The Hob's Bargain
Changes are frightening, I thought, even when they're changes for the better. From the doorway of my cottage I looked across the yard and garden to the barn where my husband was harnessing our chestnut workhorse. My husband. Our workhorse. I tasted the thought in my mind and smiled. Frightening, yes, but exciting and wonderful, too.
The barn wasn't far from the house, but the distance was long enough I couldn't see the lacings on the harness or the faint pale lines near my husband's eyes where the sun didn't reach his skin when he smiled. But I could see the horse cock an ear back, listening to Daryn's soft, slow voice. I could see the wheat-gold of Daryn's hair, newly cut in honor of our wedding.
We'd been married all of a night, and though we'd been betrothed this past harvest, I still couldn't quite believe it. I'd never expected to wed at all. The morning was still chilly this early in spring. I drew my shawl more tightly around my shoulders, hugging the warmth closer.
Daryn tied the traces to the croup strap high on the horse's rump so they wouldn't drag the ground all the way to the high field where he'd meet his brother and my father to continue the plowing they'd already begun. The muscles of his back flexed under the wool shirt he wore as he pulled himself to the chestnut's back in one smooth motion.
"Daryn ..." I called tentatively.
He saw me in the doorway and grinned. I smiled back with relief. When he'd left the house, I'd been busy cleaning up after breakfast, pretending I fixed morning meals every day when it had always been my mother's task. Near to thirty years old and I still couldn't make toasted bread without scorching it.
Cleaning had given me a reason for my red cheeks other than the embarrassment which had first caught my tongue when I awake in bed with him this morning and worsened dismally with the advent of the blackened toast. I'd expected him to be grumpy back, as my father always was. I should have known him better than that: Daryn didn't hold grudges.
He spun the horse on its haunches, a trick he'd taught it during the last year's long winter months while I'd watched from my parent's house. If I half-closed my eyes I could almost see a warrior on his mount preparing for battle rather than a landsman off to work. With a snort, the horse galloped to the small porch where I stood, his heavy feet thundering on the ground like the great horses from Gram's tales of ancient heroes.
Daryn was handsome enough to be a hero, perhaps some lost prince or noble. There was a clever twinkle which seldom left his eye, and good humor colored most of his expressions - attributes all proper heroes should have. The muscles he'd earned tilling the fields were no less impressive than those of a soldier's, and probably better than any prince would earn seated upon a throne.
Truth was, he was prettier than I, and the better part of a decade younger. His age had worried me when Father brought him home last fall. I should have remembered how shrewd my father was. Only an idiot could have found fault with Daryn, and I hope I've never been that - or at least not very often.
"Aren, my lass?" Daryn asked after a moment. I realized he'd stopped in front of me some time ago, and I'd been staring at him without speaking.
I started to say something light and funny, something to let him know it was shyness not moodiness that I felt, but the words stopped in my throat. A familiar chill settled into my stomach. Not now, I thought desperately. I reached out to his normalcy and warmth, gripping the cloth of his pant leg and hoped for the feeling to pass. When I closed my eyes against dizziness, I saw
... a winter lily, scarlet flower drooping and edged with brown, bobbing as something dripped on it.
As an explanation of the dread feeling that choked me, it was a complete failure. Most of my visions were like that. Later, after whatever event the sight had warned of took place, I could nod my head to myself and say, "Oh, that's what it meant." Not very useful.
If I had to be stricken with magic, I would rather have had something like my Gram's talent for healing, or my brother's knack for finding things - especially since the consequences of having magic were so deadly. My brother had died for his when I was thirteen.
He'd been in town with Father, trading fresh milk for leather to mend a harness when Lord Moresh's bloodmage saw him and spoke my brother's death sentence. Quilliar had been fifteen and he'd had a day to choose whether he would apprentice to the bloodmage or refuse and be put to death.
If he'd chosen to become a bloodmage, he'd have learned to kill and torture for power. After a while he'd have begun to go insane as all the mages did in the end, some immediately, some after years of a gradual decline into madness.
He'd picked death, but not one delivered by the bloodmage. The bloodmages would have used his death, his dead body to power their magics. So, my brother walked into the middle of a snowstorm and found a place where his body would be safely hidden for three days: Enough time to ensure the bloodmage had no power from him.
