The bolt hit slightly to the right of the target’s center. Corec lowered the weapon, frowning at his aim. It was one of three new crossbows he’d bought, adding to the one he’d taken to Cordaea but never used. He’d need more later if his plans worked out, but four was enough to start with.
“Ah, Corec, this isn’t really necessary, is it?”
He turned to find Bobo behind him, awkwardly cradling another of the weapons in his arms.
“If you’re coming with us, I want to make sure you can protect yourself,” Corec said.
“I’m coming along so Ellerie and I can write our books,” Bobo said.
“You know what we’re likely to be facing. Boktar and Razai said they couldn’t have handled those warrior priests without you. The Church of Pallisur has war priests, too. If Rusol has any sway over the Order, we’ll see more of them.”
“That was the magic, really,” the other man replied. “It wasn’t me.”
“You have to learn to work with the magic,” Corec said. “And you have to learn to defend yourself without it. You said yourself that you weren’t sure whether you’d be able to do it again.”
Bobo got a shifty look on his face. “I did say that, didn’t I?”
“A crossbow is easy. You cock it, load it, aim it, and pull the trigger. It’s either this or another lesson on how to use that cudgel of yours. Now, once it’s loaded, be sure to never point the bow at anyone you don’t want to kill—” Corec peered around the other man and raised his voice. “Nedley, cock it with the stirrup or sit down and use your feet! It takes too long to do it like that!”
Nedley, who’d braced the butt of his crossbow against his stomach as he attempted to pull back on the string, grimaced and pointed the weapon against the ground instead, stepping into the stirrup to hold it down.
Corec caught Bobo’s eye and pointed at Nedley. Bobo got the message and copied the boy’s movements.
Corec stood back to watch the two practice. He’d learned to use crossbows at Fort Hightower, but had never had much use for them in the past—they were best suited for surprise attacks, defending a position, or waging war. He’d spent his time as a caravan guard. When a caravan was ambushed, events happened too quickly to try to load a crossbow.
Now, though, he’d be looking for a location near Four Roads that could be easily defended, and crossbows were the best tool to aid in that defense. He hoped to hire a couple of hunters to serve as scouts and longbowmen, but the longbow took years to master. The crossbow would be a better choice for the other guardsmen.
His preparations were about more than just arming the guards, though. The battle at Tir Yadar had proved that the group couldn’t hope to just continue blundering their way through any enemies they happened to encounter. Magic had saved them in the past, but Rusol was a warden too, and he had more experience at it. They’d be lucky if they were evenly matched against Rusol and his mages—and that wasn’t counting the red-eyes or Rusol’s mercenary army, much less the regular army and the Church.
Corec would have to learn to use both magic and traditional forces effectively in battle. Defending a fortified position would help, but he had to hope Rusol would stick to smaller attacks long enough for Razai to figure out what the man was up to.
Bobo managed to hit his hay bale target on his first attempt—though just barely, and only because he was standing just twenty feet away. The head of the bolt embedded itself into the straw in the upper-right corner of the bale.
“See?” Corec said. “I told you it was easy. Try again, and later, I’ll show you how to adjust for distance and wind.”
Bobo muttered something under his breath as he stepped into the stirrup to cock the weapon once more. Beyond him, Nedley had just launched his third bolt at his own hay bale, and grinned widely when it hit close to the center.
“Good job, Ned,” Corec said. “Now, keep cocking it until you can do it smoothly. Make sure to load and fire it every time. Never release the trigger without a bolt loaded or you’ll damage the mechanism.”
Bobo was pointing his own crossbow at the hay bale once more. The weapon shook a bit in his hands, but holding it steady would come with practice. As he took aim, the bolt began to glow with a white light. He pulled the trigger. There was a loud twang and the bolt shot off, careening against the right side of the bale before embedding itself several inches deep into the stone rear wall of the inn.
Corec stared at it. The fortisteel tips were strong, but they weren’t that strong.
“Look at that,” Bobo said with a knowing grin. “I guess I remembered how to use magic after all.”
Corec sighed under his breath. Bobo always seemed to be hinting at something when he talked about his divine blessings, but if Corec asked, the other man would just brush off his questions. It was easier to ignore him.
“Good. Now do it again without magic.”
“But I thought you wanted me to …” Bobo trailed off, a confused expression on his face.
“Pallisur’s war priests train for years alongside the knights,” Corec said. “Some of them were knights before they were blessed. You’ve got a long way to go, so let’s get started. The first thing we need to do is make sure you can hit what you’re aiming at …”
Udit shoveled the last of his spicy chicken and rice onto a piece of flatbread and stuffed it into his mouth, barely stopping to chew. “I’m finished!” he said. “Can I go play?”
