The room tilted and changed colours.
Yolanthe knew it was about to happen. Her ferret had raised its back and howled just seconds before. It had never made a noise like that before and Yolanthe sensed that it was reacting to the presence of magic.
In the seconds between the ferret’s yowl and the tilting of the room, Yolanthe had time to form two thoughts. The first was one of despair. Not again, she thought, not now.
The second was more rational: how had he found me? Yolanthe was sure her escape had been perfect. She had spent three years serving the Lord Baltrog, allowing him – no, not allowing, he did not ask – to invade her mind and use her body to spy and kill. During the last year of her servitude she had planned her escape carefully. She had acquiesced to him in everything, even pretending to enjoy his presence in her brain. She had fulfilled her missions perfectly and pretended to be ambitious to climb the ranks of his cabal. She had secured his trust.
Then one day she had asked, casually, with a mind as blank of guile as she could make it, if she could go into the nearest town and buy some supplies for her arrow crafting. She had explained many times earlier that she did not trust Baltrog’s other minions with the task of choosing feathers and wood. Baltrog had agreed without lifting his head from the scroll he was studying, but Yolanthe had persisted so as to make the excuse flawless.
“But my lord,” she had said, “I’ll need money for the supplies.”
Baltrog still did not look up. “See Grimestoke,” he said, and waved her off.
She had gone directly to the wizened gnome who served as Baltrog’s factotum, but she was filled with secret terror as she did so. Grimestoke was cunning and, as far as Yolanthe could discern, omniscient. But the little man had opened the purse and given her a few gold pieces. She demanded a few more, which he gave grudgingly. “I’ll want records and the change,” he grumbled and returned to transcribing a book.
Yolanthe had turned to leave when Grimestoke had called out after her, “What’s in your pack?”
Yolanthe froze. She set her face and then turned. “My bow and some sample arrows. I have to compare materials.”
The gnome chewed on the end of his goose quill. “Let me see,” he said.
Yolanthe took off the pack, untied it, and tossed it to the gnome. He held her gaze for a minute, and bent down to peek in the pack. He considered it for a minute, then sat up and began writing again.
Yolanthe strode over, picked up the pack, glared at Grimestoke, and then walked away, forcing herself not to run.
She had gone into the town and she had bought the arrow-crafting supplies, then, as she started to walk out of town and back towards Boltrag’s camp, she paused in front of a tavern, pretending to be thinking about a drink. If any of Boltrag’s minions were watching, they would have seen someone considering skimming some change for an illicit pint. Yolanthe pretended to vacillate, then looked around guiltily and entered the tavern. Once inside she had ordered a drink and complained loudly that it wasn’t a fair measure. Arguing with the barkeep made sure that everyone in the room had noticed her presence. She took a table, glared at the other occupants until they looked away, then surreptitiously spilled her drink on the floor under the table. She lifted the glass, making sure that her hand concealed the fact that was empty, and had shouted out, “A toast to Lord Baltrog!” Surprised, and suddenly afraid, the other tavern patrons had shakily raised their drinks in a muttered toast.
Yolanthe had slammed her empty glass on her table and cried to the barkeep for another. Before he could come over to replenish the glass of this supporter – perhaps affiliate? – of the Lord Baltrog, Yolanthe had stood up and loudly asked, “Where can a woman squat in privacy?”
Blushing, the barkeep had gestured to a door just to the side of the bar. Yolanthe pointed at her empty glass and marched across the room and through the door. The jakes was a small, reeking room with a window set high in the wall. Yolanthe pressed her feet against one wall, her hands on the other, and walked up the wall to the window, opened it with a dagger that she had hidden in her hair, slipped into the alley and began to run for the hills, all before the barkeep had finished topping her drink.
She ran for fourteen hours. She stopped to drink from a stream and stretch her muscles for two hours, and then she ran for twelve more. She slept for four hours, then began climbing the mountains. It took two days to reach the ridge. Once on the other side, she allowed herself a full night’s sleep and meal of a raw fish that she scooped from a mountain stream. She travelled for a week, backtracking, covering her tracks, setting up elaborate fake scent trails, never lighting a fire, carefully covering the signs of her meager camps. She avoided contact with anything that could speak and travelled as much as possible at night.
Then she had found the cabin. It was in the middle of a south slope of the mountains, high above the road that led from Oakborder to the peninsula. It was not built in a clearing but the natural space between four huge trees. It was so lopsided and covered with moss that it appeared almost organic. Someone with less skill might have walked within a few feet of its door and never noticed that it was there.
Yolanthe had watched it for a full day, sitting in a tree, not moving, before she was satisfied that it was deserted. Even then she approached it carefully, wary of pitfalls and other traps that an absentee hunter might set to protect his shack. But it was clearly long abandoned. No one except for field mice and spiders had been in it for years. All the smells of habitation had long fled, and Yolanthe could find no hints of recent occupancy in the one small room. Someone had built this cabin for his private use long ago, then had left, or died, and the secret location had gone with him. It had fallen into disrepair: the floor was rotten in places, the stove pipe leading from the small cast-iron oven was rusted through in spots, the two small windows were empty of glass, and the roof leaked more water than it kept out.
It was perfect.
Yolanthe spent two days checking the surrounding area. There were no roads or paths until the Oakborder road, almost five miles down the slope. The cabin was set midway on a southern slope, and the southern exposure combined with the shadows cast by the mountains that rose from the other side of the valley kept the cabin out of the sun.
She wrapped her bow and arrows in an oilcloth she found on the remains of the sleeping pallet in the cabin and buried it a mile to the east of the cabin. Then she moved in.
She patched the cabin’s roof, floor, and stovepipe. She built a privy down hill from the cabin. She found the nearest stream and carried water back to the cabin in buckets she made by weaving bark strips together. She set up trap lines. She carved a new bow and crafted new arrows, but was careful not to make them ostentatiously good. She hunted and fished. She lit fires but only with the driest woods that would make the least smoke. She cured skins and dried meat.
One day she came home from trapping to find the ferret in the cabin, nibbling at a piece of dried meat. She had shooed it away, but it came back the next day with the gift of a dead rat. She let it stay.
And one morning she had awoken just before dawn and realized something was different. It was, it had to be, the vernal equinox, the real beginning of spring. She stepped out of the cabin and looked across the valley. For the first time in the months since she had been there, the sun came around the far mountain and shone on her face.
She had been here four months. She had frozen and starved and worked all day just to sustain life. She had never been so happy in years.
Three months later the ferret had yowled. The room tilted and changed colours in that fleeting hallucination which always presaged Baltrog’s invasion of her mind. Between the yowling and the shift in the room, Yolanthe formed the two thoughts: not now and how did he find me?
As Baltrog flooded her mind like a dark smoke filling the nooks and crannies of a labyrinth, she had time for one more realization: the cabin was perfect. She had never been so happy. The ferret had insisted on staying.
It was a set up. All of it.
As the last of her consciousness was drowned, the Lord Baltrog spoke from deep inside her mind.
“I’ve come for the rent,” he said.