Early omens were less than good. The army crossed the Venien River, which flowed into the Niffet, not far from where the Gradi had come down in their galleys and beaten the Trokmoi. Though the woodsrunners had burned the bodies of their comrades who had fallen, they still muttered among themselves as they passed the battlefield.
On the west side of the river-land that had been still in Elabonian hands, not under Adiatunnus’ control-the hair prickled up on Gerin’s arms for no reason he could see or feel. He kept quiet about it, doubting his own judgment, but after a while Van said, “The air feels-uncanny.”
“That’s it!” Gerin exclaimed, so vehemently that Duren started and the horses snorted indignantly. “Aye, that’s it. Feels like the air in the old haunted woods around Ikos.”
“So it does.” Van frowned. “We’ve been out this way a time or two, and it never did before. What’s toward, Fox? Your usual Elabonian gods, they don’t make a habit of letting folk know they’re around like this.”
“You’re right; they don’t, and they certainly never have around here-you’re right about that, too.” Gerin scowled. What followed from his words did so as logically as the steps in a geometric proof from Sithonia. “I don’t think we’re feeling the power of Elabonian gods.”
“Whose, then?” Van glanced around to make sure no Trokmoi could overhear him. “The woodsrunners’ gods are too busy brawling amongst themselves to pay much heed to impressing people.”
“I know,” Gerin said. “Folk get the gods they deserve, don’t they? So who’s left? Not us, not the Trokmoi, not…” He let that hang in the air.
Van had been many places in his travels, but never to Sithonia. Yet he needed to be no logician to see what Gerin meant. “The Gradi,” he said, his voice as sour as week-old milk.
“Can’t think of anyone else it could be,” the Fox said unhappily. He waved, trying to put into words what he felt. “We’re heading toward high summer now, but doesn’t the air taste more the way it would at the start of spring, when winter’s just loosed its grip? And the sun.” He pointed up to it. “The light’s… watery somehow. It shouldn’t be, not at this season of the year.”
“That it shouldn’t,” Van said. “I’ve lived here long enough to know you’re right as can be, Captain.” He shook his fist toward the west, toward the Orynian Ocean. “Those cursed Gradi gods are settling in here, making themselves at home, growing like toadstools after a rain.”
“My thought exactly,” Gerin said. “Voldar and the rest of them, they must be strong to do… whatever they’re doing. Dyaus and the Elabonian pantheon, they wouldn’t interfere with the sun.” He didn’t say,
He didn’t know the full range of Voldar’s power, either, or the powers of the other Gradi gods and goddesses. He had the ominous feeling he was going to find out. This would have been a fine mild day, had it come a little before the vernal equinox. Drawing near the summer solstice, though…
Over his shoulder, Duren said, “I wish we could find out what the weather’s like back on the east side of the Venien. That would tell us more about whether what we’re worrying about is real or we’re shying at shadows.”
Gerin smiled. “There are times when I wish I could send Dagref down to the City of Elabon to learn all the things he can’t learn here in the northlands. Maybe you should go, too, for that’s reasoned like a scholar.”
“Aye, so it is,” Van rumbled, “but there’s more going on here than scholarship or whatever you call it. It’s not just the weather, lad. It’s what I feel in the hair on the nape of my neck, and I’m not talking about lice.” He set a hand on the flared neckpiece of his helmet.
“What do we do about it?” Duren said, yielding the point.
“Fight it,” Van declared. As usual, the world looked simple to him.
Gerin wished the world looked simple to him, too. Here, though, he saw no better answer than the one his friend had proposed.
* * *
By the time they camped, that first night west of the Venien, the Trokmoi were all edgy, looking over their shoulders and muttering to themselves over anything or nothing. The presence of the more stolid Elabonians seemed to steady them, as Gerin-and Adiatunnus-had hoped it would.
They were still in land under Gerin’s suzerainty, but not land where his control was as firm as it was closer to Fox Keep. The serfs hereabouts had not seen enough of him and his armies to have any confidence in their goodwill. They probably had seen enough of Trokm- raiders to have no confidence in them whatever. At first sight of a large force heading their way, they fled into the woods.
The warriors took-even Gerin did not like to think of it as stealing-enough chickens and sheep to sacrifice to keep the night ghosts quiet. Other than that, they did not harm the villages or the fields around them. They built great bonfires not only to hold the ghosts at bay but also to give themselves warning if the Gradi were close enough to dare a night attack.
To reduce the risk of that as much as he could, Gerin set scouts out all around the campsite, each small group with a fowl to offer so the ghosts would not trouble them in spite of their being away from the fires. Adiatunnus watched that with interest and attention; the Fox got the idea the Trokm- was storing the notion to use against him one of these years.
Swift-moving Tiwaz had come round close to first quarter. Math was almost full, while Nothos, though four days past, still had only a bit of his eastern edge abraded by darkness. Out where the light of the bonfires grew dim, men had three separate shadows, each pointing in a different direction.
Except to go out to stand sentry or to answer calls of nature, though, few men, either Elabonians or Trokmoi, strayed far from the fireside. The warriors either rolled up in their blankets or sat around talking, often with folk not of their own kin. Most of them understood and could speak at least some of the language of their hereditary foes, and most relished the chance to swap tales with the men they usually met with weapons, not words.
Drungo Drago’s son turned to Van and said, “Give us a tale, why don’t you?”
Instantly, all the Elabonians began clamoring for a tale from the outlander, too. He’d seen and done things none of them, Gerin included, could match, and he told a good story, too. Seeing how enthusiastic the Elabonians were to hear him, the Trokmoi started shouting, too.
“Well, all right,” Van said at last. “I thought I’d sooner sleep, and I thought a lot of you would sooner sleep, too, but who knows? Maybe I’ll put you to sleep and then get some myself. You’d like that, hey?”
Somebody threw a hard-baked biscuit at him. He caught it out of the air and went on without missing a beat: “Well, I’ve yarned a good deal about creatures of one kind or another I’ve seen, and those tales haven’t had too many people flinging their suppers my way, so maybe I’ll give you one of them just to stay safe. How does that sound?”
No one said no. Several warriors said yes, loudly and enthusiastically. Van nodded. “All right, then,” he said. “South and east of the City of Elabon, way south of the High Kirs, the coast of the Bay of Parvela runs southeast between Kizzuwatna, which is far away from here and hot as you please, to Mabalal, which is even farther, even hotter, and muggy to boot.” He looked around. The night, like the day, was cooler than it should have been. “Feels good to think about something hot right now, doesn’t it?”
His listeners nodded. Gerin wished he could put into a jar whatever his friend used to draw an audience into a story. Even if it wasn’t sorcery, it was magic of a sort.
