I threw myself on top of Sofiere, pinning her to the ground. The men had their backs to us and hadn’t seen us. In fact the men had set their camp to have no clear view of either the road or the surrounding plains.
“They’re Manx cavalry,” whispered Sofiere. “I recognise their livery.”
If these were what Manx had to offer in the way of professional soldiers, then it was no wonder they were keen to establish a truce through marriage with the Fanchetti. Still, cavalry meant horses and we could use a ride.
“I think you might have pricked yourself with one of your daggers,” Sofiere whispered breathlessly from under me.
I looked down into her eyes. “I don’t think so.”
“The one coated in cairnshroom. You must have nicked yourself. I can feel your body stiffening.”
“I never claimed not to find you attractive, my lady. Under normal circumstances I’d have been happy to take you up on your offer; I just don’t think it’d be worth dying for.”
Her hips shifted encouragingly against mine. “Are you sure?”
To be honest, I was not, but we didn’t have time to test my determination. I rolled off her and worked my way towards a clump of bushes. Tied to a log just beyond were four horses.
One of the four men walked away from the group, unbuttoning his britches and heading straight for us.
We lay as flat as possible, although the man didn’t seem very observant and in something of a rush.
He came round to our side of the bushes, turned his back on us and began pissing with a great sigh of relief.
I took a small packet out of one of the pouches on my belt and unwrapped it. Inside was a thick black paste. I dabbed at it with my little finger, so that the merest trace transferred onto the end of my finger, and then closed the packet and put it back in my pouch. I lifted the finger to my mouth and jabbed at it with the tip of my tongue.
I got to my feet, walked up behind the man and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around. I grabbed him by the cheeks and planted a big wet kiss right on his lips.
He was too surprised to do anything at first, then pushed me away, wiping his mouth with his hand and spitting out the taste I had introduced him to. He stopped and looked at me.
His eyes widened as he realised who I was, but then his body relaxed, his eyes drooped and his face took on a dreamy expression. He came stumbling towards me swaying like a drunkard, arms extended.
I ducked and grabbed him by the waist, spun him round and shoved him back towards his comrades. Once I’d set him on his way, I threw myself down next to Sofiere.
The soldier walked unsteadily away. His movement had slowed to a shuffle and he was making soft moaning sounds. One of the others saw him approach and started walking towards him.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Our friend giggled, lurched forward and kissed his colleague on the mouth. The man pushed him away hard, sending him falling to the ground, and drew his sword, but then staggered.
By now the other two men had got wind of something not being quite right and approached. They said something to the two infected, helping the fallen one to his feet, but the two could do little more than grunt and giggle. And then both lunged at the man nearest, kissing him in a manner both passionate and ardent.
“What was that stuff?” Sofiere asked me.
“Gormwood. Ingested in small amounts it makes fighters into lovers. It passes from one person to another through their saliva, and since it creates an irresistible urge to kiss whoever’s closest at hand, it spreads very quickly.”
All four eventually staggered off, shuffling unsteadily like the undead risen, in search of new loves to conquer. Such was the effect of gormwood.
“But you’re not affected,” said Sofiere, “are you?”
“No. You can build up a resistance by taking very dilute amounts over many weeks. Weeks you won’t soon forget.”
“What happens when you take larger amounts?”
“What happens whenever love gets out of control? Not something you want to experience, I assure you, my lady. Come, let’s go.”
We took a horse each and set off at a gallop. Sofiere was an accomplished rider, and she set the pace somewhere between reckless and suicidal. After all that creeping around it felt good to be in a saddle, moving with a sensation that couldn’t be too far from flying, hooves sparking off the flinty road.
Light from a roadside fire glimmered ahead. A man stood by two horses, rubbing one of them down. He became animated at the sound of our approach, calling out, “Hey! Someone’s coming.”
“Leave me alone,” a voice shouted from the bushes. “I’m taking a dump.”
We thundered past.
At the next checkpoint they seemed a little more conscientious about their duties, although not by much. Two men ran into the road and tried to wave us down. When we showed no signs of slowing, they dived out of the way. I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see them mount up and give chase, but the only thing to follow us was the sharp blare of a bugle.
