Masques (Sianim #1)

Chapter 5

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The next morning Myr decided that the camp needed improvement more than the refugees' weapon skills did. So after breakfast, anyone who could ply a needle was sent to turning the yards of fabric, recently purchased from the accommodating merchant, into a tent. The design of the tent was Myr's own, based loosely on tents used by the northern trappers.

When the project was finished there would be three large tents that could house the population of the camp through the winter. The tents would be stretched over sturdy frames, designed to withstand the weight of the snow. The walls of the tent were sewn with a double wall; it could be stuffed with dry grass that would serve as insulation in the winter. A simple, ingenious flap system would make it possible to keep a fire inside the tent.

The rest of the camp was put to work building what Myr termed "the first priority of any good camp" – the lavatories. The risk of disease was very real in any winter camp, and any military man knew stories of regiments destroyed by plagues due to the lack of adequate waste facilities. Myr's grandfather had been a fanatic on the subject. Myr, thought Aralorn with private amusement, was like his grandfather in more ways than one.

Aralorn searched futilely for Wolf and ran into Edom looking frustrated as he was trying to stop the tears of a little girl in a ragged purple dress.

"I want Mummy. She always knows how to fix it so her hat doesn't come off." Clutched in the child's grubby hand was an equally grubby doll.

"Astrid, you know that your mum isn't here and can't help you," said Edom impatiently.

"Hello, Astrid. May I see it?" Aralorn held out her hand. Astrid looked at the hand distrustfully for a minute before carefully placing the doll and its hat on Aralorn's palm.

Years of being the oldest daughter of fourteen gave her the experience to twist the hat on at just the right angle so that it slipped firmly over the doll's wooden head, Astrid look the doll in one hand and smeared her tear-wet cheeks with the other.

"Can you see if you can get all of you young ones over here?" asked Aralorn. Astrid nodded and ran off.

Turning to Edom, Aralorn said, "I take it that you are supposed to be keeping an eye on the children?"

Edom rolled his eyes. "Always."

"I can relieve you for a while, if you like," she offered. He nodded and took off with a grin. She wondered if he'd be as pleased when Myr cornered him for latrine duty.

She had the children sit in a semicircle around her. Before she began she looked at their faces to help her select a story. Her information source, Stanis, had told her that most of them hadn't been there much over a month. None of them had any family at the camp and, judging by Astrid's tears, they were all feeling lost.

She sat cross-legged and began a Rethian folk tale that most of them would be familiar with. "Once upon a time, when the old gods walked the earth and interested themselves with the affairs of men, there lived a smith in a small, isolated village. The smith was a craftsman of great skill and his name was known far and wide. Although he was a gentle man, he lived in a time of war and so spent most of his day shoeing the great warhorses of the nobility, mending their weapons, and creating and repairing their armor. These things he did so that he would have money to live, for food was scarce and dear. At night, in the privacy of the forge, he created works of marvelous grace and beauty to take his mind off the ugliness that war brings.

"It came to pass that Temris, the god of war, had broken a favorite sword in battle. He heard of the smith's skill and so came to the village one night and knocked upon the smithy door.

"The smith had been working on a piece of singular beauty – a small, intricately wrought tree of silver, bearing upon each branch a single, golden fruit. Temris saw it and coveted it and, as was the custom of the gods when they wanted something from a mortal, demanded it.

"The smith, who had seen the devastation that war had caused those that he loved, refused, saying that he who was the creator of the ugliness of war could not demand the beauty of peace. The smith cast the statue to the ground, and such was the strength of his anger, he shattered it into a thousand thousand pieces.

"Temris was angered and he spoke then to the smith. 'I say now, smith, that you will forge only three more pieces and these will be weapons of destruction such as the world has never seen.'" Aralorn let her voice drop dramatically and was rewarded by a gasp from someone in her audience.

"The smith was horrified, and for many days he sat alone in the forge, not daring to work for fear of Temris's words. During this time he prayed to Mehan, the god of love, asking that he not be forced to build the instruments of another man's destruction. It may be that his prayer was answered, for he was seized by a fit of energy that left all the village amazed. For three fortnights he labored, day and night, neither eating nor sleeping until his work was done.

