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Copyright © 2011 by Doranna Durgin
Published by Blue Hound Visions
Original Copyright © 2000: first published by Baen Books
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously— and any resemblance to actual persons, business establishments, events, or locales is purely coincidental.
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Originally Dedicated to:
The Book-Facing Legion!
With thanks for the details to: Lucienne, Judith, Gary (who provided Muse Amusement when I had no cable), Mom, Jennifer, Steve Stirling, and Vince at Europa Tailors
"Hssst," Gwawl said, drawing Kelyn's attention from the bright cave entrance. He lurked in a dark nook, hunched over a sputtering, smelly fat candle.
"Hssst, what?" Unimpressed, Kelyn propped her staff against the entrance rock, but took only a single step inward. Her toes and her nose told her well enough what they'd find in this cave. Bats. Stinky bat guano. Nothing to keep their voices limited to hssst and whispers. Now, if there had been small bones crunching beneath her toes... Then they'd be running from rock cat, or stalking holed-up nightfox.
"Come look," Gwawl said, his voice normal again, tinged with disappointment at her disinterest in his drama.
She entered the dark nook, steadfastly refusing to look down at the substance squishing beneath her toes, and found Gwawl at staring at a solid slab of upthrust rock beyond the entrance.
Kelyn crowded in close to him— shoulder to adolescent shoulder, thigh to thigh, unself-conscious about it as were they all. Gwawl, Iden, Mungo, Frykla, Huon...and Kelyn. A hunting pack, a training pack, living the mountain summers together to learn survival, to forge the bonds of trust that would carry them through life in the tremendous, craggy Keturan mountains.
"Someone's been here," Gwawl said in grand pronouncement, jabbing the candle toward the rough artwork on the stone. Air currents played around them, making the flame dance.
Kelyn made a scornful noise at the back of her throat at this self-important pomposity and Gwawl scowled, adding a far from gentle shove. Even prepared for it, Kelyn still found herself sitting in bat guano.
She kept her curses silent. Gwawl would regret it...later. For now she was just as intrigued as he, and she climbed back to her feet, wiping her hands on the rough knit of his sleeveless tunic.
He ignored her, pointing at the painted creature— smeared, it seemed, in a paint made of blood and ash and charcoal. "Do you think it was him? Doesn't it look like a wolverine?"
It did. "Maybe," she said.
"It makes sense, why there's only the one. They say he hunted alone, never trusted anyone in his pack."
Yes, that's what they say. Kelyn relieved him of the candle, suddenly disinterested. Or perhaps too interested to trust herself. When it came to her father, she was never sure just which. "Let's go."
"No— wait— Kelyn! Let's get the others!"
Kelyn moved past the nook and deeper into the cave, having found the steep slanting passage that caused the air current. "We'll get them," she said. "But give them a chance to hunt first. Besides..." she hesitated, giving her concentration over to her habitually clumsy toes as she negotiated a sudden drop. "Besides, maybe that's not a wolverine at all. Maybe it's an ugly turtle, and we'll find what's left of the painter just down this way. Maybe it was his blood in the paint."
Ridiculous, he might have said, or absurd. But he didn't, because he was just as curious about the cave as she, in a land where learning every aspect of one's surroundings could mean the difference between life and death— and learning a cave meant the potential discovery of gold or silver nuggets, or an escape route if a hunt went bad at its end.
So what Gwawl said instead was, "Wait for me!" and Kelyn— possessor of the candle— smiled. Time to explore, and never mind the wolverine that was in no way meant to be a turtle.
Because her father was her business. And on the day she
found him, she'd tell him so.
Kelyn ducked her head against the wind, spitting out long strands of black hair. It was a familiar scourge, this wind, whipping through the Keturan foothills unchecked by anything other than thin stands of trees fighting to sink roots into the rocky soil. This day, it served to dry her tear-wet cheeks, leaving them tight over her bones and tingling with cold.
She stumbled, closing her arms more securely around her load of precious wood. She thought she'd been ready for this day— she'd certainly seen it coming— but the calm practicality that led her to gather the first of the pyre wood a full three years before Lytha's death had now utterly vanished.
Three years and more it had been, that summer when the changes started. She shook her head at the thought of it, a minute gesture lost in the hair lashing around her face. In that time, her summer hunting pack had adapted to their fitful advance into maturity, holding together even as they grew to be different. They'd lost Mungo the previous year, but had otherwise remained successful and safe, and had even taken a handful of younger siblings on their easier forays.
And Kelyn had unrelentingly worked at her own perpetual clumsiness, overcoming it by hours of practice and strength of concentration, until even Mungo, right before he died, ceased to tease her about those moments she tripped over ruts no one else could even see.
But those changes meant nothing next to this.
Her entire life had revolved around this thin-soiled and meager mother-and-daughter subsistence farm, set on the rocky, deeply rolling hills below the rugged peaks of Ketura. Her days were patterned by necessity, with mountain summers for hunting and gathering, and winters for making the round, rock-walled home more comfortable — and lately a time during which Kelyn tended her mother.
And now what was this farm without her mother to center it? Was it even a farm anymore? Was it still her home?
