Saint Gavin’s Ghost Preview Chapter

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As a teaser for some of the projects to come, I thought it would be fun to release the edited version of the first chapter in Saint Gavin’s Ghost, a semi-steampunk swashbuckling adventure I’m working on.

Chapter One

Matthias Teague massaged the bridge of his nose and contemplated a vow of celibacy before he and his wife unleashed another agent of chaos on the world.

“But Dad,” Jacob sounded much younger than his seventeen years when he tried to wheedle. “They’re our people.”

Matthias made a point not to look over at the air docks, where the last of the surviving airships were rising away from the spreading warehouse fires. Their long, ribbed pill shapes seemed slowly graceful against the midday sky, sedate compared to whirling columns of smoke and fire.

At least the view outside his son’s jail cell was appropriate.

“Jacob,” Matthias kept his voice deliberately calm. “Your mother and I love you, but you’re smart enough to thank God for the bars between us just now.”

Matthias believed that his son knew he loved him. Unfortunately, at times like this it undercut the sheer menace that a man Matthias’ sized conveyed. Jacob was as tall as his father these days, though he favored his mother’s slender build. There wasn’t a trace of fear in his sea-green eyes, and he took a step closer to the bars instead. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Matthias tilted his head. “Right. So say the bars.”

Jacob cringed a little at that. “I didn’t hurt anyone or burn anything! I didn’t!”

Matthias frowned. “You just wanted to see the Lady Day riots up close. It was every other one of the hundred hot-brained young goats who look and talk just like you who did all the wrong.”

Matthias made no effort to lower his voice despite the dozen other young men in the cell with Jacob. Only half the heads in the cell whipped around at Matthias’ words. Half didn’t react at all. Jacob and Matthias spoke Kernewek between themselves. So the others didn’t understand the language of the people they claimed to champion. Matthias didn’t know whether he wanted to laugh or cry at that.

Three of the boys, two about Jacob’s age and one older, came forward with tight shoulders and clenched fists. Their faces were smeared with soot and dried sweat from the fires.

The eldest had fiery red hair to match his temper. “Oy, tas-gwynn, come on this side of the bars and spout off.”

Matthias fixed the man with a level stare. “I’m free ‘cause I don’t chum the water for sharks before I swim. And if I was your grandfather, you’d have learned some manners. I farm, fish, and sell my silk while young goats like you throw fits and burn down barns, so I am free and have money in my pocket to pay my son’s fine, so he won’t sit in the stocks.”

“Call me a goat again, old man. Your boy’s in here with us not outside with the guards and cowards.”

Jacob, who’d been silent until now, whirled on the other. “Are you calling my tas a coward?”

“Jacob!” Matthias did not keep his voice down now. He was the tallest, broadest man in the room. There were half a dozen other friends and family here to bail out their loved ones, as well as half a dozen guards watching the four cages. Every head in the room turned when the old whip-crack of command echoed through Matthias’ voice. Every eye fixed on him.

Jacob did flinch then. Matthias, as a rule, did not raise his voice precisely because it attracted this sort of attention. At home, this constituted the final warning before serious punishment, and Jacob knew it.

Matthias cut into the silence before either young goat could start butting heads. He’d already gone and made a scene. He might as well try to salvage something from the wreckage. He spoke in Salasek so everyone in the room understood. “You boys don’t want to act dumb and turn a week in the stocks to worse. Ever been beat? They can do worse. You want a slave collar? Maybe you want a rope for the hood-man? Right now you’re in because you have to be. But if you keep burning buildings on Lady Day, keep making trouble because you’re too proud of a past you never saw with your own eyes, and it can change.”

Matthias leaned in on the bars. The iron rods seemed tiny and frail when he took them in his large, solid hands. “But you’re not thinking with your heads, so I’ll give you a better reason. I’ll know if anyone lays hands on my Jacob.” He fixed the redhead with a complete lack of expression. “I’ll know.”

Matthias twisted on the bars in his hands.  One of the metal bars groaned under the strain.  “You think I’m scared, boy? My name is Matthias Teague. I run the mill in Aberglas. Come to my home any time, boy. Come and try me.”

Matthias fell silent, his own anger mostly spent.

The blood drained from the red-headed boy’s face and he took a step back. He pointed widened eyes at Jacob. “Your father is Math the Miller?”

Two other prisoners stepped up and raised open hands. “Mr. Math, don’t worry. We’ll keep him safe.”

Another prisoner shot the redhead a dirty look before adding, “You pay the fine, sir. We’ll look after him.”

Matthias didn’t need to look around to know that every eye in the room was still on him, apart from Red, who stared at his feet.

Well, Matthias thought, he’d already stepped in it. No need to wipe it around.

Jacob was out of immediate danger, and as long as they paid the fine and left quickly, they ought to be all right.

Not that it would save either of them from Mary’s opinions on the matter after they got back to Aberglas.

Matthias turned and went to pay the fine, and conversation started back up behind him.

Red’s voice was subdued. “I’m sorry.”

Jacob sounded more embarrassed by his father than angry. “You didn’t know.”

“Na, not that.” Red said. “I’m feeling sorry for you.”

“My tas is getting me out and you feel sorry for me?”

