Peter V. Brett
The painted man
(Demon – 1)
After the Return
The great horn sounded.
Arlen paused in his work, looking up at the lavender wash of the dawn sky. Morning mist still clung to the air, bringing with its damp an acrid taste that was all too familiar. A quiet dread built in his gut as he waited in the morning stillness, hoping that it had been his imagination. He was eleven years old.
Again the horn was blown, this second note longer and clearer. Behind Arlen, the door to the house opened, and he knew his mother was there, covering her mouth with both hands. How many times had this happened, that he could picture her reaction so clearly?
There was a pause, and then the horn blew twice in rapid succession. One long and two short meant south and east. The Cluster by the Woods. His father had friends amongst the Cutters.
Arlen returned to his work, not needing to be told to hurry. Some chores could wait a day, but the stock still needed to be fed and the cows milked. He left the animals in the barns and opened the hay stores, slopped the pigs, and ran to fetch a wooden milk bucket. His mother was already squatting beneath the first of the cows. He snatched the spare stool and they found cadence in their work, the sound of milk striking wood drumming a funeral march. As they moved to the next pair down the line, Arlen saw his father begin hitching their strongest horse, a five-year-old chestnut-coloured mare named Missy, to the cart. His face was grim as he worked.
What would they find this time?
Before long, they were in the cart, trundling towards the small cluster of houses by the woods. It was dangerous there; over an hour's run to the next warded structure, but the lumber was needed. Arlen's mother, wrapped in her worn shawl, held him tightly as they rode.
'I'm a big boy, mam,' Arlen complained. 'I don't need you to hold me like a baby. I'm not scared.' It wasn't entirely true, but it would not do for the other children to see him clinging to his mother as they rode in. They made mock of him enough as it was.
'I'm scared,' his mother said. 'What if it's me who needs to be held?'
Feeling suddenly proud, Arlen pulled close to his mother again as they travelled down the road. She could never fool him, but she always knew what to say just the same.
A pillar of greasy smoke told them more than they wanted to know long before they reached the others. They were burning the dead. And starting the fires this early, without waiting for everyone to arrive and pray, meant there were a great many. Too many to pray over each one if the work was to be completed before dusk.
It was more than five miles from Arlen's father's farm to the Cluster by the Woods. By the time they arrived, the few remaining cabin fires had been put out, though in truth there was little left to burn. Fifteen houses; all reduced to rubble and ash.
'The wood piles, too,' Arlen's father said, spitting over the side of the cart. He gestured with his chin towards the blackened ruin that remained of a season's cutting. Arlen grimaced at the thought of how the rickety fence that penned the animals would have to last another year, and immediately felt guilty. It was only wood, after all.
The village speaker approached their cart as it pulled up. Selia, whom Arlen's mother sometimes called Selia the Barren, was a hard old woman, tall and thin, with skin like tough leather. Her long grey hair was pulled into a tight bun, and she wore her shawl like a badge of office. She brooked no nonsense, as Arlen had learned more than once at the end of her stick, but today, he was comforted by her presence. Like Arlen's father, something about Selia made him feel safe. Though she had never had children of her own, Selia acted as a parent to everyone in Tibbet's Brook. Few could match her wisdom, and fewer still her stubbornness. When you were on Selia's good side, it felt like the safest place in the world.
'It's good that you've come, Jeph,' Selia told Arlen's father. 'Silvy and young Arlen, too,' she said, nodding to them. 'We need every hand we can get. Even the boy can help.'
Arlen's father grunted, stepping down from the cart. 'I brought my tools,' he said. 'Just tell me where we can throw in.'
Arlen collected the precious tools from the back of their cart. Metal was scarce in the Brook, and his father was proud of his two shovels, his pick and his saw. They would all see heavy use this day.
'Twenty-seven,' Selia said, giving Arlen's parents the number they feared to ask for. Silvy choked and covered her mouth, tears welling in her eyes. Jeph spat again.
'Any survivors?' he asked.
'A few,' Selia said. 'Manie,' she pointed with her stick at a boy who stood staring at the funeral pyre, 'ran all the way to my house in the dark.'
Silvy gasped. No one had ever run so far and lived. 'The wards on Brine Cutter's house held for most of the night,' Selia went on. 'He and his family watched everything. A few others fled the corelings and succoured there, until the fires spread and their roof caught. They waited in the burning house until the beams started to crack, and then took their chances outside in the minutes before dawn. The corelings killed Brine's wife Meena and their son Poul, but the others made it. The burns will heal and the children will be all right in time, but the others…'
She didn't need to finish the sentence. Survivors of a demon attack had a way of dying soon after. Not all, or even most, but enough. Some of them took their own lives, and others simply stared blankly, refusing to eat or drink until they wasted away. It was said you did not truly survive an attack until a year and a day had passed.
'There are still a dozen unaccounted for,' Selia said, but with little hope in her voice.
'We'll dig them out,' Jeph agreed grimly, looking at the collapsed houses, many still smouldering. The Cutters built their homes mostly out of stone to protect against fire, but even stone would burn if enough flame demons gathered in one place and the wards failed.
Jeph joined the other men and a few of the stronger women in clearing the rubble and carting the dead to the pyre. The bodies had to be burned, of course. No one would want to be buried in the same ground the demons rose out of each night. Tender Harral, the sleeves of his robe rolled up to bare his thick arms, lifted each into fire himself, muttering prayers and drawing wards in the air as the flames took them.
Silvy joined the other women in gathering the younger children and tending to the wounded under the watchful eye of the Brook's Herb Gatherer, Coline Trigg. But no herbs could ease the pain of some of the survivors. Brine Cutter, also called Brine Broadshoulders, was a great bear of a man with a booming laugh who used to throw Arlen into the air when they came to trade for wood. Now Brine sat in the ashes beside his ruined house, slowly knocking his head against the blackened wall. He muttered to himself and clutched his arms tightly, as if cold.
Arlen and the other children were put to work carrying water and sorting through the woodpiles for salvageable lumber. There were still a few warm months left to the year, but there would not be time to cut enough wood to last the winter. They would be burning dung again this year, and the house would reek.
Again Arlen weathered a wave of guilt. He was not in the pyre, nor banging his head in shock, having lost everything. There were worse fates than a house smelling of dung.
More and more villagers arrived as the morning wore on. Bringing their families and whatever provisions they could spare, they came from Fishing Hole and Town Square; they came from the Boggin's Hill, and Soggy Marsh. Some even came all the way from Southwatch. And one by one, Selia greeted them with the grim news and put them to work.
With more than a hundred hands, the men doubled their efforts, half of them continuing to dig as the others descended upon the only salvageable structure left in the cluster: Brine Cutter's house. Selia led Brine away, somehow supporting the giant man as he stumbled, while the men cleared the rubble and began hauling new stones. A few took out warding kits and began to paint fresh wards while children made thatch. The house would be restored by nightfall.
Arlen was partnered with Cobie Fisher in hauling wood. The children had amassed a sizeable pile, though it was only a fraction of what had been lost. Cobie was a tall, thickly built boy with dark curls and hairy arms. He was popular amongst the other children, but it was popularity built at others' expense. Few children cared to weather his insults, and fewer still his beatings.
Cobie had tortured Arlen for years, and the other children had gone along Jeph's farm was the northernmost in the Brook, far from where the children tended to gather in Town Square, and Arlen spent most of his time wandering the Brook by himself. Sacrificing him to Cobie's wrath seemed a fair trade to most children.
Whenever Arlen went fishing, or passed by Fishing Hole on the way to Town Square, Cobie and his friends seemed to hear about it, and were waiting in the same spot on his way home. Sometimes they just called him names, or pushed him, but other times he came home bloody and bruised, and his mother shouted at him for fighting.
Finally, Arlen had enough. He left a stout stick hidden in that spot, and the next time Cobie and his friends pounced, Arlen pretended to run, only to produce the weapon as if from thin air and come back at them swinging.
Cobie was the first one struck, a hard blow that left him crying in the dust with blood running from his ear. Willum had received a broken finger, and Gart walked with a limp for over a week. It had done nothing to improve Arlen's popularity amongst the other children, and Arlen's father had caned him, but the other boys never bothered him again. Even now, Cobie gave him a wide berth and flinched if Arlen made a sudden move, even though he was bigger by far.
'Survivors!' Bil Baker called suddenly, standing by a collapsed house at the edge of the Cluster. 'I can hear them trapped in the root cellar!'
Immediately, everyone dropped what they were doing and rushed over. Clearing the rubble would take too long, so the men began to dig, bending their backs with silent fervour. Soon after, they broke through the side of the cellar, and began hauling out the survivors. They were filthy and terrified, but all were very much alive: Three women, six children, and one man.
'Uncle Cholie!' Arlen cried, and his mother was there in an instant, cradling her brother, who stumbled drunkenly. Arlen ran to them, ducking under his other arm to steady him.
'Cholie, what are you doing here?' Silvy asked. Cholie seldom left his workshop in Town Square. Arlen's mother had told the tale a thousand times of how she and her brother had run the farrier's shop together before Jeph began breaking his horses' shoes on purpose for a reason to come court.
'Came to court Ana Cutter,' Cholie mumbled. He pulled at his hair, having already torn whole clumps free. 'We'd just opened the bolt hole when they came through the wards…' His knees buckled, pulling Arlen and Silvy down with his weight. Kneeling in the dust, he wept.
Arlen looked at the other survivors. Ana Cutter wasn't among them. His throat tightened as the children passed. He knew every one of them; their families, what their houses were like inside and out, their animals' names. They met his eyes for a second as they went by, and in that moment, he lived the attack through their eyes. He saw himself shoved into a cramped hole in the ground while those unable to fit turned to face the corelings and the fire. Suddenly he started gasping, unable to stop until Jeph slapped him on the back and brought him to his senses.
They were finishing a cold midday meal when a horn sounded on the far side of the Brook.
'Not two in one day?' Silvy gasped, covering her mouth.
'Bah,' Selia grunted. 'At midday? Use your head, girl!'
Selia ignored her, rising to fetch a horn blower to signal back. Keven Marsh had his horn ready, as the folks from Soggy Marsh always did. It was easy to get separated in the marshes, and no one wanted to be wandering lost when the swamp demons rose. Keven's cheeks inflated like a frog's chin as he blew a series of notes.
'Messenger horn,' Coran Marsh a greybeard advised Silvy. A greybeard, he was Speaker for Soggy Marsh and Keven's father. Arlen didn't know him, so he was a Marsh or a Watch.
They tended to keep to themselves. 'They prob'ly saw the smoke. Keven's telling 'em what's happened and where everyone is.'
'A Messenger in spring?' Arlen asked. 'I thought they come in the fall after harvest. We only finished planting this past moon!'
'Messenger never came last fall,' Coran said, spitting foamy brown juice from the root he was chewing through the gap of his missing teeth. 'We been worried sumpin' happened. Thought we might not have a Messenger bring salt till next fall. Or maybe that the corelings got the Free Cities and we's cut off.'
"The corelings could never get the Free Cities,' Arlen said.
'Arlen, shush your mouth!' Silvy hissed. 'He's your elder!'
'Let the boy speak,' Coran said. 'Ever bin to a free city, boy?' he asked Arlen.
'No,' Arlen admitted.
'Ever know anyone who had?'
'No,' Arlen said again.
'So what makes you such an expert?' Coran asked. 'Ent no one been to one 'cept the Messengers. They're the only ones what brave the night to go so far. Who's to say the Free Cities ent just places like the Brook? If the corelings can get us, they can get them, too.'
'Old Hog is from the Free Cities,' Arlen said, referring to Rusco Hog, the richest man in the Brook. Hog ran the general store, which was the crux of all commerce in Tibbet's Brook.
'Ay,' Coran said, 'an' Old Hog told me years ago that one trip was enough for him. He meant to go back after a few years, but said it wasn't worth the risk. So you ask him if the Free Cities are any safer than anywhere else.'
Arlen didn't want to believe it. There had to be safe places in the world. But again the image of himself being thrown into the cellar flashed across his mind, and he knew that nowhere was truly safe at night.
The Messenger arrived an hour later. He was a tall man in his early thirties, with cropped brown hair and a short, thick beard.
Draped about his broad shoulders was a shirt of metal links, and he wore a long dark cloak with thick leather breeches and boots. His mare was a sleek brown courser. Strapped to the horse's saddle was a harness holding a number of different spears. His face was grim as he approached, but his shoulders were high and proud. He scanned the crowd and spotted the Speaker easily as she stood giving orders. He turned his horse towards her.
Riding a few paces behind on a heavily laden cart pulled by a pair of dark brown mollies, was the Jongleur. His clothes were a brightly coloured patchwork, and he had a lute resting on the bench next to him. His hair was a colour Arlen had never seen before, like a pale carrot, and his skin was so fair it seemed the sun had never touched it. His shoulders slumped, and he looked thoroughly exhausted.
There was always a Jongleur with the annual Messenger. To the children, and some of the adults, the Jongleur was the more important of the two. This one was younger than the last one Arlen remembered, and he seemed sullen, where the other man had been anything but. Children ran to him immediately, and the young Jongleur perked up, the frustration melting from his face so quickly Arlen began to doubt it was ever there. In an instant, the Jongleur was off the cart and spinning his coloured balls into the air as the children cheered.
Others, Arlen among them, forgot their work, drifting towards the newcomers. Selia whirled on them, having none of it. 'The day is no longer because the Messenger's come!' she barked. 'Back to your work!'
There were grumbles, but everyone went back to work. 'Not you, Arlen,' Selia said, 'come here.' Arlen pulled his eyes from the Jongleur and went to her as the Messenger arrived.
'Selia Barren?' the Messenger asked.
'Just Selia will do,' Selia replied primly. The Messenger's eyes widened, and he blushed, the tops of his pale cheeks turning a deep red above his beard. He leaped down from his horse and bowed low.
'Apologies,' he said. 'I did not think. Graig, your usual Messenger, told me that's what you were called.'
'It's pleasing to know what Graig thinks of me after all these years,' Selia said, sounding not at all pleased.
'Thought,' the Messenger corrected. 'He's dead, ma'am.'
'Dead?' Selia asked, looking suddenly sad. 'Was it…?'
The Messenger shook his head. 'It was a chill took him, not corelings. I'm Ragen, your Messenger this year, as a favour to his widow. The Guild will select a new Messenger for you starting next fall.'
'A year and half again before the next Messenger?' Selia asked, sounding like she was readying a scolding. 'We barely made it through this past winter without the fall salt,' she said. 'I know you take it for granted in Miln, but half our meat and fish spoiled for lack of proper curing. And what of our letters?'
'Sorry, ma'am,' Ragen said. 'Your towns are well off the common roads, and paying a Messenger to commit for a month and more of travel each year is costly. The Messenger's Guild is shorthanded, what with Graig catching that chill.' He chuckled and shook his head, but noticed Selia's visage darken in response.
'No offence meant, ma'am,' Ragen said. 'He was my friend as well. It's just… it's not many of us Messengers get to go with a roof above, a bed below, and a young wife at our side. The night usually gets us before that, you see?'
'I do,' Selia said. 'Do you have a wife, Ragen?' she asked.
'Ay,' the Messenger said, 'though to her pleasure and my pain, I see my mare more than my bride.' He laughed, confusing Arlen, who didn't think having a wife not miss you was funny.
Selia didn't seem to notice. 'What if you couldn't see her at all?' she asked. 'What if all you had were letters once a year to connect you to her? How would you feel to hear your letters would be delayed half a year? There are some in this town with kin in the Free Cities. Left with one Messenger or another, some as much as two generations gone. Those people aren't going to come home, Ragen. Letters are all we have of them, and they of us.'
'I am in full agreement with you, ma'am,' Ragen said, 'but the decision is not mine to make. The duke…'
'But you will speak to the duke upon your return, yes?' Selia asked.
'I will,' he said.
'Shall I write the message down for you?' Selia asked.
Ragen smiled. 'I think I can remember it, ma'am.'
'See that you do.'
Ragen bowed again, still lower. 'Apologies, for coming to call on such a dark day,' he said, his eyes flicking to the funeral pyre.
'We cannot tell the rain when to come, nor the wind, nor the cold,' Selia said. 'Not the corelings, either. So life must go on despite these things.'
'Life goes on,' Ragen agreed, 'but if there's anything I or my Jongleur can do to help; I've a strong back and I've treated coreling wounds many times.'
'Your Jongleur is helping already,' Selia said, nodding towards the young man as he sang and did his tricks, 'distracting the young ones while their kin do their work. As for you, I've much to do over the next few days, if we're to recover from this loss. I won't have time to hand the mail and read to those who haven't learned their letters.'
'I can read to those who can't, ma'am,' Ragen said, 'but I don't know your town well enough to distribute.'
'No need,' Selia said, pulling Arlen forward. 'Arlen here will take you to the General Store in Town Square, and Rusco Hog, the owner. Give the letters and packages to him when you deliver the salt. Most everyone will come running now that the salt's in, and Rusco's one of the few in town with letters and numbers. The old crook will complain and try to insist on payment, but you tell him that in time of trouble, the whole town must throw in. You tell him to give out the letters and read to those who can't, or I'll not lift a finger the next time the town wants to throw a rope around his neck.'
Ragen looked closely at Selia, perhaps trying to tell if she was joking, but her stony face gave no indication. He bowed again.
'Hurry along, then,' Selia said. 'Lift your feet and you'll both be back as everyone is readying to leave here for the night. If you and your Jongleur don't want to pay Rusco for a room, any here will be glad to offer their homes.' She shooed the two of them away and turned back to scold those pausing their work to stare at the newcomers.
'Is she always so… forceful?' Ragen asked Arlen as they walked over to where the Jongleur was mumming for the youngest children. The rest had been pulled back to work.
Arlen snorted. 'You should hear her talk to the greybeards. You're lucky to get away with your skin after calling her 'Barren'.'
'Graig said that's what everyone called her,' Ragen said.
'They do,' Arlen agreed, 'just not to her face, unless they're looking to take a coreling by the horns. Everyone hops when Selia speaks.'
Ragen chuckled. 'And her an old daughter, at that,' he mused. 'Where I come from, only Mothers expect everyone to jump at their command like that.'
'What difference does that make?' Arlen asked.
Ragen shrugged. 'Don't know, I suppose,' he conceded. 'That's just how things are in Miln. People make the world go, and Mothers make people, so they lead the dance.'
'It's not like that here,' Arlen said.
'It never is, in the small towns,' Ragen said. 'Not enough people to spare. But the Free Cities are different. Apart from Miln, none of the others give their women much voice at all.'
'That sounds just as dumb,' Arlen muttered.
'It is,' Ragen agreed.
The Messenger stopped, and handed Arlen the reins to his courser. 'Wait here a minute,' he said, and headed over to the Jongleur. The two men moved aside to talk, and Arlen saw the Jongleur's face change again, becoming angry, then petulant, and finally resigned as he tried to argue with Ragen, whose face remained stony throughout.
Never taking his glare off the Jongleur, the Messenger beckoned with a hand to Arlen, who brought the horse over to them.
'…don't care how tired you are,' Ragen was saying, his voice a harsh whisper, 'these people have grisly work to do, and if you need to dance and juggle all afternoon to keep their kids occupied while they do it, then you'd damn well better! Now put your face back on and get to it!' He grabbed the reins from Arlen and thrust them at the man.
Arlen got a good look at the young Jongleur's face, full of indignation and fear, before the Jongleur took notice of him. The second he saw he was being watched, the man's face rippled, and a moment later he was the bright, cheerful fellow who danced for children.
Ragen took Arlen to the cart and the two climbed on. Ragen snapped the reins, and they turned back up the dirt path that led to the main road.
'What were you arguing about?' Arlen asked as the cart bounced along.
The Messenger looked at him a moment, then shrugged. 'It's Keerin's first time so far out of the city,' he said. 'He was brave enough when there was a group of us and he had a covered wagon to sleep in, but when we left the rest of our caravan behind in Angiers, he didn't do near as well. He's got day-jitters from the corelings, and it's made him poor company.'
'You can't tell,' Arlen said, looking back at the cartwheeling man.
'Jongleurs have their mummers tricks,' Ragen said. 'They can pretend so hard to be something they're not that they actually convince themselves of it for a time. Keerin pretended to be brave. The Guild tested him for travel and he passed, but you never really know how people will hold up after two weeks on the open road until they do it for real.'
'How do you stay out on the roads at night?' Arlen asked. 'Da says drawing wards in the soil's asking for trouble.'
'Your da is right,' Ragen said. 'Look in that compartment by your feet.'
Arlen did, and produced a large bag of soft leather. Inside was a knotted rope, strung with lacquered wooden plates bigger than his hand. His eyes widened when he saw wards carved and painted into the wood.
Immediately, Arlen knew what it was: a portable warding circle, large enough to surround the cart and more besides. 'I've never seen anything like it,' Arlen said.
'They're not easy to make,' the Messenger said, 'most Messengers spend their whole apprenticeship mastering the art. No wind or rain is going to smudge those wards. But even then, they're not the same as having warded walls and a door.
'Ever see a coreling face to face, boy?' he asked, turning and looking at Arlen hard. 'Watched it take a swipe at you with nowhere to run and nothing to protect you except magic you can't see?' He shook his head. 'Maybe I'm being too hard on Keerin. He handled his test all right. Screamed a bit, but that's to be expected. Night after night is another matter. Takes its toll on some men, always worried that a stray leaf will land on a ward, and then…' He hissed suddenly and swiped a clawed hand at Arlen, laughing when the boy jumped.
Arlen ran his thumb over each smooth, lacquered ward, feeling their strength. There was one of the little plates for every foot of rope, much like there would be in any warding. He counted more than forty of them. 'Can't wind demons fly into a circle this big?' he asked. 'Da puts posts up to keep them from landing in the fields.'
The man looked over at him, a little surprised. 'Your da's probably wasting his time,' he said. 'Wind demons are strong fliers, but they need running space or something to climb and leap from in order to take off. Not much of either in a corn field, so they'd be reluctant to land, unless they saw something too tempting to resist, like some little boy sleeping in the field on a dare.' He looked at Arlen in that same way Jeph did, when warning Arlen that the corelings were serious business. As if he didn't know.
'Wind demons also need to turn in wide arcs,' Ragen continued, 'and most of them have a wingspan larger than that circle. It's possible that one could get in, but I've never seen it happen. If it does, though…' he gestured to the long, thick spear he kept next to him.
'You can kill a coreling with a spear?' Arlen asked.
'Probably not,' Ragen replied, 'but I've heard that you can stun them by pinning them against your wards.' He chuckled. 'I hope I never have to find out.'
Arlen looked at him, wide-eyed.
Ragen looked back at him, his face suddenly serious. 'Messaging's dangerous work, boy,' he said.
Arlen stared at him a long time. 'It would be worth it, to see the Free Cities,' he said at last. 'Tell me true, what's Fort Miln like?'
'It's the richest and most beautiful city in the world,' Ragen replied, lifting his mail sleeve to reveal a tattoo on his forearm of a city nestled between two mountains. 'The Duke's Mines run rich with salt, metal, and coal. Its walls and rooftops are so well warded; it's rare for the house wards to even be tested. When the sun shines on its walls, it puts the mountains themselves to shame.'
'Never seen a mountain,' Arlen said, marvelling as he traced the tattoo with a finger. 'My da says they're just big hills.'
'You see that hill?' Ragen asked, pointing north of the road.
Arlen nodded. 'Boggin's Hill. You can see the whole Brook from up there.'
Ragen nodded. 'You know what a 'hundred' means, Arlen?' he asked.
Arlen nodded again. 'Ten pairs of hands.'
'Well even a small mountain is bigger than a hundred of your Boggin's Hills piled on top of each other, and the mountains of Miln are not small.'
Arlen's eyes widened as he tried to contemplate such a height. 'They must touch the sky,' he said.
'Some are above it,' Ragen bragged. 'Atop them, you can look down at the clouds.'
'I want to see that one day,' Arlen said.
'You could join the Messenger's Guild, when you're old enough,' Ragen said.
Arlen shook his head. 'Da says the people that leave are deserters,' he said. 'He spits when he says it.'
'Your da doesn't know what he's talking about,' Ragen said. 'Spitting doesn't make things so. Without Messengers, even the Free Cities would crumble.'
'I thought the Free Cities were safe?' Arlen asked.
'Nowhere is safe, Arlen. Not truly. Miln has more people and can absorb the deaths more easily than a place like Tibbet's Brook, but the corelings still take a toll each year.'
'How many people are in Miln?' Arlen asked. 'We have three hundreds in Tibbet's Brook, and Sunny Pasture up the ways is supposed to be almost as big.'
'We have over thirty thousands in Miln,' Ragen said proudly.
Arlen looked at him, confused.
'A thousand is ten hundreds,' the Messenger supplied.
Arlen thought a moment, then shook his head. "There aren't that many people in the world,' he said.
'There are and more,' Ragen said. 'There's a wide world out there, for those willing to brave the dark.'
Arlen didn't answer, and they rode in silence for a time.
It took about an hour and a half for the trundling cart to reach Town Square. The centre of the Brook, Town Square held just over two-dozen warded wooden houses for those whose trade did not have them working in the fields or rice paddies, fishing, or cutting wood. It was here one came to find the tailor and the baker, the farrier, the cooper, and the rest.
At the centre lay the square where people would gather, and the biggest building in the Brook, the general store. It had a large open front room that housed tables and the bar, an even larger storeroom in back, and a cellar below, filled with most everything of value in the Brook.
Hog's daughters Dasy and Catrin ran the kitchen. Two credits could buy a meal to leave you stuffed, but Silvy called old Hog a cheat, since two credits could buy enough raw grain for a week. Still, plenty of unmarried men paid the price, and not all for the food. Dasy was homely and Catrin fat, but Uncle Cholie said the men who married them would be set for life.
Everyone in the Brook brought Hog their goods, be it corn or meat or fur, pottery or cloth, furniture or tools. Hog took the items, counted them up, and gave the customers credits to buy other things at the store.
Things always seemed to cost a lot more than Hog paid for them, though. Arlen knew enough numbers to see that. There were some famous arguments when people came to sell, but Hog set the prices, and usually got his way. Just about everyone hated Hog, but they needed him all the same, and were more likely to brush his coat and open his doors than spit when he passed.
Everyone else in the Brook worked throughout the sun, and barely saw all their needs met, but Hog and his daughters always had fleshy cheeks, rounded bellies, and clean new clothes. Arlen had to wrap himself in a rug whenever his mother took his overalls to wash.
Ragen and Arlen tied off the mules in front of the store and went inside. The bar was empty. Usually the air inside the taproom was thick with bacon fat, but there was no smell of cooking from the kitchen today.
Arlen rushed ahead of the Messenger to the bar. Rusco had a small bronze bell there, brought with him when he came from the Free Cities. Arlen loved that bell. He slapped his hand down on it and grinned at the clear sound.
There was a thump in the back, and Rusco came through the curtains behind the bar. He was a big man, still strong and straight-backed at sixty, but a soft gut hung around his middle, and his iron-grey hair was creeping back from his lined forehead. He wore light trousers and leather shoes with a clean white cotton shirt, the sleeves rolled halfway up his thick forearms. His white apron was spotless, as always.
'Arlen Bales,' he said with a patient smile, seeing the boy. 'Did you come just to play with the bell, or do you have some business?'
'The business is mine,' Ragen said, stepping forward. 'You Rusco Hog?'
'Just Rusco will do,' the man said. 'The townies slapped the 'Hog' on, though not to my face. Can't stand to see a man prosper.'
'That's twice,' Ragen mused.
'Say again?' Rusco said.
``'Twice that Graig's journey log has led me astray.' Ragen said. 'I called Selia 'Barren' to her face this morning.'
'Ha!' Rusco laughed. 'Did you now? Well, that's worth a drink on the house, if anything is. What did you say your name was?'
'Ragen,' the Messenger said, dropping his heavy satchel and taking a seat at the bar. Rusco tapped a keg, and plucked a slatted wooden mug off a hook.
The ale was thick and honey coloured, and foamed to a white head on top of the mug. Rusco filled one for Ragen and another for himself. Then he glanced at Arlen, and filled a smaller cup. 'Take that to a table and let your elders talk at the bar,' he said. 'And if you know what's good for you, you won't tell your mum I gave you that'
Arlen beamed, and ran off with his prize before Rusco had a chance to reconsider. He had snuck a taste of ale from his father's mug at festivals, but had never had a cup of his own.
'I was starting to worry no one was coming ever again,' he heard Rusco tell Ragen.
'Graig took a chill just before he was to leave last fall,' Ragen said, drinking deeply. 'His Herb Gatherer told him to put the trip off until he got better, but then winter set in, and he got worse and worse. In the end, he asked me to take his route until the Guild could find another. I had to take a caravan of salt to Angiers anyway, so I added an extra cart and swung this way before heading back north.'
Rusco took his mug and filled it again. 'To Graig,' he said, 'a fine Messenger, and a dangerous haggler.' Ragen smiled and the two men clapped mugs and drank.
'Another?' Rusco asked, when Ragen slammed his mug back down on the bar.
'Graig wrote in his log that you were a dangerous haggler, too,' Ragen said with a smile, 'and that you'd try to get me drunk first.'
Rusco chuckled, and refilled the mug. 'After the haggling, I'll have no need to serve these on the house,' he said, handing it to Ragen with a fresh head.
'You will if you want your mail to reach Miln,' Ragen smiled, accepting the mug.
'I can see you're going to be as tough as Graig ever was,' Rusco grumbled, filling his own mug. 'There,' he said, when it foamed over, 'we can both haggle drunk.' They laughed, and clashed mugs again.
'What news of the Free Cities?' Rusco asked. 'The Krasians still determined to destroy themselves?'
Ragen shrugged. 'By all accounts. I stopped going to Krasia a few years ago, when I married. Too far, and too dangerous.'
'So the fact that they cover their women in blankets has nothing to do with it?' Rusco asked with a smile.
Ragen laughed. 'Doesn't help,' he said, 'but it's mostly how they think all northerners, even Messengers, are cowards for not spending our nights trying to get ourselves cored.'
'Maybe they'd be less inclined to fight if they looked at their women more,' Rusco mused. 'How about Angiers and Miln? The dukes still bickering?'
'As always,' Ragen said. 'Euchor needs Angiers' wood to fuel his refineries, and grain to feed his people. Rhinebeck needs Miln's metal and salt. They have to trade to survive, but instead of making it easy on themselves, they spend all their time trying to cheat each other, especially when a shipment is lost to corelings on the road. Last summer, corelings hit a caravan of steel and salt. They killed the drivers, but left most of the cargo intact. Rhinebeck retrieved it, and refused to pay, claiming salvage rights.'
'Duke Euchor must have been furious,' Rusco said.
'Livid,' Ragen agreed. 'I was the one that brought him the news. He went red in the face, and swore Angiers wouldn't see another ounce of salt until Rhinebeck paid.'
'Did Rhinebeck pay?' Rusco asked, leaning in eagerly.
Ragen shook his head. 'They did their best to starve each other for a few months, and then the Merchant's Guild paid, just to get their shipments out before the winter came and they rotted in storage. Rhinebeck is angry at them now, for giving in to Euchor, but his face was saved and the shipments were moving again, which is all that mattered to anyone other than those two dogs.'
'Wise to watch what you call the dukes,' Rusco warned, though he was smiling.
'Who's going to tell them?' Ragen asked. 'You? The boy?' he gestured at Arlen. Both men laughed.
'And now I have to bring Euchor news of Riverbridge, which will make things worse,' Ragen said.
'The town on the border of Miln,' Rusco said, 'barely a day out from Angiers. I have contacts there.'
'Not anymore, you don't,' Ragen said pointedly, and the men were quiet for a time.
'Enough bad news,' Ragen said, hauling his satchel onto the bar. Rusco considered it dubiously.
'That doesn't look like salt,' he said, 'and I doubt I have that much mail.'
'You have six letters, and an even dozen packages,' Ragen said, handing Rusco a sheaf of folded paper. 'It's all listed here, along with all the other letters in the satchel and packages on the cart to be distributed. I gave Selia a copy of the list,' he warned.
'What do I want with that list, or your mail bag?' Rusco asked.
'The Speaker is occupied, and won't be able to distribute the mail and read to those that can't. She volunteered you.'
'And how am I to be compensated for spending my business hours reading to the townies?' Rusco asked.
'The satisfaction of a good deed to your neighbours?' Ragen asked.
Rusco snorted. 'I didn't come to Tibbet's Brook to make friends,' he said. 'I'm a businessman, and I do a lot for this town.'
'Do you?' Ragen asked.
'Damn right,' Rusco said. 'Before I came to this town, all they did was barter." He made the word a curse, and spat on the floor. 'They collected the fruits of their labour and gathered in the square every Seventhday, arguing over how many beans were worth an ear of corn, or how much rice you had to give the cooper to make you a barrel to put your rice in. And if you didn't get what you needed on Seventhday, you had to wait until the next week, or go door to door. Now everyone can come here, any day, any time from sunup to sundown, and trade for credits to get whatever else they need.'
'The town saviour,' Ragen said wryly. 'And you asking nothing in return.'
'Nothing but a tidy profit,' Rusco said with a grin.
'And how often do the villagers try to string you up for a cheat?' Ragen asked.
Rusco's eyes narrowed. 'Too often, considering half of them can't count past their fingers, and the other half can only add their toes to that,' he said.
'Selia said the next time it happens, you're on your own,' Ragen's friendly voice had suddenly gone hard, 'unless you do your part. There's plenty on the far side of town suffering worse than having to read the mail.'
Rusco frowned, but he took the list and carried the heavy bag into his storeroom.
'How bad is it, really?' he asked when he returned.
'Bad,' Ragen said. 'Twenty-seven so far, and a few still unaccounted for.'
'Creator,' Rusco swore, drawing a ward in the air in front of him. 'I had thought a family, at worst.'
'If only,' Ragen said.
They were both silent for a moment, as was decent, then looked up at each other as one.
'You have this year's salt?' Rusco asked.
'You have the duke's rice?' Ragen replied.
'Been holding it all winter, you being so late,' Rusco said.
Ragen's eyes narrowed.
'Oh, it's still good!' Rusco said, his hands coming up suddenly, as if pleading. 'I've kept it sealed and dry, and there are no vermin in my cellar!'
'I'll need to be sure, you understand,' Ragen said.
'Of course, of course,' Rusco said. 'Arlen, fetch that lamp!' he ordered, pointing the boy towards the corner of the bar.
Arlen scurried over to the lantern, picking up the striker. He lit the wick and lowered the glass reverently. He had never been trusted to hold glass before. It was colder than he imagined, but quickly grew warm as the flame licked it.
'Carry it down to the cellar for us,' Rusco ordered. Arlen tried to contain his excitement. He had always wanted to see behind the bar. They said if everyone in the Brook put all their possessions in on pile, it would not rival the wonders of Hog's cellar.
He watched as Rusco pulled a ring on his floor, opening a wide trap. Arlen came forward quickly, worried old Hog would change his mind. He went down the creaking steps, holding the lantern high to illuminate the way. As he did, the light touched on stacks of crates and barrels from floor to ceiling, running in even rows stretching back past the edges of the light. The floor was wooden to prevent corelings from rising directly into the cellar from the Core, but there were still wards carved into the racks along the walls. Old Hog was careful with his treasures.
The storekeeper led the way through the aisles to the sealed barrels in the back. 'They look unspoiled,' Ragen said, inspecting the wood. He considered a moment, then chose at random. 'That one,' he said, pointing to a barrel.
Rusco grunted and hauled out the barrel in question. Some people called his work easy, but his arms were as hard and thick as any that swung an axe or scythe. He broke the seal and popped still be heard. 'Out here, if you can't eat something, or wear it, paint a ward with it, or use it to till your field, it's not worth much of anything.'
He returned a moment later with a large cloth sack he deposited on the counter with a clink.
'People here have forgotten that gold moves the world,' he went on, reaching into the bag and pulling out two heavy yellow coins, which he waved in Ragen's face. 'The miller's kids were using these as game pieces! Game pieces! I told them I'd trade the gold for a carved wood game set I had in the back, they thought I was doing them a favour! Ferd even came by the next day to thank me!' He laughed a deep belly laugh. Arlen felt like he should be offended by that laugh, but he wasn't quite sure why.
He had played the Millers' game many times, and it seemed worth more than two metal disks, however shiny they might be.
'I brought a lot more than two suns worth,' Ragen said, nodding at the coins and then looking towards the bag.
Rusco smiled. 'Not to worry,' he said, untying the bag fully. As the cloth flattened on the counter, more bright coins spilled out, along with chains and rings and ropes of glittering stones. It was all very pretty, Arlen supposed, but he was surprised at how Ragen's eyes bulged and took on a covetous glitter.
Again they haggled, Ragen holding the stones up to the light and biting the coins, while Rusco fingered the cloth and tasted the spices. It was a blur to Arlen, whose head was spinning from the ale. Mug after mug came to the men from Catrin at the bar, but they showed no signs of being as affected as Arlen.
'Two hundred and twenty gold suns, two silver moons, the rope chain, and the three silver rings,' Rusco said at last. 'And not a copper light more.'
'No wonder you work out in a backwater,' Ragen said. 'They must have run you out of the city for a cheat.'
'Insults won't make you any richer,' Hog said, confident he had the upper hand.
'No riches for me this time,' Ragen said. 'After my travelling costs, every last light will go to Graig's widow.'
'Ah, Jenya,' Rusco said wistfully. 'She used to pen for some of those in Miln with no letters, my idiot nephew, among them. What will become of her?'
Ragen shook his head. 'The Guild paid no death-price to her, because Graig died at home,' he said. 'And since she isn't a Mother, a lot of jobs will be denied her.'
'I'm sorry to hear that,' Rusco said.
'Graig left her some money,' Ragen said, 'though he never had much, and the Guild will still pay her to pen. With the money from this trip, she should have enough to get by for a time. She's young, though, and it will run out eventually unless she remarries or finds better work.'
'And then?' Rusco asked.
Ragen shrugged. 'It'll be hard for her to find a new husband, having already married and failed to bear children, but she won't become a Beggar. My Guild brothers and I have sworn that. One of us will take her in as a Servant before that happens.'
Rusco shook his head. 'Still, to fall from Merchant class to Servant…' He reached into the much lighter bag and produced a ring with a clear, sparkling stone set into it. 'See that she gets this,' he said holding the ring out.
As Ragen reached for it, though, Rusco pulled it back suddenly. 'I'll have a message back from her, you understand,' he said. 'I know how she shapes her letters.' Ragen looked at him a moment, and he quickly added, 'No insult meant.'
Ragen smiled. 'Your generosity outweighs your insult,' he said, taking the ring. 'This will keep her belly full for months.'
'Yes, well,' Rusco said gruffly, scooping up the remains of the bag, 'don't let any of the townies hear, or I'll lose my reputation as a cheat.'
'Your secret is safe with me,' Ragen said with a laugh.
'You could earn her a bit more, perhaps,' Rusco said.
'The letters we have were meant to go to Miln six months ago. You stick around a few days while we pen and collect more, and maybe help pen a few, and I'll compensate you.
'No more gold,' he clarified, 'but surely Jenya could do with a cask of rice, or some cured fish or meal.'
'Indeed she could,' Ragen said.
'I can find work for your Jongleur, too,' Rusco added. 'He'll see more custom here in the Square than by hopping from farm to farm.'
'Agreed,' Ragen said. 'Keerin will need gold, though.'
Rusco gave him a wry look, and Ragen laughed. 'Had to try… you understand!' he said, echoing Hog's earlier words. 'Silver, then.'
Rusco nodded. 'I'll charge a moon for every performance, and for every moon, I'll keep one star and he the other three.'
'I thought you said the townies had no money,' Ragen noted.
'Most don't,' Rusco said. 'I'll sell the moons to them… say at the cost of five credits.'
'So Rusco Hog skims from both sides of the deal?' Ragen asked.
Arlen was excited during the ride back. Old Hog had promised to let him see the Jongleur for free if he spread the word that Keerin would be entertaining in the Square at high sun the next day for five credits or a silver Milnese moon. He wouldn't have much time; his parents would be readying to leave just as he and Ragen returned, but he was sure he could spread the word before they pulled him onto the cart.
'Tell me about the Free Cities,' Arlen begged as they rode. 'How many have you seen?'
'Five,' Ragen said, 'Miln, Angiers, Lakton, Rizon, and Krasia. There may be others beyond the mountains or the desert, but none that I know have seen them.'
'What are they like?' Arlen asked.
'Fort Angiers, the forest stronghold, lies south of Miln, across the Dividing River,' Ragen said. 'Angiers supplies wood for the other cities. Further south lies the great lake, and on its surface stands Lakton.'
'Is a lake like a pond?' Arlen asked.
'A lake is to a pond what a mountain is to a hill,' Ragen said, giving Arlen a moment to digest the thought. 'Out on the water, the Laktonians are safe from fire, rock, and wood demons. Their wardnet is proof against wind demons, and no people can ward against water demons better. They're fisherfolk, and thousands in the southern cities depend on their catch for food.
'West of Lakton is Fort Rizon, which is not technically a fort, since you could practically step over its wall, but it shields the largest farmlands you've ever seen. Without Rizon, the other Free Cities would starve.'
'And Krasia?' Arlen asked.
'I only visited Fort Krasia once,' Ragen said. 'The Krasians aren't welcoming to outsiders, and you need to cross more than two weeks of desert to get there.'
'Sand,' Ragen explained. 'Nothing but sand for miles in every direction. No food nor water but what you carry, and nothing to shade you from the scorching sun.'
'And people live there?' Arlen asked.
'Oh, yes,' Ragen said. 'The Krasians used to be even more numerous than the Milnese, but they're dying off.'
'Why?' Arlen asked.
'Because they fight the corelings,' Ragen said.
Arlen's eyes widened. 'You can fight corelings?' he asked.
'You can fight anything, Arlen,' Ragen said. 'The problem with fighting corelings is that more often than not, you lose. The Krasians kill their share, but the corelings give better than they get. There are less Krasians every year.'
'My da says corelings eat your soul when they get you,' Arlen said.
'Bah!' Ragen spat over the side of the cart. 'Superstitious nonsense.'
They turned a bend not far from the Cluster when Arlen noticed something dangling from the tree ahead of them. 'What's that?' he asked, pointing.
'Night,' Ragen swore, and cracked the reins, sending the mollies into a gallop. Arlen was thrown back in his seat, and took a moment to right himself. When he did, he looked at the tree, which was coming up fast.
'Uncle Cholie!' he cried, seeing the man kicking his feet as he clawed at the rope around his neck.
'Help! Help!' Arlen screamed. He leapt from the moving cart, hitting the ground hard, but he bounced to his feet, darting towards Cholie. He got up under the man, but one of Cholie's thrashing feet kicked him in the mouth, knocking him down. He tasted blood, but strangely there was no pain. He came up again, grabbing Cholie's legs and trying to lift him up to loosen the rope, but he was too short, and Cholie too heavy besides, and the man continued to gag and jerk.
'Help him!' Arlen cried to Ragen. 'He's choking! Somebody help!'
He looked up to see Ragen pull a spear from the back of the cart. The Messenger drew back and threw with hardly a moment to aim, but his aim was true, severing the rope and collapsing poor Cholie onto Arlen. They both fell to the ground.
Ragen was there in an instant, pulling the rope from Cholie's throat. It didn't seem to make much difference, the man still gagged and clawed at his throat. His eyes bulged so far it looked as if they would pop right out of his head, and his face was so red it looked purple.
Arlen screamed as he gave a tremendous thrash, and then lay still.
Ragen beat Cholie's chest and breathed huge gulps of air into him, but it had no effect. Eventually, the Messenger gave up, slumping in the dust and cursing.
Arlen was no stranger to death. That spectre was a frequent visitor to Tibbet's Brook. But it was one thing to die from the corelings or from a chill. This was different. Arlen didn't need to be told that Uncle Cholie had taken his own life. He understood that instinctively. What he didn't understand was…
'Why?' he asked Ragen. 'Why would he fight so hard to survive last night, only to kill himself now?'
'Did he fight?' Ragen asked. 'Did any of them really fight? Or did they run and hide?'
'I don't…' Arlen began.
'Hiding isn't always enough, Arlen,' Ragen said. 'Sometimes, hiding kills something inside of you, so that even if you survive the demons, you don't really.'
'What else could he have done?' Arlen asked. 'You can't fight a demon.'
'I'd sooner fight a bear in its own cave,' Ragen said, 'but it can be done.'
'But you said the Krasians were dying because of it,' Arlen protested.
'They are,' Ragen said. 'But they follow their hearts. I know it sounds like madness, Arlen, but deep down, men want to fight, like they did in tales of old. They want to protect their women and children as men should. But they can't, because the great wards are lost, so they knot themselves like caged hares, sitting terrified through the night. But sometimes, especially when you see loved ones die, the tension breaks you and you just snap.'
He put a hand on Arlen's shoulder. 'I'm sorry you had to see this, boy,' he said. 'I know it doesn't make a lot of sense right now…'
'No,' Arlen said, 'it does.'
And it was true, Arlen realized. He understood the need to fight. He had not expected to win when he attacked Cobie and his friends that day. If anything, he had expected to be beaten worse than ever. But in that instant when he grabbed the stick, he hadn't cared. He only knew he was tired of just taking their abuse, and wanted it to end, one way or another.
It was comforting to know he wasn't alone.
Arlen looked at his uncle, lying in the dust, his eyes wide with fear. He knelt and reached out, brushing his eyes closed with his fingertips. Cholie had nothing to fear any longer.
'Have you ever killed a coreling?' he asked the Messenger.
'No,' Ragen said, shaking his head. 'But I've fought a few. Got the scars to prove it. But I was always more interested in getting away, or keeping them away from someone else, than I was in killing any.'
Arlen thought about that as they wrapped Cholie in a tarp and put him in the back of the wagon, hurrying back to the Cluster. Jeph and Silvy had already packed the cart and were waiting impatiently to leave, but the sight of the body diffused their anger at Arlen's late return.
Silvy wailed and threw herself on her brother, but there was no time to waste, if they were to make it back to the farm by nightfall. Jeph had to hold her back as Tender Harral painted a ward on the tarp and led a prayer as he tossed Cholie into the pyre.
The survivors who weren't staying in Brine Cutter's house were divided up and taken home with the others. Jeph and Silvy had offered succour to two women. Norine Cutter was over fifty summers old. Her husband had died some years back, and she had lost her daughter and grandson in the attack. Marea Bales was old,
too; almost forty. Her husband had been left outside when the others drew lots for the cellar. Like Silvy, both slumped in the back of Jeph's cart, staring at their knees. Arlen waved goodbye to Ragen as his father cracked the whip.
The Cluster by the Woods was drawing out of sight when Arlen realized he hadn't told anyone to come see the Jongleur.
If It Was You
They had just enough time to stow the cart and check the wards before the corelings came. Silvy had little energy for cooking, so they ate a cold meal of bread, cheese, and sausage, chewing with little enthusiasm. The demons came soon after sunset to test the wards, and every time the magic flared to throw them back, Norine cried out. Marea never touched her food. She sat on her pallet with her arms wrapped tightly around her legs, rocking back and forth and whimpering whenever the magic flared. Silvy cleared the plates, but she never returned from the kitchen, and Arlen could hear her crying.
Arlen tried to go to her, but Jeph caught his arm. 'Come talk with me, Arlen,' he said.
They went into the small room that housed Arlen's pallet, his collection of smooth rocks from the brook, and all his feathers and bones. Jeph selected one of these, a brightly coloured feather about ten inches long, and fingered it as he spoke, not looking Arlen in the eye.
Arlen knew the signs. When his father wouldn't look at him, it meant he was uncomfortable with whatever he wanted to talk about.
'What you saw on the road with the Messenger-' Jeph began.
'Ragen explained it to me,' Arlen said. 'Uncle Cholie was dead already, he just didn't know it right away. Sometimes people live through an attack, but die anyway.'
Jeph frowned. 'Not how I would have put it,' he said. 'But true enough, I suppose. Cholie…'
'Was a coward,' Arlen finished.
Jeph looked at him in surprise. 'What makes you say that?' he asked.
'He hid in the cellar because he was scared to die, and then killed himself because he was scared to live,' Arlen said. 'Better if he had just picked up an axe and died fighting.'
'I don't want to hear that kind of talk,' Jeph said. 'You can't fight demons, Arlen. No one can. There's nothing to be gained by getting yourself killed.'
Arlen shook his head. "They're like bullies,' he said. 'They attack us because we're too scared to fight back. I hit Cobie and the others with that stick, and they didn't bother me again.'
'Cobie isn't a rock demon,' Jeph said. 'No stick is going to scare those off.'
'There's got to be a way,' Arlen said. 'People used to do it. All the old stories say so.'
'The stories say there were magic wards to fight with,' Jeph said. 'The fighting wards are lost.'
'Ragen says they still fight demons in some places. He says it can be done.'
'I'm going to have a talk with that Messenger,' Jeph grumbled. 'He shouldn't be filling your head with such thoughts.'
'Why not?' Arlen said. 'Maybe more people would have survived last night, if all the men had gotten axes and spears…'
'They would be just as dead,' Jeph finished. 'There's other ways to protect yourself and your family, Arlen. Wisdom. Prudence. Humility. It's not brave to fight a battle you can't win.
'Who would care for the women and the children if all the men got themselves cored trying to kill what can't be killed?' he went on. 'Who would chop the wood and build the homes? Who would hunt and herd and plant and slaughter? Who would seed the women with children? If all the men die, the corelings win.'
'The corelings are already winning,' Arlen muttered. 'You keep saying the town gets smaller each year. Bullies keep coming when you don't fight back.'
He looked up at his father. 'Don't you feel it? Don't you want to fight sometimes?'
'Of course I do, Arlen,' Jeph said. 'But not for no reason. When it matters, when it really matters, all men are willing to fight. Animals run when they can, and fight when they must, and people are no different. But that spirit should only come out when needed.
'But if it was you out there with the corelings,' he said, 'or your mam, I swear I would fight like mad before I let them get near you. Do you understand the difference?'
Arlen nodded. 'I think so.'
'Good man,' Jeph said, squeezing his shoulder.
Arlen's dreams that night were filled with images of hills that touched the sky, and ponds so big you could put a whole town on the surface. He saw yellow sand stretching as far as his eyes could see, and a walled fortress hidden in the trees.
But he saw it all between a pair of legs that swayed lazily before his eyes. He looked up, and saw his own face turning purple in the noose.
He woke with a start, his pallet damp with sweat. It was still dark, but there was a faint lightening on the horizon, where the indigo sky held a touch of red. He lit a candle stub and pulled on his overalls, stumbling out to the common room. He found a crust to chew on as he took out the egg basket and milk jugs, putting them by the door.
'You're up early,' said a voice behind him. He turned, startled, to find Norine staring at him. Marea was still on her pallet, though she tossed in her sleep.
'The days don't get any longer while you sleep,' Arlen said.
Norine nodded. 'So my husband used to say,' she agreed. "Bales and Cutters can't work by candlelight, like the Squares," he'd say.'
'I have a lot to do,' Arlen said, peeking through the shutter to see how long he had before he could cross the wards. 'The Jongleur is supposed to perform at high sun.'
'Of course,' Norine agreed. 'When I was your age, the Jongleur was the most important thing in the world to me, too. I'll help you with your chores.'
'You don't have to do that,' Arlen said. 'Da says you should rest.'
Norine shook her head. 'Rest just makes me think of things best left unthought,' she said. 'If I'm to stay with you, I should earn my keep. After chopping wood in the Cluster, how hard could it be to slop pigs and plant corn?'
Arlen shrugged, and handed her the egg basket.
With Norine's help, the chores went by fast. She was a quick learner, and no stranger to hard work and heavy lifting. By the time the smell of eggs and bacon wafted from the house, the animals were all fed, the eggs collected, and the cows milked.
'Stop squirming on the bench,' Silvy told Arlen as they ate.
'Young Arlen can't wait to go see the Jongleur,' Norine advised.
'Maybe tomorrow,' Jeph said, and Arlen's face fell.
'What!' Arlen cried. 'But-'
'No buts,' Jeph said. 'A lot of work went undone yesterday, and I promised Selia I'd drop by the Cluster in the afternoon to help out.'
Arlen pushed his plate away and stomped into his room.
'Let the boy go,' Norine said when he was gone. 'Marea and I will help out here.' Marea looked up at the sound of her name, but went back to playing with her food a moment later.
'Arlen had a hard day, yesterday,' Silvy said. She bit her lip. 'We all did. Let the Jongleur put a smile on his face. Surely there's nothing that can't wait.'
Jeph nodded after a moment. 'Arlen!' he called. When the boy showed his sullen face, he asked, 'How much is Old Hog charging to see the Jongleur?'
'Nothing,' Arlen said quickly, not wanting to give his father reason to refuse. 'On account of how I helped carry stuff from the Messenger's cart.' It wasn't exactly true, and there was a good chance Hog would be angry that he forgot to tell people, but maybe if he spread word on the walk over, he could bring enough people for his two credits at the store to get him in.
'Old Hog always acts generous right after the Messenger comes,' Norine said.
'Ought to, after how he's been fleecing us all winter,' Silvy replied.
'All right, Arlen, you can go,' Jeph said. 'Meet me in the Cluster afterwards.'
The walk to Town Square took about two hours if you followed the path. Nothing more than a wagon track of hard-packed soil that Jeph and a few other locals kept clear, it went well out of the way to the bridge at the shallowest park of the brook. Nimble and quick, Arlen could cut the trip in half by skipping across the slick rocks jutting from the water.
Today, he needed the extra time more than ever, so he could make stops along the way. He raced along the muddy bank at breakneck speed, dodging treacherous roots and scrub with the sure-footed confidence of one who had followed the trail countless times.
He popped back out of the woods as he passed the farmhouses on the way, but there was no one to be found. Everyone was either out in the fields or back at the Cluster helping out.
It was getting close to high sun when he reached Fishing Hole. A few of the Fishers had their boats out on the small pond, but Arlen didn't see much point in shouting to them. Otherwise, the Hole was deserted, too.
He was feeling glum by the time he got to Town Square. Hog might have seemed nicer than usual yesterday, but Arlen had seen what he was like when someone cost him profit. There was no way he was going to let Arlen see the Jongleur for just two credits. He'd be lucky if the storekeep didn't take a switch to him.
But when he reached the square, he found over a hundred people gathered from all over the Brook. There were Fishers and Marshes and Boggins and Bales. Not to mention the town locals, Squares, Tailors, Millers, Bakers and all. None had come from Southwatch, of course. Folk there shunned Jongleurs.
'Arlen, my boy!' Hog called, seeing him approach. 'I've saved you a spot up front, and you'll go home tonight with a sack of salt! Well done!'
Arlen looked at him curiously, until he saw Ragen, standing next to Hog. The Messenger winked at him.
'Thank you,' Arlen said, when Hog went off to mark another arrival in his ledger. Dasy and Catrin were selling food and ale for the show.
'People deserve a show,' Ragen said with a shrug. 'But not without clearing it with your Tender, it seems.' He pointed to Keerin, who was deep in conversation with Tender Harral.
'Don't be selling any of that plague nonsense like the last one, neither!' Harral said, poking Keerin hard in the chest. He was twice the Jongleur's weight, and none of it fat.
'Nonsense?' Keerin asked, paling. 'In Miln, the Tenders will string up any Jongleur that doesn't tell of the plague!'
'I don't care what they do in the Free Cities,' Harral said. 'These're good people, and they have it hard enough without you telling 'em their suffering's because they arnt pious enough!'
