Angharad flinched, but she did not die.
No, the ball hit the tree about a foot to the right of her head. Bark went flying and a heartbeat later both cultists keeping watch turned her way – she felt Cozme going still as he was caught leaning out of cover.
The cultists shouted, and just like that the traitor had killed them.
There should have been a burst of movement, of surprise and fear and hatred, but instead Angharad breathed deep. The urgency bled out of her, slowly but surely, as a great silence spread. Stillness hung in the air, like the world had been seized by the throat.
The fishing line struck the scene before her and the impact rippled out, as if writ on water.
Angharad Tredegar stood stranded on an island’s shore, stones digging into the soles of her boots. She looked down at herself, seeing on the water the moment where time had gone still: at once she knew she still stood there, in that other place, but also that so long as she stood on this forlorn shore it was nothing but a reflection on shadowy waters. The ripples calmed, showing again the crystallized act of Augusto Cerdan’s betrayal in perfect detail. Without turning or daring to move an inch, Angharad knew that there was something besides her. An entity great and terrible, so much that her mind trembled at the very thought of beholding it.
The Fisher’s steady breath was as a gust of wind, the spirit patiently fishing in the moment-become-water.
“He betrayed me,” Angharad finally said. “I knew he would, but to think he would go so far? Master Cozme and his brother, even Isabel.”
She ground her teeth, seething with impotent anger.
“He is a man without honour,” she bit out.
Above them there was only darkness, as if they stood under an eternity of nothing, but Angharad somehow knew there was a ceiling. This was a cavern, resounding with the quiet echo of water lapping at the shore of the island within it. Where the spirit she had struck a pact with still waited, his patience as absolute a truth as the coming of the tide.
“Honour,” the Fisher said, slowly speaking the word as if feeling it out.
The fishing line struck at water, ripples turning the moment into a confusion of colour and lines, and the spirit hummed.
“A worthless thing.”
She rocked back as if he’d struck her across the face. Anger and surprise fought fear for the barest of heartbeats, long enough she looked at the spirit. A hulking shape towering above her, more fortress than man, and in the dark she could make little more than a silhouette. But she saw the trails of ichor, the rivulets of black on grey skin that bled down from the crown of his head. They dripped down the Fisher’s body all the way to the stones beneath his feet, staining them black. There was a basket on the other side of him, tall as she and full of wriggling things.
Instinct screamed at her not to look at it too closely.
“It is not,” she sharply replied. “It is priceless.”
The Fisher shook his head, chiding.
“Its price is known to all, Angharad Tredegar.”
His voice was not a man’s voice, with emotion and cadence and all the shades of humanity. It was a spirit’s, as much the glimpse of something she could barely comprehend as a sound. Her mind told her she heard the sound of the sea against stone, of bones shattering like twigs, but she could not have explained why. Against her will, Angharad wrenched her gaze away. She was trembling, slick with sweat. The spirit was not meant to be beholden by mortal eyes.
“Why were you betrayed, child?”
“Fear,” she said. “Fear and jealousy.”
The spirit laughed. It was a sound utterly without joy: a wound ripping open, a friend abandoned in the dark.
“Because you are weak,” the Fisher corrected.
“I am not weak,” Angharad hissed. “I have earned ten stripes, spirit, and won against-”
“The victories of a child,” he dismissed. “You fight a woman’s battles, now, yet still hold them up as trophies. Why should they not betray you? It is nothing more than what you deserve.”
“We had a truce,” she shouted. “He turned not only on me but on his brother, on Cozme and Isabel. How can you claim I am at fault?”
“Truce,” the spirit repeated, amused. “Another word. How many will you hide behind?”
“Keeping your promises is the foundation of the world,” Angharad bit back. “Of everything we are.”
“There is only one foundation to the world, child,” the Fisher said, with a certainty like iron and stone, like tide and decay. “The eldest law, whose name is extinction.”
And now she understood, for she had learned at her father’s knee as much as her mother’s. The old songs, the old tales, the old ways. She had come here in the dark, on the eve of death, and the spirit she had bargained with was testing her. Angharad swore she would not prove unworthy.
