Chapter Fourteen – The Roost

“Vampires! You better get out of here before I knock your heads off!” Salah shouted, swinging a large stick over his head. His playmates, Daniel and Alexi, ran around Salah in circles, alternating hisses and laughter. They were doing all the things children do when out of their mothers’ sight — using bad language, playing with sticks, and jumping from the sweeping lower branches of the live oak tree beside the White Hart tavern.

Salah swung his stick/war hammer at Daniel, who pretended to lose his head and then fell to the ground, arms flailing, to die a long and horrible death. Salah and Alexi, laughing, came to stand over him. Daniel stopped struggling, looked up at Salah and said, “Are you afraid?”

Salah leaned on his stick. “Afraid of what?”

“That your father won’t come home?” Daniel replied, propping up on his elbows in the grass. Without waiting for an answer, the boy went on, “My parents say Erik and the rest were foolish to go to Watson Farm, when we have our own vampire problems here.”

Salah looked embarrassed; he wasn’t sure what to say. Nestor had promised he would come back, and Salah believed him. Besides, he and his mother had already prayed for Nestor’s safety in the afternoon, and would again after sunset. But, it hadn’t occurred to Salah that what his father was doing was anything but noble and brave.

Alexi laughed. “Well, then, my Uncle Isaac is one of those fools, too!” the tall, blond boy said, then shrugged. “My mother says the same thing, though. She said she told Isaac he was a silly old man, that he wasn’t in the Rangers anymore, and he should stay home and not go looking for trouble.” Alexi looked at Salah. “But my father says that if you don’t help others, you can’t expect them to help you.”

Salah nodded. “Yes, and besides, we have Ralph and the rest of the Watch, and they have the sun sphere!”

Alexi brandished an imaginary orb above his head, aimed it at Daniel the vampire, and made a whooshing sound. “Burn, you filthy bloodworm!” Daniel screeched obligingly and crumbled into cinders. All the boys were in awe of Alexi’s curses.

Daniel stood up, brushed the grass from his arms, and looked toward the open door of the Hart. “Did you see the strangers?”

Salah shook his head. “No, but my father and Ralph were the first to meet them, and then bring them to the Hart.”

“What did he say about them?” Daniel asked. “Is it true the boy wears glasses, like an old man?” Daniel asked, again without waiting for Salah to answer his first question.

“I don’t know,” Salad admitted, “Father didn’t have much time to talk before he left for Watson Farm, but he said they were ordinary young people, not changelings or spirits from the Iserwood, like some people were saying.”

“I saw them when they came through town this morning,” Alexi said. “The boy — I heard Edward is his name — does wear eyeglasses, but they are so small and thin, you almost can’t see them. I bet they were made by a wizard,” Alexi offered. Salah and Daniel nodded

“They must have some kind of magic to escape from Laughing Jack,” Salah said with a shudder.

Daniel scoffed, “I don’t believe that. I hear they’ve been telling all sorts of stories — that they come from a land beyond the Seawall, and their father is a king who was lost on a voyage, which makes them a prince and princess, of course,” Daniel rolled his eyes.

Salah pursed his lips and made a sound his mother hated. “Just because you make up lies all the time, doesn’t mean everybody does, Daniel.”

“What lies?!” Daniel said, indignant.

“Just last week, you said you saw a crow land on the Wall, and then turn into a lizard and crawl down to the ground.”

“It’s true!” Daniel said, angrily, his cheeks flushed. “It was right over there!” he pointed to a section of the Wall just behind the White Hart, near the woodshed.

“And you’re one to talk, Salah,” Daniel pointed to him, “With your talk of catching some magical fish in the river!”

Alexi, the oldest and tallest, stepped in between the two younger boys. “All right, that’s enough stories from both of you,” he said calmly. “Everybody knows Collie turns into a crow every Thursday, and that the dwarves are killing the fish upstream, so that we don’t have enough to eat.” Salah and Daniel both smiled at Alexi’s joke. Salah wrinkled his nose, remembering the smell of hundreds of dead fish that came down the river through Westering last month, dead eyes turned up to the summer sun. Lots of townspeople laid on Dwarrowdelft, north of Westering, anything mysterious that they couldn’t blame on vampires or evil spirits. Even Harry wasn’t sure what caused the fish kill, though he said it wasn’t magic.

