I lay on my stomach and peered over the edge of the ravine. The River Scarf trickled between the sharp, jutting rocks below us. The river, once a raging torrent rushing from the Fanchetti Plains in the south towards the Manx farmlands further north, looked more like spit sliding between carnivorous, grey teeth.
“What are you waiting for, you horrid little toad?” The voice belonged to Lady Sofiere, who currently hung upside down from a rope bridge directly above the Scarf.
I had explained to her that the bridge looked unsafe and that she should wait until I crossed before following, but common sense and obedience were both lacking in the annoying twit. I got to about the middle when she decided it looked safe enough and started stomping across after me.
I tried to send her back, but she ignored me. When I felt the bridge start to give, I sprinted for the other side, throwing myself onto firm ground, just as the rope guard rail on one side snapped and Sofiere went over like an acrobat doing a cartwheel.
“Come back here and help me,” she demanded, her voice rising in volume.
I cupped my hands around my mouth and shout-whispered at her. “Hey! Your Ladyship. Try to keep it down. It’d help greatly if you didn’t give away our location to the people trying to kill us. So, with the greatest respect, shut your cake-hole or I’m leaving you here.”
“I have no idea what a cake-hole is,” she said, no quieter than before, “but I will make all the noise I want. If our attackers find me, at least they won’t leave me hanging like this.”
“And then what will they do to you?”
She remained silent swaying from side to side, arms hanging limp below her. I crept back to where the bridge was moored to the edge of the cliff.
Large wooden posts were sunk into the ground. Two lower ropes with wooden slats between them, and two higher ropes to hold onto as you crossed. Time had done its work, and the higher rope on one side had disintegrated.
I placed a foot on the bridge and a hand on the guide rope. Neither felt very secure. I decided to take another tack and got down on my hands and knees.
I gingerly placed my hands on the wooden slats and shifted my weight onto the bridge.
“Hurry up. I command you!”
“If you’d listened to me in the first place, you wouldn’t be in this predicament.”
“I did nothing wrong,” she hollered. “The bridge took your weight, so obviously it could take mine.”
“Since you are now hanging over certain death, obviously you were mistaken.” I was still keeping my voice low to avoid detection, but more out of habit than anything else. If our pursuers were in the vicinity, there was no way they hadn’t heard her.
The wooden boards seemed to be securely fastened. I lowered myself onto my stomach and edged out. The bridge wobbled in unwelcoming fashion.
“Is that really the fastest you can move, you slug? Your don’t need to worry about dying,” she continued to prattle, “because when I tell my father about this, he’s going to have you killed.”
It was tempting to cut my losses, but I needed her alive. I slid out further. “You think others haven’t tried?”
“He’ll find someone better than you. There’s always someone better.”
“True.” I pulled myself forward. The slats rattled under me. “There used to be quite a few better than me. I killed them all.”
“If they were better than you, how did you manage to kill them?”
“Well,” I said, “they don’t call me Grin the Cheat because of my sense of fair play.” I was close enough to see what was keeping Lady Sofiere from falling. The buckle on her left boot had caught on the rope fibres, and thanks to excellent stitching and a perfect fit, she was still alive. Say what you like about the filthy rich, they don’t skimp on their cobblers.
I slid forward one more body length and looked down through a gap at Sofiere glaring back up at me.
“Okay, before I pull you up, we need to come to an understanding.”
From her expression, I’d guess she was not in the mood to negotiate, but she didn’t have much choice.
“From now on,” I said, “you will do exactly as instructed — no whining, no complaining and no arguing.”
“Fine, whatever, just hurry up.”
“No, I need some sort of assurance. This rock you all pray to, what’s it called?”
“It’s not a rock, it’s the Brother Stone.”
“I want you to swear on the Brother Stone.”
She stared up at me, tight-lipped.
“Come on. I know how seriously you God Brotherers take that thing. Swear or stay here. Your choice.”
I saw that look again, but then she let out an exasperated sigh. “I swear. All right? I swear by the Brother Stone I will do as you say until we reach the fort. And then I will have you skinned alive.”
“Good enough.” I tucked my legs under me and rose to a crouch.
