The story is set in a world I've used before. I have a novel manuscript, currently sitting at a particular publishing house having been "pulled from slush for a closer look" (and the waiting continues). "Time for Tears", in Sword & Sorceress 26 is also set in this world. It uses one of the characters and references the other.
David L. Burkhead
David L. Burkhead
Kreg knelt to examine the trail. Hard to say how many raiders rode ahead of them. Enough to have slaughtered the people of Three Oaks.
Shadows from the birch trees waving in the slight breeze dappled the ground. Kreg reached out to touch a hoof print, measuring it with his hand. Unshod. That meant either Eastern raiders or a very poor band of bandits.
Tracks overlaid each in the packed dirt. Kreg's eyes narrowed as he tried, and failed, to count how many raiders were in the party. That little girl--Kreg did not know her name--had been taken in the throat with an arrow. A kindness of a sort putting her beyond pain when the raider swords had hacked her body to pieces.
Kreg had recognized her tiny, mutilated corpse. She had given him flowers the last he rode through Three Oaks. She had given him flowers and he didn't even know her name.
"Meritha," Kaila said from her horse.
Kreg looked up at her.
"Her name," Kaila said. "The girl."
Despite his fury, the corners of Kreg's lips twitched. Kaila was in his head, much like she always rode I'm her heart. He did not fully understand it. The Knightbond did not work so for anyone else, but the bond was still new-forged and they were all still learning what it did.
"Bandits," Kreg said as he stood up. "Some ponies, some larger horses. Raiders would be more consistent."
"Your counsel, Your Grace?"
Kreg's lips twitched again. Kaila loved to twit him about the new title, granted by king Keven, making Kreg a Duke in his own right instead of merely Kaila's consort.
"They're just hours ahead of us." Kreg swung into his saddle. He conjured a vision of a map in his head. "we'd lose days riding to...Zhaivan, I think, to raise the army."
"You and me?"
"You and me."
This time the smile escaped from Kreg's lips. "Fear not for us."
Kaila's return smile, as she finished their old challenge, warmed Kreg to the core of his heart. "Fear rather for the evil we face."
And yet.... Kreg let his gaze drop from Kaila's eyes to her still-slender waist, then back to her eyes. There were risks and risks. But there was also duty, and that little girl ... Meritha. Let there be no more Merithas. Please let there be no more Merithas.
As they trotted down the trail, Kaila watched Kreg from beneath lowered lids. He nearly glowed black with his pain and anger over the destruction of Three Oaks.
She understood. When they first met, she didn't but now? Now she did, perhaps better than Kreg did himself.
The Gods had brought Kreg to them. This Kaila believed with every beat of her heart. Shillond might speak of powerful magics but Kaila knew the truth.
Kaila had grown up facing raiders and bandits and villages ravaged. And Kreg, well Kreg had not and there was the end of it. And while Kaila's heart ached for the slain no less than did Kreg's, long experience taught her to temper her fury until she could unleash it at a just target.
Kreg raised a hand. Kaila reined her horse to a stop. Kreg's hand stabbed toward the ground three times, indicating where the trail had split. Kaila’s eyes widened as she saw the third trail. Just to the side of the main trail a single track bid fair to leap from the ground at her. A heel pad, four oval toe marks, no indents from claws dimpling the ground. Some form of cat, but larger than any cat should be, larger and deeper. A cat that walked on two legs. She looked up and met Kreg’s eyes.
"Kinmar," Kreg said, echoing her own thought.
"I thought they were gone."
"So did I. So did everyone. But..." He waved at the track.
Kaila scowled. The Kinmar, the half-men. When Schah had invaded with armies that kept growing, seemingly endlessly, she, Kreg, and her father Shillond had discovered that the armies were changelings, animals transformed by magic into human warriors. In the end, Kreg discovered a way to break the spell but the changeling warriors had not changed completely back into their animal forms.
They had thought in banishing the demon Baaltor once more from the world that the Kinmar likewise vanished.
"Perhaps," Kaila said, "we should gather the army after all."
Kreg shook his head. "Still take too long. This doesn't change that. Although perhaps you could...."
"Think not of sending me back," Kaila said, "not this day nor any other."
Once again, Kreg's gaze dropped from Kaila's face, then returned.
"Would you have our child be born to a coward? No, Kreg. We fight together, as we always have since you came to this world."
Kreg nodded. "Together then.”
Kreg pointed to the cat track. "The cat. That is the greatest danger, I think."
Kaila looked from one trail to another. Neither she nor Kreg were a truly skilled tracker although Kreg followed a trail a bit better than did she. Just this one print, distinct from the churned up dirt from where the other creatures--no longer was she so sure that these were mounted riders--had passed. "A single mistake, Kreg," she said. "Mayhap they disguise their trail? Hooved kinmar in the rear to trample the others' tracks."
"Could be. But one cat form, at least, went this way."
"And mayhap it is a deception," Kaila said. She waved at the print. A single print, clear in the dirt when everything but a few hoofprints was too obscured for either of them to read.
