Pride of her Parents
…a light in the distance that only she could see, whose name was perhaps death, perhaps happiness…
A simple Shapierian thief finds herself become something she never wanted to be, and must embark on her own quest across Glorianna to redeem herself and reunite with the Hero she loves.
Unique to this story: spectacular Mary-Sue
Pride of her Parents
Chapter 1 – A Mistake
“We think you are ready to learn the thief sign,” announced Manta as the day’s training commenced, looking and sounding somber as usual. In careful, slow demonstration, he crossed his eyes, put his thumb to his nose, wiggled the remaining fingers of that hand, and rubbed his stomach with the other.
En Shevil, despite the long years she’d waited to learn the gesture that would be nearly the final step in her journal toward being an official thief, just could not help but giggle at the sight. The sound had barely left her mouth when Kylur was at her side, startling her. En Shevil’s early memories were of Manta and Kylur teaching her stealth, but even after eighteen years she was still unused to them appearing next to her at any given moment. Naturally they were completely silent — katta were like that, after all.
“This is a very serious thing, child,” said Kylur. “If you do not know the sign, you run the risk of a knife in your back.”
“I know,” En Shevil replied, putting a hand over her mouth to hide her amused smile. “I wish you’d taught it to me earlier…”
“We couldn’t have you running around making the sign to people until we felt you were old enough to handle yourself properly. Anywhere that there is no guild, one must be more cautious.”
En Shevil had often thought that the couple who had raised her were just about the only dishonest katta in all of Shapier. Manta had explained once that in the old days, there had been a sophisticated thievery system among the katta of Shapier, which had then been abolished when humans had muscled their way into the country. Now En Shevil planned to revive thievery in the city of Shapier, if she could, although she was a human. And perhaps it was this lofty ambition that had led her parents to be so wary of letting her spread her thiefly wings before they were sure of her ability — in any other country, she was sure, she would have learned something as essential as the thief sign years ago. Or perhaps it was just the guild thing.
“Try it,” said Manta, showing her the sign again. She attempted to copy him, but fell to giggling once more. “Very well,” sighed her foster-father, as always making a bigger deal of it than En Shevil would have thought he should. “We will do something else until you have regained your self-control.”
“I’m sorry,” she said with enforced calmness. “I’m ready to try seriously.” For a second time she made the sign.
“Move your fingers more regularly,” said Kylur sharply. En Shevil tried again, accustomed to her parents demanding perfection in even the simplest things but still laughing inwardly.
Once she had mastered the ridiculous move by their exacting standards, she was guided through the same process with the countersign and left to her own devices to practice. And as she had no desire to sit around in the back room at home doing this, she headed out to wander the streets.
She smiled at the guards as they passed her. There were usually guards patrolling Jamal Darb, it being so close to the palace. She hurried down that street and turned onto Hawa Darb, whence she went with a light step to the Plaza of the Palace.
There she loitered, watching people pass by and trying not to make eye contact with the merchants, any of whom would talk your ear off if you let them get started. She’d once tried to rob the silly jewel merchant by slipping into his window at night; however, he had awakened and she’d been forced to retreat. If Manta and Kylur had ever found out about that one…
Well, once she earned her lockpick — then she’d really have fun. Her foster-parents would not give her a lockpick until she had proven herself capable of using, concealing, and caring for one to their satisfaction. This, of course, was because there was no Thieves’ Guild in the city and therefore no aid for the hapless thief who got careless and got caught. Well, that and her revival ambition.
She decided to practice her latest skill. No one responded. With a sigh, she headed down Sultan Darb toward the Fountain Plaza. She made the thief sign to everyone she met along the way, but no countersign.
Oh, wonderful, she thought sarcastically as she reached the plaza. Omar… There, indeed, sat the ridiculous poet on a rug by the western door, spouting out some rhyming nonsense about honor. Just like every time she looked at him, she got the feeling she had seen him somewhere before, but it didn’t exactly matter as she couldn’t stand to be around him for more than five seconds. Next to him stood Ja’afar, the tall man who ‘translated’ the old idiot’s blather into plain language. His eyes seemed to be everywhere, and he always looked as if he had a secret.
Having no desire to put up with any of the old man’s sad excuse for poetry, En Shevil hurried away. A little annoyed at being denied her favorite spot, she ambled on through the city, slowly and leisurely, practicing the thief sign to kill time before she could return.
When she did so, Omar was gone from the plaza. On the ground where he had been, something glinted. En Shevil thought as she bent to pick it up, Stupid old man! I don’t think he’s ever done a reading here and not left something behind. Still, his loss was her gain, so she didn’t exactly curse his stupidity.
It was a pin, the kind commonly made by katta and very lovely — and better yet, rather expensive-looking. She glanced around casually to see that everyone was busy with their own affairs, and shoved it into her pocket. Quite a prize for a sharp-eyed thief.
When she reached the Plaza of the Palace on her way home, the sun had set and the merchants were gone. She sped up, eager for the night’s practice. Since Manta and Kylur’s legal trade was cushionry, a stand in the bazaar was out of the question, there being simply not enough room to display their wares, so they worked out of their own home. Thus, thievery lessons could only be conducted after dark when the door was locked for the night. Of course, Manta sometimes taught her the odd skill, as today, in the back room on slow days, but usually En Shevil was put to work doing chores, sewing, or running errands.
She bowed politely as she passed a late-staying customer at the door, and Manta locked the latter as she closed it. “Your mother has only finished dinner,” he said. “As usual, you’re just in time.”
They went into the kitchen and sat at the table while Kylur brought over their food on trays. “Lamb felafas again?” groaned En Shevil.
Kylur laughed as she took her place at the table, for this was an old complaint. “You know they’re your father’s favorite.”
“I know,” sighed the girl, poking reluctantly at her tray.
“Tonight’s task is a bedroom robbery,” said Kylur after supper.
“Wonderful,” replied En Shevil. She loved this type of exercise.
“You need to go in, find anything of value, take it, and get out. Manta will be the sleeping resident.” Kylur handed En Shevil a lockpick. “Go!”
She concealed most of the tool in her hand as she worked, bent over the lock on the bedroom door, ready to pull out and look innocent should Kylur decide to play guard. Quicker than it ever had before, the lock snapped and the door opened. En Shevil stepped quickly into the dark room and shut it softly, lest the light from outside waken the ‘sleeper.’ She paused to let her eyes adjust.
Here, she knew, katta had an advantage over humans with their ability to see in the dark and their sharper senses. However, with the techniques her parents had taught her, the darkness grew clearer, and she began to pick her way across to a chest in the corner.
Scouring the room took her less than two minutes, and soon she was out with the valuables in her pockets and arms. “You made very good time,” began Kylur as En Shevil spread the items before her, “and it looks as if you found everything.”
“That is not all she’s done,” said Manta, emerging from the bedroom.
“Oh, wonderful,” groaned En Shevil. “What now?” Manta was always more strict than Kylur. But as she looked at him, she realized that his expression was one of amazement.
“If I hadn’t been watching you the whole time, I would not have known that you were there. I don’t know where you found the time to practice, but it’s certainly paid off. I don’t think we need do any more stealth exercises.”
En Shevil was hard-pressed to conceal her astonishment. Though she would never argue with praise, this was beyond her. Practice? Not she! And though she felt she had done remarkably well that night, she couldn’t believe she had been quiet enough to evade katta hearing.
“Oh, yes,” she said absently, handing the lockpick to Kylur. “Here.”
“Keep it,” the woman said, looking at Manta for confirmation that he swiftly gave. “You’ve earned it.”
The thrill of this soon faded, however: she found after not many days that most people barred their doors, and she would have to earn a whole different set of tools to get past that barrier. Those that did not take this caution rarely owned anything worth money, but she soon taught them to be more scrupulous.
She didn’t know how or where her parents fenced the goods she brought them, but she was content for now with the small income she was bringing in. The one thing she could never bear to part with was the pin she had found.
There was something fascinating about it. It was shaped like a griffin with a blue gem in its chest and obviously very valuable, but somehow she did not want to sell it; it seemed precious to her somehow, although she could not tell why. She took to wearing it on her shirt wherever she went, removing it only when Omar was seen in the Fountain Plaza.
Nearly two months, and six robberies, later, she was wandering Shmali Tarik and happened to look down to that strange purple door with the eye painted on it. She knew the sorceress Aziza lived there, but En Shevil had never seen her. On a whim, she grinned and altered her course. I wonder what kind of valuables a sorceress keeps.
She slid her lockpick from the metal band that held her blonde hair. The latter, a color unusual to desert-dwellers, had always made her suspect that she had been born of parents from somewhere north and east, specifically Spielburg. Because of this, she had always kept up with the news thence, and it was a point of interest to her that recently the long-lost daughter of Stefan von Spielburg had finally been returned to him. But En Shevil did not know the details — something to do with brigands — and hadn’t been able to hear them anywhere.
Returning to the task at hand, the thief pushed the pick gently into the lock and gave it a slight twist as a test. There was a snapping sound, and an abrupt jolt of unexpected pain stabbed through her. She jerked back her hand as she fell to the ground, her fingers closing reflexively over the tool. The pain seemed to echo in her body, throbbing sullenly and slowly fading. Clutching the lockpick tightly, she lay curled up on the street for how long she knew not.
Teach me to mess with a sorceress, she thought painfully. Chest pounding, she hauled herself up the wall, slipping halfway and sluggishly growing stronger. As she finally stumbled to her feet, she conjectured that another attack like that would kill her. She decided it would be wise to go home. Throwing a look over her shoulder at the door, she shuffled haltingly back up the street, bent over and holding her chest with her left arm while replacing her lockpick with her right. She had only gone a few paces when she was forced to stop and lean, gasping, against the wall once again. Movement awakened physical memories of that pain. And all the while she was wondering whether the door had merely been enchanted or if Aziza had been watching her the entire time. She fervently hoped the first, rather than the second, to be true. And thus, slowly, she made her way home.
After being confined to the house for a week, partly as punishment for being so foolish and partly so that she could recover, she was finally free again, and so she went out to wander the streets. She noted with interest a new inn at Gates Plaza, but decided to defer making her first curious visit to a later date. She was in a thoughtful mood, and preferred not to meet people. So she mostly avoided the plazas.
She did not pay attention to where she was until she turned a corner and suddenly heard shouting. She looked around, realizing that she stood on Dinar Tarik and that around the next turn was the shop of the money changer, who seemed to be having an argument with someone.
En Shevil crept to the meeting of the walls, crouched, and peered around. In front of Dinarzaad’s window stood a disgustingly muscular, half-clothed man with no hair. Even the money changer’s guard, standing close by with sword drawn, looked dwarfed by him. En Shevil realized that she had seen him somewhere before. Yes… he kept one of the shops in town.
“–talk to you however I want!” he was shouting.
“Issur, I won’t, and that’s my last word,” responded Dinarzaad, her tone equally loud.
“Yes, you will!” said Issur, whom En Shevil finally remembered to be the weapon maker from the Fighters Plaza.
“All right, that’s it,” said Dinarzaad, spreading her arms out on the sill. “We’re through. No more relationship. The End.”
“Well, if that’s the way you want it,” he jeered, “but remember — you got mad at me, I never got mad at you.” He pointed at himself and her with the appropriate words. This statement did not seem to En Shevil particularly intelligent, relevant, or true, and she guessed that it concerned a previous argument, or the part of this one that she’d missed.
“I want my pin back,” said Dinarzaad.
“No way,” said Issur immediately. “That was a gift.”
“It was a loan!” she protested, her voice rising once again.
“You wanna take it to the sultan?” snarled Issur. “Fine. Hope he don’t ask where you got it. Or look too close at it.”
“Get out of here,” she commanded, pointing.
“Fine,” he snapped. “And remember, I’m not mad.”
En Shevil had barely time to press herself into the corner before Issur stormed past. Fortunately, he was too not-angry to notice her presence. Only when he was a safe distance down the street did she move, and to the sound of Dinarzaad’s near-scream of frustration walk into the tiny dead end Issur had just left.
“I’m closed,” the woman said sharply, reaching for the shutter of her window.
“Wait!” En Shevil said, stepping hastily up to the sill. She leaned forward. “I can get your pin back for you.”
Dinarzaad laughed darkly. “I like that. And I suppose you’re going to find Arus al-Din, may he live forever, as well?” En Shevil made the thief sign, just for good measure, as she prepared to speak again. Then she noticed that Dinarzaad was staring at her. “Where did you get that pin you’re wearing?” the woman asked softly. En Shevil glanced nervously at the guard who had replaced his sword and stood now by the wall. “Don’t worry,” the money changer assured her, “Franc does not speak or write. He knows my business. So, effenda thief, where did you get that?”
“I found it,” said En Shevil cautiously. “Why?”
“It’s a match to mine,” said Dinarzaad. “Mine which that jackass Issur has.”
“I can get it back for you,” said En Shevil eagerly, “if you’ll tell me where to go. And also, why is it so special?”
“I’ll tell you why they’re special if you can bring mine back, and I’ll also give you a hundred dinars.”
“Deal,” said the thief with excitement — Always control yourself in the presence of a prospective employer, Kylur had drilled into her, but it was difficult to restrain how thrilled she was at having received her first commission at such a high price.
Dinarzaad, who seemed rather amused at En Shevil’s eagerness, proceeded to give her directions. “One more thing,” she added as the girl turned to leave. “What’s your name?”
“En Shevil,” replied she.
“Pretty name,” said the money changer, repeating it. “That’s the old katta language, isn’t it? What does it mean?”
“‘Pride of her parents,'” said the thief.
The dark-haired beauty at the window smiled. “Would your parents be proud of you if they knew what you’re planning?”
“Oh, they would,” En Shevil assured her.
“Hey, kid!” En Shevil grabbed the arm of a hooky-playing child who ran past her at the eastern end of the Plaza of the Fighters.
“Leggo,” protested the child.
“Wait. Can you read yet?” En Shevil glanced towards the Guild Hall and back down at the kid. Then she looked up again, briefly. Before the hall stood a familiar rig of stands and rope; Agi the Agile was back to mock the uncoordinated Shapierians yet again.
“‘Course I can,” said the child proudly.
En Shevil let go his arm and crouched down to his level. “I’ll give you two dinars if you’ll take this into the Guild Hall and read it to Uhura.” And she held out a scrap of paper.
The kid stuck out his chin and looked at her. “Two fifty.”
“All right, fine, whatever,” said En Shevil impatiently, wanting very much to watch Agi: someone had accepted his challenge. “I’ll give you half now and half when you come back.” She counted the money out from her pocket and handed it to the kid, who scampered off in the same direction En Shevil now took.
It was the day after she had acquired her first official job as a thief, and being made to run errands all morning did not serve to take her mind off of it. At least she had escaped seeing Uhura. She joined the small, disinterested crowd around Agi’s tightrope. On the first platform stood a man whom she could only assume was the newly-arrived “Hero.” His hair was the same color as hers, and he looked slightly taller than she was.
She watched his blue-clad back as he began to walk the rope. En Shevil, four years ago, had taken Agi’s challenge, and had spent the entire day earning bruises and a bump on the head before she’d learned it. Usually now, each time he appeared, she would accept near the end of the day, provided no one else had, just to show his audience that it could actually be done. She was the only one in town, though, who had bothered to master this fairly useless skill. Now it seemed she had competition. She was amazed, really, at how well he did this, certain he must have learned it somewhere else and was just showing off. She would have waited for him to finish to ask him about it, but her child-helper emerged from the Guild Hall when the Hero was only halfway across the rope.
“She said, ‘that fine,'” the kid told her.
“Thanks, that was a real help,” said En Shevil, giving him the rest of his money. “Now, you better get to school before some guard finds you.” Shapierian children usually attended school until they were ten. Then, if they wanted further education, they would have to go elsewhere or seek an apprenticeship.
The child skipped off happily, and En Shevil hurried towards home and the rest of her chores, with only a brief backward glance at the man from Spielburg. He had reached the other platform and was climbing down the rope.
He must have done it before.
After dark that night, En Shevil crept from her house and headed in a state of high anticipation for the Fighters Plaza. At the doorway to Saif Darb, she paused, taking a deep breath and looking around. The plaza was shadowy, the brown-yellow stone appearing almost blue in the moonlight. As all spring nights were in the desert, the evening was warm, but a cool breeze floated down from the tops of the mountains, and she shivered — but that might have been with excitement.
There was a sudden noise to her right, and she jumped back into the doorway as a stream of light fell onto the ground from the door of the Guild Hall. She laughed at herself for being so nervous. It couldn’t be more than some idle traveler who had lingered talking to the Simbani woman.
Besides her glimpse that morning, En Shevil had heard only sketchy reports of the Hero, she having never been one for gossip, and her curiosity was merely idle interest in the fact that he came from Spielburg. But all of that changed when she had a close view of him, for he was by far the handsomest man she had ever seen.
Before he could escape her, she stepped from the street and said clearly in the merchants’ common tongue, “Good evening, effendi.”
He looked startled, and turned to face her. Then with a half smile he said, “Good evening.” She was glad now that she had managed to pick up on the language used by merchants worldwide during her time helping Manta and Kylur’s foreign customers. Neither of them had ever bothered to teach her. “Why out so late?”
“Well, I…” she found herself tongue-tied, and could not have explained why. Seeing her expression, he raised his hands, and, to her total amazement, made the thief sign. Shocked, she clumsily made the countersign, and as if with one accord they both headed out of the plaza and onto Saif Darb where they could talk.
“I saw you earlier today… what’s your name?” he asked.
“En Shevil,” she said, trying not to notice how pleasantly muscular he was — in a laid-back, active way, not like Issur’s carefully-developed body.
“I’m Achim, from Spielburg.”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “I’ve been wondering about you.” That was a lie — at least it would have been two minutes earlier — but it was a way to get him talking. “Did you really save Elsa von Spielburg from brigands?”
“In a manner of speaking,” he said, rubbing his neck thoughtfully. “It’s rather a long story.”
“Well, do you have time?” she asked. He looked at her, and she got the impression that he found her attractive. Good.
“Why not?” he said. “See, I was born in the northern part of Spielburg, not near the actual town or the barony at all. I wanted to be a Hero, so I applied to the Famous Adventurer’s Correspondence School……”
His story went on, and eventually shifted into talk and laughter between them. Suddenly En Shevil was conscious that the greenish light from the torches on the walls was not responsible for the glow around them. “Sunrise!” she exclaimed, jumping up. “I’ve got to get home!”
Achim yawned. “I suppose I should get some sleep.” He looked up at her. “I’m sorry I took you from your — er — job,” he said. “Can I see you again some time?”
“Of course!” she replied, probably with too much enthusiasm. Always control yourself in the presence of a prospective romantic interest, she chided herself, but, hey, she’d never been this attracted to a guy before.
“What about tomorrow — I suppose it’s tonight, now — here, at sunset?”
“Wonderful!” she said, and then changed her mind. “No, I really need to get this job done. What about, well, really tomorrow?” She had lowered her voice, hearing the bustle of the merchants in the brightening plaza beyond.
He stood up and looked down at her with a most engaging half-smile. “All right. Goodbye.” The smile turned into a grin that made her heart beat faster, then headed out into the plaza along with the rest of him. When he was gone, she realized she had forgotten to say goodbye.
That day dragged on, and on, and on, anticipation for the coming robbery making the time stretch terribly. Also, she was unused to staying out all night, so she was abnormally tired. There was no escape from her work, either: the forerider of a caravan that would arrive tomorrow or the day after had ordered a whole set of light sleeping-cushions, the kind generally used by large caravans going a long way.
Fortunately, she wasn’t imprisoned in the workroom the entire time; her parents did have a few errands for her. It was mid-afternoon, and she had been shopping for about three quarters of an hour, when she stopped by Gates Plaza to visit the forerider at the inn with some questions. She almost dropped the bundle she was carrying, though, when she reached the end of Junub Tarik and looked out onto the plaza.
The merchants were gone, along with their stands and blankets; not a soul was visible. The plaza’s on fire! Of course the plaza was not “on fire,” it being constructed primarily of stone — but fire was rife before her eyes in a roughly man-shaped pillar of flame that raced, dancing, from wall to wall.
En Shevil stood enraptured, staring at the beautiful flickering figure that seemed aimless, without thought, as it circled the plaza again and again. Until the voice spoke in her ear a second time she did not even mark its presence. “En Shevil?”
“I did get it right, didn’t I? En Shevil?”
It was Achim. “Yes,” she said in a slightly gasping tone, turning to find his face disconcertingly close to hers.
“An elemental.” He pointed out around her to the plaza.
“Omar warned about it the other night, and I didn’t take him seriously.”
She giggled. “Who could?”
He echoed her reaction. “I have to… I’m the Hero.” Striking a pose, he put his hand to the hilt of one of the daggers sheathed at his side.
She giggled again. “So that means you’re going to get rid of it, right?”
He looked sheepish. “Do I have to?”
“Of course!” Then she reconsidered. “Well, maybe you should let some wizard handle it.”
“But… I’m the Hero.” He jumped from his second, more dramatic pose into a jog out to the middle of the plaza. Withdrawing a waterskin from his pack, he fell into step behind the creature and attempted to douse it.
With an angry flare the elemental sparked and spun violently away from him, not diminishing in size. En Shevil was afraid for a moment that it was going to return and attack him, but it only continued its random movement from wall to wall. Achim stuck out his lip in annoyance and went after it again. After three or four fruitless attempts to corner and extinguish, Achim retreated to the security of the street once again. “I’m out of water,” he said, scratching his head.
“I don’t think it’s going to work anyway,” she replied. “It’s too strong for a little bit of water.”
“No, it’s just too fast. I need to get it into the street where it can’t dodge around.”
En Shevil backed away from the door onto the plaza. “Wonderful idea… count me out.”
“I don’t know how to do it anyway,” he replied with a shrug, turning and following her. “I’ll go get some more water.”
With a glance back at the brightly-lit plaza, she walked beside him.
As Achim filled his waterskin at the fountain, En Shevil looked around, trying to think of a way to help. The sign above the apothecary’s door caught and held her eye. “Harik,” she murmured.
“What was that?”
“The apothecary’s name is Harik; that means ‘fire.'” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, I guess…”
“But any clues I could gather would help,” Achim finished.
“I’ll stay here,” En Shevil said nervously, sitting down on the side of the fountain as Achim headed towards the red-brown door of the apothecary’s shop. A moment later she moved to the other side to avoid the sparkling glare that the sun cast into her eyes off of the brass merchant’s extensive wares. Thus her back was to him when he reemerged, flicking her ear for attention. “Any luck?”
“Hmm…” He held up a metal box that smelled of incense. “He said I should try and lure the thing with this. Hopefully once it’s in the street, I can get rid of it.”
En Shevil, who was looking at the sun, said ruefully, “I’d come and watch, but I’ve gotta get going — more errands for my parents.”
“You’ve got to let me meet your parents sometime,” was his unexpected response. “All that stuff you said about them last night was interesting.”
She blushed and jumped up. “Well, tell me about how you dealt with that thing tomorrow, all right?”
“All right. Goodbye.”
That night, after practicing the finding and securing of valuables quickly in a dark room to improve her speed, she bolted for the door. “Where are you going?” asked Kylur.
“Out,” replied En Shevil, standing on one foot with agitation. She had been taught not even to tell her parents what she was planning in the way of thievery, if she could avoid it, so that if she were caught they could truthfully say in the face of magic-wielding judges that they had not known of her plans.
“Where?” asked her mother nevertheless.
“To rob someone, where else?” said En Shevil, dying to be gone.
“Well, don’t stay out all night again,” said Kylur. “And don’t get caught!” she added. But En Shevil was already halfway down the street.
Saif Darb was quiet and stuffy, the torches burning silently in the heavy air. En Shevil, excited, was practically skipping down the street, counting doors until she reached Issur’s house. She paused, listening, raising her hand to her hair band but not removing her lockpick. No noise, no light. That made sense, as it was after midnight. She pulled out her lockpick and set to, opening the door in almost no time at all.
Her brow furrowed as she saw the room. Ridiculously Spartan, it consisted of a door in the right and left walls, a wooden table with chairs against the opposite, a stool, and a large cabinet next to the door on the left. Swords, spears, maces, axes, scimitars, and so on leaned against the walls or stood neatly stacked on the floor. He uses his home as a warehouse! she thought in wonder; how inconvenient!
She went first to the cabinet, but inside she found only mail shirts hung in rows. She decided to try one of the two doors, and randomly chose the one to the right. Silently she opened it, and crept into the bedroom beyond. It was quite different from the room preceding.
Though the only furnishings, a bed and a round-topped chest, were as plain as those in the main room, the walls were crowded with ornate shields, matching sets of beautifully-designed weaponry, and a huge embroidered banner bearing the letters “EOF.” She was startled to notice that the bed was empty, but she wasted no time wondering. Going to the chest against the wall and picking the padlock, she thought, How strange: He doesn’t bar his door but puts a padlock on the chest in his bedroom.
A sickening smell of must and sweat arose as the lid creaked open. Inside was clothing she did not pause to examine, thrown in haphazardly along with a few other miscellaneous items of no value clustered in heaps under the smelly cloth. She did not spare a thought on them. Instead she let the lid down gently and snapped the padlock shut. She stood and went to the bed. Underneath she found a trap door, but surmised that to lift the heavy wooden square would require moving the bed, something she doubted she could do at all, let alone quietly.
On one side was a small fireplace she had not noticed, unused until the mild nighttime cold of winter. In the deep black of its interior, something glinted, which was impossible since there was no light in the room. She took a step closer, and the glint was repeated, and this time she started as it was answered by a tiny flash from the pin on her shirt. After recovering from her surprise, she began to think that this was rather cute — they were talking to each other. Wonderful.
She knelt by the fire and reached hesitantly in. Her hand contacted something just below the first layer of fire debris, and she grasped it and drew it out, the ash falling from it as she shook her hand. It was indeed the pin, she knew, for it flashed once more. It seemed an exact replica of hers, save that the gem was red. She shoved it hastily in her pocket, stood and headed for the other room.
She had hardly closed the door, however, when she knew something was wrong. She could see far too well. Light flooded in, diffusing from its horizontal origin under the other door, as well as the sound of harsh voices laughing. Whence had they come? Not from the street — En Shevil would have heard them from the bedroom. There must be another exit in the left-hand room. Who would have imagined the weapon maker to have — or want — such a large house?
Unfortunately, En Shevil lingered too long wondering. She was suddenly blinded as the door opened in a burst of light. She could see nothing for a moment, but heard Issur’s surprised, “What?” Then he roared, “Thief!” and sprang at her. It was only by pure luck that she evaded his huge arms and reached the outside door, but as she flung it open and bolted, a hand reached for her and snapped on her shirt, the semi-gauzy cloth of which ripped as she pulled away. She guessed that she had left a piece of it in her pursuer’s hand.
Clutching the front of her torn garment, she raced off Saif Darb, onto Askeri Darb, Nisr, Trab, Tarik of Rafir, and down Naufara Darb to the Fountain Plaza. All the way was the sound of pounding feet behind her, several heavy men. Somehow they did not catch up to her, and En Shevil got the feeling that they were slightly drunk and had a bit of trouble negotiating corners. She wondered why they didn’t shout, though she was glad they refrained: an entire neighborhood, angry at being awakened in the middle of the night, would have been even more difficult to escape.
At the Fountain Plaza she had an advantage. She knew that if she could hide, the men would search for her down the streets and she could slip away home or wait them out. She looked around desperately. A window? No, not enough time: climbing in haste, she might fall and kill herself. Having little other choice, she stepped into the bowl of the fountain and curled herself around the middle. Water splashed out onto the ground for a few moments before the magical spring adjusted to the new level. Balling her hands and placing them under her head, she raised her mouth out of the water.
She realized suddenly that her ruined top was floating loosely about her, and she made a slow movement to clamp it down. “Where is she?” asked a loud voice nearby, making her jump just the littlest bit. With the fountain noises all around her she had not heard the men come up.
“I got a piece of ‘er shirt,” said a slurring voice. Chortles and suppressed snorts of drunken laughter followed.
“We’ll split up,” said a calmer tone — Issur’s. “And don’t wake anybody.” Apparently then the men dispersed, but En Shevil dared not move for quite some time.
The Dark Hand was high and the moon was bright, but suddenly a shape — a man looking down at her, hands on hips — blocked her view. She reacted immediately. Splashing him first in the face and giving him a mild push, she sprang from the bowl in a spray of water, banging various parts of her body against various parts of the fountain. He grabbed for her, but only barely scraped her arm as she began to run. “En Shevil!” he said, and she stopped with a gasp. It was Achim.
She turned again, clutching her chest with relief, to face the dripping Hero. But she felt as she did so the tatters of her shirt hanging forlornly from her shoulders. She blushed; though nothing was exposed, it was still embarrassing. She quickly located her pin and used it to secure the two torn edges of her shirt-back as best she could. “Come with me,” said Achim, taking her hand when she was done and pulling her towards the western arch. His touch gave her goose-bumps, or perhaps that was merely the light breeze against her wet skin. She started shivering.
Without question she followed him. “You’ve been getting into trouble!” he said, still pulling her down the corridor.
“It’s not what it looks like,” she replied earnestly.
“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I find you in the fountain with your shirt half-off, and a drunk guy after you — what am I supposed to think?”
“Wha…? You–? I don’t…” She was finally speechless for some moments as they turned off Naufara Darb onto Dinar Tarik. Then she gasped, “You thought I… oh!” she ended with a cry of indignation as he began to laugh. Finally he pulled her onto Centime Tarik and pushed his wet hair back, leaning against the wall and still laughing.
“I saw Issur storming out of the money changer’s alley and had to tell his fists that I hadn’t seen you. I don’t think he’ll be back this way tonight. I’ve never seen him so mad, not even when I made the thief sign to him. What did you do?”
En Shevil, still supremely annoyed at his earlier joke at her expense, said shortly, “I can’t tell you.”
“As I thought,” he replied lightly.
Why is he staring at me like that? she thought. What she said was: “I have to go see the money changer. I’ll see you tomorrow, won’t I? And tell you all about it?”
“Certainly,” replied Achim quietly. He grinned as he had the night before, and En Shevil was suddenly hot. “If you don’t get into any more trouble.
He kissed her lightly on her upturned mouth and walked away.
In a complete daze En Shevil moved cautiously down the street towards Dinarzaad’s shop. Though she was shivering slightly and her pants were chafing her, her mouth felt hot.
“Well!” said Dinarzaad as she came into sight. “I suppose this is what I get for dealing with such an obvious amateur!”
En Shevil’s mouth opened, but Dinarzaad laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I know it wasn’t your fault. But with all these men running about after you, I think I’m going to have to break my own rule and invite you inside. That is, if you still want to know why the pins are so remarkable.”
“Wha — in there? Yes, of course I do.”
“Very well. Hop in.” She moved away from the window. En Shevil clambered over the sill, trying not to look too curiously around her at the fairly sparse, claustrophobic shop of the money changer. The walls were mostly hidden by locked cabinets, and a table stood by the window with a few oddments on top and underneath. There were no chairs, and Dinarzaad indicated that she should sit on the large chest in the corner. She must have seen the way En Shevil looked sidelong at all this, for she smiled wryly and explained, “I do my best to make up for the lack of a Thieves’ Guild around here. So of course I need some extra storage. And now I really must know what happened at Issur’s.”
“Well,” began En Shevil slowly, “the more I think about it, the more I wonder how I got in at all — why his door wasn’t barred, I mean. Most people’s are, even during the day.”
“Oh,” said Dinarzaad dismissively. “That’s my doing. I always made him keep it unbarred so I could get in. He probably just got into the habit.”
“Well, I had no trouble finding it,” continued En Shevil, pulling the pin from her pocket and looking at it. “But then, in the other room, there were men. They were having a party or something, and I think they were drunk.”
“That was probably EOF,” said the money changer. “It’s their stupid ‘secret’ group. They only have meetings in the middle of the night, and usually parties afterwards. I should have warned you.”
“It’s all right,” said En Shevil a little dryly (as dryly as she could say anything when she was soaking wet). “I love adventure.” And otherwise, she thought, I wouldn’t have seen Achim. “Now what about these pins?” She handed the red-chested griffin to the woman. She noticed then that the griffin’s head was turned to the right. If she remembered correctly (she could not see it), the head on hers faced left.
“These pins were — where is yours?”
En Shevil blushed and rolled her eyes backwards to indicate. “It’s holding my shirt on. I really did have a narrow escape. And then I had to lay down in the fountain to get rid of them.”
Dinarzaad burst out laughing. She laughed, apparently uncontrollably, for minutes on end, her face turning red as she attempted to catch her breath. “Excuse me,” she said at last, letting a tear roll onto her finger and flicking it off. “So that’s why you’re soaking wet. Well, that is a story… All right.” She cleared her throat, shaking her head. “When humans started ruling Shapier, a clan of katta, to prove their loyalty to the new Sultan and Sultana, made for the first royal couple these matching pins. The red was for the Sultan and the blue for his wife. They had the power to augment any talent of the bearer’s that he or she was focusing on using.”
“Oh!” exclaimed En Shevil, eyes wide. “Oh! So that’s why… Well — go on.” This explained the amazing performance by which she had won her lockpick.
“The red one would only work for a man, the blue one for a woman. They were passed down the generations until the time of Rashid bin Hawa, who as you know was the father of our present Sultan (may he live forever) and Emir (he as well). A master thief broke into the palace to steal them, but lost the woman’s pin on the way out. I’m curious as to how you got yours, but I assume you would rather not tell, as is the situation with me.”
En Shevil was shocked. So that was why Omar looked so familiar! The poet himself, she was guessing, was Harun al Rashid — though why he would be carrying around the woman’s pin she could not guess. “You’re right,” she said. “But what I want to know is about you and Issur.”
“What about us?”
“Well, you don’t exactly seem like the ideal couple.”
“There’s really little to tell. At first it was mostly a joke, but then he began getting possessive and over-demanding. We didn’t last long, so now I’m looking for a replacement.” This last was said with an airy tone that reminded En Shevil of her friend Thalanna. The katta girl had been flirtatious, mischievous, vivacious (but law-abiding and unaware of the practices of her aunt, uncle, and adopted cousin)… Her family had moved to Rasier a few years ago, and now with all the katta driven out of that city, En Shevil had been terribly worried, as she had heard nothing from her.
“Do you have anyone in mind?” she asked teasingly, still thinking of Thalanna.
“You know, that Hero-man is pretty fine-looking. Achim, that’s his name?”
“Yes,” said En Shevil numbly, sorry she had asked. The last thing she needed was Dinarzaad, the patent desert beauty, going after her Hero. At about that same moment, the full implications of the night’s events were beginning to hit her, and she started to shake, just a little. “I really need to go home and change,” she said weakly.
“All right,” said Dinarzaad sympathetically. She left her place against the wall by the window and went to a cabinet, producing a large set of keys from absolutely nowhere. She opened the doors to reveal rows of small drawers. She unlocked one and collected in her hand some coins. They fell with a chink into En Shevil’s.
“Thanks,” the girl said blankly, shock and weariness combining to cloud her vision as she looked at the ten ten-dinar pieces and stood up. She went to the window. “Well, it’s been fun, but I probably won’t be seeing you again.”
“Goodbye,” said the money changer. “Thanks.”
En Shevil pushed herself out the window and headed home, her mind foggy with the terrible realization that had hit her: she would have to leave Shapier. Issur at least, if not some of his party, had seen her in his house, and whether or not he would recognize her face, there were few other blondes in the whole country, let alone the city. In fact, she knew of only one: some strange man that everyone thought was crazy who walked the streets with a drum. She smiled slightly at the thought of him, too strung for a laugh.
By this time she had reached home, and with a deep breath she entered. She stood in the dark for some time, looking through at nothing. The world was calm and surreal here, a peaceful place of safety and familiarity where she could not stay. But she was beyond emotion now, numb and dull. So she went to bed.
The next day was quiet. They had resigned themselves to the tragedy, following an explosive and somewhat traumatic conversation in the early morning. By a mutual unspoken agreement, they did not talk about it, did not try to convince themselves aloud that it was their only option. That if Issur determined to bring En Shevil down, they could not hide her forever, or keep themselves clean in doing so, especially as it seemed that, given the information from Dinarzaad about EOF, Issur would go after her covertly rather than through the proper authorities.
So instead of dwelling on their sorrow, they brought up amusing stories from the past, humorous events or just important ones: the time Manta and Kylur had decided to take in the orphan baby brought by a caravan almost eighteen years earlier; the night En Shevil and Thalanna had repainted the shop signs and street-direction markers in Fountain Plaza and collapsed in laughter the next day as confused katta and map-bound tourists became helplessly lost as they thought north was south and east west; the year Kylur had been struck with a sickness that confined her to bed for nearly the whole summer, Manta and En Shevil putting in extra hours to make up for her absence; the time, just before Thalanna’s family had left, that, on a dare, En Shevil had told a newly-arrived Uhura that “humor” was the Shapierian word for “supplies.” Uhura, trying to furnish the Guild Hall to her tastes, had instead received only bad jokes in response to her carefully-worded inquiries.
So the family laughed as they worked, finishing up the sleeping cushions for the caravan, with which it was now determined that En Shevil would depart, to end up in Anzhad or Darun or another of the southern Shapierian towns. But their laughter was subdued, and carried behind it an audible sadness at the thought that they might never be together again. And En Shevil writhed inwardly with the thought that she was the cause of this misery. Had she only fled Issur’s house more quickly, all would now be well. But in her parents’ eyes she read their reassurance that to them it was no more than an unfortunate accident that took her from them.
Near sunset she told them quietly that she must say goodbye to her friends. They nodded silently, the expressions on their faces enough to break En Shevil’s heart. She left the house with a heavy step. Walking warily and avoiding what sounded like footsteps, she eventually crept onto the Fighters Plaza just as Rakeesh was gathering up his rug to go inside for the night.
She watched for a moment as the day’s last light glinted off his golden fur, then stepped out to halt him. “Wait!”
He turned to look at her. “Good evening, my friend,” he said. “Why so downcast?”
“I’m leaving Shapier tomorrow, probably for Darun.”
“You have fallen into trouble, I see,” said the Paladin shrewdly.
“Y-yes,” she admitted, knowing he would not betray her trust. And that she could not have deceived him at any rate. “So I came to say…” En Shevil choked suddenly and was amazed at herself. She had not imagined that this parting would be difficult; she enjoyed talking to Rakeesh, but there always the barrier that necessarily existed between thief and Paladin kept them from becoming particularly close. And now her words were all falling out on top of each other, “…goodbye, and… thank you for all your advice — and tell Uhura I’m sorry for the word thing, and please don’t think badly of me!”
“I seldom think badly of anyone, for all have their path in life. The Paladin way is not for everyone. You however…” He began the tirade to which she had paid little heed before, though the words struck her peculiarly now, “…you — if you would only take the road of Honor, you could become one of the great ones, an Erana of the night.” He smiled his ferocious lion’s grin and stepped towards the Guild Hall doors. “May you leave the path of dishonor you have chosen and go on to the glory for which you are meant. Farewell, En Shevil.” And he was gone.
En Shevil noticed that tears were picking their tickling way down the sides of her nose. “I’m sorry,” she told the doors for no reason.
She ducked onto Khaniar Tarik as she saw the door to Issur’s shop open and the bald man emerge. She didn’t take her eyes off him until he was safely gone down Saif Darb. But even then she felt nervous about going there to meet Achim.
Apparently he guessed this, and as it began to darken he came striding across the plaza to find her. “Fully-clothed this time, I see,” he said. “No rendezvous with Issur tonight?”
She gave him a scathing look. “I can’t stay long,” she said. “I leave before sunrise.”
“What!? Leave where? The city?!”
She opened her mouth to tell him, but suddenly he seized her shoulders and pulled her bodily around behind him. He drew a knife, whirled, and met the onslaught of a red-faced man in a turban with a large sword who was charging with surprising silence straight towards them. En Shevil took a step backwards in surprise, for she had not seen him come up behind her. The man seemed to want to get past Achim, and she realized that he must be from EOF.
Now she saw Achim in action, the greatest feat of skill she had ever witnessed, though much too close for her comfort. He dodged the sword-thrusts of the warrior, who seemed to outmuscle him two-to-one, and the blows he could not avoid he parried — with a dagger! Then he would dart behind the huge man’s guard to stab, but was always thrown off. Ever the attacker tried to maneuver himself around so that he could break away and go for En Shevil.
She was amazed and frightened at this persistence. If every member of EOF was as obstinate as this man and they had, as she feared, been alerted to her, then her consternation was justified and it was wise of her to go. And now had she pulled Achim into her troubles? The large man gave a strangled cry, biting his lip to silence himself, as Achim’s blade contacted his bare arm, drawing a long gash that immediately welled up red.
En Shevil crouched and pulled her own dagger free of her pant leg, ready to help if needed, though her only skill was in throwing. Kylur, the all-time Shapierian dagger-casting champion, had insisted she drill constantly at target practice, both still and moving with various knife makes and sizes, saying that a thief was not a thief who could not throw. But would it do her any good in practice?
The warrior bore down on Achim so fiercely, of a sudden, that the Hero was forced to meet the attack with his knife raised above his head. The weapons clashed, and the dagger screeched along the sword blade to the hilt so that the tip of the latter was barely above his head, gold by the reflection of his hair. The two men came up against each other, arms above their heads, weapons locked. En Shevil watched in dismay as Achim was forced slowly downward by the man’s strength alone. Then she regained confidence and threw her knife.
He growled as it tore into his underarm and blood jetted out. His right hand released its grip. His left arm was flung and his sword clanged against the wall as Achim threw it off and slashed across his enemy’s stomach. Still the warrior made no noise, which frightened En Shevil even more: if EOF, silly as Dinarzaad had implied it to be, could breed such self-restraint, they would indeed be menacing foes. When would this fight end?
Her question was answered as the man spun and ran, taking her dagger with him. He turned the corner and was out of sight. En Shevil began to shake so violently that she had to lean against the wall just to stand. She had just essentially stabbed somebody. She had seen the blood from the wound. She had a set of very dangerous enemies in her hometown, which she was soon to leave, perhaps forever. She might never see her parents again. And that’s when it hit her: she was afraid. Absolutely terrified of leaving home. She had never been out of Shapier within the time she could remember, and she was petrified.
She began to sob, and felt Achim’s comforting arms around her, helping her to sit. “Yy-you see why I hhave to go,” she said, still shaking. “But I don’t — ” she choked. After a moment she went on, “…want to go.” He said nothing, only held her and let her cry. Then she thought of something else. “And-and now I’ve gott’n you in trouble with EOF. They-they’re a group of fighters that’s after me, and now they’ll… they’ll go after you too.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “But where are you going?”
“Darun,” she answered. She was calming now, and feeling foolish for her outburst. She moved to stand and he released her. “I must go home.”
“I’ll walk with you,” said the Hero.
“Thank you,” En Shevil replied sincerely, not looking at him. At the door to her house, she turned to him, her eyes dry though probably red. “Thank you for saving me,” she said. “Twice.”
“It was my pleasure,” he murmured, putting his hand on her face. “Come back to me soon.” And then he slid his arm down to her back and, pulling her close, kissed her. She noticed after a moment that her arms were around him as well. They stood thus for some time. “Goodbye,” he said when he finally released her.
“Goodbye,” she returned, but her voice was barely a whisper.
Chapter 2 – Shapierian No More!
In the chilly morning she mounted the family saurus, given her willingly as it had only cost them five dinars, and rode away from Shapier. She did not look back. Not physically, at any rate.
“Hello, effenda,” said the young woman next to her as the caravan set out. “My father asked me to find you. He’s the leader, you know.” En Shevil looked at her. The girl did not ride a horse as she had originally thought; she was a centaur. “My name is Sahkirah. You’re blonde.” Sahkirah was brunette, and seemed Egyptian in feature, dress, and accent. “I don’t know any blondes,” she went on happily. “But someday I’m going to travel and go to Surria and Spielburg and every place I’ve heard of. I’ve been all over Shapier with my father, you know, and of course I live in Egypt. I don’t always come with my father in the caravan; I have to go to school sometimes too and be with my mother. She doesn’t ever come with the caravan; she hates it. But I’ve been to Tarna and Awehara, but never anywhere that people have golden hair and — oh, yes! I forgot about this.” She twisted to where her lower back was laden with two large packs and drew out a dagger. With a bright smile she handed it to En Shevil. “A man at the inn gave this to father last night to give to you, but he was so busy that he gave it to me, you know, to give to you. I remembered it thinking of golden hair.”
“Was there any message with it?” asked En Shevil loudly, overriding whatever Sahkirah started to say next.
“Message? Why, yes, there was. He said, ‘Because you shouldn’t travel in the desert unarmed.’ Which is true, of course; even I have a sword, and I know how to use it, too, though I’m not much of a warrior.” Her words faded as En Shevil remembered Achim patting the hilt of this very dagger and saying, ‘I’m the Hero!’ She wasn’t sure whether to smile or cry. Either way, Sahkirah’s words punctured her reverie. “…t’s a drawback, of course, because it means we have to stop at Rasier a lot so Khaveen can come see him. He’s father’s childhood friend, and I’m not sure if he really likes him, you know — that is, if my father really likes Khaveen, though I suppose I should wonder if Khaveen really likes my father as well, but anyhow he’s powerful — Khaveen, I mean — so father keeps up the friendship.”
Sahkirah took a deep breath, and En Shevil seized the opportunity to speak. “Who is Khaveen?”
Sahkirah let out her breath loudly. “Who is Khaveen? He pretty much runs things now in Rasier, you know, and he always comes out when we stop there to stay with us a night or three and drink with father and get news, but I really don’t like him, especially the way he looks at me. By the by, what’s your name?”
Taken aback by this sudden stint, En Shevil did not immediately answer. After a moment she said, “EnShevilhowoldareyou?” running the words together in case Sahkirah tried to speak again.
“How old? Oh, I’m fifteen, and I bet you’re a lot more than that; they said you were old enough to take care of yourself. Ah, the sun is rising. All-hail Ra.” For one precious moment, she was silent, apparently for some kind of ritual. And then she started again. “You know, in Tarna you would not believe how young they get married; I mean, if I were Simbani, I would probably be a ‘wife,’ as they put it, right now. Imagine me having children at my age! Ridiculous! But it happens, and I think it’s just silly. There was one woman I met while I was there a few years ago — I’ve only been there once, of course, and not for very long — anyhow, she was a warrior, and from what I saw they didn’t have many woman warriors there, even though I think they were allowed to be that way. But the strange thing was, this one actually wanted a child. Can you imagine wanting to have a child?”
