When Demons Walk
Sham sat on a low stone fence in the shadows of an alley pulling on her boots. In the darkness where even the moonlight failed to reach, a sea breeze caressed her hair, and she drew in a deep breath of the fresh air.
Even the sea smelled different here in the hilly area of Landsend. The Cybellian conquerors, like the Southwood nobles before them, had chosen to make their homes far from the wharves. In Purgatory, the westside slum where Sham lived, the ocean air smelled like dead fish, old garbage, and despair.
She stood up and ran her hands lightly over the silk of her courier's tunic to make sure that the black and gray material hung properly. She had to fluff the opaque sleeves twice to keep them from revealing odd bulges where she stored the tools of her trade.
It was still early in the winter season, so the silk was warm enough if she kept moving, but she was glad the trousers were made of heavier material. After bundling her other clothes, she tucked them out of sight in the lower limbs of a tree that graced the garden behind a wealthy merchant's house.
Messengers were common on the streets of Landsend, the capital of Southwood, even in the darkness of early morning. Female messengers were unheard of, but Sham was lightly built and, on the streets, could pass easily as a boy — as she had for the last twelve years. Even the long braid that hung down her back was not out of place. Only recently had the Southwood men begun to crop their hair like the Easterners who had conquered them.
As she strode through the empty, moonlit street, she noticed a guardsman standing near a cross street watching her.
The east-city guards were as different from the guards of Purgatory as the smell of sweetsalt was from rotting fish. Most of them were younger sons of Cybellian merchants and traders rather than the glorified street thugs who were supposed to keep order in the less prosperous areas of town.
The guard caught Sham's eye and she waved to him. He responded with a nod and waited for her path to bring her nearer.
"Late night," he commented.
She noticed with hidden amusement that he was even younger than she'd thought — and bored as well to talk to a mere messenger.
"Early morning, messire," she grumbled cheerfully in Cybellian, not bothering to hide her Southwood accent since her white-blond hair kept her from claiming Cybellian birth — as long as she chose to leave it uncovered.
He smiled agreeably and she continued past him, careful to keep a rapid straight path and looking neither to the left nor the right until she'd traveled several blocks.
The house she was looking for was on the end of a block, and she waited until she'd turned the corner before giving it more than a casual glance. The hedge was too high for her to see much of the building, but there were no signs of occupation in the upper story. First glancing around to see if there was anyone watching her, Sham dropped to the ground and shimmied under the wall of greenery that enclosed her target for the evening.
The manicured lawn was tiny: land was expensive in this part of the city. The tall greenery that surrounded it kept out the faint illumination provided by the street light as well as the somewhat brighter light of the moon. Sham knelt where she was, watching the dark mansion intently for movement that might indicate someone was inside.
The three-storied edifice was newer than the hedge around it; the Eastern noble she was robbing had purchased an old manor and had it torn down and rebuilt in the Cybellian style as soon as the fighting had died down. Open-air windows on the second and third floor might have been useful in the hot, dry climate of Cybelle, but Landsend, despite its southern location, was wet and chilly in the winter months as the ocean current brought the cold waters from the other side of the world to the cliffs and bays of Southwood.
She smiled her approval of the new style of architecture, after all, she didn't intend to live in it. The open windows, even shuttered, made her job much easier than the closed, small windowed native styles. As she studied the building, she warmed her hands against her body. The night air was cool and warm hands gripped better than cold ones.
According to her informant, the owners of this particular house were currently enjoying a se'nnight at the hot pools a day's ride from Landsend. Some entrepreneurial Cybellian had taken over the abandoned buildings there, turning them into a pilgrimage temple to Altis, the god of the Cybellians.
The Cybellians didn't believe in the restless spirits who were responsible for the abandonment of the old settlement. They called the native people "backward" and "superstitious." Sham wondered if the protection of Altis would keep the ghosts under control — and hoped that it wouldn't.
However, she wasn't going to wait for the Wraiths of the Medicine Pools to attack the Cybellians. In her own small way, she continued the war that had officially been lost twelve years ago to the god-driven Cybellians and their eastern allies who crossed the Great Swamp with the modest goal of conquering the world. They might have failed to reach their objective, but Southwood and several other countries had fallen before the mercenary armies of Sianim backed by the remaining free countries were able to halt the Easterners short of the Western sea.
No one person could have stopped the Cybellian invasion of Southwood, certainly not the gently-bred daughter of the king's captain of the guards.
