Chapter 1 -- Chapter 2 -- Chapter 3
Ren’s eyes flashed open underground. She lay still, feigning sleep, her breath slow and regular, and wondered what it was that had woken her.
The fire in her small hearth, long since gone to embers, pulsed a faint ruddy glow against the shadows that filled the room. On the rug beside the bed, lean piebald shanks twitching as he chased phantom sheep, Jak lay undisturbed. That was evidence enough that there was no real danger, so what had roused her in the deep hours of the night?
She sat up to listen and heard only her heartbeat. Nothing ordinary or otherwise stirred in the great warren of caves and tunnels her people called home. All seemed well.
But she was awake.
She lay down again and knew at once that it was a lost cause. Sleep had fled, not to be recaptured that night. Sitting up, she ran a hand through her hair, scratched the back of her neck, and sighed. “Bugger all,” she muttered, and threw the covers back.
Jak looked up the instant her feet hit the floor and blinked sleepy dog eyes at her, clearly wondering what the deuce had possessed her to rise at this hour. “Peace, Jak,” she murmured, letting him know it was none of his concern. That might be, but canine loyalty demanded he follow her from the tiny sleeping alcove into the slightly larger main room where he curled up on the hearth rug and sighed deeply, much put-upon.
Stepping over him, Ren stirred the coals with a long iron poker and tossed a couple of logs onto the fire. She swirled the contents of the kettle, added water from a wooden ewer to the dregs of last night’s tea, and placed it over the flames. Hooking a short-legged stool with one foot, she dragged it close to the hearth and sat down with her shirt-tail hanging between her knees.
Her spartan living quarters held little beyond the basic necessities of her sheparding life – a low square table, some cushions on which to sit, and several thick woven rugs. A goat-skin bag hung from a small promontory of rock that curled from the cave wall like a beckoning finger. Beneath it leaned her crook, the wood polished to a natural gloss by generations of hands. Tucked into a corner near the curtained doorway were a longbow and a quiver of arrows, a pair of snowshoes, and a set of narrow wooden skis with poles. Shelves hewn from the rock walls held clothing, tools, and an assortment of odds and ends. A slender ledge above the fire displayed a collection of stream-tumbled stones, hawk feathers, and other gifts given to her by her grandchildren.
As she waited for the kettle to boil, Ren picked at the knee of her breeches where the material was almost worn through and wondered what this day would bring. There was a list of chores longer than her arm, but most of them would have to wait or get passed on to someone else. Her first duty, as soon as it was light, was to hike down the mountain to the village of Cadasbyr and learn what news they had to share. Rumors of evil behavior on the part of Queen Kedar Trevelyan had seeped north from the royal city of Caerluel. Were the stories of her depredations true or was it all just talk created by idle gossips to stir the soup and pass the time? Ren had to know the truth beyond any doubt. The safety of her people – particularly the men – depended upon it.
Steam curled from the kettle’s spout in a lazy ribbon, bringing the welcome scent of hot tea. In stocking feet, she left her seat and crossed the room to take a pottery mug from the shelf. As her fingers closed around her favorite (glazed in blue with a belly as fat as a friar’s), the wood in the fireplace gave a sudden loud SNAP. She flinched at the noise (a tad jumpy, aren’t you Ren?) and dropped the mug, which landed on the one bit of stone floor not covered by a rug, breaking the handle. “Damn it all t’ –”
Behind her, Jak growled.
Ren turned around fast, the mug forgotten, but there was no one in the room except her and the dog. He crouched on the rug as if to spring and stared at the fire with the fixed ‘eye’ he used to control sheep. His top lip quivered.
“What d’ ye ken, Jak?” she said softly. She knew better than to question his instincts.
The dog whined and the tip of his tail wavered. He crouched lower, haunches bunched, finding his balance, ready to spring. His intent gaze flicked her way for an instant and then riveted back on the fire, telling her in the only way he knew how that something was there.
Nothing was there.
Without looking away, Ren reached behind her and felt for the crook leaning against the wall. Taking it in both hands, balanced as a quarterstaff, she moved forward.
The hearthstone, raked coals, and burning logs all looked as they had a moment before. The tea kettle was blasting steam and she used the end of her crook to swing aside the iron arm from which it hung. That was when she saw it.
The log whose pitch-filled knot had snapped in the heat had shifted, knocking free a spray of grey ash across the hearthstone. Printed in the ash was the four-clawed track of a rooster. It was larger than that of a normal bird, but there was no mistaking it for anything else, no means by which Ren might explain away its appearance as she would the pictures in a cloud. The spoor lay as clear as if the beast had just strutted its way across the hearth, but there was no animal present save the dog.
Ren’s heart gave a funny little hitch, a conflicted blend of fear and joy, and she sank to her knees. Snatches of old songs, portents, and prophecies cascaded through her mind so fast she could not catch hold of a single one. Reaching out, she held her open hand above the sharp definition of those claws…
…then slapped her palm down, scattering ash and obliterating the sign.
The jumble of logs in the grating erupted as if kicked from within and a curtain of sparks flew into her face. Ren cried out and fell back, one hand raised to shield her eyes, the other clenched deep in the fur of Jak’s ruff to hold back the lunging, wildly barking dog. Cinders fell around them like falling stars, singeing holes in the rugs. Ren went after them on her hands and knees, patting furiously to extinguish them before they could blaze to life.
When all that remained were dots of ash and the smell of charred wool, she sat back on her heels and looked once more at the hearth. What she saw there sent a convulsive shudder down the length of her back and buried cold fingers at the base of her spine.
A scattering of embers had landed on the hearthstone where the swipe of Ren’s hand through the ash was still apparent. They clustered in bright, pulsing glory along specific lines, giving her no option to deny their message. Here was the uplift of mighty wings, the curved stroke of an open beak, and a twinkling gallinaceous eye.
Ren’s heart lurched in her chest with an enormous thump! She pulled Jak into her lap and held him close. “I dinna ken I’m ready for this,” she whispered to the image as it slowly faded into grey, dead clinkers. “But I promise I’ll gie it my best go.” A smile whispered across her lips, turning her mouth up at the corners, and she buried her face in the dog’s soft fur.
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Kinner was in the kitchen finishing up the day’s chores, but his heart wasn’t in it. He was too aware of other things going on in the Household, an undercurrent of tension that seemed to hover just above his skin like static electricity.
When the door to the common room opened and immediately slammed shut again, the noise came as something of a relief, although he couldn’t imagine which of the Secondwives had possessed the temerity to do such a thing in front of his mother. He held very still, straining to hear, but there was no further uproar. The house settled back into its ominous silence like a toad into mud.
This was not a good sign.
“Aren’t you done yet, Seedless?”
He flinched and ducked his head, eyes downcast. The words were ugly and the tone uglier still. He knew without having to look that it was Mairgy; the broad, flat tones of her northern dialect gave her away.
