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The Master

By Christian G. Cameron All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

The Inn

The wine was good.  That was about the best thing that could be said about his day, or the fact that he couldn't feel his feet.

Aranthur Timos sat back on his stool and drank a little more.  He had two days travel left to get to his home village, high in the hills north of the Great Road, and less than two Chalks left to pay his bills.  He'd made it to the inn, and he had his sodden feet by a fire. And the wine was good. It tasted of home--or, he thought in his current mood of self-examination, was the wine merely good by association?  Was he closer to home and forcing the taste of the wine to meet his expectations?

The inn was a fine one--one Aranthur had known almost from boyhood.  Its stone walls had seen several sieges, most of them unsuccessful, and even its barns were stone.  It lay directly on the Great Road, and there was not another such inn--with post horses and decent wine--for three days in either direction.  As a boy, Aranthur' father had gone 'down to the inn' to buy mules and sell his olives and 'stock', a smoking leaf.

'Something happening out west,' the young man behind the bar said, seeing that Aranthur was considering another cup of wine.

Aranthur rose off his stool by the fire and smiled at him cautiously.  They were not quite alone--there were three older farmers hiding from the heavy snow, and an old priest and his acolyte by the great bay window, sharing a book and quarrelling about the speed with which the pages should be turned. The two young men were not quite the same age, although both young enough that a year or two might be a gulf.

In the dimmer corner at the east end of the common room, an older man sat by himself, almost unmoving, a pitcher of what had to be cider untouched at his elbow.

'I saw soldiers on the road,' Aranthur admitted.  He walked to the counter, careful to keep his long sword from catching his cloak.  He was still so cold and so wet that he hadn't stripped off his clothes, even though he was old enough to know better.

'Any trouble?' the young man asked.  'I'm Lecne.  Or rather, most everyone calls me Leck.'  He shrugged. 

'What would you like to be called?' asked Aranthur.

The young man smirked.  'Lecne.'  He laughed.  'Leck seems so indecent.'

Aranthur paused, searching for the pun, and found it in Liote, the language of his village.  But he was too slow.

'Hah, had you there.  But you smoked it in time.  You must be a student.' Lecne had an easy smile.

Aranthur held out the hand that had been on his sword hilt and offered it to Lecne, who clasped it.  Both men then touched their foreheads and made the sun-sign.

Aranthur pointed mutely at the pitcher of wine on the bar.

Lecne shook his head and poured him a cup from a small barrel behind the counter.  'Try this.'

Aranthur nodded.  'I can't afford it,' he admitted.

Lecne looked out the great window that filled the front of the inn--an advertisement of its own, clear glass lavished on building.  Outside, snow fell like rain, and already, the bottom row of panes of the magnificent window were covered by the stuff.  Lecne held out the cup.

'Let me try my wit on you, friend,' he said.  'You are a student coming home from the City for High Holiday.'

Aranthur nodded his head.

'And then you will turn about and return to the City,' Lecne continued.

'Too true,’ Aranthur admitted.

'And like most students, while home, you will get money from your parents,' Lecne said.  He smiled, lest his words be taken as an insult.

Aranthur smiled back to show he was not offended.  'You might easily be a student yourself.'

Lecne smiled crookedly.  'I would have liked to be one, in fact,' he admitted.  'But my father owns this fine pile of stones, and I expect, as he has no other children, that I had best learn to run it.  That said, I'm guessing that you are poor, but when you come back this way, you will be -- less poor.'

Aranthur nodded.  'You are the very prince of philosophers, sir, and if you were not so soon to come into the possession of a fortune and a great responsibility, I'd suggest I might come and study with you.'

Lecne bowed slightly, to say that he appreciated the compliment and the way in which it was phrased, but his slight smile denounced any vanity.  'Pay me when you come back.  I see you as a good investment, and to be honest, I haven't spoken to a boy--that is, a man of my own age since winter started.'  He paused.  'And then there is your sword.'

Aranthur accepted the better wine.  'Indeed?  My sword?'

'You have one,' Lecne asserted.

'I do,' Aranthur allowed, though he could not see where this line could go.

'You said you saw soldiers on the road,' Lecne reminded the student.

'They say there's been a stasis in Mitla,' Aranthur said. 'A civil conflict.'

Lecne nodded.  'I have heard the same.  The Tyrant murdered in front of the very Temple.  Fighting in the streets.’  He leaned close.  ‘They say it was three days ago, and there was a curse, and...'

Aranthur nodded.  'A farmer said as much to me this morning, when he found me asleep in his haystack.'  He shrugged to indicate that anyone might have been in a haystack. 

Lecne clearly felt the same.  He grinned and waved a hand.  'And the soldiers?'

Aranthur had now been in the warmth of the inn's main room long enough to thaw a little and he let his wet cloak come off his shoulders and caught it on his arm, so that the other man could see that he was soaked to the waist.  'I hid in the woods and got cold,' he said.  'I had to cross a rivulet to lose them.'  The loss of the cloak also revealed the hilt of his sword, which was more complex than most--a cross guard embellished with two plain steel finger rings either side of the cutting edges, and a complex ring that linked them. 

