LIONESS FROM TORTALL
ON A MARCH AFTERNOON A KNIGHT AND A MAN-at-arms reached the gate of the Marenite city of Berat. The guards hid their smiles as they looked the noble over—in size the beardless youth could as well have been a squire, with only a shield to reveal his higher rank. They wondered aloud if the youngster could hold his lance, let alone unseat an opponent with it. Hearing them, the knight favored them with a broad grin. The guards, liking his reaction, fell silent. The man-at-arms gave a tug on their packhorse’s lead rein, and the small party moved through the gates into the city.
Most nobles dressed richly, but this knight wore well-traveled leather, covered with a white burnoose like those worn by the Bazhir of the Tortallan desert. With the burnoose’s hood pushed back, everyone could see that the knight’s hair was copper, cut so it brushed his shoulders. His eyes were an odd purple shade that drew stares; his face determined. Before him, in a cup fixed to his mare’s saddle, rode a black cat.
The man-at-arms was dressed like the knight. There were no grins for him—he was a burly, dark-haired commoner with no-nonsense eyes. It was he who asked directions to the inn called the Wandering Bard while the knight looked with interest at the streets around them. They set off in the direction of the inn, picking their way through the crowds with ease.
The cat swiveled his head, looking up at the knight. They think you’re a boy. To most, his utterances sounded like those of any cat; to the few he chose, he spoke as plainly as a human.
“Good,” the knight replied. “That’s less fuss over me.”
Is that why you left your shield covered?
“Be sensible, Faithful,” was the tart reply. “The shield’s covered because I don’t want it to get all over dust. It takes forever to clean it. This far south, who’d’ve heard of me?”
The man-at-arms, who’d drawn level with them, grinned. “Ye’d be surprised. News has a way of travelin’.”
The common room of the Wandering Bard was deserted except for the innkeeper, Windfeld, who was resting after the noon rush. He’d just begun his own meal when a stable boy charged in.
“Y’want t’hurry, master,” the boy puffed, excited. “They’s a knight in th’yards—a Tortall knight!”
“What of that?” Windfeld replied. “We’ve had knights at the Bard afore.”
“Not a knight like this’un,” the boy announced. “This’un be a girl!”
“Don’t joke with me, lad,” Windfeld began. Then he remembered. “That’s right. Sir Myles wrote me of the lass he adopted a year past. Said she went as a lad for years, as page and squire, till she was knighted. That was when our stables almost burned, and I didn’t pay his letter the attention I ought. What’s her shield?”
“Shield’s a-covered,” was the reply. “But her man wears a pin like one. It’s red, with a gold cat a-rearin’ on it.”
“That’s her—Alanna of Trebond and Olau, Sir Myles’s heir.” Windfeld got up, removing his apron to throw it on the table. “And with the Shang Dragon here already! It’s bound to be a good week. The stable-yard, you said?”
Alanna of Trebond and Olau, sometimes called “the Lioness” for the cat on her shield, was surprised to be greeted by the innkeeper. The host of such a prosperous house did not meet his guests unless they were wealthy or famous. Since she had lived in Tortall’s Great Southern Desert for over a year, Alanna did not realize she had become famous.
Afoot, her cat cradled in her arms, she was short and stocky—sturdy rather than muscular. She did not look as if she could have disguised her sex for years to undergo a knight’s harsh training. And she certainly did not look as if she would excel at her training to the point where some—men who were qualified to judge such matters—would call her “the finest squire in Tortall.”
She also did not look like the adopted heir of one of her realm’s wealthiest noblemen. “I don’t know if Sir Myles told you,” Windfeld explained, “but I’m honored to serve his interests here in Berat. I bid you and your man welcome to the Wanderin’ Bard.” He nodded to the man-at-arms, who supervised the stabling of the horses. “Whatever you wish, just let my folk know. Would the two of you like a cool drink, to lay the dust?”
“I’ll see to the packs and the rooms,” the man told them. “I know,” he said quickly as his knight-mistress opened her mouth. “Ye’re wantin’ a bath; hot water, soap, and soon.” He grinned at Windfeld. “She’s that finicky, for a lass who’s livin’ on the road.”
Alanna shrugged. “What can I say? I like to be clean. Thanks, Coram.”
“He’s been with you long?” Windfeld asked, as he showed her into the common room, indicated a seat, and sat down facing her.
“Forever,” Alanna replied. “Coram changed my diapers, and he never lets me forget it. He helped raise my twin brother and me.” To a maid who’d come to ask what she’d like, Alanna said, “Fruit juice would be wonderful, if you have it.”
The innkeeper smiled as the servant girl left. “The Wanderin’ Bard has whatever may hit your fancy, Lady Alanna. How is your honored father, if you don’t mind my askin’?”
The maid returned with a pitcher and a tankard on a tray, presenting them to Alanna. Taking a swallow from her tankard, the knight sat back with a sigh. “He was fine when last I heard from him two months ago. Coram and I’ve been on the road for weeks. I’ve never been out of Tortall before, so we took our time. Maren doesn’t seem much different.”
Windfeld grinned. “Nor should it, Tortall and Tusaine and Maren bein’ cut from the same cloth. Things change, east of here.”
Alanna saw a shadow cross her host’s face. “Trouble?”
“Just the sickness that comes on a land now and then,” was the reply. “There’s a war in Sarain the last eighteen months or so. Only a Saren could tell you what started it, or what’ll finish it. But there,” Windfeld added, seeing a chambermaid at the door. “Your rooms be ready, along with your bath.”
