When Hal goes bad, she goes really bad. Here’s an extract from my latest book, Leda – Part Three of The Duellist Trilogy.
Tipping the Balance
This bloodsucking leech of a world which just seemed to keep taking until Hal had no more left to give…it had finally thrown something back. Leda was the break of sun through storm clouds; she was flower petals mingling with the sand and heat of the desert. She had returned.
Hal held Leda at arm’s length, unable to speak, taking in the girl’s outlandish clothes ˗ the shirt and trousers twice her size, besmirched with mud and torn to rags. Her ill-fitting boots and the heavy sheepskin draped over her shoulders. Her wild curls were plastered to her face with rain and sweat and dirt. She was thin: half-starved, Hal guessed, and pale with exhaustion. And somehow aged, as if in weeks she’d witnessed years. Unwilling to let the girl go again, Hal drew her closer, squeezing her so hard that Leda yelped.
“Where have you been?”
“If I told you, Hal, you might not believe me. I’ll write you another book some day. It all seems more like a story than the truth.”
Hal read the suffering in Leda’s face, the lines of worry etched into her skin. “A tale to frighten children with?”
Leda looked away. “Something like that.” She gnawed on her lower lip and shivered. “My saviour, Oræl,” she said.
Drawing from Hal’s embrace, she threw an arm around the shoulders of her companion: auburn haired and golden eyed, strong and long of limb, her face freckled, weather-worn and honest. Hal warmed to her immediately.”Is it true?” she asked. “Did you save her?”
“We saved each other,” Oræl said. Hal detected a crofter’s accent, thick and melodic. She observed, too, how Oræl leaned towards Leda, as if drawn to her on an invisible thread.
There was a snapping of undergrowth, a pummelling of the ground, as Roc’s army marched outwards and onto the moors. Leda gripped Oræl’s hand in fear.
“Don’t worry, Leda. That’s the rest of us. Magda is here and Jools, and…”
“Mother?” Leda asked, the breath catching in her throat.
Hal shook her head, guilt and loss stealing up on her in equal measure. “Leda, your mother is Josen’s prisoner.”
“It was my fault. We argued and…”
“Well, well, well…the moors do deliver up their treasures!” Jools jumped down from her horse, her voice sharp with surprise. Hal closed her eyes in frustration.
“Leda, from which well of hope did you spring?” Jools grinned, swinging Leda around. “Sometimes it’s like all your birthdays rolled into one, ain’t it, Hal?” She caught Hal’s eye and winked. “Well cheer up for the spirits’ sakes! Something good’s happened for a change.
“She doesn’t know yet,” said Hal.
“What doesn’t she know?”
Hal hissed with irritation. “Leda,” she began gently.
“We’ve already heard, Hal. We passed through Lake End and they told us everything. We were headed for Hannac, but…” her voice trailed away, her eyes deepening with sorrow. “Now Dal Reniac needs us. I’ll talk to Castor, I’ll do anything to stop him.”
“Well, what do you know?” Jools said, elbowing Hal in the ribs. “That’s exactly where we’re headed too, isn’t it, Hal?”
Hal winced. “My dead are at Hannac.”
“But it’s the living in Dal Reniac who need us now, Hal.” Magda, pushed her way through the throngs of soldiers. Word of Leda’s return was greeted with cheers and shouts as the news carried through the ranks. Magda embraced Leda warmly, kissing her on her forehead.
“Hal, you can’t help Hannac now. I know how desperately you must want to get back there,” Leda said. “I want that too, believe me. But we have a duty to the city. And to Edæc.”
Magda threw Hal a confused look. “But my brother’s probably dead, Leda.”
“No! At Lake End they said he fled to Dal Reniac before Castor had reached Hannac.”
Relief flooded Magda’s face. “Spirits, may it be the truth,” she whispered. A snort of contempt from the older of the two prisoners cut through her prayer.
“So these are Castor’s spies?” Jools turned her gaze on Davic and his companion, still held at knife point by Roc’s men. “Hal, they’re all yours.”
