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Dawn was still a long way off when Seriema and her companions escaped from Tiarond. The horses galloped through the waterlogged fields of the townlands, threading their way between the ghastly pyres, the biggest of which still smoldered with a dull red glow, the others extinguished by rain and snow. As she raced away from the beleaguered city, it took all Seriema's self-control to keep from looking back over her shoulder. She was certain that the horror she had left behind must be following.
It was raining: a cold, thin rain that chilled exposed flesh and penetrated clothing like steel needles, but being wet was the least of Seriema's problems. On this dreadful day, the bastions of power, wealth, and privilege she had built around herself had come crashing down, and she had turned from the richest woman in Tiarond into a homeless vagabond, her future uncertain and her survival hanging by a thread.
Only pride sustained her. She was angry, hurting, and afraid; she wanted to weep, to curse, to shriek like a harridanbut no matter what setbacks the world might hurl at her, she was determined to face them with courage and determination. Seriema would rather walk barefoot over broken glass than give way to weakness and fear before her new companions, but it was hard to keep up her mask.
Disconnected images from the last few hours kept flashing through her mind. Pain and terror. The taste of blood and the stink of her own fear. The face of the man who had attacked her, contorted with rage and hatred. The hideous winged creature that had hurtled through the shattered window, moving preternaturally fast, its fanged maw agape and dripping gore. Marutha, the old housekeeper who had played such a significantand vocalpart in her upbringing, lying dead on the kitchen floor, her grey hair clotted with blood, brain, and bits of bone. Seriema stifled a sob. She had sent the old woman away in the midst of a quarrel, and the last words Marutha had heard from her beloved mistress had been harsh, and spoken in anger.
"Don't think about it," Seriema ordered herself. If she fell apart now, she would be lost. "Concentrate on practicalitieslike where that trader is taking us, and what he plans to do when we get there." That was better. She could do nothing to change the past, but her future, no matter how uncertain, was something she could influence. Urging her horse onward through the gathering gloom, she went to speak to Tormon.
My child. My child. My child. My child. The hooves of the racing horses pounded out the words. Tormon held tightly to the blanket-wrapped form in front of him: so small, so infinitely precious.
I have you back, my little Annas. I'll keep you safe. So long as we're together, nothing else matters. Who cares what happens to their accursed city?
Bold wordsyet a shudder ran through the trader as he remembered the winged abomination in Lady Seriema's mansion, and the unclean swarm of its brethren thronging the sky. His mind replayed the screaming as the helpless Tiarondians were slaughtered, trapped in the enclosed confines of the Sacred Precincts like sheep in a pen. Tormon clutched Annas even tighter, until the child whimpered and wriggled in protest.
Why should I trouble myself about their fate? They killed Kanella, my lifemate. They deserved to die.
In his heart, however, he knew it wasn't true. Those Tiarondians were ordinary men, women, and children. They had not murdered Kanella. Zavahl had done thatat least, he had ordered her death. And now the Hierarch himself was surely dead. Elion, the mysterious young man Tormon had encountered on the trail last night, had planned a rescue for reasons known only to himself, but the trader was sure he had no chance of succeeding. No, Zavahl must either have been sacrificed on the pyre to appease an angry god or killed by the monstrosities that even now assailed the city. Tormon hardly knew which he would prefer. Death by fire must be an agonizing endbut in this climate, the smoke from damp fuel would suffocate Zavahl before his flesh could sear. Perhaps the skyborne invaders were the better option. He imagined the Hierarch writhing and screaming, his body ripped open, the feral creatures clawing out his eyeballs and quarreling over the glistening lengths of his gut . . .
Once, the trader would have been shocked to the core by such bloodthirsty thoughts. Not anymore.
Night had fallen. The hooves of the laboring horses splashed through the thick mud that stretched beyond the city. Tormon tried to keep his eyes fixed directly in front of him, for on either side the great pyres loomed, their smoldering glow casting a dim, smoky light into the darkness. The charred remains of bodies were still hideously distinct, despite the gathering gloom. He tried to protect Annas from the dreadful sights, turning her face into his chest and pulling up her blanket to form a shield.
