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Miriel had been running for slightly more than an hour. In that time she had covered around nine miles from the cabin in the high pasture, down to the stream path, through the valley and the pine woods, up across the crest of Ax Ridge, and back along the old deer trail.
She was tiring, heartbeat rising, lungs battling to supply oxygen to her weary muscles. But still she pushed on, determined to reach the cabin before the sun climbed to its noon high.
The slope was slippery from the previous night's rain, and she stumbled twice, the leather knife scabbard at her waist digging into her bare thigh. A touch of anger spurred her on. Without the long hunting knife and the throwing blade strapped to her left wrist she could have made better time. But Father's word was law, and Miriel had not left the cabin until her weapons had been in place.
"There is no one here but us," she had argued, not for the first time.
"Expect the best, prepare for the worst," was all he had said.
And so she ran with the heavy scabbard slapping against her thigh and the hilt of the throwing blade chafing the skin of her forearm.
Coming to a bend in the trail, she leapt over the fallen log, landing lightly and cutting left toward the last rise, her long legs increasing their pace, her bare feet digging into the soft earth. Her slim calves were burning, her lungs hot. But she was exultant, for the sun was at least twenty minutes from its noon high and she was but three minutes from the cabin.
A shadow moved to her left, talons and teeth flashing toward her.
Instantly Miriel threw herself forward, hitting the ground on her right side and rolling to her feet. The lioness, confused at having missing her victim with the first leap, crouched down, ears flat to her skull, tawny eyes focusing on the tall young woman.
Miriel's mind was racing. Action and reaction. Take control!
Her hunting knife slid into her hand, and she shouted at the top of her voice. The lioness, shocked by the sound, backed away. Miriel's throat was dry, her heart hammering, but her hand was steady on the blade. She shouted once more and jumped toward the beast. Unnerved by the suddenness of the move, the creature slunk back several more paces. Miriel licked her lips. It should have run by now. Fear rose, but she swallowed it down.
Fear is like fire in your belly. Controlled, it warms you and keeps you alive.
Unleashed, it burns and destroys you.
Her hazel eyes remained locked to the tawny gaze of the lioness, and she noted the beast's ragged condition and the deep angry scar on its right foreleg. No longer fast, it could not catch the swift deer, and it was starving. It would not--could not--back away from the fight.
Miriel thought of everything Father had told her about lions: Ignore the head--the bone is too thick for an arrow to penetrate. Send your shaft in behind the front leg, up and into the lung. But he had said nothing about fighting such a beast when armed with only a knife.
The sun slid from behind an autumn cloud, and light shone from the knife blade. Instantly Miriel angled the blade, directing the gleam into the eyes of the lioness. The great head twisted, the eyes blinking against the harsh glare. Miriel shouted again.
But instead of fleeing, the lioness suddenly charged, leaping high toward the girl.
For an instant only Miriel froze. Then the knife swept up. A black crossbow bolt punched into the creature's neck just behind the ear, with a second slicing into its side. The weight of the lioness struck Miriel,
hurling her back, but the hunting knife plunged into the beast's belly.
Miriel lay very still, the lioness on top of her, its breath foul on her face. But the talons did not rake her, or the fangs close on her. With a coughing grunt the lioness died. Miriel closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and eased herself from beneath the body. Her legs felt weak, and she sat on the trail, her hands trembling.
A tall man, carrying a small double crossbow of black metal, emerged from the undergrowth and crouched down beside her. "You did well," he said, his voice deep.
She looked up into his dark eyes and forced a smile. "It would have killed me."
"Perhaps," he agreed. "But your blade reached its heart."
Exhaustion flowed over her like a warm blanket, and she lay back,
breathing slowly and deeply. Once she would have sensed the lioness long before any danger threatened, but that talent was lost to her now, as her mother and her sister were lost to her: Danyal killed in an accident five years earlier and Krylla wed and moved away the previous summer. Pushing such thoughts from her mind, she sat up. "You know," she whispered, "I was really tired when I came to the last rise. I was breathing hard, and my limbs felt as if they were made of lead. But when the lioness leapt, all my weariness vanished." She gazed up at her father.
He smiled and nodded. "I have experienced that many times. Strength can always be found in the heart of a fighter, and such a heart will rarely let you down."
She glanced at the dead lioness. "Never shoot for the head--that's what you told me," she said, tapping the first bolt jutting from the creature's neck.
