THE GREEN ONES FAVORED ME THIS DAY.
A brace of curl-horns, mates I’d tracked to a shallow den, lay across Dazon’s saddle. No room for me to ride, they were so large! I knew they would pleasantly fill all of our bellies this evening and the next.
For the past five Oath Marks, and all the days between, our hunting had been disappointing. We’d been ranging farther north of the village and into the darkest parts of the Sabado Forest. Our families were proud and not known for depending on the elaborate rituals of either the Dawn Priests or the Sun Sisters, but lately there had been talk of seeking spiritual aid for our hunt. Perhaps if the Green Ones favored me again tomorrow, such prayers—and their expensive offerings—would not be necessary.
Lady Ewaren, our House Lady, was a weaver, and so I bowed my head respectfully as I led Dazon out of the thickest section of woods and past a large glow-spider resting in a dew-sprinkled net. Many minutes later the trees thinned considerably more, longleaf pines and mature persimmons giving way to a scattering of sweetbays and young elms, signaling my approach to the Village Nar. The afternoon sun stretched through the scant branches and warmed my face and bare arms. I closed my eyes and took a few blissful moments to enjoy this spring day, and to listen to the birdsong and the other small sounds of this undisturbed place—the chitter of ground squirrels and gray backs, the soft chirp of insects.
Abruptly a bellow shattered the natural melody. The bellow came again and again. I recognized it as a cow demanding milking. The village cattleman was not one to be tardy to his work and ignore our small herd. So I quickened my strides out of concern and curiosity, tugging my horse to a faster pace until we cleared the woods completely. The recently sown fields and the hedge of high brush that walled the Village Nar came into view.
I stopped in midstep, listening to the repeated bellows and smelling fire and burnt meat. I tentatively opened my mouth and extended my tongue to confirm the scents.
I am a docent of Bastien t’Ikkes, a once-royal guard and near-fabled Moonson who saved the Emperor’s life during a bear hunt many years past. His injuries from that incident forced his retirement, his courage earned him a pension and a home in this village, and his patience garnered me the post as his student.
Bastien taught me how to fight with a sword and knives and how to taste the breeze and scent for danger and other things, which was what I did now.
The tip of my tongue registered an unpalatable acridity, the distinctive taste of death and the lingering scents of fear and desperation.
There’d been a raid while I was hunting!
Our village is filled with farmers, hunters, and weavers, not warriors. Peaceful people! My heart seized with fear. I dropped the reins, knowing Dazon would follow me, and I rushed through a gap in the brush.
Who attacked us? And why?
I saw no one.
The gate to the courtyard swung in the wind.
Near Willum t’Jelth’s house I spotted a snorter stretched on a frame over a now-smoldering fire, more than half of its carcass hacked away. I heard the bellow again, and I slipped along the hedge to the north, drawing upon all the stealthy skills Bastien had taught me and trying to force down the dread threatening to overwhelm me.
I raised my voice. “Maergo? Lady Ewaren? Lady Ewaren!”
Now I could see a section of the yard beyond the gate, the Great House and its various attendant buildings essentially forming the walls of the courtyard. Inside, a large cow tramped across the soft loam of a newly seeded herb garden and continued to bellow loudly, two smaller ones trailing behind it. Another cow leaned against the side of the Great House. The sun caught on shards of metal protruding from its black hide, as numerous as the pins in Lady Ewaren’s sewing pillow. Blood dripped from its wounds. I vowed to end its suffering—after I saw to the village.
I looked elsewhere, cupping my hands over my eyes, shutting out the light and focusing on my wyse-sense and on my tongue and what the wind was telling me.
The wind spoke of death and suffering and confusion.
I thought I saw a foot and a torn piece of material just under the shadow of a jutting second story.
A foot . . .
“Willum! Maergo! Lady Ewaren!”
Loosening the web of my backpack, I sat it on the ground and placed my blowpipe and quiver of bolts next to it. I did not want to be encumbered when I faced the enemy, but I wanted to be prepared. I drew the longest of my knives and fought to keep my senses sharp. Fear and grief threatened to overwhelm me.
It was easy to suspicion all manner of horrid things, especially after seeing the throwstars in the cow’s side and finding no one outside and no one to answer my call. I wanted more than suspicion to work with, and so struggling desperately to keep panic at bay, I again tasted the air, urging my tongue to find the scents.
