’ve been all right.”
“Good. One of my assistants will be bringing you some ale. You’re to sit here quietly and drink it slowly. That will help combat the blood loss. From what’s on your garments, you lost more than I’d like to see. Don’t drink any water for the next few days—just ale or lager. And don’t eat very much tonight. Nothing, if you can manage it. Oh … you can get lager or ale between meals at the mess.” With that, the surgeon was gone.
More than a glass later, and after drinking a large mug of bitter ale, with his arm in the sling, Quaeryt walked slowly back toward the main building and the officers’ mess. Because he was a little light-headed, he took care with every step. It wouldn’t be all that long before the evening meal, and his quarters at Boralieu were almost as small as the room at the Tankard had been.
When he entered the mess, he didn’t even have to ask where to find ale or lager. A ranker came up and took in the sling and the caked blood. “Ah … lager or ale, sir?”
“Lager, please.” Quaeryt took a seat close to the end of the single long table, but it was too high to rest the arm in the sling on. So he pushed back the chair slightly and waited for the lager, which arrived quickly.
He really didn’t feel that thirsty, and just sipped it as he could and thought, trying to ignore the combination of sharp stabbing pain and dull throbbing aches in his chest and shoulder. The fact that the surgeon had seen more than a few crossbow-quarrel wounds and that the mess attendant hadn’t even asked what he wanted tended to confirm Rescalyn’s assessment of the dangers of the hill brigands.
After a time, close to two quints before the bells rang out fifth glass, Skarpa entered the mess, his head moving from side to side until he saw Quaeryt. He immediately hurried over, a puzzled expression on his face. “I’d heard you took a quarrel. I expected you to be laid out in the infirmary. Did I hear wrong?”
“No. I managed to get it out without ripping myself up more. It must have been slowed by leaves or something. It didn’t break the bone or cut too deep.”
“From all that blood, it wasn’t just a scratch, either,” Skarpa said.
“No. I’ll grant that. The surgeon had to stitch me up. He’s still worried about the blood loss and the wound turning bad, but he’s done what he can.”
“He’s had more experience than any one of us would like him to have.”
“I certainly learned firsthand just how nasty the hill brigands could be. Getting shot on the first patrol…” Quaeryt shook his head.
“It does happen. The governor’s always telling the troops that there are no safe patrols in the hill country. Almost every other one has some sort of trouble. One of the rankers who died was on his first patrol out of training.”
“I wondered about that. I think he was the one hit when I was. I managed to grab the reins of his mount … I mean, after I worked out the quarrel.”
Skarpa’s eyes widened for just a moment. “You saw him get hit?”
“No. I got hit. Later, I saw him, but he died before I could do anything. Then I got his mount.”
“You took a quarrel, worked it out, caught a stray mount, and then rode back here?”
“It wasn’t that easy. My … guts … didn’t agree after I got the quarrel out, and I had to hold a cloth over the field dressing most of the way back to keep the bleeding down until it finally stopped.”
“You should have been a cavalry officer.”
“Me? I was so stupid that I ducked too late. I didn’t even realize that pattering sound was quarrels going through leaves.” Quaeryt paused. “Why would they shoot through leaves?”
“Because you can’t get a totally clean shot in the woods. That’s one reason why they use the crossbows. They’ve got more power, and they don’t get stopped as easily.”
“I still can’t believe I just watched for a moment.”
Skarpa laughed. “That’s what makes a good officer. Everyone makes mistakes. Those who are smart enough or tough enough to survive become good officers.”
Quaeryt had his doubts, but he wasn’t about to contradict the major.
What he did know was that, once he felt better, he definitely needed more practice with his shields. He also needed to be too sick to ride back to Tilbora until he was far more healed than anyone thought he was, because he had a very bad feeling about things.
For the next five days, all Quaeryt did was eat, rest, and drink lager—and clean off the area around the dressing with small amounts of clear spirits that he imaged when no one else was around. He had bouts of fever, or at least hot sweatiness, but those subsided after several days. He even slept through the time for services on Solayi, not that he’d planned to attend. While he slept a great deal, part of that was because he didn’t sleep all that well. He had to stay on his back and prop the arm on his injured side so that it wouldn’t move when he drifted off into a state that was more doze than true sleep. By Meredi, especially after the surgeon captain’s assessment that morning that the wound was healing nicely, he was feeling improved enough to begin exploring the fortress that was Boralieu.