He shrugged and grinned. "I missed."
"That's not very comforting. I thought you were perfect."
"I'm getting old. Are you cut?"
"I don't think so ..." Swiftly she checked her arms and legs, as wounds from a lion's claws or fangs often became poisonous. "No. I was very lucky."
"Yes, you were," he agreed. "But you made your luck by doing everything right. I'm proud of you."
"Why were you here?"
"You needed me," he answered. Rising smoothly to his feet, he reached out,
drawing her upright. "Now skin the beast and quarter it. There's nothing quite like lion meat."
"I don't think I want to eat it," she said. "I think I'd like to forget about it."
"Never forget," he admonished her. "This was a victory, and you are stronger for it. I'll see you later." Retrieving his bolts, the tall man cleaned them of blood, returned them to the leather quiver at his side.
"You're going to the waterfall?" she asked him softly.
"For a little while," he answered, his voice distant. He turned back to her. "You think I spend too much time there?"
"No," she told him sadly. "It's not the time you sit there nor the effort you put into tending the grave. It's you. She's been ... gone ... now for five years. You should start living again. You need ... more than this."
He nodded, but she knew she had not reached him. He smiled and laid his hand on her shoulder. "One day you'll find a love, and then we can talk on equal terms. I do not mean that to sound patronizing. You are bright and intelligent. You have courage and wit. But sometimes it is like trying to describe colors to a blind man. Love, as I hope you will find, has great power. Even death cannot destroy it. And I still love her." Leaning forward, he drew her toward him, kissing her brow. "Now skin that beast.
And I'll see you at dusk."
She watched him walk away, a tall man moving with grace and care, his black and silver hair drawn back into a tightly tied ponytail, his crossbow hanging from his belt.
And then he was gone, vanished into the shadows.
The waterfall was narrow, no more than six feet wide, flowing over white boulders in a glittering cascade to a leaf-shaped bowl thirty feet across and forty-five feet long. At its most southern point a second fall occurred, the stream surging on to join the river two miles to the south.
Golden leaves swirled on the surface of the water, and with each breath of breeze more spiraled down from the trees.
Around the pool grew many flowers, most of them planted by the man who now knelt by the graveside. He glanced up at the sky. The sun was losing its power, the cold winds of autumn flowing over the mountains. Waylander sighed. A time of dying. He gazed at the golden leaves floating on the water and remembered sitting there with Danyal and the children on another autumn day ten lifetimes earlier.
Krylla had been sitting with her tiny feet in the water, with Miriel swimming among the leaves. "They are like souls of the departed," Danyal had told Krylla. "Floating on the sea of life toward a place of rest."
He sighed again and returned his attention to the flower-garlanded mound beneath which lay all he had lived for.
"Miriel fought a lion today," he said. "She stood and did not panic. You would have been proud of her." Laying his ebony-handled crossbow to one side, he idly dead-headed the geraniums growing by the headstone, removing the faded, dry red blooms. The season was late, and it was unlikely they would flower again. Soon he would need to pull them, shaking dry the roots and hanging them in the cabin, ready for planting in the spring.
"But she is still too slow," he added. "She does not act with instinct but with remembered learning. Not like Krylla." He chuckled. "You remember how the village boys used to gather around her? She knew how to handle them,
the tilt of the head, the sultry smile. She took that from you."
Reaching out, he touched the cold rectangular marble headstone, his index finger tracing the carved lines.
Danyal, wife of Dakeyras,
the pebble in the moonlight
The grave was shaded by elms and beech, and there were roses growing close by, huge yellow blooms filling the air with sweet fragrance. He had bought them in Kasyra, seven bushes. Three had died on the journey back, but the remainder had flourished in the rich clay soil.
"I'm going to have to take her to the city soon," he said. "She's eighteen now, and she needs to learn. I'll find a husband for her." He sighed. "It means leaving you for a while. I'm not looking forward to that."
The silence grew, with even the wind in the leaves dying down. His dark eyes were distant, his memories solemn. Smoothly he rose and, taking up the clay bowl beside the headstone, moved to the pool, filled the bowl,
and began to water the roses. The previous day's rain had been little more than a shower, and the roses liked to drink deep.
Kreeg crouched low in the bushes, his crossbow loaded. How easy, he thought, unable to suppress a smile.