“Right, because then you won’t have nice safe bars between you.”

The door closed on Jacob’s groan.

♦♦♦

Robert Cooper leaned against a building and whittled while the crowded streets of Mount Lee boiled around him.

He hadn’t seen such a mixed crowd since he left An Dinas six weeks ago. Men, women, and children were dressed in Salas linens, Nemed silks, and Pilgrim grays from all over the duchies. Actual citizens of the border city Mount Lee wore a mixture of all three.

The clothing was the least chaotic thing in the city. Some people moved as quickly as they could away from the fires at the airport. Other people tried to get out of the way of the people fleeing the fires. Both groups flowed around people stopped dead in their tracks, staring up at the sky as the airships beat their way free of the fires’ murderous updrafts. Then there were thrill-seekers or the morbid who were fighting their way through all three crowds to get closer to the fires. In the middle of the chaos were poor townspeople trying to go about their daily lives.

None of them came close to touching the Knight of An Dinas who walked through their midst. It wasn’t the man’s broad shoulders, powerful chest, and flat stomach that parted the crowds. He was handsome, with a mane of shoulder-length brown hair and golden eyes over a strong jaw, but looks from a heroic painting didn’t part crowds, either. The streets were too crowded to give people a chance to see the Gray Tower of An Dinas on his lacquered breastplate, either. The knight walked down the street with his eyes straight forward, not even acknowledging the crowd. He moved like a mythical lion, all feline grace and deadly power, and people parted in front of him like water. The Knight of An Dinas refused to acknowledge the crowd, and the crowd agreed.

Robert watched the Knight’s progress with his peripheral vision, not looking up from the knife and wood in his hands.

Well, Cooper, he told himself, you’ve picked a perfect target for your first felony. Hope you survive it.

An old memory flashed through his mind.

Robert’s nine-year-old chest swelled to pride as he finished the somersault and knelt in front of the ducal throne with both of his hands held out. The paper flowers that hadn’t been in his hands when he started the roll were gray, red, and black. His mother’s sea-green eyes sparkled as she laughed and clapped.

She took the bouquets and spoke in their private language, the one father never spoke. “How did you do that, my heart?”

Robert looked over at Uncle Tim. He wasn’t really related. Father would never let a family member wear the motley. The tiny bells at the end Uncle Tim’s silly hat jingled as he nodded. His Kernewek was slow and halting, but he spoke it well enough. “You saw it the whole time, my lady. If he had bent over to reach into his pockets, you would have noticed. But if he bent so far over that he did a roll, then you would look at the roll not the thing he was doing with it.”

Mother had clapped. “How clever!”

Robert felt like his chest would pop with pride. “I want to show father!”

He didn’t miss how mother’s smile froze in place, and something forced came into her voice. “Maybe later, my heart.”

Robert deflated at the answer. It was always ‘later’ with father. He had time for Jamie’s hunting, Henry’s falcons, and something of all his brothers. He had worked so hard under the idea that maybe this trick would be enough, that he would finally have something father wanted to show.

He promised himself that someday he would be good enough at Uncle Tim’s jester tricks that father would have to love them.

Robert took a deep breath to steady himself. This had to work. It was going to work. He’d planned it all out. How do you sneak up on a Knight in broad daylight? Don’t. Let the Knight approach you. How do you watch a Knight without looking up? Peripheral vision was good enough to follow the gap he made in the crowd. How do you ready a knife without putting him on guard? You make it the most obvious thing about you.

Robert smiled at the… (was it a fish?) and kept whittling. If father could see him use a court jester’s lessons to get inside the defenses of an elite warrior… he would probably still say it was dishonorable. Well, father wasn’t here and he had an adventure before him. Preparation, placement, and performance would carry the day, or Robert’s criminal career was going to be a very short one.

Robert grimaced. He didn’t want to steal. He’d lived his whole life as part of the system, trained for too long to uphold the law to break it and feel nothing.

But this wasn’t about the law. This was about more than Robert’s personal sense of honor. It was about justice, and he was going to see it through.

♦♦♦

Sir Zedekiah Montblanc dealt with the insanity in Mount Lee the only way that proper Knight should. He rose above it and made sure the peasants kept out of his way.

There was a blur of motion from his side that came out of nowhere, a flash of metal, a knife! Sir Zed knew a quick moment of fearful fire as the knife flashed inside his guard. Zed sucked his gut and spun while his near hand flashed down to sweep the blade past his body and the other reached for the sword at his side, the actions faster than thought and hammered into his flesh through a lifetime of training.

The attack came from less than a meter out, with no warning, and as fast as he was, it wasn’t enough. Sir Zed had sixth of a second of helplessness and pure mortal terror.

There was no stab of agony, no puncture, just the fear.

And a tug at his belt behind his dagger, where his money purse rested.

Two-sixths of a second. That’s how long it took for his hand to clear his sword, to complete the block. One-third of a second forged the fear to fury, and his sword hammered down while he completed the turn. Some peasant was going to pay for challenging him in public.

Peasants screamed as Zed’s sword caught the light. The crowd parted in every direction, leaping away as tight as bodies would press until Zed stood in a spontaneous ring of solid shapes.