I couldn't tell Daryn I had the sight, though I'd had all winter to do it. Caution learned so harshly would not drop from me after a few months of exchanged confidences and growing love. After a night of being man and wife, I would have trusted him with my life, but now I couldn't risk losing the growing softness in his eyes when he looked at me.
Looking into his eyes, I couldn't tell him what I'd seen.
"Aren?" he asked, concerned. "Is something wrong?"
"No. No, just be careful." I released his leg and stepped back. I hugged myself as if it would help keep my mouth from telling him everything. I wrestled with my conscience, deciding finally if whatever happened was catastrophic, I would tell him about the sight - punishment for being too selfish to tell him now.
He grinned at me, not seeing the seriousness of my warning. "I'll keep my feet out from under the plowshares and be back at dusk after a dangerous day of plowing fields with your father and Caulem."
The warmth in his eyes kept his speech from being patronizing. He took my words as an expression of concern, perhaps the implied apology for my moodiness this morning I'd meant to give him when I'd called him over.
Well, my foreseeing was not exact, predicting small harms as well as great. Perhaps someone would twist an ankle today or cut themselves on a sharp rock. Maybe it would rain. I hoped it would rain.
I set the worry to the back of my mind and kissed him when he leaned down. "See that you do," I said.
When I patted his cheek with a motherly hand, he grinned suddenly. He gave me a warm look and turned his head to bite my forefinger gently. I ducked a bit, not wanting him to see the heat in my eyes. He wrapped his hand around a strand of my hair and tugged me close again. This time his kiss left me too breathless to talk, sending the dark warning from my heart as if it had never been.
The horse shifted, pulling us apart.
"Don't fret so much, Aren," he said, and his voice soothed me as it did any of the other beasts he used it on. "You and I'll do very well."
He kissed me again and set the gelding up the path to the field before I recovered enough to speak. He knew I watched him because he pulled the big horse into a controlled rear just before he'd have been out of sight. The harness was more hindrance than help in riding, but Daryn sat the horse easily. He blew me a kiss, then the horse and rider plunged forward and were lost in the trees.
I shut the door of the cottage and looked about. Daryn had built the little house himself, and each joint of wood and brush of whitewash showed the care he'd taken. There was a loft for our bed, and the kitchen was set in its own nook. I'd helped to sand the wooden floor (along with everyone else in both our families), and I'd woven the small green rug which covered the trapdoor of the cellar which would keep our food cool during the summer. There wasn't much furniture. Daryn promised when next winter came he'd build more. Possessively, I ran my hand over the wooden back of my grandmother's loveseat.
Everyone in the village knew there was a strain of magic running in my father's family. That hadn't stopped my sister's wedding. There weren't so many folk around that a taint to the blood kept people from forming alliances, not when it was properly buried a generation or so back. My brother's death brought shame to the forefront; there were no families who would have me after that.
If anyone had found out I was mageborn, they'd have killed me. By the One God's sacred commands, mages were an evil to be eliminated, and since Lord Moresh's great-grandfather's conversion everyone in Fallbrook followed the teachings of the One God. Death to mages was more popular than some other edicts.
I still had nightmares about the old woman who was pressed to death by her family when I was five or six. They'd used a barn door and piled it with stones until she was crushed beneath the weight. I wasn't there when it happened, but the stones still stood. When I passed them, I always tried not to see the remains of the barn door underneath the heaped mound of rock.
Like my brother, I'd still prefer such a death over what a mage would do to me - which was just as well for I wouldn't be given the choice of apprenticeship. All bloodmages were men.
I stayed away from town when Lord Moresh and his bloodmage were in residence. Fortunately, Fallbrook was neither his only nor his most important holding so he was seldom here. This year there'd been a war someplace and he hadn't come at all.
I'd expected Quilliar's death to leave me an old maid no matter how hard I tried to appear mundane, but fourteen years had been enough time for memories to fade. My Father needed someone to take over the land he held. My sister Ani's husband, Poul, had as much land as he could work. So Father traveled north to Beresford, which was even smaller than our own Fallbrook and found Daryn and his younger brother Caulem, tenth and eleventh sons of a farmer with only a small plot to divide among his children. So Caulem and Daryn came to my father's house last fall to help with the harvest.