Van went on, “Some of you, now, some of you may have heard I had to get out of Mabalal in a kind of a hurry once upon a time.” He got more nods, from a few of the Trokmoi and a lot of the Elabonians. He grinned; his teeth flashed white in the firelight. “By the gods, some of you have heard a whole raft of different reasons why I had to get out of Mabalal in a hurry. Now does that mean I get into a pack of trouble or I tell a pack of lies?”
“Both, most likely,” Drungo said. He wasn’t a match for Van in size or strength or speed, but he was a large, strong man, and confident of his prowess. Even so, he made sure he was grinning, too.
The outlander, busy shaping his story, didn’t take it for a challenge, as he might have in his younger days. He just said, “Well, I was there, and I’m the only one here who was, so nobody’ll prove anything on me, and that’s a fact. Anyway, there I was, sailing away from Mabalal up toward Kizzuwatna, getting away from whatever I was getting away from, and we put in at this miserable little port called Sirte.
“There’s only two reasons anybody would ever put in at Sirte. One is, you can fill your waterskins there. The water you get is harsh, and it can give you a flux of the bowels if you’re not used to it, but the spring never fails. And the other is that, a ways inland, there’s a grove of myrrh trees in a valley that some more springs water. If you can get the myrrh, which is a sticky resin that grows on the trees, you’ll sell it for a goodly price.”
“It’s one of the incenses they burn at Ikos, isn’t it?” Gerin put in.
“That it is, Fox.” Van nodded. “When we got to Sirte, maybe half of dozen of us-ne’er-do-wells every one, you’d say-we decided to see if we couldn’t get hold of some of this myrrh for our own selves, and strike out inland to see what we could do with it. I don’t know about the others, but me, I was sick of being cooped up on a ship.
“The folk at Sirte spoke some of the language of Mabalal, and so did we. When they got the drift of what we wanted to do, they told us to watch out for snakes on the way to the myrrh trees. We’d just come out of Mabalal, now, so we thought we knew something of snakes-I’ve told stories about the serpents there, I expect.”
“I liked the yarn about the snake with the stone in its head that was supposed to make you turn invisible, but didn’t,” Parol Chickpea said.
“For which I do thank you, friend,” Van said. “Aye, we thought we knew something of snakes, that we did, so when the folk of Sirte warned us of the kinds they had out there in their desert-the chersidos and the cenchris and the seps and the prester and the dipsas and the scytale and I don’t know what all other sorts they named-we just nodded our heads and said `Yes, yes’ when they told us about the different kinds of venom the serpents had. We figured they were spinning tales to frighten us and make us stay away from the myrrh.”
The outlander shook his head. The firelight deepened the lines that carved his face and exaggerated his expression of rue. “Only goes to show what we knew, or rather, what we didn’t. We bought waterskins and filled ’em and trudged out into the desert toward the myrrh trees, which were about a day and a half’s travel inland from Sirte. The local folk shook their heads watching us go, as if they didn’t expect to see us ever again, which, truth to tell, they probably didn’t. To this day, if they remember us, they probably think we all perished in the desert. Lucky we are that we didn’t-or some of us didn’t, too.”
“I suppose the people of Sirte went back and forth to the myrrh trees every so often,” Gerin said. “If they looked for the snakes to get you, wouldn’t they have expected to find your bodies along whatever trail there was?”
“That’s a good question, Captain, and before I trod that trail I would have thought the same thing,” Van said, “that is, if I’d believed them about the snakes, which I can’t say I did. Like I told you, my notion was that they were just trying to scare us and keep us from going after the myrrh. I mean… well, hear me out and you’ll see.
“We’d been walking along for a bit when all of a sudden something reared up out of the sand and gravel and hit me a lick right here.” The outlander tapped his left greave, not far below the knee. “If I hadn’t been wearing it, there’s an awful lot of stories I wouldn’t have told since, and that’s the truth.
“I took a whack at the snake with my sword, and off flew its head. But we’d stirred up more than one, it turned out. Maybe the second was mate to the first. I won’t ever know that. I killed it, too, but not till after it bit one of my friends.
“It wasn’t a very big snake, and we hoped it wasn’t any of the kinds the locals had warned us about, but it turned out to be a seps, and oh” — Van covered his eyes with a hand- “how I wish it hadn’t been.”
“How do you know it was, if it was only a little snake you killed?” someone asked.
“By the action of the venom,” Van answered. “The seps bit my friend-well, actually, he was a robber and a thief, but we were traveling together-just above the ankle. Half an hour later, the gods beshrew me if I lie, there was nothing left of him but a little puddle of greenish fluid.”
“What?” that same somebody exclaimed. “A snakebite doesn’t do that.”
“I thought the same thing,” Van said, “but I was wrong. The natives at Sirte had told us the seps’ venom made you disappear, and they knew what they were talking about. The fellow’s flesh got clear around the bite, so you could see the bone through it, and then it just melted away, and the bone with it.” He shuddered dramatically. “I never saw a man dissolve before and, if the gods are kind, I’ll never see it again. How he screamed as he watched himself vanish-till he couldn’t scream any more, of course. The rest of us, we pushed on in a hurry, let me tell you, and by the time we got out of there, like I say, he was nothing more than a little, stinking puddle the hot sun was already drying up.
“You can’t blame us for not sticking around the spot where anything that horrible happened, but running away so fast turned out to be a mistake, too, for we didn’t watch where we were putting our feet as carefully as we should have, and one of us stepped right on a prester.
“The thing looked like the vipers they have here, more or less, but when it came writhing out of the sand, it was the color of melted copper. It sank its teeth into poor Nasid-that was his name; it comes back to me even after all these years-then dove back into the sandbank and disappeared before anybody could do anything to it.
“And poor Nasid! Instead of melting, he started to swell, like rising bread dough but a hundred times as fast. His skin turned as fiery red as the prester’s. He looked like there was a storm inside him, puffing him out every which way at once.
“Here’s how fast he blew out: he was wearing trousers and a tunic with buttons, almost Trokm-style, and the buttons flew right off the tunic, so hard that the one that hit me gave me this little scar over my eye, right here.” The outlander pointed to a mark on his much-battered hide.
Gerin admired that touch. If Van’s stories weren’t true, they should have been, for he adorned them with a wealth of circumstantial detail. “What happened then?” the Fox asked.
“What do you mean?” Van returned. “To Nasid? He exploded, and there was no more left of him than of the other poor devil. To the rest of us? We ran. We probably should have run back to Sirte, but we went on toward the myrrh instead, and actually got to it with nobody else dying on the way. Then we headed up toward the Shanda country, but my other three friends-friends? ha! — tried to kill me for my share of the myrrh, and I left them as dead as anybody a snake bit.”
“And what would the moral o’ the tale be?” Adiatunnus asked. “A fine one it is, but it should have a moral.”
“You want a moral, eh?” Van said. “I’ll give you one. What this story shows is, some things are more trouble than they’re worth.”