But the thief was not inside with him.

Zed heard the jingle of his coin purse from the crowd behind him.

The breath he’d sucked in fueled a crackling command. “Stop! Thief!”

Everyone turned to see what Zed was shouting about, even the man at arms in the thief’s path. The thief dodged to the warrior’s blind side and raced away right behind him, unseen. All the traffic in earshot stopped cold.

The thief didn’t stop, didn’t even look back. He actually waved Zed’s purse over his head in farewell as he raced away.

“Get out of the way!” Zed shouted at the crowd, but the peasants just flinched further away from him, forming a solid circle of confused and frightened people between him and his quarry.

The crowd parted enough on one side for Zed to catch his reflection in a store window: a tall, angry man in lacquered armor waving a sword.

The weapon was not helping. He sheathed his sword, took a deeper breath, and shouted again for the crowd to part.

This time, the crowd parted.

The guard down the road took up the call. “Stop! Thief!” And the alarm echoed through the streets faster than any pick-pocket could run.

Zed felt an angry grin on his face. The thief was a fool to steal from a Knight. An Dinas enforced the law across the land. They were the Knights who fought the battles and caught the criminals that no one else could. He was doubly a fool to steal in public during the Lady Day festival, when there was always trouble, so both town and country Knights were present and on the alert.

Perhaps the thief couldn’t be blamed for his third error. He didn’t know who Sir Zed was, why he’d been sent to Nemed this year.

The thief was doomed.

♦♦♦

Robert Cooper’s boots pounded on the cobblestones as he raced away from Sir Zedekiah Montblanc, one of the deadliest swordsmen alive. It felt like he could leap into the air and sky dance on the power of adrenaline and fear alone. The stolen purse seemed to weigh ten kilograms in his hands, and Robert’s back itched with tension as he waited for a blow to land.

Robert dipped behind a town knight who turned towards Sir Zed’s shout, and nearly lost his race at the beginning when a plump woman with a chicken in each hand spun to look as well. He didn’t quite take a poultry to the head, but the birds clucked and flapped angry wings in his face, blinding him for a critical moment.

Then he was clear and raced away. Robert’s instincts yelled for him to bolt straight ahead, but if he did that he’d get tangled up in the crowd. He had to stay loose. As long as people were moving about there were spaces in any crowd, little gaps that opened and closed as people worked their way forward. Robert didn’t run. He had to change direction almost every meter, and it wasn’t quite a dance, either, because he twisted and dashed too quickly for any fiddler to match. But Robert improvised his way through the crowd faster than the guards could react, and for the moment he stayed ahead of them.

The whole time, something gibbered in the back of Robert’s head. It was one thing to know that you had a well-armed, justly angry, lifelong warrior chasing you down. It was another to know that the warrior in question was one of the most famous Knights in all An Dinas.

Robert vaulted a hand cart of silvermoss melons, slamming it down to the ground with his weight. He heard the merchant who’d pushed it shout and fall, but he didn’t look back.

He was crazy to do this in the first place, necessity or not, but only the special judgment of the Saints themselves would place Sir Zedekiah Montblanc in Robert’s path at the particular moment when he needed a target. This was proof, proof in Robert’s mind that the Saints existed, that they were watching him, and that they weren’t done punishing him.

Robert faded left and then right again, weaving his way through a cluster of young couples about his age, just to find a girl who came up to his waist frozen and wide-eyed in his path. Robert was running far too fast to stop in time on the worn cobblestones, and an impact would injure the girl and doom Robert for sure.

The answer flared up from Robert’s childhood training, an instinct older than An Dinas reached out of the past and moved his muscles without thought. Robert leapt as high as he could, grabbed for his knees, and somersaulted through the air over her head. He landed, rolled, and resumed his running as the crowd shouted in shock.

Some actually applauded behind him. And Rob felt a nervous laugh slip out with the next heaving breath.

Robert wanted to look back. How close was Sir Zed? How close was his sword?! He couldn’t defend against a strike he couldn’t see coming, couldn’t dodge reaching arms from his blind side. The vulnerable ache between his shoulder blades screamed for his attention, but it was the one absolute rule to Robert’s chase. If he looked back, and a Knight of An Dinas saw his face, then he was doomed. Even if he was lucky enough that the Knight didn’t recognize him as Robert Cooper of Gray Mountain, a Knight would use his face, his description, and hunt him down.

It was their training, training Robert shared.

He’d planned this crime to deal with that training, and he had to stick to the plan no matter how badly his nerves shredded under the pressure. There were shouts behind him now, and more footsteps hammered at the street than Sir Zed alone. The local knights had joined in the chase.

Robert kept his balance centered and tried to move faster through the crowd while the tension in his shoulders gathered with every step.

♦♦♦

Sir Zed never looked away from the thief’s back, and he was gaining.

By the time the chase turned onto its third street it was obvious that the thief had planned his crime. He wore the same gray clothes as the other Pilgrims, and since Mount Lee handled the airship travel to and from An Dinas for the most part of two duchies, if the thief made it to one of the open squares he could disappear in a sea of Pilgrim gray.

But quick as he was, the thief had just run out of luck. A pair of lawmen stepped out around a blind corner, right into the thief’s path.