Neither old memories, the pall of the sight, nor the equally dismal embarrassment of burning the toast this morning could rob me of my happiness for very long. The past was gone: Quilliar's death was unchangeable. When I went to the fields at midday with food for the men, I'd warn my father to be careful. Though Ma tried to pretend I didn't have the sight, Father would give proper weight to it. Tomorrow I would do better with the toast.
I looked around the cottage for something to do until lunch time, but there really wasn't anything. We hadn't been living there long enough to get much dirty. My earlier fit of cleaning had taken care of our few morning dishes.
I pulled out the quilt I was making for my sister's baby. After years of barrenness, Ani was preparing for birth of her first child in late summer. As fast as I sewed, I might just get it done by the child's twelfth year. Even so, the rhythm of sewing was familiar and relaxing.
At midday I folded the blanket and set it aside with a smile and a pat. I was not the best seamstress, but this blanket was going very well. Ma said it was the simplest pattern she knew and even I couldn't ruin it. Stretching the stiffness of a morning's stitchery out of my shoulders, I started for the cellar to prepare a meal.
I slid the rug aside with my shoe and tugged the trapdoor open. A haunch of salt pork awaited me on one of the shelves. Sliced onto some of Ma's bread, it would make a good meal.
I'd already taken a step down the ladder when I heard a commotion from outside.
Hooves thundered, and a male voice shouted something I couldn't quite make out. Horses this time of year were bad news. Good news could wait until planting was over. I started toward the door.
"Check the barn," rumbled someone. I didn't know his voice, and his accent was odd. "See if they have any horses."
I'd just been ready to call out a welcome, but that stopped me. Bandits, I thought. We hadn't had robbers for a long time. Even though the King's Highway passed through Fallbrook, we were isolated on the outskirts of civilization.
The sound of boots on the porch shook me from the stillness of shock. I pulled the rug across the outside of the trapdoor and held it in place with one hand as I climbed down the ladder. I let the door close almost completely before releasing the rug and pulling my fingers out. I hoped it would conceal the door from a cursory search. There was no latch on the cellar to lock it against them.
I heard a crash that might have been the cottage door opening. Daisy, our milk cow, lowed in alarm from the barn. I hunched in the corner of the small cellar behind a barrel of flour. Boots thudded dully on the floor above me. I couldn't tell how many people there were, but certainly more than one.
I remembered the big butcher knife sitting beside the ham, and I scurried out of my hiding place to get it. I wished Quilliar had shone me how to fight with a knife when I'd asked him, but he'd been growing increasingly conscious of the difference between boys and girls. He told me to ask Father, knowing it would be useless.
Wood splintered above me, and I ducked, certain they'd smashed through the floor - it sounded like someone had thrown our bed from the loft. The floorboards were new and tight. I couldn't see through them to assess the damage the thieves were doing, but they couldn't see me either.
I heard them laughing and I scuttled back behind the barrel. I hoped they wouldn't think it odd there was no meat in the house or they might start looking for it. Maybe they wouldn't notice the hollow sound of their boots on the floor.
Who'd have thought the sight had tried to warn me of danger? It never had before. I hunched down against the earth floor and something more than cold began to seep in my bones.
Magic. I knew what it had to be, thought I'd never felt it before. The ground began to glow dimly, sullen red with small bits of gold here and there. As I watched, the bits of gold began to grow bigger and the red duller.
I worried for a moment that the raiders would see it, or that they'd caused it somehow, but the force of the emanation soon drove all thoughts of raiders from my head.
My body vibrated from contact with the earth. Power wrenched thought me, making it hard to breathe. Did the bloodmages feel this way as they stood over their victims? By all rights I should have been terrified, but the sweet taste of magic prevented fear from touching me.
Red was woven over the gold in layers like a giant woven cloth, holding the gold back.
I stared at it, and suddenly knew what it was I saw.
Magic hadn't always been wrestled from pain and death. Once, so long ago the memory of it had disappeared except for Gram's tales told in secret on dark winter nights, one mageborn child to another, magic had been a joyous thing summoned from the earth. But jealous bloodmages had bound it until no one could use the wildling's power.
