Page 11

Author: Robin LaFevers

“Ships! Describe them to me.”

When I do, he swears and begins to pace in the small clearing. “The French fleet.”

It is exactly as the abbess and Crunard have feared. Martel was trying to find port for the French so they could launch their attacks.

“Are you well enough to ride yet?” he asks. “This news adds some urgency to our journey.”

In answer, I turn and head for my horse.

Chapter Twelve

We make Quimper just after nightfall, the bonfires in the fields lighting the last of the way as the local plowmen celebrate Martinmas. Once we are inside the city, Duval leads us to a small inn where the innkeeper clucks and fusses over us as if Duval is an honored guest. At last, dishes of braised rabbit and mugs of spiced wine are placed in front of us, and then the innkeeper retires to the kitchens. we fall on our meal in silence. Indeed, Duval has not said much since my encounter with Martel’s soul, but I can almost hear the wheels of his mind turning, much like a millstone, grinding down bits of information, until they can fit in some pattern only he can discern.

All this silence is fine with me, as I am as tired as I have ever been, and my backside is bruised from the day’s grueling ride.

when we finish our meal, the innkeeper returns and leads us up the narrow stairs to our rooms. My chamber is next to Duval’s, but after a quick search I find no connecting door, so I relax somewhat. even so, it takes longer than it should for me to fall asleep. I can feel Duval on the other side of the thick wall, the flame of his soul bright and steady and so very different from the sisters with whom I’ve shared my nights with for the last three years.

We are on the road the next morning before daybreak. Once we clear the town, we ride hard and do not stop until noon. In truth, I think Duval would gladly ride straight through, but the horses need the rest.

As do I. However, I will let him think it is the horses he is coddling, not me.

while he tends to them, I stretch my legs and try to work out the stiff muscles in my back. Once our mounts are watered and settled, Duval rifles through his saddlebag and pulls out a small bundle. He tucks it under his arm and comes to stand next to me in the small patch of sunlight I have found.

It galls me that I am painfully aware of every movement he makes, from shrugging his cloak over his shoulder to pulling off his worn leather gloves. His hands fascinate me, and I remember the feel of them against my waist, along my arms. I force my gaze away.

Unaware of the turmoil inside me, Duval unwraps the bundle, which turns out to be a wedge of hard cheese. He breaks it in half, then holds a piece out to me. "Eat.”

with a murmur of thanks, I take the cheese, hating that I must now rely upon him for food, just as I once relied upon my father and had thought to rely on Guillo. I am overcome by a childish desire to throw the cheese back at him and refuse to eat it. But I am no longer a child, and I have a responsibility to my convent, my saint, and my duchess. I take a bite of cheese and vow to arrange for my own provisions at the next inn.

The clearing is quiet except for the faint burbling of the brook the horses have drunk from. The silence feels thick and awkward to me, but any attempt to make small talk seems equally so. wondering if he feels it too, I sneak a glance in his direction and am appalled to find him watching me. we both wrench our eyes away, and even though I am no longer looking at him, every part of me is aware of his proximity, of the faint heat coming off his body in the damp autumn air, of the scent of leather and whatever soap he washed with that morning. I hate that I am conscious of him in this way and I dredge through my heart, trying to find where I’ve hidden all the resentment and suspicion I hold him in. "What did you want with Runnion back at the tavern?” The question springs from my lips, artless and unsubtle.

His forehead wrinkles in thought, as if he is weighing some thorny dilemma. when at last he speaks, it is only to ask a question of his own. "What do you know of the man you killed there?”

I blink in surprise. “It is not my place to know anything of those I kill. I merely carry out Mortain’s orders.”

“And that sits well with you? Not knowing who or why?”

It does, but his question makes me feel lack-witted for not knowing more, for not wanting to know more. “I do not expect you to understand the duty and obedience required of those who serve Mortain,” I say, my voice prim and pinched.

“How does the convent decide whom to kill?” he presses.

I study his face closely, but I cannot tell if he is questioning the convent or just me. “Surely that is the convent’s business, milord, not yours.”