The bridge wobbled. I waited for it to calm, then I grabbed Sofiere’s boot and began swinging her from side to side.
“Hey! Stop that. What… Hey…”
I yanked her up, rising to my feet as I did so.
“Don’t struggle now. If I lose my grip, you’ll fall and be smashed to pieces on the rocks below.” The momentum made each swing a little higher. “But don’t worry, if you do end up a bloodied corpse, I’ll tell your parents you died valiantly. I’m an excellent liar.”
It is common practice among rich families to demonstrate their wealth by the size of their daughters. A nice plump lass indicates a man of means. Fortunately that wasn’t the case here. Sofiere was a mere slip of a girl, and with one last swing I was able to bring her up and slap her down onto the bridge.
However, our position was precarious, made even more so by Sofiere’s penchant for running off without thinking. And that was if the bridge didn’t fall apart first.
I turned, her boot still in my grip, and ran. I kept to the middle of each slat to help maintain balance, hoping none of the ones I landed on were rotten. Behind me, I heard Sofiere yelp and squeal as I dragged her along until we landed in a heap on solid ground.
I dropped to my knees, breathing hard. My shoulder felt like the joint had been pulled out of its socket.
Sofiere lay where I’d dropped her, moaning quietly. “Oh, my face. It feels strange.”
She lifted her head and the problem wasn’t hard to spot. I’d dragged her across the bridge face down and she must have hit every slat on the way. What had once been a very charming and attractive little nose was now a purple monstrosity.
“I can’t feel my nose,” she said, touching herself on the face. “Does it look all right?”
She’d feel it in a second. “It’s fine,” I said. “Just a little red. Here.” I took a small jar of ointment out of my belt and smeared some on my finger. “Keep still.” I dabbed it onto the end of her nose.
She flinched and jerked her head away from my touch, ready to blast me with some choice insults, but then stopped. “Oh, that is better. Very soothing.”
“Romulade cheese. It’s very good for—”
“Grin the Cheat!” came a gruff shout. “Grin of the Seven Blades!”
I turned sharply and looked back across the bridge. On the other side, half a dozen men had emerged from the forest with weapons drawn. They wore dark leather with no marks of allegiance. I recognised them as part of the group that had ambushed our caravan.
I got to my feet and raised a hand. “Something I can help you gentlemen with?” He knew my name, which meant either I was a lot more famous than I thought, or someone from Sofiere’s retinue had told him. Had they told him anything else about me?
The largest of them stepped forward, one foot on the bridge. “Walk away and we’ll let you live,” he said, his voice so calm and confident I nearly believed him. “We only want the girl.”
“You walk away,” I shouted back, “and I’ll let you live.”
This cause a little confusion as the men looked at each other.
“If you will not yield the girl,” said the large one, “then let me make you this offer. We are both professional men, let us settle this between ourselves. You and me, winner takes the girl. I will order my men not to attack if you defeat me in single combat.”
I had no doubt his men would rip me to pieces if I managed to beat him. “I accept your challenge. Come across and we’ll settle this like men.” If he thought I was going to fight him one on one like an honourable gentleman, he clearly had no idea who I was.
We had a number of options. Run away and hope to lose them in the forest behind us, or destroy the bridge.
I eyed the thick ropes holding the lower part of the bridge. Sawing through them would take time and leave me exposed. A number of the men on the other side had bows, and I didn’t fancy playing the role of practise dummy.
I moved my hand to my belt. In one of the pouches, I had a small vial of snake acid. A drop would be enough to burn through the rope in less than a heartbeat. I could have used it immediately and left them stranded on the other side, but if one or two happened to be crossing at the time, so much the better.
My fellow professional took two paces backwards and then charged forward with reckless abandon. He leapt onto what was left of the bridge with seemingly no concern for his personal safety, bounding forward in large strides, sword drawn, yelling some unintelligible battlecry.
Typical. I tiptoe across with everything threatening to crumble under the gentlest of footfalls, while this oaf stomps on every board like he’s testing it for dry rot, and nothing.
I pulled out the vial and rushed forward to apply the acid, but arrows came fizzing through the air, driving me back.
