The Daniel Hood Bookshelf
Well, here it is -- the infamous "Strife's Gold." A good-parts version, with all the tedious extra details removed, so that nothing is there but good old-fashioned plot (and a very little sex.)
Please remember that this story has never been graced by the hand of an editor. It is, however, canonical, in the sense that events that happen here will be referred to in later Liam Rhenford books.
I hope you enjoy, and sorry for the delay....
Early on a bright summer morning, Liam Rhenford found himself travelling the Caernarvon Road at a woman's invitation. Her urgent invitation, he reminded himself, smiling as he patted the pocket of his travelling coat where her letter lay.
Nonetheless, he could not deny a tension that had been building in him since he set out from Crossroads Fair almost an hour before. It's his fault, Liam thought, casting a surreptitious glance at the man riding beside him -- older, with a long gray beard and a patched robe -- who was humming a happy tune to himself.
Surreptitious or not, Father Enghave caught the glance. "No," he said.
Liam blushed. "I was only going to --"
"-- ask about Casotte again," the ghost witch finished for him. "And I needs must answer as I have each of the thousand times y'have asked ere now: I can tell you only that there has been murther in Forty Leagues, and that our headstrong, harebrained Casotte believes you alone can con out the killer. I can say no more than what she wrote in her missive."
"That wouldn't be hard," Liam said. "It's not more than a dozen words long. 'Come quick. There's a matter of life and death, a foul crime. As soon as you may.'" He did not mention the 'Please' that ended the letter, or that it had been underlined, or the fact that reading it made him grin like an idiot.
"Ah," was all Father Enghave said, but there was enough suppressed mirth in the syllable to make Liam scowl. He did not really begrudge Enghave his laughter, but he was anxious to put to rest the questions that had been buzzing in his head for the past four days, ever since the dusty courier handed him Casotte's letter.
And if she'd bothered to mention where she was, he thought, I might have had them answered last night. Instead, he had endured Enghave's jokes and a sleepless night at Crossroads Fair, where Casotte served as a ducal investigator, or quaestor. He was a quaestor as well, but in the city of Southwark, three days' ride to the south, and it had never occurred to him that her duties might take her away from the Fair. His rarely took him beyond the city; the one time he had gone further had been only a few months before, when he rode with a ducal circuit court that held sessions at the Fair.
Thinking of those sessions improved Liam's mood a little. There had been a country dance under the stars, and a few stolen kisses. Only two, he reminded himself, which is a pretty thin reason to go haring off halfway across the Duchy.
A cough dissolved his reverie, and Liam glanced at Father Enghave in time to see him hide an expression of concern behind his fist. "I've joked," the ghost witch said, uncomfortably serious, "as I'm wont to do. But I feel I should say something. This at Forty Leagues will seem a simple matter to you. It seems so to many, and it may chance that they are right. But it is not simple to our Casotte. Do you see? It is not simple to her." He frowned. "Not simple in the least. And she looks to you for the more complex solution. Help her as you can, Rhenford, while staying honest. She holds you in some regard, as I think you hold her."
It was a strange speech, and Liam decided that until he knew more about what had happened at Forty Leagues, he would ignore it -- or most of it.
So she holds me in some regard, eh?
* * *
A few minutes later, they caught sight of a dragon waiting by the road. It was the size of a large cat, leathery wings folded neatly on its black-scaled back; golden scales showed at its throat and on its chest. Perfectly still, eyes fixed on the opposite side of the road, it looked like a sentry. Enghave nodded at the it. "Your valet."
"Yes," Liam said, "and it looks like he's forgotten my bags again." While he spoke, he formed a thought and pushed it out toward his familiar. Good morning, Fanuilh.
The reply appeared in Liam's head: I saw an interesting thing in the forest, master. A plate of meat set out by a spring, in a small stone bowl. Who would leave a plate of cooked meat out in the forest? The dragon flared its wings, hopped into the air, and fluttered down to perch on his horse's neck.
Liam turned to Enghave. "Are there many shrines in these woods?"
The ghost witch looked from Liam to the dragon and back. "Aye, here and there. Not for the proper gods, mind you, but the wood is deep and dark in places. Poachers, most like, seeking to placate the spirits of dell and dale." He paused and nodded down the road, where their destination had come in view. "Forty Leagues," he said.
Where the Caernarvon Road emerged from the forest, it descended a gentle slope to cross a wide valley basking in the summer sun; a river -- the Hythe, Enghave named it -- tumbled out of the hills and bisected the valley. Where road and river met lay the village of Forty Leagues, fifteen or twenty thatched stone cottages surrounded by fields golden with late summer grain. A tower rose above a row of willows at the center of the village, and to the west a mill squatted by the river.
When the road finally brought them into the village, Fanuilh peered into the windows of a cottage. Where are all the people?
Working, Liam replied. In the fields, he added, meaning it but at the same time remembering why he had come. Suddenly the empty cottages and silent yards seemed ominous. He squared his shoulders, forcing away the unwelcome feeling. They'll be back at dusk.
A single-arched bridge spanned the Hythe; the row of willows stretched along the far bank, shading a small green and masking the base of the tower. Enghave made a grand gesture. "Keeper Crannon's tower -- the Duke's gamekeeper, and our friend here."
"The Duke does well by his gamekeepers." The tower was three stories tall, with a crenelated platform at its top and two large windows on each of the upper floors. They crossed the bridge, and saw three horses cropping the grass of the green. Liam relaxed a little, pleased at the signs of life. A moment later, as Enghave turned them off the road and onto the grass, he saw another, standing at the main door of the tower: a woman, shading her eyes with one hand.
"Good morrow," the ghost witch called out. "Look what I've brought you!"
With a whoop Casotte ran to meet them. "You came!" she exclaimed, beaming up at Liam. She stood between their horses, one hand raised to slap his knee possessively. "I knew you would! I told him," she flashed Enghave a triumphant look. "He doubted you, but I never did!"
Her hair was shorter than Liam remembered, and braided above her ears, but the same chestnut color he had admired when he first met her, and her smile was as brilliant. She wore a sleeveless leather jerkin that exposed a long stretch of white skin from her throat down to her small -- he could not help noticing, given the horseback height at which he sat -- her small chest. He forced his gaze up to her face and swallowed. Her eyes were large, a liquid brown, and though they sparkled, they were underscored by dark lines.
"I got your letter," he said.
"And came at once!" She turned and slapped Father Enghave's bony leg. "I told you he would, you doubter! And now he has, we can finish the business in a moment. Come inside, and you'll know all!" She grinned at him before turning and running for the tower, and Liam found himself grinning in return.
* * *
The first floor of the tower was a stable; Casotte hustled the horses into stalls, then bustled Liam and Father Enghave upstairs. Half of the second floor was a large, open room with two deep-cased windows and a scattering of rough furniture. An enormous fireplace dominated the east wall, the hearth littered with dirty dishes.
"Sit, sit," Casotte commanded, though she was too excited to keep still herself. "Now, where to start?"
"The beginning," Enghave suggested.
She shot him a mock glare, then took a deep breath. "Some ten days ago, it chanced that three men -- Cance, Lons and Raker -- were out in the Duke's forest. Fishing, they claimed, as was their right, though Crannon has every reason to believe them poachers tried and true. However that may be, they were in the wood, and somehow chanced upon a hidden treasure."
From the mention of the treasure, Liam found it easier to focus on her story, to ignore the way she paced in front of him, or stopped to stare out the windows, arms folded across her chest, the sun gleaming off her hair. He bowed his head and studied the floor, listening.
The three men returned to Forty Leagues toting a vast quantity of treasure, each dragging a sack bursting with golden coins and a rainbow of gems. They stored the riches in the mill, the only building in the village with locks. That night, the lucky men went to bed with their wives -- but none of the three woke the next morning. "All were found strangled, their throats crushed."
Liam looked up in time to see Casotte shudder. "None of their wives heard a thing?"
"They all slept sound -- even Daura, Raker's wife, who claims to sleep with one eye open all the time. An evil eye," she added, almost to herself. "And here's more: the treasure was gone, spirited away from Falc Miller's locked room."
Liam gave a low whistle, and Father Enghave spoke up. "Y'are not finished, Casotte."
She scowled, and Liam suddenly remembered the old man's warning: It is not simple for her.
"There was a man," she said, and blew out a bitter sigh. "A charcoal burner and forester. The villagers claim he came and warned the men to return the treasure before they died." Enghave raised an eyebrow. "Oh, very well -- he did. He came in from the wood and warned them to return it to its rightful owner. And later they were all taken off in their beds."
"And then?" Enghave prompted.
"And then he came back to Forty Leagues and said that such would be the fate of any who sought to steal the treasure. The people fell on him, and would have killed him then and there, but Keeper Crannon stopped them. He locked the man away, and the headman of the village, one Ossier, summoned me, as the Duke's quaestor."
It is not simple for her, Liam reminded himself. "And is he still a prisoner?"
Casotte pointed her chin to the ceiling. "Above."
"But you don't think he did it?"
She shook her head vehemently. "He couldn't," she declared. "He's a lamb."
"A lamb?" A few choice examples of murderous lambs sprang to mind, but seeing Casotte's expression, Liam decided against mentioning them. "Perhaps I should meet him."
* * *
A long corridor ran the length of the third floor, with two doors on either side. Casotte took down a bar from the second on the right, then raised her voice: "Wooden! I've brought a friend to visit with you!"
The cell was small and windowless but the floor was clean and dry, and there was a thin pallet on a shelf bolted to the walls. As the door opened, the prisoner inside scrambled up onto the shelf, shading his eyes. "Is it my Lady I hear?" he called. "Is my Lady here?"
Casotte gave Liam a look. "See you?" To the prisoner, she said: "It is not, Old Wooden. It's Casotte."
Odd as the nickname sounded to Liam, the man on the bed responded to it, and slowly eased himself off the bed. "Is it the time to eat now?" He wore only a ragged kilt of undyed wool around his waist. Black hair straggled around his bull neck, and a patchy beard coated his throat and the top half of his chest. His shoulders and arms were lumpy with muscles, and his hands, twice the size of Liam's, dangled around his thighs.
He's a lamb? Liam wondered.
"No," Casotte said gently, "it's not the time to eat. Do you remember me?"
Old Wooden gave a shy smile and nodded. There was something childish in the gesture that gave Liam pause, and then the prisoner took his hand away from his face, and Liam could see the blank, permanently dazed look in his eyes. "Casotte, is it the time to eat?" the forester asked.
Master, Fanuilh thought, I believe he's an idiot.
It was clear in the way he held his head, in the simple, trusting look he cast back and forth from Casotte to Liam. After a long moment, he burst into a sunny smile. "Y'are Keeper Crannon! I remember! You thought I hadn't, but I had."
Casotte patted the forester's shoulder and looked significantly at Liam. He pursed his lips and nodded. "I see." She started to leave the cell, but he stopped her a gesture at Old Wooden. "May I?"
Suspicion flared in her eyes. "What?"
"A few questions." He could see her weighing his motives, and a small part of him rebelled. The questions seemed obvious to him, and that Casotte had not bothered to ask them -- or had kept the answers from him -- made him wonder how complicated she wanted things to be. Finally she relented with a wary shrug.
"You came into the village several days ago, didn't you?" Liam began.
To his irritation, Casotte answered. "He's often in the village."
"But once you came and brought something else, yes? A message?" He was careful to keep his tone friendly and his sentences simple, but he found them all trailing off where he meant to add the forester's name but could not bring himself to say it. What kind of a name is that? "The thing you said to the men. The warning?"
Old Wooden brightened at the last word. "The warning! I brought a warning in the morning! She told me to, so she did. A warning in the morning, so said she."
"The Lady of the Pool," the prisoner said, as if it were obvious. "So said she."
Liam snapped his fingers. "The Lady of the Pool, of course. Where is she now, do you know?"
"In the wood, in a pool, with her gold and a fool." Old Wooden grinned craftily, like a child practicing naughty words. "So says she."
"Have you seen her pool?"
The forester nodded enthusiastically. "It's a passing pool. A fool could drown in it, so says she."
"Did she keep her gold in the pool?"
"She did, ere those men took it." He scowled and began to shout. "She blamed the fool. She said the fool showed them the pool. So said she -- but I didn't! I told them! So said I!"
Casotte patted his shoulder, murmuring soothing words.
"But she got her gold back, didn't she?" Liam asked.
Old Wooden grinned, apparently unaware that he had been shouting a moment before. "She did, she did! And let me see it. She wasn't angry any more. I warned them, a warning in the morning. I said, 'So says she,' but they were the true fools, not me."
"Can you tell me where the pool is?"
The forester squinted suspiciously. "I'm no fool," he said. "I'll not be tricked."
"Tell me," Liam asked, shifting directions, "what does your Lady look like?"
Old Wooden considered the question, trying to determine if it were another trick. "She's beautiful," he said at last. "She's a butterfly and a doe and a hummingbird when she's merry. I'm only to go to the pool when she's merry, so says she."
"And when she's not?"
Old Wooden frowned, then raised his head slowly and pointed at the doorway, where Fanuilh sat. "She looks like that. But bigger."
* * *
They quickly exhausted Old Wooden's store of small talk. Liam waited until they were in the hallway with the bar back on the door before asking the obvious question. "I take it there are no dragons wandering nearby?"
Casotte gave him a withering glance. "He's addled, Rhenford. The sun danced in his eyes and he dreamed this lady. It's a fantasy, pure and simple." He began to speak and she cut him off. "I tell you it is a dream, Rhenford! The workings of a mind fevered since birth. Y'had best watch out -- it seems catching!"