Sham put thoughts of the past sternly behind her. What was done was done; the future was all she could affect, and it was time to get on with it.
Using almost nonexistent hand-holds, she pulled herself up the walls. Setting her calloused fingers and the hard, narrow soles of her knee-high boots in the slight ledges where mortar separated stone, she climbed carefully to a second-floor window and sat on the narrow ledge to inspect the shuttered opening. The lip of one shutter covered the opening where both met, making it more difficult for a thief to get to the latch holding them securely closed.
Her informant, the younger brother of the owner's former mistress, had said that the wooden shutters were held closed by a simple hook-latch. A common enough fastening, but not the only possibility, and it was necessary for her to know exactly what she was dealing with in order to open it.
Closing her eyes, she put a forefinger on the wooden panels and muttered a few words in a language that had been out of use for living memory — except for wizards like Sham. The shutter was too thick for her to hear the faint click of the latch hook falling against the wood, but she could tell it was done when they opened slightly.
She slid to one side of the window ledge and used her fingertips to open one of the shutters. Stealthily, she entered the building and pulled the panel closed, hooking the latch behind her. Magic was a useful tool for a thief, especially when her victims didn't believe in it.
Twelve years ago they had believed in it, called it evil, and hunted down anyone they thought might be a magic user. Sham rubbed her temples as if that would push away the memories. Most of that had stopped after the current Reeve took control of Southwood. Now anyone who believed in magic, Easterner or Southwoodsman was ridiculed.
She stood in a small sitting room that smelled of linseed oil and wax. With the shutters closed the room was awash in shadows.
Without moving for fear of knocking something over, she drew magic from a place that was not quite a part of this world. She pushed aside the familiar barrier and tugged loose a small bit, just enough for her purpose. Holding it tightly she molded it into the shape she wanted, using gestures and words to guide her deft manipulation.
Magic had always felt to her as if she held some incredible substance that was ice-cold but warmed her hands anyway. With a pushing gesture she flung it away, watching its white-hot glow with a mage's talent, she observed how it spread and penetrated the walls around her.
If there was someone here, she'd know shortly. Her informant said that tonight was the caretaker's night off and he generally spent it at a local pub — but it never hurt to be certain. When nothing happened after a count of twenty, she was satisfied she was the only person in the building.
The magelight that she called was dim, but it lit her way satisfactorily through the sparingly-furnished halls. She passed by several small items of value without a second glance. If she had been interested in money, she would have left Southwood long ago; in the unconquered lands, a magician of her caliber could live more than comfortably.
She wandered through the building until she found the room the boy had described as the lord's study. She drew a gold piece from one of her pockets and murmured to it, casting an affinity spell, then tossed it into the air. It spun lightly in the air, glinting brightly in the magelight. It clinked heavily when it landed on the hard floor, spinning on an edge before it came to rest — hopefully on top of the floor vault where the master of the house kept his gold.
Drawing her magelight near the floor, she inspected the parquet flooring carefully. Under direct light she could just make out the subtle difference in fit where a group of tiles were slightly higher than the rest. Satisfied she'd found the vault, she starting looking for the release lever to open it.
Under the mahogany desk one of the wooden tiles was noticeably higher than those around it. She tried pushing on it to no effect, but it pulled up easily with a click followed by a similar sound from the vault.
She pulled off the loosened section of flooring and peered below. In the small recess there were several leather bags in a neat row next to a stack of jewelry boxes. Lifting one of the sacks, she found it filled with gold coins. With a smile of satisfaction, she counted twenty-three into a pouch that she carried under her silk tunic. Finished, she replaced the bag among its fellows and arranged the sacks so that they looked much as they had before she'd taken her plunder.
She didn't even think of looking through the jewelry. It wasn't that she was opposed to robbery, after all, that was how she made her living — but tonight she sought retribution and ordinary thievery had no place in it. After shutting the vault she reset the tile under the desk and left the room.
She left his study to continue her explorations. The money was only a third of what she came to do here this night. She needed to find the house's shrine to Altis — all the Cybellian nobles had one. There was also the matter of a flute this noble had recently purchased — one that bore a striking resemblance an artifact the Old Man, her teacher, had once owned. Before she left, she intended to see if it was indeed the one he had lost.
The house looked odd to her Southwood-bred eyes. The rooms were too big and hard to heat, separated by curtains rather than doors. Floors had been left bare and polished rather than strewn with rushes. No wonder they left their houses to bask in steambaths, haunted or not: the chill air crept through this house as if this were a centuries-old, drafty castle rather than a newly built manor.
