THE PRICE OF VENGEANCE
The pre-dawn mist off the bay still clung to the lanes and streets of Vorgensburg as Aejys walked to the dueling grounds at dawn. She had put aside her expensive new clothing, retreating into the comfortable old green pants, brown tunic and an old Kwaklahmyn fringed suede jacket which she had worn so often during her first months in Vorgensburg. She wore a different sword than usual; one she had carried during the war. The Aroanan rune graced the hilt and the blade bore the motto "For My God," on one side and "For Justice" on the other. It was Aroanan steel: one of the finest blades on the continent, ritually forged in the temple smithies. Her boot heels clicked on the cobblestones, seeming loud in the silence. The store windows were still dark, the doors not yet unlocked for morning commerce. She passed very few people.
Tagalong, Josh, Tamlestari, and Cassana followed at a respectful distance. Aejys wanted the silence and solitude. Grief gnawed at her as nothing had since Bucharsa. She blamed herself for Brendorn's death. She felt as if she could or should somehow reach back in time and change her decision, bring all her small family forward as if they had never been separated, though she knew such a thing was impossible. Aejys knew to think these thoughts, to feel them so intensely, was to court madness, but she could not stop them. She had watched such feelings destroy Tomyris Danae de Dovane – the Lionhawk – the great Sharani general whom she had followed into battle during the Great War.
Aejys shook herself loose from that. "Damn you, Brendorn! Why couldn't you have waited?" Even as she said it she knew the answer. "Because you loved me." When I left I betrayed you. Abandoned you. You would have come had I asked. All of you. Aejys drew a deep breath, mastering herself.
As she neared the dueling grounds, her palms began to itch, she could already feel the sword in her hand, her heart raced as anticipation sent that first eager rush of adrenaline through her veins. Her whole being seemed to throb as it had when she couched her lance and set heels to her mount during the war.
Farendarc lounged under a tree. He wore a long sleeved tunic and shirt to cover the bandaged cut in his shield arm. Aejys and Farendarc carried sword and dagger, nothing more. He stepped out to face Aejys directly. "You die first. Then the drunk."
Behind Farendarc and on either side of them people gathered under the trees. Becca and the servants had spread word of the duel. The more witnesses present, the less the likelihood of treachery. Becca had suggested it herself.
Aejys shucked out of the coat, dropping it on the ground. Becca stepped in, picked it up and moved away, handing the jacket to another servant. Aejys and Farendarc drew blades and circled. The crowd gradually moved closer to see better.
Becca's hand slipped into her pockets. She fingered her river stones, fidgeted with her sling and waited. The tavern master hoped that Farendarc would give her a reason to use them.
Aejys was a soldier, not a duelist, and overmatched from the start by Farendarc. It showed in the first meeting of their blades. His was a rare talent, an uncanny gift of eye and hand and body that surpassed and exceeded all but a handful of heroes Aejys had encountered in the entire course of her life. So far as she knew he was the only one of that degree of talent still living. Had his spirit matched his physical gifts he could have been a warrior saint; instead he was an oath breaker, a murderous blackguard as evil as any that climbed out of Bellocar's hells. Farendarc struck with great speed, his sword darted and thrust. She gave ground before him, barely turning his blade from her. Then with a sudden swift twist Farendarc's blade slid past her defenses and opened her shield arm from shoulder to elbow. The black armband fell away with Aejys' blood on it. Farendarc pressed in, slashing her side, then striking high. The point caught her in the upper part of the left breast, an inch below the juncture of chest and shoulder. He jerked it free.
Aejys' eyes widened at the shock of impact. She staggered two steps, reeling like a drunk. The color drained from her face. Her knees gave. She collapsed on her face, struggling to push herself up. Her strength failed. With each breath fire seared through her chest. She lay with her arms crossed beneath her. She could see the blades of grass as if they were a forest rising around her eyes; feel the chill moisture of the morning dew. Through the grass she could see the hilt of her sword glittering in the sunlight. She managed to roll up a bit, freeing her good arm, reaching for the blade. She was a soldier; she had been in many battles; been cut before; she was not going to let it stop her now.
Josh started forward. Tagalong stopped him. "Don't interfere. Ya promised. Besides, he won't outlive her by much. That's my promise. I'm gonna kill that asshole."
He made a small anguished noise and fled, unable to watch Aejys die. That name was in his head again: Abelard. This time he would not go back to the barn. He did not want to be where anyone could find him.
Farendarc sheathed his sword, drawing his dagger. He approached Aejys to make sure of his kill. He tangled his fingers in her hair, yanking her up. He put the blade to her throat.
"No!" gasped Tamlestari. At the flexing of her arm, a slender dagger slipped from an arm sheath into her hand.
Cassana caught her arm as she shifted her grip from hilt to blade. "You can't take him out, child! You'll get just one try."
"I can mark him," Tamlestari growled.
An angry protest erupted from the crowd. A small shower of rocks from several directions pelted Farendarc. He released Aejys, straightening to find the throwers.
Aejys slumped at the waist, her good hand pushing up against the ground. Near her sword, obscured by the grass lay two smooth flat round-edged stones, red with blue and green veins. Becca's river stones.
"Back off, butcher! She's down, duel's over!" Becca barked. The leather sling whirled three times, then released the stone. It smacked Farendarc's cheek, drawing blood.
"First blood and no more!" shouted someone in the crowd.
Farendarc's expression turned savage. In the past two days he had been marked, cut and bloodied more than all past times combined. Being male of Sharani blood, a rare thing for that race, he had claimed his privileges and sat out the war. He had never been in a real battle. Now some members of Aejys Rowan's household had declared war on him. He gave a snarling shout "You're dead, bitch! You're dead!"
