The kiss of deception, p.32
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.32

           Mary E. Pearson
 

  Tavish put his needle away and surveyed his handiwork. He patted Sven’s shoulder. “Trust me. It’s an improvement.”

  “I should have let him go first then,” Sven said weakly gesturing to me.

  “You’ll be fine, old man,” I answered, knowing he hated that moniker. I hadn’t even realized how deftly Sven always positioned himself just ahead of me. I wouldn’t let him do that again.

  He and the others slept while I took first watch. We didn’t expect to encounter a patrol up here in the rocks, but then we hadn’t expected to encounter one down below either. The barbarians were lawless unpredictable sorts, with little regard for any life, even their own. I had seen this trying to flush out rogue bands while on patrol. They charged you with violent wild cries and crazed eyes, even in the face of forces they couldn’t hope to overcome. Death over capture was always their choice. I hadn’t pegged Kaden as one of them. I had known there was something about him I didn’t trust, but I never would have guessed he was a barbarian.

  And he was with her now.

  I scanned the black western horizon where only the stars drew its line.

  “I will find you, Lia,” I whispered.

  In the farthest corner, I will find you.

  CHAPTER SIXTY-SEVEN

  My eyes shot open. A deafening screech still rang in my ears, and I faced a black furred beast with bared fangs. I scrambled back, but I was surrounded. Around me, a pack of creatures squealed, baring glistening pink gums and vicious yellow teeth.

  When I finally managed to focus beyond their fangs, I saw creatures that resembled monkeys. Not the cute, tiny clothed ones I had seen on the shoulders of court entertainers. These were nearly the size of a man, and they closed in on me slowly, as if they fed on the terror in my eyes. I jumped to my feet and screamed at them, waving my arms, but they only became incensed, snarling and shrieking at me. After everything I had been through, I was about to be torn apart by a pack of wild animals.

  A horrific roar filled the air, even louder than their shrieks, and they squealed in short panicked bursts, fleeing in different directions. The only sounds left in their wake were my own breaths—and then the breath of another. A low, rumbling huff.

  Something else was here.

  The fire had grown dim, only lighting a small flickering circle. I looked into the darkness beyond the trees. The breaths were slow and deep. A huff. A rumble. A rolling growl. Something larger and more fierce than monkeys was out there. Watching me.

  A chill pressed at my back, and I turned. Two glowing amber eyes were looking at me. I instantly recognized them, and my throat went dry. The hungry stare was something I had never forgotten. He roared again, and one of his paws came forward. Then another. I couldn’t move. He snarled and spit, just like when I was a child, but this time, there was no one to frighten the beast away. What was he waiting for? I knew I wouldn’t have a chance if I turned and ran. It would trigger his hunting instinct, but what was he here for if not to eat me? He stepped closer, and his tail flicked behind him. He was so close now his enormous striped head glowed in the firelight.

  My heart was a rock in my chest, as if I were dead already. He looked at me, and I saw my frozen reflection in the glass of his eyes. He roared again, baring his powerful fangs. He couldn’t frighten me any more than I already was. I opened my mouth, but my tongue was so dry no sound would come out beyond a weak hoarse whisper, “Go away.” His whiskers twitched, his tail flicked, and he turned, disappearing into the forest.

  For several more seconds, I stood there trembling, still too frightened to move—but then I couldn’t move fast enough. I rushed to gather my bedroll and bag. Neither the monkeys nor the tiger had bothered the horse—maybe only I seemed like an easy meal. Was it my simple whispered command that made him leave? I wasn’t going to question my good fortune now. I was getting out while I still could.

  I left the way I’d come, finally inhaling a deep breath when I was free of the hellish forest. I stayed close to its border, seeing that the horizon was already pink, and pushed my horse at full gallop. The sun would be up soon, and I’d be easy to spot out on the savanna.

