Panic fluttered a wing in Gair’s chest. ‘I’ll need some clothes.’
‘Already taken care of.’ Alderan pointed at a bundle on the settle by the hearth. Wrapped up inside a stout winter cloak, Gair found several plain shirts, some breeches and a sheepskin jerkin, hardly new, but all neatly mended. They were also his.
‘Where did you get these from?’ he exclaimed. Everything was there, from smallclothes upwards. Even his boots.
‘The Chaplain’s poor-box. I reckoned the Order owed you a little charity. I think this is yours as well.’ From the back of his chair, Alderan unhooked a broad baldric carrying a longsword in a simple leather scabbard. He laid it next to their plates.
Gair dropped his clothes and returned to the table. The sword was a plain soldier’s weapon, ungilded, with only knot-shaped bosses on the cross-hilts and a moonstone set in the centre for ornamentation. The dark baldric was supple from use, worn shiny under the buckle. Of all the things confiscated by the Lord Provost’s marshals when he was arrested, this was the only item he had really wanted back, though it was as shabby as the rest. He rubbed his fingers over the hilt. ‘I never thought to see this again.’
‘It’s precious to you?’
‘It’s all I have that’s really mine. The Church gave me everything else.’
‘You can thank me later. We need to move.’ Alderan pulled saddlebags and bedrolls from a closet, piling them on the floor. ‘Hurry, Leahn!’
Gair eased the sword part-way from the scabbard. Heavy, double-edged steel gleamed at him under a thin sheen of oil. He heard his foster-father’s voice again, harsh and bitter. Take it. You might find a use for it in time. If the Goddess grants you the courage you’ll fall on it. Slowly he slid the blade home. ‘Thank you, Alderan. I don’t know where to begin to repay you for your kindness.’
The old man dismissed it with a wave and a shrug. ‘It’s not necessary. I wasn’t prepared to leave you there and I’m sure if our roles were reversed you would do the same.’
‘Until they are, I am in your debt.’
‘Consider it a loan, then. When I think of something you can do for me, I’ll ask, and then we’ll be square. Done?’
‘Now that honour is satisfied, will you for the love of the saints get dressed?’ Camping gear joined the pile in a clatter of tin plates. ‘Or were you planning on greeting the witchfinder in a robe that barely covers your stones?’
Gair felt eyes on him the moment he left the stableyard. He caught no one looking, and from what Alderan had told him of events outside the Motherhouse gates, the shave and clothes should render him unrecognisable, but his spine crawled under the imagined scrutiny. He shifted in the saddle. ‘Everyone’s looking at me.’
‘They’re not, trust me,’ the old man murmured. ‘Relax. Try to look like you’re enjoying the ride, and we’ll be out of here in no time.’
‘Easy for you to say,’ Gair muttered. ‘You’re not under sentence of death.’ He scanned the crowd eddying around them as they picked their way across a busy junction. His borrowed horse tossed his head, fidgeting with his bit.
‘It’s just your imagination. Saints, lad, breathe! You’re as tense as a nun in a bawdy-house.’
‘I can’t help it.’
‘I know, but you’re upsetting your horse. If he bolts you really will have every eye on you and we can do without that.’
Gair made himself sit still. His right hand, holding the reins, he rested loosely on his thigh and let his hips move with the rhythm of the horse’s gait instead of fighting against it. By the time they had reached the far side of the Cornmarket and swung west towards the Anorien Gate the horse had settled into an easy walk.
Alderan gave him a nod. ‘Much better. When you look as if you have every right to be there, everyone else will assume that you have. Generally, people believe what they see.’
‘You sound like a slitpocket.’
‘But I don’t look like one, do I? The best slitpocket is the one who looks just like another ordinary citizen. Sneaking about is the fastest way to draw attention to yourself.’
‘I still feel as if everyone’s looking at us.’
The old man chuckled. ‘Do you know how many people pass through these gates in a day? In an hour? Thousands. We’ll be invisible in plain sight.’
If only I felt half that confident. Gair glanced around him, but casually this time, giving his gaze something to rest on other than his horse’s ears. No one appeared to be paying any mind to him, but every time someone’s eye caught his, however briefly, he felt uneasy.
‘How far to the gate?’
‘Less than a mile. Look, you can see the towers.’