The Trokm- chieftain laughed and nodded. “It does that. And a truth worth remembering it is, too.” He glanced up at the moons. “And if you’d gone on much longer, the story’d have been more trouble nor it was worth, with us having to get up in the morning and all. But you didna, for which I thank you.” He laid a blanket on the ground and wrapped himself in it.
Gerin couldn’t resist a parting shot: “Even if you do get up in the morning, will you be moving before afternoon?” Adiatunnus made a point of ignoring him. Chuckling, the Fox also swaddled himself in a blanket and was soon asleep.
* * *
Maybe sleeping in the open was what the Trokmoi needed. Maybe they were starting to remember what being on campaign was all about. Whatever the reason, they moved reasonably fast when the sun came up the next morning. Gerin had been looking forward to screaming at them to hurry. Disappointed, he gnawed dry sausage and made sure he was ready to get going so they couldn’t twit him.
The farther west they traveled, the more heavily the unnatural coolth lay on the land. Gerin eyed the fields with curiosity and concern mixed. “They’ll not have much of a crop this year,” he observed.
“Aye, the wheat’s well behind where it ought to be,” Van agreed. “They look like they had to plant late to start with, and they won’t make up for lost time, not with weather like this they won’t.” His shiver held only a little exaggeration for dramatic effect.
“Pity you couldn’t have brought one of those prester snakes along with you from Sirte-is that the name of the place?” Gerin said. Van nodded. The Fox went on, “Sounds like just what we’d need to heat up… a certain goddess I’d be better off not naming.”
Van chuckled and nodded. “Aye, a prester would heat her up if anything would. The thing of it is, would anything?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Gerin answered. “If we beat the Gradi and drive them away, it doesn’t matter, anyhow. Without men and women to worship her, that goddess won’t gain a foothold here.”
He didn’t know whether not naming Voldar would do any good. But he’d been of the opinion that Adiatunnus knew more about the Gradi than he did, and the Trokm- chief had given him no reason to change his mind. If Adiatunnus thought saying Voldar’s name would draw her notice, the Fox was willing to refrain.
He wished, though, that he could draw the notice of the local barons by speaking their names. Many of them seemed to have abandoned their keeps, though the Gradi didn’t seem to be garrisoning those keeps, either. Some of the serf villages looked deserted, too. Again, Gerin saw the delicate fabric of civilization tearing.
He sent scouts out farther ahead and to either side than he was used to doing. He also maintained a substantial rearguard: the Gradi, with their ability to travel down rivers, were liable to try to set troops behind him and pin him between two forces. He would have thought about doing that had he been in their place, anyhow.
As his army advanced through country that lay ever deeper in the frigid embrace of the Gradi gods, he wished he could come to grips with the Gradi themselves. He began to worry when he encountered none of them, and started complaining shortly thereafter.
When he did, Van fixed him with a gaze that might have belonged on a battlefield itself and said, “We’ll come across them soon enough, and when we do, you’ll be wishing just as loud you’d never set eyes on them.” Since that was undoubtedly true, the Fox maintained what he thought was a prudent silence. Van’s snicker said it might have been less prudent than he’d hoped.
And then, a couple of days later, the army did come upon a troop of Gradi; the invaders were happily plundering a peasant village. They’d killed a couple of men, and a line of them were having sport with a woman they’d caught. They seemed utterly astonished to find foes so far into territory they obviously thought of as theirs. As some of them were literally caught with their breeches down, they put up a fight less ferocious than they might have otherwise, and several made no effort to slay themselves rather than submitting to capture.
Gerin ordered the men who’d been holding down the peasant woman and the one who’d been on top of her bound and handed over to the surviving serfs. “Do as you like with them,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll think of something interesting.”
The peasants’ eyes glowed. “Let’s get a fire going,” one of them said.
“Aye, and we’ll boil some water over it,” another added enthusiastically.
“Will we want sharp knives-or dull ones?” somebody asked.
“Both,” said the woman who’d been raped. “I claim first cut, and I know just where I’m going to make it, too.” She stared at the crotch of one of the Gradi with an interest anything but lewd. Gerin couldn’t tell whether any of the bound Gradi understood Elabonian. They might not know what was in store for them. He shrugged. If they didn’t, they’d find out soon enough.
One of the other northerners did speak the language of the land they’d invaded. “I not tell you anything,” he said when Gerin started to question him.
“Fine,” the Fox said. He turned to the warriors holding the captives. “Take him where he can watch the serfs at work. If he doesn’t come back talkier after that, we’ll give him to them, too.”
“Come on, you,” one of the Elabonians said. They frogmarched the Gradi away. Before long, the Fox heard hoarse screams rising up from inside the village. When the guards brought the Gradi back, his face was paler than it had been. The guards looked grim, too.
“Hello again,” Gerin said briskly. He looked thoughtful, a look he’d had occasion to practice over the years. “Do you suppose your goddess would be interested in keeping you around for the afterlife if you end up dead with some interesting parts missing? Do you suppose you’d enjoy the afterlife as much if you didn’t have them? Do you want to find out the answers to those questions right away?”
The Gradi licked his lips. He didn’t answer right away; maybe he was taking stock of his own spirit. Dying in battle, even slaying yourself to avoid capture, seemed easy if you measured them against mutilation that would be long agony in this world and might ruin you for the next.
Gerin smiled. “Are you more in the mood to talk now than you were a little while ago? For your sake, you’d better be.”
“How I know I talk, then you do things to me anyway?” the Gradi asked.
“How do you know you can trust me, you mean? That’s simple-you don’t. Nothing complicated there, eh? But I tell you now that I won’t do all those interesting things to you if you do talk. You can believe me or not, as you choose.”
The Gradi sighed. “I talk. What you want?”
“For starters, tell me your name,” Gerin said.
“I am Eistr.”
“Eistr.” Gerin found a stick and wrote the name in Elabonian characters in the soft ground at his feet. “Now that I know it and have captured it here, I can work magic against it-and against you-if I find out you lie.”
Eistr looked appalled. Gerin had hoped he would. Nothing the Fox had seen made him think the Gradi knew the use of writing. Literacy was thin enough among Elabonians, and almost nonexistent among the Trokmoi, who, when they did write, used the characters of their southern neighbors. Ignorance added to Eistr’s fear. And the truth was that Gerin, if sufficiently ired, might even have been able to use name magic against him, though it wasn’t anything the Fox really wanted to try.
“You ask. I tell,” the Gradi said. “I tell true, swear by Voldar’s breasts.”
Gerin had no idea how strong an oath that was, but decided not to press it. He said, “Where did your band come from? How many more of you are back there?”
Eistr pointed back toward the west. “Is keep, two days’ walk from here. Is by a river. We have maybe ten tens when I there. Is maybe more now. Is maybe not more, too.”