"The weapons he created could only be used by humans, and would only harm those who preyed upon mankind. He built Nekris, the Flame, which was a lance made of a strange material: a red metal that shimmered like fire. It was Nekris that King Taris used to drive the sea monster back into the depths when it would have destroyed his city.

"The second weapon was the mace, Sothris, the Black. The weapon that, according to legend, was responsible for one of the nine deaths of Temris himself. It was used during the Wizard Wars to destroy some of the abominations created in the desperate final days.

"The last weapon was the sword, Ambris, called also the Golden Rose. There are no stories about Ambris. Some say that it was lost or that the gods hid it away for fear of the weapon. But I think that it was hidden until a time of great need when it will appear to slay a great monster."

"Donkey warts!" exclaimed Stanis in approval. "Do you know any other stories? Ones about swords an' gods an' stuff? I like 'em with blood an' fight'n, but Tobin says that it might scare the young' uns."

Aralorn grinned and started to reply, but noticed that Wolf was waiting nearby. "It looks like I'll have to wait and tell you a story another time. I've got one about a boy, his dog and a monster named Taddy." She organized a game of hide the stone and sent the children oil running.

"Did you ever realize how closely the traditional description of Ambris resembles your sword?" Wolf commented, walking toward her when the children were gone.

She laughed and shook her head, saying in mock seriousness, "Talor has a black mace, and there was a bronze ceremonial lance on the wall of the Red Lance Inn in Sianim. I guess we don't have to worry about the ae'Magi. We'll just take the Smith's Weapons and destroy him." Then she gave him a sheepish smile. "I will admit, though, that when I found it in the old weapons hall at Lambshold, one reason I took it with me was its resemblance to Ambris."

She drew the sword and held it up for his inspection. It gleamed pinkish gold in the sunlight, but aside from the admittedly unusual color it was plain and unadorned. "It was probably made for a woman or a young boy; see how slender it is?" She turned the blade edgewise. "The color is probably the result of a smith mixing metals to make it strong enough not to break even if it is small enough for a woman. Even the metal handle isn't unusual; before it was understood how common magic-users are there were many swords made with a metal grip. It has only been in the last two hundred years that metal grips have become unusual."

"There might be no magic in her, but …" – Aralorn executed a few quick moves – "she's light and well balanced and takes a good edge. Who can ask anything more than that? I don't need a sword for anything else, so she suits my purposes. I don't use a sword when a knife or staff will do, so I don't have to worry about accidentally killing a magician." She resheathed the sword with a final pat.

"I brought Edom back with me." Wolf indicated me tall boy running with the smaller figures. "He was pleased to resume his duties."

Aralorn grinned, "He decided it was better than digging trenches, I take it?"

Wolf nodded.

THE ROUTE THAT THEY TOOK TO THE LIBRARY WAS DIFFERENT this time; Aralorn wasn't sure whether it was deliberate or just habit. Wolf traversed the twisted passages without hesitating, ducking the cave formations as they appeared in the light From the crystals in his stuff, but she had the feeling that if she weren't there he wouldn't need the light at all.

The library was as they had left it. Aralorn soon started skimming books, rather than reading them – but even so, the sheer volume of the library was daunting. Once or twice she found that the book that she arrived at the table with wasn't the one that she thought she had picked up. The fourth time that it happened she was certain that it wasn't just that she picked up a different book by mistake. The book that she had taken off the shelf was unwieldy; the one that she set in front of Wolf to check over was little more than a pamphlet.

Intrigued, she returned to the shelf where she'd gotten the book and found the massive tome she thought she'd had, sitting where she'd found it. She tapped it thoughtfully, and then smiled to herself – wizards' libraries, it seemed, had a few idiosyncrasies.

Wolf had taken no notice of her odd actions, but set the thin, harmless book on her side of the table and returned to the unreadable scribbles of a mediocre and half-mad warlock who passed away into much-deserved obscurity several centuries before: safe from the curses of an untrained magician, however powerful.

Aralorn, returning to the table, listened to his muttering with interest. The mercenaries of Sianim were possessed of a wide variety of curses, mostly vulgar; but Wolf definitely had a creative touch.