From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed the frothy swirl of a lacy nightdress hem as the barefoot girl brushed past. She had been fostered into the Household to provide new blood to the family line. At first, Kinner had found her shy ways appealing, but four years under this roof had transformed her from a doe-eyed, slightly chubby eleven-year-old into a robust, self-absorbed teenager. Since the onset of her menses, powerful in the sense of her growing sexuality, she had pursued him with ardent and single-minded zeal.
But not anymore.
“You shouldn’t be downstairs without slippers,” he said. He reached for the broom and began to sweep.
“Mind your own business,” she replied and filled a ladle with cool water from the cistern.
“It is my business.”
She smiled with malicious joy. “Not for long,” she sang. She drank, arching her back to thrust her breasts against the nightgown’s simple homespun in an altogether mendacious invitation.
Kinner briefly entertained the fantasy of swatting her ample backside with the broom, but that was, of course, impossible. It was not given to men to do such things. Instead, he scooped the debris he’d collected into the dustpan and emptied it into the bin.
Mairgy snorted derisive laughter through her nose. When she was finished drinking, she hung the ladle back on its nail and leaned against the sink, scrutinizing Kinner from head to heel like a buyer appraising stock at an auction. He fidgeted under that scornful gaze and gnawed self-consciously at his lower lip. Like every adolescent boy since the dawn of time, he was acutely aware of his vague resemblance to an unfinished pie – an unskilled fusion of malformed dough with knobby knees, enormous feet, and jug-handle ears.
The girl wound a strand of dark hair around her finger and brought it to her lips. “Auntie Dwinn says you’re as good as gone. That’s what the meeting is about.”
Kinner remained silent. Did she think he was too stupid to understand why the common room was barred this evening to all but the Wives? Crisis lay over the Household like a hand poised to swat. He felt the weight of it pressing down against his head.
She wrinkled her nose at his lack of response and chewed the side of a thumbnail. “The outside breeding schedule will be suspended until we review finances.” She spoke with the authority of a Secondwife (which she was not, never having borne a child); as if she knew everything there was to know about the business of pedigree and breeding. “There won’t be stud fees taken in to off-set those we pay out, and now we’ll have to refundmoney to the families who received nothing for their investment because someone I won’t mention by name couldn’t perform.”
Kinner felt an almost overwhelming desire to apologize. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from doing so.
She prattled on, impressed with her grasp of the situation. “Even if we eventually get a male birth from one of the outside pairings, it’ll be yearsbefore he’s of any use.” The word ‘If’ hung in the air, unspoken but sharply felt. Better not to jinx the event before it happened.
Sighing with teenaged angst, Mairgy shoved away from the sink and breezed past Kinner close enough for him to smell the fresh scent of soap and her own particular musk. A flip of the hips and a flirty twirl of nightgown was the last he saw of her.
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He listened as her footsteps crossed the foyer, pattered briskly up the stairs, and trotted down the hallway to the big room at the end which served as the girls’ dormitory. Only after the door had opened and closed again, cutting off a peal of girlish laughter, did he set the broom aside. He swished the dish cloth in the pan of tepid wash water, wrung it out…and in a sudden and rare display of temper, flung it across the room. It landed skewed on the drying rack where it hung for a moment like a wayward thought before crumpling to the floor in a sad little heap.
“To the Hells with it.” His voice cracked with bitterness and worry. “Let them clean up their own mess for a change.” For the first time in his life, the seventeen-year-old left the kitchen without finishing his chores.
Slouching to the stairs, he paused with a foot on the first riser and glanced toward the common room. Behind the heavy door, voices rose and fell. Their words were indistinct, but the discordant tone was unmistakable. Kinner raised a hand to his chest and massaged the knot lodged tight beneath his heart.
Ragged coughing suddenly cut through the storm of argument. The tide of painful sound crested and gave way to thick, phlegmy rumbles that sounded like the muffled crumple of snow sliding off a roof. Holan’s symptoms – the horrible cough, the mucus, the crippled breathing – always grew worse when she was upset.
The door to the common room jerked open and Auntie Milda hurried out. She was still in her work clothes and stank of horses and manure. Kinner imagined her chair riddled with hay chaff and hair. It would never have occurred to her to put down an old towel to protect the upholstery, or to change her clothing before going in to the meeting. Tomorrow he would be in there for hours, picking the chairs clean to make them suitable for company.
If he was still here, that is.
She took two quick strides toward the kitchen, caught sight of him standing in the shadows, and whirled about. “Kinner!” One hand fluttered in command. “Get your mother a –” She stopped and rethought what she was about to say. He could almost hear the gears shifting in her brain; the last thing they wanted right now was for him to walk into that room. “Never mind,” she said with a brisk shake of the head. “I’ll do it myself. You get to bed.” She disappeared toward the kitchen.
Without leaving his place on the stairs, Kinner leaned to one side in an attempt to peek beyond the slightly open vee of the door. All he could see were the backs of a couple of chairs and the women seated there (Aunties Cully and Prueth). Their heads were turned toward the top of the table where his mother sat in pride of place as Firstwife, but that was behind the door and out of his line of sight. He listened to the rough draw of shallow breathing between each cough. Was this it? Was this the fit that would kill the blacksmith? If it did, his only champion would be gone.
Milda’s rummaging made a racket as she searched the kitchen for what she wanted, something that Kinner could have laid his hands on in an instant had she cared to ask. What sort of chaos would she leave for him to set right? Should he offer to help, despite her order to go to bed? Would she see the mess he had left behind and call for him to clean it up?
Back she came at a careful trot with a cup of water in one hand. She stopped short, surprised to find him still there. “Go on, now!” she said sharply and shooed him like a chicken with her free hand. “Stop loitering around doorways and get upstairs. If there’s anything that needs telling, you’ll hear it; otherwise keep your nose out of other people’s business. And for pity’s sake, stand up straight!” She didn’t wait to see if he would follow her directive (it was assumed that he would), but hurried back into the common room and closed the door. The coughing continued for a moment longer and then there was silence as Holan drank. Another cough or two cleared her throat, followed by more silence as she finished the water. When it was clear that the present difficulty had passed, the voices began their vigorous argument anew, each rising to speak above the last.
“Other people’s business?” Kinner said. He swallowed hard, feeling sick to his stomach. “Whose business do you think it is but mine?”
He climbed the stairs toward the third floor and the small bedroom tucked under the eaves beside the attic. Last week, that room had belonged to a three-year-old cousin. Now it was his, as it had been in childhood; a demotion from the roomy expanse of the Husband’s quarters.
On the second floor landing, a bundle composed of scrawny limbs clad in a flannel nightgown propelled itself backward on its rump to get out of his way. The five-year-old girl sat with her face hidden against her drawn up knees, arms curled protectively around her curly head.
“What are you doing out here, Ferlie?” Kinner said, surprised to see her. “You were supposed to be in bed hours ago.”
She sniffled, a thoroughly soggy noise, and said nothing.
He sat down beside her, legs crossed like a tailor. “What’s the matter? The big girls teasing you again?”
