The Blood of Castalsara’, William J. Piovano

Illustration by Djibril

 [ Bloody Vinyard (cc) 2007 Djibril; (cc) 2006 Whinging Pom; (cc) 2005 Happy Dave ] I came upon the singing man along a sloping road in the principality of Castalsara. The road climbed a hill, adjacent to one of the vineyards which textured the rolling countryside hills like carefully combed carpets. To the left, at the hill's top, was a circular clearing with a dead tree, one of the few patches of land untouched by agriculture.

I heard him before I saw him, really, wondering what in the name of Ajun that sound was, so akin to a dying cat. I was drawn to it out of irritation more than curiosity. Having decided that my current duty no longer deserved my attention, I cut briefly off the trail and tracked the sound—unmistakable and out-of-place in this countryside as a bawdy song in a church—through the stretch of grass.

He was sitting on the last healthy bough of the dying tree, legs dangling to the rhythm of his tune. In his hands rested a lyre, which his fingers plucked with what appeared a modicum of skill, accompanying his undulating voice (the real instrument of lament). I am no musician, grant you, to judge a song in play, but I knew that voice for a banshee's wail as soon as I heard it.

"Oi!" I cried, wincing as a particularly high pitch cracked from the man's chest. The wind brushed the leaves above him into a restless rustle—or was it his voice?

The playing stopped—by Ajun what relief!—and the man raised a hand in grinning salute. Close up, I took note of the peculiarity of his garb; a melding, rather, of a courtier and a pilgrim. White silk cuffs blossomed from under the sleeves of the brown coat—a most ragged and patched piece of clothing. Over it he wore a bright purple jerkin. The mismatched trousers might have passed as normal, had the swaying feet at their ends not been clad in checkered shoes with up-curving points.

"Why, good afternoon!" he called. "I have an audience, it seems, fit for a royal court." I glanced down at my filthy leather straps over brown and grey riding apparel, and scowled back at the jape. The man appeared not to notice his own jibe, saying, "forgive me if I do not climb down to shake hands, or bow, but the last traveler I met on this road was kind enough to try and shorten me by a head... while I played my song. Truly there is no respect for minstrels anymore."

"Are you sure it wasn't your song?" I said, judging the distance between us. One arrow could knock him out of the branches like a rotten apple. Was it worth the trouble, though? I said then, "I could belch my name and it would sound better."

"A charmer, I see," said the minstrel (minstrel in absence of a better name, really, since drunk-who-found-a-lyre is a tad too long). "While I'm sure your belch would be lovely and perfumed in mirror of your splendid self," he added with a tip of his head, "I doubt your belly's air can strum the seven scales of Disero." He proceeded to pluck a sequence of notes in increasing pitch and speed, each one stretching a peculiar wince on his face until I thought the eyes might pop out like grapes.

Shaking my head, I said, "stick to the lyre, and you might get lucky."

I made to turn away, when a strum accompanied the minstrel's request.

"I woke feeling lucky this morning," he called, "how about a few coppers for as many songs?"

"I'd rather listen to the noises of my horse's arse."

"I see. Say, are you court-bred, or royalty?"

My bow was off my shoulder faster than his mouth opened, the arrow nocked. "Care to mock me again?" I said. "I must warn you, I've hit flying crows from horseback."

The minstrel had nearly dropped his lyre and toppled out of the tree. "Please do put that down!" He covered his face with his hands, as if that could help him in some way. "People are so touchy these days!"

After a moment of serious contemplation—contemplating the service I'd have done to the world's ears by silencing that mouth—I lowered the bow, growing gradually more amused.

The minstrel, cleverly sensing the lack of an arrow in his gut, peeked over his lyre-shield. "Who are you?"

"That's my bloody business," I said, placing the arrow back in the quiver. I did not think the minstrel posed a threat; I can tell a killer from a victim, almost every time. But I could not risk my Courier-Master learning that I had been strolling idly through the hills when in fact my task was to deliver the Queen's message to Duke Lusan. 'In all haste' I had been instructed. That's what all nobles said about their messages, though. Each one thought his letter crucial among all the world's trivial matters. Just how they regarded themselves.

"Well, I'm Gilnay," said the minstrel, "but some call me 'Cotton Mouth'."

"Cotton Mouth..." I repeated. "And why is that?"

"Because I have a soft voice, of course," said Gilnay, then laughed quietly to himself. I failed to catch the jest.

"Innislan," I said, giving in to some inner urge of etiquette.

"I don't think a brigand would have given me his name," Gilnay said, dropping off the branch. He landed with little grace, rubbing his rear. "I'll take the chance and trust you, Innislan."

"If I were a brigand you'd be in the grass with your pouches gone and an arrow in your chest," I replied.

"That's what I said." Gilnay slid the lyre into a linen bag hanging off his shoulder. Like the rest of his possessions, it resembled the patched remains of lordly clothing. "I'm glad you agree. So where are you headed, Innislan?"

'That's my bloody business' I wanted to say. I opened my mouth to say as much, then paused and said instead, "I'm delivering a message."

"To the Prince of Castalsara?"

"No. I'm just passing through."

I decided not to reveal the recipient and destination of my message. Over many years and more disappointments, I had acquired the good habit of withholding my trust, and been saved as such on a number of occasions. This 'Cotton Mouth' had already chattered me into some concessions, and it spoke praise to his honeyed tongue.

As he neared, I observed him more closely, searching for any potentially hidden weapons, or the shadow of an attack. He did not appear to be carrying any weapon, but maybe in the sack, or behind the belt...?

He was of unremarkable build. That ruled out a brawling assault. More importantly, I felt no sour-gut feeling (which rarely missed on such occasions). A distracted, sleepy look stretched his face, as if bored of the world and its pointless attempts. My suspicion relented.

"A profound pleasure, Innislan," Gilnay said, taking my hand and shaking it vigorously. The man had these spouts of energy, it seemed, between the gaps of nostalgic daydreaming.

I let my hand be shaken. "Likewise."

"Don't porcupine me for saying it, but I've never actually seen or heard of a courier on foot," Gilnay said, wagging a finger at my boots. "And so very... relaxed, shall I say? With his urgent duty." He leaned back slightly as if expecting me to lash out at him in some sudden spree of barbarian rage. My scars and shaved head had never put people at ease.

The minstrel's insinuation did not bother me. It would have, up to some weeks ago, when I had still been proud of my courier status.

"My horse broke a leg crossing a stream," I said.

And now I was late for my delivery. For some reason I could not care less. Smuggling messages across dangerous lands had been my life for seven years. Through fire and blood, my single focus. The Principal Army's finest courier, I had been. And now? A simple messenger, gone from infiltrating enemy camps to strolling vineyards in the company of failed minstrels. But perhaps that was the reason: there was no blood or fire anymore—no glory. I was just a servant scuttling around on a horse with little tubes of sealed paper, running to where the noble finger pointed.

"Broken horse, I see," said Gilnay, plucking his beardless chin. "Bad news that one. Twice for a courier. Well if I'm not too much trouble, I wouldn't mind tagging along... Only as far as the Castalsaran border, of course!" he hastily added. "You look quite the brawny type, can hold his steel, you know, useful in a fight against Prince Nirio's hunter-guardsmen." He emphasized his point by flexing non-existent muscles and pretending a sword's thrust.

