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The Ladies of Mandrigyn
By Barbara Hambly
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Barbara Hambly
All rights reserved.
"What in the name of the cold hells is this?" Sun Wolf held the scrap of unfolded paper between stubby fingers that were still slightly stained with blood.
Starhawk, his tall, rawboned second-in-command, glanced up from cleaning the grime of battle off the hilt of her sword and raised dark, level brows inquiringly. Outside, torchlight reddened the windy night. The camp was riotous with the noise of victory; the mercenaries of Wrynde and the troops of the City of Kedwyr were uninhibitedly celebrating the final breaking of the siege of Melplith.
"What's it look like?" she asked reasonably.
"It looks like a poxy proposition." He handed it to her, the amber light of the oil lamp overhead falling over his body, naked to the waist and glittering with a light curly rug of gold hair. Starhawk had been fighting under his command for long enough to know that, if he had actually thought it nothing more than a proposition, he would have put it in the fire without a word.
Sun Wolf, Commander of the Mercenaries, Camp of Kedwyr below the walls of Melplith, from Sheera Galernas of Mandrigyn, greetings. I will be coming to you in your tent tonight with a matter of interest to you. For my sake and that of my cause, please be alone, and speak to no one of this. Sheera.
"Woman's handwriting," Starhawk commented, and ran her thumb consideringly along the gilt edge of the expensive paper.
Sun Wolf looked at her sharply from beneath his curiously tufted brows. "If she wasn't from Mandrigyn, I'd say it was the local madam trying to drum up business."
Starhawk nodded in absent-minded agreement.
Outside the tent, the noise scaled up into a crescendo. Boozy catcalls mixed with cries of encouragement and yells of "Kill him! Kill the bastard!" Between the regular troops of the City of Kedwyr and the City's Outland Militia Levies, a lively hatred existed, perhaps stronger than the feeling that either body of warriors had toward the hapless citizen-soldiers of the besieged town of Melplith. It was a conflict that the Wolf and his mercenaries had stayed well clear of—the Wolf because he made it his policy never to get involved in local politics, and his men because of a blood-chilling directive from their captain on the subject. The noises of drunken murder did not concern him—there wasn't a man in his troop who would have so much as stayed to watch.
"Mandrigyn," Starhawk said thoughtfully. "Altiokis conquered that city last spring, didn't he?"
Sun Wolf nodded and settled himself into a fantastic camp chair made of staghorn bound with gold, looted from some tribal king in the far northeast. Most of the big tent's furnishings had been plundered from somewhere or other. The peacock hangings that separated it into two rooms had once adorned the bedroom of a prince of the K'Chin Desert. The cups of translucent, jade-green lacquer and gold had belonged to a merchant on the Bight Coast. The graceful ebony table, its delicate inlays almost hidden under the bloody armor that had been dumped upon it, had once graced the wine room of a gentlemanly noble of the Middle Kingdoms, before his precious vintages had been swilled by the invading armies of his enemies and he himself had been dispatched beyond such concerns.
"The city went fast," Sun Wolf remarked, picking up a rag and setting to work cleaning his own weapons. "Basically, it was the same situation as we had here in Melplith—factional splits in the parliament, scandal involving the royal family—they have a royal family there, or they did have, anyway—the city weakened by internal fighting before Altiokis marched down the pass. I'm told there were people there who welcomed him as a liberator."
Starhawk shrugged. "No weirder than some of the things the Trinitarian heretics believe," she joked, deadpan, and he grinned. Like most northerners, the Hawk held to the Old Faith against the more sophisticated theologies of the Triple God.
"The Wizard King's Citadel has been on Mandrigyn's back doorstep for a hundred and fifty years," the Wolf continued after a moment. "Last year they signed some kind of treaty with him. I could see it coming even then."
Starhawk shoved her sword back into its sheath and wiped her fingers on a rag. Sun Wolf's talent for collecting and sorting information was uncanny, but it was a skill that served him well. He had a knack for gathering rumors, extrapolating political probabilities from crop prices and currency fluctuations and the most trivial bits of information that made their way north to his broken-down stronghold at the old administrative town of Wrynde. Thus he and his men had been on the spot in the Gwarl Peninsula when the fighting had broken out between the trading rivals of Kedwyr and Melplith. Kedwyr had hired the Wolf and his troop at an astronomical sum.
It didn't always work that way—in her eight years as a mercenary in Sun Wolf's troop, Starhawk had seen one or two spectacular pieces of mistiming—but on the whole it had enabled the Wolf to maintain his troops in better-than-average style, fighting in the summer and sitting out the violence of the winter storms in the relative comfort of the half-ruined town of Wyrnde.