The child shook her head, but did not look up. An exhalation that was more sob than sigh trembled through her like the delicate riffle of wind across still water. When Kinner touched the tip of her elbow with one finger – “Come on, you can tell me” – she burst into tears.
He pulled her into his lap and held her close. “Hey, now, what is this?” he said, rocking gently from side to side. Shoulders heaving, she buried her face against his chest and wailed like her best friend had just died.
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At the end of the hallway, the dormitory door opened. Steeling himself for more ridicule, Kinner looked up and met the gaze of his half-sister Pegeen. She was eighteen, the offspring of Kessler and Auntie Dwinn. Like Kinner, she favored their father (which in her case was a blessing, considering Auntie Dwinn). For a moment they just looked at each other. When Pegeen spoke, it was without scorn. “I wondered where she’d gotten to. It doesn’t take this long to do a piddle. Do you want me to take her?”
Kinner shook his head.
Pegeen nodded. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence and then she spoke in a soft voice tense with anger. “It’s not fair.” She gave him a sad little smile and closed the door.
Kinner stayed where he was, humming and rocking until Ferlie’s tears ceased. When she settled more comfortably against him and crooked a thumb into her mouth, he wiped her face with the hem of her nightgown and waited to see if she would fall asleep. When she didn’t, he said, “Do you want to talk about it now?”
In the way of small children, she responded to his question with one of her own. “Are you really going away?”
The simple query lanced his heart. Kinner took a slow, deep breath and nodded, his chin moving against her hair. “Very likely.” The only question remained the means of his departure, but he wasn’t about to discuss that with a five-year-old.
“Don’t you like it here?”
“Of course I do.” Well, that wasn’t precisely true, but he might be excused a tiny white lie this one time. Ferlie was still too young to understand the particulars involved in running a Household. “Sometimes people go away, is all. That’s just the way things are.”
She sat up, jabbing him sharply in the groin with her knee, and threw her arms around his neck. “I don’t want you to go!”
“Oh, sweetie.” He pressed his face against her hair. “I don’t want to leave. You know that, don’t you?”
She nodded, then leaned back in his arms with her eyes streaming and looked him straight in the face. “Will you come say goodbye before you go?”
He could see his reflection in her eyes, a little Kinner momentarily trapped there. How long would she remember him once he was gone? A month? As long as a year? Would she forget him entirely? Would she retain little bits of their time together or would he end up as a shadowy figure from childhood, a vague memory? “Yes,” he said. “If they’ll let me, I’ll come say goodbye.”
She rubbed her sleeve across her runny nose and climbed out of his lap to stand barefoot in front of him. With a grave demeanor more in keeping with an adult than a little child, she placed her hands on his shoulders and leaned in to kiss him on both cheeks. “Someday I’ll be a wife,” she said, looking straight into his eyes. “Then I’ll come find you and bring you home. I promise.”
Kinner’s throat closed. Before he could find the wit or ability to reply, Ferlie walked away and let herself into the girls’ room, closing the door behind her without a backward glance. Kinner drew a shaky breath and wiped a sleeve across his eyes. Pushing to his feet, he took the last flight of stairs.
The room on the third floor was little more than a closet, with barely enough room for the narrow bed, a small table, and a chair with a rush seat. The walls were white-washed, but a rust-colored stain shaped like a seagull marred the ceiling above the bed. A small window, open a fraction to let air circulate, was curtained with a leftover scrap of cloth that stirred in the breeze. Tonight the wind was from the south. He smelled the sea.
It took little effort to conjure a picture of his childhood self in this room: stick-thin, bucky front teeth, and brown hair airy as dandelion fuzz. Night after night he had lain in this bed and listened to stories of the Weathercock. Holan had sworn him to secrecy over those tales, explaining that the legendary hero was something special between mother and son and not to be shared with the others, not even his father. He could hear her still, as if an echo inhabited the room:
“When the Weathercock rides, the sight of him will pierce our enemies to the heart. Bright as the banner of morning he’ll be and the world will never be the same for his coming.” She spoke in a hush, her eyes fixed upon the opposite wall with such rapt attention that he half expected the hero to come bursting through the whitewash.
Held in the circle of her arms, Kinner tucked his ear against her chest and listened to her heartbeat. Her shirt smelled of smoke and sweat, metal and fire, the homey and pleasant odors of her forge and his life. “Will he really come some day, Mum?”
The fine strands of his hair caught and tugged against the rough skin of her palm as she stroked his head. “So says the legend.”
He looked up at her. “When?” he demanded.
She chuckled and kissed the freckled tip of his nose. “Why, I don’t know, child. When it suits him, I expect.”
Kinner beat his stuffed rabbit against his leg. “I wish he’d come now!”
The blacksmith’s arms tightened around him. “As do I, child,” she murmured. There was longing in her voice and a sadness that Kinner did not understand. She kissed the top of his head. “As do I.”
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He closed the door and undressed in the dark. No more fine bed linens and expensive silks for him! That lovely apparel, soft as doeskin and cool as water, was folded away in the bottom drawer of the bureau in the Husband’s room to await its next occupant. It was back to nubbly flannel and cheap cotton for him.
The latticed ropes supporting the bed’s straw mattress creaked as they took his weight. Kinner clasped his knees to his chest in unconscious mimicry of Ferlie and sighed.
No one knew why so many pregnancies resulted in girl babies, or why the rarer male offspring were often sterile. It was just the way things were in Duine, the way things had always been. Such circumstances had given rise to Households composed of women, the most fortunate of which were organized around a Husband. Breeding arrangements were negotiated between Households, for which the servicing family received a hefty fee. Law required the strict maintenance of pedigree books as well as the regular introduction of new blood as insurance against inbreeding, and Husbands rarely left the security of their homes. Those men rendered sterile through infirmity, old age, or fate (Like me, Kinner thoughtwith bitterness)were dispatched as quickly as possible. Retaining them was not an option.
“Keeping a man after he’s gone blank is like feeding a dry cow just because you like its eyes,” Auntie Cully had declared one night when the topic came up at dinner. “If a man can’t breed, what good is he? Better to put him out of his misery as soon as possible.”
The other wives (all but his mother, who had remained peculiarly silent) had wholeheartedly agreed.
The deep tolling of a bell came faint on the wind from the hillside church that served their village. The three-note chime – the last of the day in these remote parts, although city cathedrals were said to ring the Church Offices throughout the night – extolled the virtues of the Three-Headed Goddess, the Triune Lady, the Triple-She. Besides death, Her Church was the only option available to infertile men, providing their families were willing to take the trouble and expense of sending them to the monastery at Dara. As titular members of the religious community there, the sterile would live out their lives committed to the devotion of prayer. Once they took up residence, they were considered dead their families and never seen in the outside world again.
But Holan hated the Church. No matter how much she loved him, Kinner thought it unlikely that she would send her only son to serve a deity she despised.
