Sunday, 20 March 2011
Something from the middle of The Key To The Grave. Sumto is sidetracked into a brief rescue mission.
I kicked the drover in the back of the knee; as he stumbled I stepped in and drove a rabbit punch into the back of his neck, though I hoped not to harm him too badly. I'd been ready, expecting his move. It was the screams that had overturned his reason, made him open his fool mouth and move to run forward. I sympathized, but I wasn't going to die from it. Without pause I spun and hissed at the other three, “You will be silent and make no move save at my command or you will be bound and gagged and left to wait here! Dannat,” I picked him out because right then his was the only name I could remember, “watch them like a damn hawk and don't hesitate.” A growl and some sounds of movement alerted me, so I turned back to the man I'd dropped. He was still facing away from me, on his knees and making to get to his feet. I grabbed him by the collar and pulled his head close to my chest. “Wait!” I hissed into his ear, making my grip firm. “We will free them now. It has to be planned to succeed. I know you need to act but hold it back, man! Hear me?”
He nodded, grunted and assent, half sobbed. Words were beyond his reach. I knew why.
“Stay by me, follow my lead,” I told him, “and then we will kill the bastards together.”
He came to his feet as I relaxed my grip, and rubbed the back of his head with one hand. He turned his head slightly when I released him, caught my gaze and nodded assent. In his other hand he held a meat cleaver. He hadn't dropped it.
Without another word I moved forward, seeing damn near nothing now that full night had stealthily crept over the town, sending the vultures back to their nests only to be replaced by braver scavengers. The street was deeper into the town than I wanted to go and the town was more active than I liked. Three times we had encountered small groups. The first had been a mob and I'd blooded my men on them gladly enough. The second were a small group of would-be refugees, trying to get themselves and their goods out of the town. Too burdened to run from us, they had talked and been recruited. I'd sent six men to escort them back. The third had been too small to challenge us and I'd let them go when they ran.
Ahead of us danced shadows and light, giving tantalizing glimpses of a square in which sat a single warehouse, squat stone and flat roofed. Staying in the dark, I led my men as close as I wanted to get and stopped, turning to the drover who shadowed me. I'd been intending to ask, just to be sure, but from the grinding rage on his face as he stared at the place I knew we had it right. I picked out Dubaku in the dim light and waved him to me. He had come out of the building with three names after talking to the spirit of Prestu, names the drovers had known; names that belonging to a gang whose lair they also knew. The names had been enough to bring us here. Now I had to decide what to do and how best Dubaku could help. As he came to my side I turned my attention back where it needed to be.
The flat-roofed building was well-lit; torches revealed two bowmen passing the time with tankards of beer while they pretended to keep watch. If they were intended as more than a deterrent they would not have torches to make them easy targets nor beer to dull their wits. Inside there was a riotous feast in progress. The noise they were making might work in our favor. Laughter and screams.
Six women, three girls, two boys. Not the list of the dead, but the count of the living. The drovers' families. The guests.
A big pair of doors to the front of the building was closed and doubtless barred. There were shuttered windows that looked no better means of ingress.
“Is there another way in?” I brought my head close to the drover and kept my voice lower than needful just to remind the man of the need for stealth.
“Just the door,” he hissed, glaring at it.
Damn. I turned to Dubaku. “The door?”
He looked and shook his head. He looked up to the roof and after a moment shook his head again.
I followed the direction of his gaze and thought about it. The bowmen had to go.
“Is there a way up to the roof or did they get there from inside?”
The drover turned a look of anguish my way. I could see the pressure building in him. He knew who was screaming.
“Just answer the damn question,” I hissed, holding his gaze.
“Inside,” he growled.
I couldn't hold him much longer. He'd go mad.
I turned back to the building, looking for a route and found it in the way the building was made. The corner was staggered, bigger blocks between pavings looted from our road. The difference in the sizes of the materials would give me a grip. Maybe.
I started unbuckling my belt, turning and moving away, deeper into the darkness, taking the drover and Dubaku with me.
