The night seethed with an energy and anticipation that brought the goose bumps to Weyland’s arms. He reined his horse to a halt. Someone was out there. Something was going to happen. The foreboding heightened his senses. The smell of human sweat, urine, and wood smoke floated on the breeze that blew over from the camp. The fall of a boot ground pebbles and sand underfoot. A glint of moonlight flashed on steel. Weyland slipped from the saddle and slapped his horse into a walk. He shadowed the animal as it picked its way along the narrow wash leading to the army’s encampment. He didn’t want to be silhouetted on the back of a horse when someone was sneaking about the underbrush.
The path wound its way amid the high heather and the scattered bunches of oak and beech trees. Laro Forest loomed dark and impenetrable to the east. Weyland had finished his circuit of the archers from his company who were posted to guard the camp. The Duke of Saylen had chosen this ground for the coming battle and now waited for the Salassani to make the next move. The scattered canopy of oak, beech, and the occasional patch of serviceberry splintered the light of the full moon, casting fragmented and shifting shadows as the breeze played through the branches. Weyland was still inside the pickets where no enemy was supposed to be. Yet he had seen that flash of steel.
Harsh whispers followed by a grunt and a gasp disturbed the night. Something heavy crashed through the heather and rolled down the gentle slope into the wash. Weyland crouched low, hugging the shadows, listening to the sound of retreating footsteps. The scattered moonlight flashed across a striped surcoat for an instant before the undergrowth swallowed the shadowy figure.
Weyland crept toward the sound of ragged, labored breathing. It might be one of their own men who needed help. The man lay in a heap against the trunk of the oak tree that arrested his fall. Weyland recognized the crest of the Duke of Saylen stitched to the man’s cloak—a stag set against a teardrop shield. Kneeling beside the dying man to see if there was anything he could do, he lifted the fold of the cloak.
A pale face with wide, dark eyes stared up at him. The man made a feeble attempt to defend himself until he realized that Weyland wasn’t going to attack him. His eyes widened, and he snatched at Weyland’s wrist with a vice-like grip.
“To the Duke,” he said.
The words gurgled in his throat. Weyland recognized him as one of the lesser nobles attached to the Duke’s household. But Weyland was a simple archer. He led a company of twenty bowmen, while his friend Neahl led a company of scouts. He was no one the Duke would recognize or even notice, let alone give him an audience. The man slipped a tiny, metal tube into Weyland’s hand.
“Take it to the Duke,” the man whispered. “Tell him to beware of Geric.”
The Duke of Saylen appraised Weyland with a shrewdness beyond his years. He was a stout, young man with short-cropped, sandy-brown hair, and dark eyes. The Duke’s father had died two years back, and the young Duke rapidly made a name for himself as a competent general and a dangerous opponent both on and off the battlefield. He couldn’t be more than twenty-two years old—only three years older than Weyland.
Weyland knew little of the strife at court save the nasty, salacious stories the poor liked to spread about the ruling class. It was rumored that the Duke had taken a fancy to a Carpentini servant at his manor in the Taber Wood in the south, despite the fact that he was married. Still, Weyland was surprised the Duke agreed to see him. Nobles seldom gave any consequence to common soldiers like Weyland. He had been with the army for almost a year, and he had never spoken directly to the Duke.
But, like most of the soldiers in the Duke’s army, Weyland respected him. The Duke didn’t waste the lives of his men by sending them into hopeless, frontal assaults against prepared enemy positions.
He preferred to lure the Salassani onto ground he had chosen. The Duke also fought with and worked alongside his men. He dug trenches, felled trees, and often ate with them. There weren’t many people Weyland respected and fewer for whom he felt real loyalty. If the Duke hadn’t been a nobleman, Weyland might have been his friend.
The Duke waited until his guards had disarmed Weyland and then dismissed them. When they were alone in the tent, Weyland tried not to fidget. Nobles were trouble—even ones like the Duke. It was always best to avoid their notice. What bothered Weyland the most, however, was knowing that he was unarmed in the presence of a man who had the authority to kill him if he wished. He felt naked and vulnerable without his short sword at his hip.
Weyland liked to think of himself as a good-looking, young man, with his thick brown hair and pale silver eyes. But standing in the presence of the Duke in his beautifully furnished tent and bright mail armor, left him feeling diminished, almost trivial. Nobles had a way of doing that. It was one of the things Weyland disliked about them.
“You have a message for me?” The Duke rested his hand on the pommel of his sword. He wore a polished mail shirt even in his own tent, and the dagger and sword were always on his hip. He looked like a man who didn’t trust anyone.
Weyland extended his hand with the small metal tube. “He said to deliver this to you and to beware of Geric.”
At the mention of the name Geric, the Duke’s eyes narrowed, and he snatched the tube from Weyland’s hand. Poking a quill into the tube, he drew out a tiny roll of paper, which he unrolled and read quickly.
The Duke snapped his head up to glare at Weyland. “Have you read this?”
Weyland shook his head. “I came straight to you, My Lord.”
