Tarma and Kethry
Tarma and Kethry were created because heroic fantasy was finally "coming of age," not the least because of people like Marion Zimmer Bradley and her Sword and Sorceress anthologies, but I saw two problems.
The first-most of the stories were about brawny C*n*n types, strong like bull, dumb like ox, iron-thewed and not something you'd invite to a nice restaurant. The remainder were equally divided between the incredibly depressing eternally doomed hero type, and the female counterpart to the C*n*n type. Trouble was, the latter seemed to share her male counterpart's taste in women.
Mind you, I have no personal objection to this, but I thought it would be nice to have at least one token heterosexual female hero. And hey, not every fantasy hero or heroine has to be as highly sexed as most of the then-current crop seemed to be!
So I invented Tarma and Kethry. Tarma is celibate, chaste, and altogether asexual; Kethry isn't, and though she doesn't think with her hormones, she definitely is fond of men.
Two books (three if you count the beginning of By the Sword) and many short stories later, things have changed for the better, insofar as there is now a vast cornucopia of books and stories in heroic fantasy, which incorporate a vast spectrum of heroes and heroines, but I'm still glad I invented Tanna and Kethry. Figuring out ways to get them in trouble and getting them out again has been highly entertaining for all concerned.
This is the very first appearance of Tarma and Kethry, and how they met. I distinctly remember presenting this and a second Tarma and Kethry story to Marion in person. The occasion was just before one of her Fantasy Worlds Festival conventions, and I had volunteered to be "go-fer mom"-I was going to see to it that all her eager young volunteers ate and slept regularly. Which I did, with a hammer, when necessary. But beforehand, Marion had invited me to come to her home, I had already sold her my first professional sale (a Darkover story), and I wanted very much to be accepted into the Sword and Sorceress anthologies. I brought both manuscripts with me-after first asking permission!-and presented them to her with much trepidation.
"I don't know about the first one," I said hesitantly. "It's kind of 'rape and revenge,' and I know you're tired of that." She just waved me off and took possession of the manuscripts.
Lisa Waters (her secretary and protegee) and I were making tea in the kitchen when "Damn you, Misty!" rang out from the living room. Certain that I had somehow offended her, I ran to find out what it was I had done wrong so I could try to make amends.
As it turned out, what I had done was not wrong, but I had presented her with a dilemma. She liked both stories, and wanted both of them, and could only publish one!
Giddily I told her to hang on to the second one; I was certain there would be a Sword and Sorceress IV. Since the volume numbers are now up in the high teens, you can see that I was right. The second story was published in Volume IV, and I later sold two Tarma and Kethry books to DAW. But this is how the two met in the first place.
The air inside the gathering-tent was hot, although the evening breeze that occasionally stole inside the closed tent flap and touched Tarma's back was chill, like a sword's edge laid along her spine. This high-desert country cooled off quickly at night, not like the Clan's grazing grounds down in the grass plains. Tarma shivered; for comfort's sake she'd long since removed her shirt and now, like most of the others in the tent, was attired only in her vest and breeches. In the light of the lamps Tarma's Clansfolk looked like living versions of the gaudy patterns they wove into their rugs.
Her brother-uncle Kefta neared the end of his sword-dance in the middle of the tent. He performed it only rarely, on the most special of occasions, but this occasion warranted celebration. Never before had the men of the Clan returned from the Summer Horsefair laden with so much gold-it was nearly three times what they'd hoped for. There was war a-brewing somewhere, and as a consequence horses had commanded more than prime prices. The Shin-'a'in hadn't argued with their good fortune. Now their new wealth glistened in the light of the oil lamps, lying in a shining heap in the center of the tent for all of the Clan of the Stooping Hawk to rejoice over. Tomorrow it would be swiftly converted into salt and herbs, grain and leather, metal weapons and staves of true, straight-grained wood for looms and arrows (all things the Shin'a'in did not produce themselves) but for this night, they would admire their short-term wealth and celebrate.
Not all that the men had earned lay in that shining heap. Each man who'd undertaken the journey had earned a special share, and most had brought back gifts. Tarma stroked the necklace at her throat as she breathed in the scent of clean sweat, incense, and the sentlewood perfume most of her Clan had anointed themselves with. She glanced to her right as she did so, surprised at her flash of shyness. Dharin seemed to have all his attention fixed on the whirling figure of the dancer, but he intercepted her glance as if he'd been watching for it, and his normally solemn expression vanished as he smiled broadly. Tarma blushed, then made a face at him. He grinned even more, and pointedly lowered his eyes to the necklace of carved amber she wore, curved claws alternating with perfect beads. He'd brought that for her, evidence of his trading abilities, because (he said) it matched her golden skin. That she'd accepted it and was wearing it tonight was token that she'd accepted him as well. When Tarma finished her sword-training, they'd be bonded. That would be in two years, perhaps less, if her progress continued to be as rapid as it was now. She and Dharin dealt with each other very well indeed, each being a perfect counter for the other. They were long-time friends as well as lovers.
The dancer ended his performance in a calculated sprawl, as though exhausted. His audience shouted their approval, and he rose from the carpeted tent floor, beaming and dripping with sweat. He flung himself down among his family, accepting with a nod of thanks the damp towel handed to him by his youngest son. The plaudits faded gradually into chattering; as last to perform he would pick the next.
After a long draft of wine he finally spoke, and his choice was no surprise to anyone. "Sing, Tarma," he said.
His choice was applauded on all sides as Tarma rose, brushed back her long ebony hair, and picked her way through the crowded bodies of her Clansfolk to take her place in the center.
Tarma was no kind of beauty; her features were too sharp and hawklike, her body too boyishly slender; and well she knew it. Dharin had often joked when they lay together that he never knew whether he was bedding her or her sword. But the Goddess of the Four Winds had granted her a voice that was more than compensation, a voice that was unmatched among the Clans. The Shin'a'in, whose history was mainly contained in song and story, valued such a voice more than precious metals. Such was her value that the shaman had taught her the arts of reading and writing, that she might the more easily learn the ancient lays of other peoples as well as her own.
Impishly, she had decided to pay Dharin back for making her blush by singing a tale of totally faithless lovers, one that was a Clan favorite. She had only just begun it, the musicians picking up the key and beginning to follow her, when unlooked-for disaster struck.
Audible even over the singing came the sound of tearing cloth; and armored men, seemingly dozens of them, poured howling through the ruined tent walls to fall upon the stunned nomads. Most of the Clan were all but weaponless -- but the Shin'a'in were warriors by tradition as well as horsebreeders. There was not one of them above the age of nine that had not had at least some training. They shook off their shock quickly, and every member of the Clan that could seized whatever was nearest and fought back with the fierceness of any cornered wild thing.
Tarma had her paired daggers and a throwing spike in a wrist sheath -- the last was quickly lost as she hurled it with deadly accuracy through the visor of the nearest bandit. He screeched, dropped his sword, and clutched his face, blood pouring between his fingers. One of her cousins snatched up the forgotten blade and gutted him with it. Tarma had no time to see what other use he made of it; another of the bandits was bearing down on her and she had barely enough time to draw her daggers before he closed with her.
A dagger, even two of them, rarely makes a good defense against a longer blade, but fighting in the tent was cramped, and the bandit found himself at a disadvantage in the close quarters. Though Tarma's hands were shaking with excitement and fear, her mind stayed cool and she managed to get him to trap his own blade long enough for her to plant one of those daggers in his throat. He gurgled hoarsely, then fell, narrowly missing imprisoning her beneath him. She wrenched the sword from his still-clutching hands and turned to find another foe.
She saw with fear that the invaders were easily winning the unequal battle; that despite a gallant defense with such improvised weapons as rugs and hair ornaments, despite the fact that more than one of the bandits was wounded or dead, her people were rapidly falling before their enemies. The bandits were armored; the Shin'a'in were not. That was making a telling difference. Out of the corner of one eye she could see a pair of them dropping their weapons and seizing women -- and around her she could hear the shrieks of children, the harsher cries of adults --
But there was another fighter facing her now, his face blood- and sweat-streaked, and she forced herself not to hear, to think only of the moment and her opponent as she'd been taught.
She parried his thrust with the dagger she still held and made a slash at his neck. The fighting had thinned now, and she couldn't hope to use the same tactics that had worked before. He countered it in a leisurely fashion and turned the counter into a return stroke with careless ease that sent her writhing out of the way of the blade's edge. She wasn't quite fast enough -- he left a long score on her ribs. The cut wasn't deep or dangerous, but it hurt and bled freely. She stumbled over a body -- friend or foe, she didn't notice, and only barely evaded his blade a second time. He toyed with her, his face splitting in an ugly grin as he saw how tired she was becoming. Her hands were shaking now, not with fear, but with exhaustion. She was so weary she failed to notice the little circle of three or four bandits that had formed around her, and that she was the only Shin'a'in still fighting. He made a pass; before she had time to realize it was merely a feint, he'd gotten inside her guard and swatted her to the ground as the flat of his blade connected with the side of her head, the edges cutting into her scalp, searing like hot irons. He'd swung the blade full-force -- she fought off unconsciousness as her hands reflexively let her weapons fall and she collapsed. Half-stunned, she tried to punch, kick, and bite (in spite of nausea and a dizziness that kept threatening to overwhelm her): he began battering at her face and head with heavy, massive fists.
He connected one time too many, and she felt her legs give out, her arms fall helplessly to her sides. He laughed, then threw her to the floor of the tent, inches away from the body of one of her brothers. She felt his hands tearing off her breeches; she tried to get her knee into his groin, but the last of her strength was long gone. He laughed again and settled his hands almost lovingly around her neck and began to squeeze. She clawed at the hands, but he was too strong; nothing she did made him release that ever-tightening grip. She began to thrash as her chest tightened and her lungs cried out for air. Her head seemed about to explode, and reality narrowed to the desperate struggle for a single breath. At last, mercifully, blackness claimed her even as he began to thrust himself brutally into her.
The only sound in the violated tent was the steady droning of flies. Tarma opened her right eye -- the left one was swollen shut -- and stared dazedly at the ceiling. When she tried to swallow, her throat howled in protest, she gagged, and nearly choked. Whimpering, she rolled onto one side. She found she was staring into the sightless eyes of her baby sister, as flies fed greedily at the pool of blood congealing beneath the child's head.
She vomited up what little there was in her stomach, and nearly choked to death in the process. Her throat was swollen almost completely shut.
She dragged herself to her knees, her head spinning dizzily, her stomach threatening to empty itself again of what it didn't contain. As she looked around her, and her mind took in the magnitude of disaster, something within her parted with a nearly audible snap.
Every member of the Clan, from the oldest gray-hair to the youngest infant, had been brutally and methodically slaughtered. The sight was more than her dazed mind could bear. Most of her ran screaming to hide in a safe, dark, mental corner; what was left coaxed her body to its feet.
A few rags of her vest hung from her shoulders; there was blood running down her thighs and her loins ached sharply, echoing the pounding pain in her head. More blood had dried all down one side, some of it from the cut along her ribs, some that of her foes or her Clansfolk. Her hand rose of its own accord to her temple and found her long hair sticky and hard with dried blood matting it into clumps. The pain of her head and the nausea that seemed linked with it overwhelmed any other hurt, but as her hand drifted absently over her face, it felt strange, swollen and puffy. Had she been able to see it, she would not have recognized even her own reflection, her face was so battered. The part of her that was still thinking sent her body to search for something to cover her nakedness. She found a pair of breeches -- not her own, they were much too big -- and a vest, both flung into corners as worthless. Her eyes slid unseeing over the huddled, nude bodies that might have been the previous wearers. Then the thread of direction sent her to retrieve the clan banner from where it still hung on the centerpole.
Clutching it in one hand, she found herself outside the gathering-tent. She stood dumbly in the sun for several long moments, then moved trancelike toward the nearest of the family tents. They, too, had been ransacked, but at least there were no bodies in them. The raiders had found little to their taste there, other than the odd bit of jewelry. Only a Shin'a'in would be interested in the kinds of tack and personal gear of a Shin'a'in -- and anyone not of the Clans found trying to sell such would find himself with several inches of Shin'a'in steel in his gut. Apparently the bandits knew this.
She found a halter and saddlepad in one of the nearer tents. The rest of her crouched in its mind-corner and gibbered. She wept soundlessly when it recognized the tack by its tooling as having been Dharin's.
The brigands had not been able to steal the horses -- the Shin'a'in let them run free and the horses were trained nearly from birth to come only to their riders. The sheep and goats had been scattered, but the goats were guardian enough to reunite the herds and protect them in the absence of shepherds -- and in any case, it was the horses that concerned her now, not the other animals. Tarma managed a semblance of her whistle with her swollen, cracked lips; Kessira came trotting up eagerly, snorting with distaste at the smell of blood on her mistress. Her hands, swollen, stiff, and painful, were clumsy with the harness, but Kessira was patient while Tarma struggled with the straps, not even tossing her gray head in an effort to avoid the hackamore as she usually did.
Tarma somehow dragged herself into the saddle; there was another Clan camped less than a day's ride away. She lumped the banner in front of her, pointed Kessira in the right direction, and gave her the set of signals that meant that her mistress was hurt and needed help. That accomplished, the dregs of directing intelligence receded into hiding with the rest of her, and the ghastly ride was endured in a complete state of blankness.
She never knew when Kessira walked into the camp with her broken, bleeding mistress slumped over the Clan banner. No one there recognized her -- they only knew she was Shin'a'in by her coloring and costume. She never realized that she led a would-be rescue party all the way back to the ruined camp before collapsing over Kessira's neck. The shaman and Healers eased her off the back of her mare, and she never felt it, nor did she feel their ministrations. For seven days and nights she lay silent, never moving, eyes either closed or staring fixedly into space. The Healers feared for her life and sanity, for a Shin'a'in Clanless was one without purpose.
But on the morning of the eighth day, when the Healer entered the tent in which she lay, her head turned and the eyes that met his were once again bright with intelligence.
Her lips parted. "Where-?" she croaked, her voice uglier than a raven's cry.
"Liha'irden," he said, setting down his burden of broth and medicine. "Your name? We could not recognize you, only the banner-" he hesitated, unsure of what to tell her.
"Tarma," she replied. "What of -- my Clan -- Deer's Son?"
"Gone." It would be best to tell it shortly. "We gave them the rites as soon as we found them, and brought the herds and goods back here. You are the last of the Hawk's Children."
So her memory was correct. She stared at him wordlessly.
At this time of year the entire Clan traveled together, leaving none at the grazing-grounds. There was no doubt she was the sole survivor.
She was taking the news calmly -- too calmly. He did not like it that she did not weep. There was madness lurking within her; he could feel it with his Healer's senses. She walked a thin thread of sanity, and it would take very little to cause the thread to break. He dreaded her next question.
It was not the one he had expected. "My voice -- what ails it?"
"Something broken past mending," he replied regretfully -- for he had heard her sing less than a month ago.
"So." She turned her head to stare again at the ceiling. For a moment he feared she had retreated into madness, but after a pause she spoke again.
"I cry blood-feud," she said tonelessly.
When the Healer's attempts at dissuading her failed, he brought the Clan Elders. They reiterated all his arguments, but she remained silent and seemingly deaf to their words.
"You are only one -- how can you hope to accomplish anything?" the Clanmother said finally. "They are many, seasoned fighters, and crafty. What you wish to do is hopeless before it begins."
Tarma stared at them with stony eyes, eyes that did not quite conceal the fact that her sanity was questionable.
"Most importantly," said a voice from the tent door, "You have called what you have no right to call."
The shaman of the Clan, a vigorous woman of late middle age, stepped into the healer's tent and dropped gracefully beside Tarma's pallet to sit cross-legged.
"You know well only one Sword Sworn to the Warrior can cry blood-feud," she said calmly and evenly.
"I know," Tarma replied, breaking her silence. "And I wish to take Oath."
It was a Shin'a'in tenet that no person was any holier than any other, that each was a priest in his own right. The shaman might have the power of magic, might also be more learned than the average Clansman had time to be, but when the time came that a Shin'a'in wished to petition the God or Goddess, he simply entered the appropriate tent-shrine and did so, with or without consulting the shaman beforehand.
So it happened that Tarma was standing within the shrine on legs that trembled with weakness.
The Wise One had not seemed at all surprised at Tarma's desire to be Sworn to the Warrior, and had supported her in her demand over the protests of the Elders. "If the Warrior accepts her," she had said reasonably, "who are we to argue with the will of the Goddess? And if she does not, then blood-feud cannot be called."
The tent-shrines of the Clans were always absolutely identical in their spartan simplicity. There were four tiny wooden altars, one against each wall of the I tent. In the East was that of the Maiden; on it was her symbol, a single fresh blossom in spring and summer, a stick of burning incense in winter and fall. To the South was that of the Warrior, marked by an ever-burning flame. The West held the Mother's altar, on it a sheaf of grain. The North was the domain of the Crone or Ancient One. The altar here held a smooth black stone.
Tarma stepped to the center of the tent. What she intended to do was nothing less than self-inflicted torture. All prayers among the Shin'a'in were sung, not spoken; further, all who came before the Goddess must lay all their thoughts before her. Not only must she endure the physical agony of trying to shape her ruined voice into a semblance of music, but she must deliberately call forth every emotion, every too-recent memory; all that caused her to be standing in this place.
She finished her song with her eyes tightly closed against the pain of those memories; her eyes burned and she ached with stubborn refusal to give in to tears.
There was a profound silence when she'd done; after a moment she realized she could not even hear the little sounds of the encampment on the other side of the thin tent walls. Just as she'd realized that, she felt the faint stirrings of a breeze --
It came from the East, and was filled with the scent of fresh flowers. It encircled her, and seemed to blow right through her very soul. It was soon joined by a second breeze, out of the West; a robust and strong little wind carrying the scent of ripening grain. As the first had blown through her, emptying her of pain, the second filled her with strength. Then it, too, was joined; a bitterly cold wind from the North, sharp with snow-scent. At the touch of this third wind her eyes opened, though she remained swathed in darkness born of the dark of her own spirit. The wind chilled her, numbed the memories until they began to seem remote; froze her heart with an icy armor that made the loneliness bearable. She felt now as if her soul were swathed in endless layers of soft, protecting bandages. The darkness left her sight -- she saw through eyes grown distant and withdrawn to view a world that seemed to have receded to just out of reach.
The center of a whirlwind now, she stood unmoving while the physical winds whipped her hair and clothing about and the spiritual ones worked their magics within her.
But the Southern wind, the Warrior's Wind, was not one of them.
Suddenly the winds died to nothing. A voice that held nothing of humanity, echoing, sharp-edged as a fine blade yet ringing with melody, spoke one word. Her name.
Tarma obediently turned slowly to her right. Before the altar in the South stood a woman.
She was raven-haired and tawny-skinned, and the lines of her face were thin and strong, like all the Shin'a'in. She was arrayed all in black, from her boots to the headband that held her shoulder-length tresses out of her eyes. Even the chainmail hauberk she wore was black, as well as the sword she wore slung across her back and the daggers in her belt. She raised her eyes to meet Tarma's, and they had no whites, irises or pupils; her eyes were reflections of a cloudless night sky, black and star-strewn.
The Goddess had chosen to answer as the Warrior, and in Her own person.
When Tarma stepped through the tent flap, there was a collective sigh from those waiting. Her hair was shorn just short of shoulder length; the Clansfolk knew they would find the discarded locks lying across the Warrior's altar. Tarma had carried nothing into the tent, there was nothing within the shrine that she would have been able to use to cut it. Tarma's Oath had been accepted. There was an icy calm about her that was unmistakable, and completely unhuman.
No one in this Clan had been Swordsworn within living memory, but all knew what tradition demanded of them. No longer would the Sworn One wear garments bright with the colors the Shin'a'in loved; from out of a chest in the Wise One's tent, carefully husbanded against such a time, came clothing of dark brown and deepest black. The brown was for later, should Tarma survive her quest. The black was for now, for ritual combat, or for one pursuing blood-feud.
They clothed her, weaponed her, provisioned her. She stood before them when they had done, looking much as the Warrior herself had, her weapons about her, her provisions at her feet. The light of the dying sun turned the sky to blood as they brought the youngest child of the Clan Liha'irden to receive her blessing, a toddler barely ten months old. She placed her hands on his soft cap of baby hair without really seeing him -- but this child had a special significance.
The herds and properties of the Hawk's Children would be tended and preserved for her, either until Tarma returned, or until this youngest child in the Clan of the Racing Deer was old enough to take his own sword. If by then she had not returned, they would revert to their caretakers.
Tarma rode out into the dawn. Tradition forbade anyone to watch her departure. To her own senses it seemed as though she rode still drugged with one of the healer's potions. All things came to her as if filtered through a gauze veil, and even her memories seemed secondhand -- like a tale told to her by some gray-haired ancient.
She rode back to the scene of the slaughter; the pitiful burial mound aroused nothing in her. Some force outside of herself showed her eyes where to catch the scant signs of the already cold trail. It was not an easy trail to follow, despite the fact that no attempt had been made to conceal it. She rode until the fading light made tracking impossible, but was unable to make more than a few miles.
She made a cold camp, concealing herself and her horse in the lee of a pile of boulders. Enough moisture collected on them each night to support some meager grasses, which Kessira tore at eagerly. Tarma made a sketchy meal of dried meat and fruit, still wrapped in that strange calmness, then rolled herself into her blanket intending to rise with the first light of morning.
She was awakened before midnight.
A touch on her shoulder sent her scrambling out of her blanket, dagger in hand. Before her stood a figure, seemingly a man of the Shin'a'in, clothed as one Swordsworn. Unlike her, his face was veiled.
"Arm yourself, Sworn One," he said, his voice having an odd quality of distance to it, as though he were speaking from the bottom of a well.
She did not pause to question or argue. It was well that she did not, for as soon as she had donned her arms and light chain shirt, he attacked her.
The fight was not a long one; he had the advantage of surprise, and he was a much better fighter than she. Tarma could see the killing blow coming, but was unable to do anything to prevent it from falling. She cried out in agony as the stranger's sword all but cut her in half.
She woke staring up at the stars. The stranger interposed himself between her eyes and the sky. "You are better than I thought --" he said, with grim humor, "but you are still as clumsy as a horse in a pottery shed. Get up and try again."
He killed her three more times -- with the same nonfatal result. After the third, she woke to find the sun rising, herself curled in her blanket and feeling completely rested. For one moment, she wondered if the strange combat of the night had all been a nightmare -- but then she saw her arms and armor stacked neatly to hand. As if to mock her doubts, they were laid in a different pattern than she had left them.
Once again she rode as in a dream. Something controlled her actions as deftly as she managed Kessira, keeping the raw edges of her mind carefully swathed and anesthetized. When she lost the trail, her controller found it again, making her body pause long enough for her to identify how it had been done.
She camped, and again she was awakened before midnight.
Pain is a rapid teacher; she was able to prolong the bouts this night enough that he only killed her twice.
It was a strange existence, tracking by day, training by night. When her track ended at a village, she found herself questioning the inhabitants shrewdly. When her provisions ran out, she discovered coin in the pouch that had held dried fruit -- not a great deal, but enough to pay for more of the same. When, in other towns and villages, her questions were met with evasions, her hand stole of itself to that same pouch, to find therein more coin, enough to loosen the tongues of those she faced. She learned that all her physical needs were cared for -- always when she needed something, she either woke with it to hand, or discovered more of the magical coins appearing to pay for it, and always just enough, and no more. Her nights seemed clearer and less dreamlike than her days, perhaps because the controls over her were thinner then, and the skill she fought with was all her own. Finally one night she "killed" her instructor.
He collapsed exactly as she would have expected a man run through the heart to collapse. He lay unmoving --
"A good attack, but your guard was sloppy," said a familiar voice behind her. She whirled, her sword ready.
He stood before her, his own sword sheathed. She risked a glance to her rear; the body was gone.
"Truce, you have earned a respite and a reward," he said. "Ask me what you will, I am sure you have many questions. I know I did."
"Who are you?" she cried eagerly. "What are you?"
"I cannot give you my name, Sworn One. I am only one of many servants of the Warrior; I am the first of your teachers -- and I am what you will become if you should die while still under Oath. Does that disturb you? The Warrior will release you at any time you wish to be freed. She does not want the unwilling. Of course, if you are freed, you must relinquish the blood-feud."
Tarma shook her head.
"Then ready yourself, Sworn One, and look to that sloppy guard."
There came a time when their combats always ended in draws or with his "death." When that had happened three nights running, she woke the fourth night to face a new opponent -- a woman, and armed with daggers.
Meanwhile she tracked her quarry, by rumor, by the depredations left in their wake, by report from those who had profited or suffered in their passing. It seemed that what she tracked was a roving band of freebooters, and her Clan was not the only group to have been made victims. They chose their quarry carefully, never picking anyone the authorities might feel urged to avenge, nor anyone with friends in power. As a result, they managed to operate almost completely unmolested.
When she had mastered the use of sword, dagger, bow, and staff, her trainers appeared severally rather than singly; she learned the arts of the single combatant against many.
Every time she gained a victory, they instructed her further in what her Oath meant.
One of those things was that her body no longer felt the least stirrings of sexual desire. The Sword-sworn were as devoid of concupiscence as their weapons.
"The gain outweighs the loss," the first of them told her. After being taught the disciplines and rewards of the meditative trance they called "The Moonpaths," she agreed. After that, she spent at least part of every night walking those paths, surrounded by a curious kind of ecstasy, renewing her strength and her bond with her Goddess.
Inexorably, she began to catch up with her quarry. When she had begun this quest, she was months behind them; now she was only days. The closer she drew, the more intensely did her spirit-trainers drill her.
Then one night, they did not come. She woke on her own and waited, waited until well past midnight, waited until she was certain they were not coming at all. She dozed off for a moment, when she felt a presence. She rose with one swift motion, pulling her sword from the scabbard on her back.
The first of her trainers held out empty hands. "It has been a year, Sworn One. Are you ready? Your foes lair in the town not two hours' ride from here, and the town is truly their lair, for they have made it their own."
So near as that? His words came as a shock, ripping the protective magics that veiled her mind and heart, sending her to her knees with the shrilling pain and raging anger she had felt before the winds of the Goddess answered her prayers. No longer was she protected against her own emotions, and the wounds were as raw as they had ever been.
He regarded her thoughtfully, his eyes pitying above the veil. "No, you are not ready. Your hate will undo you, your hurt will disarm you. But you have little choice, Sworn One. This task is one you bound yourself to, you cannot free yourself of it. Will you heed advice, or will you throw yourself uselessly into the arms of Death?"
"What advice?" she asked dully.
"When you are offered aid unlocked for, do not cast it aside," he said and vanished.
She could not sleep; she set out at first light for the town , and then hovered about outside the walls until just before the gates were closed for the night. She soothed the ruffled feathers of the guard with a coin, offered as "payment" for directions to the inn.
The inn was noisy, hot, and crowded. She wrinkled her nose at the unaccustomed stench of old cooking smells, spilled wine, and unwashed bodies. Another small coin bought her a jug of sour wine and a seat in a dark corner, from which she could hear nearly everything said in the room. It did not take long to determine from chance-dropped comments that the brigand-troop made their headquarters in the long-abandoned mansion of a merchant who had lost everything he had to their depredations, including his life. Their presence was very unwelcome. They seemed to regard the townsfolk as their lawful prey; having been freed from their attentions for the past year, their "chattels" were not pleased with their return.
Tarma burned with scorn for these soft townsmen. Surely there were enough able-bodied adults in the place to outnumber the bandit crew several times over. If by nothing else, by sheer numbers the townsmen could probably defeat them, if they'd try.
She turned her mind toward her own quest, trying to develop a plan that would enable her to take as many of the enemy down into death with her as she could manage. She was under no illusion that she could survive this. The kind of frontal assault she planned would leave her no path of escape.
A shadow came between Tarma and the fire.
She looked up, startled that the other had managed to come so close without her being aware of it. The silhouette was that of a woman, wearing the calf-length, cowled brown robe of a wandering sorceress. There was one alarming anomaly about this woman -- unlike any other magic-worker Tarma had ever seen, this one wore a sword belted at her waist.
She reached up and laid back the cowl of her robe, but Tarma still was unable to make out her features; the firelight behind her hair made a glowing nimbus of amber around her face.
"It won't work, you know," the stranger said very softly, in a pleasant, musical alto. "You won't gain anything by a frontal assault but your own death."
Fear laid an icy hand on Tarma's throat; to cover her fear she snarled. "How do you know what I plan? Just who are you?"
"Lower your voice, Sworn One." The sorceress took a seat on the bench next to Tarma, uninvited. "Anyone with the Talent and the wish to do so can read your thoughts. Your foes number among them a sorcerer; I know he is responsible for the deaths of many a sentry that otherwise would have warned their victims in time to defend themselves. I judge him to be at least as capable as I; rest assured that if I can read your intentions, he will be able to do the same should he care to cast his mind in this direction. I want to help you. My name is Kethry."
"Why help me?" Tarma asked bluntly, knowing that by giving her name the sorceress had given Tarma a measure of power over her.
Kethry stirred in her seat, bringing her face fully into the light of the fire. Tarma saw then that the woman was younger than she had first judged; they were almost of an age. Had she seen only the face, she would have thought her to be in the same class as the townsmen; the sorceress was doll-like in her prettiness. But Tarma had also seen the way she moved, like a wary predator; and the too-wise expression in those emerald eyes sat ill with the softness of the face. Her robe was worn to the point of shabbiness, and though clean, was much travel-stained. It was evident from that, that whatever else this woman was, she was not one who was overly concerned with material wealth. That in itself was a good sign to Tarma-since the only real wealth in this town was to be had by serving with the brigands.
But why did she wear a sword?
"I have an interest in dealing with these robbers myself," she said, "and I'd rather that they weren't set on their guard. And I have another reason as well-"
She laughed deprecatingly. "You could say I am under a kind of geas, one that binds me to help women in need. I am bound to help you, whether or not either of us are pleased with the fact. Will you have that help unforced?"
Tarma's initial reaction had been to bristle with hostility -- then, unbidden, into her mind came the odd, otherworldly voice of her trainer, warning her not to cast away unlooked-for aid. "As you will," she replied curtly. The other did not seem to be the least bit discomfited by her antagonism. "Then let us leave this place," she said, standing without haste. "There are too many ears here."
She waited while Tarma retrieved her horse, and led her down tangled streets to a dead-end alley lit by gay red lanterns. She unlocked a gate on the left side and waved Tarma and Kessira through it. Tarma waited as she relocked the gate, finding herself in a cobbled courtyard that was bordered on one side by an old but well-kept stable. On the other side was a house, all its windows ablaze with lights, also festooned with the red lanterns. From the house came the sound of music, laughter, and the voices of many women. Tarma sniffed; the air was redolent with cheap perfume and an animal muskiness.
"Is this place what I think it is?" she asked, finding it difficult to match the picture she'd built in her mind of the sorceress with the house she'd led Tarma to.
"If you think it's a brothel, you're right," Kethry replied. "Welcome to the House of Scarlet Joys, Sworn One. Can you think of a less likely place to house two such as we?"
"No." Tarma almost smiled.
"The better to hide us. The mistress of this place and her charges would rejoice greatly at the conquering of our mutual enemies. Nevertheless, the most these women will do for us is house and feed us. The rest is all in our four hands. Now, let's get your weary beast stabled, and we'll adjourn to my rooms. We have a great deal of planning to do."
Two days after Tarma's arrival in the town of Brether's Crossroads, one of the brigands (drunk with liquor and drugs far past his capacity) fell into a horsetrough, and (bizarrely enough) drowned trying to get out. His death signaled the beginning of a streak of calamities that thinned the ranks of the bandits as persistently as a plague.
