The rain stopped before mid-morning and the fog lifted. We stopped at mid-day, after cresting the summit of Degani Pass.
Del and I had been on foot the last mile to the summit to give our mounts a break. I panted, from the effort and the thin air. He might be a good fifty years my senior, But Del wasn’t even breathing hard.
Eken saw it, too. “More and more,” he whispered in my ear. “I distrust this little man.”
A stink of pine resin and wetted horseflesh hung tight in the air. Dark clouds hid the coast behind us. To the west, the skies spread clear and vivid blue. The land fell away in that direction, thick and green with trees, and in the distance, I saw the red-brown stretch of barren land known as the Furnace.
“Come get it,” Del said, after a time. He gave me peppered breast meat from some sort of fowl, wrapped in butcher’s paper. A wedge of goat cheese. Dried fruit I had never tasted.
My stomach growled as I wolfed it all and then licked my fingertips. Between mouthfuls, Del and I shared water from an earthen jug. My thoughts never moved far from the notion that his lips touched the same rim as mine.
Del pointed northwest. “Edgerton’s off that way. I’ve got a shed there for my skitter.”
“You’ll see.” he said.
“How long will it take?”
“If we keep at it, we’ll be there come sundown.”
He headed down the switchback trail, made it almost out of sight before I made it to my saddle, and he set a break-neck pace. No doubt we would have made Edgerton on time, if not for the bandits.
They struck halfway down the far slope.
Del urged his horse up a gully’s far bank ahead of me. As he topped the lip, three riders thundered along the gully toward me, two from the north, one from the south. They whooped and hollered, acting brave, waving edged weapons. I wheeled my sorrel mare to the south, leaned in close to calm her, even though I didn’t feel so calm myself.
The scattershot boomed above the thumping of my heart. Del had new friends, too. I drew the heavy cap-and-ball Chesterland I carried.
“Be the gun,” Mr. Soon had advised, in small-arms training. “Be the bullet.”
I balanced the single-shot pistol on my forearm and took aim. I recognized the lone rider, a fair-skinned fellow with sandy-red hair. He’d been at the tavern the night before.
“He saw me pass the gold to Del,” I said.
“Feel guilty later,” Eken whispered. “Shoot the heathen bastard now.”
I steadied my hand, crooning to the horse, and pulled the trigger. Blood sprayed from the back of Sandy’s head. He dropped his reins, threw his hands into the air as if he still had time to give in to me, and toppled from his saddle.
The scattershot roared again. I dropped the pistol and spurred my horse toward the other two brigands, pulled my saber from its saddle sheath as the distance closed. Just before we met, I twisted the reins to the left. The sorrel threw herself in that direction. At the last moment, I leaned low, locked my elbow as I had been taught, and buried the saber to its hilt in the second bandit’s throat.
I felt and heard it snap his spine. I let the saber go.
The third man was steps away. I reached for a dagger as I thundered toward him, ready to make my leap.
Luck failed me then. The sorrel took a misstep and went down hard. We tumbled across the gully, the horse screaming her fear and pain, and slammed into a rock big as the capstan aboard Blessèd. The sorrel shuddered and lay dead.
I tried to squirm free. No use. Pinned between horse and rock, unable to draw a weapon, I listened to boots grinding on the loose rock of the gully, running toward me.
The third bandit screamed. “You killed Arne and Jimmie!”
Even as he closed, I couldn’t help but wonder what he’d expected. They would have killed me, given half a chance.
Eken’s whisper sounded hard and hurried. “Use the spell I taught you, boy. There’s blood enough!”
I touched the blood upon my cheek and whisper memorized words I could almost understand. Power swelled within me. I had barely time to finish, for the bandit was almost on me.
“Now!” Eken shouted in my head. “Release it now!”
I lifted my bloody hand and stammered a final word. The air rippled. The bandit stopped in mid-step, as if on a short leash. He flew backwards and tumbled off along the gully.
“You did it, boy,” Eken cheered. “I told you. If only your parents would have let you take the lessons of the white!”
That my parents might have considered it was news to me, and if I truly could command magic, I saw I hadn’t used it well enough. Along the gully, the third bandit tottered to his feet, drew a deep breath and started toward me again, much slower this time. His saber looked awfully sharp.
“Do it, boy,” Eken ordered. “Hit him again.”
I tried but in my rising panic, I couldn’t remember all the words.
“I can’t remember!”
Eken began to whisper the spell to me, but nonsense sounds were all I heard. I couldn’t follow him, couldn’t recall how to cast the spell. All that came to mind was A Plea of the Shriven. I closed my eyes and began to pray.
“God above, Lord of all, forgive me, a sinner. Lead me –“
Del’s scattershot roared again, filled the gully with its full-throated voice, drowning out my prayer. The wind carried the mixed scent of blood and cordite to me. I opened my eyes to find the bandit clutching the red-wet ruin of his arm. He sagged to his knees beyond the sorrel’s carcass and dropped from sight.
The gully fell into silence.
“These men died from their own greed, boy.” Eken sounded breathless, as if he’d done the fighting, instead of me. “But it’s your carelessness set them in motion. Don’t forget that, you hear me? Life’s about control of self.”