Blood—blood is always strong enough to make itself known first. There was more blood than I had ever scented before. And I picked up a touch of sweat—of men and mounts—and the fire I smelled earlier, and ashes. Then I strained my senses to the limit, barely able to reach and identify emotions. I tasted terror, pain, and hate. And above all of that, I tasted my own horror, choking and dreadfully nauseating.
“Willum.” My voice grew weak, a whisper. “Lady Ewaren.”
Still, nothing stirred in the village.
The foot I spied in the distance did not move, and somehow I knew it belonged to a corpse. How many dead? I knew I would have to search the entire village to learn what had happened. My stomach churned with the grisly possibilities, and my heart hammered with each step I took. I was feeling faint from the scents and the notion that I wouldn’t find a soul alive, that everyone I knew and loved had been brutally butchered.
But slain by whom? Slain why?
And why had I gone hunting so early this morning? Had I lingered, I could have defended this place.
The coughing sickness had taken Bastien this past winter. The village had no guards, the elders thinking Bastien’s presence enough protection. But after his death, the elders still took no steps for defense, thinking our world oh so peaceful and safe, and thinking that I could be sufficient defense, given the skills Bastien had taught me. Too, there had been no rumors of invasion from the Twisted Lands, and Lady Ewaren seemed held in favor with the neighboring countries to the west—even though it was said she was descended from the long-outlawed House of Alchura.
I sheathed my knife and tugged a long, thin chain free from my belt. I preferred it as a weapon because of its reach. Then I started down a gentle slope, making use of the shadows from buildings to provide me some cover. Within heartbeats I stood in the gate road. Once more I tongue-tested, finding more blood, ashes, terror, and hate. Oddly, hate was the strongest here, almost overwhelming. Darting around the corner of the gate, I came into the courtyard.
The foot . . .
The rags that had been her spring-green gown lay torn on the ground between myself and where the body lay. Her ripped undergarments were saturated with blood. Something stronger than anger welled from deep within me, and a horror I’d never felt overcame me. I grabbed on to a post to support myself.
I edged closer.
The foot . . . it belonged to Lady Ewaren, our House Lady. My breath caught and I went down on my knees beside her body, fighting for air.
“My lady!” The first words I’d spoken since entering the village were filled with grief. “By the Green Ones, my lady!”
Lady Ewaren had taken me in after the death of my mother ten years past. Hers was the only home I truly remembered. Her face . . . now a broken ruin. Sobbing, I tugged down from her curve cap a length of lace veil. It didn’t hide all the blood, but it softened the worst of it around her face. Then I noticed her other injuries. Each and every one of her fingers—which she had used to weave such beauty that nearby lords and ladies begged for her work—every one had been broken. Deliberately, cruelly, I knew, broken while she’d lived.
Once more I heard the bellow of the cow. Though the mournful sound was muted now by the intervening buildings, it was nonetheless demanding. In the intervals between the bellows, I heard an incessant buzzing from the bees in the hive housed on a balcony above me. I noticed the sound of flies, too. They were drawn to Lady Ewaren’s body.
Lady Ewaren, I should pray for her.
I hesitantly touched her broken fingers and under my breath, in the thinnest of voices, I uttered old, old words.
“Nesalah dorma calla—”
“Yaaaaaah!” The scream spun me around so quickly I nearly lost my balance. I saw a slip of a girl, just a heartbeat before her knifepoint flashed down and sliced my tunic at the shoulder. I moved fast enough that the blade only drew a thin line of blood. Without pause, I lashed out with my chain, whipping it around her arm.
She cried in surprise and pain, and dropped the blade as I dragged her close. But she didn’t give in. Her wide golden eyes flashed with madness, and her teeth snapped at my throat. It was as if I held a night fiend instead of the slight girl that Lady Ewaren had taken as an apprentice almost a year ago. Lady Ewaren had hoped I’d be like a sister to this girl, but that hadn’t happened. I didn’t want to hurt the girl if I could help it—and it would be so easy for me to end this fight with a single blow. I was that much stronger, and she was half my age . . . at most ten years old.
“Demon!” she spat. “Thrice-damned demon may you be!”
I dropped my chain and grabbed both her wrists, shaking her roughly in an effort to bring her to her senses. She kicked at me now, her heavy boot landing a solid blow against my shin. I cringed and dragged her so close against me she had no room to kick again, while at the same time I twisted her arms behind her in a hold Bastien had taught me early on. I crushed the air out of her, and she swayed and gasped. I truly hadn’t intended to hurt her, but she’d given me no choice.
I bent my head to her ear, as I stood several inches taller. “Alysen, what happened here?”
She went limp, and I held her up now.
