The Sword of the South - eARC (3 page)

BOOK: The Sword of the South - eARC
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“No, lass,” he said. “We’ve a guest without the price of a pot of ale in his pocket. Surely there’s after being a place by the fire and a bit of something in the stew pot still?”

“I’m sure I can find both, if you’ll take the time from your lowborn friends to watch the bar for me.”

“To be sure,” the big hradani murmured, tugging his forelock respectfully. His dark face was alight with humor as he kissed the top of her head and swatted her behind gently—two liberties the red-haired man would never have dared with someone who carried a Sothōii garrote. She fisted him in the ribs and spun away like a dancer, and even the roughest-looking patron moved respectfully from her path.

She smiled and gestured to the red-haired man, and he followed her through an arched doorway and down a short, stone-flagged passage into an enormous kitchen. He was puzzled by how silently she moved until the hem of her skirt swirled to show him that she wore no shoes.

The kitchen was almost uncomfortably warm, for a fire crackled and seethed in a hearth large enough for a ship’s mast. Wind roared across the chimney tops like a hunting beast, and rain hissed and spat in the flames as drops found their way down the flue. The rumbling storm was barely audible, yet he felt a warm puff of damp breeze on his neck and turned cautiously, then held very still as the direcat padded past, prick-eared head almost level with his own chest. The beast ignored him to curl neatly beneath a high trestle table, and the red-haired man drew a deep breath of quiet relief.

Leeana waved him towards another table while a half-dozen or so aproned women and a trio of men looked up briefly from their tasks, then nodded respectfully to Leeana and returned to chopping vegetables, peeling potatoes, turning the spit before the main fireplace, or tending pots and kettles on the immense stove which formed an island in the center of the room. Half of the kitchen staff were hradani, as well, he realized with a brain becoming inured to (or at least numbed by) repeated shocks. That mix was certainly odd, though not inherently impossible, he supposed. It was merely unheard of for humans and hradani to keep their swords out of one another long enough to discuss coexistence. But the girl who ran to meet Leeana, pausing in passing to lavish a rough caress on the deadly direcat, resolved any doubt as to how well
this
human got along with at least one hradani. Her flaming hair and foxlike ears marked her as Leeana’s daughter by the unlikely tavern keeper.

“Sit. Sit!” Leeana told him briskly. “Fetch a bowl of stew, Gwynna. And you, Sir—haul off that wet jerkin and set it aside to dry.”

“You’re too kind,” the red-haired man protested. “I can’t repay the courtesy you show me.”

“Nonsense!” Leeana snorted. “It does my layabout of a husband good to have a guest about the house. And I’d rather feed one man in the kitchen than wait bar for half a hundred,” she added with a sly smile. “You did me a favor there. It’s my night to tend bar and his to circulate, so you can see I actually stand in
your
debt.”

“I’m relieved to have paid my score, then,” he chuckled, shrugging out of his jerkin gratefully. Steam rose gently as he spread it across the back of an unoccupied chair before the flames, and he unlaced his tunic as well, hanging both by the hearth. He rubbed his hands, offering them to the heat and feeling the welcome warmth against his rain-chilled skin and—

Shattering crockery snatched his head towards the girl, Gwynna. She was a striking child, for all her mixed blood, with the mobile, tufted ears of her father’s people pricking piquantly through the rich red and golden hair of her mother. Her proud cheekbones were lightly dusted with freckles, and huge, dark eyes of midnight blue shone under delicate lashes. She was only a child, but her face already showed the elegant beauty to come. Yet at the moment, that beauty was clouded by shock.

He had only a second to realize that before a sound of tearing canvas ripped from his left as the direcat surged to its feet. The table under which it had lain crashed aside as the beast rose, lips drawn back, mouth gaping in fanged, bristling challenge. It bounded to the girl’s side—seven feet of midnight menace rumbling a deadly snarl that chilled the red-haired man’s blood.

“Stand, Blanchrach!”

Leeana’s voice whiplashed through the sudden tension, and the cat paused, tensed as if against an invisible leash. The red-haired man stared into its amber eyes and felt sweat on his brow, but the cat only edged forward, placing itself protectively between himself and the girl.

“Your pardon, Sir,” Leeana said more calmly. “I beg your pardon—for myself, as well as for my daughter and her friend. But I’ve never seen such scars. Not even on Bahzell.”