A shadowy shape loomed up at his side and resolved itself into Lady Seriema, astride the great black horse that was the twin of his own. In his preoccupation, the trader had almost forgotten the companions of his flight. Presvel, the Lady's assistant, shivered in stylish city clothes that were as unfit as their wearer for such a journey. He rode double with a young lass, unknown to the trader, whose hair was a mass of silvery-blond curls. Then there was Scall, the long, skinny youth who had attached himself to Tormon for good or ill. And, of course, the Lady Seriema herself, until today the most powerful merchant in Tiarond.
The woman who now approached the trader, her white face blotched with ugly bruises and spattered with mud and gore, her coarse brown hair flying loose in a witch's tangle, was unrecognizable as the well-groomed, richly clad head of the Mercantile Association and Miners' Consortium. Her dishevelment was scarcely surprising, however. Not an hour ago, she had been attacked in her own home by a madman. She had been beaten and almost raped. Her city had been conquered by ravening monstrosities from the skies. Seriema had lost everything: wealth, home, rank, and empire. Everything but her life and her indomitable pride, Tormon realized, noting her sword-stiff spine, her steely gaze, and the hard, grim set of her mouth. She had mastered her emotions as tightly as she held in the powerful horse she rode, and the trader shuddered at the effort it must be costing her.
Seriema's voice betrayed no sign of the strain she must be feeling. Pulling her horse abreast of his own, she leaned across so that she could be heard over the thin whine of the rising wind. The trader could almost see the question on her lips.
Oh, please don't ask me what we're going to do now, Seriema. Why should I be able to answer that any better than you can?
"Where are we going, Tormon?" The words came slurred from her bruised and swollen mouth. "Do you have a plan in mind?"
Why in Myrial's name does it have to be me who comes up with a plan?
Up to this point, the trader had been concentrating on what he did not want. He never wished to see Tiarond again. He didn't want his child to be put at any further risk, and he had absolutely no desire whatever to lay eyes on any more of the fell creatures that had attacked the city. All reasonable goals, as far as they wentbut it had taken Seriema to remind him that he needed something positive to put in their place.
Away. Go far away. The rest could wait. All Tormon wanted right at that moment was to put as much distance as possible between himself and Callisiora's capital city, with its politics, its arcane ceremonies, its secrets and intriguesand its Hierarch, who thought nothing of murdering a young wife and mother in cold blood. He hoped this rain was also falling higher up the mountain, for even now it would be sluicing away the snow that had choked the pass the previous night. Maybe, for once, the wet weather might actually work in his favor.
The trader called the others to him. "I'm taking Annas over the Snaketail." Even as he spoke, the plan took shape in his mind. "We'll be safe among the reivers of the eastern hills. You can . . ." He realized that Seriema was no longer listening. Instead, she was looking back over her shoulder, her expression a peculiar mixture of relief and dismay. Tormon, following the direction of her gaze, felt his heart contract with dread. Unbelievable as it might seem, given the utter chaos in the city, they were being pursued.
Glancing back, Seriema saw a cluster of bobbing lights as a knot of Godsword soldiers, each one bearing a smoking torch, burst out of the city gates. Even at this distance, it was clear that they were following the muddy track of the fleeing travelers, and moving at a tremendous pace. The reins of her horse began to slip through hands that had suddenly turned damp, and she clenched her fingers tighter round the slippery leather. Surely that was Blade? She squinted, trying to peer through the murk of drizzle and smoke. A curse on this imperfect eyesight!
She was torn at the thought of encountering the Godsword Commander. How can I face him, looking like this? was the first thought that shot into her mind, followed by a blaze of anger at her own stupidity. You fool! He doesn't care what you look like. Why should he? You've served your purpose now.
Seriema writhed at the memory of such gullibility. Blade had used her as a cat's-paw in his vendetta against the Hierarch and sheor rather the plain, lonely old maid concealed beneath her veneer of confidence and powerhad let him. Flattered by the attentions of the powerful, charismatic Commander, she had walked into his trap with open eyes.