The thief had no chance to avoid them. They’d timed it too well. Zed eased his pace for a step or two to better appreciate the catch.

But the thief didn’t even try to dodge. He hurled himself into the midst of the lawmen. There was a moment of confusion as hands grabbed and arms flailed. The thief grabbed right back, spinning as he did, and drug one of the lawmen along with him. Suddenly the thief’s spin stopped, but the officer didn’t. He flew right over the thief’s hip, pulled by his own grip on the thief’s shoulders, and slammed right into his partner.

Upside-down.

All the thief’s running momentum was transferred to the impact, and both lawmen hit the wall with a thud Zed heard ten meters back.

The thief ran the instant the projectile policeman let go, and he’d spun too quickly for Sir Zed to get a good look at his face.

One of the knights behind Zed gave a breathless laugh. “Got him!”

“Got him?” Zed managed as he wove his way through the crowd. “Are you blind?”

“No,” the knight shot back, “but he must be. He just turned down the wrong road.”

“Why’s that?”

“No exit. Just Sir Derek’s manor, and Sir Derek’s guards.”

Sir Zed turned the corner to see that the road did dead-end. A large three-story brick building wrapped its arms around either side of the street, with a one-story brick wall and a heavy wooden gate.

Whether the knight’s assessment of Sir Derek’s manor was true or not, the thief seemed unaware of it. There must have been two men standing guard, since one of them was crumpled on the ground in an uncomfortable-looking sprawl and the other was trying to rouse him. Zed saw a gray-clad arm and leg disappearing over the top of the wall.

“Open the gate!” he shouted at the guard. The guard still looked completely confused, but after one blink at An Dinas on Zed’s breastplate he raced to the gate to throw it open.

Zed didn’t so much as slow down. Now that he didn’t have to deal with panicked crowds, he drew Paxred from his sheath. It might be overkill to cut down a running thief, but in his experience criminals were more likely to surrender than face a Knight of An Dinas with a sword in hand, and he wanted this thief to surrender.

The guard got the gate open wide enough for Zed to leap through sideways. The courtyard was surprisingly utilitarian for a nobleman. A pair of cloth banners stood on either side of the stairway, which was large but not fancy, one each with the national and duchy colors.

Zed thought that the thief was foolish, no matter how skilled, and now the criminal lapsed into outright madness. The thief sprinted flat-out at the far side of the courtyard, not towards the manor’s wide-open doors, but towards a doorless wall with boarded-up windows.

Then the thief dropped into a foot-first slide and hit the half-meter tall boards of a basement window. There was a crack of wood breaking and a flash of gray cloth before the thief disappeared into the darkness.

Oh no you don’t. Sir Zed thought. He pointed to the open manor doors and shouted for the knights to use them. You stole from a Knight of An Dinas, and it’s time for you to learn what that means.

Zed dropped into a slide, feet first, sword overhead, and followed the thief in.

Zed whipped around in midair and landed on the balls of his feet with the window over his right shoulder. It was an act of habitual caution. If the basement was a trap, the attack would come from the blind side there.

The basement was indeed a trap, but it wasn’t for Zed.

Candlelit darkness wrapped around him as the smells of dirty linen and unwashed bodies slapped him in the face. The mechanical clatter of machinery whirred to a stop while Zed’s eyes adjusted to the darkness.

A flare of bitter anger made Zed instantly wish they hadn’t.

The basement was a sweatshop. More than fifty women sat at heavy mechanical sewing machines. Their greasy hair was tied tightly back, and their clothes were tattered and dirty. Some stared in fear at Zed’s sword. Others stared at the opposite end of the room where an open door led to some stairs, which was no doubt where the thief had gone. The rest kept their heads down and shot nervous glances at the two large men with clubs who stood between the rows of workers.

If any of the women were older than eighteen Zed would lick his own boots. The girls pushing huge carts of cheap gray clothes weren’t into their teens.

Young or old, every woman in the room wore the same exhausted bags under their eyes. Their worn-down clothes had all been Pilgrim gray.

And the same iron shackles clinked around their feet.

Zed’s grip on Paxred tightened until he heard his knuckles crack on the sword hilt.

The sweat-house toughs started towards Zed with angry expressions on their face. The captive women between the men cowered against their sewing machines, helpless to get out of the way.

Zed raised his sword. “I am Sir Zed of An Dinas. My order guards these Pilgrims you’ve kidnapped and enslaved. I would very much like to kill you for what you’ve done here instead of giving your town the justice of a trial so please, please fight.”

The slavers’ weapons clattered to the floor.

“Finally,” Zed muttered, “some respect.”

♦♦♦

Robert Cooper slipped Sir Zed’s money purse into the Knight’s saddlebags. Zed’s horse looked back at him with a patient expression.

Robert petted the horse’s neck. “It’s all right, Seeker. I’m just returning something I borrowed earlier.”

The horse pawed once at the ground and shifted her weight.

Robert shrugged. “I don’t have any treats this time, girl, but I need you to do me one favor for all the times I fed you, all right?”

Seeker pivoted an ear to one side.

Robert grinned. “Don’t tell Sir Zed it was me.”