She climbed the back stairs to the third floor and found a nursery, the servant's quarters and a store room — but no flute. Back on the second floor, she continued her explorations. She knew that this particular nobleman collected instruments of all kinds, so he ought to have a music room somewhere. She could have asked her informant, but she preferred to keep her questions general. With no one in the building, she had plenty of time to explore.
The music room was by the main stairway on the second floor, a small room dominated by the great harp that sat in the middle of the floor. Several other large instruments were on their own stands, but the smaller ones were on various tables and shelves that lined the walls.
She found the flute she was looking for resting casually on a shelf next to a lap-harp, as if it were nothing but the finely crafted, eight-holed flute that it appeared. Carved from a light-colored wood and inlaid with small bits of semiprecious blue stone, the flute looked as ancient as it was. It was more battered than she'd remembered it; several pieces of stone were missing and there was a deep scratch on one side. Even so, she knew it was the Old Man's: there was no mistaking the magic in it.
She shook her head at the ignorance that left such a thing within easy reach of anyone who strolled through the room. It was part of the magic of the flute that it attracted anyone able to use its powers: that the house still stood was proof that the Easterners had no magic in their souls. Impulsively, she lifted it to her lips and blew once briefly, smiling as the off-pitch note echoed weirdly through the house.
She wondered if the nobleman had yet tried to play the instrument and been disappointed by the flat, lifeless tones. She blew again, letting the single tone echo in the empty house. The magic the flute summoned made her fingertips tingle, and the note lifted until it was true and bright.
Smiling, she pulled it away from her lips, holding the magic a moment before letting it free, unformed. She felt a momentary warmth that brushed her face before it was swallowed by the cold room.
She'd once heard the Old Man play this flute with true skill, but he seldom had taken it out, preferring more mundane instruments for casual practice. Until she'd heard of its sale, Sham had thought the flute had burned with most of the rest of his effects when the Cybellians had taken the Castle.
Respectfully, she slipped the flute into a hidden pocket on the inside of the sleeve of her undershirt, inspecting the blousy sleeve of her outer shirt to make certain the lump wasn't obvious. Now she had only to find the altar.
All of the Easterners had a room dedicated to Altis in their houses, usually near the entrance where the all-seeing eyes could protect the inhabitants. So she took the central staircase to the first floor.
It took her much less time to find the altar than it had to find the music room. At the base of the stairs were a set of golden velvet curtains. Moving the heavy drapery dislodged a cloud of dust, and left her, coughing in the sanctuary of the Easterner's god.
It was no bigger than a large closet, and filled with a musty odor. Despite the obvious signs of disuse, the shrine more than made up anything it lacked in size by sheer gaudiness.
Gold and precious gems covered the back wall in a glittering mosaic, creating the feline symbol that represented the god Altis. The emeralds that formed the cat's glittering eyes watched indifferently as Sham palmed three of the coins she'd stolen earlier.
The first time she'd done this, the cat's eyes had frightened her. She'd waited for lightning to strike as she invoked her spell, but nothing had happened then, or since. Still, she couldn't help the chill that crept up her spine. As a warrior recognizes his enemy in battle, she gave a nod to the green eyes that watched her, then she turned to her work.
Gold was the easiest of all of the metals to work magic upon, so it didn't take her long to melt Altis's cat from the back of the coins. Two of them she left blank, but on the third she drew a rune that invited bad-luck upon the house.
She held the third coin over the star on the cat's forehead and covered the green eyes with the other two, blinding the cat. Pressing her thumbs on the eyes and her index fingers on the star, she muttered softly to herself until the golden coins had disappeared, leaving the cat mosaic apparently unchanged.
She stepped back and rubbed her hands unconsciously. The rune magic she used was not black; not quite — but it was not precisely good either and she never felt quite clean after working it. Not that it would do much harm.
The Archmage might have been able to use such a rune to bring disaster upon the house; the Old Man could have made the rune function for several years; the best that she had done was ten months.
At the thought of the man who was her teacher, Sham reluctantly put her hands on the invisible coins and placed a limit to the physical harm the rune could work: no one would be permanently injured as a result of the spell. Since she was doing this for him, she needed to follow his rules.
It had taken her years to discover who had been on the jury that had sentenced her mentor to darkness and pain for the remainder of his days. The records that were kept in the early days of occupation were skimpy and difficult for even the most innovative thief to get her hands on. The Old Man wouldn't tell her — he was a gentle man not given to vengeance.