Sofiere, who was a couple of lengths ahead of me, slowed to a halt. As I caught up to her, I saw the reason. Lined across the road were half a dozen men on horseback. The ones on either end held torches. The others had weapons drawn.
A small figure stood in front of them, swinging a sword in one hand like he was just passing the time until we got there. It was the small ruffian we had seen talking to Campian back in the woods.
“What do we do?” asked Sofiere. “Do you have a plan?”
“Yes,” I said. “Put your hood up and keep your trap shut.”
For a moment I thought she was going to argue with me, but she pulled up her hood and wrapped the cloak tighter around her shoulders. I set off at what I considered a carefree canter and she trotted along behind me.
“Hey, there,” I called out as we approached. “Are you Rodders? Have you seen Captain Campian? He’s expecting us and we’re late.”
The ruffian cocked his head to the side. “He’s expecting you, is he? Why’s that then?”
We were within spitting distance now and obviously offered little threat. The atmosphere settled to mildly homicidal.
“Special delivery.” I jerked a thumb towards Sofiere who had ridden up beside me. “Part of the secret plan.”
“I ain’t heard about no secret plan.”
I shrugged. “Runs everything past you first, does he? You know what the captain’s like. Said he’d strangle me with my own intestines if I let word slip, so I’m guessing it’s all very hush-hush.”
The man strolled towards us, sword still swinging. “That does sound like him, but he’s gone ahead to the fort and he didn’t leave no instructions about no special delivery. Why don’t you let me have a look-see what you’ve got here?”
I shifted uncomfortably in my saddle. “Well, all right.” I yanked back Sofiere’s hood. Sofiere looked startled, but not as much as Rodders.
“What do you think?” I said. “Not bad, right? Looks just like her, I mean, apart from the nose.”
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “I’d have sworn on the Brother Stone it was her, you know, if it weren’t for the nose.”
Sofiere’s mouth twitched, but she managed to keep her lips together.
“Look,” I said, “be a Brother’s keeper and help out a fellow believer. Let us have some fresh horses. These are knackered and I’m already going to get a beating off the captain, I don’t want to have to rest them between here and Cardom and end up even more tardy.”
Rodders put his sword back in its scabbard. “I’ll do better than that, I’ll escort you there myself.”
We set off with two men riding ahead, two behind, and Rodders alongside. We were moving fast so had no time to talk, which was probably just as well. Sofiere cast the occasional worried look in my direction, but things had turned out to our advantage. No one else tried to stop us, and we made excellent time.
Our first sight of Fort Cardom was an ebony silhouette against the night sky, a square of blackness overlooking the road. Torches thrust over the parapet on long poles lit the entrance — a gate flanked by a tower on either side.
“State your business!” called down a voice.
Sofiere removed her hood. “I am Lady Sofiere of the Manx.”
Rodders raised his eyebrows at me and whispered, “She’s good. The voice is perfect.”
The tall fort gate swung open. Wild-haired Fanchetti soldiers, bows in their hands and swords on their hips, regarded us intently as we entered Fort Cardom.
The palisades formed a stockade around a series of low wooden buildings. Rows of barracks along one wall, the stables along another, with an open square in the middle where fires danced in enormous braziers.
Men stood around watching our arrival. They were large, hairy men, hard-bitten and battle-scarred.
On the other side of the courtyard was a villa, far grander than any other building. Out of this came the commander of Fort Cardom, Mars Berry, a bull of a man with a blue-black beard down to his prodigious belly.
He wore a finely wrought mail hauberk, a gilt-braided cloak and a helmet with a spike rising out of the top. In his hand he carried a halberd as tall as himself and half again, with an elongated axe-blade that gleamed in such a way as to suggest it had never been used as more than an overblown walking stick. Although, looks can be deceiving.
“Grin!” he roared. “You are here, finally!”
Rodders paled at the mention of my name. I could see him trying to assess the situation, but with a fully armed company of men surrounding him and his four nervous men, there was little he could do.
