Karfael's captain twisted in his saddle and paused, as someone he did not recognize plunged headlong into his idle ranks of guardsmen. A shout followed, and a roil of sudden turbulence. Then the runner burst through, streaming water and spattered with black mud. The sweat-limp shirt on his heaving shoulders billowed at the waist like a peasant's smock. Disheveled from head to foot, the young man charged on, straight into the roped knot of captives.
He held an unsheathed blade in his fist.
Caught lounging with dropped stirrups, Karfael's heavyset captain unhooked the knee draped on his pommel. With townbred, fashionably bland interest, he held his immediate order to intervene. Every veteran knew how it felt to suffer the wiles of forest barbarians. If a steel-bearing maniac was bent on private vengeance, the escorting men-at-arms would be decidedly inclined to enjoy a bit of fun before they took action in restraint.
But the intruder turned his blade to whistling use, not to maim prisoners, but to sever the cordage that yoked them.
The captain's bull-throated bellow sheared above the nerve-racking beat of the masons' mallets. He would sooner see barbarians dead in cold blood than suffer even one to go free. "Who is that upstart? By Ath, pull him off!"
Four guards in his troop snapped to and dismounted. As they jostled to enter the milling knot of captives, the perpetrator leaped at them, shouting. "By Ath Creator, this is an offense!" The sword spun, whining. Startled guards and half-naked clansmen shrank back to escape getting slashed. "I'll not have slaves here! No man serves Avenor in shackles!"
The commotion turned heads on the wall works. Masons and mule drovers left off their labor, while the mounted lancers at the edge of the practice field coalesced from their war drills to stare.
Unmindful of outside observation, deaf to someone's rising call of inquiry, more guardsmen from Karfael elbowed into the fray to defend their assigned responsibility. Their captain screamed his indignation. "What are these worthless wretches to you? Who cares if they perish where they stand? Ropes are too kind for their sort. Let the prince who receives them bind shackles on them all, that no soft-hearted dolt is like to cut!"
The fair rescuer flung back a wild fall of hair. Hedged in by bared weapons that licked in on all sides through the dusty, dazed bodies of the captives, he rammed his sword in dry earth, then clawed loose his cuff ties, peeled back filthy cloth, and raised his wrists before him. "Well, chain me first, then!" he raged. A shocking, glacial blue against his flushed summer tan, his eyes held a warning to freeze thought. "No man born in this realm shall be lashed like an animal before I should suffer the same!"
"Fiends plague my mother, a philanthropist!" The guard captain rolled his gaze skyward, pleased to deliver the order. He stretched his toes and recovered his stirrups, unmoved through the commotion as his men swooped to spread-eagle the rash idiot amid his coffle of clansmen.
The deed was accomplished with small resistance. Half the barbarians were wounded; the rest were too dazed and exhausted from the march to try more than token trouble. The tall scout they jabbed to make room for the newcomer was swollen nearly blind from a bruise. In touching and deferent courtesy, that one stepped aside, while a lieutenant volunteered the pole off his mace. The blond dissident found his wrists tied immobile and his elbows threaded through behind his back in less time than he had taken to speak out.
"What's going on here?" cried an authoritative voice from the sidelines. "Your Grace?"
Made aware that his position was now hedged in by onlookers, Karfael's captain knew his job well enough to keep his eyes fixed on his guardsmen. As they straightened to attention after securing the new prisoner, he bellowed without turning around, "Where's Avenor's vaunted prince? We've brought him a gift, and with it, a problem in discipline."
Closing pressure from behind began to upset the stance of his destrier. The guard captain fought the animal steady in skilled play at the reins. Since he would make a shameful impression as an envoy if it turned to war training and kicked a bystander, he flung back an irritable shout. "If your prince is not present, then send for him!"
A ripple stirred through the prisoners; the bound, blond insurgent strode to the limit of his noose and tipped up his mud-splashed face. Tugged a half-step as the added strain dragged the ropes, the lanky, one-eyed barbarian inclined his head in jeering satire. "If you wish the attendance of Prince Lysaer s'Ilessid, unless my sight lies, you behold him."
The captain from Karfael blinked in horrified astonishment at the scruffy personage he had issued crisp orders to abuse. "You?" he said. "The Prince of the West?"
Lysaer gave back a glare that could have raised curds on new milk. "Tell your Lord Mayor," he said in furious, regal arrogance, "he may fight clansmen who rob caravans and kill them in battle. He may take them alive and try them on criminal charges. If they are guilty, he may exercise his lawful right to execute them. But I will suffer no enemy of civilized society to be set in chains as slave labor."
The burly captain swung his leg over his high cantle and dismounted. "Your Grace, forgive my ignorance." Not waiting for his squire to take his horse, he gave mollified apology and drew his dagger. "Let me cut you loose, and quickly."
"Not yet." Mantled in self-possession that should have been beyond a man strapped erect in dirty clothing, Lysaer issued correction. "Every clansman here shall be restored to liberty first. For your presumption, to mete out Avenor's justice without my leave, they will stay free, to depart or join my cause as they choose."
"That's rank insult!" The angle of his blade no longer civil, Karfael's guard captain gave the nearest rope a vicious jerk. "These men are my Lord Mayor's convicts!"
"Not when they stand in Avenor," Lysaer said on a yielded step to avert a stumble. His magisterial presence never wavered. "Back down. Their fate is in my hands, not yours. Or else claim my sovereignty and my pledge to fight the Shadow Master, and plunge your damned knife through my heart."
A madman might make such a statement, except the blue eyes clear lit in summer glare showed only steel-clad resolve.
The guard captain hesitated, his jaw set and every sinew primed for a thrust he could not in decency complete. Barbarian eyes watched him, mocking through their misery. Then the unfriendly presence that harried his back broke through. His cordon of guardsmen broke their line and gave ground, cowed to unequivocal surrender. Surrounding his men and the unfortunate coffle were the glittering lancers from the practice field. Hard as nails, poised on their hair-trigger leash of fine discipline, they were led by the jeweled and magnificent person of Avenor's dark-haired Lord Commander.
"You will do his Grace's bidding," Lord Diegan demanded from the back of his tall, bay courser. Beyond the sun-struck dazzle that laced his naked longsword, his brown eyes stayed fixed and inimical on Karfael's cornered envoy. "If you're minded to argue the matter further, you'll be offered an audience after the prince has withdrawn for the chance to be properly clothed and refreshed."
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