The knight picked up her cat, who was playing with Windfeld’s apron. “Come on, Faithful,” she groaned, settling him over her shoulder. “Let’s get clean.”
A chill went through the innkeeper as he watched them go. Only now had he seen that the cat’s eyes were not a proper shade of amber, green, or gray; they were as purple as Alanna’s. Instinctively he made the Sign against Evil.
The bath was everything a worn and dirty knight could wish: large enough to fit all of her and filled with hot water. She splashed contentedly, rinsing a week’s grit from her hair.
Tongue and paws are all I need, Faithful commented.
“Is that why you smell after a night in the woods?” demanded Alanna.
Faithful ignored her, curling up on the bed. Alanna made a face at him and reached for the copper pitcher filled with rinse water. Sunlight hit its side, dazzling her. Her blinded vision held an image: A gem, blue-violet, the size of a silver noble piece, set into a disc of gold, its facets absorbing light, not reflecting it. Beyond it was snow, a blizzard’s worth.
The picture faded when she blinked. She knew there was no sense in worrying about it. Sooner or later she would find out what it meant—she’d had the vision before. In the meantime, her bath was getting cold.
Coram knocked as she combed her hair. “I’ve eaten,” he called through the door. “I’ll find out where your scholar lives, then have a bit of enjoyment. Do us both a favor and stay out of trouble.”
“I can take care of myself,” she reminded him.
“That’s what worries me.”
“Have fun,” Alanna called as his footsteps retreated, thinking, Why is he worried? She rarely sought trouble. Tonight she planned to avoid it entirely.
Downstairs, Faithful abandoned her for the kitchen. Alanna found a corner where she would have a good view of the rest of the common room. While the Wandering Bard seemed respectable, she’d been traveling long enough to know she could never be too prepared. Adjusting her sword—so she’d have room to draw it if necessary—she settled back to enjoy the meal.
Windfeld came over after she finished. “If there’s anything you want, anything at all, you’ve only to ask,” he assured her, taking a chair at her invitation. “No service is too great for Myles of Olau’s heir, not in a house of mine. He pays us well as his agents—a generous man, your father.”
Alanna smiled. “He’s generous with everything.” Remembering what Windfeld had said earlier, she asked, “What’s going on in Sarain?”
The innkeeper looked away. “She rips herself apart. The K’miri tribes hunt lowlanders through the mountains, sometimes on the Southern Plain itself. The mountain-born come west in flocks, runnin’ from the fightin’. The lowlanders are so busy slayin’ the K’mir that they let all else go, even the harvest. Only when their belts could be tightened no more did the Warlord bring in paid soldiers and send the lowlanders back to their farms. The refugees talk of little but hunger and killin’. My wife’s Saren—it breaks her heart, and no end in sight.” He forced a smile and added, “Enough of such doom-talk. What brings you here, my lady—if I can be so bold as to ask?”
“We’re looking for a scholar,” Alanna explained. “Nahom Jendrai.”
“Another friend of your father’s. He’s well thought of, is Master Jendrai.”
“I need him to translate something.” Alanna reached inside her tunic to draw out a leather envelope. Carefully she opened it and unfolded its contents: a map of the Eastern Lands and the Inland Sea, charred at the left and top edges. Only natural landmarks—rivers and mountain ranges—were shown. A tiny star marked a spot in the Roof of the World, the great mountain range that cuts off the Eastern Lands from the rest of the world. Silvery runes—the writing that brought her to Maren for a translation—formed a column on the right side. “This looks like the Old Ones’ writing,” she explained. “Myles says the best translator is Nahom Jendrai of Berat.”
Windfeld touched the charred edges. “How did this happen, my lady? Do you know?”
Alanna ran her fingers over the map. “You know Coram and I’ve been living with the Bazhir?” Windfeld nodded. “Our headman, Halef Seif, was worried about a friend of his, a shaman living near Lake Tirragen. Coram and I went to see her.” She drew a breath. “Her village was having a bad winter, what with famine and cold. A wandering priest had convinced the people that if they ‘purified’ themselves—if they killed their sorceress—his god would put food in their storehouses.”
“I’ve seen things like it. Folk aren’t sensible when they’re hungry.”
“Coram and I got there as they started to burn her. We stopped it and got her away, but ... She was hurt too badly for me to fix it.” In answer to his questioning look, she explained, “I know some healing magic. Anyway, she died. The map was all she had. She asked us to take it back to Halef Seif.”
“And he sent it to Master Jendrai for readin’?” Windfeld asked.
Alanna shook her head. “He didn’t want it. He gave it to me—said it was for me, not him.” She smiled wryly. “Halef Seif can be determined when he likes. He says he’s happy with the Bloody Hawk—that’s our tribe. Some of it didn’t make sense, what he said, about destiny and quests. So here I am.”
Windfeld rose in answer to a yell for service. “You’ve come a long way for curiosity, my lady.”
Alanna grinned at him. “I didn’t have anything more important to do.”
There was another yell; with a voice that shook the rafters, Windfeld bellowed, “Just hold on, Joss, you’ll be served afore you go home!” He bowed to Alanna and went to help the barkeep.
A maid placed a glass of wine in front of Alanna. “He sent it t’you, my lady,” the girl explained, pointing to a man by the hearth. “He said I was t’tell you redheads must sit together for safety’s sake, and he wonders if you might join him when this glass is done.” Leaning down, she whispered, “Not meanin’ any disrespect, but if you don’t want ’im, I do!”
