Shines Now, and Heretofore
Kuomat turned his back on the world a long time ago. Can he redeem that choice now?
A long time ago, Kuomat walked into the woods, abandoning his place in the world of men. For years he’s lived as an outlaw, with little to do with ordinary townsfolk. But when Jenna asked him for help in the name of Death’s Lady and of the king of Talasayan, Kuomat chose to involve himself in the affairs of the great.
That did not go unnoticed.
Now Kuomat has one last chance to step out of the forest and return to the world … if he can bring himself to take it.
Death’s Lady Book Four
I’m ecstatic that Rachel Neumeier wrote another book in the Death’s Lady series. Again, there’s so much that can be said about the world-building, the characters, the conflicts, the sheer wisdom and reflections built into that world.
But in this Shines Now, and Heretofore, our favorite outlaw, Kuomat, is the protagonist. We always knew he was capable of greater things, but can he convince others of that? Kuomat stepped outside the world long ago, and yet his rescue of the queen has brought him to the attention of people in high places he would rather avoid forever. Now he and his outlaws have the chance to redeem themselves if they choose to survive it. Will they? Will he?
If you like fantasy, great storytelling, tales of new worlds, new beginnings, and a bucketful or two of peril, you’ll love this story. Great for fans of Lois McMaster Bujold, Garth Nix, Brandon Sanderson, and the like.
Altogether, simply a wonderful, engaging, and enthralling adventure. I’m always amazed with all the perspectives, all the wisdom. Would give it 10 stars if I could. There’s a reason Rachel Neumeier is on my must-buy list.
-Bookwyrm Amazon review
Rachel Neumeier started writing in graduate school as a break from research, but years ago allowed her hobbies to take over her life. Along with writing both adult and young adult fantasy, she now gardens, cooks Indian food, breeds and shows Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and occasionally finds time to read. Her young adult novel, The Floating Islands, was a Junior Library Guild selection and was selected by Kirkus Reviews as a best book of the year. Her most recent titles include Tuyo and the Death’s Lady series.
On a pretty day in autumn, when the oppressive heat had at last begun to give way to days that were merely warm and the green of the more timid trees had begun to turn to orange and yellow, Kuomat broke a firm rule. This rule was one he had made a good many years ago and rigorously enforced ever since: never attempt to rob a closed carriage or a canvas-covered wagon. No matter how tempting the target, no matter how rich the apparent yield, no matter how lightly guarded it might be. If a man couldn’t see straight through a target, always let it pass.
But these wagons—there were two—posed a considerable temptation. They were each driven by a woman; they were each accompanied by four mounted men. Another woman, obviously a lady, rode a pretty little mare with ribbons braided into its mane. The lady was lighthearted and cheerful and had a sweet voice, which one could judge because she was singing. Her husband rode near her. He was obviously a lord of some degree. His vest was bright sapphire; his shirt a darker blue, almost indigo; his boots embroidered with blue and brown thread; his hair long and braided with a blue ribbon. He looked almost as lighthearted as his pretty wife, though he was not, at least, singing.
Careless, this lord. Foolish, to ride so oblivious to every manner of peril. Outlawry everywhere in the west had increased sharply following the events of the summer, after the long web of treachery Keitah Terusai had spun across the years had been exposed and cut apart and he had been executed for it. Most of the soldiers he had gathered under his command had surrendered at once to the king’s justice, but the men of his personal house guard had not. Those at Kinabana had almost all stepped off the road and away from the world, turning to outlawry. There had been many such guardsmen, far more than usual; more than any lord other than the king himself might legally hold in fealty. Worse, of that great number, too many had made the vilest sort of outlaws: desperate to the point of viciousness; indifferent to every tenet of civilized behavior. Kuomat had dealt with a few of them himself, but an appalling number remained, presenting a serious threat to honest folk all through this region. Kuomat had been gradually leading his own people east and south, away from the area of greatest hazard.