Reluctantly, Hal shifted her gaze from Leda to Davic. “It seems odd, doesn’t it?” she asked. “We hear so many reports of Hannac destroyed, of all its people put to the sword or burnt alive. And yet here you are, Davic. Wandering the moors at will.”
“I escaped, Hal,” Davic gasped. “It was awful. I ran, and…they were screaming. People running, Castor’s guards everywhere, blood…” spit flecked his lips.
“Yes. So I imagine. Every hour of every day and night.”
“He’s lying!” Leda cried. “We heard them talking before you arrived. They were speaking about you, Hal, and of the thieves…and of what Davic had done at Hannac.”
“Well is that so?” Hal wetted her lips with her tongue. She’d never trusted the boy. He’d always had a tendency to whine, to blame others for his own weaknesses, to gossip and gloat over the tenants’ misfortunes. She’d tolerated him for Luc’s sake. “And just what is it that you did at Hannac, Davic? Perhaps your friend here can enlighten us. I don’t remember seeing him before.” She slipped her sword from her belt, waving it an inch from the spy’s face. “You’re a Berasé man, perhaps?”
He watched her for a moment, a thin smile creeping across his dark, unshaven cheeks, his eyes fuelled with hatred. And then he hawked hard and spat in her face.
After all those nights spent dreaming of murder and revenge, after the days of riding, hollowed out and lost, she surprised herself with her restraint, dragging the back of her sleeve across her cheek. But then, she realised that for the first time in days she had power. She was in control. And she was prepared to take her time.
“Your friend doesn’t seem to like me, Davic,” she said. “I wonder why?”
“It’s true what I said, Hal! I met him on the moors. I was wandering for days. My Da killed, and Arec and all of them.” He broke into pitiful sobs. “It was hell.”
“I’m sure. Tie them both to that tree over there.”
As Davic and the older man were dragged to a thick oak tree on the fringe of the forest, Magda laid a hand on Hal’s arm. “Hal,” she warned. “We’re no better than they are if we…”
“I know what I’m doing,” she growled, hit by a sudden flash of anger. “And you’d do the same in my place. Jools, give me your knife.”
She was wrong of course, and Magda was right. She knew it in the very fibre of her being. What she wanted to do now would break her apart. It would send her spiralling, plummeting away from herself, from all the rules she had ever consciously clung to. And yet she couldn’t stop herself. Something had snapped within her back at Roc’s fortress. She couldn’t hold herself back. The world had demanded too much for her to care about restraint anymore.
Hal crouched in front of the two men, now bound to the broad trunk of the oak, Davic whimpering and crying, the older man still capable of contempt, his eyes hard and fixed on the point of Jools’ knife which she waved before his face.
“So who are you, Sir? I like to put a name to a man I’m about to hurt.”
His lips tightened to thin, white lines. She considered him for a few moments, balancing the knife on the tips of her fingers, rotating it over and over. And then she drove it hard into his left shoulder. There was a collective gasp, punctured by a few ugly cheers. Magda dived forwards to stop her, but Roc and Cesary held her back.
“Bastard born bitch of a whore.” He spat the words out at her in his pain, sweat beading his brow, blood blotting the worsted of his jacket and fanning out beneath his armpit and across his chest.
“Well he’s right about the first part,” said Jools helpfully, peering over Hal’s shoulder.
Hal threw her a look of disgust. “Now, Sir, no more speculating on my birth, my character or my occupation. We’re here to talk about you. And what you were doing wandering the moors with Davic.”
“Kayetan!” Davic suddenly screamed. “His name’s Kayetan!”
“Good. That’s good. Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“Don’t utter another word, fool!” Kayetan gasped, his face draining of colour.
“Davic,” leaving the knife buried in Kayetan’s shoulder, she twisted round to face the Hannac boy. Leda stood just to the left of the oak. The girl’s face was bereft of emotion, her grey eyes cold and impassive. Something told Hal to stop: to pull out the knife, to patch Kayetan up, to leave him to heal and Davic to his guilt. To stop this vile, bloody performance before more damage was done. But she couldn’t. The anger, the sorrow, the fracture to her spirit: it all ran too deep.