Still smiling, Aralorn opened the little book and began reading. Like most of the hooks she chose, this one was a collection of tales. It was written in an old Rethian dialect that she didn't find difficult to read. The first story was a version of the tale of the Smith's Weapons that she hadn't read before. Guiltily, because she knew that it wasn't going to be of any help defeating the ae'Magi, she took quick notes of the differences before continuing to another story.

Whoever had written the volume had been an extraordinarily good storyteller. Aralorn quit skimming the stories and read them instead, noting down a particularly interesting turn of phrase here and a detail there. She was a third of the way through the last story in the book before she realized just what she was reading. It was a story told to illustrate a moral; in this case the theme was "think before you act."

Apparently the ae'Magi (the one ruling at the time that the book was written) had, as an apprentice, designed a new spell. He presented it to his Master, to that worthy's misfortune. The spell was one that nullified magic, an effect that the apprentice's two-hundred-year-old Master would have appreciated more had he been out of the area of the spell's effect.

Aralorn hunted futilely for the name of the apprentice-turned-ae'Magi or even any indication when the book was written. Unfortunately, during most of Rethian history it had not been the custom to note the dale a book was written or even who wrote it. With a collection of stories, most of which were folk tales, it was virtually impossible to date the book reliably within two hundred years, especially one that was probably a copy of another book.

With a sigh, Aralorn set the book down and started to ask Wolf if he had any suggestions. Luckily she glanced at him before a sound left her mouth. He was in the midst of unraveling a spell worked into a lock on a mildewed book as thick as her hand. He didn't seem to be having an easy time with it, although it was difficult to judge from his masked face.

"Doesn't that thing ever bother you?" She asked in an I-am-only-making-conversation tone as soon as the lock popped open with a theatrical puff of blue smoke.

"What thing?" He brushed the remaining blue dust off the cover of the book and opened it to a random page.

"The mask. Doesn't it itch when you sweat?"

"I don't sweat." His tone was so uninterested that she knew that it was a safe topic to push, even though he was deliberately avoiding her point.

"You know," she said, running a finger over a dust pattern on a leather book cover, "when my father took me to visit the shapeshifters I thought that it would be really fun to be able to be someone else whenever I wanted. So I studied and learned and worked at it until I could look like almost anything I wanted. My father, though, had the uncanny knack of finding me out, and he was a creative genius when it came to punishments. Eventually I got out of the habit of shapechanging at all.

"The second time that I visited with my mother's people, I was several years older, I noticed something that time that made me think twice about shapeshifting. If a shapeshifter doesn't like something about himself, he can just change it. If his nose is too long or his eyes aren't the right color, it is easily altered. If he did something that he wasn't proud of, then he could be someone else for a while, until everyone forgot about it… they, all of them, hide from themselves behind their shapes until there isn't anything left to hide from."

"I assure you," commented Wolf dryly, "that as much as I would like to hide from myself, it would take more than a mask to do it."

"Then why do you wear it?" she asked. "I don't mean out there." She waved impatiently in the general direction of camp. "I am sure that you have your reasons. But why do you use it to hide from me too? I am hardly likely to tell everyone who you are."

He tensed but answered with the same directness that she had shown. "I have reasons for the mask that have nothing to do with trust or the lack of it." She'd noticed before the curious slurring to his words that the Wolf did not have, although the coarse sepulchral tone was the same.

She held his eyes. "Don't they? There are only the two of us in this room."

"Cave," he interjected mildly.

She conceded his correction but not the change of subject. "'Cave,' then. A mask is something to hide behind. If I am the only one here to look at your face, then you are hiding from me. You don't trust me."

"Plague take it, Aralorn. I have reasons to wear this mask." He tapped the silver mask. There was enough temper in his eyes, if not his voice, that a prudent person would have backed down.

Not even her enemies had ever called Aralorn prudent.

"Not with me," She wouldn't retreat.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath and opened them again. The glitter of temper had been replaced by something that she couldn't read. "The mask is more honest than what is beneath it." There was emotion coloring his voice, but it was disguised so it could have been as mild as sorrow or as wild as the rage portrayed by the mask.