Leena hid a smile. She shouldn’t encourage bad manners, but it was good to see her brother so happy and active. He’d had a difficult time after their parents had died.
“Your sister just got here,” Grandmother Aruna said. “You haven’t seen her in weeks. You should stay and visit.” Leena hadn’t risked Traveling home while she’d been on board the ship, worried she wouldn’t be able to return to a moving target. She’d considered simply staying in Sanvar for the duration of the voyage, but three or four weeks in her family’s camp might have drawn the attention of the snake cultists. Plus, she didn’t want to be away from Ellerie for that long, though she hadn’t mentioned their relationship to her family yet.
Udit’s face fell. He was at an age where spending time with friends and cousins closer to his own age was more important than a polite chat with his adult sister.
“It’s all right,” Leena said. “We have some things to talk about with Pavan.” The Traveler had arrived right at suppertime, and they’d insisted he eat with them.
Udit glanced back at Aruna, who frowned but nodded. “Thanks, Leena!” he said, then stood up from his cushion and hurried out of the large tent.
“So, then, you have news, Pavan?” Rohav asked. With his wife dead, killed by the cultists, he often took meals with Aruna or with the families of his grown children.
“I do,” the other Traveler replied, pushing away from the low table and sitting back on his cushion. “We managed to capture one of the priests after his warding faded.”
The search for the cult had been of mixed success. Imperial soldiers had accompanied Zidari Travelers and Seekers to capture each of the groups Davir had known about. Unfortunately, someone must have passed along a warning. The priests had all disappeared, and since they were warded against Seeking, no one had been able to track them down.
Half of the wizards were gone as well. The remainder fought back, refusing to surrender peacefully. After a dozen soldiers and two Travelers had died attempting to subdue a single wizard, the army started sending trained war wizards to accompany the other forces.
The cult members themselves were another story. Poor and uneducated, and without their priests to guide them, they were proving easy to gather up. Davir had provided the location for several groups, and those groups had known of others, though not as many as Leena had feared.
Each of the groups was small, living in tiny villages in remote stretches of the empire. Sometimes the entire village was part of the cult, sometimes only a few families. The people had been self-sufficient, living off their own farming and fishing, but with most of their able-bodied men dead or missing after the attacks on the Zidari camps, they hadn’t put up much resistance when the soldiers arrived.
The families that surrendered peacefully were taken without incident. Those individuals who’d attempted to fight back had either been killed by the soldiers or, once it was apparent they’d be captured, had died of the same poison-like symptoms Leena had seen in Cordaea.
Back in Sanvara City, the empress’s administrators had separated the village groups, allowing families to stay together but not permitting them to have any contact with their former neighbors. The empress herself had insisted on schooling for the children, putting the adults to work at whatever their skills allowed. Some families might be permitted to return home after the priests were all hunted down, but the government didn’t intend to release any families of the men who’d attacked the camps—not until they were certain the remaining members of the family weren’t a threat.
“Has he said anything?” Rohav asked, leaning forward intently.
“The problem is getting him to stop saying things,” Pavan said. “He rants and raves constantly. Half of it is gibberish. He believes the empress is fake, that Sanvar isn’t a real nation, that the new gods don’t exist, and that there were four old gods but that Snake is the only one still around.”
“What about the other priests?” Leena asked. “Does he know where they are?”
“He says they left Sanvar, and went north to join with other members of the faithful. And he claims they were joined by the holy soldiers, which is what he calls the men who lived through the attacks on the camps.”
“Outside Sanvar?” Rohav asked. “Where?”
“He says he doesn’t know, and I believe him. Honestly, I’m starting to think the others left this fellow behind deliberately.”
“What about the cult members?” Rohav asked. “Did he say how many groups are left?” Leena’s uncle had participated in three of the early strikes, transporting soldiers from Sanvara City out to the villages.
“He refused to answer any questions about that,” Pavan said. “We had to send in a spy disguised as one of his jailers, pretending to be a member of the cult. The spy told him he needed to get word to the other villages so they could flee before the army arrived. He was able to get us a list. It doesn’t include all the groups we knew about, but we’ve captured all the ones on the list.”
“So we may have gotten them all,” Rohav said. “The ones in Sanvar, anyway.”
“But not the priests,” Leena said. “They’re the ones responsible.”
Pavan nodded. “We’ll have to hope their wards fail, or find some other way to track them down.”