His men had taken up position either side of bridge and were emptying their quivers in my direction.
I dived behind a rock where Sofiere was already crouched and looking appropriately terrified. Arrows thudded into the ground. I couldn’t get to the bridge, and we would be exposed if we tried to run into the trees.
I still had the vial in my hand. I was loathe to use it all — the snake it came from was a tricksy critter and not very cooperative when it came to being milked for its venom, but I had scant choice. I tossed the little glass bottle at the bridge. It arced high and smashed against one of the wooden boards.
The arrows stopped flying, and I popped my head up. My fearless challenger was almost across, and behind him his men followed. The smell of snake acid eating through the bridge wafted through the air, an acrid stench that curled the hairs in my nose.
The bridge disintegrated under them. The men seemed to hang in the air, legs moving but no longer going anywhere. And then they dropped from view.
Their leader screamed, “Coward!” as he fell, which hurt my feelings a little, but not as much as the rocks hurt his.
I turned and helped Sofiere up, and couldn’t help but flinch when I got another look at her face. Her big purple hooter seemed to have spread.
“What is it?” she said, seeing the way I was looking at her.
“Nothing. We have to get out of here. Those men weren’t bandits, they were professional mercenaries. There’ll be more.”
She gave me a sarcastic smile. “I thought you were Grin the Cheat, the man who takes on his betters and wins. What would you have done if they’d made it across the bridge? How would you have outsmarted all of them, oh devious one?”
“Easily. I would have handed you over and been on my way. You’re the one they’re after.”
She looked at me in disgust. “What kind of a man are you?”
“The kind who isn’t dead.”
I checked everything was secure for the journey ahead. Six daggers inside my jacket, a seventh in my boot, and twelve small pouches on my belt, containing enough poisons to lay waste to a medium-sized town.
“Come on,” I said to Sofiere, “we’re going to have to get a move on.”
She didn’t move and didn’t look like she was planning to.
“You do remember the the oath you took? In the name of Brother Stone?”
“The Brother Gods won’t hold me to promises made under duress.”
It’s something of a universal trait among the religious types I’ve encountered in my journeys, that their adherence to their faith is far greater when giving orders than when taking them. Although, to be fair, I had left her hanging longer than entirely necessary, and the promise had indeed been extracted without leaving much room for negotiation.
“I wouldn’t have thought a god who traps his own brother in a rock would be quite so lenient with oath-breakers. But you would know better than I.”
Sofiere’s eyes narrowed, and her chin rose defiantly. “That’s right, I would. Elder Brother is a kind and just god. Why else would he send his only brother to watch over us? It shows that we are his chosen people and forever under his protection.”
“I don’t know if you have brothers of your own, Lady Sofiere, but I grew up with three of them, and if I’d had the chance to stick them in a rock and send them far away, I assure you, where they ended up would not have been of too great a concern. Such is the nature of brotherly love. In any case, your word was given — if you now choose to retract your pledge, I understand perfectly. It’s the sort of thing I do all the time.”
She glared at me. “Can I at least have a moment to give thanks?”
“Of course. You’re welcome.”
“Not you!” She said it with such vehemence, I took an involuntary step back. “I want to thank Elder Brother for his protection.”
“Sure. Thank him all you want, even though I’m the one who saved you from your own stupidity. Next time I tell you to wait before crossing a ramshackle bridge, perhaps you’ll listen.”
She came charging at me, index finger leading. “Don’t you understand who I am? I’m here because the Brother Gods commanded it. Every step I take is a step guided by them. I don’t make mistakes. Everything that’s happened was meant to happen.”
“Well, unfortunately, no one told the bridge. Now shut your mouth, my lady, and do as you’re told, and maybe I can still get you to your wedding on time.”
The mention of upcoming nuptials didn’t produce the kind of response you might expect from an eager bride-to-be. I might as well have told her we were going to go jump into the nearest volcano.
“Is that why we’re standing around arguing about nothing?” I asked her. “This one of those forced marriages, is it? Were you hoping to run away with the stable boy?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“But you aren’t keen on this union, are you?”
