"Get that bucket filled for me, Lorra. Tole, bring more charcoal." Aliven knew his voice was harsh, but the world was a harsh place, with no room for people who did not work.
He watched out of the corner of his eye as his daughter snatched the wooden bucket from its place near the forge and left the smithy at a brisk walk for the well.
He would lose her soon, he thought, as he sorted through his store of metal. He'd two offers for her hand from neighboring farmers, but she hadn't made up her mind yet. He hoped she chose Daneel, who was soft-spoken and old enough to have proved his mettle, but she'd been showing a preference for Sovernt's youngest.
He would be happy to see her settled with either, though it would leave him only Tole and Nona, neither of whom were big enough to carry the bucket full of water or half a dozen other chores required to keep the smithy running.
"Step up, Tole," he said to his son who had only half-filled the forge coal-bed. "The morning won't wait on your dawdling."
"Yes, Da," muttered the boy in a tone just this side of insolence.
"You watch your-"
Lorra's shrill scream cut through his voice.
"It doesn't look like much of a village, Papa," said Lehr.
Tier smiled at his youngest son, who had somehow crossed over from boy to man these past few months. His ash-blonde hair, a legacy of his mother's people, was mostly tucked under a hat, but anyone with an eye to see could tell that there was Traveler blood in him.
Lehr's long strides had no trouble keeping up with Skew, though Tier's old warhorse was walking briskly. Tier shifted in his saddle, hoping to alleviate the steady ache in his right knee. He might believe the adage that any wound that hurt was a sign he wasn't dead yet, but that didn't mean he had to enjoy it. He took a deep breath of cool forest air to remind himself that he was free and on his way home: a little pain was a small price to pay.
He squinted at the small cluster of buildings in the little green valley. "It's small, but see that first building? There's a kiln behind it. It's either a pottery or a bakery."
"But Papa," said Tier's older son Jes who walked on Tier's other side, "Benroln said we need grain not pots or bread."
"Very true," agreed Tier. "But so near to a great road, they will have trade goods too."
"There are farms all around here," explained Lehr. "They'll bring grain here where they'll see higher profits from it than if they had to transport it to a bigger market."
Jes gave a puzzled frown. It might have been that he found Lehr's explanation too complex -- or something else had distracted him.
It was ironic that Jes, who looked as Rederni as any village son, would be the one to pay the highest price for his mother's Traveler blood. The lesser part of that price was the slow thoughts and slower speech that set him apart as a simpleton -- though he wasn't, quite.
"It doesn't look right," said Jes after a moment.
"What doesn't?" asked Tier. Jes's conversations sometimes were as difficult to follow as a hummingbird's flight.
"The buildings." Jes stopped abruptly and stared ahead.
Tier stopped Skew and tried to see what might have attracted Jes's attention.
"There's no smoke from the smithy," said Lehr.
"That's it," said Jes, nodding his head with his usual exaggerated motion. "Smithies have smoke."
"Maybe the smith isn't working today," Tier said. "We'll be there soon enough." Urging Skew forward, he squeezed a little too enthusiastically with his legs and couldn't bite back a yelp.
Shadow take these knees, the wizards who broke them, and the Traveler healer who can't fix them any faster.
That last wasn't fair and he knew it. Brewydd had told him that riding Skew rather than one of the carts was making his knees take longer to heal than necessary. But it was bad enough to have to ride while most everyone else proceeded by their shoe leather -- he was not going to sit in a cart.
"Are you all right?" asked Jes his hand hovering just over Tier's leg. "Mother told me to watch out for you."
"Just my knees." Tier gave his son a smile despite the way his right knee was throbbing. "They're taking a long time to heal up -- I must be getting old."
"Mother says you push too hard," said Jes frowning. Obviously Tier's smile hadn't been as convincing as he'd intended.
They had all taken to fussing over him, which Tier found both touching and annoying. He'd rather nurse his hurts in private if he could.
"Brewydd says that your mother is fretting too much," replied Tier.
"And Mother says to leave healing to the Lark," added Lehr, though he was looking concerned as well. "Brewydd knows what she's doing."
"I'm all right," Tier said again.
Lehr, he could have just told to leave it alone, but once Jes got something on his mind he could be amazingly stubborn. So Tier caught Jes's dark eyes with his own and said firmly, "Even your mother agreed that I was fit for a visit to a village to negotiate for supplies -- that's what we Bards are supposed to do. We owe this Traveler clan more than we can repay, but I can get them good prices on the things they need and ensure that they'll have a welcome here next time they pass through. My knees still bother me, and will for a month or two more, but they are a fair bit on their way to normal." It helped that he told the truth. Jes would hear it in his voice.
"I don't like those wizards," said Jes, and for a moment there was something dark, something alien in his voice.
"Nor I," agreed Tier, having no trouble making the connection between his knees and the wizards who'd caused them to be broken, because he'd just been thinking the same thing. "But they are gone for good and can do no more harm to anyone."
