"It's not far now, my lad," said Tier. "That's smoke ahead,not just mist we'll find a nice village inn where we can warmup."
His horse snorted at him in reply, or more likely at abothersome drop of rain, and continued its steady progress downthe trail.
The horse, like the sword Tier carried, was of fare betterquality than his clothing. He'd scavenged both the horse andsword from men he'd killed: the sword in his first year of war,the horse earlier this year when his own mount had been killedbeneath him. A warhorse bred and trained to carry a nobleman,Skew had carried Tier, a baker's son, through two battles, sixskirmishes and, by rough reckoning, almost a thousand miles oftrail.
He was a valuable horse, though in the first few weeks ofTier's journey the avarice in the eyes of the ragged men in theareas torn by years of war had as much to do with hunger as gold. Tier had waited eagerly for one of them to attack him, to ambushhim if they could. But something, maybe the battle-readinessthat still lurked under his calm facade kept them away from him.
But in the more prosperous areas away from the Empire'sborders, the chances of an attack were greatly lessened, damn theluck. A fight would have given him momentary respite from thedread he felt toward his current task -- going home.
So many were dead. The two young men from his village who'dsigned on with him to fight in a war half a continent away fromtheir home had died, as had many other young men hoping for gold,glory or escape. Tier had survived. He still wasn't quitecertain how that had happened -- he certainly hadn't planned onit. He had never sought death, but any soldier knows his demisecould come at any time.
If the war had lasted forever, Tier would have fought untilhe died. But the war was over, and the post the Sept he'd servedoffered him was nothing he wanted. He had no desire to train upmore young men for battle.
So now he rode back home. It would have never occurred tothe boy who'd crept out of the family home almost a decade ago,that coming home would be so much harder than leaving.
Tier's massive gelding shook his brown and white mane,splattering Tier with water. He patted the horse's neck.
"There, what did I tell you, Skew?" Tier said. "There's aroof down there, you can see it between the trees."
He looked forward to the warm common room of an inn, floodedwith noise and ale -- things to fill his emptiness. Maybe a bitof cheer would stay with him until he was home.
He was getting closer. Even without a map, the bitter tasteof old magic that filled these mountains would have told him so. Though the battle had been over long ago, wizard's magic had away of outlasting even memories and the Shadowed had been a greatwizard. Closer to the battlefield of Shadow's Fall, riding theforest paths could be dangerous. Near his home village, Redern,everyone knew to avoid certain places still held in fell magic'sgrip.
Unconcerned about magic of any kind, the brown and whitepatchwork-colored gelding picked his way down the narrow mountainpathway, and, as the slope turned gentle, onto a dirt track thatin turn widened into a cobbled road. Shortly thereafter thesmall village Tier'd glimpsed from the hills above emerged frombeneath the trees.
The wet stone houses, so different from the wooden villageshe'd ridden through these past nine years, reminded him of home, though there was a softness to the architecture that his villagedid not have. It wasn't home, but it was a proper village. Itwould have a market square, and that's where the inn would be.
He envisioned a small warm room, bathed in golden light fromthe fireplace and torches - someplace where a soldier could geta good, hot meal and stay warm and dry.
As he drew closer to the town market, the smell of smoke androasting meat filled the air. It was reflex only that had himloosen his sword and made the gelding flex and snort: too muchwar, too many villages burned. Tier murmured to Skew, remindinghim they were done with that part of their lives, though he couldnot make himself re-secure his sword.
As they turned into the market square, he saw a burningpyre.
Evening was an odd time for a funeral: Tier frowned. Thisclose to home they would bury their dead, not burn them. Helooked through the crowd and noticed there were no women orchildren watching the fire.
It was an execution not a funeral.
In most places where the memories of the Shadowed lingered,they burned witches. Not the high-born wizards who worked theirmagic for the nobles who paid them they were above villagejustice; but the healers, hedgewitches, and Travelers whooffended or frightened the wrong person could find themselves inserious trouble. When such a one burned, the village women wouldwatch from the darkened windows safe from the wrath of thedead.
Strangers like Tier sometimes found themselves taken forTravelers or hedgewitches. Still, he was armed and had hard cointo pay his way -- and from the smell of smoke and flesh, thisvillage had already slaked its bloodlust. He rested his hand onhis sword hilt, and decided it would be safe enough to stop forthe night.
Tier rode by the pyre with little more than a glance, butthat quick look had told him that the man in the center of theburning wood had been killed before the fire was lit. A dead manwas beyond aid.
The sullen crowd of men gathered around the pyre quietedfurther as he crossed near them, but when he took no notice ofthem, they turned back to their grim entertainment.
As Tier had expected, he found the inn on the edge of thevillage square. There was a stable adjacent to the in, but noone manned it. Doubtless, he thought, the stable boy could befound in the crowd in the square.
Tier unsaddled Skew, rubbed him down with a rough cloth, andled him into an unoccupied stall. Looking for hay he noticed ahand cart bedecked in Traveler's trappings, leather fringe andbright paint, sadly faded. So the man they'd burned had been aTraveler.
