Authors: Hilari Bell
A Knight and Rogue Novel
To Uncle Chuck and Aunt Dorothyâ
my favorite fans in the north
ost of the time, having a squire is a wonderful thing for a knight errant, but there are times when 'tis a cursed nuisance. Especially a squire such as Fisk, who notices far too much.
“That's the fourth time you've looked over your shoulder in the last hour,” he complained. “If we're going to be ambushed, I wish you'd let me know. It'd be nice to be preparedâfor a change.”
The cobbled street was rough. Despite the Green Moon's light, I stumbled into a rain-filled pothole and swore. Chant, the destrier I was leading, pranced nimbly around it, his hooves clattering on the stone. Fisk, who was leading Tipple, swerved and missed it too. My surge of irritation was unworthy of a true knight, but I confess I felt it. And I shouldn't have. Due to a trifling bit of aid offered a carter whose wagon had
become mired on the road, Fisk was, for once, as wet and muddy as I.
“In the first place,” I told him, “you couldn't be more prepared to fight off an ambushâyou've been twitching like a hunted hare for the last two weeks. And second, the warning Gift isn't that reliable. I once felt like this for almost a month, and I later learned that 'twas because one of my aunts was thinking of marrying me off to her best friend's third daughter. It could be anything, Fisk. It could be nothing at all.”
The Gift for sensing the presence of magic, a Gift whose inheritance allowed the noble families to rise to power by
which trees were safe to cut, which animals safe to slaughter, is always reliable. Magic is either there or it isn't, and the Gods avenge themselves on those who destroy magica plants or animals without first paying the price. But there are also a host of lesser talents, which we also call “Gifts,” and they function most erraticallyâif they function at all.
The tale of Aunt Gwen's scheme made Fisk laugh, as 'twas meant to, but he sobered quickly.
“I haven't been twitchy for weeksâjust since you started looking over your shoulder, day before yesterday. Because the last time you did that, old Hackle planted that magica hide on Tipple and almost got us killed. And I didn't mean prepared to fight, I meant
prepared to run. You're carrying the money just now, remember?”
I couldn't help but smile at that, for my purse had developed a peculiar habit of ending up in Fisk's hands, whether I'd lent it to him or not. I didn't mind, for Fisk is better with money than Iâthough 'twas sometimes disconcerting to reach down and find it missing.
I fought the urge to look behind us yet again. Assisting the unfortunate carter had brought us into Toffleton three hours after sunset, though in mid-Oaken the sun set early enough that light and noise still streamed into the streets when a tavern opened its doors. Aside from that, and the high-sailing moon, the streets were dark, for respectable folk had their shutters closed against the damp chill.
Though I know 'tis beneath a knight errant (not to mention two lads in their late teens) to care about such petty concerns, I was tired. I only hoped we could convince a decent inn to open its doors to usâthough if it got much colder, I'd settle for a not-so-decent inn and accept a few fleas as a fair exchange for warmth.
Since we were looking for an inn of the variety Fisk refers to as “cheap but clean,” the neighborhood was a respectable one, so when the voice behind us called
out, “Master Fisk!” there was no reason for Fisk to jump half out of his skin and draw his dagger as he turned. Though I must admit I turned quite rapidly myself, and my hand came to rest on the hilt of my sword, which protruded from the pack on Chant's rump.
“Master Fisk?” The man puffing up behind us didn't seem to warrant such precautions. As he drew near, the moonlight revealed him to be stout, sturdy, and middle-aged, with a peddler's pack on his back and a larger pack on the donkey trotting behind him.
My hand fell away from my sword, and Fisk sheathed his dagger and folded his arms as the man caught up with us.
“Who wants to know?” Fisk asked cautiously.
“I want to know. Are you the Master Fisk who once lived in Ruesport? I've been carrying this letter for almost three monthsâthought I'd never be rid of it!”
A number of conflicting expressions flashed over Fisk's face, and I wondered what enemies he'd acquired in his years as a con man to make him so wary to claim his identity. At least, that's how I interpreted the pause that passed before he finally said, “That's me. Who's it from?”