Lytha had come here a lifetime ago to birth and raise her daughtera land, she'd said, more suited to raising the daughter of the already legendary Wolverine, and for keeping her too busy with life and survival to find the trouble for which any child of the Wolverine would no doubt have a knack. Lytha had never expressed any expectation that Thainn would stay with her. She never seemed to mind that the burden of raising that daughter had fallen on her shoulders alone.
Now the early spring wind, cold and biting, lifted the edge of the fur-lined cloak Kelyn wore. She cursed her laziness for not having slipped her arms through the looping inner straps that would have kept it snug despite the wood she carried, and jogged to the emerging shape of the pyre— behind the house, where the prevailing wind would carry the flames away from the thatched roof.
Kelyn dumped the wood beneath the pyre frame, ignoring the two long-dried limbs that bounced off her foot, and hastily gathered the cloak close, warming her fingers in the luxurious fur of the snow panther she'd slain in the highest peaks of the mountains. A true luxury, indeed, if she'd tried to buy it in even the rudest of marketplaces, days of travel from here. Here, it was another of the furred skins mounded around the sleeping pallets, all results of Kelyn's skill with staff and knife and sling. This garment, with the supple fur of the snow panther at her shoulders and waist supplemented by two rock cat skins to protect her to mid-calf, was simply more striking than most of them.
The next gust of wind hit, and Kelyn stiffened. Wind carried noise along with cold, and now it brought her the faintest of whoops, the louder call of a horse to its companions. Kelyn whirled into the wind, squinting into the tears it brought to her eyes while the cloak flapped fiercely against her grip.
There, just cresting the top of the barren hill opposite the farm. Riders.
Three of them hovered on the ridge itself, their horses plunging against their bits and calling out to the fourth, whose rider galloped it foolishly down the side of the hill. Kelyn sent a hearty curse wishing him the fall he deserved, but the sturdy little horse plunged onward, and after a moment, the other three followed.
Strangers. Ketura! They weren't here to lay offerings on her mother's pyre. Kelyn hesitated only a moment, just long enough to pick out the wavering shape of a raised sword. Reivers.
Nothing more than vultures who had detected the scent of death from afar, their quick presence stinking of magic.
Kelyn ran for the roundhouse, shoving aside the flapping leather doorway and leaping down the three steps to the dirt floor in the same motion. She had to move fast, choosing...saving. She flung her satchel on top of the freestanding rough wood chest that held foodstuffs and supplies, and grappled with the heavy chest a moment before she got the grip to heave it against the dirt and rock wall of the house. She tossed a handful of furs leather-side-up over the chest, and, with a loud grunt of effort, hoisted the largest water crock, a container almost the size of her torso, high up into the air. It crashed down to soak the leathers, chest and all.
Pounding hoof beats marked time for her, growing louder, growing closer. Kelyn moved to the central strong fire, hand hovering until she spotted and snatched the coolest end of a burning limb, and then dashed outside with it, running around the house to light the entire lower edge of the thatch without even sparing a glance at the waiting pyre. She'd be damned to a Silogan hell-cave before she used her mother's glory, her pyre, as a signal fire for help.
A glance at the galloping, whooping looters told her she didn't have the time, but she ran back inside the house anyway, scooped up her mother's stiff bundled body, and carried it as carefully as possible to the pyre— though she had no time to get Lytha up on the frame, oh no, the looters were circling the house now, looping around the pyre and plowing through the dried stalks from last summer's garden. Kelyn made one last, desperate dive for the house as the looters mocked her, circling closer, mimicking the fear they were sure they saw.
They saw wrong.
As her hand closed around the staff leaning up beside the doorway, her frown of concentration turned into a fierce grin. Tugging the tie that released her cloak, she kicked it away so she couldn't trip in it, and turned to face the looters— who by now were whooping with anticipation as well, for the first time able to see that the tall, lithe young body before them offered as much as the house.
And then they saw the look on her face.
For a moment, in silent accord, they halted, cruelly pulling up their horses to regard her unyielding stance. The wind died. The feeble heat of the strengthening flames ate at Kelyn's house, warming her back; the four men scowled, not sure what to do with her.
Abruptly, they pointed at her defiant stance and broke into laughter. Kelyn stood her ground, vowing to ram her staff so far down each of those throats she'd see it come out the other end. As the laughter died into silence and the only sound was the snorting of the horses and the building crackle of flame, the men exchanged a glance, their unbound hair whipping in the sudden return of the wind.
Finally one man dismounted, throwing the reins to his companion. Sword in hand, he walked to her, extending his hand in a peremptory gesture...waiting for acquiescence.
Kelyn lifted a lip in silent disdain, as eloquent as any poet.
The man stopped short, surprise quickly turning to annoyance— but not as fast as Kelyn went from defender to attacker. Shifting her hands down on the staff, pivoting around one foot, she loosed her hunt-cry into the midst of them, bringing the staff around to slam into the man's arm at the elbow. She couldn't hear the cracking bone above her own cry, but she saw the white bone rip clear of his shirt well enough. As the man screamed she reversed her direction and grip, dealing him a solid blow just below his ear. His body wobbled, then fell.