Beneath the red blanket, gold magic called to me, singing tenderly in my soul. Something snapped and one thread of red came unbound. Then another.
Layer by layer the bands of red were being torn away and the power of it lifted me off the ground. I hovered a fingerspan off the earth as one by one the angry red cords gave way. When the crimson ties broke, I could feel the corrupted touch of bloodmagic pull in places I'd never felt before - like a hair caught deep in my throat. It didn't hurt, but I could feel it all the same. The blood cords pulled me by their ties to the land of my birth, until I saw ...
...a tower, dark with the force of the mage within. He called the magic tied to the land. I felt the strength of him like the heat of the smithy forge. Madness lurked in the heart of his call, adding its strength to his purpose.
Then the vision was gone. With it went the last of the binding spells of the bloodmages, I felt them go - as any mageborn native to this land would have. For a moment the floor glowed brilliantly gold, then the light traveled up the walls as if driven by demons, fading, leaving me sitting, exalted on the ground alone in the dark cellar.
My eyes told me the magic was gone, but where I touched the ground, my body still tingled with its sweet warmth. I felt clean, thought I'd never known I was dirty. I put my fingers against the dirt of the cellar floor and knew the bloodmage's hold on the magic of the land was gone.
A loud shout drew my attention to the raiders above me: I'd forgotten about them. Without the protecting of the magic, fear returned apace. For a moment, I thought they'd seen the light as well, and waited for them to storm the cellar to investigate.
My heart pounded, my breath came in quick pants, but they were only fighting with each other over some piece of loot. Gram's silver mirror, probably.
Let them fight about it. Let them just go. The longer they were here, the better the chance they would find me. They'd been here for a long time now: they should be getting nervous. The men might be coming down from the field.
An immense pot in the cellar fell to the floor with a crash. The sound quieted the men who stood above.
"There's something below us - look for a door outside. These kinds of places usually have a cellar. There could be valuables in it."
I jumped to my feet and ran to the far side of the cellar. It was dark, but the dirt floor was clear of things which could catch my feet. There was a violent boom from above. They'd knocked over the big shelves near the fireplace.
Without actually seeing it fall, I caught the big soap-making cauldron as it slipped from the peg Daryn had worried was too small for it. I'd have to remember to tell him he had been right. Men liked that - at least Ma said they did. The weight of the cauldron made me stagger and the handle flipped down and bruised my thumb where it rested over the edge of the pot - but I managed to hold it and my knife without making any noise.
I set the cauldron carefully on the ground. As long as nothing else fell, I was safer now. The shelves had fallen across the trap door. There was nothing the raiders could do to the house that we couldn't repair. Nothing they could take we couldn't live without.
I could safely marvel at my vision of the pot falling. I'd never had one so clear, never had one I could use to prevent a disaster. It must be because of the unbinding.
I would tell Daryn about the sight tonight, I decided. Not to punish myself, but because I could tell him how it had saved me. If magic was unbound again, maybe I could use my bit of magic to help us, help the village - as my Gram had done. I was still smiling when yet another vision took me.
Daryn held the horses in place while Father helped Daryn's younger brother Caulem attached the harness to the plow Lord Moresh had given the village two years ago. Father was patient, letting Caulem fumble with the unfamiliar double harness. Beresford had only the older style, single horse plows.
Something caught Daryn's attention and he held his hand to shade his eyes as he stared into the rising sun. His body tightened to alertness and he said something urgently to my father.
Father dropped the leather strap into the dirt and stepped forward to Daryn's side.
After no more than a look, Father grabbed Caulem's shoulders and shouted something at him, throwing the boy onto the horse that hadn't yet been hitched to the plow. He shoved the reins into the boy's hands. Caulem shouted something back, protest written in the stiffness of his jaw. Father took his hat and slapped the horse, sending it running down the path to my parent's house.
The track was wide and the horse knew every rock and rut, sprinting full-out for home. The bandit waiting in the tree at the edge of the field had a finger missing from one hand, but it didn't affect the flight of the arrow that took Caulem in the throat.
The man leapt from the tree and tried to catch the horse, but it had been thoroughly spooked by the run and the scent of blood. It was a working horse, strong enough to pull the raider dangling by its reins as if he weighed no more than a twist of straw. The man held on until he lost his footing and the horse's iron shod hoof caught him in the leg, throwing him to the ground.
