Read By the Sword Online

Authors: Mercedes Lackey

By the Sword (4 page)

The brigand started, stumbling backward up one step, and swore an unintelligible oath. And he gave in to the urgings of his companions, following them back up the staircase, leaving the kitchen to its defenders.
Now it was Wendar's turn to curse and attempt to follow. Panic seized her throat as she realized what he was trying to do.
Dear Goddess—
Kero grabbed his right arm as he charged past her, and hung on, hampering him long enough for Cook to seize his left and prevent him from charging up the staircase after their attackers.
“Stop it!” she shrieked, more than a touch of hysteria in her voice.
it, Wendar! You can't possibly do any good up there! You aren't even armed!”
That stopped him, and he stared down at the sooty, greasy spit in his hands, and swore oaths that made her ears burn. But at least he didn't try to charge after the enemy again.
“The table—” Cook said, which was all the direction they needed. As one they turned back into the kitchen and with the help of the rest of the besieged, hauled the massive table into place across the doorway, turning it on its side, making it into a sturdy barricade that would protect them even if the bandits charged them with a makeshift battering ram.
Then, having done all they
do, they waited.
Kero crouched in the lee of the overturned table and tried to keep from thinking about her folk in the hall above, tried to keep her heart from pounding through her chest.
Tried to keep fear at bay, for now that she was no longer fighting, it came back fourfold.
Tried not to cry.
There are trained fighters up there. Nothing you can do will make any difference for them. They can take care of themselves, armed or not.
The servants were watching her; her, Cook, and Wendar. She could read it in their faces, in their wide eyes and trembling hands. If any of the three leaders broke, if any of them showed any signs of the terror Kero was doing her best to keep bottled inside, the rest of the besieged would panic.
She clutched her improvised weapons, her hands somehow remaining steady, but she wished she dared hide her head in her arms, to block out the horrible sounds from above.
She wanted to scream, or weep, or both. Her throat ached; her stomach was in knots.
Why did I ever think those tales of fighting were exciting? Blessed Trine, what's going on up there? Are we winning, or losing?
How could we be winning? No one up there is armed....
Wendar didn't even twitch. All of his concentration was focused on the staircase—he stared up at the flickering light at the top of the stairs, going alternately white and red with rage. Kero wished she knew what he was listening for.
If this wasn't hell, it was close enough.
• * *
It seemed like an eternity later that the sounds of fighting stopped—there was a moment of terrible silence, then the wailing began.
“That's it,” Wendar said, and vaulted over the barricade. This time no one tried to stop him.
Kero couldn't help herself; she followed at his heels. Her skirt caught on the leg of the table as she scrambled over it. She stumbled into the wall, and jerked it loose, tearing a rent as long as her arm in it.
Wendar was already out of sight and she scrambled on hands and knees up the turnip-slimed stairs, pulling herself erect just short of the top, and discovering with dull surprise that she was still holding the knife and pot lid.
She peered out cautiously around the edge of the door frame, and her heart stopped.
Blade and lid dropped from her benumbed hands and clattered down the stairs behind her as she stumbled forward into a scene beyond her worst nightmares.
Someone grabbed her wrist as she staggered past.
she realized after a moment. The Seneschal pulled her roughly down beside him, where he knelt at the side of a man so battered and blood-covered she didn't recognize him. Then he moaned and opened his eyes, and she knew—
Dent. Agnira bless!
She'd helped to bind wounds many times before, some of them as bad as any of these, when hunters ran afoul of wolf or boar—her hands knew what to do, and they did it, while her mind spun in little aimless circles until she was dizzy. The blood—there was just so much of it....
Dent died under her hands, but there were others, too many others; she moved from one to the next like a sleepwalker, binding their wounds, sometimes with strips from her ripped skirts, sometimes with whatever else came to hand. Some, like Dent, died as she tried to save them. The others, the lucky ones, often fainted or were already unconscious by the time she found them.