I waited a moment to make sure he was finished. Any interruptions on his part would only chafe my frayed nerves, and I might end up beating him to death before realizing what I was doing. The man clearly had read one too many tales—perhaps written a few himself—and appeared less and less of a threat to my eyes.

I had no intention of correcting his view of the world, but said nevertheless, "Prince Nirio is an ally of our Queen Leurala. And even if he wasn't, Ardentio has been at peace with Lavonie for almost a year now."

That was fact. We had won the war, the third war in as many years, against the age-old enemy, the Principality of Lavonie. I had done my part in every battle, delivered safely every message entrusted to my hands.

Had it really been only a year? It seemed decades since I was crashing my way through enemy lines, slicing misty Lavoniese encampments in half by night like a mounted ghost, in full gallop across rivers and down mountain trails while loosing arrows back on my pursuers. All for the message, the one and only sacred message, the ink on paper given gold's worth after its stamped closure with red wax seal.

Back then, it had been worth it.

I remember once, close to the end of the war between our kingdom of Ardentio and the Lavoniese northerners, that the Grand Marshal Giannis Vocan himself had handed me a vital message destined for the troops trapped by the mountains of Frassi. His thick-moustached face hovered before me, as he clapped me on the shoulder with the other hand, and said 'the fate of our armies is in your hands.' A maneuver, a tip of information; I don't know what it was, but I delivered it. I like to think it won Ardentio a battle. That meant something, made me something like my mother and father always wished.

And most of all, it dragged my mind off my tormented past.

Gilnay, meanwhile, continued with a wry look. "Yes well, the notion of 'peace' in Castalsara is, how shall we say... flexible? From what I hear, Prince Nirio is no saner than his father—or his grandfather—or the Lavoniese lord he conquered his land from."

Conquered! That was a false praise if I had every heard one. Prince Nirio, the Prince of Castalsara, had been an exile half his life. When Lavonie had surrendered Castalsara to Ardentio at the end of the last year's war, the land had been handed to him as a gift. Part of Queen Leurala's campaign to win over the nobility.

"And the people here are no better," Gilnay said, "should they find a sane ruler, one day, they'd make him go mad as them by the first turn of the moon."

"Speaking of the people, where'd they all go?" So many vineyards in Castalsara. I had noticed it during the past two days. And there was almost nobody to cultivate them.

"Turned into grapes probably," Gilnay said. "Staring at them all day, cultivating them all day, eating them all day, drinking them all day. I wouldn't be surprised."

Sneaky Gilnay, I realized, had already talked me into his company. I had not agreed on it, and yet here I was. We made our way down the hill. Some grassy depressions spoke of old catapult fire, and it was not uncommon to glimpse the occasional sword hilt or greave buried in dirt, all engravings filed away by weather; or a nameless grave like a puddle of darker earth under feasting weeds. The untrained eye might not have noticed them, but I had already walked my share of forgotten battlefields.

I glanced at Gilnay, reminding myself to be wary of his tricks. I was myself no wizard of wits—I have no difficulty admitting that—and decided to probe deeper into his motives.

"What in Ajun's name are you doing in these parts, anyway?" I asked. "Castalsara's no place for a..." I waved a hand at his patchwork figure, "...whatever you are."

Gilnay barked a laugh. "With all my fancy words, I can hardly come up with a term to describe myself either. Go figure."

"A lunatic?" I offered.

"No, though you're not the first to suggest it." He shrugged. "I used to be the fool for Prince Erico of Ilisardin."

The clothing, and the lyre. I had expected as much.

"Until he cast me out," Gilnay added.

Yes, that made sense.

I regarded him dubiously. "How did you ever get to be his fool in the first place? Do you juggle well, tumble? Or is Prince Erico perhaps deaf?"

"I tumble and juggle as well as I sing. Wonderfully, as you have heard. Prince Erico's ears worked all too well, I fear, but fortunately his court is vast and it took him a while to fathom the source of 'that tortured scream', as he called it. He was always full of praise for my work."

"Tortured scream, yes... But if consoles you, your lyre-play is not as mind-splitting as your singing."

"My lord is too kind," Gilnay said, sweeping an exaggerated bow. "To my credit, I was the only musician to ever gain the full attention of his court and his guard."

I suppressed a smile and looked to the reddening of the western horizon where divine Oloras-the-Light was dipping the sun in the sea. I had an hour before darkness enveloped me—us—and by then we'd have to be safely off the road. Prince Nirio might be an ally of my Queen, but Gilnay had spoken true in claiming the Castalsarans were... well, mad? Or was that too strong a word?

Little did I know, I'd find out soon enough.

We walked on for a time. Gilnay had no clear objective, it seemed, sticking by my every turn and choice of forking road. What he didn't know was that I had none either. For nine years, I'd never failed to deliver a single message. Through snowstorms, floods, enemy camps and trenches. I remember someone telling me once that I was like a drop of water, that I always slithered out, somehow, from between the enemy's clenched fist. Those words stirred pride in me for many years, and pride was what I needed. I had become a courier to get away from Mermere, from the memories of my ravaged homeland. Nothing stopped my rides in almost a decade. Amusing that I was to be that enemy, in the end. Devoid of pride, I saw the purpose no longer, and when my horse broke its leg, I did what I had never done in nine years: I decided not to deliver my message.

Before us the land rolled gently away, east towards the mountains of Frassi, north to Lavonie. The slopes were decorated with row after endless row of vineyards, wooden poles strangled by clinging clusters of grapes white and red. So different from the rocky outcrops and windswept pebble shores of my home principality of Mermere.

A pillar of grey smoke rose far off to the west from some other hill, its spread lazy, an easy victim to the wind indicating it belonged to a fire already dead. It surprised me to see it, for bonfires were erected in spring, not summer. It was a fleeting curiosity, and passed as such.

I confess to having ridden through Castalsara before. More than once, in fact. But those had been darker days—or better days, depending on how one looks back—during the Wine Wars. When driving a mad gallop against time, the eyes do not wander to the landscape and its scenery. They seek out pitfalls, ambushes and pursuits, judge the time of day and the hiding spots fit for camp.

Needless to say, this time round—lounging, literally, like some bored prince on his pleasure cruise—I saw the Castalsara hills in an entirely new light, and it made for a rather fascinating sight. The sheer exploitation of the land amazed me. If someone had asked me, days ago, what I remembered of this principality, my answer would have been 'vineyards'. Should they have pressed for details, 'grapes on vineyards'. No wonder, for as I gazed out to this endless field of cultivation, I could see nothing more besides trees and the weathering of the land. Beautiful, in its own way, but even the greatest beauties can grow monotonous.

Then again, I could not blame Prince Nirio and all his predecessors for such extreme agricultural obsession. I had tasted their wine, the Blood of Castalsara; painfully expensive, red gold. But what to expect with such a lovely bittersweet treat?

'The Blood of Castalsara tastes to a man as a royal's virgin blood does to a vampire'. It is a peculiar saying, but so it was described, from Mermere to Lavonie. I testify to it.

There were no royals, however, or vampires, in Castalsara. Only many—too many—prisoners left from the innumerable forgotten wars. Men mostly, but even women and children, Ardentian and Lavoniese, hostile and neutral, locked in the dungeons beneath the Castle. Shackled by an absurd hate, but a hate which I do understand. Unlike the ransomed nobles, no one ever returned to claim them back.