“Hold this.” I passed the sword belt to Dubaku..
The armor came off quickly. I didn't need the weight if was going to go up that wall fast.
“Wear this.” I pushed the chain into the arms of the drover. He was about my size and it might keep him alive.
Taking back the sword belt, I hesitated. I didn't want it at my hip where it would be in my way as I climbed. Quickly, I stripped the sheath from the belt, tucked the weapon between my knees and buckled the belt at my waist. I felt the now familiar pressure of the magical armor it provided. I needed another belt and told Dubaku to get one. The sword slid snug through the back of my belt and I held it there, hilt jutting over my shoulder, and waited. A belt came my way out of the dark, thrust into my hands. I grabbed it and looped it over one shoulder.
“Help me with it,” I only had one hand free.
Dubaku looped it round my chest, found the other end and tightened it, slipping the tongue through the eye and securing the buckle. I moved, rolled my shoulders, raised my arms above my head, then tightened the belt at my waist another notch, all the while watched by my men, though I could see little enough of them. I didn't doubt they saw me as a shadow against the light behind me. I didn't worry about the archers. Their night vision was ruined by the torches. I could walk half way across the square without them seeing a thing. Satisfied that the sheathed weapon wasn't going anywhere, I could move.
“What are you doing?” The drover whispered, his surprise at my actions and obvious intent bringing him to something like sanity.
“The roof,” I whispered back. “The archers have to go. Dannat, bring the men on when I'm up. Dubaku, can you blind them?”
“I hope, Sumto, that I can.”
Gods. Sometimes the spirits didn't come when called, I remembered. Hope wasn't good enough.
“If not that, think of something else. Quickly.”
“I will. I am. Good luck.”
“Luck be damned.” I turned and moved away before I could think more on the matter. It would work. Tonight these bastards died. The fear was feeding my anger.
I walked softly, watching the bowmen and giving Dubaku time, letting him judge it. I snatched glances at the corner of the building where I intended to climb. I made it seventeen or eighteen feet straight up. The darkness made me unsure but it looked climbable. A big block to start, a couple of paving slabs worked into the corner, another bigger block. Foot on one block, hand on the other and other hand on the third. I was tall. I could do it. The archers fell silent. I moved faster.
I didn't pay any more attention to them, a few fast paces and I was at the corner, reaching high, foot up and just finding purchase, other foot higher, I gripped and pulled. It hurt my hand but I reached and pulled again, moving one limb at a time. I moved as fast as I dared, ignoring the voices that questioned, then cursed. The belt across my chest snagged on the bottom of a block and I had to stop, drop, lean back and move on, mindful not to let it happen again. The roof was close. I didn't know how long I had. I tried not to think about it. My head came over the lip of the roof and I snatched a glance before pulling myself over, unmindful now of the noise it made. Any noise might be covered by the din coming from below and I didn't have time to be fussy. I scrambled over the top and got to my feet, reaching back for the hilt of my blade and hoping I'd find it. The archers were together at the edge of the roof, each with a hand on the other's shoulder, bitching about their plight and cursing but not doing anything. I grinned fiercely, finding the hilt of my sword, pulled it awkwardly free and moved forward. Then their darkness lifted. The one facing me over the shoulder of his fellow saw me and pushed him into turning and bellowed a warning. That one reached for a knife as he was turning. His eyes widened as he saw me and he began to crouch, pulling the knife free and trying to step away from my thrusting blade, much too late. As my blade slid into him I relaxed my sword arm and shouldered into him, knocking him back and all but jumping over him; he fell into his fellow, who went down under our combined weight. I landed on the dying man with one knee and pushed myself up with the other, my foot well braced on the roof. I wrenched my blade free of him as I lurched forward, bringing the sword in front of me and stabbing down as I stepped forward heavily to catch my balance. My foot came down at his side and the point of my blade slammed into the centre of his forehead, knocking his head back and bashing his skull on the roof. He howled and twisted, rolled hard against my leg and overturned me. My guts lurched as I went over the edge with no hope of doing anything else. The fall lasted long enough to swear and twist pointlessly in the air before I hit the ground hard. The wind came out of me explosively and I found myself lying on my side facing the door. Nothing hurt until I moved. Then my left arm screamed at me. I wanted to swear but couldn't breathe. I tucked my left arm slowly against my chest and hoped it wasn't broken, then forced myself to my knees, taking my weight partly on my one good arm. I was a foot from the door, facing it.