Like all mercenary troops, Sun Wolf's shifted from year to year in size and composition, though they centered around a hard core that had been with him for years. As far as Starhawk knew, Sun Wolf was the only mercenary captain who operated a regular school of combat in the winter months. The school itself was renowned throughout the West and the North for the excellence of its fighters. Every winter, when the rains made war impossible, young men and occasional young women made the perilous journey through the northern wastelands that had once been the agricultural heart of the old Empire of Gwenth to the ruined and isolated little town of Wyrnde, there to ask to be taught the hard arts of war.
There were always wars to fight somewhere. Since the moribund Empire of Gwenth had finally been riven apart by the conflict between the Three Gods and the One, there had always been wars—over the small bits of good land among the immense tracts of bad, over the trade with the East in silk and amber and spices, over religion, or over nothing. Starhawk, whose early training had given her a taste for such things, had once explained the theology behind the Schism to the Wolf. Being a barbarian from the far north, he worshipped the spirits of his ancestors and would cheerfully take money from proponents of either faith. An understanding of the situation had only amused him, as she knew it would. Lately the wars had been over the rising of the Wizard King Altiokis, who was expanding his own empire from the dark Citadel of Grimscarp, engulfing the Thanes who ruled the countryside and such cities as Mandrigyn.
"Will you see this woman from Mandrigyn?" she asked.
"Probably." The noise of the fight outside peaked in a crazy climax of yelling, punctuated by the heavy crack of the whips of the Kedwyr military police. It was the fourth fight they'd heard since returning to the camp after the sacking of the town was done; victory was headier than any booze ever brewed.
Starhawk collected her gear—sword, dagger, mail shirt—preparatory to returning to her own tent. Melplith stood on high ground, above its sheltered bay—one of those arid regions whose chief crops of citrus and olives had naturally turned its inhabitants to trade for their living. Chill winds now blew up from the choppy waters of the bay, making the lampflame flicker in its topaz glass and chilling her flesh through the damp cotton of her dark, embroidered shirt.
"You think it's a job?"
"I think she'll offer me one."
"Will you take it?"
The Wolf glanced over at her briefly. His eyes, in this light, were pale gold, like the wines of the Middle Kingdoms. He was close to forty, and his tawny hair was thinning, but there was no gray either in it or in the ragged mustache that drooped like a clump of yellow-brown winter weeds from the underside of a craggy and much-bent nose. The power and thickness of his chest and shoulders made him seem taller than his six feet when he was standing up; seated and at rest, he reminded her of a big, dusty lion. "Would you go against Altiokis?" he asked her.
She hesitated, not speaking her true answer to that. She had heard stories of the Wizard King since she was a tiny girl—bizarre, distorted tales of his conquests, his sins, and his greed. Horrible tales were told of what happened to those who had opposed him, over the timeless years of his uncanny existence.
Her true answer, the one she did not say aloud, was: Yes, if you wanted me to.
What she said was, "Would you?"
He shook his head. "I'm a soldier," he said briefly. "I'm no wizard. I couldn't go against a wizard, and I wouldn't take my people against one. There are two things that my father always told me, if I wanted to live to grow old—don't fall in love and don't mess with magic."
"Three things," Starhawk corrected, with one of her rare, fleeting grins. "Don't argue with fanatics."
"That comes under magic. Or arguing with drunks, I'm not sure which. I don't understand how there could be one God or three Gods or five or more, but I do know that I had ancestors, drunken, lecherous clowns that they were ... Hello, sweetpea."
The curtain that divided the tent parted, and Fawn came in, brushing the last dampness from the heavy curls of her mink-brown hair. The pale green gauze of her gown made her eyes seem greener, almost emerald. She was Sun Wolf's latest concubine, eighteen, and heartbreakingly beautiful. "Your bath's ready," she said, coming behind the camp chair where he sat to kiss the thin spot in his hair at the top of his head.
He took her hand where it lay on his shoulder and, with a curiously tender gesture for so large and rough-looking a man, he pressed his lips to the white skin of her wrist. "Thanks," he said. "Hawk, will you wait for a few minutes? If this skirt wants to see me alone, would you take Fawn over to your tent for a while?"
Starhawk nodded. She had seen a series of his girls come and go, all of them beautiful, soft-spoken, pliant, and a little helpless. The camp tonight, after the sacking of the town, was no place for a girl not raised to killing, even if she was the mistress of a man like Sun Wolf.
"So you're receiving ladies alone in your tent now, are you?" Fawn chided teasingly.
With a movement too swift to be either fought or fled, he was out of his chair, catching her up, squeaking, in his arms as he rose. She wailed, "Stop it! No! I'm sorry!" as he bore her off through the curtain into the other room, her squeals scaling up into a desperate crescendo that ended in a monumental and steamy splash.