“Davic,” she said again.
He was a crumpled, weeping mess. A hot trickle of urine leaked out onto the grass between his legs, steaming as it hit the cold earth.
“I want you to watch what I’m about to do to Kayetan,” she continued.
“No!” He moaned.
“Watch him!” She seized the boy’s hair, twisting his head around until he could not help but look at the older man. “Because I’m going to do it to you too…”
Davic’s breathing grew feverish and ragged, his sweat coated her hand.
“…unless you answer all my questions. For the sake of your father who was ˗ I assume he’s now dead ˗ an honourable man, I’ll give you a chance. But tell me, what really did happen at Hannac?”
“I ran,” he said, but this time there was no conviction in his voice. “I escaped.”
“But Leda says otherwise. And with all the best will in the world, Davic, I trust her far, far more than I ever trusted you.”
“No you didn’t.” She curled her fingers around the handle of Jools’ knife. And then she twisted, Kayetan screaming as the blade ground through gristle, tendons and muscle.
“I think he’d rather you told the truth actually, Davic. Isn’t that right, Kayetan?”
“You monstrous traitor.” Kayetan was breathing hard through his nose, his jaw clenched in a bid to stop himself from howling in agony.
“Now I’m certain that he doesn’t like me.” She turned back to Davic. “I don’t blame him. I’ve been there myself, you see. I know how he feels. At first, you think that the torture will stop…eventually. When you realise that’s not about to happen, you start thinking about death, and what a relief it would be.”
Kayetan seemed to be fighting a battle with consciousness, his eyes rolling in their sockets, his breathing feverish.
“I don’t think he’s quite there…yet,” Hal said. “When you realise that they won’t even grant you that mercy, you wonder if you can bring yourself to beg. For death, I mean. It’s an awful thing. It takes you apart piece by little piece, until you forget who you really are. I don’t think you ever truly recover.”
Leda was still there, hovering behind Davic, her expression one of crafted ice. Hal immediately regretted the confession.
“But look,” she said. “I don’t want us to get that far. So for the spirits’ sakes!” She grabbed his hair again and shouted into his face. “Tell me what happened!”
He twitched and spasmed, his body now jerking beyond his control. He closed his eyes. “Arec let him in,” he said at last.
“So it was all Arec’s fault?”
“No! He thought…he though Castor would respect the ancient laws of hosts.”
She rocked back on her heels. Arec ˗ he would have done that, the trusting fool. He would have seen Castor as another Diodiné: a firm, fair respecter of tradition. “And then what?” she asked quietly.
“Castor and his men…they murdered, slaughtered, burnt…all of them.” Bending over in his bonds, he heaved and retched, vomiting into a patch of leaves. Ready to throw up herself, she backed away, rose and turned.
Still caught between Roc and his son, Magda shook her head. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Whatever it takes.”
Hal twisted back round and peered down at Davic. “So they all died, did they? All of them? Your father, Arec, Elis, the tenants, their children?”
He nodded, a few strings of drool flecking his lips and chin.
“Except for you.”
“He betrayed the Crofter, you stupid cow!” Kayetan suddenly brayed.
“He betrayed the Crofter from here to hell and back.”
“No!” Davic gasped.
“You told them Edæc had run?” She dropped back down to face him. “Did you?”
There was a silence, broken only by the angry mutterings of Roc’s men. And then Davic screamed, “Yes!”
“I thought it would save us if I told them Edæc was gone.”
Before she even realised what was happening, Leda had slapped Davic hard across the face. “How could you? Davic, we were children together ˗ all of us. We were friends!”
“He was never one of us!” Davic rasped, ducking from her blows. “He was always yours!”
“Leda!” Hal seized Leda’s wrists, drawing her close until the struggle had left her, until she had exhausted herself.
