The Oathbound (Vows and Honor Series #1)by Mercedes Lackey
Tarma witnessed her clan's murder and, swearing vengeance, became a master warrior. Kethry fled her forced "marriage" and became an adept--pledging her power to the greatest good. When Kethry obtains a magical sword which draws her to others in need, the two vow to avenge the wrongs done to womanhood.See more details below
Tarma witnessed her clan's murder and, swearing vengeance, became a master warrior. Kethry fled her forced "marriage" and became an adept--pledging her power to the greatest good. When Kethry obtains a magical sword which draws her to others in need, the two vow to avenge the wrongs done to womanhood.
Read an Excerpt
NOVELS BY MERCEDES LACKEY
available from DAW Books:
THE HERALDS OF VALDEMAR
ARROWS OF THE QUEEN
THE LAST HERALD-MAGE
THE MAGE WINDS
WINDS OF FATE
WINDS OF CHANGE
WINDS OF FURY
THE MAGE STORMS
VOWS AND HONOR
THE COLLEGIUM CHRONICLES
BY THE SWORD
TAKE A THIEF
SWORD OF ICE
SUN IN GLORY
CHANGING THE WORLD
FINDING THE WAY
UNDER THE VALE
Written with LARRY DIXON:
THE MAGE WARS
THE BLACK GRYPHON
THE WHITE GRYPHON
THE SILVER GRYPHON
THE BLACK SWAN
THE DRAGON JOUSTERS
THE ELEMENTAL MASTERS
THE SERPENT’S SHADOW
THE GATES OF SLEEP PHOENIX AND ASHES
THE WIZARD OF LONDON
RESERVED FOR THE CAT
HOME FROM THE SEA
And don’t miss:
THE VALDEMAR COMPANION
Edited by John Helfers and Denise Little
for wanting to see it
and my parents
for agreeing with her
This is the tale of an unlikely partnership: that of the Shin’a’in swordswoman and celibate Kal’enedral, Tarma shena Tale’sedrin and the nobly-born sorceress Kethry, member of the White Winds school, whose devotees were sworn to wander the world using their talents for the greatest good. How these two met is told in the tale “Sword Sworn,” published in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s anthology SWORD AND SORCERESS III. A second of the accounts of their wandering life will be seen in the fourth volume of that series. But this story begins where that first tale left off, when they have recovered from their ordeal and are making their way back to the Dhorisha Plains and Tarma’s home.
The sky was overcast, a solid gray sheet that seemed to hang just barely above the treetops, with no sign of a break in the clouds anywhere. The sun was no more than a dimly glowing spot near the western horizon, framed by a lattice of bare black branches. Snow lay at least half a foot thick everywhere in the forest, muffling sound. A bird flying high on the winter wind took dim notice that the forest below him extended nearly as far as he could see no matter which way he looked, but was neatly bisected by the Trade Road immediately below him. Had he flown a little higher (for the clouds were not as low as they looked), he might have seen the rooftops and smokes of a city at the southern end of the road, hard against the forest. Although the Trade Road had seen enough travelers of late that the snow covering it was packed hard, there were only two on it now. They had stopped in the clearing halfway through the forest that normally saw heavy use as an overnighting point. One was setting up camp under the shelter of a half-cave of rock and tree trunks piled together—partially the work of man, partially of nature. The other was a short distance away, in a growth-free pocket just off the main area, picketing their beasts.
The bird circled for a moment, swooping lower, eyeing the pair with dim speculation. Humans sometimes meant food—
But there was no food in sight, at least not that the bird recognized as such. And as he came lower still, the one with the beasts looked up at him suddenly, and reached for something slung at her saddlebow.
The bird had been the target of arrows often enough to recognize a bow when he saw one. With a squawk of dismay, he veered off, flapping his wings with all his might, and tracing a twisty, convoluted course out of range. He wanted to be the eater, not the eaten!
• • •
Tarma sighed as the bird sped out of range, unstrung her bow, and stowed it back in the saddle-quiver. She hunched her shoulder a little beneath her heavy wool coat to keep her sword from shifting on her back, and went back to her task of scraping the snow away from the grass buried beneath it with gloved hands. Somewhere off in the far distance she could hear a pair of ravens calling to each other, but otherwise the only sounds were the sough of wind in branches and the blowing of her horse and Kethry’s mule. The Shin’a’in place of eternal punishment was purported to be cold; now she had an idea why.
She tried to ignore the ice-edged wind that seemed to cut right through the worn places in her nondescript brown clothing. This was no place for a Shin’a’in of the Plains, this frozen northern forest. She had no business being here. Her garments, more than adequate to the milder winters in the south, were just not up to the rigors of the cold season here.
Her eyes stung, and not from the icy wind. Home—Warrior Dark, she wanted to be home! Home, away from these alien forests with their unfriendly weather, away from outClansmen with no understanding and no manners . . . home. . . .
Her little mare whickered at her, and strained against her lead rope, her breath steaming and her muzzle edged with frost. She was no fonder of this chilled wilderness than Tarma was. Even the Shin’a’in winter pastures never got this cold, and what little snow fell on them was soon melted. The mare’s sense of what was “right” was deeply offended by all this frigid white stuff.
“Kathal, dester’edra,” Tarma said to the ears that pricked forward at the first sound of her harsh voice. “Gently, windborn-sister. I’m nearly finished here.”
Kessira snorted back at her, and Tarma’s usually solemn expression lightened with an affectionate smile.
“Li’ha’eer, it is ice-demons that dwell in this place, and nothing else.”
