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Here, There Be Dragons
Part the Third
"Stupid humans," Ken muttered, peeking through the cracks in the wood of the temporary stable that had recently become a temporary jail.
"Just a reminder, okay?" I grumbled, trying vainly to work a spell that would let me loosen yet another set of shackles. This was getting monotonous. "I'm not human."
"Sure looks like one," Tim sneered, wiggling a loose board. "And damn if you don't act like one most of the time. All superior about stuff, like you was better than everything else."
Well, usually I am better than anything else, unless I happen to be around one of my own kind and then I'm at least equally matched. Until one or the other of us finds a bit of leverage to un-even things, of course.
"Look," I began testily. "It's not like you're a prisoner or anything I noticed you and Tim did a fast fade as soon as the soldiers showed up."
Ken shrugged. "They don't take us prisoners, they just kill us. Claim we're unnatural creatures, like dragons. Us! There was færies here when men was still swinging in trees, pickin' the lice off each other. Well, they don't swing from trees no more. And they got used to the lice."
He hopped down from the timber where he'd made a gap large enough for him to squeeze out of. I glared at him.
"I suppose you're going to desert me now too?"
Ken gave me his usual nasty look, but then he always had that expression on his face. "I could have gotten out of here long ago, or not come at all. Try to keep that in mind, okay? We were supposed to keep track of you."
I harrumphed. "Didn't keep Tim from high-tailing it."
Ken kicked at another chunk of loose wood, but it didn't seem to do much good and he fluttered down from his perch in the timber. "Ain't because we loves you, that's for sure. But Sapphy made it clear it was worth our lives if we lost you or let you get killed without trying to contact her. But none of us really expected you to be so damn stupid I mean, you saw what they does to heretics around here, but did that stop you? Nope. Right into their hands you walks. Then you start doin' a few things that absolutely convinces them you're devil spawn."
Well, maybe I had misunderstood the situation. The last time I was on this world even the smallest tricks brought the people to their knees, but I suppose things change. For example, their priests seemed to have a lot more control about things than they used to. Last time around no one paid any attention to the clerics, just kicked them out of the way when they got troublesome. Now they seemed to have a power equal to the nobles themselves, if not their King himself. Sapphy was right. Archbishop Sequiosa was `different'.
And King Daffyd yeah, Daffyd was a trip alright. If he was an example of the ruling class in this place, little wonder the priests ran everything. It crossed my mind he was likely called Daffyd the Dumb-Shit when no one higher-up was listening.
I eyed the chains on my wrists again. I should have been able to manipulate the crude lock in it with my mind, but it wouldn't budge. I didn't have a lot of magic in me just enough to get me in trouble, as it turned out but I should have been able to manage this.
"She'll be here before long," Ken stated matter-of-factly. "At least she's smart enough to deal with these bastards."
"We're a full day's walk from here," I groused. "That means it'll take Tim a day to get back, then her another day to get here. And that assumes they let us "
"me live long enough."
Ken shook his head again and explained matters to the simpleton. "Me an' Tim can fly, remember? That hop-and-walk thing we were doin' was so you could keep up with us. As for the Lady, well, that's why she has horses in her stable."
He nodded and held up a hand with fingers extended. "Three horses."
Well, that was news. God, women are so deceitful! I hadn't thought of a stable. If I had or if she'd mentioned it I would have agreed to a partnership immediately. I mean it was easy enough to ditch her later. But then, holding back that sort of information was the sort of thing I'd do to keep an ace in the hole. No use crying about it.
And meanwhile I had the shackles to deal with, and that required a lot more attention than horses quartered a day's walk behind me, especially since I pretty much figured they were likely going to execute me.
I mean, it sounded simple enough... walk into the camp at sunset, surround myself with an heavenly glow and then announce I was St. George, returned to the mortal coil to settle the dragon issue. Maybe a little levitation when I was brought forward, and I could play a few tricks with the sound of my voice. Of course that assumed everyone acted rationally about things which they didn't and so here I was, chained up again.
The first thing to go wrong was when they spotted me from the camp and a half-dozen horsemen rode out. That's when Ken and Tim let out high-pitched screeches and nobly took to hiding in the bushes again, leaving me standing there by the river got up in a pink dress and clutching my sword hilt.
I heard the riders laughing as they got closer. Then they pulled up just short of trampling me, and nearly doubled once they got a better look.
"Get the girlie-boy!" one of them roared, and since his doublet was the only one nearly clean and he wore chain mail instead of just leather, I pegged him for the leader. The other soldiers laughed dutifully while he made rapid kissing sounds and grabbed at his crotch, then leaned down at me grinning.
"Looking for a lift, sweetie? Old Ewan here's got a pink pony just achin' to give you a good ride!" He thrust himself forward against the rubbing hand for emphasis. More dutiful laughter of course. Ewan was the boss.
I looked him over and narrowed my eyes. Squat, flat faced and brutish doesn't always add up to stupid I've found, but he didn't leave me any room for doubting my first impression. Quite likely he wasn't too selective about what holes he plugged, but he seemed to like the jokes at my expense. It's always the closet cases who make the worst jokes but can't wait to bend over themselves. He had me pegged, but he'd made a mistake about judging the amount of crap I'd take.
Types like him always made the wrong guess about me. Ewan saw a soft boyish face, long black hair cascading down my back almost to my backside and a slight build so he'd decided I was more like a woman than a man. Well, we don't grow beards, and we're all relatively hairless on our arms and legs just a few tufts in the important places. And while I liked the built look myself in my men (Andrew himself was what they called "a brick shit-house" where he came from) I didn't need or want to be the bulky type myself. After all, I didn't have to be.
I pointed a finger and trying not to make it look forced sent the biggest jolt his way I could. The horse screamed yes, horses do scream when they're terrified and it reared back on two legs. Ewan wasn't laughing much when he picked himself off the ground, and his lips were pulled back but no longer in a smile. I smelled a little singing, hoped it wasn't the horse and felt better when the fat knight settled his mount after snatching off his helmet and then the leather guards that protected his face and neck. I smiled at the wisps of aromatic smoke rising from the leather and the now slightly fused chain mail. Like most soldiers, Ewan kept his hair short it's hot enough wearing an iron pot on your head. But that didn't keep what was left on top from looking decidedly scorched.
