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Authors: Jo Spurrier

Winter Be My Shield

BOOK: Winter Be My Shield
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Dedication

For my mum, Stephanie

At the foot of the temple steps Isidro bowed his head into the icy wind and turned back towards the village. There were two figures huddling in the lee of the temple wall as they shared a wineskin and it struck him as odd that anyone would choose to wait out here, rather than in the warmth of the shrine. One of them had a thick, tawny beard beneath the shadow cast by the hood of his coat. Mesentreians, then. Probably soldiers. This region was crawling with the king's men, soldiers sent north to meet the invaders from the Akharian empire.

Once he passed through the gates, Isidro heard the faint crunch of boots on snow as the men pushed away from the wall to follow him.

He carried a sword beneath his heavy winter fur. Perhaps if he led them behind the temple and its outbuildings, he could deal with these two before they caused him trouble. But if he had truly been found out, it was likely there were more than just them watching him. It would get him nowhere.

With a silent curse, Isidro gritted his teeth and trudged on through the snow towards the village. How in the Black Sun's name had they found him? It had been ten years since he'd last been at court and then he'd been nothing more than a stripling boy. They couldn't have recognised him — he wasn't like Cam, with fair hair and green eyes that made him stand out amongst the black-haired Ricalanis. If they'd found him after all this time it could only be because they'd known where to look. Maybe Charzic or one of the scum who followed him had told the Mesentreians he would be heading this way and they'd taken advantage of the lull before the storm to track him down.

The wind was turning his face numb, but the hood would only restrict his vision so Isidro left it down. If they knew who he was why hadn't they jumped him yet? This path would take him to the market at
the centre of the village but he was still far enough away from the crowds that a scuffle wouldn't draw much attention.

He'd come here to deliver a message to the ruling clan, to warn them Charzic had discovered their spies and was plotting reprisals, but he couldn't help but wonder if the clan would have bigger problems to deal with by the time it reached the Chieftain. Rumour had it the legions had already reached the north, but Isidro had been out of contact for too long to know if it was anything more than idle talk. He'd hoped to gather more information along with the supplies the women wanted from the market, but there was no time for that now — he'd settle for getting out of this cursed village alive. He'd left his horse at a house on the eastern side and if he could make it back there, he might have a chance.

His mind was racing. The only reason Isidro could imagine might make the Mesentreians hold back was the chance that he hadn't come here alone. It wasn't him they wanted, after all — it was Cam. They wouldn't take the risk that someone might slip away and warn the prince that the king's men were finally closing in on him.

There was a shout in Mesentreian, off to his left. Isidro was reaching beneath his coat for the hilt of his sword when a dozen men spilled out of the lane between two houses, pushing and shoving in a drunken brawl. As Isidro skirted around them one of the men lurched into his path. ‘Fucking flea-herder,' the soldier slurred, and threw a clumsy punch. Isidro stepped aside, grabbed the man by the front of his jacket and shoved him against another soldier who was doubled over, puking at the edge of the fight. With a roar they turned on each other, dragging the brawl further across the path of the men who had been trailing him. In a brief moment Isidro saw their faces — annoyed and sober — despite the near-empty wineskin.

Bright Sun help me,
he thought.
This is not going to end well.

It was just past midwinter and the snowdrifts on the leeward sides of the houses were piled nearly to the eaves. In the dim light the drifts blended together in a wall of blue shadows. While the soldiers were still trying to shove their way past the brawl, Isidro turned down between the houses and out of sight.

The Ricalani houses were massive log-built structures with a barn in one half and a dwelling in the other, divided by a central aisle. The lower storeys were mostly buried under snow, but the entrance was on the upper level, reached by a wooden ramp that opened onto the aisle so
stock and sleds could be driven in and out, however deep the snow. The doorway at the top of one such ramp had been propped open.

He had to act quickly — he had only moments before the soldiers caught up with him. Isidro climbed the ramp in a few long strides and ducked inside.

Two young women were sitting there, sewing in the meagre daylight with a brazier between them for warmth. They yelped in surprise as he barged in between them and dodged around behind the door where he would be concealed from the path below.

A low, deep-throated growl rippled through the sudden gloom. A great black and white dog had been lying at the girls' backs, near the brazier. Isidro hadn't noticed it at first and now it rose as though weightless, the sound swelling to a full-throated snarl. They were known as bear-dogs here in the north, because a pair of them could drive one of the great beasts away from a kill. The dog stood as high as a woman's waist and probably weighed as much as Isidro did.

Isidro raised his hands in a gesture of peace, but he kept moving slowly away from the doorway and deeper into the house. From outside there came the sound of boots crunching over the snow. ‘That was Balorica, I'm sure of it,' a voice said in Mesentreian, drifting up from the street. ‘Go look up there — I'll check around the side.'

Someone started up the ramp and one of the girls grabbed the dog's collar and turned it towards the door. As a soldier's shadow fell over the threshold the dog lunged at him, hackles up and snarling, and the soldier stumbled back with a curse.

The other girl darted forward and caught Isidro by the arm. ‘You must leave,' she hissed and tried to pull him towards the door.

Instead, he seized her wrist and started down the stairs to the lower level, pulling her with him, as he reached into his coat for the leather case tucked away there. ‘Show me to your stove. Then I'll go.'

Scowling, she followed him down the stable stairs and into the stone-floored dividing corridor where the boiler melted ice and snow to provide water for the household. An older woman must have been tending it when she heard the dog bellow and snarl — she met them at the foot of the stair with an axe in her hands. ‘What's all that noise?' she said in Ricalani and then looked Isidro up and down. ‘And who in the Bright Sun's name are you?'