Unhindered, the animal raced on. The message that the bandits had come covered its back in a red blanket of Caulem's blood.
The vision shifted abruptly.
My father was face-down in the dirt, an axe buried in his back. Daryn stood over him, work-hardened muscle lending strength to the blows he dealt with Caulem's walking staff. The man of men he was fighting appeared only as vague blurs and flashes of weaponry. Blood ran down Daryn's face and neck until it disappeared in a larger stain of red spreading from his shoulder.
The staff he held broke, and he threw it aside taking a step forward to protect my father. Metal gleamed and a sword sliced into his neck.
A winter lily grew out of the unbroken ground, browning with the weight of time. A drop of Daryn's blood fell on the faded, scarlet petals.
The vision left me and I sat where I was, stiff with shock. It was too late for me to do anything. From the position of the sun in my vision, I knew Daryn had died before I'd hidden in the cellar, running from his killers. The shock held me for a moment before the warm rush of rage followed it.
My hand tightened on the butcher's knife and I ran for the ladder. I climbed up three rungs, and pressed my back against the trapdoor, but it wouldn't move. I stepped up another step and straightened my knees, forcing my shoulder against the door and pushing futilely, the shelving atop it was too heavy for me to move. At least I hammered it with my fists, screaming with fury at the barrier which prevented me from attacking the raiders.
At last, knuckles bloody, I stumbled off the ladder and sat on the ground - numb in body and soul. The raiders were gone. If they'd been in the house, they'd have heard me and opened the door themselves.
I dropped the knife in the dirt and stood up again. A rough table against the wall contained a few tools in need of sharpening. One of them was a saw.
I fumbled in the darkness. My hands didn't feel quite right after hitting the door. I found the saw and set to cutting my way out. It took a long time to cut the cross-braces of the door with the dull blade angled over my head. Once the braces were gone, I pulled the door into sections which fell from the opening and dropped below me.
With the door out of the way, I slid through the shelves and climbed out into daylight. Bits of broken crockery were everywhere, intermixed with chunks of wood and the scraps of torn cloth from Ani's quilt.
In the barn a few chickens, still spooked by the noise of the raiders, scattered away from me. Daisy the cow lay dead in the straw. They'd hacked off one hind quarter and taken it with them, leaving the rest to rot. I looked away from the cloudy film that covered her warm, brown eyes.
Louralou, our riding pony, was gone from her stall, along with every bit of leather harness in the tack room. The piglet was gone as well. They'd left the sacks of grain.
Out of habit, I took out a fair measure of corn and scattered it for the chickens. There was a saddle blanket lying in the walkway where someone had thrown it. I stared at it for a moment.
I ought to cover their faces, I thought. The crows will come. The thought of Daryn's eyes eaten by the birds made me violently ill, and I vomited in the straw.
I rinsed my mouth in the bucket hanging in Louralou's stall, then picked up the horse blanket. I beat it clean against one of the stall walls, and set off to cover my husband's face.
The wind was warm, carrying with it the sweet perfume of spring flowers. Only the torn-up soil of the trail showed this to be any different from any other afternoon.
I knew I wasn't thinking clearly. I should be worried about meeting the raiders again. But it was a distant thought, and I ignored it.
Even so, when I heard men's voices and the creak of a wagon, I stopped and found a hiding place deep under the bows of an old spruce tree, ignoring the sharp prickles of the needles through my woolen gown. For a moment, I had a strange feeling there were two of me: one here and now, kneeling in my favorite dress, and the other -
...wearing a stained tunic and a pair of men's trousers with a crossbow clutched tightly in my hand.
I wiped at my eyes with the rough horse blanket and bit my lip until the pain drove the vision away.
As the sound of the wagon's squeaking drew closer, I recognized Talon the smith's smooth tenor as he shouted something over the rattle of the wagon. It was the villagers, then.
I eased out of the shelter of the spruce. It was much easier to go out than it had been to go in against the growth of needles. Dirt from the cellar stained my gown along with flour from the crock which usually sat on the shelves by the fireplace; the hem was covered with cow's blood. Pieces of spruce hung from my hair, brushing against my cheek.
