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Tash had felt the same sense of relief Josie had when they bid goodbye to Blackbriar and turned their faces back towards Telmar, a sense that he was turning back to a nest of safety in a dangerous and irritating world. The empty blue lands had called to him, and part of him would have liked to stride out across them, seeing new places each day and meeting peculiar new people; but the greater part of him wanted only to return to the place where he had a good idea of where everything was, and people were unlikely to bother him, and he could curl up with Josie whenever they liked.

This camp by the riverside was a good something-in-between, and he had quite enjoyed their brief holiday there. It was a pity that Josie was still so tired, and had stayed behind at their camp, he thought: but she was never patient with fishing anyway, and she would be pleased with what he had found for her when he came back.

Tash had spent longer than he had expected to, cheerfully tracking the big fish to their deep lurking pool and gathering two of them. By the time he returned to Josie the cloudless sky was a pink shading to grey, and the birds of evening were making their first tentative forays across it. He tarried a little to watch them from time to time, fascinated; they were such interesting creatures, like nothing he had known on his old world.

Josie had not yet lit the fire, Tash noticed as he drew nearer. Perhaps she had fallen asleep? He hurried on, feeling uneasy, and became very much more so when he found no sign of Josie at the camp.

‘Josie?’ he called out. ‘Josie!’

Tash cast about for any signs of his wife. In one place the bracken underfoot seemed to have been trampled by some large creature; in a soft patch of earth by the river, there was the booted footprint of a man. Strangers had been here. Josie had gone with them. No, she had been taken. She would not have gone willingly. She would not have left everything so scattered about. And he could smell that she had been afraid.

The light was failing, and it was not clear which way the strangers had gone. Tash crouched down at the edge of the camp, put his arms over his head and tried to think. He had come from upriver and had heard or seen nothing; perhaps they had come from downriver? If any of them were still near, they were sure to find him; he had shouted lfor Josie loud enough. He crouched for a few long minutes, forcing himself to breathe slowly, listening as hard as he could. He heard nothing but the birds and the river. When no one came, he got to his feet and struck off into the shadowy forest.

Tash saw the fire of the brigands’ camp about three hours into the night after he had walked a wide circle through the woods, frightening woodland creatures as he passed them by. While he walked he had forced himself to stay calm, to conserve his energy, making himself into an instrument for finding Josie, but when he saw the light he began to seethe with rage. Who were these men, to take his Josie? Tash quickened his stride and moved towards the flickering flames, dimly aware of the voices of men and the noises of beasts already alarmed at his approach.

‘Halt!’ called a voice. ‘Name yourself, if you are man or talking beast.’ It was the voice of a human man, but Tash could tell nothing more about it.

‘Where is Josie?’ Tash called in response.

‘Put down your weapons, and advance slowly,’ said the voice. Then it said, ‘By the Lion!’, for Tash had not slowed at all on being told to halt, but had continued to stride angrily on, and his bulk had just become visible on the edge of the firelight. Horses whinnied in alarm, and men scurried for their weapons. They were dark men like Yustus, Tash saw, but most were taller and more heavyset than he had been, and they wore unkempt beards.

‘Halt!’ called one of the men, pointing a complicated sort of bow at Tash.

‘Where is Josie?’ called Tash again, his voice rising to an inhuman roar.

‘What is that beast?’ called one of the men. ‘He is a monster from Telmar,’ said another, and raised his hands to his face in a sign to ward off evil. But the men who had more of their wits about them had swords in their hands, or arrows notched to bowstrings, so there were a good half-dozen weapons pointed at Tash by the time he was near enough to feel the heat of the fire.

‘I don’t know of any Josie,’ said a smooth voice that seemed to hold less fear than the others. The man who belonged to this voice had come striding up swiftly at the first sounds of alarm, and now stood closer to Tash than any of the men who had their weapons trained on him. This man had a beard that was more neatly trimmed than the others, and wore a polished leather breastplate with the image of some insect embossed on it. He spoke as if he met apparitions such as Tash as a matter of course, and held his curved sword in a way that somehow contrived to be neither defensive nor aggressive. A leader must never show fear before his followers, Tash remembered learning on the world of the Thalarka. This one is afraid of me, like the others, but he cannot show it.