Kelyn leapt for his sword, unfamiliar as it was; she crouched over him, staff in one hand and his sword in the other, her back still to the flaming house.
"Barbarian bitch!" one of the men shouted, the first intelligible words from any of them and heavily accented at that. She spat at him, and they didn't take it any more lightly just because the wind caught it and the spittle landed on her chin.
They rushed her, one after the other, trying to draw her off balance with the charging intimidation of barely controlled horses. Her staff became her shield, wielded one-handed and as often as not almost torn from her grip. The sword, badly balanced and as odd to her hand as a one-ended staff, nonetheless managed to cut flesh, scoring on the leg of one man, wounding the horse of another.
But all too soon she was panting, tiring, and aware that this was what their game was all about— wearing her down until she could no longer defend herself. An ill-judged dodge brought her into the shoulder of one of the horses, and Kelyn tumbled, unable to hold onto the staff. By the time she was back on her knees, the next horse was rushing her, its rider wearing a grin of delight on his dirty face.
The horse was so close as to fill her vision, its chest as wide as the horizon itself, its sharp hooves reaching for her— Kelyn flung herself to the side, under the reaching sword of the rider, and used the strength of a two-handed grip to plow her borrowed blade right through the animal's belly, closing her eyes against the warm spray of blood.
The horse grunted, surprise more than pain, its legs giving way with the shock; its rider tumbled off with his momentum. Not even fully on her feet, Kelyn lunged for him as he rolled, landing on him with her knees and bringing the sword hilt down into his face just as he could see she was right there, his eyes widening with realization far too late to do him any good.
Kelyn staggered to her feet to find the others pulling up a distance away, watching with shock of their own, their confident expressions turning into something more grim but just as determined. For the first time she was aware of the ache in her arms, the bruises and cuts she had sustained, and the fact that her tunic was torn and pulled most of the way down her shoulder. Behind her, the roof had flared past its brightest flame and was starting to gutter. If no one had seen the smoke by now, they weren't going to.
One of the riders seemed to notice Lytha's body for the first time. He took his horse in a prancing, jerky trot around the pyre, and looked back at Kelyn with a leer. Kelyn stiffened. Would he— ? The beast would even consider desecrating her mother's body?
Think, Kelyn! He just wanted to get her away from the house, get her to leave herself open on all sides so they could both attack at once.
And was she supposed to cringe there and watch this filth touch her mother? The other rider laughed as his companion dismounted, watching for Kelyn's reaction.
That Lytha herself would have certainly wished her body trampled and defiled before her daughter submitted to filth such as this was both clear as sunlight and totally irrelevant.
Kelyn's hand clenched into a white-knuckled fist around the sword hilt— thinking about her staff, her knife...her fists. She was hardly defenseless without this outsider's weapon. Clenching her teeth, Kelyn held it straight out from her side and dropped it, forcing her fingers to uncurl from the blood-sticky grip. Giving up.
Or at least presenting a fair semblance of a young woman giving up.
They laughed, all confidence again despite their downed comrades. Head down, hands out, Kelyn moved away from the house a few steps. The dismounted looter looked at her, his laugh turning nasty. And then he reached for Lytha's wrapped body.
"No!" Kelyn's outraged cry brought nothing but further laughter, and her decision was made. Out came the knife, whipping through the air to bury itself in the man's lower back, while Kelyn herself twisted and dove for her staff, knowing she had the time to grab it but not the time to bring it up— sudden hoof beats did nothing but fire the weary determination of her effort to be inhumanly quick—
And then Kelyn realized that the hoof beats were too far away to be the man before her, and that they came inconsistently, against the gusting wind. Rolling to her feet, she discovered a new player galloping in, resolving into two figures clinging tightly to a sturdy, short-legged plow pony. She thrust her staff defiantly into the air, renewing her hunt cry in a greeting to Iden and the still-stocky, ever stronger form of little Frykla behind him. They matched her cry with their own, and Frykla brandished a short sword as the pony swerved around the pyre and headed straight for the remaining horseman, making the odds a sudden three against one.
He was no fool. He turned the horse on its haunches and spanked it with the flat of his sword, pushing the astonished animal into a run for his life, the pony going flat-out to intercept it. The horse barely made it up to speed before the running animals merged into one awkward shape. When they separated, Frykla was on the ground with the looter jerking out the last of his life beneath her.
That was it, then. Kelyn closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. Her knees were wobbly, her hands trembled, and her stomach roiled at the thought of these first human lives on her hands. But with another deep breath, she decided that perhaps she trembled because of the cold bite of the wind against her battle-sweaty skin, and that her knees were simply tired. She turned to find her cloak— and tangled her feet together, landing on the ground with a tired grunt.
She didn't bother to curse. From here she could see the cloak and she merely crawled to it, fastening it securely before climbing to her feet and trying to tug her tunic into some semblance of its former shape. Wiping blood and sweat off her face, she strode to the looter who was twitching next to Lytha, jerked the knife out of his lower back, and matter-of-factly drew it across his throat. She cleaned the blade on his clothes and sheathed it before dragging the body away from Lytha and dumping it well behind the house.
