Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 06

Benito clicked his tongue. “A pity he succeeded.”

Iskander Beg shook his head. “Not really a pity. He’s a fool. And it is better to have the fool we know for an enemy, than to have him succeeded by man of competence. Emeric’s mouth and vanity are worth a good thousand soldiers to us.” Iskander’s eyes narrowed a little. “On the other hand, I have been told that your death would be worth a great deal of gold, besides several thousand warriors.”

Benito smiled urbanely at the Lord of the Mountains, showing no sign of the tension he felt. “You don’t have to flatter me.”

The Lord of Mountains beamed. “I like you, boy. And I have just upped the value that was put on you.”

“You gave your word,” said Guiliano.

“And my word is good,” said Iskander Beg. “Even if we stand to eliminate two dangerous enemies at one stroke.”

“We do not have to be enemies,” said Benito

“You are not Illyrian. You are not of my tribe. Therefore you are my enemy.”

Benito was beginning to get a feel for the way the man thought now. This was more than just a declaration of Illyria’s superiority and isolation. It was a subtly worded invitation. “And how does one join your tribe?”

The Lord of the Mountains tugged his moustache. “Three ways. By birth. By marriage. And by challenge.”

“It’s a little late in the day for the first two. So what is the challenge? The usual thing, eh?” Benito’s smile was all teeth, and did not reach his eyes. “To drink a bottle of Slivovitz, kill a bear and make love to the most beautiful woman in the village. And later the challenger staggers into the village terribly scratched and says: ‘Now where is this bear I have to kill?'”

The Lord of the Mountains laughed. “You’d do better to take your chances with the bear than trying your charms on our women. No, it is a simple challenge.” He pointed out of the door into the darkness. “A test of stealth to start with. I will put my men on the hill. I will go to the summit. You must join me, without being caught.”

Benito’s heart fell. Even after the time he’d spent with the Corfiote irregulars, Erik Hakkonsen had rated him almost as silent a woodsman as a blind horse with bells on its harness. But what did he have to lose, beside face? “Surely. Send your men out.”

“They’ll try to cut you rather than kill you. I’d do the same if I were you. No point in being part of the tribe with a gyak on your head.”

Benito looked at men he would have to avoid. Looked at their knives. Wished it could have been the bear that he had to cuddle. The twenty or so of them slipping away into the forest had longer claws. Erik should be doing this, not him. This was not the thick Mediterranean scrub of Corfu or the lowlands of Illyria, but an actual forest in the steep limestone gully that led down to the river. Or bare, open rock and thin heath that wouldn’t hide a field-mouse.

“I will go up there,” said the Lord of the Mountains, standing up lithely and setting off without a backward glance.

“Benito. You are crazy,” said Thalia. “The Kyria Maria will kill me if I let you go.”

Benito shrugged. “You have to understand the man, Thalia. He is testing us. Testing Corfu. To fail will be bad. To not even try… will say that we are soft.” As quietly as he could he slipped away into the woods.

It wasn’t quietly enough. He never even saw the man, just saw the flash of steel. They might be able to move like ghosts, but no-one had taught them how to use the blade.

Well… Being fair, it could have been that the man had wanted to cut, not kill. The Illyrian hadn’t expected to have his blade pushed into a tree, and to have himself thrown hard over Benito’s hip. Iskander Beg’s man had the breath knocked out of him — but the weak cry and the crashing were enough. Others were coming. So Benito stepped around the vast boled tree and swung up into it.

He hadn’t been as unobserved as he’d hoped. There were five of them coming out of the shadows. They sounded cheerful enough as they helped his victim to his feet.

And then they started climbing after him. Benito moved higher, further out among the spreading branches. Dawn was not that far off and visibility up here was better. They were good woodsmen, but terrible climbers. For this business, a childhood spent scrambling over the roofs of Venice was far better training than woods and mountains.

Benito waited until the closest man was within a nervous two yards of him. The branch cracked and Benito dropped to a lower branch, with a laugh. The backspring had the pursuer grasping branches frantically. Benito moved out on the lower branch. Ah. Another three men. He waited as they climbed the tree too. And Benito jumped.

As roof jumps went it was a small one — not more than four yards and to a lower branch. It was a branch in another tree, however. Moving fast now, Benito went down that tree, leaving the swearing Illyrians behind him. Someone fell, by the sounds of it.

That had cleared at least eight of them out of his path. Benito abandoned stealth and ran, uphill, cursing tree-roots. He had about three hundred yards to cover.

Fortunately, he saw and heard the pursuit — and climbed the next tree. He repeated the trick — not waiting for the fellow to get high before dropping into another tree. And down. And then a few yards on… up again, unseen.

He watched as one of the Illyrians passed below. It was tempting to drop on the fellow and teach him to also look up occasionally, but he was here to get up the slope, not to have fun. And Benito had to admit that he was having fun. He had missed this.

Better not to let fun distract him too much. The trouble was that treed gullies inevitably got narrower and steeper at the top.

He found a nice weighty dead branch, and, climbing up to where he could at least see the crescent moon, he flung it down slope. That done, he dropped out of the tree and began moving laterally, out of the forested gully. There was no cover out there.

No cover for the solitary guarding Illyrian either. The fellow was staring at the forest, sitting on a rock cleaning his fingernails with his knife. Benito had less than seventy yards to the top. There were times for subtlety and times for speed — and a good solid sapling. Benito tossed a loose rock downhill and to his left, and started running as soon as he heard it clattering. The momentary distraction gave him twenty yards before the Illyrian saw him and ran at him, yelling. There were other shouts from behind him. Benito didn’t look back. He just used the sapling like a lance, and the moment’s shock of impact to sidestep. And then to kept running for the last twenty yards.

Where a rude shock awaited him.

He might even have been caught right there, if it had not shocked his pursuer just as much. There was no-one there.

Benito simply turned and ran the other way. Well, he swore quite a lot too. There was a perfectly good path down the slope to the hut that took him a few minutes, instead of the half hour he’d spend in blundering through the woods.

The Lord of the Mountains was sitting on the bench outside the hut, with one of his own men, and the other Corfiotes. Benito had had the hill to help him get over his bad temper at being so neatly gulled.

Iskander hadn’t actually said he would be at the top of the hill. He’d just said that he’d go there. Well, if the Illyrian thought he could teach a Venetian how to make deals with weasel words…

“Guiliano,” he said conversationally, panting just a little, “Disarm that bodyguard.”