(Go back to Part 22)
Twenty minutes passed before a flaming arrow arced over the bows; Captain Tyrus hove to and the warship came alongside. Soon two large boats full of soldiers were in the water. One tied up amidships, and soldiers in green and yellow swarmed up the side. At a few curt orders, the passengers and crew of the Lysia lined up at the stern while the soldiers searched the ship from top to bottom. As soon as they were finished, a signal was relayed back down to the boat.
McCann and Alex stood next to each other, on deck with all the rest. The soldiers were definitely the Baron’s men; she could recognize the sigil sewn into their tunics from McCann’s history lessons. They were in control of the ship, but beyond lining up the crew on deck, they did very little. It seemed like they were waiting for something.
A huge, bear-like man bounded up the ladder to the deck. The thick mane of lustrous black hair around his head framed a pair of dark glittering eyes. Giant hands, rough and callused, hung to each side, though a tiny ring glittered on one. Fine black chainmail was oiled and polished, cut through with green and yellow ornamentation and mostly covered by a sweeping green cloak.
Alex heard a sharp intake of breath from both McCann and Captain Tyrus. “Wha—” she started to ask, but McCann gave her a short, urgent shake of the head.
Alex wondered what could surprise the sergeant . . . and then she noticed the gold circlet woven through the giant man’s hair. No, it couldn’t be . . .
A few others followed the man, obviously high-ranking but subordinate. The soldiers saluted, each bringing a clenched fist to his mouth. Baron Sinclair’s eyes scanned the scene, taking in each detail of the Lysia before calling over one of his lieutenants. They exchanged a few words in low tones before the baron nodded and dismissed him. He approached the stern.
“Who’s in charge here?” The voice boomed from the man’s chest like a drum.
“I am.” Captain Tyrus stepped forward and went to one knee.
“You know who I am?”
The baron withdrew a large pouch and tossed it to the captain without asking his name. “I’m buying half of your provisions. Meat, hardtack, water, cheese. Load it into the boats—my men will help.”
“Half my provisions? But how will I feed my men?”
“I’m taking half your men as well.”
“Half my men?!? But—”
“Be thankful I’m not taking your ship as well.” The baron frowned at Captain Tyrus, the massive forehead wrinkling like a scrap of parchment cast into the fire.
The men worked quickly. While the soldiers moved the stores into the boats, Baron Sinclair went through the Lysia’s crew one by one with one of his lieutenants, picking out the strongest sailors. One man protested—the baron had him clubbed in the face and thrown over the side into a boat. The rest could hear his moans from the deck.
Baron Sinclair stopped when he reached Alex and McCann. “You two are no sailors. Who are you?” Alex tried not to tremble. Stick to the plan, she thought to herself . . .
“Passengers from Al Fayd,” said Captain Tyrus.
“Sellswords, from the North,” added McCann, “my daughter and I, headed south in search of better fortunes.”
“Well. I’ve certainly room for the two of you. Get in the boat.” The baron went to move on.
“No. We claim right of contract.”
The baron turned back to McCann, eyebrows raised. “Right of contract? You refuse me?”
“We’d be poor sellswords if we didn’t. Our blades don’t come free.” McCann stood his ground.
“Your blades . . .” the baron inspected them again, more closely this time after McCann’s insubordination. His eyes paused on their knives. “Curious that a pair of sellswords should wear Curate steel.”
“Prizes. From our last contract. We killed two Curates in a caravan outside Fâl Selim.”
“Did you, now?” He snorted. “What chapter of the brotherhood do you belong to?”
“The Dunheim house.”
“Two unaffiliated sellswords killed a pair of Curates?”
“Unaffiliated by choice, not by lack of offers,” replied McCann.
“Hmm.” He turned to a man on his right. “General Clovis?”
“Yes, Milord?” The general took a step forward. He was a short man with an enormous mustache and a short half-cape hanging from one shoulder. A steel breastplate glittered in the sun.
“Your messenger reported that there were more Curates in Fâl Selim?”
“Yes, Milord. Our men suspected that they were hiding in the city, but they captured our informant and escaped.”
“Hmm.” He waved the general back. “Search them. We’ll know the truth soon enough.”
