T EMPI LIFTED THE PINE boughs that covered the two men. Laid carefully on their backs, they looked as if they were sleeping. I knelt at the side of the larger one, but before I could get a better look, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Looking back I saw Tempi shaking his head.
“What?” I asked. We had less than an hour of light left. Hunting down the bandits’ camp without getting caught was going to be difficult enough. Doing it in a pitch-black storm would be a nightmare.
“You should not,” he said. Firm. Serious. “Troubling the dead is not of the Lethani.”
“I need to know about our enemies. I can learn things from them that will help us.”
His mouth almost frowned, disapproval. “Magic?”
I shook my head. “Looking only.” I pointed to my eyes then tapped my temple. “Thinking.”
Tempi nodded. But as I turned back to the bodies, I felt his hand on my shoulder again. “You must ask. They are my dead.”
“You already agreed,” I pointed out.
“Asking is the right thing,” he said.
I took a deep breath. “May I look at your dead, Tempi?”
He nodded once, formally.
I looked over to where Marten was giving his bowstring a careful inspection under a nearby tree. “Do you want to see if you can find their trail?” He nodded and pushed himself away from the tree. “I’d start over there.” I pointed to the south between two ridges.
“I know my business,” he said as he walked off, shouldering his bow.
Tempi took a couple steps away, and I turned my attention to the bodies. One was actually quite a bit larger than Dedan, a great bull of a man. They were older than I had expected, and their hands had the calluses that mark long years of working with weapons. These were not disgruntled farm boys. These were veterans.
“I’ve got their trail,” Marten said, startling me. I hadn’t heard the sound of him approaching over the low susurrus of the falling rain. “It’s clear as day. A drunk priest could follow it.” There was a flicker of lightning across the sky and an accompanying grumble of thunder. The rain started to come down harder. I frowned and pulled the tinker’s sodden cloak tighter around my shoulders.
Marten tilted his head up and let the rain fall full on his face. “I’m glad this weather is finally doing us some good,” he said. “The more it rains the easier it will be for us to sneak in and away from their camp.” He wiped his hands on his dripping shirt and shrugged. “Besides, it’s not like we can get any wetter than we already are.”
“You have a point,” I said, standing.
Tempi covered the bodies with the branches, and Marten led us away to the south.
* * *
Marten knelt to examine something on the ground, and I took the opportunity to catch up with him.
“We’re being followed,” I said, not bothering to whisper it. They were at least seventy feet behind us, and the rain was rolling through the trees with a noise like waves against the shore.
He nodded and pretended to point at something on the ground. “I didn’t think you’d seen them.”
I smiled and stripped water from my face with a wet hand. “You’re not the only one here with eyes. How many do you think there are?”
“Two, maybe three.”
Tempi drew close to us. “Two,” he said with certainty in his voice.
“I only saw one,” I admitted. “How close are we to their camp?”
“No guess. Could be over the next hill. Could be miles off. There are still just these two sets of tracks, and I can’t smell any fires.” He stood up and started to follow the trail again without looking back.
I pushed a low branch aside as Tempi walked past and caught a glimpse of movement behind us that had nothing to do with wind or rain. “Let’s go over this next ridge and set a little trap.”
“Sounds like the very thing,” Marten agreed.
Gesturing for us to wait, Marten crouched low and edged his way up to the top of the small rise. I fought the urge to look behind us while he peered over the lip of the ridge, then scampered over.
There was a bright flash as lightning struck nearby. The thunder was like a fist in my chest. I startled. Tempi stood.
“This is like of home,” he said smiling faintly. He made no attempt to keep the water from his face.
Marten waved, and we stalked over the top of the ridge. Once we were out of sight of whoever was following us, I looked around quickly. “Keep following the tracks up to that twisted spruce, then circle back.” I gestured. “Tempi hides there. Marten behind that fallen tree. I’ll go behind that stone. Marten will make the first move. Use your judgment, but it would probably be best if you waited until they were past that broken stump. Try to leave one of them alive if possible, but we can’t have them getting away or making too much noise.”
“What will you be doing?” Marten asked as we hurried to lay down a clear set of tracks as far as the twisted spruce tree.
“I’ll be staying out of the way. The two of you are better equipped for this sort of thing. But I have a trick or two if it comes to that.” We reached the tree. “Ready?”
Marten seemed a little startled by my sudden barrage of orders, but they both nodded and went quickly to their places.
I circled around and settled behind a lumpish upcrop of stone. From my vantage I could see our muddy footprints mingling with the trail we followed. Past that I saw Tempi position himself behind the trunk of a thick burl oak. To his right, Marten nocked an arrow, drew the string back to his shoulder, and waited, motionless as a statue.
