A smiling En Shevil took light steps through the fragrant pine wood. “Antwerp,” she called, watching for the little creature to come hopping back from his circuitous exploration nearby. She’d had to do this every so often to make sure he’d not lost her. He appeared between some trees a little way ahead, bouncing in place, and waited for her to signal him off again. She waved, and he disappeared.
She took a deep breath of the late afternoon air of spring, cool rather than cold, and smiled again. On such a day as this she could almost forget, could almost let go. The sun might, as it hovered just in her sight above the treetops, light the darkness inside her, were the black center of her soul not so dense. As it was, she was relatively happy.
She really had no idea where she went. After making her difficult way down the snowy slopes of Rustinmount (she’d almost wished for a horse as she’d floundered through some of those icy, detestable drifts), she’d simply continued southward for two days in the hopes of finding a town where she could make some concrete travel plans. But she had found nothing as yet.
With half a troll-chest of money, her pack was considerably heavier than it had been, and felt hot on her back over her new velvet cloak. Nevertheless, as the sun vanished from her view and the trees’ shadows began to lengthen, she felt a chill surrounding her and the wind, formerly pleasing and cool, seemed icy. This was nothing a little firewood-cutting would not cure, so she found a place to stop. She dropped her pack carelessly, hearing the chink of coins, and took off her cloak. This she folded. In her heavy, functional clothing, still bright and diversely colored in Shapierian style, she did not mind so much chopping wood, but the cloak she would rather preserve from sweat and dirt as long as possible.
She heard footsteps immediately behind, but before she could turn something impacted with her head and flashed the world into a brilliant white around her. She toppled, feeling her senses going numb, and struggled inwardly with the desire to allow unconsciousness take her. But if she let herself go now she might never reawaken. As the instantaneous decision to survive was made her instinct kicked in and opened her sanoko. Pain accompanied the energy that flooded her, and her head began to throb as a prickling tingle spread through her limbs. She rose, not as quickly as she would have liked, and ducked another kick as she spun to face her attacker.
She could have been wrong, but had not this demoness had wings at their last encounter? She crossed her swords, unable to remove her eyes for several moments from the bizarrely lovely face, as a warning. “What do you want?” she asked.
“Ooh, aren’t you a smart one?” the other woman responded as she lunged at the human, sword drawn. En Shevil met the red-shining black blade with her own flashing weapons, but even as the demoness’s charge was halted her serpentine tail whipped around En Shevil’s legs and threw her to the ground. “What do you think I want?” the dark woman said as she searched for an open spot to place her sword tip to prevent En Shevil’s movement.
The Maruroha slid her swords on opposite sides of her enemy’s, twisting the long dark blade upward and raking Oyin across the demoness’ clenched hand. At the same time she rolled to the side and stabbed Sayeto down at the tail holding her legs. The demoness relinquished her grip with a growl, and En Shevil scrambled backwards and jumped to her feet. “Why me?” she asked as if she didn’t know. “And why you?” She hoped to throw her enemy off with this.
“Why you?” laughed the demoness, empty hand twitching as the two women began to circle each other. “You have powers no other human has. As for me…” En Shevil fell to her left hand, kicking out at the other’s head with her right foot. The demoness leaned back enough to dodge the blow and snaked her tail out to grasp at En Shevil’s wrist even as she swiped her sword towards the Maruroha’s hips. To block this latter move she was forced to bring Sayeto, in her right hand, up to a level that prevented her from shifting her weight and escaping the tail. But even as she fell once more to the damp ground, craning her head up to take the impact on her shoulders, she thrust her left foot out into the demoness’ abdomen. Oyin lay beneath her where it had of its own accord twisted from her hand rather than let her body fall on its point, and her hand, as well as the tail that held it, was uncomfortably wedged between her side and the ground.
As the demoness regained her balance after the kick, En Shevil swiped Sayeto at her stomach, and the hellish woman took the blow, allowing the weapon to draw a bright red line across her exposed belly, in order to press the tip of her own sword to the Maruroha’s ribcage. With her other hand she seized En Shevil’s wrist and twisted it until Sayeto fell to the ground. “As for me,” she said again, “I just got lucky. I hate Hell, the demon world,” she continued as she crouched, hand still firmly on her sword’s hilt, “and now I’ll be free to wander this world in your body, killing to suit my king’s will.”
Askgaella chose not to mention the humiliating fact that her king had recently been defeated, and that since the portal to her world had been closed, the only way to return there was to die, at which point she could not return here again. And that this was not a battle she could afford to lose.
En Shevil decided in that split second that she would rather perish than let this monster possess her, or rather possess Deathscar, so she reached for her dropped sword. Unfortunately, as both her weapons lay on her left and her right hand was the one free, this availed little. The other woman grasped her wrist and pulled her arm up, twisting it around the long black steel perpendicular to En Shevil’s chest. The latter gasped as the hot blade cut a large gash through her upper arm. The demoness let En Shevil’s hand go and put her own on the human’s shoulder. Panic filled the grounded warrior, and she realized the only way to escape possession would be to kill herself on the sword pressing into her bosom. Glad of the energy still pounding through her blood, she summoned all her strength.