“That is despair, spirit,” she said. “I refuse it. It will not own me.”
And she meant it, for all that she had a role to play. Angharad was not without fault, and sometimes she bent honour or twisted it, but she would never renounce it. It there was failure, it was hers and not that of what she aspired to. Even if she fell short all her life, why should she cease trying? The final betrayal of what you were was to surrender to the tide of the world, to let it decide who you were to be.
“Perhaps it is not writ in the bone of Vesper that honour should matter,” Angharad admitted. “But it can be made to – and I will fight to make it so.”
She readied herself for pain or anger, for the test of her resolve, but the spirit only flicked his fishing rod. Lights swirled, and below the waters she glimpsed shapes moving.
“And so you are betrayed,” the Fisher said. “You claim rights you have not won, acting as if your desires are born worthy of respect.”
“Why do you still exist, Fisher, if the eldest law is absolute?” she challenged.
“It can be stalled,” the spirit said. “That, too, is true. But only strength can achieve this, and you are weak. Your will is dull. Your enemies defy you with impunity.”
Shapes circled around the bait under the surface, as above lights scattered like a broken mosaic.
“Laws,” the Fisher told her, “are the right of the strong and them alone. Your honour is not a law, it is a noose.”
Her heart clenched with fear. This… it did not feel like a test of her mettle. There was no fearsome wrath, no pain or fear or battle of tricks. The Fisher did not seem interested enough in her for this, and that more than anything else had a gaping pit opening in her stomach. Was this only a remonstration before her death, some kind of sick sermon from the ancient spirit? No, she told herself. Doubt is how victory slips away. It must be a test, it must.
“I do not believe that,” Angharad replied, looking down at the waters.
She clenched her fists, knowing that as soon as the ripples settled she would once more see Augusto Cerdan betraying his kin and professed love for a better chance at running away. The Fisher was not wrong, that the infanzon had done it because he feared her not. Because he thought he would get away with it, that even if she survived she would be bound by oaths not to slay him for his treachery. All of this might never have happened, if she had simply let him fall last night. But that was not the whole of it, was it?
If you began to act in only the ways that helped you, if you cared nothing for duty and dues, then you were as an animal. And that sickness, it spread until there was no law but the law of the sword and the whole world was as a butcher’s yard. There was a cost to peace, to plenty and safety and Vesper being more than packs of wolves tearing each other to bits: sometimes, you had to lose. To accept that you could not win every time, because if you could not why should anyone?
Honour had been used against her, but that did not mean honour was wrong. Only that the wicked had been cleverer than she.
“Having the sharpest blade,” she quietly said, “that’s not what honour is. It is defending the weak, it is doing the right thing. Even when it costs you.”
The Fisher did not even turn her way.
It was not a test, Angharad Tredegar then understood. It had never been. This was no tale of the Fifth Branch, where the clever princess moved the heart of the spirit with her honour. No play where her perseverance would be rewarded with the aid of an all-powerful ally, not even a song of cleverness and guile. The old monster she had made a pact with had wanted her to be a worse woman than she was, and now that she refused to be that monster would let her die. And the utter dismissal, the casual disinterest, was what burned her most. Because had the spirit not known who she was, when they made their pact? And now it shamed her for it, as if being anything but a selfish pit of despair was some sort of sin.
“What did you choose me for, if not this?” Angharad snarled. “What else, if not honour?”
Below the waters, one of the shadows bit the bait. It struggled after, scared and hurting and somehow knowing it was going to die.
“I remember them shouting of it,” the Fisher said, “when the ships first landed on our shores.”
Arms like towers pulled, ripping out of the water a wriggling shape that Angharad’s eyes shied away from. It was caught in a great palm, the barbed hook deftly slid out of shadowy flesh.
“Honour, honour!” the spirit laughed. “They raised it a banner, bedecked their champions in it, painted it on the lips of their queens.”
The wriggling thing fought with terror’s strength, but for all its efforts it did not slip the Fisher’s grasp. Angharad could not see the old spirit’s face but she knew it was smiling, just as she knew that part of her would have wept at the sight of it. The Fisher’s fingers squeezed, and after a wet and ugly crack the wriggling thing no longer wiggled at all.