The Duke studied him for a moment as if trying to decide whether he believed him, before nodding. “Thank you,” he said. “But you are to tell no one what you have seen or done tonight. Do you understand?”
“Yes, My Lord.” Weyland itched to be gone. He avoided nobility whenever possible. It was too easy to rub them the wrong way and end up in trouble.
“There was something else, My Lord,” he said.
“I saw someone running away wearing a striped surcoat.”
“Did you recognize him?” The Duke’s gaze was intense. He clenched his jaw.
“No, My Lord.” Weyland understood why this annoyed the Duke. The red and blue striped surcoat belonged to a noble family from Brechin that had risen to power only recently. And now someone in their employ had murdered one of his men.
“No, My Lord.”
“You may go.”
The young Duke dismissed him with the ease of a much older and more experienced noble. Weyland bowed and turned to leave, anxious to be out of his presence.
“One more thing,” the Duke said. Weyland glanced back over his shoulder. “Watch your back. Now that you’ve been seen at my tent, you’ll be a target.”
Weyland nodded and stepped outside to retrieve his weapons from the guards. He buckled his sword belt around his waist and slipped his boot knife into its sheath before striding away from the Duke’s tent. This is why he avoided nobles.
The chaos of battle roared over the heather-covered hills. The Salassani sprang up the wash on their sure-footed ponies bending their short, recurve bows to send a shower of arrows into the ranks of Alamani nobles and peasants rushing to meet them. Men shrieked in pain and roared in anger. Horses screamed. Metal clashed, and the sickening smell of battle filled the air.
Weyland crouched just inside the cover of the trees behind the line of sharpened stakes he and his company had pounded into the ground and sharpened with their own knives the day before. Two dozen arrows were rammed into the ground beside him, within easy reach. The Salassani charged, never knowing the archers were there.
The captain gave the signal, and Weyland drew the string of his ninety-pound longbow to his ear, found a target, and loosed. The shaft whipped from the bow and drove straight into the side of a passing Salassani. The left flank of the Salassani rush faltered as horses and men fell under the shower of arrows to be trampled by those behind. But the center of the Salassani line drove through the mass of Alamani warriors, penetrating all the way to where the Duke’s blue standard fluttered in the breeze.
Weyland worked methodically, selecting his targets with care so that no arrow was wasted, when a cry from the center of the battlefield caught his attention.
“To the Duke,” they cried. “To the Duke.”
Somehow the young Duke had become separated from his guard and was fighting like a wildcat to break free of the encircling crowd of Salassani horsemen who sought to cut him down.
A burly Salassani horseman barreled through the kicking and biting horses behind the Duke, raising his sword for the kill.
Weyland swung to the left, drew his bow to his ear, let out his breath to steady his shot, and loosed the string. The arrow arced over the battlefield, a flash of white goose fletchings against the pale blue sky. It was seventy paces at least to the target, and Weyland stood still as the arrow reached its peak and began its descent.
The big Salassani horseman closed with the Duke. His sword caught the light of the newly risen sun as it flashed downward. Weyland’s arrow plunged into his throat, passing all the way through. The man’s stroke faltered and glanced off the Duke’s mail shirt.
The Duke spun in desperation to see the Salassani slip from his saddle and fall to the bloody, trampled earth. The Duke’s guard rallied and drove the Salassani back.
In the pause, as his men surrounded him, the Duke gazed over the battlefield to where Weyland stood. Weyland raised his bow and nodded before returning to the battle. It had been a good shot. If only Neahl, his best friend, had been there to see it.
“Thank you,” the Duke said as he washed the blood and grime from his hands and face in the basin a man-at-arms brought him. The groans of the injured and dying still filled the air. The stink of death had become overpowering.
“No need to thank me, My Lord.”
“Maybe not,” the Duke said. “But I thank you all the same. My life may not have value to very many people, but it still has value to me.”
That seemed an odd declaration for him to make. Weyland bowed his head to avoid looking at the Duke.
As soon as the battle ended, the Duke had summoned him. Weyland now faced the second interview in as many days with a man he had never expected to speak to personally. And he hadn’t planned either one. He needed to figure out how to stop attracting so much attention from the nobility.
The Duke finished washing and stepped close so only Weyland could hear him. Weyland stiffened, unsure what the Duke intended.
“I need good men,” the Duke said. “Men I can trust.”
Shifting his feet, Weyland didn’t respond. He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear anymore. He had no quarrel with any noble—only with the Salassani who raided his village and killed his entire family. His motives and needs were simple enough. The last thing he wanted was to get mixed up in noblemen’s quarrels.
“You have a horse?” the Duke asked.
“I need you to ride to Brechin to the tavern by the front gate.”
“My Lord,” Weyland began, “my men—”
“Will survive without you.” The Duke finished his sentence for him. “You will find a young woman with auburn hair.” The Duke placed a copper coin in Weyland’s hand. “Give her this.”
“My Lord, I’m just a common archer.”
The Duke smiled. “No common archer could have made that shot,” he said. Then the Duke bent close to whisper in his ear. “This kingdom is poised on the edge of a knife, if you throw in your lot with me, no matter which way it falls, I can protect you.”