Without a flicker of an eyelid, Starhawk shouldered her war gear, called out, "I'll be back for you in an hour, Fawn," and departed; only when she was outside did she allow herself a small, amused grin.
She returned in company with Ari, a young man who was Sun Wolf's other lieutenant and who rather resembled an adolescent black bear. They bade the Wolf a grave good evening, collected the damp, subdued, and rather pink-cheeked Fawn, and made their way across the camp. The wind had risen again, cold off the sea with the promise of the winter's deadly storms; drifts of woodsmoke from the camp's fires blew into their eyes. Above them, the fires in the city flared, fanned by the renewed breezes, and a sulfurous glow outlined the black crenelations of the walls. The night tasted raw, wild, and strange, still rank with blood and broken by the wailing of women taken in the sacking of the town.
"Things settling down?" the Hawk asked.
Ari shrugged. "Some. The militia units are already drunk. Gradduck—that tin-pot general who commanded the City Troops—is taking all the credit for breaking the siege."
Starhawk feigned deep thought. "Oh, yes," she remembered at length. "The one the Chief said couldn't lay siege to a pothouse."
"No, no," Ari protested, "it wasn't a pothouse—an outhouse..."
Voices yelled Ari's name, calling him to judge an athletic competition that was as indecent as it was ridiculous, and he laughed, waved to the women, and vanished into the darkness. Starhawk and Fawn continued to walk, the wind-torn torchlight banding their faces in lurid colors—the Hawk long-legged and panther-graceful in her man's breeches and doublet, Fawn shy as her namesake amid the brawling noise of the camp, keeping close to Starhawk's side. As they left the noisier precincts around the wine issue, the girl asked, "Is it true he's being asked to go against Altiokis?"
"He won't do it," Starhawk said. "Any more than he'd work for him. He was approached for that, too, years ago. He won't meddle with magic one way or the other, and I can't say that I blame him. Altiokis is news of the worst possible kind."
Fawn shivered in the smoky wind and drew the spiderweb silk of her shawl tighter about her shoulders. "Were they all like that? Wizards, I mean? Is that why they all—died out?"
In the feeble reflection of lamplight from the tents, her green eyes looked huge and transparent. Damp tendrils of hair clung to her cheeks; she brushed them aside, watching Starhawk worriedly. Like most people in the troop, she was a little in awe of that steely and enigmatic woman.
Starhawk ducked under the door flap of her tent, and held it aside for Fawn to pass. "I don't know if that's why the wizards finally died out," she said. "But I do know they weren't all evil like Altiokis. I knew a wizard once when I was a little girl. She was—very good."
Fawn stared at her in surprise that came partly from astonishment that Starhawk had ever been a little girl. In a way, it seemed inconceivable that she had ever been anything but what she was now: a tall, leggy cheetah of a woman, colorless as fine ivory—pale hair, pewter-gray eyes—save where the sun had darkened the fine-grained, flawless skin of her face and throat to burnt gold. Her light, cool voice was remarkably soft for a warrior's, though she was said to have a store of invective that could raise blisters on tanned oxhide. It was more believable of her that she had known a wizard than that she had been a little girl.
"I—I thought they were all gone, long before we were born."
"No," the Hawk said. The lamplight sparkled off the brass buckles that studded her sheepskin doublet as she fetched a skin of wine and two cups. Her tent was small and, like her, neat and spare. She had packed away her gear earlier. The only things remaining on the polished wood folding table were the gold-and-shell winecups and a pack of greasy cards. Starhawk was generally admitted to be a shark of poker—with her face, Fawn reflected, she could hardly be anything else.
"I thought that, too," Starhawk continued, coming back as Fawn seated herself on the edge of the narrow bed. "I didn't know Sister Wellwa was a wizard for—oh, years."
"She was a nun?" Fawn asked, startled.
Starhawk weighed her answer for a moment, as if picking her words carefully. Then she nodded. "The village where I grew up was built around the Convent of St. Cherybi in the West. Sister Wellwa was the oldest nun there—I used to see her every day, sweeping the paths outside with her broom made of sticks. As I said, I didn't know then that she was a wizard."
"How did you find out?" Fawn asked. "Did she tell you?"
"No." Starhawk folded herself into her chair. Like everything else in the tent, it was plain, bare, and easy to pack in a hurry. "The countryside around the village was very wild—I don't know if you're familiar with the West, but it's a land of rock and thin forest, rising toward the sea cliffs. A hard land. Dangerous, too. I'd gone into the woods to gather berries or something silly like that—something I wasn't supposed to do. I was probably escaping from my brothers. And—and there was a nuuwa."
Fawn shivered. She had seen nuuwa, dead, or at a distance. It was possible, Starhawk thought, watching her, that she had also seen their victims.
Excerpted from The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara Hambly. Copyright © 1984 Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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