I gazed out to the vineyards, the capillaries of this principality, and something in their endless silent files filled me with unease. I did not know what happened in this place. I did not want to know. For somehow, it was said, the black prisons of Castle Castalsara failed to ever run out of space.

For the first time in days, the night was clear. I picked a spot amongst the vineyards to set out my bedroll. Where else could one go in this bloody Principality, after all, but amongst vineyards? I unpacked a rationed serving of hard black bread and a slice of dried meat so salty I barely tasted anything besides it. Gilnay nibbled on some little food of his own, reaching up to pluck grapes from their gnarled nests. After collecting a handful, he spread his cloak on the ground and collapsed on it. I did the same, only on a somewhat more comfortable bedroll.

After a great deal of squirming on Gilnay's part, I inquired with a touch of derision, "never slept in the wild before?"

"I'm rather terrified of crawling insects," he replied with a grimace, "and these vineyards host a healthy lot. By Ajun, I just want to go to sleep!"

"What the hell are you so tired for? You've been sitting in the damn tree all day."

"The lyre is very...," his words stretched and vanished under a prolonged yawn, "...very tiring."

"Try listening, for a change."

Unable to settle down, I reassessed the rest of my supplies. I had the acquired instinct of calculating their rationing for the journey. I don't know where I'm going, I thought. And wherever I went, it would take many times longer without the galloping speed of my horse. Four more days, I figured, to cross the rest of Castalsara—unless I purchased a horse at the castle. Yes, that was certainly the wisest choice.

"You never explained to me why you're up here in these lands, which you seem to distrust so much," I asked nonchalantly. Gilnay was a brigand for all I knew, a ragged, desperate brigand—but then aren't they all?—and I had still not been able to pry from him the reason behind his cheerful sojourn. Worse, I now slept beside him.

"You are rather curious for a man who does not deign to tell others of his own past," Gilnay replied, dropping another grape into his mouth.

"And you're rather skilled at avoiding my line of questions." It was beginning to irritate me, and make me no less suspicious.

A cracking noise, suddenly, sent me sitting upright and reaching for dagger's hilt.

"What?" Gilnay asked in alarm, scrambling to his knees, red grapes bouncing quietly over the pressed grass. "What is it?"

Sharp wits, but poor ears, this fool.

I brought a finger to my lips to silence him, and slowly reached for my bow which rested by the bedroll, far from Gilnay's reach. Calmness seeped into me from the curved wood.

It had been a dry twig from the sound of it, to our left. A footstep, if my senses did not fail me.

Now another.

Whatever it was, it either did not care for secrecy, was in a great hurry, or simply failed to maintain any semblance of stealth. One thing was almost certain: it did not know I was waiting. I nocked an arrow in my bow.

Despite the leaves of the vineyard blooming thickly across this narrow path, I could see a great distance down the leafy corridor, aided also by a gibbous moon. Nothing but the wind did I see, however. The intruder, I realized, was advancing in a nearby corridor.

An adjacent one, it turned out, for the occasional crunches and snapping of dried branches—muffled initially with some decency—quickly deteriorated into a full run which I easily deciphered. Gilnay looked ready to bolt, but he stood his ground, probably figuring that I alone could protect from whatever danger approached. I was not about to try my luck firing blindly into the bushes. I lowered my bow and unsheathed my knife, crouched slowly by the grapey wall, a beast in lurking wait.


And closer.

With a guttural growl I crashed shoulder-first into the vineyard corridor's wall. Thin vines, no matter how twined and gnarled, did nothing to hold back my allied weight and strength. The intruder took the full brunt of my momentum, knocked back under me with a muffled shout—a female shout—crashing down the next rack of grapevines, all a tumble of leaves and leather, long black hair and wetly squashed grapes. We landed with a thud, and my glinting dagger ended where it was meant to, its sharp edge pressed up against the tenderness of the throat.

Her throat.

After a momentary struggle of desperation she lay still, breathing heavily and staring up at me with eyes permeated with terror. It took me a moment to regain my senses, so close to her. I was close enough to smell her skin. Her eyes were puddles of fear spilling out like ink in a white pond. Her skin was smoothly pale—impossibly fair!—and in the starkest of contrasts her lips painted black as charcoal—perhaps with charcoal—and similarly the outline of her eyes. I stirred, feeling the swelling of her breasts against my chest, and with it the fleeting thought of how long it had been since I'd known a woman. Since that day.

"A girl?" came Gilnay's puzzled voice over my shoulder.

A girl. A stunning girl. It did not pass as strange to me that I lay on her still, gazing into her. I was hypnotized. Her own eyes had grown wide, mesmerizing as still pools. I did not move as her sight ran over my visage like a caress. Vaguely I noticed her head rising gently, lips barely parted and advancing, and I could swear I felt her fingers brush the back of my head; a dream-like moment, lasted but a second, chained by the fluttering lashes.

Gilnay's throat-clearing jerked me out of it, and I scrambled back. As if the alleviation of my weight injected her with energy, the woman—or girl, for she could be no more than twenty—tore free of the vine tangle as a snarl replaced her previously pursed lips. What had happened? My dagger was on the ground too, slipped from my grasp without my slightest recollection. She snatched it from the flattened grass and held it out in front of her with uncertainty and panic.

"Step away!" she squeaked, edging back and perhaps expecting the vine wall behind her to part in magical obedience.

I could only describe her as a beautiful witch. Under moonlight the black paint on lips and eyes yielded an aura of damnation, crowned by a waterfall of raven hair, and the midnight dress with silvery linings was that of a darkly tempting sorceress.

She glanced back and forth, from me to Gilnay and back. A dark sorceress would not have looked so frightened, I thought.

"You're not guardsmen..." she said uncertainly.

"Quite the contrary," I replied, containing my irritation, and outstretched my hand. "Can I have my dagger back?"

"No," she said, swiping the air with a fierceness to make a kitten proud. "So you can kill me? Rape me?"

That stilled my hand. Rape, its mere mention, evoked my demons.

Gilnay suppressed a snort of indignation. "What do you take us for, highway robbers? We're not going to rape you. We were trying to get to sleep before you came prancing by."

The girl's personality had changed, it seemed. She had not seemed so shy and diffident a few moments ago, right under me. I was foolish enough to believe my charms had stolen her wits for those few moments. Whoever she was, she was no farm girl. Two rings adorned her fingers, thick and sparkly, and a gem-encrusted necklace hung around the pale neck. Not a farm girl, that was certain.

"She's running from Prince Nirio's guardsmen," Gilnay said. "Only thing that explains it."

Mention of such made the girl turn her head in brief worry towards the moonlit vineyard corridor, in search of pursuit. It was as good as an assent to me.

"Just give me my dagger back," I said, without advancing further, "and we'll let you run off to your lord father."

"What?" she frowned, then her eyes widened and she brought curled fingers to conceal the jewel at her neck. She probably weighed her threat to them as a highborn less than her value as a captive. "What makes you think I'm noble...?"

"She's has a point, Innislan," Gilnay said with diplomatic nod. "I've seen many a farmgirl gathering grapes in evening dresses. They use the diamond rings to cut the stalks, you know, and the gold necklace keeps off the sweat. Very practical."