Weyland swallowed. He had heard rumors of infighting and intrigue, but that was normal politics as far as he knew. Yet here was the Duke, the only noble he had ever met personally and the one who led his army with so much skill and respect for his men, asking for his help. He could say no and escape into the heathland where the Duke would never find him. But that would only make him an outlaw and show disrespect and disloyalty—two things Weyland despised the most in foolish men.
“Yes, My Lord,” he said. What choice did he have?
“Go at night and don’t be seen,” the Duke said.
“What am I to tell her?” Weyland asked.
The Duke smiled. “Nothing. She’ll tell you what to do.”
Weyland ducked under the flap of the tent. Neahl would call him a fool for getting mixed up with a noble. But he couldn’t see how he could avoid it.
“What are you doing?” The voice sounded harsh in the darkness of the close wood where Weyland had picketed his horse.
Weyland jerked his dagger from its sheath and spun in a crouch. But it was only Redmond, Neahl’s younger brother. Weyland shook his head and clicked his tongue in annoyance.
Redmond was a tall, lanky youth about seventeen years old, two years younger than Weyland. He survived the raid on their village and joined Neahl and Weyland as they pursued the Salassani into the heathland. He was young, but he was as skilled at woodcraft, tracking, and fighting as any man and better than most.
“Be quiet,” Weyland snapped as he sheathed the dagger and straightened. “I could have knifed you.”
Redmond smiled. “Maybe,” he said. “You could try.”
Weyland yanked the girth strap tight, but the mare had filled her stomach with air in anticipation of being saddled. He punched her and then yanked again as she let the air out of her belly. He couldn’t afford to have his saddle loose tonight.
“Where are you going?” Redmond whispered.
“You don’t need to know,” Weyland said. The Duke warned him not to tell anyone, and he figured the Duke would find out if he did.
“Neahl will want to know.”
“Look,” Weyland said. “I have a job to do. I’ll be back in a couple of days.”
Weyland strung his bow and slipped it over his head to nestle beside his quiver. He picked up the reins and turned back to Redmond, who stood quiet with his jaw set the way he did when he was angry or offended.
“I’m sorry, Redmond,” Weyland said. “I have to go, and I can’t tell you where.”
Redmond frowned. “You’re in trouble, aren’t you?”
Weyland mounted. “Not if I can help it. I’ll be back. Don’t follow me. You’re needed here.”
He kicked his horse into a walk and ducked into the trees. Now was not the time to worry about Redmond and Neahl. He had to get past the sentries and the Salassani without being seen or caught.
For a moment, Weyland wondered if the Duke had sent him on this mission to test him—or maybe just to get rid of him because he knew too much. He hadn’t forgotten that the assassin who killed the Duke’s man had been wearing a surcoat from Brechin. Now the Duke was sending him to the same city on an apparently secret errand. What could be more important than stopping the Salassani invasion? Why would he send a common archer? He had no head for intrigue. He was a fighting man.
Weyland approached the sentry line, grateful the moon hadn’t yet risen. The cover of darkness would allow him to slip away. He grabbed the horn of his saddle, kicked his feet free of the stirrups, and slid sideways until he was clinging to the side of the horse opposite the sentry. He let the horse move slowly, browsing as she went. With any luck, the sentry would think it was just a stray horse who lost its rider in the battle.
The rich smell of the heather filled his nostrils as it brushed his face. The heather in the southern heathland grew tall and in large bunches. Weyland had always loved the smell, especially after it rained. Up in the village of Comrie, before the Salassani burned it to the ground, Weyland spent long hours hunting in the heather and tilling the earth with his father.
He had always lived close to the land, but now he lived by his bow and by his sword. The Salassani had driven him from Comrie, leaving him with neither family nor land. He spent the last couple of years roaming with Neahl and Redmond, seeking revenge upon any Salassani they met. Neahl took special delight in cutting off Salassani ears and keeping them as souvenirs because he knew it terrified the Salassani and because the Salassani had cut off most of the fingers from Neahl’s right hand so he couldn’t draw a bow.
Weyland was growing tired of running, always wondering if the Salassani were tracking him at the same time he tracked them. He thought he might enjoy a quiet life with a wife and family. But now he had complicated his life even more by allowing the Duke to entangle him in intrigues that didn’t concern him. He wouldn’t have done it for any other noble.
The sentry gave a cry as the horse grazed into view. Someone rushed toward them, and Weyland remained silent, letting the horse pick its own way. The muscles in his arms and legs began to burn. As the footsteps approached, his horse trotted out of range and began grazing again. A few more feeble attempts at capturing her failed, and soon she left the line of sentries behind.
Weyland dragged himself back up into the saddle and massaged his aching arms and legs. He hadn’t pulled that trick in a long while and forgot how much strength it took. He kicked his horse into a slow canter to start putting the miles behind him. He hadn’t gone far when someone cried out, and the sound of galloping hooves pounded into the night. Weyland leaned low over his horse’s neck and kicked her into a gallop. If the Salassani caught him, he was a dead man.