The innkeeper's son nodded, eyes on the sword.  'After your purse,' he agreed.

'And my sword,' Aranthur said.  He shrugged.  It had been the wrong thing to say--if he had a good sword, why hadn't he fought the three soldiers?  The question was on the other man's lips, and yet he was too polite to ask it.

A middle-aged woman in a fine wool gown appeared from the stairs at the rear of the main room and smiled at Lecne, who, from their shared ruddy brown hair and elegant, slim noses, had to be her son.

She bowed her head in Aranthur's direction.

'Mum, could you take this man's cloak and dry it?  He's soaked. Had an encounter with soldiers,' Lecne said.  'Master Timos, this is my lady mother, Thania Cucina.'

Aranthur bowed again.  'I can take my wet things to the back, he said.  'Although if I might be allowed to hang the cloak in the kitchen--'

'Will you stay the night?' the woman asked.

Behind her, Lecne gave a minute head nod.  Aranthur surrendered to the luxury of a night in a warm bed, even if there were lice or bugs.  He'd had a week's walking, and he'd slept hard, and his fingers ached all the time.  'Yes, Despoina,' he said.

She grinned.  'Don't “despoina” me, young sir.  I'm old enough to be your mother.'

Aranthur considered a touch of flirtation and decided that the woman might only take offense.  But she flashed him a fine if matronly smile and took his cloak off his arm. 

'I'll see it's properly baked.  I assume you've been too cold to have bugs.  I hate bugs.'  She frowned.  'Where are you from?'

He bowed again -- respect for elders was an essential part of the life of the student.  'Wilios,' he said.  'A village on the Amynas river. Not so far from here.'

'Amynas,' she said.  'Do your family have vineyards?'

'Vineyards and four hundred olive trees,' he said.  'And we grow stock around the house.' 

She made a face and moved her nose.  Not everyone approved of stock -- a cultivated weed that some people smoked and some ate.  'Well -- to each his own, I'm sure,' she said.  'I've never been as far as the Amynas, but we have the wine.' 

'My father never sells our wine,' he said.  'Well, never out of town, anyway.  But he's had his olive oil here.  I came down once when I was young.'

'Child, you are still young to me,' she said.  'But I must know your father, though I can't think of a man from Amynas with olive oil.'

A voice -- a man's voice -- came out of the kitchen like a great argosy under full sail.  'Timos!  Hagor Timos!'

The owner of the voice squeezed himself out of the kitchen and into the main room.  He was tall enough to have to mind his head on the beams and wide enough to struggle with the door, and his face was almost perfectly round, despite which he clearly resembled the young man at the counter.

He had garlic in one hand and a very sharp knife in the other hand.  'Which makes you Mikal,' he said.

'Aranthur,' he said in near perfect unison with Lecne.

The man shook his head.  'Don't know you,' he said equitably.

Aranthur raised his eyebrows.  'But I promise you, sir, that I am Aranthur, son of Hagor.'

Lecne's father nodded.  'I won't shake, given the garlic,' he said.  He vanished as quickly as he'd appeared.

'And he's my dad,' Lecne said.  'Latif by name. Cucino, of course.'

Aranthur's magpie mind immediately ran off on the complexity of Liote gender typing.  But the new wine was even better, and he raised his cup in appreciation.  'My thanks, Lecne.'

'I'll find you a room,' Lecne said.

'Oh, I can't afford aught beyond the common room floor,' Aranthur admitted. 

Lecne made a face and rubbed his nose.  'Bundle of clean straw, then?'

The temperature down at the floor was more like that of ice than would promote sleep, and Aranthur nodded again.  'I would be your debtor.'

Lecne laughed.  'You will be, too!  Da's making a fine meal--almost High Holy Day.  Dumplings with meat in butter.  With grated cheese.'

Aranthur smiled.  'Knocci,' he said.  A dish of home.  The wine of home--the Liote accents and gentle manners of home.

Dama Cucina summoned her son to point at something in the yard, and Aranthur felt the weight of his sodden hose.  He wanted out of them, and he crossed the common room to where he'd placed his pack carefully by the open hearth--a hearth that vented not into a modern chimney but into an opening in the roof high above.  Closer, where the inn's second floor balcony ended near the vent, hams and cheeses hung in the smoke, and up there was a whole deer, gutted, hanging like some rotting criminal, and a whole pig carcass as well.

Aranthur took his buckler--a small round shield not much bigger than his hand--off the top of his pack.  He'd tied it there because, being wood and metal, it was waterproof, and he'd hoped it would keep the snow out of the simple tube of his soft snap-sack of pig hide.

Perhaps it had, but the time Aranthur had spent lying in snowdrifts and crossing streams had negated its effectiveness, and all the clothes in the tightly rolled bundle were wet through.  The ache in his right shoulder was explained--the pack weighed far more than it ought due to all the water.

He steadied himself before he could curse.  Cursing was weak.  'Avoid all mention of darkness,' one teacher had said.

So be it.

'You are a swordsman?' asked a gentle voice behind him.