“The drunk probably fell of the damn roof,” a voice said, coming from just the other side of the door.
True, I thought. I'd lost my sword; I looked for it and saw it behind me and to my right, turned to reach for it and sucked in my first lungful of air just as the door opened. A big gutted man with a heavy black beard looked down at me.
The sword was too far away. I had only a moment to act. I bunched my fist and slammed it into his groin, ducking into the blow and putting my shoulder into it. He folded and I slammed my head up so that the back of my skull smashed into his face. I remembered to grit my teeth just in time. A flash of white light burst behind my eyes. My grunt of pain was for the movement in my arm not the impact. I was aware that he went over backwards, crumbled into a heap in the doorway, though I wasn't paying attention. I got one foot under me and reached back for my sword, stepped up as soon as I had a grip on it, turned into the open doorway and walked through.
Only two men were aware of me, the rest intent on their own business. I grinned as I stepped in, left arm still pressed against my chest, swinging my blade hard and fast to kill one and then the other before they could do much more than begin to move. A couple of shocked faces turned my way but still the room was mostly unaware of me. The lower spine above a pair of pale, bare buttocks was my next target; I slid the blade home with deliberate care, not wanting to slice open the slender legs that he was holding up with both hands
“Why, you bast...” A big man, maybe a blacksmith who'd been sitting and watching, didn't finish his thought before he felt my sword in his mouth. He wasn't even reaching for a weapon.
I maimed or killed two more before the room was full enough of my own men that I could put my back to the wall and let them get on with it. They didn't hold back.
I was drinking beer long before they were done, but when the drovers wanted to settle into torturing the survivors I put a stop to it.
It took time to get control of them. Time to finish the survivors and more to loot the place and get the men moving. Every moment's delay made me nervous and I longed for more experienced soldiers. Luck alone kept other scavengers from finding us in disarray.
I was sick at heart as we trudged back through the town. I could hear other screams in the night, other laughter. The women could hear it as well and every scream was echoed with a sob or a whimper, a gasp. I didn't dare try and bring anyone else out of it. It would have to wait. They would have to suffer. I hated myself for it but if we stayed longer there was a chance of a force gathering against us. It was a risk I was already taking and counted us lucky as, although we weren't alone in the streets, all of those we saw were small groups and none came close enough to threaten. Every available hand was laden with sacks, bundles and boxes and casks containing hams, cheeses, bread, and most importantly, beer. All the way back through the city I hoped we wouldn't run into a mob; if you drop a cask of beer to reach for a weapon, the cask breaks.
When we got back to the enclosure Jek was waiting for me. He'd brought the magistrate in and the magistrate had brought over a hundred people with him.
Saturday, 12 March 2011
For SampleSunday there is this - the beginning of Chapter Two from Prison of Power.
All power is divine in origin. All Enchanters carry the blood of Immortals in their veins. All who carry a hint of that blood have the ability to view the Heart of the World and shape its geometry with their imaginations. That shaping is the structure of magic, but without Source it is merely a shape in another reality; without Source it cannot be made manifest. Source must fill its shape fully in order to bring the spell to fruition. These are the things that limit the power of an Enchanter; the ability to create complex structures in that place knowing the effect that will result here, and the control of enough Source to fill that shape and make its consequence manifest.
Kaldrathan: The Basic Nature of Magic
Hebron awoke abruptly in the middle of the night. The fire had burned down to hot coals and the room was in near darkness. For a moment he did not know what had awakened him. Then, as he extended his awareness and adjusted his eyes to the dark he saw that he was observed. The woman had opened her eyes and watched him, her face expressionless.