The Fox thought that over. It struck him as a likely way to get his army to walk into a trap without leaving Eistr forsworn. Gerin said, “Why don’t you know how many men of yours are likely to be in this keep now?”
“We use for-how you say? — for middle place. Some go out to fight, some come in to fight, some stay to mind thralls,” Eistr said. “Is now many, is now not.”
“Ah.” That did make a certain amount of sense. “Is your band supposed to be back at this base at any set time, or do you come and go as you please?”
“As we please. We are Gradi. We are free. The goddess Voldar rules us, no man.” Pride rang in Eistr’s voice.
“You may be surprised,” the Fox said dryly. Eistr’s cold, gray eyes stared at him without comprehension. Gerin turned to the guards. “Take him away. We’ll find out what some of the others can tell us.”
He got pretty much the same story from the rest of the Gradi who spoke Elabonian. Then he had to figure out what to do with them. Killing them out of hand would have meant having the same thing happen to any of his men the Gradi captured. Holding them prisoner would have made him detach men from his own force to guard them, which he didn’t think he could afford to do. In the end, he decided to strip them naked and turn them loose.
“But these thralls, they catch us, they kill us,” Eistr protested, he being the most articulate of the Gradi. He glanced nervously toward the peasant village.
“You know, maybe you should have thought about that before you started robbing and raping and killing them,” Gerin said.
“Voldar isn’t the only goddess-or god-in this land, and people here have more sway on their own than you’re used to,” the Fox said. As if to add emphasis to his words, another scream came from one of the raiders he’d given over to the serfs. He blinked in surprise; he’d thought those Gradi surely dead by now. The peasants had more patience and ingenuity than he’d given them credit for. He finished, “Now you’re going to find out what it’s like being rabbits instead of wolves. If you live, you’ll learn something from it.”
“And if you don’t live, you’ll learn summat from that, too,” Van added with ghoulish glee.
When ordered to strip bare, one of the captured Gradi, though weaponless, threw himself at Elabonians and Trokmoi and fought so fiercely, he made them kill him. The rest looked much less fearsome without jerkins and helms and heavy leather boots. They ran for the woods, white buttocks flashing in the sun.
“They have no tools for making fire,” Gerin observed, “nor weapons to hunt beasts for sacrifices to the night ghosts. They’ll have a thin time of it when the sun goes down.” He smiled unpleasantly. “Good.”
He gave the helms and shields and axes he’d taken from the Gradi to the men of the peasant village. He didn’t know how much good they would do folk untrained to war, but was certain they couldn’t hurt. Some of the villagers were still busy with the captive Gradi. He did his best not to look at what was left of the arrogant raiders.
He did say, “When you’re done there, find someplace to be rid of the bodies so the Gradi never find them. For that matter, if you get word we’ve lost, you probably ought to think about running for your lives.”
“You won’t lose, lord prince,” one of the serfs exclaimed. “You
Gerin wished he shared the fellow’s touching optimism.
* * *
The Fox pushed the pace as his force of chariotry approached the keep the Gradi were holding. He didn’t want any of the men he’d released deciding to act heroic and getting there ahead of his warriors to warn the garrison. Taking a keep was hard enough without having the foe alerted in advance.
One thing: the Gradi seemed to have no idea he and his troopers were anywhere nearby. To make sure they didn’t, on his approach he sent out dismounted scouts, who, if they were seen, were likely to be taken for either Gradi or for Elabonian peasants. The scouts came back with word that, sure enough, the Gradi did hold the keep, but that they had the drawbridge down and were keeping no watch worth mentioning.
“Why don’t we just march up on foot and tramp right in, then?” the Fox said. “With luck, they won’t notice we aren’t who we’re supposed to be till it’s too late to raise the drawbridge against us.”
“What, and leave the cars behind?” Adiatunnus demanded.
“We can’t fight with them inside the keep anyhow, can we?” Gerin said. The Trokm- chieftain scratched his head, then shrugged, plainly not having looked at it that way. Gerin said, “They’ve got us here faster than we could have come on foot, and we’re not worn out from walking, either. They’ve served their purpose, but you can’t use the same tool for every job.”
“Ah, well,” Adiatunnus said. “I told you I’d follow against the Gradi where you led, and if you’ll be after leading with the feet of you, I’ll walk in your footsteps, that I will.” His eyes, though, said something more like,
That was the chance you took in any battle, though: if you lost, you got the blame, assuming you lived. Actually, you could get the blame if you died, too, but then you had other things to worry about.
The Fox told off approximately equal numbers of Elabonians and Trokmoi to stay behind with the horses. As for the rest, he put those who in looks and equipment most closely resembled the Gradi at the head of the column, to confuse the warriors in the keep for as long as he could. Being dark haired himself, with gear of the plainest, he marched along at the fore.
Van, who with his blond hair and fancy cuirass resembled almost anything in the world more than a Gradi, was relegated to the rear, to his loud disgust. He complained so long and so bitterly, Gerin finally snapped, “I’m getting better obedience out of the Trokmoi than I am from you.”
“Oh, I’ll do it, Fox,” the outlander said with a mournful sigh, “but you can drop me into the hottest of your five hells if you think you’ll make me like it.”
“So long as it gets done,” Gerin said. He wished he’d been able to find an excuse to hold Duren back at the rear. If both of them fell, all his hopes would fall, too-not, again, that he’d be in a position to do anything about it.
He led the column of warriors on a looping track to bring them up to the keep from the south, figuring the Gradi were less likely to take alarm if he and his men didn’t come into view from straight out of the east. “We’ll get as close to the keep as we can,” he said, “and then charge home. If enough of us can get inside, they’ll be very unhappy.”
“And if not enough can,” somebody-he didn’t see who-said, “we will.” Since that was undoubtedly true, he wasted no time arguing about it.
His first view of the keep confirmed the scouts’ reports and his own hopes. The Gradi had only a handful of men up on the walls. Several more were passing time outside, a couple going at each other with axe and shield, three or four more standing around watching.
When the Gradi caught sight of the oncoming column, the first thing they did was raise a loud, wordless cheer. “Yell back!” the Fox hissed to his own men, who did. A shout was a shout in any language.
One of the Gradi perfecting his axework was the first to notice that Gerin and his followers were not what they appeared to be. By then, though, they were less than a hundred yards from the drawbridge. The sharp-eyed Gradi let out a shout that, though still without words, was of altogether different tone from those his countrymen had been exchanging with Gerin’s masquerading warriors. He rushed at the Elabonians and Trokmoi, the sun glinting off the bronze head of his axe.
Several archers shot him. He fell before he got close to the attackers. “Run!” Gerin shouted, giving up the pretense. “We seize the gateway, we get inside, and we clean them out.”