Daniel looked at the sun, low on the western wall, and sighed. “Well, I have to get home anyway, and do my chores.”

“Me too,” Alexi said, pausing long enough to pull up some grass with his toes. “See you later, Salah,” he said. “Say hello to Old Man Hedgehog!” he said with a wink. Salah was one of the few children quiet and patient enough to lure the animal out of his burrow in the tangled roots of the live oak tree with treats. Before his playmates arrived, Salah had been only a few feet away from the hedgehog, whispering to the animal and watching him eat a piece of the honeyed pastry his mother made. Salah couldn’t understand what the hedgehog said, the way Collie could, but he traded food for interesting things Old Man Hedgehog found in his ramblings. Usually, it was just pieces of cloth, buttons, or beads, but not long ago, it was a large marble of blue stone, flecked with silver, like tiny stars. There was a large owl who lived in the oak tree, too, and although it never approached Salah, he could tell from the way it watched him that it was not a normal bird. Salah was glad the Westerings had been smart enough not to cut down this wizard tree. Even if no one knew exactly what it did — Harry just said that good magic flowed through it — it made Salah feel good to be near the tree.

Salah swung his stick lazily through the tall grass. He was thinking about going to the door of the Hart to see if he could get a glimpse of the strangers when he saw someone approaching, and looked closer to see a boy and girl walking toward the tavern from town. The boy looked down most of the time, and Salah saw him pulling on his lower lip. The girl walked fast and looked straight ahead, and neither spoke to each other. Salah thought it looked like they had an argument. He also thought that they didn’t look like a prince and princess. Their clothes were strange, but not what he would call fancy, and no princess would ever wear short pants. Then again, if you were lost royals traveling in a strange land, maybe you wouldn’t want to dress like royals. Salah took a few steps forward, but he was in the shade of the tree, and the strangers, both deep in thought, didn’t notice him as they went inside the Hart.

As Salah watched Edward and Amelia go inside, the bells sounded seven times and Salah rushed toward the river and home. If he could sneak inside and get his fishing pole without his mother noticing, he could try to catch the Marid before he had to get ready for the evening meal. If he caught it, Salah already knew what his first wish would be, and then, after his father was home safely, he would have the Marid do his chores, and then, while his mother relaxed, make their dinner. As Salah crossed the green, the river came into sight. Maybe if he threw a few bread crusts on the water first, he would catch something. Who knew what river spirits liked to eat? Salah hurried toward his house as the last rays of golden light danced on the river’s surface before the sun dipped below the Wall.

 

~ ~ ~

 

“So, before you kill me, why don’t you tell us what you’re doing here?” Erik wasn’t fazed by the hooded stranger’s stated intention to kill him. He certainly wasn’t the first man to start a conversation that way, but those discussions all had the same ending. Erik wanted to get this over quickly, get Nestor out and see if Isaac could be saved, but he also thought about the vampire in the loft. To serve him again. “Are you giving orders to these parasites?”

“Oh, I’m just here to see you, Erik,” the stranger said, taking several steps forward.

“No surprise you’re not the brains of this operation,” Erik said, trying to goad him into giving up some useful information. “Do you even know what they were doing in the springhouse?”

“You saw it yourself, else you wouldn’t be asking,” the stranger said, mocking. “Pestilence, Erik. Plague and pestilence, like Midhbar has never seen. But don’t worry — you won’t be here to see your son die. You’ll be spared that, at least.” Erik felt a knot in his chest. How did this man know about Torvald?

Erik’s mind raced, trying to work out who this stranger might be, and how he was getting his information. He had a Northern brogue — the Hill Country or the Central Plain — but with an accent he had picked up from traveling. He was probably a mercenary, the kind of man Erik had looked down on, until he became one himself, albeit for the King. But even the greediest soldiers for hire Erik ever knew wouldn’t fight alongside vampires. And yet, somewhere out there was a vampire smart enough to hire a mercenary, and a man depraved enough to take the job. It was disturbing, but Erik’s stoic expression gave nothing away. After all, the stranger might be bluffing about his son. “You have the wrong Erik — I don’t have any children.”