“Grin the Unfailing! You told me that was your name, and I took it for a jest, more fool I. From this night on, Grin the Unfailing is how you will be known throughout Fanketta. And the fair Lady Sofiere, with only minor injuries. Worry not, my lady, we will have that nose fixed, or we’ll cut the damn thing off!” He shook with booming laughter. “Forgive me, my lady, I merely attempt to lighten the mood. Despite appearances, we have all the modern conveniences here. Leeches, powders, steams — you will be utterly radiant for our Lord Vari’s arrival on the morrow.”
He stepped aside to reveal Captain Campian standing there. “You see, Captain,” bellowed Berry, “there was no need for concern.”
Sofiere leapt from her horse and pointed a shaking finger at her captain of guards. “You! Assassin! He’s the one who tried to have me killed.”
“What’s this?” Mars Berry shifted his stance to hold his halberd two-handed, and all the men on the runways along the log parapet fixed arrows to their bows.
Campian’s horrified expression was a multi-layered thing of beauty. Eyes wide, mouth falling in shock, then a flash of injured pride, quickly followed up by a shoulder-droop of remorse. “My lady, I beg your forgiveness. I fought my way out of the ambush but could not find you, although my search has been relentless.” His lips actually trembled as he said this.
“Liar!” Sofiere shrieked.
A bereft Campian turned to Mars Berry. “My lady is correct in at least one regard. I am to blame. If I had acted sooner, fought harder, my lady would not have been left in the wilderness, suffering who knows what indignities.” He glanced at me rather disapprovingly and then glared at Rodders, who blanched at the look.
Sofiere stepped forward and slapped Campian across the face. He stumbled, collected himself and bowed low while proclaiming, “Fully deserved, fully deserved.”
“We can work out what happened later,” said Mars Berry, smoothing his beard in long strokes. “The important thing is you’re here now and safe under my protection. Lord Vari, and of course your mother, arrive tomorrow, and no one will be able to stop this wedding from taking place. Come, let me show you to your quarters.”
“No!” Sofiere snatched her arm out of his and pointed at Campian. “This man is a traitor and a murderer.” She turned to me. “Tell them.”
All eyes rested on me. “It’s been a rough couple of days and Lady Sofiere is tired and hungry, you must forgive her outburst. What I know for sure is that thanks to Captain Campian’s men, we made it here safely. How the captain managed to summon them so quickly from so far away is something of a miracle, but it only shows the power of the Brother Gods. They watch over their chosen ones closely, do they not, Captain?”
Campian puffed out his chest. “Indeed they do.”
“And, just for the lady’s piece of mind, would you swear on the Brother Stone that you have no allegiance to those who oppose this wedding and that you have never plotted to harm the Lady Sofiere?”
Without even a flicker of hesitation, Campian raised his right hand and said, “I swear by the almighty Brother Stone, I had nothing to do with the bandit attack.”
“Excellent.” I reached across and we shook hands like gentlemen. I turned back to Sofiere. “That’s settled then.”
Her mouth dropped open. “What do you mean?”
“Obviously Elder Brother would not allow someone to blaspheme against the Brother Stone and let the perpetrator live. So he must be telling the—”
Captain Campian clutched at his throat and began gagging and choking, quivering in every limb. His eyes bulged, and his face darkened like a day old bruise.
Rodders fell to his knees, hands clasped together. “It was the captain’s idea, I was just following orders.”
“Quiet ... you ... fool,” said Campian in between gasps for air.
“He told us it was for the Manx way of life. Please forgive me. Please, please forgive me.” The little man abased himself in front of Sofiere, his nose to the ground.
Campian raised his head, and foam flew from his blackened lips as he tried to speak. “This marriage is an abomination. These animals can’t be allowed to enter the holy temple. I shall die before I allow that to happen.”
“Yes, you will,” said Mars Berry, and he brought his halberd down in a sharp chop.
Campian’s head dropped off his neck, and a single spurt of blood arced into the air before the body slumped forward and lay with arms spread wide.
At the same time, arrows flew from every direction, feathering the men on their horses and Rodders. All slumped to the ground.
Mars Berry wiped the flat of his halberd blade across his beard and the crimson stain soaked into the dark bush, leaving the blade gleaming once again.
“Clean this up,” he said. Men rushed to drag away the bodies.
“Looks like that’s my job done,” I said. “If we can settle up, I’ll be on my way.”
“Of course,” said Berry. He signalled towards the villa, and a scruffy woman emerged.
