To find a home and then to have to leave it before ever seeing it. It was hard for any homeless, but for the tribe-less it cut to the heart. Gring felt that pain like a claw ripping at her innards, and only the steadfast guiding of Rahak dir corin Aghender got her through the first days of desolation.
That the leader had given her his name without a moments doubt also helped. She wondered if she'd been able to display such a show of trust in his place. Probably not, and that should have shamed her, but it never did. She had Rahak to thank for that as well.
The war leader made sure she never had a chance to grab the shame and hide it within her. How he knew she would have tried she couldn't understand, and as she refrained from even the subtlest of walking of his surface thoughts she couldn't learn without asking. That, however, would have shamed her no matter what he tried, and so she refrained from that as well so as not to place any extra burden on him.
The previous night they had crossed a border of sorts. They were back on the fields clinging to Ri Nachi.
One mission. To strike at the heart of a kingdom. She had expected to die in the attempt but not any longer. Every day they travelled halfmen warriors joined them, some accompanied by human warriors, all silent. How they found them they never told, and she never asked.
In what spread out on the moonlit fields Karia, his men and she was only a small group. There were hundreds of silent men methodically moving across the fields. Not in the disciplined but predictable pattern the colonel from Keen would have chosen, but with a confidence born of purpose nonetheless.
Small clusters of shadows reached the walls. A few swam the moat, and not once could she hear a sound. The warriors from Ri Kordari had brought their own mages. She could feel the power singing in her mind, but to those not brought into the secret of the senses they would be invisible and inaudible. She couldn't even smell the men around her. Not that it mattered. Ri Nachi had its own stench which would have covered the smell of sweat and fear, but whoever was responsible for hiding their approach wanted to be thorough.
When the first scaled the walls she held her breath like any halfman, scared she would give them away if her nostrils disturbed the air. Still no alarm was sounded and soon she climbed the walls herself.
Inside she knew they had only managed the easy part, and she saw how the killing started ahead of her. Not all guards were asleep, and a few had sparks strong enough to alert them to the wrongness of the night.
When they reached the castle they would be discovered. Nothing could prevent that. They were simply too many to hide from a strong mindwalker, and she expected nothing less than the strongest Ri Khi could offer around its royalty.
They waited. The moon vanished behind a cloud that shouldn't have been there and the final assault begun.
Whoever worked the gift dropped all subtlety and the shadows became a swarm of halfmen and humans dashing up stairs, climbing walls with grappling hooks and ropes and smashing windows to get inside.
A horn sounded. At the agreed signal she closed her eyes and covered her ears. The screech still forced her to the ground, and through closed eyelids she could feel how the night burst into glaring daylight. Then darkness, and silence.
She opened her eyes and ran.
All around her defenders flailed blindly before they went down under swords and daggers. She ripped through a throat and threw another into the moat. These weren't who they had come for. If they lived she didn't care.
Ahead of her soldiers closed the gates and barred them from the inside. Then sudden heat, but not of fire. Whoever the jump mage was he lacked Escha's strength and skill. Too much of the gift was used to control the power, and too little to achieve what the mage attempted, but it was strong enough. One half of the gates simply vanished before the mage collapsed to the ground.
She didn't wait to see what had become of him. The opening was still easily defended and she had no intention to make a closer acquaintance with the over sized crossbows favoured in Ri Khi.
Four leaps and a roar later she was in the centre of chaos, arms flailing, claws ripping and tearing and tusks closing over enemy faces over and over again. Battle madness took her and she danced to the music of death.
Around her men screamed and died, pleaded and fought, but they were like dream ghosts, immaterial, unimportant until the moment they became targets for her frenzy. Only then did they take form just to vanish again when they became broken and shredded remnants of thinking beings. She dropped the bodies where she killed, clawed and ripped an arm out of its socket and used it as a weapon for a while until the bones were so mangled she could no longer crush men with it.
When the entry hall emptied she rushed along a corridor, found another hall and took the stairs.
Speed was of essence here. Even in her trance she knew that. They needed to kill faster than reinforcements could arrive, kill so fast arriving soldiers chose to flee rather than join in the defence of a lost cause. They were immaterial as well. Defenders only, not targets of their own.
Deep inside the castle, several stairs up, lay the chambers where their real targets lived, and she had to get there before they managed to gather their mages and flee out of reach.