‘Is Josie a creature like yourself? Or is it a man you seek?,’ asked the smooth-voiced man. ‘For it might be that we seek the same man. Tell me more, and it may be we can help one another.’

The man stepped took another step closer, keeping his eyes fixed on Tash and his voice calm and steady. ‘We are looking-‘ he began, but he did not finish.

Tash could smell Josie on the smooth-voiced man. With a cry of inarticulate rage, he lashed out. The man was quick with his sword, and brought his blade in position to block Tash’s blow, but the strength that would have stopped a strong human warrior’s swordarm was not enough to stop Tash. The sword cut deep into Tash’s arms, and in one of them stopped at bone; but the other arm carried through and struck the man’s throat, with force enough that things inside it splintered. The man staggered backward, dropping his weapon, gurgling and clutching at the air.

‘Kill it!’ called a man. Tash felt arrows tearing into his flesh, and heard the sickening sound they made as they stuck there. The bowmen had encircled him, so they could not fire high for fear of hitting one another, and most of their shots struck him in the legs.

One man was bolder than the others and came at Tash with his sword. The blade stabbed deep into Tash’s side a little above his waist. Without thinking, Tash brought his beak down into the man’s neck, cutting through artery and windpipe in a single swift bite. The intrepid swordsman’s momentum carried him forward and he fell behind Tash, fountaining blood.

Tash had never been in so much pain, but he did not care. He kicked at the fire, sending up a storm of dancing sparks. Another arrow sank deeply into his back. The taste of the brigand’s blood was sweet in his mouth.

‘Where is Josie?’ he shouted.

‘Keep your distance,’ said one of the men, waving the others back. ‘Keep shooting it. It is too strong.’

The horses were maddened by Tash’s violence and now one broke free of its bonds, kicking wildly and careening wildly off into the darkness. Curses, screams, and inarticulate conflicting orders filled the air. The tear in Tash’s side burned and bled.

Tash pounced to the nearest of the brigands, a bowman who was fumbling to notch another arrow to his bowstring, and broke both his arms in one motion, twisting them like saplings.

‘Where is Josie?’ he cried again. ‘Where is she?’ More arrows struck Tash, but no other swordsman dared to come near. He grabbed a tentpole and drove it through the chest of one of the bowmen who was not standing quite far enough away.

‘The monster will kill us all,’ called one of the men.

Inexorably, irresistibly, heedless of his wounds, Tash hacked his way through the camp, searching for his wife. The brigands fell away before him. The man whose arms Tash had broken wailed in agony. Red foam bubbled from the mouth of the one Tash had impaled with the tentpole.

‘In the commander’s tent,’ called a man with an angular face, one of those who had held back from the fight. ‘The wine-red tent. The girl is in there.’

Tash tore into the big wine-red tent, which was still too small for him to stand upright in. On a bed of blankets at the rear of it Josie lay insensible, her legs showing white in the darkness. She smelled of the smooth-voicced man.

‘Josie?’ Tash gathered her up. She lay limply in his arms, but she groaned at the sound of his voice, and he could not see any wound on her. She was alive.

A wild exultant happiness welled up in Tash. ‘Sweeter than narbul venom is it to serve the Mistress of Telmar,’ he intoned in a soft voice, wrapping his arms around Josie to protect her. He did not leave the tent the way he entered – he could hear the men coming cautiously closer to the front – but instead tore his way through the cloth at the back, bringing the tent down behind him as he fled. A few steps further they were in darkness, and Tash loped off towards the river.

At first Tash did not think of the pain at all in his joy at having Josie back. After a very little while, though, he found he could only carry her with three arms. The fourth, the one the leader of the brigands had struck with his sword, hung stiff and useless. The cries of the men carried a long way in the still night, but it did not seem that they were following, and they grew fainter and fainter as Tash crashed through the darkness. At the river side he paused. He needed to set Josie down to do two things: to gather up their things, and to remove the arrows sticking into him. The one in his back was the worst, for he wrenched it sideways as he pulled it out, and afterwards it hurt him even more than the wound in his side. It was hard to gather up Josie and start again, harder than he had thought it would be; his arms and legs felt too heavy, and he felt dizzy. And he hurt, worse and worse.