How can I face him after I let him make such a fool of me? Yet despite her mortification, there remained a part of her that observed the approach of the Godsword troops with relief. It's all right now. I'm safe. Lord Blade will deal with this crisis. He'll take care of me.
Tormon's curse cut across her deliberations. It was the first time she had ever heard him swear. There was fear in his eyes when he glanced down at his daughterbut that oath had contained a good deal of anger, too. Seriema felt an unaccustomed stab of guilt. She had been so preoccupied with her own selfish concerns, she had forgotten that Blade represented danger to the trader and his child. Though she had no idea what lay behind his actions, the Suffragan Gilarra had told her that the Godsword commander, together with the Hierarch Zavahl, had been responsible for the murder of Tormon's wife.
Tormon glanced behind once more, and shook his head. "It's no good. They'll catch us in no time. The Sefrians are built for sustained power, not bursts of speed."
Seriema knew he was right. The Godswords, on their lighter, faster mounts, were catching up already. She turned back to speak to the trader, but he had dropped behind to ride with Scall, who was still insisting on leading Tormon's ridiculous donkey. The two drew close together for a moment, then the boy fell back, seeming to melt into the dusk, and vanished into the shadowy, smoke-wreathed area between the pyres.
When the trader turned back to Seriema, his arms were empty. There was a bleak look on his face as he loosened his sword in its sheath. She realized that having done all he could to save his child, he was determined to take his revenge on as many of the Godswords as he could manage: perhaps upon Blade himself.
No! Don't hurt him.
Yes! Let me help you.
How she cursed her ambivalent heart.
Then there was no more time for thought. The Godswords were upon them in a blaze of torchlight, the hooves of their racing horses throwing up gouts of mud to either side. Seriema gasped in utter disbelief as a voice cried: "Clear the road, you rabble." Then her horse was shouldered aside by the sheer press of riders as the column of soldiers barged past the travelers without a second glance. Within moments the Godswords were gone, hurtling up the road toward the pass.
The little mud-spattered band was left by the roadside, staring at one another in bemusement. Presvel frowned. "What was that about?" He was aware of the trader's plight, Seriema knew, owing to his unfortunate habit of eavesdropping on her business. She suspected that his feelings were somewhat similar to her own: glad that Tormon and his daughter had escaped Blade's notice but also partly dismayed at Blade's departure. The Godswords represented authority, security, and order, all of which had been the keystones of Presvel's existence and her own.
There was a stir of movement among the shadows, and Scall slipped out from between the smoking pyres on his little chestnut mare, the tired donkey trailing after. He returned a scowling, rumpled child to her father with an air of relief. Annas, wriggling herself comfortable in Tormon's arms, appeared to share his sentiments. "He put his hand over my mouth," she complained shrilly. "And it was all dirty."
"Well, you wouldn't keep quiet," Scall said defensively. "Anyway, a little bit of dirt never hurt no one."
Annas was not to be quashed so easily. "You taste horrible."
"If you hadn't bit me, you wouldn't know that, would you?"
The child had spoken! Seriema glanced at Presvel and saw her own relief and surprise mirrored on his face. While Annas had been in their care, she had never spoken a single word, and they had worried lest her mind had been permanently damaged by witnessing her mother's death. In that moment, Seriema made a decision not to tell Tormon.
Too much has been happening for him to even realize that the little one had never spoken. Thank Myrial he will never need to know how close she came to losing her wits. The poor man has burdens enough without that.
Catching Presvel's eye once more, she gestured at the trader and put her finger to her lips.
Tormon had been completely unaware of the unspoken exchange between Seriema and her assistant. As the soldiers had rushed by, he had glimpsed the rearmost rider, who rode a little more slowly than the others, apparently because he had difficulty managing his horse. Elion? Out here with Blade? What is going on? His thoughts followed the Godswords up the trail, until the squabble between Scall and his daughter jerked him back. "Quiet," he growled. "This is no time for your nonsense. I'm trying to think." He nudged his horse closer to Seriema's mount. "You see a lot of Lord Blade. Have you any idea what he's up to, my Lady? I don't understand why he should go tearing off up the mountain like that when the city is in danger."