Knuckles rapped gently against the door; a soft sound meant to gently awaken rather than startle. The iron latch rattled as it lifted and the door creaked open to admit a skeletal hand bearing a cheap yellow candle in a wooden holder. Holan peered around the door jamb. She was old – fifty last spring – but illness had made her ancient. Her eyes, pouched with darkness, shone fever-bright, like two stars gleaming in the back of a cave. “Thought I’d find you up,” she said with a wan smile. “May I come in?”
She was the only one who ever asked permission. “Of course,” Kinner said. He shifted to make room, but she put the candle down on the table and crossed to the window instead, drawn there by the sound of voices and the tramp of feet in the street below. Standing to one side of the casement, where movement would not been seen should anyone chance to look up, she parted the curtain a fraction with one finger.
Six months ago, a rumor had come to town via a band of gypsy tinkers that Queen Kedar Trevelyan had ordered a squadron of soldiers to procure for her men of breedable age. Gossip ran rampant and sooner or later Kinner overheard every version there was to the tale – how the queen did not pay for the Husbands she took (“That’s thievery, that is!” Auntie Dwinn had shouted and pounded her fist on the table until the crockery rattled and Holan was forced to call her to order); how she used more than one male as “Husband” (that proud title turning derogatory in the mouths of those who spoke of it); how the men discarded by the queen were offered to her court favorites as play-things and sluts. What happened to the men after that, no one knew. Certainly none of them had been returned to their families or found their way home on their own. The worst rumor of all was that Kedar Trevelyan had ordered the deaths of proven, viable studs – men with a long line of healthy descendents – when she failed to conceive.
It was the one tale at which Kinner’s aunts had scoffed.
“That’s nothin’ but idle, slanderous tripe, that is,” Auntie Bellini had said just a few weeks ago as the women gathered in the common room after dinner. She toed her mud-caked boots off onto the rug that Kinner had hung over the clothesline only that morning to whack free of dirt. “Say what you like about her, but you get right down to the old brass tacks, regality aside and all that, and the queen’s a woman like us, ain’t she? She understands about business. She wouldn’t do nothin’ stupid.” The other women had nodded their agreement and murmured over their pipes and glasses of whisky. Holan, seated in the chair nearest the fire, had remained silent on the topic.
As the sound of footsteps faded, she twitched the curtain closed and looked at her son. “No worries. It’s only a crowd of locals rowdying their way home from the pub. They’ll get the rough side of someone’s tongue for coming in so late.”
Kinner nodded. Holan could be sharp-tongued herself on occasion. He took a deep breath, smelled the sea again, and tried to still the quaking of his heart. “Is it over, Mum? Downstairs, I mean.”
The line of her mouth turned bitter. “Oh, yes. We’re quite done, us.” She sat beside him and took his hand. Once hers had been warm and strong. Now they were a gnarled bundle of sharp sticks, angular bird bones trapped beneath the thin, faintly blue translucence of her flesh.
Kinner’s heart felt bruised. Here it came at last, the end of his life laid out for all to see. He could scarce believe this was happening. There was nothing he could do to change the outcome, nothing he could say that would make any difference to the women downstairs. “How will you –” Do it, he meant to say, wishing in some perverse way to know the manner of his death, but he could not make the words come. Would the Household abandon him in the hills to die or would it fall to one of the Secondwives to kill him? Surely they wouldn’t make his mother do it?
Holan had been speaking. Caught up in his worry, Kinner had missed half of what she said and only now caught the last word. “Go?’” he repeated in confusion. “Go where?”
She looked annoyed. “Weren’t you listening? I said you’re going to Dara.”
Confusion swept him even as a weight lifted from his chest. Suddenly, he could breathe again. “But you hate the Church!”
“I just saved your life and you’re arguing?” She clutched his sleeve and gave it a shake. “Would you rather be dead? That’s what the others want.”
“Of course I wouldn’t rather be…” Words failed him. He stared at her, working hard to get his head around the idea. “How does this work?” he said. “Do I take a wagon from here or do I go somewhere else to catch it?”
“Neither,” she said, and smoothed out a crease in her trousers. “I’m going to take you.”
Kinner blinked, brain spinning like a stick tossed into a rollicking stream. “Mum, Dara is half a world away.”
“I’m not stupid, boy. I know where Dara is.”
He felt a flush of annoyance. “Then you know that you’re not fit to travel such a distance.”
“Pah!” She pushed him away and folded her arms across her prominent breast bone. “Thank you so much for your concern, not to mention your vote of confidence, but I’ll decide what I’m fit for, laddybuck.” The wave of one claw-like hand took in the room, the house, the entire world for all he knew. “I’d rather die on the road than stay here with these carrion crows.” She shook her head. “I should have made this trip a long time ago. I knew I’d have to sooner or later. I had plenty of warning. But I…” Her voice trembled and faltered. “…had to do…what needed…doing…” Her eyes grew dreamy and unfocused. “…to insure…” Her expression went lax and her words became unintelligible.
Kinner waited. It was the only thing he could do when she was in the grip of one of her spells. She hadn’t always been this way, or so the aunties said. The fits (as they called them) had begun the year after his birth, as if the bearing of a son had changed the blacksmith in some fundamental way. The seizures left her vague and silent, prone to making curious calculations in the air. At night, when most tradeswomen closed up shop and went home or to the pub for a pint or two with the neighbors, Holan had shut herself alone in the smithy. The clangor that issued from behind those locked and iron-banded doors had made it impossible for anyone in the house to get a decent night’s rest. In the morning, the shop would be swept clean with nothing to show for all the noise except a tired woman ravenous for breakfast and infuriatingly adept at turning aside every question.
The Secondwives whispered to anyone who would listen that the Holan was insane. Such talk had frightened Kinner when he was small. He had quizzed his father about it, climbing into Kessler’s lap where he sat mending clothes under the screening leaves of the grape arbor. Still young in years, but already exhausted by the demands of his responsibilities within the Household, Kinner’s father had made some noises of reassurance and sent the boy off to complete the simple chores that were already expected of him. Although dissatisfied with the explanation, Kinner had read the worry in Kessler’s eyes and never asked again.
Holan’s voice abruptly cleared. “If they found it…found it…they’d sell it…or worse. Melt it…but that’s not for awhile yet.”
Kinner stroked her brittle fingers in an attempt to gently call her back to him. “Melt what, Mum?”
Her dark eyes were silver-limned in the candlelight. She twitched…blinked several times fast, her lashes fluttering like a hummingbird’s wings…and in a heartbeat was herself once more. “Oh, damn!” Her mouth pursed in disgust. “I never told you that part, did I?” She rolled her eyes. “Never told you any of it really and now’s a bit late to begin, but there you have it.” She slapped her thighs. “Despite what I’ve led you to believe, my darling, your mother is not always the sharpest nail in the horse shoe.” The bony point of her shoulder pressed against his. “You listen to what I’m about to say, son of mine, and remember every word.”
She smelled of medicine and a papery, almost desiccated odor that made Kinner want to wrinkle his nose. He tried to draw away without being obvious. “Mum…”
Holan placed a finger against his lips. “Hush. And hearken. This is a story about the Weathercock.” Her voice dropped into the tone and cadence he remembered from old. “The Weathercock,” she repeated. “And what he has done with me.”
