Summer had been and gone, Autumn rains had muddied the fields for the last week, and now Winter was threatening a long, long stay in the village of Hesard's Ford.
The Inn was busier than Mylo had seen for several months. Trading caravans had been sparse during the Summer, unsurprising, given the rumours of war in the southlands, and only the weekly market in the village had kept the Inn running. But earlier today, a three wagon caravan had arrived in Hesard's Ford and caused such a stir that gossip was rife.
The caravan was bound for the city and had been attacked by Orc raiders only two days travel from Hesard's Ford. Two days! That sort of violence had been unheard of for nearly ten years. The Orc settlements in the foothills of the mountains had been relatively peaceful, occasionally trading iron ore at Hesard's Ford market. To be fair, these visits had resulted in several extreme bar-brawls and two deaths but nothing otherwise unexpected.
Mylo had stabled the caravan's horses and cleaned the mud- and sweat-slicked coats. As the wagons had been parked outside the Inn, he had noticed where arrows and crossbow bolts has struck the wooden sides and later been prised from the wood. And was that a blood stain on the rear boards? The boy shuddered.
Now that night had drawn in the Inn was heaving with villagers and the dozen newly-arrived guests. Mylo was taking a breather after his first stint of the night. He had been running back and forth between the bar, the kitchen and the common room, bringing hot meals, fuel for the roaring fire and flagons of dark local ale. He leaned back against the bar and turned to Kally, one of the girls who had arrived with the caravan. Her pale face, framed with raven curls, and her eyes a deep sapphire blue marked her as an Imerian, one of the northern countries.
Mylo played the bewildered country bumpkin. “What brings you here at this time of the year? You're a long way from home.”
Kally flicked a glance towards the hearth where several of the caravan were seated, surrounded by villagers. A middle aged man, his hair grey and his face florid from the heat and ale, was regaling the audience with the story of the journey and the horrific Orc attack. “That's my father,” she said. “This run from Kalinan to Avanti is the last of the year. We left Kalinan with ten wagons loaded with bolts of silk, worth a fortune at home, and enough guards to keep us safe.” The girl paused and looked down at her feet. Orc battlecries echoed through her head as she recalled the attack. “At least we thought they would keep us safe.”
Mylo knew what an Orc attack could do. He remembered cowering in the woodshed of his parents' farm, the ruins of which were about half a day's travel from Hesard's Ford, trying not to cry as he saw his father, mother and three farmhands slaughtered by two dozen Orcs. That's not something a six year old boy should have seen.
“They didn't give us a chance,” Kally continued in a small voice. “They attacked from ambush. Our guards fought back, of course. I saw two of the raiders fall but for each Orc killed it seemed five of our men, good Imerian soldiers each of them, died. The sergeant lashed the horses of my wagon and drove them away from the fighting. It took me over an hour to get the team back under control. By then I was miles away from the battle and couldn't find my way back to help our men.”
Mylo stifled the thoughts he had been entertaining about Kally. She would have been another notch in the beam of the stable's hayloft but not now. He noticed lines of grief around Kally's eyes, lines which a sixteen year old girl – young woman, now, he corrected himself – should not have possessed. “What did they look like?” he asked. “The Orcs, I mean.”
Kally looked Mylo in the eyes. He had an open, honest face, a mop of fair hair and, she admitted, a cute smile. “They were Orcs, savages. I've seen an Orc trading delegation in Avanti before. They were heavily armed and armoured, which is against the law in our city. We relaxed the rules to allow them to trade the iron and copper they had mined. But even they were known to have a very hot temper.” She looked away, back towards her father.
“The raiders,” Mylo prompted gently.
Kally thought back, overcoming her reluctance to remember the worst. “They wore blackened steel plate armour and were armed with the cruellest-looking swords I've ever seen. Weapons with a serrated edge so sharp it cut through our soldiers chainmail like it was silk.” Details swam through her head now. “Their shields had spikes instead of a central boss and were blazoned with what looked like a ravenning wolf's head.”
They're not local, thought Mylo. The Orc towns and mining sites within a week's travel of Hesard's Ford had nothing the Human population would recognise as an army nor even formal garrisons. They were, at best, militia, at worst, the kind of cutthroats that had destroyed his parents' farm. But what could he do? Mylo himself was only sixteen, barely a man and certainly not the hero or dedicated soldier who could have tracked and destroyed the Orcs.
“Hey, Boy,” said a soft voice which interrupted Mylo's train of thought. He looked up into Kally's smiling face, a hint of mischief in her eyes. “Tell me,” she said. “Why do they call you that? You've been running around all night and all I've heard them call you is Boy. Even my own people have taken to calling you that. You haven't even told me your name.”
“Mylo,” he replied hesitantly. “It's Mylo.” He looked into Kally's deep blue eyes. The girl was serious, now, with no hint of the taunting and teasing the men around the fire usually showed. “I've been here since I was six. The boss took me under his wing. No-one really cared what my name was. They'd shout Boy and I'd come running. I carried this, cleaned that, served the food, fixed what was broken. I got used to being called Boy. Just Boy.” He finished with a shrug and half-heartedly looked around the common room to see if any of the customers needed fresh drinks or a slab of roast meat.
Kally's next question was drowned out in the uproar from around the fire.
“Hey, Boy!” one of the village men shouted. “We're dicing over here. Get these tables cleared!”
Four tables were arranged in a square and stout boards placed around the edges to prevent the dice bouncing onto the floor. Wagers were laid on a side table, jealously guarded by the Boss, innkeeper, sometime impartial referee, ex-thief and occasional mentor to Mylo, Davidov Jermays.
The game had lasted an hour. Now only three players remained. A villager named Hetza, a merchant Jefber Rebec of Imer who had arrived with the battle-scarred caravan, and Mylo, the inn's errand boy and servant.
Mylo had won a few rounds and had built up his funds from a few coppers to several silvers. He couldn't match the gold coins he had seen Rebec throw into the pot but the boy knew Hetza was onto his last few pennies and the village's laziest carpenter wouldn't last the next round.
He was right. Hetza rolled snake-eyes and stormed out of the inn to the howls of laughter from the assembled as Jermays greedily counted the loser's coins.
“Well, gents,” the innkeeper said to the remaining players. “Shall we play one last round? Winner takes all?”
“Less the cut the Boss takes!” yelled some wag from the crowd.
Jermays feigned wounded pride. “I'll have you know, Mack Taft, I only take what's due to the House.” The ex-thief lowered his voice, but still everyone could hear: “plus an exta ten percent.”
More uproarious laughter followed this comment.“Gentlemen?” said the thief.
Rebec looked at the pile of coins on the side table. For these villagers, such a sum would be almost princely, certainly it would take the work of several years to amass so much money. For him, though, the money was not important. He was playing against the upstart Boy brat, who he had seen romancing young Kally, a fine girl with a good and rich family. She was even clinging to the Boy's arm as the commoner thought over his choice. The Boy should be taught a lesson not to go above his station.
“I will take that challenge,” said the merchant. “Boy?”
Mylo counted the coins in his hand and looked at the pile on the Boss's table. Even less Jermays' cut, that money would set Mylo on a different path, one which would take him away from Hesard's Ford. “Alright, Boss.”
“Lay your stakes, then.”
Mylo placed the last of his coins on the table. Rebec matched it with two Imerian gold crowns, raising a gasp from the crowd.
The dice were tossed. Mylo made a spirited throw, the bone-carved cubes bouncing and clattering across the table. His throw was good but not unbeatable.
Mylo watched intently as Rebec took up the dice and cast a critical eye across the table. He could see where the joined tables were scratched and pitted, each blemish on the surface making the fall of the dice riskier. Rebec could beat the Boy's throw on a good table and with a practiced flick of the wrist. But not here.
“I've played on better, smoother tables, landlord,” the merchant said.
“It's been a fair old game so far, sir,” replied the innkeeper. “If you don't like the table, you can forfeit to the Boy and cut your losses.”
Rebec smiled as two dice fell gently from the cuff of his jacket into the palm of his hand. He used the momentary distraction to employ his own dice. “You are right, of course, landlord.”
He tossed the dice and they came up doubles! Rebec had won. The crowd erupted into a storm of laughter, claps and cheers.
Mylo's heart sank into his boots. His dreams of a life away from Hesard's Ford evaporated. Even the warmth of Kally's hand as she gripped his arm tightly meant little to him as he realised the truth. Rebec had won.
“Double or quits!” Kally's high, clear voice rang out over the tumult of the crowd.
“What?” the Boss shouted.
“Double or quits,” Kally repeated firmly as the crowd became subdued. “Common gambling like this is beneath a man of your station, Mr. Rebec, and Alora knows it's beneath mine, too. But I know the rules. I watched our men playing these dice games around our campfires.” She paused as looks of guilt seeped over the faces of the Imerians. “I saw one man win back all his losses with this stupid rule.”
“But I have nothing to double, Kally,” Mylo protested. “Mr. Rebec cleaned me out.” His eyes widened as he watched Kally remove a ring from her right little finger.
She held up a silver ring, set with two sapphires, each as blue as her eyes. “Pure Imerian silver,” she said, “and set with sapphires from south of the Sea of Rhyn. I shall loan this to you, Mylo, to play double or quits against Mr. Rebec.”
“You can't do that, Kally!” her father roared from behind her. “That ring is priceless, girl. Think of what you are doing.”
“I have thought, Father,” Kally replied. “This ring is mine. I bargained for this ring and bought it for an extremely good price. You know I did because you were there, when I was nine years old. And you still remember the look of defeat on the jeweller's face when I bargained his price down.” The girl paused and watched her father's face change from clouded anger, to pride in his daughter. “I know the law as it stands in our land. This ring is mine and I can do with it whatever I please.”
Mylo looked from the ring to Kally's eyes. “And what if I lose? What do I lose then? It's not as if I have anything else to trade. If the ring goes, everything goes.”
Kally straightened. “Then you lose your freedom, Mylo. You will take a year of indentured service to me and my family. That is the law of our land, if not yours, for those who default on debts.” She dropped the ring into Mylo's open palm. “Win it back for me, Mylo,” she whispered.
Rebec looked at the ring and his mouth was suddenly dry. It was a thing of beauty which would have fitted the younger Kally's index finger when she was nine and now perfectly fit her little finger. He realised that nothing he had would exceed the value of that ring. Rebec reached for his dice.
“You first, sir,” said Mylo with a confidence he did not feel.
Rebec tossed the dice. On a normal, flat table, his loaded dice would have come up doubles but as one landed true, the second bounced out of a knife cut on the surface and turned up a one. His score was still fair, however, and would take some luck for the Boy to beat.
“May I?” Mylo borrowed the accent and manners of Kally as he asked to use Mr. Rebec's dice for his throw. He saw Rebec flinch nervously and knew the man had cheated in the last round. Only Kally's recklessness had given him a second chance to beat this cheat.
Rebec saw he was trapped. He could not refuse the Boy at this point. To do so would arouse suspicion and perhaps even inspection of his loaded dice. If that happened he would surely be caught. He handed the cubes to the Boy.
Mylo weighed the dice in his right hand, then deftly tossed them to his left. As they clicked together, he knew. One of the dice was weighted on one face. That was enough. He cast his gaze over the table and spotted the bumps and grooves he wanted. With the correct speed and spin ...
Kally held her breath. She liked Mylo, she really did. But she knew that what she had done, while legal in her own country, was almost unconscionably stupid. If he lost this throw, her most prized possession would fall into Rebec's slimy fingers and with it, her pride, her father's respect. She closed her eyes as Mylo flicked his wrist and sent the dice tumbling across the table.
The dice ricocheted around the table, bouncing off the sides and off the grooves Mylo had aimed at. Double sixes landed face up.
“The Winner!” roared the Boss. The crowd broke into thunderous applause.
Gutteral shouts. Orders, perhaps?
A love dying, battered and bleeding in what had been a home.
The silent sobs of a young boy fading away as cold steel pierced a beating heart.
The old woman was shocked to wakefulness and sat upright in bed, the pain in her back for once masked by the sensation of a knife in her heart. Goodwife Agnes Bamber drew a shuddering breath and tried in vain to clear the nightmare from her mind. The memory of it was too sharp, like the knife, and Agnes choked back a sob.
As her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness of her room she noted, as ever, the emptiness of the bed beside her. Nearly twenty years had passed since her husband had passed away, taken to the eternal sleep by a wasting disease that had nearly claimed her too. And in all that time no other man had shared her bed and not once had she slept anywhere other than on her side of the straw and feather-stuffed mattress.
Her breath clouded in front of her face. Of course, Winter was drawing in but the room was colder than it should have been, even at this time of year.
“Is anyone there?” she whispered, hoarsely.
A breeze that was no breeze circled the room and Agnes could follow it with her eyes as it left a trail of silver sparks over the roughly plastered walls. Then it was gone, shaking the shutters of the room's small window as it passed and vanished into the night.
Agnes threw off the covers and hauled herself out of bed. Her joints creaked in protest and pain pulsed through her knees. back and hips. She cursed vehemently as she staggered from her bed chamber into the cottage's main room. Here, at least, there was a trace of warmth left from the hearth and she could see a faint glow from the remnants of the evening's fire. Agnes knelt before the fire, more curses from the pains in her knees, and gently blew on the embers to bring the fire back to life. She added more wood and a few nuggets of coal to the flames and let the warmth soothe the pain from her bones.
After a while, Agnes rose to her feet and walked stiffly to the cupboard. From this she took a small rosewood box, its golden grain showing against the deep red of the wood. The box opened with a tiny click and Agnes took out a silk-wrapped object about the size of her fist and set this on the table. With shaking fingers, Agnes slid away the silk and revealed a jagged shard of quartz. The firelight caught its facets and the veins which spread through the crystal, staining them a deep, glowing orange. This was a small object of great value and even greater beauty.
As she had been taught by her mother, and her mother's mother, Agnes sought to clear her thoughts and concentrate on the crystal. Normally this would be easy for her but, after the shock of the nightmare, Agnes had great difficulty calming her thoughts enough to see clearly into the crystal shard. What she saw was at once hopeful and deeply disturbing. A boy and a girl were riding through the woods, she perched in front of him, and they seemed to be laughing and chatting happily, although she could not hear them. This was the limitation of her gift.
Agnes looked more closely at the image. Stormclouds were gathering over the woods and night was falling. Snow cascaded from the skies. Then the girl seemed to scream and the vision shattered into a thousand glittering fragments.
She sat back, her breaths short and hard. Such visions were rarely gentle on her and Agnes had to struggle to compose herself.
The boy. She recognised the boy from her vision in the crystal. Mylo. Mylo Sandine.
And then she knew without a doubt who had visited her in her room. There could be only one other woman who had died with a knife in her heart.
Kally woke late the following morning. The other two girls from the caravan who had shared the room had already risen and left her alone. She rose and dressed quickly to ward off the cold which had seeped into the Inn the night before.
She walked down the stairs to the common room and glanced around, disappointed when she could not see Mylo. Two of her countrymen, one of them a soldier and both wounded in the fight, were taking a late breakfast.
“Where is my father this morning?” she asked.
The soldier looked up and winced as his wounded shoulder stiffened. “He went to check the wagons, Miss. One of them was badly damaged and will need repairs before we can move on.”
“If we even can move on,” put in the other man. “The ground's frozen hard as iron and, from what the innkeeper said, the first snow of Winter has arrived a month early.”
“He's right,” said the landlord, Davidov, as he returned from the cellar. “We didn't have much snow last night, just an inch or so, but the last time we had snow this early, Winter lasted almost five months.”
There were groans of despair from the two Imerians, accompanied by a most unladylike rumble from Kally's stomach. “Oh! Excuse me, gentlemen,” she said, as the warm blush of embarrassment coloured her cheeks. Then she giggled and the men joined in with the laughter. “I don't suppose there's any chance of some breakfast?”
Davidov pointed through to the kitchen. “You'll find some bread and cheese in there, Miss. But don't expect the Boy to make it for you.” He had noticed the two of them together the previous night. That little rascal could be like a rat up a drainpipe.
“Thank you, Mr. Jermays,” Kally said, at her politest again after the earlier embarrassment. As she set off towards the kitchen, she turned and said, “By the way, where is Mylo this morning?” The look of confusion on Jermays' face at her use of Mylo's name, rather than the condescending Boy, angered the young woman but, as ever, she held her emotion in check. It was not ladylike to show anger. Or so her Mother and tutors had told her.
“Oh! You mean the Boy,” the landlord said after a moment's thought. “He's in the stable and he should be tending to the horses. Unless the lazy little so-and-so is napping in the hayloft!”