“Of course I’m not! Compared to the citizens of Manx, the Fanchetti are no better than animals. I’m headed for a life of abject brutality, and my own family are the ones responsible. All so they can prevent an invading army from crossing our borders for a year or two. I’ll be no more than breeding stock to produce a handful of offspring for my beloved husband, and then killed in my sleep most probably. But how I feel about it is irrelevant. This wedding has to take place.” Her head dropped. “It has to.”
I could see there was a story there, just waiting to be coaxed free. I had no intention of hearing it. “Great, then we should get a shift on. We may have the shorter route, but our pursuers have the horses. If they ride hard, they can still beat us to our destination.”
To one side, the ground rose to a peak. On the other, dense woodland covered the slopes. It was a good forest for hunting, if you happened to be the hunted. The relentless noise — chattering and whooping and buzzing of insects — would make detection difficult. The trees were close together, providing excellent cover. And the steep incline meant anyone working their way up towards us would be far more exhausted than we.
Once we were under the canopy of massive fronds, the light was cut in half, but our path was clear — downhill. We skipped and skidded, grabbing onto trunks and branches to slow our descent.
“You shouldn’t worry so much,” I said as we darted from tree to tree. “The Fanchetti aren’t so bad. They hired me to make sure you get there in one piece, so they must consider you of some value. If you’re to be breeding stock, you’ll at least be a prize mare. All the oats you can stand and a rub down twice a day. There are worse ways to live.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“I’m just saying, nothing’s ever as bad as it seems. You get used to it.”
“Thank you for the advice. In future, please keep it to yourself. And you might want to keep a weapon ready.”
“Why? Do you think the squirrels are planning something?”
It was noisy, but I still heard Sofiere’s exasperated sigh quite clearly.
“This mountain is called the Knuckle. You’ve heard of the Knuckle, haven’t you?” She said this as though speaking to a child. When I said nothing, she continued as though speaking to a child that had been dropped on its head. “It is a haven for bandits, savages and murderous scum. Many of them acquaintances of yours, no doubt. There are known to be hundreds of them living in camps all over this side of the mountain. And then there are the monsters.”
She was quiet after that, although it was the most aggressive silence I’d ever encountered.
As we became familiar with the terrain, we moved faster. You had to be careful not to allow momentum to take over. Every two or three paces there was something to jump over or dodge, and if you lost your footing, you could find yourself breaking your fall with your face.
If I hadn’t been so wary, I might have been unable to stop myself when the ground suddenly fell away into a sheer drop. I grabbed onto the nearest bough, my feet swinging out into space. Sofiere went flying past me at full speed. I just managed to catch the back of her coat and reel her back in. We both clung to the tree.
“I saw something,” she said. “Down there.”
I got down on my knees and crawled to the edge. Below us was the road we would have been on if we’d been able to continue our journey to Fort Cardom. On the road there was indeed something moving.
A man on a horse rode back and forth. The horse stamped and shied as though sharing its rider’s jittery disposition. He was wearing a bright red jacket of the Manx livery, and he had a large yellow plume sticking out of his hat. I recognised him from our retinue, one of the soldiers meant to guard our caravan. His voice rang out.
“Sofiere! Sofiere! It is I, Campian. If you can hear, my lady, make yourself known. Hurry! We do not have much time. Our enemies approach!”
Sofiere stood up and waved her arms over her head. “Ca—” was as far as she got before I grabbed her from behind and pulled her down with my hand clasped over her mouth. We hit the ground hard which knocked the wind out of her. I lay on top, my head raised listening for any sounds.
She began to struggle beneath me, but I clamped down harder. Her teeth bit into the heel of my palm.
“Stop it,” I whispered into her ear. I brought a dagger up, so she could see it. “One sound and I cut your throat. Understand?”
She stopped struggling. I pushed the blade nearer her face, and she nodded. I released her mouth and wiped the spittle off my hand. She hadn’t drawn blood but she’d come close.
“What are you doing?” she whispered. “That’s the captain of my guard. He’s here to help us.”
“Didn’t you see what happened to the rest of your men? They were all cut down, even those who surrendered. How did that jumped-up twerp escape without so much as a scratch?”