"We rescued you," said Jes in sudden satisfaction. "And you will be fine, and we are going home. Rinnie will be happy to see us. I wouldn't have wanted to stay with Aunt Alinath."
"Your aunt's a good person," admonished Tier. His sister was uncomfortable around Jes's oddities, and because of that, she mishandled his oldest. Nevertheless, she was his sister and he loved her.
Jes set his chin stubbornly. "She is bossy and rude."
"Like Mother," said Lehr with the sudden sunny smile that he used all too seldom.
"Mother is Raven," said Jes, as if that explained and excused those faults, which, Tier thought, was largely correct. "And she is only rude to fools."
Lehr laughed. "And that's most of people she meets."
Tier shook his head. "She's not usually rude, just intimidating."
"If you say so," said Lehr. "Weren't we going to negotiate with someone to buy some grain? Or are we going to stand here all day gossiping like old women?"
Jes grinned shyly and ducked his head. "Papa will negotiate and you and I can watch. I like watching."
"Right. Just mind you don't say anything about Travelers unless Papa does."
Tier urged Skew forward again, this time with his weight and a click of his tongue. The patch-work colored gelding paced forward with his usual glass-smooth walk.
There were three huts, the smithy, a small pottery and a handful of small buildings in the village that Benroln had sent them to. But there was no answer from inside the potter's shed when Lehr knocked, nor did anyone come out at his shout. He opened the door and briefly peered inside.
"No one here."
So they went to the next building.
The smithy was a three walled, open-face shed and appeared as empty as the pottery had been. Tier threw a leg over Skew's back and slid -- slowly for the sake of his stiff knees -- to the ground. He dropped the gelding's reins to ground-tie him and limped into the building, Lehr and Jes beside him.
Inside the smithy, tools were hung in an organized manner on one wall, rough steel lay scattered on the ground next to the forge, as if someone had just dropped it there. Tier put a hand over the bed of coals and then touched them cautiously, but not even the memory of fire lingered.
"What can you tell me about this, Lehr?" asked Tier. "How long have they been gone?"
It was an unreasonable question to ask of even the most seasoned tracker. The roof of the smithy kept the rain off and the walls protected the dirt floor. Tier wouldn't have been able to tell how long the steel had lain on the ground, abandoned to tend to whatever emergency had called the smith away.
But Lehr, like Jes and Tier himself, was an Order Bearer -- and his Order was Falcon -- the Hunter.
Lehr cast his Falcon's eyes over the scene and Tier felt the rise of magic as his son read the traces left by the people who'd lived here.
"No one's been in this building for at least two days, maybe as long as three," he said finally. "But there were chickens here until yesterday."
They'd seen no chickens when they rode up.
"There are people here still," said Jes after a moment, his voice crisp and alert. "I can smell them."
Something about the deserted place had alarmed his oldest son. Jes, his sweet-natured slow-speaking Jes, was gone as if he had never been, and in his place was the deadly predator who sometimes looked out of Jes's eyes. Jes's Order was a heavier burden that the others. Jes was Guardian, and the magic-induced dread that accompanied his secondary nature, unique to the Eagle's Order, sent chills of fear up Tier's spine.
Lehr didn't even look up from the ground just outside the smithy. "Something ate the chickens."
"What kind of something?" asked Tier.
"I don't know," Lehr answered. "It's not very big -- about the weight of a small wolf. See, here's a print."
Tier peered at the faint trace in the dust of the small trail. To his eyes it could have been any of a number of animals. "Could it be a raccoon?"
Lehr shook his head. "It's not a raccoon. No racoon has claws that size."
"Can you see where the people went?"
"There's someone here, Da," Tole said, his face pressed against a crack in the wall. "Out by the smithy. Strangers this time."
Aliven looked up from the damp cloth he was using on his wife's forehead. She hadn't opened her eyes since he'd brought her here days ago.
Because their home was closer to the well than the smithy was, his wife had been quicker to answer their daughter's scream. His wife had not gotten to the well in time to save Lorra. Instead he'd found his daughter's body lying in the dirt, her throat ripped out and his wife falling beneath some dark beast. When it noticed Aliven it left; at first he'd thought that the sound of his shout or the sight of his hammer had sent it fleeing -- but he'd since learned the folly of that. Perhaps it only didn't want to kill its food too fast lest it spoil. In any case, between the time he'd carried Irna into the house and returned for Lorra, it had come back and dragged her body off.
He'd sent his son for Tally, his wife's cousin, who'd been so immersed in his potting that he'd not heard Lorra's scream. As the other man had come hurrying over, it had attacked yet again, from behind the garden hut. If Aliven hadn't been carrying his hammer still, the beast would have gotten them both instead of just clawing up Tally's face.
He'd never seen anything move as fast as the beast did. He'd gotten Tally and the two children into their hut and barred the windows and doors. So far the beast hadn't torn through the wooden walls, but Aliven was pretty certain that the thin walls wouldn't keep it out when it finally decided it wanted in.
