Oath Bound (Book 3)

BOOK: Oath Bound (Book 3)
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Saga of Menyoral #3: Oath
Bound

by

M.A. Ray

 

Text © 2014 M.A. Ray

Cover illustration and
design © 2014 Joel Lagerwall

All rights reserved.

 

For Jen Ponce:
excellent reader, writer, and friend.

Being Good

Fort Rule

Little ribbons of steam
drifted up from the grilled beef on Krakus’s plate: a beautiful piece of meat,
with the fat all curled up around the edges and charred lines woven across its
juicy surface. It was cooked rare, just the way he liked it, and blood leaked
over the white porcelain and under the hot mashed potatoes, staining them
deliciously reddish-brown. The meaty, buttery scent wafted into his nose.
Already, a snow-white napkin covered the front of his pure-white jerkin. His
stomach growled.

He reached out and picked
up his knife. When he pressed his fingers into the meat to hold it in place, it
gave like a woman’s breast: warm, soft in the center. Not that he had tits on
the brain, oh no, he wasn’t thinking about
that
anymore. He’d managed
five minutes running.

He sliced into the steak
with a forlorn sigh, and the juices flooded out of it. It was perfect inside,
rosy pink deepening to bright red, and he cut off a bite, anticipating its
texture, its taste. He wanted it so much he had to swallow a mouthful of
saliva.

The bite of steak made it
halfway to his mouth before his conscience jabbed at him.
“Eat no flesh.”
Since he’d started studying it again, the
Rule
popped into his mind at
the worst possible times. “Eat no flesh, lest you become corrupted; a beast
cares nothing for its own dirt.” Krakus had given up everything but the food.
He’d sent Tatiana away. He’d stripped his apartments of everything rich,
replacing his comfortable bed with a straw pallet, his silken sheets with
linsey-woolsey, and his finely-milled soap with the stinking ash-and-fat stuff
that got a man clean, but stripped his skin raw. His end of the desk was bare
of toys. He’d relinquished anything more potent to drink than mint tea, without
even any honey. Absolutely everything. Shouldn’t he be allowed this one indulgence?

Krakus pushed back his
stool and rose. He picked up the plate and carried the wonderful, wicked steak,
the creamy mashed potatoes, out of the room and down the stairs. When he walked
out of the building that housed the Commissars’ apartments, he turned toward
the midden heap—but then he saw a sergeant on the way back to the barracks from
Section One. “You there!” he called. “Sergeant!”

The man hustled over and
snapped to attention, giving him a sharp salute. “Father!”

“Take this,” Krakus said,
thrusting out the plate.

“Father?”

“Eat it.” He wanted to
weep for the loss. “Take it back to your bunk and enjoy every last bite. Do you
think you can follow an order like that?”

“Yes, Father Krakus, I
sure can!” The sergeant took the plate in his left hand and saluted again with
his right. “I’ll follow that one to the letter!”

“Good man. Go on now.”

He tore off one last
salute and hurried away with Krakus’s meal. Heavy in heart, Krakus turned to the
kitchen. Inside, on the great hearth, the pots were boiling and the kettles
were steaming. It took a few moments to search out Ekaterina, his personal
chef, where she sat at the opposite end of the kitchen, mopping her brow and
drinking from a jack of ale. He dodged the black-clad Aurelian cooks who ran to
and fro in the workspace until he stood before Ekaterina. She looked like a
buxom barge and she cooked like a goddess incarnate.

“Was there a problem with
the steak?” she demanded, before he could open his mouth.

“No, of course not. It
was beautiful.” He wrung his hands. “It’s just that I—Ekaterina, I think I’ve
got to let you go. I can’t eat steaks anymore. Or mashed potatoes. Or pot
roast. Or—”

She gasped and lurched to
her feet, clapping a hand to his forehead as if to check for fever.

“I’ve got to get right
with the Bright Lady,” he mumbled.

Ekaterina scowled up at
him. “And you think I can’t cook to the
Rule
, is that it?”

“Well…”

“Don’t you dare say
‘yes,’ Father, because then you won’t be
able
to sack me. I’ll be
insulted and quit on the spot.”

He tried not to fidget.
Ekaterina always made him feel about seven years old, and never mind that he
was the older by far. He’d better mind how he stepped. The one who controlled
the food controlled the world. “Will you, please? Cook to it, I mean.”

She beamed. “Of course I
will. All you ever had to do was ask. I take requests—I am a
cook.

“Then will you make
lentils and rice taste good?” he asked, half joking, all hopeful.

