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When she saw the riders approaching, she felt genuinely thankful, for her own sake, as if she were truly lost. She watched them, crouched in the grass, until she was certain they were not clansmen, then rose, waving and calling.
They came toward her at a canter: a beautiful woman, whose flaxen hair streamed out, glinting in the morning sun, mounted on a grey horse; a dark-skinned Kern astride a big black stallion, his hair black and bound in a long tail, his eyes hard and blue as he sighted her; a younger man, tanned dark, but Lyssian to judge by his features and the sun-bleached mane that he wore in the Kernish style, his expression puzzled.
She ran toward them and they slowed, eyeing her curiously, hands lightly touching their swordhilts, glancing round as if anticipating some trick, wary of ambush.
"Praise all the gods you've come," she cried. "My name is Cennaire."
Calandryll stared torn between surprise and suspicion, wondering how she came here, and in equal measure how she could appear so lovely. Hair tangled and dusted with tares fell in raven folds about a dirt-smudged face, that discoloration seeming only to emphasize the lush redness of her full lips, her great brown eyes. She wore traveling gear of soft brown leather, disheveled and stained, the tunic loose, so that as she approached he saw full breasts outlined against her dirtied shirt, long legs beneath the breeks. He thought her the loveliest woman he had ever seen. He reined his horse to a halt and bowed from the saddle, letting go his swordhilt: he perceived no danger. He smiled as he dismounted, ignoring Bracht's warning grunt,the open suspicion in Katya's grey eyes.
"Cennaire?" He moved a pace toward her. "I am Calandryll."
Cennaire repeated his name, softly, scarcely needing to feign the relief she felt at finding her long-sought quarry. So this was Calandryll den Karynth, this muscular young man. From Anomius's description she had anticipated something else–a foppish princeling, an effete scholar–but this man had the look of a freesword, hard and lean as the blade he wore, his movements gracefully economic as he came closer. His eyes were brown and concerned, his hair a ponytailed mane of sun-bleached gold: he was handsome. She made a faint moaning sound and went to him, throwing herself against him, his brown leathern shirt warm against her cheek, redolent of sweat and horseflesh, the arms he put around her comforting, his very presence after so long alone in this wilderness–after what she had witnessed–reassuring. It was easy to play her part.
Calandryll held her, not sure what else to do, murmuring soft comforts as he felt her tremble against his chest, wondering that sunlight could strike such sparks from hair so black, aware that his companions dismounted now, still wary.
"How came you here?"
Cennaire raised her head from the refuge of Calandryll's chest, looking to the speaker. Shirt and breeks of soft black leather, jet hair drawn back from a hawkish face in which eyes of a startling blue surveyed her impassively, a falchion of Kernish style sheathed on the narrow waist: this must be Bracht. And the woman, her hair near silver, her eyes grey and grave, clad in a shirt of fine mail and breeks that emphasized the length and shapeliness of her legs, that must be the Vanu woman, Katya. Her right hand, like Bracht's, touched lightly on the hilt of her sword, that a gently curved saber.
Cennaire drew in a rasping breath and moved a little back from Calandryll's embrace, sensing without needing to look into his eyes that he regretted that loss of contract. Rapidly, almost babbling, she blurted out the bones of the story Anomius had suggested, fleshing that skeleton with embellishments of her own.
She was, she told them, a Kand, formerly possessed of some wealth, that invested in partnership with a Lyssian trader out of Gannshold. She had looked to protect her investment with her presence, she said, and so gone out with the caravan, circuiting the western quadrant of Cuan na'For. They had journeyed peacefully, until they came to the Kess Imbrun, moving eastward, and were attacked by raiders come south out of the Jesseryn Plain. She affected a shudder here, and essayed a tear, letting her voice trail away as she spoke of the running fight and how she became separated from her companions, who must now surely be dead.
When she was done with her tale she sighed and sniffed and asked if she might moisten her lips. Calandryll passed her his canteen and she drank, watching their faces.
Calandryll, she thought, was disposed to believe her without undue questioning. Of Bracht, she was less sure; and of Katya, not at all. She thought it did not much matter: these were honorable folk, and would hardly leave her abandoned. Nor did they have spare mounts, to give her one and send her on her way. She thought they must surely take her with them, which was exactly as Anomius desired. And, if she was to free herself of the ugly little wizard's domination, what she desired. Still, as she passed the canteen back and smiled her thanks, she thought on the trump she held, and chose to play it.
"Burash!" she said as Bracht eyed her quizzically, Katya enigmatically. "That alone was horrible–to see so many die. But then . . ."
She thought on what she had seen and had no need of dramatic artifice to shiver, to lower her voice to a horrified whisper, the sentence tailing off.
"Then?" Bracht demanded.
