Chapter Fifteen
The Skirmish
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Reshton whispered. He reached for the loaf that Eslaveth offered him, adjusting his pack across his shoulders. “You’re a coward, hiding behind loyalty to the king, keeping yourself shut away in the kitchen while he murders your neighbors.”
She flinched, but raised her chin. “Our king murdered my father. But I don’t think his men deserve to die for his crimes.”
Reshton’s shook his head. “Repeat that to yourself when he sends those same men to harm you. Wake up, Eslaveth!”
Eslaveth pressed her lips together, releasing the bread and turning back to the dough, punching it hard. The door slammed behind Reshton, and she closed her eyes as the room blurred around her. This wasn’t about the king. This was about protecting their guest from being punished for deeds they did not do.
No on knew what the plotters called themselves. They met at night in secret, creating elaborate plans to overthrow the monarchy. Since they could not gain his ear, they attacked the people who could: soldiers, lords, even the castle’s servants who ventured into the town. It started peaceably with petitions they begged the people to carry along and present to the king. Then humiliation, tricks played, things stolen, anything to anger the victims and force them to speak up.
Lately though, it had turned to threats and violence. One of the maidens who worked in the castle had been backed into a corner, one of the sons of the local lord had been roughed up and spent the night tied to a tree. Last week, the home of one of the local judges had been set ablaze. He’d escaped with a toddler in both arms, but his wife and three other children had been pulled from the ashes.
It was the soldiers who presented the greatest targets. Sworn to serve the king’s family, they faced death if they did not defend the crown. They were trained, armed, and authorized to respond to any disturbance. If any of the plotters were looking for a fight, the soldiers presented the perfect opportunity to find it.
But Danel wasn’t going to speak to her for months, now that his father had released Reshton from working in the stables. She hoped the servant that Prince Kael sent was well disguised. Honestly, she hoped it was the gray-eyed rider.
“Katomeir,” she whispered, rolling her eyes as she pushed through the doors to the diner. She glanced over the faces, but they were familiar; guests who had checked in, or locals stopping for a bite to eat.
It was nearly noon when three soldiers threw back the doors. She heard the boisterous laughter before she saw the blue uniforms. Their faces were young, shining like boys on holiday, and they moved easily with the swords strapped at their sides, like toys hardly noticed by their owners.
The laughter perked her mouth just a bit, for Reshton’s words and Danel’s betrayed looks stung too fresh to find glee at any reminders. The soldiers took a short table by the windows, arguing about who had to share the bench until one ended the dispute by sitting sideways on the bench, extending his legs across the length.
“Ayth, Joshah!” His red-bearded companion called. “That fancy sword’s getting to your head.”
“Aye,” the second soldier answered. “You’d think he’s a korvier or something.”
The bench-sprawled spread his hands. “Just saving a seat for my brother.”
“Go ahead. I’m not interesting in sitting beside your brother,” said the redhead. He shook a finger. “Now your sister…”
The boy’s feet swung downward, thudding against the floor as he took the bait. “She’s too good for you, Daton! You so much as kiss her hand, and you won’t have any fingers left.”
“Oh come, now. That’s too cruel,” Daton said. “I happen to have very nice fingers who never did anything worthy of such vehement severance.”
The third soldier, slightly older and already balding, rested his hands into his fingers as Eslaveth stepped to the table.
“Can I get you cider?” she asked.
“I’m not sure cider is strong enough for a day with these two,” the man answered.
“Oh, come,” the dark haired boy said. “You have one hour left, and then things will be dull and you’ll miss me.” He turned brown eyes toward Eslaveth that made her heart double beat. “Can you bring four ciders? We’re expecting another.”
“Of course,” Eslaveth answered.
She turned, pausing as she saw the eyes she’d been searching for.
Katomeir stepped into the doorway, gray eyes roving the room and meeting hers with a flash of recognition. He smiled and so did she, but before she could tell him they’d keep Karlyn, the boy behind her called, “There you are! Ayth, boy! When are you going to get a proper sword?”
Eslaveth turned back to the kitchen, frowning. He was meeting the soldiers, and one was his brother. Was Katomeir a secret guard for the prince? Had he come to see her or them? Or was the meeting a cover for him to interact with her without raising suspicion? No matter what, it was just as well. He was wearing a dagger today, but with three soldiers, it was unlikely he’d be hurt before he returned to the castle.