Alanna looked at the man; he was toasting her. His eyes were blue-green in a tan, pockmarked face. His hair was as copper as hers, clipped short. His nose had met several hard objects. A mustache framed his sensual mouth; his jaw was heavy. He was in excellent fighting condition: broad shoulders, powerful chest, hard waist, heavily muscled limbs. He dressed as she did, in shirt and breeches. She also saw he carried no weapons, not even a dagger. To a knight this was important: the only men who went weaponless were sorcerers, priests, fools—or those who didn’t need them. In a violent world, few did not need to carry some kind of weapon.
He shouldn’t be attractive, not with a broken nose and his face all scarred. From what, I wonder? Bad skin as a boy, perhaps. But he is attractive! she thought nervously. Why is he interested in me? I’m not as pretty as some of the other women here.
She raised her glass and drank, her eyes not leaving his.
From her arrival at court until she’d won her shield, few had known she was a female. Although Prince Jonathan had been her lover, he was also her friend and her knight-master; they hadn’t needed the courting rituals Jon used with noble ladies. George Cooper, who also loved her, had flirted with Alanna sometimes; when he did it to the point of flustering her, she’d simply ordered him to stop. Of the other men she knew, most couldn’t forget her knighthood enough to indicate a romantic interest in her. Since the revelation of her real identity and sex, the young knight had lived among the Bazhir. To them she was the Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and sexless.
So, although she wanted to join this man, or to indicate she was interested, Alanna didn’t know how. How did a lady flirt with a total stranger? Noblewomen showed interest with fluttered fan or dropped handkerchief. Bazhir women used their eyes over their veils. She had no fan or veil. Her handkerchief wouldn’t be noticed if she dropped it here. And she didn’t have the courage to walk over to his table and sit down.
She didn’t know pleading filled her eyes. He grinned—a slow, white-toothed smile that made her insides turn over—and came to her.
“Liam,” he introduced himself, holding out a massive hand. “And you’re Alanna the Lioness, from Tortall.” She returned his firm grip; Liam’s palm was warm and callused, like her own. “May I join you?” he asked, his eyes dancing. Alanna nodded, and Liam sat. “In Berat long?” he wanted to know, as the maid brought more wine and fruit.
Alanna shook her head. “Not for longer than I can help.” She filled his glass. “I’d forgotten how noisy cities are. I’ve been with the Bazhir.”
“So I heard. It took some asking to find out what happened after you killed the Conté Duke.” He spoke with a peasant’s broad vowels and nearly skipped r’s.
She frowned. “You make it a habit to follow my doings?” She wasn’t sure she liked the idea.
He nodded. “People like you change the world; a smart man keeps track of such folk. It was a great thing, killing your king’s nephew and proving him a traitor. Duke Roger was a powerful man.”
Alanna looked away, feeling cold. “He deserved to die. He tried to murder the queen.”
“It bothers you still?”
Looking at him, Alanna saw understanding. He knows, she thought. He knows about things like betrayal, and being afraid, and the looks on people’s faces when they know you did something they thought impossible. “Sometimes. Everyone admired him. It all happened at once: me finding what he planned; him revealing that I’m a girl in front of the court. I wanted to have time for people to get used to who I really am!
“Then I killed him. I don’t even like killing. So I wonder, sometimes.”
“Don’t fret.” He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “He was rotten clean through—take my word for it.”
“You knew him?”
He nodded, his eyes a distant green. “We met—a long time ago.”
“How? Why did you hate him? I mean, it seems as if you hated him. Everyone I knew liked him, nearly everyone.” She sat up eagerly. “It isn’t fair. You know everything about me.”
He chuckled, his eyes warming. “I’ll tell you someday, kitten—if you’re very good.” He smoothed his mustache.
She blushed. A cautious thought warned, You’ll be in trouble if you don’t watch out! You don’t know anything about him, and he’s got you half into his arms! She drew back. “You’re flirting with me,” she told him sternly.
“Fun, isn’t it?” he grinned.
“Who are you? What do you do?” Alanna wanted to know. “Fair’s fair!”
She stopped, hearing a commotion at the door. A familiar voice caroled, “Such sights the Princes never did see/And they honor the Beggar to this very day!” She winced.
“That’s my friend Coram,” she told Liam, rising. “If I don’t stop him, he’ll sing the verse with the merchants and the fishwives, and we’ll all be in for it.”
Liam’s grin flashed. “I know the song.” He kissed her hand. “You’ll see me again—my word on it.”
With persuasion and bullying she got her boisterous man-at-arms to his chamber, where he collapsed on the bed. “Jendrai is back from his country house today,” he yawned. “He’ll see us tomorrow evenin’.” Within seconds he was snoring.
Alanna let herself out of his room, planning to go to bed rather than look for the unsettling Liam again. She had unlocked her door when the innkeeper came up the stairs, rubbing his hands delightedly. Seeing her, he asked, “Be there anything else you need?”
“I’m fine,” she reassured him. Nodding toward the noisy common room downstairs, she added, “It sounds like you have more than enough to do.”
Windfeld beamed. “It’s a good house tonight—a very good house. No surprise, with you and the Shang Dragon here.”
“The Shang Dragon?” She’d never had a chance to talk with one of the fabled Shang warriors. She’d always wanted to; now the gods had put her in the same inn with the best of them. “He’s here? Will you introduce me?”
Windfeld looked at her strangely. “I didn’t think you needed introducin’, not with you and him talkin’ like you were.”
“Liam Ironarm, the Dragon of Shang. He didn’t tell you?” Alanna shook her head. “And you didn’t know? He knows of you—he told me so this mornin’.”