One by one they died, victims of weird accidents, overdoses of food or drugs, or ambushes by preternaturally clever thieves. No two deaths were alike- with one exception. He who failed to shake out his boots of a morning seldom survived the day, thanks to the scorpions that had taken to invading the place. Some even died at each other's hands, goaded into fights.
("I dislike this skulking in corners," Tarma growled, sharpening her swordblade. "It's hardly satisfactory, killing these dogs at a distance with poison and witchery."
"Be patient, my friend," Kethry said without rancor. "We're better off thinning them down somewhat before we engage them at sword's point. There will be time enough for that later.")
When the deaths were obviously at the hands of enemies, there were no clues. Those arrow-slain were found pierced by several makes; those dead by blades seemed to have had their own used on them.
Tarma found herself coming to admire the sorceress more with every passing day. Their arrangement was a partnership in every sense of the word, for when Kethry ran short of magical ploys she turned without pride to Tarma and her expertise in weaponry. Even so, the necessary restrictions that limited them to the ambush and the skills of the assassin chafed at her.
("It will not be much longer," Kethry counseled. "They'll come to the conclusion soon enough that this has been no series of coincidences. Then will be the time for frontal attack.")
The leader, so it was said, ordered that no man go out alone, and all must wear talismans against sorcery.
("See?" Kethry said then. "I told you you'd have your chance.")
A pair of swaggering bullies swilled ale, unpaid for, in the inn. None dared speak in their presence; they'd already beaten one farmer senseless who'd given some imagined insult. They were spoiling for a fight, and the sheeplike timidity of the people trapped with them in the inn was not to their liking. So when a slender young man, black-clad and wearing a sword slung across his back entered the door, their eyes lit with savage glee.
One snaked out a long arm, grasping the young man's wrist. Some of those in the inn marked how his eyes flashed with a hellish joy before being veiled with cold disdain.
"Remove your hand," he said in a harsh voice, "dog-turd."
That was all the excuse the brigands needed. Both drew their weapons; the young man unsheathed his in a single fluid motion. Both moved against him in a pattern they had long found successful in bringing down a single opponent.
Both died within heartbeats of each other.
The young man cleaned his blade carefully on their cloaks before sheathing it. (Some sharp eyes may have noticed that when his hand came in contact with one of the brigand's talismans, the young man seemed to become, for a fleeting second, a harsh-visaged young woman). "This is no town for a stranger," he said to no one and everyone. "I will be on my way. Let him follow me who desires the embrace of the Lady Death."
Predictably, half-a-dozen robbers followed the clear track of his horse into the hills. None returned.
The ranks of his men narrowed to five including himself and the sorcerer, the bandit leader shut them all up in their stronghold.
("Why are these -- ladies -- sheltering us?" Tarma demanded one day, when forced idleness had her pacing the confines of Kethry's rooms like a caged panther.
"Madam Isa grew tired of having her girls abused, and they were more than tired of being abused."
Tarma snorted with scorn. "I should have thought one would learn to expect abuse in such a profession."
"It is one thing when a customer expresses a taste for pain and is willing to pay to inflict it. It is quite another when he does so without paying," Kethry answered with wry humor. Tarma replied to this with something almost like a smile. There was that about her accomplice -- fast becoming her friend -- that could lighten even her grimmest mood. Occasionally the sorceress was even able to charm the Shin'a'in into forgetfulness for hours at a time. And yet -- and yet -- there was never a time she could entirely forget what had driven her here....)
At the end of two months, there were rumors that the chieftain had begun recruiting new underlings, the information passed to other cities via the arcane methods of his sorcerer.
("We'll have to do something to flush at least one of them out," Kethry said at last. "The sorcerer has transported at least three more people into that house. He may have done more -- I couldn't tell if the spell brought one or several at a time, only that he definitely brought people in.")
A new courtesan, property of none of the three Houses, began to ply her trade among those who still retained some of their wealth. One had to be wealthy to afford her services -- but those who spent their hours in her skillful embraces were high in their praise.
("I thought your vows kept you sorcerers from lying," Tarma said, watching Kethry's latest client moaning with pleasure in the dream-trance she'd conjured for him.
"I didn't lie," she answered, eyes glinting green with mischief. "I promised him -- all of them -- an hour to match their wildest dreams. That's exactly what they're getting. Besides, nothing I'd be able to do could ever match what they're conjuring up for themselves!")
The chieftain's sergeant caught a glimpse of her spending an idle hour in the marketplace. He had been without a woman since his chief had forbidden the men to go to the Houses. He could see the wisdom in that: someone was evidently out after the band's hearts, and a House would be far too easy a place in which to set a trap. But this whore was alone but for her pimp, a thin beardless boy who did not even wear a sword, only paired daggers. She should be safe enough. Nor would he need to spend any of his stored coin, though he'd bring it to tempt her. When he'd had his fill of her, he'd teach her that it was better to give her wares to him.
She led him up the stairs to her room above the inn, watching with veiled amusement as he carefully bolted the door behind him. But when he began divesting himself of his weaponry and garments, she halted him, pinioning his arms gently from the rear and breathing enticingly on the back of his neck as she whispered in his ear.
'Time enough, and more, great warrior -- I am sure you have not the taste for common tumblings that are all you can find in this backward place." She slid around to the front of him, urging him down onto the room's single stool, a water-beaded cup in her hand. "Refresh yourself first, great lord. The vintage is of mine own bringing -- you shall not taste its like here-"
It was just Kethry's bad luck that he had been the official "taster" to a high lordling during his childhood of slavery. He sipped delicately out of habit, rather than gulping the wine down, and rolled the wine carefully on his tongue-and so detected in the cup what he should not have been able to sense.
"Bitch!" he roared, throwing the cup aside and seizing Kethry by the throat.
Kethry's panic-filled scream warned Tarma that the plan had gone awry. She wasted no time in battering at the door -- the man was no fool and would have bolted it behind him. It would take too long to break it down. Instead, she sprinted through the crowded inn and out the back through the kitchen. A second cry -- more like a strangled gurgle than a scream, which recalled certain things sharply to her and gave her strength born of rage and hatred -- fell into the stableyard from the open window of Kethry's room. Tarma swarmed up the stable door onto the roof of the building, and launched herself from there in through that window. Her entrance was as unexpected as it was precipitate.
Kethry slowly regained consciousness in her bed in the rented room. She hurt from top to toe -- her assailant had been almost artistic, if one counted the ability to evoke pain among the arts. Oddly enough, he hadn't raped her -- she would have expected that, been able to defend herself arcanely. He'd reacted to the poisoned drink instead by throwing her to the floor and bearing her with no mercy. She'd had no chance to defend herself with magic, and her sword had been left back at the brothel at Tarma's insistence.
Tarma was bathing and tending her hurts. One look at her stricken eyes, and any reproaches she might have uttered died on Kethry's tongue.
"It's all right," she said as gently as she could with swollen lips. "It wasn't your fault."
Tarma's eyes said that she thought otherwise, but she replied gruffly, "Looks like you need a keeper more than I do, lady-mage."
It hurt to smile, but Kethry managed. "Perhaps I do, at that."
Four evenings later, all but three of the bandits marched in force on the inn, determined to take revenge on the townsfolk for the acts of the invisible enemy in their midst. Halfway there, they were met by two women blocking their path. One was an amber-haired sorceress with a bruised face and a blackened eye. The other was a Shin'a'in swords-woman.
Only those two survived the confrontation. "We have no choice now," Kethry said grimly. "If we wait, they'll only be stronger-and I'm certain that sorcerer has been watching. They're warned, they know who and what we are."
"Good," Tarma replied. "Then let's bring the war to their doorstep. We've been doing things in secret long enough, and it's more than time that this thing was finished. Now. Tonight." Her eyes were no longer quite sane.
Kethry didn't like it but knew there was no other way. Gathering up her magics about her, and resting one hand on the comforting presence of he sword, she followed Tarma to the bandit stronghold.
The three remaining were waiting in the courtyard. At the forefront was the bandit-chief, a red-faced, shrewd-eyed bull of a man. To his right was his second in command, and Tarma's eyes narrowed as she recognized the necklace of amber claws he wore. He was as like to a bear as his leader was to a bull. To his left was the sorcerer, who gave a mocking bow in Kethry's direction.
Kethry did not return the bow, but launched an immediate magical attack. Something much like red lightning flew from her outstretched hands.
He parried it -- but not easily. His eyes widened in surprise; her lips thinned in satisfaction. They settled down to duel in deadly earnest. Colored lightnings and weird mists swirled about them, sometimes the edges of their shields could be seen, straining against the impact of the sorcerous bolts. Creatures out of insane nightmares formed themselves on his side, and flung themselves raging at the sorceress, before being attacked and destroyed by enormous eagles with wings of fire, or impossibly slim and delicate armored beings with no faces at their helm's openings, but only a light too bright to look upon.
Tarma meanwhile had flung herself at the leader with the war cry of her clan -- the shriek of an angry hawk. He parried her blade inches away from his throat, and answered with a cut that took part of her sleeve and bruised her arm beneath the mail. His companion swung at the same time; his sword did no more than graze her leg. She twisted to parry his second stroke, moving faster than either of them expected her to. She marked him as well, a cut bleeding freely over his eyes, but not before the leader gashed her where the chainmail shirt ended.
There was an explosion behind her; she dared not turn to look, but it sounded as though one of the two mages would spin spells no more.
She parried a slash from the leader only barely in time, and at the cost of a blow from her other opponent that did not penetrate her armor, but surely broke a rib. Either of these men was her equal; at this rate they'd wear her down and kill her soon -- and yet, it hardly mattered. This was the fitting end to the whole business, that the last of the Tale'sedrin should die with the killers of her Clan. For when they were gone, what else was there for her to do? A Shin'a'in Clanless was a Shin'a'in with no purpose in living. And no wish to live. Suddenly she found herself facing only one of them, the leader. The other was battling for his life against Kethry, who had appeared out of the mage-smokes and was wielding her sword with all the skill of one of Tarma's spirit-teachers.
Tarna had just enough thought to spare for a moment of amazement. Everyone knew sorcerers had no skill with a blade -- they had not the time to spare to learn such crafts.
Yet -- there was Kethry, cutting the man to ribbons. Tarma traded blows with her opponent; then saw her opening. To take advantage of it meant she must leave herself wide open, but she was far past caring. She struck -- her blade entered his throat in a clean thrust. Dying, he swung; his sword caving in her side. They fell together.
Grayness surrounded Tarma, a gray fog in which the light seemed to come from no particular direction, the grayness of a peculiarly restful quality. She found her hurts had vanished, and that she felt no particular need to move from where she was standing. Then a warm wind caressed her, the fog parted, and she found herself facing the first of her instructors.
"So --" he said, hands (empty, for a change, of weapons) on hips, a certain amusement in his eyes. "Past all expectation, you have brought down your enemies. Remarkable, Sworn One, the more remarkable as you had the sense to follow my advice."
"You came for me, then?" It was less a question than a statement.
"I, come for you?" He laughed heartily behind his veil. "Child, child, against all prediction you have not only won, but survived! No, I have come to tell you that your aid-time is over, though we shall continue to train you as we always have. From this moment, it is your actions alone that will put food in your mouth and coin in your purse. I would suggest you follow the path of the mercenary, as many another Sworn One has done when Clanless. And--" he began fading into the mist, "--remember that one can be Shin'a'in without being born into the Clans. All it requires is the oath of she'enedran."
"Wait!" she called after him -- but he was gone. There was the sound of birds singing, and an astringent, medicinal tang in the air. Tarma opened eyes brimming with amazement and felt gingerly at the bandages wrapping various limbs and her chest. Somehow, unbelievable as it was, she was still alive.
"It's about time you woke up." Kethry's voice came from nearby. "I was getting tired of spooning broth down your throat. You've probably noticed this isn't the House of Scarlet Joys. Madame wasn't the only one interested in getting rid of the bandits; the whole town hired me to dispose of them. My original intention was to frighten them away, but then you came along and ruined my plans! By the way, you happen to be lying in the best bed in the inn. I hope you appreciate the honor. You're quite a heroine now. These people have far more appreciation of good bladework than good magic."
Tarma slowly turned her head; Kethry was perched on the side of a second bed a few paces from hers and nearer the window. "Why did you save me?" she whispered hoarsely.
"Why did you want to die?" Kethry countered. Tarma's mouth opened, and the words spilled out. In the wake of this purging of her pain, came peace; not the numbing, false peace of the North Wind's icy armor, but the true peace Tarma had never hoped to feel. Before she had finished, they were clinging to each other and weeping together.
Kethry had said nothing -- but in her eyes Tarma recognized the same unbearable loneliness that she was facing. And she was moved by something outside herself to speak.
"My friend--" Tarma startled Kethry with the phrase; their eyes met, and Kethry saw that loneliness recognized like, "--we are both Clanless; would you swear bloodoath with me?"
"Yes!" Kethry's eager reply left nothing to be desired.
Without speaking further, Tarma cut a thin, curving line like a crescent moon in her left palm; she handed the knife to Kethry, who did likewise. Tarma raised her hand to Kethry, who met it, palm to palm--
Then came the unexpected; their joined hands flashed briefly, incandescently; too bright to look on. When their hands unjoined, there were silver scars where the cuts had been.
Tarma looked askance at her she'enedra -- her blood sister.
"Not of my doing," Kethry said, awe in her voice.
"The Goddess' then." Tarma was certain of it; with the certainty came the filling of the empty void within her left by the loss of her Clan.
"In that case, I think perhaps I should give you my last secret," Kethry replied, and pulled her sword from beneath her bed. "Hold out your hands."
Tarma obeyed, and Kethry laid the unsheathed sword across them.
"Watch the blade," she said, frowning in concentration.
Writing, as fine as any scribe's, flared redly along the length of it. To her amazement it was in her own tongue.
"If I were holding her, it would be in my language," Kethry said, answering Tarma's unspoken question. " 'Woman's Need calls me/As Woman's Need made me/Her Need must I answer/As my maker bade me.' My geas, the one I told you of when we first met. She's the reason I could help you after my magics were exhausted, because she works in a peculiar way. If you were to use her, she'd add nothing to your sword skill, but she'd protect you against almost any magics. But when I have her-"
"No magic aid, but you fight like a sand-demon," Tarma finished for her.
"But only if I am attacked first, or defending another. And last, her magic only works for women. A fellow journeyman found that out the hard way."
"And the price of her protection?"
"While I have her, I cannot leave any woman in trouble unaided. In fact, she's actually taken me miles out of my way to help someone." Kethry looked at the sword as fondly as if it were a living thing -- which, perhaps, it was. "It's been worth it -- she brought us together."
She paused, as though something had occurred to her. "I'm not sure how to ask this -- Tarma, now that we're she'enedran, do I have to be Swordsworn, too?" She looked troubled. "Because if it's all the same to you, I'd rather not. I have very healthy appetites that I'd rather not lose."
"Horned Moon, no!" Tarma chuckled, her facial muscles stretching in an unaccustomed smile. It felt good. "In fact, she'enedra, I'd rather you found a lover or two. You're all the Clan I have now, and my only hope of having more kin."
"Just a Shin'a'in brood mare, huh?" Kethry's infectious grin kept any sting out of the words.
"Hardly," Tarma replied, answering the smile with one of her own. "However, she'enedra, I am going to make sure you -- we -- get paid for jobs like these in good, solid coin, because that's something I think, by the look of you, you've been too lax about. After all, besides being horsebreeders, Shin'a'in have a long tradition of selling their swords -- or in your case, magics! And are we not partners by being bloodsisters?"
"True enough, oh, my keeper and partner," Kethry replied, laughing -- laughter in which Tarma joined. "Then mercenaries -- and the very best! -- we shall be."
This was the original story I sent Marion which was rejected; I later broke it into "Sword-sworn" and this one, and sold this one to Fantasy Book Magazine. It was my very first piece to appear in print!
The verses are also part of an original song published by Firebird Arts and Music of Portland, Oregon, which actually predated the story. Can I recycle, or what?
By the way, the song doesn't exactly match the story; that was because I had left the only copy I had of the song with the folks at Firebird and I couldn't remember who did what to whom. So, to cover the errors, I blamed them on the Bard Leslac, who began following the pair around to make songs about them-but kept getting the details wrong!
Miles from keep or hold,
A troupe of guards comes riding
With a lady and her gold.
Riding in the center,
Shrouded in her cloak of fur
Companioned by a maiden
And a toothless, aged cur."
"And every packtrain we've sent out since has just vanished without a trace-and without survivors," the merchant Grumio concluded. "And yet the decoy trains were allowed to reach their destinations unmolested."
In the silence that followed his words, he studied the odd pair of mercenaries before him, knowing they knew he was doing so. Neither of the two women seemed in any great hurry to reply to his speech, and the crackle of the fire behind him in this tiny private eating room sounded unnaturally loud in the absence of conversation. So, too, did the steady whisking of a whetstone on blade-edge, and the muted murmur of voices from the common room of the inn beyond their closed door.
The whetstone was being wielded by the swords-woman, Tarma by name, who was keeping to her self-appointed task with an indifference to Grumio's words that might-or might not-be feigned. She sat straddling her bench in a position that left him mostly with a view of her back and the back of her head, what little he might have been able to see of her face screened by her unruly shock of coarse black hair. He was just as glad of that; there was something about that expressionless, hawklike face with its ice-cold blue eyes that sent shivers up his spine.
The other partner cleared her throat, and gratefully he turned his attention to her. Now there was a face a man could easily rest his eyes on! She faced him squarely, this sorceress called Kethry, leaning on her folded arms that rested on the table between them. The light from the fire and the oil lamp on their table fell fully on her. A less canny man than Grumio might be tempted to dismiss her as being very much the inferior of the two; she was always soft of speech, her demeanor refined and gentle. She was sweet-faced and quite conventionally pretty, with hair like the finest amber and eyes of beryl-green, and it would have been easy to think of her as being the swordswoman's vapid tagalong. But as he'd spoken, Grumio had now and then caught a disquieting glimmer in those calm eyes-nor had he missed the fact that she, too, bore a sword, and one with the marks of frequent use and a caring hand on it. That in itself was an anomaly; most sorcerers never wore more than an eating knife. They simply hadn't the time- or the inclination-to attempt studying the art of the blade. To Grumio's eyes the sword looked very odd slung over the plain, buff-colored, calf-length robe of a wandering sorceress.
"I presume," Kethry said when he turned to face her, "that the road patrols have been unable to find your bandits."
She had been studying the merchant in turn; he interested her. There was muscle beneath the fat of good living, and old sword-calluses on his hands. Unless she was wildly mistaken, there was also a sharp mind beneath that balding skull. He knew they didn't come cheaply-it followed then that there was something more to this tale of banditry than he was telling. Certain signs seemed to confirm this; he looked as though he had not slept well of late, and there seemed to be a shadow of deeper sorrow upon him than the loss of mere goods would account for.
Grumio snorted his contempt for the road patrols. "They rode up and down for a few days, never venturing off the trade road, and naturally found nothing. Overdressed, overpaid, underworked arrogant idiots!"
Kethry toyed with a fruit left from their supper, and glanced up at the hound-faced merchant through long lashes that veiled her eyes and her thoughts.
Tarma answered right on cue. "Then guard your packtrains, merchant, if guards keep these vermin hidden." He started; her voice was as harsh as a raven's, and startled those not used to hearing it.
Grumio saw at once the negotiating ploy these two were minded to use with him. The swordswoman was to be the antagonizer, the sorceress the sympathizer. His respect for them rose another notch. Most freelance mercenaries hadn't the brains to count their pay, (much less use subtle bargaining tricks. Their reputation was plainly well-founded.
However he had no intention of falling for it. "Swordlady, to hire sufficient force requires we raise the price of goods above what people are willing to pay."
Odd -- there was a current of communication and understanding running between these two that had him thoroughly puzzled. He dismissed without a second thought the notion that they might be lovers- the signals between them were all wrong for that. No, it was something else, something that you wouldn't expect between a Shin'a'in swordswoman and an outClansman-
Tarma shook her head impatiently. "Then cease your interhouse rivalries, kadessa, and send all your trains together under a single large force."
Now she was trying to get him off-guard by insulting him, calling him after a little grasslands beast that only the Shin'a'in ever saw, a rodent so notoriously greedy that it would, given food enough, eat itself to death; and one that was known for hoarding anything and everything it came across in its nest-tunnels. He refused to allow the insult to distract him. "Respect, swordlady," he replied patiently, "but we tried that, too. The beasts of the train were driven off in the night, and the guards and traders were forced to return afoot. This is desert country, most of it, and all they dared burden themselves with was food and drink."
"Leaving the goods behind to be scavenged. Huh. Your bandits are clever, merchant," the swords-woman replied thoughtfully. Grumio thought he could sense her indifference lifting.
"You mentioned decoy trains-?" Kethry interjected.
"Yes, lady." Grumio's mind was still worrying away at the puzzle these two presented. "Only I and the men in the train knew which were the decoys and which were not, yet the bandits were never deceived, not once. We had taken extra care that all the men in the train were known to us, too."
A glint of gold on the smallest finger of Kethry's left hand gave him the clue he needed, and the crescent scar on the palm of that hand confirmed his surmise. He knew without looking the swords-woman would have an identical scar and ring. These two had sworn Shin'a'in bloodoath, the strongest bond known to that notoriously kin-conscious race. The bloodoath made them closer than sisters, closer than lovers-so close they sometimes would think as one.
"So who was it that passed judgement on your estimable guards?" Tarma's voice was heavy with sarcasm.
"I did, or my fellow merchants, or our own personal guards. No one was allowed on the trains but those who had served us in the past or were known to those who had."
Tarma held her blade up to catch the firelight and examined her work with a critical eye. Satisfied, she drove it home in the scabbard slung across her back with a fluid, unthinking grace, then swung one leg back over the bench to face him as her partner did. Grumio found the unflinching chill of her eyes disconcertingly hard to meet for long.
In an effort to find something else to look at, he found his gaze caught by the pendant she wore, a thin silver crescent surrounding a tiny amber flame. That gave him the last bit of information he needed to make everything fall into place-although now he realized that her plain brown clothing should have tipped him off as well, since most Shin'a'in favored garments heavy with bright embroideries. Tarma was a Sworn One, pledged to the service of the Shin'a'in Warrior, the Goddess of the New Moon and the South Wind. Only two things were of any import to her at all-her Goddess and her clan (which, of course, would include her "sister" by bloodoath). The Sworn Ones were just as sexless and deadly as the weapons they wore.
"So why come to us?" Tarma's expression indicated she thought their time was being wasted. "What makes you think that we can solve your bandit problem?"
"You -- have a certain reputation," he replied guardedly.
A single bark of contemptuous laughter was Tarma's reply.
"If you know our reputation, then you also know that we only take those jobs that-shall we say-interest us," Kethry said, looking wide-eyed and innocent. "What is there about your problem that could possibly be of any interest to us?"
Good-they were intrigued, at least a little. Now, for the sake of poor little Lena, was the time to hook them and bring them in. His eyes stung a little with tears he would not shed-not now-
"We have a custom, we small merchant houses. Our sons must remain with their fathers to learn the trade, and since there are seldom more than two or three houses in any town, there is little in the way of choice for them when it comes time for marriage. For that reason, we are given to exchanging daughters of the proper age with our trade allies in other towns, so that our young people can hopefully find mates to their liking." His voice almost broke at the memory of watching Lena waving good-bye from the back of her little mare-but he regained control quickly. It was a poor merchant that could not school his emotions. "There were no less than a dozen sheltered, gently-reared maidens in the very first pack-train they took. One of them was my niece. My only heir."
Kethry's breath hissed softly, and Tarma swallowed an oath.
"Your knowledge of what interests us is very accurate, merchant," Tarma said after a long pause. "I congratulate you."
"You -- you accept?" Discipline could not keep hope out of his voice.
"I pray you are not expecting us to rescue your lost ones," Kethry said as gently as she could. "Even supposing that the bandits were more interested in slaves to be sold than their own pleasure-which in
my experience is not likely-there is very, very little chance that any of them still live. The sheltered, the gentle, well, they do not survive-shock- successfully."
"When we knew they had not reached their goal, we sent agents to comb the slave markets. They returned empty-handed," he replied with as much stoicism as he could muster. "We will not ask the impossible of you; we knew when we sent for you there was no hope for them. No, we ask only that you wipe out this viper's den, to ensure that this can-never happen to us again-and that you grant us revenge for what they have done to us!"
His words -- and more, the tight control of his voice -- struck echoes from Tarma's own heart. And she did not need to see her partner to know her feelings in the matter.
"You will have that, merchant-lord," she grated, giving him the title of respect. "We accept your job- but there are conditions."
"Swordlady, any conditions you would set, I would gladly meet. Who am I to contest the judgement of those who destroyed Tha-"
"Hush!" Kethry interrupted him swiftly, and cast a wary glance over her shoulder. "The less that is said on that subject, the better. I am still not altogether certain that what you were about to name was truly destroyed. It may have been merely banished, and perhaps for no great span of time. If the second case is true, it is hardly wise to call attention to one's self by speaking Its name."
"Our conditions, merchant, are simple," Tarma continued unperturbed. "We will, to all appearances, leave on the morrow. You will tell all, including your fellow merchants, that you could not convince us. Tomorrow night, you-and you alone, mind-will bring us, at a meeting place of your choosing, a cart and horse ..." Now she raised an inquiring eyebrow at Kethry.
"And the kind of clothing and gear a lady of wealth and blood would be likely to have when traveling. The clothing should fit me. I will be weaving some complicated illusions, and anything I do not have to counterfeit will be of aid to me and make the rest stronger. You might include lots of empty bags and boxes," Kethry said thoughtfully.
Tarma continued: "The following morning a fine lady will ride in and order you to include her with your next packtrain. You, naturally, will do your best to dissuade her, as loudly and publicly as possible. Now your next scheduled trip was-?"
"Coincidentally enough, for the day after tomorrow." Grumio was impressed. These women were even cleverer than he'd thought.
"Good. The less time we lose, the better off we are. Remember, only you are to be aware that the lady and the packtrain are not exactly what they seem to be. If you say one word otherwise to anyone-"
The merchant found himself staring at the tip of a very sharp dagger a scant inch from his nose.
"-I will personally remove enough of your hide to make both of us slippers." The dagger disappeared from Tarma's hand as mysteriously as it had appeared.
Grumio had been startled, but had not been particularly intimidated; Tarma gave him high marks for that.
"I do not instruct the weaver in her trade," he replied with a certain dignity, "nor do I dictate the setting of a horseshoe to a smith. There is no reason why I should presume to instruct you in your trade either."
"Then you are a rare beast indeed, merchant." Tarma graced him with one of her infrequent smiles. "Most men-oh, not fellow mercenaries, they know better; but most men we deal with-seem to think they know our business better than we simply by virtue of their sex."
The smile softened her harsh expression, and made it less intimidating, and the merchant found himself smiling back. "You are not the only female hire-swords I have dealt with," he replied. "Many of my trade allies have them as personal retainers. It has often seemed to me that many of those I met have had to be twice as skilled as their male counterparts to receive half the credit."
"A hit, merchant-lord," Kethry acknowledged with open amusement. "And a shrewd one at that. Now, where are we to meet you tomorrow night?"
Grumio paused to think. "I have a farmstead- deserted now that the harvest is in-which is at the first lane past the crossroad at the south edge of town. No one would think it odd for me to pay a visit to it, and the barn is a good place to hide horses and gear."
"Well enough," Tarma replied. All three rose as one-Grumio caught the faint clink of brigandine mail from Tarma's direction, though there was no outward sign that she wore any such thing beneath her worn leather tunic, brown shirt, and darker breeches.
"Merchant-" Tarma said suddenly.
He paused halfway through the door.
"I, too, have known loss. You will have your revenge." He shivered at the look in her eyes, and left.
"Well?" Tarma asked, shutting the door behind him and leaning her back up against it.
"Magic's afoot here. It's the only answer to what's been going on. I don't think it's easy to deceive this merchant-he caught on to our 'divide and conquer' trick right away. He's no soft money-counter either."
"I saw the sword-calluses." Tarma balanced herself on one foot and folded her arms. "Did he tell us all he knew?"
"I think so. I don't think he held anything back after he played his high card."
"The niece? He also didn't want us to know how much he valued her. Damn. This is a bad piece of business."
"He'd rather we thought the loss of goods and trade meant more to him," Kethry replied. "They're a secretive lot in many ways, these traders."
"Almost as secretive as sorceresses, no?" One corner of Tarma's thin lips quirked up in a half-smile. The smile vanished as she thought of something else.
"Is there any chance that any of the women survived?"
"Not to put too fine a point upon it, no. This-" Kethry patted the hilt of her sword, "-would have told me if any of them had. The pull is there, but without the urgency there'd be if there was anyone needing rescue. Still, we need more information, so I might as well add that to the set of questions I intend to ask."
Concern flickered briefly in Tarma's eyes. "An unprepared summoning? Are you sure you want to risk it? If nothing else, it will wear you down, and you have all those illusions to cast."
"I think it's worth it. There aren't that many hostile entities to guard against in this area, and I'll have all night to rest afterward-most of tomorrow as well, once we reach that farmstead."
"You're the magic-worker." Tarma sighed. "Since we've hired this room for the whole evening, want to make use of it? It's bigger than our sleeping room."
At Kethry's nod, Tarma pushed the table into a corner, stacking the benches on top of it, while Kethry set the oil lamp on the mantelpiece. Most of the floor space was now cleared.
"I'll keep watch on the door." Tarma sat on the floor with her back firmly braced against it. Since it opened inward, the entrance was now solidly guarded against all but the most stubborn of intruders.
Kethry inscribed a circle on the floor with powders from her belt-pouch, chanting under her breath. She used no dramatic or spectacular ceremonies, for she had learned her art in a gentler school than the other sorcerers Tarma had seen. Her powers came from the voluntary cooperation of other-planar entities, and she never coerced them into doing her bidding.
There were advantages and disadvantages to this. She need not safeguard herself against the deceptions and treacheries of these creatures-but the cost to her in terms of her own energies expended was correspondingly higher. This was particularly true at times when she had no chance to prepare herself for a summoning. It took a great deal of power to attract a being of benign intent-particularly one that did not know her-and more to convince it that her intent
was good. Hence, the circle-meant not to protect her, but to protect what she would call, so that it would know itself unthreatened.
As she seated herself within the circle, Tarma shifted her own position until she, too, was quite comfortable. Then she removed one of her hidden daggers and began honing it with her sharpening-stone.
Kethry had removed her sword and placed it outside the circle-something she did only when working summonings. Tarma regarded the blade, as it lay between her and her bloodsister, with a thoughtful eye.
Kethry's sword was no ordinary blade-it held a powerful and strange magic. "Need" was the name of the blade, and it bound its bearer to the aid of other women. To a fighter, it granted near immunity to any magics. To a magician, it conferred expertise in the wielding of it, but only to defend herself or another woman. Herself--for only a woman could use it. It had other properties as well, such as being able to speed healing or hold off death for a limited time, but those were the main gifts the blade bestowed.
Tarma wondered how many of those arcane gifts they'd be using this time.
There was a stirring in the circle Kethry had inscribed, and Tarma pulled her attention back to the present. Something was beginning to form mistily in front of the seated sorceress.
The mist began to form into a miniature whirlpool, coalescing into a figure as it did so. As it solidified, Tarma could see what seemed to be a jewel-bright desert lizard, but one that stood erect, like a man. It was as tall as a man's arm is long, and had a cranium far larger than any lizard Tarma had ever seen. Firelight winked from its scales in bands of shining colors, topaz and ruby predominating. It was regarding Kethry with intelligence and wary curiosity.
"Sa-asartha, n'hellan?" it said, tilting its head to one side and fidgeting from one foot to the other. Its voice was shrill, like that of a very young child.
"Vede, sa-asarth," Kethry replied in the same tongue.