“How sweet it made their screams taste, when my teeth cracked their bones.”
Angharad shivered as the spirit tossed the broken thing into the basket, where the dead flesh spread terror like poison in a cup.
“They loved their honour so much, your forebears,” the Fisher reminisced, “that I nailed them to the Young Shore so they might sing of it on the wind for their coming kin to hear.”
Oh Sleeping God, Angharad trembled. What have I done?
“There were so many the sea turned red,” the spirit told her lovingly, “that not even seagulls could drown out the screams.”
What had she sworn to free or die trying?
“Honour?” the Fisher said. “I would not give wind for honour. I gifted you my sagacity, child, because you hate them. Because you fear them.”
And on the water before them Angharad saw scrawled the nightmare of the night where her life had been broken forever, the fire and the screams and the blood on the stone. Her breath caught in her throat and she did not deny the spirit’s words for they were the truth.
Angharad Tredegar would avenge her family.
That oath she could not break, not without killing what was left of the girl who had been daughter of Rhiannon and Gwydion Tredegar. And if she killed that girl, what was even left?
“It has become half your name,” the spirit said. “You cannot renounce that, so the journey has become inevitable.”
The Fisher slowly turned, and before her trembling gaze fled to the stones at her feet the Pereduri glimpsed trails of ichor on grey flesh.
“There is poison in your veins, Angharad Tredegar,” the Fisher fondly said, “and when you learn to drink of it, you will become a thing of dread. One fit to break the locks on my cage.”
And as Angharad looked down at her boots, she saw the mistake at last. Because the spirit had cut to the bone of her, but he had not done it without a price to himself: he had revealed of him as much as he stripped bare of her. I gave you my sagacity, the Fisher had said. Nor merely a boon or a sliver of power, but a part what he was. That was not a small thing, one without costs or one that could easily taken back. If she died, he would lose something – and not least of it what the spirit thought was a chance of someone capable of freeing him.
Her gaze rose back to the water, finding once more Augusto Cerdan’s feverishly triumphant gaze looking back at her.
“You need me,” Angharad quietly said.
“There are others,” the Fisher said, “and my nature is patient.”
“But not wasteful,” she said. “You brought me here for a reason, Fisher. To learn your answer, so that I might beat the eldest law. You do not want me to be dead for all that you castigate me. You want me to be strong.”
For that is the only way you think I will ever be able to free you, she thought.
“Go on, then,” Angharad Tredegar said, forcing herself to look at the face of horror. “Show me your way.”
She saw nothing, only grey and shadow and ichor, yet still her eyes watered with tears. Then she smelled blood, felt it inside her mouth and sliding down her cheeks. She did not flinch or look away. The Fisher laughed: a ship breaking on a reef, a shield wall shattering.
“I am no peddler god, child,” the spirit said. “I gave you a gift of blood and bone, which you have not learned to use. Did I give you eyes or my own sagacity?”
“Then teach me,” Angharad challenged.
“That is why you are here,” the Fisher said. “You lessen yourself, clinging to your body like the shore. That is a child’s fear.”
The great spirit’s voice rang like a decree.
“Slay it,” he said. “Embrace the water.”
She watched the water before her, writ with light and a tale of treachery, and took a step beyond the shore. The water was cool, cold in a way that seeped into her bones, but she pressed on. A step after another, until was swallowed whole and she opened her eyes.
She stood besides Angharad Tredegar, whose expression was startled fury, and stepped away.
Violence exploded, the cultists charging towards the shout and pinning the company down. Still surprised, the four behind the tree hesitated. Isabel took a crossbow bolt to the belly, falling with a scream, and Angharad Tredegar charged into the mass of warriors.
She would die, Angharad thought, it was only a matter of time.
Brun tried to sink his hatchet in Augusto Cerdan’s back, eyes shining with emotion, but Beatris stopped him. She pulled at him and Song, face conflicted, said something to both.
Angharad thought she would be able to hear, if she came closer, but she could not quite manage it.