A young lordling arrived from a room, half naked, dazed eyes but with a sword in his hand. She brushed him aside. It was faster than killing.
Another flight of stairs had her viewing more exceptional finery, living statues, draperies, paintings and the idiosyncratic artwork of Ri Khi she couldn't begin to grasp.
She passed under a line of lamps usually only found in Verd, artefacts from a time when magecrafters had made Verd famous for the riches it produced, but to her they mostly meant light, and direction. The enemy could as well have painted signs for her to follow, and she never veered from the mage crafted lamps.
Behind her sounds of heavy feet reached her, and she turned to assess the new threat. Humans, with Rahak leading them. They caught up with her just a she turned through a doorway and entered a large hall. A courtroom or reception hall, she wasn't certain.
As Rahak overtook her he offered her an ironic growl and waved his warriors onward. They rushed over priceless mats, leaving red footprints as proof of their bloody work, and just as the hall widened soldiers emerged from the other end.
Careful now. She forced the frenzy under control. These were not the same as those guarding the outer walls. Cold eyes, even from this distance she saw the calculating, detached looks they gave as they readied weapons.
Rahak noticed it as well. He slowed and fell back into a defensive stance. She followed his movements and settled into a crouch behind the warriors. If true warriors over twice the size of the defenders deemed caution to be in order she wasn't going to play out any overconfidence.
And it was time for her to fulfil her mission. This time there would be no unknowing deaths. Those guilty should know why they died.
She wrapped herself in the gift, touched each warrior lightly with a thread of power and extended new ones to the enemy, and beyond. The minds behind the crime hid behind that screen of armed men. As she became aware of minds she touched them, walked their fears and surprise, but she never walked deep.
She never did uninvited. Enemy or not, it didn't matter. Maybe she would have found out faster if she did, but human mindwalkers didn't violate the gift that way. Golden did, she knew that for a certain now.
The memory of Neritan discoloured a strand, and she quickly reasserted control over it. Sharing language only, she wasn't here to lend her thoughts to anyone.
Rahak hissed his approval and relaxed his swords a little.
"Go! We are here for the king mother."
The defenders didn't move.
"Stand down! We are not here to harm your king."
We are not? Gring didn't know that. What happened here? She pushed herself back in her mind and concentrated on handling her powers. She had promised to amplify the spoken words as well as translate them. That took more of her that she was used to, but she didn't intend to overextend herself the way that jump mage had done at the gates.
Rahak repeated his request, and the tension crackling between the armed groups slowly sank back. They were the king's defenders. That much was certain, but she'd been as certain they'd come here for him.
Then the king entered the hall, and by now she was aware they'd arrived in the throne room. The simple chair between the defenders was the throne of Ri Khi. She hadn't even given the unadorned and bruised piece of furniture a single glance until the king sat in it.
A young man but probably older than he looked. They usually were from Ri Khi, or the halfmen from Braka looked older than they were. She didn't know, hadn't really considered the differences between one halfman and another until she met Arthur, and Harbend, and Nakora, always Nakora. Karia, however, tipped the scales once and forever.
She wondered where he had gone. By all rights he should be here now.
With that thought firmly in mind she sent a single strand back, through the doorway, down the corridor and a flight of stairs, and searched. She tasted rooms where people hid, corridors along which soldiers fled and she found Karia. He was on his way here and even managed a brief smile when she made her presence clear to him.
Growling with mirth she gave him the directions here and felt how he and his men disengaged from the battle and ran for the stairs.
"What is the meaning of this," the king said suddenly. He didn't tremble much. For anyone but a mindwalker it would have seemed he believed he was firmly in control of the situation, but she could smell his uncertainty with senses enhanced by her handling of the gift.
"We have come for the king mother," Rahak repeated again. "Order your men to stand down!"
The king blinked and sat up straighter. "I am Panared, king of Ri Khi. Why should I do your biddings human?"
"You should undo wrong, because you are king. The king mother has done wrong. She must be undone."
The king mother? But she's as much a woman as Nakora was. Why should she be involved in this?
"State your accusations and leave," Panared ordered.
"Nakora of the Weinak family is dead."
A shadow of grief spread over the young king's face. "I know. Clan leader Garak has paid for the killing of her murderers. I have chosen not to stand in his way."
That was more news. Had the court known of their mission for vengeance all along? Had Neritan told them?