En Shevil would have said, at this point, that she had heard many mothers say the rewards were far greater than the disadvantages, but she did not have a chance.
“I can’t, but this one did, but to be a warrior she wasn’t allowed also to be a wife, so she couldn’t. I always wondered what happened to her, you know, but you see I had to leave since the caravan doesn’t usually go out into the savanna and we just did that once for — oh, I’ve forgotten why. Anyhow, we don’t usually go out there, and we didn’t stay long.”
En Shevil would have loved to tell her about Uhura’s fate, and Simba, but was not given the occasion.
“And then there’s Tarna — the city, I mean. Have you ever been to Tarna? It’s so beautiful there, almost like my home but not quite as grand, you know — but the pyramids and statues are pretty in their own way. They let me into the liontaur part of the city, just once, and it was spectacular! All the beautiful painted buildings and the carvings and everything. Even the human part was nice, but nothing compared to the other. But liontaurs scare me, somewhat, just instinctively, you know, but I love to look at them anyhow — their hair, I suppose, is golden like yours, but it really should be called fur, so never mind. And then in Awehara there was a man with very red hair, but that doesn’t really count either. Have you ever been to Awehara? It’s to the west of Tarna, you know, in that area where people debate whether it’s East Fricana or West. Another place I want to go is Ytsomo Kwai — you know, that archipelago in the southeast? I’ve heard you can learn the most amazing things there, and that they have cherry trees! How I would love to see a cherry tree, all pink and red and lovely! That sounds like the most fun a person could have, doesn’t it?”
En Shevil was too polite to admit that it did not, but she could have been as rude as anybody’s business and still acted the same way, for Sahkirah was off again.
They stopped at a few towns, and after many days they came to Rasier at sunset, where they made the most permanent camp so far, as they were to stay for two nights. Thence it would only be a few more days to Darun, En Shevil’s future home. And here she met Khaveen. He came out to their camp with a few of his choice soldier/guards, spiky and formidable in grey and black. They all sat on cushions (which reminded En Shevil most painfully of the last few days at home) around a bonfire, eating and drinking.
Khaveen was not difficult to dislike. With the emir missing and things reputedly so bad in Rasier, En Shevil guessed that what female entertainers there had been in the city were long gone, and Khaveen stared at all the women in a way that stated plainly what was on his mind, but at Sahkirah especially. This struck En Shevil as odd and a little disgusting, but there was no accounting for perversion. She also noted that there was a tent specifically set up for him and his guards.
The next day was spent resting (she had never imagined how well a saurus could live up to its name homophonically), and it was that night when the blow fell. At the fireside, En Shevil, who had gotten over the cushions, almost, sat next to Sahkirah, who sat next to Khaveen, on whose other side was Sahkirah’s father. They ate and drank and laughed as they had done the night before, but En Shevil was uneasy about something; something was subtly different in the air about Khaveen and his guards. It was worrisome, but also rather intriguing, this sense of tension that she wondered if anyone else had. Maybe she was aware of it because she was trained to detect changes of that sort in a room’s atmosphere, and she was translating the ability to people. She soon discovered what it was.
Khaveen gave Sahkirah a licentious glance and said to her father, in a casual, friendly sort of way, “You really ought to let me take your lovely daughter back to Rasier with me, Al Khettek. There’s a place for an attractive young girl in the palace harem.”
Sahkirah started, and her father looked surprised to say the least. “I hadn’t…” began he, but Khaveen interrupted him in a dangerously persuasive tone:
“She would have everything she wanted… a fine home, good food, many friends, complete safety.” He stressed the last benefit a little too loudly, and En Shevil feared this would be an offer difficult to refuse.
“We really…” began Al Khettek, but again Khaveen broke in.
“And, to make sure you’re happy with this arrangement, I will offer you fifty dinars.” He almost made it sound like a good agreement, as if he were offering Sahkirah the chance of a lifetime.
En Shevil now saw that Khaveen’s guards were all staring intently at Sahkirah’s father, waiting for his answer. A few others around the fire had marked the exchange and also listened, but most were involved in their own affairs. “Well, I…” said Al Khettek, looking at the shocked expression of disgust on his daughter’s face.
Suddenly En Shevil seemed to hear the echo of words in her mind: the last advice Rakeesh had given her, “May you leave the path of dishonor you have chosen;” the last thing Manta had said to her, “Live up to your name, En Shevil.” Well. She would be the pride of her parents if it killed her. She leaned forward and asked, “Would I do instead? You wouldn’t even have to pay.” Besides, she thought, she’s only fifteen, and she’s a centaur, you pervert!
A slight gasp came from the younger girl, accompanied by a whimper. She gazed at En Shevil in abhorrence and dismay.
Khaveen’s face, as he surveyed En Shevil leisurely, held quite a different expression. “Yes, I think you would do quite well,” he said.
“En Shevil, you don’t have to do that, you know,” said Sahkirah, but faltered and stopped speaking.
“Nonsense!” replied En Shevil with feigned cheer, though she was fighting the terror that came with the full force of Khaveen’s stare. “I want to! It’s not every day a girl gets a shot at a life like that — all the food I can eat, a good home, all the…” she deliberately paused, “…advantages of palace life.” Then she did the unthinkable: she smiled at Khaveen. A smile that was quite different from her usual girlish grin. A smile that was far less innocent, with which she knew she had won him over the moment it desecrated her lips. And the worst part was, he returned it, but his was a thousand times more practiced. “Effendi, would you like to buy a saurus?” she asked Al Khettek.
“Oh!” he exclaimed, as if awakening from a trance. “I suppose that would be wise.” With a brief sidelong glance at Khaveen, he continued, and she knew he was pulling an excuse from the air. “I’ll need to examine it, though.”
“Well, it would seem that I have little time left with you, so perhaps we could fix on a price immediately.”
“Of course,” said the centaur, climbing to his hooves. “If you’ll excuse me, effendi.” He nodded to Khaveen. En Shevil also stood, trying to control the trembling that had built up inside her. They went to the makeshift corral, where the caravan’s mounts were housed by lightweight, movable fences of sorts. The guard nodded to Al Khettek and moved away at his gesture. The centaur then turned to face En Shevil, putting his hands on her shoulders, streams of tears running down his face “Seth knows I can’t thank you enough!” he said fervently. “I always knew Khaveen would bring me trouble, but I never imagined this. I must take my caravan on — I have no other choice — but if there is ever anything I can do for you — specifically now — please, please ask.” He was still crying.
“Just pay me twenty dinars for my saurus and keep Sahkirah away from Khaveen. No — keep her away from Rasier. I’ll be fine.”
“Twenty? No, that won’t do. You must take fifty at the least. I would give you everything I had if you asked it.”
“Twenty is fine,” said En Shevil firmly, but in the end he persuaded her to take thirty. On anything above that she would not settle.
Khaveen, apparently growing impatient at their long absence, came to meet them, stopping En Shevil to speak as Al Khettek went on towards the fire. “Why don’t you come to my tent?” he said in a voice that made her shiver.
She thought quickly, struggling to keep smiling. “Not tonight,” she said. “I must get my things together and say goodbye to my friends in the caravan. I’ll join you tomorrow at dawn.”
He looked at her sharply for a split second, but his visage melted into an expression that disgusted her so much she was forced to look away, under the pretense of gazing at the stars. “Very well,” he said, the look still on his face. “In the morning, then, lahkir.”
This last was a Shapierian word for which there is no translation, a vocative term used primarily for women, implying loose ethics on the part of the addressee and desire on that of the speaker. Is that what I’m to become? wondered En Shevil glumly. She felt she had acted rightly by her friend, but the thought was not in the least reassuring.
“Oh, in the name of Isis!” cried Sahkirah, clasping En Shevil in her arms as the thief appeared. “Why did you do that? I could have gone, and been just fine, you know, and–”
En Shevil interrupted her gruffly, trying not to cry. There was no Achim here to comfort her. “You have parents and a home to return to. I’m just a wanderer. I’m older than you anyway, and friends don’t let friends…” She cut herself off abruptly, struck with the full repugnance of that to which she had doomed herself. She had known it before, but only with her logic. Now her emotions realized it, and she felt sick.
“I’ll… always remember you,” said Sahkirah awkwardly, for what did one say in the face of such heroism? This human girl had known her for so short a time, and yet was willing to give up everything for her.
I hope so, thought En Shevil most ungraciously. She was not feeling very heroic at that moment.
She lay on a sleeping cushion of her own stitching, watching the Dark Hand rise over Rasier and trying to puzzle out a way to escape Khaveen and still protect Sahkirah and Al Khettek. She fell asleep having thought of nothing.
Even before dawn, many of the others were rising to prepare for departure as she awoke. The glow of the morning was dim, the western mountains cold and invisible against the still dark sky. She stood, rolled and tied her cushion, and sat on it. Chin in hands, she brooded over her upcoming captivity. The light began to stretch to the mountaintops, separating them from the rest of the shadows with a pale outline. She knew her time was up. She must go to Khaveen and face her fate.
She had hardly noticed the bustle of the camp packing up around her, but now she stood as she saw one of the workers gathering up cushions. She turned and found Sahkirah looking at her with red eyes. The girl had been crying the night before, long after her cessation of talk had caused En Shevil to believe her asleep. “I must go to him,” the thief said gently.
“I know,” replied Sahkirah. She stepped up to En Shevil and hugged her. “Thank you,” she whispered. Then the older girl turned and headed over the dune to Khaveen’s tent.
The latter was already down, Khaveen and his guards milling about watching with little interest the caravan arrange things. Khaveen gave her a slit-eyed look as she took her place at his side. “So there you are. We have been awaiting you.”
“Your pardon, effendi,” she said with a smile. “I… slept late.”
Khaveen gave a hissing laugh. “Saying goodbye to friends, were you? Well, let us go.” He gestured to his guards, who formed a square around the two of them, and they all headed down the hill towards the dark city of Rasier. Almost immediately the caravan was out of sight.
The place was dirty, cold, and En Shevil soon saw why: the fountain was cracked and dry, barren of the life-giving magic that fed warmth and peace to the city. But they did not pause to let her examine it, walking briskly on towards the Palace Plaza. The lights being dim and the general surroundings so grey, En Shevil became increasingly nervous as she thought she saw moving shadows out the corners of her eyes at all times. But they encountered no other living creature.
The palace, though gloomy and grey as was all else, reminded En Shevil most acutely of her hometown, but she held back her tears admirably and rallied her spirits. The guards gave Khaveen a respectful nod, and the four around them dispersed as they entered the great double doors.
Despite her state, En Shevil could not help but stare about her in wonder, her thiefly instincts going wild. She was inside a palace, and everything she saw was valuable. But she was no longer a thief, she reminded herself, she was a harem girl. “You there! Eunuch!” called Khaveen to a fat, badly-dressed man on a staircase to their left.
He turned and bowed his head to Khaveen. “Yes, effendi?” he said with simpering deference.
“Take this girl to the harem,” said Khaveen shortly. “I have other things I must see to.”
“Yes, effendi,” said the eunuch with another head-bob. He held out his jiggling arm for En Shevil to come with him.
“I will most certainly be seeing you another time,” said Khaveen as they walked away. And then, to her utmost relief, he was gone.
The eunuch led her through various rich hallways after they had climbed the stairs, and into the harem.
Four girls were present, one asleep. Sounds of splashing, giggling, and shrieking came from another room, and En Shevil guessed that the rest were bathing. Those present smiled at her. “Oh, are you a new girl?” cried one, springing up and running to clasp hands with En Shevil. “My name is Khashal. You must have come with the caravan. Goodness, your clothes are awful! Have you got better?” Setting her bag down, a surprised En Shevil admitted that though she had other clothes, none were as fine as what the harem girls wore. “Aw,” said Khashal sympathetically. “We’ll fix that, for we have plenty of clothes.”
“Though we prefer to be without them,” said one of the others with a yawn.
“Nawar!” laughed a third, half-reproving.
“What would your name be?” asked Khashal.
“En Shevil,” said she, a little shyly.
“How lovely!” breathed one of the loungers. The other two voiced their agreement. It seemed they were so bored that the arrival of an addition to their numbers was a momentous event, so much as to procure their full attention. Khashal pulled En Shevil towards the back of the room, where a doorway led into what appeared to be a hallway-closet. From its other arch inside, steam came in wisps and small billows, smelling of something spicy and earthy.
The thief stood gaping at the suit that Khashal held up to her as a size test. “This will do, I think,” she said. “What a good color for you.” It truly was a beautiful outfit, but of so fine a material as En Shevil had not seen since her parents filled an order placed by a palace-dweller.
“It is lovely,” she agreed, and then looking down at herself added, “but I’d like to bathe before I put it on.”
“Oh, of course!” cried Khashal. “How could I have forgotten, with them making all that noise in there! Come!” She pulled En Shevil into the steam, out the other side of the closet into a bathing-room more spacious than any En Shevil had ever seen. She longed for a bath — she had not been in water for some time: in Shapier, such luxuries were expensive and rare, and she was used to cleaning herself with sponge and basin. Perhaps living in a harem would not be so bad. And perhaps Jackalmen can fly, she thought with a sigh.
Their entrance had caused immediate commotion. “Oh! Who’s that?”
“A new girl!”
“Hello!” These and various other exclamations not so distinct had flown across as the bathing girls saw her.
“Hah!” said Khashal. “They’ll help you to a bath — take your time, now, don’t let them rush you.”
“Thank you,” En Shevil murmured as Khashal patted her on the shoulder and left.
“Come in!” was then the general cry from the girls.
She looked at the shelves stacked with towels, dusting powders, perfumes, soaps, and scented oils, and finally undressed to bathe, careful that her lockpick should not be seen as she undid her hair.
The other girls crowded around her, introducing themselves and asking eager questions. She could not be quite sure, but she thought their number was five. Without being invited, they began to help her in scrubbing the layers of dirt from her skin and washing her hair. She was faintly amused by their exertions, as if she were a doll or a pet that had been left outside. She did manage to clean under her fingernails without their aid, and their numbers decreased as the time she spent in the bath lengthened.
Finally, she got out. They insisted that they help her to dry off, and further helped her to the use of oil and powder of matching scents. She was almost laughing by the time she faced the dazzling suit she was to wear. Contemplating it, she allowed her hair to be brushed and fastened, tucking her lockpick away when nobody was looking.
The cloth was opaque, brilliantly crimson, soft and smooth, all trimmed with gold and the shirt with a row of tiny bells. A golden veil and half-cape shimmered next to it. She was not allowed much more time to look at it, though, for the girls all wanted to help her into it. She was amazed to find herself such a novelty, and wondered if every new girl here got the same treatment. She looked at the shimmering veil and cape with confusion, and got a flurry of answers from all around her. “We have to wear veils outside the harem.”
“Isn’t that cape precious?”
“You don’t have to wear the veil in here.”
“I hate veils!”
“Oh, wear the cape!”
“Here, let me help you.” One of them came around behind her and fastened the gold clips of the thigh-length cape into the slits in the shoulders of her shirt. It fluttered to her legs and hung limp, hugging her back. “Now you must go show the others.” Several girls, dressed already, escorted her through the closet into the harem once more, where she was exclaimed at and fussed over to no end.
“Oh, this won’t do,” said someone behind her, just when she thought most of them had settled down. Before she had a chance to ask what wouldn’t do, the girl had opened the silver band in her hair, letting the latter tumble out down to her thighs.
It was as if an invisible string tied the color of her face and the warmth of her body to her lockpick as it clattered to the floor and bounced with the sound of dropped money, a noise that causes everyone in the plaza to look up. With a hasty movement made jerky by fear she clamped it down with her foot. She glanced at the others to see that everyone was watching her, and knew there was nothing for it but to pick the thing up and hope no one had recognized it. She bent, vaguely feeling the greater mass of her hair weighing down her airy cape and watching the bits that fell around her face. She took the lockpick in one hand and stood straight again, trying to compose her features.
If it were possible, it seemed to her that the friendly, almost sisterly looks she had been receiving from the start had heightened, or, rather, deepened, holding now more respect and openness than just companionable cheer. She caught someone’s eye inadvertently, and that one smiled. “We’re all friends here,” said another, quietly but with emphasis. The girl behind her laid a hand on her shoulder. For the first time since leaving Shapier, the thief suddenly felt happy.
“Now,” said the girl behind her in a light tone, “silver simply does not work with this outfit.” She began brushing En Shevil’s hair out once again, gathering it into a tail brusquely, briefly showing her the plain gold band she was using before she clipped it on. Then she stood back appraisingly while En Shevil, blushing, pushed her lockpick safely away where it belonged.
The rest of the day was spent getting to know the harem girls and their ways, and actually it was fairly dull. En Shevil, on a spur-of-the-moment decision, told them all about Sahkirah and Khaveen instead of the silly lie she had been contemplating. The account of her sacrifice was met by clapping, hugs, and promises to make her life here enjoyable, but En Shevil got the idea that none of them really felt what she had given up.
That evening a few girls left, and En Shevil was introduced to a lazy eunuch named Abu who escorted Nawar… somewhere. Nawar was really the only name En Shevil could remember, besides Khashal, this due to it being constantly said in reproof of the comments made by the former. She seemed gifted with the ability to add underhand connotations to everything that was said.
Folded blankets were brought out from under cushions and behind screens as the harem began, long past dusk, to settle down for the night. The girl nearest her (whose name the chagrinned thief struggled futilely to recall) suddenly turned to En Shevil and said, “Here — it will go well with your clothes,” handing over a delicate head-chain with a red drop-shaped jewel.
En Shevil found herself choking up as she looked at it, and she stammered, “I couldn’t…”
“I insist,” said the girl lightly, but with a firm undertone that suggested this was more than mere whim. It was a genuine overture of friendship that En Shevil found she could not refuse.
“Thank you,” she said, and there was the usual exchange of hugs that went with such things. She began to suspect that she had been completely wrong about the nature of harem girls, at least personally. She had never dreamed that she could feel so at home.
But though it grew darker and later, she could not sleep. Despite the fine, soft cushions, as neat as her own parents could have made them, and the silky blankets, she found no comfort, at last rising and jumping through the window onto the terrace above the palace gates, clutching her unclasped cape around her to silence the bells. She leaned out on the stone side and looked up at the stars.
She had been afraid that Khaveen would come for her, but by the time most of the others were asleep she had realized he probably would not. Having been away from the city for two days, he surely had important things to do.
Glancing down into the plaza once more, she quickly ducked beneath the level of the railing as a sinister-looking guard came in one doorway and went out the other. She guessed, without any desire to test her theory, that harem girls were not allowed on the balcony any time, and certainly not in the middle of the night.
She stood thinking in the cool night for so long that she was able to see a regular pattern in the guards’ coming and going, and she found the methodicism somewhat comical. Therefore, when a shadow of the wrong size appeared in the western doorway at an irregular interval to the last guard, En Shevil noticed immediately. The shadow did not move, and almost instinctively she looked through the darkness with her katta techniques, averse to the feeling of being watched by the unseen. What she saw was quite a surprise. She was leaning forward, gazing into the archway in disbelief when she realized that it was time for another guard to make his appearance.
She ducked again, looking over the stone as the darkly-clad man came into the plaza from the south. The shadow vanished, drawing back like a spider receding into a crack at a breath of air. The guard exited to the west as usual, and after a moment the shadow reappeared as if nothing had happened. En Shevil wondered how she had done it.
Emerging stealthily, the shadow blended with the night as only thieves and katta can, making her way with total silence to the pillars before the palace gates. En Shevil remained down, unwilling to attract attention, even when a padded hook latched onto the stone with a small thud and a dull click. And then, a moment later, they were face to face.
En Shevil had not wanted to believe her eyes, fearing that she was fooling herself and would only be disappointed. But here, silently drawing up the rope and slinging it at her side, was Thalanna. She was dressed in black that covered her from neck to ankles, giving barely a sight of her orange, red-streaked fur. She seemed thinner, more tense, stronger and colder. But her eyes were the same, except perhaps for a greater depth of feeling.
En Shevil did not know how to react, her wild, perfectly-balanced emotions seeming to cancel each other out and leave her calm. It was the katta who spoke first, or, rather, whispered. “I saw them bring you in, and followed to the palace before I could believe it was you. I’m glad to see you, but why are you here?” Her playful, indirect manner, which had so marked her conversation in the past, was gone.
“Protecting someone,” said En Shevil, wondering if her pin would help to keep her quiet.
“If you come with me, you’ll be safe,” said Thalanna, shifting her weight nervously and looking over her shoulder. “It’s why I came.”
“If I leave, Khaveen will…” En Shevil opted for the abridged condensed version, “make trouble.”
Thalanna looked darkly thoughtful for a moment, then suggested, “I could take you hostage.”
“Yes,” said En Shevil, suddenly giddy, “and you could ask for ransom.” She wondered for a moment why Thalanna’s talking of hostages should seem so natural to her. Probably, she reflected, because she knew logically that the katta must be a member of the underground; but she realized then that logic had nothing to do with it: the reason was that it felt so much like one of their old pranks crouching there and talking in whispers, changed as both of them were.
“I’ll need to write a note,” Thalanna said. En Shevil nodded and crept through the little hallway with the windows and went into the eunuchs’ room, grimacing in distaste at their fat, snoring forms. She found a pen and ink but no paper, so she picked her way across the sleeping harem girls to find her veil. Sneaking is much more difficult while holding a cape against one’s belly, and En Shevil was forced to go slowly. But at last she tucked the ink under her arm and hopped out of the window again.
“Can you write on this?” she asked, spreading the veil before her friend.
The old Thalanna would have commented on what a shame it was to ruin such pretty fabric, but now she merely nodded and wrote. “Have new harem girl. Return when convenient unless Ugarte is taken — then she dies. Ignore Ugarte.” Under this she drew a clawed hand. “Our sign,” she explained. “Give me some proof that we have you.”
En Shevil quickly unclasped the head-chain, sorry to part with it but unable to think of anything else, as Thalanna held up the veil to let the ink dry, rubbing with her foot the spot where it had bled through. With a wistful look the thief handed over the chain, and Thalanna disappeared for a brief moment into the palace. She then looked over the stone lip behind which they hid. After crouching once more as a guard passed, she whispered, “Can you jump without noise?”
En Shevil glanced down in her turn. “Not without considerable pain,” she responded.
“Will you survive?” asked the katta tersely. En Shevil glanced at her. She had changed.
“I think so,” the thief replied. Thalanna said nothing more, but pushed herself over the edge and landed without a sound. She looked up at En Shevil, the starlight seeming to catch and collect in her upturned eyes like moss on obstacles in a river. En Shevil breathed deeply, and jumped over. Concentrating on hitting the ground correctly, she managed to land fairly quietly, though a shock ran through her legs and prickles sparked in her feet. Thalanna gave her an approving glance and led her through the shadows to the western arch and onto the streets of Rasier.
“Who is Ugarte?” questioned the human quietly as they walked.
Thalanna slid to the corner and peered around, then walked on. “A water-smuggler unconnected with us, but he often supplies us.”
“I forgot to thank you for rescuing me,” said En Shevil.
“Think nothing of it,” said Thalanna shortly. “It was my pleasure, for it will inconvenience Khaveen.” She spoke the name with bitter hatred, her words spiny and metallic black. Suddenly she paused and glanced smoothly around with a calmness that belied her body language. Recoiling, she stepped quickly back towards En Shevil with serpentine grace and urgency. Pointing to a door, she hissed, “Pick this lock.”
The urgency in her voice overpowered En Shevil, and she found herself obeying without a thought for this shocking revelation. It did not actually hit her until they stood in complete darkness beyond the door a moment later: Thalanna knew she was a thief. She was so struck by this that she barely marked the passing footsteps in the street, had to tell herself several times that they had just escaped a guard before the idea actually took hold.
Thalanna took her arm, and En Shevil looked around for the first time. They stood in a large room in a typical house with only one doorway to another chamber. Thalanna moved silently with En Shevil in tow toward a changing-screen that stood in a corner. Behind it, the katta rolled a rug aside to expose the yellow floor. She looked at En Shevil and pointed at a chink. It took the thief a moment to realize that the tiny opening was a keyhole and Thalanna was asking her to pick the lock. She crouched and had it done in moments.
Thalanna put her paw into an indentation, a handle of some sort, and pulled. A square outline of blacker darkness, which En Shevil’s human eyes could barely distinguish, became increasingly visible. She watched in fascination, amazed at how well-camouflaged was this wooden door in a floor of stone. The katta held it open and moved spider-leggéd to one side, gesturing that En Shevil enter. The thief bit her lip and sat down with her legs in the hole, feeling already a chill draft that had never been warmed by the sun. She pushed forward and dropped.
Thalanna let herself halfway in, hanging with one forearm laid flat on the edge. With her free hand she pulled the trapdoor onto her head so it would close when she fell, pulled the rug over that, and joined En Shevil in the passage below. The door above them shut with a thack.
Then the katta sighed, and the human seemed to sense a release of tension in the air. “We’re safe here,” Thalanna said, her eyes gleaming inwardly in the complete darkness. “Let’s sit here for a while before we go back. To the Shelhar, I mean. They’ll have a new assignment for me immediately, and I want to talk.” Here was a shadow of the old Thalanna, a relaxing contrast to the serious, wary katta of the last few minutes. En Shevil took her place against the wall next to her friend. “It’s been so long since I saw you. And I never expected to see you with Khaveen. How did you come here, and why?”
“Well, I left… no, wait. Thalanna.” Somehow she felt awkward saying her friend’s name. “You knew I was a thief.” It was a question.
“I’ve always know,” said the other gently. “Even in Shapier. Go on.” So En Shevil gave her the entire story from her overhearing Dinarzaad and Issur’s argument to her arrival at the harem. She had expected Thalanna to laugh when she spoke of Achim finding her in the fountain with less than a full shirt, but the other girl only smiled wistfully. “So, we are both kept from our heart’s desire by our profession.”
“This Achim of yours — you had to leave him because you’re a thief.” En Shevil blushed. She had not mentioned her growing feelings for the Hero, but Thalanna, after all this time, could still see through her. “And he whom I love is also a resistance fighter, and we must wait until Rasier is free to have a proper ceremony.”
“Who is he? And what’s happened to you since you left Shapier?”
“His name is Sharaf. When the Emir vanished and the katta were driven out, my parents, Sashel, and I refused to go. There was no organized resistance then, and they were killed.” Her voice had grown hard, bitter, and En Shevil felt an emotional shock that was unchanged by her logic which had expected this news. She had not known Thalanna’s brother well, he being much closeted in study, but her friend’s parents had been close to hers and like a second family. After a harshly silent moment Thalanna continued. “It was by pure luck that I survived at all. Random chance chose me over them, so now I am here and they are not. Sharaf found me wandering and brought me to the Shelhar. That’s our word for the underground, of course, because it means ‘liberty.’
“Since then we’ve watched our city, the mirror of Shapier, turn into this horror. The fountain had stopped with the Emir gone, and it got worse from there. The guards slowly disappeared to be replaced by Khaveen’s men, who were soon posted everywhere. New laws courtesy of Khaveen were written on the walls. Streets were boarded off for no apparent reason until the entire eastern side of the city became inaccessible. New laws forbade people to walk the streets without a ‘Visa,’ anyone to be out at night, or more than one person to be in company outside their houses. So families were unable to leave the city, and at first those who tried were taken and not seen again. So we created distractions and assassinated guards to help get people out.
“We have spies in the palace and we’ve found that we can buy off the guards for the right price. But we need more money. All we had before was what the individual members brought, and had few channels through which to spend it. Now we are nearly without money all together, and when we have enough to bribe a large number of guards to look away, we’ll attack the palace.”
Throughout Thalanna’s story, a cold suspicion had been crystallizing in En Shevil’s heart. The katta gave her no real information — no names or places — and her tone of voice sounded more like a debriefing than the tale of her adventures told to a friend. “And that’s where I come in, isn’t it?” said the thief heavily, and her words were only half a question.
“I thought you would guess,” said Thalanna quietly. “To tell truth, your arrival was exactly in time. We need good thieves, but all those in the city are much too afraid of one Signor Ferrari, a very influential man who likes to pass himself off as chief thief around here, to help us. So we need you.”
“Those locks — the house and the trapdoor…”
Thalanna looked surprised. “Tests,” she said finally. “I had the keys all along. That I was not supposed to tell you, should you guess, but you are my friend.”
Am I? En Shevil wondered. Would you have rescued me at all if I had been only your friend, with no special talents? She looked away hastily, lest her perceptive friend should detect this question in her eyes, but it was too late, for Thalanna had guessed. She could always guess.
Her voice was unsteady, and miserably apologetic with an undertone of guilt as she hastily plunged on. “Ferarri is a foreigner from who-knows-where, and the only reason he stays in town at all is because he thinks the Blackbird is here.”
En Shevil’s head whipped around. “The Blackbird?”
Thalanna nodded. “Not really. We have confirmed that the one he’s got his eye on is one of the fakes. Once we get it stolen, we’re paying a Silmarian collecter to take it, and make it appear that he has the real thing and is headed for home. Hopefully, Ferarri will leave in search of it and the thieves will be bribable again.”
“So where is it?” asked En Shevil coolly. The growing pain in her heart at Thalanna’s treatment of her compelled her to be businesslike. She was no part of their organization; they did her no favors and vise versa. “And how much are you willing to pay?”
Thalanna let out a deep breath, her sorrow tightening into resolve as it always did. She had known En Shevil would understand how it must be, and there was no use for regrets. They had been friends once, but no more. “We will give you fifty dinars. It’s not much, but we can barely afford even that. It’s in Khaveen’s house.”
Khaveen. En Shevil shuddered at the thought and was about to refuse when she remembered the Thalanna of Shapier, her wit and vivacity and her love of pranks and jokes. “I’ll do it,” she said, in tribute to what you once were.
They moved down the passageway to a door that Thalanna opened with a small key. Entering behind her former friend, En Shevil could see another katta waiting for them.
“Here is the thief,” said Thalanna to the man in the darkened room. He nodded, eyes narrow, and remarked that she looked more like a whore. En Shevil opened her mouth for an angry retort, but Thalanna broke in. “I rescued her from the harem, remember?”
“She’s probably a spy, then,” said the man darkly, still speaking to his fellow katta as if En Shevil were not there. A slight snort from Thalanna as they entered the black doorway in the underground passage told the thief all she needed to know. The door closed and a light appeared, blinding her for some time.
When she was able to look around she stared in amazement at the large, neat, full-sized apartment with normal doors heading to other chambers. Not only was it built like a typical above-ground house, it was furnished thus as well. “What is all this?” she asked in bewilderment. Thalanna looked away, apparently not desiring to answer, and the other katta did not seem to understand the question.
“Do you mean the rooms?” asked a human woman who appeared in a doorway. She was a bit past middle-aged with greying hair of dark brown, and very large eyes. “When we started the Shelhar, we found an extensive underground system like the city above. Apparently it had been used for many years as a thieves’ guild, and most citizens had forgotten about it. According to their log book, the thief activity was gradually taken over by crime lords and the small guilds were suffering. Finally these places were abandoned and forgotten. We also learned that such chambers were planned in the original design of both Shapier and Rasier, but the foundations of the first were inadequate. Rasier being settled on flatstone, they were able to build them here.” The woman smiled. “My name is Thaylish.”
At that moment, another human woman entered, opening the door to the hallway into Thalanna’s back. She was dressed in brown and wore a veil. “Rilahr — where is he?” she gasped, leaning against the doorframe.
“Here,” said a voice, and a male katta appeared next to Thaylish. “What is the matter?” The woman in brown looked at En Shevil as, after a moment, did Rilahr.
“She’s all right,” said Thalanna hastily, obviously anxious to hear the woman’s news. En Shevil wondered that Thalanna seemed so sure that she was trustworthy, then realized that the Shelhar would probably not let her out of their sight from that moment on.
“Khaveen is to marry Zayishah. It was just fixed with her father.”
Rilahr looked mildly concerned and said calmly, “We must get her out of the city.”
“Zayishah…” said En Shevil softly, losing track of the further conversation between Rilahr and the brown woman. The name sounded familiar. “Isn’t she…”
“The daughter of Ali Hasan,” supplied Thaylish. “Her mother, Rahn Tehral, died in childbirth when Zayishah was born, and she’s been brought up by Mayzun here,” indicating the brown woman “since her father’s always so busy helping his brother. We’ve been protecting her lately, as much as we can, but we can’t let her into the Shelhar because of who she is. If she were one of us and were caught, it would be disastrous — we can’t endanger the Sultan’s own niece that way. And also, being in the position she is, she would make a perfect spy for Khaveen. No matter how we may trust Mayzun, Zayishah’s another matter.”
En Shevil blinked, and realized suddenly that the room was silent. Mayzun was staring at her, Rilahr was looking her over as if to find something, and En Shevil recognized Thalanna’s carefully averted eyes, the look that stated she knew something which would soon become evident to all.
“I doubt she’s good enough,” said the sour katta whose name she had not yet heard.
Resentment welled up like a sudden windstorm inside her. “Good enough for what?” she snapped.
Mayzun answered in a tone of acid, though her anger was not directed at En Shevil. “To kill Khaveen.”
She was dumbstruck, horrified at the thought. All at once came back to her the image of the EOF warrior, blood gushing from a wound in his side — a wound of her infliction. She recalled the sick, shocked, disgusted feeling that had arisen as everything she was had revolted against what she had done. Could she — was she capable of taking life? She did not believe she could become a murderer and keep her sanity.
Rilahr had apparently interpreted her silence as an invitation to continue, and so he explained. “It would be simple,” he began, and Thalanna turned away with a snort. “When you go to get the Blackbird, take a dagger with you.”
“No,” said En Shevil.
“You’re right, of course. Such method might arouse his guards. We can provide you with a poison, if you’ll give us time.”
“Of course, the method is up to you. We could bribe the guards. It would be expensive, but certainly worth it, and with the Blackbird…”
“No!” she almost screamed, remembering the smell of blood, and could say no more.
Finally Thalanna broke in. “She won’t do it,” she said loudly. “She doesn’t kill. She’s just a thief.”
The words of her former friend echoed in her ears: She’s just a thief, she’s just a thief, just a thief. Just a thief. Just…
Alone she entered the plaza, unable to risk company. The window gaped in the wall, just as they’d told her, but her attention was dragged to the fountain at which she now had full time to look. Somehow its broken interior and cracked lining touched her, and she stood for a moment silent, gazing down at it while inexplicable tears seeped into her eyes. It was with an effort that she turned away.
Climbing was, of course, one of her primary talents, and with her pin she hypothesized that she would never fall. She pulled herself up onto the doorway, clinging to cracks in the wall, and leapt for Khaveen’s window. She tightened her body as her hands gripped the sill and jerked her up short. Ignoring the pain in her chest and stomach as her weight pressed them in turn against the window frame, she hauled herself up and over in a position like a crawl.
The bed in the chamber’s center immediately caught her attention for its radical proportions. She shuddered with the thought that she could have… and turned her gaze to the rest of the room. The motif seemed to be death, tastefully rendered in the display of causes thereof. Through an arch she saw a guard at attention, and uncomfortably near that same arch was a cabinet with a glass door. Approaching cautiously, she confirmed the bird’s presence. A hand on the hinges told her she would need to open the door exceptionally slowly to avoid noise, as she had no oil. She picked the lock.
The fake Blackbird was fairly heavy, for its size, and gleamed silver as she turned it in her hand. For several moments she crouched silently, staring at the beautiful, nugatory object. Finally she tucked it into the bag she’d brought, slung it over her shoulder, and closed the cabinet door.
On the way to the window she paused, looking through the gauzy, feminine curtains of the bed to where Khaveen lay sleeping. Asleep, he appeared almost appealingly vulnerable, and suddenly a completely alien desire overtook her — a strange urge to pull the dagger free from her ankle and cut the man’s throat. This lust was so strong that she actually took a step closer the bed before she became sick at the thought and dashed for the window. As she dropped to the plaza, the cool air calming her upset stomach, she realized that with practice she probably would be able to kill, just as she could accustom herself to anything else. The bloodthirsty feeling of a few moments before confirmed this. Running light-headed through the streets, she went back to the Shelhar.
Yawning, En Shevil pushed back the curtain that served as a door for the tiny room she had been given. She guessed that the underground only fed and housed her because she was Thalanna’s ‘hostage.’ She entered the common chamber of the five-room house, the one adjoining the passageway. Thaylish was just coming in as En Shevil entered and sat down. She stood up immediately she saw the woman’s face. “What’s happened?” she asked anxiously.
“It’s Sharaf,” said Thaylish. “He went to meet Taedocles’ party. Taedocles is that Silmarian collector, of course, and he has his own little caravan of hired guards that…”
En Shevil cut in. “What about Sharaf?” She had met Thalanna’s lover only briefly before she had gone last night to rob Khaveen, but they had not spoken.
“He was taking that Blackbird out to Taedocles and someone must have tipped someone off, for he was taken just as he came back into the city. For once, I don’t suspect Ferrari. My guess would be Taedocles himself, or one of his party. Where is Thalanna?”
“I don’t think she’s here,” murmured En Shevil, tears beginning to fall. “I just got up.” It was a bitter, detached sorrow — a sadness, not for her friend personally, but that such things must occur in the world… for now Sharaf would certainly be put to death. She hardly noticed as Thaylish took her leave to look for the katta.
En Shevil did not see Thalanna throughout the rest of that tedious day, and her dreams were clouded that night. She was a prisoner of war to her own allies, unable to go with or help them, but no more able to leave them or complain. She was better off here than the harem, at any rate.
After a day of complete boredom during which she did not stir from the house and rarely saw anyone, it was an indescribable relief when Thaylish invited the thief to her home for the day. “For,” she said, “the underground is only part of my life — I must take care of my children, too, of course. And I know how dull it can be down here during the day.”
Her dwelling was near Fountain Plaza, and had no connection to the underground passages. The closest house that did was down the street, and they ran from one house to the other. En Shevil had, out of some strange sense of rebellion, decided to keep the bells on her shirt. It may have been that, though her family had been relatively wealthy, she had never possessed any article of clothing so fine and was unwilling to spoil it. At any rate, outside the underground house she kept the cape tied around her midsection to quiet them.
At Thaylish’s dwelling she was introduced to the woman’s three children, playing busily and giving her hardly a glance, rushing about in serious pursuit of their charades as if neither water shortage nor tyranny were prevalent in the city around them. She also met Thaylish’s husband, working at a loom in a chamber almost empty of further thread or yarn for his project. He had a haunted look in his manner that suggested weaving was the only thing that kept his mind from dwelling on the fear that surrounded life in Rasier. En Shevil knew the feeling, but feared that this would be the man’s last rug for some time.
Thaylish said, “I need to make something for the kids, and you shall keep me company.”
“All right,” responded En Shevil, with a backward glance at the weaver as they departed the room. “I’d offer to help, but I’m a terrible cook.”
In the kitchen, Thaylish provided more information, as seemed to be her habit. “My children eat twice a day — breakfast or lunch, depending on when it gets made, and, of course, supper. We have a great deal in storage, but sometimes I still worry.” She shook her head as she unwrapped a loaf of bread and began slicing it. “And sometimes I can’t get Alin to eat at all.” Sighing, she fell silent for a moment. Then she smiled. “I must admit that my true reason for inviting you was somewhat selfish, but I think you’ll forgive me. Before the emir’s disappearance, I knew more about what was going on in this city that anyone. I could have told you each family’s genealogy, everyone’s former and current love interests, what price everyone’s wares were going for, and so on. It’s always been my passion to know exactly what’s going on. Well, I knew so much, and proved so good — forgive me if I brag — so good at finding out more, that the underground actually sought me out when they formed. I’ve been their chief information collector for some time.”
“And how can I help you?” asked En Shevil, puzzled but amused.
“Gossip! I want to hear all the news from Shapier.” Thaylish knew whence the thief had come, but En Shevil had told her little else. She did find her story a bit embarrassing.
She laughed. “Well, I’ll tell you what I can, but I’ve never really gossiped so I can’t claim to be an expert. The biggest news in the Hero, of course.” She related all she could remember of what Achim had told her that first night and the tale of the fire elemental, and answered Thaylish’s occasional questions as best she could.
Meanwhile, the children came in to eat sandwiches. Thaylish offered one to En Shevil, saying, “It’s the last of my pumpkin bread, I’m afraid: Mordavia’s been cut off by the swamp, since it’s rained so much there, and there is no pumpkin bread to match theirs.” En Shevil accepted the saurus cold-cut sandwich, having never tasted pumpkin bread before, and found it remarkably good. “Come tell me more while I do laundry,” said Thaylish as they finished eating, the older woman having devoured a sandwich in a blink.
“Now that I can help you with,” said En Shevil, not partial to laundry but glad of something constructive to do.
A basin full of tepid, greyish water greeted En Shevil’s distasteful look. “We’ve been reusing the same water for quite some time — since the fountain dried, actually, because, of course, you can’t get more. But we found a way to clean the water. We boil it, and let the steam rise into a blanket which we wring out into another basin while we scrub this one — all the dirt is left behind. We lose some water every time, but it works. Few others in the city have clean clothes,” she added proudly. En Shevil smiled.
As they worked, the thief told Thaylish all she could think of about Shapier. Oddly enough, Thaylish seemed less surprised at the news that poet Omar was sultan Harun Al-Rashid than that Dinarzaad and Issur had broken up. She had apparently been tracking their relationship. “So, did you and your Hero make any plans before you skipped out?” asked Thaylish, almost teasingly, as they spoke of the other couple. En Shevil looked shocked. Was she that easily-seen-through, or otherwise how did everyone know she liked Achim? The woman laughed merrily. “My dear, it’s my business to find things out. You do hide it fairly well, but I’m very practiced at that. If it’s meant to be a secret, I certainly won’t tell anyone. I just want to know if you made any plans.”
En Shevil shook her head, looking at the hole in the shirt she held up. “Oh, does that want mending? Put it aside, and I’ll tell Alin later. He does all that sort of thing — I can’t sew a stitch. But do tell me about you and this Achim. I’m so curious. Unless,” she added, “it’s too personal. Hard as it is to believe, I really don’t mean to pry. Will you marry him?”
“Goodness!” exclaimed the thief in response. “I barely know him! It’s rather silly for me to be… attracted to him at all!”
“But you just gave me his life history!”
“But I don’t know him personally. I don’t know his habits and such, I’m not even sure…”
“Then you ought to marry him at once!” said Thaylish decisively.
“It’s always best to know as little as possible about the faults of the man you’re going to marry before you marry him. If you always watch, you’ll discover things that will keep you from marrying him, and you’ll eventually die an old maid. Best to get it over with and live with what you learn after the wedding. Anyhow, it worked for me. And about his character — he’s a Hero!”
Almost as if this conversation were a piece of prophecy, it was not long after that a shadow with Thalanna’s voice appeared in the doorway of En Shevil’s little chamber and said, “Achim is here.” The tone was curt. “Thought you might want to know.” She sounded bitter, and this was probably the longest string of words she had spoken to En Shevil since Sharaf’s capture. En Shevil stood slowly and entered the common room. Thalanna sat on a cushion eating dried lamb meat. “You can’t see him, of course,” said the katta softly. En Shevil nodded and accepted the strips of meat the other girl handed her. At times like this she felt an ache for the friendship they had once had, destroyed by the same tragedy that had ruined Thalanna’s life, turned her into a fugitive fighter, and now stolen her only solace in this lonely existence.
En Shevil was still treated like a prisoner here, given only one meal a day, but she understood that the Shelhar could not spare much food to those who were not actually members. “Perhaps he can help–” She cut herself short, unsure as to whether she should say ‘us’ or ‘you.’
“Yes,” said Thalanna absently. Her absence of mind was better than her controlled sorrow. “Our main task now is to get Zayishah out.” So they had not succeeded in that yet. En Shevil was annoyingly uninformed around here, and only the night before had been planning to see if they would allow her to leave with the next caravan. But now, with the news of Achim’s arrival, she knew she could not go until she had seen him.
But a few days later, all chances of that seemed to vanish when Thalanna again awakened her with surprising news from the doorway. “Your man’s been taken,” she said coldly. She and En Shevil had grown even farther apart in the short time the thief had been with the Shelhar. En Shevil sat up, a shiver running through her. Achim, in the hands of Khaveen? Now what? Should she attempt to persuade the underground to rescue him? They had not tried to rescue Sharaf. What about that attack on the palace that Thalanna had mentioned? When was that planned for? She did not know how long she sat there before Thalanna suddenly reappeared. “I’m sorry,” she said, and it was an apology for the katta’s lack of sympathy. “I know how you feel.” En Shevil said nothing and after a moment Thalanna left.
The girl lay in her bed for some time, unwilling to enter the bright, empty common room. The darkness was her consolation, her worries taking less material hold in the shadows. After a while she had an idea. She could not enter any of the other three rooms — Thalanna’s, Sharaf’s, and that shared by Rilahr and the other katta, whose name was Dalhin — so she left the house entirely. The cool, dark passage was an immediate relief. A man standing there, armed — a guard. She was a prisoner, then. She had never left the house alone before, only with Thaylish twice. She sighed as he laid a hand on her shoulder. Better a prisoner of justice than of decadence anyway.
“I only want to sit out here in the dark,” she said, realizing it sounded rather silly.
“I can’t let you be where I can’t see you,” he said. The door shut and she felt his grip tighten as all light disappeared.
“Can’t you see in the dark?” asked En Shevil, pitying him but also rather surprised.
“Most humans can’t,” he replied dryly.
“They could if they knew how,” said the thief. “I can teach you, if you like.”
“I don’t know…” said the guard, sounding a little suspicious.
“Oh, please,” begged En Shevil. “I’m terribly bored, and I need something to take my mind off some problems.”
“All right, then,” he said reluctantly.
The guard proved stubborn and fairly unteachable, and it took the better part of the afternoon to help him learn the technique at all. Then he could barely do it without En Shevil talking him through. So she began helping him hold onto the vision. The task was so grueling that it worked as a very effecting way to take her mind off Achim.