“I’ll make everything
taste good. You’ll see.” Ekaterina patted his arm with a soft but callused
hand. “You won’t even feel like you’re being deprived. It’s a good thing you’re
doing, Father, getting right with the Queen. I saw you give your things to
little Tatiana when she left. She won’t go hungry, not with all that. Neither
should you.”

Krakus couldn’t help
himself. He kissed her soundly. It was the last time, he vowed, his lips would
touch any part of a woman. She blushed and swatted him afterward.

“You know I’m happily
married,” she scolded, but she smiled, too. Krakus went out grinning, and
didn’t realize until later that he’d forgotten to have any dinner.

For once, he found
himself looking forward to supper, which had become a dreadful, awkward affair,
eaten with all possible dispatch. He’d been avoiding Lech so thoroughly that
they only came into contact at services—which Krakus performed with the same
zeal he’d exercised in removing everything prohibited from his life—and at the
evening meal. Once, Lech had expressed approval for Krakus’s new habits, and
Krakus had answered him with a snarl so fervent he’d dropped a bite of lentils
all over his vestments. Now, they ate in stony silence, each refusing to look
at the other, each feeling the other’s presence nag like a bad tooth.

Tonight, though, Krakus’s
stomach rumbled, and he was eager to see what Ekaterina had cooked for him in
accordance with the
Rule
. He came to the round table just as Fillip and
Feodor brought in the supper trays, and with no more than a glance at Lech’s
sour face, sat down on the stool he’d had brought in to replace his cushioned
armchair. When Fillip laid his tray on the table and took the cover away,
Krakus wanted to run back down to the kitchens and kiss his cook again and
again. Four huge, fat mushroom caps lay on his plate, grilled like he had his
steaks and smothered in mushroom gravy, with roast potatoes and a piping-hot
crock of soup on the side. The scents of garlic, vinegar, and oil wafted from
the green salad.

Krakus lifted his eyes to
the rafters.
Oh, Bright Lady, You bless me far more than I deserve! Forgive
my doubts and my weaknesses, and sanctify this wonderful food, so I can turn my
energies even more to Your service.
He turned to the young Militant
awaiting his word, and grinned. “Thank you, Brother Fillip.”

Fillip’s farm-boy face
grinned back. “Of course, Father.” He seemed to enjoy his duties for Krakus far
more these days, but that might be because Krakus had dropped more lard and
gone into an even smaller breastplate.

“Tomorrow morning, after
service? Like usual?”

“Yes, Father Krakus!”

“See you then,” Krakus
said, cutting into one of his mushrooms as Fillip left. The morning training
he’d been doing with Fillip made Krakus feel, somehow, younger and older at the
same time. Getting himself moving again, even beyond what he’d done in Section
One, had him feeling physically excellent—and he could feel his experience
again, too. He had something to teach after all, and watching Fillip improve
was the best part of it.

Ekaterina, you are a
queen among women,
he thought, chewing the spicy mushroom. Lech sat
poker-stiff across the table, masticating his supper as if his jaw were being
raised and lowered on a pulley. Krakus couldn’t imagine he was enjoying the
lentils and rice—why did he
always
eat lentils and rice when the
Rule
permitted the sort of supper Krakus was having? It was like he wanted to
suffer.

Lech emptied his dish as
quickly as always, but tonight, Krakus reveled in every bite. It was wonderful;
he almost didn’t miss the meat. He’d finished his main course and turned his
attention to the salad and flatbread when he realized Lech hadn’t risen from
the table.

When he raised his eyes,
he met his Brother’s most neutral stare, which still looked something like an
alligator eyeing a juicy pig. He made sure to stuff his mouth before he asked,
“Did you want something?” Lech must. They hadn’t had a conversation in a month.

“I want nothing from
you,” Lech bit off, “but it may interest you to know that the Conclave has been
called.”

“Conclave isn’t for another
two years.”

Lech sneered. “Disa
Asmundsdottir,” he said, as if the name tasted bad, “has requested a special
session, to be held this winter in Oasis. As if my duties can bear such an
interruption.”

Oasis was a long voyage
away. Lech’s duties be damned; Krakus didn’t know if he could bear
Lech
that long. He swiped his flatbread through the last, delicious remnants of his
bean soup. “Who’s Disa again? Doesn’t she have the long hair?”

“Akeere’s high witch.”

Before he spoke, Krakus looked
up again, into Lech’s washed-out blue eyes. “If you didn’t know that was
coming, you’re an even bigger idiot than I thought. If she didn’t call the
Conclave, that new fellow they’ve got in Dreamport would have. Hendrick.”

“Yes, well, I’ve a mind
to deny them our presence.”

“We’re going.” Krakus
took his last bite of salad and wiped his mouth.

