"You took this sword from the prisoner?"
The sweating, battered sergeant-at-arms stood straighter, if that were possible, and fixed his unwavering gaze on a stone in the opposite wall. "Yes, lord."
Anred, High Steward of Carlundy, turned the blade in his hands. "A nice sword," he said thoughtfully, his cascade of double chins wobbling in harmony with the words. "Well-balanced. Well cared-for. Belongs to someone who makes his living by it."
No reply was called for, and the sergeant made none, staring straight ahead with the fixed intensity and lively intelligence of a statue. Anred had a reputation almost as fearsome as that of his master Lord Radwulf, and annoying either of them was apt to remove a man's head from his shoulders and transfer it to a spike on the battlements.
Anred dropped the sword on the table and leaned back in his chair, making the ancient timber groan under the weight.
"I take it the blood on the blade isn't his?"
The sergeant shuffled, embarrassed to admit that ten against one had turned into a struggle. The man had fought like a terrier among rats, stubbornly and with the skill of a lifetime's practice. Something of a contrast with his own company of conscripted yokels, who hardly knew which end of a spear to hold. But if they had no idea how to deal with expert swordsmanship, they knew exactly what would happen if they tried to run away, especially with their sergeant right behind them.
"We got him in th'end, sir."
Anred got up, running a finger around the inside of his collar. Carlundy was sweltering in an end-of-summer heatwave and the normally draughty stone castle was airless and stifling. "I suppose he had better be dealt with. Where is he?"
The sergeant pointed to the floor. "Down below, sir."
The gatehouse was even hotter than the room above, if that were possible. Two pitch-pine torches provided a little light and a lot of acrid smoke, the lake surrounding the castle was beginning to stink in the hot weather, and the dozen or so guards in the room were sweating as if from heavy manual labour. Anred put a handkerchief delicately to his mouth and peered through the gloom.
The prisoner was standing facing the wall, head bowed and hands resting flat to the stones a little above shoulder height. He was tall and lean, with a sinewy figure that looked as if it had never had the chance to carry fat, and he was now rather the worse for wear. His dark hair, streaked with grey, hung heavy with sweat and dust, and his torn shirt was sticking to his body and marked by heavy boots. His right wrist was bleeding and so swollen that it strained at his sleeve, and he was careful not to rest his weight on it. He did not move as the newcomers came in, but continued to stand as quietly and patiently as a cow waiting for slaughter.
"Turn him round!" Anred snapped, and two of the guards seized the prisoner and jerked him round, twisting his injured wrist up behind him with unnecessary force. The man gasped, but he neither screamed nor struggled, and Anred raised a mental eyebrow. Unusual.
It was an unusual face, too, lean and bony and composed entirely of angles and corners. Very far from handsome, it was enlivened by a pair of deep-set grey eyes of undoubted intelligence, and might have been described as interesting in happier circumstances. At present its most striking feature was a jagged gash above one eye, from which great streaks of crusted blood had run down the face and soaked into the shirt. Many more marks, some of which were already coming up into bruises, marred the face and neck, and from his irregular breathing the prisoner was obviously in pain.
"Some o't'lads gor'a bit rough, like," said the sergeant defensively, hoping that Lord Radwulf had intended them to beat the prisoner while arresting him. That was usually a safe bet, but Lord Radwulf's temper was erratic and the penalties for guessing wrong were severe.
Anred ignored him, and addressed the prisoner direct.
"You are Gyrdan, tramp and vagabond?"
"Should you not have found that out before arresting me?"
The man's voice was a little hoarse, probably on account of a punch in the throat, but it was quite calm. He drew himself up straight and his keen eyes flicked appraisingly over Anred, as if their roles were reversed and Anred were the one on trial.
This was unprecedented. For a minute the soldiers stood in dumbfounded silence, and then one of them, clearly hoping for a rising career, shouted,
"On tha knees, scum! And say 'my lord' to thy betters!"
"When I address my betters, I will -"
A fistful of chain mail across his mouth silenced the prisoner, and the soldiers took the opportunity to force him down to his knees and hold him there.
"Gyrdan, tramp and vagabond," repeated Anred. "Do you deny it?"
Gyrdan shook his head, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. "No."
"My lord!" barked the first soldier, unwilling to let go of an idea, and drew back his hand for another blow.
