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The Witches of Wenshar
By Barbara Hambly
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Barbara Hambly
All rights reserved.
"You may be a wizard, my lady," Sun Wolf said, tucking his big hands behind the buckle of his battered sword belt, "but you're also the biggest damn fool I've ever met in my life."
Every man has a gift, Starhawk sighed to herself. Why do I choose to travel with a man whose gift is to be able to talk audibly with his foot in his mouth up to the knee?
For one instant the sun-blasted garden with its small citrus trees and hard, clayey red soil was utterly silent. Beneath the sharp black lattice shadows of the bare arbor, the face of the Lady Kaletha, the White Witch of Wenshar, went rigid with an indignation which was three parts shock that anyone, let alone some roving barbarian in a dusty sheepskin doublet and scarred boots, would dare speak so to her. Her face paled against the dark red coils of her hair, and her protuberant blue eyes blazed, but for the first moment she was literally speechless. One of the little cluster of her ostentatiously black-clothed disciples, misinterpreting, opened her mouth. Kaletha waved her silent.
"You barbarian pig." She had a voice like the clink of a dropped gold coin upon stone. "Are you slandering me out of fear of what I am—or jealousy of what I have?"
Behind her, her disciples murmured, nodding wisely to one another. The gardens of Pardle Sho were public, occupying the grounds of what had been the Governor's Palace back when the land of Wenshar had been ruled by the Lords of the Middle Kingdoms; across the vast open square of sand, two children chased each other through the zebra shadows of the cloister, their voices shrill as birds in the hot air.
After a moment Sun Wolf said, "I fear what you are, Lady."
She drew breath to make some final point, but he cut in over her words in a voice like the rasping of a rusted-out kettle. "What you are is an armed idiot—if you're not simply a liar."
Turning, he walked away. The dark lacework of the vine shadows rolled like the foam pattern on a wave along the lion-colored leather of his doublet, and the Lady Kaletha was left with the uncomfortable choice of giving him the last word or shouting her own rebuttal in an undignified fashion after his retreating back.
Thumbs hooked in her sword belt, Starhawk followed him down that hot, shaded colonnade and across the gardens to the street.
"You know, Chief," she remarked later, coming over with two tin tankards of beer to the intense gloom of a corner of the Longhorn Inn's common room, "sometimes your facility with words leaves me breathless."
His single eye, amber as a tiger's under a long, curling tuft of fading red-gold brow, flicked suspiciously up at her as she stepped casually over the back of the chair next to his and settled into it. The leather patch that covered the empty socket of his other eye was already scuffed and weathered to the same shade as his sun-gilded skin, but the telltale groove of years had not yet been worn across his forehead by its buckskin thong.
Starhawk's face, as usual, was inscrutable as she handed him his beer; features that would have been delicate, had not her original uncomeliness of a long jaw and a square chin been added to, in the course of nine years as a mercenary soldier, by a broken nose and three inches of whitening scar that decorated one high, fragile cheekbone. For the rest, she was a tall, rangy cheetah of a woman, dressed in a man's leather breeches, embroidered shirt, and sheepskin doublet. Her baby-fine blond hair was cropped short and, like Sun Wolf's thinning red-gold mane and faded mustache, bleached out by the sun of the K'Chin Desert, along whose northern edge they had been traveling for four days.
Sun Wolf grumbled, correctly suspecting that what lay behind those water-gray eyes was a deep and private amusement. "The woman is a fool." His voice was like the wheezy creak of an unoiled hinge, as if his vocal chords had all the flesh stripped from them, leaving nothing but bare wire.
Starhawk took a sip of her beer. It was bitter, like all the beer in the Middle Kingdoms, the color of mahogany, and very strong. "She's also the only thing we've seen that remotely resembles a wizard since we left Mandrigyn," she reminded him after a moment. "And since we can't go back to Mandrigyn..."
Sun Wolf brushed aside the reminder of his banishment from the city that was known as the Jewel of the Megantic Sea. "The Wizard King Altiokis lived and ruled for a hundred and fifty years," he growled. "He destroyed any wizard with even a guess of the power that might have challenged him. If this Kaletha woman has the powers she claims, he'd have destroyed her, too."
Starhawk shrugged. "She could have kept them hidden until his death. That was only nine months ago. Altiokis got much of his silver from the mines of Wenshar—it's a sure bet Pardle Sho and every little mining town along the Cordillera was riddled with his spies. She has to have remained silent, like Yirth of Mandrigyn did, in self-defense."
Sun Wolf wiped the beer foam from his thick, raggedy mustache and said nothing.