“If I will be sponsoring you at court, I will not be kept in the dark, only to find myself cleaning up bodies and making explanations.”

I raise my chin in annoyance, for in my mind that is exactly the role I have assigned to him. “The abbess will communicate with me through letters, and sometimes — sometimes the saint makes His wishes clear to me directly.”

“How?” His question is sharp, urgent. He is hungry to understand this puzzle.

I shrug and try to regain control of this conversation. "What does this have to do with Runnion?”

He is silent for a long minute, so long I think he will not answer. when he does, I wish that he had not. “Doesn’t it worry you, that you understand nothing of how they make their decisions? what if they make a mistake?”

“A mistake?” My cheeks grow hot at the suggestion. “I do not see how they can, milord, since their hand is guided by the saint Himself. Indeed, to suggest such a thing reeks of blasphemy to me.”

“It is not the saint I doubt, demoiselle, only the humans who interpret His wishes. In my experience, humans are all too fallible.” He is silent again briefly, but his next words cause the cheese I have eaten to curdle in my stomach. “Runnion was working for the duchess.”

“No! He was a traitor! I saw the marque on him myself.”

Duval jerks his head around to stare at me, eyes sharp with interest. “The mark of a traitor, demoiselle? what does that look like?”

even as I reel from this revelation, I realize how neatly he has tricked me into divulging more than I intended. “That is not something I can share with you.”

“I seem to recall your abbess speaking to us both of cooperation.”

“In worldly matters, yes, but she said nothing of betraying the sanctity of our rituals.” I look pointedly at the silver leaf on his cloak. "Would you share with me the rites of Saint Camulos?”

He ignores that question, for he knows I am right. “Your abbess’s definition of cooperation differs greatly from mine,” he mutters. “Consider this. Runnion had betrayed the duke three years ago, during the Mad war, but he had come to regret that action. In truth, he wished to make amends for his betrayal. That was how he came to work for us, as a means of earning his way back into his country’s good graces.”

I feel as if I have been turned to stone by one of Saint Arduinna’s arrows. “You lie.”

“No, I do not.” He looks me square in the eye and what I see there looks disturbingly like truth. “Perhaps, demoiselle, your saint is more complex than your convent would have you believe. Now come, I think the horses have rested enough.”

Chapter Thirteen

Duval’s revelation about Runnion plagues me for the rest of the afternoon. If Runnion was truly innocent, why did the convent send me to kill him? Had they not known of his work for the duchess? Or do they know something Duval does not?

And if Runnion was working for the duchess, why had he borne the marque? why had Mortain not removed that stain from the man’s soul?

I fear the answer lies in my actions. By striking him down, did I rob him of his chance to earn forgiveness?

I shove that disturbing thought from my mind. Mortain is all-knowing. Surely He would have seen the man’s intention and spared him if He thought Runnion worthy.

I am still wrestling with the Runnion matter when Duval steers us across a thick stone bridge. The town is small and crowded, but Duval seems to know where he is going and leads us through the cobbled streets until we reach an inn.

we dismount, and the ostler arrives to take our horses. Duval gives him instructions for their care, then offers me his arm. As I take it, I wonder what folly decreed that women cannot walk unassisted. Inside, the innkeeper rushes forward to greet us, and Duval tells him of our needs for the night. The innkeeper directs someone to take our things to our rooms, then leads us to the inn’s main hall, where dinner is being served.

The hall is a large room, larger even than the refectory back at the convent. In spite of the room’s size, a low ceiling and dark timber beams make it feel small and close. A fire burns in the hearth, and the place smells of smoke, new wine, and roasting meat.

we choose a corner table, as far away from the other diners as we can get. I hurry forward so I can take the seat that affords me the clearest view of the door. Duval’s lips quirk in amusement.

A serving maid sets a flagon of wine and two cups on the table, then withdraws. I do not even let him quench his thirst before I launch my questions at him. “If Runnion was working for the duchess, what was he doing at the tavern?” I know the convent cannot make such a mistake. There is some other element in play here, and I am determined to ferret it out.