“Good try, Erik,” the stranger said. Now he and Erik were almost within sword’s reach of each other, “but I know all about you and Torvald. Thought you’d settle down and become a respectable businessman, way out in Westering, where no one knows Erik the Bloody, Erik the King’s favorite errand-boy?” The stranger laughed. “Did you think you could escape your past just by moving to the other side of Berila?” The stranger shook his head. “No, your birds always come home to roost, Erik, especially the carrion birds.”

So, the stranger knew some things about Erik’s past. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem likely Erik was going to get any useful information out of him. Judging from what he had done to Nestor, the man was strong, but what concerned Erik more was the sword. The stranger’s long, double-edged blade gave him a greater reach of at least four or five inches. Black Molly was a good choice for close-quarters fighting, but this large open space outside the milk room gave a longer sword a natural advantage. There was nothing Erik could do about that now, except get in close, where a long sword was actually a liability. There were obvious problems with that strategy. Best to end this as quickly as possible, though.

Erik and the stranger were slowly circling each other now, their boots crunching on the crushed stone. Erik counted on the fact that the stranger liked to talk, and replied, “Carrion birds? What would you know” In mid-sentence, Erik attacked; it was a trick which had ended a few encounters very quickly. Even in a fight, your brain wanted to hear the end of a sentence, and your body tended to wait, as well. Erik was not quite close enough, but he went straight for the heart with a vicious lunge, willing to risk over-extending himself on the chance of taking the stranger by surprise. It almost worked. The stranger dodged and got his shield up just in time — Black Molly, though turned aside from a killing stroke, bit into the stranger’s upper left arm.

Erik stumbled, recovered, and brought his buckler around to take an angry, but unfocused counter-blow from the stranger. The hooded man swore and put his fingers to his bare arm, which came away dark in the blue werelight. “First blood to Erik Magnusson,” the stranger said. Nestor cheered and clapped; he was now standing with his back to the wall, looking very pleased. Erik stood up a bit straighter. His short blond hair was spiky with sweat, his arm and his shirt were smeared with blood from where the vampire’s claws had cross-hatched his forearm, but Erik’s blue eyes were clear and focused.

“He hasn’t won yet,” the stranger said as Erik gave Nestor a small nod.

“Neither have you.” It was Inigo, and beside him was Toby. Inigo didn’t step forward; he was trying to hide his limp, but he and Toby both held their swords and shields as if they meant to use them.

The stranger looked at the two Westerings and sniffed. “Eager to end up like your friends?” He looked at Isaac, motionless in the corner. “And how’s the young man whose shield I borrowed?” Toby bristled and took a step forward; Henrik was his childhood friend, and from what Erik could tell, the young man might now be dead, as well as Isaac. Erik’s surprise attack had moved him to the opposite corner of the room from the western corridor, and now the stranger was much closer to Inigo and Toby. “I’ll handle this,” Erik said simply as he moved toward the Westerings. Toby’s face was red. “Henrik is bleeding to death out there, and Isaac –” Erik cut him off. “I know, Toby!” Erik turned to the stranger. “They won’t interfere. Just let them get Isaac out.”

The hooded man paused, then shook his head and looked at Isaac. “I don’t think so. He’s dead. He doesn’t mind waiting.” Toby started toward the stranger, but Inigo blocked his way. The stranger held up his left arm, with the buckler he took from Henrik. “At least Isaac can be buried with his,” the man laughed, “I think I’ll keep this one.” Toby broke free of Inigo, who stumbled as his bad knee gave way, and charged straight at the hooded man. The stranger waited, not lifting sword or shield as Toby came toward him, and when the boy was close enough, the hooded man swatted him down like a fly with a backhanded blow from the shield. Toby hit the ground hard, spraying gravel.