Slowly he reached over and placed a log upon the fire, stirring it back to life with the Earthpower. She watched him do this without comment. The stew had cooked through and was still warm. Without comment he filled a bowl and brought it to her. At this she shrank back from him.
"You are safe," he told her. "Drink this. You will feel weak now, and need replenishing."
"I don't understand," she whispered.
"You are safe," he repeated. "Sit up and eat."
Slowly she sat up and looked around, her eyes resting for a moment on the boy. She was not young, he noticed absently. The boy had her look and was probably her son. He was in his teens and she then must, he guessed, be forty years or so. Her black hair was streaked here and there with gray, visible through the clotted blood that he had tried and partly failed to clean away. He had bound her hair back so that she would not awaken to instant distress to find her hair so matted. Her face, once pretty, showed the beginnings of worry lines. Forty years of life and she was old. Their lives are so short, he thought. By the time the mental strength of maturity is reached, the body begins to weaken.
"Rial?" she asked.
“Is Rial a name?” he asked her.
“Where is my daughter?”
By the fevered look in her eyes he saw that she already knew the answer. Her eyes were a doorway to the mind of the human animal, which lives hidden behind the mask of reason.
"I came late," he told her gently.
"My husband? I remember ... " Her face became gray and haunted almost in an instant.
"They are no more," Hebron said, as kindly as he could.
"He said it would be safe," she accused.
"The High King has been gone so long. Orlan said it would be safe to worship again, as our people did in the past. He said the gods would hear us again, as they used to."
"But the gods are dead," Hebron told her, for all the world at a loss as to why anyone would worship beings who no longer existed. At least the burned building had been explained; it must have been a shrine or temple. Once they had been common and mortals had worshipped the Immortals. Ulrin had explained all. But he had not understood why worship had been offered them even when they lived. Even less did he comprehend why these people should worship gods long dead.
"When the harvest failed the village blamed him; they said the High King looked on and was angry that he had turned people’s eyes to the old gods."
"The gods are long dead. The High King is also dead." Hebron was genuinely puzzled, but she did not seem to hear him.
"The solders came. Some of the villagers stayed away. They used to come from other villages but no one came. It was the festival of sleep, to sing the Earth Mother to her winter rest, but no one came from the other villages, and not all of our own."
"The mind of the earth goddess is gone," Hebron told her, gently. "Only her body remains."
"They ... “ she fell silent, her face contorting. “The soldiers came. Who are you?” Her eyes suddenly locked on him, scared and challenging at once.
“I am Hebron,” he told her. “You are safe now. Sleep.”
“They said we had been giving shelter to the enemy. There were deserters from the army. There had been a battle. But they left. They would have stayed but Orlan made them go. When he saw the temple. You could see he was angry. Someone told them about the temple. Burn it, he said. Orlan stepped forward, just to speak, just to protest. And the soldier drew his sword…” she trailed off, her eyes wandering aimlessly around the room.
“You should sleep,” Hebron told her.
“Rial?” She called out the name without hope.
"Sleep now," Hebron told her. Gently he reached out and touched her with Earthpower once owned by a now long dead goddess. The woman slept.
Hebron sighed. He could not really empathize with the woman at all. For all she was of his blood, in that they were both humans, he really had no idea of what was in her mind. He reviewed the two curiously one-sided conversations. No, he thought, I have no idea what she was trying to say. That her family had been killed? He had seen. He knew. That their friends had betrayed them? How did that concern him? That soldiers had done the killing? This at least was of interest. If they came to destroy the temple it indicated that there were those still loyal to the precepts of the High King. His hatred for all things divine was known. As for the rest - he shed the matter from his mind. It was clearly none of his concern. The safety of these two was, however, at least for a time. He had taken their burdens on himself when he healed them. He must at least see them safe before he moved on.