When she figured that she had enough of the grass cleared off to at least help to satisfy her mare’s hunger, she heaped the rest of her foragings into the center of the area, topping the heap with a carefully measured portion of mixed grains and a little salt. What she’d managed to find was poor enough, and not at all what her training would have preferred—some dead seed grasses with the heads still on them, the tender tips from the branches of those trees and bushes she recognized as being nourishing, even some dormant cress and cattail roots from the stream. It was scarcely enough to keep the mare from starving, and not anywhere near enough to provide her with the energy she needed to carry Tarma on at the pace she and her partner Kethry had been making up until now.
She loosed little Kessira from her tethering and picketed her in the middle of the space she’d cleared. It showed the measure of the mare’s hunger that she tore eagerly into the fodder, poor as it was. There had been a time when Kessira would have turned up her nose in disdain at being offered such inferior provender.
“Ai, we’ve come on strange times, haven’t we, you and I,” Tarma sighed. She tucked a stray lock of crow-wing-black hair back under her hood, and put her right arm over Kessira’s shoulder, resting against the warm bulk of her. “Me with no Clan but one weirdling outlander, you so far from the Plains and your sibs.”
Not that long ago they’d been just as any other youngling of the nomadic Shin’a’in and her saddle mare; Tarma learning the mastery of sword, song, and steed, Kessira running free except when the lessoning involved her. Both of them had been safe and contented in the heart of Clan Tale’sedrin—true, free Children of the Hawk.
Tarma rubbed her cheek against Kessira’s furry shoulder, breathing in the familiar smell of clean horse that was so much a part of what had been home. Oh, but they’d been happy; Tarma had been the pet of the Clan, with her flute-clear voice and her perfect memory for song and tale, and Kessira had been so well-matched for her rider that she almost seemed the “four-footed sister” that Tarma frequently named her. Their lives had been so close to perfect—in all ways. The king-stallion of the herd had begun courting Kessira that spring, and Tarma had had Dharin; nothing could have spoiled what seemed to be their secure future.
Then the raiders had come upon the Clan; and all that carefree life was gone in an instant beneath their swords.
Tarma’s eyes stung again. Even full revenge couldn’t take away the ache of losing them, all, all—
In one candlemark all that Tarma had ever known or cared about had been wiped from the face of the earth.
“What price your blood, my people? A few pounds of silver? Goddess, the dishonor that your people were counted so cheaply!”
The slaughter of Tale’sedrin had been the more vicious because they’d taken the entire Clan unawares and unarmed in the midst of celebration; totally unarmed, as Shin’a’in seldom were. They had trusted to the vigilance of their sentries.
But the cleverest sentry cannot defeat foul magic that creeps upon him out of the dark and smothers the breath in his throat ere he can cry out.
The brigands had not so much as a drop of honorable blood among them; they knew had the Clan been alerted they’d have had stood the robbers off, even outnumbered as they were, so the bandits’ hired mage had cloaked their approach and stifled the guards. And so the Clan had fought an unequal battle, and so they had died; adults, oldsters, children, all. . . .
“Goddess, hold them—” she whispered, as she did at least once each day. Every last member of Tale’sedrin had died; most had died horribly. Except Tarma. She should have died; and unaccountably had been left alive.
If you could call it living to have survived with everything gone that had made life worth having. Yes, she had been left alive—and utterly, utterly alone. Left to live with a ruined voice that had once been the pride of the Clans, with a ravaged body, and most of all, a shattered heart and mind. There had been nothing left to sustain her but a driving will to wreak vengeance on those who had left her Clanless.
She pulled a brush from an inside pocket of her coat, and began needlessly grooming Kessira while the mare ate. The firm strokes across the familiar chestnut coat were soothing to both of them. She had been left Clanless, and a Shin’a’in Clanless is one without purpose in living. Clan is everything to a Shin’a’in. Only one thing kept her from seeking oblivion and death-willing herself, that burning need to revenge her people.
But vengeance and blood-feud were denied the Shin’a’in—the ordinary Shin’a’in. Else too many of the people would have gone down on the knives of their own folk, and to little purpose, for the Goddess knew Her people and knew their tempers to be short. Hence, Her law. Only those who were the Kal’enedral of the Warrior—the Sword Sworn, outClansmen called them, although the name meant both “Children of Her Sword” and “Her Sword-Brothers”—could cry blood-feud and take the trail of vengeance. That was because of the nature of their Oath to Her—first to the service of the Goddess of the New Moon and South Wind, then to the Clans as a whole, and only after those two to their own particular Clan. Blood-feud did not serve the Clans if the feud was between Shin’a’in and Shin’a’in; keeping the privilege of calling for blood-price in the hands of those by their very nature devoted to the welfare of the Shin’a’in as a whole kept interClan strife to a minimum.
“If it had been you, what would you have chosen, hmm?” she asked the mare. “Her Oath isn’t a light one.” Nor was it without cost—a cost some might think far too high. Once Sworn, the Kal’enedral became weapons in Her hand, and not unlike the sexless, cold steel they wore. Hard, somewhat aloof, and totally asexual were the Sword Sworn—and this, too, ensured that their interests remained Hers and kept them from becoming involved in interClan rivalry. So it was not the kind of Oath one involved in a simple feud was likely to even consider taking.