  Where the forest ended, an outcrop of boulders appeared, and I ducked down a path that wound through them, thankful for the cover, but it proved to be a shallow dead end. The immense scattering of boulders only opened onto a jutting plateau that nearly split the valley below in two. I saw what looked like a well-traveled path winding through it. I dismounted and stepped out on the rocky ledge, wondering if I could make my way down to the valley floor. The updraft was strong and whipped at my hair and skirt. I spotted something in the distance, dust like another stampede, but this one moved slower. And then it shot through me. Soldiers. Not just a small patrol but a miraculous, enormous battalion of them!

  As they got closer, I could tell they numbered at least two hundred, but I still couldn’t see their banner. Or maybe they weren’t flying one? Was it Morrighan or Dalbreck? I’d settle for either right now. I searched for a path down to the valley, but on this side the ledge was a sheer drop. I scrambled to the other side of the point, searching for another way down, and saw more soldiers coming from the other direction, but they were only a small company of no more than thirty. I squinted, trying to see their colors, and caught glimpses of red. Morrighan! And then their horses came into focus, a distinct white and chestnut tobiano leading them. Walther. A flash of ecstatic joy swept over me. But the joy was just as quickly quashed. Then who were the—

  Others. I ran back to the other side, staring at the vast army quickly approaching the point. No, not two hundred. Three hundred or more. No banners.

  Vendans.

  The armies were heading toward each other, but with the point projecting between them, they’d have no warning what they were headed into. Walther had to be warned.

  “Lia.”

  I spun. It was Kaden, Eben, and Finch.

  “No!” I said. “Not now!”

  I ran out to the point, but Kaden was right behind me, snatching at my arms. He caught the shoulder of my shirt, and the fabric ripped away.

  “No!” I screamed. “I have to stop them!”

  He grabbed me, circling his arms around from behind and squeezing me to his chest. “No!” I cried. “It’s my brother down there! Let go! They’ll all be killed!”

  The Vendan army was almost to the point. In seconds, they’d be on top of my brother’s small company, three hundred against thirty. I pleaded with Kaden to let me go. Kicked. Begged. Sobbed.

  “You can’t reach them from here, Lia. By the time we get there—”

  The Vendan army surged around the point.

  I strained against Kaden’s hold. “Let go!” I screamed. “Walther!” But the wind threw my words back in my face. It was too late.

  My world shifted in an instant from lightning speed to slow, stilted motion. Movement and sound were muffled as in a dream. But this was no dream. I watched two kingdoms meet, both taken by surprise. I saw a young man charge forward on a chestnut and white tobiano. A young man I knew to be strong and brave. A young man who was still in love, but consumed by grief. The one with the easy, crooked smile who had taken me along to card games, tweaked my nose, defended me against injustices, and showed me how to throw a knife. My brother. I watched him draw his weapon to bring justice for Greta. I watched five weapons drawn in return, a sword swung, and another, and another, and I watched him topple from his horse. And then a final sword stabbed his chest to finish the job. I watched my brother Walther die.

  One after another, they fell—three, four, five against one in what wasn’t a battle at all but a massacre. The updraft was merciless, delivering every cry and scream in a windy rush. And then there was silence. My legs went limp, as if they weren’t even there, and I fell to the ground. Moans and screams filled my ears. I tore at my hair and my clothes. Kaden’s arms held me fast, keeping me from going over the edge of the cliff.

  I finally slumped and looked down at the valley. The wh
ole company lay dead. Vendans didn’t take prisoners. I huddled on the ground, holding my arms.

  Kaden still held me from behind. He brushed the hair from my face and leaned close, rocking with me, whispering in my ear. “Lia, I’m sorry. There was nothing we could do.”

  I stared at the littered bodies, their limbs twisted in unnatural positions. Walther’s horse lay dead beside him. Kaden slowly released his grip on me. I looked down at my bared shoulder, the fabric torn away, saw the crawl of claw and vine, tasted the bile in my throat, felt the trickle of mucus from my nose, listened to the choking quiet. I smoothed my skirt, felt my body swaying, rocking, as if the wind were blowing away what was left of me.

  I sat there for minutes, seasons, years, the wind becoming winter against my skin, the day becoming night, then blinding again, harsh with detail. I closed my eyes, but the details still shone bright and demanding behind my lids, replacing a lifetime of memories with a single bloody image of Walther and then, mercifully, the image faded, everything faded, leaving only dull, numbing gray.

