Chapter 38

The cliffside path was narrow but dry, which was the only reason they lived.

They ran down into the yawning dark, the trembling light of Zenzele’s lantern revealing a thin stripe of the grounds ahead as they tried to outrun the tide of falling stone. When the path abruptly turned to the right, tucked into the mountainside, the Malani noble almost toppled off the edge – Cozme yanked him back, almost falling off himself when Ferranda ran into his back. If the stone path had been even slightly slippery all three would have tumbled into the void.

“Careful,” Angharad shouted, dragging the infanzona back by the collar. “We need to-”

Dust exploded a dozen feet above them in a tall plume, rocks going flying. The eleven of them had clustered at the corner, forced together by momentum, and it took a moment to extricate themselves. Tupoc pushed to the fore, ripping Zenzele’s lantern out of his hands, and deftly led the way down. Angharad flicked a glance back as the others began moving again, picking up speed on the narrow path, and grimaced as she saw that Shalini was still carrying Ishaan’s corpse on her back.

The Pereduri did not bother to suggest she should put it down: the look on the other woman’s face was not one to be argued with.

“Come on,” she said instead. “The landslide is catching up.”

They set out down the cliffside again. The same turn that had near kill them was likely the only reason they lived, Angharad realized as she heard a rolling thunder in the distance and a tide of death rushed past the path they had been running down not minutes ago. Most of the landslide was facing the slope where the sanctuary had been waiting, and they’d just given it the slip. Not that they were out of danger: most was not all.

The first rock was the size of a fist, and it bounced off Yaretzi’s shoulder as she let out a grunt of pain. Angharad glimpsed ahead, feeling her blood run hot – she had used a vision earlier, there was only so much more she could borrow of the Fisher’s power before it killed her – and moved before the glimpse was even finished. She seized Song by the shoulder and pressed the two of them against the mountainside just before a boulder the size of a horse tumbled right past them.

A heartbeat later and all that would have been left of Song was red paste and screaming.

“Ahead,” Tupoc shouted, voice without a hint of mockery for once. “I see shelter.”

He spoke true, for the cliffside path there ate into the mountain as a short tunnel – the peak’s slope served as a wall and ceiling, and under that cover they huddled together as death rumbled above. They waited, pressed tight under the shelter as stone and dust spilled past them in spurts. How long they waited without speaking a word Angharad could not be sure. Eventually, though, the last of the falling ended and their breaths began to ring loudly in the silence that followed.

“I think that was the worst of it,” Lord Zenzele finally said. “My lantern, Xical.”

“Try not to walk it off another cliff,” Tupoc helpfully advised. “It makes it harder for the rest of us to see.”

“Enough,” Angharad tiredly said. “Peril has not passed; another landslide could begin at any moment.”

“And parts of the path down could now be blocked with stone,” Song grimly said. “Let us not be caught with our trousers down.”

Zenzele Duma snatched his lantern back a little more strongly than was warranted, but they all pretended not to see. His hatred of Tupoc was entirely deserved. Their company began heading down again, far from slowly but short of the reckless pace from earlier. As Song had predicted, the spill had touched the path. Small chunks, mostly, and piled of dust. They stepped carefully around sharpened shards, the trouble coming when they found a rock taller and broader than a man balancing precariously in the middle of the path.

“It’s too narrow a space to squeeze through,” Lan said.

“Agreed,” Song replied.

Angharad did not argue. Instead she turned to Tupoc, drawing the Izcalli’s eyes.

“Assemble your spear,” she said. “We’ll push it off the edge together.”

The man’s pale eyes assessed the stone.

“Could work,” he agreed.

It was more difficult than it sounded, largely because the path was narrow and they were many – the others had to withdraw so the pair would have enough room to push. Angharad’s hands were slick with sweat and twice her grip slipped against the cool metal, but they bent their knees and pushed until the stone slowly began to tip forward. Gravity did the rest of the work.

“Nothing like a spot of exercise with death hanging over your head,” Tupoc cheerfully said afterwards.

Angharad ignored him, brushing past his shoulder. She held no lantern, but Zenzele helpfully passed his and she took the vanguard for the rest of the way down. There were more small stones the further down they got, but no more large ones. It had been stark odds for one to land across the path as it had in the first place. Half an hour of brisk descent led them at the bottom of the mountain, the tall silhouette of it looming in the distance as thick woods spread out before them.

She waited at the tree line with the lantern in hand until the others caught up, spilling down the path one after another. Shalini, Angharad saw, was last by a wide margin. Ishaan’s corpse was heavy and she had slowed down with exhaustion from carrying it.

“The landslide didn’t reach this far,” Lan observed, one of the last to catch up. “I’d say this is as safe as we’re going to get outside a sanctuary.”

“Agreed,” Lady Ferranda said. “This is where we make our plan, if we are to stick together.”

“Is there a plan to make?” Tupoc shrugged. “There will be no rest. We take the Trial of Weeds, or we die in the dark. It is a simple thing.”

He sounded almost pleased, further proof the man was half mad and half jackal. Worse, Angharad was not convinced he was wrong.

“I have no intention of joining the Watch,” Isabel sharply cut in. “The blackcloaks must recognize that a natural disaster undid their trials and prevented us from seeking the promised sanctuary. Surely there is a way to reach the garrison.”

“You could climb back up and start digging out the fort,” Song drily replied. “By all means have at it, Ruesta.”

Cozme snorted. It had not escaped Angharad’s attention that since Augusto’s demise the mustachioed man had taken open pleasure in any backtalk directed at the infanzona.

“Helpful as always, Song,” Isabel bit back. “Do you think I am alone in not wanting to take the third trial? Lady Ferranda-”

“Can speak for herself,” the other infanzona said.

Ferranda’s plain, lean face was smudged with dust and her bun had spit out strands of hair but her eyes were sharp and she stood straight. Isabel, still red in the face with sweaty locks pressed against her forehead, was not faring so well. The two noblewomen matched gazes.