"Enough!" snapped Anred. "Your job, soldier, is to arrest him." He smiled like a shark. "Let him be insolent while he can. Lord Radwulf will soon teach him manners. As he will any who disobey orders."
The soldier saw before him a brief and unpleasant stay in a dungeon followed by a spike with a splendid open-air view, and paled.
"My lord steward, I thought only -"
"Quiet!" roared the sergeant, who could react fast on certain occasions. "Soldiers does not think, boy! Soldiers does what they is told! Four days' latrine duty. Dismiss!"
Gyrdan watched with apparent amusement but without making any futile attempt to move. The gatehouse was closed at both ends by heavy barred doors, and the rope attached to the winding gear for the portcullis was impossible to climb. Quite apart from the fact that the soldiers seemed to have broken his wrist when they stamped on it to make him drop his sword. The feeling in it was coming back now, but that was not an improvement. He waited. This was probably better than whatever was to come next.
"You four - bring him up into the hall," the steward ordered. "Sergeant - you can go."
The sergeant cast a swift glance at Gyrdan as he marched the rest of his company out of the gatehouse and back to their normal duties. He was not a thoughtful man - thirty years of marching about with a spear is not a cerebral occupation - but this prisoner puzzled him. He'd never seen anyone look so apparently unconcerned. Most prisoners screamed and wept and begged for their lives. Not that it ever did them any good, mind, they were always hanged anyway. He wondered, briefly, why they bothered. But then, most men had hope.
Radwulf, Lord of Carlundy and Prince of the Black Hills, was a big, handsome man in the prime of his life, flame-haired, blue-eyed and ruddy-cheeked - though the latter might be due either to the litter of empty wine flagons on the table or the buxom blonde on his lap. It was some time before either deigned to stop whispering and sighing, and to look at their prisoner.
"Is this him?" Radwulf demanded, a little thickly. "Let it be, Alina - later!"
The woman shifted on Radwulf's lap and looked down at the prisoner with interest, hitching up the bosom of her gown as she did so, although not very effectively. The youngest of Gyrdan's four guards went scarlet and tried to look elsewhere, with even less effect.
"Not bad," she said appraisingly. "Not bad at all." She stretched herself and yawned a little, and the young guard's hands began to shake. "Can I - ?"
Radwulf's long cruel fingers pinched her nipple and she squealed. "Later, darling. You can have him to play with after we've finished here. But first, we have business to get through. Anred?"
The steward bowed and took a paper out of his pocket.
"Gyrdan, vagabond of no fixed abode, you are brought before Lord Radwulf and this noble assembly -" he gestured around at the dozen or so lords slumped drunkenly over the table or blinking owlishly, "- to face the heinous charge of murder."
A more observant watcher than any in the hall would have seen a momentary change in Gyrdan's expression, a fleeting absence of all movement.
"To wit," Anred droned on, "that in November last you did shamefully waylay, rob and murder the most noble Eormenric of Buchart in the forest road known by some as the Dark Mile. If found guilty, all worldly goods belonging to yourself, your family and your heirs are forfeit to the Lord, and you shall die a shameful death. How do you plead?"
"You have chosen the wrong man," Gyrdan answered coolly. "My worldly goods are what I stand in. They will enrich your treasury little. Or have you run out of great men to rob on worthless charges?"
Radwulf's face flushed crimson, and the four soldiers turned on Gyrdan and struck him to the ground. This time, the steward did not stop them.
"Well, it matters little how you plead," Radwulf said conversationally, when Gyrdan was hauled upright again and his battered face turned back to the high table. "For we here say you are guilty, and we are the highest court in the land." That brought a laugh from the assorted lords, some of whom had woken up to enjoy the after-dinner entertainment. "So I can hang you, here and now if I please."
Radwulf's handsome face grew hard, and the ruthlessness that had kept him Lord of a turbulent land for a dozen years came to the surface, like rock outcropping through grass. He leaned forward. "But I can be a merciful man. I may let you go free. If you answer a few simple questions."
His fingers tapped the table before him.
"We know you are a spy. You have been in my land before, many times. Sometimes here in the South, sometimes North among the savages of the Black Hills. You have been seen."
"It is - not - a crime - to wander -" Gyrdan spoke with difficulty through cut and bleeding lips.
"I say what is a crime in my land! Who sent you?"
