Authors: Jr. L. E. Modesitt
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic
Trying to step quietly, I almost tiptoed along the stable wall, ignoring the wild swings in the air as the guard whipped his blade back and forth. He headed toward the front of the inn. After all, who would hide in the closed stable?
I felt my way toward Gairloch. Sensing no one else around, I dropped the shield. It was dark, but I could see enough. The slash in my arm was more than a scrape, though not too deep, but there was blood everywhere. I fumbled through my pack and jammed some cloth against the wound. I thought it was a work shirt.
“Search the stable.”
“He's here somewhere.”
I took a deep breath and dropped into the corner under the manger, waiting to raise my shield until I heard steps. Holding shields was work, and I didn't have that much energy to spare. Gairloch snorted, but didn't step on me, tight as the fit was.
“Check the stalls!”
I swallowed and pulled the shield up around me, hoping I didn't have to hold it long, and keeping my lips closed, even as I tried to channel some order into the slice. The damned thing hurt.
“He's not here...”
“What about the comer stall?”
I could sense a figure looking into Gairloch's stall.
Whheee... eeeee... Gairloch sidled away from the intruder, shielding me even more.
“Not here. What about the loft?”
More scraping and scuttling followed, and I had to hold my nose to keep from sneezing as hay dust filtered down around me through the gaps in the boards overhead.
“Stuff it! Make you into dinner!” snapped a guard, so close he could have been standing over me.
So Gairloch whuffed instead. I wanted to hug him.
“Sure he's gone?”
“He's wounded. Would you stay around here? Can't be that good a wizard if he's running.”
“Where did he go?”
“Probably right out the front while you were yelling, Dosca.”
“No stuff in the stable?”
“No. Rudur checked that soon's he came in.”
“They can take care of the damned horse in the morning. He's not going anywhere.”
The voices moved off, and I lowered the shields, and tried to rest for a moment, still holding the shirt against the wound. I heard the stable hands walk by at least twice, but after the guards no one looked into Gairloch's stall.
As I waited, I wondered about Alasia, the serving girl who'd tried to cover for me. I hoped she hadn't gotten punished.
Later, when the stable got quiet and dark, I checked the arm again with my own order senses, using what little reserves I had to force out the traces of chaos. Then I ripped a section off the tail of the shirt and bound the gash.
“You shouldn't make so much noise.”
I looked up. Alasia smiled at me from the stall door.
“Probably not. Did you get in trouble for lying about when Heft?”
“No. Not much.”
She was lying, and I could see the bruises across her cheek, and sense those on her arms, although she huddled under a woolen shawl.
“I'm sorry,” I told her. “You didn't have to lie for me.”
Although I didn't have too much order to spare I lifted my good arm and touched her face, letting a little order trickle into the bruises.
“They said you were a wizard.”
I wasn't sure, but she seemed pale, despite the order I had given her. Was she one of those who were terrified of any sort of wizardry?
“I know just enough to get myself in trouble,” I admitted. “Most of the time, I'm a woodworker.”
“Are you going back to Montgren?” Her voice was low, and she looked over her shoulder toward the flickering lamps of the Golden Bowl.
“No. I hadn't planned to go that way.”
“Will you take me wherever you're going? Please?” She glanced over her shoulder again, and she was trying not to shiver.
I let my senses run over her, trying not to be too intimate, but learning she was very feminine-and without a trace of chaos. Lack of chaos did not mean she was good-only that she was less likely to be thoroughly evil.
“You supposed to be going to the jakes?”
“Go, and come back.”
She scuttled toward the small building at the end of the stable.
One way or another I wasn't safe in the stable, not any longer. Clearly, they thought I had fled and wouldn't be coming back. Just as clearly, they'd be back to sell Gairloch and all my gear-probably at first light, although I didn't know why they hadn't tried that already, but I wasn't questioning that small bit of good fortune. I quickly saddled Gairloch, and after releasing the shield from around my staff and pack and bags, I hoisted them onto Gairloch. I tried to use my good arm.