Her vehemence surprised him, and when she turned and stomped down the stairs, he did not follow. Instead, he sat on the top step and gestured for Fanuilh to join him. The dragon submitted to a half-hearted scratching. That was ... interesting.
Yes, master. She is not willing to consider anything that implicates the idiot.
Liam looked down at his familiar. But you are? I know he's strong enough, but strength is only part of the thing; there's fixed purpose, as well. You saw him. If thoughts are water, he's got a leaky bucket. Not that he would put it that way to Casotte, given her obvious sympathy -- which was a mystery in itself, but one he would leave aside for the moment. No, he may have played a part, but not on his own.
He was led?
Liam nodded distractedly, trying to think of the right way to proceed.
By this Lady?
Casotte insisted she was only a product of the forester's imagination, but Liam found it hard to believe that so simple a man could construct so complex a story -- and besides, the gold had not been imaginary. He shrugged. Stranger things have happened.
* * *
Casotte was waiting on the second floor, posted by the window, arms crossed.
"Well?" she demanded, when Liam appeared. "I suppose y'are ready to condemn him with the others, now. To hang him by the most convenient tree. I suppose y'are ready to hold the rope."
"Spit on him," Father Enghave suggested. He had found a jug of beer, and was searching the room for a cup. "That's another way to secure the goodwill of men who've ridden three days to bring you help."
"Be still, you sodden wretch."
"Would that I were sodden," the ghost witch lamented. "But Keeper Crannon keeps no cups, it seems."
Casotte made an angry noise and turned on Liam. "Well?"
"Well," Liam said. "I was thinking...." Seeing the angry glint in her eyes, the hard set of her jaw, he let the sentence trail away. What was I thinking?
Enghave found a cup; he raised it in a toast. "Thinking! An excellent idea!"
A muscle twitched in Casotte's cheek but otherwise she ignored the ghost witch, focusing on Liam. Why did I come here? he asked himself. Her invitation had not been a love note, whatever he might have read into it. She called you here to help, because she believes that you're a wizard, that you can clear this mess up with a wave of your hand. It was a problem he had encountered across the Duchy. People saw Fanuilh, and assumed that because he had a familiar he must be a proper wizard, when in fact he had only inherited the dragon; while it could cast a few simple apprentice's spells, he himself had no magical ability.
"Rhenford?" she prompted.
He sucked his teeth for a moment. "Well, he didn't kill them, that much seems obvious." Her stare grew a shade less defiant. "There is the warning," he continued, "but other than that, nothing really to connect him to their deaths." He wandered over to the window and perched on the sill, ignoring the perplexed expression on Father Enghave's face. He thinks I'm humoring her, or giving in to her because I like her. The window looked south, on the row of willows and the Hythe. And perhaps I am. He shook his head and looked back into the room.
Casotte held her hands clasped at her waist, as if to contain herself. "How will we find the true murtherer, then?"
"We'll ask around," he said. "I don't suppose anyone had a chance to examine the bodies?"
"Crannon saw them," Casotte said. "He'll be back this afternoon."
"Fine. I'd like a look at the men's cottages, and we should probably have a talk with their widows. Remember, we're not just looking for someone who could strangle three men; he would also have to be able to break into a locked room in the mill. That's important -- the men were killed, but the treasure was taken, too. That's the heart of it: the gold."
"Aye," Casotte agreed. "The gold."
To Liam's relief, Enghave had apparently decided not to needle her anymore; he simply sighed. "Aye. It's Strife's very gold."
"Which sows discord," Liam pointed out, hoping that both the ghost witch and the quaestor would take the message personally.
* * *
While Casotte caught and saddled one of the horses on the green, Liam led his roan out of the tower and had a chat with Fanuilh. "Fly around the area," he said quietly. "Explore the woods. Look for pools. Or dragons. But pools, mostly."
You are thinking of the idiot's Lady.
"No, I'm thinking of going swimming later," Liam said. Yes, I'm thinking of the Lady.
But you don't want Quaestor Casotte to know about it.
"Don't let anyone say you don't catch on quickly, familiar mine."
I won't. Fanuilh leapt into the air, beat its wings hard once, twice, and then flew off across the village green.
* * *
Two of the men had lived at the southern end of the village; Casotte led Liam to their cottages first. "This was Lons," she said, indicating the second-to-last house on the eastern side of the road. "He was the youngest, scarce a score and five. The one beyond was Raker. They were cousins."
Both cottages had high roofs of thatch and walls of rough-cut gray stone, with a door and a single window on the front. Liam rode all the way around them, and saw that neither had windows or entrances at the back. Satisfied, he rejoined Casotte and they went to the other end of the village. The last cottage on the west had a blacksmith's shop attached, a long, low wooden shed open on two sides, its coalbin heaped high with black fuel, dousing troughs at the front and a cord of wood stacked just to the north. Casotte reined in by the smithy and lifted her chin at the house opposite. "Cance's." It was on the same side of the road as the other men's.
A voice spoke out from inside the depths of the smithy. "Leave her in peace."
The quaestors turned to face the man who came out to meet them. Brawny but running to fat around the middle, the smith was tall -- almost as tall as Liam, who stood almost a head above most southerners -- and cleanshaven. In spite of the heat, he wore a heavy tunic of gray wool and a stiff leather apron. "You should not bother her, so recently a widow." He spat on the road by her horse's hooves. "Y'are so soft with the wooden, but have no heart for the sane. Leave her to herself, you and your Southwark wizard."
Liam stifled a sigh. Not that nonsense again.
"Quaestor Rhenford is a loyal servant of the Duke, as am I. We'll do what we must to uphold his laws." She slapped her reins and started away; Liam followed after a beat.
"Laws?" the smith called after them. "It's not laws, Casotte, it's your own foolishness! The idiot should hang! Will hang, for the murtherer he is!"
A little ways up the road, Casotte turned onto a beaten path that led into the fields. The smith was still shouting when Liam fell in behind her. Why do I feel like I've joined a war late, he wondered, and on the wrong side?
* * *
Liam and Casotte wound their way along the edge of the fields in single file, shoulder-high grain ripening on one side, dense forest pressing close on the other. Ideas pressed close on Liam as well, possible avenues of investigation, and odd facts, too. He finally understood the forester's name: 'Wooden' meant crazy in the southern dialect. He had not connected it with the forester's lack of wit until the smith spoke of Casotte's softheartedness.
The whole village is sure he killed the three men, and she refuses to consider it. Liam could not get the image of Old Wooden's thick, corded muscles out of his mind -- but strength was the smallest part of the equation as far as he was concerned. Someone put him up to the warning. The forester was simple-minded; it would be easy to trick him.
And clever, he grudgingly admitted, since he can't protest his innocence very well. An unexpected sympathy for the forester rose up in him, mingling with his confusion over another question: why had the three poachers been killed? They weren't anywhere near the treasure. The only answer that made any sense was Old Wooden's tale of the Lady and her vengeance, but he was not sure Casotte would allow him to follow up on it.
* * *
The first of the widows was Daura, Raker's wife, a grim, bitter woman in a muddy fustian dress trying to break up the soil of a plot with a mattock and the questionable help of a five-year-old boy. "Well and well, Casotte," she called as they rode up, "think you your murtherous madman'll dance for us soon?"
Liam introduced himself before Casotte could rise to the comment. "I'd like to ask you a few questions about your husband, if you don't mind."
She barked a mirthless laugh. "Ask, aye, if you would! Ask this and ask that, but all I've to say is that the man as did it is clapped in already." She glared at Casotte, as if daring her to deny it.
"Actually," Liam said, "I'm not interested in who did it. I'm more interested in the treasure. The gold." Mention of the treasure drew Daura's eyes away from Casotte. "Do you know where your husband found it?"
"Ha! If he told anyone, it wasn't me. Very close they were, he and's companions, and not a word would they say. A pact, it was, an oath they swore not to tell." She spat to show what she thought of their oath. "And it's of no matter now, is it? We all know that the gold's in a new spot, hidden away by that clever fool."
"It wasn't in his hut," Casotte said coldly, "nor anywhere near it."
"It may be that you didn't look piercingly enough, Quaestor Casotte."
Liam interrupted the brewing fight, anxious to stick to business. "Thank you for your time."
As they rode away, Casotte muttered, "Bitter old root."
"She certainly made no secret of her feelings," Liam agreed. "Still, she has lost her husband."
Casotte jerked her thumb over her shoulder. "That one was bitter long ere she lost Raker. She was bitter at catching him, bitter at getting his babes, bitter at working his fields. The only thing that didn't pucker her mouth was that gold, and losing it was far the worst thing that ever happened to her."
With a polite noise, Liam let the matter drop.
Thrasa, Cance's widow, proved just as unhelpful. Neither she nor her two sturdy sons knew where the men had found the treasure, though they took great pains to insist that it could not possibly have been on the Duke's preserves. Liam phrased his questions a number of different ways, but the suspicious family saw in each an attempt to label their husband and father a poacher. With the last of his patience, Liam bid them a civil goodbye.
The hills bordering the fields were casting long shadows across the grain by the time they reached the third widow. "Becula," Casotte said, "Lons's wife. The man with her's her brother, Bairth." The siblings were working together to repair the harness that linked a patient ox to a splintery wooden plow. Casotte took Liam's reins while he went up and greeted them.
Becula was much younger than the two other women, scarcely out of her teens. Liam decided she might have been pretty if not for her air of despondency, the way her mouth drooped at the corners and her eyes fell helplessly to the ground -- then cursed himself for the thought. "I hate to intrude on your grief," he said, "but there are a few questions I'd like to ask you concerning your husband."
The widow's eyes grew misty, and Bairth frowned. "Those questions have been asked and answered, Quaestor."
"About his death, I know," Liam said. "But there are some questions from before that -- about the treasure he and his friends found."
Before her brother could object, Becula heaved a sigh. "Lons shouldn't have gone about with those others," she said in a soft voice. "It'll do no harm to name them poachers and sots. But Lons was none of those. I remember the day, how his face shone when he went out -- fishing, it was, he'd cut a new pole, and blessed the Duke for leaving the streams to us."
"Which river?" Liam asked, but she seemed not to have heard him.
"He came back with all that treasure wrapped up, soaked to the bone and dripping on the hearth. 'I caught no fish,' he said, 'but something better.'" Bairth gently reminded her of Liam's question. "Where? Oh, he'd never say -- it was an oath they'd all sworn, never to discover the place to anyone else, even their wives. He'd never say."
"Do you remember what rivers he usually fished? Did he have any favorites?"
The young widow looked up at him with lost eyes. "The Lazy. He ever fished the Lazy." She turned suddenly, throwing off her brother's arm, and hurried back to the patient ox.
* * *
"Do you know the Lazy?" Liam asked, when he and Casotte were a good distance away.
"Aye," she replied after a moment. "A small thing, in the wood to the west. Why?"
"Does it have many pools?"
She heaved a sigh. "Too many to count, Rhenford. Look you, it wanders -- thus its name. It tarries on its way in a dozen pools." Without enthusiasm, but without being asked, she added that Old Wooden kept his hut near its banks. "Y'are thinking of his Lady."
"I suppose I am," he admitted.
She reined in her mare. "I tell you he's addled, Rhenford -- most like he heard the tale of their treasure, and in his strange mind remembered some fable, it may be even that of Strife's gold, and thought to warn them of that. Or, it may be, it may be --"
"It may be what?" Liam interrupted sharply. "It may be what?" He paused, then went on in a more quiet tone, "It may be that someone who knew they found the treasure on the Lazy, and knew Old Wooden lived there, put the two together to cover his tracks."
She regarded him for a long moment, and then warned, "He did not do it."
Liam nodded slowly, wondering if he was not binding himself to a foolish promise. Too late now.
* * *
The hills that cupped the valley of the Hythe were lower to the south, and the grain lapped at them like a gentle surf. The sun was far down the western sky, burnishing the fields and picking out a white-plastered villa on the last hill before the Caernarvon Road, far larger than any of the cottages in Forty Leagues. "Whose is that?" Liam asked.
"One Rhaedr," Casotte replied, and made a sound of disgust. "He's the disposition for murther -- sour and mean, once a sellsword, but's too old by far, and lame into the bargain, lame these thirty years. What's more, he was a friend and boon companion to the dead men -- they worked his fields for pay, and would drink with him." She gave a rueful laugh. "But I'll leave him. Unless I miss my guess, you'll have a chance to measure him at your leisure."
Leaving him to puzzle over her meaning, she urged her horse to a trot back to the main road. As the day waned, the villagers had begun to trudge in from the fields, dragging tools or slinging them wearily over their shoulders. Some gave Liam and Casotte suspicious looks as they rode by, but most averted their eyes, pretending the quaestors were not there. Casotte ignored them all, holding her chin high and her nose in the air.
"Quaestor! Hold up!"
The friendly call came as a surprise, and Liam threw a startled glance at Casotte before looking over his shoulder to see a young man in huntsman's leathers trotting after them on a tired pony. Casotte reined in to let him catch up, and introduced him as Keeper Crannon. He was close to Liam's height, and, like Liam, had short-cropped blond hair, which must have accounted for Old Wooden's confusion, because otherwise the two men could not have been more different. Liam was thin and wiry, while Crannon was barrel-chested and fleshy, with a flat nose and sad, watery eyes.
"Rhenford's come up from Southwark to dig into this with me," Casotte said. "He's a great many questions for you, unless you mean to go spooning and bussing again with your Griffen."
"In course not," Crannon blurted, flushing instantly. "I'm at your disposal, Quaestor Rhenford."