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You can’t breathe through mud.
That fundamental truth came to Rai as she struggled face down in the glop of the stable yard with Banya’s boot sole pressed firmly against the back of her head.
“Had enough?” the Carraid asked in a brightly conversational tone.
Unable to speak, Rai thrust the middle finger of each fist straight out.
Banya tutted. “Such language in a young girl.” The boot lifted and a beefy hand descended to grab the back of Rai’s sodden jacket and give it a yank. She came off the ground with the sucking kiss of mud, staggered, and nearly fell. Banya steadied her with a solicitous hand under one elbow until she found her balance, then stepped back and gave her a once-over. “Wow.” She grinned with satisfaction. “You look like shit.”
Rai glared and spat perilously close to the Carraid’s boot. Digging a finger into her ear, she glanced at the women gathered in a loose circle around them and snarled. “What are you skanks looking at?”
The garrison soldiers laughed and replied with catcalls and a few illustrative gestures. If they’d found any entertainment value at all in watching Banya kick Rai’s ass again,it only proved what Rai had been saying all along – that things in Caerau had gotten dull.
The group shifted and broke apart, reforming in huddles of two and three for the exchange of wagered coins. Overcast light caught the grimy brass of four-sided dins and holed sens as they passed from hand to hand. An unexpected flash of light caught the edge of a silver dobler thrown into the pot by some overconfident fool.
Banya swiped the palm of her hand at the rain dripping off her nose and lightly biffed Rai’s shoulder with the tips of her massive knuckles. “Come on, little girl. Let’s get cleaned up.”
Rai tugged her wet pants out of her butt. “Don’t call me little girl,” she said and fell into step beside the big woman, boots plashing in the ankle-deep mud.
They were a lesson in contrasts. Banya was not quite thirty; tall, muscular, and built like the dray horse she somewhat resembled. Her blonde hair was braided into countless thin plaits that hung past her shoulders, and she favored traditional horseclan garb when off duty (although the bright colors were a muddy rainbow at present). Tiny bells, each smaller than the nail on Rai’s pinky, were sewn to the tops of her boots. They rang a soft chime with every step as her bow-legged, equestrian stride took her across the compound.
Rai was shadow to the Carraid’s sun. Small and finely made (, Rai was small and finely made. Her black hair was cropped short (she’d had head lice the summer before), and her eyes were a murky hazel. Her fair cheeks were pink with old sunburn, the slope of her nose patchy with peeling skin. Impoverished by even the standards of soldiery, the nineteen-year-old possessed only that which the garrison provided – two pairs of boots, a sword and dagger, and two black-and-beige uniforms. The upright half-collar of her jacket bore a copper pip to denote her rank as a lowly grunt. The brass star beside it identified her as a member of the Caerau garrison.
Months of crippling boredom coupled with bad weather had brought her to this day. Twitchy with malcontent, Rai had doled her unhappiness onto the rest of the garrison with the liberality of a half-wit disbursing an inheritance. When that didn’t make her feel any better, she had imprudently cast derision on the rag-tag orphans that worked under Banya in her role as garrison horse mistress.
It was a stupid move on Rai’s part, and she knew it. The Carraid was sentimental about the oddest of things, not least of which was the mongrel brood in her employ. Although by trade a canny and dangerous warrior, Banya largely viewed the world through calm and ironic eyes. It took real talent to antagonize her to the point of physical retaliation.
Rai was the most talented idiot Banya had ever known.
The barracks that housed the Caerau garrison was a long, narrow, white-washed stone building with a sagging roofline and wooden shutters. The main room, lit by cheap oil lamps and a few random windows, held grey-blanketed cots set into two rows. Each bed had a wooden trunk at its foot and a wall cubby at its head, all of them scarred by years of graffiti. A stone fireplace at either end of the structure roasted those who slept closest and froze the soldiers whose beds were furthest away. A curtained doorway in one long wall led to the bath house. The air, indeed the very stones and roof thatch, stank with the aggregate aromas of sweat, menstrual blood, pipe tobacco, and farts.
Banya dipped her head beneath the door lintel to avoid concussion and turned sideways to let pass a comrade heading off to duty. Fallon grunted (a universal sign of acknowledgement among soldiers) and went on her way. The room was almost empty, the rest of the garrison being occupied elsewhere. Von and Jobin were seated before the fire with their legs stretched toward the heat, enjoying a smoke and a quiet conversation. Duan and Tullia sat cross-legged on opposite ends of the same bunk, a deck of dog-eared playing cards between them on the thin mattress. Tynar stood watching the game with mild interest, her pants around her ankles. Her shanks had the color and consistency of poorly-kneaded dough.
Tullia drew a card from her hand and placed it face-up on the blanket. She folded the cards together, fanned them again, and paused to take in Rai’s bemired appearance. “Soldier,” she said seriously, her eyelids crinkling with humor. “You look like someone just yanked you head first out of a horse’s ass.”
Duan laughed, exposing several bad teeth rotted black to the gum-line.
Tynar kicked her pants aside and scratched her naked crotch with unenthusiastic vigor. “Should have left her up there, you ask me.” She leveled a finger at Rai. “I lost money because of you, crowbait.”
“Cry me a river,” Rai said and followed Banya along the aisle toward their bunks.
The rat-faced northerner shook out a fresh pair of uniform pants, pulled them on, and tied the waist. “A lot of money,” she said with inflated self-importance.
Rai toed off the muddy ruin of her boots, wondering if they were worth trying to salvage or should she just chuck them. Standing first on one foot, then the other, she peeled off her holey socks and dropped them onto the floor like dead snakes. She glanced at Tynar with a tired and jaundiced eye. “Spare me that line of crap. You don’t have any money.”
“Even if you did, you couldn’t wager it,” Banya said. “Everyone one knows you owe half the corps for past debts.”
“Right you are there, girlie-girl,” Duan said. She drew a card from those she held and tapped it against her disastrous teeth as she considered her next move. She placed the card atop the one Tullia had discarded. “She owes me a three-sen.”
“Din-six, here,” Von offered from in front of the fire.
“Dobler-half,” Jobin pitched in.
Tynar’s face darkened. “Shut up, the lot of you.”
Duan’s gaze, flat as a snake’s, lifted from her cards. “Watch your mouth, Northerner, unless you want a fat lip.”
The women locked eyes, but the challenge lasted only a moment before Tynar dropped her gaze. She gave a little shrug, like a horse shuddering off a pesky fly, and turned away as if the argument was beneath her notice. Behind her back, Duan rolled her eyes and returned her attention to the game.
Banya, bent over her open footlocker, straightened with one hand on the upright lid. “Wait a second. You bet against me, Ty? In a fight with Rai?” She grimaced. “Ouch. That hurts.”
Tynar squirmed, discomfited. “Well, I thought –”
“Aw, Ty,” Von cooed. “That’s sweet, stickin’ up for the underdog like that.” She wriggled her eyebrows. “Have you got a thing for our Miss Rai?”
