Masques (Sianim #1)

Chapter 6

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Somewhere in the darkness a nighthawk cried out in defeat: and a mouse escaped for another night. Aralorn sympathized with the mouse; she knew exactly how it felt.

Nothing remained of the blackened body except a slight scorched smell, as if someone had left the stew on the fire too long. Edom's remains had been gone when she arrived with her belongings. She supposed that Wolf had disposed of the body somewhere; she hadn't been inclined to ask.

Now that the excitement was over it was time to rest, but she couldn't do it. When she closed her eyes she could all but feel the not-quite-cold metal cutting her and tearing at more than the flesh of her thigh. Every time she managed to doze off she had nightmares; either she arrived too late to help Wolf, or the sword's bite had been more conclusive.

The blankets she used seemed too thin to protect her from the slight chill in the air, she pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around them in an effort to get warm, but even that didn't seem to help. She shivered convulsively and knew that it was due to fear rather than the night air.

She sat up and rested her forehead on her knees. She closed her eyes, but that didn't stop the jumbled images from presenting themselves to her.

If she hadn't decided to find out what was bothering Sheen, or Edom had been just a little swifter in his work, Wolf would be dead now. Not only would that have meant the end of any chance of defeating the ae'Magi, but she would have lost her enigmatic Wolf. Some part of her was amused that of the two results, it was the second that bothered her the most. Ren would not approve.

She was so intent on her thoughts that she didn't notice that Wolf had gotten up until he sat down beside her.

"Are you all right?" he asked softly.

She started to nod and then abruptly shook her head without lifting it from her knees. "No. I am not all right. If I were all right, I would be asleep. I am not asleep; therefore something is wrong." As she spoke, still without looking up, she scooted nearer to him, until she was leaning against his shoulder.

There was a pause, and then he slid an arm around her shoulder. "What's wrong. Lady?"

She shrugged. "I don't know."

"Is there something I can do?"

She let go of her legs and snuggled closer until she was almost sitting in his lap. "You're already doing it, thanks. I'm sorry; I've never been this jittery after a fight."

"I don't mind." He sat still, holding her almost awkwardly, but his warmth seeped in and alleviated the cold that blankets hadn't been able to dispel.

Aralorn relaxed, but felt no pressing need to move away. "I must be turning into one of those women who moan and wail at the first chance that they get, just so a handsome man will take them into his arms."

"Hmm," he said, apparently considering what she had said, "Is that why they do it? I have always wondered."

"Yup," she said wisely, noticing that he wasn't holding her as stiffly. "Then," Aralorn continued, "she has her way with him and he has to marry her. It's nice to know that I haven't fallen to that level … yet."

She paused and then said, "I was just getting a little chilled and thought to myself, 'Aralorn, what is the easiest way to get warm? The fire is nice but moving requiresso much effort. Ah yes,' I said to myself, 'why didn't I think of it before? There is all of that heat going to waste on the other side of the fire.' All that it took was a few broad hints and presto, you're here: instant heat."

"Yes," he said, tightening his grip in a brief hug, "I can see how that works, underhanded of you."

She nodded happily: the tension caused by the nightmare dissipated with the familiar banter. "I thought so too. I got that way by being a spy – we are taught how to be sneaky." She yawned sleepily, closing her eyes. "Oh, I meant to ask – who is keeping watch on the camp?"

"Don't worry about it," he answered her. "The ae'Magi won't have planned two attacks in the same evening, and he won't find out about Edom's failure until he doesn't report. Magical communication isn't all that it could be in these mountains."

"Right." Her voice slurred as she spoke. As she shifted to a more comfortable position she decided that Wolf was more comfortable to sleep on when he was wearing human shape; he smelled better too.

Wolf waited until she was asleep before he set her back down on her blankets. He added his blankets to hers and tucked it carefully around her. He brushed a hand against her cheek. "Good night, Lady."

He shifted into his wolf shape and stretched out beside her and stared into the night.

AS SHE HAD EXPECTED, ARALORN WAS ALONE WHEN SHE WOKE up. Wolf's longest absences were the result of a display of affection on his part, as if it was something with which he was not comfortable or, she thought with sudden insight, felt he didn't deserve.

To her surprise, her reception at camp was cordial. She collected a few wary looks and that was all. Maybe, having so recently been the object of persecution themselves, they were less inclined to judge someone else. More probably, decided Aralorn, Myr was keeping them too busy sewing and digging to worry about her one way or another.

If the adults showed little reaction, the children were fascinated by their shapechanger. They wanted to know if she could change into a rock (no) or a bird (they liked the goose, but would have preferred an eagle or better yet a vulture) and if shapeshifters really had to drink blood once a year, and … she was grateful when Wolf came to get her. For once she was tired of telling stories.

"I hope," she said, as they reached the caves, "that they don't believe half of what I tell them."