But the slaughter of the Tale’sedrin was not a matter of private feud or Clan against Clan—this was a matter of more, even, than personal vengeance. Had the brigands been allowed to escape unpunished, would that not have told other wolf-heads that the Clans were not invulnerable—would there not have been another repetition of the slaughter ? That may have been Her reasoning; Tarma had only known that she was able to find no other purpose in living, so she had offered her Oath to the Star-Eyed so that she could pledge her life to revenge her Clan. An insane plan—sprung out of a mind that might be going mad with grief.
There were those who thought she was already mad, who were certain She would accept no such Oath given by one whose reason was gone. But much to the amazement of nearly everyone in the Clan Liha’irden who had succored, healed, and protected her, that Oath had been accepted. Only the shamans had been unsurprised.
She had never in her wildest dreaming guessed what would come of that Oath and that quest for justice.
Kessira finished the pile of provender, and moved on to tear hungrily at the lank, sere grasses. Beneath the thick coat of winter hair she had grown, her bones were beginning to show in a way that Tarma did not in the least like. She left off brushing, and stroked the warm shoulder, and the mare abandoned her feeding long enough to nuzzle her rider’s arm affectionately.
“Patient one, we shall do better by you, and soon,” Tarma pledged her. She left the mare to her grazing and went to check on Kethry’s mule. That sturdy beast was capable of getting nourishment from much coarser material than Kessira, so Tarma had left him tethered amid a thicket of sweetbark bushes. He had stripped all within reach of last year’s growth, and was straining against his halter with his tongue stretched out as far as it would reach for a tasty morsel just out of his range.
“Greedy pig,” she said with a chuckle, and moved him again, giving him a bit more rope this time, and leaving his own share of grain and foraged weeds within reach. Like all his kind he was a clever beast; smarter than any horse save one Shin’a’in-bred. It was safe enough to give him plenty of lead; if he tangled himself he’d untangle himself just as readily. Nor would he eat to foundering, not that there was enough browse here to do that. A good, sturdy, gentle animal, and even-tempered, well suited to an inexperienced rider like Kethry. She’d been lucky to find him.
His tearing at the branches shook snow down on her; with a shiver she brushed it off as her thoughts turned back to the past. No, she would never have guessed at the changes wrought in her life-path by that Oath and her vow of vengeance.
“Jel’enedra, you think too much. It makes you melancholy.”
She recognized the faintly hollow-sounding tenor at the first word; it was her chief sword-teacher. This was the first time he’d come to her since the last bandit had fallen beneath her sword. She had begun to wonder if her teachers would ever come back again.
All of them were unforgiving of mistakes, and quick to chastise—this one more than all the rest put together. So though he had startled her, though she had hardly expected his appearance, she took care not to display it.
“Ah?” she replied, turning slowly to face him. Unfair that he had used his other-worldly powers to come on her unawares, but he himself would have been the first to tell her that life—as she well knew—was unfair. She would not reveal that she had not detected his presence until he spoke.
He had called her “younger sister,” though, which was an indication that he was pleased with her for some reason. “Mostly you tell me I don’t think enough.”
Standing in a clear spot amid the bushes was a man, garbed in fighter’s gear of deepest black, and veiled. The ice-blue eyes, the sable hair, and the cut of his close-wrapped clothing would have told most folk that he was, like Tarma, Shin’a’in. The color of the clothing would have told the more knowledgeable—since most Shin’a’in preferred a carnival brightness in their garments—that he, too, was Sword Sworn; Sword Sworn by custom wore only stark black or dark brown. But only one very sharp-eyed would have noticed that while he stood amid the snow, he made no imprint upon it. It seemed that he weighed hardly more than a shadow.
That was scarcely surprising since he had died long before Tarma was born.
“Thinking to plan is one case; thinking to brood is another,” he replied. “You accomplish nothing but to increase your sadness. You should be devising a means of filling your bellies and those of your jel’suthro’edrin. You cannot reach the Plains if you do not eat.”
He had used the Shin’a’in term for riding beasts that meant “forever-younger-Clanschildren.” Tarma was dead certain he had picked that term with utmost precision, to impress upon her that the welfare of Kessira and Kethry’s mule Rodi were as important as her own—more so, since they could not fend for themselves in this inhospitable place.
“With all respect, teacher, I am . . . at a loss. Once I had a purpose. Now?” She shook her head. “Now I am certain of nothing. As you once told me—”
“Li’sa’eer! Turn my own words against me, will you?” he chided gently. “And have you nothing?”
“My she’enedra. But she is outClan, and strange to me, for all that the Goddess blessed our oath-binding with Her own fire. I know her but little. I—only—”
“What, bright blade?”
“I wish—I wish to go home—” The longing she felt rose in her throat and made it hard to speak.
“And so? What is there to hinder you?”
“There is,” she replied, willing her eyes to stop stinging, “the matter of money. Ours is nearly gone. It is a long way to the Plains.”
“So? Are you not now of the mercenary calling?”
“Well, unless there be some need for blades hereabouts—the which I have seen no evidence for, the only way to reprovision ourselves will be if my she’enedra can turn her skill in magic to an honorable profit. For though I have masters of the best,” she bowed her head in the little nod of homage a Shin’a’in gave to a respected elder, “sent by the Star-Eyed herself, what measure of attainment I have acquired matters not if there is no market for it.”
“Hai’she’li! You should market that silver tongue, jel’enedra!” he laughed. “Well, and well. Three things I have come to tell you, which is why I arrive out-of-time and not at moonrise. First, that there will be storm tonight, and you should all shelter, mounts and riders together. Second, that because of the storm, we shall not teach you this night, though you may expect our coming from this day on, every night that you are not within walls.”