The girl's face twisted, her pearly skin blushing with anger. "I am not—!" she began, then pointed a finger as slender and decorated as the rest of her physique, "I can have bounties on all your heads!"

It was growing tedious. If Nirio's guardsmen found me with this girl, they would clap me in irons without too many questions. I had dealt with border soldiers before; suspicious of everyone and everything.

"Put the bounties on their heads, if you will," I said, "I'm not getting involved." And with one swift sweep of my hand, I plucked the dagger from her hands. She froze for a moment, staring down as if disbelieving the emptiness between her fingers. I held it up for her to see. "Was that so hard? Now off with you."

Her presence, fragrant and tempting, disturbed me.

As if the dagger's absence had loaded her with ten sacks of grain, she was suddenly on her knees. "Please, you have to help me!"

Had this girl gone mad? Threatening, begging... I blinked, turning to Gilnay for assistance.

"She seems to have a rather short memory," said the minstrel.

"Help..." I muttered. "Do you want our bounty, eh? Can both our heads buy you a new necklace, little girl?"

"A cheap ale, more likely," Gilnay said, letting slip a chuckle.

She was shaking her head. "My friends have been arrested by the Prince's men, and they're coming for me now! You have to defend me, or I will have bounties on your head!"

"You don't beg very often, do you?" said Gilnay.

I shook my head. "By Ajun," I said, "she could use some practice." Always getting what she wanted, this lord's daughter, no doubt. Gifts, praise, coin... men. She did not have to be a lord's daughter to command that latter, though. Even through my irritation, I could feel my own yearning.

"I'll have you rewarded, I swear!" she said, convinced somehow that we were no longer a threat. "Lots of gold, just help me! Prince Angilo of Alanzio is my father, he will reward you greatly, truly! I am his only daughter! Prince Nirio's guards took all my friends. They'll be executed! They're murdering people in the vineyards, I saw it!"


"Yes!" she gasped, then brought a hand to her mouth and glanced once again down the corridor's length.

"I think the guards would've been here by now, had they been pursuing," I said. I made a point of quirking an eyebrow. "You're not quite in traveler's garb, if I may say so, and between your squealing and the noise you make with that cart of a skirt..."

I don't know what words struck her. She collapsed like a rag-doll. Perhaps she realized that no immediate threat actually surrounded her, or perhaps it was just some obscure female symptom, something I could not understand. Only rag dolls don't cry, and she did very much. Salt to the ground of Castalsara, I thought. Maybe this patch would stay dead.

The weeping continued, a seawater dam broken free.

"By Ajun..." I threw my arms in the air helplessly and turned away.

Gilnay took it upon himself to comfort her, kneeling by her side and whispering reassurances as useless as they were pointless. Irritated, I snatched up my bedroll and began jamming it back into my sack, venting the peculiar anger out on the worn cloth. It seemed that the more women were worth the trouble, the more trouble they created.

"Why won't you... believe me...?" she said between sobs, "...they're going to... kill them..."

"They're the Prince's guards," I said over my shoulder, "not mountain barbarians. If your friends are guilty, they'll serve jail time."

"But they're not!" she cried.

"Keep your bloody voice down," I growled, spinning to glare at her.

Jail time. Something told me it was unlikely. Phantom premonitions? I had heard tales of the Castalsara lands, how its continual use as a battleground had tainted the earth as well as the people. It was said the blood of the dead, seeping into the soil, gave the wine its thick taste. I had tasted man's blood before—my own, my friends' and my enemies'. Sometimes it tasted as good as the wine.

"We didn't do anything..." the girl whimpered at length.

"Then why worry?" Gilnay said cheerfully. I think he was growing fond of her already.

"The question is," I said, slinging the bow over my shoulder, "what by the gods were you doing that got you, and your friends, arrested in the first place?"

A difficult question it was, and wonderfully placed, for it dropped the girl into the most merciful silence. Guilty silence, perhaps?

Gilnay broke it. "Prince Angilo..." he mused for a moment, bringing fingers to chin, "of Alanzio... you're Lurielle, aren't you?"

Her head rose slowly. "How do you know me? Are you a friend of my father's?" Her eyes brightened hopefully. The reply was not quite what she expected, I'm sure.

"I played in his court—your court—once, when my lord Erico visited," Gilnay said, and his eyes grew distant as if tugged far by memory.

"You served Lord Erico?" asked Lurielle, after an initial frown of disappointment.

By then, I had had enough. "Very well, I wish you both luck on your journey," I said, checking I had left nothing behind. "I don't intend to sleep here with an escapee, in the bright middle of her flight path." Something in me was hoping either Gilnay or Lurielle—fine, Lurielle, if I must be honest—would ask me to stay. I was partly satisfied.

Gilnay scrambled to his feet. "Wait, I'm coming with you!" He looked down at the girl apprehensively, and added, "maybe you should come with us too."

I shook my head but of course made no move to protest. Lurielle pulled herself to her feet, the red juice of grapes dripping through her pale clenched fingers as if it had been thorns and not vines which filled her grasp. I glanced down at my own tunic, spattered and splotched by the wounds of a dozen invisible arrows.

"Will you not help me?" she asked, chin coming up with the defiance of youth.

"Springing criminals from jail is not in my notion of help," I said.

"But they didn't do anything!" She was careful this time to keep the volume of her voice—if not its pitch—under control.

"Look, just be glad we haven't done anything to you," I said. "I know many knights who would have had no qualms in planting a bastard in that belly of yours. And almost none who would have left you your golden trinkets. Now, are you going to sit there and cry, or stand and come with us?"

"If you will not help me," Lurielle said icily, "then I will have nothing to do with you."

Gilnay frowned at this display—childish, I call it—but said nothing.

"Very well," I said, waving the way open.

"Very well," she sniffed and, lifting chin and skirts, started down the vineyard corridor as if it were the carpeted hall of her very own castle.

I had to watch her walk away, black silk slippers sinking in and out of the grass, silver and black skirts swaying with the movement of her hips.

"Let's go," I snapped at length, starting in the opposite direction and doing my best to not look back.

When I closed my eyes, I saw that face, obsidian lips and marble skin drifting close and so very tempting. As my head had lifted off the ground in longing extension—what a dreaming fool I was—my eyes popped open. The starlit canopy of the sky stretched vast and quietly infinite, exactly as I had left it.

Gilnay, I saw, was awake. He sat cross-legged and scraping down on something with a stone, sharpening something. Or so it appeared by the look of his strokes. Sharpening... his lyre? At first I thought it might be a musical technique of tuning, something beyond my paltry knowledge, but as my eyes adjusted the weapon's blade became evident. See, I wasn't wrong about lyre—well not completely. He was sharpening a number of rust-splotched steel spikes protruding from the back of the instrument, some five wicked inches long. Indeed, the instrument's entire back side—conveniently hidden from me on our first meeting—was plated with metal.

"Doesn't it get a tad uncomfortable to play?" I asked, up on my elbows.

"Nobody likes spikes in their belly while they play," Gilnay grinned, showing no surprise at my sudden intrusion. "But you yourself said our great protectors, the noble knights and princes, love slaughter and rape as much as any brigand. With a world that safe, it's useful to have options. And," he added, "if the odds are too great, I simply strum a tune and get mocked as a minstrel instead of murdered as a soldier."