At that moment her assailant stiffened, arm falling away from the black sword, which fell backwards over En Shevil’s stomach, and her tail’s grip loosening. Her right hand slipped slowly from En Shevil’s shoulder as she crumpled ponderously forward over the Maruroha and dissolved into smoke. The arrow that had felled her, its steel head disfigured as if melted, dropped as the back that had housed it vanished, and landed beside En Shevil on the ground.
Panting, she sat up and absently retrieved her swords as she looked for her deliverer, who presently appeared from behind a tree. It was a woman, blonde hair braided behind her, clad in a leather tunic, fine white shirt, brown breeches, and light boots. A sword and three daggers hung at her side with a waterskin, and at her back was slung a quiver. She held in her hand a worn bow, and moved as quietly towards En Shevil as the latter could ever have hoped to in a wood. She took up the arrow and examined it. En Shevil, climbing to her feet, held her bleeding arm out so as not to stain her clothing. “Thank you,” she said.
The stranger, throwing the arrow aside, startled En Shevil greatly by drawing her own sword. It was plain, the type a large-town weaponsmith might have in stock. “You have much to learn about swordplay.” Her tone, somewhat patronizing though not unfriendly, drew forth a rather belligerent response:
“I can block daggers.”
“Let me show you something,” said the stranger, shifting the weapon back and forth between hands as she shrugged her quiver from her shoulders. Somehow the arrows all stayed in place even as it hit the ground and fell to its side. “If I am going to connect, I must have my weight balanced to pull away for your next move.” She demonstrated by tapping En Shevil’s shoulder with the flat of her blade and pointing to her feet. En Shevil watched, interested. “If I’m doing a sweep or a feint,” suiting the actions to the words, “I need to keep my weight moving for my next move.” She pointed again to her feet as she showed how she used her legs. “This way, I can have the most force possible on each blow.”
En Shevil was still attempting to defend herself. “But Maruroha swords,” indicating hers, “are offensive weapons, and depend on what attack you’re using.” She went to where her pack and cloak lay to look for a bandage.
“Patience! If you are to dodge the blow of a swordsman you must watch where their weight is centered so you will know their intent. The tail may have been entirely a surprise, but you could have known when she planned to stab you.”
“Have you ever fought a demoness before?” En Shevil asked crossly. Her ethics as a warrior had certainly been challenged in the past, but never her abilities. Also, she had no bandage and her wound was throbbing. Pulling out a ripped shirt she wrapped it around her arm and began attempting to tie it tightly. In the meantime the stranger took a few steps forward and answered,
“No. But a wide range of combat abilities will help against any creature.”
“Well, the last time I fought that particular demoness I won. Not to sound ungrateful, but I did know what I was doing.”
“I do not wish to offend, but you did not know what you were doing against that woman’s sword. A more experienced swordsman could have easily defeated you.”
“I guess you are a more experienced swordsman?” She tried very hard not to make it a challenge, and failed.
“Let me show you,” said the woman coolly.
“Help me with this bandage.” The stranger complied, and the pain eased slightly as the makeshift bandage was tightened around the bloody wound. Then En Shevil took up her swords and faced the other blonde. “I’m ready,” she said.
The stranger seemed to undergo a transformation then, from the jovial, casual visitor of before to an intense, mysterious, and altogether deadly warrior. With her stabs, slashes, parries, and quick feet she very soon convinced En Shevil of her words’ truth. She could not really defeat the Maruroha, who was able to dodge the stranger’s every blow, but En Shevil could not hope to slide a hit of her own in when she could never tell where the stranger’s sword would be next. And eventually she would tire of jumping around like this.
Finally, and almost by luck, she found an opening, and gave the other woman a spin-kick in the jaw. The stranger stopped, raising a hand to her face in surprise, and smiled. Her sword lowered. “You are most skilled,” she said.
“So are you.”
“If you would join me and my companion at our camp, I would be glad to show you some techniques.”
“Certainly,” said En Shevil. “Who is your companion?”
“You will meet him.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Tarna, though at this moment I am simply trying to avoid a most presumptuous man who… but perhaps it is better not to discuss others in their absence.”
“I’m going to Tarna too.”
“You have heard, then, the news of the Hero?”
“He saved Tarna from demonic invasion, but a strange magic took him. I thought to search for him, in case he needs help.”
En Shevil was speechless. “Magic? But… where is he now?”
“No one knows. But as he once helped me, I feel it is my duty to try and help him.”
“I have to find him,” En Shevil murmured to herself. She’d known it would be difficult to rejoin Achim, but now it appeared it would be harder than she’d expected. Her spirits were falling with every new thought on the matter.
“Allow me to accompany you,” the woman requested.
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?”
“I am En Shevil, of Shapier.”
“So you no longer call yourself Deathscar.”
En Shevil’s eyes widened. “How did you know?”
“I saw you when the Hero brought you into the Spielburg valley.”
“Are you Elsa von Spielburg?”
The woman nodded. “May Toro and I travel with you?”
“My friend. He is a minotaur.”
En Shevil thought for a moment. “Of course. Do you know anything else about Achim?”
She shook her head. “Only what I have said already, and things you doubtless already know. He told me you were his friend.”
“Yes,” she said simply. “I can’t believe…”
“We’ll find him,” Elsa assured her. “Toro and I have made camp not far from here. I came when I heard your swords.” She stared down at the demoness’ dropped blade on the ground. “Have you any interest in this weapon?”