Taking care not to awaken the boy, he fed the fire so that the room would stay warm. Then he ate the stew the woman had refused. If they could not yet eat that was no reason to starve himself. This done he rested again to awaken just before dawn. He looked over his charges, seeing at once that the boy was gone from his place by the fire. Hebron sat up slowly and looked about. Cold air filled the room. He looked to the single door to the outside and saw that the boy stood there, still as a statue, outlined by a pearly light, silhouetted against a pre-dawn mist that hung in the hollow between the hills. As Hebron got to his feet the boy walked out into the cold, unaware of him. Concerned, Hebron followed, shutting the door behind him, hoping that the woman did not wake alone.
He found the boy by the woodpile, running his hand up the shaft of the axe and testing the cutting edge. He did not turn about as Hebron approached but Hebron knew the boy was aware of him.
"A strange time to cord wood." Hebron made it a question.
The boy’s voice was flat and empty. "I wasn't thinking of burying the axe in wood, stranger."
Hebron noted that the boy sounded calm but there was a flat plateau of anger beneath. His voice was dead. He is planning revenge, Hebron thought.
"Who will you kill? All the soldiers of the world? The villagers you grew up with? All in the world who are capable of evil?"
The boy turned dark-eyed regard on Hebron and Hebron saw the flickering of a violent flame behind his eyes. "The solders burned her temple. And I am the vessel of the Earth Goddess, Cerene. So I will do as she bids me do and slay the desecrators of her holy ground."
"The gods are dead."
"How can you say that when She sent you to save us?"
"No one sent me."
He thought for a moment before responding. "Father taught us that the gods worked in their own way, using what tools were to hand. He did not say that these would know themselves used."
Hebron wanted to sigh and close his eyes and walk away. Instead he tried again. "My teachers taught me other things. That men will use whatever justification is at hand to do what they have already decided to do. That a little learning is more dangerous than none. That anger is evil..."
"And to condone evil is to be evil?" The boy, whom Hebron now saw as a man full formed in mind even if he had not quite come into his full growth, ground out the words like a mill grinding wheat.
Seeking the kernel amongst the chaff, Hebron answered. "And if by opposing evil you become evil?"
"It is not evil to kill. A man must kill to survive. The gods understand and permit it. Only murder is evil. I have read the sacred writings. I know. Would there be a god of war if killing were evil?"
Hebron was about to answer once more but a muffled cry from within the cabin stopped him and he kept the words for another time. The boy dropped the axe and ran into the house. Hebron watched him go. Alone for a moment, he took up the axe and buried it deep in the wood with a single, effortless swing. It would take a strong man to pull it free. "When you are strong enough to pull the axe from the block you may be able to use it," he said softly to the boy, knowing his words would not be heard.
For a moment he considered returning to the house. But they had food, warmth and shelter. And they had each other. For the moment, at least, they did not need him. His presence might even be unwelcome. So instead he walked the short distance to the village.
The fires that had raged the day before had burned themselves out in the night. The scent of burned wood hung heavy in the air, and with it another smell he was not familiar with but which was an assault on the senses. It did not take long to discover the source. Not all the buildings had been empty when they were torched. Once more, he began the task of gathering the dead and giving them to the earth. Half the day passed before he was done with it. The children were the worst. If he could have healed them, brought their minds back from the eternal dream, he would.
Hebron heard footfalls behind him and turned. It was the boy.
“Why did you come?”
“I saw smoke. I wondered who had made it,” Hebron told him truthfully.
The boy looked about himself, bitterness twisting his face. “And now you know?”
“I will stay for a while,” Hebron said.
“Don’t stay if you don’t want to,” the boy spat the words at him. “Go! We don’t need you.”
Hebron pondered the boy’s change of mood. Earlier he had been cold, his mind blank, fixed on revenge. Now wild with spite.
“You found the axe where I left it,” Hebron guessed.
The boy shrugged. “I don’t need it. There are other weapons.”
“Perhaps the men who did this will loan you one of theirs?”
His face flushed with a sudden anger, the boy stepped forward as though to hit him. Hebron watched, ready to defend himself if he should need to. He would not let the boy strike him. He was not prey, just as he was not predator. But the boy hesitated, held himself in check.
