By The Sword
Book One: Kerowyn’s Ride
Everyone turned and stared; at Kero, and at the boy about to lose the towering platter of bread. The racket of pots and voices stopped, and Kerowyn’s voice rang out in the silence like a trumpet call, but no one answered this call to arms. They all seemed confused or frozen with indecision. The scullion staggered two more steps forward; the edible sculpture, two clumsy, obese bread-deer (a stag and a reclining doe), began sliding from the oversized serving dish he was attempting to carry alone.
Idiots! Kerowyn swore again, this time with an oath her mother would have blanched to hear, but it seemed as if she was the only one with the will or brains to act. She sprinted across the slickly damp floor of the kitchen, and caught the edge of the platter just as the enormous subtlety of sweet, egg-glazed dough started to head for the flagstones.
The lumpy mountain stopped just short of the carved display plate’s edge. She held it steady while young Derk, sweating profusely, regained his breath and his balance, and took the burden of twenty pounds of sweet, raisin-studded bread back from her.
He got the thing properly settled on his shoulder and headed for the Great Hall to place it before the wedding party. Kero listened for a moment, then heard the shouts and applause from beyond the kitchen door as the bread sculpture appeared. The clamor in the kitchen resumed.
Kero licked sweat from her upper lip, and sighed. She would have liked to have staggered backward and leaned against the wall to catch her breath, but she didn’t dare take the time, not at this point in the serving. The moment she paused there would undoubtedly be three more near disasters; if she took her attention away from the preparations, the tightly-planned schedule would fall apart.
She knew very well she really shouldn’t be here. She probably should have been out there with the rest of the guests, playing Keep Lady; that was what would have been “proper.”
To the six hells with “proper.” If Father wants this feast to be a success, I have to be in here, not playing the lady.
The kitchen was as hot as any one of the six hells, and crowded with twice the number of people it was intended to hold. The cook, an immense man with the build of a wrestler, and his young helpers were all squeezed in behind one side of a huge table running the entire length of the kitchen. Normally they worked on both sides, but tonight the servers were running relay with platters and bowls on the other side, and may the gods help anyone in the way.
Kero chivvied her recruited corps of horse-grooms out the door. They were a lot more used to being served from the beer pitchers they were carrying than doing the serving themselves. Then she spotted something out of the corner of her eye and paused long enough to snatch up a wooden spoon. She used it to reach across the expanse of scarred wooden tabletop and whack one of the pages on the knuckles. She got him to rights, too, trying to steal a fingerful of icing from the wedding cake standing in magnificent isolation on the end of the table butted up against the wall. The boy yelped and jumped back, colliding with one of the cook’s helpers and earning himself a black look and another whack with a spoon.
“Leave that be, Perry!” she scolded, brandishing the spoon at him. “That’s for after the ceremony, and don’t you forget it! You can eat yourself sick on the scraps tomorrow for all I care, but you leave it alone tonight, or more than your knuckles will be hurting, I promise you.”
The shock-haired boy whined a halfhearted apology and started to sulk; to stave off a sullen fit she shoved a handful of trencher slabs across the table at him and told him to go see that the minstrels were fed.
Some day ... spoiled brat. I wish Father’d send him back to his doting mama. A cat’s more use than he is, especially when everybody’s too busy to keep an eye on him.
Fortunately, all Perry had to do was show up with the slabs of trencher bread and the minstrels would see to their own feeding. Kero hadn’t met a songster yet that didn’t know how to help himself at a feast.
The first meat course was over; time for the vegetable pies, and the dishes straw-haired Ami had been plunging into her tub with frantic haste were done just in time. Kero sent the next lot in, laden with heavy pies and stacks of bowls, just as the remains of the venison and the poor, hacked up bits of the bread-deer came in.
It’s a good thing that monstrosity didn’t hit the ground, she reflected soberly, snagging Perry as he slouched in behind the servers and sending him back out again with towels for the wedding guests to wipe their greasy fingers. What with Dierna’s family device being the red deer and all, her people would have taken that as a bad omen for sure. There was no subtlety for this course, thank all the gods and goddesses—
Not that Father didn’t want one. More dough sculpture, this time a rampant stag—as a testament to my darling brother’s virility, no doubt. It’s a good thing Cook had a fit over all the nonsense that was already going to wind up being crammed into the oven!
There was a momentary lull, as the last of the emptied dishes arrived and the last of the servers staggered out; and everyone in the kitchen took a moment to sag over a table or against the wall, fanning overheated faces. Kero thought longingly of the cool night air just beyond the thick planks of the door at her back. But her father’s Seneschal poked his nose in the doorway, and she pushed away from the worn wood with a suppressed sigh.
“Any complaints so far?” she asked him, her voice clear and carrying above the murmur of the helpers and the roar of the fire under the ovens.
“Just that the service is slow,” Seneschal Wendar replied, mopping his bald head with his sleeve. “Audria’s Teeth, child, how do you stand it in here? You could bake the next course on the counters!”
Kero shrugged. Because I don’t have a choice. “I’m used to it, I suppose, I’ve been here since before dawn. Anyway, you know I’ve supervised everything since before Mother died.” The simple words only called up a dull ache now; that priest had been right—
—time did make sorrow fade, at least it had for her. Time, and being too busy to breathe.
“I’m sorry I can’t do much about the service,” she continued, keeping an ear cocked for the sounds of the servers returning. “There’s only so much stableboys and hire-swords can learn about the server’s art in a couple of candlemarks.”
“I know that, my dear.” The Seneschal, a thin, tired-looking man who had been the scribe and accountant with Rathgar’s old mercenary company, laid a fatherly hand on her arm, and she resisted the urge to shrug it off. “I think you’re doing remarkably well, better than I would have, and I mean that sincerely. I can’t imagine how you’ve managed all this with as little help as you’ve had.”
Because Father was too tightfisted to hire extra help for me, and too full of pride to settle for anything less than a princely wedding feast. Lord Orsen Brodey consented to this marriage; Lord Orsen Brodey must be shown that we ‘re no jumped-up barbarians ... even if Rathgar’s daughter has to spend the entire feast in the kitchen with the hirelings....
She felt her cheeks and ears flush with anger. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t—not that she really wanted to be out in the Great Hall either, showing off for potential suitors and their lord-fathers. Bad enough that Rathgar never thought of her; worse that he’d think of her only in terms of being marriage bait.
Which he would, if he ever thought past Lordan’s marriage ... Lordan’s far more important marriage. After all, he was the male and the heir ... Kero was only a girl.
Kero set her jaw and tried to look cheerful, or at least indifferent, but something of her resentment must have penetrated the careful mask of calm and competence she was trying to cultivate. Wendar patted her arm again and looked distressed.
“I wish I could help,” he said unhappily. “I told your father three years ago, when—when—”
“When Mother died,” Kero said shortly.
He coughed. “Uh, indeed. I told him that you needed a housekeeper, but he wouldn’t hear of ft. He said you were already doing very well, and you didn’t need any help.”
Kero clenched her teeth, then relaxed with an effort. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Father—” She clamped her lips tight on what she was going to say; it wouldn’t do any good, it wouldn’t change anything.
But the sentence went on inside her head. Father never really notices anything about me so long as I stay out of sight, his dinner arrives on time, and the Keep doesn’t smell like a stable. I suppose if anyone had mentioned that a fourteen-year-old girl shouldn’t be forced into the job of Keep Lady alone, he’d have said that the girls in his village were married and mothers by fourteen. Never mind that the most any of them had to manage alone was a two-room cottage and a flock of sheep, and usually didn’t like even that....
She sighed, and finished her sentence in a way that wouldn’t put more strain on Wendar than he was already coping with. “Father had other things to worry about. And so do you, Wendar. You’ve got a hall full of guests out there, and no one keeping an eye on the servitors.”
Wendar swore, and hurried back toward the door into the Great Hall, just as the wave of servants returned with the dirty dishes from the last course. Wendar sidestepped the rush, and dodged between two of them and through the doorway.
Stuffed pigeons were next; a course that required nothing more than the bread trenchers. That would give the kitchen staff enough time to clean the platters now being brought in before the fish course of eel pies was served.
A full High Feast, and who was it had to figure out how our little backwoods Keep could come up with enough courses to satisfy the requirements? Me, of course. Tubs full of eel in the garden for days, the moat stocked with fish in a net-pen, crates of pigeons and hens driving us all crazy ... let’s not talk about the rest of the livestock. Kero rubbed her arms, and rerolled the sleeves of her flour-covered, homespun shirt a little higher. Damn these skirts. Breeches would be easier. The helpers get to wear breeches, so why can’t I? She wondered if Dierna had any notion of how much work a High Feast was. She ought to; she’d been trained by the Sisters of Agnetha—in fact she’d been sent to the Sisters’ cloister at the ripe age of eight, so she ought to have had time to learn the “womanly arts.”
Dierna ought to have had proper instruction in those womanly arts too, as well as the art of being womanly, whatever that meant ... unlike Kero, as Rathgar was so prone to remind her whenever she failed to live up to his notion of “womanly.”
Selective memory, she told herself bitterly. He keeps forgetting that he was the one who decided he couldn’t do without me. Wheat-crowned Agnetha was Rathgar’s idea of the appropriate sort of deity for a lady to worship—unlike wild, horse-taming Agnira, Kero’s favorite. There was a shrine to Agnetha in the Keep chapel, though the other aspects of the LadyTrine were only represented by little bas-reliefs carved into the pedestal of Agnetha’s statue. There in the heart of the chapel, Agnetha smiled with honeyed sweetness over her twin babies, her wheat sheaves at her feet, her cloak of fruit-laden vines around her, her distaff dangling from her belt of flowers, sheep gazing up at her adoringly. While on the pedestal, alternating snowflakes and hoofprints were all there was to show of the other two aspects, Agnoma and Agnira. Rathgar approved of Agnetha, occasionally waxing maudlin over his somewhat sketchy devotion when in his cups.
Well, after the feast, the wedding, and the month-long bridal moon, Kero could probably give up the keys of the Keep to Dierna. That would bring an end to the farce of pretending to enjoy being mewed up in the kitchen, still-room or bower day after endlessly boring day. Dierna was pliant enough to satisfy both Rathgar and his son, and she seemed competent when Kero had taken her on a quick tour when the girl first arrived.
Kero shook herself out of her reverie as the servitors appeared with platters piled high with soaked trencher bread. She had them dump the bread into sacks waiting for distribution to the poor. Time for the bowls and eel-pies.
Cook was head-and-shoulders deep into the oven, removing the next subtlety, and Kero overheard one of his assistants giving orders for the pies to be carried out first.
“Hold it right there!” she snapped, freezing the servants where they stood. She stalked to the table, plain brown linen skirts flaring, and countermanded the order, physically taking a pie away from one poor confused lad and shoving a pile of clean bowls into his hands instead. The harried young man didn’t care; all he wanted was someone to give him the right thing to carry in, and tell him what he was to do with it.
Kero repeated the instructions she’d given them all for the soup course, as she passed out further piles of bowls. “One bowl for every two guests, put the bowl between them, when you’ve finished placing the bread, go to the sideboard, get trencher bread, give each guest a trencher, then come back and get a pie.”
It made a kind of chant as she repeated herself for each servingman. Outside, Wendar would be directing the men to their tables; no matter that they’d been going to the same places all night. By now they were tired and numb with the noise and the work, and all they were thinking of was when the feast could be over so they could eat and drink themselves into a celebratory stupor.
Dierna was probably beginning to wilt under all this by now. That much Kero didn’t envy her. When the older girl had taken her on that round of the Keep duties, she’d been a little shy—and Kero knew very well how sheltered the girls trained by the Sisters tended to be. Not ignorant, no; the Sisters made certain their charges were well-educated in the realities of life as well as domestic skills. But perhaps that was the problem; Dierna was like a young squire who has watched swordwork all his young life and only now, at fifteen, was going to pick up a blade. She knew what was supposed to happen, but was unprepared for the reality of the situation.
The first of the servitors returned for his pie, and Kero made certain he didn’t take it without a towel wrapped about his hands. She wondered, as she passed out towels and pies in a seemingly endless stream, what Rathgar would do or say the first time dinner was inedible or there were no clean shirts for him.
Probably nothing. Or else he’d find a way to blame Kero.
What is wrong with the man? she asked herself in frustration for the thousandth time. I’m doing the best that I can with what he allows me! It wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t pick faults that no one else cares about. Maybe if I’d talked him round to doing without me and gone to the cloister....
She watched the cook prepare the next subtlety, an enormous copy of the Keep itself complete with edible landscaping, and made sure that two men were assigned to carry it out. The mingled odors of meat and fish and fowl weren’t at all appetizing right now; in fact, they made her stomach churn. When this was all over, the most she’d want would be bread and cheese, and maybe a little cider.
Or maybe the problem that made her stomach churn was the thought of what could have happened if she’d actually gone to the cloisters. While not mages, the Sisters had a reputation for being able to uncover things people would rather have been left secret. What if Kero had gone, and the reputation was more than just kitchen gossip? What if the Sisters had found her out?
Father has had plenty to say about Grandmother. “The old witch” was the most civil thing he’s ever called her. What if he’d found out he had a young witch of his own?
He’d have birthed a litter of kittens, that’s what he’d have done. Then disowned me. It’s bad enough that I ride better than Lordan and train my own beasts; it’s worse that I hunt stag and boar with the men. It’s worse when I wear Lordan’s castoffs to ride. But if he ever found out about my apparently being witch-born, I think he’d throw me out of the Keep.
The mingled cooking odors still weren’t making her in the least hungry; she helped Cook decorate the next course with sprigs of watercress and other herbs, chewed a sprig of mint to cool her mouth and told her upset stomach to settle itself.
“What if” never changes anything, she reminded herself. He never did more than play with the idea, and he didn’t want to take the chance that Wendar couldn’t handle things. After all, the only thing Wendar has ever done was keep track of the books and manage the estate. There’s more to managing a Keep than doing the accounts. She set sprigs of cress with exaggerated care. Come to think of it, Wendar may have discouraged Father in the first place from sending me away. I suppose I can’t blame him, he has more than enough to do without having to run the Keep, too. That may be why Father kept saying that it wasn’t “convenient” for me to go.
Why did Mother have to die, anyway? she thought in sudden anger. Why should I have been left with all this on my hands?
For a moment, she was actually angry at Lenore—then guilt for thinking that way made her flush, and she hid her confused blushes by getting a drink from the bucket of clean drinking water in the corner of the kitchen farthest from the ovens.
She stared down into the bucket for a moment, unhappy and disturbed. Why am I thinking things like that? It’s wrong; Mother didn’t mean to die like that. It wasn’t her fault, and she did the best she could to get me ready when she knew she wasn’t going to get better. She couldn’t have known Father wouldn’t hire anyone to help me.
And I guess it’s just as well I didn’t end up with the Sisters, and for more reasons than having witch-blood. They probably wouldn’t have approved of me either, hunting and hawking like a boy, out riding all the time. At least at home I’ve had chances to get away and enjoy myself; at the cloister I’d never have gotten out.
Agnetha’s Sheaves—how can anybody stand this without going mad? Kitchen to bower, bower to stillroom, stillroom back to kitchen. Potting, preserving, and drying; then spinning and weaving and sewing. Running after the servants like a tell-tale, making sure everybody does his job. Scrubbing and dusting and laundry; polishing and mending. Cooking and cooking and cooking. Brewing and baking. At least at home I can run outside and take a ride whenever it gets to be too much—
There was a sudden stillness beyond the kitchen door, and something about the silence made Kero raise her head and glance sharply at the open doorway.
Then the screaming began.
For one moment, she assumed that the disturbance was just something they’d all anticipated, but hoped to avoid. This could be an old feud erupting into new violence. Rathgar had, after all, invited many of his neighbors, including men who had long-standing disagreements with each other, though not with Rathgar himself. That was why all weapons were forbidden in the Hall, and not especially welcome within the Keep walls. Except for Rathgar’s men, of course. No one would have felt safe guarded by men armed only with flower garlands and headless pikes. Rathgar had anticipated that too much drink might awaken old grievances or create new ones, and rouse tempers to blows.
But after that fleeting thought, Kero somehow knew that this was something far more serious than a simple quarrel between two hot-tempered men, new grievance or old. Rathgar could handle either of those, and the noise was increasing, not abating.
And that same nebulous instinct told her that she’d better not go see what was wrong in person.
She braced herself against the wall with one hand, a hand of cold fear between her shoulder blades, and she realized that it was time to try something she had seldom dared attempt inside the Keep.
She closed her eyes, and opened her mind to the thoughts of those around her.
The walls she had forged about her mind had been wrought painfully over the years, and she didn’t drop them lightly, especially with so many people about. At first she had thought she was going mad with grief over her mother’s death, but chance reading had shown her otherwise. Her grandmother, the sorceress Kethry, had left several books with Lenore, and after her mother’s death, these had been given to Kero along with Lenore’s other personal possessions. Kero had never known what had prompted her to pick out that particular book, but she had blessed the choice as goddess-sent. The book had proved to her that the “voices” she had been hearing were really the strongest thoughts of those around her. More importantly to a confused young girl, the book had taught her how to block those voices out.
But now she was going to have to remove those comforting barriers, for at least a moment.
The clamor that flooded into her skull wasn’t precisely painful, but it was disorienting and exactly like being in a tiny room filled with twice the number of screaming, shouting people it was intended to hold.
Steady on—it’s just like being in the kitchen—
Her stomach lurched, and she clutched the wall behind her, as dizzy as if she’d been spun around like one of Lordan’s old toy tops.
Pain and fear made those thoughts pouring into her mind incoherent; she got brief glimpses of armed men, strangers in no lord’s colors—men who were filthy, ragged, and yet well-armed and armored. She was half-aware of the servants, babbling with terror, streaming through the door opposite her, but most of her mind was caught up in the tangled mental panic outside that door. And now she was “seeing” things, too, and she nearly threw up. The strangers were making a slaughterhouse of the Great Hall, cutting down not only those who resisted, but those who were simply in their way.
Their minds seized on hers and held it. She struggled to free herself from the confusion, wrenching her mind out of the desperate, unconscious clutching of theirs—and suddenly her thoughts brushed against something.
There were no words for what she felt at that moment, as time stood frozen for her and she knew how a hunted rabbit must view a great, slavering hound. Whatever this was, it was cold, if a thought could be cold, cold as the slimy leeches living in the swampy fen below the cattle pastures. There was something sly about it, and filthy—not a physical filth, but a feeling that the mind behind these thoughts would never be contented with pleasures most folk considered normal. Kero couldn’t quite decipher them either; what she experienced was similar to what she had “heard” as her ability first appeared—as if she were listening to someone speaking too quietly for the exact words to be made out. There was only a sense of speech, not the meaning.
But worst of all, that brief brush created a change in those not-quite-readable thoughts, as if she had alerted the owner of the thoughts that he—or she—or it—was being observed.
The back of her neck crawled, and gooseflesh rose on her arms, as the thoughts took on a new, sharp-edged urgency. Propelled by fear, she managed to tear her mind away, and slammed the doors in the walls of her protections closed.
She opened her eyes, sick and sweating with fear, to discover that far less time had passed than she imagined.
The servants were still clogging the doorway, and the screaming from beyond had only increased.
For an instant, all she wanted to do was to scream and cower with the rest of them—or even faint as some of the kitchen girls had already done, sprawling unnoticed beneath the table. At that moment, something as hard and impassive as the walls around her mind rose up to cut off her emotions. Suddenly she could think, calmly.
The door to the back court—if they come in behind us, we’ll be trapped—
Freed from the paralysis of fear, she ran to the back door of the kitchen, slammed it shut, and dropped the iron bar of the night-lock into place across it. The noise behind her was so overwhelming that the sound of the heavy bar dropping into the supports was completely swallowed up in the general chaos.
She whirled, stood on her tiptoes to see over the mob crowding between her and the door, and looked frantically for two people—Wendar, and the cook. Wendar’s balding head appeared in a clear spot for a moment next to the table, and she spotted the cook, burly arm upraised and brandishing a poker, beside him. Cook was snouting something, but she couldn’t even hear his voice above the others.
Wendar served with Father, and Cook takes no nonsense from anyone—in fact, Cook looks like he’s ready to lead a charge back in there!
She dove into the press of bodies and struggled across the kitchen, elbowing and punching her way past hysterical servants who seemed to have no more sense left in them than frightened sheep. As she dragged a last wailing girl out of her way by the back of her rough leather bodice, Kero got Wendar’s attention by the simple expedient of grabbing his collar and dragging herself to him. Or more specifically, to the vicinity of his ear.
“We’ve got to stop them at the door,” she screamed, hardly able to hear herself. “We can hold them there, but if they get in here, they’ll kill us all!”
Most likely Wendar didn’t have any better idea of who “they” were than Kero did, but at least he saw the sense of her words immediately. He turned and reached across the table for Cook’s shirt; satisfied that he would handle the rest, Kero looked for weapons, snatched up a heavy, round pot lid and the longest meat knife within reach, and ran for the door.
She reached it not a moment top soon.
There was no warning that the invaders had found the half-hidden stair to the kitchen. He was just there; a squat, broad shadow in the doorway, sword negligently stuck through his belt, plainly expecting no resistance. He paused for a moment and squinted into the brightly-lit kitchen, then he saw her, and grinned, reaching for her.
Kero had no time to think. Training took over as wit failed.
“This’s no dance lesson, girl!” She could hear the armsmaster’s bellow in the back of her mind even as she slashed for the man’s unprotected eyes. “This’s fightin’ o’ th’ dirtiest—y’ hit yer man now an’ hit ‘im so’s ‘e knows ‘e’s friggin ‘-well been hit!”
Armsmaster Dent could have been dismissed for teaching Kero anything besides archery, and well he knew it. He’d done his best to discourage her when she presented herself beside Lordan for training. It was only when he caught her clumsily trying blows against the pells with a practice blade too long and heavy for her, and realized that Rathgar would assume he’d been training Kero anyway if her father ever found her out there himself, that he made a bargain with her.
In return for a reluctant promise never to touch a longer weapon, he promised to teach her knife-fighting. He hadn’t been happy about it, but Kero had made it very clear that it was the only way to keep her out of the armory and the practice ground.
Knife-work was, as Dent put it, the dirtiest, lowest form of combat, and figuring that if she ever really needed that training, it would be a case of desperation, he had taught her every trick he’d learned in a lifetime of street scuffling.
By some miracle, knife-work was also the only form of combat suited for the close confines of the kitchen doorway; the only kind of situation where a knife-fighter would be at an advantage against a swordsman. In the back of her mind, Kero thanked whatever deity had inspired that bargain with Dent, and slashed again at the man’s face when he evaded the wicked edge of her blade with a startled oath.
He reached for his own weapon, hampered by the wall at his side and the stairs at his back, further hampered when the quillons caught on his ill-kept armor.
Then she was no longer alone; Cook and Wendar were beside her, Cook armed with a spit as long as her arm in one hand and a cleaver in the other, and Wendar (with a pot over his bald head like an oddly-shaped helm) with the even longer spit used when they roasted whole pigs and calves. Cook stabbed at him with the wicked point of the spit and the man dodged away, moving into Wendar’s reach. Wendar brought the heavy, cast-iron rod down on the man’s head, and caved his helm in completely. The brigand fell backward, but another took his place.
Now there were more men piling down the staircase; how many, Kero couldn’t tell. One of them dragged the first out of the way, and the man on the stairs pulled him into darkness.
But the three defenders had the doorway blocked against all comers, with Kero going low, Wendar, high, and the Cook holding the middle and protecting them both with Kero’s pot lid. Then one of the young squires began lobbing ladles of hot turnips over their heads and into the faces of their opponents, using the ladle like a catapult. The stairs were already slippery; that made them worse, and no one fights well with scalding vegetables being flung in his eyes.
The invaders slashed and stabbed, but with caution. More of the servants took heart; at least Kero assumed they did, because suddenly the doorway was abristle with knives and pokers to either side of her.
At that, the bandits pulled back, retreating up the staircase, slipping and sliding on the stones. It looked to Kero as if more than one of them was marked and burned or bleeding.
It was as if she stood outside of herself, a casual observer. Her heart was pounding in her ears, yet she felt strangely calm. A cluster of three of the raiders stood just out of turnip-reach halfway down the staircase, staring down at the defenders of the kitchen. It was rather hard to see them; the press of bodies in the doorway blocked the light coming from the kitchen, and they themselves blotted out most of the light from above. Kero wished she could see their faces, and shifted uneasily from her right foot to her left.
If they get a log from upstairs and rush us with it, they could break through us, she realized. Agnira, please, don’t let them think of that—
The men seemed to be arguing among themselves. Kero squinted against the darkness and strained her ears, but could hear nothing but the screaming from the hall beyond. One of them gestured angrily in Kero’s direction, but the other two shook their heads, then pulled at his arm.
The argumentative one shook the other man’s hand off and started down the staircase. He was big, and very well armored, with a heavy wooden shield. Kero shuddered as she realized that he could rush them behind that shield, and give his comrades the chance to get by the bottleneck of the doorway. It looked as if he had figured that out, too.
But someone behind Wendar threw a carving knife at him. It was a lucky shot—it thunked point-first into the man’s buckler, buried itself in the wood, and remained there, quivering.
The brigand started, stumbling backward up one step, and swore an unintelligible oath. And he gave in to the urgings of his companions, following them back up the staircase, leaving the kitchen to its defenders.
Now it was Wendar’s turn to curse and attempt to follow. Panic seized her throat as she realized what he was trying to do.
Dear Goddess—Kero grabbed his right arm as he charged past her, and hung on, hampering him long enough for Cook to seize his left and prevent him from charging up the staircase after their attackers.
“Stop it!” she shrieked, more than a touch of hysteria in her voice. “Stop it, Wendar! You can’t possibly do any good up there! You aren’t even armed!”
That stopped him, and he stared down at the sooty, greasy spit in his hands, and swore oaths that made her ears burn. But at least he didn’t try to charge after the enemy again.
“The table—” Cook said, which was all the direction they needed. As one they turned back into the kitchen and with the help of the rest of the besieged, hauled the massive table into place across the doorway, turning it on its side, making it into a sturdy barricade that would protect them even if the bandits charged them with a makeshift battering ram. Then, having done all they could do, they waited.
Kero crouched in the lee of the overturned table and tried to keep from thinking about her folk in the hall above, tried to keep her heart from pounding through her chest.
Tried to keep fear at bay, for now that she was no longer fighting, it came back fourfold.
Tried not to cry.
There are trained fighters up there. Nothing you can do will make any difference for them. They can take care of themselves, armed or not.
The servants were watching her; her, Cook, and Wendar. She could read it in their faces, in their wide eyes and trembling hands. If any of the three leaders broke, if any of them showed any signs of the terror Kero was doing her best to keep bottled inside, the rest of the besieged would panic.
She clutched her improvised weapons, her hands somehow remaining steady, but she wished she dared hide her head in her arms, to block out the horrible sounds from above.
She wanted to scream, or weep, or both. Her throat ached; her stomach was in knots. Why did I ever think those tales of fighting were exciting? Blessed Trine, what’s going on up there? Are we winning, or losing?
How could we be winning? No one up there is armed....
Wendar didn’t even twitch. All of his concentration was focused on the staircase—he stared up at the flickering light at the top of the stairs, going alternately white and red with rage. Kero wished she knew what he was listening for.
If this wasn’t hell, it was close enough....
It seemed like an eternity later that the sounds of fighting stopped—there was a moment of terrible silence, then the wailing began.
“That’s it,” Wendar said, and vaulted over the barricade. This time no one tried to stop him.
Kero couldn’t help herself; she followed at his heels. Her skirt caught on the leg of the table as she scrambled over it. She stumbled into the wall, and jerked it loose, tearing a rent as long as her arm in it.
Wendar was already out of sight and she scrambled on hands and knees up the turnip-slimed stairs, pulling herself erect just short of the top, and discovering with dull surprise that she was still holding the knife and pot lid.
She peered out cautiously around the edge of the door frame, and her heart stopped.
Blade and lid dropped from her benumbed hands and clattered down the stairs behind her as she stumbled forward into a scene beyond her worst nightmares.
Someone grabbed her wrist as she staggered past.
Wendar, she realized after a moment. The Seneschal pulled her roughly down beside him, where he knelt at the side of a man so battered and blood-covered she didn’t recognize him. Then he moaned and opened his eyes, and she knew—
Dent. Agnira bless!
She’d helped to bind wounds many times before, some of them as bad as any of these, when hunters ran afoul of wolf or boar—her hands knew what to do, and they did it, while her mind spun in little aimless circles until she was dizzy. The blood—there was just so much of it....
Dent died under her hands, but there were others, too many others; she moved from one to the next like a sleepwalker, binding their wounds, sometimes with strips from her ripped skirts, sometimes with whatever else came to hand. Some, like Dent, died as she tried to save them. The others, the lucky ones, often fainted or were already unconscious by the time she found them.
The less fortunate screamed their agony until their throats were so raw they couldn’t even whisper.
The hall was a blood-spattered shambles, furniture overturned, food trampled underfoot—and everywhere the women, some huddled in on themselves, were unable to speak, eyes wide and blank with shock; others shrieking, wailing, or sobbing silently beside their dead and wounded.
Of all that host of guests, only a handful remained calm, working white-lipped and grim-faced, as Kero worked, trying to snatch a few more lives back from Lady Death.
One iron-spined woman patted Kero’s shoulder absently as she hurried by, eyes already fixed on the armsman laid out on the floor beyond the girl. With a start of surprise, Kero recognized the granite-faced matriarch of the Dunwythie family, a woman who’d never even nodded in Kero’s direction before this.
Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered, except to stop the blood, ease the pain, straighten the broken limbs. There wasn’t a whole, unwounded man-at-arms in the keep; there wasn’t an unwounded male except those few menservants who’d fled to the kitchen.
Anyone who had resisted had been killed out of hand. There were young boys and women numbered among the dead and wounded—some of the dead still clutching the makeshift weaponry with which they had fought back.
Kero had long since passed beyond mere numbness into a kind of stupor. Her hands, bloodied to the elbow, continued to work without her conscious direction; her legs, aching and weary, carried her stumbling from one body to the next. Nothing broke the spell of insensibility holding her—until the sound of her own name caught her attention. Then she felt someone shaking her and looked up as reality intruded into the void where her mind had gone. Those hands had pulled her reluctantly back to the here and now.
She blinked; two of Dierna’s cousins were tugging at her arms, one on either side, weeping, and babbling at her. She couldn’t make out what they wanted, they were absolutely incoherent with hysteria. They pulled her toward the dais where the high table had been, sobbing, but before they had dragged her more than a few steps, she heard a young male voice she knew as well as her own raised in shrill curses.
She pulled loose from them and half ran, half staggered, toward the little knot of people clustered about one particular body.
The voice cursed again, then howled, just as she reached them and pulled someone—Cook—away from the figure stretched out on the floor.
It was her brother Lordan, young face twisted with pain, eyes staring without sense in them, ranting and wailing as Wendar bound up a terrible wound in his side.
The Seneschal looked up as Kero dropped to her knees beside him, and then looked back to his work. “It’s not a gut-stab,” he said, around clenched teeth. “It missed the stomach and the lungs, Kelles only knows how. But whether he’ll live—that I can’t tell you. Without a Healer—”
He didn’t have to finish the sentence. Kero knew very well what his chances were without the help of magic or a Healer’s touch. The wound itself probably wouldn’t kill him, but blood loss and infection might very well.
There was nothing she could do for him that Wendar hadn’t already taken care of. She felt oddly helpless, angry at her own helplessness, wanting to do something and knowing there was nothing productive to be done. She got slowly to her feet to hover just on the edge of the little group, trying to think of anything that might increase Lordan’s chances.
I’m of no use here—She hated this—hated being so completely out of control, so afraid that her teeth chattered unless she clamped her jaw tight.
She looked out over the hall and saw that the last of the wounded were being tended to, the dead being carried out, the women too hysterical or paralyzed to do anything being herded over to one side of the hall by a group made up of the old woman who did the Keep’s laundry and some of the dairymaids.
Father—she suddenly thought. Where’s Father? She peered around the group caring for Lordan, looking for Rathgar—and only then saw the battered body laid out on the table, half covered with a pall made up of a table-covering, as if already lying in state.
Oddly enough, seeing him dead wasn’t a shock; she wondered if she’d been expecting this from the moment she first looked into the hall. She knew what must have happened. Rathgar would have charged the brigands barehanded and empty-headed the moment they invaded his hall, pure rage overwhelming any thoughts of caution.
She closed her eyes, and tried to summon up a dutiful tear from eyes dry with shock, but all that would come was mere anger, and exasperation. You were a mercenary, Father, she thought angrily at the quiet form. You knew better! You could have ordered the armsmen to play rear-guard and gotten everyone down into the kitchen before they really swarmed the place—but you had to defend your damned Keep personally, didn’t you? You didn’t think once about anything but that! Did you even think about getting your poor little daughter-in-law out of harm’s way?
She looked around for Dierna, expecting her to be among the hysterical or the half-mad—
—and didn’t see her. Not anywhere.
Thinking for a moment that the girl might be hiding behind a chair, or cowering in someone’s arms, Kero turned to one of Dierna’s two cousins who had caught up with her and were clinging to each other in limp confusion.
“Where is she?” Kero demanded. If she’s hurt, her family will never forgive us. Part of her calculated their reactions as coolly as a money-changer counted coins. They’ll demand satisfaction—never mind Father died and Lordan may not live out the night, they’ll want blood price, and after this disaster, we won’t have it.
The girls stared at her blankly. She grabbed the nearest and shook her savagely. “Your cousin, girl! Where is she? Where’s Dierna?”
The girl just stared, and stammered. She shook the little fool until her teeth rattled, trying to pry some sense out of her, but got nothing from her or her sister but tears and wailing. Disgusted, she held the girl erect between her two strong hands and contemplated trying to slap a little sense into her.
“She’s taken,” croaked a pain-hoarsened voice from below and to the right of her elbow.