"Dera!" Calandryll protested. "Can you not see she's distraught? Hungry, too, no doubt."
"I am," Cennaire agreed, lying, "but I'll tell your friend my tale first."
Calandryll made a sound pitched somewhere between argument and irritation, and she smiled at him, thinking fleetingly of how easy it was to mold a man's emotions. Or some men's, she corrected herself–Bracht appeared impervious. Because, she decided, he loved the Vanu woman, that notion giving rise to another: what was it like to command such love? She pushed those brief musings away and told the truth, entire and unadorned.
"My horse died nearby," she said huskily, "and I came here. I thought I was saved when a rider approached, but something . . . I cannot say what, for I did not properly understand it . . . prompted me to caution. I sensed evil in him . . . a malign aura . . . and hid myself. As well I did, for I was right."
She paused, frowning as she relived the experience. She had all their attention now.
"He lit a fire and brought meat from his saddlebags. I watched him eat. Burash, it was ghastly! He roasted pieces of a man and ate them!"
Calandryll said, "Rhythamun!" The single word was invested with massive loathing. Katya's full lips pressed tight together, thinned with revulsion. Bracht spat his contempt and said, "Go on."
Cennaire wiped her mouth as if to rid herself of some unpleasant taste, the movement instinctive, her own revulsion real. "I was afraid," she continued, still telling only the truth. "Afraid that he should sense my presence and afraid to flee, lest he see me. I remained hidden in the grass, watching. I could think of nothing else to do."
"How did he look?" demanded Bracht curtly. "Describe him."
"Sand-haired," she returned, "with a broken nose. His eyes were brown."
The three exchanged confirming glances. Bracht motioned for her to continue.
"He used magic," she said. "It must have been magic, for some time later five Jesseryte warriors came up out of the chasm and he set them to fighting. The air smelled of almonds when he spoke. They fought until only one was left alive and–Rhythamun, did you name him?–healed his wounds. That one threw the bodies into the chasm; the horses jumped on a word. Then . . ." She closed her eyes, shaking her head.
Calandryll placed strong hands on her shoulders, his tanned face grave. "Then what?" he asked, far milder than Bracht's harsh questions.
"That one he possessed!" she gasped. "He chanted some gramarye and the almond scent came strong again. Something passed between them . . . as though flame flowed from his mouth into the Jesseryte. Then the sand-haired man fell down. Oh, Burash!"
She turned toward Calandryll, throwing herself into his arms, pressing her cheek afresh against his chest.
"He–the Jesseryte now–threw the body after the others. Then he took the one remaining horse and went down the trail."
She heard Calandryll say, "The Daggan Vhe. He's gone onto the Jesseryn Plain."
"Aught else?" asked Bracht.
"There was a book," Cennaire said. "It was the only thing he took."
She felt Calandryll stiffen, his voice urgent as he demanded, "Tell us of the book."
She shrugged helplessly, certain now that the thing she had seen was that volume for which Rhythamun would so casually shed blood. Or Anomius.
"It was small," she murmured, "and bound in black. But it seemed to radiate a dreadful power."
Calandryll said, "The Arcanum."
"I know not what it was called," Cennaire lied, "only that he seemed to value it."
"Aye," said Calandryll bitterly. "He values it."
"The warrior whose shape he took," Bracht rasped. "Can you describe him?"
"He was short," she told the Kern. "With bowed legs and oily hair. Armored; he wore a helmet, a veil of metal over his face."
Bracht chopped air with an impatient hand: "You describe every Jesseryte horseman on the Plain. Tell us of his face, that we shall know him."
"You'd go after him?"
For all she knew–anticipated accompanying them–that this should be the way of it, still Cennaire found it easy to put surprise in her question: it seemed an impossible pursuit.
"We must," Calandryll told her, gentler than the Kern. "Can you describe him?"
She shook her head. "Not well–he looked not very different from the others. His face was broad, his eyes slitted." She paused a moment, frowning in genuine concentration. "He wore a mustache, and I think he was young."
"Ahrd!" Bracht snapped. "The god who made the Jesserytes lacked imagination–she describes a thousand of them. More!"
Katya motioned for him to be patient, speaking for the first time. "How long ago was this?" she asked.
Her voice calm, deliberately soothing in counterpoint to the Kern's urgency. Cennaire smiled wanly: one woman thanking another for her support, and said, "Three days ago."
Bracht's curse rang loud in the warm air. "Three days? Oh, Ahrd, could you not have sped us quicker here?"
More reasonably, Katya gestured at the depths of the Kess Imbrun and asked, "Must he not go down the Daggan Vhe? And then climb the farther wall? Do we ride hard, might we not take him in the chasm? He travels alone, after all."