“You’re testing me,” he said.
“No. I am not.”
“I am not like them. If that is what you were trying to say. I am Jakan, son of Orlan and Isaula. Cerene, who is the earth, knows me. My father was a wise man. He knew the truth. He taught us.” He was going to say more but his voice failed him and his eyes began to fill with unshed tears.
“The gods are dead,” Hebron told him.
“Stop testing me!” The boy shouted the words, his voice breaking. Then he turned and ran.
Hebron watched him go. Testing you? He was mystified by the words. Who am I to test you?
When he returned to the house Jakan was not there. The woman was alone, sitting by the fire and staring into the flames. The woman had so much the look of the boy that he knew she was named Isaula. She looked up listlessly when he said her name.
“Why didn’t you let me die?” she asked. “It didn’t hurt.”
Ever since he had acted Hebron felt a disquiet that he now realized was encapsulated in that question. Why didn’t I let them die? he asked himself. What right did I have to reach out and change their destiny? Was it just because what had been done to them offended him so deeply? That it just then occurred to me that I could heal their wounds and make them whole? Did I do it just to see if I could?
“You only have this life,” he offered. “It is precious. Not to be squandered.”
“It was precious. It is said that the god of the dead could bring people back.”
“The god of the dead is himself dead. And properly he was only the god of ghosts, then.”
She looked quizzical. It was the first emotion he had seen on her face, so he tried to explain. “Ecrose, like all of the Immortals, found a time when he needed to be involved in the world.” She looked confused, so he tried again. “Cerene was the patron of farmers,” he began.
“Cerene is our patron, the goddess of the earth, of nature. You of all people must know this?”
He let it pass. “She became the goddess of nature,” he told her. “She loved all wild things. It was she who taught men to domesticate. She gave a gift of the first dog to Ithlan, a man who was her lover. Dogs, who helped in the hunt and whose senses are so much keener than man’s, were her first gift. When men began to farm she became the patron of farmers. She was not born as she became, but rather chose her sphere of influence, as other gods chose other things. The Immortal who first loved the sea became the god of the sea, and then the patron of sailors. Hakant became the patron of thieves.” Without pausing in his explanation, Hebron stepped closer to the fire and sat down. “When Ecrose desired to become involved in the world there was nothing he loved well enough. He was a dark being, grim and cheerless.”
“He was the god of the dead because he did not truly wish to live himself,” Isaula interrupted him. “That is what it said in the book.”
Hebron allowed himself to be led away from the subject. “Perhaps I should read this book.”
“It was burned.” Isaula turned her gaze back into the flames, her face again blank and her voice dead.
A few moments passed in silence.
“Minds, souls if you will, never truly die,” Hebron said, softly. “Each kind of life has its own dream, a place where the minds sleep and the memories fade. Sometimes, when they are ready, they are drawn back and re-born.”
When she said nothing, almost seeming not to hear him, he decided to continue anyway. Perhaps that had been some comfort to her, and perhaps not. Perhaps she did not believe him. Perhaps she had not even heard him. But to speak calmly and gently is soothing to the listener, and he would have her understand.
“Some minds refuse to join the dream. When the will is too strong, when the love of life too fierce, when any emotion is too great to be left behind - these are called ghosts.” He saw her almost imperceptible nod. “One such would not allow herself to fade into the dream for love of Ecrose. She followed him and pleaded with him to return her to life, to make her immortal, to make her his queen. But he could not. After many years he came to love her, but still he could not do as she asked.”
“In the book it said he could.” Isaula sounded sullen.
“He could not then. He did not know how. But he had softened to her, or perhaps merely grown used to her company. In any case, he made a hall in the earth, deep under the world, where they could live together. After a time he became the god of the dead, of ghosts, those too strong of will to join the dream, and brought them to him.”
“So if I did die, I would only be reborn?”
“Yes,” Hebron said simply. “It does not seem to me that you want to cling to life, and only those who do are taken to the halls of the dead.”