Suddenly, a small form darted past them, flung open the door, and raced into the house. The door bounced closed, evading En Shevil’s grasp as she reached for the handle. She eventually got it open and entered the room. “Sharaf!” she cried numbly. “How…”
“Where is Thalanna?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she began, but the girl in question came in at that moment, rushing to Sharaf and stopping short, only clasping hands with her lover. Knowing the katta aversion to physical displays of affection before others, she walked quickly past them to her bedroom and sat down. Still she could not help but mark a great deal of their rapid, rather broken conversation. She ignored the less interesting bits — the ‘I love you”s and the ‘I was so worried”s, until finally the subject of Sharaf’s escape came up.
“The human Hero was brought to my cell, but he was able to pick the lock with a nail he found. We used the passage to escape.” Silently En Shevil sat beaming, her heart rate increasing until her chest was pounding on the inside of her ears. She should have known there was no need to worry. “Is everything in place for the attack?”
“Yes — I only came back because Thaylish said she saw you.”
This came as a shock to the thief — the attack was underway? She scrambled up and under the door-hanging. “Let me come! I’ve caused you a lot of trouble. Now let me help.” Sharaf nodded shortly and went to the door with the two females behind.
On the way, En Shevil finally got some information. The Shelhar was assembled in the houses nearest the palace, and Thalanna had been on watch until Thaylish’s news. The attack was to commence at dawn. Now both Sharaf and Thalanna were to watch, from the eastern door to the Palace Plaza, as they would not be separated.
“In there,” ordered Thalanna when they got there, pointing to the nearest door. En Shevil nodded, pulling out her lockpick, and wondering at the same time what had possessed her just now. Why had she come? There was sure to be bloodshed, and how could she possibly help? To her right she heard Thalanna gasp in surprise, and turning she followed with her eyes the angle of the katta’s gaze. Sharaf had entered the plaza and stood talking to none other than Achim.
Her heart almost stopped beating. Such a welcome sight was he that she could not look away. Now she was glad she had come. Sharaf returned and spoke to Thalanna in a soft voice, but En Shevil did not listen, for she was too busy watching her Hero. He walked unfalteringly through the shadows to the pillars of the balcony, a rope in his hands.
That was all En Shevil saw, for at that moment something moved in the northern arch of the plaza. She frowned. There was no Shelhar guard there — it must be one of Khaveen’s men. Sharaf and Thalanna, having apparently forgotten her, had entered the house and shut the door. Achim must have requested something — a distraction, perhaps, while he infiltrated the palace? She realized that she would have to deal with whoever it was herself. With a deep breath she ran across the plaza and into the doorway.
It was not one of Khaveen’s men.
En Shevil, flabbergasted at the creature before her, simply stared while the other stared back. It was some time before she could even place the thing zoologically: djinn. She had never seen one, and now she was reluctantly fascinated by it, or, probably more appropriately, her. The djinn had the body of a child that tapered at the waist into a long coiling tail of smoke. Its skin, though, seemed to be covered with reddish scales, and its head bore two long, curving horns of black. It seemed very young, though En Shevil had no idea how djinni aged, and also appeared terrified and confused, its childish face holding a look of such innocent fear that En Shevil pitied it. The djinn murmured something the thief did not catch, and began to move past her towards the plaza. “No!” hissed En Shevil. She did not know what Sharaf was planning or when Achim needed his diversion, but she hypothesized that the arrival of a frightened djinn on the scene would not help either.
“He’s calling my father,” said the djinn in its childish voice. It did not stop moving. En Shevil then did something she had never dreamed she might have occasion to do: she seized upon the djinn’s arms and held it back. “Letgoletgoletgoletgoletgo!” said the child frantically, and of course En Shevil did not obey. She pulled the child closer to her, not knowing exactly what to do. And then, to her horror, her entire weight jerked her arms as they were abruptly airborne. Spinning out of the street and up into the sky above the plaza, the djinn tried to shake the human off, not knowing that it had become a matter of life and death for En Shevil to hold on. They were high above the city now, the djinn turning over and over in the dark sky, crying out in fear. Her exclamations alternated between “let go” and “he’s calling my father.”
En Shevil screamed, gripped by terror. She clutched at the poor child’s arms so tightly her fingers ached, while the djinn struggled beneath her. The devastating logic part of her mind told her calmly that were this a fully developed djinn, it would have been too strong for her. But her emotions only felt sickness and fear as the child twisted and writhed to rid itself of its unwanted passenger.
At first when the djinn turned its back to the ground, En Shevil dangled and usually screamed, but presently she began to be entangled with the creature’s tail, which was solid though it looked like smoke. Either this hampered the child’s ability to fly or it decided to try another tactic, for it suddenly plunged towards the narrow streets of the inner palace below. The wind tore at En Shevil’s face, and she felt sick. The djinn came to earth on the ground, in a lane of the palace between the high-rising expanses of two huge walls. Far above, light flashed. The thief found herself half-lying on the ground, still wrapped in the djinn’s tail, with the creature pulling frantically at her. “He’s calling my father!” Then more quietly, “My mother should help. Let go!”
Looking up into the sky as she was, En Shevil saw him as he fell: a man, his red turban flying off and his blue robes in flames as he plummeted towards them. She could hear his scream of despair as he fell to his death. She pushed at the ground to move away, but her arms did not reach the earth since she and the djinn were still struggling to separate themselves from each other, halfway in the air. Only her feet lightly touched.
Even the djinn screamed as the man landed beside them and there came a flash of darkness, like an implosion where all the light is sucked away; the world went dim with it, the shapes around them only shadows. Raging pain seared through En Shevil, there was a brilliant spark of white light, and it was the last thing she knew.
Chapter 3 – Itsumo Kawai
There was the scent of the cherry trees.
There was pain, and there was sorrow.
Pain throbbed in the still body like an unsuppressed anger that would not be assuaged. Sorrow tore at the mind, for a friend lay dying.
“Please help,” said the friend’s desperate voice, but of course there was no help. There was only the scent of the cherry trees. “Please help.” It was a gasp, a plea, and no child should die like that. “I helped you.” Now there was an ache of guilt, for this was true. The flash — the friend had helped, of course. “He was calling…” What was being said? “…my father.” That was terrible. The horror conveyed in the voice told it. And the voice was dying too, fading to a soft whisper, the last words of a dear friend. Now there were tears as well, mingling with the scent of the cherry trees.
“You won’t die,” was the new thought, in a wretched gasp that did not correctly convey the feeling. But it was not true… the friend would die; there was no help. But the flash — it was a debt! What would happen if the debt were not paid? No friend should die like that.
“Please help me,” the child whispered. “It hurts…” it trailed off.
“Wait!” was the faint cry that wanted to be a scream, muted by the scent of the cherry trees. “You…” there was the pain, cutting off the words “…helped me.” The flash! It must be repaid!
“I did. Bandis. Did he? My father…” Then there was a moan and a brief glow as the friend, Bandis, died. And there was another cry as well, mingling with the pain, for no child should die like that. No friend.
And the scent of the cherry trees was burned.
A surge of something passed through the still body, giving it new life and wakening the pain to screaming agony. It was power, from the death of the friend child Bandis. No friend should die like that. The child of the flash, who had helped and been dear. Some power remained in the body, no longer still but with a beating heart, and flowing blood, the wounds protesting the scent of the cherry trees, abrasive, that explored them. The body did not want this power, fought it. But that only made the blood flow faster, spill out onto the ground in larger pools, mingling with the scent of the cherry trees until the whole air stank of burned, blossoming blood. Eventually the power sank in, seeping through the fibers of the body like a rain into the desert. There it would stay until the scent was recalled to draw it out, and the body no longer fought. No friend should die like that, but the body did not object. There was pain, there was sorrow. And there was death.
And there was the scent that would not die.
There was awakening, and the sight of — wait. Not there, but she. She awoke, she saw. There was — no, she felt a surge of happiness at this discovery.
She saw another, black-haired with a pretty round face, who smiled. There was — it was hard to escape from that pattern — she felt a strange longing for some knowledge that she did not have and could not remember the name of. There was something she should know, but it was gone and she did not miss it, only slightly.
“Oushi kaharun kawiaatuki,” said the woman. Speech — she remembered that. There had been speech when… Bandis! The debt-flash! She struggled, remembering movement, felt pain, and subsided. The woman spoke again. Had speech always been like this, unintelligible? Yet she had understood Bandis. She closed her eyes, the tears falling warmly.
She tried to answer, but she had forgotten how to speak, though she knew she had once known. Dredging through a mind that seemed shallow and murky, she finally recalled what she wanted. “Where am I?”
“Sasuki,” said the woman sympathetically. Then she turned and called over her shoulder, “Tsukishiro, kuweshu lansi! Tsukishiro!”
A moment later a man entered the room. She remembered men as well, though how she remembered them she knew not. What else did she not know? The woman spoke to the man in the same strange speech, and then the man bent over her. “I am Tsukishiro,” he said. Then, shocked into remembrance by the revelation of identity, she knew what she did not know. Who was she? People had names. Why did she not? Her face mirrored her panic. “Do you understand me?”
She calmed, somehow, under his voice, and looked at him. She remembered clothing — people did not go naked. Did they usually dress like this, though? He had a great loose robe of white. Under it, his shirt was full, with a device (she remembered pictures) on the chest. His waist was wrapped in what looked like bandages. His pant legs were also wide, but the bandages began again mid-calf. Looking at the hand he laid on her shoulder, she saw that the same thin strips of cloth covered it as well. Finally she looked at his face, dark and proud and small-eyed, his skin yellow-brown, exactly like the woman. His straight black hair seemed long and full, but tied back. “Yes.”
“I am called Tsukishiro,” he said again. “You were hurt, but my sister Tekawaya has helped you to heal. You have been here for two sevendays.”
“But who am I?” she said, no longer able to contain herself, frantic with a desire that was not even urgent, frighteningly lackluster. She could not even understand why she cared about who she was. Tsukishiro looked at her silently for a moment, pitying.
“I do not know,” he said. What a beautiful accent! Had she not heard another accent, at one time, that she had also loved? And why did accents exist? It must have something to do with the speech she could not understand.
Then she remembered something else he had said — ‘been here.’ She remembered the concept of places. “Where is this?”
“You are in Hamoroba, my home, in this kingdom Itsumo Kawai,” said Tsukishiro. “Tekawaya found you in my garden.”
“Bandis,” moaned the girl. “She’s dead. And I can never help her or repay her.”
“Who is Bandis?” asked Tsukishiro gently.
“A dear friend. A child. She helped me after…” she cried out, for she found that before the brilliant flash she knew had come from Bandis, she could remember nothing, only blackness — terrible, grasping, sucking darkness stretching from a point to engulf her. She calmed. “She helped me, but she died. I could not help her.”
Tsukishiro asked Tekawaya something, and she silently shook her head. “You were alone at the time she found you.”
“Of course. Bandis…” she found she could not think of the right word. Whether it had ever even been in her vocabulary she did not know. “…separated… departed… I don’t know. She went away when she died.”
“I am sorry,” said Tsukishiro, and his sadness for her seemed genuine. “Now you sleep, but when you awaken again you will be well enough to rise. I do not wish you to be overexcited.”
She complied. Sleep came easily when anything of which she could think slipped through her tired mind like sand through her fingers, leaving filmy dust but no substance.
When light met her eyes again, warm sunlight, and the cool scent of cherry trees, somehow despite the memories this smell evoked she was comforted. “That sounds like the most fun a person could have,” she murmured. Now, whence had that thought come?
“Tasshu,” Tekawaya greeted her cheerfully, folding back an entire wall that she now noticed was actually a screen. Were all houses built like this? She did not think so, but searching her nonexistent memory was too much of an effort. So she only sighed.
Tekawaya helped her to sit up, then brought to her bedside a tray bearing dishes: a grey-brown bowl of something steamy and white; a flatter plate-like bowl with chunks of something in a thick brown liquid; and an ornately-painted cup of something else that steamed. As the rising smells of these struck her, she remembered the idea of eating and recognized the feeling in the pit of her stomach as hunger. With a sick sensation she braced herself against the bed as the world turned odd colors around her for a moment. She clutched at the tray, unsure of what to eat first and aware after a second that she did not recall exactly how. Did people usually eat with sticks? She picked them up, looking at them.
Tekawaya laughed and took them from her, demonstrating how to hold them. It looked complicated. The Kawaian woman pinched up a clump of the white stuff, which was in the form of small particles (she vaguely remembered something like this), and the rising surge of fresh steam gave the girl a nauseous kind of churning in her belly. Tekawaya put the sticks in her hand and positioned her fingers around them.
As she attempted to maneuver them they twisted around and fell. Wildly, she looked at her hands. They were horribly dirty, the underside of her fingernails dark. Although Tekawaya was reaching again for the dropped sticks, the girl in the bed made a frustrated noise and plunged her hands into the white stuff.
Tekawaya gave a slightly shocked laugh, withdrawing her own hands and watching her charge eat. After a moment she shook her head and went to find a clean cloth.
The food was hot so that she had to get it out of her hands quickly. Not that this was a problem. The contents of the bowl was rice, she knew as she tasted it, but she did not think it was very familiar to her. The chunks were meat in an excellent sauce, and the drink in the cup was tea. She finished it all rather quickly, for obvious reasons, and wiped her hands on the cloth Tekawaya handed her. The latter then gestured that she should rise, turning back a corner of the thin coverlet.
Standing was difficult: her entire body was sore, but some places hurt more than others, especially when they touched anything. She saw that she was clothed in a gown of some sort, white with a tied sash of red. It then occurred to her that while the sight of many things opened doors in her memory, the apparel of her hosts and, at this point, herself, was totally unfamiliar to her.
Tekawaya led her out of the room into a bright hallway, marveling at her guest who seemed to be marveling in her turn at her own ability to walk. Although this last could not be doubted, she went very slowly, bent slightly as if by age. The poor girl. Though Tekawaya had done her best to heal her, the burns were barely faded, and looked terribly painful. Up until a few days ago, they had been accompanied by an unsteady heart and a weak cough. And that hair! It had been long — down to the girl’s thighs at least — when Tekawaya had found her, but burnt to the point where she had been forced to shear it to ear-length. She had so rarely seen such a color — pale gold like sand — in hair. It had been a shame to ruin it, damaged though it already was. Tekawaya hoped it would grow back while the girl was here.
The girl was lead out the door of the paper house into a high-walled courtyard with a round pool in the center and narrow gutters running around the perimeter. She appreciated the words Tekawaya was speaking, even if she couldn’t understand them, as the Kawaian opened a tall wooden cabinet and gestured to its contents, which seemed to be various items meant for bathing. The girl nodded her comprehension, and Tekawaya bowed herself out.
The girl examined the bottles and sponges and remembered the various parts of washing one’s self. She was surprised at the burns and bruises that covered her body. It was as if something hot had slammed into her. The soap stung as she gently rubbed herself clean, and when she reached back to wash her hair she found that the habitual movement her arms made was designed for more hair than she had on her head. That at least was a recognizable difference from the life she could not remember.
The slight pain of the bathing process faded gradually when she sat down in the pool’s steaming water and laid her head back, gazing up at a sky that was unfamiliar and more so because she knew not why. Eventually, feeling herself grow a little restless, she rose and put about her the thin robe she’d found in the cabinet. It clung to her wet skin in wrinkles and felt uncomfortable.
As if by magic, Tekawaya appeared the moment she was covered, though doubtless she had seen more of the girl unclothed in the last week than anyone. The girl shuddered at the thought of how her wounds must have looked fresh. Tekawaya escorted the girl back to her room. There, she had laid out on the bed clothing like that which she wore: a simple dress of pale blue, fairly straight and with a high neck and some kind of dark blue sash. She bowed again and departed the room once more.
The girl removed the robe and stood for a while, waiting for her skin to dry. Her hair dripped, but there was too little of it to wring. After a moment she approached the bed. She found there were also undergarments with the unfamiliar dress, and so she clothed herself. She had to be gentle, for the cloth, fine though it was, chafed her burns. Partly to avoid its pressing on her bruises and partly because it was difficult to manage in the first place, she tied the stiff sash rather loosely. When she was dressed, Tekawaya came immediately.
Exiting the paper house by a different door, she found herself in what she assumed must be the garden. Lanes lined with bright-blossoming trees and separated by beds of sweet-smelling flowers stretched back and forth between the paper house with its courtyard and a large wooden house for which they now made.
A huge empty room seemed to take up most of the space in the wooden house, high-beamed and with a platform in the center. The walls seemed heavily padded with straw, and she frowned as she probed lightly at the shadows in her mind, trying to recall if walls were customarily like this.
On the platform stood Tsukishiro, who stepped down as they approached and gave them a small bow. He conversed briefly with Tekawaya, who then bowed to her charge and walked across the room to the opposite door. When she was gone, Tsukishiro smiled at the girl and invited her to join him where two cushions sat upon an area of raised floor that ran along on of the walls. This wall was not padded with straw. She did not understand this place.
“Please pardon the leaving of my sister,” Tsukishiro said. “There is a place where she must be. Now we must solve a puzzle.” He looked her over. “Namely, you. My estate is within the outer wall of the palace grounds of the emperor, therefore is subjected to his guard. The question then arises of how you arrived, a stranger speaking the tongue of the northern mainland, inside these grounds.”
“The flash,” murmured the girl. “Bandis — my friend, who died — she made a flash that brought me here, I think.”
“Your friend must have been a magic user who somehow teleported you here.” At the word magic, the girl remembered that particular concept, and a fear awakened in her, deeper than any she could remember ever having felt. She shuddered slightly, feeling abruptly terribly uncomfortable and unwilling to hear more. But Tsukishiro did not notice. “There is that problem solved. I would still like to know whence and why.”
“Why…” Still struggling to calm her unruly fear, she did not finish her sentence. She looked down at herself, feeling the pain of the bruises on her legs and buttocks where she knelt.
“I surmise,” said he, noting the direction of her gaze, “that you must have been in some danger from which you did not emerge wholly unscathed, though you were transported and saved from death.”
“But Bandis was not!” cried the girl, tears causing the room to go hazy and sorrow overriding her terror. “If she was such a magic user to bring me from far away, why could she not save herself?” She had the sudden thought that it was because Bandis must have used magic that she had died. But that was ridiculous, so she did not give it voice.
He held her eyes with his. “If she was such a friend as you say, perhaps she gave up her life to save yours.”
She bowed her head and cried silently.
They two were not the only ones attempting to solve the mysteries surrounding her.
“Yes, my prince,” Aziza was remarking thoughtfully, discomforting Achim who was still not accustomed to this whole ‘sultan’s son’ business. “I know who she is.” Aziza did not mention that the girl in question had once tried to pick her lock and almost died for it.
“She was involved in the Rasierian Underground, but they lost track of her just as I entered the palace. Nobody’s seen her since.”
“Who should have?” asked Aziza.
“A katta, Sharaf, who helped me escape the dungeon, mentioned yesterday that she’d been with them and that now she was missing. I’m afraid –” a more appropriate term might have been ‘absolutely terror-wracked’ — “that she might have been killed in the battle.”
“Very few were killed in that battle, after you defeated Ad Avis,” said Aziza gently. She guessed from the young man’s tone that he was closer to this girl than he had originally implied. His next words confirmed this.
“Sharaf lost his girlfriend, and it made me paranoid. Is there no spell you can cast to tell me where she is?”
“I can cast a far-seeing spell on Rasier, but it will take some time, as I am working at a very difficult problem wrapped up in the death of Ad Avis. Return the day after tomorrow and I will see what I can do.”
Achim sighed. “Thank you, my lady,” he said, rising. “Farewell until that day.”
“Farewell, my prince,” said Aziza, and with a wave of her hand the Hero stood in the street outside her door.
And thus everyone concerned continued in ignorance.
“We know not who you are, and only can guess you are from the northern mainland,” Tsukishiro was summarizing. “So — what will we make of you?”
“I don’t know,” said the girl sadly.
“You are welcome here for as long as you desire to stay, for I have no longer any resident students.”
“Students?” inquired the girl, raising her head. “This is a school?”
“I teach Maruroharyuu,” said Tsukishiro, looking around at the great room. “My only trainee now is Prince Torihiko, but he comes rarely and lives, of course, in the palace.”
“What is Maruroharyuu?” asked the girl, strangely intrigued by the foreign word. It lodged in her mind somehow, like something that belonged there.
“It is an ancient mode of combat,” said Tsukishiro. His face suddenly took on a brighter look. “I have remembered me something that may help you. My friend Chihaya has some skill in magic, and perhaps can answer some of our questions. Would you feel able to go on a very small journey?”
The fear gripped her once again, hot and sharp. “Magic?” she asked, her voice breaking.
Tsukishiro looked at her, a bit startled by her tone. “Not true magic — she deals in potions and pills, and has one very important magical skill that should not bother you if magic is a problem.”
She shook her head, eyes closed, and said, “I think I might be up to it. Where to?”
“To a neighboring island — Onoko, the Isle of the Dragon.”
“Is it far?” asked the girl, most undesirous to go.
“It would take us the better part of the day to cross Itsumo Kawai and go by boat to Onoko. We would stay the night with Chihaya and return tomorrow.”
“If it would help in this mystery, let us go by all means,” sighed the girl.
The streets were wide, lined with cherry trees and low, broad bushes of pale bluish green. There were stretches of grass and flower beds, and the houses were large and quaint, until they drew farther away from the palace, at which point they were small and quaint. The girl wasn’t sure why she thought them ‘quaint.’ Quaintness was a relative sort of concept, she thought… but apparently that was how her brain, confused as it was, chose to classify these buildings.
The girl looked back once to see the palace, which had been behind them when they exited Hamoroba, and had seen a tall, layered edifice with balconies and flat roofs beyond the outer wall that encircled it as well as Tsukishiro’s school.
People bowed their heads deferentially to Tsukishiro and then walked on as they had been, eyes lowered. The two of them entered a great, noisy part of the village which seemed to be a bazaar of sorts. The smell of fish pervaded all, and the sounds of merchants advertising their wares competed with the noise of caged animals and the chatter of busy people. Folk passed by in two-wheeled carts drawn by running men, who smiled brazenly at Tsukishiro as they passed, white-toothed under their dark hats. The air was warm, but not hot, and a cool breeze blew the smell of cherry trees into their faces. The girl closed her eyes and breathed the scent in, trying to reconcile her thoughts about Bandis and the recent events that were all she could remember. It was almost overwhelming.
She started as a cart scraped to a halt not a foot in front of them. “Kitsa, orikinawa geowa kuwigami?” said the man pulling it, bobbing his head to Tsukishiro and looking sidelong at the girl.
Tsukishiro responded in the same language, and the girl once caught the word Onoko. The man shook his head, but after Tsukishiro said something more nodded and smiled. The Maruroha instructor dropped some coins from inside his robe into the man’s hand. The man moved to the side, holding now only one of the long posts he used to pull the cart. “We will ride to the edge of Ieo-Shen and find a horse cart to take us to Ingaoku, where I have a private boat.” He gestured for the girl to seat herself in the cart, which she did. Tsukishiro sat beside her, and the puller wheeled the cart around and began jogging down the street.
“What is your friend’s ability?” asked the girl as they went. She was still a bit anxious about the idea of magic.
“She is called Dragon Speaker, and that is her skill,” said Tsukishiro. “Onoko is the Isle of the Dragon for obvious reasons. The dragon of Onoko lives by the lake in the center of the island, and few people seek her out. None, indeed, has the gift of dragon speech save Chihaya any more, and the dragon bestows few gifts where she cannot understand the desire.”
“But — does she not terrorize the people there?” asked the girl, horrified. She was remembering the concept of dragons, and the ideas Tsukishiro was presenting did not at all agree with it.
Tsukishiro laughed. “You must be from the north. No, in Itsumo Kawai, what few dragons we have are good luck for us. The dragon of Onoko is the largest and most generous. Occasionally she will fly away and return, and such flights are seen as bringers of good fortune — mulatusoko, dragon-luck — but normally one must seek her out to find her.”
“And people do that willingly? Are they not afraid?”
“No dragon of Itsumo Kawai has ever killed a man who was not attacking it.”
“And your friend has the power to speak to the dragon of Onoko. Does she have much occasion to use this power?”
“You will pardon my ignorance, I hope, when I say I am not familiar with that phrase. Much occasion?”
“Does she use her power often?”
“She will take appeals to the dragon in return for money. But over the last few years the dragon sleeps more and more, since she grows old. So Chihaya has taken to the business of an apothecary to support herself.”
During the rest of the ride through Ieo-Shen, which she learned was the capital city of Itsumo Kawai, they spoke of many things: the culture, the history of the Empire, the dragons, and Tsukishiro himself. She learned that his father, as a boy, had been a favorite of the current Emperor’s father, and thus the latter had given Hamoroba to Tsukishiro for his school and home. Tsukishiro had trained students as Maruroha warriors for ten years, but during the last two there had been only five students left. Now only Torihiko studied, and he erratically, since the duties of a prince were demanding.
“And Tekawaya refuses to influence him,” sighed Tsukishiro.
“Influence him?” asked the girl, very much surprised.
“Yes,” said the man, his eyes twinkling. “Though Torihiko has little time to spare, he is increasingly with my sister. I fear,” he said with mockingly worried resignation, “that he will eventually marry her.”
“Your sister will marry the prince?” said the girl, smiling. How romantic! She remembered that concept now, wondering idly if she had ever been attached to anyone.
“I hope so,” said Tsukishiro, “though she is above him.”
“Why do you say that?”
“What brother could say less?”
“Well, you must have some reason for it.”
“Tekawaya has made honor her life study. She is truly the best of women, with every virtue honed. Torihiko, though certainly a good man, is not worthy of perfection.”
The girl felt again that aching desire for something — probably, she realized, for someone close enough to her that she could give or receive such praise. “You love your sister a great deal,” she remarked.
Tsukishiro nodded, his eyes soft.
As they bumped along the dirt roads outside of Ieo-Shen, through low hills and a strange orchard-forest, they did not speak, the girl too wrapped up in looking about her to pay heed to a conversation. They passed what looked to be vast, reed-filled lakes, knee-deep, in which men and women waded. Tsukishiro told her that this was where the rice was grown.
They were forced to walk for a stretch as the wagon-thing did not go all the length to Ingaoku; Tsukishiro told her of the distance, converting it into a northern measurement, but both words were unfamiliar to the girl, so she tried not to care. As they came into the outskirts of the port town, she was feeling exhausted and sore, and very much looking forward to riding the rest of the way. Tsukishiro hired another cart, and they moved on through the city.
New smells and sounds met her senses, things she had never before experienced. A rushing as of wind, a constant murmur of birds, and a totally indescribable scent filled her ears and nose. She looked around, realizing at last that it must be the sea. She must never have seen it before, or these would have gradually become familiar, which they did not. The noises grew louder, and the smell became mixed with that of a bazaar similar to the one in Ieo-Shen, though with a more fishy tone to it here. She remembered fishy smells.
Nearly an hour saw them through the city. As they came up a hill and paused for a moment at the top, their cart-puller wiping his brow, she saw the sea, and her eyes went wide at its grey-green magnificence. As they went forward the buildings to the right and left grew smaller, and the ocean seemed to expand until it was the horizon in all directions she could see. She closed her mouth with a painful snap, not wishing to gape and look like a fool. Boats that must have been larger than houses were tied to long piers, rocking on the bosom of this great power that, she just knew, could crush them with no effort. How could there be so much water in the world?
As Tsukishiro handed her out of the cart, she stared and stared at the ship by which they were disembarking. It was long, flat in the middle, with the ends tapering to carved shapes of red and gold. It was not a quarter as large as many of the other ships there, yet it looked splendid. Tsukishiro thanked the puller and lead her down some steps to the low pier and the magnificent boat. The seats on the flat bottom were soft cushions, and the girl shook her head as she looked intently at them. Why did she notice such details in their composition? Every stitch seemed to jump out at her as if familiar. They were well-made and of expensive material, but how did she know that?
The three men in the boat greeted her politely in their language and she nodded to them. Two were seated on cushions near the middle and held oars, and the third worked a wooden thing that was part of the boat, sitting behind what looked like a built-in chest or crate. Tsukishiro helped her to sit, between the two rowers, and took his place beside her. Already she felt slightly nervous at this rocking and uncomfortable with the idea of there being so little between her and unknown reaches of something she had never experienced before.
She looked out onto the water, not daring to move and lean over the raised side of the boat, seeing how bright it looked, shining gold where the dusk was broken into shards that seemed to float on the uneasy blanket of grey — or was it green? She imagined that water darkening as it deepened, sinking to a terrifying blackness in which there were bottomless crevices where there was no air nor glimmer of light, only cold water and fear.
A mighty shudder ran through her, snapping her gaze back into the boat. Still images filled her mind of falling, sinking into an enveloping tide of brutal, crushing water. Her heart was racing and her breathing began to come more and more raggedly.
“Ukonea-ko riman,” murmured Tsukishiro, taking her hand. “Let me teach you something.” He placed his fingertips on her forehead lightly, which helped to bring her back to the true situation. “There is a courage hard inside you,” he said, and it was almost a chant. “If you find it, whenever you are confronted with fear you may hold to it and thus be able to face the thing you fear. Close your eyes and ignore your physical self.”
With a deep breath the girl obeyed, forcing herself to loosen her grip on his hand. She tried to breathe normally and did not move. She felt her hands fade away, and her arms, parts of her legs, until finally the only things of which she was conscious were Tsukishiro’s hand on her brow and various places on her lower half where she rested them on the cushion. She felt a strange kind of bubbly joy that she had been able to do as he said so quickly. She raised her hand and was immediately aware of it once again.
“Don’t move,” came Tukishiro’s voice as if from far off. She could not be sure, but he seemed impressed. She let her hand and forearm disappear again, and waited for further instruction. “Picture yourself facing your fear,” he directed, “but with only half your mind. While you do, feel where it hits you least.”
While she did not completely understand this, she trusted him and immediately pictured herself in the ocean. She could not swim, and began at once to sink. Below her was a hole where banks of sand on the ocean floor went sloping down into darkness. The fear swept through her like a bright light through her shadowy consciousness, and stabbed into her complacent mind like so many knives. Then she suddenly understood what Tsukishiro had said when she saw — rather, imagined or felt a certain place tighten, resisting the piercing bolts and remaining as dark as it should be. Somehow, as her teacher had suggested, she held this. And though the fear remained as bright as before, the panic vanished and she had control of herself.
She opened her eyes. The world felt substantially different from when she had closed them. The ocean was still as horrific as before, but she saw now the beauty in it that her terror had hidden. She looked at Tsukishiro and smiled. “You did very well,” he said, and she could tell now that he was impressed. “Perhaps it has something to do with your having such a clear mind. I would be delighted to teach you more, if you are willing, for never have I found someone who could do that on the first attempt.”
“I don’t know,” she said, still a bit giddy with the thrill of what she had done. Looking around into the shadows of early evening, she realized she had entirely missed the sun’s setting. Before them was another island, looking much like Nagokama that they had left, only wilder. The boat drew up to another pier, and Tsukishiro at once climbed out to help the girl onto Onoko, Isle of the Dragon.
Chihaya’s house was small and low, with a sloppy, sweet-smelling herb garden on the side. The girl shivered in the cold evening as Tsukishiro knocked on the wooden door.
“Tsukishiro!” cried the tall woman who opened it, then began chattering in pleased-sounding Kawaian. She was thin and angular with a face friendly if not pretty. She smiled at the girl, after Tsukishiro somehow introduced them, and gestured her guests enter.
Inside was but one room, as far as the girl could tell; little enough of it was visible under masses of papers, scattered books, potted plants, empty flasks, and other various things appropriate to an apothecary. Chihaya was still speaking rapidly, and the girl listened in wonder as Tsukishiro actually laughed at something she said. The girl had never heard this sound from him before.
Finally, as she stood nervously aside and looked around her, their conversation turned to her dilemma. “Come here,” said Tsukishiro in her language. She stood beside him while the Dragon Speaker gazed over her and he, she assumed, explained the situation. The grave expression that crossed Chihaya’s face was not at all to the girl’s liking any more than the grave tone in the woman’s voice as she shook her head and spoke a moment later. “She will try a test,” said Tsukishiro, “and if it does not work she will try in her books to see what else she may do. She has not much hope.” The apothecary had turned and crossed the small room.
“What test?” asked the girl, fidgeting. When told it was a potion, she shuddered, but immediately resolved to try whatever might help. Yet she also put into practice Tsukishiro’s lesson of the boat ride.
“Uingo ki,” said Chihaya, handing to the girl a vial of something clear.
“What exactly is this?” the latter asked apprehensively. Tsukishiro relayed the question to his friend and told the girl,
“It is a draft for clearing the mind, making ease to set the thoughts in order. It will do you no harm.”
She had at first some trouble with the overly-ornate stopper, but after pulling this apart in two pieces and grimacing apologetically, she held the bottle up open. The unpleasant smell from it then made her pause. She noticed the other two were looking at her fixedly, so she focused on the vial, held her courage, and drank. The taste was sour and filmy, and she exchanged the bottle for a cup of water but did not immediately drink it. The strange sweeping feeling of light-headedness that for a moment overcame her gave a rush of sudden hope that the draught might actually work.
But instead of heightening, the sensation subsided and she found that though her brain-impulses seemed more in sequence, the darkness beyond her Kawaian memories was not a shade lighter. She sighed and drank the water, tears pricking in her eyes, and returned the cup to Chihaya. Staring out the open back door into a dark blue-green wood, she shook her head.
The older woman said something, and the girl felt Tsukishiro’s hand on her shoulder in a vain attempt at comfort. She could not let them think this had ruined her, so she turned with a half-hearted smile, brushing away her tears, and said, “So I have no life. I’ll get over it.”
Tsukishiro returned the smile and spoke to the apothecary. She replied. “Chihaya will prepare a meal for us,” the instructor told her. He swept clear a cushion at the low table and gestured for her to sit. Beside her he made and took a place for himself. Then he moved the clutter from the table itself and smiled at the girl. “We will find another way, I am sure,” he said.
She shook her head. “I cannot spend forever chasing my past. I’ll just have to learn something to do with myself and start a new life.” Tsukishiro nodded, looking thoughtful, and the next moment was again conversing with Chihaya in their language.
“She will try to find something for you tonight; she has many lore-books that may contain a recipe that will help.”
Supper was sweet-hot rice in cold milk with noodles, a dish called waiingo. Then Chihaya laid out bedrolls for her guests after making bare sufficient room on the floor and increasing the bulk of all the heaps in the corners. She threw herself onto her own bed with a candle on the floor beside her and a book in her hand.
This light, or more likely a different one, still flickered in the dim room when the girl awoke again, pulled from sleep by a sound she thought she must never forget. Without pausing to reflect on whether or not this might be accurate, she sprang up.
It was a voice, so mighty as to be nearly too great for human hearing, she thought. Its strength defied all guesses as to its volume or distance, and the overwhelming yet suppressed power in its tone engrossed her. Something about that voice was familiar, comforting even. It took her a moment to realize that it was already gone. “My apologies for the recent disturbances,” was all it had said.
She heard Tsukishiro sigh, and turned to see him upright in bed and rubbing his temples. Chihaya, sitting under her coverlet with a book open on her lap, had her eyes closed. “My thanks to thee, Orono,” she said politely. “I hope thy distress hath been well-resolved.”
She was not speaking Kawaian; rather, her almost motionless lips somehow formed words that the girl could understand, in the same tongue as the great voice. The dragon’s voice. “How is that possible?” she asked out loud.
“That was the voice of the dragon Orono,” Tsukishiro explained from behind her, his voice sounding strained. The girl nodded absently, while Chihaya said something in an apologetic tone.
“Is she always so concise?” asked the girl.
There came no answer, and she turned to see that Tsukishiro was staring at her, eyes narrowed in confusion and awe. “You… understood her.”
“She said, ‘My apologies for the recent disturbances,’ and Chihaya thanked her and said, ‘I hope thy distress is resolved.'”
“I know not whether to take this new wonder as such, or as partial explanation for the other mysteries surrounding you.” He turned and talked to Chihaya, whose eyes went wide at his words. She looked at the girl in shock, and finally spoke.
“An thou hast understood Orono wilt thou now my words know.” It was the dragon tongue, of course, but while from Orono it had been roaring and heavy, from Chihaya it only made her ears tingle. The girl nodded, a whole new list of questions awakening in her mind. But she was tired, and did not desire to attempt the finding of answers tonight. “Please,” she said, wishing she could speak the impossible dracon language, “let’s talk over this tomorrow.”
Tsukishiro agreed, and relayed her wish to the apothecary who reluctantly returned to her work and allowed the others to return to their beds. And to the dragon’s voice in her dreams.
“Whatsoe’er thou hast done, child, hast aroused me from my slumber,” Orono told her. And the girl protested that she hadn’t done anything. The dragon did not seem to hear her. “I like not that thou spendest so great a time amongst thy father’s people, for all his virtues. Thy speech becometh uncouth. I wish for thy speedy return.”
“I don’t understand you!” the girl replied desperately, but the dragon was, to all appearances, gone. The girl started awake into the full light of mid-morning. Sitting up, she yawned and stretched against the soreness of her muscles and her raw skin.
“Yet another proof that thou art not Kawaian,” remarked Chihaya, “for we rise early to appreciate the dawn. Thy morning meal is long prepared; come and break thy fast.”
“My ears hurt when she talks thus,” complained Tsukishiro from the table. The girl rose, feeling stiffness all through her, and went to his side. “You talked in your sleep,” he said quietly, as Chihaya gave her a cup of tea and a bowl of fruit-covered rice. “You spoke a language I did not recognize.”
“I had a very strange dream,” she agreed. “The dragon gave me a message, I think.”
“How can you…”
“I don’t know. Did Chihaya find anything more?”
The apothecary, hearing her name and guessing the question, told her, “I found nothing in my reading for thy aid.”
“Can you tell her it’s all right?” asked the girl, clumsily dropping her chopsticks onto the table. Her eating skills were improving, but she had not yet mastered this technique.
Tsukishiro gave her message to Chihaya. “I sorrow for thee yet,” said the woman. “Thou hast dragon blood in thee, else though couldst not understand the tongue.”
The girl nodded, not wanting to give an answer through the man. But then she had a thought. “What do you hear when she talks like that?” She finished her breakfast and employed the soft grey napkin at its side.
“I hear growling,” he began, then stopped as if unsure of how to describe it. “It almost seems a whine of sorts. And with it I feel a pressure against my skull. When the dragon speaks it, it hurts and echoes for an hour. The power in that speech is great.”
“I felt it last night, and in my dream, from Orono, but I do not hear it in Chihaya.”
“You must needs ask Chihaya why that is,” said Tsukishiro, then after a moment smiled at himself and turned to the woman.
She listened to his wordy question and spoke to the girl. “Rarely is a human born bodily capable of making those sounds that are needed to speak the dragon tongue, and few of those choose to learn it. The study, if not the practice, is painful. I have learned it of my lady Orono; dragons, by nature, understand the tongue of their people, and learn to speak early in life. Thus I know that thou hast dragon blood in thy veins, though thou doubtless possessest not the mechanisms to speak the inborn language.”
The girl smiled her thanks for this information; though it did not answer her question, she felt she could now guess what she wanted to know. Coming from the human voice and fueled by a human’s weak lungs the speech would not carry the same power as when spoken by a dragon. So the only question left was what connection she had with dragons. She stored it away in a corner of her mind where the other things she would never know were beginning to pile up.
“I must give a Maruroharyuu demonstration in Oingo-Sai,” said Tsukishiro, then repeated it in Kawaian, “so we must be going.”
“One more thing I want to know,” said the girl as she stood with him. “What was Orono talking about last night?”
Chihaya’s answer was, “Sixteen days ago, Orono hath awakened from a sleep that had lasted some months. Her sleep had caused a great lull in the weather of the island, and her sudden awakening, from some disturbance to herself, hath given us torrents of rain and much lightening. Lately it hath subsided.”
The girl was quiet, and knew that there must be some link between the dragon’s words to her in sleep and the fact that she was Orono’s disturbance, but what it was she did not want to think. She thanked the woman and moved towards the door as Tsukishiro and Chihaya spoke in a haggling tone. She heard the jingle of coins and the man joined her. They left the house.
“What is your demonstration?” she asked as they moved slowly up the road towards the town through which they’d passed the previous night.
“I show some of the most advanced moves I know to arouse interest in the Maruroharyuu. I grow weary of idleness and wish for more students, but no one comes.”
They reached the village and were met before they passed between the first paper houses. The wide-eyed man greeted them cheerfully, if a bit withdrawn, and continued to talk in recognizably dialect-clouded Kawaian. He took a place beside the Maruroha and they conversed as the group moved towards the center of town. Once again the girl sighed, feeling lost. She was picking up a bit of the language, but not enough.
Several people gave up friendly cries when they caught sight of Tsukishiro, and a few children ran off shouting. The crowd was assembled around a large platform of wood, and onto this the Maruroha walked after instructing her to stand and watch. By his popularity she guessed that his demonstrations here were frequent and well-received, if not very effective. So she waited eagerly to see what exactly he was going to do, to find out what Maruroharyuu really was.
Tsukishiro draped his robe over a large drum that stood on one corner of the platform and stretched almost lazily, answering questions. Then he began. He went from his feet to his hands, flipped into the air, and came down in a crouch. From this position he swept his legs around with his weight on his hands again. Then, with his right leg out straight before him and his left tucked under he threw himself over backwards.
The girl then observed that this had been a warm-up. For the moment his feet hit the tight planks beneath him he was off them again, ducking sideways and kicking out above his head. Then he fell to his hands again and hit the same spot in the air with both his feet, one after the other.
All his movements were so elaborate, so graceful, with no apparent break between them! His fluidity and energy amazed her, and she watched each new move with a pounding heart as he beat back the air with kicks and knee-slams as well as a few swift hand-attacks. The power he displayed shocked and enticed her, and seemed both contrast to and explanation for his usual placid calm.
When he finished several minutes later, the people all silently bowed their heads. As this was apparently a mark of approval and she knew nothing else to do, the girl followed suit. She then listened to Tsukishiro’s small oration and tried to pick out words she knew, heard him answer a few more questions, and watched as he finally stepped down after reclaiming his robe. He exchanged a few bows with some friends before coming back to her side.
“Now we leave,” he said, “lest they invite us to dinner and we spend another night on this island.”
She could not help but stare at him as they headed from Oingo-Sai, her eyes wild and bright. “Can you teach me to do that?” she asked at last.
“Of course,” he replied.
Chapter 4 – Nightfall
The terms of agreement were these: Tsukishiro would teach her the fundamentals, which usually took three or four intensely rigorous months, and she would enter the palace guard at the end of that time, for two months longer than the basic training had taken, in order to pay him for his services. She would continue learning the more advanced techniques, which Tsukishiro said was the study of a lifetime, as long as she was in Ieo-Shen.
And so it began. She was given an oron, the soft, dark red-brown jumpsuit, tight at the waist and loose over the upper arm, torso, and legs that was the main part of the Maruroha gear. It had no device, for this could only be earned at a certain level beyond basic training. She had mansukos to go over this–the soft, light bands that were to be wrapped about the waist, lower legs (shoes, light but sturdy, were included in this), arms from mid-bicep to the hands, neck and head. Tsukishiro told her that Maruroha only covered the head for tournaments.
She was taught to be flexible (this hurt a great deal at first) and impervious to pain (this hurt a great deal more than the other); she lifted weighted blocks to increase her strength (this also hurt); and of course she was taught the Maruroharyuu, which mostly involved avoiding opponent’s blows and then kicking them. The true nature of the fighting style actually involved swords, but the fundamentals that she was to learn in these three or four months were primarily physical.
She learned how to cram an hour’s rest into ten minutes by blanketing her being and calming her body. She was taught about her sanoko, an almost limitless source of energy inside her; if she tapped into this, she could push herself beyond her limits until the energy ran out. Then she would be exhausted, but each time a little less.
She learned to rise at dawn, to eat with chopsticks, to make the most of a short night’s sleep when she was weary and in pain. For the next three months she drove at her training, growing stronger and more skilled every day. She threw herself wholly into her schooling, concentrating her every fiber on absorbing what she was taught. Through some strange virtue she possessed, dragon blood or whatever it might be, she went through the basic training more thoroughly and skillfully than anyone Tsukishiro had ever seen.
During this time she became close friends with Tekawaya, who had completed what she was learning years ago and occasionally joined her in practice. Tsukishiro was always distant and fairly stoic, but the girl came to respect his quiet humor and ironic wisdom. She picked up the language to a certain extent, and even at times flirted with one of the guards. Her life was once again her own.
The one rough spot in this agreeable arrangement was Orono. Three times the girl heard the dragon’s taciturn call, bidding her ‘come home’ but not giving any details or even hints as to what she meant, why she was concerned with a human, or where home was. Two of these came during her meditation, the third in sleep.
She had started from her trance abruptly after the first message, and Tekawaya had asked her what was wrong. Upon relating the dragon’s message to the Kawaian, the girl had been advised to take the matter to Tsukishiro. Perhaps, Tekawaya had reasoned, the answer to her lost identity lay with Orono and another trip to Onoko should be made. The girl had begged her then not to mention it, saying she would rather stay as she was than ever enter a boat again.
One night, turning discontentedly in her bed, she forced her eyes to remain closed and tried to keep her breathing deep and regular. But of course it was to no purpose. Tsukishiro’s announcement had left her much too excited for sleep.
“My friend,” he had said after she had completed her test, “you have progressed more swiftly than any but two students I have ever taught. By the end of the week your basic training will be complete.”
Pulling off her nightgown she vacated the bed. She had, at Tekawaya’s suggestion, begun to use mansukos as underclothes. Wrapped so they resembled a strapless leotard, they were comfortable and convenient, and as always felt like they were not there. She sat on the floor and stretched, leisurely as she reflected on the joy of finally adding a device to her oron. She stood and began to practice mid-level kicks.
She worked at it until she was sweating. She focused on her sanoko and opened herself until she tingled with energy, realizing at the same time that this was probably not wise when she was trying to get to sleep. However, she was too much involved in her workout to bother.
