L EVINSHIR WASN’T A BIG town. Two hundred people lived there, maybe three if you counted the outlying farms. It was mealtime when we rode in, and the dirt road that split the town in half was empty and quiet. Ell told me her house was on the far side of town. I hoped to get the girls there without being seen. They were worn down and distraught. The last thing they needed was to face a mob of gossipy neighbors.
But it wasn’t meant to be. We were halfway through the town when I saw a flicker of movement in a window. A woman’s voice cried out, “Ell!” and in ten seconds people began to spill from every doorway in sight.
The women were the quickest, and inside a minute a dozen of them had formed a protective knot around the two girls, talking and crying and hugging each other. The girls didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps it was better this way. A warm welcome might do a lot to heal them.
The men held back, knowing they were useless in situations like this. Most watched from doorways or porches. Six or eight came down onto the street, moving slowly and eyeing up the situation. These were cautious men, farmers and friends of farmers.They knew the names of everyone within ten miles of their homes. There were no strangers in a town like Levinshir, except for me.
None of the men were close relatives to the girls. Even if they were, they knew they wouldn’t get near them for at least an hour, maybe as much as a day. So they let their wives and sisters take care of things. With nothing else to occupy them, their attention wandered briefly past the horses and settled onto me.
I motioned over a boy of ten or so. “Go tell the mayor his daughter’s back. Run!” He tore off in a cloud of road dust, his bare feet flying.
The men moved slowly closer to me, their natural suspicion of strangers made ten times worse by recent events. A boy of twelve or so wasn’t as cautious as the rest and came right up to me, eyeing my sword, my cloak.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Can you ride a horse, Pete?”
He looked insulted. “S’nuf.”
“Do you know where the Walker farm is?”
He nodded. “ ’Bout north two miles by the millway.”
I stepped sideways and handed him the reins to the roan. “Go tell them their daughter’s home. Then let them use the horse to come back to town.”
He had a leg over the horse before I could offer him a hand up. I kept a hand on the reins long enough to shorten the stirrups so he wouldn’t kill himself on the way there.
“If you make it there and back without breaking your head or my horse’s leg, I’ll give you a penny,” I said.
“You’ll give me two,” he said.
I laughed. He wheeled the horse around and was gone.
The men had wandered closer in the meantime, gathering around me in a loose circle.
A tall, balding fellow with a scowl and a grizzled beard seemed to appoint himself leader. “So who’re you?” he asked, his tone speaking more clearly than his words, Who the hell are you?
“Kvothe,” I answered pleasantly. “And yourself?”
“Don’t know as that’s any of your business,” he growled. “What are you doing here?” What the hell are you doing here with our two girls?
“God’s mother, Seth,” an older man said to him. “You don’t have the sense God gave a dog. That’s no way to talk to the . . .”
“Don’t give me any of your lip, Benjamin,” the scowling man bristled back. “We got a good right to know who he is.” He turned to me and took a few steps in front of everyone else. “You one of those trouper bastards what came through here?”
I shook my head and attempted to look harmless. “No.”
“I think you are. I think you look kinda like one of them Ruh. You got them eyes.” The men around him craned to get a better look at my face.
“God, Seth,” the old fellow chimed in again. “None of them had red hair. You remember hair like that. He ain’t one of ’em.”
“Why would I bring them back if I’d been one of the men who took them?” I pointed out.
His expression grew darker and he continued his slow advance. “You gettin’ smart with me, boy? Maybe you think all of us are stupid here? You think if you bring ’em back you’ll get a reward or maybe we won’t send anyone else out after you?” He was almost within arm’s reach of me now, scowling furiously.
I looked around and saw the same anger lurking in the faces of all the men who stood there. It was the sort of anger that comes to a slow boil inside the hearts of good men who want justice, and finding it out of their grasp, decide vengeance is the next best thing.
I tried to think of a way to calm the situation, but before I could do anything I heard Krin’s voice lash out from behind me. “Seth, you get away from him!”
Seth paused, his hands half raised against me. “Now ...”
Krin was already stepping toward him. The knot of women loosened to release her, but stayed close. “He saved us, Seth,” she shouted furiously. “You stupid shit-eater, he saved us. Where the hell were all of you? Why didn’t you come get us?”