Yelling for all they were worth, his men and Adiatunnus’ dashed for the drawbridge. The Fox wasn’t the first man onto it-some of the young bravos ran faster-but he wasn’t far behind. He wondered if the Gradi were going to raise it with warriors on it and inside the keep.
They didn’t, as they hadn’t tried raising it before their enemies reached it. When he stormed into the keep, Gerin realized the raiders from the north hadn’t kept any sort of gate crew on the winches that would have moved the bridge up or down. Maybe they hadn’t seen the need. Maybe castles in their own cold homeland had gates that worked differently. Whatever the reason, they made his work easier for him.
As soon as he and his men got inside the keep’s outer wall, the fight was as good as won. The Gradi would have done better to throw down their axes and beg for mercy. Not all of them even had axes, or helms, or leather jerkins. They’d been expecting no attack. Had they yielded, they would have lived.
With few exceptions, they would not yield. Instead, they hurled themselves at the Elabonians and Trokmoi with loud cries of “Voldar!” As had a couple of their warriors back at the peasant village, many of them, armed with nothing more than belt knives and stools and whatever they could snatch up, fought so fiercely, they made their foes slay them.
And they slew their foes, too. Outnumbered, outmatched, they still did a lot of damage. One of them, swinging a bench from the great hall, leveled a whole row of Elabonians, as if he were scything down wheat. A couple of the warriors who went down didn’t get up again, either: he’d managed to split their skulls.
His next flailing swipe with the bench almost took Gerin out with it. The Fox had to skip back in a hurry to keep from getting his ribs stove in. But a bench was an unhandy thing with which to make a backhand stroke. Gerin stepped forward, thrust his sword into the Gradi’s belly, twisted to make sure the stroke killed, and jerked the blade free. The Gradi toppled, clutching himself and howling.
Adiatunnus shouted in his own language: “Into the castle, now! We’ll not be letting ’em use it for refuge against us!”
Had the Gradi thought to do that, they might have given Gerin’s army a hard fight. Many of them tried to get into the great hall to lay hold of their weapons and then return to the fight out in the courtyard. When Elabonians and Trokmoi got in with them, the chance of using the castle as a citadel disappeared.
And when the fighting raged in the great hall as well as outside, the servants in the kitchen-Elabonians all-joined Gerin’s warriors, throwing themselves at the Gradi with kitchen knives and cleavers and spits and two-tined serving forks. They had no armor, they had no skill at fighting, some of them were women, but they had hatred and to spare. In the tight quarters, in the chaos, that let them bring down more than one of the men who had oppressed them, though more of their number fell making the effort.
After the great hall of the castle was forced, the battle became a hunt for any Gradi who still lived. The tall, pale, dark-haired men would find shelter and then spring out, selling their lives dear as they could. Before the sun went down, almost all of them were dead.
The castle servants helped there. They knew every hiding place in the keep, and led Gerin’s men to them one by one. The Gradi, deprived of surprise, wreaked a smaller toll than they might have otherwise.
“We won,” Adiatunnus said, looking around at the carnage with dazed, almost disbelieving eyes. “Who’d have thought we could lay into those omadhauns and beat ’em, the way they’ve pounded us like drums?”
“They’re only men,” Gerin said. From inside the castle, screams rose. The kitchen servants were having their revenge on some of the Gradi who yet lived. The air was thick with the smell of roasting meat. Gerin decided he didn’t want to know what sort of meat was being roasted.
He went to do what he could to help the wounded, sewing up gashes and setting broken bones. A physician down in the City of Elabon would no doubt have laughed at his efforts. Here in the northlands, he came as close to being a physician as anyone, and closer than most.
A skinny young woman came up to him with bread and beef ribs and ale. He took some, but said, “Here, you eat the rest. You look as if you need it more than I do.” The very idea of a scrawny kitchen helper struck him as strange.
So did the amazed way the woman stared. She started to cry. “The Gradi, they’d beat us or worse if we ate of what we made for them.” She didn’t talk for a while after that, instead cramming her mouth full of bread and beef. Then she asked, “Do you want me? I don’t have anything else I can give you for setting us free.”
“No, that’s all right,” Gerin answered. The young woman-young enough, easily, to be his daughter-didn’t look as if it was all right. She looked as if she wanted to punch him in the eye.
He was about to send a runner to order the chariots up to spend the night with the rest of the army when they came up without orders, a driver sometimes leading another team or two behind the car in which he stood. “Figured we wouldn’t break surprise now, and you might be able to use us,” said Utreiz Embron’s son, the warrior he’d left in charge of the chariotry.
“Nicely reasoned,” Gerin said with an approving nod. He’d thought well of Utreiz for years. The man thought straight and kept his eyes on what was important all the time. He was no swashbuckler, but he got the job done, and done well. He was, in fact, rather like a small-scale model of the Fox.
“I expected you’d have things well in hand,” he said now. “If they’d gone wrong, you’d have been yelling for us a long time ago.”
“That’s likely so,” Gerin agreed. He went on in a thoughtful tone of voice: “You know, Utreiz, this land is going to need reordering if we ever drive the Gradi out of it. I think you’d be a good man to install as a vassal baron.”
“Thank you, lord prince,” Utreiz said. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope you’d tell me something like that.” Gerin wondered if he ought to be annoyed Utreiz had anticipated him. He shook his head: no, not when he’d thought for years that the fellow’s mind worked like his.
He looked around to make sure his men up on the wall of the captured keep were more alert than the Gradi had been. He didn’t know how close their next large band was, and didn’t want to throw away the victory he’d won over them.
The harried Elabonian servitors at the keep assumed the Fox would want to sleep in the room the Gradi commander had used, and led him up to it when he said he was tired. One whiff inside convinced him he didn’t want to do that. Even by the loose standards of the Elabonian northlands, the Gradi were not outstandingly clean of person. He wondered whether that came from living in such a cold climate.
No matter where it came from, it made him go on down into the great hall and roll himself in a blanket there with his men. The racket in the hall was still loud, as warriors drank and refought the battle over and over again. The Fox didn’t care. After he’d learned to fall asleep with newborn infants in the same room, nothing his men could do fazed him.
* * *
He was not a man who dreamed much or often remembered the dreams he had. When he found himself walking along a snowy path through a white-draped forest of pines, he thought at first he was awake. Then he realized he wasn’t cold and decided it had to be a dream, even though he hardly ever remembered having such a clear one. When he understood he was dreaming, he expected to wake up at once, as often happens when a dream is seen for what it is.
But he stayed asleep and kept walking down the path. He tried to force himself awake, but discovered he couldn’t. Fear trickled through him then. Once, years before, the Trokm- wizard Balamung had seized his spirit and made it see what the wizard would have it see. He hadn’t been able to fight his way from that dream till Balamung released him. Now-
Now, suddenly, the pines gave way. The path opened out into a snow-covered clearing dazzlingly white even under a leaden sky. And in the middle of that clearing stood a comely naked woman with long dark hair, twice as tall as the Fox, who held in her right hand an axe of Gradi style.
