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By Andre Norton, Evan TenBroeck Steadman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Andre Norton
All rights reserved.
WAN SUNLIGHT touched the upper reaches of this unnamed western dale to which Brixia's unguided wandering had brought her. It was far enough from the ravaged lands eastward to promise a breathing space of dubious safety—if one took care. Squatting on her heels, the girl grimaced at distant clouds to the east, a hint of worse weather to come. She drew the thin blade of her knife back and forth across the sharpening stone, eyeing that silver of worn steel anxiously. It had been sharpened so many times and, though it had been well forged and strong, its making was in the past—the past she did not even try to remember nowadays. She had to be very careful, she knew, or that finger of metal might snap, leaving her with no tool—nor weapon—at all.
Her hands were sunbrowned and scarred, the nails of her fingers broken, rimmed with a grime which even scrubbing with sand could not banish entirely. It was very hard to think now that once all she had held was the spindle of a spinner, or the shuttle of a weaver, the needle of one who wrought pictures in colored threads upon the thick stuff meant to cover the walls of a keep. Another girl had known that living, soft and secure, in the High Hallack before the invaders came. Someone who had died during the time stretching behind her like a corridor, the far end of which was so faint in her mind that she had difficulty remembering.
That Brixia had survived flight from that enemy besieged keep which had always been her home made her as tough and enduring as the metal she now held. She had learned that time meant one day to be faced from sunrise until she could find some shelter in the coming of dark. There were no feast days, no naming of one month upon another—only times of heat, and times of cold when her very bones ached and sometimes she coughed and knew the bite of the chill until she felt she would never be warm again.
There was little spare flesh on her now; she was as lean and strong as a bow cord. And near, in her own way, as deadly. That she had once gone in fine wool, with a necklet of amber, and the pale western gold in rings upon her fingers—to her that now seemed like a dream—a troublesome dream.
She had walked with fear until it had become a familiar friend, and, had it been banished from her side, she would have felt queerly naked and lost. There had been times when she had nearly shut her eyes upon the rock walls of a cave, or upon the branches of some tree arched above her, ready to lose her stubborn will to endure, to accept death which followed her like a hound on the trail of a fal-deer already wounded by the hunter.
Still there was within her that core of determination which was the heritage of her House—was she not of of the blood of Torgus? And all in the south dales of High Hallack had known the Song of Torgus and his victory over the Power of Llan's Stone. Torgus' House might not be great in lands or wealth, but in spirit and strength it must be reckoned very high indeed.
She raised a hand to brush back a wandering strand of her sun-bleached hair, sawn off raggedly at her neck level. Not for any skulker of the unsettled lands were the gold braided strands of a bower dweller. Now as she drew the knife back and forth across the stone she hummed the Challenge of Llan on so low a note that none but her own ear might have picked up that thread of sound. There were none to hear—she had scouted this place well shortly after dawn. Unless one counted as listener the black-plumaged bird which croaked menacingly from the top of a nearby, winter-twisted tree.
"So—so—" she tested the keenness of the blade on that errant strand of hair which kept fluttering down into her eyes. The sharpened steel sliced easily through the strees, leaving a puff of severed hairs between her fingers. She loosed her hold and the wind swept those from her. Then she knew a touch of fear again. Better—in this country unknown to her—that she had safely buried that portion of herself. There were old tales—that powers beyond the reckoning of her own people could seize upon hair, nails, the spittle from one's mouth and use such for the making of ill magic.
Save that there were none here, she thought, to be feared. Evidences there were, this close to the Waste, of those who had once held this country—the Old Ones. They had left monoliths of stone, strange places which beckoned or warned the spirit.
But those were but the markers of long vanished power or powers. And those who had wrought with such were long since gone. The black bird, as if to deny that, cried again its harsh call.
"Ha, black one," the girl broke off her hum to glance at the bird. "Be not so bold. Would you take sword against Uta?" Sitting back on her heels, she pursed her lips to give a low but carrying whistle.
The bird squawked fiercely as if it well knew whom she so summoned. Then it arose to swoop down slope, skimming only a little above the ground.
From the tussocks of green grass (there were no more sheep on these hills to nibble it ground short) there arose a furred head. Lips drawn back, the cat spat, eyes slitted in annoyance as the bird sheered off and was gone with a last croak of threat.
With the vast dignity of her kind the cat trotted on up to Brixia. The girl raised a palm in greeting. They had been trail comrades and bed mates now for a long time and she was inwardly flattered that Uta had chosen to company her so during her aimless wanderings.
