The forester stopped in his tracks, a scowl on his face black enough to shatter rock. His halt was so sudden that the young squire following behind almost ran into him, then stumbled in the act of stopping and fell against the man's broad, cloaked back. The forester grunted with the impact, then half-turned and steadied the boy by firmly clamping a hand in the front of his collar.
"Blast it, Tonam, can't you even walk without crashing into people?"
"I'm sorry, Lukas, but you stopped so suddenly, and..."
Tonam's voice trailed off before the bearded, elder man's glare, but the forester could not similarly intimidate the leader of the little party, for all that she was but a year older than Tonam's fourteen.
"Why did you stop?" she snapped bluntly--but then, Princess Sari of Satera was never other than blunt. A tall girl with a pretty but sharp-featured face and brown hair pulled back in a utilitarian ponytail, she had been placed in command of the little patrol as part of her training in weaponcraft and leadership alike. Because of her youth, the veteran forester had been assigned to lend his experience to the girl, but Lukas's repeated impatience with the squire had steadily annoyed Sari.
It was the fourth and final member of the patrol who answered, saying mildly, "I believe that it was the smoke." Mira the technician, commander of the two small Gunbots that escorted the patrol, pointed towards the horizon, where several plumes rose into a cloud.
"It's coming from the village," Lukas agreed grimly. "This is trouble."
"Oh, no! Kestra!" Tonam exclaimed, as well he should, for he hailed from the village of Kestra, entering service as a soldier only after his mother's death. It was his local knowledge that had added him to this patrol.
"Let's go," Sari ordered. "I don't know what caused those fires, but whatever it was, the village could always use four more sets of hands."
They didn't quite run, but their travel was quicktime from that point. In just under an hour they'd reached the village. A couple of the wooden houses were already smoldering ruins, having burned down during the march. Another collapsed in on itself before their eyes in a great shower of crashing timbers and spraying sparks. Villagers ran to and fro, bearing buckets of water to extinguish flames and attempting to beat out the fires where they could still be controlled.
"Come on!" snapped the princess. She had a fearlessness about her that was part youth and part born of the knowledge of her own not inconsiderable abilities. "We have to help."
The four of them rushed into the town, diving in wherever the need took them, whether it be water-bearing or more direct acts of valor in fighting the flames. Sari herself found herself playing herdswoman, rushing into a burning barn and leading the panicked animals out to safety. By the time all the flames were out the four were black with smoke, clothes dirty and torn, and more than one burnt. Tonam had the worst injuries, which was by no means a surprise given his occasionally shaky coordination, and Sari gave him a dose of healing Monomate to treat his hurts.
There were injuries among the villagers as well, and deaths, too, more than a capable village should have suffered.
"Too many," Sari said grimly.
"Not all injuries from the fire, either, I'll wager," Lukas agreed with equal grimness.
"We'd better get the story. Hey! Where's the reeve of this village?" Sari called.
"I'm Varl, the reeve," said a big man in his forties with a ruddy face and ample paunch. "We appreciate the help all of you gave in our troubles, but just who are you to be barking orders in my village?"
"We're a royal patrol," Lukas said, "and this is the Princess Sari, Queen Lena's heir."
Dryly, Mira added, "I assume that you can see why she might be used to giving orders?"
Varl had the grace to look embarrassed.
"I'm sorry, your Highness; we--"
"Forget it," she dismissed the matter. Sari never stood on ceremony and never held it against anyone if they didn't knuckle under to her rank. Indeed, she often thought worse of people if they did. "Just tell me what's been happening here. How did so many of you come to be hurt, and how did the fire start?"
"Both of those questions have the same answer, your Highness--"
"Sari. I'll put up with that 'your Highness' crap at court, but not out here in the world."
The reeve gulped, and nervously mopped his brow, the handkerchief coming away with dark soot-stains. Inwardly, Sari groaned. She hadn't wanted to scare the man, just move him past the bowing and scraping so he could tell his tale concisely, but all it had really accomplished was to make him afraid of the anger of the heir to the throne. It was times like this that she really wished she'd been born a simple soldier instead of as royalty.
"Yes, yo-Sari, I mean. Kestra was attacked by a bandit, a Layan accompanied by monsters!"
One thousand years ago, the Layans and Sari's own Orakian people had fought a war of mutual hatred and devastation. The marriage of Rhys, Prince of Satera's neighbor kingdom of Landen, to a Layan princess from the world of Aquatica had opened a lot of people's eyes to the fact that the Layans weren't demons of legend but people. Layan merchants and travelers now were not an unknown sight in the towns of Landen and Satera.