“Didn’t make any difference, anyway.” Kayetan’s laughter was a hoarse rattle of phlegm. “Fabiac and Gric handed him over to Castor once he reached Dal Reniac. He screamed for you, Leda Nérac, when they strung him up. Screamed and yelled your name, he did, thinking you were dead. Wept like a babe.”
She tensed in Hal’s arms. And then she fled, ripping from her grasp, running down into the forest. Without a word, Oræl turned and followed her.
“And you too.” Kayetan fixed his leer on Magda. “You’re Brighthair, aren’t you?”
Magda had wrested free of Roc and Cesary; was prowling with soft, dangerous steps towards him, her revulsion at Hal’s cruelty now giving way to abject, undisguised horror. “They hung him?”
“Aye. With a placard around his neck: ‘Lord Crofter.'” His laughter was like a rook’s harsh caw. “You’ll see him before you reach Dal Reniac. In fact, you’ll probably smell him before you see him by now, I’d expect.”
Magda ran, bowling into Hal who pushed her back. “Magda, don’t. We need him alive,” Hal yelled, but Magda had already forged past her, dragging the knife from Kayetan’s shoulder. His eyes rounded in fear as he saw his own death before it hit him, as she plunged the dagger deep into his chest. Blood bubbled out between his lips and he flailed helplessly against the ropes. And then he sank, the life moaning out of him as Magda stepped away, staring at her own hands and shaking, her face twisted with torment. Hal reached for her but she staggered from her grasp and disappeared amongst the troops.
“Well,” Hal breathed. “It looks as if it’s just you and me now, Davic. So you really had better start giving me more. What are Castor’s intentions in Dal Reniac?”
Davic swivelled around, unable to look away from Kayetan’s corpse; at the way the dead man’s head lolled on his neck like a ball on a string, his body folded in upon itself. Then he looked at Hal. “He’ll bend it to his will,” he said, his voice now strangely sober, the tone of a man who’d witnessed so much terror that he’d been purged of all fear. “Or he’ll break it.”
“I see. So Gric and Fabiac let him in?”
“They opened the gates to him, yes.”
“And if he’s so certain of his power, why send spies like yourself back outside the city?”
“Because…Hal, did you mean it? Will you let me go?”
“I always say what I mean, boy.” She was tired suddenly, so tired of all this pain, this cruelty, of the damage she’d inflicted on others and upon herself.
“An army’s coming.”
“Well of course an army’s coming, boy!” Roc sounded incredulous. “My army!”
“No!” Davic panted. “From the east. Another one. When he heard of it he…Castor…he decided to send out scouts everywhere.”
“She’s done it!” Jools suddenly screeched, performing a mad little dance. “Oh my darling! Oh my princess! She’s a diamond, a little beauty! Oh! Oh, Kris! Oh, you’re a genius, mate!”
“Jools!” Hal turned to her, shaking her head. “Please!”
“Don’t kill me! Please, Hal!” Davic begged again.
“Shut up! Shut your lying, betraying mouth, Davic!” She pulled the knife from Kayetan’s chest, her hands now slippery with blood and raised it before the boy’s face. He closed his eyes, whispering to himself in prayer. And then she brought the blade down hard against the ropes. When he opened his eyes, he was free.
“Listen to me, Davic.” Before he could scrabble to his feet, she’d grabbed him by the back of his neck and forced him to his knees, his face hovering an inch from Kayetan’s slumped body. “You see what I did? You see what Brighthair did?”
He nodded, snivelling and sobbing, his entire body heaving. “I’m going to give you a horse. I’ll even give you an escort, just so I know you’ve made it to the gates of Dal Reniac. And once you’re in, I want you to deliver this message back to your Master, back to Castor.”
He shifted beneath her grasp but she held him down, pressing the knife to his neck. “Tell Castor that I’ll do the same thing to him. Look at him, so that you remember every detail. Can you do that?”
He nodded again.
“Good. Now get up.”