“So speak,” Isabel said, sounding confident. “Should we not find the Watch, Lady Villazur? Your family will be awaiting your return, as mine does.”

The other woman’s jaw clenched. Ferranda did not answer for a long time, looking for all the world like a woman standing on the edge of a precipice.

“I am thinking,” she finally said, “of taking the third trial.”

Surprise rippled through half of them, Angharad not the least. Had Ferranda not come to the island to gild her family’s name? And win the right to keep a lover, she recalled. Now that Sanale had passed, it seemed that Ferranda Villazur was not eager to return to her house without him. The dark-skinned noble kept her disapproval off her face. To serve your house only on your own terms was not true service, but it was not her place to comment.

“I will be doing the same,” Cozme Aflor casually added, rolling his shoulder with a wince. “It seems to me that I am in a need of a change of careers.”

Angharad cocked an eyebrow and Tupoc let out a small, nasty laugh. Brun looked amused as well, though as was his wont he kept quiet.

“You’ve run out of Cerdans to lose, so I suppose you might as well,” Tupoc grinned.

Cozme’s eyes on him were cold, the same way they had been when he pulled a knife on the champion of the vermin god. What kind of a man had he been, before House Cerdan took him in? Not the kind to take insults lying down when he had no master to protect, Angharad thought, so she cleared her throat to command attention before matters could get out of hand.

“Is there any among us who does not desire to take the Trial of Weeds?” she asked. “Save for Lady Isabel, I mean.”

There was no answer and she realized a heratbeat too late that she had blundered. Even if there were such individuals, they would hesitate when being put on the spot like this – it was clear that most of their group wanted to press forward, and who would want to be left alone in the woods? She cleared her throat again, faintly embarrassed at the misstep.

“It seems to me,” she tried, “that there will be a Watch garrison at the northern tip of the island, the port town called Three Pines. I imagine that given the circumstances the Watch would not press into service those who reach that safety.”

Isabel smiled at her, pretty in her visible relief.

“That seems a compromise all can live with,” she said.

“It’s a pretty plan,” Shalini broke in, Ishaan’s corpse yet on her back, “but you’re forgetting something. When that mountainside fort got buried, we lost more than a sanctuary: we lost the watchmen that would tell us what the Trial of Weeds actually is.”

There was a moment of damning silence as the truth of her words sunk in. That was, admittedly, something of a hindrance. Song was the one to end the paralysis, reaching for her bag and dragging a scroll out.

“We cannot know the details,” the Tianxi acknowledged, “but neither are we entirely in the dark. Here, come closer.”

Her map, Angharad realized. Song unfolded it in the light of the lantern, everyone crowding around the paper.

“We should be somewhere around here,” Song said.

Her finger was resting on a small, marked place on the northern side of the mountains splitting the island – the very same they had crossed by beating the maze. And not far from where they were, Angahrad saw a slender grey line going through the woods that made up most of the northern third of the Dominion of Lost Things.

“A road?” she asked.

“I do not know for sure,” Song replied, “but I believe so. More importantly, it goes through here.”

Her finger followed along the grey line until it reached a drawing in the midst of the woods that looked like a small fortress.

“Is that a Watch outpost?” Zenzele frowned.

It might be, Angharad thought. The road went through it and continued all the way to the norther tip of the island, to Three Pines.

“I don’t know,” the silver-eyed sharpshooter admitted. “But it is something, and even if it is empty we can use the grounds to rest with some safety.”

“We won’t make it there tonight,” Ferranda said.

“Not unless we march through the night,” Tupoc agreed. “I do not hate the notion, but I’ve no doubt there will be whining.”

He snuck a look at Shalini, who glared back.

“We should at least push forward for another hour,” Angharad said. “I do not know if there are cultists on this side of the island, but if there are then the commotion of the landslide is sure to have drawn them out.”

She flicked a glance at Tupoc, who shrugged.

“I only dealt with the one war party and its bishop,” the Izcalli said. “I gathered from them the island has rival tribes, but not where they might dwell.”

“Hollows are one thing,” Lan easily said, “but there will be lemures in the woods and a bunch of us are bleeding.”

“Then we keep going until we find defensible shelter,” Angharad suggested. “We’ll keep a watch through the night.”

Nods all around. She would have preferred to press on to the possible outpost, but it was true that might take hours yet and much of their party was either wounded, exhausted or both.

“That will be most interesting,” Tupoc noted.

She frowned at him, reluctant to indulge him and ask. He answered anyway.

“Have you forgotten,” the Izcalli said, “that the murderer is still among us? I do wonder if we’ll be waking up to another corpse.”

The mood had been turning hopeful but that reminder skewered it thoroughly, which only amused the man all the more. It was with that dark truth hanging over them that they headed into the woods, taste for conversation snuffed out like an errant candle. Now every leaf shivering in the wind loomed like a hungry lupine and every time one of them came to close to another backs tensed for fear of a knife. Dangers within and dangers without, Angharad thought.

She was not sure which she should be wariest about.

Within fifteen minutes of starting, Angharad was quite done with traipsing through the woods.

Back home the rest of the kingdom often spoke of Peredur as a pristine land spared the scars of industry, unmarred by blast furnaces and smelt mills. Izinduna visited the High Isle for hunting trips and private retreats. That talk was about the heartlands of the duchy, however, the old Brenhinoedd – the Kingsland’. Her own Llanw Hall was of the coast, and the rocky shorelands were simply unsuited to such sport. Like most seaside nobles, the closest Mother had ever come to chasing a stag was shipping venison sausages south to Port Cadwyn.

Her fatherhad been skilled hunter, as was fashionable in high society, but regrettably Angharad had never taken him up on his offers to learn the pursuit. Perhaps if she had she might have developed a fondness for the woods instead of a rising, deep-seated hatred. She was getting tired of walking about tripping on roots and getting whipped in the face by branches when Tupoc – reliable in his bastardry – waited until the last moment to release them. After getting smacked most indecorously in the breast by a branch, Angharad surrendered her place to Ferranda lest she be tempted to run the Izcalli through. Why, he would gasp out. Why, Tredegar? And she would look him in the eyes and say: my tit, you utter animal, you branch-whipped my tit.

