Tal threw away his bow and drew his sword, turning to meet the charge at the last moment. Raven's horse slammed into Tal's and the mare almost fell. As it was, she stumbled sideways from the blow.
Tal reined her around hard, his sword slashing through the air at the point where he hoped Raven's head would be. He realized his error and tried to pull up. The effort was a moment too late; pain ripped across his left shoulder, as Raven's sword-point sliced through the skin, scraping across the shoulder bone.
Tal grimaced in pain but kept his wits about him. He urged his horse on, resisting the urge to clutch at his left shoulder with his right hand, instead bringing his sword overhead to block another blow from Raven.
Tal blinked away tears and forced the pain in his shoulder to fade, for it was clear that on horseback, Raven was the more practised swordsman. Still, bladework was bladework, and Tal knew he had never been in a more important fight.
Rondar had drilled into him how to control his horse with one or no hands, relying on his legs to instruct the animal, so he tried to make the horse an extension of his own body, and tried to think as if the horse's legs were his own.
He blocked out the pain in his left shoulder, although he knew that had Raven's blow been inches lower, he'd be a dead man. The wound would have severed tendons or even cut off the arm entirely, and the blood loss would have doomed him. As it was, the superficial cut was soaking his shirt with blood at the shoulder, but he would live if he could end this fight quickly.
Tal worked his horse around to keep Raven on his right, lest he risk further injury to his damaged arm. Raven attempted to use his horse to bully Tal's and perhaps throw its rider. He moved right in next to Tal and for the first time Tal saw his enemy up close for the first time since he had sacked Village Kulaam.
The once neatly-trimmed beard was now ragged and unkempt, and the man's angular face was haggard and worn. Raven's skin had a grey complexion, and his dark, deep-set eyes were rimmed with red, with deep circles of darkness below.
Yet there was an iron will in his face that told Tal that Raven was as dangerous a man as he would ever meet. A man didn't rise to run as ruthless a company as Raven did without such a will. Tal knew he had to match that will with his own. It didn't matter if he stayed alive; Raven must die. He must atone for the wrong visited on Tal's people.
They circled and traded blows, steel ringing on steel, but neither man gained the advantage. Raven was more deft at moving his horse, but within striking range, Tal was the better swordsman.
For long minutes they rode around one another thus, trading blows and parries, with neither man gaining the upper hand. Raven tried three times to charge Tal, but both horses were on the verge of exhaustion and the third time, Raven retreated with a slash across his cheek. Blood flowed down the right side of his face, and now Tal saw something else. The determination in Raven's face was gone! He seemed suddenly to be a man fearful of dying.
Tal charged. He shouted at the top of his lungs, and rose up in his stirrups, slashing downward with all his strength. Raven's years of mounted swordplay served him well, for what Tal didn't expect was that instead of turning away, sword raised to take Tal's blow, Raven leaned forward, hanging by his left hand from the saddle, to slash at Tal's right leg.
Tal felt the pain as Raven's blade cut deep into his calf muscle, and the leg collapsed. His own momentum from the downward slash carried him headfirst off his horse.
Tal tucked his shoulder and tried to roll, but the impact stunned him. His fatigued and frantic mount trotted away, leaving Tal lying unprotected on the ground. The mercenary captain turned his animal and urged it on for one more attack, intending to trample Tal underfoot.
Tal rolled, barely avoiding the animal's hooves, and felt Raven's sword pass over him, missing him by bare inches, for the mercenary captain had not leaned over far enough in order to deliver the death blow.
Tal levered himself upright, placing his weight on his uninjured left leg, and got ready to fight again. But instead of the expected attack, he saw Raven riding to the south.
The murderer had had enough, and was running away, his exhausted mount barely able to sustain a trot. Tal shouted for his mare; but she took no notice. She was too far away for him to get to with his injured leg. He needed to tend his injuries or he would faint from blood loss. He was already dizzy from the blow to his head sustained when falling from his horse.
Black frustration rose up and swept over him when he spied his bow and quiver only a few yards away. As fast as he could he hobbled over to where they lay and picked up the bow. He drew one arrow from the quiver, nocked the string, and pulled back. He judged the wind and elevation, and let fly.