Aranthur rose from his crouch by the pack.  The older man who had occupied the niche in the east wall was standing at the counter while Lecne cut him bread and ham.  The older man was also wearing a sword.  It had a broad blade and a simple crossed hilt.  The grip had seen a fair amount of use.

Aranthur smiled carefully.  Wearing a sword in public had certain consequences. 'I might not venture as far as 'swordsman,' he said.  'I am a Student in the City.'

The older man's clothes were very plain but very good, Aranthur could see closer up.  He wore plain brown, but it all matched and the cloth was expensive, and there were touches of elegance--brown ribbon at the cuffs, a fine standing collar that made the man's doublet look like an arming coat that a soldier might wear, brown silk embroidery barely visible against the fine wool fabric, and the fit was perfect.  But he had no jewels and a plain purse, and Aranthur was unsure of the man's status.

He bowed, nonetheless.

The older man narrowed his eyes.  'That was well said.  Few men who wear swords are swordsman, and humility is often the best scabbard.'  He nodded, took his bread, cheese and ham, and returned a bow without introducing himself--uncivil, but not so uncivil as to warrant offense.

Lecne's eyes followed the man for a moment and then met Aranthur's--and he grinned.

'What a rod,' he said.

Aranthur tried not to smile.  But it was good to have an ally.

'Are you--any good?  With your sword?' Lecne asked.  'I mean--I don't mean--' he paused.  'Now I'm a rod.  I've always wanted to take lessons.'  He flushed when he spoke.

Aranthur laughed.  'As did I,' he allowed.  'It was the first thing I did when I reached the City,' he admitted.

He could feel the attention of the older man, but the niche was behind him and he knew that if he turned, someone would have to feel offended.  But he was saved by the sound of bells--dozens, if not hundreds of them, out in the snow.

'Company!' Dona Cucina called.  Outside the window, they could see a coach, or a heavy travel wagon, indistinct in the snow. 

Lecne made a face and started to pull on a heavy over shirt of new wool that hung behind the bar.  'We don't have an ostler just now,' he said.

Aranthur was already soaked to the waist.  'I'll go,' he said.  He knew animals, and he could unharness a team, especially if the coachman helped.

Lecne looked at his mother, who, in one glance, told Aranthur that his place in her pecking order had just risen, and then smiled broadly.  'You're on, and thanks,' he said, and pulled the heavy wool shirt back off his head and tossed it to the student.  Aranthur unbuckled his sword belt and handed it over the bar to Lecne, caught the shirt and pulled it on--and was instantly warmer.

Aranthur passed the table of farmers and the priest, who looked up.  His acolyte was more senior than he had appeared--his own age or even older. Then he was out into the snow, and his first step into the deep stuff robbed his feet of all the warmth they'd accumulated in the last half an hour.

It was a heavy travel wagon, a wain with eight horses before it and four more in reserve behind--a monster rig.  Aranthur went forward with the courage of the volunteer--no one could possibly blame him if he made a mistake with the complex tack, and the thought gave him courage.  He noted, too, that there were men out there in the snow--a surprising number, all mounted on big military horses and wearing armour.  Behind, in the darkness, loomed another shape--another wain.

One of the high-sided wagon's side-doors--it had four--opened suddenly. The inside seemed to be lined in fur--it looked warm and incredibly rich, and the smell of incense wafted out on the cold air.

'Content yourself that I have not slit your throat,' said a voice that cut as sharply through the snow as the scent of incense.  'Perhaps you can ply your original trade here, my dear.  At any rate, I won't have to listen to any more of your foolishness.'

A woman--Aranthur knew it immediately--all but fell into the snow.  In fact, she fell to one knee.  She was wearing a gown of silk, edged in fur, that showed more of her shoulders than was usual in the City and utterly impractical for the weather, despite the fur.  She had long dark hair and a straight back and her voice dripped with dramatic contempt.

'You might pass me my cloak and my hat, my lord,' she said.  'Is my traveling case too much to ask for?'

He laughed nastily.  'Drive on!' he shouted, and slammed a stick of some sort against the roof of the wain.  His blow only served to dislodge some snow; it fell on his head.  He cursed, using darkness imagery that shocked even Aranthur, who was a student of the City.  Still muttering blasphemous oaths, he pulled shut his door.

The woman stood alone in the snow.  Closer now, Aranthur could see that there were indeed men--men in armour--on horses--all around the great travel wagon. Only a man of paramount importance--the emperor, perhaps--had a wagon-carriage that big, and twenty knights to guard him on the road, with spare horses and a wagonload of supplies in the dark midwinter.

Aranthur had no idea--no real idea--of what was going on, although the entire tableaux had passed in Liote, a language that was as common in his village as the more elegant Lenate of the city. Since he did not understand, he continued with his original plan and made his way to the front of the great wagon, where two men were perched high on the box, swaddled in heavy furs.

He began to climb the steps, even as the near driver cursed.  As he did so, his backwards glance crossed with that of the woman.  Her face was lost in darkness and distance, only a pale smudge with dark eyes, but he thought her beautiful, or the paleness suggested great beauty, and something sparkled in her hair.  For a heartbeat, he felt as if she had an aura--a flare of red-gold--

'What the fuck, mate?  He thinks we'll drive him all the way to the City?' The man paused, catching Aranthur' movements, and turned.  'Who're you then?' he asked.