Tier walked past the cart and took a forkful of hay back toSkew, though his eagerness to spend the evening in the Tavern hadebbed considerably since he'd ridden into the village. Thenearness of violence had set his nerves on edge, and the quietstable soothed him. He lingered until full darkness fell, butfinally the thought of something hot to eat overcame hisreluctance to face people.
As he walked out of the stables, only a few figures wereleft silhouetted against the light of the fire: guards to makesure the man didn't come back to life and flee, Tier supposed. He'd never seen a man with his throat slit come back to life andcast magic. Oh, he'd heard the tales, too -- even told a fewhimself. But he'd seen a lot of death, and in his experience itwas final.
When he entered the tavern, he was taken aback by the noise. A quick glance told him that no one had noticed him enter, so he found a place between the stairs and the back wall where he couldobserve the room for a moment.
He ought to have realized that the mob wouldn't havedispersed so easily. After a killing, most men sought alcohol,and the inn's common room was filled to bursting with men, mostof them half-drunk on ale and mob-madness. He consideredretreating to sleep in the stables, but he was hungry. He'd waita while and see if things would calm enough that it would be safefor a stranger like him to eat here.
The room rumbled with frantic laughter, reminding him of theaftermath of battle, when men do crazy things they spend the restof their life trying to forget.
He had cheese and flatbread still in his saddlebag. Itwasn't a hot meal and the cheese was a bit blue in spots, but hecould eat it in peace. He took a step toward the door.
As if his movement had been a clarion call, the room hushedexpectantly. Tier froze, but he quickly realized that no one waslooking at him.
In the silence, the creaking of wood drew his eyes to thestairway not an armslength from where he stood. Heavy bootsshowed first, the great bull of a man who wore them, followed atlast by a girl the man pulled down the stairs. From hissplattered apron, the man had to be the innkeeper himself, thoughthere were old callouses on his hands that might have come from awar axe or broadsword.
The innkeeper stopped four or five steps above the mainfloor, leaving his captive in plain view. Unnoticed in hisposition near the back of the room, a little behind the stairs,Tier faced the growing certainty that he was not going to get ahot meal and a soft bed tonight.
The distinctive silver-brown hair that hung in sleep-frayedbraids almost to her waist told Tier that she was a Traveler, arelative, he supposed of the dead young man roasting outside.
He thought her a child at first, but her loose nightrailcaught on a rounded hip that made him add a year or two to herage. When she looked up at the crowd, he could see that her eyeswere clear amber-green and older than her face.
The men in the inn were mostly farmers; one or two carried along knife in their belt. He had seen such men in the army, andrespected them. They were probably good men, most of them, withwives and mothers waiting for them at home, uncomfortable withthe violence their fear had lead them to.
The girl would be all right, Tier told himself. These menwould not hurt a child as easily as they'd killed the man. Aman, a Traveler, was a threat to their safety. A child, a girl-child, was something these men protected. Tier looked around theroom, seeing the softening in several faces as they took in herbewildered alarm.
His assessing gaze fell upon a bearded man who sat eatingstew from a pot. Hand-tailored noblemen's garments set the manapart from the natives. Such clothes had been sewn in Taela orsome other large city.
Something about the absorbed, precise movements the man madeas he ate warned Tier that this man might be the most dangerousperson in the room -- then he looked back at the girl andreconsidered.
In the few seconds that Tier had spent appraising the room,she'd shed her initial shock and fright as cleanly as a snakesheds its skin.
The young Traveler drew herself up like a queen, her facequiet and composed. The innkeeper was a foot taller but he nolonger looked an adequate guard. The ice in the girl's cool eyesbrought a chill born of childhood stories to creep down Tier'sspine. Instincts honed in years of battle told him that hewasn't the only one she unnerved.
Stupid girl, Tier thought.
A smart girl would have been sobbing softly in terror andshrinking to make herself look smaller and even younger,appealing to the sympathies of the mob. These weren'tmercenaries or hardened fighters, they were farmers andmerchants.
If he could have left then, he would have -- or at leastthat's what he told himself; but any movement on his part now,would draw attention. No sense in setting himself for the sametreatment of the dead man in the square.
"Where's the priest?" asked the innkeeper sounding smug andnervous at the same time. If he had looked at the girl he held,he would have sounded more nervous than smug.
The crowd shuffled and spat out a thin man young man wholooked around in somewhat bleary surprise to find himself thecenter of attention. Someone brought out a stool and a ricketytable no bigger than a dinner plate. When a rough sheet of skin,an ink pot and a quill were unearthed, the priest seated himselfwith a bit more confidence.
"Now then," said the innkeeper. "Three days lodging, fourcoppers each day. Three meals each day at a copper each."
Tier's eyebrows crept up cynically. He saw no signs thatthe inn had been transported to Taela where such charges might bejustified. For this inn, two coppers a day with meals was morelikely.