Kally laid a wooden platter with apples, bread, cheese and the rich local butter. She walked gingerly across the Inn's courtyard, stepping around the frozen puddles and horse dung. The court was dusted with snow and she could see inch-high piles of snow on the gateposts. The cold cut into her bones and she pulled the heavy riding cloak tighter about her.
As she approached the stables she heard the grunt of effort and the heavy thud as a hay bale hit the floor. The young woman peered through a gap in the doors and she saw Mylo cut the twine bindings of the bale and begin spreading the fresh, clean straw across the stable floor. She watched for a few moments as Mylo led the horse back into the stall he had just cleaned. He clicked his fingers and a carrot appeared in his left hand.
“There now,” Mylo said as he fed the carrot to the horse and scratched the animal behind its ear. He shut the door of the stall and moved down the passage to the next stall. Three down and one to go, he thought. But he was suddenly startled by a knock on the stable door.
Kally's voice! Mylo's heart soared. He saw the girl squeeze through the door and push it closed in an attempt to block out some of the cold.
Mylo up-ended a barrel for use as a table. Hay bales formed their chairs. They chatted and laughed over their meal. It was Kally's act of simple kindness that moved Mylo.
“How did you do that trick with the carrot?” Kally asked. “I saw you snap your fingers and it just appeared.”
“The Boss taught me,” Mylo answered. When Kally's eyes widened in interest, he demonstrated. “It's all in the wrist.” He reached out and pulled a slice of apple from behind Kally's ear. The girl giggled delightedly. “Of course, if you want to do it with something bigger, you need to distract whoever might be watching.”
At that, he held up his right hand, fingers spread and Kally, expecting him to produce something from thin air, watched as he clenched his fist. In that split second, with his left hand, Mylo flashed the Imerian gold crown he had won the previous night in front of her eyes and a heartbeat later the coin disappeared to reappear when he unclenched his right fist.
Kally gasped and clapped in delight. As their laughter subsided, she thought and said, “You won two of those coins last night. Didn't you just swap one for the other?”
“Not at all,” said Mylo, quite modestly, as he lifted Kally's right hand from the wooden platter and revealed the second of his hard-won gold pieces.
“Marvellous,” Kally said with feeling. She had seen such stage trickery before but never so close and she was left amazed.“Why don't we go for a ride this afternoon?” she suggested. Mylo looked doubtful. “If your boss is right about the weather, this might be the last chance we get before Spring arrives.”
Hope replaced doubt in the young man's eyes. “You mean you'll be staying until Spring?” Mylo asked.
“One of our wagons needs repairs and that will take days. If the snow comes on heavier than last night we could well be here until then.” Kally smiled when she saw the look on Mylo's face. “I'll get ready, and see you back here in half an hour.”
They took only the shire that had drawn Kally's own wagon on the day the caravan had arrived. Mylo had insisted on this as the remaining horses had to be left in case there was heavy work to do in the village that day.
Mylo took the saddle and Kally sat side-saddle in front. Despite the cold, Kally savoured the warmth of her fur-lined riding cloak and, more importantly, Mylo's arms about her as he held the reins.
They took a course west of the village towards the ruins of Mylo's old farm. This was somewhere he hadn't been in ten years but he felt ready to face up to the memory. Kally had been honest when she described the Orc attack and now Mylo thought he should repay that honesty with some of his own.
“Where are we going, Mylo?”
“Home,” he replied, firmly. “Sort of.”
They crested the rise and saw the ruins of the farm.
“What is this place? What happened here?”
“It's my parents farm,” Mylo said. He pointed in the direction of the main farm house. “That's where I was born. My dad said that my mother's screams could be heard in the next valley.” He nudged the horse down the rise, through where the gate should have been and drew to a halt in the yard. Mylo slid from the saddle and helped Kally to the ground.
The girl stood looking around at the devastation. “The landlord took you in when you were six,” she said quietly. “This happened ten years ago?” Mylo nodded. Even ten years of natural regrowth and weather damage had not blunted the edges from the destruction she could see. And was that a blood stain on the remains of a wall?
“They came out of the north, just beyond those trees,” Mylo began. “Two dozen Orcs against five adults. And me.”
It all came in a rush, then, and Mylo couldn't stop it.
“My mother pushed me into the woodshed which used to be over there. Then she left me so the Orcs wouldn't suspect she had hidden something there. I saw our three farmhands die back to back. The biggest weapons we had were hatchets and were no match for the Orcs with swords, axes and clubs almost as long as you are tall. Dad was bludgeoned to the ground and smashed to pulp, it seemed. And my mother, well, I think she was smart enough to take her own life before the Orcs had a chance to brutalise her.”
“Sweet Lady Alora,” Kally whispered, her breath forming a cloud in front of her face as she invoked the name of her homeland's matron goddess.
“So, you see, I know how you feel,” Mylo managed, his voice hoarse as he stifled the tears. “At least your men took some of the raiders down with them. My folk never had a chance.”
Kally walked the short distance to Mylo and reached out to take his hand. He flinched at her touch and looked up into her eyes.
“You know the worst of it? I couldn't do a bloody thing to help. They died as I watched and cried silent tears.”
Kally hugged Mylo and this time he did not flinch away from her touch. She felt the silent sobs wrack his body.
“I was a coward, Kally. I still am.”
“You were not a coward, Mylo. A six year old boy could have done nothing against those savages. Even our trained soldiers lost. And you're no coward now because coming back here was the bravest thing you could have done.”
Mylo straightened and reluctantly withdrew from the warmth of Kally's embrace. He looked the girl in the eyes and saw nothing but sympathy and a shared pain.
The silence between the two was broken by a long groan which broke off into a racking cough. Mylo was shocked out of his grief and firmly pushed Kally behind him. He drew the knife he had been using in the stables earlier that day. This, together with a slingshot Mylo occasionally used to bring down wood pigeons and pheasants, comprised the only weapons he had brought to protect Kally and himself.
Mylo looked back at Kally. “Stay put,” he mouthed and pointed at the ground at the girl's feet. Then he turned and walked towards the ruins of the farmhouse.
Kally reached up and took the horse's reins but she was damned if she would flee and leave Mylo in danger. Fear clouded her mind and threatened to send her to the ground in a dead faint. But such emotions were not ladylike, her mother and tutors would have scolded, and she would not surrender to that fear. Instead she concentrated on Mylo and marvelled at the softness of his footfalls and the all-but silent progress he made towards the ruins.
Breathe slowly, Mylo reminded himself. Scan the ground ahead. Each step forward might be your last if you fuck this up, Boy. His boss's words, drummed into him through hours of training, echoed around Mylo's thoughts. He covered the distance with ease and noticed that the blood on the old wall was fresh, not ten years old. The red stain glistened in the dim light.
The moan sounded again, weaker this time. Mylo shot an angry glance back at Kally as he heard her gasp in shock. Then he remembered another of his boss's lessons: distraction could kill faster than carelessness. Mylo crouched lower and turned his attention back to the job in hand.
Ten feet. Five. Four.
Mylo could hear ragged breathing.
Mylo lay flat in the cold, ice-frosted mud and inched the last two feet.
A man lay in what once was the main living area of the old farmhouse. The man's pale complexion and raven hair told his nationality: he was Imerian, a countryman of Kally's. His chainmail was torn in several places and Mylo could see dried blood on his body through the rents in the armour. A sword lay unsheathed near his right hand and a loaded crossbow was on his chest, pointed towards the farmyard. The man's left hand grasped the crossbow's trigger and a simple clenching of his fist would shoot the bolt.
Mylo watched for another moment and could just discern that the man still breathed. Doubt flooded through the boy's mind. What should he do now? This was something his boss's training hadn't covered. Should he call for the man? Throw a rock in his direction and hope the distraction made him flinch and shoot the crossbow in a random direction. That would be a bad idea, reflected Mylo. A chance shot like that, made by the man in fear and desperation, could easily kill him or, worse yet, kill Kally, given the direction the crossbow was pointing.
“Hey!” Mylo whispered. There were no signs of a response from the man, so Mylo spoke a little more loudly. This time the man turned his head towards where Mylo was hidden. “Don't shoot,” he said firmly. “We're friends.”
The man half-smiled, then broke into a racking spasm of coughs again. Mylo bolted from his hiding place and ran to the fallen man. The coughing had wrenched the man's chest and blood was spreading slowly through a split in his mail.
“Kally!” Mylo shouted. “He's one of your men. Get over here now!”
Kally ran to Mylo's side. “Sergeant Astil!” the girl cried as she recognised the man who had lashed her horse away from the battle and, in doing so, had saved her life. Without a second thought, she removed her riding cloak and covered the Sergeant who was now shivering horribly. “Mylo, get the water canteen and saddle blanket from the horse,” she ordered in a firm, commanding voice. Politeness and manners were proper and ladylike, her mother and tutors would say, but sometimes even they took second place, and this was one of those times.
Mylo darted away and returned scant moments later. Kally had torn strips from her dress and was using them to stanch the Sergeant's bleeding. He handed her the water canteen and laid the blanket over the wounded man.
“Thank you,” Kally said, curtly, not all her manners forgotten, and she washed the blood from the wound before placing the dry strips torn from her dress over the jagged cut.
A weak smile formed on the Sergeant's lips. He mouthed a thanks before his eyes closed.
“Is he ...?” Mylo began, hesitantly.
“No,” Kally replied. “But I fear he's not far off. I'm not a physician, Mylo. He'll need better help than I can give him.” She paused. “We'll have to get him back to Hesard's Ford.”
Mylo looked doubtful. “Not a chance, Kally. Just putting him on the horse might reopen that chest wound and he'll bleed to death. Besides, it'll be dark soon and I wouldn't be surprised if we're knee deep in snow before midnight.”
“We have to try, Mylo,” insisted Kally. “This man saved my life and almost lost his.”
Mylo looked down at the Sergeant and thought. Kally could ride back to the village and bring back help. But she didn't know the area as well as he did and would surely get lost when night fell. He could make it to the village but there was no way he could leave Kally alone with darkness pressing in. That left one possibility.
“Goody Bamber,” he said. Kally raised a questioning eyebrow. “She's a herbalist and knows some medicine. Some say Goody Bamber is some sort of seer. I think she's a bit crazed but I know she soothed my mother's pains when she was giving birth to me.”
“A seer,” Kally said with some distaste. “My people might call her a witch.” Could she consign the Sergeant into the care of someone like that?
“Witch. Seer. Midwife. Or healer,” Mylo replied. “Call her what you will. I call her our only chance of saving the Sergeant's life.”
Kally knelt down by the soldier. “Sergeant Astil?” she said gently. “We're going to move you to a safer place. I'm sorry but this will be painful.”
Together, Mylo and Kally half carried, half dragged the soldier to the horse. With considerable effort, they sat him on the animal and tied him to the stirrups and saddle-bow.
“How long will this take?” Kally asked, her voice loaded with concern and fear.
Mylo turned back to the girl, carefully pointing the loaded crossbow away from her. “For you and I on foot, I'd say about an hour. Carrying the Sergeant like this, with stops to let you check the dressings, more like three hours.”
They had been walking for about an hour when night fell and the snow started falling. Kally, bereft of her cloak as it warmed Sergeant Astil, could feel the cold cutting harshly through her dress where she had ripped it to make bandages. She looked up as the Sergeant let out another groan. In a way, she thought, that was a good sign. At least he was feeling the pain of his wounds and that meant he was still alive. She brought the horse to a halt.
“Mylo, we need to stop. I have to check the bandages. I think he's bleeding again.”
Mylo, a few yards ahead, stopped and looked back. He watched Kally stand on tiptoes and try to clean the fresh blood from the man's chest wound. She was whispering something under her breath as she worked. Mylo could not hear what she said but thought he saw her lips form the word Alora.
The boy stiffened when he heard a noise behind him. A twig, snapping, perhaps? He spun on the spot and raised the crossbow. He strained his senses, trying desperately to pierce the gloom and discern what had made the noise. Nothing. Mylo cursed under his breath and the little party went on.
The attack came from out of the blackness. A hatchet flew from the trees and embedded itself in the trunk near Mylo's head. Two Orcs charged out of the undergrowth towards Mylo who stood rooted to the ground as firmly as the trees around him.
Kally's scream shocked Mylo from the paralysing fear. Without thinking he raised the crossbow and fired. The recoil from the unfamiliar weapon jarred his shoulder but the bolt flew true. It caught the first Orc in the throat, in the area where more civilised armourers would have crafted a gorget, and the creature fell face forward to the ground, its black blood staining the snow.
The second Orc was almost upon him. Mylo dropped the crossbow and dodged to the side as the Orc's cleaver-like sword flashed towards him. He heard the whoosh as the weapon narrowly missed taking him in the stomach. He tugged at the Sergeant's sword – which he had managed to hang from his belt – but the weapon wouldn't come free. He backed wildly, dodging this way and that, avoiding the cruel sword until he collided with a tree.
The impact knocked the breath from him and he looked dizzily up at the Orc as it aimed to skewer him to the tree trunk. Fortune smiled on Mylo, then, as he managed to drag his own sword from his belt and met the incoming Orc weapon with a parry that threatened to break his arms. A second blow fell, then a third and Mylo's defences weakened rapidly under the assault. In a panic, he dodged around the tree and ducked at the last second. The Orc's sword stuck into the tree trunk and the creature let out a gutteral howl of rage at being robbed of his easy kill.
Mylo swung the Sergeant's sword, two feet of razor sharp steel, an Imerian cavalryman's reserve weapon, at the Orc's chest and watched as the point skidded off the blackened steel breastplate. He cursed but the Orc's weapon was still lodged in the trunk. Mylo took his chance and drove the weapon at the Orc again. This time it found the gap beneath the breastplate and struck into the Orc's vitals. Hot black blood gouted over Mylo's hand and arm.
He wasn't sure but was that the Orc's death scream or Kally's panicked cry? The two sounds blended into one for a shocking few seconds until only the girl's clear voice remained. Mylo snapped back to his senses in time to see a third Orc closing on Kally. He realised he would not be able to cover the distance and save her in time. His crossbow was shot. That left his sling.
He loaded a shot and slung it towards the Orc as it approached Kally. The lead pellet bounced off the Orc's head and the creature reeled, concussed by the impact. With a yell of rage, fear and desperation, Mylo sprinted to the Orc and drove the sword into the creature's back. It fell, dead, at Kally's feet.
Mylo hammered his fist on the wooden door of the cottage. “Goody Bamber,” he cried. “Help us, please! We have a wounded man here and we need your help.”
Goody Bamber and Kally lowered the stricken soldier onto a straw pallet in front of the cottage's hearth. The old woman muttered choice curses under her breath as she stripped the remains of Sergeant Astil's mail from his torso.
“Girl, get clean cloths from the chest under the bed,” she said in a hoarse voice but one which carried an unmistakable air of command. It was the sort of voice Kally's mother and tutors had used and the girl obeyed without hesitation. “And Mylo Sandine, stop standing around looking so bloody useless and get the hot water from the hearth!”
Goodwife Agnes Bamber settled back into the wooden rocking chair her husband had made many years ago. She had spent over an hour tending the soldier's injuries and had laid on poultices made from her grandmother's recipes to draw the infection and poisons from the Orc weapons that had worsened the wounds. Her reward had been a faint smile from the soldier, who closed his eyes and slept in front of the fire.
Now, as she lit a clay pipe and drew heavily on the scented smoke, she looked over the children in front of her. Though thinking of them as children was wrong, reflected Agnes as they told their stories. Between them they had seen more violence in the last few days than she herself had seen or heard of since her husband had passed away before Mylo was born. The old woman remembered that day with some pride. While Mylo's mother had been a strong and healthy woman, the boy had been difficult since the moment he was conceived. The pregnancy was more difficult and the birth more arduous than any Goody Bamber had guided in all her years. She had kept half an eye on young Mylo in the years since and was proud that the boy had grown into such a smart young man. And this despite being raised by that dishonest buffoon Davidov Jermays.
The girl was a pretty young thing, though rather dishevelled after her ordeal in the woods and, of course, her selfless decision to rip strips from her dress to bandage the soldier's wounds. A decision that helped save the man's life. That dress would have cost a small fortune, even in the girl's home city. Out here in the wilds, it would have taken most women a year to buy that dress.
No wonder young Mylo kept glancing across at the girl. Yes. There's definitely something there, thought Goody Bamber. Perhaps she could help it along a bit? It wouldn't be the first time.