I brought out the rag that held the pinch of ash and a slender piece of iron, holding them ready in my hand. My stomach churned as I thought about what we had been sent here to do: hunt and kill men. True, they were outlaws and murderers, but men nonetheless. I deepened my breathing and tried to relax.
The surface of the stone was chill and gritty against my cheek. I strained my ears but couldn’t hear anything over the steady drumming of the rain. I fought the urge to lean farther around the edge of the stone and broaden my field of vision. Lightning flashed again, and I was counting the seconds until the thunder when I saw a pair of figures slink into view.
I felt a sullen heat flare up in my chest. “Shoot them, Marten,” I said loudly.
Dedan whirled around and was facing me with his sword drawn by the time I stepped from my hiding place. Hespe was a little more restrained and stopped with her sword halfway out of its scabbard.
I put my knife away and walked to within a half-dozen steps of Dedan. The thunder rolled over us as I caught and held his eyes. His expression was defiant, and I did not bother to disguise my anger. After a long minute of silence he looked away, pretending he needed to brush the water from his eyes.
“Put that away.” I nodded to his sword. After a second’s hesitation he did so. Only then did I slide the thin piece of brittle steel I held back into the lining of my cloak. “If we were bandits you would already be dead.” I moved my gaze from Dedan to Hespe and back again. “Go back to camp.”
Dedan’s expression twisted. “I’m sick of you talking to me like I’m a kid.” He jabbed a finger toward me. “I’ve been in this world a lot longer than you. I’m not stupid.”
I bit down several angry responses that couldn’t help but make matters worse. “I don’t have time to argue with you. We’re losing the light, and you’re putting us in danger. Go back to camp.”
“We should take care of this tonight,” he said. “We’ve already knackered off two of them, there’s probably only five or six left. We’ll surprise them in the dark, in the middle of the storm. Wham. Bam. We’ll be back in Crosson tomorrow for lunch.”
“And what if there’s a dozen of them? What if there’s twenty? What if they’re holed up in a farmhouse? What if they find our camp while no one’s there? All our supplies, our food, and my lute could be gone, and a trap waiting for us when we come back. All because you couldn’t sit still for an hour.” His face reddened dangerously, and I turned away. “Go back to camp. We’ll talk about this tonight.”
“No, dammit. I’m coming, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop me.”
I ground my teeth. The worst part was that it was true. I had no way of enforcing my authority. There was nothing I could do short of subduing him with the wax simulacra I’d made. And I knew that to be the worst possible option. Not only would it turn Dedan into an outright enemy, it would undoubtedly turn Hespe and Marten against me too.
I looked to Hespe. “Why are you here?”
She darted a quick look at Dedan. “He was going to go alone. I thought it was better if we stayed together. And we did think it through. Nobody’s going to stumble onto the camp. We hid our gear and doused the fire before we left.”
I gave a tight sigh and tucked the useless pinch of ash into a pocket of my cloak. Of course they did.
“But I agree,” she said. “We should try to finish it tonight.”
I looked to Marten.
He gave me an apologetic look. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want this over,” he said, then added quickly, “If we can do it smart.” He might have said more, but the words caught in his throat and he began to cough.
I looked at Tempi. Tempi looked back.
The worst thing was, my gut agreed with Dedan. I wanted this done. I wanted a warm bed and a decent meal. I wanted to get Marten somewhere dry. I wanted to go back to Severen where I could bask in Alveron’s gratitude. I wanted to find Denna, apologize, and explain why I had left without a word.
Only a fool fights the tide. “Fine.” I looked up at Dedan. “If one of your friends dies because of this, it will be your fault.” I saw a flicker of uncertainty cross his face, then disappear as he set his jaw. He had said too much for his pride to let him back down.
I leveled a long finger at him. “But from now on each of you must do as I say. I’ll listen to your suggestions, but I give the orders.” I looked around. Marten and Tempi nodded right away, with Hespe following only a second after. Dedan gave a slow nod.
I looked at him. “Swear it.” His eyes narrowed. “If you pull another stunt like this when we’re attacking tonight, you could get us killed. I don’t trust you. I’d rather leave tonight than go into this with someone I can’t trust.”
There was another tense moment, but before it stretched too long Marten chimed in, “C’mon Den. The boy’s actually got a fair bit on the ball. He set up this little ambush in about four seconds.” His tone turned jocular. “Besides, he’s not as bad as that bastard Brenwe, and the money for that little privy-dance wasn’t half as good.”
Dedan cracked a smile. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right. So long as it’s over tonight.”
I didn’t doubt for a second Dedan would still go his own way if it suited him. “Swear you’ll follow my orders.”
He shrugged and looked away. “Yeah. I swear.”
Not enough. “Swear it on your name.”
He wiped the rain from his face and looked back at me, confused. “What?”
