They call me a monster and if it were untrue the weight of my crimes would pin me to the ground. I have maimed and I have murdered and if this mountain stood but a little higher I would cut the angels from their heaven. I care less for accusations than for the rain that soaks me, that runs down every limb. I spit both from my lips. Judgment has always left a sour taste.
"Keep moving!" And he strikes me across the shoulders. The staff is thick and polished from hard use. I imagine how he'll look when I make him eat it. Avery, they call him.
There are five left to guard us now, twenty when they found us on the Orlanth Road. A man like the Nuban doesn't give up easy but two against twenty are poor odds, especially when one of the two is a child. He surrendered before the Select had even drawn their horses up around us. It took me longer to reach the same decision, hampered by my pride.
"Pick it up!" The stick catches me behind the knee and I stumble, loose rocks scattering beneath my feet, rolling away down the steep path. Rope chafes at my wrists. We exchanged our weapons for rope, but at least the odds have narrowed. They set only five men to take us into the mountains for judgment. Two against five are the best odds I've had in a while.
The Nuban is ahead of me, huge shoulders hunched against the downpour. If his hands were unbound he could throttle four of them while I fed Avery his staff.
Back on the Orlanth Road the Nuban had shrugged off his crossbow and let it fall. Set his short sword on the ground, leaving only the knife in his boot against the chance of discovery.
"One black as the devil and the other's not thirteen!" Avery had called out when they surrounded us, horses stamping, tails flicking.
A second rider leaned from his saddle and slapped Avery, a cracking blow that set the white print of his hand on a red cheek.
"Who judges?" A thin man, gray, but hard-eyed.
"The arch, Selector John." Avery pushed the words past clenched teeth, his scowl on me as if it were my handprint on his face.
"The arch." And Selector John nodded, looking from one man to the next. "The arch judges. Not you, not I. The arch speaks for heaven." He rode between us. "And if the man, or this boy, are Select then they will be your brothers!"
And now the pair of us walk, soaked, freezing, beaten toward judgment on the mountain, wrists bound. With Avery's staff to encourage us on, and four more of the Select to see we don't stray from the path.
I choose each step, head down, rain dripping from the black veil of my hair. I wonder at this arch of theirs, puzzle how an arch could judge, and what it might say. Certainly its words have power. The power to bind Selector John's disparate band together and hold them to his command.
"If you are Select you will ride with me," he had said.
"If not?" the Nuban rumbled.
And that seemed to be all that underwrote the Select, feared across the north counties of Orlanth, famed for their loyalty and discipline. Men taken at random from the road and judged in secret, bound by nothing but the good word of some arch, some relic of the Builders no doubt, some incomprehensible toy that survived their war.
The water runs in rivulets between my boots, their frayed leather black with it.
"Hell—" Avery's cry turns into something inarticulate as his slip turns into a sprawl. Even his staff can't save him. He lies for a moment, embracing the mountainside, stunned. As he starts to rise I skip forward and allow myself to fall, letting the whole of my weight land behind my knee as it hits the back of his neck. The sound of bone breaking is almost lost in the rain. With my bound hands pressed to his shoulder blades I manage to stand before the others reach me. Avery does not stand, or move, or complain.