She was small and dumpy, and her clothes were torn and filthy. Mars Berry grabbed her by the throat. “Tell the bursar to get out here.”
He pushed the woman away, adding a solid kick to her rear that lifted her off the ground. The woman landed on the run, making no sound other than a mild grunt. I caught the look on Sofiere’s face as she watched this.
“Do all Fanchetti treat their servants with such a rough hand, sir?” she asked, her voice filled with an imperious wrath that no doubt made her own servants quake in their sandals.
“Servant?” said Mars Berry. “That’s no servant, that’s my wife.”
Sofiere’s face darkened, her lips drew back from her teeth in a grimace of apoplexy and her eyes flashed with outrage.
“And don’t forget my collateral,” I interjected, trying to conclude my business before Sofiere got into her stride.
“Of course. Ho, there,” he shouted at one of his men. “Someone fetch Allard.”
“Allard?” said Sofiere. “Who’s Allard?”
“Who indeed?” said a familiar voice. “Deep of chest, broad of shoulders and long of limb is he. In a scanty costume of loincloth and soft-leather boots is his magnificent physique revealed. Allard!”
Allard leapt into our midst from who knows where — I suspect he’d been waiting in the shadows for the opportunity to make a grand entrance. He was dressed as announced, but in addition he glistened in the torchlight like he’d been recently dipped in oil. He stood there, arms thick with corded muscle, hands on hips, staring up at the night sky.
Sofiere didn’t seem to know how to react to this apparition — not an uncommon response — while Mars Berry rolled his eyes. “Please, take him away before he injures any more of my men.”
“It’s a new sport I’ve invented,” said Allard. “I call it oily wrestling. I’m the undefeated champion.”
A short, white-haired man came scurrying out of one of the buildings, holding a small leather bag, which jangled as he ran. Berry took it from him, weighed it in his hand and then threw it at me. “The rest of your fee and your collateral is returned. On behalf of the Fanchetti, I wish you farewell.”
Sofiere looked from Allard to me, her eyes narrowing. “So this is why you were so keen to get me here. They were holding your friend hostage.”
“Who, him?” I said. “No, I wasn’t bothered about that. This on the other hand, well worth the risk.” I tossed the bag of coins into the air and caught it.
Sofiere turned to Mars Berry and in an even, measured voice, said, “Before you let him leave, there is something you should know. While we were out there in the forest, alone, at night, he forced himself on me. He violated me, repeatedly.”
Mars Berry’s hand landed on my shoulder. “Is this so?”
Around me, a hundred men drew arrows, unsheathed swords and tightened grips on spear shafts.
“Of course not,” I said, although my voice suddenly seemed to have risen an octave and I’m not sure I sounded all that convincing.
“Oh, Grin,” said Allard, frowning and shaking his shaven head.
“Thanks for that,” I said. “Good to have you back on the team. When have you ever known me to tamper with the merchandise?”
“Merchandise?” Sofiere’s face crumpled into a distraught, tear-strewn picture of anguish. I was tempted to start applauding. “He told me he loved me and that our enemies were closing in. And then, and then… he deflowered me.”
I couldn’t help but cringe as she said it.
“Over and over again,” she added.
“Wait,” said Allard. “She’s lying. Over and over? I know of at least a dozen witnesses who will happily testify to that being very unlikely.”
“Who are these dozen witnesses?” I demanded to know. “I’ve heard no complaints.”
“He defiled me,” wailed Sofiere, which was at least better than deflowered. She rounded on Berry. “You sent him to protect me. You chose him, so you are to blame. My shame is your fault.”
Berry planted his halberd between his feet and tossed it from one hand to the other.
“She’s joking,” I said. “You have ways to tell if someone’s fiddled with her bits, don’t you?”
“You are right,” said Berry. “The old woman will check when she arrives tomorrow.”
“The old woman?” I asked.
“She will make sure everything is in order before they return to Fanketta for the wedding.”
“Okay, good. So we’ll wait until tomorrow before we start chopping off any more heads.”
“Do you really think Grin the Cheat will sit around waiting for others to decide his fate?” said Sofiere, suddenly not tearful anymore — not that anyone else noticed. “I have seen what he is capable of. He is a dangerous man who kills without mercy or regret. Scores of bandits lie dead on the Knuckle because of him.”