'What…?' Arlen began, but Keerin broke off, heading to the centre of the square.
'Best find a seat quick,' Ragen advised.
As Hog promised, Arlen got a seat right in front, in the area usually left for the younger children. The others looked on enviously, and Arlen felt very special. It was rare for anyone to envy him.
The Jongleur was tall, like all Milnese, dressed in a patchwork of bright colours that looked like they were stolen from the dyer's scrap bin. He had a wispy goatee, the same carrot-colour as his hair, but the moustache never quite met the beard, and the whole thing looked like it might wash off with a good scrubbing. Everyone, especially the women, talked in wonder about his bright hair and green eyes.
As people continued to file in, Keerin paced back and forth, juggling his coloured wooden balls and telling jokes, warming to the crowd. When Hog gave the signal, he took his lute and began to play, singing in a strong, high voice. People clapped along to the songs they didn't know, but whenever he played one that was sung in the Brook, the whole crowd sang along, drowning out the Jongleur and not seeming to care. Arlen didn't mind; he was singing just as loud as the others.
After the music came acrobatics, and magic tricks. Along the way, Keerin made a few jests about husbands that had the women shrieking with laughter while the men frowned, and a few about wives that had the men slapping their thighs as the women glared.
Finally, the Jongleur paused and held up his hands for silence. There was a murmur from the crowd, and parents nudged their youngest children forward, wanting them to hear.
`Little Jessi Boggin, who was only five, climbed right into Arlen's lap for a better view. Arlen had given her family a few pups from one of Jeph's dogs that spring, and now she clung to him whenever he was near. He held her as Keerin began the Tale of the Return, his high voice dropping into a deep, booming call that carried far into the crowd.
'The world was not always as you see it,' the Jongleur told the children. 'Oh no. There was a time when humanity lived in balance with the demons. Those early years are called the Age of Ignorance. Does anyone know why?' He looked around the children in front, and several raised their hands.
'Because there wasn't any wards?' a girl asked, when Keerin pointed to her.
'That's right!' the Jongleur said, turning a somersault that brought squeals of glee from the children. 'The Age of Ignorance was a scary time for us, but there weren't as many demons then, and they couldn't kill everyone. Much like today, humans would build what they could during the day, and the demons would tear it down each night.
'As we struggled to survive,' Keerin went on, 'we adapted, learning how to hide food and animals from the demons, and how to avoid them.' He looked around as if in terror, and then ran behind one child, cringing. 'We lived in holes in the ground, so they couldn't find us.'
'Like bunnies?' Jessi asked, laughing.
'Just so!' Keerin called, putting a twitching finger up behind each ear and hopping about, wriggling his nose.
'We lived any way we could,' he went on, 'until we discovered writing. From there, it wasn't long before we had learned that some writing could hold the corelings back. What writing is that?' he asked, cupping an ear.
'Wards!' everyone cried in unison.
'Correct!' the Jongleur congratulated with a flip. 'With wards, we could protect ourselves from the corelings, and we practiced them, getting better and better. More and more wards were discovered, until someone discovered one that did more than hold the demons back. It hurt them.' The children gasped, and Arlen, even though he had heard almost this same performance every year for as long as he could remember, found himself sucking in his breath. What he wouldn't give to know such a ward!
'The demons did not take well to this advancement,' Keerin said with a grin. 'They were used to us running and hiding, and when we turned and fought, they fought back. Hard. Thus began the First Demon War, and the second age, the Age of the Deliverer.
'The Deliverer was a man called upon by the Creator to lead our armies, and with him to lead us, we were winning!' He thrust his fist into the air and the children cheered. It was infectious, and Arlen tickled Jessi with glee.
'As our magics and tactics improved,' Keerin said, 'humans began to live longer, and our numbers swelled. Our armies grew larger, even as the number of demons dwindled. There was hope that the corelings would be vanquished once and for all.'
The Jongleur paused then, and his face took on a serious expression. 'Then,' he said, 'without warning, the demons stopped coming. Never in the history of the world had had the dark settled without the creatures rising. Now, night after night passed with no sign of them, and we were baffled.' He scratched his head in confusion. 'Many believed that the demon losses in the war had been too great, and that they had given up the fight, cowering with fright in the Core.' He huddled away from the children, hissing like a cat and shaking as if with fear. Some of the children got into the act, growling at him menacingly.
'The Deliverer,' Keerin said, 'who had seen the demons fight fearlessly every night, doubted this, but as months passed without sign of the creatures, his armies began to fragment.
'Humanity rejoiced in their victory over the corelings for years,' Keerin went on. He picked up his lute and played a lively tune, dancing about. 'But as the years passed without the common foe, the brotherhood of men grew strained, and then faded. For the first time, we fought against one another.' The tune turned ominous as the Jongleur's voice deepened once more. 'As war sparked, the Deliverer was called upon by all sides to lead, but he shouted, 'I'll not fight 'gainst men while a single demon remains in the Core!' He turned his back, and left the lands as armies marched and all the land fell into chaos.'
'From these great wars arose powerful nations,' he said, turning the tune into something uplifting, 'and mankind spread far and wide, covering the entire world. The Age of the Deliverer came to a close, and the Age of Science began.
'The Age of Science,' the Jongleur said, 'was our greatest time, but nestled in that greatness was our biggest mistake. Can any here tell me what it was?' The older children knew, but Keerin signalled them to hold back and let the young ones answer.
'Because we forgot magic,' Gim Cutter said, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
'Right you are!' Keerin said, snapping his fingers. 'We learned a great deal about how the world worked, about medicine and machines, but we forgot magic, and worse, we forgot the corelings. After three thousand years, no one believed they had ever even existed.
'Which is why,' he said grimly, 'we were unprepared when they came back.
'The demons had multiplied over the centuries, as the world forgot them. Then, three hundred years ago, they rose from the Core one night in massive numbers to take it back.
'Whole cities were destroyed that first night, as the corelings celebrated their return. Men fought back, but even the great weapons of the Age of Science were poor defence against the demons. The Age of Science came to a close, and the Age of Destruction took hold.
'The Second Demon War had begun.'
In his mind's eye, Arlen saw that night, saw the cities burning as people fled in terror, only to be savaged by the waiting corelings. He saw men sacrifice themselves to buy time for their families to flee, saw women take claws meant for their children. Most of all, he saw the corelings dance, cavorting in savage glee as blood ran from their teeth and talons.
Keerin moved forward even as the children drew back in fear. 'The war lasted for years, with people slaughtered at every turn. Without the Deliverer to lead them, they were no match for the corelings. Overnight, the great nations fell.
'Scholars searched for answers, finding salvation in stories once considered fantasy and superstition. The demons razed the libraries with the cities, but they weren't fast enough to get it all. Men began to draw clumsy symbols in the ground, preventing the corelings from approaching. The wards still worked, but the shaking hands that drew them often made mistakes, and they were paid for dearly.
'Those that survived gathered people to them, protecting them through the long nights. Those men became the first Warders, who protect us to this very day.' The Jongleur pointed to the crowd, 'So the next time you see a Warder, thank him, because you owe him your life.'
That was a variation on the story Arlen had never heard Warders? In Tibbet's Brook, everyone learned warding as soon as they were old enough to draw with a stick. Many had poor aptitude for it, but Arlen couldn't imagine anyone not taking the time to learn the basic forbiddings against rock, flame, wind, water, and wood demons.
'So now we stay safe within our wards,' Keerin said, 'letting the demons have their pleasures outside. Messengers,' he gestured to Ragen, 'the bravest of all men, travel from city to city for us, bringing news and escorting men and goods.'
He walked about, his eyes hard as he met the frightened looks of the children. 'But we are strong,' he said. 'Aren't we?'
The children nodded, but their eyes were still wide with fear.
'What?' he asked, putting a hand to his ear.
'Yes!' the crowd cried.
'When the Deliverer comes again, will we be ready?' he asked. 'Will the demons learn to fear us once more?'
'Yes!' the crowd roared.
'They can't hear you!' the Jongleur shouted.
'YES!' the people screamed, punching fists in the air; Arlen most of all. Jessi imitated him, punching the air and shrieking like she was a demon herself. The Jongleur bowed, and when the crowd quieted, lifted his lute and led them into another song.
As promised, Arlen left Town Square with a sack of salt. Enough to last weeks, even with Norine and Marea to feed. It was still unmilled, but Arlen knew his parents would be happy to pound the salt themselves, rather than pay Hog extra for the service. Most would, really, but old Hog never gave them a choice, milling the salt as soon as it came and tacking on the extra cost.
Arlen had a spring in his step as he walked down the road towards the Cluster. It wasn't until he passed the tree that Cholie had hung from that Arlen's spirits fell. He thought again about what Ragen had said about fighting corelings, and what his father had said about prudence.
He thought his father probably had the right of it: hide when you can and fight when you must. Even Ragen seemed to agree with that philosophy. But Arlen couldn't shake the feeling that hiding hurt people too, in ways they couldn't see.
He met his father in the Cluster and earned a clap on the back when he showed his prize. He spent the rest of the afternoon running to and fro, helping rebuild. Already, another house was repaired and would be warded by nightfall. In a few more weeks, the Cluster would be fully rebuilt, and that was in everyone's interest, if they wanted enough wood to last the winter.
'I promised Selia I'd throw in here for the next few days,' Jeph said as they packed the cart that afternoon. 'You'll be the man of the farm while I'm gone. You'll have to check the wardposts and weed the fields. I saw you show Norine your chores this morning. She can handle the yard, and Marea can help your mother inside.'
'All right,' Arlen said. Weeding the fields and checking the posts was hard work, but the trust made him proud.
'I'm counting on you, Arlen,' Jeph said.
'I won't let you down,' Arlen promised.
The next few days passed with little event. Silvy still cried at times, but there was work to do, and she never once complained of the additional mouths to feed. Norine took to caring for the animals naturally, and even Marea began to come out of her shell a bit, helping with the sweeping and cooking; working the loom after supper. Soon she was taking turns with Norine in the yard. Both women seemed determined to do their share, though their faces, too, grew pained and wistful whenever there was a lull in the work.
Arlen's hands blistered from pulling weeds, and his back and shoulders ached at the end of each day, but he didn't complain. The only one of his new responsibilities he enjoyed was working on the wardposts. Arlen had always loved warding, mastering the basic defensive symbols before most children began learning at all, and more complex wardnets soon after. Jeph didn't even check his work anymore. Arlen's hand was steadier than his
father's. Warding wasn't the same as attacking a demon with a spear, but it was fighting in its own way.
Jeph arrived at dusk each day, and Silvy had water from the well waiting for him to wash off. Arlen helped Norine and Marea lock up the animals, and then they had supper.
On the fifth day, a wind kicked up in the late afternoon that sent dust devils dancing in the yard, and had the barn door banging. Arlen could smell rain coming, and the darkening sky confirmed it. He hoped Jeph saw the signs, too, and came back early, or stayed on in the Cluster. Dark clouds meant an early dusk, and early dusk sometimes meant corelings before full sunset.
Arlen abandoned the fields and began to direct the women in herding the spooked animals back into the barn. Silvy was out as well, battening down the cellar doors and making sure the wardposts around the day pens were lashed tight. There was little time to spare when Jeph pulled up in the cart. The sky was darkening quickly, and already there was no direct sun. Corelings could rise at any moment.
'No time to unhitch the cart,' Jeph called, cracking the whip to drive Missy faster towards the barn. 'We'll do it in the morning. Everyone in the house, now!' Silvy and the other women complied, heading inside.
'We can do it if we hurry,' Arlen yelled over the roar of the wind as he ran after his father. Missy would be in foul spirits for days if she spent the night harnessed.
Jeph shook his head, 'It's too dark already! A night hitched won't kill her.'
'Lock me in the barn, then,' Arlen said. 'I'll unhitch her and wait out the storm with the animals.'
'Do as you're told, Arlen'.' Jeph shouted. He leapt from the cart and grabbed the boy by the arm, half-dragging him out of the barn.
The two of them pulled the doors shut and threw the bar as lightning split the sky. The wards painted on the barn doors were illuminated for a moment, a reminder of what was to come. The air was pregnant with the promise of rain.
They ran for the house, scanning the way before them for the mist that would herald the rising. For the moment, the way was clear. Marea held the door open, and they darted inside, just as the first fat drops of rain stirred the dust of the yard.
Marea was pulling the door closed when a howl sounded from the yard. Everyone froze.
"The dog!' Marea cried, covering her mouth. 'I left him tied to the fence!'
'Leave him,' Jeph said. 'Close the door.'
'What?!' Arlen cried, incredulous. He whirled to face his father.
'The way is still clear!' Marea cried, and darted out of the house.
'Marea, no!' Silvy cried, running out after her.
Arlen, too, ran for the door, but not before Jeph grabbed the shoulder straps of his overalls and yanked him backwards. 'Stay inside!' he ordered, moving to the door.
Arlen stumbled back a moment, then ran forward again. Jeph and Norine were out on the porch, but stayed within the line of the outer wards. By the time Arlen reached the porch, the dog was running past him into the house, the rope still trailing from its neck.
Out in the yard, wind howled, turning the drops of rain into stinging insects. He saw Marea and his mother running back towards the house, just as the demons began to rise. As always, flame demons came first, their misty forms seeping from the ground. The smallest of corelings, they crouched on all fours as they coalesced, barely eighteen inches tall at the shoulder. Their eyes, nostrils, and mouths glowed with a smoky light.
'Run, Silvy!' Jeph screamed. 'Run!'
It seemed that they would make it, but then Marea stumbled and went down. Silvy turned to help her, and in that moment, the first coreling solidified. Arlen moved to run to his mother, but Norine's hand clamped hard on his arm, holding him fast.
'Don't be stupid,' the woman hissed.
'Get up!' Silvy demanded, yanking Marea's arm.
'My ankle!' Marea cried. 'I can't! Go on without me!'
'Like night I will!' Silvy growled. 'Jeph!' she called. 'Help us!'
By then, corelings were forming all over the yard. Jeph stood frozen as they took note of the women and shrieked with pleasure, darting towards them.
'Let GO!' Arlen growled, stomping hard on Norine's foot. She howled, and Arlen yanked his arm free. He grabbed the nearest weapon he could find, a wooden milk bucket, and ran out into the yard.
'Arlen, NO!' Jeph cried, but Arlen was done listening to him.
A flame demon, no bigger than a large cat, leapt on top of Silvy's back, and she screamed as talons raked deep lines in her flesh, leaving the back of her dress a bloody tatter. From its perch, the coreling spat fire into Marea's shrieking face. The woman screamed as her skin melted and her hair ignited.
Arlen was there an instant later, swinging the bucket with all his strength. It broke apart as it struck, but the demon was knocked from his mother's back. She stumbled, but Arlen was there to support her. More flame demons closed in on them, even as wind demons began to stretch their wings, and, a dozen yards off, a rock demon began to take form.
Silvy groaned, but she got to her feet. Arlen pulled her away from Marea and her agonized wails, but the way back to the house was blocked by flame demons. The rock demon caught sight of them, too, and charged. A few wind demons, preparing to take off, got in the massive beast's way, and its talons swept them aside as easily as a scythe cut through cornstalks.
They tumbled broken through the air, and flame demons set on them, tearing them to pieces.
It was only a moment's distraction, but Arlen took it, pulling his mother away from the house. The barn was blocked as well, but the path to the day-pen was still clear, if they could keep ahead of the corelings. Silvy was screaming, out of fear or pain Arlen didn't know, but she stumbled along, keeping pace even in her wide skirts.
As he broke into a run, so too did the flame demons half-surrounding them. The rain began to fall harder, and the wind howled. Lightning split the sky, illuminating their pursuers and the day-pen, so close, yet infinitely far.
The dust of the yard was slick with the growing wet, but fear granted them agility, and they kept their feet under them. The rock demon's footfalls were as loud as the thunder as it charged, growing ever closer, making the ground shake with its stride.
Arlen skidded to a stop at the pens and fumbled with the latch. The flame demons caught up in that split second, coming in range to use their deadliest weapon. They spat flame, and Arlen and his mother were struck. The blast was weakened by distance, but still he felt his clothes ignite, and smelled burning hair. A flare of pain washed over him, but he ignored it, finally getting the gate to the pen open. He started to take his mother inside when another flame demon leapt on her, claws digging deep into her chest. With a yank, Arlen pulled her into the pen. As they crossed the wards, Silvy passed through easily, but magic flared and the coreling was thrown back. Its claws, hooked deep in her, came free in a spray of blood and flesh.
Their clothes were still burning. Wrapping Silvy in his arms, Arlen threw them both to the ground, taking the brunt of the impact himself, and then rolled them into the mud, extinguishing the flames.
There was no chance to close the gate. The demons ringed the pen now, pounding at the wardnet, sending flares of magic skittering along the web of wards. But the gate didn't really matter. Nor did the fence. So long as the wardposts were intact, they were safe from the corelings.
But they were not safe from the weather. The rain became a cold pour, and the wind whipped at them, making the droplets into a stinging spray. Silvy could not rise again after the fall. Blood and mud caked her, and Arlen didn't know if she could survive her wounds and the rain together.
He stumbled over to the slop trough and kicked it over, sloshing the unfinished remnants of the pigs' dinner to rot in the mud. Arlen could see the rock demon pounding at the wardnet, but the magic held, and the demon could not pass. Between the flashes of lightning and the spurts of demon flame, he caught sight of Marea, buried under a swarm of flame demons, each tearing off a piece and dancing away to feast.
The rock demon gave up a moment later, stomping over and grabbing Marea by the leg in a massive talon the way a cruel man might a grab a cat. Flame demons scattered as the rock demon swung the woman into the air. She let out a hoarse gasp, and Arlen was horrified to discover she was still alive. He screamed, and considered trying to dart from the wardnet and get to her. But then, the demon brought her crashing down to the ground with a sickening crunch.
Arlen turned away before the creature could begin to feast, his tears washed away by the pouring rain. Dragging the trough to Silvy, he tore the lining from her skirt and let it soak in the rain. He brushed the mud from her cuts as best he could, and wadded more lining into them. It was hardly clean, but cleaner than pig-mud.
She was shivering, so he lay against her for warmth, and pulled the stinking trough over them as a shield from the downpour, and the sight of the leering demons.
There was one more flash of lightning as he lowered the wood. The last thing he saw was his father, still standing frozen on the porch.
If it was you out there… or your mam… Arlen remembered him saying. But for all his promises, it seemed that nothing could make Jeph Bales fight.
The night passed with interminable slowness; there was no hope of sleep. Raindrops drummed a steady beat on the trough. The mud they lay in was cold, and stank of pig droppings. Silvy shivered in her delirium, and Arlen clutched her tightly, willing what little heat he had into her. His own hands and feet were numb.
Despair crept over him, and he wept into his mother's shoulder. But she groaned and patted his hand, and that simple, instinctive gesture pulled him free of the terror and disillusionment and pain.
He had fought a demon, and lived. He stood in a yard full of them, and survived. Corelings might be immortal, but they could be outmanoeuvred. They could be outsped.
And as the rock demon had shown when it swept the other coreling out of the way, they could be hurt.
But what difference did it make in a world where men like Jeph wouldn't stand up to the corelings, not even for their own families? What hope did any of them have?
He stared at the blackness around him for hours, but in his mind's eye, all he saw was his father's face, staring at them from the safety of the wards.
The rain tapered off before dawn. Arlen used the break in the weather as a chance to lift the trough, but he immediately regretted it as the collected heat the wood had stored was lost. He pulled it down again, but stole peeks until the sky began to brighten.
Most of the corelings had faded away by the time it was light enough to see, but a few stragglers remained as the sky went from indigo to lavender. He clambered to his feet, trying vainly to brush off the slime and muck that clung to him.
His arm was stiff, and stung when he flexed it. He looked down and saw that the skin was bright red where the firespit had struck. The night in the mud did one good thing, he thought, knowing his and his mother's burns would have been far worse had they not been packed in the cold muck all night.
As the last flame demons in the yard began to turn insubstantial, Arlen strode from the pen, heading for the barn.
'Arlen, no!' a cry came from the porch. Arlen looked up, and saw Jeph there, wrapped in a blanket, keeping watch from the safety of the porch wards. 'It's not full dawn yet! Wait!'
Arlen ignored him, walking to the barn and opening the doors. Missy looked thoroughly unhappy, still hitched to the cart, but she would make it to Town Square.
A hand grabbed his arm as he led the horse out. 'Are you trying to get yourself killed?!' Jeph demanded. 'You mind me, boy!'
Arlen tore his arm away, refusing to look his father in the eye. 'Mam needs to see Coline Trigg,' he said.
'She's alive?' Jeph asked incredulously, his head snapping over to where the woman lay in the mud.
'No thanks to you,' Arlen said. 'I'm taking her to Town Square.'
' We 're taking her,' Jeph corrected, rushing over to lift his wife and carry her to the cart. Leaving Norine to tend the animals and seek out poor Marea's remains, they headed off down the road to town.
Silvy was bathed in sweat, and while her burns seemed no worse than Arlen's, the deep lines the flame demons' talons had dug still oozed blood, the flesh an ugly swollen red.
'Arlen, I…' Jeph began as they rode, reaching a shaking hand towards his son. Arlen drew back, looking away, and Jeph recoiled as if burned.
Arlen knew his father was ashamed. It was just like Ragen said. Maybe Jeph even hated himself, as Cholie had. Still, Arlen could find no sympathy. His mother had paid the price for Jeph's cowardice.
They rode the rest of the way in silence.
Coline Trigg's house in Town Square was one of the largest in the Brook, and filled with beds. In addition to her family, Coline always had at least one person in her sickbeds.
Coline was a short woman with a large nose and no chin. Not yet thirty, six children had made her thick around the middle. Her clothes always smelled of burnt weeds, and her cures usually involved some type of foul-tasting tea. The people of Tibbet's Brook made fun of that tea, but every one of them drank it gratefully when they took a chill.
The Herb Gatherer took one look at Silvy and had Arlen and his father bring her right inside. She asked no questions, which was just as well, as neither Arlen nor Jeph knew what they would say if she did. As she cut at each wound, squeezing out sickly brown pus, the air filled with a rotten stench. She cleaned the drained wounds with water and ground herbs, then sewed them shut. Jeph turned green, and brought his hand to his mouth suddenly.
'Out of here with that!' Coline barked, sending Jeph from the room with a pointed finger. As Jeph scurried out of the house, she looked to Arlen.
'You, too?' she demanded. Arlen shook his head. Coline stared at him a moment, then nodded in approval. 'You're braver than your father,' she said. 'Fetch the mortar and pestle. I'm going to teach you to make a balm for burns.'
Never taking her eyes from her work, Coline talked Arlen through the countless jars and pouches in her pharmacy, directing him to each ingredient and explaining how to mix them. She kept to her grisly work as Arlen applied the balm to his mother's burns.
Finally, when Silvy's wounds were all tended, she turned to inspect Arlen. He protested at first, but the balm did its work, and only as the coolness spread along his arms did he realize how much his burns had stung.
‘Will she be all right?' Arlen asked, looking at his mother. She seemed to be breathing normally, but the flesh around her wounds was an ugly, and that stench of rot was still thick in the air.
'I don't know,' Coline said. She wasn't one to honey her words. 'I've never seen anyone with wounds so severe. Usually, if the corelings get that close…'
'They kill you,' Jeph said from the doorway. 'They would have killed Silvy, too, if not for Arlen.
'My son taught me something last night, Coline,' Jeph said, though he looked at Arlen the whole time. 'He showed me that, whatever the odds, where there's will to act, there's hope.'
Jeph put his hands on his son's shoulders. 'I won't fail you again,' he promised. Arlen nodded and looked away. He wanted to believe it was so, but his thoughts kept returning to the sight of his father on the porch, frozen with fear.
Jeph went over to Silvy, gripping her clammy hand in his own. She was still sweating, and thrashed in her drugged sleep now and then.
'Will she die?' Jeph asked.
The Herb Gatherer blew out a long breath. 'I'm a fair hand at setting bones,' she said, 'and delivering children. I can chase a fever away and ward a chill.
I can even cleanse a demon wound, if it's still fresh.' She shook her head. 'But this is demon-fever. I've given her herbs to dull the pain and help her sleep, but you'll need a better gatherer than I to brew a cure.'
'Who else is there?' Jeph asked. 'You're all the Brook has.'
'The woman who taught me,' Coline said, 'Old Mey Friman. She lives on the outskirts of Sunny Pasture, two days from here. I've seen her cure demon-fever before. But the fever will spread quickly. If you take too long, even Old Mey won't be able to help you.'
'How do we find her?' Jeph demanded.
'You can't really get lost,' Coline said. 'There's only the one road. Just don't turn at the fork where it goes through the woods, unless you want to spend weeks on the road to Miln. That Messenger left for the Pasture a few hours ago, but he had some stops in the Brook first. If you hurry, you might catch him. Messengers carry their own wards with them. If you find him, you'll be able to keep moving right until dusk instead of stopping for succour. The Messenger could cut your trip in twain.'
'We'll find him,' Jeph said, 'whatever it takes. His voice took on a determined edge, and Arlen began to hope.
A strange sense of longing pulled at Arlen as he watched Tibbet's Brook recede into the distance from the back of the cart. For the first time, he was going to be more than a day's journey from home. He was going to see another town! A week ago, an adventure like that was his greatest dream. But now, all he dreamed was that things could go back to the way they were.
Back when the farm was safe.
Back when his mother was well.
Back when he didn't know his father was a coward.
Coline had promised to send one of her boys up to the farm to let Norine know they would likely be gone a week or more, and to help tend the animals and check the wards while they were away. The neighbours would throw in, but Norine's loss was too raw for her to face the nights alone.
The Herb Gatherer had also given them a crude map, carefully rolled and slipped into a protective hide tube. Paper was a rarity in the Brook, and not given away lightly. Arlen was fascinated by the map, and studied it for hours, even though he couldn't read the few words labelling the places. Neither Arlen nor his father had letters.
The map marked the way to Sunny Pasture, and what lay along the road, but the distances were vague. There were farms marked along the way where they could beg succour, but no way to tell how far apart they were.
His mother slept fitfully, sodden with sweat. Sometimes she spoke or cried out, but her words made little sense. Arlen daubed her with wet cloth and made her drink the sharp tea as the Herb Gatherer had instructed him, but it seemed to do little good.
Late in the afternoon, they approached the house of Harl Tanner, a farmer who lived on the outskirts of the Brook. Harl's farm was only a couple hours past the Cluster by the Woods, but by the time Arlen and his father had gotten underway, it was mid-afternoon.
Arlen remembered seeing Harl and his three daughters at the summer solstice festival each year, though they had been absent since the corelings had taken Hart's wife, two summers past. Harl had become a recluse, and his daughters with him. Even the tragedy in the Cluster had not brought them out.
Three quarters of the Tanner fields were blackened and scorched; only those closest to the house were warded and sown. A gaunt milking cow chewed cud in the muddy yard, and ribs showed clearly on the goat tied up by the chicken coop.
The Tanners' home was a single story of piled stones, held together with packed mud and clay. The larger stones were painted with faded wards. Arlen thought them clumsy, but they had lasted thus far, it seemed. The roof was uneven, with short, squat wardposts poking up through the rotting thatch. One side of the house connected to the small barn, its windows boarded and its door half off the hinges. Across the yard was the big barn, looking even worse. The wards might hold, but it looked ready to collapse on its own.
'I've never seen Harl's place before,' Jeph said.
'Me, neither,' Arlen lied. Few people apart from Messengers had reason to head up the road past the Cluster by the Woods, and those that lived up that way were sources of great speculation in Town Square. Arlen had snuck off to see Crazy Man Tanner's farm more than once. It was the farthest he had ever been from home. Getting back before dusk had meant hours of running as fast as he could.
One time, a few months before, he almost didn't make it. He had been trying to catch a glimpse of Harl's eldest daughter, Ilain. The other boys said she had the biggest bubbies in the Brook, and he wanted to see for himself. He waited one day, and saw her come running out of the house, crying. She was beautiful in her sadness, and Arlen had wanted to go comfort her, even though she was eight summers older than him. He hadn't been so bold, but he'd watched her longer than was wise, and almost paid a heavy price for it when the sun began to set.
A mangy dog began barking as they approached the farm, and a young girl came out onto the porch, watching them with sad eyes.
'We might have to succour here,' Jeph said.
'It's still hours till dark,' Arlen said, shaking his head. 'If we don't catch Ragen by then, the map says there's another farm up by where the road forks to the Free Cities.'
Jeph peered over Arlen's shoulder at the map. 'That's a long way,' he said.
'Mam can't wait,' Arlen said. 'We won't make it all the way today, but every hour is an hour closer to her cure.'
Jeph looked back at Silvy, bathed in sweat, then up at the sun, and nodded. They waved at the girl on the porch, but did not stop.
They covered a great distance in the next few hours, but found no sign of the Messenger or another farm. Jeph looked up at the orange sky.
'It will be full dark in less than two hours,' he said. 'We have to turn back. If we hurry, we can make it back to Harl's in time.'
'The farm could be right around that next bend,' Arlen argued. 'We'll find it'
'We don't know that,' Jeph said, spitting over the side of the cart. 'The map ent clear. We turn back while we still can, and no arguing.'
Arlen's eyes widened in disbelief. 'We'll lose half a day that way, not to mention the night. Mam might die in that time!' he cried.
Jeph looked back at his wife, sweating in her bundled blankets, breathing in short fits. Sadly, he looked around at the lengthening shadows, and suppressed a shiver. 'If we're caught out after dark,' he replied quietly, 'we'll all die.'
Arlen was shaking his head before his father finished, refusing to accept it. 'We could…' he floundered. 'We could draw wards in the soil,' he said at last. 'All around the cart.'
'And if a breeze comes along and mars them?' his father asked. 'What then?'
'The farm could be just over the next hill!' Arlen insisted.
'Or it could be twenty more miles down the road,' his father shot back, 'or burned down a year ago. Who knows what's happened since that map was drawn?'
'Are you saying Mam isn't worth the risk?' Arlen accused.
'Don't you tell me what she's worth!' his father screamed, nearly bowling the boy over. 'I've loved her all my life! I know better than you! But I'm not going to risk all three of us! She can last the night. She has to!'
With that, he pulled hard on the reins, stopping the cart and turning it about. He cracked the leather hard into Missy's flanks, and sent her leaping back down the road. The animal, frightened by the coming dark, responded with a frantic pace.
Arlen turned back towards Silvy, swallowing bitter anger. He watched his mother bounce around as the wheels ran over stones and dips, not reacting at all to the bumpy ride. Whatever his father thought, Arlen knew her chances had just been cut in half. The sun was nearly set when they reached the lonely farmhouse. Jeph and Missy seemed to share a panicked terror, and they screamed their haste as one. Arlen had leapt into the back of the cart to try and keep his mother from being thrown about by the widely jolting ride. He held her tight, taking many of the bruises and bashes for her.
But not all. He could feel Coline's careful stitches giving, the wounds oozing open again. If the demon fever didn't claim her, there was a good chance the ride would.
Jeph ran the cart right up to the porch, shouting, 'Harl! We seek succour!'
The door opened almost immediately, even before they could get out of the cart. A man in worn overalls came out, a long pitchfork in hand. Harl was thin and tough, like dried meat. He was followed by Ilain, the sturdy young woman holding a stout metal-headed shovel. The last time Arlen saw her, she had been crying and terrified, but there was no terror in her eyes now. She ignored the crawling shadows as she approached the cart.
Harl nodded as Jeph lifted Silvy out of the cart. 'Get her inside,' he ordered, and Jeph hurried to comply, letting a deep breath out as he crossed the wards.
'Open the big barn door!' he told Ilain. 'That cart won't fit in the little 'un.' Ilain gathered her skirts and ran. He turned to Arlen. 'Drive the cart to the barn, boy! Quick!'
Arlen did as he was told. 'No time to unhitch her,' the farmer said. 'She'll have to do.' It was the second night in a row. Arlen wondered if Missy would ever get unhitched.
Harl and Ilain quickly shut the barn door and checked the wards. 'What are you waiting for?' the man roared at Arlen. 'Run for the house! They'll be here in a moment!'
He had barely spoken the words when the demons began to rise. They sprinted for the house as spindly, clawed arms and horned heads seemed to grow right out of the ground.
They dodged left and right around the rising death, adrenaline and fear giving them agility and speed. The first corelings to solidify, a group of lithesome flame demons, gave chase, gaining on them. As Arlen and Ilain ran on, Harl turned and hurled his pitchfork into their midst.
The weapon struck the lead demon full in the chest, knocking it into its fellows, but even the skin of a tiny flame demon was too knobbed and tough for a pitchfork to pierce. The creature picked up the tool in its claws and spat a gout of flame upon it, setting the wooden haft alight and tossing it aside.
But though the coreling hadn't been hurt, the throw delayed them. The demons rushed forward, but as Harl leapt onto the porch, they came to an abrupt halt, slamming into a line of wards that stopped them as surely as if they had run into a brick wall. As the magic flared brightly and hurled them back into the yard, Harl rushed into the house. He slammed and bolted the door, throwing his back against the portal.
'Creator be praised,' he said weakly, panting and pale.
The air inside Harl's farmhouse was thick and hot, stinking of must and waste. The buggy reeds on the floor absorbed some of the water that made it past the thatch, but they were far from fresh. Two dogs and several cats shared the home, forcing everyone to step carefully. A stone pot hung in the fireplace, adding to the mix the sour scent of a stew perpetually cooking; added to as it diminished. A patchwork curtain in one corner gave a touch of privacy for the chamber pot.
Arlen did his best to redo Silvy's bandages, and then Ilain and her sister Beni put her in their room, while Harl's youngest, Renna, set another two cracked wooden bowls at the table for Arlen and his father.
There were only three rooms, one shared by the girls, another for Harl, and the common room where they cooked and ate and worked. A ragged curtain divided the room, partitioning off the area for cooking and eating. A warded door in the common led to the small barn.
'Renna, take Arlen and check the wards while the men talk and Beni and I get supper ready,' Ilain said.
Renna nodded, taking Arlen's hand and pulling him along. She was almost ten, close to Arlen's age of eleven, and pretty beneath the smudges of dirt on her face. She wore a plain shift, worn and carefully mended, and her brown hair was tied back with a ragged strip of cloth, though many locks had freed themselves to fall about her round face.
'This one's scuffed,' the girl commented, pointing to a ward on one of the sills. 'One of the cats must have stepped on it.' Taking a stick of charcoal from the kit, she carefully traced the line where it had been broken.
'That's no good,' Arlen said. 'The lines aren't smooth anymore. That weakens the ward. You should draw it over.'
'I'm not allowed to draw a fresh one,' Renna whispered. 'I'm supposed to tell father or Ilain if there's one I can't fix.'
'I can do it,' Arlen said, taking the stick. He carefully wiped clean the old ward and drew a new one, his arm moving with quick confidence. Stepping back as he finished, he looked around the window, and then swiftly replaced several others as well.
While he worked, Harl caught sight of them and started to rise nervously, but a motion and a few confident words from Jeph brought him back to his seat.
Arlen took a moment to admire his work. 'Even a rock demon won't get through that,' he said proudly. He turned, and found Renna staring at him. 'What?' he asked.
'You're taller than I remember,' the girl said, looking down and smiling shyly.
'Well, it's been a couple of years,' Arlen replied, not knowing what else to say. When they finished their sweep, Harl called his daughter over. He and Renna spoke softly to one another, and Arlen caught her looking at him once or twice, but he couldn't hear what was said.
Dinner was a tough stew of parsnip and corn with a meat Arlen couldn't identify, but it was filling enough. While they ate, they told their tale.
'Wish youd'a come to us first,' Harl said when they finished. 'We been t'Old Mey Friman plenty times. Closer'n going all the way to Town Square t'see Trigg. If it took you two hours of cracking the whip t'get back to us, you'da reached Mack Pasture's farm soon, you pressed on. Old Mey, she's only an hour-so past that. She never did cotton to living in town. You'd really whipped that mare, you mighta' made it tonight.'
Arlen slammed down his spoon. All eyes at the table turned to him, but he didn't even notice, so focused was he on his father.
Jeph could not weather that glare for long. He hung his head. 'There was no way to know,' he said miserably.
Ilain touched his shoulder. 'Don't blame yourself for being cautious,' she said. She looked at Arlen, reprimand in her eyes. 'You'll understand when you're older,' she told him.
Arlen rose sharply and stomped away from the table. He went through the curtain and curled up by a window, watching the demons through a broken slat in the shutters. Again and again they tried and failed to pierce the wards, but Arlen didn't feel protected by the magic. He felt imprisoned by it.
'Take Arlen into the barn and play,' Harl ordered his younger daughters after the rest had finished eating. 'Ilain will take the bowls. Let'cher elders talk.'
Beni and Renna rose as one, bouncing out of the curtain. Arlen was in no mood to play, but the girls didn't let him speak, yanking him to his feet and out the door into the barn.
Beni lit a cracked lantern, casting the barn in a dull glow. Harl had two old cows, four goats, a pig with eight sucklings, and six chickens. All were gaunt and bony; underfed. Even the pig's ribs showed. It seemed barely enough to feed Harl and the girls.
The barn itself was no better. Half the shutters were broken, and the hay on the floor was rotted. The goats had eaten through the wall of their stall, and were pulling the cow's hay. Mud, slop, and faeces had churned into a single muck in the pig stall.
Renna dragged Arlen to each stall in turn. 'Da doesn't like us naming the animals,' she confessed, 'so we do it secret. This one's Hoofy,' she pointed to a cow. 'Her milk tastes sour, but da says its fine. Next to her is Grouchy. She kicks, but only if you milk too hard, or not soon enough. The goats are…'
'Arlen doesn't care about the animals,' Beni scolded her sister. She grabbed his arm and pulled him away. Beni was taller than her sister, and older, but Arlen thought Renna was prettier. They climbed into the hayloft, plopping down on the clean hay.
'Let's play Succour,' Beni said. She pulled a tiny leather pouch from her pocket, rolling four wooden dice onto the floor of the loft. The dice were painted with symbols: Flame, Rock, Water, Wind, Wood, and Ward. There were many ways to play, but most rules agreed you needed to throw three before rolling four of any other kind.
They played at the dice for a while. Renna and Beni had their own rules, many of which Arlen suspected were made up to let them win.
'Two wards three times in a row counts as three wards,' Beni announced, after throwing just that. 'We win.' Arlen disagreed, but he didn't see much point in arguing.
'Since we won, you have to do what we say,' Beni declared.
'Do not,' Arlen said.
'Do too!' Beni insisted. Again, Arlen felt as if arguing would get him nowhere.
'What would I have to do?' he asked suspiciously.
'Make him play kissy!' Renna clapped.
Ben swatted her sister on the head. 'I know, dumbs!'
'What's kissy?' Arlen asked, afraid he already knew the answer.
'Oh, you'll see,' Beni said, and both girls laughed. 'It's a grown-up game. Da plays it with Ilain sometimes. You practice being married.'
'What, like saying your promises?' Arlen asked, wary.
'No, dumbs, like this,' Beni said. She put her arms around Arlen's shoulders, and pressed her mouth to his.
Arlen had never kissed a girl before. She opened her mouth to him, and so he did the same. Their teeth clicked, and both of them recoiled. 'Ow!' Arlen said.
'You do it too hard, Beni,' Renna complained. 'It's my turn.'
Indeed, Renna's kiss was much softer. Arlen found it rather pleasant. Like being near the fire when it was cold.
'There,' Renna said, when their lips parted. 'That's how you do it.'
'We have to share the bed tonight,' Beni said. 'We can practice later.'
'I'm sorry you had to give up your bed on account of my mam,' Arlen said.
'It's okay,' Renna said. 'We used to have to share a bed every night, until Mam died. But now Ilain sleeps with Da.'
'Why?' Arlen asked.
'We're not supposed to talk about it,' Beni hissed at Renna.
Renna ignored her, but she kept her voice low. 'Ilain says that now that Mam's gone, Da told her it's her duty to keep him happy the way a wife is supposed to.'
'Like cooking and sewing and stuff?' Arlen asked.
'No, it's a game like kissy,' Beni said. 'But you need a boy to play it.' She tugged on his overalls. 'If you show us your thingie, we'll teach you.'
'I am not showing you my thingie!' Arlen said, backing away.
'Why not?' Renna asked. 'Beni showed Lucik Boggin, and now he wants to play all the time.'
'Da and Lucik's father said we're promised,' Beni bragged. 'So that makes it okay. Since you're going to be promised to Renna, you should show her yours.' Renna bit her finger and looked away, but she watched Arlen out of the corner of her eye.
'That's not true!' Arlen said. 'I'm not promised to anyone!'
'What do you think the elders are talking about inside, dumbs?' Beni asked.
'Are not,' Arlen said.
'Go see!' Beni challenged.
Arlen looked at both girls, then climbed down the ladder, slipping into the house as quietly as he could. He could hear voices from behind the curtain, and crept closer.
'I wanted Lucik right away,' Harl was saying, 'but
Fernan wants him makin' mash for another season. Without an extra back around the farm, it's hard keepin' our bellies full, 'specially since them chickens quit layin' and one of the milk cows soured.'
'We'll take Renna on our way back from Mey,' Jeph said.
'Gonna tell him they's promised?' Harl asked. Arlen's breath caught.
'No reason not to,' Jeph said.
Harl grunted. 'Reckon you should wait till t'morrer,' he said. 'While yur alone on the road. Sometime boys cause a scene when they's first told. It kin hurt a girl's feelin's.'
'You're probably right,' Jeph said. Arlen wanted to scream.
'Know I am,' Harl said. 'Trust a man with daughters; they'll get upset over any old thing, ent that right, Lainie?' There was a smack, and Ilain yelped. 'But still,' Harl went on, 'you kin do them no hurt that a few hours of cryin' won't solve.'
There was a long silence, and Arlen started to edge back towards the barn door.
'I'm off t'bed,' Harl grunted. Arlen froze. 'See'n how Silvy's in yur bed tonight, Lainie,' he went on, 'you c'n sleep with me after you scrape the bowls and round up the girls.'
Arlen ducked behind a workbench as Harl went to the privy to relieve himself, and then went into his room, closing the door. He was about to creep back to the barn when Ilain spoke.
'I want to go, too,' she blurted, just after the door closed.
'What?' Jeph asked.
Arlen could see their feet under the curtain from where he crouched. Ilain came around the table to sit next to his father.
'Take me with you,' Ilain repeated. 'Please. Beni will be fine once Lucik comes. I need to get away.'
'Why?' Jeph asked. 'Surely you have enough food for three.'
'It's not that,' Ilain said. 'It doesn't matter why. I can tell Da I'll be out in the fields when you come for Renna. I'll run down the road, and meet you there. By the time Da realizes where I've gone, there'll be a night between us. He'll never follow.'
'I wouldn't be too sure of that,' Jeph said.
'Your farm is as far from here as there is,' Ilain pleaded. Arlen saw her put her hand on Jeph's knee. 'I can work,' she promised. 'I'll earn my keep.'
'I can't just steal you away from Harl,' Jeph said. 'I've no quarrel with him, and I'm not about to start one.'
Ilain spat. 'The old wretch would have you think I'm sharing his bed because of Silvy,' she said quietly. 'Truer is he raises his hand to me if I don't join him every night after Renna and Beni are off to bed.'
Jeph was silent a long time. 'I see,' he said at last. He made a fist, and started to rise.
'Don't, please,' Ilain said. 'You don't know what he's like. He'll kill you.'
'I should just stand by?' Jeph asked. Arlen didn't understand what the fuss was. So what if Ilain slept in Harl's room?.
Arlen saw Ilain move closer to his father. 'You'll need someone to take care of Silvy,' she whispered. 'And if she should pass…' she leaned in further, and her hand went to Jeph's lap the way Beni had tried to do to him. '…I could be your wife. I would fill your farm with children,' she promised. Jeph groaned.
Arlen felt nauseous and hot in the face. He gulped, tasting bile in his mouth. He wanted to scream their plan to Harl. The man had faced a coreling for his daughter; something Jeph would never do. He imagined Harl would punch his father. The image was not displeasing.
Jeph hesitated, then pushed Ilain away. 'No,' he said. 'We'll get Silvy to the Herb Gatherer tomorrow, and she'll be fine.'
'Then take me anyway,' Ilain begged, falling to her knees.
'I'll… think about it,' his father replied. Just then, Beni and Renna burst in from the barn. Arlen rose quickly, pretending he had just entered with them as Ilain hurriedly stood. He felt the moment to confront them slip past.
After putting the girls to bed and producing a pair of grimy blankets for Arlen and Jeph in the main room, Ilain drew a deep breath and went into her father's room. Not long after, Arlen heard Harl grunting quietly, and the occasional muffled yelp from Ilain. Pretending not to hear it, he glanced over at Jeph, seeing him biting his fist.
Arlen was up before the sun the next morning, while the rest of the house slept. Moments before sunrise, he opened the door, staring at the remaining corelings impatiently as they hissed and clawed the air at him from the far side of the wards. As the last demon in the yard went misty, he left the house and went to the big barn, watering Missy and Harl's other horses. The mare was in foul temper, and nipped at him. 'Just one more day,' Arlen told her as he put her feed bag on.
His father was still snoring as he went back into the house and knocked on the doorframe of the room shared by Renna and Beni. Beni pulled the curtain aside, and immediately, Arlen noted the worried looks on the sisters' faces.
'She won't wake up,' Renna, who was kneeling by Arlen's mother, choked. 'I knew you wanted to leave as soon as the sun rose, but when I shook her…' she gestured towards the bed, her eyes wet. 'She's so pale.'
Arlen rushed to his mother's side, taking her hand. Her fingers were cold and clammy, but her forehead burned to the touch. Her breathing came in short gasps, and the rotting stink of demon sickness was thick about her. Her bandages were soaked with brownish yellow ooze.
'Da!' Arlen cried. A moment later, Jeph appeared with Ilain and Harl close behind.
'We don't have any time to waste,' Jeph said.
'Take one'a my horses t'go with yours,' Harl said. 'Switch 'em when they tire. Push hard, and you should reach Mey by afternoon.'
'We're in your debt,' Jeph said, but Harl waved the thought away.
'Hurry, now,' he said. 'Ilain will pack you something to eat on the road.'
Renna caught Arlen's arm as he turned to go. 'We's promised now,' she whispered. 'I'll wait on the porch every dusk till you're back.' She kissed him on the cheek. Her lips were soft, and the feel of them lingered long after she pulled away.
The cart bumped and jerked as they raced along the rough dirt road, pausing only once to rotate the horses. Arlen looked at the food Ilain had packed as if it were poison. Jeph ate it hungrily.
As he picked at the grainy bread and hard, pungent cheese, he started to think that maybe it was all a misunderstanding. Maybe he hadn't overheard what he thought he had. Maybe Jeph hadn't hesitated in pushing Ilain away.
It was a tempting illusion, but Jeph shattered it a moment later. 'What do you think of Harl's younger daughter?' he asked. 'You spent some time with her.' Arlen felt like his father had just punched him in the stomach.
'Renna?' Arlen asked, playing innocent. 'She's okay, I guess. Why?'
'I spoke to Harl,' his father said. 'She's going to come live with us when we go back to the farm.'
'Why?' Arlen asked.
'To look after your mam, help around the farm, and… other reasons.'
'What other reasons?' Arlen pressed.
'Harl and I want to see if you two will get along,' Jeph said.
'What if we don't?' Arlen asked. 'What if I don't want some girl following me around all day asking me to play kissy with her?'
'One day,' Jeph said, 'you might not mind playing kissy so much.'
'So let her come then,' Arlen said, shrugging her shoulders and pretending not to know what his father was getting at. 'Why is Harl so eager to be rid of her?'
'You've seen the state of their farm; they can barely feed themselves,' Jeph said. 'Harl loves his daughters very much, and he wants the best for them. And what's best is marrying them while they're still young, so he can have sons to help him out and grandchildren before he dies. Ilain is already older than most girls who marry. Lucik Boggin is going to come out to help on Harl's farm starting in the fall. They're hoping he and Beni will get along.'
'I suppose Lucik didn't have any choice, either,' Arlen grumbled.
'He's happy to go, and lucky at that!' Arlen's father snapped, losing his patience. 'You're going to have to learn some hard lessons about life, Arlen. There are a lot more boys than girls in the Brook, and we can't just fritter our lives away. Every year, we lose more to dotage and sickness and corelings. If we don't keep children coming, Tibbet's Brook will fade away just like a hundred other villages! We can't let that happen!'
Arlen, seeing his normally placid father seething, wisely said nothing.
An hour later, Silvy started screaming. They turned to find her trying to stand up right there in the cart, clutching at her chest, her breath coming in loud, horrid gasps. Arlen leapt into the back of the cart, and she gripped him with surprisingly strong hands, coughing thick phlegm onto his shirt. Her bulging, bloodshot eyes stared wildly into his, but there was no recognition in them. Arlen screamed as she thrashed about, holding her as steadily as he could.
Jeph stopped the cart and together they forced her to lie back down. She thrashed about, screaming in hoarse gasps. And then, like Cholie, she gave a final wrack, and lay still.
Jeph looked at his wife, and then threw his head back and screamed. Arlen nearly bit through his lip trying to hold back his tears, but in the end, he failed. They wept together over the woman.
When their sobs eased, Arlen looked around, his eyes lifeless. He tried to focus, but the world seemed blurry, like it wasn't real.
'What do we do now?' he asked finally.
'We turn around,' his father said, and the words cut Arlen like a knife. 'We take her home and burn her. We try to go on. There's still the farm and the animals to care for, and even with Renna and Norine to help us, there's going to be some hard times ahead.'
'Renna?' Arlen asked incredulously. 'We're still taking her with us? Even now?'
'Life goes on, Arlen,' his father said. 'You're almost a man, and a man needs a wife.'
'Did you arrange one for both of us?' Arlen blurted.
'What?' Jeph asked.
'I heard you and Ilain last night!' Arlen screamed. 'You've got another wife all ready! What do you care about mam? You've already got someone else to take care of your thingie! At least, until she gets killed too, because you're too scared to help her!'
Arlen's father hit him; a hard slap across the face that cracked the morning air. His anger faded instantly, and he reached out to his son. 'Arlen, I'm sorry…!' he choked, but the boy pulled away and jumped off the cart.
'Arlen!' Jeph cried, but the boy ignored him, running as hard as he could for the woods off to the side of the road.
A Night Alone
Arlen ran through the woods as fast as he could, making sharp, sudden turns; picking his direction at random. He wanted to be sure his father couldn't track him, but as Jeph's calls faded, he realized his father wasn't following at all.
Why should he bother? he thought. He knows I have to come back before nightfall. Where else could I go?
Anywhere. The answer came unbidden, but he knew in his heart that it was true.
He couldn't go back to the farm and pretend everything was all right. He couldn't watch Ilain claim his mother's bed. Even pretty Renna, who kissed so softly, would only be a reminder of what he had lost, and why.
But where could he go? His father was right about one thing. He couldn't run forever. He would have to find succour before dark, or the coming night would be his last.
Going back to Tibbet's Brook was not an option. Whoever he sought succour from would drag him home by the ear the next day, and he'd be switched for the stunt with nothing to show.
Sunny Pasture, then. Unless Hog was paying them to carry something, almost no one from Tibbet's Brook ever went there, unless they were Messengers.
Coline had said Ragen was heading to Sunny Pasture before returning to the Free Cities. Arlen liked Ragen; the only elder he'd ever met who didn't talk down to him. The Messenger and Keerin were a day and more ahead of him, and mounted, but if he hurried, perhaps he could catch them in time and beg passage to the Free Cities.
He still had Coline's map, strung around his neck. It showed the road to Sunny Pasture, and the farms along the way. Even deep in the woods, he was pretty sure which way was north.
At midday he found the road, or rather the road found him, cutting straight across the woods ahead of him. He must have lost his sense of direction in the trees.
He walked on for a few hours, but he saw no sign of a farm, or the old Herb Gatherer's home. Looking at the sun, his worry increased. If he was walking north, the sun should be off to his left, but it wasn't. It was right in front of him.
He stopped and looked at the map, and his fears were confirmed. He wasn't on the road to Sunny Pasture, he was on the road to the Free Cities. Worse, after the road split off from the path to Sunny Pasture, it went right off the edge of the map.
The idea of backtracking was daunting, especially with no way to know if he could make it to succour in time. He took a step back the way he had come.
No, he decided. Going back is Da's way. Whatever happens, I'm going forward.
Arlen started walking again, leaving both Tibbet's Brook and Sunny Pasture behind. Each step was lighter and easier than the one before.
He walked for hours more, eventually leaving the trees behind and entering grassland; wide, lush fields untouched by plough or grazing. He crested a hilltop, breathing deeply of the fresh, untainted air. There was a large boulder jutting from the ground, and Arlen scrambled on top of it, looking out at a wide world that had always been beyond of his reach.
There was no sign of habitation; no place to seek succour. He was afraid of the coming night, but it was a distant feeling, like knowing you would grow old and die one day.
As the afternoon turned to evening, Arlen began looking for places to make his stand. A copse of trees held promise; there was little grass beneath them, and he could draw wards in the soil, but a wood demon might climb one of the trees, and drop into his warding ring from above.
There was a small, stony hillock free of grass, but when Arlen stood on top of it, the wind was strong, and he feared it might mar the wards, rendering them useless.
Finally, Arlen came to a place where flame demons had set a recent blaze. New buds had yet to pierce the ash, and a scuff of his foot found hard soil beneath. He cleared the ash from a wide area and began his warding circle. He had little time, so he kept it small, not wanting his haste to cause him to make a mistake.
Using a sharp stick, Arlen drew the sigils in the dirt, gently blowing away loose scrapings. He worked for over an hour, ward by ward, stepping back frequently to assure himself that they were aligned properly. His hands, as always, moved with confidence and alacrity.
When he finished, Arlen had a circle six feet in diameter. He checked the wards three times, finding no error. He put the stick in his pocket and sat at the circle's centre, watching the shadows lengthen and the sun dip low, setting the sky awash with colour.
Perhaps he would die tonight. Perhaps not. Arlen told himself it did not matter. But as the light waned, so too did his nerve. He felt his heart pounding, and every instinct told him to leap to his feet and run. But there was nowhere to run to. He was miles away from the nearest place of succour. He shivered, though it was not cold.
This was a bad idea, a tiny voice whispered in his mind, but he snarled at it. Tonight, he told that voice, we find out if mam died for nothing. Tonight, we find out what really killed her.
The brave thoughts did little to loosen his knotting muscles as the last rays of the sun winked out, and he was bathed in darkness. Here they come, that frightened voice in his head warned, as the wisps of mist began to rise from the ground.
The mist coalesced slowly, demon bodies gaining substance as they slipped from the ground. Arlen rose with them, clenching his small fists. As always, the flame demons came first, scampering about in delight, trailing flickering fire as they went. These were followed by the wind demons, which immediately ran and spread their leathery wings, leaping into the air. Last came the rock demons, laboriously hauling their heavy frames from the Core.
And then the corelings saw Arlen and howled with delight, charging the helpless boy.
A swooping wind demon struck first, raking its hooked wing claws to tear out Arlen's throat. Arlen screamed, but sparks flew as the talons struck his wards, deflecting the attack. Momentum carried the demon on and slammed its body into the shield, only to be hurled back in a shimmering burst of energy. The creature howled as it struck the ground, but it pulled itself upright, twitching as energy danced across its scales.
Next came the nimble flame demons, the largest no bigger than a dog. They skittered forward, shrieking, and began clawing at the shield. Arlen flinched each time, but the magic held. When they saw that Arlen had woven an effective net, they spat fire at him.
