Authors: Chaz Brenchley
He looked, Marron looked, the guard turned to look -and no question now of handing the horse over, bow-backed nag though it was. It was still a horse. The guard's hand fell away and he ran for his own mount or any mount, shouting to his confreres while he ran; Jemel slammed his heels in hard to kick forward past his suddenly pale, motionless friend and ride to the bridge.
On the further bank, the slow line of refugees had become a turmoil, a hectic race to cross the river. The guards on that side were at the horse-lines, fumbling with saddle and harness, their desperation clear to be seen.
Tension breeds clumsiness; grace and speed come from confidence.
That was a Sharai law, and confidence was a Sharai characteristic; boys were taught to trust themselves.
Even where they couldn't trust their mounts, or their companions. Jemel had no faith at all in the beast he rode, it was only that he'd sooner be on horseback than afoot; he had little enough faith in Marron's following him. Quite apart from that oath the boy had sworn and clung to so determinedly, not to kill again, there was something else to hold him back from this.
It was riders that had made the people flee, that had sent the guards to horse and kept Jemel in the saddle: riders breaking out onto the grassland, with swords in their hands that gleamed not at all in the sunshine, that were dull and stained with hours of use already.
There were not many of the riders, a dozen or so. Still, they were enough to sow panic just with their appearance; and it was that same appearance that had seized Marron in the moment of his first seeing them. They were Patric, of course, mounted on heavy Patric horses. No surprise in that. But the officer who led them wore white dress with a black cloak thrown over, though the black was ripped and the white was darkly marked; the men who followed him wore black entirely, in sign of their brotherhood.
Jemel could name the brotherhood, just from that first sight of them. Marron had belonged to it, had been a brother among brothers and was still not properly free, although they had cast him out. They would burn him as a witch, Jemel knew, if ever they could catch him. Jemel was his only shield, and would have felt more comfortable in that role if he'd been sure of his ward. Marron was still troubled by his slaughter at the Roq; he might see some dark justice in his being given over to the flames. Worse, he might almost welcome his capture, if it could lead to his meeting with the knight Sieur Anton d'Escrivey.
Worse yet, Jemel had sworn an oath to meet with Sieur Anton d'Escrivey on his own account, and could not be ungrateful to see those black-clad fighting men appear on their horses. His only other chance to keep the oath had been for Marron somehow to lead him to that meeting, all unwitting this way it could happen more naturally, by Gods mocking will or his own steel determination. If those ravens were abroad in Surayon, Jemel might contrive to find his man, if they were not simply tossed together. That might even be Sieur Anton on the destrier there, a gift already given, if Jemel could believe it hard enough.
Oath clashed with oath, ringingly in Jemel's exhausted head. If he rode on, if he crossed the bridge that spanned the river Marron would follow, with one reason or another but truly only because Jemel had gone before; if he held back he would make a coward and a traitor of himself.
In truth, there had never been any question about it. He rode on, to the stone footings of the bridge and so up.
At first there were ridges of stone in the cobbles to allow shod hooves a grip in whatever weather. Soon, though, the surface changed. Daunted by the steepness of the wooden arch, his horse defied his heels for a moment, standing stock-still, tense and shivering. He needed hands and voice both to urge it forward again; it needed to find where fillets of wood lay like ribs across the planking to give it purchase. They were there and it did find them, and slowly learned to trust as its shoes bit and did not slip.
Slowly was the only way to make the climb in any case, against the flow of terrified foot-traffic. The bridge was no narrower than the road had been, its breadth surprised Jemel as much as its height and grace, but here the press was urgent; his horse might have balked in the crush or even been driven back by the sheer weight of it, except that he drew his scimitar and held it high. The people squeezed themselves ever tighter together in response, to let him pass. Some screamed when they saw him and cowered back, looked half inclined to fling themselves into the roar of the torrent sooner than face him. More seemed too numbed to care, hurrying only because their companions hurried them.
The bridge rose and rose, the people surged past; at last he reached the crown of the arch and checked the horse. There must be an end to this flow. Let it dwindle and die, let the animal see the cross-pieces where it could safely set its feet for the descent, let the riders see that the bridge was defended.
Let Marron come up to join him, if Marron came. It would be a choice, perhaps a statement:
I ride with you who are my brother
ride to face those who were my brothers
ride to seek him who was my master,
any of those or all, they might all be one in the muddled mind of a boy who had lost and lost and lost again, seeing everything he'd ever come to value taken from him.
Already there were fewer refugees fleeing over the bridge, past Jemel where he sat watching, waiting on the
t. More figures milled on the grass below; some ran east or west along the river, while others dearly meant to stay and fight. Only those had taken horses; Jemel was impressed.
The riders were still some distance off, but coming straight down the road towards the bridge. Hoping to take it, no doubt, and to hold it until the main body of their troops came up to reinforce them; looking upstream and down, Jemel could see no other way to cross the river. This would be pivotal, then, its defence crucial to Surayon. He sighed softly, thinking that this was not why he had come to Outremer, nor why he had brought Marron out of the palace today. Perhaps there was after all a god directing events, setting the two of them at the heart of the day's most vital battle from a spirit of sheer mischief.
At his back, he heard the slow sounds of a climbing horse. It might be Marron, urging his mount up with difficulty and determination; it might not. He thought the guards would be coming too, though he thought that they would make an easier, swifter job of it.
He sat without turning his head, watching the riders close towards the bridge, watching the last of the refugees scatter right and left before them, ignored for now but hardly safe so long as these men or others like them rode free in Surayon.
'Ransomers.' A voice at his back and it was Marron, of course it was; he had been sure that it would be. 'Yes.'