After jogging from the empty board-house, she stood in a wide garden lane. The sky was clouded, so she did not worry about the higher windows of the palace, which looked like fireflies in the darkness, giving any view of her. She practiced more elaborate moves involving jumps, twists, and more kicks. She traversed the garden paths, fighting invisible foes. She planned on returning to bed once her tapped energy was all expended, but for now she was alive and loving the things she could do. Months ago she had been nothing, with no past, wounded, weak, and uncertain. Now she was at home, strong, self-assured, and deadly. She was a warrior; she was Maruroha. She grinned in the darkness, sending her nonexistent enemy onto his back with a double hand-balance kick from the left.
On her feet once again, she flexed for another move and paused. Had she seen movement by the wall there? She could hardly make anything out more than a small distance away. Staring, she concentrated on seeing, on discovering what lay beyond her range — something making stealthily-hidden noises. Very suddenly she found that she was able to see. This was disconcerting, for the night had abruptly turned to day in her eyes and she could see everything just as if the sun were out.
The man who had jumped down from the inner perimeter wall, and made some little sounds in the brush at its foot, was now moving through the garden, dagger gleaming dully in his hand. The girl, with her inexplicably enhanced vision, could make out every detail on his black outfit, the mask on his face, his golden hair, all as if seen in perfect light. He headed for the school.
You can’t attack a Maruroharyuu school alone, she thought, or at least not just with a dagger. She flipped over the flower bed separating her lane from his and began to follow him. As she did so, she was realizing that the man had awakened memories of her previous life, for an unfamiliar thought pattern was emerging. It knew that she could see in the dark, and she walked somehow more quietly because of it. You’re thinking like a fighter, it told her, and she replied, I am a fighter. How else should I think? And she answered herself, like a thief! Now it made sense, the night-vision and the silence of her movements. A completely new set of instincts began to surface from the darkness in her mind, sapping her confidence and leaving only giddiness. She followed the thief.
It was strange, this new mind-set. It was almost an entirely different part of her thoughts from how she’d been since she awakened here, and the two almost held conversation. Sneak up and attack him, said the thief.
And then go rob the palace myself? retorted the warrior sarcastically.
Take him down, urged the thief.
Can I? wondered the warrior. He’s a lot bigger than I am.
Now you’re not even thinking like a fighter. He’s a thief! You’re Maruroha! He won’t stand a chance!
And you’re deadly. Stop him! They drew near the building.
Her confidence was returning, and as her two frames of mind reached a consensus she began to run. The thief must have heard her, for he ducked into a grove of cherry trees, trying to get out of sight. But the girl was now a superior in his profession and saw him clearly. She dove in after him.
The point of his knife drew a line across her face and blood began filling her mouth. At the same time he turned to fly once more. But the girl was not about to let him go. The sharp, biting sensation that stung into her, the sound of her voice crying in pain, the taste of blood, the image of his flashing weapon — these were key and password to a hitherto-unopened door that now flung wide to disclose a chamber of rage.
The emotions she had known since her awakening — pain, sorrow, fear, confusion, even panic — they had been nothing to this wild fury that poured from her small wound faster than the blood. She would kill him for that. She leaped forward with a shout, hands flying out for a stunning blow. He dodged her at first, but she shifted instantly to her palms on the damp grove floor, twigs prickling her skin, and brought her legs around to ground him. He was half on his feet once more when she slammed her hands into his neck and sent him flying once again. With a high kick to his chin she heard something snap, and he toppled and lay still.
In that moment she laughed, feeling a rush of adrenaline and a sensation of ultimate power from the death she had caused. She was Maruroha, and she had slain in protection.
“Tsukishiro’s girl?” asked the guard who now knelt at the dead man’s side.
“Yes,” she said with a lilt in her tone. “I go to bed.”
“You did well,” the guard said simply, unable to praise her further because of her deficiencies in the language. “Him we long sought; most brash trying the palace tonight.”
Black, grey, and a glow of maroon in the sand. The sand was not happy, for the sea had defied and defiled it with blood. Vermilion crests on a million tides. But the sand was invisible beneath the waves, far down in the black depths of the cold, cold sea, and in the sea was fear. Fear ran still and silent, threading through the dark places and covering the sand with slime. It would never be known what lay in that forgotten desert, slick with fear and pounding under miles of blood-fouled water. And, up until now, the desert had lain quietly, content never again to feel the wind so long as the water contained no more than salt, restful as an ocean floor. But now it heaved and reared, irate at the tainting blood that washed through to stain its sands. It could never break forth upon the surface, never make itself visible in its ragings, but with mighty shrugs and quakings it could turn the sea into a mad froth, boiling and darker than the depths, the waves crashing each upon the other for lack of a shore, the foam rising to the sky in sprays that flew from their pounding.
She awoke with a scream and wept in her bed.
What was she now, she wondered: a champion of justice, or a murderer?
The man’s face was ever in her mind, his slit-eyed expression of pain frozen in time and death always before her. The way his hair, blonde and wispy, framed that face she would never forget. She had looked on him once, and never again, yet something about him would not reconcile. A memory, perhaps, but not one that brought other images back to her. She almost could not bear the thought of him.
And yet she had proven herself. Beyond a doubt. The killing certainly was beyond the bounds of mercy, but not of reason. The man had been coming to rob her home, or at least the home of him she now called majesty. Few alternatives there had been but to do as she had done, and her anger had allowed nothing to hold her back. Despite the strange almost ill feeling that the event had brought on and was not yet departed, she took a pride in the incident.
“It was well done,” had been Tsukishiro’s quiet words.
Tekawaya had left the room without remark.
And now she walked towards the training hall thinking of fireflies for no apparent reason. She opened the door and immediately bowed. Torihiko stood within, idly examining the grey cloth draped over a table near Tsukishiro’s platform. Beside this the latter man and his sister stood talking quietly. “Daughter,” said the emperor’s son (she despised it when he called her that — so patronizing!), “your triumph has reached the ears of myself and my father.” He spoke quickly, and she made out the Kawaian words with difficulty. Annoyed, she smiled. “I have insisted that Tsukishiro act upon this immediately and declare you a warrior of the Maruroharyuu.”
What was this? What right had Torihiko, prince or not, to meddle in the training affairs of her teacher? This irked her instead of producing the excitement and gratitude it normally would have. “I thank you, sire,” she said.
“I do you no great favor,” he laughed. “You would have, I hear, been thus promoted within the sevenday at any rate.”
“It is true,” said Tsukishiro, standing at the prince’s side. “A few days early will not make a difference.” Tekawaya stepped forward then, holding ceremonially in her outstretched hands something long and thin, so obscured by the aforementioned grey cloth that the other girl could not at first tell what it was. “This is a gift to you from the palace for your actions two nights ago. It is appropriate for one of my most promising students.” Tsukishiro had a glint in his eye as he said this, and the girl fancied he felt somewhat ashamed to be presenting her with this whatever-it-was.
Tekawaya stood before her, the smile on her face not quite speaking the emotions of her heart (this made the new Maruroha uneasy — what was bothering her?), and held out the sword, as the girl could now see that it was. She took it gently from Tekawaya’s hands and held it on her own palms. The scabbard merely leather with twisting designs of steel running over it, she turned her attention to the blade. Drawing it a few inches out, she lowered her brows in surprise as she found it was not one sword but two. Exact mates, they were thin enough both to fit together in the sheath as if one. Indeed, the pommel of each bore half a green gem in order to indicate in which direction they were to be replaced so that it would form a circle.
“Maruroharyuu weapons are strange,” she said softly, and wondered the next moment why she had not commented on the beauty of the swords as she usually would have done.
“There are years’ worth of training more, to learn the skill of those,” replied Tsukishiro. “A fitting gift upon the completion of your basic training.”
“They belonged once to my great uncle,” said Torihiko. “He was a good Maruroha.”
Two thoughts sprang into the girl’s mind from this statement: Implying that I am not, no doubt, and Then why give them to me? I’m no royalty — why not keep them in the family? She could not imagine why she was in such a vindictive mood today.
“I congratulate you,” said Tsukishiro. Was the ceremony over, then, and that was all? She put the thought away when Tekawaya hugged her. Then she bowed to Torihiko again and drew the swords. Walking a few feet away from the others, she took one blade in each hand and made tentative swipes with them through the air. They were unexpectedly short, she found, but made the most gratifying swish she’d ever heard; she began to swing them more widely. “We will begin on your lessons today, if you wish,” said her teacher.
“I do,” she replied; she could not see the strange gleam that had come into her eyes upon practicing with the new weapons.
She learned quickly that Maruroha swords were never used to swing except to inflict superficial wounds. The primary moves, Tsukishiro told her, were drives and stabs. Drives involved using the swords in place of her feet through simple alterations of moves she already knew, and stabs of course were stabs. That first day, however, she learned very little beyond that, for Tsukishiro seemed annoyingly more taciturn than ever, and she was for some reason in a foul mood.
Her dreams were so colorful.
The brilliant white jasmine, huge and lovely, was the feature of the garden, proud and tall and old. It would never wilt. Its strength, and even its complacency, was unchallenged by the marlberry bush that rose up around and grew until the jasmine was no longer even visible. It was content to remain so, for it drew nourishment from the larger plant. And then the marlberry defiled the jasmine. It was too rude! The ripe red fruits rotted and fell to the ground where they poisoned all the other little plants. So the Jasmine sucked as many of the marlberry’s nutrients as it could, sickening the shrub though it could never threaten its existence. The garden was dark.
“If you are one of us you must have a name,” said the owalitsuka impatiently.
“I am nameless,” she insisted, frustrated at the stupid man. “A name is but a…” she wanted ‘label’ but did not know the Kawaian term, “…word. Call me Nameless, if you will.” She wanted to hit him, and probably could have with a more-than-fair chance of winning the ensuing fight.
“Very well,” he replied, and sounded somewhat sarcastic, which galled her. “Nameless you shall be. You will enter Aniora’s rank.” He gestured to the man a little way behind him, who came forward and looked at her with a half-smile.
“I am proud to have you in my rank,” he said, and she smiled back as she recognized him as the guard who had commended her action of several nights ago. Then the image of the dead man’s face came again into her mind, and she thought uncomfortably of dark hallways and looked away from Aniora.
“I will serve under you gladly,” she said, imagining a warmly-clad woman.
“Let me show you through our ways,” he said, and she followed him from the room. “My rank is konogi, and the owalitsukai enjoy giving me all those new. I mind not with you, for I have seen you fight, but often those who enter newly are quickly expelled.” Did he really feel it necessary to speak so rapidly? She clenched her fists and shifted her shoulders, feeling the sheath hung on her back. She had the idea of slicing up the paper walls of her guest house with her swords; that would be so much fun. She would also like to eat white cheese.
“Shall I be in the palace or out of it?” she asked, trying to ignore the musical notes that she imagined floating along beside her. They made her angry, as she did not properly know how to read them. Tekawaya had once shown her a few parchments of music, but she knew nothing of it.
“I know not just yet,” he said; “It rests on what places are open.” He thought for a moment, and she imagined she saw in his place a man-like shape of fire that was somehow familiar. “Outside, I deem,” he finally said.
A sudden thought struck her: she had killed once, and she could again. She laughed softly, and shuddered. What was wrong with her? She could not think clearly: killing — was that bad or good?
“This is the armory,” he said as they entered a large hall. Along the walls were cabinets and chests, and similar containers created lanes across the floor. “You have your own weapons, I know, but should you ever need aught else, here you will find it.”
“Ah,” she said, for she pictured ghosts floating across the floor of this long hall, ghosts of murder victims.
“These stairs,” referring to the ones at the back of the room, which they now climbed, “lead to the battlements, and there are other ways up as well, which you will learn quickly enough.” He did go on and on, when all the girl wanted to do was to return to her room and slice patterns in the walls. They walked high above the gardens and around to the side of the palace, silently for some time. “This will be your this-month’s post,” he said at last. “You will walk from that tower there,” gesturing, “to this corner, and back, all day. It does become dull, but there is much time for thought.” Thought, she reflected, was not something of which she needed an increase. “You will report here at dawn to relieve the night-guard. Another man will relieve you at dusk. This is not a tiring occupation, for we have few emergencies; you will be well able to practice your Maruroharyuu.”
“Thanks,” she said, more than a little impatient to be gone.
He smiled slightly. “You may go.”
Hardly taking time to return his smile she went back to her house.
There had always been a mouse, a happy little mouse who danced and ate grain spilled behind the rough wooden door. And one day a cat, equally happy, had ambled in and swallowed the mouse. Not to say that she hurt him, but now he was in her belly unseen. However, the mouse had no objections, and rested very quietly and peacefully there. But now the cat had scratched too far, had gone to evil; she dug in the dirt and soiled her paws and did not wash. The mouse, revolted by this lack of manners and hygiene, created quite the stir in the cat’s belly; and though he could never make his presence known to any outsider, he made the cat quite sick.
The next morning, she was in place at dawn. The former guard nodded to her in a friendly manner and departed, leaving her alone with herself. She walked along the right side of the battlement, looking down into the courtyard. She thought of a cart-puller. He would be Kawaian, with the yellow-brown skin, slit eyes, handsome lips, and dark hair. With his flat hat he would dress himself, and in his peasant clothing, and come to his work in the city. He would draw his cart about and folk would pay him for a ride. Then, at the end of the day, he would take his savings home. Sometimes he would buy food with them, to feed his wife and children. He would have a beautiful Kawaian wife, also with black hair, and lovely dark-headed children.
She hummed to herself.
She passed into a shadow cast by a tower in the rising sun.
She remembered Tekawaya’s face, and thought of the inexplicable sadness in the Kawaian’s eyes when she’d been told about the girl’s triumph in the garden.
How much time had she left? Of course, all day.
The thought of fire made her grin widely as she turned and walked the other way, now looking down into the slight forest on her right, to the west of the palace.
She laughed suddenly, leaning over to gaze at the doe that bounded through the trees, its sleek back rippling and shadowed in the lee of the unlit wall.
Kicking at a bit of dust before her foot, she became grave as she thought of pears on trees. She imagined the husbandmen going from tree to tree with ladders, climbing to the upper branches and pulling pears into their baskets. When their baskets became too heavy to hold in their arms as they stood on the ladders, they would put them on the ground and only pick lower pears until the baskets were full. Then people would eat the pears. Where did pears grow? She’d had some while she’d been here, and now she ached to know where they grew.
What about a red pear? Would that taste better than a green one? She looked down into the courtyard and happened to see a servant hurrying through the shadows towards a doorway. “Hello!” she called down, leaning on her knee with her foot propped on the wall.
“Hi there!” responded the woman, looking up at the girl.
“Where do pears grow?”
The servant looked confused, and flapped her apron. “I know not!” she responded at last. “I’ve no idea.”
“Ahr!” growled the girl, stamping her feet in frustration. “How can you not know?” Had she been on the ground with the woman, she would have hit her.
The servant’s eyes were wide as she stared up at this strange guard. “Begging you pardon,” she said with a bob of her head, darting off through the doorway.
She began walking back and forth again, going sideways at first because it was fun. Her head hurt. She kicked her feet as she went. How dull this was! She tried to come up with a song, but she could not think of any words. She wanted to practice her Maruroharyuu, yes she did! Pulling her swishy swords out, she swung them around as she walked.
She thought of bears on parade, dancing through the streets on their back legs. They would jump and flip and do things that she could do, only they would do them better. How dare they? She was the Maruroha; what right had they to excel at her craft? But wait — they did not want to hurt people, so they were weak. Was that weak? Perhaps. But what was strong in killing? She did not know; she could not think; the thoughts running through her head were too thick. The bears were big and small, and all the people cheered them. She cheered with them.
A trio of passing men below looked up at her and shook their heads.
She imagined a jewelry-maker who first wove strings together to create a many-colored twisting thread. Then he would push beads onto it, clear but colored, so that the colors shone through but tainted. That was not nice. She breathed loudly with annoyance.
She imagined a whittler carving away at a soft piece of wood. Oh, there! He’d cut his finger. There was blood. She shrieked with laughter.
She imagined a horse galloping up and down a path of wind in a starry sky.
She imagined a long string of black and white squares.
She imagined tables.
It was a long day.
“Good evening,” said the voice from beside her at last. She turned her wide eyes on her replacement, his face green as the burned spots from the sunset went over it. She took a deep breath and pushed past him, running down the stairs and away. The guard shook his head, wondering what her problem was, then shrugged his shoulders and took his place on the wall.
The girl raced to the school where Tsukishiro waited. Laughing she flung the door open and entered, red-faced and hot. The look her teacher gave her reminded her of a dome strewn with wood shavings. “I must learn more of these swords,” she said.
He smiled wanly. “Very well,” he said. What was the matter with him? Was it something about her that he didn’t like? She snorted in annoyance.
This training session lasted but an hour, but after Tsukishiro left she was not tired enough for sleep. Thinking of paint, she began to practice, jumping and kicking and whipping her swords about as if cutting down an army. For some time she continued, ferocious and unchecked. Then the shadow at the door, and Tsukishiro’s admonition. “You should sleep.”
“I’m practicing,” she hissed at him, angry, thinking of herself as a snake and he a rat taunting her.
He smiled, and she saw his imaginary whiskers twitch. “You will have plenty of time to do thus tomorrow.”
Wrath boiled up in her at this man who dared to give her orders — to command the great nameless Maruroha warrior! Fireflies and squares were all good during times of peace, but now she was at war, though she did not know with whom.
“No!” she screamed, and leaped forward. Tsukishiro dodged her as she drove her swords at his chest.
“Stop,” he ordered her; she was too far gone. She stabbed at his back but missed as he stepped away. He spun and kicked her in the face, reopening the cut across her mouth. As she stumbled backwards he said, “I can hurt you. Stop this now.” But now she had blood in her mouth and rage in her heart, and the man before her was a shadow.
She flew at him, swords ringing as she crossed them. He jumped lithely to the side and slammed his fists into her back. She gasped, and as her hands fell violently aside her sword slashed into his leg by pure accident. He faltered and she was on him, breaking his other leg and putting one of her swords into each of his arms. Suddenly she felt the same rush of adrenaline that she had when she’d first killed. She kicked his right temple and he stopped struggling against her.
Oh, it was delicious — the pounding of energy in her blood, the hand of death to direct with her own. She laughed, giddy with emotion.
But she did not kill him.
She looked once more on his still, pained face, and ran away.
Chapter 5 – Demons and Darkness
“Rakeesh, you know I’d love to see your homeland, but I can’t leave right now.”
“I feel strangely worried about Tarna,” the liontaur remarked, “though I have no particular cause for worry. I am rather anxious to see my mate and daughter. But I wait upon your convenience.”
The prince nodded, still gazing out the narrow window onto the desert. “Where in Shapier could she be?” he said softly, fingernails tapping nervously on the sill. “I’ve searched Rasier twice, sent messengers to Darun and all the other stupid towns, and checked all the caravans.”
Rakeesh stood and came to the prince’s side. “My friend,” he said, laying a hand on Achim’s shoulder, “is it possible that she does not wish to be found?”
“Oh, why would she do that?” the Hero replied impatiently, pulling away and striding about the small lounge. He finally came to rest against a pillar on the open side of the room that looked out onto a courtyard.
“It may be that she fears you, as any thief would fear the prince of her country.”
“But that’s ridiculously stupid,” said Achim loudly. “I’m still… I would never… She’s my…” He grunted his frustration with the idea and began pacing again.
“This obsessing is not healthy,” said Rakeesh. “You need to take your mind off of this matter. Though I shall not pressure you to accept my invitation, I think a trip to Tarna would be for your good.”
“I can’t leave here for anything less than an emergency when there’s a chance she might come back.” But just to make sure (his heroic side slightly worried), he asked, “There’s no major problems in Tarna, is there?”
“There are not,” said Rakeesh, correcting his grammar, “any of which I am aware, and yet I sense…” The Paladin trailed off, shaking his head.
“Then I can’t go,” the prince said decisively.
“Of course,” said Rakeesh graciously, though disappointed. He knew this eager, fresh-faced Hero would amuse his mate, and was anxious to show him to her.
“Your highness,” called a voice from across the courtyard, a guard striding towards them. He was followed by a chestnut centaur.
“Heinrich!” cried Achim, his face brightening somewhat.
“Your highness,” said the centaur with a bow. Rakeesh could sense the man’s agitation, and see it as his tail flicked nervously from side to side. “I am come at the baron’s bidding to request your aid as Hero of Spielburg.”
Achim settled down. “What’s happened?” he asked.
“A killer, sent perhaps from Hell itself, is wreaking havoc on the southern countries and moving north. He has already taken uncountable lives, and many say he is mad. But he is also deadly, and the baron fears for his people. It will not be long before he reaches the Spielburg valley, and the baron requests that you stop him before he does.”
The human and the liontaur exchanged looks. “I think this is the distraction you were recommending,” he said with a protracted sigh.
Everyone was blonde, and wasn’t that hilarious? It made her so angry… Thus she simply put her swords through him and walked on, thinking that the doors of a hall could not open if there were trees in the way. That rush, that wild and indescribable joy of death pressed on her, blowing like a hot wind over the ocean, ruffling the frothy foam-tipped water of brilliant blue-green — a good, bright way to be agitated! There was no danger from angry, crushing waves when the wind would bear her up!
The gravel crunched beneath her feet, reminding her of ugly jewelry; the ocean was so evil, but that was over. There was no carpet, actually, but there was a town. Here she had an emptiness, annoyingly. It was gnawing at her, eating the insides of her being; it hurt, despair — it told her to fill it. No, the mud did not sing. Villagers worked and ran and walked and laughed and lived. They had no emptiness, but they would fill hers. She grinned and drew her swords.
Scream, bleed, and everything else delightful, fueling the wonderful rush that consumed her and beat back the hollowness. She laughed. But her face! The extra mansukos around her waist were for her head so she wrapped it. Hadn’t her hair been long once? She hated them and laughed. “Death!” she said experimentally, running a finger over her broken lips before she covered them. “Deathscar.” She laughed again. Move now, she must, purple or no.
Did such a remote location really export? The banners weren’t right. Hours; it was getting colder and darker and blacker and greyer, and here was a horseman. “Hi!” she called. “Ho there! Warn them Deathscar’s coming!” He reined up, gave her a strange look, and rode on. “Warn them!” she shrieked after. And then it was gone. The fullness that had been ebbing drained fully and spirally, and what was this new delinquency? She clenched her muscles and shouted as the wave of ravenous emptiness struck her, sickening her. People would die for this; it was worse than before. People would die.
The man’s face crinkled into a mask of grief and despair. “You come too late, Hero,” he snarled. “Deathscar has come and gone.”
“Deathscar? Is that what he’s called?”
“He went north; go find him and rescue some other town; fifteen lie in the ground since his passing here.”
Achim looked at him in horror. “Fifteen?” The man nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“So are we,” he replied bitterly, and walked away.
The demon wizard laughed as the image faded. If that girl were in Tarna, it would make his task pathetically simple; as it was, he had spent the last three months slowly coaxing the tear in space open, feeding the gate orb with the low-power essences of ape-men and the occasional leopardman. And still the rip was small, because he dared not steal too many lives lest the people of Tarna become aware of it. But soon he would begin his master’s plan and the savanna would flow with blood.
Now, if he had that girl here…
But the girl was also playing a part, keeping the mighty Hero far from Tarna and its dealings. He could not scry her, but he could follow Achim’s progress in tracking her. He only wished he could be there to taste the deaths she was so rampantly causing.
The smell of steel and blood and then she killed her. It felt so pulling and ivory. Shoving her swords back into the sheath, she walked on through the silent town echoing with the sound of her voice screaming out her new name.
A larger road joined the smaller one just after this, giving her more victims. But soon they were all gone and Deathscar was full and energetic once again. Happily, there was no bread involved with the finches. Those were annoying. Brilliant yellow; no, it was an orange-yellow, darker than lemon but brighter than a peach. Here — it was a huge city on which she looked down like the heartless eagle bending upon the hapless dove. The road became cobbled beneath her feet as she descended towards the death, smiling to show her perfect teeth. Her teeth were beautiful. That was because she was hungry.
What did she want? Meat, of course, but it must be burned. It had to be black; that was the only way she would like it. Too much blue was in the world already. But in the city was sure to be a butcher’s shop; there had been one in the last city she’d passed. It was too cold. She wanted it burnt. This was silly. The place was so busy, but she did not kill them yet; she could restrain herself until she’d been filled with food and then they would all die.
They all stared at her. “Don’t stare,” she told someone as he passed. He laughed. This was fraying the short thread of her temper. Buildings, flanks of wood and stone, and the dark of alleys and covered side-streets. Too many people, all alive, all happy, all full of energy and happiness and food. Her hands were clenched and then she smelled the bakery.
Running in, she pulled her swords out and said, “I want food.”
The muttering idiot screamed, fatly and so annoying. “Help help! Help help!” Deathscar vaulted the counter and stabbed her. A strange colored echo and image came to her then, warning her; they were coming now because of the fat woman’s scream. She gathered up the bread that she wanted and raced for the back door. This felt more right, killing and then stealing; how delicious this was!
In the alley behind there were some beggars; she killed them. There were cries behind her now, and people getting in the way. That was fine; she could kill two at once because she had two swords. The street opened and there was a river. She ran over the bridge and into a quieter place where the buildings were smaller and had flowers. She liked flowers as long as they didn’t crawl into her head at night.
There was mud. She jumped into it and splashed it all over the man near her. Then she killed him too. This was so much fun. She could do this forever. Adrenaline and blessed fullness pumping through her blood, she continued on through the city.
“So you’re saying Deathscar’s a woman?”
“I don’t want… oh!” The elderly man turned away, his face twisted with anguish, and hobbled towards his home.
“She came through,” said another man, shaking his head. “She was screaming the whole time, and we couldn’t take our eyes away from our windowpanes as she cut down everyone who happened to be outside.” Tears came to his eyes, and his voice was choked with pain and sorrow. “She kept saying, ‘Deathscar is come. Don’t forget her.'”
“This has to stop,” said Achim. “This woman is an utter lunatic, obviously.”
“I suggest we move more quickly, your highness,” said Heinrich quietly.
“I would have to agree,” said the prince, and the demon wizard laughed again. What a complete idiot! His agony when he discovered the true identity of she whom he pursued would be absolutely delightful! The wizard himself had only just found out, through spare-time back-spelling, who exactly Deathscar was, as well as her previous relationship to the prince of Shapier. The whole situation stuck him as remarkably ironic, amusing to say the least.
He would have liked to see Achim’s climactic meeting with his former love. But there was still the girl’s strange quality of scry-repelling, and this was a mystery he could not outpuzzle. When he asked for images of her past, which should not have appeared given this aforementioned quality, he saw her whole life before him, up to a point. After she had reached the palace of Rasier and run away from her friends across the plaza, all was yet grey, even as it was when he tried to bring up current pictures of her. Why had it changed? And how in the name of Hades had she gotten where she was now?
But this was all irrelevant, and he let the image sink into the sand as he heard the voice of his master calling him. He had more important matters to think on.
Here was resistance, but it was almost comical. All these trees and bushes and they thought they could hide from her. But Deathscar knew. She would always know through the bright shadows of color that tasted so acridly silver. They would spring out and attempt her destruction, but they would fail because she… sensed them. She laughed. Approaching the spot, she readied her twitching hands for the attack. What kind of a bell was that?
It gave five — not enough, but they trusted in their surprise and that they had her surrounded. At the moment she sensed it to be right she drew and met them — two left, three right, like a tooled bit of leather. She twisted away from the one who jumped on her back; somehow she knew he had a knife. Then she kneed the woman before her in the stomach, flipped partially (there were too many hands clutching at her for a full jump) and rammed someone’s side.
Then there was pain, and there was blood, and she was angry. Let them all be consumed, then! The emptiness would eat them slowly as it ate her, its alkalinity corroding them as it did the newly-opened wound in her back, bleeding. It poured, wandering around her for victims darkly and all she wished was for their pain and death; she willed it with the image of a floating, twisted piece of iron.
Now was there a new darkness that her swords bore, flaming black with the power of her desire for suffering, causing her cream-colored bands to glow in contrast. She whirled, sending her deadlier blades through someone, maybe two. He stabbed her again, and she drove her right sword into his neck. Something — she knew it was coming, but to dodge was to put herself in the way of the woman’s obviously practiced kick to her head. She opted for the latter, seizing the foot before it could draw back from the dizzying blow it had scored. Deathscar reeled, and the woman thrust her to the ground as the last remaining man flung himself at her with his dead comrade’s dagger.
But like a fallen bear she still held one of her impossibly flaming swords, and threw his cooling shape away before he could inflict any damage. She stumbled as she climbed to her feet, still stunned by the woman’s vicious kick. She knew that her other sword was in her enemy’s hands, no longer burning, and that the woman had raised it high for a killing sweep against her.
Throwing herself sideways, she twisted around and brought her foot to the base of the other warrior’s skull as the sword descended into air. The woman shouted and fell, drying finally as Deathscar employed her dark weapons.
Staggering, she walked off, groggy but energetic, contemplating. The glare of a crystal goblet would please her, but how could she ensure that her Maruroha swords were never again used except in her favor? She held them in her two hands, looking at their hot and dripping lengths now devoid of fire. Her hidden face broke into a feral grin. Unwrapping the mansukos on her forearms, she drew the right blade across her skin, cutting a red line into the exposed flesh. “Sayeto,” she said to the sword. Repeating the ritual with her left sword and right arm, she dubbed the former Oyin and commanded them. “By this blood you shall never turn on me again.”
She needed water.
Achim turned away from the bodies with distaste. Unlike their find of the previous day, which had been one woman and four men, these were all male, bearing the marks of Deathscar’s passing: sword-wounds with which he was becoming all too familiar. At least now he had a coherent description of what the killer looked like–that is, what she wore, for apparently her eyes were her only visible feature.
“Your highness,” said Heinrich, still looking at the victims, “these are recent killings — I would say less than a day old.
Achim turned with surprise to look at the gory scene again, and the demon wizard shook his head. Disappointingly, the prince of Shapier would be upon her within hours, so quickly he’d been moving now, and then he would be within Deathscar’s anti-scrying range. The wizard regretted it because this was his chief source of diversion.
“What do you watch?” asked his master unexpectedly from the rip, which was now wide enough for their plans to move forward. The wizard waved his hand, making his view visible to his master. Briefly he related the story and his own opinions on it. “Very amusing,” said the demon king. “She may well be useful.” His visage was removed from the swirling green vortex, and the wizard gestured the scrying field away, wondering what his master intended.
A moment later a spiny, red-black demoness forced her way painfully through the gap, relying heavily on the energy of the gate orb. She bowed low to the wizard and spoke. “My lord tells me there is a mortal whom I may possess.”
There was too much, and she was hungry again. Strangely, she wanted to remember and could not. Only here, only now, and the past was hardly. She knew by the wounds and the bond that her weapons were with her strongly, but the image of what she’d done, the feeling, the glory, were gone — swallowed in the emptiness that made war with itself inside her. Too much. The grey-blue was rounded, with lines of white at the curves where light hit it, and scrabbling grey where the color had been rubbed. Also the scattered misty doors of lead, but of course she blinked.
The mouse, the flower, the sand, and all with a lizard sardonically collected. There were too many spiders anyway, so she did not really care. She was Deathscar, and royal in her talent; withstanding was a merit of little value.
The fullness was like a budding rose in the choice, and she imagined the sled flying. She startled a fox that was eating a rabbit. Looking at it, she smiled. Oh, that was waggish; that was one of the truly funny things of the universe. As a shadow passed over her she laughed, throwing her head back and screaming.
“That will be sufficient.”
She stumbled backwards, knocked down by the power of the command blasting from before her. As she climbed to her feet she saw, settling to the ground in a gust of wing-beaten wind, a dragon. “Thou hast sinned against me for long enough,” said Orono, reaching out a giant clawed hand, clasping the human firmly, and drawing her in.
Orono was red with purple and yellow stripes down her snake-like body. She had large golden eyes and a fringe of something wispy and hair-like around her head like a mane. Her wings long and black, bat-like, and her massive claws the same color, her eyes glowing with fire and her long tail lashing, it was obvious to the trembling Deathscar that she was overcome. “A time it took for me to find the fate of my true daughter and awaken sufficient to know thee as her replacement,” said the dragon, the strength of her voice alone weakening Deathscar’s knees and making her head spin. “And now to find thee, my surrogate child, taking such unnecessary toll on thine own people. I weep for thee.”
Deathscar swore at her faintly, having little breath in her body; her arms were falling asleep. Then Orono turned her mighty flame-eyed gaze away from the human to a point past her in the trees. “Thou, perhaps, knowest these dealings better than I,” she said. Whom was she addressing? “I give her to thee.” The dragon squeezed her, and with radiant multicolored flowers blossoming in the edges of her vision she blacked out.
As the great beast bobbed its head and let the woman fall, Heinrich entered the clearing and swore, rearing up in surprise and fear. But the dragon rose gracefully away, sweeping the treetops aside as it left them with the deadliest killer in the history of the continent.
“Thanks, I guess,” said Achim, shaking his head as the gusts of wind blew his mid-length hair around his face. After a moment he went forward and knelt at her side, his ears still ringing from what he assumed must have been the dragon’s speech. He felt a strange tingling in his palms as he rolled her onto her back, as if there was something more to this situation than there seemed. “Heinrich, do we have any…”
He stopped abruptly, and the centaur looked away from where he had been following the dragon’s path through the sky. All he saw was the human’s back as the prince crouched before Deathscar’s unconscious form. The prince was motionless. “Have any…?” repeated Heinrich approaching.
But the Hero, who had uncovered the killer’s face, did not seem to be listening.
Stars swam in her eyes before she came fully to her senses, but those words she heard. Fully aware of the biting cords securing her ankles and wrists, she sat up and stared at him with a look haunted by hollow ferocity. The emptiness was there again, overpowering and tearing her, but something had changed, for what was this horrible brightness in her mind?
“En Shevil is dead,” she spat, “and so shall you be. I hate you.” She saw a pine tree crashing into the ivory palace and shedding sap all over the furniture. Oh, she’d gotten him with that one. Now, now she knew. She knew! She knew she had known more people once — Manta, Kylur, Rakeesh, Thalanna — but she despised them all. She laughed. Somehow this had lessened her hatred of Tsukishiro and Tekawaya.
“I’m going to help you,” he said at last. “I love you.”
“Ha! Love!” She gave her obscene opinion on the subject. And what about the boxes holding all the glass shards? Those were nice too.
His face twisted in pain and he looked away from her. At his first sight of her face he had felt nothing — no shock, no sorrow, no surprise even. The realization that En Shevil, of all possible people on the face of the planet, was Deathscar simply did not register. The knowledge flew above the surface of his thoughts, visible but not penetrating or affecting. And then the shock had come — creeping up on him so gradually that he had not realized he’d almost passed out from it until Heinrich’s distant voice had recalled him to the world.
Even now he could hardly believe it, tried to tell himself it was some terrible mistake — a lookalike, a twin. She did not know who her parents were, after all. But all justifications of his incredulity were empty. Cold and numb, he’d let her fall back into the mud and stood, walking away from the sight he could not remove from his mind. He did not know how he’d spent that night, wandering in circles around the clearing, listening to her breathing as she slept, his heart and mind seemingly tied by the same ropes he’d put on her. He was exhaustively dumbfounded as to how any of this could have happened.
“Are you hungry?” he asked her at last.
“Yes,” she replied. Then he realized he had no safe and dignified way to feed her, so he just shrugged. The pain was building, each new biting question or idea thrown atop the previous unresolved conflict until a mountain of leering, hazy thought towered above him. Where had she gone? How had she lost her senses so completely? Who had taught her to fight in so short a time? What was to be done? Bitter, frustrated tears came to his eyes as he thought about how he remembered her — this was not the same girl he’d fallen in love with. And yet there she was before him, En Shevil and no other.
“My lord, what shall we do with her?” asked Heinrich.
“I don’t know. I’d say…” he choked, but resumed after a moment. “I’d say she needs to pay for her crimes, but you can see she’s… not herself.” The centaur nodded silently.
“I hate you!” she shouted at him. “You should die!”
“Erasmus!” Heinrich suggested. Achim nodded quickly, drawing a hand over his face.
“That’s right,” he said at last, standing up. “I’m sure he can help. How far are we from Spielburg?”
“If we seek the road again, I’d say five days’ march, barring snowstorms in the pass.”
Achim forced himself to look down at their struggling prisoner, her wild eyes seeking refuge anywhere but on his face. He glanced at the scabbard he’d taken from her back, now hanging at his belt. “How do we get her there?” he asked, his voice for the first time relatively even.
“I hate to suggest it, but she can ride on me,” sighed the centaur, “if you gag her.”
“We’ll have to tie her on,” the prince said. “I don’t see any other way.”
“You put more ropes on me and I kill you,” she growled. “I hate you.”
“Yes, you’ve said that already,” said Achim, exasperated even through his anguish. But his annoyance concerned Deathscar alone; for her true self he felt only pity.
Their trip to Spielburg was not remotely pleasant. With a thief and a murderer slung over Heinrich’s lower back and secured with ropes, her oaths were muffled but still audible. They found they could not feed her, for she tried to bite them like a cornered animal, then made overly-vocal complaints on the starvation. She never tried to escape, however; it was as if En Shevil had gained some victory over Deathscar and would not allow the killer to hinder her resurrection. At night she often screamed or wept in her sleep and kept them awake. It was after sunset eight days later that they stumbled, weary and more than depressed, into the valley and made their way towards Zauberberg with a hunger-weakened, unconscious patient for the wizard.
En Shevil awoke and knew something immediately.
While she had been Deathscar she had possessed no recollection of past events, merely drawing on her ‘memory’ like a logbook — she knew what had happened, vaguely, factually, but could not recall the associated sensations.
It was different now.
Every face turned towards her in terror, every cry of every victim, every body in the dust, rose up before her, in number not a few. Each fruitless show of courage at her coming, each miniature army sent against her, each new price on her head, the smell of blood, the taste of fear, the powerful energy of death — all, all was here and now, clearly replaying itself, like magic, inexorably before her unwilling eyes. She felt her hands committing murder, heard her voice laughing, saw hatred and alarm in the eyes of ones she did not even know.
Every solitary event, each fragmented emotion of the past depravity, the outline of every crime — in one agonizing moment it came down on her, an avalanche where every boulder alone was deadly, but whose combined strength was immeasurable. She gasped violently under its weight, struggling with something she did not recognize, and yet knew as well as herself.
Then she began to scream, and could not stop.
Askgaella felt another tremor through the web of power that held her on this plane: another of her people had crossed. When her master conquered this world, she assumed he would diffuse it into his own, making the two planes one. Until then, the essence-powered gate orb held open the rift between them, and every demon on this side would feel its gains and losses. It was annoying, but sufferable for the cause of her brilliant master. She smirked; the glory of her king in his bloody war meant little to her, though she chided herself because of it.
Being a low-level demoness, she was forced to the degradation of walking (or flying, since she’d reached seventh class and earned her wings), physically, to her less-than-urgent assignment. Having experienced teleportation when she’d been partnered with Gorllex, who was fourth-class, she could attest to this method’s inconvenience, but having also no desire to participate in the long-awaited war on Sehkmet, she did not complain. Once she possessed this killer, she would be happy, and might someday be promoted for it. Then she’d only need one more advancement to be magically endowed.
Hades knew she’d been long enough without promotion. It was her family, of course: no seed of Chekghaera could make much of themselves in the service where an Ingk was their thirder, and it had taken all of Gorllex’s pull to get her in at all. What she’d really wanted for some time was a nice possession to take her away from the demon plane and Ogo Ingk, and it had been out of pure luck that she’d been immediately available when his amazingness the king had needed a possessor.
So here she was walking through a pathetically boring desert at a pace so slow a bird might have thought her human. It was a long way to Spielburg. She sighed, and was answered by a strange rattling from behind her. She took to the air as the deadly tail of a massive blue-black scorpion flashed across the space where she’d been. With a grin she pulled free her sword Blackblood, which had been passed down through generations of Chekghaeras since its forging at the human hands of Chollichihaua. For a seventh-class thrall there was no killing to be done in the demon world, and she’d not shed blood in far too long. She descended on the beast.
Achim dozed, sitting on a rug in the corner with a wooly brown blanket pulled up to his chin. He had been thus most of the night, waiting for En Shevil’s reawakening. After they had brought her to Erasmus, who’d been expecting them, the wizard had transported to the inn, now the Horse’s Tail, where by prior arrangement with Hilde, the new owner, a room was ready for the ‘invalid.’ Achim had been astounded at how prepared Erasmus had been for the situation, and slightly resentful that the wizard, having known so much about what was going on, had done nothing but wait for the Hero. However, the spell had apparently worked, so perhaps Erasmus had been perfecting it during the painful time Achim had spent trekking the countryside.
Somehow her first awakening had been perversely relieving: to know that someone felt worse about this than he did had lessened his own sorrow considerably; perhaps the thought that she might need his comfort and support had drawn him back to lucidity as well. Still, her scream had been disturbing, and had been followed by a rapid speech in some language he did not know, while En Shevil cast her eyes about the room but seemed to see nothing. Then she’d turned her face towards the wall and fallen silent, unconscious again by some cause or other. Erasmus had gone home, and besides Heinrich’s looking in once, briefly, the prince of Shapier had been contemplatively alone since then.
Arousing from a sad dream that hadn’t quite reached the happy ending he knew was coming, he was not at first sure what had brought him from his inadvertent slumber. Out the window the stars were dim, resting in the face of impending dawn, but that light had not yet reached the sky. All was silent and peaceful, still under the calm Erana had so long ago lain. All aspects of his situation seemed so neutral, it was as if time had stopped. Then the silence was again broken, furtively, by what had first disturbed him: quiet, breathy sobs, almost harsh in the placid darkness. He rose and felt his way to the bed, the sound of his bare feet drowning out her nearly inaudible crying. He could see her now, sitting with her knees drawn up and the blanket pulled around her. Standing motionless before her, he said nothing. Her face buried, she did not acknowledge him. What to do?
Hesitantly, he put his hand out and touched her hair. It was so short! She gave an anguished cry and turned her head away from him. It was heart-wrenching to see her thus, and with a half-sigh he dropped his hand. As it slapped against his thigh she whispered something he did not hear. After a moment she repeated herself: “Even you.” He had no reply. Presently he sat down beside her and put his arms around her. She sank limply up against him and whispered, “I threatened you,” accenting each word as if she did not know which of three connected ideas most to stress.
He leaned back against the wall, still holding her. All the exhaustion of his pursuit was for some reason converging on him now, and though he was ashamed to admit it in the face of what she was going through, he felt he could sleep as he had not since leaving Shapier. There was now no chance of his losing her, no need for rapid continuance of his quest. Though he struggled to keep his eyes open and his ears attentive for anything beyond her quiet grief, he drifted without realizing it and slept.
Chapter 6 – Mirror, Mirror
En Shevil stood at the window, staring out into a chicken yard full of babbling hens and one very vocal rooster. It was late in the morning, and the sun was in the upper right-hand corner of her vision. She must have at some moment left the bed and walked to the window, but she did not know it. Or maybe this had not happened and she had been standing beside the window for all time. She was the window-goddess. Or devil, rather. And who was she? Perhaps she always had been that happy, nameless girl on Nagokama, and what she remembered as her life had all been a hoax. Or were both En Shevil and her Kawaian counterpart mistaken about themselves, neither her true identity? Perhaps she’d been found at last and the key to her true past would walk through that unfamiliar door behind her. Perhaps she was Deathscar all through, and every other side of her consciousness only a dream.
This seemed more likely than anything else. Deathscar lived on, whatever else she was. She leaned her head on the windowsill, though her tears were all spent. How could she have done what she had? What lived inside her that delighted so in the destruction of the irreplaceable? What creature from some unseen world had seized upon her and wrought such mischief with her hands? Whose malicious will had been at her back, the cause of each depravity along the way? She shook her head minutely. No desire but her own, no monster but herself, and the will was hers. She held her hands up and stared at them.
Inside her was an inward-pressing sphere of misery, sucking and pulling ever smaller until she was all heart, conscious of nothing else. It drew on everything around it, gaining density and roots until she was motionless, grounded, stifled by it, unable to move or breathe with its horrible mass eating at her. She stared at her hands, the hands that killed. She wanted to look around the room, but it took great effort of will to move her neck and tear her eyes from the blank palms in the air before her.
Achim sat slouched against the wall on the bed, the way he’d been since she’d left his arms… how many yearlong hours ago? His boots, cape, vest, and belt lay on a rug in the corner. Something called to her and after a moment she held it, without recognition of such trivia as taking steps, bending, or clenching her hand around the sheath.
That swishing half-ring was so loud in the still chamber. She winced. The smell of old blood greeted her from the scabbard, though the clear picture that arose of caked blood falling in flakes as she drew did not correspond with the shining silver blades before her. Somewhere in her mind registered vaguely the thought that Achim must have washed them, and wasn’t that sweet? Considerate of him to leave them thus, that her blood could stain them freshly. She gripped them with their points lightly on her stomach and applied all the force she could.
Her hands were wrenched under and out, the swords springing violently away from her grip to land loudly on the floor. She fell to her knees with a gasp, rubbing her tingling forearms, the barely-healed scars that itched so fiercely. She’d felt this sensation once before.
Achim snatched her weapons up and stared at her, a mixture of anger, fear, and sorrow on his face. But he did not know what to say. It was actually En Shevil who spoke first. “It’s no use. They won’t hurt me. I put some kind of charm on them because a woman tried to use them against me. Before I killed her.” She gestured. “I put those through her heart. And she had a mother and a father. Maybe a husband and children. Probably friends. And she’d worked to become what she was, learned to fight. I killed all that. I destroyed the life she’d worked so hard to create.” As she spoke, Achim had tossed the swords away behind him and crouched to look her in the eyes. He took her wrists, forcing her eyes away from her hands.
“And now,” he murmured, “you want to destroy your own life?”
She wrenched her hands away and slapped him, and then was back at the window, gazing at her clenched fist. Yes, Deathscar was still there, and not even deeply buried; see how her arms had moved, so smoothly in accordance with her brief anger, the kind of impulse she used to kill. She should apologize for that blow. But that brought her too close to the idea of amends, and there was simply no way… She squeezed her eyes shut and rested her forehead on the wall. The world was empty. As she had gone killing men she had inadvertently killed everything else as well.
“You must be hungry,” he said.
