The Lines that Bind the World

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The forest around Querca was similar to the land around Breg, but subtly, inescapably different. Alien. The tracks went in different directions, the light was different, and the trees knew Rainhart wasn't one of their own. He shook his head. Foolish superstition.

He wandered down a game trail, a long stick held loosely in one hand, kicking stones along the path for Briga to leap at. Anemic grey light filtering through the canopy: it was overcast and threatening to rain.

He should probably go back to the lodge, but there he just felt boxed in and superfluous. Tancred was locked in an inner battle, weighing his assets against the challenge he faced, while Holle and Philomena hovered around him as if he were some tragic figure in a pageant.

Rainhart had nothing to contribute to Tancred's struggles. He had never asked for any of this. He was supposed to go to Breg for the Kingmoot, marry Philomena, and then—well, he supposed he would have settled her in a nice property somewhere and gone back to riding the border and skirmishing with the Wendian barons on the other side.

And now his father was dead, his mother and brother were captive, and his House no longer ruled Deusetats. And somehow, without realising it was what he was doing, he had become an exile.

If was difficult to think that if Tancred did not succeed in ousting Valdon, Rainhart might never return to Deusetats.

And if he did, there would be no Milos. King Godfrey might have been his father, but Milos had done more to raise Rainhart than anyone. Every time he thought of Milos dying a traitor's death at that usurper's hands, his insides bunched in on themselves. He should have been there, to fight alongside Milos, for Deusetats and the Teuta. This should have been a battle.

But Tancred had made his decision, and Milos had died by the executioner's axe, surrounded by jeering Cimbra, the Teuta barons silent and defeated.

Rainhart shook his head. It was wrong to think like that. Milos had--Milos had often warned Rainhart that his instinct to be brash, to try and fight through problems, would get him into trouble. He had lain awake going through the scenario in his mind, and honesty made him admit, even in his mind, that they had been outmatched. The castle guards, whose fealty was to the king, would have sided with Valdon. The Teuta barons' personal forces were too far away, quartered at their mansions in the town.

Rainhart's father just had not anticipated that there would be this kind of strife. He had planned for battles fought across the council table. Tancred had been just as naive pushing ahead with the Kingmoot when he was outnumbered.

Fools, thought Rainhart, then felt ill for the disloyalty of the thought.

But Valdon had known exactly what he planned, and none of the Teuta had seen it coming. The others were right; Tancred would be dead now if they had stayed, and the rest of them would be captive and helpless, pawns for Valdon to move around as he pleased.

Rainhart set his steps in a pattern, one after the other, each one landing with a crunch against the leaf litter. He let the rhythm of his steps lull his mind into stillness, following Briga who had become intent on her path.

The woods deepened; the light seemed to darken and become at the same time greener, more intense.

"Where are we going?" he asked her.

The hound gave no reply. Rainhart stopped and examined a tree that had lost a branch to lightning. The exposed core of the bark was a dark brown that put Rainhart in mind of the dirt deep below ground, but the grain was lighter. Rainhart frowned. He'd seen darkwood enough to know what it was. Instinctively, he touched his knuckle to his lips, echoing the folk gesture of reverence to the lesser gods.

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