She was brought back to her senses when Mylo said, “I should ride back to the village tonight.” Kally gasped and Mylo looked over at her. “Your father needs to know you're safe and my people need to know there are raiders in the woods less than a day's march away.”
Kally wanted to scream at Mylo – he couldn't risk himself again, not for her! – but she forced herself to remain calm. “Mylo that's madness! How many Orcs could still be out there? You can't out-ride them all. It's pitch dark out there and there was already a foot of snow on the ground as we arrived here.” She paused and reached out to take his right hand which, despite his best efforts at washing, was still stained with Orc blood and Kally had to stifle a grimace as she gripped his hand. In a quieter voice, she said, “You've already been a hero once tonight. You don't need to do it again.” She finished in a whisper. “You've already proved you're no coward.”
Mylo floundered but still held tight to Kally's hand and looked at Goody Bamber. “Goody, tell her.”
Agnes chuckled and let out a stream of smoke. “She's right, lad. Wait 'til morning.” She noted the girl's look of smug satisfaction. “The Sun will drive some of them under cover during the day and you'll have a better chance of getting back home in one piece.”
“The quicker I can get back to the Ford, the quicker we can send men out to bring Kally, you and Sergeant Astil back to safety in the village.”
“And if you bring back a dozen armed men through the woods at night, you'll either get lost in the snow or you'll stir up any Orcs still in the forest.” Goody Bamber drew on her pipe again and exhaled before proceeding. “There'd be more than just black blood on the snow tonight, lad. And we wouldn't want any of the red to be yours.” Her piercing grey eyes locked on Mylo's but her voice was soft, almost mellow as she continued. “Kally's right, lad. Stay the night. Rest and things'll look better in the morn. I promise.”
The fight had almost left Mylo, he couldn't beat two strong-willed women who had ganged up on him like this, but he managed one last counter-attack. “But what if they find us here tonight?”
The old woman chuckled again. “They'll not find us. Not tonight, lad. Me and old man Bamber lived here nigh on fifty years and they never found us if they meant us any harm.” She rose to her feet, her knees creaking more loudly than the old wooden rocker, and tottered the short distance to Sergeant Astil's prone form. Artfully, Goody Bamber changed the subject as she checked the soldier's wounds. “Girl,” she muttered, “get clean bandages.”
Kally watched intently as Goody Bamber changed the soldier's dressings. She gasped and held her nose as the old woman peeled one of the bandages from his skin. “What's that stink?” she said through gritted teeth.
“The poison in the wound. Most likely from the Orc's sword. Evil bastards to use poison like this,” Agnes cursed. She folded the stinking bandage, a strip of dark blue velvet from Kally's dress, and hid the green slime of extracted filth from the girl's eyes before throwing the cloth onto the fire. Best to burn the whole thing than risk the poison spreading. “You did well, girl,” she said. “Cleaning the wound and keeping him warm on the ride here probably saved his life.”
Kally, rather shamefully, felt the glow of pride in her heart as she heard Goody Bamber's compliment. She looked around and snapped back to her senses. “Where's Mylo?” she asked.
Suddenly pride was replaced by searing guilt and a jolt of fear. Mylo had gone! Ignored all common sense and ridden back to Hesard's Ford. Kally bolted for the cottage door and flung it wide. The snow was falling harder now and she could barely see ten feet but she could just make out the faded, snow covered footprints heading in the direction of the lean-to where they had tethered the horse.
“Mylo!” she shouted, manners, politeness and her ladylike demeanour forgotten in an instant. “Where are you?” She headed out of the cottage towards the lean-to, calling Mylo's name as she ran.
Mylo looked back as Kally charged into the shack and collided with him. He caught her in both arms and barely managed to keep their balance.
“What's wrong?” he asked, quite innocently.
“We thought you'd gone back to the village!” Kally blurted. “You should have told us that you were going out!”
“I just wanted to check the horse,” Mylo managed, lamely. “He was in just as much danger as we were and that sort of thing can spook horses really badly.” Kally was slowly calming herself as he spoke. “It looked like you had your hands full with Goody Bamber, so I slipped out.” He gently raised Kally's chin and looked into her eyes. “I'm sorry.”
Relief crashed over Kally like an ocean wave. She could see in his eyes that he was not lying to her. “Don't disappear from me again,” she whispered.
Mylo gently held her chin and gazed down into her beautiful blue eyes. She bit her lower lip, nervously, as Mylo dipped his head a fraction closer. Closer. The tips of their noses touched. Closer. Kally closed her eyes.
“Girl, have you found him?” Goody Bamber's voice, even though muffled by the falling snow, carried its weight of authority and jerked Kally back from the brink of the kiss.
She pushed away from Mylo, blushing furiously, and managed to stammer “Y ... Yes! He's here.”
Goody Bamber watched the two walk back from the lean-to that had been her old man's work shed. She had overheard much of their conversation. Kally had lied, of course, in saying we and us. Agnes had not been worried that Mylo had vanished. The girl was simply hiding her affection for Mylo behind the older woman's grumpy nature. Now Kally was smiling as she cuddled closer to Mylo, their arms about each other on the short walk through the snow.
Mylo stamped his feet on the floor to shake loose the snow. Goody Bamber handed Kally a cloth to dry her hair, then the three settled again. Agnes served them each a bowl of hot stew and thick chunks of bread which they devoured hungrily.
Mylo leaned back with a happily full stomach and half dozed as the women talked. Perhaps Kally was right, he thought. He had done enough fighting for one day and arguing with Kally would be one pointless step too far.
“With the weather like this,” Kally said, “it could be months before my people can begin planning our homeward journey.” She tried, and failed, to conceal a glance towards Mylo. “Do you think Sergeant Astil might be well enough to travel, by then? I think he has a young wife at home.”
“The Lady Varna does seem to be settling in for a long stay,” Agnes replied. “But sometimes you never can tell.” She began to rise from her chair, intending to stoke the fire and add another log but Kally stood first.
“Here, let me do that,” she offered, and was pleased when Goody Bamber settled back into her rocker. As she stoked the fire, Kally spoke over her shoulder. Not the best of manners, she thought. but it wasn't as if she was in court or in the Merchant's Guildhall. “Who is Lady Varna?”
Goody Bamber chuckled. “It's one of the many names for Winter, my girl. All the seasons have girls names and the natures of women. Didn't you know that?”
Kally shook her head. “My countrymen don't hold with that sort of thing. And I was never taught it. But why give Winter a lady's name? Wouldn't something more manly be better?”
“Because Winter has a lady's temperament, Kally. She can be cold and aloof or unleash the worst storm in the blink of an eye. She can be beautiful, too. Have you ever seen the Sun shine off the snow or glisten off the ice? When the skies are bluer than your eyes, girl, Lady Varna shows her beauty.” Goody Bamber paused and realised that Kally was listening with rapt fascination. “But Lady Varna has secrets, too. Under the snow, snug in burrows, life sleeps away the winter. Lady Varna guards them all through the cold, just like we would guard a child in our womb, then lets them run free into the care of her daughter, Sil, when Spring arrives.”
“That's beautiful,” Kally whispered.
“It's really only the menfolk, leastways around here, that fear the Winter. They lose the chances to till their fields, their orchards are bare of fruit, their cattle might be starving if they haven't prepared enough fodder, and they hunker down in the Inns, hoping the milder weather gets here soon.” Goody Bamber lowered her voice. “Some of that's a good thing because it shows those men are thinking about feeding and warming their families. But the worst of them, Kally girl, fear the Winter because they can't move their bloody stupid armies around to bring menace to the lands and folk around them.”
Kally looked at Goody Bamber for a long moment. Would that some of the men in her land could listen to such plain-spoken advice, she thought.
Agnes could see her point had been made and Kally would pay attention to it. It might take years for the girl to act on her advice, but act she would. Satisfied, for now, Agnes stretched and winced at the creak in the small of her back. “Well, I'm for bed,” she said. “I'll bring blankets for you and Mylo and see you both in the morning.” She kicked Mylo's foot, nudging the boy awake. “Both of you, Mylo Sandine. No running away in the night like some damn-fool hero. You've done enough for one day, young man.”
Mylo looked crossly at Kally who was finding it hard to suppress her naughtiest smile. But it felt good to be thought of as a young man, not as Boy, even if he had had to kill to do it.
Goody Bamber checked Sergeant Astil's bandages one last time. Her poultices had done a lot of the work already and most of the poison had been drawn from the wounds. That was good. Now rest, warmth and good food would speed the natural healing and the soldier would be on the road to recovery in no time.
She handed Kally a bundle of thick woollen blankets. “Sleep well, the pair of you. Kally, if Sergeant Astil wakes in the night, you know what to do.” Kally nodded. The girl had well understood her lessons that night. Then she turned and looked sternly at Mylo. “And you, keep that,” Agnes looked pointedly at how Mylo had crossed his legs, “firmly buttoned up.”
They settled onto the low couch and smothered themselves in the blankets. Kally laid her head on Mylo's shoulder and sighed as his arm wrapped about her.
“I'm sorry, Kally,” Mylo murmured. She craned her neck and looked up with a questioning frown. “Goody Bamber was right, you know, when she warned me to keep it buttoned up.”
“Keep what ... ?” and then realisation dawned on Kally. “You mean? ... Oh.”
Mylo looked sheepishly away from her. Why? He had known a few of the girls in his village and not felt a shred of this embarrassment. He'd felt the bruises, of course, when one of the brothers had come after him, but even the dull aches in his ribs following that pounding had been gentle compared to the stab of guilt he was feeling now.
“You must think I'm a real shit,” Mylo said. “A country boy who can't think with his brain and uses something else instead.”
Kally sat back and crossed her arms over her stomach. She had moved away from Mylo and cold air seeped into the gap between them. “You're not the first man who has desired me that way, Mylo.” She chose her words carefully. Man, not boy. “I've overheard things at home. Conversations held behind closed doors. Suitors from noble houses and merchant families from Avanti and beyond come to treat with my father for my hand in marriage. Most of these men,” she spat that last word, “or their sons they wanted married off, I had never even met. And those I had met were truly odious.” Kally shivered as she remembered Jefber Rebec's drunken pass at her before they had left Kalinan.
“But that's just wrong,” Mylo said. “Wouldn't you have had a say in who you married? Or am I being stupid?”
“You're by no means stupid, Mylo. You're just missing the one thing most of those men wanted. They didn't want me, my love or my support as a dutiful wife and mother to their children. They wanted a share of my father's money.”
She took Mylo's hand and drew closer, tentatively cuddling up to him again. “If you're a simple country boy, just wanting a roll in the hay, then you're still better than them. At least you were honest about it. I'm a poor little rich girl, pampered, spoiled, and raised for nothing better than a loveless marriage founded on money.” She closed her eyes against the tears she could feel welling up.
Mylo felt the sobs shake Kally's body and tightened his arm around her. He had cried over the deaths of his parents and now she was crying in desperate sadness. Wealth, privilege and comfort were nothing to Kally, he knew, after the risk she had taken with her ring. “I'm proud of you, Kally.”
A choked gasp broke off her sobs and Kally looked up with crystal-bright tears blurring her vision.
“I'm proud of you,” Mylo repeated. “You could easily follow your father's plans, wed some rich old bastard or his half-wit son, and drown in gold dust. But you won't do that, Kally, because you're far too good a woman.” He dried her tears with a corner of the blanket. “Let's take Goody Bamber's advice. Things'll look better in the morning.” Mylo flashed his most mischievous grin. “And I promise I'll keep it buttoned up.”
Kally left Mylo asleep on the couch. She covered him more completely with the blanket and drew one of the others tightly about her shoulders. Aside from a gentle kiss goodnight on her forehead, Mylo had kept his promise.
Sergeant Astil had slept peacefully through the night. His breathing was shallow, but regular, and the lines of pain on his face had softened over night. Kally stepped as softly as she could, made her way to the hearth and stoked the fire. She winced when the rusty chains holding the kettle squeaked as she swung it over the flames but neither of the men seemed to have heard. Soon, the warmth was spreading through the room.
Kally looked through the cottage's small window. Her view was obscured by the fronds of hoar frost on the glass. The light from the fire caught the delicate patterns and Kally caught her first real sight of Lady Varna's beauty, frozen as it was on the glass. The young woman smiled, then, and realised how much Goody Bamber's lectures of the previous night had moved her. She watched as the Sun spread dim, watery light over the cottage's gardens. Well, Kally assumed they were gardens. The snow was knee deep at least and covered the ground in a glittering, white blanket.
How on earth would they get home? Hesard's Ford was half a day away, it may as well have been half the world! But still, another day spent with Mylo would be rather lovely, Kally thought. Then the shame arose in her heart. She had led Mylo away from the village, hoping for some time with him. She had thrown herself into his arms in the lean-to. She had surrendered to the desire for that kiss, a desire which only Goody Bamber had reined in like an untamed horse. And worst of all, Kally had felt a surge of disappointment when Mylo had made, then kept, his promise the night before.
She turned away from the window and looked back at the young man on the couch. Mylo seemed relaxed, with a dreamy smile on his face. If all you wanted was a roll in the hay, then I would have gladly rolled with you, Mylo, she thought. I would have given my all to you willingly. But I led you on and that makes me no better than a common harlot.
“Lady Alora, save me,” she whispered.
A quiet chuckle interrupted her guilty thoughts and Kally gasped. Goody Bamber hobbled slowly from the door of her room and fixed the girl with her glittering grey eyes.
“Alora, goddess of virtue,” Goody Bamber said. “I heard stories of the Lady years ago. Honesty, loyalty, morality, virginity. Those were her qualities.”
Kally stiffened. How could an old woman, so far removed from the courts and customs of Imer, pass such judgements on her goddess?
“And they're admirable qualities, too, girl. Don't get me wrong,” Agnes said. “But Alora grants one other thing to those who follow her.”
“And what might that be?” Kally said, as she failed to mask the bitterness from her voice. Agnes' gaze hardened and Kally shrank back a half-step, her heart hammering in fear.
“She grants the right to choose when and how you use those qualities in yourself.” Agnes glanced back at Mylo and the spell her gaze had held on Kally broke into countless shards. She heard the young woman draw a shuddering breath before continuing in a kinder tone. “I heard you two talking last night. He's right to be proud of you. You're no common harlot, Kally. He knows that. And deep down, so do you.”
The women set to work preparing breakfast. The tension of their earlier discussion evaporated and they chatted over lighter subjects, heedless of the noises their work and kitchen-clattering caused. Kally, used to servants and staff preparing her meals, floundered in the cramped workspace but she learned quickly and buttered the hot toasted bread and sliced it deftly into neat triangles.
Mylo opened his eyes as a warm hand gently shook his shoulder. Blearily he looked up into Kally's beaming face. She was holding a wooden plate, laden with thick slices of toasted bread and a mug of tea. He managed to sit up and gratefully took the mug of steaming tea. “Thank you,” he said as Kally sat down beside him. She placed the wooden plate on his lap and helped herself to a slice.
“Morning, lad,” Goody Bamber said as she bustled past and crouched down by Sergeant Astil. The man woke as she tended his bandages. “Rest, Sergeant,” she whispered as he stirred and tried to push her hands away.
“What happened? Where am I?” the sergeant rasped.
“Kally, get some fresh water, please,” Agnes said, then turned her attention back to the sergeant. “You've serious wounds to your chest and shoulder. Two of those were poisoned by the Orc weapons but that seems to be drawn now.” She paused, accepted the cup from Kally, and pressed it to the sergeant's lips. “Well done, Sergeant,” Agnes said, as the man drank half the water. Kally thoughtfully folded one of the blankets and made it into a pillow. Agnes helped the man to lay back. His eyes were bright and the whites had lost the sickly sallowness they had shown the night before. “You should try to eat something, too.” The old woman placed a bowl of porridge and a spoon near Sergeant Astil's straw pallet, rose and went to sit in her rocker. She might be the man's nurse but she wasn't his mother and felt it would be best to feed himself, to heal his confidence as well as his body after such grievous wounds.
Kally related the story of the Orc attack on the caravan. “After you lashed my horse and drove the wagon away from the battle, I had no way of finding you or the rest of our countrymen. It was only by chance that I met my father and the others. We headed for the nearest village.” She paused and looked ashamed. “I had no idea you were still alive, Sergeant. Had I known, I would have pressed my father into raising a search party from the village.”
“I had no idea I was still alive, Miss,” answered the sergeant. “My mind was fogged with a sort of fear and my body screamed with pain from the wounds and poisons. Had we met an hour or even a day after the battle, I would have believed you to be an Orc and attacked you without hesitation.” He paused and, with an air of embarrassment, raised his now empty bowl and looked at the old woman. “I couldn't trouble you for another helping, could I, Ma'am?”