'You want me to take your horses?' Aranthur said.  He was still warm, and standing on the ladder to the driver’s seats was nice.  It kept his feet off the snow.

The nearer man looked back.  'What's the Duke up to, then?  He gave the 'drive on.'

'We need to change horses,' said the far man.

'Duke didn't say nothing 'bout changing horses,' said near man.

'Ain't ezactly Duke anymore either, is he?' said far man.

A small window opened behind near man's head--the traveling wagon had as much glass in it as the inn.

'Perhaps you missed my thumping on the roof,' a voice said.  'Drive on, please.'

'Your grace, we need to change horses,' far man said.

'Change at Amkosa,' said the voice.  'Now go.'

'You heard the man,' Far Man said. 

Aranthur looked back along the wagon.  The woman was standing still, her shoulders square, in the biting wind, watching him.  Watching the wagon.

'I'll take her traveling case,' Aranthur said.

Near Man looked at him.  'What?' he asked.

'The Duke's lady,' Aranthur said, stringing the story together in his head, a little surprised to hear what he was saying.

Near Man looked back along the wagon, saw the woman, and started.  'Glorious Sun in the Heavens!' he swore. 

Far Man twitched the reins, and the eight horses pricked up their ears.  But they were horses--they could smell hay, and a barn, and warmth and food.  They shuffled, but they did not push forward.

Near Man looked through the snow at Aranthur.  'Where in all the dark hells are we, boy?'

'Inn of Fosse,' Aranthur said, hoping he sounded as smug as inn workers and ostlers always sounded to him.  'He told me to hand down her case,' he said. 

It was a foolish risk to run.  On the other hand, his mind seemed to be running on its own, quickly and accurately.

Far Man twitched the reins again, and snapped a whip in the air.

The horses gave up their hope of food and leaned into their traces, and the great wheels began to move, crunching the cold, dry snow.

Near Side got up out of his furs with a grunt and leapt up on the roof.  The great wagon swayed as one wheel dropped into a particularly nasty rut and then righted itself, and the Near Side driver slipped, cursed, and tugged at something.

The wagon was moving along now, as fast as a man could walk.

Near side got a foot back over the seat and dropped a heavy leather portmanteau onto Aranthur' hands.  'Here's her case,' he said.  Then he tossed another.  'And she'd miss this one, I expect,' he said with a smile.  'Tell her Erb the Wheel wished her well, eh, boy?'

Aranthur nodded.  'I will,' he shouted.  The wagon made a fair amount of noise--with a dozen horses and six wheels and two drivers and all that tack, with bells on the harness, and an axle that needed a man to look at it and screeched like a bain siedhe and all.

He was keeping his place on the driver's ladder with his weight, as he had a leather case in each hand.  The wagon was starting to move faster still, and the snow was deep, and for a moment, he was afraid that if he threw a case, it would vanish in the snow and be lost 'til spring.  He wanted to serve the woman -- serve her as best he could...

So he turned and jumped into the dark.

He landed in snow deep enough that it went straight up to his crotch, so that the single layer of linen between his hose soaked through and he felt as if a cold spike had been driven into his body from below.

The wagon passed him, moving away faster and faster, and the cold cut through into his brain even as the cavalry troop went by, their red surcoats visible in darkness because the wain had lanterns lit.  One of the knights turned and looked at him, the man's heavy sallet gleaming with an eyeless menace in the near perfect darkness.  The knight didn't look human, somehow, and the hairs on the back of Aranthur' neck stood up even as the rest of him grew colder.

Why did I do all that? Aranthur wondered.

He still had the two cases in his hands.  He began to walk back in the darkness, pushing his legs through the drifts.  The inn was surprisingly far away--a stade or even more, and if it hadn't been well lit from within, he might have been afraid.  It was dark.  Almost the darkest night of the year, save two--well into the season when evil could triumph easily over good, unless special caution was used.

Behind him, the lanterns on the traveling wagon vanished around a bend in the road, and he was alone, holding two heavy leather cases.  He trudged into the wagon ruts and the snow was less deep, although there was water in one rut under the ice and his footing was uneven, and the whole walk was difficult, cold, and--

Outside the inn, the woman stood in the snow as if the temperature had no effect on her.  She stood staring at him, her lips moving softly.

Aranthur had an inkling, now, of what had just happened.  He walked up to the woman, feet crunching on the more shallow snow of the inn yard.

'Despoina,' he said.  He was prepared to remonstrate.

She coughed, and a little blood came out of the corner of her mouth.  Then she threw her arms around him, and fainted.

  #  #  #

His arrival with the woman in his arms threw the inn into a whirlwind of activity.  As the value and cut of her gown had impressed Lecne's mother, she was taken away, warmed by a fire, fed a posset and then passed up the steps into a private room.  Women of several ages appeared as if by thaumaturgy, and went to tend her.

Aranthur went back into the snow once more to pick up the cases he'd dropped when she'd fainted.  He carried them in, and then put them against the near wall, behind the priest and his acolyte, who both gave him civil nods.