En Shevil shuddered. “Certainly not.”
Elsa nodded, taking the sword up gingerly and hefting it, nodding. “It is better than mine. Follow me.”
En Shevil nodded, and took up her things with her left arm. She would not be curling much weight with her right for a while. Following Elsa, she left the small clearing and made her way to another.
Here was Toro, and En Shevil tried very hard not to stare. At least eight feet tall, he was a formidable creature who wore only a blue loincloth and silver bracers. His long cream-colored horns shone as if polished, and his eyes were a startlingly bright, fierce, deep black. She could barely meet his gaze as Elsa introduced them.
“Toro, this is En Shevil.” She added more quietly, “Deathscar.”
Toro gave her a calm look, if any look from those eyes could ever be called such. “Toro pleased to know warrior woman.”
“This is Toro. He has been my friend since childhood.” En Shevil bowed, Shapierian style, and expressed her equal pleasure. “Let me get you a healing potion.”
“I don’t think it’s deep enough for that,” replied En Shevil. Healing potions really only helped with internal injuries, and thus only very deep wounds would be affected by them.
“We can try.” Elsa brought her pack over to where En Shevil stood and dug through it on her knees. She handed a small bottle to the Maruroha, who uncorked it and drank. The pain eased slightly as the inner quarter inch of her cut healed.
“Thank you,” she said. “Now what about those sword moves?”
For the next darkening hour Elsa painstakingly taught En Shevil some of the things she knew until they could no longer see each other. Toro watched them silently, nodding his horned head at every point Elsa brought up. Then he built a fire and they sat, wordless, for some time, all eating: En Shevil some of the rations she had bought before she left Sechburg, and the other two small bread cakes. The Maruroha stared at the fire, which seemed bright and almost cheerful, the brilliant wavering gold edges surrounding the calmer blue center.
She did not know it, but Elsa watched her carefully, noting the reflection of both gold and blue sparkling in her eyes. “When you left Spielburg, you made it appear that you had died,” she said after a while. “Does the prince know that you are alive?”
En Shevil lowered her eyebrows. “Prince?” Was there some other ruler who was displeased with her?
“Did you not know of the Sultan’s reward?”
En Shevil gaped. “You mean…”
“That Achim is the prince of Shapier? I think we have much talking to do.”
The long, light, shining dagger was silver from tip to hilt, set with a single, gleaming black gem where the blade began. Thin lines of white ran along it, carved skillfully into the image of a dragon cramped into the grip with its tail wrapping the blade. En Shevil stood alone in the complete darkness, darkness so thick it seemed to be solid, except for the circle of light that fell about her from above. It was pale light, cold and white and dusty. She clutched the dagger, torn with indecision. If she drove it into her heart in order to kill herself, she would not kill the dragon on the blade but free it to drink her blood and consume her. The dragon was the problem. Then suddenly she was confused: why did she want to kill herself again? Oh, yes, the dragon. But the dragon was on the knife. So she had but to cast away the weapon and be free of the dragon. But then how could she kill herself? Wait, why did she want to kill herself?
Suddenly Achim stepped to her side, putting his warm hands on her arms and looking over her shoulder at what she held. Gently he reached over and took the blade from her trembling hands, putting it away in its silver sheath that hung from her pack — put it away to have it never out again until she took the first step in her quest for acceptance and destruction of the dragon. As the knife clicked loudly into the sheath the light sprang up around them, and smells of flowers and magic assailed her. They stood in Erana’s Peace, back in Spielburg, but somehow the magic was not so distasteful to her as she had once thought it must always be. Overwhelmed with the desire to be held by her lover she turned to kiss him, raising her arms, and stopped. For above his head, hovering in the air, was the half-transparent image of a shining crown that revolved slowly and illuminated his face. Hesitantly she reached for his hand, only to have him disappear from before her.
Then she found herself in another dark place, the sweet smells of Erana’s Peace gone and replaced now by the long-since-mollified stench of death and decay. In the moment before she started awake she realized that she lay on her side, surrounded by ancient bones, on the backbone of a monstrous skeleton.
A soft voice spoke from nearby. She looked around groggily to find the speaker, and saw sitting beside the newly-built fire a man, a stranger. Her eyes did not rest on his shoulder-length blonde hair, thin face, lean frame, worn clothing, or the black boots at the end of his outstretched legs, for that they first rested on what hung at his belt: a silver-sheathed knife with a black gem by the grip and the white-carved image of a dragon on the rounded hilt. She stared at it, convinced she was still dreaming, as he continued. “You, since I sat myself here, have not lain still for two minutes together. Why look you so heavily?”
“Who are you?” She sat up in her rolled blankets, scrambling for her swords.
He drove his gaze into hers. “Come, come, answer me directly unto this question that I ask: in faith, I’ll break thy little finger, an if thou wilt not tell me all things true.” She simply stared at him, amazed at the petulant tone of voice in which he spoke these odd words.
He’s talking like a dragon or something. “Why should I answer a stranger who just appears at my fire?” she demanded.
“The fire is Elsa’s,” he said in a reproving tone, “and you are but a guest.”
“Then let me wake Elsa up,” she said sarcastically, annoyed by his strangely-tuned phrases, “and she’ll answer for me.”
“How shall Elsa answer for what is in your heart?”