“Why — are you?” No answer. “Go eat. I won’t hurt myself.” She was suddenly terribly angry at herself for assuring him that, for what right had he to know what she was or was not planning? The next moment she was all remorse, and wished he would say something protectively comforting. But there was no comfort for her lost soul, and he only nodded before leaving the room.
She was cold, and realized for the first time what she wore: only her leotard of mansukos, which was rather dirty. Her shoulders still bore the fading tan of the desert sun to which they had been, only months before, customarily exposed. She could yet see the lines her wide shirt-straps had left white. It was almost fascinating, these innocent marks of a past life.
Her mind was caught in an exhausting circle of thought — first the horror-fueled memories of things she had done made her wonder how she could have committed such barbarities. This would cause her to attempt introspection to understand the hazy motives and emotions of Deathscar. Then she would ponder her own identity, trying to discover her place in her mind and the world. This always gave rise to reflections on her past, where every remembrance was painful because to reach it she must pass through her dark period. She recalled friends and family, faceless, and knew that the dead she’d left along her way, whose every feature was perfect in her brain, had these things too. Then pictures would begin appearing once again, and it would all restart. It never ended, and the process was so tiring that in the early afternoon she was on the bed to rest. Half-asleep yet still plagued by the cycle she could not halt, she remained thus for some time, and when she again opened her eyes it was to darkness.
She had been smelling meat and potatoes for ages, it seemed, before she woke fully, but knew it was not so, since the door was just closing as she sat up. A centaur stood at the small table in the corner by that particular orifice. She held a tray, and draped over her back were En Shevil’s Maruroha garments. She leaned down to settle the tray, and without turning took the clothes and, folding what she could, placed it all in a heap beside the table’s one carved leg. She moved with a slow caution of whose motive En Shevil was not quite sure. The human shifted, and then understood. The centaur, at the sound of rustling bedclothes, gave a little gasp and a jump, whirling on slightly crouched legs to face En Shevil. The latter knew then that the other’s quiet was not due to politeness. Some emotions, she reflected, might go unnoticed in a face before her, but she could never mistake nor fail to immediately recognize the marks of fear.
“Hello,” she said quietly.
“Eh-excuse me,” the girl stammered, and, after backing loudly into the wall she hastily exited the room. Heart trying to break free of her ribcage, En Shevil took a great sighing breath and bowed her head. Her logic had known it was coming, but her emotions had not expected it so soon or so vivid. Now all eyes would be turned towards her in consternation and enmity, even loathing, for what she had done. And there was no thought within the deepest confines of her most perverse reserves of self-preservation that dared say she was not entitled to it.
Eventually she found her way over to the table, where she stood staring at the cooling, chunky broth whose scent did not even tempt her. There was bread, and a pitcher of water with a mug. She knelt and looked at her clothes. Yards of mansukos twisted around each other, and she set to untangling them, eventually shifting to a seated position when her ankles began to hurt. She had not the faintest idea why she went about this useless pastime, only that she wanted something methodical to do with her hands.
When she had got them all laid out in appropriate piles, she held up the oron and looked it over. The embroidered, rich Maruroharyuu logo, formerly pink and burgundy, was stained a uniform red-brown, and she closed her eyes slowly as she reflected what must have made the mark. She needed to dress herself, but how could she wear these again? She remembered, as if for the first time, what she’d done to Tsukishiro in those first hours of outright madness. She began to cry.
The next morning, when Achim entered a short time after knocking, he found En Shevil dressed and standing by the window, nibbling vacantly on obviously stale bread. This was good; she must have won some mental battle in order to convince herself to eat at all. Just as before, she did not look at him.
“I want to show you the valley,” he said. At first she did not react. Then, finally, she turned slowly and stared at him with a blank expression for several moments.
“Why?” she asked at length.
“It’s part of my home,” replied the prince, not telling her that he actually wanted to get her mind off whatever she was thinking.
Her logic said she should go, and so after a moment she was following him. It was the first time she’d been out of her bedroom. There was a greater room, where some people sat before a fire; they stared at her, and she looked away. She followed him soundlessly, her mind at the same time blank and whirling with thought, her heart breaking. The cold struck her, like the blow she deserved from nature, but Achim did not seem to notice. She gave little heed to the nearly vacant and noiseless town. Into the forest they went, he pointing things out and she nodding dumbly at him. Could he not see what was going on?
For some time after that they walked in silence, he having taken her hand. But his eyes were more often on his surroundings than on her, for he seemed to be mildly ecstatic at his return to Spielburg. “Here’s my favorite place,” he said.
Before them was a garden, oddly placed as snow-covered slopes rose up on all sides but the one by which they entered. In the center grew a small tree bearing glowing fruit of many brilliant colors. The flowers too were of all hues, and as they walked forward gave up a sweet scent that was almost sickening to the girl. Achim sighed. “This is Erana’s Peace,” he said.
The place also reeked of magic, which managed to penetrate her thick wrappings of sorrow and despair enough to terrify her. But what did it matter what she found disturbing? Did she not now merit whatever should befall her? Whatsoever the world decided to give her she would accept, and that was only in passive remorse. But far away in the back of her mind something registered Erana. Why did those words echo in her head — ‘An Erana of the night?’ She must say something. “It’s beautiful.” It was an automatic response based on the rational knowledge that she would once have found it so. There was no beauty around her; she drove it away.
Neither one spoke for some time, she gazing out over the snowy mountains before her and he enjoying the garden as he had not done for many months. Finally he took her hand again, forcing her to look at him. “Please, En Shevil,” he said. “I love you. Come to Tarna with me.”
“Erasmus said Aziza says I’m needed immediately to go to Tarna to stop a war.”
She pulled away from him and walked to the edge of the meadow, wishing she could bury herself in the snow and die. His words tore at her, the joy they should have brought completely buried in the pain associated with them. “No,” she said.
How could he not comprehend? His voice was so confused, and she did not know if she could explain. “I’m not what I used to be.”
“How can I… say that I love you when I hate myself?” She turned to look at him, beginning to cry. “Achim, don’t you understand what I’ve done? How can you even love me? I’ve killed so many people.” She looked at her hands and clenched them in sudden anger. “I’ll never… I can’t… I’m a monster, Achim. I wish I could die.”
“Don’t say that! Just because you’ve done wrong doesn’t mean you can’t do right in the future!”
“But there’s no way to make up for the deaths I’ve caused! Can I die a hundred times over?”
“No one wants you to,” he said soothingly.
“I’m sure there are families and friends who would disagree with you,” she snorted. They fell silent, neither one having anything to say to this. “And there’s more,” she finally continued. “While I was… There was a power I had. It was so evil, and I felt it whenever I killed, added to the usual rush. I used it to…” she shuddered as she reached back into the dun, rimy wasteland of her Deathscar memories. “I used it… to make my swords… worse. They glowed, but not with light. And I could see things before they happened, in a shadowy way. I knew when a man was going to throw a dagger at me; I knew where there were groups of people too big for me to handle. I also sometimes had… a shield, of darkness.”
Achim’s eyes narrowed as he looked at her. “It sounds,” he said slowly, “like a Paladin’s powers in reverse.”
“You’re right,” she said with a shadowy flash of revelation. “You see how bad I’ve become?”
“But you’re not like that anymore!” he protested. “Don’t you understand? You were crazy! How can you possibly be held responsible for what you were doing?”
“Oh, wouldn’t I like to escape it that way,” she said, unreasonably angry at him for not seeing how she felt. “I can’t dodge responsibility for the lives of so many. If I don’t atone, who will?”
“But as you said, you can’t make up for it! A lifetime of remorse won’t help, so…” He trailed off, not wanting to complete the thought. But the words were already spoken in both their minds: ‘why bother?’ She rose and ran from him into the forest.
Until last night she’d had no inclination to cry, the shock of her sorrow still too near. As she jogged through the forest, so nervous she could not slow, tears washed her cheeks. She, a killer, could not go to Tarna, could not accompany a Hero on his quest to help save lives. The warrior stop war? Death’s champion, a herald of peace? It was almost laughable. And yet she wanted it. How easy to cast aside her Maruroha things as if renouncing Deathscar with them, go with Achim as En Shevil and lose her destructive past forever! She tugged meaninglessly at the front of her oron.
It was an idle, almost lazy sort of desire, logic combining with feeling to tell her that if she made one decisive movement (which she wouldn’t), she could have what she wanted. Just a few words (forever unspoken) to Achim and her future would be settled. How she was tempted, and the strangest part of all was that there was nothing coherent, substantial, holding her back. It was an invisible restraint that would not allow her the will of her heart. Her logic told her it would be wise, her emotions sought rest from their turmoil in the proposed forgetfulness, and yet there was no way she could follow these compulsions. The one benefit of the situation was that it gave her something else to think about besides the usual routine of the past few days.
She was falling from the height of misery to which she had ascended; she could not deny it, though a part of her ached for the blinding sorrow that had been somewhat of an escape, the circle of thought notwithstanding. She would never be free of her pain, and yet she was forced back into the world of cooperative thoughts and actions. She did not like it, for she felt now familiar things returning in the midst of her tears: the recognition of good hiding places along her way, the sudden wish to climb something (she had not climbed anything since she’d robbed Khaveen in Rasier!) and the realization that she was terribly hungry. But she did not want these things; they were signs of her innocent past, and she only wanted, quite perversely she knew, to sink into her maddening despair and forget them. Could she be En Shevil the Shapierian thief as well as a rebounding Deathscar, warrior of the Maruroharyuu? She shook her head — she did not want it at any rate.
But still, to go to Tarna…
She skidded on moss and stared, startled, at the circle of mushrooms growing in the sudden clearing. This valley was simply alive with magic, wasn’t it? She shuddered and skirted the nasty place. There was more magic to her right, however, and she continued walking forward. She wondered what had happened in Rasier after she’d gone — what had Achim done to defeat Khaveen? How had the Shelhar managed their attack? She supposed that Thalanna and Sharaf were now happily married in a large house with a hidden trapdoor to the underground. But she did not really want to know about all that — it was still too distant.
Something struck her leg, causing her to stumble. She looked and saw, to her astonishment, a baby antwerp bouncing rapidly behind her, looking quite earnest like a child trying to be taken seriously. Kneeling, she stared at it, unable to comprehend where the little thing’s limitless energy came from. It just kept bouncing, half its body-height to a spring, returning her gaze for gaze. She rubbed her salty eyes, which ached as they dried, and put out her hand. The creature made a move towards her and she jerked her arm back. The antwerp bounded onto her knee and she started, barely checking the impulse to rise. It tickled, almost, to have it jumping and jumping and jumping on her thigh. She held out her hand once again, and the baby hopped on.
She liked it; here was a creature that did not fear or hate her, was willing to touch that hand which she could hardly bear to see. However, she had to hold her arm minutely steady and employ a fair amount of muscle to support the creature, and after a moment she tipped him off onto the ground. He returned to her leg. “You don’t hate me,” she said to him (an arbitrary decision, his sex), but he did not respond, only kept bouncing. “Please get off my leg,” she said. He did not obey, so she shoveled him gently to the mossy forest floor and stood. Turning, she took a step forward and he followed. She sighed. “How did I know?” she thought aloud. The antwerp made her want to talk.
Thus, as she walked on through the woods, the baby keeping step with her, she told him everything she’d been feeling and thinking, occasionally looking at him to see if he should respond, which he never did. Eventually they found their way back to the Spielburg gates, where Achim was waiting, if only for one of them.
“En Shevil,” he began, then did a double-take. “Is that an antwerp?” She nodded, becoming taciturn immediately once again. She was walking swiftly, and he fell into step beside her. “You’ve got to come to Tarna,” he said without preamble. “If not, I’m fairly sure the baron will imprison you and bring you to trial. He doesn’t realize exactly what’s going on with you.”
Neither do you, she thought. Achim put his hand on the latch of the inn’s door.
“If you’re under my… protection, no one will think twice about letting you go. They trust me, but they don’t trust you.” She was beginning to cry again, and her antwerp decided Achim’s leg needed ramming just then. “Ow!” He turned to look at her new pet, and she went before him through the door.
Only the centaur was present in the room, and she gave a little gasp as En Shevil walked in. But the human, full of an energy whose origin she did not know, went swiftly through the building and into her bedroom, not closing the door behind her as she knew Achim would have more to say. “You have an antwerp,” he said as he entered, not far behind.
She looked down at the bouncing creature beside her and remarked placidly, “Yes.”
“Look, you need to come to Tarna for your own safety.”
“And what if I don’t want to be safe?”
He gave a sigh of frustration. “I don’t want to hear about you being executed for things you did when you weren’t sane. If you don’t come with me, they’ll kill you; I know it.”
“Fine. I’ll come.” Now she’d said it, and there was no turning back. But at the same moment a black rebellious anger stole over her like ice, saying, You’ll die before you try to live a lie. What a stupid-sounding phrase; it was nice to know that life wasn’t always smoothly dramatic.
He was hugging her now, but her mind was elsewhere. “I’m glad,” he said. “I’m going to try and make you happy.” This registered, and her head snapped up.
“There is no way you can do that,” she said, turning her back to him.
“No way I can try?” He did not let her answer. “Anyhow, we need to leave tomorrow.”
“All right,” she said detachedly. “Goodbye.”
Taking that as the dismissal it was, Achim left the room, though he would have liked to stay longer. At least she seemed a bit more lucid now than she had earlier.
En Shevil reclaimed her place by the window and wept. She wanted sleep, she wanted action, she wanted something she did not recognize. She wanted comfort, but that she forbade herself, even should there be someone in the world with enough empathy and charisma to provide it. She began to pace the floor, followed at every stride by a baby antwerp.
The late dusty glow of sunset was sending rays of half-hearted light from the left slanting through her window as she made her decision. The first time had been impulsive, based on emotion. But over this she had been thinking all day, with a clearer mind than before, and it was pure logic. The world, and particularly Achim, would be better off without her. She had always known that, but had up until this point balanced it against her desire to live. Now that she had so little, it was not a difficult choice. Something had been arguing against it all day, however, and only now did she manage to quell it with the thought, I can be a thief for the last time.
She stole from her chamber, listening first for even a breath of anything living in the common room. Was Achim to be tied down to a murderer for the rest of time? To hold her in custody forever because he was the only one on the planet who trusted her? She could not destroy his life as she had that of so many others. The room was shadowed, the fading fire illuminating little. Already through the frosty panes the outside seemed dark, blue and cold. She had her plan in mind, knew exactly how long it would take, what she must do. Combining everything she was or had been, she would make a fitting end. She reveled in the thought as she slipped almost without noise through the door, the only eye following her progress a wooden one.
It was an unmerited joy to climb again, clambering easily up the stony wall and dropping to the soft bed of weeds on the other side. She glanced around her, seeing the patchwork shadows of the sparse trees before her, lining the road to the pass, and the deeper shades of night to her right where the forest began in earnest. This direction she took, listening to the promising roar of the waterfall as it called her to her death. Yes, her death — finally she could feel that which she had brought to so many. She shuddered with inadvertent fear, but it was irrelevant to her plans and she kept moving.
Antwerp was behind her, she realized. She turned and whispered, “Go away. I’m going to die,” but did not give him any more directions. Having so little to go on, he could not be expected not to follow.
The falls were majestic in the darkness, unlit even by the moon, the shimmer on their foamy height the last remains of the abruptly-vanished daylight. She gazed up at them and her face broke slowly into a smile. Perhaps her body would never be found, and Achim would not even know what she had done. A murmur of doubt crept into her convictions, then: what if he thought she had run away, and went after her? Would that not be just as destructive as if she remained with him? She had to tell him somehow. She looked about herself, and knew at once what to do. Quickly removing the katta pin from her oron, she held it up to share or steal that last glimmer before setting it on the ground. The ornament which had won her titles of thief and Maruroha would bear witness to her death for all the world to hear.
She scaled the first small cliff easily, stood before a stone door looking down at Antwerp who bounced forlornly next to a blue-chested griffin of gold. Then she turned and made her way up to the head of the falls. It was colder here, on the valley’s lip, mist from the plunging river enveloping her as she gazed down the ponderous length to the rocks below. She had no time for thought; she flung herself off the edge towards her doom. A thousand thoughts flashed through her mind as she fell, all tempered with a wild joy in the realization that now she could lay down her grief and be free.
But for that destiny she was not made.
Arms encircled her waist and she bit her tongue as she was jerked upwards, rising into the air and coming gracefully down again beside the place chosen as her final resting spot. She struggled, beating backwards against whatever it was that had taken from her the one thing she truly wanted. The second her weight was on the ground she threw her deliverer over her head and flashed her swords out in front of her. Antwerp bounced, rubbing against her leg, and she fancied he was happy. An accusatory remark sprang to her lips — and died there as her eyes came to rest on the object of her sudden rage.
The woman, her skin a blackish burgundy, wore only a loincloth and halter top. Horns of sable hue protruded from her left cheekbone and right brow, as well as from both sides of her head, her shoulders, hips, and ankles. Her great dark wings spread behind her like a cloak blown high in the wind, and the first light of the rising moon glistened off her shaven black hair. Was that a tail behind her? She was beautiful, so much that En Shevil’s blood began to pulse in her ears with the hatred of her. “What are you doing, fool?” hissed the winged woman. En Shevil did not respond, but dove at her, swords ready to run her through.
Askgaella was rather surprised at this sudden attack, but not unprepared. Blackblood appeared at her call and met Oyin with a scrape-clang that rang through her mind like a song. At the same time she twisted out of reach of the other blade. This was going to be difficult: she was a talented swordswoman, but nothing out of the ordinary, and her opponent had two blades. She spun, wishing, not for the first time, that demons did not lose the poison in their tails at eighth class. Still, she imagined it hurt as she slammed her caudal appendage into Deathscar’s legs and sent the human flying away from her. She sprang forward; if she could only get hold of the woman’s shoulders and look her in the eye, the fight would be at an end.
En Shevil, sick with anger, waited for her strange attacker to approach, then pushed herself up and forward, ramming the other woman’s stomach with her head. At the same time she swept Oyin around with all her strength (Sayeto had flown from her hand when her enemy had knocked her down) into the woman’s ribs. The stranger gave a cry of pain, and brought them to a standstill with her wings before she could be hurled into the rock. En Shevil fell, dragging her down by the knees. The woman twisted and put both hands on the Maruroha’s shoulders, but En Shevil wormed her way out of the grasp and found herself behind the aerial figure, still with one blade. She drove the latter through the other woman’s back, and watched as the body fell limply to the water’s edge, where it draped over rocks and one arm fell into the pool. Extracting her sword, En Shevil began to shake violently, and leaned back against the cliffside. As she watched, the corpse hissed, and soon faded into smoke that was drowned in the spray of the roaring falls. The only signs of its former presence were the dark bloodstains on the rocks, which were slowly seeping into the foam, threading it with the color of death.
“She’s dead,” he murmured. He knelt in the mist of flying water, his left hand holding a pin that he knew for hers, his right laid on the bloody glistening rock beside the scene of her destruction. “She’s dead.” The morning was chilly, autumn hastening recklessly towards winter, unable to match the chill of his bones or the winter of his heart. He rose and walked silently, numbly, toward Zauberberg and a wizard who could send him away from Spielburg.
“You are a fool,” spat Ogo, giving her his shockingly handsome profile in order to defile the floor. “Why did you not let her die? How could she have defeated you?” Trying to answer these two intelligently-coupled questions at once was futile, so Askgaella said nothing.
But Gorllex spoke up for her. “The woman’s a trained killer.”
“You demean your lover,” said Ogo sharply, “by suggesting that she is not equal to a human killer. Though of course we have seen that she is not.” He looked at her smugly and continued with the most ardent of sympathy. “But it is through no fault of her own.”
And here we go with the ‘human-blood’ thing again, thought Askgaella with a mental sigh. Ogo, with his spectacular, superior Ingk vision, must have seen it in her eyes, read it from her soul, smelled it on her breath — wait, that was going too far. At any rate, he smiled acidly. What so-called inborn talent could an Ingk not turn to another’s torment?
“Yes, we all know why you are not equal to a human killer, so I will not go into that. But for failure to fulfill your duty, and for being killed on assignment, I demote you to eighth class.” He put his hand over her face and clenched it; she screamed as her wings were sucked away, tearing at her bones and sending smoke through her lungs.
“Give me another chance,” she gasped when she could speak other than into his palm, surprising herself and Gorllex. Askgaella rarely asked others for anything, and nothing from Ogo Ingk.
“Ha!” said Ogo, turning away. The next moment, they were all on bended knee as the king himself entered the room.
“What goes on in here?” he asked irritably, obviously referring to her shout.
“A demotion, your majesty,” Ogo explained obsequiously. The king eyed them all with distaste, unused to dealing directly with anyone below second class or his private counselors.
“Failure to fulfill duty, death during assignment,” said Askgaella quickly, before the benevolent Ogo could accidentally make her sound worse than she was. The king stared for some time, his unpleasant visage wrinkled with slight, unconcerned confusion, before showing any signs of recognition, and her neck was becoming tired.
“You failed to possess the human?” he asked at last.
“I would like another chance,” she answered carefully.
A few minutes later she was again on her way to Spielburg.
En Shevil pulled her hood down farther over her face, her gaze directed at the ground. It was not so cold as she had expected in the mountain pass, and with the cloak she had stolen from the dry goods shop in Spielburg she was almost externally warm. Antwerp bounced happily behind her, leaving funny little round marks in the snow. Did the thing ever get cold? He looked so jellyish, she wondered he did not freeze solid.
Achim would assume she had carried out the plan that had been thwarted by the hellishly beautiful woman. The latter, to whom En Shevil had eventually, tentatively given the tag demoness, would probably be on her trail again soon, though she could be wrong — was it demons or devils that were immortal? She did not care; let her come or not as she would. En Shevil was a killer and would always be, and what frightened her beyond expression was that she still enjoyed it. The rush she’d craved as Deathscar was still there, enticing and intoxicating. She had to escape herself; there was no other path to follow. The only choice remaining now was to go into seclusion, prevent her hands from working more evil and causing more death. This included her own. Little as she fancied the thought, she must continue until something else brought about her end. She had realized that her death could no more be a lie than her life, so she lifted her heavy feet high through the early winter snowdrifts as she walked northward from Spielburg, steering towards some unknown destination and some uncertain future.
Chapter 7 – Sechburg
Rustinmount held the debatable honor of being the northernmost peak in the Spielburg range before the latter met the Malignant Mountains at the border. The four Lost Towns, situated in two adjoining valleys on the side of Rustinmount, were almost only accessible in late spring and summer, and then only from Spielburg — nobody came south from Mordavia through the passless Malignants. So the quiet secluded Lost Men, as they were called, lived and died and raised their goats and sheep, bred their horses, brewed their beer, and mostly carried on in peace and comfort with little outside meddling. There were traders that came every spring after the melting of the harsh monster drifts that blocked off the Arias and Dabei valleys all fall and winter, but they were the same people year after year, and in fact usually walked in their fathers’ footsteps. No one vacationed in the Lost Towns, there being little to draw them and the fear of an unexpected blizzard to keep them away. Strangers never came to the Lost Towns; or if they did, became quickly ‘Found’ again.
As for the people, they were gently rough, of good but rubbery morals, with little enough inclination for travel but a voracious appetite for news. However, as they were slightly inwardly suspicious of outsiders (usually until after the latter were gone, at which point the congenial villagers would state that ‘he was a wonderful fellow’ and go back to their drinks), and were just as well pleased with an oft-repeated tale or ballad as with the cares of other kingdoms, a learned man or well-read woman had as much of an audience, on any given night, as the most eloquent traveler holding council at the local inn. The one thing that made the Lost Men atypical was their lack of provincial mentality, some said due to a half-forgotten visit, years and years before, from Erana. Though stubborn in their own ways, they were accepting of others and not in general so ignorant of worldly things, such as science and magic, as one might expect to find them.
In Sechburg, the western town in Dabei, stood an inn. The swinging sign above the door, depicting a poorly-clad teenage girl who looked anything but what she was supposed to be, was long since gone, it having been stolen by some of the rowdier drunkards during their festival midnight rampages and never replaced. This was the popular evening gathering-place for men, and the occasional bawdy woman, of both Sechburg and often its eastern neighbor Milau, and tonight was obviously no exception. The cloaked stranger, of the kind that never became Lost, glanced up, noting the absence of the marker, and wondered, not really caring, what the place was called.
The stable master of Sechburg, through a window, watched the stranger cross the street from his building, where she’d left her horse, and enter the inn. As her nondescript figure was silhouetted against the door, more clumps of snow fell from the folds of her cloak. He shook his head, wondering how long she’d last in that place — so quiet, so inexpert handling her animal! How such a person had made her way up the mountain at all, through the early winter snows no trader dared walk, he did not know. Perhaps she was a thief, and came to avoid some sentence in the lower country. He knew the type of hardened criminal that would do anything, go anywhere, to evade captors, but she did not seem to fit the mold. What and whoever she was, she’d certainly given him little to guess by, saying barely words enough to get her point across, and never deliberately showing him her face. He hoped she wasn’t in trouble, for she would only find more at the Mien Waif tonight.
Usually Uwin had a good notion of beauty, and could pass practiced judgement on face and figure within moments of first seeing a girl. Thus the stranger, whose face he saw as she leaned forward to question him over the noise of the room, caught his attention. For though her features demanded his approval for their faultless shape and the brilliance of her green eyes, something about her, some half-recognized flaw that had nothing to do with her aesthetic appeal, struck him as bizarrely unlovely. Eyes battling with instinct, he could not begin to decide whether or not she was attractive. Suddenly he realized she had spoken and he had lost her words in his thoughts. Shaking his head, he said, “Pardon?”
“How much is a room?” she asked again. It was in her voice as well — a sense of something being not quite right with her, something he should perhaps fear. Whatever answer he might have given her was again thwarted, this time by drunk Diande who slapped a hairy red hand on her shoulder and pulled her around with a query:
“Axel?” But when his gaze met those bright green eyes with their unfathomable sorrow, he dropped his arm and looked at her in puzzlement and growing anger. It did not take much to get a drunken man angry. “Who’re you?”
She was angry herself then, he could tell, but was mistress over it in an instant like one who had through endless practice come to know and govern her emotions. As if accustomed to lonely silence, perhaps not realizing she should probably answer, she simply stared at Diande with a gaze that might have been intimidating in its placidity but for that surreal sense of imperfection she held around her. This only angered the man further, predictably, and he repeated the question harshly, with a few slurring words that Uwin wouldn’t have said in front of his grandchildren. She continued to stare as if she did not know the answer. Uwin’s hands curled agitatedly around the edge of the bar as he watched Diande’s fists form and appear at face level, as always.
“Diande,” he said warningly. The big man turned his head, and the stranger took the opportunity to step nearer the bar, again, for safety.
“Don’ ‘old w’strangers ‘oo won’ teller namz.”
“My name is En Shevil,” she said calmly in her southwestern accent, and Diande looked at her with a drunkenly exaggerated expression of surprise. Uwin shook his head at the stupidity of his customers, some of whom were unable even to recognize a woman until she spoke.
“A room is four silvers for a night; please pay in advance. I’d advise you to head up there pretty quick before they,” gesturing to the general content of the room, “figure out you’re a girl, or a brawl starts.”
She had been watching Diande, but now she gave Uwin a surprised, appraising look, the shadows shifting and darkening on her hooded face as something set the lamp behind him swinging. “You’re a bartender?” she asked, at the same time fishing money from a hidden pocket. He smiled and took the coins she offered him.
“I own the inn. But Erich had a family emergency in Milau and I’m filling in. Quite a change, doing actual work.” She caught his mild joke after a moment and smiled belatedly, wanly. He glanced around, handing her a key with one hand while the other steadied the lamp above him. “Through that door” –it was at the right end of the bar– “up the stairs, second room on the left.” She nodded her thanks, then turned to go.
But Diande was not finished with her yet. He staggered after and pulled her to face him again. “Now, look,” he said loudly into her face, making her balk at his obviously sour breath, “strangerzarn’t welc’m ‘ere.”
She looked at him with a strange expression and said dully, “Leave me alone.” He swung his fist at her face, and her reaction was as odd as any Uwin had ever seen.
Her hands jerked up and her framed tensed, and then she actually stilled her arms, stood firm, and took the blow to her cheek. As Uwin sprang forward to join another man in holding Diande back, he watched the stranger touch her face lightly with her fingertips and wince. She could have blocked it, he was thinking. She could have dodged. She probably could have turned him upside-down. Diande was struggling as they pulled him towards the door, curses flying all the way. Uwin, not being a particularly muscular man, left the task to some who were, as well as that of reminding the drunkard that women were not struck at the Mien, and made his way back to the victim.
“I’m sorry,” he and she said in the same moment. “Do you need some ice?” he asked.
“No, thanks,” she assured him, looking around anxiously at all the attention she’d attracted. She added very softly, as if to herself, “I’ve had worse.”
Uwin had heard men brag using those words, but this was obviously not the woman’s intent. He looked at the wickedly mottled bruise darkening on her cheekbone, and sucked in his breath. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Thank you,” she said with a shake of her head. “Goodnight.” Amid stares of curiosity she left the room.
The chill was not only in Sechburg. “It is good for you to get away from the many temptations of Tarna,” said Rakeesh. “Tarna is not a place for one of your skills.”
The prince sighed, reflecting on others who shared his skills. “Is it always this warm in winter?” he asked, pulling his hood of his zebra-skin cloak lower against the heavy rain.
“There is little winter in Tarna,” replied Rakeesh, who was practically oblivious to the water streaming through his mane and adding perhaps ten pounds to his body weight, “only the rain.” The Prince of Shapier bowed his head in reflection as they walked on through the muddy savanna towards the Simbani village. They would have no fire tonight. His tears were almost colder than the rain, and with his face pointed downward he thought, underestimating Paladin powers of perception, that Rakeesh would never notice he wept. “My friend,” the liontaur said at last, “what has been troubling you? Since you returned from your quest to Spielburg, you have said so little. What happened there to cause you such grief?”
Achim choked and splashed his foot down into a puddle. “En Shevil,” he said.
Rakeesh shook his head very slowly, wondering how to tell a prince he needed a life. “I’m…” he began, but the royal youth cut him off.
“She was Deathscar!” he cried. “I left my search for her just to find her in the least likely place imaginable!”
Rakeesh was shocked as he had not been for years. “Deathscar the killer? En Shevil?”
Hearing his tone Achim quickly continued. “She was crazy,” he sobbed, “and I don’t even know why or how. I had Erasmus help her, but she…” He clenched his fists and shook them in helpless sorrow. “She hated herself.” Rakeesh nodded slowly, unable to do more. Even a Paladin was left speechless now and then. “And she…” His frustration with the world — with her for not understanding, with himself for not being able to help her, with Rakeesh for making him explain — overwhelmed him, and he stopped and looked into the sky, his hood falling back from his damp hair. He gave a nondescript cry, stamping his feet, and then felt the liontaur’s hand on his shoulder. He pulled away and began walking again, very quickly, without fixing his hood. “She killed herself!” he shouted, and repeated it a few times. Weeping again, he slowed and allowed Rakeesh’s arms to go around him in friendly comfort, though the gesture did not help.
“I’m sorry,” said the Paladin. “I’m so sorry. You have shown yourself to be a force for great good, and I sense that you consider this event a failure. Do not let it discourage you! You are Tarna’s hope now; war must be prevented.” The liontaur was going off again, smoothly returning to the previous subject, and Achim restrained another sigh: he was growing used to the Paladin’s somewhat annoying ways. “I do not know how your skills will aid us in our mission for peace, but I trust you will think of something. One with your skills must be very clever as well as physically fit in order to survive. But please try not to dishonor us amongst friends. It would be difficult to justify your actions to the Simbani if you decided to ‘borrow’ something from them. Particularly since we will be their guests.”
“I’m the Hero,” he mumbled, almost angry. “You can always count on me.”
“Good morning,” said Uwin as the newcomer, En Shevil, came into the barroom and closed the door almost silently behind her. He had just stepped in to make sure Erich was all right (a sick mother in the next town and all the bartender could say was ‘rngnf’) and that he’d gotten back to Sechburg in one piece, which he had. He’d shown up at the Mien at dawn, as punctual as he’d been every day for the last eight years. “Erich will get you breakfast.” He looked at her, now that he had the chance, as she nodded politely. She had almost shoulder-length hair, golden like that of many girls he knew, strangely shadowy sparkling eyes washed with sunlight and sorrow. He wondered what she was, for she was like a leaf written in some foreign language. He could see the phrase, oft-repeated, that gave the writing its tone, but, ignorant of the tongue, was unable to identify it or put it in perspective with the rest of the work. Still, the book was open and, given time, he would puzzle through it. He wondered if she would stay.
He noticed she’d gone to the bar, and reflected that she’d probably said something to him while he’d been staring and thinking. He sighed and returned to his study.
En Shevil sat at the far end, in the coldest corner of the room. Her side to the counter, she looked out the window at the new snow, light and shallow, of the night before. Her cloak was much too thin for this place, and it seemed she would be here for some time. But then, what need had she for warmth? She turned abruptly to look at Erich, who was busy getting breakfast for one of his regulars. The latter was a rather fat woman, of progressing years, who provided a pleasing contrast to the last set of regulars En Shevil had seen here. What she didn’t know was that there were several different sets of daily consumers at the Mien (the name she had as yet to hear), and Erich was versatile enough to serve all of them. His standard greeting was ‘hnf,’ his farewell a look appropriate to how he felt about the person. She waited until the woman had been served, and then cleared her throat.
Erich approached, his hands behind his back. This gave him a rather comical appearance as he was a large, gutful man with stubble and a red nose. “How much for bread and water?” she asked softly.
He glared at her, angry at what she could not tell. She did not think it was her directly. “Prison fare,” he said, and the old woman’s chin jerked up in shock.
En Shevil nodded ponderously. “How much?”
“One silver, five coppers.”
Her eyebrows lowered. “I don’t have coppers,” she said.
“One silver,” he said. She gave him two. He grunted as he went to get her food. She turned to the window again.
“You’re from Shapier?” This was a man who’d walked in a few moments ago and witnessed the miracle of Erich’s commentary speech. The old woman’s head wagged imperceptibly.
En Shevil rotated slowly on her stool to give him some of her attention, or attempt it. He was tall and gaunt with a greying head and blonde facial hair. So many questions! Simple confrontation she was prepared for, but not naïve interest. “Yes,” she said at last, “but more recently Itsumo Kawai.” The old woman raised her eyebrows minutely.
“Ytsomo Kwai? So you’ve come north across the mainland,” the man said, and continued at her nod. “Dangerous, that, what with — what was the name? Deathscar.” En Shevil tensed and said nothing. The man took a seat and continued conversationally as the girl chewed forcedly on her bread. “I hear he killed hundreds before the Hero finally killed him.” At last the old woman spoke.
“Who’ve you been listening to? Deathscar’s a woman!” En Shevil let out a breath through her nose, which drew their immediate attention. The woman’s face softened. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Did you… lose someone?”
The Maruroha nodded, bitter tears springing to her eyes. “Someone I loved,” she said, standing and walking towards the door. “And you’ve got it mixed up. The Hero didn’t kill her. She killed herself.”
Unsure of why she’d alienated them so, she headed away from the inn, conscious vaguely that she should at some point check on her horse in the stable and sleepy Antwerp in her room. A sweep of cutting wind pierced her cloak and prickled at her skin, but she ignored it. Deathscar: she was not dead; that had been a lie. But En Shevil was here to kill her. Deathscar could not escape herself.
As she walked the narrow, busy streets with her hood drawn up, pretending she did not see the many questioning eyes lingering on her, she was reminded of home. The walls of the close-set, multi-storied buildings darkened the snowy ways just enough to recall the streets of Shapier. She remembered, suddenly, tearing away from Saif Darb with a bit of meaningless jewelry, a passel of drunken brutes at her heels. Somehow this memory prompted her to smile as she realized she did not even know what ‘EOF’ stood for.
That a stranger should smile without visible cause was obviously not allowed, and a boy perhaps her age stopped in front of her and smiled himself, hands in pockets. “Good morning,” he said, holding his hand out. She wanted to bow properly then, but was momentarily confused as to which of the two bows she knew would be more appropriate. So she gave him her hand after a hesitant second and he kissed it. “You must be Diande’s new love interest.” He laughed at his own joke.
“Hmm, no,” she said.
He waited, expecting something more, and eventually said, “Where’re you from?”
She knew she’d seen the turn of his pale, handsome face somewhere, and that color in his hair. “Most recently, Itsumo Kawai — Ytsomo Kwai.”
A vague, searching look came over him, one she recognized, and from recently. She nodded slowly as she recalled the innkeeper’s expression as he ignored what she said. “Are you–” she began, at the same moment when he said, “You’re–” She let him continue, “staying at the Mien — the inn by the southern gate?”
“Yes — what’s it called?”
“The Mien Waif.”
“What an odd name!”
He laughed and spelled the first word for her to make sure she was convinced. “That’s what everyone says. When my grandfather died — he named it — my father couldn’t bear to change it.” That look came over him again and his mouth closed abruptly.
En Shevil, deciding to make a test, said, “So you are the innkeeper’s son.” He did not hear her. She waited until the sky in his eyes was replaced by earth and asked him again.
“Yes,” he said as if he’d never blanked out, “that’s me: Detlev Sonders.”
She frowned. “Does everyone in Spielburg have a surname?”
“I think so. I’ve never heard of anyone who doesn’t. Well, a couple of people, actually.”
“What’s the Hero’s surname?” She attempted to think why she did not know.
“The Hero who saved Elsa and Barnard? He doesn’t have one.”
“Why not, I wonder.”
His face went half-blank; she feared he was going away again. But he answered her, absently and with airy eyes. “Something about not knowing exactly who his parents are, I think.” En Shevil began to contemplate this, but fell to thinking why this boy in Sechburg knew a personal detail even she had never learned, or why she expected him to. In Shapier surnames were rare, as most people identified themselves as the son or daughter of one of their parents if they needed to add to their given name, and she had never been prompted to ask Achim; perhaps such things were generally known in Spielburg.
“I’m only curious,” she said as he began to come out of his thoughts. “My name’s En Shevil.”
“Glad to meet you,” he said. “How long are you staying?”
She sighed. “All winter, I guess.” His eyes were moving away from her more and more, and she thought he must want out of the conversation. “Can you tell me where I’ll find a traders’ or adventurers’ guild?” She hadn’t thought of this before, but realized that the latter would be an excellent place to discover the general state of things here and decide whether this was the place to stay. Not that she had much of a choice, but she did not wish to linger in a problem town.
“There’s the Guild Hall uptown — it’s an all-purpose hall, for all — well, most of the guilds. Walk up this street until you reach the estates — you’ll know them from the aspens outside — then turn left on Bluemstrass and follow it until the first intersection. Then turn right on Beherrschweg and follow that to its end, which is the Guild Hall.
“Thanks,” said En Shevil.
“Quite all right. Good morning.”
As she walked northward up the road, the latter widened, the buildings drawing farther apart, and any lingering reminder of Shapier was lost. There were many rich-looking shops with small windows, and the only people on the street itself were pedestrians, creating quite a different atmosphere from the open markets of Shapier and Itsumo Kawai, but one consistent with what she had seen through Spielburg on her way here. However, in the previous towns she had visited her reception had been warmer; here, though she received no looks of enmity, nobody met her eye or smiled either. Many stared, curious, but made no overtures either of friendship or animosity. Then the view changed completely. Upon approaching the northern end of town it gave way to massive, aspen-shaded houses with yards, flanking the narrowing, leaf-strewn road as it became a lane immediately after the intersection.
This shadow of what she once was may still have possessed the skills of a thief, but the thrill she should have felt at viewing these fine houses, the longing to explore each one in search of nice things, was cold in her heart. She didn’t know who she was now, but she realized Deathscar had spoken at least one truth: En Shevil the thief was dead. All she needed now was to kill Deathscar and find a new identity. En Shevil the adventurer? En Shevil the craftsman? What about En Shevil the farmer? She shook her head and turned onto Bluemstrass: these all sounded so innocent, and she had lives for which she must pay. But she wanted to avoid such contemplation, and had become rather practiced at doing so in her travels. She pushed the thoughts from her head with further reflection on her surroundings.
The street was now made up of houses, many of whose upper levels hung out over her head and blocked the light from her face. They were close-set and seemed each to contain a few residences, and she began to wonder exactly how many people lived in this valley. It was a busy town, to be sure, but the number of people she guessed she did not see far surpassed those she did. The Shapier feeling was back, though, and for that she was grateful. In this cold it was pleasant to have about her any trace of her desert home.
The small houses gradually changed to larger ones, still without yards but looking to have more wealthy inhabitants. Then the houses became once again shops and larger edifices and she found the next intersection. Walking up Beherrschweg she saw a courthouse, a spacious jail, and finally the Guild Hall.
It was a wide, one-story building (though it had a gabled attic) with two chimneys, double doors, and large windows through which she could see the glow of firelight and the shapes of men and women. She took a deep breath and entered, the ponderous, simply-carved wooden slab in the doorframe swinging surprisingly gently as she opened it. As was her habit, she made sure to shut the door with little noise.
There were three groups in the room. One, of men sitting in armchairs around the fire in the left wall, talked and laughed lightly. The other, comprised mostly of women, sat around a table by the other hearth, working on various things, and chattered loudly. The third was two elderly men and a woman in rocking chairs in a corner. One man was asleep, the other two spoke softly. The room, though ventilated through open windows flanking each fireplace and in the back wall, was as hot as any Shapierian day En Shevil could remember, and she decided she would stay here for a while.
Only the old man and woman noticed her entrance, but the man called attention to it by shouting at her. “Welcome to the Guild Hall, stranger!” All eyes were then naturally upon her. “Feel free to look around! I am the Guildmaster, Kelli!” She got the feeling that this man was more than a little deaf, an idea somewhat contradicted by the volume of his conversation previous to his greeting.
“Thank you,” she said necessarily. Half of the men returned to their doings in an attempt not to stare, though their surreptitious glances were not lost on her. Considerably less of the women even made the effort. En Shevil walked forward to the rear wall, on which hung, arranged around the two open windows, several plaques depicting the symbols of various guilds, some of which were familiar to her as she had seen them many times on her travels. There was the Traders’ Guild, the Workmen’s Guild, and several she did not recognize. To her utter shock there was also an EOF plaque. She shook her head and moved on to the wall’s dominant feature: a large, paper-cluttered bulletin board taking up nearly all the space between the windows. It was marked ‘Requests,’ and she began at the top.
It was mostly uninteresting. ‘I have lost my walking-stick. It is oak…’ ‘Please bring all post to the Post Bureau or hand it to the post delivery man, and it will be delivered to…’ ‘Whoever is leaving dead rats on my windowsills, you better stop because…’ ‘All crimes, as stated in the laws of the Sechburg Ledger, are punishable with an appropriate sentence to be agreed upon in court by a competent judge…’ ‘If you are looking for a witty, intelligent girl who is not too tall, please come to…’ ‘Please extinguish your lamps when walking too near the orphanage windows, as it is waking the children…’ And here was one that caught her attention, faded and cracked: ‘Lost: Waltraud, daughter of the milliner Otto Angeldorf. Twenty golds for her rescuer.’ This notice looked old, and she assumed that the unfortunate girl had either been rescued already or was lost forever. Not a problem town, she concluded, only a weird one. Just in case, she left her place by the board and went over to speak with the guildmaster.
“Good morning,” she began.
“Good morning, child,” said the old woman.
“Hello!” shouted the man, causing all the other people in the room to briefly look up again.
“I’m new here, and I…”
“New, are you?” the man interrupted. “I was new here once, and look where I am now! I’m guildmaster, that’s where! Don’t you go thinking you can’t make nothin’ of yourself just because you’re new!”
“I know. I was just wondering…”
“And if you’re looking for adventure, you won’t find any here! This is a peaceful town, though we are quite lively, and I’ll let you know that there hasn’t been a monster within the boundaries for forty years!” He gestured upward, and for the first time En Shevil saw the heads: four trolls, a moose, and two cheetaurs. The old man continued. “Back when I was the only adventurer in town…”
“You were never the only adventurer in town, you old duck,” said the woman, raising her voice enough to break into his speech. “I’ve lived here all my life.”
“Well, back when I was the best adventurer in town…”
“You whistle-mouthed fool! You were never the best! You couldn’t hold a sword to me if I were unarmed and blind!”
“You are blind, Lollie!”
“And you’re a crotchety old has-been who never really was!”
En Shevil watched in amusement as these two apparently former adventurers argued, growing impatient after a moment at their endless string of insults. Then her eye caught movement behind them, and she saw that the third man, up till now undisturbed by their squabbling, was awakening. He gestured for her to come over, and she did.
“What do you need?” he asked.
“I was just wondering where I could find some work in town,” she said. “I have to stay here all winter.”
He smiled ruefully and put his soft, bony hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry to say that I spend most of my time here, and thus know little of the needs of the general people. You might ask in at the mayor’s.”
“Thank you,” she said, standing straight once again. She turned to exit the hall when suddenly the argument behind her broke off.
“Girl!” called the old woman. “You carry yourself like a thief, but you have the air of a warrior, and a great deal of magic on top of that. Who are you?”
“You’re mistaken,” said En Shevil in a quavering voice. “I have no magic.” The two groups of people by the fires were instantly murmuring about this new enigma, and she bolted for the door.
How the gossip spread from that hall so quickly she did not for some time understand, but at every shop where she inquired the answer was the same: ‘No, we have no need of you,’ with a nervous or unfriendly look. And as she left she usually caught the whispered words ‘thief, warrior, magic.’ So it was with a weary, frustrated and rather bored spirit that she headed back to the inn as the sky grew dark.
As she approached the Mien, after a brief stint in the stable to inform the master of horses that she would like to sell her animal, she sighed: through the windows she could see the shadows of drinking-men, and wondered whether someone else would make trouble tonight. She entered the room, and realized belatedly that she should probably put her hood up, remembering what the innkeeper had said the night before.
Men gazed at her but said nothing, and she sighed again as she recollected she was out of SPIM and would have to remain in this room to eat supper unless she wanted to starve until morning. She reflected on the small number of coins she had left. Taking a place at the bar, as far from everyone as she could position herself, she was startled when the bartender (Erich?) set a glass of something unappealing in front of her. Rolling his eyes he leaned closer and pointed to the other side of the bar. “A gift,” he said. She followed the line of his large arm and saw the man who had hit her last night, conversing with someone quite a bit more rationally than she would have expected.