Duval lifts his goblet and takes a long drink before answering. “He was bringing me word on whether england would commit troops to aid our fight against the French.”

I feel as if Annith has just landed a kick to my gut. I want to accuse him of lying again, but his eyes are steady, and there are none of the signs of deception that I have been taught to look for. Besides, his answer makes sense. The duchess had been betrothed to england’s crown prince before he disappeared from the tower. “If that is the case, then I cannot believe the abbess knew that he was helping you.”

Duval shrugs. “I would like to believe she had no knowledge of his true purpose. The alternative is most disturbing.”

“Your suspicions are ill founded,” I snap. I take my goblet and drain half of it, as if the wine can wash the foul taste of his mistrust from my mouth.

As I set the goblet down, Duval leans across the table. “Now, I have shown good faith and answered your questions, and I would have you answer one of mine. I want to know more of these marques and how they work.”

“I am sorry, but I cannot share such things with you.”

He leans back and his eyes grow as cold and stark as the winter sky. “That is unfortunate, demoiselle. For until I learn more of how the convent makes its decisions, I will have to regard it — and you — with suspicion.”

I give him a false, brittle smile. “It seems we are both bound by duty.”

The serving maid arrives at that moment, breaking our impasse. She sets down loaves of fresh crusty bread, a roast capon, two bowls of stew, braised turnips and onions, and a wedge of cheese. Famished by the day’s long ride, we dig into our supper.

Once the worst of my hunger pangs have been appeased, I risk another question. “And what of Martel? Do you claim he worked for you too?”

“Could it be you are asking me for more information, demoiselle? when you have refused to give me so much as a morsel in return?”

It sounds unfair when he puts it like that. I soften my voice so he will think I regret this, but of course, I do not. “I will share what I know with you, but I cannot reveal the secrets of our order.”

He looks away, a small muscle in his jaw tightening. He is silent for a long moment, then turns back to me. “Very well. I will tell you of Martel, but only in the interest of showing you why you must stay your hand until you have gathered all the facts.

“Martel did not work for us, no. But I believe he could have been persuaded to tell me who at court was working for the French regent.”

I take a sip of wine to cover my distress. “Feeling a twinge of conscience yet?” Duval asks.

“No,” I lie.

A shadow looms near the door and pulls my attention from Duval. The largest man I have ever seen steps into the room. Half a head taller than Duval, he is travel stained and road weary and looks like an ogre who has strayed out of a hearth tale. His face bears the roughened texture of pox scars; his nose — broken at least twice — is a lumpen knob. His hair is shaved close to his head, and his eyes are creased in a permanent squint.

The man’s iron gaze sweeps across the room and lands on Duval. His eyes narrow, and he strides in our direction. every muscle in my body tenses, and my hand creeps to the dagger at my waist. Duval catches the movement. His eyes widen in surprise, then he glances over his shoulder.

He is up on his feet in an instant, heading toward the stranger at full tilt. They crash into each other with the force of two tree trunks colliding. It takes a moment for me to realize their blows are those of joyful greeting and not attempts to pummel each other into the ground. I let out a slow breath and remove my hand from my knife.

As they finish pounding each other, I notice a small cluster of stable boys and apprentices hovering in the doorway, pointing at the stranger. Duval nods his head in their direction, and the giant man rolls his eyes good-naturedly before turning and greeting them. They smile and talk excitedly among themselves until the innkeeper shoos them back to their duties.

Duval then drags the stranger to our table. The man does not improve upon closer inspection. His light blue eyes are startling in his scarred face and put me in mind of a wolf. In truth, he may be the ugliest man I have ever seen.

“Ismae,” Duval says. “This is Sir Benebic of waroch, otherwise known as the Beast. Beast, this is Demoiselle Rienne.”

My eyes widen in surprise, for even we at the convent have heard the tales of the Beast of waroch, of his ferocity and valor in battle, his extreme disregard for his own life that causes some to think he is mad. “Greetings, my lord.”