Arlen was wise to the trick, of course. He had been warding since he was old enough to hold a stick of charcoal, and he knew the wards against firespit. The flames were turned as effectively as the claws. He didn't even feel the heat.
Corelings gathered to the spectacle, and each flash of light as the wards activated showed Arlen a fell horde, eager to flay the flesh from his bones.
More wind demons swooped in, and were thrown back by the wards. The flame demons, too, began to hurl themselves at him in
frustration, accepting the stinging burn of the magic in hopes of powering their way through. Again and again they were thrown back. Arlen ceased to flinch. He began to scream curses at them, shoving his terror aside.
His defiance only enraged the demons further, unused to being taunted by their prey. They doubled their efforts to penetrate the wards as Arlen shook his fists and made rude gestures he had seen the adults in Tibbet's Brook make to Hog's back sometimes.
This was what he feared? This was what humanity lived in terror of? These pathetic, frustrated beasts? Ridiculous. He spat, and it sizzled on a flame demon's scales, trebling its fury.
There was a hush from the howling creatures then. In the flickering light of the flame demons, he saw the coreling host part, clearing a path for a rock demon that stomped towards him, its footsteps like an earthquake.
All his life, Arlen had watched corelings from afar, from behind windows and doors. Before the terrifying events of the last few days, he had never been outside in the air with a fully formed demon, and had certainly never stood his ground. He knew their size could vary, but he had never appreciated just how much. The rock demon that approached was fifteen feet tall. The rock demon was enormous.
Arlen craned his head upward as the monster approached. Even at a distance, it was a towering, hulking mass of sinew and sharp edges. Its thick black carapace was knobbed with bony protrusions, and its spiked tail slid back and forth, balancing its massive shoulders. It stood hunched on two clawed feet that dug great grooves in the ground with every thunderous step. Its long, gnarled arms ended in talons the size of butchering knives, and its drooling maw split wide to reveal row after row of bladelike teeth. A black tongue slipped out, tasting Arlen's fear.
One of the flame demons failed to move from its path quickly enough, and the rock demon swiped at it in an offhanded manner,
its talons tearing great gashes as the blow launched the smaller coreling through the air.
Terrified, Arlen took a step back, and then another, as the giant coreling approached. It was only at the last moment that he came to his senses and stopped before he retreated right out of the protective circle.
Remembering the circle gave fleeting comfort. Arlen doubted his wards were strong enough for this test. He doubted any wards were.
The demon regarded him for a long moment, savouring his terror. Rock demons seldom hurried, though when they chose to, they could move with astonishing speed.
As the demon struck, Arlen's nerve broke. He screamed and fell to the ground, curling up in a tight ball, covering his head with his arms.
The resulting explosion was deafening. Even through his covered eyes, Arlen saw the bright flash of magic, as if night had become day. He heard the demon's shriek of frustration, and peeked out as the coreling whirled, smashing its heavy, horned tail against the wards.
Again, the magic flared, and again, the creature was thwarted.
Arlen forced himself to let go the breath he had been holding. He watched as the demon struck his wards again and again, screaming in rage. A warm dampness clung to his thighs.
He picked up a stone and threw it at the demon. 'Go back to the Core where you belong!' he cried. 'Go back and die!'
Ashamed of himself, of his cowardice, Arlen came to his feet and met the demon's eyes. He screamed, a primal cry from deep within him that rejected everything the coreling was and everything it represented.
The demon barely seemed to feel the stone bounce off its armour, but its rage multiplied as it tore at the wards, unable to get through. Arlen called the demon every foul and pathetic thing in his somewhat limited vocabulary, clawing at the ground for anything he could throw.
When he ran out of stones, he began jumping up and down, waving his arms, screaming his defiance.
Then he slipped, and stepped on a ward.
Time seemed to freeze in the long, silent moment shared by Arlen and the giant demon, the enormity of what had just happened slowly dawning on them. When they moved, they moved as one, Arlen whipping out his etching stick and diving for the ward even as the demon swiped a massive, clawed hand at him.
His mind racing, Arlen assessed the damage in an instant, a single line of the sigil was marred. Even as he repaired the ward with a slash of the tool, he knew he was too late. The claws had begun to cut into his flesh.
But then the magic took effect once more, and the demon was hurled back, screaming in agony. Arlen, too, screamed in pain, rolling over and pulling the claws from his back; hurling them away before he could realize what had happened.
He saw it then, lying in the circle, twitching and smoking: the demon's arm.
Arlen looked at the severed limb in shock, turning to see the demon roaring and thrashing about, savaging any demon foolish enough to come within its reach; savaging with one arm.
He looked at the arm, its end neatly severed and cauterized, oozing a foul smoke. With more bravery than he felt, Arlen picked the massive thing up and tried to hurl it from the circle, but the wards made a two-way barrier. The stuff of corelings could no more pass out than in. The arm bounced off the wards and landed back at Arlen's feet.
Then the pain set in. Arlen touched the wounds along his back, and his hands came away wet with blood. Sickened, his strength ebbed and he fell to his knees, weeping for the pain, weeping for fear of moving and scuffing another ward, and weeping, most of all, for his mam. He understood now the pain she had felt that night.
Arlen spent the rest of the night cowering in fright. He could hear the demons circling, waiting, hoping for an error that would allow them access. Even if sleep had been possible, he would not have dared attempt it, lest a shift in his slumber grant the corelings their wish.
Dawn seemed to take years to come. Arlen looked up at the sky often that night, but each time he saw only the giant, crippled rock demon, clutching its caked and ichorous wound as it stalked the circle, hatred in its eyes.
After an eternity, a hint of red tinged the horizon, followed by orange, yellow, and then a glorious white. The other corelings slipped back down to the Core before the yellow touched the sky, but the giant waited until the last, its rows of teeth bared as it hissed at him.
But even the one-armed rock demon's hatred was no match for its fear of the sun. As the last shadows scurried away, its massive horned head sank beneath the ground. Arlen straightened and stepped from the circle, wincing in pain. His back was on fire. The wounds had stopped bleeding in the night, but he felt them tear open once more as he stretched.
The thought led his eyes back to the clawed forearm lying next to him. It was like a tree trunk, covered in hard, cold plates. Arlen picked the heavy thing up and held it before him.
Got a trophy, at least, he thought, making an effort to be brave even though the sight of his blood on the black talons sent a shudder through him.
Just then, a ray of light reached him, the sun finally more above the horizon than below. The demon's limb began to sizzle and smoke, popping like a wet log thrown on a fire. In a moment, it burst into flame, and Arlen dropped it in fright. He watched, fascinated, as it flared brighter and brighter, the sun's light bearing down upon it until there was naught left but a thin, charred remain. He stepped over and gingerly nudged it with his toe, collapsing it into dust.
Arlen found a branch to use as a walking stick as he trudged on. He understood how lucky he was. And how stupid. Soil wards were untrustworthy. Even Ragen said that. What would he have done if the wind had marred them, as his father threatened?
Creator, what if it had rained?
How many nights could he survive? Arlen had no idea what lay over the next hill, no reason to think that there was anyone between here and the Free Cities, which, by all accounts, were weeks away.
He felt tears welling in his eyes. Brutally, he wiped them off, growling in defiance. Giving in to fear was his father's solution to problems, and Arlen already knew it didn't work.
'I'm not afraid!' he cried out to the sunlit world. 'I'm not!'
Arlen pressed on, knowing the lie for what it was.
Around midday, he came to a rocky stream. The water was cold and clear, and he bent to drink. The move sent lances of pain through his back.
He had done nothing for the wounds. It wasn't as if he could stitch them closed as Coline might. He thought of his mother, and how when he would come home with cuts or scrapes, the first thing she did was wash them out.
He stripped off his shirt, finding the back torn and soaked through with blood, now crusted and hard. He dunked the shirt and watched as soil and blood washed downstream. He laid his clothes out on the rocks to dry, and lowered himself into the cold water.
The chill made him wince, but it soon numbed the pain in his back. He scrubbed as best he could, gently washing out the stinging wounds until he could stand it no more. Shivering, he climbed from the stream and lay on the rocks by his clothes.
He awoke some time later with a start. Cursing, he saw that the sun had moved far across the sky, and that the day was nearly done. He could travel a little further, but he knew the risk would be a foolish one. Better to spend the extra time on his defences.
Not far from the stream was a wide area of moist soil, and the sod pulled free easily, clearing him a space. He tamped down the loose dirt, smoothed it, and set to warding. He drew a wider circle this time, and then, after checking it thrice, drew another concentric ring within the first for added safety. The moist earth would resist the wind, and the sky showed no threat of rain.
Satisfied, Arlen dug a pit and gathered dry twigs, building a small fire. He sat in the centre of the inner circle as the sun dipped, trying to ignore his hunger. He doused the fire as the red sky grew lavender, then purple, breathing deeply to steady his pounding heart. At last, the light vanished and the corelings rose.
Arlen held his breath, waiting. Finally, a flame demon caught his scent, and raced at him with a shriek. In that moment, the terror of the previous night came rushing back to him, and Arlen felt his blood go cold.
The corelings were oblivious to his wards until they were upon them. With the first flare of magic, Arlen breathed his relief. The demons clawed at the barrier, but they could not pass.
A wind demon, flying up high where the wards were weak, passed the first ring, but it smashed into the second as it swooped down at him, landing hard in the space between. Arlen struggled to maintain his calm as it lurched to its feet.
It was bipedal, with a long, thin body, and spindly limbs that ended in six-inch hooked claws. The undersides of its arms and the outsides of its legs were webbed with a thin, leathery membrane, supported by flexible bones jutting from the creature's sides. Barely taller than an adult man, the demon's spread wings spanned twice its height, making it seem huge in the sky. A curving horn grew from its head, bent back and webbed like its limbs to form a ridge down its back. Its long snout held rows of inch long teeth, yellow in the moonlight.
The coreling moved clumsily on land, despite its graceful mastery of the air. Up close, the wind demons were not nearly as impressive as their cousins. Wood and rock demons had impenetrable armour and otherworldly strength to power their thick claws. Flame demons were faster than any man, and spat fire that could set anything alight. Wind demons… Arlen thought Ragen could puncture one of those thin wings with a hard stab of his spear, crippling it.
Night, he thought, I'm pretty sure I could do it myself.
But he didn't have a spear, and impressive or not, the coreling could still kill him, if his inner wards did not hold. He tensed as it drew close.
It swiped the hooked talon at the end of its wing at him, and Arlen winced, but magic sparked along the wardnet, and it was thwarted.
After a few more futile strikes, the coreling attempted to get airborne again. It ran and spread its wings to catch the wind, but it struck the outer wards before it could gain sufficient momentum. The magic threw it back into the mud.
Arlen laughed in spite of himself as the coreling tried to pick itself up. Its huge wings dragged on the ground and threw it off
balance. It had no hands to push up with, and its spindly arms bowed under its weight. It thrashed desperately for a moment before it was able to rise.
Trapped, it tried again and again to take off, but the space between the circles was not great enough, and it was foiled each time. The flame demons sensed their cousin's distress, and shrieked with glee, hopping around the circle to follow the creature and taunt its misfortune.
Arlen felt a swell of pride. He made mistakes the night before, but he would not make them again. He began to hope that he might live to see the Free Cities after all.
The flame demons soon tired of mocking the wind demon, and moved off in search of easier prey, flushing small animals from hiding with gouts of fire. One small, frightened hare leapt into Arlen's outer ring, the demon in pursuit stopped by the wards. The wind demon snatched clumsily at it, but the hare dodged it easily, running through the circle and out the far side, only to find corelings there as well. It turned and darted back in, again running too far.
Arlen wished there was a way he could communicate with the poor creature, to let it know it was safe in the inner ring, but he could only watch as it darted in and out of the wards.
Then, the unthinkable happened. The hare, scampering back into the circle, scratched out a ward. With a howl, flame demons poured through the gap after the animal. The lone wind demon escaped, leaping into the air and winging away.
Arlen cursed the hare, and cursed all the more when it darted right for him. If it damaged the inner wards, they were both doomed.
With a farm boy's quickness, Arlen reached from the circle and snatched up the hare by its ears. It thrashed wildly, willing to tear itself apart to escape, but Arlen had handled hares in his father's fields often enough. He swung it into his arms, cradling it on its back, hindquarters up above its head. In a moment, the hare was staring up at him blankly, its struggles ceased.
He was tempted to throw the creature to the demons. It would be safer than risking it getting free and scuffing another ward. And why not? he wondered. If I'd found it in the light, I'd've eaten it myself.
Still, he found he could not do it. The demons had taken too much from the world, from him. He swore then that he would give them nothing willingly, not now, not ever.
Not even this.
As the night wore on, Arlen held the terrified creature firmly, cooing at it and stroking its soft fur. All around, the demons howled, but Arlen blocked them out, focusing on the animal.
The meditation worked for a time, until a roar brought him back. He looked up to find the massive, one-armed rock demon towering over him, its drool sizzling as it struck the wards. The creature's wound had healed into a knobbly stump at the end of its elbow. Its rage seemed even greater than the night before.
The coreling hammered at the barrier, ignoring the stinging flare of the magic. With deafening blows, the rock demon struck again and again, attempting to power through and take its vengeance. Arlen clutched the hare tightly, his eyes wide as he watched. He knew that the wards would not weaken from repeated blows, but it did little to stop the fear that the demon was determined enough to manage it anyway.
When the morning light banished the demons for another day, Arlen finally let go of the hare, and it bounded away immediately. His stomach growled as he watched it go, but after what they had shared, he could not bring himself to look at the creature as food.
Rising, Arlen stumbled and almost fell as a wave of nausea took him. The cuts along his back were lances of fire. He reached back to touch the tender, swollen skin, and his hand came away wet with the stinking brown ooze that Coline had drained from Silvy's wounds. The cuts burned, and he felt flushed. He bathed in the cold pool again, but the chill water did little to ease his inner heat.
Arlen knew then he was going to die. Old Mey Friman, if she existed at all, was over two days away. If he truly had demon fever, though, it didn't matter. He wouldn't last two days.
Still, Arlen could not bring himself to give in. He stumbled on down the road, following the wagon ruts towards wherever they came from.
If he was to die, let it be closer to the Free Cities than the prison behind.
Leesha spent the night in tears.
That was nothing out of the ordinary, but it wasn't her mother that had her weeping this night. It was the screams. Someone's wards had failed; it was impossible to tell whose, but cries of terror and agony echoed in the dark, and smoke billowed into the sky. The whole village glowed with a hazy orange light as smoke refracted coreling fire.
The people of Cutter's Hollow couldn't search for survivors yet. They dare not even fight the fire. They could do nothing save pray to the Creator that embers did not carry on the wind and spread the flames. Houses in Cutter's Hollow were built well apart for just this reason, but a strong breeze could carry a spark a long way.
Even if the fire remained contained, the ash and smoke in the air could obscure wards with their greasy stain, giving corelings the access they desperately sought.
No corelings tested the wards around Leesha's house. It was a bad sign, hinting that the demons had found easier prey in the dark.
Helpless and afraid, Leesha did the only thing she could. She cried. Cried for the dead, cried for the wounded, and cried for herself. In a village with less than four hundred people, there was no one whose death would not cut her.
At thirteen summers old, Leesha was an exceptionally pretty girl, with long, wavy hair of coal black and eyes the colour of blue sky. She was not yet flowered, and thus could not wed, but she was promised to Gared Cutter, the most handsome boy in the village. Gared was two summers older than her, tall and thick muscled. The other girls squealed as he passed, but he was Leesha's, and they all knew. He would give her strong babies.
If he lived through the night.
The door to her room opened. Her mother never bothered to knock. In face and form, Elona was much like her daughter. Still beautiful at thirty, her long hair hung rich and black about her proud shoulders. She had a full, womanly figure that was the envy of all; the only thing Leesha hoped to inherit from her. Her own breasts had only just started to bud, and had a long way to go before they matched her mother's.
'That's enough of your blubbering, you worthless girl,' Elona snapped, throwing Leesha a rag to dry her eyes. 'Crying alone gets you nothing. Cry in front of a man, if you want your way, but wetting your pillow won't bring the dead to life.' She pulled the door closed, leaving Leesha alone again in the evil orange light flickering through the slats of the shutters.
Do you feel anything at all? Leesha wondered at her.
Her mother was right that tears would not bring back the dead, but she was wrong that it was good for nothing. Crying had always been Leesha's escape when things were hard. Other girls might think Leesha's life was perfect, but only because none of them saw the face Elona showed her only child when they were alone. It was no secret Elona had wanted sons, and Leesha and her father both endured her scorn for failing to oblige.
But she angrily dried her eyes all the same. She couldn't wait until she flowered, and Gared took her away. The villagers would build them a house for their wedding boon, and Gared would carry her across the wards and make a woman of her while they all cheered outside. She would have her own children, and treat them nothing like her mother treated her.
Leesha was dressed when her mother banged on her door. She had not slept at all.
'I want you out the door when the dawn bell rings,' Elona said. 'And I'll not hear a murmur about you being tired! I won't have our family seen lagging to help.'
Leesha knew her mother well enough to know that 'seen' was the operative word. Elona didn't care about helping anyone but herself.
Leesha's father, Erny, was waiting by the door under Elona's stern gaze. He was not a large man, and to call him wiry would have implied a strength that wasn't there. He was no stronger of will than of body, a timid man whose voice never raised. Elona's elder by a dozen years, Erny's thin brown hair had deserted the top of his head, and he wore thin-rimmed glasses he had bought from a Messenger years ago; the only man in town with the like.
He was, in short, not the man Elona wanted him to be, but there was great demand in the Free Cities for the fine paper he made, and she liked his money well enough.
Unlike her mother, Leesha really wanted to help her neighbours. She was out and running towards the fire the moment the corelings fled, even before the bell.
'Leesha! Stay with us!' Elona cried, but Leesha ignored her. The smoke was thick and choking, but she raised her apron to cover her mouth, and did not slow.
A few townsfolk were already gathered by the time she reached the source. Three houses had burned to the ground, and two more still blazed, threatening to set their neighbours alight.
Leesha shrieked when she saw that one of the houses was Gared's.
Smitt, who owned the inn and general store in town, was on the scene, barking orders. Smitt had been their town Speaker for as long as Leesha could remember. He was never eager to give orders, preferring to let people solve their own problems, but everyone agreed he was good at it.
'…never pull water from the well fast enough,' Smitt was saying as Leesha approached. 'We'll have to form a bucket line to the stream and wet the other houses, or the whole village will be ashes by nightfall!'
Gared and Steave came running up just then, harried and sooty, but otherwise healthy. Gared, just fifteen, was bigger than most grown men in the village. Steave, his father, was a giant, towering over everyone. Leesha felt a knot in her stomach unclench at the sight of them.
But before she could run to Gared, Smitt pointed to him. 'Gared, pull the bucket cart to the stream!' He looked over the others. 'Leesha!' he said. 'Follow him and start filling!'
Leesha ran for all she was worth, but even pulling the heavy cart, Gared beat her to the small stream flowing from the River Angiers, miles to the north. The moment he pulled up short, she fell into his arms. She had thought seeing him alive would dispel the horrible images in her head, but it only intensified them. She didn't know what she would do if she lost Gared.
'I feared you dead,' she moaned, sobbing into his chest.
'I'm safe,' he whispered, hugging her tightly. 'I'm safe.'
Quickly, the two began unloading the cart, filling buckets to start the line as others arrived. Soon, more than a hundred villagers were in a neat row stretching from the stream to the blaze, passing up full buckets and handing back empty ones. Gared was called back to the fire with the cart, his strong arms needed to throw water.
It wasn't long before the cart returned, this time pulled by Tender Michel and laden with wounded. The sight brought mixed feelings. Seeing fellow villagers, friends all, burned and savaged cut her deeply, but a breach that left survivors was rare, and each one was a gift she thanked the Creator for.
The Holy Man and his acolyte, Child Jona, laid the injured out by the stream. Michel left the young man to comfort them while he brought the cart back for more.
Leesha turned from the sight, focusing on filling buckets. Her feet went numb in the cold water and her arms grew leaden, but she lost herself in the work until a whisper got her attention.
'Hag Bruna is coming,' someone said, and Leesha's head snapped up. Sure enough, the ancient Herb Gatherer was coming down the path, led by her apprentice, Darsy.
No one knew for sure how old Bruna was. It was said she was old when the village elders were young. She had delivered most of them herself. She had outlived her husband, children, and grandchildren, and had no family left in the world.
Now, she was withered and skeletal, a wrinkle of translucent skin over sharp bone. She was half-blind, and could walk only at a slow shuffle, but Bruna could still shout to be heard from the far end of the village, and she swung her gnarled walking stick with surprising strength and accuracy when her ire was roused.
Leesha, like most everyone in the village, was terrified of her.
Bruna's apprentice was a homely woman of twenty summers, thick of limb and wide of face. After Bruna outlived her last apprentice, a number of young girls had been sent to her for training. After a constant stream of abuse from the old woman, all but Darsy had been driven off.
'She's ugly as a bull and just as strong,' Elona once said of Darsy, cackling. 'What does she have to fear from that sour hag? It's not as if Bruna will drive the suitors from her door.'
Bruna knelt beside the injured, inspecting them with firm hands as Darsy unrolled a heavy cloth covered in pockets, each marked with symbols and holding a tool, vial, or pouch. Injured villagers moaned or cried out as she worked, but Bruna paid them no mind, pinching wounds and sniffing her fingers, working as much from touch and smell as sight. Without looking, Bruna's hands darted to the pockets of the cloth, mixing herbs with a mortar and pestle.
Darsy began laying a small fire, and looked up to where Leesha stood staring from the stream. 'Leesha! Bring water, and be quick about it!' she barked.
As Leesha hurried to comply, Bruna pulled up, sniffing the herbs she was grinding.
'Idiot girl!' Bruna shrieked. Leesha jumped, thinking she meant her, but Bruna hurled the mortar and pestle at Darsy, hitting her hard in the shoulder and covering her in ground herbs.
Bruna fumbled through her cloth, snatching the contents of each pocket and sniffing at them like an animal.
'You put stinkweed where the hogroot should be, and mixed all the skyflower with tampweed!' The old crone lifted her gnarled staff and struck Darsy across the shoulders. 'Are you trying to kill these people, or are you still too stupid to read?'
Leesha had seen her mother in such a state before, and if Elona was as frightening as a coreling, Hag Bruna was the mother of all demons. She began to edge away from the two, fearing to draw attention to herself.
'I'm sick of your abuse, you evil old hag!' Darsy screamed.
'Be off, then!' Bruna said. 'I'd sooner mar every ward in this town than leave you my herb pouch when I pass! The people would be no worse off!'
Darsy laughed. 'Be off?' she asked. 'Who'll carry your bottles and tripods, old woman? Who'll lay your fire, fix your meals, and wipe the spit from your face when the cough takes you? Who'll cart your old bones around when chill and damp sap your strength? You need me more than I need you!'
Bruna swung her staff, and Darsy wisely scurried out of the way, tripping over Leesha, who had been doing her best to remain invisible. Both of them tumbled to the ground.
Bruna used the opportunity swing her staff again. Leesha rolled through the dust to avoid the blows, but Bruna's aim was true. Darsy cried out in pain, covering her head with her arms.
'Off with you!' Bruna shouted again. 'I have sick to tend!'
Darsy growled and got to her feet. Leesha feared she might strike the old woman, but instead she ran off. Bruna let fly a stream of curses at Darsy's back.
Leesha held her breath and kept to her knees, inching away. Just as she thought she might escape, Bruna took notice of her.
'You, Elona's brat!' she shouted, pointing her gnarled stick at Leesha. 'Finish laying the fire and set my tripod over it!'
Bruna turned back to the wounded, and Leesha had no choice but to do as she was told.
Over the next few hours, Bruna barked an endless stream of orders at the girl, cursing her slowness, as Leesha scurried to do her bidding. She fetched and boiled water, ground herbs, brewed tinctures, and mixed balms. It seemed she never got more than halfway though a task before the ancient Herb Gatherer ordered her on to the next, and she was forced to work faster and faster to comply. Fresh wounded streamed in from the fires with deep burns and broken bones from collapses. She feared half the village was aflame.
Bruna brewed teas to numb pain for some, and drug others into a dreamless sleep as she cut them with sharp instruments. She worked tirelessly; stitching, poulticing, and bandaging.
It was late afternoon when Leesha realized that not only were there no more injuries to tend, but the bucket line was gone, as well. She was alone with Bruna and the wounded, the most alert of whom stared off dazedly into space thanks to Bruna's herbs.
A wave of suppressed weariness fell over her, and Leesha fell to her knees, sucking in a deep breath. Every inch of her ached, but with the pain came a powerful sense of satisfaction. There were some that might not have lived, but now would, thanks in part to her efforts.
But the real hero, she admitted to herself, was Bruna. It occurred to her that the woman had not ordered her to do anything for several minutes. She looked over, and saw Bruna collapsed on the ground, gasping.
'Help! Help!' Leesha cried. 'Bruna's sick!' New strength came to her, and she flew to the woman, lifting her up into a sitting position. Hag Bruna was shockingly light, and Leesha could feel little more than bone beneath her thick shawls and wool skirts.
Bruna was twitching, and a thin trail of spit ran from her mouth, caught in the endless grooves of her wrinkled skin. Her eyes, dark behind a milky film, stared wildly at her hands, which would not stop shaking.
Leesha looked around frantically, but there was no one nearby to help. Still holding Bruna upright, she grabbed at one of the woman's spasming hands, rubbing the cramped muscles. 'Oh, Bruna!' she pleaded. 'What do I do? Please! I don't know how to help you! You must tell me what to do!' Helplessness cut at Leesha, and she began to cry.
Bruna's hand jerked from her grasp, and Leesha cried out, fearing a fresh set of spasms. But her ministrations had given the old Herb Gatherer the control to reach into her shawl, pulling free a pouch that she thrust Leesha's way. A series of coughs wracked her frail body, and she was torn from Leesha's arms and hit the ground, flopping like a fish with each cough. Leesha was left holding the pouch in horror.
She looked down at the cloth bag, squeezing experimentally and feeling the crunch of herbs inside. She sniffed it, catching a scent like potpourri.
She thanked the Creator. If it had all been one herb, she would have never been able to guess the dose, but she had made enough tinctures and teas for Bruna that day to understand what she had been given.
She rushed to the kettle steaming on the tripod and placed a thin cloth over a cup, layering it thick with herbs from the pouch. She poured boiling water over the herbs slowly, leaching their strength, then deftly tied the herbs up in the cloth and tossed it into the water.
She ran back to Bruna, blowing on the liquid. It would burn, but there was no time to let it cool. She lifted Bruna in one arm, pressing the cup to her spit-flecked lips.
The Herb Gatherer thrashed, spilling some of the cure, but Leesha forced her to drink, the yellow liquid running out of the sides of her mouth. She kept twitching and coughing, but the symptoms began to subside. As her heaves eased, Leesha sobbed in relief.
'Leesha!' she heard a call. She looked up from Bruna, and saw her mother racing towards her, ahead of a group of townsfolk.
'What have you done, you worthless girl?' Elona demanded. She reached Leesha before the others could draw close and hissed, 'Bad enough I have a useless daughter and not a son to fight the fire, but now you've gone and killed the town crone?' She drew back her hand to smack at her daughter, but Bruna reached up and caught Elona's wrist in her skeletal grip.
'The crone lives because of her, you idiot!' Bruna croaked. Elona turned bone white and drew back as if Bruna had become a coreling. The sight gave Leesha a rush of pleasure.
By then, the rest of the villagers had gathered around then, asking what had happened.
'My daughter saved Bruna's life!' Elona shouted, before Leesha or Bruna could speak.
Tender Michel held his warded Canon aloft so all could see the holy book as the remains of the dead were thrown on the ruin of the last burning house. The villagers stood with hats in hand, heads bowed. Jona threw incense on the blaze, flavouring the acrid stench permeating the air.
'Until the Deliverer comes to lift the plague of demonkind, remember well that is was the sins of man that brought it down!' Michel shouted. 'The adulterers and the fornicators! The liars and thieves and usurers!'
'The ones that clench their rears too tight,' Elona murmured. Someone snickered.
'Those leaving this world will be judged,' Michel went on, 'and those who served the Creator's will shall join with him in Heaven, while those who have broken his trust, sullied by sins of indulgence or flesh, will burn in the Core for eternity!' He closed the book, and the assembled villagers bowed in silence.
'But while mourning is good and proper,' Michel said, 'we should not forget those of us the Creator has chosen to live. Let us break casks and drink to the dead. Let us tell the tales of them we love most, and laugh, for life is precious, and not to be wasted. We can save our tears for when we sit behind our wards tonight.'
'That's our Tender,' Elona muttered. 'Any excuse to break open a cask.'
'Now dear,' Erny said, patting her hand, 'he means well.'
'The coward defends the drunk, of course,' Elona said, pulling her hand away. 'Steave rushes into burning houses, and my husband cringes with the women.'
'I was in the bucket line!' Erny protested. He and Steave had been rivals for Elona, and it was said that his winning of Elona was more to do with his purse than her heart.
'Like a woman,' Elona agreed, eyeing the muscular Steave across the crowd.
It was always like this. Leesha wished she could shut her ears to them. She wished the corelings had taken her mother, instead of seven good people. She wished her father would stand up to her for once; for himself, if not his daughter. She wished she would flower already, so she could go with Gared and leave them both behind.
Those too old or young to fight the flames had prepared a great meal for the village, and they laid it out as the others sat, too exhausted to move, and stared at the smouldering ashes.
But the fires were out, the wounded bandaged and healing, and there were hours before sunset. The Tender's words took the guilt from those relieved to be alive, and Smitt's strong Hollow ale did the rest. It was said that Smitt's ale could cure any woe, and there was much to cure. Soon the long tables rang with laughter at stories of those who had passed from the world.
Gared sat a few tables away with his friends, Ren and Flinn, their wives, and his other friend Evin. The other boys, all woodcutters, were older than Gared by a few years, but Gared was bigger than all save Ren, and would pass even him before his growing was done. Of the group, Evin alone was unpromised, and many girls eyed him, despite his short temper.
The older boys teased Gared relentlessly, especially about Leesha. She wasn't happy to be forced to sit with her parents, but sitting while Ren and Flinn made lewd suggestions and Evin picked fights was often worse.
After they had eaten their share, Tender Michel and Child Jona rose from the table, carrying a large platter of food to the Holy House, where Darsy looked after Bruna and the wounded. Leesha excused herself to help them. Gared spotted the move and rose to join her, but no sooner did she stand than she was swept off by Brianne, Saira, and Mairy, her closest friends.
'Is it true what happened?' Saira asked, pulling her left arm.
'Everyone's saying you knocked Darsy down and saved Hag Bruna!' Mairy said, pulling her right. Leesha looked back helplessly at Gared, and allowed herself to be led away.
'The grizzly bear can wait his turn,' Brianne told her.
'Yull come second to them girls even after yur married, Gared!' Ren cried, causing his friends to roar with laughter and pound the table. The girls ignored them, spreading their skirts and sitting on the grass, away from the increasing noise as their elders drained cask after cask.
'Gared's gonna be hearing that one, a while,' Brianne laughed. 'Ren bet five klats he won't get to kiss you before dusk, much less a good grope.' At sixteen, she was already two years a widow, but had no shortage of suitors. She said it was because she knew a wife's tricks. She lived with her father and two older brothers, woodcutters, and was mother to them all.
'Unlike some people, I don't invite every passing boy to grope me,' Leesha said, bringing a mock look of indignation from Brianne.
'I'd let Gared grope if I was promised to him,' Saira said. She was fifteen, with cropped brown hair and freckles on her chipmunk cheeks. She had been promised to a boy last year, but the corelings had taken him and her father in a single night.
'I wish I was promised,' Mairy complained. She was gaunt at fourteen years, with a hollow face and a prominent nose. She was full flowered, but despite the efforts of her parents, not yet promised. Elona called her scarecrow. 'No man will want to put a child between those bony hips,' she had sneered once, lest the scarecrow crack in two when the babe breaks.'
'It will happen soon enough,' Leesha told her. She was the youngest of the group at thirteen, but the others seemed to centre on her. Elona said it was because she was prettier and better moneyed, but Leesha could never believe her friends so petty.
'Did you really beat Darsy with a stick?' Mairy asked.
'It didn't happen like that,' Leesha said. 'Darsy made some mistake, and Bruna started hitting her with her stick. Darsy tried to back away, and walked right into me. We both fell down, and Bruna kept hitting her until she ran off.'
'If she hit me with a stick, I'd'a hit her right back,' Brianne said. 'Da says Bruna's a witch, and she slaps stomachs with demons in her hut at night.'
'That's disgusting nonsense!' Leesha snapped.
'Then why's she live so far from town?' Saira demanded. 'And how is it she's still alive when her grandchildren are dead of old age?'
'Because she's an Herb Gatherer,' Leesha said, 'and you don't find herbs growing in the centre of town. I helped her today, and it was amazing. I thought half the people brought to her were too hurt to live, but she saved every one.'
'Did you see her cast spells on them?' Mairy asked excitedly.
'She's not a witch!' Leesha said. 'She did it all with herbs and knives and thread.'
'She cut people?' Mairy said in disgust.
'Witch,' Brianne said. Saira nodded.
Leesha gave them all a sour look, and they quieted. 'She didn't just go around cutting people,' Leesha said. 'She healed them. It was… I can't explain it. Old as she is, but she never stopped working until she treated everyone. It was like she kept on by will alone. She collapsed right after she treated the last one.'
'And that's when you saved her?' Mairy asked.
Leesha nodded. 'She gave me the cure just before the coughing started. Really, all I did was brew it. I held her until the coughing stopped, and that's when everyone found us.'
'You touched her?' Brianne made a face. 'I bet she stunk of sour milk and weeds.'
'Creator!' Leesha cried. 'Bruna saved a dozen lives today, and all you can do is mock!'
'Goodness,' Brianne quipped, 'Leesha saves the hag, and suddenly her paps are too big for her corset.' Leesha scowled. The last of her friends to bloom, her breasts, or lack thereof, were a sore spot for her.
'You used to say the same things about her, Leesh,' Saira said.
'Maybe so, but not any more,' Leesha said. 'She may be a mean old woman, but she deserves better.'
Just then, Child Jona came over to them. He was seventeen, but too small and slight to swing an axe or pull a saw. Jona spent most of his days penning and reading letters for those in town with no letters, which was almost everyone. Leesha, one of the few children who could read, often went to him to borrow books from Tender Michel's collection.
'I've a message from Bruna,' he said to Leesha. 'She wishes…'
His words were cut off as he was yanked backward. Jona was two years senior, but Gared spun him like a paper doll, gripping his robes and pulling him so close their noses touched.
'I told you before about talking to those what arn't promised to ya,' Gared growled.
'I wasn't!' Jona protested, his feet kicking an inch off the ground, 'I just…!'
'Gared!' Leesha barked. 'You put him down this instant!'
Gared looked at Leesha, then back to Jona. His eyes flicked to his friends, then back to Leesha. He let go, and Jona crashed to the ground. He scrambled to his feet and scurried off. Brianne and Saira giggled, but Leesha silenced them with a glare before rounding on Gared.
'What in the Core is the matter with you?' Leesha demanded.
Gared looked down. 'I'm sorry,' he said. 'It's jus'… well, I ent gotten to talk to ya all day, and I guess I got mad when I saw ya talking to him.'
'Oh, Gared,' Leesha touched his cheek, 'you don't have to be jealous. There's no one for me but you.'
'Really?' Gared asked.
'Will you apologize to Jona?' Leesha asked.
'Yes,' Gared promised.
'Then yes, really,' Leesha said. 'Now go on back to the tables. I'll join you in a bit.' She kissed him, and Gared broke into a wide smile and ran off.
'I suppose it's something like training a bear,' Brianne mused. 'A bear that just sat in a briar patch,' Saira said. 'You leave him be,' Leesha said. 'Gared doesn't mean any harm. He's just too strong for his own good, and a little…' 'Lumbering?' Brianne offered. 'Slow?' Saira supplied.
'Dim?' Mairy suggested.
Leesha swatted at them, and they all laughed.
Gared sat protectively by Leesha, he and Steave having come over to sit with Leesha's family. She longed for his arms around her, but it wasn't proper, even promised as they were, until she was of age and their engagement formalized by the Tender. Even then, chaste touching and kisses were supposed to be the limit until their wedding night.
Still, Leesha let Gared kiss her when they were alone, but she held it at that, regardless of what Brianne thought. She wanted to keep tradition, so their wedding night would be a special thing they would remember forever.
And of course, there was Klarissa, who had loved to dance and flirt. She had taught Leesha and her friends to reel and braided flowers in their hair. An exceptionally pretty girl, Klarissa had her pick of suitors.
Her son would be three now, and still no man in Cutter's Hollow would claim him as their own. It was broadly assumed that meant he was a married man, and over the months when her belly fattened, not a sermon had not gone by where Tender Michel had failed to remind her that it was her sin, and that of those like her, that kept the Creator's plague strong.
'The demons without echo the demons within,' he said.
Klarissa had been well loved, but after that, the town had quickly turned. Women shunned her, whispering behind her passage, and men refused to meet her eyes while their wives were about, making lewd comments when they were not.
Klarissa had left with a Messenger bound for Fort Rizon soon after the boy was weaned, and never returned. Leesha missed her.
'I wonder what Bruna wanted when she sent Jona,' Leesha said.
'I hate that little runt,' Gared growled. 'Every time he looks at you, I can see him imagining you as his wife.'
'What do you care,' Leesha asked, 'if imagination is all it is?'
'I won't share you, even in other men's dreams,' Gared said, putting his giant hand over hers under the table. Leesha sighed and leaned in to him. Bruna could wait.
Just then, Smitt stood, legs shaky with ale, and banged his stein on the table. 'Everyone! Your attention, please!' His wife, Stefny, helped him stand up on the bench, propping him when he wobbled. The crowd quieted, and Smitt cleared his throat. He might dislike giving orders, but he liked giving speeches well enough.
'It's the worst times that bring out the best in us,' he began. 'But it's them times that show the Creator our mettle. Show that we've mended our ways and are worthy for him to send the Deliverer and end the plague. Show that the evil of the night cannot take our sense of family.
'Because that's what Cutter's Hollow is,' Smitt went on. 'A family. Oh, we bicker and fight and play favourites, but when the corelings come, we see those ties of family like the strings of a loom, tying us all together. Whatever our differences, no one is left to them.
'Four houses lost their wards in the night,' Smitt told the crowd, 'putting a score at the corelings' absent mercy. But due to heroism out in the naked night, only seven were taken.
'Niklas!' Smitt shouted, pointing at the sandy haired man sitting across from him. 'Ran into a burning house to pull his mother out!
'Jow!' he pointed to another man, who jumped at the sound. 'Not two days ago, he and Dav were before me, arguing all the way to blows. But last night, Jow hit a wood demon – A WOOD DEMON! - with his axe to hold it off while Dav and his family ran across his wards!'
Smitt hopped up on the table, passion lending agility to his drunken body. He walked its length, calling people by name, and telling of their deeds in the night. 'Heroes were found in the day, as well,' he went on. 'Gared and Steave!' he cried, pointing. 'Left their own house to burn to douse those that had a better chance! Because of them and others, only eight houses burned, when by rights it should have been the whole town!'
Smitt turned, and suddenly he was looking right at Leesha. His hand raised, and the finger he pointed to her struck her like a fist. 'Leesha!' he called. 'Thirteen years old, and she saved Gatherer Bruna's life!
'In every person in Cutter's Hollow beats the heart of a hero!' Smitt said, sweeping his hand over all. 'The corelings test us, and tragedy tempers us, but like Milnese steel, Cutter's Hollow will not break!'
The crowd roared in approval. Those that had lost loved ones cried the loudest, screaming their defiance through cheeks wet with tears.
Smitt stood in the centre of the din, soaking in its strength. After a time, he patted his hands, and the villagers quieted.
'Tender Michel,' he said, gesturing to the man, 'has opened the Holy House to the wounded, and Stefny and Darsy have volunteered to spend the night there tending them. Michel also offers the Creator's wards to all others who have nowhere else to
Smitt raised a fist. 'But hard pews are not where heroes should lay their heads! Not when they're amongst family. My tavern can hold ten comfortably, and more if need be. Who else among us will share their wards and their beds to heroes?'
Everyone shouted again, this time louder, and Smitt broke into a wide smile. He patted his hands again. 'The Creator smiles on you all,' he said, 'but the hour grows late. I'll assign…'
Elona stood up. She too had drunk a few mugs, and her words slurred. 'Erny and I will take in Gared and Steave,' she said, causing Erny to look sharply at her. 'We've plenty of room, and with Gared and Leesha promised, they're practically family already.'
'That's very generous of you, Elona,' Smitt said, unable to hide his surprise. Rarely did Elona show generosity, and even then, there was usually a hidden price.
'Are you sure that's proper?' Stefny asked loudly, causing everyone to turn eyes to her. When she wasn't working in her husband's tavern, Stefny was volunteering at the Holy House, or studying the Canon. She hated Elona – a mark in her favour in Leesha's mind – but she had also been the first to turn on Klarissa when her state became clear.
'Two promised children living under one roof?' Stefny asked, but her eyes flicked to Steave, not Gared. 'Who knows what improprieties might occur? Perhaps it would be best for you to take in others, and let Gared and Steave stay at the tavern.'
Elona's eyes narrowed. 'I think three parents enough to chaperone two children, Stefny,' she said icily. She turned to Gared, squeezing his broad shoulders. 'My soon to be son-in-law did the work of five men today,' she said. 'And Steave,' she reached out and drunkenly poked the man's burly chest, 'did the work often.'
She spun back towards Leesha, but stumbled a bit. Steave, laughing, caught her about the waist before she fell. His hand was huge on her slender midsection. 'Even my,' she swallowed the word 'useless', but Leesha heard it anyway, 'daughter did great deeds today. I'll not have my heroes bed down in some other's home.'
Stefny scowled, but the rest of the villagers took the matter as closed, and started offering up their own homes to the others in need.
Elona stumbled again, falling into Steave's lap with a laugh. 'You can sleep in Leesha's room,' she told him. 'It's right next to mine.' She dropped her voice at that last part, but she was drunk, and everyone heard. Gared blushed, Steave laughed, and Erny hung his head. Leesha felt a stab of sympathy for her father.
'I wish the corelings had taken her last night,' she muttered.
Her father looked up at her. 'Don't ever say that,' he said. 'Not about anyone.' He looked hard at Leesha until she nodded.
'Besides,' he added sadly, 'they'd probably just give her right back.'
Accommodations had been made for all, and people were preparing to leave when there was a murmur, and the crowd parted. Through that gap limped Hag Bruna.
Child Jona held one of the woman's arms as she walked. Leesha leapt to her feet to take her other. 'Bruna, you shouldn't be up,' she admonished. 'You should be resting!'
'It's your own fault, girl,' Bruna snapped. 'There's those sicker than I, and I need herbs from my hut to treat them. If your bodyguard,' she glared at Gared and he fell back in fright, 'had let Jona bring my message, I could have sent you with a list. But now it's late, and I'll have to go with you. We can stay behind my wards for the night, and come back in the morn.'
'Why me?' Leesha asked.
'Because none of the other lackwit girls in this town can read!' Bruna shrieked. 'They'd mix up the labels on the bottles worsen that cow Darsy!'
'Jona can read,' Leesha said.
'I offered to go,' the acolyte began, but Bruna slammed her stick down on his foot, cutting his words off in a yelp.
'Herb Gathering is women's work, girl,' Bruna said. 'Holy Men are just there to pray while we do it.'
'I…' Leesha began, looking back at her parents for an escape.
'I think it's a fine idea,' Elona said, finally extricating herself from Steave's lap. 'Spend the night at Bruna's.' She shoved Leesha forward. 'My daughter is glad to help,' she said with a broad smile.
'Perhaps Gared should go as well?' Steave suggested, kicking his son.
'You'll need a strong back to carry your herbs and potions back in the morning,' Elona agreed, pulling Gared up.
The ancient Herb Gatherer glared at her, then at Steave, but nodded finally.
The trip to Bruna's was slow; the hag setting a shuffling crawl of a pace. They made it to the hut just before sunset.
'Check the wards, boy,' Bruna told Gared. While he complied, Leesha took her inside, setting the old woman down in a cushioned chair, and laying a quilt blanket over her. Bruna was breathing hard, and Leesha feared she would start coughing again any minute. She filled the kettle and laid wood and tinder in the hearth, casting her eyes about for flint and steel.
'The box on the mantle,' Bruna said, and Leesha noticed the small wooden box. She opened it, but there was no flint or steel within, only short wooden sticks with some kind of clay at the ends. She picked up two and tried rubbing them together.
'Not like that, girl!' Bruna snapped. 'Have you never seen a flamestick?'
Leesha shook her head. 'Da keeps some in the shop where he mixes chemics,' Leesha said, 'but I'm not to go in there.'
The old Herb Gatherer sighed and beckoned the girl over. She took one of the sticks and braced it against her gnarled, dry thumbnail. She flicked her thumb, and the end of the stick burst into flame. Leesha's eyes bulged.
'There's more to Herb Gathering than plants, girl,' Bruna said, touching the flame to a taper before the flamestick burned out. She lit a lamp, and handed the taper to Leesha. She held the lamp out, illuminating a dusty shelf filled with books in its flickering light.
'Sweet day!' Leesha exclaimed. 'You have more books than Tender Michel!'
'These aren't witless stories censored by the Holy Men, girl. Herb Gatherers are keepers of a bit of the knowledge of the old world, from back before the Return, when the demons burned the great libraries.'
'Science?' Leesha asked. 'Was that not the hubris that brought on the plague?'
'That's Michel talking,' Bruna said. 'If I'd known that boy would grow into such a pompous ass, I'd have left him between his mother's legs. It was science, as much as magic, that drove the corelings off the first time. The sagas tell of great Herb Gatherers healing mortal wounds, and mixing herbs and minerals that killed demons by the score with fire and poison.'
Leesha was about to ask another question when Gared returned. Bruna waved her towards the hearth, and Leesha lit the fire and set the kettle over it. Soon the water was boiling, and Bruna reached into the many pockets of her robe, putting her special mixture of herbs in her cup, and tea in Leesha's and Gared's. Her hands were quick, but Leesha still noticed the old woman throw something extra in Gared's cup.
She poured the water, and they all sipped in an awkward silence. Gared drank his quickly, and soon began rubbing his face. A moment later, he slumped over, fast asleep.
'You put something in his tea,' Leesha accused.
The old woman cackled. 'Tampweed resin and skyflower pollen,' she said. 'Each with many uses alone, but together, a pinch can put a bull to sleep.'
'But why?' Leesha asked.
Bruna smiled, but it was a frightening thing. 'Call it chaperoning,' she said. 'Promised or no, you can't trust a fifteen year old boy alone with a young girl at night.'
'Then why let him come along?' Leesha asked.
Bruna shook her head. 'I told your father not to marry that shrew, but she dangled her udders at him and left him dizzy,' she sighed.
'Drunk as they are, Steave and your mum are going to have at it no matter who's in the house,' she said. 'But that don't mean Gared ought to hear it. Boys are bad enough at his age, as is.'
Leesha's eyes bulged. 'My mother would never…!'
'Careful finishing that sentence, girl,' Bruna cut her off. 'The Creator abhors a liar.'
Leesha deflated. She knew what Elona was like. 'Gared's not like that, though,' she said.
Bruna snorted. 'Midwife a village and tell me that,' she said.
'It wouldn't even matter if I was flowered,' Leesha said. 'Then Gared and I could marry, and I could do for him as a wife should.'
'Eager for that, are you?' Bruna said with a wicked grin. 'It's no sad affair, I'll admit. Men have more uses than swinging axes and carrying heavy things.'
'What's taking so long?' Leesha asked. 'Saira and Mairy reddened their sheets in their twelfth summers, and this will be my thirteenth! What could be wrong?'
'Nothing's wrong,' Bruna said. 'Each girl bleeds in her own time. It may be you have a year yet, or more.'
'A year!' Leesha exclaimed.
'Don't be so quick to leave childhood behind, girl,' Bruna said. 'You'll find you miss it when its gone. There's more to the world than laying under a man and making his babies.'
'But what else could compare?' Leesha asked.
Bruna gestured to her shelf. 'Choose a book,' she said. 'Any book. Bring it here, and I'll show you what else the world can offer.'
Leesha woke with a start as Bruna's old rooster crowed to mark the dawn. She rubbed her face, feeling the imprint of the book on her cheek. Gared and Bruna were still fast asleep. The Herb Gatherer had passed out early, but despite her own fatigue, Leesha kept on reading late into the night. She had thought Herb Gathering was just setting bones and birthing babes, but there was so much more. Herb Gatherers studied the entire natural world, finding ways to combine the Creator's many gifts for the benefit of His children.
Leesha took the ribbon that held back her dark hair and laid it across the page, closing the book as reverently as she did the Canon. She rose and stretched, laying fresh wood on the fire and stirring the embers into a flame. She put the kettle on, and then went over to shake Gared.
'Wake up, lazybones,' she said, keeping her voice low. Gared only groaned. Whatever Bruna had given him, it was strong. She shook harder, and he swatted at her, eyes still closed.
'Get up or there'll be no breakfast for you,' Leesha laughed, kicking him.
Gared groaned again, and his eyes cracked. When Leesha drew her foot back a second time, he reached out and grabbed her leg, pulling her down on top of him with a yelp.
He rolled on top of her, encircling her in his burly arms, and Leesha giggled at his kisses…
'Stop it,' she said, swatting at him half-heartedly, 'you'll wake Bruna.'
'So what if I do?' Gared asked. 'The old hag is a hundred years old and blind as a bat.'
'The hag's ears are still sharp,' Bruna said, cracking open one of her milky white eyes.
Gared yelped and practically flew to his feet, distancing himself from Leesha and Bruna both.
'You keep your hands to yourself in my home, boy, or I'll brew a potion to keep your manhood slack for a year,' Bruna said. Leesha saw the colour drain from Gared's face, and bit her lip to keep from laughing. For some reason, Bruna no longer frightened her, but she loved watching the old woman intimidate everyone else.
'We understand one another?' Bruna asked.
'Yes'm,' Gared said immediately.
'Good,' Bruna said. 'Now put those burly shoulders to work and split some wood for the firebox.' Gared was out the door before she finished. Leesha laughed as the door slammed.
'Liked that, did you?' Bruna asked.
'I've never seen anyone send Gared scurrying like that,' Leesha said.
'Come closer, so I can see you,' Bruna said. When Leesha did, she went on, 'Being village healer is more than brewing potions. A strong dose of fear is good for the biggest boy in the village. Maybe help him think twice before hurting someone.'
'Gared would never hurt anyone,' Leesha said.
'As you say,' Bruna said, but she didn't sound at all convinced.
'Could you really have made a potion to take his manhood away?' Leesha asked.
Bruna cackled. 'Not for a year,' she said. 'Not with one dose, anyway. But a few days, or even a week? As easily as I dosed his tea.'
Leesha looked thoughtful.
'What is it, girl?' Bruna asked. 'Having doubts your boy will leave you unplucked before your wedding?'
'I was thinking more on Steave,' Leesha said.
Bruna nodded. 'And well you should,' she advised. 'But have care. Your mother is wise to the trick. She came to me often when she was young, needing Gatherer's tricks to stem her flow and keep her from getting with child while she had her fun. I didn't see her for what she was, then, and I'm sad to say I taught her more than I should have.'
'Mum wasn't a virgin when da carried her across his wards?' Leesha asked in shock.
Bruna snorted. 'Half the town had a roll with her before Steave drove the others away.'
Leesha's jaw dropped. 'Mum condemned Klarissa when she got with child,' she said.
Bruna spat on the floor. 'Everyone turned on that poor girl. Hypocrites, all! Smitt talks of family, but he didn't lift a finger when his wife led the town after that girl like a pack of flame demons. Half those women pointing at her and crying 'Sin!' were guilty of the same deed, they were just lucky enough to marry fast, or smart enough to take precautions.'
'Precautions?' Leesha asked.
Bruna shook her head. 'Elona's so eager to have a grandson she's kept you in the dark about everything, eh?' she asked. 'Tell me, girl, how are babies made?'
Leesha blushed. 'The man, I mean, your husband… He…'
'Out with it, girl,' Bruna snapped, 'I'm too old to wait for the red to leave your face.'
'He spends his seed in you,' Leesha said, her face reddening further.
Bruna cackled. 'You can treat burns and demon wounds, but blush at how life is made?'
Leesha opened her mouth to reply, but Bruna cut her off.
'Make your boy spend his seed on your belly, and you can lie with him to your heart's content,' Bruna said. 'But boys can't be trusted to pull from you in time, as Klarissa learned. The smarter ones come to me for tea.'
'Tea?' Leesha asked, leaning on every word.
'Pomm leaves, leached in the right dose with some other herbs, create a tea that will keep a man's seed from taking root.'
'But Tender Michel says…' Leesha began.
'Spare me the recitation from the Canon,' Bruna cut her off. 'It's a book written by men, without a thought given towards the plight of women.'
Leesha's mouth closed with a click.
'Your mum visited me often,' Bruna went on, 'asking questions, helping me around the hut, grinding herbs for me. I had thought to make her my apprentice, but all she wanted was the secret of the tea. Once I told her how it was made, she left and never returned.'
'That does sound like her,' Leesha said.
'Pomm tea is safe enough in small doses,' Bruna said, 'but Steave is lusty, and your mother took too much. The two of them must have slapped stomachs a thousand times before your father's business began to prosper, and his purse caught her eye. By then, your mum's womb was scraped dry.'
Leesha looked at her curiously.
'After she married your father, Elona tried for two years to conceive without success,' Bruna said. 'Steave married some young girl and got her with child overnight, which only made your mum more desperate. Finally, she came back to me, begging for help.'
Leesha leaned in close, knowing her existence had hinged on whatever Bruna said next.
'Pomm tea must be taken in small doses,' Bruna repeated, 'and once a month it is best to stop it and allow your flow to come. Fail this, and you risk becoming barren. I warned Elona, but she was a slave to her loins, and failed to listen. For months I gave her herbs and checked her flow, giving her herbs to slip into your father's food. Finally, she conceived.'
'Me,' Leesha said. 'She conceived me.'
Bruna nodded. 'I feared for you, girl. Your mum's womb was weak, and we both knew she would not have another chance. She came to me every day, asking me to check on her son.'
'Son?' Leesha asked.
'I warned her it might not be a boy,' Bruna said, 'but Elona was stubborn. 'The Creator could not be so cruel' she'd say, forgetting that the same Creator made the corelings.'
'So all I am is some cruel joke of the Creator?' Leesha asked.
Bruna grabbed Leesha's chin in her bony fingers and pulled her in close. Leesha could see the long grey hairs, like cat's whiskers, on the crone's wrinkled lips as she spoke.
'We are what we choose to be, girl,' she said. 'Let others determine your worth, and you've already lost, because no one wants people worth more than themselves. Elona has no one to blame but herself for her bad choices, but she's too vain to admit it. Easier to take it out on you and poor Erny.'
'I wish she'd been exposed and run out of town,' Leesha said.
'You would betray your gender out of spite?' Bruna asked.
'I don't understand,' Leesha said.
'There's no shame in a girl wanting a man twixt her legs, Leesha,' Bruna said. 'An Herb Gatherer can't judge folks for doing what nature intended they do when they are young and free. It's oath breakers I can't abide. You say your vows, girl, you'd best plan on keeping them.'
