Halfway across the bridge, Kara dropped to her knees and peered at the stone construction as though fascinated by its design. There was still something childlike about the way she conducted these examinations, but he had begun to think there was more to it than that.
“I’m not sure she’s entirely insane, either,” he said.
Julianna had nothing to say to that. By the time the two of them crossed the bridge, Kara had moved on to the other side of the stream. Halliwell paused and grunted as he dropped into a crouch. He tried to see what had fascinated her so much about the stones that made up the bridge, but noticed nothing but a few muddy hoofprints. And perhaps that had been her interest after all.
“They’ve been here,” Kara said.
Julianna ran to join her. They were just off the road on the edge of the stream. Halliwell took his time, studying the location. There were hoofprints on the far side of the bridge, dug into the dirt as though the rider had drawn back on the reins, causing the horse to slow quickly.
“What is this?” Julianna asked. “Blood?”
Halliwell snapped his head around and stared at the woman and the girl. Kara knelt in the scrub grass on the side of the road and looked more closely. She breathed it in.
“Yes. Human blood.”
She can tell that just from the scent? Halliwell thought. He wished he were more surprised.
“There’s more over here,” he said, pointing out a spatter of dried brown on the ground by the road.
Kara stood up, then spun slowly in a circle as though she could see, with her own eyes, the scene that had played out here earlier that same day.
“There was a scuffle at the water’s edge. More fighting over here. Soldiers were camped on the roadside.”
“Why do you say soldiers?” Julianna asked.
“That many men all in one place. In this part of the kingdom, and without any wagons or horses, they could only be soldiers. Oliver and Kitsune came upon them here and fought them.”
“Is there…” Julianna glanced at Halliwell and the detective saw the fear in her eyes and turned away, striding back up to the road to study the hoofprints. “Is any of the blood Oliver’s?”
Kara did not respond at first, and her silence forced Halliwell to turn and look at them again.
“How could I know that?” the little girl said, wide-eyed and mystified.
“You know a lot of things that surprise me,” Julianna said, the hard edge of suspicion in her voice.
Halliwell figured it was driven more by her own fear for Oliver than anything else and decided it was time to intervene. He gestured toward the flattened, broken scrub grass and the remains of a small fire in the clearing on the side of a road.
“It’s obvious a group of men were camped here, at least briefly. The evidence of a struggle would be hard to miss as well. The blood tells us somebody was wounded. By the amount, and judging by Kara’s assurance that it’s human blood, I’m going to say at least two of them didn’t survive. But there are no bodies, which also supports the military theory. They’d be unlikely to leave their dead behind. The blood’s dry, but still tacky, like fresh paint. Whatever happened here did so today. And if Kara’s right about Oliver and his friend using the Orient Road, then they might have been involved.”
“Oh, they were,” Kara said.
Julianna crossed her arms. “How can you be certain?”
The little girl held up something that was invisible in the dying afternoon light.
“What is it?” Halliwell asked.
“Fox hair. Kitsune has been this way.”
Halliwell left the road again and walked toward Julianna. Her body was tensed like an animal about to bolt. The frustration and fear came off of her in waves. He felt it keenly and knew it well. It was only a fraction of the emotion he struggled to contain in himself.
“They’re still alive,” he said.
She stared at him. “Oh, so you’re Nostradamus, too?”
The detective scratched at the back of his head. “This Kitsune, she’s a Borderkind. Supernatural. Whatever. The point is, she’s along with Oliver to help him, protect him. No way is she going to stand by and let him be killed. If she’s still alive, then so is he. And since Kara didn’t mention any puddles of Borderkind blood—”
The girl squealed and clapped her hands. “Oh, well done! I’d say you’re right about that.”
“So where are they, then?” Julianna asked, walking in a circle, kicking at the scrub grass, peering into the woods and back across the stream and up to the road.
Kara skipped up to the road, spun, and bowed, one hand stretched out to guide the way west, further along the Orient Road. “This way, my friends.”
Halliwell and Julianna joined her and the three of them set off again.
