The wind howled through the buildings like a banshee.
Guaire shivered at the knifing gale, but he let his cloak flare out behind him. This close to Darmovan's northwestern borders, it was never properly warm, and this winter was worse than any he had seen. The few people he could see in the streets walked steadily, heads down, cloaks wrapped around them.
The door scraped behind him, and he heard footsteps moving up towards him. He looked across to see Vindt step up beside him, resting his arms on the chest-high wall of the balcony. The whipcord-lean man glanced over at him, and gave a short sigh.
"If you don't like them, Guaire, just tell them," he said. "There's no need to come all the way up here to avoid them."
Guaire echoed Vindt's sigh. The merchants weren't the only reason he was up on the balcony, but they certainly didn't help matters. "If I drive them away, then we'll get no trade with them. And much as I hate to admit it…"
"We need it," finished Vindt. "I know. But that doesn't mean you have to skulk up here in the cold. And besides, they already know how you feel."
Guaire looked up at him. "They do?"
"Everybody does," Vindt laughed. "Why do you think your father keeps inviting you to these meetings? You make them so nervous that they'll give your father whatever he wants, just so they can get out of the room before you attack them." He nodded at Guaire's sword. "It's even better when you wear that."
Guaire shook his head, bemused. It was a surprise, but it made sense. "Sounds like something my father would do."
"Hey, you're the best thing to happen to trade in the House in a decade, since the Border Wars stopped. 'Amalasan's hound', they call you; and they mean it. They think you'll come and hunt them down if they so much as think of cheating your father."
Guaire gave a wry smile. "Now that definitely sounds like my father." Raemon Amalasan wasn't accounted the shrewdest man this side of the Mountains of Mist for nothing. He had kept House Amalasan from slipping away after the disastrous Border Wars, and still did so, even when his thin hair was full white and everyone said he should be in an infirmary rather than leading the most isolated House in Darmovan.
"Yes, and he's getting annoyed that his distraction has wandered off. Come back inside and have some wine. Scare some merchants." Vindt clapped Guaire on the back good-naturedly. "Come on. You'll catch the Fever out here."
Guaire shook him off. "Fine, fine. I'm coming. Just make sure there's good wine, and not the trash my father feeds to the merchants."
Vindt laughed, and Guaire followed him back inside, closing the balcony door behind him. With the door shut, he realised just how cold he had been out there. His fingers burned, and his toes ached inside his thin shoes. He should have put more on than just the cloak, he thought ruefully. Too much mulled wine had made him forget what winter was like.
As they descended the stairs back down to the mansion, Vindt looked over his shoulder at Guaire. "They say the war with Elan Dapor is hotting up," he said. "The garrison from Draem have been pulled down south, at any rate."
"When were you going to tell me this?" said Guaire.
"Well… I was going to save it for your father to tell you. Just so he could know something about it that you didn't, for once."
"Oh shut up," said Guaire, giving Vindt a light punch in the shoulder. "Everyone says I'm obsessed, but I'm just interested in the war. It affects things, you know. More than just the south."
"We all know you want to be a soldier, Guaire," Vindt grinned. It's just too bad for you that's you're stuck here."
"I don't want to be a soldier," Guaire protested. "I just want to know what it would be like."
"And that's why you ran away three times back when you were a child? And when they found you, you were marching up to Draem with a wooden practice sword? Light, I would have loved to have seen you back then. It would have been hilarious."
"If you weren't my brother…" Guaire grumbled.
"What?" said Vindt. "You'd fight me? I doubt it. For all your talk of soldiering, and all your grim looks, you couldn't fight your way out of a paper bag."
Guaire laughed. "I'd still beat you any day, Vindt. Now tell me about the damn garrison so I don't look stupid in front of father."
"Alright, alright," Vindt said. "You win. It's not like there's much to say; the garrison's been redeployed to the southern border – as reinforcements, probably – and the word is that there's going to be a big push. In retaliation for what they did at Korme."
Guaire frowned thoughtfully. The Elan Dapori armies had taken Korme a month ago, and it had only just been reclaimed. If there was retaliation on the winds, well… King Dashan had never been known as a merciful man. "Does the King want to spark a full-out war?" he asked. "Up until Korme, it was just raids and skirmishes. We could deal with them. But if he starts a proper war, the economy won't handle it."
"Always such an optimist, then?" said Vindt. "Don't worry. How is it going to affect us? We're about as far away as you can get from Elan Dapor and still be in Darmovan."