After he forded the river Tash could no longer run, only walk. With Josie clutched unconscious to his chest he walked on until dawn, then for two hours after, while the birds sang and the sun shone down on meadows carpeted with blue and white flowers. The world occasionally spun giddily around him or bucked unexpectedly, but he ignored this and walked on.

Tash had never been in so much pain for so long, and he had rarely been so tired, but he was not miserable. It was true that he had failed in allowing Josie to be captured, but he had not been at all useless in rescuing her. He had not failed Josie as he had failed Nera. He had cut through the brigands who had captured Josie: inexorably, irresistibly, and he had saved his wife. Now he would go home with her and be safe. He clung to this thought as he walked on, and it kept him happy despite all his pain.

Tash did not feel sorry for the brigands, and think that any of them might have been poor farmers’ sons impressed against their will, with doting sisters at home who would cry when they heard they were dead. Chances are that none of them were, at any rate; and if humans are not often brought up to think of their enemies in such a way, thalarka were brought up even less so when Tash was growing up.

The pain from the wound in Tash’s side had somehow spread to that whole side of his body, and from time to time he had to stop entirely as a spasm of pain went through him.

‘Tash?’ said Josie muzzily.

‘Josie?’ Tash clutched her a bit more tightly to him, and turned to look at her. Her face was paler than usual and she looked thoroughly miserable.

‘I am so glad you are here, dear Tash,’ she said, in a small weak voice. ‘I love you. Can you put me down? I feel sick.’

‘I love you,’ said Tash tenderly, carefully setting Josie down on the grass. She did not stand, or even sit properly at first, but slumped forward, holding her face just off the ground with her hands. She threw up, and then very slowly and carefully stood up, with Tash helping as much as he could manage.

‘Bleh,’ said Josie. ‘Oh, I am so glad you are here.’ She sounded a little better, Tash thought. It was so very very good to hear her voice again, even if it seemed further away then usual.

‘How are you?’ Tash asked her. ‘Did they hurt you?’

‘My head hurts, I feel ill, and – your arm is all over blood, Tash. Poor Tash. Oh, I am so sorry.’ Josie sounded very alarmed.

‘I am alright,’ said Tash. This was not true. The wound in his side had hurt him more and more as he walked, and the flow of blood from it had not stopped, trickling all the way to his feet.

‘No, you are hurt,’ said Josie. She felt him over gently, finding many of his wounds. ‘You are all over blood. Poor Tash. This one is very deep.’ He twitched and hissed at her gentlest touch, the pain making it hard for him to keep standing. ‘Oh, poor Tash, you have been hurt terribly. You must sit down.’

‘I can keep going,’ said Tash. ‘I want to get home.’

‘You are shaking,’ said Josie. ‘And over warm. Sit. Put the packs down.’

Tash obeyed. It was very easy to sit down when he began. The soft grass seemed to drag him to it. The ground rocked gently beneath him, and above him clouds made lazy circles in the painfully blue sky. In the end he found himself more lying down than sitting.

‘What happened to you?’ Tash asked Josie. He lay with his eyes closed, happy that Josie was there, waiting to hear her voice again.

Josie did not answer Tash’s question. ‘There is no water in the canteen,’ she said after a moment. ‘Is there any water near?’

‘There was a stream not long ago,’ said Tash. ‘I will take you there.’

‘No,’ said Josie firmly. ‘I think I can hear it. I will be very careful; you don’t have to worry about me. I feel much better now.’

‘I wish you could stay,’ he said mournfully.

‘I am not going far,’ she said. ‘I will be right back. Just rest for a while, dear Tash, I will be back before you know it.’ She kissed the soft downy bit of his neck and left, and he was very sorry that she was leaving, but he did not complain.

Tash listened to Josie moving slowly off across the meadow, breaking a switch from a willow, and then moving more slowly into the forest. He felt very heavy. The world, which had not rocked or spun for a while after he lay down, started to move again. He found if he stayed very still and tried to breathe very shallowly it seemed to hurt a little bit less. He tried hard to concentrate on doing this, at the same time listening hard for the sounds of Josie in the distance.