Riannon of Gast felt the first pain knifing down her chest as she craned her neck to see the top of the castle keep through the narrow eye slits of her helm. She gritted her teeth on a grunt. She could see no enemy archers or crossbowmen on the roof of the keep. A couple of men dropped rocks from up there. The rocks might crack a few heads of her soldiers breaking down the keep door, but would not prevent the breach. She turned to the knight at her side.
"Get some archers up on the corner tower," she said.
He nodded and hurried away.
Agony stabbed under her skin from right shoulder to left hip. Riannon grimaced as she waited for it to pass again. Mighty Atuan, lord of battle, that hurt.
The pains sprang from no wound taken this day, but had they flared while she fought, they could have distracted her with fatal results. Since winter last, they had grown stronger and more frequent.
Riannon wished she could slump and remove her heavy iron helm to feel the wind on her sweaty face and suck in air that did not have to pass through the small holes in the metal, but the fighting was not yet done.
The defenders had foolishly left the stairs up to the first storey keep door intact when they retreated inside. Her men had easy access to batter the door. One of them fell screaming with half his brains dashed out by a dropped rock before bowmen drove the defenders from the keep roof. The end would not be long now.
Riannon stepped over the twisted body of one of the defenders and strode through the smoky haze and noise filling the bailey. The dead of both sides lay in bloody tangles scattered across the courtyard inside the walls. A fire had broken out in the kitchen building. Pigs, which had been herded in to feed the defenders, squealed their fright at the din, smoke, and stink of blood.
Not all the corpses strewn across the hard-packed earth were combatants. Flies crawled across the face of a grey-haired woman sprawled near the entrance to the temple. Women's shrieks added to the last groans of the dying. Frightened villagers had crowded into the castle for safety. Where their lord had retreated into the fastness of the thick-walled keep once the battering ram had bashed down the main gate, those who had sought his protection were left to the mercy of the attackers. Had the fool surrendered, no one need have died here today.
"Sir?" The squire who halted near Riannon had blood spattered up the mail on his sword arm. The congealing scarlet stained the white stag badge of Roger of Damory. "Lord Damory wishes you to know that a messenger has arrived from his Grace, Count Berenger. His lordship wishes you to attend him, sir. He's in his tent "
A pox on them both. Riannon had no desire to learn in what manner his Grace had changed his mind this time for the conduct of the siege. Whatever these new instructions, they were somewhat late. Nor did it surprise her that Damory was already back in his tent, no doubt quaffing wine and boasting of his cleverness in command. However, since she was currently in service to his Grace, Count Berenger of Tastamont, Riannon could not ignore his will, even when she thought his Grace one of the most addle-pated fools ever born of woman. And one, moreover, whom the gods should never have trusted with the lordship of a dovecote or midden, let alone one of the largest counties in the Eastern Kingdoms. Nor could she tell his Grace that Damory, his son-in-law, was a lazy, cowardly whoreson.
Before Riannon could speak, she heard a splintering and a cheer. She turned to see the door of the keep staved in. Her men swarmed up the keep steps. Attackers met them with flashing swords.
"Tell his lordship I shall be there presently," she said.
Riannon strode toward the keep. A woman's scream pierced the din. Riannon lifted her bloody sword. She stalked to the temple and stepped past the body of the old woman.
The gloom inside the temple seethed with cringing, sobbing people. Riannon saw three men holding down a wailing young woman, her skirts wadded up past her hips. One man climbed atop her. In two swift strides Riannon was close enough to deliver a stunning blow to the back of his head with the flat of her sword. The man crumpled. His accomplices jerked around. She saw outrage turn to surprise, then fear. They wore white stag badges. She had issued the strongest orders about honouring the sanctity of a holy place, and against rape. Bleakly, she found it no surprise that Damory's men would again prove so ill-disciplined.
"Alan," Riannon said.
Her squire, who had dogged her heels through the fighting, stepped forward.
"Hang these men," she said.
The woman rose and clutched her torn bodice closed. She gave Riannon a surprise in being neither priestess, servant, nor peasant refugee. Her pale blue gown might have belonged to a lady's maid or gentlewoman.
