Text and Art Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 by Tobias D. Robison, Princeton, NJ, USA
All Rights Reserved.
ISBN for the PRINTED version: 1448647126, EAN-13 : 978-1-4486471-2-5
One-armed Blehhm casts his spells so well, his hand rarely gestures to perfect the magic.
Eight hours a day he chants, chants, adding substance, life and growth
to his creations. He concentrates deeply.
A brief distraction might cause the whole to flicker or fade,
become greatly damaged, require
weeks of repair ere he can progress again.
Raven’s not ready to face the smells of Redthwen guesthouse. She stands alone at forest’s edge, surveying the wide clearing where the ramshackle building stands. She’s too far away to assay its dry thatch, crumbling timbers, makeshift walls. But her instincts tell her: This is a miserable place.
Raven’s a thirtyish woman, very short. Her tangled long red hair, freckled face and golden eyes blend well with the white and yellow crocuses that carpet the clearing. A thick dull gray robe hides her figure, concealing her strength. The robe keeps her warm. It also protects her deceptively well from swords and knives. A cloth bag hangs off her right shoulder, and an empty ale flask hooks to the leather belt that tightens her robe.
She sees smoke escape from the roof of the guesthouse, and she hears sounds of chopping, hammering and sawing. Birds and butterflies shuttle about the clearing, avoiding the brush and some old rotten hay. It’s early spring, a late afternoon, cold.
She brushes a few strands of red hair from her face and steps quickly sideways, disappearing from view among the dense pines. Now, she can’t be seen from the path or the clearing. Among the pines there’s a little open space, a carpet of pine needles with their tasty aromas.
The smells of a guesthouse always overwhelm her at first. And she will not use the disgusting bog that every guesthouse provides for its patrons. She searches about and snaps off a few delicate, soft leaves from a weed for wiping, then she lifts her robe and squats.
She’s comfortable with her own odors, but she worries that these might offend others. No one keeps very clean in this hard, outdoor life, but people are unaccountable, and some will take offense at anything. She wipes, drops the leaves and hops forward before releasing her precious robe, to keep it clean. She walks back to forest edge. Then she sighs, clutches her bag, and stands still to smell the deliciousness of the live forest again. There’s that piney smell, and there are many kinds of early flowers. And she smells vole dung, there must be a large community of them living nearby. She also smells a vague something remarkable, a tart, vinegary aroma with a hint of danger to it; a hint of old apple juice with a kick, it makes her saliva run. There’s no direction to this tart scent, it comes to her from everywhere. She steps carefully back onto the path, enters the clearing, and approaches Redthwen Guesthouse.
Birds chattered at her as she approached. She listened to the birds and the hammering, the sawing, trying to clear her thoughts. As she came closer, the appearance of the guesthouse worried her, especially the dry thatch roof. The building looked awfully vulnerable to a careless, quick, hot fire.
A broken brown board on a pole announced “Redthw” in hand-painted black letters. She walked right past the sign, pretending that the letters held no meaning for her.
How shall I announce myself? she wondered. The lady-like rap on the door is best, but Oh, to show how hard I can pound it with my fist!
There was no need to decide. The door opened and a man stepped out to meet her. A large, strong man with scraggly black whiskers. He wore simple work pants and no shirt. Bunches of black chest hair sprouted around his suspenders, and more sprouted from his armpits. He dangled a two-handed scythe, his eyes staring her down, unwelcoming.
“I’m Abarham,” he said, his stentorian voice blocking out all the other sounds of the place. “Welcome to Redthwen.”
She stepped close to him, unafraid. He smelled like most country men, of sweat, pee and unwiped dung. “I’m Claire,” lied Raven, “and if I’m welcome, why do you block the door?”
“I block the door because I’m same size of it! Do you want in, it’s three silver.”
Three silver coins to get in, the bastard, thought Raven, but it was late in the day. Best to hope she could steal more silver than that, once inside.
“I might have two.” She rummaged in her bag.
“Y’ll need more than that, staying here!”
She carefully pulled out the three coins and handed them forward. He reached out and took them without any attempt to caress or squeeze her flesh. An honest thief, she thought.
“Step in, my lady,” he barked, and as he backed away, she did step in.
All her senses were assaulted at once: lanterns that burnt sheep tallow in the half-dark room, the odor of burnt lamb, a clanging noise, the rough wood on which she pressed a hand to stay her uncertain balance, a flute and a tinny drum. There were at least a dozen people here, mostly men. Abarham stood by a rough, knotty pine plank, a sort of desk, guarding a keg and a few skins of ale. A small wiry man sat next to him, lip-thatch neatly trimmed, better dressed than the rest: the innkeeper, perhaps the owner of the place. Three workmen stood by the desk swinging their drinkpots, bellowing an argument. The cooking smells issued from an unseen kitchen. The hearth fire, which should have had a warm, welcoming aroma, was a little off, its firewood too green and wet to burn properly. The commons table was small, room for six customers at most to bump arms and eat together. An oldish, bent woman, a small pretty child, and a wolfish young man looked up at her from that table. Orvannon was not there, he had probably not arrived.