Kreg spread his hands, palms up. "We don't have anything else to go on."
Kaila thought for a moment then nodded. "You speak sooth. And it would not be the first time we two had ridden, eyes open, into a trap."
Kreg turned his horse to continue down the trail. Kaila followed. She frowned. Kreg had always been the clever one. To ride all-knowing into a trap, trusting to break it when it closed? No, not without great need. Three Oaks had struck him more deeply than she had surmised.
Movement in the trees caught her eye. Her hand fell to her sword and closed about its grip. "Kreg!"
Ahead, Kreg twisted in his saddle. His hand dropped to his own sword and he started to snatch it from its scabbard.
The kinmar leaped from the concealing foliage above. Cat form, Kaila saw. She finished drawing her sword. The kinmar tackled Kreg and drove him from his horse. As they hit the ground, the kinmar drew its legs up and raked, its claws scittering across the rings of Kreg's mail tunic then across, and through, Kreg's leather boots. Blood spurted from Kreg's torn thigh.
Kaila dropped her sword. It had scarcely struck the ground before she had snatched her bow from its saddle-sheath and fitted an arrow to string.
The arrow flew true, striking the kinmar just beneath the left shoulder, but it struck bone rather than penetrating deeply. The kinmar turned for an instant to look at her as Kaila prepared another arrow. It snarled, with a face that blended human features and cat. Kaila lifted the bow and started to draw. The kinmar turned and leaped into the surrounding woods. Before Kaila finished her draw, it was gone.
Kreg lay very still.
"Kreg," Kaila moaned as she dropped the bow and leaped from her saddle. Blood continued to pour from Kreg’s thigh. Kaila scooped up her sword in passing as she ran to Kreg.
Kreg struggled to rise, his breath coming in short pants. Kaila knelt by his side. She shook her head. The experience of a hundred battlefields seemed to have deserted her. Blood. Too much blood.
A wounded knight, Kaila told herself, one of many she had dealt with over the years. The mental discipline calmed her. For a moment, she could convince herself that it wasn’t her friend, her lover, her husband that lay bleeding before her, but just another knight that needed treatment.
First the bleeding. Four parallel gouges in Kreg’s right leg, running from two-thirds of the way up his thigh down to just past the knee. She placed the heel her hand against his thigh, where the artery crossed the bone and leaned into it. The flow of blood slowed. She drew her dagger with her other hand and cut away the remains of Kreg’s boot.
Kreg moaned. “Hurts.”
“Rest, Kreg,. Rest.” Kaila said.
“Chest,” Kreg said. “Hurts. Ribs.”
Kaila’s lips pressed into a thin line. As she worked, she cast quick glances at the forest around them. Quick, but thorough. The forest remained still. Kaila berated herself. If she had been watching the forest instead of brooding over her concern for Kreg she might have spotted the kinmar.
“Don’t,” Kreg said, his arm quivering as he lifted it in the direction of her cheek. “Please.”
The bleeding had slowed to a trickle. Kaila whistled. Her horse—Kreg’s had fled with the kinmar’s attack—trotted to her. After a moment’s hesitation, Kaila released the pressure on Kreg’s leg and stood. More blood flowed but less, much less, than before. Moving quickly, she opened the pack strapped behind her saddle and pulled out a spare tunic and undershift. She again knelt beside Kreg and folded the undershift into a long pad. She tore the tunic into long strips and used them to bind the pad onto the wound in Kreg’s leg.
Kreg’s eyes were closed, his face slack, his breathing short and ragged. She closed inside her and reached for the Knightbond. The power resisted her efforts. It always did. She called it anyway, called it and shaped it. Slowly, the power responded to her will. A portion of the power she directed to Kreg’s leg. Shillond, her father, could have stopped the bleeding with a thought. She could only encourage it to stop on its own. The flow of blood soaking into the bandage slowed and stopped.
Once the danger of bleeding to death ended, Kaila turned her attention to his chest. Kreg’s breath continued short. After casting another glance at the forest she reached out with the Knightbond. The break, breaks, in Kreg’s ribcage glowed black in her head. Tentatively, she touched the breaks with the power. One rib had been driven inward, piercing the lung. Already that lung was starting to collapse.
She wished Shillond were there instead of on a diplomatic mission in far-off Merona. She felt his love for her through the Knightbond, love and power. Keven, in his palace in Norveth. All of them, all the Knights of Aerioch bent power her way. The Knightbond joined the Knights of Aerioch, making all their powers one.
“A knight of Aerioch is never alone,” she whispered. She laid a gentle hand on Kreg’s side, reaching with the power for the broken ribs. Even with the power, she could do so little. The rib gradually slid back into place. Again she nudged the power. The puncture in the lung contracted. She could not close it but it would leak no more. Kreg’s blood ceased leaking into the lung, and into the space between lung and ribs.
Kaila sank back, exhausted and released the power. She could do no more. Kreg’s own strength would have to complete the healing she had started.
She struggled to her feet. She had another task. The kinmar would be back.