“For what?” Lech let out
his horrible laugh. “To be shamed for doing as the Bright Lady Herself would
command? Don’t forget, whatever happens to me happens also to you.”

“So be it. I’ll take
whatever they dish out, because it was my duty to hold you back from your sin,
and I didn’t. Besides, what can they do to us, really? Kick us out of the
Conclave, maybe, but you don’t want to be in their little club anyway.”

The vulture’s face
flushed livid. “It was no sin to—”

“Wickedness.” Krakus
pushed back his stool. “It was wickedness. We’re going to face what we’ve done,
Lechie.”

“I will
not
—”

“When the time comes, you
will
pack your things, or I’ll strap you to the top of the carriage
without them, and if you think I won’t, you just go on and test me.”

“How dare you?” Lech
screamed, but Krakus was already leaving the dining room to make a final check
of Section One before bed. He didn’t trust that damned doctor an inch.

Once Upon a Time

the Sign of the
Jackalope, an inn at the edge of the Wastes

It took the best part of
a fortnight to get out of the North Wing. Kessa moped and sighed the entire
time, but Dingus was plain delighted to be back on the road. He’d enjoyed the
Moot way more than he’d expected to, but now it was just the three of them
again, and he felt easier the farther they got from Knightsvalley. Out in the
wild he didn’t have to worry so much about the mysterious someone trying to
bump off his teacher, or about saying something stupid in front of all those
people.

Best of all, Vandis had
time
again, and even if he spent a lot of it on Kessa’s woodcraft, well… Dingus
spent plenty, too. But Vandis had time to tell stories again, and to hear them.
The third night out, after Kessa had given them Margaret Dragonslayer—it was
still her favorite—Dingus remembered to tell the one about Wolf’s Eye, whose
hand had been on the string that carried an arrow through the Nuz chief Great
Brog’s throat so far that it stuck by the fletching alone. With Great Brog
dead, the Nuz had broken, too, and so the war had ended. Vandis came back with
a human story, one Dingus had read about, but hadn’t heard, of the messenger in
the Armies of the Little States who’d lost General Haver’s orders and lost the
battle for the Little States. They’d signed a treaty with Muscoda afterward,
and that was the treaty that let Muscoda take over last year: the Treaty of
Vicksdale.

“That damned treaty’s a
good part of the reason we’re going this way,” Vandis explained. “Otherwise,
we’d have gone south of the Back and made a straight shot across to Windish.
It’s easier country, and more populated. As it is, we’re going to have to eat
off supplies for a while.”

Dingus frowned from his
spot across the fire, where he was busy scraping the pelts of the tough hares
they’d had for supper. “We can’t eat off the land?”

“Some things, maybe,
we’ll be able to forage. But it’s not like you guys are used to. To the south,
it’s fertile, but where we’re going… not so much. It’s cold most of the year,
and the coast is rough. Seal Rock’s the only good harbor for hundreds of
miles.”

“So what’ll we do?” Kessa
asked. Dingus had the same question.

Vandis stretched his
short legs, then pulled them back again to sit tailor-fashion. “Before we go
out on the plain, we’ll load up on supplies. If we can, we’ll join with a
merchant caravan headed up there. They’ll be happy to have us. Knights are good
company.”

“Are you sure that’s a
good idea?” Dingus blurted.

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

“We should go it alone.
We can’t trust anybody, not after—”

“That won’t be an issue.”

“Wouldn’t have thought
it’d be one at the Moot, but it was.”

“I put it around we were
booking passage in Dreamport.” Vandis smirked.

Dingus shook his head and
set down the pelt he was working on. “More than enough people headed that way
to figure out you lied. By now they’ll be wondering why you haven’t showed up
yet. You’re in
danger.

“I’m always in danger.
All of us are. Life is risk.”

“So we gotta go looking
for more?”

“It’s safer in company.
Do you want to come across a whole tribe of barbarians, just you, Kessa, and
me?”

Dingus scowled off into
the darkness to his right. “You gotta be careful. If you—if something was to
happen to you, Kessa—”

“If something happens to me,
turn around and head for HQ.”

He didn’t say it, but he
couldn’t see a life for himself if Vandis died. Just the thought of anyone
doing him harm prickled warmth down Dingus’s spine and filled his belly with
cold, slimy fear that Vandis would be gone forever, and that his own mind would
snap like a twig.

“We’re traveling
somewhere new,” Vandis said. “We’re going to meet interesting people and see
things we’ve never seen. It’s an adventure, and you won’t appreciate it even a
little bit if you fucking torture yourself the whole way.”

They traded looks.
Dingus’s read: I can’t help it. Vandis’s replied: Try.