“Please take it away,” she said. Erich nodded with a half-smile and removed the drink from before her. “What do you serve here?”
“Food,” he grunted, “liqueur.” But his succinctness was not meant to offend her.
“Give me some of the first,” she said. Her stomach was making noises. “And do you have any avocado?”
He looked at her askance, but when her order came it was accompanied by an entire, sliced avocado on a separate plate. “Three silvers,” he said, and she paid him. The meal consisted of bread, strong meaty soup, bread, and more bread. “Drink?”
“Do you have any coffee?” she asked, remembering wistfully the favored drink of her homeland.
“Only mornings,” he said.
“Tea?” she asked without much hope. He shook his head. “Water, then.” Her attention was drawn away from the clear glass he gave her by a general cry taken up by the entire room. At the same moment she fancied she heard Erich groan.
“Axel! Axel! Axel’s here!” The door opened, and the men fell into relative silence as a sandy-haired man in heavy clothing walking through them towards the bar, ignoring the teasing jabs they all gave him in the sides and back. The focus of their gazes seemed to fluctuate between the newcomer, Axel, and her attacker of last night, Diande.
Axel approached the bar and spoke softly to Erich, who brought him a drink. By then Diande was at his side. “So, Axel, have you seen any trolls lately?”
En Shevil listened closely, curious.
“You again,” said Axel. “Will you give me no peace?”
“He asks if I will give him peace!” roared Diande to the surrounding men, several of whom had moved closer to watch. En Shevil grew tense, wondering what was forthcoming. Axel was a bit shorter than she was, dressed for perpetual winter, it seemed, with a pleasant round face and shoulder-length hair. Lean and apparently strong, he looked like he saw hard work on a regular basis. But trolls? What exactly was this about? Diande, who was at least four inches taller than Axel, towered over him and laughed with a bitter tone. “Axel!” he continued. “What kind of peace have you given people in the past?” There was semi-amused murmuring in the background.
“It does no good to bring this up, Diande,” said Axel, and En Shevil found herself standing up and edging closer to catch his softly-spoken words.
“It does no good?” Diande displayed alarming symptoms of being one of those people who repeated everything their companions said in the form of a question. “What good have you ever done anyone?” Axel took a breath, his eyes closing and opening slowly. En Shevil knew the look from too much experience: it was pain. Soft anger began to tingle through her at any drunkard who waited around in an inn only to torment people.
But then, how could she be angry with him? Had not she herself behaved in exactly the same manner — worse, in fact, she having traveled and specifically sought out people to hurt? Did not this man deserve pity? Of course Axel, whatever his crime might have been, needed concern as well; she did not want to see anyone in pain. But what right had she to step in, to stop an offense that was only a shadow of her own? These two thoughts conflicted in her mind as more words, disturbing and acrimonious, were exchanged between the parties.
“Does everyone get this from you?” she asked at last loudly, moving towards the men. When Diande recognized her he blushed, his large nose going from pink to vermilion.
“I’d like to offer my apologies for last night,” he said, and she shook her head.
“You’re not apologizing by hurting him,” she said with a gesture to Axel. “Don’t talk to me; just leave him alone.” Why was she doing this? She was only thrusting herself into the eyes of every man here, and probably earning more enemies in the process.
“You don’t know what’s going on here,” said Diande, getting angry. “You think that just because I won’t hit you while I’m sober means you can say anything you want. You don’t know who he is!” He was shouting now, and En Shevil realized that in this night’s hassling she only saw a corner of a ruined building buried in the sands of time.
“Diande,” said Axel, “if she doesn’t know what’s going on, how can she be expected not to step in?” He looked at En Shevil. “You’ve got courage.”
She felt sick to hear what seemed like gratuitous praise. Courage? Her only desire was to see no more pain. Why had she not gone up to bed earlier? “Then what is happening?” she asked.
“It’s none of her business,” muttered someone from behind her.
She felt a surge of anger and moved up closer to Diande, turning her head to look around first. “Maybe I’m making this my business, seeing that I’m going to be here all winter at least. So what’s the story?”
“Full of drama and mystery,” Axel remarked dryly, and Diande gripped his shirt. En Shevil, still reluctant yet tiring of this escapade, seized the larger man’s wrists and forced him away.
“Don’t touch him,” she ordered. “This may be your town, I may be a total stranger, and this may be what you do to him every night for all I know, but…” she searched for a means of justifying herself, and found none. She gritted her teeth, heart sinking as she continued: “But I’m stronger than you and I will make you sorry if you touch him.”
“Stronger than me?” scoffed the man, irate; he took hold of her wrists and twisted her arms around, trying to hurt her. With very little effort she flipped him and slammed him to the floor.
“Enough!” bellowed Erich, hastening around the bar and hauling Diande unceremoniously to his feet. “No fights!” For the second time that sevenday, Diande was expelled from the Mien, and En Shevil, feeling a fool, returned to her place at the bar to eat as much as she could before the bartender returned to throw her out. The men were all eyeing her suspiciously, and the noise level was considerably lower. At least they were leaving Axel alone; she knew this because a moment later he was at her side.
“So what is the story?” she asked without looking up.
“I think now is not the time or place for it,” he said, “but it involves one of your sex and a scathing rivalry.”
“With him?” He heard the skepticism in her voice and breathed loudly through his nose, a sound almost laughter.
“May I speak with you here tomorrow morning?” he asked.
“Of course,” she responded, raising her face finally. Her eyes caught the belly of Erich behind the bar, and she turned to look at him. His dour expression held an obvious hint of amusement, and his mouth was twitching.
“No fights here,” he said sternly. “Understand?”
She replied, though her voice shook a bit. “Yes, I think I do,” she said.
The next morning she found Axel in the same place she’d left him last night, as if he had never moved. Indeed it seemed he had not, and as she sat down beside him he did not look at her.
“Good morning,” she said softly.
He shook his head. “I didn’t notice you come in,” he said.
“Nothing this morning,” she said to Erich. “I’m out of money. I’ve got to find a job.”
“Work for me,” said Axel suddenly, surprising her.
“What do you need?” she asked.
She wrinkled her nose. “Where do you live?”
“Up the mountain.”
“Wonderful. When I do start?”
He smiled. “I would guess that your times with the shopkeepers were not pleasant.”
“You would be correct. They think I’m a magic using warrior-thief.”
He gave her a critical look. “And which of the three are true?”
“I was a thief, then I was a warrior. Now I am neither. I never was a magician.”
“A perfect combination for living on Rustinmount.”
“Why?” Her memory caught at two things. “Are there really trolls?” He nodded, and she saw definite pain in his eyes. She decided to change the subject, at least slightly. “You were going to tell me about you and Diande.”
“Oh.” He waved his hand. “That. There was a beautiful girl in this town once, called Katharine, with whom both Diande and I were infatuated. However, when she and I fell in love and were married, Diande always insisted I had coerced her into it. When she died, he said I had driven her to that as well by forcing her to live on the mountain with me.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I never would have asked if…”
“It’s quite all right. It was over a year ago, and I have learned to live with the pain.”
She felt a sudden empathy for the sorrows of this man, and her brow furrowed as she attempted to tell him so. “I’m sorry. I was also… separated… by death… from the one I love.” A curious look came into his eyes and he stared at her so long she almost felt he guessed the true meaning of her words. But that was impossible, so she repeated her earlier question. “When do I start?”
“Today, if you please,” Axel said. “I come into town only once a month to buy various things, and we’re both lucky I found you here. Let me buy you breakfast before we leave.”
“I insist. We’ll be making somewhat of a climb.”
She shrugged as he motioned Erich over, and then ordered her light meal. Once she was finished eating, she went to her room to collect her things. It was a terrible mess, Antwerp being now fully awake and tired of captivity, and she hoped the innkeeper’s wife, whose name was Elaine, did not mind. Opening the door, she let Antwerp exit the room. He immediately bounced off every wall and the ceiling in the hallway, so excited was he to be free after his nap and the ensuing imprisonment. She went down the stairs and back into the barroom, where Erich gave an inarticulate sound of surprise to see a baby antwerp following her. The regulars at the bar stared.
“You have a baby antwerp,” Axel commented, deadpan. She nodded. “Well, come with me.” They exited the inn together. Walking first west and then north, they passed the estates and left the town entirely.
Immediately they encountered a foot and a half of snow, covering a vast upward-sloping plain, through which they were forced to walk. En Shevil began to wish she had kept her horse, but knew she would certainly need the money. She had no business with a horse anyway, especially when someone would eventually find out it was stolen. By then she would be gone. Looking up the mountain, she could see dark pines perhaps a mile and a half away.
“I can’t believe how cold it is here,” she breathed as she put more care into her stride.
He pointed up at the jagged line of trees ahead. “It’s warmer in there, but your feet will freeze before we arrive.”
There was at least a half hour between them and the forest, and En Shevil, who was still relatively new to snow, felt that her feet must detach and shatter as they fell (and she would neither care nor, after a while, even notice when they did). Her Maruroha shoes, certainly not made for these conditions, were soon soaked through. She wondered anew why Antwerp did not solidify.
Instinctively she flooded her body with energy from her sanoko as her steps grew sluggish, but immediately let it ebb with a sick feeling of horror: her sanoko was what had sustained her as Deathscar when she’d had no food for too long, a purpose for which it was not intended, and now she could not help but link it, in her mind, to the sweet adrenaline of death; it had been an agent of her survival while she killed. Vaguely conscious of Antwerp’s worried bounce-rubbing against her leg, she kept pace with Axel and vowed never to use her sanoko again.
“Doing all right?” the man asked in a carefully-toned voice, making it sound like he were referring to her frigid toes, obviously having noticed her sudden inner turmoil but not wanting to pry. Why not? she wondered. Everyone else does. Out loud she merely replied affirmatively. Axel continued, apparently having decided that some conversation was necessary. “You’ll find I pay well,” he began. “This last year has been very successful for me, financially. Then of course there is the benefit of a place away from gossiping townspeople who, as you may have noticed, have an unhealthy fascination with irrelevancies. You’ll have to eat a lot of goat and goose, but you’ll get used to that. It’s cold, but you’ll get used to that too.”
She shivered. “I hope so. And we used to have goat all the time at… in Shapier.” She expected a question at this point, but he only nodded.
Antwerp bounced out ahead of them in an elliptical path around them, falling back and appearing again like a dog taken hunting. He seemed more hyper than ever since his week-long nap, and seemed also to have grown. En Shevil shook her head as she looked at her little coadjutor. When the trees were finally at their faces, Axel turned around and stopped. “Sechburg,” he said with a wave of his arm. She stood beside him and looked, down the long, long slope they had climbed, to the barely-visible town below them half-hidden by the valley’s lip. To the left she made out the shape of Milau, and symptoms of another valley to the far right.
“It seems we’ve come farther than we have,” she said, and he looked at her with his eyes, wondering at the odd tone in her voice. He turned to the trees.
“This is the southern edge of the Teildip,” he said. “It’s very warm, and even has a meadow or two. I live on the other side.”
“How is there snow lower down the mountain when it’s warm inside?” she asked as they began walking down into the tree-covered bowl.
“I don’t know.”
“So tell me about these trolls.”
He sighed, and she was sorry that she had to bring it up. “There seems to be an entire colony of them above Teildip,” he began. “They are rather oversized, not cognitively superior, and occasionally decide to pay me a visit, which caused me, quite some time ago, to move my base of operations away from the center into a large cave at the opposite side. It is closer to their home, but more secure from attack. Their movements have decreased in the last several months. They are not easily slain, but it can be done.”
She drew in a quavering breath, and he visibly restrained himself from looking over at her. “You fight, then?” she asked, to hide her discomfort.
“Lollien at the adventurer’s guild taught me.”
She stopped walking. “There’s magic in this forest,” she said. “It’s very strong off to the left here.”
He gave her the same curious look he had when she’d mentioned separation by death, so calculating that she felt he must see directly through her. But all he said was, “You are correct: we are not far from Erana’s Grove.”
“Erana?” she asked, once again hearing that tauntingly familiar phrase, ‘An Erana of the night.’
“It is said she visited here long ago, and that it is her grove which keeps the bowl so warm.” She nodded, and they walked on.
The pines were quite lovely, with here and there an oak amongst them. The forest was completely still, no bird-cries or animal footsteps breaking the silence that seemed strangely unmarred by their conversation. Axel seemed to belong in this hushed world, and with his inherence drew her in as well. And eventually they reached his home.
She started back as they entered the clearing, disconcerted by the sudden feeling of magic that struck her from the fortress-like place before them. An overhanging rock wall roofed and shadowed a building of high, thick wooden posts with sharpened tops, and from inside came the noise of goats. There was a small door, about Axel’s height, covered with metal strips and bolts. And some sort of magical protection covered the whole thing, giving her a sick feeling of being pushed away. But it was not unlike the delirious peace she felt from Erana’s former haunts.
“This is Endensol, my home,” he said, and stepped forward to the door, which had no means of opening that she could see. “The password to open the door is kriff.” As he spoke it the door swung open, inward and he went forward. Steeling herself, she followed him into the darkness of Endensol.
Inside, what she could see of the overhanging rock proved to be the edge of a cavern, many yards high and stretching back to where a house had been built into the rock. To the right was a huge open yard, fenced in strong wood and containing a large barn. Ten or twelve goats roamed and bleated, most of them rushing to the gate at Axel’s approach. “Yes, yes, I’m home,” he said with a grin at them. “They always become antsy when I go.” Antwerp gave a leap and jumped onto the fence, where he hopped along just out of the goats’ reach until he lost his balance and fell into their midst. An amusingly chaotic scene followed and it was some moments before Antwerp returned to En Shevil’s side.
Axel took a low-burning lantern from the wall, turned the gas up so it flared bright, and they walked on towards the house, which En Shevil realized was quite large. She also noticed that the disturbing magical aura had faded once she was beyond the stockade-like wall. She felt it again briefly at the door of her new abode, but it tingled at the edge of her senses and vanished immediately she entered.
The ceiling of the common room upon which the front door opened was high, and the entire place smelt deliciously of pine. In this chamber was a massive fireplace guarded by fur-covered chairs, and four doors. One of those on the left turned out to be a closet; Axel opened it and shed his long grey coat. “I’ll light a fire,” he said, leaving the closet door open. En Shevil took a deep breath and hauled her brown cloak over her head, glad his back was turned. She placed it in the closet on one of the wooden pegs. She noticed with a sad start a long, fine, deep-hooded woman’s cape of dark blue velvet, trimmed with white fur, hanging beside where Axel had hung his garment. Antwerp, who had bounced into the closet and traversed its height by aid of the walls, flew out and sped across towards Axel. She closed the door with a shake of her head.
He was looking at her, Antwerp having procured his attention. “I did not realize,” he said with an obviously careful choice of words, “that your stint as a warrior happened so recently.” Then he immediately turned back to the hearth, where he was piling logs into the grate, as if to say she need not answer. “Your room is the first door on the right,” he said, and she pushed it open. The bedroom was tiny but comfortable, nearly everything there being covered in some kind of fur.
“You are quite the trapper,” she called out the door.
“My wife loved fur,” he replied, “and I never got out of the habit.”
She placed her things on the large, soft bed and left the room again. Reentering the common room she took a closer look at the decor. She was glad to see that, for all the fur in the house, there were no glassy-eyed heads on the walls to disconcert her. There were only pictures. She gazed closely at a few of these, amazed at the richness of their workmanship. They were mostly landscapes, but the place of honor above the hearth was dominated by a large, detailed painting of a pretty blonde woman in wedding attire. “She was lovely,” En Shevil remarked. “How did she… how did you lose her?”
“You put that delicately, and consequently quite well,” said Axel, standing after having finished the fire. She wondered for a moment where the smoke went, but did not think about it. There was something familiar about the tone in his voice, and after a moment she recognized it as the same self-hatred and guilt that had so colored her recent thoughts. In that instant she felt simultaneously a kinship with him and a selfish resentment against him, at once wanting to confide in him and to lash out at him. He might be the only one who would fully understand her, but probably not. After all, what right had he to feel guilty when whatever he had done, no matter how bad he thought it was, came nowhere close to her own shame? But this was becoming too much of an almost-cherished obsession, and certainly was not healthy. So she hid her startled look and asked innocently what he meant by his statement.
He waved her question away and said casually, “Only that I’m not so gallant as I’d like to be. This is the kitchen,” he continued quickly, walking into the next room and lighting a lamp with a hiss. It was a fairly large room, spacious and apparently rather comfortable, but also in need of cleaning. “Having hired you on impulse I forgot to ask the important questions, such as whether you can cook.” He turned to her with a mockingly over-polite expression. “Madam, can you cook?”
“Technically,” she replied with a giggle.
“That is sufficient,” he said, “as anything including bacterial pond-slugs tastes better than my cooking.”
“One thing I forgot to ask too — how is this whole arrangement going to look to the town? I know in Shapier people would say we were…”
“Engaging in acts inappropriate and not in accordance with our employer-employee relationship?” She laughed again, and realized as she did that it was for the third or fourth time today. This man made her laugh! For a moment she was puzzled, but brushed it aside, having had quite enough of being confused and curious for one day. Emotions were wearisome enough without wondering why she felt them. “I think we need not worry about that. The villagers will gossip their eyes out about you for the first month, then completely ignore you until you leave, but I don’t think they’ll suspect us of anything more than Platonism, given their general good nature.”
Though she did not quite comprehend this statement, the gist of it was easy to pick up, and she nodded. Following him into another door she entered what looked like a hallway-pantry that gave her fleeting memories of the Rasierian harem. Through it they entered a very large storage room filled with chests and shelves of odd things. A ladder leaned against one wall, and above it a trap door in the wooden ceiling was shut. “What’s that for?”
“In case the roof is in need of repair,” he replied. “So what do you think of my house?”
“I think it’s lovely, the nicest I’ve seen here,” she said truthfully. There was an air of comfort in this house that did not exist in the town. It felt warmer here as well, but that might have been due to the general state of Teildip.
“And you, as a woman, do not see anything amiss with living here?” There was not bitterness in his light tone, but somehow his words were brittle.
“No,” she said. “And I think that…” Words failed her just then, and she turned away. There would be time for comfort when she learned to know him better. For now she had to become used to this new life before she could do anything. “I need something else to wear,” she said suddenly, mostly to herself. He went to a large round-topped chest on the floor and opened it, displaying cloth of many hues and textures, neatly rolled into bolts.
“Can you sew?” he asked. “I’ll never use any of this on myself.”
She smiled. “Can I sew?” she repeated. “I spent fourteen years of my life sewing for hours every day.”
“Good!” he said. “I’ll just move this whole thing to your room, then. And I’ll cook dinner tonight, just so you won’t ever ask me to do it again.”
She laughed. “I’ll carry the chest, you start cooking. I’m starved.”
Chapter 8 – Magic and Mayhem
And so the winter passed. En Shevil cleaned house, cooked meals, washed clothes, and sometimes fed goats. In making herself some new apparel she found she had no idea how to sew the kind of shirt she needed for this climate. When she told this to Axel he silently went into his room and brought back a faded and worn woman’s shirt of the type common to Spielburg, and she gratefully pulled it apart and used it for a pattern. Once she was clothed again (in bright colors reminiscent of Shapierian styles she could not quite leave behind), her Maruroha gear went into the chest at the foot of her bed and was half-forgotten, though at Axel’s insistence she grudgingly kept the swords strapped to her back. She so rarely left Endensol as to have almost forgotten an outer world existed, until Axel’s second trip into Sechburg during her time of employ brought disaster.
“Now you’re sure you don’t want to come with me,” he said again, and she nodded, not looking up from her stitching. “All right,” he said. “Could you have something hot for me when I return tomorrow?”
“Of course,” she said, shooting him a smile as he buttoned his coat and left the house. He was really a pleasant man to live with: always courteous and often amusing. She felt that in his company she might possibly learn to like even herself again. She looked up at the portrait above the fireplace and, for the thousandth time, wondered what kind of woman could have won Axel’s heart. Not that En Shevil was jealous, but there was some quality Axel had that she could not quite understand. Some greatness of mind that was above her own. She wondered if Katharine had possessed it as well.
The next day she cooked goat sausage falafel at around lunch time and kept it in a warm oven for his return. But he did not come. She fed the goats, played with Antwerp, and shook out the things in the closet, but still no Axel. She only began to worry when the sunlight filtering between the top of the stockade and the cave’s roof dimmed and only lamplight remained. Brow furrowed, she decided to venture out into the bowl and see what was going on.
Nights were chilly even in Teildip, and she took her cloak and a lantern as she left Endensol behind to look around, leaving Antwerp behind. Walking aimlessly into the forest, she moved silently away from Axel’s home through the dark trees, the steady flame of her light creating a show of shadow and movement with the trunks of the pines and aspens. She attempted to avoid the strong magical threads that wafted through her consciousness from Erana’s Grove, and soon found herself on the eastern side of the bowl. Taking a moment to step out of the trees onto the forlornly snowy mountain slope, she shivered with cold and an eerie sense of fear, and went back down. At the edge the trees were frosted, and the white needles glimmered with a thousand tiny sparkling points of color, at which she gazed curiously before passing on. Extensively as she’d seen it throughout Spielburg, snow would always be a wonder to her.
Finally assuming Axel had decided to stay in Sechburg another night, she headed back home. Halfway there she heard footsteps approaching her at a fast pace. She turned and, full of strange apprehension, waited for whoever it was. As Axel stepped into the reach of her lamplight she breathed more easily. “I was getting worried,” she said.
He smiled at her, though he looked a bit worn. “Let’s go,” he said quietly. “There are trolls out tonight.” Her eyes widened, and she followed him back towards Endensol at the brisk pace he set. Suddenly he stopped and turned to her, a finger to his lips. She listened, and to her dismay heard loud crashings that seemed to come from all around. “They’re not too close,” he said, though he didn’t sound certain. “We should make it home.”
Just then shapes appeared on all sides, massive forms converging on them, increasingly visible as they approached. Ugly faces and massive arms looking green in the lamplight, the trolls stood a moment looking down at them before attacking.
En Shevil, shocked as she was, failed to stop a backhand from one of her assailants, and her lamp went spinning out of her grasp. She heard the glass breaking and Axel crying out in pain, but had no time to turn and look at him. All her concentration was now spent on forcing herself to fight.
Her first kick did practically nothing to the troll. He would be bruised at the spot, but she could not drive him away in that manner. With a sinking heart she realized she would have to use her swords. She would have to kill. Drawing the weapons she again forced herself to move, flipping forward at a low level, slower than she would have liked due to her silly cloak, towards the troll who had hit her. Not expecting such an attack and unable to counter it, he went down, his mace dropping to the ground with a thud. She tripped over her cloak as she tried to regain a fighting stance, and sprawled to the ground, rolling away just in time to avoid the blade of a large two-headed axe that buried itself several inches deep in the turf where she had been. Standing, she slipped lithely under the troll’s arms as he dislodged his weapon, and killed him.
Throwing off her cloak she prepared to face another opponent just as she saw Axel fall with a club slammed into his belly. She sprang forward, flipping gracefully over her inert companion, and quickly slaying his attacker. Three more trolls remained, and they came at her as one. However, their tactics needed a bit of work, for she slid out from between them and stabbed one before they reacted. His body fell onto the other two who, while dealing with this encumbrance, died by her blades.
She looked around, panting. Eight bodies lay strewn over the moss and grass of the forest floor, nine if you counted Axel. Was it her imagination, or did she feel magic here? Her jaw dropped as she watched, for the troll forms vanished before her very eyes, fading away as if they had never been. Only the blood from their wounds and their dropped weapons remained as proof of the battle. Looking at Axel by her feet, she caught a quick breath as she fell to her knees. Why? she wondered mutely, gazing on her friend with tear-filled eyes. Why does this happen to me?
In an absolute panic she carried the man home, laying him on the deep rug before the fire in the main room. Quickly and with shaking hands she rebuilt the fire, clearly conscious only of the thought that heat might do him good. She had not the faintest idea how to treat any sort of hurt beyond a minor scrape. How had she dealt with wounds as Deathscar? Certainly she had received them. She shuddered and shook her head, trying not to think of the dark powers she must have used to heal herself. Antwerp bounced worriedly against her leg, and she ordered him into the bedroom. He, having grown surprisingly well-behaved in the last while, obeyed.
Once she looked at Axel’s stomach she determined, in her pathetically inexpert opinion, that there was nothing she could do for him. He seemed to have broken ribs, and his entire belly was a disgusting blackish-blue. There was also a burn and a few cuts on the side of his head and face, she guessed from the lamp striking him, but these meant nothing beside his other injury. She shook her head, tears coming to her eyes. She was doomed, it seemed, to be responsible for death through either abuse or neglect, and there was not a thing to do. She took Axel’s hand and waited.
Eventually she dozed, leaning up against the armchair on the edge of the rug, her neck cramping and her legs falling asleep with her. The pale light of the fire flickered lower every minute, and there was no sound to disturb her weary sorrow. But in her half-sleep she dreamed.
Axel lay before her, a grey featureless shape on a dim frosty plain. As she watched, his figure divided in two, a white form leaving and a black remaining. Panic filled her, and she seized at the spectral image’s hand, clutching at him and keeping him with her. You’re all I have left… She was unsure whether this thought had been hers or his, but she gripped his hand tightly, her grey fingers interlocked with his white ones. Hours passed — days, years, ages — she did not know how long she knelt before him, strength waning but never allowing him to leave her. Finally a noise jarred her awake, and she started up into the cold dark room.
The feeling of morning and heavy magic was about her, and she gasped as if the air were thick with dust. The sound came again, a pounding at the door that seemed overloud next to the silence of the last several hours. Stumbling up and between the furniture, she made her way through the blackness, fear clinging to her as she left the site of Axel’s death and the strange magic that had come over them during the night. Tugging the door open with a shaking hand, she was blinded as light streamed in and a figure spoke. “Good morning.”
“Ribbon!” En Shevil, clutching at the visitor whom she could not yet see. “Name of Iblis, you’re here!”
“What’s wrong?” asked the girl. Ribbon was the daughter of a Sechburg cloth merchant, and enjoyed taking long walks up to Teildip to wander the warm forest and visit Axel. Such excursions were naturally discouraged by her acquaintances, but she was never deterred, which seemed nothing short of a miracle to En Shevil at the present moment.
“I think Axel’s dead,” En Shevil said, pulling Ribbon into the room and leaving the door ajar.
“Dead?” echoed Ribbon. “What happened?” She followed this by something very unladylike as she saw the massive bruise that was Axel’s stomach. Falling to the floor beside him she took his pulse. “He’s not dead.” She ran her hand lightly over his stomach, closing her eyes, and En Shevil stepped back in alarm as she felt magic radiating from her visitor. “But… I don’t know how he’s alive.” She closed her eyes and spoke a few words. En Shevil cringed at the casting but stood still. “He’s got a lot of bleeding inside.” She worked another spell. “Bandages?”
“I’ll get some,” mumbled En Shevil, glad of any excuse to leave the room. She had never seen any sort of medical items in Endensol, other than the heavy ones used for the goats, so she opened the door to Axel’s room. She hastily seized his matches and lit his lamp, knowing she would not get anywhere floundering about in the shadows. Not that she really wanted to invade his privacy like this in the first place.
Her eyes fell immediately on the picture standing on the dresser, and despite her haste she paused to look at it. Again extremely well done, with fine detail painted by a careful hand, it bore unlike the larger a caption: Waltraud Katharine Zimmersonn. Zimmersonn was Axel’s surname of course, and En Shevil wasn’t surprised that with a name like Waltraud she’d chosen to go by Katharine. She crinkled her brow. Where had she heard that name before anyway? She shook her head and pulled open the top drawer.
Eventually she located a wooden, rusty-hinged box full of bandages and took it back to Ribbon, pondering what else she had seen in those drawers, though it had been mostly clothing. She had also found a few keepsakes: a jewelry box, its top beautifully painted; a silver band bearing Axel’s engraved name with symbols of love around it, to which she assumed there was a now-buried match; a dried bouquet that sent up a sweet smell as she touched it. All further proof of how dearly Axel had loved his wife.
Ribbon was still using magic. “Is there anything I can do?” asked En Shevil, hoping guiltily that she would say no.
The girl looked up at her earnestly, and said in a serious tone, “You’ve done enough already.”
Wondering what she meant by that, En Shevil said, “I have to feed the goats.” She wanted to hit herself then, of course, for such a callous remark. “Will he live?” she asked.
“Yes, I think he will. You do whatever you have to do.”
En Shevil went about her tasks with trembling hands. She changed out of her sweaty, wrinkled, bloodspattered clothes, brushed and tied her hair. With Antwerp accompanying her she threw out the spoiled food from last night and went to care for the goats. They were all well, she was glad to see. She hesitated before leading them from the keep though, wondering how Ribbon would get on. But she finally decided the girl had spent enough time there even during En Shevil’s time to know the house. She opened the door and led them into the forest.
The western meadow she usually avoided because it was close to Erana’s Grove, but today she went there because it was also closer to Endensol — in case Ribbon should need her. It would be a slow, lengthy day no matter what happened. She sat in the long grass watching the goats who were ill-pleased to be cooped up in a forest while the snow lay on the mountain, trying to ignore the magic from the Grove, and worrying about Axel. If he died it would be nobody’s fault, she told herself. But of course it was a lie.
She must have fallen asleep, for when she awoke it was near dusk and time to return the goats, half of which had wandered off. Antwerp bounced into the forest to round them up while she called, the other goats bleating agreement, and when their full number was again congregated she headed back for Endensol.
Walking into the room again was like entering a burning building, magic clogging the air like smoke and making her skin crawl. Ribbon sat in an armchair asleep, and Antwerp bounced over and started playing with her hand that dangled over the arm. She awoke with a start and looked around. “En Shevil,” she said.
“How is he?” asked the latter.
“He’ll live,” said Ribbon. “You got him through the worst of it.”
“What do you mean?” asked the other. “You said something like that earlier too.”
“I mean you held him here when he should have died. You have strong magic.”
“No,” En Shevil said. “No. I don’t.”
“I know how you feel about it, but someday you’re going to have to admit that you have magic!”
“But you saved his life. Without you, he would have died.”
“No. You saved his life.”
“True. But he would have been dead when I came if you hadn’t…”
“I don’t want to argue with you,” said En Shevil, staring down at Axel. “What am I supposed to do with him now?”
“Keep him warm, give him only liquids to eat and a lot of them. And above all, don’t let him move. He shouldn’t be walking for at least a week, and then only a small bit.”
“All right. Thank you, Ribbon.”
“I have to get back to town or Detlev will come looking for me.” Ribbon was engaged to the innkeeper’s son. “He’s absolutely terrified that I’ll get kidnapped by trolls or something, and he never stops worrying unless I drop by his place whenever I go for a walk.” En Shevil looked at her worriedly. Detlev had seemed a good type to her, but this sounded a bit strange. “Oh, he’s not controlling me or anything. He’s just heard all the rumors.”
“Oh, you know, the ones about… people… getting carried off by trolls and things.”
“I haven’t heard those.”
“Remind me to tell you next time I come. They’re silly.” She opened the door and gave En Shevil the same earnest look she had earlier. “You can’t keep denying your power,” she said, and was gone.
The events of that day were important not only for our heroine but also our Hero, each lost as they were in the deepest cold of their respective winters. “I can’t bear to see a woman trapped like that,” Achim muttered, his reflections rather painful as he drew comparisons that probably weren’t any more logical than they were healthy. He approached the cage. The rain tore down between the thick bars, drenching the unfortunate leopardwoman as she sat, chin on knees, bearing it as best she could. The wind steadily beating at her back, the miserable-looking woman did not turn her head towards him, though her eyes were open. “I can’t stand that,” he said, and the guard on the opposite side rolled his eyes in Achim’s direction.
Finally, in an impulsive moment, the prince removed his cloak and draped it swiftly over the cage’s windward side, efficiently barring the prisoner from the effects of the weather. Startled, she moved and looked at him, but he was already walking away.
Later he was summoned to stand before the laibon, who gazed sternly down at the Hero, his feather-framed visage somewhat intimidating. “Why have you sought to give our enemy comfort, friend of Rakeesh?” the Simbani leader asked.
Frustrated, Achim replied. “Oh, how do you expect her to tell you anything if you’re so cruel to her? Keeping her in a cage like that, in the rain — what exactly do you think you’re going to get out of her?”
“The Leopardman be sneaky, the Simbani be direct. We do not bring words from her with tricks.”
“Tricks? Trying to save her from this…” he bit his tongue momentarily, “this rain is a trick? I’d call it common courtesy myself, but I’m just an ignorant Hero.”
“The Leopardmen will not meet the Simbani with fairness; why should we meet them with courtesy?”
“How do you know?” cried Achim. “How do you know any of this? You have no idea they stole your stupid spear, or who she is, or what she wants — why don’t you talk to them?”
“The worth of the spear…” began the laibon, but Achim interrupted him.
“I don’t care! We’re talking about lives here! Lives that don’t need to end! Your stupid, stupid war is going to kill innocents and heal nothing. If you fight now, your people will forever be at war with the Leopardmen. Every one of your people as well as theirs is loved by someone. What will it be like, then, for those who survive?” Having little more to say, and less inclination to say it, the prince stalked out of the hut before the laibon could speak further.
That night, using every possible bit of stealth he possessed, he crept up behind the staunch Simbani at his post beside the forlorn captive. Smoothly he tugged the streaming cloak free from the cage and draped it over the drum he held under his arm; then he pulled at the simple latch and threw the cage-door open.
Not waiting to see the results of his actions, he took to his heels, tearing away from the place at the highest speed he could command. Though he could barely see through the gushing nighttime torrents, he managed to vacate the village without any sign of pursuit, heading past the night-watch and southward towards the Pool of Peace. He slowed once he was well beyond the walls of the village, wrapping the Drum of Magic more securely in the zebra skin. Perhaps he had just made a mistake, but there was no turning back now.
In Sechburg, more specifically in Endensol, the next few days were filled with a vague sense of guilt dependent upon the irrational fear of Axel’s death. This was a strange feeling which En Shevil attempted to push aside, simultaneously telling herself that she deserved it. But Axel grew better, as far as she could tell, regaining consciousness and, to a certain extent, lucidity after about the first day.
Later, he requested that she bring to him the wooden box standing beside his bed. “What is it?” En Shevil asked suspiciously, for he had been constantly trying to overexert himself since he’d awakened.
“Paints,” he responded. “It’s about… all I can do… in this… position.” His voice was soft and all his sentences broken because to draw breath pained him.
“Are you sure it won’t…”
“Very well,” she said doubtfully, and went to fetch the box. “Did you do those pictures of your wife?” she asked as she set it down beside him.
“Yes,” he said.
“You are a very good artist,” she said admiringly, viewing the portrait above with a new eye. He did not respond, and after building up the fire again she went to feed the goats. She worried about Axel, but with the cougars that stayed in Teildip for the winter as alternative to hibernation she could not leave the goats alone. Soon winter would be over. She tried not to think about the temptation of clear mountainside, the snows gone, but her dreams were haunted less with death and more with a handsome blonde whom she desperately wanted to see again. She could not leave her friend, however.
She feared he would never regain his full health after this: though his ribs and stomach would heal, he would be weak; and also he had found some kind of illness she could not identify, making him cough (which eventually made him bleed internally) unless he was kept very warm. It was for this, as well as her personal convenience in tending him, that had induced her to keep him on the makeshift bed of rugs, blankets, and pillows before the great fire in the main room rather than move him to his own chamber with its small hearth.
And now he painted, with a small easel, like a picture frame holding a square of canvas tightly, standing on the floor to his right. She never knew what the picture was because she never looked, but he was lost to all conversation from the moment he picked up his brush. If she wished to speak with him she must wait until he dropped his arm from weariness and leaned back against his high-stacked cushions, eyes closed.
Meanwhile, every day En Shevil cooked him soup, kept him from hurting himself, helped him (staunchly refusing to blush) to bathe and into a change of clothing, and washed his bedding. Other than that she had only to pasture the goats (which took nearly the whole day) and feed the geese. Ribbon paid her a brief visit once to confirm Axel’s continued existence, but left soon after she arrived to meet Detlev for a romantic moonlight walk home. Even though it was not yet sunset. En Shevil, jealous, sighed as she watched the younger girl go, and returned to the side of her sleeping friend.
Ribbon came again, a week later, and stayed for supper. En Shevil didn’t really enjoy her company, but was still eternally grateful to her for saving Axel when En Shevil hadn’t been able to do a thing. After they’d eaten, sitting around the fire so Axel wouldn’t feel neglected, Ribbon stood. “I’m meeting Detlev again,” she said, “so I must leave.”
With another twinge of jealousy En Shevil asked, “Do you do this walk thing often?”
“Not in the middle of winter. He doesn’t like the cold.” En Shevil wanted to laugh at these ridiculous Spielburg people who thought this freezing pseudo-spring weather was warm, but did not.
“Have fun,” she said, and Ribbon left.
En Shevil then cleaned up from dinner while Axel painted. “Finished,” the latter suddenly announced, and though calmly, yet with a growing excitement she could sense. “Come see,” he bade her, never removing his eyes from his work. She wondered at his emotion, and came to look. “When I finish a picture I become, for a time, obsessed with it and must stare at it repeatedly. It is my one source of true joy. Arrogant, I know, but every man takes pride in his talents.”
En Shevil, who had been studying the superior picture and not really paying attention, marked this last and tried not to think about it. She looked again to the painting. It showed a lovely and fine-featured lady in rough peasant’s garb, standing with folded arms and her back to a full washtub, complete with scrubbing board. On a wall-peg behind her hung a brilliant green gown of excellent make, embroidered in detail, bestudded with white gems, and perfectly suited for the young woman’s complexion and figure. The lower hem was at least two inches stained with something reddish brown, as if the wearer had once waded through mud, now long since dried. “It’s you,” Axel laughed, breaking into a mild fit of coughing before he could continue. “It’s you, not wanting to do the wash.”
She looked again at the depicted maiden, noted the stubborn expression on the face, and laughed as well. “All right,” she said, amused, and would have continued but for the knock at the door.
“Ribbon?” wondered Axel idly as En Shevil went to see.
Detlev Sonders stood without, his hands behind his back. “Is Ribbon here?” he asked.
En Shevil felt immediately the cold heat of fear. “No, she left a while ago.”
“There are trolls about,” said Axel then, his voice like stone. En Shevil shivered; how he knew about the trolls she had no idea, but she did not doubt him.
Detlev swore faintly, his face more pale and terror-stricken than anything she had ever seen. He swayed slightly, then spun and ran away, leaving scattered flowers on the ground outside Axel’s door. En Shevil took off after him, seizing him by the shoulder. He struggled to escape her, so she laid hold of his arms. “Let go!” he said almost pleadingly. “I have to find her!”
“No. I will. You stay here with Axel.”
“But how can you…” he began as she dragged him back to the house.
“You just watch,” she said grimly, realizing she would have to give him hard evidence of her rescuing abilities before she could safely leave him with Axel. Pushing him roughly into a chair, she suddenly stopped. “Can’t Ribbon’s magic protect her?”
“She’s a healer, not a fighter,” said Detlev. “And she gets frightened easily.”
En Shevil shook her head and went into her room, scrambling for her Maruroha gear. This felt stupid, as if she were dressing up for a party — what a waste of terribly precious time! But if Detlev tried to catch or fight trolls she would have two townspeople to rescue. She only hoped she wasn’t already too late for the first.
Detlev’s eyes widened as she stepped from the bedroom in her warrior’s weeds, but her gaze went to Axel’s face, for it had blanched to such a degree as to worry her. “Detlev,” she said brusquely, “warm up the soup on the stove and feed him. I’ll make sure Ribbon’s safe. I promise.”
“Can you…” he faltered.
“I can. Stay here.” She raced out the door into dusk.
Not stopping for a lamp, she sped out of Endensol into the woods. The dimming light was not a problem, but Axel’s ability to sense trolls in his valley would have been useful. She ceased movement and listened, knowing the bowl’s propensity for silence, but heard nothing. Apprehension and a sudden doubt in her own powers filled her. What if Ribbon should die? But Ribbon had saved Axel’s life, and so to fail her was to fail him. And she had just promised Detlev, Ribbon’s fiancée, which made her fairly near beholden to Uwin and Elaine and the rest of them. Eventually, she realized, she would be letting down practically all of Sechburg with the death of the cloth merchant’s daughter.
Without discernable purpose, she ran to the east and north. Axel had mentioned a troll fortress of some sort in this direction, and thither, if they did indeed have her, En Shevil guessed they would take the girl, to wreak upon her whatever evil such creatures of low intellect might devise. That is, if they had not simply killed her already. A coldly optimistic thought threaded its way through En Shevil’s head: what if Ribbon were safe to begin with? She would be making quite a fool of herself chasing after trolls in the dark. But she didn’t have much of a choice.
The snows of late winter were shallow and wet, stretching in an oft-broken expanse of white up the mountainside. She looked again, noting the nature of the smaller breaks. Footprints, too large and separated to be human, went upwards into the growing darkness. As she looked at them she guessed at three or four trolls, but peering up the frosty vista, seeing white lumps of boulders and the occasional pine tree, she could make out no sign of any personage. A raspy scream met her ears, and she began to run once more, her mind full of the things that stupid, mischievous young trolls might do with a female human in their power.
Finally she overtook them. The skirmish was more of a slaughter, but she managed to keep her cool throughout by detaching her thoughts from the process of killing and letting her instincts and training do the work. Ribbon had been thrown to the ground by her bearer at En Shevil’s first assault, and now after the last troll had fallen in a mist of blood to the Maruroha’s twin blades she lay in a heap crying pitifully. En Shevil knelt in the snow, regardless of its soaking through her pants, beside the shuddering creature and touched her shoulder.
Ribbon flew at her, clinging like an infant and clawing her with clenching fingers. Her words came out in a terrified slur, completely unintelligible and punctuated by quick, deep gasps. “Ribbon,” said En Shevil gently, but the girl did not quiet. “Ribbon!” Though the heat of her exercise was fading but slowly, a stabbing gust of frigid air made her skin prickle, and Ribbon gasped in the midst of her hysterics. Her heavy cloak was gone, and her dress seemed torn in several places. “Ribbon,” said En Shevil a third time, “We need to go. It’s freezing.”
Ribbon tried once again to say something, waving her hands randomly in the air. En Shevil climbed to her feet and helped Ribbon up as well. The healer buried her face in the warrior’s shoulder as they began to walk. Then they heard from above them the unmistakable sound of heavy footsteps descending, rough voices laughing harshly and speaking in some crude language. Ribbon moaned in fear and her hands clenched like vises on En Shevil’s arm.
The latter woman knew that with Ribbon the way she was, it would not be long before the trolls discovered them. Assuming also that Ribbon in this state could not run very fast, and taking into account the distance between them and safety, she wondered for a moment if she could get out of this with the girl’s sanity still in tact. “Ribbon,” she said softly, “I want you to try and be quiet.” With that she slung the other over her shoulder like a full sack and sped off down the hill. Ribbon screamed, and En Shevil thought that this was perhaps the way the troll had carried her (although he, most likely, with far more ease, due to his size).
After a moment there were angry cries behind them, and En Shevil guessed the approaching vulgarities had sped up at the sound and found their comrades’ dead bodies. She had but a little time to get back to the bowl before they would be on her. She was not afraid of battle, but of what effect more bloodshed might have on Ribbon’s mind. But then, perhaps not everyone went crazy when… but that was fruitless.
She was not used to added weight on only one shoulder when running down a slippery mountain, dodging rocks and trees and pursued by trolls. After a few moments she slipped, her ankle twisting and her feet crumpling under her as she and Ribbon crashed to the ground and went sliding painfully over a myriad of stones at least seven yards into the lee of a great boulder. It was this that caused the trolls to miss them entirely, running past at great speed as En Shevil pulled herself achingly over to Ribbon’s side a few feet away. “It surely would help if you could get a grip,” she muttered, standing up after she’d ascertained that Ribbon was less hurt than she was. “Come on. We can’t stay here.”
Ribbon looked around with blank, timorous eyes, still weeping with abandon. En Shevil sighed her frustration and once again picked the other girl up and restarted in a westerly direction to avoid the trolls. Oh, that ankle hurt! She reached Teildip without incident, Ribbon still crying and giving the occasional wail or harsh scream when her courier stumbled. And not surprisingly, the trolls were onto them before long, blocking effectively, though doubtless not intentionally, their way to Endensol. She ran the other direction.
Wonderful, she thought. Here I am with trolls after me, a hysterical girl over my shoulder, and only one place in the entire forest I can take her. She continued running, heading for Erana’s Grove.
It was round, a perfect circle of straight, close-set trees forming almost a wall around it. A slight hill rose up in the center, moss-covered and soft, and around the interior of the trees was a sweep of impossibly large, brilliantly-colored mushrooms. They were set in a rainbow pattern, and as she followed their melting, glowing colors with her eyes she lost track of how many times she’d looked around the circle before she stopped. Throwing Ribbon down on the ground in the midst of them none too gently, she knelt beside the girl and seized her shoulders. “Ribbon,” she said, but with little coherent response. “Ribbon!” She stood, walking over to the mushroom ring to wait until the girl decided to calm down.
She stooped, grasping the off-white stem of a huge green-topped mushroom. Somehow, she reflected, the magic didn’t feel so bad once she was actually inside it. She broke off the mushroom’s cap, which was wider than the palm of her hand, and bit into it. It was a nice earthy taste, but hard to think about when her ankle hurt the way it did.
Ribbon’s wild crying having faded to a slight whimpering, En Shevil turned again and looked at her. “Ribbon,” she said. “I want you to stay here. You’re safe here, but if you leave this circle you’re likely to get killed.”
“Leaving me?” the other gasped, and En Shevil’s heart rose to hear her speak so intelligently.
“Just for a little while. I’ll be back soon to take you to town, or Endensol.” No need to tell her where she was going.