Liam thanked him as they crossed the bridge over the Hythe, and was about to venture a neutral comment on the sunset when Casotte looked across the village green and vented a theatrical groan. "Did I not say it?" She aimed a finger at a trio of men standing by the entrance to the keeper's tower. "Did I not foretell it? Speak of the Dark, and Rhaedr appears."
* * *
The man in question, the line of his shoulders permanently canted from reliance on a crutch, had his back to the road, and was busy shaking his fist at Father Enghave, who tugged at his beard with one hand and used the other to smother a fit of laughter. The third man stood a little apart, watching; short and stout, with absurdly long arms, he was nearly bald and compensated with a bushy black beard.
"You tell her that we'll not stand for it!" the old man shouted as they came into earshot. His voice was a raspy buzz. "Tell her we'll have none of her nonsense here, and none of her city wizards!"
Father Enghave pointed out the new arrivals. "You may tell her yourself," he said, and snorted. Rhaedr spun around his crutch with remarkable agility and directed his anger at Casotte.
"You! What trick have you planned!"
"I don't know what you mean, Rhaedr."
He hobbled over and seized the bridle of her horse. "You know, aye, you know! And we'll have none of it!" His face was brick-red beneath milk-white hair; a grizzled beard surrounded his generous, loose-lipped mouth. "You, with your damned wizards! The idiot'll hang, no matter if you bring the whole Dark-damned guild!"
"Perhaps someone misled you, Master Rhaedr," Liam said, dismounting and coming around to face the old man, his free hand outstretched. "I am a quaestor, but not a wizard. Not in the least."
Rhaedr considered the hand Liam offered with disgust, and put his own on the hilt of the dagger at his belt. It had a wide blade -- a soldier's blade -- and there had once been a badge or a jewel inset on the crossbar, but it had long since fallen or been pried out. "Not a wizard," he sneered. "And half the village spying him with his Dark-spawned beast. Come with your sorceries, come to cast a glamor on us, to blind our eyes, so that idiot can go free!"
"He should go free," Casotte snapped.
"If he's innocent," Liam added quickly, but it was too late.
Rhaedr ground his teeth. "Ossier'll hear of this," he promised, and shook Casotte's bridle to emphasize his threat. "Aye, and the Baron, and the Duke, too! They'll see justice done, if you won't!" With that, he hobbled off across the green toward the road.
"That," Casotte said, "was Rhaedr. And this is Falc Miller." She indicated the third man, and Liam bowed.
"I don't expect you'll believe it either," he said, "but I'm really not a wizard."
"In course not," Falc said, his dry tone and the skeptical tilt of his head belying his words. "Only come to help your fellow quaestor, I warrant."
"Only that," Liam replied, taking an instant dislike to the miller. "As a matter of fact, there are a few questions I'd like to ask you, if I may."
Falc considered him for a long moment, a flat assessing stare. "I've work to do," he said, before turning away and starting across the green to the west.
They could at least get to know me before they hate me, Liam thought, watching the miller disappear down the banks of the Hythe. Not that I'm going to do them the same courtesy.
"Miserable man," Casotte commented when Falc was out of earshot. "Forget him, Rhenford. Come along." Without waiting, she led her horse into the tower. Crannon hurried after her.
"I'll be in in a minute," Liam called, but only the ghost witch, cheeks bulging with unvoiced laughter, heard.
"I'll let them know," he promised and then, unable to resist, went on: "Will you put us all in a sorcerous slumber, o great mage, and spirit away our treasured simpleton? Or raise a demon, to tear down the walls of Old Wooden's prison?"
"No, no demons," Liam said, and exaggerated a sigh. "There are enough around here already."
Enghave's grin widened, and he checked behind him for Casotte. "And one is pretty, and wears her hair in braids." With a wink, he disappeared into the tower, and Liam spent a few minutes checking in with Fanuilh. Anything of interest?
No, master. I have seen many pools, but none that appear special. The woods are very well watered.
Liam sighed. Well, come back whenever you like. I'll leave the door open, and you can sleep in the stable.
Sighing again, he went into the tower.
* * *
"Attend us," Father Enghave cried, gesturing Liam in with a mug of beer. "We were discussing the likelihood of the Duke's reducing us all in station. I doubt not that Master Rhaedr is high in his councils, and a word from him will forever stain our reputations."
Casotte rolled her eyes. "I tell you he is nothing."
"He is a knight's son," Crannon offered.
"A knight's son who was not created a knight himself," she qualified. "The Duke wouldn't raise him up -- that's why he went north for a soldier. And returned in a year, lame and with a witch to wife."
"A witch? His wife is a witch?"
Enghave burst out laughing. "Did see his ears prick up? Our Rhenford had a scent there!" He toasted Liam with a long swig of beer.
Casotte shook her head. "Was a witch. She's long dead." Impatient to get to more important matters, she clapped her hands sharply. "And of no moment. Rhenford, had you no questions for Crannon here?"
Liam turned to meet the keeper's eyes, and found them so wide and startled that he smiled disarmingly. "I wanted to ask about the dead men. You saw them?"
The keeper grew solemn. "Aye, I saw."
"And how were they killed? I mean, were their throats really crushed? Or were they just strangled?" Seeing Crannon's blank look, Liam explained. "Was the damaged area large or small? Could it have been a cord or a piece of cloth?" He demonstrated, laying a single finger across his throat, then wrapped all his fingers around his neck. "Or something bigger?"
"Something bigger," the keeper echoed, mimicking Liam's gesture by opening his fingers in the air to grasp an imaginary throat. "But, like this." He squeezed his hand into a tight fist. "There was little left, Quaestor."
Liam arched an eyebrow. If the other man's gesture was accurate, he had been underestimating the nature of the murders. That's not strangling. That's ... that's crushing. Really crushing. He suppressed a shiver. "All right, let's talk a little bit about the villagers."
While Crannon hurried around the room preparing their dinner, Liam explained the sort of man they were looking for: strong enough to crush another's throat, capable of getting past the miller's lock, able to get away with suddenly having far more money than before. They started going through the men of the village; Crannon named them and then, peering deep into his stewpot as if he found the answers there, gave a brief assessment of each, according to Liam's specifications. Casotte said "Aha!" every time a man was mentioned who was of more than average strength -- until Enghave pointed out that there were several remarkably strong oxen in the vicinity. "It may be that y'are overlooking a valuable field of possibilities," he said.
"I'm more interested in men who are handy with tools," Liam said, "or clever at puzzles."
"Then you might look Falc Miller," Crannon suggested, with a great show of reluctance. "He is not ... well-regarded in the village." There were rumors about him -- that he consorted with hedge wizards, that he used spells to cheat the farmers, that his millstones were enchanted.
"But they're only rumors," Liam said. "And no one likes a miller." You don't even like him, and you just met him. "Still, we'll put him on our list. Now, what about that smith? He's a big man, and more likely than anyone else to be familiar with mechanisms like locks."
The idea sparked Casotte's imagination. "He was the first to see the murthered men!" she exclaimed, and then corrected herself: "After their wives, in course, for that Widow Thrasa came to him. But he could melt the gold!" She turned an eager look on Crannon, who reluctantly added that there were stories told of the smith as well -- that he could not stay in the village where he apprenticed, that his master had repudiated him.
"For Dark magic, I'd warrant," Casotte said, completely carried away. "Or theft, or murther, or all three! Mark me, Rhenford, Aldyne Smith's our man."
To Liam's relief, Father Enghave saved him the trouble of deflating her certainty. "Y'have proved it! Shall we clap him in presently, or wait til morning?"
Casotte glared at him, and Liam hastily spoke up. "We'll talk to him, and to Falc Miller, as well. But it's not a very promising group. If two can even be a group."
She pursed her lips unhappily and was on the verge of responding when Crannon announced that dinner was ready. Liam joined the others at the table and dug into the watery stew, happy for a few moments of silence to wade through the contradictory ideas he had formed about the investigation. You have to choose a path, he decided. The Lady and the smith and the miller -- you're going in too many directions. He would need time to think through his options.
Casotte, however, pushed her bowl away and cocked her head at him. "How will you approach them?"
"Falc and Aldyne, in course. How will you approach them?"
Once again, Enghave came to his rescue. "Let the man eat, you ogre. He's ridden a thousand leagues or more, and is near death with hunger, mere skin and bone, I tell you. I saw him cast a greedy eye over his own dragon only an hour past, and was plain he was measuring the creature for cutlets. Leave him be."
Both Liam and Crannon studiously applied themselves to their bowls.
"He can eat, and talk the while," Casotte said.
"Starving, I tell you! A figure of famine! The dragon has fled, fearing sauces and gravies! Wait, now I think on it -- has anyone seen the creature? Are we too late?"
"Your lightness is out of season," she said coldly. "How came you here?"
"By the road, as any man might."
"Aye, but why?"
"Ah," Enghave said, jabbing his spoon at the ceiling, "I am pleased y'ask, my dear, most pleased." Ignoring Casotte's attempts to interrupt, he proceeded with a long story about a land dispute that he, in his capacity as an official in the Duke's service, was supposed to help settle. It was a complicated situation -- or, Liam guessed, a simple one that gained convolutions from the way the ghost witch told it and the many drinks with which he punctuated his speech -- and he found himself paying less and less attention, returning to his own complicated situation.
As far as he could tell, Old Wooden's Lady represented the most profitable avenue of investigation. He had been impressed by Crannon's expressive gesture, the way he clenched his fist so tightly his hand shook. If the treasure belonged to the Lady, if Cance and Lons and Raker had not found it but, rather, stolen it from her, that would make sense of their deaths. Her revenge, Liam thought, or her curse, remembering a legend that had been attached to a dark forest near his boyhood home in the Midlands, of a hoard of gold that brought death to whoever disturbed it.
Casotte, however, was dead-set against any solution that involved the forester. Which means she's against the solution that makes sense. He stole a glance -- she wore a face of strained patience, waiting for Enghave to finish his long-winded story -- and decided that he would have to work around her objections. Spend some time searching in the village to satisfy her, and then find a way to get out into the forest to do the real work.
Night had fallen while they were eating, and Liam was yawning by the time the ghost witch finished with a flourish and declared that it was time for bed. "We've all an early day," Enghave slurred, lurching to his feet. "Bed for all!"
Casotte frowned, but before she could bring up the murders again, Liam excused himself and went downstairs to gather his baggage.
* * *
Casotte was waiting when he came back.
The coals in the fireplace had been banked for the night; she leaned against the mantle, hands in her pockets, and eyes on the floor. At his footsteps, she raised her head -- she had undone her braids, and the hair framed her face. She arched an eyebrow at his baggage. "I noted your swords before, when we met at the Fair. Are you so great a swordsman, then, as to wield two?"
"Oh, no," Liam said hastily, following her gaze down to the hilts that stuck out of his baggage. "No. One's enchanted. It can cut through magic." It was not a simple as that, and he would gladly have explained -- gladly sat and talked all night -- but she made a noncommittal noise and brushed past him to the stairs.
"I'd best to bed," she said.
"And you." She was behind him, and he could hear her pause.
This is ridiculous, he thought, blushing. Why are you embarrassed, of all things? The cynical voice answered for him: Because she's thinking about saving a man's life, while all you can think about is kissing.
He meant to say something, but when he turned she was gone.
* * *
In his dream, Liam galloped down the Caernarvon Road alone, searching for Casotte. Tree limbs black with moss and thick as shipmasts formed a vault over his head; above them, the sky was a leprous gray. A terrible anxiety possessed him; he was sure she was in great danger.
And then, suddenly, he was standing at the edge of a pool. Trees pressed close to the water, their twisted roots dipping beneath the still, black surface. Across from him, a spire of rock thrust up to the sky. At its base, Casotte lay on what he took at first to be roots -- smooth and sinuous roots the width of barrels, coiled over and under and through each other. Then the whole mass stirred, and a dragon's head rose up, the Lady of the Pool rearing above him.
She is dead, the Lady told him, and he knew she meant Casotte. Would you fight me, too?
He had a sword somewhere, but before he could even begin to look for it the Lady struck and he was thrown back into the depths of the forest. You cannot fight me, the Lady said, and he was suddenly overwhelmed with fear. He panicked and began to thrash around in the forest, tangible darkness pressing close all around him.
Liam jerked awake, but in the complete darkness he imagined he was still in the forest, and went perfectly still. Fanuilh? He could barely form the thought.
I am upstairs, master. I thought I heard a rat. You might wish to come up here.
Ashamed to cower beneath his blankets, Liam forced himself out of bed. What is it?
The idiot is talking to me.
* * *
"Is it you, Lady?" Old Wooden whispered, his face pressed up against the grate in his cell door. "Now you will make me free."
Crouched at the head of the stairs, Liam watched Fanuilh twist its head to one side to consider the forester. What else has he said?
Only that, the dragon replied. I came up to find the rat, and he heard me.
"Y'are small, Lady. I am a fool, the fool of the pool, not to have known. Will you make me free?" Liam cringed at the trusting tone, but said nothing. "I gave the warning, Lady. The warning in the morning as you asked. I beg pardon for not knowing you before. But you said you'd never part the wood, so said you. Will you make me free?"
He could not decide if he should let the forester go on. What if he says something you don't want to hear? More precisely, he admitted, something Casotte doesn't want to hear.
Fanuilh flared its wings, and Old Wooden made a hurt sound. "I did as you said, so I did," he whined.
That's enough. With a sign to Fanuilh, Liam went downstairs. As they descended, he asked, What do you think of the Lady now?
There was a pause while he waited for his familiar's reply; they passed the second floor. I have no conclusions. She may be real, or she may merely be the idiot's delusion. How has that changed?