I stood back, arms crossed and feeling satisfied with myself, waiting for them to fall to their knees and start praying.
"Seize him!" a furious Ewan growled.
The five well trained horse soldiers milled around, dubious looks on their faces, trying desperately to pretend they hadn't heard the order.
"Tell you what," I broke in gently after Ewan demanded to know if they all wanted reassignment in the front-line infantry, pretty much a death sentence since foot soldiers marched towards the ranks of the bowman while the cavalry got to hang back. I pointed to the youngest horseman who I took to be in his late teens. "Have him double-up with someone, and we can all ride into camp together."
The boy didn't wait, just scampered off the horse wild-eyed and clambered behind another young soldier. Judging by the looks they exchanged once settled in, it wasn't the first time they'd been in that position. And they both seemed to enjoy the show I'd just given when I swung my leg up kilts hide quite a bit when you walk, but not much when you're mounting a horse.
Ewan still looked daggers at me and called over another member of the party and muttered instructions into his ear, and sent him on ahead. In retrospect I probably should have tried to hear what he said, but I was too busy flirting with the two young soldiers, sizing up the possibility that they liked a little adventure now and then. They weren't exactly in Andrew's league, but they'd make a nice late-night snack as two slices of bread for a hot sandwich.
"Keep close to him," Ewan snapped, careful to keep some distance himself. The other cavalrymen fell in front and behind, but the doubled-up riders fell in on my left. The cuter of the two not much older than Andrew appeared to be smiled and winked. My own eye twinkled and they both leered at one another, but we didn't speak. Not in words, anyway. I had hopes for a good evening.
We rode on for the camp, arriving not long after the sun finally set and the evening darkness began to take root, and I got my second impression of how things were done here.
I've seen a lot of camps, and unless it's the night before a battle and there's no opposing army at hand, they're usually kind of fun. Once away from castle and family, armies traditionally have a good supply of whores and liquor on hand to keep the soldiers busy with their free time, which tends to be a lot of the time especially when there's no enemy nearby. There's often a lot of music with jugglers and mummers.
Of course it's not all fun and games. A smart leader knows how to keep his army busy at least during the day. You can drill them, march them and even run gamesanything to keep your men in fighting shape.
But after nightfall it's different. There's a reason most palace coups take place at night in my philosophy; bored and restless armed troops can be nasty things, especially once it dawns on a few of them that the ruling class is right in their hands, utterly dependant on them without some well-fortified keep for retreat. A smart ruler makes sure there are plenty of distractions.
Not this one. The camp had a deathly silence to it as we rode up, and I didn't spot many happy faces. Once inside, monks seemed everywhere dour faced creatures exhorting the soldiers to prayers and penitence. The men kept clear of the clerics as they hustled about.
One tonsured monk in deep green velvet with some sort of silver device around his neck was berating a group of five unarmed men as we drew into the camp for gambling; more troops armed were standing behind them, swords drawn. Both prisoners and jailers looked bored and pissed. A redheaded boy of eleven or so stood close to the fat monk, looking scared and with a large, fresh bruise swelling around one eye. The churchman finished his oration before we could even dismount and the prisoners were marched off. The fat prelate grabbed the boy roughly by the arm and half-dragged him to a tent, thrusting him in. I had little doubt about why judging from the look on both their faces. The boy was terrified and the monk was almost drooling.
"That's the Lord Abbot," one of my handsome guards whispered confidentially. "Keep clear of him, if you can. He prefers boys but sometimes he likes `em older if they're slim an' soft like you."
I almost said something but was distracted. We'd all pulled up, and Ewan was smiling.
The prisoners were being stripped naked and tied to posts. I saw a heavy set, thick-armed soldier throwing off his doublet and mail, and smiling as he unfurled a whip and cracked it in the air. He grinned, pleased at the prospect before him and so did a few of the other soldiers, but most of the surrounding troops looked nervous and a few out-right sullen as they watched the five gamblers tied four points to pillories.
I took it all in for future reference. This was an army that likely wouldn't fight too long or too hard to repel an invader.
I heard the first crack of the whip and a cry and felt good that Ewan urged us away from the scene suddenly. Even still I could hear the sound of the whip cracking in the early evening gloom as we made our way deeper into the camp.
"Take note, all of you!" Ewan roared after giving the order to dismount, deep inside the camp. "God's will is being done tonight. All of you should be praying for the redemption of your comrades souls!"
"How many lashes?" I asked the young soldier whose horse I'd been riding.
He swallowed hard and I saw his face was pale as he stole a look over his shoulder as the whip cracked and a cry ripped the air the way the leather was ripping his back.
"It were only gambling, so they'll show some mercy," he said in a hushed voice. I watched his furtive movements, seeing the fear I'd already heard. "Likely only 'til one of `em dies, I think. Gambling isn't the gravest of sins, after all. It it's not like they caught them doing something really awful, like men lying with one another," he added nervously, giving his companion a frightened look.
That confused me. "But the priest the one with the boy "
The second young soldier touched my arm and shook his head. "Shh. It isn't for us to question the holy ones it's not our place."
Ewan looked up from a conference with someone I took to be an equerry, a youngish man or an older boy depending on your point of view and the culture. "You two!" he snapped in anger. "No talking with the prisoner. All the rest, fall in and march him to the Court Tent! The King and the Archbishop want him! And remember it's your lives if he escapes!"
Usually a commander stays with his men in a situation like that. I learned a lot about Ewan and more about this army observing the way he distanced himself from the detail in the face of possible danger, no matter how remote my escape might seem. They didn't seem to think it was anything amiss.