“What?” Kero let go of the little ninny, who promptly collapsed with her sister into a soggy heap. She looked down at the man who’d spoken; one of the Keep armsmen, lying against the wall on a makeshift pallet of tablecloths and blood-soaked cloaks. Some of the blood was probably his; he peered up at her from beneath a cap of bandaging, and his right arm was strapped tightly to his side.
“She’s taken, Lady,” he repeated. “I saw. They took her, and that’s when they left.”
He coughed; she seized a goblet from the floor and found a pitcher with a little wine still in it rolling under the table. She knelt down beside him and helped him drink; his teeth chattered against the rim of the metal goblet, and he lay back down with a groan. “I saw it,” he repeated, closing his eyes. “I been with Lord Rathgar for ten years now, sworn man. Lady, I don’t—this’s no lie. I swear it. There was a mage.”
“A—what?” For a moment she was confused. What could a mage have had to do with all this carnage?
The armsman opened his eyes again. “A mage,” he said. “Had to be. One minute, I’m on the wall, hearin’ nothin’, seein’ nothin’—then there’s like a breath of fog, kinda cold and damp, an’ I can’t move, not so much as look around. Then this bunch of riders comes in, nobody challenges ’em—they get in through the gates, an’ I can see they’re scum, but somebody’s given ’em good arms—” The last word was choked off, and he lay for a moment panting with misery, while Kero clutched the goblet so hard her knuckles were white.
“Still couldn’t move, couldn’t yell,” he continued, staring up at nothing. “Couldn’t. Then I hear the yellin’ from the hall, an’ I can move—ran right straight in—right into the ones waitin’ for me.” He coughed, and his face spasmed with pain. “Waitin’ around blind corners, like they knew the place, Lady. Got free of ’em, made it as far as th’ hall. That’s when I seen ’em take the bride—Lord Rathgar, he was down, gods save ’em; they got th’ last of her guards, an’ they took her. An’ that’s when the fightin’ stopped; they just packed up and grabbed what they could an’ left.” He blinked and focused again on her. “I tried, Lady. I tried—”
Now she remembered his name; Hewerd. “I know you did, Hewerd,” she said absently. That seemed to satisfy him. He closed his eyes and retreated into himself.
A mage—That made sense. Especially when I think how Father hated mages. Maybe he had an enemy that was a mage, or became one. He had other enemies, too; maybe one of them got together with this mage. They might have been waiting a long time to catch him off-guard, to take revenge when he wasn’t expecting it. She shivered, and stood up, staring out over the shambles of the hall, but not seeing it. That must have been the—thing—the dark thing I touched with my mind. Maybe one of Father’s enemies bought a mage. That could happen, too. It would have to be someone who knew him well enough to know that he didn’t have a house mage of his own. And it would have to be someone who knew about the wedding....
Agnira’s Teeth! She shuddered. He’s destroyed us! There’s no one to go after Dierna—there isn’t a man fit to ride in the whole Keep! And if we don’t at least try—I know her uncle, he’ll call blood-feud on us. Kill every last one, take the Keep....
Dierna’s uncle, the powerful Lord Baron Reichert, had used the pretext of familial insult to add to his lands more than once. He wasn’t likely to turn down an opportunity like this one—and by the time the King found out about it, the Baron would have ensured that there was no one left at the Keep to argue Lordan’s innocence. If they were lucky, they’d escape with their lives. If they weren’t—the Baron had no percentage in their survival.
We won’t have a chance, she thought bleakly. Not unless someone goes after her, makes a token try at rescuing her—
Dierna’s sweet, heart-shaped face, and sensitive mouth and eyes rose up like a ghost to confront her. Dearest gods, the poor baby—
That last unbidden thought did something unexpected to Kerowyn. She was overwhelmed with dizziness, and reached blindly for the support of the wall. As her hand touched the wall, it faded away, and she was afraid she was about to collapse, to faint like one of Dierna’s foolish cousins.
But she didn’t collapse; she opened her eyes—but it wasn’t the hall she was seeing, it was the road. And, faint shapes in the moonlight, a band of men on horseback.
For a moment she saw the girl, bound and gagged, and carried in front of one of the riders, a tall, thin man, in robes rather than armor. Her eyes were wide with shock and fear, her delicate face white and waxen, and she looked closer to eleven than to fourteen.
Anger replaced fear, outrage drowned any other feelings. This was not right. The girl was hardly more than a child.
The vision—if that was what it was—faded, replaced by another. A plain, simple sword. Then her own hand, taking the sword-hilt as if it belonged to her.
But I can’t—
Again, a flicker of Dierna’s frightened eyes. Blessed Trine. Only fourteen, and sheltered all her life. Like a little glass bird, and just as easy to break.
The visions faded, leaving her staring out at the hall again. The anger retreated for a moment. I’m the only one left that could follow. If I try to get her back, her uncle won’t have an excuse to come after Lordan. She hugged her arms to her chest and shivered—then the anger returned, stronger this time. And dear gods—all alone with those bastards—I can’t just sit here, playing ninny like those cousins of hers. I can’t. It isn’t honor, it isn’t pride, it isn’t any of those things in ballads—it’s that I can’t sit here knowing what’s going to happen to her once they think they’re safe, and not try and do something to prevent it.
Then something else occurred to her, and amid the anger and the fear, there rose a tiny flicker of hope.
And maybe Grandmother will help me.
Suddenly, following after the raiders didn’t seem quite so mad a decision.
She turned on her heel and ran for the servants’ entrance, but this time instead of going down, she went up, emerging into a corridor that ran the length of the hall itself and led to the family quarters. Her own room was in the first corner tower, where the hallway made a right-angle bend. She snatched a tallow-dip and lit it at the lantern, then ran up the short flight of stairs to the round room above. It was cold by winter and hot by summer, and drafty at all seasons, but it was hers and hers alone—which meant it held things not even Lordan knew about.
She lit her own lamp beside the door and blew out the tallow-dip. As the light rose, she went to the tall, curtained bed, and pulled the mattress off onto the floor.
Instead of the usual network of rope-springs, Kero’s bed was one of the old style, a kind of box with a wooden bottom. Only the bottom of this bed held a secret. As she had discovered when she was a child, it could be raised on concealed hinges to reveal a second shallow compartment.
It still held a few of her childhood treasures; the dreaming-pillow her Grandmother Kethry had sent, her favorite stuffed toy horse, the two wooden knights Lordan had never played with and never missed when she spirited them out of his nursery and into hers—
But now it held, besides those things, her brother’s castoff clothing and armor; a set of light chain made for him when he first began training, long since forgotten in the armory. It no longer fit him; he was too broad in the shoulder. But it fit her perfectly. She shed the ruins of her skirts with a sigh of relief, and pulled on breeches, stockings, and sleeved leather tunic. She bound up her hair as best she could; debated cutting it off for a moment, then decided she was going to need it under the helm. The chain mail shirt came next; without a squire, getting into it was a matter of contortion and wriggling, and enough hip-waggling to make a trollop stare. It caught in her hair despite her best efforts; she jerked her head and the caught strands were torn out of her scalp with the weight of the mail.
Finally she settled it into place, jingling noisily, with a final shake of her hips. It covered her from neck to knee, slit before and behind so the wearer could ride. Another leather jerkin went over it, to muffle the inevitable jangling of the rings. She pulled on her riding boots, then turned and headed for the door.
But all she had in the way of weapons were her knives. I don’t know how to use a sword, she thought, hesitating with one hand on the door handle. But knives aren’t much use against a longer weapon. Maybe I’d better take one anyway.
So instead of going back the way she’d come, she headed for her brother’s rooms and his small, private armory. Hopefully, the raiders wouldn’t have gotten that far.
Lordan’s rooms were farther down the darkened hall, halfway between her tower and what had been her mother’s solar. Kero had never had the leisure to play the lady over a bowerful of maids, nor had she really ever cared for fine sewing even if she’d had the leisure for it, so the solar had been closed up until such time as Lordan took a bride, or Rathgar remarried.
And since the latter had never occurred, Lordan had used the solar as a place to keep his arms and armor so that he wouldn’t have to tend it down in the cold, uncomfortable, and gloomy armory. Doubtless their father would have had a fit if he’d known, but Kero hadn’t seen any reason to tell him. If Lordan wanted to polish his swords up in the sun-filled solar, why not? Sun had never harmed metal or boys so far as Kero had ever heard.
She pushed the door open, and went in; the moon shown full through the solar windows, and the armor on its stand looked uncannily like Lordan for a moment. It gleamed a soft silver where the moonlight struck reflections from the polished metal and those reflections gave it a momentary illusion of movement.
Lordan’s swords were hung from the racks where shuttles for the looms had been kept in Lenore’s day. Kero knew the one she wanted: one of Lordan’s earliest blades, a light shortsword, the closest thing to a knife and hence the one she could probably use the easiest if it came to that.
Lady Agnira, grant it doesn’t....
She buckled the belt over her tunic, hesitated a moment more, then resolutely helped herself to a little round helm with a nose-guard hanging on the wall beside it. It might not be much in the way of protection, but it was better than a bare head.
Lordan’s rooms next door had a private stair to the stables outside; normally locked, but she and Lordan had made enough illicit moonlight expeditions that she’d long ago learned how to pick the clumsy old lock in the dark.
The door was still locked, but her hands, though they shook a little, still remembered how to tease the lock with the thin blade of her knife. She forced herself to breathe slowly, told herself that this was nothing out of the ordinary, leaned against the door frame, and tried not to think about what she was doing.
It worked; the lock clicked, and the door swung open, hinges creaking.
The stairs gave out on the tack-room, and the shielded light normally kept burning there made her blink, eyes watering. But there were no sounds of restless horses beyond the door, and the tack-room itself was a shambles.
As her eyes adjusted to the light and she picked her way over the saddles and other tack strewn over the floor, she saw why—there were no horses to hear. The stall doors stood wide open; what beasts the brigands hadn’t stolen had doubtless been driven off. Witless things that horses were, they were undoubtedly scattered to the four winds, running until they foundered.
So much for sending someone for help, she thought bleakly. Not even the guests are going to be able to send their own people back, not until some time tomorrow at the earliest.
Someone had planned this very well indeed.
With one small exception.
Kero hurried to one stall that would have been empty even if one of the guests hadn’t brought a high-bred palfrey to install there. Though this was the stall reserved for Kero’s riding beast, her Shin-a’in-bred mare spent most of her time in the pastures from the time the last of the winter’s snow cleared off until the first of it appeared. Kero generally kept Verenna’s tack hung over the side of the stall; it didn’t take up much room, since she had never permitted anything other than Shin’a’in tack on the young mare’s back. The one thing Rathgar was an expert on was horses, and he’d taught his children himself. Kero tended and trained Verenna with her own hands unless there was an urgent need for her to be otherwise occupied.
The tack was still there; blanket, a saddle with lightweight stirrups that was hardly heavier than the blanket, bitless bridle and reins. She gathered it all up, slipped the hackamore over her arm, and took her back way out of the stables, out into the pasture.
Some of the horses had either jumped the fence or been driven out here—she saw them in the moonlight, dark shapes milling around at the end of the pasture, whinnying their distress. Catching them was going to be impossible until they’d tired themselves out.
Pray Verenna hasn’t gotten caught up in their panic, she thought, biting her lip. If she has—
Best not to think about it. Kero pursed her lips and whistled shrilly, three times.
And very nearly jumped out of her skin as something warm and soft shoved her in the small of the back.
She managed to kill the scream trying to tear its way up out of her throat before she frightened the mare, but she did drop all the tack, startling the young horse so that she shied a little and danced away, nervously. Kero, for her part, just stood and shook for a moment. A very long moment, in fact, so long that Verenna got over her startlement and picked her way cautiously back toward her rider before Kero had entirely recovered.
The horse nuzzled her anxiously, and Kero found the steadiness to reach for Verenna and scratch her ears while she regained the last of her own composure. Finally she was able to take the hackamore off her own arm and slip it over Verenna’s nose without her hands shaking so much that she’d be unable to get the band over the mare’s ears.
Saddling Verenna was a matter of moments. The mare stood on command, quietly, as she’d been taught, while Kero slung the saddle and blanket over her back and fastened the girth. Chest and rump bands were next, as Kero fumbled the buckles a little in the dark, then Kero snugged the girth tight against her barrel. Verenna snorted a little, but was being remarkably well-behaved under the circumstances.
Which is just as well, Kero admitted, as she put her foot in the stirrup and pulled herself up onto Verenna’s back. I’m not sure what I’d do if she decided to get out of hand.
She rode the mare up to the fence, then leaned over and grabbed the latch on the gate. The pasture gate could be opened from horseback, and Verenna remained quiet, though a little jumpy, throughout the entire maneuver. At least I don’t have the others crowding up around this end, waiting for a chance to bolt. Verenna was a very light-footed beast, and hardly made more noise than a goat as she pivoted in place so that Kero could pull the gate shut and latch it closed. Kero was counting on that; she’d need every advantage she had against the raiders.
Verenna automatically turned southward as they moved away from the gate at a fast walk; Kero normally rode her along the game trails in the Keep’s wild lands, and the shortest way there was along the road south. She shivered under the saddle; horses are creatures of habit, and her world had been turned all round about this evening, first by the invasion of strange men and horses into her pasture, then by Kero’s arrival on the heels of the chaos. This business of riding out in the middle of the night had the mare nervous and confused—
And now Kero confused her still further by turning her in an entirely opposite direction to the one she expected. Westward, not southward, and away from the hunting lands and the main village.
She stopped, snorted again, and bucked a little. Kero held her head down, and she fought the reins for a moment more, then settled, shaking her head.
Poor baby, you don’t know what we’re doing out here in the middle of the night, do you? Kero let her stand for a moment until she stopped shivering, then loosened her reins and gave her a touch of the heel. Obedient, but still snorting a little in protest, the mare headed into the west, up to the least hospitable side of the valley, along a faint track that led to the border of the Keep lands.
Their road stayed a track only so long as it lay within the Keep’s borders. From there it turned into a goat path, then into a game trail.
Verenna didn’t like it at all; it was bordered by clumps of bushes that swayed and rustled alarmingly, and overhung by trees that made it difficult for either her or her rider to see the path. Any horse bred by the Shin’a’in nomads could pick her way across uneven ground in conditions much worse than this, but that didn’t mean she had to like it. Her ears were laid back, and Kero sensed by the tenseness of her muscles that the least little disturbance would make her shy and possibly bolt.
A spooky enough road for a visit to a witch. Kero kept looking sharply at every movement she caught out of the corner of her eye, and starting a little at every sound. She was just as bad as Verenna, when it came down to it. This was the way to her grandmother’s home, called “Kethry’s Tower.” Kero hadn’t been up this road very often, but she knew it well enough. As a child, she’d been taken here either pillion behind a groom, or on her own fat pony, and the visits had been at least once a month. Later, though, as Lenore became ill, she’d gone no oftener than twice a year—and since her mother’s death, she hadn’t gone at all. Not that she hadn’t wanted to, but although Rathgar hadn’t expressly forbidden it, he’d certainly made his disapproval known. Kero had her hands full running the Keep, and somehow there never seemed to be enough time to visit her grandmother. And Grandmother had never sent any messages urging a visit either, so perhaps she hadn’t wanted any visitors....
And maybe she still doesn’t. But that’s a chance I’ll have to take.
As Kero remembered it, the place wasn’t exactly a tower; it was more like a stone fortress somehow picked up and set into the side of a cliff. Kero scrubbed at her burning eyes with her sleeve, wishing that the Keep had been as impregnable as that Tower—it always looked to her as if it had been grown into the cliff side, or perhaps carved into the living rock, and the only access to it was along a steep, narrow stairway. Witch and sorceress her grandmother might be, but she took no chances on the possibility of having unfriendly visitors.
Verenna stumbled, and Kero steadied her. Now that they were away from the Keep, the normal night sounds surrounded them as if nothing at all had happened back there tonight. Off in the distance an owl hooted, and beyond the clopping of Verenna’s hooves, Kero heard tiny leaf-rustlings as nocturnal animals foraged for their dinners.
Mother said that Grandmother had offered to build the Keep into something like the Tower, and Father refused, she remembered suddenly. Why? He wasn’t normally that stupid, to refuse help. Was it just that he didn’t want to be any further in Grandmother’s debt?
That could have been it. Every thumb’s length of property that Rathgar called his own was actually his only through Lenore, and had come as her dowry. And he had resented it, Kero was certain of that; Rathgar was not the kind of man who liked to be in debt to anyone. Stubborn, headstrong, determined to make his own way, to depend on no one and nothing but himself, and to allow nothing to interfere with his plans for his lands and children.
But he loved Mother, she thought, letting Verenna pick her way through the thin underbrush. I know he loved Mother, and not just her lands. He used to bring her meals and feed her with his own hands when she was too weak to even move. He never said a cruel word to her, ever. He never once even looked at another woman while she was alive, and I don’t think he wanted to look at another one after she was gone.
Verenna’s eyes were better in this light than Kero’s were; basically all she had to do right now was keep from falling off, and stay alert for stray bandits or wild animals. It was hard to believe that Rathgar was really dead.
Oh, Father. She thought about all the happy times she’d spent in his presence; how he’d taught her to hunt, how proud he’d been of her scholarship. He could hardly write his own name, she thought, with a lump in her throat, yet he was so proud of me and Lordan and Mother. He used to boast about how learned we were to his friends. He used to tell them about how I could keep books better than Wendar, and how Lordan was writing the family history—and then he’d drag Lordan’s chronicles out and have me read them out loud to everyone after dinner. And he used to tell us both how we were following in Grandfather Jadrek’s footsteps, and how respected Grandfather had been, and how we should be proud to live up to his example. She could see him even now, sitting on the side of Lenore’s bed, with Lordan at his right and herself at his left, and whatever book they happened to be reading on his lap. “Don’t be like me,” he’d say, solemnly. “Don’t pass up your chance to learn. Look at me—too ignorant to do anything but swing a sword—if it hadn’t been for your mother, I’d probably be living in a bar somewhere, throwing out drunks by night and mopping the floor by day.” And with that, he’d look back over his shoulder, and he’d stretch out his hand and gently touch Lenore’s fingertips, and they’d both smile....
What happened? she asked herself, around the tears that choked her throat. I know he changed after Mother died. Was it because I wasn’t able to be like her? He became so critical, that’s all I ever saw. There were times when I wondered if he hated me—and times when I wondered if he even knew I was alive. Maybe if I hadn’t been so completely opposite from Mother, maybe we could have gotten along better.
Verenna stopped for a moment, ears pricked forward, and Kero hastily rubbed her eyes, then peered into the moon-dappled shadows beneath the trees ahead of them. She slipped her knife from its sheath as she heard a repetition of the sound that had alerted the horse in the first place. A rustling noise—as if something very large was threading its way through the brush.
A crash that sent her heart into her throat—and then it stood in the moonlight on the path.
Verenna shied, the stag saw them, and with a flip of its tail dove into the brush on the other side of the trail. Kero’s heart started again, and she urged Verenna forward. The mare didn’t want to go, and was sweating when Kero forced her to obey; but once they were past the spot where the stag had appeared, she calmed down a bit.
Maybe it was because he thought I wasn’t listening to him about schooling, she thought, trying to calm the mare further with a firm hand on her neck. I know he thought I should be spending more time reading and less with the horses. Dammit, I passed every test the tutor ever set me! Is it bad that I like to be outside, that I hate being cooped up inside four walls when I could be out doing things? What’s wrong with that? A book’s all right when the weather’s foul and there’s nothing else to do, but why sit and read when the wind is calling your name?
She’d never been able to figure that out. Lordan, though—every chance he had, he was at a book or driving the tutor mad with questions. It was as if he got all of Kero’s love of learning as well as his own.
Books, dear gods, he owns more books than anyone I know. And if he gets his way, he’s going to spend half Dierna’s dower on more books....
... if he’s still alive to do it.
Her eyes stung and watered again, and her throat knotted. She rubbed her sleeve across her eyes, and wondered if he’d live the night.
If I can just get Grandmother down to the Keep ... if she’s got the kind of power everyone seems to think she does. Father would have had a cat if he’d known about the stories I used to pick up in the kitchen. They say she built the Tower in one night, with magic, just before she moved out of the Keep and gave it to Mother as her wedding present. They say she has a giant wolf and a demon-lizard for familiars. They say she can kill you or Heal you just by looking at you. And if only half of that’s true, she surely will have what I need to save Lordan and get Dierna back.
Kero bent over Verenna’s neck to keep from getting hit in the face by a series of low-hanging branches, and thought about what she’d ask for. Something that shot lightning, perhaps; a magic wand that called up demons. Exploding arrows? Maybe the help of that giant wolf?
With magic even I ought to be able to get Dierna away. And magic can surely save Lordan ... unless Grandmother doesn’t care what happens to us.
The thought made her heart freeze, and every succeeding thought seemed worse than the first.
She never once sent a messenger or anything after Mother died. Maybe she was angry with Father for taking Mother away from her. Maybe she really hates the rest of us. Maybe she thinks we all hate her, and she’s gone all sour and mean. Maybe the magic has gotten to her brain, and she’s gone mad.
“Lady Kerowyn—” said a voice out of the dark.
“Lady Kerowyn—” said a voice from beneath the shadows of the trees, frightening the breath out of her, closing her throat with an icy hand. There was no warning, no movement beside the road, just a voice coming out of the darkness. It was a voice as harsh as the croaking of crows, and Kerowyn jerked, letting out an involuntary squawk of surprise as she reined in Verenna. The mare jumped and squealed, dancing madly backward, but fortunately didn’t bolt.
Her heart felt like a lump of frozen stone, her pulse rang in her ears as she wrestled Verenna to a standstill. Hands trembling on the reins, she peered at the dark shadow-shapes under the trees; there was something there, but she couldn’t even make out if it was human or not, much less if it was male or female. And that voice certainly didn’t tell her anything.
“Who are you?” she replied, hoping her own voice wasn’t going to break. “What do you want?”
“I live here,” replied the voice, “which is more than I can say for you. What are you doing out here, beyond your father’s lands, Lady Kerowyn? Why aren’t you safe in your bed, in your father’s Keep?”
It sounds like an old woman, Kero decided. A really nasty old woman. The kind that makes her daughter-in-law’s life a misery. Oddly enough, the mockery in the old woman’s voice and words made her feel calmer—and angrier. “Which is more than I can say for you,” indeed! “If you really live here, you know that the sorceress Lady Kethryveris is my grandmother,” she called back. “I need to see her, and I’d appreciate it if you got out of the way. You’re frightening my horse.”
“In the middle of the night?” the old woman retorted. “Dressed in men’s clothing? Carrying a weapon?” She moved out into the middle of the path, blocking it, but still in enough shadow that Kero couldn’t see her as anything other than a cloaked and hooded shape. “What kind of fool’s errand are you on, girl?”
Kero tightened all over with anger, inadvertently making Verenna rear and dance. When she got her mare and herself under a little better control, she told the old woman of the raid, in as few words as possible, though she wondered why she was bothering. “I’m going to ask my grandmother for help,” she finished. “Now if you’ll please get out of my way—”
“Dressed like that?” The woman produced a short bark of a laugh, like a fox. “I think you have something else planned. I think you reckon to follow after these raiders, and try to rescue this girl they took.”
“And what if I do?” Kero retorted, raising her chin angrily. “What business is it of yours?”
“You’re a fool, girl,” the old woman said acidly, then hawked and spat in the dust of the path just in front of Verenna’s hooves. “You’re a moonstruck fool. That’s a job for men, not silly little girls with their heads stuifed full of tales. You’re probably acting out of ignorance or out of pride, and either one will get you killed. Go back to your place, girl. Go back to women’s work. Go back where you belong.”
Every word infuriated Kero even more; she went hot, then cold with ire, and by the time the old woman had finished, she was too angry at first even to speak. Verenna was no help; she reacted both to Kero’s anger and to something the mare saw—or thought she saw—under the trees. As Verenna danced and shied, the mare’s panic forced her to calm herself down in order to control the horse. She finally brought Verenna to a sweating, eye-rolling standstill a scant length from the old woman.
Whoever she was, the old hag was at least as foolhardy as she accused Kerowyn of being, for she hadn’t moved a thumb’s length out of the way during the worst of Verenna’s antics.
“What I do or plan to do has nothing to do with pride,” Kero said tightly, through clenched teeth, as Verenna tossed her head and snorted in alarm. “There’s no one left down there that’s capable of riding out after her. No one, old woman. Not one single man able to ride and lift a weapon. All that’s down there is a handful of frightened servants and pages, and two old, arthritic men who never learned to ride. If I don’t go after Dierna, no one will. If I wait until that so-called “proper” help arrives, she’ll be dead, or worse. People who intend to ransom a captive don’t ride in and try to slaughter every able-bodied adult in the place. I don’t have a choice, old woman.”
She wanted to say more, and couldn’t. Fear stilled her voice in her throat. She was right—but—Everything I said is true—and—everything she said is true. This is going to get me killed, but I’ve come too far to turn back now. I made my choices back at the Keep.
“I made my choices, and I’m going to live or die by them,” she finished, hoping she sounded brave, but all too aware that she probably sounded like a foolhardy braggart. “And I’m going to see my grandmother whether you bar the way or not!”
She touched her heels to Verenna’s sides, and the mare bolted forward. The old woman stepped adroitly aside at the last possible moment, and they cantered past her and were out of sight or hearing in a few moments.
Kero reined the mare in as soon as she’d run out some of her nerves; the path was still just as dark and potentially treacherous. And the last thing I need is for Verenna to break her leg within sight of the Tower. I should be in sight of the Tower by now, she thought, looking upward through the branches of the trees. That old woman—in tales she’d either be a demon sent by the mage that took Dierna to turn me back, or a creature of Grandmother’s, sent to test me. If she’s a demon, the next thing will be a whole swarm of them after me—
The back of her neck crawled at that thought, and she could not resist the temptation to stop, turn, and look down the path behind her.
Nothing. Just the moving shadows of tree limbs, and an owl winging silently across the road. Even Verenna seemed calmer, no longer fighting the reins, no longer sweating.
So much for the tales, she thought, a little embarrassed by her wild fears. Sometimes a crazy old woman is just a crazy old woman.
The Tower was exactly as Kero remembered it; or at least, the little of it she could see in the darkness was exactly as she remembered. Halfway up the side of the cliff, a single light burned beside the door. There might have been a fainter light coming from a curtained or shuttered window above that, but it was too faint for Kero to be sure it was there.
Verenna whickered inquisitively as she dismounted. The trees and brush had been cut away for several lengths at the bottom of the cliff, leaving a wide expanse of meadow. Not a carefully manicured and tended meadow though; this one was knee-high in grass and wildflowers, and looked very much like a natural clearing.
The moon shone down on this swath of grass unhindered by brush or trees, making it possible for Kero to see quite clearly. There was a hitching post beside the beginning of the staircase; a steep, narrow, open stone stair. Not even a Shin’a’in-bred horse was going to be able to negotiate that; it was barely wide enough for a single human.
And it’s a good thing I have a head for heights, she thought soberly, eyeing the stair dubiously. Oh, well....
She tethered Verenna to the hitching post, giving her enough lead-rope so that she’d be able to graze a little. It’s too late for wolves, and too early for mountain-cats. I hope. Once again she looked back down the path, and once again saw and heard nothing out of the ordinary. She turned and started up the staircase, with one hand on the rough stone wall, resolutely looking at the steps and not over the open side. The stone beneath her hand was still warm from the afternoon sun. She forced herself to hurry as much as she dared, taking the relatively shallow steps two at a time; she’d have run, but the footing was too uncertain and the light was deceptive.
By the time she reached the top, she was feeling the strain in her legs. She paused for a moment to square her shoulders and lift her chin, then hefted the cold metal ring set into the door, and knocked. The first blow sounded dull, as if the door was a lot thicker than it looked.
The door began to open before she had a chance to finish the second knock. She released the iron ring hastily, before it would be snatched out of her hand.
A lantern she had not seen bloomed into life beside the door as it opened. The soft yellow light fell on a silver-haired, green-eyed woman who bore a strong resemblance to Kero’s mother Lenore. Except for her hair, she showed few signs of age; she was as slim and erect in her soft blue-velvet gown as any girl, and moved gracefully, if slowly. There were a few crow’s-feet around her eyes, concentration-lines on her brow, and smile-lines at either corner of her mouth, but otherwise her face was unwrinkled. She was exactly as Kero remembered her—which was eerie. She should have shown some signs of increasing age....
“Kerowyn?” The sorceress frowned. “I knew there was something wrong, but—never mind. Come in.”
Kero edged cautiously past her grandmother, careful not to touch her, and tried not to stare. There was no telling what she’d take offense at, and Kero had to keep repeating to herself that this strange, ageless woman was her grandmother. I can’t believe she still looks like this. Mother looked older, and not just because she was so sick. Kethry turned away to close the door, and Kero took the opportunity to glance around while her back was turned.
There was no anteroom; she found herself in some kind of public room that took up the entire bottom floor of the Tower. It was full of comfortable clutter, the kind of things Kero would have expected to find in any woman’s rooms. Ordinary things; an embroidery frame by the window, a basket of yarn and knitting beside the fire, cushions piled carelessly everywhere. What furniture there was tended to be worn, overstuffed, and looked as if it saw heavy use. Kero shivered despite the unexpected warmth of the room. The lighting was concentrated near the fire, leaving the rest of the room in shadow, and Kero wasn’t certain she wanted to look too deeply into any of those shadows.
Kethry closed the door with a dull thud, but did not shoot the bolt home. Kero looked back at her, hoping she hadn’t noticed her granddaughter’s wandering attention. She turned with a frown on her face, though Kero could not tell if it was because of her, or for some other reason. Kero clasped her hands behind her back, nervously, and waited for her grandmother to speak.
“I felt something—wrong—down in the valley,” Kethry said vaguely, her brow creased and her eyes looking somewhere past Kero’s shoulder. “Something magical. I’ve been expecting a messenger, since I pledged Rathgar when he wed Lenore that I would not enter his domain uninvited—but I didn’t expect that messenger to be you.”
She promised Father—dear Agnira! Kero took a deep breath, and stored that bit of information away for later. If there was a later. She looks so odd—blessed Trine, I hope she hasn’t gone senile—“I’m the only one fit to ride, Lady Kethryveris,” she began.
“Grandmother,” Kethry interrupted tartly, her focus sharpening for a moment. “I am your grandmother. It won’t hurt to say so. Sit,” she continued, gesturing at a bench by the door as she took a seat opposite it. “What happened down there that they sent you to bring me word?”
Kero nodded, a shiver of real fear going up her back, and gulped. No, she’s not senile. If she still admits she’s my grandmother—wants to admit it—maybe she will help us—“Grandmother, nobody sent me. Nobody could send me. I came by myself. It’s—it’s horrible—” She told the story a second time, watching as Kethry grew more and more distant—and more and more collected—with every word. By the time she was halfway through, her grandmother looked like the powerful, remote creature the stories made her out to be. And Kerowyn continued, a sick, leaden feeling in the pit of her stomach, trying not to break down in front of this self-possessed, regal woman.
But she began to relive the tale as she told it. Her stomach churned, and her throat began to close with harshly suppressed sobs.
I have to get through this. I have to make her believe me. I can’t do that if I’m crying like a baby.
She managed to sound relatively calm, or at least she thought she did, until she got to the part where she’d first come up from the kitchen. She faltered; stammered a little—then clenched her teeth and plowed onward.
But she kept seeing the bodies—
And then she came to the part where she saw her own family fallen victim; first Lordan, then Rathgar.
That was too much; she lost every bit of her composure and fell completely apart.
There was a brief flurry of movement as her grandmother rose—and warm arms clasped and held her.
She found herself sobbing into a blue-velvet covered shoulder, found her grandmother holding her as no one had held her since her mother died. It was something she hadn’t known she needed until it happened—
She cried all the tears and fears she’d held in since this nightmare began; cried until her eyes were swollen and sore and her nose felt raw. Kethry didn’t say a word, simply held her, stroking her hair from time to time, and it was with a great deal of reluctance that she freed herself from that comforting embrace to finish the story.
She had to do so with her eyes shut tightly against the tears that threatened to come again, her throat thick, and her hands knotted into fists. “Are you going to be all right?” Kethry asked when she had finished.
Kero took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and shrugged. “I’ll have to be,” she replied. “I told you, I’m the only one left.”
Kethry nodded, pushed her down into a chair, and narrowed her eyes—and turned from comforter to something far different.
The sorceress’ face lost all animation. She cooled, she became somehow remote.
“The men,” she said dispassionately. “Describe them again.”
“They didn’t look like much,” Kero replied, falteringly. “Ratty looking. Like bandit-scum, the kind we’d never hire, except that their armor was awfully good. It wasn’t new, but it wasn’t dirty enough for them to have had it long.”
“No badges, no insignia?”
“Not that I saw,” she said, hardly knowing what to think.
“How did it fit them?” her grandmother persisted.
“What?” Now Kero really was perplexed. Her grandmother looked impatient.
“You’re no dunce, child, how did it fit them? Well, or badly? Too big, too small, places where it was just held together by jury-rig straps?”
“Uh—” Now that she thought back on it, the armor for the most part had fit badly, gaping places where it was too small on some men, too-large mail shirts spilling over knuckles on others. “Badly, mostly.”
“Ah. Are you sure you don’t want to go back and see if there’s someone that can go after Dierna besides you?” She gave Kero a measuring look. “You look to me as if you’ve done enough already. I wouldn’t say you’re up to this, personally.”
“No,“ Kero said as forcefully as she could.
Kethry nodded, and changed the subject. “Did it seem as if anyone was the leader?”
The questioning went on until Kero was ready to scream for the wasted time. And Kethry kept asking her if she was certain she didn’t want to go back. She answered everything as honestly as she could, but it almost seemed as if her grandmother was now looking for an excuse to dismiss her and her plea out of hand, before she’d even had a chance to voice it. She certainly was just as discouraging and disparaging as the old woman down on the trail had been.
She’s not going to listen; she thinks this was all Father’s fault and she doesn’t care what happens to the rest of us. Kero was shaking now; there was a light in Kethry’s eyes that she didn’t in the least like. Hard, and cold-uncaring? Perhaps. The sorceress’ face was unreadable.