"They probably don't," Wolf replied. "Your problem is that they will believe the wrong half."

She laughed and ducked into the opening in the limestone wall.

When they reached the library, she noticed that her notes had been scattered around. One of the pages that she had been writing on the previous day was conspicuously situated on the space where Wolf worked in. Looking closer at it, she saw that it was the one that she'd been using to jot down the stories she'd found in the last book she'd read the day before. She never had gotten around to telling Wolf about the apprentice's spell that negated magic.

Wolf took up the paper and read her closely written scribblings with interest. While he did so, Aralorn looked carefully around the library and wondered what kind of a breeze could pull a sheet of paper out from under the books that were still neatly stacked where she had left them.

"I assume that if the apprentice were given a name, you would have mentioned it?" Wolf asked as he set down the paper.

She nodded. "I don't remember overseeing that story before, so it can't be very well known."

Wolf tapped the paper impatiently with a finger. "I have read that story somewhere else. I know that the one that I read gave his name. I just need to remember which book I read it in." Wolf stood silently a minute before shaking his head in disgust. "I can't think of it now. If I keep trying I may never remember it. Let's work on this mess" – he waved his hand vaguely at the bookcases – "and hopefully I will remember later."

They sat in their respective chairs and read. Aralorn waded through three rather boring histories before she found anything of note. As she was reading the last page of the history of the Zorantra family (who were known for developing a second-rate wine), the spine of the poorly preserved book gave way.

While inspecting the damage, she noticed that the back cover consisted of two pieces of leather that were carefully stitched together to hide a small space inside – just big enough for the folded pages it contained. Slipping the sheets out of their resting place, she examined them cautiously.

By this time Wolf was used to Aralorn laughing at odd moments, but he had just finished deciphering a particularly useless spell and so was ready to relax for a minute. "What is it?" he asked.

She grinned at him and waved the frail cluster of parchment in his general direction. "Look at this, I found this hidden in a book and thought that it might be a spell or something interesting, but it looks as though someone who had the book before you acquired it was quite an artist."

He took the sheets from her. They were covered with scenes of improbably endowed nude figures in even more improbable positions. He was about to give it back to her when he stopped and took a closer look. His eyes were in the shadow, and the burn scars made his face as impassive as his mask, so she couldn't tell what he was thinking. After a moment he crumpled the pages and they burst into flame – but the flame was the wrong color and burned too hot.

"You were right on your first guess, it is a spell. It's a rather crude representation of how to summon a demon."

"Demons?" asked Aralorn. "I didn't think that there were any such things, or do you mean elementals, like the one that tried to kill Myr?"

Wolf tilted his head and then laughed without humor. "This from a shapeshifter? Yes there are demons, I've summoned them myself. Not many magicians are willing to try it. Mistakes in the spellcasting can be dangerous, and it's getting difficult to find a virgin who can be forced to submit to the process. The ae'Magi never had a problem with it, though; his villagers could always produce some sort of victim.

"This depiction was not entirely accurate: it isn't necessary for the magician to participate in the sexual activities unless he wishes to."

Wolf continued to talk, outlining the practices of summoning demons. It wasn't something she'd want to listen to on a full stomach, and if Aralorn hadn't been a mercenary she wouldn't have been able to sit coolly through it all – but a reaction was what he wanted, and she'd be plague-stricken before she gave it to him. So she maintained a remote facade while she listened. This, she decided, was his way of driving her away after the closeness of last night.

"… Afterwards it is necessary to dispose of the focus, or the demon will be able to use her again to return without summoning. The blood of a woman used in such a fashion is valuable, as is the hair and several other body parts, so the proper method of killing the girl is to slit her throat," His voice was clinically precise. His glittering eyes never left hers.

She listened to his detached description of the horrors he'd committed and decided that she must be in love, because what she really heard was the self-directed hatred that initiated his lecture. Doubtless he'd participated in the twisted ceremony of demon summoning and probably worse. Aralorn was even more certain that it now revolted him as much as he intended it to appall her.

She waited until he was starting to run out of details, cupping her hand under her chin in feigned boredom. Then she said, "Fine. You're a vile person. You've done things that a normal human being would find abhorrent. All right. You've stopped doing them … I hope. Now can we get back to work?"

There was a long pause; then Wolf commented in the same dry tones he'd been using before. "You are frustrating at times, aren't you?"

She grinned at him. "Sorry, Wolf. I can't help it; melodrama has that effect on me."

"Pest," he said, his tone not at all affectionate, but then his voice seldom showed what he thought.

"I try," she said modestly, and was pleased when his eyes warmed with humor.

Deciding that the crisis was over, she walked to a bookcase several rows away from the table, out of sight of Wolf, to give them both time to calm down and sort things out. Absently, she plucked a book from a nearby shelf. She started to open it when it whisked itself out of her hands and leapt back on the shelf with a loud thud.