The bruised lips parted briefly, then closed again.
"Who sent you?"
"What are you looking for?"
"Who have you met with? Who do you go to?"
"You will tell me everything sooner or later. Why not spare yourself the pain?"
"It is your master who sent you here. Why should you suffer for the fat Southern King?"
"So it is the Southern King who sent you?"
Radwulf clicked his tongue impatiently. "So you are going to be difficult. And on a hot night, too. I don't like difficult men. They make me angry."
Three soldiers remained around Gyrdan, the youngest having presumably retired to take a cold shower. Now they held heavy ash staves, bound with bands of iron, which they tapped menacingly on the floor.
"Oh, darling," whined the Lady Alina, petulantly, "you'll damage him!"
"Not beyond mending," Radwulf said grimly. "Not yet. This is just to knock a little sense into him."
Two or three of the younger lords were placing bets on something, and a heated argument was developing over the odds. Gyrdan calculated odds of his own, and decided they were long in the extreme. The main door led back to the courtyard, within the curtain wall. There would be places to hide there, maybe a way up onto the battlements. For a man who could swim, a castle built on a crag in a lake had a big advantage over one built on dry land - if you dived off the ramparts, you hit something soft. But there was a guardroom by the door and a dozen soldiers sprawled around it, playing dice or watching the proceedings with the vacuous attention of cows chewing cud. No chance of getting past so many. The windows? All too high, and probably too narrow, designed for the passage of a little bit of smoke, not a man. The walls were hung with tapestries and banners, but none looked likely to support a man's weight, and conveniently-placed chandeliers belonged to gracious palaces, not to a comfortless fortress in a backward country that had hardly even heard of candles. There was one other exit from the hall, a narrow flight of stone steps cut in the wall opposite the main door and leading up to an archway at about first-floor height. One bored sentry dozed on his spear in the arch, but there were no other soldiers on that side of the hall. Gyrdan tried to remember how the castle looked from outside - certainly the best place to view it from. This hall must be in the keep, from its height. So the stair would lead up to the isolated turret on the east of the keep, jutting over the lake. Just a watch tower, presumably, with access to the ramparts. That would do. If he got a chance, he would go that way.
The small part of Gyrdan's brain not entirely awash with pain wondered what they were hitting him with. It felt like an iron bar. Mind you, by now a feather would have felt like an iron bar. Amateurs, the detached part of him muttered, sourly. Don't they know this is about the least effective way to conduct an interrogation? Beat a man as if he was a tough steak and eventually he'll say anything, just to make you stop.
A vicious blow cracked over his shoulders, on the precise site of an earlier one, and he screamed. A woman's titter echoed in his aching head, and he heard with peculiar clarity the chink as money changed hands. A pause in the rhythm as the guards changed shift, and then the rain of blows began again. He squirmed face-down on the unyielding flags of the floor, now slippery with his blood.
They were not asking him questions any more, not even listening. It sounded like a race meeting - voices laying bets, egging the soldiers on, cheering drunkenly, sneering sarcastic witticisms. Even if he gave in and confessed to the false charge, they would not hear, and even if they heard they would not stop. Probably they would beat him unconscious, then dump him in some stinking cell until they saw fit to have another try - Unconscious. Perhaps that would make them stop.
He slumped under the next blow and lay limp, forcing himself not to react. Another crack over the shoulders, and then - oh, blessed, blessed relief - they stopped. A foot poked him, and then pushed him a little way across the floor, inert as a heap of rags.
"Dead 'un," one of the soldiers called, breathlessly.
"Two crowns to me!" crowed one of the lords at the high table.
"You turned the sand-glass too fast," objected another voice. "I saw you!"
"And you cheat!"
A scuffle broke out, egged on by the Lady Alina. Radwulf ignored it.
"Get a bucket of water and bring him round," he said, bored. "This is going to take all night."
Booted feet stumped off across the floor. Gyrdan lay still, ready to faint in reality but struggling against it grimly. He had thought no further than getting them to stop hitting him, but possibly, just possibly, he could do more than that. He peered surreptitiously through his eyelashes. The steward had taken advantage of this break in the proceedings to approach the table and talk urgently to Radwulf, and the two remaining soldiers were gulping ale, getting their breath back and watching the brawl at the high table, which had now tumbled into the main hall and swept up another three or four participants in the process. Nobody was paying much attention to the supposedly unconscious prisoner. Amateurs, Gyrdan thought again, flexing his fingers. The stone steps and the arch. He wasn't sure he could stand, let alone fight, but he was quite sure he wouldn't get another chance.