Of the other two, one man was already dead, and the other, his nose smashed beyond recognition along with one of his eyes, was just groping his way to his hands and knees. Kelyn kicked him down again and ran her hands over his body, wondering how anyone who wore such greasy leathers and who smelled so bad could think to call her barbarian. She relieved him of his knife and several flat weapons with a number of oddly shaped blades. She was turning one over in her hand when Iden and Frykla trotted back up, slipping off the pony to survey the ruins of her house with uniformly grim expressions.
"He lives?" Frykla asked, eyeing the man with distaste.
"For now," Kelyn told her, experimentally tossing one of the strange blades. "I'm of a mind to tie him to one of those horses and whip them on their way to the border." Let others of his ilk see what happened when they crossed the border with mayhem in mind.
Iden nodded once, satisfied with the idea. The looters' horses stood around in uncertain poses, not quite willing to leave each other or Iden's pony. Even the one who had been chased off with the last bandit was slowly meandering back toward the house. "I don't understand," Iden said, gradually taking in the sight of her mother's prepared body. "We all knew Lytha was ill, but not...we would not have left you alone in your time of mourning. That these men knew you were in a vulnerable time—"
"Maybe this has something to do with it," Frykla said, lifting her hand. A sharp, black-dyed bone needle, far too thick for sewing, dangled from a long thong, glittering impossibly.
"Sorcery." Iden made a face.
Kelyn reached for the needle. "I thought I smelled magic in their arrival." She held it by its thong, careful not to touch the bone itself. "Rika might know what it is."
"Destroy it," Iden grunted, and Frykla nodded quick agreement.
"How? Crush it and release Ketura knows what?" Kelyn leaned over the man beside them, who had managed to crawl several feet away, as if he'd hoped they wouldn't notice. "Save your effort," she whispered harshly into his ear. "You'll need it, soon enough." She jerked a pouch from his belt and dumped its meager contents on top of him, replacing them with the needle and stuffing it all into one of her cloak pockets.
Frykla moved to what had been the door to the house and was now a gaping hole in the curving rock wall. "What of your house?"
Kelyn joined her there. Burning thatch had fallen inside to ignite anything flammable; the air was redolent with the lingering odor of burnt fur and charred leather, while cinders still swirled aimlessly in the currents that the wind, gusting over the rock walls, created on the floor of the dug-out circle. Against the wall, a steaming leather mound marred by random scorch marks was the only remaining object not made of rock.
Ignoring the cinders, Kelyn hopped down into the room and strode over to the chest, throwing off the furs to find the satchel and chest still whole. Iden and Frykla made no comment as she rummaged through the contents of the chest, adding this to her satchel, putting that aside. When she stood, the satchel was full. She rolled up the still-damp furs and tied them that way, then tossed the bundle over the rock wall. "Take whatever's left for yourselves," she told her friends.
"But, Kelyn—" Frykla started, glancing up at Iden.
"Come stay with us," Iden told her. "We'll build you a new house when the ground thaws enough for the digging."
Kelyn looked at them, imagining herself the third person in the small home of the newly hand fasted couple, and shook her head.
"Then talk to Gwawl. You know he wants you. And he's started his own home, not far from ours—"
Kelyn shook her head again, more firmly this time. "I'll take no one who wants me out of pity," she said. "And...I've a craving lately." She shook her head, not quite understanding it herself. "To see things. To know more than this land can teach me." She couldn't leave while her mother had still lived, and even then, the house had exerted a pull on her. Now both were gone. She looked at Frykla and Iden and shrugged. "The gods seem to have given me a shove."
"All gods should be like Ketura, and stay out of our business," Iden muttered. "Gwawl has no pity in him, Kelyn, you should know that. Nor do you need it."
"Kelyn—" Frykla started again, and again her protest died in her throat, this time at Kelyn's expression.
"Come," Kelyn said. "Lytha waits. Do me the honor of standing by while I light the pyre."
"Move, you son of a donkey," Kelyn muttered hours later, tugging on the reins of the horse she led. It didn't know her, it didn't trust her, and as far as she could tell, it was only half-tame, anyway. She began to have second thoughts about gifting it to Rika, but she supposed if anyone could handle the beast, it would be Auntie Rika. Rika, nobody's relative yet everybody's aunt. She had midwifed Kelyn, treated Lytha's illness, and provided everyone in the area with charms and wards for years beyond memory.
Her attention on the horse, Kelyn stumbled over something in the rough path and nearly fell, losing her satchel and staff in the process. The path wound along the hillsides, over rocky outcrops and through thin patches of lower Ketura's stunted little hardwoods and stocky pines; the track was never any good at this time of year, and yesterday's sleety rain hadn't help any. Kelyn scooped the satchel up without pausing, and the horse chose that moment to stop short, snorting suspiciously and almost jerking Kelyn's arm out of its socket.
Kelyn closed her eyes and gathered the shredded remnants of her temper around her. When she opened them, it was to glare at the horse. "You could be drying in someone's smokehouse right now," she told it in a dangerously quiet voice. "It could still happen."