This lord and his entourage hardly appeared prepared to face such danger. True, each of the women driving the wagons had a small crossbow prominently displayed by her knee; each of the guards carried a heavier crossbow and a sword. Ordinarily eight guardsmen would be enough to make an outlaw pack choose discretion. But the Kinabana outlaws? One hardly wished to assume so. This young lord was traveling west; perhaps he had come from lands sufficiently far east that he was accustomed to take less account of brigands. Or perhaps he was merely a fool. His guardsmen showed evidence of poor training and poor leadership: shamefully casual in their manner, not nearly suspicious enough regarding any possible ambush.
Certainly their lord set his people a poor example. He was clearly infatuated with his wife; he rode with his reins lying loose on the neck of his horse, scarcely watching the road or the woods. A man who took danger so lightly ought to be guided to better sense by the captain of his guardsmen. Here, the senior of the guardsmen—a burly man riding at the rear, old enough that he should have known his duty—showed himself as lax as his subordinates. Rather than scanning the rocky, wooded slopes for danger, he more often let his gaze rest on one woman or another. Kuomat would have taken considerable satisfaction in reprimanding the man for his negligence, but it did not occur to him at first that the opportunity might arise.
Gerabak, standing in the shadows beside Kuomat, said softly, “Those wagons are traveling light. I wonder what they’re carrying? Not likely armed men.”
Kuomat inclined his head slightly in acknowledgment, the movement too small to risk catching the eye even had those men been far more alert. Gerabak was correct: If these wagons concealed men waiting to spring a trap, why then have eight men in sight to keep outlaws away? Or, and this was clear evidence against any such notion, women traveling with them? Those were real women: a soldier might put on a woman’s dress, but no soldier could look as womanly as those drivers. Certainly no soldier could sing with a light, silvery voice that danced through the air.
Imbutaiyon, on Kuomat’s other side, murmured, “They must think they are far enough east that anyone may travel safely. Eight men are not too many for us to handle, as there is the lady.” He meant he thought they could handle this many guardsmen without killing because they could plausibly threaten the lady. They would not want to kill the men—nor carry out any threat against the lady. That was another of Kuomat’s rules. Theft was one thing, murder another. Sensible outlaws avoided outraging decent folk. Taking a light hand with robbery kept townsmen or farmers from beating through the woods with too much dedication.
“We have no idea what those wagons hold,” Kuomat observed, meaning not only that it was possible they held armed men, unlikely as that seemed, but that they might well hold something of no value to outlaws. This was hardly the sort of company that would ride along with wagons carrying sacks of grain or barrels of ale or casks of dried fish. Whatever was in those wagons must be of much greater value than that. But what if the valuable merchandise proved to be fine furniture or ornate glass mirrors or fancy ceramics? Anything like that would be far less use to an outlaw pack than a wagonload of dried fish.
Imbutaiyon tipped his chin up in agreement, but he said, “Most likely household goods. Trunks of fine clothing, perhaps stitched with jewels. That would be perfect—”
Kuomat silenced Imbutaiyon with a sideways glance. “Yes. Enough.” A lady such as this one, a young lord such as that one, would likely travel with a substantial wardrobe. Clothing of that kind would be easy to transport and yield a substantial profit. These were lean times; the Kinabana outlaws had set every townsman on his guard and forced Kuomat to discretion, keeping his own people out of the way. They could not live wild through the coming winter without reasonable preparations, and they could not make those preparations without reasonable coin.
“There are only eight men,” Gerabak said quietly. “That lordling there would never have brought that pretty wife of his out upon this road in service of an ambush. This looks easy enough to me, wagons or no wagons.”
This was true. Everything Imbutaiyon and Gerabak said was clearly true. So Kuomat decided to break his rule.
A great deal depended on the skill with which the outlaws could shoot, because if they could make the right sort of first impression they should not have to fight. Avoiding unnecessary violence was one of Kuomat’s primary goals. Predictability in these things was good. Violence was always unpredictable. Fortunately, he had several people who could shoot the eye from a bird in flight, especially Katawarin, Imbutaiyon’s woman, who had a true gift with the bow. There was time, while the wagons approached, to set up a perfectly reasonable plan of attack.