One night though, he'd cried out a name as he thrashed in a nighttime reliving. Sham used that name to question an old court scribe. From him came three other names. She questioned others and offered money for information until she had the names of all forty members of the tribune who decided unanimously to cripple the sorcerer's hands and blind him to insure that he never work magic again. Since that time she'd visited the houses of twenty- eight of the forty as the opportunity presented itself. This house belonged to the twenty-ninth.
If she'd known the names at first, doubtless she would have destroyed them all, but the Old Man's gentleness had done its work. Certainly he would be upset about what little she'd managed to do — if he ever found out. She didn't intend that he should.
It was enough for her that she exacted a price from them — a price they would possibly never miss. The bad luck that would haunt them for a while was nothing akin to the pain the Old Man would suffer for the rest of his life. They would shrug it off and go on with their lives, but she would know that they had paid.
The gold she took she kept safely in a hidden place, and soon now, she would have the resources needed to buy a small place in the country. The Old Man had been born and raised in the fields of northern Southwood and he lived in the city perforce. He had given her a reason to live after her parents had been killed when the Castle fell: this was something that she, with unknowing help of the men who had destroyed him, could give him back.
She exited the mansion by the front door, using her magic to trip the locks behind her. Squeezing under the hedge again, she made sure that the street was deserted before completely leaving the protection of the shadows. With luck it would be months before anyone discovered the theft. She hoped it wasn't blamed on some poor servant, but that was their business and none of hers.
This time she merely waved at the guard as she trotted past him, seemingly intent on the message she carried back to her employer. By the time a week was gone, he'd never remember her at all.
She retrieved her bundle of clothing and stopped in the alley that marked the edge of the unofficial but understood border that marked Purgatory. Quickly she exchanged the expensive silk for worn cotton pants, a ragged, baggy shirt, and a stained leather jerkin that disguised her sex much more reliably than the courier's garb. The undershirt, with its pockets, she left on.
For most people, walking at night in Purgatory was a dangerous proposition. But Sham's face was well known and stealing from a mage was sure to bring ill-luck to the thieves. That was protection enough from the Southwood natives, who already had more bad luck than they needed.
Like the rest of the Easterners who had come after the initial attack on Southwood, the Cybellian gutter-thugs generally did not believe in magic. But they were wary enough of her skill with the knife or dagger that they didn't attempt the well-known emptiness of her purse and pockets.
If any of them had known she was female, it would have been different.
Sham walked a while to make sure that no one followed her, casually nodding to one acquaintance and exchanging warm insults with another. As she came down the hill to the old docks, she used her magic to gather the shadows to her until they hid her from a casual glance.
It was strangely quiet at the docks without the constant murmurs that the waves usually made even in the calmest time. The sea was at Spirit Tide, leaving a mile-wide stretch of wet, debris-covered sand well below the lowest of the cliff tops that usually served as the beach.
The daily tides dropped the ocean level mere feet down the support timbers of the docks and allowed only the tops of the cliffs to be exposed to the air. Only once each month did the Spirit Tide expose the pale stretch of beach for a tenth part of a day. One month it would fall during the night and the next during the day.
The support pillars of the docks rose high into the air, backlit by moonlight. The barnacles that covered them drying for the few short hours that the tide was out. Years of salt water and tides had marred the thick wooden posts, and neglect had left the upper surface laced with missing and rotting boards.
The long expanse of beach was covered with the litter of the ocean; barrels and broken bits of refuse lay between the cracked shells and swollen remains of sea-denizens. Once in a while, the broken remains of a ship that the sea had taken would appear, only to be washed out with the next turn of the tide. Once, it was said, an ancient gold-laden vessel had washed up on the desolate weed-covered sands, and the king of Southwood had used the precious metal to form the great doors of the Castle.
Stories were told of the dead who walked the beach, searching for their loved ones to the creaking of the drying dock-timbers. There was enough truth in that to keep the beach clear of all but the most desperate slum-scavenger at night. By the light of day, the sands of Spirit Beach were fair hunting for all who were willing to fight with their fellow thugs for what treasures the sea had left behind.
When the western docks had been in use, the giant bell on the cliffs rang out as the waters began to recede, and the few ships that had chosen to race the tide would unfurl their sails and their masters would hope that they hadn't waited too long and stranded themselves on the land where they would be crushed by the returning waters.