She stared at it for a minute, and then at Wolf, who was seated half of the room away with his back toward her, muttering to himself as he wrote. There was no one else in the library.

Carefully this time, without opening it, she picked up the book and examined it. Now that she was paying attention, she could see the faint magical aura that was just barely visible woven into the cotton that covered the thin wood that lent the cover its hardness.

She dutifully presented the book to Wolf for inspection. It was hardly a surprise when he found that it was indeed trapped. He broke the spell easily enough and gave it to her without a word.

She sat down with the book, for lack of anything better to do. It contained the autobiographical history, exaggerated, of a mediocre king of a long-forgotten realm. As a distraction, it ranked right up there with sewing and digging holes in the dirt.

"Wolf," she said, staring at her open book.

"Hmm?"

"Is there someone besides us in your library?" She kept her tone carefully nonchalant.

"Hmm," he said again, and there was a quiet thump as he set his book on the table. Aralorn did the same. He tapped the dark wooden surface of the table. "What prompted you to ask?"

She told him of her odd experiences, leaving out the last incident to spare herself his censure. When she was through he nodded, commenting, "I've seen a few things that cause me to consider the possibility that there may be something here. These mountains have a reputation for odd happenings, like Astrid's guide through the cave, A ghost or spirit of some sort would not he out of place."

WHEN THEY LEFT THE CAVES IT WAS STILL LIGHT OUTSIDE. THE skies were slightly overcast, but the wind was from the south so it was warm enough. Aralorn took a deep breath of air and Wolf's arm at the same time.

Smiling, she asked, "Have I thanked you yet for rescuing me from the tedium of mopping the floor of the inn for another six months, or however long Ren decided to leave me there?"

His stride broke when she took his arm, but when she spoke he resumed his customary gait. "No, I don't believe that you have. I am certain that I will find the proper way for you to express your gratitude. I noticed just today that the library floors are starting to get a bit dusty."

Aralorn laughed softly and quickened her pace a bit to keep up with him. He noticed what she was doing and slowed his stride until her shorter legs could keep up.

They were traveling in comfortable silence until Wolf stopped abruptly and snapped his fingers. He spoke hurriedly. "I know where else I read that story. It will take me a few days to get the book. Tell Myr that I've gone seeking a clue. Between the two of you, you should be able to handle anything that happens. Don't go to the library without me; I'd rather lose a few days' work than have you turned into a rock if you opened the wrong book."

Aralorn nodded. "Take care of yourself." She hugged him quickly and stepped back.

He took the wolf's shape and disappeared into the woods without a sound. It wasn't until he was gone that she thought to wonder how the camp would take the fact that she was returning without Wolf after the events of last night. Edom's death would not have vindicated her of all suspicion. With a wry smile she resumed her course.

At the camp, Aralorn skulked around until she found Myr organizing a hunt for the next day, as the camp supplies were gelling low. She caught his attention and then waited for him to finish. Listening to him work was fascinating. She had worked in a number of courts and seen the best politicians in the seventeen kingdoms work their wiles, and none of them even came close.

He reassured and soothed and organized until he had a small, skilled party who knew where to go and how to get back – without any of those who were not chosen feeling slighted or overlooked. With everybody as edgy as they were, this was a major accomplishment. If Myr survived to regain his throne, he would be a ruler that Reth would not soon forget.

"What did you need, Aralorn?" Myr asked, approaching her after he sent the others to their appointed tasks.

"Wolf is going to be absent for a few days. He is looking for a book that might be able to help us fight the ae'Magi." She kept her voice noncommittally informative, not certain whether he would accuse her or not. He had no reason to trust her, except that Wolf did, and Wolf was gone.

Myr started to nod and then caught the problem. "Since you are the only one who heard that, the first thing that people are going to wonder is if you were really the villain last night and have completed your nefarious plot today."

Aralorn nodded, relieved that he seemed not the least bit leery of her. "I didn't think of it until Wolf was already gone, or I would have made him come back to camp before he left. I thought that you might want to break the news rather than I."

Myr nodded. "I'll tell them that he left and leave out the details. There are enough things to worry about – we don't need another." Abruptly, like an extinguished candle, the taut energy that generally characterized him was gone. He just looked very tired.

"You need to let them look after themselves for a white. They don't really need you to tell them what shoe they should put on which foot or how to make stew," she commented.

Myr laughed involuntarily. "You saw that one, huh? How should I know how much salt to put in? I've never cooked anything in my life – anything that was edible, at any rate."

"I wish I could help you more; but even if they aren't terrified of me, I'm not someone they can trust. You have my sympathy, for what it's worth. Anything I can do, just ask."