‘The southerners are chasing him,' the young woman said. ‘We have to get him out without them seeing or there's going to be trouble.'

The older one narrowed her eyes and shifted her axe to one hand. ‘This way,' she said, pointing with the silver-lipped head.

‘One moment,' Isidro said. He tore the documents out of the leather case and crumpled them into a ball, which he threw into the open door of the stove, followed by the case itself. The papers identified him as a servant of the Wolf Clan and while they'd saved him in the past, if they were found on him now it would only cause trouble for his allies and for Cam.

The women led him across the aisle and then back up another set of stairs into the dwelling-half of the house. From there they shepherded him to a hatch that led onto the upper walkway, an outdoor space partially screened with a lattice of carved wood.

The young woman cracked the door open to look outside. Below on the snow a soldier peered around the edge of the house but after a moment he headed back around to the entrance where the dog was still barking and men were shouting. When he was gone, two pairs of firm hands shoved Isidro out onto the walkway. The door closed behind him and he heard a bar slot into place to keep him from forcing his way back in.

He'd expected nothing less. Helping him, even unwillingly, would only cause them trouble.

Only a man's height above the snow, Isidro slipped out of the covered walkway and dropped down to the ground. As he trudged away from the house he pulled his hood up to hide his face and slouched in an effort to disguise his height. If he did nothing else to attract attention he might just be able to escape with his hide intact.

As he skirted around the market Isidro heard voices shouting in Mesentreian as men searched between the houses. It took all of his willpower not to turn around and he strained his hearing to pick up any footsteps that kept pace with his.

When he reached the house where his gelding was tethered he was trembling with relief. There was no one around as he scrambled up the ramp and ducked into the gloom, not even a dog to guard the stock. Isidro tightened the girth and swung into the saddle and was turning the horse towards the entrance when he saw a door on the dwelling-side was
open by a crack, and one frightened eye looked out at him. There was a scuffle of movement behind it and then the door slammed shut.

They knew.

Isidro opened his coat and loosened his sword in its sheath. He had no armour, but the thick fur of his coat would offer him some protection. Casting around for any other weapon, his eye fell on the spear rack on the wall. While the horse stamped and tossed its head, sensing its rider's tension, Isidro selected one with a broad head of polished steel and gave a silent prayer of thanks that he'd managed to acquire a battle-trained horse before Charzic had turned them out. Isidro took a deep breath, turned the gelding's head towards the door and drove his heels into its flanks.

With two powerful strides the horse leapt from the top of the ramp and landed amid a group of a dozen men gathered at the foot. One of them went down under the gelding's hooves and another dropped beneath Isidro's spear as he slashed and stabbed at the men crowding around him. For a brief moment he thought he might be able to break free of them, then he saw more soldiers running from the village, while mounted men circled around to cut off his escape.

When the spearhead snagged on bone Isidro abandoned it and drew his sword, but there were too many of them dragging on his coat and his sleeves as they tried to pull him from the saddle. With a sudden sick feeling, Isidro realised they weren't aiming to kill him. If they wanted him dead, he'd have a knife in his back by now. They wanted him alive. It strengthened his will as he hacked and killed and the gelding trampled the snow to a bloody churn. His only hope now was to goad them into killing him. He wouldn't,
couldn't
, let them take him alive.

The horse screamed and reared with a sword-hilt jutting from its chest. Its legs buckled, and as the gelding crumpled beneath Isidro, hands closed around him, dragging him from the saddle and wrenching the sword from his fingers. He fought for all he was worth but something struck against his skull and for a moment he was aware of nothing but a cold and echoing blackness. When he came back to himself he was pressed face down into the bloody snow while someone bound his hands behind his back.

‘Back off,' a voice snarled in Mesentreian, speaking with an accent Isidro remembered well. ‘Keep those blades away from him. Any man
who draws blood will be handed over to Lord Rasten.' A hand grasped Isidro's hair and wrenched his head back. The man looking down at him had an uncanny resemblance to Isidro's foster-brother, Cam — the same jaw and mouth, the same high forehead and yellow hair. He hadn't laid eyes on Osebian in ten years but there was no doubt that this was him. Osebian was Cam's cousin, brought here from Mesentreia by the queen when she realised her younger son was beyond her control.

‘That's him,' Osebian said. ‘That's Balorica.' He let Isidro's head fall back and kicked him solidly in the ribs. ‘Where is the prince, flea-picker? Where's Cammarian?'

‘Dead,' Isidro said. ‘He's dead and gone.'

Osebian kicked him again. ‘You lie about as well as you fight, Balorica. Lord Kell will have the truth from you. Get him on his feet! And make sure he's shackled properly — if he loses his hands to frostbite before the king's torturer gets to him I'll see that every man here pays for it.'

Black Sun give me strength.
He'd never particularly believed in the Gods, but Fires Below, no one else could help him now. As the soldiers hauled him to his feet Isidro glanced up at the sun, hanging low in the eastern sky. It would be hours before Cam and the others expected him back and longer still until they realised something had gone wrong. By then the king's torturer would have him. Kell and his apprentice Rasten could make a dead man talk … He could only hope that Cam had the sense their father had drummed into them both and would be long gone by the time they wrung the knowledge from him.
By the Black Sun, brother, don't do anything stupid.

BOOK: Winter Be My Shield
7.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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