Oathbreaker

JCheney_Oathbreaker_ebookChapter 1

The tent was empty. Amal knelt to peer farther inside, her heavy overcoat bunching about her heels in the snow. The tent was large enough for one person, but any more would be a tight squeeze. A pack rested against the tent wall next to a pile of clothing, neatly stacked. Atop that lay a leather book. She pushed into the small space and, holding the flap open with one foot, grabbed the book.

Whoever had set up the tent here was trespassing. She was within her rights to seize everything.

She backed out of tent into the chill air. The storm had passed, leaving the late spring sky brilliant and the snow blinding. If not for the wind, it would be beautiful. And without clouds, it was even colder now, turning the occasional gusts that swept over the glacier from the west into knives of cold.

Amal adjusted her scarf to better cover her mouth and studied her prize. The book had a clever little flap that locked—a journal, perhaps. In the dim light inside the tent, Amal hadn’t seen a key, so she crammed the book into a pocket of her overcoat to peruse later.

Jan and Nora were still inspecting the snow-covered area. His black wool overcoat flapped in the wind, and all Amal could see of his face was his dark eyes, the only part of his face not covered by hood and scarves. They were all dressed the same in the Horn Family uniform—unrelieved black—but Nora didn’t have Jan’s bulk or height. That made the two of them easy to tell them apart. Nora waded through the snow, gazing downward for signs of the tent’s owner. Her eyes lifted and met Amal’s across the distance, and she shook her head. Amal waved her on.

Nora turned to resume her search and pitched over headlong into the snow, a quick sense of panic flaring across Amal’s senses as she fell.

Jan reached Nora first as she struggled to regain her feet, likely blinded by all the snow caught in her hood. He hauled her up, pushed back her snow-filled hood, and brushed the snow out of it. His relief was palpable to Amal even at a distance, so she knew Nora was unhurt.

Nora yanked off one mitten and unwrapped her scarf from her mouth. She wiped her pale face clear with it. “I think I tripped over a body,” she yelled toward Amal.

Amal slogged that direction. The late storm had dumped a foot of dry snow across the glacier. Apparently their trespasser had never left his camp—he must have been caught out in it. By the time she’d reached Jan and Nora, they had dug down far enough to bare feet—a very bad sign.

“Snow madness?” Amal asked. People did that sometimes when they were freezing. They stripped off clothing in the misplaced belief that they were overheating. She’d never witnessed it herself, but everyone who lived close to the glaciers knew the dangers of the cold.

Jan just grunted at her as he worked to dig the man out. It was clearly a man, Amal could tell now, curled up on his side, fair-skinned like Jan and Nora. Amal carefully shifted the snow from his legs. Don’t want to break off any toes.

Nora had set her outer mittens aside and uncovered the man’s face with gloved fingertips. “I think he’s alive,” she shouted over a sudden blast of wind.

“Why did you think he’s out here?” Amal shouted back.

“Maybe he tried to kill himself,” Jan yelled in turn.

Amal had one foot uncovered now, all the toes intact, if pale. She paused. From what she’d heard, joining the snow was one of the easier choices. Depending on how long he’d been buried, he was likely to lose his feet. Possibly his hands; he hadn’t been wearing gloves either. “You think we should leave him?”

“We need to know why he’s out here,” Jan said, unexpectedly loud as the wind eased. “So we’re keeping him alive,” he finished in a more reasonable voice.

Even if he doesn’t want it. Amal moved more snow, locating the other bare foot under the first. This man had lain down in the snow half-dressed. Jan was likely right about his motive. If that was the case, the incoming storm had covered him with snow, providing a blanket against the cold, but defeating him in his goal.

Jan had uncovered most of the man’s legs by that time. “Think we’re ready to lift him?” Jan asked. When Amal nodded, he added, “You take the feet.”

Amal kept her hands around the man’s bare feet. Nora worked a hand under his neck and grasped his folded hands with the other as Jan squatted down and lifted the man from the snow. The trespasser might be nearly as tall as Jan, but not as heavy. Jan carried him easily, moving straight toward the abandoned tent.

Amal went in first and removed her gloves as they dragged the man into his tent. His skin was pale and cold, but when she touched his cheek, it wasn’t stiff. That was a good sign.

After securing the buttons of the tent flap, Jan helped Nora get the man out of his icy clothes and then covered again. Fortunately, the tent held enough blankets that they wouldn’t all freeze. Once they had the man wrapped, Nora shifted places with Jan—an awkward process. As Jan found his box of matches and lit the small lantern at the apex of the tent, Nora crouched near the flap. She took off her gloves, and reached under the blanket to feel the stranger’s feet. Trained as an infirmarian, of the three of them, she had the most familiarity with frostbite.

Amal held in her impatience. The man was an inconvenience. They hadn’t planned on staying here, certainly not overnight. If they didn’t start back soon, though, they wouldn’t reach the camp, so it was either abandon the man now…or stay overnight and take him back in the morning.