They marched me in with swords half drawn, further away from the punishment detail so I could only faintly hear the flailing whip and the screams. We closed in on a large pavilion, surrounded by more guards. Each of the guards wore the same symbol on their chest as the priest I'd first seen on entering the camp, likely some symbol of their god. I noticed they tended to sneer at my own guards, who displayed a red hand clutching a blood drenched sword. Both groups were openly contemptuous of the other.
This just gets better and better, I thought. This was an army divided against itself.
I watched a pissing contest between the senior guardsmen from each side. The ones with me demanded the right to escort the prisoner since they'd done the actual work of capturing me; and the leader of the contingent around the tent claimed only they had the right to enter the royal pavilion armed.
What followed was a typical debate between soldiers from different service branches as their conversation degenerated. After a short argument one questioned the marital state between the other's parents; the other guard faced him down and smiled, offering an opinion of the firsts mother and her primary occupation. More words followed suggesting certain acts that I knew were not altogether impossible though either might be hard pressed to find a partner for them and both likely lacked the length for at least one judging by their guts.
I shook my head. Some things never change, and these two didn't seem to have enough colorful language to even be at least interesting so after awhile I got bored and nudged my two favorite guards to follow, and I simply walked past the pair still engaged in deep, personal observations and discussion.
I swept inside the tent. If I'd looked, I might have seen the terror on the faces of my young guards as they stumbled behind; neither knew what to expect once they got inside, and from what I'd seen so far around here small breaches carried stiff penalties.
The first thing I spotted was a short little man with beady eyes and a long nose matched by lopped over ears, sitting in a big chair he could never hope to fill, with a red robe wrapped around him and a gold circlet on his head. In mortal time I guessed him somewhere in early middle years, with more brown and gray hair on his angular face masking the lack of a chin than on his thinning head but that still wasn't saying much. I actually got close enough to see things hopping in that hair and shuddered. Well, at least he'd taken the time to dress in state for me if not to wash up.
The first impression I got looking into his beady, washed-out gray eyes proved to be true he looked stupid and mean, but when you're in charge that doesn't mean you're not dangerous. I could smell sweat exuding from his pores, which reeked of a combination of wine and fear. He practically shivered in terror and got up to bolt.
"Oh no you don't," the heavy-set man with the pointed hat sitting next to him muttered and grabbed him by the arm. "I'm not going to have you running for cover again. It was hard enough to explain last time."
"They're armed!" the King whined, pointing to the men. "They might be assassins!"
"Dammit, Daffyd they're your own guards!" the large man hissed.
Daffyd squirmed in the big chair and seemed to get smaller in his official robes. The crown slipped over to the left side of his head. He was the perfect symbol of leadership by a privileged aristocracy.
Seated next to him was the tall, heavy man with jowls and a pointed hat, dressed in heavily embroidered white robes that were likely silk and more of a rarity, it was clean white silk, as clean as he was. Compared to King Daffyd, he was spotless. Older than the king, but not old enough to be thought weak, he had round, dark eyes that froze you in your steps and a confidence around him you could feel, and that feeling wasn't a safe one.
Daffyd wore a crown, but this one exercised power. To make it worse, he also looked a damn site smarter than Daffyd not really difficult in itself and that made him a lot more dangerous. This had to be the Archbishop Sequiosa de Pondre, leader of the One Church and second in power only to the King himself... officially. The manhandling of the royal personage I'd just witnessed pretty clearly suggested that was an official, comfortable fiction.
A little ways in the background I spotted a bed with two worn-out boys that appeared to be naked under a sheet and a bored, sullen looking girl sitting on the ground next to the bed in a dirty shift, folding clothing similar to that I'd seen worn earlier by the equerry. I filed that tidbit away for future reference.
Both of my guards fell to their knees when they saw them. And from behind me, I heard enough noise to make it clear both sets of guards had poured into the tent.
"It's the swords," I heard Daffyd gasp again, and saw the look of terror return to his face. "They're armed in my presence, just like when daddy died! Oh Lord, forgive me my sins!"
I heard a deep sigh, saw the archbishop wave the troops off including my two boys with the languid flick of a wrist. Sequiosa not only was able to guide the royal hand to stay the course of events, but felt free to kick the royal shin when he wanted the crown's attention.
"Shut-up, you oaf," he muttered when everyone else was gone, shaking his head in disgust. "How you ever managed to keep that crown on your head before I got here is beyond me. Those weren't just any guards you twit they're from you're personal contingent. And the rest of them were mine."
Daffyd's mouth shrunk to a small `o' and his eyes began to focus again, this time on me.
"Who're you?" he demanded in a whiney voice. "How come I had to be ripped from the cares of state to receive you?"
I raised an eyebrow as I took a look at the `cares of state' he'd been torn from. Twins, by the look of them. Blond, cute, and way too young.
Might as well get to it, I thought and found it in me for my voice to echo just a tad, to dance a little on the ear.
"I am the answer to prayers," I said gravely, enjoying the reverb.
The priest eyed me, looked at Daffyd and made a decision. "Run along, Daffy," he said with an indulgent air. "You have your playmates waiting in the rear. Send the girl to some one who'll actually use her too everyone knows she's just window dressing anyway. And for God's sake, try not to squeal again."
"I think it best he should stay," I said quietly. "After all, the army has an interest in this."
"The army is here at the request of the Church, to enforce its declarations," the chunky prelate replied with a narrowed eye.
I signaled for an explanation with wide eyes and thin lips.
His Grace smiled. "We who serve God are but simple shepherds of the flock and we guide the king as much as the peasant after all. Our mission is one of peace to spread the holy word. We leave it to the realm to enforce it. After all, no one consecrated to do God's work may kill."
Not directly, I thought, remembering the empty town with its grim reminders atop the surrounding hills.
"But we can compel those we have granted the power over men to enforce god's laws."
God's law. Gee, I wondered where I'd heard that before, and always from the same source... the one's that just happened to have the only access to those laws.
We fell silent and stared. Daffyd squirmed, eying the twins in the royal bed. The cleric watched me coolly, slowly drumming his fingers.