The third soldier was ambling back now, the creak of a wooden bucket and occasional slop of water marking his progress. Gyrdan tensed his muscles as the booted feet came within his view. Another step, just one more step - now!
He shot out both hands, grabbed the ankles and tugged hard. Taken by surprise, the man went down with a thud and a cry of pain, his bucket thrown gracefully upward before turning over and depositing first its contents and then itself on top of him. By this time Gyrdan had already rolled and bounded to his feet. One of the other soldiers went down to a satisfactory punch, and the other to a well-aimed kick, and both had more sense than to come back for more.
Radwulf was on his feet, white with fury, the lady unceremoniously tipped off his lap.
The dozing sentry roused with a start and came lumbering down from the archway, jabbing vaguely with his spear. Gyrdan measured out his moment, caught the shaft just above the blade, and with an expert twist jolted the sentry off the stairs and pitched him over his shoulder. More by luck than judgement, the falling man cannoned into Anred, who lost his footing on the wet flags and fell on top of him.
Gyrdan almost laughed. He glanced round, breathing hard, beginning to enjoy himself. Surprised soldiers were spilling out of the guardroom, their unenthusiastic charge conveniently hampered by the quarrelling lords. None of them wanted to be first to arrive. There was no-one else near. Gyrdan vaulted onto the stairway and sprinted up the steps.
It was a long, spiral staircase, apparently climbing the inside of some tower, winding on and up with no opening wider than an arrow-slit. His breath began to come in short, tearing gasps. He had hoped for a corridor, a room to hide in, even a window to jump out of, anything - but there were only the hateful stairs, spiralling up and up like some nightmare. He could hear the muffled cursing of the pursuing soldiers, well behind, but gaining every minute. Pain, temporarily ignored during the fight, now surged back. He lurched against the stone wall, stumbled on the next step, and forced his dragging limbs onward and upward.
Far above, a new and sickening sound. A trumpet braying, then the bellow of a sergeant and the distant echo of footsteps pounding down the stairs. Trapped!
Gyrdan swore feebly in a couple of languages. No point going back, though, and none in standing still. He stumbled on.
Another reeling circuit of the nightmare tower. Then, before him, the dark arch of a door, iron-banded and sporting a lock worthy of a town gate. But it stood a little ajar.
He did not stop to think what might lie behind it - storeroom, guardroom, even a fatal drop into a courtyard. Any chance was better than being caught like a rat in a trap. He leaped for it, dived through, and fell, gasping, on the floor beyond.
It was a small, cosy room, furnished as a lady's bedchamber. Tapestries hung on the walls, the two chairs by the fireplace had embroidered cushions, and the huge bed was covered and curtained with brocade, intricately embroidered. A bright silk gown lay over a chair, torn and stained and in want of mending. Gyrdan struggled to his knees, shading his eyes from the dazzling light of two lamps. He was in luck. The lady was not here, and the window was open.
It was then, as his vision adjusted, that he made out the dim figure in the window seat. The lady's maid, a tall stringy woman in a sack-like grey dress, limp brown hair scraped back unflatteringly from a long bony face. Her mouth was open. Any minute now she would recover herself enough to scream, and he would be caught.
She did recover herself, but not to scream. Dropping her embroidery, she sprang to her feet.
"Quick!" she hissed. "Under the bed! The counterpane will hide you!"
Even as the thick cloth swung behind him, blocking out the light, he heard the party of descending soldiers clatter past the door, and he groaned inwardly. This was all very well, but as soon as they met the guards puffing up from the hall, they would realise where he must be, would search this room....
An ear-splitting screech echoed round the chamber, making him jump and crack his head on the bed frame. What did that woman think she was doing? Was she mad? He had been a fool to trust her. He should have pushed past her, threatened her into silence, held her hostage, anything...
Heavy feet pounded outside the door. A splash echoed from somewhere far below, and the woman shrieked again. The door crashed open, and the soldiers barged in, shaking the floor. Gyrdan tried not to breathe.