“All right, spill,” Julianna said. “How do we know where we’re going?”
“You got me,” Halliwell replied. “Here’s what I figure. The soldiers weren’t on horses. Somebody came riding up on horseback, or maybe Oliver and his friend somehow got hold of a couple of horses—”
“There was only one rider coming over the bridge,” Kara corrected.
Halliwell smiled. There were a lot of things he knew, but how to figure how many people were on the back of a horse just from its tracks was not among them.
“All right. Point is, the rider came up during the fight. At some point, he pulled the reins. The horse stopped in the middle of it. It’s possible they took the horse away from him.”
Julianna shot him a panicked glance. “Don’t even say that. If they’re on horseback, we’ll never catch up with them.”
Halliwell wanted to tell her that at the speed he was capable of traveling, they were never going to catch up to Oliver anyway, not if Oliver kept moving. But he kept his mouth shut.
“We don’t need to be faster than they are,” Kara said. “Not if we know where they’re going.”
“And do we?”
The little girl gave him a smile that lit up the mischief in her eyes. “We do now. The horseman that came through was riding hard. One rider, alone, moving swiftly. I’d wager that’s a royal courier. If so, he’d have been headed for the summer residence at Otranto. The only reason for that would be if Hunyadi is there.”
Julianna uttered a soft laugh of disbelief. “Wait, you think if Oliver found out that the king was at this summer place, he’d go there? Knowing the guy’s trying to kill him?”
Kara sighed and shook her head, and there was something of ancientness about her eyes then. “You don’t listen. Even if your lover saves his sister, both of them will be hunted and executed unless he can secure a pardon from both kings. Having Hunyadi so nearby would likely be too tempting to ignore.”
“Likely,” Halliwell repeated. “What if you’re wrong?”
Julianna watched the girl closely.
“If I’m wrong,” Kara said, “then we have little chance of overtaking them, unless the two of you can grow wings.”
Oliver ran across the courtyard of the castle of Otranto, sword in hand, the sergeant shouting at his men. The order to kill him echoed off the inner walls of the courtyard and off the castle keep. The scar-nosed guard wasn’t going to catch him on foot. Even the sergeant concerned Oliver only a little. The only two things he feared in that moment were sorcery and arrows. Either could kill him on the spot.
An arrow whisked in front of his face, close enough to make him falter a moment. It struck the ground with a dull thud. Several others followed rapidly, thunking into the dirt around him. If not for the fact that most of the archers had withdrawn from the wall, he would have died right then.
“Kill him!” came the cry from behind him, back by the main doors of the castle. But this time it was not the sergeant screaming for his blood. It was Hy’Bor, the Atlantean advisor to King Hunyadi.
Oliver hurtled toward the gates of the outer wall. He gripped the sword tightly, but it danced uselessly in his hand. If he stood and fought, he had no chance of survival. Serpents of ice coiled around his heart as he understood what a mistake he had made.
He would die here, and in some prison within the Sandman’s castle, Collette would be mutilated and murdered by a monster. If death was imminent, he wished he could at least have seen his sister again, held her close, let her know how much she meant to him.
Anger burned in him, at himself, and at all the people who wanted him dead simply because they were afraid of the world beyond the one they knew. Where was he supposed to run? To the gates? There were guards on the other side. He was not getting out of here alive.
“Fuck it,” Oliver snarled.
He spun, raising the Sword of Hunyadi. The sergeant and the scar-nosed soldier ran at him. Others were coming, climbing down ladders from the battlements and bursting from doors across the courtyard.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something red flash in the late afternoon sun. He heard a scream and glanced over to see one of the archers fall over the edge of the battlement and crash to the ground below. The second of them had an arrow nocked, about to be let loose, but he turned as the fox leaped at him in a blur of copper-red fur. Her jaws snapped shut on the meat of his forearm and the archer cried out in pain and tried to shake her off.