"Doubt it!" Becca spit, backing up as she slipped another stone into her sling. "You'll have to reach me, goat-jacker."
Her stone smacked Farendarc in the chest, staggering him.
Zacham reached into his pockets, brought out more stones, and pelted the duelist. Several ragged street children, friends of his, began to add their stones, chanting, "First blood, no more!"
Farendarc ignored the boy and the rest of his stone throwing friends, intent on Becca.
The certainty that Farendarc would kill Becca, and probably the others as well as Josh sent a dizzy rush of concern through Aejys. The soldier did what she should have done in the beginning. She quit fighting the pain and weakness, accepted it, focused herself away from it, and reached through it. Aejys' fingers curled around the hilt of her sword.
"One thing at a time," Farendarc said, reaching for Aejys again.
Snarling, Aejys rose to her knees, shoving her sword into his stomach before he even realized she had picked it up. Farendarc clutched himself, his fingers digging into his flesh around the blade. His eyes bulged in disbelief and he fell, his weight dragging the sword hilt from Aejys' hand. The children rushed in and began kicking the dying duelist.
Aejys swayed, trying for a moment to gain mastery of her body, then crumpled. She rolled onto her good side, curling into a tight ball of pain; each breath a searing agony. Tagalong's broad strong hands raised her, settling Aejys' head and shoulders on her lap. The stout dwarf stroked her hair, muttering worriedly, "Don't go following Brendorn. He'll still be waiting fer ya five score years from now. Ya hear me. Don't go, Aejys."
"Try not to," Aejys rasped. "Hurts to ... to breathe."
Cassana and Tamlestari knelt beside Aejys, checking her wounds. The arm and side bled heavily. Tamlestari opened Aejys' shirt. Pink-flecked white foam formed around the chest wound, increasing with each struggling breath. Tamlestari gave Cassana a worried glance. Then the youth's fingers stroked the bare flesh around the wound, her eyes going distant.
Tagalong's head came up and she looked sharply at Cassana, "Stone Father! She's a Reader!"
Cassana nodded and motioned for Tagalong to be silent. "And a damned good chirurgeon."
"Sucking chest wound. Internal bleeding," Tamlestari muttered. It did not include a punctured lung, although the pressure of accumulating blood could easily collapse the lungs. She pulled gauze and a jar of salve from her bag. She put a large quantity of the salve on the gauze, then pressed it down hard on the chest wound, sealing it. Aejys' breathing eased. Tamlestari brought Tagalong's hand over to hold the compress in place.
Tamlestari opened Aejys' shirt and bound her side up. Then she bandaged her arm and strapped it down.
"Take a little of this," Cassana said, raising a small flask of holadil to Aejys' lips.
Aejys swallowed the thick syrupy liquid. Warmth flooded her and the pain retreated. Her body relaxed and uncurled. Only the gnawing weakness of blood loss and shock remained. She closed her eyes and slid into sleep.
"How bad?" Tagalong asked Tamlestari.
"Bad enough. We must get her home quickly where I can repair that chest wound."
* * * *
A tiny matchstick of a mon in a black, knee-length sleeveless coat pulled at Thomas Cedarbird, hurrying him toward the dueling grounds. "Please, sir, you must come quickly." Darlbret continued to urge Thomas forward, shoving through the throng at the dueling grounds. People glared at them, then recognized the syndic, and opened a path.
Thomas Cedarbird's left braid hung half-finished and his hair on the right was still loose. "I don't know why you insisted on dragging me down here. You know I don't like watching duels ... oh ... dear gods, Aejys." Thomas rounded on Darlbret. "Why didn't you tell me it was Aejys?"
"I – I wasn't sure..." Darlbret stammered. "It might have been just a rumor... I just heard about it minutes ago..."
Thomas knelt beside Tag, his hand reaching almost of its own volition to touch Aejys' cheek: that was something he would never have done were she conscious. "Is she...?"
"Alive?" Tag said, "Somewhat."
"Why didn't you tell me about this ... I might could have done something..."
"Aejys pays her own debts, merchant," Tag said caustically. "And I pay the ones she can't. Now back off, we've heard enough from ya ta last ten lifetimes. Uh huh! Period. End of Story!"
Thomas winced and sat back on his heels, saying nothing more. He doubted he would ever know or understand why Tagalong Smith disliked him so much. And even if he did, he wasn't sure he could change it. But maybe Darlbret could either discover it or explain it.
Becca formed the servants into a protective circle just as the city guard arrived and took positions around Aejys. Then the tavern master, after spitting in Farendarc's face and scattering the children, methodically searched the slowly dying assassin, even pulling his boots off. Her hands, though roughed by years of work in the kitchens, were still surprisingly nimble. She found a small fold and ran her finger along it to reveal a pocket. Where most would not have found it, just right to have concealed some orders or a contract. In the concealed pocket in the left boot Becca found several papers. She shoved them into her pockets to share later. She placed her foot firmly on Farendarc's chest and yanked Aejys' sword free, wiping it clean on his pants leg.
"Becca, quick! We need a litter," Tamlestari told her.
"I will carry her," said a rough voice as a huge form rose from the deep shadows of a nearby oak cluster. Clemmerick lifted Aejys as tenderly and easily as a mother lifting an infant.
Becca gathered up Farendarc's belongings, handing them to Raim and Omer to carry. Tagalong had to trot to keep up with the ogre. Cassana and Tamlestari strode quickly along beside Clemmerick while the rest followed closely.
Spectators drifting past Farendarc paused to spit on his body, then trailed after Aejys' entourage to see if they could learn anything. Thomas Cedarbird did not want to draw Tagalong's ire, so he did not try to insinuate himself into the main group. But he followed and the crowd formed behind him of the curious and the concerned.
* * * *