“Voldar,” Gerin whispered. In the silence of his mind, he thanked his own gods that the Gradi goddess had chosen to meet him in a dream rather than manifesting herself in the material world. He was in enough danger here in this place that was not a true place.
She looked at him-through him-with eyes pale as ice, eyes in which cold fire flickered. And he, abruptly,
“The northlands are my land, the land of my people, the land of my gods,” he answered, bold as he dared. “Of course what happens here concerns me.”
That divinely chilling gaze pierced him again. Voldar tossed her head in fine contempt. Her hair whipped out behind her, flying back as if in a breeze-but there was no breeze, or none Gerin could sense. In face and form, the Gradi goddess was stunningly beautiful, more perfect than any being the Fox had imagined, but even had she been his size, he would have known no stir of desire for her. Whatever her purpose, love had nothing to do with it.
She said, “Obey me now and you may yet survive. Give over your vain resistance and you will be able to live out your full span most honored among all those not lucky enough to be born of the blood of my folk.”
Did that mean the people who worshiped her or the people she’d invented? Gerin had never thought he’d have the chance to ask a god that philosophical riddle, and, with the moment here, discovered having the chance and having the nerve were two different things.
He said, “I’ll take my chances. I may end up dead, but that strikes me as better than living under your people-and under you. Or I may end up alive and free. Till the time comes, you never know-and we Elabonians have gods, too.”
Voldar tossed her head again. “Are you sure? If you do, where are they? Drunk? Asleep? Dead? I have hardly noticed them, I tell you that. The Trokmoi have gods-aye, gods who flee before me. But you folk here? Who would know? I think you pray to emptiness.”
Gerin knew he could not afford to give full heed to anything she told him. She had her own interest, and fooling him and dismaying him were to her advantage. But what she said about the Trokm- gods paralleled all too well what had happened in the material world for him to dismiss it out of hand. And what she said about Dyaus and the rest of the Elabonian pantheon put him in mind of his own thoughts… and his own worries. He wondered how much of the dream he would remember when he woke.
“I’ll take the chance,” he said. “The Trokmoi brought their gods south of the Niffet when they crossed over it some years back, and those gods do live in this land now, but they haven’t run off the gods we Elabonians follow. The Trokmoi haven’t conquered us, either, you’ll notice, as they surely would have if our gods were as weak as you say.”
“As I also told you, it’s the Trokm- gods who are weak,” Voldar answered. But she did not sound so grimly self-assured as she had before; maybe he’d given her a response she hadn’t expected. She gathered herself before resuming, “In any case, my people and I are not puny and foolish, as are the Trokmoi and their gods. We do not come here to visit or to share. We come to
As far as Gerin was concerned, the Trokmoi had come for the same reason. But the Gradi and Voldar and the rest of their gods were much more serious, much more methodical about it than the woodsrunners.
Voldar went on, “I tell you this: if you stand against us, you and your line shall surely fail, and it will be as if you had never been. Be warned, and choose accordingly.”
For a moment, Gerin knew stark despair. Voldar had struck keenly at his deepest secret fear. Almost, he was tempted to give in. But then he remembered Biton’s verses promising Ricolf’s barony to Duren. Had the farseeing god been lying to him? He had trouble believing that. He wondered if Voldar had so much as sensed Biton’s presence in the land, the Sibyl’s shrine being far from anywhere the Gradi had reached and Biton himself being only superficially Elabonian. He did not ask. The more ignorant the Gradi and their gods remained of the northlands, the better off their opponents would be.
He also wondered whether Voldar had yet encountered whatever older, utterly un-Elabonian powers dwelt
“What is your answer?” Voldar demanded when he did not speak.
“Who can say whether what you tell me is the same as what will be?” he replied. “I guess I’ll take my chances fighting on.”
“Fool!” Voldar screamed. She stabbed out a finger at him. Cold smote, sharp and harsh as any spear thrust. He clutched at his chest, as if pierced-and woke up, panting, his heart pounding with fear, in the great hall of the keep he and his army had just seized.
Adiatunnus was lying a few feet away. No sooner had Gerin’s eyes flown open in the gloom of guttering torches than the Trokm- chieftain gave a great cry-“The hag! The horrible hag!” — in his own language and sat bolt upright, his pale eyes wide and staring.
Several warriors muttered and stirred. A couple of men woke up at Adiatunnus’ shout and complained before rolling over and going back to sleep. Adiatunnus gaped wildly, now this way, now that, as if he did not know where he was.
“Did you just visit a certain goddess in your dreams?” Gerin called quietly. He still didn’t know whether mentioning Voldar by name would help make her notice him, but, after what he’d just seen, he didn’t want to find out, either.
“Och, I did that,” Adiatunnus answered, his voice shaky. He needed a moment to realize why Gerin was likely to be asking the question, a telling measure of how shaken he was. His gaze sharpened, showing his wits beginning to work once more. “And you, Fox? The same?”
“The same,” Gerin agreed. “She-whoever she was” — no, he’d take no chances- “tried to frighten me out of going on with the campaign. What happened to you?”
“Just the look of her turned the marrow in me to ice for fair,” Adiatunnus said, shivering. “Humliest wench I’m ever after seeing, and that’s nobbut the truth. And the blood running from the jaws of her, it came from some good Trokm- god, I’m thinking, puir fellow.”
“Ugly? Blood? That’s not how she showed herself to me,” Gerin said, more intrigued than surprised. Gods were gods, after all; of course they could manifest themselves in more than one way. “She was beautiful but terrible, fear and cold and awe all mixed together. What I thought was,
“We saw her different, that we did,” Adiatunnus said with another shudder. “I wonder which was her true seeming, or if either one was. We’ll never ken, I’m thinking. However you saw her, though, what did the two of you have to say to each other?”
As best he could, Gerin recounted his conversation with the Gradi goddess, finishing, “When I told her I wouldn’t give up, she-I don’t know-flung a freeze at me. I thought my heart and all my blood would turn to ice, but before that happened, I woke up. What befell you?”
“You said her nay?” Adiatunnus asked in wondering tones. “You said her nay, and she didn’t destroy you?”
“Of course she destroyed me,” Gerin answered irritably. “Look-here you are, talking with my blasted corpse.”
Adiatunnus stared, then frowned, then, after a long moment, started to laugh. “Fox, it’s many a time and oft I’ve wished to see the dead corp of you, blasted or any way you choose. The now, though, I’ll own to being glad you’re still here to give me more in the line of troubles.”
“I thank you for that in the same spirit you meant it,” Gerin said, squeezing another chuckle out of Adiatunnus. The Fox went on, “What did… she… say or do to make you wake up with such a howl?”