Deciding that vivid fantasies of murder were perhaps a sign that her patience might be running out, Angharad drew back by slowing her steps and let Ferranda pass her by. Cozme too, as she did not care to keep the man company. That left her by Lord Zenzele, who did not much talk and often glanced back worriedly at Shalini. She was still trailing at their back, though Brun was making it a point to slow his steps so she would always have someone in sight. A good man, Brun.

It both helped and hurt when they reached the road Song had shown them on the map, a small path of beaten earth that was in disrepair but still usable. It was easier for Shalini to walk on the road, but their overall pace quickened as well. By the time the turn of the hour neared, the gunslinger looked fit to drop and Angharad was sharing the worried looks with Zenzele.

“I do not know anything of Ramayan funeral customs,” she said in a whisper. “Would she be offended if I offered help?”

“She’s Someshwari, Tredegar,” Zenzele grunted back. “They get offended at each other’s accents.”

Which was true, if somewhat impolite to speak out loud. It was an old jest in Malan that while all Someshwari agreed they were an empire no two had ever agreed on who should rule it.

“She cannot take much more of this,” Angharad said. “See how her legs are shaking.”

“We could make a stretcher with sticks and blankets,” Zenzele suggested. “We would not be saying anything, it simply happens to be impossible to use one of those alone.”

She side-eyed him.

“Hold up only the front and drag the back on the ground after tying the body up,” she countered.

The man looked faintly embarrassed, as well he should. It had been a shallow lie, a lie of ignorance or lack of forethought, and so not the same as willful mistruth. Yet even shallow lies were enough to tarnish one’s honor if regularly indulged in.

“To use one of those alone and well,” he corrected.

True enough. Angharad nodded her approval.

“I can surrender my bedroll to the work,” she offered, “but we will need-”

“Halt,” the call came from ahead.

Song’s voice. After one last look at Shalini the Pereduri moved to the front of the column, where the others were assembling. Song, raising her own lantern, had stopped by the side of the road and was casting light on a path to a small clearing. That would not have been worth a rest, had the edge of the clearing not been touched by a small hill from which rose a ruined tower revealed by cold starlight. A thick, stout octagon of stone that jutted upwards, its roof long gone and broad stairs leading to the yawning door halfway up its heights. A few good swords could hold stairs like that for an hour, Angharad thought.

“A most suitable place to camp,” the noblewoman said. “It is a fine find, Song.”

“I have an eye for those things,” the Tianxi replied with the faintest hint of irony.

Some chuckling. It had been an open secret before that Song’s contract had to do with her silver eyes, but the way she had seen through illusions in the temple-fortress and later when helping Ferranda on the Toll Road had made it into open knowledge. In a way, Angharad thought, that was the finest safeguard to what the Tianxi’s contract could truly do. Why wonder if she could see contracts, when she could already see through illusions and past the veil of darkness?

“My thanks for your efforts, Mistress Ren,” Cozme Aflor said, affecting gallantry. “Shall we get to it? I expect we could all use the rest.”

Angharad might have disliked the man, but she would not argue with the truth.

Everyone pitched in their supplies without argument, which was a pleasant change from the Trial of Lines.

By the looks of it they had enough for two meals, including the one they were about to have. None of them had bothered to bring much food, as the expectation had been that the sanctuary on the other side of the maze would provide them with fresh supplies. Water should last longer than that, at least through the day tomorrow, and they would keep an eye out for streams in the forest.

Though it was a risk, they decided on having a fire: it was the surest way to keep away animals. The inside of the tower was dry and spacious enough that everyone would be able to fit around the flame, keeping them warm through the night, and they could use a warm meal after their trials of the day. Besides, several of them needed to rinse wounds and Angharad might be no physician but she knew in the absence of alcohol boiled water was the best  substitute.

As tasks were settled on with rough efficiency, the Pereduri noblewoman volunteered to gather firewood. She knew the basics of woodcraft but little more than that, and was willing to leave such affairs in the hands of those more fitted to it. It was not demeaning work, even though Tupoc tried to imply as much with his smirk. Had she not been taught that the best blade should go the best hand? She was not so arrogant as to think that her hand would always be the finest.

Still, the man was irritating enough she walked out before hearing who else would take up the chore. It was a short walk down the stairs, which were set into the side of the hill, and from there to the clearing. The forest was dry and there was plenty to pick up from the ground, so Angharad rolled up her sleeves and got to work. It was a few minutes later, while adding to the respectable pile at the bottom of the stairs, that she got company. Turning as she heard footsteps, Angharad caught sight of a silhouette framed in moonlight.

In that ghostly glow Isabel Ruesta’s elegant curls and green eyes seemed almost unearthly, a spirit’s impossible beauty. And Isabel was very much a beauty, even visibly exhausted and on the verge of tears. The Pereduri straightened at the sight of her.

“What happened?” she asked.

Isabel shook her head, padding down the last of the stairs.

“It is nothing,” she said. “I came to help you, not-”

“Tears are not nothing,” Angharad gently said.

She laid a comforting hand on the infanzona’s arm. Isabel hesitated.

“Ferranda is being quite odious,” Isabel finally admitted. “And Cozme is all too happy to pile on.”

“There are limits to the allowances given by grief,” the noblewoman frowned. “Ferranda should mind her manners.”

“Who would make her?” Isabel wetly chuckled. “No one remains who cares for me in the slightest, Angharad. Kind Recardo never even reached the island, and my maids…”

She shivered, silver-touched tears trickling down her cheeks. Angharad pulled her close, Isabel fighting for half a heartbeat before sobbing against the Pereduri’s chest.