He backed away from me as anger and shame fought their way across his face. Anger won. “We came,” he shouted back. “After we found out what happened we went after ’em. They shot out Bil’s horse from under him, and he got his leg crushed. Jim got his arm stabbed, and old Cupper still ain’t waked up from the thumping they give him. They almost killed us.”
I looked again and saw anger on the men’s faces. Saw the real reason for it. The helplessness they had felt, unable to defend their town from the false troupe’s rough handling. Their failure to reclaim the daughters of their friends and neighbors had shamed them.
“Well it wasn’t good enough!” Krin shouted back hotly, her eyes burning. “He came and got us because he’s a real man. Not like the rest of you who left us to die!”
The anger leapt out of a young man to my left, a farm boy, about seventeen. “None of this would have happened if you hadn’t been running around like some Ruh whore!”
I broke his arm before I quite realized what I was doing. He screamed as he fell to the ground.
I pulled him to his feet by the scruff of his neck. “What’s your name?” I snarled into his face.
“My arm!” He gasped, his eyes showing me their whites.
I shook him like a rag doll. “Name!”
“Jason,” he blurted. “God’s mother, my arm . . .”
I took his chin in my free hand and turned his face toward Krin and Ell. “Jason,” I hissed quietly in his ear. “I want you to look at those girls. And I want you to think about the hell they’ve been through in these past days, tied hand and foot in the back of a wagon. And I want you to ask yourself what’s worse. A broken arm, or getting kidnapped by a stranger and raped four times a night?”
Then I turned his face toward me and spoke so quiet that even an inch away it was hardly a whisper. “After you’ve thought of that, I want you to pray to God to forgive you for what you just said. And if you mean it, Tehlu grant your arm heal straight and true.” His eyes were terrified and wet. “After that, if you ever think an unkind thought about either of them, your arm will ache like there’s hot iron in the bone. And if you ever say an unkind word, it will go to fever and slow rot and they’ll have to cut it off to save your life.” I tightened my grip on him, watching his eyes widen. “And if you ever do anything to either of them, I’ll know. I will come here, and kill you, and leave your body hanging in a tree.”
There were tears on his face now, although whether from shame or fear or pain I couldn’t guess. “Now you tell her you’re sorry for what you said.” I let go of him after making sure he had his feet under him and pointed him in the direction of Krin and Ell. The women stood around them like a protective cocoon.
He clutched his arm weakly. “I shouldn’ta said that, Ellie,” he sobbed, sounding more wretched and repentant than I would have thought possible, broken arm or no. “It was a demon talkin’ out of me. I swear though, I been sick worryin’. We all been. And we did try to come get you, but they was a lot of them and they jumped us on the road, then we had to bring Bil home or he would’ve died from his leg.”
Something tickled my memory about the boy’s name. Jason? I suddenly suspected I had just broken Ell’s boyfriend’s arm. Somehow I couldn’t feel bad for it just now. Best thing for him, really.
Looking around I saw the anger bleed out of the faces of the men around me, as if I’d used up the whole town’s supply in a sudden, furious flash. Instead they watched Jason, looking slightly embarrassed, as if the boy were apologizing for the lot of them.
Then I saw a big, healthy-looking man running down the street followed by a dozen other townsfolk. From the look on his face I guessed it was Ell’s father, the mayor. He forced his way into the knot of women, gathered his daughter up in his arms, and swung her around.
You find two types of mayor in small towns like this. The first type are balding, older men of considerable girth who are good with money and tend to wring their hands a great deal when anything unexpected happens. The second type are tall, broad-shouldered men whose families have grown slowly prosperous because they had worked like angry bastards behind a plow for twenty generations. Ell’s father was the second sort.
He walked over to me, keeping one arm around his daughter’s shoulders. “I understand I have you to thank for bringing our girls back.” He reached out to shake my hand and I saw his arm was bandaged. His grip was solid in spite of it. He smiled the widest smile I’d seen since I left Simmon at the University.
“How’s the arm?” I asked, not realizing how it would sound. His smile faded a little, and I was quick to add, “I’ve had some training as a physicker. And I know that those sort of things can be tricky to deal with when you’re away from home.” When you’re living in a country that thinks mercury is medicine , I thought to myself.