Erik had not moved that fast in years, but he got there in time to keep the stranger from skewering Toby like a bug where he lay. The hooded man, anticipating Erik’s move, was ready to change targets, and he swept his long blade up and around at Erik’s head. Erik ducked the blow and struck at the stranger’s knees. The next ten seconds was a furious series of blows, feints, and counter-attacks. Toby scrambled out of the way, but managed to hold onto his short sword, and stood beside Inigo. Erik and the stranger circled, the loose rock crunching underfoot. Erik attacked next, he and the hooded man traded blows, locked their shields for a moment, then parted as each paused to take stock of his opponent. So much for ending this quickly, Erik thought. He was breathing hard, but trying not to show it, while the stranger seemed to be enjoying himself. “Not bad for an old man!” he said, swinging his sword back and forth as if warming up for a sparring match. “This is good. I was afraid it was going to be over too quickly, and I’ve waited a long time.” Erik ignored this and went in a different direction. “Who are you?” Erik growled. “Why are you hiding under that hood? You can’t be any uglier than your friends. Just shy, maybe.”

The stranger laughed. “Just waiting for the right moment, Erik.”

“Huh,” Erik replied. “Wait too long, that hood might be your burial shroud,” he said without irony, moving toward the stranger.

“So, you’re ready to try again?” the stranger said. Erik was tired of riddles, tired of listening to taunts. He didn’t stop walking as he snarled, “Just keep talking.”

The stranger reached up with his left hand and pulled his hood back. Erik took one more step, then stopped. “I said, are you ready to try again, Erik?” the stranger said with a smile, “To kill me?”

The Westerings didn’t understand what was happening. None of them recognized this man with long red hair pulled back at his neck, and strange, dark eyes above high cheekbones. To Nestor, it seemed that Erik sagged for a moment, as if a great weight had suddenly settled on him. “You?” Erik said, “Kragen?”

A sharp-toothed smile split the stranger’s pale face. “I’m glad you remember me.”

“No,” Erik shook his head. “I killed you.”

Kragen laughed and shrugged. “Well, you tried — I’ll give you that. Luckily for you, Erik, life is full of second chances,” Kragen smiled, “I should know.” Toby had seen Erik up close, his expression hard and focused, as he killed three vampires with ruthless precision. Nestor had had seen Erik fight vampires many times, and he had seen his friend’s first round with this man, Kragen. Nestor had seen Erik tired, angry and even bitter, but he had never seen Erik look the way he did now. The only thing Nestor could compare Erik’s expression to was a mask — grim, unflinching, betraying no hint of anger, or fear, or any emotion at all. Erik moved toward Kragen, Black Molly gleaming in the blue werelight. “Time to fix my mistake.”

“Yes,” Kragen said, nodding, “Come on and try, old man.” He rushed forward to meet Erik in the center of the room. Erik struck first, but Kragen took the blow on his shield and came back with a counter-strike so fast it almost got past Erik’s buckler. Erik feinted with Molly, then drove hard into Kragen with his shield, but the younger man was ready and Erik felt like he’d hit a wall, instead of a man. Kragen was taller than Erik recalled — taller than him — his shoulders were wider, and his bare arms under the cloak were thick and muscular. Kragen was bigger, faster and stronger than he had been eleven years ago. Erik wondered if this really was Kragen, somehow alive, or some creature with his face. The evening Erik caught up with the raiders as they were making camp, he had watched them from cover for some time. Erik had sized up each of the five men and put Kragen at the end of the threat list. Erik knew two of the mercenaries to be experienced, dangerous men. He hadn’t recognized Kragen, but after a few minutes of observing him, Erik had pegged the young Northerner as a swaggering upstart, out to make a name for himself.

Now Kragen went on the attack, putting his longer sword to good use. By forcing Erik to stay out of range, Kragen kept his opponent a crucial step away from being able to use his own blade effectively. Erik was forced to defend again and again, and started losing ground. The inherent quickness of a shorter blade could compensate somewhat for longer reach, if you were fast enough. When he was younger, Erik used to snatch arrows out of the air with either hand to amuse his fellow Rangers. The last time he tried it, out behind the Hart one summer afternoon with Collie, Erik managed to knock one arrow down with his right hand, catch one, and then quit after a blunted point almost broke his finger. He wanted to chalk it up as one too many pints, but it was age, pure and simple. Now, as Erik tried to get inside Kragen’s guard again and almost lost an ear for his trouble, Erik had to admit that Kragen was at least as fast he had been on his best day, and his best day was years ago.