He turned as if to leave, and she called out, “And third?”
“Third?” he replied, looking back at her over his shoulder. “Third—is that everyone has a past. Ere you brood over your own, consider another’s.”
Before she had a chance to respond, he vanished, melting into the wind.
Wrinkling her nose over that last, cryptic remark, she went to find her she’enedra and partner.
Kethry was hovering over a tiny, nearly smokeless fire, skinning a pair of rabbits. Tarma almost smiled at the frown of concentration she wore; she was going at the task as if she were being rated on the results! They were a study in contrasts, she and her outClan blood-sister. Kethry was sweet-faced and curvaceous, with masses of curling amber hair and startling green eyes; she would have looked far more at home in someone’s court circle as a pampered palace mage than she did here, at their primitive hearth. Or even more to the point, she would not have looked out of place as someone’s spoiled, indulged wife or concubine; she really looked nothing at all like any mage Tarma had ever seen. Tarma, on the other hand, with her hawklike face, forbidding ice-blue eyes and nearly sexless body, was hardly the sort of person one would expect a mage or woman like Kethry to choose as a partner, much less as a friend. As a hireling, perhaps—in which case it should have been Tarma skinning the rabbits, for she looked to have been specifically designed to endure hardship.
Oddly enough, it was Kethry who had taken to this trip as if she were the born nomad, and Tarma who was the one suffering the most from their circumstances, although that was mainly due to the unfamiliar weather.
Well, if she had not foreseen that becoming Kal’enedral meant suddenly acquiring a bevy of long-dead instructors, this partnership had come as even more of a surprise. The more so as Tarma had really not expected to survive the initial confrontation with those who had destroyed her Clan.
“Do not reject aid unlooked-for,” her instructor had said the night before she set foot in the bandits’ town. And unlooked-for aid had materialized, in the form of this unlikely sorceress. Kethry, too, had her interests in seeing the murderers brought low, so they had teamed together for the purpose of doing just that. Together they had accomplished what neither could have done alone—they had utterly destroyed the brigands to the last man.
And so Tarma had lost her purpose. Now—now there was only the driving need to get back to the Plains; to return before the Tale’sedrin were deemed a dead Clan. Farther than that she could not, would not think or plan.
Kethry must have sensed Tarma’s brooding eyes on her, for she looked up and beckoned with her skinning knife.
“Fairly good hunting,” Tarma hunched as close the fire as she could, wishing they dared build something large.
“Yes and no. I had to use magic to attract them, poor things.” Kethry shook her head regretfully as she bundled the offal in the skins and buried the remains in the snow to freeze hard. Once frozen, she’d dispose of them away from the camp, to avoid attracting scavengers. “I felt so guilty, but what else was I do to? We ate the last of the bread yesterday, and I didn’t want to chance on the hunting luck of just one of us.”
“You do what you have to, Keth. Well, we’re able to live off the land, but Kessira and Rodi can’t,” Tarma replied. “Our grain is almost gone, and we’ve still a long way to go to get to the Plains. Keth, we need money.”
“And you’re the one of us best suited to earning it. This land is too peaceful for the likes of me to find a job—except for something involving at least a one-year contract, and that’s something we can’t afford to take the time for. I need to get back to the Plains as soon as I can if I’m to raise Tale’sedrin’s banner again.”
“I know that, too.” Kethry’s eyes had become shadowed, the lines around her mouth showed strain. “And I know that the only city close enough to serve us is Mornedealth.”
And there was no doubt in Tarma’s mind that Kethry would rather have died than set foot in that city, though she hadn’t the vaguest notion why. Well, this didn’t look to be the proper moment to ask—
“Storm coming; a bad one,” she said, changing the subject. “I’ll let the hooved ones forage for as long as I dare, but by sunset I’ll have to bring them into camp. Our best bet is going to be to shelter all together because I don’t think a fire is going to survive the blow.”
“I wish I knew where you get your information,” Kethry replied, frown smoothing into a wry half-smile. “You certainly have me beat at weather-witching.”
“Call it Shin’a’in intuition,” Tarma shrugged, wishing she knew whether it was permitted to an outland she’enedra—who was a magician to boot—to know of the veiled ones. Would they object? Tarma had no notion, and wasn’t prepared to risk it. “Think you can get our dinner cooked before the storm gets here?”
“I may be able to do better than that, if I can remember the spells.” The mage disjointed the rabbits, and spitted the carcasses on twigs over the fire. She stripped off her leather gloves, flexed her bare fingers, then held her hands over the tiny fire and began whispering under her breath. Her eyes were half-slitted with concentration and there was a faint line between her eyebrows. As Tarma watched, fascinated, the fire and their dinner were enclosed in a transparent shell of glowing gold mist.
“Very pretty; what’s it good for?” Tarma asked when she took her hands away.
“Well, for one thing, I’ve cut off the wind; for another, the shield is concentrating the heat and the meat will cook faster now.”
“And what’s it costing you?” Tarma had been in Kethry’s company long enough now to know that magic always had a price. And in Kethry’s case, that price was usually taken out of the resources of the spell-caster.
Kethry smiled at her accusing tone. “Nowhere near so much as you might think; this clearing has been used for overnighting a great deal, and a good many of those camping here have celebrated in one way or another. There’s lots of residual energy here, energy only another mage could tap. Mages don’t take the Trade Road often, they take the Couriers’ Road when they have to travel at all.”
“So there’s more than enough energy here not only to cook dinner but to give us a little more protection from the weather than our bit of canvas.”