"Twenty-one coppers," announce the priest finally. Silencefollowed.
"A copper a day for storing the cart," said the noblemanTier had noticed without looking up from his meal. By his accent he was from more eastern regions, maybe even the coast. "Thatmakes three more coppers, twenty-four coppers in total: onesilver."
The innkeeper smiled smugly, "Ah yes, thank you, LordWresen. According to the law, when a debt of a silver isincurred and not remanded-" From the way the word was emphasized,it was obvious to Tier that "remanded" was a word that seldomleft the lips of the innkeeper. "-that person may be sold toredeem the debt. If no buyer is found, they shall suffer fiftylashes in the public square."
Flogging was a common punishment. Tier knew, as did all themen in the room, that such a child was unlikely to survive fiftylashes. Tier stepped away from the door and opened his mouth toprotest, but he stopped as he realized exactly what had beenhappening.
His old commander had told him once that knowledge won morebattles than swords did. The innkeeper's motivation was easy tounderstand. Selling the girl could net him more than his innusually made in a week, if he could sell her. None of thevillagers here would spend a whole silver to buy a Traveler. Tier would give odds that the innkeeper's knowledge of law hadcome from the nobleman -- Lord Wresen the innkeeper had calledhim. Tier doubted the man was a "lord" at all: the innkeeper wasflattering him with the title because of his obvious wealth -- itwas safer and more profitable that way.
It didn't take a genius to see that Wresen had decided hewanted the girl and engineered matters so that he would have her. She would not be beautiful as a woman; but she had the lovelinessthat belongs to maidens caught in the moment between childhoodand the blossom of womanhood. Wresen had no intention of lettingher be flogged to death.
"Do you have a silver?" the innkeeper asked the Travelergirl with a rough shake.
She should have been afraid. Even now Tier thought that alittle show of fear would go a long way toward keeping her safe. Selling a young girl into slavery was not a part of thesefarmer's lives and would seem wrong. Not even the innkeeper wasentirely comfortable with it. If she appealed to his mercy, thepresence of the other men in the inn would force him to releaseher.
Instead, she smiled contemptuously at the innkeeper, showinghim that she, and everyone in the inn, knew that he wasexploiting her vulnerability for profit. All that did wasinfuriate the innkeeper and silence his conscience entirely --didn't this girl know anything about people?
"So gents," said the innkeeper, glancing toward Wresen whowas finishing the last few bites of his meal. "A dead man cannotpay his debts and they are left to his heir. This one owes me asilver and has no means to pay. Do any of you need a slave orshall she join her brother where he burns in the square?"
The flush of anger that had highlighted her cheeks paledabruptly. Obviously, she hadn't known the other Traveler hadbeen killed until the innkeeper spoke, although she must havesuspected something had happened to him. Her breathing pickedup, and she blinked hard, but otherwise she controlled herselfuntil all that showed on her face was anger and contempt.
Stupid girl, he thought again -- then he felt the tingle ofgathering magic.
He'd been nine long years in the Imperial Army under a Septwho commanded six wizards doubtless that was the reason Tierwas contemplating helping the Traveler rather than running outthe door like a proper Rederni. Those years had taught him thatmages were just people like anyone else: this girl was unlikelyto be able to save herself from a mob of frightened men. Afterthey saw her work magic, no one else would be able to save hereither.
She was nothing to him.
"One silver," Tier said.
Wresen started and shifted to alertness, his hand touchinghis sword staring at Tier. Tier knew what he saw: a travel-stained man, tall and too thin, with a sword on his belt and hisyears in the Emperor's army recorded in the myriad small scars onface and hands.
Tier opened his belt pouch and sorted through a smatteringsmall coins before pulling out a silver round that looked asthough it had been trampled by a dozen armies.
"Take off your hood," said the innkeeper. "I'll see a man'sface and know his name and kin before I take his money."
Tier tossed his hood back and let them see by his dark hairand eyes that he was no Traveler. "Tieragan from Redern and lateof the Imperial Army under the Sept of Gerant. I'm a baker'sson, but I gave it up for the battlefield when I was young andstupid. The war's ended by the Emperor's writ, and I amhomebound."
The girl's magic died down to a slow simmer. That's it, hethought, take the time I'm giving you to remember that one man iseasier to take than a whole room. You don't really want revenge,you want escape. He didn't know whether he was saving her fromthese men, or the men from her.
"If you take her, you won't stay here," blustered theinnkeeper. "I don't want her kind in my inn."
Tier shrugged, "I've camped before, and my horse will takeme a few hours yet."
"Two silver," said Wresen abruptly. He set his hands on histable with enough force that his sword bounced and the big silverring on his left hand punctuated his words with a bang. When alleyes turned to him he said, "I've always wanted to sampleTraveler bread -- and that one looks young enough to bring toheel."
At last the man had made his move, and Tier had beenthinking furiously about how to beat him. Tier couldn't affordto offer much more than Wresen's two silver. Not because hedidn't have it, the better part of nine years of pay and plunderwere safely sewn in his belt. But because no one would believethat he, a baker's son and soldier, would spend so much money ona woman-child no matter how exotic. On the other hand, a borednobleman could spend as much as he wanted without comment.