She waited, knowing that if she commented on his obscure statement he was fully capable of sidetracking her into his peculiar philosophical mishmash until she forgot her purpose.

When he saw that she wasn't going to speak he said softly, "I find that trust is hard for me to learn, Lady."

There was nothing obvious holding the mask on his face, no hidden straps to hinder him when he put his hands up and undid the simple spell. He gripped the mask and took it off smoothly. She probably only imagined the slight hesitation before his face was revealed.

She had thought that it was his identity that he hid. If she had been another person she might have gasped. But she had seen burn victims before, even a few who were worse – most of those had been dead. The area around the golden eyes was unscarred, as if he'd protected them with an arm. The rest of his face matched his voice. It could have belonged to a corpse; it had that same peculiar tight look, as if the skin was too small. His mouth was drawn so tightly that he must have trouble eating. She knew now why his voice had sounded muffled, less clearly enunciated than it had been when he took wolfshape.

She looked for a long time, longer than she needed to so that she could think of the best way to react. Then she stood up and walked around the table, bent over and kissed him lightly on the lips.

Returning to her seat she said quietly, "Leave your mask off when we are here alone, if you will. I would rather look at you than a mask."

He smiled warmly at her, with his eyes: his lips were capable of no such feat. Then he answered what she didn't feel free to ask. "It was that spell of which I lost control. I told you that uncontrolled magic takes the shape of flame." As he spoke he clenched his fist and then opened it to show her the fire it held. "Human flesh burns easier than stone, and the ae'Magi wasn't able to extend his shield to me fast enough."

It took effort but she sensed that he was still uncertain, so she grinned at him and playfully knocked his hand aside. "Get that out of here. You, of all people, should know better than to play with fire." She knew by his laugh that she had taken the right tack and was glad for the years of acting that allowed her to lighten the mood.

Obediently he extinguished the flame, and with no more ceremony than he usually exhibited he turned back to his book. Aralorn went to the nearest bookcase and picked out another book. After it had been duly inspected for traps and pitfalls she opened it and pretended to read as she pondered on several other questions that popped up. Things like: why couldn't a magician, who could take on the form of a wolf indefinitely, alter his face until it was scarless? The most likely answer to that was that he didn't want to. That led to a whole new set of questions.

She was so engrossed in thought that she jumped at the sound of Wolf's voice as he announced that it was time to leave. She set the book she'd opened on the table on top of the book she'd forgotten to tell Wolf about. Tomorrow was soon enough for both books. As she started after Wolf she caught a motion out of the corner of her eye, but when she turned there was nothing there. Nonetheless, she fell the itch of being watched by unseen eyes all the way through the caverns.

As they left the caves, Aralorn noted that there were faded markings just inside the entrance. Some sort of warding was her guess, although she wasn't familiar with alt of the symbols. Wolf had probably put them up to keep unwanted visitors out of the cave, although they didn't seem to have had much effect on whatever it was that was in his library. They hadn't stopped the little girl, Astrid, from her explorations either. With a shrug Aralorn followed Wolf outside.

Outside the grey skies carried the dimness of early evening. Reluctant drops of rain fell here and there, icy and cold on her skin. There was no wind near the caves but Aralorn could hear its relentless spirit weaving its way through the nearby trees. She looked apprehensively at she sky. It was still too early for snow, but the mountains were renowned for their freak storms, and the icy rain boded ill.

Seeing her glance, the Wolf said, "There will be no snow tonight at least. Tomorrow, maybe. If it hits too soon we might have to move them into the caves. I would rather not do that; it's too easy to get lost, as it has already been demonstrated. Next time there might not be a rescue." She saw that he had replaced the mask without her noticing when he did it.

IF IT DID NOT SNOW, IT MIGHT AS WELL HAVE. THE STORM that hit that night was violent and cold. The wind carelessly shredded the makeshift tents that still comprised most of the camp. Everybody huddled in the tents that leaked the least and waited out the storm. It left as abruptly as it had struck. With the wind gone, the body heat from the huddled people warmed the remaining overpopulated tents. Tired as they were, everyone, with the exception of the second-shift night watch, was soon fast asleep.