“I have to. Don’t worry. Erana will keep you safe.” She gestured to the mushrooms. “And if you’re hungry…” While Ribbon was looking over at the mushrooms, En Shevil slipped quietly out of the circle. She made the quickest, most direct path away from Erana’s Grove towards Endensol, killing two trolls on the way. “Ribbon’s safe,” she said as she burst through the door of the house. “There are still trolls about, so don’t leave. I’m going to…” Should she tell them her plans? No, they would worry too much. “I’m going to drive them away; and then I’ll come back. Build up that fire!” She was giving all too many orders tonight, she felt.
The troll fortress was easily found when she followed the tracks of Ribbon’s captors to where they met the tracks of the other trolls and continued. Like Axel’s home, it was a walled-off cave, this one of massive size. However, for the less intellectual trolls there was no magically locked door, only a massive gate far too large to break down. This was no trouble, for she simply climbed the wall and squeezed through the space at the top.
Using her thief’s instincts she sneaked up on the inattentive guard, putting her swords through his heart and throat before he was able to alert the others. Creeping around the sharp turn she followed the left-hand passage in a choice of two into a lower, darker room. In the doorway stood three more trolls bickering over something inconsequential. Breathlessly creeping towards them, she tried not to understand their vulgar speech. It was just as well that she killed them quickly.
She felt Deathscar stirring restlessly inside her, and concentrated on not thinking about what she did. By cutting herself off from the sweet rush of death she made the experience boring. Sneak, stab, sneak, stab, with the occasional skirmish thrown in. Altogether the trolls were not expecting any sort of attack and died complacently. She did not like to kill them all, but there really was no other choice. There must be no more kidnappings in Sechburg. Finally, when they were all dead and the floor was red under her feet, she determined she must burn the place to prevent its being used as a fortress again. She decided first to look for anything valuable that they might have owned, for she had seen several chests and strongboxes tucked away in alcoves of the extensive caverns. Upon examining them she found that every one had a broken lock, and doubted very much the existence of individual ownership amongst these stupid people.
As she inspected the first rancid container, mostly filled with things better not mentioned, more trolls showed up. She killed them, fighting Deathscar every bit as much as the trolls. After the engagement, she leaned back against the wall clutching her side, which was bruised and bleeding, her clothing torn, both from her long mountain slide and the three or four battles of the night. She hoped there would be no more, for the wild killing lust inside her was awakening and beginning to rage. She realized, though, that at the same time she was using her fighting abilities for something at least relatively good. Confused, she returned to her search.
The second chest held little more than the first, and by the third she was ready to give up. However, the next, small strongbox she found was heavy with coin. She dug through it, trying to ignore the building stench of blood that mixed with the already disturbing scent of troll-at-home, which included several very smoky fires. Her hand met something of not quite the same make as the golds, silvers, and coppers, and she pulled it forth. It was a silver band — a bracelet — reading on the inward side, “Waltraud Katherine Zimmerson.”
She stared at it, the world disappearing around her and an endless succession of cold shivers running down her back. So, this was how Axel’s wife had died. Words he had said became painfully clear. A hideous fear, paralyzing, filled her with no cause, and for several minutes she knelt there in the midst of the smoke and the blood, her wounds throbbing in her side and her ankle throbbing underneath her. Finally she replaced the bracelet in the chest and turned to a much more unpleasant task.
Having burned the trolls’ remaining firewood as well as their bodies, she brought the last sparks of her victory to the wall itself, destroying the last of the fortress entirely. She killed a few more trolls on the way out, and with the heavy strongbox on her shoulder made her weary way back to Endensol.
The next morning she was awakened by a mad pounding on the door. Her first thought was, How do so many people know the gate password? Naturally Ribbon and Detlev… She sprang up and instantly regretted it: every inch of her body ached like never before and she nearly fell over as she put weight on her twisted ankle. Moving very slowly, she opened the front door.
Uwin, Elaine, Detlev’s sister Dane and two of her eight children, as well as Ribbon’s parents piled into the room. “Detlev and Ribbon didn’t come back last night,” Uwin said grimly, and En Shevil wondered if it were only his son’s physical safety for which he feared. “We thought we’d ask here before we formed a search party.”
So this isn’t a search party? She’d put Ribbon in her room last night, and Detlev in Axel’s, and now she chose her words carefully, not wanting to worry anyone more than was needed. “We had a little problem with trolls last night, and they had to stay here.” Silence ensued, and she realized they were all looking at her attire. Glancing down unnecessarily she saw that she was still wearing her Maruroha garments as she had when she’d collapsed into the chair last night after bringing Ribbon back. Torn and greatly bloodstained, it showed her bruised and opened skin in many places down the side.
“Where is she?” asked the cloth merchant’s wife with all the intensity of a mother who thinks the world is coming to an end.
“You should let her rest,” said En Shevil, putting her off.
“Where is my daughter?” the woman shouted, her tone desperately urgent.
“I really don’t think…” En Shevil began, and then everyone started talking at once. Some wanted to know where Ribbon was, some said they should trust En Shevil, and all begged to hear the story of the previous night, especially Detlev’s twin ten-year-old nephews.
A door creaked open, and a second silence filled the room as they looked at Ribbon, her apparel far worse than En Shevil’s. The girl gave a sob and rushed into her mother’s arms. The noise began again doubly loud, and En Shevil resumed her place in the chair with Axel at her feet. Her glance met with the chest beside her, the strong box from the troll cave, and she remembered the silver bracelet. She knelt, feeling bruises on her knees, and opened the chest, drawing the band out.
Axel mumbled something and awoke. “What’s this?” she heard him say from behind her, his words most likely in reference to the crowd in his house. Turning, she kept the wristlet concealed beside her.
“I found this in the trolls’ fortress last night,” she said.
“You went to the troll for-” He saw what she held, and sluggishly reached out a hand for it. Almost hesitantly he closed his fingers around the treasure and took it. “You have avenged her,” he whispered.
“I killed them all,” she replied in like tone, “and burned their place.”
He looked at her in wonder. “Who are you?”
Her fingers crept to the scar on her lips. “I am she who was called Deathscar,” she said.
For several moments he continued to stare at her face. Then he sat up and threw his arms around her, weeping almost inaudibly, pressing her bruises and rubbing the chafing cloth of her oron against her raw skin. He clasped her tightly for some time and did not release her until someone spoke her name.
“En Shevil,” Ribbon repeated as she climbed slowly to her foot (the other she kept a little above the floor). The girl left her mother’s protective embrace to hug the warrior, to the latter’s further discomfort and probably Ribbon’s as well. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
“It’s fine,” said En Shevil. “But why wasn’t something done about the trolls earlier?”
The townspeople all looked at the floor. Nobody answered. It was finally Axel who spoke. “When Katharine disappeared, I asked the town to help me destroy the trolls’ fortress. Trolls had never been seen on Rustinmount before, and they thought I was crazy. There were also a lot of strangers moving through Milau at the time, and the general belief was that Katharine had tired of Endensol, run off, and thrown in with them.”
“Not everyone thought that,” said Karl, Ribbon’s father, quietly. “Old Angeldorf — her father — never really had all his wits, still to this day thinks she’s lost on the mountain somewhere.”
Uwin’s face held its typical starry-eyed expression, and he broke the trance long enough to say, “I’m sorry, Axel,” then returned.
“Even when Ribbon told us about your fight, we only half-believed in trolls and didn’t take much heed,” said Karl.
No one spoke for long moments. Finally Ribbon, who had returned to her mother, said, “I want to go home.”
You’re not the only one, was En Shevil’s inadvertent thought. She wondered what Achim was doing. “I’ll wake Detlev,” she said. She was brimful of slender annoyance at nobody in specific, more a restlessness than an emotion. Katharine might have been saved if it hadn’t been for the stubbornness of the Sechburg people. Had Diande had anything to do with that? Not only this, but En Shevil hadn’t seen the man she loved in months. “Good morning,” she said loudly towards the pile of bedding that was the innkeeper’s son.
He started up with a gasp. Last night when she’d returned she’d found him half-distracted, alone with a sleeping Axel and his endless thoughts to wonder what would become of his fiancée. His nervousness had apparently not yet worn off. “Ribbon’s going home; I assume you want to go with her.”
He sprang from the bed, seized his boots from their haphazard position on a chair, and ran into the common room, where the noise immediately recommenced. En Shevil followed sedately and dropped once more into a chair beside Axel. They listened to the chatter and hesitant laughter, and finally Axel remarked, “You’ve changed.”
“I hope so,” she replied.
“We’ve got to leave,” said Uwin. “We’ve go to get some men to deal with these trolls. And make sure they believe… us… this time.”
“Oh,” she said, jumping up (which was stupid). “Didn’t I mention that?” She took great pleasure in her next words, for what reason she knew not, though feared Deathscar had some part in it. “I did that last night. They won’t bother anyone again.”
“Destroyed their entire fortress.”
Here was the third long silence of the morning. In their eyes she saw awe and respect, and in Uwin’s intensely thoughtful gaze a new understanding.
“Come to Sechburg,” said Ribbon.
“The burgomaster will want to reward you,” said Karl.
“I’d like to,” she said, “but I’ve got things to do up here, and there’s Axel.” She gestured as she spoke. Why don’t they just leave?
“We’ll find some way to reward you,” said Karl sincerely.
“Fine,” she almost snapped. “I’ll be in town again soon enough.”
Finally they left. She sat down, leaning her head back and trying to rest before she even thought about getting herself cleaned up.
“You told me you weren’t a warrior anymore,” said Axel in a mild, thoughtful tone.
“I lied,” she said, eyes closed.
Later that day, in a far warmer setting, Rakeesh dropped down beside Achim’s prostrate form on a sunny rooftop. “You must find it pleasant simply to relax,” he said. The prince sighed and rolled over, sitting up.
“Yes, I suppose so,” he said at last. “Being ‘Hero of Tarna’ on top of everything else is getting tiring. The parties are fun, but I will need to go home sooner or later.”
“To which home do you refer?” Rakeesh’s brow lowered as he followed Achim’s face after this remark; it had touched a bitter chord somehow, and the liontaur assumed he knew what it was.
“Shapier,” he said quietly. “It’s been a long time since I had much of a home in Spielburg, but I have a definite place in Shapier. The sultan plunged me into administrative business so quick it made my head spin, but now I’m almost anxious to return.”
Rakeesh knew that there was more reason for this than that the prince had become accustomed to activity, and felt he must say something. “Your pain will ease over time.”
“I know. I just don’t understand how…” He waved a hand in the air, pulled his knees up to his chin, and let out a long breath.
“We cannot understand,” said the Paladin. “We can never understand. And even if we put ourselves in her situation we cannot say we would or would not have done the same thing, not without the emotion to temper the decision. Nor can we judge her for it.” He fell silent, looking as did the prince over the bright savanna, glowing in the red light of a massive sunset. Achim’s eyes crept to the long triple scar across his arm where his skin had been ripped by liontaur claws as he fumbled for a dispel potion in a lost city. He could not help but think of her when he saw it — think of the scars on her forearms, the pain in her eyes when she spoke. She had been haunted, lost, and now she was gone. He stood abruptly and turned from the dusky splendor of the horizon, letting the heat warm his back.
“I–” he began, but never finished. For just then something gripped him, so powerful and intense that he writhed under its influence. The world went black around him, tiny stars lighting his way into unconsciousness. Rakeesh, who had jumped up at the first tingle of danger, rushed to the prince’s side, reached out to grasp the Hero. But Achim was gone with a flash of light that left the liontaur blinded for several moments.
“Dark magic,” he murmured to the air. How was he going to explain this to his brother?
The runoff from higher up the mountains saturated the ground, making it impossible to sit. The goats were discontented as well, as she and Antwerp prowled the east meadow. Not that she liked walking any more than sitting, being as sore as she was and her ankle being so tender, but having her pants soaked was equally disagreeable and not nearly as healthy. A shadow of her old thought circle had returned as she went over last night again and again. What right had she had to do what she’d done? The prospect of having been in the wrong did not particularly frighten her, for she knew what it felt like to have misbehaved without another choice; at least this time she’d consciously acted in response to someone else’s needs rather than instinctively to her own sadistic hungers. Surely that must justify some of the deaths she had caused last night. But had she reawakened Deathscar? That was the most important question in her mind.
At any rate, either because she had become hardened to guilt or because her tattered emotions were learning by evasion to avoid its effects, her thoughts left the trail for a fairer one and she began to think about Achim. She remembered what she knew of his history:
Born in the northeast of Spielburg… where? An orphan child, he’d been practically raised in the thieves’ guild of his town, and there he’d earned his bread until, though he must by that time have been fairly high up in the unsavory ranks, he’d become an apprentice… what had it been? He’d only mentioned that part briefly and hadn’t given his age, though apprenticeships usually began in the early teens. Somehow he’d applied to the F.A.C.S. and eventually graduated, at which point he’d grown bored of his town and position and gone out as an adventurer, even though he must have been almost old enough to make journeyman. Then of course he’d found his way to the valley that gave name to this disjointed country that swore its loose allegiance to the noble line of the barony and was lucky no nearby countries were warlike. He’d mentioned some minor adventure on the way to rescue Stefan’s children, but hadn’t told her about it; she guessed its outcome had not been favorable.
Then after he’d become Hero of Spielburg he’d come to Shapier… where he’d met her. And what had she done to him? Almost destroyed him, perhaps. She thought she had a vague memory of him detailing his victory in Rasier, while they’d walked in a forest that now seemed dark in her recollection, but she could not fill in his Shapierian story. But he must be the Hero of Shapier by now, whether officially or not. She hoped the Sultan had rewarded him well for… whatever he’d done. And now he was in Tarna, being a Hero there. Maybe with Rakeesh. Where would he go next? Would he ever think of her? She was dead to him, but what she wouldn’t give to see him again…
She breathed deeply, feeling the peculiar pressing on the inside of her ribcage, an old, odd, throbbing, aphysical desire for what she knew not. It was then she realized that, not matter what she’d done to him, what he thought of her, or what new person she’d made of herself here, she had to see him again. She hadn’t been able to kill Deathscar in Sechburg, but at least now she had a reason to let them both live for a time longer. She would have to tell Axel. She knew, though, with a pang of very mild, quickly-repressed annoyance, that she would not let herself leave until he was taken care of.
Such thoughts, comparatively cheerful, kept her company more than uncommunicative Antwerp on the way back to Endensol. She put the goats away, and went inside to get a hot drink and join Axel where he sat in the main room. They went for some time thus without speaking, she staring at the portrait over the hearth and he turning the silver bracelet over and over in his hands. Finally he spoke. “You’re leaving.”
“Where will you go?”
“I’ve never been out of the Lost Towns. There was never a need.”
“For seventeen years I stayed in Shapier,” she said with a sigh, thinking of her parents. “If my hair weren’t blonde I’d be there still.” She gave a slight chuckle and waited for the inevitable question, but he was apparently determined not to pry and said nothing. After a moment she continued. “As I told you, I was once a thief, and being one of maybe four blondes in the whole city makes you pretty recognizable, even in a dark room.”
He apparently took her meaning. “So you decided to travel?” he guessed.
“Not really. I went to…” She chose to leave out the embarrassing details. “…Rasier, and through something I haven’t figured out yet got transported far away.”
“Where?” he asked when she did not continued. He was clearly fascinated by her history.
“Itsumo Kawai.” He shook his head to show his lack of recognition. “It’s an archipelago southward of the Punjabi coast; people on the mainland say it Ytsomo Kwai.”
“And Punjabi is to the east of Shapier?” he said with his brow crinkled.
“Yes. Shapier is in the greater land of Fricana, and the lands of Inja lie to its east. Punjabi is one of them. Itsumo Kawai is leagues out to sea, very isolated.” She sighed from some subconscious realization that presently surfaced: she was going to tell Axel the entire story, which meant talking about things she would rather forget. “I learned the Maruroharyuu in a school there and something…”
She fell silent abruptly, staring into the dying fire as if in its embers she saw the smoldering relics of everything she’d lost. Like a poison ponderously creeping through her blood came over her a stilling depression, congealing her emotions and enervating her will. This is eternal, it told her: this dying light of a fire you can never be again, this cold sorrow.
Axel stood suddenly and threw a loose-barked log onto the hearth. After a moment the flames swelled once again, forcing her melancholy into retreat like a night-loving creature at the touch of dawn. But as it fled it sent out a parting shot: Without me, nothing is real… Thus she was left with a strange fantastic sense of the room being disproportionate around her, and a resultant desire for the depression to return. This confusing ring of emotion was going to destroy her unless she defeated it first. How she wished she could simply cast it into the fire! But would even dragon fire avail against such a nonsensical web? She shook her pained head — too many symbols.
Axel had returned to his chair, and obviously wanted to hear more. She did not remember where she’d left off until he prompted, “Something?”
She looked at him, following the ghostly flickering golden light up his haunted face out into the shadow-ballroom beyond. “Something drove me crazy,” she said at last. “I don’t know what, though I have my guesses. I killed some people, and forced a ship captain to take me from the island. I wanted to get away from something there, but I still don’t know what it was. And then… I’m sure you’ve heard… through Punjabi, Avva’rel, and Spielburg until Achim found me.”
“You l–what happened then?” She stared at him, her gaze sharpening. What had he been about to say? He knew she would continue; there was no need for such urging. And why had he looked so thoughtfully surprised at the mention of Achim’s name?
“He had Erasmus cure me of insanity. Then, so he wouldn’t have to drag me around with him, I faked suicide.”
“So he thinks you died,” Axel said, totally deadpan. There was something behind that remark, but En Shevil could not tell what it was. “Why are you here?”
“I thought I could kill Deathscar. She’s still here,” putting her hand on her breast, “not far inside.”
“And you have not succeeded.”
“No. I think I have…” This was hard to say. “I think I’ve come to grips with the fact that I am a warrior. But Deathscar still lives.”
“When Katharine died someone told me this: No matter how fast you run, you can never catch time that has already passed. You can only keep up with the time that is passing now.”
En Shevil did not understand, and said so.
“Perhaps this Deathscar you hunt is an illusion of the past — something that died in truth with your madness. Perhaps what is left for you now is to lose that past, and find a future.”
“Perhaps,” she said, appreciating the concern but knowing him to be wrong. The light was falling once more, and she roused herself before apathy could take her again. “I’d better start supper,” she said.
The next morning she was cooking breakfast as usual when there came a knock at the door. Axel, though well enough now to move about the house, still did not arise at his previously accustomed hour from the bed to which he’d at last returned. Since she simply could not leave eggs unattended on the stove and did not want to awaken her employer by shouting, she ignored the knock. This agitated her (she hated not answering a knock), but she had no choice. She heard the knob rattling as the visitor decided simply to enter and found their way locked. Wondering how long they were willing to wait she continued her task. Her cooking, though still not what she would have called good, had certainly improved, and she would not have her hard work spoiled by some impatient caller.
Finally she had the eggs finished, the meat strips laid out, and the sweet buns in the oven (she had still not mastered breadstuffs, and these did not look very appetizing). Of course, even after months of practice, she’d still managed to do things in the wrong order: the eggs and meat would be cold by the time the buns were done. She shook her head and went to the door.
Antwerp was bouncing lustily up against it. “Yes, I know,” she said as he moved out of the way, looking at her expectantly. Antwerp loved it when people came to the door.
Without stood a man she did not know. Rather portly, he had an indifferent-looking, somewhat ugly face adorned with a long grey, black-streaked beard. He was finely dressed, even for the relatively wealthy Sechburg people, and after a moment she realized from the medal-like pendant around his neck that this was the burgomaster himself.
Here she had a momentary confusion, for just as sometimes before, two respectful gestures came to mind immediately: the half-bow of Shapier, hands pressed together before her breast, and the full bow of Itsumo Kawai, hands clasped behind her back. As it was, she somewhat awkwardly bent her upper body forward and lowered her eyes.
The burgomaster stepped in quickly, followed by another, shorter man she did not know, and Ribbon’s parents. Wonderful, was En Shevil’s sarcastic thought. Here we go. “Good morning, sir,” she said.
“En Shevil of Shapier,” began the important one imperiously. “It has reached my ears that you, a stranger to our town, have done what no native has had the strength, will, or courage to accomplish: that is, destroying a group of loathsome and detestable trolls in the act of kidnapping one of our esteemed townspeople. Those men who went yesterday to inspect the scene of this most advantageous destruction have reported that your actions were well and succinctly done.” Men? Why hadn’t Axel mentioned that? “Moreover, besides having served the valley by this removal, you have also given present couple cause to rejoice at the prolonged life and safety of their daughter, one Ribbon by name. Thus, with the thanks of all Sechburg and on behalf of our good Kleiderbonnens, I now present you with this purse of fifteen golds for your deeds and extend to you an official invitation to a banquet in your honor to be held at the town hall on the evening after tomorrow.”
En Shevil was now speechless, only because she was unused to such verbosity from a visitor who hadn’t even been offered a seat yet. She received the heavy purse from the man she now guessed to be an aide of some sort, and stood holding it while they all looked at her. Finally she said the first thing that came to mind: “A banquet? But… Axel…”
“He’ll stay with us,” said Tallien, Ribbon’s mother, stepping forward to seize En
Shevil’s arms. “Please, you must accept these things. They aren’t really enough, but they’re the only way we can begin to thank you.”
“Uh-of course,” En Shevil stammered, seeing the tears in the woman’s eyes. “Yes, of course I’ll come to the… banquet, provided Axel will be taken care of. He still shouldn’t be walking too much, you know.”
“We’ll send horses for you both,” Karl assured her. This was rather a surprise, for such creatures, though not rare, were neither common, and hers had sold at quite a handsome price. She doubted the Kleiderbonnens had any horses of their own, which meant they would have to rent some. And as the burgomaster did not seem to want to step forward for costs, the expense would have to come from Karl and Tallien’s pockets. But what polite way was there for her to refuse, or else offer to hire the horses herself? Probably none, so she would have to be rude.
“Let this be for horses, then.” She pushed the moneybag into Tallien’s hands. “I don’t need it.”
“But…” protested the burgomaster’s aide.
“I have sufficient money of my own.” She thought of the troll chest.
“But…” protested the cloth merchant.
“I refuse to have you paying for horses to carry me to my own banquet. If I must go, let me get there on my own money.”
“A horse doesn’t cost nearly…” began Tallien.
“Then save the extra for Ribbon’s wedding.”
They could argue no further, and the burgomaster was decorously silent during the discussion. Looking at him, En Shevil had the sudden thought that he disapproved of the entire reward scheme and had other uses in mind for the money.
“Truly you are a most honorable person,” said Karl. “A Heroine!”
She actually smiled as she heard this, for the very word gave her more felicity than she’d felt for some time. Of course she modestly denied it, saying she’d only been helping a friend, but the idea became set in her brain, and something whispered the word redemption to her mind. Was it possible to dismiss her evil past in the face of a virtuous future? What Axel had said last night came back to her. No matter how fast you run…
She smelled her sweet buns suddenly, and excused herself to check on them. When she returned she found Axel up and speaking with his guests. How many days had gone by lately when he had not been awakened by unexpected visitors at some time in the day?
“We must take our leave of you,” the burgomaster said as she appeared. “There are preparations to be made.”
“Of course,” she said with a polite smile.
“Are you sure you won’t…” began Karl.
“Yes,” she said firmly, and they were gone.
“Herr Schatz did not want to reward you at all,” said Axel. “Monnal stopped by here yesterday to ask the way to the fortress, and he said the burgomaster wanted to give you a title only. I have no doubt this banquet was all Monnal’s doing, and the money was probably a collected sum acquired by the Kleiderbonnens.”
“Well, I didn’t want the money,” she snorted. “I’m no mercenary.”
“No,” he said, “you certainly aren’t.”
Ignoring the odd tone in his voice, she headed for the kitchen. “A trip into town should do you good, at any rate,” she said cheerfully. “Come on. Breakfast should be ready.”
En Shevil hated horses. This one was so slow and kept stumbling and threatening to throw her off. Axel’s, in front of her, was gentler (a good thing, though it had been pure luck she’d chosen the worse mount), but the man still looked a bit jostled by the time they rode into Sechburg. They dismounted at the stables, where the stablemaster offered to keep the horses for free though she insisted on paying him. Then Axel slowly (she wouldn’t let him walk any quicker) led her to the town hall; she had quite forgotten where to find it.
Torches and lanterns adorned this entire street area, and tables were set out for those not favored enough to sit in the hall itself. The torches outside its double front doors were blazing, and townspeople were clumping around its exterior. When she and Axel appeared an enthusiastic cheer went up, and En Shevil wanted to roll her eyes. A banquet? What stupidity! She smiled at the villagers, who pressed themselves into the already-crowded building after her.
They were immediately ushered out again, and En Shevil was presented to the small group with which she was to eat. This entire banquet thing was becoming increasingly more embarrassing and awkward, and she felt terribly self-conscious as she was gestured over to the burgomaster’s side to face the small assembly. The latter included Monnal, the Sonderson parents and Detlev, the Kleiderbonnens, and Kelli Machein the guildmaster. She was given at place to Schatz’s right (she was unaware of the offense she could have taken at this, as the “head-of-the-table” custom did not apply in Shapier and she’d never been to a banquet elsewhere), and Axel sat beside her.
The food was good, especially compared to her dubious cooking, but she found herself terribly restless. Not only that, the doors of the town hall remained open the entire time, letting in a draft that the Spielburg people didn’t seem to mind but she did. She realized at last what her problem was: the snows were melting, and she wanted to be off. She chided herself that no thought of Axel’s condition crossed her mind.
The other people at the table were chattering loudly to one another, which sound mixed with the subtle roar of the rest of the assembled folk outside: not the whole town, but a great many voices. Even the burgomaster talked to his aide about the price of wheat and other spring imports. Only En Shevil and Axel partook in silence.
“En Shevil,” said Uwin after a while, obviously in response to something within his conversation, “what manner of fighter are you?”
She smiled politely, still not wanting to be here. “Maruroharyuu,” she replied. “It is a ninjutsu-kenjutsu method used and taught in Itsumo Kawai.”
“And how long have you practiced this art?” asked Monnal curiously.
“I was trained last summer,” said the warrior, knowing it sounded strange. She still wondered herself at her own proficiency, and could only attribute it to her katta pin, now lost, and her previous acrobatics training that she’d never used. There were murmurs of amazement from all at the table, except the mayor and Axel.
“Were you never any kind of warrior before?” Karl questioned.
“None,” En Shevil answered, allowing the woman waiting on her to refill her mug with coffee (had Erich told them? otherwise how had they known?).
“No previous training?”
“I did learn some acrobatics from my parents, but never really practiced it after I’d learnt it. I knew how to throw daggers fairly well.”
“Is it true you were a thief?” shouted old Machein suddenly, almost as if he had not been listening to the conversation and the thought had just occurred to him.
The entire table fell silent, some eyes on En Shevil but most downcast: how could he ask her such a question? The burgomaster cleared his throat as if to speak, but no words followed. En Shevil smiled broadly, seeing no reason to lie and amused at their discomfort. “Certainly,” she said, opting for a longer word just for effect.
Ribbon, down the table, giggled suddenly, and the noise resumed, somewhat embarrassed. “The dignity of certain professions is still in question here,” said Axel in a low tone.
“I’m not a thief anymore anyway,” she responded, wanting to say it to someone.
The burgomaster stood ponderously, pushing his chair back a full five feet before he was able to stand straight. “I would propose a toast!” he said in his thick voice. The table quieted, as slowly did the outside noise. “A toast,” he continued more loudly, “to our noble visitor and friend from Shapier, who had the courage and resources to complete a daring rescue and annihilation most profitable to our valley and the one neighboring.” They were all standing up as he spoke, except En Shevil (she hoped she was doing this right — toasts like this were not customary in Shapier), and fumbling for their small wine glasses. En Shevil guessed there was more fumbling outside, due to the fact that there was more beer. “I give you En Shevil!” Tremendous cheering from outside, where the laughter and speech immediately recommenced, while inside the others voiced their agreement and drank the toast quietly. After resuming their seats (En Shevil hoped she didn’t have to do anything specific at this point), they all smiled at her and continued eating.
All in all, the evening lasted far too long, and En Shevil was almost shaking from excessive politeness by the time they dispersed. She pitied those who had to clean up after the more rowdy villagers outside the town hall, shaking her head as she headed for the Mien. The Kleiderbonnens had offered to put her up for the night, but she’d refused on the grounds that she would not inconvenience them further.
As she walked, stopped periodically by home-going townspeople to shake hands (that she was not used to), she felt that the entire banquet had been strange. Wryly with mild and endurable resentment she realized that Herr Schatz had arranged it all very nicely for himself: the town had apparently come together for the cost, all appreciative of what she’d done, and he’d gotten away with no more than a toast. No title, no particular euphemisms of gratitude, and very little money. She smiled.
The Mien was crowded, filled with villagers who wanted heavier liqueur than the light beer from the banquet. A general cry of drunken good will was raised at her entrance, almost making her more nervous than the approbation of those sober, and a path was made for her through their ranks to the bar. Not that she wanted to go to the bar, but that was where the company inadvertently forced her. When she reached it, Erich smiled, and six or seven drink offers hailed from different sides. She shook her head, powerless but to smile, and turned towards the room she’d rented earlier.
“So,” slurred a voice she did not want to hear from nearby, “I hear there weres’m trolls up there afterall.”
Hot anger at the thought of Katharine’s fate slowed her turn as she faced Diande. He leered at her, intoxication hazing his eyes and his mouth slackly grinning. With a vindictive smile she backed up and kicked him, not so hard as she would have liked, in the face. His form went reeling backwards into the crowd, who basically parted until he hit the ground. Then after a moment another cheer filled the room, drowning out her low statement: “We’re even.” Smiling genuinely now, all the tension of her high-strung nerves quite released, she turned to go to her room. Pats on the back followed her there, and even Erich was openly showing his approval with a half-smile. Her general state of mind much improved, she left the room and climbed the stairs to go to bed.
Wandering dark streets and somehow unable to see — why weren’t the sconces lit? — she felt her way along the wall. Where was she? The street markings were gone, and she did not recognize the turnings. Where was she headed? There was something ahead, someone. Or was it someone behind? As she came to what seemed the same turning again, she realized it was both: she was moving in circles. Horror crept over her, fear of the dark nature of that which she pursued — and fled. Or was it herself that she sensed, ever behind and ahead because she continually walked the same path? She could not tell, but knew she must keep moving. Whoever overtook the other would be the destroyer. The sound of her dark companion’s footsteps reverberated between the walls — or was it the echo of her own footsteps? Their originally near-inaudible breath sounded loudly in her ears — or was that her own breath? The occasional swish of their garments slid through the hallways to her hearing — or was that the cloth of her Maruroha attire? As the darkness increased and she was finally blind to all senses but hearing and the feeling at her fingertips, she lost track of the differences. She was her pursuer, the one she hunted. They were one, and yet not a unit. Their hearts beat on the same pulse, their breath was drawn in the same rhythm, their eyes saw the same sights, and yet they were separate entities. For time unreckoned she plodded on, tracing the same path through darkness in search of herself.
When she awoke from the endless journey that still continued somewhere within and without her, she squinted at the room around her, puzzled. Something did not feel right; the world was unreal. Dressing and gathering her things, she left the bed in disarray and went downstairs to buy breakfast. Erich had coffee waiting especially for her, and though Sechburg coffee was, comparatively, quite terribly bad, she was glad of the caffeine and the thought. When she had eaten her bread topped with meatballs and thick sauce — there was a disturbing lack of fruits and vegetables in this country — she headed for the Kleiderbonnens, hoping she remembered the way. She wasn’t sure for how long, or even if, Axel wanted to remain in town, and she intended to go back to Endensol at any rate.
“You want to leave,” he said when she arrived and sat with him in Ribbon’s house.
“Yes; the goats do need tending.”
“I meant you want to leave Sechburg.”
Though she’d known it before, it suddenly struck her like a blow to the head that she did, and very much. “Yes, I do,” she said.
“I thought so. I’ve arranged with Detlev that he’ll come help me until I’m up to goatherding again. I’ll be staying here for a few more days; you can leave any time you want.”
Her mouth opened, but no words came. She was overwhelmed with gratitude towards him, for his friendship, insights, and acceptance. “Thank you,” she said at last. “I can’t…” She didn’t even know what she was trying to say. “You’ve helped me. You’ve shown me something. Or, Endensol has. I’m not sure.”
“I hope you find what you’re looking for,” he said. “I have something for you.” He leaned over and drew out something folded, deep blue and velvet. She knew it at once. “You have avenged my wife’s death and given me a treasure I never thought to see again to remember her by. I think it’s only right that you should have this.” He shook it open, revealing the soft trimming fur, and held it out for her.
Again she was speechless, but somehow very happy. She took the cloak in her arms and held it to her like a loved one. “I’ll always remember you as my friend,” she murmured, realizing as she did that her eyes were stinging.
“If you ever,” he said with a strange intense tone to his voice, “find your peace of mind — if you ever meet your goal and destroy Deathscar, promise me you’ll come back and see me.”
“Of course,” she said, pitying him. She saw now that Katharine had been his world, his all, his total happiness, and her death had made it impossible for him to live more than a shadow of his old life except through others. Thus her conquering of sorrow would be a triumph for him as well. She stood, smiling at him. “I’ll drop by tomorrow, on my way out.”
“All right,” he said, his voice light again. “Goodbye.”
Chapter 9 – On the Road
A smiling En Shevil took light steps through the fragrant pine wood. “Antwerp,” she called, watching for the little creature to come hopping back from his circuitous exploration nearby. She’d had to do this every so often to make sure he’d not lost her. He appeared between some trees a little way ahead, bouncing in place, and waited for her to signal him off again. She waved, and he disappeared.
She took a deep breath of the late afternoon air of spring, cool rather than cold, and smiled again. On such a day as this she could almost forget, could almost let go. The sun might, as it hovered just in her sight above the treetops, light the darkness inside her, were the black center of her soul not so dense. As it was, she was relatively happy.
She really had no idea where she went. After making her difficult way down the snowy slopes of Rustinmount (she’d almost wished for a horse as she’d floundered through some of those icy, detestable drifts), she’d simply continued southward for two days in the hopes of finding a town where she could make some concrete travel plans. But she had found nothing as yet.
With half a troll-chest of money, her pack was considerably heavier than it had been, and felt hot on her back over her new velvet cloak. Nevertheless, as the sun vanished from her view and the trees’ shadows began to lengthen, she felt a chill surrounding her and the wind, formerly pleasing and cool, seemed icy. This was nothing a little firewood-cutting would not cure, so she found a place to stop. She dropped her pack carelessly, hearing the chink of coins, and took off her cloak. This she folded. In her heavy, functional clothing, still bright and diversely colored in Shapierian style, she did not mind so much chopping wood, but the cloak she would rather preserve from sweat and dirt as long as possible.
She heard footsteps immediately behind, but before she could turn something impacted with her head and flashed the world into a brilliant white around her. She toppled, feeling her senses going numb, and struggled inwardly with the desire to allow unconsciousness take her. But if she let herself go now she might never reawaken. As the instantaneous decision to survive was made her instinct kicked in and opened her sanoko. Pain accompanied the energy that flooded her, and her head began to throb as a prickling tingle spread through her limbs. She rose, not as quickly as she would have liked, and ducked another kick as she spun to face her attacker.
She could have been wrong, but had not this demoness had wings at their last encounter? She crossed her swords, unable to remove her eyes for several moments from the bizarrely lovely face, as a warning. “What do you want?” she asked.
“Ooh, aren’t you a smart one?” the other woman responded as she lunged at the human, sword drawn. En Shevil met the red-shining black blade with her own flashing weapons, but even as the demoness’s charge was halted her serpentine tail whipped around En Shevil’s legs and threw her to the ground. “What do you think I want?” the dark woman said as she searched for an open spot to place her sword tip to prevent En Shevil’s movement.
The Maruroha slid her swords on opposite sides of her enemy’s, twisting the long dark blade upward and raking Oyin across the demoness’ clenched hand. At the same time she rolled to the side and stabbed Sayeto down at the tail holding her legs. The demoness relinquished her grip with a growl, and En Shevil scrambled backwards and jumped to her feet. “Why me?” she asked as if she didn’t know. “And why you?” She hoped to throw her enemy off with this.
“Why you?” laughed the demoness, empty hand twitching as the two women began to circle each other. “You have powers no other human has. As for me…” En Shevil fell to her left hand, kicking out at the other’s head with her right foot. The demoness leaned back enough to dodge the blow and snaked her tail out to grasp at En Shevil’s wrist even as she swiped her sword towards the Maruroha’s hips. To block this latter move she was forced to bring Sayeto, in her right hand, up to a level that prevented her from shifting her weight and escaping the tail. But even as she fell once more to the damp ground, craning her head up to take the impact on her shoulders, she thrust her left foot out into the demoness’ abdomen. Oyin lay beneath her where it had of its own accord twisted from her hand rather than let her body fall on its point, and her hand, as well as the tail that held it, was uncomfortably wedged between her side and the ground.
As the demoness regained her balance after the kick, En Shevil swiped Sayeto at her stomach, and the hellish woman took the blow, allowing the weapon to draw a bright red line across her exposed belly, in order to press the tip of her own sword to the Maruroha’s ribcage. With her other hand she seized En Shevil’s wrist and twisted it until Sayeto fell to the ground. “As for me,” she said again, “I just got lucky. I hate Hell, the demon world,” she continued as she crouched, hand still firmly on her sword’s hilt, “and now I’ll be free to wander this world in your body, killing to suit my king’s will.”
Askgaella chose not to mention the humiliating fact that her king had recently been defeated, and that since the portal to her world had been closed, the only way to return there was to die, at which point she could not return here again. And that this was not a battle she could afford to lose.
En Shevil decided in that split second that she would rather perish than let this monster possess her, or rather possess Deathscar, so she reached for her dropped sword. Unfortunately, as both her weapons lay on her left and her right hand was the one free, this availed little. The other woman grasped her wrist and pulled her arm up, twisting it around the long black steel perpendicular to En Shevil’s chest. The latter gasped as the hot blade cut a large gash through her upper arm. The demoness let En Shevil’s hand go and put her own on the human’s shoulder. Panic filled the grounded warrior, and she realized the only way to escape possession would be to kill herself on the sword pressing into her bosom. Glad of the energy still pounding through her blood, she summoned all her strength.
At that moment her assailant stiffened, arm falling away from the black sword, which fell backwards over En Shevil’s stomach, and her tail’s grip loosening. Her right hand slipped slowly from En Shevil’s shoulder as she crumpled ponderously forward over the Maruroha and dissolved into smoke. The arrow that had felled her, its steel head disfigured as if melted, dropped as the back that had housed it vanished, and landed beside En Shevil on the ground.
Panting, she sat up and absently retrieved her swords as she looked for her deliverer, who presently appeared from behind a tree. It was a woman, blonde hair braided behind her, clad in a leather tunic, fine white shirt, brown breeches, and light boots. A sword and three daggers hung at her side with a waterskin, and at her back was slung a quiver. She held in her hand a worn bow, and moved as quietly towards En Shevil as the latter could ever have hoped to in a wood. She took up the arrow and examined it. En Shevil, climbing to her feet, held her bleeding arm out so as not to stain her clothing. “Thank you,” she said.
The stranger, throwing the arrow aside, startled En Shevil greatly by drawing her own sword. It was plain, the type a large-town weaponsmith might have in stock. “You have much to learn about swordplay.” Her tone, somewhat patronizing though not unfriendly, drew forth a rather belligerent response:
“I can block daggers.”
“Let me show you something,” said the stranger, shifting the weapon back and forth between hands as she shrugged her quiver from her shoulders. Somehow the arrows all stayed in place even as it hit the ground and fell to its side. “If I am going to connect, I must have my weight balanced to pull away for your next move.” She demonstrated by tapping En Shevil’s shoulder with the flat of her blade and pointing to her feet. En Shevil watched, interested. “If I’m doing a sweep or a feint,” suiting the actions to the words, “I need to keep my weight moving for my next move.” She pointed again to her feet as she showed how she used her legs. “This way, I can have the most force possible on each blow.”
En Shevil was still attempting to defend herself. “But Maruroha swords,” indicating hers, “are offensive weapons, and depend on what attack you’re using.” She went to where her pack and cloak lay to look for a bandage.
“Patience! If you are to dodge the blow of a swordsman you must watch where their weight is centered so you will know their intent. The tail may have been entirely a surprise, but you could have known when she planned to stab you.”
“Have you ever fought a demoness before?” En Shevil asked crossly. Her ethics as a warrior had certainly been challenged in the past, but never her abilities. Also, she had no bandage and her wound was throbbing. Pulling out a ripped shirt she wrapped it around her arm and began attempting to tie it tightly. In the meantime the stranger took a few steps forward and answered,
“No. But a wide range of combat abilities will help against any creature.”
“Well, the last time I fought that particular demoness I won. Not to sound ungrateful, but I did know what I was doing.”
“I do not wish to offend, but you did not know what you were doing against that woman’s sword. A more experienced swordsman could have easily defeated you.”
“I guess you are a more experienced swordsman?” She tried very hard not to make it a challenge, and failed.
“Let me show you,” said the woman coolly.
“Help me with this bandage.” The stranger complied, and the pain eased slightly as the makeshift bandage was tightened around the bloody wound. Then En Shevil took up her swords and faced the other blonde. “I’m ready,” she said.
The stranger seemed to undergo a transformation then, from the jovial, casual visitor of before to an intense, mysterious, and altogether deadly warrior. With her stabs, slashes, parries, and quick feet she very soon convinced En Shevil of her words’ truth. She could not really defeat the Maruroha, who was able to dodge the stranger’s every blow, but En Shevil could not hope to slide a hit of her own in when she could never tell where the stranger’s sword would be next. And eventually she would tire of jumping around like this.
Finally, and almost by luck, she found an opening, and gave the other woman a spin-kick in the jaw. The stranger stopped, raising a hand to her face in surprise, and smiled. Her sword lowered. “You are most skilled,” she said.
“So are you.”
“If you would join me and my companion at our camp, I would be glad to show you some techniques.”
“Certainly,” said En Shevil. “Who is your companion?”
“You will meet him.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Tarna, though at this moment I am simply trying to avoid a most presumptuous man who… but perhaps it is better not to discuss others in their absence.”
“I’m going to Tarna too.”
“You have heard, then, the news of the Hero?”
“He saved Tarna from demonic invasion, but a strange magic took him. I thought to search for him, in case he needs help.”
En Shevil was speechless. “Magic? But… where is he now?”
“No one knows. But as he once helped me, I feel it is my duty to try and help him.”
“I have to find him,” En Shevil murmured to herself. She’d known it would be difficult to rejoin Achim, but now it appeared it would be harder than she’d expected. Her spirits were falling with every new thought on the matter.
“Allow me to accompany you,” the woman requested.
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?”
“I am En Shevil, of Shapier.”
“So you no longer call yourself Deathscar.”
En Shevil’s eyes widened. “How did you know?”
“I saw you when the Hero brought you into the Spielburg valley.”
“Are you Elsa von Spielburg?”
The woman nodded. “May Toro and I travel with you?”
“My friend. He is a minotaur.”
En Shevil thought for a moment. “Of course. Do you know anything else about Achim?”
She shook her head. “Only what I have said already, and things you doubtless already know. He told me you were his friend.”
“Yes,” she said simply. “I can’t believe…”
“We’ll find him,” Elsa assured her. “Toro and I have made camp not far from here. I came when I heard your swords.” She stared down at the demoness’ dropped blade on the ground. “Have you any interest in this weapon?”
En Shevil shuddered. “Certainly not.”
Elsa nodded, taking the sword up gingerly and hefting it, nodding. “It is better than mine. Follow me.”
En Shevil nodded, and took up her things with her left arm. She would not be curling much weight with her right for a while. Following Elsa, she left the small clearing and made her way to another.
Here was Toro, and En Shevil tried very hard not to stare. At least eight feet tall, he was a formidable creature who wore only a blue loincloth and silver bracers. His long cream-colored horns shone as if polished, and his eyes were a startlingly bright, fierce, deep black. She could barely meet his gaze as Elsa introduced them.
“Toro, this is En Shevil.” She added more quietly, “Deathscar.”
Toro gave her a calm look, if any look from those eyes could ever be called such. “Toro pleased to know warrior woman.”
“This is Toro. He has been my friend since childhood.” En Shevil bowed, Shapierian style, and expressed her equal pleasure. “Let me get you a healing potion.”
“I don’t think it’s deep enough for that,” replied En Shevil. Healing potions really only helped with internal injuries, and thus only very deep wounds would be affected by them.
“We can try.” Elsa brought her pack over to where En Shevil stood and dug through it on her knees. She handed a small bottle to the Maruroha, who uncorked it and drank. The pain eased slightly as the inner quarter inch of her cut healed.
“Thank you,” she said. “Now what about those sword moves?”
For the next darkening hour Elsa painstakingly taught En Shevil some of the things she knew until they could no longer see each other. Toro watched them silently, nodding his horned head at every point Elsa brought up. Then he built a fire and they sat, wordless, for some time, all eating: En Shevil some of the rations she had bought before she left Sechburg, and the other two small bread cakes. The Maruroha stared at the fire, which seemed bright and almost cheerful, the brilliant wavering gold edges surrounding the calmer blue center.
She did not know it, but Elsa watched her carefully, noting the reflection of both gold and blue sparkling in her eyes. “When you left Spielburg, you made it appear that you had died,” she said after a while. “Does the prince know that you are alive?”
En Shevil lowered her eyebrows. “Prince?” Was there some other ruler who was displeased with her?
“Did you not know of the Sultan’s reward?”
En Shevil gaped. “You mean…”
“That Achim is the prince of Shapier? I think we have much talking to do.”
The long, light, shining dagger was silver from tip to hilt, set with a single, gleaming black gem where the blade began. Thin lines of white ran along it, carved skillfully into the image of a dragon cramped into the grip with its tail wrapping the blade. En Shevil stood alone in the complete darkness, darkness so thick it seemed to be solid, except for the circle of light that fell about her from above. It was pale light, cold and white and dusty. She clutched the dagger, torn with indecision. If she drove it into her heart in order to kill herself, she would not kill the dragon on the blade but free it to drink her blood and consume her. The dragon was the problem. Then suddenly she was confused: why did she want to kill herself again? Oh, yes, the dragon. But the dragon was on the knife. So she had but to cast away the weapon and be free of the dragon. But then how could she kill herself? Wait, why did she want to kill herself?