The priest even stood.  'That was well done, especially at this time of year,' he said.  'When the Dark floods a man's mind and culls his thoughts.'

His young apprentice smiled.  'Tiy Drako,' he said. 

Aranthur took his hand.  'Aranthur Timos,' he said.  Drako was not a real name--it was a religious name, the sort of name a man took when he became a monk or a priest.

'We're of a size,' Drako said.  'Since I wasn't brave enough to rescue the princess myself, perhaps I could loan you some dry hose and a shirt and braes?'

'He has more of them than he should,' the priest said with a forgiving smile.  'He could improve your condition and his own as well.'

Aranthur bowed to them both -- and accepted.  'All my clothes are wet,' he admitted.

Drako had a pack-a fine leather pack in a dark orange leather with green trim--a nobleman's equipment, or a rich merchant's.  The pack was a tube like a quiver, but larger, and had a matching cover that would keep out rain or snow.  It was not the traveling kit of a holy man's disciple.

Aranthur admired it.

'My father was against my vocation,' Drako said.  'But in the end, he did me the decent and provided me with some good things.  There--all I have is black.'  He handed over a pair of black hose in a wool so fine and soft that they made Aranthur feel warmer just looking at them, and a splendid linen shirt with embroidery and a crest--and initials.

L di C.

The acolyte saw the direction of his gaze and flushed.  'Ah, the vanity of my former life,' he said.  'Take it.  Keep it.  Lucca di Carna needs your prayers more than his new soul needs the shirt!'

Aranthur protested, but the young man was insistent.

He took his dry clothes to the bar.  'Lecne!' he called.

The young man appeared from the kitchen.  'Da's gone for the churgeon,' he said.  'She can't see and her head's pounding.'

Aranthur thought he might know why and found it hard to spare any compassion, but he nodded. 

'I need to change--and dry my clothes?' he asked.

Lecne grinned.  'Fair enough--although I'm not sure but getting to carry that armful wasn't its own reward, eh?'  He laughed.  'Sorry--she's so pretty!  I hope that she recovers and spend a few weeks here.  Where's the wagon?'

Aranthur indicated his clothes.

Lecne beckoned Aranthur into the kitchen and showed him the great fireplace.  'All the women are seeing to the princess,' he said.

Aranthur had his wet clothes off before his new friend was done talking.  He was instantly warmer, and he padded about the hearth hanging his things on drying racks placed there apurpose. As he changed, he said, 'I'm not quite sure what happened.  But the wain--there was at least one--drove on.'  He looked at Lecne and half-close one eye, as he always did when thinking hard.  'There was a man, and he pushed her out of the door.  Later he told the driver the change horses at Amkosa.'

Lecne whistled.  'That's another twenty parsangs,' he said. 'In this snow?  Almost Dark Night?  That's a bold rascal!'

Aranthur began to dress.  'I think it was the Duke of Mitla,' he said.

Lecne's eyes widened.  'But!' he began, and Dona Cucina's voice cut through the door and a bell rang.

'More visitors!' Lecne said cheerfully.  He passed back to the common room through the kitchen door, which had a small service window in it--really just a spy hole.  Aranthur looked through for a moment and then went back to the kitchen fire.  On the broad trestle table, a vast pile of knocci was already made, the dough broken up into spoonfuls.  There was water on an enormous copper kettle over the fire.  Steam was rising from it, but it was not at aboil yet.  The water smelled of oregano and something else, and it cleared his head.  Oregano was a natural specific against most magery.  Every peasant knew it.

When he was dry and much warmer, he pulled on dry linen braes like breeches that buttoned at the waist, and thigh-high wool hose which would have laced prettily to a doublet, had he owned such a thing.  In fact, in his tiny garret in the City, shared with three other young men, he owned one, bought from a used-clothing seller and carefully mended.  But it was not for a journey like this one, and he'd left it in his trunk.  Instead, he laced the hose to his braes and tucked in the beautiful shirt.  It was the finest shirt he'd ever worn--and that was saying something, as his mother's shirts were a byword.

Lecne returned with a great cow horn and handed it over.  'Grease for your shoes, or they'll be spoiled by the fire,' he said.

'Sun bless you,' Aranthur said. 'The water's almost boiled.'

Lecne shrugged.  'Da will return soon enough--Master Sethre isn't far.'

He went back through the door even as the bell rang again.  Aranthur took the horn and sat by the kitchen fire and began to spread grease--good grease at that. Cow belly fat?  Perhaps even goose fat.  Something unctuous and fairly tolerable in smell.

'A fine inn,' he said aloud.  He began to work the grease into his boots, a pair of mid-calf walking boots with slightly curled toes, the most prestige that he could afford, which was not much.  Nonetheless, they were good boots, had lasted all of a week's walk and were like to survive the journey home, although not in the same fine red-brown colour with which they'd started life.

He smiled.  The brave new boots, now turning mud-coloured, led him by some path of association to the woman he had carried in, who had smelled like--like the inside of a temple.  Some exotic resin--or perfume.