“Getting tired, old man?” Kragen sneered as he put Erik on his guard again with a swipe at his belt. That was one thing that hadn’t changed — Kragen still loved to hear himself talk. Erik couldn’t believe he hadn’t recognized that voice now, but it was more than the fact the he thought Kragen dead, or that it was more than decade ago. Kragen’s voice was different, not only deeper, but raspy, as though he had not fully recovered from a neck wound.

Erik didn’t answer the taunt. He waited for Kragen to attack again, and fell back a step, trying to draw him in and make him overconfident. When he faced Kragen before, Erik found that the Northerner talked too much, took stupid risks, and wasted a lot of energy on fancy swordsmanship and unnecessary flourishes. None of it had helped him. Pavel, the leader of the group, swore to Erik with his dying breath that no one had laid a hand on Helene, except Kragen. Once he was the last man standing, the brash young Northerner had confessed, then bragged about, killing Helene. Erik didn’t ask why, he didn’t try to make Kragen suffer, or beg for his life. He simply killed him, as efficiently as possible. The fight was over quickly, but their swords met once, and when the blades repelled each other without touching, Erik realized that some of Kragen’s cockiness came from his sword. There were plenty of men like Kragen, who went to great lengths to get a magical weapon, expecting it to make up for all their shortcomings and lack of training, and then got themselves killed in their next fight. When Erik pushed the mercenary’s body off his sword with his boot, he thought of a hunt on a grey autumn day fifty years before. He had helped a local farmer track down a wolf that had been killing his sheep. Erik hit the wolf with an arrow, but had to finish it with his sword. The wolf had a reason — hunger — for taking sheep, and Erik felt more when he ended its life than he did when he killed Kragen. Erik had killed a lot of men, most without hesitation, some with great regret, but this was the man who killed his wife. Erik didn’t know what would happen when he avenged Helene, but he didn’t expect to feel nothing inside.

“You’re running out of room, Erik!” Kragen said, as Erik neared the far wall. Erik grimaced as the next blow hit his shield, playing it up and feigning a stumble in the loose gravel. Kragen moved in to press his advantage, but Erik lunged forward instead of falling back and stomped hard on top of Kragen’s boot. With his full weight on the younger man’s instep, Erik swung hard with Black Molly. Instead of blocking with his shield, Erik relied on his mail shirt and the fact that Kragen had no room to use his long sword in such close quarters — he went for Kragen’s throat with the hunting knife in his left hand. Kragen roared as the blade, hidden by Erik’s buckler, slashed his neck and he stumbled back, pulling free from Erik’s boot. As Erik planned, Kragen was off-balance, with his blade at an awkward angle as he pulled away from Erik’s knife, but the mercenary’s enormous strength drove the point of his sword into Erik’s chest with agonizing force. The spelled mail didn’t give way, but the blow threw Erik back, gasping with pain.

Erik pressed his left elbow against his chest instinctively, but glancing down, he saw no fresh blood on his shirt, and when he looked up, no mark on Kragen’s sword. The Northerner was seething, teeth bared as he grabbed at his neck. There was blood, but not as much as there would’ve been if Erik’s knife had found its target. Kragen was still standing. Still, Nestor clapped and whooped; Inigo and Toby cheered and beat their swords on their shields.

Kragen nodded. “You’ve put up a good fight, old man, but it’s time to finish this,” he said, “I have other business to do.” He was no longer smiling. Erik took a deep breath, which hurt — he was almost certain Kragen had broken a rib or two — and then laughed, despite the pain. “Let’s go. I’m tired of cutting you up like a sausage.”