Agnes laughed, high and clear, not her usual smoky chuckle. “Of course, Sergeant,” and she ladled another bowlful for the wounded soldier.
Mylo told his part of the story, how he and Kally had ridden out from Hesard's Ford the day before, found the sergeant in the ruins of a farm – a farm, not his parents' farm, Mylo did not want the Imerian to know that – and of the Orcs who had attacked them in the woods.
“Three?” asked Sergeant Astil. “You fought and won single handed against three Orcs, while I saw ten of my men fall?”
Mylo stared at the floor as he expected the Sergeant to rail against the injustice of a simple farmboy surviving while his men had died. But instead, Sergeant Astil held out his hand.
“Thank you, Mylo Sandine,” he said simply. “I can go home and tell the wives of my men that at least some measure of justice was dealt out to our attackers.”
Mylo shook the hand of the man who, for the first time in his life, had called him by his given name and not just Boy. Out of the corner of his eye, Mylo saw Kally smile. She had recognised that same moment. “I wish I could say it was a pleasure to help, Sergeant.” His voice was shaky and hoarse as he continued. “It was like I wasn't really there. I was so scared, y'know? One mistake. One inch of a missed step and it could have been me dead in the snow, not the Orcs. And then what would they have done to you and Kally?” The girl tightened her grip on his hand and, bolstered by this support, Mylo went on. “I can still remember some details, though. Which I don't understand, Sergeant. How can I remember the screeching noise the point of your sword made as it scratched against the Orc's armour but I can't remember shooting the crossbow that killed the first?” Mylo let out a half-gasp, half-laugh, unable to know how he should react.
The sergeant nodded. “We have a name for it. We call it the battlefever. It's not the berserker fury some of the northern barbarians revel in. It's an urge, a force that wells up and drives you to victory or to die trying. But when the battlefever recedes, you're left with an emptiness, guilt and sometimes even regret.” Astil paused as he saw the look of horror in Mylo's eyes. “I don't know which, if any, of the gods you may follow, or even believe in, but you might want to pray for one thing, Mylo Sandine. Pray that you never get used to the battlefever.”
Kally finished drying the Sergeant's porridge bowl and placed it in the cupboard. As she picked up the last plate Agnes had washed, she murmured to the old woman. “It wasn't battlefever that took Sergeant Astil, was it? He's a good man and well trained. He would not have seen me as an Orc after the battle.” She drew on all her courage to speak the next word: “Witchcraft.”
Goody Bamber turned to the girl. “No, lass. Not witchcraft, for what took Sergeant Astil was blacker than anything simple witchcraft can cause. The Orcs have their magic-makers, too, or so it's said. Weaken a man's will with poisons and such magics can make him a slave.”
Kally's eyes widened in abject fear. “Alora,” she breathed.
“Aye, lass,” Agnes whispered as her own fear settled like a lead weight in her stomach.
Mylo held the horse's bridle as he stood waiting for the goodbyes. Kally and Goody Bamber exchanged a brief hug and the older woman passed Kally a bag laden with food for the journey back to Hesard's Ford. If they could let the horse have its head, they could reach the village in a few hours but the weather was against them now. The snow had eased while he had groomed and readied the horse but now larger flakes were falling steadily. He looked about and could see some places were hip-deep in snow. He kept a faint hope that, once under cover of the trees, the snow would be shallower and they might make good progress. In the back of his mind, however, a sound replayed itself: the sound of a hatchet, aimed at his head, striking a tree-trunk after missing him by scant inches.
How many Orc raiders were still in the area? Would they resist the cold to carry on raiding? Mylo reckoned that the Orcs of the mining towns in the mountains would be taking refuge in their mineworks, as the men of Hesard's Ford wintered in the Inn. The raiders seemed to be a different breed altogether. Were they desperate. like the ravenning wolves Kally had described as painted on their shields? If so, they might be willing to risk battle to gain supplies, in the same way wolves had been known to attack human settlements, risking the pack for a Winter's feast of fat, penned sheep. Or, and this thought chilled Mylo even more than the weather, were the raiders driven by something even blacker than the battlefever Sergeant Astil had described, and Mylo himself had experienced?
Mylo was shocked from his reverie as he saw Kally and Goody Bamber break from their talk. Had they seen something in the woods, when he should have been on the lookout himself? His hand went to the knife at his belt but then he saw they were looking back into the cottage. The women caught Sergeant Astil as he almost fell through the door of the cottage.
Goody Bamber's choice curses broke the wintry silence and, even through the falling snow, Mylo could see Kally blush. “What in Varna's name are you doing, man? I ordered you to rest! Get back inside, you fool!” The old woman began forcing the sergeant, who was at least a foot taller than she and much more heavily built despite the weakness his wounds had caused, back into the cottage.
“Please, Ma'am,” Astil began through gritted teeth, “I have something for Mylo.” He managed to pull himself upright and stood, swaying, on his own two feet. Astil lifted his right hand and dim winter light glinted from the hilt of his sword. “Mylo, come here please.”
As Mylo shuffled through the snow, Astil reversed his sword and handed the weapon, hilt-first towards the young man. Mylo's eyes widened. “Take it, Mylo. You saved my life and this sword, which served me well, is yours now.” He watched in satisfaction as Mylo gripped the hilt and gently drew the sword from his the leather scabbard. “I noticed you cleaned it after your own battle. That's good, Mylo.” The sergeant repeated his instructor's lessons. “Always take care of your weapons and your armour. If you do, they will take care of you. Fail to repair and maintain your kit and one day it will fail you. I don't want to see your blood staining the ground, Mylo.” The sergeant managed to inject a sternness into his voice which was broken off with a wince of pain.
“That's why I told you to rest, Sergeant!” Goody Bamber shouted. “Get yourself indoors.” But even she could not disguise the note of pride in her voice. She pushed Sergeant Astil back towards the pallet on which he had slept. The man tried to resist and turned to shake Mylo's hand. “IN!” Goody Bamber's voice was a screech that the Sergeant could not disobey. He managed a weak smile and sank onto his sleeping pallet. Agnes turned back to Mylo and Kally. “And you two, get yourselves gone from here,” she sniffed the air. “I reckon you've got a couple of hours before the snow really starts.”
Kally looked up at the sky and felt the snow melt on her cheeks. How could it get any heavier? she thought. She hugged Goody Bamber one last time and said, as innocently as she could, “Maybe you should get indoors too?”
Mylo helped Kally into the saddle and swung up behind her. She wriggled up onto the saddle bow which for the ride today had been thoughtfully padded with a spare blanket. With one last wave to Goody Bamber, who, of course, had not taken Kally's advice, Mylo turned the horse and they set off towards Hesard's Ford.
“I can't believe he did that,” Mylo said. “I don't deserve to carry this, Kally, let alone use it.”
“Passing on his sword was perhaps the only way he could express his gratitude, Mylo. In Imer, that sort of gift would be reserved for his son. Your courage yesterday saved all three of us. Believe me, if not yourself, you do deserve to carry that weapon.”
“Let's hope I don't have to use it,” Mylo said, sadly, as they reached the eaves of the wood.
"Duck your head," Mylo whispered. Kally leaned forward over the horse's neck and Mylo ducked with her. They just scraped under the lowest branches which were heavily laden with snow. A few paces into the forest they straightened and Mylo looked around. The snow was shallower here, as he had hoped, but visibility was poor, maybe ten or twenty yards at most.
Kally shivered and not just with the cold. She remembered the ambush the night before. How suddenly could the peace and fragile beauty of the snow-covered forest turn into terror and bloodshed.
Mylo nudged the horse forward and they trudged slowly on.
"Do you think they could still be here?" asked Kally. Her normally clear voice was tinged with nervousness that even her mother and tutors' stern training could not mask.
"They could be anywhere, Kally," Mylo answered. "They might've gone to ground to avoid the bad weather." He stretched in the saddle in an attempt to ease the cramps caused by the cold.
"You don't sound too hopeful."
"I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that we hear them clanking around in that armour before they get too close. In the woods we might have a chance to hide but once we're out in the open, near the farm, we'll be an easy target."
They stopped to rest near a stream. Mylo leaned precariously out over the edge and refilled the canteen Goody Bamber had given them. He passed the icy water bottle to Kally who shuddered as she drank deeply. In a most unladylike fashion, she wiped her hand across her mouth and grinned naughtily. Mylo laughed, for once careless of their surroundings and the dangers that might lurk there.
"That's the first time I've seen you smile all day," Kally said.
"It's hard to laugh in a place like this, Kally," he replied as the reality sank in. "I'm trying to keep us both safe but I feel like I'm so far out of my depth, I'll sink into a snowdrift." He rallied when he saw Kally's dazzling smile. "I'll do my best to get us both home, I promise. But I need you to promise me something."
She raised her eyebrows, her intuition working overtime as she guessed the promise Mylo would ask of her. "Yes?"
"If we get into trouble, don't wait for me. Give the horse his head and fly back to the Ford as fast as you can." Mylo paused as he saw Kally's smile waver. "I'll see you back at the Inn, if I have to crawl there on my hands and knees. But I'll only do that if I know you're waiting there for me." Or die trying, Mylo thought. Battlefever seemed to hang around him like a cloud.
Kally nodded. "I will, Mylo. I promise." She hated herself for lying.
They walked for a while through the cold forest air. Their footsteps crunched on the snow. Mylo led the horse by its bridle and Kally clung tightly to his other hand. Then, to draw closer, she linked her arm through his and rested her head on his shoulder as they walked. This was what she had wanted when they set out the day before. Drawing simple comfort from the company of a kind-hearted man.
It was around noon when they heard the first noises. Kally stiffened and Mylo instinctively pushed the girl behind him. His hand went to the hilt of Sergeant Astil's sword and he strained to hear more. They were definitely voices but he couldn't discern the direction.
He turned to Kally, mouthed "up" and gestured to the horse. Then, without waiting for her answer, he placed his hands around her waist and lifted her into the saddle. He then pulled his knife free of its sheath and handed the small weapon, hilt-first, to Kally. "Remember your promise," he whispered then turned away to investigate the noises.
Kally sat a rather awkward side-saddle on the horse. Without Mylo's arms about her she struggled slightly to retain her balance. She was taken aback not only by Mylo's brusqueness, and the strength with which he had lifted her into the saddle, but with his calm, almost cold, manner. Not like him at all, she thought. Kally held the unfamiliar knife in her right hand and watched Mylo stalk off through the snow.
He padded a few yards away from Kally and the horse and reached a small group of trees. Then he turned and looked back, trying to make it look like he was checking his tracks, when really all he wanted was what might be one last look at the girl. She sat, knife in hand, glancing all around. When her gaze settled on Mylo she smiled and his heart rose.
Mylo turned back to his task. He moved from tree to tree as silently as he could and lost sight of Kally as the wood thickened. Now, however, he had judged the distance and direction to the sound of the voices. Fifty yards, maybe, almost directly in front and on the path Mylo had intended to take. The voices were coarse and gutteral and were, beyond doubt, Orcish. He crept closer and took cover behind a tree, a tall, solid oak that would stop an axe or crossbow bolt if one came his way. Mylo crouched in the snow and felt the chill seep through his knees, up his thighs and into his guts. Or was that just fear? he wondered as he peeked around the bole of the oak.
Mylo's heart sank as he surveyed the sight before him. Over two dozen Orcs had built a makeshift camp in the woods. Lean-tos had been erected and covered with animal skins and the hacked down branches of fir trees. He recognised the blackened-steel armour they were wearing. Two of the Orcs were squabbling as they built and tried to light a fire over which, it seemed, they were going to roast the badly-butchered carcass of a woodland deer. A third Orc had the deer's antlers on his head and was charging back and forth in a drunken imitation of a stag's Spring fight. A horse was tethered to one side of the camp and Mylo recognised the breed as being the same as the animal he and Kally rode, except this poor beast was dirty, exhausted, and bore lash marks from iron-tipped whips. Bastards, thought Mylo.
There was nothing he could do here. The rage he felt at the mistreatment of the poor horse and the threat these raiders obviously posed to his home village burned in his heart but the fire of anger was pointless. One boy against heavily armed and armoured opponents? He wouldn't stand a chance. Mylo's blood would stain the snow and the Orcs would turn their savagery on Kally. He could not let that happen. Burying his rage, Mylo slipped away from the camp and made his way back to Kally.
She saw him emerge from the stand of trees and noticed straight away the look of dejection on his face. Kally jumped down from the horse and ran the short distance to Mylo. She threw her arms about him and hugged fiercely. “Mylo,” she whispered, deliberately keeping her voice low, “what did you see? It's them, isn't it?”
“Yeah, nearly thirty of them. They're camped up ahead just off the main track I wanted to follow.” Mylo sighed heavily and tried to remember the area's geography. “We'll have to double back for a while, then turn north for a few miles. That'll put some distance between us and them. When we find the river, we can follow it down stream and come to the village from the north.”
Mylo helped Kally back into the saddle, more gently this time, and led the horse back along the rough forest track they had followed thus far. Then he struck north, away from the tracks and through the rough bushes and snow-laden branches, deeper into the forest. The going was slower now but Mylo was grateful for the cover afforded by the heavier undergrowth. He glanced up at Kally who was bearing the discomfort of the ride and the occasional heavy showers of snow from the trees with great determination, though tiredness was beginning to show and a hunted fear caused lines at the corners of her eyes.
When they reached the river, Mylo helped Kally down from the horse. They ate quickly and quietly from the supplies Goody Bamber had prepared for them.
“You're worrying even more now, Mylo,” Kally began. “What's wrong?”
“We can't get across the river here. It's too deep and fast flowing.” Kally nodded in understanding. That, of course, was why the village of Hesard's Ford had grown. It was the safest crossing point for miles around. “Which means, when we head downstream, we'll have the river at our backs and no easy escape if we're spotted.” Mylo could not escape the feeling he had led them into a death trap.
Mylo and Kally walked, leading the horse to conserve the animal's strength in case they needed to take flight to Hesard's Ford later, along the banks of the river. Under cover of the trees and sufficient distance from the Orc camp the pair relaxed a little and chatted, albeit quietly for fear of their voices carrying too far through the cold air.
"I'm sorry I doubted your idea to go to Goody Bamber," Kally said. "My people don't have much patience or belief in seers and such."
"But you still believe in your Lady Alora," Mylo replied. "What's the difference?"
"I was born and bred to that belief, Mylo. From a very early age, I have been taught her ways, her legends and about the benefits she brought to my people centuries ago." Kally frowned as she tried to sort out the contradictions in her mind. "In the history of my land, seers and such people have caused terrible suffering through their twisted visions and lies. Lady Alora freed us from that. So it took a lot of effort to bring myself to trust Goody Bamber."
"You thought she was a witch," Mylo said. He tried hard not to tinge his words with accusation but the guilty look on Kally's face meant he had failed to hide his feelings. "Was it worth the effort?"
Kally nodded vigorously. "Yes, it was. I was amazed with her healing skills. The poultices she made drew the foul poisons from Sergeant Astil. A man I thought was at death's door is recovering more quickly than I thought possible. Our own physicians could not have matched that." She paused for a second before saying, "And Agnes speaks with such clarity and wisdom, she moved me, Mylo." Kally said forcefully and placed her right hand on her heart. Mylo could see the dim light reflecting off the sapphires in her ring. "Agnes is a very special woman and I am glad I had the chance to meet her."
They had reached the edge of the forest and drew to a halt. Mylo, as before, left Kally with the horse and crept forward to gaze over the open lands in front of them. The river's course skirted past the old farm. In fact, if he remembered his father's words from all those years ago, the river marked the edge of their land. Or what had been their land, he thought miserably. He waited for a long while and looked hawkishly for signs of life but there were none to be seen. Not even a bird flew through the dull grey skies. Mylo heaved a sigh of relief and went back to join Kally.
"We'll follow the riverbank down stream. There are enough bushes and stuff to give us cover from any prying eyes south of here." Mylo gestured towards the south, in the rough direction of the Orc camp.
"And if we're spotted?"
"You ride back to the Ford as fast as you can," Mylo said grimly. "You promised, Kally!" he added when he saw the look of defiance on the girl's face.
Kally wilted under Mylo's intense stare. "I know. I promised." She looked down, away from his eyes. But I'm damned if I'll leave you, Mylo Sandine, Kally thought and then she looked up and said, "I'll be waiting for you."