He followed Alderan’s gesture. Two square grey towers were just visible at the far end of the street, white banners curling like feathers against the sky. The sun sat a hand’s breadth above them. Plenty of time then, though he was sure he could see it sinking as he watched.
Ahead the crowds thickened and slowed to a crawl. Carters sat their wagons in ragged lines, laughing and calling to each other over the heads of those on foot. Sober-skirted Dremen goodwives in starched linen coifs stood elbow to elbow with Belisthan trappers in buckskins. Young nobles on fine-boned Sardauki saddle-horses were obliged to give way to a farmer in pursuit of a mud-spattered sow with no mind to be sold. Caged fowl squawked, pedlars flourished their boards of ribbons and lace and slowly everyone inched closer to the gates and the winding dusty ribbon of the Anorien Road.
By the time the gatehouse’s shadow fell over him, Gair was nibbling his lip anxiously. The witchfinder’s presence in his head had faded still further the closer they came to the gate; surely that meant the search had turned to one of the other four roads out of the Holy City. He hoped so. His nerves were stretched tight as lute-strings as it was.
At the gates themselves, a party of Church Knights stood guard, surcoats gleaming in spite of the dust. They watched the townsfolk going to and fro but made no effort to inspect the carts that plodded along the road. Gair imagined their eyes boring into his back the instant he rode past. He all but swallowed his tongue when one of them called: ‘Halt!’
Alderan glanced back over his shoulder at the Knights. Though his expression was no more than idly curious, his eyes were sharp. Gair tried to emulate his casual attitude, but his heart was still leaping in his chest. A brewer’s dray stood immediately behind them, drawn by two pair of towering Syfrian bays with scarlet ribbons woven through their manes. The drayman twisted round in his seat and tipped his hat back to watch the Knights push through the throng. Gair looked forward again. The crowd was funnelling into the gate ahead, with barely a scrap of daylight to be seen. Men and horses shuffled either side of him; no room to dismount. His mouth dried even as fresh sweat broke out across his back.
‘Come on, come on,’ he muttered. The chestnut danced from foot to foot, unhappy with the close quarters.
Alderan laid a hand on his arm. ‘Easy. I don’t think they’re coming for us.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Not entirely, no, so stay alert. Can you still hear our friend?’
‘Not as close as he was, but he’s still there.’ Gair stood in his stirrups to look round behind him, but the arched necks of the dray horses and the rampart of barrels blocked his view. Nothing to see but sweating men and restive animals. Somewhere up ahead an ox-team lifted their tails and added a bovine tang to the fug.
‘Smell that fresh country air,’ said Alderan.
Gair looked across at him. The confined quarters and soupy air made him uneasy and every minute he waited plucked more spiky, staccato notes from his overstretched nerves. Yet the old man appeared completely unmoved, sat in his saddle like a sack of turnips and picked at his teeth.
‘How can you be so calm? It’s like a cattle-crush under here. We’ll never get away,’ Gair said, peering behind him again. The guards were closer; he heard them shout at a carter to clear the way.
Alderan flicked away whatever he’d extracted from his teeth. ‘I’m not, but fretting won’t make the crowd disappear. We just have to wait it out. Yes it’s taking a bit longer to get out of the city than I would have liked, but there’s nothing we can do about it. There are things in this life we cannot change, we must simply accept. Death. Taxes. Queues.’ He grinned suddenly, like a fox. ‘Look at you. Anyone would think you had something to hide.’
Gair said a word that would have earned him a birching from the Master of Novices and sat down.
Alderan’s laugh rang out, rich as port wine.
At last the guards came round the dray. Quickly Gair faced forwards and gathered up his reins in anticipation. He couldn’t bear much more. If the Knights were coming for him, he had no idea what he would do. He had no room to even draw his sword, much less turn to face them. He chewed his lip and tried to work some moisture into his mouth, but he had no spit to spare.
‘Ho, master drayman!’ a guard shouted. ‘One of your barrels is leaking!’
Merciful Mother, thank you. Weak with relief, Gair leaned on the saddle-horn and let out a shaky breath.
Alderan grinned again, but not unkindly.
Ahead of them the crowd began to move. The press diminished, at last disgorging them into the evening sunshine. Once past the last sprawl of houses clustered against the city wall, Alderan reined his horse onto the verge and halted in the shade of a copse.