Tier shot Wresen a look of contempt.
"You'd be dead before your pants were down around yourknees, nobleman," Tier said. "You aren't from around thesemountains, or you would understand about magic. My armsmate waslike you, used to the tame wizards who take the Septs' gold. Hesaved my life three times and survived five years of war, only tofall at the hands of a Traveler wizard in a back alley."
The mood in the room shifted as Tier reminded them why theyhad killed the man burning outside.
"We-" he included himself with every man in the room "-weunderstand. You don't play with fire, Lord Wresen, you drown itbefore it burns your house down." He looked at the innkeeper. "After the Traveler killed my fighting brother. I spent yearslearning how to deal with such -- I look forward to testing myknowledge. Two silver and four copper."
The innkeeper nodded quickly as Tier had expected. Aninnkeeper would understand the moods of his patrons and see thatmany more words like Tier's last speech, and he'd get nothing. The men in the room were very close to taking the girl out rightnow and throwing her on top of her brother. Much better to endthe auction early with something to show for it.
Tier handed the innkeeper the silver coin and began diggingin his purse. Eventually coming up with the twenty-eight coppersnecessary to make a silver and four. He was careful that anumber of people saw how few coppers he had left. They didn'tneed to know about the money in his belt.
Wresen settled back, as if the Traveler's fate was nothingto him. His response made Tier all the more wary of him -- inhis experience bored noblemen seldom gave up so easily. But forthe moment at least, Tier had only the girl to contend with.
Tier walked to the stairs, ignoring the men who pushed backaway from him. He jerked the girl's wrist and pulled her pastthe innkeeper.
"What she has we'll take," Tier said. "I'll burn them whenwe're in the woods you might think of doing the same to the bedand linen in that room. I've seen wizards curse such things."
He took the stairs up a pace that the girl couldn't possiblymatch with the awkward way he kept her arm twisted behind her. When she stumbled, he jerked her up with force that was moreapparent than real. He wanted everyone to be completelyconvinced that he could handle whatever danger she represented.
There were four doors at the top of the stairs, but only onehung ajar and he hauled her into it and shut the door behindthem.
"Quick girl," he said releasing her, "Gather your thingsbefore they decide that they might keep the gold and kill theboth of us."
When she didn't move, he tried a different tack. "What youdon't have packed in a count of thirty, I'll leave for theinnkeeper to burn," he said.
Proud and courageous she was, but also young. With quick,jerky movements, she pulled a pair of shabby packs out from underthe bed. She tied the first one shut for travel, and retrievedclothing out of the other. Using her nightrail as cover, she puton a pair of loose pants and a long, dark colored tunic. Afterstuffing her sleeping shift back in the second pack, she securedit too. She stood up, glanced out the room and froze.
"Ushireh," she said and added with more urgency "He'salive!"
Tier looked out and realized that the room looked over thesquare, allowing a clear view of the fire. Clearly visible inthe heat of the flames, the dead man's body was slowly sittingupright and from the sounds of it, frightening the daylightsout of the men left to guard the pyre.
He caught her before she could run out of the room. "Uponmy honor, mistress, he is dead," he said with low-voiced urgency."I saw him as I rode in. His throat was cut and he was deadbefore they lit the fire."
She continued to struggle against his hold, her attention onthe pyre outside.
"Would they have left so few men to guard a living man?" hesaid. "Surely you've seen funeral pyres before. When the flameheats the bodies they move."
In the eastern parts of the Empire, they burned their dead. The priests held that when a corpse moved in the flame it was thespirit's desire to look once more upon the world. Tier's oldemployer, the Sept, who had a Traveler's fondness for priests(that is to say, not much), said he reckoned the heat shranktissue faster than bone as the corpse burned. Whichever wascorrect, the dead stayed dead.
"He's dead," Tier said again. "I swear to it."
She pulled away from him, but only to run back to thewindow. She was breathing in shaking heaving gasps, her wholebody trembling with it. If she'd done something of the samedownstairs, he thought sourly, they wouldn't be looking to rideout in the rain without dinner.
"They were so afraid of him and his magic," she said in alow voice trembling with rage and sorrow. "But they killed thewrong one. Stupid solsenti, thinking that being a Traveler makesone a mage, and that being young and female makes me harmless."
"We can't afford to linger here," he said briskly though hisheart picked up its beat. He'd gotten familiar with mages, butthat didn't make them any more comfortable to be around when theywere angry. "Are you ready?"
She spun from the window, her eyes glowing just a littlewith the magic she'd amassed watching her brother's body burn.
Doubtless, he thought, if he knew exactly what she wascapable of he'd have been even more frightened of her.
"There are too many here," he said. "Take what you need andcome."
The glow faded from her eyes, leaving her looking empty andlost before she stiffened her spine, grabbed both bags resolutelyand nodded.