"Now, now, child," came a voice from the small stand of trees ahead of her. Kelyn started, even though she'd already recognized Rika's warm, creaky voice. And she berated herself for being taken by surprise, even though no one ever saw Rika before Rika was ready to be seen.
"Auntie," Kelyn said. "I was coming to see you." She hesitated, then blurted out all at once, "I— this horse— Lytha's dead—"
"Yes, I know," Rika said, her voice tinged with sadness. She stepped out of the trees, an elderly woman barely bowed, like a fine straight piece of wood made stronger with age. Her hair was long and wild, and often looked about to spring free from the thong that held it. But her impossibly wrinkled skin, as usual, nearly masked her expression. She murmured again, "I know."
Kelyn thought about asking just which of those things the old woman had known, and thought better of it. "I brought you this horse. I thought you might be able to do something with it. If not," she said, and shrugged, "you can always fatten it up over the summer."
Rika held her hand out. "You've had a long day, I see. Give me the horse, and we'll go sup together."
Kelyn hesitated, thinking how much harder it would be for the old woman to lead this fractious creature along the muddy path. Then again, she'd never seen Rika trip over her own feet. She handed over the reins.
"There, there," Rika murmured to the horse. "Wouldn't you like to be in a nice little shed, with plenty of hay for your supper?"
Rema's Blessing, the creature's ears perked forward and then actually drooped in contentment! Kelyn kept her disgruntled noises to herself, and wondered again that if Rika could accomplish such things, surely it wouldn't be too much to ask for a little charm against clumsiness....
She followed the now-placid horse to its new home, keeping a cautious distance from its heels all the same.
Rika put the horse in the tiny outbuilding that held her goat and had Kelyn carry its gear into her roundhouse, where the oil lamp would offer better light than growing dusk. After a great deal of tsking at the dry, unmaintained leather, she allowed that it would fix up to be a nice kit, and she would likely get a good price for it if she decided to butcher the horse for winter. Then, while Kelyn sat in numb fatigue, she fried sweet root and flour cakes at the fire, slathered butter on them, and handed Kelyn a share any growing boy would be challenged to put away.
Kelyn did it handily, without pausing. She chased it down with goat milk and sat, glaze-eyed, before Rika's fire. Rika finished her own meal in a more refined fashion, seated on the rock bench that curved against the wall of the house, then pulled her short milking stool up next to Kelyn and sat. "Thainn is a loner; he was always so. He trusted no one, not truly. But he touched Lytha, and she, I think, touched him, for she was a remarkable woman. I knew so when I first saw her, so far from home, carrying little more than your Reman-wood staff, a sturdy knife, and a tinder bag with only the remnants of an old mouse-nest. And coins. A handful of gold, traded—
"For the ruby Thainn gave her." Kelyn didn't bother to hide her flat disinterest, even in the startling news that Rika had known her father. Everyone knew how she felt about Thainn.
"Her journey here alone made for a tale as stirring as any of Thainn's," Rika said gently. "You gave her a proper send-off?"
Kelyn blinked. "Yes," she said. "A huge pyre. Iden and Frykla were there."
"She would have been proud of how you handled yourself this afternoon," Rika said. At Kelyn's sharp look, she chuckled and said, "No, child, the details are your own. I felt the magic and scryed out the men just as they reached you. And now I see you here with one of their horses. I can come to my own conclusions."
Kelyn reached for her cloak and pawed through it, looking for the right pocket. Ah— there! She thrust the newly acquired pouch and its contents at Rika. "What can you tell me of this?"
Rika upended the pouch and shook the bone needle into her hand, heedless of Kelyn's wince. "It can't hurt me, child," she said. "Nor you." Kelyn gave her a skeptical eye, but Rika ignored that, too. "Here is the magic I felt. It's a nasty thing, not something in which I would deal."
"They rode upon us before anyone else knew of Lytha's death," Kelyn said, and then amended that to, "Anyone else besides you, I suppose."
"Yes, I felt her pass," Rika murmured. "After working so long together to fight her malaise, we had some small connection. As I have with you, and every other child I have helped to birth." She held the needle up, turning it to display its cold beauty in the firelight. "Think of it as a kind of vulture, Kelyn. Something that points to folk who are in mourning and vulnerable, or who live alone and in death have left their treasures, whatever they might be, unguarded and free for the taking."
Kelyn snorted. "And what would they have found at our home that would be worth even the bother of riding out there?"
Rika smiled at her. "You alone would be worth twice whatever distance they rode," she said, her wrinkle-enclosed eyes filled with affection. When Kelyn snorted at that, too, Rika merely said, "Your cloak, then. Used as the lining for luxuriously fine cloth, it would fetch much more than you imagine at market."
Kelyn had nothing to say to that. She thought the cloak meant much more to her, who had faced and slain the creature, than it would mean to someone who had the money to buy it— but she was not one of the city-dwellers, who were, from what little she had seen, bent on cluttering their lives with objects. She had what she needed to live, and she wanted nothing else.
"Shall I destroy it for you, then?" Rika said, and nodded at the needle.