"My thanks, sir." The woman dropped a practised curtsy.
Under other circumstances, Riannon would have tarried to learn more, but she had a capture still to make and a siege to end. At the door, she ordered two trustworthy men to guard the temple and ensure no further violations took place.
In the keep, the defenders had already been beaten back from their best positions in the constricted entry. Riannon pushed past her own men to gain the main chamber. The fighting blazed savage. Two defending knights in gory chain mail hauberks stood back to back near a broken overturned chest. Another pair fought a desperate guard on the far door. They must realise they were doomed. Bodies of their fallen comrades and Riannon's men already littered the floor. The knights' diligence and courage were more than their lord deserved. They certainly did not warrant a hopeless death while their master barricaded himself in a chamber above.
"Stop!" Riannon shouldered aside one of her men. "Halt!"
Saer Warin, a stocky Bralland-born knight, bellowed for a cease. Like Riannon, he grabbed a soldier and pulled him back when he might have entered the fray. A quick-thinking pair of squires blocked the door.
A few more blows clanged before the fighting stopped. The four blood-spattered defenders breathed heavily. Their mailed shoulders lifted and fell from their exertions. Two wore the older style helmets with only nasal guards protecting their faces, so their confusion was easy to see. All kept their bloody swords at the ready.
"There's no need for slaughter," Riannon said. "His Grace of Tastamont wishes your lord's submission, not his death. You do him no dishonour by yielding."
The one with a black beard jutting out of his mail coif stared warily up at Riannon's helm as though he tried to read her expression through the metal. His gaze dropped to fix on her chest. He would be seeing the black, eight-pointed star painted on the blood-spattered white linen surcoat she wore over her mail shirt.
"A knight of the star," he said. "If you give your word, sir, that our lord isn't to be slain here, we'll ask if we may surrender."
"You have it," she said.
He pounded on the door at his back and called to whoever stood behind it to convey their predicament to his lordship.
One of the wounded groaned and writhed on the floor. Riannon signalled for men to remove him. He screamed as his comrades lifted him. Riannon had seen enough wounds to know that he would not live until dawn, no matter how many healer-priests laboured over him.
As she waited, her old wounds throbbed to unholy life again, though mercifully for but a brief span. When Lord Grammaire finally appeared, she unlaced her helm and removed it as a courtesy to his lordship.
The sleek Grammaire, whose yellow surcoat showed no blemish from the fight, grinned sardonically up at her. "I'd heard rumours of the scar-faced one, but wouldn't have wagered a groat there was sufficient gold in all the kingdom to induce a knight of the star to sully himself in the service of our noble Lord Berenger."
Riannon ignored both his scathingly sarcastic tone and the open criticism of her patron. "Do I have your surrender, my lord?"
"You have my castle," he said. "I doubt me not that my life is worth less than dog's piss, but who'd rather not hang tomorrow than be hacked to death today? Here."
Riannon accepted his sword. Whatever new ideas Count Berenger's messenger had brought, his lordship could not but be pleased to forgo them now that Grammaire had surrendered.
Riannon paused in the bailey to slip her hands free of her mail mittens. She pushed her mail coif, and the linen one beneath it, back from her head and ran her fingers through her sweaty, short-cropped hair. It was a relief to feel the breeze, no matter how warm and smoky, on her head.
Riannon took a wineskin from her ever-resourceful squire. She drank a long pull before resuming her walk toward the broken gate and the delayed meeting with Lord Damory.
Even so peevish and capricious a master as Count Berenger must reward her well for this success. Were he to finally make good his vague offers of the lordship of a manor or two, she would not refuse. Men had served worse masters and kept their personal honour intact. His son, at least, promised to be a lord she would be proud to serve. And what knight would not be happier with his own lands and the prospect of more in the service of a wealthy lord, rather than continue the rootless and uncertain life and rewards to be found at tourneys and wars?
