Reading Passage from The Lions of Al-Rassan

Passage from Chapter Five of The Lions of Al-Rassan

He had lost his hat at some point, and during the period of walking north one of Garcia de Rada’s boots had split at the heel. He was, accordingly, wet at crown and sole, riding through the copse of trees west of the Belmonte ranch compound. There seemed to be a rough trail leading through the wood; the horses were able to manage.

Despite his discomfort, he was fiercely happy, with a red, penetrating joy that made the long journey here seem as nothing now. His late, unlamented cousin Parazor had been a pig and a buffoon, and far too quick to voice his own thoughts on various matters. Thoughts that seemed all too frequently to differ from Garcia’s own. Nonetheless, during the trek north from Al-Rassan, Garcia had been sustained in his spirit by a sense of gratitude to his slain cousin. Parazor’s death at the hands of a lice-ridden Asharite peasant boy in a hamlet by Fezana was the event that would deliver Miranda Belmonte d’Alveda into Garcia’s hands. And not only his hands.

Once Rodrigo Belmonte had recklessly ordered a de Rada of rank to be executed by a peasant child, against all codes of conduct among gentlemen in the three Jaddite kingdoms of Esperaña, he had exposed himself-and his family-to the response that blood demanded for such an insult.

The king could and would do nothing, Garcia was certain, if the de Rada took their just measure of revenge for what Rodrigo had done. The just measure was easy enough to calculate: horses for their own horses taken, and one woman taken in a rather different way for the execution of a de Rada cousin after he had sued for ransom. It was entirely fair. There were precedents in the history of Esperaña for a great deal more, in fact.

Garcia had resolved upon his course even while walking and stumbling north through darkness after the raid on Orvilla. Blood dripping from his torn cheek, he had kept himself going by visualizing the naked figure of Miranda Belmonte twisting beneath him, while her children were made to watch their mother’s defilement. Garcia was good at imagining such things.

Twenty-four of his men survived Orvilla, with a dozen knives and assorted other small weapons. They took six mules late the next day from another hamlet, and a broken- backed nag from a small-farmer in an imprudently isolated homestead. Garcia claimed the horse, miserable as it was. He left the Asharite farmer and his wife and daughter for his companions. His own thoughts were a long way north and east already, over the border in Valledo, in the lands between the River Duric’s source and the foothills of the Jaloña mountains.

There lay the wide rich grasslands where the horse herds of Esperaña had run wild for centuries until the first ranchers came and began to tame and breed and ride them. Among those ranchers the most famously arrogant, though far from the largest or wealthiest, were the Belmonte. Garcia knew exactly where he was going. And he also happened to know, from his brother, that the Captain’s troops were quartered at Esteren this summer, nowhere near the ranch.

There ought to have been little danger for Belmonte in leaving his home unguarded. The Asharites had launched no raids north for twenty-five years, since the last brief flourishing of the Khalifate. The army of King Bermudo of Jaloña had been beaten back across the mountains by the Valledans three years before and were still licking their wounds. And no outlaws, however rash or desperate, would dream of provoking the ire of the celebrated Captain of Valledo.

The ranch ought to have been perfectly safe behind its wooden stockade wall, even if guarded by boys with unbroken voices and a cluster of ranch hands deemed unworthy or too old for a place in the fighting company. On the other hand, Rodrigo Belmonte ought not to have ordered the death of a cousin of the de Rada. He ought not to have whipped the constable’s brother. Such actions changed things.

When Garcia and his men had finally stumbled into Lobar, the first of the forts in the tagra lands, he had demanded and received-though with insolent reluctance- mounts and swords for all of them. The sweating commander of the garrison had advanced some feeble excuse about being left without sufficient weapons or horses for their own duties or safety, but Garcia had brooked none of that. The constable of Valledo, he’d said airily, would send them swords and better horses than the swaybacked creatures they were being given. He was in no mood for debate with a borderland soldier.

“That might take a long time,” the commander had murmured obstinately. “All the way from Esteren.”

“Indeed it might,” Garcia had replied frigidly. “And if so?”

The man had bitten his lip and said nothing more. What could he have said? He was dealing with a de Rada, the brother of the constable of the realm.