When they came over the hill, I knew they'd been to the field before me. Knew it because the wagon was carrying something covered in a blanket.
I stopped where I was, unwilling to go any closer. Albrin, who lived closest to my parents, was there on his favorite mare. The wagon was his, drawn by his oxen. Next to him rode Kith, his son, who'd served under Lord Moresh as one of his personal guard until he lost his left arm. Kith had been my brother's best friend.
Three of the four other men also lived nearby; only the smith actually lived in the village. He must have been at Albrin's shoeing horses. Except for Kith, who still had his sword from his time of service, they were armed with scythes and long knives. There was a broken staff on top of the blanket which covered the contents of the wagon.
They slowed when they saw me. I couldn't tell what they thought because my gaze kept tripping past their faces and settling on the covered load in the wagon. My throat was dry and rasped uncomfortably as I spoke.
"They've gone on. The raiders."
"Lass," said the smith, though he was no older than I was. "Aren." The sorrow on his broad face made him look like the hound that lived on Albrin's front porch. "Your father. . ."
I glanced at the wagon, noticed something dark dripping from the back of it, and hastily looked back at the smith.
"Dead," I said. "From the prints outside my home, one of them is riding my husband's gelding. His shoes are new," I said.
I didn't remember looking at the ground when I walked out of the house. But I remembered the prints. Quilliar and Kith had taught me to track when we were children. I glanced at Kith, but, as usual since his return last fall, it was impossible to tell what he was thinking.
Talon looked a little disturbed at my change of subject. He spoke slowly. "Caulem must have been coming for help, but they'd posted someone on the main trail to you da's. His horse ran into Albrin's yard covered from ribs to croup in blood. Kith rang the alarm bell and we all headed out. We left some men at your ma's and the rest of us followed the horse's trail."
I licked my lips nervously, wishing my thought weren't so clear. Father had just bought that horse from Albrin, but the track it had followed should have taken it past my parent's house before it ran to Albrin's yard. My parents had an alarm bell in the yard too. Ma should have been out ringing the bell before the horse made it as far as Albrin's - if she'd been alive to ring it.
The raiders hadn't taken grain sacks from the barn because they already had enough grain, stolen from my parents.
"Ma?" I said softly, as if my quietness would change the answer I knew they would give me.
Talon looked around for help, but no one else took up the story. "They started at Widow Mavrenen's," he said as softly as I had, the way he spoke to fidgeting, young horses. "Killed her and that old dog of hers. Took everything that wasn't nailed down. They hit your folk's place next. Mistress Ani was there and your ma. We figure they must have put up quite a fight from the looks of things."
He swallowed and looked uncomfortable. "Poul, he was with us, too. We left him and his da there to take care of things, but we were afraid from the direction the raiders were taking that they might decide to hit you up here before they left off."
I nodded dully. Ma, my sister, and her unborn child were dead, too.
"There's no one further out than us," I said, telling them nothing they didn't already know. My voice was slurring, but I didn't care enough to correct it. "The old place up on the hill has been vacant since old man Lovik died of lung fever last winter. They didn't take much more from our place - just the pony really. And Gram's silver mirror." I hadn't looked for it, but it must be gone, too.
"How is it that you escaped?" asked Kith suspiciously.
His harsh tones pulled my attention to him. I'd grown up with Kith, fished with him when we were children, danced - and flirted - with him before he'd been called to war. When he'd come back to us, he'd come back with a loss that was more than his arm . . .
"Time for you to go home, can't fight with one arm. Too bad, really, you'd become quite a soldier . . .
I swallowed, forcing Lord Moresh's voice away, knowing that they were all watching me. I'd never had visions like this before, as if all I had to do was think of something and the sight grabbed it for me.
"It was stupid," I said, finally. I knew another time I'd have been angry and hurt at his suspicion. "I was starting down the stairs to the cellar to get some salt pork for . . . for Daryn's lunch when I heard them outside. So I hid down in the cellar with a rug over the trapdoor. I waited until it was quiet before I came out."
I walked past them then, to the wagon. I think Albrin asked me something, but I couldn't focus on it. I lifted up the quilt - it wasn't one of Ma's, she never used flowers in her patterns.