He put a hand on her shoulder and followed her out the doorand down the stairs. The room had cleared remarkably doubtlessthe men had been called to witness the writhing corpse.
"Best be gone before they get back," said the innkeepersourly, doubtlessly worried about what would happen to his inn ifthe men returned after their newest fright to find the Travelerlass still here.
"Make sure and burn the curtains, too," said Tier in reply. There was nothing wrong with any of the furnishing in the room,but he thought it would serve the innkeeper right to have tospend some of Tier's money to buy new material for curtains.
The girl, bless her, had the sense to keep her head down andher mouth shut.
Out of the inn, he steered her into the stables where thegroom had already brought out his horse and saddled it. TheTraveler handcart was set out too. The girl was light so Skewcould certainly carry the two of them as far as the next villagewhere Tier might obtain another mount but the handcart proposedmore of a problem.
"We'll leave the cart," he said to the boy, not theTraveler. "I've no wish to continue only as fast as this childcould haul a cart like that."
The boy's chin lifted. "M'father says you have to take itall. He doesn't want Traveler curses to linger here."
"He's worried that they'll fire the barn," said the girl tono one in particular.
"Serve him right," said Tier in an Eastern dialect a stableboy born and raised to this village would not know. The girl'ssudden intake of breath told him that she had.
"Get me an axe," Tier said frowning: They didn't have timefor this. "I'll fire it before we go."
"It can be pulled by a horse," said the girl. "There areshafts stored underneath."
Tier snorted, but he looked obediently under the cart andsaw that she was right. A clevis pin and toggle allowed thehandpull to slide under the cart. On each corner of the cartsturdy shafts pulled out and pinned in place.
Tier hurriedly discussed matters with the boy. The inn hadno extra mounts to sell, nor harness.
Tier shook his head. As he'd done a time or two before,though not with Skew, Tier jury-rigged a harness from his warsaddle. The breast strap functioned well enough as a collar withsuch a light weight. He adjusted the stirrups to hold the cartshafts and used an old pair of driving reins the boy scavenged astraces.
"You've come down in the world once more, my friend," saidTier as he lead Skew out of the stable.
The gelding snorted once at the contraption following him. A warhorse was not a cart horse, but, enured to battle, Skewsettled into pulling the cart with calm good sense.
While he'd been leading the horse, the girl had stopped atthe stable entrance, her eyes fixed on the pyre.
"You'll have time to mourn later," he promised her. "Rightnow we need to move before they return to the inn. You'll dowell enough on Skew just keep your feet off his ribs."
She scrambled up somehow, avoiding his touch as much as shecould. He didn't blame her, but he didn't stop to say anythingreassuring where the stableboy might hear.
He kept Skew's reins and led him out of the stables in theopposite direction that he'd come earlier in the day. The girltwisted around to watched the pyre as long as she could.
Tier led Skew at a walk through the town. As soon as theywere off the cobbles and on a wide dirt-track, Tier broke into adog-trot he could hold for a long time. It shortened his breathuntil talking was no pleasure so he said nothing to the girl.
Skew trotted at his side as well as any trained dog, nose atTier's shoulder as they had traveled many miles before. Therain, which had let up for a while, set in again and Tier slowedto a walk so he could keep a sharp eye out for shelter.
At last he found a place where a dead tree leaned againsttwo others, creating a small dry area which he increased by tyingup a piece of oilskin.
"I'd do better if it weren't full dark and raining," he saidto the girl without looking at her. "But this'll be drier at anyrate."
He unharnessed and unsaddled Skew, rubbing him down brisklybefore tethering him to a nearby tree. Skew presented hisbackside to the wind and hitched up a hip. Like any veteran, thehorse knew to snatch rest where it came.
The heavy war saddle in hand, Tier turned to the girl.
"If you touch me," she said coolly. "You won't live out theday."
He eyed her small figure for a moment. She was even lessimpressive wet and cold than she had been held captive in theinnkeeper's hand.
Tier had never actually met a Traveler before. But he waswell used to dealing with frightened young things the army hadbeen filled with young men. Even tired and wet as he was, heknew better than to address those words head on why would shebelieve anything he said? But if he didn't get her undershelter, sharing his warmth, she was likely to develop lungfever. That would defeat his entire purpose in saving her.
"Good even, lady," he said, with a fair imitation of anobleman's bow despite the weight of the heavy saddle. "I amTieragan of Redern most people call me Tier." Then he waited.
She stared at him, he felt a butterfly-flutter of magic --then her eyes widened incredulously, as if she'd heard somethingmore than he'd said. "I am Seraph, Raven of the Clan of Isoldathe Silent. I give you greetings, Bard."
"Well met, Seraph," he said. Doubtless her answer wouldhave conveyed a lot to a fellow Traveler. Maybe they'd even knowwhy she addressed him as bard, doubtless some Traveler etiquette. "I am returning to Redern. If my map is accurate and ithasn't been notably accurate so far Redern is about two days'travel west and north of here."