“Scars?” he asked blankly.

Her eyes led his own down over his chest and belly, and he sucked in wind and thudded onto the bench like a string-cut puppet. His torso was seamed and ridged, scars running in all directions across hard-muscled flash. Craggy peaks and valleys turned his body into a livid mountain range, and the firelight traced lines of shadow along their curves. He touched them fearfully, and his face blanched.

A tiny sound pierced his shock. He glanced up, green eyes stunned and confused, and adrenaline spurted afresh as he saw the garrote in Leeana’s hands, the balls of her thumbs poised on the wooden grips.

“You didn’t know about your own scars.”

It wasn’t a question, and he shook his head numbly. Her face hardened, her eyes flicked to her daughter, and she spat a brief sentence in a strange tongue. Gwynna’s hands lowered from her mouth instantly, and she stepped back, her own eyes wide as the direcat crouched, tail lashing, and its deep rumble pulsed. The others in the kitchen—including two powerful, dagger-armed hradani—stepped back to give Leeana and the cat room.

“What manner of man are you?” Leeana’s words were courteous, but her voice was cold and her eyes bored into his. “What do you call yourself? Where do you come from, and why are you here?”

“I—”

He stared at her, his eyes half-glazed, and tried again.

“I—”

His tongue clove to the roof of his mouth and an expression of utter helplessness flashed over his face. He sought desperately for answers, knowing his life rode upon them, yet his mind spun from the surface of his thoughts into an endless well of silence. He licked his lips and sagged down on the bench, the roaring fire fingering his back with heat, and shook his head slowly, fear for his life overridden by a terror infinitely worse.

“In the names of all the gods,” he said hoarsely. “I don’t know.”

Wind howled in the chimney tops, and the flames danced behind him, laughing with the ageless malice of burning wood. His gaze locked with Leeana’s, and his voice was a cry of anguish.


I don’t know!

* * *

A trio of dwarves filled the door, gripping a protesting halfling with ungentle hands, and the old man stepped smartly aside. One dwarf’s sliced pursestrings told their own tale, though the halfling continued to protest his innocence. His protests grew more forceful as he smelled the pounding rain, and the old man swallowed a smile as the dismally wailing thief arced gracefully outward. He landed in the far gutter with a terrific splash, his cries quenched in flying spray, and the old man nodded to the dwarves as they stood just inside the door, exchanging comments on the thief’s probable ancestry. Their imaginative speculations held his amused attention for several seconds before he turned away.

He picked a path through the crowd, sniffing the pipe smoke while his eyes flitted about like a hunting cat’s, and a pocket of silence moved with him as people recognized him. He hid another smile and eyed the crowd speculatively, estimating the sums which would change hands as they paid their shots. It would be a tidy amount, but no more than it was worth.

The Iron Axe Tavern was always busy, but tonight it was packed. The tavern was known for song, good food, and better drink…and the fact that no one’s throat was ever slit within it. When bad weather stalked Belhadan, the Iron Axe filled as though by magic.

His eyes searched busily. Bahzell had to be somewhere, but where? Normally, he stood out like a tower, yet now he was nowhere to be seen.

Ah! The old man grinned as a bellow arose in the rear taproom. He should’ve known he could find his host by following his ears to the loudest noise in the vicinity! He made his way quickly into the rear room and headed for the long, polished bar.

“Wencit!” the big hradani called, thumping the oaken surface. “Come in! It’s a right soaking you’ve had this evening, but I’ve some Granservan Grand Reserve put by for nights such as this. Let me be pouring some of it down your throat.”

“Good evening, Bahzell,” the old man replied more sedately, pushing back his dripping poncho’s hood, and wedged up to the bar.

Other customers pushed back to give him elbow room. Most Belhadans knew him, either by sight or description, and respected his reputation, but wizards were chancy companions at best. No one wished to crowd one unduly; not even one who was their host’s longtime friend. Besides, one glance at his peculiar eyes deterred even the hardiest of strangers.

Bahzell reached under the bar for a bottle encased in old leather, tooled and warm with the polish of years, and his brown eyes laughed as he carefully filled a glass and set it before the old man.

“Drink up and be telling me why you’re here,” he ordered. “It was urgent enough your message sounded, yet here you come like a drowned cat. Not the best image for a master wizard, I’m thinking!”