‘Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?’ he said. ‘You’re safe until dusk and even then they’re going to be looking for a fugitive, not some arrogant young lordling out for a ride in the country.’ Gair bridled at the description. ‘Forgive me the choice of words, but you have that look about you. It’s the way you carry yourself, as if you own the space you occupy. I don’t think anyone would ever suspect you’d been beaten senseless a few hours ago.’
‘Arrogant?’ Gair repeated.
‘Perhaps it’s a family trait.’
‘I have no family. I was found on the chapel porch a few days after I was born.’
‘You know, that has the ring of a story to it,’ Alderan said. ‘The orphaned boy with the crown-shaped birthmark that identifies him as the lost heir to the kingdom, and so forth.’
Gair shook his head. ‘No crowns. No kingdoms. Just a soldier’s brat put out to charity.’ He had worked that out long ago. His name-day, the one he’d been given, was close to Eventide; assuming a normal confinement that meant his mother had conceived early in the spring, round about the time the local levies were coming through on their way to Leahaven to take ship for Zhiman-dar, where the army staged for the final push against the Cult. It took little imagination to work out the rest.
Perhaps his father had been a braveheart, one of the thousands lost to the bloody sands of Samarak. Or perhaps the truth was more prosaic, some country girl played false by a liegeman, too poor or too ashamed to keep the child she found herself with when the soldier was long gone.
Lips pursed, Alderan watched him a moment, then squinted along the dusty road on the south bank of the Awen towards the settling sun. ‘We should keep moving. I reckon there’s two hours of good daylight left. Do you feel up to a canter?’
Gair shifted in his saddle. His bruises ached steadily now as the motion of the horse stretched his muscles. Scabs snagged on his clothes and pricked at him all over his back and legs, but his belly was where the questioners had worked the hardest. ‘I can try.’
‘Then let’s put some distance behind us.’
The road followed the course of the river west and south, up the flank of the valley and onto the moors, where it forked. Gair reined up, twisting in the saddle to look back. From this distance Dremen was a jumble of blue slate roofs, church spires thrusting through the evening haze. It looked just what it was, a provincial capital humming with ordinary people living out ordinary lives, but for the city within a city that occupied a slight rise somewhat to the north of the centre. Pale walls girdled a glorious confection of domes and gilded cupolas where sunlight flashed on windowpanes and pennons streamed from every graceful spire. Tallest of them all were the twin towers of the Sacristy, soaring heavenwards as if to touch the glory of the Goddess Herself.
Rising almost as high behind the Citadel was the Motherhouse. A grim, unlovely construction of grey Dremenirian granite, it stood four-square to the north and wrapped its massive walls around the inner city like a mailed arm. Its towers were blunt and regular, its windows mere watchful slits. The Suvaeon Order had guarded the Church for more than two thousand years, defending her against unbelievers with armour of righteousness and shields of faith, backed up with good Syfrian steel. Its uncompromising bulk straddling the neck of land between city and river loomed ready for two thousand more.
‘There’s still a way to go, Gair,’ Alderan called from further ahead, but Gair barely heard him, caught up in memories. He’d first seen the Holy City, ten years ago, from almost this exact spot. Now it, like his foster home, had turned its back on him.
Hoofbeats sounded as the old man nudged his horse up beside him. ‘Even from here it looks a hard place,’ he said.
‘It’s all I’ve known since I was eleven years old.’ Gair fingered the bandage on his left hand. For better or for worse, the Motherhouse had left its mark on him, as surely as his magic had. He would never be the same again.
‘The border’s not far to the south,’ said Alderan. ‘You could be in Leah in a few days.’
‘You have no kin at all there? No one who would take you in for a day or two?’
‘I told you, I have no one.’
‘Have you thought where you might go?’
‘Where can I go, with this?’ He held up his left hand. Damn it, I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to get away, as far away as possible. Jerking the chestnut’s head around Gair urged him along the right hand fork of the road. It led southwest over the heathery uplands towards the mountains and Belistha beyond. The road was good, beaten smooth by centuries of travellers, so he let the horse have his head. A few paces behind, he heard Alderan shout after him, then the sound of hooves as the old man spurred his mount up to a gallop. He did not look back again.