Still, when Kethry seemed to have come to the end of her questions and stood up to pace back and forth with her arms crossed, deep in thought, Kero took a deep breath, and made her carefully rehearsed speech before her grandmother could tell her to take herself off.
I’ll never have another chance—
“Grandmother,” she said urgently, “I have to go after Dierna. If I don’t—there won’t be anything left of the family by the time her uncle gets done with blood-feud. He might leave me alive—but not Lordan.”
Kethry blinked, and seemed to shake herself out of an entrancement. “I actually know that, child,” she said dryly. “I’ve had dealings with Baron Reichert before. That man wouldn’t be satisfied if he devoured the world. In fact—never mind. I’ll tell you later. So what do you want out of me?”
“Help!” Kero cried. “Lordan won’t live out the night without a Healer—and I need help, too. A magic weapon, something that will make it possible for me to get Dierna away from those bandits—”
A lightning-caller, a tame demon—something that can attack them from a distance so I don’t have to get too close.
“They aren’t bandits, girl,” Kethry interrupted, her brow creased with a frown. “At least, that mage isn’t. Whoever, whatever he is, he’s good, he hid his presence from me right up to the time of the attack—and he wants a virgin girl for something. I would guess he was hired, and the girl is his price for this night’s work. I suspect your father made one enemy too many, and that enemy has decided to extract a complete revenge and end him and his line. Or else—” She gave Kero a sharp glance, and didn’t complete her surmise.
There’s something she knows that I don’t, Kero realized suddenly. Something she isn’t going to tell me. “I still need a weapon, Grandmother,” she persisted. “And Lordan—”
“Lordan will survive until I get there,” the sorceress said abruptly, turning so quickly that Kero’s heart jumped. “Trust me on that. And as for your going after those bandits—what makes you think you can do anything? You aren’t trained in magery or weaponry.”
“I have to try,” Kero said stubbornly. “I have to. There’s no one else, and you told me what Dierna’s uncle—”
“Why you?” Kethry repeated.
“Why not me?” Kero stood up, as tall as her shaking knees were permitting, and raised her chin defiantly. “Why not me—if you’ll help, I can do it. You did more with less when you were my age.”
She was all worked up and ready to say a lot more, but to her surprise, Kethry nodded. “There’s truth in that, child,” her grandmother said softly. “More truth than you know. And now I know who it is I’ve been waiting for all these years....”
“Stay there.” The sorceress crossed the room to one of the shadow-shrouded corners, and bent over a chest, opening it with a creak of iron hinges.
She turned with a long, slender shape in her hands, and as she moved into the light again, Kerowyn could see that it was a sword. Not a very impressive blade; the hilt was plain leather-wrapped metal, and the sheath was just as plain.
“Here,” Kethry said, holding it out to her. “Let’s see if she’ll take to you.”
She? Kero reached forward to take the hilt without thinking, and as she clasped it, Kethry pulled away the sheath.
For a moment, no more than a breath, writing blazed up on the blade itself, as fiery and white-hot as if the sword had just come from the heart of a forge. Kero gasped, but Kethry only nodded, unsurprised.
“She wants you all right, child. You’re the only one of my daughters or granddaughters she’s spoken for. She’s yours now—or you’re hers.” Kethry slid the sheath back over the now perfectly ordinary looking blade. “Take your pick. When she speaks, I don’t think anybody denies her.”
“What did it say?” Kero asked, aware of—something—in the back of her mind. A testing—but distracted by what her grandmother had just said. Granddaughters? Daughters? I thought Mother—
“Woman’s Need calls me, as Woman’s Need made me. Her Need will I answer as my maker bade me.” Kethry tilted her head sideways to fix Kero with a penetrating stare. “This is my sword Need, Granddaughter—the sword I wore for most of my life. Your sword, now; for well or ill, you’re bound to her like you’ll never be bound to another living thing, man or woman. But I don’t think you’ll rue the bargain.”
Kerowyn almost dropped the sword in her surprise. This was Kethry’s famous blade? Even she had heard stories about this sword. “B-b-but I don’t know how to—”
“You won’t have to,” Kethry said confidently. “She’ll take care of you. At least in this instance she will—well, you’ll see.”
Kero managed to stop gaping and slid the sheath onto her belt, removing the old blade she’d taken from Lordan’s armory. “Grandmother,” she said slowly, looking from the sword to Kethry and back again. “A few moments ago you wanted me to go back home. Now you’ve given me this—and you’re all but throwing me after those raiders. Why?”
Kethry clasped her hands behind her, and stepped back a few paces, looking Kero up and down with a distinctly satisfied expression. “I was testing you,” she said calmly. “What you’re about to do is going to change your life forever. Oh, don’t look so skeptical; I know what I’m talking about. It will. And the road you’re about to take is not for the fainthearted. But you seem to be made of stronger stuff than poor Lenore.” Kethry nodded, slowly. “Yes indeed. I think you’ll do.”
One moment, Kero was standing in the middle of Kethry’s Tower, staring at her grandmother. Then there was a moment of dizziness, as if the floor had dropped out from beneath her, and she found herself here, at the foot of the stairs.
She blinked, and the moonlit meadow wavered a little in front of her eyes. Dizzy—blessed Trine—She staggered two steps forward, her hand outstretched in front of her, stopping herself on Verenna’s shoulder. The mare snorted in alarm and jumped, as if she hadn’t known Kero was there until that moment.
The dizziness vanished. She looked up suddenly, only to see the light in the Tower blink out, leaving it entirely dark.
“Gods.” She stared up at the Tower, but could make nothing out in the shadows—and something told her that if she climbed all the way back up again, she could pound her fists bloody on that door and never raise a soul. She’d gotten all the answer she was going to get, at least for now.
She looked back down at the sword hanging from her belt. It was not the one she’d gotten from the Keep. It was the one she remembered her grandmother giving her.
She stroked the mare’s neck to calm her. “I think I’ve been dismissed, Verenna,” she said quietly. “I didn’t get the answer I came for—”
But maybe I got a better one, she thought slowly. And at any rate, it’s the only one I’m going to get.
She clenched her jaw, and mounted before she could turn coward. “Come on, girl,” she said to the mare, turning her back down the trail, the way they had come. “We’ve got a hard ride in front of us.”
Tarma shena Tale’sedrin, Kal’enedral warrior of the Shin’a’in Clan of the Hawk, urged her tall gray warsteed a little faster up the backtrail to Kethry’s Tower. The mare snorted an objection as she moved from an amble into a running walk; she didn’t like taking the back way at night, and she didn’t like to be rushed at the end of a journey.
“You’re going to like what’s coming up even less, old girl,” Tarma told the mare, patting her coarse-coated neck. “You only think you’re getting a warm stable and a rest. I’m afraid we’re going to be turning right back around as soon as we find out what my partner’s planning.”
:So you’re going to follow the girl?: asked a rough voice as familiar to her as her own in the back of her mind, a voice carrying overtones of approval. :Good. I like her; I’d have followed her alone if you’d refused. She has courage.:
“Oh, that, certainly. Lots of guts, not too many brains, but that’s the way of things when you’re young,” Tarma retorted to the shaggy, calf-sized beast trotting along with its head level with her stirrup.
The kyree turned its lupine head up so that his great glowing eyes met hers, and blinked. :Exactly. Reminds me very much of a certain barbarian Shin’a’in I knew many years ago.:
“Barbarian?” Tarma exclaimed, as her mare’s ears swiveled back with surprise. “Who’s calling who a barbarian? You’re the one who eats his meat raw. And fish-blessed Goddess, that’s a vile thought.”
:Cooking ruins the flavor,: Warrl replied haughtily. :Some of the most civilized beings in the world eat their fish raw.:
“Dear Goddess. No wonder they die young. Yes, I’m going after her. I just want to find out what Keth has in mind for both of us.” Tarma reminded her mare with a touch of her heels that she was supposed to be trotting. The mare grunted, and grudgingly increased her speed. “Have you picked up anything more from Keth’s mage-alerts down on the Keep?”
:No.: Warrl, creature of the magic-riddled Pelagir Hills, had some mage-abilities of his own; how much, he’d never told Tarma or her partner. He’d been able to throw off magical attacks in the past that would have killed a man. He’d once managed to feign death, pull Tarma out of a demon-sent trance, and smell the presence of mage-energy. He was also able to speak mind-to-mind with Tarma—which meant, she assumed, that he could do so with anyone he chose.
She’d been quite grateful for those abilities in the past, and never more so than tonight. She’d actually been within a couple of leagues of the Tower, returning from her annual visit to Clan Tale’sedrin, when Warrl had sensed the alarms Kethry had placed on the Keep sounding a danger-signal. They’d pushed their pace, knowing Keth was going to need them—only to have Warrl sense the girl riding hell-for-leather straight for the Tower herself. He knew her, of course; he knew all of Kethry’s children and grandchildren, whether or not they knew him. He’d played spy for Kethry often enough; Rathgar didn’t know of the kyree’s existence, and what he didn’t know about, he couldn’t forbid. Ward’s excursions to the Keep were often the only things that kept Kethry from violating her sworn word.
They’d stopped Kerowyn easily enough; even a Shin’a’in-bred horse didn’t readily pass something as large and carnivorous as a kyree. Tarma had played a part then; testing her while she and Warrl extracted information from the girl’s words and mind. Tarma had sensed the despair in her voice, the fear she had been trying to cover with bravado.
Poor child, the Shin’a’in thought, wishing she was already guarding the “child’s” back. Wishing she’d dared to be sympathetic. She wasn’t ready for this.
:I’m glad you intercepted her,: the kyree said, evidently following her thoughts. :She still might have tried something like this if she’d been as feather-headed and stuffed full of tales as you accused her of being. If she’d been like her mother—:
“She isn’t, Star-Eyed be thanked.” Tarma had very little use for Lenore, living or dead. But then, while Lenore had been alive, the antipathy had been mutual. Contempt on Tarma’s side, fear mingled with disdain on Lenore’s. Warrl teased his mind-mate by calling her a barbarian; Lenore had meant it. “Lenore wouldn’t have done anything other than faint, though. And have hysterics. Girl’s well rid of that father, though the boy has promise. We’ll get her through this one, then we’ll see she finds out about her kin and Clan—then she can make up her mind about what she really wants to do with herself.”
:Get her through this one first,: the kyree interrupted. :She is brave, and resourceful, but—:
“But, my rump. I did more with less at her age.” Tarma said, with more certainty than she felt. She’s what, sixteen, seventeen? No real weapons’ training? Dear gods, I was trained all my life, then retrained by the leshya’e Kal’enedral—
Uncomfortable thoughts. Best to get all the plans straight, then go see that the girl survived this quest of hers. She nudged the mare again, bringing her up to a canter. The mare knew every pebble of the way from this point, and Tarma didn’t want to waste any time getting on Kerowyn’s backtrail. Warrl barked once, then put on the wild burst of speed of which his kind was capable, and sprinted ahead of her toward the dark, craggy bulk of the cliff housing the Tower.
When Tarma pulled her mare up at cliff-side, Warrl was nowhere in sight, which meant he’d gone on ahead. :The lady is saddling up,: came his mental call, thinned by rock and distance. :We are in the stable.: Light from a full moon directly overhead showed that the path here curved around the side of what looked to be sheer rock face, heading toward the stair that led to the Tower itself. The rough granite gave lodging-room here only to occasional scrub trees and bushes, and a little moss. There was no sign whatsoever of a stable.
Which was, of course, exactly as Kethry intended.
The mare tossed her head, as Tarma dismounted stiffly, her right hip aching a little from the long ride. It would have been nice if this mess had managed to happen some time next week, she reflected wistfully, trying to flex some mobility back into her legs. Give me a chance to get a hot bath ... my own bed for a few nights....
Ah, I’m getting soft in my old age.
As often as she pulled this trick, the mare still balked when it came to going through the hidden entrance. Tarma pulled off the scarf that had held her hair out of her eyes all day, and blindfolded the mare with it.
And walked into the side of the cliff, leading the docile horse.
This trick wouldn’t work for just anyone, of course; only those Keth had keyed into the spell. For anyone else, that granite cliff-face wasn’t illusion, it was real, and solid enough to climb. Tarma still hadn’t made up her mind about it, and like the mare, she didn’t much enjoy passing through it. She kept thinking that one day something was going to go wrong, and she’d get stuck halfway through.
Three steps through absolute darkness, then she and her mare emerged into the tunnel that led to the Tower’s stables. The tunnel, the stable, and the “door” were the only extravagances Keth permitted herself in the way of magic. The tunnel and stable had been carved from the living rock by magic, and were illuminated by permanent witch-lights. The rock walls of the tunnel were planed and polished until the granite shone like marble, and the yellow globes of witch-lights brightened just ahead of her and dimmed after she had passed. “Austere, but attractive,” was what Warrl had called it. It gave Tarma a case of claustrophobia.
Her footsteps and the mare’s echoed up and down the tunnel, announcing their arrival. Oddly enough, the Tower—which everyone seemed to think Keth had magicked into place—had already been here when they’d first had their schools at what was now the Keep. Besides the obvious way in, there’d been an escape route down through the cellars. That was what Keth had enlarged into the stables and tunnel, and had concealed with her magic.
The end of the tunnel was considerably brighter than the tunnel itself; Tarma blinked a little when she led the mare out into the stable proper. As Warrl had advised, Kethry was already at work; she’d already saddled her mount and loaded it with packs of medicinal gear. Kethry was no fool; she’d changed into one of her old traveling outfits; knee-length hooded robe and breeches, both of soft, but sturdy beige wool. Now the sorceress had gotten her gray warsteed to kneel so that she could mount the mare’s saddle. While Tarma might still be able to mount unaided, these days Keth couldn’t, and made no pretenses about the fact.
Poor Keth. She moves so gracefully no one ever guesses how much her bones ache.
:We are not what we were, mind-mate,: Warrl acknowledged ruefully. He had flung himself down beside the cool stone wall where he lay panting after his run. Now that he was in the light, he was even more impressive; not even a wolfhound or the grasscats of the Dhorisha Plains could best him for size. He could—and had—snapped a man’s leg in half with those formidable jaws.
“Your timing couldn’t have been better, she’enedra,“ the sorceress said, as her mare heaved herself to her feet. “I saw you were almost home when I checked this morning, then when I sensed the trouble in the valley, I checked on you first, and caught your little conversation with Kerowyn.” She checked all the fastenings on the packs as she spoke, making sure nothing was going to come loose. “I’m going to the Keep to see what I can do—”
“Don’t worry, I just came down here to tell you I’ll be playing guardian to the girl,” Tarma interrupted. “You didn’t have to ask.”
“She isn’t as helpless as you might think,” Kethry said, knotting her long silver hair up on the back of her head and pinning it there securely. She turned her emerald eyes on her partner, and Tarma for once could not read them.
“So?” She raised an eyebrow.
“I—Need woke for her.”
Silence. Four daughters, a host of granddaughters and fosterlings—not to mention all the students—not one of which woke even a spark from that piece of tin. Dear and most precious gods. For once the damned thing picked a good time to poke its nose in!
If a sword has a nose.
Tarma took a deep breath, quite well aware that her oathbound sister was waiting for some kind of reaction. “She’s neither fighter nor mage. So what’s it going to do for her?”
Kethry wheeled her mare and got her head pointed toward the tunnel. “Whatever it has to. Protect her from magic, make her fight like a hellcat. Probably more than that, things I didn’t know it could do. All I do know for certain is that with the lives of not one, but two young women depending on it, Need is going to stretch to its limits.”
Tarma considered that for a moment. “In that case, I’d better get on my way. And young Lordan isn’t getting any better for you standing there.”
When Kethry didn’t move, Tarma frowned. “There’s something you’re not telling me.”
The sorceress grimaced. “I think Rathgar was betrayed. I told Kero that whoever hired the mage and the bandits to pull this raid was probably one of Rathgar’s enemies, but I lied to her. I think it was Dierna’s uncle. That Reichert bastard.”
Tarma blinked—and swore an oath strong enough to make the witch-lights dim for a moment. “It all makes sense, doesn’t it—the fact that the raiders knew about the feast tonight and that almost everyone would be unarmed. That they knew where everything was. And that bastard has wanted the Keep since I can’t remember when. I didn’t like Rathgar, but he deserved better than that.”
“ ‘That bastard’ probably wouldn’t be too upset if Dierna’s father happened to die and the collateral lands came to him either,” Kethry pointed out grimly. “Basically, I think you’d better stay alert for other surprises—and if you can find anything linking him to this massacre, bring it back.”
Tarma nodded. “I’ll keep my nose to the ground.”
Kethry’s troubled eyes cleared, and she urged her horse down the tunnel. “That takes a lot of worry off my mind. I’ll go do what I can for Lordan.”
“And I’ll keep our young swordbearer in one piece.” Tarma mounted up, much to the displeasure of her horse, and followed her out into the night. “And may the gods ride with all of us.”
The moon was down, but Tarma had no problem following Warrl. Any time she lost him, he’d be sure to set her right with acidic delight. She was far more concerned with her mare’s footing in the uncertain light. One false step and the rescue could be ended with a broken foreleg. Shin’a’in-bred horses were damned canny, but accidents could still happen to anyone.
She was glad now she’d left her old mare back with the Clan two years ago, and had taken a younger beast. This was the fourth warsteed to carry the name “Hellsbane,” but she was the best so far. Though lazier by nature than the other three, she had keener senses, a superior level of good sense, and an uncanny knack for path-finding.
Warrl was up to his usual high standards; despite a confused trail, he had picked up Kero’s track with very little problem. He might be as old as Tarma, but there was nothing wrong with his nose.
I can’t imagine how that girl is finding the bandits’ trail, though. That had her sorely puzzled. She’s a good enough hunter, but not that good, and not by night—
:The sword?: Warrl suggested absently. :Kethry said that we don’t know all it can do. We’ve never seen it in the hands of someone entirely untrained.:
Tarma snarled a little at the thought of the blade that had caused her and her she’enedra so much trouble, and agreed. I’ll tell you, Furface, I’ve never been entirely happy about that blade. It has too much of a mind of its own. Damn thing came awfully close to getting Keth killed a time or two.
:The Hawkbrothers call it a “spirit-sword,”: Warrl reminded her, as he stopped at a crossroads to cast around for the scent. :I have often thought it to be more than a geas-blade. But your Star-Eyed bound you two, despite Kethry’s previous link to it, so I presume it isn’t inimical, only—hmm—stubborn?:
Tarma grimaced at the kyree’s choice of words. Maybe. Whatever, I’m glad now that the damn thing does have a mind of its own. The only two females in peril for leagues around are Kero and her brother’s bride. There’re no women in that bandit group, right?
:I have not scented any,: the kyree confirmed, loping off on the fork to the west.
Tarma urged her horse to follow. Then the goal and the target are clear. There’s nothing to confuse the issue. And Kero is going to need all the help she can get.
:We two are not precisely useless.: The path was leading off into the hills, and presently vanished. Warrl continued to follow with his nose along the bare ground, swiftly and silently.
It was as dark as the inside of a cat with the moon down. Tarma relaxed, rested, trusting to the senses of her mount and Warrl.
Tarma reacted instantly, and so did her mare. She peered into the darkness ahead of her, and could barely make out a moving blot against the lighter expanse of scrub grass and dirt ahead.
What’s up? she thought at him. She could not speak mind-to-mind, but he could and did read her thoughts. They’d used that little talent of his on more than one scouting foray.
:Interesting. She dismounted here.: Tarma eased herself down out of her saddle, and winced a little when she put weight on her bad leg. She led the mare up to Warrl as quietly as she could to keep from distracting him. He raised his head and sniffed the breeze just as she got there.
:Fascinating. We are somewhere near the bandits’ camp. I can scent smoke and many humans, and weary horses. And old blood, and I think, Dierna. Which means the girl Kerowyn somehow knew they were nearby... :
He put nose to ground again. :The sword, I presume, alerted her. Or possibly is guiding her.:
Or controlling her, Tarma thought sardonically, thinking of times past.
:Perhaps. I think she led her horse off—there—:
Tarma dropped Hellsbane’s reins, ground-tethering her, and carefully moved off in the direction Warrl’s nose pointed. Within a few feet of the trail, behind a low rise, she found a creekbed with a trickle of water running through it, trees on both sides of it. Where the trees were thickest, she found Kero’s mare tethered with enough rein that she could eat and drink.
Satisfied—and pleased that the girl had thought to provide for her horse—she tethered Hellsbane there beside the girl’s riding mare, and returned to Warrl.
If it’s controlling her, she’s at least holding her own. Now what? she asked him.
He moved forward a few feet at a time. :Ah. Here she dropped to hands and knees. A crawling stalk.: He raised his head to look at her. :I would advise the same, based on the strength of the scents :
Tarma shook her head in admiration. Brightest Goddess—the damned blade is finally doing something right. All right, Furface, let’s see what you and I can do about cutting around to the other side of the camp.
Kerowyn halted her horse; she could just barely make out the dirt road ahead, and the fact that this was a crossroads. She stared at the trail and tried to remember what the stories she’d heard had said about her grandmother’s geas-blade. There was something about Kethry fighting as if she were a master swordswoman even though she was entirely untrained—which might mean the thing gave her unusual abilities. Could it make one a master tracker, perhaps?
She touched her hand to the hilt, and felt a kind of tingle, as if her hand had a mild case of “pins and needles.” There was something there, all right, even if she didn’t know what it was.
On the other hand, she wasn’t too certain she wanted to find out while she had other options available.
She settled herself carefully in her saddle and opened the protections on her mind. Slowly, this time. The last thing she wanted was to let that slimy thing know she was behind them. She caught a lot of stray thoughts, full of violence and not very clear or coherent; and when she opened her eyes, she found she was facing westward. Very well, then, west it would be.
Each time she lost the trail, she found it again by cautiously lowering her protections, and “listening.” But then the road she followed turned into a path, and the path itself dwindled away to nothing, and it was too dark to try and track the bandits by ordinary means.
Now she had no choice. Reluctantly, she eased the blade halfway out of its sheath, and relaxed.
The darkness about her began to lighten, and soon she could see as well as if it was near dawn. For a moment, as she looked around herself in astonishment, she thought she might be having some kind of fit—there were little sparkles of sullen light leading off over the hills. Then she pulled her hand away from the hilt of the sword, and she realized that the little sparkles vanished, as did her ability to see so clearly, the moment her hand left the sword.
So this means, what? She dismounted and put her hand back on the sword. The sullen light reappeared, and as she examined the hard ground, she saw the faint traces of hoofmarks there. This, then, was the direction the bandits had taken.
And the moment she found their trail, the light disappeared, although she could still see as well as before.
It’s letting me do what I can do. It’s—playing tutor, I guess. But the moment I’m in a position where my own abilities can handle things—then it just sort of steps back and makes me take care of myself.
She took the blade in her right hand, the mare’s reins in her left, and followed the trail until—something—told her to stop. It just didn’t seem right to go on farther.
Maybe it’s about time to see what they’re up to. She opened her mind, leaning against Verenna’s warm, sweaty neck and closing her eyes to do so, and went “looking” for bandits.
She found them all right. An entire encampment of them, with sentries posted all around the little valley they’d taken for their own. Drunk, most of them. Wild, disconnected thoughts. Dierna was there, and still alive—and relatively unharmed. But with her was—
Kero slammed her protections shut, convulsively. He was there with her, that cold, slimy, evil presence she’d felt before. This time he hadn’t sensed her presence, but that was because he was preoccupied. But she had inadvertently come a lot closer to being detected than she really wanted to think about.
She looked around, assessing the possibilities; there was a tiny creek not far from where she was standing, with trees lining both sides. It wasn’t much cover, but to all eyes other than hers the night was deep and dark enough to hide just about anything. With the cover provided by the bushes, Verenna would be just about invisible. Now if she could just do something to keep her from making a fuss—Well, the mare probably hadn’t fed terribly well, what with all the confusion for the feast, and then the upset of the raid. If she left Verenna tethered loosely so that she could get at browse and water, that might keep her occupied and quiet.
She led her mare into the copse, right up to the waterside, and tethered her in a tiny clearing right next to the creek. The clearing was surrounded by bushes and trees, and may itself have been part of the creekbed until something changed its path.
Verenna should be safe—and if I don’t get back, she’ll probably be able to free herself.
She left the little mare tearing up grass hungrily, and proceeded cautiously, afoot at first, then on her hands and knees; opening her mind for brief glimpses of her enemies, until she knew that the farthest sentries were little more than a hill away. She dropped down beneath the bushes, and crawled forward in their shelter.
All this time her sight had been dimming; was the sword taking away her advantage, or losing its power? Or was it that too much profligate use of magic might be somehow visible to the unknown mage? Now her vision was about equivalent to what she’d have under a full moon.
Well, that’ll do—she thought just as she heard the careless footsteps of one of the bandit-sentries, and the rattle of the bushes as he pushed through them. She flattened herself under the cover of the brush with her sword still in her hand, face pressed into the gritty dirt, her heart pounding with sudden fear, and waited for him to pass.
He did; making no attempt at quiet. He stalked within an arm’s length of her, armor creaking and jingling, and never knew she was there.
She didn’t start breathing again until he was well out of hearing distance; didn’t get her nose out of the sand and wipe it on the back of her hand until long after that.
All right, I know where the sentries are, she thought, her right hand toying nervously with the hilt of the sword as she peered out from under the branches. So how do I avoid them? They seem to be stationed pretty closely together. Maybe I shouldn’t avoid them.
It was hard to recall the stories—the tales the old mercenaries told when she was supposed to be out of earshot, not the bardic lays. The recollections of old battles, ambushes, things that would be useful to her now.
Dent—he told Lordan once, about how he had to get into an enemy camp. He said the sentries were posted all around, but they weren’t used to working together and weren’t checking in with each other, so they wouldn’t know if one of them had been taken out until his replacement came looking for him. So he got rid of one, and brought his entire company in through the hole in the lines....
Somehow all the fear and grief was behind her now, now that she was confronting her own life—or death. It was easier to think; the pain was far away and nothing was important but the next moment, and the strange excitement that sharpened all her senses.
If I slip past them, they’ll still be at my back, and dangerous. I could forget that they’re there, and one of them could get me from behind. I can’t just slip past them. I’ll have to get rid of one.
No sooner had she made the decision than she was crawling forward after the sentry that had just passed her. She had no real plan, it was just that this particular man seemed the most careless. She followed him with the sword still in her hand, able to move with relative silence through brush that she could see and he could not.
Maybe if I can come up on him from behind, I can hit him in the back of the head with the pommel like Dent showed me—
She was within a length of him; half a length. He started to turn—
And suddenly she was no longer in control of her body.
As if she was a passenger behind her own eyes, a puppet in the hands of an unseen manipulator, she felt her muscles tense as the man started to peer through the dark toward her. She found herself ducking down and crouching behind the cover of a bush. She hadn’t even noticed the bush beside her, much less that it was big enough to hide behind. He even moved a couple of steps in her direction, but couldn’t see anything, and she stayed as still as the disembodied puppeteer could hold her. Then, when he turned away, she sprang up, sword-hilt clasped in both hands; and as a wild excitement filled her, drove the blade through his body, between his ribs, using all the momentum of her leap. The edges of the blade scraped against his ribs; he arced, and made a kind of strangled gasp, dropping his own blade. She seized him around the neck with her free arm, and shoved the blade completely through him, up to the quillons.
They stayed that way for a moment, then he fell; she braced herself and pulled at the same time, and the blade came free of his falling body. He never even made another sound.
Then, just as suddenly as she had lost control, she regained it. She was the one who staggered two trembling steps away from the carcass, mouth open with shock, heart thudding against her ribs. She was the one who very nearly turned and ran, ran all the way back to the copse where she’d left Verenna to take her and ride home at a gallop—
Only the knowledge that if she did, they would probably hear her and kill her, kept her from doing just that.
I’ve killed a man, she thought, legs shaking, sour taste of bile in the back of her throat. Her gorge rose. I’ve killed a man, myself—
Except that she didn’t know the blow that had killed him. If it had been her doing, she’d have just hit him from behind with the pommel. Nothing like that was in anything Dent had taught her.
It was the sword. It had to be. Only a magic sword would have been able to manipulate her like a puppet. And Need was, of course, a magic sword, and had been described as giving Kethry the same power it had just apparently given Kero.
I never thought it would happen like that—just take me over like that. I thought—I thought it would just sort of show me how to do things—
This wasn’t what she’d planned at all. She looked at the blade in her hand and the blood on it with revulsion. She wanted to drop it right there—
But then, just before she did, another thought occurred to her.
I was going to ask Grandmother for a weapon, or a demon. Would this bandit be any less dead if I’d hit him with a lightning bolt, or let a demon eat him? What makes it any better if I kill him with my own hands, or do it from a distance?
It wasn’t better, of course—
And he hurt and killed my people. Maybe even somebody I knew. She steeled herself, steadied her hands, and forced herself to clean the blade on his tunic. He could have chosen an honest living. He’s helping keep Dierna captive. He had a choice, he made it. And I’m making mine.
She went back on hands and knees and eased through the brush toward the camp, making as little sound as possible. Her hands were getting full of stickers, and her knees were bruised by rocks—but it was no worse than some of the injuries she’d picked up berrying or training Verenna. So far.
So far, thanks to the sword, she’d been lucky.
Thanks to the sword. It still made her skin crawl to think how it would probably take her over again. She didn’t have a choice, not if she was going to rescue Dierna, but she didn’t like it at all. It just takes over with no warning. And what else does this thing do that I don’t know about? What if it turns me into some kind of monster?
But her grandmother trusted it.
There’s no reason not to trust it, I guess, she thought, as a cramp seized her leg. She stopped and eased her leg out straight, waiting for a moment until it went away. But I can’t help but wonder how much Grandmother really knew about it. Maybe it hid things from her, too.
A cheerful thought.
Just then she reached the edge of a drop-off, with a screening of brush at the edge. Bright yellow firelight silhouetting the bushes warned her that the camp was just beyond them. She wormed her way under the shelter of one of the biggest (and prickliest) of them. It was not an easy job. Tiny twigs caught in her hair and scratched her face; exposed roots caught on her belt and tunic-lacings and held her back.
Finally she reached the edge. The branches of the bushes drooped here, down over the drop-off, making a kind of screen of leaves and twigs between her and the fire. Lifting one branch out of the way, cautiously, she peered down at the camp below, blinking against the sudden light.
Closest to her and about a length below her were a half-dozen men, roaring drunk, playing some kind of game with dice or knucklebones. Two were standing; the rest were sitting or kneeling in a rough circle, watching one of their number cast and cast again. They had tossed their armor aside in a heap right below her, up against the side of the low bluff she hid on. They were filthy, unshaven, and dressed in a motley collection of clothing, some of which had probably been very fine at one time, all of which was now stained, tattered, and so dirty she wouldn’t have used it to clean the stable floor.
Beyond them was another collection of similar scum sprawled at fireside, sharing the contents of a wineskin, and squabbling over a heap of loot from the Keep. Then came the fire—badly built, part of it smoking, part roaring—and beyond the fire—
Her bright scarlet dress made a brilliant splash of color that attracted Kero’s eyes immediately. She lay half on her side, her pretty face a frozen mask of fear, tumbled at the feet of a tall, thin man in long red robes, the skirt of his robes split fore and aft for riding. He sat on a boulder, sharpening a knife, paying no attention to the antics of his men. Nor, strangely enough, to Dierna, although her legs were exposed to the thigh by the way her dress had torn and fallen open when she’d collapsed (or been flung) at his feet.
He reached down, as Dierna shrank away from him, and grabbed a lock of her long, unbound dark hair. He yanked her back toward him with it tangled cruelly in his fingers—Kero watched her clench her teeth and wince—and cut the lock off with a single stroke of his knife.
Kero bit her lip with sudden speculation. That was not what she’d expected him to do.
As she watched, he rose from his impromptu seat, kicking Dierna out of the way impatiently, and took the lock of hair to a flat rock just inside the ring of firelight.
Maybe one of these bastards will go for his back, she thought hopefully. Having a girl within reach must be driving them mad. If one of them tries something, makes a move for her, that’s sure to start a fight. Either the man holding her will react, or one of the others—either way, once a fight starts, it’s bound to spread. If that happens, maybe I can get in there and get her out while the fighting is going on.
But the bandits ignored the robed man; ignored Dierna, which was even odder. Even if this strange man—
Mage. This has to be the mage.
—even if this strange mage had given orders about leaving Dierna alone, scum like this would not have been able to ignore her. They’d have been watching her, hoping for the mage’s back to be turned, hoping for a chance at her. But she might as well not have been there. They weren’t ignoring her—they acted as if they didn’t even see her.
Kero turned her startled attention back to the mage. That flat rock—he had some kind of paraphernalia laid out on it, as if it were an altar. He set the lock of hair on a brazier in the middle of the rock, picked up something Kero couldn’t make out, and began making passes over the burning hair.
I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.
A moment later the hair on the back of her neck was rising, as a circular boundary around the rock began to glow, as if he had piled up a circle of dark red embers. The strange light pulsed at first, then settled down to a steady, sullen glow. There was one small gap in the circle, and the mage put his instrument down as soon as the glow of the boundary settled, and strode through it.
He returned to his boulder, his steps hurried and betraying a certain impatience; he shot out his hand, and pulled Dierna to her feet by her bound wrists. She yelped, a sound that carried above the rest of the noise in the camp—and not one of the bandits looked up.
I like this even less.
The mage dragged the young girl stumbling along behind him, then pushed her through the gap in the boundary. He cleared the flat rock of encumbrances with a single sweep of his free hand, then kicked her feet out from under her and forced her down beside it. He waved his hand again, and the gap in the boundary closed as fire burned from each end of the arc and met in the middle. Then he pulled a knife from the sleeve of his robe, seized Dierna’s head by the hair, and before Kero could take a breath, slashed Dierna’s cheek from eye to chin.
For one moment, Kero was paralyzed, with herself and the sword warring to take over her body and act. And in that moment of indecision, someone—or something—else acted.