It wasn’t like he set out
to torture himself, but some things he couldn’t let go. His flesh imprisoned a
restless, relentless fire. He felt pent-up and frustrated in a way no amount of
sneaking away to jerk off could fix—and he’d tried that plenty.

As they went, the
mountains gentled down into hills. Far away, everything looked empty, and the
emptiness seemed wider the closer they came to it. At last, they stopped at a
wayside inn called the Sign of the Jackalope. “Last Lodging and Supplies before
the Wastes,” or so the weathered sign out on the road said. It was a big place,
too, with stable room for at least fifty animals, and rows of wagons tied up in
the broad yard.

“Remember, don’t eat
anything,” Dingus said to Vandis as they approached the gate. “I’ll fix—”

Vandis turned such a
perch-eye over his shoulder that Dingus’s words died in his throat. “Who’s the
Master here?”

When he didn’t answer,
Vandis pressed on. “Tell me.”

“You are,” Dingus said,
“but—”

“There’s no ‘but’ in that
sentence.”

Dingus grimaced and
pulled his hood up to cover his ears as they passed through the yard. Most of
the wagons had locked lids covering their contents. Just outside the entrance,
a few horses stood tied to a long hitching post, feedbags over their faces.

“What’s that?” Kessa
gasped, pointing at a battered jackrabbit’s head with antlers mounted over the
double doors.

“That’s a jackalope,”
Vandis said.

“Do they live in the
Wastes? Could we catch one?”

Vandis laughed. “No, it’s
just a silly thing—Ethelred’s little joke. There aren’t any and never were,
even before the fairies died.”

“But it looks real,” she
protested.

“Taxidermists can do some
interesting things with carcasses.” Vandis pushed open the doors. Smoke smell
oozed from inside the tavern, swamping Dingus when it reached him: woodsmoke,
tobacco smoke, tallow dips, and underneath, the faintest hint of burnt food. He
caught the thick stink of spilled beer, old piss, and men’s bodies. It was full
day outside, but when the doors swung shut behind him, might as well have been
midnight—noisy midnight. The ceiling soared, with a balcony running around the
whole outside of the room and filled with tables like the floor. The taproom
felt close; the air settled on his skin. A barmaid whisked by between him and
Kessa, trailing too much rosewater and making his head swirl.

Vandis looked back at
them. “I guess this place is a little rougher than I’d remembered,” he said,
his face wry.

“Maybe,” Kessa said,
staring around.

Dingus didn’t reply; he
stood rooted to the spot, just inside the doors, clutching the straps of his
pack and trying to handle everything his senses shouted at him. The minstrel on
the stage at the far left plucked doggedly away at a lute, even though nobody
paid him the least mind. Probably better that way. He wasn’t very good, and the
lute sounded a shade out of tune. The barman shouted at a barmaid; on the
right, Dingus could almost smell a fight brewing: two men on their feet,
staring each other down.

Vandis said, “Dingus. Are
you under control?”

“I got this,” he said,
closing his eyes briefly. Then he followed Vandis and Kessa across to the bar.

“Vandis!” the barman
bellowed when they got close, turning away from the blushing barmaid, who
escaped the moment his attention went somewhere else.

“Eth,” Vandis said. “Long
time, no see.” He reached over the gouged bar-top to clasp wrists. “Got room
for a couple of Knights and a Squire?”

“Well, now, that
depends.” Eth the barman grinned all over his shiny, jiggling face. “Got
stories? New ones?”

“What do you think?”
Vandis asked Dingus and Kessa.

Kessa nodded; Dingus took
in a deep breath. It didn’t steady him much, but enough. Besides, after telling
his stories to the fishy eyes of the Masters at Moot, after going on with
Francine and the guys, this ought to be cake. “How many you want?” he asked,
and saw, out of the corner of his eye, Vandis beaming at him.

“How many you got?” the
barman shot right back.

“I bet I got a hundred
you never heard your whole life long.”

“Don’t undersell
yourself,” Vandis said, without a trace of irony. His chest puffed up. “This is
Sir Dingus, my Junior, and he has a hundred
I’ve
never heard, but he’ll
give you—what do you think is fair, Dingus? Six? That’s two new ones apiece.”

“Sure.” Dingus wasn’t
sure, but he couldn’t go wrong agreeing with Vandis.

“Ten new ones,” Eth said.
“Three apiece, and an extra for you, lad, because you look like you can eat.”

“Seven,” Dingus returned.
“Two apiece, and an extra for me, ’cause I
can
eat. I’ll do three now,
then four for your supper crowd.”