"Oh! oh!" screamed the woman, her voice rising to the high pitch of hysteria. "Oh! Murderer! Thief! Through my window! Oh! oh!"
"Come on, lads!" bawled the sergeant. "He's in t' lake! We'll get him yet!"
The door slammed. They lumbered down the stairs and their tread faded away below. Gyrdan heaved a long sigh. Well, he was saved. But why? And for what?
He crawled out from his dusty refuge and staggered to his feet. The maidservant stood by the window, watching him impassively. He could see now that her face was pale and lined as though from years of ill-health or anxiety. Radwulf's lady, whispered of as a lunatic, even a witch, must be a hard mistress.
She said, "They are gone. You are safe now."
Her voice was calm and unhurried, but also cold. Gyrdan strove to speak, swallowed painfully, and tried again, the words coming with difficulty.
"Why - did you - do - that?"
"I do not care to see any man hunted like a beast."
He gestured vaguely to the window.
"Clever," he got out.
"Yes, it was rather a good idea, wasn't it? Though I was fond of that footstool. Let us hope it puts the hounds off the scent for a while." The voice was flat, expressionless, almost mocking.
Gyrdan hardly heard. The excitement of the fight had ebbed away altogether now, leaving him drained of all strength, cold and sick. He knew he was losing blood. His whole body was a shrieking cacophony of pain. But while he remained here the maid was in mortal danger.
"I must go - Before your - mistress - returns."
A bitter smile came to the pale face.
"I am the mistress here. You do not know me? I am Irinya."
A memory floated to the surface, old proclamations, old coins. Radwulf and Irinya, Lord and Lady of Carlundy, Princes of the Black Hills -
"Then you are -?"
"Yes. Radwulf's wife."
Gyrdan felt the room spin around him and his head fill with black. Radwulf's wife! The lunatic. The witch.
"Oh, hell -" he muttered, and collapsed.
Irinya saw him sway, saw him grasp at the bedpost and miss it by inches. If he fell the sound might alert the guards. She caught him as he collapsed, and for the first time in her life she held a man in her arms.
His weight was less than she had feared. He smelled of sweat, tobacco and cheap soap - and blood. She could feel its sticky warmth against her shoulder and on her hands. Slowly, gasping with the unfamiliar effort, she dragged him nearer to the bed and let him sink, sprawling, across it. Biting her lip, she surveyed her prize.
He was a disappointing sight. If a girl is to be rudely disturbed by a man bursting into her bedroom with a score of guards in hot pursuit, the least she should expect is that the fugitive be young, dashing and handsome. This man failed on all three counts, as far as it was possible to tell. His face was a mess of blood and battered tissue. One eye was already closed by a bruise the size and colour of a ripe plum, and more bruises were flowering along the jaw and on his chest under the ripped shirt. His age was impossible to judge, but his skin was deeply tanned and weathered and there were streaks of grey in his hair. Somewhere on the wrong side of forty, she guessed, and her brows contracted in a frown. Even a young man might not recover easily from the beating he had taken. She flinched as she recalled the dull thud of staves on flesh and the few agonised screams that had echoed up from the hall. He might be badly hurt. And she had no way of concealing an injured man. If he was found -!
Irinya's frown deepened. She was beginning to regret her impulse. The man was in danger, and danger spread all around him. Somehow, swiftly and secretly, she had to get rid of him.
Gyrdan groaned faintly. All he was conscious of at first was the pain. The pounding in his head must surely rack his skull to pieces - if it hadn't done so already. His bones ached. His limbs were heavy, and his face felt tight and hot. His mouth was full of the brassy, rotten taste of half-clotted blood.
Gradually, the pain receded enough for him to be aware of other things. The distant lap and plash of water against stone. The oppressive heat and uncanny stillness that had been building all day and must surely herald a thunderstorm soon. Far, far away, the distant hoot of a hunting owl.
Then, close at hand, the splash of water and a sharp, sweet fragrance, reminiscent of thyme and peppermint and the astringent resin of pine woods in spring. Something damp and rough, like the tongue of a loyal dog, dabbed at his face, stinging and yet oddly soothing. It was then that he realised he was lying on something soft, and that there was cloth beneath his hands instead of the bare stone or flea-ridden straw of a prison cell.