He was on his feet, his face flushed, his eyes red.
“And go.” She was so exhausted that she could barely stand herself. “Go!” She pushed him towards a pair of guards. “Follow him. Make sure he gets there,” she said.
“He won’t tell Castor.” Jools bent to retrieve her knife, wiping it on a rag.
“Once he’s inside Dal Reniac, he’ll have no choice. They’ll find him.”
“I never knew you had it in you…” the thief said, jabbing her thumb at Kayetan’s mutilated body, her eyes glittering with what might have been admiration.
Hal felt sick. “Neither did I,” she whispered, heading for the forest. “Leda!” She yelled out into the trees, but there was no reply. “Leda!”
Had she lost her again? Desperate, she scrambled down the bank: running, clinging to branches for balance.
“She’s here!” Oræl’s voice filtered back up to her through the woodland. Hal ran, slipped, cursed and ran again, spying at last the two women as they clung to each other ˗ Leda shaking, her knuckles white where she gripped Oræl’s shoulders. Over Leda’s head, Oræl stared at Hal with a look which almost bordered on fear. Hal glanced down at her hands, still running crimson with Kayetan’s blood. Bending over, she plucked some leaves from the ground and wiped them across her palms. The crofter backed away, leaving Leda alone amongst the trees.
“What have you done?” She turned to Hal, drawing her hands across her face, her lips twisted with shock and disgust.
“What do you mean?”
“Hal, you just tortured a man. You tied him to a tree and you…that wasn’t defending yourself or fighting in battle. That was sadistic. It was…oh, I haven’t words!”
“I know he’s dead! I know that. I feel it with my entire body. But will your butchery bring him back to me?”
“Yes! Let’s call it by its real name. Let’s not pretend. What makes us different from Castor, Hal, is that we don’t torture or kill others just because we have the power to do so. And the minute we do…as Magda said, we’re no better than they are!”
“Magda…who just drove her knife through a man’s heart out of revenge?”
“She was finishing what you’d started. What would my mother have said, Hal?”
“Oh…” flooded with shame, she turned away, unable to look at Leda. “You play your cards so well.”
“This isn’t a game and I’m not holding any cards. What would she have thought?”
She was so weary, her spirit so weighted down now. Hal leant against a tree, her back to its bark and slowly worked her way down until she was sitting amongst the roots. “She’d not recognise me,” she said at last. “These days, Leda, I barely recognise myself.”
Her face swollen from crying, Leda stared at her for a long time. The fog had lifted, but rain had taken its place ˗ light, gentle, as if the sky itself were weeping. With a long, mournful sigh, Leda flung herself down onto the wet earth beside Hal. “I still see you, Hal Hannac,” she said at last. ‘You’re still there. Just try to do what you do best. Defend us with your sword if you have to, take the fight to Castor. But please, no more torture. No more cruelty.”
Hal rested the back of her head against the tree, rain dusting her face.
“Hal, I know…I understand what tips the balance between man and monster, I feel it so well. It would take so little to turn me into my father.”
“What?” Shocked out of her stupor, Hal turned to look at Leda. “What did you say?”
“I understand,” Leda said. “I could kill every one of them now, for Edæc’s sake. I could have stood and watched you rip out Davic’s heart. I come this close every single day.” She held her thumb and forefinger up to the air. “My fear over what you’re becoming…it’s my own fear. It’s fear for myself.”
Hal shook her head. “What are you talking about, Leda? You’re the purest thing living in this rotten world.”
“No, I’m not. And you see it…you and my mother. I know that you do. You see my father every time you look at me.”
“Your father? Oh, Leda!” Hal slipped an arm around the girl’s shoulders, pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. “You’re not Bruno Nérac’s daughter,” she said.
Leda stiffened. “Am I not? Whose daughter am I, if not his?”
“You’re mine.” Hal drew her closer. “You’re my daughter, Leda. You always have been. And you always will be.”
She felt the girl break again, her body racked with sobs as they sat beneath the tree, rain washing away the blood.