Jaban 22, 1014
One more down … how many more border towers to go?
Lamorak shook his head. Impatience would not suit the task ahead. The King had ordered a full tour and accounting of all the border towers, to be completed by one of his knights. Lamorak had … well, there was no other way to phrase this. He’d drawn the short straw, literally. So while Milo, Mordred, Sir Lancelot, Aglovale, and the rest of them got to sit on their behinds at home, enjoying themselves, Lamorak was riding around the borders of the kingdom on a tour that was expected to take at least three days. Albion was not a big country, but the accounting the King wanted took time.
He wished he had thought to bring a companion — maybe Ambrosius, the King’s steward. Ambrosius was … odd, to say the least, but he would have been better than nothing. He also had a head for all the details that the King wanted and made Lamorak’s brain start to hurt.
“Ah, but why am I complaining, Triss?” he asked as he swung himself into the saddle. Triss snorted, as if asking the same question. “It could be good practice.”
Triss whuffed and bobbed his head up and down. “Good horse,” Lamorak replied, patting his neck. “You know when to agree with me.”
He took up the reins and gently guided Triss away from the tower. Triss ambled forward. There was no point in going any faster at this point. Lamorak still had to clear his head and line up all his impressions before he wanted to start the next tower. At least he’d had the sense to take plentiful notes — hopefully he would be able to make sense of them when he got home, so he could make a good report.
But in the meantime, he’d found the tower well-stocked, provisioned against anything but a siege. That was a point in its favor. The men … the men were a bit shifty, a bit lazy, and some were a bit restless. This tower had been of vital importance a year ago, when the refugee camps on the border of the Camford zone had been teeming and liable to break out into violence at any moment. But now? The refugees were all gone, and more importantly, so were the Camford mercenaries. Trade and traffic had resumed, and since this watchtower wasn’t near an official crossing (and since the King’s policies were lax enough that few cared to use the unofficial ones), boredom had set in. Lamorak got the impression that perhaps this outpost was used as a place to send guards troublesome enough to their captains that they wanted to foist them off elsewhere, but not so troublesome that they wanted to dismiss them entirely.
It probably wasn’t good to have men like that on the sensitive border with Camford. But was the border with Reme any less sensitive? Maybe Camford was the lesser of two–
Triss suddenly screamed, and reared, and his gentle amble turned into a full-on gallop.
“WHOA!” Lamorak pulled at the reins. “What the–”
Triss veered off the path, straight into the forest proper.
Lamorak gripped the reins so tightly he could feel them digging into his palms. “WHOA! WHOA, BOY!” He pulled–tugged–tried to get Triss to slow down by main force–
None of it did any good. Triss pulled the bit between his teeth and clamped down on it with a strength better suited to a lion tearing off hunks of flesh. And he went faster.
The ground was rough and jagged — no legions of feet, no caravans of wagons, nothing had worn out a smooth and straight path for the horse to follow. Bushes and vines and Lord-only-knew what else crowded on both sides; branches and bones and sometimes whole tree trunks littered the ground before them. It was all Lamorak could do to hang on.
Lamorak ducked down, pressing his face to the horse’s neck, trusting Triss’s own good sense to keep from getting brained by a passing branch —
But what was Triss running to? Or from?
Triss swerved suddenly; Lamorak yelped. “TRISS! STOP!” He tugged once again on the reins.
The ground thundered beneath them as they pounded over it. Lamorak’s teeth were rattling. If his bones jarred together one more time, something was going to break–
And Triss kept running.
There was something — Lamorak could just see white and blue up ahead. Light? They were nearing a road?
They burst out of the trees, onto a path of some kind. One way led up a steep hill, the other down into a valley. Lamorak couldn’t recognize any of it.
He barely got a chance to look. Triss pivoted, and before Lamorak could catch his breath, they were galloping again, this time uphill.
Triss couldn’t possibly go so fast, could he? Lamorak tried to pull again on the reins. Maybe some of the horse’s strength would be so spent–
Triss tossed his head and the reins almost slipped from Lamorak’s sweating hands.
“TRISS! WHOA!” Shouting had to do some good — didn’t it? Because it was either that or just hold on in silent terror, praying that Triss would–
Triss stumbled, and though the horse caught himself, Lamorak was not so lucky. The reassuring weight of the saddle below him faded away …
And the ground came rushing up to meet him.
He tumbled head-over-arse onto the dirt. His mouth kissed it first, then his nose — he started to cough and choke. At least he hadn’t had the wind knocked out of him. But everything else —
Knees and elbows, face and arse, ribs and feet, everything seemed to hit at once. The angry rocks and dirt, affronted by this invasion of their space, pounded into every inch of his skin. His chain maille and surcoat were nothing against this.