I stared at the bodies lying in the wagon. Death had marked them so they didn't look like the people I had loved. Someone had closed their eyes, but I tucked the horse blanket over Daryn's head anyway, climbing on the wheel to get close enough to do it. Then I covered them back over with the flowered quilt.
"I think I have some information that the village elders need to hear," I said, stepping down from the wagon.
"About the raiders?" asked Kith. "From what you said you didn't even see them."
"Mmm?" I looked up at him. If I'd told Daryn about my vision, he might still be alive. I'd promised to tell him about my sight if something bad happened. An atonement I couldn't make now except by proxy with the village elders standing in Daryn's stead.
I even had a good reason to do it, to take my punishment. Magic was loose in the mountains again. I could feel the pulse of it under my feet. I didn't know exactly how it happened, or why. But Gram's storied always ended ...
The old woman smiled at the children who were bundled in quilts on either side of her.
"But someday," she said, "someday, the magic will return. And with it will come the white beast, the sprites, and the giants. The gremlins, the trolls, and all that is fae -"
"But Gram," piped the boy, "won't they be angry?"
If Quilliar had been right, Fallbrook needed to be warned.
I spoke quickly, hoping no one had noticed my lapse. "The quickest way to the village is back to our - to my home and down by way of the path next to Soul's Creek to the river."
"What do you want to talk to the elders about?" pursued Kith doggedly.
"I have the sight," I said.
There, it was said, never to be taken back. I could not have more effectively set myself apart from the villagers if I had slit my own throat. I couldn't bring myself to care. I would tell the elders, and pay the price they demanded.
The numbness that had protected me since I climbed out of the cellar was fading, being replaced by pain so great if made me want to scream: no one left of my family. No warm husband to huddle beside when I awoke to a crisp, spring morning - never again.
But, I had done my screaming in the cellar. I turned back down the trail toward - well, it didn't seem like home any more. It had only been that for, I glanced unobtrusively at the sun, a little more than a day. The numbness settled back down again, like a soft quilt protecting me from the cold.
"What did she say?" asked one of the men I didn't know every well. I thought his name was Ruprick.
"She's in shock," said Albrin shortly. "She doesn't know what she's saying."
Kith's yellow gelding passed me and moved to block my path. Kith sheathed his sword and held out his hand. There was nothing in his face, but when I took his hand, he swung me up behind him, much as he had done in those long ago days when I'd been his best friend's little pest of a sister.
His horse, Torch, danced a little, throwing me forward and giving me an excuse to press my forehead against Kith's back. If I cried, I could trust him not to tell. Though he'd become wary, behaving as if we all were strangers to him, he wasn't a stranger to me. I knew he could be counted upon to keep secrets.
The group was slowed by the oxen, and Kith ventured ahead now and then, sometimes leaving the trail entirely. I could tell he was looking for signs of the raiders, though their trail had turned west just past the croft, away from the village. I hadn't seen any sign of them after that. Since Kith remained silent, I assumed he hadn't either.
Even insulated by my sorrow I felt the wild magic which had been gathering since I'd first felt it. The power caused me to sweat as if this were high summer rather than spring. The air was growing heavy with it. I felt as if I were breathing underwater - but no one else seemed to be affected by it. The animals knew, though. Even the imperturbable oxen stared to act restless. The horses danced and skittered like untried two-year-olds.
Torch stopped abruptly, bracing himself. His hips dropped underneath me as he clamped his tail tightly against his legs. The oxen bawled and stopped as well, dropping to the ground despite the discomfort of the yoke.
"Raiders?" asked Albrin.
"I don't know, sir," replied Kith. "I wouldn't think they'd bother old Torch, not after the campaigns he's -"
The earth bucked and heaved beneath us. Kith's gelding let out soft little murmurs of distress, his dun coat darkened with the sweat of fear. After a bare moment the animal's noises were hidden by the roar of the earth's anger. The sound was indescribable. An immense tree dropped not an arm's length from us, but I didn't hear anything when it hit because of the earth's incredible roar.