Which didn't mean that Layans couldn't be criminals. That was also part of that 'Layans are people too' analysis.
"You said he had monsters with him?"
"That's right. Three of them, like our local moos but dark blue in coloration."
"Fearmoos, then," Sari noted. She was familiar with the bestiary of almost all monster types in her own world and Aquatica alike. A moos was a humanoid creature, with a stocky torso, hoofed feet, and a long, muzzle-like head crowned with antlers. The more powerful fearmoos was often used as a guard creature by Layan rulers in Aquatica, for with the mysterious power they called "techniques," Layans could command the obedience of the monsters they bred, not unlike the way Orakians could build and command cyborgs with the technology left to them from the Devastation War.
This was especially important because of Orakio's Law and Laya's Law, twin edicts passed down to the warring peoples by their leaders before their final battle--orders not to kill each other. Those laws had nearly been bent out of shape, in Sari's opinion; custom agreed that it was fine for Layans to have monsters kill Orakians and for Orakians to have cyborgs kill Layans, just not to do it personally.
"He was a tall man with long blue hair and a gold cloak," the reeve continued. "He strolled into the village square, bold as brass, and demanded a ransom in meseta to spare us. The monsters used their Foi attacks against us, breathing fire! Several were hurt or killed and more than one building alight when we surrendered. We gave him whatever we could find, and he went in and out of several buildings himself, looting everything small and valuable he could lay hands on. It was nearly four thousand meseta he took from us, leaving not long before you came."
Sari offered her opinion of the bandit with a few choice words more generally associated with sailors and army barracks than princesses. He'd no doubt traveled from Aquatica and was using his powerful monsters--much stronger than the cyborgs the Saterans used--to pillage a few hamlets, then flee from justice back to his home world.
"Lukas, can you track this worm?"
"Traveling with three moos? It'll be like taking a road."
"Good. I think we need to show this bandit what we do with guests who abuse Sateran hospitality. Don't worry, Varl; we'll catch this raider and get your money back." She glanced around the smoking rubble that marred Kestra. "I only wish there was a way to repair the damage."
"I'm just glad only four lives were lost. That's four too many, but it could have been much, much worse."
"Excuse me, Varl?" spoke up a nearby villager, "but there's one unaccounted for. So far, there's no sign of Glovre."
"It's true. We thought he'd be sure to show up when his own house caught fire, but even then there was no sign of the old skinflint. Would have served him right if we'd let it burn to the ground, since he didn't care."
"He owned the apothecary's shop, selling medicine, antidotes, and teleportation escapipes." Varl pointed to the scorched but still intact two-story building, the sign over the door bearing the icon of a wooden keg. Typically, the shop was on the first floor and the storekeeper's home above.
"Old buzzard," the unnamed villager commented dryly.
"And he's not here now, either?" Sari asked.
"No, he isn't."
"Did you go inside to fight the fire?"
"No; it was completely put out from the outside. There was no call to go in."
"Then we'd better go check. You may have five dead instead of four."
As she'd expected, they found the corpse on the second floor, the body of a withered old man in his sixties wearing an expensive tunic and trousers.
"Is that him?"
"Yes, it's Glovre."
Just another tragedy, Sari thought at first sight. There was no wound that she could see and no sign that he'd been burned, so she assumed that either Glovre had choked to death on the smoke or that fear and shock had caused his heart to give out. Then she took a second look, and her gut twisted in revulsion. A long, trailing line of cloth was twined around his throat like a scarf, but it was pulled far too tight.
"This isn't just a death," she said. "It's a killing."
Varl scowled and Tonam blanched at her words. Lukas knelt down by the body and began to unwind the cloth.
"Looks like a sash," he said, running it through his hands. "Probably his own; there are plenty of clothes in this room and the chests are open. You're right, Sari; he was strangled."
It was obvious, now, the staring eyes, the swollen, blackened tongue, and the white stripes of flesh with red welts at their edges where the soot that darkened his face and throat had rubbed off on the inside of the strangling sash.
"Well, that's another crime on the head of that Layan scum," Varl said. "I hadn't realized that he'd gone so far as to take life with his own hands."
"They don't have Orakio's Law," Tonam pointed out.
"Laya's Law, to them, but it's the same thing," Mira reminded him. "This raider is a criminal by the rules of our society and his own alike, a violator of the most sacred laws."
"Let's go," Sari said. "We need to make sure that this is his last raid."