"Thank you, Aralorn." He glanced up at the cloudless evening sky. "I wish that all the tents were done and we had twice as much food. The winter comes without much warning here. I once knew a man who could predict the weather. He told me that the air had a tartness to it before a snowstorm, but I could never smell it." He was talking to himself more than Aralorn. Abruptly he turned on his heel and headed toward the center of activity.

Aralorn watched as he stopped and laid a hand on the shoulder of an older woman plying a needle. Whatever he said made her smile.

Aralorn had watched him on and off when she'd been in the Rethian court, and he'd impressed her. At fifteen he'd been working in the background to keep his father from destroying Reth without undermining his father's seat on the throne. Here, he gave the people something to do so that they wouldn't sit and think about what they'd lost and what their fate was to be. He was a master at the art of ruling – but it cost him. He looked as if he'd seen ten years more than his eighteen. She wondered if he'd live to see his nineteenth year. He probably wondered about that too.

Since Wolf had asked her to stay out of the library, Aralorn did her best to keep busy. It wasn't difficult. Without Pussywillow or Wolf, only she and Myr had the training to teach the motley band of rebels how to fight.

Haris was easily the best; the heavy muscles that he'd developed swinging a smith's hammer lent an impressive strength to his blows. Like most big men he was a little slow, but he knew how to compensate for it. In unarmed combat he could take Aralorn, but not Myr.

The rest of the camp varied from bad to pathetic. There was a squire's son who had at one time been quite an archer, but he was old and his eyesight wasn't what it had been. One of the farmers could swing a scythe but not a sword. Then there was the farmer Traven, whose greatest asset as a fighter was his size, which he more than made up for by his gentleness.

"Okay now, keep your sword a bit lower and watch my eyes to see where I'll move. Now, in slow motion I'm going to swing at you. I want you to block overhanded, then underhanded and then thrust." The big farmer would have been a lot better off if he could forget she was a woman. The only way that she could get him to strike at her was it' she did it in slow motion. But when they sped things up, he wouldn't use his full strength. She was about to change that if she could.

"Good," she said when he had completed the maneuvers. "Now at full speed." He blocked and blocked, but his strike was slow and careful, lacking the power that he should have been able to put behind the blow. Aralorn stepped into it and inside. With a deft grip and twist, she tossed him over her head and into the grass. Before he had a chance to move, she had her knee on his chest and his sword arm twisted so that it would hurt him; maybe enough that he would fight her when she let him up.

There had been a collective gasp from her audience when she tossed the farmer on his back. The move looked more impressive than it was, especially since he easily outweighed her by a hundred pounds.

Stanis, who was watching, put a finger on his chin and said, "I wouldn't pin 'im that way, Aralorn. Two coughs from a cat and I'd be out of it if it'd been me you caught."

Aralorn raised an eyebrow and let Traven up. Stanis had been born to a group of traders, traveling clans no better than they should be. It was very possible that he had a few good tricks up his sleeve.

"'Right, then. Come on, Stanis," she invited.

He did. She must have pinned him a dozen times, but he kept slipping out of her grasp. Drawn by the noise, Myr quit his bout to come and watch too. Soon the whole crowd was cheering for Stanis as he broke away again and again. Aralorn quit finally and raised her hands in surrender.

"Magic?" she queried Stanis as she shook his hand.

Stanis shook his head, gave her a wary look, then grinned and nodded. "Most of 'em are easier with magic, but there's a few tricks that the Clansmen know if ya wanna learn 'em."

So Stanis took a turn at teaching. He must have been a very good thief, and doubtless there were a few magistrates who were looking for him; though, thought Aralorn with a smile, they'd have a hard time keeping him.

When it was time to dig latrines, sew, or hunt, Aralorn watched over the children. It was nice to have a ready audience who believed every word that came out of her mouth, at least until they got to know her better. Keeping thirty-odd mischievous magic-loving tots out of trouble kept her from getting restless while Wolf was away. It also kept her from latrine duty.

THE SNOWSTORM STRUCK WITHOUT WARNING TWO NIGHTS later. Within moments the temperature dropped below freezing. Without a tent to cover her, since she was still sleeping in Wolf's camp, Aralorn woke as the first few flakes fell. Instincts developed from years of camping had her gathering her bedding before she was really awake. Even so, by the time she had left Wolf's chosen spot and made it into the main camp, most of what she carried was already covered with snow.

At the camp, Aralorn found that Myr, efficient as ever, was shuffling people who had occupied inadequate tents to the few that looked like they would hold up in the storm. Seeing her trudge in, Myr motioned her toward his own tent.

She found it full of frightened people. The storms of the North were legendary. Although their camp was protected from the brunt of the storm by the steep walls of the valley, the angry howl of the wind was so loud that it made it difficult to hear.

Evaluating the situation, Aralorn casually found a place for her blankets, lay down and closed her eyes, ignoring the slight dampness left on her bedroll after she had brushed the snow off. Her nonchalance seemed to work, because everyone quieted down and they were mostly asleep when Myr returned to his bed.