At first the operation seemed to work precisely as expected. Katawarin and Imbutaiyon together put four bolts in a tight pattern right by the feet of the lady’s horse so fast it was almost like four bows shooting at once. The lady jerked her mare to a halt, squeaking in alarm and crouching in her saddle like a frightened rabbit, just as she should. The threat was so clear and immediate, and above all so restrained, that any sensible man who loved his wife, or any professional man who understood how these matters worked, ought to have simply surrendered right then.
At first it seemed that was going to happen. The young lord cried out in a sharp voice, and the guards put themselves around the lady and waited. Kuomat stepped out on a ledge and politely requested that all the guards uncock their crossbows. He did not order them to toss the bows away, nor to discard their swords; no, a restrained threat, that was what was wanted. He wanted all those guards to understand as quickly and surely as possible that this was merely robbery, nothing to do with abduction or murder.
The guards did as they were told. A fine, flawless, predictable operation. Bau and Petat went to the first wagon, Inasad and Tantang went to the second. Medai made the young lord get off his horse and kneel down in the road and put a knife at his throat, just to ensure good behavior from the guards. No one showed coarse manners to the lady, though Katawarin, still hidden from sight, sent another bolt directly over the lady’s head in order to encourage good sense from the men.
Imbutaiyon and Gerabak also stayed out of sight in the woods, ready to shoot. Kuomat knew without having had to discuss the matter that Katawarin would be watching the guards, that Imbutaiyon would have his eye on the driver of the first wagon, and that Gerabak would have his on the other driver.
Then the wagons seemed to explode outward. Crossbow bolts whicked overhead into the woods in a vicious volley, and the eight guards came out of their protective circle in an aggressive rush, and the young lord somehow had Medai down on his back in the dust of the road, and even the pretty lady with the silvery voice brought a small hand bow out from under her skirts. Kuomat leaped back into the woods, but one of the guards made his horse jump over the small ledge and cut him off; the horse shouldered around so fast Kuomat nearly ran into it. He found a sword held level at his chest before he could catch his balance. The guard had a grim set to his mouth and a hard hand on his reins, preventing his horse from rearing to trample his prisoner. Kuomat stared into the man’s face, unable to imagine why he had checked himself and his horse rather than driving that sword home.
The guard held his hand. He only forced Kuomat back, and back again, out to the road. There, Kuomat saw that Medai and Bau had been made to kneel in the road, and then Inasad and Petat and Tantang were brought to the same place and he realized that the orders must have included living prisoners instead of dead carrion left by the side of the road. His imagination, sometimes a dangerous commodity for an outlaw, immediately presented several possible explanations for this oddity, none of which was appealing.
His captor brought him forward and made him kneel with the others. Kuomat knelt without protest while his knife—his only weapon—was taken and his hands bound. The young man in command, a man who was, evidently, a soldier rather than a lord—or more likely both—came to face him. He was lightly built and sharp-featured, with a high-bridged nose and thin mouth and narrow chin. Kuomat would never have picked this man out as a soldier, but despite his youth, his manner was steady and confident.
He looked Kuomat up and down. Then he asked, “You are the leader of these men? There is a ward surrounding this area five bowshots out. Your people back in the woods will find it soon, I think. They will not break it. My particular gift lies with every manner of ward and guard.”
So this young captain was a sorcerer. That might go some way toward explaining why he had felt he might risk setting women out as bait for his ambush; they were no doubt tightly warded. Kuomat imagined that his people had probably already discovered the broader ward the captain described.
He had believed that at least a few of his people would escape this trap. Now he saw that the trap had not been a snare alone, but also a wide-cast net. He thought that only Panaih and Angana must have been far enough away to be safe. He wondered how long the women would wait at the camp; where they would go when they knew no one would return. He said nothing.
“The wards will be drawn in now, until your people are driven into our hands,” the young captain told him. “They are armed with bows, of course. It would be better if they did not shoot. If you call to them, perhaps you might bring them quietly into my hands. I ask you to do this.”
Kuomat nodded understanding. “Why are we to be taken alive?” he asked, because he thought possibly the young captain would answer.
“Those are my orders,” the man replied. “I do not know the reasons for those orders. Nevertheless, I ask you to bring your remaining people to me now, softly. Do so, and I will hold myself in your debt. I swear I will deal with you and your people as gently as I may. My name is Ranakai Alet. No one would say that is the name of a man who takes his word lightly.”