The little creature relaxed and stopped fretting. It appeared to be quite eager to answer all of Kethry's questions. Now that the initial effort of calling it was done with, she had no trouble in obtaining all the information she wanted. Finally she gave the little creature the fruit she'd been toying with after supper. It snatched the gift greedily, trilled what Tarma presumed to be thanks, and vanished into mist again.
Kethry rose stiffly and began to scuff the circle into random piles of dirt with the toe of her boot. "It's about what I expected," she said. "Someone-someone with 'a smell of magic about him' according to the khamsin-has organized what used to be several small bands of marauders into one large one of rather formidable proportions. They have no set camp, so we can't arrange for the camp to be attacked while they're ambushing us, I'm sorry to say. They have no favored ambush point, so we won't know when to expect them. And none of the women-girls, really- survived for more than a day."
"Damn." Tarma's eyes were shadowed. "Well, we didn't really expect anything different."
"No, but you know damn well we both hoped." Kethry's voice was rough with weariness. "It's up to you now, she'enedra. You're the tactician."
"Then as the tactician, I counsel rest for you." Tarma caught Kethry's shoulders to steady her as she stumbled a little from fatigue. The reaction to spell-casting was setting in fast now. Kethry had once described summoning as being "like balancing on a rooftree while screaming an epic poem in a foreign language at the top of your lungs." Small wonder she was exhausted afterward.
The sorceress leaned on Tarma's supporting shoulder with silent gratitude as her partner guided her up the stairs to their rented sleeping room.
"It's us, Warrl," Tarma called softly at the door. A muted growl answered her, and they could hear the sound of the bolt being shoved back. Tarma pushed the door open with one foot, and picked up one of the unlit tallow candles that waited on a shelf just inside with her free hand. She lit it at the one in the bracket outside their door, and the light from it fell on the head and shoulders of a huge black wolf. He stood, tongue lolling out in a lupine grin, just inside the room. His shoulders were on a level with Tarma's waist. He sniffed inquisitively at them, making a questioning whine deep in his throat.
"Yes, we took the job-that's our employer you smell, so don't mangle him when he shows up tomorrow night. And Kethry's been summoning, of course, so as usual she's half dead. Close the door behind us while I put her to bed."
By now Kethry was nearly asleep on her feet; after some summonings Tarma had seen her pass into unconsciousness while still walking. Tarma undressed her with the gentle and practiced hands of a nursemaid and got her safely into bed before she had the chance to fall over. The wolf, meanwhile, had butted the door shut with his head and pushed the bolt home with his nose. "Any trouble?" Tarma asked him. He snorted with derision.
"Well, I didn't really expect any either. This is the quietest inn I've been in for a long time. The job is bandits, hairy one, and we're all going to have to go disguised. That includes you." He whined in protest, ears down. "I know you don't like it, but there's no choice. There isn't enough cover along the road to hide a bird, and I want you close at hand, within a few feet of us'at all times, not wandering out in the desert somewhere."
The wolf sighed heavily, padded over to her, and laid his heavy head in her lap to be scratched.
"I know. I know," she said, obliging him. "I don't like it any more than you do. Just be grateful that all we'll be wearing is illusions, even if they do make the backs of our eyes itch. Poor Kethry's going to have to ride muffled head-to-toe like a fine lady." Warrl obviously didn't care about poor Kethry. "You're being very unfair to her, you know. And you're supposed to have been her familiar, not mine." She and Kethry had gone deep into the Pelagir Hills, the site of ancient magical wars, and a place where traces of old magic had changed many of the animals living there into something more than dumb creatures. Kethry had intended to attract a familiar, and she'd done everything perfectly, had gone through a day and a night of complicated spellcast-ing-only to have Warrl appear, then choose Tarma instead. "You're a magic beast; born out of magic. You belong with a spell-caster, not some clod with a sword."
Warrl was not impressed with Tarma's logic.
:She doesn't need me,: he spoke mind-to-mind with the swordswoman. :She has the spirit-sword. You need me.: And that, so far as Warrl was concerned, was that.
"Well, I'm not going to argue with you. I never argue with anyone with as many sharp teeth as you've got. Maybe being Swordsworn counts as being magic."
She pushed Warrl's head off her lap and went to open the shutters to the room's one window. Moonlight flooded the room; she seated herself on the floor where it would fall on her, just as she did every night when there was a moon and she wasn't ill or injured. Since they were within the walls of a town and not camped, she would not train this night-but the Moonpaths were there, as always, waiting to be walked. She closed her eyes and found them. Walking them was, as she'd often told Kethry, impossible to describe.
When she returned to her body, Warrl was lying patiently at her back, waiting for her. She ruffled his fur with a grin, stood, stretched stiffened muscles, then stripped to a shift and climbed in beside Kethry. Warrl sighed with gratitude and took his usual spot at her feet.
"Three things see no end- A flower blighted ere it bloomed, A message that was wasted And a journey that was doomed."
The two mercenaries rode out of town in the morning, obviously eager to be gone. Grumio watched them leave, gazing sadly at the cloud of dust they raised, his houndlike face clearly displaying his disappointment. His fellow merchants were equally disappointed when he told them of his failure to persuade them; they had all hoped the women would have solved their problem.
After sundown Grumio took a cart and horse out to his farmstead, a saddled riding beast tied to the rear of it. After making certain that no one had followed him, he drove directly into the bam, then peered around in the hay-scented gloom. A fear crossed his mind that the women had tricked him and had truly left that morning.
"Don't fret yourself, merchant," said a gravelly voice just above his head. He jumped, his heart racing. "We're here."
A vague figure swung down from the loft; when it came close enough for him to make out features, he started at the sight of a buxom blonde wearing the swordswoman's clothing.
She grinned at his reaction. "Which one am I? She didn't tell me. Blonde?"
He nodded, amazed.
"Malebait again. Good choice, no one would ever think I knew what a blade was for. You don't want to see my partner." The voice was still in Tarma's gravelly tones; Grumio assumed that that was only so he'd recognize her. "We don't want you to have to strain your acting ability tomorrow. Did you bring everything we asked for?"
"It's all here," he replied, still not believing what his eyes were telling him. "I weighted the boxes with sand and stones so that they won't seem empty."
"You've got a good head on you, merchant." Tarma saluted him as she unharnessed the horse. "That's something I didn't think of. Best you leave now, though, before somebody comes looking for you."
He jumped down off the wagon, taking the reins of his riding beast.
"And merchant-" she called as he rode off into the night, "-wish us luck."
That was one thing she didn't have to ask for.
He didn't have to act the next morning, when the delicate and aristocratically frail lady of obvious noble birth accosted him in his shop, and ordered him (although it was framed as a request) to include her in his packtrain. in point of fact, had he not recognized the dress and fur cloak she was wearing, he would have taken her for a real aristo-one who, by some impossible coincidence, had taken the same notion into her head that the swordswoman had proposed as a ruse. This sylphlike, sleepy-eyed creature with her elaborately coiffed hair of platinum silk bore no resemblance at all to the very vibrant and earthy sorceress he'd hired.
And though he was partially prepared by having seen her briefly the night before, Tarma (posing as milady's maid) still gave him a shock. He saw why she called the disguise "malebait"-this amply-endowed blonde was a walking invitation to impropriety, and nothing like the sexless Sworn One. All that remained of "Tarma" were the blue eyes, one of which winked cheerfully at him, to bring him out of his shock.
Grumio argued vehemently with the highborn dame for the better part of an hour, and all to no avail. Undaunted, he carried his expostulations out into the street, still trying to persuade her to change her mind even as the packtrain formed up in front of his shop. The entire town was privy to the argument by that time.
"Lady, I beg you-reconsider!" he was saying anxiously. "Wait for the King's Patrol. They have promised to return soon and in force, since the bandits have not ceased raiding us, and I'm morally certain they'll be willing to escort you."
"My thanks for your concern, merchant," she replied with a gentle and bored haughtiness, "but I fear my business cannot wait on their return. Besides, what is there about me that could possibly tempt a bandit?"
Those whose ears were stretched to catch this conversation could easily sympathize with Grumio's silent-but obvious-plea to the gods for patience, as they noted the lady's jewels, fine garments, the weight of the cart holding her possessions, and the well-bred mares she and her maid rode.
The lady turned away from him before he could continue; a clear gesture of dismissal, so he held his tongue. In stony silence he watched the train form up, with the lady and her maid in the center. Since they had no driver for the cart-though he'd offered to supply one-the lead-rein of the carthorse had been fastened to the rear packhorse's harness. Surmounting the chests and boxes in the cart was a toothless old dog, apparently supposed to be guarding her possessions and plainly incapable of guarding anything anymore. The leader of the train's six guards took his final instructions from his master, and the train lurched off down the trade road. As Grumio watched them disappear into the distance, he could be seen to shake his head in disapproval.
Had anyone been watching very closely-though no one was-they might have noticed the lady's fingers moving in a complicated pattern. Had there been any mages present-which wasn't the case- said mage might have recognized the pattern as belonging to the Spell of True Sight. If illusion was involved, it would not be blinding Kethry.
Has a shifting, restless eye
And as they ride, he scans the hills
That rise against the sky.
He wears a sword and bracelet
Worth more than he can afford
And hidden in his baggage
Is a heavy, secret hoard."
One of the guards was contemplating the lady's assets with a glee and greed that equaled his master's dismay. His expression, carefully controlled, seemed to be remote and impassive-only his rapidly shifting gaze and the nervous flicker of his tongue over dry lips gave any clue to his thoughts. Behind those remote eyes, a treacherous mind was making a careful inventory of every jewel and visible possession and calculating their probable values.
When the lady's skirt lifted briefly to display a tantalizing glimpse of white leg, his control broke enough that he bit his lip. She was one prize he intended to reserve for himself; he'd never been this close to a highborn woman before, and he intended to find out if certain things he'd heard about bedding them were true. The others were going to have to be content with the ample charms of the serving maid, at least until he'd tired of the mistress. At least there wouldn't be all that caterwauling and screeching there'd been with the merchant wenches. That maid looked as if she'd had a man twixt her legs plenty of times before, and enjoyed it, too. She'd probably thank him for livening up her life when he turned her over to the men!
He had thought at first that this was going to be another trap, especially after he'd heard that old Grumio had tried to hire a pair of highly-touted mercenary women to rid him of the bandits. One look at the lady and her maid, however, had convinced him that not only was it absurd to think that they could be wary hire-swords in disguise, but that they probably didn't even know which end of a blade to hold. The wench flirted and teased each of the men in turn. Her mind was obviously on something other than ambushes and weaponry-unless those ambushes were amorous, and the weaponry of flesh. The lady herself seemed to ride in a half-aware dream, and her maid often had to break off a flirtation in order to ride forward and steady her in the saddle.
Perhaps she was a fran-dust sniffer, or there was faldis-)uice mixed in with the water in the skin on her saddlebow. That would be an unexpected bonus- she was bound to have a good supply of it among her belongings, and drugs were worth more than jewels. And it would be distinctly interesting-his eyes glinted cruelly-to have her begging on her knees for her drugs as withdrawal set in. Assuming, of course, that she survived that long. He passed his tongue over lips gone dry with anticipation. Tomorrow he would give the scouts trailing the packtrain the signal to attack.
Of a feather on a cat,
The shepherd eating mutton,
And the guardsman that is fat."
The lady and her companion made camp a discreet distance from the rest of the caravan, as was only to be expected. She would hardly have a taste for sharing their rough camp, rude talk, or coarse food.
Kethry's shoulders sagged with fatigue beneath the weight of her heavy cloak, and she was chilled to the bone in spite of its fur lining.
"Are you all right?" Tarma whispered sharply when she hadn't spoken for several minutes.
"Just tired. I never thought that holding up five illusions would be so hard. Three aren't half so difficult to keep intact." She leaned her forehead on one hand, rubbing her temples with cold fingers. "I wish it was over."
Tarma pressed a bowl into her other hand. Dutifully, she tried to eat, but the sand and dust that had plagued their progress all day had crept into the food as well. It was too dry and gritty to swallow easily, and after one attempt, Kethry felt too weary to make any further effort. She laid the bowl aside, unobtrusively-or so she hoped.
Faint hope. "Sweeting, if you don't eat by yourself, I'm going to pry your mouth open and pour your dinner down your throat." Tarma's expression was cloyingly sweet, and the tone of her shifted voice dulcet. Kethry was roused enough to smile a little. When she was this wearied with the exercise of her magics, she had to be bullied into caring for herself. When she'd been on her own, she'd sometimes had to spend days recovering from the damages she'd inflicted on her body by neglecting it. It was at moments like this that she valued Tarma's untiring affection and aid the most.
"What, and ruin our disguises?" she retorted with a little more life.
"There's nothing at all out of the ordinary in an attentive maid helping her poor, sick mistress to eat. They already think there's something wrong with you. Half of them think you're ill, the other half think you're in a drug daze," Tarma replied."They all think you've got nothing between your ears but air."
Kethry capitulated, picked up her dinner, and forced it down, grit and all.
"Now," Tarma said, when they'd both finished eating, "I know you've sported a suspect. I can tell by the way you're watching the guards. Tell me which one it is; I'd be very interested to see if it's the same one I've got my eye on."
"It's the one with the mouse-brown hair and ratty face that rode tail-guard this morning."
Tarma's eyes widened a little, but she gave no other sign of surprise. "Did you say brown hair? And a ratty face? Tail-guard this morning had black hair and a pouty, babyish look to him."
Kethry revived a bit more. "Really? Are you talking about the one walking between us and their fire right now? The one with all the jewelry? And does he seem to be someone you know very vaguely?"
"Yes. One of the hire-swords with the horse traders my clan used to deal with-I think his name was Tedric. Why?"
Kethry unbuckled a small ornamental dagger from her belt and passed it to Kethry with exaggerated care. Tarma claimed it with the same caution-caution that was quite justified, since the "dagger" was in reality Kethry's sword Need, no matter what shape it wore at the moment. Beneath the illusion, it still retained its original mass and weight.
"Now look at him."
Tarma cast a surreptitious glance at the guard again, and her lips tightened. Even when it was done by magic, she didn't like being tricked. "Mouse-brown hair and a ratty face," she said. "He changed." She returned the blade to Kethry.
"And now?" Kethry asked, when Need was safely back on her belt.
"Now that's odd," Tarma said thoughtfully. "If he were using an illusion, he should have gone back to the way he looked before, but he didn't. He's still mousy and ratty, but my eyes feel funny-like something's pulling at them-and he's blurred a bit around the edges. It's almost as if his face was trying to look different from what I'm seeing."
"Mind-magic," Kethry said with satisfaction. "So that's why I wasn't able to detect any spells! It's not a true illusion like I'm holding on us. They practice mind-magic a lot more up north, and I'm only marginally familiar with the way it works since it doesn't operate quite like what I've learned. If what I've been told is true, his mind is telling your mind that you know him, and letting your memory supply an acceptable face. He could very well look like a different person to everyone in the caravan, but since he always looks familiar, any of them would be willing to vouch for him."
"Which is how he keeps sneaking into the pack-trains. He looks different each time, since no one is likely to 'see' a man they know is dead. Very clever. You say this isn't a spell?"
"Mind-magic depends on inborn abilities to work; if you haven't got them, you can't leam it. It's unlike my magic, where it's useful to have the Gift, but not necessary. Was he the same one you were watching?"
"He is, indeed. So your True Sight spell works on this 'mind-magic,' too?"
"Yes, thank the gods. What tipped you off to him?"
"Nothing terribly obvious, just a lot of little things that weren't quite right for the ordinary guard he's pretending to be. His sword is a shade too expensive. His horse has been badly misused, but he's got very good lines; he's of much better breeding than a common guard should own. And lastly, he's wearing jewelry he can't afford."
Kethry looked puzzled. "Several of the other guards are wearing just as much. I thought most hire-swords wore their savings."
"So they do. Thing is, of the others, the only ones with as much or more are either the guard-chief, or ones wearing mostly brass and glass; showy, meant to impress village tarts, but worthless. His is all real, and the quality is high. Too damned high for the likes of him."
"Now that we know who to watch, what do we do?"
"We wait," Tarma replied with a certain grim satisfaction. "He'll have to signal the rest of his troupe to attack us sooner or later, and one of us should be able to spot him at it. With luck and the Warrior on our side, we'll have enough warning to be ready for them."
"I hope it's sooner." Kethry sipped at the well-watered wine which was all she'd allow herself when holding spells in place. Her eyes were heavy, dry, and sore. "I'm not sure how much longer I can hold up my end."
"Then go to sleep, dearling." Tarma's voice held an unusual gentleness, a gentleness only Kethry, Warrl, and small children ever saw. "Furface and I can take turns on nightwatch; you needn't take a turn at all."
Kethry did not need further urging, but wrapped herself up in her cloak and a blanket, pillowed her head on her arm, and fell asleep with the suddenness of a tired puppy. The illusions she'd woven would remain intact even while she slept. Only three things could cause them to fail. They'd break if she broke them herself, if the pressure of spells from a greater sorcerer than she were brought to bear on them, or if she died. Her training had been arduous and quite thorough; as complete in its way as Tarma's sword training had been.
Seeing her shiver in her sleep, Tarma built up the fire with a bit more dried dung (the leavings of previous caravans were all the fuel to be found out here) and covered her with the rest of the spare blankets. The illusions were draining energy from Kethry;
Tarma knew she'd be quite comfortable with one blanket and her cloak, and if that didn't suffice, Warrl made an excellent "bedwarmer." The night passed uneventfully.
Morning saw them riding deeper into the stony hills that ringed the desert basin they'd spent the day before passing through. The road was considerably less dusty now, but the air held more of a chill. Both Tarma and Kethry tried to keep an eye on their suspect guard, and shortly before noon their vigilance was rewarded. Both of them saw him flashing the sunlight off his armband in what could only be a deliberate series of signals.
"From ambush, bandits screaming Charge the packtrain and its prize, And all but four within the train Are taken by surprise, And all but four are cut down Like a woodsman fells a log, The guardsman, and the lady, And the maiden, and the dog. Three things know a secret- First; the lady in a dream; The dog that barks no warning And the maid that does not scream."
Even with advance warning, they hadn't much time to ready themselves.
Bandits charged the packtrain from both sides of the road, screaming at the tops of their lungs. The guards were taken completely by surprise. The three apprentice traders accompanying the train flung themselves down on their faces as their master
Grumio had ordered them to do in hopes that they'd be overlooked. To the bandit-master at the rear of the train, it seemed that once again all had gone completely according to plan. Until Kethry broke her illusions.
In armor she is clad,
Her sword is out and ready
And her eyes are fierce and glad.
The maiden gestures briefly,
And the dog's a cur no more.
A wolf, sword-maid, and sorceress
Now face the bandit corps.
Three things never anger,
Or you will not live for long-
A wolf with cubs, a man with power,
And a woman's sense of wrong."
The brigands at the forefront of the pack found themselves facing something they hadn't remotely expected. Gone were the helpless, frightened women on high-bred steeds too fearful to run. In their place sat a pair of well-armed, grim-faced mercenaries on schooled warbeasts. With them was an oversized and very hungry-looking wolf.
The pack of bandits milled, brought to a halt by this unexpected development.
Finally one of the bigger ones growled a challenge at Tarma, who only grinned evilly at him. Kethry saluted them mockingly-and the pair moved into action explosively.
They split up and charged the marauders, giving them no time to adjust to the altered situation. The bandits had hardly expected the fight to be carried to them, and reacted too late to stop them. Their momentum carried them through the pack and up onto the hillsides on either side of the road. Now they had the high ground.
Kethry had drawn Need, whose magic was enabling her to keep herself intact long enough to find a massive boulder to put her back against. The long odds were actually favoring the two of them for the moment, since the bandits were mostly succeeding only in getting in each other's way. Obviously they had not been trained to fight together, and had done well so far largely because of the surprise with which they'd attacked and their sheer numbers. Once Kethry had gained her chosen spot, she slid off her horse, and sent it off with a slap to its rump. The mottled, huge-headed beast was as ugly as a piece of rough granite, and twice as tough, but she was a Shin'a'in-bred-and-trained warsteed, and worth the weight in silver of the high-bred mare she'd been spelled to resemble. Now that Kethry was on the ground, she'd attack anything whose scent she didn't recognize-and quite probably kill it.
Warrl came to her side long enough to give her the time she needed to transfer her sword to her left hand and begin calling up her more arcane offensive weaponry.
In the meantime, Tarma was in her element, cutting a bloody swath through the bandit horde with a fiercely joyous gleam in her eyes. She clenched her mare's belly with viselike legs; only one trained in Shin'a'in-style horse-warfare from childhood could possibly have stayed with the beast. The mare was laying all about her with iron-shod hooves and enor-
mous yellow teeth; neither animal nor man was likely to escape her once she'd targeted him. She had an uncanny sense for anyone trying to get to her rider by disabling her; once she twisted and bucked like a cat on hot metal to simultaneously crush the bandit in front of her while kicking in the teeth of the one that had thought to hamstring her from the rear. She accounted for at least as many of the bandits as Tarma did.
Tarma saw Kethry's mare rear and slash out of the corner of her eye; the saddle was empty, but she wasn't worried. The bond of she'enedran made them bound by spirit, and she'd have known if anything was wrong. Since the mare was fighting on her own, Kethry must have found someplace high enough to see over the heads of those around her.
As if to confirm this, things like ball-lightning began appearing and exploding, knocking bandits from their horses, clouds of red mist began to wreathe the heads of others (who clutched their throats and turned interesting colors), and oddly formed creatures joined Warrl at harrying and biting at those on foot.
When that began, especially after one spectacular fireball left a pile of smoking ash in place of the bandit's second-in-command, it was more than the remainder of the band could stand up to. Their easy prey had horned into Hellspawn, and there was nothing that could make them stay to face anything more. The ones that were still mounted turned their horses out of the melee and fled for their lives. Tarma and the three surviving guards took care of the rest.
As for the bandit chief, who had sat his horse in stupefied amazement from the moment the fight turned against them, he suddenly realized his own peril and tried to escape with the rest. Kethry, however, had never once forgotten him. Her bolt of power-intended this time to stun, not kill-took him squarely in the back of the head.
"The bandits growl a challenge, But the lady only grins. The sorceress bows mockingly, And then the fight begins. When it ends, there are but four Left standing from that horde- The witch, the wolf, the traitor, And the woman with the sword. Three things never trust in- The maiden sworn as pure, The vows a king has given And the ambush that is 'sure.' "
By late afternoon the heads of the bandits had been piled in a grisly cairn by the side of the road as a mute reminder to their fellows of the eventual reward of banditry. Their bodies had been dragged off into the hills for the scavengers to quarrel over. Tarma had supervised the cleanup, the three apprentices serving as her work force. There had been a good deal of stomach purging on their part at first- especially after the way Tarma had casually lopped off the heads of the dead or wounded bandits-but they'd obeyed her without question. Tarma had had to hide her snickering behind her hand, for they looked at her whenever she gave them a command as though they feared that their heads might well adorn the cairn if they lagged or slacked.
She herself had seen to the wounds of the surviving guards, and the burial of the two dead ones.
One of the guards could still ride; the other two were loaded into the now-useless cart after the empty boxes had been thrown out of it. Tarma ordered the whole caravan back to town; she and Kethry planned to catch up with them later, after some unfinished business had been taken care of.
Part of that unfinished business was the filling and marking of the dead guards' graves.
Kethry brought her a rag to wipe her hands with when she'd finished. "Damn. I wish- Hellspawn, they were just honest hire-swords," she said, looking at the stone cairns she'd built with remote regret. "It wasn't their fault we didn't have a chance to warn them. Maybe they shouldn't have let themselves be surprised like that, not with what's been happening to the packtrains lately-but still, your life's a pretty heavy price to pay for a little carelessness...."
Kethry, her energy back to normal now that she was no longer being drained by her illusions, slipped a sympathetic arm around Tarma's shoulders. "Come on, she'enedra. I want to show you something that might make you feel a little better."
When Tarma had gone to direct the cleanup, Kethry had been engaged in stripping the bandit chief down to his skin and readying his unconscious body for some sort of involved sorcery. Tarma knew she'd had some sort of specific punishment in mind from the time she'd heard about the stolen girls, but she'd had no idea of what it was.
And they've whipped him on his way
into the barren hillsides,
Like the folk he used to slay.
They take a thorough vengeance
For the women he's cut down,
And then they mount their horses
And they journey back to town.
Three things trust and cherish well-
The horse on which you ride,
The beast that guards and watches
And your shield-mate at your side!"
Now before her was a bizarre sight. Tied to the back of one of the bandit's abandoned horses was- apparently-the unconscious body of the high-bom lady Kethry had spelled herself to resemble. She was clad only in a few rags, and had a bruise on one temple, but otherwise looked to be unharmed.
Tarma circled the tableau slowly. There was no flaw in the illusion-if indeed it was an illusion.
"Unbelievable," she said at last. "That is him, isn't it?"
"Oh, yes, indeed. One of my best pieces of work."
"Will it hold without you around to maintain it?"
"It'll hold, all right," Kethry replied with deep satisfaction. "That's part of the beauty and the justice of the thing. The illusion is irretrievably melded with his own mind-magic. He'll never be able to break it himself, and no reputable sorcerer will break it for him. And I promise you, the only sorcerers for weeks in any direction are quite reputable."
"Why wouldn't he be able to get one to break it for him?"
"Because I've signed it." Kethry made a small gesture, and two symbols appeared for a moment above
the bandit's head. One was the symbol Tarma knew to be Kethry's sigil, the other was the glyph for "Justice."
"Any attempt to probe the spell will make those appear. I doubt that anyone will ignore the judgment sign, and even if they were inclined to, I think my reputation is good enough to make most sorcerers think twice about undoing what I've done."
"You really didn't change him, did you?" Tarma asked, a horrible thought occurring to her. "I mean, if he's really a woman now-"
"Bright Lady, what an awful paradox we'd have!" Kethry laughed, easing Tarma's mind considerably. "We punish him for what he's done to women by turning him into a woman-but as a woman, we'd now be honor-bound to protect him! No, don't worry. Under the illusion-and it's a very complete illusion, by the way, it extends to all senses-he's still quite male."
She gave the horse's rump a whack, breaking the light enchantment that had held it quiet, and it bucked a little, scrabbling off into the barren hills.
"The last of the band went that way," she said, pointing after the beast, "And the horse he's on will follow their scent back to where they've made their camp. Of course, none of his former followers will have any notion that he's anything other than what he appears to be."
A wicked smile crept across Tarma's face. It matched the one already curving Kethry's lips.
"I wish I could be there when he arrives," Tarma said with a note of viciousness in her harsh voice. "It's bound to be interesting."
"He'll certainly get exactly what he deserves." Kethry watched the horse vanish over the crest of
the hill. "I wonder how he'll like being on the receiving end?"
"I know somebody who will like this-and I can't wait to see his face when you tell him."
"You know-" Kethry replied thoughtfully, "-this was almost worth doing for free."
"She'enedra!" Tarma exclaimed in mock horror. "Your misplaced honor will have us starving yet! We're supposed to be mercenaries!"
"I said almost." Kethry joined in her partner's gravelly laughter. "Come on. We've got pay to collect. You know-this just might end up as some bard's song."
"It might at that," Tarma chuckled. "And what will you bet me that he gets the tale all wrong?"
THE MAKING OF A LEGEND
Speaking of Leslac, here he is, in his debut, making life miserable for the ladies. It's kind of interesting that the more I write about Tarma and Kethry, the more often there's humor in the stories. The first one was rather grim, but they've gradually lightened up.
By the way, if you've noticed that the ladies often swtich horses, it's not a mistake. As explained in By the Sword, since they are partners, the battlesteeds are trained to accept either rider, so they often switch off just to keep the mares in training, just as one can have a guard dog that accepts more than one handler, but eats anyone who isn't a designated handler. It would be a real problem if Tarma happened to need a horse that was all the way across a battlefield, and Kethry's happened to be right at hand but wouldn't let her mount....
Brown-gray and green-brown landscape, and a coating of dust all over everything, a haze of dust in the air, a cloud of dust hanging behind them where Tarma and Kethry's tired mares had kicked it up. Fields, farmholdings, trees. More fields, more farmholdings, more trees. Not wild trees either; trees tamed, planted in neat little orchards or windbreaks, as orderly and homebound as the farmers who husbanded them. A tidy land this; carefully ruled. No calling here for outland mercenaries.
All the more reason to get through it as fast as Hellsbane and Ironheart could manage.
On the other hand, the White Winds sorceress Kethry reflected, there was no use in night-long riding when they were in civilized lands. No telling when they might see a real bed once they got into territory that did need their spells and swords.
Kethry wiped her forehead with her sleeve, adjusted the geas-blade Need on her back, and blinked the road dust out of her sore eyes. The sun sat on the horizon like a fat red tomato, seemingly as complacent as the farmers it shone down on. "How far to the next town?" she asked over the dull clopping of hooves on flint-hard earth.
"Huh?" Her companion, the Shin'a'in Swordsworn Tarma, started up out of a doze, blinking sleepy, ice-blue eyes. Her granite-gray mare snorted and sneezed as the thin swordswoman jerked alert.
"I asked you how far it was to the next town," Kethry repeated, raking sweat-damp amber hair with her fingers, trying to get it tucked behind her ears. In high-summer heat like this, she envied Tarma's chosen arrangement of tiny, tight-bound braids. It may not have been cooler, but it looked cooler. And Tarma's coarse black hair wasn't always coming loose and getting into her eyes and mouth, or making the back of her neck hot.
"Must've nodded off; sorry about that, Greeneyes," Tarma said sheepishly, extracting the map from the waterproof pocket on the saddle skirting in front of her. "Hmm -- next town's Viden; we'll hit there just about dusk."
"Viden? Oh, hell--" Kethry replied in disgust, rolling the sleeves of her buff sorcerer's robe a little higher. "It would be Viden. I was hoping for a bath and a bed."
"What's wrong with Viden?" Tarma asked. To Kethry's further disgust she didn't even look warm; there was no sheen of sweat on that dark-gold skin, and that despite the leather tunic and breeches she wore. Granted, she was from the Dhorisha Plains where it got a lot hotter than it was here, but--
Well, it wasn't fair.
"Viden's overlord is what's wrong," she answered. "A petty despot, Lord Gorley; hired a gang of prison scum to enforce things for him." She made a sour face. "He manages to stay just on the right side of tolerable for the Viden merchants, so they pay his fees and ignore him. But outsiders find themselves a lot lighter in the pocket if they overnight there. Doesn't even call it a tax, just sends his boys after you to shake you down. Hellfire."
"Oh, well," Tarma shrugged philosophically. "At least we were warned. Figure we'd better skirt the place altogether, or is it safe enough to stop for a meal?"
:For a short stop I misdoubt a great deal of trouble with me at your side,: the lupine kyree trotting at Ironheart's side mindspoke to both of them. Kethry grinned despite her disappointment. Seeing as Warrl's shoulders came as high as Tarma's waist, and he had a head the size of a large melon with teeth of a length to match, it was extremely doubtful that any one -- or even three -- of the Viden-lord's toughs would care to chance seeing what the kyree was capable of.
"Safe enough for that," Kethry acknowledged. "From all I heard they don't bestir themselves more than they can help. By the time they manage to get themselves organized into a party big enough to give us trouble, we'll have paid for our meal and gone."
The dark, stone-walled common room of the inn was much cooler than the street outside. Bard Leslac lounged in the coolest, darkest corner, sipped his tepid ale, and congratulated himself smugly on his foresight. There was only one inn -- his quarry would have to come here to eat and drink. He'd beaten them by nearly half a day; he'd had plenty of time to choose a comfortable, out-of-the-way corner to observe what must come.