"Another prophet from out of the wilds, are you?" he said returning to me with a slow, mirthless smile. "Been awhile since I've seen one of your lot. And they usually favor sack-cloth," he added, eying my pink kilt. Then his eyes locked on the rest of me. It was a cold look, calculating. Even I felt a slight pang running through me. "They also tend to be a tad older and manlier, too. By the looks of things you can't even manage a beard." His eyebrow cocked and I caught a faint sneer. "Or are you another one that's allowed himself to be gelded to better serve the Lord?"
I wanted to send a tongue of fire at the man to take the sneer off his face, and thinking it over now it might have saved me some trouble. Instead I wasted the magic and surrounded myself with an ethereal glow, and played with the reverb on my voice again. I rose several inches from the floor.
"I am St. George, returned to this place to make the peace between men and dragons again, Archbishop," I said grandly, cranking up the light show. "This discord must cease and I mean to see it end."
It was such a brilliant plan I'd worked out. St. George returns, commands the army to disperse and give up their quest, and have them knock down the cathedral and give up on the gold. Cérosk keeps the new hoard with the blessing of the Church. All's rosy with the world again, right? And when it's all over, Andrew and I run like hell for the sunset until we get far enough away so I can bring up the Big Guns in magic and get us the hell out of here.
The drumming fingers stopped and Sequiosa de Pondre narrowed his eyes on me. I hadn't seen that scary a look since I'd seen my own father last, and daddy hadn't been too happy about me taking up with Andrew. He pursed his lips and glanced over his shoulder at Daffyd. "Peace with Dragons, you say? Not possible. Dragon's are devil creatures, and when Cérosk struck God's Holiest House he struck a blow against all righteous men."
I raised my eyebrow this time and turned up the glow. "You mean, the Holiest House some idiot built too close to a cave and then filled with gold, the one thing guaranteed to bring the hunger out of a dragon?"
His Eminence slitted his eyes. "A saint, are you? Since when do Saints defend evil, which is what a dragon is? And dispute the words of the ordained leader of the true faith in this land?" he began, an eyebrow hiking and with just a touch of dubious sarcasm in his voice. "And since when do `saints' go poncing about in pink dresses? I seriously have my doubts regarding your claims to canonization."
Why didn't I take the time to change? flashed through my head for the hundredth time. But then again, even second-tier godlets like `saints' don't usually take much in the way of crap from mere men either. I returned the narrow-eyed glaze.
"Mind your tongue, priest. I just might end this whole thing by deciding that feeding you to Cérosk might be the easiest way out of this whole mess."
Daffyd made some sounds, and I noticed a hopeful gleam in his eye when I suggested serving up a plate of roast cleric in return for ending hostilities. I had a sneaking suspicion His Highness wasn't exactly anxious to lose most of his army trying to kill a dragon. He needed that army to keep his own nobles at bay. Not to mention it was his job to lead the army.
Sequiosa smiled back, and his voice took on a conspiratorial tone. "So that's it? You've cut a deal with the Hell-born, have you? How unfortunate, since if you're in league with a dark being, you obviously can't be a saint but you could be a demon. Well, doesn't that just make my job easier." He slammed a fist onto the table. "If you're what you claim, you should be able to stop me easy enough. Guards!" he roared.
I heard the rushing from behind, felt the hands grabbing me. I lashed out, and my extra strength did help to shove them back. I turned towards the archbishop and smiled malevolently, reaching inside myself for the biggest ball of fire I could summon. I felt the heat in my open hand and wound up to hurl it at him.
The fire trickled off my fingers, sputtered in a slow circle on the floor a few times and fizzled. I tried smiling as my `ethereal glow' followed the way of my fireball and I flickered out and my feet hit the ground.
So here I was, sitting on the ground inside of a makeshift stable converted into a makeshift jailed chained to a thick post, wondering why the hell the lock wouldn't budge. Ken wandered over and shoved his nose up against the lock, sniffing.
"Forget it," he said. "The catch is made from a dragon tooth or bone, maybe even a talon. It's just housed in metal," he said loftily. "You wizards don't seem to know a whole lot."
"Magician," I growled. "A wizard is a charlatan pretending to be a magician. Get things right."
He mimicked me. " `Ooo, get it right. I'm not a human. I'm not a wizard. I'm a saint, and I'm a magician.' Ain't you grand."
I fixed a purely malevolent eye on him. "You know, I might not have much left in me, but I could still fry your ass if you keep it up."
Ken stuck out his tongue and I'd say he made faces at me but it was hard to tell his own from a pretend face so I didn't bother going there. "Are you guys any good with locks?"
He never got the chance to answer. There was a noise at the door and my two favorite guards showed up, looking nervous. Ken dove for the shadows at the first snap of straw, his fear of being caught by the humans who'd kill him overshadowing the wrath of Sapphy who'd only give him a hard time.
With them was the boy I'd seen the monk drag into the tent earlier, sporting more bruises on his face and arms. Judging by the way he moved it seemed a safe bet he had more bruises on his body. The poor kid walked strangely too, and I had a good idea why.
I'm not being funny when I say that. Enjoying yourself with someone old enough to know what's going on is one thing, but forcing yourself on a pre-pubescent kid who doesn't know what he's doing is another and I doubt if what this kid went through was actually consensual. He might not have fought, but that was only because he knew he'd likely be killed for doing it.
The boy carried a bowl filled with something gray and moist, and set it next to me, keeping a sharp eye for any sudden movements around him. I glanced at the bowl. Dinner. Food fit for the demi-gods, I guessed. The finest kind swill, my favorite food.
I tried smiling at the kid but he avoided my eyes and once the bowl was out of his hand he scurried out of the stable. I looked at the guard, the one who'd flirted with me earlier. He wasn't flirting now.
"You've been judged," he said quietly, and swallowing hard. "Me an' Serg have to stand close guard on you tonight, to make sure you don't escape. You're to be executed in the morning."
I took it Serg was the other young guard he'd been riding with, who was hanging back in the shadows by the door. I couldn't make out much of him, except to see while his uniform was still the same his helmet was gone. The youngster in front of me didn't have his helmet on anymore either, nor his leather coif a sort of hood that protected his neck, head and part of his face, so I got to see more of what he looked like.