The great wooden mangonels, which had creaked and thudded to hurl boulders to crack against the walls, were silent for the first time in days. The artillerymen celebrated with looted ale and wine. Riannon strode past them across the churned ground to where Damory's gaudy yellow and red tent stood. Doubtless the celebrations in there included a heavy dose of self-congratulation. Ere nightfall, if not before, Damory would convince himself that he was solely responsible for the success of the siege and had taken Grammaire's surrender himself.
Pain sliced through Riannon's body. She stopped with a gasp. The whole length of the crosswise scar on her torso felt as though dagger blades jabbed into her flesh. The wineskin dropped from nerveless fingers and she drew her arms protectively against her chest.
"Sir?" Alan stepped in front of her.
Riannon grabbed his shoulder to keep herself from collapsing. Pain first burned with white-hot heat, then seared with cold. Mighty Atuan, help me!
"Is it your old wounds, lady?" Alan said.
"Tent," she said.
Riannon grunted as her squire hooked her arm around his neck and supported her to her tent.
Almighty gods, it hurt as badly as her initial wounding, when the strangely singing sword had scythed through the iron rings of her hauberk, sliced the padded gambeson beneath, and carved her flesh. She should have died then. The ghost pain flayed her with such intensity that Riannon whispered to Alan to fetch a priest. The alacrity with which he bolted from the tent confirmed that she must look as close unto death as she felt.
Two days later, a sore and stiff Riannon rode half a mile to the sprawling basilica complex where Count Berenger lodged with his large retinue. She had been out of her wits still when he suddenly arrived. Her body, aching with every step of her horse, wished she were still abed. His Grace, though always alive to his own comfort and leisure, was not one to feel much sympathy for the weakness of others. Riannon thought it little short of miraculous that he had sent a gift of food and wine to her from his own table. Mayhap it was a sign that he was finally ready to reward her with land.
Riannon suppressed a grunt as she dismounted. Whatever ailed her lingered yet, though the healer-priest had not seen anything other than old scars.
In the main hall, Lord Damory lolled beside his father-in-law. The abbot, wearing what must be his best brown robes, looked incongruously solemn amongst the laughing, drinking men in their bright tunics and hose. Riannon did not see Lord Grammaire. She wondered what the count had done with his defiant vassal.
Saer Warin, the Brallandese knight, detached himself from the noisy group to intercept Riannon. He looked grim.
"It's good to see you about again, Gast," he said. "I didn't know you were injured."
"Not recently," Riannon said. "Wounds three years old are plaguing me. What news?"
Warin glanced to the hearth where the count laughed loudly and slapped a thigh. "He's well pleased. And in an unusually open-handed mood. Wish me well, for I leave to get married. He has granted me a widow with two manors."
Warin sounded more relieved at the prospect of departing than delighted with his good marriage. Riannon was unsurprised when he admitted, quietly, that Damory had taken full credit for the success of the siege and capture of Lord Grammaire. As a hired knight she stood in no position to gainsay the count's son-in-law. Well, let him wear his borrowed glory, as long as she received a more tangible reward. The gods, if not his conscience, would know the truth of the matter.
Lord Damory caught sight of her and beckoned her closer. "Gast! We feared you in a winding sheet when we heard of the leeches hovering about you."
Riannon's chest ached fiercely as she lowered herself to one knee before Count Berenger. He smiled at her over his wine goblet.
"Gast," he said. "Roger has been speaking well of you. He says that you've been a most diligent captain. I'm well pleased to have solved the problem of that snake Grammaire. Here. Take this as a sign of my favour."
Riannon heard murmurs of amazement and envy from the watching men as the count pulled off one of his rings. The chunky gold was warm and weighty in her palm. Her hopes soared. Warin had not been jesting about this lavish dispensing of largesse.
"You may rise. I will, of course, be following that with a goodly purse." His eyes twinkled and he laughed. "What a shame I have no young heir to bestow on you. Or would an heiress be more to your liking, my Lady Riannon?"
The men took their cues from his Grace and joined his laughter. Riannon's fingers tightened on the ring and she kept her disappointment to herself.
A vaguely familiar man with a jutting black beard pushed indignantly through the ring of men. She remembered him as one of Lord Grammaire's knights.