"Was the hunting good?" she asked the cat who had now seated herself an arm's distance away to give close attention to the tongue washing of a back leg. "Or did the rats move on when there were no more people in that ruin to bring in food for them to steal?" Talking with Uta gave her her only chance to use her voice during this wary solitary wandering.
Settling back, Brixia surveyed the buildings below. Judging by the remains this had once been a well cultivated dale. The fortified manor with its adjacent defense tower—though now roofless, bearing signs of fire on its crumbling walls—must once have been snug enough. She could count twenty fieldmen's cottages (mostly from the outlines of their walls alone for that was all which remained to be seen) plus a larger heap of tumbled stone which might have been an inn. A road made a ribbon along which those cottages had been strung. It had run, Brixia guessed, straight to the nearest river port. Any traders coming into these upper dales must have followed that way. In addition those strange and only partly tolerated people who roamed the Waste, prospecting in the places of the Old Ones, would have found this a convenient market place for their discoveries.
She did not know what name those who had lived here had given their settlement. Nor could she more than guess what had happened to turn it into the wasteland. The invaders who had ravaged all High Hallack during the war could not have reached soinland a place. But the war itself had spawned evil which was neither invader nor Dale, but born of both.
During that time when the Dalesman's levies had been called elsewhere, two-legged wolves—the outlaws of the Waste—pillaged and destroyed at will. Brixia did not doubt that when she went poking below she would find disturbing evidence of how this settlement had died. It had been looted—perhaps even the ruins combed more than once. She was not the only sulker in the wasteways. Still she could always hope that there remained something usable—if it were only a battered mug.
Brixia wiped her hands across her thighs, noting with a small frown that the stuff of her breeches was so thin over one knee that flesh showed palely through. Long since she had put aside skirted robe for the greater ease of a forest runner's wear. She kept her knife in her hand as she reached out for her other weapon, the stout hunting spear. Its point had been newly sharpened also, and she knew well how to use it.
Her pack she would leave here hidden in the brush. There was no need to linger long in the ruins, in fact perhaps she was wasting time to even explore. But Uta would have given her warning if anything larger than a rat or a meadow-leaper laired there, and she could always hope for a find. Her spear had come out of another just such blasted keep.
Though the dale, as far as she could see, seemed deserted, Brixia still moved with caution. There might be unpleasant surprises in any unknown territory. Her life for the past three years taught her the very slim edge which lay between life and death.
She closed her mind firmly on the past. It was weakening for the spirit to try and remember how it was once. To live for this day only was what kept one sane and alert. That she did live and had reached this place unharmed was, she thought, a matter for self congratulation. The fact that once she had known such a keep as home, worn soft wool, fancifully woven and dyed, over her now muscular and famine thinned body, no longer mattered. Even the clothes she now had were looted—
Those breeches, worn so thin, were of coarse and harsh material, her jerkin was of leaper skin, cured crudely, then laced together by her own hands, the shirt under she had found in the pack of a dead Dalesman, she having come upon the site of an outlaw ambush. The Dalesman had taken his enemies with him. She wore the shirt as she made herself believe as a gift of a brave man. Her feet were bare, though she had a pair of wooden-soled sandals in her pack, ready for the harder trails. Her soles were tough and thick, the nails on her toes rough and broken.
Her hair sprung from her scalp in an unruly, wiry mass, for she had no comb but her fingers. Once it had been the color of apple-ale at its most potent, sleek, shining, braided. Now, bleached by the sun, it looked more like autumn-killed grass. But she no longer possessed any pride in her person, only that she was strong and clever enough to survive.
Uta, Brixia thought fleetingly, as she slipped from one stand of brush and tree to the next (ever alert to any warning, ear, eye or nose might give), was far better named "lady" now. She was large for a house cat. But it might well be that she had never warmed herself before any man-set fire—being feral from birth. Only then her calm uniting with Brixia would be doubly strange.
Brixia had awakened from very uneasy slumber one night near a year gone, as far as she could reckon, though she kept no calendar, to discover Uta seated by her fire, the cat's eyes reflecting the light like large reddish coins in the air. Brixia had sheltered then in one of the moss-grown, roofless husks of some building the Old Ones had left. She had discovered that those drifters she must name enemy had little liking for such relics. But there had been no harm in this one—just walls fast returning into the earth.