Gared returned, just then. 'Darsy's come to see ya back to town,' he told Bruna.
'I swear I sacked that dimwitted sow,' Bruna grumbled.
'The town council met yesterday and reinstated, me,' Darsy said, pushing into the hut. She was not as tall as Gared, but she was not far off, and easily topped his weight. 'It's your own fault. No one else would take the job.'
'They can't do that!' Bruna barked.
'Oh, yes they can,' Darsy said. 'I don't like it any more than you, but you could pass any day now, and the town needs someone to tend the sick.'
'I've outlived better than you,' Bruna sneered. 'I'll choose who I teach.'
'Well I'm to stay until you do,' Darsy said, looking at Leesha and baring her teeth.
'Then make yourself useful and put the porridge on,' Bruna said. 'Gared's a growing boy and needs to keep his strength up.'
Darsy scowled, but she rolled her sleeves and headed for the boiling kettle nonetheless.
'Smitt and I are going to have a little chat when I get to town,' Bruna grumbled.
'Is Darsy really so bad?' Leesha asked.
Bruna's watery eyes turned Gared's way. 'I know you're stronger than an ox, boy, but I imagine there are still a few cords to split outback.'
Gared didn't need to be told twice. He was out the door in a blink, and they heard him put the axe back to work.
'Darsy's useful enough around the hut,' Bruna admitted. 'She splits wood almost as fast as your boy, and makes a fair porridge. But those meaty hands are too clumsy for healing, and she has little aptitude for the Gatherer's art. She'll make a passable midwife- any fool can pull a babe from its mother- and at setting bones she's second to none, but the subtler work is beyond her. I weep at the thought of this town with her as Herb Gatherer.'
'You won't make Gared much of a wife if you can't get a simple dinner together!' Elona called.
Leesha scowled. So far as she knew, her mother had never prepared a meal in her life. It had been days since she'd had a proper sleep, but Creator forbid her mother lift a hand to help.
She had gone spent the day tending the sick with Bruna and Darsy. She picked up the skills quickly, causing Bruna to use her as an example to Darsy. Darsy did not care for that.
Leesha knew Bruna wanted to apprentice her. The old woman didn't push, but she had made her intentions clear. But there was her father's papermaking business to think of as well. She had worked in the shop, a large connected section of their house, since she was a little girl, penning messages for villagers and making sheets. Erny told her she had a gift for it. Her bindings were prettier than his, and Leesha liked to embed her pages with flower petals, which the ladies in Lakton and Fort Rizon paid more for than their husbands did for plain sheets.
Erny's hope was to retire while Leesha ran the shop and Gared made the pulp and handled the heavy work. But papermaking had never held much interest for Leesha. She did it mostly to spend time with her father, away from the lash of her mother's tongue.
Elona may have liked the money it made, but she hated the shop, complaining of the smell of the lye in the pulping vats and the noise of the grinder. The shop was a retreat from her that Leesha and Erny took often; a place of laughter that the house proper would never be.
Steave's booming laugh made her look up from the vegetables she was chopping for stew. He was in the common room, sitting in her father's chair, drinking his ale. Elona sat on the chair's arm, laughing and leaning in, her hand on his shoulder.
Leesha wished she were a flame demon, so she could spit fire on them. She had never been happy trapped in the house with Elona, but now all she could think of were Bruna's stories. Her mother didn't love her father and probably never had. She thought her daughter a cruel joke of the Creator. And she hadn't been a virgin when Erny carried her across the wards.
For some reason, that cut the deepest. Bruna said there was no sin in a woman taking pleasure in a man, but the hypocrisy of her mother stung nonetheless. She had helped force Klarissa out of town to hide her own indiscretion.
'I won't be like you,' Leesha swore. She would have her wedding day as the Creator intended, becoming a woman in her marriage bed as the town cheered outside.
Elona squealed at something Steave said, and Leesha began to sing to herself to drown them out. Her voice was rich and pure; Tender Michel was forever asking her to sing at services.
'Leesha!' her mother barked a moment later. 'Quit your warbling! We can hardly hear ourselves think out here!'
'Doesn't sound like there's much thinking going on,' Leesha muttered.
'What was that?' Elona demanded.
'Nothing!' Leesha called back in her most innocent voice.
They ate just after sunset, and Leesha watched proudly as Gared used the bread she had made to scrape clean his third bowl of her stew.
'She's not much of a cook, Gared,' Elona apologized, 'but it's filling enough if you hold your nose.'
Steave, gulping ale at the time, snorted it out his nose. Gared laughed at his father, and Elona snatched the napkin from Erny's lap to dry Steave's face. Leesha looked to her father for support, but he kept his eyes on his bowl. He hadn't said a word since emerging from the shop.
It was too much for Leesha. She cleared the table and retreated to her room, but there was no sanctuary there. She had forgotten her mother had given the room to Steave for the duration of his and Gared's indefinite stay. The giant woodcutter had tracked mud across her spotless floor, leaving his filthy boots on top of her favourite book, where it lay by her bed.
She cried out and ran to the treasure, but the cover was hopelessly muddied. Her bedclothes of soft Rizona wool were stained with Creator knew what, and stank of a foul blend of musky sweat and the expensive Angerian perfume her mother favoured.
Leesha felt sick. She clutched her precious book tightly and fled to her father's shop, weeping as she tried futilely to clean the stains from her book. It was there Gared found her.
'So this is where ya run off to,' he said, moving to encircle her in his burly arms.
Leesha pulled away, wiping her eyes and trying to compose herself. 'I just needed a moment,' she said.
Gared caught her arm. 'Is this about the joke yur mum made?' he asked.
Leesha shook her head, trying to turn away again, but Gared held her fast.
'I was only laughing at my da,' he said. 'I loved yur stew.'
'Really?' Leesha sniffed.
'Really,' he promised, pulling her close and kissing her deeply. 'We could feed an army of sons on cooking like that,' he husked.
Leesha giggled. 'I might have trouble squeezing out an army of little Gareds,' she said.
He held her tighter, and put his lips to her ear. 'Right now, I'm only interested in you squeezing one in,' he said.
Leesha groaned, but she gently pushed him away. 'We'll be wed soon enough,' she said.
'Yesterday isn't soon enough,' Gared said, but he let her go.
Leesha lay curled up in blankets by the common room fire. Steave had her room, and Gared was on a cot in the shop. The floor was draughty and cold at night, and the wool rug was rough and hard to lie upon. She longed for her own bed, though nothing short of burning would erase the stench of Steave and her mother's sin.
She wasn't even sure why Elona bothered with the ruse. It wasn't as if she was fooling anyone. She might as well put Erny out in the common room and take Steave right to her bed.
Leesha couldn't wait until she and Gared could leave.
She lay awake, listening to the demons testing the wards and imagining running the papermaking shop with Gared; her father retired and her mother and Steave sadly passed on. Her belly was round and full, and she kept books while Gared came in flexed and sweaty from working the grinder. He kissed her as their little ones raced about the shop.
The image warmed her, but she remembered Bruna's words, and wondered if she would be missing something if she devoted her life to children and papermaking. She closed her eyes again, and imagined herself as the Herb Gatherer of Cutter's Hollow, everyone depending on her to cure their ills, deliver their babies, and heal their wounds. It was a powerful image, but one harder to fit Gared or children into. An Herb Gatherer had to visit the sick, and the image of Gared carrying her herbs and tools from place to place didn't ring true, nor did the idea of him keeping eye on the children while she worked.
'I just came to use the privy,' Gared whispered, coming over and kneeling beside her.
'There's a privy in the shop,' Leesha reminded him.
'Then I came for a goodnight kiss,' he said, leaning in with his lips puckered.
'You had three when you first went to bed,' Leesha said, playfully smacking him away.
'Is it so bad to want another?' Gared asked.
'I suppose not,' Leesha said, putting her arms around his shoulders.
Some time later, there was the creak of another door. Gared stiffened, looking about for a place to hide. Leesha pointed to one of the chairs. He was far too big to be covered completely, but with only the dim orange glow from the fireplace to see by, it might prove enough.
A faint light appeared a moment later, dashing that hope. Leesha barely managed to lie back down and close her eyes before it swept into the room.
Through slitted eyes, Leesha saw her mother looking into the common room. The lantern she held was mostly shuttered, and the light threw great shadows, giving Gared room enough to hide if she didn't look too closely.
They needn't have worried. After satisfying herself that Leesha was asleep, Elona opened the door to Steave's room and disappeared inside.
Leesha stared after her for a long time. That Elona was being untrue was no great revelation, but until this very moment, Leesha had allowed herself the luxury of doubting that her mother could truly be so willing to throw away her vows.
She felt Gared's hand on her shoulder. 'Leesha, I'm sorry,' he said, and she buried her face in his chest, weeping. He held her tightly, muffling her sobs and rocking back and forth. A demon roared somewhere off in the distance, and Leesha wanted to scream along with it. She held her tongue in the vain hope that her father was sleeping, oblivious to Elona's grunting, but the likelihood seemed remote unless she had used one of Bruna's sleeping draughts on him.
'I'll take you away from this,' Gared said. 'We'll waste no time in making plans, and I'll have a house for us before the ceremony if I have to cut and carry all the logs myself.'
'Oh, Gared,' she said, kissing him. He returned the embrace, and lay her down again. The thumping from Steave's room and the sound of the demons without all faded away into the thrum of blood in her ears.
Gared's hands roamed her body freely, and Leesha let him touch places that only a husband should. She gasped and arched her back in pleasure, and Gared took the opportunity to position himself between her legs. She felt him slip free of his breeches, and knew what he was doing. She knew she should push him away, but there was a great emptiness inside her, and Gared seemed the only person in the world who might be able to fill it.
He was about to drive forward when Leesha heard her mother cry out in pleasure, and she stiffened. Was she any better than Elona, if she gave up her vows so easily? She swore to cross the wards of her marriage house a virgin. She swore to be nothing like Elona. But here she was, throwing all that away to rut with a boy mere feet from where her mother sinned.
'It's oath breakers I can't abide,' she heard Bruna say again, and Leesha pressed her hands hard against Gared's chest.
'Gared, no, please,' she whispered. Gared stiffened for a long moment. Finally, he rolled away from her and retied his breeches.
'I'm sorry,' Leesha said weakly.
'No, I'm sorry,' Gared said. He kissed her temple. 'I can wait.'
Leesha hugged him tightly, and Gared rose to leave. She wanted him to stay and sleep beside her, but they had stretched their luck thin as it was. If they were caught together, Elona would punish her severely, despite her own sin. Perhaps even because of it.
As the door to the shop clicked shut, Leesha lay back filled with warm thoughts of Gared. Whatever pain her mother might bring her, she could weather it so long as she had Gared.
Breakfast was an uncomfortable affair, the sounds of chewing and swallowing thunderous in the mute pall hanging over the table. It seemed there was nothing to say not better left unsaid. Leesha wordlessly cleared the table while Gared and Steave fetched their axes.
'Will you be in the shop today?' Gared asked, finally breaking the silence. Erny looked up for the first time that morning, interested in her reply.
'I promised Bruna I'd help tend the wounded again today,' Leesha said, but she looked apologetically at her father as she did. Erny nodded in understanding and smiled weakly.
'And how long is that to go on for?' Elona asked.
Leesha shrugged. 'Until they're better, I suppose,' she said.
'You're spending too much time with that old witch,' Elona said.
'At your request,' Leesha reminded.
Elona scowled. 'Don't get smart with me, girl.'
Anger flared in Leesha, but she flashed her most winning smile as she swung her cloak around her shoulders. 'Don't worry, mother,' she said, 'I won't drink too much of her tea.'
Steave snorted, and Elona's eyes bulged, but Leesha swept out the door before she could recover enough to reply.
Gared walked with her a ways, but soon they reached the place where the woodcutters met each morning, and Gared's friends were already waiting.
'Yur late, Gar,' Evin grumbled.
'Gotta woman t'cook for him, now,' Flinn said. 'That'll make any man linger.'
'If he even slept,' Ren snorted. 'My guess is he got her doing more'n cooking, an' right under her father's nose.'
'Ren got that right, Gar?' Flinn asked. 'Find a new place to keep yur axe last night?'
Leesha bristled and opened her mouth to retort, but Gared laid a hand on her shoulder. 'Pay them no mind,' he said. 'They're just try in' to make you spit.'
'You could defend my honour,' Leesha said. Creator knew, boys would fight for any other reason.
'Oh, I will,' Gared promised. 'I just don't want ya to see it. I'd rather ya keep thinking me gentle.'
'You are gentle,' Leesha said, standing on tip-toes to kiss his cheek. The boys hooted, and Leesha stuck her tongue out at them as she walked off.
'Idiot girl,' Bruna muttered, when Leesha told her what she had said to Elona. 'Only a fool shows their cards when the game's just getting started.'
'This isn't a game, it's my life!' Leesha said.
Bruna grabbed her face, squeezing her cheeks so hard her lips puckered apart. 'All the more reason to show a little sense,' she growled, glaring with her milky eyes.
Leesha felt anger flare hotly within her. Who was this woman, to speak to her so? Bruna seemed to hold the entire town in scorn, grabbing, hitting, and threatening anyone she pleased. Was she any better than Elona, really? Had she had Leesha's best interests at heart when she told her all those horrible things about her mother, or was she just manipulating her to become her apprentice, like Elona's pressure to marry Gared early and bear his children? In her heart, Leesha wanted both of those things, but she was tiring of being pushed.
'Well, well, look who's back,' came a voice from the door, 'the young prodigy.'
Leesha looked up to see Darsy standing in the doorway of the Holy House with an armful of firewood. The woman made no effort to hide her dislike for Leesha, and she could be just as intimidating as Bruna when she wished. Leesha had tried to assure her that she was not a threat, but her overtures only seemed to make things worse. Darsy was determined not to like her.
'Don't blame Leesha if she's learned more in two days than you did in your first year,' Bruna said, as Darsy slammed down the wood and lifted a heavy iron poker to stoke the fire.
Leesha was sure she would never get along with Darsy so long as Bruna kept picking at the wound, but she busied herself grinding herbs for poultices. Several of those burned in the attack had skin infections that needed regular attention. Others were worse still. Bruna had been shaken awake twice in the night to tend those, but so far, her herbs and skills had not failed her.
Bruna had assumed complete control of the Holy House, ordering Tender Michel and the rest around like Milnese servants. She kept Leesha close by, talking continuously in her phlegmy rasp, explaining the nature of the wounds, and the properties of the herbs she used to treat them. Leesha watched her cut and sew flesh, and found her stomach was strengthening to such things.
Morning faded into afternoon, and Leesha had to force Bruna to pause and eat. Others might not notice the strain in the old woman's breath or the shake of her hands, but Leesha did.
'That's it,' she said finally, snatching the mortar and pestle from the Herb Gatherer's hands. Bruna looked up at her sharply.
'Go and rest,' Leesha said.
'Who are you, girl, to…' Bruna began, reaching for her stick.
Leesha was wise to the move and faster, grabbing the stick and pointing it right at Bruna's hooked nose. 'You're going to have another attack if you don't rest,' she scolded. 'I'm taking you outside, and no arguing! Stefny and Darsy can handle things for an hour.'
'Barely,' Bruna grumbled, but she allowed Leesha to help her up and lead her outside.
The sun was high in the sky, and the grass by the Holy House was lush and green, save for a few patches blackened by flame demons. Leesha spread a blanket and eased Bruna down, bringing her special tea and soft bread that would not strain the crone's few remaining teeth.
They sat in comfortable silence for a time, enjoying the warm spring day. Leesha thought she had been unfair, comparing Bruna to her mother. When was the last time she and Elona had shared a comfortable silence in the sun? Had they ever?
She heard a rasping sound, and turned to find Bruna snoring. She smiled and spread the woman's shawl over her. She stretched her legs, and spotted Saira and Mairy a short ways off, sewing out on the grass. They waved and beckoned, shifting over on their blanket to make room as Leesha came to sit.
'How goes the Herb Gathering?' Mairy asked.
'Exhausting,' Leesha said. 'Where's Brianne?'
The girls looked at one another and giggled. 'Off in the woods with Evin,' Saira said.
Leesha tsked. 'That girl is going to end up like Klarissa,' she said.
Saira shrugged. 'Brianne says you can't scorn something you haven't tried.'
'Are you planning to try?' Leesha asked.
'You think you've no reason not to wait,' Saira said. 'I thought that, too, before Jak was taken. Now I'd give anything to have had him once before he died. To have his child, even.'
'I'm sorry,' Leesha said.
'It's all right,' Saira replied sadly. Leesha embraced her, and Mairy joined in.
'Oh, how sweet!' came a cry from behind them. 'I want to hug, too!' They looked up just as Brianne crashed into them, knocking them laughing into the grass.
'You're in good spirits today,' Leesha said.
'A romp in the woods'll do that,' Brianne said with a wink, elbowing her in the ribs. 'Besides,' she sang, 'Eeevin told me a secret!'
'Tell us!' the three girls cried at once.
Brianne laughed, and her eyes flicked to Leesha. 'Maybe later,' she said. 'How's the crone's new apprentice today?'
'I'm not her apprentice, whatever Bruna may think,' Leesha said. 'I'm still going to run my father's shop once Gared and I marry. I'm just helping with the sick.'
'Better you'n me,' Brianne said. 'Herb Gathering seems like hard work. You look a mess. Get enough sleep last night?'
Leesha shook her head. 'The floor by the hearth isn't as comfortable as a bed,' she said.
'I wouldn't mind sleeping on the floor if I had Gared for a pallet,' Brianne said.
'And just what is that supposed to mean?' Leesha asked.
'Don't play dumb, Leesh,' Brianne said with a hint of irritation. 'We're your friends.'
Leesha puffed up. 'If you're insinuating…!'
'Come off the pedestal, Leesha,' Brianne said. 'I know Gared had you last night. I'd hoped you'd be honest with us about it.'
Saira and Mairy gasped, and Leesha's eyes bulged, her face reddening. 'He had no such thing!' she shouted. 'Who told you that?'
'Evin,' Brianne smiled. 'Said Gared's been bragging all day.'
'Then Gared's a ripping liar!' Leesha barked. 'I'm not some tramp, to go around…'
Brianne's face darkened, and Leesha gasped and covered her mouth. 'Oh, Brianne,' she said. 'I'm sorry! I didn't mean…'
'No, I think you did,' Brianne said. 'I think it's the only true thing you've said today.'
She stood and brushed off her skirts, her usual good mood vanished. 'Come on girls, she said. 'Let's go somewhere where the air's cleaner.'
Saira and Mairy looked at each other, then at Leesha, but Brianne was already walking, and they rose quickly to follow. Leesha opened her mouth, but choked, not knowing what to say.
'Leesha!' she heard Bruna cry. She turned to see the old woman bracing on her cane and struggling to rise. With a sad glance at her departing friends, Leesha rushed to aid her.
Leesha was waiting as Gared and Steave came sauntering down the path towards her father's house. They joked and laughed, and their joviality gave Leesha the strength she needed. She gripped her skirts in white-knuckled fists as she strode up to them.
'Leesha!' Steave greeted with a mocking smile. 'How's my soon-to-be daughter today?' He spread his arms wide, as if to sweep her into a hug.
Leesha ignored him, going right up to Gared and slapping him full in the face.
'Hey!' Gared cried.
'Oh ho!' Steave laughed. Leesha fixed him with her mother's best glare, and he put up his hands placatingly.
'I see yuv some talkin' to do,' he said, 'so I'll leave you to it.' He looked at Gared and winked. 'Pleasure has its price,' he advised as he left.
Leesha whirled on Gared, swinging at him again. He caught her wrist and squeezed hard. 'Leesha, stop it!' he demanded.
Leesha ignored the pain in her wrist, slamming her knee hard between his legs. Her thick skirts softened the blow, but it was enough to break his grip and drop him to the ground, clutching his
crotch. Leesha kicked him, but Gared was thick with hard muscle, and his hands protected the one place vulnerable to her strength.
'Leesha, what the Core is the matter with you?' Gared gasped, but it was cut off as she kicked him in the mouth.
Gared growled, and the next time she lifted her foot, he grabbed it and shoved hard, sending her flying backwards. The breath was knocked out of her as she landed on her back, and before she could recover, Gared pounced, catching her arms and pinning her to the ground.
'Have you gone crazy?!' he shouted, as she continued to thrash under him. His face was flushed purple, and his eyes were tearing.
'How could you?' Leesha shrieked. 'Son of a coreling, how could you be so cruel?'
'Night, Leesha, what are you about?' Gared croaked, leaning more heavily on her.
'How could you?' she asked again. 'How could you lie and tell everyone you broke me last night?'
Gared looked genuinely taken aback. 'Who told you that?' he demanded, and Leesha dared to hope that the lie was not his.
'Evin told Brianne,' she said.
'I'll kill that son of the Core,' Gared growled, easing his weight back. 'He promised to keep his mouth shut.'
'So it's true?!' Leesha shrieked. She brought her knee up hard, and Gared howled and rolled off her. She was up and out of his reach before he recovered enough to grasp at her again.
'Why?' she demanded. 'Why would you lie like that?'
'It was just cutter talk,' Gared groaned, 'it dint mean anything.'
Leesha had never spat in her life, but she spat at him. 'Didn't mean anything?!' she screamed. 'You've ruined my life for something that didn't mean anything?!'
Gared got up, and Leesha backed off. He held up his hands and kept his distance.
'Your life isn't ruined,' he said.
'Brianne knows!' Leesha shouted back. 'And Saira and Mairy! The whole village will know by tomorrow!'
'Leesha…' Gared began.
'How many others?' she cut him off.
'How many other did you tell, you idiot?!' she screamed.
He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked down. 'Just the other cutters,' he said.
'Night! ALL of them?!' Leesha ran at him, clawing at his face, but he caught her hands.
'Calm down!' Gared shouted. His hands, like two hams, squeezed, and a jolt of pain ran down her arms, bringing her to her senses.
'You're hurting me,' she said with all the calm she could muster.
'That's better,' he said, easing the pressure without letting go. 'Doubt it hurts anywhere near as much as a kick in the seedpods.'
'You deserved it,' Leesha said.
'Suppose I did,' Gared said. 'Now can we talk civilized?'
'If you let go of me,' she said.
Gared frowned, then let go quickly and skittered out of kicking range.
'Will you tell everyone you lied?' Leesha asked.
Gared shook his head. 'Can't do that, Leesh. I'll look a fool.'
'Better that I look a whore?' Leesha countered.
'You ent no whore, Leesh, we's promised. It's not like yur Brianne.'
'Fine,' Leesha said. 'Maybe I'll tell a few lies myself. If your friends teased you before, what do you think they'll say if I tell them you weren't stiff enough to do the deed?'
Gared balled one of his huge fists and raised it slightly. 'Ya don' wanna do that, Leesha. I'm being patient with ya, but if you go spreading lies like that, I swear…'
'But it's fine to lie about me?' Leesha asked.
Won't matter once we're married,' Gared said. 'Everyone will forget.'
'I'm not marrying you,' Leesha said, and suddenly felt a huge weight shift from her.
Gared scowled. 'Not like you have a choice,' he said. 'Even if someone would take ya now, that bookmole Jona or somesuch, I will beat him down. Ent no one in Cutter's Hollow gonna take what's mine.'
'Enjoy the fruits of your lie,' Leesha said, turning away before he saw her tears, 'because I'll give myself to the night before I let you make it a reality.'
It took all of Leesha's strength to keep from breaking down in tears as she prepared supper that night. Every sound from Gared and Steave was a like knife in her heart. She had been tempted by Gared the night before. She had almost let him have his way, knowing full well what it meant. It had hurt to refuse him, but she had thought her virtue was hers to give. She had never imagined that he could take it with but a word, much less that he would.
'Just as well you've been spending so much time with Bruna,' came a whisper at her ear. Leesha whirled to find Elona standing there, smirking at her.
'We wouldn't want you to have a round belly on your wedding day,' Elona said.
Regretting her tea comment from that morning, Leesha opened her mouth to reply, but her mother cackled and whirled away before she could find a word.
Leesha spat in her bowl; Gared and Steave's, too. She felt hollow satisfaction as they ate.
Dinner was a horrid affair; Steave whispering in her mother's ear, and Elona snickering at his words. Gared stared at her the whole time, but Leesha refused to look at him. She kept her eyes on her bowl, stirring numbly like her father beside her.
Only Erny seemed not to have heard Gared's lie. Leesha was thankful for that, but she knew in her heart it could not last. Too many people seemed intent to destroy her with it.
She left the table as soon as she could. Gared kept his seat, but Leesha felt his eyes following her. The moment he retired into the shop, she barred him inside, feeling slightly safer.
Like so many nights before, Leesha cried herself to sleep.
Leesha rose doubting she had ever slept. Her mother had paid Steave another late-night visit, but Leesha felt only numbness as she listened to their grunts over the cacophony of the demons.
Gared, too, caused a thump deep in the night, discovering the door to the house barred. She smiled grimly as he tried the latch a few more times before finally giving up.
Erny came over to kiss the top of her head as she set the porridge on the fire. It was the first time they'd been alone together in days. She wondered what it would do to her already broken father when Gared's lie found his ears. He might have believed her once, but with his wife's betrayal still fresh, Leesha doubted he had much trust left to give.
'Healing the sick again today?' Erny asked. When Leesha nodded, he smiled and said, 'That's good.'
'I'm sorry I haven't had more time for the shop,' Leesha said.
He took hold of her arms and leaned in close, looking her in the eyes. 'People are always more important than paper, Leesha.'
'Even the bad ones?' she asked.
'Even the bad ones,' he confirmed. His smile was pained, but there was neither hesitation nor doubt in his answer. 'Find the worst human being you can, and you'll still find something worse by looking out the window at night.'
Leesha started to cry, and her father pulled her close, rocking her back and forth and stroking her hair. 'I'm proud of you, Leesh,' he whispered. 'Papermaking was my dream. The wards won't fail if you choose another path.'
She hugged him tightly, soaking his shirt with her tears. 'I love you, da,' she said. 'Whatever happens, never doubt that.'
'I never could, sunlight,' he said. 'I'll always love you, as well.'
She held on for a long time; her father the only friend she had left in the world.
She scooted out the door while Gared and Steave were still pulling on their boots. She hoped to avoid everyone on her way to the Holy House, but Gared's friends were waiting just outside. Their greeting was a hail of whistles and catcalls.
'Jus' came by to make sure you and yur mum aren't keeping Gared and Steave abed when they oughta be working!' Ren called. Leesha turned bright red, but said nothing as she pushed past and hurried down the road. Their laughter cut at her back.
She didn't think she was imagining it; the way people stared and broke into whispers as she passed. She hurried to the security of the Holy House, but when she arrived, Stefny blocked the door, her nostrils flaring as if Leesha stunk of the lye her father used to make paper.
'What are you doing?' Leesha asked. 'Let me pass. I'm here to help Bruna.'
Stefny shook her head. 'You'll not taint this sacred place with your sin,' she sneered.
Leesha pulled herself up to her full height, taller than Stefny by inches, but she still felt like a mouse before a cat. 'I have committed no sin,' she said.
'Hah!' Stefny laughed. 'The whole town knows what you and Gared have been up to in the night. I had hopes for you, girl, but it seems you're your mother's daughter after all.'
'What's all this?' came Bruna's hoarse rasp before Leesha could reply.
Stefny turned, filled with haughty pride, and looked down at the old Herb Gatherer. 'This girl is a whore, and I won't have her in the Creator's house.'
'You won't have?' Bruna asked. 'Are you the Creator now?'
'Do not blaspheme in this place, old woman,' Stefny said. 'His words are written for all to see.' She held up the leather-bound copy of the Canon she carried everywhere. 'Fornicators and adulterers keep the plague upon us, and that sums this slut and her mother well.'
'And where is your proof of her crime?' Bruna asked.
Stefny smiled. 'Gared has boasted their sin to any who would listen,' she said.
Bruna growled, and lashed out suddenly, striking Stefny on the head with her staff and knocking her to the ground. 'You would condemn a girl with no more proof than a boy's boast?' she shrieked. 'Boys' bragging isn't worth the breath that carries it, and you know it well!'
'Everyone knows her mother is the town whore,' Stefny sneered. A trickle of blood ran down her temple. 'Why should the pup be different from the bitch?'
Bruna thrust her staff into Stefny's shoulder, making her cry out in pain.
'Hey there!' Smitt called, rushing over. 'Enough of that!'
Tender Michel was hot on his heels. 'This is a Holy House, not some Angierian tavern…'
'Women's business is what this is, and you'll stay out of it, if you know what's good for you!' Bruna snapped, taking the wind from their sails. She looked back to Stefny. 'Tell them, or shall I lay bare your sin as well?' she hissed.
'I have no sin, hag!' Stefny said.
'I've delivered every child in this village,' Bruna replied too quietly for the men to hear, 'and despite the rumours, I see quite well when things are as close as a babe in my hands.'
Stefny blanched, and turned to her husband and the Tender. 'Stay out of this!' she called.
'The Core I will!' Smitt cried. He grabbed Bruna's staff and pulled it off of his wife. 'See here, woman,' he told Bruna. 'Herb Gatherer or no, you can't just go around hitting whomever you please!'
'Oh, but your wife can go around condemning whomever she pleases?' Bruna snapped. She yanked her staff from his hands and clonked him on the head with it.
Smitt staggered back, rubbing his head. 'All right,' he said, 'I tried being nice.'
Usually, Smitt said that just before rolling up his sleeves and hurling someone bodily from his tavern. He wasn't a tall man, but his squat frame was powerful, and he'd had plenty of experience in dealing with drunken cutters over the years.
Bruna was no thick muscled cutter, but she didn't appear the least bit intimidated. She stood her ground as Smitt stormed towards her.
'Fine!' she cried. 'Throw me out! Mix the herbs yourself! You and Stefny heal the ones that vomit blood and catch demon fever! Deliver your own babies while you're at it! Brew your own cures! Make your own flamesticks! What do you need to put up with the hag for?'
'What, indeed?' Darsy asked. Everyone stared at her as she strode up to Smitt.
'I can mix herbs and deliver babies as well as she can,' Darsy said.
'Hah!' Bruna said. Even Smitt looked at her doubtfully.
Darsy ignored her. 'I say it's time for a change,' she said. 'I may not have a hundred years of experience like Bruna, but I won't go around bullying everyone, either.'
Smitt scratched his chin, and glanced over to Bruna, who cackled.
'Go on,' she dared. 'I could use the rest. But don't come begging to my hut when the sow stitches what she should have cut, and cuts what she should have stitched.'
'Perhaps Darsy deserves a chance,' Smitt said.
'Settled, then!' Bruna said, thumping her staff on the floor. 'Be sure to tell the rest of the town who to go to for their cures. I'll thank you for the peace at my hut!'
She turned to Leesha. 'Come, girl, help an old crone walk home.' She took Leesha's arm, and the two of them turned for the door.
As they passed Stefny, though, Bruna stopped, pointing her staff at her and whispering for only the three women to hear. 'You say one more word against this girl, or suffer others to, and the whole town will know your shame.'
Stefhy's look of terror stayed with Leesha the whole way back to Bruna's hut.
Once they were inside, Bruna whirled on her.
'Well, girl? Is it true?' she asked.
'No!' Leesha cried. 'I mean, we almost… but I told him to stop and he did!'
It sounded lame and implausible, and she knew it. Terror gripped her. Bruna was the only one who stood up for her. She thought she would die if the old woman thought her a liar, too.
'You…you can check me, if you want,' she said, her cheeks colouring. She looked at the floor, and squinted back tears.
Bruna grunted, and shook her head. 'I believe you, girl.'
'Why?' Leesha asked, almost pleading. 'Why would Gared lie like that?'
'Because boys get praise for the same things that get girls run out of town,' Bruna said. 'Because men are ruled by what others think of their dangling worms. Because he's a petty, hurtful little wood-brained shit with no concept of what he had.'
Leesha started to cry again. She felt like she'd been crying forever. Surely a body could not hold so many tears.
Bruna opened her arms and Leesha fell into them. 'There, there, girl,' she said. 'Get it all out, and then we'll figure out what to do.'
There was silence in Bruna's hut while Leesha made tea. It was still early in the day, but she felt utterly drained. How could she hope to live the rest of her life in Cutter's Hollow?
Fort Rizon is only a week away, she thought. Thousands of people. No one would hear of Gared's lies there. I could find Klarissa and…
And what? She knew it was just a fantasy. Even if she could find a Messenger to take her, the thought of a week and more on the open road made her blood run cold, and the Rizonas were farmers, with little use for letters or papermaking. She could find a new husband perhaps, but the thought of tying her fate to another man gave little comfort.
She brought Bruna her tea, hoping the old woman had an answer, but the Herb Gatherer said nothing, sipping quietly as Leesha knelt beside her chair.
'What am I going to do?' she asked. 'I can't hide here forever.'
'You could,' Bruna said. 'Whatever Darsy boasts, she hasn't retained a fraction of what I've taught her, and I haven't taught her a fraction of what I know. The folk'11 be back soon enough, begging my help. Stay, and a year from now the people of Cutter's Hollow won't know how they ever got along without you.'
'My mother will never allow that,' Leesha said. 'She's still set on me marrying Gared.'
Bruna nodded. 'She would be. She's never forgiven herself for not bearing Steave's sons. She's determined that you correct her mistakes.'
'I won't do it,' Leesha said. 'I'll give myself to the night before I let Gared touch me.' She was shocked to realize that she meant every word.
'That's very brave of you, dearie,' Bruna said, but there was disdain in her tone. 'So brave to throw your life away over a boy's lie and fear of your mother.'
'I am not afraid of her!' Leesha said.
'Just of telling her you won't marry the boy who destroyed your reputation?'
Leesha was quiet a long time before nodding. 'You're right,' she said. Bruna grunted.
Leesha stood. 'I suppose I had best get it over with,' she said. Bruna said nothing.
At the door, Leesha stopped, and looked back.
'Bruna?' she asked. The old woman grunted again. 'What was Stefhy's sin?'
Bruna sipped her tea. 'Smitt has three beautiful children,' she said.
'Four,' Leesha corrected.
Bruna shook her head. 'Stefny has four,' she said. 'Smitt has three.'
Leesha's eyes widened. 'But how could that be?' she asked. 'Stefny never leaves the tavern, but to go to the Holy…' she gasped.
'Even Holy Men are men,' Bruna said.
Leesha walked home slowly, trying to choose words, but in the end she knew that phrasing was meaningless. All that mattered was that she would not marry Gared, and her mother's reaction.
It was late in the day when she walked into the house. Gared and Steave would be back from the woods soon. She needed the confrontation over with before they arrived.
'Well, you've really made a mess of things now,' her mother said acidly as she walked in. 'My daughter, the town tramp.'
'I'm not a tramp,' Leesha said. 'Gared has been spreading lies.'
'Don't you dare blame him because you couldn't keep your legs closed!' Elona said.
'I didn't sleep with him,' Leesha said.
'Hah!' Elona barked. 'Don't take me for a fool, Leesha. I was young once, too.'
'You've been 'young' every night this week,' Leesha said, 'and Gared is still a liar.'
Elona slapped her, knocking her to the floor. 'Don't you dare speak to me like that, you little whore!' she screeched.
Leesha lay still, knowing that if she moved, her mother would hit her again. Her cheek felt like it was on fire.
Seeing her daughter humbled, Elona took a deep breath, and seemed to calm. 'It's no matter,' she said. 'I've always thought you needed a knocking from the pedestal your idiot father put you on. You'll marry Gared soon enough, and folk will tire of whispering eventually.'
Leesha steeled herself. 'I'm not marrying him,' she said. 'He's a liar, and I won't do it.'
'Oh, yes you will,' Elona said.
'I won't,' Leesha said, the words giving her strength as she rose to her feet. 'I won't say the words, and there's nothing you can do to make me.'
'We'll just see about that,' Elona said, snatching off her belt. It was a thick leather strap with a metal buckle that she always wore loosely around her waist. Leesha thought she wore it just to have it at hand to beat her.
She came at Leesha, who shrieked and retreated into the kitchen before realizing it was the last place she should have gone. There was only one way in or out.
She screamed as the buckle cut through her dress and into her back. Elona swung again, and Leesha threw herself at her mother in desperation. As they tumbled to the floor, she heard the door open, and Steave's voice. At the same time, there was a questioning call from the shop.
Elona made good use of the distraction, punching her daughter full in the face. She was on her feet in an instant, the belt whipping into Leesha, drawing another scream from her lips.
'What in the Core is going on?!' came a cry from the doorway. Leesha looked up to see her father struggling to get into the kitchen, blocked by Steave's meaty arm.
'Get out of my way!' Erny cried.
'This is between them,' Steave said with a grin.
'This is my home you're a guest in!' Erny cried. 'Get out of the way!'
When Steave did not budge, Erny punched him.
Everyone froze. It wasn't clear that Steave had felt the punch at all. He broke the sudden silence with a laugh, casually shoving Erny and sending him flying into the common room.
'You ladies settle yur differences in private,' Steave said with a wink, pulling the kitchen door shut as Leesha's mother rounded on her once more.
Leesha wept quietly in the back room of her father's shop, daubing gently at her cuts and bruises. Had she the proper herbs, she could have done more, but cold water and cloth were all she had.
She had fled into the shop right after her ordeal, locking the doors from the inside, and ignoring even the gentle knocks of her father. When the wounds were clean and the deepest cuts bound, Leesha curled up on the floor, shaking with pain and shame.
'You'll marry Gared the day you bleed,' Elona had promised, 'or we'll do this every day until you do.'
Leesha knew she meant it, and knew Gared's rumour would have many people taking her mother's side and insisting they wed, ignoring Leesha's bruises like they had many times before.
I won't do it, Leesha promised herself. I'll give myself to the night first.
Just then, a cramp wracked her guts. Leesha groaned, and felt dampness on her thighs. Terrified, she swabbed herself with a clean cloth, praying fervently, but there, like a cruel joke of the Creator, was blood.
Leesha shrieked. She heard an answering call from the house.
There was a pounding at the door. 'Leesha, are you all right?' her father called.
Leesha didn't answer, staring at the blood in horror. Was it only two days ago she had been praying for it to come? Now she looked at it like it had come from the Core.
'Leesha, open the door this instant, or you'll have night to pay!' her mother screeched.
Leesha ignored her.
'If you don't listen to yur mother and open this door before I count to ten, Leesha, I swear I will break it down!' Steave boomed.
Fear gripped Leesha as Steave began to count. She had no doubt he could and would splinter the heavy wooden door with a single blow. She ran to the outer door, throwing it open.
It was almost dark. The sky was deep purple, and the last sliver of sun would dip below the horizon in mere minutes.
'Five!' Steve called. 'Four! Three!'
Leesha sucked in her breath and ran from the house.
The Secrets of Fire
Leesha lifted her skirts high and ran for all she was worth, but it was over a mile to Bruna's hut, and she knew deep down she could never make it in time. Her family's cries rang out behind her, the sound muted by the pounding of her heart and the thud of her feet.
There was a sharp stitch in her side, and her back and thighs were on fire from Elona's belt. She stumbled, and scraped her hands catching herself. She forced herself upright, ignoring the pain and driving forward on pure will.
Halfway to the Herb Gatherer, the light faded, and the new night beckoned the demons from the Core. Dark mists began to rise, coalescing into harsh alien form.
Leesha did not want to die. She knew that now; too late. But even if she wished to turn back, home was further away now than Bruna's hut, and there was nothing in between. Erny had purposefully built his house away from the others, after complaints about the smell of his chemicals. She had no choice but to go on, heading towards Bruna's hut at the woods' edge, where the wood demons gathered in force.
A few corelings swiped at her as she passed, but they were still insubstantial, and found no purchase. She felt cold as their claws passed through her breast, like she had been touched by a ghost, but there was no pain, and she did not slow.
There were no flame demons this close to the woods. Wood demons killed flame demons on sight. Firespit could set a wood demon alight, even if normal fire could not. A wind demon solidified in front of her, but Leesha dodged around it, and the creature's spindly legs were not equipped to pursue her afoot. It shrieked at her as she ran on.
She glimpsed a light ahead; the lantern that hung by Bruna's front door. She put on a last burst of speed, crying out, 'Bruna! Bruna, please open your door!'
There was no reply, and the door remained shut, but the way was clear, and she dared to think she might make it.
But then an eight-foot wood demon stepped in her path.
And hope died.
The demon roared, showing rows of teeth like kitchen knives. It made Steave look puny by comparison, all thick twisted sinew covered by knobbed, bark-like armour.
Leesha drew a ward in the air before her, silently praying that the Creator grant her a quick death. Tales said that demons consumed the soul as well as the body. She supposed she was about to find out.
The demon stalked towards her, closing the gap steadily, waiting to see which way she would try to run. Leesha knew she should do just that, but even had she not been paralyzed with fear, there was nowhere to run. The coreling stood between her and the only hope of succour.
There was a creak as Bruna's front door opened, spilling more light into the yard. The demon turned as the old hag shuffled into view.
'Bruna!' Leesha cried. 'Stay behind the wards! There's a wood demon in the yard!'
'My eyes aren't what they used to be, dearie,' Bruna replied, 'but I'm not about to miss an ugly beast like that.'
She took another step forward, crossing her wards. Leesha screamed as the demon roared and launched itself towards the old woman.
Bruna stood her ground as the demon charged, dropping to all fours and moving with terrifying speed. She reached into her shawl, and pulled forth a small object, touching it to the flame of the lantern by the door. Leesha saw it catch fire.
The demon was nearly upon her when Bruna drew back her arm and threw. The object burst apart, covering the wood demon in liquid fire. The blaze lit up the night, and even from yards away, Leesha felt the flash of heat on her face.
The demon screamed, its momentum lost as it fell to the ground, rolling in the dust in a desperate attempt to extinguish itself. The fire clung to it tenaciously, leaving the coreling thrashing and howling on the ground.
'Best come inside, Leesha,' Bruna advised as it burned, 'lest you catch a chill.'
Leesha sat wrapped in one of Bruna's shawls, staring at the steam rising off tea she had no desire to drink. The wood demon's cries had gone on a long time before reducing to a whimper and fading away. She imagined the smouldering ruin in the yard, and thought she might retch.
Bruna sat nearby in her rocking chair, humming softly as she deftly worked a pair of knitting needles. Leesha could not understand her calm. She felt she might never be calm again.
The old Herb Gatherer had examined her wordlessly, grunting occasionally as she salved and bandaged Leesha's wounds, few of
which, it was clear, had come from her flight. She had also shown Leesha how to wad and insert clean cloth to stem the flow of blood between her legs, and warned her to change it frequently.
But now Bruna sat back as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, the clicks of her knitting and the crackle of the fire the only sounds in the room.
'What did you do to that demon?' Leesha asked, when she could stand it no longer.
'Liquid demonfire,' Bruna said. 'Difficult to make. Very dangerous. But it's the only thing I know that can stop a wood demon. Woodies are immune to normal flames, but liquid demonfire burns as hot as firespit.'
'I didn't know anything could kill a demon,' Leesha said.
'I told you before, girl, that Herb Gatherers guard the science of the old world,' Bruna said. She grunted and spat on the floor. 'A scant few of us, anyway. I may be the last to know that infernal recipe.'
'Why not share it?' Leesha said. 'We could be free of the demons forever.'
Bruna cackled. 'Free?' she asked. 'Free to burn the village to the ground, perhaps. Free to set the woods on fire. No heat known can do more than tickle a flame demon, or give a rock demon pause. No fire can burn higher than a wind demon can soar, or set a lake or pond alight to reach a water demon.'
'But still,' Leesha pressed, 'what you did tonight shows how useful it could be. You saved my life.'
Bruna nodded. 'We keep the knowledge of the old world for the day it will be needed again, but that knowledge comes with a great responsibility. If the histories of the ancient wars of man tell us anything, it's that men cannot be trusted with the secrets of fire.
'That's why Herb Gatherers are always women,' she went on. 'Men cannot hold such power without using it. I'll sell thundersticks and festival crackers to Smitt, dearly, but I won't tell him how they're made.'
'Darsy's a woman,' Leesha said, 'but you never taught her, either.'
Bruna snorted. 'Even if that cow was smart enough to mix the chemics without setting herself on fire, she's practically a man in her thinking. I'd no sooner teach her to brew demonfire or flame powder than I would Steave.'
'They're going to come looking for me tomorrow,' Leesha said.
Bruna pointed at Leesha's cooling tea. 'Drink,' she ordered. 'We'll deal with tomorrow when it comes.'
Leesha did as she was told, noting the sour taste of tampweed and the bitterness of skyflower as a wave of dizziness wash over her. Distantly, she was aware of dropping her cup.
Morning brought pain with it. Bruna put stiffroot in Leesha's tea to dull the ache of her bruises and the cramps that clutched her abdomen, but the mixture played havoc with her senses. She felt as if she were floating above the cot she lay upon, and yet her limbs felt leaden.
Erny arrived not long after dawn. He burst into tears at the sight of her, kneeling by the cot and clutching her tightly. 'I thought I'd lost you,' he sobbed.
Leesha reached out weakly, running her fingers through his thinning hair. 'It's not your fault,' she whispered.
'I should have stood up to your mother long ago,' he said.
'That's undersaid,' Bruna grunted from her knitting. 'No man should let his wife walk over him so.'
Erny nodded, having no retort. His face screwed up, and more tears appeared behind his spectacles.
There was a pounding at the door. Bruna looked at Erny, who went to open it.
'Is she here?' Leesha heard her mother's voice, and the cramps doubled. She felt too weak to fight anymore. She couldn't even find the strength to stand.
A moment later Elona appeared, Gared and Steave at her heels like a pair of hounds.
'There you are, you worthless girl!' Elona cried. 'Do you know the fright you gave me, running off into the night like that? We've got half the village out looking for you! I should beat you within an inch of your life!'
'No one's beating anyone, Elona,' Erny said. 'If there's blame to be had, it's yours.'
'Shut up, Erny,' Elona said. 'It your fault she's so wilful, coddling her all the time.'
'I won't shut up,' Erny said, coming to face his wife.
'You will if you know what's good for ya,' Steave warned, balling a fist.
Erny looked at him and swallowed hard. 'I'm not afraid of you,' he said, but it came out as a squeak. Gared snickered.
Steave grabbed Erny by the front of his shirt, lifting him clear off the ground with one hand as he drew back his hamlike fist.
'You're going to stop acting like a fool,' Elona told him, 'and you,' she turned to Leesha, 'are coming home with us this instant.'
'She's not going anywhere,' Bruna said, setting down her knitting and leaning on her stick as she rose to her feet. 'The only ones leaving are you three.'
'Shut it, you old witch,' Elona said. 'I won't let you ruin my daughter's life the way you did mine.'
Bruna snorted. 'Did I pour pomm tea down your throat and force you to open your legs all about town?' she asked. 'Your misery is your own doing. Now get out of my hut.'
Elona rounded on her. 'Or you'll do what?' she challenged
Bruna gave a toothless smile and slammed her stick down on Elona's foot, bringing a scream from the younger woman's lips. She followed the blow with one to the gut, doubling Elona over and cutting her outburst short.
'Here, now!' Steave cried. Tossing poor Erny aside, he and Gared rushed the old woman.
Bruna seemed no more concerned than she had at the wood demon's charge. She reached into her shawl and brought forth a fistful of powder, blowing it into the faces of the two men.
Gared and Steave fell to the floor, clutching their faces and screaming.
'There's more where that came from, Elona,' Bruna said. 'I'll see you all blind before I take orders in my own home.'
Elona scampered for the door on all fours, shielding her face with her arm as she went. Bruna laughed, helping Elona out the door with a powerful blow to the posterior.
'Off with you two!' she shouted at Gared and Steave. 'Out, before I set you both afire!' The two men fumbled blindly, moaning in pain, their red faces awash in tears. Bruna swatted at them with her stick, guiding them out the door like she would a dog that had peed on the floor.
'Come back at your peril!' Bruna cackled wildly as they ran from her yard.
There was another knock, later in the day. Leesha was up and about by then, but still weak. 'What now?' Bruna barked. 'I haven't had this many visitors in one day since my paps sagged!'
She stomped over to the door, opening it to find Smitt standing there, wringing his hands nervously. Bruna's eyes narrowed as she regarded him.
'I'm retired,' she said. 'Fetch Darsy.' She started to close the door.
'Wait, please,' Smitt begged, reaching out to hold the door open. Bruna scowled, and he drew the hand back as if it had been burned.
'I'm waiting,' Bruna said testily.
'It's Ande,' Smitt said, referring to one of the men hurt in the attack that week. 'The wound in his gut started to rot, so Darsy cut him, and now he's passing blood from both ends.'
Bruna spat on Smitt's boots. 'I told you this would happen,' she said.
'I know,' Smitt said. 'You were right. I should have listened. Please come back. I'll do anything you ask.'
Bruna grunted. 'I won't make Ande pay for your stupidity,' she said. 'But I'll hold you at your word, don't you think for a second I won't!'
'Anything,' Smitt promised again.
'Erny!' Bruna barked. 'Fetch my herb cloth! Smitt here can carry it. You help your daughter along. We're going to town.'
Leesha leaned on her father's arm as they went. She was afraid she would slow them, but even in her weakened state, she could keep pace with Bruna's slow shuffle.
'I should make you carry me on your back,' Bruna grumped to Smitt as they went. 'My old legs aren't as fast as they once were.'
'I'll carry you, if you wish,' Smitt said.
'Don't be an idiot,' Bruna said.
Half the village was gathered outside the Holy House. There was a general sigh of relief as Bruna appeared, and whispers at the sight of Leesha, with her torn dress and bruises.
The crone ignored everyone, shoving people out of the way with her stick and going right inside. Leesha saw Gared and Steave lying on cots with damp cloth over their eyes, and swallowed a smirk. Bruna had explained that the pepper and stinkweed she dosed them with would do no permanent damage, but she hoped Darsy had not known enough to tell them that. Elona's eyes shot daggers at her from their side.
Bruna went straight to Ande's cot. He was bathed in sweat, and stank. His skin was yellowed, and the cloth wrapped around his loins was stained with blood, urine, and faeces. Bruna looked at him and spat. Darsy sat nearby. It was clear she had been crying.
'Leesha, unroll the herbs,' Bruna ordered. 'We have work to do.'
Darsy rushed over, reaching to take the blanket from Leesha. 'I can do that,' she said. 'You look about to collapse yourself.'
Leesha pulled the blanket away and shook her head. 'It's my place,' she replied, untying the blanket and rolling it open to reveal the many pockets of herbs.
'Leesha is my apprentice now!' Bruna shouted for all to hear. She looked Elona in the eye as she went on. 'Her promising to Gared is dissolved, and she will serve me for seven years and a day! Anyone with an ill word to say about that, or her, can heal their own sick!'
Elona opened her mouth, but Erny pointed straight at her. 'Shut it!' he barked. Elona's eyes bulged, and she coughed as she swallowed her words. Erny nodded, and then moved over to Smitt. The two men went and spoke quietly in a corner.
Leesha lost track of time as she and Bruna worked. Darsy had accidentally cut into Ande's intestine while trying to excise the demon rot, poisoning him with his own filth. Bruna cursed continually as she sought to undo the damage, sending Leesha scurrying to clean instruments, fetch herbs, and mix potions. She taught as she went, explaining Darsy's errors and what she was doing to correct them, and Leesha listened attentively.
Finally, they had done all they could, and stitched the wound closed, wrapping it in clean bandages. Ande remained drugged into a deep slumber, but he seemed to be breathing easier, and his skin was closer to its normal tone.
'Will he be all right?' Smitt asked, as Leesha helped Bruna to her feet.
'No thanks to you or Darsy,' Bruna snapped. 'But if he stays right where he is, and does exactly as he's told, then this won't be what kills him in the end.'
As they headed for the door, Bruna walked over to the cots where Gared and Steave lay. 'Take those stupid bandages off your eyes, and quit your whining,' she snapped.
Gared was the first to comply, squinting in the light. 'I can see!' he cried.
'Of course you can see, you wood-brained idiot,' Bruna said. 'The town needs someone to move heavy things from place to place, and you can't do that blind.' She shook her stick at him. 'But you cross me again, and blindness will be the least of your worries!'
Gared went pale, and nodded.
'Good,' Bruna said. 'Now say true. Did you take Leesha's flower?'
Gared looked around, frightened. Finally, his eyes dropped. 'No,' he said. 'It was a lie.'
'Speak up, boy,' Bruna snapped. 'I'm an old woman, and my ears aren't what they used to be.' Louder, so that everyone could hear, she asked, 'Did you take Leesha's flower?'
'No!' Gared called, his face flushing even redder than it had from the powder. Whispers spread like fire through the crowd at that.
Steave had removed his own bandage by then, and slapped his son hard on the back of the head. 'There's going to be the Core to pay when we get home,' he growled.
'Not my home,' Erny said. Elona looked up at him sharply, but Erny ignored her, pointing his thumb at Smitt. 'There's a room for the two of you at the inn,' he said.
'The cost of which you will work off,' Smitt added, 'and you'll be out in a month, even if all you've managed to build in that time is a lean-to.'
'Ridiculous!' Elona said. 'They can't work for their room and build a house in a month!'
'I think you have your own worries,' Smitt said.
'What do you mean?' Elona asked.
'He means you have a decision to make,' Erny said. 'Either you learn to keep your marriage vows, or I have the Tender dissolve it and you join Steave and Gared in their lean-to.'
'You can't be serious,' Elona said.
'I've never been more,' Erny replied.
'The Core with him,' Steave said. 'Come with me.'
Elona looked at him sideways. 'To live in a lean-to?' she asked. 'Not likely.'
'Then you'd best head home,' Erny said. 'It's going to take you a while to learn your way around the kitchen.'
Elona scowled, and Leesha knew her father's struggle was just beginning, but her mother left as she was told, and that said much for his chances.
Erny kissed his daughter. 'I'm proud of you,' he said. 'And I hope one day to make you proud of me, as well.'
'Oh, da,' Leesha said, hugging him, 'you have.'
'Then you'll come home?' he asked hopefully.
Leesha looked back at Bruna, then back at him, and shook her head.
Erny nodded, and hugged her again. 'I understand.'
Rojer followed his mother as she swept the inn, his little broom swishing side to side in imitation of her broad strokes. She smiled down at him, ruffling his bright red hair, and he beamed back at her. He was three years old.
'Sweep behind the firebox, Rojer,' she said, and he hurried to comply, slapping the bristles into the crevice between the box and wall, sending wood dust and bits of bark flying. His mother swept the results into a neat pile.
The door swung open, and Rojer's father came in, arms full of wood. He trailed bits of bark and soil as he crossed the room.
'Jessum!' his mother cried. 'I just swept in here!'
'I help sweep!' Rojer proclaimed loudly.
'That's right,' his mother agreed, 'and your father's making a mess.'
'You want to run out of wood in the night with the duke and his entourage upstairs?' Jessum asked.
'His Grace won't be here for a week at least,' his mother replied.
'Best do the work now while the inn's quiet, Kally,' Jessum said. 'No telling how many courtiers the duke will bring, running us to and fro to like little Riverbridge was Angiers itself.'
'If you want to do something useful,' Kally said, 'the wards outside are starting to peel.'
Jessum nodded. 'I saw,' he said. 'The wood warped in that last cold snap.'
'Master Piter was supposed to redraw them a week ago,' Kally said.
'Spoke to him yesterday,' Jessum said. 'He's putting everyone off to work on the bridge, but he says they'll be ready before the duke comes.'