And his head …
Slowly, he dragged himself to his knees. Breathing hard and heavy. Then he heard Triss —
“Triss!” He managed to shout. “St–”
Triss pounded past him, back downhill.
“What the — fuck!” Lamorak shouted. He worked his jaw from side to side as he panted, held up by shaking arms and legs. Good, at least that wasn’t broken. Was anything else? “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Where was he? There was a road below, he could see that now — where did it lead? What direction was home? Hell, what direction was the tower? It was only a few minute’s gallop away, but on foot …
“Son. Of. A. Bitch!” Lamorak snarled. It didn’t do any good, but it made him feel better. Sort of.
He rolled himself onto his arse and tried to check himself for injuries. He could move just about everything, which was always a good sign. His ribs felt tight and in pain — had he broken one? That would be just what he needed.
Slowly, testing every last toe for stability, he started to stand. Perhaps if he walked downhill and took the road —
“Ah. Good. You can stand.”
Lamorak jumped. “Mordred!” He turned around as quickly as he could. “Boy, am I glad to see you! What –”
There was no pity on Mordred’s face. No concern. His eyes watched him with the calculating glare of the snake surveying the rabbit. Lamorak took a step backward in spite of himself. “… Mordred?”
Mordred crossed his arms over his chest and slowly shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His eyes narrowed slightly. That was all the expression that bothered to make its way onto Mordred’s face. “You have no idea why you’re here, have you?”
“My horse! He went–mad! He started running –”
“You idiot, your horse didn’t do that. I did that.” Mordred snorted and shook his head.
Mordred’s hands moved to his hips. “You truly have no idea …” He stroked his chin. “Interesting. Was it the drink, I wonder?”
“What drink?” Lamorak snapped. “I haven’t had anything to drink all day!”
“Not today.” Mordred waved his hand. “But on the night before your wedding, you had a great deal. And while under its influence, you told me something. Do you remember what it was?”
He told Mordred something? He didn’t remember anything like that. He barely remembered anything about that party at all. All he recalled was that it was so stiff and stilted that he was determined to make things go, and that required more alcohol than perhaps was good for him.
“No. You do not.” Mordred’s nostrils flared — then a mask of rage clamped onto his face, and he snarled, “You ruined my peace of mind that night, as well as destroying my family’s honor, and you don’t even remember?”
“Ruin your family’s honor? Your family is my family!” Lamorak shouted. “How the hell would I have ever–”
He couldn’t have told Mordred — that, could he have?
Something seemed to come back to him …
“No!” he whispered.
“No? You seek to recant your testimony now?” Mordred chuckled. “You can try — but in vino veritas, my friend. My once-friend, my once-brother. Now …” The rage returned; Lamorak took a step back. “‘Enemy’ is too trite a word to describe what you are, Lamorak. Men might call me a snake in the grass, but you? You tossed the honor of my family into the mud, and you dared to offer your hand to me in friendship? You dared to marry my sister?”
“I — I — it was complicated!” Lamorak sputtered. “What–what happened between Lady Morga–”
“Don’t you say her name!” Mordred roared. “Don’t you dare sully that name with your dirty, lying mouth!”
“I never lied to you!”
The look Mordred sent to him was dripped with pure contempt. “No. Maybe not in words. But in deed?”
“No! NO! What happened — what happened had nothing to do with you! It had nothing to do with us! It — I –”
“Spare me! I didn’t summon you here for your excuses! What will you tell me, Lamorak — that a woman nearing fifty, a mother, a grandmother, threw herself at you? That she slathered herself in scent and paint? That she batted her eyelashes and you were powerless to resist?”
“YES!” Lamorak shouted, and realized how stupid that sounded a second later.
“Then you’re a fool,” Mordred spat. “Maybe you convinced Garnet with that tripe, but there’s no man on earth who would believe it. We know too well the lies we tell to keep our women happy.”
“No!” Lamorak shook his head. “No! She — she seduced me!”
Mordred’s eyes sparked, his wand flew from his sleeves and sickly green sparks clustered at the tip. “Say that again, Lamorak, and I will make you regret it.”
“She. Seduced. Me.”
There was no sign on Mordred’s part that he heard Lamorak, much less that he reacted. But the sparks shot from the wand and barreled into Lamorak’s chest. He stumbled back.