Round and babyish, as I suspected . Lively brown eyes even if they were hooded at the moment since he tried staring at the ground instead of me. A short thatch of straw-blond hair stuck out all over his head. I smiled. In some of the worlds I'd been in that look was worked for, but his head of unruly cowlick was all-natural. It was really sort of cute.
"What's your name? And how and when do I die?"
The boy swallowed hard again and his feet shuffled on the floor. "Just call me Bacchi, sir. And it's at dawn."
I waited. "And the method? Am I to be flogged to death?" I could only hope for that. They'd have to unchain me long enough to re-tie me spread-eagled to the pillories like I'd seen done to the gamblers earlier in the day. That would give me the chance to break free and even seize the whip from the big son-of-a-bitch who'd seemed so happy in his job.
"No," Bacchi answered, his voice trailing. "Flogging's only for small sins. It's by fire, for heresy and consorting with demons. You'll be taken to the outskirts of the camp, in those same chains, sir His Grace says there's something special about `em and you mayn't break 'em so easy. Then you'll be burned on a pyre of wood and straw. He was very clear when he gave the orders to his own men," Bacchi informed me, still avoiding my eyes. "The straw's to be dry, and the wood well cured. His Eminence wishes to be sure you're returned to hell the way heretics, demons and unbelievers should."
Burning isn't unknown as a method of execution; but usually the executioners show mercy, and use wet straw and damp wood so there's a better chance you'll choke to death from all the smoke before the fire gets you. It isn't an easy way to go, but most think it's more humane than feeling your skin roasted from your body. Archbishop Sequiosa was a very thoughtful and thorough man. Left to myself I'd have likely made him an ally... at least until I thought it safe to kill him. It was easy to see how he could control a creature like Daffyd.
"Well. Who's got the marshmallows?"
Bacchi looked confused, and I decided it wasn't worth explaining so I waved Serg closer and got a better look. Dark hair, almost as dark as mine, but where Bacchi's was wild his was well groomed and arranged on a large but not ungainly head. His features were sharper than Bacchi's. And the eyes I now saw were green.
"Might as well make yourselves comfortable, guys," I said airily, leaning back." Doesn't look like I'm going anywhere."
Both gave me a skeptical look at first, but finally Serg shrugged and kicked some hay into a cushion and spread a horse blanket on it and stretched out. Bacchi found an old cask and used it for a stool, letting his long shapely legs dangle just out of my reach. I had some hopes so I sort of wriggled on my own straw, letting my kilt hike up a bit. They both looked, and that was fine with me. If I was going to make an exit in the morning, I could at least try to go with a smirk on my face they couldn't burn off, and these two were just the perfect pair to help me with that.
Please, don't waste time thinking to yourself how I should have been praying for the repose of my soul. I wanted to go out with a bang if not banging, and these were just the right two since Andrew wasn't around.
Serg sprawled himself out and then perched his head on his fist. "It strikes me you have a notion about things. But there's two more guards outside, and if they hear us gruntin' and pop in, we'll be joining you on that pyre come dawn."
Now I raised an eyebrow. "What's the deal? I saw the king with his boys. And I can guess what that little one that just left went through earlier today."
"They're slaves," Bacchi spoke up, but not sounding at all convinced. "They don't got souls anyway, or not anymore, so it don't matter. Or that's the big claim."
"So, they're more like livestock?" Right. And Cérosk accused me of bestiality. "That's a stretch."
"Don't ask us to defend it," Serg threw in. "Him and me do what we do together, like it, and we keeps it quiet. We was serfs before the army recruited us and recruited means they marched into da's barn and dragged me off when I got caught workin' off a morning chub. Bacchi was snatched off a street in his village a week later for bein' out after curfew on a church day."
Bacchi spoke up. "Serfs get sacraments when we're born, so the way they tell it we got souls, so us doin' it together is sinful. Well, we can't afford slaves, and the one's for common use got who knows what," he said distastefully. "Besides, we like each other. But if we get caught they call us `unnatural beings', and I figure you know what that means around here."
I had a suspicion. I picked up my bowl and started fingering out the slop, decided it was more correct when I thought of it as swill and set it aside. I wished for the umpteenth time I'd gone for a shot at a second helping of `chicken' at Sapphy's.
"Still, you two seem pretty sure about opening up about it to me," I tossed out. "That took guts, all things considered you might have been wrong. And call me George, okay? Especially since the whole saint thing didn't go over too good."
Bacchi laughed. "You mean, we weren't supposed to take one look at you today and figure it out?"
They both had a good snicker at my expense and I got defensive. "It's the hair, right? Or is it the kilt?"
Serg cocked an eyebrow as he gave me the once-over and bit his tongue. "If it's any consolation, if things didn't go the way they did today and they just forced you into the army, we'd have made room for you in our tent." He wriggled on the straw and thrust out his hips slightly. "Plus maybe introduced you to a friend of ours. Sooner or later anyway."
"Use me and pass me along?"
He grinned and locked those green eyes onto me. "I get the feelin' you done worse."
I thought of Patrick again and the way I drugged him and sold him to a tribe of headhunters after a little tiff, whose shaman unfortunately prayed too long and the drugs wore off. Bad luck for him, but I was long gone. So yeah, maybe I wasn't much better than these two so I switched the subject. "So, you guys were drafted you said. How long until your enlistment's up?"
They snorted. "That depends on how many limbs you lose or how old you are when you finally die," Bacchi returned with a tone of resignation, still swinging his feet and opening his legs a little more. "You might say the military is a lifetime commitment Ewan says they're just not too particular about the length of the lifetime." He sighed. "Still, soldierin' beats tillin' the same fields every year until you drop dead at forty, assumin' you makes it that far." He stretched out a long leg and rubbed his foot along Serg's thigh. "Of course, I'd never have met this one if it wasn't for the army. He lived clear on the other side of my valley, almost a full day's walk from the nearest town! I'd never be allowed that far from the fields. The baron would set the dogs on me if I tried."