"When the caravan returned with only an imperial escort I personally ordered an investigation. I have confirmed the unlawful murder of Nakora of the Weinak family. In honour of her I also ordered the family risen to full clan."
Gring coughed with surprise. Her hold of the gift faltered for a moment and she hastily grasped control of it once more. The second time she almost lost it during a single session. She would shame her teachers if she didn't keep her threads in order.
"We are aware of this. Rumours spread. When young Garak spread his coins tongues loosened further than he had planned."
And events slowly unfolded for Gring. It hadn't been a coincidence that they'd encountered the war party so far inside Ri Khi.
"And you still believe I had something to do with her death?"
"We have already told you that is not the case. The king mother, however, is guilty of a vile crime and must be undone."
"Why should my mother involve herself?"
"We know young Weinak caught your interest. We know you made true the dreams of a warrior girl."
King Panared blushed.
"We know you acted, not like an oath breaker but with the honour a halfman can muster. The king mother did not. She must be undone."
And Gring had a flash of events from long before she had ever met an outworlder taleweaver. She saw a young king infatuated with a sword woman and how he gave her her due in a land where women usually had none. She understood a mother's fear and jealousy, and she guessed the rest.
"Weinak's murderers forced her mating before they killed her. Perhaps they would have done so anyway. Halfmen ways are not easy for humans to understand. The king mother sent coins to ensure that the mating took place before the killing. She must be undone."
This time Panared paled. "You dare accuse my mother of an atrocity like that?"
Rahak's fur bristled with rage, and Gring felt how he barely managed to keep his glands closed. "We are human. We serve Cor. We do not lie. You could ask anyone who serves Cor when a human in His service last lied."
So it was true that the tribe following the white god of war and healing were as strict in their ways as her own. More so, she admitted. No human had ever been imbued with Cor's powers, but the same was not true for her own.
She saw the young king tilt his head, swallow once and stand. "I apologize," he said, and there was a tone of slowly burning wrath in his voice. "My mother sleeps in the south wing. I will have her fetched."
"The king mother does not sleep. She and her entourage are on their way here to sway the mind of a king."
"I understand," came the curt reply.
Rahak rose to full height. "You do not understand, young king. We are finished here. You have been proven guilty of being born by the king mother. She must be undone."
Panared stared back. Something unflinching had entered his eyes, and his mind was hard as a golden's. "I understand," he said at last.
"Mindwalker, we are finished here. Follow!"
Gring looked up just in time to feel the presence of Karia behind her. He had entered the throne room undetected when she concentrated on not to lose control of her gift a third time. With him stood all his sworn men, stone faced, silent. They had listened, and understood long before the message came clear to King Panared.
They turned and followed Rahak out, and so did Gring. She threw a last glance over her shoulder and looked at the boy king who had just grown into a man. A passing feeling of regret touched her. Then she left the throne room before the sound of running feet made their way into it from behind the throne.
Slowly, filled with sorrow, she made her way down the stairs. Above and behind her she heard loud voices of fear and denial. Then a sharp command. Then the screaming started.
Harbend hurried through the streets. Something had happened in the royal castle the day before, something, he suspected, that intruded on his revenge. There was little he could do about it. Alone he was helpless. He needed swordsmen but Ri Nachi wasn't the place to buy them.
Neritan Hwain had solved that problem for him. Not by doing anything but by sharing information. Somehow the death of his uncle hadn't been an accident. The entire main line of his clan had been killed, as had his father and brothers.
He would carry out the vengeance for them later, but for the moment he planned to make the most of his sudden rise in power. Clan leader. Duke as they called it in the Midlands and the northern empire.
Vast riches waited for him home in Khi. That was an unnatural word. Khi hadn't been home for many years. Now it was again, by definition. And home held armed men. Thousands upon thousand of armed men. From his clan only he could field an army larger and better equipped than the entire kingdom of Ri Khi. Not that he intended to, but a few hundred men jumped here with the help of Khar Escha would allow him to finish what he had started.
After that he would have to bring the killing all the way to Khi. For a different reason, of course, but killing just the same.
Getting to Khi wouldn't be too hard on the khar, but Harbend wondered how much he would have to pay for the jump back.
Two or three hundred men should suffice. At least if he included several mindwalkers and a few magehealers. He firmly trampled the tiny voice inside him that protested against using Escha like a common mercenary. For each need a resource, for each resource a price. Escha could name his, and Harbend would pay.