Sofiere’s face squirmed. “He must have broken through their lines and then lost them in the woods as we did.”
“In that outfit? I don’t think so. Face it, someone betrayed you, and he’s just made it to the top of my list.”
“Campian isn’t a traitor. I guarantee it.”
“What are you doing?” Campian’s voice proclaimed. “I told you to stay hidden until I gave the signal.”
I clambered over Sofiere to get a clearer view of the road. A scarred, sinister-looking ruffian in leather breeks and a ragged cloak was crouched behind the horse’s rump. I recognised him too — one of the men who attacked us.
“We just received word that the main force has made camp beyond the pass.”
“Have they brought the bloodwolves?” asked Campian, his voice not quite so shrill and plaintive now, more haughty and dismissive.
“Aye, my lord.”
“Very well, send for them immediately. Now get out of sight. Disobey my orders again and by the Brother Stone, I swear I’ll slit your abdomen open and strangle you with your own intestines.”
“If it be the will of the Brother Stone—”
The man scurried away to the other side of the road and disappeared into a thick cluster of bushes.
Sofiere had crawled up beside me. “I can’t believe it.”
“You know,” I said to her, “for someone who never makes mistakes, you’re wrong an amazing amount of the time.”
“I’ll have him skinned alive,” Sofiere muttered to herself while glaring at the top of Campian’s head. “And then hung, and then set on fire.”
“We’ll have to avoid getting killed first. Let’s go before they set their wolves on our trail.”
I crept back the way we’d come and then headed further along the ridge, but there was no way down, and the escarpment forced us back into the forest. The steep incline now worked against us, sapping our energy as we climbed over serpentine roots and fallen trees.
“Where are you going?” Sofiere asked. “The fort’s back that way.”
I paused, holding onto a thin trunk, the heel of my boot wedged against an exposed root to stop myself sliding down. “If this forest is as inundated with bandits as you say, then there will be other ways out. We just need to find one of their hidden trails.”
“And how will you find them if they’re hidden?”
“I grew up in a forest much like this one. You learn how to track creatures, human or otherwise. It isn’t too difficult when you know what you’re looking for.” I reached up and stripped a handful of bright orange berries off a vine growing around the tree I was holding onto.
“No!” Sofiere lunged forward and slapped the berries out of my hand before I could put them in my mouth.
“Hey! I was eating those.”
“You fool! Those are jupp-jupp berries.”
“I know.” I grabbed another handful and tossed them into my mouth. “Mmm, tangy.”
Sofiere’s lips flapped soundlessly for a moment. “That’s impossible. No one can… You’re trying to trick me.”
I collected more berries and put them in a pouch. “You know, instead of jumping around like a loon, you could just ask me how I’m able to eat these when one bite would make you bleed from every orifice.” I paused to let her ask, but her lips remained sealed. I tied the filled pouch to my belt, wiped the juice from my chin and turned to continue the climb.
If there were hundreds of bandits living on the mountain slopes, their woodcraft was excellent. I found few signs of forest trails, and those I did find were old and overgrown, leading nowhere.
The higher we climbed, the steeper the incline became. Dense thickets, perilous ridges poised over deep ravines, and always the direction we wanted to go denied us by the long precipice that ran alongside. Eventually the tree line broke to reveal a near vertical rockface. Our choices appeared to be go back the way we’d come, or start climbing.
Sofiere was exhausted and gasping for breath, otherwise I’m sure she’d have made a few colourful comments about my skills as a tracker.
The rock wall curved away into the distance.
I shielded my eyes with a hand. “What’s that?”
Sofiere looked to where I was pointing. “I believe it’s called a mountain.”
“No, that line, rising up to that jutting rock… where does it start?” It seemed too straight to be a natural fault line. I followed the lower end to where it eventually reached the ground. It was a thin ledge, barely the width of my boot. I placed one foot in front of the other and slowly ascended, both hands pressed against the rockface.
“Are you mad?” said Sofiere. “Where are you going?”
“Just wait there. I’ll see if this leads anywhere.”