It had, after all, herded him back into the hut as neatly as a well-trained sheepdog putting lambs into their fold. Yesterday, a couple of farmers had come to pick up the plowshare he'd fixed for them. Aliven had left the hut to warn them, but he'd been too late. He'd found them both, dead, behind the potter's shed.
The beast had let him stay there a while. But when he'd gotten to his feet, it had pushed him back to the hut with unseen growls and noises. It wanted them here until it was hungry again.
Both Irna and Tally were dying. The initial wounds had been bad enough, but infection had set in with frightening speed. Irna hadn't moved for a day and a half, and Tally had been unconscious since daybreak.
Trapped inside the confines of the little hut, Aliven'd had to make do with what they had, and -- he carefully wet the cloth again -- he was running out of water.
Maybe these new people Tole was watching would be able to help. The Sept sent men out on patrols, soldiers who might know how to deal with the beast.
"Who is out there?" he asked his son.
"A dark man with a little grey in his hair, tall like Daneel. He's limping pretty badly. They've a horse -- it's spotted like a cow, Da. There are two other men with him, younger. They look like they're all close kin. Can they help us?" Tole looked up with hope in his eyes; Aliven hadn't told either of his children about the two dead farmers.
He left his wife's side and put his own eye against the gap between boards for a minute. Tole, for all that he'd not seen a dozen summers, was sharp-eyed. The older man and one of the young men looked as alike as any father and son he'd ever seen. The second young man shared some of the same features, but his hair was-
Aliven pulled his head away and spat. "Travelers," he said.
"Travelers?" Nona, his youngest, looked up from tending Tally. "They'll kill it for us!"
"You've been listening to your mother's stories," Aliven said, disappointment making his voice even gruffer than usual. "Travelers only help themselves -- and they help themselves to everything they can."
But he unbolted the door anyway and put his head out. He'd not see anyone, not even Travelers, killed if he could help it.
Tier looked up from where Lehr had discovered the marks of a struggle. Two men, he'd said, both of them dragged around behind the pottery.
"There's your people," Tier told Jes, spying a man peering out from a smallish hut on the far side of the cluster of buildings.
"We mean you no harm," Tier said, limping toward the man. "My son tells me you've had some people killed by an animal."
"Go away, Traveler," said the man again. "There's no gain to be had from this. I don't want your deaths on my conscience." His head retreated and he pulled the door closed.
Lehr and Jes both followed Tier, flanking him. Lehr kept his eyes on the ground while Jes kept up a restless sweep of their surroundings.
"This place reeks of fear and blood," said Jes. "Fear and blood and something wrong."
Tier slanted a wary glance at Jes. "Stay back from the hut when we get there. This man sounds frightened enough. Your presence will only frighten him more."
Jes met his gaze, but didn't say anything.
"It's no use, Papa," said Lehr not looking up. "He's not going to leave you when he thinks you might be in danger. Trying to make him stay back is just going to frustrate you."
"I suppose I can't keep you back either," muttered Tier.
That brought Lehr's face up as he flashed a quick smile. "Mother told us to watch over you, remember?" His gaze caught on a shed set just outside the huddle of buildings and he took a sharp intake of breath. "That's where it's laired," he said. "Over there in the well house. It's left dozens of tracks back and forth. And Jes is right, I can smell the taint, too. Whatever this thing is -- its shadow-tainted."
Tier looked, but all he could see was a narrow path through knee-length, yellowed cheat-grass. "Can you tell what it is yet?"
Lehr shook his head. "Nothing I've seen before."
Tier paused a moment, frowning. He loosened his sword for a quick pull if he needed it. "Lehr, keep an eye on that well while I'm trying to talk. Your mother would never let us live it down if I got you killed."
Lehr took his bow off his shoulder and strung it. "I'll watch."
Tier knocked on the door of the greying hut. "We're here to help if we can," he said, sliding as much Persuasion into his voice as he felt comfortable doing. He would force no man completely against his will. "Tell me what happened here."
The door jerked open releasing an unpleasant miasma of wound-rot and sweat. A wiry man, as dark as Tier himself, peered out squinting against the light, the same man who'd tried to warn them off. His beard was still dark although grey shot plentifully through the thinning hair on the top of his head. His hands were calloused and bore the kinds of small scars working hot metal could give a man. This must be the smith.
"Traveler," spat the smith. "I know what your kind does. Fool with the weather then beggar the farmers to fix it right again. Call up a curse and remove it for payment. If you've visited this thing upon us for gold, I'll see you dead myself. If you've not, then I'll tell you again. If you stay it will kill you too -- though likely it is too late already."
"We're not that kind of Traveler," said Tier smoothly. "Though I know that there are more than one clan who do as you say. I am Tieragan of Redern and these-" he realized that he couldn't see Jes -- a not uncommon occurrence when Jes was on alert -- and changed midsentence "this is my son, Lehr."