Outside the circle of firelight, a wild clamor went up. It was a heartbeat later that Kero recognized the sounds for the voices of half a dozen horses screaming with fear. The thunder of hooves was all the warning the bandits got before an entire herd of them, blind with panic, stampeded through the camp. Then the campfire went up in a shower of colored ball-lightning and huge sparks and explosions just as they hammered past, and they panicked further, scattering in all directions.
And as if that wasn’t chaos enough, one of the revelers fell into the fire with a bubbling shriek of pain, clutching his throat.
And the bandits panicked as badly as the horses.
That’s an arrow! Kero realized, in the heartbeat before her attention was caught again by Dierna and the mage that held her. There’s someone else out there—someone with a grievance and a bow.
But she had no chance to think about it, because the mage caught her attention again. Something—a cloud of smoke, or blood-colored mist—rose up out of the stone. It was the height of a man, and as broad as two men, and it was lit fitfully from within, like the clouds on a summer night flickering with heat lightning. The mage stepped back, releasing the girl; it gathered itself, coiling and rearing up exactly like a snake about to strike. Then it lunged forward and fastened itself on the blood-dripping cut on Dierna’s cheek.
Dierna screamed—high, shrill, the way a rabbit screams when it is about to die.
Kero couldn’t move; now she was as paralyzed with fear as Dierna. But she didn’t need to, for the moment she stopped fighting it, the sword took over.
It flung her out of the bushes, rolling down the bluff in a controlled tumble that somehow brought her up onto her feet just as she reached the bottom. The fire was still exploding, though fitfully; a handful of horses were still trampling anything in their way as they circled wildly through the camp, and there was more than enough confusion for her to get halfway across the campsite before anyone even noticed her.
And even then, the bandits had troubles of their own, for that unknown ally out in the dark was letting fly with arrow after carefully placed arrow, picking off raiders with impressive regularity. There were at least three down on the ground that weren’t moving, and two more clutching their sides and screaming. One of the bandits saw her, and charged right at her—
And stopped dead, as Kero raised her own sword against him, without pausing in her headlong charge. Whatever he saw turned his face as pale as milk; he turned, and ran out into the darkness.
That happened twice more as she half ran, half stumbled across the bandit camp, dodging fear-maddened horses and the fires set by the explosions in the campfire. A few unfortunates managed to get in Kero’s way. The sword did not grant them a second chance. By now Kero wasn’t even trying to fight the sword; she was still wild with fear, but there was a kind of heady exhilaration about this, too; she hardly noticed the men getting in her way except as targets to be dealt with, as impersonal as Dent’s set of pells in the armory.
She dodged around the now-blazing campfire, vaulted a body, cut down a fool who tried to bar her way with nothing but a short-bladed knife, taking him out with one of those unstoppable two-handed strokes—and found herself jerking abruptly to a halt at the edge of the glowing circle.
She couldn’t get across it. There was a real, physical barrier demarcated by that scarlet line. The thin band of crimson might as well have been a wall of iron.
She looked up—and saw the thing still fastened on Dierna’s cheek, the light within it growing stronger and more regular, pulsing like a heartbeat. And beyond it the mage smiled thinly at her, and gestured, making a throwing motion.
Yellow-green light in the shape of a dagger left his hands; she tried to duck, but the sword wouldn’t release her. So she braced herself instinctively, and cold fear froze her from head to toe.
But nothing happened. The dagger of light vanished as it came within an arm’s length of her.
She blinked, trying to comprehend what had just happened. He threw a magic thing at me. It never touched me. And he expected it to kill me—
The mage stared in utter disbelief, and backed up a half-dozen steps. That was enough for the sword.
Kero backed up a step under its direction, and it slashed down across the circle of light, as if it were carving a doorway. A portion of the crimson barrier blacked out immediately.
The blade sent Kero leaping across that blacked-out section like a maiden leaping the Solstice fires.
Her jump ended two paces in front of the flat rock, Dierna, and the thing fastened leechlike to Dierna’s cheek. Dierna was no longer screaming; she was sprawled across the rock, moaning weakly, as if this creature was stealing all her strength. Her eyes were closed, and she seemed utterly unaware of Kero’s presence.
The sword slashed down again, but it was not aimed at the leech-thing. For one horrible moment, Kero thought it was trying to kill Dierna—but the hilt twisted in her hands and cut between the girl and the leech-cloud, shaving so close to Dierna’s face that the blade flicked away a couple of drops of blood from her wounded cheek.
The mage shouted, something incomprehensible, but angry. The cloud reared back as Dierna came to life and rolled weakly off the rock and out of its way, the strange thing looking more like a leech than ever. Before it could lunge at her and refasten itself to her cheek, Kero had leapt up onto the rock, positioning herself between it and the girl. She slashed at it, cutting nothing, but forcing it to retreat. It glowed an angry sanguine, and seethed at her, the roiling movements within it somehow conveying a cold and deadly rage.
Behind it, the mage chanted furiously, in some language Kero didn’t recognize. She somehow knew that the sword did, though; for the first time she felt something from it—a strange, slow anger, hot as a forge, and heavy as iron.
Her left hand dropped from the hilt and reached for her dagger at her belt, and threw it.
The mage held up his hand, and the dagger hit his palm—
—and bounced, clattering harmlessly to the ground.
Kero wanted to run, but the sword wouldn’t let her. She could only stand there, an easy target. The mage sneered, and raised his hands. They glowed for a moment, a sickly red, then the glow brightened and a spark arced between them. He brought them together over his head, and pointed—and sent a bolt of red lightning, not at her, but into the leech-cloud.
It writhed, but she somehow had the feeling it was not in pain. Then it solidified further—and doubled in size in a heartbeat, looming up over her.
The blade’s anger rose to consume her, and she shifted her grip from the hilt to the sword-blade itself. She balanced her sword for a moment that way, as if it was, impossibly, nothing more than a giant throwing knife. It didn’t seem to weigh any more than her dagger had at that moment.
Her arm came back, and she threw it, like a spear.
It flashed across the space between herself and the mage, arrow-straight and point-first. And as the mage stared in surprise, it thudded home in his belly, penetrating halfway to the quillons.
He gave a strangled cry, staggered forward two steps, and fell, driving it the rest of the way through his body.
The leech-cloud screamed, somehow inside her mind as well as with a real voice; it seemed to split her skull as completely as any ax-blade.
Kero dropped to her knees and covered her ears, the scream driving all thoughts except the pain of her head from her mind. But she couldn’t look away from the thing, her eyes held by the mesmerizing, pulsating lights within it. The light flickered frantically, wildly; the cloud stretched and thinned, reaching upward, and rose to a height of three men—
Then it exploded, vanishing, with a roar that dwarfed the explosions earlier.
Kero blinked dazzled eyes, shaken and numbed, and slowly took her hands away from her ears. There was only silence, the crackling of the fire, and the far-off drum of hoof beats.
She rose to her feet, shaking so hard she had trouble standing, her knees wobbly. Dear gods, what happened? I can’t have killed that thing, can I? She waited for what seemed like half the night, but nothing more happened. Finally she pulled herself together, gathered what was left of her wits, and staggered over to Dierna.
The girl lay quietly beside the rock, eyes wide and staring, face as white as cream. She blinked, but that was the only movement she made; for a moment Kero was afraid that she might have gone mad; or worse—not that she would have blamed her.
But when the older girl came into the failing light from the fire, there was sense in her eyes, and she took the hand that Kero offered in both her bound ones, and allowed Kero to pull her into a sitting position.
“K-K-Kerowyn?” the girl stuttered weakly after a long moment of silence. “Is it r-r-r-really you?”
“I think so,” Kero replied unsteadily, putting one hand to her temple as she looked vaguely around for something to free the girl’s wrists. Although the mage’s dagger lay nearby, she somehow couldn’t bear to touch it. Instead, she retrieved her own knife and used it to cut through the rawhide of Dierna’s bonds.
Once her hands were freed, Dierna clapped her sleeve to her still-bleeding cheek, and began to cry. Kero couldn’t tell if she was weeping out of pain, fear, or for her marred cheek.
Probably all three.
She started to look for something to use for a bandage, but when she turned around—
An old woman in a worn leather tunic and armor that fit her as well as the bandits’ had fitted poorly appeared out of nowhere between her and the fire.
Kero shrieked, and stumbled back, and turned to run—and shrieked again when she came face-to-face—literally—with the biggest wolf she’d ever seen in her life.
Its eyes glowed at her with reflection from the fire, as she groped frantically after weapons she no longer held.
“Stop that, you little idiot,” the old woman said in a grating voice from directly behind her. “We’re friends. Obviously.”
She spun around again, just in time to watch the old woman stalk past her toward the body of the mage, the wolf eyeing both of them with every evidence of intelligent interest. The woman surveyed the body for a moment, then leaned over and wrenched her grandmother’s sword out of the mage’s corpse with a single, efficient jerk. Before Kero could say or do anything, the woman handed it to her, hilt first.
She took it, stunned, unable to do anything but take it.
“Clean that,” the old woman growled, a frown harsh enough to have frosted glass on her beaky face. “Dammit girl, you know better than that! Don’t ever throw your only weapon away! Just because you were lucky once—ah, I’m wasting my time. Take that ninny of a sister-in-law of yours, and get back home.”
And with that, the woman turned on her heel and stalked off to the nearest body, wrenching an arrow out of its back. Kero stood staring dumbly as the wolf jumped down off the rock and joined her.
It was only then that Kero noticed that they were the only creatures living or moving in the whole camp. And no few of those bodies were slashed across throat or belly. Her work, or that of the sword—in the end, it really didn’t matter.
She couldn’t help herself; it was all too much. Her guts rebelled, and this time there was nothing to stop them from having their way. She stumbled toward the rock and leaned against it, heaving wretchedly.
She expected Dierna to be having her own set of hysterics, but after the first few heaves, as she dropped her grandmother’s sword from her nerveless fingers, the girl helped steady her while she lost dinner, lunch, and breakfast—and then even the memory of food. Finally, when her guts quieted down for lack of anything else to bring up, Dierna wiped her sweaty forehead with a dust-covered velvet sleeve, and helped her to sit down on the erstwhile altar.
She looked around for the sword; it was just out of reach. Dierna followed her gaze, and patted her awkwardly on the shoulder.
“I’ll get it,” she said, in a voice hoarse with screaming and crying. “You’ve done everything else tonight. Never mind that horrid old woman.”
Horrid old—now I remember where I heard that voice before. The old woman. That was the same voice I heard on the road, the old woman that stopped me on the way to the Tower—
While Dierna picked the sword up with a clumsiness caused mainly by the fact that she was trying not to touch it, and was doing her best to keep it at arm’s length away from her, Kero looked around for the old woman.
She was gone. So was the wolf. And all the usable arrows.
“Here,” Dierna said, thrusting the sword hilt at Kero. She stared at the girl without taking it; that awful, bone-deep gash was healing right before her eyes, faster than Kero had ever seen anything heal before. By the time she had shaken off her surprise to take the blade out of Dierna’s reluctant grasp, the wound had sealed shut and was already fading from a thin pink line to practically nothing, leaving not even a scar.
It Heals? Dearest Agnira, it Heals, too? After turning me into a berserk killer?
And what was that old woman doing here, anyway?
The sound of dancing hoof beats made her turn, to see one more surprise in a night full of near-miracles.
The enormous wolf had returned. In its mouth were the reins of two horses; Kero’s, and one she recognized as coming from the Keep stables. Kero’s Verenna was sweating with fear, and trembling so hard that she was plainly too frightened to try and escape, but the other beast was so tired it was paying no attention to its unusual “groom.”
The wolf led the horses right up to her, and snorted, which made Verenna grunt and shy. Kero grabbed the ends of the reins dangling from its mouth, and the wolf let go immediately. Verenna jerked her head and tried to bolt, but Kero held her, dropping the sword into the dirt a second time, as the mare rolled her eyes with terror and danced. Finally Kero had to grab her nostrils and pinch them shut, cutting off her air, before she’d calm down.
She glanced around guiltily as she retrieved the sword a second time, but the old woman was still nowhere in sight. She had the feeling that she’d get a real tongue-lashing if she didn’t clean the blade off after all this. And somehow she didn’t want that formidable old harridan to unleash the full force of her scorn.
So how am I going to keep the horses from running off while I clean the damn thing? She looked around for something suitable, and finally wound up improvising hobbles for both horses before tethering them to a bush. She could only hope that would hold; if they bolted, she didn’t think the wolf was likely to bring them back a second time.
By now the sword was encrusted with dirt; Kero had to cut a piece from the bottom of her tunic and use what was left in a stray wineskin to get it clean enough to sheath. The fire was dying down by the time she finished, and she sheathed the blade at her belt and looked for Dierna, again expecting her to be collapsed somewhere, as helpless and incoherent as her two cousins.
Instead, she saw the girl sorting through a pile of the loot that was part of one of the bandits’ dice winnings, turning things over with a stick, and tossing selected items onto a tattered cloak she had spread out to one side.
“Dierna!” she shouted, and winced when the girl jumped, overbalanced, and fell. She left the horses and walked wearily to give the girl a hand up. “Sorry. But what in the name of the six hells are you doing?”
The girl’s face took on a stubborn expression. “Looking for my wedding presents,” she said.
“You’re what?” Kero wasn’t sure whether to scream, laugh or cry. She’d been kidnapped, her friends and new relations had been slaughtered, she’d very nearly gone down the gullet of some kind of monster. She lives through all this, and she’s looking for a few paltry cups?
“I’m looking for my wedding presents,” the girl repeated. “They’re mine, they were given to me, and I—I’m n-n-not going to let these—b-b-beasts have them!”
Her eyes grew moist, and threatened to spill over, and Kero sensed that she would have hysterics if she were prevented from completing her search. “I saw most of them,” she sighed. “Some of these bastards were dicing for them. Here, let me help you—by the way, Lordan’s all right, or at least he will be by the time we get back. My grandmother, the Sorceress Kethryveris, said so.”
“Did she?” the girl replied vaguely, fishing a silver plate out of a pile of trash. “That’s good; I’m glad we’re going to be able to have the wedding after all. Lordan’s a very nice boy.”
Kero very nearly choked. That’s good? She’s happy about the wedding? When my father and brother—
For one moment Kethry had to hold very still, counting slowly, to avoid losing her temper and killing the girl she’d come to rescue.
Stop. Don’t kill her. She doesn’t realize how she sounds. And don’t tell her what you think of her, it isn’t going to do any good to shout at the girl. Lordan’s the next thing to a stranger, she hasn’t known him very long—what, a week or so? And if she didn’t marry him, they’d have found another husband for her within a couple of months. Probably not as good-looking or personable, certainly not as young, but equally a stranger—Dear Goddess, that could have been me.
No wonder she wants her wedding presents more; they’re all she really has. The only things she really owns. She doesn’t even own herself.
Kero found the last of the set of silver wine cups they were looking for, dented, but still recognizable, and threw it onto the blanket. Dierna looked up then, and the threatened tears did start to fall, as she ran to Kero and threw her arms around her neck. Kerowyn held her awkwardly, as she sobbed into the older girl’s shoulder.
“K-Kerowyn, I thought they were going to k-kill me!” Dierna cried. “I thought no one was going to come in time! Y-you were w-w-wonderful—”
She went on in that vein for quite a while. Poor baby. Poor baby. Kerowyn just patted her gingerly on the back until the flood subsided, then coaxed her to the side of the spare horse and secured the blanket full of loot to the back of the saddle. The horse was so tired it didn’t even object to the noisy bundle.
“Where’s the knee-rest?” Dierna asked, trying to find the kind of accoutrements she was used to on a saddle.
“There isn’t one,” Kero replied, hauling herself up onto Verenna’s back. “You’re going to have to ride like me.”
“Like—but—” Dierna paled, then her lower lip started to quiver. “But—but—I can’t! It isn’t—my dress—it’s not womanly!”
Kero closed her eyes, and begged Agnira for patience. “Your dress is ruined,” she pointed out. “Besides, no one expects to see you alive, Dierna. Nobody is going to notice that you’re riding astride. Now just slit your dress and let’s get out of here before one of those bastards comes back.”
And when Dierna hesitated, with the little knife Kero had handed her dangling loosely from her fingers, Kero added, “That leech-thing might not be dead, you know.”
The girl squeaked; slit the skirt of her dress so that she could swing her leg over the saddle and get her foot into the stirrup, and mounted with all the haste Kero could have wanted.
Blessed Agnira, spare me from “womanly,” if this is what it is, she thought, making the words an unconscious prayer as she took the reins of Dierna’s horse to lead it behind her own. Just—spare me.
:So what do you think of the girl now?: Warrl asked conversationally, as Tarma sorted through the scattered piles of the bandits’ belongings.
“I’m pretty impressed,” the Shin’a’in admitted, as she squatted on her heels, emptying out a belt-pouch, and separating copper from silver. Not that there was much of the former, and of the latter there was even less, but Tarma was a thrifty soul, and young Lordan was going to need all the help he could get. He was going to have to pay for enough mercenaries to keep his neighbors from getting ideas about annexing his property to theirs. That took ready cash, and silver and copper spent as readily as gold.
“I think I have a fair notion how much of what went on was the damn sword’s doing, and how much was the girl’s,” she continued, pouring the coppers into a large leather pouch that had been a wineskin a few moments ago. “She’s got a few brains besides the guts.”
:Unlike a certain barbarian nomad I once knew,: Warrl chortled; Tarma simply ignored him, and moved on to a pile of looted wedding gifts the girls had overlooked. Of course, it had been under one of the men Tarma had shot, which might be why they’d overlooked it....
She shook her head over a blood-soaked silk cloak. Too bad; that’s one wedding present ruined past anyone using it. She tossed it onto the fire. “I never claimed to have much in the way of brains when I was younger. Now—well, I’d rather do things with a minimum of effort, and that takes planning. That was good work with the horses, Furface.”
:Thank you. And you displayed your customary efficiency with the sentries.: Warrl nosed something out of the dirt, and batted a shiny little gold pendant toward his mind-mate with his paw. She snatched it up adroitly and dropped it into the appropriate pouch.
“You must be planning something rude; you’re complimenting me,” she teased him, stripping the body at her feet of everything useful, and tossing various items on the appropriate piles. “I’ll tell you though, I had a bad moment back there, when the mage started that blood-rite. I thought that stupid sword would take the girl over and turn her into a nice juicy target before we had a chance to start distracting them.”
:You didn’t think it knew what we were doing?: Warrl dragged a set of saddlebags over to the fire so that Tarma could rummage through them, then stood beside her, head cocked to one side, watching her work with absent curiosity.
“I’ve never known what that sword noticed or didn’t notice,” the Shin’a’in admitted. “I know the damn thing’s amazing when it wants to be—but I don’t think even Keth has ever figured it out, and she’s Adept-class. All we know for sure is that it Heals, it gives a mage fighting mastery, and a fighter immunity from magic. And it won’t work against a woman.”
:And that women in trouble call it the way lures bring in hawks.:
“Too true,” Tarma sighed, thinking of all the times exactly that had happened. And all the trouble the sword had gotten them into as a consequence. Not to mention all the paying jobs it had cost them. “What did you do with the rest of the nags, anyway?”
:Herded into a blind canyon. They won’t be going anywhere. I assumed you’d want them.: Warrl sounded more than usually smug, and with good reason. By the time Tarma finished collecting everything salvageable, there was going to be enough here for at least three pack animals—and the horses themselves would be worth something, ill-used, scrubby beasts though they were. Most of the horses the bandits rode in on hadn’t been stolen from the Keep.
:They’ll be worth more if Lordan offers them as bonuses to any merc who signs with him than if he sells them,: Warrl pointed out, following her train of thought with his customary ease. :It isn’t often a common merc gets a chance at even a scrubby nag like one of this lot.:
“Good point; I’ll make sure he realizes that.” She straightened, and surveyed the remains of the camp. “I think I’ve gotten everything worth getting. The vultures are welcome to what’s left.”
:No self-respecting vulture would touch one of these fools.: Warrl sniffed disdainfully. :Stupidity might be catching.:
Tarma snorted in agreement as she tied up a bundle of assorted silver plate. “They really weren’t terribly bright, were they?”
:Doesn’t that strike you as odd?:
Tarma paused with her hands on the last knot. “Now that you mention it,” she said slowly, “it does. You might think these fools had never worked together before.”
:Hired separately?: Warrl licked his lips. :Then thrown together—that would account for some of the laxness, the lack of coordination. They did act as if each man was following his own set of orders, and to the nether hells with whatever anyone else was doing. And once back at camp, the only thing they did as a group was to set sentries.:
“Exactly.” Tarma sat back on her heels, and stared at the dying fire without really seeing it. “Now why would someone want to throw a group of scum together that they know is going to fall apart the moment the job is over?”
Warrl began pacing back and forth, head swinging from side to side a little. :One would assume that whoever hired them—wanted them caught?:
“Good notion. Let’s think about this—if everything had gone wrong for these fools, what would have happened to them?” Tarma stood up, and joined Warrl in his pacing.
:If they had not been able to take the girl, Rathgar would have been faulted for not protecting her. And I would guess that in any case the mage was ordered to dispose of Rathgar, no matter what the cost. They certainly had the men to assure that.: Warrl paused in his pacing, and looked up at her. :Which would leave the estate in the hands of the boy :
“Who could be gotten rid of as soon as the bride had produced an heir, or even before.” Tarma scratched an old scar on the back of her hand. “All right—if it had gone half right, and they’d killed Rathgar, but left a force of able-bodied men behind to follow, it would have taken a while to get that force organized. And even if someone had come pounding after them, they’d have had time to get rid of the girl, which would give the family an excuse for blood-feud.”
:If you assume the girl is expendable—: Warrl sounded sour.
Tarma felt just as sour; the Shin’a’in lived and died for their Clans, and the idea that a man could betray his own blood for the sake of gain curdled her stomach. Not that she hadn’t encountered this before—but it curdled her stomach every time. “I think she is, given who’s probably behind the attack in the first place. Keth already had this one figured. The uncle. Baron Reichert.”
:lt fits his style.:
“Aye, that. He’d put up his own daughter as an expendable, let alone a mere niece.” She frowned. “Let’s get the horses. I think that once we’re in place, we’d better make the Keep a lot more secure than Rathgar had it, or the bride is likely to be a widow before the year’s out. Assuming she lives that long.”
The sun was approaching zenith by the time Tarma coaxed the weary, footsore horses through the gates of walls about the Keep-lands—and by the tingle on her skin as she passed under the portcullis of the Keep itself, Kethry had already put a mage-barrier about the place.
The Keep was more than a fortified manor; it was a small walled town, with a small pasture—or large paddock—within the walls for keeping horses. The quarried stone walls were “manned” by an odd assortment of women, old men, and boys, but Tarma nodded with approval as she gave them a surreptitious inspection while she dismounted and tended to the horse-herd. They were alert, they were armed with the kind of weapons they were most familiar with, and they looked determined. The boys had slings and bows; the old men, spears and crossbows; the women, knives, scythes, and threshing flails. By their weathered complexions and sturdy builds, those women and boys had been gleaned from the farms around the Keep, and Tarma knew her farmers. Every mercenary did. They could be frightened off, but if they decided to make a stand, they weren’t worth moving against. Farmers like these had taken out plenty of men with those “peasant weapons.”
Evidently she was expected; the farmers around the Keep knew her, in any event, from the old days when the Keep had been a school that she’d shared with Keth. Those farmers had long memories, and several recognized her on sight. She even knew one or two, once she got within the walls and close enough to make out faces. One of those was a woman just above the gate, who waved, then turned her attention back to the road, shading her eyes with her hand while she fanned herself with her hat. Leaning on the wall beside her was a wicked, long-bladed scythe, newly-sharpened by the gleam of it, and having seen her at harvest time with that particular instrument, Tarma would not have wanted to rouse her ire.
No one came down to help her, which spoke well for discipline, and that Keth had evidently impressed the seriousness of the situation on them.
I might be old, Tarma thought with a certain dry amusement as she dismounted, but the day a Shin’a’in needs help with a herd of exhausted horses is the day they’re putting her on her pyre.
Her warmare followed her to the entrance, with the three pack horses trailing along behind. Warrl held the rest of the horses penned in the farthest corner of the court while she pulled packs and tack off her four. When packs and saddle were piled beside the door, she and Hellsbane drove the three tired nags before her, shuffling through the dust, to join the rest. Warrl kept them all in place simply with his presence, and Hellsbane kept them calm, while she opened both stable doors.
She whistled, and through the open door watched Warrl climb lazily to his feet, then bark once, as Hellsbane played herd-mare. That was all the poor beasts needed; they shied away from him, and broke into a tired trot, shambling past her and out into the pasture. She slammed the stable door after them, and walked as wearily as they had back into the stone-paved, sunlit court.
The kyree was waiting for her, looking as if he was feeling every year of his age. :Are we finished yet?: Warrl asked hopefully, his tongue lolling out.
“You are,” she replied, stretching, and feeling old injuries ache when she moved. “I’d better see what Keth’s up to.”
:If you don’t mind, I’ll go get something to eat, and then become flat for a while.: Warrl headed off in the direction of the kitchen-garden. :I think that under-cook still remembers me.:
“I wish I could do the same,” she sighed to herself. “Oh, well. No rest for the wicked....”
She caught up the pouches of jewelry and money on her way past the pile of packs. I don’t think anyone out here is other than honest, but why take chances? The Keep door was halfway ajar; she pushed it open entirely, and walked in unannounced.
The outer hall was cool, and very dark to her tired eyes after the brightness of the courtyard. That didn’t matter; this place had been her home for years; she knew every stone in the walls and crack in the floors. As long as Rathgar didn’t install any statues in the middle of the path, I ought to be able to find my way to the Great Hall blindfolded, she thought, and I’ll bet that’s where Keth is.
She was right.
The Great Hall was nearly as bright as the courtyard outside; it was three stories tall, and the top story was one narrow window after another. Not such a security risk as it looked; it was rimmed with a walkway-balcony that could be used as an archers’ gallery in times of siege—and the exterior walls were sheer stone. Kethry was in the middle of the Great Hall, supervising half a dozen helpers with her usual brisk efficiency, robes kilted up above her knees, hair tied back under a scarf. She’d set the entire Great Hall up as a kind of infirmary, and she had no lack of patients. Even Tarma was a bit taken aback by the sheer number of wounded; it looked suspiciously as if the raiders’ specific orders had been to cause as much havoc and injury as possible in the shortest period of time.
Which may be the case, she reflected soberly, as she threaded her way through the maze of pallets spread out on the stone floor. The more Rathgar’s allies suffered, the better off Reichert would be. They’d be unable to support the boy, and very probably unwilling as well.
Kethry was kneeling at the side of a man who was conscious and talking to her. She looked up from her current patient at just that moment, and her weary smile told Tarma all she needed to know about the mage’s night. Long, exhausting, but with the only reward that counted—the casualties had been light at worst. Tarma nodded, and as Keth continued her current task of changing the dressing on a badly gashed leg, she slowed her steps to time her arrival with the completion of that task.
“Looks like you’ve spent a night, she’enedra,” the Shin’a’in said quietly, as Kethry stood up. “How’s the boy?”
“He’ll live,” she said, tucking a strand of hair under her scarf. “In fact, I think he’ll be up and around before too long. I held him stable from a distance as soon as Kero told me what had happened, and I managed to get the one Healing spell What’s-her-name taught me to work for a change.”
Tarma shook her head, and grimaced. “I never could understand it. Adept-class mage, and half the time you can’t Heal a cut finger.”
“Power has nothing to do with it,” Kethry retorted, “and it’s damned frustrating.“
“Well, if you ask me, I think your success at Healing has as much to do with how desperate you are to make it work as anything,” the fighter replied, shifting her weight from one foot to the other and flexing her aching arches. “Every time you’ve really needed it to work, it has. It’s only failed you when you were trying it for something trivial.”
“Huh. That might just be—well, the boy is fine, and as grateful as anyone could want, bless his heart. The girl, on the other hand—” Kethry rolled her eyes expressively. “Dear gods and Powers—you’ve never heard such weeping and histrionics in your life. Kero came dragging them both in about dawn, and Her Highness was fine until one of her idiot cousins spotted her and set up a caterwauling. Then—you’d have thought that every wound in the place had been to her fair, white body.”
“About what I figured,” the Shin’a’in said laconically. “Did you truss her up, or what?”
“I sent her up to the bower with the rest of her hysterical relatives,” Keth told her, the mage’s mouth set in a thin line of distaste. “And I sent Kero to bed, once she’d looked in on her brother. She’s made of good stuff, that girl.”
“She should be,” Tarma replied, pleased that Kero hadn’t fallen apart once she’d reached safety. “But it doesn’t necessarily follow. Well, I’m for bed. And see that you fall into one sometime soon.”
“Soon, hell,” the mage snorted. “I’m going now. There’s nothing to be done at this point that can’t be handled by someone else. There’re half a dozen helpers, fresher and just as skilled.”
Tarma clutched the tunic above her heart. “Blessed Star-Eyed! You’re delegating! I never thought I’d see the day!”
Kethry mimed a blow at her, and the fighter ducked. “Watch yourself, or I’ll turn you into a frog.”
“Oh, would you?” Tarma said hopefully. “Frogs don’t get dragged out of their beds to go rescue stupid wenches in the middle of the night.”
Kethry just threw her hands up in disgust, and turned to find one of her “helpers.”
The tallow should be ready about now, Kero thought, setting her mortar and pestle aside long enough to check the little pot of fat heating over a water-bath. The still-room was dark, cool, and redolent with the odors of a hundred different herbs, and of all the “womanly” places in the Keep, it was by far Kerowyn’s favorite. Dierna was still having vapors every time she set foot outside the bower—now converted from armory back to women’s quarters by Dierna’s agitated orders—so Grandmother Kethry had entrusted the making of medicines to Kero’s hands.
It keeps me busy, she thought, a little ruefully. And at least it’s useful-busy. Not like Dierna’s damned embroidery. Some of the recipes Kethry had dictated from memory, and they were things Kerowyn had never heard of; she was completely fascinated, and retreat to the still-room was not the boring task it usually was.
Retreat to the stillroom was just that, too—retreat. Dierna’s relatives, the female ones in particular, were treating her very strangely. Part of the time they acted as if she was some creature as alien and frightening as Tarma’s giant wolf. The rest of the time they acted as if she was a source of prime amusement. They spoke to her as little as possible, but she was certain that they made up wild stories about her once they were on the other side of the bower doors.
They certainly don’t seem to spend any time doing anything else, she thought sourly, as she carefully removed the pot of melted fat from the heat, and sifted powdered herbs into it. They’re amazingly good at finding other places to be whenever there’s real work to be done.
She beat the herbs into the fat with brisk strokes of the spatula, taking some of her anger at the women out on the pot of salve. She was very tired of the odd, sideways looks she was getting—tired enough that she had continued to wear Lordan’s castoffs, rather than “proper, womanly” garb, out of sheer perversity.
I’m cleaning, and lifting, and tending the wounded—when I’m not out drilling the boys in bow or in the still-room, she thought stubbornly. Breeches are a lot more practical than skirts. Why shouldn’t I wear them? Grandmother and that Shin’a’in woman do—
She had to smile at that. And they are one and all so frightened of Grandmother and her friend that if either one of them even looks cross, they practically faint.
The salve smelled wonderful, and that alone was a far cry from the medicines she used to make here. She sighed, and stirred a little slower, feeling melancholy descend on her. Life, was not the same; it didn’t look as if it would ever be the same again.
It isn’t just them, it’s everything. It seems as if no one treats me the same anymore. Not the servants, not Wendor, not even Lordan. Why has everything changed? It doesn’t make any sense. I haven’t changed. Of course, Father—
The thought of Rathgar made her feel guilty. She knew she should be mourning him—Dierna certainly was. The girl had ransacked Lenore’s wardrobe for mourning clothes, and had them made over to fit herself and her women. She’d carried on at the funeral as through Rathgar had been her father instead of Kero’s.
She carried on enough for both me and Lordan, Kero recalled sardonically. Maybe it’s just that I really never saw that much of him when Mother was alive, and when she was gone, he really never had much to say to me except to criticize. Really, I might just as well have been fostered out, for all that I saw of him. I knew Dent and Wendar better than I knew him! She sighed again. I must be a cold bitch if I can’t even mourn my own father.
She heard footsteps on the stone floor outside just then, and the door creaked open. “So here’s where you’ve been hiding yourself,” said a harsh voice behind her. “Warrior bless! It’s like a cave in here! What are you doing, turning yourself into a bat?”
“It has to be dark,” Kero explained without turning, wondering what had brought the formidable old fighter here. “A lot of herbs lose potency in the light.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” The Shin’a’in edged carefully into the narrow confines of the stillroom, and positioned herself out of Kero’s way. “My people don’t store a great deal, and that little only for a season or two at most. Don’t tell me you like it in here.”
“Sometimes,” Kero told her. “It’s better than—” she bit her tongue to keep from finishing that sentence.
“It’s better than out there, with the hens and chicks clucking disapproval at you,” the Shin’a’in finished for her. “I know what you mean. The only reason they keep their tongues off me is because they’re pretty sure I’ll slice those wagging tongues in half if I find out about it.” She chuckled, and Kero turned to look at the old woman in surprise. “We never have been properly introduced. I’m Tarma—Tarma shena Tale’sedrin, to be precise—Shin’a’in from the Hawk Clan. I’ve been your grandmother’s partner for an age, and I’m half of the reason your father disapproved of her. “
“You are?” Kero said, fascinated by the hawk-faced woman’s outspoken manner. “But—why?”
“Because he was dead certain that she and I were shieldmates—that’s lovers, dear. He was dead wrong, but you could never have convinced him of that.” Tarma hardly moved, but there was suddenly a tiny, thin-bladed knife in one hand. She began cleaning her nails with it. “The other half of the reason he disapproved of her was because he was afraid of both of us. We didn’t know our place, and we could do just about any damned thing a man could do. But that’s a cold trail, and not worth following.”
“Are you the reason we could get Shin’a’in horses to breed?” Kero asked, suddenly putting several odd facts together.”
Tarma chuckled. “Damn, you’re quick. Dead in the black, jel’enedra. Listen, I’m sorry I was so hard on you, back on the road the other night. I was testing you, sort of.”