“You'll have to read it to find that out, won't you?” The peddler dropped his pack to the damp cobbles
and burrowed into a small sack of sealed missives. “Here we are. Three gold roundels.”
“What!” Fisk yelped. “For a letter? A letter three months old?”
“That was the agreed-on priceâone to carry, three on delivery, no matter how long it took. I've carried it, and I've tracked you downâwhich wasn't easy, you know. I found someone who'd seen you three days ago, andâ¦”
The rest of his complaint was lost in the surge of relief that overtook me. He'd been following us for three days! It was this harmless little man I'd sensedâfor the creeping tension at the back of my neck was gone. I'd have paid him for that knowledge alone, but, as I've said, Fisk is better with money than I.
“I'm not going to pay three gold roundels for a letter that old,” Fisk said firmly. “Besides, no one knows where I amâhow could they send a letter after me?”
“That's probably why they sent twenty of 'em. See?” He held the letter up to the moonlight. His fingers covered the sender's name, but the date,
26 Stephen, third Featherday of Cornon
, and the notation,
9th of 20
, were clearly revealed.
Someone cared enough about something to pay twenty gold roundels sending letters off in all directions, in the scant hope that one of them would find
Fisk. And I saw from his expression that he recognized the writing.
The peddler saw it too. “Yes indeed, ninth of twenty.” He rocked on his heels. “I'm lucky to have reached you first, Master Fisk of Ruesport. Traveled quite a way, this has. And for only three roundels you can have it. Or you can try to bargain with the next letter carrier who catches up to youâif another of them does. You're not an easy man to locate.”
We had meant to be hard to locate. Knowing that Lady Ceciel might send men to keep us from reporting what she'd done, we'd been trying to cover our movements. In factâ¦
you trace us?” I asked curiously.
“Very cleverly, if I say so myself.” The little man beamed. “The two of you are pretty ordinary.”
Indeed, we'd done nothing to call attention to ourselves. Fisk's middling, stocky build and curly brown hair make him so average as to be invisible. And though my lighter hair is growing back to its accustomed, noble length, I'm hardly more noticeable.
“I finally got smart and started asking after her.” The peddler gestured to Tipple, who had snuggled against Chant's warm, gray bulk. Even in the moonlight, her ridiculously spotted coat was notable. “A little jester's mare, traveling with a destrierânow
Every groom at every inn you stayed at recognized the description.”
So much for being inconspicuous. I decided that information alone was worth the price and paid him three gold roundels, ignoring Fisk's reflexive yelpâafter all, I had the purse. Besides, the peddler threw in directions to the nearest inn; Toffleton was part of his regular route and he knew it well. I thanked him and we parted with good cheer.
When I turned to Fisk, I found him staring at the letter, still unopened, with very little expression on his face. Fisk can be quite unrevealing when he chooses, but stillâ¦
“Are you going to read it now?” The moonlight was bright enough to read by, but peering over his shoulder as I was, I couldn't quite make out the sender's name.
“None of your business, Mike.”
“Mayhap not.” I know Fisk only calls me Mike to annoy me, but that doesn't keep it from working. “Well, if you're not going to read it, may we move on? The horses are cold.”
Fisk must have been cold, too, and he's usually the first to complain of such things, but for once he merely turned to follow me. He opened the letter and tried to read it as he walked.
“I'm glad to know it was only that peddler I sensed following us,” I said. “For my warning Gift is quiet now. I told you it didn't always work properly.”
“Um,” said Fisk. He was concentrating so hard on his mysterious letter that he tripped into a pothole and recovered himself without even noticing it, as far as I could tell.
“'Tis entirely your affair, but you might as well wait till you get to the inn and can read it properly. If it waited three months, 'twill wait ten more minutes.”
“Um.” I don't think he heard me, so 'tis hardly surprising he failed to notice the two burly men who slipped out of the shadows between a shed and a harness maker's shop.
They carried clubs, and one had a dagger in his belt. My heartbeat quickened. Two men, also armed, blocked the road behind us.
I thrust an elbow into his ribs, and he stumbled and swore. “Why did youâ¦Curse it!”
Our attackers ran toward us.