Though the air in the common room was hot, still, and strangely dense-feeling, not one of the half-dozen or so miners and drifters there made a move to leave its indigo shadows for the striped black-and-primrose shade of the awning of peeled cottonwood poles outside. It was the season of sandstorms, as autumn drew on toward winter. In the north, sailors would be making fast their vessels till spring opened the sea roads again, and farmers rechinking the thatch of their roofs. Throughout the north and west and on to the cold steppes of the east, all life came to a standstill for four months under the flail of those bitter storms. Here in Wenshar, the southernmost of the Middle Kingdoms on the borders of the desert, even the few hardy herds of cattle grazing the patches of scrub that passed for oases were chivvied in to closer pastures near the foothill towns, and the silver miners strung lines of rope from their dwellings to the pitheads, lest the burning sand-winds rise while they were between one point and another, and the darkness come on so swiftly that they would be lost.
Deceptively idle-seeming, Starhawk scanned the room.
Like half the buildings in Pardle Sho, the Longhorn was adobe brick and about fifty years old. Its low roof, thirty-five feet long and less than ten from side to side, was supported by rafters of stripped scrub pine whose shortness gave every adobe building in the town the appearance of a hallway. The older buildings of the town, erected of stone when Pardle Sho was the administrative center through which the Lords of Dalwirin ruled the Desert Lords of the wastelands beyond, were spacious and airy. According to Sun Wolf, who knew things like that, the smallest of those stone houses fetched seven times the price of any adobe dwelling in the town. Looking up at the blackened lattices of rafter and shadow over her head, Starhawk had to concede that the buyers had a point. Adobe was cheap and fast. The men and women who'd come over the mountains, first as slaves, then as free prospectors, to work the silver mines and eventually to wrest them and the land of Wenshar from those who had held them before, often could afford no better.
One of the first wars Starhawk had fought in, she recalled, had been some border squabble between Dalwirin, closest of the Middle Kingdoms north of the mountains, and Wenshar. She remembered being a little surprised that, approached by both sides, Sun Wolf had chosen to take Wenshar's money. She'd been twenty-one then, a silent girl only a year out of the convent which she'd abandoned to follow the big mercenary captain to war; a few weeks of defending the black granite passes of the Dragon's Backbone had shown her the wisdom of taking defense rather than attack on such terrain.
Sipping her beer, she remembered she hadn't had the slightest idea what to do with the prize money after the campaign. Sun Wolf, if she recalled correctly, had used his to buy a silver-eyed black girl named Shadowrose who could beat any warrior in the troop at backgammon.
She glanced across at the man beside her, his gold-furred forearms stretched before him on the table, picturing him then. Even back then, he'd been the best and certainly the richest mercenary in the length and breadth of the old boundaries of the fallen Empire of Gwenth. He'd had both his eyes then and a voice like a landslide in a gravel pit; the thin spot in his tawny hair had been small enough that he could deny its existence. His face had been a little less craggy, the points of bone on the corners of his bearlike shoulders a little less knobby. The deep silences within his soul had been hidden under the bluster of crude sex and physical challenge, which some men used to conceal their vulnerabilities from other men.
He sat now with his back to the corner of the room, as usual, his blind left eye toward her. She was the only person he allowed to sit on that side. Though she saw no more of his face than the broken-nosed profile against the brilliance of the open door, she could feel the thought moving through him, the tension in those heavy shoulders. "Face it, Chief. If this woman Kaletha doesn't teach you how to use your powers, who will?"
He moved his head a little, and she had a glimpse of the amber glint of his eye. Then he turned away again. "She's not the only wizard in the world."
"I thought we'd just established there weren't any at all."
"I don't like her."
"When you had the school at Wrynde, did the people who came to learn the arts of war from you need to like you?" When he didn't answer, she added, "If you're starving, do you need to like the baker from whom you buy your bread?"
He looked back at her then, a deep flame of annoyance in his eye that she'd read the truth in him. She drank off her beer and set the tankard down; her forearms, below the rolled sleeves of her blue-and-white embroidered shirt, were muscled like a man's, marked with the white scars of old wars. Across the common room under the glare of the bar lamps, a couple of women in the dusty clothes of miners were flirting with a lovely young man in brown silk, their voices a low mixture of sound, like a perfume of roses and musk.
"If you want to move on, you know I'll ride with you. You know I don't understand wizardry, or the needs of power. But you called Kaletha an armed idiot for having power and not using it wisely. What does that make you?"
Anger flared in that slitted yellow eye—she was reminded of a big, dusty lion baited in its lair and about to growl. But she met his gaze calmly, challenging him to deny what she said, and, after a moment, it fell. There was a long silence.