The three fled, Augusto struck across the face when he tried to go with them. He doubled it through the clearing even as Cozme was struck with a spear and Remund lost a hand to a sword blow. Cozme tried to run, but he was caught by one of the watchers and beaten unconscious.
Angharad Tredegar killed five before Ocotlan broke her leg and Tupoc rammed his spear through her heart. She died trying to claw at his throat one last time, but her bloody fingers fell short.
Angharad’s head broke the water, gasping. She felt a massive hand rest atop the crown of her head.
“Do better,” the Fisher said, and forced her back under.
This time, Angharad Tredegar began by pulling Isabel out of the way. She ran towards the other four and Cozme Aflor took a crossbow bolt in the back halfway there. They all rushed into the clearing, sweeping over the two watchers like a tide, but the warband caught up with them before they reached the trees. Three survived to run.
Angharad Tredegar was not one of them.
She sucked in a breath, emerging from the water.
“Please,” Angharad said, “I need-”
“Again,” the Fisher said, and pushed her back under
Angharad Tredegar charged the watchers herself, hoping the others would follow. She took a wound to a thrown knife and Brun was shot in the arm, but they made it across the clearing before the warband caught up with them. She shouted an order and everyone scattered, as she did, running their own way towards the sanctuary road.
Five survived to flee.
Angharad Tredegar’s wound slowed her enough that Leander Galatas traced a Sign before her and she hit a wall that could not be seen, falling down for a hollow to knock unconscious. The warband took her.
“I’m drowning,” Angharad gasped. “You can’t-”
“Again,” the Fisher said.
Angharad Tredegar ordered them so scatter before they had finished running across the clearing.
Two survived to flee.
“I don’t know how,” she pleaded, mouth full of water and blood. “I can’t-”
“Then try again,” the Fisher said.
Nine more times she went under, until at last she found it. The loop in the hole, the winding path. And as the Fisher’s hand left her head, she fell to her knees in the shallows by the shore. Crawling as she coughed and wheezed, spitting out water tinted red.
‘’It’s too much,” she got out. “It would have killed me.”
“Without my hand, the poison will eat you from within,” the Fisher acknowledged. “But you have learned, and will learn. It is a beginning.”
It would never be like that again, Angharad grasped. No more chances by the dozen, only the poison pill she could swallow and hope not to die. But the Fisher had not lied. She could do it, now. Step out of herself, beyond what she had thought the limits of her pact: that she could only have glimpses, and only through her own eyes. And that was yet a beginning in the old spirit’s eyes. What kind of terrible gift had she bargained for? Sagging against the rocks, water still lapping at her legs, Angharad closed her eyes. Listening to her own breath, she could only think of how close she had come to drowning.
Would she have become one of those wriggling things in the water, if she had?
She stayed there on the shore, prostrated like one of the forebears the Fisher had told her he had mutilated and tortured. But like all things out of the spirit’s mouth, that had not been the story whole.
“You weren’t strong enough, in the end,” Angharad said. “My forebears, they beat you. You lost the war.”
The Fisher’s gaze rested on her.
“They bled me and bound me, Angharad Tredegar,” the Fisher said. “They stole half my name. But they could not end me, not for all their desperate bargains. So they buried me deep, where no one would find me.”
The spirit laughed but it was the sound of teeth gnashing until they shattered, of a limb dipped in scalding water.
“They should have known better. Nothing is ever lost.”
She could feel the cold leaving her, the stillness fading. This place was about to end.
“Yet you are wrong, Angharad Tredegar,” the Fisher said.
And the last thing she heard before opening her eyes chilled her blood.
“I have not lost the war: so long as I exist, it has yet to end.”
She grabbed Isabel by the sleeve, pulling her along. That way Remund would not hesitate to follow. Angharad ran out from the cover of the tree, the taller of the cultist watchers palming a knife as the other charged with his spear. She released Isabel’s sleeve, speeding forward, and at the last moment took a left. The thrown knife went wide, the other’s spear came for her belly but a pivot and a spin opened the charging hollow’s throat.
A heartbeat later Song shot the second watcher.