Find Waylander and kill him. He had to admit that the prospect of such a hunt had frightened him. After all, Waylander the Slayer was no mean opponent. When his family had been slain by raiders, he had roamed the land until he had hunted down every one of the killers. Waylander was a legend in the Guild, a capable swordsman but a brilliant knife fighter and a crossbowman without peer. More than that, he was said to possess mystical abilities, always sensing when danger was near.
Kreeg sighted the crossbow at the tall man's back. Mystical abilities?
Pah. In one heartbeat he would be dead.
The man at the graveside picked up a clay bowl and moved toward the pool.
Kreeg shifted his aim, but his intended victim crouched down, filling the bowl. Kreeg lowered his bow a fraction, slowly letting out his held breath. Waylander was side-on now, and a sure killing shot would have to be to the head. What was he doing with the water? Kreeg watched the tall man kneel by the roses, tipping the bowl and splashing the contents around the roots. He'll go back to the grave, thought Kreeg. And once there, I'll take him.
So much in life depended on luck. When the kill order had come to the
Guild, Kreeg had been out of money and living off a whore in Kasyra, the gold he had earned from killing the Ventrian merchant long since vanished in the gambling dens of the city's south side. Now Kreeg blessed the bad luck that had dogged him in Kasyra. For all life, he knew, was a circle.
And it was in Kasyra that he had heard of the hermit in the mountains, the tall widower with the shy daughter. He thought of the message from the
Seek out a man named Dakeyras. He has a wife, Danyal, and a daughter,
Miriel. The man has black and silver hair and dark eyes and is tall, close to fifty years of age. He will be carrying a small double crossbow of ebony and bronze. Kill him and bring the crossbow to Drenan as proof of success. Move with care. The man is Waylander. Ten thousand in gold is waiting.
In Kasyra Kreeg had despaired of earning such a fabulous sum.
Then--blessed be the gods--he had told the whore about the hunt.
"There's a man with a daughter called Miriel who lives in the mountains to the north," she had said. "I've not seen him, but I met his daughters years ago at the Priests' School. We learned our letters there."
"Do you remember the mother's name?"
"I think it was something like Daneel ... Donalia ..."
"Danyal?" he had whispered, sitting up in bed, the sheet falling from his lean, scarred body.
"That's it," she had said.
Kreeg's mouth had gone dry, his heart palpitating. Ten thousand! But
Waylander? What chance would Kreeg have against such an enemy?
For almost a week he toured Kasyra, asking about the mountain man. Fat
Sheras the miller saw him about twice a year and remembered the small crossbow.
"He's very quiet," said Sheras, "but I wouldn't like to see his bad side,
if you take my meaning. Hard man. Cold eyes. He used to be almost friendly, but then his wife died--five ... six years ago. Horse fell,
rolled on her. There were two daughters, twins. Good-looking girls. One married a boy from the south and moved away. The other is still with him.
Shy child. Too thin for my taste."
Goldin the tavern keeper, a thin-faced refugee from the Gothir lands, also remembered him. "When the wife was killed, he came here for a while and drank his sorrows away. He didn't say much. One night he just collapsed,
and I left him lying outside the door. His daughters came and helped him home. They were around twelve then. The city elders were talking of removing them from his care. In the end he paid for places at the Priests'
School, and they lived there for almost three years."
Kreeg was uplifted by Goldin's tale. If the great Way-lander had taken to drinking heavily, then he was no longer to be feared. But his hopes evaporated as the tavern keeper continued.
"He's never been popular. Keeps to himself too much," said Goldin. "But he killed a rogue bear last year, and that pleased people. The bear slaughtered a young farmer and his family. Dakeyras hunted it down.
Amazing! He used a small crossbow. Taric saw it. The bear charged him, and he just stood there, then, right at the last moment, as the bear reared up before him, he put two bolts up through its open mouth and into the brain.
Taric says he's never seen the like. Cold as ice."
Kreeg found Taric, a slim blond hostler, working at the earl's stables.
"We tracked the beast for three days," he said, sitting back on a bale of hay and drinking deeply from the leather-bound flask of brandy Kreeg offered him. "Never saw him break a sweat--and he's not a young man. And when the bear reared up, he just leveled the bow and loosed. Incredible!
There's no fear in the man."
"Why were you with him?"
Taric smiled. "I was trying to pay court to Miriel, but I got nowhere.
Shy, you know. I gave up in the end. And he's a strange one. Not sure I'd want him for a father-in-law. Spends most of his time by his wife's grave."
