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9.

When I had told them everything I could think of they both stood. Friss spoke with Thomas and Tara tossed the pouch of bones back to me. “We need to take a look at things before it gets dark.”

I moved over beside Tara. “You’d already heard the story from Thomas. Why did you need it from me?”

We got his story, but we wanted yours too. Besides,” she added, winking at me. “I wanted to see if you’d brag.”

I laughed. I had almost been tempted to brag, but I didn’t think it was appropriate. I finished my coffee and stood up to stretch my muscles. The horsemen hadn’t followed us to our camp, but that didn’t mean they weren’t still out there.

Friss slipped into a shirt of mail and Tara slid her long curved blade into her belt. When they were ready we jogged back to the battle site. The first corpse we came to was the man I had killed. Friss looked at the fatal wound for a moment before turning to look at me. “He was on horseback?” I nodded and he smiled. “Well done.”

I beamed and stood a little straighter until he pointed toward a patch of torn ground. “That’s probably where you landed.”

We moved forward over the hill and the two of them examined the bodies we came across. They studied the armor and weapons and followed the tracks of the fleeing horses at a run. They moved out of sight around a hill, but I stayed at the battle site and went back over the bodies. I stretched them each straight and folded their hands across their chests, closing their eyes. I didn’t have time to bury them, but I said a few simple words over each one, wishing them rest. I didn’t want any vengeful shades coming for us in the night.

As I lay them out I went over each body again, emptying pouches and pockets and checking for hidden things tucked into gloves or boots. I wanted to collect anything Tara and Friss had left behind and my life in taverns had taught me the normal places where people hide their belongings. I filled a pair of pouches with coins, rings, and small pieces of jewelry, and added a fine quality long knife to my belt.

I pulled the mail coat from a man who’d been decapitated by rifle shot and dropped it beside the pouches and a small hand axe in a furred shoulder satchel I’d collected earlier. Friss’ low voice growled behind me. “What exactly do you think you’re doing?”

The bodies needed tending to or they risked becoming Shades.”

And the rest?”

I straightened and turned to meet his eyes. “The jewels and coins may give us a clue where these people came from. Even if they don’t, I’m not leaving them on the decaying corpse of a murdering bastard. If I’m going to survive I’ll need everything I can get. Thomas needs a bag to carry his surgical supplies and the mail coat is for your son.” I stopped for a moment and shook my head disgustedly. “I’ve heard soldiers talk about the honor of a fallen enemy. It doesn’t apply to these people.”

Friss dropped his gaze after another moment. “Thank you for tending to their spirits first.” He said. “I’m sorry. I’m angry and it’s personal. Every soldier knows they may end up like this someday, with the buzzards beginning to circle and a stranger’s hands in their pocket. Today I had to face the fact that Jason may one day be among them.”

I thought that kind of fear was a swordsman’s true enemy.”

Friss’ head snapped up and his eyes blazed. I put a hand on his massive shoulder before he could respond. “Jason will be fine. He was amazing today. He stood back to back with an elven warrior against at least twelve men on horseback, and won. You should be proud of him.”

Now, do you mind if I ask you a question?” I asked when he looked up again. “What are you really doing here?”

His face didn’t change but I felt his body stiffen beneath my touch. His eyes narrowed and he began to watch me like I was a snake about to strike. I shook my head. “Friss, Landsmen are impressive, but even a tavern wench can see when something is up. This group is too impressive. Two master swordsmen, a King’s Messenger, an elven warrior, and an ordained holy acolyte do not get sent chasing bandits, no matter how many villages they’ve destroyed. At first I thought you were all on escort duty for Tara, but that’s not it, is it?”

No.” Tara’s voice answered from behind me. “But how did you know?”

Thomas.” I said flatly. “He was testing me this morning, wondering if I’d get nervous and let something slip. Even his admissions of guilt were a test. And just now at camp you were trying to get some sort of response from me. You’ve been trying to see if I’d let something slip. I think you’ve even been testing me with the insane sword training. I think you’re trying to determine if I’m more than what I’ve said and you’re doing it because you’re concerned about a threat. Not some distant half-imagined threat, but something real and something pressing.”

Tara’s smile was calculating but not unfriendly. “Let’s head back to camp. The sun’s going to set soon and I don’t want to leave Thomas and the wounded alone after dark. The horsemen haven’t attacked us yet, but they probably will.”

We moved back toward camp. Friss slid up beside me with a smile. “The training wasn’t a test. If it was you wouldn’t have survived.”

Thomas was sitting by the fire reading. Jason and Serena slept comfortably nearby. The smell of warm coffee filled the air. He smiled softly as our eyes met and soft tingles ran through me. I moved toward the fire but Friss’ heavy hand fell on my shoulder. He steered me off to the side of camp and showed me how to clean an enemy’s blood from my blade in such a way to do honor to both my sword and my enemy.

It is important to do it right.” He said. “Blood is very bad for steel and if you do honor to your enemies blood and spirit, it prevents his hatred and fear from cursing your blade.”

We drilled relentlessly for an hour afterward with our stout practice stick replacing our blades. He moved faster than I could see even after he slowed down. When we finally finished I could no longer feel, or even lift, my arms. “You learn quickly.” Friss said. “From now on you drill twice a day. Either with me or Jason or by yourself.”

I groaned audibly, but Friss’ look cut me short. His eyes were weighted and calm. “It’s either practice or die.” He said. “If anything good came of this day, it should be that idea cemented solidly into your head.”

I stopped moving and felt the full impact of the day settle in. I had killed a man today. I had killed him with my sword because he was trying to kill me. I slumped to the ground, sitting where I had stood. Friss stood nearby and watched, giving me the chance to think without interruption. I had fought in a battle of life and death and won. I was proud of myself for winning, but just my being alive meant someone else was dead. Friss was right. I’d keep practicing.

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