Amal frowned at him. He was fair-skinned, as if he had blood from one of the Six Families, but brown haired. That hinted at mixed blood. In fact, his coloration was similar to Jan’s, even if the resemblance ended there, and Jan was half Family and half Anvarrid. The trespasser didn’t have the curved nose often associated with the Anvarrid, but Amal didn’t either, and she was nearly full-blooded. His scant beard—unlike Jan’s full one—could come from any number of peoples. “What color are his eyes?”

“Brown, I think,” Nora answered, pressing the man’s left hand between her own. “Dark.”

“How bad is he?” Amal asked through suddenly chattering teeth. Now that they were out of the wind, she’d started to shiver. Her fingers began to sting.

“I don’t think he was out there too long,” Nora said briskly. “Not as cold as I feared, has circulation in his extremities. No sign of frostbite. Marks of old chilblains on his feet, but nothing terrible.”

“He had to have been out there before the snowfall,” Jan insisted. “He was buried. So early last night at the latest.”

“No. Can’t be,” Nora said. “He’d be dead.”

Amal turned her attention to the man’s supplies. She opened up his pack and picked through the provisions on the top. Dried fruit and nuts, jerked meat, a shortbread that appeared to have almonds and apricots in it. Expensive supplies. The pack itself was one he might have picked up in the capital or any other large city, machine sewn goods. She rifled through his stack of clothes, lifting out a light-weight tunic. She held it up closer to the light and peered at the stitching. “What sort of fabric is this?”

The wind howled outside the tent, making the sides flap noisily. “I don’t care,” Jan said once it had subsided. “We have to get him warm.”

Amal watched doubtfully as her brother began stripping off his jacket. Ever practical, Jan was. “What do we know about this man, Jan?”

“He’s been in the cold long enough that if Nora’s wrong, he may not have any toes left,” Jan said curtly.

Amal sighed. “We should have let him die.”

“No,” Jan insisted. “I’m not letting him go before he answers our questions.”

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Dalyan awoke in a strange afterlife where he was surrounded by flesh and encased in warmth. His eyes hurt and his head still ached, but he wasn’t cold. That, at least, had changed.

He coughed. His lungs weren’t happy with him, either. No, not an afterlife.

The lantern hanging over him was familiar. There were people in his tent, sleeping on either side of him. How had that happened?

The warmth behind him shifted—definitely a man—and a long arm reached over his body to shake the shoulder of the woman lying against his chest, her bare legs tangled with his. She drew back and blinked blearily as the man spoke to her, and then her eyes met Dalyan’s. They were hazel eyes in a pale face with high, rounded cheekbones. Her hair was nearly white blond, roughly braided back. She reached up one hand to pinch the bridge of her nose.

Another woman—this one crouching outside the cocoon of blankets and bodies—leaned closer to peer at him. She was dark haired with medium skin, her eyes brown. Her hair was braided back tightly as well. But she, at least, was clothed.

The pale woman in his arms shifted away from him. She grasped one of his hands and pressed his fingers against her lips, then said something to the others. His brain lagged, not processing her words.

The dark woman removed a canteen from her coat. She passed it to other woman who held it to Dalyan’s lips. “Drink,” she ordered.

He understood this time. His brain had caught up with his ears. Dalyan drank as commanded, water spilling onto his blankets from inept lips.

“I think he’s going to be fine,” the blond woman said to the others.

“I’m getting dressed, then.” The man behind him spoke for the first time, a deep voice. He moved away, disturbing the blankets and sending cold air along Dalyan’s spine. Dalyan shivered.

“What is your name?” the clothed woman asked.

“Dalyan,” he croaked.

There was only the one light in the tent, above his head. It hurt his eyes to look at it. The woman lying next to him shifted again, her bare feet brushing his. “Can you feel your toes?”

“Yes.” He drank again when she held the flask to his lips.

Who are they? The pale woman looked as if she might be Family born, but the other two surely weren’t. Especially not the woman who questioned him. Her skin was darker, making her Anvarrid, most likely.

“Why are you here?” she asked then.

The man behind him stilled, clearly waiting for his answer.

Dalyan’s mind slid toward sleep again. “I’m hunting for the abandoned city.”

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Amal gazed down at the man. Dow-hyan, he’d called himself. That sounded more like a Larossan name than Anvarrid or Family. Half-dressed, Jan paused, weighing the man’s words and emotions, no doubt. Nora drew away from the man to retrieve her clothes from where she’d lain. She quickly pulled on her drawers and continued to dress.

Amal reached down and shook the man’s shoulder. “What abandoned city?”

The man blinked blearily and averted his eyes from the sight of Nora’s bared skin, discomfort flaring around him. He was apparently skin-shy. “The city under the ground,” he said. “Near the glacier.”

Amal lifted her eyes to meet Jan’s. This spot was a long way from Horn Fortress, but they were relatively close to Salonen, the Fortress abandoned centuries ago when a glacier sheared through one of its primary walls. The engineers of Salonen hadn’t been able to mitigate the destruction caused by the slow-growing breach. In the end, the Salonen Family had abandoned their Fortress, and were now scattered throughout northern Kithria and southwestern Larossa. They weren’t truly a people any longer, not like the Horn.