Rai made a face. “Don’t make me puke.”
Tullia folded her cards, tapped them against her knee, and reordered the spread. “Anyone dumb enough to bet against Banya in a fight deserves to lose,” she remarked to the air.
“You got that right,” Jobin said.
Rai nodded. “I didn’t think there was anyone alive that stupid.”
Tynar came at her fast. Her fist clipped Rai’s shoulder, spinning her halfway around. Rai ducked a second blow aimed at her head, hooked a foot behind Tynar’s ankle, and jerked. As Tynar went over backward, a flailing hand caught the edge of a nearby thunder jug and sent the crapper flying.
In the Barracks Rules as set forth by Black Hirn – a.k.a. cook, doctor, battle surgeon, soldier, and general major domo of the garrison, second only to Captain Remeg – every chamber pot was to be emptied and scrubbed twice a day, at dawn and at dusk. Rai could not recall who had drawn the odious duty this week, but whoever it was had missed one. With balletic grace, a single turd spun through the air and landed squarely on Tynar’s chest, pointed at her chin like an accusatory brown finger.
There was a moment of silence…and then the room erupted with bellows of laughter. Grimacing with disgust, Tynar twitched the shit onto the floor, scrambled to her feet, and stalked out of the building, slamming the door behind her. Fine dust shifted down from the rafters.
Banya brayed, bent double, hands on her knees. “Oh!” She gasped and clutched at her side. “Oh, help me, Mother, I’m dyin’!”
Tullia sprawled backward on the bunk, arms clasped across her stomach, bouncing with hilarity and gulping for air. She tried to speak, failed twice, and gave it up as a lost cause. Duan scooped up the deck of cards and flung them into the air in celebration.
Von cackled and wiped tears from her eyes. “Oh, that was beautiful! Rai, I love you. You could’na done that better if you’d tried.”
“Thanks.” Rai could not help but preen just a little. All at once, the day seemed vastly improved.
Banya wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand. “That was so sweet, buddy, I’m going to buy you a drink after dinner.” She snagged a towel from her wall cubby and flipped it over her shoulder. “C’mon, hero,” she said with bright good cheer and passed through the curtained doorway into the bath house. Rai snatched up her own towel and followed, leaving the others to their mirth.
The bath house was a marvel of modern engineering that never failed to impress and fascinate Rai. Half the size of the barracks, its walls and floor were thick stone lined with cedar. A row of nine metal tubs were connected via a confusing welter of copper and brass piping to two enormous, wood-fired coppers. Since drawing fresh water for every bath was wasteful, the soldiers rotated through the tubs one after the other like a large family on Sunday morning, until the water grew too cold and scummy for use. A hearty competition existed among the women on how best to time their arrival at the baths, to be either the first into the water or to breeze in at the exact moment when it must be changed.
Banya strolled the line, inspecting the tubs with an experienced eye. Recognizance complete, she thumped the sides of two adjacent baths. They bonged a hollow note and the water rippled, releasing faint tendrils of steam. “We lucked out,” she said and tossed her towel onto a wooden bench. “Someone must’ve drawn these and then got called away before they could use them.” She skinned out of her muddy attire and climbed into a tub. As the water closed over her shoulders, she sighed with bliss and closed her eyes.
Rai followed, settling into the warm water with a grunt of pure pleasure. Fresh bruises the color of plum jam decorated her arms and legs like a jester’s motley. An angry welt on the underside of one wrist showed the marks of Banya’s teeth printed into her flesh like a craftsman’s emblem pressed into the bottom of a tankard. A mottled lump the size of a cobblestone raised the skin beside her right knee and shifted with a fluid ease she found nauseating when she prodded it with a scarred and knuckly forefinger. “I need to get out here. This town is making me screwy.”
“You were born screwy.” Banya tipped her head back against the raised edge of the tub, her expression one of luxurious contentment. Her braids floated like water weeds and curtained the swell of her breasts.
Rai jabbed a middle finger at her, careful to keep her hand beneath the water and out of sight.
“Don’t do that,” the Carraid warned.
Rai’s finger darted back inside the curl of her fist. “Do what?”
Banya opened one eye to look at her. “You know what.”
“How do you know I did anything? Your eyes were closed.”
Banya settled more comfortably against the back of the tub. “I know everything you do, little girl.”
“Don’t call me little girl.” Rai picked up a worn chunk of thick black soap the size and heft of a brick and rolled it between her hands. “Fucking hot all summer,” she groused. “No duty except townie stuff.” She scrubbed her face and spoke through the suds, blowing bubbles. “Do you realize we never got out of the city once this summer? Not once!”
Banya sighed. “Yes, Rai,” she murmured. “I was here, too, remember?”
“Yeah, but nothing bothers you.”
“Some things bother me.” She glanced at her friend to underscore the remark. “I just don’t go on and on about it for months on end, making everyone else miserable right along with me.”
Rai rinsed her face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Right nothing.” She kicked the water in frustration. “There wasn’t even a single bandit uprising all summer. Can you believe that?”
“Well, it was hot,” Banya opined in a laconic tone. “Maybe this year they opted to visit the seaside on holiday.”
“Ooh, funny.” Rai scrubbed her armpits. “What the hell’s the point of having bandits if they don’t uprise on a regular schedule?”
Banya snorted laughter. “You’re the only person I know who would wish for a bandit attack as an antidote to boredom.” Her fingers dabbled in the water. “It was a good summer, you know, despite the heat. Crops did well and the harvest should be good. With full bellies, the hill folk have no reason to steal.”
Rai goggled at her. “Reason? It’s their job!”
The Carraid smiled and sank deeper into the tub until the water reached her chin. “If the queen’s tax collectors don’t take it all, there may even be enough food to get everyone through the winter.” Her tone hinted at a dubious faith in that belief. “Ah, well, the hill folk aren’t stupid. They’ll pay out their share and more in taxes, but they’ll hide things away as well. They know how to glean the woods and meadows and strip the fields for what’s left behind. They’ll get by.” Her voice took on a tone of admiration. “Somehow, they always do.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass,” Rai said. “I’m talking about expectations. Bandits are supposed to rise in the summer because the roads are full of travelers. If they don’t do their job, how are we supposed to do ours? Where does that leave us?” She plied the soap across her scalp and scrubbed with her fingers. Mud-colored suds trickled down her shoulders and turned the bathwater grey. “I’ll tell you where it leaves us,” she said. “Stuck with the same old shit. Guard the gates and walk the watch,” she sing-songed through a dribble of soap. “Practice arms we never use against enemies we never fight in case we have to protect a bunch of pox-ridden townies who couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if you printed the directions on the heel.”
Banya arched an eyebrow. “I suppose you’d prefer battle and its tantalizing allure of poor rations, lice, rats, and dysentery.” She raised a finger to make a point. “Not to mention imminent death, of course.”
“You know what I mean. You’re just being difficult.”
Banya smiled. “Ah, well, someone has to do it.”