For nearly two years now, he had been following the careers of a pair of freelance mercenaries, both of them women (which was unusual enough), one a sorceress, the other one of the mysterious Shin'a'in out of the Dhorisha Plains (which was unheard of). He had created one truly masterful ballad out of the stories he'd collected about them -- masterful enough that he was no longer being pelted with refuse in village squares, and was now actually welcome in taverns.
But he wanted more such ballads. And there was one cloud on his success.
Not once in all that time had he ever managed to actually catch sight of the women.
Oh, he'd tried, right enough -- but they kept making unexpected and unexplained detours -- and by the time he found out where they'd gone, it was too late to do anything but take notes from the witnesses and curse his luck for not being on the scene. No bard worth his strings would ever take secondhand accounts for the whole truth. Especially not when those secondhand accounts were so -- unembellished. No impassioned speeches, no fountains of blood -- in fact, by the way these stupid peasants kept telling the tales, the women seemed to go out of their way to avoid fights. And that was plainly not possible.
But this time he had them. There was no place for them to go now except Viden -- and Viden boasted a wicked overlord.
Leslac was certain they'd head here. How could they not? Hadn't they made a career out of righting the wrongs done to helpless women? Surely some of the women in Viden had been abused by Lord Gorley. Surely Gorley's Lady was in dire need of rescue. He could just imagine it -- Tarma facing down a round dozen of Gorley's men, then dispatching them easily with a triumphant laugh. Kethry taking on Lord Gorley's sorcerer (surely he had one) in a mage-duel of titanic proportions. The possibilities were endless....
And Leslac would be on hand to record everything.
Tarma sagged down onto the smooth wooden bench with a sigh. Damn, but I wish we could overnight it. One more day in this heat and folks' II smell us coming a furlong away. Wish I just dared to take my damned boots off. My feet feel broiled.
She propped both elbows on the wooden table and knuckled the dust out of her eyes.
Footsteps approaching. Then, "What'll it be, miladies?"
The deep voice to her right sounded just a shade apprehensive. Tarma blinked up at the burly innkeeper standing a respectful distance away.
Apron's clean-hands're clean. Table's clean. Good enough. We can at least have a meal before we hie out.
"No ladies here, Keeper," she replied, her hoarse voice even more grating than usual because of all the dust she'd eaten today. "Just a couple of tired mercs wanting a meal and a quiet drink."
The slightly worried look did not leave the innkeeper's shiny, round face. "And that?" he asked, nodding at Warrl, sprawled beside her on the stone floor, panting.
"All he wants is about two tradeweight of meat scraps and bones -- more meat than bone, please, and no bird bones. A big bowl of cool water. And half a loaf of barley bread."
:With honey,: prompted the voice in her head.
:You want honey in this heat?:
:Yes,: Warrl said with finality.
"With honey," she amended. "Split the loaf and pour it down the middle."
:You're going to get it in your fur, and who's going to have to help you get it out?:
:I will not!: Warrl gave her an offended glance from the floor.
The innkeeper smiled a little. Tarma grinned back. "Damn beast's got a sweet tooth. What's on the board tonight?"
"Mutton stew, chicken fried or stewed, egg'n'onion pie. Cheese bread or barley bread. Ale or wine."
The innkeeper smiled a little more. "Wine. More expensive and goes bad quicker, so we keep it deeper in cellar."
"Egg pie, cheese bread, and wine." Tarma looked across the tiny table at Kethry, who was trying to knot her amber hair up off her neck and having no great success. Kethry nodded shortly. "White wine, if you've got it. For two."
"You be staying?" The apprehensive look was back.
"No," Tarma raised an eyebrow at him. "I don't like to slander a man's homeplace, but your town's got a bad name for travelers, Keeper. I don't doubt we could take care of anyone thinking to shake us down, but it would make an almighty mess in your clean inn."
The innkeeper heaved a visible sigh of relief. "My mind exactly, swordlady. I seen a few mercs in my time -- and you two look handier than most. But you dealin' with Gorley's bullyboys would leave me out of pocket for things broke -- more than losin' your night's lodging is gonna cost me."
Tarma looked around the common room, and was mildly surprised to see that they were the only occupants other than a scruffy, curly-pated minstrel-type tucked up in one corner. She dismissed that one without a second thought. Too skinny to be any kind of fighter, so he wasn't one of Gorley's enforcers; dark of hair and dusky of skin, so he wasn't local. And he blinked in a way that told her he was just a tad shortsighted. No threat.
"That why you're a bit short on custom?" she asked. "Not having travelers?"
"Nah -- it ain't market-day, that's all. We never was much on overnighters anyway, only got three rooms upstairs. Most folk stop at Lyavor or Grant's Hold. Always made our way on local custom. I bring you your wine, eh? You want that pie cold or het up?"
Tarma shuddered. "Cold, cold -- I've had enough heat and dust today."
"Then it won't be but a blink-"
The innkeeper hurried through the open door in the far wall that presumably led to the kitchen. Tarma sagged her head back down to her hands and closed her eyes.
Leslac frowned. This was not going as he'd expected.
The women -- he'd expected them to be taller, somehow, especially the swordswoman. Cleaner, not so -- shabby. Aristocratic. Silk for the sorceress, and shining steel armor for the swordswoman, not a dull buff homespun robe and a plain leather gambeson. And in his mental image they had always held themselves proudly, challengingly -- shining Warriors of the Light--
Not two tired, dusty, slouching, ordinary women; not women who rubbed their red-rimmed eyes or fought with their hair.
Not women who avoided a confrontation.
He studied them despite his disappointment -- surely, surely there was some sign of the legend they were becoming -- the innkeeper had seen it. He'd been concerned that they could take on Lord Gorley's men and win -- and wreck the inn in the process.
After long moments of study, as the innkeeper came and went with food and drink, Leslac began to smile again. No, these weren't Shining Warriors of the Light -- these women were something even better.
Like angels who could put on human guise, Tarma and Kethry hid their strengths -- obviously to put their targets off-guard. But the signs were there, and the innkeeper had read them before Leslac had even guessed at them. But -- it showed; in the easy way they moved, in the hands that never strayed too far from a hilt, in the fact that they had not put off their weapons. In the way that one of them was always on guard, eyes warily surveying the room between bites. In the signs of wear that only hard usage could put on a weapon.
Undoubtedly they were intending to remain here -- but they didn't want Lord Gorley alerted by staying in the inn.
Leslac mentally congratulated them on their subtlety.
Even as he did so, however, there was a commotion at the inn door -- and red-faced and besotted with drink, Lord Gorley himself staggered through it after colliding with both of the doorposts.
Leslac nearly crowed with glee and pressed himself back into the rough stone of the corner wall. Now he'd have what he'd come so far to witness! There would be no way now for the women to avoid a confrontation!
Tarma was sipping the last of her wine when the drunk stumbled in through the door and tripped over Warrl's tail.
Warrl yelped and sent out a Mindshriek that was comprised of more startlement than pain. But it left Tarma stunned and deafened for a moment -- and when her eyes cleared, the sot was looming over her, enveloping her in a cloud of stale wine fumes.
Oh, Lady of the Sunrise, I do not need this-
"Ish zhish yer dog?" The man was beefy, muscle running to fat, nose a red lacework of broken veins that told a tale of far too many nights like this one -- nights spent drunk on his butt before the sun was scarcely below the horizon. His wattled face was flushed with wine and anger, his curly brown hair greasy with sweat.
Tarma sighed. "Insofar as anyone can claim him, yes, he's mine," she said placatingly. "I'm sorry he was in your way. Now why don't you let me buy you a drink by way of apology?"
The innkeeper had inexplicably vanished, but there was a mug or three left in their bottle--
The man would not be placated. "I don' like yer dog," he growled, "an' I don' like yer ugly face!"
He stumbled back a pace or two -- then, before Tarma had a chance to blink, he'd drawn his sword and was swinging at her.
Wildly, of course. She didn't have to move but a hand's breadth to dodge out of his way -- but that only served to anger him further, and he came at her, windmilling his blade fit to cut the air into ribbons.
She rolled off the bench and came up on her toes. He followed so closely on her heels that she had only time to dodge, drop to her shoulder and roll out of his way again, under the shelter of another bench.
As he kicked at her shelter, she could see that Warrl was beneath the table, grinning at her.
You mangy flea-monger, you started this! she thought at him, avoiding the drunk's kick, but losing her shield. She scrambled to her feet again, dodging another swing.
:I did no such thing,: Warrl replied coolly. :lt was purely accident.:
She got a table between herself and the sot-but the drunk swung, split the table in two, and kept coming.
Lady's teeth, I daren't use a blade on him, I'll kill him by accident, she thought. And then I'll have the townsfolk or his friends on our backs.
She looked about her in a breath between a duck and a dodge. In desperation she grabbed a broom that was leaning up in a corner by the kitchen door.
Since he was flailing away as much with the flat as with the edge, and since she could pick the angle with which she met his weapon, she was now effectively on equal footing. Mostly.
He was still drunk as a pig, and mad as a hornet's nest. And he wanted to kill her.
She countered, blocked, and countered again; blocked the blade high and slipped under it to end up behind him.
And swatted his ample rear with the business end of the broom.
That was a mistake; he was angered still more, and his anger was making him sober. His swings were becoming more controlled, and with a lot more force behind them-
Tarma looked around for assistance. Kethry was standing over in the sheltered comer beside the fireplace, laughing her head off.
"You might help!" Tarma snapped, dodging another blow, and poking the drunk in the belly with the end of the broom. Unfortunately, the straw end, or the contest would have finished right there.
"Oh, no, I wouldn't think of it!" Kethry howled, tears pouring down her face. "You're doing so well by yourself!"
Enough is enough.
Tarma blocked another stroke, then poked the sot in the belly again-but this time with the sharp end of the broom.
The man's eyes bulged and he folded over, dropping his sword and grabbing his ample belly.
Tarma ran around behind him and gave him a tremendous swat in the rear, sending him tumbling across the room -- where he tripped and fell into the cold fireplace, his head meeting the andiron with a sickening crack.
Silence fell, thick as the heat, and Tarma got a sinking feeling in her stomach.
"Oh, hell--" Tarma walked over to the fallen drunk and poked him with her toe.
No doubt about it. He was stone dead.
"Oh, hell. Oh, bloody hell."
The innkeeper appeared at her elbow as silently and mysteriously as he'd vanished. He looked at the shambles of his inn -- and took a closer look at the body.
"By the gods--" he gulped. "You've killed Lord Gorley!"
"Your husband may not have been much before, Lady, but I'm afraid right now he's rather less," Tarma said wearily. Somewhat to her amazement, the innkeeper had not summoned what passed for the law in Viden; instead he'd locked up the inn and sent one of his boys off for Lady Gorley. Tarma was not minded to try and make a run for it -- unless they had to. The horses were tired, and so were they. It might be they could talk themselves out of this one.
The Lady had arrived attended by no one -- which caused Kethry's eyebrow to rise. And she wasn't much better dressed than a well-to-do merchant's wife, which surprised Tarma.
It was too bad they'd had to meet under circumstances like this one; Tarma would have liked to get to know her. She held herself quietly, but with an air of calm authority like a Shin'a'in shaman. A square face and graying blonde hair held remnants of great beauty -- not ruined beauty either, just transformed into something with more character than simple prettiness.
She gazed dispassionately down on the body of her former Lord for several long moments. And Tarma longed to know what was going on in her head.
"I'm afraid I have to agree with your assessment on all counts, Shin'a'in," she replied. "I shan't miss him, poor man. Neither will anyone else, to be frank. But this puts us all in a rather delicate position. I appreciate that you could have fled. I appreciate that you didn't--"
"No chance," Kethry answered, without elaborating. She'd signaled to her partner that her damned ensorcelled blade had flared up at her the heartbeat after Lord Gorley breathed his last. Plainly his Lady would be in danger from his death. Just as plainly, Need expected them to do something about this.
"Well." Lady Gorley turned away from the body as a thing of no importance, and faced Tarma. "Let me explain a little something. In the past several years Kendrik has been more and more addicted to the bottle, and less and less capable. The Viden-folk took to bringing me their business, and when Kendrik hired that gang of his and began extracting money from them, I began returning it as soon as it went into the treasury. No one was hurt, and no one was the wiser."
"What about--" Tarma coughed politely. "Begging your pardon milady, but that kind of scum generally is bothersome to young women--"
She smiled thinly. "The men satisfied their lust without rapine -- Kendrik knew I wouldn't stand for that, and I was the one who saw to his comforts. One week of doing without proper food and without his wine taught him to respect my wishes in that, at least. And the one time Kendrik took it into his head to abscond with a Viden-girl -- well, let us just say that his capabilities were not equal to his memories. I smuggled the girl out of his bed and back to her parents as virgin as she'd left."
"So that's why--"
"Why none of us cared to see things disturbed," the innkeeper put in, nodding so hard Tarma thought his head was going to come off. "Things was all right -- we'd warn travelers, and if they chose to disregard the warnings--" he shrugged. "--sheep was meant to be sheared, they say, and fools meant to share the same fate."
"So what's the problem?" Tarma asked, then realized in the next breath what the problem was. "Ah -- the bullyboys. Without Kendrik to pay 'em and to keep his hand on 'em--"
Lady Gorley nodded. "Exactly. They won't heed me. I would be in as much danger from them as my people. We're farm and tradesfolk here; we would be easy prey for them. It will be bad if I keep them, and worse if I discharge them."
Tarma pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Your respect, Lady, but I've got no wish to take on a couple dozen bad cases with just me and my partner and less than a day to take them out. But maybe if we put our heads together--"
"You've got until moonrise," Lady Gorley said, handing a pouch up to Tarma that chinked as she looked inside before stowing it away in her saddlebag. Light streaming from the back door of the inn gave Tarma enough illumination to see that more than half the coins were gold. "That is really all the time we can give you. And I'm sorry I didn't have much to pay you for your discomfort."
"It'll be enough," Tarma assured her. "Now -- you've got it all straight -- at moonrise you raise the hue and cry after us; you offer fifty gold to the man who brings back our heads, and you turn the lads loose. They're going to hear the word 'gold' and they won't even stop to think -- they'll just head out after us. You do realize this is going to cost you in horses -- they'll take every good mount in your stables."
Lady Gorley shrugged. "That can't be helped, and better horses than lives. But can you lay a trail that will keep them following without getting caught yourselves?"
Tarma laughed. "You ask a Shin'a'in if she can lay a trail? No fear. By the time they get tired of following -- those that I don't lose once their horses founder -- they'll have had second and third thoughts about coming back to Viden. They'll know that you'll never keep them on. They'll think about the kings' men you've likely called in -- and the good armsmen of your neighbors. And they'll be so far from here that they'll give it all up as a bad cause."
The innkeeper nodded. "She's right. Lady. They drifted in; they drift out just the same with no easy pickings in sight."
"What about that little rhymester?" Tarma asked, nodding back at the tavern door. They hadn't noticed the minstrel trying to make himself a part of the wall until it was too late to do anything about him.
"I'll keep him locked up until it's safe to let him go," the innkeeper replied. "If I know musickers, he'll have a long gullet for wine. I'll just keep him too happy to move."
"Very well -- and the gods go with you," Lady Gorley said, stepping away from the horses.
"Well, Greeneyes," Tarma smiled crookedly at her partner.
Kethry sighed, and smiled back. "All right, I'll geas them. But dammit, that means we won't be seeing beds for months!"
Tarma nudged Ironheart with her heels and the battlemare sighed as heavily as Kethry had, but moved out down the village street with a faint jingling of harness. "Greeneyes, I didn't say you should geas them to follow us now, did I?"
"Remember that loudmouth, Rory Halfaxe? The one that kept trying to drag you into his bed? He's in Lyavor, and planning on going the direction opposite of this place. Now if we double back and come up on his backtrail -- think you can transfer the geas?"
Leslac slumped, nearly prostrate with despair. His head pounded, and he downed another mug of wine without tasting it. Oh, gods of fortune -- do you hate me?
He couldn't believe what he had seen -- he just couldn't!
First -- that -- farce with the broomstick. He moaned and covered his eyes with his hand. How could anyone make a heroic ballad out of that? "Her broomstick flashing in her hands--"? Oh, gods, they'd laugh him out of town; they wouldn't need the rotten vegetables.
Then -- that Lord Gorley died by accident! Gods, gods, gods-
"This can't be happening to me," he moaned into his mug. "This simply cannot be happening."
And as if that wasn't enough -- the collusion between Gorley's widow and the other two to lure the gang of bullies away without so much as a single fight!
"I'm ruined," he told the wine. "I am utterly ruined. How could they do this to me? This is not the way heroes are supposed to behave -- what am I going to do? Why couldn't things have happened the way they should have happened?"
Then -- the way they should have happened--
The dawn light creeping in the window of his little cubby on the second floor of the inn was no less brilliant than the inspiration that came to him.
The way they should have happened!
Feverishly he reached for pen and paper, and began to write--
"The warrior and the sorceress rode into Viden-town, for they had heard of evil there and meant to bring it down--"
I love locked-room mysteries, and I thought it would be fun to do one with a different setting-one in which magic was used in place of forensic detection, but magic itself was not used to create the mystery in the first place. And who better to take that setting than Tarma and Kethry?
She stood all alone on the high scaffold made of raw, yellow wood, as motionless as any statue. She was cold despite the heat of the summer sunlight that had scorched her without pity all this day; cold with the ice-rime of fear. She had begun her vigil as the sun rose at her back; now the last light of it flushed her white gown and her equally white face, lending her pale cheeks false color. The air was heavy, hot and scented only with the odor of scorched grass and sweating bodies, but she breathed deeply, desperately of it. Soon now, soon-
Soon the last light of the sun would die, and she would die with it. Already she could hear the men beneath her grunting as they heaved piles of oily brush and faggots of wood into place below her platform. Already the motley-clad herald was signaling to the bored and weary trumpeter in her husband's green livery that he should sound the final call. Her last chance for aid.
For the last time the three rising notes of a summoning rang forth over the crowd beneath her. For the last time the herald cried out his speech to a sea of pitying or avid faces. They knew that this was the last time, the last farcical call, and they waited for the climax of this day's fruitless vigil.
"Know ye all that the Lady Myria has been accused of the foul and unjust murder of her husband, Lord Corbie of Felwether. Know that she has called for trial by combat as is her right. Know that she names no champion, trusting in the gods to send forth one to fight in her name as token of her innocence. Therefore, if such there be, I do call, command, and summon him here, to defend her honor!"
No one looked to the gate except Myria. She, perforce, must look there, since she was bound to her platform with hempen rope as thick as her thumb. This morning she had strained her eyes toward that empty arch every time the trumpet sounded, but no savior had come -- and now even she had lost hope.
The swordswoman called Tarma goaded her gray Shin'a'in warsteed into another burst of speed, urging her on with hand and voice (though not spur- never spur) as if she were pursued by the Jackals of Darkness. Her long, ebony braids streamed behind her; close enough to catch one of them rode her amber-haired partner, the sorceress Kethry; Kethry's mare a scant half a length behind her herd-sister.
Kethry's geas-blade, Need by name, had awakened her this morning almost before the sun rose, and had been driving the sorceress (and so her blood-oath sister as well) in this direction all day. At first it had been a simple pull, as she had often felt before. Both
Kethry and Tarma knew from experience that once Need called, Kethry had very little choice in whether or not she would answer that call, so they had packed up their camp and headed for the source. But the call had grown more urgent as the hours passed, not less so-increasing to the point where by mid-afternoon it was actually causing Kethry severe mental pain. They had gotten Tarma's companion-beast Warrl up onto his carry-pad and urged their horses first into a fast walk, then a trot, then as sunset neared, into a full gallop. Kethry was near-blind by the mental anguish it caused. Need would not be denied in this; Kethry was soul-bonded to it-it conferred upon her a preternatural fighting skill, it had healed both of them of wounds it was unlkikely they would have survived otherwise-but there was a price to pay for the gifts it conferred. Kethry (and thus Tarma) was bound to aid any woman in distress within the blade's sensing range-and it seemed there was one such woman in grave peril now. Peril of her life, by the way the blade was driving Kethry.
Ahead of them on the road they were following loomed a walled village; part and parcel of a manor-keep-a common arrangement in these parts. The gates were open; the fields around empty of workers. That was odd-very odd. It was high summer, and there should have been folk out in the fields, weeding and tending the irrigation ditches. There was no immediate sign of trouble-but as they neared the gates, it was plain just who the woman they sought was-
Bound to a scaffold high enough to be visible through the open gates, they could see a young, dark-haired woman dressed in white, almost like a sacrificial victim. The last rays of the setting sun touched her with color-touched also the heaped wood beneath the platform on which she stood, making it seem as if her pyre already blazed up. Lining the mud-plastered walls of the keep and crowding the square inside the gate were scores of folk of every class and station, all silent, all waiting.
Tarma really didn't give a fat damn about what they were waiting for, though it was a good bet that they were there for the show of the burning, and not out of sympathy for the woman. She coaxed a final burst of speed out of her tired mount, sending her shooting ahead of Kethry's as they passed the gates, and bringing her close in to the platform. Once there, she swung her mare Hellsbane around in a tight circle and drew her sword, placing herself between the woman on the scaffold and the men with the torches to set it alight.
She knew she was an imposing sight, even covered with sweat and the dust of the road; hawk-faced, intimidating, ice-blue eyes blazing defiance. Her clothing was patently that of a fighting mercenary; plain brown leathers and brigandine armor. Her sword reflected the dying sunlight so that she might have been holding a living flame in her hand. She said nothing; her pose said it all for her-
Nevertheless, one of the men started forward, torch in hand.
"I wouldn't-" Kethry said from behind him. She was framed in the arch of the gate, silhouetted against the fiery sky; her mount rock-still, her hands glowing with sorcerous energy. "If Tarma doesn't get you, I will."
"Peace-" a tired, gray-haired man in plain, dusty-black robes stepped forward from the crowd, holding his arms out placatingly, and motioned the torch-bearer to give way. "Ilvan, go back to your place. Strangers, what brings you here at this time of all times?"
Kethry pointed-a thin strand of glow shot from her finger and touched the ropes binding the captive on the platform. The bindings loosed and fell from her, sliding down her body to lie in a heap at her feet. The woman swayed and nearly fell, catching herself at the last moment with one hand on the stake she had been bound to. A small segment of the crowd-mostly women-stepped forward as if to help, but fell back again as Tarma swiveled to face them.
"I know not what crime you accuse this woman of, but she is innocent of it," Kethry said to him, ignoring the presence of anyone else. "That is what brings us here."
A collective sigh rose from the crowd at her words. Tarma watched warily to either side, but it appeared to be a sigh of relief rather than a gasp of anger. She relaxed the white-knuckled grip she had on her sword hilt by the merest trifle.
"The Lady Myria is accused of the slaying of her lord," the robed man said quietly. "She called upon her ancient right to summon a champion to her defense when the evidence against her became overwhelming. I, who am priest of Felwether, do ask you-strangers, will you champion the Lady and defend her in trial-by-combat?"
Kethry began to answer in the affirmative, but the priest shook his head negatively. "No, lady-mage, by ancient law you are bound from the field; neither sorcery nor sorcerous weapons such as I see you bear may be permitted in trial-by-combat."
"He wants to know if I'll do it, she'enedra," Tarma croaked, taking a fiendish pleasure in the start the priest gave at the sound of her harsh voice. "I know your laws, priest, I've passed this way before. I ask you in my rum-if my partner, by her skills, can prove to you the lady's innocence, will you set her free and call off the combat, no matter how far it has gotten?"
"I so pledge, by the Names and the Powers," the priest nodded-almost eagerly.
"Then I will champion this lady."
About half the spectators cheered and rushed forward. Three older women edged past Tarma to bear the fainting woman back into the keep. The rest, except for the priest, moved off slowly and reluctantly, casting thoughtful and measuring looks back at Tarma. Some of them seemed friendly-most did not.
"Was that all about?" That was as far as Tarma got before the priest interposed himself between the partners.
"Your pardon, mage-lady, but you may not speak with the champion from this moment forward-any message you may have must pass through me-"
"Oh, no, not yet, priest." Tarma urged Hellsbane forward and passed his outstretched hand. "I told you I know your laws-and the ban starts at sundown-Greeneyes, pay attention, I have to talk fast. You're going to have to figure out just who the real culprit is-the best I can possibly do is buy you time. This business is combat to the death for the cham-
pion-I can choose just to defeat my challengers, but they have to kill me. And the longer you take, the more likely that is-"
"Tarma, you're better than anybody here-"
"But not better than any twenty-or thirty." Tarma smiled crookedly. "The rules of the game, she'enedra, are that I keep fighting until nobody is willing to challenge me. Sooner or later they'll wear me out and I'll go down."
"Shush, I knew what I was getting into. You're as good at your craft as I am at mine-I've just given you a bit of incentive. Take Warrl-" The tall, lupine creature jumped to the ground from behind Tarma where he'd been clinging to the special pad with his retractile claws. "-he might well be of some use. Do your best, veshta'cha; there're two lives depending on you-"
The priest interposed himself again. "Sunset, champion," he said firmly, putting his hand on her reins.
Tarma bowed her head, and allowed him to lead her and her horse away, Kethry staring dumbfounded after them.
"All right, let's take this from the very beginning." Kethry was in the Lady Myria's bower-a soft and colorful little corner of an otherwise drab fortress. There were no windows-no drafts stirred the bright tapestries on the walls, or caused the flames of the beeswax candles to flicker. The walls were thick stone covered with plaster-warm by winter, cool by summer. The furnishings were of light yellow wood, padded with plump feather cushions. In one corner stood a cradle, watched over broodingly by the lady herself. The air was pleasantly scented with herbs and flowers. Kethry wondered how so pampered a creature could have gotten herself into such a pass.
"It was two days ago. I came here to lie down in the afternoon. I-was tired; I tire easily since Syrtin was born. I fell asleep."
Close up, the Lady proved to be several years Kethry's junior; scarcely past her mid-teens. Her dark hair was lank and without luster, her skin pale. Kethry frowned at that, and wove a tiny spell with a gesture and two whispered words while Myria was speaking. The creature of the ethereal plane who'd agreed to serve as their scout was still with her-it would have taken a far wilder ride than they had made to lose it. The answer to her question came quickly as a thin voice breathed whispered words into her ear.
Kethry grimaced angrily. "Lady's eyes, child, I shouldn't wonder that you tire-you're still torn up from the birthing! What kind of a miserable excuse for a Healer have you got here, anyway?"
"We have no Healer, lady." One of the three older women who had borne Myria back into the keep rose from her seat behind Kethry and stood between them, challenge written in her stance. She had a kind, but careworn face; her gray-and-buff gown was of good stuff, but old-fashioned in cut. Kethry guessed that she must be Myria's companion-an older relative, perhaps. "The Healer died before my dove came to childbed and her lord did not see fit to replace him. We had no use for a Healer, or so he claimed, since he kept no great number of men-at-arms, and birthing was a perfectly normal procedure and surely didn't require the expensive services of a Healer."
"It is no more than the truth! He cared more for his horses than for you! He replaced the farrier quickly enough when he left!"
"His horses were of more use to him-" the girl said bitterly, then bit her lip. "There, you see, that is what brought me to this pass-one too many careless remarks let fall among the wrong ears."
Kethry nodded, liking the girl; the child was not the pampered pretty she had first thought. No windows to this chamber-only the one entrance; a good bit more like a cell than a bower, it occurred to her. A comfortable cell, but a cell still. She stood, smoothed her buff-colored robe with an unconscious gesture, and unsheathed the sword that seldom left her side.
"Lady, what-" Katran stood, startled by the gesture.
"Peace; I mean no ill. Here-" Kethry said, bending over Myria and placing the blade in the startled girl's hands. "-hold this for a bit."
Myria took the blade, eyes wide, a puzzled expression bringing a bit more life to her face. "But-"
"Women's magic, child. For all that blades are a man's weapon, Need here is strong in the magic of women. She serves women only-it was her power that called me here to aid you-and given an hour of your holding her, she'll Heal you. Now, go on. You fell asleep."
Myria accepted the blade gingerly, then settled the sword across her knees and took a deep breath. "Something woke me-a sound of something falling,
I think. You can see that this room connects with My Lord's chamber-that in fact the only way in or out is through his chamber. I saw a candle burning, so I rose to see if he needed anything. He-he was slumped over his desk. I thought perhaps he had fallen asleep-"
"You thought he was drunk, you mean," the older woman said wryly.
"-does it matter what I thought? I didn't see anything out of the ordinary, because he wore dark colors always. I reached out my hand to shake him- and it came away bloody-"
"And she screamed fit to rouse the household," Katran finished.
"And when we came, she had to unlock the door for us," said the second woman, silent till now. "Both doors into that chamber were locked-hallside with the lord's key, seneschal's side barred from within this room. And the bloody dagger that had killed him was under her bed."
"Whose was it?"
"Mine, of course," Myria answered. "And before you ask, there was only one key to the hallside door; it could only be opened with the key, and the key was under his hand. It's an ensorcelled lock; even if you made a copy of the key, the copy would never unlock the door."
"Warrl?" The huge beast rose from the shadows where he'd been lying and padded to Kethry's side. Myria and her women shrank away a little at the sight of him.
"I may need to conserve my energies. You can detect what I'd need a spell for-see if there's magical residue on the bar on the other door, would you?
Then see if the spell on the lock's been tampered with."
The dark-gray, nearly black beast trotted out of the room on silent paws, and Myria shivered.
"I can see where the evidence against you is overwhelming, even without misheard remarks."
"I had no choice in this wedding," Myria replied, her chin rising defiantly, "but I have been a true and loyal wife to my lord."
"Loyal past his deserts, if you ask me," Katran grumbled. "Well, that's the problem, lady-mage. My Lady came to this marriage reluctant, and it's well known. It's well known that he didn't much value her. And there's been more than a few heard to say they thought Myria reckoned to set herself up as Keep-ruler with the Lord gone."
Warrl padded back into the room, and flopped down at Kethry's feet.
He shook his head negatively, and the women stared at this evidence of human-like intelligence.
"Not the bar nor the lock, hmm? And how do you get into a locked room without a key? Still-Lady, is all as it was in the other room?"
"Yes-the priest was one of the first in the door, and would not let anyone change so much as a dust mote. He only let them take the body away."
"Thank the Goddess!" Kethry looked curiously at the girl. "Lady, why did you choose to prove yourself as you did?"
"Lady-mage-" Kethry was surprised at the true expression of guilt and sorrow the child wore. "If I had guessed strangers would be caught in this web, I never would have--I-I thought that my kin would come to my defense. I came to this marriage of their will, I thought at least one of them might-at least try. I don't think anyone here would dare the family's anger by taking the chance of killing one of the sons-even if the daughter is thought worthless by most of them-" A slow tear slid down one cheek, and she whispered her last words. "-my youngest brother, I thought at least was fond of me-"
The spell Kethry had set in motion was still active; she whispered another question to the tiny air-entity she had summoned. This time the answer made her smile, albeit sadly.
"Your youngest brother, child, is making his way here afoot, having ridden his horse into foundering trying to reach you in time, and blistering the air with his oaths."
Myria gave a tiny cry and buried her face in her hands; Katran moved to comfort her as her shoulders shook with silent sobs. Kethry stood and made her way into the other room. Need's magic was such that the girl would hold the blade until she no longer required its power; it would do nothing to augment Kethry's magical abilities, so it was fine where it was. Right now there was a mystery to solve-and two lives hung in the balance until Kethry could puzzle it out.
As she surveyed the outer room, she wondered how Tarma was faring.
Tarma sat quietly beneath the window of a tiny, bare, rock-walled cell. In a few moments the light of the rising moon would penetrate it-first through the eastern window, then the skylight overhead. For now, the only light in the room was that of the oil-fed flame burning on the low table before her. There was something else on that table-the long, coarse braids of Tarma's hair.