Guaire shook his head. "So we'll be the worst taxed. They can't afford to take away from the southern regions, so that leaves us in the north. We're safe up here; there hasn't been any conflict with Abayan for decades, maybe even centuries."
Vindt paused. They had arrived outside the meeting chamber. Behind its wide silver-painted doors, his father would be sat bartering with the merchants. "Maybe," Vindt said. "But there's nothing we can do about it, and I've learned not to worry about things you can't change."
"I wish I shared your attitude," said Guaire. "But we should get back to father, before he has to send someone to look for the person he sent to look for me."
Vindt smiled, and gestured to Guaire to lead the way. It was only proper; since Vindt was only Guaire's half-brother. Vindt's father had died a year after his birth, eight months before Guaire's mother had passed away from fever.
Guaire walked into the meeting chamber, trying to assume an air of confidence. One hand rested on the hilt of his sword as he moved around the long table that took up the centre of the room to sit next to his father, and he could feel the eyes of the four merchants following the sheathed blade. He sat on his father's right, and Vindt sat on the other side.
"Good of you to return," murmured his father.
"I thought you might need a little help," he replied, with a slight twitch of the corner of his mouth.
"The day I need help from you is the day I die," Raemon chuckled. "Now be quiet and try to look like you usually do. These goat-kissers seem to think they can charge me twelve gold marks for half a shipment of Farashelle iron."
"Twelve?" Guaire said, amazed. "We can get it through Katar for less than eight, and that's overland and in our own borders."
One of the merchants coughed, and Guaire looked up. He was a big man, though not with fat – not many were, in these times – and, like the other three, his hair hung down past his shoulders in the Shiotan fashion. He was cleanshaven, except for a small patch of dark hair on his chin, and Guaire's eyes were drawn to it as he spoke. They didn't get many Shiotans this far to the west; for them to come this far with the threat of war bubbling on the southern border spoke of hard times everywhere.
"If we could continue?" said the Shiotan in a surprisingly smooth voice.
Raemon smiled congenially, although Guaire caught an annoyed glint in his eyes. "Yes, of course, master Ulante. We were discussing the matter of costs, I believe?"
Ulante glanced across at his fellow merchants. "Yes. Specifically, the matter of the changing circumstances that we find ourselves in-"
"Changing circumstances?" snorted Raemon. "You're the ones who decided to come up here. We're the ones with the war brewing. If anything, you should be offering it to us for less, not more."
"We should accept more risks for lower profits?" countered Ulante. "You cannot expect other nations to support your wars for you."
"No," Raemon replied, "but I can expect fairness. You seriously think I believe that it cost you ten gold marks to get that hunk of driftwood you call a ship up the Erinin?"
Guaire leaned back as the bartering continued. He made sure his sword hilt was in plain sight all the time, keeping his cloak swept back behind his shoulder. The merchants' eyes kept flicking from his father to him and his sword between replies, considering.
He tried to look as if he knew how to use the sword. He did, after a fashion – he could usually best all but Graven, the captain of the House's guards, in a duel – but rumour had exaggerated his ability somewhat. According to Vindt, he was supposed to be a blademaster, even though he had only turned twenty-two four months ago. It seemed that logic had no place when it came to stories.
He exchanged a look with Vindt. Shiota was supposed to be a nation full of cheats, willing to give away their own mothers if it would get them an extra copper penny, and only ever flirting with the truth. What they were seeing so far was supporting that. It didn't fill him full of optimism. It was going to take a while to get them to even admit that their price was unreasonable.
His reverie was broken when the doors burst open.
A servant staggered in, her clothes smoke-stained, and with a bloody slash down her right arm. She dragged in a gulp of air, pointing over her shoulder, eyes wide. "Raiders," she managed to gasp. "From the north."
Guaire leapt to his feet, just behind his father, and everything happened at once. His sword scraped clear of its scabbard before he even thought of it, and he found himself running towards the doors. The merchants rose, uncertain, as shouts began to echo.
"Vindt!" Raemon snapped, "get the servants away."
Vindt stumbled, still drawing his own sword. "I can fight!" he said.
"Just do it! Get them to safety, then gather the guards and head the raiders off. We'll hold them at the doors." Raemon ordered, charging past Guaire and the merchants. Guaire stayed long enough to catch Vindt's disappointed look, and then he was following his father out of the doors and into the hallway.