As I was strapping down my bedroll, Alasia slipped back. “You can't just ride out. There are guards there.”
I frowned. “Why do you want to leave here?”
“You idiot!” She raised her left hand and pointed to the bronze band. “Don't you know what that means? Teilsyr owns me. If he wants to sleep with me, he can. If he wants me to sleep with someone else, I have to.”
“Bond servitude they call it. The Dukes like it.” She glanced toward the inn again. “Please...”
“Are you ready to go?” I asked.
“What are you going to do?”
“You'll fall asleep. Don't worry.” I was concentrating, trying to recall how I had put the officers of the Prefect of Gallos to sleep. This time it was easier, but not much, because I was tired.
“Don't...” Alasia slumped into a heap.
With a deep breath I lifted her body, and I sort of enjoyed it, although I didn't have any illusions about her interest in me. I just laid her across Gairloch's saddle. Then I eased open the stall door and led Gairloch to the half-open stable slider.
Again, I raised my shields and walked Gairloch slowly through the yard toward the two guards leaning against the plastered side of the building to the left of the inn.
“You hear something?” asked one of the guards.
“Besides Teilsyr and his whips?”
“How's he get 'em?”
“Geras the leather fellow makes them.”
“I meant the girls.”
“Buys 'em. How else?”
I kept walking, patting Gairloch and trying to reassure him as we edged toward the street. No wonder she wanted out! Whips?
“Sure you don't hear something?”
“Look! Do you see anything?”
Gairloch's hoofs clicked on the stones of the road.
“It's out there. Somewhere across the square. You can hear better when it's dark.”
“I don't know.”
When we got to the other side of the square, I dropped the shield and eased Alasia's limp form in front of me and climbed into the saddle.
I turned Gairloch toward the northern end of the town and hoped that the gates there were as rusted open as the southern ones had been.
They were, and a single guard half watched, half dozed, as I struggled to hold shields around the three of us while we crossed the torchlit space. Gairloch even stepped more delicately, it seemed, but that might have been my imagination.
Less than a half kay beyond the walls, on the northern causeway, I dropped the shield. Although I was sweating, in the cold air, with the effort of almost continual order-mastery, I was exhausted and shivering. I fastened my jacket tightly and kept riding, letting Gairloch pick his own pace. He was the one carrying double.
Although it took a long time, we didn't go awfully far- only until I could reach a woodlot, or a grove-I couldn't tell. The grove was maybe three or four kays beyond the gate and the first one that wasn't close to a hut or a cottage.
I struggled to get Alasia down, perhaps more intimately than I should have. I was glad Krystal and Tamra weren't watching. After wrapping a blanket around her, I laid her on a pile of evergreen needles. I found some cheese and drank the last dregs of the redberry. It was turning fermented-type sweet, but it was still all right.
After a little while, I stopped shivering and started feeling merely exhausted and achy. The smell of the evergreens overhead helped.
“Oh... who...” Alasia jerked upright. “What did you do?”
“I put you to sleep. That was so we could get past the guards. You're all right. I didn't do anything except carry you out of Sunta.”
“I don't fall asleep, just like that. And I don't faint. Even at the wrong time of month I don't faint. What did you do?”
“I told you. I helped you go to sleep. That's all.” I tried to make my words gentle, but my arm throbbed, and my head ached, probably from holding shields when I was exhausted.
“Where are we?”
“Probably four kays out of Sunta on the north road.”
She shivered and wrapped the blanket around her. “I'm not dressed for traveling.”
“You said you wanted to go, and we couldn't exactly wait,” I pointed out. That got a slight laugh, a nervous one.
“How did you get by the guards?” she asked.
“I walked by.” My stomach twisted at the partial truth. “I tried to make it so they didn't see us. One of them heard me, but the other said he was imagining things. They talked about Teilsyr and his whips.”
“I had to get away... Rirla, she already has scars.” She shook her head.