The ledge rose gently, and it didn’t take too much effort to reach where the jutting rock prevented sight of the rest of the mountainside, although it was heel to toe all the way. Trees still towered over me, but I was high enough to be killed if I fell. I leaned back to see around the corner. The ledge kept going at least until the next bend. And it seemed a little wider. I edged backwards until I could see Sofiere.
“There’s a path. Come on.”
She didn’t look keen. “We’ll be killed.”
“My goal is to get you to Fort Cardom alive. Alive is the only way I get paid, they were very clear on that point — I double-checked — so stop wasting time. Once they put their bloodwolves on our trail, we won’t be able to get very far in any direction.”
A distant howl cut through the forest sounds as if to confirm my point. Sofiere gingerly began to follow me up the side of the Knuckle.
The ledge did indeed get wider — wide enough to stand with our backs to the mountain and shuffle along crab-wise. It continued to rise and disappear around the next bend, and then the next, girdling the mountain like a thread wound around a thumb.
Eventually we broke through the forest canopy, and the treetops spread out before us like a green meadow. The ledge grew wide enough to walk along as though strolling along a mountain path, but I continued with my back to the wall and my gaze on the horizon.
A violent zephyr raced across the rockface and flattened me against the wall, threatening to brush me off like so much lint. I looked back to see Sofiere not moving. I shuffled back towards her.
“I can’t. We’re going to die. You don’t even know if this goes anywhere.”
“It must do. Nobody’s going to build a path that goes nowhere, are they? So, it stands to reason it goes somewhere.”
She closed her eyes and lifted her face to the skies, breathing fast and hard.
“Did I tell you I met your intended when I was in the Fanketta capital?” I asked her. “You’ve only seen a painting of him, haven’t you?”
Her eyes opened, and she glanced sideways at me.
“He’s quite the imposing figure in real life. A big, hairy giant. Disturbingly hairy, actually. His face is like a fur coat with a nose. And his arms are covered in thick wool, like the great gibbon apes of the Northern Unbearables. But some women like that sort of thing, don’t they? And let me assure you, once you’re married, there’ll be no better man to keep you safe and protected. He’ll wrap his big, furry arms around you and bury your face in his huge red-stained beard. And he always has his impressive weapon in his hand. I’m sure he’ll show it to you on your wedding night. He’s said to take it with him wherever he goes, in the bath, in bed, when he’s on the privy. A gigantic sword that can cut men in half with a single blow that he has named ‘Knifey’. So you see, you will be quite safe once we get you to him.”
The look of fear had left her eyes, to be replaced by something altogether more violent. Falling seemed no longer to be a concern, not for herself anyway.
“You really are an idiot.” She came prowling towards me as surefooted as an alley cat across familiar rooftops. “You dare mock me?”
Distracting her from the horrible death most likely awaiting the smallest misstep had done wonders for her sense of balance.
“Grin the Idiot is what my brothers used to call me. But they were all murdered in their sleep, while here am I on the side of a mountain with a girl who’d take great delight in pushing me off. So, who’s to say who the real idiot is?”
I stepped lively and set off ahead of her.
“To be honest, if you are going to marry a man of influence,” I said, speeding up as she closed on me, “better to marry a big brute who likes killing things. Once you get a few generations in, it’s all balding, chinless, wonky-faced toffs. It’s the inbreeding. I’m sure random chance throws up the occasional dashing, handsome, brave storybook knight, but then you have to ask yourself, why would such a perfect specimen of manhood choose to be with you? Not that you aren’t a lovely specimen of womanhood, my lady, but beauty is one of those things that springs up in all sorts of places. A farm girl, a tavern wench, a street beggar — they are just as likely to arouse a man’s loins as a nobleman’s daughter. And, of course, when a great beauty appears in an unlikely place, she is quickly snapped up and put into the harem of some powerful man or other. I’ve been to many palaces and royal courts, and the comeliest women are always the courtesans. After all, there is no need to prove breeding to become a successful harlot. A king might marry his equal in standing and ancestry, but when he wants to satiate his carnal desires, he goes to his harem where the women do as he commands without complaint, and when they get too old or too haggard, he replaces them with fresh-faced maidens newly delivered. Such is the life of a monarch or even a wealthy duke. You think your father spends every night in your mother’s bed chamber?”