“I’d—figured that out,” Kero replied. The knife caught the light and flashed; it looked sharp enough to wound the wind.
The Shin’a’in nodded, a satisfied little smile at the corners of her mouth. “Good. I was hoping you might. I want you to know I think you did pretty well out there. About the only time you started to dither was after everything was over and done with. You know, you’re wasted on all this.”
“All what?” Kero asked, bewildered by the sudden change in topic.
“All this—” The Shin’a’in waved her knife vaguely, taking in the four walls of the stillroom and beyond. Kero hid her confusion by turning her attention to the salve, watching her own hands intently. “This life,” Tarma continued. “It’s not enough of a challenge for you. You’re capable of a lot more than you’ll find here. My people say, ‘You can put a hawk in a songbird’s cage, but it’s still a hawk.’ Think about it. I have to go beat some of those hired guards into shape, but I’ll be around if you need me.”
And with that, she backed out of Kero’s sight, and vanished. One moment she was there, the next, gone; leaving only the door to the stillroom swinging to mark her passing.
* * *
“All right, you meatheads, let’s see a little life in those blows!” Ten men and women—those currently off-duty—placed their blows on the ten sets of pells as if their lives depended on it.
Of course, their lives do depend on it.
Tarma roamed up and down the line of hired guards, scowling, but inwardly she was very pleased. These were all reliable, solid fighters, with good references, very much as she and Keth had been early in their careers.
The only difference was that these fighters were well into their careers. Ordinarily they had nowhere to go now but down.
Because she’d been able to offer a packhorse apiece with half pay in advance, she’d gotten the cream of the available mercenary crop. None of them were going to be the kind of fighter that legends were made of, but for Lordan’s purposes they were far better. Most of them were in their middle years, looking for a post where they could settle down, perhaps even think about a spouse and children. That’s why they weren’t with a mercenary company—going out and fighting every year was a job for the young....
And fools, she thought, which these gentlemen and ladies are not. “Put some back into it!” she shouted again, feeling a sense of deja vu. How many times had she shouted those same words, in this same courtyard?
Only then, it was into young ears, not seasoned ones. These folks are well aware of the absolute necessity for practice, every day, rain, snow or scorching heat.
Thirty seasoned fighters. That would be enough to give even Baron Reichert second thoughts. And one very special recruit....
As middle-aged as the others, without a single thing to differentiate her from the rest. Even her color and stature—golden skin, and very tall for a woman—were not particularly outstanding among mercenaries. Hired swords came from every corner of the known world, and some places outside it; Beaker had been odder-looking than this woman. She acted no differently than any of the others, not looking for special status, nor making herself conspicuous. Tarma drilled this recruit as remorselessly as the rest, and paid her no more attention, and no less.
Lyla Stormcloud was from the far south and west; past even the Dhorisha Plains. She was half Shin’a’in, with the gold complexion of her father and the black eyes and wandering foot of her mother, a Full Bard who had double the normal wanderlust of that roaming profession. Life with a nomadic Clan had suited her perfectly, and Tale’sedrin, made up as it was of orphans and adoptees, made her welcome there as she might not have been in a “pure” Clan. How they’d gloried in having a Full Bard with them.
A Full Bard with another profession as well, the one she had trained in as a child—the skills and training of which she passed in turn to her daughter.
It’s a good thing the Clans didn’t know that until long after she’d been accepted on the basis of her Talent and current profession. And it’s a damned good thing for her that she admitted it before someone ferreted the information out on his own. But I’m glad it happened, especially now. Try and get an assassin past another assassin. Tarma furrowed her brow in thought, watching Lyla at her sword-work. Blessings on the Warrior, for sending her mother to Tale’sedrin, and a double blessing that Lyla was willing to pack up and move on my say-so.
Lordan was in danger as long as Baron Reichert thought him vulnerable. If Tarma and her partner could stay here—well, nothing and no one was going to get past them. Now that Keth was no longer bound by the promises she’d made Rathgar, she could put mage-protections up that would stop any magical attack on her grandson short of an Adept-spell. And if Tarma could possibly have moved in here permanently—
But she couldn’t, and knew it. There were other considerations, not the least of which was that she wasn’t as young as she used to be. And guarding a target from assassins was a young person’s job. That had been when she’d thought of Lyla. After that, it had been a matter of sending a mage-borne message via Keth to the shaman of Tale’sedrin—who just happened to be Kethry’s son, Jadrek. And then, when Lyla had agreed to come, some mysterious transaction involving the Tale’edras of the Pelagiris Forest had been negotiated via Jadrek to get her here. I’m still not sure how she got here as fast as she did. Those Hawkbrothers—they’ve got to have secrets of magic even Kethry and the other Adepts don’t know. Probably only the Clan shamans have any idea what they can do. And they aren’t telling, either.
Even Lyla didn’t remember how she’d gotten here; she told Tarma that Jadrek had taken her to the forest edge—and the next thing she knew, she was walking through the open mouth of a cave near the Tower.
Just as well; let them keep their secrets. I don’t think I want to know them.
Lordan was now as safe as Tarma knew how to make him. Certainly safer than money could buy....
Lyla was a pleasure to watch; wasting no effort, and certainly almost as good as Tarma in her prime. Better than Tarma was now. Not through fault of training or will, just old bones and stiff, scarred muscles, slower reactions and senses that were no longer as keen—So the world belongs to the young. At least there’re youngsters I’m glad to see have it. Like young Kero.
She hoped she’d said the right things, neither too much, nor too little. Too much, and she might frighten the bird back to its nest. Too little, and she wouldn’t realize there was a great big world out here, and a whole sky in which to use her wings.
If I’m any judge, she’s got the reactions and the instincts; all she needs is the skill and the strength, and she’ll put Lyla in the shade. She has it in her. She has the brains and the guts, too, which means even more—she can be more than even an exceptional merc with those. But if I push, she’ll rebel, or she’ll be frightened off.
“Good!” she said aloud, and the sweaty fighters lowered their weapons with varying expressions of gratitude. “All right, ladies and gentlemen—off to the baths. On the quickstep—march!”
I never thought I’d find myself here, Kero thought for the hundredth time, watching the rest of the wedding guests over the rim of her goblet. She tried not to fidget; tried not to feel as if she was being smothered under all the layers of her holiday dress. I should be back in the kitchen.
But she didn’t need to be in the kitchen, not anymore. Grandmother Kethry had seen to that. There was a proper housekeeper now—which was just as well, since Dierna was not up to handling the kitchen staff and servers the way Kero had. She was good at knowing what orders to give the housekeeper, what servants were best where, which was something Kero had never been able to figure out. She was a marvel at loom and needle, and Lordan was shortly going to find himself in possession of a thriving woolen-cloth trade if Dierna had anything to say about it. She was fair useless in the stillroom, but—
But the housekeeper can do that, too.
This housekeeper was an impoverished gentlewoman, found by Kethry by means of one of her many (and mysterious) contacts. Kero had a vague idea that there was a relative involved in some way.
An uncle? An aunt? Someone connected with some kind of mage school, I think.
There was something about the way she’d been dispossessed, too. Something unjust, that Kethry wouldn’t go into when Dierna was around. Could it possibly be something involving Dierna’s uncle, the Baron? Well, no matter what the cause, here she was, and grateful for the post. Being neither noble nor servant, she was perfect for the position, which wasn’t quite “family,” and wasn’t exactly “underling.”
Perfect, as Kero had not been; she knew that now. Too close to the servants for them to “respect” her properly; that was what Dierna’s mother had said.
She’d said a lot more, when she thought Kero couldn’t hear. Kero glanced at the lady in question, sitting on the other side of the bride and groom, and lording it over her half of the table. I’m glad for Lordan’s sake she won’t be here much longer. I might murder her and disgrace him.
Thank the gods for grandmother and Tarma, she thought, as Lordan and his bride shared a goblet of wine, and made big eyes at each other. They were like whirlwinds, magic whirlwinds. They blew in, they created order, and they’re about to blow out again before anyone has a chance to resent them. Even Dierna.
To her credit, through, the bride showed no signs of resenting Kethry’s “interference,” despite the plaints of her own mother. She’d had more than enough on her hands, even with the aid of the housekeeper. Dierna had taken over nursing Lordan as soon as Kethry had pronounced him fit for company, and he’d quite fallen in love with his intended.
They’re besotted, she thought resignedly. I suppose it’s just as well.
She looked down over the Great Hall, at all the other guests, like a bed of multicolored flowers in their finery, and many of them just about as immobile. Fully half of them couldn’t stand, and all of them wore some token of mourning, but that didn’t seem to be putting any kind of a pall on the celebrations. Wendar saw to it that the wine kept flowing, and the celebrants were chattering so loudly that it was impossible to hear the minstrels at the end of the hall. All enmities seemed to have been forgotten, at least for now.
But she kept catching strange glances cast her way. It was beginning to make her want to squirm with discomfort, but she kept her seat and her dignity.
I’m a heroine. And I’m an embarrassment.
That just about summed it all up. She looked down into her wine, and felt the all-too-familiar melancholy settle over her.
She didn’t fit in. She didn’t belong. Even her own brother looked at her as if she had suddenly become a stranger.
I rescued Dierna. Which makes me a heroine. Just one little problem—I’m Lordan’s sister.
She’d already heard some of Lordan’s peers teasing him about his “older brother Kero.” It made him uncomfortable, for all that he was deeply, truly grateful, for all that he’d offered her anything she wanted, right down to half the lands. And it shamed him. He should have been the one to rescue his bride. Wasn’t that the way it went in the tales? Not his sibling.
Not his sister.
She could talk until she was blue in the face about how it had been Kethry’s sword that had done everything. None of that mattered—because she had gone out on The Ride in the first place, without the help of the sword.
That’s what they were calling it now, “The Ride.” There were even rumors of a song.
Dierna did not want her in the bower. Not that Kero wanted to be in the bower. She most assuredly did not fit in there.
But she keeps looking at me as if she thinks I’m—what was it that Tarma said, the other day? She’chorne. Like I’m going to suddenly start courting her. Like I make her skin crawl.
Kero gulped down half the wine in her goblet, and a page immediately reached over her shoulder and poured her more. The rich fruity scent rose to her nostrils, and tempted her not at all.
I wish I dared get drunk.
The hired guards didn’t want her in the barracks. It was not that it was “unwomanly” for her to be there by their standards. They had enough women with them already. It was that she didn’t fit there because of her status. She was noble, and she was family, and she didn’t belong with the hirelings.
And her old friends among the servants kept treating her like some kind of demi-deity.
I don’t fit here anymore, she thought, a notion that had begun to make its own little rut through her mind, she’d repeated it so often. I just don’t fit here. If I stay here much longer, I think I may go mad. It feels like I’m being smothered. Tarma was right. You can put a hawk in a birdcage, like a songbird, but it’s still a hawk.
She caught a movement down at the second table, and saw her grandmother and her friend easing out of their seats. It didn’t look like a trip to the necessary; it seemed more final. Somehow she knew where they were going. Back to the Tower. They weren’t needed here anymore, either—so they were making a graceful, unobtrusive exit.
I wish I could do the same—
That was when it hit her.
Why can’t I do the same? Why can’t I just go? She sat up straighter, feeling her cheeks warming with excitement. I have to return Grandmother’s sword anyway—so why don’t I follow after them? Maybe they’ll be willing to teach me things. Didn’t Tarma say they used to have a school?
The more she thought about it, the better the idea sounded. And the more intolerable and confining the idea of remaining here became. Finally she excused herself from the table—her seatmate didn’t even notice—and slipped out of the Great Hall and into the corridor beyond.
Once there, she hiked her encumbering skirts above her knees, and ran for her room. There were no servants in the hall to see her, and although she split one sleeve of the gown, she no longer cared. Let Dierna give it to one of her maids.
I certainly won’t wear it again.
She slipped out of it as soon as she reached her room, tossed it in a heap in the corner, and dragged her saddlebags out from under the bed. She rummaged through chests and wardrobe in a frenzy, discarding most of what she encountered without a second thought, casting what she’d decided to keep on the bed.
It was amazing how little she owned that she wanted to keep. Her armor, Lordan’s outgrown castoffs, a few personal treasures and the jewelry and books Lenore had left her ... it all fit into two saddlebags with room to spare. She started to take a last look around her room—and realized that it held nothing of her or for her anymore.
So she turned her back on it, and strode out, chain mail jingling with a cheer she began to feel herself.
Out in the stable, even the grooms were absent, enjoying their own version of the wedding feast. All the better; that made it possible for her to saddle up Verenna and ride out without anyone noticing.
The mare came to her whistle and stood quietly while she saddled and bridled her. She felt Verenna’s tense eagerness as she mounted, as if the mare was as ready to be free of the place as Kero was. She touched her heel lightly to the mare’s flank; Verenna leapt forward. They trotted across the courtyard, cantered to the gates. She was at a full gallop as they passed the gates in the outer wall. Kero laughed as they burst out into the sunshine, wind whipping her hair, Verenna striding effortlessly under her. Nothing was going to stand in her way now!
But she pulled Verenna up abruptly at the sight of the two mounted figures waiting for her at the crossroads.
Suddenly sick with dread, she approached them at a walk. What if they tell me to go back? What if they don’t want me? What if—
“What kept you?” asked Tarma.
This was not precisely what Kerowyn had pictured when she’d asked for teaching.
“Chopping wood I can understand,” Kero said slowly, hefting the unfamiliar weight of the ax in her right hand. She eyed her appointed target, an odd setup of two logs braced against the tree, and shifted her hand a bit farther down on the haft. It wasn’t a very big ax, and she had the sinking feeling that it was going to take a long time to chop her way through the pile of log sections stacked up at the edge of the clearing. She’d already put a dent in the pile over the past few days, using a larger ax in a conventional manner, but this tool baffled her. It wasn’t much heavier than the hand axes some of Rathgar’s men had fought with. “I’ve been cutting wood for you since I got here, and I can see that you still need firewood. But why brace the logs so that I’m cutting at that angle?”
Warrl—Tarma’s enormous wolf-creature—snorted, flopped himself down in a patch of sun, and laid his ears back in patent disgust. His kind were called kyree, so Tarma had told her—and she needed no testimony as to his intelligence; she’d seen that herself with her own eyes. She’d gotten used to his presence over the past weeks, and now she could read his expressions with more ease than she could read Tarma’s. It would appear that she was being particularly dense, though for the life of her she couldn’t figure out what she was missing.
Tarma chuckled evilly, and leaned against the woodpile. If Kero had tried that, she’d probably have knocked half the logs down. The pile didn’t shift a thumb’s length. “But what if you’ve got it wrong?” the Shin’a’in asked conversationally. “What if we don’t need you to chop firewood?”
“What?” Kero replied cleverly. She blinked, and did a fast revision of her assumptions. “You mean you heat that great stone hulk with magic? But I thought you said—”
“That it takes more effort to do something magically than it does to just do it, yes,” Tarma replied, a maddening little smile on her face. “No, we don’t heat it with magic, yes, we use wood, and we still don’t need you to chop it. We hire it done. A couple of nice farmer lads with muscles like oxen. So why would I be having you chop wood, and why would I be giving you different sizes of axes to do it with? And now why would I start asking you to work at odd angles?”
Kero blinked again, and the answer came to her in a burst of memory—recollections of Lordan working out against the pells. “Because you want me to strengthen my arms and shoulders,” she said immediately. “All over, and not just a particular set of muscles.”
“And because while you’re doing so, you might as well be useful. Besides, if I make you really chop up wood, you won’t hold back. Against the pells you might. Against me, you already do.” This time Tarma laughed outright, but Kero couldn’t resent it; somehow Kero knew the Shin’a’in wasn’t laughing at her expense. It was more as if Tarma was sharing a sardonic little joke. “Out on the plains we were set to working bellows at the forge, toting water for the entire camp, or any one of a hundred other things. Be grateful it’s wood-chopping I’ve got you doing. Ax calluses you’re getting now are going to be in about the same places that you’d want sword-calluses.”
Kero sighed and took her first, methodical blow. Now that she knew why she was engaging in this exercise in frustration, it wasn’t quite so frustrating. And, she vowed silently, I’m going to be a lot more careful in placing my hits. I just might impress her.
She certainly wasn’t impressing her grandmother. Kethry had tested her in any number of ways, from placing a candle in front of her and telling her to light it by thinking of fire, to placing various small objects in front of her and asking her to identify which of them were enchanted. She’d evidently failed dismally, since Kethry had given up after three days and told her she’d be better off in the hands of the Shin’a’in.
But she won’t take that sword back, Kero thought in puzzlement, swinging the ax in an underhand arc, repeating the motion over and over, switching from right to left and back again under Tarma’s watchful eye. It’s hers, but she won’t take it back. I don’t understand—it’s obviously magical, and no one in her right mind would give something like that away—but she keeps saying that it spoke for me, and it’s mine.
So, marvelous. It spoke for me. Now what am I supposed to do with it?
“Faster,” Tarma said. Kero sped up her blows, trying to keep each one falling in exactly the same place; right on top of and within the narrow bite she’d incised on the sides of the logs. Those logs were strapped tightly to either side of what had once been a tree. When it had been alive, it had somehow managed to root itself in the exact middle of this clearing and had taken advantage of the full sun to grow far taller than any of the trees around it. Perhaps that had been a mistake. From the look of the top of the stump, some two men’s height above her head, it had been lightning-struck. That top was splintered in a way that didn’t look to be the hand of man.
Maybe Grandmother got in a temper one day....
This was not where Tarma schooled her new pupil and practiced her own sword-work; this was just what it seemed, a kind of primitive back court to the Tower, with a large outdoor hearth for cooking whole deer on one side, the pile of firewood ready to be chopped on the other, and in the center, the old, dead tree with iron bands around it. A big old, dead tree. Kero could circle what was left of the trunk with her arms—barely.
“That’s not too bad,” Tarma observed. She pushed herself off the woodpile, and gestured to Kero to stop, then strolled over to the two logs and began examining the cuts closely. Kero wiped sweat from her forehead with her sleeve, and shook her arms to keep them loose.
“That’s not too bad at all. And considering what a late start you got—can you finish those in double time?”
She gave Kero the kind of look Dent used to—the kind that said, be careful what you say, you’ll have to live up to it. Kero licked salty moisture from her upper lip and considered the twin logs. They were chopped a little more than halfway through. The target she’d been creating was just above the iron bands holding them tight to the tree trunk.
So when I get toward the end, they’ll probably break the rest of the way under their own weight. She squinted up at the sun; broken light coming down through the thick foliage made it hard to tell exactly where the sun was. It was close to noon, though, that was for certain. Her stomach growled, as if to remind her that she had gotten up at dawn, and breakfast had been a long time.
The sooner I get these chopped, the sooner I can have something to eat. Some bread and cheese; maybe sausage. Cider. Fruit—and I know she magics that up; pears and grapes and just-ripe apples all served up together are not natural at any time of year.
“I think I can,” she said, carefully. “I’ll try.” Tarma stepped back, and nodded. Kero set to, driving herself with the reminder of how good that lunch was going to taste—Especially the cider. At double time she was getting winded very quickly; there was a stitch in her side, and she couldn’t keep herself from panting, which only parched her mouth and throat. Her eyes blurred with fatigue, and stung from the sweat and damp hair that kept getting in the way. Finally, though, she heard the sound she’d been waiting for; the crack of wood, first on one side of the trunk, then on the other. As she got in one last blow, then lowered her arms and backed off from the tree, the two half-logs bent out from the center trunk, then with a second crack, broke free and fell to the ground.
Kero rather wanted to fall to the ground herself. She certainly wanted to drop the ax, which now felt as if it weighed as much as the tree trunk. But she didn’t; she’d learned that lesson early on, when she’d dropped a practice sword at the end of a bout. Tarma had picked it up, and given her a look of sheer and pain-filled disgust.
She’d never felt so utterly worthless in her life, but worse was to come.
Tarma had carefully, patiently, and in the tone and simple words one would use with a five-year-old, explained why one never treats a weapon that way, even when one is tired, even when the weapon is just pot-metal and fit only to practice with.
Then, as if that wasn’t humiliation enough, she put the blade away and made Kero chop wood and haul water for the next three days straight, instead of chopping and hauling in the morning, and practicing in the afternoon.
So she hung onto the little hand-ax until Tarma took it away from her. “All right, youngling,” she said in that gravelly voice, as Kero raised a hand at the end of an arm that felt like the wood she’d just been chopping. “Let’s get back to the Tower and a hot bath and some food. You’ve earned it.” Then she grinned. “And after lunch, a mild little workout, hmm?”
Kero finished getting her arm up to her forehead, and mopped her brow and the back of her neck with a sleeve that was already sopping wet.
“Lady,” she croaked, “Every time you set me a ‘mild little workout,’ I wind up flat on my back before sundown too tired to move. You’re a hard taskmaster.”
Tarma only chuckled.
Lunch in the Tower was as “civilized” as even Kero’s mother could have wished. The three of them sat around a square wooden table in one of the upper balconies, sun streaming down on them, a fresh breeze drying Kero’s hair. Despite the fact that she had braided it tightly, bits of it were escaping from her braids, and the breeze tugged at them like a kitten with string. She kept trying to get it back under control, but it persisted in escaping, and finally she just gave up and let it fly. There was no one here to care how “respectable”—or not—she looked.
She felt much the better for her hot bath, though her muscles still ached in unaccustomed places from that little exercise this morning. Furthermore, she knew very well that she was going to hurt even more tonight. But it was a small price to pay for freedom.
Freedom from the bower, from boredom, from pretending I was something I wasn’t. That thought led inevitably to another. So what am I now? What am I supposed to be doing with myself? And one more—Why wasn’t I like Dierna, content with being someone’s lady?
An uneasy set of thoughts—and uncomfortable thoughts. But problems that, for the moment, she could do nothing about. She forced her attention back to more immediate concerns.
I don’t know where Grandmother gets her provisions, but Wendar would kill to find out. On a platter in the center of the table were cheese, sausage, and bread. Simple fare, certainly not the kind of things one would expect a powerful mage to savor—but they were the best Kero had ever tasted. It wasn’t just hunger adding flavor, either; even after one was pleasantly full, the food at Kethry’s table tasted extraordinary.
Beside the platter was a second, holding fruit; not only apples, pears and grapes, but cherries as well.
Definitely not natural. Those are fresh apples, pear season is over, grapes are ripe, but cherries won’t be for another moon, and apples don’t ripen until fall.
But the sun felt wonderful, the apple she’d just cut into quarters was pleasantly tart, and Kero didn’t much want to think about anything for a while.
I’m going to enjoy this, however it came about. Father was wrong about Grandmother, and he was probably just as wrong about mages in general.
“Think you’re ready for some family history?” Kethry said, casting a long look at her from across the old table, as Kero reached for a piece of sausage. “I think I have a fair number of surprises for you. For one thing, you have some rather—unusual—cousins. Quite a lot of them, in fact.”
Kero froze in mid-reach.
The sorceress sat back in her cushioned chair, tucked flyaway hair behind one ear and smiled at her expression. In her russet gown of soft linen she looked nothing at all like a feared and legendary mage. She looked like the matriarch of a noble family.
And I must look like a stranded fish, Kero thought, trying to get her mouth to close.
“Don’t look so stricken, child,” Tarma said, and reached across the table, picked up the sausage, and dropped it into her hand. “There’s no outlawry on the family name. It’s just—well, you have a lot more relatives than you know about. Those cousins, for instance.”
“I do?” She gathered her scattered wits, and took a deep breath, only then becoming aware that she was still clutching the sausage. She put it down carefully on her plate. “I mean—you said something about daughters and granddaughters earlier, but Mother never said anything—I didn’t know what to think. How many? Did Mother have a sister or—”
“Your mother had six brothers and sisters, youngling,” Tarma interrupted, grinning from ear to ear at the dumbstruck look on her pupil’s face. She played with one end of her own iron-gray braid as she spoke. The tail of hair was as thick as Kero’s wrist, and as gray as the coat of Tarma’s mare. “Your grandmother and I are Goddess-sworn sisters, and I know I’ve explained that to you already.” When Kero finally nodded, she continued. “Well, what I didn’t tell you was that before I met her, my Clan was wiped out by the same bandits she’d contracted to stop.”
“It was one of my first jobs as a Journeyman,” Kethry put in, after Tarma paused for a moment, staring off at a long cloud above the trees. “They had taken over a whole town and were terrorizing the inhabitants. Tarma followed them there, and I managed to intercept her before she managed to get herself killed.”
“Huh. You wouldn’t have done much better alone, Greeneyes,” Tarma replied sardonically, coming back to the conversation. “Well. We decided to team up. It worked, and we—actually managed to take out the bandits and survive the experience. That was when we figured we’d make pretty good partners.”
“Then things got a little complicated,” Kethry chuckled, popping a grape into her mouth.
“A little complicated?” Tarma raised both eyebrows, then shrugged. “I suppose—in the same way that stealing a warsteed can get the Clans a little annoyed. Anyway, the main thing is that we got back to the Plains, she got adopted into the Shin’a’in, and she vowed to the elders that she’d build a new Clan for me. Eventually she met and wedded your grandfather Jadrek, and damn if she didn’t just about manage to repopulate Tale’sedrin all on her own!”
Kethry chuckled, and actually blushed. “Jadrek had a little to do with that,” she pointed out, raising an eloquent finger at her partner.
“Well, true enough, and good blood he put in, too.” Tarma stretched, tossed the braid back over her shoulders, and clasped both gnarled hands around her knee.
“That’s another story. We three raised seven children, all told. When the core group claimed the herds, we added adoptees from other Clans, orphans and younglings who had some problems and wanted a fresh start. Tale’sedrin is a full Clan; smaller than it was before the massacre, but growing. Kind of funny how many young suitors we got drooling around the core and the core-blood—but then, to us, a blond is exotic.”
“But—I don’t understand—” Kero protested. “If my uncles and aunts are all Shin’a’in, why aren’t I? How did I end up here instead of there?”
“Good question,” Tarma acknowledged. “The way these things work is that even though Keth vowed her children to the Clan, what she vowed was that they’d have the right to become Clan, not that they had to. It’s the younglings who decide for themselves where they want to go. We don’t make anyone do anything they aren’t suited for—the Plains are too harsh and unforgiving for anyone who doesn’t love them to survive there. So—when we’ve got a case like Keth’s, vowed younglings of adopted blood, the children spend half their time with the Clans until they’re sixteen, then they choose whether they want to become Shin’a’in in full, or go off on their own. Five of those aunts and uncles of yours chose Shin’a’in ways and the Tale’sedrin banner when they came of age to make the choice.”
“Mother didn’t. And?” Kero asked curiously. Why would anyone choose to stay here? The Keep may be the most boring backwater in the world.
“I was getting to that.” Tarma gave her one of those looks. “Of the two that didn’t go with the Clans, one picked up where his mother left off, and took over the White Winds sorcery school she’d founded and set up at the Keep—just moved it off onto property he’d swindl—ahem.”
She cast a sideways glance at Kethry, who only seemed amused to Kero. “Excuse me. Earned. That’s your uncle Jendar. It’s not that he didn’t like Clan life, it’s that he’s Adept-potential, and all that mage-talent would be wasted out there. There’s another son, and he’s mage-gifted as well. That’s your uncle Jadrek, only he’s a Shin’a’in shaman. But your mother Lenore was last-born, your grandfather died when she was very small and we had some problems with the school that kept us busy. Maybe too busy. She—well—” Tarma coughed, and looked embarrassed. “Let’s say she was different. Scared to death of horses, and had fits over the Clan style of living, so we stopped even sending her out to the Plains. Bookish, like Jadrek, but no logic, no discipline, no gift of scholarship. No real interest in anything but ballads and tales and romances. No abilities besides the ones appropriate to a fine lady. No mage-talent.”
“In short, she was our disappointment, poor thing,” Kethry sighed, and twined a curl of silver hair around her fingers. “She spent all her time at the neighboring family’s place, and all she really wanted to be was somebody’s bride, the same daydream as all the girls she knew. I scandalized her; Tarma terrified her. Finally, I fostered her with the Lythands until she was sixteen, then brought her back here. She came back a lady—and suited to nothing else.”
Kero thought about her mother for a moment, surprised that for the first time in months—years—the thoughts didn’t call up an ache of loss. Even when Lenore had been well, she’d been fragile, unsuited to anything that took her outside the Keep walls, even pleasure-riding, and likely to pick up every little illness that she came in contact with. No wonder she didn’t like Tarma or her Clan. Living in a tent for three moons every year must have been a hell for her.
“So what were you going to do?” she asked carefully. “Mother wasn’t the kind of person you could leave on her own. She was better with someone to take care of her.”
Kethry smiled slightly, the lines around her eyes deepening. “A gentle way to put it, but accurate. Frankly, I had no ideas beyond getting her married off. I wanted to find a really suitable husband for her, one she could learn to love, but after one experience with suitors, I despaired of finding anyone that would treat her so that she’d survive the marital experience.” Her eyes hardened. “That suitor, by the by, was Baron Reichert. Not the Baron then, just a youngster hardly older than Lenore, but already experienced beyond his years. One might even say, jaded.”
“One might,” Tarma agreed. “I prefer ‘spoiled, debauched, and corrupt.’ He was never interested in anything other than the lands, and when he saw how delicate your mother was, he damn near danced for joy.”
She scowled, and Kero read a great deal in that frown. “Need saw it, too; damn sword nearly made Keth pull it on him and skewer him then and there. First time that stupid thing’s been totally right in a long time, and us having to fight it to keep from being made into murderers. But given what’s been going on, maybe we should have taken the chance.”
Kethry sighed, and leaned forward a little. “Well, we were in a pickle then. I knew Reichert would keep coming back as long as she was unwedded, and Lenore was just silly enough that he might be able to persuade her that he loved her. I was at my wits’ end. I even considered manufacturing a quarrel and disinheriting her long enough for Reichert to lose interest. Then your father showed up, escorting a rich young mageling, and looking for work when his escort duties were done. Strong, handsome, in an over-muscled way, full of stories about the strange places he’d been, and amazingly patient in some circumstances. Personally, I thought he was god-sent.”
“The fathead,” Tarma muttered under her breath. Kero winced a little; not because of what Tarma had said, but because she couldn’t bring herself to disagree with it. She’d been here at the Tower for several weeks, now, and with each day her former life seemed a little less real, a little farther distant. She supposed she should be feeling grief for Rathgar, but instead, whenever she tried to summon up the proper emotions, all she could recall were some of the stupid things he’d done, and the unkind words he’d said so often to her.
I’m turning into some kind of inhuman monster, she thought with guilt. I can’t even respect my father’s memory.
“He may have been a fathead, she’enedra, but he was exactly what Lenore needed and wanted. A big, strong man to protect and cosset her.” Kethry looked up at the blindingly blue sky, and followed a new cloud with her eyes for a moment. “I offered to let him stay on for a bit, and the moment Lenore laid eyes on him I knew she was attracted to him. Give her credit for some sense, at least—Reichert terrified her as much or more than you ever did. I was just afraid that he’d notice what he was doing, and manage to convince her he was harmless.”
“Tender little baby chicks know a weasel when they see one,” Tarma retorted, scratching the bridge of her beaklike nose with one finger. “That’s not sense, that’s instinct. Lady Bright, I suppose I should be glad her instincts were working, at least. One year in his custody, and you’d have been out a daughter, and lands, and probably under siege in this Tower.”
“Probably,” Kethry agreed wearily. “Well, to continue the story, that young mage was the last pupil we were going to take; we planned to retire within a few years. So I let Rathgar stick around—and I told Lenore I wanted her to run a little deception on him.”
“That part I know about,” Kero exclaimed. “If you mean that she pretended to be the housekeeper’s daughter instead of yours, so he felt free to court her—” Kethry nodded, and Kero flushed. “When I was little, that seemed so romantic....”
Tarma snorted. “Romantic! Dear Goddess—I supposed she’d think of it that way. We were both afraid that if he knew she was Keth’s daughter, he’d never even think about courting her. We just wanted her under the protection of somebody who’d take care of her without exploiting her.”
“It all would have worked fine, except for Rathgar himself,” Kethry said, shaking her head. “If I’d had any idea how he felt about mages—well, she fell very happily and romantically in love with him, and he was just dazzled by her, and it all looked as if things were going to work out wonderfully. He proposed, she accepted, and I told him who she really was—”
“And the roof fell in.” Kero felt entirely confident in making that statement. She knew her father, and had a shrewd guess as to what his reaction to such a revelation would be. Outrage at the deception, further outrage that this mage was his beloved’s mother. Before long he’d have convinced himself that Kethry had some deep-laid plot against him, and he’d have done his best to pry his poor innocent Lenore out of her mother’s “deadly” influence.
“I didn’t see it coming,” Kethry admitted. “I should have, and I didn’t. And at that point, it was too late. My daughter was deep in the throes of romantic love, and Rathgar was her perfect hero. Anything Lenore heard from me on the subject threw her into hysterics. She was certain that I wanted to part them.”
“She thought he made the sun rise and set,” Tarma said with utter disgust, her hawklike face twisted into an expression of distaste. “It’s a damned good thing he was an honest and unmalicious man, because if he’d beaten her and told her she deserved it, she’d have believed him. How could any woman put herself in that kind of position willingly?”
“I suppose I should have expected it,” Kethry said gloomily. “I set the whole mess up in the first place. You know what your people say—‘Be careful what you ask for, you may get it.’ For the first time she had someone around who thought she was wonderful just as she was, helpless and weak, and wasn’t trying to force her to do something constructive with her life. Of course she thought he hung the moon.”
Tarma threw up her hands. “I still don’t understand it. Keth went ahead with the marriage, because anything was safer than letting Reichert have another chance. Well, that was when Lenore decided Keth and I were old fools and began listening only to Rathgar, and when he saw he had the upper hand, he started making demands. Finally it came down to this: when Lordan was born, he made Keth promise never to set foot on Keep property without an invitation.”
“So that’s why—” Kero’s voice trailed off. A great many things started making sense, now.