'It's not the duke I'm worried about,' Kally said. 'Piter's only concern may be impressing Rhinebeck in hopes of a royal commission, but I have simpler concerns, like not having my family cored in the night.'
'All right, all right,' Jessum said, holding up his hands. 'I'll go talk to him again.'
'You'd think Piter would know better,' Kally went on. 'Rhinebeck isn't even our duke.'
'He's the only one close enough to get help to us if we need it quick,' Jessum said. 'Euchor doesn't care for Riverbridge, long as Messengers get through and taxes come on time.'
'See the light,' Kally said. 'If Rhinebeck's coming, it's because he's sniffing for taxes, too. We'll be paying from both ends afore Rojer sees another summer.'
'What would you have us do?' Jessum asked. 'Anger the duke a day away for the sake of the one two weeks to the north?'
'I didn't say we should spit in his eye,' Kally said. 'I just don't see why impressing him comes before warding our own homes.'
'I said I'd go,' Jessum said.
'So go,' Kally said. 'It's past noon already. And take Rojer with you. Maybe that will remind you what's really important.'
Jessum swallowed his scowl and squatted before his son. 'Want to go see the bridge, Rojer?' he asked.
'Fishing?' Rojer asked. He loved to fish off the side of the bridge with his father.
Jessum laughed, sweeping Rojer into his arms. 'Not today,' he said. 'Your mum wants us to have a word with Piter.'
He sat Rojer up on his shoulders. 'Now hold on tight,' he said, and Rojer held onto his father's head as he ducked out the door. His cheeks were scratchy with stubble.
It wasn't far to the bridge. Riverbridge was small even for a hamlet; just a handful of houses and shops, the barracks for the men-at-arms who collected tolls, and his parents' inn. Rojer waved to the guards as they passed the tollhouse, and they waved back.
The bridge spanned the Dividing River at its narrowest point. Built in generations gone, it had two arches, spanning over three hundred feet, and was wide enough for a large cart with a horse to either side. A team of Milnese engineers maintained the ropes and supports daily. The Messenger Road – the only road – stretched as far as the eye could see in either direction.
Master Piter was at the far end, shouting instructions over the side of the bridge. Rojer followed his gaze, and saw his apprentices hanging from slings as they warded the underside.
'Piter!' Jessum called when they were halfway across the bridge.
'Ay, Jessum!' the Warder called. Jessum put Rojer down as he and Piter shook hands.
'Bridge is looking good,' Jessum noted. Piter had replaced most of his simpler painted wards with intricate etched calligraphy, lacquered and polished.
Piter smiled. 'The duke will fill his breeches when he sees my warding,' he proclaimed.
Jessum laughed. 'Rally's scouring the inn as we speak,' he said.
'Make the duke happy and your future's set,' Piter said. 'A word of praise in the right ears, and we could be plying our trades in Angiers and not this backwater.'
'This 'backwater' is my home,' Jessum said, scowling. 'My grand da was born in Riverbridge, and if I have my say, my grandkids will be, too.'
Piter nodded. 'No offense meant,' he said. 'I just miss Angiers.'
'So go back,' Jessum said. 'The road is open, and a single night out on the road is no great feat for a Warder. You don't need the duke for that.'
Piter shook his head. 'Angiers is teeming with Warders,' he said. 'I would just be another leaf in the forest. But if I could claim the duke's favour, it would put a line out my door.'
'Well, it's my door I'm worried about today,' Jessum said. 'The wards're peeling off, and Kally don't think they'll last the night. Can you come take a look?'
Piter blew out a breath. 'I told you yesterday…' he began, but Jessum cut him off.
'I know what you told me, Piter, but I'm telling you it ent enough,' he said. 'I won't have my boy sleeping behind weak wards so you can make the ones on the bridge a bit artsier. Can't you just patch them for the night?'
Piter spat. 'You can do that yourself, Jessum. Just trace the lines. I'll give you paint.'
'Rojer wards better than me, and that's not at all,' Jessum said. 'I'd make a botch of it, and Kally would kill me if the corelings didn't.'
Piter scowled. He was about to reply when there was a shout from down the road.
'Geral!' Jessum called. Rojer looked up in sudden interest, recognizing the Messenger's bulky frame. His mouth watered at the sight. Geral always had a sweet for him.
Another man rode next to him, a stranger, but his Jongleur's motley put the boy at ease. He thought of how the last Jongleur had sung and danced and walked upside down on his hands, and he hopped with excitement. Rojer loved Jongleurs more than anything.
'Little Rojer, gone and grown another six inches!' Geral cried, pulling up his horse and leaping down to pick Rojer up. He was tall and built like a rain barrel, with a round face and grizzled beard. Rojer had been afraid of him once, with his metal shirt and the demon scar that turned his lower lip into an angry pucker, but no more. He laughed as Geral tickled him.
'Which pocket?' Geral asked, holding the boy at arms' length. Rojer pointed immediately. Geral always kept the sweets in the same place.
The big Messenger laughed, retrieving a Rizonan sugar wrapped in a twist of corn husk. Rojer squealed and plopped down on the grass to unwrap it.
'What brings you to Riverbridge this time?' Jessum asked the Messenger.
In response, the Jongleur stepped forward, sweeping his cloak back in a flourish. He was tall, with long hair sun-bleached to gold and a brown beard. His jaw was perfectly squared, and his skin sun-bronzed. Over his motley he wore a fine tabard emblazoned with a cluster of green leaves on a field of brown.
'Arrick Sweetsong,' he introduced himself, 'Master Jongleur and herald to His Grace, Duke Rhinebeck III, guardian of the forest fortress, wearer of the wooden crown, and Lord of all Angiers. I come to inspect the town before His Grace's arrival next week.'
'The duke's herald is a Jongleur?' Piter asked Geral, raising an eyebrow.
'None better for the hamlets,' Geral replied with a wink. 'Folks are less likely to string a man up for telling them taxes are raised when he's juggling for their kids.'
Arrick scowled at him, but Geral only laughed.
'Be a good man and fetch the innkeep to come for our horses,' Arrick told Jessum.
'I'm the innkeep,' Rojer's father said, holding out his hand. Messum Inn. That's my boy, Rojer,' he nodded at Rojer.
Arrick ignored the hand and the boy, producing a silver moon as if from thin air and flicking it his way. Jessum caught the coin, looking at it curiously.
'The horses,' Arrick said pointedly. Jessum frowned, but he pocketed the coin and moved for the animals. Geral took his own reins and waved him away.
'I still need my wards looked at, Piter,' Jessum said. 'You'll be sorry if I have to send Kally to shriek at you about it.'
'It looks like the bridge still needs a lot of work before His Grace arrives,' Arrick noted. Piter stood a bit straighter at that and gave Jessum a sour look.
'Do you wish to sleep behind peeling wards tonight, Master Jongleur?' Jessum asked. Arrick's bronzed skin paled at that.
'I'll take a look at them, if you want,' Geral said. 'I can patch them if they're not too bad, and I'll fetch Piter myself if they are. He stomped his spear and gave the Warder a hard stare. Piter's eyes widened, and he nodded his understanding.
Geral picked Rojer up and sat him on top of his huge destrier. 'Hold the reins tight, boy,' he said, 'we're going for a ride!' Rojer laughed and pulled the destrier's mane as Geral and his father led the horses to the inn. Arrick strode ahead of them like a man followed by servants.
Kally was waiting at the door. 'Geral!' she called, 'What a pleasant surprise!'
'And who is this?' Arrick asked, his hands flicking quickly to smooth his hair and clothes.
'This is Kally,' Jessum said, adding, 'my wife.'
Arrick seemed not to hear, striding up to her and throwing his multicoloured cloak back as he made a leg.
'A pleasure, madam,' he said, kissing her hand. 'I am Arrick Sweetsong, Master Jongleur and herald to Duke Rhinebeck III, guardian of the forest fortress, wearer of the wooden crown, and Lord of all Angiers. His Grace will be pleased see such beauty when he visits your fine inn.'
Kally covered her mouth, her pale cheeks colouring to match her red hair. She made a clumsy curtsey in return.
'You and Geral must be tired,' she said. 'Come in and I'll serve some hot soup while I prepare supper.'
'We would be delighted, good lady,' Arrick said, bowing again.
'Geral promised to look over the wards for us before dark, Kal,' Jessum said.
'What?' Kally asked, pulling her eyes from Arrick's handsome smile. 'Oh, well you two stake the horses and see to that while I show Master Arrick a room and start supper,' she said.
'A lovely idea,' Arrick said, offering her an arm as they went inside.
'Keep an eye on Arrick with your wife,' Geral muttered. 'They call him 'Sweetsong' because his voice will make any woman sweet between the legs, and I've never known him to stop at a wedding vow.'
Jessum scowled. 'Rojer,' he said, pulling him off the horse, 'run in and stay with mum.'
Rojer nodded, hitting the ground running.
'The last Jongleur ate fire,' Rojer said. 'Can you eat fire?'
'That I can,' Arrick said, 'and spit it back out like a flame demon.' Rojer clapped his hands and Arrick turned back to gaze at Kally, who was bending behind the bar to fill him a mug of ale. She had let her hair down.
Rojer pulled his cloak again. The Jongleur tried to tuck it out of reach, but Rojer just tugged on his pant leg instead.
'What is it?' Arrick asked, turning back to him with a scowl.
'Do you sing, too?' Rojer asked. 'I like singing.'
'Perhaps I will sing for you later,' Arrick said, turning away again.
'Oh give him a little song,' Kally begged, putting a foaming mug on the counter before him. 'It would make him so happy.' She smiled, but Arrick's eyes had already drifted down to the top button of her dress, which had mysteriously come undone while she fetched his mug.
'Of course,' Arrick said, smiling brightly. 'Just a pull of your fine ale to wash the dust from my throat.'
He drained the mug in one quaff, eyes never leaving her neckline, and reached for a large multicoloured bag on the floor. Kally refilled his mug as he produced his lute.
Arrick's rich alto voice filled the room, clear and beautiful as he gently strummed the lute. He sang a song of a hamlet woman who missed her one chance to love a man before he left for the Free Cities, and forever regretted it. Kally and Rojer stared at him in wonder, mesmerized by the sound. When he finished, they clapped loudly.
'More!' Rojer cried.
'Not now, my boy,' Arrick said, ruffling his hair. 'Perhaps after supper. Here,' he said, reaching into the multicoloured bag, 'why not try making your own music?' He produced a straw fiddle, several strips of polished rosewood in different lengths set into a lacquered wooden frame. A stout cord attached it to the wand, a six-inch stick with a lathed wooden ball at the end.
'Take this and go play a bit while I speak with your lovely mother,' he said.
Rojer squealed in delight, taking the toy and running off to plop down on the wooden floor, striking the strips in different patterns, delighting in the clear sounds each made.
Kally laughed at the sight. 'He's going to be a Jongleur one day,' she said.
'Not a lot of custom?' Arrick asked, sweeping his hand over the empty tables in the common room.
'Oh, it was crowded enough at lunchtime,' Kally said, 'but this time of year, we don't get many of boarders apart from the occasional Messenger.'
'It must get lonely, tending an empty inn,' Arrick said.
'Sometimes,' Kally said, 'but I've Rojer to keep me busy. He's a handful even when it's quiet, and a terror during caravan season, when the drivers get drunk and sing till all hours, keeping him up with their racket.'
'I imagine it must be hard for you to sleep through that, too,' Arrick said.
'It's hard for me,' Kally admitted. 'But Jessum can sleep through anything.'
'Is that so?' Arrick asked, sliding his hand over hers. Her eyes widened and she stopped breathing, but she didn't pull away.
The front door slammed open. 'Wards are patched!' Jessum called. Kally gasped, snatching her hand away from Arrick's so quickly she spilled his ale across the bar. She grabbed a rag to soak it up.
'Just a patch job?' she asked doubtfully, her eyes down to hide the flush in her cheeks.
'Not by a spear's throw,' Geral said. 'Honestly, you're lucky they lasted as long as they did. I patched the worst of them, and I'll have a talk with Piter in the morning. I'll see him replace every ward on this inn before sunset if I have to hold him at spearpoint.'
'Thank you Geral,' Kally said, casting Jessum a withering look.
'I'm still mucking the barn,' Jessum said, 'so I staked the horses out in the yard in Geral's portable circle.'
'That's fine,' Kally said. 'Wash up, all of you. Supper will be ready soon.'
'Delicious,' Arrick proclaimed, drinking copious amounts of ale with his supper. Kally had roasted an herb-crusted shank of lamb, serving the finest cut to the duke's herald.
'I don't suppose you have a sister as beautiful as yourself?' Arrick asked between mouthfuls. 'His Grace is in the market for a new bride.'
'I thought the duke already had a wife,' Kally said, blushing as she leaned to fill his mug.
'He does,' Geral grunted. 'His fourth.'
Arrick snorted. 'No more fertile than the others, I'm afraid, if the talk around the palace holds true. Rhinebeck will keep seeking wives until one gives him a son.'
'You might have the right of that,' Geral admitted.
'How many times will the Tenders let him stand and promise the Creator 'forever'?' Jessum asked.
'As many as he needs,' Arrick assured. 'Minister Janson keeps the Holy Men in check.'
Geral spat. 'It's not right, men of the Creator having to debase themselves for that…'
Arrick held up a warning finger. 'They say even the trees have ears for those who speak out against the First Minister.'
Geral scowled, but he held his tongue, knowing Arrick's words to be true.
'Well, he's not likely to find a bride in Riverbridge,' Jessum said. 'There aren't even women enough for those of us here. I had to go all the way to Cricket Run to find Kally.'
'You're Angerian, my dear?' Arrick asked.
'Born, yes,' Kally said, 'but the Tender had me swear an oath to Miln at the wedding. All Bridgefolk are required to swear to Euchor.'
'For now,' Arrick said.
'So it's true, what they say,' Jessum said. 'Rhinebeck is coming to lay claim to Riverbridge.'
'Nothing so dramatic,' Arrick said. 'His Grace simply feels that with half your people of Angierian stock and your bridge built and maintained from Angierian timber, that we should all have a…' he eyed Kally as she sat back down, 'closer relationship.'
'I doubt Euchor will be quick to share Riverbridge,' Jessum said. 'The Dividing has separated their lands for a thousand years. He'll no sooner yield that border than his own throne.'
Arrick shrugged and smiled again. 'That is a matter for Dukes and Ministers,' he said, raising his mug. 'Small folk such as us need not concern ourselves over such things.'
The sun soon set, and outside, there were sharp, crackling retorts, punctuated by flashes of light that leaked through the shutters as wards flared. Rojer hated those harsh sounds, and the shrieks that came with them. He sat on the floor, striking his noisemaker harder and harder, trying to drown them out.
'Corelings 'r hungry tonight,' his father mused.
'It's upsetting Rojer,' Kally said rising from her seat to go to him.
'Not to fear,' Arrick said, wiping his mouth. He went to his multicoloured bag, pulling out a slim fiddle case. 'We'll drive those demons off
He put bow to string, and immediately filled the room with music. Rojer laughed and clapped, his fear vanished. His mother clapped with him, and they found a rhythm to complement Arrick's tune. Even Geral and Jessum began to clap along.
'Dance with me, Rojer!' Kally laughed, taking his hand and pulling him to his feet.
Rojer tried to keep up as she stepped to the beat, but he stumbled and she swept him up in her arms, kissing him as she spun around the room. Rojer laughed in delight.
There was a sudden crash. Arrick's bow slipped from the strings as everyone turned to see the heavy wooden door shaking in its frame. Dust, knocked loose by some unseen impact, drifted lazily to the floor.
Geral was the first to react, the big man moving with surprising speed for the spear and shield he had left by the door. For a long moment, the others stared at him, uncomprehending. There was another crash, and thick black talons burst through the wood. Kally shrieked.
Jessum leapt to the fireplace, snatching up a heavy iron poker. 'Get Rojer to the bolt hole in the kitchen!' he cried, his words punctuated by a roar from beyond the door.
Geral had snatched up his spear by then, and threw his shield to Arrick. 'Get Kally and the boy out!' he cried as the door splintered and a seven-foot rock demon burst through. Geral and Jessum turned to meet it. The creature paused to throw back its head and shriek its triumph, while small nimble flame demons darted into the room around and between its thick legs.
Arrick caught the shield, but when Kally ran to his protection, Rojer clutched in her arms, he shoved her aside, snatching up his multicoloured bag and sprinting to the kitchen.
'Kally!' Jessum cried as she struck the floor, twisting to shield her son from the impact.
'Damn you to the Core, Arrick!' Geral called after the Jongleur. 'May all your dreams turn to dust!' the rock demon struck him a backhand blow, launching him across the room.
A flame demon leapt at her as Kally struggled to her feet, but Jessum struck it hard with the poker, knocking it aside. It coughed fire as it landed, setting the floor alight.
'Go!' he cried as she got her feet under her. From over her shoulder, Rojer watched the demon spit fire on his father as they fled the room. Jessum screamed as his clothes ignited.
His mother clutched him tightly to her breast, moaning as she ran down the hall. Back in the common room, Geral roared in pain.
They burst into the kitchen just as Arrick yanked open the trap door and dropped down. His hand reached back, slapping around for the heavy iron ring to pull the warded trap shut.
'Master Arrick!' Kally cried. Wait for us!'
'Demon!' Rojer screamed as a flame demon scampered into the room, but his warning came too late. The impact as the coreling struck them knocked the breath from his mother, but she kept hold of him even as the creature's talons dug deep into her. She shrieked as it ran up her back, its razor teeth clamping down on her shoulder and slicing through Rojer's right hand. He howled.
'Rojer!' his mother cried, stumbling towards the washing trough before falling to her knees. Screaming in pain, she reached back and got a firm grip on one of the coreling's horns.
'You… can't… have… my… son!' she screamed, and threw herself forward, pulling on the horn with all her strength. Torn from its perch, the demon took ribbons of flesh with it, as Kally flipped it into the trough.
Soaking crockery shattered on impact, and the flame demon gurgled and thrashed, steam filling the air as the water was brought to an instant boil. Kally screamed as her arms burned, but she held the creature under until its thrashes stopped.
'Mum!' Rojer cried, and she turned to see two more of the creatures scamper into the room. She grabbed Rojer and ran for the trap, yanking the heavy door open with one hand. Arrick's wide eyes looked up at her.
Kally fell as a flame demon latched onto her leg, taking a bite of her thigh. 'Take him! Please!' she begged, shoving the boy down into Arrick's arms.
'I love you!' she cried to Rojer as she slammed the trap shut, leaving them in darkness.
So close to the Dividing River, houses in Riverbridge were built on great warded blocks to resist flooding. They waited in the darkness, safe enough from corelings so long as the foundation held, but there was smoke everywhere.
'Die from demons or die from smoke,' Arrick muttered. He started to move away from the trap, but Rojer clung hard to his leg.
'Let go, boy,' Arrick said, kicking his leg in an attempt to shake the boy off.
'Don't leave me!' Rojer cried, weeping uncontrollably.
Arrick frowned. He looked around at the smoke, and spat.
'Hold tight, boy,' he said, putting Rojer on his back. He lifted the edges of his cape to seat the boy in a makeshift sling, tying the corners about his waist. He took up Geral's shield and picked his way through the foundation, crouching to crawl out into the night.
'Creator above,' he whispered, as he saw the entire village of Riverbridge in flames. Demons danced in the night, dragging screaming bodies out to feast.
'Seems your parents weren't the only ones Piter shorted,' Arrick said. 'I hope they drag that bastard down into the Core.'
Crouching behind the shield, Arrick made his way around the inn, hiding in the smoke and confusion until they made the main courtyard. There, safe in Geral's portable circle, were the two horses; an island of safety amidst the horror.
A flame demon caught sight of them as Arrick broke into a run middle and index fingers were bitten clear away; his remaining fingers still clutched tightly about a lock of red hair, his mother's, severed by the bite.
'No!' Rojer cried, as Arrick tried to take the hair away. 'It's mine!'
'I won't take it, boy,' Arrick said, 'I just need to see the bite.' He put the lock in Rojer's other hand, and the boy clenched it tightly.
The wound wasn't bleeding badly, partly cauterized by the flame demon's saliva, but it oozed and stank.
'I'm no Herb Gatherer,' Arrick said with a shrug, and squirted it with wine from his skin. Rojer screamed, and Arrick tore a bit of his fine cloak to wrap the wound.
Rojer was crying freely by then, and Arrick wrapped him tightly in his cloak. 'There, there, boy,' he said, holding him close and stroking his back. 'We're alive to tell the tale. That's something, isn't it?'
Rojer kept on weeping, and Arrick began to sing a lullaby. He sang as Riverbridge burned. He sang as the demons danced and feasted. The sound was like a shield around them, and under its protection, Rojer gave in to exhaustion and fell asleep.
To the Free Cities
Arlen leaned more heavily on his walking stick as the fever grew in him. He hunched over and retched, but his empty stomach had only bile to yield. Dizzy, he searched for a focal point.
He saw a plume of smoke.
There was a structure off the side of the road far ahead. A stone wall, so overgrown with vines that it was nearly invisible. The smoke was coming from there.
Hope of succour gave strength to his watery limbs, and he stumbled on. He made the wall, leaning against it as he dragged himself along, looking for an entrance. The stone was pitted and cracked; creeping vines threaded into every nook and cranny. Without the vines to support it, the ancient wall might simply collapse, much as Arlen would, without the wall to support him.
At last he came to an arch in the wall. Two metal gates, rusted off their hinges, lay before it in the weeds. Time had eaten them away to nothing. The arch opened into a wide courtyard choked with vine and weed. There was a broken fountain filled with murky rainwater, and a low building so covered in ivy that it could be missed at a glance.
Arlen walked around the yard in awe. Beneath the growth, the ground was cracked stone. Full-sized trees had broken through, overturning giant blocks now covered in moss. Arlen could see deep claw marks in the plain stone.
No wards, he realized in amazement. This place was from before The Return. If that was so, it had been abandoned for over three hundred years.
The door to the building had rotted away like the gate. A small stone entryway led into a wide room. Wires hung in a tangle from the walls, the art they had held long disintegrated. A coating of slime on the floor was all that remained of a thick carpet. Ancient grooves were clawed into the walls and furniture, remnants of the fall.
'Hello?' Arlen called. 'Is anyone here?'
There was no reply.
His face felt hot, but he was shivering, even in the warm air. He did not think he could manage to search much further, but there had been smoke, and smoke meant life. The thought gave him strength, and finding a crumbling stairwell, he picked his way to the second floor.
Much of the building's top floor was open to sunlight. The roof was cracked and caved in; rusting metal bars jutting from the crumbling stone.
'Is anyone here?' Arlen called. He searched the floor, but found only rot and ruin.
As he was losing hope, he saw the smoke through a window at the far end of the hall. He ran to it, but found only a broken tree limb lying in the rear courtyard. Its was clawed and blackened, with small fires still crackling in places, giving off a steady plume.
Crestfallen, his face twisted, but he refused to cry. He thought about just sitting and waiting for the demons to come in hopes they would give him a faster death than the sickness, but he had sworn to give then nothing, and besides, Marea's death had certainly not been quick. He looked down from the window to the stone courtyard.
A fall from here would kill anyone, he mused. A wave of dizziness washed over him, and it felt easy and right to just let himself fall.
Like Cholie? a voice in his head asked.
The noose flashed in his mind, and Arlen snapped back to reality, catching himself and pulling away from the window.
No, he thought, Cholie's way is no better than Da's. When I die, it will be because something killed me, not because I gave up.
He could see far from the high window, over the wall and down the road. Off in the distance, he spotted movement, coming his way.
Arlen tapped reserves of strength he didn't know he had, bounding down the steps with something approaching his usual alacrity and running full out through the courtyard.
But his breath gave out as he reached the road, and he fell onto the clay, gasping and clutching a stitch in his side. It felt like there were a thousand splinters in his chest.
He looked up and saw the figures still far down the road, but close enough that they saw him, too. He heard a shout as the world went black.
Arlen awoke in daylight, lying on his stomach. He took a breath, feeling bandages wrapped tightly around him. His back still ached, but it no longer burned, and for the first time in days, his face felt cool. He put his hands under him to rise, but pain shot through him.
'I wouldn't be in any rush to do that,' Ragen advised. 'You're lucky to be alive.'
'What happened?' Arlen asked, looking up at the man who sat nearby.
'Found you passed out on the road,' the man said. 'The cuts on your back had demon rot. Had to cut you open and drain the poison before I could sew them up.'
'Where's Keerin?' Arlen asked.
Ragen laughed. 'Inside,' he said. 'Keerin's been keeping his distance the last couple days. He couldn't handle the gore, and sicked up when we first found you.'
'Days?' Arlen asked. He looked around and found himself back in the ancient courtyard. Ragen had made camp there, his portable circles protecting the bedrolls and animals.
'We found you around high sun on Thirday,' Ragen said. 'It's Fifthday now. You've been delirious the whole time; thrashing around as you sweated out the sickness.'
'You cured my demon fever?!' Arlen asked in shock.
'That what they call it in the Brook?' Ragen asked. He shrugged. 'Good a name as any, I suppose, but it's not some magic disease, boy; just an infection. I found some hogroot not far off the road, so I was able to poultice the cuts. I'll make some tea with it later. If you drink it for the next few days, you should be all right'
'Hogroot?' Arlen asked.
Ragen held up a weed that grew most everywhere. 'A staple of every Messenger's herb pouch, though it's best when fresh. Makes you a little dizzy, but for some reason, demon rot can't abide it.'
Arlen began to cry. His mother could have been cured by a weed he regularly pulled from Jeph's field? It was just too much.
Ragen waited quietly, giving Arlen space while the tears ran their course. After what seemed an eternity, the flow began to ebb, and his heaving sobs eased. Ragen handed him a cloth wordlessly, and Arlen dried his cheeks.
'Arlen,' the Messenger asked finally, 'what are you doing all the way out here?'
Arlen looked at him for a long time, trying to decide what to say. When he finally spoke, the tale came spilling out in a rush. He told the Messenger everything, starting with the night his mother was injured and ending with running from his father.
Ragen was quiet while he took in Arlen's tale. 'I'm sorry about your mother, Arlen,' he said at last. Arlen sniffled and nodded.
Keerin wandered back as Arlen began telling how he had tried to find the road to Sunny Pasture, but had accidentally taken the fork to the Free Cities instead. He gave rapt attention as Arlen described his first night alone, the giant rock demon, and how he had scuffed the ward. The Jongleur went pale when Arlen described the race to repair it before the demon killed him.
'You're the one that cut that demon's arm off?!' Ragen asked incredulously, a moment later. Keerin looked ready to sick up again.
'Its not a trick I mean to try again,' Arlen said.
'No, I don't suppose it is,' Ragen chuckled. 'Still, crippling a fifteen foot rock demon is a deed worth a song or two, eh, Keerin?' He elbowed the Jongleur, but that seemed to push the man over the edge. He covered his mouth and ran off. Ragen shook his head and sighed.
'A giant one-armed rock demon's been haunting us ever since we found you,' he explained. 'It's hammered the wards harder than any coreling I've ever seen.'
'Is he going to be all right?' Arlen asked, watching Keerin double over.
'It'll pass,' Ragen grunted. 'Let's get some food into you.' He helped Arlen sit up against the horse's saddle. The move sent a stab of pain through him, and Ragen saw him wince.
'Chew on this,' he advised, handing Arlen a gnarled root. 'It will make you a little light headed, but it should ease the pain.'
'Are you an Herb Gatherer?' Arlen asked.
Ragen laughed. 'No, but a Messenger needs to know a little of every art, if he wants to survive.' He reached into his saddlebags, pulling out a metal cookpot, and some utensils.
'I wish you'd told Coline about hogroot,' Arlen lamented.
'I would have,' Ragen said, 'if I thought for a second she didn't know.' He filled the pot, and hung it from the tripod over the firepit. 'It's amazing what people have forgotten.'
He stoked the flames as Keerin returned, looking pale but relieved. 'I'll be sure to mention it when we take you back.'
'Back?' Arlen asked.
'Back?' Keerin echoed.
'Of course 'back',' Ragen said. 'Your da will be looking for you, Arlen.'
'But I don't want to go back,' Arlen said. 'I want to go to the Free Cities with you.'
'You can't just run away from your problems, Arlen,' Ragen said.
'I'm not going back,' Arlen said. 'You can drag me there, but I'll run again the second you let go.'
Ragen stared at him for a long time. Finally, he glanced at Keerin.
'You know what I think,' Keerin said. 'I've no desire to add five nights, at least, to our trip home.'
Ragen frowned at Arlen. 'I'll be writing your father when we get to Miln,' he warned.
'You'll be wasting your time,' Arlen said. 'He'll never come for me.'
The stone floor of the courtyard and the high wall hid them well that night. A wide portable circle secured the cart, and the animals were staked and hobbled in another. They were in the inner of two concentric rings, with the fire at the centre.
Keerin lay huddled in his bedroll, with the blanket over his head. He was shivering though it was not cold, and when the occasional coreling tested the wards, he twitched.
'Why do they keep attacking when they can't get through?' Arlen asked.
'They're looking for flaws in the net,' Ragen said. 'You'll never see a coreling attack the same spot twice.' He tapped his temple. 'They remember. Corelings aren't smart enough to study the wards and reason out the weak spots, so they attack the barrier and search that way. They get through rarely, but often enough to make it worth their while.'
A wind demon came swooping over the wall and bounced off the wards. Keerin whimpered from under his blanket at the sound.
Ragen looked over at the Jongleur's bedroll and shook his head. 'It's like he thinks that if he can't see the corelings, they can't see him,' he muttered.
'Is he always like this?' Arlen asked.
'That one-armed demon has him more spooked than usual,' Ragen said, 'but he wasn't exactly standing at the wards before.' He shrugged. 'I needed a Jongleur on short notice. The Guild gave me Keerin. I don't normally work with ones so green.'
'Why bring a Jongleur at all, then?' Arlen asked.
'Oh, you have to bring a Jongleur with you when you're going to the hamlets,' Ragen said. 'They're apt to stone you if you show up without one.'
'Small villages, like Tibbet's Brook,' Ragen explained. 'Places too far for the dukes to easily control. Some men,' he went on, 'can be merchant Jongleur, Herb Gatherer, and Messenger all at once, but they're about as common as a friendly coreling. Most Messengers who take the hamlet routes have to hire a Jongleur.'
Ragen rose before the sun the next morning. Arlen was already awake, and Ragen nodded at him in approval. 'Messengers don't have the luxury of sleeping late,' he said as he loudly clattered his cookpans to wake Keerin. 'Every moment of light is needed.'
Arlen was feeling well enough by then to sit next to Keerin in the cart as it trundled towards the tiny lumps on the horizon Ragen called mountains. To pass the time, Ragen told Arlen tales of his travels, and pointed to herbs along the side of the road, saying which to eat and which to avoid, which could poultice a wound, and which would make it worse. He noted the most defensible spots to spend a night and why, and warned about predators.
'Corelings kill the slowest and weakest animals,' Ragen said. 'So only the biggest and strongest, or those best at hiding, survive. Out on the road, corelings aren't the only thing that will see you as prey.'
Keerin looked around nervously.
'What was that place we stayed in the last few nights?' Arlen asked.
Ragen shrugged. 'Just some minor lord's keep,' he said. 'There's hundreds of them in the lands between here and Miln, old ruins picked clean by countless Messengers.'
'Messengers?' Arlen asked.
'Of course,' Ragen said. 'Some Messengers spend weeks hunting for ruins. The ones lucky enough to stumble on ruins no one's ever found can come back with all kinds of loot. Gold, jewels, carvings, sometimes even old wards. But the real prize they're all chasing is the old wards, the fighting wards, if they ever really existed.'
'Do you think they existed?' Arlen asked.
Ragen nodded. 'But I'm not about to risk my neck leaving the road to look for them.'
After a couple of hours, Ragen led them off the road to a small cave. 'Always best to ward a shelter when you can,' he told Arlen. 'This cave is one of a few noted in Graig's log.'
Ragen and Keerin set up camp, feeding and watering the animals and moving their supplies into the cave. The unhitched cart was put in a circle just outside. While they worked, Arlen inspected the portable circle. 'There are wards here I don't know,' he noted, tracing the markings with a finger.
'I saw a few in Tibbet's Brook that were new to me, as well,' Ragen admitted. 'I copied them down in my log. Perhaps tonight you can tell me what they do?' Arlen smiled, pleased that he might offer something in return for Ragen's generosity.
Keerin began shifting uncomfortably as they ate, looking frequently at the darkening sky, but Ragen seemed unhurried as the shadows grew.
'Best to bring the mollies into the cave now,' Ragen noted finally. Keerin immediately moved to comply. 'Pack animals hate caves,' Ragen told Arlen, 'so you wait as long as you can before bringing them in. The horse always goes last.'
'Doesn't it have a name?' Arlen asked.
Ragen shook his head. 'My horses have to earn their names,' he said. 'The Guild trains them special, but plenty of horses still spook when chained outside in a portable circle at night. Only the ones I know won't bolt or panic get names. I bought this one in Angiers, after my garron ran off and got cored. If she makes it to Miln, I'll give her a name.'
'She'll make it,' Arlen said, stroking the courser's neck. When Keerin had the mollies inside, he took her bridle and led her into the cave.
As the others settled in, Arlen studied the cave mouth. Wards were chiselled into the stone, but not the floor of the entrance. 'The wards are incomplete,' he said, pointing.
'Course they are,' Ragen answered. 'Can't ward soil, can we?' He looked at Arlen curiously. 'What would you do to complete the circle?' he asked.
Arlen studied the puzzle. The mouth of the cave wasn't a perfect circle, more like an inverted 'u'. Harder to ward, but not too hard, and the wards carved on the rock were common enough. Taking a stick, he sketched wards in the soil, their lines connecting smoothly with those already in place. He checked them thrice, and then slid back, looking at Ragen for approval.
The Messenger was silent a moment as he studied Arlen's work, then nodded.
'Well done,' Ragen said, and Arlen beamed. 'You plotted the vertices masterfully. I couldn't have woven a tighter web myself, and you did all the equations in your head, no less.'
'Uh, thanks,' Arlen said, though he had no idea what Ragen was talking about.
Ragen caught the boy's pause. 'You did do the equations, didn't you?' he asked.
'What's an equation?' Arlen asked. 'That line,' he pointed to the nearest ward, 'goes to that ward there,' he pointed to the wall. 'It crosses these lines,' he pointed to other wards, 'which crisscross with those here,' he pointed to still others. 'It's as simple as that.'
Ragen was aghast. 'You mean you just eyeballed it?' he demanded.
Arlen shrugged as Ragen turned back to him. 'Most people use a straightstick to check the lines,' he admitted, 'but I never bother.'
'How Tibbet's Brook isn't swallowed by the night, I have no idea,' Ragen said. He pulled a sack from his saddlebag and knelt at the cave mouth, sweeping Arlen's wards away.
'Soil wards are still foolhardy, however well drawn,' he said.
Ragen selected a handful of lacquered wooden ward plates from the sack. Using a straightstick marked with lines, he spaced them out quickly, re-sealing the net.
It hadn't been dark for more than an hour when the giant one-armed rock demon bounded into the clearing. It gave a great howl, sweeping lesser demons aside as it stomped towards the cave mouth, roaring a challenge. Keerin groaned, retreating to the back of the cave.
'That one has your scent now,' Ragen warned. 'It will follow you forever, waiting for you to drop your guard.'
Arlen looked at the monster for a long moment, considering the Messenger's words. The demon snarled and struck hard at the barrier, but the wards flared and knocked it away. Keerin whimpered, but Arlen rose and walked up to the mouth of the cave. He met the coreling's eyes and slowly raised his hands, bringing them together suddenly in a loud clap, mocking the demon with his two limbs.
'Let it waste its time,' he said as the demon howled in impotent rage. 'It won't get me.'
They continued on the road for almost a week. Ragen turned them north, passing through the foothills of the mountain range, ascending ever higher. Now and again Ragen would stop to hunt, felling small game from great distance with his thin throwing spears.
Most nights they stayed in shelters noted in Graig's log, though twice they simply camped in the road. Like any animal, Ragen's mare was terrified by the stalking demons, but she did not try to pull free from her hobble.
'She deserves a name,' Arlen said, for the hundredth time, pointing at the steady horse.
'Fine, fine!' Ragen finally conceded, ruffling Arlen's hair. 'You can name her.'
Arlen smiled. 'Nighteye,' he said.
Ragen looked at the horse, and nodded. 'It's a good name,' he agreed.
The terrain grew steadily rockier as the tiny lumps on the horizon rose higher and higher. Ragen had not exaggerated when he said a hundred Boggin's Hills could fit in just one mountain, and the range stretched as far as Arlen could see. The air grew cooler as they climbed; strong gusts of wind whipping through the hills. Arlen looked back and saw the world spread out before him like a map. He imagined travelling through those lands with only a spear and a Messenger bag.
When they finally caught sight of Fort Miln, Arlen couldn't believe his eyes. Despite Ragen's tales, he had still assumed it would be like Tibbet's Brook, only larger. He nearly fell from the cart as the fortress city rose up before them, looming over the road.
Fort Miln was built into the base of a mountain, overlooking a broad valley. Another mountain, twin to the one Miln abutted, faced the city from across the valley. A circular wall some thirty feet high surrounded the city, though many of the buildings within thrust still even higher into the sky. The closer they got to the city, the more it spread out, the wall going for miles in each direction.
The walls were painted with the largest wards Arlen had ever seen. His eyes followed the invisible lines connecting one ward to another, forming a web that would make the wall impervious to corelings.
But despite the triumph of achievement, the walls disappointed Arlen. The 'free' cities weren't really free at all. Walls that kept the corelings out also kept the people in. At least in Tibbet's Brook, the prison walls were invisible.
'What keeps wind demons from flying over the wall?' Arlen asked.
'The top of the wall is set with wardposts that weave a canopy over the city,' Ragen said.
Arlen realized he should have figured that out without Ragen's help. He had more questions, but he kept them to himself, his sharp mind already working on probable solutions.
It was well past high sun when they finally reached the city. Ragen pointed out a column of smoke further up the mountain, miles above the city.
'The Duke's Mines,' he said. 'It's a village in itself, larger than your Tibbet's Brook. They're not self-sufficient, but that's how the duke likes it. Caravans come and go most every week. Food goes up, and salt, metal, and coal come down.'
A lower wall branched out from the main city, running in a broad swath around the valley. Arlen could make out wardposts and the top of neat green rows. 'The great gardens and the Duke's Orchard,' Ragen noted.
The gate was open wide as workers came and went, and the guards waved as they approached. They were tall, like Ragen, and wore dented metal helms and old boiled leather over thick woollens. Both carried spears, but they held them more like showpieces than weapons.
'Ay, Messenger!' one cried. 'Welcome back!'
'Gaims. Woron.' Ragen nodded at them.
'Duke expected you days ago,' Gaims said. 'We were worried when you didn't arrive.'
'Thought the demons got me?' Ragen laughed. 'Not a chance! There was a coreling attack in the hamlet I visited on the way back from Angiers. We stayed on a bit to help out.'
'Picked up a stray while you were there?' Woron asked with a grin. 'A little gift for your wife while she waits for you to make her a Mother?'
Ragen scowled, and the guard drew back. 'I meant no offense,' he said quickly.
'Then I suggest you avoid saying things that tend to offend, Servant,' Ragen replied tightly. Woron paled, and nodded quickly.
'I found him out on the road, actually,' Ragen said, ruffling Arlen's hair and grinning as if nothing tense had just passed.
Arlen liked that about Ragen. He was quick to laugh, and held no grudges, but he demanded respect, and let you know where you stood. Arlen wanted to be just like him one day.
'On the road?' Gaims asked in disbelief.
'Days from anywhere!' Ragen cried. 'The boy can ward better than some Messengers I know.' Arlen swelled with pride at the compliment.
'And you, Jongleur?' Woron asked Keerin. 'Like your first taste of the naked night?'
Keerin scowled, and the guards laughed. 'That good, eh?' Woron asked.
'Light's wasting,' Ragen said. 'Send word to Mother Jone that we'll come to the palace after I deliver the rice and stop home for a bath and a decent meal.' The men saluted and let them pass into the city.
Despite his initial disappointment, the grandeur of Miln soon overwhelmed Arlen. Buildings soared into the air, dwarfing anything he had ever seen before, and cobbles covered the streets, instead of hard-packed soil. Corelings couldn't rise through worked stone, but Arlen couldn't imagine the effort needed to cut and fit hundreds of thousands of stones.
In Tibbet's Brook, most every structure was wood, with foundations of piled stone and roofs of thatch with plates for wards. Here, most everything was cut stone, and reeked of age. Despite the warded outer walls, every building was warded individually, some in fantastic works of art, and others in simple functionality.
The air in the city was rank, thick with the stench of garbage, dung fires, and sweat. Arlen tried holding his breath, but soon gave up and settled for breathing through his mouth. Keerin, on the other hand, seemed to breathe comfortably for the first time.
Ragen led the way to a marketplace where Arlen saw more people than he had in his entire life. Hundreds of Rusco Hogs called to him from all sides, 'Buy this!' 'Try that!' 'A special price, just for you!' They were all tall; giants compared to the folk of the Brook.
They passed carts of fruits and vegetables the likes of which Arlen had never seen, and so many sellers of clothes that he thought it must be all the Milnese thought about. There were paintings and carvings, too, so intricate he wondered how anyone had time to make them.
Ragen brought them to a merchant on the far end of the market who bore the symbol of a shield on his tent. 'The duke's man,' Ragen advised as they pulled up to the cart.
'Ragen!' the merchant called. 'What do you have for me today?'
'Marsh Rice,' Ragen said. 'Taxes from the Brook to pay for the duke's salt.'
'Been to see Rusco Hog?' the merchant said more than asked. 'That crook still robbing the townies blind?'
'You know Hog?' Ragen asked.
The merchant laughed. 'I testified before the Mother's Council ten years ago to have his merchant license pulled, after he tried to pass on a shipment of grain thick with rats,' he said. 'He left town soon after, and resurfaced at the ends of the world. Heard the same thing happened in Angiers, which is why he was in Miln to begin with.'
'Good thing we checked the rice,' Ragen muttered.
They haggled for some time over the going rates for rice and salt. Finally, the merchant gave in, admitting that Ragen had gotten the better of Hog. He gave the Messenger a jingling pouch of coins to make up the difference.
'Can Arlen drive the cart from here?' Keerin asked. Ragen glanced at him and nodded. He tossed Keerin a purse of coins, which he caught deftly and hopped off the cart.
Ragen shook his head as Keerin disappeared into the crowd. 'Not the worst Jongleur,' he said, 'but he doesn't have the stones for the road.' He remounted, and led Arlen through the busy streets. Arlen felt suffocated by the press as they moved down a particularly crowded street.
He noticed some people dressed only in tattered rags despite the chill mountain air.
'What are they doing?' Arlen asked, watching them hold empty cups out at passers-by.
'Begging,' Ragen said. 'Not everyone in Miln can afford to buy food.'
'Can't we just give them some of ours?' Arlen asked.
Ragen sighed. 'It's not that simple, Arlen,' he said. 'The soil here isn't fertile enough to feed even half the people. We need grain from Fort Rizon, fish from Lakton, fruit amp; livestock from Angiers. The other cities don't just give all that away. It goes to those who work a trade and earn the money to pay for it, the Merchants. Merchants hire Servants to do for them, and feed, clothe and house them out of their own purse.'
He gestured at a man wrapped in rough, filthy cloth holding out a cracked wooden bowl to passers-by, who moved to avoid him, refusing eye contact. 'So unless you're a Royal or a Holy Man, if you don't work, you end up like that.'
Arlen nodded as if he understood, but he didn't really. People ran out of credits at the general store in Tibbet's Brook all the time, but even Hog didn't let them starve.
They came to a house, and Ragen signalled Arlen to stop the cart. It was not a large house compared to many Arlen had seen in Miln, but it was still impressive by Tibbet's Brook standards, made entirely of stone and standing two full stories.
'Is this where you live?' Arlen asked.
Ragen shook his head. He dismounted and went to the door, knocking sharply. A moment later, it was answered by a young woman with long brown hair woven into a tight braid. She was tall and sturdy, like everyone in Miln, and wore a high-necked dress that fell to her ankles and was tight across her bosom. Arlen couldn't tell if she was pretty. He was about to decide that she was not when she smiled, and her whole face changed.
'Ragen!' she cried, throwing her arms around him. 'You came! Thank the Creator!'
'Of course I came, Jenya,' Ragen said. 'We Messengers take care of our own.'
'I'm no Messenger,' Jenya said.
'You were married to one, and that's the same. Graig died a Messenger, the Guild's ruling be damned.'
Jenya looked sad, and Ragen changed the subject quickly, striding over to the cart and unloading the remaining stores. 'I've brought you good Marsh rice, salt, meat, and fish,' he said, carrying the items over and setting them just inside her doorway. Arlen scurried to help.
'And this,' Ragen added, pulling the sack of gold and silver he had gotten from Hog out of his belt. He threw in the little pouch from the duke's merchant, as well.
Jenya's eyes widened as she opened it. 'Oh, Ragen,' she said, 'it's too much. I can't…'
'You can and you will,' Ragen ordered, cutting her of. 'It's the least I can do.'
Jenya's eyes filled with tears. 'I have no way to thank you,' she said. 'I've been so scared. Penning for the Guild doesn't cover everything, and without Graig… I thought I might have to go back to begging.'
'There, there,' Ragen said, patting her shoulder. 'My brothers and I will never let that happen. I'll take you into my own household before I let you fall so far,' he promised.
'Oh, Ragen, you would do that?' she asked.
'There's one last thing,' Ragen said. 'A gift from Rusco Hog.' He held up the ring. 'He wants you to write him, and let him know you got it.'
Jenya's eyes began to water again, looking at the beautiful ring.
'Graig was well-loved,' Ragen said, slipping the ring onto her finger. 'Let this ring be a symbol of his memory. The food and money should last your family a good long while. Perhaps, in that time, you'll even find another husband and become a Mother. But if things ever grow so dark that you feel you must sell that ring, you come to me first, you understand?'
Jenya nodded, but her eyes were down, still dripping as she caressed the ring.
'Promise me,' Ragen ordered.
'I promise" Jenya said.
Ragen nodded, hugging her one last time. 'I'll look in on you when I can,' he said. She was still crying as they left. Arlen stared back at her as they went.
'You look confused,' Ragen said.
'I guess I am,' Arlen agreed.
'Jenya's family were Beggars,' Ragen explained. 'Her father is blind and her mother sickly. They had the fortune, though, to have a healthy, attractive daughter. She brought herself and her parents up two classes when she married Graig. He took the three of them into his home, and though he never had the choicest routes, he made enough for them to get by and be happy.'
He shook his head. 'Now, though,' She has rent to pay and three mouths to feed on her own. She can't stray far from home, either, because her parents can't do for themselves.'
'It's good of you to help her,' Arlen said, feeling a little better. 'She was pretty when she smiled.'
'You can't help everyone, Arlen,' Ragen said, 'but you should make every effort to help those you can.' Arlen nodded.
They wound their way up a hill until they reached a large manse. A gated wall six feet high surrounded the sprawling property, and the great house itself was three stories high and had dozens of windows, all reflecting light from their glass. It was bigger than the great hall on Boggin's Hill, and that could hold everyone in Tibbet's Brook for the solstice feast. The manse and the wall around it were painted with brightly coloured wards. Such a magnificent place, Arlen decided, must be the home of the duke.
'My mam had a cup of warded glass, hard as steel,' he said, looking up at the windows as a thin man came scurrying up from inside the grounds to open the gate. 'She kept it hidden, but sometimes she took it out when company came, to show how it glittered.' They rode past a garden untouched by coreling mischief, where several hands were digging vegetables.
'This is one of the only manses in Miln with all glass windows,' Ragen said proudly.
There were smaller buildings on the grounds as well, stone huts with smoking chimneys and people going to and fro, like a tiny village. Dirty children scampered about, and women kept watch over them while tending their chores. They rode to the stables, and a groom was there in a second to take Nighteye's reins. He bowed and scraped to Ragen like he was a king in a story.
'I thought we were going to stop by your house before visiting (he duke,' Arlen asked.
Ragen laughed. 'This is my house, Arlen! Do you think I risk the open road for nothing?'
Arlen looked back at the house, his eyes bulging. 'This is all yours?' he asked.
'All of it,' Ragen confirmed. 'Dukes are free with their coin to those who stare down corelings.'
'But Graig's house was so small,' Arlen protested.
'Graig was a good man,' Ragen said, 'but he was never more than a passable Messenger. He was content to make a run to Tibbet's Brook each year, and shuttle to the local hamlets in between. A man like that might support his family, but no more. The only reason there was so much profit for Jenya was that I paid for the extra goods I sold Hog out of my own purse. Graig used to have to borrow from the Guild, and they took a hard cut.'
A tall man opened the door to the house with a bow. He was stone faced, wearing a faded blue coat of dyed wool. His face and clothes were clean, a sharp contrast to those in the yard. As soon as they entered, a boy not much older than Arlen sprang to his feet. He too wore a blue coat, and ran to a bell rope at the base of a broad, marble stair. Chimes rang through the house.
'I see your luck has held one more time,' a woman called a moment later. She had dark hair and piercing blue eyes. She wore a deep blue gown, finer than anything Arlen had ever seen, and her wrists and throat sparkled with jewels. Her smile was cold as she regarded them from the marble balcony above the foyer. Arlen had never seen a woman so beautiful or graceful.
'My wife, Elissa,' Ragen advised quietly. 'A reason to return… and a reason to leave.' Arlen was unsure if he was joking. The woman did not seem pleased to see them.
'One of these times, the corelings will have you,' Elissa said as she descended the stairs, 'and I will finally be free to wed my young lover.'
'Never happen,' Ragen said with a smile, drawing her close for a kiss. Turning to Arlen, he explained, 'Elissa dreams of the day when she will inherit my fortune. I guard against the corelings as much to spite her as to protect myself.'
Elissa laughed, and Arlen relaxed. 'Who is this?' she asked. 'A stray to save you the work of filling my belly with a child of our own?'
'The only work is melting your frozen petticoats, my dear,' Ragen shot back. 'May I present Arlen, of Tibbet's Brook. I met him on the road.'
'On the road?' Elissa asked. 'He's just a child!'
'I'm not a child!' Arlen shouted, then immediately felt foolish. Ragen eyed him wryly, and he dropped his gaze.
Elissa gave no sign that she heard the outburst. 'Doff your armour and find the bath,' she ordered her husband, 'you smell like sweat and rust. I'll see to our guest.'
As Ragen left, Elissa called a servant to prepare Arlen a snack. Ragen seemed to have more servants than there were people in Tibbet's Brook. They cut him slices of cold ham and a thick crust of bread, with clotted cream and milk to wash it down. Elissa watched him eat, but Arlen couldn't think of anything to say, and kept his attention on his plate.
As he was finishing the cream, a serving woman in a dress of the same blue as the men's jackets entered and bowed to Elissa. 'Master Ragen awaits you upstairs,' she said.
'Thank you, Mother,' Elissa replied. Her face took on a strange cast for a moment, as she absently ran her fingers over her stomach. Then she smiled and looked at Arlen. 'Take our guest to the bath,' she ordered, 'and don't let him up for air until you can tell what colour his skin is.' She laughed and swept out of the room.
Arlen, used to standing in a trough and dumping cold water over himself, was out of sorts at the sight of Ragen's deep stone tub. He waited as the serving woman, Margrit, poured a kettle of boiling water in to take the chill from his soak. She was tall, like everyone in Miln, with kind eyes and honey-coloured hair showing just a hint of grey peeking from underneath her bonnet. She turned her back while Arlen undressed and got into the tub. She gasped as she saw the stitched wounds on his back, and quickly moved to inspect them.
'Ow!' Arlen shouted as she pinched the uppermost wound.
'Don't be such a baby,' she scolded, rubbing her thumb and forefinger together and sniffing at them. Arlen bit down as she repeated the process down his back. 'You're luckier than you know,' she said at last. 'When Ragen told me you were hurt, I thought it must be just a scratch, but this…' She tsked at him. 'Didn't your mother teach you not to be outside at night?'
Arlen's retort died on a sniffle. He bit his lip, determined not to cry. Margrit noticed, and immediately softened her tone. 'These are healing well,' she said of his wounds. She took a cake of soap and began to gently wash them. Arlen grit his teeth. 'When you're done in the bath, I'll prepare a poultice and fresh bandages for you.'
Arlen nodded. 'Are you Elissa's mother?' he asked.
The woman laughed. 'Creator, boy, whatever gave you that idea?'
'She called you 'mother',' Arlen said.
'Because I am,' Margrit said proudly. 'Two sons and three daughters, one of them soon to be a Mother herself.' She shook her head sadly. 'Poor Elissa, all her wealth, and still a Daughter, and her on the dark side of thirty! It breaks the heart.'
'Is being a mam so important?' Arlen asked.
The woman regarded him as if he had asked if air were important. 'What could be more important than motherhood?' she asked. 'It's every woman's duty to produce children to keep the city strong. That's why Mothers get the best rations and first pick of the morning market. It's why all the duke's councillors are Mothers. Men are good for breaking and building, but politics and papers are best left to women who've been to the Mother's School. Why, it's Mothers that vote to choose a new duke when the old one passes!'
'Then why isn't Elissa one?' Arlen asked.
'It's not for lack of trying,' Margrit admitted. 'I'll wager she's at it right now. Six weeks on the road will make any man a bull, and I brewed fertility tea and left it on her nightstand. Maybe it will help, though any fool knows the best time to make a baby is just before dawn.'
'Then why haven't they made one?' Arlen asked. He knew making babies had something to do with the games Renna and Beni had wanted to play, but he was still vague on the process.
'Only the Creator knows,' Margrit said. 'Elissa might be barren, or it might be Ragen, though that would be a shame. There's a shortage of good men like him. Miln needs his sons.'
She sighed. 'Elissa's lucky he hasn't left her, or gotten a child on one of the servant girls. Creator knows, they're willing.'
'He would leave his wife?' Arlen was aghast.
'Don't look so surprised, boy,' Margit said. 'Men need heirs, and they'll get them any way they can. Duke Euchor is on his third wife, and still not a son to show for it!'
She shook her head. 'Not Ragen, though. They fight like corelings sometimes, but he loves Elissa like the sun itself. He'd never leave. Nor Elissa, despite what she's given up.'
'Given up?' Arlen asked.
'She was a Noble, you know,' Margrit said. 'Her mother is on the duke's council. Elissa could have served the duke, too, if she'd married another Noble and got with child. But she married down to be with Ragen, against her mother's wishes. They haven't spoken since. Elissa's Merchant now, if well moneyed.
Denied the Mother's School, she'll never hold any position in the city, much less one in the duke's service.'
Arlen was quiet while Margrit rinsed out his wounds and collected his clothes off the tiles. She tsked as she inspected the rips and stains. 'I'll mend these as best I can while you soak,' she promised, and left him to his bath. While she was gone, Arlen tried to make sense of everything she had told him, but there was too much he didn't understand.
Margrit reminded Arlen a little of Catrin Hog, Rusco's daughter. 'She'd tell you every secret in the world, if it let her hear her own voice a moment longer,' Silvy used to say.
The woman returned later with fresh, if ill-fitting clothes. She bandaged his wounds and helped him dress, despite his protests. He had to roll up the tunic sleeves to find his hands, and cuff his breeches to keep him from tripping, but Arlen felt clean for the first time in weeks.
He shared an early supper with Ragen and Elissa. Ragen had trimmed his beard, tied back his hair, and donned a fine white shirt with a deep blue suede jacket and breeches.