They had reached the bottom floor, and Liam shrugged as he opened the door and ushered Fanuilh out. The sky was a pre-dawn gray. I think she's real, he projected as they crossed the green to the willows, though he did not say why -- was embarrassed to admit, even to himself, that his thinking had been influenced by his dream. There was something about the way the Lady had presented herself, a vengeful quality that rang true. She would want to kill them, he told his familiar, because they stole her treasure. Who else would want to? It's unnecessary.
If you say so, master.
Laughing, Liam pushed through the hanging branches to the riverbank. I do say, so say I, and I want you to look into it. I'll get directions from Crannon, and you can explore the Lazy today.
What will you do?
"Wash up," he answered out loud, and dipped his toes in the water. The Hythe was cold; he shivered and hugged himself. I'll look around the village. In case I'm wrong about the Lady.
Wisps of mist rose off the narrow river. He stripped and crouched at the edge of the water, meaning to drop in. For a moment the surface was opaque, a mirror beneath its wreath of mist, and he froze, remembering the pool in his dream. Then he shook himself and plunged in.
* * *
Feeling better for the swim, more awake, Liam jogged back into the tower and found Crannon building up the fire. The keeper was happy to give him directions to the Lazy, and promised to have breakfast ready soon. As he waited, Liam's mind drifted away on a tangent of thought that brought him up against a question he had not asked. "You must be familiar with the local history, the local legends. Do any mention a treasure like the one the men found?"
Crannon's face puckered as he searched his memory. The Caernarvon Road, like any other major route, had accumulated a great store of legends -- stories of banditry and stolen hordes -- but they all took place beyond the frontiers of the Duchy. "The Duke and his line have long kept careful watch on the roads," he said, sounding as if he regretted the fact. There had been a few incidents, he admitted, but nothing that would provide such a mass of treasure. "Hold a moment," he said, suddenly thoughtful, "there was something... But no, that was so long ago -- "
"Long ago is fine," Liam said eagerly.
"-- and too far north," Crannon concluded. "A store of treasure from Caernarvon meant for a fane in Southwark, for the trade, if you see."
Liam nodded. In addition to their religious functions, the kingdom's temples acted as treasuries, allowing merchants to deposit gold in one city and withdraw the same amount from a temple to the same god in another city; they often had to move large shipments of treasure. "What happened to it?"
"A band of rogues descended upon the train, did away with the guards, and made off with a fortune in gold and gems. But it was north of here -- some four day's ride -- and many years past. My father was wont to tell of the day the acolytes rode through, hot to search for the villains."
"Acolytes?" Liam asked, sure he had misheard.
"Oh, aye, for that they were Strife's battle-priests. The priests in their armor, and the black looks they wore when they rode back empty-handed."
"So it might really be Strife's gold," Liam murmured, more to himself than to Crannon, who gave him an odd look and then tapped his chin, understanding.
"Y'are thinking of the story of the god. His gold, eh?" He shrugged, and produced a half-burnt slab of toast from the hearth. "Breakfast."
"None for me, thank you," Liam said, thinking about the interviews he had promised to have with Falc and Aldyne. They'll be easier alone. "In fact, I think I'll go down to the mill for a chat. Let Casotte know where I've gone when she gets up, will you?"
He left the tower, summoning Fanuilh as he went. The dragon met him at the corner of the village green, where a beaten path followed the river's edge to the mill. He called Crannon's directions to mind and projected them. That's the Lazy. Think you can find it?
Yes, master. It hovered over the entrance to the path, black and gold like an enormous bumblebee. The image made Liam laugh.
"Be careful," he told it aloud. With a heavy downbeat of its wings the dragon mounted into the sky, and Liam started down the path.
The Hythe narrowed on its way west, foaming down a natural race to the mill, a lopsided structure of gray stone with a peaked slate roof. The path wound down an incline to the landward side of the mill, where a dirt track came in from the northern end of the village; path and track met at the mill's entrance, wide double doors that gave onto the dim interior. He hesitated in the doorway, peering into the gloom. "Hello? Anyone here?" After waiting a few moments he went in. The mill was dark and dank, and smelled vaguely moldy, as if last season's wheat had not been entirely cleared away. He laid his hand on the top millstone, expecting to find it damp.
"Get your hand from that!"
Startled, Liam whirled, trying to track the gruff voice in the shadowy mill, and finally found it coming from a particularly dark corner, where a set of steps led down to a cellar. Falc Miller bared his teeth in an unfriendly grin as he crossed the room. "Casotte's wizard, is it? Come to question me? Does Casotte not like the answers I gave before? I'll not change them. No, not even for a wizard from Southwark." Falc lifted his chin defiantly but his grin remained, hinting at more than just defiance, as if he knew something Liam did not.
Which he probably does. Liam shook his head, refusing to rise to the other man's bait. "I'm not a wizard, Master Miller; just a servant of the Duke."
Falc's grin widened into a sneer. "Tell me, has Casotte already chosen me for her villain? For her precious idiot to go free, she needs must have a villain hard by to serve, and who better than me? I'm a villain ready-made, am I not? There's none will miss the miller. How will you make me the villain in this, I wonder?"
The man's tone irritated Liam: that, and the fact that he was, in a sense, right. "No one's trying to make you a villain," he snapped. Only trying to see if you are one already. "I just have a few questions. Do you think you might manage to answer them?"
Something in his tone -- the sarcasm or the edge of anger, or perhaps both -- made the miller back down. "What questions?"
Keeping the edge in his voice, Liam asked, "To start, how did the treasure come to be kept here?"
"They bid me watch it -- and I would they hadn't, for all the trouble it's caused me. Ere that idiot came, there were those who would blame me -- and who will again, should he go free."
Which gives you an interest in keeping him guilty. "Do you sleep in the room where the treasure was kept?"
"In course not! It's my storeroom, where the grain is stored," he said, and then added, as if he had read Liam's thoughts, "I lock it up for that I keep my weights there, and what coin I have. You may search, if you would. It's empty -- as that Daura could tell you. She crawled through the room entire, ere her husband was even cold, to find the treasure. So search, if you would."
Liam recalled Daura's dreamy, greedy look. "I'm sure she was more thorough than I'd be. I take it there's only one key?"
"Any chance someone could have taken it from you?"
"None. I sleep with it around my neck."
"Can you explain how the treasure was stolen?"
The miller grinned for a moment and then, with a hint of his earlier defiance, said: "I cannot."
Which is either a very clever defense, or nothing at all. With a deep sigh, Liam said, "You know, Master Miller, you're in a bad position here. The treasure was locked up in your mill, in your storeroom, and you had the only key. You offer no explanation for how the gold was stolen out from under your nose, but you get offended when people ask the obvious questions."
"And wouldn't you?" the miller shot back. "Would it like you to be thought a murderer? Oh, it's well-known I'm a thief -- all millers are thieves, and rogues and knaves and villains as well. Shall I tell you a joke, Quaestor? Do you know the bravest thing in the world? Why, a miller's shirt, for that it takes a villain by the throat each day. It's a common joke, Quaestor, and I doubt not y'have heard its like many times."
Though the man had a point, Liam did not feel particularly sympathetic. "That's as may be, Master Miller, but the troubles of your profession don't interest me. What interests me is finding out who killed those men. So if you have anything to tell me about that -- about what happened that night, or how the gold those men entrusted to you came to be missing -- I'd suggest you tell me right now."
His jaw set, Falc bit off each word as he spoke. "I know naught."
They locked eyes for a moment, the miller's angry, Liam's cold and patient. Falc looked away first. Offering him a small bow, Liam left the mill.
* * *
The dirt track led away behind the village green, and Liam decided to go that way to pay a quick visit to the blacksmith's shop. He would ask Aldyne a few questions, since he had promised Casotte, but he did not expect much from it.
Smoke rose from the workshed, drifting into the cloudless summer sky. The track ran up behind the smithy, alongside the high-stacked cord of wood that made up the shed's northern wall. A quick visit, Liam thought -- and then stopped abruptly, hearing voices from the other side of the woodpile, inside the shed.
"You must not speak with him," a woman was saying, and the smith had already asked, "Why?" before Liam recognized her voice. Daura? He flattened himself against the woodpile, straining to hear.
"Just say no more," the widow commanded. "For her sake." There was a pause -- Liam had time to be ashamed of his eavesdropping, and to pray that no one saw him lurking by the woodpile -- and then Daura spoke again, exasperated. "Think, man! You know the busy tongues here! Neither defend nor defame her, or this Southwark wizard'll know your business in a flash!"
Liam glanced skyward with a broad prayer for patience.
"What business is that?" the smith asked, sounding defensive.
"Don't make me out the fool," Daura said. "Just for Pity's sake step careful around Casotte's wizard -- for Pity's sake, and that of her you love."
Use her name, Liam implored silently, though he could guess who she was. Just use it once. Neither did, however: the smith mumbled something that must have been assent and Daura grudgingly accepted it, then bid him goodbye. Liam shrank into the woodpile, imagining the indignity of a ducal quaestor caught spying; while the widow walked away he thought how embarrassment was the least of his problems.
Metal rang on metal as he hurried back to the green.
* * *
It was barely mid-morning, the sun a quarter of the way up the sky, and as Liam walked back the green, he restructured his ideas about the murders.
If the woman Daura and Aldyne Smith had been so careful not to name was Thrasa, and if her relationship with the smith was what he suspected, he would have to reconsider Casotte's desire to restrict their investigation to the village. Forget 'if,' he told himself. They're having an affair, and if they wanted to get rid of her husband... .
Eyes fixed on his boots, he brooded over Daura, and why she was so anxious for Aldyne not to talk to him. She hated her husband, he remembered, and stopped in his tracks, eyes going wide, a conspiracy springing up full-blown in his mind. Their husbands come into money, and suddenly they're widows. Rich widows.
The idea had a weird appeal, an irony and a symmetry and a dramatic quality all rolled up together -- and then he dismissed it and started walking again. There were three widows, not two, and he knew of no reason why the third would want her husband dead; besides, it did not explain how the treasure disappeared from the locked room in the mill. If there were a way to tie Falc in, it might be worth something. Until he found a connection, however, he was going to stick with the Lady of the Pool.
A thought from Fanuilh appeared in his mind as he started onto the green. I have found the Lazy, master.
Grand. Anything of interest?
Only another offering, Fanuilh reported. The meat is old, but untouched.
Right. Carry on.
Casotte stepped into the doorway of the tower as he approached, her arms crossed, glowering in his direction. With a cheery smile, Liam called, "Good morning!"
"Morning? It's near noon, Rhenford. I woke and you were gone -- gone! Whither, I wonder? And why? And what did that old fool want of you?" The words came in a rush, and the cords of her slim neck were taut.
What's she angry about? "Nothing much," he replied, taking her by the elbow and ushering her, stiff and reluctant, back into the cool shadows of the tower's interior. "Now listen, because I've learned a --"
She shook off his elbow. "You may think, Quaestor, for that y'have ridden with the courts and for that you live in Southwark, that you may treat us like clowns and rustics, but you'll learn otherwise! Running off, wasting your morning --"
"I didn't waste --"
"And for what? To listen at some old fool maunder on. What have you learned, Rhenford? What have you done this morning?"
Liam waited until she paused, then met her eye and held it. When he was sure she would not interrupt, he explained about leaving a message with Crannon. "But he must have gone before you woke up."
"No one woke me!"
Words leapt to the tip of his tongue; seeing the dark circles under her eyes, he held them back, and decided instead to tell her how he had spent his morning. He gave her a brief description of his meeting with the miller and what he had overheard by the smithy, downplaying its significance as much as he could. Nonetheless, the result was magic: her angry expression faded into an incredulous smile, and she uncrossed her arms to clap her hands like a child.
"Aldyne and Daura, you say? Oh -- and Aldyne and Thrasa! The three! A plot, then!" He had improved her mood considerably, and she began throwing out ideas with reckless abandon. "They worked it together to take off the men, for that Daura hated hers, and Thrasa wanted to be free for Aldyne. I'd warrant Daura put them up to it -- she's sly and cruel, she is -- and now they'll wait, with the gold stored up somewhere safe, and in time they'll slip away, it may be to Southwark, or even Caernarvon, and live on the treasure!"
Liam smiled encouragingly: he liked her better this way, even though her thinking was all wrong. For a moment he was on the verge of explaining why the theory made no sense -- that it did not account for Lons' death, that there was no way Daura and Aldyne and Thrasa could have removed the treasure from the mill, that its appeal was purely dramatic, that she would have to be less committed to Old Wooden's innocence and more open to the facts as they knew them -- and then he held back, inspired.
The words came fast, inspiration speaking before he could think the idea through. "You know, they couldn't hide the treasure in the Forty Leagues. It would be too dangerous. They would need a safe place outside the village, and what place would be safer than where the gold was found in the first place? The only problem is, Lons knew it, too. That's why they killed him." More inspiration, as he saw her catching up to him: "Not to mention the fact that by killing him they would throw suspicion off themselves. Kill all three to cover their tracks, and to get rid of everyone who knew where they were going to hide the gold while they waited for things to calm down around here."
From her face he could see that he had carried her along with him, that her own desire for their guilt made her accept his logic. If you can call it logic, he thought, because he did not believe it himself. But she did, and her lips quirked, not liking the inevitable conclusion.
"So they hid the treasure where it was found. Which we think to be ...."
He waited for her pause to stretch out, then filled it: "Somewhere on the Lazy."
Sighing, she bowed her head. "On the Lazy."