By morning the worst of the storm was over, but the snow was knee deep, and in places it had drifted nearly waist-high.

Aralorn was helping with the fire when Myr found her and pulled her aside. "I'm no magician, but I do know that this is a freak storm. Feel the air. It's already getting warm, the snow is starting to melt. The storms come suddenly here, I know – but this is more like the spring storms. The winter storms hit and don't ease for weeks. Did you notice anything unnatural about it?"

Aralorn shook her head and sneezed; sleeping in damp bedding wasn't the best thing for one's health. "No, I wondered about that myself, so I tried to check. I couldn't find any trace of human magic in the storm – although there was something strange about it, I'll grant you." She shrugged. "If the ae'Magi was causing that storm, he was trying to hide it, and he could certainly do that, at least from me – although storms aren't something that human magicians are generally good with. The trappers who hunt these parts for furs would tell you that it was the Old Man of the Mountain who caused the storm."

There was a brief silence; then Myr, who was beginning to know her, smiled slowly. "I'll take my cue. Who is the Old Man of the Mountain?"

She grinned cheerfully at him. "The trappers like to tell a lot of stories about him. Sometimes he is a monster who drives men mad and eats them. Other times he is a kindly old man who does things that kindly old men can't do – like change the weather. He is invited to every trapper's wedding or gathering, and a ceremonial place is laid for him when the trapping clans meet in their enclave each year to decide which trapper goes where."

"Is it just a story or is there such a person?" he asked.

Aralorn shrugged. "I don't know. I've met trappers who swear that they have met him. But I've never seen the story in any book. No human magician could perform the feats that he is credited with, and I've never seen a shapeshifter wield that kind of power – most of them concentrate on the little stuff. Great feats are not their strong point. There are damn few other wielders of natural magic, and none of them would be inclined to live in the mountains – or have any dealings with humans."

His curiosity satisfied, Myr changed the subject. "I wish I knew how long this weather was going to last. We need to get some food, and I can't send the hunters out in this. They don't have the skills to hunt in the snow. Only two or three of them have the skills to hunt at all, and none are experienced with northern weather." As he spoke he paced back and forth restlessly.

"Don't worry so." Aralorn's tone was brisk. "If we starve, there is nothing that you can do about it. However, Sheen's not been getting much exercise lately and I'm not too bad with a bow. I also know how to set traps if we need to. Keep your hunters home, and I'll see what I can do for our larder."

Myr's face cleared. "If you would, I can put the hunting party to work hunting wood instead."

She hadn't intended to leave just then, but the relief on his face kept her from putting it off until afternoon. She recovered her gear from the storage tent, commandeered a pair of boots, and borrowed a crossbow and arrows from one of the erstwhile hunters.

SHEEN SNORTED AND DANCED WHILE SHE SADDLED HIM AND took off at a dead run when she was only half in the saddle, a dramatic departure that was met with ragged cheers and good-natured laughter. When she was able to pull him up and scold him, they were already headed up the main trail out of the valley.

It wasn't as difficult to navigate the mountain once they were out of the valley, as the harsh winds had swept the snow away from many places. The deep snow was usually avoidable, and when it wasn't, the heavy horse had little trouble forcing a way through.

There were few tracks in the snow. Aralorn wasn't familiar enough with the northern animals to know if they were waiting in shelter for the snow to melt – or if something else was keeping them away. Several miles away from the valley she stumbled upon tracks that she'd never seen before. The prints were several hours old and smeared hopelessly by the melting snow. Whatever it was, it was big – she found a branch as big around as her leg that the animal had snapped off a tree. She looked at the branch a minute and guided her nervous mount away from the thing's trail.

"Anything that big, Sheen, is bound to be too tough and stringy to make good eating. Besides, it would be a pain to drag the body back to camp." The big horse snorted at her and increased his speed.

Several hours later Aralorn wiped a gloved hand across her nose and squinted against the glare of the sunny, snow-covered meadow. The oiled boots that she'd found in the storage shed worked well to keep out the water. She appreciated them all the more for the fact that all of the rest of her was wet. The brush was laden with the heavy, wet snow, so that even riding she got drenched. There was a lot of undergrowth on the steep slope behind them. The sun had melted enough of the snow that water ran down everywhere to make the ground muddy and slick. To make matters worse, the light sneezes of this morning had turned into a full-blown, plaguing cold.

"You know, Sheen" – she patted his glossy neck, also somewhat damp – "I think that I would prefer it if it were really cold. At least that way we would be just chilly and not wet too."

She pushed a soggy strand of hair out of her face with a sigh. The sun was starting the trek toward its evening rest, and they hadn't seen so much as a rabbit. It was unusually bad luck. The camp was far enough away from commonly hunted areas that the game animals were unafraid of people. Just on the walk from the camp to the caves, Aralorn generally saw several deer. Today even the birds were scarce.