Tarma nodded, momentarily satisfied that her blood-sister wasn’t exhausting herself just so they could eat a little sooner. “Well, while I was scrounging for the hooved ones, I found a bit for us, too—”
She began pulling cattail roots, mallow-pitch, a few nuts, and other edibles from the outer pockets of her coat. “Not a lot there, but enough to supplement dinner, and make a bit of breakfast besides.”
“Bless you! These bunnies were a bit young and small, and rather on the lean side—should this stuff be cooked?”
“They’re better raw, actually.”
“Good enough; want to help with the shelter, since we’re expecting a blow?”
“Only if you tell me what to do. I’ve got no notion of what these winter storms of yours are like.”
Kethry had already stretched their canvas tent across the top and open side of the enclosure of rocks and logs, stuffed brush and moss into the chinks on the inside, packed snow into the chinks from the outside, and layered the floor with pine boughs to keep their own bodies off the snow. Tarma helped her lash the canvas down tighter, then weighted all the loose edges with packed-down snow and what rocks they could find.
As they worked, the promised storm began to give warning of its approach. The wind picked up noticeably, and the northern horizon began to darken. Tarma cast a wary eye at the darkening clouds. “I hope you’re done cooking because it doesn’t look like we have too much time left to get under cover.”
“I think it’s cooked through.”
“And if not, it won’t be the first time we’ve eaten raw meat on this trip. I’d better get the grazers.”
Tarma got the beasts one at a time; first the mule, then her mare. She backed them right inside the shelter, coaxing them to lie down inside, one on either side of it, with their heads to the door-flap just in case something should panic them. With the two humans in the space in the middle, they should all stay as close to warm as was possible. Once again she breathed a little prayer of thankfulness for the quality of mule she’d been able to find for Kethry; with a balky beast or anything other than another Shin’a’in-bred horse this arrangement would have been impossible.
Kethry followed, grilled rabbit bundled into a piece of leather. The rich odor made Tarma’s mouth water and reminded her that she hadn’t eaten since this morning. While Kethry wormed her way in past her partner, Tarma lashed the door closed.
“Hold this, and find a comfortable spot,” the mage told her. While Tarma snuggled up against Kessira’s shoulder, Kethry knelt in the space remaining. She held her hands just at chin height, palms facing outward, her eyes completely closed and her face utterly vacant. By this Tarma knew she was attempting a much more difficult bit of magery than she had with their dinner.
She began an odd, singsong chant, swaying a little in time to it. Tarma began to see a thin streak of weak yellow light, like a watered-down sunbeam, dancing before her. In fact, that was what she probably would have taken it for—except that the sun was nearly down, not overhead.
As Kethry chanted, the light-beam increased in strength and brightness. Then, at a sharp word from her, it split into six. The six beams remained where the one had been for a moment, perhaps a little longer. Kethry began chanting again, a different rhythm this time, and the six beams leapt to the walls of their shelter, taking up positions spaced equally apart.
When they moved so suddenly, Tarma had nearly jumped out of her skin—especially since one of them had actually passed through her. But when she could feel no strangeness—and certainly no harm from the encounter—she relaxed again. The animals appeared to be ignoring the things, whatever they were.
Now little tendrils of light were spinning out from each of the beams, reaching out until they met in a kind of latticework. When this had spread to the canvas overhead, Tarma began to notice that the wind, which had been howling and tugging at the canvas, had been cut off, and that the shelter was noticeably warmer as a result.
Kethry sagged then, and allowed herself to half-collapse against Rodi’s bulk.
“Took less than I might think, hmm?”
“Any more comments like that and I’ll make you stay outside.”
“First you’d have to fight Kessira. Have some dinner.” Tarma passed her half the rabbit; it was still warm and amazingly juicy and both of them wolfed down their portions with good appetite, nibbling the bones clean, then cracking them and sucking out the last bit of marrow. With the bones licked bare, they finished with the roots of Tarma’s gleaning, though more than half of Tarma’s share went surreptitiously to Kessira.
When they had finished, the sun was gone and the storm building to full force. Tarma peeked out the curtain of tent-canvas at the front of the shelter; the fire was already smothered. Tarma noticed then that the light-web gave off a faint illumination; not enough to read by, but enough to see by.
“What is—all this?” she asked, waving a hand at the light-lattice. “Where’d it come from?”
“It’s a variation of the fire-shield I raised; it’s magical energy manifesting itself in a physical fashion. Part of that energy came from me, part of it was here already and I just reshaped it. In essence, I told it I thought it was a wall, and it believed me. So now we have a ‘wall’ between us and the storm.”
“Uh, right. You told that glowing thing you thought it was a wall, and it believed you—”
Kethry managed a tired giggle at her partner’s expression. “That’s why the most important tool a magician has is his will; it has to be strong in order to convince energy to be something else.”
“Is that how you sorcerers work?”
“All sorcerers, or White Winds sorcerers?”
“There’s more than one kind?”
“Where’d you think magicians came from anyway ? Left in the reeds for their patrons to find?” Kethry giggled again.
“No, but the only ‘magicians’ the Clans have are the shamans, and they don’t do magic, much. Healing, acting as advisors, keepers of outClan knowledge—that’s mostly what they do. When we need magic, we ask Her for it.”
“And She answers?” Kethry’s eyes widened in fascination.