Memory was quite unable to account for this. He opened his eyes - or rather the only one that seemed to work - and a shaft of blinding light stabbed down and exploded in his head in a kaleidoscope of pulsating colour. He groaned again, and to his further amazement a bony hand was clamped firmly over his mouth, and a peremptory voice hissed in his ear,
"Sh! Rouse the guards and we are both lost!"
He lay limp, memory tardily doing its job. The tower. The thin, plain woman. Radwulf's wife.
"I've moved the lamp," the voice said, presently. "Now try opening your eyes, if you can hear me."
This time was not so bad. A vague yellow glow slowly resolved itself into dark wood and looped hangings and a patch of bare stone wall, all smudged around their edges. The voice had come from his right. He rolled his head sideways, very carefully in case it fell off.
The woman was sitting on the edge of the bed. A bowl stood on a table beside her, and she held a bloodstained cloth in one hand. He had to squint to get her face into focus, and even when he did it was of little help. A truly expressionless face is very difficult to achieve, but this woman had managed it. There was no cruelty or contempt there, but no hint of sympathy or kindness either.
"What - are you - going - to do - with me?"
"I do not know. There was no time to think about that. Suppose you tell me who you are, how you came here, and what, if anything, you have done to fall foul of my amiable husband. Then I shall decide."
What was left of Gyrdan's pride rebelled at the idea of stammering through his tale lying flat on his back - on her bed. He might have been beaten up but he was damned if he was going to act like an invalid. He gathered his strength together, got his relatively undamaged left arm behind him, and pushed himself up into a sitting position. His head throbbed as though it would burst, and he felt the room recede and the sweat of pain start out on his face, but his will held and he did not fall back. At least he was now on a level with her.
She seemed unimpressed. But after a moment she got up and fetched a jug and a cup from the table by the fireplace. Standing by the bed she poured a cup of water, handed it to him at arm's length, and then seated herself again. Noticeably further off than before.
Gyrdan drank gratefully, trying to rinse the blood out of his mouth. He would have liked to spit, but not in front of a lady. He swallowed instead, and set the cup down on the bed.
"I am listening," Irinya said, coolly.
He recounted his tale as briefly as possible - how he had walked into Mickleburg town at sunset and taken a room at the inn, how he had been arrested in the common room and dragged up to the castle without explanation, and finally the beating in the hall and his escape. She listened in complete silence, without a change of expression.
"So," she said when he had finished, "you are accused of murdering Eormenric, are you?"
"That was the name, lady."
"You deny the charge?"
"Just as well," she said, her voice menacing in its softness. "And it is to be hoped that I believe you. For Eormenric was my father's brother, and the nearest I had to a friend. I have good reason to hate his murderer."
Gyrdan's heart skipped a beat, then guiltily slipped in two together. What appalling luck. The silence stretched out, inviting him to fill it with protestations of innocence, vows that he had never heard of the man, even pleas for mercy. But if she would not believe the truth, would she believe the truth hedged about with words?
"Have you nothing to say?"
He had surprised her. The brown eyes flicked up to meet his.
"Of course," she said silkily, "I know you would not have acted alone. No doubt you were under orders from another?"
The temptation to throw a name into the silence, to deflect all the blame onto someone else, was close to irresistible. If he had known who she suspected, he would probably have yielded to it. But he did not know, and once again there was no recourse but the truth.
"I take orders from no-one, lady."
Her flash of anger might have been real or feigned.
"Oh, indeed! Proud words for a hired assassin!"
If she had hoped to goad where she had failed to draw, she was disappointed. Gyrdan kept his temper.
"I am no hired assassin, lady."
"Then what are you? You look like any peasant, and yet I am sure you are a stranger here."
"If I am, since when has that been a crime, lady?"
"Whether there is a crime or not depends upon the stranger's business. What are you doing here?"
"Admiring the scenery, lady."
Her lips twitched momentarily as though she was suppressing a smile. "If you will not tell me your business, I must assume that you have something to hide. And that Radwulf was right to have you arrested and tortured. And I must hand you back to him without delay."
Gyrdan met her gaze unwaveringly. "That, lady, is your judgement."
For a long moment they held each other's eyes, struggling for dominion. Then Irinya smiled suddenly, and though she did not drop her gaze the hostility left it.
"Well, there is nothing of the coward in you, whatever else! I like you, Gyrdan of Nowhere-in-particular, and I am going to help you escape. If I can think of a way!"