She used power on me.  He was sure of it--as sure as a student of the same art could be.  He could still taste it on his lips and feel it behind his eyes--the most potent piece of work he'd ever experienced.

She bent my will to get her traveling case, he thought to himself.  It was the only explanation that fit the evidence.  He remembered that feeling of absolute clarity as he went up the side of the wagon--

Yes.  A fine manipulation.  So fine, and so puissant, that it had exhausted her and made her sick, just as his workings master told him--

Who was she?

The man in the traveling wagon had been called 'the Duke.'  The world abounded in dukes, but the most likely in the event was the Duke of Mitla, who was reported dead three days before in a riot in his home city.

'Ain't ezactly Duke anymore either, is he?', the far man had said.

Aranthur realized with a start that he wasn't hearing any sounds from the inn.  He'd been working on his boots a long time.  Lecne had not reappeared.

Aranthur listened.  He couldn't hear the drone of the farmers talking.  He made his way to the door, feeling foolish, and looked through the tiny service window.

And ducked back.

Soldiers.

The kitchen was lit only by the fire, and was otherwise dark.  Aranthur stood away from the service window and looked.  He moved cautiously back and forth.

There were at least four of them.

Off to his right there was a doorway he hadn't seen used.  Aranthur made his way to the door, and as he'd hoped, it led to the back stairway, with a sort of alcove that also looked into the taproom from the far west wall.  He leaned his back against the wall and listened.

'...You're not understanding, boyo.  I'll have wine, and my friends will all have wine, and then we'll have whatever else we fancy.'  The man's tone ill-suited his words--he sounded unsure of himself, a little wild, a little afraid.

Aranthur moved very carefully along the alcove.  It was dark, and there was no light in the stairwell, which was no wider than one man's shoulders and curved sharply too.  He moved so slowly he felt that he was a glacier in the mountains above his village, watching the people far below.  He harmonized his breathing and began to sub-vocalize his ritual--carefully.  So carefully.

'Doesn't this shit hole have any women?' a big man asked.  'Wine!'

Aranthur could see the man's hand as he struck Lecne a glancing blow.

'I'll have to get m-m-more from the --'  there was a pause.

The main door opened.  A cold came in, so cold that it affected Aranthur and almost snapped him out of his ritual trance. It was palpable like a blow.

'An’ who the fuck might you be?' another soldier said.

'It's my inn, and I might well ask you the same,' said Master Cucino.  He was not visible to Aranthur, but he was moving forward--the door creaked.

'Not unless you want a foot of iron in yer guts,' said one of the soldiers.  'You don't ask fuck.  We ask.  Where are the women?  Where's the wine?'

Cucino was an innkeeper and he was not a choirboy.  'Keep a civil tongue and keep your blasphemy for your own Dark places,' he snapped.  He passed into Aranthur's sight.  Behind him was a heavyset man with stooped shoulders and a deep scarlet hood--the nearly universal sign of a medical professional.

Lecne said, 'Da -- they --' he paused.

'She's upstairs,' Master Cucino said to the churgeon, who attempted to pass the soldiers.  But an arm was put out to bar his way.

'Who is?' asked one of the soldiers.  'No one goes anywhere.'

'No one gives orders in my inn but me,' the keeper said.  'Sit down and you will be served.'

'That's it, fuckwit,' said the nearest soldier, who had a red cloak over his arm and a vicious, hooked scimitar that locals called a storte at his belt.  He had the light eyes of a man drunk or mad.

The soldier reached almost casually for his sword hilt.

Aranthur had little direct experience of violence and men of violence, but he knew from riots in the city that once blood flowed, events took on an inexorable rhythm.  As the soldier drew his storte and exposed the vicious blade, Aranthur took a careful gliding step towards the chimney corner where all his possessions were.  He was not just willing.  He was strangely eager.

The soldier raised his blade -- and for a moment, it appeared that his sword was only so much threat -- a bluster.  But then, powered by fear or hatred or simply winter dark, he cut.

The blade struck the innkeeper's arm and cut it deeply--so deeply that his left hand dangled.  Blood fountained. Master Cucino seemed to deflate. 

Aranthur moved another step closer to his own sword and his buckler atop his pack.  He was out of the shadows, now, and his ritual was wavering--the violence, the blood, the innkeeper's face, his own fear...

He lost his working.  But he'd expected it, and he moved faster, with a sudden long step and a grab for the sword, which leaned in its scabbard by the fireplace.

No one challenged him because of what had happened across the room.

The man in the fine brown clothes rose to his feet.  Aranthur caught only the end of the movement--it focused all of the soldiers on the man in brown. 

Lecne's hand was just going to his father's arm -- his mouth opened.

A second spurt of blood washed a table, and Master Cucino began to topple...-

The man in brown put his right hand on his sword hilt.  The motion was economical and not particularly fast. He had three men within the reach of his arms, all armed -- one with his sword in hand, and the other two already reaching for their blades.

Aranthur's hand closed on his own sword hilt.

The innkeeper, his eyes still watching the ruin of his left arm in horrified fascination, fell forward onto a table already slicked with his own blood.

The man in brown drew.