Smoke wisped through the hallway, snaking from doors and windows. They burst from room to room, expecting to find enemies behind every door, but they only saw servants fleeing, or huddling in corners, casting fearful glances back towards the entrance of the mansion.
When they finally reached the doors to the town and shoved their way through them, the raiders were almost to the mansion.
Four men, garbed in rough leathers and wielding a brutal variety of weapons, from broad stabbing daggers to a rusty halberd, emerged from the burning husk of a house. They saw Guaire and Raemon, and charged.
"Ready, Guaire?" asked Raemon.
"Ready as I'll ever be," Guaire replied. "And they don't look like they'll give us any more time."
Raemon gave a low laugh. "Just remember what Graver taught you," he said, and then he was away, rushing to meet the raiders.
Guaire shifted his grip on his sword, and charged after his father.
A raider swung a blow at his chest with a thick sword, and he only just managed to check his charge enough to get a block up. The weapons clanged off one another, and Guaire made a hasty strike for the raider's head, extending his arm out past the raider's weapon. The raider recoiled, narrowly avoiding having his eyes removed, and kicked out.
Guaire stumbled as his foot hit his knee, and almost lost his head. His sword barely came up in time to block the raider's stroke, and he felt the sword whisper past his neck. Shifting his grip, he shoved the raider's sword aside, then grabbed his sword-arm. With his other hand, Guaire punched the raider in the face with his sword hilt. He felt bones crunch beneath his blow, and punched again, this time for his throat. Cartilage gave way, and the raider staggered back as Guaire released his arm, his free hand going to his ruined windpipe.
And then the axe-head of a halberd sliced down at him. Burning ice screamed along his arm, and a ragged cry rasped from his throat. The halberd hit the ground, and Guaire spun around, acting on pure adrenaline. His sword hacked across and caught the halberd-wielder in the shoulder.
The raider's face still showed surprise for a split second, and then agony ripped across his features. Guaire pulled his sword free, and brought it around again in a rough arc, the blade biting deep into the raider's neck. The raider collapsed to the ground, blood spurting fitfully from his neck, and Guaire was dragged down with him.
A hand grasped his cloak and pulled him back upright. Guaire looked up. His father stood next to him, his sword bloody. He had fared worse than Guaire in the fight; he had a gash across his right thigh, and line of crimson traced over his left shoulder. Guaire opened his mouth to speak, but Raemon cut him off.
"Now's not the time." He jerked a hand over his shoulder. "There's more of them on the way."
Guaire looked. A full dozen raiders were advancing up the wide main street, and he glimpsed a pair of riders behind them. "Light," he breathed.
"Just hope Vindt gets the guards in time," said his father, making his way towards the raiders.
Guaire followed, trying not to show the roiling fear in his stomach. It was easy saying you would die in battle when you were only daydreaming; the real thing was a lot less heroic and a lot more deadly.
The raiders spread out as they came closer, working together. Guaire's heart plummeted. One-on-one, one after the other, he might have been able to take on half a dozen, if the two he'd fought so far were any indication, but no-one could fight six at once and come out alive.
The raiders moved around the two, until they were in the centre of a wide circle.
Ice knotted at Guaire's stomach. He was about to die.
The raiders charged.
Guaire threw himself forward, beneath a whiplike slash that would have taken his throat out. He came up beside his attacker, and rammed his sword up as hard as he could into the raider's stomach. Blood burbled, and the falling body dragged Guaire's sword from his hand. He dropped prone in time to avoid an axe blow, and grabbed the fallen raider's sword.
He rolled frantically, feet and weapons crashing around him, and then pushed himself up as fast as he could. A heavy swing with the borrowed sword took a second raider in the side of the head, but he felt the agonising fiery cold of a blade sliding into him, scraping across his ribs.
He screamed, and kicked out. His foot connected with something, and then another blade hit him, slicing through the flesh of his thigh. The ice in his stomach turned to fire; a roaring, all-consuming fire, and a cry ripped itself from his lips.
He glimpsed horses charging, and the glinting points of lances. He heard his father scream; heard that scream cut off with a wet impact. He felt more lines of fire burn through him.
And then everything stopped. Men froze in mid-strike, horses rolled their eyes in fear. A crescendo of cries built up and up. Guaire felt the burning fire in him grow, grow into a raging beast that clenched talons around his chest and stabbed daggers into his heart.
And then everything started to burn.