Dawn found them both somewhat stiff, but otherwise ready to face the day.
Madoc, chewing thoughtfully on a bite of sausage, flexed his left hand slowly. “That’s strange,” he said, once he’d swallowed. “It doesn’t hurt. At all. Not numb or anything, it just feels… normal, I guess.”
Tyrel finished the last of his bread and rearranged himself so he could reach.
He unwrapped the bandage around his brother’s arm cautiously, but with increasing perplexity. The last of it came free, baring the unmarked skin of Madoc’s upper arm. Only the dark dried bloodstains on the bandage, and the lingering traces on Madoc’s arm, proved that it had ever been wounded—and judging by the amount of blood on the bandage, it had been a messy one.
“What the hell…?” Madoc stared at his arm. Slowly, he flexed his hand again, then his arm. “This makes no sense. It bit me, I know it did.”
“Apparently the damage it inflicts doesn’t last much longer than its body after it’s killed,” Tyrel said.
“You think that’s it? I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
“Neither have I, but it’s all I can think of to explain this. I wonder if there’s anything in Forester lore about this kind of thing.”
“Well, let’s get going, so we can get home and see what we can learn.” Tyrel paused in the middle of shoving leftovers back into his pack. “This couldn’t be part of the whole testing thing, could it? Some kind of ghost animal ambush thing to see how we react?”
“That’s a thought. Maybe that’s it. If so, well, we won last night, that’s gotta look good.”
Banvard proved to be a bit farther, and a bit more inaccessible, than they had thought. The track turned, at points, into a narrow trail hugging a steep hillside, much of it washed away by erosion. In other places, they found themselves climbing more than walking.
Finally, they stopped to consider the palisades of Banvard, and the gates—or rather, gate, since one half lay on the ground, and the remaining one was somewhat crooked on its hinges. The buildings visible beyond had been battered hard, first by the fall of the fort, more recently by the weather and lack of maintenance. Warily, they ventured inside, scouting the area without going into any of the dilapidated and probably unsafe buildings.
“Layouts haven’t changed much,” Madoc observed. “Same thing we’re used to. That’d be the Hall, there’s the kitchens and storage and all, quarters are over that way, smithy and stables and kennels and thrall barracks right there.”
Tyrel nodded. “So that would be the armoury, the Chief’s quarters would be the building there. The sentry towers look rough and the walk between’s worse, no going up there. Bathhouse doesn’t look too bad, though, all things considered. So at sunset we come back in here and… what then?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Just go with whatever happens, I guess. Let’s hope these ghosts actually show up. How are we supposed to explain it if we go home with nothing?”
“Well, since we aren’t going to get any sleep tonight, and we’re going to have to start hiking home in the morning without much of a break, we may as well take it easy until sunset.”
They found a spot just inside the gates to settle down. Time passed with excruciating slowness, with nothing to do but wait, check the condition of their weapons, eat lightly, and take turns catnapping.
The instant the sun slipped below the horizon, they both heard faint echoes of sounds, familiar ones, the sounds of an active living fort.
“I think it may be time,” Tyrel said, gathering up their packs and tucking them out of the way against the wall.
As the sky darkened, the sounds increased in volume. The buildings, the supports of the sentry walks, the palisade walls, even the destroyed gates, looked less derelict with every passing moment, and the vague outlines of human figures moved between them, indistinct but growing clearer.
Madoc checked that his sica would come free easily, and tugged the leather and bronze glove over his left hand, fastening the buckles. “Just in case,” he muttered. “I don’t know if bronze will work on them if there’s any problem, but it’s worth a try.”
Staying always within arm’s reach of each other, a habit so old it hardly needed any thought, they ventured deeper into the fort again, avoiding the transparent human shapes.
“Hall?” Tyrel suggested. Madoc nodded.
The main doors of the Hall, which by daylight had been decaying and scarred by axe and fire, were now intact. Tyrel removed his left hand from the hilt of his smaller katar and pulled one door open.
Voices, laughter, the rattle of dishes, all greeted them. Apparently, the warriors of Banvard were having a meal. At the far end, at the row of tables that ran crosswise to the rest, was an imposing male figure, more solid-looking than the rest, who laid down his knife to watch them.
“I think that’s the Chief,” Tyrel murmured. “He’s the first one to actually see us, too. Well, I suppose we’d better go pay our respects. Or something.”
Silence fell as they passed the tables of the warriors, more and more half-visible gazes focusing on them. Tyrel felt the back of his neck prickle; he hated having anyone of unknown intent behind him, even though he knew beyond any doubt that Madoc would leave him to deal with the ghostly Chief and would keep all his own attention on watching their backs.