“I don’t know anyone in the Order of Shang,” she informed him. “They don’t associate much with nobles or with the Bazhir.”
“Well, you seem to be on good enough terms with the Dragon,” the man said slyly. Alanna blushed a beet red and went into her room with a hasty “Good night.”
To give Windfeld and the Wandering Bard credit, it was not her bed or her room that kept her awake. The bed was comfortable; the walls were thick enough to muffle the common room’s noise. At first it seemed as if little things kept her awake. First it was her cat, scratching on the door for admittance. Then it was the light of the full moon falling across her eyes, until she got up and drew the curtain across her window. Then she found the room stuffy. With a sigh she rose again to open the window only a crack, because the weather was still raw.
She couldn’t clear her mind of thought. Partly it was the excitement of having a chance at last to talk with a Shang warrior. What she knew of the legendary order of warriors she’d learned piecemeal. Warriors named after mythical beasts—unicorn, griffin, phoenix—were the best of their order: The Dragon was the best of the best. Each Shang warrior received an animal’s name after passing an ordeal and then living in the world a year. She knew that Shang accepted boy and girl children, no older than seven years of age and as young as four, to study their hard way of life. They were required to master many kinds of weapons and, more interestingly, a number of barehand techniques of fighting.
So Liam was the Shang Dragon. That explained why he was bold enough—or uncaring enough—to go weaponless. He had little to fear from human predators. He has dragon’s eyes, she thought, remembering how they changed color. Pale green when he doesn’t want to share anything with you, and—she grinned—blue-green when he’s flirting.
She finally gave up on sleep and dressed, thinking maybe a ride would settle her. Within moments she, Faithful, and her gold-colored horse Moonlight were galloping out of Berat. They rode on and on while Alanna remained deep in her thoughts, not noticing how much ground they covered. She paid little attention to the road or the fog that closed in. She was too preoccupied.
All her life she’d planned to be a knight-errant, roving the world to do great deeds. But now she was learning that such a life included periods of boredom, riding through countryside that seldom changed. Not every village had a cruel overlord; few crossroads were held by evil knights.
At home, if the king wished it, he could put her on border patrols like the other knights she knew, hunting bandits and raiders. But she didn’t think the king would give her such work. Roald was most displeased that she had lied about who she truly was. A quiet man who preferred harmony at his court, the king said little, but he left Alanna no doubt that he disapproved of her.
In any case, she knew Tortall. She wanted to go places she didn’t know. She wanted to see places left off most Tortallan maps—the lands south of Carthak; the Roof of the World and what lay beyond it. Surely there would be things for her to do once she’d left the more civilized areas behind.
Moonlight stopped, tossing her head nervously, and Alanna had to take notice. By then the fog was so thick she couldn’t see the road beneath the mare’s feet. The knight dismounted, taking the reins to lead her mare, but they had plodded only a few yards when Moonlight halted, ears flat with alarm. No amount of urging would make her go forward, which worried her mistress. Moonlight was careful, but not timid. If she thought something was wrong, Alanna paid attention. She looked at Faithful. The cat sat calmly in his saddle-cup, ears pricked forward. Fog held them; it muffled even the clink of the harness.
Now Alanna felt something odd. She sneezed. The emberlike stone she wore at her throat burst into fiery light, growing warm against her skin. In front of them the fog wove and braided itself to form a tall woman. She was green-eyed and black-haired, shining in her own magic light. The fog was her dress, glittering with drops of water.
Alanna had only seen her once before, when the woman had given her the ember-stone. Now she released the reins and dropped to her knees, bowing her head. “Goddess,” she whispered.
“Where do you ride, my Daughter?” The immortal’s voice was beautiful and terrible, carrying echoes of the wind and of hounds in a pack. “Is it not late for a ride for pleasure?”
“I couldn’t sleep, my Mother.”
A cool hand cupped Alanna’s chin, making her look up. She met the Great Goddess’s eyes without flinching, even though her body was quivering. “You have achieved all you desired, have you not? A shield is yours, rightfully won. You have slain your greatest enemy. What do you seek now, Alanna?”
Alanna shrugged. “I don’t know. I feel there’s something important I should be doing, but I have no idea what it is. I’m just—drifting. That’s why I brought the map here to be translated. Maybe it’ll point me toward—Unless you need me for something?” she asked, hopeful.
The Goddess smiled. “I do not plan mortals’ lives for them, Alanna. You must do that for yourself. However, if you follow the map, you will find its path interesting. But think as you ride.” She picked up Faithful, who’d been waiting at her feet. “What will become of you? Will you drift all your days?”
Faithful chirped to the Goddess, his tail waving, and she smiled at him. Now that he had the Mother’s attention, he addressed her at length. Try though she might, Alanna couldn’t tell what he said.
Finally the Goddess put him down. The edges of her form grew indistinct, blending with the fog once again. “For a while longer, my friend,” she told the cat. “Do not disappoint me.” Faithful returned to Alanna, who held him close. The immortal was now a shadow, her voice distant. “Who will you be, Alanna?” She was gone.
For the first time since she’d saddled Moonlight, Alanna paid attention to her surroundings. She was in a forest, and that was baffling. This was the same road she and Coram had taken on their way to Berat. That morning they’d left the woods just after dawn, entering farm country. How could she have done a day’s ride in a few hours?