"My clan, only Ushireh and I, was traveling to the villagewe just left," she returned, shivering now. "I don't know whereUshireh intended to go afterward."
Tier had been counting on being able to deliver her back toher people. "It was just the two of you?"
She nodded her head, watching him as warily as a hen beforea fox.
"Do you have relatives nearby? Someone you could go to?" heasked.
"Traveling clans avoid this area," she said. "It is knownthat the people here are afraid of us."
"So why did your brother come here?" He shifted the saddleto a more comfortable hold, resting it against his hip.
"It is given to the head of a clan to know where shadowsdwell," she replied obscurely. "My brother was following onesuch."
Tier's experience with mages had led him to avoidquestioning them when they talked of magic he found that heusually knew less after they were finished than he did when hestarted. Whatever had led the young man here, it had left Seraphon her own.
"What happened to the rest of your clan?" he asked.
"Plague," she said. "We welcomed a Traveling stranger toour fires one night. The next night one of the babies had acough by morning there were three of ours dead. The clanleader tried to isolate them, but it was too late. Only mybrother and I survived."
"How old are you?
That was younger than he expected from her manner; thoughfrom her appearance, she could have easily been as young asthirteen. He shifted his saddle onto his shoulder to rest hisarm. As he did so, he heard a thump and the saddle jerked in hishold. The arrow quivered in the thick leather of the saddleskirt which presently covered his chest.
He threw himself forward and knocked her to the muddy groundunderneath him. Holding her still despite her frantic battle tofree herself of him, a hand keeping her quiet, he spoke to her ina toneless whisper.
"Quiet now, love. Someone out there is sending arrows ourway, take a look at my saddle."
When she stilled, he slid his weight off of her. The grasswas high enough to hide their movements in the dark. She rolledto her belly, but made no further move away from him. He resteda hand on her back to keep her in place until he could find theirattacker in the dark. Her ribs vibrated with the pounding of herheart.
"He's two dozen paces beyond your horse," she whispered, "alittle to the right."
He didn't question how she could see their attacker in thepitch-darkness of the forested night, but sneaked forward untilhe crouched in front of Skew where he held still, hoping that themud which covered him head to toe would keep him from being atarget for another arrow.
He glanced back to make certain that Seraph was stillhidden, and stifled a curse.
She stood upright, her gaze locked beyond Skew. He assumedshe was watching their attacker. Her clothes were dark enough toblend into the forested dark, but her pale hair caught the faintmoonlight.
"Seraph," said a soft voice. It continued in a liquidtongue Tier had never heard before.
"Speak Common," answered Seraph in cold clear tones thatcould have come from an empress rather than a battered, muddyhalf-grown girl. "Your tongue does not favor Traveler speech. You sound like a hen trying to quack."
Well, thought Tier, if their pursuer had intended to killSeraph, he'd have done so already. He had a pretty good ideathen who it was that had tried to put an arrow in his hide. Hehadn't seen that Lord Wresen carried a bow, but he supposed thatthere might have been one in the man's luggage.
"I have killed the one who would hurt you," continued thesoft voice.
Tier supposed that it might have appeared that he'd beenkilled. He'd thrown himself down half a breath after the arrowhit and the saddle and blanket made a lump on the ground thatwith the cover of tall grass might look like a body from adistance.
"Come with me, little one," Tier's would-be killer said. "Ihave shelter and food near by. You can't stay out here alone.You'll be safe with me."
Tier could hear the lie in the man's words, but he didn'tthink Seraph could. He waited for the man to get close enoughfor him to find him, hoping that Seraph would not believe him. After spending two silver and eight copper on her, as well asmissing his dinner, Tier had something of an investment in herwell-being.
"A Raven is never alone," Seraph said.
"Seraph," chided the man. "You know better than that. Come, child I have a safe place for you to abide. In the morningI'll take you to a clan I know of, not far from here."
Tier could see him now, a shadow darker than the trees heslipped between. Something about the way the shadow movedcombined with his voice gave his identity to Tier: he'd beenright, it was Wresen.
"Which clan would that be?" asked Seraph.
"I-" Some instinct turned Wresen before Tier struck andTier's sword met metal.
Tier threw his weight against the sword, pushing Wresen awayto get some striking distance between them where Tier'ssuperior reach would do him some good.
They fought briskly for a few minutes, mostly feeling eachother out, searching for weaknesses. The older man was fasterthan Tier had expected; but he wasn't the only one who'dunderestimated his opponent. From the grunt Wresen let out thefirst time he caught Tier's sword, he'd underestimated Tier'sstrength something that was not uncommon. Tier was tall and,as he'd often been teased, slight as a stripling.
By the time they drew back to regroup, Tier boasted ashallow cut on his cheekbone and another on the underside of hisright forearm. The other man had taken a hard blow from Tier'spommel on the wrist and Tier was pretty sure he'd drawn bloodover his adversary's eye.
"What do you want with the girl?" asked Tier. This was toomuch effort for a mere bedmate no matter how Wresen's tastes ran.