“I'm sorry.” I shifted my weight from one buttock to the other, and winced as I put weight on the injured arm. “Why didn't anyone search the stall?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“They did-right after you went inside. That's how it works. They didn't see anything; there was nothing in your saddle. So you had to have your coins on you. Teilsyr's men come in. They claim you're a spy from Kyphros, and no one cares what happens.” She shrugged. “You seemed too nice to be a spy. And too young. I didn't know you were a wizard. Are you really as young as you look?”
There was something she wasn't saying, but I was tired, and I couldn't figure it out, except maybe the distrust of wizards.
“I'm as young as I look. That's why I got sliced up by those thugs.” I yawned.
“You're not some wizened old man?”
“No. I'm a tired, wounded young woodworker who knows just enough wizardry to get in trouble, and I'm doing my best to help you.” I stifled a yawn. “Are you all right?”
“I don't have any clothes for traveling.”
“I think I've got a shirt you can have. I'll dig it out in the morning. Just wrap up for now,” I told her. “I need some sleep.”
“Are you sure we're away from Sunta?”
“Not far enough, but I need the sleep, and you could use some.” I yawned again, and my arm throbbed.
“I don't know.”
“Fine. This whole business has worn me out. You stay awake and listen for the innkeeper's guards.” I did set wards, almost out of habit, around the camp and around me. I mumbled “Good night” to Alasia.
I could almost feel sleep and exhaustion crashing over me. Almost immediately, I dropped into another dream where the silver-haired woman was trying to tell me something about the earth. She was a druid. At least, in my dream, she was.
Gairloch's cry roused me straight out of the dream or sleep, but, for an instant, I was so tired that I just lay there.
“Quiet...” hissed a voice. “Damn you...”
I struggled up, just as Alasia climbed onto Gairloch, right beyond the edge of the trees. I hadn't even taken two steps before Gairloch bucked in a way I wouldn't have believed if I hadn't seen his reaction to the stable hand in Freetown when I'd bought him. Alasia hung on for perhaps two heaves before she was on the ground, moaning.
Gairloch settled down, and I gave him a pat on the shoulder.
Alasia tried to sit up, but her shoulder sagged in a way that indicated more than bruises. She wore my waterproof, about the only piece of my clothing that hadn't been within my wards.
“Sit still!” I snapped. “That is, if you ever want to use that arm again.”
Her eyes were hard, and as cold as the white stars overhead. That I could see even in the darkness, since, like most order-masters, my night vision is good. She had loaded Gairloch with most of the provisions, anything that had been outside my personal wards.
I leaned forward, then away as I saw the glint of a knife in her uninjured hand. “Do you want me to heal that shoulder, or keep the knife?”
“I'll keep the knife,” she grunted.
“If that's the way you want it.” I started to lead Gairloch away.
She raised her hand as if to throw the knife, but she shuddered and slumped forward. The knife thudded on the hard ground.
I dropped the reins and hurried to her. Between my order senses and my fingers, I could tell that she had broken both her upper arm and collarbone. How she had even moved was a wonder.
It took me a while to find some branches, and cut them. I wasn't exactly happy about using my good saw on resinous evergreens, but I needed to do something. Then I did a quick job of planing and shaping, and cobbled together a sort of sling that immobilized her bones. I offered her a little order for healing, but not much, because I had little to spare after little sleep and the night's events. I also didn't feel that charitable, not after her effort to rob me and steal Gairloch, even if she distrusted men and wizards. I'd tried to help her, hadn't I?
The sky was graying by the time I had eased her out of the waterproof and into the old tattered work shirt that I'd bled over. It might pass for some sort of work smock on her. Then I strapped the splint gadget around her. She moaned the whole time, but she wasn't really awake, either. The bronze bracelet was actually brazed in place, and whoever had done it hadn't been gentle, since there were white scars under it on her wrist. That made me feel worse.
I was still weak. So I did take a chunk of hard cheese and some orderspelled water from my canteen after that.
Then I packed up and lifted her into the saddle. I almost didn't make it, but struggled up behind her limp figure.