* * *
Bullfrogs croaked, bravely standing their ground as Liam walked around the fringe of the tenth pool. His footsteps did not disturb them, nor the way he rustled the reeds, but they threw themselves far into the water when his long shadow happened to fall on them. If he walked fast enough his shadow startled a large number of frogs all at once, and he circled the pool at a stumbling run, grinning as dozens of frogs exploded into the water.
They had followed the twisting Lazy for the entire afternoon, fighting through thickets and deadfalls when the stream's banks were high and wading through small marshes and mudflats when they were low. Pestered by gnats and soaked with sweat, Liam was too tired to bother testing the bottom of the pool with a long stick, as he had the other nine.
This was a waste of time. The sun was low in the sky, its beams coming almost directly from the west; the day was nearly done.
"Think you the frogs know where the gold is?" Casotte asked. She stood on the far side of the pool, smiling faintly at his antics. At the start she had been taciturn, standing by while he jabbed his stick into first one pool and then another, but as the day waned and pool after pool proved empty, her mood improved.
Liam cupped a hand to his ear. "No. They only have one thing to say. Listen -- 'Go home! Go home!'"
"Should we?" she asked. "The road is ten minutes or so through the woods. There's a trail."
He kicked at a gnarled root. "How far to the next pool?"
"A mile or so upstream."
"The road it is, then." He squatted and washed his hands in the pool, splashed water on his face. "I've had enough of the woods for one day."
* * *
The sun was below the horizon by the time they reached the road. Fanuilh circled overhead, a dark shadow beneath the canopy of trees. Liam frowned at his familiar as they rode along.
"Must be nice to be able to fly above the mud and the muck," he grumbled.
Casotte laughed. "He seems quite devoted to you. His eyes follow you wherever you go. I knew a man who had a dog with the same eyes."
"And then one day the dog stole all his money and made off with his wife?"
She shook her head. Dusk had settled, and in the gray light it was difficult to make out her expression. "No, the man went north to Caernarvon, and the dog with him."
Sensing a sore subject, Liam did not press, particularly since he was beginning to think they ought to return to the Lazy in the morning. He knew she would not be happy about it -- he was not happy about it himself. Waste of time. But a stubborn part of his mind insisted that if they looked hard enough they would find the right pool, and the gold, and the Lady.
After a few minutes Casotte spoke again, and in the gathering dark he had the impression that her voice was coming to him from an increasing distance. "We were wed, for a time." She paused, waiting for him to understand, and when he lifted his head sharply, she continued: "I should not have married him, but I was young, and he asked me. We were each other's misery." She said nothing for a minute, and then: "Y'are silent, Quaestor Rhenford."
Liam was glad it was too dark to see; he was blushing at his own selfish thoughts, at his initial disappointment that she was married and his secret relief that the man was gone. "What was his name?"
"Auric, after the Great King. His father was a knight in the Duke's service, with lands near here. He was to have followed that line, but had not the stomach for it. And so he left, with his dog. It was nigh on eight years past."
He wondered why she was telling him these intimate things, and said nothing, seeking a reason. A hundred came to mind but none of them fit.
"I knew him from a child," she went on, still, it seemed, from a distance. "His brothers and he often hunted in these woods, and times they would take me with them. Once it chanced that we were alone, trailing a hart along the Lazy, and we stayed too late and were lost in the forest. We had nor blankets nor food, so he gave me his cloak and kept me warm through the night, talking and singing to keep up my spirits."
Does one faithful night make up for eight years of abandonment? Her tone was neutral, but he guessed that for her, perhaps, it did -- or that she preferred to forget the eight years and remember only the single night.
"In the morning, Old Wooden found us and gave us breakfast. It was but bread, but the sight of a man, even such a clown as he, raised our hearts. When next he went hunting, Auric brought down one of the Duke's harts and presented it to Old Wooden as thanks for the meal. Was that generous, think you?"
He wondered if that was it -- all a way of bringing them around again to the topic of the forester, an oblique way of explaining her strange attachment to him. Casotte repeated her question, and when he said, "It wasn't his deer," she chuckled.
"I never thought on that. No, it was not his deer." She laughed again, pleased with the insight. "But it was generously conceived, you'll grant that? Or are you ranked against him?"
He knew what she meant, but was not sure how to answer. "He must have had his reasons. One likes to hope they were good."
"How cautious y'are!" she laughed. "But you credit him with reasons, which none else would do. He had reasons, and they were good: we were not meant to be man and wife. It was best for us to part." Before and behind them the road seemed to glow, a ghostly ribbon in the twilight. She stopped her mare and reached out to stop him as well, her hand finding his arm easily in the gloom. "Pray, Quaestor Rhenford, what think you of my story? Is it tragedy or comedy?"
"I can't decide," he said. "Anyway, it's not over yet, is it?"
Coming out of the darkness, the kiss took him by surprise, and for a moment he thought the light touch on his lips was a moth. Then he smelled the sweetness of her breath, and then she pulled away. As the mare started walking, she said, "Aye, y'are right. It's not over."
What was that for? Now it was his turn to be suspicious, to question her motives. Why wonder? It was a kiss, that's all. It was what you came up here for, you idiot. But he could not help asking why it had come just after her story about Old Wooden. He would have preferred to keep kisses and forester as far apart as possible.
They rode for a while in silence, the dusk deepening around them. The night was warm; the horses' hooves clopped rhythmically, a deep, slow, comfortable sound. And then she spoke again: "So, where are we with this? Would you revisit the Lazy on the morrow?" There was a tightness in her voice, a warning.
"I think so."
She muttered something and, when he begged her pardon, said in a louder voice, "I cannot see what we'll find in the wood."
Careful now. "The treasure."
"And what will that tell us?"
"Who knows? What do you think we can find in the village?" They were sparring, he realized, and wished they could stop.
"I know not. We do not have these things out here, these murthers and mysteries y'are so accustomed to in Southwark. I rely on you for this. Why else would I summon you so far?"
Why indeed? Why summon me if you won't let me work? Why show me Old Wooden and then say he's off limits? Why say you want the truth and then refuse to consider it when it's right in front of you? He fought against bitterness. "There's nothing more to be learned in the village."
Casotte snorted. "Nothing more? What of Aldyne and Thrasa? And Daura?"
"What of them?" he asked, as gently as his rising temper allowed. "How do you suppose they got into the mill?"
"I know not."
"And how do you think they crushed the men's necks?"
"I know not!"
"You heard Crannon -- crushed. Not broken or strangled -- crushed. The smith didn't do that." The conversation was spinning out of control, and he could not say exactly why. She's just not thinking. "And who sent Old Wooden with that message?"
"He's naught to do with it!"
"How can you say that? I suppose he just woke up and decided to wander into town, strewing ominous warnings as he went."
"He's wooden! It's just his fancy!"
"Some fancy." He had no idea how his tone could have grown so sarcastic. How did this become an argument? It was the darkness, he decided, and the distance it imposed: they could not see each other, and so were not talking to each other, but to the night, to the gulf between them, the words thrown into a gray well that obscured their consequences. He cut himself off, unwilling to go further.
Casotte, however, would not stop. "Then he was put up to it," she said, and there was a desperate, defiant edge to the way she made the concession. "But that was all. Someone put him up to the warning, goaded or tricked him, played on him. He knew no better -- but he did naught else!"
She thinks he did it. The revelation was overwhelming, shearing through his anger, and without meaning to he spoke the words aloud.
"Don't be foolish," she hissed.
"I already have," he said, wondering how much she knew, how much she was hiding. And how badly she's used me. "By coming here."
The words sank into the dusk, and he heard her take a deep breath. "I thought you good," she said, abruptly cold. "I thought you just. I see my error now."
And then Liam heard her slap her reins, and the mare bolted down the road. His roan made to follow but he kept the horse in check and listened as the mare's hoofbeats dwindled in the distance.
* * *
The dragon dropped out of the sky and settled on the roan's withers. Do you truly think she knows the idiot is guilty?
"You mean is she sure? No, she isn't." Liam frowned and shook his head angrily. "But you can bet that she believes it. That's why she was so vehement about it -- she was trying to convince herself. That's why she called me up here. To disprove what she believes."
But you do not believe he did it.
Then what does it matter? If the idiot is innocent, her reasons for calling you here are irrelevant. We should concentrate on finding the killer and freeing the idiot.
"Don't distract me back to the real point," Liam groused. "And stop calling him the idiot."
Fanuilh refolded its wings, a leathery rustle in the darkness, but made no other reply.
* * *
Candles were burning in the second-floor window of the tower, and someone had left a lantern in the stables. Liam settled his roan in for the night, noted that Casotte's mare was still out, and went upstairs, Fanuilh trailing dutifully behind.
Father Enghave sat at the table, glaring into a cup of beer; Crannon stood by the fireplace, holding the hands of an agitated young woman. He dropped them when Liam entered. "Quaestor Rhenford; I'm glad y'have returned. This is Maid Griffen -- "
"His sweetling," Enghave interjected, and the keeper blushed bright red.
"Ah, aye, well, she's come with news," he stammered.
The young woman prodded him with her finger. "Tell him, Crannon." He stammered some more, until she groaned in exasperation and addressed Liam herself. "Look you, Quaestor, half an hour ago I was passing Daura's window and chanced to hear others there, Falc Miller and Aldyne Smith, Thrasa, Becula and her brother Bairth. That Rhaedr was there, too, and he would stir them up to come here and kill Old Wooden."
Liam blinked several times while he tried to figure out what to make of the information. "Did he convince them?"
"I know not, Quaestor; I did not stay, but came straight here."
"That was smart," he said slowly, and wandered over to the windowsill, puzzling. All of Casotte's favorites in one place, plotting a murder. But Rhaedr, too, and Becula and the miller. He could not decide if it was a conspiracy among murderers, or just a village meeting. Glancing down at Fanuilh, he projected, Go to Daura's house, and see what you can find out.
Yes, master. The dragon trotted out.
Enghave raised his cup. "Well, Rhenford, should we prepare for siege and assault?"
With a half-hearted smile, Liam shook his head. "We might shut the door, but otherwise I wouldn't worry about. The tower's strong." The prospect of an attack seemed remote to him; he was more concerned with whether Casotte's theory of conspiracy was correct. Rhaedr's presence tended to deny it, but they might be using him as Old Wooden had been used, as cover. But why is the miller there? And Becula? What would they gain? Money did not seem sufficient reason to him, particularly since the youngest widow would have shared in the treasure anyway. For her to be involved, she must have wanted her husband out of the way.
His long silence made the others nervous. After a while, the ghost witch snapped his fingers. "Rhenford, are you entranced, ensorcelled or merely sleeping?"
"None of those," he sighed. "Just puzzled. Tell me something about Becula and Lons. Were they happy? Did they ever have any troubles?"
Enghave shrugged; Crannon spread his hands and deferred to Griffen with a helpless glance. The young woman shook her head. She had a plain, pink, well-scrubbed face, and her hair pulled back in neat braids. "No, my lord. Very happy they were, or so it seemed since they were wed."
"No one ever came between them?" He thought of the affair between Thrasa and Aldyne Smith. "No one who sought her affections, maybe? A sweetling on the side?"
Griffen frowned. "Not after she was wed, no. Ere that there was Falc Miller, but she would never credit him."
At the same time, Liam and Crannon snapped, "What?"
The ghost witch crowed with delight. "The malevolent miller!"
Suddenly the focus of everyone's intense attention, Griffen stammered a little. "Falc, my lord. Falc Miller. He courted her for a short while."
Crannon made a dismissive face. "He did not."
"He did," Griffen shot back, and slapped the keeper's arm. "Everyone knew he mooned after her, but she would have naught to do with him -- her heart was set on Lons. Everyone knew."
"For that y'are always off in the wood," she said, "and for that y'are a man. Women know these things."
Casotte didn't. Liam was not sure how much it changed things -- or if it changed things at all. But it makes Forty Leagues much more interesting. "How serious was he about her?"
"I couldn't say," Griffen shrugged. "I had heard there was an offer made, a bride-price promised, a rich one. But it was refused."
Maybe she changed her mind. Maybe she wasn't as happy as everyone thought. Or maybe the miller changed it for her. Maybe he saw a way to get his own back, and she's as much of a dupe as Old Wooden. He was not sure he believed any of it, but it tied Falc in.
The thought in his head distracted him: Master, everyone seems to have left the widow's house. Rhaedr is going off to the south, and seems very displeased, so I think they must have decided against an attack. The smith and the other widow are headed north.
What about the miller?
I do not see him. He must have left earlier.
On a hunch, he told the dragon to follow Thrasa and Aldyne, though it was Falc who interested him most. That the miller might be involved -- and why -- seemed far-fetched to him, but he could no longer deny the possibility. There's a quick way to find out. He stood abruptly, ducked into his room, and emerged a moment later with a sheathed sword in his hand. "I'm going out for a bit."
"Y'have the scent!" Enghave crowed.
"Where?" Crannon asked, eyes wide on Liam's sword, and then quickly added, "Should Quaestor Casotte ask, when she returns."
Pausing by the stairway, Liam considered this for a moment, then shook his head. "Just say I've gone for a walk. To clear my head."
* * *
Falc took a while coming to the door, and if he was surprised at his guest, it did not show on his face. "It's late for a visit, Quaestor."
"So it is. May I come in for a moment?"
"I think not."
The miller's coolness only made Liam more determined to rattle him. "As you please. I have a story to tell you."
"I hope it won't last out the night." Falc leaned against the doorjamb, blocking the entrance, and crossed his long arms in a bored way. "I've work to do on the morrow." His eyes had narrowed, however, and Liam could tell that he had his attention.
