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The Coming of Wisdom
The Seventh Sword Series: Book Two
By Dave Duncan, Robert Runté
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 D. J. Duncan
All rights reserved.
"Quili! Wake up! Priestess!"
Whoever was shouting was also banging on the outer door. Quili rolled over and buried her head under the blanket. Surely she had just come to bed?
The outer door squeaked. The banging came again, now on the planks of the inner door, nearer and much louder.
"Apprentice Quili! You must come!" More banging.
The trouble with summer was that there was never enough night for sleeping, yet the little room was still quite black. The roosters had not started yet ... No, there was one, far away ... She would have to waken. Someone must be sick or dying.
Then the inner door squealed open, and a man was waving a rush light and shouting. "Priestess! You must come—there are swordsmen, Quili!"
"Swordsmen?" Quili sat up.
Salimono was a roughhewn, lumbering man, a farmer of the Third. Normally imperturbably placid, he was capable on rare occasions of becoming as flustered as a child. Now one of his great hands was waving the sparking rush light all around, threatening to set fire to his own silver hair, or Quili's straw mattress, or the ancient shingles of the roof. It scrolled brilliance in the dark. It flickered on stone walls, and on his haggard face, and in Quili's eyes.
"Swordsmen ... coming ... Oh! Beg pardon, priestess!" He turned around quickly, just as Quili fell back and pulled the blanket up to her chin.
"Sal'o, you did say 'swordsmen'?"
"Yes, priestess. In a boat. By the jetty. Piliphanto saw them. You hurry, Quili ..." He headed for the door.
Quili wished she could take off her head, shake it, and put it back on again. She had walked away most of the night with Agol's baby, surely the worst case of colic in the history of the People.
Swordsmen? The rush light was filling the tiny room with fumes of goose grease. Piliphanto was not a total idiot. No thinker, but no idiot. He was a keen fisherman, which could explain why he had been down on the jetty before dawn. There would be more light down by the water, and a swordsman's silhouette would be distinctive. It was possible.
"What are you doing about them?"
Standing in the doorway with his back firmly turned, Salimono said, "Getting the women out, of course!"
That was wrong. That was all wrong. Quili knew little about swordsmen, but she knew more about them than Sal'o did. Hiding the women would be the absolute worst thing to do.
"You mustn't! It'll be an insult! They'll be furious!"
"But, priestess ..."
She was not a priestess. She was only a Second, an apprentice. The tenants called her priestess as a courtesy because she was all they had, but she was only seventeen and Sal'o was a farmer of the Third and a grandfather and Motipodi's deputy, so she could not possibly give him orders, but she was also the local expert on swordsmen, and she knew that hiding the women would be a terrible provocation ... She needed time to think.
"Wait outside! Don't let the women leave. I'll be right there."
"Yes, Quili," Sal'o said, and the room was dark. Plumes of phantom light still floated on blackness in her eyes. The outer door banged, and she heard him shouting.
Quili threw off the blanket and shivered herself a coating of goose bumps. The flags were icy and uneven as she padded across to the window and threw open the shutter. A faint glow entered, accompanied by a hiss of rain and dripping sounds from the roof.
One of her two gowns was muddy, for yesterday she had been thinning the carrots. Her other was almost as shabby, yet somewhere she still had an old one she had brought from the temple. It had been her second best then and was better than her other two now—gardening ruined clothes much faster than being an acolyte did. She found it in the chest, yanked it out, and pulled it over her head in one long, shivery movement. It was surprisingly tight. She must have filled out more than she had thought. What would swordsmen think of a priestess who wore a tight-fitting gown like this? She fumbled for her shoes and a comb at the same time.
Her wooden soles clacked on the paving. She opened the squeaky outer door even as she reached for her cloak, hanging on a peg beside it. The bottom edge of the sky was brightening below a carpet of black cloud. More roosters screamed welcome to the dawn. She was still dragging the comb through her long tangles; her eyes felt puffy and her mouth dry.
On the far side of the pond, four or five of the smoky rush lights hissed amid a crowd of a dozen adults and some frightened children. Two or three more people were heading toward them. Light reflected fuzzily in the rain-pebbled water; other lights danced in a couple of windows. There was no wind, only steady, relentless drizzle; summer rain, not even very cold.
She splashed along the trail, around the pond to the group. Rain soaked her hair and dribbled into her collar. Silence fell at her approach. She was the local expert on swordsmen.
Why would swordsmen be coming here?
Several voices started to speak, but Salimono's drowned them out. "Is it safe, priestess?"
"It isn't safe to hide the women!" Quili said firmly. Kandoru had told stories about deserted villages being burned. "You'd provoke them. No, it's the men!"
"But they didn't do it!" a woman wailed.
"It wasn't us!" said others. "You know that!"
"Hush!" she said, and they hushed. They were all older than she, even Nia, and yet they hushed. They were all bigger than she—husky, raw peasant folk, gentle and bewildered and indistinct in the gloom. "Sal'o, did you send a message to her ladyship?"