Then he sighed and pushed his half-finished tankard from him. "If it was battle, I'd know what to do," he said, very quietly, in a voice she seldom heard him use to her and never to anyone else. "I've been a soldier all my life, Hawk. I have an instinct of fighting that I trust, because it's been borne out in battle after battle. But I'm mageborn. Whether I like it or not, there's a wizard inside of me—not buried and whispering, as it is with the mageborn when their powers first stir, but grown and wild as a dragon. I passed through the Great Trial into the fullness of power without getting even the teaching that most mageborn managed to pick up in secret from the local grannies when Altiokis was alive and killing off wizards. It's like being born, not as a baby, but as a man—having no more mind than a baby, but wanting what a man wants."
Broodingly, he cradled the tankard between his blunt-fingered hands. Away from the lamplight near the bar, the shadows were darkening; the wind that ghosted through the door was cooler now than the trapped, stuffy-smelling heat, scented with dust and the wildness of the desert evening.
"There are times when the want consumes me. In the nine months since I came to the power, it's been like a fire inside me, burning me up. That patchwork of learning I was able to pick up in Mandrigyn before I was banished makes no sense to me. I have instincts shouting at me that mean nothing to me, and I don't know whether they're right or will lead me to a quick death and the Cold Hells. Sometimes I wish by all the spirits of my ancestors I'd been born like my father, just a great crafty beast; and other times ..." He shook his head, with the nearest admission to helplessness Starhawk had seen from him in all the years since they had met.
Impulsively, she leaned across to him and put her hand on his; his fingers closed warm and rough around hers, accepting a comfort neither of them would even have considered a year ago. His hoarse voice was like the scrape of blown sand in the gloom. "There's a vision in me of myself, from long before I came to my powers—one I had as a child, though I couldn't speak of it then. But it's come back to me since I passed through the Great Trial. It's a vision of looking at a great blazing fire and wanting to grasp the core of the flame in my bare hand, knowing it will hurt—but knowing that when the flesh is all burned off, I'll be able to wield that core like a sword."
Behind the long bar of sleeve-polished pine, the owner of the Longhorn was lighting candles—dented tin lusters throwing back a rancid light. Outside, shadows of the spur-ranges of the Dragon's Backbone had covered the town, the hem fringe of the garment of night. Miners, townsmen, and those who rode herd on the tough, long-horned cattle were coming in, dusty and cursing from work. They were mostly the fair-skinned, blond, or red-haired stock of the north, whence the Middle Kingdoms had acquired their slaves, but with a fair sprinkling of the dark-haired people of the Middle Kingdoms themselves, and the black folk of the long, golden coastlines of the southern Megantic. Among them, striking in their white robes and head veils, were the swarthy shirdar, the desert dwellers, who recognized not the King of Wenshar, but the Ancient Houses of the old Desert Lords. Voices jostled in the warm dimness against the smells of old sweat of work-soiled garments, of white or amber liquor, and of the milky sweetness of beeswax. A round-shouldered little black man in his sixties, the tracks of some ancient battle overlying old ornamental scarring on his face, his body hard as twisted ebony from work in spite of the richness of his clothes, ordered drinks for everyone in the place to thunderous applause.
As the owner's boy and girl began circulating with a tray of beer and whiskey, the little man raised his hands. Candle flame caught on his rings. Starhawk, though never much of a looter in her years as a mercenary, had acquired a professional soldier's quick eye; she reckoned each of them at five gold pieces, a staggering sum to be carrying around on one's hands, particularly on the cordillera. In a voice several times the size of his tough little body, the man bellowed, "This drink is for the honor of the Princess Taswind! We'll serve it and we'll fight for it, come what may!"
Though Starhawk had no idea who the Princess Taswind was, she took a blunt pottery cup of liquor the color of henna from the tray the barboy offered her. Sun Wolf shook his head at the offer of another beer. After passing through the Great Trial, it had been months before he'd been able to touch alcohol at all. There was a chorus of cheers, some woman's raucous whoop riding up over them like a descant. Beside the bar one of the brown-faced shirdar warriors pushed back his head veils and raised his cup as the noise subsided a little. "And drink also to her lord and husband to be, Incarsyn of Hasdrozaboth, Lord of the Dunes!" Under the veils, black hair, long and thick as a woman's and braided against the dust, framed a hawk-thin face that was handsome, proud, and very young.
The three warriors with him—all young men and none of them over twenty, Starhawk thought—put aside their veils and lifted their cups. Their piercing cry rang against the sudden silence of the room like the discordant clatter of a dropped tray.
The silence in the room was so complete Starhawk could hear the jingle of bridle bits from the horses tied outside. The young man looked around him, his face scarlet with fury and shame. A few feet away at the bar, the tough little black man leaned against the railing, his brown eyes hard with derisive challenge.
Excerpted from The Witches of Wenshar by Barbara Hambly. Copyright © 1987 Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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