The fog was still too thick for safe riding. Finding a rock, the knight sat to await the dawn, feeling cold, damp, and tired. She was beginning to nod off when the breezes came to scatter the mist, unveiling the road. Yawning, she mounted up and urged Moonlight into a trot. Faithful went to sleep without a word. Alanna envied him. Her jaws cracked every time she yawned, and her eyelids felt heavy. At last she dozed.
A jolt—then a burst of pain as she struck the road—woke her. Like the stablemen and troopers who’d taught her, she filled the air with curses. There were words for people who fell asleep and dropped from their saddles!
Moonlight stared at her mistress, wondering why Alanna had chosen to dismount and sit in the mud.
Swearing doesn’t help, Faithful remarked. Besides, you woke me up.
“Does your worship want me to pull the curtains so the light won’t hurt your eyes?” Alanna yelled, beet red with embarrassment. “Shall I call you for the noon meal, or will you sleep the day out?”
There’s no talking to you when you’re like this, was the cat’s smug reply. He went back to sleep.
Moonlight nudged her. With a groan, Alanna rose. “I can only blame myself,” she growled. “I could’ve gone to a convent, never learned to wrestle and be dumped on my head, never have broken any bones or fallen in the dirt. I’d be clean and wear pretty dresses. By now I’d be married to a buffle-brained nobleman with a small fief. I’d probably have clean, pretty, buffle-brained children.” Trying to wipe her hands before taking the reins, she found her breeches were as muddy as her hands. “Don’t remind me I picked this life. I’ve no one to blame but myself.” Moonlight shook her head as if to say she wouldn’t. “I always knew there was insanity in my family.”
Alanna heard hoofbeats and froze. She didn’t want a passerby to see her in this fix! Determinedly, she looked away as the other horse came closer. Her hands tightened on Moonlight’s reins as her face went a darker red. If a stranger sees me, that’s bad, she told herself. The worst that can happen is for this to be Liam Ironarm, and me falling off my horse like an incompetent. She turned.
It was Liam. He was not trying to hide his grin. “Nice morning for a ride,” he greeted her. “A little wet, though.”
Alanna swallowed, fighting her temper. “I don’t normally do this, you know!”
“Nor for a moment did I think it.”
“Why are you here, anyway?” she demanded, too embarrassed to be polite. “It’s a long way for a morning ride!”
“I saw you go out. When you didn’t come back, I thought I’d check.” Too kindly, he added, “Oh, don’t think I figured you’d run out on Windfeld’s bill. You left your man and your bags, so I knew it wouldn’t be that.”
Alanna gasped with fury. “How dare—”
“Don’t like to be teased, is that it?” Relenting, he said, “Hitch the mare to a lead and ride double with me. I’ll keep you a-horse.”
“I’ll be fine!”
With a sigh the redheaded man dismounted. “Didn’t your mamma teach you to speak polite to strangers on the road?” He put Moonlight on a lead with his big-boned gray. “I could be a sorcerer and turn you into a mouse.”
“You’re the Shang Dragon. You won’t turn me into anything.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said cheerfully. “I pull on my breeches one leg at a time, same as you.” Unstrapping a blanket from his saddle, he wrapped it around her. “There now. You’re tired and wet and grumpy—in no condition to ride. I fell asleep once, Alanna the Lioness. A tree knocked me from the saddle into a ditch, right in front of the men I was to command. Bless their hearts, they didn’t tease me about it—not much. Up with you.” He threw her into the saddle as easily as if she were a child, mounting behind her and settling her in the circle of his arms.
“Go to sleep, kitten,” he murmured. His voice rumbled in his deep chest. “You’re all right now.”
Coram awoke late, with a head he would not wish on his worst enemy. For a long time he waited for his knight-mistress to arrive with her hangover cure. When she did not appear, he went in search of her. It hurt even to dress. It would be worth her heartless quips to rid himself of the headache and nausea.
After the pain of dressing, he was in no humor to find a stranger letting himself out of Alanna’s room. Hadn’t she been talking to this redheaded fellow in the common room the night before? Coram couldn’t remember.
He barred Liam’s path. “I suppose ye’ve excellent reasons for bein’ in there, all of which ye’ll tell me without delay.” Alanna had friends to protect her name and person, as this man was about to learn!
The Dragon grinned, recognizing the older man. “You must be Coram.”
“I am. That tells me nothin’ about ye.”
Liam eyed the burly man-at-arms. “It seems to me the young lady takes care of herself.”
“I suppose ye had that from her,” snapped Coram. “She’s wrong. Is there someone in the city who’ll speak for ye?” His hand shifted warningly to his dagger hilt.
“The Shang Dragon needs nobody to speak for him.” Liam’s eyes went a pale green. “I understand your wanting to protect her, but I don’t like threats.”
Coram frowned. “I’m t’believe ye’re Liam Ironarm?”
“Come downstairs, before she hears you,” Liam sighed. “Windfeld knows me.”
The host’s verification of the Dragon’s identity told Coram it was time to change tactics. So he invited Liam to share his morning meal, and the food eased his hangover. He could concentrate better on quizzing the redheaded man.
“Does she know?” he asked. “Lady Alanna?”
A slow grin spread across Liam’s face. “She knows.”
“No doubt she’s in a dither tryin’ to decide what she wants to ask ye first.” Coram thought for a moment, then met the Dragon’s now-gray eyes. “What’s the likes of ye want with Alanna of Trebond?”
The big man shrugged. “She’s a pretty thing—different, and full of fight. I never heard that she avoids men.”
Remembering Prince Jonathan and the thief, George, Coram flushed. “She’s still not a woman without all virtue.”