I sat on my straw looking them over, then peered around Bacchi's barrel to the door of the stable. "You said there were more guards out there... any chance of them coming in?"
Serg toyed his tongue around a bit of straw. "Not likely. They heard you was a demon, and they had to be marched here at sword point to stand guard and threatened with a floggin' to back it up even if they were the Archbishop's men. But me an Bacchi here figured you weren't too evil so we got kiss arse points with Ewan for volunteerin' to come in here." He tossed the straw and locked his green eyes on me again. "Not plannin' on slitting our throats, was you? Or stranglin' us?"
"You might gag on something, but you won't get strangled," I returned with a small grin. "And something else might get split open but it won't be with a knife."
Bacchi slid down off his barrel and settled cross-legged in the straw next to Serg. "We sort of had hopes of maybe helpin' you out with a final request or two. It won't change what happens when the sun rises, but at least you'll have had a bit of fun. Besides," he added with a grin, swatting Serg's head playfully. "This one sort of fancies you."
"Humph. Like you wasn't a bit o' sheathed steel in my back today once you got a good look under that kilt."
"Maybe, but then I had you grinding that little arse back every excuse you got and with everybody watchin'. And those eyes of yours fair popped when you got a look at `little George' under there."
I cut in. "I thought you guys were worried about being caught?"
Bacchi giggled, stood and rose, stripping off his doublet. "We should be safe as long as we keep the noise down. Serg's a moaner, but so long as we keep his mouth busy, he shouldn't be too bad."
* * * * *
I leaned back against the post, smiling, flanked by my two naked guards. I felt silly there between them with my kilt pushed halfway up my chest and everything I had exposed, but I didn't much care about appearances at the moment.
I couldn't get the damn thing off because of the chains, but I could keep it out of the way. They'd done their best... the first time the three of us, the second time just the two of them while I watched, and when they thought they were too tired for more I proved that they could both manage a third. Serg did make some noises in his throat, but every time he started Bacchi or I managed to cram something in his mouth and that kept him quiet. And happy.
I studied the night sky through an opening in the roof thatch, but that told me nothing. I hadn't been here long enough to learn the movements of the stars, and I'd lost track of the time. How much longer did I have? I sighed. Burning wasn't the way I would have chosen to go, but who really gets the chance to pick.
I nudged Bacchi and he grunted, blinking up at me. "What, again? No thanks."
"Pig," I replied, smiling. "I just meant that you guys should get dressed soon. I think we're close to it."
Bacchi stretched leisurely, squinted up at the sky and hopped to his feet. "Still plenty of time, but maybe we should get part dressed." He showed his tender side with a fast kick at Serg's backside. Serg's eyes flitted open and he didn't seem to think his wake-up was unusual as he sat up and stretched. Bacchi tossed his leggings at him.
"C'mon, hop it. It's late and Ewan might be through soon get dressed and look alive."
Serg waved him off, then leaned into me for a quick kiss on the cheek. "That was great, especially that stuff with the tongue. I'll be trying that on Bacchi soon. Wish we had more time, but " He faltered, not caring to name what was coming.
I leaned back and adjusted my kilt. "It's not your fault, boys. It's not like you have the key or anything, and you're not the ones that put me here. But tonight made it easier anyway."
"Yeah, sorry George," Bacchi added, fully dressed and adjusting his helmet. "Nothin' personal, right?"
Serg had his leggings half-on when the door swung open and the three of us froze. Tim sauntered in, with Ken fluttering behind. He was holding a key, which he dumped at my feet while Tim kept an eye on my guards.
"Come on," Ken growled. "Move it will you? Get yourself loose. And you two," he added, eying Bacchi and Serge. "Just stand back if you know what's good for you. The two outside are already dead and you can join `em if you want. Or you can stand back and let us go."
Serg eyed the door. "What the hell are those things?"
"They're færies," Bacchi muttered, a bit of awe in his voice. "Heard about them from my gran, and thought I saw one once." He crouched down, probed at Tim. "Here little feller, what're you about?"
Tim scowled, pulled out his knife and stabbed at the hand.
Bacchi fell back bleeding and swore. Serg lunged forward and both Tim and Ken took to the air with their knives drawn.
"Knock it off," a sharp female voice commanded, and I got a look at our real rescuer... Sapphy, in an outfit in terms that Andrew would understand was a cross between Xena, Wicked Wanda and the early Madonna all in black leather. She'd obviously put on a few pounds since she'd worn it last. Quite a few.
Laughing at Sapphy the way I did probably wasn't one of my better moves, but all she did was scowl at me and drew her sword, using it to urge Serg and Bacchi to raise their arms. They stared at her wide eyed, waiting to die. Serg's uplifted hand searched in the air for Bacchi's, and the ends of their fingers closed on each others. Bacchi muttered prayers but stood firm. Serg's green eyes drilled into Sapphy, waiting for an opening.
Watching the two of them, reaching for a last touch when they were sure they were going to die brought home a grim memory. Andrew, chained in a pen, looking into my eyes, telling me to run and keep on running, to save myself. Was he sitting there now, wondering if he were going to die alone and deserted? Did he think it spite of my reassurances that I'd run out on him to save my own skin? I'd hated leaving him. But what did it feel like to be the one left? Worse, knowing that the one doing the leaving had a long history of lying to save or promote his own skin?
Sapphy tossed a bundle at me but kept her eye on them. "You two just keep it real and don't get brave like the boys outside, and you'll be fine." She shot a glance at me. "You take it all, you know that? Tomorrow morning they're going to make you the main event at a weenie roast, so you're in here pulling a train with your guards. God, men can suck. Now, unlock yourself. And knock off that braying you were doing before. I don't want to draw any attention."
"Yeah," I answered soberly still lost in a worry about my Andrew. The I looked at her after losing the chains but and started snickering again. "I can see how you like to stay on the inconspicuous side in public."
She snorted. "Like I'm seriously concerned about wardrobe tips from a guy trolloping around the country in a pink dress. Speaking of which, get out of that thing and put on the stuff I brought but save those boots. And for the last time, what d'you want done with these two? Kill `em?"