"I think maybe all the men should go ..."
There was another terrified chorus of "We didn't do it!"
"Quiet! I know that. I'll testify to that. But I don't think it was reported."
There was a silence. Then Myi's voice growled, "How could it be reported?"
There had been no swordsmen left to report it to.
Would that matter? Quili did not know.
When an assassination went unreported, was it all the witnesses who were equally guilty, or was there some other, even more horrible formula? Either way, she was sure that the men were in danger. Swordsmen rarely killed women.
"I'll go and greet them. They won't hurt me." Quili spoke with as much confidence as she could manage. The priesthood was sacrosanct, wasn't it? "But I think you men should all go off wood cutting or something until we know why they've come. Women get food ready. They'll want breakfast. They may go straight on to the manor, but we'll try to keep them here as long as we can, if there aren't too many ... How many of them are there, Sal'o?"
"Well, go and tell Adept Motipodi. Wood cutting, or land clearing up on the hill until we find out what they want. Arrange signals. Now, off you go!"
All the men ran. Quili huddled her cloak about her. "Myi? Prepare some food. Meat, if you can find any. And beer."
"What if they ask where the men are?"
"Tell lies," Quili said. This was a priestess speaking?
"What if they want us to ... to go to bed?" That was Nia, and her man Hantula was almost as old as Kandoru had been.
Quili laughed, surprising herself. She was having nightmares of bodies and blood all over the ground, and Nia was dreaming of a tussle with some handsome young swordsman. "Do it, if you want to! Enjoy yourself!"
Incredulously Nona said, "A married woman? It's all right?"
Quili paused to drag up memories of lessons in the temple. But she was sure. "Yes. It's quite all right. Not any swordsman, but with a free sword it's all right. He is on the service of the Goddess and deserves all our hospitality."
Kandoru had always said that it was a great honor for a woman to be chosen by a free, but when Quili had known him he had been no longer a free sword. He had been a resident swordsman, limited to one woman, limited by age; limited also by failing health, although sometimes he had sounded as if that had been her fault.
"Kol'o won't like it," Nona muttered. She had not been married long.
"He should," Quili said. "If you have a baby within a year, it can have a swordsman fathermark." She heard them all hiss with sudden excitement. She was a city girl and expected to know all these things. She was also their priestess; if she said it was all right, then it would be all right. Swordsmen never raped, Kandoru had insisted. They never had to.
"Really? A whole year? How soon?"
Quili did not know, but she glanced up at Nona's face. The flicker from the dying rush lights was too blurred to show expression. If she were pregnant, then that wasn't showing, either. "Hold on to it for a couple of weeks, and I'll testify to the facemarker for you."
Nona blushed, and that did show, and the others laughed. They had little to give their children, these humble folk. A swordsman fathermark would be worth more than much gold. To a girl it would mean a high brideprice. To a boy, if he were nimble, a chance for admission to the craft. Even a young husband would swallow his pride for those and talk of being honored, whatever he truly felt. The laugh broke the tension. Good! Now they would not flee in terror or unwittingly provoke violence.
But Quili had to go and meet the swordsmen. She shivered and clutched her cloak tighter yet. Suddenly she realized that she had met only one swordsman in her whole life—Kandoru, her murdered husband.
The rain might be faltering. Dawn was certainly close, the eastern sky brightening. The roosters were in blatant competition now. Leaving the twittering women, Quili splashed off along the road. One way led to the manor, the other to the River and the jetty. Beyond Salimono's house and the dam, the track dropped swiftly into a little gorge, and into darkness.
She went slowly, hearing the slap of her shoes in puddles, trying not to imagine herself tumbling into the stream and arriving at the jetty all covered in mud. Going to meet swordsmen ... She should have brought one of the rush lights.
Why would swordsmen be coming here?
They might be coming by chance, but few ships or boats came downstream, because southward lay the Black Lands—rough water and no inhabitants. It was even less likely that swordsmen would have come upstream, from the north, for that way lay Ov.
They might be coming to avenge Kandoru. Swordsmen were utterly merciless against assassins, swordsmen killers. Kandoru had told her so, many times. She would have to convince them that they were looking in the wrong place. A priest or priestess must never tell a lie and was therefore a favored witness, even if she had been his wife and not disinterested. And there were a dozen others. The killers had come from Ov.
But the assassination had not been reported—or at least, she did not think it had been. She did not need to repeat the code of the priesthood to know that prevent bloodshed came very high on her list of duties to the Goddess.
A pebble rolled under her foot, and she stumbled. Even in daylight this bend of the gorge was a tunnel, confined between steep walls and overshadowed by trees. The stream bubbled quietly at her side. The rain had stopped, or could not get through the canopy. She picked her way carefully, testing every step, stretching out her hands to feel for branches.
If these swordsmen had come by chance, then they might not know about Ov. They might not know that they would soon be in terrible danger themselves.