Was he warning me, I wondered? I wasn't sure whether to be reassured or bothered by the weapon's open display, for if Gilnay did not trust me—and how could he, really, after a day?—then surely he would have hidden such advantage from me. And yet how could I feel more comfortable sleeping when the (apparently) peaceful minstrel rested a few feet away with a veritable spiked mace in his reach?

"So that's why you can't play the damn thing," I said, "you had a club and decided to conceal it with some strings."

"If only I had such an excuse." He sighed. "No, it's just I rather hate the bloody thing."

"You hate it..."

My question stated itself, and Gilnay answered, "Well, I can't strum it to save my life, and it's gotten me into more trouble than it'll ever do good. My mother forced it on me when I was twelve, in an attempt to craft a profession for me which would not involve my conscription to the army or plowing fields. A curse and a blessing, as they say." He shrugged, flipping the lyre around to play with the strings. Its metal claws were completely concealed. "Can't shake the habit off, now, and I don't want to offend my mother. Plus, it reminds me of her." He smiled at some mental picture of his mother.

And, gods help me, I wondered of mine.

I knew I would not be able to sleep that night. I never did, when such thoughts entered my head. My mother I saw, and the Lavoniese farmgirl, both defiled in their homes. It was partly the reason why I had made a life of sleeping in enemy territory, with nothing but adrenaline and fear petrifying my mind. But there was nothing to stop the memories now. Mother's crumpled body, a naked bloodied heap served to satisfy the passing lust of invading Lavoniese soldiers...

My hand tightened, ripping out a chunk of grass. Gilnay seemed not to notice, entranced in his own memories—if not pleasant, then surely more peaceful than mine.

Why did they have to kill her? I wondered, again and again, for the thousandth time. I pictured myself walking in, on that day, before the act, with an axe in my hand. By the gods, what a carnage I would have wreaked! I should have been there. A man has the responsibility to defend his family and his home. Instead I had been locked in a castle, defending a Prince who never cared about me beyond my grooming of his horse.

I heard the twanging of strings. Gilnay had taken to plucking his lyre, a few notes as melancholic as his expression. My brooding deepened, more flashes of that fateful day jarring me from the mercy of sleep. The images of mother flashed repeatedly in my head. They threatened my stomach to retching. The ones I imagined, the actual act, were even worse. I wanted to hunt down those bastard monsters and skin them alive, slay their whole family.

The most haunting of facts, the gods' way of telling me not to judge, had been delivered to me three years after my mother's death, in a farmhouse of southern Lavonie. Just a girl, a rebellious girl... like my mother. I hated those men who had defiled my home. I know what hatred is; not that of love or words, but true hatred. It is what I feel. I felt it with the girl. She did nothing to me; but she was Lavoniese. I hated those men through her—and because of her, myself.

I hated those men because I was exactly like them.

Sleep fled before my restlessness. I twitched with the desire to hack something to pieces, scream at someone guiltier than me. It did not help, as it had not helped for five years. My insomnia, however, served that night a purpose.

I heard the noise. The scuttling in the bushes—for my claustrophobia of the vineyards had driven to me find another clearing—I noticed immediately, the telltale nodding of the branches. I had no doubt as to who it was.

"By Ajun," I said. "She followed us." Gilnay blinked at me, wondering how I had suddenly come to such conclusion. "Lurielle. She's in the bushes, you idiot. Happy now?"

"I didn't want her along," Gilnay replied defensively.

"Why did you ask her to come along, then?"

"Well, she's only a girl..."

I knew then that Gilnay was not immune—or in any way opposed, I suspect—to the charms of the noblewoman Lurielle. Neither was I, though I steadfastly refused to acknowledge the fact at the time.

"Come out of there!" I snapped to the darkness. When no reply came, I grabbed a stone and tossed it in her direction. "You're no bloody ranger, girl; I can smell you miles away. Either come out, or get out!"

"Are you sure you want to bring her in again?" Gilnay said. "I heard rumors, at court... of her. From many people." The conflict of mind and heart was writ plainly on his face.

"Rumors?" I squinted at the bushes. Nothing. It must have been Lurielle's hesitation which forced the delay. She was a fool if she hoped still to conceal herself.

"They said she was, well, insane," Gilnay said, but clearly that was not all, and after a pause he continued, "or that she was possessed, taken over by something. There were different versions, but everyone agreed that the girl had some sorcery on her, or in her. It was a secret her parents wished to conceal, of course, but you know court gossip. I heard it after a day, and from several courtiers. Very strange things I heard that... oh!"

A rustle, and Lurielle stepped out, a black temptress on black sky backdrop. Insane? Rumors of jealousy, I thought. Rich, powerful, beautiful. 'Every gift bears you twice as many enemies', my father used to say. He was wiser than he knew. Then again, my father was never granted anything, and yet he was murdered in his own home, defending my mother.

Lurielle's presence came as doubly welcome for the distraction it provided, a rare anchor of escape from my torments. She took a few steps forward, stopping to stare at us both, obviously as unsure of our intentions as we were of hers.

"There's a bonfire," she said at length, her voice half a whisper. I thought I could see tears on her cheeks, dragging down the black paint under her eyes to draw grey lines over the soft skin like rain on a dusty window. "A bonfire," she repeated. "You know what that means."

"Do I?" I said, sitting up and rubbing tiredness from my eyes.

"How can you sleep knowing this is happening?" she seethed. "Lie here so peacefully in your sleep as people die unfairly, atrociously!"

Peacefully in my sleep. How little she knew me. If she saw what I saw when I lay down to sleep, she would never let a man touch her again, ever.

I turned to Gilnay. "I'm beginning to believe your story."

Gilnay regarded the girl with some apprehension. Without warning, Lurielle picked up a rock and flung it at me, or him—one of us, either way—but it skittered far from its target.

"They're burning them." Her voice cracked, anger and anguish fighting for supremacy over its wreck.

"Burning who?" I asked. "What in Ajun's name are you talking about, girl?" I remembered the bonfire, however. I knew just what she was alluding to. But it couldn't be true; the war had ended more than a year ago. And there were rules.

"I saw them," she said, sniffing up tears and dignity, "I saw the dead... people piled, one on top of the other. And now they're burning them."

"You saw this?"

"I saw them marching prisoners in the vineyards," she snapped back, "and they'll march my friends out there too. Why won't you help me? Are you so cold-hearted?"

"So you saw nothing..."

"I saw the men, and the prisoners."

"But not the bodies, or the bonfire."

She plopped to the ground where she stood, shivering with cold and distress, arms wrapped around her knees.

"What do we do?" Gilnay whispered. "I've heard disturbing stories, Innislan—"

"She's a bloody girl," I said, not bothering to keep my voice down. "I'm going to sleep."

I made sure to lie with my weight over the dagger. Despite appearances, it was Gilnay I felt threatened by. He was a man, and armed. Tiredness ordered me not to care. I had nothing to look forward to, anyway—so said the self-pity. Lurielle, I thought, will not trouble me.

By Ajun, was I wrong.

I dreamt of her, the girl-with-no-name, the Lavoniese farmgirl, for many hours. I always did when I thought about her before sleep. I was surprised to fall asleep at all.

In my dream I wept, having my way with her, as she looked up at me with a question stamped in her teary eyes. I've never been able to truly decipher it—she did not look so, that night, only cried. In the dream, when I clenched my teeth to cracking point and snarled the animal's rage, she clawed at me and wailed and cursed me... and yet I could not stop. It fueled me, drawing a curtain over that picture of mother. A farce, like the growls for the sobs.

