21 Hoth 851
A CHILL NIGHT BREEZE filled his lungs and Donal Yorkson savored it, smelling the rain-sweetened air, before grinning at his partner.
"Smells good," old Horus agreed, then raised his lantern to peer into a darkened yard. A wagon stood in the middle of it, looking deserted and empty, but there was no movement that shouldn't be there. A lone horse peered at them from its covered stall and snorted softly, disturbed by their patrol.
Donal joined his partner in peering around the yard, but there was nothing out of place. Satisfied all was in order, he looked to his partner for his approval.
"Nothing here," Horus said. "Let's go."
Donal fell into step beside him, his hand steadying his sword as they walked through the predawn quiet of Gardon's streets -- just two more guardsmen on patrol. Here and there the lights of the street lamps added a glistening glow to the damp cobblestones and shone off the silver diamonds on their baldrics.
"Almost dawn." The elder guardsman sniffed the air and smiled a craggy smile. "One more patrol nearly done."
Donal just nodded, his brown eyes on a pair of men who stepped out in the street ahead of them. He eyed the two men until the light of a street lamp glinted on baldrics and he could make out the colors they wore. Satisfied they belonged in the prosperous Tenth Quad, he lost interest.
"Which house?" his partner demanded.
"Prince Valdyn's," Donal promptly replied. "Brass-studded baldrics and sky-blue tunics."
His partner nodded, satisfied.
"I think one was Mason," Donal added. "He favors his right foot."
Horus snorted. "And he happens to live in that insula and works mornings." The guardsman jabbed at a darkened building.
"Right," Donal grinned, "but he did lose a toe on his right foot. He mentioned it once."
"I don't doubt it, pup."
They made an odd coupling, these two. Donal was still a youth, just turned sixteen, and didn't have his full man's growth yet. Just finishing his first year in the Guard, his duties were still limited to the quiet midnight patrol.
His partner, Horus, was a grizzled veteran close to retirement age. It was the custom in the Guard to pair oldest with youngest so experience could be passed along.
Donal grinned at his partner, then checked another door. He knew old Horus was slower than most and his bones ached when it rained, but his mentor also knew more than his peers. Not that he showed it. No, Horus was quiet around the guardhouse and didn't volunteer much. It was only on these long, quiet patrols that his mentor grew talkative. Just when sleep started dulling his brain, his mentor would tell some tale of his past and expect Donal to remember it when he asked questions about it later.
"How many guardsmen does the Heir employ?" Horus suddenly demanded.
Donal blinked once. "Ten."
"And the prime minister?" his partner demanded.
"Twelve," Donal replied. "During the day, there are usually some Citadel guards there, too."
"True enough," Horus grunted. "I wish I had your memory, boy. Can you name their captains as well?"
"Yes, sir," Donal confidently responded, his face warm from the compliment. He knew it was his mother's training that gave him such a memory for detail. Having worked in her store for nearly eight years, he'd tried to remember every customer and what they purchased just like she did. He'd done it poorly by her standards, but well enough to impress old Horus.
"Make it yer business to know, Donal," the veteran gruffly advised. "Don't be like those who need to check lists. If you can keep it in your head like our captain does, you'll do better. He always knows."
"I know," Donal replied. "That's why I pay so much attention." It was hard being the youngest guardsman hired last year and he hadn't hoped for such a good assignment, but Captain Mowyt had requested him. At first he thought it was because of his family's connections, but the captain soon convinced him otherwise.
Like Horus, Donal was Kalryn, but their pasts were quite different. Where Horus had worked as a guardsman in two cities, Donal was the fifth son of a prosperous merchant family. When he joined the Guard, there had been some questions and raised eyebrows from those who knew his family.
His father, though, supported his decision. Having been a guardsman himself in the service of the queen, he encouraged Donal to continue the tradition of serving her. Kalryn they might be, but their loyalty was prized by Queen Fara.
Donal walked along the street, checking more doors and then pausing as the first bell of the dawn song rang out. It struck a muted note across the city, then began to fade. Before it was completely gone, the song began.
He listened, caught up in the beauty of the bells ringing in time with those in the Citadel's bell tower. Given the timing by that solitary first bell, five bell towers chorused the gentle dawn song to rouse the early workers from their beds.
He knew in his own home the cook and her assistant would be rising now while his family slept on for another hour. Around the city, many servants and all the cooks were responding to the dawn song's call. They must be ready when the others rose at the sunrise song.