The less fortunate screamed their agony until their throats were so raw they couldn't even whisper.
The hall was a blood-spattered shambles, furniture overturned, food trampled underfoot—and everywhere the women, some huddled in on themselves, were unable to speak, eyes wide and blank with shock; others shrieking, wailing, or sobbing silently beside their dead and wounded.
Of all that host of guests, only a handful remained calm, working white-lipped and grim-faced, as Kero worked, trying to snatch a few more lives back from Lady Death.
One iron-spined woman patted Kero's shoulder absently as she hurried by, eyes already fixed on the armsman laid out on the floor beyond the girl. With a start of surprise, Kero recognized the granite-faced matriarch of the Dunwythie family, a woman who'd never even nodded in Kero's direction before this.
Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered, except to stop the blood, ease the pain, straighten the broken limbs. There wasn't a whole, unwounded man-at-arms in the keep; there wasn't an unwounded
except those few menservants who'd fled to the kitchen.
Anyone who had resisted had been killed out of hand. There were young boys and women numbered among the dead and wounded—some of the dead still clutching the makeshift weaponry with which
had fought back.
Kero had long since passed beyond mere numbness into a kind of stupor. Her hands, bloodied to the elbow, continued to work without her conscious direction; her legs, aching and weary, carried her stumbling from one body to the next. Nothing broke the spell of insensibility holding her—until the sound of her own name caught her attention. Then she felt someone shaking her and looked up as reality intruded into the void where her mind had gone. Those hands had pulled her reluctantly back to the here and now.
She blinked; two of Dierna's cousins were tugging at her arms, one on either side, weeping, and babbling at her. She couldn't make out what they wanted, they were absolutely incoherent with hysteria. They pulled her toward the dais where the high table had been, sobbing, but before they had dragged her more than a few steps, she heard a young male voice she knew as well as her own raised in shrill curses.
She pulled loose from them and half ran, half staggered, toward the little knot of people clustered about one particular body.
The voice cursed again, then howled, just as she reached them and pulled someone—Cook—away from the figure stretched out on the floor.
It was her brother Lordan, young face twisted with pain, eyes staring without sense in them, ranting and wailing as Wendar bound up a terrible wound in his side.
The Seneschal looked up as Kero dropped to her knees beside him, and then looked back to his work. “It's not a gut-stab,” he said, around clenched teeth. “It missed the stomach and the lungs, Kelles only knows how. But whether he'll live—that I can't tell you. Without a Healer—”
He didn't have to finish the sentence. Kero knew very well what his chances were without the help of magic or a Healer's touch. The wound itself probably wouldn't kill him, but blood loss and infection might very well.
There was nothing she could do for him that Wendar hadn't already taken care of. She felt oddly helpless, angry at her own helplessness, wanting to do something and knowing there was nothing productive to be done. She got slowly to her feet to hover just on the edge of the little group, trying to think of anything that might increase Lordan's chances.
I'm of no use here
—She hated this—hated being so completely out of control, so afraid that her teeth chattered unless she clamped her jaw tight.
She looked out over the hall and saw that the last of the wounded were being tended to, the dead being carried out, the women too hysterical or paralyzed to do anything being herded over to one side of the hall by a group made up of the old woman who did the Keep's laundry and some of the dairymaids.
she suddenly thought.
Where's Father?
She peered around the group caring for Lordan, looking for Rathgar—and only then saw the battered body laid out on the table, half covered with a pall made up of a table-covering, as if already lying in state.
Oddly enough, seeing him dead wasn't a shock; she wondered if she'd been expecting this from the moment she first looked into the hall. She knew what must have happened. Rathgar would have charged the brigands barehanded and empty-headed the moment they invaded his hall, pure rage overwhelming any thoughts of caution.
She closed her eyes, and tried to summon up a dutiful tear from eyes dry with shock, but all that would come was mere anger, and exasperation.
You were a mercenary, Father,
she thought angrily at the quiet form.