Angharad turned, only for Isabel to gasp and even Master Cozme rock back.
“Your eyes,” Isabel stammered. “There’s so much blood.”
Oh, was that why she felt so light-headed? That was unfortunate.
“Contract,” she curtly said. “The three of you must run west, it’s your best chance.”
“How do you-”
Angharad brushed past Remund, ignoring his question, and intercepted the last four as they rushed into the clearing with a slight delay. She needed to refine that, buy a little more time, but they would not listen if she asked. So instead she strode forward, past a haggard Brun and Beatris, and rammed her fist in Augusto Cerdan’s belly. He tried to block it but he was slow and fearful, so he was on his knees and dry retching in the heartbeat that followed.
“Tredegar, now is not the time,” Cozme called out, rushing towards them.
Good, that should do it. A glance back told her that Isabel and Remund were already running towards the woods, as she’d told them to. When Song caught up, for once looking disturbed, Angharad met her eyes. Song was always the one who listened when she gave an order, no matter the try. The noblewoman would prove worthy of that trust.
“Take them by the eastern path,” she said, gesturing at Brun and Beatris. “You can’t join up with the others, not yet.”
Song nodded, face tight.
“I will wait for you at the end of the road,” she said. “For as long as I can.”
“Sleeping God go with you,” Angharad smiled, and walked past her.
Now to find out if she had been clever enough. Cozme was helping up the traitor as the warband broke past the treeline and in that moment she saw the dilemma on the face of the white-haired priest. The man could see a pair entering the trees near the western edge of the crag, three most of the way to the eastern path and three still in the middle of the clearing. One of these was being helped up, and the one doing that was older than the runners. In the heartbeat that followed the old cultist made the easy choice, barking out his orders. The warband would go for the three sacrifices they were certain to get, writing off the rest.
The warriors came for them like a pack of wolves.
“You’ve killed us all, you bitch,” Augusto gasped out.
“You, I will most certainly kill before this is done,” Angharad agreed. “Let us find out for the rest.”
The elder Cerdan ran for it, as he had the last two glimpses, and Master Cozme followed him after hesitating for a heartbeat. Angharad instead tapped the flat of her sword against her shoulder, granting the warband an impeccable duellist’s salute and earning an absolutely delighted laugh from Tupoc Xical. Now, she thought, it was all over except the dance. She began backing away towards the east, the edge of the crag, and watched as the lead hollows hesitated. Most chose to pursue Augusto and Cozme, since she did not appear to be fleeing, including the remaining crossbowman – who’d had the gall to kill her thrice.
By the time a party gathered to corner her with her back to the cliff, she was facing only nine cultists and Tupoc’s crew. The rest were in pursuit, not yet knowing the effort was fruitless.
“Surrender, child,” the old hollow in robes told her. “You will not be harmed by our hand if you lay down your arms.”
“Come and take them, hollow,” she replied, open in her disdain.
The warriors, infuriated by her disrespect for what she still suspected to be some kind of priest, broke ranks to rush her. With that many headed her way, it should be that – ah, and there it was. Tupoc ordered his pack of traitors to hold back, going in alone. Getting her arm broken by that hammer once had been quite enough: Ocotlan was remarkably quick for a man his size. Differences in height meant the hollows reached her as an uneven line, so Angharad slid into the gap. She stepped past a wild axe swing, racking her saber down the man’s back, and pivoted as the two hollows closest turned to converge on her.
She lashed the first across the eyes before he could bring up his sword, ignoring his scream in favour of stepping out of a thrusting spear. She avoided the point but the cultist was skilled enough to slap her shoulder with the haft, which hurt but more importantly slowed her. She was more tired than she had been in the glimpses. Her body did not move as quickly and it was only getting worse. She stepped further away from the cliff, letting the warriors converge on her from all sides except the back, then when enough were committed shecharged.