After a moment, the shaking slowed. The magic which had consumed me eased and I could breathe again. A rumble drew my attention to the southern peaks of the mountains surrounding our valley. Silvertooth Mountain slid downward, almost gently. The noise of it was quieter than the earthquake, distant - until it fell across the pass with a thunderous crash, blocking the King's Highway. The earth shook again.
The second time wasn't as bad, but it seemed to go on longer. Albrin's horse had been dumped on her side as the earth buckled beneath her, but during the lesser shaking the mare regained her feet. When the second quake stopped, I could feel only the barest hint of magic.
Except for Hob's Mountain, Silvertooth had been the tallest peak surrounding the valley. Now it looked as if someone had kicked it into old Fortress, which was itself leaning aside. As we watched dust rose from the fall, gradually obscuring the new landmark from view.
"This is a day of ill omens," said Talon soberly, his hands steadier than his voice as he reassured the oxen.
I couldn't see Kith's face, but Albrin looked as if he'd just seen the end of the world. The oxen heaved themselves to their feet. The resultant jostling of the wagon knocked the blanket aside and I stared into Caulem's dead eyes. My world had ended before the earthquake.
The smith spoke softly to the oxen and they threw their weight behind their harnesses. The wagon passed us and Torch sidestepped closer. Kith leaned over with the reins in his teeth, and pulled the blanket back into place.
We followed the trail by Soul's Creek until after it forded the creek and turned to parallel the river. For the first few minutes of travel, the view of the river was blocked by thickets of willow. When the willow thinned out, it wasn't the animals that called a halt this time.
"By the gods," whispered Albrin hoarsely, forgetting we had been worshiping the One God for the last few generations.
Where the river had formerly run, there was nothing but the deep channel it had cut. Soul's Creek emptied into the rocky riverbed, and flowed where it would. Fish flapped weakly in the muddy river bottom, their gills fluttering uselessly in the open air.
"It will come back," I said involuntarily. For a moment the sight was more real than the shifting horse underneath me. "By tomorrow night it will flow with mud, but next week the water will rush freely."
Albrin gave me an odd look with a hint of coldness in his eyes. "What do you know of this, Aren?"
I gripped the back of Kith's shirt tightly and shook my head. "I need to talk to the elders," I whispered. "Can we hurry?"
Before we reached the narrow bridge over Canyon Creek, the sky had darkened ominously. Great clouds traveled south to north, though the more usual direction was west to east. A fine powder drifted down like dry snowflakes.
"Ash," I said.
"From a fire?" asked Albrin, who'd been riding nearby since we'd seen the empty riverbed.
"No," I answered, shivering a little. "Bodies."
After that Albrin dropped away from us. The space between Kith and me and the rest of the group became noticeable. I understood how they felt; if I could have gotten away from me, I would have, too.
The women and children of the village were standing in clusters along the edge of the river when we came into Fallbrook - as they might well have been. But, the river had been gone for a while by then, so they were ready to be distracted by the contents of the oxcart.
Albrin told them about the raiders, and sympathetic murmurs seemed to surround me. Someone tugged me off the horse, but I clung to Kith's stirrup tenaciously.
"The elders," I said.
Albrin, who'd just dismounted nodded, and said grimly. "Go with them. It will be a while before we can call them together. Planting must go on."
So I allowed myself to be hustle-bustled into the warm inner sanctuary of the inn's kitchen by Melly, the innkeeper's wife. Everyone called her that, thought the innkeeper had little to do with the inn. He spent his days tending his turnips, carrots, and aristocratic pigs whose pedigrees were longer than Lord Moresh's.
The inn had three sleeping rooms for infrequent travelers and several dining and drinking rooms which were in use much more often. Food and drink were paid mostly by barter, though Lord Moresh and his armsmen paid in hard currency. My Father said Melly made little more than she spent, but it kept her happy.
Melly lived up to her legendary charity by settling me in front of a vast bowl of her husband's turnips.
"Here, child, keep busy at there if you like - or leave them. But your Gram always said busy hands are life's great healers." Then she shooed everyone else out of the room, closing the door behind her as she left.
I took out the first turnip and concentrated on skinning the whole thing without breaking the peel. Apples were easy, but turnips required real skill. Melly's knife was sharp and it slid easily over the tuber. It required all of my attention and no thought so it worked very well to take my mind off of what had happened - and what I feared was going to happen.