Or they might have been brought by the Hand of the Goddess. In that case, their interest must be more than just one murdered old warrior. Their objective might be Ov itself—war! There might be a whole army down by the jetty. That was what Kandoru had said to the first rumors of the massacre in Ov: "Sorcerers are not allowed near the River!"
Then, when the rumors had became more solid, he had said, "The Goddess will not stand for it. She will summon Her swordsmen ..."
Two days later Kandoru had himself been dead, felled before he even had time to draw his sword, slain by a single trill of music. He had been a good man, in his way. He had lived by the code of the swordsmen, an honorable man, if not a very understanding or exciting husband for a juvenile apprentice priestess. She wished she could have helped him more. She should have pretended a little harder.
The local expert ... but all she had were vague memories of the stories Kandoru had told her, rambling on for hour upon hour, an old man with nothing but his memories of youth and strength, of wenching and killing; an old man clasping his child bride in clammy embrace in a barren bed through endless winter nights. She should have listened more carefully.
Quili stopped suddenly, heart thumping. Had she heard something ahead of her? A twig snapping?
She listened, hearing only the stream and pattering dripping noises. It must have been her imagination. She went on, more slowly, more cautiously. She had been crazy to come without a light, for she knew that her night vision was poor. The priesthood was sacrosanct. No one, not the worst brigand, would harm a priestess. So they said.
She ought to be rejoicing at the thought of Kandoru being avenged. At fifteen she had been married; at sixteen a widow. At seventeen she found it hard to mourn, however much she reproached herself. She could perhaps have gone back to the temple, when Swordsman Kandoru had no further need for her services, but she had stayed. The tenants had made her welcome and they needed her. So did the slaves, much more so. Her ladyship had let her remain in the cottage and she provided basic fare—sacks of meal and sometimes even meat. She sent small gifts once in a while: sandals not too badly worn, leftover delicacies from the kitchen.
If the swordsmen did know about the sorcerers—if they were planning an attack on Ov—then there must be a whole army of them.
Floundering in the darkness, she almost walked into a vague shape standing square in her path, waiting for her.
She yelped and jumped backward, losing a shoe. "Priestess!" she squealed. Then she managed a slightly lower: "I am a priestess!"
"Good!" said a youth's soft tenor. "And I am a swordsman. In what way may I be of service, holy lady?"CHAPTER 2
It was an absurd situation. Standing on one leg in the dark, with her heart still bounding wildly from the surprise, Quili could yet appreciate the absurdity—neither she nor the stranger could see the other's rank. Who saluted and who responded? But of course swordsmen would never send a mere First to scout, nor a Second either. He must outrank her.
So she made the greeting to a superior, managing not to fall over, even in the final bow: "I am Quili, priestess of the second rank, and it is my deepest and most humble wish that the Goddess Herself will see fit to grant you long life and happiness and to induce you to accept my modest and willing service in any way in which I may advance any of your noble purposes."
The swordsman retreated one pace, and she heard, rather than saw, his sword whip from the scabbard on his back. She almost lost her balance again, before remembering that swordsmen had their own rituals, flailing their blades around in salute.
"I am Nnanji, swordsman of the fourth rank, and am honored to accept your gracious service."
The sword shot back into its scabbard again with a hiss and a click. Kandoru had not handled his so slickly.
"Do you always stand on one foot, apprentice?"
She had not thought he would have been able to see. "I've lost a shoe, adept."
He chuckled and moved, and she felt a firm grip on her ankle. "Here it is. Stupid-looking thing!" Then her foot was pushed back where it belonged, and the swordsman straightened up.
"Thank you. You see very well ..."
"I do most things very well," he remarked cheerfully. He sounded so young, like a boy. Could he really be a Fourth? "Now, where is this, apprentice?"
"The estate of the Honorable Garathondi, adept."
The swordsman grunted softly. "What craft?"
"He is a builder."
"And what does a builder of the Sixth build? Well, never mind. How many swordsmen on this estate?"
He grunted again, surprised. "What's the nearest village, or town?"
"Pol, adept. A hamlet. About half a day's walk to the north."
"There would be swordsmen there, then ..."
It was not a question, so she need not say that the resident swordsman of Pol had died on the same day as her husband, or that his assassination could not have been reported, either. Prevent bloodshed!
"What city? How far?"
"Ov, adept. About another half day beyond Pol."
"Mm? Do you happen to know the name of the reeve in Ov?"
He was dead, also, and all his men. To answer just "No!" would be a lie. Before she could speak, the swordsman asked another question.
"Is there trouble here, Apprentice Quili? Brigands? Bandits? Work for honest swordsmen? Are we in any immediate danger?"
"No immediate danger, adept."
He chuckled. "Pity! Not even a dragon?"
She returned the laugh with relief. "Not one."
"And you haven't seen any sorcerers recently, I suppose?"
So he did know about the sorcerers! "Not recently, adept ..."
He sighed. "Well, if it's safe, then we must have been brought here to meet someone. Like Ko."
Excerpted from The Coming of Wisdom by Dave Duncan, Robert Runté. Copyright © 1988 D. J. Duncan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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