All the people in this place smelled dirty. The glass-bottomed lanterns provided light, but there were only a few of them. She’d been staring at the commons table too long. She turned to the innkeeper.
“I’d like to stay a night or two.”
“Two nights, four silver coins.” A nasal voice, very clipped and crisp, no hint of kindness.
“I already gave that Abarham three silvers just to come inside.”
“So, you pay me four for two nights then. As I said.”
“Perhaps one night...”
Her supply was too small, she’d have to ask Orvannon for more. When he came. He’d sent word to meet at Redthwen, first full moon of the new year. This was the right time, she had the right place. But sometimes Orvannon was late, even terribly late, delayed by hideous emergencies she once liked to daydream about, but now only feared. He must come, and soon.
She pulled four silver from her bag. “And, please, some dinner, some ale.”
The innkeeper went toward the back room. “You’ll get it, wait at the commons table.”
“Must I pay more for dinner?”
He turned back to her. “What do you think of me? It’s included.” And he was gone.
The musicians were hard to hear through the general clatter, so Raven moved closer to them. They played a wonderful song, Orelia’s Dompe. The old, thin, bewhiskered drummer beat its slow, halting rhythm very fine. Raven liked the young flute player too, even though many of his high notes were flat. He spun out the melody in the old-fashioned way, separating his sounds with little graces and twirls, not relying on tiny silences between the notes.
She stood next to the drummer, joined his rhythms with her boot, and quietly hummed the melody. How old had she been when she learned it? Eight? Ten?
“Do you know the words?” said the drummer. She nodded yes while she hummed.
The flutist stopped and waved the drummer to silence. “Start over,” he said. They started the first verse, and after the short opening, Raven began to sing. She stood stiffly as she sang, knowing well that she could not move her body appealingly, as so many performers could. But people stopped to listen to her husky, resonant soprano. She preferred less attention, but oh, how pleasant to sing Orelia’s Dompe!
As they got into the middle verses, Abarham came over and joined them, standing oppressively near Raven and banging his boot on the floor, not too far off the actual beat. His breath and sweat distracted her, but the real challenge was to ignore his boot stomps and stay with the musicians.
In the last verse where the lover returns, they sped up, faster and faster to the tricky finish. One final note, and all four of them laughed together. Raven wondered whether Abarham might be in a mood now to return some of her silver, but he escaped back to his post before she could ask.
“Another?” asked the flutist.
“No, I’m too hungry. Tomorrow, maybe.”
The drummer started another beat and the flutist lit into it, a simple farm song. Raven went to the commons table for her dinner.
The young man did not get up as she sat down. He looked her over, aggressively grinning. My Victim for the Night, she thought. The woman did stand, but with difficulty, her old sinews and misbehaving bones clicking painfully into place.
“I’m Claire,” she lied to the woman. “And what’s your name?” she asked the little girl, who continued licking a bone but looked down, curled her lower lip and did not respond.
“I’m Gretel,” said the old woman. “And. You’d please not bother my little charge. That thickhead next to you’s Garfie. Did you: order dinner? Good food here.” She spoke haltingly, a hag’s throaty sounds ruining what might have been a pleasant voice.
This Garfie laid a clammy hand on her bag, or actually on Raven’s hand, which she quickly interposed. “Show us what’s in your bag, woman!”
It often started this way in guesthouses, some quick, rowdy challenge, she hated it. But this challenge was something new, better than having to retrieve her bag after someone snatched it away. Raven did not want to provoke the man into an angry scene. She pulled her bag out of his reach, made a show of opening it, rummaged about and pulled out her little stacks of coin. “My coin,” she said. He watched her with interest, then slowly reached toward her coppers. She longed to bring her fist down hard, smashing his hand, breaking bones, but she only looked at Gretel and implored, “Please.”
“Garfie!” said Gretel, and Raven heard a world of command in her voice. Garfie froze. “You do not want to touch! The lady’s coins,” she said. Garfie laid his hand close by on the table, but gave Raven a stalking look, as if she would be his victim tonight.
Raven took out her thick sewing needle and a piece of brown thread. She set her tinderbox on the table. Turning again to Gretel, Raven pulled out a precious bit of paper that she’d spent much time rubbing and wearing down. “This’s a message from my betrothed, telling me to meet him a way south, by the harbor of Dukeston.” She turned the scrap to face Gretel. “They tell me that’s his name,” she said, pointing to one of the few words that could possibly be legible. Gretel took the parchment from her, apparently without effort, but Raven was amazed at how she pulled it away so fast. Whatever Gretel’s aches and pains, she was dexterous.