Mylo left Kally waiting under the forest eaves and led the horse down the steep valley side, tethered it to a stunted bush and went back to her. She was shivering with cold and he could see lines of fear around her eyes. "Not far to go, now," he said, as reassuringly as he could manage. "It only took a couple of hours when we first came out here and, even being careful, we should be back at the Ford just before dark."
Kally smiled bravely. Mylo was trying to bolster her confidence and, despite the guilt which gnawed at her for having led him into this nightmare, she felt her spirits rise. Hand in hand, they made their way down the slope. Mylo jumped the last couple of feet then turned, placed is hands on Kally's trim waist and lowered her gently to the valley floor.
After they had walked for about half an hour, the steepness of the valley sides started to lessen and Mylo could just see the ruined farmhouse. His heart pined for one last look at his childhood home. He took cover in some bushes and peered out through the leafless branches.
"Shit!" Mylo hissed.
In an instant Kally was at his side. "Mylo, what's ..." she was brought up short as Mylo placed a finger against her lips.
Mylo turned to look back at the farm and Kally followed his gaze. She felt him tense up beside her and understood why as she saw black-armoured figures in the ruins.
"They're there," Mylo said, his voice hoarse as he tried to control his anger. "What are they doing? Don't they think they caused enough damage all those years ago?" His right hand went unconsciously to his left hip and gripped the hilt of Sergeant Astil's sword. His sword now, and Mylo was determined that these Orc swine would feel it!
Kally had kept herself in check and gripped Mylo's shoulder. She could feel the tension in his muscles and feared, rightly, that he wanted to spring forward and attack. "They're looking for something," she whispered, just managing to keep her voice calm enough to restrain Mylo.
"There's nothing there, Kally. Everything was looted or destroyed ten years ago." Mylo closed his eyes against the tears he could feel welling up. Kally moved her hand from his shoulder and slipped her arm around him. "What are these animals doing to my home?" He opened his eyes and, even through the tears blurring his vision, he noticed what the Orcs were doing. They were scrabbling around near the remains of the farmyard fence, flinging handfuls of snow and frozen earth into the air.
"Oh, no. The graves. They're digging up my parents' graves!"
Mylo and Kally watched the act of obscenity, powerless to stop it. “After the attack,” Mylo began, in a weak voice, “and I was in Hesard's Ford, the men, my boss among them, came out here. They gave a decent burial to my parents and our farm hands.” He trailed off and was silent for a while. “Why are they doing this, Kally?”
The girl had found herself torn between her concern for Mylo and watching the horror unfolding in front of her. “That's why,” Kally said. She nodded in the direction of the farm and Mylo looked where she indicated.
An Orc stood to the side of the graves and watched as the others dug through the icy mud which their earlier efforts had made from the soil and snow. Instead of the cleaver-like swords favoured by the warriors, it was leaning on a crude quarterstaff, shod with studded iron at the base and topped with a brutal array of spikes. It was clad in a leather loincloth and a cloak made of animal skins. A bizarre array of medallions, chains and unidentifiable body parts were strung around its neck and covered its bare torso. Even from this distance Mylo could see its eyes glowed an unhealthy yellow, rather than the feral reds of the warriors' eyes.
One of the warriors cried a gutteral roar of triumph. It stood upright in the grave and held up a roundish object. The staff bearing Orc snatched it from the warrior's grasp, raised it to the sky and howled. In its other hand, the staff glowed with a reddish light which stained the snow at the Orc's feet. Wind swirled around the Orcs in the grave yard and the stinking air fanned the tattered, dirty remains of the mane of blonde hair which clung to the skull of Mylo's mother.
Soft blonde hair which had tickled the tiny nose of the baby Mylo. Soft blonde hair, braided with chains of Spring flowers which Mylo's clever fingers had made. Soft blonde hair, plaited and pinned to keep it from the eyes as the woman worked on the farm. Soft blonde hair into which Mylo had wept while warm lips had kissed away the pain of a bee-sting. Soft blonde hair that had fallen as a mask over his mother's face as her blood had seeped into the ground.
Mylo snapped. His scream shattered the sky and he stood up from behind the bush, his sword raised in his right hand. Without a second thought, Mylo began to run towards the Orcs who had violated his parents' resting place.
One of the Orcs had recovered from the surprise of Mylo's screaming charge. It drew its weapon and met the boy half way to the farm. The next scream came from the Orc itself as Mylo met its attack with the point of his sword. Mylo wrenched the weapon free from the Orc's stomach and black blood spilled freely to the snow-covered ground.
In a part of his mind that was detached from the battlefever, Mylo thought One down. Next!
Such thoughts were beaten back as Mylo found himself pressed by two more of the Orcs. These had approached at the run, not the blind charge of the first one, and were ready for combat. A sword whistled over Mylo's head but his counter attack was blocked by the wolf's-head blazonned shield. The second Orc attacked from behind with a slash that caught Mylo's shoulder. The boy howled as he felt the stinging pain and blood begin to seep from the wound. He retreated several steps and the Orcs gathered themselves for a new attack.
Reality impinged itself upon Mylo's senses, overriding the rage that had consumed him. Two fully armed and armoured Orcs in front of him. A few more warriors and the staff-wielding Orc within easy reach. Mylo's blood would stain the snow before sundown. To die so close to his parents would somehow be fitting, Mylo reflected, as he dodged and weaved across the snowfield. He could hear hoofbeats receding rapidly into the distance. Kally, at least, was keeping her promise. With that thought, Mylo prepared to die.
He parried an incoming attack, spun on his heel and drove his sword against the other Orc. The point caught the warrior's shield and forced it aside. Mylo saw his chance and kicked out, driving his boot into the Orc's armoured stomach. The kick caught the Orc off balance and it flailed backwards to land in a clattering heap in the snow. He turned to the second Orc, the one whose sword had cut into his shoulder. He yelled savagely and the Orc retreated a step. Even it was scared by the rage that blazed in the boy's eyes and it intended to fall back towards the farm where there was strength in numbers.
Run, Mylo! Run!
The voice echoed through Mylo's mind.
You can't die here. Only you can stop this. Only you can save me. Run, Mylo! Run!
What? Mylo could hear hoofbeats again but coming closer. Did these bloody Orcs have cavalry now? Mylo advanced on the retreating Orc as he hoped to kill this one before it joined up with its reinforcements. But as he chased after the fleeing Orc, a horse appeared from his right. Kally's high pitched cry drowned out the gutteral yells of the Orcs as she drove the horse straight into the retreating Orc. The warrior collapsed in a tangle of broken limbs and bent metal armour.
“Mylo! Quickly!” Kally held out her hand and beckoned for Mylo to join her. “Please!” She looked wildly around. The Orcs were closing fast and time was running out.
Run, Mylo! Run! Don't die here, my son!
Mylo jumped, took Kally's hand and swung into the saddle behind her. Kally drove her heels into the horse's flanks. The animal whinnied, reared, and sped from the farm.
Clouds of pure white sprayed up behind them in their panicked flight across the snowfield. Tears stung Mylo's eyes as they galloped away but even his rage and grief did not blunt his senses. Something whizzed over his head, its high-pitched whine receding into the distance. “They're shooting at us! Dodge, Kally. Swing left!”
Kally did as he bade and began a zigzag course away from the farm. At least three arrows hit the ground where they had been scant seconds before. They reached the slope and Kally urged the horse harder, spurring the animal to the limits of its strength until they reached the summit of the rise and pounded down the other side. The girl broke into tears of joy as she saw the lights of Hesard's Ford glimmering in the distance.
Kally did not slow the horse for several more minutes. Shamefully, a part of her was enjoying the breakneck ride through the night. For the first time in her life she was not riding side-saddle and she found she had better control over the horse and her own balance. More than that was the sensation of Mylo's arms about her waist and the warmth of the young man's body against her back.
Mylo turned and stole a glance back. He felt the wrench in his left shoulder and screamed as a shocking, burning pain lanced down his spine. Through the haze of tears he could see the Orcs were not pursuing them. He yelled again as Kally kicked the horse's flanks and they vaulted a low bush and landed with a heavy thud which drove more pain through his shoulder.
Kally turned and smiled at Mylo with wicked pleasure. But when she saw the pain in his face, the girl felt a searing stab of guilt. Over the wind of their flight, Kally could smell it. The same stink that had come from Sergeant Astil's wounds. Poison was flowing through Mylo's veins and he was weakening by the moment. Doubt assailed her now. Should she keep riding at this speed or slow down, in the hope that a less jarring flight would slow the poison?
“Keep going,” Mylo murmured. “That way.” With his good hand, he managed to point to a narrow path along the river bank. “Faster!”
Kally turned the horse along the path Mylo had indicated. They ducked under the low snow-laden branches of trees but Mylo could not rise again. He was leaning heavily against Kally's back and the grip around her waist was growing weaker.
Her decision was made and she overcame her doubts. She could not slow down. Mylo was succumbing to the poison and every second was vital now. “Not far now, boy,” Kally said to the horse. and the horse responded, giving his all in this last mile. They thundered along the path and splashed through the icy waters of the ford, Kally heedless of the risk that slightest slip could bring ruin to them all. Out of the water and up the slope to the village. “One last time!” Kally yelled, kicked the flanks and the horse leapt the village gate in a huge bound that carried them to the village square.
Several people were in the village square and scattered as the horse skidded to a halt in front of the Inn. Kally vaulted from the saddle and caught Mylo as he slid from the horse's back. She staggered with him, crashed through the Inn's door and half dropped, half laid Mylo onto a bench.
“Kally! Where in the name of Alora have you been?” Her father's voice thundered across the Inn's common room.
Kally pointedly ignored her father's bluster and turned to one of the Inn's serving girls. “I need hot water and clean bandages. Adder-root and red willow leaves and a mortar and pestle.” The serving girl looked dumbly between Kally and the prone Mylo. “Now!” Kally ordered. The girl started and darted away.
Kally worked quickly. She pulled the knife from Mylo's belt and rolled the boy onto his side so she could better see the wound in his shoulder. The stench was rising as Mylo's skin blistered with the effects of the poison. Kally ignored the stink but noted several people withdraw from around her with their hands over their mouths. With the knife, she sliced down the back of Mylo's shirt and exposed the wound. It was worse than even the wounds she had seen on Sergeant Astil, perhaps because this was fresh and still bled sluggishly. The skin around the cut was blackened and rough to the touch.
“Where's that bloody water?” Kally yelled.
“Here, Miss,” answered the girl as she placed a pail beside Mylo.
Kally took the ladle and poured hot water over the wound. Mylo groaned. Good, she thought, and poured several more ladle-fuls of hot water onto Mylo's skin. Then she cleaned the filth from the cut and poured on yet more water. Now the wound was clean and was bleeding more freely.
“Can I help?” asked the serving girl.
Kally nodded. “Hold this,” she pressed a pad of clean wadding into the girl's hands, “firmly over the wound, like this.” Then she guided the girl's hands to where she wanted them on Mylo's shoulder. “Firmly,” Kally repeated.
She turned her attention to the adder-root and red willow leaves. These were quite commonly available in many homes and kitchens, the adder-root particularly spiced many foods, but, as Agnes had described, their healing properties were only released in the right combination and when mixed with hot water. She ground a two-to-one mix of adder-root and red willow into a thick paste. Its pungent aroma fought against, then nullified, the stench from the poisoned wound.
“Excuse me,” Kally said, almost politely, to the girl, who moved aside. As gently as she could, Kally removed the pad of wadding from Mylo's wound. The skin around the cut had acquired a greenish tinge and she had to force down a mouthful of bile before continuing. With deft fingers, Kally spread the herbal paste over the wound, working it particularly into the bloody gash and under the flap of skin. Then she reached for another pad of clean wadding, soaked it in hot water and pressed it against the wound. Finally, Kally bound the wound over and held the pad of cloth with clean bandages.
She sat back and wiped the back of her hand across her brow. Mylo gave her a brief thumbs up with his right hand and then lapsed into unconsciousness. “Get him to a bed,” Kally whispered.
“Whose?” asked the girl, archly. “Yours?”
Kally stood in front of her father, her hands behind her back, and stared down at her feet as the old man's rage buffetted her. Tears stung her eyes and wet her cheeks. Her father listed the number of rules she had shattered, the number of moral guides she had ignored, the number of principles she had violated. He went into great detail about the amount of shame she had heaped upon him, her family and, lastly, upon herself.
“How could you do this, Kally?” The man's voice was quieter now. He had spent most of his energy in the anger directed at his daughter.
She raised her head and looked at her father. This was not an easy task for her. His words had brought her shameful deeds to the surface and guilt weighed upon her shoulders, threatening to drag her down. But there was one thing she could not do and that was to beg for his forgiveness. “I am sorry for what I have done, Father. I put my, my feelings for the boy,” oh! How she hated herself for saying that! “before you, our family and our traditions. That was wrong of me.” Kally saw the look of satisfaction on her father's face, which softened the anger and made him look handsome again, but then rode him down with the same force as she had trampled the Orc into the snow. “But I think that Mylo and I have done more good than harm these past two days. We found that the Orcs who took our caravan and killed our people are still here, less than a day's march from here. They have strength of arms and savagery that could kill every man, woman and child here. And they have the blackest of magics on their side. Mylo and I brought that information back here so that we have a chance to stand and fight, to save this village and deliver justice to the raiders that hurt us, and the families of our men, so grievously just five days ago.”
Kally suppressed a smile as she saw her father's expression change from satisfaction to discomfort at the memory of the ambush. He knew, deep down, how much damage that attack had caused and, unlike many of Avanti's merchants, he could not write off the dead soldiers as a mere unfortunate loss. “We also found one of our men. We took Sergeant Astil to safety and Goodwife Agnes Bamber brought him back from the brink of death. He will return to Avanti with us and be reunited with his family.”
“You left him in the care of a witch, Kally,” her father rumbled.
“We left him in the care of a skilled healer and a woman of such wisdom she would bring shame to many of our people,” Kally said firmly. “A woman whose skills you saw save another man's life right in front of you.”
“A man? You mean the boy?”
“Mylo. His name is Mylo Sandine. That young man saved my life. You owe him thanks for that, at least.”
“He's a liar, a thief, and a cheat. He's deflowered half the girls in this village, Kally, and had the same designs on you.”
That comment stung Kally and she took a moment to rein in her anger. “Mylo treated me with nothing but honour and respect. He risked his life fighting against the Orcs. He planned our route back to Hesard's Ford. His only wish was to bring us back safe.”
"So how did he end up in such a state? Not exactly safe, was it?" her father asked, acidly.
Kally sighed. She had wanted to conceal some of this from her father but she had already lied too many times. The truth, here, might be best. Kally told her father what she had seen and how Mylo had reacted. "The Orcs violated the graves of Mylo's parents. I think its plain why Mylo acted the way he did." Kally paused for a moment. Her father was no soldier but he held his family in the highest regard. "In Mylo's place, you would have done the same thing."
"I will have to think on this, Kally," her father said. "Until I have reached a decision you can consider yourself under curfew. You may not leave the village and will stay within the confines of the Inn and its grounds. You may not see the boy."
Kally felt the anger rise again and barely kept her voice even. "I can't do that, Father. Mylo's dressings and bandages will need to be replaced. If they are not, the poison will be drawn into the dressings where it will stay and fester, leading to a greater chance that it will reinfect his wound. I will not sit idly by and let him die a slow and horrible death."
"Very well, Kally," her father said, reflecting on how much Kally reminded him of his wife. The woman could be wilful to the point of stubbornness but always seemed to have the facts on her side before pursuing such a course of action. Kally seemed to have inherited many of those traits. His daughter made a formal curtsey, as one who had received such a reprimand should, then retreated from the room.
Kally made her way to the room she shared with two other girls. Perhaps she dreaded this encounter more than the scolding from her father. Her name and her virtue, or the assumed lack of it now, were being dragged through the mud. Only she and Mylo really knew the truth and, at the moment, that was all that mattered. Kally steeled herself for the cattiness and innuendo she expected. But she sighed with relief when she found the room deserted. Quickly, she changed from the ruined blue velvet dress into her remaining clean dress - the rest had been lost in the Orc ambush - and went to see Mylo.
She bumped into the girl who had helped her in the common room. "Watch it!" the girl hissed. "Where d'you think you're going anyway? Talk round here has it that you're to be locked in your room!"
The girl glared at Kally. "You are not takin' Mylo away from me. Just 'cos you're posh and rich and stuff, don't mean you're better than me."
Kally drew herself up to her full height, which, while not tall, still gave her a two inch height advantage over the other girl. "I am not taking Mylo away from you," Kally paused, deliberately and dangerously, to let her knowledge of Mylo's previous indiscretions sink in, "or anyone else. He is his own man and he will choose whom he pleases."