A pig had been slaughtered on Ragen's arrival, and the table was soon laden with pork chops, ribs, rashers of bacon, and succulent sausage. Flagons of chilled ale and clear, cold water, were served. Elissa frowned when Ragen signalled a servant to pour Arlen an ale, but she said nothing. She sipped wine from a glass so delicate Arlen was afraid her slender fingers would break it. There was crusty bread, whiter than he had ever seen, and bowls of boiled turnips and potatoes, thick with butter.
As he looked out over the food, his mouth watering, Arlen couldn't help but remember people out in the city begging for something to eat. Still, his hunger soon overcame his guilt, and he sampled everything, filling his plate again and again.
'Creator, where are you putting it all?' Elissa asked, clapping her hands in amusement as she watched Arlen clean another plate. 'Is there a chasm in your belly?'
'Ignore her, Arlen,' Ragen advised. 'Women will fuss all day in the kitchen, yet fear to take more than a nibble, lest they seem indelicate. Men know better how to appreciate a meal.'
'He's right, you know,' Elissa said with a roll of her eyes. 'Women can hardly appreciate the subtleties of life as men do.' Ragen started and spilled his ale, and Arlen realized that she had kicked him under the table. Arlen decided he liked her.
After supper a page appeared, wearing a grey tabard with the duke's shield emblazoned on the front. He reminded Ragen of his appointment and the Messenger sighed, but assured the page they would be along directly.
'Arlen is hardly dressed to meet the duke,' Elissa fussed. 'One does not go before His Grace looking like a Beggar.'
'There's nothing for it, love,' Ragen replied. 'We have only a few hours before sunset. We can hardly have a tailor come in time.'
Elissa refused to accept that. She stared at the boy for a long moment, then snapped her fingers, striding out of the room. She returned soon after with a blue doublet and a pair of polished leather boots.
'One of our pages is near your age,' she told Arlen as she helped him into the jacket and boots. The sleeves of the doublet were short, and the boots pinched his feet, but Lady Elissa seemed satisfied. She ran a comb through his hair and stepped back.
'Good enough,' she said with a smile. 'Mind your manners before the duke, Arlen,' she counselled. Arlen, feeling awkward in the ill-fitting clothes, smiled and nodded.
The Duke's Keep was a warded fortress within the warded fortress of Miln. The outer wall was fitted stone, over twenty feet high, heavily warded and patrolled by armoured spearmen. They rode through the gate into a wide courtyard, which circled the short. They crowded around the entrance to listen as Ragen and Arlen entered.
Arlen felt dwarfed by the audience chamber of Duke Euchor of Miln. The domed ceiling of the room was stories high, and ensconced torches rested on the great columns surrounding Euchor's throne. Each column had wards carved into the marble.
'Greater petitioners,' Ragen said quietly, indicating the men and women moving about the room. 'They tend to cluster.' He nodded to a large group of men standing close to the door. 'Merchant princes,' he said. 'Spreading gold around for the right to stand around the palace, sniffing for news, or a Noble to marry off their daughters to.'
'There,' he nodded towards a cluster of old women standing ahead of the Merchants, 'the Council of Mothers, waiting to give Euchor his day's reports.'
Closer to the throne was a group of sandaled men in plain brown robes, standing with quiet dignity. A few spoke in murmurs, as others took down their every word. 'Every court needs its Holy Men,' Ragen explained.
He pointed at last to a swarm of richly dressed people buzzing about the duke, attended by an army of servants laden with trays of food and drink. 'Nobles,' Ragen said. 'The duke's nephews and cousins and second cousins thrice removed, all clamouring for his ear and dreaming of what will happen if Euchor vacates his throne without an heir. The duke hates them.'
'Why doesn't he send them away?' Arlen asked.
'Because they're Nobles,' Ragen said, as if that explained everything.
They were halfway to the duke's throne when a tall woman moved to intercept them. Her hair was kept at bay in a cloth wrap, and her face was pinched and lined with wrinkles so deep it looked as if wards were carved into her cheeks. She moved with arched dignity, but a little wattle of flesh beneath her chin shook of its own accord. She had Selia's air about her; a woman accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed without question. She looked down at Arlen and sniffed as if she had smelled a dung heap. Her gaze snapped up at Ragen.
'Euchor's Chamberlain, Jone,' Ragen muttered while they were still out of earshot. 'Mother, Noble, and a seventh breed of coreling. Don't stop walking unless I do, or she'll have you waiting in the stables while I see the duke.'
'Your page will have to wait in the hall, Messenger,' Jone said, stepping in front of them.
'He's not my page,' Ragen said, continuing forward. Arlen kept pace, and the chamberlain was forced to sacrifice her dignity to scurry out of the way.
'His Grace doesn't have time for every stray off the street, Ragen!' she hissed, hurrying to keep pace with the Messenger. 'Who is he?'
Ragen stopped, and Arlen stopped with him. He turned and glared at the woman, leaning in. Mother Jone might have been tall, but Ragen was taller, and he outweighed her thrice over. The sheer menace of his presence shrank her back involuntarily.
'He is who I have chosen to bring,' he said through his teeth. He thrust a satchel filled with letters at her, and Jone took it reflexively. As she did, the Merchants and Mother's Council swarmed her, along with the Tenders' acolytes.
The Nobles noted the movement, and made comments or gestures to those next to them. Suddenly, half their entourage broke away, and Arlen realized those were just well dressed servants. The Nobles acted as if nothing of note was happening, but their servants shoved as hard as any to get close to that satchel.
Jone passed the letters on to a servant of her own and hurried towards the throne to announce Ragen, though she needn't have bothered. Ragen's entrance had caused enough of a stir that the man could not have failed to note him. Euchor was watching as they approached.
The duke was a heavyset man in his late fifties, with salt and pepper hair and a thick beard. He wore a green tunic, freshly stained with grease from his fingers, but richly embroidered with gold thread, and a fur-lined cloak. His fingers glittered with rings, and about his brow he wore a circlet of gold.
'At last, you deign to grace us with your presence,' the duke called out, though it seemed he was speaking more to the rest of the room than to Ragen. Indeed, the observation had the Nobles nodding and murmuring amongst themselves, and caused several heads to pop up from the cluster around the mail. 'Was my business not pressing enough?' he asked.
Ragen advanced to the dais, meeting the duke's gaze with a stony one of his own. 'Forty-five days from here to Angiers and back by way of Tibbet's Brook!' he said loudly. 'Thirty and seven nights slept outside, while corelings slashed at my wards!' He never took his eyes from the duke, but Arlen knew he too was speaking to the room. Most of those assembled blanched and shuddered at his words.
'Six weeks gone from my home, Your Grace,' Ragen said, lowering his voice by half, but still carrying it to all ears. 'Do you begrudge me a bath and a meal with my wife?'
The duke hesitated, his eyes flicking about the court. Finally, he gave a great booming laugh. 'Of course not!' he called. 'An offended duke can make a man's life difficult, but not half so much as an offended wife!'
The tension shattered as the court broke into laughter. 'I would speak to my Messenger alone!' the duke commanded, once the laughter faded. There were grumbles from those eager for news, but Jone signalled her servant to leave with the letters, and that took most of the court with her. The Nobles lingered a moment, until Jone cracked her hands together. The retort made them jump, and they filed out as quickly as dignity would allow.
'Stay,' Ragen murmured to Arlen, stopping a respectful distance from the throne. Jone signalled the guards, who pulled the heavy doors closed, remaining inside. Unlike the men at the gate, these looked alert and professional. Jone moved to stand beside her lord.
'Don't ever do that before my court again!' Euchor growled when the rest were gone.
The Messenger gave a slight bow to acknowledge the command, but it looked insincere, even to Arlen. The boy was in awe. Ragen was utterly fearless.
'There is news from the Brook, Your Grace,' Ragen began.
'The Brook?!' Euchor burst. 'What do I care about the Brook? What word from Rhinebeck?'
'They've had a rough winter without the salt,' Ragen went on as if the duke had not spoken. 'And there was an attack…'
'Night, Ragen!' Euchor barked. 'Rhinebeck's answer could affect all Miln for years to come, so spare me birth lists and harvest counts of some miserable little backwater!'
Arlen gasped and drew protectively behind Ragen, who gripped his arm reassuringly.
Euchor pressed the attack. 'Did they discover gold in Tibbet's Brook?' he demanded.
'No, my lord,' Ragen replied, 'but…'
'Did Sunny Pasture open a coal mine?' Euchor cut him off.
'No, my lord.'
'Did they rediscover the lost combat wards?'
Ragen shook his head, 'Of course not…'
'Did you even haul back enough rice to bring me profit to cover the cost of your services to go there and back?' Euchor asked.
'No,' Ragen scowled.
'Good,' Euchor said, rubbing his hands as if to remove the dust from them. 'Then we need not concern ourselves with Tibbet's Brook for another year and a half.'
'A year and a half is too long,' Ragen dared to persist. 'The folk need-'
'Go for free, then,' the duke cut him off, 'so I can afford it.'
When Ragen didn't immediately answer, Euchor smiled widely, knowing he had won the exchange. 'What word from Angiers?' he demanded.
'I have a letter from Duke Rhinebeck,' Ragen sighed, reaching into his coat. He drew forth a slim tube, sealed with wax, but the duke waved at him impatiently.
'Just tell me, Ragen! Yes or no?'
Ragen's eyes narrowed. 'No, my lord,' he said. 'His answer is no. The last two shipments were lost, along with all but a handful of the men. Duke Rhinebeck cannot afford to send another. His men can only log so fast, and he needs the timber more than he needs salt.'
The duke's face reddened, and Arlen thought it might burst. 'Damn it, Ragen!' he shouted, slamming down his fist. 'I need that wood!'
'His Grace has decided that he needs it more for the rebuilding of Riverbridge,' Ragen said calmly, '…on the South side of the Dividing River.'
Duke Euchor hissed, and his eyes took on a murderous gleam.
'This is the work of Rhinebeck's First Minister,' Jone advised. ' Janson's been trying to get Rhinebeck a cut of the bridge tolls for years.'
'And why settle for a cut when you can have all?' Euchor agreed. 'And what did you say I would do when you gave me this news?' he asked Ragen.
Ragen shrugged. 'It's not the place of a Messenger to conjecture. What would you have had me say?'
'That people in wooden fortresses shouldn't set fires in other men's yards,' Euchor growled. 'I don't need to remind you, Ragen, how important that wood is to Miln,' Euchor said. 'Our supply of coal dwindles, and without fuel, all the ore in the mines is useless, and half the city will freeze! I'll torch his new Riverbridge myself before it comes to that!'
Ragen bowed in acknowledgement of the fact. 'Duke Rhinebeck knows this,' he said. 'He empowered me to make a counter-offer.'
'And that is?' Euchor asked, raising an eyebrow.
'Materials to rebuild Riverbridge, and half the tolls,' Jone guessed before Ragen could open his mouth. She squinted at the Messenger, 'And Riverbridge stays on the Angierian side of the Dividing.'
'Night!' Euchor swore. 'Creator, Ragen, whose side are you on?'
'I am a Messenger,' Ragen replied proudly. 'I take no sides, I simply report what I have been told.'
Duke Euchor surged to his feet. 'Then tell me what in the dark of night I pay you for!' he demanded.
Ragen tilted his head. 'Would you prefer to go in person, Your Grace?' he asked mildly.
The duke paled at that, and did not reply. Arlen could feel the power of Ragen's simple comment. If possible, his desire to become a Messenger strengthened further.
The duke finally nodded in resignation. 'I will think on this,' he said at last. 'The hour grows late. You are dismissed.'
'There is one more thing, my lord,' Ragen added, beckoning Arlen to come forward, but Jone signalled the guards to opened the doors, and the greater petitioners swarmed back into the room. The duke's attention was already turned away from the Messenger.
Ragen intercepted Jone as she left Euchor's side. 'Mother,' he said, 'about the boy…'
'I'm very busy, Messenger,' Jone sniffed. 'Perhaps you should 'choose' to bring him some time when I am less so.' She swept away from them with her head thrown back.
One of the Merchants approached them. He was a bear-like man with only one eye, his other socket a gnarl of scarred flesh.
On his breast was a symbol, a man on horseback with spear and satchel. 'It's good to see you safe, Ragen,' the man said. 'You'll be by the Guild in the morning to give your report?'
'Guildmaster Malcum,' Ragen said, bowing. 'I'm glad to see you. I encountered this boy, Arlen, on the road…'
'Between cities?' the guildmaster asked in surprise. 'You should know better, boy!'
'Several days between cities,' Ragen clarified. 'The boy wards better than many Messengers.' Malcum arched his one eyebrow at that.
'He wants to be a Messenger,' Ragen pressed.
'You could not ask for a more honourable career,' Malcum told Arlen.
'He has no one in Miln,' Ragen said, 'I thought he might apprentice with the Guild…'
'Now Ragen,' Malcum said, 'you know as well as any that we only apprentice registered Warders. Try Guildmaster Vincin.'
'The boy can already ward,' Ragen argued, though his tone was more respectful than it had been with Duke Euchor. Guildmaster Malcum was even larger than Ragen, and didn't look like he could be intimidated by talk of nights outside.
'Then he shouldn't have any trouble getting the Warder's Guild to register him,' Malcum said, turning away. 'I'll see you in the morning,' he called over his shoulder.
Ragen looked around, spotting another man in the cluster of Merchants. 'Lift your feet, Arlen,' he growled, striding across the room. 'Guildmaster Vincin!' he called as he walked.
The man looked up at their approach, and moved away from his fellows to greet them. He bowed to Ragen, but it was a bow of respect, not deference. Vincin had an oily black goatee, and hair slicked straight back. Rings glittered on his chubby fingers. The symbol on his breast was a keyward, a ward that served as foundation to all the other wards in a web.
'What can I do for you, Ragen?' the guildmaster asked.
'This boy, Arlen, is from Tibbet's Brook,' Ragen said, gesturing to Arlen. 'An orphan from a coreling attack, he has no family in Miln, but he wishes to apprentice as a Messenger.'
'That's all well, Ragen, but what's it to do with me?' Vincin asked, never more than glancing Arlen's way.
'Malcum won't take him unless he's registered to ward,' Ragen said.
'Well, that is a problem,' Vincin agreed.
'The boy can already ward,' Ragen said. 'If you could see your way to…'
Vincin was already shaking his head. 'I'm sorry, Ragen, but you're not about to convince me that some backwater bumpkin can ward well enough for me to register him.'
'The boy's wards cut the arm off a rock demon,' Ragen said.
Vincin laughed. 'Unless you have the arm with you, Ragen, you can save that tale for the Jongleurs.'
'Could you find him an apprenticeship, then?' the Messenger asked.
'Can he pay the apprenticeship fee?' Vincin asked.
'He's an orphan off the road,' Ragen protested.
'Perhaps I can find a Warder to take him on as a Servant,' the Guildmaster offered.
Ragen scowled. 'Thanks all the same,' he said, ushering Arlen away.
They hurried back to Ragen's manse, the sun fast setting. Arlen watched as the busy streets of Miln emptied, people carefully checking wards and barring their doors. Even with cobbled streets and thick, warded walls, everyone still locked themselves up at night.
'I can't believe you talked to the duke like that,' Arlen said as they went.
Ragen chuckled. 'First rule of being a Messenger, Arlen,' he
said. 'Merchants and Royals may pay your fee, but they'll walk all over you, if you let them. You need to act like a king in their presence, and never forget who it is risking their life.'
'It worked with Euchor,' Arlen agreed.
Ragen scowled at the name. 'Selfish pig,' he spat. 'He doesn't care about anything but his own pockets.'
'It's okay,' Arlen said. 'The Brook survived without salt last fall. They can do it again.'
'Perhaps,' Ragen conceded, 'but they shouldn't have to. And you! A good duke would have asked why I brought a boy with me into his chamber. A good duke would have made you a ward of the throne, so you didn't wind up begging on the street.
'And Malcum was no better! Would it have cored him to test your skill? And Vincin! If you'd had the ripping fee, that greedy bastard would have had a master to apprentice you by sunset! Servant, he says!'
'Isn't an apprentice a Servant?' Arlen asked.
'Not in the slightest,' Ragen said. 'Apprentices are Merchant class. They master a trade and then go into business for themselves, or with another master. Servants will never be anything but, unless they marry up, and I'll be damned before I let them turn you into one.'
He lapsed into silence, and Arlen, though he was still confused, thought it best not to press him further.
It was full dark not long after they crossed Ragen's wards, and Margrit showed Arlen to a guest room that was half the size of Jeph's entire house. At the centre was a bed so high that Arlen had to hop to get in, and having never slept on anything but the ground or a hard straw pallet, he was shocked when he sank into the soft mattress.
He drifted off to slumber quickly, but awoke soon after at the sound of raised voices. He slipped from the bed and left his room, following the sound. The halls of the great manse were empty, the servants having retired for the night. Arlen went to the top of the stairs, the voices becoming clearer. It was Ragen and Elissa.
'…taking him in, and that's final,' he heard Elissa say. 'Messaging's no job for a boy anyway!'
'It's what he wants,' Ragen insisted.
Elissa snorted. 'Pawning Arlen off on someone else won't alleviate your guilt over bringing him to Miln when you should have taken him home.'
'Demon dung,' Ragen snapped. 'You just want someone to mother day and night.'
'Don't you dare make this about me!' Elissa hissed. 'When you decided not to take Arlen back to Tibbet's Brook, YOU took responsibility for him! It's time to own up to that and stop looking for someone else to care for him.'
Arlen strained to hear, but there was no response from Ragen for some time. He wanted to go down and barge into the conversation. He knew Elissa meant well, but he was growing tired of adults planning out his life for him.
'Fine,' Ragen said at last. 'What if I send him to Cob? He won't encourage the boy to be a Messenger. I'll put up the full fee, and we can visit the shop regularly to keep an eye on him.'
'I think that's a great idea,' Elissa agreed, the peevishness gone from her voice. 'But there's no reason Arlen can't stay here, instead of on a hard bench in some cluttered workshop.'
'Apprenticeships aren't meant to be comfortable,' Ragen said. 'He'll need to be there from dawn till dusk if he's to master wardcraflt, and if he follows through with his plans to Messenger, he'll need all the training he can get.'
'Fine,' Elissa huffed, but her voice softened a moment later. 'Now come put a baby in my belly,' she husked.
Arlen hurried back to his room.
As always, Arlen's eyes opened before dawn, but for a moment, he thought he was still asleep, drifting on a cloud. Then he remembered where he was and stretched out, feeling the delicious softness of the feathers stuffed into the mattress and pillow, and the warmth of the thick quilt. The fire in the room's hearth had burned down to embers.
The temptation to stay abed was strong, but his bladder helped force him from the soft embrace. He slipped to the cold floor and fetched the pots from under the bed, as Margrit had instructed him. He made his water in one, and waste in the other, leaving them by the door to be collected for use in the gardens. The soil in Miln was stony, and its people wasted nothing.
Arlen went to the window. He had stared at it until his eyes drooped the night before, but the glass still fascinated him. It looked like nothing at all, but was hard and unyielding to the touch, like a wardnet. He traced a finger along the glass, making a line in the morning condensation. Remembering the wards from Ragen's portable circle, he turned the line into one of the symbols. He traced several more, breathing on the glass to clear his work and start anew.
When he finished, he pulled on his clothes and went downstairs, finding Ragen sipping tea by a window, watching the sun rise over the mountains.
'You're up early,' Ragen noted with a smile. 'You'll be a Messenger yet,' he said, and Arlen swelled with pride.
'Today I'm going to introduce you to a friend of mine,' Ragen said. 'A Warder. He taught me when I was your age, and he's in need of an apprentice.'
'Couldn't I just apprentice to you?' Arlen asked hopefully. 'I'll work hard.'
Ragen chuckled. 'I don't doubt it,' he said, 'but I'm a poor teacher, and spend more time out of town than in. You can learn a lot from Cob. He was a Messenger before I was even born.'
Arlen brightened at this. 'When can I meet him?' he asked.
'The sun's up,' Ragen replied. 'Nothing stopping us from going right after breakfast.'
Soon after, Elissa joined them in the dining room. Ragen's servants set a grand table, with bacon and ham and bread smeared with honey, eggs and potatoes and big baked apples. Arlen wolfed the meal down, eager to be out in the city. When he finished, he sat staring at Ragen as he ate. Ragen ignored him, eating with maddening slowness as Arlen fidgeted.
Finally, the Messenger put down his fork and wiped his mouth. 'Oh, very well,' he said, rising. 'We can go.' Arlen beamed and jumped from his seat.
'Not so fast,' Elissa called, stopping both men short. Arlen was unprepared for the chord the words struck in him, an echo of his mother, and bit back a rush of emotion.
'You're not going anywhere until the tailor comes for Arlen's measurements,' she said.
'What for?' Arlen asked. 'Margrit cleaned my clothes and sewed up all the rips.'
'I appreciate the sentiment, love,' Ragen said in Arlen's defence, 'but there's hardly a rush for new clothes now that the interview with the duke is past.'
'This isn't open to debate,' Elissa informed them, drawing herself up. 'I won't have a guest in our house walking around looking like a pauper.'
The Messenger looked at the set of his wife's brow, and sighed. 'Let it go, Arlen,' he advised quietly. 'We're not going anywhere until she's satisfied.'
The tailor arrived soon after, a small man with nimble fingers who inspected every inch of Arlen with his knotted strings, carefully marking the information with chalk on a slate. When he was finished, he had a rather animated conversation with Lady Elissa, bowed, and left.
Elissa glided over to Arlen, bending to face him. 'That wasn't so bad, was it?' she asked, straightening his shirt and brushing the hair from his face. 'Now you can run along with Ragen to meet Master Cob.' She caressed his cheek, her hand cool and soft, and for a moment he leaned into the familiar touch, but then pulled back sharply, his eyes wide.
Ragen caught the look, and noted the wounded expression on his wife's face as Arlen backed slowly away from her as if she were a demon.
'I think you hurt Elissa's feelings back there, Arlen,' Ragen said as they left his grounds.
'She's not my mam,' Arlen said, suppressing his guilt.
'Do you miss her?' Ragen asked. 'Your mother, I mean.'
'Yes,' Arlen answered quietly.
Ragen nodded, and said no more, for which Arlen was thankful. They walked on in silence, and the strangeness of Miln quickly took his mind off the incident. The smell of the dung carts was everywhere, as collectors went from building to building, gathering the night's waste.
'Gah!' Arlen said, holding his nose. 'The whole city smells worse than a barn stall! How do you stand it?'
'It's mostly just in the morning, as the collectors go by,' Ragen replied. 'You get used to it. We had sewers once, tunnels that ran under every home, carrying the waste away, but they were sealed centuries ago, when the corelings used them to get into the city.'
'Couldn't you just dig privy pits?' Arlen asked.
'Milnese soil is stony,' Ragen said. 'Those who don't have private gardens to fertilize are required to put their waste out for collection to use in the Duke's Gardens. It's the law.'
'It's a smelly law,' Arlen said.
Ragen laughed. 'Maybe,' he replied. 'But it keeps us fed, and drives the economy. The Collection Guildmaster's manse makes mine look like a hovel.'
'I'm sure yours smells better,' Arlen said, and Ragen laughed again.
At last they turned a corner and came to a small but sturdy shop, with wards delicately etched around the windows and into the lintel and jamb of the door. Arlen could appreciate the detail of those wards. Whoever made them had a skilled hand.
They entered to a chime of bells, and Arlen's eyes widened at the contents of the shop. Wards of every shape and size, made in every medium, filled the room.
'Wait here,' Ragen said, moving across the room to speak with a man sitting on a workbench. Arlen barely noticed him go, wandering around the room. He ran his fingers reverently over wards woven into tapestry, etched into smooth river stones, and moulded from metal. There were carved posts for farmers' fields, and a portable circle like Ragen's. He tried to memorize the wards he saw, but there were just too many.
'Arlen, come here!' Ragen called after a few minutes. Arlen started, and rushed over.
'This is Master Cob,' Ragen introduced, gesturing to man who was perhaps sixty. Short for a Milnese, he had the look of a strong man gone to fat. A thick grey beard, shot through with signs of its former black, covered his face, and his close-cropped hair was thin on top of his head. His skin was lined and leathern, and his grip swallowed Arlen's hand.
'Ragen tells me you want to be a Warder,' Cob said, sitting back heavily on the bench.
'No, sir,' Arlen replied. 'I want to be a Messenger.'
'So does every boy your age,' Cob said. 'The smart ones wise up before they get themselves killed.'
'Weren't you a Messenger once?' Arlen asked, confused at the man's attitude.
'I was,' Cob agreed, lifting his sleeve to show a tattoo similar to Ragen's. 'I travelled to the five Free Cities and a dozen hamlets, and earned more money than I thought I could ever spend.' He paused, letting Arlen's confusion grow. 'I also earned this,' he said, lifting his shirt to show thick scars running across his stomach, 'and this,' he slipped a foot from his shoe. A crescent of scarred flesh, long healed, showed where four of his toes had been.
'To this day,' Cob said, 'I can't sleep more than an hour without starting awake, reaching for my spear. Yes, I was a Messenger. A damned good one and luckier than most, but I still would not wish it on anyone. Messaging may seem glorious, but for every man who lives in a manse and commands respect like Ragen here, there are two dozen rotting on the road.'
'I don't care,' Arlen said. 'It's what I want.'
'Then I'll make a deal with you,' Cob sighed. 'A Messenger must be, above all, a Warder, so I'll apprentice you and teach you to be one. When we have time, I'll teach you what I know of surviving the road. An apprenticeship lasts seven years. If you still wish to be a Messenger then… well, you're your own man.'
'Seven years?!' Arlen gawked.
Cob snorted. 'You don't pick up warding in a day, boy.'
'I can ward now,' Arlen said defiantly.
'So Ragen tells me,' Cob said. 'He also tells me you do it with no knowledge of geometry or wardtheory. Eyeballing your wards may not get you killed tomorrow, boy, or next week, but it will get you killed.'
Arlen stomped a foot. Seven years seemed like an eternity, but deep down he knew the master was right. The pain in his back was a constant reminder that he wasn't ready to face the corelings again. He needed the skills this man could teach him. He didn't doubt that there were dozens of Messengers who fell to the demons, and he vowed not to become one of them because he was too stubborn to learn from his mistakes.
'All right,' he agreed finally. 'Seven years.'
320 to 325
After the Return
'There's our friend again,' said Gaims, gesturing into the darkness from their post on the wall.
'Right on time,' Woron agreed, coming up next to him. 'What do you s'pose he wants?'
'Empty my pockets,' Gaims said, 'you'll find no answers.'
The two guards leaned against the warded rail of the watchtower and watched as the one-armed rock demon materialized before the gate. It was big, even to the eyes of Milnese guards who saw more of rock demons than any other type.
While the other demons were still getting their bearings, the one-armed demon moved with purpose, snuffling about the gate, searching. Then it straightened and struck the wood, testing the wards. Magic flared and threw the demon back, but it was undeterred. Slowly, the demon moved along the wall, striking again and again, searching for a weakness until it was out of sight.
Hours later, a crackle of energy signalled the demon's return from the opposite direction. The guards at other posts said that the demon circled the city each night, attacking every ward. When it reached the gate once more, it settled back on its haunches, staring patiently at the city.
Gaims and Woron were used to this scene, having witnessed it every night for the past year. They had even begun to look forward to it, passing the time on their watch by betting on how long 'One Arm' took to circle the city, or whether he would head east or west to do so.
'I'm half-tempted to let 'im in, just t'see what he's after,' Woron mused.
'Don't even joke about that,' Gaims warned. 'If the watch commander hears talk like that, he'll have both of us in irons, quarrying stone for the next year.'
His partner grunted. 'Still,' he said, 'you have to wonder…'
That first year in Miln, his twelfth, passed quickly for Arlen as he grew into his role as an apprentice Warder. Cob's first task had been to teach him to read. Arlen knew wards never before seen in Miln, and Cob wanted them committed to paper as soon as possible.
Arlen took to reading voraciously, wondering how he had ever gotten along without it. He disappeared into books for hours at a time, his lips moving slightly at first, but soon he was turning pages rapidly, his eyes darting across the page.
Cob had no cause to complain; Arlen worked harder than any apprentice he had ever known, staying up late in the night etching wards. Cob would often go to his bed thinking of the full day's work to come, only to find it completed when the sun's first light flooded the shop.
After learning his letters, Arlen was put to work cataloguing his personal repertoire of wards, complete with descriptions, into a book the master purchased for him. Paper was expensive in the sparsely wooded lands of Miln, and a whole book was something few commoners ever saw, but Cob scoffed at the price.
'Even the worst grimoire's worth a hundred times the paper it's written on,' he said.
'Grimoire?' Arlen asked.
'A book of wards,' Cob said. 'Every Warder has theirs, and they guard their secrets carefully.' Arlen treasured the valuable gift, filling its pages with a slow and steady hand.
When Arlen had finished plumbing his memory, Cob studied the book in shock. 'Creator, boy, do you have any idea what this book is worth?' he demanded.
Arlen looked up from the ward he was chiselling into a stone post, and shrugged. 'Any greybeard in Tibbet's Brook could teach you those wards,' he said.
'That may be,' Cob replied, 'but what's common in Tibbet's Brook is buried treasure in Miln. This ward here,' he pointed to a page. 'Can it truly turn firespit into a cool breeze?'
Arlen laughed. 'My mam used to love that one,' he said. 'She wished the flame demons could come right up to the windows on hot summer nights to cool the house with their breath.'
'Amazing,' Cob said, shaking his head. 'I want you to copy this a few more times, Arlen. It's going to make you a very rich man.'
'How do you mean?' Arlen asked.
'People would pay a fortune for a copy of this, Arlen,' Cob said. 'Maybe we shouldn't even sell at all. We could be the most sought-after Warders in the city if we kept them secret.'
Arlen frowned. 'It's not right to keep them secret,' he said. ' My da always said wards are for everyone.'
'Every Warder has his secrets, Arlen,' Cob said. 'This is how we make our living.'
'We make our living etching wardposts and painting doorjambs,' Arlen disagreed, 'not hoarding secrets that can save lives. Should we deny succour to those too poor to pay?'
'Of course not, Arlen,' Cob said, 'but this is different.'
'How?' Arlen asked. 'We didn't have Warders in Tibbet's Brook. We all warded our own homes, and those who were better at it helped those who were worse without asking anything in return. Why should we? It's not us against each other, it's us against the demons!'
'Fort Miln isn't like Tibbet's Brook, boy,' Cob scowled. 'Here, things cost money. If you don't have any money, you become a Beggar. I have a skill, like any baker or stonemason. Why shouldn't I charge for it?'
Arlen sat quietly for a time. 'Cob, why aren't you rich?' he asked at last.
'Like Ragen,' Arlen clarified. 'You said you used to be a Messenger for the duke. Why don't you live in a manse and have servants do everything for you? Why do you do this at all?'
Cob blew out a long breath. 'Money is a fickle thing, Arlen,' he said. 'One moment you can have more than you know what to do with, and the next… you can find yourself begging food on the street.'
Arlen thought of the beggars he saw on his first day in Miln. He had seen many more since, stealing dung to burn for warmth, sleeping in public warded shelters, begging for food.
'What happened to your money, Cob?' he asked.
'I met a man who said he could build a road,' Cob said. 'A warded road, stretching from here to Angiers.' Arlen moved closer and sat on a stool, his attention rapt.
'They've tried to build roads before,' Cob went on, 'to the Duke's Mines in the mountains, or to Harden's Grove to the South. Short distances, less than a full day, but enough to make a fortune for the builder. They always failed. If there's a hole in a net, no matter how small, corelings will find it eventually. And once they're in…' he shook his head.
'I told the man this, but he was adamant. He had a plan. It would work. All he needed was money.'
Cob looked at Arlen. 'Every city is short of something,' he said, 'and has too much of something else. Miln has metal and stone, but no wood. Angiers, the reverse. Both are short of crops and livestock, while Rizon has more than they need, but no good lumber or metal for tools. Lakton has fish in abundance, but little else.
'I know you must think me a fool,' he said, shaking his head, 'for considering something everyone from the duke on down had dismissed as impossible, but the idea stuck with me. I kept thinking, What if he could? Isn 't that worth any risk?'
'I don't think you're a fool,' Arlen said.
'Which is why I keep most of your pay in trust,' Cob chuckled. 'You'd give it away, same as I did.'
'What happened to the road?' Arlen pressed.
'Corelings happened,' Cob said. 'They slaughtered the man and all the workers I hired him, burned the wardposts and plans… they destroyed it all. I had invested everything in that road, Arlen. Even letting my servants go wasn't enough to pay my debts. I made barely enough money selling my manse and clear a loan to buy this shop, and I've been here ever since.'
They sat for a time, both of them lost in images of what that night must have been like, both of them seeing in their mind's eye the corelings dancing amidst the flames and carnage.
'Do you still think the dream was worth the risk?' Arlen asked. 'All the cities sharing?'
'To this day,' Cob replied. 'Even when my back aches from carting wardposts and I can't stand my own cooking.'
'This is no different,' Arlen said, tapping the book of wards. 'If all the Warders shared what they knew, how much better for everyone? Isn't a safer city worth losing a little profit?'
Cob stared at him a long time. Then he came over and put a hand on his shoulder. 'You're right, Arlen. I'm sorry. We'll copy the books and sell them to the other Warders.'
Arlen continued to meet his eyes, slowly beginning to smile.
'What?' Cob asked suspiciously.
'Why not trade our secrets for theirs?' Arlen asked.
The chimes rang, and Elissa entered the warding shop with a wide smile. She nodded to Cob as she carried a large basket to Arlen, kissing him on the cheek. Arlen grimaced in embarrassment and wiped his cheek, but she took no notice of it.
'I brought you boys some fruit, and fresh bread and cheese,' she said, removing the items from the basket. 'I expect you've been eating no better than you were upon my last visit.'
'Dried meat and hard bread are a Messenger's staples, my Lady,' Cob said with a smile, not looking up from the keystone he was chiselling.
'Rubbish,' Elissa scolded. 'You're retired, Cob, and Arlen isn't a Messenger yet. Don't try to glorify your lazy refusal to go to the market. Arlen is a growing boy, and needs better fare.' She ruffled Arlen's hair as she spoke, smiling even as he pulled away.
'Come to dinner tonight, Arlen,' Elissa said. 'Ragen is away, and the manse is lonely without him. I'll feed you something to put meat on your bones, and you can stay in your room.'
'I… don't think I can,' Arlen said, avoiding her eyes. 'Cob needs me to finish these wardposts for the Duke's Gardens…'
'Nonsense,' Cob said, waving his hand. 'The wardposts can wait, Arlen. They're not due for another week.' He looked up at Lady Elissa with a grin, ignoring Arlen's discomfort. 'I'll send him over at the Evening Bell, Lady.'
Elissa flashed him a smile. 'It's settled, then,' she said. 'I'll see you tonight, Arlen.' She kissed the boy and swept out of the shop.
Cob glanced at Arlen, who was frowning into his work. 'I don't see why you choose to spend your nights sleeping on a pallet in the back of the shop when you could have a warm featherbed and a woman like Elissa to dote on you,' he said, keeping his eyes on his own work.
'She acts like she's my mam,' Arlen complained, 'but she's not.'
'That's true, she's not,' Cob agreed. 'But it's clear she wants the job. Would it be so bad to let her have it?'
Arlen said nothing, and Cob, seeing the sad look in the boy's eyes, let the matter drop.
'You're spending too much time inside with your nose buried in books,' Cob said, snatching away the volume Arlen was reading. 'When was the last time you felt the sun on your skin?'
Arlen's eyes widened. In Tibbet's Brook, he had never spent a moment indoors when he had a choice, but after more than a year in Miln, he could hardly remember his last day outside.
'Go find some mischief!' Cob ordered. 'Won't kill you to make a friend your own age!'
Arlen walked out of the city for the first time in a year, and the sun comforted him like an old friend. Away from the dung carts, rotting garbage, and sweaty crowds, the air held a freshness he had forgotten. He found a hilltop overlooking a field filled with playing children and pulled a book from his bag, plopping down to read.
'Hey, bookmole!' someone called.
Arlen looked up to see a group of boys approaching, holding a ball. 'C'mon!' one of them cried. 'We need one more to make the sides even!'
'I don't know the game,' Arlen said. Cob had all but ordered him to play with other boys, but he thought his book far more interesting.
'What's to know?' another boy asked. 'You help your side get the ball to the goal, and try to keep the other side from doing it.'
Arlen frowned. 'All right,' he said, moving to join the boy who had spoken.
'I'm Jaik,' the boy said. He was slender, with dark tousled hair and a pinched nose. His clothes were patched and dirty. He looked thirteen, like Arlen. 'What's your name?'
'You work for Warder Cob, right?' Jaik asked. 'The kid Messenger Ragen found on the road?' When Arlen nodded, Jaik's eyes widened a bit, as if he hadn't believed it. He led the way onto the field, and pointed out the white painted stones that marked the goals.
Arlen quickly caught on to the rules of the game. After a time, he forgot his book, focusing his attention on the opposing team. He imagined he was a Messenger and they were demons trying to keep him from his circle. Hours melted away, and before he knew it the Evening Bell rang. Everyone hurriedly gathered up their things, fearful of the darkening sky.
Arlen took his time fetching his book. Jaik ran up to him. 'You'd better hurry,' he said.
Arlen shrugged. 'We have plenty of time,' he replied.
Jaik looked at the darkening sky, and shuddered. 'You play pretty good,' he said. 'Come back tomorrow. We play ball most afternoons, and on Sixthday we go to the square to see the Jongleur.' Arlen nodded noncommittally, and Jaik smiled and sped off.
Arlen headed back through the gate, the now-familiar stink of the city enveloping him. He turned up the hill to Ragen's manse. The Messenger was away again, this time to faraway Lakton, and Arlen was spending the month with Elissa. She would pester him with questions and fuss about his clothes, but he had promised Ragen to 'keep her young lovers away'.
Margrit had assured Arlen Elissa had no lovers. In fact, when Ragen was away, she drifted the halls of their manse like a ghost, or spent hours crying in her bedchamber. But when Arlen was around, the Servant said, she changed. More than once, Margit had begged him to live at the manse full time. He refused, but, he admitted to himself if no one else, he was beginning to like Lady Elissa fussing over him.
'Here he comes,' Gaims said that night, watching the massive rock demon rise from the ground. Woron joined him, and they watched from the guard tower as the demon snuffled the ground by the gate. With a howl, it bounded away from the gate to a hilltop. A flame demon danced there, but the rock demon knocked it violently aside, bending low to the ground, seeking something.
'Old One Arm's in a mood tonight,' Gaims said as the demon howled again and darted down the hill to a small field, scurrying back and forth, hunched over.
'What do you suppose has gotten into him?' Woron asked. His partner shrugged.
The demon left the field, bounding back up the hill. Its shrieks became almost pained, and when it returned to the gate, it struck at the wards madly, its talons sending showers of sparks as they were repelled by the potent magic.
'Don't see that every night,' Woron commented. 'Should we report it?'
'Why bother?' Gaims replied. 'No one is going to care about the carryings-on of one crazy demon, and what could they do about it if they did?'
'Against that thing?' Woron asked. 'Probably just soil themselves.'
Pushing away from the workbench, Arlen stretched and got to his feet. The sun long set, and his stomach growled irritably, but the baker was paying double to have his wards repaired in one night, even though a demon hadn't been spotted on the streets in Creator only knew how long. He hoped Cob had left something for him in the cookpot.
Arlen opened the shop's back door and leaned out, still safely within the warded semicircle around the doorway. He looked both ways, and assured that all was clear, he stepped onto the path, careful not to cover the wards with his foot.
The path from the back of Cob's shop to his small cottage was safer than most houses in Miln, a series of individually warded squares made of poured stone. The stone- crete, Cob called it- was a science left over from the old world, a wonder unheard of in Tibbet's Brook, but quite common in Miln. Mixing powdered silicate and lime with water and gravel formed a muddy substance that could be moulded and hardened into any shape. It was possible to pour crete, and, as it began to set, carefully scratch wards into its soft substance that hardened into near-permanent protections. Cob had done this, square by square, until a path ran from his home to his shop. Even if one square were somehow compromised, a walker could simply move to the one ahead or behind, and remain safe from corelings.
If we could make a road like this, Arlen thought, the world would be at our fingertips.
Inside the cottage, he found Cob hunched over his desk, poring over chalked slates.
'Pot's warm,' the master grunted, not looking up. Arlen moved over to the fireplace in the cottage's single room and filled a bowl with Cob's thick stew.
'Creator, boy, you started a mess with this,' Cob growled, straightening and gesturing to the slates. 'Half the Warders in Miln are content to keep their secrets, even at the loss of ours, and half of those left keep offering money instead, but the quarter that remain have flooded my desk with lists of wards they're willing to barter. It will be weeks in the sorting!'
'Things will be better for it,' Arlen said, using a crust of hard bread as a spoon as he sat on the floor, eating hungrily. The corn and beans were still hard, and the potatoes mushy from overboiling, but he didn't complain. He was accustomed to the tough, stunted vegetables of Miln by now, and Cob could never be bothered to boil them separately.
'I daresay you're right,' Cob admitted, 'but night! Who thought there were so many different wards right in our own city! Half I've never seen in my life, and I've scrutinized every wardpost and portal in Miln, I assure you!'
He held up a chalked slate. 'This one is willing to trade your mother's ward to make glass as hard as steel, for ones that will make a demon turn around and forget what it was doing.' He shook his head. 'And they all want the secrets of your forbidding wards, boy. They're easier to draw without a straightstick and a semicircle.'
'Crutches for people who can't draw a straight line,' Arlen smirked.
'Not everyone is as gifted as you,' Cob grunted.
'Gifted?' Arlen asked.
'Don't let it go to your head, boy,' Cob said, 'but I've never seen anyone pick up warding as quick as you. Eighteen months into your apprenticeship, and you ward like a five-year journeyman.'
'I've been thinking about our deal,' Arlen said.
Cob looked up at him curiously.
'You promised that if I worked hard,' Arlen said, 'you'd teach me to survive the road.'
They stared at one another a long while. 'I've kept my part,' Arlen reminded.
Cob blew out a sigh. 'I suppose you have,' he said. 'Have you been practicing your riding?' he asked.
Arlen nodded. 'Ragen's groom lets me help exercise the horses.'
'Double your efforts,' Cob said. 'A Messenger's horse is his life. Every night your steed saves you from spending outside is a night out of risk.' The old Warder got to his feet, opening a closet and pulling out a thick rolled cloth. 'On Seventhdays, when we close the shop,' he said, 'I'll coach your riding, and I'll teach you to use these.'
He laid the cloth on the floor and unrolled it, revealing a number of well-oiled spears. Arlen eyed them hungrily.
Cob looked up at the chimes as a young boy entered his shop. He was about thirteen, with tousled dark curls and a fuzz of moustache at his lip that looked more like grime than hair.
'Jaik, isn't it?' the Warder asked. 'Your family works the mill down by the East Wall, don't they? We quoted you once for new wards, but the miller went with someone else.'
'That's right,' the boy said, nodding.
'What can I help you with?' Cob asked. 'Would your master like another quote?'
Jaik shook his head. 'I just came to see if Arlen wants to see the Jongleur today.'
Cob could hardly believe his ears. He had never seen Arlen speak to anyone his own age, preferring to spend his time working and reading, or pestering the Messengers and Warders who visited the shop with endless questions. This was a surprise, and one to be encouraged.
'Arlen!' he called.
Arlen came out of the shop's back room, a book in his hand. He practically walked into Jaik before he noticed the boy and pulled up short.
'Jaik's come to take you to see the Jongleur,' Cob advised.
'I'd like to go,' Arlen told Jaik apologetically, 'but I still have to…'
'Nothing that can't wait,' Cob cut him off. 'Go and have fun.' He tossed Arlen a small pouch of coins and pushed the two boys out the door.
Soon after, the boys were wandering through the crowded marketplace surrounding the main square of Miln. Arlen spent a silver star to buy meat pies from a vendor, and then, faces coated with grease, handed over a few copper lights for a pocketful of sweets from another.
'I'm going to be a Jongleur one day,' Jaik said, sucking on a sweet as they made their way to the place where the children gathered.
'Honest word?' Arlen asked.
Jaik nodded. 'Watch this,' he said, pulling three small wooden balls from his pockets and putting them into the air. Arlen laughed a moment later, when one of the balls struck Jaik's head, and the others dropped to the ground in the confusion.
'Still got grease on my fingers,' Jaik said as they chased after the balls.
'I guess,' Arlen agreed. 'I'm going to register at the Messenger's Guild once my apprenticeship with Cob is over.'
'I could be your Jongleur!' Jaik shouted. 'We could test for the road together!'
Arlen looked at him. 'Have you ever even seen a demon?' he asked.
'What, you don't think I have the stones for it?' Jaik asked, shoving him.
'Or the brains,' Arlen said, shoving back. A moment later, they were scuffling on the ground. Arlen was still small for his age, and Jaik soon pinned him.
'Fine, fine!' Arlen laughed. 'I'll let you be my Jongleur!'
'Your Jongleur?' Jaik asked, not releasing him. 'More like you'll be my Messenger!'
'Partners?' Arlen offered. Jaik smiled and offered Arlen a hand up. Soon after, they were sitting on top of stone blocks in the town square, watching the apprentices of the Jongleur's Guild cartwheel and mum, building excitement for the morning's lead performer.
Arlen's jaw dropped when he saw Keerin enter the square. Tall and thin like a red-headed lamp post, the Jongleur was unmistakable. The crowd erupted into a roar.
'It's Keerin!' Jaik said, shaking Arlen's shoulder in excitement. 'He's my favourite!'
'Really?' Arlen asked, surprised.
'What, who do you like?' Jaik asked. 'Marley? Koy? They're not heroes like Keerin!'
'He didn't seem very heroic when I met him,' Arlen said doubtfully.
'You met Keerin?' Jaik asked in shock.
'He came to Tibbet's Brook once,' Arlen said. 'He and Ragen found me on the road and brought me to Miln.'
'Keerin rescued you?'
'Ragen rescued me,' Arlen corrected. 'Keerin jumped at every shadow.'
'The Core he did,' Jaik said. 'Do you think he'll remember you?' he asked. 'Can you introduce me after the show?'
'Maybe,' Arlen shrugged.
Keerin's performance started out much like it had in Tibbet's Brook. He juggled and danced, warming the crowd before telling the tale of the Return to the children and punctuating it with mummery, backflips, and somersaults.
'Sing the song!' Jaik cried. Others in the crowd took up the cry, begging Keerin to sing. He seemed not to notice for a time, until the call was thunderous and punctuated by the pounding of feet. Finally, he laughed and bowed, fetching his lute as the crowd burst into applause.
He gestured, and Arlen saw the apprentices fetch hats and move into the crowd for donations. People gave generously, eager to hear Keerin sing. Finally, he began:
The night was dark
The ground was hard
Succour was leagues away
The cold wind stark
Cutting at our hearts
Only wards kept corelings at bay
'Help me!' we heard
A voice in need
The cry of a frightened child
'Run to us!' I called
'Our circle's wide,
The only succour for miles!'
The boy cried out
I can't; I fell!'
His call echoed in the black
Catching his shout
I sought to help
But the Messenger held me back
'What good to die?'
He asked me, grim
'For death is all you’ll find
'No help you’ll provide
'Gainst coreling claws
Just more meat to grind'
I struck him hard
And grabbed his spear
Leaping across the wards
A frantic charge
Strength born of fear
Before the boy be cored
'Stay brave!' I cried
Running hard his way
'Keep your heart strong and true!
'If you can't stride
To where it's safe
I'll bring the wards to you!'
I reached him quick
But not enough
Corelings gathered 'round
The demons thick
My work was rough
Scratching wards into the soil
A thunderous roar
Boomed in the night
A demon twenty feet tall
It towered fore
And 'gainst such might
My spear seemed puny and small
Horns like hard spears!
Claws like my arm!
A carapace hard and black!
The beast moved to the attack!
The boy screamed scared
And clutched my leg Clawed
as I drew the last ward!
The magic flared
The one force demons abhor!
Some will tell you
Only the sun
Can bring a rock demon harm
That night I learned
It could be done
As did the demon One Arm!
He ended with a flourish, and Arlen sat shocked as the Audience burst into applause. Keerin took his bows, and the apprentices took in a flood of coin.
'Wasn't that great?' Jaik asked.
'That's not how it happened!' Arlen exclaimed.
'My da says the guards told him a one-armed rock demon attacks the wards every night,' Jaik said. 'It's looking for Keerin.'
'Keerin wasn't even there!' Arlen cried. 'I cut that demon's arm off!'
Jaik snorted. 'Night, Arlen! You can't really expect anyone to believe that.'
Arlen scowled, standing up and calling, 'Liar! Fraud!' Everyone turned to see the speaker, as Arlen leapt off his stone and strode towards Keerin. The Jongleur looked up, and his eyes widened in recognition. 'Arlen?' he asked, his face suddenly pale.
Jaik, who'd been running after Arlen, pulled up short. 'You do know him,' he whispered.
Keerin glanced at the crowd nervously. 'Arlen, my boy,' he said, opening his arms, 'come, let's discuss this in private.'
Arlen ignored him. 'You didn't cut that demon's arm off!' he screamed for all to hear. 'You weren't even there when it happened!'
There was an angry murmur from the crowd. Keerin looked around in fear, until someone called, 'Get that boy out of the square!' and others cheered.
Keerin broke into a wide smile. 'No one is going to believe you over me,' he sneered.
'I was there!' Arlen cried. 'I've got the scars to prove it!' He reached to pull up his shirt, but Keerin snapped his fingers, and suddenly, Arlen and Jaik were surrounded by apprentices.
Trapped, they could do nothing as Keerin walked away, taking the crowd's attention with him as he snatched his lute and quickly launched into another song.
'Why don't you shut it, hey?' a burly apprentice growled. The boy was half again Arlen's size, and all were older than he and Jaik.
'Keerin's a liar,' Arlen said.
'A demon's ass, too,' the apprentice agreed, holding up the hat of coins. 'Think I care?'
Jaik interposed himself. 'No need to get angry,' he said. 'He didn't mean anything…'
But before he finished, Arlen sprang forward, driving his fist into the bigger boy's gut. As he crumpled, Arlen whirled to face the rest. He bloodied a nose or two, but he was soon pulled down and pummelled. Dimly, he was aware of Jaik sharing the beating beside him until two guards broke up the fight.
'You know,' Jaik said as they limped home, bloody and bruised, 'for a bookmole, you're not half bad in a fight. If only you'd pick your enemies better…'
'I have worse enemies,' Arlen said, thinking of the one-armed demon following him still.
'It wasn't even a good song,' Arlen said. 'How could he draw wards in the dark?'
'Good enough to get into a fight over,' Cob noted, daubing blood from Arlen's face.
'He was lying,'' Arlen replied, wincing at the sting.
Cob shrugged. 'He was just doing what Jongleurs do; making up entertaining stories.'
'In Tibbet's Brook, the whole town would come when the Jongleur came,' Arlen said. 'Selia said they kept the stories of the old world, passing them down one generation to the next.'
'And so they do,' Cob said. 'But even the best ones exaggerate, Arlen. Or did you really believe the first Deliverer killed a hundred rock demons in a single blow?'
'I used to,' Arlen said with a sigh. 'Now I don't know what to believe.'
'Welcome to adulthood,' Cob said. 'Every child finds a day when they realize that adults can be weak and wrong just like anyone else. After that day, you're an adult, like or not.'
'I never thought about it that way,' Arlen said, realizing his day had come long before. In his mind's eye, he saw Jeph hiding behind the wards of their porch while his mother was cored.
'Was Keerin's lie really such a bad thing?' Cob asked. 'It made people happy. It gave them hope. Hope and happiness are in short supply these days, and much needed.'
'He could have done all that with honest word,' Arlen said. 'But instead he took credit for my deeds just to make more coin.'
'Are you after truth, or credit?' Cob asked. 'Should credit matter? Isn't the message what's important?'
'People need more than a song,' Arlen said. 'They need proof that corelings can bleed.'
'You sound like a Krasian martyr,' Cob said, 'ready to throw your life away seeking the Creator's paradise in the next world.'
'I read their afterlife is filled with naked women and rivers of wine,' Arlen smirked.
'And all you need do to enter is take a demon with you before you're cored,' Cob agreed. 'But I'll take my chances with this life all the same. The next one will find you no matter where you run. No sense chasing it.'
'Three moons says he heads east,' Gaims said, jingling the silver coins as One Arm rose.
'Taken,' Woron said. 'He's gone east three nights running. He's ready for a change.'
As always, the rock demon snuffled about before testing the wards at the gate. It moved methodically, never missing a spot. When the gate proved secure, the coreling moved to the east.
'Night,' Woron cursed. 'I was sure this time he'd do something different.' He fished in his pocket for coins as the shrieks of the demon and the crackle of activated wards died out.
Both guardsmen looked over the rail, the bet forgotten, and saw One Arm staring at the wall curiously. Other corelings gathered around, but kept a respectful distance from the giant.
Suddenly, the demon lunged forward with just two talons extended. There was no flare from the wards, and the crack of stone came clearly to the guards' ears. Their blood went cold.
With a roar of triumph, the rock demon struck again, this time with its whole hand. Even in starlight, the guards saw the chunk of stone that came away in its claws.
'The horn,' Gaims said, gripping the rail with shaking hands. His leg grew warm, and it took him a moment to realize he had wet himself. 'Sound the horn.'
There was no movement next to him. He looked over at Woron, and saw his partner staring at the rock demon with his mouth open, a single tear running down the side of his face.
'Sound the ripping horn!' Gaims screamed, and Woron snapped out of his daze, running to the mounted horn. It took him several tries to sound a note. By then, One Arm was spinning and striking the wall with its spiked tail, tearing out more and more rock each time.
Cob shook Arlen awake.
'Who… wazzat?' Arlen asked, rubbing his eyes. 'Is it morning already?'
'No,' Cob said. 'The horns are sounding. There's a breach.'
Arlen sat bolt upright, his face gone cold. 'Breach? There are corelings in the city?'
'There are,' Cob agreed, 'or soon will be. Up with you!'
The two scrambled to light lamps and gather their tools, pulling on thick cloaks and fingerless gloves to help stave off the cold without impeding their work.
The horns sounded again. 'Two blasts,' Cob said, 'one short, one long. The breach is between the first and second watchposts to the east of the main gate.'
A clatter of hooves sounded on the cobblestones outside, followed by a pounding on the door. They opened it to find Ragen in full armour, a long, thick spear in hand. His warded shield was slung on the saddle horn of a heavy destrier. Not a sleek and affectionate courser like Nighteye, this beast was broad and ill-tempered, a warhorse bred for times long gone.
'Elissa is beside herself,' the Messenger explained. 'She sent me to keep you two alive.'
Arlen frowned at Elissa's continued mothering, but a touch of the fear that gripped him on waking slipped away with Ragen's arrival. They hitched their sturdy garron to the warding cart, and were off, following the shouts, crashes, and flashes of light towards the breach.
The streets were empty, doors and shutters locked tight, but Arlen could see cracks of light around them, and knew the people of Miln were awake, biting nails and praying their wards would hold. He heard weeping, and thought of how dependant the Milnese were upon their wall.