Aralorn woke to the sound of a stallion's whistle. There was probably a mare in heat. She swore softly, but when Sheen whistled again she knew she had to go quiet him before he woke the camp. It probably would be a good idea to check on the horses after the storm anyway.

She reached under the furs she slept on – not an easy feat with so many others sleeping on the furs too – and strapped on her knife. Carefully, she stepped over the slumbering bodies and threaded her way to the door.

Once outside she jogged toward the corral. Sheen's light grey underbelly was easy to see against the darkness. Just as he was about to cry out again he saw her and came toward her, hopping because of the hobble. She checked him over, but saw nothing unusual.

He shifted abruptly as if the wind brought a scent to his nose. His attention was focused high on the ridge surrounding the valley. Every muscle tensed and only a quick word from Aralorn kept him quiet.

It could have been only the scent of one of the two guards Myr posted every night in shifts or, more probably, a wild animal of some sort. For her own peace of mind, Aralorn decided to trek up the side of the valley and see if she could locate whatever was disturbing the stallion. She commanded him to silence again and started the climb.

The terrain was more cliff than anything else. There was an easier climb over more open ground, but she chose to stay in the sparse cover of the tough brush that grew here and there. Once on the crest, crouched in the dense thicket of young willows that surrounded the valley, she glanced back down to see if Sheen was still upset.

His attention was still focused, but he could have been just watching her. Swearing softly to herself, she crept through the brush. If it had been a wild animal it was probably long gone, or waiting for a nice tasty human to join it for its evening meal – wasn't it dragons that were supposed to enjoy feasting on young women?

It was mere chance that she found the cause of Sheen's alarm.

She tripped over it before she saw it – or rather him. He was very dead. She called a dim light ball that would allow her to get a better look at the corpse without drawing attention to herself.

It was one of the guards – Pussywillow, the one-armed veteran. He had been killed recently because the body was still warm, even in the chill of the wet foliage. What really bothered Aralorn was the way he'd been killed. He'd probably been knocked out, judging by the lump on his head. With him unconscious and unable to struggle, it had been an easy matter to cut his heart out of his chest and carve the runes on it.

Impulsively she traced a symbol over a rune. She didn't know a lot about human magic: she didn't even know a lot about her own type of magic. But she did know that certain symbols and runes held a power of their own independent of green or human designation. Once when she and Wolf had been traveling she had seen him trace the symbol with a stick held in his jaws. Curious, as always, she asked him the meaning of it. Wolf told her that it was a powerful symbol that simply promoted good rest and taught it to her at her request. She hoped it would help.

She started to run around the edge of the valley without worrying about cover. She almost hoped to draw the attention of the killer; she was better able to take care of herself than almost anyone else in the camp. From the signs around the body there had been only one person, but he was skillful.

Heart pounding, and not from effort, she searched the darkness for some clue as to his whereabouts. Less than halfway around the camp she found the other guard. Her heart lay, still faintly beating, on the grass that was too dark even in the night.

She had probably been killed after Aralorn found the first body. The killer, safe in his knowledge that there was no other guard to worry about, had taken his time and done the ritual more properly, though still without active magic use that might have alerted Wolf, or anyone else in the camp for that matter. The guard had been awake for the ceremony, gagged so that she could make no sound. A small pewter drinking glass lay near the body, stained dark with blood.

Gently, Aralorn closed the open eyes.

Taking stock of her position, Aralorn realized that she was no more than a hundred yards from Wolf's camp. It would be wiser to have two people looking for the killer. Finding the camp from her position on top of the rim was not as easy as finding it from the bottom; there were no faint trails to lead her to it.

Just as she decided that her time would be better spent trying to find the enemy, she saw the light from the meager campfire Wolf preferred. With a sigh of relief she; made her way down the steep slope, taking the path slowly to avoid twisting an ankle.

Without warning a violent surge of magical backlash drove her to her knees. She waited until the wash of magic dulled to a point that was no longer painful before struggling back to her feet. Forgetting caution, she grabbed a stick and used it for balance as she slid down the hill, announcing her presence with a modest avalanche of stones and dirt.

