Harbend parried and slashed. The third of their attacks north of the woods had started bad. They were spotted long before they even saw those they had come for.
He swore and ducked under a wild swing. Stepping inside the guard of his opponent he stabbed with his knife and withdrew. The man gasped and went limp.
A short dash brought Harbend to the next defender, and he cut him down from behind. Aphitus nodded and together they advanced over the courtyard. They sprinted across it and took cover behind a low wall before anyone could get a good aim at them.
Aphitus stepped out of cover and made a rude gesture before jumping back. Two bolts slammed into the wall and both men rushed across the courtyard one again. The heavy crossbow might punch through almost any armour, but it took forever to reload. Harbend waited as long as a quick crossbowman would take and jumped into the open and back again.
They aimed almost as bad as they thought, and another bolt went wide.
He hoped Escha jumped the rest at the exact time. Sooner or later someone would get lucky and Harbend had no wish to take a bolt when he was this close.
Yells of frustration and fear told him it was unlikely. Then the sounds of metal reached him from behind the walls. They were going to finish their deadly work this time as well, but there had been a price. Two of Karia's men lay wounded, and Harbend wasn't sure both would survive the night.
He followed Aphitus to the gates and forced his way inside when they were opened. The fighting was all but over and the time for revenge had come. He accepted that word now. As much revenge as vengeance. The mission had taken a life of its own by now, but he didn't care. As long as the killing continued he had a reason to live. It had to continue. A bit of Nakora stayed alive, and even though he suspected that last remnant would die with his last victim there was no longer anything he could do about it. What had started must be finished.
When he came into the main building Karia made way for him. They had long since stepped aside when the real killing began. It was as if they no longer agreed with the necessity, but they simply couldn't understand. Not the way Harbend did. No one could. Nakora hadn't loved any of them, so they hadn't lost as he had.
As he killed the remaining members of the household he wondered about his own sanity, but if that was the price he had to pay he was willing to.
Escha nodded as Karia continued. "This has gone too far. We're nothing but murderers now."
"Would you have me break my promise now?" Escha asked?
Karia shrugged. He didn't know. "Are we to become the same as those we hunt? Isn't there a border you cross when breaking your word becomes the lesser evil?"
"That is a question you have to answer for yourself, young Graig," Escha said.
Karia looked among his men. He would get no help from them. They followed him out of loyalty. Just like Gring wore her honour like chains his men were tied to him in their own way. It had gone beyond right or wrong now. And a border had been crossed.
"I release my men from my word. I will break it myself."
Escha nodded, as did Gring to Karia's surprise.
"What we saw last night I will not be witness to again," Karia continued, "and nor will my men. Those were children. There's no possibility they had a hand in Nakora's murder." He had renegaded on his word. Where shame and self disgust should have been prevalent he only felt relief. A strange elation spread through him, and he smiled for the first time in days. "Who will tell Harbend?"
"I will," Escha said. "I got you into this. It is only fair I should get you out of it as well."
"I will keep my promise to him. He has after all already paid me for my services." Escha's smile belied his mercenary words, and Karia understood that Escha had never really cared for the fee he extracted.
"I don't believe I'll ever understand you," Karia agreed at last. "Are you all the same in Khanati?"
"No. We are as you. Humans with faults and merits, and individuality. I am Escha er Achnai Khar, responsible for my actions and with no common behaviour to hide behind." Escha let go of his smile. "You should remember that. It is never who we are and always about who I am."
The growl from behind him told Karia that Gring had understood as well. He wasn't entirely certain exactly what it was she had understood, but from her sound it was a profound truth indeed.
He stared at the ceiling. They really should be on their way before Harbend woke, but not before they had rattled enough weapons to convince any would be assassin that attacking Harbend this night would only be an exercise in futility. A deadly one.
Gring made her mind up the following morning. Not because killing young offspring was evil or wrong, because it wasn't, but because she finally accepted what she had suspected for some time now. Harbend was broken beyond healing. The man she had grown to respect, and in some ways even like, was gone forever. Inside the shell that was Harbend de Garak only a splinter of humanity resided. The true man had died, probably died the moment she killed him by revealing what had happened to Nakora. She had no allegiances to the monster behind those eyes, but she owned a lifetime of repentance to the man she had murdered. A debt she'd never be able to repay, and she felt remorse as well as regret.