The blonde girl looked slyly at Kally. "Then he'll choose me, missy, 'cos he knows his own kind."
Kally rolled her eyes at the ceiling. She was tiring of this girl's possessive jealousy already. Yes, she thought, Mylo does know his own kind and his own kind is much better than you, you little trollop. But she refrained from saying what she wanted and merely held up the clean bandages she was carrying. "All I want to do is make sure Mylo gets well again. Or would you prefer to see him die of the Orc poison infesting his wounds?" With that, Kally gave the girl a tight, unfriendly little smile, the type she reserved for people like Jefber Rebec, stepped past and walked, straight-backed with her head held high, towards the room where Mylo was sleeping.Kally knelt by Mylo's bed. She was grateful that the landlord had allowed Mylo to sleep in the Inn, rather than in his normal, draughty hayloft. He had been laid on his stomach so no undue pressure went through his shoulder. Gently, Kally began undoing the bandage which held the wadding in place and once this was free, she lifted the corner of the poultice. As before, the stench was sickening and even made Mylo groan.
He tried to turn onto his back but Kally gently pushed him back down. "Not yet, Mylo. I'm changing your dressing. Rest for a moment, please." She worked quickly, changed the wadding and noted with some satisfaction that the wound was clean and the skin around it soft and pink again. Her nursing work done, for now, Kally playfully ruffled Mylo's mop of blond hair and said, "All done. You can turn over now, but go easy, maybe lie on your side, rather than your back."
Mylo winced as he rolled over and propped himself up on his right elbow. He smiled up at her and held out his left hand. His arm was no longer numb and he could feel the warmth of her fingers as she took his hand. "Thank you," he said simply and, from the look on Kally's smiling face, he could tell that she knew his thanks had come from his heart, not somewhere lower on his body.
They chatted for a while. "Gossip about the two of us is rife," Kally said, "particularly amongst some of the girls. They say I lost my honour to you, that I'm another notch in your bedpost." Mylo's smile wavered but Kally's did not. She had heard some of the stories about Mylo and his indiscreet flings and they neither disappointed nor shocked her. Such goings on were commonplace amongst the court and merchant families of Avanti. She tried to rise above the gossip and had never stooped so low as to engage in such affairs. "The thing which worries me most," she went on, "is that the menfolk seem to be indulging more in the gossip than in preparing for an Orc attack."
"They haven't seen an Orc attack for ten years, Kally. Some of them probably believe it'll never happen. They haven't seen what we've seen."
"I think Father is trying to get our few remaining soldiers into action but they won't listen to a merchant. If only Sergeant Astil were here."
"Yeah, he would get them patrolling or at least on watch. But he was unfit to travel, let alone fight. Goody Bamber wouldn't even let him stand up!" Mylo laughed lightly to try to alleviate the worry which ghosted across Kally's face.
The laughter did not last long. Mylo looked away from Kally and there was silence between the two for a while. At last, Mylo spoke: "She came to me, Kally."
Kally stiffened. Despite her resolve to rise above the gossip and slander that was washing around Mylo and herself, she couldn't help the feeling of anger that flooded through her. "Who?" she almost hissed, as her hackles rose, "That little blonde trollop?"
Mylo was genuinely shocked at Kally's anger. "What? You mean Mina? No. No way, not her."
Kally's anger deflated and she sighed. Embarrassment overcame her jealousy and she looked down at the floor, away from Mylo's eyes.
"She's not said a word to me for ages. Her brother kicked me around the stables after, er, well after, you know," Mylo explained, as embarrassed as Kally, now. What was she thinking? he wondered. Come to think of it, what am I thinking?
"I meant my mother, Kally," Mylo went on. She looked up in surprise. "At the farm, after I was wounded and I thought I was going to die there, I heard her voice, clear as yours. She said I had to run and that I was the only one who could save her." He paused for a moment. Their eyes met and he continued. "There I was, in a rage, lost in the battlefever, outnumbered and wounded. I thought it would be the right thing, to die so close to my parents. But you rode down that Orc, smashed him across the snow. She called to me again. Run, Mylo, Run, she said. I grabbed your hand and you, you Kally," he said forcefully and with great pride, "took me away from that battlefield and saved me."
Mylo tightened his grip on Kally's hand. What he had to say next would hurt Kally, he suspected. He wished he could find a convenient lie to tell her but lies would hurt her even more than the truth.
“I have to go back,” he said. Kally gasped sharply and her eyes widened. Mylo rushed on before he lost his nerve. “She said I could save her. I have to find out what she meant.” Tears had started down Kally's cheeks and, a moment later, Mylo was crying, too. “I couldn't save her all those years ago. But now, maybe I can.”
Kally watched from the window. She was forbidden to speak to Mylo for any reason beyond changing the dressings on his wounded shoulder. Now she looked down into the Inn's stableyard and watched as Mylo saddled a horse. He was soon to ride out towards his parents' farm, searching for the Orc magician that had desecrated the graves of his mother and father. Though that was not his stated intention. Kally and Mylo kept that as a secret to themselves. Mylo's mission was to scout the Orc positions and bring back any information he could regarding their plans. He hoped that such news would finally scare the villagers into action in the defence of their homes.
The landlord, Davidov Jermays, approached Mylo in the stableyard. "This is a bad idea, Boy," he said.
"What makes it bad, if I can find out where the Orcs are and see what they're up to?"
"What good'll it do if you can't get back to tell us? What if they gut you like a pig and let you die in the snow?"
"I'm not going to take them on like that, Boss!" Mylo retorted. "I've already done that twice and nearly paid with my life because of it." He glanced up towards the window of Kally's small bedroom. "I'll out-scout them. They won't even know I'm there because I'll do it like you taught me, Boss."
Davidov had caught Mylo's upward glance. "You sure you're not just doing this for her?" he asked, in a surprisingly mellow voice. Usually, his comments on Mylo's assignations were accompanied by a dirty laugh and an elbow in the ribs but not now.
"Kally's the reason I won't go after them head on," Mylo said. "I promised her once that I'd meet her here, even if I had to crawl back on my hands and knees."
"That's some serious promise, Boy," said Davidov. "You sure you're thinking straight about this?" He paused and thought back to his youth. "You know, some girls have this magic about them. One night, sometimes, is all it takes, and they can wrap a man round their little finger."
"Never!" Mylo said, heatedly, his cheeks flushing with a mixture of anger and embarrassment. "I never laid a hand on Kally."
"That's not what they're saying, Boy."
"Oh, don't believe the rumours, Boss. They're being spread about by nasty little gossips and the lazy bastards who'd rather drink their brains soft in the Inn than start guarding the village." Mylo's anger carried him away now. "The raiders are out there," he pointed in the direction of the ruined farm, "and they're coming this way. I'll try to stop them, even if no-one else will!"
Davidov could see that the Boy was determined to go out there, regardless of the risk and maybe not even for the girl. But he secretly doubted that. "Then you might need this," he said. The old man hauled a sack from his back and opened it in front of Mylo. "I've had this stuff years. It might be a bit big, though."
He pulled out a boiled-leather breastplate and helmet with softer leather breeks and gloves. "It saved me from a few scratches, Boy. Hopefully it'll do the same for you." Davidov helped Mylo into the armour and plonked the helmet lopsidedly onto his head. “It's not as good as mail, Boy, but it won't clank.”
Mylo squirmed inside the armour. It was rather large but he tightened a couple of straps and made it more comfortable. Then he belted Sergeant Astil's sword about his waist and hauled himself into the saddle. "Thanks, Boss. I'll get my arse back here as soon as I know what the raiders are doing." With one last look back at Kally's window, Mylo spurred the horse and rode out of the village.
"Farewell, Mylo," Davidov said quietly. He, too, glanced up at the window, then turned and went back inside the Inn.
Kally felt the tears start as Mylo rode away. She blinked them back. It would not be fitting if she was seen crying for the man who had supposedly stolen her virtue, in the middle of a snowy wood, against the bole of a tree. The lies were coming thick and fast now, each story worse and more degrading to her honour than the last. She and Mylo knew the truth and Kally drew some strength from that. One day it would come out and those liars would find themselves dishonoured.
She placed her hand against the frost-coated window of her room. The cold seemed to seep through her fingers and to her heart. "Lady Varna," she whispered, "if you can hear me and can grant me but one wish, let it be that you will look after Mylo Sandine."
Mylo walked the horse across the village square and pointedly ignored the stares and gestures that suggested he was mad, made by the people he passed. The gate was open and unguarded. He passed through and walked the slope down to the ford. There, he halted. He had no memory of the previous night, though Mylo remembered Kally's delighted smile and her infectious giggle as she told of the speed of their ride and how she had jumped the village gate. Mylo smiled and nudged the horse forward into the icy water of the ford. A moment later he was on the other side of the river and spurred his mount into a trot. Hesard's Ford receded into the distance.
The cold cut through Mylo's armour and clothing and his left shoulder was stiff. He rolled it to alleviate the stiffness and felt a stinging pain shoot down to his fingers. Kally had assured him the wound was clean and healing nicely but had made him promise not to over-exert his left arm. Some hope of that, he thought grimly. He rode the same route he had taken with Kally on the way to the farm. About a mile away, before the rise which hid the farm from view, he dismounted and tethered the horse in a small copse of trees. He magicked a carrot from behind the animal's ear and whispered, “I'll not be long,” as the horse crunched its way through the carrot.
Mylo lay flat on his belly in the snow near the crest of the rise. He craned his neck and peered down the slope towards the farm. Even from here, he could see the fresh signs of the destruction the Orc raiders had caused, which made the previous damage even uglier. All five of the graves had been violated but it seemed that his mother's resting place had been desecrated the most. Mylo did as he had been trained to do. He lay in the freezing snow and watched and waited. Nothing moved in the farm or the lands around it. Mylo could just make out the patch of bushes near the river from which he and Kally had seen the Orcs unearth his mother's skull. Snow had covered the bodies of the Orcs, the one he had killed and the one Kally had ridden down, and masked the churned ground and other signs of the battle.
Where to go from here? Mylo thought. The obvious course would be to head for the raiders last known camp, which he judged to be two or three miles south of the farm and set back into the woods. To do that would mean crossing the open fields of the old farm and a man on horseback would stick out like a sore thumb. He would be dead before he reached the eaves of the wood. Mylo determined to follow the escape route he and Kally had taken. He would ride for the river and follow its southern bank to the woods. Then he would walk the horse south, towards the Orc camp and see what he found. And, at the first chance he had, Mylo would gut the Orc magician who had desecrated his parents' graves. If he didn't escape with his life, Mylo's only regret would be never seeing Kally again.
Kally was in Hesard's Ford, safe for now, at least. She had managed to tell him some of the gossip and lies being told about their earlier adventure. It scared him, how quickly such lies could spread and, worse still, be believed and taken as truth. His reputation amongst the village girls didn't help, of course, but those occasions when he'd had to tell the truth and had always been proven honest had been forgotten. From what he had heard, if he had dragged Kally into the hayloft and had his way with her there and then, her reputation and his would have been less degraded, than it was now.
So full of such bleak thoughts was Mylo Sandine as he backed down from the rise overlooking the farm that he failed to notice two life-saving details. First, he seemed to have left no footprints in the snow on his walk from the horse to his vantage point on the rise. Second, his tracks down from the rise back to the horse were being filled with snow and covered up even as he walked.
Mylo saw the flaw in his plan when he reached the steeper sides of the river. Leading the horse down the slope had been difficult but taking the animal up that hill would be even more arduous and dangerously noisy. Instead, Mylo fitted the horse's nosebag but did not tether the animal this time. If the Orcs blundered upon the poor beast, at least it would have a chance to flee from their maltreatment. With luck, it would not wander far and still be here when he got back.
He scrambled up the slope and waited just at the crest of the rise. He was torn between sprinting the fifty or so yards to the forest or crawling through the snow. Indecision, his Boss had taught, like carelessness, distraction and haste, could kill a man in this position. Mylo buried his face in the snow for a few short seconds of blistering cold. When he looked up, Mylo's mind was clear again and he began the crawl to the edge of the wood. Kally was waiting for him at the Inn. He would get back to her.
Mylo allowed himself a breather under the trees. He kept a watchful eye open as he ate the bread and beef Kally had prepared for him. While he ate, he thought. Is what I'm doing right? Mylo wondered. I'm alone out here and I'm chasing revenge I might never get. Has the battlefever really taken me? He couldn't work out whether these glum thoughts or the snow really chilled him the most.
After his rest, Mylo pressed on, cautiously working his way south towards the Orc camp. He covered the first mile with some ease as he dodged from tree, to bush, to boulder. He kept alert at all times and meticulously planned each move. The cold failed to bite through the leather breastplate of his armour and the conical, brass edged helmet did not dull his hearing. As he advanced, Mylo got more used to the armour and its weight and soon he was moving as fluidly as he had, unarmoured, on the day he and Kally had found Sergeant Astil.
He leaned with his back against a tree and wiped the sweat from his forehead. It was not the sweat of exertion, it was the sweat of cold fear which he could feel slithering down his spine. The entire forest seemed still and the loudest sounds he could hear were his own breathing and the thumping of his heart.
Mylo slowed his progress as he approached where the Orc camp had been. Sure enough, he heard the raucous voices of the Orc warriors and the distressed whinnies of the horse they had stolen from the caravan. He peered around the trunk of a tree and looked into the hollow slightly below him.
The camp was a hive of activity. Weapons were being sharpened, the lean-tos and makeshift tents struck, packaged and tied to the horse, armour tightened, and the camp fires quenched. The Orcs busied themselves with their tasks and were seemingly not distracted by squabbles, arguments and simmering aggression Mylo thought was typical of their kind.
The Orc magician stood on a tree stump and let out a howl of fury. The warriors turned to look at the magician and fell quiet.
Mylo did not understand much Orcish. Those miners who had traded at Hesard's Ford market spoke a broken but just understandable form of the human tongue. He thought he knew the Orc word for "beer" and the Orc miners had shouted for him as "whelp" or "runt", rather than Boy. He wasn't sure which he preferred. As Mylo listened to the magician's speech, he picked out the words "Hesard's Ford" and perhaps "war" or "blood". The rest of the speech was typical Orcish gutteral, gibberish but, at the end, the warriors clashed their fists against their blackened-steel breastplates and raised sword and shield to the sky. The warcry they screamed held the promise of violence, bloodshed, slaughter and, worst of all, insane pleasure in the deaths of their enemies.
Thirty steel-armoured Orcs marched to battle. These were the warriors that had defeated trained Imerian cavalry. Now they were advancing on the villagers of Hesard's Ford. Mylo's guts churned as he understood the danger his people were in.
Mylo waited until the Orcs had left the hollow and the noise of their march had receded into the distance. Then he skirted the edge of the hollow and slipped down into the now-deserted camp. A foul reek permeated the air from the Orc latrine pit on the southern edge of the camp. The rest of the camp was a wreck of smashed equipment, scattered and still-smouldering fires, and the remains of the deer's butchered carcass.
Mylo was no woodsman but even he could see the tracks left by the Orcs as they had broken camp and headed east. He had arrived too late! Now he faced a stark choice. Either run back to his horse and ride to Hesard's Ford to alert the village or trail the Orcs back on foot, hope he wasn't spotted and try, closer to home, to spoil their plans. Neither of these plans was a great option.
A sharp crack sounded from behind him. Mylo whirled and drew his sword. The boy's eyes widened in surprise. "Sergeant Astil! What are you doing here?" Then, fear grabbed Mylo's heart. "Where is Goody Bamber? Is she alright? Did the Orcs find you?"
Sergeant Astil stood at the opposite edge of the hollow with wary look in his eyes. It took a moment for him to answer. What he had just seen had shaken his already fragile will. "Goody Bamber is well, though rather angry with me. The Orcs came nowhere near us." The sergeant paused and looked more carefully at Mylo. "It's not the Orcs I'm worried about. It's you."
"What do you mean?"
"Look around you, Mylo," said the sergeant.
Mylo did as he was told. At first he could see nothing strange and nothing that should have worried the sergeant. He looked around the abandoned camp and back along his route from the top of the hollow to where he had hidden, listening to the magician's battle cry. Still nothing. But then, he realised, that was the Sergeant's point. He could see none of his footprints in the snow. Under the forest canopy there was no new snowfall to mask his tracks. They should be as plain as day.
He looked straight down at his feet. Every footprint he had made up to that point had been erased! Cautiously, Mylo took a few steps backward. His eyes widened as he saw his prints slowly fill in until it was as if he had never stepped there.