Still, they were all above her station, and it wouldn’t be proper for her to speak to any of them, much less ask the questions that were bubbling inside her. She returned with the mugs, walking slower than normal to give herself time to eavesdrop.
“The army still has room,” the dark haired boy said.
Katomeir smiled. “I’m not much of a fighter.”
“You’d have a chance to meet Father,” the boy said.
The gray eyes lifted, swirling with good and bad emotions that were gone before Eslaveth could define any of them.
She smiled to cover confusion as she passed out the mugs. The gray-eyed boy clasped the mug, covering the tips of her fingers to stall her. “Did you find a place for the boy?”
She nodded. “He’s helping Danel in the stable today. My aunt and uncle said he could stay, provided he doesn’t steal anything.”
“What boy?” Daton asked.
“They were going to hang a boy yesterday,” Katomeir said. “She planted herself out there and argued with Master Tarvyn to spare him. It’s too bad you’ve missed it. She’d have impressed you.”
His brother laughed. “Glad I missed it. I might have been ordered to silence you, and then I’d have gotten a beating because I wouldn’t have done it.”
“Well, in that case,” Eslaveth answered, “I’m glad you missed it, too. There have been far too many beatings here already.”
“Hey, girl!”
Eslaveth winced as Ansler’s husky voice carried from a table behind her. “You going to bring food to the rest of us, or are you going to hobnob with the king’s puppets all day?”
Rusty eyebrows shot high as Daton lifted his eyes to Katomeir’s brother, clearly the highest rank at the table. His mouth parted before he gave the slightest shake of his head, deflecting the bait.
Eslaveth stepped back. “That depends on how patient you are. We don’t serve rude people.”
“Just sword slaves.”
“Stop it.” Eslaveth turned, setting her hands onto the man’s table.
“Because we don’t want any trouble at the Tevere Breotte,” he sneered. “Do we?”
“No,” she said. “We don’t. I’ll get you a cider, but only if you’re going to sip it quietly.”
“Quiet as a mouse,” he said. “You be a smart one not to bring me ale. I hear it burns. Hot. And quickly.”
Get out.
She bit back the words, stomping to the kitchen, buying herself time to think. Her uncle’s loyalty to the Castallion family was no secret, but Ansler must be a plotter who’d heard about Reshton’s release.
Her hands shook as she pulled the plug of the barrel, watching the golden liquid pour into the mug. They wouldn’t burn the inn, surely? Not for releasing one worker, when they normally served the wealthy and peasants alike.
Her aunt was cleaning the rooms. Her uncle had gone to fetch more supplies. She closed her eyes. He was trying to intimidate her, but they’d done nothing wrong and he was on her territory. She gripped the handle to the mug, pressing her back against the door.
It opened, colliding with something soft, jolting her. Hands grabbed her arms to steady her as the cider sloshed between her best cranberry tunic and the deep brown vest of the prince’s servant.
“I’m sorry,” Katomeir whispered.
“It’s fine,” she answered.
His eyes were closer than she’d ever seen them, and her heart jumped when the gray reflected the flash of light before the door cut off the sunshine in the kitchen.
“We’re leaving,” he said. “I left Kael’s pay on the bench. I thought it best not to make a scene. Do you need us to take that man with us?”
Her eyes darted back to Ansler, whose eyes followed her movements though he never turned his head.
“No,” she said.
Ansler would know she was scared, and unless the boys locked him up forever, he would only return.
“Be careful though,” she said. “We dismissed a stable hand this morning for plotting. They’ve been targeting the king’s workers lately.”
Katomeir nodded. “We’ll ride quickly and try to avoid a fight. The soldiers don’t want bloodshed any more than the people do.”
She nodded, wondering when she’d see him again. The prince’s servant. A brother in the army. Most of the castle workers were born from generations who served the king and lived entire lives behind the walls of the castle.
“The red-haired soldier,” Katomeir said, “will be stationed in town for the next two weeks. Let him know if you have trouble, and he can get word to the others.”