The spears got in each other’s way, needing too much space for how close the warriors were, and she ducked under a sword blow to hammer her shoulder into the hollow’s chest. It hurt her more than him – he was wearing a breastplate – but he was knocked down and she stepped over him. Not quite quickly enough to avoid a cut in the back of her shoulder, just to the side of the bag still fastened there, but the axeman got a little too close and she hacked halfway through his wrist before dancing away. Towards the ledge, counting her steps so she would not fall over it. That had been a most embarrassing death. Two had been made unable to fight, a respectable beginning, but it would not last.
Tupoc had stayed out of it so far, watching her fight with smiling pale eyes, but when he struck it was the same way he always did.
He waited until the hollows that’d run into each other spread out into a half circle, this time the spearmen keeping careful distance from each other, and when they struck he slid past them – after tripping a spearman into her without batting an eye. She sliced open the spearman’s throat without hesitattion and kicked him back into Tupoc, but the Aztlan was too quick. He danced around the corpse, his strange segmented spear feinting for her throat and scoring a mark against her cheek when she was forced to parry. She saw the sword move from the corner of her eye and knelt, slicing through the back of the hollow’s right knee and pushing him over the edge while he screamed.
Four now, she was near the right amount. The only trouble was that handling Tupoc in a fight was like kissing a viper, a truth the Aztlan kept fresh by forcing her to throw herself to the side to avoid being impaled. She slashed at the closest hollow’s ankles to force her to keep back, but Tupoc smashed the middle of her back with the butt of his spear and she let out a hiss of pain. Rolling over she slashed his way, letting him dance back, and/
The hollow rammed the spear through the back of her right knee, ripping a scream from her throat
/stepped to the right, letting out a scream as her veins burned. Her muscles spasmed, her heart beat wildly and Angharad thought that if she glimpsed even once more today her veins would fill with smoke. She had used the Fisher’s gift all too much. The hollow that’d almost impaled her took advantage of her span of weakness, striking her in the belly with the side of his spear, but Angharad took the hit and grabbed the shaft. Grunting with effort, feet spread wide, she forced the man into Tupoc’s path – who pushed him off the ledge without pause – and threw the spear in the legs of the hollow coming from her side. She needed space, just a little more space, to get to the right place.
Gritting her teeth, she rushed the hollow she’d just thrown the spear at and hacked at his face. Only it was hasty blow, awkwardly placed, and his parry caught it clean. It held her in place just long enough for another warrior to narrowly land a blow against her head, cutting through braids and scalp before she rammed her saber through his wide-open guard and plunged it through his eye. Withdrawing, blood dripping down her face, she fled into the space she had made just as Tupoc came for her. This was never a fight she was going to win, no matter how many times she tried, and if she even won too much of it the result would be her death.
If they hated her too much, they would make sure she was dead.
Just as her backfoot slid past a trail of wildflowers, Angharad stepped closer to the ledge and parried Tupoc’s thrust. He redirected it to hit the side of her knee, but she came even closer to the edge and the Aztlan saw his opening. Pivoting so he was facing her with the cliff behind her, he twirled his spear. The trick had killed her, the first time he pulled it out. Now she could only hope she had read it right because everything depended on it. The first feint was at her right shoulder and she ignored it, preparing to catch the blow to her belly instead – that she made to parry, only to overextend and…
The spearhead ripped up and down, through her bag and shallowly on the flesh beneath.
Angharad fled the steel, stumbling back one step and then another, only to find herself leaning back at the very edge of the cliff. Tupoc’s eyes widened as she began to lose her balance, and the last saw thing she saw before toppling over the edge was the smile on his too-perfect face while he gave her a textbook-perfect duellist’s salute.
She had exactly two heartbeats to live.
The first was spent snatching the hook at the end of the rope – which she could not take out herself, they’d look for her, the bag had to be cut open so she could do it in time – and strike forward with it. Just in time for the iron hooks to sink deep into the dead tree just over the edge, her sweat-drenched fingers slipping as she desperately held on to the rope burning her hands. She smacked into the cliffside, not hard enough to fall but hard enough it jolted her spine and she had to swallow a scream of pain. Her arms burned but she held, no matter the pain she held. Below, clattering down against the rock, fell two things: the pack she no longer cared for and the saber her father had ordered made for her. She needed both hands for the rope, she’d tried it.