“Why, she showed me the ruin of everything I’d labored for all these years, if I was to go on with the war against her people,” the Trokm- answered.
“And you believed her?” Gerin said. “Just like that?”
“So I did,” Adiatunnus said with yet another chuckle. “What I want to know is, why you didna.”
“Because I assumed she was lying to me, to put me in fear and make me lose heart,” Gerin said. “If I were a Gradi god, it’s what I’d do. You Trokmoi are a tricksy folk-have you no trickster gods?”
“Aye, we do that,” Adiatunnus admitted. “But the goddess in my dream, now, she’s not that sort, not from all the tales of her I ken, any road. And the Gradi, they’re not that sort, either. They come and they take and they kill and they go, with hardly even a smile to say they’re enjoying the work.”
That last phrase drew a snort from the Fox, who said, “Well, from what I’ve seen, you’re right about the Gradi. You may even be right about… that goddess. Maybe she wouldn’t lie for the sport of it, the way a woodsrunner would.” He relished Adiatunnus’ glare, a sign the chieftain’s spirit was recovering. “But would she lie to help her own folk? Of course she would. This side of Biton, can you think of a god who wouldn’t?”
Adiatunnus pondered that. Slowly, he nodded. “Summat to what you say, lord prince.” He used Gerin’s title in a tone half grudging, half admiring. “You’ve got sand in you, that you do. You aim just to keep on after the Gradi as if you’d never dreamt your dream, do you now?”
“We’ve beaten them once, you and I together,” Gerin said. “I’ve beaten them another time, all by my lonesome. Till they show me they can beat me, why should I pull back?”
“Sure and you have a way to make it all sound so simple, so easy,” Adiatunnus said. “But they’re after beating us a whole raft o’ times-us Trokmoi, I mean. When that happens” — he sighed- “the only thing you can think of is that it’ll happen again, try as you will to stop it.”
“Which is why you made common cause with us,” Gerin observed.
“Truth there,” Adiatunnus said.
“Then let me take the lead, since you gave it to me, and don’t trouble your head with dreams, even dreams with goddesses in them,” the Fox said.
“Dinna fash yoursel’. Dinna fash yoursel’.” Adiatunnus made his voice high and squeaky, as if he were a mother shouting at a little boy. “Easy to say. Not so easy to do, not when you’re in the middle o’ the dream.”
There was truth in that, too. But Gerin asked, “Are you dreaming now?”
“No,” the Trokm- chieftain said at once. But then he looked around the dim-lit great hall. “Or no is what I think, the now. But how can you be sure?”
“Good question,” Gerin said. “If I had a good answer, I’d give it to you. I’ll tell you this much: I don’t think I’m dreaming, either.” He pulled his blanket up around him; the rough wool scratched at his neck. “With any luck, though, I will be soon.” He closed his eyes. He heard Adiatunnus laugh softly and, a little later, heard his snores join those filling the hall. A little later than that, he stopped hearing anything.
* * *
When the Fox’s army rode west from the captured keep the next morning, they rode toward dark gray clouds piled high on the horizon and scudding rapidly toward them on a startlingly nippy breeze. “Wouldn’t know we were at the summer season, would you?” Gerin said, shivering a little as that wind slid under his armor and chilled his hide.
Duren looked back over his shoulder at his father. “If I didn’t know what season it was, I’d guess those clouds held snow in them, not rain.”
“I wish they did,” Van said, peering ahead with a frown. “Snow’d leave the road hard. Rain like the rain those clouds look to have in ’em’ll turn these dirt tracks into hub-deep soup.” He turned from Duren to Gerin. “Your Elabonian Emperors were no fools when they made their fine highways. Hard on a horse’s hooves, aye, but you can move along ’em and bite the thumb at the worst of the weather.”
“I won’t say you’re wrong, because I think you’re right.” Gerin studied those fast-moving clouds and shook his head. “I’ve never seen weather so ugly this late in the year.”
Even as he spoke, the wind freshened further. It smelled of rain, of damp dust somewhere not far away. A moment later, the first drop hit him in the face. More rain followed, the wind blowing it almost horizontally through the air. Rain in summer should have been pleasant, breaking the humidity and leaving the air mild and sweet when it was gone. This rain, once arrived, chilled to the marrow and gave no sign it would ever leave.
A few of the warriors had brought rain capes with them, of oiled cloth or leather. For once, Gerin found himself imperfectly forethoughtful and getting ever more perfectly wet. The horses splashed through the thickening ooze of the roadway and began to kick up muck instead of dust. The chariot wheels churned up a muddy wake as the car rolled west.
Gerin’s world contracted; the rain brought down dim curtains that hid the middle distance and even the near. He could see the couple of teams and chariots closest to him, no more. Every Gradi in the world might have been gathered a bowshot and a half off to one side of the road, and he would never have known it. After a while, he stopped worrying; had the Gradi been there, they wouldn’t have known about him, either.
Water dripped from Van’s eyebrows and trickled through his beard. “This is no natural storm, Fox,” he boomed, raising his voice to make himself heard through wailing wind and drumming drops.
“I fear you’re right,” Gerin said. “It puts me in mind of the one Balamung the wizard raised against us before he led the Trokmoi across the Niffet.” He remembered the gleaming, sorcerous bridge over the river as if it had been yesterday, though more than a third of his life had passed since then.
Van nodded. The motion shook more water from his beard. “And if a wizard could do what Balamung did, how hard a grip can gods take on the weather?”
“A good question,” Gerin answered, and then said no more for some time. A lot of people had been coming up with good questions lately. At last, he added, “It’s such a good one, I wish you hadn’t asked it.”
As if to give point to what the outlander had said, a lightning bolt crashed down and smashed a tree somewhere not far away. Gerin saw the blue-purple glare and heard the crash, but could not see the tree through the driving rain.
As the rain went on, the army traveled more and more slowly. The Fox had trouble being sure they were still traveling west. He had trouble being sure they were still on the road; the only way to tell it from the fields through which it went was that the mud seemed deeper and more clinging in the roadway.
Days were long at this season of the year, but the clouds were so thick and black, they disguised the coming of night almost till true darkness arrived. The army, caught away from a keep and even away from a peasant village, made a hasty, miserable camp. The only offering they could give the ghosts was blood sausage from their rations. Starting fires was out of the question. So was hunting.
Gerin set his jaw against the discontented, disappointed wails of the night spirits and did his best to ignore them, as he would have tried to ignore the first twinges of a tooth beginning to rot in his head. He squelched around the unhappy encampment. There were tents enough for only about a third of his men. He shouted and cajoled troopers into packing those tents as tight as serfs stuffed barley into storage jars. That helped, but it wasn’t enough. Nothing would have been enough, not in that rain.