Seeker’s head whipped around, ears forward, and an instant later Robert heard it too, boots on cobblestones and Sir Zed’s voice arguing with someone else.

Robert looked around the Tower stables. There was only one door close enough to reach at the rate Sir Zed was approaching, and it was the one he was about to open himself!

Robert looked at the rafters. How often did someone really look up in a stable?

Zed’s voice was confident. “Be sure to double the watch on the town Tower. We mustn’t lose a fair trial for the sake of a lynching.”

Zed wouldn’t need to look up on his own. If a single horse spooked while Robert was hiding up there, then he’d be caught.

But there were other places overlooked, places that no one would think twice if a horse focused on. He eased past Seeker as quick as he dared without spooking the mare and raced for cover while the Knights spoke.

“Do you really think we need to worry about mob justice?”

Zed pulled the door open. “We have to worry about vigilante justice of some sort.”

“Surely not. The local folk might thumb their nose at Lord Lee, but they wouldn’t dare touch a Tower with Knights of An Dinas.”

“No?” Sir Zed offered his hand to Seeker. Robert heard crunching and the biting sweetness of fruit as the mare accepted Zed’s gift with gusto. “Tell me Sir Steven, do I smell smoke in the air?”

“What are you talking about? We only have two of the three warehouse fires out. We’re doing our best. We’ll be lucky if the smoke clears by tomorrow.”

“Well, I’m just a wandering Knight of An Dinas, not a town knight like yourself. Maybe I don’t understand what could get the people so upset. I mean, half of Mount Lee are Salas-born. The other half are Nemedian, correct? Surely they’ve learned to live at peace by now.”

There was a sigh. “Most days you’d be right. But it’s not about getting along. It’s about symbols. Lady Mary was the last prize-bride. So, to the Nemedians view her like their nation wrapped up in one picture. Poets, wrestlers, and their nobles… they’re big into loyalty. They treat living people like they were Saints’ Relics themselves. Almost like… Pilgrims.”

Sir Zed made no reply.

Shock filled Sir Steven’s voice. “You aren’t worried about Nemedians. You’re worried about Salasians. The Relics are sacred to us.”

Zed didn’t quite gloat. “A Salasian noble enslaving Salasian Pilgrims, girls and young women to boot… What if the crowd kills him?”

“Sir Zedekiah, we may not be An Dinas, but Mount Lee follows the rule of law. Lord Lee would never hand a prisoner over to the mob or let lynching murderers go unpunished.” Rob heard the indignation in Steven’s tone.

“So Lord Lee, the one unifying element in a town divided, must either shelter a slaver or betray his own rules. Either way…”

Sir Steven swallowed audibly. “Excuse me, Sir Zed, but I have to go. We’re going to need more knights…”

Zed chuckled as Sir Steven’s footsteps pounded away into the distance. He started to check his horse’s hooves. He groomed his horse with the silent rhythm of ritual.

Robert Cooper didn’t dare move. The slightest rustle could betray him to Sir Zedekiah, and this time he hadn’t scouted an escape route. True stillness was a learned skill, but he had studied his lessons for a long time. It was a trick Uncle Tim taught him that made the difference between freedom and jail or worse. He focused on breathing, and slowly tightened and released muscles to chase the phantom ants out of his limbs when they wanted to move.

It was a lot of work staying still. The smells of horse, dirt, and feed filtered through the pile of hay hiding Robert. Stiff and sharp edges of a thousand straws poked at his flesh, his face. One had slid into his left ear. The constant tickle from that was its own brand of agony.

Robert kept taking shallow, even breaths to keep still in the hay. He just had to wait a little longer. Every knight worth the name cared for his horse himself. But it was a ritual. Zedekiah would finish his ritual and go about his business, or he would take his horse and go. Either way he would leave and Robert would be free.

He refused to acknowledge that damned tickling straw for one more breath, and another. If he got through this without going to jail, or dying on the business end of Sir Zed’s sword, he was going to treat himself to a long hot bath.

But Sir Zed never finished his ritual. The stable door flew open with such force that Seeker reared beneath Zed’s hands. Zed spun away on one heel before the flailing legs could hit him in the face.

It was another Knight of An Dinas. No, that wasn’t right. The warrior’s sash was gray and brown instead of gray and black. It was a Squire.

“Sir Zed!” the Squire said, “He’s here!”

“Alex, barring the death of the king or an imminent revolt, I’m hard-pressed to think of a reason for a Squire of An Dinas to abandon all decorum. Also, you should know better than to burst into a stable like that. A lesser man could have been injured.”

Robert’s brain clicked back into gear at the name. He hadn’t spent any time around that squire in years, but take the boy he knew, stretch him out to flat planes, angles, and hollow-stomached youth, and that would be Alex Peterson, the third son of Baron Xander Peterson of Eastfield. Alex had always been short, and while he appeared to have been physically stretched to his adult height, he would never be more than medium-tall. His voice had stopped squeaking in the four years since Robert had known him well.

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. But it’s urgent, sir.”

Zed stroked Seeker’s neck to calm the startled horse. He didn’t look over. “Alex, there’s a barely-contained fire at the airport, a recently disbanded riot, and one of the most prominent local lords waiting trial for slavery. Which crisis did you mean?”