I started to turn for my sword, but there was a better weapon to hand. I flung the reins over Chant's
head and swung into the saddle. Since he'd seen the men rushing toward us, I hardly needed to make the hissing click that told my tourney-trained mount we were going to fight.
As I settled into the stirrups, I caught a flashing glimpse of Fisk, dagger drawn, edging back behind Tipple. Was he going to face the men behind us? For all his talk of running, Fisk had proved full well that he wouldn't abandon me to danger, but whatâ¦My puzzlement was resolved when Tipple squealed and bolted down the street. The two thugs leapt aside for her, and Fisk started to shout, “Help! Help! Murder! Robbery! Somebody help!”
As he went on in this vein, the thugs turned to each other in dismay, and I touched my heels to Chant's flanks. He thundered down the street toward them, neighing a war cry louder than Fisk's shouts.
They'd leapt aside for riderless Tipple, but seeing me on Chant's back they stepped forward, preparing to strike me off or grab the reins. Most horses won't run over a manâmy good destrier bowled them over like skaddle pins. One crashed into a wall and sank to his knees, but the other retained his feet somehow and lifted his club. I spun Chant in a circle, raked my heels along his sides, and clung to the saddle, shouting in fear and exhilaration as Chant's kick
hurtled me upward. The ballad makers liken riding a war horse in battle to riding the wind, but in truth it's more like trying to ride an avalanche of rolling boulders.
I heard a choked grunt and knew Chant's hooves had connected, but I'd no time to see what he'd done. The man who'd fallen into the wall rose, with a dagger almost as long as a short sword gleaming in his hand. His eyes were fixed not on me, but on Chant. A horse's long throat is vulnerable to edged weapons, but his haunches are less so. I signaled Chant to spin again, and he tried most gallantly, but as he moved I felt him lurch. I sworeâhis weak hind leg had given out. What should have been a graceful spin became a stumble that almost took him down. The thug stepped forward, moonlight shimmering on his blade.
Not to my horse you don't.
There was no time to fumble for my sword. With a war cry of my own, I leapt from the saddle. The thug went down with me atop him, the dagger clattering from his hand. I pinned one of his wrists to the street and caught the other as he reached for my eyes. His face was dark with stubble, and his mouth stretched in a grin that revealed crooked, stained teeth. He was looking over my shoulder.
'Twas warning enough. I gripped him, rolled, heaving
with all my strength, and managed to put him between myself and another thug's lifted club. But now he was on top.
There was a moment's desperate pause as he fought to free his wrists. The second man, who'd been about to strike me down, cursed and started to move around us to where his club might reach my head.
I heard the groans of the man Chant had kicked, the thud of scuffling footsteps, and the ongoing cries for help that told me Fisk was fighting with the last of the thugs, leaving only the two on me.
Unfortunately, that was one too many.
As the standing thug circled, I punched the man atop me in the nose as hard as I could. A muffled crunch and gush of blood rewarded my effort, and he yelped and clutched his face.
Writhing from under him, I shoved him into his comrade's path and leapt backâ¦into a pair of arms that closed around my arms and torso like the jaws of a trap. The man Chant had kicked wasn't injured as badly as I'd hoped.
The man with the broken nose clambered to his feet. Fisk's cries for help took on a frantic note, and I deduced he'd been pricked.
I braced my feet, thrust with my thighs, and rammed the man holding me into the nearest wall. He
grunted, but his grip didn't loosen.
The thug I'd punched stepped forward, blood streaming down his chin. His fist swung, predictably, toward my face. I yanked my head aside, and the blow grazed the face of the thug who held me.
“Hey! Watch what you're doing!”
Twisting frantically, I tried to stamp on his toes, but he felt my weight shift and moved his feet in time. For a moment we performed a strange, shuffling dance.
Then the thug with the club stepped forward and swung it low, cracking it against my shin. The pain was so great that my fear became a distant thing, reduced to irrelevance.
A blow to my stomach took me down. I was on my hands and knees, dizzy, nauseous. My shin throbbed.
Rough hands hauled me to my feet. My injured leg gave way, and I collapsed against one of the thugs. 'Twas all that saved me from the descending club.