“I don’t,” she said, simply.
He could not think of anything more to say. He doubted that he had helped her. Yet, knowing the truth of what death would bring, she might choose to live. And if she lived, he knew, the memories would fade and newer experiences would take on more immediacy. In time she might heal. Without another word he set about heating water. She watched him unquestioningly. When he was done he set the heated water and a clean cloth before her, laying a dry towel to hand.
“There is still dried blood in your hair and on your face,” he explained when she looked at these items without interest. “You also might wish to change your clothes.”
She nodded once, convulsively, not taking her eyes from the gently steaming water. Seeing this, he left her alone.
Outside, he reached with the Earthpower until he found Jakan, and then went after him. The boy was also confused. And by now would have had time to become calm.
Hebron found him at the burned out temple. Jakan was dragging fallen timbers clear. He did not look up as Hebron came close, but continued about his task in a sullen silence. It was clear that Jakan intended to repair the building. Without a word exchanged, Hebron joined him. Jakan gave him a single angry glance, the meaning of which was clear. So Hebron said nothing. He bent and gripped a fallen beam in one hand and dragged it almost effortlessly free. As he pulled the beam clear he looked about the charred interior of the temple. He could have repaired the building in moments but sensed that that would not be wise. He did not want Jakan to be in awe of him. Also, the boy needed something to occupy him. And so, Hebron realized, did he.
Together they spent the rest of the day repairing the damage.
Saturday, 5 March 2011
This is a short chunk from Prison of Power, until recently a free ebook in all the normal places. Now at $0.99
I like Abbethia a great deal. This is how she is introduced.
Abbethia knew there was trouble on the way long before anything happened. She always did.
Three dozen mules and nine men at arms on horseback made a constant rattle of harness, creak of leather, and clatter of hooves on the trail of hard-packed earth as they passed through the shadowed woodland, cold sun to the south.
Nearly home, Abbethia thought. And there will be trouble soon.
Abbethia was ready, as ever, for any conflict. Clad in travel armor, a horse between her legs and a short hafted, square bladed halberd to hand, Abbethia rode with her train, protecting her goods. Goods which would provide three months’ living expenses for her and hers.
Abbethia. Black hair going gray. Powerful body beginning to run to fat. Black eyes that twinkled like sequined velvet when merry and glittered like worked flint when angry. Abbethia. As enduring as a mountain. As implacable as a river. Her self-belief long gone. Her soul eroded by neglect. Yet none who knew or met her guessed that habit was all that held her together. All her life had been spent at war. For thirty years she had fought to hold the Ibarak together, fought in endless defensive campaigns against the Unbound Enchanters, who tore the Kingdom apart, each seeking dominion over his own lands, lands that had once belonged to the empire. She had led armies against them until an uneasy stability had been achieved; as much her doing as the Yhar’sharem Enchanters for whom she had fought. In truth she had fought with them, not for them. She had fought for civilization and peace and stability. And she had won. Abbethia. A legend. The sword and the staff. The general and her lover. The warrior and the Enchanter. Abbethia and Alandas.
And what am I now, love? she asked. But Alandas, long since dead, did not answer. So she answered for him. A fat, frumpy, lonely old merchant who calls herself Bethindra so she can hide from the world.
Bitter tears filled her eyes, but she did not shed them. She never had. Even when Alandas had died, half her soul gone with him. Eight years, three months, four days, she thought automatically. Gods, but I miss you. My heart. My love. My strength. She knew his death had broken her. Her warrior-mage. Her perfect friend. Her perfect lover. Nothing could ever heal the wound.
Thirty years of battlefields. Twenty years of honor and glory. And you choose to end your days a commoner. A merchant. And alone. She knew that if she wept she might not stop. So, rather than weep she laughed, driving away the demons of self-doubt, grief and longing. Hiding them away for one more day.
“What are you laughing at?”