The garrison’s doctor, an ugly, raspy-voiced lout with a disconcerting boil on his neck, had examined Garcia’s wound and whistled softly. “A whip?” he’d said. “You’re a lucky man, my lord, or else someone extremely skillful was trying only to mark you. It is a clean cut and nowhere near your eye. Who did this?” Garcia had only glared, saying nothing. It was pointless, speaking to certain

people.
The man prescribed an evil-smelling salve that stung like hornets, but did cause the swelling on Garcia’s face to recede over the next few days. It was when he looked in a reflecting glass for the first time that Garcia decided that appropriate vengeance required the death of the Belmonte children, as well. After they had been forced to watch him with their mother.

It was the fierce anticipation of revenge that had driven him on from the tagra fort, with only a single day’s rest. He sent four men north to Esteren, to report to his brother and to lay formal complaint before the king. That was important. If what he purposed to do was to have legal sanction, such a complaint had to be lodged against Rodrigo. Garcia was going to do this properly, and he was going to do it.

Two days after his main troop had parted from the four messengers he remembered that he’d forgotten to tell them to have weapons and horses sent back down for the garrison at Lobar. He briefly considered sending another pair of men north, but remembered the commander’s insolence and elected not to bother. There would be time enough to pass on that word when he arrived in Esteren himself. It would do the pampered soldiers good to be short of weapons and mounts for a time. Perhaps someone else’s boot might split at the heel.

Ten days later, in a wood on the land of Rancho Belmonte, rain was falling. Garcia’s stocking was sopping wet through his cracked boot, and so were his hair and scratchy new beard. He’d been growing the beard since Orvilla. He would have to wear it for the rest of his life he’d realized by now; that, or look like a branded thief. Belmonte had intended that, he was certain of it.
Miranda Belmonte, he remembered, was very beautiful; all the d’Alveda women were. Rodrigo, that common mercenary, had made a far better marriage than he deserved. He was about to have visited upon him exactly what he did deserve.
Anticipation made Garcia’s heart pound faster. Soon, now. Boys

and stable grooms were the guardians of this ranch. Rodrigo Belmonte was no more than a jumped-up fighting man who had been put back in his proper place since the ascension of King Ramiro. He had lost his rank of constable in favor of Garcia’s brother. That had been only the beginning. He would learn now the cost of a feud with the de Rada. He would learn what happened when you marked Garcia de Rada as a common outlaw. Garcia touched his cheek. He was still using the salve, as instructed. The smell was ferociously unpleasant, but the swelling had subsided and the wound was clean.

The trees were very close together throughout the wood, but the curiously smooth path seemed to wind easily through them, wide enough in places for three men to ride abreast. They passed a pool of water on their right. In the grey afternoon the rain fell gently through the leaves, making droplets and ripples in the still surface of the water. It was said to be a holy place, for some reason. A few men made the god’s sign of the disk as they rode by. When the first horse fell and lay screaming on the ground with a broken leg, it seemed a malign accident. After two more such accidents, one of which left a rider with a dislocated shoulder, such an interpretation became less certain.

The path curved north through the sodden, dripping trees, and then, a little further on, swung back to the east again. In the grey, pale distance Garcia thought he could see an end to the trees.

He felt himself falling, while still in the saddle.

He had time to throw a startled glance upwards and see the bellies of the two horses that had been pacing on either side of his a moment ago. Then his mount crashed into the bottom of the pit that had been concealed in the center of the path and Garcia de Rada found himself scrambling about trying to dodge the thrashing hooves of a crippled, terrified horse. One man, quicker than the others, dropped to the ground and leaned over the edge of the pit.

He extended an arm, and Garcia grabbed it and hauled himself up and out.

They looked down at the flailing horse a moment, then an archer released two arrows and the hooves stopped.

“This is no natural path,” the archer said, after a moment.

“How very clever of you,” said Garcia. He walked past the man, his boots squelching in the mud.

A trip wire claimed two more horses and cracked the skull of one thrown rider, and another pit took down a third stallion before they had reached the eastern end of the woods. They made it, though, and one had to expect some casualties on a raid of this sort.
Open grass lay before them. In the middle distance they could see the wooden wall that surrounded the ranch buildings. It was high but not high enough, Garcia saw. A skilled rider standing on the back of his mount could scale it; so could a foot soldier boosted by another. Only with a proper garrison could the ranch be defended from an attack launched by competent men. As they paused there at the edge of the trees the rain stopped. Garcia smiled, savoring the moment.