Surviving in honour had a price, the Fisher had not lied about that.
Folded under the log, Angharad kept her mouth shut as one of the hollows came to have a look over the edge and cursed. He yelled something back at the others in a language she did not know, stepping away, and when Tupoc came to have his look he said not a word. The one time she had killed seven, the cultists had hated her enough to look closely: they’d seen the hooks in the log and pushed it down with their spears.
“I told you she was not going to be one of the easy ones, Bishop Rholes,” Tupoc drawled in Antigua. “You should have listened.”
“You told me much, but I now question the worth of your word,” a man replied in the same tongue, heavily accented.
It was the old hollow’s voice, she recognized, the one who she thought might be a priest. Bishop must be some kind of darkling title. Angharad held on tight to the rope, pressing herself against the cliff of the crag. Already her arms ached from having borne her entire weight and more during the fall, but to loosen her grip was to die. Sweat pricked against her palms, the rough hemp of the rope helping none, and she desperately looked for an outcropping to rest her feet on. This was the farthest she had ever got with foresight, beyond this she was blind.
“How so?” Tupoc asked as he stepped away, sounding genuinely curious.
“We bargained for four,” Rholes coldly said. “You have not delivered four, Leopard Man.”
“I promised you opportunities, Bishop,” Tupoc replied. “Not birds in hand. If you could not catch as many as you wanted, that is your failure and not mine.”
Sleeping God, was she going to die here because her arms were too weak? There was nothing to hold onto, only a cliff rippling down to where her broken corpse would lie. Her boots slid against the stone and she fought down a rising panic, pulling herself up as she ignored the burn rising in her arms. That was when she saw it – not below her, but to the side. The skeletal dried remains of a bush, jutting out of the crag’s side. It was to her left and she had to wiggle to the side of the stump, dread turning her limbs to lead, then pull herself up so she could rest her foot against the stump. It was higher and now her head was slightly over the edge, so-
The dead bush gave, the old wood snapping, and she fell down half a foot as she bit down on a scream until her lip bled. She was slipping, her fingers clawing at stone, and though she still held the rope the hooks at the end of it had come half-loose from the stump. She slammed her chin into the crag’s ground, ignoring the pain as she tried to slow the slide. If she fell, if she fell… Her boot hit the bottom of the bush, a part that did not give for it was wedged into stone, and her slide came to a halt. Angharad felt like weeping with relief, but she could not.
Tough her face was half-hidden by a clump of wildflowers, through them she could see Tupoc Xical and his footpads standing with the warband of hollows. If she made too much noise, they would find out she still lived.
“- so go pick up her corpse at the bottom of the cliff,” Tupoc dismissed. “Do you expect me to roast the flesh and pour your wine as well, Rholes?”
“The god cares nothing for the flesh of the dead,” Bishop Rholes bit out. “It is the living that make worthy sacrifices.”
“If you expect resurrection of me,” the Aztlan drawled, “I can only applaud your optimism, my friend.”
Lady Acanthe let out a snigger, then hid it behind a hand when the bishop turned to glare at her. More warriors had come through the woods, bringing their numbers up to a dozen, and that was a great many more than Tupoc and his traitors. Angharad saw the anger on their pale faces, the way they bristled at the disrespect their priest was being shown, and wondered what the Aztlan’s game was. Did he really think he could win if it came to a fight?
“Four taken, four allowed through,” Rholes insisted. “If you do not live up to your end of the bargain, why should we?”
The largest of the two Aztlan, Ocotlan, leaned forward with an ugly grin as he hefted his large hammer over his shoulder.
“You don’t want anything to do with that scrap, hollow,” he said. “Believe me.”
One of the hollows, wearing a shirt of iron mail, spat to the side and came to stand by his priest with his hand on his sword.
“Let us fight them, lord,” he said. “We will take them all to the temple, I swear it. Their disrespect demands punishment.”
Tupoc’s footpads stirred in unease, for the hollows were reaching for their arms. Swords and spears and axes, even two crossbows. However skilled a warrior, numbers were not something easily challenged,
“He won’t do that,” the eerie Aztlan smiled, raising his right wrist. “Will you, Bishop?”