He smiled at her kindly and murmured, “You know me not. Why then should you betray me thus?” Toro started up with a snort, seizing his unbelievably huge battleaxe, and in two steps was between En Shevil and the stranger, staring down with his fathomless eyes at the man by the fire. Elsa was stirring at his noise when he roused her completely:
“Elsa — singing man back.”
At that she sat up abruptly. “You again!” she said, her eyes devoid of any weariness. “I told you to stop following me!”
“You draw me, you hardhearted adamant!” he cried. “Leave you your power to draw, and I shall have no power to follow you.” He struck his hand to his breast.
“Who is this?” asked En Shevil, confused, for what was that look on the man’s face? She spoke to Elsa, as addressing the man directly seemed somewhat futile.
“This fool has followed me from Spielburg,” Elsa snarled, “despite my repeated warnings for him to be off.” Her stare met the man’s with such ferocity that En Shevil felt he must turn away his gaze. Instead, rapt, he spoke in a wan tone:
“Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.”
Elsa gave a groaning sigh and turned away from him, lying down once more with her back to the fire and the stranger. Toro, seeing his mistress’ acceptance of the man’s presence, merely gave the ‘singing man’ a snort and returned also to his sleeping place. But En Shevil was more awake than that, and looked more curiously on the man. “What is your name?” she asked.
The man began to sing. “Don’t need to read no books of my history — I’m a simple man; it’s no big mystery.”
“Um.” En Shevil pressed her lips together in confusion.
He noticed the direction of her gaze and frowned. “This interests you?” he said, lightly drawing the silver dagger from its sheath and tossing it. Impressively, he caught it by the hilt after it had spun several times in the air and handed it to her. She took it gingerly without a word, examining it. Yes, there was no mistaking that it was the dagger from her dream. But why a prophetic dream all of a sudden? It made her anxious — did that mean all her dreams had some sort of hidden meaning?
“Odd,” she murmured. The more she looked at it, the more she felt she’d seen it before, and not just in her dream. The dragon design, the black gem, somewhere… She turned her head slowly to where Elsa’s things lay ready at the woman’s side. It was certainly true — the sword formerly belonging to the twice-slain demoness was adorned with the same draconic design. She rose to her knees and leaned over Elsa’s half-sleeping form to grasp the hot hilt of the red-black weapon. Pulling it clumsily over the other with her left arm, she dragged it from its scabbard. The pattern was exactly the same, save only that this weapon was black with the inset lines red. She held up the dagger. Was it her imagination, or did the colors seem to shiver as she brought the weapons close?
She touched steel to steel, and chill ran through her. With a start she watched as the long sword went silver from pommel to tip, and the dagger turned black. “Wonderful,” she said, a hesitant smile touching her lips. She separated the weapons and touched them again. For a second time they switched hues, and En Shevil grinned outright. “Wonderful!” she repeated. “Where did you get this dagger?” she asked, looking up at the stranger.
His intent eyes were locked on her, and she blinked several times as she met his gaze. Finally he answered, “An heirloom with bold legends twining as the dragon its length.”
“Ehah.” En Shevil was becoming somewhat annoyed with this man. “Can you say anything in a normal way?”
“What is normal?” the man mused, seemingly to himself. He put on a strange accent. “Normal is what everyone else is, and you’re not.” She sighed and started switching the colors of the weapons again. “Chollichihaua,” the man said. She did not look up at him again, not wanting to lose her temper and being more interested in the weapons at any rate. “And care you? Not at all.”
“What are you talking about?” asked En Shevil in frustration.
“And is that supposed to mean something to me?”
“En Shevil, go to sleep,” grumbled Elsa from behind her. “Do not waste your time speaking with him.”
En Shevil took a deep breath. “Here,” she said, handing the dagger back to the man slowly after making sure it was silver. When he took it, she replaced the sword in its sheath and laid it down in its former spot beside Elsa. “Goodnight.” Grumpily she turned her back on the man and put her head on her outstretched arms, closing her eyes. As the slight noise of the fire and the louder, more distant sounds of the forest blended with her fading consciousness, the sound of singing threaded its way softly into the approaching greyness of her dreams.
Rahaña had a daughter fair and wise;thief-queen of old she was by right of birth.
Tejato was her nation most despised, thief-nation oft esteemed of little worth;
For who with such a nation should ally? Or with confirméd robbers deal in grain?
A people without sustenance must die, and so respect must be won back again.
This to achieve, did write the dustrus queen scripts, Tejato’s faith to represent,
And in diverséd lands with humble mein to varied rulers did these scripts present,
For, lab’ring long, she’d to her people gone, her person told Tejato of its plight,
Convincing them that, if they would live on, they must assure the world ’twas safe from slight.
The people’d to her wisdom swiftly bent, Chollichihaua’s soft persuasive word,
And to her all the nation’d voices lent for other lands to have their peace assured:
Tejato would Tejato’s practice feel, its folk but on themselves their thiev’ry show.
From narry an outsider would they steal, and to all other nations honest go.
The queen Collichihaua met success in ev’ry minor country in her way,
But five the greater kingdoms did confess reluctance, and did halt for manya day.
Severally their leaders then conferred, and endly to her messengers did send:
Requiréd from her hands for each, she heard, was proof that openness she did intend.