“I think he was afraid I’d try and take her away from him,” Kethry said, after a long silence filled only with the sound of the wind in the leaves below them. “I really do think he didn’t care as much about the property as he did about my daughter. On the other hand, I know that he always resented that every bit of his new-won wealth came from me. I think he kept expecting me to try and take over again, to control him through either the wealth, Lenore, or you children.”
Probably. That was the one thing he hated more than anything else, being controlled by someone. Maybe because he got a bellyful of taking orders when he was younger, I don’t know. I do know that he’d never have believed Grandmother didn’t have some kind of complicated plot going.
Tarma got up, stretched, and perched herself on the stone railing of the balcony. “Well, I’m not that generous,” she growled. “The man was a common merc; a little better born than most, but not even close to landed. And that was what he wanted all his life—to win lands, and become gentry. That’s what most mercs want, once they lose their taste for fighting. Whether it’s a farm they dream of, or a place like the Keep, they all want some kind of place they can claim as their own, and that’s the long and the short of it.”
Kero shifted uneasily on her wooden bench, and put down the last of the sausage, uneaten. She had the vague feeling she ought to be defending Rathgar, but she couldn’t. Both of them were right. She knew beyond a shadow of any doubt that Rathgar had adored her mother—but she also knew his possessive obsession about his lands.
And she knew that there would be no way that Kethry could ever have convinced him that she didn’t care about the property so long as her daughter was happy. He simply could not have understood an attitude like that. Kero had heard him holding forth far too many times on the folly of some acquaintance, or some underling, giving up property for the sake of a child. And his reasoning, by his own lights, was sound. After all, if one gave up the property now, how could one provide for that same child, or leave it the proper inheritance?
“Destroy a birthright for the sake of the moment?” she’d heard him say, once, when the Lythands had settled a dispute with a neighbor by deeding the disputed land to a common relation. “Folly and madness! Your children won’t thank you for it, when they’ve grown into sense!”
And she was sure now that this was the source of his deep-seated bitterness—that he owed everything, not only to his wife’s mother, not only to a woman, but to a mage. And one who had earned it all honestly, herself.
That must have rankled the most. Mages were not to be trusted; mages could change reality into whatever suited them at the moment. Mages were the source of everything that was wrong with the world....
“That’s how and why your folk ended up with a breeding-herd of Shin’a’in horses,” Tarma said, startling her out of deep thought. “I don’t know if you know how rare it is for us to sell a stud, but we let him have one—an ungelded cull, but still, a stud. He wouldn’t listen to Keth about the lands, he didn’t have her resources, and he didn’t have her capital. He was operating on the edge of disaster, squeaking through season after season, never making a profit. We had done fine, but we’d had the Schools. This land is too rocky to be good farm land; the tenants barely managed to make ends meet. Finally I had the Clan bring in a herd of the best culls and sell them to him at a bargain price. He figured he’d outbargained the ignorant barbarians. We didn’t care; that got him something he could use to maintain the Keep and Lenore without stripping the lands bare or abusing the tenants. Then, when you and your brother were of an age to train your own beasts, I arranged to have a couple of good young mares slipped into the next batch he bought.”
She lifted her face to the sun and breeze, and Kero thought she looked very like a weathered, bronze statue. Tough, yet somehow graceful.
“It wasn’t all that hard to do,” Kethry said wryly. “Really, it wasn’t. After all, we were making trips back to the Clan every year to see the rest of my brood. It was more than worth the fuss to get him convinced you two should have them and then convince him it had been all his own idea. It was about my only way of doing anything for you after I pulled back to the Tower and promised to leave you all alone.”
“So what do you think of all this?” Tarma asked, finally turning those bright blue eyes back toward Kero. “It isn’t often a person gets an entire Clan as relatives, and right out of nowhere, too.”
“Am I ever going to get to meet them?” she asked impulsively. “The others, my uncles and aunts and all—”
Tarma laughed. “Oh, I imagine. Eventually. But right now you and I have a previous appointment.”
Kero felt a moment of disappointment, then smiled. After all, it wasn’t as if everything had to happen all at once. Look how much has happened in just the past few weeks! I think I can wait a little longer.
“Then we’d better get to it before we both get stiff,” she replied, and grinned. “Or before I get a chance to think about what you’re going to do to me at practice!”
The one thing Tarma was an absolute fanatic about was cleanliness. She insisted Kero take a bath after morning work and afternoon training, both. There was no shortage of hot water at the Tower, unlike the Keep—that was one magical extravagance Kethry was more than willing to indulge in. Once Kero got over her initial surprise, she found that she liked the idea of twice-daily baths. Hot water did a great deal to ease aching muscles, and the evening bath was a good place to think things over, with a light dinner and good wine right beside the enormous tub. Kethry left her granddaughter alone after dinner, saying when Kero asked her that “everyone needs a little privacy.” Kero was just as glad. She tended to fall asleep rather quickly after those long soaks, and she doubted she’d be very good company for anyone.
With unlimited hot water, she found she was following Tarma’s example; drawing one bath to get rid of the dirt and sweat, then draining it and drawing a second of hotter, clean water to soak in.
The bathing chamber in her room was far nicer than the corresponding room at the Keep. It was as big as her sleeping chamber, easily, and the tub could have held two comfortably. That tub looked as if it had been hollowed out of a huge granite boulder, then polished to a mirror-smooth finish. There were convenient flattened places, just the right size to rest a plate and a cup, at either end of it. Water, hot and cold, came out of spouts in the wall above the middle. You simply pulled a little lever, attached to something like a sluice-gate, and the water ran into the tub. The water itself came from a spring in the mountain above. Kethry had shown her the cisterns at the top of the cliff the Tower had been built into—telling her they were part of the original building.
The original building. And she doesn’t know how old it is. That’s—amazing. It made Kero wonder who those builders were—and what they’d been like.
They certainly enjoyed their comforts, she mused idly, sipping her wine. Set into the wall of the bathing chamber was an enormous window made of tiny, hand-sized, diamond-shaped panes of glass. Glazing the windows had been Kethry’s addition; the previous occupants had either seen no need for glazed windows, or had been unable to produce them. Tonight Kero had noticed a full moon rising, and once she’d drawn her second bath, she blew out the candles to watch it and the stars. With all the incredible things those Builders were able to do, I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t have been able to make a little glass. I wonder if they were so powerful that they could actually keep the winter winds out of the Tower by magic?
Moonlight filtered through the steam rising from her bath, and touched the surface of the water, turning it into a rippling mirror. She had to laugh at her fancies, then, for the answer was obvious to anyone but a romantic. Of course; glass breaks, and Grandmother said herself she had no idea how long the place stood empty. There are more than enough crows and robber-rats around here to steal every last shard. Blessed Agnira, some of Mother’s silliness must have rubbed off on me.
She laughed aloud, and the water sloshed at the sides of the tub as she reached for the carafe of wine to pour herself a second serving. That was when she noticed that she was nowhere near as sore and stiff as she’d expected to be.
I must be getting use to this, she thought with surprise. By the Trine—I was beginning to think I’d never stop aching! Funny, though—even when I was so sore I wanted to die, I still was enjoying myself....
This afternoon had been the first time Tarma had actually given her a lesson in real swordwork. Admonishing her to “pretend I’m one of those logs,” the Shin’a’in had run her through some basic moves, then brought her up to speed on them. Before the afternoon was over, she had been performing simple strike-guard-strike patterns against Tarma at full force and full speed—and she thought her teacher seemed pleased. It had been even better than yesterday, when Tarma started her on tracking. Once Kero knew what to look for, it had been surprisingly easy to track the movements of a deer, a badger, and Warrl himself across a stretch of forest floor.
Of course, none of them had been trying to hide their trails. Kero had a notion that if Warrl wanted to hide his traces, the only way anyone would be able to track him would be by magic.
Most satisfying about today’s exercises had been that the skills she’d acquired had been all her own. The sword was hanging on the wall of her room, and Kero wasn’t going to take it down until she didn’t need its uncanny expert assistance—at least where fighting was concerned.
Is that what I want to do? she asked herself suddenly. Is that what I want to learn? She pondered the question while the moon climbed higher in the window, and the square of silver light crept off the water and onto the floor, leaving her end of the bathing chamber in darkness. I suppose it makes sense, she thought with a certain unease. After all, it’s always been physical things that I’ve been best at. Riding, hunting, hawking—that knife-fighting I pried out of Dent. The only “proper” thing I was ever any good at was dancing....
The one thing she’d been able to surprise Tarma with was her expertise with bow. And then she asked me why I hadn’t taken a bow with me when I went after the bandits. When I said that it just never occurred to me, I thought she was going to give up on me then and there. Kero sighed. It’s so hard to have to think of people as your enemies ... at least she isn’t being as nasty as Dent was to Lordan.
Dent had been absolutely merciless on his young pupil, never giving him second chances, cursing and sometimes striking him with the flat of a blade, driving him to exhaustion and beyond. And yet once practice was over, he was unfailingly courteous, a kindly man, who’d praise Lordan to his face for what he’d done right, remind him of what he’d done wrong, and then go on to tell Rathgar of Lordan’s progress with exactly the same words, praise with the criticism.
He never treated me that way—but why does it feel as if he wasn’t doing me any favors by letting me get off lightly? She closed her eyes and sank a little lower into the hot water. Maybe—because half of what Tarma’s teaching me is undoing mistakes I learned to make? Well, at least I can see some progress. I get a little better each day, she shows me something new each day. And she’s giving me the same kind of talks afterward that Dent used to give Lordan.
That felt good; warm and satisfying. There were no “buts” attached to Tarma’s compliments. When she said that Kero was doing something well, she meant it, with no qualifications.
I just hope I’m not boring her too much. At least I’m patient. Lordan used to get so mad when he couldn’t do something right that he’d storm off the field and go duck his head in the horse trough. And she can’t say I’m not determined.
The moon finally rose to a point where there was no light shining in the window at all. The bathing chamber was in complete darkness. And the wine was gone.
I guess it’s time for bed, she decided. Before I fall asleep in the tub.
She found the plug at the bottom of the bathtub with her toes, took the bit of chain attached to it between her big toe and the rest, and pulled. When Tarma had shown her the drain at the bottom of the tub, she’d been both amazed and amused—the tubs at home had to be bailed by hand, then tilted over on their sides to drain completely. She couldn’t imagine why no one had ever thought of something like this before.
She stood up, slowly; a thick towel hung from a rod at the side of the tub; it gleamed softly in the darkness, and she reached for it, then stepped out onto the tiled floor. That was the only thing wrong with this chamber; the tile made the floor cold!
Cold enough that she dried herself off quickly, and hung the towel back where it belonged. Tarma had given her one of those looks when she’d thrown it on the floor, and Kero had managed to deduce that there weren’t many servants in the Tower. Thereafter she’d put things away properly.
She pulled on the old shirt she used to sleep in, and walked slowly and silently across the floor to her own room; Tarma wanted her to practice moving quietly whenever possible, so that doing so became habit rather than something she had to think about. Kero had decided on her own that learning to move quietly in the dark would be a very good idea, so she practiced a little every night.
Once past the doorway, she turned to light the candle she’d left on a shelf by the door. And when she turned back with it in her hand, she thought she’d jumped into a nightmare.
Teeth that was all she saw at first; huge white fangs, gleaming in the candlelight. And eyes the size of walnuts, shining with an evil, green glow all their own.
She shrieked, jumped back into the wall behind her, and dropped the candle, all at the same time.
The flame went out immediately, leaving her in the dark. She felt for the wall and edged along it toward the door, hoping to escape into the bathing chamber before whatever it was realized she was moving—and wondering what awful thing had happened that this thing had gotten past Tarma and her Grandmother.
:Children,: snorted a voice from—somewhere. It seemed to come from everywhere at once. She froze.
:Child, I am not the Snow Demon. I don’t eat babies. I just came here tonight to talk to you.: She didn’t move, and the voice took on a tone of exasperation. :Will you please light that candle again and go sit down?:
“W-who are you?” she stammered. “Where are you?”
:Right here.: Something cold and wet prodded her between her breasts, and she nearly screamed again. :It’s Warrl, you little ninny! You see me every day!:
“Warrl?” She reached out—cautiously—and encountered a furry head at about chest level. It certainly felt like Warrl.
:And while you’re at it, you can scratch my ears :
It certainly sounded the way she’d imagined Warrl would talk. If Warrl could talk.
“How are you—” she began. He interrupted her.
:I’m Mindspeaking you,: he said, impatiently. :It’s exactly what you could do if you wanted to, and the other person had the Gift of Mindhearing.: She felt a brief movement of air and heard the faintest little ticking sound, a sound that might have been the clicking of claws on the floor. :Do light that candle and come to bed, there’s a good child.:
She went to her knees and groped about on the floor until her left hand encountered the candle. Once lit, she stood up with it in her hand, and discovered that Warrl had resumed the position he’d been in when she first entered the room. Sprawled on her bed, taking up fully half of it.
“Make yourself comfortable,” she said sarcastically, more than a little nettled now that her heart had started beating again.
:Thank you, I have,: he replied with equal irony.
She crossed the floor and put the candle into the sconce in the headboard, refusing to look at him the entire time. Only when she had climbed up into bed, and settled herself cross-legged on the blanket, did she finally meet his eyes.
“So if you could talk all this time, why haven’t you?” she demanded.
:There wasn’t any reason for you to know I could,: he replied calmly. :Now there is.:
“And what, pray tell me, is that reason?”
:I want to know why you have been concealing your Gift.:
Her heart stopped again. She couldn’t pretend not to understand him; she had the feeling that if she tried to lie mind-to-mind she’d get caught. And she knew very well what he was asking, her mother’s books had called this ability to hear thoughts a “Gift.”
So she temporized, trying to buy time to think. “I haven’t been hiding anything,” she countered. It was the truth; Kethry hadn’t asked her if she could hear thoughts, or given her any tests to see if she could.
Meanwhile, her mind was running in little circles, like a mouse caught in the bottom of a jar. If Grandmother finds out about this, she’ll make me become a mage, and I don’t want to become a mage, I want to be like Tarma—
The kyree laid his ears back and winced. :PLEASE!: he “shouted” at her, making her wince, but bringing that frantic little circle of thoughts to a halt.
He sighed gustily. :Much better. Thank you. Child, I have no intention of betraying your secret to Kethry, if that is really what you want—but what you just did is precisely the reason why I wanted to speak with you.:
“What did I do?” she whispered, head still ringing from his “shout.”
His ears came back up. :Every time you feel safe and begin to concentrate on some complicated problem that involves your emotions, you do exactly what you just did. You think “out loud.“ Very loud, I might add, far louder than you know; I would imagine that one could hear you all the way to the next Keep if one was so minded.:
“I do?” She shook her head; it didn’t seem possible.
:You do,: he insisted. :Almost as loudly as I just “shouted”. And unlike my “shout,“ which was meant only for your mind, your thoughts are heard by anything receptive. You are fortunate that your grandmother is not Gifted with Mindspeaking, or your secret would be no such thing.: He flattened his ears, and looked pained; his brow wrinkled in a way that would have been funny under any other circumstances. :It is very discommoding. And uncomfortable. I won’t dispute your right to keeping your abilities to yourself, since they don’t involve mage-craft, but I must insist that you get training. Quickly. Before you cause an unfortunate incident.:
Kero bit back her first reply, which was that she had gotten training. Obviously what she had learned on her own wasn’t good enough.
Not if someone like Warrl can hear me all the way to the Lythands’.
“I can probably take care of it myself,” she said cautiously.
He lifted his lip just a trifle, and snapped at the air in annoyance. She shrank back instinctively. His fangs were as long as her thumb, and very sharp. :Don’t you realize I wouldn’t be here if that were true? There is no way you can train yourself. And untrained—well, half-trained—you are in terrible danger. You are just very lucky that the mage you killed wasn’t strongly MindGifted. If he had been—well, you’d probably be serving his every whim right now. It is ridiculously easy to take over the mind of someone who is Gifted, but untrained; your barriers are weak, and you have no secondary defenses. Right now you are more vulnerable than someone with no Gift at all. And you display that fact to the universe every time you become distressed!:
But that just led her right back to the same problem; she didn’t want Kethry to know about this. And who else was there that could train her?
She shook her head. “I can’t—”
He growled, and sneezed, as if he had smelled something he didn’t like. :Must you be so dense? I’m offering to train you myself. No one else will ever know, not even my mind-mate.:
“You are?” She could hardly believe it. “But why?”
He put his head down on his paws, and sighed. :Self-defense, child. Self-defense. I am increasingly weary of trying to shut you out, and you have at times awakened me out of my rest. Now, in the interest of peaceful sleeping, shall we work on that so-called shield of yours? You’re going about it all wrong :
And I thought I was overworked before, Kero thought with a little groan, as she opened bleary eyes two weeks later on a morning that had arrived much too soon. She’d trained herself to wake as soon as the first light of sunrise came through her eastern window. It seemed to hit her closed eyelids candlemarks earlier every morning.
The worst part of it is, if Tarma knew Warrl was keeping me up half the night, she’d probably let me sleep later. But if I tell her—no, I can’t. I don’t know what she’d think about this, and I know she’d tell Grandmother.
Kero rubbed her eyes with her knuckles, and sat up slowly. By the look of the clear, pink-tinged sky, this was going to be another perfect day—which meant Tarma would be feeling pretty frisky. Kero was beginning to look forward to rainy days; even more to days of cold and damp, with a heavy morning fog. Both conditions made Tarma’s joints ache—she would stay in bed until late morning, and confine Kero’s workouts to sessions in the practice ring against the pells or other targets. It wasn’t particularly nice to be pleased when her teacher wasn’t feeling well—but Kero had found that guilt in this case was easily outweighed by the pleasure of sleeping in.
For the past week, she’d been freed from the chopping and wood-carrying; now she practiced against the pells and in sword-dances in the morning, had an hour or two of book-training directly after lunch, and practiced against Tarma in the afternoon. She no longer wondered what she was going to do with herself—she was going to become a mercenary, like Tarma, and like some of those women Kethry had hired to protect Lordan and the Keep. The only question in her mind now was—what kind of mercenary? The books that Tarma was teaching her from were studies in strategy and tactics—the ways to move and fight with whole armies. At this point, Kero couldn’t see why she’d need anything of the sort.
But maybe Tarma had some kind of plan. Kero was perfectly content to learn whatever Tarma wished to teach her, and let the future take care of itself. Tarma was always saying that “no learning, no knowledge is ever wasted.” If nothing else, it probably wouldn’t be a bad thing for an ordinary fighter to know how whole armies moved, so she could anticipate her orders.
She stretched and arched her back, then wormed her way back down under the warm blankets. I’ll just relax a little longer, she thought, and reveled in the “silence” in her mind. She hadn’t realized just how much she’d been “overhearing” until after Warrl showed her the right way to protect herself; ground, center, and shield. For years there had been a kind of buzzing in back of all her thoughts, as if she was hearing a tourney crowd from several furlongs away. Now it was gone, and the relief was incredible.
She hadn’t quite realized how useful this particular ability could be to a fighter, either, until Warrl showed her. He’d proved she could use it to get a tactical advantage in many situations; from doing as she had during the rescue and “reading” the area for enemy minds, to reading her opponent during a combat and countering his moves before he even made them.
But she wasn’t entirely happy about using it that way.
She caught herself falling asleep again, and jerked herself back up into wakefulness. She threw back the covers and swung her legs out of bed before she succumbed a second time. A brief trip to the bathing chamber and a splash of cold water solved the problem; the water was cold enough to make her gasp, but she was certainly awake now.
I don’t like the idea of reading someone’s thoughts without them knowing, she decided, while climbing into her breeches and tunic. It doesn’t seem fair. Maybe if the circumstances were really extraordinary, like going after Dierna alone, it would be all right. I mean, with odds like that, you have to use every advantage you’ve got. But if I was just one-on-one—no, it’s not right.
She tightened the laces on her tunic, and reached for stockings and boots. Besides, if I used it a lot, pretty soon I wouldn’t be able to hide its existence. Then what? People would hate me, or they’d be afraid of me. It wouldn’t be an advantage anymore, it’d be a handicap. No, I don’t want that; I’ve had my fill of being different.
That led to the same problem that had been troubling her since she came here.
What’s wrong with me? she asked herself unhappily, as she laced her boots tight to her legs. Why is it that I don’t want what everyone else does? Every other girl seems to want a husband and a house full of babies. Even Grandmother and Tarma had families, and if Tarma hadn’t been Swordsworn, she’d have raised her own children instead of helping with Grandmother’s. She shook her head, her earlier cheer gone. I don’t like children, and if anyone else knew that, they’d think I was some kind of monster. I hate being cooped up inside, and I don’t want to have to spend my life taking care of everybody except myself! But all the priests have to say about it is how women should rejoice that they can sacrifice themselves for their families. Blessed Trine, am I the one who’s crazy, or is it everybody else?
But since there was no possible way to answer that question, she jerked the laces of her boots tight with a snarl of frustration, and went out to take out her ill-humor and uncertainty on the pells.
Tarma’s private practice ring was indoors rather than outside; a second hollowed-out cave beside the stables, this one with the walls left rough and convoluted. She’d long ago tired of practicing in the cold and wet—and the mere thought of practicing in the snow was enough to make her shiver. Besides, back when she and Keth had held the Keep, she’d gotten used to having an indoor practice ground. This one was much smaller, but she didn’t need room for twenty pupils anymore.
Kero was going through her paces; one of the Shin’a’in sword-dances. And as Tarma watched her, the Swordsworn’s heart sang with pride. Granted it was one of the simplest of the exercises, but Kerowyn performed it so flawlessly that it looked as effortless as breathing.
The girl’s a natural, she thought with a kind of astonished pleasure. Years and years of training younglings, and never a natural in the lot—and now, at the end of my days, I not only get to teach one, but she’s an adoptee. My Clan.
She’d been waiting for Kethry to get up the nerve to ask about the girl for weeks. Keth had been vaguely disappointed that Kerowyn proved out null so far as mage-craft went, though she’d admitted to her partner that the girl seemed more relieved than anything else.
Now, at last, she’d come down to watch Kero work out; and Tarma sensed that she was ready to ask the question.
“Well,” Kethry said, as Kerowyn moved into the next exercise in the cycle, this one a little harder than the last. “She looks like she’s doing all right. That isn’t Need, is it?”
“No, it’s a painted wooden practice blade,” Tarma told her. “I made it the same size, heft and shape, so she could get used to the weight and balance. Need’s up on her wall—her decision, and she says the damn thing stays there until she’s sure of her own abilities and she knows that what she does is due to her skill, not the sword working through her.”
“So?” Keth replied.
“So, what?” Tarma countered, teasingly.
“So how is she?” the mage snarled in annoyance. “Is she any good, or not?”
To Tarma’s utter amazement, her throat closed, and her eyes filled with tears. She couldn’t speak for a moment, and Kethry bit her lip in dismay.
“Oh, no,” she whispered. “When she didn’t have any mage-talents, I was sure—what are we going to do with her?”
Tarma wiped her eyes on the back of her hand, and coughed to get her voice working again. “Keth, she’enedra, you’ve got it backward. The girl’s good. Hellfrost, she’s better than good. One year, just one year of teaching, and Companies are going to stand in line to have her.” She pulled Kethry into one of the alcoves formed by the irregular walls of the cave, so that Kero wouldn’t notice them watching her from the shadows. “Look at her; look at her move. She’s a natural, Keth, the kind of pupil that comes along once in a teacher’s lifetime if she’s lucky. She’s never had anything other than some indifferent training in knife-fighting, but she’s taken to the sword as if she was born with one in her hand. She’s doing things now that most of my old students couldn’t have done after two years of teaching. She could probably earn a living right now, if all somebody wanted was a basic recruit.”
“And in that year?” Kethry watched her granddaughter rather than Tarma.
“In that year she’ll be able to go to the best Companies and they’ll take her for officer training. They won’t tell her that, of course, but she’ll be an officer a lot faster than you or I made it. She’s not only a natural with a weapon, she’s a natural on the field.” She poked Kethry with her elbow to regain her attention. “By the way, Warrl said to tell you that you were right; she’s a Mindspeaker. He also said to tell you that he’s taking care of the training.”
Kethry relaxed. “Good, and I appreciate his delicate sense of what to promise. You know, I was afraid you were unhappy because she was awful, and you didn’t know how to tell me.”
Tarma chuckled. “Hardly. And hardly unhappy. To get a student like her is amazing enough—but that it turns out to be one of ours—well, the only thing that would make me happier would be if Jadrek were here to see her.”
Keth smiled a little. “He probably knew before we did. And thank Warrl for me; I was afraid she was a Mindspeaker, but since I’m not, I had no way to tell. I thought she was shielded, but that could just have been the fact that she was concentrating. She’s better off in Warrl’s hands—paws—than mine.”
“I think he has his paws full,” Tarma said, recalling what Warrl had told her this morning. :As stubborn as ever you were, mind-mate, and as taciturn. She won’t tell me anything, I have to pry it out of her. Thank the gods there’s only one of her, and I don’t have to teach her combative mind-magic. She refuses to learn the offensive techniques.: He had snorted his opinion of her attitude. :She has all the morals and compunctions as one of those half-crazed Heralds!:
“In that case, I have a proposition to make you.” Kethry took a deep breath before she continued. Tarma restrained a sigh; Keth only did that when she was going to ask something she didn’t think her partner would like. “Would you be up to teaching two? Your second pupil will already have had several years of good instruction, so he’ll be about at Kero’s level, I’d guess.”
Tarma considered that for a moment. I’d like to devote all my attention to her—but she needs some competition. “Depends,” she replied after a moment. “Depends on who the pupil is, and how much free rein I have with him. It is easier to teach two, and having someone else around will keep her on her toes. Competition will be damned good for her, especially if she thinks she’s having to compete for my attention. But I can’t have a brat taking my concentration away from her, and frankly, I won’t put up with a brat anymore.”
“I got a ‘begging’ letter from Megrarthon,” Kethry replied, watching Kero, and picking absently at a shiny bit of quartz embedded in the rock wall. “It arrived a couple of days ago, but I had to get up the nerve to ask you about Kero first.”
“So what’s the King of Rethwellan want with us?” Tarma asked, a little surprised. “Was it from ‘His Majesty the King, Megrarthon Jadrevalyn’ or my old student Jad? And did he mention his overhand?”
“From your old student, and he said the gout in that broken shoulder is just too bad; he’s never going to get the overhand swing back. Hopefully, he’ll never need it.” Kethry sighed; and Tarma knew why. The King’s letters had always been very open with both of them, and lately they’d been profoundly unhappy. Rethwellan politics were torturous at the best of times, and he was regretting that his father’s sword had ever spoken for him. Three state marriages, two of them loveless, had given him a surfeit of sons and daughters, and one of the sons was making life difficult for him. Tarma and Kethry were two of a scant handful of people he could be that open with; Tarma had changed his diapers more than once and had tutored him in the way of the sword, Keth had nursed him through his first love and subsequent broken heart.
Together they had helped put his father on the throne before he was a year old, which made them very old friends of the family.
“That middle son of his is being a—”
“Grek’ka’shen,” Tarma said in disgust, said carrion eater combining the worst aspects and habits of every scavenger known to the Shin’a’in. It ate things even vultures wouldn’t touch, it slept in a bed of rotting detritus from its foraging, and both sexes were known to eat their own young on a whim.
Kethry nodded. “So he’s written to you?”
“Not lately, but yes, I got a letter while I was down on the Plains. I just didn’t see any reason to depress you with it.” Tarma grimaced. “You know, sometimes I wonder if the reason the Rethwellan royal line has so much trouble is because of the wretched things they name their children.”
“That’s as good a theory as any,” Kethry replied, managing not to smile. The names Jad had given his boys were bad enough, but the eight girls’ names were worse, all full of historical significance and all as unpronounceable as kyree howls. Those awful names were an ongoing joke between the two of them. “Faramentha’s as bright and trustworthy a young man as you’d ever hope to see, and Karathanelan is making up for him by causing Jad three times the grief his older brother gave. His latest antic is to torment the youngest boy verbally until the youngster explodes and attacks him. Now the poor lad is getting a reputation for being a hothead and a bully, because Thanel is—”
“A handsome, languid vicious little fop, playing on the fact that he’s shorter and lighter than the other boy,” Tarma interrupted. “Remember, I’ve seen him, when I went back up with Faram to deliver him to Jad and see him made heir. That’s why I told Jad I wouldn’t have him here. At thirteen he’d already made up his mind that since he wasn’t the heir, he was going to sleep and charm his way to a crown. He probably will, too. Some little fool of a princess with a senile old father is going to fall for his pretty face, clever wit and graceful manners, and spend the rest of her life pregnant while he plays bed games with her ladies, torments her lap dogs, and spends her treasury dry.”
Kethry shook her head. “From everything Jad says, you’re right. I told him it was a mistake to let Irenia raise Thanel instead of fostering him out, and now the mistake is irreversible. Well, the long and the short is that he hopes he can find some place to send Thanel that will keep him out of mischief—but until he does, he needs to get the youngest out of Thanel’s reach.”
“Otherwise there’s going to be fratricide.” Tarma nodded. It was a logical solution, and rather elegant. Especially since it would get the hot-headed boy some much-needed discipline and training. “So he wants us to take the youngest. That’d be Darenthallis, right? Absolute baby of the bunch?”
“Right. He’s not mage-talented, so he’ll be yours.” Kethry tilted her head to one side. “Are you up to this?”
Tarma stretched, feeling every joint creak. “For Jad’s sake—and for the boy’s. From what Jad’s said, the youngster is a lot like Faram, which means he won’t be at all hard to teach. I understand that the boy does have a quick temper, which makes him an easy target for Thanel. I wouldn’t see any lad have to put up with that if I can help it. I don’t like bullies, and Thanel’s the worst kind of bully—a clever one. Although I must say, a lot of this is Jad’s own fault. He wouldn’t have gotten into this mess if he hadn’t been trying to compete with you in the number of offspring he could produce.”
Kethry smiled, the tension draining out of her. “I was hoping you’d say that. Now, just one other possible problem. My granddaughter is not what I would call ‘unattractive,’ and she’s very probably not only a virgin, she has no idea of—”
Tarma grinned evilly; she knew what was coming, and she had no intention of letting Keth slough this job off on her. Especially not when she’d agreed to teach a second youngster all by herself. “Then you’d better tell her, hadn’t you? After all, you’re her grandmother. And you know very well when I start to make the two youngsters work together what’s going to happen.”
“But—” Kethry said, faintly.
Tarma kept right on going. “I think the experience will be good for both of them, actually. The boy has probably been playing a poor third to Faram-the-heir and Thanel-the-beauty. It’ll be nice for him to have a young lady paying attention to him.”
“But—” Kethry repeated.
“And you have to admit, I’m hardly the one to give Kero the basics of nature. I’m celibate, remember?” Tarma was enjoying her partner’s discomfort. Keth had landed her with the job of explaining those basics to every boy that ever passed through their schools, and since there were usually twice as many lads as girls passing through their hands, Tarma found herself with that uncomfortable duty far oftener than Keth. Now the shoe was on the other foot, and Tarma intended to enjoy the fact.
“Besides,” she finished, “if your own daughter was such a dunce as to leave her completely ignorant, it’s up to you to rectify the situation.”
Kethry’s mouth tightened in dismay. “You’re right, of course. And if she’s going to join a Company, she’s going to have to know all of it.”
“Damn right she is,” Tarma replied, becoming serious. “From camp-hygiene to post-rape trauma. And since you worked with the Healers in the Sunhawks, you’re better equipped for that than I am. Those aren’t the kind of problems lads are going to face, and they aren’t the kind of problems I ever had to deal with on my own. But you can take it slowly, I think. Give her the basics and pregnancy prevention, and take care of the rest later.” She grinned. “Think of it as my fee for agreeing to take Daren on.”
Kethry shook her head. “Still a mercenary.”
Tarma chuckled. “That’s how you tell a merc is dead; he just stops collecting paychecks.”
Kero knew that there was something in the air; Tarma had been a little absentminded lately, with that slight frown she always wore when she was thinking. But once she’d satisfied herself that she wasn’t the cause of the frown, she relaxed. Whatever it was that was bothering Tarma, it was not under her control.
So she kept a weather eye out, but concentrated on the things that were in her power to deal with. She had speculations, but nothing concrete to go on.
Finally all speculations came to an end, when she showed up at the practice ring with her arms full of equipment to find Tarma there already, fully armored (complete with full helm), working out. And Tarma wasn’t alone.
There was a young man with her; that was surprise enough. He looked around Kero’s age, and she stiffened reflexively as they both stopped what they were doing and turned at the sound of her footstep. He was rather handsome, in a lanky, not-quite-finished sort of way. His long hair was somewhere between brown and blond, his eyes between gray and hazel. He was taller than Tarma, and moved like a young colt that still isn’t quite certain where his feet are going to go when he puts them down. His armor was good—very good, use on it, but well-maintained and in perfect condition. And there was a surcoat lying crumpled up with some other odds and ends in one of the little alcoves. A surcoat that was as well-made as the armor, and looked as if it was blazoned with some kind of familial device.
All of which added up to one conclusion: he was some kind of nobility. Kero did not like the implications of that.
Tarma waited for Kero to come up to them before speaking. She pushed the face-guard of her helm up, and gave Kero a cool, appraising look. The young man did the same with his helm, then shifted his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other.
“Kero,” Tarma said, in a neutral, even voice, “This is Darenthallis—Daren to us. He’ll be training here with you.”
Kero’s first reaction was of resentment. Why? Her second was of jealousy. We were just fine with the two of us.
She stepped forward slowly, keeping her expression neutral, but not her thoughts. They don’t need the money—and now Tarma is going to be spending half her time with him, which means I won’t be learning as much from her. It isn’t fair! By the look of him, he could have any teacher he wanted! Why should he steal mine?
She eyed his armor with envy; up close, it was even better than she’d thought, combination plate and chain mail, the chain mail so fine it looked to have been knitted, with articulated plate that had to have been specifically fitted to him. And he wasn’t finished growing yet—which meant that someone, somewhere, didn’t care how much it cost to keep fitting him with new armor every time he put on a growth spurt. Then she recognized the name—after all, there weren’t that many young men named Darenthallis in the world, and there was only one likely to have armor of that quality.