His smile came back, and he flexed his fingers. “It’s stiff, but that’s all. Just a little meat. They caught us by surprise. I got my hands on one of them, but he stuck me and got away. How did you end up getting the girls away from those godless Ruh bastards?” He spat.
“They weren’t Edema Ruh,” I said, my voice sounding more strained than I would have liked. “They weren’t even real troupers.”
His smile began to fade again. “What do you mean?”
“They weren’t Edema Ruh. We don’t do the things they did.”
“Listen,” the mayor said plainly, his temper starting to rise a bit. “I know damn well what they do and don’t do. They came in all sweet and nice, played a little music, made a penny or two. Then they started to make trouble around town. When we told them to leave they took my girl.” He almost breathed fire as he said the last words.
“We?” I heard someone say faintly behind me. “Jim, he said we .”
Seth scowled around the side of the mayor to get a look at me again. “I told you he looked like one,” he said triumphantly. “I know ’em. You can always tell by them eyes.”
“Hold on,” the mayor said with slow incredulity. “Are you telling me you’re one of them? ” His expression grew dangerous.
Before I could explain myself. Ell had grabbed his arm. “Oh, don’t make him mad, Daddy,” she said quickly, holding onto his good arm as if to pull him away from me. “Don’t say anything to get him angry. He’s not with them. He brought me back, he saved me.”
The mayor seemed somewhat mollified by this, but his congeniality was gone. “Explain yourself,” he said grimly.
I sighed inside, realizing what a mess I’d made of this. “They weren’t troupers, and they certainly weren’t Edema Ruh. They were bandits who killed some of my family and stole their wagons. They were only pretending to be performers.”
“Why would anyone pretend to be Ruh?” the mayor asked, as if the thought were incomprehensible.
“So they could do what they did,” I snapped. “You let them into your town and they abused that trust. That’s something no Edema Ruh would ever do.”
“You never did answer my question,” he said. “How did you get the girls away?”
“I took care of things,” I said simply.
“He killed them,” Krin said loudly enough for everyone to hear. “He killed them all.”
I could feel everyone looking at me. Half of them were thinking, All of them? He killed seven men? The other half were thinking, There were two women with them, did he kill them too?
“Well, then.” The mayor looked down at me for a long moment. “Good,” he said as if he had just made up his mind. “That’s good. The world’s a better place for it.”
I felt everyone relax slightly. “These are their horses.” I pointed to the two horses that had been carrying our baggage. “They belong to the girls now. About forty miles east you’ll find the wagons. Krin can show you where they’re hidden. They belong to the girls too.”
“They’ll fetch a good price off in Temsford,” the mayor mused.
“Together with the instruments and clothes and such, they’ll fetch a heavy penny,” I agreed. “Split two ways, it’ll make a fine dowry,” I said firmly.
He met my eyes, nodded slowly in understanding. “That it will.”
“What about the things they stole from us?” a stout man in an apron protested. “They smashed up my place and stole two barrels of my best ale!”
“Do you have any daughters?” I asked him calmly. The sudden, stricken look on his face told me he did. I met his eye, held it. “Then I think you came away from this pretty well.”
The mayor finally noticed Jason clutching his broken arm. “What happened to you?”
Jason looked at his feet, and Seth spoke up for him, “He said some things he shouldn’t.”
The mayor looked around and saw that getting more of an answer would involve an ordeal. He shrugged and let it go.
“I could splint it for you,” I said easily.
“No!” Jason said too quickly, then backpedaled. “I’d rather go to Gran.”
I gave a sideways look to the mayor. “Gran?”
He gave a fond smile. “When we scrape our knees Gran patches us back up again.”
“Would Bil be there?” I asked. “The man with the crushed leg?”
He nodded. “She won’t let him out of her sight for another span of days if I know her.”
“I’ll walk you over,” I said to the sweating boy who was carefully cradling his arm. “I’d like to watch her work.”
* * *
As far from civilization as we were, I expected Gran to be a hunched old woman who treated her patients with leeches and wood alcohol.
That opinion changed when I saw the inside of her house. Her walls were covered with bundles of dry herbs and shelves lined with small, carefully labeled bottles. There was a small desk with three heavy leather books on it. One of them lay open, and I recognized it as The Heroborica . I could see handwritten notes scrawled in the margins, while some of the entries had been edited or crossed out entirely.