Kreeg's spirits soared anew. That was what he had been hoping for. Hunting a man through a forest was chancy at best. Knowing his victim's habits made the task slightly less hazardous, but to find out that there was one place the victim always visited ... that was a gift from the gods. And a graveside, at that. Waylander's mind would be occupied, full of sorrow,
perhaps, and fond memories.
So it had proved. Kreeg, following Taric's directions, had located the waterfall soon after dawn that morning and had found a hiding place that overlooked the headstone. Now all that was left was the killing shot.
Kreeg's gaze flickered to the ebony crossbow still lying on the grass beside the grave.
Ten thousand in gold! He licked his thin lips and carefully wiped his sweating palm on the leaf-green tunic he wore.
The tall man walked back to the pool, collecting more water, then crossed to the farthest rosebushes, crouching once more by the roots. Kreeg switched his gaze to the headstone. Forty feet away. At that distance the barbed bolt would punch through Waylander's back, ripping through the lungs and exiting through the chest. Even if he missed the heart, his victim would die within minutes, choking on his own blood.
Kreeg was anxious for the kill to be over, and his eyes sought out the tall man.
He was not in sight.
Kreeg blinked. The clearing was empty.
"You missed your chance," came a cold voice.
Kreeg swung, trying to bring the crossbow to bear. He had one glimpse of his victim, arm raised, something shining in his hand. The arm swept down.
It was as if a bolt of pure sunlight had exploded within Kreeg's skull.
There was no pain, no other sensation. He felt the crossbow slipping from his hands and the world spinning.
His last thought was about luck.
It had not changed at all.
Waylander knelt by the body and lifted the ornate crossbow the man had held. The shoulder stock of ebony had been expertly crafted and embossed with swirling gold. The bow itself was of steel, most likely Ventrian, for its finish was silky smooth and there was not a blemish to be seen.
Putting aside the weapon, he returned his scrutiny to the corpse. The man was lean and tough, his face hard, the chin square, the mouth thin.
Waylander was sure he had never seen him before. Leaning forward, he dragged his knife clear of the man's eye socket, wiping the blade across the grass. Drying the knife against the dead man's tunic, he slipped it once more into the black leather sheath strapped to his left forearm.
A swift search of the man's clothing revealed nothing save four copper coins and a hidden knife hanging from a thong at his throat. Taking hold of the leaf-green tunic, Waylander hauled the corpse upright, hoisting the body over his right shoulder. Foxes and wolves would fight over the remains, and he wanted no such squabbles near Danyal's grave.
Slowly he made his way to the second waterfall, hurling the body out over the rim and watching it plummet to the rushing stream below. At first the impact wedged the corpse against two boulders, but slowly the pull of the water exerted itself and Kreeg's lifeless form floated away facedown toward the distant river. Retrieving his own crossbow and taking up the assassin's weapon, Waylander made his way back to the cabin.
Smoke was lazily drifting up from the stone chimney, and he paused at the edge of the trees, staring without pleasure at the home he had crafted for
Danyal and himself. Built against the base of a rearing cliff, protected from above by an overhang of rock, the log cabin was sixty feet long, with three large shuttered windows and one door. The ground before it had been cleared of all trees, bushes, and boulders, and no one could approach within a hundred feet without being seen.
The cabin was a fortress, yet there was beauty also. Danyal had covered the corner joints with mottled stones of red and blue and had planted flowers beneath the windows, roses that climbed and clung to the wooden walls, pink and gold against the harsh ridged bark.
Waylander scanned the open ground, searching the tree line for any second assassin who might be hidden, but he could see no one. Carefully keeping to cover, he circled the cabin, checking for tracks and finding none save those made by his own moccasins and Miriel's bare feet. Satisfied at last,
he crossed to the cabin and stepped inside. Miriel had prepared a meal of hot oats and wild strawberries, the last of the season. She smiled as he entered, but the smile faded as she saw the crossbow he carried.
"Where did you find that?" she asked.
"There was a man hidden near the graveside."
"I don't believe so. This bow would cost perhaps a hundred gold pieces. It is a beautifully crafted weapon. I think he was an assassin."
"Why would he be hunting you?"
Waylander shrugged. "There was a time when I had a price on my head.
Perhaps I still have. Or maybe I killed his brother or his father. Who knows? One thing is certain; he can't tell me."