“Unless She has a damn good reason not to. She’s very close to us—closer than most deities are to their people, from what I’ve been able to judge. But that may be because we don’t ask Her for much, or very often. There’s a story—” Tarma half smiled. “—there was a hunter who’d been very lucky and had come to depend on that luck. When his luck left him, his skills had gotten very rusty, and he couldn’t manage to make a kill. Finally he went to the shaman, and asked him if he thought She would listen to a plea for help. The shaman looked him up and down, and finally said, ‘You’re not dead yet.’”
“Which means he hadn’t been trying hard enough by himself?”
“Exactly. She is the very last resort—and you had damned well better be careful what you ask Her for—She’ll give it to you, but in Her own way, especially if you haven’t been honest with Her or with yourself. So mostly we don’t ask.” Tarma warmed to Kethry’s interest, and continued when that interest didn’t flag. This was the first chance she’d had to explain her beliefs to Kethry; before this, Kethry had either been otherwise occupied or there hadn’t been enough privacy. “The easiest of Her faces to deal with are the Maiden and the Mother, they’re gentler, more forgiving; the hardest are the Warrior and the Crone. Maiden and Mother don’t take Oathbound to themselves, Warrior and Crone do. Crone’s Oathbound—no, I won’t tell you—you guess what they do.”
“Uh,” Kethry’s brow furrowed in thought, and she nibbled a hangnail. “Shamans?”
“Right! And Healers and the two Elders in each Clan, who may or may not also be Healers or shamans. Those the Crone Binds are Bound, like the Kal’enedral, to the Clans as a whole, serving with their minds and talents instead of their hands. Now—you were saying about magicians?” She was as curious to know about Kethry’s teaching as Keth seemed to be about her own.
“There’s more than one school; mine is White Winds. Um, let me go to the very basics. Magic has three sources. The first is power from within the sorcerer himself, and you have to have the Talent to use that source—and even then it isn’t fully trained by anyone I know of. I’ve heard that up north a good ways they use pure mind-magic, rather than using the mind to find other sources of power.”
“That would be—Valdemar, no?”
“Yes!” Kethry looked surprised at Tarma’s knowledge. “Well, the second is power created by living things, rather like a fire creates light just by being a fire. You have to have the Talent to sense that power, but not to use it so long as you know it’s there. Death releases a lot of that energy in one burst; that’s why an unTalented sorcerer can turn to dark wizardry; he knows the power will be there when he kills something. The third source is from creatures that live in places that aren’t this world, but touch this world—like pages in a book. Page one isn’t page two, but they touch all along each other. Other Planes, we call them. There’s one for each element, one for what we call ‘demons,’ and one for very powerful creatures that aren’t quite gods, but do seem kindly inclined to humans. There may be more, but that’s all anyone has ever discovered that I know of. The creatures of the four Elemental Planes can be bargained with—you can build up credit with them by doing them little favors, or you can promise them something they want from this Plane.”
“Was that what I saw fighting beside you when you took out that wizard back in Brether’s Crossroads? Other-whatsit creatures?”
“Exactly—and that fight is why my magic is so limited at the moment—I used up all the credit I had built with them in return for that help. Fortunately I didn’t have to go into debt to them, or we’d probably be off trying to find snow-roses for the Ethereal Varirs right now. There is another way of dealing with them. You can coerce them with magical bindings or with your will. The creatures from the Abyssal Plane can be bought with pain-energy and death-energy—they feed off those—or coerced if your will is strong enough, although the only way you can ‘bind’ them magically is to hold them to this Plane; you can’t force them to do anything if your own will isn’t stronger than theirs. The creatures of the Sixth Plane—we call it the ‘Empyreal Plane’—can’t be coerced in any way, and they’ll only respond to a call if they feel like it. Any magician can contact the Other-Planar creatures, it’s just a matter of knowing the spells that open the boundaries between us and them. The thing that makes schools of magic different is their ethics, really. How they feel about the different kinds of power and using them.”
“So what does yours teach?” Tarma lay back with her arms stretched along Kessira’s back and neck; she scratched gently behind the mare’s ears while Kessira nodded her head in drowsy contentment. This was the most she’d gotten out of Kethry in the past six months.
“We don’t coerce; not ever. We don’t deal at all with the entities of the Abyssal Planes except to send them back—or destroy them if we can. We don’t deliberately gain use of energy by killing or causing pain. We hold that our Talents have been given us for a purpose; that purpose is to use them for the greatest good. That’s why we are wanderers, why we don’t take up positions under permanent patrons.”
“Why you’re dirt-poor and why there’re so few of you,” Tarma interrupted genially.
“’Fraid so,” Kethry smiled. “No worldly sense, that’s us. But that’s probably why Need picked me”.
“She’enedra, why don’t you want to go to Mornedealth?”
“And why haven’t you ever told me about your home and kin?” Tarma had been letting her spirit-teacher’s last remark stew in the back of her mind, and when Kethry had begun giving her the “lesson” in the ways of magic had realized she knew next to nothing about her partner’s antecedents. She’d been brooding on her own sad memories, but Kethry’s avoidance of the subject of the past could only mean that hers were as sorry. And Tarma would be willing to bet the coin she didn’t have that the mystery was tied into Mornedealth.
Kethry’s mouth had tightened with an emotion Tarma recognized only too well. Pain.
“I’ll have to know sooner or later, she’enedra. We have no choice but to pass through Mornedealth, and no choice but to try and raise money there, or we’ll starve. And if it’s something I can do anything about—well, I want doubly to know about it! You’re my Clan, and nobody hurts my Clan and gets away with it!”
“It—it isn’t anything you can deal with—”
“Let me be the judge of that, hmmm?”