Tyrel stopped a short distance in front of the Chief, and sketched a cautious bow, never entirely lowering his gaze. “Sir.” Madoc took up his usual position, at his left and just behind, having echoed the bow.
“Give your name and business,” the Chief said. His voice had an odd resonance to it, a strange thinness even though it was perfectly clear.
“I am Tyrel of Dunnval. This is my shieldmate Madoc. My father is Chief, I’m his eldest legitimate son, and he sent me here for your approval as heir to Dunnval.”
“You bring into my very Hall someone who is not human, and you expect my approval?”
Tyrel blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. The Foresters are human, and Madoc’s only half, anyway.”
The Chief made a dismissive gesture. “Of course they are, and their so-called magic is trivial. That is not what I mean. You brought, here, and call your shieldmate, an abomination.” The Chief rose to his feet, fists resting on the table. “And you have the nerve to seek my approval to lead a fort?”
“Madoc is my brother! What are you talking about?”
“’Rel,” Madoc murmured. “Amarog.”
“We were attacked last night by some sort of spirit beast that bit my brother, could that be what…”
The Chief cut him off, his voice cold and flat and remote. “Kill them.”
There really wasn’t any need to formulate a response to that. They were hugely outnumbered, and Tyrel discovered in seconds that while their weapons could deflect those of the ghost warriors, they couldn’t wound or kill the attackers. The ghostly weapons connected, never drawing blood but leaving pain and weakness where they scored.
They were closer to the door to the kitchen than to the main doors; they fought to reach it, desperately blocking attacks. Tyrel yanked Madoc through and slammed the door, and together they dragged a heavy table in front of it.
The kitchen was deserted. At least the ghosts of the fort’s thralls weren’t trapped here after death. They paused by the far door.
“They’re going to come through that any minute,” Madoc said. “We have to get out of the fort.”
“Make a run for it,” Tyrel panted. “We can’t stand and fight. Out the door and run for the gates, don’t stop.”
Madoc nodded, laid his gloved hand on the handle of the outer door. “Ready? Go!”
At least outside they had more room to manoeuvre, although the ghost warriors still swarmed them.
“Just push through them,” Madoc shouted. “They can’t actually stop you, just hit you!”
That turned out to be true: if they couldn’t actually wound the ghost warriors, neither did the ghost warriors actually have enough substance to physically block their way.
Tyrel staggered and dropped to one knee, struggling to clear the fog of pain and weakness from his mind and gather enough energy to figure out which way to go. Madoc heaved him to his feet and pulled him in the right direction, sica glinting in the light of rising greengold half-full Sanur and high nearly-full yellow Talir.
“Almost,” Madoc grunted. “Come on, ‘Rel, get it together. This is no time to faint like a thrall.”
Tyrel shook his head hard, blinked at the gates twenty feet from them, and swore viciously. “They’re locked! Bar’s down!”
The gates were sure to be solid, the way the Hall door had been. And he could see sentries along the walks with bows. They couldn’t parry those, and wouldn’t have time to heave the bar free. No way out… what were they going to do?
Tyrel ducked under a swung axe, dodged around a sword, and bolted for their packs. Madoc was somehow withstanding the ghost attacks better. Tyrel only hoped his brother could manage for a moment longer. He heard Madoc shout a challenge and a taunt at one of the ghosts, probably drawing its attention back to himself to give Tyrel the time he needed.
Tyrel skidded to his knees beside their packs and dug frantically through them for the oil and the pouch of protection herbs. Sudden cold flashes of pain and numbness told him the archers were targeting him, but he gritted his teeth and clung to the task at hand. He had to lay both katari aside to dump the powdered herbs into the oil; his hands were shaking and he spilled some, but enough made it into the oil that he hoped it would work. With his palm over the mouth of the flask, he shook it vigorously, then grabbed his larger katar and poured oil along the edges of the blade.
He pivoted on one knee, and saw, without surprise, a quartet of ghost warriors approaching. Heart pounding, he waited for them to come in reach, fumbling the stopper back into the flask to keep from spilling it. If this worked, that oil was worth their lives.
The first ghost in range he slashed across the thighs with the treated blade, drawing a scream of astonishment and pain.
“Oh, that’s better,” he panted, getting to his feet. “Bring it on. Let’s see how brave you are when you can be hurt.”
A few more wounds made the ghost warriors distinctly more wary and uncertain, which bought Tyrel time to reach Madoc.
“Here, put this on the edge of your sword and on your claws. It hurts them.”
“Wondered what the screaming was,” Madoc said. “You watching?”
“Do it.” Tyrel watched all directions, blocking attacks, while Madoc anointed his weapons. “We need to get under cover somewhere we can defend, and wait for sunrise. Thrall barracks.”
“Where’s your other katar?”