Finally free of my chains, I shucked the last of my kilt, noting a look of appreciation from Tim as his eyes widened. Bacchi and Serg had already seen whatever there was to see, but a little thing like maybe dying in the next thirty seconds didn't keep them from looking. I shook out the clothing Sapphy bought plain homespun in color, in a material a lot like cotton.
I wondered if they came with Sapphy... this was a northern clime. Cotton wouldn't grow here and I don't think something that had to be imported would find its way down the food chain far enough to fall into the hands of peasants to trade to the local witch. Even the soldier's doublets were made of a rough wool. But they were clean thank God, so I didn't have to worry about sharing with any extra inhabitants.
The leggings were more like pants than hose, with a drawstring at the waist. The pants were made for someone slender so they fit pretty well, and while the shirt was a bit long it was a pullover in the same material. Soft and comfortable... and I finally didn't have to deal with any drafts hitting the tender bits.
"Well?" she cut in again.
Sapphy sighed and rolled her eyes, speaking through clenched teeth. "Men are so vain... quit admiring the new outfit and get back to business, okay? D'you want these two dead or just tied?"
I looked at the faces of Bacchi and Serg, who looked pretty resigned to things. I also noted how the ends of their fingers still locked together as they faced death. "Think of it this way boys if we kill you, at least it'll be quick. I've a feeling when the guys in the big tent find out I'm gone at sunrise, they won't want to waste all the work they put into building their big bonfire, so leaving you here tied up isn't too cool an idea either."
I watched them gulp, but I could tell the idea wasn't a new notion to either of them.
"On the other hand, unless you're both bound with dedication to Fat Daffy and that murderous pig with the pointy hat, you could always throw in with us and we can all clear out."
"Sounds good," Bacchi said without hesitation. He turned his face to Serg and shrugged. "I mean, it's not like we haven't talked about retirin' from the army."
Serg nodded thoughtfully. "True. And we're just as dead for desertion as we are for letting a heretic escape if we're caught. Except we might get lucky and be picked off in a fight. Better odds than the fire or the whip, and it won't hurt so much. Ain't like we're giving up much really life here makes treason and exile look like a good deal." Then he shot me a sly glance. "Plus there's the extra benefits."
Sapphy cut in. "I've only got the two horses," she said anxiously. "Ken and Tim can fly, but two men on foot means we're all dead."
"This was a stable, marm," Bacchi broke in. "The horses ain't far they're tied up just a little ways off. Two King's Men on an early patrol aren't nothin' to take note, and it's likely old Hern watchin' them, and he'll be passed out or too drunk to argue with us."
"One goes," I said calmly. "One stays. Not that I don't trust you boys, but I've been around for awhile despite how old you think I am."
Serg grinned. "Fair enough, m'lord," he said deferentially. I didn't miss that I was no longer just George. "I'll be the hostage."
Sapphy grumbled like all women do when their plans get ruffled but didn't protest. Bacchi pulled on his leather hauberk and set the coif over his head and neck, leaving only his face exposed before putting on his doublet again and donned his helmet. He smiled at us all but gave the færies a dirty look before he went in search of Hern. Serg continued dressing, then gestured with his chin at the shadows.
"What about him? They won't let him live neither, just `cuz he's a slave boy. And it won't matter he's the Abbot's favorite right now."
Sapphy and I turned. She had to squint but I saw him plain enough now that he was brought to my attention. It was the redheaded boy who'd brought me my dinner. He crouched back but Tim and Ken were on him like a pair of fat mosquitoes threatening the boy with their knives. He scowled and stumbled into the dim light of the lantern swatting at them, but made no sound, just gave us all a sullen glare.
"Where did you come from?" Sapphy asked, flinching at the sight of his bruises.
"He can't talk," Serg told us. "Or he won't. He were brought back by some of the priests' soldiers when a village revolted a month ago, him and a dozen others. Hasn't said a word. The Lord Abbot took him for his self, and for awhile the boy kept running off but he must have figured the beatin' for running were worse than what the Abbot did to him. All he does now is sneak off to sleep in the stables once the monk's done with him." A wry smile crossed his lips as he eyed me. "You were between Bacchi and me durin' the first round, when we was all playin' `Stuff the Dog'. He snuck in through the back guess you was too busy to notice what with both ends busy." He sniggered. "And I guess he got an eyeful, too. Not often you see `saints' doin' what you like done."
If I were modest I might have blushed, but I wasn't so I didn't. Why be hypocritical?
Sapphy groaned and rolled her eyes again. "You're all perverts, and I really don't need any details. Get over here, you " she said sharply to the boy, who seemed willing to risk the swipes from Tim and Ken as they fluttered about him but no longer tried stabbing with their knives. The boy eyed the door again but the three of us were between it and him. He glared at Serg and I and sidled up to Sapphy, his eyes suddenly wide and almost tearful... and Sapphy suddenly caved and started to do that woman thing with her voice they save for children and small, spoiled dogs and blue-eyed kittens.
"You stay with Aunt Sapphy," she cooed, brushing her fingers through his hair. "These pigs won't touch you, I'll make sure of that. You " she snapped at Serg, in a voice that jerked him to rigid attention with eyes forward. "Grab that blanket, and for God's sake make sure you wrap it so the crusty stuff's on the inside!" She patted the boy's head, and her voice took on a different tone. "The little one's riding with me but he'll need some padding on the saddle."
I was ready to make a comment about padding to her but we heard the sound of horses outside and we all held our breaths. Sapphy signaled Serg to pick up his sword and swept the child behind her as she grabbed at her own. Tim and Ken were nowhere to be found now that it looked like there might be some real danger and we kept silent, hoping it was Bacchi returning but mindful it might not.
We heard a clicking in a throat from beyond the door, and Serg relaxed. "It's alright. Just Bacchi with the horses."
I gathered up the lock and chains, wrapping them in the kilt so they didn't clunk. If they'd held me, they might be worth saving.