Liam chuckled. “She’s too good a warrior to have a bad reputation as a woman. At least, no one will call her bad when she might hear.”
“I’d think the Shang Dragon had his pick of pretty ladies,” growled Coram.
Liam rose. “Maybe. But she’s not just that, is she? She’s as known in her way as I am in mine.” He put a massive hand on Coram’s arm. “I’m not a village lad wanting to boast of having the Lioness’s pelt in my hut, Master Smythesson. I like her. I’d probably like you, if you stopped glumping about my being in her room.”
He left a coin for his food and strolled out as Coram sank his face into his hands. “Life used to be simple,” he told his palms.
Faithful jumped up to sniff at Liam’s plate. Probably more boring, too.
After running errands until noon, Coram returned to find Alanna dressed and cleaning her weapons. “Don’t scowl,” she told him. “I’m not awake.”
“The chambermaid says yer clothes were all over mud. What kind of larks were ye kickin’ up last night without me to keep an eye on ye?”
“I wasn’t ‘kicking up any larks,’” she yawned. “I couldn’t sleep, so I went for a ride out of the city.”
“We’re ye ridin’ under the horse’s belly, then?”
Alanna could feel a blush creeping up her cheeks. “It’s too embarrassing to talk about.”
Coram wasn’t to be so lightly dismissed. “Does this have anythin’ to do with that Liam bein’ in your room this mornin’?”
“I got tired and fell off my horse,” Alanna said grumpily. “I met Liam on the road. He just made sure I got back all right. He never touched me.”
“Maybe he didn’t,” Coram rumbled, as red as she was. “And maybe he’s plannin’ to.”
Closing the door, he heard Alanna murmur, “Nothing wrong with that.”
They reached House Jendrai as the sun touched the horizon, to be greeted by Nahom Jendrai in person. Alanna had expected him to resemble Myles of Olau—quiet, unkempt, and absentminded. Instead, she and Coram found a trim man in his early thirties, surrounded by children, servants, pack animals, dogs, and baggage. He waved to Coram and waded out of the mess.
“My wife would greet you properly, Lady Alanna, Master Smythesson, but she has only recently come from childbed, and she is resting. Our sixth,” he explained with a smile. “A girl.” He accepted their congratulations with a bow, adding, “Excuse the bustle—our bags didn’t come until this afternoon.”
He led them into the house. “I’m happy to assist Myles’s daughter. If it weren’t for him, I’d be just another nobleman, administering my estates, worrying about how I stood with the king, and scheming to get into power at court. My wife handles the fief—better than I ever could—and the only kings I bother with are hundreds of years gone. I owe that to Myles. He was the best teacher I had. What an incredible mind!”
Alanna picked up Faithful, who was trading sharp words with a dog in the hall. “You were one of Myles’s students?”
“For six years.” He showed them into a room that was lit only by the dying sun. “I suppose it’s too dark.” He began a futile search for flint and steel. “I tell the maids I keep demons in here so they won’t disturb anything. Unfortunately, I don’t get my candles lit.”
Alanna laughed. Now he reminded her of Myles. Pointing at the hearth logs, she sent her Gift out in a burst of violet until they caught flame. With quick gestures she shooed flames to the branches of candles.
Show-off, Faithful grumbled.
Alanna looked at him in surprise. “I am not. This is handier.”
A year ago you would have taken forever to do it the hard way, the cat pointed out.
Alanna blushed. “A year ago I was different.”
“Do they always chat like this?” Nahom Jendrai asked Coram.
“Often enough.” The older man gave him the map.
Jendrai stretched the parchment out on a table, studying it for several minutes. Finally Alanna said, “Should we go and come back when you’ve had a chance to work on it?”
He glanced up, startled—clearly he’d forgotten they were there. “No, of course not. I can tell you what it says. Please, come closer.” Alanna and Coram gathered around the desk, Faithful perched on the knight’s shoulder.
Jendrai’s finger traveled over the map’s surface. “Here are the Eastern Lands, the Inland Sea, a bit of the Southern Lands. That’s to locate the reader—this map isn’t for everyday geography. Much is left out. There are cities, nations, roads—a hundred things not shown. Only the points of interest are here, at the eastern end of the Great Inland Sea.
“The mountains—these jagged lines—show the Roof of the World, east of Sarain. This valley lies inside the Roof’s western edge, north of where Port Udayapur is now. At the valley’s northern end are two passes, Lumuhu and Chitral. This star marks Chitral Pass.” He tapped the silvery star embossed into the map. “Translated, the writing says, ‘In Chitral’s hidden chamber, guarded by the being whose essence is Time, the Dominion Jewel is kept for those with the will to strive. Take it at your risk, for the saving of a troubled land.’”
“The Dominion Jewel,” Coram whispered.
Alanna shivered. “Fairy stories,” she scoffed.
“Ye were impressed by those stories in yer day, Miss,” retorted Coram. “Yer brother always wanted the tale of Giamo the Tyrant. Ye liked t’hear about Norrin and Anj’la.” He looked at Nahom. “The Jewel is real?”
“Very real,” the scholar replied. “In Maren we remember the changes made by King Norrin and Queen Anj’la, two centuries ago. Our wealth and peace are their legacy. We have had no wars or famines or plagues since their day.” He rapped the table to ward off the evils he’d mentioned. “If you have a chance to visit the capital city, you might examine the stonework on the Great Temple of Mithros and on the ceremonial doors of the palace. The same motif is repeated over and over: Norrin’s symbol, a snow-capped mountain, Anj’la’s, a willow branch, and the Dominion Jewel between them. Marenites know what we owe to them and the Jewel.”
