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
Chapter 1 - A Mistake
Chapter 2 - Shapierian No More!
Chapter 3 - Itsumo Kawai
Chapter 4 - Nightfall
Chapter 5 - Demons and Darkness
Chapter 6 - Mirror, Mirror
Chapter 7 - Sechburg
Chapter 8 - Magic and Mayhem
Chapter 9 - On the Road
Chapter 10 - Trouble in South Spielburg
Chapter 11 - New Quests
Chapter 12 - Silmaria
Chapter 13 - Looking Forward
Chapter 14 - Various Ends
Chapter 15 - Forms of Hell
Chapter 16 - Horror and Heartache
Chapter 17 - Dance of Destinies
Chapter 19 - Blood of Love, Death of Death
About the sequels
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.”