They arrived at a scene of utter chaos. Guardsmen and Warders lay dead and dying on the cobbled streets, spears broken and burning. Three bloodied men-at-arms wrestled with a wind demon, attempting to pin it long enough for a pair of Warder's apprentices to trap it in a portable circle. Others ran to and fro with buckets of water, trying to smother the many small fires as flame demons scampered about in glee, setting alight everything in reach.
Arlen looked at the breach, amazed that a coreling could dig through twenty feet of solid rock. Demons jammed the hole, clawing at each other to be next to pass into the city.
A wind demon squeezed through, getting a running start as it spread its wings. A guard hurled his spear at it, but the missile fell short, and the demon flew into the city unchallenged. A moment later, a flame demon leapt upon the now-unarmed guard and tore his throat out.
'Quickly, boy!' Cob shouted. 'The guards are buying us time, but they won't last long against a breach this size. We need to seal it fast!' He sprang from the cart with surprising agility and snatched two portable circles from the back, handing one to Arlen.
With Ragen riding protectively beside them, they sprinted towards the key ward flag of the Warder's Guild, marking the protective circle where the Warders had set up their base. Unarmed Herb Gatherers were tending rows of wounded there, fearlessly darting out of the circle to assist men stumbling towards the sanctuary. They were a scant few to tend so many.
Mother Jone, the duke's advisor, and Master Vincin, the head of the Warder's Guild, greeted them. 'Master Cob, good to have you…' Jone began.
'Where are we needed?' Cob asked Vincin, ignoring Jone completely.
'The main breach,' Vincin said. 'Take the posts for fifteen and thirty degrees,' he said, pointing towards a stack of wardposts. 'And by the Creator, be careful! There's a devil of a rock demon there; the one that made the breach in the first place. They have it trapped from heading further into the city, but you'll have to cross the wards to get into position. It's killed three Warders already, and Creator only knows how many guards.'
Cob nodded, and he and Arlen headed over to the pile. 'Who was on duty at dusk tonight?' he asked as they took their load.
'Warder Macks and his apprentices,' Jone replied. 'The duke will hang them for this.'
'Then the duke is a fool,' Vincin said. 'There's no telling what happened out there, and Miln needs every Warder it has and more.' He blew out a long breath. 'There will be few enough left after tonight, as is.'
'Set up your circle first,' Cob said for the third time. 'When you're safe within, set the post in its stand and wait for the magnesium. It'll be bright as day, so shield your eyes until it comes. Then centre yours to the dial on the main post. Don't try to link with the other posts. Trust their Warders to get it right. When it's done, drive stakes between the cobbles to hold it in place.'
'And then?' Arlen asked.
'Stay in the damn circle until you're told to come out,' Cob barked, 'no matter what you see, even if you're in there all night! Is that clear?'
'Good,' Cob said. He scanned the chaos, waiting, waiting, then shouted 'Now!' and they were off, dodging around fires, bodies, and rubble, heading for their positions. In seconds, they cleared a row of buildings and saw the one-armed rock demon towering over a squad of guardsmen and a dozen corpses. Its talons and jaws glistened with blood in the lamplight.
Arlen's blood went cold. He stopped short and looked to Ragen, and the Messenger met his eye for a moment. 'Must be after Keerin,' Ragen said wryly.
Arlen opened his mouth, but before he could reply, Ragen screamed 'Look out!' and swiped his spear Arlen's way.
Arlen fell and dropped his post, banging his knee badly on the cobblestones. He heard the 'crack!' as the butt of Ragen's spear took a diving wind demon in the face, and rolled over in time to see the coreling carom off the Messenger's shield and crash to the ground.
Ragen trampled the creature with his warhorse as he kicked into a gallop, grabbing Arlen just as he picked up his post and half-dragging, half-carrying him over to his position. Cob had already set up his portable circle and was preparing the stand for his wardpost.
Arlen wasted no time setting up his own circle, but his eyes kept flicking back to One Arm. The demon was clawing at the hastily placed wards before it, trying to power through. Arlen could see weaknesses in the net each time it flared, and knew it would not hold forever.
The rock demon sniffed and looked up suddenly, meeting Arlen's eyes, and the two matched wills for a moment, until it became too much to bear and Arlen dropped his gaze. One Arm
shrieked and redoubled its efforts to break through the weakening wards.
'Arlen, stop staring and do your ripping job!' Cob screamed, snapping Arlen out of his daze. Trying his best to block out the shrieks of the coreling and the shouting of guardsmen, he set the collapsible iron stand and placed his wardpost within. He angled it as best he could in the dim flickering light, then placed a hand over his eyes to wait for the magnesium.
The flare went off a moment later, turning night into day. The Warders angled their posts quickly and staked them in place. They waved with cloths to signal completion.
His work done, Arlen scanned the rest of the area. Several Warders and apprentices were still struggling to set their posts. One post was alight with demon fire. Corelings were screaming and recoiling from the magnesium, terrified that somehow the hated sun had come. Guardsmen surged forward with spears, attempting to drive them back past the wardposts before they activated. Ragen did the same, galloping about upon his destrier, his polished shield reflecting the light and sending corelings scrambling away in fear.
But the false light could not truly hurt the corelings, One Arm did not recoil as a squad of guardsmen, emboldened in the light, sent a row of spears its way. Many of the speartips broke or skittered off the rock demon's armour, and it grabbed at others, yanking hard and pulling the men past the wards as easily as a child might swing a doll.
Arlen watched the carnage in horror. The demon bit the head off one man and flung his body back into the others, knocking several from their feet. It squashed another man underfoot, and sent a third flying with a sweep of its spiked tail. He landed hard and did not rise.
The wards holding the demon back were buried beneath the bodies and blood, and One Arm bulled forward, killing at will. The guards fell back, some fleeing entirely, but as soon as they backed off, they were forgotten as the giant coreling charged Arlen's portable circle.
'Arlen!' Ragen screamed, wheeling his destrier about. In his panic at the sight of the charging demon, the Messenger seemed to forget the portable circle in which the boy stood. He couched his spear and kicked the horse into a gallop, aiming at One Arm's back.
The rock demon heard his approach and turned at the last moment, setting its feet and taking the spear full in the chest. The weapon splintered, and with a contemptuous swipe of its claws, the giant demon crushed the horse's skull.
The destrier's head twisted to the side and it back-pedalled into Cob's circle, knocking him into his wardpost and sending it askew. Ragen had no time to untangle himself, and the animal took him down with it, crushing his leg and pinning him. One Arm moved in for the kill.
Arlen screamed and looked for aid, but there was none to be found. Cob was clutching at his wardpost, trying to pull himself upright. All the other Warders around the breach were signalling. They had replaced the burning post, and only Cob's remained out of place, but there was no one to aid him; the city guard decimated in One Arm's last assault. Even if Cob quickly fixed his post, Arlen knew Ragen was doomed. One Arm was on the wrong side of the net.
'Hey!' he cried, stepping from his circle and waving his arms. 'Hey, ugly!'
'Arlen, get back in your ripping circle!' Cob screamed, but it was too late. The rock demon's head whipped around at the sound of Arlen's voice.
'Oh yeah, you heard,' Arlen murmured, his face flushing hot and then immediately going cold. He glanced past the wardposts. The corelings were growing bold as the magnesium began to die down. Stepping in there would be suicide.
But Arlen remembered his previous encounters with the rock demon, and how it jealously regarded him as its own. With that thought, he turned and rai past the wardposts, catching the attention of a hissing flame demon. The coreling pounced, eyes aflame, but so did One Arm, driving forward to smash the lesser demon.
Even as it whirled back to him, Arlen was diving back past the wardposts. One Arm struck hard at him, but light flared, and it was thwarted. Cob had restored his post, establishing the net. One Arm shrieked in rage, pounding at the barrier, but it was impenetrable.
He ran to Ragen's side. Cob swept him into a hug, and then cuffed him on the ear. 'You ever pull a stunt like that again,' the master warned, 'and I'll break your scrawny neck.'
'I was s'posed to protect you…' Ragen agreed weakly, his mouth twitching in a smile.
There were still corelings lcose in the city when Vincin and Jone dismissed the Warders. The remaining guardsmen helped the Herb Gatherers transport the wounded to the city's hospits.
'Shouldn't someone hunt down the ones that got away?' Arlen asked as they eased Ragen into the back of their cart. His leg was splinted, and the Herb Gatherers had given him a tea to numb the pain, leaving him sleepy and distant.
'To what end?' Cob asked. 'It would only get the hunters killed, and make no difference in the morning. Better to get inside. The sun will do for any corelings left in Miln.'
'The sun is still hours away,' Arlen protested as he climbed into the cart.
'What do you propose?' Cob asked, watching warily as they rode. 'You saw the full force of the Duke's Guard at work tonight; hundreds of men with spears and shields. Trained Warders, too. Did you see a single demon killed? Of course not. They are immortal.'
Arlen shook his head. 'They kill each other. I've seen it.'
'They are magic, Arlen. They can do to one another what no mortal weapon can.'
'The sun kills them,' Arlen said.
'The sun is a power beyond you or I,' Cob said. 'We are simply Warders.'
They turned a corner, and gasped. An eviscerated corpse painted the cobbles red. Parts of it still smouldered; the acrid stench of burned flesh thick in the air.
'Beggar,' Arlen said, noting the ragged clothes. 'What was he doing out at night?'
'Two beggars,' Cob corrected, holding a cloth over his mouth and nose as he gestured at further carnage not far off. 'They must have been turned out of the shelter.'
'They can do that?' Arlen asked. 'I thought the public shelters had to take everyone.'
'Only until they fill up,' Cob said. 'Those places are scant succour, anyhow. With rapes and beatings over food and clothes common, many prefer to risk the streets.'
'Why doesn't someone do something about it?' Arlen asked.
'Everyone agrees it is a problem,' Cob said. 'But the citizens say it is the duke's problem, and the duke feels little need to protect those who contribute nothing to his city.'
'So better to send the guard home for the night, and let the corelings take care of the problem,' Arlen growled. Cob had no reply save to crack the reins, eager to get off the streets.
Two days later, the entire city was summoned to the great square. A gibbet had been erected, and upon it stood Warder Macks, who had been on duty the night of the breach.
Euchor himself was not present, but Jone read his decree: 'In the name of Duke Euchor, Light of the Mountains and Lord of Miln, you are found guilty of failing in your duties and allowing a breach in the wardwall. Eight Warders, two Messengers, three Herb Gatherers, thirty-seven guardsmen, and eighteen citizens paid the price for your incompetence.'
'As if making it nine Warders will help,' Cob muttered. Boos and hisses came from the crowd, and bits of garbage were flung at the Warder, who stood with his head down.
'The sentence is death,' Jone said, and hooded men took Macks' arms and led him to the rope, putting the noose around his neck.
A tall, broad shouldered Tender with a bushy black beard and heavy robes went to him and drew a ward on his forehead. 'May the Creator forgive your failing,' the Holy Man intoned, 'and grant us all the purity of heart and deed to end His plague, be Delivered.'
He backed away, and the trapdoor opened. The crowd cheered as the rope went taut.
'Fools,' Cob spat. 'One less man to fight the next breach.'
What did he mean?' Arlen asked. 'About the plague and being delivered?'
'Just nonsense to keep the crowd in line,' Cob said. 'Best not to fill your head with it.'
Arlen walked excitedly behind Cob as they approached the great stone building. It was Seventhday, and normally he would have been annoyed at skipping his spear-practice and riding lessons, but today was a treat too fine to miss: his first trip to the Duke's Library.
Ever since he and Cob had begun brokering wards, his master's business had soared, filling a much needed niche in the city. Their grimoire library had quickly become the largest in the Miln, and perhaps the world. At the same time, word had gotten out about their involvement in sealing the breach, and never ones to miss a trend, the Nobles had taken notice.
Nobles were an irritation to work with; always making ridiculous demands, and wanting wards put where they didn't belong. Cob doubled, and then tripled his prices, but it made no difference. Having one's manse sealed by Cob the Wardmaster had become a status symbol.
But now, called upon to ward the most valuable building in the city, Arlen knew it had been worth every moment. Few citizens ever saw inside the Library. Euchor guarded his collection jealously, granting access only to greater petitioners and their aides.
Built by the church before being absorbed by the throne, the library was always run by a Tender, usually one with no flock save the precious books. Indeed, the post carried more weight than presiding over any Holy House save for the Grand Cathedral or the duke's own shrine.
They were greeted by an acolyte, and ushered to the office of the head librarian, Tender Ronnell. Arlen's eyes darted everywhere as they walked, taking in the musty shelves and silent scholars who roamed the stacks. Not including grimoires, Cob's collection had contained over thirty books, and Arlen had thought that a treasure. The Duke's Library contained thousands, more than he could read in a lifetime. He hated that the duke kept it all locked away.
Tender Ronnell was young for the coveted position of head librarian, still with more brown in his hair than grey. He greeted them warmly and sat them down, sending a servant to fetch some refreshment.
'Your reputation precedes you, Master Cob,' Ronnell said, taking off his wire-rimmed glasses and cleaning them on his brown robe. 'I hope you will accept this assignment.'
'All the wards I've seen so far are still sharp,' Cob noted.
Ronnell replaced his glasses and cleared his throat uncomfortably. 'After the recent breach, the duke fears for his collection,' he said. 'His Grace desires… special measures.'
'What kind of special measures?' Cob asked suspiciously. Ronnell squirmed, and Arlen could tell he was as uncomfortable making the request as he expected them to be in filling it.
Finally, Ronnell sighed. 'All the tables, benches and shelves are to be warded against firespit,' he said flatly.
Cob's eyes bulged. 'That would take months!' he sputtered. 'And to what end? Even if a flame demon made it so deep into the city, it could never get past the wards of this building, and if it did, you'd have greater worries than the bookshelves.'
Ronnell's eyes hardened at that. 'There is no greater worry, Master Cob,' he said. 'In that, the duke and I agree. You cannot imagine what we lost when the corelings burned the libraries of old. We guard here the last shreds of knowledge that took millennia to accumulate.'
'I apologize,' Cob said. 'I meant no disrespect.'
The librarian nodded. 'I understand. And you are quite correct, the risk is minimal. Nevertheless, His Grace wants what he wants. I can pay a thousand gold suns.'
Arlen ticked the math off in his head. A thousand suns was a lot of money, more than they had ever gotten for a single job, but when accounting for the months of work the job would entail, and the loss of regular business…
'I'm afraid I can't help you,' Cob said at last. 'Too much time away from my business.'
'This would garner the duke's favour,' Ronnell added.
Cob shrugged. 'I Messengered for his father. That brought me favour enough. I have little need for more. Try a younger Warder,' he suggested. 'Someone with something to prove.'
'His Grace mentioned your name specifically,' Ronnell pressed.
Cob spread his hands helplessly.
'I'll do it,' Arlen blurted. Both men turned to him, surprised that he had been so bold.
'I don't think the duke will accept the services of an apprentice,' Ronnell said.
Arlen shrugged. 'No need to tell him.' he said. 'My master can plot the wards for the shelves and tables, leaving me to inscribe them.' He looked at Cob as he spoke. 'If you had taken the job, I would have carved half the wards anyway, if not more.'
'An interesting compromise,' Ronnell said thoughtfully. 'What say you, Master Cob?'
Cob looked at Arlen suspiciously. 'I say this is a tedious job of the sort you hate,' he said. 'What's in it for you, lad?' he asked.
Arlen smiled. 'The duke gets to claim that Wardmaster Cob warded the Library,' he began. 'You get a thousand suns, and I…' he turned to Ronnell, 'get to use the Library whenever I wish.'
Ronnell laughed. 'A boy after my own heart!' he said. 'Have we a deal?' he asked Cob.
Cob smiled, and the men shook hands.
Tender Ronnell led Cob and Arlen on an inspection of the Library. As they went, Arlen began to realize what a colossal task he had just undertaken. Even if he skipped the math and plotted the wards by sight, he was looking at the better part of a year's work.
Still, as he turned in place, taking in all the books, he knew it was worth it. Ronnell had promised him full access, day or night, for the rest of his life.
Noting the look of enthusiasm on the boy's face, Ronnell smiled. He had a sudden thought, and took Cob aside while Arlen was too occupied with his own thoughts to notice.
'Is the boy an apprentice or a Servant?' he asked the Warder.
'He's Merchant, if that's what you're asking,' Cob said.
Ronnell nodded. 'Who are his parents?'
Cob shook his head. 'Hasn't any; at least not in Miln.'
'You speak for him, then?' Ronnell asked.
'I would say the boy speaks for himself,' Cob replied.
'Is he promised?' the Tender asked.
There it was. 'You're not the first to ask me that, since my business rose,' Cob said. 'Even some of the Nobles have sent their pretty daughters to sniff at him. But I don't think the Creator has made the girl that can pull his nose out of a book long enough to notice her.'
'I know the feeling,' Ronnell said, gesturing to a young girl who was sitting at one of the many tables with half a dozen open books scattered before her.
'Mery, come here!' he called. The girl looked up, and then deftly marked her pages and stacked her books before coming over. She looked close to Arlen's fourteen summers, with large brown eyes and long, rich brown hair. She had a soft, round face, and a bright smile. She wore a utilitarian frock, dusty from the Library, and she gathered the skirts, dipping a quick curtsey.
'Wardmaster Cob, this is my daughter, Mery,' Ronnell said.
The girl looked up, suddenly very interested. 'The Wardmaster Cob?' she asked.
'Ah, you know my work?' Cob asked.
'No,' Mery shook her head, 'but I've heard your grimoire collection is second to none.'
Cob laughed. 'You might have something here, Tender,' he said.
Tender Ronnell bent to his daughter and pointed to Arlen. 'Young Arlen there is Master Cob's apprentice. He's going to ward the Library for us. Why don't you show him around?'
Mery watched Arlen as the boy gazed about, oblivious to her stare. His dirty blonde hair was untrimmed and somewhat long, and his expensive clothes were rumpled and stained, but there was intelligence in his eyes. His features were smooth and symmetrical, not unpleasing. Cob heard Ronnell mutter a prayer as she smoothed her skirts and glided over to him.
Arlen didn't seem to notice Mery as she came over. 'Hello,' she said.
'Hullo,' Arlen replied, squinting to read the print on the spine of a high-shelved book.
Mery frowned. 'My name's Mery,' she said. 'Tender Ronnell is my father.'
'Arlen,' Arlen said, pulling a book off the shelf and flipping through it slowly.
'My father asked me to show you around the library,' Mery said.
'Thanks,' Arlen said, putting the book back and walking down a row of shelves to a section of the library that was roped off from the rest. Mery was forced to follow, irritation flashing on her face.
'She's used to ignoring, not being ignored,' Ronnell noted, amused.
'BR,' Arlen read on the archway over the roped section. 'What's BR?' he muttered.
'Before Return,' Mery said. 'Those are original copies of the books of the old world.'
Arlen turned to her as if he had just noticed she existed. 'Honest word?' he asked.
'It's forbidden to go back there without the duke's permission,' Mery said, watching Arlen's face fall. 'Of course,' she smiled, 'I am allowed, on account of my father.'
'Your father?' Arlen asked.
'I'm Mery, Tender Ronnell's daughter,' she reminded, scowling.
Arlen's eyes widened, and he bowed awkwardly. 'Arlen, of Tibbet's Brook,' he said.
From across the room, Cob chuckled. 'Boy never had a chance,' he said.
The months melted together for Arlen as he fell into a familiar routine. Ragen's manse was closer to the library, so he slept there most nights. The Messenger's leg had mended quickly, and he was soon on the road again. Elissa encouraged him to treat the room as his own, and seemed to take a special pleasure at seeing it cluttered with Arlen's tools and books. The servants loved his presence as well, claiming Lady Elissa was less of a trial when he was about.
Arlen would rise an hour before the sun, and practice his spear forms by lamplight in the manse's high-ceilinged foyer. When the sun broke the horizon, he slipped into the yard for an hour of target practice and riding. This was followed by a hurried breakfast with Elissa – and Ragen when he was about – before he was off to the Library.
It was still early when he arrived; the Library empty save for Ronnell's acolytes, who slept in cells beneath the great building. These kept their distance, intimidated by Arlen, who thought nothing of walking up to their master and speaking without summons or permission.
There was a small, isolated room designated as his workshop. It was just big enough for a pair of bookcases, his workbench, and whatever piece of furniture he was working on. One of the cases was filled with paints, brushes, and etching tools. The other was filled with borrowed books. The floor was covered in curled wood shavings; blotched from spilled paint and lacquer.
Arlen took an hour each morning to read, then reluctantly put his book away and got to work. For weeks, he warded nothing but chairs. Then he moved on to benches. The job took even longer than expected, but Arlen didn't mind.
Mery's face became a welcome sight over these months, sticking her head into his workshop frequently to share a smile or a bit of gossip before scurrying off to resume her duties. Arlen had thought the interruptions from his work and study would grow tiresome, but the opposite proved true. He looked forward to seeing her, even finding his attention wandering on days when she did not visit with her usual frequency. They shared lunches on the library's broad roof, overlooking the city and the mountains beyond.
Mery was different from any girl Arlen had ever known. The daughter of the duke's Librarian and Chief Historian, she was possibly the most educated girl in the city, and Arlen found he could learn as much by talking to her as in the pages of any book.
But her position was a lonely one. The acolytes were even more intimidated by her than they were by Arlen, and there was no one else her age in the library. Mery was perfectly comfortable arguing with grey-bearded scholars, but around Arlen she seemed shy and unsure of herself.
'Creator, Jaik, it's as if you haven't practiced at all,' Arlen said, covering his ears.
'Don't be cruel, Arlen,' Mery scolded. 'Your song was lovely, Jaik,' she said.
Jaik frowned. 'Then why are you covering your ears, too?' he asked.
'Well,' she said, taking her hands away with a bright smile, 'my father says music and dancing lead to sin, so I couldn't listen, but I'm sure it was very beautiful.'
Arlen laughed, and Jaik frowned, putting his lute away.
'Try your juggling,' Mery suggested.
'Are you sure it's not a sin to watch juggling?' Jaik asked.
'Only if it's good,' Mery murmured, and Arlen laughed again.
Jaik's lute was old and worn; never seeming to have all its strings at one time. He set it down and pulled coloured wooden balls from the small sack he kept his Jongleur's equipment in. The paint was chipped and there were cracks in the wood. He put one ball into the air, then another, and a third. He held that number for several seconds, and Mery clapped her hands.
'Much better!' she said.
Jaik smiled. 'Watch this!' he said, reaching for a fourth.
Arlen and Mery both winced as the balls came clattering down to the cobblestones.
Jaik's face coloured. 'Maybe I should practice more with three,' he said.
'You should practice more,' Arlen agreed.
'My da doesn't like it,' Jaik said. 'He says 'if you've nothing to do but juggle, boy, I'll find some chores for you!"
'My father does that when he catches me dancing,' Mery said.
They looked at Arlen expectantly. 'My da used to do that, too,' he said.
'But not Master Cob?' Jaik asked.
Arlen shook his head. 'Why should he? I do all he asks.'
'Then when do you find time to practice Messengering?' Jaik asked.
'I make time,' Arlen said.
'How?' Jaik asked.
Arlen shrugged. 'Get up earlier. Stay up later. Sneak away after meals. Whatever you need to do. Or would you rather stay a miller your whole life?'
'There's nothing wrong with being a miller, Arlen,' Mery said.
Jaik shook his head. 'No, he's right,' he said. 'If this is what I want, I have to work harder.' He looked at Arlen. 'I'll practice more,' he promised.
'Don't worry,' Arlen said. 'If you can't entertain the villagers in the hamlets, you can earn your keep scaring off the demons on the road with your singing.'
Jaik's eyes narrowed. Mery laughed as he began throwing his juggling balls at Arlen.
'A good Jongleur could hit me!' Arlen taunted, nimbly dodging each throw.
'You're reaching too far,' Cob called. To illustrate his point, Ragen let go one hand from his shield and gripped Arlen's spear, just below the tip, before he could retract it. He yanked, and the overbalanced boy went crashing into the snow.
'Ragen, be careful,' Elissa admonished, clutching her shawl tightly in the chill morning air. 'You'll hurt him.'
'He's far gentler than a coreling would be, lady,' Cob said, loud enough for Arlen to hear. 'The purpose of the long spear is to hold the demons back at a distance while retreating. It's a defensive weapon. Messengers who get too aggressive with them, like young Arlen here, end up dead. I've seen it happen. There was one time on the road to Lakton…'
Arlen scowled. Cob was a good teacher, but he tended to punctuate his lessons with grisly stories of the demise of other Messengers. His intent was to discourage, but his words had the opposite effect, only strengthening Arlen's resolve to succeed where those before him failed. He picked himself up and set his feet more firmly this time, his weight on his heels.
'Enough with the long spears,' Cob said. 'Let's try the short ones.'
Elissa frowned as Arlen placed the eight foot long spear on a rack and he and Ragen selected shorter ones, barely three feet long, with points measuring a third of their length. They were designed for close-quarter fighting, stabbing instead of jabbing. He selected a shield as well, and the two of them once again faced off in the snow. Arlen was taller now, broader of the shoulder, fifteen years old with a lean, wiry strength. He was dressed in Ragen's old leather armour. It was big on him, but he was fast growing into it.
'What is the point of this?' Elissa asked in exasperation. 'It's not like he's ever going to get that close to a demon and live to can happen. And animals… with corelings killing the slowest and weakest, only the strongest predators remain.
'Arlen!' the Warder called. 'What do you do if you're attacked by a bear?'
Without stopping or taking his eyes off Ragen, Arlen called back, 'Long spear to the throat, retreat while it bleeds, then strike the vitals when it lowers its guard.'
'What else can you do?' Cob called.
'Lie still,' Arlen said distastefully. 'Bears seldom attack the dead.'
'A lion?' Cob asked.
'Medium spear,' Arlen called, picking off a stab from Ragen with his shield and countering. 'Stab to the shoulder joint and brace as the cat impales itself, then stab with a short spear to the chest or side, as available.'
'I can't listen to any more of this,' Elissa said, storming off towards the manse.
Arlen ignored her. 'A good whack to the snout with a medium spear will usually drive off a lone wolf,' he said. 'Failing that, use the same tactics as for lions.'
'What if there's a pack of them?' Cob asked.
'Wolves fear fire,' Arlen said.
'And if you encounter a boar?' Cob wanted to know.
Arlen laughed. 'I should 'Run like all the Core is after me',' he quoted his instructors.
Arlen awoke on top of a pile of books. For a moment he wondered where he was, realizing finally that he had fallen asleep in the library again. He looked out the window, seeing that it was well past dark. He craned his head up, making out the ghostly shape of a wind demon as it passed far above. Elissa would be upset.
The histories he had been reading were ancient, dating back to the Age of Science. They told of the kingdoms of the old world, Albinon, Thesa, Great Linm, and Rusk, and spoke of seas, enormous lakes spanning impossible distances, with yet more kingdoms on the far side. It was staggering. If the books were to be believed, the world was bigger than he had ever imagined.
He paged through the open book he had collapsed upon, and was surprised to find a map. As his eyes scanned the place names, they widened. There, plain as could be, was the Duchy of Miln. He looked closer, and saw the river that Fort Miln used for much of its fresh water, and the mountains that stood at its back. Right there was a small star, marking the capital.
He flipped a few pages, reading about ancient Miln. Then, as now, it was a mining and quarrying city, with vassalage spanning dozens of miles. Duke Miln's territory included many towns and villages, ending at the Dividing River, the border of the lands held by Duke Angiers.
Arlen remembered his own journey, and traced back west to the ruins he had found, learning that they had belonged to the Earl of Newkirk. Almost shaking with excitement, Arlen looked further, and found what he had been looking for, a small waterway opening into a lake.
The Barony of Tibbet.
Tibbet, Newkirk, and the others had paid tribute to Miln, who in turn with Duke Angiers, owed fealty to the King of Thesa.
'Thesans,' Arlen whispered, trying the word on for size. 'We're all Thesans.'
He took out a pen and began to copy the map.
'That name is not to be spoken again by either of you,' Ronnell scolded Arlen and his daughter.
'But…' Arlen began.
'You think this wasn't known?' the librarian cut him off. 'His Grace has ordered anyone speaking the name of Thesa arrested. Do you want to spend years breaking rocks in his mines?'
'Why?' Arlen asked. 'What harm could it bring?'
'Before the duke closed the Library,' Ronnell said, some people were obsessed with Thesa, and with soliciting monies to hire Messengers to contact lost dots on the maps.'
'What's wrong with that?' Arlen asked.
'The king is three centuries dead, Arlen,' Ronnell said, 'and the dukes will make war before they bend knee to anyone but themselves. Talk of reunification reminds people of things they ought not remember.'
'Better to pretend that the walls of Miln are the entire world?' Arlen asked.
'Until the Creator forgives us and sends his Deliverer to end the plague,' Ronnell said.
'Forgives us for what?' Arlen asked. 'What plague?'
Ronnell looked at Arlen, his eyes a mix of shock and indignation. For a moment, Arlen thought the Tender might strike him. He steeled himself for the blow.
Instead, Ronnell turned to his daughter. 'Can he really not know?' he asked in disbelief.
Mery nodded. 'The Tender in Tibbet's Brook was… unconventional,' she said.
Ronnell nodded. 'I remember,' he said. 'He was an acolyte whose master was cored, and never completed his training. We always meant to send someone new…' He strode to his desk and began penning a letter. 'This cannot stand,' he said. 'What plague, indeed!'
He continued to grumble, and Arlen took it as a cue to edge for the door.
'Not so fast, you two,' Ronnell said. 'I'm very disappointed in you both. I know Cob is not a religious man, Arlen, but this level of negligence is really quite unforgivable.' He looked to Mery. 'And you, young lady!' he snapped. 'You knew this, and did nothing?'
Mery looked at her feet. 'I'm sorry, father,' she said.
'And well you should be,' Ronnell said. He drew a thick volume from his desk and handed it to his daughter. 'Teach him,' he commanded, handing her the canon. 'If Arlen doesn't know the book back and forth in a month, I'll take a strap to both of you!'
Mery took the book, and both of them scampered out as quickly as possible.
'We got off pretty easy,' Arlen said.
'Too easy,' Mery agreed. 'Father was right. I should have said something sooner.'
'Don't worry about it,' Arlen said. 'It's just a book. I'll have it read by morning.'
'It's not just a book!' Mery snapped. Arlen looked at her curiously.
'It's the word of the Creator, as penned by the first Deliverer,' Mery said.
Arlen raised an eyebrow. 'Honest word?' he asked.
Mery nodded. 'It's not enough to read it. You have to live it. Every day. It's a guide to bring humanity from the sin that brought about the plague.'
'What plague?' Arlen asked for what felt like the dozenth time.
'The demons, of course,' Mery said. 'The corelings.'
Arlen sat on the Library's roof a few days later, his eyes closed as he recited:
'And man again became prideful and bold,
Turning 'gainst Creator and Deliverer.
He chose not to honour Him who gave life,
Turning his back upon morality.
Man's science became his new religion,
Replacing prayer with machine and chemic,
Healing those meant to die,
He thought himself equal to his maker.
Brother fought brother, to benefit none.
Evil lacking without, it grew within,
Taking seed in the hearts and souls of men,
Blackening what was once pure and white.
And so the Creator, in His wisdom,
Called down a plague upon his lost children,
Opening the Core once again,
To show man the error of his ways.
And so it shall be,
Until the day He sends the Deliverer anew.
For when the Deliverer cleanses man,
Corelings will have naught to feed upon.
And lo, ye shall know the Deliverer
For he shall be marked upon his bare flesh
And the demons will not abide the sight
And they shall flee terrified before him.'
'Very good!' Mery congratulated with a smile. Arlen frowned. 'Can I ask you something?' he asked. 'Of course,' Mery said.
'Do you really believe that?' he asked. 'Tender Harral always said the Deliverer was just a man. A great general, but only a man. Cob and Ragen say so, too.'
Mery's eyes widened. 'You'd best not let my father hear you say that,' she warned.
'Do you believe the corelings are our own fault?' Arlen asked. 'That we deserve them?'
'Of course I believe,' she said. 'It is the word of the Creator.'
'No,' Arlen said. 'It's a book. Books are written by men. If the Creator wanted to tell us something, why would he use a book, and not write on the sky with fire?'
Mery said, looked up to the sky. 'It's hard sometimes to believe there's a Creator up there, watching,' she said, 'but how could it be otherwise? The world didn't create itself. What power would wards hold, without a will behind creation?'
'And the plague?' Arlen asked.
Mery shrugged. 'The histories tell of terrible wars,' she said. 'Maybe we did deserve it.'
'Deserve it?' Arlen demanded. 'My mam did not deserve to die because of some stupid war fought centuries ago!'
'Your mother was taken?' Mery asked, touching his arm. 'Arlen, I had no idea…'
Arlen yanked his arm away. 'It makes no difference,' he said, storming towards the door. 'I have wards to carve, though I hardly see the point, if we all deserve demons in our beds.'
There Must Be More
Leesha bent in the garden, selecting the day's herbs. Some, she pulled from the soil root and stalk. Others, she snapped off a few leaves, or used her thumbnail to pop a bud from its stem.
She was proud of the garden behind Bruna's hut. The crone was too old for the work of maintaining the small plot, and Darsy had failed to make the hard soil yield, but Leesha had the touch. Now, many of the herbs that she and Bruna had once spent hours searching for in the wild grew just outside their door, safe within the wardposts.
'You've a sharp mind and a green thumb,' Bruna had said when the soil birthed its first sprouts. 'You'll be a better Gatherer than I before long.'
The pride those words gave Leesha was a new feeling. She might never match Bruna, but the old woman was not one for kind words or empty compliment. She saw something in Leesha that others hadn't, and the girl did not want to disappoint.
Her basket filled, Leesha rose to her feet, brushed herself down, and headed towards the hut – if it could even be called a hut anymore. Erny had refused to see his daughter live in squalor, sending carpenters and roofers to shore up the weak walls and replace the frayed thatch. Soon there was little left that was not new, and additions had more than doubled the structure's size.
Bruna had grumbled about all the noise as the men worked, but her wheezing had eased now that the cold and wet were sealed outside. With Leesha caring for her, the old woman seemed to be getting stronger with the passing years, not weaker.
Leesha, too, was glad the work was completed. The men had begun looking at her differently, towards the end.
Time had given Leesha her mother's lush figure. It was something she had always wanted, but it seemed less an advantage now. The men in town watched her hungrily, and the rumours of her dallying with Gared, though years gone, still sat in the back of many minds, making more than one man think she might be receptive to a lewd, whispered offer. Most of these were dissuaded with a frown, and a few with slaps. Evin had required a puff of pepper and stinkweed to remind him of his pregnant bride. A fistful of the blinding powder was now one of many things Leesha kept in the multitude of pockets in her apron and skirts.
Of course, even if she had been interested in any of the men in town, Gared made sure none could get close to her. Any man other than Erny caught talking to Leesha about more than Herb Gathering received a harsh reminder that in the burly woodcutter's mind, she was still promised. Even Child Jona broke out in a sweat whenever Leesha so much as greeted him.
Her apprenticeship would be over soon. Seven years and a day had seemed an eternity when Bruna had said it, but the years had flown, and the end was but days away. Already, Leesha went alone each day to call upon those in town that needed an Herb Gatherer's service, asking Bruna's advice only very rarely, when the need was dire. Bruna needed her rest.
'The duke judges an Herb Gatherer's skill by whether more babies are delivered than people die each year,' Bruna had said that first day, 'but focus on what's in between, and a year from now the people of Cutter's Hollow won't know how they ever got along without you.' It had proven true enough. Bruna brought her everywhere from that moment on, ignoring the request of any for privacy. Having cared for the unborn of most of the women in town, and brewed pomm tea for half the rest, had them soon paying Leesha every courtesy, and revealing all the failings of their bodies to her without a thought.
But for all that, she was still an outsider. The women talked as if she were invisible, blabbing every secret in the village as freely as if she were no more than a pillow in the night.
'And so you are,' Bruna said, when Leesha dared to complain. 'It's not for you to judge their lives, only their health. When you put on that pocketed apron, you swear to hold your peace no matter what you hear. An Herb Gatherer needs trust to do her work, and trust must be earned. No secret should ever pass your lips, unless keeping it prevents you healing another.'
So Leesha held her tongue, and the women had come to trust her. Once the women were hers, the men soon followed, often with their women prodding at their back. But the apron kept them away, all the same. Leesha knew what almost every man in the village looked like unclothed, but had never been intimate, and the women might sing her praises and send her gifts, but there was not a one she could tell her own secrets to.
Yet despite all, Leesha had been far happier in the last seven years than she was in the thirteen before. Bruna's world was much wider than the one she had been groomed for by her mother. There was grief, when she was forced to close someone's eyes, but there was also the joy of pulling a child from its mother and sparking its first cries with a firm swat.
Soon, her apprenticeship would be over, and Bruna would retire for good. To hear her speak it, she would not live long after that. The thought terrified Leesha in more ways than one.
Bruna was her shield and her spear, her impenetrable ward against the town. What would she do without that ward? Leesha did not have it in her to dominate as Bruna had, barking orders
and striking fools. And without Bruna, who would she have that spoke to her as a person and not an Herb Gatherer? Who would weather her tears and witness her doubt? For doubt was a breach of trust as well. People depended on confidence from their Herb Gatherer.
In her most private thoughts, there was even more. Cutter's Hollow seemed small to her now. The doors unlocked by Bruna's lessons were not easily closed; a constant reminder not of what she knew, but of how much she did not. Without Bruna, that journey would end.
She entered the house, seeing Bruna at the table. 'Good morning,' she said. 'I didn't expect you up so early; I would have made tea before going into the garden.' She set her basket down and looked to the fire, seeing the steaming kettle near to boil.
'I'm old,' Bruna grumbled, 'but not so blind and crippled I can't make my own tea.'
'Of course not,' Leesha said, kissing the old woman's cheek, 'you're fit enough to swing an axe alongside the cutters.' She laughed at Bruna's grimace and fetched the meal for porridge.
The years together had not softened Bruna's tone, but Leesha seldom noticed it now, hearing only the affection behind the old woman's grumbling, and responding in kind.
'You were out gathering early today,' Bruna noted as they ate. 'You can still smell the demon stink in the air.'
'Only you could be surrounded with fresh flowers and complain of the stink,' Leesha replied. Indeed, she kept blooms throughout the hut, filling the air with sweetness.
'Don't change the subject,' Bruna said.
'A Messenger came last night,' Leesha said. 'I heard the horn.'
'Not a moment before sundown, too,' Bruna grunted. ' Reckless.' She spat on the floor.
'Bruna!' Leesha scolded. 'What have I told you about spitting inside the house?'
The crone looked at her, rheumy eyes narrowing. 'You told me this is my ripping home, and I can spit where I please,' she said.
Leesha frowned. 'I was sure I said something else,' she mused.
'Not if you're smarter than your bosom makes people think,' Bruna said, sipping her tea.
Leesha let her jaw drop in mock indignation, but she was used to far worse from the old woman. Bruna did and said as she pleased, and no one could tell her differently.
'So it's the Messenger that has you up and about so early,' Bruna said. 'Hoping it's the handsome one? What's his name? The one that makes puppy eyes at you?'
Leesha smiled wryly. 'More like wolf eyes,' she said.
'That can be good too!' the old woman cackled, slapping Leesha's knee. Leesha shook her head and rose to clear the table.
'What's his name?' Bruna pressed.
'It's not like that,' Leesha said.
'I'm too old for this dance, girl,' Bruna said. 'Name.'
'Marick,' Leesha said, rolling her eyes.
'Shall I brew a pot of Pomm tea for young Marick's visit?' Bruna asked.
'Is that all anyone thinks about?' Leesha asked. 'I like talking to him. That's all.'
'I'm not so blind I can't see that boy has more on his mind than talk,' Bruna said.
'Oh?' Leesha asked, crossing her arms. 'How many fingers am I holding up?'
Bruna snorted. 'Not a one,' she said, not even turning Leesha's way. 'I've been around long enough to know that trick,' she said, 'just as I know Maverick the Messenger hasn't made eye contact with you once in all your talks.'
'His name is Marick,' Leesha said again, 'and he does, too.'
'Only if he doesn't have a clear view of your neckline,' the crone said.
'You're impossible,' Leesha huffed.
'No cause for shame,' Bruna said. 'If I had paps like yours, I'd flaunt them too.'
'I do not flaunt!' Leesha shouted, but Bruna only cackled again.
A horn sounded, not far off.
'That will be young master Marick,' Bruna advised. 'You'd best hurry and primp.'
'It's not like that!' Leesha said again, but Bruna dismissed her with a wave.
'I'll put that tea on, just in case,' she said. Leesha threw a rag at the old woman and stuck out her tongue, moving towards the door.
Outside on the porch, she smiled in spite of herself as she waited for the Messenger. Bruna pushed her to find a man nearly as much as her mother did, but the crone did it out of love. She wanted only for Leesha to be happy, and Leesha loved her dearly for it. But despite the old woman's teasing, Leesha was more interested in the letters Marick carried than his wolf eyes.
Ever since she was young, she had loved Messenger days. Cutter's Hollow was a little place, but it was on the road between three major cities and a dozen hamlets, and between the Hollow's timber and Erny's paper, it was a strong part of the region's economy.
Messengers visited the Hollow at least twice a month, and while most mail was left with Smitt, they delivered to Erny and Bruna personally, frequently waiting for replies. Bruna corresponded with Gatherers in Forts Rizon and Angiers, Lakton, and several hamlets. As the crone's eyesight failed, the task of reading the letters and penning Bruna's replies fell to Leesha.
Even from afar, Bruna commanded respect. Indeed, most of the Herb Gatherers in the area had been students of hers at one time or another. Her advice was frequently sought to cure ailments beyond others' experience, and offers to send her apprentices came with every Messenger. No one wished for her knowledge to pass from the world.
'I'm too old to break in another novice!' Bruna would grouse, waving her hand dismissively, and Leesha would pen a polite refusal, something she had gotten quite used to.
All this gave Leesha many opportunities to talk with Messengers. Most of them leered at her, it was true, or tried to impress her with tales of the Free Cities. Marick was one of those.
But the Messengers' tales struck a chord with Leesha. Their intent might have been to charm their way into her skirts, but the pictures their words painted stayed with her in her dreams. She longed to walk the docks of Lakton, see the great warded fields of Fort Rizon, or catch a glimpse of Angiers, the forest fortress; to read their books and meet their Herb Gatherers. There were other guardians of knowledge of the old world, if she dared seek them out.
She smiled as Marick came into view. Even a ways off, she knew his gait, legs slightly bowed from a life spent on horseback. The Messenger was Angierian, barely as tall as Leesha at five foot seven, but there was a lean hardness about him, and Leesha hadn't exaggerated about his wolf eyes. They roved with predatory calm, searching for threats… and prey.
'Ay, Leesha!' he called, lifting his spear towards her.
Leesha lifted her hand in greeting. 'Do you really need to carry that thing in broad day?' she called, indicating the spear.
'What if there was a wolf?' Marick replied with a grin. 'How would I defend you?'
'We don't see a lot of wolves in Cutter's Hollow,' Leesha said, as he drew close. He had longish brown hair and eyes the colour of tree bark. She couldn't deny that he was handsome.
'A bear, then,' Marick said as he reached the hut. 'Or a lion. There are many kinds of predator in the world,' he said, eyeing her cleavage.
'Of that, I am well aware,' Leesha said, adjusting her shawl to cover the exposed flesh.
Marick laughed, easing his Messenger bag down onto the(porch. 'Shawls have gone out of style,' he advised. 'None of the(women in Angiers or Rizon wear them anymore.'
'I'll wager their dresses have higher necks, or their men mon subtlety,' Leesha replied.
'High necks,' Marick agreed with a laugh, bowing low. ' could bring you a high-necked Angierian dress,' he whispered drawing close.
'When would I ever have cause to wear that?' Leesha asked slipping away before the man could comer her.
'Come to Angiers,' the Messenger offered. 'Wear it there.'
Leesha sighed. 'I would like that,' she lamented.
'Perhaps you will get the chance,' the Messenger said slyby bowing and sweeping his arm to indicate that Leesha should enter the hut before him. Leesha smiled and went in, but she felt hi eyes on her backside as she did.
Bruna was back in her chair when they entered. Marick went to her and bowed low.
'Young master Marick!' Bruna said brightly. 'What a pleasant surprise!'
'I bring you greetings from Mistress Jizell of Angiers,' Marie said. 'She begs your aid in a troubling case.' He reached into hi bag and produced a roll of paper, tied with stout string.
Bruna motioned for Leesha to take the letter, and sat bad closing her eyes as her apprentice began to read.
'Honoured Bruna, Greetings from Fort Angiers in the year 32 AR,' Leesha began.
'Jizell yapped like a dog when she was my apprentice, and she writes the same way,' Bruna cut her off. 'I won't live forever, Skip to the case.'
Leesha scanned the page with a flick of her eyes, flipping it over and scanning the back, as well. She was on to the second sheet before she found what she was looking for.
'A boy,' Leesha said, 'ten years old. Brought into the hospit by his mother, complaining of nausea and weakness. No other symptoms or history of illness. Given grimroot, water, and bed rest. Symptoms increased over three days, with the addition of rash on arms, legs, and chest. Grimroot, raised to three ounces over the course of several days.
'Symptoms worsened, adding fever and hard, white boils growing out of the rash. Salves had no effect. Vomiting followed. Given heartleaf and poppy for the pain, soft milk for the stomach. No appetite. Does not appear to be contagious.'
Bruna sat a long while, digesting the words. She looked at Marick. 'Have you seen the boy?' she asked.
The Messenger nodded.
'Was he sweating?' Bruna asked.
'He was,' Marick confirmed, 'but shivering, too, like he was both hot and cold.'
Bruna grunted. 'What colour were his fingernails?' she asked.
'Fingernail colour,' Marick replied with a grin.
'Get smart with me and you'll regret it,' Bruna warned.
Marick blanched and nodded. The old woman questioned him for a few minutes more, grunting occasionally at his responses. Messengers were known for their sharp memories and keen observation, and Bruna did not seem to doubt him. Finally, she waved him into silence.
'Anything else of note in the letter?' she asked.
'She wants to send you another apprentice,' Leesha said. Bruna scowled.
'I have an apprentice, Vika, who has almost completed her training,' Leesha read, 'as, your letters tell, do you. If you are not willing to accept a novice, please consider an exchange of adepts.' Leesha gasped, and Marick broke into a knowing grin.
'I didn't tell you to stop reading,' Bruna rasped.
Leesha cleared her throat. 'Vika is most promising,' she read, 'and well equipped to see to the needs of Cutter's Hollow, as well as look after and learn from wise Bruna. Surely Leesha, too, could learn much ministering to the sick in my hospit. Please, I beg, let one more, at least, benefit from wise Bruna before she passes from this world.'
Bruna was quiet a long while. 'I will think on this a while before I reply,' she said at last. 'Go to your rounds in town, girl. We'll speak on this when you return.' To Marick, she said, 'You'll have a response tomorrow. Leesha will see to your payment.'
The Messenger bowed and backed out of the house as Bruna sat back and closed her eyes. Leesha could feel her heart racing, but she knew better than to interrupt the crone as she sifted through the many decades of her memory for a way to treat the boy. She collected her basket, and left to make her rounds.
Marick was waiting for her when Leesha came outside.
'You knew what was in that letter all along,' Leesha accused.
'Of course,' Marick agreed. 'I was there when she penned it.'
'But you said nothing,' Leesha said.
Marick grinned. 'I offered you a high-necked dress,' he said, 'and that offer still stands.'
'We'll see,' Leesha smiled, holding out a pouch of coins. 'Your payment,' she said.
'I'd rather you pay me with a kiss,' he said.
'You flatter me, to say my kisses are worth more than gold,' Leesha replied. 'I fear to disappoint.'
Marick laughed. 'My dear, if I braved the demons of the night all the way from Angiers and back and returned with but a kiss from you, I would be the envy of every Messenger ever to pass through Cutter's Hollow.'
'Well in that case,' Leesha said with a laugh, 'I think I'll keep my kisses a little longer, in hopes of a better price.'
'You cut me to the quick,' Marick said, clutching his heart. Leesha tossed him the pouch, and he caught it deftly.
'May I at least have the honour of escorting the Herb Gatherer into town?' he asked with a smile. He made a leg and held out his arm for her to take. Leesha smiled in spite of herself.
'I don't think we're there, yet,' she said, eying the arm, 'but you may carry my basket.' She hooked it on his outstretched arm and headed towards town, leaving him staring after her.
Smitt's market was bustling by the time they reached town. Leesha liked to select early, before the best produce was gone, and place her order with Dug the butcher before making her rounds.
'Good morn, Leesha,' said Yon Grey, the oldest man in Cutter's Hollow. His grey beard, a point of pride, was longer than most women's hair. Once a burly cutter, Yon had lost most of his bulk in his latter years, and now leaned heavily on his cane.
'Good morn, Yon,' she replied. How are the joints?'
'Pain me still,' Yon replied. "Specially the hands. Can barely hold my cane some days.'
'Yet you find it in you to pinch me whenever I turn 'round,' Leesha noted.
Yon cackled. 'To an old man like me, girlie, that's worth any pain.'
Leesha reached into her basket, pulling forth a small jar. 'It's well that I made you more sweetsalve, then,' she said. 'You've saved me the need to bring it by.'
Yon grinned. 'You're always welcome to come by and help apply,' he said with a wink.
Leesha tried not to laugh, but it was a futile effort. Yon was a dirty old man, but she liked him well enough. Living with Bruna had taught her that the eccentricities of age were a small price to pay for having a lifetime of experience to draw upon.
'You'll just have to manage yourself, I'm afraid,' she said.
'Bah!' Yon waved his cane in mock irritation. 'Well, you think on it,' he said. He looked to Marick before taking his leave, giving a nod of respect. 'Messenger.'
Marick nodded back, and the old man moved off.
Everyone at the market had a kind word of greeting for Leesha, and she stopped to ask after the health of each, always working, even while shopping.
Though she and Bruna had plenty of money from selling flamesticks and the like, no one would take so much as a klat in return for her selections. Bruna asked no money for healing, and no one asked money of her for anything else.
Marick stood protectively close as she squeezed fruit and vegetables with a practiced hand. He drew stares, but Leesha thought it was as much because he was with her than it was the presence of a stranger at market. Messengers were common enough in Cutter's Hollow.
She caught the eye of Keet – Stefhy's son, if not Smitt's. The boy was nearly eleven, and looked more and more like Tender Michel with each passing day. Stefny had kept her side of the bargain over the years, and not spoken ill of Leesha since she was apprenticed. Her secret was safe as far as Bruna was concerned, but for the life of her, Leesha could not see how Smitt failed to see the truth staring at him from the supper table each night.
She beckoned, and Keet came running. 'Bring this bag to Bruna once your chores allow,' she said, handing him her selections. She smiled at him and secretly pressed a klat into his hand.
Keet grinned widely at the gift. Adults would never take money from an Herb Gatherer, but Leesha always slipped children something for extra service. The lacquered wooden coin from Angiers was the main currency in Cutter's Hollow, and would buy Rizonan sweets for Keet and his siblings when the next Messenger came.
She was ready to leave when she saw Mairy, and moved to greet her. Her friend had been busy over the years; three children clung to her skirts now. A young glassblower named Benn had left Angiers to find his fortune in Lakton or Fort Rizon. He had stopped in the Hollow to ply his trade and raise a few more klats before the next leg of the journey, but then he met Mairy, and those plans dissolved like sugar in tea.
Now Benn plied his trade in Mairy's father's barn, and business was brisk. He bought bags of sand from Messengers out of Fort Krasia, and turned them into things of both function and beauty. The Hollow had never had a blower before, and everyone wanted glass of their own.
Leesha, too, was pleased by the development, and soon had Benn making the delicate components of distilleries shown in Bruna's books, allowing her to leach the strength from herbs and brew cures far more powerful than the Hollow had ever seen.
Soon after, Benn and Mairy wed, and before long, Leesha was pulling their first child from between Mairy's legs. Two more had followed in short order, and Leesha loved each like it was her own. She had been honoured to tears when they named their youngest after her.
'Good morning rascals,' Leesha said, squatting down and letting Mairy's children fall into her arms. She hugged them tightly and kissed them, slipping them pieces of candy wrapped in paper before rising. She made the candy herself, another thing she had learned from Bruna.
'Good morning, Leesha,' Mairy said, dipping a small curtsey. Leesha bit back a frown. She and Mairy had stayed close over the years, but Mairy looked at her differently now that she wore the pocketed apron, and nothing seemed able to change that. The curtsy seemed ingrained.
Still, Leesha treasured her friendship. Saira came secretly to Bruna's hut, begging pomm tea, but their relationship ended there. To hear the women in town tell it, Saira kept well enough entertained. Half the men in the village supposedly knocked on her door at one time or another, and she always had more money than the sewing she and her mother took in could bring.
Brianne was even worse in some ways. She had not spoken to Leesha in the last seven years, but had a bad word to say about her to everyone else. She had taken to seeing Darsy for her cures, and her dalliances with Evin had quickly given her a round belly. When Tender Michel had challenged her, she had named Evin the father, rather than face the town alone.
Evin had married Brianne with her father's pitchfork at his back and her brothers to either side, and had committed himself to making her and their son Callen miserable ever since.
Brianne had proven a fit mother and wife, but she never lost the weight she had put on during her pregnancy, and Leesha knew personally how Evin's eyes – and hands – wandered. Gossip had him knocking frequently on Saira's door.
'Good morning, Mairy,' she said. 'Have you met Messenger Marick?' Leesha turned to introduce the man, only to find he was no longer at her back.
'Oh, no,' she said, seeing him facing off with Gared across the market.
At fifteen, Gared had been bigger than any man in the village save his father. Now, at twenty-two, he was gigantic, close to seven feet of packed muscle, hardened by long days at the axe. It was said he must have Milnese blood, for no Angerian had ever been so large.
Word of his lie had spread throughout the village, and since then the girls had kept their distance, afraid to be alone with him.
Perhaps that was why he still coveted Leesha; perhaps he would have done so regardless. But Gared had not learned the lessons of the past. His ego had grown with his muscles, and now he was the bully everyone had known he would be. The boys that used to tease him now jumped at his every word, and if he was cruel to them, he was a terror to all others, especially any unwise enough to cast their eyes upon Leesha.
Gared waited for her still, acting as if Leesha were going to come to her senses one day and realize she belonged with him. Any attempts to convince him otherwise had been met with wood-headed stubbornness.
'You're not local,' she heard Gared say, poking Marick hard in the shoulder, 'so maybe ya haven't heard that Leesha's spoken for.' He loomed over the Messenger like a grown man over a young boy.
But Marick didn't flinch, or move at Gared's poke. He stood stark still, his wolf eyes never leaving Gared's. Leesha prayed he had the sense not to engage.
'Not according to her,' Marick replied, and Leesha's hopes fell. She started moving towards them, but already a crowd was forming around the men, denying her a clear path. She wished she had Bruna's stick to help her clear the way.
'Did she say words of promise to you, Messenger?' Gared demanded. 'She did to me.'
'So I've heard,' Marick replied. 'I've also heard you're the only fool in the Hollow who thinks those words mean a coreling's piss after you betrayed her.'
Gared roared and grabbed at the Messenger, but Marick was quicker, stepping smoothly to the side and snapping up his spear, thrusting the butt right between the woodcutter's eyes. He whipped the spear around in a smooth motion, striking behind Gared's knees as he staggered backwards, dropping him hard on his back.
Marick planted his spear back on the ground, standing over Gared, his wolf eyes coldly confident. 'I could have used the point,' he advised. 'You would do well to remember that. Leesha speaks for herself.'