“None of them, sir, or, well, maybe the riots, but it was the jail they held the rioters they caught and…”

“Take a breath, Alex. A Knight must communicate clearly in all circumstance, particularly when it is urgent. Quick and clear speech is a skill that saves lives when it really counts.”

“Yes sir.”

“Now, what was so urgent that you spooked my horse? Succinctly, mind.”

“Matthias Teague is in Mount Lee. He bailed his son out of jail about three hours ago.”

“So the famous Math the Miller crossed the mountains.” Sir Zed started grooming Seeker exactly where he’d left off. He spoke in a calm and soothing voice for the horse’s benefit, but the words were for his Squire. “Well done, Alex. That is an opportunity. The local Tower commander was just telling me how the Nemedians love their heroes. Now their most famous wrestler is walking across our path.”

Alex snorted, “Wrestler and rebel, you mean.”

“Alleged rebel, Squire Alex.” The formality reinforced the rebuke. “There’s never been a shred of proof that the rumors about Matthias Teague are anything but. If we start throwing the appearance of law away, reality will follow soon after.”

“No,” Alex sounded excited. “And isn’t that interesting? I mean, Nemed was conquered forty years ago. They’re still chaffed about it. They learn the lost cause from the womb. I could find some evidence on every man and schoolboy in Nemed if I looked. But there’s none on Matthias Teague in our files on the region, not a public outcry, not a civil disturbance, not a single word critical to the government. They ought to hate someone like that as a sympathizer, but instead the whole duchy thinks he walks on water. He’s too clean, sir. It’s the best piece of evidence that the rumors are true.”

Zed chuckled. “You’re putting all the right pieces together, Alex. But his alleged night life is beside the point. Our local host was just telling me how devoted our Nemedian brothers are to their cultural heroes. If they threw riots over a twenty-year old murder, imagine what would happen if something were to happen to Mr. Teague… or his son.”

“But sire, there’s no way someone careful enough to keep that clean would remain in Mount Lee a moment longer than necessary.”

“Then we are fortunate that the riots have closed the airport, Squire Alex, since there is only one road overland from Mount Lee to Nemed. Send a heliograph ahead. Our friends along the mountain road must make sure that no harm befalls our local hero. After all, Marshall Arsenio told me himself to make sure no one from Salas fuels Nemedian insurrection. Tensions are running high in Mount Lee this Lady Day. There’s no telling what could happen should some rogue element, furious about lost money or lost esteem from the Nemedian riots, were to retaliate against such a public figure.”

“…or his son.” Alex added.

“Indeed. You are learning to think like a proper Knight.”

“I had a good teacher sir.”

“Then why are you still standing here, Squire Alex? Make sure that our visiting hero has all the security a man could want.”

“Yes sir! Sorry sir!” Alex turned and ran out of the stables as quick as he’d entered. Seeker whinnied and tried to rear again, but Sir Zed caught the horse’s bridle in time.

“Wait, Sir Zed!” Alex’s voice came through the barn door. “What if they resist?”

“Send enough men to discourage resistance, of course. But if they are adamant, tragedies happen all the time on the mountain roads. Let Matthias go if you must, but I want that Teague boy, or his body, by week’s end. Am I understood?”

“Yes sir!”

“Then why are you still here?”

Robert remained frozen not five yards from the most famous Knight of their time while his Squire raced off to break the law.

♦♦♦

“Careful, lad.” The voice behind Robert Cooper carried over the creak of wood and clopping horse’s feet not by being loud, but it was deep as mountain roots and twice as solid. “Don’t run the Pilgrim over.”

Robert didn’t look back over his shoulder. His ego drove him to quicken his limping step a bit, but after two paces his aching legs and throbbing knee combined against his young man’s ego and dragged him back down to the last hour’s creeping pace once more.

Robert decided that if he was going to get passed by some peasant’s cart he didn’t have to look his defeat in the face.

Some hero you’d make. Robert’s inner critic grew stronger when he was hurt or tired. Robert decided to ignore it, too.

He managed it for another four or five steps before a young man’s voice, answered in Kernewek. “No need, Tas. It looks like someone already did.”

That drew a quiet chuckle and a question in Salasian. “Are you all right, Pilgrim?”

Robert kept his eyes on the road ahead. No. He wasn’t all right. There was no way he was going to fulfill his mission now.

“I’m fine.” He said instead. His Gray Mountain accent always got thicker when he was upset.

“Born with that limp, then?”

Robert really wasn’t in the mood to get interrogated by some random peasant in the middle of nowhere. He whirled in place, well, limped around slightly faster than he’d limped forward.

And froze.

The man driving the faded red wagon was the size of the mountains around him. Intense blue eyes nestled like jewels in a weathered, bearded head of brown hair.

The face of Matthias Teague, seven-time wrestling champion and national hero, was well known even outside of his homeland of Nemed.