"Naught but her safety," insisted Wresen for Seraph. Thelie echoed in Tier's ears. "Which is more than you can say."
He made an odd gesture with his fingers and Tier dropped hissword with a cry as it became too hot to hold.
Wizard, thought Tier but neither surprise nor dismay slowedhim. Leaving his sword where it lay, Tier charged, catching theother man in the stomach with his shoulder and pushing both ofthem back into a mass of shrubs which caught at their feet.
Wresen, unprepared, stumbled and fell. Tier struck hard,aiming for the throat, but his opponent rolled too fast. Quickas a weasel, Wresen regained his feet. Twice Tier jumped andnarrowly avoided the other's blade. But he wasn't a fool;unarmed, his chances weren't good.
"Run, Seraph," he said. "Take the horse and get out ofhere."
With luck he should be capable of holding her pursuer longenough that she could loose him in the woods. If he could keephim busy enough, Wresen wouldn't have time to work magic.
"Don't be a more of a fool than you can help, Bard," shesaid coldly.
The other man swore and Tier saw that Wresen's sword hadbegun to glow as if it were still in the blacksmith's fire. Steam rose from his hand as he made odd gestures toward it withhis free hand. Wresen was no longer giving any heed to Tier atall - which was the last mistake he ever made.
Tier pulled his boot knife out of the man's neck and cleanedit on the other's cloak. When he was finished, he looked atSeraph.
Her pale skin and face were easy to find in the darkness. She reminded him of a hundred legends, so must have Loriel stoodwhen she faced the Shadowed with nothing more than her song orTerabet before throwing herself from the walls of Anarorgehnrather than betraying her people. His father had always saidthat his grandfather told him too many stories.
"Why chose me over him?" Tier asked her.
She said, "I heard him at the inn: He was no friend ofmine."
Tier narrowed his eyes. "You heard me at the inn as well. He only helped the innkeeper add coppers I bought you intent onrevenge."
She lifted her chin. "I'm not stupid. I am Raven -- andyou are Bard. I saw what you did."
The words were in Common, but they made no sense to him.
He frowned at her. "What do you mean? Mistress, I have beena baker and a soldier, which is to say swordsman, tracker, spy,and even tailor, blacksmith and harness maker upon occasion --and doubtless a half dozen other professions. But I make noclaim to be a Bard. Even if I were, I have no idea what that hasto do with you. Or what being a Raven means."
She stared at him as if he made as little sense to her asshe had just done to him. "You are Bard," she said again, butthis time there was a wobble in her voice.
He took a good look at her. It might have been rain thatwet her cheeks, but he'd bet his good knife that there would besalt in the water. She was little more than a child and she'djust lost her brother under appalling circumstances. It was themiddle of the night, she was shaking with cold and she'd held upto more than many a veteran soldier.
"I'll dispose of the body," he said. "Neither of us willget any sleep with him out here attracting carrion-eaters. Youget out of the rain and into dry clothes. We'll talk in themorning. I promise that no one will harm you until morning atleast."
When she was occupied getting her baggage out of the cart,he led Skew to the body and somehow wrestled the dead man ontothe horse's wet back. He had no intention of burying the man,just moving him far enough away that whatever scavengers the bodyattracted wouldn't trouble them. It occurred to him that Wresenmight not be alone -- indeed, it would be odd if he were because noblemen traveled with servants.
But all he found was a single grey horse tied to a treeabout a hundred paces back down the trail and no sign thatanother horse had been tied nearby.
Tier stopped beside the animal, and let the body slide offSkew's back into the mud, sword still welded to his hand. Skew,who'd born with everything, jumped three steps sideways as thebody fell and snorted unhappily. The grey pulled back and shookher head, trying to break free -- but the reins held. Whennothing further happened the horse quieted and lipped nervouslyat a bunch of nearby leaves.
Tier rifled through the man's saddlebags, but there wasnothing in them but the makings of a few meals and a pouch ofsilver and copper coins. This last he tucked into his own pursewith a soldier's thrift. He took the food as well. There wasnothing on the body either -- except for a chunky silver ringwith a bit of dark stone in it. He deemed the ring, like thehorse and the man's sword, too identifiable to take, and left itwhere it was.
In the end, Tier found no hint of who Wresen was, or whyhe'd been so intent on getting Seraph. Surely a mage wouldn'thave the same unreasoning fear of Travelers that the villagershere had.
He took his knife and cut most of the way through the grey'sreins near the bit. When she got hungry enough she'd break free,but it wouldn't be for a while yet.
By the time he rode back to camp, Tier was dragging withfatigue. Seraph had taken his advice; he found her huddled underthe tree.
A second oil tarp, bigger and even more worn that his,increased the size of their shelter so that he might even be ableto keep his feet dry. His saddle was in the shelter too, the mudwiped mostly off. He rummaged in the saddle bags and changed tohis second set of clothing. They weren't clean, but dry was moreimportant just now.