His Highness, Prince Darenthallis, third son of the King.
Which explained how he’d gotten Tarma to agree to teach him, and virtually guaranteed that the Shin’a’in would be spending the lion’s share of her time with him.
The privilege of rank. Kero’s resentment trebled. I have to earn my way here, and he walks in and takes over.
But she kept it out of her face and manner; she’d learned to school her expressions long ago. Rathgar took a dim view of resentment and rebellion in his children.
Daren smiled; he looked self-confident and sure of his superiority. Kero’s temper smoldered. Well, we’ll just see how superior you are. Especially once we get into the woods. If you’ve ever had to track anything in your life, my fine young lord, I’d be very much surprised.
She cleared her throat, and made the first move. “I’m Kerowyn,” she said, nodding a little, not holding out her hand; she could have freed one to shake his, but she chose not to.
“Daren,” he said. “Are you one of Lady Kethryveris’ students?”
Ignoring the fact that I’m carrying armor. Assuming I couldn’t possibly be anything other than a nice little ladylike mage.
“I’m her granddaughter,” she replied acidly. “And I’m Kal’enedral Tarma’s student.”
Tarma’s left eyebrow rose a little, but otherwise her face was completely without expression. “Well, now that you’ve met,” she said quietly, “why don’t we get down to business.”
Kero’s resentment continued to simmer over the next several weeks. Daren wasn’t any better than she was, especially not at archery. But he kept acting as if he were, giving her unasked-for advice in a patronizing tone of voice that said What’s a little girl like you doing man’s work, anyway? and made her blood boil.
But she kept her temper, somehow; always turning to Tarma after one of those supercilious little comments, and asking her advice as if she hadn’t heard Daren’s.
Unfortunately, from time to time this backfired. Tarma would occasionally give her a slow, sardonic smile, and reply, “I think Daren hit it dead in the black.” Daren would smirk, and Kero’s ears would burn, and she would have to bite her lip to keep from “accidentally” bringing her shield up into that arrogantly squared chin. And then she’d pull her face-guard down and do her damnedest to give him the trouncing of a lifetime.
At night, before Warrl arrived for her evening lesson in mind-magic, she’d lie back in her bath and seethe. It’s not fair, she’d repeat, like a litany. He’s had the best trainers from the time he was able to walk; I’ve only had Tarma for a few moons! Why should I have to share her? And what makes him so much better than I am that money and power didn’t buy for him?
But that was the problem, wasn’t it; life wasn’t fair, and power and gold bought whatever they needed to. From people’s skills to people’s lives. And if anyone happened to be in the way, it was too bad. Money had doubtless bought the near-ruin of her family; power was probably keeping the real perpetrator safe. And now both were conspiring to steal her future—
—if she lay down and let it happen.
I won’t, she resolved every night. I’ll make him compete with me for every moment of time. I’ll be so much better than he is that Tarma will see she’s wasting her time with him and concentrate on me again. I’ll do it.
I have to.
It helped that he was as helpless as a baby in the woods, and when he started, he couldn’t even track the most obvious of traces. She would give him advice in the same kind of patronizing tone he used with her—and she laughed inside to see how he bristled.
She was planning on doing just that this morning, as she skipped down the stairs to the stable, humming a little tune under her breath. Today was going to be a daylong stalk-and-trap session, a “hound and rabbit game,” Tarma called it, and Warrl was going to be the “rabbit.”
Daren hadn’t yet figured out that Warrl was anything more than a very large, odd-looking dog, and Kero wasn’t going to tell him. After all, they were supposed to be using their minds and paying attention to things, and if he hadn’t been able to figure out that the kyree was something rather different by now, she didn’t see any reason to enlighten him.
Besides, it would give her an edge. That edge, combined with her tracking skills, should enable her to beat him to the quarry by whole candlemarks.
The meeting point was the stables; Kero reached them ahead of both Daren and her teacher. A brief look out the window this morning had told her all she needed to know about the weather—today was going to be a typical late-fall day for these parts; cold, wet, and miserable. Even though there were no clouds overhead, Kero had seen them on the horizon, the kind of flat, gray clouds that meant an all-day drizzle. So she’d dressed for it; a waterproof canvas poncho over lambswool shirt, and heavy sweater, sheepskin vest, and wool hose and breeches, and her thickest stockings inside her boots. Daren had dressed for the cold, but not an all-day chill in wet weather; he was wearing mostly leather, which looked very good on him and would keep him warm at first, but would do nothing for him once it was soaked. His only concession to possible drizzle was a wool cloak, a bright russet that would stand out in the gray-brown woods like a rose in a cabbage patch. And which was going to get caught on every twig and thorn unless he was very careful. Kero’s gray poncho wouldn’t; it was belted tight to her body at the waist, and thorns wouldn’t catch so easily on the tightly-woven, oiled canvas. Kero hid a smirk with some difficulty.
Tarma glanced at her in a way that Kero couldn’t read, but said nothing. Daren just took in the peasant-style clothing, and gave her an amused and superior little smile.
Kero had been toying with the notion of warning him about the oncoming rain, but that smile made up her mind for her. If he’s too stupid to read the weather, and too cocksure to ask advice when he sees someone dressed for weather he didn’t expect, he can suffer, she thought with angry anticipation. And I can’t wait to see him shivering and chafing in that fancy wet leather.
“I told you yesterday that this was going to be another ‘hound and rabbit’ game following Warrl,” Tarma said, interrupting her thoughts. “I didn’t tell you that it would be under different rules.”
Kero stiffened, and dropped her thoughts of revenge. She noted that Daren lost his little smile, and fixed his eyes on Tarma as if he was trying to read her mind.
“This is going to be a ‘hostile territory’ game,” the Shin’a’in continued. “Rule one: you’re in enemy territory, behind their lines, following a spy. Assume that anything you do or say may give you away to the enemy. Rule two: leave no traces yourselves; assume the enemy may have someone trailing you. Rule three: this is a real scouting mission, which means you are not working alone. Rule four: both of you come back, or you both lose the game.”
At “rule three” Kero realized what Tarma was pulling on them. At “rule four,” Daren figured it out. The glare of outrage he gave her was only matched by the exasperation she dealt him in return.
She can’t—l’m going to be saddled with this overbearing fool all day long? And if I don’t keep him from falling on his face, I’m going to lose the game? She wanted to tell her teacher exactly what she thought of the idea, and only one thing kept her quiet. The sure and certain knowledge that Tarma was testing her, as she had been tested at the crossroads. Only this time the test was not for courage, but for good sense, and the ability to take orders.
Such considerations did not hamper Daren.
“You can’t mean that!” he said angrily. “I’ve had years of training, and you expect me to drag this little tagalong and take care of her—”
“I expect you to take the orders you’re given and follow them, young man,” Tarma replied evenly, with no display of emotion at all. “I expect you to keep your mouth shut about it. I have my orders from your father. You are to treat me as your commanding officer at all times, and I have your father’s full permission to do whatever I like with you. Be grateful this is all I’ve ordered you to do. How do you ever expect to give orders that will be obeyed if you never learn how to follow them yourself?”
Daren stared at her with his mouth hanging open for a moment, while Kero fumed. Tagalong, am I? Years of training, hmm? Then why can’t he even follow a rabbit track a furlong without losing it?
“I’ve given you your orders,” Tarma said, putting one finger under his chin and shutting his mouth for him. “Remember the rules.”
She turned on her heel, and went back up the staircase, leaving the two of them alone in the stable. Daren’s stormy expression did not encourage conversation, so Kero just shrugged and headed out into the valley.
Daren followed, overtaking her in the tunnel, so that when they emerged he was in the lead. Kero hung back, deliberately, so that he would have to wait for her. After all, under the rules, if he ran off without her, he’d lose.
I’m beginning to see some advantages here, she thought, as her anger cooled. Provided I can keep my own temper.
The clouds were already moving in; the sky was gray from horizon to horizon, or at least as much of it as Kero saw beyond the black interlacing of leafless trees. Daren waited impatiently for her beside the hidden stable door, and pointed at Warrl’s obvious clawmarks in the dust beside the path.
“He went that way,” the young man said, and plunged off into the underbrush, leaving a telltale thread from his cloak on the very first thornbush he passed.
Kero would have left it, except that she remembered the rules. Leave no traces. And since she was being graded on his moves as well as her own....
She sighed, and picked the russet thread out of the thorns before she passed on. She was still sucking a stuck finger when she caught up to him.
“You left this,” she said sardonically, holding it out to him before he could accuse her of lagging. He took the thread from her, his mouth shutting with a snap, and frowned. Without saying a single word, he turned back to studying the ground, ignoring her.
She saw that Warrl’s tracks vanished here, as his trail crossed a dry streambed. The obvious answer was something any reasonably smart animal would do—run along the streambed for a while, then leave it at some point that wouldn’t show much disturbance. A bed of dry leaves, for instance.
But Warrl wasn’t an animal.
Kero studied the trail, and noticed that the tracks were blurred, the claws dug in a bit too deeply.
He walked backward in his own tracks, the beast! she thought with admiration. I didn’t think he could do that!
Instead of following downstream (as Daren was moving upstream and obviously expected her to take the other direction), she traced the tracks back, and found where Warrl had leapt out of them and into—yes—a pile of dry leaves off to the side of the trail. There were several old, wet leaves on top of the dry ones, and a few more scattered against the direction of the last winds, showing that the leaves had been disturbed.
She waited beside the telltale traces until Daren came storming back. By that time the expected drizzle had been falling for about a candlemark; and as she had anticipated, his cloak and his leathers were soaked through. He was shivering, and the leather was probably chafing him raw wherever it touched bare skin, and his temper was not improved by his discomfort.
“You were supposed to take downstream!” he shouted. “I had to take both! You lazy little bitch—you’re supposed to be doing something, not standing around waiting for me—”
“He left the path here,” she said, clenching her hands to keep from hitting him. “He walked backward in his own tracks, and then jumped off the trail into that pile of leaves.”
Daren looked at her scornfully. “I’m not some green little boy who believes in Pelagir-tales. I’m a prince of Rethwellan, and I’ve been trained by some of the finest hunters in the world. You—”
She lost her temper, and grabbed the lacings in the front of his leather tunic, then dragged him past the pile of leaves, surprise making him manageable for the necessary few steps. “Does that look like a Pelagir-tale, little boy?” she hissed, pointing at the very clear paw-print in the mud. “Seems to me you’d better start growing up pretty quickly, so you know what to believe and what not to believe. I’ve beaten you at this game five times out of six, and you know it, so don’t you think you’d better stop playing the high and mighty princeling and start paying attention to somebody who happens to be better at this than you are?”
He pulled out of her grip, his face growing red. “Since when does half a year of training give you the right to act like an expert?” he shouted.
That was all she had a chance to say.
Something very dark, and very large suddenly loomed up out of the bushes just behind her. She never had a chance to see what it was; the next thing she knew, she was flying through the air, and she had barely enough time to curl into a protective ball to hide her head and neck before she impacted with a tree.
After that all she saw was stars, and blackness.
This was the worst headache she’d ever had—
—and the most uncomfortable bed. It felt like a bush. A leafless, prickly bush.
Kero tried to move, and bit back a moan as every muscle and joint protested movement. It felt as if the entire left side of her body was a single ache. And her head hurt the same way it had when one of the horses had kicked her and she’d gotten concussed.
“Well?” That was Tarma’s voice. “You two certainly made a fine mess out of this assignment.”
She opened her eyes, wincing against the light. Tarma stood about twenty paces away; just beyond her was Daren, lying up against another tree, as though he’d impacted and slid down it. Fine mist drooled down onto her face; droplets condensed and ran into her eyes and down the sides of her face to the back of her neck. Her mouth was dry, and she licked some of the moisture from her lips.
Looks like he got some of the same treatment I did, Kero decided, and shivered. Even wet, her wool clothing would keep her warm, but she must have been lying on the cold ground for a while and it had leached most of the heat out of her body.
“You’ve managed to botch everything I told you to do,” Tarma said coldly, arms crossed under her dark brown rain cape. Her harsh features looked even colder and more forbidding than usual. Her ice-blue eyes flicked from one to the other of them. “First you don’t even bother to set up a plan, or agree on who is going to do what. Then you, Daren, storm off into the game leaving behind a trail a baby could follow, so that Kero has to spend twice the time she should covering it for you. Then you, Kero, let Daren waste his time in a fruitless search when you knew from the moment you saw Warrl’s tracks that he was chasing a wild hare. Then you both start arguing at the tops of your lungs. An army could have come up on you and you’d never have known it until it was too late.”
She glared at both of them, and Kero didn’t even try to move under the dagger of that stare.
“Keth was working with me on this,” she continued, pitilessly. “We decided to make this run dangerous for you, to teach you that if you fouled up, you’d get hurt; just like real life. You triggered one of her booby traps with your arguing. And that’s exactly what it caught; two boobies, two fools who couldn’t even follow simple orders to keep their mouths shut. Well, I have a further little assignment for you: get home. There’s just one catch. Until you cooperate, you won’t be able to find your way back.” She smiled nastily, and turned on her heel, stalking off into the rain. In the time between one breath and the next, she was gone, as if the drizzle itself had decided to step in and hide her.
Kero struggled out of the bush she’d flattened in her fall. Twigs scratched her, as she slowly pulled herself up onto her knees, then from her knees, shakily, to her feet. Her head ached horribly, and she guessed that she was one long bruise from neck to knee along her left side. The only good luck she’d had was that she’d fallen into that bush in the first place. There had been enough dead leaves and grass between herself and the ground to keep her out of the mud. Bits of leaves clung all over her, making her look as if she’d slept in them. She brushed herself off as best she could, and waited for Daren to join her.
He used the tree trunk to steady himself as he got to his feet; he wavered quite a bit getting there, and looked as if he felt just as shaky as she did. When he saw she was watching him, he glared at her, and limped off after Tarma without taking a single backward glance at her.
That little bastard! she thought, indignantly. Well, two can play—
Then she looked around.
She had been in and out of these woods for the past several months. They weren’t that far from the back door to the Tower. It was late autumn, most of the leaves were off the trees, which should have made it easier to see through the woods in spite of the rain.
She didn’t recognize anything now. She was totally, inexplicably, lost.
And in three breaths, Daren came storming out of the mist, head down, limping along like a wounded and angry bull, and ran right into her.
“Hey!” she yelled, indignantly. He caught her as she started to fall, then shoved her away.
“What are you doing, running into me like that?” he shouted.
“Run—you pig! You ran into me!” she spluttered.
“You weren’t anywhere in sight!” he yelled back, turning red again. “You just jumped out of nowhere!”
“I did no such—” but he was gone again, as fast as his bruised legs would take him, this tune going in the opposite direction to the one he’d been traveling when he ran into her.
That—she couldn’t think of any name that was bad enough to call him. That swine! That rat! Unreasonable, pigheaded, overbearing, arrogant—She looked around, angrily, dashing water and wet hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand. That vague shape looming up through the rain, beyond and above the trees—that might be the cliff of the Tower.
I think.... It changed from moment to moment, shrinking and growing, and sometimes vanishing entirely behind the trees. Well, I have to go somewhere. I’ll bet I make it back, no matter what Tarma said. And I’ll bet he doesn’t. All I have to do is head for the Tower and watch for where we were. Or find Tarma’s tracks.
She limped off, keeping her eyes alert for signs of disturbance that marked their travel. She found plenty of little snags of wool, a sure indicator that Daren had been there. And she found traces of his footsteps, and of her own.
But she found nothing identifiable as Warrl’s or Tarma’s tracks, and though she stopped frequently to reconnoiter, she saw no landmarks that looked familiar, and no sign that the Tower cliff was any nearer. She might as well have been on the other side of the world. She couldn’t even tell if she was wandering in circles. The forest seemed utterly lifeless; the steady dripping of rain on dead leaves hiding any other sounds when she stopped and listened. She couldn’t even tell where the sun was; the sky was a uniform gray everywhere. Her head throbbed, and her stomach knotted with nausea; walking was torture, but at least it kept her warmer than standing. When she stopped to try and hear past the falling rain, she was shivering in moments.
Finally, for lack of anything better to do, she took out her belt-knife, and began to mark the tree trunks. At least this should keep me from going around in circles, she thought, slogging her way through heaps of soggy leaves, shivering with the cold rain that kept trickling down the back of her neck. As long as I keep going in a straight line, I’ll come to something I recognize. I have to find the place eventually. Either I’ll run into the cliff, or I’ll run into the path, or I’ll find the stream. If I don’t do any of those things, I’ll get to the road. I have to cross either the stream, the road or the path. There’s no other way off Tower lands.
Or so she thought. Until she stopped to ease her bruises, side aching so much she wanted to cry, and rested a while leaning up against a tree trunk. And when she felt a little less tired, and started to mark the trunk, she happened to look at the other side, first.
And saw her own six-armed star chipped carefully into the bark as Tarma had taught her; the least amount of damage to the tree that she could manage and still have the mark visible. It was still so fresh that the wind hadn’t disturbed the fragments of bark still clinging to the tree.
She looked around in a panic, sure she couldn’t possibly have touched that tree. The place was in no way familiar. But the mark was indisputably there.
She clung to the rough bark, suddenly faint and dizzy. But this isn’t possible—I know I’d have seen that huge pig-shaped rock, or the little cave under it! And the tree with the hawk’s nest in the fork! And there’s no way I could forget that clump of holly, it’s the only green thing I’ve seen all afternoon!
Nevertheless, it was her unique marking. In a place she’d never seen.
She closed her eyes, the dizziness and nausea increasing. She fought them down, telling herself not to panic.
But when she opened her eyes again, fear clutched her heart and made it pound painfully in her temples, for her sight was darkening, too.
Then she realized that it was not her eyesight dimming—the sun was setting, dusk closing in rapidly, and she was nowhere nearer to getting home than she had been from the moment Tarma left them.
Tarma—she can’t mean to leave us out here all night—we’re both hurt, and we haven’t eaten all day. She’ll come and get us. She’ll come and get me, surely—none of what happened was my fault. I followed the rules.
For one moment, she let herself believe that. Then, as she thought about how angry her teacher had been beneath that mask of indifference, she knew with a sinking heart that there would be no rescue tonight. We aren’t children. One night in the forest isn’t going to kill either of us. We’ll just wish we were dead. And even if I followed the rules, I didn’t make sure he did. When I saw he wasn’t going to measure up, I should have forfeited the game by turning around and going home.
She heard a thrashing sound behind her, then, the noise of someone forcing his way through undergrowth rather than looking for paths. She knew what it was before she turned. No animal would ever make that much noise, and no animal in the forest limped on two legs.
It’s a good thing we’re not really in enemy territory—they’d have heard him a long time ago. She moved to the other side of the tree and put her back up against it to watch the dim shape grow more distinct as it neared. Finally it was close enough to make out clearly.
She put her knife away and watched Daren stumble toward her, shivering visibly inside his soggy woolen cloak—no longer a handsome russet, it was mud-stained and snagged in too many places to count. And Daren looked much the worse for wear.
He didn’t act as if he saw her. He didn’t act as if he saw anything.
“Hey,” she said wearily, as he started to blunder past her. He stopped dead in his tracks, and blinked as if he was surprised to see her.
Maybe he was. The more Kero thought about it, the more certain she became that her grandmother had a hand in this confusion of what should have been familiar territory. Hadn’t she read in one of Tarma’s books on warfare about a spell that fogged the enemy’s mind, and made him unable to recognize his surroundings?
“K-k-kero?” Daren said, stuttering from the cold. “Are y-y-you still lost, t-t-too?”
“I guess so,” she replied reluctantly. Full dark was descending, and with it, more rain. Harder and colder, both. Somebody needed to make a decision here, and it didn’t look as if Daren was up to remembering his own name.
We need to get out of this, and we need to find someplace to hole up for the night, otherwise we’re going to wander around until we drop. The only place at all close was that enormous rock she’d noticed earlier; the size of the Keep stables, and right now that little hollow place under it was the closest thing they were going to get to real shelter.
“Look,” she said, grabbing him by the elbow and pointing at the stone outcropping. “There’s just enough room under that rock that we can both squeeze in out of the rain. Right now even if I knew where I was, I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. In a candlemark you won’t be able to find your hand at the end of your arm.”
For a moment, it looked as though Daren was going to protest—he frowned and started to pull away from her. But evidently he was at the end of his resources; he gave in as she tugged at him, and they both stumbled through the downpour to the shelter of the overhang.
It was a lot drier in the little cave than she had thought, and the cave itself was larger than she had estimated. As she crawled on hands and knees into the hollow, feeling her way with her left, dry sand gritted under her probing. Dry, relatively clean sand; there didn’t seem to be anything in here but a pile of dry leaves blown into the back. No snakes, for instance—and mercifully few rocks. There was enough room for both of them to get completely out of the weather if they squeezed in tightly enough, and the leaves cushioned them from the worst rough edges of the rock wall. Without being asked, Daren pulled off his soggy cloak and draped it over both of them. Shamed a little, she squeezed some of the water out of her outer sweater and handed it to him—wet wool stretched, and he managed to get it on over his tunic.
Her prediction of coming darkness proved true; within moments after they took shelter, it was impossible to see anything out beyond the mouth of the cave. For that matter, it was impossible to see anything in the cave.
“At least we don’t have to worry about bears or wolves or anything,” Daren said after a long silence. Both of them had finally stopped shivering, even though Kero doubted that either of them was really warm. She thought, with a longing so sharp that it hurt, of hot tea and her hot bath, and a fire in the fireplace in her room. This isn’t fair. I wouldn’t be out here if it wasn’t for him playing the fool. I wouldn’t be bruised and battered if he’d had any sense.
Still, being surly wasn’t going to accomplish anything. And if he decided she was insulting him and left in a huff, she’d freeze. Together their bodies were keeping the little hollow of their shelter tolerable. By herself she’d shiver herself to pieces. “You think we’re safe because nothing with any sense would be out in this rain?” Kero asked. “You’re probably right. Unless there’s any truth in the stories about water-demons—and I doubt either of us would be of much interest to a water-demon.”
“Not even water-demons are going to stumble around in this,” Daren replied, his voice dull and dispirited. “Dear gods, I hurt. Even my hair hurts.”
“I know what you mean,” Kero told him, glumly. “The colder I get, the stiffer my bruises get.” She hesitated a moment, then said, “You know, we could have handled this better.”
“You mean you—” He stopped himself. “I guess you’re right. We. I just—I never thought you were serious about all of this. And I didn’t think there was any way you could keep up with me. You’re a girl. “
“So? Half of the mercs Grandmother hired for the Keep are girls,” Kero retorted curtly. “Half of the mercs that put your father on his throne were girls. His sister, the Captain of the Sunhawks, was a girl. I’d have thought it would have occurred to you by now that being a girl doesn’t mean your mind is dead, or that you can’t handle anything more dangerous than a needle.”
“You’re going to become a mercenary?” His voice spiraled up and broke on the high note. “But—why?”
“Because I have to keep myself fed and clothed somehow, your highness,” she said sourly. “Nobody’s going to give me anything. My father was a common merc himself before he married my mother, and Grandmother’s the only family I’ve got besides my brother. I’m not going to live out my life on her charity or as the old maiden aunt if I can help it. I’ve seen too many old maiden aunts, taking care of every chore the wife finds inconvenient. And I really don’t have any interest in selling anything other than my sword.”
She thought by his coughing fit, followed by an embarrassed silence, that she’d made him blush.
Finally he cleared his throat, and asked, “Just exactly what are you? You speak like a noble, but you dress like a peasant half the time—a male peasant, at that.”
“That’s because dressing like a peasant is a lot smarter than you think in conditions like this ‘hound and hare’ game,” she pointed out, shifting a little to ease an ache in her hip. “The grays and browns blend right into the forest. And you can’t fight in skirts and tight bodices. Or hunt, or ride, or do much of anything besides look attractive. You’d discover, if you ever bothered to look closer, that a lot of the peasants working in the fields that you think are men and boys are actually women.”
“They are?” Evidently this had never occurred to him.
“How in hell are you supposed to swing a scythe with a skirt in the way?” she asked him. “You’d have your skirt in ribbons! As for us, we were supposed to be thinking ‘enemy territory,’ right? So I was dressed like a peasant, hard to see, and if anyone did see me, they might not think I was anything dangerous. And I was warm, might I add; peasants know how to dress for bad weather. And there you are in a bright red cloak, in the middle of a dead forest. I suspect we’d have been tagged for that alone.”
“Oh.” He sounded gratifyingly chagrined.
“So you just found out for yourself how well those hunting leathers of yours keep you warm in the rain,” she persisted. “You didn’t pay any attention to the weather this morning, you didn’t ask Tarma about it either, did you? I’ve never once heard you ask what the weather was going to be like when we were going to be out all day. It’s been unseasonably good since you arrived, if you want to know the truth.”
“You could have told me,” he replied sullenly.
“Why?” Her own repressed anger was warming her better than all her shivering. “You come in here and take my teacher’s time away from me, you treat me like I’m too stupid to know that you’re insulting me with your superior attitude, you act like you expect me to be excited about the so-called ‘privilege’ of training with you. Why should I tell you anything? Why should I share my edge with you? You haven’t done a thing to deserve it.”
He stiffened as she spoke, and she waited for the outburst she knew would followed her words.
It never came.
“Why is it that you’re here, Kerowyn?” he asked slowly. “All I know is that you’re Lady Kethry’s granddaughter. I thought—I guess I thought you were just playing at this business of learning from Tarma, but you’re talking about really going out and selling your sword—”
“I’m not talking about it, I’m going to do it,” she told him firmly. Her stomach growled, reminding her that it had been a long time since she’d last eaten. “I don’t have much choice in the matter, not unless I want to live on my brother’s good will until he decides to find an appropriate husband for me. If anyone would take me at this point; there’s no telling. I’ve certainly scandalized all of Dierna’s family. And of course that assumes I’d sit right down and marry whoever he found for me, like a good little girl, which I don’t think I’m minded to do.”
And if some of the hints about the Baron that Grandmother’s dropped are true, I suspect he’d have an interest in keeping me from producing any competition for the Keep. Kethry had never actually accused the Baron of anything, but Kero was perfectly capable of putting facts together for herself, including a few that Kethry didn’t know about. The Baron had been quite interested in the proposed marriage, and had sent a very handsome set of silver as a gift—yet had sent no representative to the wedding. Which argued for the fact that he might well have known that something was going to happen.
And he was in an excellent position to plan for it to happen. She was very glad that Tarma had hired all those guards, those very competent guards. Doubtless Kethry was keeping a magical eye on the place as well, since the promises she’d made to Rathgar were void with his death.
“I don’t know why your brother would have any trouble finding a husband—” Daren began.
Something about the way he said that crystallized the problem that had been going around in her head for weeks. She interrupted him. “What if I don’t want him to ‘find me a husband’? What if I’m perfectly happy without a husband? Why should everyone think I’m supposed to be overjoyed about getting wrapped up in ribbons and handed off to some man I’ve never even met? I’m not so sure I’d want to be handed off like a prize mare to anyone I have met!”
“But I thought that was what every girl wanted,” he said, with what sounded like honest bewilderment. “My sisters all do, or at least, that’s all they talk about.”
“Not Tarma,” she reminded him. “Not Grandmother. Not your Aunt Idra. And not me. Does every man drool at the idea of going out and hacking people to bits?”
“Well,” he admitted, “No. My cousin—”
“Well, nothing,” she interrupted again. “Every man doesn’t want the same thing. Then why should every woman want the same thing? We’re not cookies, you know, all cut out of identical dough and baked to an identical brown and sprinkled with sugar so you men can devour us whenever you please.” She was rather proud of that simile, and preened a little in the dark—but the talk of cookies made her hunger all the worse.
“No,” he replied. “Some of you are crabapples.”
For once her mind was working fast enough. “At least crabapples don’t get devoured,” she snapped. Though I’d eat crabapples right now, if I could find them. She’d have turned her back on him, if she could have, but there wasn’t room in their shelter.
“It’s not any easier on a man, you know,” he said after a sullen silence broken only by the steady pattering of rain on dead, soggy leaves. “We get presented with some girl our parents have picked out for us, we have no idea what she’s like, and we’re expected to make her fall deliriously in love with us so that she goes to the altar smiling instead of crying. And then we’re supposed to live up to whatever plans our fathers have for us, whether or not we actually fit what they have in mind. I’m just lucky. Faram’s the best brother in the world, and I don’t want the crown—he thinks I’d make a good Lord Martial, and I’ve always been pretty good at strategy, so I’m not going to have to do anything I hate. And since I’m the youngest, nobody’s going to be expecting me to pick out a bride until I want one. Poor Faram’s got to choose before Midsummer, and the gods help him if there isn’t at least a sign of an heir by Winter Solstice.”
All this came out in a rush, as if he’d been holding it in for much too long. Kero realized as she listened to him that she felt oddly sorry for him.
Maybe too much power and position is as bad as too little.
“So what are they forcing you into?” she asked quietly. “There must be something.”
He sighed, and winced halfway through as the sigh moved ribs that probably hurt. “I like the idea of planning things, and I like fighting practice,“ he said. “It’s like a dance, only better, because in court dances you spend an awful lot of time not moving much. But—I’ve never—actually killed anyone—”
“I have,” she said without thinking. “It’s not like in the ballads. It’s pretty awful.”
She felt him wince again. “That’s what I was afraid of,” he confessed. “I’m afraid that—I won’t be able to—” He swallowed audibly, then seemed to realize what she’d said. “You’ve killed someone?” he said, his voice rising again,
“Well, the sword did—”
“You’re that Kerowyn?” he squeaked. She couldn’t tell from his voice if he was pleased or appalled.
“I’m what Kerowyn?” she asked. “I didn’t know there were more of me.”
“The one the song’s about, the one that rescued the bride for—” he faltered, “—for her brother—with her grandmother’s magic sword.”
“I guess I must be,” she said wearily, “since there can’t be too many Kerowyns with magic swords around. The sword did most of it. It was more like it was the fighter, and I was the weapon.”
“If I’d known you were that Kerowyn,” he began. “I wouldn’t have—”
“You see?” she said through a clenched jaw. “Why should it have made any difference in the way you treated me? Deciding that someone’s serious just because they’ve had a bloody song written about them is a pretty poor way to make judgment calls, if you ask me. Grandmother and Tarma had plenty of songs written about them, and most of them were wrong.”
“It’s just—just that when I heard the song—I wished I could meet you,” he whispered. “I thought, that’s a girl that I could talk to, she doesn’t have any stupid ideas about honor, she just knows what’s right. And then she goes and does something about it.”
“Well, you’re talking to me now,” she replied sourly, hunching herself up against the bed of leaves, wishing she could find a position that hurt a little less.
“I guess I am.” Another long silence. “So what was it really like?”
“If I hadn’t been sweating every drop of water out of me, I’d have wet myself,” she told him bluntly. “I’ve never been so scared in all my life.”
Somehow it was easy to tell him everything, including things she hadn’t told her grandmother, the anger she’d felt at Rathgar for being so stupid as to die and leave them all without protection, the same anger at Lordan for being unable to take up the rescue himself. She didn’t cry, this time; she wasn’t even particularly saddened by the losses anymore. It might all have happened to someone else, a long time ago, and not to her at all.
He told her about his father, his brothers; quite a bit about Faram, not so much about Thanel. She guessed, though, from what little he did say that Thanel was a troublemaker, a coward, and a sneak. The worst possible combination. Fortunately, their father seemed well aware of that; Kero just hoped he’d considered the possibility that Thanel might well try to arrange for an “accident” to befall his older brother. Daren didn’t say anything about that, and Kero decided that it wasn’t her business to bring it up.
They dozed off sometime during the night; for Kero it was an uneasy sleep, she woke every time he moved, and every time one of her bruises twinged. And it was hard to sleep when her stomach kept gnawing at her backbone. When the sky began to lighten, she just stayed awake. The moment it was bright enough to see, she nudged him; he must have been as awake as she was, because he pulled the cloak off them without a single word, and they both crawled out of their shelter.
The rock they’d hidden under was no longer pig-shaped; it was a very familiar castle-shaped outcropping that Kero had seen a hundred times. They were no more than a few furlongs from the Tower.
Daren blinked stupidly at the rock; undoubtedly he recognized it, too, but he didn’t say anything. So far as Kero was concerned, this only confirmed her suspicion of last night, that Kethry had cast some kind of glamour over the area that wouldn’t lift until they cooperated.
Well, they were cooperating now.
She caught Daren’s eye; he nodded. They got themselves as straightened up as possible, then dragged themselves back to the Tower, figurative tails between their legs. Kero wasn’t sure what Daren was thinking—and saw no reason to try and find out—but she had to admit that they’d pretty much brought this whole mess on themselves.
And she had a shrewd guess as to what was going to be awaiting them.
She was right. Daren preceded her; he stopped for a moment behind the outcropping that hid the entrance, said something too low for Kero to hear, then went on in. She followed, with the relative warmth of the stable closing around her like a cozy blanket. Tarma stood impassively just inside the stable door, leaning against the rock wall as if she had been there all night and was prepared to go on waiting.
She looked them both up and down, face unreadable.
“There’s food in your rooms,” she said. “Get a hot bath and feed yourselves, then get your rumps back down here. I’ll be waiting in the practice ring.”
After the bath and the food, Kero felt a little closer to human. Today wasn’t going to be pleasant, but as she climbed stiffly into warm—dry!—clothing, she had to admit that she’d spent worse.
And I know damn well that if we don’t exercise those bruised muscles, we’re going to stiffen up. Then tomorrow will be twice as hard.
She closed the door of her room behind her, and ran into Daren on the staircase down. Daren was bewildered, she could read it in his face—and resentful; she could read that in the way he carried his shoulders, stiff and hunched.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
He looked over his shoulder at her, as if he halfway expected her to ridicule him. “If I was home,” he said hesitantly, “after something like last night, I’d have been, well, fussed over. They’d have sent servants up with my favorite food, gotten someone to massage me, probably sent me to bed—”
He stopped, and she realized her expression had probably betrayed some of her disgust. She made herself think about what he was saying, and realized that he wasn’t to blame for the way other people had treated a prince of the blood.