We crept out the door, and I noted that while it was pretty clear the other guards were dead with their throats cut, they'd been propped up somehow to look like they were still at their post, doing their jobs. Sloppily maybe, but unless an officer happens to be around most soldiers are inclined to be a bit relaxed as long as their duty is performed.
Sapphy hoisted herself up and yanked the silent boy up in front of her and he didn't make a sound, although I knew his arm was hurt, having seen the bruises earlier. She pulled a long cloak around her, made some more foolish sounds and told the boy to hang on, keep still and he'd be safe as she covered his head. Then she drew her sword once she picked up the reigns, and signaled us to come close.
"Any chance of a back route out of here?" She asked Serg and Bacchi.
"None, m'lady," Bacchi whispered. "It's all thick wood, and it's easy enough durin' the day but I don't fancy takin' horses through it in the dark."
I probably could have, but I wasn't about to run off and leave them. Maybe they were only human except for Sapphy, sort of but they'd been decent enough to me so far. And then there was the boy...
I know it's silly.
Left to grow, he'd likely be as brutish, stupid and cruel as any other human, but I always feel responsible for the little ones when they fall into my hands for some reason or another. Every now and then you found decent mortals like Bacchi and Serg, or even my own Andrew, but that was rare. Maybe he'd grow to be like them if we got him free of this place.
I'm as much a sucker for big, teary child-eyes as Sapphy.
"Dammit, that's what I thought," Sapphy muttered. "Okay, listen up. I'd intended to go right through the camp using some Illusions to cover us two horses and two riders, that I know I can manage but I'm not sure about four riders plus a kid. We'll skirt the camp and I'll do my best when we're clear, there's what's left of a village upstream " she shot the two ex-soldiers a hard look. "Something I figure you two know something about."
"Weren't us," Serg said distastefully, but still keeping his voice low. "That's the priests' men. We knew there was something up when they returned with a pack of kids for slaves right after we heard about how a town refused the Archbishop's new tithe. But they're a closed mouth lot unless you get to know `em, and I'd rather not get to know `em me self. Defending the realms' one thing, slaughtering my own's another."
"Your own?" I asked, remembering the grim site in the village square, and the rows of wood pikes staring mutely down from the hills.
"Low-born, sir," Bacchi explained simply. "Peasants like me an' Serg was before we got recruited."
"We'll talk about the social class stuff later," Sapphy cut in. "Maybe you guys want to dick around all night, but the sun's coming up soon and I'd rather put some distance between us and this army before then. If my Illusions fail and we get separated, get out of the camp as best you can ride for the village and we'll regroup. If you don't show well, I can't wait long, boys. Hope for the best and try not to get captured."
Bacchi nodded. "And if we get caught, at least we can fight and hope for a death with a sword. Don't much like the idea, but it's still better than fire," he mused, his voice trailing.
"Where's the damn pixies?" I muttered, looking around for Tim and Ken.
Sapphy smiled. "Creating a nasty diversion," she said with a mean edge to her voice. "Just be a little patient, and we should be able to ride out of here."
I eyed the guards with their slit throats and wondered how nasty.
We began to slowly pick our way towards the rest of the camp, and I broke custom and put myself on point, since the dark wasn't much of a problem for me, something Sapphy already knew. The soldiers were happy it wasn't them exposed so they naturally said nothing and hung back, a habit good veterans learn once they've been in the service for awhile. It was slow because the horse was reluctant to move where he couldn't see, but he did move finally and the others followed slowly in the darkness. I estimated we were half way through the camp when we heard shouts, and I could smell the fire before I saw it.
"Don't panic." Sapphy's voice came into my head, not my ears, and I suspect our new companions heard it the same way. "That's the diversion. Steer clear of the center of camp, then get ready to ride!"
We cleared from some brush, and I could hear the shouts now and men pouring out of tents barely dressed and mixing with the armed and uniformed night watch. One of the larger pavilions was on fire, and a figure stumbled out of it, aflame himself and screaming in agony as men tried to bring him to the ground and put out the flames. Stupidly he fought them.
I heard Bacchi chuckle and I thought that was out of character for him. But then, I had to remember he was a soldier, trained to do nothing else in life besides maim and kill; I just hadn't thought him the type to take pleasure in it. Maybe bringing him along was a mistake after all. He pulled up beside Sapphy and I saw her arm come up with her sword, prepared for the worst.
"Boy," Bacchi's voiced hissed with a pleased edge, ignoring Sapphy's threat. "Take a look!"
The small copper head popped out of the folds of Sapphy's cloak, and she tried to force him back under but he jerked away and I saw a happy, evil grin on his face before he gave in and let himself be covered.
"That's the Abbot's tent," Bacchi whispered. "And unless I'm mistaken, the fat one on fire's the Lord Abbot his self. I thought it might make the boy happy, and it seems I was right. And if there's an afterlife the way the priests' claim, I hope the men he had flogged to death today are waiting to give him his escort to hell."
With the men rushing about no one paid any attention to us as they tried to extinguish the flames. I could see the fat man on the ground now he still smoldered but he didn't move, so maybe Bacchi was right about needing that escort.
Sapphy pulled on a helmet with a chain-mail face guard that left only her eyes visible, and with the cloak about her and the child she looked like any knight and I like an oddly dressed squire backed up by a pair of King's horsemen. With the fire and excitement the pickets paid no attention to anyone riding out. They were more concerned with spotting anyone riding in, apparently forgetting they weren't really faced with an opposing army. They didn't bother us anyway, so either they were fooled or Sapphy's Illusion held.
We trotted the horses until we were far enough away and broke into a gallop. The boy's head popped out of the cloak again now that it was safe, and it sent a cool chill through me when I saw his face in the dying moonlight, that same cruel grin on his lips.
to be continued
Thanks to JFinn for helping me get this
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Copyright 2003 by Keith Morrisette. All rights reserved and without limitation. More of my work is available at Archerland, and check out my others while you're there: The Boyfriend and Little Secrets, Little Lies (Formerly And The Other Friends).