Alex and McCann were stripped out of their traveling clothes. When they were naked, soldiers began going through the meager stack of belongings on the deck in front of them.
It was chilly in the breeze with no clothes. Alex covered herself as well as she could and tried not to look up. When she finally did, she realized that she needn’t have worried, because everyone else was staring at McCann in horror. Following their gaze, she gasped.
The sergeant’s back was crisscrossed with countless bands of mottled white scar tissue, hard ridges that ran from side to side. Alex had seen the marks of whips before, but never like this—the sergeant must have been flayed nearly to death at some point in his life. She had no idea how he could walk upright, much less ride and fight. McCann stood, blank faced as ever, making no effort to cover himself and pretending to ignore the stares.
Meanwhile General Clovis continued going through each item in turn.
“Gray cloak, no insignia.”
“Two swords of . . . unremarkable quality.”
“Herb pouch—what’s this?”
Alex’s heart sank as one of the soldiers pulled out Alex’s workbook. It was filled with figures in the old language that McCann had been drilling her on. The soldier handed it to the general. The importance of the book’s language was not lost on him.
“Now this is a strange trophy. What would a sellsword want with a book full of the old language?” General Clovis turned to the baron. “Milord, if I may be so bold, I think these may be the Curates my informant—”
“Oh, they’re Curates, that much I’m sure of. At least, the older one was.” Baron Sinclair silenced the general with his deep baritone. “General?”
“Who’s your best swordsman here?”
He looked at the soldiers. “Alain.”
“Return the younger one her sword—but just her sword. I want them to spar. Don’t hurt her.”
One of the soldiers drew Alex’s sword and handed her the naked blade. Alex sighed as she abandoned all pretense of modesty and took the hilt. In any other situation she would have been mortified, but fear and confusion at the baron’s last comment drowned out her embarrassment. If he knew they were Curates, then why was he making her spar? Was it some form of sick amusement?
She tried to push the feelings down, out of her mind. Now was not the time. Now she needed to fight.
Alain stepped forward and drew his own blade. It was slender and lighter than Alex’s. The man nodded once and Alex returned his gesture, stepping forward into her stance. She could feel the rough wooden deck under her toes.
Clang! Steel rang on steel.
Alex was startled by the speed and ferocity of the Southerner’s attack. She barely parried the first blow, and the second missed her eyes by a hair. The soldier’s lighter blade was well suited to this kind of work.
She retreated, parting the circle of onlookers and pursued by Alain’s fierce attack. The baron had said spar, but the blows directed at her seemed fatal enough—quick slashes at the head, or thrusts to the stomach. The Southerner was the better swordsman with the better blade; Alex knew immediately that she couldn’t win the fight through skill alone. When her back thumped against the mast she had an idea.
Alex waited for the next slash at her head. When it came, she ducked instead of parrying, and the edge of the soldier’s sword bit into the heavy timber and caught. It stuck for a second, leaving Alex an opening. She swung with the flat of her blade, a mighty blow to stun the man and give her a chance to attack.
Alain saw it coming and released the hilt of his own sword. He spun back, dodging Alex’s blow and coming around to grab his sword hilt with the other hand. It sprang free of the wood, and he whirled around to continue the attack. Still off-balance from her massive swing, Alex lurched forward. The blade flashed—her own was twisted away—and a blow to her back sent her sprawling on the deck. She rolled over, scrambling to find her weapon—and found Alain’s blade at her throat. She froze.
Alain was breathing a bit heavily, but was far from winded. He turned to the baron. “Not so hard to beat, Milord—”
Alex remembered one of the early fights with McCann in the days after the attack at Reynolds farm. McCann had let himself be disarmed, and then charged Alex bare-handed as she stood in surprise. McCann won in a wrestling match.
“Remember,” said McCann afterward, “if you’re not dead, the fight’s not over.”
“. . . fight’s not over,” she whispered to herself. Alain was still busy talking to the baron.
In a burst of motion, Alex twisted her neck away from the point of the blade, kicking out with both legs at once. Her kick swept Alain from his feet, throwing him back onto the deck. Alex was on his chest as soon as he landed, trapping the man’s sword arm between her legs and wrapping his arms around in a tight choke hold. Alain gagged and the sword dropped from his fingers; his boots swept back and forth across the deck in a futile attempt to gain purchase. Finally he stopped struggling and looked up at Alex.