She had shorn those braids off herself at shoulder-length, then tied a silky black headband around her forehead to confine what remained. That had been the final touch to the costume she'd donned with an air of robing herself for some ceremony-clothing that had long stayed untouched, carefully folded in the bottom of her pack. Black clothing; from low, soft boots to chainmail shirt, from headband to hose- the stark, unrelieved black of a Shin'a'in Swordsworn about to engage in ritual combat or on the trail of blood-feud.
Now she waited, patiently, seated cross-legged before the makeshift altar, to see if her preparations received an answer.
The moon rose behind her, the square of dim white light creeping slowly down the blank stone wall opposite her, until, at last, it touched the flame on the altar.
And without warning, without fanfare, She was there, standing between Tarma and the altar-place. Shin'a'in by her golden skin and sharp features, clad identically to Tarma-only Her eyes revealed Her as something not human. Those eyes-the spangled darkness of the sky at midnight, without white, iris or pupil-could belong to only one being; the Shin'a'in Goddess of the South Wind, known only as the Star-Eyed, or the Warrior.
"Child." Her voice was as melodious as Tarma's was harsh.
"Lady," Tarma bowed her head in homage.
"You have questions, child? No requests?"
"No requests, Star-Eyed. My fate-does not interest me. I will live or die by my own skills. But Kethry's-"
"The future is not easy to map, child, not even for a goddess. Tomorrow might bring your life or your death; both are equally likely."
Tarma sighed. "Then what of my she'enedra should it be the second path?"
The Warrior smiled, Tarma felt the smile like a caress. "You are worthy of your blade, child; hear, then. If you fall tomorrow, your she'enedra-who has fewer compunctions than you and would have done this already had you not bound yourself to the trial- will work a spell that lifts both herself and the Lady Myria to a place leagues distant from here. And as she does this, Warrl will release Hellsbane and Iron-heart and drive them out the gates. When Kethry recovers from that spell, they shall go to our people, to the Liha'irden; Lady Myria will find a mate to her liking there. Then, with some orphans of other clans, they shall go forth and Tale'sedrin will ride the plains again, as Kethry promised you. The blade will release her, and pass to another's hands."
Tarma sighed, and nodded. "Then, Lady, I am content, whatever my fate tomorrow. I thank you."
The Warrior smiled again; then between one heartbeat and the next, was gone.
Tarma left the flame to burn itself out, lay down upon the pallet that was the room's only other furnishing, and slept.
Sleep was the last thing on Kethry's mind. She surveyed the room that had been Lord Corbie's; plain stone walls, three entrances, no windows.
One of the entrances still had the bar across the door, the other two led to Myria's bower and to the hall outside. Plain wooden floor, no hidden entrances there. She knew the blank wall held nothing either; the other side was the courtyard of the manor. Furnishings; one table, one chair, one ornate bedstead against the blank wall, one bookcase, half filled, four lamp. A few bright rugs. Her mind felt as blank as the walls.
"Start at the beginning," she told herself. "Follow what happened. The girl came in here alone-the man followed after she was asleep-then what?"
:He was found at his desk,: said a voice in her mind, startling her. :He probably walked straight in and sat down. What's on the desk that he might have been doing?:
Every time Warrl spoke to her mind-to-mind it surprised her. She still couldn't imagine how he managed to make himself heard when she hadn't a scrap of that particular Gift. Tarma seemed to accept it un-questioningly; how she'd ever gotten used to it, the sorceress couldn't imagine.
Tarma-time was wasting.
On the desk stood a wineglass with a sticky residue in the bottom, an inkwell and quill, and several stacked ledgers. The top two looked disturbed.
Kethry picked them up, and began leafing through the last few pages, whispering a command to the invisible presence at her shoulder. The answer was prompt-the ink on the last three pages of both ledgers was fresh enough to still be giving off fumes detectable only by a creature of the air. The figures were written no more than two days ago.
She leafed back several pages worth, noting that the handwriting changed from time to time.
"Who else kept the accounts besides your lord?" she called into the next room.
"The seneschal; that was why his room has an entrance on this one," the woman Katran replied, entering the lord's room herself. "I can't imagine why the door was barred-Lord Corbie almost never left it that way."
"That's a lot of trust to place in a hireling-"
"Oh, the seneschal isn't a hireling, he's Lord Corbie's bastard brother. He's been the lord's right hand since he inherited the lordship of Felwether."
The sun rose; Tarma was awake long before.
If the priest was surprised to see her change of outfit, he didn't show it. He had brought a simple meal of bread and cheese and watered wine; he waited patiently while she ate and drank, then indicated she should follow him.
Tarma checked all her weapons; made sure of all the fastenings of her clothing, and stepped into place behind him, as silent as his shadow.
He conducted her to a small tent that had been erected in one corner of the keep's practice ground, against the keep walls. The walls of the keep formed two sides, the outer wall the third; the fourth side was open. The practice ground was of hard-packed clay, and relatively free of dust. A groundskeeper was sprinkling water over the dirt to settle it.
Once they were in front of the little pavilion, the priest finally spoke.
"The first challenger will be here within a few minutes; between fights you may retire here to rest for as long as it takes for the next to ready himself, or one candlemark, whichever is longer. You will be brought food at noon and again at sunset-" his expression plainly said that he did not think she would be needing the latter, "-and there will be fresh water within the tent at all times. I will be staying with you."
Now his expression was apologetic.
"To keep my partner from slipping me any magical aid?" Tarma asked wryly. "Hellfire, priest, you know what I am, even if these dirt-grubbers here don't!"
"I know, Swordswom-this is for your protection as well. There are those here who would not hesitate to tip the hand of the gods somewhat."
Tarma's eyes hardened. "Priest, I'll spare who I can, but it's only fair to tell you that if I catch anyone trying an underhanded trick, I won't hesitate to kill him."
"I would not ask you to do otherwise."
She looked at him askance. "There's more going on here than meets the eye, isn't there?"
He shook his head, and indicated that she should take her seat in the champion's chair beside the tent flap. There was a bustling on the opposite side of the practice ground, and a dark, heavily bearded man followed by several boys carrying arms and armor appeared only to vanish within another, identical tent on that side. Spectators began gathering along the open side and the tops of the walls.
"I fear I can tell you nothing, Swordswom. I have only speculations, nothing more. But I pray your little partner is wiser than I-"
"Or I'm going to be cold meat by nightfall," Tarma finished for him, watching as her first opponent emerged from the challenger's pavilion.
Kethry had not been idle.
The sticky residue in the wineglass had been more than just the dregs of drink; there had been a powerful narcotic in it. Unfortunately, this just pointed back to Myria; she'd been using just such a potion to help her sleep since the birth of her son. Still-it wouldn't have been all that difficult to obtain, and Kethry had a trick up her sleeve-one the average mage wouldn't have known; one she would use if they could find the other bottle of potion.
More encouraging was what she had found perusing the ledgers. The seneschal had been siphoning off revenues; never much at a time, but steadily. By now it must amount to a tidy sum. What if he suspected Lord Corbie was likely to catch him at it?
Or even more-what if Lady Myria was found guilty and executed? The estate would go to her infant son-and who would be the child's most likely guardian but his half-uncle, the seneschal?
And children die so very easily.
Now that she had a likely suspect, Kethry decided it was time to begin investigating him.
The first place she checked was the barred door. And on the bar itself she found an odd little scratch, obvious in the paint. It looked new-her air-spirit confirmed that it was. She lifted the bar after examining it even more carefully, rinding no other marks on it but those worn places where it rubbed against the brackets that held it.
She opened the door, and began examining every inch of the door and frame. And found, near the top, a tiny piece of hemp that looked as if it might have come from a piece of twine, caught in the wood of the door itself.
Further examination of the door yielded nothing, so she turned her attention to the room beyond.
It looked a great deal like the lord's room, with more books and a less ostentatious bedstead. She called Warrl in and sent him sniffing about for any trace of magic. That potion required a tiny bit of magicking to have full potency, and if there was another bottle of it anywhere about, Warrl would find it.
She turned her own attention to the desk.
Tarma's first opponent had been good, and an honest fighter. It was with a great deal of relief-especially after she'd seen an anxious-faced woman with three small children clinging to her skirt watching every move he made-that she was able to disarm him and knock him flat on his rump without seriously injuring him.
The second had been a mere boy; he had no business being out here at all. Tarma had the shrewd notion he'd been talked into it just so she'd have one more live body to wear her out. Instead of exerting herself in any way, she lazed about, letting him wear himself into exhaustion, before giving him a little tap on the skull with the pommel of her knife that stretched him flat on his back, seeing stars.
The third opponent was another creature altogether.
He was slim and sleek, and Tarma smelled "assassin" on him as plainly as if she'd had Warrl's clever nose. When he closed with her, his first few moves confirmed her guess. His fighting style was all feint and rush, never getting in too close. This was a real problem. If she stood her ground, she'd open herself to the poisoned dart or whatever other tricks he had secreted on his person. If she let him drive her all over the bloody practice ground he'd wear her down. Either way, she lost.
Of course, she might be able to outfox him-
So far she'd played an entirely defensive game, both with him and her first two opponents. If she took the offense when he least expected it, she might be able to catch him off his guard.
She let him begin to drive her; and saw at once that he was trying to work her around so that the sun was in her eyes. She snarled inwardly, let him think he was having his way, then turned the tables on him.
She came at him in a two-handed pattern-dance, one that took her back to her days on the plains and her first instructor; an old man she'd never dreamed could have moved as fast as he did. She hadn't learned that pattern then; hadn't learned it until the old man and her clan were four years dead and she'd been Kethry's partner for almost three. She'd learned it from one of Her Swordswom, who'd died a hundred years before Tarma had ever been born-
It took her opponent off-balance; he backpedaled furiously to get out of the way of the shining circles of steel, great and lesser, that were her sword and dagger. And when he stopped running, he found himself facing into the sun.
Tarma saw him make a slight movement with his left hand; when he came in with his sword in an over-and-under cut, she paid his sword hand only scant attention. It was the other she was watching for.
Under the cover of his overt attack he made a strike for her upper arm with his gloved left. She avoided it barely in time; a circumstance that made her sweat when she thought about it later, and executed a spin-and-cut that took the hand off at the wrist at the end of the move. While he stared in shock at the spurting stump, she carried her blade back along the arc to take his head as well.
The onlookers were motionless, silent with shock. What they'd seen from her up until now had not prepared them for this swift slaughter. While they remained still, she stalked to where the gloved hand lay and picked it up with great care. Embedded in the fingertips of the gloves, retracted or released by a bit of pressure to the center of the palm, were four deadly little needles. Poisoned, no doubt.
She decided to make a grandstand move out of this. She stalked to the challenger's pavilion, where more of her would-be opponents had gathered, and cast the hand down at their feet.
"Assassin's tricks, 'noble lords'?" she spat, oozing contempt. "Is this the honor of Felwether? I'd rather fight jackals-at least they're honest in their treachery! Have you no trust in the judgment of the gods- and their champion?"
That should put a little doubt in the minds of the honest ones-and a little fear in the hearts of the ones that weren't.
Tarma stalked stiff-legged back to her own pavilion, where she threw herself down on the little cot inside it, and hoped she'd get her wind back before they got their courage up.
In the very back of one of the drawers Kethry found a very curious contrivance. It was a coil of hempen twine, two cords, really, at the end of which was tied a barbless, heavy fishhook-the kind sea-fishers used to take shark and the great sea-salmon. But the coast was weeks from here. What on earth could the seneschal have possibly wanted with such a curious souvenir?
Just then Warrl barked sharply; Kethry turned to see his tail sticking out from under the bedstead.
:There's a hidden compartment under the boards here,: he said eagerly in her mind. :I smell gold, and magic- and fresh blood.:
She tried to move the bed aside, but it was far too heavy-something the seneschal probably counted on. So she squeezed in beside Warrl, who pawed at the place on the board floor where he smelled strangeness.
Sneezing several times from the dust beneath the bed, she felt along the boards-carefully, carefully; it could be booby-trapped. She found the catch, and a whole section of the board floor lifted away. And inside-
Gold, yes; packed carefully into the bottom of it- but on top, a bloodstained, wadded-up tunic, and an empty bottle.
Now if she just had some notion how he could have gotten into a locked room without the proper key. There was no hint or residue of any kind of magic. And no key to the door with the bar across it.
How could you get into a locked room?
:Go before the door is locked,: Warrl said in her mind.
And suddenly she realized what the fishhook was for.
Kethry wriggled out from under the bed, leaving the hidden compartment untouched.
"Katran!" she called. A moment later Myria's companion appeared, quite nonplussed to see the sorceress covered with dust beside the seneschal's bed.
"Get the priest," Kethry told her, before she had a chance to ask any questions. "I know who the murderer is-and I know how and why."
Tarma was facing her first real opponent of the day; a lean, saturnine fellow who used twin swords like extensions of himself. He was just as fast on his feet as she was-and he was fresher. The priest had vanished just before the beginning of this bout, and Tarma was fervently hoping this meant Kethry had found something. Otherwise, this fight bid fair to be her last.
Thank the Goddess this one was an honest warrior; if she went down, it would be to an honorable opponent. Not too bad, really, if it came to it. Not even many Swordsworn could boast of having defeated twelve opponents in a single morning.
She had a stitch in her side that she was doing her best to ignore, and her breath was coming in harsh pants. The sun was punishing-hard on someone wearing head-to-toe black; sweat was trickling down her back and sides. She danced aside, avoiding a blur of sword, only to find she was moving right into the path of his second blade. Damn!
At the last second she managed to drop and roll, and came up to find him practically on top of her again. She managed to get to one knee and trap his first blade between dagger and sword-but the second was coming in-
And miracle of miracles, the blade stopped mere inches from her unprotected neck.
The priest strode onto the field, robes flapping. "The sorceress has found the true murderer of our lord and proved it to my satisfaction," he announced to the waiting crowd. "She wishes to prove it to yours-"
Then he began naming off interested parties as Tarma sagged to the dirt, limp with relief, and just about ready to pass out with exhaustion.
"Swordsworn-shall I find someone to take you to your pavilion?" The priest was bending over her in concern. Tarma managed to find one tiny bit of unexpended energy.
"Not on your life, priest. I want to see this myself!"
There were perhaps a dozen nobles in the group that the priest escorted to lord's chamber. Foremost among them was the seneschal, the priest most attentive on him. Tarma was too tired to wonder about that-she saved what little energy she had to get her to the room and safely leaning up against the wall within.
"I trust you all will forgive me if I am a bit dramatic, but I wanted you all to see exactly how this deed was done." Kethry was standing behind the chair that was placed next to the desk; in that chair was an older woman in buff and gray. "Katran has kindly agreed to play the part of Lord Corbie; I am the murderer. The lord has just come into this chamber; in the next is his lady. She has taken a potion
to relieve pain, and the accustomed sound of his footstep is not likely to awaken her."
She held up a wineglass. "Some of that same potion was mixed in with the wine that was in this glass, but it did not come from the batch Lady Myria was using. Here is Myria's bottle." She placed the wineglass on the desk, and Myria brought a bottle to stand beside it. "Here-" she produced a second bottle, "-is the bottle I found. The priest knows where, and can vouch for the fact that until he came, no hand but the owner's touched it."
The priest nodded. Tarma noticed that the seneschal was beginning to sweat.
"The spell I am going to cast now-as your priest can vouch, since he is no mean student of magic himself-will cause the wineglass and the bottle that contained the potion that was poured into it glow."
Kethry dusted something over the glass and the two bottles. As they watched, the residue in the glass and the fraction of potion in Kethry's bottle began to glow with an odd, greenish light.
"Is this a true casting, priest?" Tarma heard one of the nobles ask in an undertone.
He nodded. "As true as ever I've seen."
"Huh," the man replied, bemused.
"Now-Lord Corbie has just come in; he is working on the ledgers. I give him a glass of wine." Kethry handed the glass to Katran. "He is grateful; he thinks nothing of the courtesy, I am an old and trusted friend. He drinks it-I leave the room-presently he is asleep."
Katran allowed her head to sag down on her arms.
"I take the key from beneath his hand, and quietly lock the door to the hall. I replace the key. I know he will not stir, not even cry out, because of the strength of the potion. I take Lady Myria's dagger, which I obtained earlier-I stab him." Kethry mimed the murder; Katran did not move, though Tarma could see she was smiling sardonically. "I take the dagger and plant it beneath Lady Myria's bed-and I know that because of the potion, she will not wake either."
Kethry went into Myria's chamber and returned empty-handed.
"I've been careless-got some blood on my tunic; no matter, I will hide it where I plan to hide the bottle. By the way, the priest has that bloody tunic, and he knows that his hands alone removed it from its hiding place-just like the bottle. Now comes the important part-"
She took an enormous fishhook on a double length of twine out of her beltpouch.
"The priest knows where I found this-rest assured that it was not in Myria's possession. Now, on the top of this door, caught on a rough place in the wood, is another scrap of hemp. I am going to get it now. Then I shall cast another spell-and if that bit of hemp came from this twine, it shall return to the place it came from."
She went to the door and jerked loose a bit of fiber, taking it back to the desk. Once again she dusted something over the twine on the hook and the scrap-this time she chanted as well. A golden glow drifted down from her hands to touch first the twine, then the scrap-
And the bit of fiber shot across to the twine like an arrow loosed from a bow.
"Now you will see the key to entering a locked room-now that I have proved that this was the mechanism by which the trick was accomplished."
She went over to the door to the seneschal's chamber. She wedged the hook under the bar on the door, and lowered the bar so that it was only held in place by the hook; the hook was kept where it was by the length of twine going over the door itself. The other length of twine Kethry threaded under the door. Then she closed the door-
The second piece of twine jerked; the hook came free, and the bar thudded into place. And the whole contrivance was pulled up over the door and through the upper crack by the first piece.
All eyes turned toward the seneschal-whose white face was confession enough.
"Lady Myria was certainly grateful enough-"
"If we'd let her, she'd have given us all the seneschal stole," Kethry replied, waving at the distant figures on the keep wall. "I'm glad you talked her out of it."
"Greeneyes, what she gave us was plenty. As it is, we'll have to send a good chunk of it back to Liha'ir-den to bank with the rest of the Clan possessions. I'm not really comfortable walking around with this much coin in my saddlebags."
"Will she be all right, do you think?"
"Now that her brother's here, I don't think she has a thing to worry about. She's gotten back all the loyalty of her lord's people and more besides. All she needed was a strong right arm to beat off unwelcome suitors, and she's got that now! Warrior's Oath-I'm glad that young monster wasn't one of the challengers-I'd never have lasted past the first round!"
The swordswoman raised an eyebrow at Kethry's unwontedly serious tone.
"If you-did all that because you think you owe me-"
"I 'did all that' because we're she'enedran," she replied, a slight smile warming her otherwise forbidding expression. "No other reason is needed."
"No 'buts,' Greeneyes. Besides, I happen to know you'd have more than repaid anything I did. Puzzle that one out, oh, discoverer of keys!"
A WOMAN'S WEAPON
These Tarma and Kethry stories are not in any particular order, since I didn't write them chronologically. This one was inspired by the rather sexist comment that "poison is a woman's weapon," when I believe that police records show a poisoner is more likely to be a man.
On the other hand, since most women are still physically weaker and smaller than men, they tend to take revenge in an indirect fashion. While it is true that very few men will sneak up on you when you're asleep and chop important anatomical parts off, it is equally true that most men taking revenge blow large holes in their opponent, rendering the use of those anatomical parts moot. Which may or may not prove that, as Kipling asserted, "the female of the species is deadlier than the male."
The weather was usually more of a plague to a traveling freelance mercenary than something to be enjoyed, but today was different. Such a bright fall day, warm and sunny, should have been perfect. As Tarma and her partners rode over golden-grassed hill after undulating hill, even the warsteeds frisked a little, kicking up puffs of dust from the road with each hoofbeat, and they were at the end of the day's journey. But Tarma shena Tale'sedrin suddenly wrinkled her nose as a breeze so laden with a foul odor it could have been used as a weapon assaulted her senses.
"Feh!" she exclaimed, jerking her head back so violently that one of her braids flopped over her shoulder. "What in hell is--"
Her answer came as she and her partners, the sorceress Kethry and the great kyree Warrl, came over the crest of the next hill. The unsightly blotch on the grassy vale below them could only have been put there by the hand of man.
Huge open vats and the stack of raw hides piled like wood beside the entrance identified the source of the harsh chemical reek. The amber-haired sorceress curled her lip in a scowl at the sight of the tannery at the bottom of the hill, though her distaste might as well have been for the cluster of hovels around it. "That's 'progress,' " the sorceress said flatly. "Or so the owner would tell you. Justin warned me about this."
Tarma narrowed her eyes in self-defense as another puff of eye-watering potency blew across their path. "Progress?" she said incredulously, while their dappled-gray warsteeds snorted objection at being forced so close to the source of the stench. "What's progressive about this? Tanneries don't have to stink like that. And that village--"
"I don't know much," Kethry warned her partner. "Just that the owner of this place has some new way of tanning. It takes less time supposedly."
"And definitely makes five times the stink." Tarma would have lifted her lip, but she didn't want to open her mouth any more than she had to.
:And five times the filth,: Warrl commented acidly. :The place is sick with it. The earth is poisoned.:
Well, that certainly accounted for the unease the place was giving her. All Shin'a'in had a touch of earth-sense; it helped them avoid the few dangerous places left on the Plains, the places where dangerous things of magic were buried that were best left undisturbed.
"If this is change, progress, I don't like it," Tarma said. "I know you sometimes think the Shin'a'in are a little backward, because we don't like change, but this is one reason why we prefer to stay the way we are."
The sorceress shifted in her saddle and shrugged. "Well, that isn't the only thing the man's changed," Kethry continued. "And until just now, I didn't know if it was a good change, or a bad one."
Her partner's troubled tone made Tarma glance sharply at the sorceress. "What change was that?"
"There're no Tanners' Guild members down there except the owner," Kethry replied. "And I thought that might be a good thing, when I first heard of it. Sometimes I think the Guilds have too much power. You can't get into an apprenticeship if you haven't any money to buy your way into the Guild, unless you can find a Master willing to waive the fee. I thought that something like this might open the trades, give employment to people who desperately need it. But that--" she waved at the duster of shacks around the tannery building, "--that mess--"
"That doesn't look as if he's doing much for the poor," Tarma finished for her. "But there isn't much that we can do about it. We're just a couple of freelance mercs on the way to interview for a Company." At Kethry's continued silence, she added sharply, "We are, aren't we?"
Kethry smiled a little from behind a wisp of windblown, amber hair. "Need isn't complaining, if that's what you're worried about. By which, I assume, Master Karden isn't interested in providing females with employment."
"Possibly." Tarma shrugged leather-clad shoulders. "Whatever the reason, at least we aren't going to have to fight your sword and its stupid compulsion to rescue women whether or not they deserve rescue -- or even want rescue."
Kethry didn't even answer; she simply touched her heels to Hellsbane's sides and gave the mare her head. The warsteed, sister to Tarma's Ironheart, threw up her head and moved readily into a canter, all too pleased to be getting out of there. Ironheart was after her a fraction of a heartbeat later.
The stench proved to be confined to the valley. Once they were on the opposite side of the next hill, the air was fresh and clean again. Tarma could not imagine what it must be like to live in that squalid little town.
:Presumably, their noses are numb,: Warrl supplied, running easily alongside the road, his lupine head even with Tarma's calf. His head and shaggy coat were the only wolflike things about him; if Tarma squinted, she would have sworn there was a giant grass-cat running at her stirrup, not a wolf, in reality, Warrl was neither; he was a kyree, a Pelagir Hills creature, and bonded with Tarma as Kethry's spell-sword Need was bonded to the sorceress.
Once out of the reach of the stench, the horses slowed of their own accord. Warrl looked pleased with the change of pace. He looked even happier with the village built of the yellowish stone of these hills that appeared below them, as they topped yet another rise.
This would be their last stop before Hawksnest, the home of the mercenary company called "Idra's Sunhawks." Tarma had no doubts that between the letters of introduction they carried, letters from two of Idra's former men, and their own abilities, Idra would sign them on despite their lack of training with a Company. After all, it wasn't every day that a Captain could acquire both a Shin'a'in Swordsworn and a Journeyman White Winds sorceress for her ranks. When you added the formidable Warrl to the bargain, Tarma reckoned that Idra would be a fool to turn them down.
And no one had ever called Captain Idra a fool.
But that was ahead of them. For tonight, there would be a good meal and a bit of a rest. Not a bed; that single-storied country inn down there wasn't big enough for that. But there would be space on the floor once the last of the regulars cleared out for the night, and that was enough for the three of them. It was more than they'd had many times in the past.
It was an odd place for a village, though, out here in the middle of nowhere surrounded by grassy hills. "So, did Justin tell you why there's a town out here, back of beyond?" Tarma asked out of curiosity.
"Same thing as brought that slum here," Kethry replied. "Cattle. This is grazing country. There's a real Tanners' Guild House here, that's made leather for generations, and the locals produce smoked and dried beef for fighter rations."
"And sometimes it's hard to tell one from the other," Tarma chuckled.
Kethry laughed, and the sound of her merriment made heads turn toward them as they rode into the village square. Her laughter called up answering smiles from the inhabitants, who surely were no strangers to passing mercenaries.
Even Warrl caused no great alarm, though much curiosity. The dozen villagers in the square seemed to take it for granted that the women had him under control. It was a refreshing change from other villages, where not only Warrl's appearance, but even Tarma and Kethry's, was cause for distress.
In fact, no sooner had they reined in their horses, than one of the locals approached -- with the caution a war-trained animal like the mares or Warrl warranted, but with no sign of fear. "The inn be closed, miladies," the young man said diffidently, pulling off his soft cloth hat, and holding it to his leather-clad chest. "Beggin' yer pardon. Old Man Murfee, he died about two weeks agone, an' we be waitin' on the justice to figger out if the place goes to the son, or the barkeep." He grinned at Tarma's expression. "Sorry, milady, but they's been arguin' an' feudin' about it since the old man died. It ain't season yet, so 'twere easier on the rest of us t' do without our beer an' save our ears."
"Easier for you, maybe," Tarma muttered. "Well, I suppose we can press on-"
"Now, that's the other thing," he continued. "If ye be members of the Merc Guild, the Tanners' Guild Hall be open to ye. Any Guild member, really. Master left word. One Guild to another, Master Lenne says."
That brightened Tarma's mood considerably. "I take it you're 'prenticed there?" she asked, dismounting with a creak of leather and a jingle of harness.
"Aye," he replied, ducking his head. "Ye'll have to tend yer own horses. We don't see much of live 'uns at the Guild. Ye can put 'em in the shed with the donkey."
As the young man turned to lead the way across the dusty, sunlit square, Tarma glanced over at her partner. "Worth our Guild dues, I'd say. Glad now that I insisted on joining?"
Kethry nodded slowly. "This is the way it's supposed to work," she said. "Cooperation between Guilds and Houses of the same Guild. Not starting trade wars with each other; not cutting common folk out of trades."
"Hmm." Tarma held her peace while they stabled the warsteeds in the sturdy half-shed beside a placid donkey, and took their packs into the Guild Hall. Like the rest of the village, it was a fairly simple structure; one-storied, with a kitchen behind a large meeting hall, and living quarters on either side of the hall, in separate wings. Built, like the rest of the village, from the yellow rock that formed these hillsides, it was a warm, welcoming building.
"Ye can sleep here in the hall, by the fireplace," said the young man. "Ye can take a meal when the rest of the 'prentices and journeymen come in, if that suits ye."
"That'll be fine," Kethry replied vaguely, her eyes inwardly-focused, her thoughts elsewhere for a moment, the faint line of a headache -- frown appearing between her eyebrows.
"Where's the tannery at?" Tarma asked curiously. "I haven't caught a whiff of it--"
"And you won't, sword-lady," said a weary, if pleasant voice from the shadows of one of the doorways. A tall, sparse-haired man whose bulky scarlet-wool robe could not conceal his weight problem moved into the room.
He's sick, Tarma thought immediately. The careful way he moved, the look of discomfort about him, and a feeling of wrongness made her as uneasy as that foul tannery.
:I agree,: Warrl replied, startling her. :He has been ill for some time, I would say.:
"No, you will not smell our tannery, ladies," the man -- who Tarma figured must be Master Lenne -- repeated. "We keep the sheds well-ventilated, the vats sealed, and spills removed. I permit no poisoning of the land by our trade. I am happy to say that tallen-flowers bloom around our foundations -- and if we find them withering or dying, we find out why."
Tarma smiled slightly at his vehemence. Master Lenne caught the smile and correctly surmised the reason.
"You think me overly reactive?" he asked.
"I think you -- feel strongly," she said diplomatically.
He raised his hands, palms up. "Since the arrival of that fool, 'Master' Karden, and his plague-blotch, I find it all the more important to set the proper example." He rucked his hands back in the sleeves of his robe, as if they were cold. Tarma read the carefully suppressed anger in his voice, and wondered if the real reason was to hide the fact that his hands were trembling with that same anger. "I was not always a Tanner, ladies, I was once a herder. I love this land, and I will not poison it, nor will I poison the waters beneath it nor the air above. There has been enough of that already." He turned his penetrating brown eyes on Tarma. "Has there not, Swordlady Tarma? It is Tarma, is it not? And this is Kethry, and the valiant Warrl?"
Warrl's tail fanned the air, betraying his pleasure at being recognized, as he nodded graciously. Tarma spared him a glance of amusement. "It is," she replied. "Though I'm at a loss to know how you recognized us."
"Reputation, ladies. Songs and tales have reached even here. I know of no other partnering of Shin'a'in and sorceress." The Master chuckled at Tarma's ill-concealed wince. "Fear not, we have no women to rescue, or monsters to slay. Only a meal by a quiet hearth and a bed. If you would be seated, I would appreciate it, however. I'm afraid I am something less than well."
The four of them took seats by the fire; something about the Master's "illness" nagged at Tarma. What hair he had was glossy and healthy; at odds with the rest of his appearance. Short of breath, with pallid and oily skin, and weight that looked to have been put on since he first fell ill -- his symptoms were annoyingly familiar -- but of what?
It escaped her; she simply listened while Master Lenne and Kethry discussed the rivalry between the Guild and the interloper outside of the village.
"Oh, he couldn't get villagers to work there," the Master said, in answer to Kethry's question. "At least, not after the first couple of weeks. The man's methods are dangerous to his workers, as well as poisonous to the land. He doesn't do anything new, he simply takes shortcuts in the tanning processes that compromise quality and safety. That's all right, if all you want are cheaply tanned hides and don't care that they have bad spots or may crack in a few months -- and you don't give a hang about sick workers."
"Well, he must be getting business," Kethry said cautiously.
Master Lenne sagged in his chair and sighed. "He is," the man said unhappily. "There are more than enough people in this world who only want cheaper goods, and don't care how they're made, or what the hidden costs are. And -- much as I hate to admit it, there are those in my own Guild who would agree with him and his methods. There were some who thought he should take over all the trade here. I only hold this Hall because I've been here so long and no one wants to disturb me." He smiled wanly. "I know too many secrets, you see. But if I were gone -- well, the nearest Master is the same man who erected that disaster outside of town, and no doubt that those others would have their wish."
"So who is doing the work for him?" the sorceress persisted.
"Cityfolk, I presume," Master Lenne said, with an inflection that made the word a curse. "All men, a mixture of young ones and old men, and he works them all, from youngest to eldest. And work is all they seem to do. They never put their noses in town, and my people are stopped at the gate, so more I can't tell you." At that moment, the young man who had brought them here poked his head into the hall. "Master, can we schedule in Trout twenty horsehides?"
"What, now?" Master Lenne exclaimed. "This close to the slaughtering season? Whose?"