"One more hour," Horus stirred, "and we are done for the night." His face creased in a tired smile.
"Aye." Donal felt tired, too, but didn't relish sleeping the best part of the day away. It was too soon to go to bed and he wanted to go home and eat breakfast with his family. It was Rest Day and the store would be closed.
He didn't mention it to Horus, though. Knowing the old guardsman had no family, he sometimes felt embarrassed by the size of his. Even with four of his siblings gone to other cities, the five remaining must seem like riches to a man who had none.
"And it's Rest Day," the old guardsman remembered with a scowl. "Tonight's shift will be a long one. Be sure you keep that in mind, pup, when you get to bed. They may call us out early."
"Yes, sir," Donal responded.
"And you think it won't happen." Horus snorted. "You think we've got almost a week yet to the Harvest festival and things will be quiet. Donal, get rid of the notion. There's always a chance someone will start a fight and the odds of it happening are pretty good around the Harvest. If one of ours gets hurt, we go on duty. There's no one to spare this time of year -- not with the harvest being early and the festival late."
"Yes, sir," Donal said, meaning it this time. "I'll be ready."
He knew the harvest was early -- earlier than any he could remember, but the weather had just been too good to let it wait. That left the holders with nothing to do between their harvest and the official celebrations of the Harvest festival. Those who could afford to came to town early to deliver their grain to the millers and then stayed, waiting for the festival to begin.
Horus was right. He should seek his bed right away. Regretfully, he thought of his family. His day off would come soon and then he could go. It would be his last one until the Harvest festival was done.
They passed one of the large insulas just as the door opened and a knot of guardsmen stepped out. The men hesitated, hands on their swords, then relaxed when they saw their uniforms.
Donal released his grip on his sword hilt, his reactions no slower when armed men appeared suddenly in front of him. Two were Lord Mark's men, but he wasn't sure of the others until they walked away. Seeing the brown uniforms and hearing the jingle of spurs, he knew they were members of the Third Guard. He wished, not for the first time, that the Third Guard wore more distinct uniforms. They could be mistaken in the darkness for ordinary holders until one got close enough to see their badges.
"They're stirring early." Horus studied the guardsmen. "I hope that doesn't mean something's afoot."
"Maybe they have an early patrol," Donal suggested. "They add more this time of year."
"Aye, that could be it," Horus said. "Or they could just like the Citadel's cooking better than their wives!"
Donal laughed, then forgot about them. He knew they had business on Gardon's streets at this hour and they were married if they lived in an insula instead of a barracks. Married men were less likely to be trouble for the Guard. They thought of their families before starting anything or they didn't stay married long.
Turning the corner, he looked down an empty street. It was beginning to get light now and they wouldn't need the lantern much longer. The muted colors of the housefronts were brightened here and there by a lamp inside, but no one was on the street.
This was one of the blocks of the Sunborn and only four richly appointed villas flanked the street. One was Lord Mark's, he remembered and silently named off the owners of the other three. The prime minister's was the most important in this block, though, and he went with Horus to check the locks and shadowed doorways.
"What's that?" Horus stopped in midstep and cocked his head, a surprised look crossing his face. "An alarm!" Listening to the distant clanging, he turned. "That way!" He broke into a run.
Donal followed, then steadied the sword at his side and sprinted. He outpaced the old guardsman and was first around the corner and into the next block. Sliding to a stop by a guardsman beating on an alarm triangle, he had to shout to make himself heard.
"Leave off!" He grabbed the man's arm and was shaken off like a flea.
"Leave off," he yelled again as Horus pelted up behind him.
"Man, what is it?" Horus demanded, his breathing hard. "Why the alarm?"
"It's Lady Lyda," the guardsman cried, horror in his eyes. "The servants...."
Mason stumbled out the open door, his face pale. "Look for yourself, guardsmen. Just look!"
Donal followed his mentor through the guard door -- the one the household used at night. Trailing Horus into the kitchen, he stopped and stared in horror.
Sitting at the table in a macabre setting were six, no, seven servants. The food from their dinner was still on the table, but they were slumped, their sightless eyes glazed over and the sickly sweet stench of death pervading the room. One man lay on the floor as if he'd tried to reach the door.
In a flash Donal saw a dead baby in his mother's arms and it was too much. He backed away, his stomach heaving.
Dead! All dead!
Copyright © 2000 by Ellen Anthony