Perhaps Leena shouldn’t ask her uncle about bringing Udit north to Four Roads after all. If the priests could be anywhere, the free lands might not be any safer than Sanvar—maybe even less safe, if the priests had truly left the empire.
Rohav said, “If they’re gone from Sanvar, Leena, maybe it’s time for you to come home. I don’t like this plan of yours to draw them out.”
“What’s this?” Pavan asked. “What plan?”
“My friends—the ones you met in Cordaea—have made it back to Tyrsall. We’re heading west next, into the free lands. Since the cult members were trying to find me, we think it’s safer if I don’t return to Sanvar permanently yet. I don’t want to lead them back here. We’re going to find a place where we can defend ourselves. A fort, or something like it.”
“Do you think they’re still after you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why the free lands?”
“Because it’s far from Sanvar, and we wanted to draw them away from the camps. Plus, Corec has his own enemies, in Larso, and he needs to be close to them to keep them from attacking anyone in their way.”
“I can’t argue with the plan,” Pavan said, “but I was hoping you’d be returning soon.”
Leena sighed. This was a discussion she’d been putting off for months. “There are some things you and I should talk about.”
“You have to tell me what it was really like!” Renny said. “Lady Ellerie gave us some writings and sketches, but it’s not the same as being there. Razai just said there’s a lot of dirt.”
Treya smiled at her old roommate’s enthusiasm. “Well, she’s right about that. Everything had rotted away, and the lowest colonnade level flooded any time it rained. There were lower levels we couldn’t explore because the air was so bad. But even with the dirt, the city itself was still incredible. Corec and I were the ones who found the entrance. You should have seen that first colonnade room when it was lit up with mage lights. It seemed too large to fit inside the mountain, but it was less than a quarter of the city. There was always something new to explore.”
“It sounds so exciting!” Renny said. “I wish I’d gone!”
“Well, most of the time it was just boring. A lot of riding, a lot of walking. We slept out in tents a lot. You’d have hated it.”
Renny frowned prettily. “You always think I can’t do things. I wasn’t born a concubine, you know.”
“I suppose if you want to sometimes go a week without bathing, and then your only chance to get clean is in a fast-moving river fed by melting snow from the mountains,” Treya said, hiding a smile. Her friend sometimes had an overly romantic notion of what it was like to go on adventures, as she called them.
Renny’s eyes went wide. “A week!” she exclaimed. “Even back at home I bathed more often than that.” Renny wasn’t actually an orphan like most girls in the Three Orders. She was the daughter of a local fisherman.
Treya snickered. “It wasn’t always a week, but when you’re on the road, you have to make do with what you have. Let me worry about that sort of thing. You’re doing just fine for yourself here.” She waved her finger back and forth to indicate the luxuriously appointed private suite.
“Oh, I suppose, but Varsin and I were part of the expedition too, in our own way. We want to see the ruins someday.”
This was the first time Treya had heard about that idea. “Just promise to talk to me first, and to Ellerie. It can be a dangerous trip. Maybe you can accompany Ellerie when she goes back.” That would ensure they’d have at least one mage to protect them.
“It’ll be hard talking to you about it if you’re not here.”
“You can send letters to the Four Roads chapter house.”
“I know, but it’s not the same. I was hoping that after your journeying was done, you’d come back for good.”
“Maybe someday,” Treya said. “For now, this is the best option we can think of in case Prince Rusol attacks us again. At least until we figure out what he wants.”
“It must be scary knowing someone’s trying to kill you. Especially now that he’s about to become king.”
Treya started to nod, then stopped. “What?”
“You didn’t hear?” Renny asked. “Four pigeon messages came in this morning, three from Telfort and one from Highfell. King Marten is dead and Prince Rusol will be crowned king. Mother Ola didn’t tell you?”
“I was at the almshouse all morning, and then came straight here. How did the king die?”
“The messages said his heart gave out.”
Treya would have to tell the others. Would this change anything?
“That’s all they said?” she asked.
“There’s not a lot of room for details in a pigeon message,” Renny pointed out. “What if it’s too dangerous to go west? Why not stay here and let the others deal with it? Corec looks like he knows how to use that sword of his. Razai can handle herself in a fight. And that dwarven man—the quartermaster—he’s still with you, right? Let them take care of the fighting, and then you can join them later, once it’s safe.”
Renny had never understood the Order of Mystics.
“We’ve all got to do our part,” Treya said. “They’re my friends. And I’m not helpless.”
Renny sighed. “I just wish you weren’t leaving so soon. You only got back four days ago!”