'What will you do?'
laughed, he couldn't help it. ‘I
will fight, of course. I have fought Ransomers before.'
And lost Jazra to them, and found you.
The debts were complex and confused, running both ways; it was simpler far to fight.
'For Hasan, you fought before. For his visions, his grand dream. Will you fight for the Princip now?'
"The Princip has Hasan. That makes it easy,' which was not true, but easy at least to say. The Princip had visions also and his own grand dream, but they were Patric and had no place in a Sharai imagination, just as a Sharai had no place in a Patric army. 'What will you do?'
T don't know. I always thought that when the day came, when the time came - if it did, if it ever did, it didn't have to - then I would know, I'd know how I felt and how to deal with it. But—'
But a shrug was the best that he could manage, seemingly, a confession of helplessness.
'They are killing these people, Lisan's people, who have given us sanctuary'
'Yes.' And he still couldn't kill them, or any more of them, even now and even so; that was inherent in his voice, in his stillness, in his sheathed sword.
'If they find you, if they capture you, they will kill you. With fire, I think You said you have seen them do that.'
'Yes.' And he still couldn't or wouldn't ride away, go back to the palace, keep his distance, run and hide.
A Sharai would do both, or ought to: kill quickly and draw back, raid and run and live to raid again. But this was a Patric war, on Patric lands; even the tribes were not raiding
but invading today. Jemel though
t that he was likely to fight an alien battle himself, and so die. He would make a stand with what few Parties here could swing a sword, warriors or farmers. They would struggle to hold the bridge, because that was such a Patric thing to do; he could almost think like them now if he tried hard, and to their minds it must make sense, it must seem imperative. So they would struggle, and they would die. They would lose this bridge, and die trying to save it; and he would die beside them, because he had no better sense.
Or because that might be Sieur Anton in the black cloak with the bloodstained white beneath, and if not the knight might still be somewhere there, north of the river, out of reach if the bridge were lost and they to the south of it. That thought alone might be enough to hold Marron; it might be enough to hold Jemel.
Something held them both, or they held each other; they held the crown of the bridge until they heard more horses coming up behind them, the men who had had guard of the southern foot.
'What are you waiting for?' one of them growled, suspicion resurgent in his voice. 'There's but half a dozen of our men out there against twice that number, and none of ours is a soldier trained —'
'All the more reason for them to take the first shock
Jemel said softly. 'If you must lose men, better to lose the weakest. They will break the force of the Ransomers' charge; we will meet those who come through, and perhaps we will only have to face one each, or one at a time. But we are not helpless even here, or I am not.'
He lifted the bow from his saddle, ready-strung. It was heavier and clumsier than he was used to, not designed for shooting from the saddle; but he was used to shooting on the gallop, and this horse might move like two gawky boys in a mareskin but when it stood it did stand remarkably still.
The quiver hung beside his leg, Sharai-style. Patrics might carry theirs on their backs, but his people planned always to fight from their horses or camels. A Sharai dismounted was a Sharai crippled, and probably abandoned. Not among the Saren, which was why, one reason why it had been so hard to leave Jazra, even dead Jazra, at the Roq; but the Saren were special, had been special to him. Which was why, one reason why his mind felt so cold and clear, his hand so steady as he took an arrow and nocked it. Those were Ransomers down there, and they were in range now; and they had killed Jazra and not him, and so he had met Marron, and so taken the vows that he had and so been cast out. And so he had lost and won and lost again, and those losses must be paid for before he could even begin to understand the victory.
The knight, the officer might yet be Sieur Anton, and should not die by an arrow, not even Jemel's own. Blade to blade they must be, when they met. He had sworn it. Jazra's shade would be watching him from Paradise; he could be forgiven many things, anything - Marron was not even a case for forgiveness, the question didn't arise - but not that oath. There must be a meeting and there must be a death, blood to pay for blood and loss for loss. That it would be Marron's loss was a strange by-blow, fates malignancy, a bitter thing for both of them; they did not speak of it. If they had, Jemel would have said that Marron had lost his Sieur Anton already and long ago, that night he fled his brotherhood, his people and his oaths. It was true, it was inarguable - and yet it made no difference. Just as Jemel carried lost Jazra in his heart, so Marron carried the knight.
And when the knight is dead, when I have killed him, Marron — will you swear an oath against me in your turn?
That was why they did not speak of it, there were too many question
s they dared not ask. That migh
t even be the true reason why Marron refused to kill, to make it possible for him not to kill Jemel, but Jemel could never ask it.
What he could do, he could kill Marron's former brothers: as many as presented themselves before his blade, or now before his arrows.
He sighted, drew - to the chin with the long bow at an angle like the horseman he was, not straight and to the ear like some mudfoot Patric — and shot, watching the arrow carefully in its flight. Like the bow, it was longer and heavier than he was used to; no great surprise to see it fly a little shorter and drop a little sooner than he'd intended.
Only a little, though, on both counts. It didn't reach the rider whose heart had been its aim; it took his horse instead, full in the chest and sinking deep.
The horse plunged to its knees, to the ground, dead in a moment. Its rider was flung forward and to the side, directly under the hooves of his confreres who charged beside him. Another rider fell, as his horse stumbled; only one of the two men came to his feet again, and he seemed dazed and hardly dangerous. 'A good shot.'
A good weapon,' Jemel grunted, already drawing again.
Two men down had not checked the charge; neither would the unsteady line drawn up to challenge it. Warhorses against hacks and nags, it was a battle lost before the men were measured. When the lines met, that would mean an end to archery and a time to ride, a time for swordwork and sweat, to set one more nag against a destrier and test Sharai swiftness against Ransomer weight.