“They were as family to me,” the dark-haired beauty murmured. “I’ve known them since I was but a girl. Beatris looked so much like me back when we were children that we might as well have been twins, and Briceida… Gods, Briceida only came to the island so that I would be able to help her marry her sweetheart.”

Another sob as Angharad rubbed her back.

“And now she is dead.”

“It will be all right,” she soothed.

“No, it won’t,” Isabel muttered. “They despise me in there, Angharad, and after I tell them of my contract they will surely argue I must be cast out and-”

The reminder that the infanzona in her arms was not simply a pretty girl was like being drenched in cold water. Angharad half pulled away, breathing in sharply. Are my thoughts my own? Emotions, Isabel had told her, made her use her contract against her well.

“Isabel,” she slowly said, “are you…”

Green eyes watered as Isabel shook her head.

“I am fighting it down,” the infanzona swore. “It is hard, but I am controlling it.”

A moment passed as Angharad searched herself, finding that she was still wary even after that assurance. That was, ironically, how she came to decide that Isabel was telling the truth. Were she under the contract’s influence she would not have such doubts. She slowly eased back into the embrace, Isabel’s head coming to rest on her shoulder. Ignoring that warmth, Angharad laid out the bounds of honor in her mind. It was, she found, a tricky affair.

“Our pact was that you would reveal your contract when we reached the next sanctuary,” the Pereduri finally said. “It is to your honor that you would hold up your end of the bargain regardless, but you need not speak until we reach that.”

It might well be that Isabel was right and she would be cast out if she revealed her contract. This was not Angharad’s crew, her word was not law among the band of survivors. She would not force the infanzona into almost certain death against the letter of the bargain they had struck simply because the way to sanctuary would take longer than expected. She would still keep to the other part of the pact, revealing anything should she suspect Isabel of using her contract on another. If she were, Angharad thought, she would not have been driven out of the tower in tears.

“I do not want to break trust between us again,” Isabel whispered.

She had raised her head, so instead of mumbling against Angharad’s shirt her breath was a warm whisper against the Pereduri’s neck. She looked down, Isabel meeting her eyes. The faint redness left behind by the tears only turned more vivid the shade of the infanzona’s eyes, and before she knew could think twice she was leaning forward. Isabel’s lips were warm against hers and she fell into Angharad’s arms like she’d always been meant to be there. The kiss lit up a greed inside her belly and soon Angharad was pulling her closer, hand on her waist as – Isabel pulled away, breath labored.

“I am,” she began, then hesitated. “My control may slip, if we go continue.”

Angharad almost laughed. As if desire was not already setting her hands to roving, to pulling down those silken trousers and stealing moans from Isabel’s swollen lips. The contract could ask nothing of her that she was not already demanding.

“Let it,” she replied, and pressed Isabel back until the infanzona was up against a tree.

Pinning her against it she leaned forward, nipping at Isabel’s neck, and her fingers began to gently trail up her legs until – the sound of a throat getting cleared stilled her, ice creeping down her spine. She turned to find Song standing on the stairs, her silver gaze wintry. She pulled away, forcing herself not to make it hasty as if she were a child caught stealing from the pantry.

“Song,” she said, clearing her throat. “I had not thought you would-”

“Neither had I,” Song sharply replied. “An evening for disappointment, it seems.”

Isabel smoothed down her doublet, looking remorseful.

“She was only comforting me,” the infanzona said. “Please do not-”

“You strike me as sufficiently comforted, Ruesta,” the Tianxi said. “It might be best you finish gathering firewood on your own, while Angharad brings up her half of the work.”

Angharad’s lips thinned. She did not enjoy being talked down to as if a fool, but she was not unaware that in a sense she had broken her word to Song – she had promised the other woman she would not talk with Isabel alone, and though she had not sought out the conversation she had allowed it to happen. Encouraged it, even. Much as she would have preferred to defiantly lead Isabel into the woods instead of saying nothing, it would have been a black mark on her honor.

“What we discussed stands,” she told Isabel instead. “But Song may well be right in the other regard.”

Isabel looked away, seemingly insulted and not without reason. It had not been gallant of Angharad to begin something before disavowing it, even though honor demanded as much. It was with the distinct feeling that she was slinking away that Angharad began picking up her pile of firewood, bringing it up in the tower. She passed by Song’s cold gaze, which remained on Isabel, and by the second journey the infanzona had gone into the forest to gather more wood. Song said not a word, and Angharad did not feel up to assaulting that frosty silence.

The discomfort followed her inside when she was done. Shalini was sitting between Ferranda and Sanale, the three of them pulled close as the pair tried to draw smiles out of her, while in the opposite corner Brun and Yaretzi chatted quietly. Angharad might have sat this way with Song, if not for what had happened outside. Or she might have sat with Isabel, if not for the same. Her lack of restraint had cost her twice over.

For a heartbeat she felt like sitting with Yaretzi and Brun anyway, to try to steal back some sliver of comradery, but then the thought soured in her mouth: Yaretzi, she had heard, might not be called Yaretzi at all. According to Isabel she was much shorter than the Watch had been told, perhaps some sort of impostor. Throwing away the thought, Angharad instead sought out her bedroll. If she could not have company, she could at least have rest.

It was adding insult to injury to realize that Tupoc had apparently thought the same, and she fell asleep sulking.

Angharad was entirely awake by the sound of the third shot.

Scrabbling for her sword, pleased beyond words that she had slept with her boots on, the Pereduri ripped it clear of the scabbard just as a lantern exploded into bright flames. Lan fell to the ground with a shout, patting away at her clothes, and Angharad ducked behind the wall as another shot tore through the doorway. Cozme stood on the other side, pistol in hand, and nodded at her while the rest of the group scrambled. He must have been the one on watch when the enemies – hollows, she assumed – attacked.

“I’ve counted at least five muskets,” the mustachioed man said. “They hit the lanterns first, but they haven’t tried to come any closer.”

Angharad frowned. That seemed odd, given how the cult of the Red Eye was obsessed with taking prisoners to sacrifice.