The young man ducked his head, uncomfortable with something about the request. "Well ... my father's. Ye know all those handsome young horses he bought without looking at their teeth? Twas like you warned him, within a week, they went from fat and glossy to lank and bony. Within two, they was dead."
Master Lenne shook his head. "I told him not to trust that sharper. He obviously sold your father a lot of sick horses." He heaved himself to his feet. "I'd best get myself down to the tannery, and see what we can do. At least we can see that it isn't a total loss for him. By your leave, ladies?"
Glossy and fat ... glossy and fat ... Tarma nodded absently and the Master hurried out, puffing a little. There was something about those words....
Then she had it; the answer. A common horse-sharper's trick-but this time it had taken a potentially deadly turn. Horses weren't the only things dying here.
"Keth," she whispered, looking around to make sure there was no one lurking within earshot. "I think Master Lenne's being poisoned."
:Poisoned?: Warrl's ears perked up. :Yes. That would explain what I scented on him. Something sick, but not an illness.:
But to her surprise, Kethry looked skeptical. "He doesn't look at all well, but what makes you think that he's being poisoned?"
"Those horses reminded me -- there's a common sharper's trick, to make old horses look really young, if you don't look too closely at their mouths. You feed them arsenic; not enough to kill them, just a little at a time, a little more each time you feed them. They become quiet and eat their heads off, their coats get oily, and they put on weight, which makes them look really fat and glossy. When you get to the point where you're giving them enough to cover the blade of a knife, you sell them. They lose their appetites without the poison, drop weight immediately, and they die as the poison stored in their fat gets back into their blood. If you didn't know better, you'd think they simply caught something, sickened, and died of it."
Kethry shrugged. "That explains what happened to the horses, but what does that have to do-"
"Don't you see?" Tarma exclaimed. "That's exactly the same symptoms the Master has! He's put on weight, I'll bet he's hungry all the time, he obviously feels lethargic and vaguely ill -- his skin and hair are oily--"
Kethry remained silent for a moment. "What are we supposed to do about it?" she asked slowly. "It's not our Guild. It's not our fight-"
Perversely, Tarma now found herself on the side of the argument Kethry-impelled by her bond with Need-usually took. Taking the part of the stranger. "How can you say it's not our fight?" she asked, trying to keep her voice down, and surprising herself with the ferocity of her reaction. "It's our world, isn't it? Do you want more people like Lenne in charge? Or more like that so-called 'Master' Karden out there?"
It was the poisoning of the land that had decided her; no Shin'a'in could see land ruined without reacting strongly. When Master Lenne died -- as he would, probably within the year -- this Karden fellow would be free to poison the entire area.
And if he succeeded in bringing high profits to the Guild, the practices he espoused would spread elsewhere.
It wasn't going to happen; not if Tarma could help it.
As she saw Kethry's indifference starting to waver, she continued. "You know who has to be behind it, too! All we have to do is find out how Lenne is being poisoned, and link it to him!"
Kethry laughed, mockingly. "All? You have a high opinion of our abilities!"
"Yes," Tarma said firmly. "I do. So you agree?"
Kethry thought for a moment, then sighed, and shook her head. "Gods help me, but yes. I do." Then she smiled. "After all, you've indulged me often enough."
Tarma returned the smile. "Thanks, she'enedra. It'll be worth it. You'll see."
By the time dinner was over, however, Tarma's certainty that the task would be an easy one was gone. For one thing, both questioning and close observation had shown no way in which poison could have been slipped to Master Lenne without also poisoning the rest of the Guild. They ate and drank in common, using common utensils, serving themselves from common dishes, like one big family. Tarma and Kethry ate with them, seated at the table in the middle of the hall, and they saw that the Master ate exactly what everyone else ate; his wine was poured from the same pitchers of rough red wine as the rest of them shared.
Each member took it in turn to cook for the rest, eliminating the possibility that the poisoning could be taking place in the kitchen. Not unless every Guild member here hated the Master -- and there was no sign of that.
It could be done by magic, of course. But Kethry was adamant that there was no sign of any magic whatsoever being performed in or around the Guild House.
"In fact," she whispered, as the Guild members gathered beside the fire with their cups and the rest of the wine, to socialize before seeking their beds, "there's a spell of some kind on the Guild House that blocks magic; low-level magic, at least." The fire crackled, and the Guild members laughed at some joke, covering her words. "I've seen this before, in other Guild Houses. It's a basic precaution against stealing Guild secrets by magic. I could break it, but it would be very obvious to another mage, if that's what we're dealing with. That spell is why I've had a headache ever since we came in the door."
But Tarma hadn't been Kethry's partner all this time without learning a few things. "Maybe it blocks real magic, but what about mind-magic? Isn't there a mind-magic you can use to move things around?"
:There is, mind-mate,: Warrl confirmed before Kethry could answer, his tail sweeping the flagstones with approval.
Kethry added her nod to Warrl's words.
"Ladies, gentlemen," Master Lenne said at just that moment, calling their attention to him. He stood up, winecup in hand, a lovely silver piece he had with him all through dinner. The glow of the firelight gave him a false flush of health, and he smiled as he stood, reinforcing the illusion. "I am an old man, and can't keep the late hours I used to, so I'll take my leave -- and my usual nightcap."
One of the 'prentices filled his cup from the common pitcher of wine, and he moved off into the shadows, in the direction of the living quarters.
"Keep talking, and keep them from noticing we're gone," Tarma hissed to her partner, signaling Warrl to stay where he was. "I'm going to see if anything happens when he gets to his room."
Without waiting for an answer, she melted into the shadows, with Warrl taking her place right beside Kethry. There was no other light in the enormous room besides the fire in the fireplace, and Master Lenne was not paying a great deal of attention to anything that was not immediately in front of him. Still, she made herself as invisible as only a Shin'a'in could, following the Master into his quarters. Can I assume that if someone used mind-magic around here, you would know it? she thought in Warrl's direction, as she slipped through the doorway on Lenne's heels.
:Possibly,: he answered. :Possibly not. I think it will be up to your own powers of observation.:
She waited at the end of the hallway, concealed in shadows, for the Master to take his doorway so that she could see which quarters were his. When he had, she waited a little while longer, then crept soundlessly on the flagstoned floor after him, opening the same door and slipping inside. She had thought about making some pretense at wanting to talk further with the Master, but had decided against the idea. If this poisoner was using mind-magic to plant the poison, he might also be using it to tell whether or not the Master was alone.
Kethry knew more of mind-magic than she did -- but Tarma had a good idea what to watch. That business about a "usual nightcap" -- if the poisoner knew about this habit of Master Lenne's, it made an excellent time and place to administer the daily doses.
Then, once he's got the Master up to a certain level, he stops. The Master loses his appetite, like the horses, stops eating, and drops all the weight he put on. And the poison that was in the fat he accumulated drops into his body all at once. He dies, but by the time he dies, there's no external evidence of poisoning.
And of course, everyone would have known that the Master was ill, so this final, fatal "sickness" would come as no surprise.
Once inside the door, she found herself in a darkened room, with furniture making vague lumps in the thick shadow, silhouetted against dim light coming from yet another doorway at the other side of the room. She eased up to the new door, feeling a little ashamed and voyeuristic, and watched the Master puttering about, taking out a dressing gown, preparing for bed. The winecup sat on a little table beside a single candle near the doorway, untasted and unwatched.
Master Lenne entered yet another room just off his bedroom, and closed the door; sounds of water splashing made it obvious what that room's function was.
Tarma did not take her eyes off the cup; and in a moment, her patience was rewarded.
The surface of the wine jumped -- as if something invisible had been dropped into the cup. A moment later, it appeared as if it was being stirred by a ghostly finger.
Then Master Lenne opened the door to the bedroom, and the spectral finger withdrew, leaving the wine outwardly unchanged. His eyes lighted on his winecup, but before he could take the half-dozen steps to reach it, Tarma interposed herself, catching it up.
Master Lenne started back, his eyes as wide as if she had been a spirit herself. Before he could stammer anything, she smiled.
"Your pardon, Master," she said quietly. "But I think we need to talk."
The arsenic had not completely dissolved; there was a gritty residue in the bottom of the cup that proved very effective at killing a trapped mouse, eliminating Master Lenne's doubts.
The three of them were ensconced in his parlor; he was wrapped in a robe and dressing gown, looking surprisingly vulnerable for such a big man. There was a fire in his tiny fireplace, and candles on the table between them, and the light mercilessly revealed the shadows under his eyes. "But who could be doing this?" he asked, looking from Tarma to Kethry and back again. "And why? They say that poison is a woman's weapon, but I've angered no women that I know of--"
"Not a woman's weapon, Master," Kethry said, tapping her lips thoughtfully with a fingernail. "Poison is a coward's weapon. It is the weapon of choice for someone who is too craven to face an enemy openly, too craven even to come into striking range of his enemy himself. It's the weapon of choice for someone who is unwilling to take personal risks, but is totally without scruples when it comes to risking others."
Tarma saw by the widening then narrowing of Master Lenne's eyes that he had come to the same conclusion they had made.
"Karden," he said flatly.
Tarma nodded, compressing her lips into a thin, hard line.
Kethry sighed and held up her hands. "That's the best bet. The problem is proving it. It's hard enough to prove an attempt at murder by real magic -- but I don't think there's anyone in this entire kingdom with enough expertise at mind-magic to prove he's been using it to try to poison you. By the way, where did you get that goblet?"
Lenne seemed confused by the change in subjects. "Every Master has one; they're given to us when we achieve Mastery."
Kethry nodded, and Tarma read satisfaction in her expression. "That at least solves the question of how he knew where the poison was going. If he has the match to that goblet, that gives him a 'target' to match with yours."
"But that also compounds the problem, Greeneyes," Tarma pointed out. "If every Master has one of these, any Master could be a suspect. No, we aren't going to be able to bring Karden to conventional justice, I'm afraid."
Master Lenne, sick or no, was sharper than she had expected. "Conventional justice?" he said. "I assume you have something else in mind?"
Tarma picked up the now-empty goblet, and turned it in her hands, smiling at the play of light on the curving silver surface. "Just let me borrow this for a day or so," she replied noncommittally. "And we'll see if the gods -- or something -- can't be moved to retribution."
Kethry raised an eyebrow.
"This might not work," Kethry warned, for the hundredth time.
"Your spell might not work. It might work, and Karden might notice. He might not notice, but he might not drink the wine in his own goblet when he's through playing with it." Tarma shrugged. "Then again, it might. You tell me that mind-magic is hard work, and I am willing to bet that a sneaky bastard like this Karden gets positive glee out of drinking a toast to his enemy's death and refreshing himself at the same time when he's done every night. If this doesn't work, I try something more direct. But if it does -- our problem eliminates itself."
They were outside the protected influence of the Guild House, ensconced in the common room of the closed inn. Just she and Kethry; Lenne was going through his usual after-dinner routine, but this time, he was not using his Master's goblet for his wine. That particular piece of silver resided on the table in the middle of the common room, full of wine. With a spell on the wine....
Not the goblet. Kethry was taking no chances that bespelling the goblet would change it enough that Karden's mind-magic would no longer recognize it. The two of them were on the far side of the room from the goblet; far enough, Kethry hoped, that Karden would judge the goblet safely out of sight of anyone. The inn's common room was considerably bigger than Lenne's quarters.
That was assuming he could check for the presence or absence of people. He might be getting his information from a single source within the Guild House. But Kethry was of the opinion that he wasn't; that he was waiting for a moment when there were no signs of mental activity within a certain range of the goblet, but that there was wine in it. That, she thought, would have been the easiest and simplest way for Karden to handle the problem.
All of it was guess and hope--
Kethry hissed a warning. Something was stirring the surface of the wine in the goblet.
Something tried to drop into the wine. Tried. The wine resisted it, forming a skin under it, so that the substance, white and granular, floated in a dimpled pocket on the surface.
"Ka'chen," Tarma said in satisfaction. "Got you, you bastard."
The pocket of white powder rotated in the wine, as the invisible finger stirred. Quickly, Kethry's hands moved in a complex pattern; sweat beaded her brow as she muttered words under her breath. Tarma tried not to move or otherwise distract her. This was a complicated spell, for Kethry was not only trying to do the reverse of what Karden was doing, she was trying to insinuate the poison back into his wine, grain by grain, so that he would not notice what she was doing.
Until, presumably, it was too late.
It was like watching a bit of snow melt; as the tiny white pile rotated, it slowly vanished, until the last speck winked out, leaving only the dark surface of the wine.
Tarma approached the cup cautiously. The spectral "finger" withdrew hastily, and she picked the goblet up.
"Well?" she said, "can I bet my life on this?"
Kethry nodded wearily, her heart-shaped face drawn with exhaustion. "It's as safe to drink as it was when I poured it," she replied, pulling her hair out of her eyes. "I can guarantee it went straight into the model-cup. What happened after that?" She shrugged eloquently. "We'll find out tomorrow."
Tarma lifted the cup in an ironic salute. "In that case -- here's to tomorrow."
"Now don't forget what I told you," Kethry said firmly, from her superior position above the Master's head, where she perched in Hellsbane's saddle. "I may have pulled most of the poison from you with that spell, but you're still sick. You're suffering the damage it caused, and that isn't going to go away overnight."
Master Lenne nodded earnestly, shading his eyes against the morning sun, and handed Kethry a saddleroll of the finest butter-soft leather to fasten at her cantle. Leather like that -- calfskin tanned to the suppleness and texture of fine velvet -- was worth a small fortune. Tarma already had an identical roll behind her saddle.
"I plan to rest and keep my schedule to a minimum," Lenne said, as obedient as a child. "To tell you the truth, now that I no longer have to worry about Karden taking my trade and exerting his influence on the Guild as a whole--"
"So tragic, poisoning himself with his own processes," Tarma said dryly. "I guess that will prove to the Guild that the safe old ways are the best."
Master Lenne flushed and looked down for a moment. When he looked back up, his eyes were troubled. "I suppose it would do no good to reveal the truth, would it?"
"No good, and a lot of harm," Kethry said firmly. "If you must, tell only those you trust. No one else." She looked off into the distance. "I don't like taking the law into my own hands--"
"When the law fails, people of conscience have to take over, Greeneyes," Tarma said firmly,. "It's either that, or lie down and let yourself be walked on. Shin'a'in weave rugs; we don't imitate them."
"I don't like it either, ladies," Master Lenne said quietly. "Even knowing that my own life hung on this. But--"
"But there are no easy answers, Master," Tarma interrupted him. "There are cowards and the brave. Dishonest and honest. I prefer to foster the latter and remove the former. As my partner would tell you, Shin'a'in are great believers in expediency." She leveled a penetrating glance at her partner. "And if we're going to make Hawk's Nest before sundown, we need to leave now."
Master Lenne took the hint, and backed away from the horses. "Shin'a'in--" he said suddenly, as Tarma turned her horse's head. "I said that poison was a woman's weapon. You have shown me differently. A woman's weapon is that she thinks -- and then she acts, without hesitation."
:Usually, she thinks,: Warrl said dryly. :When I remind her to.:
Put a gag on it, Furface, Tarma thought back at him. And she saluted Master Lenne gravely, and sent her warsteed up the last road to Hawksrest, with Kethry and Warrl keeping pace beside her.
This story sprang out of a complaint that bad fantasy always seems to rely on the magic thingamajig to get the hero out of trouble. Seemed to me that a magic thingamajig could get someone into more trouble than it would get him out of. As always, Tarma and Kethry rely as much on intelligence and quick thinking as magic and swordplay to get them out of trouble.
It was hard for Kethry to remember that winter would be over in two months at the most. The entire world seemed made up of crusted snow; it even lay along the bare branches of trees. From this vantage point, atop a rocky, scrub-covered hill, it looked as if winter had taken hold of the land and would never let go. The entire world had turned into an endless series of winter-dormant, forested hills, hills they plodded over with no sign that there was an end to them. Although the road that threaded these hills bore unmistakable signs of frequent use, they hadn't seen a single soul in the past two days. Kethry stamped her numb feet on snow packed rock-hard and frozen into an obstacle course of ruts, trying to get a little feeling back into them. She shaded her eyes against snow glare and stared down the hillside while her mule pawed despondently at the ice crust beside the trail, hoping for a scrap of grass and unable to break through.
She heard the creaking of Tarma's saddle as her partner dismounted. "Goddess!" the Shin'a'in croaked. "I'm bloody freezing!"
"You're always freezing," Kethry replied absently, trying to make out if the smudge on the horizon was smoke or just another cloud. "Except when I'm roasting. Where are we? Is that smoke I'm seeing out there, or a figment of my imagination?"
There was a rattling of paper at her right elbow as Tarma took out their map. "I could make a very bad pun, but I won't," she said. "Yes, it's smoke, and I'd guess we're here-"
Kethry took her watering eyes off that faraway promise of habitation, and turned to see where on the map Tarma thought they were. It wasn't exciting. If the Shin'a'in was right, they were about a candlemark's ride away from a flyspeck too small even to be called a village, marked on the map only with the name "Potter," and the symbol for "public well"
"No inn?" the sorceress asked wistfully.
"No inn," her partner sighed, folding the map and rucking it back inside the inner pocket of her coat. "Sorry about that, Greeneyes."
"Figures," Kethry said sourly. "When we've finally got the money to pay for inns, we can't find any."
Tarma shrugged. "That's fate, I suppose. We'll have to see if we can induce some householder to part with hearth- or barn-space for a little coin. Could be worse. If it hadn't been for everything that happened in Mournedealth, we wouldn't have the coin."
"True -- though I can think of easier ways to have gotten it."
"Hmm." Tarma made a noncommittal sound, and swung back up into her saddle. Kethry cast a glance at her out of the corner of her eye and wondered what she was thinking.
We're still not-quite-a team. And she worries about me a lot more than I think is necessary.
"I don't regret any of it," she said then, trying to sound as if she had intended to continue the sentence. "It's just that I'm lazy. That little set-to with my former spouse was a whole lot more work than I would have preferred!"
Tarma's grating laugh floated out over the hillside, and Kethry relaxed a bit.
"I'll try and spare you, next time," the Sword-sworn said, nudging her mare with her heels and sending Kessira picking her way through the ruts down the hill. Kethry could have sworn as they passed that the elegant little mare had her lip curled in distaste. "If you promise to give me a little more warning. This could all have been taken care of quite handily by waylaying Wethes and your brother and -- ah -- 'persuading' them that everyone would be happier if we were left alone."
"I thought you Kal'enedral were bound by honor," Kethry mocked, as Rodi lurched and slipped his way down the hill in Kessira's wake.
"Her honor, not man's honor," Tarma corrected, not taking her attention from the path in front of her. "And in matters where Her honor has no bearing, we're bound by expediency. I'm rather fond of expediency. It saves a world of problems."
"Except when you have to explain your notion of 'expedient' to the City Guard." Rodi took the last of the slope in a rush that made Kethry grit her teeth and cling to the saddle-bow, hoping the mule knew what he was doing.
"You have a point," the Shin'a'in admitted. It took most of the remaining daylight -- not the single candlemark the map promised -- to get to the duster of houses alongside the road. That was because of the condition of the road itself; as hummocked and rutted as the hill had been. Tarma didn't want to push the beasts at all, for fear they'd break legs misstepping. So they picked their way to "Potter" with maddening slowness.
So maddening that at first Kethry did not note the increasing pressure of her geas-blade "Need" on her mind.
She was tightly bound to the sword; as bound to it as she was to her partner, and that binding had the blessing of Tarma's own Goddess on it. The sword repaid that binding by healing her of anything short of a death-wound in an incredibly short period of time, and by granting her a master's ability at wielding it -- a fact that had saved Tarma's skin now and again, since no one expected blade-expertise from a mage. But Kethry paid for those gifts -- for any time there was a woman in need of help within the blade's sensing-range -- and Kethry had not yet determined the limits of that range -- she had to help. Regardless of whether or not helping was a prudent move -- or going to be repaid.
Hardly the most ideal circumstances for a would-be mercenary.
Need's "call" was like the insistent pressure of a headache about to happen -- except when the situation was truly life-or-death critical, in which case it had been known to cause pressure so close to pain as made no difference. Tarma must have learned to read or sense that in the few months they'd been together -- she suddenly looked back over her shoulder almost as soon as Kethry herself became aware of the blade's prodding, and frowned.
"Tell me that expression on your face isn't what I think it is," the hawk-faced Shin'a'in said plaintively. "I would," Kethry sighed, "but I'd be lying." Tarma shook her head, and turned her ice-blue eyes to the settlement ahead of them. "Joyous. Well, at least there shouldn't be much trouble figuring out who and what. If there're more than a dozen females down there, I'll eat a horseshoe."
Kethry urged her mule forward until she rode knee-to-knee with her brown-clad partner. "I'll say what you're undoubtedly thinking. If there's a problem in so small a settlement, everybody is likely to know about it. Which means everybody may well have a vested interest in keeping it quiet. Or may like things the way they are." The vague splotch beside the road ahead of them resolved itself into a cluster of buildings as their beasts brought them nearer. A few moments more, and they could make out the red-roofed wellhouse, set apart from the rest of the buildings.
"Or may simply resent outsiders interfering," Tarma finished glumly. "There are times -- heads up, she'enedra. We're being met."
They were indeed. Even as Tarma spoke, something separated itself from the side of the wellhouse. Shrouded in layers of clothing, for a moment it looked more bearlike than human. But as they neared, they could see that waiting beside the public well was a stoop-shouldered old man, gnarled and weathered as a mountain tree, with a thick thatch of snow-white hair rucked under a knitted cap the same bright red as the wellhouse roof.
"Evening," Tarma returned the greeting, crossing her wrists on her saddlebow and leaning forward -- though not dismounting. "What kind of hospitality could a few coins purchase a tired traveler around here, goodman?"
He looked them up and down with bright black eyes peeping from beneath brows like overhanging snowbanks-eyes that missed nothing. "Well-armed travelers," he observed mildly.
Tarma laughed, and a startled crow flapped out of the thatch of one of the houses. "Travelers who aren't fools, goodman. And two women traveling alone who couldn't take care of themselves would be fools."
The old man chuckled. "Point taken, point taken."
He edged a little closer. "Be any good with that bow?"
Tarma considered this for a moment. "A fair shot," she acknowledged.
"Well, then," the oldster replied tugging his knit cap a bit farther down over his ears. "Coin we got no use for till spring an' the traders come -- but a bit of game, now -- that'd be welcome. Say, hearth and meal for hunting?"
Tarma nodded, and seemed satisfied with the tentative bargain, for she dismounted. Kethry was only too glad to follow her example.
"I can't conjure game out of an empty forest, old man," Tarma said warningly as he led them to a roomy shed that already sheltered a donkey and three goats.
"There's game, there's game. I wouldn't set ye to a fool's task. Just we be no hunters here." He helped them fork hay into the shed; for bedding the mare and the mule would have to make do with the bracken already layering the floor.
"Not hunters?" Kethry said, puzzled, as they took their packs and followed their guide into the nearest house. "Out here in the middle of nowhere? What on earth do you--"
The answer to her question was self-evident as soon as the old man opened the door. The house was a single enormous room, combining sleeping, living and working space. It was the working space that occupied the lion's share of the dwelling. In one corner stood a huge sink and pump, several wooden boxes of clay, and a potter's wheel. Various ceramic items were ranged on two long wooden tables in the center of the room according to what stage they were in, from first drying to final glazing. The back wall was entirely brick, with several iron doors in it. It radiated heat even at this distance; it had to be a kiln of some sort, Kethry reckoned. Most of the windows were covered with oiled parchment, but there was a single glass window in the wall opposite; directly beneath that was a smaller workbench with pots and brushes, and a half-painted vase. The rest of the living arrangements were scattered haphazardly about, wherever there was room for them.
It was, to Kethry's mind, stiflingly warm, but Tarma immediately threw off her coat with a sigh of pure bliss.
"Put yer bedrolls wherever, ladies," the old man said. "There's porridge as supper."
Kethry rummaged out a packet of some of their dried fruit and tossed it to the oldster, who caught it deftly, grinned his thanks, and added it to the pot just inside one of those iron doors.
"Directly supper's finished, we'll be gettin' visitors," their host told them, as they found places to spread their bedrolls on the clay-stained, rough board floor. "I be Egon Potter; rest of the folks out here be kin or craft-kin."
Kethry's curiosity had turned her attention to the half-finished pottery. It was more than simple pots and bowls, she realized as soon as she had a good look at it. It was really exquisite work, the equal or superior of anything she'd ever seen for sale in Mournedealth. "Why--" she began.
"--are we way out here, back of the end of the world?" Egon interrupted her. "The day, lady. No match for it anywhere else. Got three kinds of day right here; got fuel for the kilns; got all winter t'work on the fancy stuff an' all summer t' trade. What else we need?"
Tarma laughed. "Not a damned thing else, Guildmaster." At his raised eyebrow and quirky, half-toothless grin she laughed again. "I've always wondered where the best of the Wrightguild porcelain and stoneware came from -- it certainly wasn't being made in Kata'shin'a'in. You think I can't recognize the work of the Master when I see it?"
"Then there be more about you than shows on th' surface, swordlady. But you tol' me that, didn' ye?"
"Oh, aye, that I did." They matched grins in some kind of wordless exchange that baffled Kethry, then the Shin'a'in edged her way past the crowded work-table to the oldster's side. "Here. Let me give you a hand with that porridge."
As darkness fell, Kethry came to appreciate old Egon's craftsmanship even more, for he lit oil lamps around the room with shades of porcelain so thin that the light glowed through it easily. And when the first of the lamps was alight, the rest of the inhabitants of the little settlement began to arrive.
They crowded about the newcomers, treating them with friendly reserve, asking questions, but free enough with their own answers. Fairly soon everyone had found space on the hearth, and Kethry was able to examine them at her leisure. They seemed amiable enough. None of the women seemed to be in any distress. In fact, it didn't look to Kethry as if there were anything at all wrong here -- and this despite Need's unvarying pressure on the back of her mind.
Finally, while Tarma entertained the company with some Shin'a'in tale or other, the sorceress edged over to where old Egon was sitting alone a little off to one side.
He nodded to her, but waited for her to speak. She cleared her throat a little, then said, trying not to sound awkward, "Egon, is everyone in your settlement here?"
He seemed surprised by her question. "Oh, aye; all but the little ones. Well -- barring one."
This sounded a little more promising. "One?" she prompted.
His eyes went wary. "Well -- she bain't a guilds-man. Stranger. Settled here, oh, three or four winters ago. She don't have much t' do with us, we don't have much t' do with her. Unchancy sort." Egon blinked, slowly. "Trades with us, betimes. I think she be grubbin' about in the ruins, yonder. Bits of metal she trades, old stuff, gone t' powder mostly, but good for makin' glazes."
Something about this "stranger" evidently made Egon more than a little uneasy. Kethry could read that in his shuttered expression, and the careful choice he made of his words.
"Are the ruins forbidden, or something?" she asked, trying to pinpoint his uneasiness.
"Forbidden?" He flashed her a startled glance, and chuckled. "Great Kemos, no! It's just -- she seems witchy, like, but she ain't never done nothin' witchy." He gave her a sidelong glance, as if gauging her response to that. "It's like she was looking for something out there and mad as hops 'cause she ain't finding it. 'Cept lately she been acting like she had. Her name's--"
The door opened, and a bundled figure half-stepped, and was half-windblown, into the circle of light. She blinked for a moment, her eyes sunken into pale, pudgy cheeks, her flabby arms hugging her fur cloak tightly about her.
She'd put on so much weight since Kethry had last seen her that at first she didn't recognize her former schoolmate.
Then-- "Mara?" she said into the silence the woman's abrupt arrival had imposed on the group.
The woman whirled; peered past the heads of those nearest her at Kethry. Her mouth worked soundlessly for a moment; one plump, pasty hand flew to her throat -- then she turned and bolted back the way she had come in a clumsy run.
The door slammed behind her. The rest of those gathered sat in embarrassed silence.
Finally Egon self-consciously cleared his throat. "Tis a bit late, and we all have work, come the morning light...."
His kin and fellow guildsmen were not slow at taking the hint. Before too very long the house was silent, and empty of all but Egon and the two women.
There seemed no way to break that silence, and after a few halfhearted attempts at conversation, Egon excused himself and went to bed.
Kethry took a long while falling asleep, and not because of the unfamiliar surroundings. Mara Yveda was the last person she expected to see out here.
I wondered where she went, after she'd disappeared from White Winds. Poor Mara. She was so certain that we were hiding something from her-that control of magic was just a matter of knowing the right words, having the right talisman....
I'll never forget the night she ran off. Right after she stole Master Loren's staff-then found out the only thing that was unusual about it was that it was cut to exactly the right height to most comfortably help him with his lame leg.
She broke it in two when it wouldn't magic anything up for her. And then - she ran away.
She would never believe that power isn't a matter of "magic," it's a matter of discipline....
She's the one that's in trouble. She's found something, I know she has, and she's gotten into trouble over it. What's more, Egon knows it, too.
So what do I do about it?
She fell asleep finally, without being able to come to any conclusion.
Kethry watched her partner dress the next morning, still in a decidedly unsettled state of mind. "Swordlady," Egon said hesitantly, as Tarma prepared to set off at dawn to make good her side of the bargain, "there's something I need to tell you. About the game."
Tarma didn't even stop lacing up her boots. "Go ahead," she said. "I'm listening."
"There's a bear about."
Now she left her lacing, to raise her head and stare at him. "A what? Are you sure? That -- that's hardly usual."
"Aye," the old man replied, shifting from one foot to the other. "But we've seen it about, not more than a day or two ago."
Tarma took a moment to secure the lacings, and straightened up, her face dead sober. "Do you have any notion what that means, that there's a bear, awake and walking this deep into winter?"
Egon shook his head.
"That is a very sick bear, Egon. Either it didn't eat enough to keep it going through winter-sleep, or something woke it far too early, and only illness can do that. In either case, its body is trying to make it go down for sleeping, and it's going completely against those instincts. It's going to die, Egon -- but before it does, it'll be half mad with starvation. It could be very dangerous to you and yours."
The old man shook his head. "It's left us alone; we're minded to leave it alone. Don't kill it, sword-lady. Leave it bide. Deer, boar, even a mess of rabbit or bird -- just -- not the bear."
Tarma checked the condition of every arrow in her quiver before attaching it to her belt. Then she looked at Egon and frowned. "You're not doing that beast any favor, old man."
Egon's face set stubbornly. "Not the bear."
She shrugged. "On your head. By the time it's trouble, we'll be gone past calling us back." She half-turned to face her partner. "I should be back by afternoon. One more night here, then we'll be off in the morning, if that's all right with you."
Kethry smiled. "Who am I to complain about another night under shelter? Good hunting."
"Thanks, Greeneyes." The Shin'a'in slipped out the door, leaving Kethry and the Guildmaster alone, sitting across the worktable from one another. The silence between them deepened and grew heavier by the minute. The sorceress stared at her hands, trying to decide what to say-and whether now was the right time to say it.
Finally, when Kethry couldn't stand it any longer, she opened her mouth.
"About that bear-" she began.
Egon spoke at exactly the same moment. "Lady, be you-"
They looked at each other and laughed shakily. Kethry nodded, gesturing to Egon that he should speak first.
"Lady, I wasn't sure, you wearin' steel and all, but then seemed you know Mara -- be you witchy? A sorceress, belike?"
"Yes," Kethry said slowly, wondering if he was going to be angry at the idea of having sheltered a mage without knowing it. There were some who would be. Mages were not universally welcomed.
"Thank the God," Egon breathed fervently -- Oh, terrific. He isn't going to throw me out, but -- "It's that Mara, lady. I tol' you she been pokin' about in them ruins? Seemed like maybe she found somethin'. Them ruins, there's stories that the people there was witchy, too. Shape-changers." Egon swallowed. "We-we think maybe Mara found something of theirs."