So took she careful thought, and also gold, and purchased endly smithies, numbered five,
And swore that, though her hands grew weak and old, they’d not stop work while she was yet alive
Until, her purpose met, she could present those proofs from her own hands demanded her;
This bold demand she never did resent, nor took it to her nation as a slur.
So, as she were a weaponsmith of yore, she toiled the forges of her raiséd sheds,
And weapons made, with her own strength waxed sore, magical, and’f worth unlimited:
For windy, brilliant Shapier made a bow of copper-gold and shining like the sands
That the Sultana Ibshiyah might know her safety in Chollichihaua’s lands;
Silmaria, the ocean-land of might, received the sword of watery grey-blue
To show King Unus, on Atlantis’ height, that to their word her people would be true;
The Tsar of old Surria, cold and grim, the dagger ‘tained, white-silver as a wraith:
With it she pledged her honesty to him, by it Cvonyet had sure’ty of her faith;
Northward Lokgard, land of ice and fire, had axe of her, red-black of mighty heft,
That Lord Hrothkani might have no desire to war neighbor Tejato for some theft;
The last for noble Alchenwäd, now gone, the spear of yellow-green and brazen size
Was forgéd for Fürien Keidetion, ever to hold good standing in her eyes.
She also on these weapons left a mark: the dragon flying, carved into the steel,
Inset with precious stones of color dark, that their receivers might their worth more feel;
Thus bound together by this common sign, the weapons to each other all could speak,
And if Tejato any land maligned, five lands swiftly could their vengeance wreak.
So pledging faith laboriously by, Chollichihaua’s efforts did not fail:
Five nations did her swear their loyalty, so long Tejato’s word should prove not frail.
Thus with her lengthy years of toil complete the queen returned to rule her land again,
And did with nationwide affection meet to cheer her heart and wipe away all pain.
But soon would end Chollichihaua’s reign, for demons broke into her thieving land.
Five nations came to aid her, but in vain: the valiant queen was lost to hellish hand.
So dead, but ne’er forgotten by her friends, her legacy lives on in weapons sharp,
And in the songs and tales that never end so long as men do live by flute and harp.
With these words came images, hazy and soft, dream-like — a tall raven-haired woman of ruddy complexion, unspeakable beauty, a face patient though sarcastic, and a strong frame. Her features, familiar somehow, were lit from below by the white-glowing light of a forge as she hammered at something with a muscular arm. Darkness suddenly seized her, and she was gone. En Shevil’s waking thought was, Chollichihaua — what a name to be burdened with…
“Good morning,” Elsa bade her, observing she awoke. En Shevil shook her head and sat up, looking around for Singing Man. Her brow lowered when she did not see him.
“Is he… that man… was there a man here last night?” She was now not entirely sure she had not dreamed his existence. That would explain the dagger, but not the song. She had never been a poet, and did not think that even in her dreams she could come up with such a ballad.
Elsa sighed and rolled her eyes. “He is still here. He has been following me since I left Spielburg, and I do not even know why.”
“Elsa, my darling, you know perfectly well why,” came Singing Man’s voice as he approached.
En Shevil fancied Elsa blushed.
“You know I do not wish you to follow me. Why do you not respect my wishes, when you claim to love me?” This was certainly blunt, and in front of a stranger no less. En Shevil guessed Elsa must be weary of humoring him.
“Well, someone has to look after you,” Singing Man laughed, causing Toro, on the other side of the smoking remains of the fire, to snort loudly.
“I take care of Elsa — if Elsa not take care of Elsa.”
“You see? I have no need of your protection. Even were I to become hurt and unable to fight, Toro would care for me.” En Shevil refrained from speech, merely covered her smile with her hand. Elsa, however, knew exactly what the Shapierian was thinking. “Ready your things, En Shevil, for we shall soon depart.”
En Shevil smiled openly as she stood and tightly rolled her blankets after shaking them out. Running a brush through her hair and taking a drink of water, she felt ready to leave; but the others had made no moves for the predicted departure. Elsa and Singing Man were having an argument, so En Shevil took the opportunity, abandoning her things, to move towards the nearby stream in the hopes of washing her face and hands. Toro rose quickly and came with her.
“Not like singing man too much,” he said as they walked, tilting his head to avoid a scraping of branches with his horns.
Something rubbed against her leg. “Hello, Antwerp,” she said absently. “Haven’t seen you in a while.” Addressing Toro she asked, “When did you leave Spielburg?”
“Elsa and I travel for two weeks, singing man follow.”
“Has he caused any problems besides annoying you?”
“He talk too much.”
En Shevil bent and scooped up water, splashing it on her face and slicking back her hair. The breeze felt chill and fresh on her wet scalp, and she breathed deeply, smiling. Then a worried expression overtook her face, and she stood to lean against a tree while Toro drank on one knee. “I wonder if Achim is all right,” she said, directing it at Toro but really requiring no answer.
“He good man,” said the minotaur, standing straight again, “Good hero. He sneak right past me, I never notice. He thief, I think.”
En Shevil smiled. “Yes, he is a thief. I never knew Achim had seen you. He didn’t mention you. Were you connected with the brigands, then?” They began walking slowly back to camp, where Elsa was standing and preparing to leave, obviously quite annoyed. Antwerp bounced along behind them.
“I Elsa’s bodyguard. No let brigands hurt Elsa. Teach Elsa to fight when little. Elsa good.”