Kuomat raised his eyebrows. Most certainly a lord as well as a soldier. Unquestionably he spoke the truth. A young lord like this would not lightly lie even to an outlaw, and he would keep his word. That made his request much more interesting.
Yet still, possibly not a request Kuomat wished to fulfill. Probably some greater lord, most likely the new lord of Kinabana, whoever that might be, had decided to make a show of safeguarding his people. Take a handful of cur outlaws alive; subject those outlaws to a public trial, very brief, followed by a much more extended public execution. Do that two or three times and every remaining masterless man in the region might well shift his hunting ground to safer lands. A swift death here, beside the road, would likely prove kinder than any fate decreed by a lord intent on demonstrating his strength.
Still, if they were to be taken from this place to Kinabana, perhaps escape might be possible. Kuomat thought that, presented with the choice of certain death here or probable death after some days of travel, Imbutaiyon would want to surrender, but Katawarin would not. She had a horror of being made a prisoner; she would never yield quietly. No. She would fight and make them shoot her. Gerabak … Kuomat thought that Gerabak would side with Imbutaiyon, but he also thought that if Katawarin was sufficiently determined, she could make both men fight. Indeed, that might be best.
He looked up to meet the young man’s eyes and spoke plainly. “I care nothing for your orders. If we are bound for a terrible fate, then better my people should die here. Swear to me that is not the way it is, and I will call them; or do not and I will pray they die quickly fighting your men, which I think is the choice they will make.”
Kuomat would not have been surprised to receive a blow for this temerity, but Captain Alet did not even lift his hand. He said, “If your people fight mine, they may well die today. At the least, they may be injured. If they surrender, they will have days of gentle treatment. I can promise nothing, but my orders were very clear: I am to take you alive and do as little harm as possible. Given those orders, I would be personally astonished if any harder fate than a swift knife awaits your people.” He opened his hands, showing that the choice belonged to his prisoner.
Kuomat considered this. He was still considering when the first bolt whispered out of the woods and snapped into the ground by the captain’s feet. Alet instantly caught Kuomat by the arm and hauled him up to use as a shield; around him his men ducked for cover behind horses and wagons. But none of the soldiers returned bolts of their own. There was clear evidence that the young captain spoke the truth. Not that Kuomat had doubted it.
“I think,” Alet said, quietly, in Kuomat’s ear, “that this would be a good time for you to call to your people.”
“If Katawarin had aimed for your life, you would be dead,” Kuomat told him just as softly. “You would have discovered the limitations of even a well-made ward; she can place three or even four bolts with quite adequate precision even against a tiny or a moving target. By shooting only once and only in warning, she declares she would bargain with you. What bargain would you strike?”
“I have told you.”
Kuomat did not move. “Captain, it is their freedom they will have, or they will shoot in earnest. What difference can a scant handful of outlaws make to your lord? You have me in your hands. I am the captain of these men. Release your ward; permit those back in the woods to withdraw. You will have me and most of my men at no further risk to yours.”
Alet let go of Kuomat’s arm. “I want you and your people. All of your people. You may tell them so. Understand: there is no possibility I shall relent. I will hold my men a short time; I will hold the ward where it is set—for a short time. I want you and your people alive and I will set my men at some risk to gain this. Bring your people to me quietly and I will be grateful. But do not mistake me. None of you will escape. You may have half an hour. After that time, I will draw in the wards and force the decision.”
Kuomat gave him an incredulous look. But after a moment, he turned and walked into the woods.
The others met him a little distance from the road, all three together. Imbutaiyon cut his wrists free without a word. Kuomat asked them, “There is indeed a ward?”
“There is. It’s nothing I can break,” Katawarin said. “Nor you, I think. I know enough to perceive that ward is strong and well-crafted by someone who knows exactly how to shape such things.”
There was a closed, still expression on her strong-boned face. Both Katawarin and Kuomat were sorcerers, but minor sorcerers. Her particular gift lay in weaponscraft and his in healing. These were both useful gifts, but not closely associated with warding or other protections. If she declared the ward beyond them both, she would not be wrong.