Rai kicked the water again and a wave sloshed over the side of the tub. As if in response to this petulant display, thunder growled overhead and a sudden barrage of rain hammered the roof like fists.
“Shit!” Rai exploded.
Banya raised both hands, palms upturned and dripping. “You see how you are? There’s no pleasing you. You were bored, so I threw a nice fight, but did you like it? No. You were unhappy with the heat. Now it’s cold and rainy and you’re miserable.” She shook her head in dismay. “It seems like the Goddess has gone out of her way to accommodate your every request, Rai. You ought to be more grateful.” She smirked and blew bubbles in a watery raspberry.
Rai rinsed and got out of the tub. She buffed herself pink on the emery-rough towel, then tossed it and her filthy clothing onto the pile of dirty laundry by the door and returned naked to the barracks. The room was deserted and the turd, retrieved from the floor by some hardy soul, lay in the middle of Tynar’s pillow like a token of affection. Rai grinned in anticipation of the fireworks that would follow its discovery and began to get dressed. From the bath house came the splash of water and Banya’s atonal whistling. The tune was one Rai didn’t know, a haunting lament with a somewhat martial undertone.
She was on her hands and knees searching under the bunk for her spare pair of boots when she realized the whistling had stopped. Lifting her head, she peered over the edge of the cot and met Banya’s steady gaze from the bath house doorway. “Something I can do for you, songbird?”
Naked with a towel clutched in one hand, the Carraid studied her. “You’re not really serious about leaving town, are you? Not serious enough to actually doit, I mean.”
“Said I was, didn’t I?” Rai fished out her boots from beneath the bed and shifted around onto her rump to pull them on.
“Not in so many words.” Banya dressed with the alacrity of an experienced soldier – black breeches with beige piping, plain muslin shirt, black vest and boots. Her braids, towel-dried, shed water in a dark patch over each breast like she was milk-heavy and leaking. “There’s a word for when someone leaves their post without orders, Rai. It’s desertion. They hang people for that around here, you know.”
Rai grinned. “Only if they catch you.” When Banya failed to respond with laughter, her smile faded. She draped her arms across her cocked up knees. “Relax, Mother. I’m not going to throw away a perfectly lousy job by getting myself strung up for desertion. Give me credit for more brains than that.”
Banya shrugged acquiescence. “Maybe a few more.”
“Thanks.” Rai stood and stomped her feet to settle the old boots. “Hey, what’s the name of that tune you were whistling?”
“This?” The big woman hummed a few bars. When Rai nodded, she shrugged. “It’s an old Carraid folk song.”
“You think?” She snagged their jackets from a long rack on the wall and tossed Rai’s to her. “Let’s get some supper.”
They paused on the stoop to draw up their hoods against the steady fall of rain. Rai chuffed breath and watched the white fog rise. “It’s turning colder. There’ll be frost before you know it.”
“Aye,” Banya said. A wistful longing crept into her voice. “Round-up will start in another week or two.” Her expression was difficult to read in the shadows.
Rai looked up at her. “You miss Carraidland, don’t you? Miss being home?”
Banya shrugged. She stuffed her hands into her pockets and led the way down the steps. Beneath their feet, the deserted yard was a morass of mud churned into a heavy stew by the passage of boots, hooves, and wheels.
The reasons behind Banya’s decision to leave her beloved homeland in exchange for a soldier’s life outside its borders were a mystery to Rai. The Carraid had never offered an explanation and Rai had never asked because you didn’t pry into a person’s life without invitation. She knew little about the Carraid and their way of life beyond their disproportionate love of horses and a fondness for garish clothing.
“I don’t know what it’s like to miss home,” she said, taking two strides for every one of Banya’s. “I got out of Cadasbyr as soon as I could and ended up making a living the same way as my mother.” Her bark of laughter was devoid of humor. “Life’s weird that way.”
“Life’s weirder than you know, little girl.”
For once, Rai didn’t parrot her usual response. She trotted along beside Banya, head bent against the cold rain, and was not altogether surprised when their path diverted toward the stable.
“I just want to check on things,” the Carraid said. “It won’t take but a minute.” She hauled one of the big doors open just far enough for them to squeeze though the gap and slid it closed behind them. A lantern, its flame turned low, hung from an iron arm secured to an overhead beam. The ruddy throb of its light did little to lessen the gloom, turning black shadows to umber and charcoal. Hoods pushed back, jackets dripping onto the scarred wooden floor, the women paused to let their eyes adjust as they breathed in the warm smell of contented animals. Mice and rats rustled in the hay as narrow-flanked, amber-eyed cats ghost-footed along the rafters. High in the mow, safely out of reach from all but the most intrepid feline, pigeons shifted on coral-colored feet and cooed idiotic remarks.
Banya smiled when several of the horses nickered, turning their heads to look at them. “Bunch of greedy pigs. They’re less interested in us than they are in the chance for an extra ration of grain.” She uttered a low two-toned whistle.
A door at the far end of the aisle opened, spilling a wedge of light onto the floor. A shadowy form appeared, carrying an iron skillet that sizzled and sent up the heavenly aroma of slab bacon. “Yes, Chief?”
“No worries, Teegan,” Banya said. “Just wanted to let you know it was us.”
The girl lifted the skillet. “We’re about to have supper. You’re welcome to join us.”
Banya shook her head. “Thanks all the same, but we’re away in a moment. You go on and enjoy your meal.”
“All right, Chief. Good night.” She stepped back into the room and the door closed.
Banya moved down the long center aisle, checking each stall as she went, patting an offered nose here or an arched neck there. One animal, black as a murderer’s heart, flicked his ears at her approach.
“Watch it,” Rai cautioned. “That horse of Remeg’s is an evil old bastard.”
“Him? Ah, he’s just misunderstood.” Banya’s forehead creased in a frown. “There’s no such thing as a bad horse, Rai, anymore than there are bad children or bad dogs. It all comes down to handling, how they’re treated by those with power over them.” She scratched at the base of the horse’s ears and crooned a sing-song tone that made no sense to Rai, but which the horse appeared to love. His grunt of pleasure made her smile.
“Poor treatment is what gave this guy his bad manners,” Banya said. “That can be difficult to train out once it’s been learned. With some animals, heck with some people, you never can get rid of it. Those are the ones who are best destroyed, if they’re lucky.”
“How is that lucky?”
Banya’s eyes were sad. “The alternative is to be beaten and tortured for the rest of their lives.” Her fingers moved along the underside of the horse’s jaw and his eyelids went heavy with bliss. “My girls can handle every animal in this barn without fear, but they were scared of him. I couldn’t have that, so I started working with him a couple of times each day, whenever I had a minute to spare. He tried to take a chunk out of me more than once and still does, sometimes, when he feels out of sorts, but we’ve come to trust each other. You’d be surprised at how smart he is.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Rai boosted up onto a barrel and sat with her legs dangling, heels thudding gently against the wooden staves. She had no intention of getting any closer to the beast. “If Captain Remeg catches you messing with him, she’ll have your head on a plate.”