En Shevil felt a pang of loneliness at this — she had no friends left. “Elsa’s lucky,” she said quietly. She picked up her cloak, fastened it around her neck, and donned her heavy pack. With its weight on her back she wished often for a walking stick, but had not the tools nor the particular knowledge to cut one.
Singing Man appeared to be in the middle of a song. “…I walked a lonely mile in the moonlight…”
“We will continue heading south,” said Elsa decisively, “and keep to the mountains until they end.”
“…and though a million stars were shining…” sang Singing Man.
“By only striking west at the end of the Spielburg range, we can take the Winder Pass into Shapier.”
“…my heart was lost on a distant planet…”
“A caravan will take us to the other side of the desert — unless you know it well enough to guide us yourself — and in Rasier we can inquire into another pass out of Shapier into Tarna.”
“…that whirls around the April moon…”
“I had thought to go around Shapier entirely, but I felt you would like to see your homeland.”
“…whirling in an arc of sadness.”
“Is this acceptable to you?”
En Shevil had been trying to follow both the song and the dissertation, and laughed as her mind repeated what she thought she’d heard: they would take a pass to a distant planet, where she would guide them around the April moon.
“I’m lost without you.”
“How long have we to the end of the Spielburg range?” she asked instead of giving the answer Elsa had requested.
“I’m lost without you.”
“A few weeks, if we travel quickly. They are thin and shrink to a point at the southern end.”
En Shevil jumped the stream, and looked back as the others followed her. She caught Singing Man’s gleaming eyes and her heart skipped a beat — only in that moment did she realize what a handsome man he really was. He smiled sadly and dramatically as he sang the next lines, and it seemed in that moment he was singing only to her. “Though all my kingdoms turn to sand, and fall into the sea, I’m mad about you. I’m mad about you.”
She shook herself out of it, wondering whence that fit of madness had come, and found herself walking next to Singing Man behind Toro and Elsa. She did not look at him, but watched the rippling muscles in Toro’s back as he walked. “And from the dark secluded valleys, I heard the ancient songs of sadness; but every step I thought of you, every footstep only you.” Images swirled through En Shevil’s head, of her own desert home in darkness, forlorn, dreamy, offering no comfort to the weary traveler.
“Elsa,” she said very suddenly, “why did you leave home?”
“Every star a grain of sand…”
Elsa shook her head as if in annoyance. “After the Hero gave me the memory of who I was, I led my father’s men against the brigands and drove them from the valley.”
“…the leavings of a dried up ocean.”
“My father retired as the baron, as you probably have heard.”
“Tell me, how much longer? How much longer?”
“Will you please be quiet!” Elsa growled at Singing Man.
“When my song is finished, my dear,” he replied, and continued. “They say a city in the desert lies…”
Elsa heaved a great sigh through clenched teeth and gestured for En Shevil to come to her side. Once there, En Shevil tried not to listen to the captivating song. “My brother, as the new baron, was most troublesome to me.”
“…the vanity of an ancient king.”
“He did not approve of my warrior’s ways, nor of Toro my friend.”
“The city lies in broken pieces, where the wind howls and the vultures sing.”
“We had many arguments, and often came nearly to blows.”
“These are the works of man. This is the sum of our ambition.”
“He would not attempt to fight with me, for he knew me to be the better fighter.”
“It would make a prison of my life…”
“He thought he would rid himself of me by marrying me to a local lord.”
“…if you became another’s wife.”
“I told him very bluntly what I thought of this plan.”
“With every prison blown to dust…”
“He was not used to being told such things, and he was probably happier when I left, taking Toro with me.”
“…my enemies walk free.”
“And your father?” asked En Shevil, still trying to ignore the song and the words she thought must be coming next.
“He is content knowing that I live.”
“I’m mad about you. I’m mad about you.”
Elsa looked at En Shevil. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“And I have never in my life felt more alone than I do now.”
“What have you done since… I saw you last?”
En Shevil looked away and sighed, but felt no reason not to answer. “After Erasmus cured me, I wandered northward for a while, spreading the story that ‘Deathscar’ had been killed by the Hero.”
“Although I claim dominions over all I see, it means nothing to me.”
“Then after a while I changed my story and said she’d killed herself.”
“There are no victories…”
“I reached Sechburg, and stayed out the winter there.”
“…in all our histories…”
“I had a few adventures, but I finally decided I wanted to… see Achim again, so I left.”
“You are troubled,” said Elsa slowly, “and restless — and I do not blame you. For anything,” she added.
“A stone’s throw from Jerusalem…”
“Thanks,” said En Shevil simply. It was good to hear those words from anyone.
“We should be approaching the village of Galfein by the end of the day,” said Elsa, as if to change the subject.
“…I walked a lonely mile in the moonlight…”
En Shevil’s face darkened. “Shall we stop, or pass by?”
“…and though a million stars were shining…”
“Toro and I are low on supplies, as we have encountered no town since we left the valley.”
“…my heart was lost on a distant planet…”
“I would rather…” began En Shevil uncertainly, but stopped. Though still uncomfortable with the idea of showing her face this far south, she was not yet sure whether avoiding towns would be morally right.
“…that whirls around the April moon…”
“We will not stay long,” said Elsa in a tone that conveyed nothing.
“…whirling in an arc of sadness.”