A league or more passed as the sun settled lower in the sky, flushing the moor with red-gold warmth. As the road drew nearer the foothills it dipped into a winding glen. Shadows threw parts of the trail into gloom, so Gair slowed his horse to a walk. He was too close to the parish boundary now to throw his liberty away by breaking his mount’s leg in a hole in the road.
If circumstances had been better, it would have been a pleasant place to stop. Kingfishers quartered the river pools beneath thickets of blackthorn and ash where sparrows bickered. Telltale circles broke under the clouds of insects, hinting at larger fish to be had – trout, most likely, and a summer’s evening was about the best time to catch them.
Steel glittered in the sun as lances rose above the road ahead. They were followed by a row of shining helms, white plumes nodding. Gair reined back as Church Knights trotted out of a fold in the ground and formed in a line across the road. Five matched greys tossed their heads, silver curb chains jingling, and five silk pennons fluttered in the breeze. Cursing, Gair swung the horse round to look for Alderan. The old man sat his mount quietly some forty yards back, with five more Knights behind him.
The trail was blocked. To his right was the river, thirty yards across and Goddess knew how deep. To his left, a steep slope scarred with scree and boulders. Probably just about climbable, if he led his horse, but there was no way to know what lay at the top. The Dremenirian moors were rumpled like an old blanket, criss-crossed with streams and dells where armed men could be waiting. The only other way out of the trap was to go straight through the line. He swung his horse back round.
‘In the name of the Goddess, stand fast!’ bellowed a Knight with the red cord of captain round his arm.
Five men, armed and armoured. Heavy cavalry, the Church’s finest, and a world apart from quintains and straw-stuffed dummies, but Gair had done little else for the past ten years. The longsword hissed out of its sheath.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Alderan demanded, urging his horse alongside. ‘Do you see the red rose badge on their shields? They’re Goran’s men.’
‘Goran wanted to see me roasted. If he can keep me in this parish until dusk, he’ll get his wish.’
A movement behind the captain caught Gair’s eye. Another man, with a shabby hide jerkin, on a dun-coloured pony. His watery blue eyes slid around the scene like a couple of raw eggs in a skillet, but they kept coming back to him.
Alderan followed Gair’s gaze and grunted. ‘Witchfinder.’
‘I thought we’d slipped past him.’
‘So did I. Either I was wrong, or he made a really good guess which of the five gates we’d take.’
Gair stared at the man as that underdone gaze slid off him then pulled back. The prickle behind his forehead intensified. ‘How does he do that?’ He scrubbed his face with the back of his hand, but it was useless. The witchfinder made his brain itch. ‘I’ve got to get past them.’
‘Gair, there’s no point. They can track you across a hundred miles with him. Leave it.’
‘No.’ His horse shifted under him, tossed his head. ‘I can’t let them take me. I’ve got to get past.’
The chestnut was no war-horse, but he was steady and strong. Gair started him forward. Alderan’s voice calling his name was left behind. He was not going to go back.
‘Stand fast, in the name of the Goddess!’ the captain shouted again.
Ignoring him, Gair touched his heels to the horse’s ribs and brought his weight forward, holding the sword across his body. He had only one chance to get this right. If he failed, he would die, spitted on a lance or bound to a stake, it made no nevermind.
Ahead of him, the Knights sat their horses uncertainly. There were too few of them to effectively block the road and too many to get out of the way. As the captain bawled at him to stand, Gair heeled the chestnut to a dead run and aimed for the gap between the second and third Knights. Lances wavered halfway to the couch and gauntleted hands sawed at reins, but by then it was too late. Yelling ferociously, he charged through the line and on down the road. He was through!
More mailed Knights rounded the next bend at a trot. Their lances were already couched. Gair hauled on the reins so hard the chestnut almost sat down in the road, then urged him back the way they had come. Holy Mother, I don’t want to die. A spur of rock ran down to the road, fractured into a crude staircase. He set the horse at it and dug in his heels. The chestnut scrambled up the first step, then another; Gair lifted his weight out of the saddle to help him. Another leap, steel shoes skidding, gorse clawing at Gair’s boots. He looked up at the ridge-top and saw more Knights.
A sick dread sat on Gair’s stomach. He had nowhere to go. The Knights were advancing, the trap Goran’s hound had set closing around him. Ansel’s reprieve had risked the Curia’s wrath for nothing.
Then his ears began to ring with a keening note.