Kelyn shook her head, though she could not have said why. What she wanted to say she suddenly found awkward in her mouth, and she wished that, of all things, this would be one of those things that Old Auntie Rika knew before she ought. But then, maybe some things were meant to be said, though the words might have been more carefully chosen than those she blurted out. "I'm leaving."
Rika's eyes might have widened a little, but it was brief and looked not at all like surprise. "Perhaps it is time."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Kelyn scowled at her, forgetting for an instant the respect and awe this woman commanded in her.
"It means that you are alone in the world, and it is time to find your self."
That brought nothing but another frown. "I know who I am."
Rika turned brusque. "Like everyone else, you think you do." She handed the needle back to Kelyn. "Let this be your guide. Follow it to your self, and to your father. When you find your father, you will find you."
So shocked that she could not do so much as reach out for the spelled needle, Kelyn found herself staring opened-mouthed. "My father," she sputtered finally. "I need nothing from him! He's nothing but a—" cocker! "— a witless warrior!"
"I don't recall your mother ever speaking such about him," Rika said, and there was something in her voice that shamed Kelyn. She looked steadfastly at her own feet, at the ends of those too-long crossed legs, her hands curled in her lap. Finally, Rika leaned over and gently dropped the needle into Kelyn's grasp. "Stay the night here, child. And in the morning, go looking for your self. Your path will end at your father."
Kelyn set out for the neighboring lands of Orrick, the needle tucked safely away at the bottom of her satchel— something often thought of, and never touched. Perhaps she would become used to the idea of dealing with such magic, though she would never use it the way those looters had. Rika had said to use it as a guide to find her self, but Kelyn knew well enough that she wanted to make her way through Atlia, so what was the point of consulting it before then?
Any excuse to avoid the thing.
Travel through Orrick's land was not a hard thing. She hadn't known what to expect— only that the gods shaped their lands as they would. Ketura had chosen craggy, jutting mountains and cold, sparsely vegetated foothills, and had made a strong, large people to populate them. Orrick, it seemed, favored trees, and she found the people here to be distinctly shorter than her own. She'd heard that other gods marked their lands with stranger environs— Rema, a land of herbs, forests, and simple folk— her mother's land— and Dryden, where there was nothing but sand and snakes and lizards— and Siloga, from whence came the darkest mages, and a slight people with handsome features and nut-brown skin.
Now she was going to see for herself.
She didn't have the coin to stay at the travelers' houses along the road, but no one kicked her out for quietly warming by the fire as she passed through. She spent time at the little inns if the keepers found work for her, usually carrying heavy loads or cleaning noxious stalls and pits— though she quickly learned the hazards of that duty if she let her concentration slip.
Pit farming, feh. Not for the occasionally clumsy.
But the woods provided plenty of shelter themselves, as well as much more kindling and game than Kelyn was used to having at her disposal. Even when the trees thinned to day-wide areas of rolling plains, Kelyn slept out under the stars, always finding enough of a hollow in the tough, stalky grasses that the wind whistled over her as she slept. The wind was never as cold as that which swept through her foothills, and she was just as content making her own fire and roasting her own kill as sharing someone else's of either.
She took her time, lingering where she had a chance to pick up the language— for almost everyone disdained to know hers— or to study the people. She practiced with the strange knives she'd taken from the looter, and soon learned to flick them into targets as she would skip a stone across a pond. By the time she neared the Atlian border, the winds were turning warm and less insistent, and she slept where she would, oiled and waxed cloak pulled over her head against the frequent, gentle spring rains.
It was in one such rain that she found herself sprawled on her stomach at the top of a slight rise, cloak hood drooping over her forehead as she chewed on the stem of one of last year's grasses and considered the town before her. The huddle of buildings rose cleanly from the clear ground around it, and the path leading into them was wider than any of the meandering traders' roads that Kelyn had followed so far. There were even the beginnings of a stout wood wall around it.
She had the feeling that this town would teach her more— or provide her with more challenges— than had any of the little way stations and trading spots along her way. She also figured it would take coin if she wanted to stay there long, and so faced a decision that would only become more imperative as she moved away from Ketura: earning that coin. The skills she had were things that anyone might be good at, but she knew she didn't want to spend more time doing the things no one else wanted to do...like cleaning pits.
Kelyn made a face and spit out the grass stalk. What was the point of gathering people together in such populations that their food had to be carried in, their shelters all crammed together, and their waste carried out? Why, when the wind shifted, she could smell the town from here!
Perhaps she'd just stay out in Orrick's mild lands for a while, and walk into the town each day, to learn what she could. That plan seemed most sensible. Kelyn climbed to her feet and scouted a wide circle around the town, taking note of gaps in the wall and finding an area downwind of the garbage heap where she definitely wouldn't choose to sleep. Just inside the nearest tree line, she found a satisfactory resting spot— too close, but all right for tonight— and turned toward one of the gaps, not hesitating until she arrived at the wall. Inside, the buildings crowded close; they were square-built things of timber, wattle, daub, and whitewash, their roofs as much shingled as thatched.