She slid to a stop just above the small, flat area that Wolf had appropriated as his camp. Wolf lay still on his back in human form, eyes glistening with rage. Narrow, luminous white ropes lay across his legs, chest, and neck. Edom stood over him, his attention momentarily diverted to Aralorn. Half raised in his right hand he held a sword that was not the sword he'd been using in the sparring match. It glowed gently, with a pulsating lavender light. The sight of it sent a cold chill up Aralorn's back as she recognized the weapon for what it was: a souleater. The blades were as rare as they were unnatural. Aralorn had only seen one before, but there were a lot of stories about them. Even minor wounds from a souleater could be mortal.

The section of the ledge that she stood on was just far enough above Edom to be out of the sword's reach. She drew her knife and shifted it lightly by the blade in a thrower's grip. At this distance she didn't even need to aim, so she had it in the air before he would have been able to see what it was she threw. He certainly shouldn't have been able to dodge it, but her blade landed harmlessly on the ground behind him.

The speed of his move told her that he was a much better fighter than he had shown himself to be. Easily good enough that he could have fooled her into thinking him unskilled. Darranians being singularly prejudiced against women, he probably simply hadn't bothered.

His face, revealed more by the light of the souleater than the modest campfire, appeared older – although that could simply have been a mistake of the light. He smiled.

She was unarmed against him. Normally that wouldn't have worried her, but the souleater made the situation anything but normal. She could only hope to hold out until someone from the camp got there. No one who was tuned into magic could miss the disturbance that Edom's unholy sword was causing, now that it was active. Already she could hear voices from below.

All the shapes that she could take quickly were suited to her chosen trade as a spy: the mouse, several types of birds, a few insects. Nothing that would hold off an experienced swordsman for long enough to keep both her and Wolf alive.

She took an apparently involuntary step sideways, away from Edom, and lost her footing. She made sure that the fall carried her past Wolf's ledge and on down the hill into some brush.

Edom had two options; either he would follow her down, getting more distance between that sword and Wolf, or he would turn to finish Wolf off – giving her the extra few seconds that she needed. He turned back to finish his business with Wolf.

She chose the first form that she could think of; it was deadly enough, though small. The icelynx had little trouble with the steep climb and was leaping silently at Edom's back before he even had his sword raised at Wolf.

Warned by the brief shadow she caused when she ran in front of the fire, Edom turned – sweeping aside, her rush with his sword arm, but not before she raked his back with her formidable claws. Hissing and growling, she faced him as she crouched between him and the still form on the ground.

Pale sword and paler cat feinted back and forth: she just out of reach of the lethal sword; he careful not to expose himself to the poisonous fangs of the icelynx.

Suddenly Edom spoke softly as if not to antagonize the cat, though his tone carried anxious desperation. "It's Aralorn. She's a shapeshifter; don't you see it? I came up to ask Wolf about something and I found her here, with Wolf like that. You've all heard of the arcane practices of shapeshifters. Help me before she kills him."

Aralorn didn't have to look to see what her nose had belatedly informed her. A ragtag band from camp had just shown up to rescue the wrong person. In a form she was unfamiliar with, Aralorn was without the power of speech and unable to defend herself.

Edom continued to speak, even as he tried to maneuver closer to Wolf. "I've heard that shapeshifters need to kill when the moon is full. I guess that Wolf, out here alone, seemed an easy victim. I found this sword near; it must be Wolf's. She seems afraid of it."

The scent of humans and metal was getting stronger, and Aralorn knew that she had to move before she was unable to do anything. Despite the legends, shapeshifters were quite vulnerable to cold steel weapons. Disregarding the sword, she leapt at his throat while he was distracted by the sound of his own voice.

She missed as he threw himself flat on the ground. However, Edom managed to nick her with the sword as she passed him. Her off rear leg became icily numb and folded underneath her, but worse was the strange sucking sensation that consumed her. The sword was alive, and it was hungry.

Edom quickly regained his feet. On three legs, fighting the pull of the sword, she didn't have much of a chance. Aralorn watched as the sword descended.

Abruptly it was jerked out of its intended path. Aralorn could feel the sword's intense disappointment as Edom was suddenly consumed in flames. The smell of burning flesh offended her feline-sensitive nose almost as much as the light bothered her nocturnal eyes.