The soldier who'd maimed the innkeeper raised his blade, a broad grin crossing his thin face, admiring his cut. Aranthur's attention was still on the man in brown, whose draw was also a cut that rose through the entrails of the nearest soldier and finished over his head just in time to parry a desperate, tardy slash from the original attacker -- so neatly timed that they might have practiced it.

The man in brown pivoted on the balls of both feet and cut down with all the power in his hips, beheading the second man close to him while the man tried to draw his sword. But the same pivot powered his left arm to cross draw a heavy-bladed dagger from behind his back, with which he continued to guard against the sword he'd first parried with his own.

And then Aranthur had to concentrate on the explosion of motion in his own sphere of action.

The acolyte threw a dagger from the table by the window.  It struck hilt first, but stunned the biggest soldier as he, in turn, drew his own hooked storte.  By ill luck, the big man, who wore a munition breastplate and heavy tassets, was closest to Aranthur and now, ignoring the dagger handle which had hit his head, turned and lunged at Aranthur, focusing the younger man on his own fight, even as the acolyte rolled across the table, unarmed but game.

The soldier reached for Aranthur's still scabbarded sword, and acting on his training, Aranthur let him take the scabbard and pulled back his left leg, leaving the other man's cut to whistle past him -- leaned back and pulled, and the motion each man made drew the scabbard off the weapon, and Aranthur thrust without thinking or planning, simply committing to the attack as he'd learned it.  He was, in fact, too eagerly terrified to think about his actions, and his motions seemed slow, as if his limbs were wrapped in string.

And then his sword was a hand span deep in the big man's bicep.

His victim bellowed, tried to raise his arm and the pain stopped him.

Aranthur -- still running off school lessons -- rotated his hand from thumb up to thumb down, pushing outward with his hand, so that he twisted the blade in the wound and ripped the sword out of the flesh that trapped it.  Someone was roaring -- a huge shout that filled the taproom.

Tiy Drako hit the wounded man waist high.

The big man fell, his hand clutching at his opened bicep.  A piece of him flapped as he moved and his head struck one of the oak tables.

Behind him were two more soldiers, and one raised a crossbow -- and pointed it at the man in brown.

Aranthur realized, in one beat of his heart, that the man in brown had somehow put all three of his assailants down.  And the crossbow was pointed at him--

Aranthur was not well-trained enough, nor agile enough, to cross the space. His hand was fully extended--he couldn't have thrown his sword, even if he'd thought of it.  He saw the man in brown's eyes as they understood the imminence of death, and the anger this sparked.

There was a flash--and a sharp bang like the sound a smith makes when he hits piece of iron very hard. 

The crossbowman dropped like a doll abandoned by a naughty girl.  The last soldier standing whimpered, and dropped his sword.

The man in brown moved silently with a rolling gait like a sailor--lunged, and his sword passed through the back of the soldier's head and emerged from his mouth like an obscene tongue.  He, too, fell forward to join the corpses on the floor.

Aranthur saw that the woman from the snow was standing on the balcony above, the churgeon lying flat on the floor by the alcove like a summer solstice worshipper.  She was holding the churgeon down, and she held a wand--

Aranthur understood.  It was, in fact, a puffer.  The tang of sulfur in the air was his evidence.  At the same time he thought this, his eyes tried not to look down to the creeping pools of blood at his feet.

When he was a boy, he and his father had killed a deer.  The deer had bled out on snow -- the red spreading, spreading--

At his feet -- his unshod feet -- the man he'd hit in the arm was writhing, and his warm blood was soaking through the fine black hose that the acolyte had given him.

The man in brown was moving from downed man to downed man, finishing them with careful thrusts.  He stopped by Aranthur's shoulder.

  'You've never fought before, have you?' he said.  He sounded like an angry fishwife.  His voice was shrewish, as if the ideas that young men avoided fighting for their lives annoyed him.

Aranthur was watching the wounded man.  He'd made the mistake of meeting the man's eyes.  The man's mouth opened and closed, and blood was pouring out of his arm.

'He'll bleed out in a few minutes,' the man in brown said.  'Or you could behave like a gentleman--like a swordsman--and either finish him or stop the bleeding.  Your choice.'

Tiy Drako was nursing his own shoulder from the flying tackle he'd made, but he sat up.  'We must save him, of course,' he said.

The man in brown frowned.  'If he were mine, I'd kill him.'  He looked Aranthur in the eye.  'Who teaches you, boy?  That imposter Vladith?'

'Master Vladith is in fact my swordsman--,' Aranthur said.  He felt light headed--the woman was looking at him, and she had a silver hair net with pale jewels at the interstices of the net, and this drew his eye dangerously.  He saw again the fire in her aura and he wrenched his head away from the sight of her and found the remnants of his own ritual still singing in the recesses of his mind and he used them to build himself a shield.

All in one beat of a man's heart.

Tiy was already on his knees by the downed man, digging his thumbs into the wound, trying to stop the blood.  'Sunrise!' he said.  'I can't stop it!'

Aranthur knelt by the man he'd hit and put a hand above the wound--and realized for the first time that he still had his sword in his hand.  He put it down with too much emphasis.