"It's not long, but it is interesting -- and instructive. It goes like this: Once there were three men who found a treasure, and brought it back to their village. They put it away for safekeeping, and then they went to sleep, well-pleased with themselves." He paused for effect, and Falc made an impatient gesture. "What they didn't know, though, was that there were those in their little village who weren't as happy for them as they were for themselves. There was one, for instance, whose wife hated him like poison. And another whose wife was having an affair with the smith who lived across the way. And the last -- well, his wife loved him, but the miller who was safeguarding their treasure loved her, too. He had offered to marry her, in fact, but was rejected, and that in spite of a handsome bride price. He was a bitter fellow, this miller."
Falc bared his teeth in a skeleton's smile. "As many are."
"As many are," Liam allowed, watching all the while, hoping for some sign, some crack in Falc's mask. "So the miller, and the bitter wife, and the two adulterers decided to take two birds with one snare. They killed the men while they slept and made away with the treasure. How do you like my story so far?"
"You could be a bard," Falc said evenly, but Liam could see the tension in his arms, the white of his knuckles where they clasped his elbows. "A passing talespinner, y'are."
Liam grinned. "It gets better. They're clever, you see -- so the bitter wife accuses the miller, and makes a great show of searching all through his mill." A minute twitch from the other man -- it might have been the briefest of blinks, or a tic; it might have been his imagination -- but it emboldened him, and he went on. "So the miller was cleared, and then, quite conveniently, a crazed old forester came into the village. He'd come earlier, babbling warnings and dire nonsense, but no one paid any attention. Now, though, he's the perfect man to lay the blame on. They almost get the village to hang him, but are stopped by the local gamekeeper. Then they refuse to cooperate with the quaestors who come to sort the whole mess out."
Apart from his one involuntary motion, Falc gave no reaction -- he stood in the doorway and listened, his mirthless smile immobile, fixed in place. He spoke through it, barely moving his lips. "Poor quaestors."
Liam dropped his own smile and leaned in close, his hand resting ostentatiously on his sword hilt. "There are only two things missing from my story," he said. "Where did the treasure go? And how were the murderers punished? I'm working on those." He pulled back, met Falc's eyes. "What do you think?"
"I've a better," Falc said, after a long time. "It's like to yours -- but true. There's a bitter wife and an adulterous pair and a miller, and three murthered men to round it all out. And the village is Dark-bent on vengeance, and they cry to the gods for it. And would you know the why of it, Quaestor? Would you know why they are so eager to see your forester hang?" Now the miller leaned in, and for the first time Liam saw the muscles thick on his long arms, and the size of his hands. "For that when she woke, Daura found the fists that beat her stilled, and was glad in her heart. And Thrasa was glad in secret too, that the arms that would sooner wield fish-pole and poacher's net than embrace her, those arms would do neither, and she was free to find other, better arms. And the village entire, when it heard the news, was glad to be rid of them: layabouts, poachers, wife-beaters and drunkards, trouble-makers and rogues who couldn't be bothered to till a field or raise their own get." He paused, drew a ragged breath. "Can you fathom the shame of that gladness? How it would make a man doubt that he was good, that his soul was pure -- that his instant reaction to another's untimely murther should be, nor outrage nor anger nor sorrow, but gladness?"
Liam pressed his lips together, the miller's story confusing him, raising doubts he did not like -- and a picture of the village he liked even less. He's tricking you, he hoped, but did not really believe it. "I like my story better," he said. "At least in mine, the right people are going to pay."
"Whichever you prefer," Falc said. "Only grant that, when y'are satisfied y'have the killer, we may hate him a while ere he's hung, to ease our consciences."
Then he shut the door, leaving Liam alone in the darkness.
* * *
Midway down the path, Liam remembered Fanuilh and projected a quick question.
They have gone up the road, the dragon replied, away from the village.
Are you close enough to hear?
Liam stopped on the path and closed his eyes. Picturing a heavy bell of a helmet in his mind, he imagined putting it on, tugging it over his ears, down to his neck. He imagined a thunderclap, a detonation that left a ringing in his ears. When it faded he could no longer hear the river, only the night wind soughing through branches, crickets chirruping, and two voices.
"Cry not so," Aldyne Smith said.
Liam steeled himself not to jump, though it sounded as if the man was speaking to him. As master to Fanuilh's familiar, he could hear what the dragon heard when he chose. They're a mile or more away, he reminded himself.
Widow Thrasa murmured a reply. Then she sniffled, and her voice was clearer, as if she was no longer covering her mouth, or had just stepped out of his embrace. "I should not be here. I should not be with you. He is scarce dead!"
"But he is dead, Thrasa sweet. Y'are free."
"That Southwark wizard would have us guilty of it." Her lover started to say something but she hurried on. "And, oh, Aldyne, I dream of him." It was clear who she meant. "I dream of him, and he reproaches me so!"
"For what? You did him no harm."
"Did I not?" she asked. "It may not have been my hand that did him in, but have I done him no other harm? With you?"
For a moment, Liam was glad not to be in the smith's place. What can you say to that? Rather than find out, he imagined the helmet again, and the thunderclap. Through the ringing, he heard the Hythe and shivered with relief.
* * *
Fanuilh fluttered down in front of the tower, scales glinting dully for a moment in the candlelight from the second-floor windows, and Liam crossed the grass to join him. Crouching down in the open doorway, he chucked his familiar under the chin. The dragon angled its jaw to indicate a propitious spot. Then the smith and the widow are innocent. It stretched its neck, directing Liam's fingers down the length of its throat. So we are left with the Lady.
"Lucky us." Overhead, he heard footsteps on the second floor, a brief tocking of bootheels. They came to the head of the stairs, and he looked up over his shoulder, expectant.
"Are you coming up?" Casotte called, her voice low. "We needs must speak."
The dragon rolled away from his hand. I will stay out the night, master.
Thanks. He squared his shoulders and went in.
* * *
She kept the table and the length of the room between them. Liam waited in the doorway, his face carefully neutral, waited, and finally she broke, swung away from the side of the fireplace to face the hearth. "There's some of Crannon's stew remaining, if you would eat."
Something about the offer brought a grin to his face. "You said we needed to talk."
Casotte was not ready for it just yet. "Whence your smile?"
He shook his head. "I was just wondering why I came here."
She stiffened, withdrew a little more. "And the answer?"
"Still up in the air," he said, broadened his smile, and shrugged. "When it comes down, I'll let you know." He hooked a stool close to the table with his foot and sat. If she's not ready for that talk, we'll have another. "I've learned some things you ought to know." He told her what Fanuilh had overheard, presenting it as the fruit of his own eavesdropping.
"Y'are sure they did not know you were nigh?"
"Absolutely." Because I was a mile away.
Slowly, as if bowing under a great weight, she took hold of the edge of the table and looked down at the scarred wood so that he could not see her face -- only the top of her head. Her hair was loose and a leaf lay caught in it.
"There's more," Liam said after a moment, and told her about his visit to the miller -- his own story, and the one Falc had given him in return. It was difficult to convey the strangeness of the exchange, and he struggled to explain how the miller's tale had convinced him. Casotte kept her head down, and he could not tell if he was making any sense. "Anyway," he concluded lamely, "given what I heard from Aldyne and Thrasa, I think Falc may be the better storyteller."
She gave a harsh laugh, and raised her eyes to his -- bleak and red-rimmed. "Aye, so he is. We are mirrors in disloyalty, Forty Leagues and I, they to the dead and I to the living. Do you catch it, Rhenford? Mirrors."
Nodding, he held her gaze, wondering where the leaf in her hair had come from.
"Aye, mirrors," she repeated and, breaking away from his gaze, half-sat on the edge of the table, her back pride-straight and her chin high. "You said as much on the road, had I the wit to listen."
As if she might bolt at too hasty an approach, he rose and made his way softly around the table until he was only a few feet away. Then, when he was sure she would not take flight, he sat on the edge of the table, just like her. Casotte gauged the distance between them and folded her arms. "Pray, has it come down yet? Your reason for coming?"
It was meant to close off the previous conversation, to signal a new beginning; he could tell that much from her tone and the way she looked at him, but he was unsure which way to go. Why did you come? Watching her, he knew that it had not been as complicated as he would have liked, that it had been, at base, very simple. A kiss. You came because of a kiss at a country dance four months ago. Things had only become complicated once he arrived.
"I would know," she said, slipping off the table and moving to stand in front of him. "I would know why you came."
Close enough that he could smell the soft, sweet scent of her, he could see the fine hairs against the brown skin of her arms. On impulse, thinking it was foolish but unable to stop, he reached out and touched her arm, traced the line of bone and muscle from elbow to hand.
Casotte took in a short breath, and clasped his hand.
"I came because you asked me to," he said, his eyes fixed on their joined hands. "To see you again."
"Why you came." She had heard the qualifier. "But not why you stayed."
She was so close, with her hand in his, and there was a hollow place in his stomach, an ache and a sudden desire to pull her in so strong he almost shivered with it. "No," he said. "I stayed because of ... "
Casotte used her free hand to silence him, and closed the last distance between them. Her hair brushed his cheek, her lips his ear. "There is the morrow for that," she whispered. "It is enough for now --"
What, exactly, was enough was lost in the first kiss, and in those that followed after it. He pulled her in tight, locked his arms behind her back as if she could come closer than she already was, as if she could be pressed into him so that there was no part of him that was not touching her, and she held his head with her hands while she kissed his face, his eyelids and his lips and his neck. It went on for a long minute, furious and almost cruel, until they had to break apart. Liam blinked, gasping a little, thinking that it was a mistake, that they should stop. Wait.
"Wait," he said, and blew out a deep breath. "Wait." He met her baffled eyes and allowed himself to touch her cheek. "Later. After."
She tossed her head. "After tomorrow, you mean." She pulled away, the flush on her cheeks anger now instead of excitement.
"It's better," he said, trying to make himself believe it.
She glared at him for a moment, then relented, sighed. "Aye, y'have the right of it." He started to speak but she held up a hand. "No. On the morrow. It will be time enough to speak of it then."
As she walked to the stairs Liam weakened, so much so that he called out for her to stop, and went after her. She waited, one foot on the steps, but when he reached her he saw how foolish it was. His hand rose up on its own accord, but he held steady and only pulled the leaf, crushed now, from her hair. He let it flutter to the floor. Then he went to find Crannon's jug of beer.
* * *
Three cups later, Liam went to bed, and sleep overtook him even as he tossed and turned. Sleep, and fragments of dreams.
Running in the forest in a cold drizzle, crashing through branches until he collided with something soft and yielding and he looked up and saw that it was a body. Hung from the trees, the corpse twisted in a shaft of moonlight. He spun away and ran into another body, then another and another, a forest of the dead.
Would you fight me?
The Lady's voice echoing through the wood, her laughter a breeze that set the corpses in motion, their nooses creaking.
Would you fight me?
Abruptly he was flying above the black mirror of the ocean-pool; the sensation was exhilarating until he realized he had no control, and then it was terrifying. Ahead of him, he could see the Lady's spire, a mountain thrusting into a lightning-lit sky.
Would you fight me?
He fell forever, and landed in a river that carried him into an underground tunnel. In the lightless tumult he thrashed and struggled for breath.
Would you fight me?
A vast heap of treasure lay before him in a shadowy cavern, a glittering heap of gems and gold coins worked with strange signs. The gold melted as he watched, the molten metal rising after him as he scrambled up the rough rock walls, rising after him until he clung to the roof and still it kept coming.
The Lady appeared before him, a dragon blotting out the sun, and asked, If I save you, will you fight me?
He babbled incoherent promises, weeping and begging.
* * *
Liam woke in a sweat, guilty promises echoing in his mind.
Gods, he thought, huddling on the bed. What have I done? Only slowly did he realize that it had been a dream, that there had been no promises. Finally he gave a shaky laugh and climbed out of bed to put on a pair of breeches, then made his way downstairs and crossed the green to the banks of the Hythe. Fanuilh found him there, sitting beneath a willow, waiting for the sky to lighten enough to go swimming. The water was too dark for the moment, too much like the pool.
He shivered a little as the dragon dropped down next to him, and wondered at the power of the dream. In quick, economical images, he shared the high points of the nightmare with his familiar. It cocked its head. Do you think it was sent? There were creatures, it explained, who could manipulate a person's dreams.
"Huh." The sky was going a deep shade of blue, but the Hythe was still opaque. He waited a few minutes, idly scratching Fanuilh's back; he wanted to be able to see the bottom before he swam.
Snaking its head around to look at him, the dragon asked, Why do you call it Strife's gold? Ossier said it might be from the god's temple, but you called it that before then. And Father Enghave, as well.
"Oh, that. It's from the old legend. It's just a coincidence that it might really have come from one of Strife's caravans."
Yes, but what is the legend?
It was so common a story that for a moment Liam refused to believe that Fanuilh did not know it. "Repent of your impiety, familiar mine. It goes like this."
There had been a stained-glass window of it in the pantheon near his father's castle, and as he told the story, he projected the images. "Once there was a golden era, when men were newly created by the gods, and peace ruled the land and the sea. It was paradise and there was no war, and so on and so forth." He could remember the beautiful panes of the upper frames of the window, the bright colors and peaceful scenes. "And all the gods were happy too. They showered down blessings on us, and we worshiped them. All except for Strife, because we really didn't much need him. There were no wars, after all, and everyone lived together happily and shared everything in common. So he created gold -- or stole a piece of the sun, whichever -- and brought it down, and threw it down in the middle of this great happy community of men."
Liam settled for sharing the lower panes of the pantheon window: smoke-grey and blood-red, scenes of battle and atrocity. "You get the idea. Gold ended the golden era, and Strife got his worshippers." The sky was light, and he could see down to the bed of the Hythe. He stood, stripped off his breeches and jumped into the cold water, then surfaced, blowing and gasping.