“But it’s been used for evil, too,” Coram reminded Jendrai softly.
“Indeed.” The younger man’s face darkened. “Giamo stole the Jewel to build his Gallan Empire. With it he conquered parts of Tusaine, Tortall, and Scanra.” Alanna saw Tusaine armies camped along the Drell River, as they had when she was a squire. She swallowed; her memories of the Tusaine War were unpleasant. “Someone stole it from Giamo’s heir. His empire devoured itself, four hundred years ago.
“Fairy stories are important,” Jendrai told Alanna. “Legends teach us and guide scholars in searching out the truth of history.” He smoothed the map before folding it. “It would be the adventure of a lifetime to find the Dominion Jewel.”
Faithful and Alanna looked at each other. The cat’s ears had pricked forward at adventure. The knight thought it over. If I win it and return home bringing the Dominion Jewel for the glory of Tortall, no one can suggest that I got my shield with magic and trickery. Instead of being his Majesty’s most talked-of knight, I’ll be the honored vassal who brought a prize to honor his reign. Another voice in her mind whispered, The Roof of the World! Did I ever meet anyone who’d been that far in his lifetime? It’s a place to go. Someplace new. The Goddess said my path would be interesting.
Nahom sighed and put the map away. “Seldom do I regret my family and my duty to them. This is one of those times. I would love to go seeking such a thing. What land wouldn’t prosper with the Jewel in its ruler’s hands?” He gave the map to Alanna.
“How does it work?” Alanna asked. She fingered the ember-stone at her neck. “Do you have to be a sorcerer to wield it?”
“Giamo was no sorcerer,” Coram pointed out. “Look at the damage he did.”
“Norrin wasn’t Gifted, either, although Anj’la knew herb-lore and healing magic,” added Jendrai, scanning a scroll rack. “Here.” He pulled out one, blew the dust from it (making Faithful sneeze), and unrolled it on the table. “This is in High Gaulish—do you read it?” Alanna and Coram shook their heads. “Here’s the section I want. A rough translation is, ‘Said Jewel worketh its power in two fashions. In the hands of the un-Gifted, it exerteth natural benefices, knitting its power with the Earth’s own for as far as its ruler’s holdeth sway.’” Stopping, he explained. “The Jewel only works for those who are rulers or conquerors by nature. It also explains why the Jewel was often better used by a commoner than by someone royal-born. Just because you’re born to be a king doesn’t mean you have the will for it.”
“Where was I ... ‘In the hand of one Gifted, one who understandeth the devices of sorcery, the Jewel may be more directly used, in healing and war, for fertility and death. A knowledgeable ruler, knowing fully the creation of magical formulae, may create new land from ocean deeps, or return the breath of a dead child. With its wielder’s knowledge and the will to rule, the Jewel maketh possible all things.’”
“That’s scary,” Alanna whispered. “What could Roger have done with the Dominion Jewel?”
Coram said, “Thank the gods we’ll never learn.”
Outside the air was raw, a reminder that winter was not done. Alanna shivered, walking briskly to keep up with Coram. Faithful trotted in front, sniffing the night wind. Alanna thought wistfully about the Bazhir lands—winter came to them as chilly rains, not snow and ice. She preferred the desert winter; she was afraid of cold weather, in a way she couldn’t understand.
They weren’t far from the inn when Coram spoke. “What will ye do?” Realizing she’d been thinking of something else, he explained, “The Jewel, my lady.”
“I think we should find it.”
“Knowin’ how ye like the cold, I didn’t think ye’d fancy the Roof.”
Alanna made a face. “You’re right. Still, if that’s where the Jewel is—”
Faithful hissed, We have company.
Coram glanced around. “Rogues.” His voice was loud enough for Alanna to hear, no louder. “Wantin’ to take our purses, doubtless.”
Alanna glanced to the corner ahead, where five men in dark clothing blocked their escape. She drew Lightning: It shimmered faintly. “Why so many of them for two of us?”
“Four more on yer right,” Coram hissed. “Because they’ve little else to do?” Out came his broadsword.
Of the thieves, two held swords, two more carried short axes, three had iron-shod staffs. Alanna guessed that the others had knives. “Let us by,” she ordered. “You don’t want the trouble it’ll take you to get our money.” She made the sign George taught her, the one to give her safe passage among rogues.
One of them stepped forward, his sword up. “Be ye Alanna of Trebond in Tortall? Her as claims she’s a true knight?”
Coram bristled. “Ye’ll find she’s knight enough if ye step just a bit closer.”
“Our business ain’t with ye, master,” someone else barked. “Leave now, else ye be hurt.”
“I’ll leave if ye do the same—or when ye’re dead. It’s all the same to me.” Coram shifted his stance, planting himself firmly.
Alanna looked at the one who’d spoken first. “I’m Alanna of Trebond and Olau.”
“We bring ye regards from him known as Claw, back in Tortall. He bids us tell ye mourn for yer lover now, whilst ye have breath. George Cooper will be dead afore summer, but we’re to send ye t’the Black God first!”
He threw himself at Alanna, the swordsmen and staffmen following with a yell. Alanna moved until she and Coram were back to back, meeting the speaker’s charge and knocking his weapon aside. He came at her again with a backhand chop, and she knew he’d had little training. It wasn’t enough compared to hers. She brought Lightning down across his chest, cutting deeply. He fell, and she looked for her next foe.