When some hand shook me awake, I scrambled so hard my foot kicked a charred log out of the firepit. Coming to my senses, I saw Lurielle kneeling beside me, alarm coating her expression and drawing back her hands. She could have killed me so easily, had she wanted.

"Ajun," I whispered, bringing two fingers to my navel.

The dream came back to me in sickening detail. And as I looked up at the Lurielle I realized it had been her in my night's vision, begging for mercy and reprieve under my armored weight. Disgusted, I knew I had enjoyed it. I do not think it had anything to do with the fact that she woke me—though I suspected it at the time, used it as an excuse to explain my morbid fantasy. The vividness of it held me breathless for a moment.

"There's smoke," Lurielle said, seeing in me none of my torments, only groggy bewilderment. "Smoke, over there." She pointed. I gazed at her, instead, and she pressed insistently, "Look! Bonfire smoke!"

There was indeed a curly column of smoke rising not far off. To my right, Gilnay rolled over to mumble his displeasure at the wake-up, the untied length of his hair matted over his forehead. Morning had bled the eastern horizon, the sun still sleepily fuzzy in the sky between tufts of cloud. Wind swept up from the fields unhindered, whistling through the vineyard corridors.

"Smoke..." I grumbled, running a hand over my shaved head. A scar rolled bumpily under my palm—the result of my first fall from horse during a courier flight.

"I saw a column of Prince Nirio's guardsmen, too," Lurielle said, confident enough now to tug at my arm. "I saw others with them, too! Well?!"

There are pleasant and unpleasant things in life, and there are also unpleasant moments. When I am awoken from one of the nightmares, nothing is pleasant; the world is not pleasant, I am not pleasant. It is a moral sickness of mine, if you will, where for a short while everything—even the sweetest treat like Lurielle—is coated with the bitterest of flavors. I say this to justify my all too harsh reaction, burst out of me, onto Lurielle, when she took hold of me again.

"Devils, what do you want?" I growled, pulling away. The dream's aftertaste hung in my head like a soured fruit.

"Help," she said. I thought I sensed another struggle against tears. "Please."

"I'm beginning to wonder whether she ran away from home," Gilnay mumbled into his bedroll, "or if they threw her out." Fortunately, for is own sake, he was unable to witness her scowl. I agreed with the minstrel—but silently.

"It's a bloody bonfire," I said, lying back down and barely aware of the forming of words in my own mouth. "Go away, by Ajun."

"No, get up!" she said, shaking my arm. Shake, more shake, and my anger frothed.

"Get off my back!" With a fury born of too many frustrations, I wrenched free of her grasp, sending her tumbling back in a bundle of black hair and silken dress. Even in disarray, so beautiful.

I expected her to spit on me, hit me—or try to, anyway—or weep again. Instead she sat there, and after a moment I was forced to open one eye at her silence. The contempt and disgust she glowered my way might have even forced me back into the argument, had I not been so shaken by the monsters of my sleep. I was not used to dealing with people; a courier's nights and mornings are lonely, like his life.

When I closed my eyes I saw the true girl again, the one from the sacked Lavoniese farmhouse. My sin. This time she was truly despairing. I tossed around. The gods were punishing me with all the cruelty I deserved.

Amidst the subconscious reflections of guilt, I asked myself and any god listening: when will I get relief? I got no reply.

Something hit me in the face. A stone, a berry, maybe a piece of wood. Then I heard running. The first thing I saw was the bushes swaying, right where Lurielle had come out from before.

"What in the name of..." My hands drifted to my boots and found only dry earth. Fingers raked the earth in confusion, then closed to grind what was left between them. The damn bitch! I scrambled to my feet, and Gilnay did the same in panicked confusion. "My bloody boots! Oh she is going to regret this one!"

"What...? Where are you going?"

But I was already off, sprinting as fast as my legs could carry me, bashing my way through the bush, past the underbrush, and out into the hill's clearing. The view exploded on my sight, miles of combed vineyard labyrinths, frighteningly monotonous and yet impossible as any labyrinth of legend. I glimpsed it all from my high vantage point, the solution to a riddle too vast to memorize or comprehend. The precise corridors, laid out perpendicular to the eastern sky, dripped with early dawn's blood-red light.

I sped on.

Clever girl, I thought to myself as my naked feet drummed down the hill. She could have stolen anything, but she stole my boots. My damn boots! Clever, but not very wise, for when I caught her... The anger spurred my run, and I could now see her dark figure slipping its way into the vineyard ranks. I would have caught up with her sooner, with my boots, but now and then I hopped to a near-stop with some strangled guttural mix of curse and howl, extracting a thorny item from my foot. Every cut was like a poke to the lion in its cage.

"Come back here!" I bellowed after her, as if it could slow her down.

My dagger was out of its leather sheath as I raced into the vineyard, cutting the lagging leaves left behind by Lurielle's flight. Grapes old and new squished and popped under the soles of my feet, the wooden poles flying by me left and right with their leafy spiderwebs and grapes like clusters of eggs. They blurred with the sky above, my attention focused forward at the occasional telltale movement which assured me I pursued in the correct corridor.

It was not long before I glimpsed the fleeting black. First the trailing wisp of a silken dress, then her entirety. A passing farmer, seeing her, might have judged her a ghostly witch, a banshee raised from the blood in the Castalsara ground, wandering in torment. But Lurielle was real, flesh and bone, and I knew she was too unfit to continue escaping my pursuit. Another fifty feet, my progress handicapped by sharp stones. I would have reached her by now, but I was like a bull in constant charge-and-pause, unable to break into free run.

She must have seen me, then, for she ducked under an opening into the next vineyard corridor. Like a shadow, I imitated. And I was on her.

Her last attempt was to drop my boots in the desperate hope I might pick them up and be placated. I was well beyond that. The irritation of tiredness, the pain of my bruised feet and the anger at her theft, they knotted in my muscles as I dragged her down with brutality. All the nightmare's fault. She yelped, but the sound died in her lungs as I collapsed on her, pinning her to the grassy floor.

Lurielle did not mean to escape me, I understood then, but my ears were somewhat deaf to the voice of reason. She squirmed around, only to face open reprisal. A backhand slap caught her squarely on the cheekbone, and I felt the pain in my own hand as it connected. The raven hair whirled in the air like a shadowy fan. I struck again, cursing, venting a rage which was not duly hers to receive.

The deja-vu paralyzed my arm in next mid-swing.

Kneeling over the girl, the weeping trembling girl... So familiar. The grass seemed to harden into rough wooden floorboards, the vineyards into plain walls and the sky into a farmhouse roof. I shrunk back in horror, as if Lurielle's figure had suddenly taken the most terrifying demonic form.

"No, no," I said, outstretching a hand but backing away. "I'm sorry, I never meant... no."

Bloodshot eyes shivered back at me, much like a beaten dog's, wincing at my first tentative approach. Glistening blood and black paint drew a smeared scar across her left cheek, and the hair hung in wisps where it had not been captured by the sweat of her forehead. She breathed heavily, unmoving.

"I'm so sorry," I repeated, and my eyes must have been as wide as hers. I edged closer but she scuttled back, whimpering. I was torn between the desire to run and embrace her, and that of stepping away from the sin, disassociating myself from the filthy physical contact. My skin crawled at the previous moment's recollection.