Gran wasn’t as old as I’d thought she’d be, though she did have her share of grey hair. She wasn’t hunched either, and actually stood taller than me, with broad shoulders and a round, smiling face.
She swung a copper kettle over the fire, humming to herself. Then she brought out a pair of shears and sat Jason down, prodding his arm gently. Pale and sweating, the boy kept up a constant stream of nervous chatter while she methodically cut his shirt away. In the space of a few minutes, without her even asking, he’d given her an accurate if somewhat disjointed version of Ell and Krin’s homecoming.
“It’s a nice clean break,” she said at last, interrupting him. “How’d it happen?”
Jason’s wild eyes darted to me, then away. “Nothin’,” he said quickly. Then realized he hadn’t answered the question. “I mean ...”
“I broke it,” I said. “Figured the least I could do was come along and see if there’s anything I could do to help set it right again.”
Gran looked back at me. “Have you dealt with this sort of thing before?”
“I’ve studied medicine at the University,” I said.
She shrugged. “Then I guess you can hold the splints while I wrap ’em. I have a girl who helps me, but she run off when she heard the commotion up the street.”
Jason eyed me nervously as I held the wood tight to his arm, but it took Gran less than three minutes to bind up the splint with an air of bored competence. Watching her work, I decided she was worth more than half the students I could name in the Medica.
After we’d finished she looked down at Jason. “You’re lucky,” she said. “It didn’t need to be set. You hold off using it for a month, it should heal up just fine.”
Jason left as quickly as he was able, and after a small amount of persuasion Gran let me see Bil, who was laid up in her back room.
If Jason’s arm was a clean break, then Bil’s was messy as a break can be. Both the bones in his lower leg had broken in several places. I couldn’t see under the bandages, but his leg was hugely swollen. The skin above the bandages was bruised and mottled, stretched as tight as an overstuffed sausage.
Bil was pale but alert, and it looked like he would probably keep the leg. How much use it would be was another matter. He might come away with nothing more than a heavy limp, but I wouldn’t bet on him ever running again.
“What sort of folk shoot a man’s horse?” he asked indignantly, his face covered in a sheen of sweat. “It ain’t right.”
It had been his own horse, of course. And this wasn’t the sort of town where folk had horses to spare. Bil was a young man with a new wife and his own small farm, and he might never walk again because he’d tried to do the right thing. It hurt to think about.
Gran gave him two spoonfuls of something from a brown bottle, and it dragged his eyes shut. She ushered us out of the room and closed the door behind her.
“Did the bone break the skin?” I asked once the door was closed.
She nodded as she put the bottle back on the shelf.
“What have you been using to keep it from going septic?”
“Sour, you mean?” she asked. “Ramsburr.”
“Really?” I asked. “Not arrowroot?”
“Arrowroot,” she snorted as she added wood to the fire and swung the now-steaming kettle off of it. “You ever tried to keep something from going sour with arrowroot?”
“No,” I admitted.
“Let me save you the trouble of killing someone, then.” She brought out a pair of wooden cups. “Arrowroot is useless. You can eat it if you like, but that’s about it.”
“But a paste of arrowroot and bessamy is supposed to be ideal for this.”
“Bessamy might be worth half a damn,” she admitted. “But ramsburr is better. I’d rather have some redblade, but we can’t always have what we want. A paste of motherleaf and ramsburr is what I use, and you can see he’s doing just fine. Arrowroot is easy for folk to find, and it pulps smooth, but it hain’t got any worthwhile properties.”
She shook her head. “Arrowroot and camphor. Arrowroot and bessamy. Arrowroot and saltbine. Arrowroot hain’t a palliative of any sort. It’s just good at carrying around what works.”
I opened my mouth to protest, then looked around her house, at her heavily annotated copy of The Heroborica. I closed my mouth.
Gran poured hot water from the kettle into two cups. “Sit yourself down for a bit,” she said. “You look like you’re on your last leg.”
I looked longingly at the chair. “I should probably be getting back,” I said.
“You’ve got time for a cup,” she said, taking my arm and setting me firmly into the chair. “And a quick bite. You’re pale as a dry bone, and I have a bit of sweet pudding here that hain’t got anybody to give it a home.”