Then he got both hands on the man's shoulder and pushed as hard as he could. 

The flow of blood lessened immediately.

To his left, the churgeon was on the floor by Lesce's pater.  Aranthur dug his thumbs into the man's shoulder and the man screamed.  Tiy was playing with a string-- a loop of linen thread.

'You really are trying to save him,' the man in brown said.  'He'll hang, you know.'

'I won't send another man to the dark tonight,' Aranthur said.  He hadn't been sure exactly what he was going to say until his mouth opened, but once he spoke, he was surer of himself.

The man in brown cut most of a wool shirt off of the crossbowman and used the fabric to clean his sword.  He bowed to the young woman in the hairnet, who stood above them like a goddess in the theater of the City.  'I believe I owe you my life, Despoina,' he said.  Even his thanks were surly. 

She frowned.  'You sound none too pleased.'

Aranthur was scarcely aware of the exchange, because he and Tiy were fighting the man's body for his life.

'Why should I be pleased?' the man in brown asked.  'I failed myself and misjudged my adversaries.'  He shrugged.

'You're welcome, I'm sure,' the woman answered, her Liote pure the way westerners spoke it.  Then she stepped back from the balcony, even as Tiy Drako got his loop of linen into the blood and gristle.

'Hold on,' he said. 

Aranthur could taste salt in his mouth and was having a hard time not looking at the dying man or smelling the result of the man's voiding his gut and bladder in his agony.  His heels were drumming on the floor.

'Slaves of darkness!' the man in brown spat.  'Just kill him!'

A heavy staff struck the floor near Aranthur's head.  'Be silent,' the priest said.  'If the boys choose to save the man, what business is it of yours, slayer? 

The man in brown put his sword back in his scabbard and stepped back, offended.

The priest knelt in the blood.  He began to sing tunelessly.

The three of them laboured together.  Tiy and the priest knew their business and all Aranthur had to do was keep the thumbs of his two hands locked together until relieved, like a besieged army.  The two sang together in low voices.

Lecne burst in among them.  'Are you a healer, priest?  Then for Sun's sake come and save my father.'

The priest neither looked up nor ceased his singing.

'My father is a good man.  This man was a killer!' the young man said.

The singing went on. 

'What kind of justice is this?' Lecne shouted at the priest.  'My father is dying and you are serving a murderer!'

The priest sat back on his heels, his face gray.  He made the sign of the sun over the soldier's head.

'You can let go, now,' Tiy said softly.

Aranthur had trouble focusing and his hands were stuck together with the man's blood. 

'I might ruin it,' he breathed.

'You can't ruin it,' Tiy said.  'He's dead.'

'Now will you come to my father?' Lecne begged.

'I will,' Tiy said. 'My master has spent himself.'

'On the criminal!' Lecne spat.

The old priest slumped and hung his head.

Tiy Drako rose smoothly to his feet.  'We treat all men the same,' he said carefully. He was not yet as good as most priests at controlling his face and his voice.

'All men are not the same,' Lecne said.

'How wise of you,' Tiy said.  'No -- I did not mean that -- I'm sorry.'

He went toward the huddle around the fallen innkeeper.  The churgeon was working as fast as he was able, but he had no power, only craft.  The woman stood in the alcove from which Aranthur had emerged, reloading her puffer from a small flask. 

Aranthur got up off the floor slowly.  Most of all, he wanted the blood off his hands, and his feet.  Without apparent volition, he began to move stiffly to the kitchens, where he knew there was hot water.

He found himself nose to nose with the woman.  She had put a new charge into the barrel of the deadly object and was winding the clockwork wheel that drove its spirit--or so he understood.  She looked up under her lashes at him.

He avoided her eyes.  'If you have the power,' he said quietly, and paused. 'You might use it.'

She winced.  'If I had any power left, you think I'd use this cannon?' she asked.  'You--?'

'Yes,' he said savagely.  'I retrieved your cases under your compulsion.'

She looked away.  'I'm sorry,' she said.  She was not, in fact, sorry.  'Where are they, then? she asked sweetly.  'More than one?' she asked.

He had to push past her.  They were very close.  He was aware of her aura and aware, too, of the blood all over him.  She smelled like a temple--incense and a bitter tang like musk. 'You could help the innkeeper,' he said.

'I can't expend my reserve,' she said.  'I--overspend.  You are the boy who brought me in from the snow?'

The churgeon was shaking his head.

He nodded.  'Ah--you burn yourself?'

She nodded.  'Why did I tell you that?' she asked.

'Can you save the innkeeper?' he asked.

'Probably,' she admitted, not meeting his eyes.  He could smell her breath.  She ate cloves.

'Can you channel?' he asked her.

She looked at him and gave a smile --a nasty little smile.  'Yes,' she said.

'I have power.  A little--'

'Sunlight, you're like a customer.  Alright, sweetheart.  Come.'  She grabbed his hand and a vice grip and dragged him to the side of the innkeeper.  Lecne was kneeling on one side of his father and the churgeon was holding his good hand mutely on the other side.  Donna Cucina was sitting on her heels, praying.

'You asked for this, sweetie,' she said. 

Everything went black.


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