He knew he would have just this one shot.
Raven never heard the arrow. He rode along, slightly hunched over the animal's neck.
Then the arrow struck. It slammed into Raven's back, between the shoulder blades, punching through the leather armour he wore.
Tal saw him go limp and drop from the horse. It was such a boneless fall that Tal had no need to walk over to the body to know that Raven was, at last, dead.
Tal's leg collapsed. He felt as if all will and strength had been drained out of him. His horse was unconcernedly cropping the grass a hundred yards away. In a minute, he would try to get her. First, he must rest a little. Just sit and catch his breath. Then he'd deal with his leg and shoulder.
His last thought before he fainted was that was the best shot he'd ever made.
He awoke to the smell of food and coffee. He was lying under blankets next to a wagon. Someone had bound his shoulder and. leg. It was night.
Tal turned his head to see John Creed sitting next to a fire, while half a dozen men from his company were gathered around a larger campfire a few yards away.
Tal used his uninjured arm to lever himself up. He leaned back against the wagon's wheel. "Thanks," he said.
Creed handed him an earthenware cup and while Tal sipped the bitter brew, said, "Good thing we happened along. You damn near bled to death."
"How'd you find me?"
Creed laughed. "It wasn't hard." He handed Tal a still-warm cut of meat wrapped in trail bread and Tal discovered that he was ravenous. He bolted the food down, while Creed continued. "You littered your trail with corpses." He pointed north. "We left the village at daybreak, maybe seven hours after you took out after Raven." He scratched his chin. "Fact is, I figured you for a corpse yourself, but you did well, Tal Hawkins. When I saw the first body, me and a couple of the lads hurried on ahead, to see if you needed a hand. You didn't." He chuckled again. "You most certainly didn't.
"Too bad you couldn't see the expression on Raven's face when I rolled him over. He died very surprised." Creed chuckled. "Your arrow was sticking through him, and he had his chin down like he was looking to see what just popped through his chest. Bastard never had enough of a sense of humour, if you ask me." He stood up and pointed some distance away. "We found you over there, just about done in. I patched you up and the wagon and the rest of the boys got here two hours ago. You can ride in the wagon until we get to Coastal Watch. That leg is nasty, but if you can keep it from getting infected you'll be fine."
Tal chewed his last mouthful of food and asked, "Where's the other wagon?"
"I left it at the village. We didn't need two, and I didn't think you'd mind giving it to the Orodon."
"No, I don't."
"They're singing some songs about you around the fires, Tal. You're a damned hero to those folks."
Tal didn't know what to say. He thought about his own people and wondered what his life would be like had a band of men like his mercenaries ridden to Village Kulaam ten days before Raven's band and the men of Olasko had turned up. He sat back and closed his eyes. "I'm no hero. I just had to take care of some business."
"Well, that you did," said Creed.
"Thanks for taking care of me, John."
"You've the makings of a fine captain, Tal. If you need men, you'll have no trouble getting them. You're fair, take care of things, and you pay better than most."
"If I ever need a strong right hand, John Creed, you'll be the first I call." Tal put down the cup and settled back. Sleep was coming again, he knew: his body needed rest to heal.
"You call, and I'll come," said the mercenary with a grin. Then, looking off into the night, he asked, "What next?"
Tal gazed at the stars above. "Some rest. Then more business."
"Well," said Creed. "Business can wait at least for a few days. Rest while you can, I always say."
Tal settled back in the blankets and felt sleep rising up to claim him. He thought about his family and hoped they knew some peace now.
Then he thought about the Duke of Olasko and his Captain, Quentin Havrevulen. Those two must also join Raven in death before Talon's family could truly rest. And it was with those unpleasant thoughts that Talon of the Silver Hawk fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.
EPILOGUE - Scorpion Tal sipped his wine.
Nakor said, "What you did was effective, but limited."
"Not for the Orodon," said Tal.
He was sitting in Pug's study on Sorcerer's Isle. Magnus, Caleb and Robert sat around a table. A merry fire burned in the hearth. Pug and Miranda were absent, away on some mysterious errand, according to Nakor.