Kethry sighed, and visibly took herself in hand. “I—I guess it’s only fair. You know next to nothing about me, but accepted me anyway.”
“Not true,” Tarma interrupted her, “She accepted you when you oathbound yourself to me as blood-sib. That’s all I needed to know then. She wouldn’t bind two who didn’t belong together.”
“But circumstances change, I know, and it isn’t fair for me to keep making a big secret out of where I come from. All right.” Kethry nodded, as if making up her mind to grasp the thorns. “The reason I haven’t told you anything is this; I’m a fugitive. I grew up in Mornedealth; I’m a member of one of the Fifty Noble Houses. My real name is Kethryveris of House Pheregrul.”
Tarma raised one eyebrow, but only said, “Do I bow, or can I get by with just kissing your hand?”
Kethry almost smiled. “It’s a pretty empty title—or it was when I ran away. The House estates had dwindled to nothing more than a decaying mansion in the Old City by my father’s time, and the House perquisites to little more than an invitation to all Court functions—which we generally declined graciously—and permission to hunt the Royal Forests—which kept us fed most of the year. Father married mother for love, and it was a disaster. Her family disowned her, she became ill and wouldn’t tell him. It was one of those long declining things, she just faded bit by bit, so gradually that he, being absentminded at best, really didn’t notice. She died three years after I was born. That left just the three of us.”
Kethry hadn’t ever mentioned any sibs before.
“Father, my brother Kavin—that’s Kavinestral—and me. Kavin was eight years older than me, and from what everyone said, the very image of Father in his youth. Handsome—the word just isn’t adequate to describe Kavin. He looks like a god.”
“And you worshiped him.” Tarma had no trouble reading that between the lines.
It wasn’t just the dim light that was making Kethry look pale. “How could I not? Father died when I was ten, and Kavin was all I had left, and when he exerted himself he could charm the moss off the wall. We were fine until Father died; he’d had some income or other that kept the house going, well, that dried up when he was gone. That left Kavin and me with no income and nowhere to go but a falling-down monstrosity that we couldn’t even sell, because it’s against the law for the Fifty Families to sell the ancestral homes. We let the few servants we had go—all but one, my old nurse Tildy. She wouldn’t leave me. So Tildy and I struggled to run the household and keep us all clothed and fed. Kavin hunted the Royal Forests when he got hungry enough, and spent the rest of his time being Kavin. Which, to me, meant being perfection.”
“Until you got fed up and ran away?” Tarma hazarded, when Kethry’s silence had gone too long. She knew it wasn’t the right answer, but she hoped it would prod Kethry back into speaking.
“Hardly.” Kethry’s eyes and mouth were bitter. “He had me neatly twined ’round his finger. No, things went on like that until I was twelve, and just barely pubescent. Two things happened then that I had no knowledge of. The first was that Kavin himself became fed up with life on the edge, and looked around for something to make him a lot of money quickly. The second was that on one of his dips in the stews with his friends, he accidentally encountered the richest banker in Mornedealth and found out exactly what his secret vice was. Kavin may have been lazy, but he wasn’t stupid. He was fully able to put facts together. He also knew that Wethes Goldmarchant, like all the other New Money moguls, wanted the one thing that all his money couldn’t buy him—he wanted inside the Fifty Families. He wanted those Court invitations we declined; wanted them so badly it made him ache. And he’d never get them—not unless he somehow saved the realm single-handedly, which wasn’t bloody likely.”
Kethry’s hands were clenched tightly in her lap, she stared at them as if they were the most fascinating things in the universe. “I knew nothing of all this, of course, mewed up in the house all day and daydreaming about finding a hidden cache of gold and gems and being able to pour them in Kavin’s lap and make him smile at me. Then one day he did smile at me; he told me he had a surprise for me. I went with him, trusting as a lamb. Next thing I knew, he was handing me over to Wethes; the marriage ceremony had already taken place by proxy. You see, Wethes’ secret vice was little girls—and with me, he got both his ambition and his lust satisfied. It was a bargain too good for either of them to resist—”
Kethry’s voice broke in something like a sob; Tarma leaned forward and put one hard, long hand on the pair clenched white-knuckled in her partner’s lap.
“So your brother sold you, hmm? Well, give him a little credit, she’enedra; he might have thought he was doing you a favor. The merchant would give you every luxury, after all; you’d be a valued and precious possession.”
“I’d like to believe that, but I can’t. Kavin saw some of those little girls Wethes was in the habit of despoiling. He knew what he was selling me into, and he didn’t care, he plainly did not care. The only difference between them and me was that the chains and manacles he used on me were solid gold, and I was raped on silk sheets instead of linen. And it was rape, nothing else! I wanted to die; I prayed I would die. I didn’t understand anything of what had happened to me. I only knew that the brother I worshiped had betrayed me.” Her voice wavered a moment, and faded against the howl of the storm-winds outside their shelter. Tarma had to strain to hear her.
Then she seemed to recover, and her voice strengthened again. “But although I had been betrayed, I hadn’t been forgotten. My old nurse managed to sneak her way into the house on the strength of the fact that she was my nurse; nobody thought to deny her entry. When Wethes was finished with me, she waited until he had left and went inquiring for me. When she found me, she freed me and smuggled me out.”
Kethry finally brought her eyes up to meet her partner’s; there was pain there, but also a hint of ironic humor. “You’d probably like her; she also stole every bit of gold and jewelry she found with me and carried them off, too.”
“A practical woman; you’re right, I think I would like her. I take it she had somewhere to hide you?”