He glanced at Vandis, who
nodded. “I’ll give you some preaching in between if Kessa here can do one for
practice.”

Eth sucked at his teeth.
“I guess that’ll do.” He clasped wrists with Vandis again before bawling across
to the minstrel. “Get off the stage, Colman, you can’t play a note! We’ve got
Knights, Knights in the house!” To Dingus, he added, “Wet your whistle, lad,
and get up there.”

Dingus slipped his pack,
took the mug Eth slid across to him, and crossed to the far right of the bar to
touch the carved medallion of the white oak leaf, brushing one hand over the
stains of so many oily fingers before his. “Lady, bless my voice,” he said, like
every time he’d told in a tavern, and walked to the stage, where the minstrel
stowed his lute in its case with a mother’s tenderness.

“You’re tuned a little
high,” Dingus said to him, real quiet, and he slammed the case shut and took
himself off in a huff. After a long swallow of the beer—kind of sour, but wet,
at least—Dingus set the mug on the boards, cleared his throat, and projected
his voice. “If you wanna hear a story, listen up! Once upon a time…” and he
gave them Lone Crow and the Witch, then Rose Daughter’s Shark, and finally the
Periapt of True Seeing, which was a good long one about Brother Fox and Eagle
Eye’s quest for a necklace that stripped away the veils of Glamor and gave its
wearer the Sight, and how they’d used it to save Brother Fox’s betrothed from a
hidden, magical prison. Grandpa had shown it to him once, the Periapt itself, a
fat opal on a whisper of gold chain, and told him how the rainbows inside would
stand out from the surface and dance when someone used it—back when.

He thought that one went
over pretty well. He got some good silence out of it, a decent haul in tips,
and some delighted murmuring from the barmaids when he described the Periapt.
Nobody tried anything on Vandis. No matter what his Master had said, he’d kept
a weather eye out the whole time he was up there. When he came down from the
stage, promising to be back at suppertime, he crossed to Vandis and Kessa where
they sat at a table surrounded by the remains of their dinner.

Vandis stood and clapped
him on the arm. “They’re good and softened up,” he said, and made his way up to
take Dingus’s place. His gritty voice rolled out a moment later: “Now hear
this…”

Dingus grinned. This was
familiar as home. So far he enjoyed being a Junior. He didn’t have to cook
every single night or set up and break camp—even though he did help Kessa most
every night, seeing as he was supposed to help teach her the basics—and Vandis
expected him to bullshit and handle jobs that weren’t quite as routine, like
paying for their room and board with new stories.

Soon a barmaid came
’round with Dingus’s dinner. “If you need anything more, just shout,” she said,
giving him a pretty smile. She brushed his arm with hers when she set the
trencher of goat stew in front of him. “You have a really good voice, you know.
I could almost believe in that necklace.” She busied herself clearing up the
dirty dishes.

“You should,” Dingus
said, taking out his spoon and knife. “It’s a real necklace. I’ve held it in my
own two hands.”

“Oh, come on.” She
propped a hand on one hip, the other on the table. He tried not to look at the
way it made her breasts shift under her bodice.

“You calling me a liar?”
He smiled, trying to let her know it wasn’t meant to be fighting words.

She laughed. “No, I’m
calling you a flimflamming, tale-spinning Knight with nothing better to do than
twist stories around until nobody recognizes them, and then spit them out as
your own.”

“Yeah, I am.” That
pleased him no end to say. “Anyways, it doesn’t have to be exactly true to be
truth.

“So I guess what your
Master’s spouting up there is true, too.” She nodded at Vandis, who held forth
onstage with Why the Moon Bleeds.

“True? Who knows. Maybe
that’s not how or why it happened, but it’s
truth.
Jealousy. Revenge.
Punishment.” He opened his hands. “Fear. That’s truth, don’t you think?”

“Now you’re
philosophizing. I’m no scholar, Sir Knight.” The barmaid laid a hand over her
heart. “I’m just here to wait on people.”

“Where you’re from, what
you do, that stuff doesn’t matter. Look at me. I’m just a sheep-shit hillbilly
far from home, but I know
truth
when I hear it.”

She tossed her hair,
laughing again, so the silver hoops in her ears caught the low tallow-dip
light. “You’re not just a flimflamming, tale-spinning Knight. You’re a
preacher, with your trust-me face and your voice like sin. Finally, a preacher
I could stand to listen to all night… if he talks that long.”

“Well,” Dingus said, “I
don’t know about all night, but I got more stories for suppertime if you wanna
hear—ow!” He glared at Kessa, who’d chosen that moment to kick him in the shin.
She tilted her head toward the barmaid, waggling her eyebrows like it was
supposed to mean something.

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