There was little room to maneuver, little chance to counter single opponents. The thieves understood simultaneous attack. Alanna and Coram blocked automatically, searching for anything that could be turned to their advantage. Hesitation now would mean death.
One of the staffmen swung and missed—she ran him through. Coram shouted fiercely, and someone screamed. When a swordsman looked to see the screamer’s fate, Alanna slashed his leg. He dropped with a cry. A knife fighter rushed to pick up the fallen sword.
A black lump dropped from a roof, clinging to one man’s scalp. Trying to dislodge Faithful, the thief fell into an ax’s downswing. He lost his life. A second later the axman was down, a victim of Alanna’s rapid side-cut. She could hear Coram gasping. Sweat dripped into her eyes.
Alanna’s left arm stung. She reversed Lightning in a crescent, killing the man who’d wounded her. She was bleeding, but she didn’t dare stop to bind the cut.
Faithful launched himself again, yowling fiercely. Coram shouted and was down, bleeding from the thigh. Alanna swung to stand over him, her brain coldly taking charge. Later she’d remember that sweat stung in her eyes, that her arm hurt, that she was scared for Coram. Now she blocked and cut like a machine, looking everywhere at once.
For a moment Lightning was caught under an ax blade. Trying to free her sword, Alanna was knocked down by a staff. Cursing, she rolled to her feet. Before she had her balance, two thieves leaped on her, forcing her down.
One gripped her arms, yanking them behind her back. Alanna bit her lip to keep from screaming. She’d always been afraid this would happen. Disarmed, in the clutch of a stronger opponent, she was trapped. The second rogue grinned at her, reaching for her tunic.
The street echoed with an animal roar. Something shot into the man in front of Alanna: He rammed into a nearby wall and was still. Liam hit the ground on both feet, spun and kicked back into an attacker. The man seemed to leap backward, sprawling yards away. The Dragon shifted, his leg furling up and out, streaking toward Alanna. She froze, and Liam’s kick struck the man gripping her. She was free.
Liam grinned, then whirled to face the last killers. They fought and died, the street echoing with the Dragon’s cry. Alanna’s hands worked as she watched, cutting up her tunic for a bandage. Kneeling by Coram, she examined his bleeding thigh.
“It’s not bad,” Coram assured her through clenched teeth. “I’ve had worse. He’s a sight, isn’t he?”
Alanna nodded as she tied the bandage over the wound, pressing to stop the bleeding. The stories she’d heard about Shang came nowhere near the truth. The Dragon went from blow to kick in a blur. When he struck a man, that man went down and stayed down.
“Ye’re bleedin’,” Coram rasped, holding her arm. “Ye must have it seen to.”
Alanna barely heard him. Awed by Liam, she whispered, “I’ll never be that good.”
Coram snorted. “I’ve news for your ladyship.” He sat up, replacing her hands on the bandage with one of his own. “Ye’re just as quick, with a sword in yer hand.”
Silence returned. Those of their attackers who were able had fled. The ones who remained were either too badly hurt to run or were dead.
The Dragon came to Alanna and Coram, examining a tear in his sleeve. “You’re all right?” He looked worriedly at Alanna, who was beginning to feel dizzy and a little sick. Coram reached up, and Liam helped him to his feet. “I was coming back from the home of a friend, and I heard the noise. Don’t you know enough to stay out of trouble?”
Faithful came out of the shadows, his tail switching irritably. We do, the man and I. She doesn’t.
Liam glanced down at the cat, frowning. “Did ...? No.” He caught Alanna as she faltered and dropped in a faint.
“It didn’t look like a bad wound,” Coram said, taking Alanna’s left hand and examining the cut running across her forearm. Then he swore, seeing the wound reached up the back of her arm to the shoulder. Alanna’s shirtsleeve was thick with blood. “I’ll tear a bandage,” he ordered Liam, pulling off his tunic. “We’d best take her to the inn fast—Windfeld can fetch a healer.” Quickly he reduced the garment to strips and formed a bandage for the knight’s arm. Once it was in place, he set off down the street.
“Does she often do this?” the Dragon asked, following with Alanna.
“She’s worn herself out other ways before this, silly lass. She’s quick t’tell ye when to stop, but she never thinks maybe she should listen to her own advice.”
When they reached the Wandering Bard, Windfeld took over. In the space of a few minutes a healer was seeing to Alanna while another stitched Coram’s thigh. Liam went to the kitchen and returned with a mug of tea for Coram. The man-at-arms took one sniff and coughed.
“What’ve I ever done to ye?” he demanded.
Liam grinned. “It smells better than it tastes. Drink it—I’ve had to myself. Shang taught us all manner of herb-lore, in case we get caught with no healer near.”
Coram shrugged and obeyed, choking as the stuff went down. He felt better almost immediately. “Whatever it is, it works. I don’t want t’know what it is,” he said quickly when Liam opened his mouth.
“It’s only herbs. Your lady gets the same, when she wakes up. Now—who were those men?”
“Messengers, of a kind. From an enemy of—of a friend of hers.” Coram blushed. Liam raised an eyebrow, but the older man shook his head. He was not going to tell an almost-stranger, not even this one, the whole truth. “Someone who knew that if she was killed, it’d hurt Cooper—her friend.”
Liam yawned and stretched. Coram was envious. The redheaded man looked as if he’d been exercising hard, not fighting. “Well, this Cooper’s unhurt, and the two of you will heal.”
Coram got up stiffly and offered Liam his hand. “We owe ye our lives. We won’t forget.”
Liam returned his grip. “You’d’ve managed, I think. I just speeded things along.”