Violet spoke up suddenly. “It happened here, in our house. And also in the stronghold of those scum across the river.”
Yambu turned to her. “Here and there? I don’t quite-?”
“Have you ever heard of the magical weapon called Farslayer, or the Sword of Vengeance?” Bonar’s question came out in a bitter monotone, between clenched teeth.
Zoltan had to make an effort to keep himself from flashing Yambu a sudden, almost triumphant look of understanding. But he kept his eyes on Bonar. “Yes,” he said. “I have heard of it.”
“Good. Then you will understand. Our two clans, neither leaving its own stronghold, fought the whole battle with that single weapon.” Bonar’s gesture was an aborted movement of one hand, directed toward the tables and their burdens. “My own father lies here, and two of my uncles. And-” For a moment it seemed that the new chief of the Malolo clan might be about to break down and weep.
Rose, who was now bearing up better than before, took over the job of adding details. She related in a muddled way how, a month ago, the people of this clan and those across the river, each at the time locked into their own fortress, had engaged at long range in an hour or more of terrible slaughter.
Zoltan nodded. “There’s no doubt about it being Farslayer, then. Of course. And you just kept casting it back and forth …”
“Yes,” said Bonar. “Yes. I’ll see them all dead yet.”
“And where is the Sword now?” the Lady Yambu asked.
“We don’t know,” said Violet. “We haven’t seen it since that night. For a while we thought that our cousin Cosmo had taken it to the enemy. But many days have passed now, almost a month, and no more of us has been struck down.”
There was a silence in the room. Everyone was looking thoughtfully at the bodies.
“Well, if your enemies have the Sword, they are hesitating to use it,” Yambu agreed at last. “But where did it come from on that night of slaughter? Did the enemy have it first, or you?”
None of the household’s survivors could offer a certain explanation of how the fight had started. But when the Sword struck its first victim in this house, a number of people had been on hand who could recognize the magical weapon for what it was, and explain its dreadfully simple use to the others. Almost immediately everyone had known how to use it to strike back at the enemy.
“You hold it so,” Rose was explaining, her two delicate wrists crossed in front of her, small white fingers clenched on an imaginary hilt. “Then you spin around in a kind of dance” And her feet stepped daintily in dainty shoes, performing a demonstration. “Maybe the dance isn’t even necessary, but most did it that way. Some of the people chanted before they threw the Sword: ‘For thy heart, for thy heart. ..’ and they would name a name someone on the Senones side, you see.
“My father and brothers knew all their names over there, they knew just who they wanted to kill the most. And then, when you have chanted and spun the Sword, you just let go.”
The dainty dance came to an unsteady halt. The small white fingers opened, at the end of the extended wrists.
“And then the Sword would leap from the thrower’s hands, and vanish. Each time I saw it go, it made a splash of color in the air, as pretty as a rainbow. And an ugly little howling sound, like a hurt cat.
“And then, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, it would always come back the same way. Over there, they knew all of our names, too.”
Rose sat down suddenly, rocking gently on a bench, and covered her eyes with her small white hands.
Violet and Bonar each had a few random details of that night’s battle to add. So the bloody exchange of death at long range had gone on, and long before morning most of the family on each side were dead.
Zoltan took another walk among the tables, looking and thinking. This corpse must be the survivors’ father, and these two there was a family resemblance their dead brothers. The great majority of the dead in this vaulted room were men. But not all. Evidently there had been more than one woman living in this manor who had made herself deeply hated across the water.
One, at least, of the trestled bodies was wearing a heavy steel breastplate. Probably this was the previous clan chief had he been the first to fall that night, had he put this armor on as a decoration? If the object had been protection, the armor had done him no good, for just over his heart a broad-bladed weapon had punched through as if the steel were so much paper.
Zoltan, still walking thoughtfully among the tables, gently touched a dead arm chosen randomly. It was as stiff” as wood. Gesner, now moving quietly at his side, informed him that these bodies had been here on these tables since the morning after the slaughter. Ever since then, the surviving family members, all half-demented, had been trying to think of a way to conduct a secret burial or at least a mass cremation, without giving away the extent of the clan’s loss.
“We’d need help to bury or bum them all, you see. And then outsiders would be certain to find out how many were dead.”
“The Lady Yambu and I are outsiders.”
“We must begin to do something. Better to trust complete outsiders like yourselves than-”
A servant chose that moment to enter the vault, bringing a private message for Bonar.
Bonar, after the man had whispered in his ear, turned to his sisters. “The mercenaries are at the back door. Two of them, anyway, Koszalin and his sergeant.”
YAMBU asked: “Mercenaries?” Violet spoke up. “Fourteen or fifteen men and their commander, whom we’ve had in our pay since before the slaughter. They’re camped in the woods nearby, and I’m sure they know by now that we’ve been seriously weakened. We’ve been refusing to talk to them. If those blackguards ever find out exactly how much the clan has been reduced, they’ll turn on us and rob us. Then the damned Senones will attack.”
“It seems to me,” said Zoltan, “that if you and the Senones exchanged blow for blow with Farslayer, as you say, then your enemies can hardly be in any better shape than you are. They’ll have trouble carrying out an attack.”
Violet glowered. “They were a larger family than us to begin with.”
Yambu indicated the bodies. “Did I understand you to say that none of these is the man Cosmo, who you say began the fight?”
The surviving family were uniformly scornful. Bonar said: “No, that coward is not here. When it should have been his turn to use the Sword, he seized it, pulled it out of a dead kinsman’s body, and ran out of the house. He mounted a riding-beast and was gone before we realized what was happening.”
Talk of Cosmo ended when another one of the old retainers came into the vaulted room to report fearfully that the two mercenaries at the rear door of the house were growing impatient, demanding to be admitted to present their demands.
Rose was fearful. “Demands? That’s new. What demands will they have now?”
“I suppose you ought to ask them,” said Yambu. Then she volunteered: “If you like, I will speak to them. I have handled a few rebellious soldiers in my time.”
The offer was accepted by default; at least none of the family spoke up to reject it out of hand, and none appeared really ready to assume leadership of their own cause. So, with Zoltan at her side, and guided by a servant, the former queen proceeded through the kitchen to deal with the mercenaries. Lady Yambu took her time about getting to the door, while Bonar brought her up to date on the clan’s relationship with their hired soldiers.
“You said there were fourteen or fifteen of them. Are you sure that number’s accurate?” Yambu asked him.
The siblings conferred briefly among themselves. “Can’t be more than a dozen,” Bonar reported.
“Too many for us to overawe, I suppose. Then let us buy them off with gold, for the time being at least,” Yambu suggested. “I suppose you do have some modest stock of gold available?”
“Gold?” Violet looked almost shocked. “Hardly.”
“But there are pearls.” This came from Rose in a fearful whisper.
“Do you mean freshwater pearls?” asked Zoltan. “Not worth much, are they?”
“These are.” Violet expressed a certain indignation. “Of high quality indeed.”
The other family members, after some hesitation, admitted that a few good-quality pearls were available.
Urged on by a savage pounding on the door, they at last produced a small handful of pale rounded gems, which Yambu pronounced more than sufficient to buy off a dozen rascals. Shaking her head, she thrust most of the gems back into Bonar’s unsteady hands. “To offer them too much at this stage would be worse than to give them too little. Now, Zoltan, attend me. Stand here, and let them see that you are armed and ready!”