Maybe whatever large beastie that left its traces for her to find had scared off all of the prey. She hoped not. That would mean that it was probably something that people should be running from, too. She wished Wolf were here to tell her what it was. A grin caught her lip as she thought about what his response to being viewed as a rescuer of ladies in distress would be. The picture of herself as a lady in distress caused her smile to widen a bit. She still wished for his comforting presence.

Absently she looked at the meadow and admired the pristine beauty of the untouched snow that gleamed subtly with all the colors of a rainbow, more startling because of the dark, dense forest surrounding it. She was deciding whether it was worth crossing the meadow to the river that ran on the other side or if she ought to head back up the steep muddy path and start back to camp when she noticed that there was something odd about the peaceful meadow.

She stiffened at the same time that Sheen noticed them. "Yawan!" The filthy word described exactly the way she felt. Stupid, stupid to have missed them when in front of her, the whole meadow was moving slowly. The covering of deep snow completely masked their scent, or maybe the cold kept them from rolling. Whatever the case, not two feet in front of her a Uriah rose from its snowy bed. It wasn't the only one. There must have been at least a hundred of the defiled things, and though none of them were on their feet, their heads were turning toward her.

The path behind was no escape. The slick mud would slow Sheen much more than it would the Uriah. Cold slowed them, but not enough. The best ways to stop them were fire and running water. There were no fires around that she could see, but running water there was aplenty.

All this took less than a second to run through her head. She squeezed Sheen with her knees, and bless his warrior's heart he plowed right into the meadow filled with moving mounds of snow. The Uriah howled and Sheen redoubled his speed, leaping and dodging the creatures. One of them stood up, reaching for the reins. Aralorn shot it in the eye with a bolt from the crossbow; it reeled back but recovered enough to catch Aralorn's stirrup. Desperately she hit it hard with the butt of the crossbow, breaking the arm off the body at the shoulder. Sheen struck it with his hind feet as it fell.

The cold must have had a greater effect on their speed than she thought it would, because – much to her surprise – Aralorn made it to the river while the Uriah were still sluggish. Sheen protested the cold water with a grunt when he hit, but struck out strongly for the other side. Aralorn took a good grip on Sheen's mane and lay flat on the fast-running surface, letting the water take most of her weight.

The river was deep and swift, but narrow. The horse towed Aralorn to the far bank without mishap. The current had swept them far enough downstream that the Uriah were no longer in sight, but she thought that she could hear them above the rush of the water. When she turned back to mount again, she noticed that the arm she'd severed from the Uriah still held fast to her stirrup.

There was a story about a man who kept a finger from a Uriah's hand for a trophy of war. Ten years later the Uriah who owned the finger showed up on the man's doorstep, Aralorn didn't believe that story, not really; she just wasn't enthusiastic about riding around with a hand attached to her saddle.

Aralorn pried at it with grim haste. The thing was strangely stubborn, so she finally used an arrow as a lever to pull it away. As she worked she noticed that it wore a ring of heavy gold – stolen from some poor victim, she supposed. Ren would be fascinated – Uriah were not generally looters; their primary interest was food.

She threw the arm and its ring in the river and watched in some satisfaction as it disappeared in the depths. She reloaded the crossbow from habit; it obviously wasn't much good against Uriah. Mounting Sheen, she headed in the general direction of camp, hoping that there would he a bridge over the river between here and camp.

The only thing that the Uriah could be after this far north was Myr – assuming that Wolf was correct in labeling them servants of the ae'Magi. They had obviously been caught by the storm and incapacitated by the sudden cold. If the storm hadn't stopped them, they would have reached the camp early in the morning.

Now, she had a chance to warn Myr.

Shaking with cold, she urged the stallion to a trot that he could maintain until they made it back to camp. As they went, she sawed at the girth and dumped the saddle and bags to the ground to reduce the weight, keeping her seat somehow while they fell. She retained her grip on the loaded crossbow.

The river was between the Uriah and Aralorn, but it stood between her and the camp as well. She rode as far as she could, looking for a bridge, but there was none. The only choice was to swim again. When they came out of the water the second time, Aralorn was blue with cold and Sheen was stumbling heavily. Warming was one of the easier magics that she knew, but it took her three times to get it right.

She rode right into the camp, scattering people as she went. She stopped finally in front of Myr's tent. Drawn by the sound of horse hooves, Myr ducked outside just as Aralorn slipped off the stallion's back.

"What's wrong?" he asked, taking in her appearance.

"Uriah … about a hundred of them. They're coming." Aralorn panted heavily, her voice hoarse with what was turning into the grandfather of all colds. "I think that the caves will be safer. Leave the tents behind, but take all the food, blankets and weapons that you can."