It was a course Amal couldn’t imagine following. Horn Fortress was an integral part of who her people were. As close to a glacier as Horn was, it was always in danger, but the Horn had been fortunate since the time of the Founders.

“Why are you looking for the city?” Amal asked the man, only to realize that he’d fallen asleep again. She caught Nora’s eye and tilted her head toward the man. “Is that normal?”

Nora had managed to don her shirt and vest in the small space and now struggled with her trousers. “More or less.”

Amal trusted Nora’s judgment of the man’s health. “Can he walk?”

Jan was completely dressed by then, his hair wild, though. “Not yet, Amal. We can’t leave here until the sun’s up.”

Sighing, Amal dug through her overcoat and jacket to find her watch, and then squinted at it in the lantern’s dim light. There were still a couple of hours until sunrise. “Will he be able to move when we’re ready?”

“I think so,” Nora said, now wearing her full uniform, unrelieved black. She yanked up the hood of her wool overcoat. “His feet are fine. He was lucky.”

Amal put her watch away. “Would it be better to leave him?”

Jan didn’t even glance up at her. “No, and you know it. You’re just afraid to take him back.”

True. Amal didn’t want a stranger in her Keep, in her Fortress. Several years ago, strangers had come to the Keep, a delegation from one of the Western Kingdoms. It hadn’t ended well. “We can take him back to the camp and then have him transported to the capital. Turn him over to the Daujom. Let them question him.”

The Daujom was the king’s intelligence organization. If this man—Dowhyan—had anything important to say, he could say it to them.

Jan crossed his large arms over his chest, doing his best imitation of a bear. With his fur-lined hood pulled up now and his hair uncombed, that wasn’t hard. “I’m making this call, Amal. We’re taking him back.”

In most Anvarrid Houses, Amal’s word would have been inviolable, but they were the House of Horn. They did everything differently. It had been widely known that Lord Horn had both an Anvarrid wife and a Family wife. The Horn—both the Anvarrid House of Horn and the Horn Family—were pragmatic about such things, so neither Amal nor Jan let that come between them. They were yearmates, raised in the same yeargroup.

It hadn’t ever been the plan for one of them to become Master of Horn Province; that had been her elder brother Samedrion’s place. Six years before, though, that had all changed, leaving Amal and Jan to decide between them which would succeed their father on the provincial seat. They’d chosen to share control of the province. Amal would have the title of Lady Horn, though, an easy decision since she was darker-skinned and mostly Anvarrid. The Senate had approved her without hesitation…or much interest at all, since the Horn was so far away.

But Amal had sworn she would always listen to Jan’s advice. He headed her guard, and therefore was present wherever she was. He heard every trade negotiation, every court proceeding, every visitor who came to them with a strange idea. Their system worked.

She motioned toward the sleeping man with her chin. “You willing to be responsible for him?”

“I’ll take responsibility,” Jan said with a nod.

The wind outside picked up again, tearing at the sides of the tent. The lantern swayed. Dressed now, Nora stretched out on the blankets again and appeared ready to sleep for a couple of hours next to the stranger. That was one of Nora’s gifts. She could sleep anywhere.

Amal shook her head and wrapped her arms around her knees again, conserving warmth, but the leather book in her overcoat pocket dug into her hip. She shifted around and pulled it out, peering at the lock in the dimness. In the end, she fished the back blade out of her sash and slit the strap that held the journal closed. From across the tent, Jan cast a reproachful glance her way.

His vexation wasn’t strong, though, a mere touch against her senses. She shrugged and settled back against the wall of the tent to peer at the book’s pages.

It was mostly drawings, done in pencil or charcoal, some with ink. Whatever else this man was, he had talent as an artist. He preferred non-living subjects: buildings, machines, and the occasional scenic drawing. She flipped through the book, located the last drawings, and saw that he’d been drawing the glacier, or rather the mountains in the distance. She squinted at the page, her stomach growing cold. There were several spots marked by small arrows pointing out a feature of the mountains’ face.

And calculations—triangulation.

Jan glanced up at her, likely alerted by her reaction to the drawing. Amal shook her head to warn him not to talk.

This man Dowyhan had come out on the glacier to view the mountains from a distance. To gather information to make distance calculations. The spots he’d marked had to be potential entry points to the abandoned Fortress. After all, he’d confessed he was hunting it.

But one of his marks was distressingly close to an actual entry for Salonen. A natural crevasse in the mountainside. What was that called? A fissure? A cleft?

There were several arrows that were wrong. If he was going to investigate each one, he could be at it for years, trying to find a viable entry. Or he could get lucky—or smart—and pick the correct one first. It was worrying, though, that even one of his possible entries was close. Even though that entry was surely clogged by hundreds of years’ worth of rubble falling and sliding down into it. Even though it had to be on the dead side of Salonen.

This drawing meant they needed to drag this man back to Horn and find out everything he knew. Technically, protecting Salonen Fortress wasn’t the Horn’s responsibility…but Amal knew better.

Salonen was a terrible liability, simply waiting to be exploited.

 

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