“If you yield, tap twice on the deck with your free hand,” she told him.
Alain tapped twice. Alex released him, collected both swords, and climbed to her feet. The circle of spectators were frozen in astonishment.
There was a split second of opportunity; she seized it without thinking. Alex turned and formally presented both swords to the baron, feeling more than a little ridiculous in her nudity. “If you please, Milord.” There were splinters in her back, but she ignored them.
A smile slowly spread across the baron’s face. He guffawed once and accepted the blades. “It’s my pleasure. Come here, Alain, you’ve lost something.”
The soldier appeared on his feet, massaging a sore shoulder. “She cheated, Milord, I beat her fair—”
“You lost, Alain.”
The man went silent immediately.
“Beaten by a naked young sellsword . . . by treachery, yes, but still beaten.” he laid the blade of Alain’s sword on his shoulder. Alex saw the man pale. “To lose your sword . . . well. I’ll return your sword, but you’ll lose one of these—” and he sliced a rank stripe from the man’s tunic.
The soldier’s face went from white to a flushed red. “Yes, Milord.” He accepted the sword and scampered back into the crowd.
“Good. Now, General, what did you see?” He turned to Clovis.
Clovis sputtered. “Treachery and deceit, Milord, a most dishonorable fight—”
“She fights like a Curate, Clovis, even you could see that.”
The general sighed. “Yes. And we should kill them now and be done with it.” Alex suddenly wished she had kept hold of her sword.
“But there was more to it. That part at the end, especially—no Curate would be so underhanded.” The baron brought a hand to his beard and tugged on it. “And take a look at the elder. Note particularly the scars.”
“What are you saying, Milord?” asked Clovis.
The baron ignored him, instead turning to one of his other subordinates. “Turin, I need you.”
“Here, Milord.” A graying, stork-like figure appeared, swathed in rich robes that failed to disguise his frailty.
“Do you have it with you?”
“A copy, Milord.”
“Good. I need it,” said the baron
“Yes, Milord.” A large book appeared in the minister’s hands, produced from a pocket deep inside his robes. It was unmarked.
“Show it to the sellsword—the older one. Nothing important.”
“Milord?” questioned Turin.
Minister Turin approached McCann, paging through the tome. He finally found a section to his liking, and held it open for the sergeant to see. McCann squinted at it for some time.
“What do you make of that, sellsword?” asked the baron.
“It looks like the old language, if I had to guess, but as to what it says . . . well, you’d need a proper scribe to tell you that.”
“Or a Curate knight, since they’re fluent in the old language. And you’re one of them; or at least, you were.”
McCann didn’t bat an eye. “Aye? And what makes you think that?”
“A flayed back, covered in scars, a pair of old Curate knives, a daughter who you trained to fight like they do . . . tell me, Curate, how long has it been since they stripped you of your rank?”
Alex saw a strange smile cross McCann’s face as the man’s posture relaxed. “Not long enough to forget about it.”
“You chose exile instead of death, clearly,” continued the baron, “and you’re not the first disgraced Curate to become a sellsword . . . not that it matters to me.”
“What matters is how much you remember of the old language . . . and, by extension, how useful you are to me.”
“Maybe I forgot. It’s been a while,” said McCann.
“And maybe I’ll take Clovis’s advice after all and have you killed, on the off-chance that you’re not sellswords but just the two worst-equipped Curates in history. Care to try again?” asked the baron.
McCann held his gaze for a moment before looking back down to the book. “And . . . so . . . he . . . spoke . . . of . . . the . . . Weeping . . . Tree . . . and . . . the . . . great . . . miracles . . . wrought—”
“Enough,” said the baron. Turin snapped the book shut with obvious relief and it disappeared back into his robes.
“What’s your name, sellsword?” asked Sinclair.
“Tobias, Tobias McCann. My daughter is Alex.”
The baron nodded. “You wanted a contract, sellsword McCann? My contract with you is twofold. Serve me, and you will be rewarded immensely. Betray me, and you and your daughter will die.”
“How immensely, exactly?”
The baron laughed. “Give them their clothes—they come with us,” commanded the baron.
(Go on to Part 24)