  Finally, I watched my hands slide to my knees and push against them, forcing my body to stand. I turned and faced them. Eben stared at me, his eyes wide and solemn. Finch’s mouth hung half open.

  I looked at Kaden. “My brother needs to be buried,” I said. “They all need to be buried. I won’t leave them for the animals.”

  He shook his head. “Lia, we can’t—”

  “We can take the east trail down,” Finch said.

  * * *

  Malevolence permeated the valley floor with the stench of blood still seeping into soil, the bowels of animals and men spilled from their bodies, the snorts and mewls of animals not yet dead and no one bothering to put them out of their misery. The fresh taste of terror hung in the air—This world, it breathes you in … shares you. Today the world wept with the last breaths of my brother and his comrades. Had my mother taken to her bedchamber? Was she already knowing this grief?

  A fierce man, tall in his saddle, rode over to meet us with a squad, their swords drawn. I assumed he was the commander of the brutish lot. He wore a beard braided into two long strands. It was my first glimpse of true barbarians. Kaden and the others had dressed to blend in with the Morrighese. Not these. Small animal skulls hung in strings from their belts, creating a hollow clatter as they approached. Long tethers fringed their leather helmets, and their faces were made fearsome with stripes of black under their eyes.

  When the commander recognized Kaden and the others, he lowered his sword and greeted them as if they were meeting for a picnic in a meadow. He ignored the decapitated and broken bodies strewn around him, but very quickly the salutations ceased and all gazes rested on me. Finch quickly explained that I didn’t speak their language.

  “I’m here to bury the dead,” I said.

  “We have no dead,” the commander answered in Morrighese. His accent was heavy, and his words were thick with distaste, as if I had suggested something vulgar.

  “The others,” I told him. “The ones you killed.”

  A sneer pinched his lip. “We don’t bury the bodies of enemy swine. They’re left to the beasts.”

  “Not this time,” I answered.

  He looked at Kaden in disbelief. “Who’s this mouthy bitch riding with you?”

  Eben jumped in. “She’s our prisoner! Princess Arabella of Morrighan. But we call her Lia.”

  Scorn lit the commander’s face and he sat back in his saddle, pushing up the visor of his studded helmet. “So you call her Lia,” he mocked as he glared at me. “As I said, my soldiers do not bury swine.”

  “You’re not a good listener, Commander. I didn’t ask for your savages to bury them. I wouldn’t allow unworthy hands to touch noble Morrighan soldiers.”

  The commander bolted forward in his saddle, his hand raised to strike me, but Kaden put his arm out to stop him. “She’s grieving, Chievdar. Don’t take her to task for her words. One of them is her brother.”

  I prodded my horse forward so I was knee to knee with the commander. “I will say it again, Chievdar. I will bury them.”

  “All? You will bury a whole company of men?” He laughed. The men with him laughed too. “Someone bring the princess a shovel,” he said. “Let her dig.”

  * * *

  I knelt in the middle of the field. My first duty was to bless the dead while their bodies were still warm. The tradition I had eschewed was now all that sustained me. I lifted my hands to the gods, but my songs flowed from that which was memorized to something new, utterances of another tongue, one that only the gods and the dead could understand, one wrung from blood and soul, truth and time. My voice rose, tossed, grieved, cut through the winds, and then became part of them, braided with the words of a thousand years, a thousand tears, the valley filling not with my voice alone but with the lamentations of mothers, sisters, and daughters of times past. It was a remembrance that rent distant heaven and bleeding earth, a song of contempt and love, bitterness and mercy, a prayer woven not of sounds alone but of stars and dust and evermore.

  “And so shall it be,” I finished, “for evermore.”

  I opened my eyes, and all around me soldiers had paused from their duties, watching me. I rose and picked up the shovel and walked toward Walther first. Kaden stopped me before I reached his body. “Lia, death isn’t graceful or forgiving. You don’t want to remember him this way.”

  “I’ll remember him exactly this way. I’ll remember them all. I will never forget.” I pulled my arm loose.

  “I can’t help you. It’s treason to bury the enemy. It dishonors our own fallen.”