"Hardly." Bracht shook his head, indicating the massive rift with jutted chin. "The Blood Road's no easy descent; no place to hurry. And below? Down there the rocks are tumbled like a maze, like a forest of stone. No–with such a lead he's the advantage on us. Again."
Katya nodded, accepting his superior knowledge of the terrain, nibbling an instant on her lower lip as she thought.
"And he's taken another's form," Bracht grunted sourly. "Filthy gharan-evur! Ahrd, but every cursed Jesseryte looks alike, and none with any love for strangers. He needs only continue onto the Plain to find refuge."
"I should know him again," Cennaire ventured, "did I but see his face."
Bracht's eyes narrowed at that, and she felt Calandryll tense once more. Katya studied her curiously and she feared she overplayed her hand, affecting a trembling of her lips, a tearful blinking.
"We've no spare horse," Bracht said.
"Shall we leave her here then?" asked Calandryll.
"She knows his face," said Katya.
"She'll slow us." Bracht drove an angry fist against his thigh, teeth gritted in frustration. "Do we bring her with us, one horse must always carry double."
"She's light enough," Calandryll offered. "And once before, we found a stranger on the road. The aid we gave her was repaid surely enough." He touched the hilt of his straightsword, reminding Bracht of that encounter with the disguised goddess, Dera.
"She knows his face," Katya repeated. "And as Calandryll says–shall we leave her here?"
"Please, no," cried Cennaire, her fear of abandonment quite genuine.
She would not die. Indeed, she could not since Anomius had removed her heart and locked that still-beating organ in his enchanted pyxis, and while it remained bound by his cantrips she was immortal. Neither hunger nor thirst held meaning for her, the sating of appetite a pleasure only, not a necessity. But did they leave her, then she must surely earn the displeasure of the mage, perhaps suffer his wrath. Did they leave her, surely she could never find opportunity to free herself of his mastery, but remain forever his puppet, to be discarded when her usefulness was done, or be destroyed by those sorcerers who would destroy Anomius. Whether she obeyed her master and brought the Arcanum to him, or found some way, through the quest, to possess her heart once more, she was loath to find herself again alone.
It came to her that she had not known fear since Anomius had excised her heart and made her his revenant, and that these past days, solitary on the grass, the memory of Rhythamun's fell magic hot in her mind, had changed her in ways she did not properly comprehend. She clung tight to Calandryll, willing him to take up her cause.
She heard him say, "We cannot. Dera, Bracht, after all she's seen? How long would she survive alone, on foot?"
"And to bring her to some camp would take days," Katya added. "Rhythamun gaining on us all the while."
"Aye, there's that," the Kern allowed with obvious reluctance.
Cennaire sensed a mellowing, heard Calandryll say, "She can ride with me. Perhaps we can find her a horse on the Jesseryn Plain."
"The Jesserytes are not a hospitable folk," Bracht returned. "They're more likely to slay us than sell us a horse."
"Then we'll steal one," Calandryll declared. "But I'll not leave her here. Remember Dera, Bracht!"
The Kern grunted and fixed Cennaire with cold blue eyes. "Are you a goddess?" he demanded roughly. "Be that so, I'd welcome revelation."
"I am no goddess," she returned meekly.
Bracht grunted, turning his gaze to Calandryll. "If not a goddess, then perhaps some creation of Rhythamun's, left here in ambush."
Calandryll removed his arms, gesturing at Cennaire, never guessing how close was his question to the truth. "Does she seem the creation of magic? Besides, we've a way to know." He smiled as he drew his sword, assuring her he meant no harm, saying, "Only touch the blade and show my doubting friend you're what you claim."
Cennaire paused, cautious now. She knew not what power the straightsword held, wondering if it would unmask her. It seemed she had little other choice than to obey: refusal equated with revelation. Were she revealed, she decided, she must throw herself on their mercy, tell them of Anomius, and hope to persuade them to alliance. Should that fail, then she would attempt to flee.
Mistaking her reluctance, Calandryll said gently, "No harm shall come to you, of that I'm sure. Only place your hands on the blade."
Had she possessed a beating heart, it would have raced as she fastened her grip carefully about the steel.
Nothing happened and Calandryll said, "You see? Dera's magic vouchsafes her honesty. She's no more than she claims–a luckless refugee."
"No longer luckless, I think," Cennaire murmured as he sheathed the sword.
Bracht grunted his acceptance of her honesty and said, "You're set on bringing her?"
"What else can we do?" came the answer. "Save go back and find the closest camp? That way we grant Rhythamun even more time. And she knows his face–does that not lend her value?"
Bracht nodded reluctantly and looked to Katya.
"How say you?"
"That we've little choice but to take her. And she may well prove valuable."
The Kern sighed and shrugged. "So be it then–she comes with us." He returned his gaze to Cennaire. "We ride hard, and into danger. You may well find a death less pleasant in our company than if you remain here."