She did not look at Durval, who rode at her side. She did not need to. She knew how he looked, what his expression would be. Older and more grizzled than she, pale eyes calm and cool, horizontal scar crossing his top lip and both front teeth missing; this from a spear thrust that had nearly killed him. She knew him better than she knew herself. They had been friends for close to fifty years, since they were children. She knew he loved her. And she loved him, with that deep and abiding love that develops over years between friends and brothers of the blade. They had been lovers once. But that didn’t matter. Her laugh faded to a smile. Hell, she had been everyone’s lover once. After every battle she had taken another lover, briefly. None of them were worth more. Until Alandas. After him, no one. And there would never be anyone again.
“Nothing important,” she told Durval.
“Life,” he said with a shrug.
“You know me too well.”
“A lifetime,” he reflected.
“Not yet,” she told him dryly. “Not a lifetime yet.”
Durval shrugged shoulders that were no broader than hers and carried less muscle. He is getting thin, she thought, glancing that way. Old. An abrupt intuition drove the matter from her mind. She reined back and pulled her mount to a halt. “We’ll walk the horses for a while.”
“Expecting trouble?” Durval knew from long experience that she preferred to fight on foot and the horses were already well enough rested.
Behind them the whole mule-train came to an ordered halt. Her people, trained in her ways - none knowing who she had been but all were sure of her military background. She left no doubt of that in the minds of those who served her.
“I’ll pass the word,” Durval said, calmly. He had seen as many battles as she had and at their age what was another fight? Not much more than a chore, the prospect of which was as exciting as the need to piss.
Abbethia didn’t answer as he turned his horse, a dark-haired animal full of vim, and began to move back down the line. He knew what he was doing. Without haste she slid from her own gray mare, taking care to let most of her weight come down on her left leg, the one without the stiff knee. While on the ground she checked her mount’s hooves and legs, just in case a run was needed. Certain that the gray was in good shape, she ducked under its neck to be on the right side, the same side as her weapon, and began to walk, leading the mare by the reins. She didn’t look back. She didn’t need to. All her people knew what was expected of them. She wouldn’t keep them on if they didn’t and there were no new faces in this bunch.
She wondered what kind of trouble lay ahead. There was war in the north; the fool Castal had allowed his people to build temples and openly worship the old gods. The old, dead gods, she reminded herself. In her own town of Laventha there stood a new temple, completed last year despite her protests and what opposition she could muster. When one of the Unbound came to pull it down she would advocate capitulation. The age of war was over for them. In any case, there would be deserters and if a battle had been fought there would be refugees, all armed and desperate men, heading south to safety. They would have weapons but they wouldn’t have food, she thought. She had experience of that kind before. It all depended on the size of the band. Usually they would be few, she had found - one moderately charismatic man can lead a dozen or two under those circumstances but not more.
As she walked her stiffness eased, though not the pain. She didn’t mind the pain. In some ways, she admitted, she even liked it. Like having an old friend to hand, comforting and reassuring. An ambush, then, she thought. Yes, I would bet on an ambush. Her people would be leading their animals in pairs, each man taking cover from two horses or mules. Presenting small targets for missiles to find. She wouldn’t lose a man in the first moments. Then it would be a matter of which way to charge, left or right. That would be a decision for the moment. She would assess the first attack and react accordingly. Always charge though, always attack hard when the enemy thinks you must defend. Ruin their plan; put them on the defensive.
The road ahead turned into a long bend, the right side of the road rising into a shallow sloped bank thick with trees and bushes, the left sharper and then becoming level. Not here, she thought, but not far away either. She remembered the terrain from many journeys this way. Yes, she thought, where the road takes a sudden dip. The slope to the right is the same but to the left it drops into a bank over which men can appear suddenly. Behind the bank there is an open space for twenty yards and there men can gather. So, missile fire from the right and a charge from the left. No one would fire at her, she knew. A fat old woman posed no threat. Without realizing it her mouth twisted into a grim, bitter smile as she walked into the heart of the ambush. Never knowing why and never caring, she’d always known when danger threatened and she’d always known what her enemy would do. It was why she’d never lost a battle. She had always had a way with war, a way with death.