He was acting before she finished speaking. The children, under the leadership of Stanis, were sent ahead with such things as they could carry. Myr had the majority of the camp packed and on the trail to the caves before anyone had time to panic.

Aralorn and Myr brought up the rear of the procession. Aralorn, listening for the Uriah behind them, chafed at the slow pace they were forced to take because most people were on foot – but then again, even a dead run would have been too slow. She walked beside her exhausted horse and hoped that Sheen wasn't so tired that he wouldn't give warning if the Uriah got too close.

By the time they arrived at the caves, Aralorn found herself mildly surprised that they had beaten the Uriah there. Myr put her in charge of organizing supplies while he worked on sorting out living quarters.

When he had a chance, Myr sought Aralorn out. "This is only going to delay them, you know that. I've been told they can track a man as well as a hunting dog." Myr spoke in a soft voice designed not to carry to anyone but Aralorn. "I don't have much experience with Uriah. All that I know is that they are very hard to kill and are almost as immune to magic as I am. Is there some sort of defense that we can mount?"

Aralorn nodded. "They don't like fire, so make sure that there are torches ready. This lot" – she swung a hand in the general direction of others in the cavern – "will fight better with torches than swords."

Myr gave her a tired smile. "And no worries about how to light the torches either, with this assortment of amateur magic-users. I think that the only one who can't light a torch with magic is me. Haris!" He caught the attention of the smith who was organizing the storage of supplies. "I want a bonfire laid in the entrance and someone who can light it from a distance stationed to watch for the Uriah."

Haris nodded, and Myr returned his attention to Aralorn. "There are three or four here who should be able to light the fire from a good distance. I'll station them in relays."

Aralorn shivered in her still-damp clothes. "I don't know if they'll come inside the caves. There is some kind of warding near the entrance; you can see the markings if you want to look. Wolf must have set them. I suspect that the warding was the reason that Edom wouldn't enter the caves. Do you remember?"

Myr nodded. "When we were looking for Astrid, yes."

Aralorn continued. "If it works like the spells that shape-changers use, the Uriah won't even see the caves unless we are lighting fires and running in and out to attract their attention. The trail that we took up here is virtually a stream from the melting snow, so that in a little while there will be no sign that we came this way."

"I'll see that everyone stays inside." Myr started to go; someone was calling to him from a storage cave. "Aralorn?'

"Yes?"

"Change your clothes for something dry, before you catch lung-fever. You can use something of mine if you need to. My packs are marked over against the far wall."

"Thanks." She made her way to his packs, unmistakable because of the embroidered dragon that glared at her as she rifled through his belongings. True shapeshifters could probably alter the clothes that they were wearing, but Aralorn had no idea how to go about it. She pulled out a pair of plain trousers and a tunic of a dark hue (she couldn't see the color in the shadows of the cave) and, best of all, a pair of dry cotton stockings.

With clothes in hand, she hunted down an unoccupied cranny and exchanged the wet clothes for the dry ones. The oil coaling on the boots worked boiler in snow than in rivers. The water had run in from the top and been prevented from leaving by the oil on the outside, so that they were marshy inside. Aralorn dried them out as best she could and pulled them on over her newly acquired socks. She had hoped for better results.

She surveyed herself wryly when she was done. Myr was not tall, for a man, which left him only a head or so taller than she. He was, however, built like a stone wall.

Well, she thought, tugging at the front of the tunic, at least she wouldn't have to worry about it being too tight.

The camp was starting to look organized again. Rather than upset Myr's plans, Aralorn found the cave that was functioning as a temporary corral and began a better-late-than-never rubdown on Sheen. He stood quietly with head and tail lowered – a sure sign that he was as tired as she was.

Stanis found her there using a handful of hay in an unequal battle against the mud on the stallion's belly.

"Aralorn. I think Astrid went back to camp." His normally cheerful expression was anxious.

"What? … Why?" Aralorn left off grooming, dropping the straw as she spoke.

"I can't find her anywhere an' neither can Tobin, we searched an' searched. She was crying all of the way up here because she left the doll her mother made her at camp. We tried to tell her that it would be all right, everyone knows that Uriah don't eat dolls, just people. But I haven't seen her since you came in, and neither has anyone else."

She knew that it was foolish – if Astrid had gone back to camp she would be dead by now – but Aralorn would not be able to live with herself if she didn't look.

"How many people have you told this to?" She was fitting her bridle to one of the camp horses, since Sheen was too tired to make the trip back into camp.

"Lots of people know I'm looking for her, but you're the only one that I told what I thought happened to her. I tried to tell Myr, but Haris was talking to him and lots of other people."

"Here's what we're going to do. I'm going to sneak out of here and go look for her. I don't want you to tell anyone that I've gone. Keep looking for her here. She was pretty excited about the man who helped her find her way out of the caves.