On it was small bracelet of beads, black stones sculpted in the Aztlan style. Angharad’s gaze dipped to Bishop Rholes, who was rubbing an identical bracelet worn on his left wrist. The old hollow’s face was considering, and after pulling away from the bracelet he tugged at his white beard.
“I think,” Bishop Rholes slowly said, “that two is not enough. That you are short enough of the oath that I will be afforded enough room.”
Tupoc’s face was a smiling mask, but some with him were easier to read.
“He might be right,” Leander Galatas nervously said. “If he tries to take us prisoner instead of kill us, he might not forfeit his heart.”
His leader, the traitor of traitors, eyed him with dislike. A glance was enough to have the gaunt man flinching back, reaching for the arm he’d lost on the Bluebell before proving himself a man without honour.
“You would take such a risk out of petty spite?” Tupoc lightly said. “I do not think you so careless, Rholes.”
“Two,” the bishop flatly repeated, “is not enough. I already took a risk on this bargain, Leopard Man. I will not return to my god with such petty offerings.”
“That is troubling,” Tupoc replied.
He hummed, prowling back and forth like the great cat after which his society had been named. His gaze swept around, thoughtful, and for a terrifying heartbeat Angharad thought he had seen her through the flowers. But his gaze moved on and lingered on the hollows, as if measuring them, before he let out a sigh.
“Very well,” he said, and struck Leander Galatas in the belly.
The sailor gasped in pain, bending forward, and before he could so much as trace a Sign the Aztlan grabbed him by the head and smashed it into his knee. Galatas dropped to the ground in a sprawl, bloody-faced and unconscious. Tupoc took a step back, ignoring the horrified look Acanthe Phos was shooting him just as much as Ocotlan’s mocking chuckle.
“Three for three, then,” Tupoc offered the bishop. “That should sate your god and our terms both.”
Bishop Rholes laughed.
“A true son of the Radiance,” he said. “Not a speck of loyalty in you.”
Tupoc arched a too-prefect brow, as if to ask him to get on with it.
“The bargain holds,” Rholes conceded. “You may reach the sanctuary under blessing of peace.”
Neither side was eager to remain after that, the cultists taking their wounded and their fresh sacrifice before heading south. The search for Cozme and Augusto, she saw, had been called off: the warriors that’d gone after them returned empty-handed, following their brethren south. Tupoc and his remaining helpers began heading north after they went, towards the road that would lead to sanctuary. Only the Aztlan begged off leaving immediately, telling them to go ahead, and he headed towards the edge of the cliff the moment they entered the woods. Panic rising, Angharad lowered herself past the edge of the cliff. Even if she fought him and win, the noise was sure to bring back hollows. If he found her, she was dead.
Not even ten heartbeats later pale eyes looked down at her from over the ledge, taking in her situation with nothing but amusement.
“I told you,” Tupoc Xical conversationally said, “that you would regret not coming with me.”
“Damn you,” Angharad hissed. “Damn you for this and for all-”
The Aztlan reached down, pressing the butt of his spear against her forehead, and she swallowed her anger. Drops of cold sweat ran down her back. All he needed to do was push and down she went.
“That’s better,” Tupoc smiled.
He suddenly burst forward, and though it took all she had Angharad did not allow herself to flinch. And that was all he’d sought, she realized a heartbeat later, for her to flinch: the spear had not moved so much as a hair’s breadth. Those unnatural pale eyes had watched her all the while and finally the Aztlan nodded.
“You are a delight,” Tupoc Xical said with satisfaction, drawing back. “I look forward to working with you in the second trial, Lady Tredegar.
The spear withdrew and the monster offered her a salute with it.
“Until then, a good day to you.”
And just like that, he left. From her sight first, then disappearing into the woods where the others had gone. Angharad, breathing shallow, dragged herself over the edge. There she lay in the dirt, sweaty and bloody and caked in filth. Her body burned, but not half as much as the indignation in her belly.
Swallowing the scream in her throat, Angharad Tredegar pushed herself up to her feet and began her walk to the Trial of Ruins.