Eslaveth’s fingers tightened on the ale. The protection brought both gratefulness and fear. Soldiers were to remain impartial, interfering only when danger presented itself. She nodded. “Thank you.”
He stepped back, but she spoke once more. “So… not a bandit,” she said. “King’s Man out of uniform?”
The man grinned. “Still wrong.”
“Companion to the prince,” she said.
“Closer.”
“Really?” The question betrayed her surprise. His brother was a soldier; he couldn’t hold an actual title. But what did she know of the upper ranks?
“Good day, Eslaveth.”
He bowed slightly before he left, confusing her even more. Ansler’s eye caught her, and she turned back to the kitchen, fleeing behind the door. She closed her mouth, forcing the curiosity into indifference. She needed to clear the table, retrieve the money left for Karlyn, and continue her day.
She pushed her back against the door, slowing her steps as she searched for Ansler. He’d vacated his place, along with two other boys who had yet to pay for their fare.
She frowned. The soldiers were retrieving their horses and leaving. What more could the men want?
Horses. The stable.
She caught her breath, plopping the cider in front of a man who perked at the gift. Eslaveth darted past a couple coming into the door, trotting down the steps toward the stable where the soldiers retrieved their mounts.
The eldest soldier swung onto his horse, turning to say something to Katomeir’s brother. As he turned, his animal screamed, leaping into a bolt. The saddle flipped, dumping its rider beneath the hooves.
“Joshah, watch it!” Daton called as Joshah abandoned his own mount, letting the animal run while he rushed to his companion on the ground. Eslaveth glimpsed blood seeping from the thinning hair.
Katomeir clung to the bridle as his buckskin danced around him. The animals ears pressed against his head, his eyes rolled, while his back hunched trying to free himself from the saddle.
Eslaveth rushed to the horse, reaching to unbuckle the saddle, flipping it from the animal’s back before dancing away from the hooves. The saddle blanket fell, sprouting the twisting vines of stinging nettle.
“Five of us!” A voice called. “And only three of you. Four if you count the inn girl.”
Eslaveth swung with Katomeir as Reshton stepped from behind the stable, completing the loose circle that Ansler and three other men created.
Daton face reddened until it matched his hair. “We fought in the battle of Leander, against enemies three times our size and came out victorious. Do you expect us to be frightened? Go home, and we will not take this to the king.”
“Take it to him!” Reshton called. “If he’s going to kill his own people, tell him to come fight us himself!”
“Reshton, go home, please!” Eslaveth begged. “These men are not your enemy.”
Joshah stood, holding his hands up for silence. His voice reverberated against the walls as he spoke. “Bringing the king’s anger onto yourself will not further your cause.”
“If you’re on such intimate terms with him, tell us what it take to make him hear?” Reshton called.
Passer-byers paused as eyes swung to the soldier, who hesitated. “If you cannot in good conscience support the actions of the king, do not take your loyalty from the prince. Prince Kael has heard your cries for help, and though his power is currently limited, he is working in your behalf. When you fight the crown, you undermined his efforts.”
“You’ve got some pretty words on you!” A peasant holding a pitchfork called. “Did your father teach you to stall? How about we give you a message to take to him, and he can work out a treaty with his own king?”
Joshah ducked, using his forearm to ward off the brick that a second man hurled through the air. Katomeir swung Eslaveth between himself and the building, unsheathing his dagger.
“No fighting!” Joshah ordered.
Ansler rushed toward him, swinging a board. Joshah stopped the wood with his blade as Daton put his fingers to his mouth, giving out a piercing whistle that would signal any soldier within hearing distance.
Katomeir swung onto Shaton’s bare back, turning the animal to block Eslaveth. Joshah hacked deep grooves into the board as he drove Ansler back. “Go on!” he called, like the men were dogs. “We don’t want blood! Go on.”
Reshton rushed into the open area between Joshah and Daton, flashing his own knife. Tehveor spurred Shaton forward, leaping onto Reshton’s back to pin him to the ground. Eslaveth backed against the wall, pressing her hands to her head as the two boys struggled to take command of the weapon.
Joshah’s blade emerged from Ansler’s back, in, out, and then the man fell as the korvier swung toward his brother. Tehveor held Reshton’s hand, squeezing his wrist as he rolled on top, knocking the knife from his opponent’s hand. His own blade flashed near Reshton’s throat, but he shoved himself backward, springing to his feet with both blades.