The smith glanced around nervously. Tier didn't blame him, he felt it too -- but unlike the smith, he knew the source of his own unease. Jes was somewhere nearby. As if the menace that clung to the Guardian wasn't enough, his magic brought both cold and fear to anyone around him.
"My name is Aliven," said the smith, reluctantly responding to the good will that Tier was projecting with all the skill he could muster.
Tier stepped forward and Aliven the Smith gave way, allowing Tier to maneuver past him and into the hut.
Two children, a boy not much older then Tier's youngest and a girl a few years younger huddled together near the pole in the center of the room, their smudged faces unevenly revealed by the light that filtered through between the boards. The boy had an arm around the girl and was keeping a sharp eye on Tier. The only other occupants of the hut were two adults, a man and a woman, lying on pallets crowded together on the floor.
Lehr came in behind Tier and knelt beside the blanketed man.
"What did this?" he asked pointing to something that Tier, in the uncertain light, couldn't see.
There was a barred window just to the right of the door. Tier pulled the bar and pushed the shutter board to the side so that he could see what had so startled Lehr.
Under the improved lighting Tier could see the wounds on the woman, but the man's face had been sliced open by something sharp.
"It used three claws," said Lehr. "Just like the thing that killed the chickens and the two men by the pottery."
"The Fahlarn had a three-pronged fork with sharpened points that caused wounds somewhat like that," said Tier, kneeling to get a better look. "But see the way the bone is marked? Whatever cut him was sharper than the Fahlarn's weapon, sharper than any claw I've ever seen."
Jes entered the too-small hut in a wave of cold air that somehow pushed aside the smell of rot. The aura of dread that followed him brought the smith to his knees as surely as axe fell a tree.
"What happened to them?" asked Tier.
"The beast," whispered Aliven. "It killed my daughter first, and clawed up my wife who was drawn by Lorra's cries. Then it attacked Tally." He gestured to the man Lehr still knelt beside. He hesitated, looking at his children a moment and then said in a low voice, "When Kaor and Habreman came for the plowshare I'd repaired, it killed them, too."
"What did it look like?" asked Tier.
The smith shuddered from the memory or perhaps just the cold and fear that Jes wore like a cloak. "It was too fast. I can tell you it wasn't a wolf, boar, or badger. It was faster than a fox and maybe twice as big. It had four limbs right enough and a stub-tail that looked fluffy and pale. The rest of it was dark brown or grey."
He stared at Jes and then let his glance fall upon Lehr's ash-blond hair. "I don't have much silver," he said slowly. "My cousin has a gold piece put back from when he fought for the Emperor when he was a boy, but I don't know where it is. You might apply to my Sept, since its his well we're using, but I doubt he'll pay Travelers for anything. He has his armsmen drive Travelers away from his territory."
Tier opened his mouth to refuse to take payment of any kind but stopped. There were a lot of mouths in the clan of Travelers who were escorting them home, and helping people like the smith was how they earned their food.
"I don't know what the charge'll be if we rid you of this beast," he said finally. "That's not my decision. It won't be more than you can bear -- my word on it." That much he could fight Benroln on if he had to.
Jes dropped to all fours and brought his face next to the wounded man's. The smith flinched at the sudden movement.
"It was a mistwight," whispered Jes. "I can smell it."
"What's a mistwight?" asked Lehr.
"A water imp," replied Tier. "It's not undead, despite its name. They're called wights because they are shy and most people just catch a glimpse of them before they're gone. I've heard that they can be nasty if you corner them. I've never heard of them being shadow-tainted, but most people couldn't tell one way or the other on that, I suppose. Your mother will know for certain."
Mistwights didn't live around home where the snow got too deep. He'd glimpsed one once when he'd gone a-soldiering, but he couldn't see how Jes would have ever met one. "How do you know what they smell like, Jes?"
Dark eyes looked up and Tier saw Jes, his Jes, rise up to answer his question. "I d-don't know," he stammered. "We just smelled it and knew." A breath later and the Guardian's sharp darkness was back in his eyes.
Tier had never seen him do that before, transform from Guardian to Jes and back again, though it happened the other way around from time to time. It made him wonder why it had been necessary for Jes to answer that question rather than the Guardian.
All of his children knew that, as a Bard, Tier could hear a lie as clearly as an off-pitch note. Would the Guardian have felt compelled to lie if he had answered the question and so had given way for Jes?
"It's all right, Jes," said Lehr. "It doesn't matter. Now we know what we're dealing with."
Lehr was right, time enough to worry about Jes when this mess was cleaned up. Assuming the Guardian was right about what they were facing -- and he certainly hadn't lied about it -- they had trouble enough facing them.
Tier looked around the hut and pulled together a plan of attack. "Jes, I want you and Lehr to go back to the clan and tell your mother and Benroln what we've found here. Tell them we need Brewydd for the wounded and whatever people it takes to get rid of a tainted mistwight."
"Both of us?" asked Lehr. "Jes can stay to keep you safe."