Suddenly Achim stepped to her side, putting his warm hands on her arms and looking over her shoulder at what she held. Gently he reached over and took the blade from her trembling hands, putting it away in its silver sheath that hung from her pack — put it away to have it never out again until she took the first step in her quest for acceptance and destruction of the dragon. As the knife clicked loudly into the sheath the light sprang up around them, and smells of flowers and magic assailed her. They stood in Erana’s Peace, back in Spielburg, but somehow the magic was not so distasteful to her as she had once thought it must always be. Overwhelmed with the desire to be held by her lover she turned to kiss him, raising her arms, and stopped. For above his head, hovering in the air, was the half-transparent image of a shining crown that revolved slowly and illuminated his face. Hesitantly she reached for his hand, only to have him disappear from before her.
Then she found herself in another dark place, the sweet smells of Erana’s Peace gone and replaced now by the long-since-mollified stench of death and decay. In the moment before she started awake she realized that she lay on her side, surrounded by ancient bones, on the backbone of a monstrous skeleton.
A soft voice spoke from nearby. She looked around groggily to find the speaker, and saw sitting beside the newly-built fire a man, a stranger. Her eyes did not rest on his shoulder-length blonde hair, thin face, lean frame, worn clothing, or the black boots at the end of his outstretched legs, for that they first rested on what hung at his belt: a silver-sheathed knife with a black gem by the grip and the white-carved image of a dragon on the rounded hilt. She stared at it, convinced she was still dreaming, as he continued. “You, since I sat myself here, have not lain still for two minutes together. Why look you so heavily?”
“Who are you?” She sat up in her rolled blankets, scrambling for her swords.
He drove his gaze into hers. “Come, come, answer me directly unto this question that I ask: in faith, I’ll break thy little finger, an if thou wilt not tell me all things true.” She simply stared at him, amazed at the petulant tone of voice in which he spoke these odd words.
He’s talking like a dragon or something. “Why should I answer a stranger who just appears at my fire?” she demanded.
“The fire is Elsa’s,” he said in a reproving tone, “and you are but a guest.”
“Then let me wake Elsa up,” she said sarcastically, annoyed by his strangely-tuned phrases, “and she’ll answer for me.”
“How shall Elsa answer for what is in your heart?”
He smiled at her kindly and murmured, “You know me not. Why then should you betray me thus?” Toro started up with a snort, seizing his unbelievably huge battleaxe, and in two steps was between En Shevil and the stranger, staring down with his fathomless eyes at the man by the fire. Elsa was stirring at his noise when he roused her completely:
“Elsa — singing man back.”
At that she sat up abruptly. “You again!” she said, her eyes devoid of any weariness. “I told you to stop following me!”
“You draw me, you hardhearted adamant!” he cried. “Leave you your power to draw, and I shall have no power to follow you.” He struck his hand to his breast.
“Who is this?” asked En Shevil, confused, for what was that look on the man’s face? She spoke to Elsa, as addressing the man directly seemed somewhat futile.
“This fool has followed me from Spielburg,” Elsa snarled, “despite my repeated warnings for him to be off.” Her stare met the man’s with such ferocity that En Shevil felt he must turn away his gaze. Instead, rapt, he spoke in a wan tone:
“Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.”
Elsa gave a groaning sigh and turned away from him, lying down once more with her back to the fire and the stranger. Toro, seeing his mistress’ acceptance of the man’s presence, merely gave the ‘singing man’ a snort and returned also to his sleeping place. But En Shevil was more awake than that, and looked more curiously on the man. “What is your name?” she asked.
The man began to sing. “Don’t need to read no books of my history — I’m a simple man; it’s no big mystery.”
“Um.” En Shevil pressed her lips together in confusion.
He noticed the direction of her gaze and frowned. “This interests you?” he said, lightly drawing the silver dagger from its sheath and tossing it. Impressively, he caught it by the hilt after it had spun several times in the air and handed it to her. She took it gingerly without a word, examining it. Yes, there was no mistaking that it was the dagger from her dream. But why a prophetic dream all of a sudden? It made her anxious — did that mean all her dreams had some sort of hidden meaning?
“Odd,” she murmured. The more she looked at it, the more she felt she’d seen it before, and not just in her dream. The dragon design, the black gem, somewhere… She turned her head slowly to where Elsa’s things lay ready at the woman’s side. It was certainly true — the sword formerly belonging to the twice-slain demoness was adorned with the same draconic design. She rose to her knees and leaned over Elsa’s half-sleeping form to grasp the hot hilt of the red-black weapon. Pulling it clumsily over the other with her left arm, she dragged it from its scabbard. The pattern was exactly the same, save only that this weapon was black with the inset lines red. She held up the dagger. Was it her imagination, or did the colors seem to shiver as she brought the weapons close?
She touched steel to steel, and chill ran through her. With a start she watched as the long sword went silver from pommel to tip, and the dagger turned black. “Wonderful,” she said, a hesitant smile touching her lips. She separated the weapons and touched them again. For a second time they switched hues, and En Shevil grinned outright. “Wonderful!” she repeated. “Where did you get this dagger?” she asked, looking up at the stranger.
His intent eyes were locked on her, and she blinked several times as she met his gaze. Finally he answered, “An heirloom with bold legends twining as the dragon its length.”
“Ehah.” En Shevil was becoming somewhat annoyed with this man. “Can you say anything in a normal way?”
“What is normal?” the man mused, seemingly to himself. He put on a strange accent. “Normal is what everyone else is, and you’re not.” She sighed and started switching the colors of the weapons again. “Chollichihaua,” the man said. She did not look up at him again, not wanting to lose her temper and being more interested in the weapons at any rate. “And care you? Not at all.”
“What are you talking about?” asked En Shevil in frustration.
“And is that supposed to mean something to me?”
“En Shevil, go to sleep,” grumbled Elsa from behind her. “Do not waste your time speaking with him.”
En Shevil took a deep breath. “Here,” she said, handing the dagger back to the man slowly after making sure it was silver. When he took it, she replaced the sword in its sheath and laid it down in its former spot beside Elsa. “Goodnight.” Grumpily she turned her back on the man and put her head on her outstretched arms, closing her eyes. As the slight noise of the fire and the louder, more distant sounds of the forest blended with her fading consciousness, the sound of singing threaded its way softly into the approaching greyness of her dreams.
Rahaña had a daughter fair and wise;thief-queen of old she was by right of birth.
Tejato was her nation most despised, thief-nation oft esteemed of little worth;
For who with such a nation should ally? Or with confirméd robbers deal in grain?
A people without sustenance must die, and so respect must be won back again.
This to achieve, did write the dustrus queen scripts, Tejato’s faith to represent,
And in diverséd lands with humble mein to varied rulers did these scripts present,
For, lab’ring long, she’d to her people gone, her person told Tejato of its plight,
Convincing them that, if they would live on, they must assure the world ’twas safe from slight.
The people’d to her wisdom swiftly bent, Chollichihaua’s soft persuasive word,
And to her all the nation’d voices lent for other lands to have their peace assured:
Tejato would Tejato’s practice feel, its folk but on themselves their thiev’ry show.
From narry an outsider would they steal, and to all other nations honest go.
The queen Collichihaua met success in ev’ry minor country in her way,
But five the greater kingdoms did confess reluctance, and did halt for manya day.
Severally their leaders then conferred, and endly to her messengers did send:
Requiréd from her hands for each, she heard, was proof that openness she did intend.
So took she careful thought, and also gold, and purchased endly smithies, numbered five,
And swore that, though her hands grew weak and old, they’d not stop work while she was yet alive
Until, her purpose met, she could present those proofs from her own hands demanded her;
This bold demand she never did resent, nor took it to her nation as a slur.
So, as she were a weaponsmith of yore, she toiled the forges of her raiséd sheds,
And weapons made, with her own strength waxed sore, magical, and’f worth unlimited:
For windy, brilliant Shapier made a bow of copper-gold and shining like the sands
That the Sultana Ibshiyah might know her safety in Chollichihaua’s lands;
Silmaria, the ocean-land of might, received the sword of watery grey-blue
To show King Unus, on Atlantis’ height, that to their word her people would be true;
The Tsar of old Surria, cold and grim, the dagger ‘tained, white-silver as a wraith:
With it she pledged her honesty to him, by it Cvonyet had sure’ty of her faith;
Northward Lokgard, land of ice and fire, had axe of her, red-black of mighty heft,
That Lord Hrothkani might have no desire to war neighbor Tejato for some theft;
The last for noble Alchenwäd, now gone, the spear of yellow-green and brazen size
Was forgéd for Fürien Keidetion, ever to hold good standing in her eyes.
She also on these weapons left a mark: the dragon flying, carved into the steel,
Inset with precious stones of color dark, that their receivers might their worth more feel;
Thus bound together by this common sign, the weapons to each other all could speak,
And if Tejato any land maligned, five lands swiftly could their vengeance wreak.
So pledging faith laboriously by, Chollichihaua’s efforts did not fail:
Five nations did her swear their loyalty, so long Tejato’s word should prove not frail.
Thus with her lengthy years of toil complete the queen returned to rule her land again,
And did with nationwide affection meet to cheer her heart and wipe away all pain.
But soon would end Chollichihaua’s reign, for demons broke into her thieving land.
Five nations came to aid her, but in vain: the valiant queen was lost to hellish hand.
So dead, but ne’er forgotten by her friends, her legacy lives on in weapons sharp,
And in the songs and tales that never end so long as men do live by flute and harp.
With these words came images, hazy and soft, dream-like — a tall raven-haired woman of ruddy complexion, unspeakable beauty, a face patient though sarcastic, and a strong frame. Her features, familiar somehow, were lit from below by the white-glowing light of a forge as she hammered at something with a muscular arm. Darkness suddenly seized her, and she was gone. En Shevil’s waking thought was, Chollichihaua — what a name to be burdened with…
“Good morning,” Elsa bade her, observing she awoke. En Shevil shook her head and sat up, looking around for Singing Man. Her brow lowered when she did not see him.
“Is he… that man… was there a man here last night?” She was now not entirely sure she had not dreamed his existence. That would explain the dagger, but not the song. She had never been a poet, and did not think that even in her dreams she could come up with such a ballad.
Elsa sighed and rolled her eyes. “He is still here. He has been following me since I left Spielburg, and I do not even know why.”
“Elsa, my darling, you know perfectly well why,” came Singing Man’s voice as he approached.
En Shevil fancied Elsa blushed.
“You know I do not wish you to follow me. Why do you not respect my wishes, when you claim to love me?” This was certainly blunt, and in front of a stranger no less. En Shevil guessed Elsa must be weary of humoring him.
“Well, someone has to look after you,” Singing Man laughed, causing Toro, on the other side of the smoking remains of the fire, to snort loudly.
“I take care of Elsa — if Elsa not take care of Elsa.”
“You see? I have no need of your protection. Even were I to become hurt and unable to fight, Toro would care for me.” En Shevil refrained from speech, merely covered her smile with her hand. Elsa, however, knew exactly what the Shapierian was thinking. “Ready your things, En Shevil, for we shall soon depart.”
En Shevil smiled openly as she stood and tightly rolled her blankets after shaking them out. Running a brush through her hair and taking a drink of water, she felt ready to leave; but the others had made no moves for the predicted departure. Elsa and Singing Man were having an argument, so En Shevil took the opportunity, abandoning her things, to move towards the nearby stream in the hopes of washing her face and hands. Toro rose quickly and came with her.
“Not like singing man too much,” he said as they walked, tilting his head to avoid a scraping of branches with his horns.
Something rubbed against her leg. “Hello, Antwerp,” she said absently. “Haven’t seen you in a while.” Addressing Toro she asked, “When did you leave Spielburg?”
“Elsa and I travel for two weeks, singing man follow.”
“Has he caused any problems besides annoying you?”
“He talk too much.”
En Shevil bent and scooped up water, splashing it on her face and slicking back her hair. The breeze felt chill and fresh on her wet scalp, and she breathed deeply, smiling. Then a worried expression overtook her face, and she stood to lean against a tree while Toro drank on one knee. “I wonder if Achim is all right,” she said, directing it at Toro but really requiring no answer.
“He good man,” said the minotaur, standing straight again, “Good hero. He sneak right past me, I never notice. He thief, I think.”
En Shevil smiled. “Yes, he is a thief. I never knew Achim had seen you. He didn’t mention you. Were you connected with the brigands, then?” They began walking slowly back to camp, where Elsa was standing and preparing to leave, obviously quite annoyed. Antwerp bounced along behind them.
“I Elsa’s bodyguard. No let brigands hurt Elsa. Teach Elsa to fight when little. Elsa good.”
En Shevil felt a pang of loneliness at this — she had no friends left. “Elsa’s lucky,” she said quietly. She picked up her cloak, fastened it around her neck, and donned her heavy pack. With its weight on her back she wished often for a walking stick, but had not the tools nor the particular knowledge to cut one.
Singing Man appeared to be in the middle of a song. “…I walked a lonely mile in the moonlight…”
“We will continue heading south,” said Elsa decisively, “and keep to the mountains until they end.”
“…and though a million stars were shining…” sang Singing Man.
“By only striking west at the end of the Spielburg range, we can take the Winder Pass into Shapier.”
“…my heart was lost on a distant planet…”
“A caravan will take us to the other side of the desert — unless you know it well enough to guide us yourself — and in Rasier we can inquire into another pass out of Shapier into Tarna.”
“…that whirls around the April moon…”
“I had thought to go around Shapier entirely, but I felt you would like to see your homeland.”
“…whirling in an arc of sadness.”
“Is this acceptable to you?”
En Shevil had been trying to follow both the song and the dissertation, and laughed as her mind repeated what she thought she’d heard: they would take a pass to a distant planet, where she would guide them around the April moon.
“I’m lost without you.”
“How long have we to the end of the Spielburg range?” she asked instead of giving the answer Elsa had requested.
“I’m lost without you.”
“A few weeks, if we travel quickly. They are thin and shrink to a point at the southern end.”
En Shevil jumped the stream, and looked back as the others followed her. She caught Singing Man’s gleaming eyes and her heart skipped a beat — only in that moment did she realize what a handsome man he really was. He smiled sadly and dramatically as he sang the next lines, and it seemed in that moment he was singing only to her. “Though all my kingdoms turn to sand, and fall into the sea, I’m mad about you. I’m mad about you.”
She shook herself out of it, wondering whence that fit of madness had come, and found herself walking next to Singing Man behind Toro and Elsa. She did not look at him, but watched the rippling muscles in Toro’s back as he walked. “And from the dark secluded valleys, I heard the ancient songs of sadness; but every step I thought of you, every footstep only you.” Images swirled through En Shevil’s head, of her own desert home in darkness, forlorn, dreamy, offering no comfort to the weary traveler.
“Elsa,” she said very suddenly, “why did you leave home?”
“Every star a grain of sand…”
Elsa shook her head as if in annoyance. “After the Hero gave me the memory of who I was, I led my father’s men against the brigands and drove them from the valley.”
“…the leavings of a dried up ocean.”
“My father retired as the baron, as you probably have heard.”
“Tell me, how much longer? How much longer?”
“Will you please be quiet!” Elsa growled at Singing Man.
“When my song is finished, my dear,” he replied, and continued. “They say a city in the desert lies…”
Elsa heaved a great sigh through clenched teeth and gestured for En Shevil to come to her side. Once there, En Shevil tried not to listen to the captivating song. “My brother, as the new baron, was most troublesome to me.”
“…the vanity of an ancient king.”
“He did not approve of my warrior’s ways, nor of Toro my friend.”
“The city lies in broken pieces, where the wind howls and the vultures sing.”
“We had many arguments, and often came nearly to blows.”
“These are the works of man. This is the sum of our ambition.”
“He would not attempt to fight with me, for he knew me to be the better fighter.”
“It would make a prison of my life…”
“He thought he would rid himself of me by marrying me to a local lord.”
“…if you became another’s wife.”
“I told him very bluntly what I thought of this plan.”
“With every prison blown to dust…”
“He was not used to being told such things, and he was probably happier when I left, taking Toro with me.”
“…my enemies walk free.”
“And your father?” asked En Shevil, still trying to ignore the song and the words she thought must be coming next.
“He is content knowing that I live.”
“I’m mad about you. I’m mad about you.”
Elsa looked at En Shevil. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“And I have never in my life felt more alone than I do now.”
“What have you done since… I saw you last?”
En Shevil looked away and sighed, but felt no reason not to answer. “After Erasmus cured me, I wandered northward for a while, spreading the story that ‘Deathscar’ had been killed by the Hero.”
“Although I claim dominions over all I see, it means nothing to me.”
“Then after a while I changed my story and said she’d killed herself.”
“There are no victories…”
“I reached Sechburg, and stayed out the winter there.”
“…in all our histories…”
“I had a few adventures, but I finally decided I wanted to… see Achim again, so I left.”
“You are troubled,” said Elsa slowly, “and restless — and I do not blame you. For anything,” she added.
“A stone’s throw from Jerusalem…”
“Thanks,” said En Shevil simply. It was good to hear those words from anyone.
“We should be approaching the village of Galfein by the end of the day,” said Elsa, as if to change the subject.
“…I walked a lonely mile in the moonlight…”
En Shevil’s face darkened. “Shall we stop, or pass by?”
“…and though a million stars were shining…”
“Toro and I are low on supplies, as we have encountered no town since we left the valley.”
“…my heart was lost on a distant planet…”
“I would rather…” began En Shevil uncertainly, but stopped. Though still uncomfortable with the idea of showing her face this far south, she was not yet sure whether avoiding towns would be morally right.
“…that whirls around the April moon…”
“We will not stay long,” said Elsa in a tone that conveyed nothing.
“…whirling in an arc of sadness.”
“Stay at inn!” said Toro gleefully, and En Shevil smiled. Even a great, tough ‘monster’ like the minotaur must be glad of a bed when he could get it.
“I’m lost without you. I’m lost without you.”
“We will arrive after dark,” said Elsa.
“And though you hold the keys to ruin of everything I see…”
“Eat good food, not from campfire!” gloated Toro.
“…with every prison blown to dust, my enemies walk free…”
“We can leave before dawn.”
“…though all my kingdoms turn to sand and fall into the sea…”
“Town good. People friendly.”
And so the nonexistent debate was won, and En Shevil was convinced without having ever objected. She nodded absently, and they all fell silent at once for the last, sorrowful lines of Singing Man’s song.
“…I’m mad about you. I’m mad about you.”
By an hour before dusk, Singing Man had gone through perhaps twenty songs, and Elsa informed them they were nearing the village. “We have made good time,” she said. “We are earlier than I expected.” En Shevil sighed, still not feeling at rights with this entire town idea. But she said nothing and walked on with them, looking around at the changing scenery. More and more trees in the area had been reduced to stumps, and they heard the sound of an axe hacking away at another not far off. The noise was somehow foreboding to the Shapierian warrior.
The sound of a horse nearby startled her even more, and she unconsciously began sneaking along, even in the midst of her party, as silently as possible. Antwerp made furtive little bounces beside her, as if in support of her movements. They encountered the horse and its owner soon enough: a young girl, in her mid-teens perhaps, sat on a tree stump reading a book, untethered horse nearby. She looked normal enough — brown hair in two braids, freckled face, red cloak and hood over white shirt and brown trousers — until she looked up at them and they saw her eyes. About these there was nothing particularly unusual in the shape or color, only in the air. She held them wide as if in fear, and in their gleam and the dilation of the pupils there was some indescribable attitude of horror and unfathomable loss. She stared at them for long moments, her facing rapidly taking on a cloudy color which made her freckles stand out oddly. Stumbling to her feet, she backed away into her horse.
En Shevil nearly chuckled — had she never seen a minotaur before? — until she realized that the girl was staring at her.
“Your eyes!” the girl howled. “Your eyes!”
En Shevil put a hand to her face and touched her eyelids. Nothing seemed to be wrong with them. Blinking several times she stopped and asked, “What about them?”
“Ye gods have mercy!” the girl moaned. “I prayed never to hear that voice again; apparition, why do you come ever to torment me?”
“What do you mean?” asked En Shevil in a quavering tone, for of course she knew.
The girl’s visage turned in a moment from fear to rage, and she flung herself at the older woman. “You killed my family!” she shrieked, mouth twisted open to show clenched, slavering teeth. Her face was a mask of madness and anger beyond description.
En Shevil reflexively raised a hand to block the punch aimed at her face, and the girl recoiled in an instant and fell back once more, fear again dominating her features. “Deathscar!” she sobbed. “You destroyed my life! You destroyed me!” The hideous change came over her once again, and as a monster she sprang forward. “I’ll kill you!”
“Stand back!” Elsa commanded, but the girl did not seem to hear.
En Shevil had once again merely to put out a hand, and the girl stopped her onslaught and shrank into herself again. “You… you… I’ll… you killed them in front of my eyes…” she wailed, sinking to the ground in a trembling heap. “Those ghastly eyes, that demonic voice, ever in my dreams to torment me.” Her head was in her hands now. “Why do you not now leave me in peace and let me die to join them?”
“I…” began En Shevil, her heart reeling and her thoughts swimming in a sea of dark misery.
At the word, the girl upstarted like a wild creature and cried out, “I will be free of you!” Then, leaping on her horse, she tore off through the forest, her sobs still audible for some time after she was out of sight.
Everyone was silent for long moments while En Shevil held her breath and tried not to scream. Finally Elsa said awkwardly, “She was crazy.”
The Maruroha could bear it no longer. Throwing her purse down on the ground she cried, “I can’t go in there! Buy me some food and I’ll meet you at the other side tomorrow morning.” Pulling her hood down over her face she began to run, forward and to the left in order to circumnavigate the town ahead. Her breath coming ragged and tears streaming down her cheeks, she wanted to slam her head into something solid and end this agony.
The fading sound of Singing Man’s voice followed her: “If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one, drying in the color of the evening sun, tomorrow’s rain will wash their stains away, but something in our minds will always stay.”
Trying to drown out the sound, En Shevil ran faster, pushing her way between trees and never taking the easiest path. A wall sprang up in front of her suddenly, imposing stone seeming to condemn her with a thousand mouthless, soundless voices. She veered left, avoiding the town, and ran onward. Her brief tears now gone, she concentrated on calming herself. She had always known this was coming; there was no chance she could cross Spielburg again and have no one recognize her. She had only one option, and that was to deny their accusations and… Abruptly, she stopped running, clenching her fists. She could not deny what she was, to herself or to anyone else, and what she was… she was a killer. She was Deathscar.
She walked on more calmly now. Wasn’t that a depressing thought? The extent of its truth she did not know, but it certainly had arisen unbidden from her subconscious. She sighed, her spirits sinking ever quicker, and sat down against the cold wall of the unfriendly town. She did not feel like crying any more, and did not want to continue thinking about the way she was. She did not want to do anything. Fitfully she tossed a rock into a tree, watching it bounce off and return nearly to her feet. She pulled her pack from her shoulders and cuddled up to it in the shadows, throwing her cloak over it like a blanket. Antwerp, finally having caught up to with her after her long run, anxiously nuzzled her side. She closed her eyes. In a grey half-doze she remained until darkness had swallowed her up.
What awoke her was the sound of snuffling, and she jerked awake from a sleep much deeper than she remembered falling into. A horned head, crimson and dark purple, swung towards her on a long, bent neck. Great yellow eyes narrowed; a wide, toothy mouth snapped an inch from her face. Gasping, she scooted backwards in time to avoid the swipe of a clawed hand. The great lizard bounded forward to attack again, but En Shevil rolled out of the way, ignoring the cutting pain that shot through her wounded arm when it was pressed into the ground, and jumped to her feet. As she reached for her swords, her eyes went wide when she found nothing there. She backed into a tree, looking around for help, as the creature approached her. It was then she noticed the man going through her pack. Dispelling all panic, she took a few running steps forward and vaulted herself cleanly over the creature’s head, rolling forward and jumping to her feet to kick the man in the knee.
He stumbled backwards, tripping over the straps on her sword-sheath which he held. “Imu, on ‘er!” he commanded, and En Shevil spun to see the beast approaching her once again. This time, she did not give it any advantage. She stepped forward, then crouched on her right leg and kicked upward with her left, striking the monster squarely in the jaw. It stopped, shook its head, whimpered, then looked beyond her to its master. She kicked it in the chest. The thing howled and waved its head around, then brought its evilly glowing eyes to bear on her with anger and pain. She kicked it again before dodging out of the way of its claws. This was all beside the point; she needed to get back to the man before he made off with any of her things. Avoiding a tailswipe she looked quickly over to see that he was in her pack again. Beside him was another man.
Targeting this one with the dagger she pulled from her ankle, she skipped aside as the creature came at her once again.
“Hinnaeu, she’s got a knife,” her target hissed, apparently thinking she would throw it at the crouching man. Corrected, the speaker fell with the dagger in his chest. Hinnaeu dropped whatever he was holding and spun with a gasp, for the other man’s hand had slapped him as he fell. Hinnaeu flipped the fallen man over to expose the cause of his demise, and made a choking sound in his throat. As En Shevil once again ducked a blow from the monster the man hissed out the word ‘bitch’ and made some movement she could not see.
Attempting to knock the saurus rex out, she jump-kicked the back of its head. In return she was slammed to the ground by its tail, but the lizard did seem stunned. However, the man Hinnaeu, armed with his own dagger, seemed bent now on killing her himself. She tossed him off and sprang to her feet, aiming a kick at his chest for good measure, and then cried out as claws slashed shallowly across her neck. Inadvertently but instinctively slapping her hand to the wound, she felt blood running between her fingers.
The man dove at her, and she jerked her body to the side without moving her feet to avoid both his knife to the right and the tail flick to the left. She felt a strong urge to repeat the move she’d used only once, on Nagokama: a high, hard kick to the jaw to snap his neck. She restrained herself, barely, and flipped to the side as he came at her again. She slammed into a tree and fell to her knees, groaning: her right arm had hit the trunk. Darting forward, she made it to where her open pack lay, and found her swords. With a rinngswishh they came free of the sheath, and she turned with a grin to face her foes.
“Inu, back!” Hinnaeu commanded, but not before the creature had come close enough for her to slice off one of its arms. It screamed and howled in agonized ire, and she took the opportunity to survey the condition of her pack. Several items had been removed and were lying around it on the ground. It would take her many moments to gather it up; so much for just grabbing her things and scaling the wall. “Back!” Hinnaeu roared, and she realized maybe she wouldn’t have to get away quickly.
She watched warily as the groaning monster, head still tossing, retreated to its master’s side. The man was glaring at her with such an intense look of hatred he almost frightened her. “You killed Sotóra, you whore.”
“I’ll kill you too, if you don’t leave now,” she growled back. She had little patience for people who called her names. “Don’t think I can’t, unless you’ve never heard of the Maruroharyuu.”
His face twisted horribly with a mix of emotions, Hinnaeu stepped back, his hand on the back of the squirming monster. “Inu heel,” he snapped, and slunk away from her. “Beware of coming south, bitch,” he swore. “You killed Sotóra, and Telmiquor’ll skin you for it.”
“I’m not afraid of you or any of your friends,” she called back. Her neck was smarting and throbbing, and she only wanted to find her way to somewhere safe and get to sleep. When they were out of sight in the night shadows, she stood only one moment in the forest silence before repacking her things. Antwerp, who seemed to have intelligently hidden during the fight, appeared at her side with a questioning look. She scooped him up into her pack without a word and immediately tackled the wall. As she climbed she smiled. She was not a killer. Deathscar had told her to kill the man, but En Shevil had resisted and merely driven him off. It was true that she’d killed his companion, but that had not been her intent. She regretted it, but at least now she was on the road to truth.
She resolved never to think of Deathscar again.
Chapter 10 – Trouble in South Spielburg
Spielburg had not always been a nation. Less than a century before it had been a bloodstained land ruled by various warlords, all that remained of the even older nation of Alchenwäd. Every town and city stayed defensively shut behind its great stone walls, valuables safely stored in its war-time retreat vault. Even after the nations to the east destroyed each other and peace fell over what would become a great kingdom, it was still fifty years before the land could recover from its heritage of violence and open its doors and gates to outsiders. Some wartime traditions still remained, though, and few cities could be found without a near-useless stone wall and vault.
Eventually the place became merely a tame sort of wilderness dotted with small cities and tiny towns, hardly united by their common tongue and the more common merchant language. Little leaders devoted to peace, none claiming titles greater than perhaps baron, often held several of these villages under their casual rulership. The countryside was peaceful, prosperous, and happy, but there were a few who sought to unite it. Some of these went about this violently, but the people, mindful of their gruesome past, always resisted. Some sought to gain the lords’ approval and thus their loyalty, but none could perform a feat great enough and of enough wide-spread interest. That is, until the Baron Stefan von Spielburg (the first) led his small but well-trained army against a particularly troublesome wizard and his seemingly endless hoards of devils. Inspiring loyalty in the towns he passed on this particular quest, he managed to rally an army larger than any that part of the world had ever seen, united for a just and righteous cause (and dispersed immediately the battle was ended), to defeat the enemy. After this, nearly every minor ruler put themselves willingly under his jurisdiction, and by a generation later the land of Spielburg was formed. Certainly there were pockets who refused to acknowledge Stefan as their master (though he unassumingly retained his title of baron instead of claming a rightful kingship), but these were few and not powerful enough to trouble the small-time fiefs (as they now called themselves). Or so everyone thought.
Among Stefan’s efforts to further unite the country was the setting up of a post, the ordination of a more structured tier-government system, the regulation of goods prices and currency laws, and the dubbing of his land “Spielburg” after the name of his little town. The latter was now the capital, but the huge nation-wide festivals (established by Stefan himself) were held in the greater city of Piek to the northeast across the mountains. Stefan did not find the duties of a near-king particularly difficult, for the nation looked after itself to a large degree. He merely had to receive reports from his various under-lords (who out of respect had discarded the title of baron from among their ranks) and keep track of the general state of finance and economics across the country. The matters of his own valley were of more direct concern to him, however, and thus his life was as busy as it could reasonably have been expected to be.
His son Stefan (the second) did not relish his upcoming position as both Baron of Spielburg and Baron of Spielburg, and by the end of his teenage years was known as quite the hooligan in all the surrounding towns–in the hopes that his father would reconsider passing the position on to him. However, upon the assassination of the first of Spielburg’s royal line, the younger Stefan settled down with a heavy heart to assume his father’s place. Only his marriage to the lovely Elisse von Ärden a few years later cheered him up enough to put any enthusiasm into the job. The search for Stefan’s murderer was soon given up when no sign nor remotest clue could be found leading to his identity. Apparently there were still those who wished Spielburg to be unruled, or to be ruled by other hands than the current. A great deal of trouble might have been saved if his lordship had been a little more attentive to his rebels, or had not been so quick to abandon the search for his father’s killer upon the birth of his first child.
But En Shevil did not know all this. Had she, she would not have cared, for she would not have realized how it pertained to her. Her personal dealings–Deathscar, Achim, and all that–had almost made her forget that there was a real world out there that just might be willing and able to pull her into its own dealings for an adventure or two that was totally irrelevant to her own life, however much heartbreak it caused her in the process. She would have done well to have asked Achim about his troublesome adventure previous to his heroics in Spielburg.
The little party traveled for days along the foot of the Spielburg mountains, enjoying the beautiful countryside and each others’ company. Actually, Elsa did not enjoy Singing Man’s company, though Toro seemed to put up with him fairly well. En Shevil found herself more and more fond of the man every day, though he always did put off her questions with bits of song. She also grew to like Elsa a great deal: the warrior’s stoic, straightforward manner and perfect honesty were quite appealing to the other warrior. En Shevil taught her a few basic maruroha moves — there was one spin-kick in particular Elsa liked — and helped her brush up on her thief skills. In return Elsa showed her something that En Shevil had never thought in her lifetime to see.
Toro and Singing Man were not present, both having gone to a nearby pond to bathe. Elsa, seated on a rock, unslung her pack and pulled it out in front of her. “There is something you would like to see,” she said, looking around. “I have brought it from Spielburg as I did not want to leave it in the care of my brother.” She drew out a large, heavy-looking object wrapped in cloth and held it out.
Only mildly curious, En Shevil took it and pulled its padding off. Startled beyond expression, she nearly dropped it on her own feet when she saw what it was. “The Blackbird!” she gasped.
“I attained it sometime during my time with the brigands,” Elsa said.
“I — I don’t believe it!” En Shevil stammered. “It’s so…” Staring at its fine detail and sleek silvery-black coloring, she had no word to describe it. “I was once hired to steal one of the fakes…” she murmured. “I still can’t believe — is this really the real thing?”
“It is. I thought you would enjoy seeing it.”
En Shevil ran her hand up and down the bird’s chest longingly. Hearing the approach of the two males she regretfully began wrapping it up again. “What are you going to do with it?”
“I don’t know yet. But I will put it to good use, I assure you.”
It was exactly one week later that they reached the somewhat large (for Spielburg) town of Stuartsgeiden. En Shevil was not very interested in helping.
“But you must!” the innkeeper cried. “We have no warriors here, not even any adventurers. He’s been taking our children and threatening to kill them if we tell the baron; then he demands taxes of us, and food. We’re starving! Not a single adventurer has passed here in weeks — the last one refused to help us too. We’re running out of resources.”
“Who is this man?” asked Elsa, coldly angry.
“All I know’s that his name is Telmiquor. He’s got lots of men holed up in there, and creatures under his control too. I think he wants to rule Spielburg, and he’s been there for more than a year raising a secret army. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got other towns like us. He has our children!”
En Shevil sighed at the weary desperation in the man’s eyes and voice, and finally asked, “How many children?”
“Great mother of Iblis, thirteen? How can you let him take your kids like that?”
“We have no choice when he sends ten men and four saurus rexes into town and breaks down people’s doors. As far as I know he hasn’t killed anyone yet, ‘cause we’ve been good with his demands. But we can’t hold out much longer. Our winter stores were enough, but we don’t know if we can afford what he needs for the summer. And his demands don’t get any smaller, either.”
En Shevil glanced at Elsa, annoyed, and saw the determination in the other woman’s face. And to be honest, En Shevil didn’t think she could refuse at this point anyway. But it was a nuisance. Achim could be dead for all she knew, and here she was preparing to play Heroine for a little town with no connection to her. She knew she was being selfish, but she could not help regretting the time she knew they were going to lose.
Singing Man spoke a few brief, rhyming lines about what a devoted parent would do for their child, and Toro remained silent. “We’ll help you,” En Shevil said heavily. “Where’s the vault?”
Stuartsgeiden was tucked into a corner where a mountain arm jutted westward from the main range. An out-of-the-way little place, En Shevil was not surprised that this Telmiquor had managed to keep his residence and tyranny a secret from the rest of the inattentive country. Like the innkeeper, she also would not have been surprised to learn that the despot held other towns under his sway: the apparent scouts she had met some time earlier suggested he was at least branching out. Leaving Antwerp and most of their equipment at the inn, the adventurers headed up into the mountainous back yard of the town towards the vault in which Telmiquor had taken residence. Routing a minor tyrant and keeping a dozen children alive in the process was not her idea of fun. She’d had enough of that in Sechburg. But children were children, and she was not backing out now.
It was dusk, and they had reached the approximate location of the vault’s main opening. Proceeding with extreme caution, they skirted as best they could the wall of the overhanging cliff until they were within view of the door.
Like most vaults — Elsa had given them a brief rundown on that particular tradition — the latter was designed to be accessible by only one man at a time in order to be the most defensible. A guard stood before the door, looking alert but not very watchful. Apparently the invaders had not experienced any resistance from the villagers to make them vigilante. Still, En Shevil’s party had decided, on the way up, not to risk a frontal assault if at all possible. As Elsa reminded them (and she knew from experience), every fortress had a back door. They retreated to where they could talk.
“I say we split up and search for another way in,” said En Shevil uncertainly. Her knowledge of tactics was what she’d picked up twelve years ago playing Capture the Banner in school. That had been in a desert. “We can meet back here in an hour or so. Any of us can take down whatever comes our way –” She glanced uneasily at Singing Man, not sure whether this applied to him — “so we should be safe.”
Elsa nodded. “We should split into groups of two.” Without hesitation she added, “I will go with Toro around the guard and to the west.”
En Shevil smiled in the darkness, resisting the urge to laugh. “All right, we’ll meet you back here in an hour.”
“Good luck,” Elsa bade them, and was gone — doubtless glad to be away from Singing Man.
“Can you climb?” the latter asked immediately.
What a lucid question! “Yes.”
He gestured back behind them and said, “Let’s climb the cliff.”
Still surprised at his sudden prose, she accepted the idea and started back eastward. She did not quite know how far to go, but assumed it would be wise to leave the guard far enough behind that their ascent would not be heard.
Singing Man pulled a rope and grapnel from his pack, and after pulling loose a few tangles from the cord he flung the hook into the darkness, where it took hold of the cliff with a clack. En Shevil found a handhold and pulled herself upwards as Singing Man tested his rope. “Race you,” he offered in a quiet, challenging tone.
“Very well,” En Shevil grinned, and began to climb.
Minutes later he was several feet ahead of her when his grapnel slipped and his feet scrabbled on the rock to find a hold. En Shevil took a firm grip on the edge of the alcove where her hand was, and swung out to catch him as he toppled backwards. Bracing her joints for his weight, she held his wrist tightly, knuckles white and arms straining, until he could find a place to stand. “You win,” he gasped, staring up at her with startled eyes.
She looked away; his eyes were so blue! “Come on,” she said firmly, and they continued.
On the top of the cliff, Singing Man disentangled his rope from where it had wound around his arm and leg upon falling, and hooked his grapnel onto his belt. “Now which way?” En Shevil wondered.
“If we are searching for a back entrance, we ought to start at the back,” he replied. “That means south.”
En Shevil pursed her lips, brows lowered. Why was he acting so differently? Because Elsa was gone? She began to think there was more to this man that she’d originally guessed. Besides how handsome he was in the moonlight, of course. “South it is, then,” she agreed, and started in that direction. They walked quietly for about three quarters of an hour before they found anything, and this was not quite what they were looking for.
In a dense, rocky thicket of immense size they stumbled on a nest of huge eggs, each one at least a foot across, off-white with veins of darker cream. Stumbled was indeed a good term for their discovery, for En Shevil nearly fell on top of them as she forced her way out from between three trees and a thick, prickly bush. To avoid crushing the eggs she was forced to do a half-flip, landing quite painfully on her lower back a little way ahead. “Watch out for the eggs,” she groaned to Singing Man who followed.
Climbing sorely to her feet to the sounds of his careful removal of self from the bush, she realized they were not alone in the tiny clearing. Before her was a low, natural ‘tunnel’ of close shrubbery that plunged into blackness and was probably an easier way out than that they had taken in. Emerging from this, crouching low, was an irate, though rather frightened-looking, young saurus rex. The closed scratch-wounds on En Shevil’s neck throbbed and itched just looking at the creature.
“Uh-oh,” Singing Man said as he hopped on one foot in an attempt to disengage the other from the underbrush.
“If we can get to the tunnel, we could back out of here and she probably won’t hurt us,” En Shevil said tensely, hoping desperately that they could get out of this one without being forced to kill a young mother. Singing Man glanced at the eggs and nodded.
At that moment the beast attacked, darting out at En Shevil so quickly that only instinct saved the maruroha from losing a limb. Dodging out of the way at the last possible moment, En Shevil rolled up to her feet to gape in shock at her apparently insane companion; for Singing Man had tackled the creature and was now attempting to wrestle it from behind, strong arms holding the gigantic tooth-filled mouth shut. The saurus was tossing its head and whipping its tail, and several times Singing Man’s feet were thrown out from under him. “What are you doing?” En Shevil shouted, forgetting herself for a moment in amazement at his actions.
Singing Man actually laughed. “I’ll catch up to you!” he replied, grinning, and En Shevil simply stared at him. He was crazy. She backed, crouching, part of the way into the tunnel and watched him. It was a strange rodeo, the bucking saurus frantically trying to throw the playful man and he laughing like an idiot as he was flung here and there and dragged off his feet. It was not long before the saurus gained the upper claw, as it were, and Singing Man fell violently to the ground under its great legs. He rolled, but was not fast enough to avoid a hard swipe in the stomach. The saurus hissed and growled, lowering her head for a deadly bite, but was knocked backwards by En Shevil’s foot as she sped forward and jumped to her friend’s defense.
“You idiot!” she said, though not entirely unkindly. “I’ll cover you.” The saurus thrashed on the ground, struggling to gain her feet once again, and Singing Man crawled from the thicket through the narrow tunnel. En Shevil backed into it behind him, swords out to deter the creature from following.
Once out on the rocky slope beyond the cramped home of the saurus, En Shevil turned on Singing Man accusingly. “What’s wrong with you? You almost got yourself killed in there!”
Panting and smiling widely, he responded happily, “I haven’t had a good wrestling match in months!”
“You’re crazy. We’re supposed to be looking for a back door to a stupid fortress, not wrestling stupid saurii.” He continued to grin, and she looked away from his flashing teeth. All at once the image of him bouncing and flopping around on the saurus’ spine came into her mind, and she began to giggle. “Let’s head back,” she said, taking the lead down the mountainside and trying not to laugh out loud.
“We did not find any sign of another way in,” Elsa said dejectedly. “What did you find?”
“Nothing but a saurus rex and her clutch,” En Shevil replied with a yawn. “What do you say we go for the front door? I want to get this over with.”
Elsa frowned. “I still do not believe that is the wisest way.” They were all silent for a moment, though Singing Man was humming softly.
“Man in inn say bad man have animals,” said Toro at last. “Maybe saurus rex bad man’s animal.”
“That is a possibility,” Elsa considered. “Perhaps it was a guardian of some kind.”
“So we have to go back up there?” En Shevil said in a dull tone.
“You will have to lead us,” said Elsa, totally ignoring the fact that Singing Man had gone with En Shevil as well.
En Shevil glanced doubtfully at Toro. “We’ll have to go up around to where the cliff is lower,” she said, “unless you can climb, Toro.” The minotaur shook his head, so En Shevil turned and led the way eastward up the mountain.
This time it took them nearly an hour and a half to reach the thicket again, mostly because approaching it in the dark from the opposite direction made it difficult to find; even when they were there En Shevil was not entirely sure it was the right place. “If we don’t find anything,” she asked wearily, “can we please go in by the front?”
Elsa did not respond, but began skirting the trees and scrambling over rocks, looking carefully for some sign. En Shevil sighed and followed. “Toro take Singing Man other way,” the minotaur said, and the two males headed off around the thicket in the other direction.
“Look here,” Elsa hissed, stopping short and dropping to her knees. It was the proverbial clue, a scrap of cloth. “I was correct.”
“Either that or this saurus has an offensive streak,” En Shevil muttered, but Elsa was pushing her way into the thicket. En Shevil took a few running steps backwards to where they had separated from the others and called, “Come here!” Then she followed Elsa.
The latter had stumbled, her foot caught deeply in a mess of branches and leaves that almost looked, upon close examination, hand-woven. Elsa was twisted around trying to get free, and remarked when En Shevil appeared, “I believe we have found it.”
“Elsa OK?” Toro asked from over En Shevil’s shoulder.
“Yes, I am fine, Toro,” Elsa said as she finally yanked her foot out. “Help me clear this away.” The two women tugged at the mess, and began to expose a blackness that breathed forth cool, wet air into the foresty dimness around them.
“Well, this may be the back door,” said En Shevil as she stared into the hole. Under the deep shadows of the trees in the pre-dawn, there was no way to tell how deep it was or what lay inside. For all they knew it could be some creature’s nest. “Who goes first?”
“Toro tallest,” Toro said. “Go first.”
“Be careful, Toro,” Elsa said as the minotaur seated himself with his legs dangling into the darkness. Then he was gone.
There were scuffling noises below as of hooves on stone, and Toro spoke in an echoey voice. “Tunnel. And ladder.” A moment later the ends of ladder slats clacked against the side of the hole, and the three humans looked at each other. “Let’s do this,” En Shevil sighed, and pulled herself down.
For a moment her mind was clouded and she could see nothing, but then the tunnel came into focus: low, mostly natural it appeared, rough and downward sloping. The draft was stronger, with a cold, definite moisture on it, and it chilled her. Shivering, she stepped forward to stand by Toro as the others descended. When they were all gathered, she unhesitatingly and wordlessly took the lead, deeming her vision to be the best. Ducking an outcropping, she walked carefully through the narrow way as it twisted, rising and falling, in no coherent direction.
It was featureless, the blank, ragged rock faces around and above her. There was little rubble or other loose material, and their footfalls were hushed. Her movements became mindless as she stared before her into deep greyness and interminable turns of the tunnel. Soon she had lost all sense of where they went, and her hand instinctively sought the wall to her left. The world shrank to vague blankness in her thoughts.
The way forked, each road looking equally level and the branch to the left slightly smaller. The others drew up even with her as she stopped, dulled mind not registering the need for decision. She might have remained there for several minutes, still as the stone around her, until Singing Man said, with an apparent effort, “Which way?”
His hushed voice fell onto their ears strangely loudly, like a stone into calm water, startling them all. No echoes spread from it, yet off to the left they imagined they caught an answering noise like a whispered word. En Shevil took a hesitant step in that direction, then stopped. A heaviness had gripped her and a desire to be in a warm inn bed, not here in this cold darkness seeking something she did not remember.
“Careful,” Singing Man murmured, and she wagged her head rapidly to clear the cobwebs from her mind. Looking around at her companions, she found the same dullness in their eyes, and wondered obscurely, not really wanting to know, what it was.
“Left?” she said in a thick tone, and Elsa gave a slight shake of her head — of confusion, not disagreement. Toro stood silently, eyes nearly closed.
Singing Man pushed past her, almost roughly, and started into the left tunnel at a walk that was almost a stagger. Groping at the stone to either side, En Shevil followed like a beast, intent on staying with him. The darkness pressed around them as the other two stumbled after.
This path was straight; they could not go wrong. Grey walls sank into blackness as vision gradually departed, and the heaviness of the air calmed En Shevil’s actively apathetic desire to be elsewhere into a passive, stuporous indifference that was content to let her keep walking until she ran into something and stopped.
The boundaries disappeared, and they were walking through shallow water. It was shockingly cold, and a start went through her as she realized what that had done to partly