Apparently someone – she found out later that it was Stanis – had finally thought to remove the ropes that held Wolf down. Wolf did a more thorough job of burning Edom than was absolutely necessary, but then it must have been maddening to lay there and know what was going on without being able to do anything about it.

She yowled at him demandingly. With her leg numb and the odd dizziness that accompanied the wound, she was stuck where she was. He also made her nervous, putting so much effort into burning a dead body. He needed a distraction. When the yowl didn't do it, she rolled until she could bite him on the ankle, hard enough that he could feel it, but not hard enough to release the venom in the glands underneath her fangs.

Abruptly she was gathered up and set gently down on his bedroll. Wolf grabbed his staff from wherever it was that he put it when he wasn't using it and balanced it on its feet so that he could examine her wound in more certain light. She noticed with interest that the rest of the camp was staying well away from them. Well, Wolf's pyrotechnics had been pretty impressive.

Wolf traced a quick design over the wound with a finger; Aralorn decided that it was to break the sword's hold rather than close the wound, since human magic-users were not the best healers. Nothing seemed to change. He frowned and traced it again; this time she could feel that power that he used. Still nothing happened. She meowed at him nervously. He ignored her and chanted a few words.

Abruptly he stood and looked inward the crispy skeleton that was all that was left of Edom, Aralorn rolled to stand shakily on her three good legs to see what he was looking at. At first she didn't see it, but a flicker of movement caught her eye. It was the sword. Edom, or the thing that was Edom, had kept its grip on the sword. Now it lay a good foot away. Except for the flicker that caught her eye at first, she didn't see it move again. – but it was undeniably closer to her than it had been when she first saw it.

The coldness that numbed her leg seemed abruptly to be spreading and Aralorn lost her precarious balance and fell, missing exactly what Wolf did.

With a harsh, almost human cry of anguish that she heard only partly though her ears, the sword broke. Abruptly the numbness ceased and for a brief moment the pain made her wish it back; then it was only a small cut that bled a little.

The icelynx twitched its stubby tail and exploded to its feet with legendary speed. When she was sure all her legs were working, Aralorn arched purring against Wolf, who was still kneeling beside the blankets.

When she'd stood she heard someone cry out, reminding her that there was an audience. Looking at all the fear and hostility in the surrounding faces, Aralorn decided that it might defuse matters if they weren't being reminded that she was a shapeshifter. She transformed herself into her usual shape and dusted off the innkeeper's son's tunic that was looking the worse from her roll down the wet hillside. Without appearing to, she kept a close eye on the others. It was then that she realized that most of their fear was aimed at Wolf.

He had furnished an excellent display of what happens when a wizard of his power loses his temper. They all must have known that he was powerful, but knowing something and seeing it were different mailers. Most people lacked the casual acceptance of gore that mercenaries had. It didn't help that Wolf didn't wear his mask to sleep in and his horribly scarred visage had been clearly revealed in the flaring light. He wore his mask now, but the knowledge of what lay underneath it was with them all. What was really needed right now was someone to take control.

Aralorn looked around to see if she could find Myr, but he was conspicuous by his absence. There was always the possibility that he was still asleep, unaffected by the magic disturbance that awoke the rest of the camp; but, given what she knew about him, Aralorn thought that unlikely. The noise alone should have brought him by now.

As the thought crossed her mind, Myr – his clothes covered with bits of brush and blood – took the same path down the side of the hill that she had. Plague it! She must have woken him up when she went to check on the horses. If he'd been following her around, there was a good chance that he thought that she'd been the one who murdered the guards. As she had not been trying to hide anything, her footprints would be much more conspicuous than Edom's were.

Myr ignored the commotion in favor of investigating the blackened corpse. Aralorn wondered how much he hoped to learn from the scorched, skeletal remains. When he stood up he seemed slightly paler, though it could have been a trick of the light.

Composedly, he directed his question at Wolf. "Who was it?"

"Edom," answered Wolf in his usual chilling tones. If Wolfs hand hadn't been locked on her shoulder with a bruising grip, Aralorn would have thought him unaffected by the events of the night. It was obvious from the incredulous looks they directed at Wolf that most members of the little gathering were disturbed by his calmness.