“Her brother’s farm—it’s east of here. Well, I wasn’t exactly in my right mind for a while, but she managed to help with that for a bit. But then—then I started having nightmares, and when I did, every movable thing in my room would go flying about. Mind you, I never broke anything—”
“Since I gather this was a ‘flying about’ without benefit of hands, I would think it would be rather unnerving.”
“Tildy knew she hadn’t any way of coping with me then, so she took me to the nearest mage-school she knew, which was White Winds. It only took one nightmare to convince them that I needed help—and that I was going to be a pretty good mage after I got that help. That’s where I got Need.”
Kethry’s hands unclenched, and one of them strayed to the hilt of a plain short-sword wedged in among the supplies tucked into the shelter.
“Now that’s another tale you never told me.”
“Not for any reason, just because there isn’t much to tell. We had a guard there, an old mercenary who’d been hired on to give us a bit of protection, and to give her a kind of semiretirement. Baryl Longarm was her name. When I was ready to take the roads, she called me into her rooms.”
“That must have had you puzzled.”
“Since she didn’t have a reputation for chasing other females, it certainly did. Thank goodness she didn’t leave me wondering for long. ‘You’re the first wench we’ve had going out for a dog’s age,’ she said, ‘and there’s something I want you to have. It’s time it went out again, anyway, and you’ll probably have to use it before you’re gone a month.’ She took down this sword from the wall, unsheathed it, and laid it in my hands. And the runes appeared on the blade.”
“I remember when you showed me. ‘Woman’s Need calls me, as Woman’s Need made me. Her Need I will answer as my maker bade me.’” Tarma glanced at Kethry’s hand on the hilt. “Gave me a fair turn, I can tell you. I always thought magic blades were gold-hilted and jewel-bedecked.”
“Then she told me what little she knew—that the sword’s name was Need, that she was indestructible so far as Baryl had been able to tell. That she only served women. And that her service was such that she only gave what you yourself did not already have. That to her, a fighter, Need gave a virtual immunity to all magic, but didn’t add so much as a fillip to her fighting skills—but that for me, a mage, if I let it take control when it needed to, it would make me a master swordswoman, though it wouldn’t make the least difference to any spell I cast. And that it would help Heal anything short of a death-wound.”
“Rather like one of Her gifts, you know?” Tarma interrupted. “Makes you do your utmost, to the best of your abilities, but bails you out when you’re out of your depth.”
“I never thought about it that way, but you’re right. Is there any way Need could be Shin’a’in?”
“Huh-uh. We’ve few metal-workers, and none of them mages—and we don’t go in for short-swords, anyway. Now, what’s the problem with you going back to Mornedealth? Changing the subject isn’t going to change my wanting to know.”
“Well, you can’t blame me for trying—she’enedra, I have angered a very powerful man, my husband—”
“Crap! He’s no more your husband than I am, no matter what charade he went through.”
“—and a very ruthless one, my brother. I don’t know what either of them would do if they learned I was within their reach again.” Kethry shuddered, and Tarma reached forward and clasped both her hands in her own.
“I have only one question, my sister and my friend,” she said, so earnestly that Kethry came out of her own fear and looked deeply into the shadowed eyes that met hers. “And that is this; which way do you want them sliced—lengthwise, or widthwise?”
“Tarma!” The sober question struck Kethry as so absurd that she actually began laughing weakly.
“In all seriousness, I much doubt that either of them is going to recognize you; think about it, you’re a woman grown now, not a half-starved child. But if they do, that’s what I’m here for. If they try anything, I’ll ask you that question again, and you’d best have a quick answer for me. Now, are you satisfied?”
“You are insane!”
“I am Shin’a’in; some say there is little difference. I am also Kal’enedral, and most say there is no difference. So believe me; no one is going to touch you with impunity. I am just crazed enough to cut the city apart in revenge.”
“And this is supposed to make me feel better?”
“You’re smiling, aren’t you?”
“Well,” Kethry admitted reluctantly, “I guess I am.”
“When a child of the Clans falls off her horse, we make her get right back on again. She’enedra, don’t you think it’s time you remounted this one?”
“Or do you prefer to live your life with them dictating that you shall not return to your own city?”
Her chin came up; a stubborn and angry light smoldered in her eyes. “No.”
“Then we face this city of yours and we face it together. For now, make a mattress of Rodi, she’enedra; and sleep peacefully. I intend to do the same. Tomorrow we go to Mornedealth and make it deal with us on our terms. Hai?”
Kethry nodded, convinced almost against her will, and beginning to view the inevitable encounter with something a little more like confidence.
“Hai,” she agreed.
Kethry envied her partner’s ability to drop immediately into sleep under almost any circumstances. Her own thoughts were enough to keep her wakeful; add to them the snoring of her mule and the wailing of the wind outside their shelter, and Kethry had a foolproof recipe for insomnia.
She wanted to avoid Mornedealth no matter what the cost. Just the thought that she might encounter Wethes was enough to make her shudder almost uncontrollably. In no way was she prepared to deal with him, and she wondered now if she would ever be. . . .
And yet, Tarma was right. She would never truly be “free” unless she dealt with her fear. She would never truly be her own woman if she allowed fear and old memories to dictate where she would or would not go.
The disciplines of the Order of White Winds mandated self-knowledge and self-mastery. She had deceived herself into thinking she had achieved that mastery of self; Tarma had just shown her how wrong she was.
It’s been seven years, she thought bitterly. Seven long years—and those bastards still have power over me. And I’ll never be an adept until I break that power.
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