“Did you see how many there were?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“They stayed in the dark,” Cozme said. “No lights.”

Behind them Song ordered those with muskets to flank the doorway and the rest to gather their packs in case there was a need to run, getting a rush of gratitude out of Angharad for her intervention. The glance she spared behind her revealed a looming trouble after she’d made sure that Lan was no longer aflame: with the fire still burning they were not out of light, but of the three lanterns they’d had left only one had been spared a bullet. Zenzele’s, she saw, which was bad luck. It had the least oil left in it.

The man in question joined Cozme on the other side of the door, while Ferranda pressed herself behind Angharad.

“Are they approaching?” the infanzona asked in a whisper.

Cozme risked a glance through the opening, then hastily withdrew and shook his head.

“Nothing,” he said. “They might be-”

(Angharad ran down the stairs as fast as she could, shots lighting up the woods – one, two, three, six – and reached the clearing before the first howls sounded, hounds charging out of)

She breathed out shallowly, ignoring the rest of what Cozme had been saying. The cultists had brought war hounds, that was why they had not yet tried the doorway. The Malani had used such tactics in olden times, back when swords and shield walls were the lay of Vesper – hounds unleashed before the charge to scare and scatter the enemy’s ranks. Should she warn the others? She could think of no way to do so without revealing her contract.


Song, standing in cover behind her while the others finished packing up the last of everyone’s affairs – Brun and Isabel went about it briskly, but Lan was using the opportunity to have a look at everyone’s packs – handed her the coat she had left behind as well as her sword belt and scabbard. Angharad nodded her thanks, shrugging on the coat as Ferranda took her place by the doorway.

A month ago she would have cared little for that coat, for it was not a gift from her family in a sense greater than Mother’s coin having paid for it, but after having been cut and shot in it so many times she’d grown passingly fond of it. More importantly, she thought as she adjusted her sword belt, this was an opportunity.

She’d passed her blade to Song to have both hands free for the belt, and when claiming her saber back she leaned close.

“They have hounds,” she whispered. “I counted six guns.”

Song nodded subtly and nothing more need said. The Tianxi squeezed past Ferranda to take a long look out, only ducking back in when a cultists out in the woods fired. The sound and billowing smoke had them all ducking back into cover, Song clearing her throat afterwards.

“I counted twelve,” she said. “Half with muskets, half with leashed hounds.”

Curses abounded.

“Twelve is not so many, even with dogs,” Zenzele opined. “We can break them.”

“Are you volunteering to be first down the stairs, my lord?” Brun drily asked.

The Malani hesitated.

“I will go,” Angharad cut in. “But we must first decide on whether we fight or run. This all smells to me of a trap: if they have hounds, why have they not yet released them to dig us out?”

“They must be scouts,” Ferranda grunted in approval. “Lady Angharad is right, they might well be pinning us in here until the rest of the warband arrives and they can storm the tower.”

Several agreed with her, after a thought, and the conviviality of it was what told Angharad something was wrong. No one had been taunted or implied to be a coward, so what was… She found Tupoc standing very still with his back to the wall, pales eyes unblinking as they stared right in front of him with a strange expression on his face. Angharad thought him touched by a contract, for a heartbeat, until she realized he was paralyzed not by a contract but something altogether simple. Fear. That strange expression, it was fear.

Most absurd of all was when she saw what had finally given pause to Tupoc Xical: hanging on a string coming from the tower’s broken ceiling, a small spider was in front of him. It rose an inch and the unflappable Izcalli flinched, trying to press closer to the wall. Angharad felt an incredulous laugh bubble up her throat at the thought of a man who constantly courted death near shaking in his boots before a spider smaller than her thumb, but then she thought again. Was this simple fear, she wondered, or something more?

Spirits gave boons, but they also claimed prices.

Regardless, she still had a use for Tupoc Xical. Angharad deftly reached out, catching the spider in her hand and crushing it. The Izcalli’s shoulders immediately loosened, but there was a new kind of wariness in his eyes when he met Angharad’s. Oh yes, she thought. Definitely a price.

She looked away first, but it did not feel like a defeat in the slightest.

“- bait the shots, then those of us with muskets fire a volley into the hounds,” Song was saying. “We make for the road after, head north to the outpost as fast as we can.”

“Is Lady Angharad truly willing to charge in alone?” Brun asked. “I have not heard this from her.”

“I am,” she said, stepping in. “Though once the cultists have wasted their shots on me, I expect I will be joined by others in the melee.”

“I will be right behind her,” Tupoc easily said. “Worry not your pretty head, Sacromontan.”

The fair-haired man looked like he wanted to roll his eyes, but said nothing.

“If we are in agreement,” Song said, “then we should take all our packs and ready for the fight. There is no telling how long we have before the rest of the cultists arrive.”

None argued against that. Song, she thought, had a knack for clear thought in such matters. A captain’s qualities, though she hid too much of her thoughts to easily earn trust from others. Angharad went back for her affairs only for Lan to kindly offer to carry them for her, as Angharad would be running. She accepted the other woman’s offer gracefully, finding herself at loose ends while the others moved about. The other who had finished early was Yaretzi, the Izcalli already having had her pack at the ready.

The two of them stood in silence, until something occurred to Angharad.

“I have a question about Izcalli spirits, if you would allow it,” she quietly said.

Yaretzi cocked an eyebrow.

“I only know so much, but by all means,” she replied.

“Is there one,” she said, “with a strong ties to spiders?”

The Izcalli, whose name might not be Yaretzi at all, cocked an eyebrow and threw a speculative look at Tupoc. Angharad grimaced. Perhaps that had not been as subtle a question as she thought.

“Many small gods,” Yaretzi said, “but among the great I can only think of the Grave-Given. His favored messengers are creatures of the dark: bats, owls and spiders.”

“And what does this Grave-Given trade in?” Angharad asked.