“That,” Mordred replied as Lamorak tried to catch his breath, “was for lying. Lie again, and it will go worse with you. Though,” he mused, “tell the truth, and it shan’t go well either …” Then the anger came back, and Mordred snarled, “But what else should you expect? Did you really think that you could cause my mother’s death and live to tell about it?”
“Dindrane knew about the two of you,” Mordred shrugged. “She was determined to stop it. So she made up her story –”
Made up that story?
No. Lamorak was not hearing this. Or rather, he was hearing something else, something he’d sought to ignore for a long, long time.
Mordred … his friend was no more. And the man who was left …
Lamorak drew his sword; the metal sang when it was released from the scabbard. “You think I dishonored your family? I think you dishonored mine first, when you sired your other little family and broke my poor sister’s heart! So let us dispute this like men, and let the Lord choose who is in the right!”
Mordred’s jaw fell. He stared.
Then he started to laugh.
“Dispute this? Let the Lord choose who is right? My Lord, Lamorak!” Mordred wiped a tear from his eye. “Do you honestly think that is how this is going to work?”
Lamorak lowered his sword without quite meaning to — then he brought it up again and snarled. “To arms, coward!”
“No. I think not.” Mordred twitched his wand — it could not even be called a wave. Lamorak’s sword was torn from his hand and went sailing into the bushes. Then Mordred began to draw his wand in a slow, careful circle.
“This is how this is going to work.”
If Lamorak could get the wand out of Mordred’s hand — Mordred didn’t seem to have a sword — he might have a chance!
He squared his shoulders and rushed Mordred–
The spell finished; the fiery light sped to Lamorak–it hit him–
Magic like flames sped all over his body. They didn’t hurt, not yet. But they dug into his clothes, his maille, his flesh. They seemed to be searching for something —
He heard Mordred start to laugh. Lamorak tried to fight free of the flames. But he could not move —
Until, just as suddenly as they had come, they were gone. And something else stood before him. A floating dress, complimented by a hat that floated just at head-height. The hat tilted, as if an invisible person were turning his head to one side the better to regard him.
Then Mordred spoke. “Get him.”
The dress lunged.
Fabric should not hurt. Certainly something that wasn’t completely there shouldn’t be capable of causing pain. But no matter where Lamorak turned his head or his stomach or his more private parts to avoid the blows that rained down like a summer storm, something was there to meet it. Something that combined the force of a brick to the gut with the speed of a rushing river. And when Lamorak himself started to fight back —
How could you fight the invisible? Even when Lamorak aimed his fist square for the space between the creature’s hat and dress, it flew through like there was nothing there. A sucker punch aimed for the gut only hit fabric that gave way from his touch. It was like hitting washing strung out on the line. There was no resistance.
Except, of course, there was, in the form of blows that kept raining down from all sides.
And then the creature caught Lamorak in a headlock …
Whatever was underneath those sleeves was solid. Lamorak tried to crush them between his chin and his neck. Nothing happened. The creature didn’t even seem to feel it.
Then it started to squeeze.
Lamorak gasped and choked. Air–he needed to air–his boots scrabbled and kicked the ground, trying to find a purchase, enough leverage to pull himself out of this death grip. No matter how much he gasped, nothing came in. Dark spots danced before him —
“All right, enough!” shouted Mordred. “Leave him. I am not finished with him yet!”
Lamorak barely got a chance to gasp in more air when something like a rock-hard leg slammed into his rear, sending him sprawling forward.
If Lamorak closed his eyes, he could almost hear something like hands being dusted off after a hard fight …
“Excellent work, kind spirit. You may go now.” There was a pop — like the kind that came all of a sudden in the middle of a cold, when an undetectable blockage in the ears was suddenly gone and the world was that much louder — and then, nothing.
Lamorak panted on the ground. Everything — hurt —
“And now,” said Mordred, “we will move onto the second part of our entertainment for this afternoon.”
Lamorak forced himself onto his feet. Again he charged Mordred —
Again he was stopped in his tracks by a fire-like spell.
And this one hurt like hell. Lamorak tried to scream — but all that came out was —
Bees, bees, everywhere — swarming him, buzzing around him in a horrible cacophony. Lamorak tried to gasp.
They turned to him with one mind.
“GAH! NO!” Lamorak ran.
And Mordred laughed.
“Run, run, as fast as you can, Lamorak! But they will catch you! They’ll find you, if they must travel to the very ends of the earth! You cannot hide from bees!”
As Lamorak ran as fast as his legs would take him, bees crawled over his tunic and maille. They found every last chink in the armor. They burrowed in. They stung.
And Lamorak could only be very, very afraid that Mordred was exactly right.