They left the hamlet straight off; as Lukas had suggested it was all but effortless to follow the trail left by the bandit and his fearmoos. The only real issue was what would happen when they caught up. The trail ran westerly, into the wooded foothills, and twilight began to gather. With the Layan's head start, the pursuers would only be able to catch him when he stopped to make camp. The monsters would no doubt be on guard. It would be hard to surprise the murdering invader.
The settling night made a difference, too. Like animals, monsters generally had better hearing and smell than humans, and often enhanced night-vision as well.
"Mira, have the cyborgs flank Lukas on point," Sari said.
"Why?" She was already signaling the command as she asked, so it wasn't a challenge but a question.
"They've got low-light and infrared vision, don't they?"
"Optical sensors, the technician corrected absentmindedly, "but yes. Oh, I see--so we aren't surprised."
"Right. I don't want to find the fearmoos when they're leaping on top of us. And there's the wild monsters, too, chirpers, moos, and eindons."
"The tracks are getting fresher," Lukas cut in. "We're starting to gain time, so he's probably stopped and set up camp. I hope he's dumb enough to build a fire."
He wasn't, but Lukas's awareness of how fresh the tracks were, the gunbots' enhanced optics, and the lucky fact that they were downwind of the Layan's camp all combined to let the pursuers know where their quarry was before they were noticed in turn.
"Lukas, Mira, mass fire on that fearmoos," Sari murmured her orders. "I want at least one of them down before we close. Tonam and I will make our move when you open fire. Tonam, just make sure not to cross their fire lines when you go."
Drawing his needler, a short gun that fired clusters of steel darts in an expanding cone-shaped pattern, Lukas nodded. Mira's weapon was much like it but a lighter model meant for hunting--but then, she had the cyborgs to do her serious fighting for her. Sari wielded two fine quality steel knives, and Tonam a short sword.
"On your signal," the princess told Mira.
The two gunbots fired, their Foi weapons launching small bursts of energy at their target. The fearmoos was rocked backward by the shots and by the needler assault that followed on its heels; the monster bellowed an alarm of rage that was taken up by its fellows.
Sari was on the second monster before it had the chance to react to the situation, let alone deal damage. Dodging its flailing claws, her blades found the weak points in its tough hide. Roaring, it opened its mouth and unleashed its devastating Foi breath, a spewed stream of fire. Sari, though, was prepared; although the fearmoos was much more powerful than the common moos that ran wild in Satera its behavior was much the same and the princess knew its cues. She ducked the flames, then took advantage of her dive to hamstring the monster's left leg, then roll to her feet behind it as it stumbled. Sari drove both knives down hard into the thing's back, severing the spine and piercing vital organs. The former was vital; monsters could be uncannily tough, but they could not indulge in a dying struggle if brain was not connected to limbs.
Which was when she heard a shouted word, some nonsense that must have been a proper name, and a wave of pressure slammed into her, knocking her off her feet and smashing her into the ground. It was Gra, she realized dizzily, an attack technique, one of the strange powers of Layan blood.
All around her, Sari saw, her companions had been hit by the same attack. Although two fearmoos were down, the third spat flame, and a gunbot was shattered. The other cyborg had been destroyed by the Gra attack.
"So, the little Orakian sheep have horns after all," sneered the Layan. It was too dark to see him clearly, but he wore a mantle-like cape in some light hue over his clothing and carried two short staves, a typical weapon of Layan men. "But that's all you are, sheep for the shearing. Since King Lyle won't approve any raids against the worms of Agoe, I've had to venture here beyond his reach to better my fortune."
He chortled, the sound of it working Sari into a fury. The bandit was so sure of himself that he was prancing and posturing instead of fighting. That infuriated her--in fact, it utterly offended her, not just being underrated but the thought of being beaten by someone with such a huge hole in his defenses.
She didn't leap to her feet but instead rolled along the ground, a more difficult target for him, then sprang up near the fearmoos. As she did, she was joined by Lukas, who'd abandoned his needler for two sturdy hunting knives. They struck out as one, cutting down the last of the Layan defenders.
This time it was Zan, drills of wind cutting into them, slashing armor and clothing, cutting into flesh and once again flattening the two Orakian fighters. He was ready with a follow-up, but before he could launch it at his fallen foes, a spray of needles from Mira's weapon struck him. His mantle turned most of them aside, but the distraction let Sari get enough breath back to sit up. The Layan was ready to counter before she could even think of doing anything else, but once again he was interrupted.