Unlike the Telaryn Palace, Boralieu had been built for the sole purpose of providing an entrenched impregnable base for forces engaged in pursuing and attacking the wayward holders of the hills. The walls were tall enough and thick enough that only massive siege engines could have toppled them, and the post had been built over two springs that supplied water. The windows were double-shuttered and even narrower than those in Tilbora, and most of the open space within the walls was stone-paved to eliminate mud when the heavy winter snows melted. The interior of the post was simple enough that Quaeryt finished walking through it within two glasses, and that was more than soon enough, because he definitely felt tired when he returned to the officers’ mess and sank into one of the spare wooden chairs at the table.
During his enforced rest, he’d thought about everything about Tilbor that he could recall, as well as what he might have done, especially in developing better shields. The one thing that he did remember that struck him as both odd and promising was the feeling that something had ripped through his thoughts just before the quarrel had struck him. He had to question if in fact his thoughts were somehow linked to his shields. Yet he wasn’t certain how to test that; he didn’t want to make himself a target to see, and he wasn’t in any condition to do much of great physical effort yet. But the idea held promise.
He couldn’t hold the really strong shields for all that long, but could he train his reactions so that such a rip or impact on the lighter shields could instantly create heavier ones close to him? It was worth looking into … more than worth looking into if he wanted to survive in Tilbor.
Then there were the larger, if less personal, questions. From what he could figure, there were close to four thousand officers and men at the Telaryn Palace, and more than another three thousand in the four outposts. Together, they represented the largest concentrated force in all Telaryn, and all were controlled by Rescalyn. Rescalyn had certainly opened every record to Quaeryt and granted him access everywhere. So far as Quaeryt could determine, Rescalyn was an inspiring and effective commander, and one whose acts benefited Bhayar and all Telaryn, including Tilbor. So why did Quaeryt feel something was wrong?
For a time, he just sat in the mess and sipped lager, thinking, not able to put anything in any sort of perspective.
Abruptly, he recalled one of the passages in the book that Rescalyn had read—the one about the best strategy being the one that was so open that no one even understood that it was a strategy. He shook his head ruefully. He’d been looking for what was hidden. What about what was hidden in plain sight?
“Scholar … are you feeling better?” Skarpa paused at the door to the mess.
As he did, a ranker stepped past the major. Quaeryt frowned, realizing that in the indirect light where the two stood, he couldn’t tell the difference between their undress uniforms.
Skarpa stepped inside and walked over to where Quaeryt sat. “Are you all right?”
“Oh … I’m sorry. I was thinking.” The scholar gestured to a chair. “Do you have a moment.”
“A few, but not many. Taenyd’s company is coming in from a west valley patrol, and I’ll need to debrief them.”
“I was thinking … about uniforms. The undress greens worn by the officers and the rankers are almost the same except for the collar insignia.…”
“Oh … that’s just good tactics. If the enemy could easily see who the officers are, they’d concentrate on them. That’s especially important out in the hills. The brigands always want to get officers.”
So … the only one who stood out on that patrol was one scholar …
“Was that something that the governor came up with?”
“That was before he was governor. He was stationed in Ferravyl as a commander. You know, watching the Bovarians on the other side of the river. Sometimes, they’d come downstream and try to pick off officers from their riverboats with long-range crossbows. They always targeted officers. He realized it was because their uniforms were too different. He persuaded Lord Chayar to make the change. Some of the older officers didn’t approve. They liked their fancy uniforms. The marshal said they wouldn’t like them near so much if they were leading their men. Then he suggested that the dress uniforms be as fancy as ever, because balls and parades were where people paid attention to gilt and glitz. That didn’t make him popular, either. It might have been why Fhayt was appointed the first governor of Tilbor.”
Quaeryt nodded. “Governor Rescalyn’s very practical.”