This is how reputations get inflated. Not through proud boasts, but attempts to manufacture a threat where there isn’t one.
“Look,” I said. “Here, my weapons.” I took off my jacket, showing the daggers inside. I placed it on the ground and then unbuckled my belt and put it on top. A soldier approached to pick them up.
“Don’t touch anything!” said Sofiere. “His weapons carry deep enchantments.”
She took off the cloak and used it to cover her hand as she daintily picked up one of my daggers. She held it aloft. “Watch.” Then she turned and touched the pommel against Allard’s bare torso. He looked at her with surprise before he crashed to the floor.
A gasp went up from the soldiers watching.
“Leave him free to move around,” said Sofiere, “and you will all be dead by morning.”
The cell was about the only thing in the fort not made of wood; metal bars surrounded me on all sides.
Mars Berry was very apologetic as he locked me up. I had no weapons or any of my poisons, but I could still have made some effort to escape. I didn’t see the need. This wasn’t the first time I’d been imprisoned on a trumped up charge, and experience had taught me that proclaiming my innocence would gain me little.
My immediate concern wasn’t my own safety, nor Allard’s — I would be able to revive him with no permanent harm as long as I was released in the morning — but to try and figure out what it was Sofiere was planning.
Since I hadn’t touched her, the old woman would be able to confirm this — assuming old women can tell these things. Even if Sofiere managed to find a way to deflower herself, her inability to tell a lie under oath would force the truth to be revealed. So why had she gone to all this trouble? She had to have a purpose. If it was merely a matter of teaching me a lesson, that seemed petty even by her standards.
I lay on the straw bedding and tried to get some sleep, but sounds of wild revelry didn’t allow me even a moment’s peace.
The Fanchetti are known for their raucous behaviour, so it was not surprising they were celebrating the wedding a little prematurely, but things sounded so frenzied, with screams and whoops bordering on hysterical. The guards in the jailhouse left to investigate. They didn’t return, although the caterwauling did eventually subside.
Sometime in the early hours the door to the jailhouse opened and Sofiere walked in. She had changed her clothes to a flowing red dress, and her hair hung loose about her shoulders.
“Your nose looks a lot better,” I said, which was true. It was almost the same colour as the rest of her face. “You must be very pleased with yourself.”
Sofiere just stared at me, which only irritated me more.
“I don’t understand why you’re doing this, Sofiere. You can’t possibly think you can trick everyone into believing you. You’ll still have to get married, you’ll still have to live with these people you consider so disgusting and uncouth. Children will come out of your womb and you will have to raise them as Fanchetti — that’s your destiny. Carry on like this, and your sullen indifference will convince your sons that women are spiteful and bitter and should be treated with contempt. Your daughters you’ll only confuse and leave to navigate the desires of men as haplessly as yourself. Your resentment will deprive them of any chance of happiness. A thousand generations of petty, vindictive little girls who blame others for their misfortunes, is that the legacy you hope to leave? Bad fathers make life difficult, Sofiere, but bad mothers make love impossible, and you, my lady, have all the makings of a spectacularly bad mother.”
“After tonight it won’t matter.” Something in the way she spoke, the lack of emotion, made my skin crawl. “Campian was right. Heathens can’t be allowed to enter the holy temple.”
“What are you planning to do?”
“Don’t worry, neither you nor your friend will die — if you do as I say.” She raised her hand. She was holding a dozen keys on a large metal ring. She tossed them through the bars and they landed at my feet. She turned and walked out.
The moment I stepped out of the jailhouse, it became clear something was wrong. The fort was eerily quiet.
I stumbled across the first bodies in the main courtyard. They lay strewn around, naked and bloody. Their faces were frozen in expressions of either extreme pain or extreme pleasure, it was impossible to tell which. Many were still joined in acts of sexual congress, others seemed to have been trying to mount various inanimate objects when their hearts gave out or they bled to death.
Sofiere stood at the entrance to Mars Berry’s residence, waiting for me.
“How much gormwood did you use?” I asked her.