It had been a long time since the bell had been rung, as the Cybellian overlords preferred the shoaly bay on the eastern side of the peninsula upon which Landsend was built. They were uncomfortable with the dangers of the Spirit Tide, and Purgatory, once a small blight in the center of the city, had quickly spread its leprous mantle to encompass the abandoned western docks. Several years earlier the heavy bell had fallen from its mounting and landed in the sea to be swallowed by the shifting ocean sands, but the frame on which it had hung was still standing.
Near the docks, higher cliff peaks rose in the air, looking far larger than they did during normal tides. Sham made her way through the rocks of the cliffs, finally laying down on her belly to reach the undercut ledge below.
From the ledge, safely hidden from view hung a rotted ladder that owed its continued existence more to her magic than any integrity left in the wood and rope. She used the ladder to climb most of the way down the slime-coated cliffs. At the last rung she hung by her arms and dropped two body-lengths to the soft sands below.
Warily she scanned the beaches for the predators that sometimes hunted here, though it was dark enough in the shadow of the cliffs that she wouldn't be able to see anything until it was upon her anyway. She had never discovered anything hunting here herself, but she'd come upon places where something had fed often enough that she remained cautious.
Pulling the shadows more tightly around her, she found the entrance to the cave system that riddled the ancient limestone cliffs, carved by the countless years of water pounding at the wall. When she'd been very young and the Old Man had been Maur, the King's Sorcerer, he'd showed her the caves.
"What is this, Master Maur?" she asked, stretching to place her fingers on the edges of the runes that marked one of the openings.
Maur, his chestnut hair tinged with grey at his temples, smiled down at her proudly. "Wards, child. To keep people out."
She thought about it for a moment. "They're not complete, are they?"
Pleased, the mage crouched beside her. "How would you finish them?"
She frowned at the patterns before her and traced a rune below the last one. As she finished, magic flared and she snatched her fingers back. The opening solidified until she faced a wall where a cave had been.
"Good girl," Maur laughed. Standing up, he ruffled her hair with one hand as he unworked the wardings with another.
"Who put them there, Master?" she asked.
"Now that's a story," he said, leading the way into the tunnel. "I first found this cave when I was a young man, myself. Have you ever heard the stories of Golden Jo?"
She tilted her head and grinned, "Who hasn't? There aren't many thieves with the —" she hastily dropped the word she'd picked up from her father's men and substituted something less shocking "er— rashness to rob the king in his own chambers."
Maur waited as he did when she hadn't caught something she should have; so she thought more about what he'd said. It took her a moment to connect a young Maur with Golden Jo.
Incredulously she asked, "This is where you found the king's lost crown?"
"I thought you did that with magic," for a moment she was disappointed; finding the crown was touted as proof of Maur's powers throughout Southwood.
"Magic," replied Maur, tapping on the runes,"— wit, and a little luck are always more powerful than magic alone. Remember that. I also found the remains of Golden Jo next to the crown — not much left of him after all those years. It looked like he took too much time storing the crown and got trapped in the cave. From the scorch marks in the cave and on the bones, I'd say that he tried to teleport and drew more magic than he could handle. All in all it's a better way to go than dying of thirst."
"He had luck and magic," said Sham slowly, "but his wits weren't as sharp as they should have been if he trapped himself here."
Maur nodded, "You remember that, child. Never trust too much to any one of the three — and don't stay in these caves too long."
When she'd decided to use the caves to store her cache, she'd renewed Golden Jo's runes. Even she couldn't see the mouth of the cave until she unworked the spell.
Once through the mouth and several steps into the cave beyond, she called her magelight. By its illumination, she worked her way upward through the damp tunnels until she passed the high-tide mark. There she took a narrow tunnel that bore left. The small grotto where she kept her treasures was well above the highest mark water had made.
She stored the coins in the oiled-leather pouch with the considerable pile she had already amassed. There were other things in the cave, too. She knelt and loosened one of the oilcloths that protected her treasures from dampness. When she was finished, she held a small footstool.
Large feet encased in neatly-darned, damp woolen socks rested on the battered footstool near the fire in her father's office. The warmth caused a faint mist to rise from the wool as her father wiggled his toes and set aside the crumb covered wooden platter.
His blond hair, the same shade as her own, was caught back by a red ribbon from her mother's favorite gown. His chain mail shirt, which he had not taken off, was the best of its kind, as befitted the captain of the King's Own Guards. Over the metal links he wore a wine-colored velvet surcoat, one arm torn where a sword had parted the cloth. Beneath the tear, she could see the edge of a bandage.