“Death and order,” she replied. “His judgement shapes where the Circle Perpetual will send a soul to be born again.”

Just another spirit playing tricks, the Pereduri mentally dismissed. The Circle was the work of the Sleeping God, far beyond what mere spirits would be able to influence. Still, it was said that some entities on the continent could meddle in the matters of death, the moments before a soul returned to the Circle. Perhaps this Grave-Given was one. Though what such a spirit would want with the likes of Tupoc, she thought, I cannot imagine.

Yaretzi looked like she wanted to speak more of it, but Angharad was saved the need of evasion by the last preparations coming to an end.

“Form up,” Song called out. “We are finished.”

Angharad nodded a farewell at a rueful Yaretzi, resting her hand on her blade, and went for the doorway. Tupoc waited on the other side of the gap, ready to follow in her wake. Song, musket loaded and at the ready, sought her out.

“Ready?” the Tianxi asked.

She nodded.

“You?” she asked.

Song nodded back.

“Then,” Angharad said, “let us not waste any more time.”

Breathing in, she unsheathed her sword and ran out the doorway.

The first shot came before she took her second step out.

Angharad did not flinch nor slow, knowing it would mean death. The bullet hit stone as she raced down the steps, ricocheting wildly. Two more plumes of smoke billowed out and she leaned into the rush, almost falling forward rather than running, and felt something whiz right past her head as the other short went wide. Three, she counted, and kept running. Halfway down. The fourth shot was not for her, far behind, and revealed that Tupoc was following behind. The fifth came from right to the left of her, smoke blowing past the twisted branches of a tree, and Angharad screamed as she felt warmth and pain bloom on the side of her cheek.

She tripped forward, landing in a roll at the bottom of the stairs as the six shot was drowned out by the barking of the hounds being released.

Only the shot had come from behind, not ahead, and ten feet ahead of Angharad a cultist screamed as a bullet took him in the chest. His musket fell to the ground, firing aimlessly, and she gasped in relief as blood began trickling down her cheek. The hounds ran out of the woods, a tide of teeth and rage, and she smoothly rose with her blade at the ready. Above her shots sounded, the volley Song had arranged downing half the dogs in a single breath, but other shots peppered the trees and ground instead.

A heartbeat later Tupoc was at her side, spear spinning lazily, and a heartbeat after thatchaos took the reins.

Angharad danced back, spearing a hound through the head, while Tupoc batted away another with the bottom of his spear and kicked the third in the head. A shot from ahead, curses from the woods and after that the melee seized her whole. Cultists came pouring out of woods, bearing axes and swords, shouting war cries in their strange tongue as Tupoc laughed and Angharad snarled. Teeth ripped at her coat and she turned an axe blow to run the man through, ripping her blade free with a squelch as the rest of the company charged down the stairs behind her.

They came for her fervently, as if she were a proving ground, and Angharad met them with cold focus: faces marred with that strange red eye flashed one after another, shots illuminating the dark as she slashed at a man’s face and caught a woman’s wrist before her axe could rip into her side. She threw the axe-wielder to the side, into Cozme – who opened her throat with a knife without batting an eye – and then somehow, suddenly, the cultists were retreating. Running back into the woods.

Only not all of them had come out with blades: there was a shot from deeper in the woods, then one from the tower a second later.

Angharad ducked, hardly alone in that, but it was not her that’d been aimed at. There was a shout from behind and she turned to see Brun leaning over a fallen silhouette. Angharad’s heart leapt into her throat. No, she thought. No. Only she must have spoken it out loud, as the others parted around her as she moved.  She stumbled forward, blood dripping down her blade and hand, and knelt in the grass besides the fallen body.

Half of Isabel Ruesta’s face was a red ruin, the shot having taken her in the eye.

She must have been spun around by death, Angharad thought, for she was facing the wrong way: the tower instead of her killer in the woods. Brun laid a hand on her shoulder.

“We need to move, Lady Angharad,” the man said. “The cultists gave up too easily, the rest of their warband must be close.”

“He’s right.”

Song was coming down the stairs, her musket in hand. Her face was a blank mask, betraying nothing of her thoughts. She had not been fond of Isabel, Angharad knew, but must have known better than to speak of it now.

“Now we run or we die,” the Tianxi evenly continued. “Say your farewells, but do not linger. It is behind you, and life ahead.”

A cruelty, Angharad thought, but meant kindly. She was saying it so others would not. Looking down at the corpse that had been Isabel, she brushed back the curls over the wound and swallowed. She thought of that first evening on the Bluebell, when she had seen the infanzona standing on the bridge like a jewel set in a crown of stars, and allowed herself grief. She closed the remaining eye, wiped a half-formed tear from her own and rose to her feet. Shalini, she saw, was carrying Ishaan’s corpse on her back again.

Angharad put down Isabel Ruesta in the last of their fire , leaving her to burn, and on her back instead carried the weight of yet another failure.

Zenzele’s lantern died out half an hour in.

They stumbled forward in the dark during what felt like hours but could have been any amount of time at all – exhaustion stretched seconds into minutes, every breath into an odyssey. Only Song’s unfailing eyes kept them from drifting about aimlessly, the Tianxi surefooted as a cat as she led them through a sea of looming trees and threatening silhouettes. They’d left behind the beaten earth road, afraid the cultists would hunt them down it.

Limbs burning and eyes tearing up, Angharad forced herself to follow closely behind Song. It was only once they climbed up a steep hill, clutching at root and stones, that the Tianxi’s steps finally stuttered. There was no need to ask why: in the distance, over the crown of trees, pale lights burned tall and proud.

“The outpost,” Angharad breathed out. “If it is that.”

“There is,” Song replied, “only one way to find out.”

The promise of an end to the road, of some semblance of safety, brought strength back to their tired limbs. They picked up the pace as much as they could, Shalini once more trailing behind. Once they were close enough the light began to cast shadows, they risked going back to the beaten earth road. It shortened the last leg of their journey, until at last they felt the touch of Glare-infused light wash over their skins again. Blinking away the blinding brightness, Angharad found she was not looking at a fort.