"A woman?" he said. "But this cannot be! He is a knight of the star. If you seek to demean my lord further with this jest, my lord count, I protest though it cost me my head."
Count Berenger smiled. "Knew you not that she is a woman? Though, for certès, it isn't obvious."
The knight's face suffused with fury. "My lord surrendered in good faith on the word of this…this person. Now you tell me his trust was for nought? That you played him false by making him swear to a woman?"
Riannon's hand dropped to the hilt of her sword. "You question my honour?"
"Not if you're female," he said. "For you have none and know nought of it. I ask you, my lord count, to account for my lord's safety. Will you swear to me that he's safe in your custody?"
"I pledged you my word," Riannon said.
"Your lord is beyond all possible harm," Count Berenger said.
Damory laughed. It was an ugly sound.
"He rests with the gods," Berenger said.
Riannon frowned at him. Grammaire's knight hissed and reached for a sword that he did not carry.
"Mind your tongue and temper," Berenger said, "or you'll be joining your faithless master. Get this dog out of my sight."
The knight shrugged off the grabbing hands long enough to turn to Riannon and spit at her. "May you rot in the deepest hell for impersonating a man."
Riannon watched as three of Berenger's men dragged him outside. Beyond the ache of her old wounds, she felt a hard, sinking coldness that tasted of gall. It was no less bitter for being familiar.
"He's fortunate that I'm in such a good humour," Berenger said, "or I'd hang him, too. Now, where is that accursed minstrel? Gast, you're not drinking? You there, give her wine."
Riannon ignored the offered cup. "My lord, I pledged my word that you sought not Lord Grammaire's death."
The count waved that aside. "Now that you're walking again, I expect you to accompany me to Destan. I'll hold a tourney there for my son's knighting. I expect you to captain my team."
Riannon should have been elated to be granted such a prestigious position. But she inverted her hand and opened her fingers to let the gold ring fall to the rushes. The soft thud cut off the chatter around them. Damory gaped like a landed carp. Disbelief and anger tightened the count's face.
"With your permission, your Grace," she said, "I'll take my leave. My service to you is ended."
"You dare!" he said. "You'll get not a penny from me."
"I did not expect it," she said.
His face pinched and his lips thinned to pale, compressed lines. "I could have you flogged. Hanged. And where do you think you'll get any other man to take on a...a female who plays the man?"
Riannon wanted to kill him. She kept her thoughts to herself and her hands conspicuously away from the hilts of her sword and dagger.
As she reached the door, she heard a burst of laughter. She did not look back. Another failed opportunity that had glittered as brightly as gold but turned to dross when finally within her grasp. The pattern grew long and dispiritingly predictable.
Alan waited with their horses. His face showed dismay in reaction to what he saw in her expression.
Riannon took her reins from him. "We're leaving."
"Where do we go?" he asked.
Riannon settled in the saddle and put a hand to the ache that mounting had tugged across her stomach. "East."
"The war in southern Kardash that the bard spoke of? Aye, there should be work there aplenty. And good pickings."
Riannon saw the body hanging from the branch of an elm tree. She halted her gelding. Even gently swinging in neck-broken death, Lord Grammaire looked tidy. He would likely have died had he not surrendered to her. But it would have been a better death in defence of his castle. Instead, he died like a common criminal despite her having given her word that no harm would come to him. Would Count Berenger have held her honour at nought had she been a man?
Riannon shrugged. Her muscles stabbed with fresh pain. For several heartbeats, she had to sit with a hand gripping the saddle and her teeth ground down on a groan. When the crisis passed, she licked sweat from her upper lip.
"My lady?" Alan lowered his voice, though only the dead man might overhear them. "Mayhap I should get you back to the tent and fetch the leech-priest."
He always reverted to "lady" when he was worried about her.
Riannon took several uneasy breaths and straightened. "No. We ride. But I'd not object if we found a grove house to pass the night."
The priestess-healers had saved her life once before, when she thought herself beyond healing and hope. Perhaps they could cure her of this recurrent problem with those same wounds. She doubted, though, that she would ever find a cure for the problem of never belonging or being accepted for what she was.