Do you believe it?
Hugging himself, he climbed out and pulled on his breeches again. "Why not? People have to fight over something."
* * *
No one was awake when Liam entered the tower; he asked Fanuilh to run upstairs and see if Casotte was awake. Just listen at her door, and tell me if you hear her moving around. The dragon disappeared up the stairs, and he went in to dry himself off and dress.
I can hear her, master, it reported, but I do not think she is awake. It sounds as if she's having a dream. Liam grunted and pulled on his boots. As he was standing, a second thought crashed into his mind: Master, the idiot is gone.
* * *
The cell was empty.
An angry sound rising from the back of his throat, Liam ran to Casotte's door, flung it open. She lay tangled in her blanket, one arm hiding her face. "Wake up! Get up! He's escaped!" She stumbled out of bed and he took her by the shoulders. "Get dressed," he ordered. "Old Wooden's escaped."
Disoriented, she rubbed at puffy eyes and tried to understand. "Escaped?"
"Escaped, vanished, disappeared. Out of a locked room -- like the treasure in the mill. Now get dressed!" He hurried out, and found Enghave and a sleep-stupid Crannon by the stairs.
"Is it so?" the ghost witch asked.
"It is," Liam said, "and we'll need both of you to help look for him." Without waiting for them to agree, he ran down to the stables and began saddling his roan. Fanuilh appeared at his side and in his mind at the same time.
Master, shall I go out and begin looking?
Yes -- good, Liam projected. She said his cottage was on the Lazy. Go, go, go.
The dragon scampered out of the tower, and Liam slapped bridle and blanket and saddle on his roan, fumbling the straps and buckles in his haste. He was tying both of his swords to the saddle when Father Enghave came down to ready his nag.
"Y'are going to war, Quaestor?"
Liam stopped, staring at the pommel of his second sword, the enchanted one. "I don't know," he replied, finished tying on the second sword, and started saddling Casotte's horse. "Best to be prepared." For what? Why did he run?
Then he heard a voice from the doorway of the tower.
"I would see the murtherer," Rhaedr announced. He stood firmly planted on his crutch, blocking the exit. "Where is he?"
Enghave recovered first. "Asleep. And was still snoring when I came down. A snore to crack the sky, that man."
"I will see him!"
"Whatever for?" Stall, was all Liam could think.
"For that I know he's not there," Rhaedr hissed. "You'll not let me see him because you know he's gone. And I know it too -- I saw him slip out last night!"
Staring down at the old man, Liam grabbed a bluff out of desperation. "Most likely it was me you saw, Master Rhaedr, out to answer nature. I assure you that Old Wooden is safely locked away upstairs." Rhaedr was on the verge of an angry reply when Crannon came bounding down the stairs and skidded to a stop as he took in the confrontation. Liam leapt in before the young man could speak. "And if you don't believe me, ask Keeper Crannon here."
The old man jabbed a finger at Crannon. "Has the idiot escaped or no? Tell the truth, or the Dark take you!"
Crannon quailed for a moment, then stammered, "No, no, not at all. I just saw him a moment ago -- I brought him his breakfast!"
Frustrated, Rhaedr twisted on his crutch and met an open smile from Father Enghave, which seemed to make him even angrier. "Y'are liars all," he spat, and abruptly hobbled away, making good speed despite his crutch, calling over his shoulder, "I shall see Ossier about this!"
Liam muttered a few choice curses under his breath, waited until Rhaedr had stomped across the green, and then addressed Father Enghave and Crannon. "You two stay here and keep up appearances. If that old bastard comes back with Ossier, you have to put them off any way you can."
Crannon squirmed a little, but Liam packed him off upstairs to hurry Casotte along, and returned to saddling her horse. He had both mounts ready and waiting by the time she came pounding down the steps. She carried a hunting spear, which she lashed to her saddle with leather thongs.
"Rhaedr was here?" she asked as she mounted. Her face was grim, purposeful.
"Just to wish us good morning," Liam said, climbing into his own saddle. "And to ask after our friend. Any idea where he might be?"
She met his eyes for a long, considering second, then nodded briefly. "Aye." With a snap of the reins, she trotted off across the green, toward the Caernarvon Road.
* * *
Using her spear to brush aside low-hanging branches, Casotte went first along the trail. After perhaps twenty minutes it opened into a clearing, and she waited until Liam had ridden up beside her to say, "Old Wooden's cot."
It could not have been much to start with -- an overgrown hut of unfinished logs set in the ground, with a dense layer of branches lashed across the uprights for a roof. There was no sign of the forester. Casotte dismounted and walked forward, prodding at the roof with the point of her spear. Liam climbed down and circled the clearing, looking for tracks. "He didn't come here."
"No." She went to the far end of the clearing, where the trail they had followed from the road continued on toward the Lazy. Liam watched her back for a moment, a question on his lips, and then Fanuilh dropped to the beaten earth of the clearing.
I have not seen him, master.
Nor have we, Liam projected back, his mouth twisting in dissatisfaction. "I suppose we should try the Lazy," he said slowly. "We could work our way downstream from here, back toward the pools we saw yesterday."
She turned to face him. "We needn't do that. I know the pool." In the pause that came after, Liam heard his roan's tail whisking back and forth. "The Lady's pool. He told Auric and I of it, that morning we were lost. He said we must never approach it."
They looked at one another for a long while, and he could see that she was weighing him just as he was weighing her, wondering and guessing at hidden thoughts, unvoiced reasons. Finally, he broke eye contact. "Well, what are we standing here for? Let's go get him."
He started for his horse, and she put a hand on his arm to stop him. "You know why I did not tell it you ere now, do you not?"
"No," he said, taking her hand away. "Maybe you can tell me after I see what's in the pool."
* * *
It was neither the pool nor the crag from his dream, but he recognized them both nonetheless -- he recognized the feeling, if not the sight. His hands tightened around the sheath of the enchanted sword; he had left his other with the horses, tethered beyond the heavy underbrush that surrounded the pool.
Black with old moss, the crag thrust out at an angle over the stream, like a sharp prow to the high ridge that loomed behind it. The water backed up at its base, lapping quietly at the rock, hiding its source. Errant beams of sunlight lanced through the trees and played across the opaque surface of the pool as they reached its edge, stepping over fallen logs and breaking through the tangle of branches and bushes. Fanuilh flew a circle high over the pool.
Any sign of Old Wooden?
No. I will continue looking. It darted off into the woods, hunting.
Balancing on a mottled log, Casotte leaned far forward to test the depth of the water with her spear. It sank as far as she pushed, and when she withdrew it the blade was fouled with mud. She shook it away and looked at him.
He growled, not at her but at the pool, at the dead end, at the memory of his nightmare that crawled up his spine. The pool had been black then, not the murky brown of day; still, both made him uneasy. Black, and that rock was big as a mountain. And there was the underground river.... His brow furrowed. The crag rose straight out of the water, and the river came up from beneath it. There was an underground river. Frowning, he sat on a fallen log and started pulling off his boots. Fanuilh?
Would you know if the Lady was here?
I would if she tried to cast a spell, but not otherwise.
"Whatever are you doing?" Casotte asked.
"Going for a swim." He stood and took off his vest and shirt, folded them neatly and piled them on the log. "A little treasure hunt."
She gave him a strange look -- then nodded, understanding. "The tunnel, aye. The river."
He paused, saw the dark circles under her eyes. "You had the dreams, too."
She averted her gaze. "They were but dreams."
"Not if we both had them," he said, turning away. "And not if they turn out to be true." He unsheathed his sword and stepped to the edge of the pool. The blade was milky-white silver, shot through with pure streaks, too soft to hold a proper edge, but it was its magic he was counting on, not its sharpness.
"Take care," Casotte said.
"Don't worry -- all the care in the world."
* * *
Wincing, the mud sucking at his feet, Liam waded forward, and it was only when he was a few feet from the rock face, in its shadow, that he really thought about what he hoped to find. The Lady? Old Wooden? Both?
Something slithered between his legs -- or seemed to -- and he whirled, thrashing, both hands closing on the hilt of the sword. He lost his footing and fell backward into the water, came up a moment later, sputtering and gasping. Casotte shouted at him from the bank, poised to jump in. He waved her off. "I slipped," he said. "That's all." The water looked black, and he took the sword in both hands again and lowered the blade until it just skimmed the surface. There was a hint of a current, a gentle, persistent tug at his legs as the stream slipped from beneath the rock. Fanuilh, come down here.
The dragon appeared a few seconds later, and dropped from the sky to hover a foot or so above the pool. Yes, master?
Just stay with me, Liam projected. He began using the sword to prod the bottom of the stream, dragging the blade back and forth, working his way along the base of the rock. The water rose up his torso, chilling him, rose to his neck so that he had to duck his head under to touch the bottom with the sword.
And then, right in the middle of the crag, where the current came out strongest, the sword touched nothing. He reached down beneath the surface of the water and ran his free hand along the rock. It was slimy under his fingers, and his mouth twisted in disgust.
"What have you found?" Casotte called.
Through grinding teeth he muttered, "A hole."
A foot or so below the surface of the pool the rock receded from his fingers; he followed it, moving beneath the overhang of the crag. The water was colder, and he could feel the current more strongly against his legs and stomach. There was no rock for his fingers to touch, only water. He bent his knees and raised his searching hand, found the top of the channel out of which the Lazy flowed. He bent his knees and reached along the roof of the broad channel, bending further for more leverage until the water touched his lips, and then he ducked his head, reached an extra six inches, and there was no top to the tunnel.
He came back up, knuckling the water from his eyes. "Do we have any rope?"
* * *
Rope around his waist, Liam ducked his head under the water and pushed forward into the channel. There was the temptation to curl into a ball, a strong instinct to withdraw his hands and feet, to drop the sword and cradle his head. He thrust his feet against the bottom, less mushy now, and put one hand against the roof of the channel, splaying his fingers and gripping the rock. Come on, if a drunken poacher did it, you can too. The current was stronger, pushing at him, almost a deliberate force that wished to bar him entry. He fought the accumulating fears -- the cold, the dark, the Lady -- squeezed his eyes tighter and forced a few steps against the current, gauging his progress with his upraised hand.
His hand grasped at nothing, and he straightened. Stale air filled his nostrils and his hand found new rock, two feet above the roof of the channel. He opened his eyes and saw daylight -- a thin shaft coming down a crooked chimney of stone that reached all the way to the top of the crag. It was hardly the cavern of his dream: there was a thin ledge onto which he pulled himself, and beyond that a dark recess, too small for him to fit. Most important, there was no sign of the Lady. Grateful for the dim light, he reached tentatively into the recess. His hand touched wood.
Eager now, he explored the edges of the wooden thing, reached a corner, and knew it was a chest. He tugged it as far out as he could, into the meager light from the chimney. The wood was damp and swollen from years underground; flakes of wet rust stuck to his fingers from the old metal bands, yet the chest opened easily and he saw treasure. Gold coins, a heap of them, and winking among them the occasional jewel, and a strange thing -- a familiar dagger, a heavy blade with a badge inset on the crossbar, the crossed swords of Strife worked in enamel.
A low moaning whistled in the tiny space, the wind moving over the top of the chimney. Startled, Liam glanced wildly around the small cave, then shoved a coin and a gem at random into his pockets, thrust the knife into his waistband, and climbed back into the water.
* * *
Casotte grabbed his wrists and hauled him out.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," he insisted, and shivered violently. Together they walked to the log where she made him sit, brushing the hair back from his forehead and examining his face. Fanuilh perched beside him on the log, nudging his shoulder with its snout.
"Y'are well? Y'are? What did you see? What was it? Y'are shaking!"
He dropped his sword, hugged himself, and took the dagger from his waistband. "No sign of Old Wooden or the Lady, but I found this." A serviceable knife, a warrior's dagger, with a badge inset on the crossbar. "Does it remind you of anything?"
Casotte shrugged, and then the log shot out from beneath him, whistling through the brush at the edge of the pool.
Even as Liam fell, the knife flying from his hand, he tracked the course of the log by the rustling of the bushes. It shot around the bank of the pool in an impossible circle, raising a splash as it crossed the stream, and the Lady of the Pool rose up on the far side of the water, a dragon towering above the treetops.
"You would face me?" she roared.
* * *
They saw only the head and neck of the dragon stretched high above the bushes, burnished scales the color of steel and a gaping maw of teeth that clashed together as the Lady roared. Her eyes were the size of shields, dead black orbs.
"Thieves," she hissed, the word drawn out as she reared back and then sprang across the pool. She changed as she flew over the water; to Liam, scuttling backward in terror, it seemed as if she had jumped into a new body, the body of a red and black tiger, that had been suspended over the pool and waiting for her to inhabit it.
Casotte snatched up her spear and met the cat as it came down -- Liam heard the haft snap, a sound like bones breaking. He scrambled forward, grabbing his sword, and when he spun to find them Casotte was jabbing at the Lady with what remained of her spear. The point rebounded from the tiger's skin, sliding along the powerful shoulder without leaving a scratch.
Almost negligently, the tiger lifted a paw and swatted Casotte away, then turned to face Liam. The Lady changed again, the tiger standing up into an ogre twice his height, tusk-like teeth bared, horn-nailed fingers spread to crush him. The eyes were the same dead black orbs.
He raised the enchanted sword above his head and jumped forward and to the right, bringing the blade down on the Lady's arm even as she reached for where he had been. It was like cutting wood: the sword bit and held, the shock jarring his arms, and when the ogre bellowed in pain and jerked away Liam went with it, clutching the hilt of the sword. He was flung around in front of her, his feet leaving the ground, and the sword came free and he stumbled into a thornbush. Thorns tearing his chest and arms, he whirled to face the Lady.