Tier shook his head. "Both of you." It wouldn't do to say that his part of this, soothing the smith, would be better done without his sons, so he chose another truth. "If Jes stays I'll never be able to keep him away from the mistwight until your mother gets here. Take Skew with you so he doesn't get eaten while we're waiting."
"What will keep you safe?" asked Jes.
"If these people have been snug in here for days, I expect I'll survive a couple of hours," Tier said.
Jes frowned unhappily but in the end he went out and gathered up Skew's reins then set off with Lehr at a rapid jog. They led the horse rather than arguing about who would ride.
When his sons were gone, Tier closed the door and barred the window again because their being open seemed to make the smith nervous. Then he sat on the floor and braced his back against a wall, sighing with relief of getting his weight off his knees.
He looked away from the oppressive fear on face of the smith. The fear of the thing in the well was stronger right now than the man's dislike of Travelers, but he wasn't getting any happier trapped in the tight quarters of the hut with Tier.
Tier decided to give the smith time to calm.
"Hello," he said, directing his remark to the two children who huddled against the opposite wall.
The boy responded with a wary nod, the girl just tucked herself closer to her brother's side.
"There's a healer coming now to take care of your folk. We'll get rid of the creature who hurt them, too," he told them. "I know that it's pretty scary, but so is my wife."
"Your wife is scary?" asked the boy.
Tier nodded solemnly. "She is."
"That man was scary," whispered the girl, then pressed her face against the boy's arm. "The cold one."
"Jes?" said Tier. "You don't have to worry about Jes, his job is to protect people. It's just that he has a special kind of magic, and one of the things it does is make people around him nervous. Travelers don't just have one kind of magic the way we do, you know."
"We?" asked the smith. "Aren't you a Traveler?"
Tier shook his head. "No. My wife is, but I'm from Redern in the Sept of Leheigh in the Ragged Mountains."
There was a tug on his shirt and Tier looked down to see that the girl had left her seat to get his attention. He smiled at her. "Yes?"
"What kind of magic did the cold man have?"
"Jes is a Guardian," Tier explained. "His magic makes him a good guard against all kinds of evil. He can turn into animals or make it hard to see him if he wants to. The other man, my son Lehr, is a Hunter; he has a different magic. He can track things and his magic helps him aim his arrows."
"Traveler magicians aren't as good as ours," said the boy. "Our magicians can do anything."
Tier grinned at him. "I wouldn't say that. They're just different. My wife, Seraph, is closest to our magicians. Travelers call her Order either Mage or Raven --each of the Orders have a bird associated with them."
"How many kinds do they have?" asked the boy.
The tension in the hut had dropped off. The girl was leaning against Tier's arm instead of her brother's and the boy had quit hugging the post as if it were the only thing that could keep him safe. Partly, Tier knew, it was that he was a distraction from the thing they were afraid of. Partly it was Tier's own magic, Bardic magic, easing their fears.
"Six." Tier ticked them off on his finger. "You've met Guardian -- that's Eagle, and Hunter the Falcon. Then there's Raven the Mage. Lark is for Healer -- and you are lucky the Traveler clan we're with has a Lark for your mom. Cormorant is Weather Witches, and Owl is Bard."
"Why birds?" asked the girl. "Why not fish?"
The boy rolled his eyes. "Nona, don't be stupid. Why would they name their powers after fish. How would you like to tell people that you were a garbagefish or a trout? That's stupid."
"I asked my wife why they used birds," Tier said quickly, before they could start fighting. "She didn't know."
"You talk a lot for a Traveler," said the smith with a shade less hostility than before.
"But then, as I told you-" Tier smiled as he spoke "-I'm not a Traveler." The smile had Aliven relaxing further. As Jes's job was protection, Tier's was winning over hostile strangers.
Not Traveler, but Owl and Bard, both, he thought as the smith eased enough to take a seat against the opposite wall. But there was no use confusing the issue.
It had taken Tier's wife years to adjust to the idea that though there was not a drop of Traveler blood in him, he was still Bard. Order Bearers, it seemed, did not have to be Travelers.
Tier was in the middle of a fine story of a Traveler hero who saved children from a rampaging demon-wolf when they all heard hoof beats.
Tier started to rise to his feet, but fell back with a grunt because his knees had stiffened up. A hand appeared in front of his face, and, after a brief hesitation he grasped it and let the smith haul him to his feet.
"Thanks," he said.
"What's wrong with your knees?" asked the smith.
Tier grinned at him, "A bunch of wizards took a club to them when I was trying to save the Emperor."
It was the truth, but he wasn't surprised to see the smith laugh. Tier had, after all, just spent the last few hours telling stories that sounded more probable.
"As if wizards would bother using a club," the smith said, shaking his head as he let Tier brace himself until he was certain his knees would hold him upright.
"They said the club would hurt more," said Tier lightly.
Days of hiding in the hut momentarily blinded Aliven as he stepped outside with Tier leaning on his shoulder.
Looking down to save his eyes, all he saw at first was a confusing clutter of horse hooves. It caught his attention because he'd never yet seen so many Traveler's mounted. They generally came afoot and left that way too -- curling their lips at people who let horses do all their traveling for them.