“How’s that for an omen from the god?” he said to no one in particular.

He looked up pointedly at the horseman beside him. After a moment the man took his meaning and dismounted. Garcia swung up on the horse. “Straight for the ranch,” he ordered. “First man over the wall has his choice of the women. We’ll get their horses after. They owe us more than horseflesh.”

And then, like the thundering, heroic ancestors of his lineage, Garcia de Rada drew his borrowed sword, thrust it high over his head, and kicked the horse from Lobar into a gallop. Behind him his companions gave a shout and streamed out of the woods into the greyness of the afternoon. Six died in the first volley of arrows, and four in the second. No arrows came anywhere near Garcia himself, but by the time he was halfway to the walled enclosure of the ranch there were only five riders behind him and five others on foot running desperately across the wet and open grass.

Given such a sobering development it began to seem less and less prudent to be galloping furiously, well ahead of the others, towards the compound walls. Garcia slowed his horse and then, when he saw one of the running men shot in the chest, he reined his mount to a stop, too stupefied to give voice to the rage in his heart.

To his right, south, six horsemen now appeared, riding quickly. He looked back again and saw another group rise up, like wraiths, from two depressions he had not noticed in the level plain. These figures, armed with bows and swords, began walking steadily towards him, not hurrying. On the wall-walk of the ranch he saw a dozen or so people appear, also armed.

It seemed a good time to sheath his sword. The four horsemen left to him hastily did the same. The remaining runners straggled up, one clutching an injured shoulder. The bowmen from the hollows surrounded them as the six riders drew near, and Garcia saw then, with disgust, that they were mostly boys. It gave him a flicker of hope, though.

“Dismount,” said a well-built, brown-haired boy.

“Not until you say why you have just killed visitors without provocation,” Garcia temporized, his voice stern and repressive. “What sort of conduct is that?”

The boy so addressed blinked, as if in surprise. Then he nodded his head briefly. Three archers shot Garcia’s horse from under him. Kicking his feet out of the stirrups, de Rada leaped free just in time to avoid being crushed by the falling horse. He stumbled to one knee in the wet grass.

“I don’t like having to kill horses,” the boy said calmly. “But I can’t remember the last time visitors approached us unannounced at full gallop with swords drawn.” He paused, then smiled thinly. The smile was oddly familiar. “What sort of conduct is that?”

Garcia de Rada could think of nothing to say. He looked around. They had been bested by children and stable hands and it hadn’t even been a fight.

The boy who was evidently leader here glanced at Garcia’s riders. With unbecoming celerity they threw down their weapons and sprang from their mounts.

“Let’s go,” said a second boy.

Garcia glanced over at him, and then quickly back at the first one. The same face, exactly. And now he realized where he had seen that smile before.

“Are you Belmonte’s sons?” he asked, trying to control his voice.

“I wouldn’t bother with questions, were I you,” said the second boy. “I’d spend my time preparing answers. My mother will want to speak with you.”

Which was an answer to his question, of course, but Garcia decided it would be unwise to point that out. Someone gestured with a sword and Garcia began walking towards the compound. As he approached he realized, belatedly, that the figures on the wall holding bows and spears were women. One of them, wearing a man’s overtunic and breeches, with mud stains on her cheeks and forehead, came along the wall-walk to stand above them, looking down. She had long, dark brown hair under a leather hat. She held a bow with an arrow nocked.

“Fernan, please tell me who this sorry figure is.” Her voice was crisp in the grey stillness.

“Yes, Mother. I believe it is Ser Garcia de Rada. The constable’s brother.” It was the first of the boys who answered, the leader.
“Is it so?” the woman said icily. “If he is indeed of rank I will consent to speak with him.” She looked directly at Garcia.

This was the woman he had been imagining pinned and naked beneath him since they’d left Orvilla. He stood in the wet grass, water seeping through his split boot, and looked up at her. He swallowed. She was indeed very beautiful, even in man’s garb and stained with mud. That was, for the moment, the least of his concerns.