She went on. “They shot high with that first volley. I understood why when we met the ward. They want us alive. Do you know why?”
“The young captain swears he does not know. He swears his orders are to take us alive and to be kind while we are in his charge. He swears he does not believe a harsh fate awaits us.”
Gerabak made a skeptical sound. He stared continually into the green shadows, watchful, trusting nothing about this peculiar situation.
“Oh, no,” Kuomat said. “All this, I believe. Competent he may be, but he is young, and likely of noble birth. I think this is a man who has never once forsworn himself. Likely he has never told a lie in his life, not even to a woman he has courted. If he is old enough to have courted any woman.”
Gerabak laughed and Imbutaiyon grinned, but Katawarin did not even smile.
Kuomat said to her, “Likely the new lord in Kinabana wishes to make a public example to show his merit and his strength. Likely it is a harsh example he has in his mind, for all this young captain believes otherwise. If you wish, I will kill you myself.” He glanced around at them. “All of you. It will be swift. Or we might go back and make a polite surrender to the honorable young captain. I know his kind, I believe. He considers a courteous manner a mark of good breeding and good character. He would never speak harshly to a woman, a servant, or a captive; far less raise his hand against anyone in his power. So long as we meet his civility with civility of our own, he will be gentle. Days of travel, I am told. There is little chance of escape, but more from this road than from beyond the dark Gate.”
There was a lingering silence. Imbutaiyon looked at Katawarin, but she looked instead at Kuomat. She said, “Days of travel?”
Kuomat understood at once. Kinabana was not days distant. Two days, perhaps. Captain Alet would not have said days in that tone if he had meant so brief a journey.
“Who is this young captain’s master?” she asked.
“I am twice a fool,” Kuomat admitted. “I did not ask.”
“You could go back and ask him, and then come and tell us,” Imbutaiyon suggested with a faint smile. Kuomat sighed, and Gerabak gave a wry shake of his head.
Katawarin still had not smiled. She said suddenly, “If not Kinabana, then that is a king’s man. Or if not, then he belongs to Nolas-Kuomon. Those people, Asih, Bukitraya—whatever their true names, whoever they may have been, they were hers. They will have told their lady everything concerning our actions at Kinabana. Also everything that happened before Kinabana. It is not any cur outlaws this young captain seeks to take up, nor is he interested in those who used to belong to the Terusai. He has gone to all this trouble for us.”
They were all staring at her. It made sense, Kuomat acknowledged. It explained a great deal. A king’s man—or a man belonging to Lord Death’s lady. They had become allies, the young king Mitereh Sekuse-go-e and Nolas-Kuomon, Lord Death’s Lady. This alliance was most assuredly a wonder of the world, but so the young woman, Asih, had sworn. She had spoken the truth, or the truth as she believed it. Kuomat had been certain of it, and so events had proved. Word of recent events had run even to the ears of outlaws: word of the downfall of Keitah Terusai-e, and of the Geraimani of Imbaneh-se, who had conspired with him. Word that Nolas-Kuomon herself had taken the Geraimani into her hand and then cast all Mitereh’s enemies at the king’s feet.
If there was anyone Kuomat personally wished less to face than Lord Death’s lady, it was the king. Yet … the king was young. Even if he had taken a personal interest, Mitereh Sekuse-go-e could not possibly recognize any of the outlaws he had brought into his hand.
Gerabak said, his tone glum, “She’s right. We should never have stepped so close to the affairs of the great. I said so at the time.”
He had. Kuomat made no response. Even if he had seen this moment waiting before them, even if he had guessed that Nolas-Kuomon herself might take an interest, he would have chosen to step astride the paths of the great. But he would have been a great deal more cautious afterward.
“If it is the king, then at worst our deaths will be quick,” Katawarin said.
Gerabak and Imbutaiyon both signed agreement. Kuomat agreed as well. Yes. Whatever questions the young king might wish to ask cur outlaws who had stepped too close to his affairs, Mitereh Sekuse-go-e would be merciful with the actual killing, lest men begin to name him Mitereh Encormio-na, recalling his terrifying father. The king would not want that. He had rejected his father’s name from the first, styling himself after his mother instead.