As his eyes adjusted he looked up the confusion sorted itself into a group of about ten men and three women. All except Tier's son Jes were pale haired, some yellow blonde, others the strange ash-grey blonde that belonged only to the Travelers. One of the women was old, older than anyone the smith had ever seen. They all looked grim and cold as Traveler's always did -- a marked contrast to Tier's warm good-cheer.
Aliven, who had been slowly moving forward under the gentle pressure of Tier's hand on his shoulder stopped.
"Benroln," said Tier stopping beside him. "I didn't expect you to come yourself. I didn't know that mistwights were so dangerous as to require half the clan's fighting men."
In someone else's voice, the words would have been sarcastic or biting, but Tier made them cheerfully teasing.
One of the younger of the men grinned and, evidently being the Benroln that Tier had addressed, said, "Our experts tell us mistwights who have a taste for human flesh are nasty dangerous: smart with a few magic tricks up their a-" He gave a nervous glance to the old woman who sat beside him mounted on the horse Tier had sent back with his sons and cleared his throat. "With a bit of magic, anyway. Your wife assured us that between Ravens and Falcon they could take care of it, but the rest of us decided not to let them have all the fun. There would have been more of the clan here if we had the horses."
Tier stepped forward a little. "Benroln, may I present Aliven Smith? Aliven this is Benroln, Clan Chief and Cormorant of the Clan of Rongier the Librarian."
Cormorant was one of those magical birds Tier had spoken of, Aliven remembered belatedly, though he didn't remember which. He didn't know how to respond to the introduction without giving offense, so he ducked his head and hoped it was sufficient.
Apparently it was. The young man slid off his horse and shook the smith's limp hand briskly. "We've met," he said. "Though we've not been formally introduced."
It was possible, Aliven knew. But all those blonde heads and subtly foreign features tended to look alike to him.
Tier gave the young Traveler a sharp look.
Benroln laughed and shrugged, flushing a little. "Just to trade for grain, Bard. Nothing more."
The horses shuffled and a man jogged up to the side of the old woman who was riding the spotted horse. Aliven was almost certain it was Tier's blonde son, though it could have been some other Traveler -- he hadn't paid so much attention to Tier's blond son, not after the dark boy had come into the hut.
"I like this horse, Bard," the old woman said to Tier. "Like me he's still kicking when his contemporaries have had the self-respect to die off." Now that he looked, Aliven could see hollows above the horse's eyes that told a different story than the sinewy hindquarters and alert stance.
Tier bowed to her, a low sweeping bow that was court-polished. "The both of you are too stubborn to give in to time anymore than you'd give into anyone else. Brewydd, this is Aliven Smith. Aliven, this is our Lark, Brewydd." With his face carefully turned so that only Aliven could see, Tier mouthed the word "healer" and winked.
"Lehr, get me off this poor creature's back before we both fall down dead and are no use to anyone." The old woman hadn't acknowledged the introduction with so much as a glance.
Tier's son -- for the old woman had called him by the same name as Tier had called his son -- reached up and held her steady as she swung one leg over the horse's spotted rump with surprising grace. When she had both legs on one side, he caught her at waist and shoulder and set her gently on her feet.
She looked at Aliven for the first time and smiled gently. "Don't let this mob worry you, my lad," she said taking the smith's arm. "They just want to see the mistwight."
It took Aliven a moment to realize that he was the "lad" she referred to. No one had called him "lad" since his Da died some fifteen years ago.
The old woman's words, for no reason that Aliven could discern, seemed to be the signal for the whole party of Travelers to hop off their horses and take them away to tie up somewhere.
"I'm going to quit sending you out on your own, Tier," said one of the younger women, handing off her horse to Tier's dark-haired son. She wasn't very tall, but carried with her an aura of power that made her seem larger than she was. If Travelers aged as regular folk did, she was younger than Tier. Only the fine lines around her eyes aged her at all.
Tier laughed and approached her with a quick stride that showed no sign of limp. He put his hands on her waist and swung her around once.
When he set her down, she continued, every bit as self-possessed as she'd been before Tier had assaulted her dignity. "I let you go hunting, and you got yourself kidnaped. I let you out to play with your boy-soldiers and, if not for Lark's help, you'd have been crippled. You left to get grain, and you find a mistwight who has taken up eating people instead of frogs and fish."
"It was either let me out to do some trading or suffer that some poor clansman be talked to death." Tier teased then gave her a quick smacking kiss in the middle of her forehead.
Beyond Tier's shoulder, Aliven saw a few of the Traveler's lose their cool self-possession enough to smile.
"Solsenti bastard," said the woman without affection, staring at Tier as if he were something found in a midden.
"Not at all," he assured her. "My parents were married. Brave man, my father, just like his son."
She tried to hide it, but Aliven saw the corners of her mouth try to turn up.
"Where's Gura?" he asked glancing around.