Her voice had changed, regaining some animation and carrying traces of the musical accent of the Black Hills. It was like the coming of the first thaw of spring, when a stream long locked in icy silence suddenly breaks free and goes leaping down its old course, laughing for the joy of returning life. Gyrdan blinked. Here was luck indeed.
"How can I thank you?"
"Time enough for that when you are safe," she returned briskly. "But you must wait here awhile yet. The castle is buzzing like an upturned beehive. And the moon is two days past half-full. It will not set until midnight."
"But every minute I stay here, lady, you are in peril."
She shrugged her thin shoulders. "Such is nothing new to me. And the danger is less than you might think. It was lucky Sergeant Treowin was heading the guards. He is a fine soldier, loyal as a carthorse and about as bright. This is now the one place within a mile of Mickleburg where they will not search for you. Listen!"
She was right. Shouted orders, voices, the clatter of weapons and mail swirled above and below and to every side, but the tower itself was silent, the eye in the centre of the storm.
"In a few hours they will grow bored, unless Radwulf himself troubles to command the hunt," she continued. "When it is both dark and quiet you may have a chance. And we must make use of the time! For you are hurt. I think you would find it sore trial even to walk to safety, and so easy a route I cannot promise. I will tend your injuries as best I may. Take your shirt off and let me see what they have done to you."
"No," Gyrdan objected, hastily. "I am all right. All I need is rest -"
"Do not be a fool!" she snapped. "You think I want to do this? I want rid of you, as speedily as possible. But you are bleeding, and every breath pains you. You would not get far. And if you are caught and put to the question, you will talk. They all talk. And then it will go hard with me. Radwulf is not noted for his tender heart. Now, will you be sensible?"
There was no arguing with her. She examined him with an intent, slightly revolted expression, much as she might study an interesting but rather distasteful beetle found under a rock.
"A thorough job," she said, looking up at last. "But nothing seems to be broken. And the cuts are shallow, and for the most part clean. It could be much worse."
She rolled her sleeves above her elbows and set to cleaning the wounds, working methodically and in silence, her lips compressed into a firm line. The water stung in his cuts and the cloth tugged at his smarting flesh, and the bowls of bloodstained water came and went. It seemed a long time before she finished, and fetched bandages and a jar from a chest by the fireplace. Gyrdan watched suspiciously as she prised the lid off the jar, and scooped a little pungent-smelling pale yellow ointment out on her finger.
"This will stop the cuts from festering," she explained. "And it will reduce the swelling, and ease the pain a little. But at first it will burn. One minute, no more. Brace yourself."
The cream seared his lacerated skin like flaming ice, and it was all he could do not to cry out.
"What is it?" he gasped, when he could trust himself to speak.
"A recipe of my own," she answered, bandaging the gash on his forehead. "Long tried and tested. I can vouch for its effectiveness."
Well, it had stopped burning now, at least. The rest he would have to take on trust.
She turned now to his injured right wrist, which ached like a rotten tooth, and flexed the fingers gently, a worried expression on her face.
"This is bad," she said gravely. "I do not think it is broken, but I cannot be sure."
She bandaged the hand and arm to the elbow, leaving only his fingers and thumb showing. When she had finished, it still hurt like hell but at least it no longer jarred intolerably every time he moved.
"It should be in a sling and rested for a month," she said, adding wryly, "But I expect you will need the use of it. Does it work?"
"A - a little."
"A pity. It is your better hand, is it not?"
"For most things I can make shift with either. I thank you, lady."
"Mm. I do not think I have helped much. You are still in great pain, are you not?"
"Some," he admitted, reluctantly. "But it will ease, in a day or so."
"Much use that will be tonight!" she said crisply.
Another trip to the chest by the fireplace, and this time she returned with a corked bottle, two-thirds empty. She tipped its contents into the cup, topped it up with water, stirred it vigorously, and handed it to him.
A less inviting concoction would be hard to imagine. The liquid was a pale greenish-grey, speckled with floating debris. A few bubbles swirled on its surface and dark grains danced in the depths. It smelt sour and musty at the same time.
"I am all right," he protested again. Sediment was settling out in the bottom of the cup, like dregs in cheap wine. He did not dare to imagine what the stuff would taste like - or what was in it. Witchcraft, the rumours said.