She sat down at the long oak table, watching him. "You are angry," he said at last.
"Yes. He shouldn't have gotten that close. I should have been dead."
"He was hidden in the undergrowth some forty paces from the graveside,
waiting for the killing shot. When I moved to get water for the roses, I
saw a bird fly down to land in the tree above him, but it veered off at the last moment."
"It could have been a fox or any sudden movement," she pointed out. "Birds are skittish."
"Yes, it could have been," he agreed. "But it wasn't. And if he'd had enough confidence to try for a head shot, I would now by lying beside
"Then we've both been lucky today," she said.
He nodded but did not answer, his mind still puzzling over the incident.
For ten years they had lived without his past returning to haunt him. In these mountains he was merely the widower Dakeyras. Who, after all this time, would send an assassin after him?
And how many more would come?
The sun was hanging over the western peaks, a blazing cooper disk of fire casting a last defiant glare over the mountainside. Miriel squinted against the light.
"It's too bright," she complained.
But his hand swept up, the wooden chopping board sailing into the sky.
Smoothly she brought the crossbow to her shoulder, her fingers pressing the bronze trigger. The bolt leapt from the weapon, missing the arcing wood by little more than a foot.
"I said it was too bright," she repeated.
"Picture failure and it will happen," he told her sternly, recovering the wooden board.
"Let me throw it for you, then."
"I do not need the practice--you do!"
"You couldn't hit it, could you? Admit it?"
He gazed into her sparkling eyes and noted the sunlight glinting red on her hair and the bronzed skin of her shoulders. "You ought to be married,"
he said suddenly. "You are far too beautiful to be stuck on a mountainside with an old man."
"Don't try to evade the issue," she scolded, snatching the board from him and walking back ten paces. He chuckled and shook his head, accepting defeat. Carefully he eased back the steel string of the lower bow arm. The spring-loaded hook clicked, and he inserted a short black bolt, gently pressing the notch against the string. Repeating the maneuver with the upper bow arm, he adjusted the tension in the curved bronze triggers. The weapon had cost him a small fortune in opals many years before, but it had been crafted by a master and Waylander had never regretted the purchase.
He looked up and was about to ask Miriel to throw when she suddenly hurled the board high. The sunlight seared his eyes, but he waited until the spinning board reached its highest point. Extending his arm, he pressed the first bronze trigger. The bolt flashed through the air, hammering into the board, half splitting it. As it fell, he released the second bolt. The board exploded into shards.
"Horrible man!" she said.
He made a low bow. "You should feel privileged," he told her, holding back his smile. "I don't usually perform without payment."
"Throw again," she ordered him, restringing the crossbow.
"The wood is broken," he pointed out.
"Throw the largest piece."
Retrieving his bolts, he hefted the largest chunk of wood. It was no more than four inches across and less than a foot long. "Are you ready?"
With a flick of his wrist he spun the chunk high into the air. The crossbow came up, and the bolt sang, plunging into the wood. Waylander applauded the shot. Miriel gave an elaborate bow.
"Women are supposed to curtsey," he said.
"And they are supposed to wear dresses and learn embroidery," she retorted.
"True," he conceded. "How do you like the assassin's bow?"
"It has good balance, and it is very light."
"Ventrian ebony, and the stock is hollowed. Are you ready for some swordplay?"
She laughed. "Is your pride ready for another pounding?"
"No," he admitted. "I think we'll have an early night." She looked disappointed as they gathered their weapons and set off back to the cabin.
"I think you need a better swordmaster than I," he told her as they walked. "It is your best weapon, and you are truly skilled. I'll think on it."
"I thought you were the best," she chided.
"Fathers always seem that way," he said dryly. "But no. With bow or knife
I am superb. With the sword? Only excellent."
"And so modest. Is there anything at which you do not excel?"
"Yes," he answered, his smile fading.
Increasing his pace, he walked on, his mind lost in painful memories. His first family had been butchered by raiders, his wife, his baby girls, and his son. The picture was bright in his mind. He had found the boy lying dead in the flower garden, his little face surrounded by blooms.
And five years before, having found love a second time, he had watched helplessly as Danyal's horse had struck a hidden tree root. The stallion had hit the ground hard, rolling, trapping Danyal beneath it and crushing her chest. She had died within minutes, her body racked with pain.
"Is there anything at which you do not excel?"
I cannot keep alive those I love.