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.