She didn't know what do about those feelings. They never came easy to one of her kind. She regretted that last thought, even resented it. It took a strong person to admit such faults. Human, golden or halfman probably mattered little. For all she knew even dragonlings had feelings, even though she had never walked the mind of one.
Unable to postpone the inevitable any longer she gathered her few belongings and strode away. She was as craven as the rest. Escha would have to tell Harbend she had gone as well. Oddly enough it didn't discomfort her. Harbend was dead. She owed nothing to the demon she left behind. Karia should have known that, but he wasn't a mindwalker, so maybe she was unfair.
It took only half a day for her to catch up with Karia and his sworn men. One mission left. They hadn't even told Harbend, but there was one killing left to be done, and neither she, nor Karia and his men felt any regrets about that one. Someone in the royal castle had paid for the rape. That much she had gleaned from one she killed. Not for the killing but for the preceding rape. To halfmen that was a crime some held worse than killing, and they would extract a price in return.
Ri Nachi lay due south, and so they marched north-east as fast as Karia's men were able to ride. The royal castle was far beyond what they could hope to breach, even beyond Escha's abilities as it had been built with jump mages in mind.
North-east lay Ri Kordari, and there a tribe of humans lived. If what she had heard was correct they valued halfmen ethics higher than their own, and she might be able to convince them to join her cause before they killed her. She was from Gaz after all, and anything Cor was anathema to Gaz.
The presence of sworn men from Braka would help of course. Especially if led by a lordling like Karia. He represented the kind of heroics idolized in Ri Kordar and Gaz alike.
With that thought firmly in mind she walked on until they reached the eastern forests. A few days trekking would take them to the mountains, and from there she could only guess. She didn't know exactly where the tribe lived, only that it was somewhere in rocky Ri Kordari.
Harbend spat in disgust. Betrayed, and by those he would once have called friends. Only Escha stood by his word, but Harbend wondered for how much longer. It mattered little. The two of them couldn't finish what needed doing. For the first time in his life he would resort to asking for help from home. Without Escha that would have been a laughable idea. Home lay an entire continent to the south. It would have taken him years to get there and back again. With the help of Escha it was but a moment of the monstrous strength the khar mastered.
They waited, or rather Harbend waited. Escha slept. He was worn thin from eightdays of continuous abuse of the gift. Even Harbend was able to see how much it cost him, but he was relentless. If necessary he would pay Escha more than he had demanded.
A trace of a protest grew in his mind. Escha was a friend, not a mercenary to be paid and discarded. Harbend killed that thought. He couldn't afford thoughts like those. There were still people alive who needed to be killed, and he hadn't even begun with the relatives of those responsible.
Gring held her breath and waited. They hadn't even reached the mountains but she was certain they were surrounded by humans. Somehow someone had known her plans. She couldn't even begin to guess how that had happened. She was certain it had though. There was nothing wrong with her sense of smell.
Waving Karia to attention she stepped forward and released a full burst from her glands. That should make certain whoever stalked them knew they had been spotted. She wanted help, not a fight, and telling them she knew that they knew was a good start.
Something stirred in the air. A few birds took off and a rustling in the undergrowth suddenly demanded her own attention. They were closing in, and she still didn't know whether there would be a fight or not. Now was the time for her to decide.
She dropped her weapons and made herself a perfect target. She was honour bound after all.
Karia jumped as the forest burst into life. He'd known something was out there stalking them, but woods weren't something he was used to. Too many trees and too few mountain peaks for his taste. Now, at least, he knew what it was that had followed their trail.
As khraga went Gring was all but petite. The ones arriving were anything but. It was apparent they ate better here, but he wisely held that thought to himself. They had come for help, not to insult people.
Aphitus whispered a question, but Karia shook his head. The moment for drawing weapons had come and gone. He was certain of that. The way Gring spoke with her own only confirmed that thought.
Knowing he had nothing to add Karia ordered his men to start making camp. They wouldn't go anywhere more this day, and an early camp would go a long way toward restoring some of the strength only rest could give. They needed that rest. He could feel it in his bones, and if he tried to fool himself all it took was a look at the drained faces of his sworn men to recall him to reality.
Making camp took even less time than he had hoped, or feared. They were lacking in supplies now. Only their horses had enough, but they would make do with what they had. He watched the sorry excuses for shelters they put up. At least the forest provided both branches and firewood. They would get a warm nights sleep.