“Stay at inn!” said Toro gleefully, and En Shevil smiled. Even a great, tough ‘monster’ like the minotaur must be glad of a bed when he could get it.
“I’m lost without you. I’m lost without you.”
“We will arrive after dark,” said Elsa.
“And though you hold the keys to ruin of everything I see…”
“Eat good food, not from campfire!” gloated Toro.
“…with every prison blown to dust, my enemies walk free…”
“We can leave before dawn.”
“…though all my kingdoms turn to sand and fall into the sea…”
“Town good. People friendly.”
And so the nonexistent debate was won, and En Shevil was convinced without having ever objected. She nodded absently, and they all fell silent at once for the last, sorrowful lines of Singing Man’s song.
“…I’m mad about you. I’m mad about you.”
By an hour before dusk, Singing Man had gone through perhaps twenty songs, and Elsa informed them they were nearing the village. “We have made good time,” she said. “We are earlier than I expected.” En Shevil sighed, still not feeling at rights with this entire town idea. But she said nothing and walked on with them, looking around at the changing scenery. More and more trees in the area had been reduced to stumps, and they heard the sound of an axe hacking away at another not far off. The noise was somehow foreboding to the Shapierian warrior.
The sound of a horse nearby startled her even more, and she unconsciously began sneaking along, even in the midst of her party, as silently as possible. Antwerp made furtive little bounces beside her, as if in support of her movements. They encountered the horse and its owner soon enough: a young girl, in her mid-teens perhaps, sat on a tree stump reading a book, untethered horse nearby. She looked normal enough — brown hair in two braids, freckled face, red cloak and hood over white shirt and brown trousers — until she looked up at them and they saw her eyes. About these there was nothing particularly unusual in the shape or color, only in the air. She held them wide as if in fear, and in their gleam and the dilation of the pupils there was some indescribable attitude of horror and unfathomable loss. She stared at them for long moments, her facing rapidly taking on a cloudy color which made her freckles stand out oddly. Stumbling to her feet, she backed away into her horse.
En Shevil nearly chuckled — had she never seen a minotaur before? — until she realized that the girl was staring at her.
“Your eyes!” the girl howled. “Your eyes!”
En Shevil put a hand to her face and touched her eyelids. Nothing seemed to be wrong with them. Blinking several times she stopped and asked, “What about them?”
“Ye gods have mercy!” the girl moaned. “I prayed never to hear that voice again; apparition, why do you come ever to torment me?”
“What do you mean?” asked En Shevil in a quavering tone, for of course she knew.
The girl’s visage turned in a moment from fear to rage, and she flung herself at the older woman. “You killed my family!” she shrieked, mouth twisted open to show clenched, slavering teeth. Her face was a mask of madness and anger beyond description.
En Shevil reflexively raised a hand to block the punch aimed at her face, and the girl recoiled in an instant and fell back once more, fear again dominating her features. “Deathscar!” she sobbed. “You destroyed my life! You destroyed me!” The hideous change came over her once again, and as a monster she sprang forward. “I’ll kill you!”
“Stand back!” Elsa commanded, but the girl did not seem to hear.
En Shevil had once again merely to put out a hand, and the girl stopped her onslaught and shrank into herself again. “You… you… I’ll… you killed them in front of my eyes…” she wailed, sinking to the ground in a trembling heap. “Those ghastly eyes, that demonic voice, ever in my dreams to torment me.” Her head was in her hands now. “Why do you not now leave me in peace and let me die to join them?”
“I…” began En Shevil, her heart reeling and her thoughts swimming in a sea of dark misery.
At the word, the girl upstarted like a wild creature and cried out, “I will be free of you!” Then, leaping on her horse, she tore off through the forest, her sobs still audible for some time after she was out of sight.
Everyone was silent for long moments while En Shevil held her breath and tried not to scream. Finally Elsa said awkwardly, “She was crazy.”
The Maruroha could bear it no longer. Throwing her purse down on the ground she cried, “I can’t go in there! Buy me some food and I’ll meet you at the other side tomorrow morning.” Pulling her hood down over her face she began to run, forward and to the left in order to circumnavigate the town ahead. Her breath coming ragged and tears streaming down her cheeks, she wanted to slam her head into something solid and end this agony.
The fading sound of Singing Man’s voice followed her: “If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one, drying in the color of the evening sun, tomorrow’s rain will wash their stains away, but something in our minds will always stay.”
Trying to drown out the sound, En Shevil ran faster, pushing her way between trees and never taking the easiest path. A wall sprang up in front of her suddenly, imposing stone seeming to condemn her with a thousand mouthless, soundless voices. She veered left, avoiding the town, and ran onward. Her brief tears now gone, she concentrated on calming herself. She had always known this was coming; there was no chance she could cross Spielburg again and have no one recognize her. She had only one option, and that was to deny their accusations and… Abruptly, she stopped running, clenching her fists. She could not deny what she was, to herself or to anyone else, and what she was… she was a killer. She was Deathscar.
She walked on more calmly now. Wasn’t that a depressing thought? The extent of its truth she did not know, but it certainly had arisen unbidden from her subconscious. She sighed, her spirits sinking ever quicker, and sat down against the cold wall of the unfriendly town. She did not feel like crying any more, and did not want to continue thinking about the way she was. She did not want to do anything. Fitfully she tossed a rock into a tree, watching it bounce off and return nearly to her feet. She pulled her pack from her shoulders and cuddled up to it in the shadows, throwing her cloak over it like a blanket. Antwerp, finally having caught up to with her after her long run, anxiously nuzzled her side. She closed her eyes. In a grey half-doze she remained until darkness had swallowed her up.