Atop a flat hill a tall palisade had been raised, ringed by even taller lamplights. Through open gates the noblewoman saw the bones of a small town: houses and shops, muddy streets and even some kind of great hall. And there were people inside, moving about. Closer to that as well, for outside the open gates two men were keeping guard in padded tunics and breastplates as they loosely held muskets. It was not them that kept her gaze, though, or even the town itself.

Along the last of the road to the gates, two dozen wooden spikes at been raised on either side. Most were bare, but nine were adorned with the impaled corpses of men whose skin was too pale to be anything but darklings. Some of the dead were fresh enough they still dripped.

“Well,” Tupoc mused, “they seem like lovely folk. Shall we go and introduce ourselves?”

It wasn’t, Angharad thought, as if there was much of a choice. It was either trying the town or trying the cultists again. She itched to cast her mind forward, to seek vision of what would unfold if they approached, but she had already burned her candle too bright. Anymore of that and it would be her that burned instead.

They would have to do it the hard way instead.

“Let’s,” Angharad replied, and stepped into the light.

42 thoughts on “Chapter 38

  1. Shalini was sitting between Ferranda and Sanale > Shalini was sitting between Ferranda and Zenzele

    They’ve all lost someone.

    I really didn’t see Brun offing Ruesta coming. I was looking forward to seeing her forced into the Watch.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. TheiconoclasticFury

        It was probably Song. Isabel’s face is ruined, which probably means she was shot from behind. Exit wounds are generally larger than entry wounds. It’s more likely that the force of the shot spun her around than that she was facing backwards, I’d think. She was also shot through the eye. Two shots rang out before she was shot, neither close to her. That sort of preternatural accuracy belongs to only Song and maybe Shalini. Finally, the timing of the shots (one hollow, one from the tower, in rapid succession) is suspiciously convenient.


      1. lysDexicsUntie

        Pretty sure it was intentional, not lucky. And not from a cultist.
        She didn’t spin around in death, she spun to face her killer, which was likely Song or Brun.

        Liked by 3 people

      1. lysDexicsUntie

        He may not have started off with a gun, but they have had opportunities to get weapons and supplies from the Watch on multiple occasions. Additionally, a number of people with guns have died, and how their weapons were distributed within the group was not specified.
        We have not actually seen Brun’s actions much outside his interactions with Angharad, so he could have acquired a gun at almost any time.
        And even after procuring a gun he may not have told anyone, just to avoid suspicion in the event he shot someone.


  2. zlz

    Did he though? He seems the most likely culprit for the other murders, but for this one, did he even have a musket? I think Song might have pulled the trigger instead, she had motive and opportunity.


    1. Crash

      While Song would be a likely suspect (and also fully justified, she has tied her chances to Angharad and Isabel was a big problem) she did get shot in the cheek. That type of thing tends to make a body spin, it’s not impossible for it to have been a cultist. It’s even likely. That aside, was there even a reason for Ruesta to be looking back? Her contract isn’t clairvoyance.

      Now, the shot from the tower came right after. Could Song have shot first but decided to stay her hand until that happened? Personally, I find that far more interesting of a choice.

      It’s also worse, if brought up because more than just an intentional shot it could’ve been dangerous to several others.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. morroian

    On reflection Isabela’s role in the narrative was pretty much done so her death here, whilst surprising I tihnk it fits. Plus it gives Angharad more to angst over.


    1. Actually this is very much aborting a potential storyline or three. Hell, we have no guarantee her role in the narative is over NOW, considering how murder mysteries go.


  4. Someperson

    Well, I am fairly surprised that Isabel died.

    So far the Trial of Weeds is shaping up to be a lot like the Trial of Lines although that’s probably because a landslide took out the people who were supposed to actually explain it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. lysDexicsUntie

        Same as I said previously.

        He may not have started off with a gun, but they have had opportunities to get weapons and supplies from the Watch on multiple occasions. Additionally, a number of people with guns have died, and how their weapons were distributed within the group was not specified.
        We have not actually seen Brun’s actions much outside his interactions with Angharad, so he could have acquired a gun at almost any time.
        And even after procuring a gun he may not have told anyone, just to avoid suspicion in the event he shot someone.


      1. Someperson

        If Brun is the murderer (which, there is a chance it is a bait and switch, but he is definitely the prime suspect at least) then I would point out that I don’t think any of the previous murders have personal motives either, yet he still did them. It is very possible that the motive for the murders is somehow related to his contract.

        From the description, it sounded like Brun was the person standing nearest to Isabel. Two shots were heard, one from the direction of the Red Eye attackers, the other from the direction of Brun and Isabel.

        Angharad assumed that the second shot was returning fire, but I am pretty positive she assumed wrongly, considering Brun was right there and considering how the positioning of the body suggested she wasn’t shot from the direction of the Red Eye. And even if Brun didn’t shoot her, he was right there so he likely should have seen who did do it, and it’s unclear why Brun would keep quiet about this in the world where he isn’t the killer.

        My take is Song did not actually witness Brun shoot Isabel since she just rushed to the scene after like Angharad, but strongly suspects she knows what happened, and only delayed confronting him because they still needed to run away from Red Eye assailants.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. lysDexicsUntie

        To Someperson (because WordPress limits comment chains so I couldn’t reply directly. Not quite sure where this post will pop up in the chain…)

        The murderer could just as easily been Song. She was in the tower where no one could see her actions. She has been depicted as an excellent shot. She has a motive because Isabel is influencing Angharad.
        Even standing near Isabel, Brun would only have seen she was shot. In the dark, in the middle of battle, just after another her shot was fired it would be difficult to tell where the killing shot came from, though I wouldn’t put it past him to have noticed.
        Even Isabel spinning around could be written off as a result of the hit depending on timing.


        ‘Song was coming down the stairs, her musket in hand. Her face was a blank mask, betraying nothing of her thoughts.’