Mylo looked up in wonder. “I don't know what's happening, Sergeant,” he said, a little weakly. Mylo paused when he saw a look of suspicion growing in Sergeant Astil's eyes. “This isn't any sort of magic, Sergeant. I'm no wizard. This isn't my doing!” Mylo was beginning to panic. He raised the point of his sword and aimed in the Sergeant's direction. What if the battlefever had not truly left the sergeant? Was he seeing Mylo or an Orc? Mylo was well aware, too, of Imerian distrust of seers, magic and witchcraft. Did the Sergeant think him a witch?
Sergeant Astil slowly raised his hands. “Mylo, calm down. Please.” Sergeant Astil fought to conquer his distrust of magic and witchcraft. Had not Goody Bamber saved his life? And the girl Kally had obviously overcome her suspicions as well. The soldier nodded. "I know it is not you, Mylo, that is causing this. My worry is what may be causing this and is it dangerous to you, me and the people in Hesard's Ford."
Mylo tightened his grip on his sword hilt. "I don't really care whether it's dangerous to me, Sergeant," he said, defiantly. "It's hiding my footprints so maybe I can get closer to the magician who dug up my parents' graves!" Astil gasped and Mylo explained what he and Kally had seen on their journey back to Hesard's Ford. He omitted the sound of his mother's voice from his retelling, however. If Astil was still suspicious of witchcraft within him, then Mylo did not want to further increase those suspicions with stories of spirits and ghosts.
"You have my sympathy, Mylo," Sergeant Astil said. "Witchcraft is sinful in my eyes, and the eyes of my people, but such death magic is the blackest evil. On my honour, Mylo Sandine, I will help you in any way I can to root out this evil."
Mylo nodded and sheathed his sword. "Shall we see where they've gone?"
Cautiously, the two men followed the Orcs' tracks to the edge of the wood. They took cover in the undergrowth and watched the Orcs' progress across the open ground towards Hesard's Ford. Mylo, at least, drew some satisfaction from having taken the more circuitous, but covered, route. He could have been spotted so easily had he ridden across the open ground.
The Orcs drew to a halt. There was some argument and flung fists between the warriors until the magician raised his staff and yelled an order that brought the argument to a stop. After a short heated exchange, the magician departed with a handful of the warriors and the rest of the troops went a separate way. It became clear, after a few moments, that the magician and its bodyguard were heading for the farm while the bulk of the troops, nearly thirty of them, set off in the direction of Hesard's Ford.
Mylo instantly got to his feet and started walking north. "I left a horse in some cover near the river," he explained over his shoulder. "If we get there quickly enough, and the Orcs haven't found him already, you can ride for the Ford and alert the village."
The Sergeant struggled upright. His wounds, while healing, were still painful and his breathing was laboured. "And you?" he asked.
"I'm heading for the farm."
"I promised I'd help you against that evil, Mylo," the Sergeant replied. "Surely, I should face the magician. I have more experience in combat, after all."
"No!" Mylo responded, angrily. "That magician is mine! He violated the last resting place of my parents and three good, solid farm workers." He calmed slowly after the outburst. "You would be better at the village, Sergeant. You are the only man your men will follow. They won't take orders from Kally's father. All they want to do is get drunk in the Inn. You need to be there to get them to stand and fight." Mylo paused and the rest of his anger drained away. "You'll be keeping your promise if you keep Kally safe. Without her, I'd have died two days ago. I promised her I would meet her back at the Inn but I'd only do that if she was there waiting for me."
Now with little fear of being spotted by the Orcs, Mylo and Sergeant Astil moved quickly, almost fled, north, through the forest to where Mylo had left the horse. Fortune smiled on them, as the animal had not wandered off during Mylo's absence. They walked the horse along the river bank until the steep sides began to lower. Sergeant Astil mounted and swayed uncertainly in the saddle.
Mylo could see blood seep slowly through the man's clothing and a grimace of pain clouded the Sergeant's face.
“It's alright, Mylo,” Astil said through gritted teeth. “One of the cuts has reopened, though not severely. I think our hike through the woods has undone some of Goody Bamber's work.”
“Kally can help,” Mylo said firmly. “She cured the poison from my shoulder and the wound is healing. Kally learned from Goody Bamber and she'll be able to help you, too.” They shook hands. “Get to the village, Sergeant. Warn them.” Astil nodded once and began to trot the horse along the river. After a few moments, he rounded a bend and was lost to Mylo's sight.
Sergeant Astil slowed the horse and looked south over the snowfields. There, about three miles distant, he could see the Orc raiding party moving over the plain. They were making good progress, it seemed, though this was marred by occasional breaks as the warriors squabbled and discipline was enforced with the iron-shod boots and fists of their leaders. Astil had heard it said that Orcs really only followed orders in the heat of battle and his earlier experiences during the caravan attack bore out that theory.
He turned his gaze east, in the direction of Hesard's Ford. There was a slope rising in front of him and he felt certain that he would be seen as soon as he crested that hill. That might spur the Orcs into greater efforts and speed their approach to the village.
But he had to get back to Hesard's Ford. Nearly thirty heavily armed and armoured Orc warriors were a serious threat. The population of Hesard's Ford numbered nearly five times that but, by Mylo's reckoning, perhaps only fifty men were of fighting age and most of these were untrained civilians, lacking armour and weapons to withstand an assault. Mylo had said six of his own men had survived the caravan attack but were intent on drinking themselves into a stupor. Well, he thought, that would have to change.
With that thought, Sergeant Astil kicked the flanks of his horse and sped for the village.
Mylo took cover in the bushes along the river. From here, he could see the farm and kept careful watch as he saw the Orc magician and three warriors arrive. The warriors spread out and stood guard. At least one carried a bow with the arrow already nocked. Mylo felt his blood rise and anger burn in his heart as he watched the magician impale his mother's skull on a sharpened stake. The magician then began scratching around in the dirt, though Mylo could not discern what he was doing.
From his hiding place it was about two hundred yards to the rear wall of the ruined farm building. Two hundred yards of open ground where once turnips and other root vegetables had grown. A single glance in his direction would be all it would take and the Orcs would shoot him down before he reached cover. Mylo thought for a moment and then looked back over his shoulder. His footprints were still masked as though covered by falling snow. He could, however, clearly see the horse's hoofprints as Sergeant Astil had ridden away. It seemed, then, that he was still under the disguising power the Sergeant had been so wary of. How long it would last, Mylo couldn't care. So long as it remained with him for two hundred yards.
Mylo crawled through the snow like a worm, flat on his belly, his head down. He paused every few yards and peered behind him. Sure enough, his progress was being hidden, his tracks filled in. He peeked up above the snow and realised he had covered half the distance without being seen.
The sound of chanting in coarse, guttural Orcish reached him now and something seemed to glow in the air over to his right. Mylo could feel the fear deep within him and it took a long time to make his next move through the snow. Twenty yards from the ruined farmhouse Mylo could hear the chanting reach fever pitch. The Orc was screaming now and Mylo took one more upward glance. He could see the magician pounding the butt of his staff repeatedly into the ground.
Mylo rolled the last few yards to shelter against the ruined wall of the farmhouse. The Orc was still screaming. He glanced quickly back over his shoulder and watched as his tracks were covered up again. Was it just his eyesight playing tricks, failing as darkness drew closer and the pain of his shoulder wound throbbed and fear knotted his guts? Or were his tracks being covered even more quickly than he had made the move?
The Sergeant rode through the ford, up the slope and in through the village's open gate. In the square, people were going about their normal business, seemingly heedless of the threat approaching. His men would be in the Inn, so he tethered the horse at the hitching post and marched into the building.
Astil was a man not given to temper and his anger now was channelled in a controlled, almost chilling manner. After a parade-ground barracking, which the villagers and other Imerians also heard, he finished quite simply. "The Orcs are about an hour away. We have to prepare as much defence as we can. Get to your posts."
His men staggered to their feet and rushed to find their weapons and armour.
The Sergeant then turned to the Innkeeper. "Any of your people who can handle a weapon or shoot a bow, should prepare themselves as best they can."
"Sergeant Astil!" Kally's voice sounded clearly over the crowd. Confined to her room, she had missed most of the Sergeant's speech. "What are you doing here?" She looked expectantly around. "And where is Mylo?"
The Sergeant looked at the girl and could see the fear in her eyes. She was obviously terrified of losing the boy. "I have a message for you, Miss. In private, please."
Kally felt her heart sink as Sergeant Astil led her to the side of the common room. She knew what Mylo had had in mind when he left the village but she needed news whether good or bad. "Where is he?" she asked again.
"As we travelled back here, Mylo and I saw the raiders split up. Most of them are on their way here. Some of them, led by a magician of some sort, headed for the ruined farm. Mylo thinks the magician will try some black sorcery with the bones of his mother and aims to stop it."
Kally nodded. "I knew Mylo's plans. I lied to my father so he would not believe Mylo to be mad."
"I had to leave him to ride back here," Astil went on. "Before we parted, he asked me to look after you. I gave him my word that I would." He paused for a moment. "Mylo obviously cares for you very deeply."
Kally managed a weak smile. "And I for him, Sergeant."
The Orc's final scream struck Mylo's heart like a thunderbolt. The boy's whole body seemed to be wrenched into a twisted horseshoe as pain shot through him. Mylo struggled not to scream in response and tasted blood in his mouth as he bit down hard on the back of his hand. As the pain faded from his left hand, Mylo realised something else had faded. The sound of the Orc's screams had faded also and its steady murmur was the loudest sound over the gentle fall of the snow and a woman's voice, whispering from untold distances.
Mylo, through frost-crusted eyes, could see the vague shape of a grey-clad woman, standing head bowed in front of the Orc magician.
“I am here. I have answered your summons. I am yours to command.”
He watched the final violation of his mother's spirit as the Orc magician pulled the stake bearing the woman's skull from the ground. The magician raised the stake and bellowed its orders at the ghost.
“As you wish,” the voice answered, with the crystal clarity Mylo remembered from his childhood.
Mylo could not understand the Orc's next words but he felt what happened. A wind more chill than the Winter's deepest cold circled the farm. The Orc guards let out yells of panic as the cold cut into them. He watched the grey shade of his mother fly towards Hesard's Ford. As her spirit passed, he heard her voice again. Only you can save me, Mylo.
The Sergeant turned to his men, Kally's father, and the leaders of the village. His men, at least, had recovered their armour and their military bearing while the village men, the blacksmith, a carpenter and a stonemason, good solid tradesmen all, held the tools of their trades as weapons in shaking hands. Only the innkeeper seemed calm and stood with a hand resting on the hilt of a scabbarded broadsword.
"About thirty Orcs are approaching from the west. They are heavily armed and clad in plate mail, which, I am told, is unusual for their kind in this region. They are not easy foes to beat, even for a trained soldier. There is hope that, with determination and sound defences on our side, we can at least beat them back." He paused when he saw the expressions of discomfort and doubt on the faces of his men. "Know this," he went on, "a single boy, Mylo Sandine, has killed three of these Orcs already. He was untrained, ill-equipped and unarmoured and still he won."
"He has probably run away by now," said Kally's father. "That boy cannot be trusted, Sergeant." This comment drew murmurs of assent from some of the village men.
"It seems the Orcs have magic of the blackest sort on their side. When last I saw Mylo, he was preparing to attack that magician himself. There was nothing but honour and bravery in that young man's heart, Sir. He asked me to return here, to warn you all and prepare the defence of this village." The Sergeant paused and looked Kally's father in the eyes. "I trust him, even if you do not, Sir."
The tension dissipated from the group and Sergeant Astil turned to business. "The Orcs will have to cross the river to gain entry to the village and the only safe place for that is across the ford. I propose we block the gate with our broken wagon and any other gaps between the houses with makeshift barricades. Then we get the women and children to the houses on the east of the village, furthest from the Orcs' line of attack. Our serviceable wagons are to be prepared in case the women need to take flight with the children."
There was a footfall behind him. Mylo turned to see one of the Orc guards as it gazed into the sky, following the flight of his mother's shade. The Orc smiled, if the contortions of its face could be called that, then scanned the land around the farm. Mylo held his breath as the Orc's eyes passed over his own hiding place without pause. As the Orc turned away to inspect another area of his watch, Mylo let out his held breath and rose to his knees, then to a crouch. He followed the Orc.
Mylo waited, sword in hand, with a clear view of the Orc's back. His gaze roved over the ruined farm where he could see one of the other guards and the magician who had fallen to its knees and seemed to be muttering to itself. The third guard, however, was out of sight, having patrolled off beyond the farm's gate. That was good, Mylo thought, because his quarry had turned to follow the other's progress and its attention was elsewhere, now. Distraction can kill faster than carelessness, Mylo thought. He slipped from cover, straightened, and padded the short distance to his target.
From his previous encounters, Mylo knew that his sword would skitter off the steel armour plate. He had watched his quarry for several minutes in an attempt to ascertain any weaknesses. There was a narrow gap in the Orc's ill-fitting armour. Mylo aimed at the gap and, with no hesitation, drove the point of his sword into the Orc's back. The blow came to a juddering halt as the sword met the inside of Orc's breastplate. The Orc grunted in pain and almost let out a howl. Mylo swiftly withdrew his sword and drew the edge across the Orc's throat. But as black blood poured from the wounds the dead Orc pitched forward and landed with a resounding clatter of metal on the stonework of the farmhouse wall.
Mylo looked, shocked, at the fallen Orc. Part of him could not believe he had made such a kill. Assassin! his mind screamed. His act had just trampled the honour of trained soldiers like Sergeant Astil into the mud. But another part of Mylo's self felt proud that he had taken one of these savages, quickly, quietly and with a ruthless efficiency his boss would have been proud of.
The first attack came moments after the village gate had been barricaded with the broken wagon. A storm of arrows arched high over the village and plunged into the square. Men and women screamed in terror and ran for cover. Kally saw one of the villagers fall with an arrow in his back. She saw more arrows hit the barricade at the gate and heard the most ungentlemanly curse from Sergeant Astil as one of those arrows landed a bare foot from his hand.
Kally turned to her own work. At her father's great displeasure, Kally had refused to run for cover on the east side of the village. Instead, she was busily converting the Inn's common room into a hospital ward for the injured and dying. She and some of the village women were tearing bedclothes into bandages and slings and Mina, the girl who had had Mylo in her bed, was stoking the fire to boil water. Kally reached for the mortar and pestle and began preparing the adder-root and red willow leaves to use on the Orc poisons.
The next sound Mylo became aware of, as he watched the Orc's black blood seep into the snow, was a loud hiss and a splintering crack as an arrow ricocheted off the stonework. He jolted back to his senses and saw the Orc readying another arrow. Mylo dived for cover behind the wall and heard the arrow clang against the armour of the Orc he had just killed. He scrambled through the snow on hands and knees and could hear Orcish shouts, baying for blood. His blood.
Mylo tried to calm his fears. He was outnumbered again and this time at least one of his enemies carried a bow. Then there was the magician to consider, of course. What could that creature unleash? He could hear the Orc warriors running towards the farmhouse. After a moment's further listening, it became clear to Mylo that they had split up, and were attempting a two-pronged attack. IOr would Sergeant Astil call it search and destroy, Mylo reflected glumly. He could but hope that his hidden footprints would mislead the Orcs and allow him the relative safety of a one on one fight. He scuttled in a crouch to the corner of the building and looked around.
Sure enough, there was the Orc archer. It advanced slowly across the open ground of the farmyard, its bow poised with an arrow nocked and ready. Mylo strained to hear the second Orc warrior but had lost track of its footsteps through the soft snow and the fearful beating of his heart.
A strange calmness overtook Mylo at that time. Unthinkingly, he drew the small knife from his belt and waited until the archer had advanced another five yards. Then the boy burst from cover and hurled the knife at the Orc. As he had expected, the small weapon clattered harmlessly off the archer's breastplate but the clang of impact shocked the Orc into loosing its arrow too soon.
Mylo charged full pelt through the snow and drove his sword at the archer's chest. In a panic, the Orc raised its bow in an attempt to parry the boy's sword. The wooden bow stave cracked under the impact and the Orc dropped the useless weapon. Mylo pressed his advantage as the Orc was now unarmed and its shield was slung across its back. His next blow skidded off the Orc's armour and what Mylo had hoped would be a deft, backhanded slash at the Orc's neck clattered off the pauldron and deflected the blade over the Orc's head. Mylo spun away on his heel and saw the Orc pull an ugly-looking mace from its belt.