“That makes the risk suddenly more appealing,” Imbutaiyon murmured. “And, forgive me, your knife less so, my friend. If it comes to that, I would rather die at the hand of an enemy than the hand of a friend. But what if it’s not the king?”
For a moment, there was silence. No one wanted to fall into the hand of Lord Death’s lady. Kuomat certainly did not. But he had chosen life, even this life aside from the world, over and over as year melted into year. After all he had survived, he had no wish to drive a knife into his own heart now.
If he faced her, she would surely know him. The years were long and he was not the man he had been, but he judged this far more likely than otherwise. Still. Still, the chance that they should meet seemed remote. Nolas-Kuomon, Tenai Chaisa-e, had gone east; that was the word that had made its way gradually through the wooded lands here in the west. She had withdrawn from the young king’s court, retiring for the time to her own land, Chaisa, where she had seldom dwelled during all the long span of her dark war against Encormio and now might live quietly for so long as she chose.
He said finally, “It seems little likely Death’s Lady would concern herself with brigands snared from the wild. I do consider it far more likely that this is the king. Should that prove so, then we may hope for a better fate than a knife. Mitereh Sekuse-go-e extended clemency to the Geraimani and to all Imbaneh-se.” Word of that had run to the edges of the world as well, though some details of that tale seemed unlikely. But everything regarding the recent affairs of the great seemed unlikely. He went on, speaking without emphasis. “Should we come to a moment when the request might be made, I would ask clemency for myself and for all of you. For the service we did him, I think perhaps such a request might be granted.”
A short silence. Then Imbutaiyon asked, his tone cautious, “Would the king listen to your plea? Yours specifically?”
Everyone knew Kuomat had once possessed a different name and a different style. No one ever asked any question regarding his past. Certainly Kuomat never referred to the life he had left behind. That life belonged to a different man. He had no intention of recalling any part of that life or that style or that name regardless of what came of his silence.
He said now, “Mitereh Sekuse-go-e would surely listen attentively to the plea of any man—or woman—who had assisted in the rescue of his wife and child. Should it come to the moment, I think we might reasonably hope for that.”
Gerabak said, sudden and decisive, “Given all these possibilities, I cannot agree to a knife now. I think if any chance of escape lies before us, it is along the road, not here in this moment. This young captain may prove capable—I think this is likely. But as you say, Kuomat, he is young. Perhaps a chance may come, or perhaps a chance may be made.”
“Gerabak, indeed?” Kuomat raised his eyebrows. “I had not expected you to be the one of us so ready to hope.”
Gerabak shrugged. “If that hope fails, then I agree, nothing worse than a swift knife awaits us should we come into the king’s hand. I think that is a king’s man, not a man belonging to Nolas-Kuomon. I agree that she would not concern herself with cur outlaws, even if her curiosity had been pricked. I may be wrong, but for me, that risk is not enough to ask for a knife now.”
“I agree,” Imbutaiyon said at once. “I wouldn’t throw away any reasonable chance. Or even any slight chance. But,” he added, looking at Katawarin, “I will decide as you decide.”
Katawarin looked away. Ashamed, Kuomat thought, because she would choose to die now and judged that cowardice in herself, and because she knew Imbutaiyon wanted the chance, small as it might be, to live. Kuomat said, directly to her, “This is an honorable young man. I do not believe I mistake him. His men will take their manner from him.”
Katawarin tipped her chin up in deliberate agreement. Her proud face was quite calm, but she was pale. She said, “I will decide as you decide, Kuomat.”
A burden that Kuomat did not want, yet could not decline. He said at last, “Then we will lay down our weapons and we will try to live. I trust all of you to seize a chance if one should be found or made. If every chance comes to nothing and we are mistaken in everything, then I will ask your pardon that I was three times a fool.”
Katawarin said nothing. If Kuomat made a terrible mistake, she would not throw that mistake in his face. She would turn her gaze straight ahead and never flinch from whatever fate came to her.
If that should be necessary, Kuomat knew he would never forgive himself.