I was spared that choice—fortunately, as it turned out—for six men stepped in from the ruin of an adjacent corridor, swords drawn. Their red livery, embroidered with the black grape and vine of Castalsara, marked them as Prince Nirio's guardsmen. In their midst I identified their leader, a lanky individual with similar garb, only bearing an added coronet of black leather and equipment—sword, mail and boots—of decidedly greater value and lesser wear. The blade showed some engravings, most likely a family heirloom.

"Step away from the girl," said the leader.

I must not have looked very fearsome, splayed on the grass with tears streaming down my face and in evident stalemate fight with a young woman. I realized I was crying, and it felt peculiar. My wits and reason, in face of danger, returned to me slowly.

The guardsmen eyed me with perplexity, wondering surely what in Ajun's name had exactly been going on. Rape—but from a weeping man? A struggle—again, a whip-cord muscled male subdued by an equally broken woman? I wondered for a second myself, and then the leader's expression changed from suspicion and bewilderment to surprise and relief.

"Ah, it's her!" he exclaimed. "The wily witch! You caught her. We've been looking for her all night—escaped with her black magic. Why, well done!"

I figured then that they had taken me for a farmer or traveler. What they made of my weeping, I'd never know; they did not care, that was plain. I did not have my bow on me, and my knife was out of sight. Biding my time, I simply nodded. Lurielle made no attempt to escape. She sat heaving and staring up, her beaten face a mess of tears, blood, paint and dirt. Fear had replaced exhaustion, and all her angry words had gone.

"She's a witch, this one," the leader continued, sheathing his sword. Confident, I thought, too confident. "Came with another bunch of 'em, performing rituals at night in the vineyards. Blasphemous, and beautiful to tempt my men into mercy." He spat. "You have the gratitude of the Prince." He gestured to two of his men, one of whom had produced a short length of hempen rope. They stepped right by me as if my innocuousness were assumed.

A grave mistake.

I don't know exactly why I pounced; such moments are always born of many emotions, but guilt—much of it—certainly played a major factor. My dagger, gripped firmly between my moist fingers, flashed up with a reddish glint of bloodlust and sunk deep into the first guard's abdomen. He doubled over as I extracted, and the second barely had the time to draw steel before my blade came forward in an arc. Bloodied steel blooded tender throat, spilling a wash onto the livery of the same color.

Meanwhile, I heard the leader's shouts: the order to kill me. His three henchmen charged with half-hearted cries. I dodged one sword, parried another with the half-foot of my dagger, and wheeled out of the third man's lunge. Crouching back, I whipped out to buy myself time.

Back in the day I had been a formidable warrior, and these three moderately trained guardsmen would have been a routine dispatch. But with over a year of peaceful absence, I found myself somewhat groggy on the riposte. Blows were exchanged, my moves geared defensively at evasion. How I'd fight my way out of this one, I was not quite sure.

Lurielle at least was now safe—as long as I lived—and for some absurd reason it crossed my mind as the paramount of facts. Had it been yesterday I would have fled, run and left the girl to her fate. It was her they wanted after all. But I stood my ground, just as I had chosen to attack those first two guards. The damn nightmare, a voice repeated in my frantically in my head, the damn nightmare.

An opening presented itself, and I made desperate move for it, lashing out with my free hand to strike one guard in the face. His nose cracked under my knuckles, setting him off balance long enough for a quick slash at his hands. He yelled and dropped his sword. Four fingers fell with it.

I might have turned the tide, with the other two hesitating as it dawned on them it was in fact no shovel-armed farmer they faced—had the leader not bulled in to lend his support. With renewed courage, the trio pressed. Swords swung and jabbed, and I found myself ducking and spinning all at once. Faced with a skilled warrior—a skilled warrior with a sword, I care to emphasize—I began to see the futility of my effort.

A reasonable side of me yelled to run, break for the vineyard opening while I still had my legs to do it. The nightmare, Lurielle's stricken eyes under my abuse, kept me pinned.

It happened at the closing act, when I was sure one of those three darting sword-points would snake its way past my defense and into my ribs. They must have been truly shocked to suddenly be ambushed by a lyre-wielding minstrel of dancing patchwork, emerging from nowhere like yet another vineyard ghost. They might have doubted, chuckled, at the brandished weapon. But I knew the different songs that instrument could play. It did not shock me when the lyre—swung by Gilnay with fury from its slimmer end like a true warmace—bit and literally tore one of the guardsman's shoulders off. Blood sprayed over the grapes and leaves, the hint of a bone protruding from raw flesh and severed muscle.

Gilnay's second swing, all as barbaric, saw the leader ducking deftly. All to no avail, however, for his squatting made him easy target for my own weapon. It sunk to the hilt into his back and he crumpled to the ground with a groan, one hand reaching back towards the gushing wound in some vain attempt. The last man no longer favored the offensive.

"Yield," I said.

The guardsman complied immediately.

Picking up the sword I turned to Lurielle. She remained where I had caught her, unmoving throughout the fight. I came to kneel by her side. She did not weep, transfixed instead on the mutilated corpses. My hand, rested gently on her bare shoulder, jerked her out of her stupor, and I almost pulled back. So much feeling in that touch, but I dared nothing more.


"I doubt we shall be welcome in Castalsara much longer," Gilnay's voice floated to my consciousness. "And I can say with some surety that my plans of playing for Prince Nirio's court are compromised."

A plucking of strings made me frown over my shoulder. Gilnay was strumming his lyre with critical eye.

"Nothing's broken, thank the gods," he said, apparently unaware of the red stains the iron spikes were leaving on his tunic. I shook my head. He broke into a grin and proceeded to bind the guardsman with the length of abandoned rope.

"Thank you, Innislan," Lurielle said, and I whirled my attention back.

So beautiful, that face, even under the marring of gloomy colors. Apologies and explanations formed and mixed in my mouth, but all I said was, "I'm sorry I hit you."

That reminded her, it seemed, for she reached up to dab the split lip with a finger. Examining it for bloodstains, she snorted softly to find her entire hand so smeared.

"I'm sorry," I repeated.

"If you really are," she said, pointing to the sky behind me, "then open your eyes."

My gaze followed her finger's indication, up to the clean blue sky and to the plume of smoke which defiled it. Very close, a fat grey-black snake dancing to a hypnotizing flautist. I had not noticed it during the wild chase.

So this was where she had been leading me to... Successfully, despite the incident.

Wordless, I nodded. In that moment, I would have run myself on my own sword had she commanded it, I'm sure, drenched in guilt—and perhaps something more?—as I was. My soul ached with its open wounds, old and fresh.

After having placed my boots back on—so painfully, but I took that pain as a penitent monk might, with grim elation—I wiped my dagger on a cloak and decided to investigate Lurielle's claim. She and Gilnay trailed behind me through the openings in the vineyard corridors, those from which the guardsmen had entered. We emerged in a slightly larger space, source of the smoking column.

A pile of ashes lay at its source, but its fuel had not been leaves, wood, or even some dubious artifacts. I recognized the bones immediately, charred to greyness, and in their midst some remnants of past lives. A belt buckle, some man or woman's last possession. A spoon, likely stolen from the feeding bowls of the Castalsara prisons. All as lifeless as their former masters, all camouflaged by the soot.