The creature bellowed and swung the mace two-handed at Mylo who managed to dodge to one side. The mace landed heavily in the ground and threw up a blinding plume of snow. Mylo battered the pommel of his sword into the Orc's face and black blood spilled down from the ruined nose. The creature howled but swung its mace back at Mylo who ducked at the last second and felt the wind of the weapon's passing as it missed him by inches. Mylo cut back at the Orc and struck the creature's shoulder with a resounding crash of metal on metal. Rather than skidding off the plate, this time the blade found the joint between the pauldron and the backplate of the Orc's armour. Mylo felt the sword cut through the Orc's skin and grind against the shoulder blade.
The Orc tried to swing the mace again but with one arm now hanging useless, the blow fell short. Mylo twisted his sword free, making the warrior scream, and with one blow took the Orc's head from its shoulders.
Under cover of arrow fire, a dozen Orc warriors splashed across the ford and charged the barricade. The men of Hesard's Ford mounted a stern defence of their village and beat back the first wave with no loss. The Orcs fled back to their lines to regroup and ready themselves for a new attack. A brave Hesard's Ford man climbed up onto the barricade and shot a lightweight hunting arrow, suitable for killing pigeons and little else, back at the jeering Orcs. Black-fletched Orc arrows took him in the chest and he fell dead to the ground.
The Orcs charged in a mass, next. Two dozen warriors stormed the barricade and cut down several defenders before retreating again, this time with no loss to themselves. Shaken, the men looked at their fallen, some friends, some relatives.
"Steady, men," cried Sergeant Astil. "We must hold them here." But something worried the Sergeant. Only two thirds of the Orcs' numbers had joined the last assault. Where were the rest? In reserve?
Suddenly there was uproar from the northern edge of the village. Astil turned and saw two of his own Imerians cut down as a handful of Orcs broke down a flimsy barricade and stormed into the village square.
Astil ran for the square, followed by a few of the villagers, Kally's father and the innkeeper, and they met the Orcs head on. As they clashed, there was further fighting from the gate barricade. Battle was truly joined now.
The battlecry alerted Mylo to a new danger. He whirled on the spot in time to see the third Orc charging towards him, its cleaver-like sword above its head. Mylo grasped his own sword in both hands and met the attack with a parry which sent sparks flying from both blades. He cursed viciously as vibrations from the impact sent shockwaves into his arms and jolted his left shoulder. He felt the wound split again and blood began to seep down his back.
He blinked back tears of pain as the Orc pressed the attack. Mylo was driven back through the snow in a withering hail of slashes and cuts he could barely dodge, let alone parry. Panic began to set in as Mylo caught sight of the Orc magician who had risen from its knees now. He had no time to fear what spell might catch him in the back, however, as the Orc warrior attacked with a slash that threatened to decapitate him. Mylo ducked and darted in, under the warrior's guard, and stabbed with all the force he could muster. The Orc's armour split under Mylo's attack and the point of his sword penetrated the blackened steel breastplate. The boy staggered back, wrenched his own weapon free and Orc's blood spurted from the hole in the armour. The Orc bellowed and brought his own sword down towards Mylo's head.
He jumped, fell and scrambled a few feet backwards away from the warrior. It took a step forwards and raised its sword. How could it still be standing after I stabbed it like that? Mylo could scarcely believe his eyes as the Orc advanced on him. He struggled back to his feet and stood to meet the Orc's next attack. I might die here, Mylo thought, but I'm damned if I'll die on my knees!
The warrior's next attack was surely destined to split Mylo from shoulder to sternum but he parried the down swing with a firm double-handed grip on his sword. Mylo screamed as the pain lanced down through his left shoulder again. As he backed away from the Orc, Mylo noticed that the warrior's pursuit was slowing. Black blood was flowing freely over the Orc's armour and down its left leg and the warrior was limping now as it followed Mylo's retreat.
Seeing this weakness, Mylo stood his ground. The Orc was slower and clumsier now and made an almost feeble attempt to slash across Mylo's stomach. The boy dodged and the Orc's sword hissed past his belly. Mylo brought his own sword down on the Orc's forearm and sliced through armour, flesh and bone in a move which cut the sword, hand and all, from the Orc's body. With one last thrust, Mylo drove his sword into the Orc's stomach and it fell, dead at his feet.
Mylo turned and saw the Orc magician staring at him. It was leaning heavily on its staff and was still muttering under its breath. Mylo raised his sword and advanced on the creature he believed had ordered the desecration of his parents' graves and had some control over his mother's spirit. As he approached, he realised the Orc was not staring at him but seemed to be in some trance. Its gaze was to the east, towards Hesard's Ford. Its yellow eyes were glazed with milky cataracts and a thick drool of saliva was pouring from the corner of its mouth. The muttering continued, sounding to Mylo like gravel being stirred slowly in a bucket.
Guilt and doubt assailed the boy's conscience. The way he had killed the first Orc, with a stab in the back, reeked to Mylo of murder. The magician appeared to be unaware of Mylo's presence and was similarly defenceless. Would gutting the sorcerer like a pig be murder? Mylo wondered.He followed the direction of the Orc's gaze and his breath caught in his throat. The sky above Hesard's Ford was black as pitch and seemed to roil with clouds darker still. He looked quickly west, towards the setting Sun, where the sky still held the faint hint of daylight. The eastern sky should not be that dark. Mylo's heart sank. His mother's spirit, forced by the Orc, was doing this and bringing who knew what terror to the people of his village and, more importantly, to Kally. Mylo's right hand tightened on the hilt of his sword and he advanced on the magician. With grim determination, he aimed at the Orc's chest and stabbed towards the heart. There was a blinding flash of light as the point struck a small metal amulet dangling from a chain above the Orc's heart. The explosion sent a shockwave through Mylo's right arm and flung him backwards to the ground. His sword flew from his numb fingers and landed, point first in the snow a dozen yards away.
Mylo groaned and looked up from where he lay face down in the snow. He could barely move his right arm and his left shoulder ached terribly. Then he heard the footsteps behind him and just managed to turn before a heavy boot caught him in the ribs. The leather armour stopped most of the impact but his breath was driven from him as he was sent sprawling through the snow. The Orc's gravelly laughter followed Mylo as he scrambled on his hands and knees, heading for his sword.
The Orc followed Mylo, swinging the iron-shod quarterstaff through the air and landing its spiked end in the snow near the boy, chasing him, taunting him with the threat of a painful death. It reversed the staff and caught Mylo's left leg with the butt. The boy screamed against the pain, rolled over and his hand closed about the hilt of his sword.
Mylo slashed blindly behind him and was rewarded with thud as the sword bit into the Orc's leg. The magician screeched and staggered back a few paces. Mylo summoned the last reserves of his strength and rose to his feet.
They faced each other for a long moment. Mylo could see that the cataracts had cleared from the Orc's eyes and its gaze was fixed on him, full of malevolence. It raised its staff and howled at the sky. Sparks crackled around the staff and it seemed to glow with reddish light as the magician limped towards Mylo.
The boy readied himself as best he could. His entire body ached and he could feel the blood seeping from his shoulder wound. He ducked the magician's first attack and felt the staff whistle overhead. Mylo countered, swiftly darting his sword at the magician's arm and drawing some more black blood. The next blow came straight at Mylo's head and he jumped back out of reach. The magician had overstretched in his blood-crazed desire to kill Mylo and the spiked end of the staff buried itself in the snow. Mylo saw his chance and chopped his sword down upon the staff. Once. Twice. The staff splintered and then broke in two.
The Orc roared in frustration and reeled back from Mylo's furious counter-attack. But it slipped on the snow, staggered and fell to its knees. Mylo threw himself at the fallen Orc and stabbed viciously at the creature's stomach. Black blood gouted from the wound and the creature howled in pain. Mylo struck once more and left his sword buried in the Orc's heart. The magician's body stiffened as its life fled and black blood stained the snow. Mylo collapsed to his knees and howled in a maelstrom of grief, pain and fear.
The boy fell face forward into the snow and all was quiet.
The voice as clear as crystal echoed around Mylo's mind. “Mother?” he managed in a hoarse whisper. He looked up at the shining figure which floated a foot above the snow in front of him.
Mylo, my sweet, my son.
As the voice flowed through Mylo's mind, a warmth came with it, the warmth of a mother's embrace of her battered and exhausted child. The warmth banished the chill from Mylo's flesh and eased the pain in his shoulder. He struggled to his feet and stood, swaying slightly, to face the ghost of his mother. She looks beautiful, he thought. The grey tatters of the dress in which she had been buried ten years ago had been made whole again and her blonde hair flowed down over her shoulders, as sleek and golden as Mylo remembered. Her whole form was limned in a glowing white light which spread in a pool about her feet and surrounded Mylo.
You have saved me, Mylo.
“I don't understand,” he replied, his voice now growing stronger as his fear, pain and exhaustion were driven from him by his mother's warmth.
I was a coward all those years ago, my son. I feared the rape and brutality the Orcs would have visited upon me. I deserted you and took my own life.
The spirit looked down at the ground and avoided her son's eyes. Tears which glittered like diamonds fell from her cheeks and pattered to the snow with a gentle tinkling sound.
“You could not have faced them, Mother,” Mylo answered. “Had you fought them then their brutality would have been worse than had you surrendered. You hid me well and you knew they would never find me. That's not cowardice. Not in my eyes.”
In the eyes of the spirits and the gods, my act was sinful. I was forbidden to pass through to the spirit realms and have remained, rooted here, ever since. Your father died a hero's death and I have been unable to join him because of my cowardice.
The ghost paused for a moment and gestured towards the fallen Orc magician. This creature knew, somehow, of that black shame upon my spirit. At his command, I wreaked terrible harm in Hesard's Ford.
“Kally!” Mylo cried.
At that, the spirit of Mylo's mother looked back at her son. Her smile was radiant and she laughed with the same delight as when Mylo had taken his first steps and spoken his first word.
Kally. Is that her name? I always wondered what your first love would be called. Mylo mumbled something under his breath and shook his head. The spirit laughed even more and the white glow about her became tinged with gold. Say what you will, Mylo. I can see it in your heart. She paused. And in hers.
“What?” Mylo asked.
Your young lady is safe. She came to no harm from me or the Orcs. I swear that to you, Mylo. The terror I brought to Hesard's Ford, however, will not be undone easily. She finished sadly and looked away from her son in the direction of the village.
“What did this bastard make you do?” Mylo asked. He had a nasty suspicion that he would be held in some way responsible for the terror.
I shattered the gate barricade and made many of the defenders fear for their lives. Fear weakened them and made them easier prey for the Orcs. I give you my word that I harmed not one man, woman or child in the village. I just made the Orcs' task easier for them.
“How could you have done this, Mother?”
I had no choice. The magician could toy with my soul and inflict searing pain upon me with but a word. He read my past and knew about you. He said he would find and kill you too if I failed him. At that, the sadness left the spirit's voice and a lightness came to her tone in Mylo's mind. But he did not know you were so close to hand. He did not know your intent. You were hidden from him by what force I do not know. When you attacked, you broke the spell he had over me. You, my son, released me from the bond and I took my revenge. The voice became grim. I used fear to root them to the spot so the defenders of Hesard's Ford could slay ten of them where they stood. Then I felt the magician himself die under your sword and winged here to see you.
Mylo looked with wonder at the glowing spirit of his mother. She was smiling now and the guilt, shame and fear had lifted from around her. The gold which suffused her aura intensified with each passing moment.
My sin is now erased. My debt repaid through the bravery of you, my son. I am being granted the chance to travel to the spirit realms to join with your father. To spend eternity in warmth and happiness with the man I love. He will be proud of you when I tell him how you have grown and of the bravery and honour which rests in your heart.
The sky above the spirit of Mylo's mother began to glow a pale blue which intensified and flashed silver sparks.
Farewell, Mylo, the spirit said as it rose higher into the air towards the blue glow. I will always love you.
“Will I ever see you again?” Mylo called up to the receding spirit of his mother.
I know not if that will be possible, she answered, somewhat sadly. But Goody Bamber may be able to help. The voice acquired a slight sternness, a motherly lecture she had never been able to deliver in life. Treat your young lady with the honour and love you have shown her already and she will repay you tenfold.
The blue glow faded and darkness fell over Mylo Sandine.
Mylo looked around the ruins of his childhood home. He could see the bodies of the Orcs he had killed which were now being covered with a light dusting of snow. He turned his gaze to the sky. The Moon peered through gaps in the cloud and shed her clean, silvery light over the battlefield. Perhaps the land itself would become clean now that his mother had been laid to rest.
Mylo walked the few steps to the body of the Orc magician. He approached warily, half dreading the creature to spring back to life, or unlife, or whatever black magic could power the corpse. After watching for a moment, seeing no signs of life in the Orc, Mylo reached out and grasped the hilt of his sword. With a single bone-cracking wrench, Mylo pulled the sword free and backed quickly away. He kept is eyes fixed on the corpse and stood ready to fight off whatever evil magic might bring it to life.
The young man released his held breath in a sigh of relief. Mylo turned and walked away from the farm, back towards Hesard's Ford and the girl he promised to meet at the Inn. He looked back only once and could clearly see the way he had walked, his footprints visible in the snow.
The night air was cold and sharp in Mylo's lungs as he hiked the miles to the village but the journey was not uncomfortable to him. He still felt his mother's warmth in his limbs and heart and he walked without fatigue or fear. Under different circumstances Mylo's walk might have been pleasant. With the battle he had fought behind him and the ruin he expected to see in the village lying ahead of him, however, Mylo felt sadness, loss and a vague sense of unease begin to stir in his stomach.
He heard the clatter of metal on metal some distance ahead. It was the unmistakable sound of troops moving in plate mail armour and could mean only one thing. Mylo flattened himself behind a tree and peered around the trunk. Sure enough, three Orcs were blundering towards his hiding place. They made no attempt to conceal their progress and were heading away from Hesard's Ford. Mylo slid around the trunk of the tree so its bulk was between him and the Orcs as they passed. They're running, Mylo thought as he watched them vanish into the night.
Mylo waited for several more moments and strained his senses almost to breaking point to determine if the Orcs had actually spotted him and were cunningly doubling back to ambush him. When, after a while, there were no signs of the Orcs, Mylo resumed his walk. Now he checked over his shoulder every few yards and slowly relaxed as he heard the sound of the river bubbling over the ford. He walked along the path Kally had ridden on their flight back to the village and emerged beside the ford.
Voices came to him from across the river and he could see the ruin that had been the gate. He could see people running back and forth across the village square. The voices were shouting orders and there were a lot of curses and the grief-stricken cries of men and women. Mylo made his way cautiously across the icy waters of the ford and walked through the ruined village gate.
He spotted Kally in an instant. She had walked through the door of the Inn carrying a heavy wooden bucket. Mylo watched as Kally walked to a fire in what had been the stone water trough and emptied the bucket into the flames. Dark, greenish smoke roiled skywards and Kally staggered back from the fire, coughing heavily.
She wiped the stinging tears from her eyes with the sleeve of her now filthy dress. Her father called from the Inn and Kally turned wearily. The fighting may be over now but her work was still unfinished. At least three more people needed their wounds tended, she was running out of the herbal poultice mixture and the poison-stained bandages she had just burned were the last. In a moment of childish selfishness, Kally promised herself that she would not ruin this, her last dress, to make bandages. A howl of pain from the Inn made her bury that thought. It was a scream she had heard far too many times and meant that one of the people in her charge had felt the acidic, burning pain of the poison lance through their body. She recognised the voice, too. Mina's brother, who had fought with a cudgel when the Orcs had stormed the ruined gate, had taken a blow to the stomach. The wound, while not deep, had bled terribly and now the poison was taking its toll. Kally steeled herself and headed towards the Inn.“Kally?” Mylo said.
The girl whirled on the spot and stared, wide eyed, at Mylo. “Sweet Lady Alora,” she breathed. “Mylo.” Her heart began pounding as she realised that Mylo was there, standing right in front of her. He was not dead. This was not his ghost. He was alive! “Mylo!” she shouted. The weariness and fear fled from her as she and Mylo ran to each other across the village square.
“K ...” Mylo managed to say before Kally's soft, warm lips met his in a kiss that stole his breath away. He lifted the girl and they spun around and around. She broke from the kiss and her wild, joyous laughter cut through the shouts, cries of pain and grieving wails. Mylo kissed her forehead and cheeks and tasted her salty tears before he found her lips and kissed with with warmth and tenderness.
Kally looked up at Mylo.
“I ... ” she began.
“ ... love ... ” he added.
“ ... you!” they said together.