“Even master wizards melt in the rain,” Wencit said sourly, toasting the hradani gratefully before sipping the amber, honeyed fire. “And nights like this,” he sighed, lowering the glass after one long swallow, “would wet Tolomos himself.”

“Aye, true enough,” Bahzell nodded. “And you’re not the first drowned cat as scratched at my door this night. There’s a redhead back in the kitchen who looked as if he’d been after swimming the Spear—north to south.”

“A redhead, you say?” Wencit cocked a bushy eyebrow over his wildfire eyes. “A tall young fellow? Perhaps thirty years old?”

“The very man.” Bahzell sounded unsurprised. “A friend of yours, is it?”

“You might say so,” Wencit smiled, “although he doesn’t know it yet. The kitchen, you say?”

“Aye, he’d no coin for drink, so I gave him meat. Leeana’s stew will be taking the chill from him. He reminded me of someone…” The hradani drummed on the bar for a moment, head cocked, eyes intent upon the wizard. “Would it happen I’d be after knowing him, Wencit?”

“I doubt it. You know a great many very odd people, Bahzell, but this fellow’s outside the circle even of your acquaintance.” Wencit met Bahzell’s measuring gaze levelly. “I’ve no doubt he does remind you of someone, but I give you my word you’ve never met him before.”

Bahzell regarded him steadily for another brace of heartbeats. Then he flicked his mobile ears and nodded. It was a strange sort of nod, one which seemed to acknowledge more than Wencit had actually said.

“Well, that being so, I’m thinking there’s naught more to be said,” he said out loud, and it was Wencit’s turn to nod.

The wizard finished his whiskey and straightened.

“With your permission, I’ll take myself off to the kitchen.”

“Aye, you be doing that.” The hradani’s expressive ears twitched in combined amusement and resignation. “You’ve something deep in mind. But then, you always do, don’t you just?”

“As you say, I’m a master wizard. Master wizards always have something deep in mind.”

Bahzell’s lips quirked and he snorted.

“Well, be off with you! I’ve a full bar, and you’ll say naught till it suits you, as well I know.”

“Alas for my reputation,” Wencit mourned, then grinned and pushed off through the crowd.

He found his way to the Iron Axe’s kitchens with the ease of long familiarity, and his boots clumped down the passage, but none of the kitchen staff noticed. They were too intent on the confrontation between Leeana and the red-haired man. Wencit felt the tension as he entered the kitchen, but no sign of it colored his voice or expression.

“Good evening to you, Leeana Flame Hair,” he called pleasantly. “The mountain behind the bar told me I’d find you here.”

“Wencit!” Leeana twitched in surprise, but there was relief in her voice. Only two pairs of eyes did not turn to the wizard: the red-haired man’s, which stared sickly at the tabletop, and the rumbling direcat’s, which watched the red-haired man unblinkingly.

Wencit glanced quizzically from the taut garrote to the red-haired man’s ashen face. His expression softened as the man’s trembling fingers traced his cruel scars, then the old man extended a hand to Gwynna.

“And good evening to you, young Gwynna,” he said gently. The girl scampered over to hug him tightly, her face alight with welcome, but the light faded as she looked back at the man whose scars had startled her.

“I’m more pleased than usual to see you,” Leeana said frankly. She allowed the garrote to slacken, raised her eyebrows at the wizard, and twitched her head sideways at the man seated before her fire.

“Indeed?”

“Indeed,” she replied firmly. “Bahzell offered this man hospitality, but now he can’t—or won’t—even tell me his name.”

“Strange, but not surprising,” Wencit said cryptically.

“Oh, thank you
ever
so much!” Leeana said, then snorted. “Have you ever in your entire life given someone a straight answer?” She demanded, yet her voice was more cheerful, as if she drew reassurance from his presence.

“Wizards always give straight answers—those of us who claim to be honest, that is. But our affairs are usually so tangled the straightest answers appear most crooked.” He lifted Gwynna’s chin with a gentle forefinger and smiled into her eyes. “Tell me, young Gwynna. Could you fetch another bowl of stew for my friend? And perhaps one for me, as well? And—” his smile widened gently “—
not
drop them?”

“I never drop bowls!” Gwynna said indignantly.

“Ah?” Wencit’s eyebrows crinkled as his gaze rested on the broken crockery on the flagstone floor. “Did it fly, then, young Gwynna?”

BOOK: The Sword of the South - eARC
9.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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