Tal had made his way to Coastal Watch, where he had purchased passage on a ship to Salador. There he had located some old acquaintances from his time there with Caleb, and had sent word to Magnus that he had finished his business in the north.
Magnus had appeared and taken Tal to the island, using his arts as he had the first time he had transported the young boy from Kendrick's to Pug's estates. Tal had wished more than once for that knack: he was sick of horses, ships and coaches.
He had been back on the island for a day and already the events of the previous month seemed a distant memory. His wounds had healed, though there was stiffness in his shoulder and leg, but the healers on the island assured him there would be no permanent damage, just two impressive scars to add to his collection.
Nakor said, "You acquitted yourself well, Talon."
"Tal, please," he replied. "I've grown used to thinking of myself as Tal Hawkins."
"Tal, then," said Nakor.
"Your defence of the Orodon village was pretty effective, for someone with no formal military training," said Magnus. "You made do with the best at hand, though I admit I wasn't entirely certain why you burned those catapults."
Tal sat up. "I never mentioned that."
Magnus smiled slightly. "No, you didn't. I watched you."
"At Village Queala, from a nearby hillside."
"You were there!" Tal leaned forward in his chair. "You were there and did nothing to help?" His tone was accusatory.
Caleb said, "He couldn't, Tal."
"There is much you still do not know," Nakor added. "But this much you should be able to understand. The magician we spoke of-Leso Varen-must remain ignorant of our part in the things you are doing. If a magician of Magnus's power had appeared and destroyed Raven, it would come to his attention immediately. You would never have been free of that connection in Leso Varen's mind."
Tal nodded. "I don't like it, but I understand."
"Which brings us back to the question, now, what next?" Nakor said.
"Unless you have something else you require of me, I must decide what to do about Kaspar of Olasko."
"There is no decision to be made," Nakor declared. "You must take service with him."
Tal's eyes opened wide. "I cannot!"
"Why not?" asked Caleb. "Mother already has her 'Lady Rowena' in his service. More than one agent is good."
"I cannot be false to an oath, so I cannot take any oath I will be unable to embrace."
Nakor said, "That is as it must be."
"I cannot serve a man like Kaspar, even if you have some plan you think would keep me from being detected by his magician when I lie. For I will not lie and make false oath," Tal continued angrily.
"No," said Nakor. "You misunderstand me. When I said it is as it must be, I mean you must not make a false oath. You must make an oath with all your heart, and serve Kaspar as needed, even at the risk of your life. If you are ordered to hunt one of us down and kill us, you must endeavour to do so with all your heart and if needs be, to kill one of us."
Tal frowned. "You want me to take wholehearted service with our enemies?" He was utterly bemused.
"Yes," said Nakor, "for only that way can you get close enough to Kaspar to kill him when the time is right."
Tal sat back. "I don't understand. How can I serve him without foreswearing my oath and still plan to kill him?"
"Your oath holds just so long as Kaspar holds his oath sacred," Nakor said.
"Ah," said Tal, smiling a little now. " 'It is the responsibility of the master to honour his part in fealty as much as it is the servant's.' "
Nakor said, "Have you heard the parable of the scorpion?"
"Once a scorpion sat upon the bank of a river which was too deep and swift for him to traverse. A frog swam by and the scorpion called out, 'Frog, carry me upon your back to the other shore!'
"The frog replied, 'I will not, for you will sting me and I will die.'
"The scorpion said to the frog, 'But why would I do that? For if I were to do that, I would drown.'
"The frog considered this argument, and at last said, 'Very well. I shall carry you across the river.'
"So the frog came to the shore and took the scorpion upon his back and halfway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog.
"With his dying breath, the frog cried out, 'Why have you done this? For now we will both die!'
"And with his dying breath, the scorpion said, 'Because it is my nature.' "
Nakor looked at Talon. "Eventually, should you live long enough, Kaspar of Olasko will betray you, Tal. It is his nature. And when he does, you will be free of your oath and then you may kill him."
Tal sat back, uncertain of what to say. For a long, long time he reflected on what Nakor had said. Then, he took a deep breath and nodded.
"I will go to Opardum. I will serve the Duke of Olasko."