“Now stop!” Joshah snapped toward the other men. “We will let you walk away if you stay away from this place. If you are not happy with that arrangement, we can take your friend to see the king himself, but his words will fall on deaf ears and he will not come out alive. If you wish to serve freedom, serve Kael.”
Eyes shifted from the dead peasant, to the wounded soldier, to the unarmed captive, to the son of the Erish ambassador. One of the men held out an arm to Reshton.
“Come alone, son. They’ve heard us.”
Reshton backed toward his companions, glaring at the men who had granted him mercy. “We can’t afford to wait for Kael,” he said. “We can’t last that long, and we’ve no guarantee that he’ll be any different.”
“Then ask the little boy who lives here,” Joshah replied. “Let that be your evidence.”
He stood still until the men left together and the bystanders coaxed frozen limbs into compliance, clearing the yard.
“Shouldn’t have let him go,” Daton said. “They’ll regather and return.”
“I know,” Joshah said.
The redhead stepped back, tonguing his teeth before he turned to aid the soldier on the ground. Eslaveth pressed both hands to her mouth, watching the blood ooze from Ansler’s back. Katomeir panted, eying his clean blade before sheathing it.
Joshah spun toward him. “Where’d you learn to disarm someone like that?”
“Remarr,” the boy answered.
“Why don’t you ever fight with me like that?” Joshah demanded.
“You’re my brother,” Katomeir said. “I’m not trying to kill you.”
Joshah shook his head, then turned toward Eslaveth. “Are you well?”
She nodded, relieved Reshton’s blood wasn’t mingling with Ansler’s, but still sickened when the soldier knelt by the fallen saddle to dig out a cloth. He wiped the blade as he spoke. “What’s your name?”
Eslaveth hesitated. Even if he heard the story, the king couldn’t know her name or discover whose daughter she was. She searched for a common name. “Evae.”
“Thank you for warning us, Evae,” Joshah said. “I’m assuming you know that man’s family?”
Eslaveth nodded, avoiding Ansler’s dull eyes. She’d never liked him, but she’d never seen that much blood leaking from a body.
“Daton, use my blanket to cover that corpse,” Joshah called. “Evae, please see that his family gets word so they can retrieve him. Tehveor, take this girl inside and make sure no one else bothers her.”
Tehveor.
Her eyes swung to the brother, the prince’s companion, the – korvier. She’d offered a hoof pick to the son of a prince, teasing him about talking to his horse and calling him a liar.
But he had lied.
Tehveor sheathed his dagger, stepping toward her. Eslaveth turned toward the back alley, eager to hide in the kitchen until things had calmed and she could return to spooning food onto plates.
“So you protect peasants and royalty alike,” Tehveor said. “I didn’t nearly kill a friend of yours, did I?”
“No,” she answered, before remembering all the teasing passed between Danel, Reshton and herself. “Well, a little. He’s not…truly bad. He’s desperate.”
But could she really defend Reshton to a man he’d tried to kill?
Tehveor frowned, but asked, “Why did you tell Joshah your name was Evae?”
“Why did you tell me yours was Katomeir?” Eslaveth asked.
Tehveor winced. “Fair enough.”
They reached the back door before she turned on the step, hesitating when she realized she was standing above him.
“Why didn’t you use your dagger?” she asked.
“That dagger wasn’t meant for him,” Tehveor said.
“He’s only frightened of the king. You must understand,” Eslaveth said.
“We’re all frightened of the king,” Tehveor returned quietly. “And I do understand.”
She gripped the doorway. “Is he really as brutal as they say?”
Tehveor flinched, the silver muddling into a storm before he dropped his eyes. “It’s not for me to say.”
She’d never seen the king, but she’d heard the gruesome rumors circulating. She’d been hoping they were exaggerated, but now she stood before a family member who lived with him and wouldn’t speak of it.
Tehveor swallowed, then lifted his face again whispering, “Eslaveth. Wait for Kael. You’ve seen his compassion, and the people must be made to see it too. Things will change when he rules.”
She nodded, but he whispered again with more emphasis. “Wait. Wait for your prince.”