You knew better! You could have ordered the armsmen to play rear-guard and gotten everyone down into the kitchen before they really swarmed the place
but you had to defend your damned Keep personally, didn't you? You didn't think once about anything but that! Did you even think about getting your poor little daughter-in-law out of harm's way?
She looked around for Dierna, expecting her to be among the hysterical or the half-mad—
—and didn't see her. Not anywhere.
Thinking for a moment that the girl might be hiding behind a chair, or cowering in someone's arms, Kero turned to one of Diema's two cousins who had caught up with her and were clinging to each other in limp confusion.
“Where is she?” Kero demanded.
If she's hurt, her family will never forgive us.
Part of her calculated their reactions as coolly as a money-changer counted coins.
never mind Father died and Lordan may not live out the night, they'll want blood price, and after this disaster, we won't have it.
The girls stared at her blankly. She grabbed the nearest and shook her savagely. “Your cousin, girl! Where is she? Where's Dierna?”
The girl just stared, and stammered. She shook the little fool until her teeth rattled, trying to pry some sense out of her, but got nothing from her or her sister but tears and wailing. Disgusted, she held the girl erect between her two strong hands and contemplated trying to slap a little sense into her.
“She's taken,” croaked a pain-hoarsened voice from below and to the right of her elbow.
“What?” Kero let go of the little ninny, who promptly collapsed with her sister into a soggy heap. She looked down at the man who'd spoken; one of the Keep armsmen, lying against the wall on a makeshift pallet of ta blecloths and blood-soaked cloaks. Some of the blood was probably his; he peered up at her from beneath a cap of bandaging, and his right arm was strapped tightly to his side.
“She's taken, Lady,” he repeated. “I saw. They took her, and that's when they left.”
He coughed; she seized a goblet from the floor and found a pitcher with a little wine still in it rolling under the table. She knelt down beside him and helped him drink; his teeth chattered against the rim of the metal goblet, and he lay back down with a groan. “I saw it,” he repeated, closing his eyes. “I been with Lord Rathgar for ten years now, sworn man. Lady, I don‘t—this's no lie. I swear it. There was a mage. ”
For a moment she was confused. What could a mage have had to do with all this carnage?
The armsman opened his eyes again. “A mage,” he said. “Had to be. One minute, I'm on the wall, hearin' nothin‘, seein' nothin'—then there's like a breath of fog, kinda cold and damp, an' I can't move, not so much as look around. Then this bunch of riders comes in, nobody challenges ‘em—they get in through the gates, an' I can see they're scum, but somebody's given 'em good arms—” The last word was choked off, and he lay for a moment panting with misery, while Kero clutched the goblet so hard her knuckles were white.
“Still couldn't move, couldn't yell,” he continued, staring up at nothing. “Couldn't. Then I hear the yellin' from the hall, an' I can move—ran right straight in—right into the ones waitin' for me. ” He coughed, and his face spasmed with pain. “Waitin' around blind comers, like they
the place, Lady. Got free of ‘em, made it as far as th' hall. That's when I seen 'em take the bride-Lord Rathgar, he was down, gods save ‘em; they got th' last of her guards, an' they took her. An' that's when the fightin' stopped; they just packed up and grabbed what they could an' left. ” He blinked and focused again on her. “I tried, Lady. I tried-”
Now she remembered his name; Hewerd. “I know you did, Hewerd,” she said absently. That seemed to satisfy him. He closed his eyes and retreated into himself.
A mage—That made sense. Especially when I think how Father hated mages. Maybe he had an enemy that was a mage, or became one. He had other enemies, too; maybe one of them got together with this mage. They might have been waiting a long time to catch him off-guard, to take revenge when he wasn't expecting it.
She shivered, and stood up, staring out over the shambles of the hall, but not seeing it. That must have been
thing I touched with my mind. Maybe one of Father's enemies bought a mage. That could happen, too. It would have to be someone who knew him well enough to know that he didn't have a house mage of his own. And it would have to be someone who knew about the wedding....

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