“Not enough hands. Leave it. Go. We’ve got to get there before they get over being surprised.”
The thrall barracks was a single building, sturdily constructed of mortared stone for the lower three feet of the walls, reinforced wood above that, with only narrow horizontal slits for windows just below the eaves. Within were two-tiered bunks for thralls to sleep in and very basic sanitary facilities. It had only one door, which could be barred from the outside only. Still, since the building during the daytime had been anything but secure, at most they could be confined for the rest of the night.
Madoc pulled the door closed. Tyrel heard him moving, but there was no light at all in here. “I put oil across the doorway,” Madoc said. “Let’s see if that keeps them out.”
They waited in silence, weapons ready, to see if the ghost warriors came after them. After a moment, they relaxed somewhat.
“We just might live until morning after all,” Madoc said. “Which leaves us with the question of what just happened. Has he gone insane? Of course I’m human.”
Tyrel groped for one of the bunks and sat down on the bottom one, hoping his head would clear now that the attacks had halted. “I don’t know,” he said wearily. “I’m just glad they can’t reach us right now.”
“What’s the matter with you, anyway? Since when do you almost faint in the middle of a fight?”
“Possibly since getting thumped by ghosts and feeling weaker with every hit?”
Madoc didn’t answer for so long Tyrel said his name questioningly.
“’Rel, what does it feel like to you when a ghost hits you?”
“Cold. Numb. Painful. Weakness right around the spot, but spreading. Pain stops pretty fast, the rest doesn’t.”
More silence, then, “Funny, I got all of that but the weakness, and all of it started to fade pretty fast. Well, I got a bit of it while we were in the Hall, maybe, but nothing after we got outside…” He trailed off. Probably no one but Tyrel would have recognized uncertainty under the almost conversational tone.
“Maybe ghosts can’t affect Foresters as much,” Tyrel suggested.
“Maybe.” Madoc didn’t sound convinced.
“We’ll get all this sorted out. Somehow.”
“No,” Madoc said softly. Tyrel sensed him close at hand, then felt the bunk shift as Madoc carefully sat beside him. “It isn’t going to get all sorted out. Even if we live through tonight, we failed. For whatever crazy reason, Banvard’s Chief is trying to kill us rather than giving you his blessing. This isn’t some kind of test. We’ve failed, and we don’t even know how, but somehow it has something to do with me.”
“Then we’ll go…” Tyrel started, and stopped, hearing a thump, then a couple more. “Oh, not the roof.”
“Yeah, the roof,” Madoc said grimly. “And if we go out the door, we’ll walk right into a welcoming party, guaranteed.”
“Give me the oil so I can do my knife and make sure there’s still enough on my katar. They won’t be able to make a very large hole, let’s see if we can welcome them when they come through.”
As best they could in the blackness, freshly-oiled weapons at the ready, they tracked the multiple sets of footsteps on the wooden roof.
“Pry-bar,” Madoc whispered, when someone above grunted and wood groaned. Moonlight trickled through the hole, and less completely through the ghost warrior who had just pried loose a roof board. A second board followed, and the ghost looked downward, scanning the interior of the building.
Madoc lunged upwards with his sica; the ghost warrior yelled in pain and fell away from the hole. The pry-bar clattered down into the building.
Cautiously, Tyrel picked it up. It felt solid, though cold, and seemed to be simply a bar of heavy bronze flattened on one end. He tapped it against a bunk, and it made a satisfying thunk. “I wonder if something of their own can hurt them.”
“Worth a try,” Madoc said. “Better reach than your knife.”
Shadows moved between them and the rectangle of open sky. “Back,” Tyrel murmured. “Before they drop anything on us.”
Sure enough, archers peppered the area below with arrows. Tyrel and Madoc stayed back out of reach, crouched and sheltered behind bunks, until the hail ended.
There appeared to be an argument going on up there. Maybe the ghost warriors were reluctant to expose themselves to any more pain. No wonder they fell, Tyrel thought scornfully.
“Do you feel anything?” Madoc whispered, close to his ear.
“Opposite. I feel… good. Not tired at all.”
“We’re cornered by ghosts that outnumber us and want to kill us, and you feel good?” Tyrel hissed.
“I know. Makes no sense. Why are you staring at me like that?”
Tyrel licked suddenly dry lips, thinking of an amarog whose eyes had held the topaz light of Talir. “Nothing. Later. Can you actually see?”
“Yeah, there’s lots of moonlight. Sanur’s bright tonight.”
Sanur, who was the golden-green of a cat’s eyes. And Madoc’s eyes shone faintly with their own light in the deep shadows, or perhaps with Sanur’s light.
What had that amarog done to Madoc, that the ghost Chief had seen?