He got the men who could not be stuffed into tents to rig what shelters they could with blankets and with the chariots they’d been riding. Such would have done against the usual warm summer rain. Against this- “Half of us will be down with chest fever in a couple of days,” he said, shivering. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we got sleet.”
“I’d sooner fight the Gradi than the weather, any day,” Van said. “Against the Gradi, you can hit back.” Glumly, Gerin nodded.
Adiatunnus called, “Fox, where are you the now? With the murk so thick and all, I’m liable to fall in a puddle and drown myself or ever I find you.”
“Here,” Gerin answered through the hiss of the rain. He spoke again a moment later, to guide the Trokm- chieftain to the blanket under which he huddled. Adiatunnus sat down beside him with a series of soft splashes.
“Lord prince, can we go on in-and against-this?” the woodsrunner asked.
“I aim to try,” Gerin answered.
“But what’s the use?” Adiatunnus wailed. “If we go on, we’ll drown for fair, unless you’re after reckoning death from sinking in the muck a different thing nor drowning.”
“There’s a question over which I suspect the philosophers have never vexed themselves,” Gerin said, thereby amusing himself but not the Trokm-. He went on, “And what if we give up and the sun comes out before noon tomorrow? This is a bad storm, aye, but not so bad as all that.” That he’d been saying just the opposite to Van a little while before fazed him not at all; he wanted to keep Adiatunnus’ spirits as high as he could.
That proved not to be very high. With a sigh, the chieftain said, “One way or another, they’ll overmaster us. If they canna be doing it by force of arms, that goddess and the rest will manage. We’re better for having you here, Fox, but is better good enough? I doubt it, that I do.”
Gerin fell back to the last ditch: “Do you remember your oath?”
“Och, that I do.” Adiatunnus sighed again. “While you go on, lord prince, I’ll go with you, indeed and I will. So I swore. But whether I think ’twill do any good-there’s another story.” He splashed away, leaving Gerin without any good reply.
* * *
Spurred largely by the Fox’s shouts and curses, the Elabonians and Trokmoi did fare west again after dark gave way to a grudging, halfhearted morning twilight. Riding straight into the teeth of the rain only made things worse. So did the miserable breakfasts the troopers choked down, the slow pace the mud forced, and the out-of-season cold of the rain.
Toward midmorning, little bits of ice began to sting the soldiers’ faces. “Not so bad as all that, you say?” Adiatunnus shouted through the slush after his chariot plowed forward to come up level with Gerin’s. Again, the Fox found none of his usual sharp comebacks.
A little later, the army came up to a peasant village. The serfs were frantic. “The crops will die in the fields!” they screamed, as if Gerin could do something about that. “We’ll starve come winter if we don’t drown first-or freeze to death. Ice in summer!”
“Everything will be all right,” Gerin said. He wondered if even the most naive serf would believe him.
As he and his men slogged on, he looked back enviously at the thatch-roofed huts in which the peasants huddled. They would undoubtedly keep drier than his army. Had the village been large rather than small, he would have been tempted to turn the serfs out of their homes and appropriate the shelters for his men. He was glad he didn’t have to worry about that.
The farther west he and his troopers went, the worse the weather got. Somewhere, the Gradi were waiting. He hoped they were as wet and miserable as his own men.
Duren said, “At this rate, we could drive straight into the Orynian Ocean and we’d never know it. I don’t see how we could get any wetter than we are now.”
“Oceans taste of salt, lad,” Van said. “I’ve been on ’em and in ’em, so I know. Past that, though, you’re right. I keep expecting to see fish swim by me. Haven’t yet, so maybe this is still land.”
Whatever it was, it was dreadful going. Some small streams had climbed out of their banks, their water pouring in brown sheets across fields already sodden from the downpour. As had that first lot across which the army had come, serfs huddled in their villages, looking out with glum astonishment on the ruin of the year’s crops. Gerin shuddered to think what winter would be like. The peasants were liable to end up eating grass and bark and one another. Uprisings started after years like this, among men who had nothing left to lose.
Toward evening (or so the Fox thought; by then, he seemed to have been traveling forever), the army did come across some Gradi: a double handful of the invaders were trudging, or rather squelching, across a field, oiled-leather rain capes over their heads. “There they are!” Gerin shouted. “The men whose gods are making this campaign so horrid. What do you say we pay those gods back for the grief they’ve given us?”
Afterwards, he didn’t know whether to be glad or sorry he’d put it that way. The Gradi, spying his forces coming out of the rain at about the same time as he saw them, started running clumsily toward some trees bordering the edge of the field. The ground was mucky, but not quite so impossible as some he’d been through. That meant chariots could outdistance men afoot. His troopers cut the Gradi off from escape, then jumped down and slaughtered them, one after another. The water standing in the field was puddled here and there with red till the rain eventually diluted it and washed it away.
The fight itself wasn’t what disturbed Gerin. But the savage glee both Elabonians and Trokmoi had taken in massacring the Gradi gave him pause, even though-and perhaps especially because-he’d encouraged them to do just that. Putting the best face he could on it, he told Adiatunnus, “There-you see? Every time we come on them, we beat them.”
“Truth that,” Adiatunnus said. “The warriors, we can beat them, sure and we can.” He didn’t sound happy about it, continuing, “And what good does that do us, I ask you? When the gods and goddesses are all after pissing out of the heavens down onto us, what good does killing men do?”
“If we hadn’t shown we could do that, the Gradi gods and goddesses wouldn’t have joined the fight against us,” Gerin said.
“Are you saying that’d be better, now, or worse?” Adiatunnus asked, and splashed off before the Fox could reply.
The ghosts did not trouble the army that night, not with the fallen Gradi nearby to give them their boon of blood. But rain and sleet kept pelting down, which made the encampment as wretched as it had been the night before. Gerin wondered if Voldar would appear to him when he slept (if he slept, wet and cold as he was), but he remembered nothing after finally dropping off.
Dawn was the same misnomer it had been since the storm began. The Fox got the army moving more by refusing to believe it would not move than any other way. Exhausted, dripping men hitched exhausted, dripping horses to chariots and did their best to keep moving west against the Gradi.
Gerin would have relished a big fight that day. It would have been a focus for the anger that filled his men. But how could you fight back against a gray sky that kept pouring rain and ice on your head? You couldn’t, which was precisely the problem.
“You won’t make ’em go tomorrow,” Van said as they slowly slogged on. “Damn me to the five hells if I know how you made ’em go today.”
“They’re more afraid of me than of the Gradi gods and goddesses right now,” the Fox said. “They know what I can do, and they still aren’t sure about them.”
But by the next day it wasn’t just streams out of their banks, it was rivers. And rain and sleet turned to hail and then to snow. Gerin shook a fist at the heavens, wishing he had a bow that could reach beyond them. Wishing was futile, as usual.
Shivering, teeth chattering, he gave in. “We go back,” he said.