There was a boy next to him. No, not a boy, he just seemed younger next to the massive man driving. He had to be between one hundred eighty and one-ninety centimeters tall, but he still had the slightly flattened build of a man who hasn’t finished filling out. He was obviously Teague’s son or nephew, but the mountainous strength had been mixed with something slender, almost feline in the younger man. Broad shouldered, flat-stomached…

Robert put his weight down on his bad leg, harder than he had to. The sudden heat in his thigh drowned out sudden heat elsewhere. He was not here to moon over an attractive farmer like some pubescent squire! He wasn’t! It didn’t matter if it was the most handsome man he’d seen since Jason… Saints, what had he been about to say?

There was no ambiguity in the young man’s face. Sea-green eyes stared at Robert in open disapproval. He didn’t stop skewering Robert with that hostile look while he switched to Kernewek for his father’s ears. “Dad, what are you doing? He’s a Salasek heretic. Let him walk.”

The big man spared a momentary glance and pursed lips for his son, but spoke Salasian. “Easy, Pilgrim. We just want to help.”

“We do?” Kernewek again from the young man, ignored again, Robert noticed.

Robert reeled in place, caught in half a dozen feelings at once. There was shock. He had been so sure he’d failed his mission, and now his mission had nearly run him over.

A couple of words made it past his teeth.

“There was a riot.”

The young man snorted. “Look out, Dad, the trees are revolting.”

“That’s enough, Jacob.” Then in Salasian, “What happened?”

Robert’s brain seemed to get his second wind as he hopped on his good leg. They didn’t know he spoke Kernewek, and knowledge was power when he walked into who-knows-what circumstances on a foreign road. He made no effort to drop his Gray Mountain accent, clearly from the far side of the kingdom. “I was in Mount Lee after my Pilgrimage, and there was a riot. There were fires in the airport, and I was afraid that things were going to get a lot worse.” Robert didn’t miss the pointed look Teague shot his son at that comment. “I’m nobody, and I’m all alone these days.” Technically true. “So, I tried to run over the ridge to the road.” Robert looked down at his leg, all too aware of the large bruise growing beneath the cloth. “It turns out that going up was the easy part, and down was harder.”

Teague’s smile never left his face, but Robert watched his eyes dance across his ‘walking stick’, then Robert’s waist, shoulders, and hands with the economy of a life-long fighter sizing up the competition. Robert had a sneaking suspicion that Matthias Teague didn’t miss much.

“Interesting stick.”

Interesting, the man said. It was true enough. Just over a meter long, the treated ironwood was lighter than steel and almost as resilient. Its hand-carved lines and gentle curve deliberately imitated the killing blade of a Salasian warrior.

Robert held up the wooden sword and forced a sheepish grin. “This? It was a farewell joke.” He’d better keep as close as he could to the truth. “I always dreamed about being a Knight of An Dinas when I was a boy, but there was no way that could happen.” He let some of his bitterness seep into his voice. “When my family got me Pilgrim’s garb someone thought this would be funny.” Still true, as far as he knew. “I guess someone thought it would be funny. But I’m no knight.” Not anymore. Not ever. “I swing it around some, but that’s mostly just for fun.” Pretending I’m not an exile.

The son, Jacob, leaned forward with a shrewd look on his face. “You hold it like you know it.” Those were his first words in Salasian, and he spoke with that earthy, fluid accent Robert remembered on his mother’s lips. Robert’s heart fluttered at the sound of lost love coming from that face… Robert put more weight on his injured leg to feel more nice, distracting discomfort before he trusted himself to talk.

Robert shrugged. “It’s been a long walk from An Dinas.”

“Fell on the ridge?” Teague asked.

“I made to the top all right, but I slipped on the west slope, slid some, hit a tree.”

“Lucky.” The big man said.

“Lucky?” Robert didn’t feel it.

The young one leaned forward in his seat. “They call that part Widow’s Ridge. People die trying to climb it.” He must have wished Robert were among them.

Robert made the best he could of it. “I guess I’m glad I just hit my leg then. Nothing broke. It’s just not happy walking.”

“Get in.” Matthias Teague said. “We have room.”

“What?” Hospitality from a suspected enemy of the kingdom hadn’t been part of Robert’s plan any more than sliding halfway down a mountain.

“What?!” The youngest Teague stared at his father and lapsed back into Kernewek.

“The back of a cart is better than limping to Nemed.” Matthias spoke as if he had to pay a tax per syllable.

“Father I…”

“Enough.”

The young man clenched his jaws for a moment, then forced his displeasure from his face. Robert would probably have believed the polite mask Jacob turned his way if he hadn’t already seen behind it. Was everyone in the family that good at hiding their thoughts and feelings? Why was that?

Jacob Teague held out his hand. “Here, let me help you up.”

Robert took hand up, and Jacob steadied him as he climbed into the back. Robert’s nerve endings reported that the angry young man felt as good as he looked. Robert told himself he was ignoring those.

“Settled?” Matthias asked.

Oh yes. He was sitting in the rough wood back of a horse cart with an aching leg and a pair of potential traitors driving him through bandit-infested country. “I’m fine.”

“Come on, Balaam,” Teague flicked the reigns and the cart started a bumpy forward roll.

Robert sat quietly as the cart pitched and rolled beneath him. Even the most dedicated work crew could only keep a mountain road so smooth. Most of the maintenance was natural, flat-pounding feet and rolling carts. Packed earth was smoother than cobblestones, but not exactly flat or level.