Kragen rushed at Erik, blue werelight gleaming on his sword. Erik tried to feint and sidestep, but fatigue and the pain in his ribs slowed him just enough, and he took the full force of Kragen’s overhead blow on his shield. Erik grunted under the force of the hit, and before he could recover, another landed, even harder, chunks of leather and wood frame went flying. Erik was sure he had never been hit that hard by anything human. Kragen’s speed and strength were unnatural, and greater than any magical weapon could give him. If Erik had to guess, Kragen was using the same sword he had eleven years before, and it had not given him any such advantage then.

Kragen smashed his shield into Erik’s and shoved, and Erik struggled to maintain his balance as he was pushed backwards, his boots digging trenches in the gravel. Kragen’s next blow slid off Erik’s shield and sliced into his forearm. Erik swore through gritted teeth and swung hard with Molly, but Kragen dodged, then feinted with his sword and kicked Erik hard in the right knee. Erik almost fell, then shifted his weight to his left as burning pain shot through his leg. Kragen was unrelenting now; he had the upper hand and had no intention of letting it slip away. Erik was being forced back steadily to the wall where Nestor was standing. Kragen unleashed a flurry of blows that rattled Erik’s shield and made his arm ache. The Westerings were silent now, and all Erik could hear was his own labored breathing and the crash of Kragen’s sword on his shield. Erik saw the edge of Kragen’s sword open a hole in his buckler, and had to drop his hunting knife to hold the shield more securely in the onslaught. Then, Erik’s back touched the wooden wall beside the milk room door.

“Well, it’s been good seeing you again, Erik,” Kragen said, drawing back his arm. The blow never landed — Nestor trapped Kragen’s sword arm with both of his and drove his knee into the Northerner’s midsection. “Nestor!” Erik shouted, as Kragen broke Nestor’s hold and shoved his elbow into Nestor’s face. The big man staggered, blood flowing from his nose, but Kragen’s sword hit Black Molly as it descended on Nestor’s head, and the two swords repelled each other like the same poles of two magnets.

As the rebound effect carried Erik’s arm down, Kragen swept up with his shield, the bronze edge caught Erik under the chin and opened up a gash there. Erik staggered back, seeing stars and tasting his own blood, and braced himself as Kragen came toward him again. Erik had always been good at using his surroundings to his advantage, especially when outnumbered or, as he knew now, overpowered, but there was nothing in the room within reach to use. Then, the blue werelight moved to follow Kragen and Erik smiled. He might yet have one advantage over Kragen. Erik was no warrior mage, but he had the Gift, and so magic was within his ability. Over the years, he had learned some minor magic to help in combat and a few basic healing spells. Erik had learned one spell to take advantage of his night vision — a spell to extinguish werelights. Anyone could put out a werelight they summoned themselves, but banishing someone else’s light was no common feat.

The sun had set outside the Great Barn, and when Erik extinguished Kragen’s werelight like a candle flame, it went very dark in the milk room. Erik was ready; Kragen was not. Erik attacked quickly, circling to his left, ignoring the fire in his knee and the searing pain in his ribcage. The noise the Westerings made as they found themselves nearly blind helped Erik too, by covering the sound of his boots in the gravel. Erik’s night vision was still good enough to see Kragen turning in a slow circle, swinging his sword in front of him and hoping for a lucky hit as he tried in vain to summon his werelight again. Erik’s damping spell would last around one minute, but that was more than he needed. Erik attacked on Kragen’s right, and the Northerner either heard him, or was lucky and got his shield around in time to block Erik’s first thrust. Kragen began swearing and swinging wildly, making it difficult for Erik to get a clean hit that would finish it. Too tired to hack away at Kragen, Erik stepped back and spoke another spell, unheard above the confusion of voices in the room. When Erik closed his eyes and yelled, “Kragen!” the mercenary looked in his direction. The modified werelight Erik summoned directly over his own head didn’t appear normally, like a spark that grew quickly into a golden sphere, but instantly in a burst of white light, like the fireworks the Han used in their celebrations. Kragen reflexively blinked and shielded his eyes from the blinding light, and before he could blink a third time, Black Molly had stopped his heart.