In an eyeblink, Kitsune transformed. Where the fox had been there now stood the woman. Her cloak whipped around her as she moved, the hood hiding her features. The archer tried to fight her off, but Kitsune snapped out a hand and gripped his throat, then hurled him down into the courtyard with the other. As he fell, she ripped his bow from his hands.
The last of the archers still on the battlements had turned on her now. Eyes fearfully wide, he loosed an arrow. It flew at Kitsune but she dodged easily.
With a cry of fury, she slashed the claws of her left hand across his face. The man screamed and staggered back. She tore the quiver of arrows from his back and then pushed him over the front wall of the castle. He cried out as he fell, tumbling out of sight.
All of this happened in seconds.
With no more arrows flying, Oliver had a moment to simply stand and wait for the king’s guard to reach him. The sword felt heavy in his grip but he gritted his teeth and raised it higher. Beyond the sergeant and the one with the scar, he saw Hy’Bor approaching. The Atlantean sorcerer carried himself with far too much arrogant dignity to run, so instead he strode imperiously, shimmering with a strange glow that disrupted the air so that he seemed to be stepping between moments, crossing twice the distance in half the time.
“Come on, then!” Oliver shouted, and he held the grip and pommel of the sword with both hands. The wind blew and he caught the scent of flowers somewhere not far off. The incongruity chilled him.
“Take the assassin’s head!” the sergeant yelled, brandishing his own sword now.
“I’m no assassin,” Oliver said.
No one was listening. The sergeant came at him, sword raised. His attack was clumsy and easily parried. Oliver spun inside the man’s reach and shot an elbow to the sergeant’s head, knocking him backward.
With a scream of rage, the sergeant swung again, with more focus and skill this time. Oliver blocked, the blades ringing crisply in the air. The scar-nosed soldier was only steps away. Years of fencing lessons swirled in Oliver’s head. He had a talent for it, but had never fought more than one opponent at a time.
Oliver feinted, and when the sergeant went to block, he slapped the flat of the blade down on the man’s wrist, breaking the bone. The sergeant cursed and dropped his sword.
“Bastard!” shouted the scar-nosed soldier. He came at Oliver with little finesse but with the size and fury of a bull.
His attack was easy to sidestep. Oliver grabbed his arm and used his momentum and weight against him, turning and shoving the man so that he stumbled and crashed to the ground. With speed that belied his size, he leaped to his feet again, enraged.
When an arrow took him in the shoulder, he spun around and fell to his knees, grabbing at the shaft that jutted from his flesh.
Another whistled through the air above Oliver’s head and he spun just in time to see it strike home in the chest of the Atlantean. The weird, warped shimmer of air around Hy’Bor ceased instantly. The sorcerer stared down at the arrow protruding from his chest and staggered off. He fell on his side in the courtyard, crumpling to the ground. The impact sent up a puff of dirt. But one of his hands waved in the air and then began to distort the space around it. Weakened he might be, but Hy’Bor still lived.
“Take him!” the sergeant shouted again. “Kill them both!”
“Would you just shut the hell up?” Oliver snapped.
The soldiers began to surround him and he kept his guard up, turning around in a circle, watching to see which of them would make the first move. There were three, then five, then he lost count. Had the order not been to kill him, he would have surrendered then and there. But surrender meant death, and he would rather die fighting.
An arrow struck a soldier from behind with such force that its tip poked out through his abdomen. The man started to fall and a second caught him, holding him up.
“Oliver!” Kitsune called, and fully half of the soldiers turned to face her as she raced across the courtyard with the swiftness of her breed.
“Borderkind!” shouted one of the king’s guard.
Kitsune drew back the bowstring, an arrow at the ready. “Stand down. The first one to touch him, or come near me, gets an arrow through the eye.”
It seemed to Oliver that the world held its breath.
Then Hy’Bor began to chant in a language unlike anything Oliver had ever heard. Fear flashed in the eyes of every one of the soldiers around him and they all drew back a step.
The Atlantean was rising. It was difficult to look at him; his body seemed out of synch with reality, as though parts of him had been stripped out and hidden away.