Robert wasn’t surprised that sparsely-worded Matthias Teague was silent as they rode. Sitting sideways in the back, Robert faced Jacob from the side. For a moment Robert’s eyes drank in the lines of Jacob’s neck and shoulders. But that wasn’t why he was here, and the man hated him on patriotic principle alone.

Robert closed his eyes and leaned back against the jolting cart. This was crazy. What was he doing accepting a ride from traitors. Suspected traitors, granted. There was never any evidence that Teague or his children had ever done anything wrong.

Except that young Jacob Teague had been arrested as part of the riots today. And Matthias had to pay his fine. How much had it cost the perfect citizen to break his record? How much was it going to cost his son to pay for it?

And what was it going to cost Robert to stick his nose into all of this drama? Why was he even doing this? Now that he wasn’t concentrating on his footrace against time, the questions lurched around in his gut. Sir Zed was right that Matthias was too clean. Or, if he wasn’t too clean, then he was too clean for someone as popular as he was. A perfectly obedient citizen, at peace with the conquest, wouldn’t have a son who spoke so openly against Salas, or rioted. If he did, he wouldn’t be so quick and eager to bail him out.

Squire Alex was on the way with more men. Alex wouldn’t need Robert’s luck to find the Teagues. He would have access to the heliograph operators’ flickering mirrors. The heliograph towers stretched across the mountain ridges. The road stretched out below them, and their garrisons were charged with policing the route. If he’d really wanted to, Sir Zed could have just ordered the Teagues taken into custody at any of the dozen towers. Each one had twelve men-at-arms ready at any given time, by law, to protect the tower and the road. It didn’t matter how good Matthias was as a fighter, that was too many.

So why wasn’t Zedekiah using the perfectly legal means at his disposal? Even other Knights of An Dinas would defer to the famous warrior. There was no need to send his Squire for other reinforcements. But abnormal measures, particularly distasteful ones like taking Teague’s son into captivity, were exactly the sort of thing to stir up trouble.

The Teagues must have mistaken Robert’s closed eyes and quiet thoughts for sleep, because they started talking again after perhaps an hour. They kept to Kernewek, and their discussion was clearly not for Robert’s participation.

“What are you doing, Dad?”

“Driving the cart home.”

“And why are you driving the cart home with a Salasek pagan in the back?”

“No room up front.”

“Ack!”

“What about Pilgrim’s right of way?”

“What?”

“You know their laws. They shelter their Pilgrims. They and anyone with them gets first access to water at the towers, a place to sleep at night…”

“I am not spending the night in a Salasek tower stable, begging for water and food like a lost bit of livestock.  I bet they’d just love to see Nemedyow humbled like that. I’d rather sleep in the woods.”

Matthias continued as if Jacob hadn’t interrupted. “… and the right of way on the road. Can’t harass a Pilgrim, tax him for the road…”

“Bah. That’s just an imperialist incentive. They want to make sure that everyone can come see their collection of relics. ‘Come to An Dinas and see how important we are. We hold the history of the world and protect it. Give us your money, and the sons you don’t like too much.’ Come back with a token from The Ossuary and you get fewer taxes, the right to speak in their Salasek imperialist courts… It’s all designed to make sure everyone stays in their place. If their fake religion won’t do it, then your pocketbook will, and all the world bows before An Dinas.”

“Efficient.”

“It’s a lie!” Robert heard a thump on the wagon that had nothing to do with the road. “Sometimes I want to tell them where the real history of An Dinas lies, and watch their smug faces when they see the…”

“Silence.” Something hard as rock entered Matthias’ voice, though it grew no louder. “Never say that again.”

Jacob obeyed, and Robert jolted along in quiet once again. Teague had taught his son discipline, and silence. Simple words for difficult terms, but they were useful skills for any smuggler or bandit. Robert gave himself a mental kick. Who wouldn’t find those skills useful? What if you were a father raising your children in an occupied country, as you saw it, where the King’s men kept track of potential threats, a world where a single youthful rebellion could get a young man tracked for the rest of your life?

In other words, what if you lived in Nemed?

Guilt nestled in Robert’s guts, an unexpected and unwelcome visitor.

A life of discipline, driven by fear of a force you could never hope to conquer… Suddenly the younger Teague’s venom seemed a lot more natural. Natural enough, though, for his arrest to be some spontaneous adolescent rebellion, or was Robert on the trail of the truth behind the famous Math the Miller?

It felt like he was back in Arsenio’s office, in over his head, unsure what to do next, and forced to find an answer anyway. Was all life going to be like this, one prolonged crisis?

And if it was, did he have a right to complain? Hadn’t he spent his whole life training to wander the roads of Salas, righting wrongs, protecting the true faith, and protecting the innocent? Where was the pursuit of peace in that?

A Knight of An Dinas abandoned the pursuit of peace so that others could find it. The old answer was no less true now than before.

And once again, it didn’t help him find his path.

So he would wait, watch, and listen until he found a solution.

They rode in silence for hours, Robert with his roiling thoughts and the Teagues with their discipline. Despite the pad of the horse’s feet and the jerking cart beneath him, genuine sleep replaced Robert’s act as the day slipped slowly towards night.

 

♦♦♦

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