The ledge came to an abrupt end ahead of me. It just stopped, leaving us nowhere else to go.
I looked up, but a shoulder of rock blocked the top of the mountain from view. I edged carefully to the end of the path to find a large crack in the side of the mountain. I stepped through the fissure and found myself in a crevice. Walls rose on either side, but overhead was clear blue sky. I turned round as Sofiere stepped through the crack to join me.
“See?” I said. “I told you it—”
She punched me in the face, knocking me off my feet.
“My father does not consort with whores,” she said, spitting out the words with great vehemence. “And there are some men in this world who are not savages, who love a woman for who she is, not what she looks like. I will not be someone’s chattel to produce an heir and live the life of a maltreated pet.”
There is something about being suckerpunched that is far more painful than a regular punch. Not expecting to be hit allows for that much more force to strike directly against the bone, and, of course, when the puncher really means to strike you with the full force of their fury, even when she is a woman of limited size and strength, it all adds up to a nasty thump.
I rose unsteadily to my feet. She came at me again, hands raised, but I quickly backed away. “If I offended you, my lady, I apologise. I did not mean anything by it.” I moved my jaw around to see if it was broken.
She scowled at me, still wound as tight as a ditch viper coiled to spring. “Liar! You meant every word you said.”
“Oh, for sure. But while I would normally keep such thoughts to myself, your eagerness to catch up to me and give me the thrashing I so richly deserve kept your mind from dwelling on the possibility of falling. You’re much braver when seething with rage.”
She lowered her hands, still breathing hard and red-faced. “You… you…”
“Don’t get me wrong, my point is still valid. If you marry into the higher echelons of aristocratic society, your choices will be limited to brutes and buffoons. There are indeed men in this world capable of true love, but they don’t exist in the aristocracy. Whoever you marry, he will not live up to your juvenile ideals. But no matter how terrible he might turn out to be, it’s not like there are better alternatives awaiting you.”
She stared at me, her eyes impossibly large and on the verge of flooding with tears. But then she smiled. “And if there was, why would he want me, isn’t that what you said?”
I smiled in return. “Exactly.”
Her smile got even bigger. “As a wedding gift, I’m going to ask my future husband to have your limbs ripped from your body and fed to his hounds.”
I stopped smiling. “By the way, not to ruin your good mood, but I can’t see a way out of this crevice.”
She raised her hand, and I flinched, expecting her to get violent again. She pointed over my head. “What about that?”
I turned around. There were marks in the end wall, evenly spaced and all the way up. On closer inspection they turned out to be handholds cut into the rock. We began to climb.
I popped my head out of the top of the crevice. The top of the Knuckle was a circular plateau, a ring of short brown scrub around a large hole. I climbed out and then helped Sofiere, who was right behind me. I snuck closer to the hole, not knowing what might be waiting in there, and peered over the rim.
The light was poor as dusk approached, and other than sheer walls that vanished into an inky darkness, there wasn’t much to see.
Something about the hole struck me as eerie. It wasn’t very large — I could have probably jumped across it with a long enough run up and a following wind — but it was so perfectly symmetrical as to suggest it had been sunk into the mountain by human hands. For what reason I had no idea.
“What’s down there?” said Sofiere from over my shoulder, startling me into nearly falling into the abyss.
I backed away from the edge. “Please don’t sneak up on me when I’m standing next to a big hole in a mountaintop.”
I made my way to the outer edge of the plateau and looked down. It was a sheer drop to the forest below us. In the distance, across the open grassland, the road that led to Fort Cardom cut through the plains like a white river.
“Well,” said Sofiere, “you’ve managed to take us as far from our goal as physically possible. If you aren’t in the pay of the enemy, you might consider putting in an invoice.”
“If your Brother Gods are guiding our every step then obviously we’re exactly where we’re meant to be. Don’t you have any faith?”
“In them, yes. How are you going to get us down from here?”
“There must be a way. Bandits like to have lots of emergency exits. Although I’m beginning to wonder where they’ve all got to.”
“Ah!” said a voice from behind us. “What have we here?”
We turned to find three men standing there. They were dirty, clothed in rags and wild-looking.