"Thank you, my dear, though I didn't expect to see you. I thought the sorcerer had you tied up with his work."
Shamera grinned. "Maur released me from my apprentice duties today at the king's request as Mother is needed soothing and terrifying the ladies of the court into behaving."
Her father laughed and shook his head. "If anyone can keep those hens in line it's Talia. Nothing is worse during a siege than a bunch of helpless ladies twittering and —"
His words were interrupted by the call of a battle horn. Her father's face paled, and his mouth turned grim.
He grabbed her by the shoulders and said hoarsely, "You find someplace — one of the tunnels the children play in — someplace safe and you go there now! Do you understand?"
Terrified by the fear in her father's face, Shamera nodded. "What's wrong?"
"Do as I ask," he snapped, drawing on his boots and reaching for his weapons. "The gates are open. You go hide until I come for you."
He never came.
Gently, Sham wrapped the oilcloth around the footstool and set it aside. The next bundle she unwrapped was considerably larger — a small, crudely-made chest.
She lifted the lid and revealed its contents. She set aside a faded scarlet ribbon, miscellaneous bits of jewelry, a palm sized ball of glass the Old Man had used to keep his hands limber, and a pillow embroidered neatly with stars and moon — her last attempt at needlework.
Under the pillow was another wooden box. This she took in her lap and unworked the magic that kept the lid closed. Inside were several items that she'd found while thieving. They weren't hers or the Old Man's, but like the flute they were better stored well out of the reach of fools: a gold and porcelain bowl that would gradually poison any who ate from it, a worn silver bracelet that kept the wearer from sleeping and several like items. She started to put the flute with them, then stopped.
The Old Man had nothing left from before — nothing but the flute she held in her hand. The farm would have to wait until she had the money, but the flute she would give to him now. She returned the flute to her hidden pocket and resealed the little box. Then she felt it, the surge of magic that signaled the return of the tide, involuntarily her eyes touched on the blackened walls of the cave.
She forced herself to set the seal on the larger chest carefully, but once that was done she rewrapped the oilcloth with haste and left the grotto at a dead run. Slipping and sliding she sped through the tunnels to the beach outside. Far out on the sands she could see the white line of the returning sea.
The sand was soft with water and sucked at her fleeing feet, causing her to stumble and slow. The short distance to the ladder seemed to stretch forever and the sands began to vibrate. By the time she'd reached the cliff below the ladder she could hear the roar of the ocean.
The cliff-side was slick with moisture and without the thread of magic that kept her fingers from slipping off the rocks she would never have reached the ladder.
"Magic," she gasped as her fingers closed over the bottom rung of the ladder, "— and luck to make up for lack of wits — I hope."
But there was no time to waste, if the wall of water hit while she was still on the ladder she would be crushed against the rocks. The ladder shook with the force of the returning water and she increased her efforts, ignoring the burning in the muscles of her arms and thighs.
The wind hit first, battering her against the hard rock cliff, and she spared a glance for the racing wall of water. As tall as the cliff she climbed, the foaming white mass covered the sands faster than a racing horse, the drumming of the surf echoing the beat of her heart. She couldn't help the wide grin that twisted her mouth as she fought to climb beyond the waves reach. The exhilaration of her race for survival helped add speed to her ascent.
Heart pounding she threw herself on the top of the low cliff where her ladder attached, then turned to watch the tremendous waves that swept across the last few yards of sand. The noise was incredible, so strong that she could feel it thrumming in her chest, and she breathed in deeply to savor the feeling.
She jumped back involuntarily as the ocean crashed into the cliff with a hollow boom that shook the ground and sent spray high into the air. Laughing, she ducked her head to protect her eyes, and the salt water showered harmlessly onto her hair and back as the waves retreated and pounded back again.
Sham had heard a sailor explain the reasons for the Spirit Tide that involved a geological accident, converging currents, and the moon; but she could feel the magic in the air as the water foamed and played. The beat of abundant power pulsed in the air, shaking the stone under her feet. It wasn't the kind of magic she could work — it was shaped already by other forces — but it was still tangible to senses attuned to magic.
She wasn't certain what made her turn away from the waves, but she froze when she saw that there was someone else watching the water hit the cliffs.
He hadn't seen her, where she crouched on her hidden ledge and the crashing waves were deafening, covering any sound she had made. If she stayed where she was, she could probably keep him from noticing her at all. She slide further toward the edge of her ledge, allowing herself to get a better look at the rider who dared Purgatory at night to see the Spirit Tide.