I tried to remember if I’d eaten any lunch today. I remembered feeding the girls.... “I don’t want to put you to any more trouble,” I said. “I’ve already made more work for you.”
“About time somebody broke that boy’s arm,” she said conversationally. “Has a mouth on him like you wouldn’t believe.” She handed me one of the wooden cups. “Drink that down and I’ll get you some of that pudding.”
The steam coming off the cup smelled wonderful. “What’s in it?” I asked.
“Rosehip. And some apple brandy I still up my own self.” She gave a wide smile that crinkled the edges of her eyes. “If you like, I can put in some arrowroot, too.”
I smiled and sipped. The warmth of it spread through my chest, and I felt myself relax a bit. Which was odd, as I hadn’t realized I’d been tense before.
Gran bustled about a bit before setting two plates on the table and easing herself down into a nearby chair.
“You really kill those folk?” she asked plainly. There wasn’t any accusation in her voice. It was just a question.
“You probably shouldn’t have told anyone,” she said. “There’s bound to be a fuss. They’ll want a trial and have to bring in the azzie from Temsford.”
“I didn’t tell them,” I said. “Krin did.”
“Ah,” she said.
The conversation lulled. I drank the last swallow out of my cup, but when I tried to set it on the table my hands were shaking so badly that it knocked against the wood, making a sound like an impatient visitor at the door.
Gran sipped calmly from her cup.
“I don’t care to talk about it,” I said at last. “It wasn’t a good thing.”
“Some folk might argue that,” she said gently. “I think you done the right thing.”
Her words brought a sudden hot ache behind my eyes, as if I were about to burst into tears. “I’m not so sure about that,” I said, my voice sounding strange in my own ears. My hands were shaking worse now.
Gran didn’t seem surprised by this. “You’ve had the bit in your teeth for a couple days now, haven’t you?” Her tone made it clear it wasn’t really a question. “I know the look.You’ve been keeping busy. Looking after the girls. Not sleeping. Probably not eating much.” She picked up the plate. “Eat your pudding. It will help to get some food in you.”
I ate the pudding. Halfway through, I began to cry, choking a bit as it stuck in my throat.
Gran refilled my cup with more tea and poured another dollop of brandy in on top of it. “Drink that down,” she repeated.
I took a swallow. I didn’t mean to say anything, but I found myself talking anyway. “I think there might be something wrong with me,” I said quietly. “A normal person doesn’t have it in him to do the things I do. A normal person would never kill people like this.”
“That may be,” she admitted, sipping from her own cup. “But what would you say if I told you Bil’s leg had gone a bit green and sweet smelling under that bandage?”
I looked up, startled. “He’s got the rot?”
She shook her head. “No. I told you he’s fine. But what if?”
“We’d have to cut the leg off,” I said.
Gran nodded seriously. “That’s right. And we’d have to do it quick. Today. No dithering about and hoping he’d fight his way through on his own. That wouldn’t do a thing but kill him.” She took a sip, watching me over the top of her cup, making it a question of sorts.
I nodded. I knew it was true.
“You’ve got some medicine,” she said. “You know that proper doctoring means hard choices.” She gave me an unflinching look. “We hain’t like other folk. You burn a man with an iron to stop his bleeding. You save the mother and lose the babe. It’s hard, and nobody ever thanks you for it. But we’re the ones that have to choose.”
She took another slow drink of tea. “The first few times are the worst. You’ll get the shakes and lose some sleep. But that’s the price of doing what needs to be done.”
“There were women too,” I said, the words catching in my throat.
Gran’s eyes flashed. “They earned it twice as much,” she said, and the sudden, furious anger in her sweet face caught me so completely by surprise that I felt prickling fear crawl over my body. “A man who would do that to a girl is like a mad dog. He hain’t hardly a person, just an animal needs to be put down. But a woman who helps him do it? That’s worse. She knows what she’s doing. She knows what it means.”
Gran put her cup down gently on the table, her expression composed again. “If a leg goes bad, you cut it off.” She made a firm gesture with the flat of her hand, then picked up her slice of pudding and began to eat it with her fingers. “And some folk need killing. That’s all there is to it.”