Kelyn took a deep breath, noted that the wall workers weren't paying the least attention to her, and moved into the town with the same long, easy strides that had carried her across Atlia.
Her first mistake. Fine for the outskirts of the town, such a pace was nearly impossible once she was among the people in the marketplace— to her eyes, a huge, impossibly crowded area where no person could possibly locate the specific goods they were actually looking for, especially not amidst the bright canvas tenting the tops and sides of the stalls. After stepping on a number of heels and barely rescuing her own toes from the solid wooden wheels of an ox-cart, Kelyn choked back her strides. These people must not really have anywhere to go, to meander as they did.
Then again, neither did she.
She paused to look at a vendor's collection of nuts, none of which she had ever seen before, and her grumbling stomach convinced her that when she finally earned some coin, this place would be the first at which to spend it. Why, she could try a different type every day and take half a moon going through them!
The vendor eyed her expectantly, and she spread her empty hands at him; he promptly ignored her. It was his intense gaze over her shoulder that prompted Kelyn to turn. Through the stream of people passing by, she deciphered the form of a short woman and the man who dragged her down the street. Her face was streaked with tears, and she tripped on her long tunic-dress, resisting him every stride.
"Why does that man drag her?" Kelyn asked the nut vendor, careful with the new language. He eyed her, assessing her accent and reassessing her appearance, and then shrugged. Kelyn tried again. "If she doesn't want to go with him, why doesn't she fight him?"
At that, he grunted, pointedly looking up and down her tall frame, her rough, untailored tunic and simple pants. "She's no savage, you. What's her strength to his?"
Kelyn traded her stare between the vendor and the altercation edging its way down the street. A particularly strong yank dragged the woman through a pile of baskets, and she shrieked, almost falling, while the owner of the baskets picked up her own cry of protest. The man shouted something back, not hesitating in his progress. And the nut vendor watched, obviously interested, but just as obviously not about to move.
"Why doesn't anyone help her?" Kelyn asked. "Is she being punished?"
He gave her a hard look. "Because we know how to mind our own business. You do the same, you want to get along in these lands."
Baffled, Kelyn just looked at him. Would she stand by and let one of her companions be mauled by a rock cat, or gored by one of the territorial mountain goats? Survival of the fittest was the rule of the mountains, but everyone got into trouble sometimes. Where would she herself be now, if Iden and Frykla hadn't come to her aid at the house? With a scowl for the nut vendor, she flicked her cloak back over her shoulder and went after the couple, going past the man to stop behind him and stand squarely in his path.
He backed right into her, gave her a startled glance, and quickly turned it into a frown. "Outta the way," he grunted, as the woman, seeing opportunity, redoubled her efforts to escape. He merely re-established his grip and moved on— only to bounce off Kelyn again. This time he rounded on her, but with his mouth open and ready to spout rudeness, he suddenly seemed to realize that he was looking up at her.
"She doesn't want to go with you," Kelyn said. "But you probably can't see that, considering you've just walked into me twice."
"Mind yer own," the man snapped, recovered from his surprise. "She committed to me."
"No!" the woman said. "My father did that, and it was before either of us knew what a black-hearted bastard you are. My father would never hand me over to a man who beat me!"
"And I say he would," the man sneered, a quick gesture with his fist making the woman cringe. "Since he's dead, I guess we'll just have to take my word on it, won't we?"
"No, we won't." Kelyn thought she sounded quite reasonable. Of course, she couldn't help tightening the grip on her staff, wishing it was his throat, but if one didn't notice, perhaps she would look reasonable, too.
"No one's going to stop me, you can see that, " the man said, his eye gleaming as he indicated the marketplace with a sweep of his arm. "I'll do as I please with this worthless trash." He gave a little laugh, and as if to prove his point, balled up his fist and turned on the woman.
Kelyn instantly tapped him on the shin with her staff, knowing from hard experience that it took very little effort to create excruciating pain along the edge of that bone.
He snarled a curse, throwing the woman against the building beside them to turn on Kelyn, aiming that same fist right at her face. But the reflexes that could handle the lightning-swift moves of a rock cat had no problem with this supposedly civilized human. She knocked his hand out of the way with the upper end of the staff and hit him on the shin again with the lower. She couldn't follow the torrent of ugly words that came from his mouth then, but she got the meaning well enough, especially when he came at her again— this time with the glint of metal in his hand, slashing for her arm. Idiot.
Without stepping back, Kelyn knocked him aside and whacked the other shin, putting some force behind it. He went down, bellowing outrage, but came right back up again, still clutching the knife.
Definitely an idiot. Kelyn stepped back into guard, whirling the staff before her. While he was still evaluating his chances of getting through it, she tapped him on the shoulder, the flank, beside his knee, his elbow— the knife went flying at that one— and then, without quite the force to ruin him, brought the ironwood up between his legs.
Already staggering, he dropped with a screech and rolled into a fetal position. Kelyn set the staff against the ground and regarded him with one hand on her hip. The people in the market walked around them, muttering and scowling, but doing no more to help the man than they had the woman. She had a sudden strong urge to return to Ketura, where people behaved in a reasonable manner...but that would end this journey before it had really started. She was not one to ignore Rika's words, besides.