        This could be what Angharad thought, and Song realizing she shouldn’t say anything about the death of someone she didn’t like.
        It could be Song saw Brun kill Isabel and was choosing not to disclose it (though I don’t see why she would keep it a secret as outing the killer would make everone safer).
        But I think it is likely that Song had just killed Isabel, since she realized Angharad would not push Isabel away, and was trying not to display anything that would tip Angharad off.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. At this point it’s rather heavily implied that Brun is either a serial killer or has a contract requirement for killing. While we don’t know for certain yet, he also didn’t have a reason for killing either Jun or Aines. It’s possible that Song AND Brun are in on these deaths together for who knows what reason.


      4. lysDexicsUntie

        They don’t even have to be in on it together. Just because one person is murdering people in their sleep doesn’t mean they are related in any way to other killings.
        Tristan killed Recardo and Remund, Augusto killed Gascon, Vanesa killed Ocotlan, and Tupoc sold Ayanda, Briceida, and Leander to be sacrificed.
        None of these were related to the murderer and were instead done for personal reasons.
        Not to mention killing someone with friendly fire in combat is a completely different method than slitting their throat at night while everyone is made to sleep.
        So even if Brun is the “murderer” that doesn’t mean ever killing in the group can be laid at his feet, or even remotely connected to him.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Mirror Night

    Tupoc is a Spider-man Villain.

    I assume Song killed Isabel RIP. She is Ruthless.

    Brun even if he had a contract that requires killing. Had plenty of victims that aren’t in his gang in the cultists. Also there is no safe harbor in sight. So killing anyone who could be useful at this point seems like an utter waste unless you are targeting them due to an Agenda. Brun doesn’t have the motive here.

    I love Lan checking those packs trying to get an edge even if dire circumstances. Clever Lass. You forget she is present sometimes. She really is similar to Tristan but sans Contract.

    Will we get a Zenzele, Shalini and Ferranda Throuple? I don’t think we have really seen that from EE yet. And he has shown a lot of different relationships. I mean we have seen people juggle mutiple sexual/romantic relationships but not really one where everyone is part of it and committed to it.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. lysDexicsUntie

    “Had she not been taught that the best blade should go the best hand? She was not so arrogant as to think that her hand would always be the finest.”

    Despite the many, many faults I find with Angharad I approve of this sentiment. 

    To bad she ruins it with her assumptions on which people should gave what skills and her beliefs and demands on how they use them.

    Also Isabel is so unbelievably full of bull:

    Kind Recardo, who Beatris was terrified was planning to rape her.

    Beatris who looked so similar when they were children was like a sister, who was a sacrificial body double and considered herself expendable since she no longer looked similar enough to fill the role.

    Bricieda who only came for Isabel’s assistance in marrying her sweetheart, but waas open to being wooed by Brun.

    Considering how fast Angharad fell for a few tears, unsubstantiated claims of bullying, and insistence Isabel was fighting down her contract she is lucky Isabel died before she could ruin her other relationships and lose the trust of the group. 

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yeeep. Somewhere between “Angharad is very stupid”, “Isabel’s contract has some serious lingering effects” and “Isabel was 100% lying about no longer using her contract”


      1. lysDexicsUntie

        You gotta love the twistyness of it though.

        “A moment passed as Angharad searched herself, finding that she was still wary even after that assurance. That was, ironically, how she came to decide that Isabel was telling the truth. Were she under the contract’s influence she would not have such doubts.”

        Angharad is convinced the contract isn’t being used because she has doubts.
        But if she had no doubts she would become suspicious.
        So to see Isabel in the best light, in this case not using her contract, the contract would literally have to make/allow Angharad doubt’s.
        That way she could use the fact of that wariness to dismiss them.
        So Angharad’s wariness could actually be a sign the contract is in use.


      2. Crash

        Angharad is so very bad at this though. It’s entirely possible there was no need to mess with her.

        I hope this keeps being a thing, it’s funny as heck. Even if it gets annoying at times, when she is being judgemental based on her (very poor) reading of people.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I just can’t get into this series the way I got into the Practical Guide. It’s not you, EE, it’s me.

    I have trouble following the billions of side characters along, so it doesn’t even hurt when they randomly die or not.

    I’ll probably reread the story when it’s finished.l, it will likely work better for me, then.


  8. wraithdream

    I think I’ve figured out a few things about our resident murderer, also known as Brun.

    The first thing is that I don’t think his killing was going to be limited to the two deaths he’s caused so far if not for Angharad’s reliable sense of duty. I was rereading and there was a passage that caught my eye during the Trial of Lines.

    “poor Briceida. The handmaid had been sick since eating her chalk tablets, enough that the wind and rain slowed her advance to a crawl. Brun was helping her keep pace, but the two were at the back of the company and certain to stay there. Angharad made sure to pull back and stay with them a span whenever they trailed behind too much.

    She caught an irritated expression on Brun’s face once or twice, but she would tell him later no insult was meant to his efforts. It was only that if they lost the pair in the storm, there was no telling when the two would be able to catch up.”

    Hmm Angharad, noted social savant, are you sure Brun was irritated because you checking on him was a slight on his capabilities? Or was he irritated because your checkups made it impossible for him to arrange for Briceida to have an unfortunate slip off the aqueduct in the downpour while no one was around to see him push her? I wonder.

    The second thing is that, just like what was going on with Briceida, I think Brun has selected his next target for his plausibly serial killer ways: Shalini.

    “Shalini. She was still trailing at their back, though Brun was making it a point to slow his steps so she would always have someone in sight. A good man, Brun.”

    Ah yes, I’m sure Brun is just being a solid, decent sort by hanging in the back with the laggard of the group out of the goodness of his kind, innocent heart. He certainly wouldn’t be hanging around her because he’s eyeing the wounded gazelle who’s falling behind and sharpening his knives, nope certainly not!

    Liked by 3 people

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