"I am not trying to poison you!" she said irritably. "How would I get rid of the body? I want you to walk out of here and get as far away as possible, as soon as possible. I know it looks revolting, and I can assure you it tastes just as bad, but it will take the edge off your pain for at least twelve hours. Do you want me to drink half of it first?"
He looked at it doubtfully. But why would she try to harm him now, after all this? It would not make any sense. And he would have to rely on her to get him away. If he was to trust her in one thing, he might as well trust her in all. He set the cup to his lips.
Gall and wormwood had nothing on this. The bitterness dried his mouth and the gritty sediment gagged in his throat. He could feel the cold spreading in his stomach, and as he set the empty cup down he shuddered. Perhaps he had done a very foolish thing.
"Well done," she said coolly. "It will take a little while to work, and it is better with food. When did you last eat?"
He realised, even as he said it, that he was famished. That must account for at least some of the light-headedness, unless it was that devil's brew already.
"Lie still and rest. I will draw the bed-curtains to hide you, and order food. Do not make a sound until the servants have come and gone."
That advice was easy to follow. The bed was comfortable and its brocade cover cool against his back. He heard Irinya call from the doorway, then the patter of feet and her voice giving brisk orders. He closed his eyes. Never mind food, what he really needed now was sleep. From far, far away, remote as in a dream, came more voices, more footsteps, the clatter of dishes and plates, then more voices, muffled now and vague....
A touch on his shoulder roused him. Irinya had drawn back the bed curtains, and they were alone again.
"No danger," she reassured him. "You have slept about an hour. But it is time you moved."
Gyrdan sat up, gingerly, and found that the pain had indeed faded appreciably. He tried standing up and Irinya frowned suddenly, scowling past him.
"There is blood on the coverlet. I should have been more careful." She dragged it off the bed, revealing another beneath it scarcely less fine, and crammed it into a chest. "That will do for now. I will think of something later. A woman's pains, perhaps. Now - has my treatment had any effect?"
Gyrdan was pulling on his shirt, having found that he could stand and move freely again with only a vague, bearable ache.
"It is magi -!" he began, and then stopped abruptly as she rounded on him.
"That it is not!" she snapped, furiously. "A little knowledge of herbs, that is all! Any cook could do likewise!" She pointed to the table by the fireplace. "Eat, and then go."
The table was now stacked with food. Bread, cheese, cold meat, fruit, and a jug of beer. Simple fare, such as might be found at any wayside inn or reasonably prosperous farm. But there was something very strange about it. Everything was already cut into pieces, as if for a child.
Irinya looked half-guilty, half-ashamed, her assured manner gone. She shrugged defensively.
"I am not permitted a knife."
Gyrdan's glance went automatically to her wrists, still bare under the rolled-up sleeves, and he saw with almost physical shock the pair of diagonal scars scoring the left wrist, jagged white lines across the veins that showed blue beneath the transparent skin.
Irinya thrust the scarred limb behind her back.
"So you knew what to look for," she said in a queer, strangled voice. "Tell me, do they still speak of me as the madwoman? As the witch? I see by your face that they do. What do they say of me now? I do not doubt the story has grown in the telling. That I am sane and rational one moment and run mad the next. That none can tell when the fit will take me. That I must be guarded ceaselessly for my own safety. And you do not know whether to believe the tales or not, now you have seen me. Nay, do not protest! Why should I blame you? For you have seen the evidence with your own eyes."
Gyrdan took a deep breath.
"Aye. I have. And strange evidence it is. For you, lady, are left-handed."
Glad astonishment came into her eyes, almost dispelling the shadow there.
"You are no fool!" she exclaimed. "No other has ever remarked on that. Yet surely, I could have held the blade in my worse hand?"
"Not at the angle to make those scars you could not."
He took her unresisting hand between his and turned it palm up.
"You would have held the blade so - and slashed like so. Quite different." He looked into her eyes, shaken with pity and horror. "Who did that to you, lady?"
"Radwulf. Who else?"
"Why?" He still held her hand, cradling it as he would a wounded bird. "Why should he use you so? You are his wife!"
Irinya laughed bitterly.
"Aye, for my sins! Three things I am to Radwulf, and none by my choosing. First I was his cousin. Then his wife. And, these twelve years, his prisoner!"
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