Unlike Sham, the man was in the open, clearly visible in the silver moonlight. A Cybellian warrior, she thought, outfitted for war with surcoat, sword and war horse.
For an instant, terror choked her as she stared at him from the shadows, seeing not a lone man but the bloody warriors who had taken the Castle. The past was too close to her this night. She swallowed past the lump in her throat and ran her hands across various weapons hidden on her person. Thus reassured she took a closer look at the man.
The chain mail shirt that extended past his surcoat at wrists and throat was of the highest quality, the links so fine that it appeared to be fashioned of cloth rather than metal. The surcoat itself was of some dark color. He was facing slightly away from Sham, and she couldn't make out the device on its front. A wealthy warrior then, and a fool.
It had been a long time since she had been the daughter of the captain of the guards at the Castle, but not so long that she'd forgotten how to judge a horse. She ran an assessing eye over this one, an aristocrat from the flared nostrils to the long hair that covered his legs from his knees to his hooves. Only a fool would take such an obviously valuable animal through Purgatory at night.
The stallion snorted and sidled as he caught her scent in the salt air. He rolled his eyes until the white showed and shook his wet mane fiercely. The impulse to stay hidden came and went unheeded, this was not twelve years ago. The warrior was the outsider here; she had no reason to avoid notice.
With a nearly invisible signal from his rider, the horse spun around on its haunches, as the man looked for the cause of the horse's unease. The stallion blew spray of his own as he snorted impatiently and completed a full circle, giving Sham her first view of the man's coat-of-arms.
At the sight of the silver and gold leopard emblazoned on the silk she whistled soundlessly and altered her assessment of the man. Wealthy warrior he was indeed, but not a fool. Even the most formidable group of thugs would hesitate to attack the Leopard of Altis, Reeve of Southwood.
Lord Kerim, called the Leopard, ruled most of Southwood in the name of the Voice of Altis and the Cybellian Alliance the Voice ruled. At the tender age of eighteen, the Leopard had led an elite fighting unit to spearhead the invasion through the Great Swamp and across a fair portion of the lands between the Swamp and the Western Sea. People still talked in whispers at the cunning and skill that he'd displayed.
Eight years ago, when the Cybellians had snuffed out all but a hint of rebellion in Southwood, the Voice of Altis had called upon Kerim to become the Reeve of Southwood answering only to the prophet himself.
Kerim had been less than a quarter of a century old when he'd taken control of Southwood, and turned it back into a thriving country. With a mixture of bribery and coercion he had made the Southwood nobles and the Cybellians cooperate with each other — resorting to force only once or twice.
Whether as statesman or warrior, there were very few people who would take on the Leopard without a great deal of thought. She had just decided to try and escape unnoticed, when his eyes locked onto hers.
"I like to watch the neap tide come in," he said in Southern. Nearly a decade of living in Southwood had softened the clipped accent Cybellians brought to the language until he might have been mistaken for a native.
Sham waited where she was for a moment, caught by surprise at the conversational tone the Reeve used — speaking as he was to a roughly-garbed, wet thief. Deciding finally it was probably safe enough, she scrambled up the rocks until she stood on a level with him. It struck her as she did so, that this was an opportunity to attack the Cybellians that might never come again. She looked at the Reeve and remembered the dead that littered the Castle grounds after it had been taken by the invaders. Unobtrusively she slipped her hand toward the thin dagger strapped to her forearm..
But it was more than just the suspicion that he was well able to defend himself against such an attack that kept her blade where it was. It was the sadness in his eyes and the lines of pain that tightened his mouth, both revealed by the bright moonlight.
Imagination she told herself fiercely as the angle of his head changed and shadows hid his features; but the impression remained. She shook her head with resignation: the Old Man's gentleness was rubbing off on her. The Leopard had not been with the army that entered the Castle, and she didn't hate enough to kill someone who had never done her harm — even if he was an Altis-worshipping Cybellian.
"The Spirit Tide is impressive —" she agreed neutrally in the same language he'd addressed her,"—but hardly worth braving Purgatory alone."
Her tone might have been neutral, but her words were hardly the respect he must be used to receiving.
The Reeve merely shrugged and turned to look at the foam-capped waves. "I get tired of people. I saw no real need to bring an escort; most of the occupants here are little threat to an armed rider."