“Why then. Your love’s name be ‘the,’” chortled Gretel. She looked more closely at the scrap. “Or could it be: Donald?”
“Yes, yes, he’s Donald, of course,” said Raven.
“Then, that’s his name,” said Gretel, pointing to the longer word. “And where are you from, Claire?”
“Oh, Meachtle, to the far north.”
“Then you’ve come a long way, and you’ve still far to go,” said Garfie, triumphant. Does he reckon me unfaithful to my made-up lover? she wondered.
Raven drew her most prized possession from its sheath on her belt, her father’s very own knife, and set it on the table. Its irregular blade looked poor, but she knew how to polish it sharp, and its edge sawed deep when she used it. The child glanced once at the knife and continued to suck her bone.
“I’ve been traveling months,” lied Raven. A fat old woman waddled out from the back kitchen and slapped an ale and an iron pot of stew before her. An iron pot! Raven leaned down, her nose almost touching the stew, and cuddled the little pot in her hands, breathing its aroma carefully. It smelled delicious, good stewed beef – none of those peculiar odors that preceded her being violently sick. It would taste good, and she was famished, there had only been cold roast roots this long day. She straightened up and began shoveling handfuls of stewmeat into her mouth, as slowly as she could manage. After a few good chomps she took a long, refreshing gulp of the stale ale.
“There’s more in your bag,” said Garfie. “Out with it!”
Raven froze, but then she remembered, of course there’s more in my bag. With the air of a puppeteer raising the puppet’s hand-strings, she lifted out the bloodstained cloth she wiped with in her monthly infirmity. Even clean, it looked very dirty. Abarham was at the table at once. “Here, we don’t want that here,” he said. “Put your rag away!” She stuffed it back into its place. No one would test her bag for its hidden compartment and its puzzling prize tonight.
“I’m hungry,” she said.
“Then eat!” said Garfie. “We’ll watch you.” And watch her they did, as she ate the stew and downed the ale.
“What is she doing?” the child whined, when Raven commenced to chew on the pot. Raven hoped she was not the only woman in Ausland who chewed rust, but she’d never met another. Her white teeth, which had been kind enough to stay in her mouth, gradually teased bits of powdered iron loose. Her mother had tried in vain to teach her better “pot manners,” but she had failed.
As she chewed, Gretel looked studiously away. Garfie still stared, seemed to be calculating whether she was too loony for him. The girl set down her bone to watch. Finally, the little one seemed to make a decision.
“Gretel, give me a pot.”
“I want a pot!”
Gretel took the child’s cheeks kindly in her hands. “Trudie, please: Do not. Want a pot.”
“Not fair.” The girl looked down, took up her bone and sucked.
When the urge to chew left her, Raven turned back to her ale, and Garfie made his move.
“What do you like, then, my tiny Claire?”
“Ale. I like this ale,” lied Raven. “Lots of ale, in the evening. This evening.”
“We’ll have it then!” Garfie got up, went to Abarham. There was a quick transaction and he returned, bearing a heavy aleskin.
“Perhaps,” said Gretel, “you’d prefer. Aerm. The full moon celebration. Nearby. Tonight.”
“What part of the urstory will they recite,” asked Raven, “before everyone gets too drunk to listen?”
“They recite the One’s gift of nature,” said Gretel.
“I’ve heard it, too often,” said Raven. “And anyway, the ale. The excess.”
“You prefer this?” Gretel looked skeptically at Garfie’s heavy aleskin.
“Perhaps I prefer the company,” Raven lied, giving Garfie a brief smile.
“I’m to my room then,” Garfie leered, and he shuffled past her. As he passed, she held out a hand, and he dropped six silver coins into it. Raven looked at the coins and shuddered. What would he want her to do for six silver?
Raven briefly visited her own small room. The bed was a dirty straw mattress with a stiff linen sheet. There was a small cushion she could use as she wished. The chamber pot looked empty, but a terrible stink rose from it, overwhelming the smell of burning beef tallow in the lantern. A pot of fresh water sat next to a simple washstand. Garfie’s room would likely be the same.
A piece of broken glass lay next to the washstand. She angled it against the flickering lantern light to look at her face. Her hair was in dreadful shape, burrs and twigs sticking out from knotted locks. She ought to find somebody to cut it back, she’d never learned any other way to care for it.