Tonam's howling battle cry was more effective than the boy's actual attack. His charge was more of a lurching stagger, for the Gra had obviously hurt him, but it got the Layan's attention. The brigand spun ninety degrees away from Sari, and the princess made her move. Ignoring the pain of her injuries, the bruised muscles and slashed flesh, she was on her feet and moving fast.
The bandit's Foi technique blew Tonam off his feet and sent him flying six feet backwards through the air, carrying not just heat but explosive force. Sari was on him, then, her attack denying him the moments of concentration he needed to call upon his power. He was a powerful tech-user, but no expert fighter; even with his staves' superior reach and Sari's injuries the princess easily struck aside his guard, parried his laughably weak riposte, and punched him in the face with her knife-hilt, breaking his nose.
She could have killed him, but Orakio's Law actually meant something to her. She wouldn't kill another human in battle. Nor did she have to, when she could use expertly-placed strikes to stretch him out unconscious at her feet.
"Strip him of armor and weapons, truss him, and gag him," she ordered. "We'll haul him back home. Maybe Mother can use his crimes to gouge some new trade concessions out of Shusoran."
"Practical," Lukas said approvingly.
"Sari, I need a Monomate!" Mira called. "Tonam's hurt badly! I think he'll die if he doesn't get help, and I used the last of my medicines in the village!"
Sari shook her head.
"I don't think so."
"What?" exclaimed the usually calm technician. "Sari, you can't"
The princess walked over and dropped to her knees on the other side of the badly injured squire.
"I'm not going to dishonor his choice."
"What are you talking about?"
Ignoring Mira, Sari looked down at the boy.
"Why did you do it?"
"Had...to keep him...from killing you." Bloody froth bubbled at his lips when he spoke. "And...for..."
"No, I know all about that. I mean, back at the village."
"Greedy viper...good as killed...my mother. Called in...loan even though...she was...sick. She...paid...so we...wouldn't lose house. No money...left to pay...healer."
Mira looked back and forth between Tonam and Sari in amazement.
"Found him...packing up, not...helping fight the...fire. Trying to save...his belongings. Just...saw...red."
The squire's eyes closed, and his body sagged limply as all the tension left it.
"I'll tell Mother, of course. She'll need to know what our prisoner did and didn't do when she decides what happens to him. For the rest, just leave it that Tonam died in battle. It's true enough--and it's one violation of Laya's Law that filth actually did commit, for all that Tonam helped him along to it. At least the kid had a reason; our prisoner just hates Orakians and likes money."
"But...I don't understand," Mira protested. "I just thought Tonam was trying to be a hero. How did you know that he'd killed Glovre and was trying to atone?"
"I knew he'd killed Glovre because the bandit hadn't. Remember, Glovre's neck was soot-stained under the sash? He'd had time to be caught in the smoke and ash for a while before being strangled. The bandit had come and gone, but the village had spent the better part of two hours in firefighting."
"Why Tonam, though?" Lukas asked his first question. "Why not another villager? Why not Mira, or me?"
Sari got to her feet, reflecting that she could do with a Monomate or even a Dimate herself; she hurt from head to toe and it was only getting worse as the excitement of the battle ebbed. The others probably felt the same, especially the forester.
"It was a hunch," she admitted. "I figured a villager could have done it, but was more likely to care about saving the hamlet--his or her home, family, and livelihood--than settling old scores. Orakio's Law gets broken what, maybe once a year in the entire city of Satera? What were the odds that we'd show up just in time for a murder in a village of less than a hundred people? It could have been you or Mira, but Tonam was originally from Kestra, so he'd be the most likely to have a motive to kill a Kestran."
"You didn't say anything right away."
"Hey, I didn't get it all worked out until we were halfway here. I'm not exactly an expert at that kind of thing. It wasn't until he made that charge, practically begging the eindon-spawn to kill him, that I knew for sure."
"You still should have brought him back for a trial," Mira reproved.
Sari turned to her, eyes hard. She looked a lot older than fifteen to the technician just then.
"Mira, I know I don't like to make an issue of it. Orakio's blood, I hate making an issue of it, but I am the Princess of Satera. The only authority the courts have is what my mother grants them. In Queen Lena's absence, I rule. The penalty for breaking Orakio's Law is, as you well know, death. It's the ultimate treason against Orakio himself, not just the crown." She gave her ponytail a vicious yank in frustration with trying to explain. "Tonam chose what form he wanted that penalty to take and saved all our lives doing it. He'd given up the right to live, but his own choice of end...it was the only reward I had the power to give for our salvation."