She raised an eyebrow and snorted at his profile, feeling vaguely insulted. "Typical arrogant Cybellian," she commented, deciding to continue her attitude as she had begun. She didn't like to bow and scrape more than was absolutely necessary. "Just because you say something does not make it so. Jackals travel in packs and together can tear out the soft underbelly of prey many times their size and strength."
He turned his face back to her and shot her a grin that was surprisingly boyish. "Jackals are scavengers."
She nodded, "And all the more vicious for it. Next time don't bring so much to tempt them. That horse of yours would feed every cutthroat in the city for a year."
He smiled and patted the thick neck of his mount affectionately. "Only if they managed to kill him and decided to eat him. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to hold him long enough to sell him."
"Unfortunately for you, they won't know that until they try it." Despite herself, Sham wondered at the singular lack of arrogance of the ruler of Southwood. She'd never met a nobleman, Cybellian or Southwoodsman, who would not have taken offense at being lectured by someone who was at the very least a commoner and more likely a criminal.
"Why are you so concerned about my fate, boy?" Kerim asked mildly.
"I'm not." Sham grinned cheerfully, shivering as a breeze caught at her wet tunic. "I'm concerned about our reputation. If the word gets out that you came through Purgatory without a scratch, everyone will think they can do it. Although," she added thoughtfully,"that might not be such a bad thing. A few nobles to dine on might improve the economy around here."
He laughed and shook his head. "I promise that I won't tell anyone if you won't."
The sound of another large wave hitting the rocks drew Kerim's attention back to the sea, Sham took the opportunity to study the Lord of Southwood, now that she knew who he was.
Though his nickname was the Leopard, there was little catlike about him. As he was sitting on his horse, it was hard to judge his height, but he was built like a bull: shoulders proportionally wide and thick with muscle. Even his hands were sturdy, one of his fingers larger than two of hers. As with his horse, the moonless night hid the true color of his hair, but she'd heard that it was dark brown — like that of most Cybellians. His features, mouth, nose and jaw were as broad as his body.
Staring at the roiling water, Kerim wondered at his openness with this Southwood boy who was so visibly unimpressed with the Reeve of Southwood. He hadn't conversed with anyone this freely since he gave up soldiering and took over the rule of Southwood for the prophet. The only one who dared to chastise him as freely as this boy was his mother, and the boy lacked her maliciousness — though Kerim hadn't missed the lad's initial motion toward the armsheath. He hadn't missed the aristocratic accent the boy spoke with either, and wondered which of the Southwood noblemen had a son wandering about Purgatory in the night. .
The novelty of the conversation distracted him momentarily from the familiar cramping of the muscles in his lower back. Soon, he feared, he would have to give up riding altogether. Scorch was becoming confused by the frequent, awkward shifting of his rider's weight.
The Leopard turned back from the sea, but the boy was gone. Kerim was left alone with an enemy that he feared more than all the other foes he had ever battled; he knew of no way to fight the debilitating cramps in his back or the more disturbing numbness that was creeping up from his feet.
Sham trotted through the narrow streets briskly to keep warm. The cottage she'd found for the Old Man was in the north, near the fringes of Purgatory in an area where the city guardsmen still ventured. It was old and small, roughly cobbled together, but it served to keep out the rain and occasional snow.
She didn't live there with him, although she had used her ill-gotten gains to buy the house. No one would harm an old blind man, but Sham was well known as a thief among the Purgatory guards. Her presence would have caused them to disturb the Old Man's hard won peace, so she only visited him now and again.
The Old Man accepted that, just as he accepted her chosen occupation. Occupations in Purgatory were limited and tended to shorten lives. Good thieves lived longer than whores or gang members, especially thieves able to work magic.
Sham dropped to a walk, as the lack of refuse in the streets signaled her nearness to the Old Man's cottage. She didn't want to come in out of breath — the Old Man worried if he thought she'd been eluding pursuit.
The flute in her sleeve bumped against her arm. A smile crossed her face as she imagined the pleasure in the Old Man's face. His crippled hands might prevent him from playing the instrument, but she knew that he felt an odd sort of affection for it — it had been a gift from his master when he had reached journeyman status. If she could have picked something to restore to him, the flute would have been the thing she'd have chosen.
It was the extra sensitivity necessary to survive in Purgatory that first alerted her that there was something wrong. The street the Old Man lived on was empty of all the little shadowy activities that characterized even the better areas. Something had caused the tough little denizens to scuttle back to their holes.