Captain Alet met Kuomat’s return to the road in company with the others with a slight bow. Kuomat answered him with a stare that said, You owe me. The young captain acknowledged this with another bow, still shallow, but deeper than the first. He himself bound Kuomat’s hands a second time. Kuomat knelt and held out his wrists without protest, ignoring the soldiers at his back. Before the young captain could turn away about other tasks, Kuomat said, keeping his tone level, “Captain, if you will permit me to ask, is it the king himself you own? Or another lord? Or … a lady?”
Alet considered for only half a heartbeat. Then he nodded, coming to a decision, and answered, “I am a king’s man, and it is the king’s commands I obey first above all.”
He had spoken clearly; everyone heard him. Kuomat saw the easing of tension among his own people. Imbutaiyon caught his eye and breathed out in exaggerated relief. Katawarin did not turn or nod, but the rigid control of her posture might have eased a very little. Kuomat inclined his head, and Captain Alet walked away. Some of the soldiers had taken up cords to bind the others, which they suffered without protest. Katawarin stared through the man who tied her hands; he took no liberties.
As by this time evening approached, the soldiers made a camp around the wagons, setting out canvas awnings and spreading out blankets. This was good, or might be good. An escape tonight might come before the soldiers expected it, and would be into familiar country. Kuomat thought about that.
Alet had clearly thought about it too. The outlaws were bound with rawhide cord around their wrists, which might in theory be cut; but the young captain also had them linked together by metal chains that ran from the neck of one man to the next. They were fastened in two files that began at the back of one wagon and ended at the front of the second: Petat, Tantang, Inasad and Bau were linked in one line; Gerabak, Imbutaiyon, Medai, and Kuomat in the other. Clearly somewhat taken aback to find a woman in the outlaw pack, Captain Alet was evidently inclined to have her chained behind the second wagon, well away from the men. Kuomat, kneeling as directed in his position at the rear of one line, rose to his feet when he realized this. Of course the soldier nearest him immediately made him kneel again, and of course Alet came over to inquire.
The captain’s expression held warning as well as interest. Kuomat understood: Alet might be grateful for what small assistance he considered Kuomat might have granted him, but there would be limits to how much presumption he would allow. Kuomat bowed his head.
“Well?” said Alet.
“Captain, if you will permit me to make this request, I will ask that you chain Imbutaiyon,” Kuomat pointed with his chin, “at the front, if you would be kind, and Katawarin at the side of the wagon there, so she may sit beside him.”
The young captain gestured to a soldier, who began to rearrange the file as Kuomat had asked. Then he asked curiously, “How did you come to have a woman in your company?”
Kuomat did not say there were three and the trap had closed short. He only said, “One does not cast away such skill with the bow because a woman owns it.”
“And if she had aimed for my life, I would be dead?” Alet’s tone was faintly ironic.
“I am certain you understand that any ward may fail if struck in the same place several times in rapid succession. She might have shot past me to strike a precise mark over your heart or your throat not once, but again and again. She would not have missed.”
Captain Alet tipped his chin up, acknowledging the possibility. “If she is so skilled as that, I assuredly owe you a debt because I did not have to take her by force. Any other small request you may make of me, I will grant if I can.” He walked away.
The evening was cool. Captain Alet’s kindness did not extend to providing blankets for his prisoners. Kuomat would not have expected any such comfort. Food was brought: bowls of soup and hard bread and sausage—the same food the soldiers ate. Eating with bound hands was awkward. But then, not every man who captured curs off the road would trouble to feed them.
Medai, chained in front of Kuomat, complained about the food. He had not said a word of reproach about the trap into which Kuomat had led them. That was Medai, who protested small discomforts and did not complain of disaster. Bau, beside Kuomat in the other file, ate silently and then lay down and went to sleep; Bau lived strictly in the present and did not worry about what future days might hold.
Further away, Tantang muttered under his breath until Gerabak and Petat silenced him. Tantang’s skills had been valuable to the pack, but his inclination to stretch Kuomat’s rules whenever he happened upon an undefended woman had been a constant threat to outlaws who had lived for many years by never incurring too much displeasure from the surrounding towns. Kuomat could hear nothing from Imbutaiyon or from Katawarin.