"We left him behind," she said. "The mistwight would make short work of any dog, no matter how big or ferocious. He was not happy with us when we left."
"I'd bet not," Tier said dryly. "Seraph, this is Aliven Smith, whose child was killed by the beast. Aliven, this is my wife, Seraph, Raven of the Clan of Isolde the Silent -- though we're traveling with the Librarian's Clan at present."
To the smith's discomfort, Tier's wife stepped forward and touched his face, making him conscious of the grime of the past few days that covered his skin.
"We will deal with the mistwight," she said, "that it trouble you and yours no more."
There was such certainty in her voice that he found himself believing her.
"And you and I will tend your wounded," said the old woman on the smith's arm. She tugged him imperiously as she pointed her finger at one of the men. "You come too. You'll be more help to me in healing than to the hunting of the mistwight. Bring my packs." If there was no sharpness in her voice, there was no politeness either. Aliven was surprised to see the man bow respectfully then hurry to take a pair of largish saddlebags off the spotted horse.
The old woman paused to look at Tier.
"There are a pair of children in there who've been through a great deal. Be gentle with them."
The healer smiled, displaying a surprisingly complete set of teeth. "I'll bear that in mind, my boy."
Tier waited until the healer had Aliven in the hut before he said, "Something tells me that the mistwight's not going to be so easily gotten rid of."
Seraph nodded. "They're not easy. Smart and tough."
"I've never heard of one killing people," said Tier. "Though I know people who live near them tend to leave them alone."
"When they are young they hunt fish, frogs and other small animals," said Hennea, returning from tying her horse.
Hennea was a Raven like his wife. She looked a decade younger than Seraph and easily more beautiful. There was a peacefulness in her face that Seraph had never managed: his wife's temperament not being well suited to peace.
"As they age," she continued, "they begin to go after larger prey. Usually they go to the sea and hunt the larger fish, but some turn inland and hunt raccoon or otters. I've never heard of one that fed on human flesh."
"The shadow taint explains that well enough," said Seraph. "Mistwights aren't as smart as a human, quite. But it's had several centuries to learn."
"Centuries?" asked Tier.
"Mistwights have been known to live four hundred years or more," said Hennea. "Since Jes says that this one is shadow-tainted, it might be even older. All of them have some magic of their own, which is probably why they live so long. Some wizards will live halfway into their second century and several of the Colossae wizards were four or five hundred years old."
"Or so it is said." Seraph caught his look and laughed, "Oh, not me. The Orders don't prolong life-" she cast a speculative glance at the hut where Brewydd had disappeared "-except, maybe, for Lark. When you're an old, old man, I'll be an old woman."
Seraph and Hennea began pacing a double circle around the well that Lehr told them the creature was living. Hennea took the outer ring and Seraph the inner.
"It killed easily," said Seraph.
"It's done this before. Doubtless Lehr would be able to track it back from one isolated farm or small settlement to another. If we hadn't stumbled upon it here, it might have continued for another few centuries before it attracted a Traveler's attention."
"Are you certain that it's in the well now?" asked Tier.
The Travelers from Benroln's clan had taken up a shady spot not too far away to watch. Not being willing to risk Seraph being eaten, Tier walked with the Ravens, careful to stay out of their pattern making.
He kept a weather eye on the well and noticed that Jes was doing the same. Lehr had taken a post not too far from the other Travelers where he could keep an eye on the well head. He had his bow strung and an arrow ready for flight.
"Hopefully," said Hennea. "Seraph and I will establish a net-" she waved her hand vaguely to indicate the paths they'd been establishing "-that will stifle its magic."
"What kind of magic does a mistwight have?"
Hennea shrugged. "Some illusion, a bit of water magic."
"They are nasty enough without their magic," Seraph said. "We'll hamper it any way we can. The most trouble we'll have with it is getting it out of the well since it almost certainly knows that we're here. It fed not long ago so it won't be hungry."
"I, for one, have no intention of climbing down a well to face a tainted mistwight. What are we going to do about the well?" Hennea didn't sound overly concerned.
"Fire is nice," said Seraph. "It won't hurt the well itself."
"Can't it just submerge?" asked Tier.
Seraph pursed her lips. "Not without magic. They can't breathe underwater or hold their breath for long. If I scorch him fast enough, he'll not have a chance to call magic."
She stopped walking, and Tier's knees informed him that it was none too soon.
"We've walked the round," she said. "Hennea, are you ready?"
He didn't see what they did, but he felt the magic right enough, sweeping through him like a cool wind.
"I thought you didn't need ritual for your magic," said Tier. "Isn't that the main difference between you and a solsenti mage?"
"We don't need it," Seraph told him. "But sometimes a few runes or a ritual walk to establish a warding is quicker and more efficient than doing it by brute force."
"Let's give a closer look to the well," Hennea said.
As they approached the well, Tier pulled his sword and dogged Seraph's heels again. Hennea had a wolf at her side -- Jes sometimes became any of a number of predators when the mood struck him.