Banya scowled. Her hands traveled along the animal’s neck, across his back and down his flank, where she gently traced the raised contours of scars – some old, others half-healed – left by the raking of spurs. “I wouldn’t have to mess with him, as you put it, if she treated him like a living creature instead of a thing put here for her use. It’s a wonder I’ve been able to retrain him at all.” Her quiet vehemence startled Rai, for Banya rarely voiced an opinion on their commanding officer. “That’s what I meant about him being smart. He knows who his friends are.” She bestowed a final pat and turned away. “Everything’s snug here. Let’s go eat. I’m starving.” Halfway to the door, Banya paused and looked back. Rai had not moved off her perch. “You coming?”
Rai smiled. “I have an idea about how we can get out of the city for awhile.”
The horsewoman’s eyes narrowed and her head tilted a wary fraction. “Why do I think I hate it?”
“You haven’t even heard it!”
“Let’s keep it that way, shall we?”
“No, listen, it’s great! I’ve got it all figured out. We’ll go to Captain Remeg and tell her that your mother just died and you have to go to Carraidland for the funeral and to take her place in the round up or some bullshit like that, but anyway you’re really upset and don’t want to travel alone so it would be best if I went along to keep an eye on – ”
“No.” Banya voice was flat and very firm. Her fingers made a warding off gesture in the air between them.
Rai screwed up her face and mimicked the gesture, fluttering her fingers in an exaggerated motion. “What the hell’s that supposed to be?”
“You know what it is.” The Carraid glowered at her. “I love my mother. I won’t tempt Fate by speaking of her death before it happens.”
Rai rolled her eyes. “Oh, for love of the Three! I’d always heard the Carraid were a bunch of Goddessless barbarians, but I didn’t think you believed in that sort of shit.” She snorted. “Fate.”
“Hear and think what you like, but I’m having no part of your stupid plan.” Banya crossed her arms. “Why include me in it, anyway? I’m perfectly happy here. You’rethe one with the problem.”
“Yeah, a six-foot-four problem.” Rai hopped off the barrel and dusted the seat of her pants. “Look, if it’ll make you feel better, we’ll tell Remeg that it’s mymother who died. Fate is welcome to the old bitch, if it doesn’t already have her.”
“You really hate her, don’t you?”
The question, delivered with a gentle note of surprise, cut close to the bone. Bully for Banya’s rosy childhood, but Rai’s had been different and she still had the scars to prove it. “Let’s just say that I’ve no reason to love her and leave it at that, all right?”
“Fine by me, but don’t be foolish. Your plan is crap.”
“You’re the one who’s foolish. It’s a perfect plan. It’ll get us out of town for a few weeks, let us blow off the stink, and we’ll be back before snow flies with no one the wiser.” Rai grinned and punched Banya lightly on the arm. “Think of the possibilities! By this time tomorrow, we could be eating dinner anywhere.”
“Including the stockade.” Banya heaved a sigh and shook her head. “Look, Rai, I’m sorry. I know you’re excited about this. Maybe it isa good plan and I’m just being a nervous nelly, but I can’t be party to this.”
Rai’s expression fell. “Fine,” she said with scorn. “Your loss. You go to dinner like a good girl. I’m going to go see Remeg right now.” She shoved past Banya, opened the barn door, and flipped up her hood before stepping out into the rain. She had gone no more than a dozen paces before she heard a muttered oath and the rumble of the barn door sliding closed. Ducking her head against the downpour, Rai hid a smile as a pair of mud-clotted boots fell into pace beside her.
An irritable growl and a spate of profanity greeted the pound of Rai’s fist against the tower door. There was the sound of something being slapped down, chair legs scraping against the floor, and the plod of heavy feet. A tiny metal plate set high in the door slid back and a pair of eyes – one gimlet, the other nonexistent – looked out. There was a grunt of annoyance and the plate snapped closed. Two locks snicked back and the door creaked open part-way to reveal a sinewy, tattooed forearm knotted with muscle and cris-crossed with scars. A square-jawed face stared at them. It had once been handsome, that face, perhaps even beautiful in its way, but that was no longer the case. The wide, smooth seam of a scar ran from the left temple, through where that eye had once been, across the bridge of the shattered nose, and ended at the base of the right cheek.
“What do you two clowns want?
“Only one clown,” Banya averred, hands thrust into her pockets. She blinked past the rain dripping off her hood. “I just came along for the ride.”
Rai resisted the urge to kick her. “Evening, Orne,” she said with solemn politeness. “May I see Captain Remeg, please?” She laid a hand on the woman’s thick wrist as if to swing her aside like a gate and felt the hard muscles flex in warning.
“I don’t recall her sending for you, pipsqueak.” A spark of light reflected in the grey depths of Orne’s single, ruthless eye. “Captain gave orders not to be disturbed. Least wise, not by the likes of you.”
Rai tried to look sincere. “You don’t think I’d interrupt the captain unless it was an emergency, do you?”
Orne sighed. “Give the other leg a pull, why don’t you? It’s got bells on.”
Rai’s shoulders slumped, making her the picture of abject despair. She raised a hand to her eyes as if to hide tears. “I just received word that…” She paused for effect and let her voice break just a little. “My mother is dead.”
“Uh-huh.” Orne’s rigid stance relaxed not one bit. She thrust a crooked finger so close under Rai’s nose that she could smell the pork grease from the guard’s dinner. “You lie to me, I’ll knock you silly.”
Rai looked shocked. “Why would I invent such a thing?” She drooped, a mournful supplicant. “Please, Orne. May I see Captain Remeg?”
The battle-scarred warrior studied her, then suddenly cast her eyes past Rai and pinned Banya where she stood. “This true?” she demanded.
Rai’s heart leapt into her throat. Would the Carraid’s innate sense of honesty allow her to play along?
Banya’s expression gave no hint to her thoughts. Her shoulders lifted in a tiny shrug. “I’m a little worried about her sanity at present,” she said, gliding past the guard’s question with complete honesty. She gave Rai a pointed look.
Orne’s lips pursed as she considered the options. “All right,” she said. “I’ll tell Remeg you’re here, but the choice to see you is hers. If she says no, out you go.”
Rai nodded. “That’s more than fair. Thank you.”
The guard held the door open. “Banya, you coming in, too?”
The Carraid shook her head. “Thanks, no. I’ve got things to do. I’ll leave Rai in your tender care.”
“Well, if you change your mind, I’ve a deck and dice inside.” Orne said it not wholly with enthusiasm, for Banya had the reputation as a wickedly successful card player, no matter what the game.
“Maybe I’ll take you up on it after my shift,” Banya said. She leaned inside to grab Rai’s arm as Orne turned away and mounted the first few steps of the long stairway that led to Remeg’s office. “I’m begging you.” Her voice was a harsh whisper for their ears alone. “Don’t do this. It’s not right. Getting caught on the wrong side of Remeg is not a good idea.”
Rai patted her hand. “Relax, Mother. I’m not going to get caught. Besides, what’s the worst than can happen?” She closed the door in her face.
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