She leaned over the man, impartially watching his gyrations of pain. When she couldn't get his attention, she resettled the staff from the ground to his stomach. He blinked up at her, panting, tears leaking from his eyes. She said, "Protect this woman well, cocker, or— Rema curse you— I will come for you." She looked over at the woman, who still cowered against the building, seemingly unable to comprehend how quickly the fates had turned on her tormenter. "I'll be here."
And she was, at least for a while. Oblivious of the stir her actions had caused, over the next few days Kelyn found several establishments willing to pay her for fresh meat. While dawn and dusk found her stalking game on the plains, during the day she strolled the town, learning the ways of people outside Ketura. She discovered a small population of ragged, independent children, who were as adept with their tongues as they were with their thieving fingers, and from them she learned the most. They were, she thought, much like her own hunting pack, and she accorded them respect for it. In turn they fed her gossip, told her stories, explained who was who, and what they did for the town...or to it.
The oldest child's name was Aktel, and one day as she put down her coin and contemplated which of the nut vendor's wares to sample next— for he had been scrupulously polite to her since that first day— he came running to her. The vendor started at his sudden arrival and instantly snapped, "Here, you! Get away from my nuts!"
Kelyn said, "He is here to talk to me. Your nuts are safe." At her scowl, he backed up, his hands reflexively moving to protect himself. She turned to the boy. "Aktel, what?"
"The lady," Aktel said, his face serious beneath its accustomed smear of dirt. "The one you helped. Busted Balls has her in the tavern, and—"
That was enough. She tossed him a nut, one of the biggest— the man had said it came from some jungle so far south that the people there were all black, but she didn't believe it herself— and ran for the tavern on feet that no longer stepped on other people's heels nor rarely tripped over themselves, for she was accustomed to the sounds, sights, and smells of the town now.
But she would never grow accustomed to the thick smells of the tavern. She wrinkled her nose as she stepped into the already open doorway, Aktel at her heels no matter how many times she waved him off. The place was noisy, and overcrowded, and always too warm; the occupants moved in an extemporaneous dance of customers, serving wenches, and the ever-changing number of scantily clad women who were always thrusting their personal wares in some man's face.
As soon as her eyes grew used to the squat building's dim light, Kelyn saw what she was there to see. The man she'd already dealt with once, loud and laughing, sat with his back to her and his face to the half-score of friends seated around a rough round table and laughing along with him. The woman, her face bruised, one arm cradled protectively close to her side, sat on the filthy, ale-and-worse soaked floor by his feet, where she'd evidently been commanded to stay.
Busted Balls, Aktel had called him— she ought to have, too. But that would still have left him the ability to hit this woman and any other....
Kelyn stalked through the tavern, half-aware of the hasty shifting and dodging that cleared her path. The expression on his friends' faces must have warned the man, for he turned to see Kelyn coming, his hands on the table to steady himself after who knew how many tankers of the thick ale this place served.
"I told you," Kelyn said, and brought her staff down hard on both his hands.
Kelyn sat on a stool in the corner of the small, dim office, not bothering to hide her impatience. The windows were high, and much too small for a body to fit through, even if the shutters weren't in the way. The door was thick, solid wood— and locked. There was a fireplace, but the tiny chimney offered no escape. Kelyn drew her cloak closed and scowled around the room.
Finally, the lock made a few grating noises and the door opened to the wiry little man who had escorted her here earlier. Evidently he wasn't too worried about her, for he didn't bother to lock the door behind him. He dumped a roll of parchment on the rickety little desk up against the wall and fumbled for the inkwell, finding the proper place in the roll at the same time. "What's yer name again?"
"Kelyn. And I want my staff back."
"Not so fast, not so fast," he muttered, carefully scratching a notation on the roll. "From Ketura, I take it? I've seen yer like before. Not all that often, no, the savages stay where it suits their ways, but I know what I see...." Mumble, scratch, mumble. Kelyn, unseen, rolled her eyes.
A huge man barged through the door, talking even before it was all the way open. "Gort, there's one dead down in the pit, dammit, I told ya that scrawny one wouldn't last—" On catching sight of Kelyn, he stopped short, and Kelyn found herself slowly rising to her feet, almost as if accepting a challenge.
"Eh, leave off," the wiry man grumbled, still not looking up. "She ain't given me any trouble."
"Knew she'd end up here sooner or later," the big man grunted. "Fer what?"
"Broke a fellow's hands to bits," the other said shortly. "Whole tavern of witnesses, unprovoked assault." He finished his notations and set the quill and ink aside, holding the parchment open with one hand so it could dry. For the first time since returning, he glanced at Kelyn, but she couldn't read him at all.
"He deserved it," she said, shifting warily, unhappy to be caught in the corner with both of them in this small room. "He's lucky I left him his—"
"Keep your silence," the big man snarled at her.
Gort waved an imprecise hand in the air. "Neh, neh, none of that."
But Kelyn's temper, once ignited, only grew hotter. "What about that woman he beat? How can you protect him, and not her?"
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