Everyone in the crowd was gawking, but Leesha continued her desperate push forward, knowing Gared, and knowing that it was not over.
'Stop this idiocy!' she called. Marick glanced at her, and Gared used that moment to grab the end of his spear. The Messenger's attention snapped back, and he gripped the shaft with both hands to pull the spear free.
It was the last thing he should have done. Gared had a wood demon's strength, and even lying prone, none could match it. His corded arms flexed, and Marick found himself flying through the air.
Gared rose, and snapped the six-foot spear in half like a twig. 'Let's see how ya fight when yer not hiding behind a spear,' he said, dropping the pieces to the ground.
'Gared, no!' Leesha screamed, pushing past the last of the onlookers and grabbing his arm. He shoved her aside, never taking his eyes off Marick. The simple move sent her reeling back into the crowd, where she crashed into Dug and Niklas, going down in a tangle of bodies.
'Stop!' she cried helplessly, struggling to find her feet.
'No other man will have you,' Gared said. 'You'll have me, or you'll end up shrivelled and alone like Bruna!' He stalked towards Marick, who was only just getting his legs under him.
Gared swung a meaty fist at the Messenger, but again, Marick was quicker. He ducked the blow smoothly, landing two quick punches to Gared's body before retreating well ahead of Gared's wild return swing.
But if Gared even felt the blows, he showed no sign. They repeated the exchange, this time with Marick punching Gared full
in the nose. Blood spurted, and Gared laughed, spitting it from his mouth.
'That your best?' he asked.
Marick growled and shot forward, landing a flurry of punches. Gared could not keep up and hardly tried, gritting his teeth and weathering the barrage, his face red with rage.
After a few moments, Marick withdrew, standing in a catlike fighting stance, his fists up and ready. His knuckles were skinned, and he was breathing hard. Gared seemed little the worse for wear. For the first time, there was fear in Marick's wolf eyes.
'That all ya have?' Gared asked, stalking forward again.
The Messenger came at him again, but this time, he was not so quick. He struck once, twice, and then Gared's thick fingers found purchase on his shoulder, gripping hard. The Messenger tried to pull back out of reach, but he was held fast.
Gared drove his fist into the Messenger's stomach, and the wind exploded out of him. He struck again, this time to the head, and Marick hit the ground like a sack of potatoes.
'Not so smug now, are ya!' Gared roared. Marick rose to his hands and knees, struggling to rise, but Gared kicked him hard in the stomach, flipping him over onto his back.
Leesha was darting forward by then, as Gared knelt on top of Marick, landing heavy blows.
'Leesha is mine!' he roared, 'and any what says otherwise will…!'
His words were cut short as Leesha threw a full fist of Bruna's blinding powder in his face. His mouth was already open, and he inhaled reflexively, screaming as it burned into his eyes and throat, his sinuses seizing and his skin feeling as if burned with boiling water. He fell off Marick, rolling on the ground choking and clawing at his face.
Leesha knew she had used too much of the powder. A pinch would stop most men in their tracks, but a full fist could kill, causing people to choke on their own phlegm.
She scowled and shoved past the gawkers, snatching a bucket of water Stefny had been using to wash potatoes. She dumped it over Gared, and his convulsions eased. He would be blind for hours more, but she would not have his death on her hands.
'Our vows are broken,' she told him, 'now and forever. I will never be your wife, even if it means dying shrivelled and alone! I'd as soon marry a coreling!'
Gared groaned, showing no sign he had heard.
She moved over to Marick, kneeling and helping him to sit up. She took a clean cloth and daubed at the blood on his face. Already he was starting to swell and bruise.
'I guess we showed him, eh?' the Messenger asked, chuckling weakly and wincing at the pain it brought to his face.
Leesha poured some of the harsh alcohol Smitt brewed in his basement onto the cloth.
'Aahhh!' Marick gasped, as she touched him with it.
'Serves you right,' Leesha said. 'You could have walked away from that fight, and you should have, whether you could have won or not. I didn't need your protection, and I'm no more likely to give my affection to a man who thinks picking a fight is going to gain the favour of an Herb Gatherer than I am the town bully.'
'He was the one that started it!' Marick protested.
'I'm disappointed in you, Master Marick,' Leesha said. 'I thought Messengers came smarter than that.' Marick dropped his eyes.
'Take him to his room at Smitt's,' she said to some nearby men, and they moved quickly to obey. Most folk in Cutter's Hollow did, these days.
'If you're out of bed before tomorrow morning,' Leesha told the Messenger, 'I'll hear of it and be even more cross with you.'
Marick smiled weakly as the men helped him away.
'That was amazing!' Mairy gasped, when Leesha returned for her basket of herbs.
'It was nothing but stupidity that needed stopping,' Leesha snapped.
'Nothing?' Mairy asked. 'Two men locked together like bulls, and all you had to do to stop them was throw a handful of herbs!'
'Hurting with herbs is easy,' Leesha said, surprised to find Bruna's words on her lips, 'it's healing with them that's hard.'
It was well past high sun by the time Leesha finished her rounds and made it back to Bruna's hut.
'How are the children?' Bruna asked, as Leesha set her basket down. Leesha smiled. Everyone in Cutter's Hollow was a child in Bruna's eyes.
'Well enough,' she said, coming to sit on the low stool by Bruna's chair so the ancient Herb Gatherer could see her clearly. 'Yon Grey's joints still ache, but his mind is as young as ever. I gave him fresh sweetsalve. Smitt remains abed, but his cough is lessening. I think the worst is past.' She went on, describing her rounds while the crone nodded silently. Bruna would stop her if she had comment; she seldom did anymore.
'Is that all?' Bruna asked. 'What of the excitement young Keet tells me went on in the market this morning?'
'Idiocy is more like it,' Leesha said.
Bruna dismissed her with a wave. 'Boys will be boys,' she said. 'Even when they're men. It sounds like you dealt with it well enough.'
'Bruna, they could have killed each other!' Leesha said.
'Oh, pfaw!' Bruna said. 'You're not the first pretty girl to have men fight over her. You may not believe it, but when I was your age, a few bones were broken on my account, as well.'
'You were never my age,' Leesha teased. 'Yon Gray says they called you 'hag' when he was first learning to walk.'
Bruna cackled. 'So they did, so they did,' she said. 'But there was a time before then when my paps were as full and smooth as yours, and men fought like corelings to suckle them.'
Leesha looked hard at Bruna, trying to peel back the years and see the woman she had been, but it was a hopeless task. Even with all the exaggerations and tampweed tales taken into account, Bruna was a century old, at least. She would never say for sure, answering simply, 'I quit counting at a hundred,' whenever pressed.
'In any event,' Leesha said, 'Marick may be a bit swollen in the face, but he'll have no reason not to be on the road tomorrow.'
'That's well,' Bruna said.
'So you have a cure for Mistress Jizell's young charge?' Leesha asked.
'What would you tell her to do with the boy?' Bruna replied.
'I'm sure I don't know,' Leesha said.
'Are you?' Bruna asked. 'I'm not. Come now, what would you tell Jizell if you were me? Don't pretend you haven't thought about it.'
Leesha took a deep breath. 'The grimroot likely interacted poorly with the boy's system,' she said. 'He needs to be taken off it, and the boils will need to be lanced and drained. Of course, that still leaves his original illness. The fever and nausea could just be a chill, but the dilated eyes and vomit hint at more. I would try monkleaf with lady's brooch and ground adderbark, titrated carefully over a week at least.'
Bruna looked at her a long time, then nodded.
'Pack your things and say your goodbyes,' she said. 'You'll bring that advice to Jizell personally.'
The Road to Angiers
Every afternoon without fail, Erny came up the path to Bruna's hut. The Hollow had six Warders, each with an apprentice, but Erny did not trust his daughter's safety to anyone else. The little papermaker was the best Warder in Cutter's Hollow, and everyone knew it.
Often, he brought gifts his Messengers had secured from far-off places; books and herbs and hand-sewn lace. But gifts were not why Leesha looked forward to his visits. She slept better behind her father's strong wards, and seeing him happy these last seven years, was greater than any gift. Elona still caused him grief, of course, but not on the scale she once had.
But today, as Leesha watched the sun cross the sky, she found herself dreading her father's visit. This was going to hurt him deeply.
And her, as well. Erny was a well of support and love that she drew upon whenever things grew too hard for her. What would she do in Angiers without him? Without Bruna? Would any there see past her pocketed apron?
But whatever her fears about loneliness in Angiers, they paled against her greatest fear: that once she tasted the wider world, she would never want to return to Cutter's Hollow.
It wasn't until she saw her father coming up the path that Leesha realized she'd been crying. She dried her eyes and put on her best smile for him, smoothing her skirts nervously.
'Leesha!' her father called, holding out his arms. She fell into them gratefully, knowing that this might be the last time they played out this little ritual.
'Is everything all right?' Erny asked. 'I heard there was some trouble at the market.'
There were few secrets in a place as small as Cutter's Hollow. 'It's fine,' she said. 'I took care of it.'
'You take care of everyone in Cutter's Hollow, Leesha,' Erny said, squeezing her tightly. 'I don't know what we'd do without you.'
Leesha began to weep. 'Now, now, none of that,' Erny said, catching a tear off her cheek on his index finger and flicking it away. 'Dry your eyes and head on inside. I'll check the wards, and we can talk about what's bothering you over a bowl of your delicious stew.'
Leesha smiled. 'Mum still burning the food?' she asked.
'When it's not still moving,' Erny agreed. Leesha laughed, letting her father check the wards, while she laid the table.
'I'm going to Angiers,' Leesha said when the bowls were cleared, 'to study under one of Bruna's old apprentices.'
Erny was quiet a long time. 'I see,' he said at last. 'When?'
'As soon as Marick leaves,' Leesha said. 'Tomorrow.'
Erny shook his head. 'No daughter of mine is spending a week
on the open road alone with a Messenger,' he said. 'I'll hire a
caravan. It will be safer.'
'I'll be careful of the demons, da,' Leesha said.
'It's not just corelings I'm worried about,' Erny said pointedly.
'I can handle Messenger Marick,' Leesha assured him.
'Keeping a man off you in the dark of night isn't the same as stopping a brawl in the market,' Erny said. 'You can't leave a Messenger blind if you ever hope to make it off the road alive. Just a few weeks, I beg.'
Leesha shook her head. 'There's a child I'm needed to treat immediately.'
'Then I'll go with you,' Erny said.
'You'll do no such thing, Ernal,' Bruna cut in. 'Leesha needs to do this on her own.'
Erny looked at the old woman, and they locked stares and wills. But there was no will in Cutter's Hollow stronger than Bruna's, and Erny soon looked away.
Leesha walked her father out soon after. He did not want to go, nor did she want him to leave, but the sky was filled with colour, and already he would have to trot to make it home safely.
'How long will you be gone?' Erny asked, gripping the porch rail tightly and looking off in the direction of Angiers.
Leesha shrugged. 'That will depend on how much Mistress Jizell has to teach, and how much the apprentice she's sending here, Vika, has to learn. A couple of years, at least.'
'I suppose if Bruna can do without you that long, I can, too,' Erny said.
'Promise me you'll check her wards while I'm gone,' Leesha said, touching his arm.
'Of course,' Erny said, turning to embrace her.
'I love you, Da,' she said.
'And I, you, poppet,' Erny said, crushing her in his arms. 'I'll see you in the morning,' he promised before heading down the darkening road.
'Your father makes a fair point,' Bruna said, when Leesha came back inside.
'Oh?' Leesha asked.
'Messengers are men like any other,' Bruna warned.
'Of that, I have no doubt,' Leesha said, remembering the fight in the marketplace.
'Young master Marick may be all charm and smiles now,' Bruna said, 'but once you're on the road, he'll have his way, no matter what your wishes, and when you reach the forest fortress, Herb Gatherer or no, few will take the word of a young girl over that of a Messenger.'
Leesha shook her head. 'He'll have what I give him,' she said, 'and nothing more.'
Bruna's eyes narrowed, but she grunted, satisfied that Leesha was wise to the danger.
There was a sharp rap at the door just after first light. Leesha answered, finding her mother standing there, though Elona had not come to the hut since being expelled at the end of Bruna's broom. Her face was a thunderhead as she pushed right past Leesha.
On the sunny side of forty, Elona might still have been the most beautiful woman in the village, if not for her daughter. But being autumn to Leesha's summer had not humbled her. She might bow to Erny with gritted her teeth, but she carried herself like a duchess to all others.
'Not enough you steal my daughter, you have to send her away?' she demanded.
'Good morn to you as well, mother,' Leesha said, closing the door.
'You stay out of this!' Elona snapped. 'The witch has twisted your mind!'
Bruna cackled into her porridge. Leesha interposed herself between the two, just as Bruna was pushing her half-finished bowl away and wiping her sleeve across her mouth to retort.
'Finish your breakfast,' Leesha ordered, pushing the bowl back in front of her.
'I'm going because I want to, mother,' Leesha said. 'And when I return, I'll bring healing the likes of which Cutter's Hollow has not seen since Bruna was young.'
'And how long will it take this time?' Elona demanded. 'You've already wasted your best breeding years with your nose buried in dusty old books.'
'My best…!' Leesha stuttered. 'Mother, I'm barely twenty!'
'Exactly!' Elona shouted. 'You should have three children by now, like your friend the scarecrow. Instead, I watch as you pull babes from every womb in the village but your own.'
'At least she was wise enough not to shrivel hers with pomm tea,' Bruna muttered.
Leesha whirled on her. 'I told you to finish your porridge!' she said, and Bruna's eyes widened. She looked ready to retort, then grunted and turned her attention back to her bowl.
'I'm not a brood mare, mother,' Leesha said. 'There's more in life for me than that.'
'What more?' Elona pressed. 'What could be more important?'
'I don't know,' Leesha said honestly. 'But I'll know when I find it'
'And in the meantime, you leave the care of Cutter's Hollow to a girl you've never met and ham-hand Darsy, who nearly killed Ande, and half a dozen since.'
'It's only for a few years, mother,' Leesha said. 'My whole life, you called me useless, but now I'm supposed to believe the Hollow can't get on a few years without me?'
'What if something happens to you?' Elona demanded. 'What if you're cored on the road? What would I do?'
'What would you do?' Leesha asked. 'For seven years, you've barely said a word to me, apart from pressing me to forgive Gared. You don't know anything about me anymore, mother. You haven't bothered. So don't pretend now that my death would be some great loss to you. If you want Gared's child on your knee so badly, you'll have to bear it yourself.'
Elona's eyes widened, and like when Leesha was wilful as a child, her response was swift. 'I forbid it!' she shouted, her open hand flying at Leesha's face.
But Leesha was not a child anymore. She was of a size with her mother, faster and stronger. She caught Elona's wrist and held it fast. 'The days when your word carried weight with me are long past, mother,' Leesha said.
Elona tried to pull away, but Leesha held on a bit, if only to show she could. When she was finally released, Elona rubbed her wrist and looked scornfully at her daughter. 'You'll be back one day, Leesha,' she swore. 'Mark my words! And it will be much worse for you then!'
'I think it's time you left, mother,' Leesha said, opening the door just as Marick was raising his hand to knock. Elona snarled and pushed past him, stomping down the path.
'Apologies if I'm intruding,' Marick said. 'I came for Mistress Bruna's response. I'm bound for Angiers by midmorning.'
Leesha looked at Marick. His jaw was bruised, but his thick tan hid it well, and the herbs she had applied to his split lip and eye had kept the swelling down.
'You seem well recovered,' she said.
'Quick healers go far in my line of work,' Marick said.
'Well then fetch your horse,' Leesha said, 'and return in an hour. I will deliver Bruna's response personally.'
Marick smiled widely.
'It is good that you go,' Bruna said, when they were alone at last. 'Cutter's Hollow holds no more challenges for you, and you're far too young to stagnate.'
"It you think that wasn't a challenge,' Leesha said, 'then you weren't paying attention.'
'A challenge, perhaps,' Bruna said, 'but the outcome was never in doubt. You've grown too strong for the likes of Elona.'
Strong, she thought. Is that what I've become? It didn't feel that way most of the time, but it was true, none of the inhabitants of Cutter's Hollow frightened her anymore.
Leesha gathered her bags, small and seemingly inadequate; a few dresses and books, some money, her herb pouch, a bedroll, and food. She left her pretties, the gifts her father had given her and other possessions near to her heart. Messengers travelled light, and Marick would not take well to having his horse overburdened. Bruna had said Jizell would provide for her during her training, but still, it seemed precious little to start a new life with.
A new life. For all the stress of the idea, it brought excitement, as well. Leesha had read every book in Bruna's collection, but Jizell had a great many more, and the other Herb Gatherers in Angiers, if they could be persuaded to share, held more still.
But as the hour drew to a close, Leesha felt as if the breath were being squeezed from her. Where was her father? Would he not see her off?
'It's nearly time,' Bruna said. Leesha looked up and realized her eyes were wet.
'We'd best say our goodbyes,' Bruna said. 'Odds are, we'll never have another chance.'
'Bruna, what are you saying?' Leesha asked.
'Don't play the fool with me, girl,' Bruna said. 'You know what I mean. I've lived my share twice over, but I'm not going to last forever.'
'Bruna,' Leesha said, 'I don't have to go…'
'Pfagh!' Bruna said with a wave of her hand. 'You've mastered all I can teach you, girl, so let these years be my last gift to you. Go,' she prodded, 'see and learn as much as you can.'
She held out her arms, and Leesha fell into them. 'Just promise me, that you'll look after my children when I'm gone. They can be stupid and wilful, but there's good in them, when the night is dark.'
'I will,' Leesha promised. 'And I'll make you proud.'
'You could never do otherwise,' the old woman said.
Leesha sobbed into Bruna's rough shawl. 'I'm scared, Bruna,' she said.
'You'd be a fool not to be,' Bruna said, 'but I've seen a good piece of the world myself, and I've never seen a thing you couldn't handle.'
Marick led his horse up the path not long after. The Messenger had a fresh spear in his hand, and his warded shield was slung over the horn of his saddle. If the pummelling he had taken the day before pained him in any way, he gave no sign.
'Ay, Leesha!' he called when he saw her. 'Ready to begin your adventure?'
Adventure. The word cut past sadness and fear, sending a thrill through her.
Marick took Leesha's bags, slinging them on top of his lean Angierian courser as Leesha turned to Bruna one last time. 'I'm too old for goodbyes that last half the day,' Bruna said. 'Take care of yourself, girl.'
The old woman pressed a pouch into her hands, and Leesha heard the clink of Milnese coin, worth a fortune in Angiers. Bruna turned and went inside before Leesha could protest.
She pocketed the pouch quickly. The sight of metal coin this far from Miln could tempt any man, even a Messenger. They walked on opposite sides of the horse down the path to town, where the main road led on to Angiers. Leesha called to her father as they passed his house, but there was no reply. Elona saw them pass and went inside, slamming the door behind her.
Leesha hung her head. She had been counting on seeing her father one last time. She thought of all the villagers she saw every day, and how she hadn't had time to part with them all properly. The letters she had left with Bruna seemed woefully inadequate.
As they reached the centre of town, though, Leesha gasped. Her father was waiting there, and behind him, lining the road, was the entire town. They went to her one by one as she passed, some kissing her and others pressing gifts into her hands. 'Remember us well and return,' Erny said, and Leesha hugged him tightly, squeezing her eyes shut to ward off tears.
'The Hollowers love you,' Marick remarked as they rode through the woods. Cutter's Hollow was hours behind them, and the day's shadows were growing long. Leesha sat before him on his courser's wide saddle, and the beast seemed to bear it and their baggage well.
'There are times,' Leesha said, 'when I even believe it myself
'Why shouldn't you believe it?' Marick asked. 'A beauty like the dawn who can cure all ills? I doubt any could help but love you.'
Leesha laughed. 'A beauty like the dawn?' she asked. 'Find the poor Jongleur you stole that line from and tell him never to use it again.'
Marick laughed, his arms tightening around her. 'You know,' he said in her ear, 'we never discussed my fee for escorting you.'
'I have money,' Leesha said, wondering how far her coin would go in Angiers.
'So do I,' Marick laughed, 'I'm not interested in money.'
'Then what kind of price did you have in mind, master Marick?' Leesha asked. 'Is this another play for a kiss?'
Marick chuckled, his wolf eyes glinting. 'A kiss was the price to bring you a letter. Bringing you safely to Angiers will be much more… expensive.' He shifted his hips behind her, and his meaning was clear.
'Always ahead of yourself,' Leesha said. 'You'll be lucky to get the kiss at this rate.'
'We'll see,' Marick said.
They made camp soon after. Leesha prepared supper while Marick set the wards. When the stew was ready, she crumbled a few extra herbs into Marick's bowl before handing it to him.
'Eat quick,' Marick said, taking the bowl and shovelling a large spoonful into his mouth. 'You'll want to get in the tent before the corelings rise. Seeing them up close can be scary.'
Leesha looked over at the tent Marick had pitched, barely big enough for one.
'It's small,,' he winked, 'but we'll be able to warm each other in the chill of night.'
'It's summer,' she reminded him.
'Yet I still feel a cold breeze whenever you speak,' Marick chuckled. 'Perhaps we can find a way to melt that. Besides,' he gestured past the circle, where misty forms of corelings had already begun to rise, 'it's not as if you can go far.
He was stronger than her, and her struggles against him did as little good as her refusals. With the cries of corelings as their backdrop, she suffered his kisses and pawing at her, hands fumbling and rough. And when his manhood failed him, she comforted him with soothing words, offering remedies of herb and root, which only worsened his condition.
Sometimes he grew angry, and she was afraid he might strike her. Other times he wept, for what kind of man could not spread his seed? Leesha weathered it all, for the trial was not too high a price for passage to Angiers.
I am saving him from himself, she thought each time she dosed his food, for what man wished to be a rapist? But the truth was, she felt little remorse. She took no pleasure in using her skills to break his weapon, but deep down, there was a cold satisfaction, as if all her female ancestors throughout the untold ages since the first man who forced a woman to the ground were nodding in grim approval that she had unmanned him before he could unmaiden her.
The days passed slowly, with Marick's mood shifting from sour to spoiled as each night's failure mounted upon him. The last night, he drank deep from his wineskin, and seemed ready to leap from the circle and let the demons have him. Her relief was palpable when Leesha saw the forest fortress spread out before them in the wood. She gasped at the sight of the high walls, their lacquered wards hard and strong, large enough to encompass Cutter's Hollow many times over.
The streets of Angiers were covered with wood to prevent demons from rising inside; the entire city was a boardwalk. Marick took her deep into the city, and set her down outside Jizell's hospit. He gripped her arm as she turned to go, squeezing hard, hurting her.
'What happened out beyond the walls,' he said, 'stays out there.'
'I won't tell anyone,' Leesha said.
'See that you don't,' Marick said. 'Because if you do, I'll kill you,' he promised.
'I swear,' Leesha said. 'Gatherer's word.'
Marick grunted and released her, pulling hard on his courser's bridle and cantering off.
A smile touched the corners of Leesha's mouth as she gathered her things and headed towards the hospit.
Fiddle Me a Fortune
There was smoke, and fire, and a woman screamed above the coreling shrieks.
I love you!
Rojer started awake, his heart racing. Dawn had broken over the high walls of Fort Angiers, soft light filtering in through the cracks in the shutters. He held his talisman tightly in his good hand as the light grew, waiting for his heart to still. The tiny doll, a child's creation of wood and string topped with a lock of her red hair, was all he had left of his mother.
He didn't remember her face, lost in the smoke, or much else about that night, but he remembered her last words to him. He heard them over and over in his dreams.
I love you!
He rubbed the hair between the thumb and ring finger of his crippled hand. Only a jagged scar remained where his first two fingers had been, but because of her, he had lost nothing else.
I love you!
The talisman was Rojer's secret ward, something he didn't even share with Arrick, who had been like a father to him. It helped him through the long nights when darkness closed heavily around him and the coreling screams made him shake with fear.
But day had come, and the light made him feel safe again. He kissed the tiny doll and returned it to the secret pocket he had sewn into the waistband of his motley pants. Just knowing it was there made him feel brave. He was ten years old.
Rising from his straw mattress, Rojer stretched and stumbled out of the tiny room, yawning. His heart fell as he saw Arrick passed out at the table. His master was slumped over an empty bottle, his hand wrapped tightly around its neck as if to choke a few last drops from it.
They both had their talismans.
Rojer went over and pried the bottle from his master's fingers.
'Who? Wazzat?' Arrick demanded, half lifting his head.
'You fell asleep at the table again,' Rojer said.
'Oh, 's you, boy,' Arrick grunted. 'Thought it'uz tha' ripping landlord again.'
'The rent's past due,' Rojer said. 'We're set to play Small Square this morning.'
'The rent,' Arrick grumbled. 'Always the rent.'
'If we don't pay today,' Rojer reminded, 'Master Keven promised he'd throw us out.'
'So we'll perform,' Arrick said, rising. He lost his balance and attempted to catch himself on the chair, but he only served to bring it down on top of him as he hit the floor.
Rojer went to help him up, but Arrick pushed him away. 'I'm fine!' he shouted, as if daring Rojer to differ as he rose unsteadily to his feet. 'I could do a backflip!' he said, looking behind him to see if there was room. His eyes made it clear he was regretting the boast.
'We should save that for the performance,' Rojer said quickly.
Arrick looked back at him. 'You're probably right,' he agreed, both of them relieved.
'My throat's dry,' Arrick said. 'I'll need a drink before I sing.'
Rojer nodded, running to fill a wooden cup from the pitcher of water.
'Not water,' Arrick said. 'Bring me wine. I need a claw from the demon that cored me.'
'We're out of wine,' Rojer said.
'Then run and get me some,' Arrick ordered. He stumbled to his purse, tripping as he did and just barely catching himself. Rojer ran over to support him.
Arrick fumbled with the strings a moment, then lifted the whole purse and slammed it back down on the wood. There was no retort as the cloth struck, and Arrick growled.
'Not a klat!' he shouted in frustration, throwing the purse. The act took his balance, and he turned a full circle trying to right himself before dropping to the floor with a thud.
He gained his hands and knees by the time Rojer got to him, but he retched, spilling wine and bile all over the floor. He made fists and convulsed, and Rojer thought he would retch again, but after a moment he realized his master was sobbing.
'It was never like this when I worked for the duke,' Arrick moaned. 'Money was spilling from my pockets, then.'
Only because the duke paid for your wine, Rojer thought, but he was wise enough to keep it to himself. Telling Arrick he drank too much was the surest way to provoke him into a rage.
He cleaned his master up and supported the heavy man to his mattress. Once he was passed out on the straw, Rojer got a rag to clean the floor. There would be no performance today.
He wondered if Master Keven would really put them out, and where they would go if he did. The Angierian wardwall was strong, but there were holes in the net above, and wind demons were not unheard of. The thought of a night on the street terrified him.
He looked at their meagre possessions, wondering if there was something he could sell. Arrick had sold Geral's destrier and warded shield when times had turned sour, but the Messenger's portable circle remained. It would fetch a fair price, but Rojer would not dare sell it. Arrick would drink and gamble with the money, and there would be nothing left to protect them when they were finally put out in the night for real.
Rojer, too, missed the days when Arrick worked for the Duke. Arrick was loved by Rhinebeck's whores, and had they treated Rojer like he was their own. Hugged against a dozen perfumed bosoms a day, they gave him sweets and taught him to help them paint and preen. He hadn't seen his master as much then; Arrick had often left him in the brothel when he went off to the hamlets, his sweet voice delivering ducal edicts far and wide.
But the Duke hadn't cared for finding a young boy curled in the bed when he stumbled into his favourite whore's chambers one night, drunk and aroused. He wanted Rojer gone, and Arrick with him. Rojer knew it was his fault that they lived so poorly now. Arrick, like his parents, had sacrificed everything to care for him.
But unlike his parents, Rojer could give something back to Arrick.
Rojer ran for all he was worth, hoping the crowd was still there. Even now, many would come to an advertised engagement of the Sweetsong, but they wouldn't wait forever.
Over his shoulder, he carried Arrick's 'bag of marvels'. Like their clothes, the bag was made from a Jongleur's motley of coloured patches, faded and threadbare. The bag was filled with the instruments of a Jongleur's art. Rojer had mastered them all, save the coloured juggling balls.
His bare feet slapped the boardwalk, too calloused to fear splinters from the worn wood. Rojer had boots and gloves to match his motley, but he left them behind. He preferred the firm grip of his toes to the worn soles of his bell-tipped, motley boots, and he hated the gloves.
Arrick had stuffed the fingers of the right glove with cotton to hide the ones Rojer was missing. Slender thread connected the false digits to the remaining ones, making them bend as one. It was a clever bit of trickery, but Rojer was ashamed each time he pulled the constrictive thing onto his crippled hand. Arrick insisted he wear them, but his master couldn't hit him for something he didn't know about.
A grumbling crowd milled about Small Square as Rojer arrived; perhaps a score of people, some of those children. Rojer could remember a time when word that Arrick Sweetsong might appear drew hundreds from all ends of the city and even the hamlets nearby. He would have been singing in the temple to the Creator then, or the duke's amphitheatre. Now, Small Square was the best the Guild would give him, and he couldn't even fill that.
But any money was better than none. If even a dozen left Rojer a klat apiece, it might buy another night from Master Keven, so long as the Jongleur's Guild did not catch him performing without his master. If they did, overdue rent would be the least of their troubles.
With a 'Whoot!' he danced through the crowd, throwing handfuls of dyed wingseeds from the bag. The seedpods spun and fluttered in his wake, leaving a trail of bright colour.
'Arrick's apprentice!' one crowd member called. 'The Sweetsong will be here after all!'
There was applause, and Rojer felt his stomach lurch. He wanted to tell the truth, but Arrick's first rule of jongling was never to say or do anything to break a crowd's good mood.
The stage at Small Square had three tiers. The back was a wooden shell designed to amplify sound and keep inclement weather off the performers. There were wards inscribed into the wood, but they were faded and old. Rojer wondered if they would grant succour to him and his master, should they be put out tonight.
He raced up the steps, handspringing across the stage and throwing the collection hat just in front of the crowd with a precise snap of his wrist.
Rojer warmed every crowd for his master, and for a few minutes, he fell into that routine, cartwheeling about and telling jokes, performing magic tricks, and mumming the foibles of well-known authority figures. Laughter. Applause. Slowly, the crowd began to swell. Thirty. Fifty. But more and more began to murmur, impatient for the appearance of Arrick Sweetsong. Rojer's stomach tightened, and he touched the talisman in its secret pocket for strength.
Staving off the inevitable as long as he could, he called the children forward to tell them the story of the Return. He mummed the parts well, and some nodded in approval, but there was disappointment on many faces. Didn't Arrick usually sing the tale? Wasn't that why they came?
'Where is the Sweetsong?' someone called from the back. He was shushed by his neighbours, but his words hung in the air. By the time Rojer had finished with the children, there were general grumbles of discontent.
'I came to hear a song!' the same man called, and this time others nodded in agreement.
Rojer knew better than to oblige. His voice had never been strong, and it cracked whenever he held a note for more than a few breaths. The crowd would turn ugly if he sang.
He turned to the bag of marvels for another option, passing over the juggling balls in shame. He could catch and throw well enough with his crippled right hand, but with no index finger to put the correct spin on the ball and only half a hand to catch with, the complex interplay between both hands when juggling was beyond him.
'What kind of Jongleur can't sing and can't juggle?!' Arrick would shout sometimes. Not much of one, Rojer knew.
He was better with the knives in the bag, but calling audience members up to stand by the wall while he threw required a special license from the Guild. Arrick always chose a buxom girl to assist, who more often than not ended up in his bed after the performance.
'I don't think he's coming,' he heard that same man say. Rojer cursed him silently.
Many of the other crowd members were slipping away, as well. A few tossed klats in the hat out of pity, but if Rojer didn't do something soon, they would never have enough to satisfy Master Keven. His eyes settled on the fiddle case, and he snatched it quickly, seeing that only a few onlookers remained. He pulled out the bow, and as always, there was a Tightness in the way it fit his crippled hand. His missing fingers weren't needed here.
No sooner than he put bow to string, music filled the square. Some of those that were turning away stopped to listen, but Rojer paid them no mind.
Rojer didn't remember much about his father, but he had a clear memory of Jessum clapping and laughing as Arrick fiddled. When he played, Rojer felt his father's love, like he did his mother's when he held his talisman. Safe in that love, fear fell away and he lost himself in the vibrating caress of the strings.
Usually, he played only an accompaniment to Arrick's singing, but this time Rojer reached beyond that, letting his music fill the space Sweetsong would have occupied. The fingers of his good left hand were a blur on the frets, and soon the crowd began clapping a tempo for him to weave the music around. He played faster and faster as the tempo grew louder, dancing around the stage in time to the music. When he put his foot on one of the steps on the stage and pushed off into a backflip without missing a note, the crowd roared.
The sound broke his trance, and he saw the square was filled, with people even crowded outside to hear. It had been some time since even Arrick drew such a crowd! He almost missed a stroke in his shock, and gritted his teeth to hold on to the music until it became his world again.
'That was a good performance,' a voice congratulated as Rojer counted the lacquered wooden coins in the hat. Nearly three hundred klats! Keven would not pester them for a month.
'Thank you…' Rojer began, but his voice caught in his throat as he looked up. Masters Jasin and Edum stood before him. Guildsmen.
'Where's your master, Rojer?' Edum asked sternly. He was a master actor and mummer whose plays were said to draw audience members from as far as Fort Rizon.
Rojer swallowed hard, his face flushing hot. He looked down, hoping they would take his fear and guilt as shame. 'I… I don't know,' he said. 'He was supposed to be here.'
'Drunk again, I'll wager,' Jasin snorted. Also known as Goldentone, a name he was said to have given himself, he was a singer of some note, but more importantly, he was the nephew of Janson, Duke Rhinebeck's First Minister, and made sure the entire world knew it. 'Old Sweetsong is pickled sour these days.'
'It's a wonder he's kept his license this long,' Edum said. 'I heard he soiled himself in the middle of his act last month.'
'That's not true!' Rojer said.
'I'd be more worried about myself, if I were you, boy,' Jasin said, pointing a long finger in Rojer's face. 'Do you know the penalty for collecting money for an unlicensed performance?'
Rojer paled. Arrick could lose his license over this. If the Guild brought the matter to the magistrate as well, they could both find themselves chopping wood with chained ankles.
Edum laughed. 'Don't worry, boy,' he said. 'So long as the Guild has its cut,' he helped himself to a large portion of the wooden coins Rojer had collected, 'I don't think we need to make further note of this incident.'
Rojer knew better than to protest as the men divided and pocketed over half the take. Little, if any, would actually find its way to the coffers of the Jongleur's Guild.
'You've got talent, boy,' Jasin said as they turned to go. 'You might want to consider a master with better prospects. Come see me if you tire of cleaning up after old Soursong.'
Rojer's disappointment only lasted until he shook the collection hat. Even half was more than he had ever hoped to make. He hurried back to the inn, pausing only to make a single stop. He made his way to Master Keven, whose face was a thunderhead as the boy approached.
'You'd better not be here to beg for your master, boy,' he said.
Rojer shook his head, handing the man a purse. 'My master says there's enough there for a tenday,' he said.
Keven's surprise was evident as he hefted the bag and heard the satisfying clack of wooden coins within. He hesitated a moment, then grunted and pocketed the purse with a shrug.
Arrick was still asleep when he returned. Rojer knew his master would never realize the innkeep had been paid. He would avoid the man assiduously, and congratulate himself on making it ten days without paying.
He left the few remaining coins in Arrick's purse. He would tell his master he had found them loose in the bag of marvels. It was rare for that to happen since money became tight, but Arrick wouldn't question his fortune once he saw what else Rojer had bought.
Rojer placed the wine bottle by Arrick's side as he slept.
Arrick was up before Rojer the next morning, checking his makeup in a cracked hand mirror. He wasn't a young man, but neither was he so old that the tools in a Jongleur's paint box couldn't make him look so. His long, sun-bleached hair was still more gold than grey, and his brown beard, darkened with dye, concealed the growing wattle beneath his chin. The paint matched his tanned skin so closely that the wrinkles around his blue eyes were all but invisible.
'We got lucky last night, m'boy,' he said, contorting his face to see how the paint held, 'but we can't avoid Keven forever. That hairy badger will catch us sooner or later, and when he does, I'd like more than…' he reached into the purse, pulling out the coins and flicking the lot into the air, 'six klats to our name.' His hands moved too fast to follow, snatching the coins out of the air and putting them into a comfortable rhythm in the air above him.
'Have you been at your juggling, boy?' he asked.
Before Rojer could open his mouth to reply, Arrick flicked one of the klats his way. Rojer was wise to the ruse, but ready or not, he felt a stab of fear as he caught the coin in his left hand and tossed it up into the air. More coins followed in rapid succession, and he fought for control as he caught them with his crippled hand and tossed them to the other to be put into the air again.
By the time he had four coins going, he was terrified. When Arrick added a fifth, Rojer had to dance wildly to keep them all moving. Arrick thought better of tossing the sixth and waited patiently instead. Sure enough, Rojer fell to the floor in a clatter of coins a moment later.
Rojer cringed in anticipation of his master's tirade, but Arrick only sighed deeply. 'Put your gloves on,' he said. 'We need to go out and fill our purse.'
The sigh cut even deeper than a shout and a cuff on the ear. Anger meant Arrick expected better. A sigh meant his master had given up.
'No,' he said. The word slipped out before he could stop it, but once it hung there in the air between them, Rojer felt the rightness of it, like the fit of the bow in his crippled hand.
Arrick blustered through his moustache, shocked at the boy's audacity.
'The gloves, I mean,' Rojer clarified, and saw Arrick's expression change from anger to curiosity. 'I don't want to wear them anymore. I hate them.'
Arrick sighed and uncorked his new bottle of wine, pouring a cup.
'Didn't we agree,' he said, pointing at Rojer with the bottle, 'that people would be less likely to hire you if they knew your infirmity?' he asked.
'We never agreed,' Rojer said. 'You just told me to start wearing the gloves one day.'
Arrick chuckled. 'Hate to disillusion you, boy, but that's how it is between masters and apprentices. No one wants a crippled Jongleur.'
'So that's all I am?' Rojer asked. 'A cripple?'
'Of course not,' Arrick said. 'I wouldn't trade you for any apprentice in Angiers. But not everyone will look past your demon scars to see the man within. They will label you with some mocking name, and you'll find them laughing at you and not with.'
'I don't care,' Rojer said. 'The gloves make me feel like a fraud, and my hand is bad enough without the fake fingers making it clumsier. What does it matter why they laugh, if they come and pay klats to do it?'
Arrick looked at him a long time, tapping his cup. 'Let me see the gloves,' he said at last.
They were black, and reached halfway up his forearm. Bright coloured triangles of cloth were sewn to the ends, with bells attached. Rojer tossed them to his master with a frown.
Arrick caught the gloves, looked at them for half a moment, and then tossed them out the window, brushing his hands together as if touching the gloves had left them unclean.
'Grab your boots and let's go,' he said, tossing back the remains of his cup.
'I don't really like the boots either,' Rojer dared.
Arrick smiled at the boy. 'Don't push your luck,' he warned with a wink.
Guild law allowed licensed Jongleurs to perform on any street corner, so long as they did not block traffic or hinder commerce. Some vendors even hired them to attract attention to their booths, or the common rooms of taverns.
Arrick's drinking had alienated most of the latter, so they performed in the street. Arrick was a late sleeper, and the best spots had long since been staked out by other Jongleurs. The space they found wasn't ideal; a corner on a side street far from the main lanes of traffic.
'It'll do,' Arrick grunted. 'Drum up some business, boy, while I setup.'
Rojer nodded and ran off. Whenever he found a likely cluster of people, he cartwheeled by them, or walked by on his hands, the bells sewn into his motley ringing an invitation.
'Jongleur show!' he cried. 'Come see Arrick Sweetsong perform!'
Between his acrobatics and the weight still carried by his master's name, he drew a fair bit of attention. Some even followed him on his rounds, clapping and laughing at his antics.
One man elbowed his wife. 'Look, it's the crippled boy from Small Square!'
'Are you sure?' she asked.
'Just look at his hand!' the man said.
Rojer pretended not to hear, moving on in search of more customers. He soon brought his small following to his master, finding Arrick juggling a butcher knife, a meat cleaver, a hand axe, a small stool, and an arrow in easy rhythm, joking with a growing crowd of his own.
'And here comes my assistant,' Arrick called to the crowd, 'Rojer Halfgrip!'
Rojer was already running forward when the name registered. What was Arrick doing?
It was too late to slow, though, so he put his arms out and flung himself forward, cartwheeling into a triple backflip to stand a few yards from his master. Arrick snatched the butcher knife from the deadly array in the air before him and flicked it Rojer's way.
Fully expecting the move, Rojer went into a spin, catching the blunt and specially weighted knife easily in his good left hand. As he completed the circuit, he uncoiled and threw, sending the blade spinning right at Arrick's head.
Arrick, too, went into a spin, and came out of the circuit with the blade held tightly in his teeth. The crowd cheered, and as the blade went back up into rhythm with the other implements, a wave of klats clicked into the hat.
'Rojer Halfgrip!' Arrick called. 'With only ten years and eight fingers, he's still deadlier with a knife than any grown man!'
The cloud applauded. Rojer held his crippled hand up for all to see, and the crowd ooohed and aahed over it. Already, Arrick's suggestion had most of them believing he made that catch and throw with his crippled hand. They would tell others, and exaggerate in the telling. Rather than risk Rojer being labelled by the crowd, Arrick had labelled him first.
'Rojer Halfgrip,' he murmured, tasting the name on his tongue.
'Hup!' Arrick called, and Rojer turned as his master flung the arrow at him. He slapped his hands together, catching the missile just before it struck his face. He spun again, putting his back to the crowd. With his good hand, he threw the arrow between his legs back towards his master, but when he finished the move and faced the crowd, his crippled right hand was extended. 'Hup!' he called back.
Arrick feigned fear, dropping the blades he was juggling, but the stool fell into his hands just in time for the arrow to stick in its centre. Arrick studied it as if amazed at his own good fortune. He flicked his wrist as he pulled the arrow free, and it became a bouquet of flowers, which he bestowed on the prettiest woman in the crowd. More coins clattered into the hat.
Seeing his master moving on to magic, Rojer ran to the bag of marvels for the implements Arrick would need for his tricks. As he did, there came a cry from the crowd.
'Play your fiddle!' a man called. As he did, there was a general buzz of agreement. Rojer looked up to see the same man who had called so loudly for Sweetsong the day before.
'In the mood for music are we?' Arrick asked the crowd, not missing a beat. He was answered with a cheer, so Arrick went to the bag and took the fiddle, tucking it under his chin and turning back to the audience. But before he could put bow to string, the man cried out.
'Not you, the boy!' he bellowed. 'Let Halfgrip play!'
'Of course,' Arrick said, 'you want the boy to play so I can sing.'
But the crowd didn't seem to hear, chanting 'Halfgrip! Halfgrip!' Arrick looked to Rojer, his face a mask of irritation. Finally he shrugged, handing his apprentice the instrument.
Rojer took the fiddle with shaking hands. 'Never upstage your master' was a rule apprentices learned early. But the crowd was calling for him to play, and again, the bow felt so right in his crippled hand, free of the cursed glove. He closed his eyes, feeling the stillness of the strings under his fingertips, and then brought them to a low hum. The crowd quieted as he played softly for a few moments, stroking the strings like the back of a cat, making it purr.
The fiddle came alive in his hands, then, and he led it out like a partner in a reel, sweeping it into a whirlwind of music. He forgot the crowd. He forgot Arrick. Alone with his music, he explored new harmonies even as he maintained a constant melody, improvising in time to the tempo of clapping that seemed a world removed.
He had no idea how long it went on. He could have stayed in that world forever, but there was a sharp twang, and something stung his hand. He shook his head to clear it and looked up at the wide-eyed and silent crowd.
'String broke,' he said sheepishly. He glanced at his master, who stood in the same shock as the other onlookers. Arrick raised his hands slowly and began to clap.
The crowd followed soon after, and it was thunderous.
'You're going to make us rich with that fiddling, boy,' Arrick said, counting their take. 'Rich!'
'Rich enough to pay the back dues you owe the Guild?' a voice asked.
They turned to see Master Jasin leaning against the wall. His two apprentices, Sali and Abrum, stood close by. Sali sang soprano with a clear voice as beautiful as she was ugly. Arrick sometimes joked that if she wore a horned helmet, audiences would mistake her for a rock demon. Abrum sang bass, his voice a deep thrum that made the planked streets vibrate. He was tall and lean, with gigantic hands and feet. If Sali was a rock demon, he was surely a wood.
Like Arrick, Master Jasin was an alto, his voice rich and pure. He wore expensive clothes of fine blue wool and gold thread,
spurning the motley that most of his profession wore. His long black hair and moustache were oiled and meticulously groomed.
Jasin was a man of average size, but that made him no less dangerous. He had once stabbed a Jongleur in the eye during an argument over a particular corner. The magistrate ruled it self defence, but that wasn't how the talk in the apprentice room of the guildhouse told it.
Jasin's uncle Janson was First Minister of Angiers. In the palace, his voice was second only to the duke's. On the streets, it was an open secret that a percentage of every thief and cutpurse's take made its way up to him.
'The payment of my guild dues is no concern of yours, Jasin,' Arrick said, quickly dumping the coins in the bag of marvels.
'Your apprentice may have talked your way out of missing that performance yesterday, Soursong, but his fiddle can't succour you forever.' As he spoke, Abrum snatched Rojer's fiddle from his hands and broke it over his knee. 'Sooner or later, the Guild will have your license.'
'The Guild would never give up Arrick Sweetsong,' Arrick said, 'but even if they did, Jasin would still be known as 'Secondsong'.'
Jasin scowled, for many in the Guild already used that name, and the master was known to fly into rages at its utterance. He and Sali advanced on Arrick, who held the bag protectively. Abrum backed Rojer against a wall, keeping him from going to his master's aid.
But this wasn't the first time they had needed to fight to defend their take. Rojer dropped straight down on his back, coiling like a spring and kicking straight up. Abrum screamed, his normally deep voice taking on a different pitch.
'I thought your apprentice was a bass, not a soprano,' Arrick said. When Jasin and Sali spared a glance to their companion, his quick hands darted into the bag of marvels, sending a fistful of wingseeds spinning in the air before them.
Jasin lunged through the cloud, but Arrick sidestepped and tripped him easily, bringing the bag around in a hard swing at Sali, hitting the bulky woman full in the chest. She might have kept her feet, but Rojer was in position, kneeling behind her. She fell hard, and before the three could recover, Arrick and Rojer ran off down the boardwalk.
The roof of the Duke's Library in Miln was a magical place for Arlen. On a clear day, the world spread out below him, a world unrestrained by walls and wards, stretching on into infinity. It was also the place where Arlen first looked at Mery, and truly saw her.
His work in the library was nearly complete, and he would soon be returning to Cob's shop. He watched the sun play over the snow capped mountains and fall on the valley below, trying to memorize the sight forever, and when he turned to Mery, he wanted to do the same for her. She was fifteen, and more beautiful by far than mountains and snow.
Mery had been his closest friend for over a year, but Arlen had never thought more of her than that. Now, seeing her limned in golden sunlight, cold mountain wind blowing the long brown hair from her face as she hugged her arms against the swell of her bosom to ward off the chill, she was suddenly a young woman, and he a young man. His pulse quickened at the way her skirts flared in the breeze, edges of lace hinting of petticoats beneath.
He said nothing as he stepped forward, but she caught the look in his eyes, and smiled. 'It's about time,' she said.
He reached out, tentatively, and traced the back of his hand down her cheek. She leaned in to the touch, and he tasted her sweet breath, kissing her. It was soft at first, hesitant, but it deepened as she responded, becoming something with a life of its own, something hungry and passionate, something that had been building inside him for over a year without his knowing.
Some time later, their lips parted with a soft pop, and they smiled nervously. Arms around one another, they looked out over Miln, sharing in the glow of young love.
'What do you want from life, Arlen?' Mery asked. 'What do you dream?'
Arlen was quiet for some time. 'I dream of freeing the world from the corelings,' he said.
Her thoughts having gone another way, Mery laughed at the unexpected response. She did not mean to be cruel, but the sound cut at him like a lash. 'You think yourself the Deliverer, then?' she asked. 'How will you do this?'
Arlen drew away from her a little, feeling suddenly vulnerable, i don't know,' he admitted. 'I'll start by Messaging. I've already saved enough money for armour and a horse.'
Mery shook her head. 'That will never do, if we're to marry,' she said.
'We're to marry?' Arlen asked in surprise, amazed at the tightness in his throat.
'What, am I not good enough?' Mery asked, pulling away and looking indignant.
'No! I never said…' Arlen stuttered.
'Well, then,' she said. 'Messaging may bring money and honour, but it's too dangerous, especially once we have children.'
'We're having children now?' Arlen squeaked.
Mery looked at him as if he were an idiot. She went on, ignoring him as she thought things through. 'No, it will never do.
You'll need to be a Warder, like Cob. You'll still get to fight demons, but you'll be safe with me instead of riding down some coreling-infested road.'
'I don't want to be a Warder,' Arlen said. 'It was never more than a means to an end.'
'What end?' Mery asked. 'Lying dead on the road?'
'No,' Arlen said. 'That won't happen to me.'
'What will you gain as a Messenger that you can't as a Warder?'
'Escape,' Arlen said without thinking.
Mery fell silent. She turned her head to avoid his eyes, and after a few moments, slipped her arm from his. She sat quietly, and Arlen found sadness only made her more beautiful still.
'Escape from what?' she asked at last. 'From me?'
Arlen looked at her, drawn in ways he was only just beginning to understand, and his throat caught. Would it be so bad to stay? What were the chances of finding another like Mery?
But was that enough? He'd never wanted family. They were attachments he did not need. Arlen called to mind the image that had sustained him for the last three years, seeing himself riding down the road, free to roam. As always, the thought swelled him, until he turned to look again at Mery. The fantasy fled, and all he could think about was kissing her again.
'Not you,' he said, taking her hands. 'Never you.' Their lips met again, and for a time, his thoughts touched on nothing else.
'I have assignment to Harden's Grove,' Ragen said, referring to a small farming hamlet a full day's ride from Fort Miln. 'Would you care to join me, Arlen?' 'Ragen, no!' Elissa cried.
Arlen glared, but Ragen grabbed his arm before he could speak. 'Arlen, may I have a moment alone with my wife?' he asked gently. Arlen wiped his mouth and excused himself.
Ragen closed the door after him, but Arlen refused to let his fate be decided out of his hands, and circled around through the kitchen, listening at the servant's entrance. The cook looked at him, but Arlen looked right back, and the man kept to his own business.
'He's too young!' Elissa was saying.
'Lissa, he'll always be too young for you,' Ragen said. 'Arlen is sixteen, and he's old enough to make a simple day trip.'
'You're encouraging him!'
'You know foil well Arlen needs no encouragement from me,' Ragen said.
'Enabling him, then,' Elissa snapped. 'He's safer here!'
'He'll be safe enough with me,' Ragen said. 'Isn't it better that he makes his first few trips with someone to supervise him?'
'I'd rather he not make his first few trips at all,' Elissa said acidly. 'If you cared about him, you'd feel the same.'
'Night, Lissa, it's not like we'll even see a demon. We'll reach the grove before sunset and leave after sunrise. Regular folk make the trip all the time.'
'I don't care,' Elissa said. 'I don't want him going.'
'It's not your choice,' Ragen reminded.
'I forbid it!' Elissa shouted.
'You can't!' Ragen shouted back. Arlen had never heard him raise his voice to her.
'Just you watch me,' Elissa snarled. 'I'll drug your horses! I'll chop every spear in two! I'll throw your armour in the well to rust!'
'Take away every tool you want,' Ragen said through gritted teeth, 'and Arlen and I will still leave for Harden's Grove tomorrow, on foot, if need be.'
'I'll leave you,' Elissa said quietly.
'You heard me,' she said. 'Take Arlen out of here, and I'll be gone before you get back.'
'You can't be serious,' Ragen said.
'I've never been more serious in my life,' Elissa said. 'Take him and I go.'
Ragen was quiet a long time. 'Look, Lissa,' he said finally. 'I know how upset you've been that you haven't gotten pregnant…'
'Don't you dare bring that into this!' Elissa growled.
'Arlen is not your son!' Ragen shouted. 'No amount of smothering will ever make it so! He is our guest, not our child!'
'Of course he's not our child!' Elissa shouted. 'How could he be when you're out delivering ripping letters whenever I cycle?'
'You knew what I was when you married me,' Ragen reminded her.
'I know,' Elissa replied, 'and I'm realizing that I should have listened to my mother.'
'What's that supposed to mean?' Ragen demanded.
'It means I can't do this anymore,' Elissa said, starting to cry. 'The constant waiting, wondering if you'll ever come home; the scars you claim are nothing. The praying that the scant few times we make love will conceive before I'm too old. And now, this!
'I knew what you were when we married,' she sobbed, 'and I thought I had learned to handle it. But this… Ragen, I just can't bear the thought of losing you both. I can't!'
A hand rested on Arlen's shoulder, giving him a start. Margrit stood there, a stern look on her face. 'You shouldn't be listening to this,' she said, and Arlen felt ashamed for his spying. He was about to leave when he caught the Messenger's words.
'All right,' Ragen said. 'I'll tell Arlen he can't come, and stop encouraging him.'
'Really?' Elissa sniffled.
'I promise,' Ragen said. 'And when I get back from Harden's Grove,' he added, 'I'll take a few months off and keep you so fertilized that something can't help but grow.'
'Oh, Ragen!' Elissa laughed, and Arlen heard her fall into his arms.
'You're right,' Arlen told Margrit. 'I had no right to listen to that.' He swallowed the angry lump in his throat. 'But they had no right to discuss it in the first place.'
He went up to his room and began packing his things. Better to sleep on a hard pallet in Cob's shop than in a soft bed that came at the cost of his right to make his own decisions.
For months, Arlen avoided Ragen and Elissa. They stopped by Cob's shop often to see him, but he was not to be found. They sent servants to make overtures, but the results were the same.
Without use of Ragen's stable, Arlen bought his own horse and practiced riding in the fields outside the city. Mery and Jaik often accompanied him, the three of them growing closer. Mery frowned upon the practice, but they were all still young, and the simple joy of galloping a horse about the fields drove other feelings away.
Arlen worked with increasing autonomy in Cob's shop, taking calls and new customers unsupervised. His name became known in warding circles, and Cob's profits grew. He hired servants and took on more apprentices, leaving the bulk of their training to Arlen.
Most evenings, Arlen and Mery walked together, taking in the colours of the sky. Their kisses grew hungrier, both wanting more, but Mery always pulled away before it went too far.
'You'll be done with your apprenticeship in another year,' she kept saying. 'We can marry the next day, if you wish, and you can ravish me every night from then on.'
One morning when Cob was away from the shop, Elissa paid a visit. Arlen, busy talking to a customer, didn't notice her until it was too late.
'Hello, Arlen,' she said when the customer left.
'Hello, Lady Elissa,' he replied.
'There's no need to be so formal,' Elissa said.
'I think informality confused the nature of our relationship,' Arlen replied. 'I don't want to repeat the error.'
'I've apologized again and again, Arlen,' Elissa said. 'What will it take for you to forgive me?'
'Mean it,' Arlen answered. The two apprentices at the workbench looked at one another, then got up in unison and left the room.