Kethry put fact on top of surmise, and made a guess. "You think Mara's the bear."
He looked relieved, and nodded. "Aye. Exactly that We figure maybe she found some kind of witchy thing of theirs, what let her shape-change, too. Now she's strange, but she hain't bad, or hain't been before. But she's got stranger since we started seein' the bear. There be bear tracks about her house -- she says 'tis 'cause the bear comes to her feedin', that it's harmless if it's left be -- but we don' think so. So -- I dunno lady, I dunno what t' ask, like."
"You want to know if she's dangerous?" Kethry asked. She got up from her seat and began pacing, her hands clasped behind her. "Yes, dammit, she's dangerous all right. The more so because I don't think she ever really listened to a single word anyone ever told her at mage-school. Do you know why most mages don't shapechange? Why they use illusions instead?"
Egon shook, his head dumbly, his wrinkled face twisted into a knot of concern.
"Because when you shapechange, you become the thing you've changed to. You're subject to its instincts, its limitations. Including the fact that there's not enough room in a beast's head for a human mind. That usually doesn't matter, much. Not so long as you don't spend more than an hour or two as a beast. You don't lose much of your humanity, and you can probably get it back when you revert. But it's not guaranteed that you will, and the stronger the animal's instincts, the more of yourself you'll lose."
"She been spendin' whole days as bear, we think. She don' come t' door when a body calls till after sundown," Egon whispered hoarsely.
"And at a time of the year when bear instincts are strongest." Kethry twisted the Shin'a'in oath-ring on her left hand. "No wonder she put on weight. Bears go into a feeding frenzy in the fall -- and she can't have gained as much as a bear needs to winter-sleep. No wonder she looked like hell." Abruptly she stopped pacing, and went to her bedroll, picking up the sword-belt that held Need and strapping the blade over her breeches and tunic.
"Lady? What be you-"
"Oh, don't worry, Egon." Kethry turned to smile at him wanly. "I'm not going to use this on her." For one thing, I don't think it would let me. "I'm going to go talk to her," the sorceress continued. "Maybe, just maybe, I can help her."
She must be being torn nearly in two by now, Kethry thought unhappily, as she, in turn, slipped out into the dawn-gilded, frozen air. Caught between the bear and the woman -- if I can get her to take Need, I think the blade can rebalance her body for her. I hope. I'm no Healer, and that's what she needs most right now. That assumes she'll let me, of course.
She picked her way across the lumps of frozen snow to the farthest house of the cluster -- a cabin, really. It had never been intended to be used for anything more than living quarters, unlike the rest of the dwellings in the settlement. That cabin was Mara's, so Egon had said. It looked deserted.
Kethry pounded on the door for several moments, and got no answer. With my luck--
She circled around to the back and found what she'd been dreading. The back entrance was unlatched; the cabin was empty. And among the many tracks leaving and entering the cabin from the rear, there were no human footprints among them. Only the half-melted and near-shapeless tracks of a small bear.
So many tracks suggested that Mara had fallen into a pattern. And that was bad; it meant she wasn't thinking in her bear-form, she was just acting. Then again, that she was following a pattern meant that if Kethry followed the old tracks, she'd probably be able to find Mara along the trail she'd established.
Whether or not she'd be able to reason with her--
I don't have a choice, Kethry decided. That's why Need's been after me. Mara's going to get trapped in her bear-shape -- and she's going to die.
The trail took her deeply into the woods; without the trail, Kethry knew she'd have been lost. There were no signs of any habitation, no traces of the hand of man in this direction-except for certain rock out-croppings that didn't quite look natural. Gradually, as the sun rose higher and crept toward the zenith, it dawned on Kethry that these outcroppings were becoming more frequent, as if they marked some kind of long-vanished roadway.
She's going out to these "ruins." She must be going there every day. But why? And why in bear-form?
She was never to have an answer to that question, because as she rounded the torn-up, snow-covered roots of a fallen tree, something stepped out of the shelter of a duster of pines to block her progress.
"You!" Mara spat. "You've come to steal it, haven't you?"
Her eyes were dull and deeply sunken; her hair was lank and unwashed. As she lumbered clumsily toward Kethry, the sorceress got a whiff of an unpleasant reek-half unwashed clothing and stale sweat, half an animallike musk.
"Mara, I-" Kethry swallowed. I'll say I haven't got the vaguest notion what she's talking about, she'll know I'm lying. "-my partner and I are here by merest chance. We're on our way down to the Dhorisha Plains. Mara, I'll be blunt; you look awful. That's why Egon asked me to follow you. He's worried about you. Are you ill? Can I help?"
Mara's hands came up to her throat. "Liar! He wants it, too! He sent you to take it away from me!"
Kethry raised her chin and looked squarely into those mad, glazed eyes. "Mara, Egon is a Master craftsman. He doesn't need magic. And I don't need some stupid trinket to shape-change; I can do it myself. I don't because it's dangerous-"
"Oh, yes, I remember you! Dear, bright, pretty Kethry! You never needed anything, did you? They gave you everything you ever wanted -- power, magic, secrets -- all those old men just fell over themselves to give you what they kept from me, didn't they? And the young men gave you -- other things -- didn't they?" Mara's face contorted into a snarling mask of hate. "Well, I've got secrets now, secrets they tell me. They made me their lover, just like those old men made you -- they come to me when I change, and they make love to me, and they whisper their secrets-"
As she babbled on about her "secrets" and her "lovers," Kethry realized with a sense of growing horror what must have happened. She'd changed, possibly for the first time, during mating season. And now she had convinced herself that the male bears that had mated with her were the long-gone shape-changing builders of the ruins--
Never particularly stable, perhaps it had been the shock of mating as an animal -- and being unable to cope with it -- that had pushed her over the edge.
"--well, you can't have it!" Mara shrieked at the top of her lungs. "It's mine, it's mine, it's--"
The words blurred, the voice deepened, the shapeless bundle of fur took on a shape. The words were lost in the roar of the enraged bear that balanced manlike on hindlegs, and advanced -- no longer clumsy -- on Kethry. "Mara-Mara!"
There was an oddly shaped metal pendant slung about the bear's neck on a blackened thong. Kethry reached for it with her own magic, to try and nullify it -- and met nothing.
This "talisman" was not magic at all! Mara's shape-changing was not the result of some ancient sorcery; it was only that she believed the medallion could work the change.
And in magic, as Kethry had often told her partner, belief is the most important component.
"Mara, I don't want your talisman! It's worthless--"
The bear ignored the words, dropping to all fours and continuing to advance, saliva dripping from her snarling jaws.
Kethry flung a sleeping-spell at the shape-changer. It was the most powerful spell she had in her depleted arsenal at the moment. She'd used so much trying to escape Wethes' makeshift prison--
The bear ignored the spell; ignored the mage-barrier she hied to erect to hold it off.
She convinced herself she can change shape -- she probably convinced herself she can defend against spells, too--
So she really can.
Kethry stumbled backward, stumbled and fell over the blade strapped to her side.
She tried to draw the sword-
-and discovered that she couldn't. It would not clear the sheath. It wouldn't allow itself to be used against a woman.
The bear reared up on hind legs again, as Kethry backed into the tangle of roots and frozen earth and found herself trapped. She drew her belt knife; a futile enough gesture, but she was not going to go down without a fight.
And an arrow skimmed over her right shoulder to bury itself in the bear's throat.
The bear screamed, and pawed at the shaft, and a second joined the first -- then a third, this one thudding into the shaggy chest.
A fourth landed beside the third.
The bear screamed again, and Kethry hid her face in her hands. When she looked again, the bear was down, its eyes glazing in death, a half-dozen arrows neatly targeting every vulnerable spot.
"Next time you take a walk in the woods, lady," Tarma said harshly, grabbing her by her shoulder and hauling her to her feet, "don't go alone. I take it this isn't what it looks like?"
"It's Mara," Kethry replied, trying to control her shaking limbs. "She learned to shape-change--"
The Shin'a'in nodded. "Uh-huh; what I thought. Especially when you didn't give her the business-end of Need. Hanging about with a magicker taught me enough to put two and two together once in a while on my own." She prodded the stiffening carcass with the tip of her bow. "She going to change back? I'd hate to get strung up for murder."
Kethry held back tears and shook her head. "No. She froze herself into that shape -- Goddess, how did you manage to get here in time?"
"I got Egon's deer almost before I left cleared lands; came back, and found you gone." The Shin'a'in poked at the medallion around the bear's neck. "What's this? Is this--"
"No," Kethry said bitterly. "It's just a bit of trash she found. She was so busy looking for 'secrets' that she never learned the secrets in her own mind. That's what killed her, not your arrows."
"That could be said about an awful lot of people." Tarma cocked an eye up at the sun. "What say we make a polite farewell and get the hell out of here?"
"Expediency?" Kethry asked, trying not to sound harsh.
The sorceress looked down at the corpse. She'd offered Mara her help; it had been refused. Staying to be accused of murder -- or worse -- wouldn't bring her back.
"Let's go," Kethry said.
A TALE OF HEROES
(Based on an idea by Robert Chilson)
Rob Chilson and I were in a discussion at a convention about fantasy cliches; he wondered why no one ever bothered to point out the viewpoint of the poor chambermaid in all of the stories about iron-thewed, rock-headed Barbarian Swordsmen. That was an idea I couldn't pass up. And who better to help with the concept than Tarma and Kethry?
As for this particular chambermaid's happy ending - well, I wouldn't be particularly suited to Tarma's life either. I hate camping, bugs, cold, and wet; I don't much care for half-burned food cooked over a campfire, and if I didn't have some form of vision correction, I'd be legally blind. My personal idea of "the way things should be" is that all people be allowed the same opportunity for a life that suits them, period. If that happens to be becoming a mother or being an astronaut, both are important.
And if those same people don't make the most of the opportunities that are given them, that's their own problem.
"Miles out of our way, and still not a sign of anything out of the ordinary," Tarma grumbled, her harsh voice carrying easily above the clopping of their horses' hooves. "For certain no sign of any women in distress. Are you - "
"Absolutely certain," Kethry, the swordswoman's partner, replied firmly, eyes scanning the fields to either side of them. Her calf-length buff-colored robe, mark of the traveling sorceress, was covered in road dust, and she squinted in an attempt to keep that dust out of her eyes. The chilly air was full of the scent of dead leaves and dried grass. "It's not something I can ignore, you know. If my blade Need says there are women in trouble in this direction, there's no chance of doubt: they exist. Surely you know that by now."
It had been two days since they diverted from the main road onto this one, scarcely wider than a cart track. The autumn rains were sure to start before long; cold rains Tarma had hoped to avoid by getting them on the way to their next commission well ahead of time. Since they'd turned off the caravan road, they'd seen little sign of habitation, only rolling, grassy hills and a few scattered patches of forest, all of them brown and sere. The bright colors of fall were not to be found in this region. When frost came, the vegetation here muted into shades more like those of Tarma's worn leathers and Kethry's traveling robes than the carnival-bright colors of the farther north. In short, the trip thus far had been uneventful and deadly dull.
"I swear, sometimes that sword of yours causes more grief than she saves us from," Tanna snorted. "Magicians!"
Kethry smiled; she knew very well that the Shin'a'in swordswoman was only trying to get a rise out of her. The magic blade called "Need" that she carried had saved both their lives more than once. It had the peculiar property of giving weapons' expertise to a mage, or protecting a swordswoman from the worst magics; it could heal injuries and illness in a fraction of normal time-but it could only be used by a female. And, as with all magics, there was a price attached to Need's gifts. Her bearer must divert to aid any woman in need of help, no matter how far out of her intended way the sword pulled her. "You weren't saying that a few weeks ago, when Need and I Healed that lung-wound of yours."
" That was then, this is now,' " her hawk-visaged partner quoted. " The moment is never the same twice.'" A bit of fresher breeze carried the dust of the road away, but chilled both of them a little more.
Kethry shook amber hair out of her eyes, her round face full of amusement "O wise sister-mine, do you have a proverb for everything?"
Tarma chuckled. "Damn near -- Greeneyes, these fields are cultivated -- left to go fallow just this year. I think there's a farm up ahead. Want to chance seeing if the owner'll let us pass the night in his barn? Looks like rain, and I'd rather sleep dry without you having to exhaust magics to keep us that way."
Kethry scanned on ahead of them for possible danger, using magic to smell out magic. "It seems safe enough -- let's chance it. Maybe we can get some due about what Need's calling us to. I don't like the way the air's chilling down, sybarite that I am. I'd rather sleep warm, if we can."
Their ugly, mottled-gray battlemares smelled the presence of other horses, even as the sorceress finished her sentence. Other horses meant food and water at the least, and a dry and warm stable at best. With the year being well into autumn a warm stable was nothing to scorn. They picked up their pace so abruptly that the huge black "wolf" that trotted by the side of the swordswoman's mount was left behind in the dust. He barked a surprised protest and scrambled to catch up.
"That's what you get for daydreaming, lazybones," Tarma laughed, her ice-blue eyes slitted against the rising dust. "Don't just look stupid. Get up here, or we'll leave you!"
The lupine creature -- whose shoulder easily came as high as Tarma's waist -- gathered himself and sprang. He landed on the carrying pad of stuffed leather just behind her saddle; the mare grunted at the impact, but was unsurprised at it. She simply waited for the beast to settle himself and set his retractile claws into the leather pad, then moved into a ground-devouring lope. The sorceress' mount matched her stride for stride.
Strands of raven hair escaped from Tarma's braid and blew into her eyes, but didn't obscure her vision so much that she missed the sudden movement in the bushes at the side of the road, and the small, running figure that set off across the fields. "Looks like the scouts are out," she grinned at her partner. "We've been spotted."
"What? Oh--" Kethry caught sight of the child as he (she?) vaulted over a hedge and vanished. "Wonder what he made of us?"
"We're about to find out." From the other side of the hedge strode a heavy, muscular farmer, as brown as his fields; one who held his scythe with the air of someone who knew what an effective weapon it could be. Both women pulled their horses to a stop and waited for him to reach the road.
"Wayfarer's Peace, landsman," Tarma said when he was near enough to hear her. She held both hands out empty. He eyed her carefully.
"On oath to the Warrior, Shin'a'in?" he replied.
"Oath given." She raised one eyebrow in surprise. "You know Shin'a'in, landsman? We're a long way from the plains."
"I've traveled." He had relaxed visibly when Tarma had given her pledge. "Soldiered a bit. Aye, I know Shin'a'in -- and I know a Sworn One when I see one. Tisn't often you see Shin'a'in, and less often you see Swordsworn oathed to outlander."
"So you recognize blood-oathed, too? You're full of surprises, landsman." Tarma's level gaze held him; her blue eyes had turned cold. "So many I wonder if we are safe with you--"
He raised his left arm; burned onto the back of the wrist was a five-spoked wheel. Kethry relaxed with a sigh, and her partner glanced sidelong at her.
"And I know the Wheel-bound," the sorceress replied. " 'May your future deeds balance all."
" 'And your feet ever find the Way,' " he finished, smiling at last. "I am called Landric."
"I'm Tarma -- my companion is Kethry. Just out of curiosity -- how did you know we were she'ene-dran?" Tarma asked as he moved up to walk beside their mounts. "Even among Shin'a'in, oathsisters aren't that common."
He was a big man, and muscular. He wore simple brown homespun, but the garments were well made. His hair and eyes were a few shades darker than his sun-darkened skin. He swung the scythe up gracefully out of the way, and though he eyed Tarma's beast-companion warily, he made no moves as though he were afraid of it. Tarma gave him points for that.
"Had a pair of oathbound mercenaries in my company," he replied, "That was before I took the Wheel, of course. Brother and sister, and both Swordsworn as well, as I recall. When you held up your hands, I recognized the crescent palm-scar, and I couldn't imagine a Shin'a'in traveling with any but her oathsister. If you've a wish to guest with me, be welcome -- even though--" his face clouded, "--I fear my hearth's cold comfort now."
Kethry had a flash of intuition. "Grief, landsman -- your Wheelmate?"
"She waits the next turning. I buried what the monster left of her at Spring planting, these six months agone."
Their host walked beside their mounts, and told his tale with little embellishment.
"--And there was no time for me to get a weapon -- and little enough I could have done even had there been time. So when the monster headed for the babe, she ran between it and him; and the creature took her instead of the child, just as she'd intended." There was heavily veiled pain still lurking in his voice.
"Damn," Tarma said, shaking her head in awe at the dead woman's bravery. "Not sure I'd've had the guts to do that. What's this thing like anyway?"
"Like no creature I've ever heard tell of. Big; bigger than a dozen horses put together, covered with bristly brown hair -- a head that's all teeth and jaws, six legs. Got talons as long as my hand, too. We think it's gotten away from some mage somewhere; it looks like something a nasty mind would put together for the fun of it -- no offense meant, sorceress."
"None taken." Kethry met his brown eyes with candor. "Lady knows my kind has its share of evildoers. Go on."
"Well, the thing moves like lightning, too. Outruns even the lord's beasts with no problem. Its favorite prey is women and children; guess it doesn't much care for food that might be able to fight back a little."
Kethry caught her partner's eye. Told you, she signaled in hand-speech. Need knows.
"The Lord Havim hasn't been able to do anything about it for the time being, so until he can get a hero to kill it, he's taken the 'dragon solution' with it."
" 'Dragon solution'?" Tarma looked askance.
"He's feeding it, in hopes it'll be satisfied enough to leave everyone else alone," Kethry supplied. "Livestock -- I hope?" She looked down at the farmer where he walked alongside her horse. He kept up with the beast with no trouble; Kethry was impressed. It took a strong walker to keep up with Hellsbane.
He shook his head. "People. It won't touch animals. So far he's managed to use nothing but criminals, but the jails are emptying fast, and for some reason nobody seems much interested in breaking the law anymore. And being fed doesn't completely stop it from hunting, as I well know to my grief. He's posted the usual sort of reward; half his holdings and his daughter, you know the drill."
"Fat lot of good either would do us," Tarma muttered in Shin'a'in. Kethry smothered a smile.
They could see his farmstead in the near distance; from here it looked well-built and prosperous; of baked brick and several rooms in size. The roof was thatch, and in excellent repair. There were at least five small figures gathered by the door of the house.
"These are my younglings," he said with pride and a trace of worry. "Childer --" he called to the little group huddled just by the door, "--do duty to our guests."
The huddle broke apart; two girls ran into the house and out again as the eldest, a boy, came to take the reins of the horses. The next one in height, a huge-eyed girl (one of the two who had gone into the house), brought bread and salt; she was followed by another child, a girl who barely came to the wolf's shoulder, carrying a guesting-cup with the solemnity due a major religious artifact. The three children halted on seeing the wolf, faces betraying doubt and a little fear; plainly, they wanted to obey their rather. Equally plainly, they didn't want to get within a mile of the huge black beast.
Tarma signaled the wolf silently. He padded to her right side and sat, looking very calm and as harmless as it is possible for a wolf to look. "This is Warrl," she said. "He's my soul-kin and friend, just like in the tales -- a magic beast from the Pelagir Hills. He's wise, and very kind--" she raised one eyebrow with a comic expression "--and he's a lot smarter than I am!"
Warrl snorted, as if to agree, and the children giggled. Their fears evaporated, and they stepped forward to continue their tasks of greeting under their father's approving eye.
The guesting ritual complete, the eldest son -- who looked to be no older than ten, but was a faithful copy of his father in miniature -- led the horses to the stock-shed. It would probably not have been safe to have let him take ordinary battle-trained horses, but these were Shin'a'in bred and trained warsteeds. They had sense and intelligence enough to be trusted unguided in the midst of a melee, yet would no more have harmed a child, even by accident, than they would have done injury to one of their own foals. Just now they were quite well aware that they were about to be stabled and fed, and in their eagerness to get to the barn they nearly dragged the poor child off his feet.
"Hai!" Tarma said sharply; they stopped dead, and turned to look at her. "Go gently, warladies," she said in her own tongue. "Mind your manners."
Landric hid a smile as the now docile creatures let themselves be led away at the boy's pace. "I'd best help him, if you think they'll allow it," he told the Shin'a'in. "Else he'll be all night at it, trying to groom them on a ladder!"
"They'll allow anything short of violence, providing you leave our gear with them; but for your own sake, don't take the packs out of their sight. I'd hate to have to recompense you for broken bones and a new barn!"
"Told you I soldiered with Shin'a'in, didn't I? No fear I'd try that. Take your ease inside; 'tis poor enough, and I beg you forgive the state it's in, but--"
"Landric, no man can be two things at once. Better the house should suffer a little than your fields and stock. Clean plates won't feed your younglings," Kethry told him, following the oldest girl inside.
There was a musty smell inside, as of a house left too long unaired. Piles of clean clothing were on the benches on either side of the table, the table itself was piled high with dirty crockery. There was dust everywhere, and toys strewn the length and breadth of the room. The fire had been allowed to go out -- probably so that the two-year-old sitting on one corner of the hearth wouldn't fall into it in his father's absence. The fireplace hadn't been cleaned for some time. The kitchen smelled of burned porridge and onions.
"Warrior's Blade -- what a mess!" Tarma exclaimed under her breath as they stepped into the chaotic kitchen-cum-common room.
"It's several months' accumulation," her partner reminded her, "and several months of fairly inexpert attempts to keep up with the chores. Guests or no, I'm not going to let things stay in this state." She began pinning up the sleeves of her buff-colored traveling robe and headed toward the nearest pile of clutter.
"My thoughts entirely," the swordswoman replied, beginning to divest herself of her arms.
Landric and his son returned from stabling the mares to a welcome but completely unexpected scene. His guests had completely restored order to the house; there was a huge kettle of soup on the once-cold hearth, and the sorceress was making short work of what was left of the dirty dishes. Every pot and pan in the kitchen had already been washed and his oldest girl was carefully drying and stacking them. The next oldest was just in the last steps of sweeping the place out, using a broom that one of the two had cut down to a size she could manage. His four-year-old son was trotting solemnly back and forth, putting things away under the careful direction of -- the swordswoman?
Sure enough, it was the hawk-faced swordswoman who was directing the activities of all of the children. She was somehow managing to simultaneously change the baby's dirty napkin, tickling him so that he was too helpless with giggles to fight her as he usually did; directing the four-year-old in his task; and admonishing the six-year-old when she missed a spot in her sweeping. And looking very much as if she were enjoying the whole process to the hilt.
Landric stood in the door with his mouth hanging open in surprise.
"I hope you two washed after you finished with the horses," Kethry called from her tub of soapsuds. "if not, wait until I'm through here, and you can use the wash water before you throw it out." She rinsed the last of the dishes and stood pointedly beside the tub of water, waiting for Landric to use it or carry it out.
"This was -- not necessary," he managed to say as he hefted the tub to carry outside. "You are guests--"
"Oh, come now, did you really expect two women to leave things in the state they were?" Kethry giggled, holding the door open for him. "Besides, this isn't the sort of thing we normally have to do. It's rather a relief to be up to the elbows in hot water instead of trouble. And Tarma adores children; she can get them to do anything for her. You said you know Swordsworn; you know that they're celibate, then. She doesn't often get a chance to fuss over babes. But what I'd like to know is why you haven't hired a woman or gotten some neighbor to help you?"
"There are no women to hire, thanks to the monster," he replied heavily. "Those that didn't provide meals for it ran off to the town, thinking they'd be safer there. I'm at the farthest edge of Lord Havim's lands, and my nearest neighbors aren't willing to cross the distance between us when the monster is known to have taken my wife within sight of the house. I can't say that I blame them. I take the eldest with me, now, and I have the rest of the children barricade themselves in the house until we come home. The Gods of the Wheel know I'd be overjoyed to find some steady woman willing to watch them and keep the place tidy for bed, board, and a bit of silver, but there isn't anyone to be hired at any price."
"Now it's my turn to beg your pardon," Kethry said apologetically.
"No offense meant, none taken," an almost-smile stretched his lips. "How could I take offense after this?"
That night Tarma regaled all the children with tales until they'd fallen asleep, while Kethry kept her hands busy with mending. Landric had kept glancing over at Tarma with bemusement; to see the harsh-visaged battle-scarred Shin'a'in warrior smothered in children and enjoying every moment of it was plainly a sight he had never expected to witness. And Warrl put the cap on his amazement by letting the baby tumble over him, pull his fur, tail, and ears, and finally fall asleep using the beast as a mattress.
When the children were all safely in bed, Kethry cleared her throat in a way intended to suggest she had something touchy she wanted to ask their host.
He took the hint, and the sleepiness left his eyes. "Aye, mage-lady?"
"Would you object to my working a bit of magic here? I know it's not precisely in the tenets of the Path to use the arcane -- but--"
"I'm a bit more pragmatic than some of my fellows -- nay lady, I've no objection to a bit of magicing. What did you have in mind?"
"Two things, really. I'd like to scry out this monster of yours and see what we're going to be up against-"
"Lady," he interrupted, "I -- would advise against going at that thing. Let the hired heroes deal with it."
"While it takes more women and children?" She shook her head. "I can't do that, Landric -- if it weren't against my conscience, I'm geas-bound. Anyway, the other thing I'd like to do is leave you a little help with the children -- something like a cross between Warrl and a sheepdog, if you've no objection. It won't be as bright, or as large and strong, but it will be able to keep an eye on the little ones, herd them out of mischief, and go for help if need be."
"How could I object? The gods know I need something like that. You shouldn't feel obligated, though--"
"Balance the Wheel your way, and I'll balance it in mine, all right?" The twinkle in Kethry's eyes took any sting there might have been out of her words.
He bowed his head a little. "Your will, then, mage-lady. If you've no need of me, I'm for bed."
"No need, Landric, and thank you."
When he'd left, Kethry went to the stack of clean dishes and selected a dark, nearly black pottery bowl.
"Water scrying?" Tarma asked, settling herself on one side of the table.
"Mh-hm," Kethry replied absently, filling it very carefully with clear, cold water, then bringing it to the table and dusting a fine powder of salt and herbs from a pouch at her belt over the surface. "For both of us -- you may see what I'd miss."
She held her hands just above the water's surface and chanted softly, her eyes closed in concentration. After a few moments, a mistlike glow encircled her hands. It brightened and took on a faint bluish cast -- then flowed down over her hands onto the water, hovering over it without quite touching it. When it had settled, Kethry took her hands away, and both of them peered into the bowl.
It was rather like looking at a reflection; they had to be careful about moving or breathing, for the picture was distorted or lost whenever the surface of the water was disturbed.
"Ugly rotter," was Tarma's first comment, as the beast came dear. "Where and when?"
"I'm past-scrying; all the encounters with the would-be heroes thus far."
"Hmm. Not having much luck, is he?"
That was an understatement, as the monster was making short work of a middle-aged man-at-arms.
"It looks like they feed it once a week," Kethry said, though how she was able to keep track of time passage in the bowl was beyond Tarma. "Oh, this is a mage -- let's see how he fares."
"Huh -- no better than a try with a sword."
Magics just bounced oft its hide; the mage ended up traveling the same road as the fighters.
"It's a good bet if s a magic creature," Kethry concluded. "Any mage worth his robe would armor his own toys against magic."
After watching all the trials -- and failures -- they both sat silently.
"Let's think on this a while -- we've got enough information for now."
"Agreed. Want to build Landric's little shepherd?"
"That I could do in my sleep. Let's see -- first I need a vehicle-"
Warrl got to his feet, and padded over to Tarma. :Let me hunt,: he said in her mind.
"Warrl just volunteered to find your 'vehicle.' "
"Bless you, Furface! I take it there's something within range?"
"He says 'maybe not as big as you were hoping, but smarter.'"
"I prefer brains over brawn for this task--"
Warrl whisked out the door, and was back before a half hour was up, herding an odd little beast before him that looked like a combination of fox and cat, with humanlike hands.
"Bright Lady -- that looks like a Pelagir Hills changeling!"
"Warrl says it came from the same place as the monster -- when that got loose, apparently a lot of other creatures did, too."
"All the better for my purposes--" Kethry coaxed the creature into her lap, and ran softly glowing hands over it while she frowned a little in concentration. "Wonderful!" she sighed in relief, "It's Bright-path intended; and nobody's purposed it yet. It's like a blank page waiting to be written on -- I can't believe my luck!" The glow on her hands changed to a warm gold, settled over the creature's head and throat, and sank into it as if absorbed. It sighed and abruptly fell asleep.
"There--" she said, rising and placing it beside the hearth. "When it wakes, all its nurturing instincts will be imprinted for Landric's children; as bright as it is, he'll be able to leave them even with a fire burning on the hearth without them being in danger."
She stood, and swayed with exhaustion.
"That's more than enough for one night!" Tarma exclaimed, steadying her and walking her over to the pallets Landric had supplied. "It's definitely time you got a little rest! Greeneyes, I swear if I wasn't around, you'd wear yourself into a wraith."
"Not a wraith-" Kethry yawned, but before she could finish her thought, she was asleep.
They left the next morning with the entreaties of the four youngest children still in their ears. Despite the distraction of the new "pet" they still wanted the two women to stay. None of the six had wanted Tarma, in particular, to leave.
"I'd've liked to stay," Tarma said, a bit wistfully, as she turned in her saddle to wave farewell.
"So would I -- at least for a bit," Kethry sighed. "Need's not giving me any choice though -- she's nagging me half to death. All last night I could feel her pulling on me; a few more days of that and I'll start chewing furniture. Besides, I had the distinct impression that Landric was eying me with the faint notion of propositioning me this morning."
"You should have taken him up on it, Greeneyes," Tarma chuckled. "You could do worse."
"Thank you, but no thank you. He's a nice enough man -- and I'd kill him inside of a week. He has very firm notions about what a wife's place is, and I don't fit any of them. And he wouldn't be any too pleased about your bringing up his offspring as Shin'a'in either! You just want me married off so you can start raising a new clan!"
"Can't blame me for trying," Tarma shrugged, wearing a wry grin. The loss of her old clan was far enough in the past now that it was possible for Kethry to tease her about wanting to start a new one. "You did promise the council that that was what you'd do."
"And I will -- but in my own good time, and with the man of my choice, one who'll be a friend and partner, not hope to rule me. That's all very well for some women, but not for me. Furthermore, any husband of mine would have to be pleased with the idea that my oathsister will be training our children as Shin'a'in. I didn't promise the Council, she'enedra," she rode close enough to catch Tarma's near hand and squeeze it. "I promised you."
Tarma's expression softened, as it had when she'd been with the children. "I know it, dearling," she replied, eyes misting a trifle, "And you know that I never would have asked you for that -- never. Ah, let's get moving; I'm getting maudlin."
Kethry released her hand with a smile, and they picked up their pace.
They entered the town, which huddled at the foot of the lord's keep like a collection of stellat shoots at the foot of the mother tree. The ever-present dust covered the entire town, hanging in a brown cloud over it. Warrl they left outside, not wanting to chance the stir he'd cause if they brought him in with them. He would sneak in after dark, and take up residence with their horses in the stable, or with them, if they got a room on the ground floor with a window. Taking directions from the gate-guard, they found an inn. It was plain, but clean enough to satisfy both of them, and didn't smell too strongly of bacon and stale beer.
"When's feeding time for the monster?" Tarma asked the innkeeper.
"Today -- if ye get yerselves t' the main gate, ye'll see the procession--"
The procession had the feeling of a macabre carnival. It was headed by the daughter of Lord Havirn, mounted on a white pony, her hands shackled by a thin gold chain. Her face bore a mingling of petulance at having to undergo the ceremony, and peevish pride at being the center of attention. Her white garments and hair all braided with flowers and pearls showed the careful attentions of at least two servants. Those maidservants walked beside her, strewing herbs; behind them came a procession of priests with censors. The air was full of incense smoke battling with the ubiquitous dust.