* * *
By the time I got myself under control and made it back outside, the crowd in the street had swelled. The local tavern keeper had rolled a barrel onto his front landing and the air was sweet with the smell of beer.
Krin’s father and mother had ridden back into town on the roan. Pete was there too, having run back. He offered up his unbroken head for my inspection and demanded his two pennies for services rendered.
I was warmly thanked by Krin’s parents. They seemed to be good people. Most people are if given the chance. I caught hold of the roan’s reins, and using him as a sort of portable wall I managed to get a moment of relatively private conversation with Krin.
Her dark eyes were a little red around the edges, but her face was bright and happy. “Make sure you get Lady Ghost,” I said, nodding to one of the horses. “She’s yours.” The mayor’s daughter would have a fair dowry no matter what, so I’d loaded Krin’s horse with the more valuable goods, as well as most of the false troupers’ money.
Her expression grew serious as she met my eyes, and again she reminded me of a young Denna. “You’re leaving,” she said.
I guess I was. She didn’t try to convince me to stay, and instead surprised me with a sudden embrace. After kissing me on the cheek she whispered in my ear, “Thank you.”
We stepped away from each other, knowing propriety would only allow so much. “Don’t sell yourself short and marry some fool,” I said, feeling as if I should say something.
“Don’t you either,” she said, her dark eyes mocking me gently.
I took Greytail’s reins and led her over to where the mayor stood, watching the crowd in a proprietary way. He nodded as I approached.
I drew a deep breath. “Is the constable about?”
He raised an eyebrow at this, then shrugged and pointed off into the crowd. “That’s him there. He was three-quarters drunk even before you brought our girls home, though. Don’t know how much use he’ll be to you now.”
“Well,” I said hesitantly. “I’m guessing someone is going to need to lock me up until you can get word to the azzie off in Temsford.” I nodded to the small stone building in the center of town.
The mayor looked sideways at me, frowning a bit. “You want to be locked up?”
“Not particularly,” I admitted.
“You can come and go as you please then,” he said.
“The azzie won’t be happy when he hears,” I said. “I’d rather not have anyone else go up against the iron law because of something I’ve done. Aiding in the escape of a murderer can be a hanging offense.”
The big man gave me a long looking over. His eyes lingered a bit on my sword, the worn leather of my boots. I could almost feel him noticing the lack of any serious wounds despite the fact that I’d just killed half a dozen armed men.
“So you’d let us just lock you up?” he asked. “Easy as that?”
He frowned again, then shook his head as if he couldn’t make sense of me. “Well aren’t you just as gentle as a lamb?” he said wonderingly. “But no. I won’t lock you up. You haven’t done anything less than proper.”
“I broke that boy’s arm,” I said.
“Hmm,” he rumbled darkly. “Forgot about that.” He reached into his pocket and brought out ha’penny. He handed it to me. “Much obliged.”
I laughed as I put it in my pocket.
“Here’s my thought,” he said. “I’ll head over and see if I can find the constable. Then I’ll explain to him we’ve got to lock you up. If you’ve slipped off in the middle of this confusion, we wouldn’t hardly be aiding in the escape, would we?”
“It would be negligence in maintenance of the law,” I said. “He might take a few lashes for it, or lose his post.”
“Shouldn’t come to that,” the mayor said. “But if it does, he’ll be happy to do it. He’s Ellie’s uncle.” He looked out at the crowd on the street. “Will fifteen minutes be enough for you to slip off in all the confusion?”
“If it’s all the same to you,” I said. “Could you say I disappeared in a strange and mysterious way when your back was turned?”
He laughed at this. “Don’t see why not. You need more than fifteen minutes on account of it being mysterious and all?”
“Ten should be a great plenty,” I said as I unpacked my lute case and travelsack from Greytail and handed the mayor the reins. “You’d be doing me a favor if you took care of him until Bil is up and about,” I said.
“You leaving your horse?” he asked.
“He’s just lost his.” I shrugged. “And we Ruh are used to walking. I wouldn’t know what to do with a horse, anyway,” I said half-honestly.
The big man gripped the reins and gave me a long look, as if he wasn’t quite sure what to make of me. “Is there anything we can do for you?” he asked at last.
“Remember it was bandits who took them,” I said as I turned to leave. “And remember it was one of the Edema Ruh who brought them back.”