Seraph had turned her face away while he changed. Knowingshe'd not sleep for the cold on her own, nor agree to snugglewith a stranger especially not in the present circumstances, hedidn't bother to say anything. He wrapped an arm around her,ignored her squeak of surprised dismay and stretched out tosleep.
She tried to wiggle away from him, but there wasn't muchroom. Then she was still for a long time while Tier drifted intoa light doze. Some time later her quiet weeping woke him, and he shifted her closer, patting her back as if she were his littlesister coming to him with a scraped knee rather than the loss ofher family.
He woke to her strange pale eyes staring at him, lit bysunlight leaking through morning clouds.
"I could have used this on you," Seraph said.
He looked at the blade she held in her dirty hands hisbest knife. She must have been into his saddlebags.
"Yes," he agreed, taking it from her unresisting hand. "ButI saw your face when you looked at our dead friend last night. Iwas pretty certain you wouldn't want to deal with another deadbody any time soon."
"I have seen many dead," she said, and he saw in her eyesthat it was true.
"But none that you have killed," he replied.
"If I had not been asleep when they were killing mybrother," she said, "I would have killed them all, Bard."
"You might have." Tier stretched and slid out from under thetree. "But then you would have been killed also. And, as I toldyou last night, I am no bard."
"Just a baker's son," she said. "From Redern."
"Where I am returning," he agreed.
"You are no solsenti," she disagreed smugly. "There are nosolsenti Bards."
"Solsenti?" He was beginning to get the feeling that theyknew two entirely different languages that happen to have a fewwords in common.
Her assuredness began to falter, as if she'd expected someother reaction from him. "Solsenti means someone who is notTraveler."
"Then I'm afraid I am most certainly solsenti." He dustedoff his clothes, but nothing could remove the stains of travel. At least they weren't wet. "I can play a lute and a little harp,but I am not a bard though I think that means somethingdifferent to you than it does to me."
She stared at him. "But I saw you," she said. "I felt yourmagic at the inn last night."
Startled he stared at her. "I am no mage, either."
"No," she agreed. "But you charmed the innkeeper at the innso that he didn't allow that man to buy my debt."
"I am a soldier, mistress," he said. "And I was an officer. Any good officer learns to manage people or he doesn't lastlong. The innkeeper was more worried about losing his inn thanhe was about earning another silver or two. It had nothing to dowith magic."
"You don't know," she said at last, and not, he thought,particularly to him. "How is it possible not to know that youare Bard?"
"What do you mean?"
She frowned. "I am Raven, you would say Mage -- very like asolsenti wizard. But there are other ways to use magic among theTravelers, things your solsenti wizards cannot do. A few of usare gifted in different ways and depending upon that gift, webelong to Orders. One of those Orders is Bard -- as you are. ABard is, as you said, a musician first. Your voice is true andrich. You have a remarkable memory, especially for words. Noone can lie to you without you knowing."
He opened his mouth to say something, he knew not whatexcept that it wouldn't be kind -- but he looked at her first andclosed his mouth.
She was so young, for all that she had the imposing mannerof an empress. Her skin was grey with fatigue and her eyes werepuffy and red with weeping she must have done while he slept. Hedecided not to argue with her -- or believe what she said thoughit caused cold chills to run down his spine. He was merely goodwith people, that was all. He was no magic user.
He left her to her speculations and began to take down thecamp. If Wresen's horse made it back to the inn, there might bepeople looking for him soon. Without a word she stood up andhelped.
"I'm going to take you to my kin in Redern," he said whentheir camp was packed and Skew once more attached to the Travelercart. "But you'll have to promise me not to use magic whileyou're there. My people are as wary as any near Shadow's Fall. Redern's a trading town; If there are any Traveler clans around,we'll hear about them."
But she didn't appear to be listening to him. Instead, whenshe'd scrambled to Skew's back she said, "You don't have toworry. I won't tell anyone."
"Tell what?" he asked, leading the way back to the trailthey'd followed the night before.
"That someone in your family, however far back, laid with aTraveler. Only someone of Traveler blood could be a Bard," shesaid. "There are no solsenti Bards."
He was beginning to resent the way she said solsenti,whatever the true meaning of the word, he was willing to bet itwas a deadly insult.
"I won't tell anyone else," she said. "Being Traveler is nohealthy thing."
She glanced up at the mountains that towered above thenarrow trail and shivered.
There were not as many thieves in that part of the Empire asthere were in the lands to the east where war had driven men offtheir lands. But Conex the Tinker, who found the dead bodybeside the trail, was not so honest as all that. He tookeverything he could find of value: two good boots, a bow, ascorched sword (he almost left that but greed outweighedsqueamishness in the end), a belt, and a silver ring with a bitof onyx stone set in it.
Two weeks after his unexpected good fortune a stranger metup with him on the road as sometimes happens when two men havethe same destination in mind. They spent most of the dayexchanging news and ate together that night. The next morningthe stranger, a silver ring safely in his belt pouch, rode offalone.
Conex would never more go atinkering.