It looked like any other well to Tier. A three-sided building, much like a smaller version of the smithy, protected the well from weather and dust. A stout mud-brick wall ringed the well-head about waist-high on Tier. Before they came quite to the well, Jes put his front paws on the lip of the well and growled.
"Good," said Seraph. "It's there." She turned to Hennea. "I'll do the fire; you can deal with the mistwight."
Hennea usually held to her serene mildness under all circumstances so the edge of fierceness that touched her smile surprised Tier.
"It's always nice to have plans," she said.
The wall of the well wasn't tall, but neither was Seraph. Tier lifted her from the ground to the top of the well wall with a hand on each hip. He steadied her until she was stable with one hand on the post that held the roof up.
She gave him a quick, distracted smile for his help, then looked into the dark hole. Perched flatfooted on the old wall, her head had to dip a little to avoid hitting the roof.
She was magnificent.
Her moonlit-colored hair was caught up in an elaborate crown of braids that he'd seen other Traveler women wear. Until this past month, she'd always adopted the simpler styles of the Rederni. The braids suited her, he thought. She was wearing Traveler clothing too: loose trousers and a long loose tunic that hit the bottom of her knees.
Hennea was beautiful, but Seraph stirred him more than a woman who was merely beautiful ever could. She had such inner strength that he was sometimes surprised by how small she was. He'd once seen her back down a room full of angry men with nothing more than the sharpness of her tongue.
Watching her as she quivered with eagerness, like a fine hunting hound awaiting the horn, he was struck with a sudden, wrenching understanding.
This was his wife, his Seraph, who'd given up everything she was to escape from the endless battle her people fought against things like the mistwight. She'd married him hoping that it would keep her out of battles just like this one. Oh, she said now that it was because she loved him -- but he knew Seraph. If she had not dreaded returning to the duties of a Raven, she would never have accepted his offer of marriage.
He'd always felt that he'd helped to save her from something terrible, but she didn't look like someone who needed rescuing. She raised her hands above her head: tension flowed up her body from toes to fingertips, and the sharp sparkling feeling that was magic brushed over his skin in an uneasy caress. With a hollow boom that shook the ground he stood upon, flame boiled suddenly out of the well in a searing wave of destruction. The roof caught fire first, then the walls of the sheltering building, the frail strands of weeds that surrounded the well-house, followed an instant later by the post Seraph held onto.
Heedless of his damaged knees, Tier dove through the flames and caught Seraph around the waist, jerking her off the well and away from the fire. He had her on the ground and rolled her over twice before he realized that her clothes had not kindled and she was laughing.
He released her abruptly, but she sat up and kept her hands on him, brushing over his sleeves and quenching the smoldering fabric.
"I over-did it," she said, with a grin he recognized as the expression of action-drunk joy that sometimes caught warriors in the height of battle. He'd never seen her look more lovely.
He'd never been so angry with her, either -- she could have killed herself.
There was a sharp crack of sound behind them and Tier jerked around to see Seraph's flames whoosh out of existence as quickly as they had come, leaving the shed that protected the well blackened but unharmed.
As Hennea lowered her hands to her side after quenching the fire, something dark and smoking slipped over rim of the well. It darted past Tier in an attempt to reach the nearby woodland; its pace so rapid he was left with scattered impressions of sparse wiry hair over wrinkled skin and sapphire eyes. The wolf who was Jes was only a little slower.
"The wight!" shouted Benroln.
An arrow intercepted the beast before Benroln finished the last syllable of its name. The thing rolled end over end several times and Jes was upon it.
Dust and fur and darkness tangled until Tier couldn't tell one creature from the other. But evidently Lehr had no such problem. A second arrow found flesh and then a third and forth.
Jes separated himself, then shook his fur to rid it of dust and dried grass. The mistwight struggled weakly for a few seconds more, three of Lehr's arrows stuck up from hip, neck and rib. A fourth, broken off a handspan from the tip, protruded from its eye. Its ribs rose twice more and then stilled.
Dead, it seemed to take up much less space than it had alive.
Seraph lay back down and laughed. She turned to Tier, and the smile slid from her eyes. "What's wrong Tier?"
He forced a smile and shook his head. She didn't deserve his anger. It wasn't her fault that she enjoyed it the spice of danger -- he knew the feeling himself, but it unsettled him to see it in his wife. Not just because she had risked her life, either.
"Nothing, love. Let me give you a hand up."
This is what she had been born to do, he thought as they strode back to the smith's hut like a small triumphant army after Hennea disposed of the mistwight's body with another bout of flame.
He could feel her growing away from the home that they'd forged together. He'd tried to ignore the changes in her since she and their sons had ridden to his rescue, but today had forced him to face them head on. To save him, Seraph had taken up the mantle of her Order again.
He couldn't see how she'd ever pull herself small enough to live on the farm and be nothing but a farmer's wife again. Even if she tried to set her power aside a second time, he wasn't certain if he could allow it, not remembering the joy on her face as the well lit with flames.