I faced him and spoke formally. “Dedan. Will you do as I say tonight, without questioning or hesitation? Dedan. Do you swear it on your name?”
He shifted from foot to foot for a moment, then straightened a little. “I swear it on my name.”
I stepped closer to him and said “Dedan” very softly. At the same time I fed a small, tiny burst of heat through the wax simulacra in my pocket. Not enough to do anything, but enough that he could feel it, just for a moment.
I saw his eyes widen, and I gave him my best Taborlin the Great smile. The smile was full of secrets, wide and confident, and more than slightly smug. It was a smile that told an entire story all by itself.
“I have your name now ,” I said softly. “I have mastery over you .”
The look on his face was almost worth a month of his grumbling. I stepped back and let the smile disappear, quick as a flicker of lightning. Easy as taking off a mask. Which, of course, would leave him wondering which expression was the real one, the young boy or the half-glimpsed Taborlin?
I turned away before I lost the moment. “Marten will scout ahead. Tempi and I will follow five minutes behind. That will give him time to spot their lookouts and come back to warn us. You two follow ten minutes behind us.”
I gave Dedan a pointed look and held up both hands with my fingers splayed. “Ten full minutes. It’ll be slower this way. But it’s safest. Any suggestions?” Nobody said anything. “All right. Marten, it’s your show. Come back if you run into trouble.”
“Count on it,” he said, and soon passed from our sight, lost in the blurry green and brown of leaf and bark and rock and rain.
* * *
The rain continued to pelt down, and the light was beginning to fail as Tempi and I followed the trail, slinking from one hiding place to another. Noise, at least, was not a concern as the thunder made a near constant grumbling overhead.
Marten appeared with no warning from the underbrush and motioned us to the marginal shelter of a leaning maple. “Their camp is right up ahead,” he said. “There’s tracks all over the place, and I saw light from their fire.”
“How many of them?”
Marten shook his head. “I didn’t get that close. As soon as I saw different sets of footprints I came back. I didn’t want you following the wrong tracks and getting lost.”
“About a minute’s creep. You could see their fire from here, but their camp’s on the other side of a rise.”
I looked at the faces of my two companions in the dimming light. Neither of them seemed nervous. They were suited for this sort of work, trained for it. Marten had his abilities as a tracker and a bowman. Tempi had the legendary skill of the Adem.
I might have felt calm too, if I had had the opportunity to prepare some plan, some trick of sympathy that could tip things in our favor. But Dedan had ruined all hopes of that by insisting we attack tonight. I had nothing, not even a bad link to a distant fire.
I stopped that line of thinking before it could turn from anxiety to panic. “Let’s go then,” I said, pleased at the calm timbre of my voice.
The three of us crept forward as the last of the light slowly bled from the sky. In the grey, Marten and Tempi were difficult to see, which reassured me. If it was hard for me, it would be near impossible for sentries to spot us from a distance.
Soon I spied firelight reflecting off the undersides of high branches ahead. Crouching, I followed Marten and Tempi up the side of a steep bank, made slippery by the rain. I thought I saw a stir of movement ahead of us.
Then lightning struck. In the near dark it was enough to blind me, but not before the muddy bank was highlighted in dazzling white.
A tall man stood on the ridge with a drawn bow. Tempi crouched a few feet up the bank, frozen in the act of carefully placing his feet. Above him was Marten. The old tracker had gone to one knee and drawn his bow as well. The lightning showed me all of this in a great flash, then left me blind. The thunder came an instant after, deafening me as well. I dropped to the ground and rolled, wet leaves and dirt clinging to my face.
When I opened my eyes all I could see were the blue ghosts the lightning had left dancing in front of my eyes. There was no outcry. If the sentry had made one it had been covered by the thunder. I lay very still until my eyes adjusted. It took me a long, breathless second to find Tempi. He was up the bank some fifteen feet, kneeling over a dark shape. The sentry.
I approached him, scrabbling through the wet fern and muddy leaves. Lightning flickered again above us, more gently this time, and I saw the shaft of one of Marten’s arrows protruding at an angle from the sentry’s chest. The fletching had come loose and it fluttered in the wind like a tiny, sodden flag.
“Dead,” Tempi said when Marten and I were close enough to hear.
I doubted it. Even a deep chest wound won’t kill a man as quickly as that. But as I moved closer I saw the angle of the arrow. It was a heart shot. I looked at Marten with amazement. “That’s a shot to sing a song about,” I said quietly.
“Luck.” He dismissed it and turned his attention to the top of the ridge a few feet above us. “Let’s hope I have some left,” he said as he began to crawl.
As I crawled after him I caught a glimpse of Tempi still kneeling over the fallen man. He leaned close, as if whispering to the body.
Then I saw the camp, and all vague curiosity about the Adem’s peculiarity was pushed from my mind.