Fanuilh darted at her face, distracting her with claws and beating wings, and Liam ran in, swinging his sword in a broad arc. He was better braced this time, and when the blade bit into her leg he was ready to yank it out and swing again. He cut into her leg a second time but the ogre was already toppling backward, falling into another shape, a woman.
Blood pumped from her wrist and shattered leg, and she sobbed, her good hand masking her eyes. She was beautiful, even in her pain; the red blood stained skin like translucent alabaster, and a mass of lustrous black hair foamed over her shoulders and onto her bare breasts.
"I pray you," she pleaded, her voice like music in his ears, "I pray you, spare me!"
Liam froze, his sword poised. From somewhere in the forest Casotte screamed, "Kill her!" but he hardly heard.
Master, you must kill her, Fanuilh told him, but the thought was just part of the mad rushing noise in his head. Her voice was the only clear sound, music, a line of melody through the cacophony of the blood pulsing in his temples. It was a song just for him, full of promise: he looked down at her and saw himself a king to her queen, and they were lovers and the world was his. All this, and more, she pledged. All this and more for you.
Liam stood over the bleeding Lady for an eternity, listening to her sobs, watching the blood spill from her wounds in a never-slackening stream, and saw kings kneeling at his feet and the promise of wealth and ease and the Lady's love -- and then she raised her eyes to his.
They were dead and solid black, and he felt as he gazed down on her that he was looking into a vast pit, black but swarming with denser blacknesses, writhing with shadows. He shuddered, and brought the sword down. It cut deep into the side of her slim neck and she screamed, and he had to swing twice more before her head rolled away from her body and the forest was quiet once again.
* * *
Casotte sat at the foot of a tree several yards away from the pool, her left arm hanging limp, broken, the fingers of her right hand digging deep furrows in the ground. Pain paled her face. "This is what comes of seeking after ladies," she said, forcing each word out on a puff of breath.
By the time he had splinted her arm with the broken haft of the hunting spear they were both drenched in sweat and Casotte was on the verge of fainting. He carried her to her mare and managed to get her into the saddle, where she swayed unsteadily, cheeks white and eyelids fluttering.
Fanuilh, watch her please.
The dragon hovered protectively nearby, and Liam jogged back to the pool. He gathered up his things, then turned to consider the Lady. Blood soaked the brush and the ground all around her; the scene looked like a massacre. He spat, meaning to move, but found it difficult to look away. There was much more blood than he would have expected.
Master, I believe I see the idiot across the pool.
Liam turned slowly, and saw Old Wooden in the brush on the far side of the water. Tears streamed from his wide eyes. When he saw Liam looking, he spun on his heel and disappeared into the woods west of the pool.
Follow him, Liam ordered. I'll get Casotte back to Forty Leagues.
* * *
Leading two horses along the narrow path was impossible; he let Diamond follow on its own, trusting the roan to behave, and concentrated on Casotte, who clung to consciousness and her seat with a feverish determination that turned her knuckles white and made the muscles in her jaw bunch up.
Master, the idiot has seen me. He thinks I am the Lady. There was a pause. I think he will follow me.
Fine, Liam projected. Lead him back to the village.
They were a few yards from Old Wooden's clearing when Casotte licked dry lips and forced out a question. "Rhenford. That dagger. You put. Great store in it."
He looked back at her. "It's the whole thing," he said. "Rhaedr has one just like it." He looked forward again, and stopped in his tracks, cursing himself for an idiot.
Fanuilh, get over here now.
Across the clearing, from the back of a lathered horse, Rhaedr aimed a crossbow at Liam's heart.
* * *
On horseback, the old man looked less infirm; his lame leg hung straight and awkward from the saddle, but he held the crossbow in steady hands, sighting along the shaft of the bolt.
"It's long and long since I killed a man," Rhaedr said.
Liam held perfectly still, desperate for a way out and furious with himself. The old man had been active all along -- sending the Lady into his dreams, encouraging the village to march on the tower, demanding to see Old Wooden that morning -- he should have known Rhaedr would not wait patiently in Forty Leagues to be arrested.
"Two weeks is long and long?" he asked, licking dry lips.
Rhaedr gave a hard grin, and Liam could see the marauder he had been in his youth. "With my own hand, I meant. The Lady took the others for me. As she should have taken the two of you. The sprite's dead, then?" He shrugged, and went on before Liam could answer. "No matter." He settled the stock of the crossbow more comfortably against his shoulder.
"Wait! Just tell me --"
"Petition the gods, Quaestor, not me." Rhaedr squinted along the bolt. "Y'are ready?"
Fanuilh flew into the clearing and flung out its wings to brake itself, hovering directly between the old man and Liam. Rhaedr flinched, the point of the bolt wavering, and Liam started forward a step.
"Stop!" Rhaedr recovered almost immediately and Liam froze, one foot raised, as the old man steadied his weapon. "Your creature or you, it makes no difference." But his eyes were uncertain and he moved his head from side to side, trying to find a clear shot.
There was a tumult in the underbrush, and Old Wooden burst into the clearing. The forester stumbled to a halt, and they were a triangle for a moment as he took in the situation -- Rhaedr and his crossbow, Fanuilh hovering -- then Liam shouted, "He means to kill the Lady!"
Old Wooden charged and a moment later Liam did too, hearing the snap and hum as Rhaedr shot his bolt; he wondered if he was dead and then saw Old Wooden fall as he launched himself across the clearing at Rhaedr.
The old man cursed, swinging the empty crossbow down on Liam's upraised hands. It crashed through, smashed into his shoulder, a numbing shock, but he clutched at the weapon even as Rhaedr tried to yank it back. Mounted, without his crutch, the old man was far stronger than Liam would have guessed. He held the crossbow with one hand and clubbed Fanuilh out of the air with his fist as the dragon flew at his face, then set his horse wheeling, shouldering Liam aside, driving him toward the middle of the clearing.
"A spell!" Liam shouted, trying to keep out from under the horse's feet while holding onto the crossbow. The horse danced him into Old Wooden's hut, crushing him against an upright, the weight of the beast driving the breath from his lungs. He lost his hold and Rhaedr raised the crossbow high, brought it down in sharp arc. The iron-and-wood head of the bow knocked Liam to the ground. The makeshift hut collapsed in slow motion as the two men moved away from it, Liam scrambling to his feet with his ears ringing and blood on the side of his head, Rhaedr cursing as he fumbled to reload the crossbow, and Fanuilh rising in the air behind him.
The old man's eyes rolled up in his head and he slumped forward in his saddle, the crossbow falling from his nerveless hand. Liam jumped to his side, grabbed him by the arm and pulled him from his seat, dumping him to the ground.
He will not sleep long, Fanuilh thought.
"You took your time about it," Liam snapped, his voice jumping.
He hit me.
"Well, that's what happens when you get too close. Someone can do this." He kicked Rhaedr hard in the stomach, and felt calmer even as he did it. The old man stirred. Sorry, he told the dragon. Sorry. Better give him another dose.
Rhaedr subsided, and Liam went to Old Wooden. The forester lay shaking on the ground, brushing frantically at the blood that stained his neck and chest. There was no sign of the bolt, and Liam quickly satisfied himself that the simpleton had only been grazed. He bound up the wound and comforted Old Wooden as much as he could, but it was not until he pointed out that Fanuilh was unharmed that the forester began to calm down. The dragon came over and sat beside him.
"Right," Liam said. "Time to go home."
* * *
It took three hours to return to the Forty Leagues. Crannon and Father Enghave met them on the village green; the ghost witch raised an eyebrow at the bedraggled group -- Old Wooden bandaged, Casotte graying out, Rhaedr slung like baggage on his horse. "So you did go to war," he said.
"Hail the conquering heroes," Liam said, and the ghost witch laughed all the way to the tower. They laid the still-sleeping Rhaedr on a pile of straw in the stables under Fanuilh's watchful eye, and brought Casotte and the forester upstairs.
"I've a deal of work here," the ghost witch said, running his fingers along her broken arm. "Run along and see to your villain."
* * *
The old man jerked awake, fists bunched, then saw Liam and Fanuilh and subsided, his eyes narrowing. "Were I thirty again, you'd never have had me." With a long sigh, the murderer lay back in the straw. He was calm, his voice cold, and the crazed light Liam had come to expect was gone from his eyes. Watching the transformation, Liam saw that the apoplectic old man for which he had taken Rhaedr was only an act. Stone-hearted from the beginning, he thought, and wondered whether he had been that way as a sellsword in the Midlands, decades before. No doubt. They all were. Still are. "You're not thirty, though, are you?"
The old man shrugged, winced, and settled himself as comfortably as he could on the straw. "It matters not. I'm for it, aren't I? I'll swing?" He seemed indifferent to the idea. "I've had my run -- I fought it out."
Liam shook his head. "I was thinking I might let you go -- and then tell the hierarchs of Strife about you. How long do you think it would take them to track you down?"
That rattled Rhaedr; his smirk disappeared. "You'd do it, too, wouldn't you?"
Liam smiled, feeling better. "I would," he lied. "Unless you tell me the truth of it all. From the very beginning."
Rhaedr told him. When he was done, the old man lay back in the straw. "It was my gold. Mine for thirty years and more. I fought for it, killed for it, worried over it like a mother hen. I won it, but it kept me for thirty years. It kept me, see you." He stretched, joints cracking, and tried to arrange his lame leg more comfortably. "I tell you true, Quaestor, the rest I go to tonight will be my best in three decades. I am quit of worrying."
Disgusted, Liam had Fanuilh put the man to sleep again and went outside, meaning to wash himself in the Hythe, to soak his head and scrub away the blood that was drying on his cuts.
* * *
A sling held Casotte's arm tight against her chest, but she insisted that it did not hurt. "Enghave's knit the break with a spell," she explained, "and I cannot see why it must be bound so, but he insists. Y'are hurt yourself." She reached out her good hand toward his face; he flinched and made a dismissive gesture.
She withdrew her hand and considered it for a few heavy seconds, then took a deep breath and shook off the silence. "Enghave said y'had the tale entire from Rhaedr."
Liam slapped his hands on his knees. "I did, I did indeed. A nasty story it is, I'm afraid." She seemed to want to hear it, so he told her: how Rhaedr went out to the Midlands with a troop of sellswords, how they could find no work and turned to banditry, how they decided to rob Strife's caravan. They were forty against ten, but had underestimated the acolytes, and Rhaedr was the only man to come out of it on either side, with his leg broken when his horse fell on him.
His wife had some witchcraft and rode with the troop, tending their wounds, finding trails and the like. She found him, wounded and delirious, after the battle. He could not remember much of what happened next; it was she who moved the treasure, hid it in the pool, and took him north again into the Midlands, to wait for the priests to give up searching for the bandits. When she felt it was safe, they returned to Forty Leagues.
The witch ensorcelled the Lady, and set her to guard the treasure. They had meant to wait only a year or so before leaving the Duchy far behind them, but Rhaedr's wife fell ill suddenly, a devastating fever that took her in less than a week. The old man was left with a treasure he could not move alone. He buried his wife and settled in his father's villa, selling the occasional gem from the hoard to keep himself in money.
Casotte shook her head, refusing to believe. "Why not have the Lady move it for him? Why stay here with it?"
"I asked him that. He said his wife told him the Lady couldn't leave the valley. And he said he couldn't think of anywhere to go."
She scoffed. "Fool. Such wealth was wasted on him."
Which seemed a perfect opening for the question he had been wanting to ask, but the story was not finished. He summed it up as quickly as he could: "Fool or not, he stayed, and assumed the Lady was all the guard he needed. What he didn't know was that she sometimes left the pool to hunt. She was away when the village men found the treasure, and they saw the knife. He assumed they knew, and sent the Lady after them. The business with Old Wooden he cooked up to cover his tracks -- the warning and all. The poor fellow thought he was following his Lady's orders, when they were really Rhaedr's."
Thoughtful, she worried at her lip. "Aye, the poor fellow. Poor." She went abruptly from musing to eager, taking Liam's hand. "What if he weren't poor, eh?"
She had come around to his question, but from an angle he had not expected at all. "The gold," he said, frowning down at the tips of his boots.
"You say it like a curse," she laughed. "Why, with so much, he could leave the wood behind and have a proper house. No -- a palace!"
He aimed his frown at her. "There is the small problem of its belonging to Strife."
She made a face. "Oh, Strife. What needs Strife or his priests more gold? Here it might do good they could never dream of."
"It's theirs," he said, stubborn, wanting to be convinced.
"Then we'll make an offering -- say, a third for His altars. That'd leave a vast sum for Old Wooden."
"For the village," he corrected. "For the widows."
"Oh, aye. There can be something for them," she said, then dismissed them with a toss of her head and sat up, pressing against his side. "There'll yet be enough for him."
He looked sidelong into her eyes. "And for you?"
"For me?" She grimaced. "I want nothing, Rhenford, nor should you. We may do a passing good thing here, a generous deed, and that should be enough."
I hope it is, he thought, recalling the temple of Strife in Southwark, the proud and heavily-armed acolytes. She was happy -- the first time he had seen her so since his arrival, two days before -- and it made her beautiful.
"Forget Strife," Casotte said. "He will not care, and his priests, if they are good men at all, will know it was right, and bless the deed." She gave an enigmatic smile, regarding him from beneath lowered eyelids, and in a different tone added, "To say nothing of its doer."
And then she kissed him, and he realized she probably was right.