“We’ll be here for another couple of days still,” Treya told her. “I’ll try to visit again before we go, but if I don’t make it, you know how to reach me.”
“Oh, fah! Fine, then. Follow your son of a baron into the wilderness. You know, he’s not bad looking, and Varsin thinks well of him. Just because he has a girl already doesn’t mean he won’t need a concubine.”
Renny had managed to bring the conversation around to her favorite topic.
Treya rolled her eyes. “I know. I’m going to help him with correspondence. Hopefully Mother Yewen can introduce us to the people we’ll need to know.”
Renny furrowed her brow. “So you’re doing the work of a concubine, but you don’t get to do the fun part?”
“I … it’s not that simple. Katrin’s my friend.”
Renny gave her an odd look. “That’s a good thing. Have you forgotten all your concubine lessons already? Kelsa’s fine—we get along—but it would be so much better if we were friends. It would be like if you were Varsin’s wife. Imagine how much fun we could have together!”
Treya laughed. “I might help him find a concubine in Four Roads, so I don’t have to do all the work.”
Renny threw her hands up in the air. “Argh! You always want to make things more complicated than they are!”
Perhaps Renny had a point. Of the men Treya had known, Corec was certainly a better match than, say, Josip or Marco. Corec was closer to her age, and she enjoyed his company.
How would it work, though? Concubines were usually chosen quickly, based on just their appearance and qualifications. They came into the relationship with an air of mystery, and the patron and concubine didn’t really get to know each other until after they’d been to bed together. But Treya had been traveling with Corec for over a year now. They’d fought side by side. He’d seen her with muddy feet on a regular basis. He’d even seen her naked, bathing in a stream, the first time they’d met. She could hardly bring any mystery to a relationship.
Plus, there was the matter of Shavala, who almost seemed to have stepped into the concubine role herself—or at least one side of it. Did Corec even want a real concubine?
But then there was the question Katrin had whispered to her when Treya had told Corec he should look for a concubine.
Why not you?
“The priests are coming north already?” Corec asked Leena. “I thought we’d have more time.”
A small group had gathered to hear the news she’d brought from home. They were in a private sitting room the innkeeper had offered for their use.
“I didn’t get the impression they’re coming here specifically,” she said. “It sounded more like there are churches to Snake dotted all around.”
“I’ve never seen one.”
“Neither had I,” Leena said. “In Sanvar, the priests recruited people in remote villages without any other temples.”
“There could be some in the free lands, then,” Bobo said. “Or among the hillfolk. I didn’t see any when I was there, but I might just not have noticed.”
“Every kingdom has places like that,” Ellerie said. “The free lands aren’t any worse than anywhere else.”
Corec nodded. “True, but it does mean the priests could be closer than we thought.” He turned back to Leena. “Did the captured priest ever say what god he followed?”
“He insists he follows the Snake.”
“So he’s lying about that much, at least.”
“Is he?” Bobo asked.
“What do you mean?” Corec said.
“What do we really know about the old gods? How do we know they don’t have priests? We didn’t know about the snake cult. Why can’t there be secret priests, too?”
“The old gods have never had priests.”
“You sound awfully certain about that for someone who got his schooling in Larso,” Bobo said. “How does everyone know about Fox and Bear and Raven? Why do people remember them—and apparently Snake—but not the others? The old gods must have done something for people to know about them.”
“The totems were our allies,” Ariadne said. “They fought alongside us. In the final battle against the demons, Wolf joined in with the High Guard, and Bear and Eagle fought side-by-side with the Mage Knights against Vatarxis and his allies.”
Razai choked on her ale. After getting the coughing under control, she said, “Did you say Vatarxis?”
Ariadne narrowed her gaze. “What of it?”
“I thought I heard the name once before,” Razai said, relaxing back into her chair. “It was just an old story. I don’t remember the details.”
Ellerie said, “The old gods don’t intervene in the world like that anymore, at least not that I’ve ever heard. In most of the tales, they only interact with the other gods. When it’s a story about a regular person, it’s always something like a child following a fox to a buried treasure, or a man seeing a raven and suddenly having a new idea—never anything to indicate for sure that it’s a god.”
“Those stories are enough to keep the legends alive,” Bobo said, “but why only for Fox and Bear and Raven? And Snake? Why not the others? Maybe the ones who are left do have hidden priests.”
Corec frowned. It went against what he’d been taught, and judging by the looks around the room, he wasn’t the only one.
“The totems don’t give their magic to others,” Ariadne said. “That was one of the reasons why the wardens created the ritual.”