And there was worse.

Lurielle noticed first, covering her mouth with her hand. Corpses, lying in their flesh and blood, some piled and some lined out. Dressed, still, some folded over with the illusion of sleep, others visibly mutilated. I approached them slowly, the retch in my stomach clamped down by years of wartime experience.

They were prisoners. No doubt of that in my mind. Their wrists were shackled though they needed it no longer, and in all those lying face down I saw deep cuts below the napes.

"By Ajun," Gilnay said. "They've executed them all."

I noticed then that not all of them had been dispatched with the soldier's death—the sword thrust to the neck—for three of the corpses lay in a tangle, and about them a collection of rocks, the smallest the size of a fist.

I knelt. "Not all of them. These ones were stoned to death."

"Such cruelty..." Gilnay said, then glanced uncertainly at Lurielle. He, too, felt the guilt now.

"These were Lavoniese." One steel buckle was fashioned in the form of the swan of Lavonie, and a similar symbol was embroidered on another man's shoulder pad. The reason for their being singled out was obvious. Even in that moment, some hatred bubbled to the surface. "With an Ardentian lord, Ardentian troops... Our own people must have had no less last year, with Prince Valien in charge of the Ardentian prisoners..."

No Ardentians, as far as I could see, lay among the dead. I was not surprised.

Lurielle did not have to reprimand us. Our punishment was writ all over the dead bodies, the terrified final moments etched on their faces. The gods know how to exact their justice. Lurielle closed her eyes and suppressed a sob.

"Are your friends here?" I asked softly. It was cruel of me to demand such identification, but I knew she would search of her own volition, sooner or later, and I wanted to spare her the sight as soon as possible. Like with family on a battlefield, she would not rest until she found them. Only on a battlefield, men died with purpose.

Her eyes scanned the dozen corpses, and at last she shook her head. Little did the relief show, however.

"Why would they do this?" Gilnay breathed. "It's against all the laws of war."

"There are no laws in war," I said. And yet this was wrong, somehow more wrong than running an enemy soldier through with a sword, or burning a castle. Heinous, I thought, staring down at the lifeless forms.

As heinous as rape.

"Changes of rule," Lurielle said, and we both turned. "So many battles, so many wars. Every war brings its prisoners, every battle. Too many prisoners to feed."

Gilnay was nodding. "More prisoners than soldiers, I don't doubt. The bad harvest, the draught. Nirio can't feed them all, so he executes and burns them. Bloody bastard of a Castalsaran..."

"The previous rulers all did the same," I said, though it did little to justify anyone. "To the extent of... this," I swept a disgusted hand over the carnage, "I don't know, but Castalsara is a Principality rooted in war and blood, ever since it was formed."

Gilnay wrinkled his nose. "This is not war. It's cowardice."

"And now my friends will have the same," said Lurielle. "They might be marching them out right now."

I did not quite know what to say. I was a loner, a courier tormented by his past with little social experience beyond that of servitude. What I did have was a practical mind, and I set it to work on what I knew.

Gilnay had knelt and produced his lyre. In the slow strumming—voiceless, by his mercy—I recognized the Ode of Farewell, slightly different as played in Ilisardin. Blood-splashed as the two of us were, a passer-by would have found it difficult to tell us apart from the fallen. Everywhere ghosts, come again to lament their comrades.

When Gilnay had finished, I placed a hand on his shoulder. "Gilnay," I said, "you said you forged papers." The minstrel nodded. "Do you have any scrolls here?" Again he nodded, and I brought a finger to my lips in thought. How to do this right...?

"What do you need scrolls for?" Gilnay asked of my brooding silence. "I hardly have enough to write letters to all their families."

"Your scrolls," I said. I pulled the bronze amulet from under my tunic, "my courier sigil." And the one missing, essential piece. I took Lurielle's hand in mine; she gazed at me with teary eyes, puzzled, then at her hand which I held up. "And the Principal Signet," I concluded, running a thumb over the heavy golden ring.

Gilnay quirked an eyebrow. "The signet of Alanzio. A Prince's letter?" he ventured.

"Indeed. From Prince Angilo of Alanzio, to be precise. A Prince's enquiry, a demand for a favor. Or so they'll think. You write it, Lurielle seals it, I deliver it. Nirio will never know the difference—until it's too late, that is."

Lurielle was on her feet, the candle of hope rekindled. "A letter? Saying what?"

"Whatever you want," I said, shrugging, "within the bounds of reason, of course. I doubt Prince Nirio would surrender Castalsara to your father on written request. Now, should you decide to relieve him of the costly prisoners..."

My sentence was cut off by Lurielle's pouncing embrace. She flung her arms around me with a string of hushed thank-you's, and I must say I did feel rather wonderful. The army taught me to fend for myself, survive alone in a take-all-and-leave-nothing attitude, and it had always worked. But today, at least, I was glad for the difference. Gilnay gave a huff, perhaps in tired envy, and placed the lyre back into the bag.

At the clearing's edge, the remaining guard sat on his haunches, waiting for death.

I could see it in his eyes when he looked up at me as I strode to stand before him. What other fate did he expect? What did he deserve? Beside him, dropped by one of his comrades most likely, was a glass bottle. I picked it up, uncorked it, and sniffed the contents. The wine's pungent aroma was unmistakable.

"What do we do with him?" Gilnay asked, coming to stand beside me. "He'll blow the whistle on us as soon as he reaches the Castle."

The phrase was, to the guardsman at least, quite directly a death sentence. Gilnay was right, of course. One word from the guard and we'd be marching to execution in some remote vineyard alley, to feed another spring bonfire. I slid the dagger from my sheath.

So young, I thought. Barely older than Lurielle, with the failing hints of a beard dotting the hunger-hollowed cheeks, and teeth red from wine's taste. I did not see a murderer in this man. Dignity, rather, composed and ready to accept fate as the gods delivered it to him. That was something I had learned to respect, in war. Then again, this was not war.

Lurielle's breath caught in her throat as I placed the dagger's crusted tip against the man's nape. I regarded her, the charred bones and the unburied bodies behind her.

What did this man deserve? To die for his sins? Or live with them? If this man did not feel the shame, I believed he eventually would. I left the justice to the gods. They are far more experienced than me, after all, in delivering it.

With one hard swing I shattered the wine bottle on his head, knocking him out cold. He toppled over with the glass fragments, drenched in the red gold of Castalsara.

Living with the shame is a lot worse.

We left everything as it was, for we had little time. That one guardsman we left alive. Would my decision have been any different, had it been a Lavoniese soldier on his knees? Perhaps. It was enough to know that from then on, every night, when I'd wake in cold sweats from my dreams, someone else's ghosts were somewhere more terrifying than mine. I felt them already.

I shivered.

For now the guardsman slept, and I wondered if the ghosts had already begun to haunt him. His blood mingled with the wine—a drink for gods and men alike—and seeped back into the soil to quench the vineyards of Castalsara.

Illustration derived from two Creative Commons-licensed photographs: ‘Sunrise over the Vinyard’, (cc) 2006 by Whinging Pom; ‘Devil Rider’, (cc) 2005 by Happy Dave. This image is CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Attribution, Non-commercial, Share-alike) in compliance with the original licensed images.

© 2007 William J. Piovano

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