"What's all that about?" Kethry asked a sunburned farmwoman, nodding at the pony and its sullen rider.
"Show; nothing but show. M'lord likes to pretend it's his daughter up for sacrifice -- but there is the real monster fodder," she pointed toward a sturdy farm cart, that contained a heavily-bound, scurvy-looking man, whose eyes drooped in spite of his fate. "They've drugged 'im, poor sot, so's the monster knows it'll get an easy meal. They'll take milady up the hill, with a lot of weepin' and wailin', and they'll give each of the heroes a little gold key that unlocks her chain. But it's the thief they'll be tying to the stake, not her. Reckonn you that if some one of the heroes ever does slay the beast, that the tales will be sayin' he saved her from the stake shackles, 'stead of that poor bastard?"
"Pity they haven't tried to feed her to the beast -- it'd probably die of indigestion, she's that spoiled."
They watched the procession pass with a jaundiced eye, then retired to their inn.
"I think, all things considered," Tarma said after some thought, as they sat together at a small table in the comfort and quiet of their room at the inn. "That the best time to get at the thing is at the weekly feeding. But after it's eaten, not before."
"Lady knows I'd hate being part of that disgusting parade, but you're right. And while it's in the open -- well, magics may bounce off its hide, but there are still things I could do to the area around it. Open up a pit under it, maybe."
"We'd have to--" Tarma was interrupted by wild cheering. When peering out of their window brought no enlightenment, they descended to the street.
The streets were full of wildly rejoicing people, who caught up the two strangers, pressing food and drink on them. There was too much noise for them to ask questions, much less hear the answers.
An increase in the cheers signaled the arrival of the possible answer -- and by craning their necks, the two saw the clue to the puzzle ride by, carried on the shoulders of six merchants. It was one of the would -- be heroes they'd seen going out with the procession; he was blood-covered, battered, and bruised, but on the whole, in very good shape. Behind him came the cart that had held the thief -- now it held the head of something that must have been remarkably ugly and exceedingly large in life. The head just barely fit into the cart.
The crowd carried him to the same inn where the two women were staying, and deposited him inside. Tarma seized Kethry's elbow and gestured toward the stableyard; she nodded, and they wriggled their way through the mob to the deserted court.
"Well! Talk about a wasted trip!" Tarma wasn't sure whether to be relieved or annoyed.
"I hate to admit it--" Kethry was dearly chagrined.
"So Need's stopped nagging you?"
"Figures. Look at it this way -- what good would Lord Havirn's daughter or his lands have done us?"
"We could have used the lands, I guess--" Tarma's snort cut Kethry's words off. "Ah, I suppose it's just as well. I'm not all that unhappy about not having to face that beast down. We've paid for the room, we might as well stay the night."
"The carnival they're building up ought to be worth the stay. Good thing Warrl can take care of himself -- I doubt he'll be able to sneak past that mob."
The "carnival" was well worth staying for. Lord Havirn broached his own cellar and kitchens, and if wine wasn't flowing in the fountains, it was because the general populace was too busy pouring it down their collective throats. Neither of the women were entirely sober when they made their way up to their beds.
A few scant minutes after reaching their room, however, Kethry was sober again.
The look of shock and surprise on her partner's face quickly sobered Tarma as well. "What's wrong?"
"It's Need -- she's pulling again."
"Oh, bloody hell!" Tarma groaned and pulled her leather tunic back over her head. "Good thing we hadn't put the candle out. How far?"
"Close. It's not anywhere near as strong as the original pull either. I think it's just one person this time--"
Kethry opened the door to their room, and stared in amazement at the disheveled girl huddled in the hall just outside.
The girl was shivering; had obviously been weeping. Her clothing was torn and seemed to have been thrown on. Both of them recognized her as the inn's chambermaid. She looked up at them with entreaty and burst into a torrent of tears.
"Oh, bloody hell!" Tarma repeated.
When they finally got the girl calmed down enough to speak, what she told them had them both incensed. The great "hero" was not to be denied anything, by Lord Havirn's orders -- except, of course, the lord's daughter. That must wait until they were properly wedded. That he need not languish out of want, however, the innkeeper had been ordered to supply him with a woman, should he want one.
Naturally, he wanted one. Unfortunately, the lady who usually catered to that sort of need was "inconvenienced" with her moon-days. So rather than pay the fee of an outside professional, the innkeeper had sent up the chambermaid, Fallan -- without bothering to tell her why she was being sent.
"--'m a good girl, m'lady. I didna understand 'im at first; thought 'e wanted another bath or somesuch. But 'e grabbed me 'fore I knew what 'e was about. An' 'e tore me clothes, them as took me a month's wages. An 'e-'e-" another spate of tears ensued. " 'E was mortal cruel, m'lady. 'E-when I didna please 'im, 'e beat me. An' when 'e was done, 'e threw me clothes at me, an' 'e yelled for me master, an' tol' 'im I was no bloody good, an' what did 'e think 'e was about, anyway givin' 'im goods that was neither ripe nor green? Then me master, 'e-'e- turned me off! Tol' me t' make meself vanish, or 'e'd beat me 'imself!"
"He did what?" Tarma was having trouble following the girl, what with her thick accent and Tarma's own rising anger.
"He discharged her. The bastard sent her up to be raped, then has the bloody almighty gall to throw her out afterward!" Kethry was holding onto her own temper by the thinnest of threads.
" Ve got nowhere to go, no references -- what 'm I going to do?" the girl moaned, hugging her knees to her chest, still plainly dazed.
"She'enedra, get the brandy. I'll put her in my bed, you and I can sleep double," Kethry said in an undertone. "Child, worry about it in the morning. Here -- drink this."
"I can't go back 'ome -- they 'aven't got the means to feed the childer still too little to look for work," she continued in a monotone. "I bain't virgin for two years now, but I been as good as I could be. I bain't no lightskirt. All I ever wanted was t' put by enough for a dower -- maybe find some carter, some manservant willin' t' overlook things; have a few childer of me own." She was obviously not used to hard liquor; the brandy took hold of her very quickly. She mumbled on for a bit longer, then collapsed in Kethry's bed and fell asleep.
"I'd like to skewer this damned innkeeper," Tarma growled.
Kethry, who'd been checking the girl for hurts, looked up with a glower matching Tarma's. "That makes two of us. Just because the girl's no virgin is no excuse for what he did -- and then to turn her out afterward--" Tarma could see her hands were trembling with controlled rage. "Come look at this."
"Ungentle" was a distinct understatement for the way the girl had been mauled about. She was bruised from knee to neck, ugly, purple things. Kethry took Need from beneath the bed and placed it beside her, then covered her with the blankets again.
"Well, that will take care of the physical problems -- but what about the bruising of her spirit?"
"I don't have any answers for you," Kethry sighed, rage slowly cooling. "But, you know, from the way she talked, it isn't the rape that bothers her so much as the fact that she's been turned out. What we really need to do is find her somewhere to go."
"Bloody hell. And us knowing not a soul here. Well -- let's worry about it in the morning."
In the morning, it seemed that their erstwhile charge was determined to take care of the problem by attaching herself to them.
They woke to find her busily cleaning both their swords -- though what she'd made of finding Need beside her when she woke was anyone's guess. Tarma's armor lay neatly stacked, having already been put in good order, and their clothes had been brushed and laid ready. The girl had both pairs of boots beside her, evidently prepared to clean them when she finished with the swords.
"What's all this about?" Tarma demanded, only half awake.
The girl jumped -- her lip quivered as she replied, looking ready to burst into tears again. "Please, m'lady -- I want to go with ye when y' leave. Ye haven't a servant, I know. See? I c'n take good care of ye both. An' I can cook, too -- an' wash an' mend. I don' eat much, an' I don' need much. Please?"
"I was afraid this would happen," Kethry murmured. "Look, Fallan, we really can't take you with us -- we don't need a servant --" She stopped as the girl burst into tears again, and sighed with resignation. "-- oh, Bright Lady. "All right, we'll take you with us. But it won't be forever, just until we can find you a new place."
" 'Just until we can find you a new place.' She'ene-dra, I am beginning to think that this time that sword of yours has driven us too far. Three days on the road, and it's already beginning to seem like three years."
Fallan had not adjusted well to the transition from chambermaid to wanderer. It wasn't that she hadn't tried -- but to her, citybred as she was, the wilderness was a place beset by unknown perils at every turn. Every snake, every insect was poisonous; she stayed up, kept awake by terror, for half of every night, listening to the sounds beyond their fire. Warrl and the mares terrified her.
They'd had to rescue her twice -- once from the river she'd fallen into, once from the bramble thicket she'd run into, thinking she heard a bear behind her. For Fallan, every strange crackle of brush meant a bear; one with Fallan-cutlets on his mind.
At the same time, she was stubbornly refusing to give up. Not once did she ask the two women to release her from her self-imposed servitude. No matter how frightened she became, she never confessed her fear, nor did she rush to one or the other of them for protection. It was as if she was determined to somehow prove -- to herself, to them, perhaps to both -- that she was capable of facing whatever they could.
"What that girl needs is a husband," Kethry replied wearily. "Give her things to do inside four walls, things she knows, and she's fine, but take her out here, and she's hopeless. If it weren't for the fact that the nearest town is days away, I'd even consider trying to get her another job at an inn."
"And leave her open to the same thing that happened before? Face it, that's exactly what would happen. Poor Fallan is just not the type to sell her favors by choice, and not ugly enough to be left alone. Bless her heart, she's too obedient and honest for her own good -- and, unfortunately, not very bright. No solution, Greeneyes. Too bad most fanners around here don't need or can't afford woman servants, or --" she stopped with an idea suddenly occurring to her. Kethry had the same idea.
"The very same. He seems kind enough --"
"No fear of that. He's Wheel-bound. When he took that tattoo, he took with it a vow to balance the evil he'd done previously with good. That's why he became a farmer, I suspect, to balance the death he'd sown as a soldier with life. Did his children look ill-treated?"
"Contrarywise. Healthiest, happiest bunch I've seen outside of a Clan gathering. The only trouble-"
"-is, does she know how to deal with younglings? Let's head for Landric's place. You can talk to her on the way, and we'll see how she handles them when we get there."
Two days of backtracking saw them on the road within a few furlongs of Landric's farm. Landric's eldest spotted them as he had before and ran to tell his father. Landric met them on the road just where it turned up the path to his farmstead, his face wreathed in smiles.
"I had not thought to see you again, when the news came that the monster had been slain," he told Tarma warmly.
"Then you also know that we arrived just a bit too late to do the slaying ourselves."
"If I were to tell the truth, I'm just as grateful for your sake. The hero had a cadre of six hirelings, and all six of them died giving him the chance he needed. I would have been saddened had their fate been yours. Oh -- that little pet you left for the children has been beyond price."
"If we'd gone down that thing's gullet, you wouldn't have been half as saddened as I!" Tarma chuckled. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kethry, Fallan, and the children entering the house. "Listen, you're in the position to do us a favor, Landric. I hate to impose upon you, but -- well, we've got another 'pet' to find a home for." Quickly and concisely she laid out Fallan's pathetic story. "-- so we were hoping you'd know someone willing to take her in. She's a good worker, I can tell you that; it's just that she's just not suited for the trail. And to tell you the truth, she's not very flexible. I think we shock her."
He smiled slowly. "I am not quite that stupid, Sworn One. You hope that I will take her in, don't you?"
"Oh, well, I'll admit the thought did cross my mind," Tarma smiled crookedly.
"It is a possibility. It would neatly balance some wrongs I committed in my soldiering days ..." His eyes grew thoughtful. "I'll tell you -- let's see how she does with the younglings. Then I'll make my decision."
By the look in Landric's eyes when they crossed the threshold, Tarma knew he'd made up his mind. It wasn't just that Fallan had duplicated their feats of setting the place to rights, (although it wasn't near the task they'd had) nor was it the savory stew odor coming from the kettle on the hearth, nor the sight of five of the six children lined up with full bowls on their knees, neatly stowing their dinner away. No, what made up Landric's mind was the sight of Fallan, the youngest on her lap, cuddling him and drying his tears over the skinned knee he'd just acquired, and she looking as blissful as if she'd reached heaven.
They stayed a week, and only left because they'd agreed to act as caravan guards before all this began and would be late if they stayed longer.
Fallan had been in her element from the moment they'd entered the door. And with every passing day, it looked as though Landric was thinking of her less as a hireling and more in the light of something else.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Tarma asked her partner as soon as they were out of earshot.
"That he'll be wedding her before too long? Probably. There's mutual respect and liking there, and Fallan loves the children. She even likes the little beastie! It's not a life that would appeal to me or you -- but it looks like exactly what she wants. There've been worse things to base a marriage on."
"Like the lord's daughter and her 'hero'?" Tanna grimaced. "I don't know whether to feel sorrier for him or her or both. From the little I saw and heard, she's no prize, and m'lord is likely to have made an arrangement that keeps the pursestrings in his hands and out of her husband's."
"Which is hardly what he'd counted on when he went to slay the monster. On the other hand, we have reason to know the man is an insensitive brute. They deserve each other," Kethry replied thoughtfully.
"As Landric and Fallan do. There's your real heroes -- the people who keep coping, keep trying, no matter how many blows Fate takes at them. Nobody'll make a song about them, but they're heroes all the same," Tarma said soberly, then grinned. "Now, if we're going to get our deserts, we'll have to earn 'em. Let's ride, she'enedra -- before that damned sword of yours finds something else it wants us to do!"
Ever have one of those days?
Sometimes you can get into more trouble just because of Murphy's Law than for any other reason. The problem with heroic fantasy is that very few of the heroes seem to be affected by Murphy's Law.
But very few heroic fantasy heroes are like Tarma and Kethry.
Tarma shena Tale'sedrin, Swordsworn Shin'a'in, was up to her earlobes in a different kind of battle than she usually fought.
A battle with current finances.
Where does it all go? I could swear we just got paid....
Huh. Down the throats of the mares, us, and that eating-machine that calls itself a kyree, that's where.
She and her partner, the White Winds sorceress Kethry, had taken to the marketplace armed with slender pouches of copper coins; no silver there. With luck, they would be able to stretch those pouches of coin enough to cover provisions for the two humans, the two Shin'a'in battlemares, and Warrl, the wolflike kyree. Those provisions had to last for at least three weeks, the time it would take them to get to their next job.
There was a certain amount of self-provisioning they could do. Warrl could hunt some for himself, and so could Tarma and Kethry if they were careful. Warrl was quite intelligent enough to confine his hunting to nondomestic beasts, and there were always rabbits living in hedgerows that could be snared. But this was farm country, and there was very little for the warhorses to forage on along the roadside -- and if those rabbits proved elusive, any fresh meat would have to go first to Warrl.
It was at times like this that Tanna wished her partner had been a little less generous to her ex-"husband" -- or rather, to his other victims. A spot of judicious blackmail or a decision to claim some of the bastard's blood-money for herself would have left them with a nice cushion to get them over lean spots like this one. Granted, once they arrived at Kata'shin'a'in, they should have no trouble picking up a caravan job -- and with luck, it might be a very lucrative one. Their friends, Dean and Justin, had promised to put in a good word for them with the gem merchants whose caravans they habitually guarded, and a good word from them would mean a great deal. They did so well over the course of a year that they never had to scramble for work during the lean season; they were able to find a friendly inn and take a rest over the winter, if they chose.
But first, she and Kethry had to get to Kata'shin'a'in, and the start of the caravan routes.
And to get to Kata'shin'a'in, they needed provisions.
They were so short on money that they were not even staying in an inn; despite the bitter, early spring weather, despite the very real threat of sleet and foul weather, they were camped outside the city walls.
Their tent cost nothing, and the walls were overgrown with weeds -- dried now, but sufficient fodder for a couple of days, so long as Tarma supplemented their gleanings with a grain ration.
Tarma would be bargaining for the horses' grain; Kethry, with the remainder of their slim resources, was to buy the humans' rations, and Warrl's. The kyree himself remained at the camp -- between the presence of Warrl and the warsteeds, the camp was safer than if there had been two armed guards there. In a way, Tanna pitied anyone who was stupid enough to try to rob it.
There were at least a dozen folk in the market selling grain and hay, and Tarma intended to check them all before making a purchase. She made her way down the stone-paved street of the beast-market, with the cobbles wet and slippery under her boots, and the calls, squalls, and bellows of everything from huge oxen to cages full of pigeons on all sides. The stalls for the feed-sellers themselves were simple canvas awnings fronting stables, corrals and warehouses, none of which had anything to do with what was being sold under the awnings. There was a scattering of grain on the cobbles, and a great deal of straw underfoot. The air was damp, chilly, and smelled strongly of too many animals crowded too closely together.
Eleven of the twelve were unremarkable; farmers, and all within a hair of each other so far as price went. Tarma was not in a position to buy so much that any of them were likely to make a special price for her. The twelfth, however ...
The twelfth was some kind of priest, or so it seemed. He wore some kind of rough brown cassock with an unbleached linen surcoat and a rope belt; with him were two young men in similar robes, but no surcoat.
Tarma had always gotten along fairly well with other clergy, and these folk looked friendly, but harried. The elder of the trio had a frown of worry, and the two younger looked rather harassed. She watched them as she made desultory attempts to bargain with the last of the farmers, a stolid, square fellow, and began to feel sorry for them. It seemed that if it wasn't for ill-luck, the three clergymen would have no luck. Their straw bales would not stay stacked, toppling any time anyone brushed against them. The canvas roof of their stall drooped, threatening to fall at any moment. One of their carthorses had gone lame and wore a poultice on its off-hind foot, and the canvas they had used to cover the hay on the way in had leaked, spoiling half the hay, which had burst its bales and now covered the street and the floor of their stall.
Another customer, more eager to buy than Tarma, engaged the farmer's attention. She made no attempt to regain it; instead, she drifted over to the sagging stall of the clerics.
"Greetings," she said, carefully, for although she got along well with other clergy, sometimes the reverse was not true. This time, however, the chiefest of the clerics greeted her with something like harried enthusiasm.
"And to you, Shin'a'in," he replied in the common Trade-tongue. "I hope your fortune this day has been better than ours."
"I cannot see how it could have been worse," she replied, just as the sagging canvas gave way, and the chief cleric dodged out of the way. The two assistants scrambled to prop it back up again, one of them swearing with a most unpriestly set of oaths and tone to his voice. His superior gave him a reproachful look, and the offender flushed with embarrassment, bending quickly to his work. The elder cleric simply sighed.
Tarma shook her head. 'It's hard for the young to adjust," she offered. "Especially under provocation."
The priest only smiled, wearily. Very wearily. "We have been experiencing somewhat extreme provocation lately."
As the canvas gave way a second time, this time swatting the poor young men in the side of the head, Tarma bit her lip, torn between sympathy and laughter. "So I see," she replied tactfully. "Ah -- have you any grain?"
Kethry sighed, and told herself to be patient; Tarma never shirked, and if she was late, there was a reason for it. The lot of partnership was to pick up when your partner wasn't there to deal with her share. Tarma had done that in the past for Kethry, and while the sorceress was muscle-sore, hot, and tired, she kept her temper carefully reined in. She simply did the work, and when Tarma finally put in her appearance, the Shin'a'in looked as if she had been through just as much as Kethry. Beads of sweat ran down her temples, bits of hair had escaped from her neat braids and straggled into her eyes. Her shoulders sagged under bags of grain, and she was breathing heavily. "How did you do?" Kethry asked her partner. "I hope your booty was worth the wait."
She had already packed up the tent and both sets of gear; the horses were saddled and bridled and standing ready. Even Warrl was pacing back and forth under the walls, impatient, ready to go. They had planned to get their provisions quickly and be on their way before noon; it was nearly that now, and Kethry could not imagine what had kept Tarma for so long.
"Yes and no," Tarma replied, frowning a little. "I got the grain at a pretty good price, but -- Keth, I swear there's a plague of bad luck going around this town! I'd no sooner gotten the grain and my change, than some damn fool upended a cartload of stable leavings across my path. And from there, things got worse. Everywhere I went, it seemed like there was something blocking the street. I got involved in street brawls, I got trampled by a runaway carthorse -- I wound up going halfway to the other side of town before I could get back to the gate. I caught the bags before they were about to split and managed to save most of the grain, but that meant I had to get new bags. I can't wait to get out of here."
"Well, that makes two of us," Kethry replied, with an eye to the gathering clouds. "With any luck, we can beat this storm."
Tarma stowed the grain bags carefully in their packs. Too carefully, it seemed to Kethry, as if she didn't quite trust the sacks to hold. That seemed odd, but maybe Tarma had gotten spooked by all the misfortune in town. She was ready to be out of there; the sooner they got to Kata'shin'a'in, the better.
But it seemed that the plague of bad luck that had struck the town had decided to follow them. Already they were half a day late on their schedule; and when they were too far down the road to turn back, the sky opened up, even though it looked as if it was about to clear.
There was no warning at all; one moment the road was dry, the sun peeked through the clouds -- the next, a cold, sleet-laden downpour soaked them to the skin.
There was nowhere to go, no place to shelter from the torrent. There was nothing on either side of the road but fields; fields of cattle that had wisely huddled together, fields of sheep who also huddled in a woolly mound, or empty fields awaiting the farmer's plow. No trees, just hedgerows; no houses, no sheds, not even a single haystack that they might burrow into to escape the rain.
So they rode onward under the lowering sky, onward into the gathering dark.
Kethry was chilled to the bone in the first candlemark, so cold that she couldn't even shiver. She simply bent her head to the rain, which penetrated her clothing and plastered it to her skin. The cape she wore, which had been perfectly waterproof until that day, was not proof against this rain.
Warrl paced at the heel of Tarma's horse, head and tail down, fur plastered against his skin and looking just as miserable as Kethry felt. At least she was riding -- poor Warrl splashed along the road, ankle-deep in mud.
And even as she thought that, Hellsbane slipped and slid in the mud -- and a moment later, so did Ironheart. Kethry clung to the saddle, dropping the reins to let Ironheart find her own footing; for a heart-stopping moment, she thought that her mount was going to go over, falling on her-
Her heart clenched, her throat closed, and her hands clutched the saddlebow. Ironheart scrambled to get her feet under her again; went to her knees--
And rose. Kethry caught her breath again, as her heart fluttered and slowed. Then her heart dropped into her stomach, as the mare staggered and limped.
She dismounted quickly and felt blindly for the mare's rear hock. Sure enough, her probing fingers encountered an ankle already hot and swelling. She looked up from under a dripping curtain of hair to see Tarma doing the same, and shaking her head.
"Lame," her partner said flatly, when she caught Kethry's eye. "Yours?"
Kethry could only nod glumly.
Just before nightfall, they finally found shelter of a sort. They took refuge in a ruined barn, with just enough of its roof intact to give a place for all of them to escape the rain. By then, Kethry had more bad news. She was not normally prey to female troubles, but the twisting of her guts and a deep ache just behind her navel told her that this session of moon-days was going to be one of the bad ones....
While Tarma struggled to light a fire, she rummaged in the saddlebags for herbs to ease her cramps. And came up with a sodden mess of paper packets. The seam on the top of the bag had parted, letting water trickle in all during their ride.
Behind her, she heard her partner sneeze.
Sneeze? Tarma? She never--
"Sheka," the Shin'a'in swore, her already harsh voice with a decidedly raspy edge to it. Kethry whirled, alarmed.
A tiny fire smoked and struggled to burn already wet wood, and the face Tarma turned up to her partner was red-eyed and red-nosed. The Shin'a'in sneezed again, convulsively, and sniffed moistly.
"Oh, hell," Kethry swore. "Oh, bloody hell."
Tarma nodded, and coughed.
There was nothing for it; wet and sodden as the herbs were, they were all she and her partner had to take care of their ills and the sprained hocks of their horses. She emptied out the saddlebag, carefully; separated the packets of herbs while Tanna tried to find them something dry to change into and started two pots of water boiling on the fire. Herbs for the poultices went right into the wet bandage; for this, at least, it wouldn't matter that they were soaked. As Tarma bandaged the warsteeds' sprains, she made two sets of tea, blessing her teachers for forcing her to learn how to distinguish herbs by taste.
And, given that everything else had been going wrong, Kethry made very certain that the metal pots were no closer to the flames than they had to be -- and that they were quite dissimilar.
Eventually, Tarma found an odd assortment of dry clothing, most of which was ill-suited to the chill of the air. Still, it was dry, and with enough clothing layered on, they might pass the rest of the night a little warmer, if not in comfort.
The tea, as might have been expected, was lukewarm and weak, but it was better than nothing. And meanwhile, Tarma's sneezes and coughs grew more frequent, and her guts twisted.
They sipped their tea, nibbled the soaked remains of one packet of their travel bread. Neither of them had the heart to check further to see if the rest of their rations had suffered from the leak.
"Cand you casd some kind ob sbell?" Tarma asked miserably. "Healig, or somedig?"
"Not while I've got -- cramps," Kethry replied, pausing for the pain to ease. "Anything I do will backfire. I can't hold the concentration."
"Ad I sbose Need wond do anydig, since id's nod life-threadenig?" Tarma sneezed convulsively, and wiped her nose with a leftover bandage-rag.
"That's right. I can't believe this," Kethry said, teeth clenched against a spasm of her stomach. "It's like everything that could go wrong has gone wrong! It's like we've been cursed -- but who would have bothered? And why?"
"Damn ib I doe, Greeneyes," Tarma said thickly. She turned out her purse on the blanket they shared, and a few small copper pieces chinked together. "Ib we ebber get to a town, is this going to be enough to ged more herbs?"
Kethry reached for the coins, and froze, her hand outstretched. There was something there that was not a coin.
"Where did this come from?" she asked, stirring the coins with her fingernail, and turning up something that looked like a coin, but wasn't.
It was about the size of a copper-piece, but was bronze, not copper, and inscribed with odd symbols. Tarma looked at it, her expression puzzled.
"Don'd know," she replied. "Wid da change, maybe. Wad is id?"
Kethry decided that there was nothing more to lose by picking the thing up, and her jaw clenched. "You must have gotten this in with your change," she said, angrily. "From those priests. This is why we've been having all this bad luck. Dammit! It's a cursed coin; has to want it -- and I won't pass this thing off on someone innocent, I just won't."
:Admirable,: Warrl said dryly. :Stupid, but admirable.:
Kethry turned on him. "Don't you start!" she snarled. "If you want to do something useful, we should reach Ponjee tomorrow morning. Help me find someone who deserves this damned thing, then help me think of a way to make him take it!"
Warrl recoiled, his ears flattened, and blinked at her vehemence. Tarma made a choking sound.
It sounded like a suppressed laugh and Kethry raised an eyebrow. "What's so funny?" she asked.
"You won'd like id," Tarma said, still chuckling between blowing her nose and coughing.
"If it's enough to make you laugh-"
"He said, 'Mages be glad I'm a neuder.'"
Kethry blinked slowly, then smiled slowly. No point in getting angry -- and besides, she had just thought of something useful.
"Well, Warrl," she said sweetly, "It just occurred to me that these things have a range of about ten furlongs. And we need meat. Now obviously, anything we do is doomed to failure -- but you can go out there and catch us all something outside that range. Can't you."
Warrl's ears drooped, and he sighed, but he obediently got up and padded out into the wet and dark.
Tarma held her laughter until he was out of range, then chuckled. "Revenge id sweed," she observed.
"And even a neuter should know better than to annoy a female with an aching gut," Kethry agreed. "Now -- let's figure out how to subvert this stupid talisman as much as we can...."
The rain stopped before dawn; Warrl brought back two rabbits and only dropped them in the mud once. They had decided that the way to deal with the talisman was to make very certain that there were as few opportunities for something to go wrong as possible. Which meant, nothing could be taken for granted. Everything must be checked and double-checked. They were to check each other and remind each other of things that needed to be done, no matter how annoying it got.
And it got annoying very shortly, yet somehow they both managed to keep their tempers, mostly by reining them in.
The village of Ponjee was not terribly prepossessing. A huddle of mud-and-daub huts around a center square, straddling the road. No inn, but careful inquiries brought the name of someone who sold herbs. Tarma kept the talisman in her pouch and waited outside the village until Kethry was outside of the damn thing's range; the mage bought the herbs they needed without incident, and stowed them in the still-waterproof saddlebag before Tarma brought the thing close again.
As if their attempt to get around its powers angered it, before they had a chance to leave the place, Kethry's blade Need "woke" with a vengeance.
Immediately she had a splitting headache -- and as if to make certain that there was no mistake about a female in trouble, the sounds of shrieking and a woman being beaten sounded from the last house in the village.
Kethry had no choice; given the way the sword was reacting -- and the pain it was putting her through -- she wouldn't even be able to get past that hut without blacking out. If then. Need could be very persistent in seeing that her bearer dealt with the troubles of those women unable to help themselves.
The door was open; right up until the moment they reached it. Then it slammed shut in Tarma's face, and Tarma hit it at a dead run, like a comic in a farce. She bounced off it and landed on her rump in the mud of the street; Kethry, several steps behind, prepared to hit it with her shoulder and ram it open-
But it opened again, just as she reached it, and she staggered across the threshold and into a table laden with dirty pots and pans. The table collapsed, of course, and the pots and pans fell all around her.
By then Tarma was up and through the door. The man who had been -- quite dearly -- beating his woman, stared at her in amazement as she blundered inside.
And slipped on the mess spilled from the dirty pots. And fell again.
Need had, by now, taken over Kethry; she couldn't stop herself. She was on her feet, sword out-
Overreaction, of course, but that was the talisman's doing; it couldn't stop the sword, so it was making whatever it did be the worst possible response to the situation. And as Kethry realized that, she also realized that it had made certain Need was entirely inflamed, so that it took her over completely.
The man was unarmed and unarmored; it didn't matter. Need struck to kill.
At the last moment, Kethry managed to get enough control back to turn the flat of the blade on the man rather than the edge, and to hold back the blow a little.
It hit him in the head like a club, and he went down without a sound. But, thank the gods, not dead.
The moment her man went down the woman screamed with outrage.
Kethry couldn't quite make out what she was shrieking; the woman's dialect was so accented and so thick that she didn't get more than one word in five. But the meaning was clear enough- "How dare you bitches hit my man!" She grabbed crockery and anything else she could reach, hurling it and invective at the two of them. Tarma seized a pot lid to use as a shield; Kethry wasn't so lucky.
That was when the rest of the village decided to get involved.
"Now I know how Leslac feels," Tarma said wearily.
"Leslac doesn't have two battlemares and a kyree to hold off the enraged populace while he makes his escape," Kethry replied, blotting at a bruise on her forehead. "She'enedra, we have got to get rid of that damned thing. Either that, or we'd better take up living in a cave for a while."
:Your troubles are not yet over,: Warrl cautioned them. :There is a band of robbers on the road ahead. If you wish to avoid them, we will have to go back to the last crossroads and detour three or four days out of our way.:
Tarma cursed in three languages -- then stopped, as something occurred to her. "Keth -- how helpless can you look?"
"Pretty damned--" Understanding dawned on the sorceress' face, and she nodded. "Right. Don't say anything. I don't know how the curse works except that it doesn't seem to read thoughts. Here--" she unburdened herself of everything except Need and the money pouch, and handed it all to Tarma. "Fur-ball, you follow me on the other side of the hedgerow and call Tarma when the time is right."
Warrl nodded, and wormed his way through a gap in the hedge to the field on the other side. Kethry left her mare with Tarma and trudged on ahead, trying to look as much like a victim as possible.
The road twisted and turned here, and rose and fell as it went over gently rolling hills. Shortly Tarma was out of sight. Kethry might have been worried -- except that she was feeling too cold, sore, and generally miserable to bother with something as simple as "worry." Of course, given the way the talisman worked, the robbers would appear at the worst--