"Is he the victim or the attacker?" asked Myr, voicing the question that was on almost everyone's mind.

"The attacker and the victim, though he didn't intend to be the latter," answered Aralorn, deciding to lake part in her defense. She continued to tell them what she had done and the discovery of the dead guards. "When I saw the runes, I knew that the ae'Magi had something to do with it because I've seen him use those patterns before. I came to see if Wolf wanted to help track him down and found Edom with his nasty little sword drawn, standing over Wolf."

An unfamiliar voice asked, "How do we know she's telling the truth? She could have laid a spell on Master Wolf so that he thinks that she has the right of it. Shapeshifters can do things like that. Edom was just a boy. Why would he attack Wolf? As for magic rituals, I spent three days teaching him how to move a stick without touching it. He didn't have hardly any magic at all."

Wolf spoke, and even the most unobservant could see that he was not in control of his temper yet. "Edom was the assailant tonight. I could see what was happening, even if I could do nothing about it.

"I have known Aralorn for some time. She does not have the skill required to deceive my eyes. Also, the sword Edom fought with was a souleater. It did not belong to me; and Aralorn, with her shapeshifter blood, could not have held anything so unnatural for long enough to draw it."

Myr nodded. "It's dark, but from what I could tell, the guards were dead before Aralorn found them."

Tobin spoke up from his position as Stanis's shadow. "Edom had a lot of books in his tent written in Darranian."

There was a brief silence. Aralorn almost smiled as she saw the meaning of Tobin's words echo in the minds of all present. It was Tobin's testimony that bore the most weight. A shapeshifter, being, after all, native to the Rethian mountains, was better than a Darranian. The last war with Darran was not so long past and the stories of the atrocities they committed (doubtless the worse for the telling) were still strong in everyone's mind. If Edom was a Darranian it put an entirely different light on the events of the night.

All the same, nobody but Myr met her eyes as they left to collect the bodies.

They buried the guards in rough graves dug in the night, as Wolf said they should. He had counteracted the runespell as best he could, but runes enacted on living flesh were stronger than they might otherwise be. He never made clear the exact purpose of Edom's runes, but he said that burying the bodies would give strength to his own spells.

When the last shovelful of dirt had been spread, Wolf raised his hands and spoke words of power and binding. Two great stones formed out of nothing rested side by side on the freshly turned earth. Each stood as tall as a grown man, and glowed with symbols that faded rapidly until they were merely large rocks.

The huddled group of people stood uneasily for a minute. The sting of death was no new thing to any of them, but that didn't make it any more pleasant. They all shared guard duty, and it could have been any of them. None held any illusions that they would have escaped better than Pussywillow had. The magic they had witnessed this night had its effect as well. Most of them were not quite comfortable with magic, even though they could work a touch of it themselves.

Gradually they drifted back to their tents until Aralorn, Myr and Wolf were left alone by the cairns.

Myr hit the stone he was standing near with a clenched fist, hard enough to break the skin. He spoke with quiet force. "I am tired of feeling like a cow waiting for slaughter. If we didn't realize before this that the ae'Magi is just biding his time until there isn't something more interesting to turn his attention to, we know that now. Edom is … was too young to be anything but a minor servant, and we almost didn't stop him in time. When we face the ae'Magi, we don't stand a chance."

"Edom was more than a minor servant if he worked the runes that were on the bodies," commented Wolf calmly, having recovered most of his usual control. "Carrying a souleater is not much easier. Don't make the same mistake that the ae'Magi is: he is not invincible."'

"You think that we have a chance against the ae'Magi?" Myr's tone was doubtful.

"No, but we can bother him for longer than he thinks that we can." Aralorn's tone was light and teasing, but her face was tightly drawn, with something more than weariness. "Now, children, I think that it is time for us to go to sleep. Don't forget that we have the sanitary facilities to dig in the morning. Wolf, if you don't mind, I think that everyone would be a little more comfortable if I sleep in your camp rather than the tent I've been sharing. Let them meet their shapeshifter in the light of day."

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