Pride of her Parents 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.

“A housekeeper.”

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.”

“No, thanks.”

“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.”

“Including what?”

“Never mind.”

“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.”

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