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Lois McMaster Bujold

The Hallowed Hunt

CHAPTER ONE

THE PRINCE WAS DEAD.

Since the king was not, no unseemly rejoicing dared show in the faces of the men atop the castle gate. Merely, Ingrey thought, a furtive relief. Even that was extinguished as they watched Ingrey’s troop of riders clatter under the gate’s vaulting into the narrow courtyard. They recognized who he was—and, therefore, who must have sent him.

Ingrey’s sweat grew clammy under his leather jerkin in the damp dullness of the autumn morning. The chill seemed cupped within the cobbled yard, funneled down by the whitewashed walls. The lightly armed courier bearing the news had raced from the prince’s hunting seat here at Boar’s Head Castle to the hallow king’s hall at Easthome in just two days. Ingrey and his men, though more heavily equipped, had made the return journey in scarcely more time. As a castle groom scurried to take his horse’s bridle, Ingrey swung down and straightened his scabbard, fingers lingering only briefly on the reassuring coolness of his sword hilt.

The late Prince Boleso’s housemaster, Rider Ulkra, appeared around the keep from wherever he’d been lurking when Ingrey’s troop had been spied climbing the road. Stout, usually stolid, he was breathless now with apprehension and hurry. He bowed. 'Lord Ingrey. Welcome. Will you take drink and meat?'

'I’ve no need. See to these, though.' He gestured to the half dozen men who followed him. The troop’s lieutenant, Rider Gesca, gave him an acknowledging nod of thanks, and Ulkra delivered men and horses into the hands of the castle servants.

Ingrey followed Ulkra up the short flight of steps to the thick-planked main doors. 'What have you done so far?'

Ulkra lowered his voice. 'Waited for instructions.' Worry scored his face; the men in Boleso’s service were not long on initiative at the best of times. 'Well, we moved the body into the cool. We could not leave it where it was. And we secured the prisoner.'

What sequence, for this unpleasant inspection? 'I’ll see the body first,' Ingrey decided.

'Yes, my lord. This way. We cleared one of the butteries.'

They passed through the cluttered hall, the fire in its cavernous fieldstone fireplace allowed to burn low, the few red coals half-hidden in the ashes doing nothing to improve the discomfort of the chamber. A shaggy deerhound, gnawing a bone on the hearth, growled at them from the shadows. Down a staircase, through a kitchen where a cook and scullions fell silent and made themselves small as they passed, down again into a chilly chamber ill lit by two small windows high in the rocky walls.

The little room was presently unfurnished but for two trestles, the boards laid across them, and the sheeted shape that lay silently upon the boards. Reflexively, Ingrey signed himself, touching forehead, lip, navel, groin, and heart, spreading his hand over his heart: one theological point for each of the five gods. Daughter-Bastard-Mother-Father-Son. And where were all of You when this happened?

As Ingrey waited for his eyes to adjust to the shadows, Ulkra swallowed, and said, 'The hallow king—how did he take the news?'

'It is hard to say,' said Ingrey, with politic vagueness. 'Sealmaster Lord Hetwar sent me.'

'Of course.'

Ingrey could read little in the housemaster’s reaction, except the obvious, that Ulkra was glad to be handing responsibility for this on to someone else. Uneasily, Ulkra folded back the pale cloth covering his dead master. Ingrey frowned at the body.

Prince Boleso kin Stagthorne had been the youngest of the hallow king’s surviving—of the hallow king’s sons, Ingrey corrected his thought in flight. Boleso was still a young man, for all he had come to his full growth and strength some years ago. Tall, muscular, he shared the long jaw of his family, masked with a short brown beard. The darker brown hair of his head was tangled now, and matted with blood. His booming energy was stilled; drained of it, his face lost its former fascination, and left Ingrey wondering how he had once been fooled into thinking it handsome. He moved forward, hands cradling the skull, probing the wound. Wounds. The shattered bone beneath the scalp gave beneath his thumbs’ pressure on either side of a pair of deep lacerations, blackened with dried gore.

'What weapon did this?'

'The prince’s own war hammer. It was on the stand with his armor, in his bedchamber.'

'How very... unexpected. To him as well.' Grimly, Ingrey considered the fates of princes. All his short life, according to Hetwar, Boleso had been alternately petted and neglected by parents and servants both, the natural arrogance of his blood tainted with a precarious hunger for honor, fame, reward. The arrogance—or was it the anxiety?—had bloated of late to something overweening, desperately out of balance. And that which is out of balance... falls.

The prince wore a short open robe of worked wool, lined with fur, blood-splashed. He must have been wearing it when he’d died. Nothing more. No other recent wounds marked his pale skin. When the housemaster said they had waited for instructions, Ingrey decided, he had understated the case. The prince’s retainers had evidently been so benumbed by the shocking event, they had not even dared wash or garb the corpse. Grime darkened the folds of Boleso’s body... no, not grime. Ingrey ran a finger along a groove of chill flesh, and stared warily at the smear of color, dull blue and stamen yellow and, where they blended, a sickly green. Dye, paint, some colored powder? The dark fur of the inner robe, too, showed faint smears.

Ingrey straightened, and his eye fell on what he had at first taken for a bundle of furs laid along the far wall. He stepped closer and knelt.

It was a dead leopard. Leopardess, he amended, turning the beast partly over. The fur was fine and soft, fascinating beneath his hands. He traced the cold, curving ears, the stiff white whiskers, the pattern of dark whorls upon golden silk. He picked up one heavy paw, feeling the leathery pads, the thick ivory claws. The claws had been clipped. A red silk cord was bound tightly around the neck, biting deeply into the fur. Its end was cut off. Ingrey’s hairs prickled, a reaction he quelled.

Ingrey glanced up. Ulkra, watching him, looked even more bleakly blank than before.

'This is no creature of our woods. Where in the world did it come from?'

Ulkra cleared his throat. 'The prince obtained it from some Darthacan merchants. He proposed to start a menagerie here at the castle. Or possibly train it for hunting. He said.'

'How long ago was this?'

'A few weeks. Just before his lady sister stopped here.'

Ingrey fingered the red cord, letting his brows rise. He nodded at the dead animal. 'And how did this happen?'

'We found it hanging from a beam in the prince’s bedroom. When we, um, went in.'

Ingrey sat back on his heels. He was beginning to see why no Temple divine had yet been called up to take charge of the funeral rites. The daubing, the red cord, the oak beam, hinted of an animal not merely slain but sacrificed, of someone dabbling in the old heresies, the forbidden forest magics. Had the sealmaster known of this, when he’d sent Ingrey? If so, he’d given no sign. 'Who hung it?'

With the relief of a man telling a truth that could not hurt him, Ulkra said, 'I did not see. I could not say. It was alive, leashed up in the corner and lying perfectly placidly, when we brought the girl in. We none of us heard or saw any more after that. Until the screams.'

'Whose screams?'

'Well... the girl’s.'

'What was she crying? Or were they... ' Ingrey cut short the just cries. He’d a

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