What awoke her was the sound of snuffling, and she jerked awake from a sleep much deeper than she remembered falling into. A horned head, crimson and dark purple, swung towards her on a long, bent neck. Great yellow eyes narrowed; a wide, toothy mouth snapped an inch from her face. Gasping, she scooted backwards in time to avoid the swipe of a clawed hand. The great lizard bounded forward to attack again, but En Shevil rolled out of the way, ignoring the cutting pain that shot through her wounded arm when it was pressed into the ground, and jumped to her feet. As she reached for her swords, her eyes went wide when she found nothing there. She backed into a tree, looking around for help, as the creature approached her. It was then she noticed the man going through her pack. Dispelling all panic, she took a few running steps forward and vaulted herself cleanly over the creature’s head, rolling forward and jumping to her feet to kick the man in the knee.
He stumbled backwards, tripping over the straps on her sword-sheath which he held. “Imu, on ‘er!” he commanded, and En Shevil spun to see the beast approaching her once again. This time, she did not give it any advantage. She stepped forward, then crouched on her right leg and kicked upward with her left, striking the monster squarely in the jaw. It stopped, shook its head, whimpered, then looked beyond her to its master. She kicked it in the chest. The thing howled and waved its head around, then brought its evilly glowing eyes to bear on her with anger and pain. She kicked it again before dodging out of the way of its claws. This was all beside the point; she needed to get back to the man before he made off with any of her things. Avoiding a tailswipe she looked quickly over to see that he was in her pack again. Beside him was another man.
Targeting this one with the dagger she pulled from her ankle, she skipped aside as the creature came at her once again.
“Hinnaeu, she’s got a knife,” her target hissed, apparently thinking she would throw it at the crouching man. Corrected, the speaker fell with the dagger in his chest. Hinnaeu dropped whatever he was holding and spun with a gasp, for the other man’s hand had slapped him as he fell. Hinnaeu flipped the fallen man over to expose the cause of his demise, and made a choking sound in his throat. As En Shevil once again ducked a blow from the monster the man hissed out the word ‘bitch’ and made some movement she could not see.
Attempting to knock the saurus rex out, she jump-kicked the back of its head. In return she was slammed to the ground by its tail, but the lizard did seem stunned. However, the man Hinnaeu, armed with his own dagger, seemed bent now on killing her himself. She tossed him off and sprang to her feet, aiming a kick at his chest for good measure, and then cried out as claws slashed shallowly across her neck. Inadvertently but instinctively slapping her hand to the wound, she felt blood running between her fingers.
The man dove at her, and she jerked her body to the side without moving her feet to avoid both his knife to the right and the tail flick to the left. She felt a strong urge to repeat the move she’d used only once, on Nagokama: a high, hard kick to the jaw to snap his neck. She restrained herself, barely, and flipped to the side as he came at her again. She slammed into a tree and fell to her knees, groaning: her right arm had hit the trunk. Darting forward, she made it to where her open pack lay, and found her swords. With a rinngswishh they came free of the sheath, and she turned with a grin to face her foes.
“Inu, back!” Hinnaeu commanded, but not before the creature had come close enough for her to slice off one of its arms. It screamed and howled in agonized ire, and she took the opportunity to survey the condition of her pack. Several items had been removed and were lying around it on the ground. It would take her many moments to gather it up; so much for just grabbing her things and scaling the wall. “Back!” Hinnaeu roared, and she realized maybe she wouldn’t have to get away quickly.
She watched warily as the groaning monster, head still tossing, retreated to its master’s side. The man was glaring at her with such an intense look of hatred he almost frightened her. “You killed Sotóra, you whore.”
“I’ll kill you too, if you don’t leave now,” she growled back. She had little patience for people who called her names. “Don’t think I can’t, unless you’ve never heard of the Maruroharyuu.”
His face twisted horribly with a mix of emotions, Hinnaeu stepped back, his hand on the back of the squirming monster. “Inu heel,” he snapped, and slunk away from her. “Beware of coming south, bitch,” he swore. “You killed Sotóra, and Telmiquor’ll skin you for it.”
“I’m not afraid of you or any of your friends,” she called back. Her neck was smarting and throbbing, and she only wanted to find her way to somewhere safe and get to sleep. When they were out of sight in the night shadows, she stood only one moment in the forest silence before repacking her things. Antwerp, who seemed to have intelligently hidden during the fight, appeared at her side with a questioning look. She scooped him up into her pack without a word and immediately tackled the wall. As she climbed she smiled. She was not a killer. Deathscar had told her to kill the man, but En Shevil had resisted and merely driven him off. It was true that she’d killed his companion, but that had not been her intent. She regretted it, but at least now she was on the road to truth.
She resolved never to think of Deathscar again.
When “Singing Man appeared to be in the middle of a song,” he’s singing Sting’s Mad About You. In this chapter he also quotes Sting’s Epilogue – Nothing ‘Bout Me and Star Trek: Generations, and probably other random sources I’ve forgotten.