She had been a little wary of Uta at that first meeting. But, save that the cat's unblinking stare made her feel that she was being in some way weighed and measured, there had been nothing remarkable about Uta. Her fur was a deep gray, darker on the head, paws and tail—with a blueish gleam when the sun touched it. And that fur was as thick and soft as some luxury cloth the traders had once brought from over-seas in the lost years before the invaders' war tore the dales from top to bottom, east to west, and broke life apart into shattered pieces perhaps none of the survivors might ever gather together again.
In that dark face Uta's eyes were strange color, sometimes blue, sometimes green, but always holding a red spark by night. And those were knowing eyes. Sometimes, when they were turned on Brixia, the girl had been uncomfortable—as at their first meeting—as if, behind the slitted pupils was an intelligence matching her own to study her in serene detachment.
Girl and cat, they now made their way to shrubs which formed an overgrown and untidy hedge-wall about the larger ruin Brixia had guessed to be an inn. Remains of two walls stood, fire marked and crumbling, no higher than the girl's shoulder. There was a cellar hole in the ground now near filled, and she had no mind to grub in that.
No—the best hunting ground was the lord's domain. Though that would have been the first to be looted, of course. Still if the fire had gotten out of control before the looters had finished, then—
Brixia's head went up. Her nostrils expanded to catch that scent. In the wilds she depended upon scent as did any of the animals, and, though she did not realize it, nor ever think about such things much, that sense was now far keener from constant use than it had been before war had made of her a rover.
Yes! Burning wood!
She dropped to hands and knees, crawled with a hunter's caution along the side of the inn, seeking a thinner place in that wall of brush which enclosed it. At length she lay flat, pushing forward the boar spear inch by inch, to lift back low-hanging branches and increase her field of vision.
Fire at this time of the year, when there had been no storm with lightning to set a spark, could only mark a camp of humans, Which in this country usually meant—outlaws. That some who had once lived here might have drifted back to see what could be salvaged—She considered that possibility and did not altogether dismiss it.
But even if the village Dalesmen had returned they could be her enemies now. They need only catch sight of her for her to be their quarry. To their eyes in her present ragged state she was no different than the outlaws who had despoiled them before. They might well take her for the scout of another such band.
Though Brixia searched the scene before her with close attention she saw no signs of any camp. The house was, she decided, too destroyed to provide shelter. However, the tower still stood, and, though its window slits were unshuttered to the wind and storms and must have been so for a long time, the rest presented an appearance of being less ill used.
Whoever sheltered here must be in the tower. She had no more than decided that when there was movement in the doorway and someone advanced into the open. Brixia tensed.
A boy—undersized—his fair head near as unkempt as her own. But his clothing was whole and looked in good condition. That was dark green breeches, boots, and his jerkin was of metal rings sewed on to leather, provided with sleeves to his wrists. He wore a sword belt and. in the scabbard, a blade with a plain hilt.
As she watched, he threw back his head, put his fingers to his lips and whistled. Uta stirred, and then, before Brixia could stop her, the cat flashed out of hiding and sped into the courtyard before the keep, her tail banner high. But it was not she alone who answered that summons. A horse trotted from around the tower and came to the boy, dropping its head to butt against his chest, while fingers scratched the root of its forelock caressingly.
Uta had come into full view of the boy and now she sat down, primly folding her tail end over her front paws; turning on him, Brixia was sure, that same measuring gaze which she used with the girl from time to time. She, herself, was unwontedly irritated at the desertion of the cat. For so long Uta had been her only companion—Brixia had come to think of her as she might a comrade of her own species. Yet now the cat had gone from under her very hand to visit with the stranger.
The girl's frown grew the sharper. There was nothing here for her—no chance to go searching for any useful loot. What remained, if anything did, would be discovered by this intruder. Best slip away as soon as she might and leave Uta to her fate. After all it looked as if the cat wished to change her allegiance.
The boy looked down at the cat. Now he loosed the horse and went to one knee, his hand outstretched.
"Pretty Lady—" he spoke with the accent of the upper dales, and his words were startling to the listening girl. It had been so long since she had heard any voice except her own.
She saw the boy's body stiffen as he glanced back over his shoulder at the tower door.
"Jartar—" That other voice was low and there was something in it—Brixia crooked her arm to rest her chin as she lay in hiding—even her breath slow and light.
Excerpted from Zarsthor's Bane by Andre Norton, Evan TenBroeck Steadman. Copyright © 1978 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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