“All of it. I put it in the wine. I locked myself in the room where they put your friend. I could see it happening from the window. It was horrible. They were doing it to everything. Each other, animals, holes in the ground.”
“Sofiere, I know you were angry, but how will this get you out of the wedding?”
“It won’t. When the sun rises I will take my own life.”
“But if that’s your plan, why kill everyone else first? What difference does it make?”
“When they arrive tomorrow and find everyone driven crazy by some mysterious poison, and Grin the Cheat gone…” She offered me a small, sad smile.
The full consequences of what she’d done hit me all at once and left me reeling. “They’ll assume it was me.”
“The wedding won’t happen, but my mother’s life won’t be forfeit. You will be blamed. I’m sorry, it was the only way. But I have one last thing to ask of you.”
“Well, of course, if there’s anything I can do you only have to ask,” I said bitterly.
I followed her into Berry’s house. He lay spread-eagled on top of a crimson rug in the middle of the room. Flopped on top of him was his wife. They were locked together in death’s, and each other’s, embrace. It took a moment to realise they weren’t on a rug, but in a pool of thick, congealed blood.
Sofiere walked opened a door covered in scratches and splintered as though someone had tried very hard to smash through. Inside, Allard lay on the bed, stiff as a board.
“Your friend is dying. I have the antidote, the blade you kept in your boot. You can have it, but only once you have done what I want.” She pulled her dress away from the shoulders and let it fall to her feet.
It was hard for me not to lose my temper, not so much at the loss of life — people die all the time, the manner of their deaths rarely makes a difference to how deceased they end up — but that she’d placed the blame at my feet, and then expected me to jump into bed with her.
“After what you’ve seen tonight, you still want that? Why didn’t you open the door and join in with the others?” I pointed at Allard. “Or just climb on top of him?”
She clenched her fists. “I don’t care what you think. This isn’t a negotiation. Either you do as I say, or your friend will die. If I’m too repulsive, then go. Get on a horse and ride out into a world where you can do what you want and go where you like without ever feeling like you owe it to a million people to turn yourself into a slave who wakes every morning regretting they haven’t died in their sleep. Go on, leave!”
Tears streamed down her face, dripped off her chin and ran down her breasts. Her bow-shaped mouth curved downwards in a vicious scowl, but her eyes implored me not to go.
I kissed her. Not because her speech had touched me, but because I also saw something familiar in her eyes. An odd resignation I had seen in the eyes of those who knew they were about to die. I didn’t doubt she intended to kill herself, and neither did I doubt she would let Allard die if I didn’t do what she wanted.
It was easier than I thought it would be. For some reason my anger put me in the perfect mood for it. I wanted to crush her, to punish her and make her regret her demands. But my anger quickly subsided into a tenderness I couldn’t explain.
“A lot of people died so that could happen,” I said as we lay there panting.
“It was worth it,” she whispered. The best compliment I’ve ever received.
My eyes opened with the first light of dawn. The royal party would be arriving soon, and it would be best if they didn’t find me here. Sofiere sat naked on a chair watching me, her knees pulled into her chest.
“The antidote?” I asked her.
“It’s under the pillow.”
I reached under and found my seventh blade.
She held up one of my daggers, the handle wrapped in cloth. It was coated in cheem tree sap. One stab and your heart explodes. “Will it be quick?”
Back in the room where Allard was laid out, I nicked him with my seventh blade. It would be at least an hour before he woke. Sofiere took my hand and drew me back to her room.
Half an hour later, Allard came to with a start and a roar of annoyance. He was groggy but could tell by my mood that we had to leave quickly. He didn’t ask about the bodies lying around in various states of undress. As we rode out through the gates, Sofiere watched from the wall, her hair fluttering in the breeze.
She took her own life and, as she had planned, the blame was apportioned to me. Her mother was released unharmed, although it made little difference. A few months later a large invading force conquered Manx with little fuss. The temple was razed to the ground, but the Brother Stone was rumoured to have been smuggled out by true believers. The price on my head remains to this day, and I risk death every time I enter Fanchetti land.
She was a silly girl who placed too much importance on freedom and choice, but then those are things I’ve always had and most likely take for granted. She risked my life, and in return I got a few hours of desperate lovemaking. She was right though, it was worth it.