“They came for you, Eri,” she said after a moment.
“Who? Tell me, Alysen!”
She didn’t answer this, saying instead, “They came for you because the Emperor’s dead. And so is your father. You and your kin, the Empress has had you drummed!”
I loosed her then and she staggered back, stumbling toward one of the slender pillars that held up the outer edge of a narrow roof. Catching at the pillar with both hands to support herself, she faced me. Alysen’s smooth face was a scarlet mask of hatred.
“They came for you!” Her voice was stronger now, spittle flecking at her lips. “You they wanted! And all this death, Eri, is because you weren’t here! Everyone died because of you!”
Me? All this because of me? A wave of dizziness crashed against me.
“Everyone is dead, Eri!”
Except her. I noticed then that there wasn’t a mark on her, save where my chain had reddened her arm. Her dress was soiled slightly at the hem, which brushed across the ground, but it was obvious she’d not been touched in this assault. Her long black hair was clean and shiny, as if she’d just combed it.
“You! It was only you they wanted! In all of Nar, only you! And had you been here, they might have slain you or took you away and left everyone else alone. One life—yours—for all of these.”
Alysen glared at me, her chest rising and falling rapidly as she sucked in gulps of air. “The men . . . they said she . . .” She gestured at Lady Ewaren’s corpse. “They said she warned you that they were coming. That she sent you away to keep you safe.” She released the pillar, only leaning against it now. “The Lady argued, said she hadn’t sent you anywhere. But they didn’t believe her.”
“Who?” I asked. “Who didn’t believe her?”
“He . . . he told them to take her fingers. One by one, her left hand, snapping them like twigs until she passed out from the pain. When she came to, they started on her right hand.”
I stared at the girl, then dropped my gaze to Lady Ewaren’s corpse, trying not to imagine what she had felt, trying to wish all of this away.
“This man, Alysen, the one who ordered this, who is he?”
Alysen didn’t answer me, just continued to glare, her eyes trying to pin me in place.
“Tell me the name of this man, Alysen.”
“They killed everyone, you know, save two servants and a few children who ran toward the lake. They might have got the children, too, I didn’t see. Two men with swords rode off in the direction of the lake. Two more took toward Mardel’s Fen and . . .” A pause. “When the killing was finished here, they went searching with swords drawn.”
I reeled at the news, her words pummeling me. All this death . . .
“The bodies are in the houses, some in the barns, Willum and his family are all in that barn. Butchered and covered with hay. Lady Ewaren . . . they didn’t give her even that bit of respect. They left her for the carrion beetles and the crows.”
All this death because of me . . .
“Where were you, Eri? Why couldn’t you have died instead?”
There was a longer pause, and in it I again heard the buzzing of flies drawn to Lady Ewaren’s body. There was another swarm of sound, a soft, constant drone that came from the nearest house.
Because of me! I would eagerly have died to keep these people safe.
“They killed Willum and Sela and everyone,” Alysen said. “And all they wanted was you, Wisteria. Where were you?”
My mind swirled. I’d left the village long before dawn, not telling anyone I was hunting so early, and not telling them where in the forest I intended to go. I’d planned to range far, and so needed to leave early so I would have the time for travel. Had I been closer to the village I would have heard the horses, the men, and the desperate screams that must have filled the air.
“Purvis,” she said at last. “The men called him Lord Purvis. He’s the one who ordered her fingers broken, and then ordered her killed.”
The village dead, Lady Ewaren dead, before that the Emperor and my father—if what Alysen said rang true. I dug my fingernails into my palms, the pain helping to keep me from swooning. My father . . .
My only contact with my father had been more than a year ago. He’d sickened from a summer fever. They’d called me to his side in the great southern city, and he ordered me to hold myself ready to take his place as taster at the Emperor’s board. My brother was summoned, too, but he was several years older and serving in some lord’s army. He never came. My father had written me a letter, which he’d pressed into my hand. It was the only thing he’d ever given me. A single sheet, it said he hoped that if I were called to my life-duty, I would serve the Emperor well. I returned to this village, without the letter, and weeks later I’d received news my father had recovered. Now here came news of his death, and the Emperor’s.
“Lord Purvis,” she repeated, the words spit out like they were pieces of spoiled meat. “He ordered all of this, Eri.”
I’d never heard of Lord Purvis. A chill passed down my spine and the intense tragedy of this day finally settled deep, deep in my soul. My knees buckled and the darkness claimed me.
Copyright © 2006 by the Estate of Andre Norton and Jean Rabe. All rights reserved.