He'd renegaded on one principle though. When the wagons arrived in Ri Nachi he sold his goods, horses and even the wagons. That lost him money he should have made in Verd.
He even paid his drivers enough to travel back to Keen in style, which cost him even more, but he didn't want to leave a stain on his reputation in Keen. Reputation was also a currency. Last he ordered a letter of money so that Arthur would be paid in full, with a small interest to cover the risk he'd taken.
When all was done he waited for Escha under the jump tower south of Ri Nachi. He arrived with that sad smile he carried on his face these days, and after a short nod he jumped them both onto the tower. There he rested briefly before gathering enough of the power for Harbend to marvel, and they jumped.
"Gone home? What do you mean with gone home?"
Neritan sighed and smiled. "Duke Garak has unfinished affairs. To set them in order he had to go home first."
Karia shrugged. He admired Gring for trying, but silently he suspected that the caravan chief was a lost cause.
"Gring, if she says he's gone, he's gone. There's nothing we can do here, not with Khar Escha gone with him."
"He was a good man. I would see him saved yet."
Karia bowed. "Was, Gring. Was. He's lost in his world of revenge, and he's become powerful as well. He'll use that power to finish his revenge. I'm sorry, but I believe he ate his soul even before we came here."
Karia dared interrupt her despite her size. They were enemies no longer. "Leave be. Save those who can be saved. There's war brewing to the south, I've heard. Erkateren starves. Please, honour Nakora's memory among those still living."
The golden mage smiled knowingly and he turned to her. "And you stay out of my head. I hold you in lower esteem than a gherin. Whatever honour you once held you lost it all. Return to your true home before you destroy more lives!"
"Despite what you believe we are not evil," she replied.
"I know, just uncaring. That's where honour comes in," he said in turn. Just because they lived forever they thought they knew everything as well. Well, she was wrong.
He turned to the khraga. "Gring, are we done?"
She looked back. Soft, brown eyes in a sea of black fur. "I thought you would return home now. You have paid your sentence."
Karia smiled back. He even made an effort to show as much teeth as possible. "I think not. It will be a long time before I return to Belgera, if ever. They worded my banishment kindly, but it's for life. My men could, of course. One or two will, I reckon, but not all."
"You are a strange one. I value your friendship, Karia Graig."
Behind them Neritan's smile turned smug, but Karia let it be. He'd steered Gring from the impossible. It hurt a little to desert a good man, but Harbend was no longer a good man. He would have to save himself.
"So do I," he replied and laughed. "What would I do without it?"
Gring grunted a question.
"Oh well, I like you as well," Karia said and sauntered down the stairs and back out on the streets of Ri Nachi again.
Behind him Gring's heavy steps muted her growl a little, but only a little. He laughed again.
They made good speed south. Close to the Roadhouse, or what was left of it anyway, Karia released two of his men from their oaths, and they watched the pair ride up the mountain road on their way back across the Sea of Grass to Braka. A mere season earlier Gring wouldn't have given them much of a chance to make it all the way, but now she wondered. The halfmen nomads would do well to leave them alone.
She slung her bow across her shoulder and took the first steps in another direction. Erkateren. What did it look like? Another nest of halfmen?
Unworthy thought! Another thing to learn from. Halfmen differed among them just as much as humans did. Karia had proven that, as had Rahak. Besides she remembered the time when Harbend had found himself forced to order the execution of traders on their way to Braka. As early as that a clear division between those from Erkateren and those from Ri Khi had become visible.
Were those differences the reasons halfmen loved their wars so much? Were they perhaps the reason they too often killed without honour?
She grunted, kicked a small stone off the road and walked on. Erkateren then. Another place, and one people called home. Like Rahak did.
His insistence to join her had surprised Karia, but she felt the signs already. Soon she would be in season. She was certain both his followers would put up a mock fight for the right to mate with her, but they were just followers.
Karia wouldn't understand, but he would respect her need when the days came. Another reason to give him an equal amount of respect in return, and his men.
Somewhere far to the west a taleweaver she had promised to protect had to fend for himself, but it was in a place where her kind weren't welcome, neither as humans nor as mindwalkers. She couldn't go there, but walking through Erkateren, and maybe Vimarin, giving whatever help they could, she could come closer. If the brewing wars spread, like wars had a tendency to do, Arthur was certain to follow. Taleweavers were drawn to events of change.