  I walked away without answering and stepped around bodies and their severed parts until I found Walther. I dropped to my knees beside him and wiped his hair from his face. I closed his eyes and kissed his cheek, whispering my own prayer to him, wishing him happiness on his journey because now he would hold Greta again, and if the gods be merciful, cradle his unborn child. My lips lingered on his forehead trembling, unwilling to part from him, knowing it would be the last time my flesh touched his.

  “Good-bye, sweet prince,” I finally whispered against his skin.

  And then I stood and began to dig.

  CHAPTER SIXTY-EIGHT

  KADEN

  The whole camp fell silent watching her. Unlike me, none of them had ever seen nobility before, much less a princess. She wasn’t the delicate fleshy royal of their imaginations. One by one, as the hours went by, even the most hardened were drawn to sit and watch, first because of her chilling chants that had saturated the whole valley and then because of her dogged concentration, shovelful after shovelful.

  It took her three hours to dig the first grave. Her brother’s grave. She wrestled his bedroll from his dead horse, tied it around him, and rolled him into the hole. I heard Finch’s throat rattle and Eben sucking on his lip. Though none of us had any sympathy for the fallen, it was hard to watch her kiss her dead brother and then struggle with the weight of his corpse.

  Griz, who arrived later with Malich, had to walk away, unable to watch. But I couldn’t go. Most of us couldn’t. After her brother, she went on to the next dead soldier, knelt to bless him, and then dug his grave, chipping away at the hard soil another shovelful at a time. This soldier had lost an arm, and I watched her search for it and pull it from beneath a fallen horse. She placed it on his chest before she wrapped him in a blanket.

  How long could she go on? I watched her stumble and fall, and when I thought she couldn’t get up again, she did. Restlessness grew in the soldiers around me, strained whispers passing between them. They squinted their eyes and rubbed their knuckles. The chievdar stood firm, his arms folded across his chest.

  She finished the third grave. Seven hours had passed. Her hands bled from holding the shaft of the shovel. She went on to the fourth soldier and knelt.

  I stood and walked over to the supply wagon and grabbed another shovel. “I’m going to go dig some holes. If she should roll a body into one, so be it.
” The soldiers standing near the wagon looked at me, astonished, but made no move to stop me. It wasn’t exactly treason.

  “Me too,” Finch said. He walked over and grabbed another shovel.

  The squad flanking the chievdar looked from him to us uncertainly, then drew their swords.

  The chievdar waved his hand. “Put them away,” he said. “If the Morrighan bitch wants to bleed her fingers to the bone, it will provide fine entertainment for us all, but I don’t want to be here all night. If these fools want to dig some holes, let them dig.”

  The chievdar looked the other way. If he had been tired of the display, he could easily have put an end to it. Lia was a prisoner and enemy of Venda, but maybe her chilling song had triggered enough of his own fear of the gods to let her finish her work.

  Eben and Griz followed us, and probably to the chievdar’s dismay, seven of his soldiers did too. They grabbed picks and axes and whatever they could find, and next to the fallen we began digging holes.

  CHAPTER SIXTY-NINE

  We spent the night in the valley not far from where the slain were buried and set off again the next morning. It was three more days to Venda. This time we were flanked by a battalion of four hundred. Or six hundred? The numbers didn’t matter anymore. I only stared forward, letting my head bob freely with the jostling rhythm of the horse. The view in front of me was of Eben’s horse, his lame front leg making the others work harder. He wouldn’t make it to Venda.

  My clothes still dripped. Only an hour ago, fully dressed, I walked into the river that ran the length of the valley. I didn’t feel its waters on my skin, but I saw the gooseflesh it raised. I let the current wash through my bloodstained clothes. Walther’s blood and the blood of thirty men ribboned away through the water and traveled home again. The world would always know, even if men forgot. I had found Gavin facedown not far from my brother, his thick red hair easy to identify, but Avro and Cyril weren’t as easy to recognize—only their devoted proximity to my brother made me think it was them. A face is hard and sunken in death once the blood has drained away, like carved wood in a casing of thin, gray flesh.

 

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