“Ser Garcia, you will explain yourself,” she said to him. “In few words and very precisely.”

The arrogance was galling, bitter as a wound. Garcia de Rada had always been quick-witted though, nor was he a coward. This was a bad situation, but no worse in its way than Orvilla had been, and he was back in Valledo now, among civilized people.

“I have a grievance with your husband,” he said levelly. “He took horses belonging to my men and myself in Al-Rassan. We were coming to square that account.”

“What were you doing in Al-Rassan?” she asked. He hadn’t expected that.

He cleared his throat. “A raiding party. Among the infidels.”

“If you met Rodrigo you must have been near Fezana, then.”

How did a woman know these things? “Somewhat near,” Garcia agreed. He was becoming a little uneasy.

“Then Rodrigo was dealing with you as the king’s officer responsible for protecting that territory in exchange for the parias. On what basis do you claim a right to steal our horses?”

Garcia found himself unable, for the moment, to speak.

“Further, if you were captured and released without your mounts you will have given him your parole in exchange for a ransom to be determined by the heralds at court. Is that not so?”

It would have been pleasant to be able to deny this, but he could only nod.

“Then you have broken your oath by coming here, have you not?” The woman’s voice was flat, her gaze implacable. This was becoming ridiculous. Garcia’s temper flared.

“Your husband ordered a cousin of mine slain, after we surrendered and sued for ransom!”

“Ah. So it is more than horses and armor, is it?” The woman on the wall smiled grimly. “Would it not be the king’s task to judge whether his officer exceeded authority, Ser Garcia?” Her formality, in the circumstances, felt like mockery. He had never in his life been so spoken to by a woman.

“A man who slays a de Rada must answer for it,” he said, glaring up at her, using his coldest voice.

“I see,” the woman said, undisturbed. “So you came here to make him answer for it. How?”

He hesitated. “The horses,” he replied finally.

“Just the horses?” And abruptly he realized where this questioning was going. “Then why were you riding towards these walls, Ser Garcia? The horses are pastured south of us; they are not hard to see.”

“I am tired of answering questions,” Garcia de Rada said, with as much dignity as he could manage. “I have surrendered and so have my men. I am content to let the king’s heralds in Esteren determine fair ransom.”

“You already agreed to that in Al-Rassan with Rodrigo, yet you are here with drawn swords and ill intent. I regret to say I cannot accept your parole. And tired or not, you will answer my question. Why were you riding towards these walls, young fellow?”

It was a deliberate insult. Humiliated, seething with rage, Garcia de Rada looked up at the woman on the wall above him, and said, “Your husband must learn that there is a price to be paid for certain kinds of action.”

There was a murmur from the boys and ranch hands. It fell away into silence. The woman only nodded her head, as if this was what she had been waiting to hear.

“And that price was to have been exacted by you?” she asked calmly.

Garcia said nothing.

“Might I guess further, that it was to have been exacted upon myself and my sons?”

There was silence in the space before the walls. Overhead the clouds were beginning to lift and scatter as a breeze came up.

“He had a lesson to learn,” said Garcia de Rada grimly.

She shot him then. Lifting the man’s bow smoothly, drawing and releasing in one motion, with considerable grace. An arrow in the throat.

“A lesson to learn,” said Miranda Belmonte d’Alveda, thoughtfully, looking down from the wall at the man she had killed.
“The rest of you may go,” she added, a moment later. “Start walking. You will not be harmed. You may give report in Esteren that I have executed an oath-breaker and a common brigand who threatened a Valledan woman and her children. I will make answer directly to the king should he wish me to do so. Say that in Esteren. Diego, Fernan, collect their mounts and arms. Some of the horses look decent enough.”

“I don’t think Father would have wanted you to shoot him,” Fernan ventured hesitantly.

“Be silent. When I wish the opinions of my child I will solicit them,” his mother said icily. “And your father may consider himself fortunate if I do not loose a like arrow at him when he ventures to return. Now do what I told you.”

“Yes, Mother,” said her two sons, as one.

As the boys and ranch hands hastened to do her bidding and Garcia de Rada’s surviving companions began stumbling away to the west, the afternoon sun broke through the clouds overhead and the green grass grew bright, wet with rain in the branching light.

© Guy Gavriel Kay

 

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