She may just have wandered deeper into the cave to see if she could find him. Wait until Myr isn't busy and then tell him where I've gone; that should take long enough that I'll either be back or I'm not coming back. Tell him that I said not to send anyone else after me. There aren't enough people to spare. I'm just going to sneak down to our camp and see if I can spot her. If I don't see her, I'll ride right back up."

She paused only long enough to get her sword. As she belted it on, the thought occurred to her that if she were going to have to keep using it against Uriah, it would behoove her to get more proficient at wielding the plaguing thing.

It wasn't easy, with her limited magical powers, to sneak through a cave filled with magic-users, albeit weak ones. The gelding, sulky at leaving the other horses munching dinner, complicated matters as well. She almost left him behind, but although he made it a little bit more difficult to escape undetected, he also gave her an edge if she were discovered or had to rescue the girl. The mice and birds that she could easily shapeshift into weren't much use against Uriah, and she was too tired from her frantic ride to try anything else.

Once out of the occupied caves, she gave up trying to remain unseen. The guards didn't challenge her as she took the horse past them. They were looking for Uriah coming in, not people going out.

OUTSIDE, THE SCREAMING CRIES OF THE URIAH WERE CLEARLY audible as they fought over the provisions that had been left behind. At least she hoped that was what they were lighting for, but the thought of what could happen to a lone child made her urge the horse to a speed that wasn't quite safe in the early evening shadows, darting through the underbrush. She drew her sword so that it would be ready.

She stayed off the trails and followed a creekbed to the far side of the valley near Wolf's camp, so the Uriah couldn't easily follow her back trail to the caves. It wasn't until she got to the valley that she realized that Astrid would have followed the main trail down.

She was turning to go when she heard a whistle from down below, She would have known it anywhere. Talor had always been tone deaf – giving his signals a peculiar flat sound all their own as well as making it unclear exactly what he was signaling. In this case it could have been either "all clear" or "help." Given the circumstance, Aralorn picked the latter.

Without hesitation she urged the horse down the slope. The only excuse that she had for her action was that she was exhausted and reacting from instinct instead of thought. Her borrowed horse was not as sure-footed as Sheen, and stumbled badly on the rocky slope. The horse made a lot of noise, and ended up sliding most of the way down on a small avalanche of his own making.

Well, she thought, so much for the element of surprise. Maybe her grandiose arrival would at least see her immortalized in song; sadly, no bards or troubadours seemed to be present.

The gelding was still sliding uncontrollably when she ran into a small group of Uriah. As they easily pulled down the horse beneath her, Aralorn jumped clear, hoping that the horse would distract most of them and give her a chance to find either Talor or Astrid. Her jump took her clear of the feeding frenzy, and earned her only a scraped shin and modest bruises. By the time she regained her feet there were two Uriah nearly upon her. She used the split-second before they attacked to search for a possible escape, but everywhere she looked there were more of them converging.

Bleakly, she thought of another of Ren's homilies – it only took one stupid move to topple a throne. She used her sword in a useless attempt to defend herself and waited to die.

It seemed like it took forever. She swung and limbs fell, still writhing as if unwilling to accede to death with somber dignity. She swung until her arms were heavy and her tendons burned like slow acid in her shoulders. Her body was covered with myriad scrapes. Surprisingly, none of her wounds was in itself serious; but collectively they sapped her strength and dulled her reflexes. The Uriah just kept coming. The horse's screams had stopped, for which she was profoundly thankful. It had been stupid of her to come running; any human who had been here was beyond anyone's ability to help. She had little talent as a mindspeaker, but she sent a cry to Wolf anyway not being one to give tip. Then she bit her lip and grimly hacked away.

Her arms were numb by the time that it dawned on her what was going on. She timed her strokes to the refrain in her head: stupid, stupid, silly hitch. They could have killed her anytime they wanted to, but they didn't want to. They were trying to capture her to take back to the ae'Magi for questioning. The thought of that redoubled her efforts. If she could win herself enough space, she could draw her knife and eliminate the chance of being questioned by the ae'Magi again. Her sword, although shorter than normal, was still too awkward to kill herself with before they stopped her.

She spun around with a killing stroke when she heard something approach behind her. She caught a quick glimpse of his face and recognized Talor: she'd forgotten about him. Frantically she avoided hitting him by a narrow margin. Then she got a clear view of him – something was wrong. Bile rose in her throat as she brought the sword back up again, but before she could strike she was caught from behind and held helpless.

What happened next was enough to top her worst nightmares. The thing smiled – and it was Talor's smile despite the rotting flesh – and it said in Talor's teasing voice, "I told you to always follow through on your strokes or you would never make a swordmaster."

She thought that she screamed then, but it might have been just the sound of a Uriah, lucky enough to feast on the horse.

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