It was very much like eleven years before, Erik thought as Kragen fell to his knees, looking shocked. Nestor, Inigo and Toby blinked, still seeing afterimages of the werelight now shrunk to a normal size and brightness, then they cheered as they realized what had happened. The three men ran to Erik, who waved them away, still watching Kragen as he slumped to the floor. “See to Isaac,” he said, pointing to the corner where his fellow Ranger lay. Toby and Inigo hurried to the corner, Nestor paused long enough to place one hand on Erik’s shoulder. “You saved my life,” Nestor said, smiling despite the blood that still flowed down his face. “Only after you saved mine, “ Erik said, then winced at the pain that shot through his side as he sheathed Molly. “You’re hurt,” Nestor said. Erik waved him off, “No worse than you, and nothing like Isaac, if he’s still alive.” Nestor nodded, started to go, and then stopped. “Erik,” he said quietly, “Who was this Kragen?”

“A dead man, or so I thought,” Erik looked at Kragen’s body, lying on his left side, with his shield under him, still holding his sword. “I fought him eleven years ago, and put a sword through his chest then, too,” Erik paused. He could stop there, leave it at that, but Nestor deserved an explanation. “He’s the freebooter who killed my wife.” Nestor nodded slowly, patted Erik’s shoulder again, and then turned to help with Isaac. Erik watched Kragen. He was dead,  but Erik had killed him before, in the same way. Erik was tired, and it would be a gruesome task, but he should take Kragen’s head, just to be sure. In the far corner of the room, Inigo was bent over Isaac, checking for any sign of life. “I think I feel his heart, but I don’t think he’s breathing.” Then, everyone turned as the sound of voices came down the western corridor. In a moment, Silas appeared, leading five men, four of them armed, and one, leaning on a tall staff, who looked very old.

“They’re from Poplar Camp!” Silas said, looking happy, then worried, as he saw the bodies.

One of the men, tall and brown as mahogany, stepped forward, “I’m Bernard. We got here as soon as we could,” he said, “I’m sorry we weren’t in time to help.”

“Well, you can help now,” Erik said, walking around Kragen’s body toward the corner where Isaac lay.

At first, Erik thought he had somehow tripped, then he felt his feet being swept out from under him as he went down backwards onto the ground. Erik put out his hands, but they slipped in the loose stone and he landed hard on his back. Erik saw movement on his right, and he blinked, unable to believe what he was seeing as as Kragen sat up, grinning like a devil, and reached out to grab Black Molly’s handle. Erik grasped Kragen’s wrist and tried to wrench his hand away, but Kragen’s grip was like iron. Then Kragen swung his sword, and Erik brought his shield around to save his arm. When Kragen sat up, laughing, and landed another ringing blow on the buckler, Erik had to let go of Kragen’s left wrist and get out of range of his blade. As Erik rolled away, Kragen pulled Molly free of its sheath, then leapt to his feet and stood in the middle of the room, a sword in each hand, smiling at the men who stared at him in shocked disbelief. “As much as I’d like to even the odds a bit first, I really have to get going.”

Erik struggled to his feet, slowed by the pain in his ribs and knee. Kragen turned to Erik, bright blood streaking his neck and the front of his tunic, his dark eyes narrow slits. “We’ll meet again, Erik,” he growled, “And now, I know all your tricks!” The men who didn’t get out of Kragen’s way fast enough were thrown aside like children as Kragen headed for the western door. Erik limped out of the milk room, past the stunned men from Poplar Camp and into the corridor in time to see Kragen go out into the dark, turn left and disappear from view. Erik heard horses whinny, a man shouting, and then three riderless horses galloped by the doors. Kragen had no doubt seized a horse, scattered the others, and was gone into the night. He should be dead now, twice dead, and yet he was not, and he had Black Molly. Had the sword been his whole purpose? Nestor joined Erik at the wide door; Erik put out his hand and leaned on a worn timber post. “He knows where I live, Nestor, and he knows about Torvald.” The two men looked out into the warm June night toward the darkened farmhouse and beyond into the woods that rolled like dark waves between Watson Farm and Westering. “I have to get home.”

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