“Look,” she said, trying to sound as reasonable as possible. “Do you think that’s what would happen in battle conditions? You’re going to be in worse shape than that at the end of each day if there’s ever a war fought.”
He obviously took the effort to think about what she had just said, in his turn, and stopped on the staircase. “I guess you’re right,” he replied. “There wouldn’t even be any hot baths, much less all the rest. We’d probably be sleeping in half-armor, and eating whatever the bugs and rats left us.”
“Exactly. If this had been a foray during a war, we’d have been lucky to get the food and dry clothes.” She looked at him in the dim light, and shrugged.
“I guess—I guess if I’m supposed to be learning how to command armies, maybe I’d better start getting used to a couple of hardships now and again.”
There was the sound of sardonic applause from below them, as the light from the landing was blotted out. Tarma stood for a moment on the first step, still clapping slowly, then took the stairs up toward them at a very leisurely pace.
“It’s about time you finally figured out why you’re here, young man,” she said, one corner of her mouth turned up in something that was not quite a smile. “Now, I have a bit of news for you both. Your day is only beginning.”
The exercises she set them were harder than anything she’d given them before, and any resentment or residual anger Kero had felt was lost in the general exhaustion. Daren was in worse shape than she was, since his bruises were deeper and more extensive.
By the time she crawled—literally—up the stairs to her room, she was quite ready to fall into her bed and sleep for a week.
But her day wasn’t over yet.
She was as tired as she’d ever been in her life, including when the entire Keep, staff and family, had gone out to get the tenants’ harvest in to save it from a storm. Given a choice, she’d have gone straight to bed, stopping just long enough to eat something and drink enough wine so that she didn’t ache quite so much.
But she knew she didn’t have a choice; another hot bath would do more good for her bruises and stiff muscles than all the sleep in the world, and unless she wanted to wake up aching a lot more than when she’d gone to sleep, she was going to have to take the time for another bath.
She’d just eased herself down into that bath when she had a visitor. Not two-legged this time, but four.
She didn’t even realize he was there; when he wanted to he could move as silently as a shadow. She was lying back in the tub with her eyes closed when he Mindspoke her, startling her so that she jumped.
:Might one ask what, exactly, you thought you were doing out there yesterday? Besides playing the fool, of course :
“Me?” she spluttered. “I was the one playing by the rules! He—”
:By the letter, perhaps. Not the spirit.: The kyree sat like a great gray wolf just out of range of any stray splashes. :You knew very well that I’m not simply some kind of well-trained performing animal. Why didn’t you tell Daren that?:
“Do you think for a moment he would have believed me?” she asked angrily. “Up until last night he didn’t think I had a mind, so why should he credit you with one?”
:It was your job to convince him,: Warrl said coldly. :That is what teamwork is about. If you have knowledge your fellow does not, you are obliged to enlighten him.:
“Why?” she retorted. “It would have wasted time. I knew what you were, that was enough.”
:Why? Because withholding information could get both of you killed. What if something incapacitated you? What if I, as the enemy, used the fact that you withheld that information to split the two of you up? That was exactly what happened, didn’t it? You let him follow a wild hare and sat down and waited. If I had been a real enemy, I would have disposed of him, then come up behind you and disposed of you. But you were too busy feeling superior to worry about that, weren’t you?:
“Me? I—” The accusation was as unfair as anything else that had happened in the last day. She was trapped between anger and tears, and the tears themselves were half caused by anger.
He continued to sit, and stare, an immovable icon of conscience. :You finally get in a position where you have the upper hand, and you misuse your opportunity. You could have found a way to convince him that you knew what you were talking about, and you could have done it in such a way that he would have felt surprised and grateful. After that, he would have been much more attentive to any suggestions you made. Instead you jeopardized him, yourself, and the mission, all out of pique.:
“No, I couldn’t! I—” She was completely unable to continue; she tried, and choked up.
:When you become a mercenary, whether you work alone or with a Company, you will often be forced to cooperate with those you dislike. You will find yourself working for those who hold you and your skills in contempt. If you continue on in your present pattern, you will, if you are lucky, succeed only in getting yourself killed. If not—you may bring down hundreds with you.:
Ward’s eyes glowed, blue as ice and hard as the finest steel. :I advise you to think about this,: he said, after a long pause during which she wasn’t even able to think coherently. He waited again, but when she didn’t reply, he simply rose to his feet. So smoothly did he move that not a hair was disturbed; he could easily have been a statue brought to life by magic. He pierced her with those eyes once more, and padded out as silently as he had arrived.
She pulled the plug on the bath, too upset and tense now to relax. The water flowed out smoothly, with scarcely a gurgle as she climbed out. She seized the waiting square of cloth and jerked it from the hook beside the tub, then toweled herself dry, rubbing hard, as if to rub those unkind, untrue accusations out of her mind.
Unkind, untrue, and unfair. She stalked out of the bathing chamber and flung herself down on her bed, seething. I’m not the one that went pelting up the trail, leaving tracks and traces a child could read! I’m not the one that decided he knew what was happening without bothering to consult his partner! I’m not the one that decided to divide the party—he wanted me to go downstream while he went up!
She turned over onto her back and stared at the ceiling. The more she thought about Warrl’s little lecture, the angrier she became.
What gives him the right to sit in judgment over me anyway? What gives an overgrown wolf the right to dictate what I should and shouldn’t have done? How could he possibly understand? He isn’t even human!
She was still simmering when exhaustion finally caught up with her and flung her into sleep.
Daren appeared the next morning at the common room; breakfast was a self-serve aifair she sometimes shared with Tarma and her grandmother. Daren sported sunken cheeks and enormous dark circles under his eyes. Since she didn’t have a mirror, Kerowyn couldn’t have said if she looked the same, but she was very much afraid that she did. It had not been a restful night, to say the least.
“Well, you look like hell,” Kero greeted him over the buffet table, handing him a piece of hot bread.
“Thank you,” he replied. “If you’re curious, it’s mutual. Where in hell does she get all this food? I haven’t seen a single servant since I got here.”
“Magic, I suppose,” Kero replied. “Although ... you know, not that much of it has to be cooked. Just the bread and the oat porridge. Everything else could be set beside the bread ovens to warm. I’ve never seen the kitchen; it could be just on the other side of that wall. I have no idea how they’d vent ovens this deep in the cliff—that would be magic, but I’ve seen stranger things in this place.”
“Like the bathing chambers?”
“Hmm.” She eyed the table; the ham and bread would reappear at dinner, the fruit and cheese at lunch, the hard-boiled eggs would keep for quite a while, and the oat porridge would be gone at this meal. All four of them liked a good big bowl of it, laden with sugar and swimming in cream.
“One cook and two helpers could take care of all this and more, and still have time for the helpers to double at light cleaning and laundry,” she said. “We all clean our own rooms, that means the only places a servant would have to clean would be the common rooms.”
Daren blinked at her in surprise. She dished out her own bowl of porridge, loading it down with maple sugar and sweet raisins, leaving just enough for him. “How do you know all that?” he asked.
“All what? Household nonsense?” Tarma and her grandmother had evidently just finished; they were disappearing together through one of the doors that was always kept locked. Kero knew what was on the other side of that one, though—her grandmother’s magic workroom. She’d visited it once, and had no desire to do so again.
Daren completed his selection and followed her to one of two small tables beside the hearth. “I thought you said you weren’t interested in marriage and a family.”
“I’m not. I took care of the Keep for five years after Mother died, and for most of two years before that.” She made a face, and cut a careful bite out of her ham slice. “I hated it. But I learned it anyway. Why do you look like you spent the night tossing?”
“Because I did,” he replied. “Rotten dreams.”
She put her knife and fork down. “You, too?”
He nodded, then stopped in mid-chew to stare at her. Finally he swallowed, and asked, “Were you in the middle of some kind of battle? In a scout group? And you went off looking for something in a party of about six?”
She nodded. “And you were there, and we had an argument about something?”
“Yes. And then?” He leaned forward.
“Then—you wouldn’t listen to me, or I wouldn’t listen to you; I can’t remember which. But the party split, and we both missed something really important, because when we got back, we’d lost half the scouts, and we discovered that the enemy had cut around behind us—”
“And everyone on our side was dead.” He sagged back in his chair, his eyes closed. “Oh, gods. I thought it was just a dream—”
“It was just a dream,” a new voice entered the conversation. Kethry’s. Daren jumped, then tried to leap to his feet.
“Sit,” Kethry ordered him; she was in russet today, the color Daren’s cloak used to be, but as if to underline what Kero had told him earlier, she was not wearing a gown, she was in breeches and a long tunic. “If it had been a prophetic dream, certain warnings would have been triggered, and I would have known.”
“If it wasn’t prophetic,” Kero asked hesitantly, “What was it?”
Kethry smiled, as if she had expected exactly that question. “A warning,” she said. “This place—seems to trigger things like that. It’s happened perhaps a dozen times since we moved here. It’s not showing any possible future so far as I’ve been able to tell—it’s showing you the general outcome of a negative behavior pattern.”
“So what we saw isn’t going to happen to us?” Daren asked hopefully.
“No, not likely,” Kethry repeated, “and you won’t dream it again unless you continue the pattern.”
“But if we do, we get the same dream over and over?” At Kethry’s nod, Daren grimaced. “Pretty effective way of getting someone to break the pattern.”
“Evidently the builders of this Tower thought so.” Kethry patted him on the shoulder in a very motherly fashion, turned and vanished back through the heavy wooden door leading to her workroom.
Daren sighed, and turned back to Kero. “Will it help to say that I’ve been a blockhead and I apologize?”
She considered him with her head tilted to one side for a moment. “Will it help to tell you I’ve been just as pigheaded as you?”
He smiled. “It’s a start.”
“Good,” she replied. “Let’s build on that.” Then she laughed, feeling a burden lifting from her mind. “Besides, I’d do a lot more than just apologize to avoid another two days like the past two!”
But Warrl was destined to have the last word, although he was nowhere in sight.
:It’s about time,: said a sardonic voice in her mind. Humans!:
If Daren wondered why she was choking on her porridge, trying not to laugh, he was too polite to ask.
Kero studied the sand-table, the terrain laid out in miniature, the tokens that stood for civilians, stock, fighting men and women. Bloodless warfare, she thought to herself. All the fighting reduced to numbers. Is that how generals see us?
Had it been a year since that quarrel with Daren? It must have been, since it was winter again. Tarma had gradually begun teaching them other things; strategy and supply, tactics and organization. Every daylight hour was spent in some kind of study; from their weapons’ practices to reading the fragmentary accounts of the wars of the ancients. Even their “leisure” hours usually had something to do with their studies.
“All right,” Tarma said, leaning over the sand-table. She indicated the tokens that represented the enemy forces, tokens she had just put in place. “There’re the opposing forces. What have you got, Daren?”
He studied his tokens, cupped in the palm of his hand, and placed them carefully in the sand. “Five companies of foot, one of horse, one of specialists. In country like that, the horse is useless.” He placed a token with a painted horse’s head on it behind the “lines.” “I need another company of foot and two of specialists if I’m going to hold you off. Mountain fighters, irregulars, if I can get them.”
“Which means you hire. Kero, what have you got for him to hire?” Tarma leaned over the table, resting her weight on her hands, and watched Kerowyn through narrowed eyes.
She represented the Mercenary Guild and the free-swords. “According to the list you gave me, he can get what he wants, but he’s going to have to make some choices.” She studied the roster, and wondered what he was going to pick—and what his resources would bear. She didn’t know what he had to draw on; Tarma did, but while she was playing the enemy, she would pretend she didn’t know.
He studied his handful of papers again. “So, what are my options?” he asked her.
“First, there’s a full bonded Company of foot, they’re at-hire, and their base is within three days’ march of your position; you’ll have to send a messenger across the Border, though, so I hope your relations are good with King Warrl over there.” She grinned at the kyree, who was playing all the neutrals in this little game.
:I’ll think about it,: Warrl replied genially. :Depends on what nice present he sends me.:
Kero grinned; she knew Daren couldn’t hear the kyree, which made Warrl’s comments all the more amusing. Daren consulted his list again. “I can afford to send him a bribe of some fine beef-stud stock under pretense of a trade mission. That’s in my private holdings and won’t make me raise taxes.”
Warrl laid his ears back and looked hurt :Bribes? How crude. I don’t know ... well, I suppose I must, crude or not.: He stood on his hindlegs, put his forepaws on the edge of the table, and nudged the little flag that signified “clear passage.”
“Thanks, your majesty.” Daren studied his sheaf of papers with a frown on his face. “All right, I can pay for the foot Company with surplus in the treasury. So what about these irregular fighters?”
“That’s where you get the choice,” she told him. “You can either hire two more bonded Companies, you can hire one bonded Company and one free-lance, or you hire the free-lance Company and set up recruiting posts and hire enough free-lancers to put another temporary Company together. The bonded Company will work with the free-lance Company, but not with a put-together force. There’s more than enough of the individual freelancers in your area. Free-lancers would be cheaper, about half the cost of Companies the same size.” She looked up at him. “That’s the first time I recall Tarma giving us that option. She’s always had bonded Companies in the game, no free-lancers.”
“Quite true,” Tarma replied, nodding. “You’ve gotten used to those options. Time to spice up the game with a little more reality. By the time you need them, Daren, bonded Companies will usually have been hired by someone else.”
Daren pursed his lips. “Hmm. The treasury is getting mighty lean ... Tarma, what’s the difference between free-lancers and a bonded Company?”
“Free-lancers are just that: individual hire-swords. Some of them may have bought into a Company, some may be totally on their own. They’re cheaper because they haven’t posted bond with the Mercenary Guild.” She stood up, and Kero noticed her flinching a little.
Her joints must be hurting again. I keep forgetting how old she is. We’re going to have to start working out against each other more, now that the weather’s turned cold. Save our teacher for the things only she can teach us.
:Thank you,: Warrl said softly into her mind.
“Kero, did you say some of those free-lancers were a Company, or am I dealing entirely with individuals?” Daren asked. “I don’t want to hire individuals; it would take too much time to get them coordinated and I’d have to detail one of my own officers to command them. According to these notes, I don’t have that kind of time, and I don’t think I have an officer to spare. And besides, I know I remember you saying that the bonded Company won’t work with something just thrown together.”
Kero looked at the list again. “One Company, the rest on their own.”
Daren winced. “Well, I’ll be hiring one bonded Company, anyway. Now, what’s the difference between a free-lance Company and a bonded Company?”
Tarma licked her lips. “It’s easier to tell you what freelancers aren’t. A bonded Company has posted a pretty hefty bond with the Mercenary Guild, on top of the individual dues each hire-sword’s paid into the Guild. What that means is that they have to follow the Guild Mercenary Code. If they violate that code, the Guild pays the injured party damages, then takes it out of the bond. Then they take it out of the offending party’s hide, and they are not gentle, let me tell you! And if you violate your contract, the Guild will fine you, and you won’t be able to hire bonded fighters for at least a year. Maybe more, depending on the severity of the offense.”
“What’s this ‘Code,’ anyway?” Kero asked. “You’ve never mentioned that before. You’ve talked about the Guild code of conduct for individuals, but not a Company code.”
“It’s pretty simple. Whatever is in the terms of the contract is followed by both parties, to the letter. Bonded Companies do not pillage in the countryside of their employer, and pillage only in enemy territory with permission of the employer. That takes care of cutting your own throat in a civil war.” Tarma looked at both of them. “Can you figure out why?”
Kero was marginally quicker. “Easy; if you keep everybody on your side from looting, the locals are going to come over to you, and that’s going to make big problems for the opposition if they aren’t doing the same.”
“Good. And really, what’s the point of wrecking your own tax base? All right; if a bonded Company or one of its members surrenders, they are permitted to leave the battlefield unmolested and report to a neutral point. They’ll get ransomed by the Guild; that’s why the individual members pay their dues every year. You know about the individual Code, so I won’t go into that.” Tarma leaned against the sand-table. “They won’t switch sides in mid-contract, they won’t follow a mutiny against their employer, they won’t fight a suicide-cause, but they’ll do their damnedest to get their employer out of a bad situation in one piece. Because of the twin Codes, bonded Companies are more reliable and trustworthy than unbonded. That’s why they’re expensive.”
Daren examined the table again. “I’ve got a bad situation here. I think maybe I’d better take out a loan, or go find a buyer for some Crown properties and go the distance for two bonded Companies.”
“What would you do if I set up the situation like this?” Tarma moved two of her counters away and placed them farther along the Border.
Daren studied the table again. “Hire one bonded and one free-lance, and see if I couldn’t negotiate with my neutral neighbor to take a stand. Those two Companies are threatening his territory, too.”
“Good. What about this?” She pulled the counters oif the table entirely.
“The bonded foot and the free-lance guerrillas. Then I’d arrange things this way—” He set up his counters against hers, accepting the two mercenary counters from Kerowyn. “—and I’d put the free-lancers right here. They’re not going to pillage my countryside because that’s all rocky hillside; once I move the sheepherders out, there’s nothing there to pillage, which means every profitable move for them to make will be against the enemy and not against me.” He moved around the table, and looked at the situation from Tarma’s angle. “What’s more, they can’t mutiny, they’re on the end of the supply line and all I have to do is cut them off. I think they’re relatively safe to trust there.”
Tarma studied his setup, and smiled, slowly. “Excellent. Let’s play this and see how it runs. Kero? The first move is yours.”
Kero had the most interesting time of it; according to Tarma’s profile sheets, the free-lance guerrillas were a newly-formed Company, and fairly unreliable, but the bonded foot were an old, established Company with a nice subgroup of scouts that made up for the deficiencies of the free-lancers. And Daren had set up a situation in which the very worst that could happen would be the free-lancers deserting; with a howling wilderness between them and civilization, they were, Kero judged, less inclined to do that. They played the game out over the course of two hours, and in the end, Daren’s side won. During that time he’d even found the bribe that would bring Warrl in on his side, so the victory cost him less than he’d feared.
“Good, all the way around,” Tarma applauded. “I’m proud of you both. Daren, did you see why Kero’s Companies did what they did?”
“Pretty much, though I was kind of surprised at the versatility of the foot.” He smiled over at Kero, who returned it, feeling warmed by it.
“That’s one thing you’ll often find in a good bonded Company; they’ve trained together with many weapons, and they have their own support groups.” Tarma yawned. “Even the best Companies have gotten shafted now and again; the Guild imposes fines, but that’s after the damage has been done. That’s why they like to have everything they need under their own control.”
“Well, those two extra hedge-wizards may have saved the day.” Daren yawned, too, and Kero fought to keep herself from echoing it. It had been a long day, but a good one. This victory against Tarma on the sand-table had been the dessert to the meal; they didn’t often win against her.
“I’m off to bed, children,” the Shin’a’in said, blowing out the extra lanterns, leaving only the four set onto the corners of the table for light. “Savor your victory; I’ll get you tomorrow.”
“No doubt,” Kero laughed. “So far you’ve beaten us five games out of seven.”
“Keeps you on your toes,” the Shin’a’in retorted on her way out the door. Warrl grinned at them, and padded after her.
Kero collected the tokens, while Daren smoothed out the sand in the table. “Good game,” he said, handing her a token that had gotten half-buried in the sand. “You know, it’s a lot more fun being your friend than your enemy.”
“In the game, or in general?” she teased.
“Both.” He put his arm around her shoulders and hugged her. She returned the hug—but there was a different feeling about the way he held onto her tonight, keeping her close a breath or two longer than he usually did, sliding his hands down her arms before letting her go-
“Tired?” he asked, something in his voice telling her than he hoped she’d say “no.”
“Not really.” She put the flags and tokens away in a drawer under the table, and looked up at him expectantly. She wasn’t tired, either—not with him looking at her the way he was. “Feel like talking a while?” she asked hopefully, her muscles tensing a little with anticipation. Was she reading more into his words than was really there?
“If you don’t mind.” It wasn’t her imagination, there was an odd light in his eyes, an appreciative glint she’d been seeing quite a bit, lately. “Your room or mine?”
“Yours,” she said. “It’s cleaner.” She laughed, but the way he kept watching her was sending an oddly exciting chill up her spine. She stretched, and came close to giggling at the way his eyes widened. She blew out the rest of the lanterns, and headed for the door.
“Only marginally,” he replied—but instead of letting her precede him, he caught her hand in his as she walked past him.
She stopped for a moment, then gave his hand a squeeze. He returned it, and caressed her palm with his thumb as she tugged at his hand and got him moving out the door. She shielded her mind with studious care; right now she couldn’t afford any leakage....
She knew what was going on; she’d begun to hope he found her attractive several moons ago, and it was a distinct thrill to see him responding, though she truly wasn’t trying to flirt. Even if she hadn’t figured it out, Tarma had taken care to let her know a couple of days ago. “You’re young, attractive, and here.” she’d said bluntly. “He’s young, attractive, and not very sure of himself—though I doubt he’s a virgin. You’re a friend, so you aren’t threatening. If you want to go to bed with him, go right ahead. But make sure you’re protected.”
She’d been relieved—but disappointed. “Is that all it is? Just—availability?”
Tarma had shaken her head. “Child, even if it was love everlasting—which we both know it isn’t—he’s a prince of the blood, and you’re going to be a common mercenary. He can’t afford to marry you, and you shouldn’t be content with anything less. Your potential is enormous, or that damned sword of Keth’s wouldn’t have spoken for you. You have no right to fritter your life away as Prince Daren’s mistress. You have things to do—so enjoy yourself now, but know that when it’s over, you’re going to go out and do them.”
But with Daren’s hand holding hers possessively, and then Daren’s arm around her shoulders as they climbed the stairs together, it was difficult to keep Tarma’s advice in mind.
There was another side to it all as well—a kind of relief. I’m all right, I’m not she’chorne or anything. I’m not so different from the other girls after all. Daren wants me, and I want him....
That was not such a bad feeling, being wanted. He liked her as a friend, and wanted her as a woman – a good combination, if she could keep it from getting serious. She’d followed part of Tarma’s advice; she was protected. That much Lenore had taught her; the moon-flower powder all the time to control moon-days as well as preventing pregnancy, or child-bane afterward—though moon-flower was better for you, easier on the body.
They reached the top of the stairs, and Kero was glad that there weren’t any servants; there was no chance that they’d be interrupted or gawked at knowingly. She had the feeling anything like that would put Daren off entirely. She felt overheated; flushed and excited, and with odd little feelings in the pit of her stomach and groin.
Daren had to let go of her to get his door open, and that seemed to make him shy again; he followed her inside without touching her and made a great fuss of clearing off a chair for her to sit in.
He carefully avoided looking at the bed, and she followed his example, pummeling her brain for some way to make him feel comfortable again. If it had been warmer, she would have suggested they go out on his balcony—his room had one, hers didn’t. But it was freezing out there, literally; the ice on the ponds would be thick enough to skate safely on, come morning. Cold hands and feet were not conducive to romance, and the temperature out on the balcony was likely to chill the hottest lust.
Her throat tightened, and she flushed for no reason. Suddenly she was afraid, though of what, she couldn’t have said. To cover the fact, she ignored the chair and sprawled out on the sheepskin rug in front of the hearth, half reclinging against a cushion.
Talk. Say anything.
“If you could be anything in the world,” she said, staring at the flames, as he sat down hesitantly beside her, “What would it be? Anything at all—anything you wanted, king, minstrel, beggar, whatever.”
He thought about it; she took a sidelong glance at him, and saw that his face was set in a frown of concentration. “You know, I think I’d be a merchant. I’d get to travel anywhere, see everything I ever wanted to. I’d be a rich merchant, though,” he added hastily. “So I could travel comfortably.”
She chuckled. “Like one of Tarma’s proverbs: ‘What good is seeing the wonders of the world when you’re too saddle sore to enjoy them?’ “
He laughed, and relaxed a little, letting his hand rest oh-so-casually on hers. “What about you?”
“Being a rich merchant would be nice,” she agreed. “But I’d rather be the kind of person that travels just because she wants to. Not tied to a caravan or a trading schedule.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding wisely. “A spoiled dabbler.”
“A what?” she said, sitting up straight, pulling her hand away.
“A dilettante,” he teased. “A brat. A—”
He didn’t have any chance to go on, because she hit him with a pillow.
That attack engendered a wrestling match which he, heavier and stronger, was bound to win—unless she resorted to tactics which would have ended any further plans for the evening. But it was a great deal of fun while it lasted—the more so because she discovered his one weakness, and turned the contest into something much more even.
He was ticklish.
Very ticklish, especially down both sides and on the bottoms of his feet.
She managed to get his shoes off while tickling his sides. Protecting one meant that the other weak point was vulnerable, and the moment he curled up into a ball, she grabbed his feet and ran her nails along the soles. When he thrashed helplessly and got his feet away from her, his sides were exposed. Before long, she’d turned the tables on him.
She tickled him unmercifully, until they were both laughing so hard their sides ached. Finally neither one of them could breathe, and they tumbled together on the rug, completely unable to move.
“You—” he panted, “—cheat.”
“No such—thing,” she replied, trying to brush her hair out of her eyes with one hand while she held onto his bare foot with the other. “Just—obeying—my teacher.”
“Exploiting the enemy’s weakness?” He was getting his breath back faster than she was, and he managed to eel around so that her head was in his lap. “But Kero—I’m not your enemy.”
“Aren’t you?” she began, when he stopped all further conversation with a kiss.
It was in no way a chaste or innocent kiss. It picked up where the last of their tentative explorations had left off, and carried them to the logical conclusion. Kero let go of his foot, and groped for the laces of his tunic. His hands slid under her shirt and cupped her breasts with a gentleness that vaguely surprised her, stroking them with his callused thumbs.
The tunic-lacings foiled her hands, which seemed to have lost all dexterity. She broke off the kiss, and cursed the things; he laughed, and got out of the tunic without bothering to unlace it, tossing it off somewhere into the dark. The loose shirt, a copy of her own, was easy enough to slide her hands under—which she did, holding him closer to her, feeling her blood heat at the play of muscles under his skin.
“Beast,” she said, and went back to the kiss. He sank slowly to the floor, taking her with him, his hands moving against her skin under her shirt. She pushed his shirt up out of the way, the better to touch him. He rolled over to one side to give her hands more room to roam.
This time he broke free with a yelp as his bare back came into contact with the stone floor. “I hate cold floors,” he said ruefully, as she giggled at his woebegone expression. Then he scrambled to his feet, and pointed off into the dark. She couldn’t see his face from that angle, and she couldn’t see past the light cast by the fire, so she jumped to her feet—
Only to find herself scooped up, and launched across the room, to land in his bed. A moment later, he was beside her.
“Oh, my,” she said, “Where do you suppose this came from?”
He didn’t even bother to answer, and in a moment, she didn’t really want him to.
Shirts and breeches were everywhere, being tossed out of bed or shoved to one side. Somehow she managed to get out of her clothing without tearing anything; he wasn’t so lucky. He couldn’t get the wrist-lacings on his shirt to untie, and with a muttered oath, he snapped them.
His hands and mouth were everywhere; well, so were hers. Every touch seemed to send a tingle all over her, seemed to make her want more.
They explored each other, a little awkwardly sometimes; she hit him in the nose with her elbow, once, and he knocked her head against the footboard. Kero hardly felt it when she collided with the carved wood, every inch of skin felt afire, and she was propelled by such urgent need that she could have pursued him over the side of a cliff and never noticed.
It hurt, when he took her—or she took him, whichever; she wanted him as much as he wanted her. But it didn’t hurt that much, and he was as gentle as his own need would let him be. And she began to feel something else, something she yearned after as shamelessly as a bitch in heat. Just out of reach....
It was all over too soon, though, and she was left feeling as if something had been left undone; unsatisfied and still hungry somehow.
Sated, he just rolled happily over into the tumbled blankets, and went right to sleep.
She could have killed him.
She curled up on her side, stared into the dark, and listened to him breathe. And wondered, What did I do wrong?
Later, she figured out she hadn’t done anything wrong. Practice, as with anything else, made both of them more proficient, better able to please each other. Eventually the outcome equaled the anticipation, and neither went to sleep unsatisfied.
She finally understood what all the fuss was about—and the obsession. She understood—but she felt herself somehow apart from it; her desire was satisfied, but whatever it was that awakened real passion in others had not touched her.
And nothing ever quite made up for the letdown of that first night.
And he never understood, or even noticed.
Winter became spring, then seemed to run straight into autumn without pausing for summer. There were never enough hours in the day for everything. Kero often wondered what possessed her, to have consented to this.
She often wondered if she were doing the right thing. She had no doubt that a conventional life would be far, far easier.
And I wouldn’t have to rise with the sun unless I really wanted to.
The wooden practice blades were nowhere in sight, which was a little odd. Kero exchanged puzzled glances with Daren, then looked away before the glance could develop into anything more intimate.
I don’t know how much longer I can keep this as “just friends,” she thought, staring at the sandy floor of the practice ring. Grandmother was worried about me getting my heart broken, but it seems as though it’s going to be the other way around. I really like Daren—but—
But. Blessed Agnira, I’m a cold-hearted bitch. I ought to be on my knees with thanks that he’s in love with me, or thinks he is. Instead, all I can think of is “how can I pry him loose?”
On the other hand, Tarma was right. There is no way I would ever be allowed to marry him—
Not that I’d want to.
Tarma’s entrance broke into her ruminations, and she looked up gratefully at her teacher. All this thinking is making my head hurt. Daren, who had been reaching for her arm, stiffened, and pulled away a little, and Kero breathed a sigh of relief.
Tarma’s eyes flicked toward Daren, though she gave no other sign that she’d noticed him moving. “I think you’re ready now for something a little more serious,” the Shin’a’in said gravely. “It’s about time you both got used to handling the weapons you’re going to fight with. Not that you’re going to practice all the time with them,” she added, holding up a long hand to forestall any questions, “But you’re going to be working out at least a candlemark every day with them. I can approximate the weight and balance of your real weapons with your practice swords, but I can’t duplicate it—and your bodies will know the difference.”
She handed Daren a long-sword, two-edged, but with a point as well. The blade was magnificent, and the jewel in the hilt, a ruby so dark as to be nearly black, was worth Kero and all of her family combined.
For her part, she took up Need with a certain amount of trepidation. Although she felt a kind of tingle when she first set hand to hilt, the sword showed no other signs of life.
Which suited her very well. Over the course of that single night, she’d had her fill of being the tool instead of the wielder.
“Tarma,” she said, hesitantly. “Is this a good idea? I mean, I thought I was supposed to be learning swordsmanship, but if I’m going to use Need—”
Tarma chuckled. “Don’t worry about it. First off, you’ll be bouting aginst me, not Daren, and she won’t let you harm a woman. Secondly, she works in peculiar ways. Now that you’ve established your talents as a swordswoman, she’ll never help you fight again. Ah, but magic now, that’s where she’ll protect you. So far as I know, there isn’t a magicker in the world can harm you while you hold her.”
“So that’s how it works,” she murmured without thinking.
“Exactly. That’s why she did both for you when you went after Lordan’s bride; you were neither fish nor fowl yet.” Tarma grinned. “Now, since she’s no more than a very good blade in your hands—defend yourself, girl!”
Blessed Agnira, it’s been a long day. Kero hung her sword in its rack, pulled her armor off and draped it over its stand, and stretched. Tarma was right about having to get used to Need’s weight and balance. There’s a distinct difference between her and that practice blade. She stretched again, reaching for the ceiling, feeling shoulders pop. That hot bath is going to feel so—
She started for the bathing chamber—and realized she was still holding her sword.
That’s odd. She frowned. I could have sworn I hung her up.
She turned back toward the wall rack, and tried to place the sword in its cradle. Tried.
She couldn’t make her hands let go.
“Oh, no you don’t,” she muttered. “You’ve done that to me once. No more.”
She put the sword in the rack, and concentrated on freeing her left hand, one finger at a time.
Let. Go. Of. Me. She stared at her hand as if it didn’t belong to her, concentrating until she had a headache, a sharp pain right between her eyebrows.
One by one, she loosened her fingers; one by one she pried them off the scabbard. As she released the last of them, she felt something in the back of her mind stretch, and snap.
She pulled her right hand away, quickly, before the sword could take control of her again.
“I’ll thank you to keep your notions to yourself,” she told it frostily, ignoring the incongruity of talking to an inanimate object. Then she turned, and walked deliberately back to the bathing chamber. She “heard” something, as she “heard” thoughts, faint and at the very edge of her abilities to sense it. It sounded like someone grumbling in her sleep ... disturbed, but not awakened.
She ignored it and drew her bath.
Whatever it was, it went away while she was undressing, and by the time she slid into the hot water she wondered if she’d only imagined it.
But as she lay back, relaxing, she began to feel a kind of pull on her mind, as if something had hold of her and was trying to tug her in a particular direciton.
Since the direction was her bedroom, she had no doubt who that “someone” was.
She ignored it, and it grew more persistent; then painful, like a headache in the back of her skull. Stop that, she thought sharply, sitting up in the bath. The pain eased off, but the tugging was still there. She sat back and thought for a few moments, then she put up her very best shields, the shields even Warrl had not been able to break through.
The tugging stopped. She waited for several moments, but whatever the sword was doing did not seem to be able to penetrate the shielding.
You ruled my grandmother, sword. You’re not going to rule me. She closed her eyes, leaned back again, and let the bath relax all her muscles for her.
Finally the water cooled, and she felt relaxed enough to sleep. She opened her eyes and stared at the wall, thinking. I can’t keep shields like this up forever. If I’m lucky, I won’t have to. If I’m not, though, this is going to be an interesting little power struggle.
She lowered her shields, slowly, waiting for the sword to resume its insistent nagging. You may be older, with all manner of magic behind you, she thought at it, but I’ll bet I’m a lot more stubborn than you are.
It’s a good thing Daren was too tired after practice to be interested in bed games tonight.
She waited for a moment, then left the shields down and climbed out of her bath. This is too easy. It’s not going to let me off this easily. She dried herself, and went back into her room to lie down on the bed. If I were Need, what would I do? A straight-on attempt didn’t work ... anytime she starts on m