He left the camp and joined Gring in hopes of learning what was happening, but she was still talking in the language of hers, and for once she didn't use her gift to invite him into understanding. He knew he shouldn't feel offended but he did.
He sat down and listened anyway. As the conversation continued the feeling of being left out dissipated and he relaxed and merely watched. Had anyone told him the voices of khraga would be soothing before he met Gring he would have scoffed at the concept, but now he allowed himself to be lulled to sleep by the rhythmical grunting and growls with a sharp, indrawn, hiss thrown in from time to time.
Gring growled in approval when Karia's snores interrupted the meeting. Falling asleep in a circle of true warriors. That took some audacity.
She noted how the leader bared his tusks when he shared her thoughts. Some expressions didn't need a mindwalker to decipher. Then she traced Karia's men as they made the camp ready. To her surprise they hardly gave her or the new arrivals any notice. They had been brought to the brink of exhaustion and she feared some were already dangling on the wrong side of it.
"They can't go on much longer," she said to the leader, a male in magnificent white fur, almost the colour of pure snow rather than the bony white she recalled seeing in Gaz.
"You are a bold one, little mindwalker. By all rights you should be dead now."
She stared at him. "If you want to kill us, do it now and don't talk about the deeds you shy away from." She slowly realized that Karia and his men weren't alone in breaking down from fatigue.
Her last response earned her a surprised smile. "We were on our way to do that. We heard a mindwalker scout from Gaz had brought mercenaries to Ri Khi to kill those loved by the crown."
Gring was too astonished to answer. She just glared.
"Then we heard a halfman from Khi and a halfman jump mage from Khanati had joined you. That tickled our curiosity." He growled. "Imagine our consternation when rumours spread about sworn men from Braka following you."
That wasn't too hard. Humans from Gaz didn't meet halfmen from Braka other than on the killing field. For both of them to be joined in one cause either party must be guilty of betrayal. "I am the renegade. Karia and his men are true warriors. They have lost no honour"
"You are truly a surprising one. You would have halfmen valued as humans?"
"Don't you dare call them halfmen! Any and all of them are twice what you can ever hope to become!" Gring wondered about the vehemence in her own voice. For the first time for as long as she could remember she involuntarily emptied her predator's glands. Stupid! So stupid.
Eyes widened, but to her astonishment not a move was made to attack her.
"You are tired little one. I apologize. Let my shame be part repayment for the honour I have sullied. I am in their debt. Will you tell them so?"
Gring growled with mirth. "Are we really that simple minded? They haven't understood a word. How could they feel insulted? There is nothing to repay. Mine is the shame. You could not know the kind of honour they carry as a warriors badge." She bowed in the halfman way, because she had once heard humans in Ri Kordari had adapted to halfman ways along with other oath breaker trappings.
The leader bowed back. "Would you tell me if we have to kill you or not?"
That was a question as politely worded as any. By rights she should have done so long ago. "Vengeance. One we had promised to protect met a bad death."
"What would make sworn enemies share one duty to protect?"
"I followed a taleweaver," Gring replied. That statement brought a few hisses, but at least they understood. Allegiances had no value compared to the sacred duty to protect the taleweavers. "Nakora, the woman whose death we must honour, shared my duty. Her own men killed her?"
He looked nonplussed. "A female war leader from Ri Khi?"
"I'm not familiar with halfman customs in this part of the world, but yes, I heard it wasn't common."
She got a sharp grunt in reply. That sound was apparently shared among humans no matter where they lived.
"Less than common?" she asked more to confirm what she had just learned than anything else.
"Someone paid men to mate with her against her wish. We were on our way to you for help."
"That was a bad death indeed."
"Will you help us?"
"Why should we help you rather than kill you?"
Gring thought. She was tired, not stupid. "Because Imperial Colonel Trindai de Laiden would have wanted you to had he known what became of one of his officers," she chanced.
The hiss told her she had chosen well. "You have gathered strange friends, little enemy of Gaz."
Very well. Those last words were worth a future home for her. Enemies of Gaz. The only human enemies of her old home lived here, and they had just told her she was one of them. A full season of tension ran off her, and with it her remaining strength. She sat down on the ground no longer caring if they would see it as a sign of weakness. Home, she was home at last.