“But your totems’ magic seems to be the same as the new gods’ magic, right?” Bobo asked her. “What if the totems changed their minds?”
Ariadne didn’t appear to have an answer for that.
“If it’s true, we’d need to know what this Snake wants,” Corec said. “Or what his church wants. If they were priests of Pallisur—or any of the other new gods—I could negotiate with them. But Snake … I just don’t know what that means. How many of these priests are there?”
While he was speaking, Treya slipped into the room, the first time he’d seen her that day. She looked anxious, but she didn’t interrupt.
Leena said, “Between Davir and the cult members we questioned, we know there was at least one at each of the villages, plus a few others who seemed to be in charge. We think about two dozen priests escaped.” Davir was the Seeker who’d been working with the snake cult.
Corec grimaced. “Two dozen mages, if they’re all blessed,” he said. “And that’s from Sanvar alone. How many more could there be? I’d hoped we wouldn’t face more than two or so, like at Tir Yadar. If they all come against us, we can’t face two dozen mages at once.”
“Can’t we?” Ellerie asked. “Priests are limited by their own potential in the same way any other mage is. Some of them are quite weak. If what we’ve heard about wardens is true, we don’t have the same limits. Or at least our limits are higher.”
Ariadne said, “The strongest of mages can match a warden or bondmate, but that’s just a small percentage. The Consort Gaiana was considered to be as strong as a warden. And Captain Hera, before she became a warden herself.”
Ellerie nodded. “So a few of them may be strong, but most won’t be. And a priest isn’t a wizard or a druid—they can’t do much to us from a distance. They can defend themselves, but even if they know Treya’s spells to block magic, they can only stop so much. If Shavala and I are attacking them while protected by a defensive wall, how long could they really last against us?”
She had a point. Ellerie’s beam spell was deadly. If she could kill the priests before they were close enough to be a threat, it would change the course of the battle. The cult members and any mercenaries the priests happened to hire wouldn’t be as dangerous.
“You’d need to target them so you’re not wasting your spells,” Corec said. “Is there a way to tell which ones are priests? And wizards?”
“Mage sight, but it doesn’t work well at a distance. There’s probably another spell that will do it. I’ll look around before we leave.”
“You’ll need to watch out for arrows and crossbow bolts too,” Bobo told her. “That trick I used this morning will break through your arrow shield spell. Uh, I think it will, anyway.”
Corec said, “If we can come up with a way to deal with the cult’s priests and wizards, then I don’t think anything has changed. Our plan should still work. The cult doesn’t have soldiers of their own—not real ones—and they can only hire so many mercenaries. We’ll just need Leena’s help and a couple of scouts to make sure we aren’t taken by surprise. To be honest, I’m still more worried about Prince Rusol. He’s only sent his red-eyes after us so far, but if his father lets him send the army or the knights, that would change things.”
“King Marten is dead,” Treya said, speaking up for the first time since arriving, and making it clear why she’d seemed so anxious. “Rusol will be king soon.”
There was silence for a moment as everyone considered that.
Corec wasn’t sure how to feel. Marten had been king for as long as he could remember, and was generally well regarded, including by Corec’s own father, but Corec hadn’t forgiven his homeland for its stance against mages or the close connection between the Church of Pallisur and the royal family.
“Should we avoid the free lands then?” Bobo asked. “If he’s king, what will stop him from doing whatever he wants?”
“Having to be king, maybe?” Ellerie suggested. “He might end up too busy to bother with us.”
“I don’t know,” Corec said. “Is trying to kill me just a hobby for him, or is he serious about it? Razai, we’ll need to know whatever you can find out as soon as possible.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll find out what I can when I can. If I rush it, you won’t learn anything.”
Corec acknowledged that with a nod. “I still don’t see a better choice,” he told the others. “We need to draw the red-eyes away from any towns. It’s true that we can’t fight the entire army and all the knights, but they’re not red-eyes. If the army comes, we can retreat. Rusol might send them into the free lands, but he won’t send them as far as Tyrsall. It would start a war, and his supply lines would be stretched too far for any possible gain he might see.”
Or, instead of retreating, Corec might simply talk to them. Perhaps they could let him know why Rusol wanted him dead. If he had to, Corec could even follow Yelena’s advice and tell the knights that Rusol himself was a mage, and was in league with a demon. That might set off a civil war, though—it would have to be a last resort if negotiation wasn’t possible.
Whatever happened, Corec had to make sure he wasn’t leading his friends into a trap they couldn’t escape. He would need to come up with a plan for anything that might occur.