Fools like Garfie provided her with a small income as she traveled through Ausland. Raven knew only one way to manage them. She wanted them falling down drunk, too helpless to beg for sex. It seemed a desperate gamble, but it worked: give the man a head start with the ale, and he’d be the one to fall asleep. Later tonight as he slept, Raven would toss Garfie’s room, extracting coin, or a few items to sell. Her work gave her no time to make an honest living, and she had no desire to submit to an ordinary husband, to clean his linens and wash his feet. Holding her bag tight, she went down the hall into which Garfie had disappeared.
His door was partly open, she smelled him but could not see him. “Garfie?” She pushed the door wider and stepped in.
The door slammed shut, and he was upon her. The tackle from behind slammed her down against the floor. She turned her head to avoid a nose-break, and the splintery wood floor pressed her teeth into her cheek, drawing blood. He held one arm tight around her waist, pinning her arms as he kneed her legs apart. One dreadful hand poked at her quirrel, and with tearing pain, he entered her, thrusting, withdrawing, a new pain at every thrust.
Her full strength, she thought, could not break his grip. And with the door shut, no one would interrupt, no matter how loud she screamed. And she had hoped to attract no notice! Raven thought furiously, looking for some opening to escape him before...what? “Garfie, stop! Stop!” she cried.
He thrust faster and then strained pressing tight, motionless, against her. He’s sowing seed she thought miserably. He made a gurgling sound and relaxed, his full weight lurching against her. She smelled his sweat, his sex, and fresh blood. And another person.
“Claire. You’re a fool. Couldn’t you see what he intended? In his eyes? Lie still a moment. I’ll pull him off you.”
It was Gretel. As Garfie’s weight withdrew, she felt great shame that Gretel might see that portion of her between her legs. She pulled her robe down, then turned her head to look. A long thin knife stuck out of Garfie’s back. It had been expertly aimed, and accounted for the strong smell of blood. And death. She could smell death now too.
“Aerm. Are you all right? Claire?” asked Gretel. There was no pity or kindness. It was merely a request for information.
“No,” replied Raven.
“You silly lamb. I mean: Are you broken? Can you: Move? Walk?”
“Yes, I think.” Raven looked up at Gretel, and Gretel looked directly into her face, showing no desire to consider Raven’s violated body.
“Return: to your room. Go to sleep. I will clean up. In the morning, Garfie will be gone. His room, empty. No one will suspect you. Sleep well. It will be better! In the morning, you will feel all right.”
Raven felt the full blast of Gretel’s willpower, the Voice of Command overwhelmed her. She had just the strength and understanding to resist it, but she must be careful lest Gretel suspect her own training; she must appear to succumb. She kept her freckled face turned to Gretel and said only, “yes.”
“Go then, Claire.”
Raven stood up in pain. She glanced at the dead Garfie, the fat skin of ale, and the room that would give all its meager treasure to Gretel, and none to her. She walked awkwardly back to her room, trying to find a way to move that would not pain her at every step.
Back in her room, she checked her bag; nothing had fallen out of it. And what if it had? What might she do? That man had sowed seed in her. Her garden might even now be starting to grow his bastard child. Raven remembered her only birthed babe, which she – to her lifelong regret – had sold to a rich woman. That little girl might now be suffering that woman’s every command. She’d no idea how to find this child now, no way to better what she had done.
And then a year ago, when another pregnancy started to show, she’d gone to a bloodwitch to end it. The witch had dealt evilly with her, she was sick, deathly sick for months, no use to anyone. And if this one started to grow...Raven threw herself down on the straw. The sheet and the little cushion smelled of the hundreds of men and the few women who had used them before her. She nuzzled her nose beneath the cushion, wept, and slept.
In the morning Raven stank. Why hadn’t she washed before going to bed? Why hadn’t she stolen out again to spy on Gretel, to see what became of Garfie? In fact, she’d done exactly what Gretel had told her to do. She’d succumbed to that woman’s powerful will.
Now she must clean the stink off herself, remove any remnant of Garfie’s seed. She longed for a secluded place with water, where she could clean her aching center. She picked up her robe and examined it for dirt, brushing some mud off its skirts. Her body was well-muscled, especially her trusty right arm. With a practiced swing, she twisted the robe over her gray, sweat-stained underdress. She wanted something to drink, she must look for Orvannon, she had a lot to do, she mustn’t just stand there and think.
She returned to the common room. No Orvannon in sight. “Abarham, ale?”
“Morning ale, on the house, here!” he barked.
She drank quickly, set down her ale pot and walked out. Now, to look for wash water, or for Garfie’s corpse.
There was a clean water pump by the kitchen, but she could not wash there, it was dreadfully out in the open, even the thought of using it made her burn with shame. She saw a wash-pump near the smelly bog, but would not approach it for the strong smell of dung. Perhaps there’s a creek or a pond, she thought. Come on, Raven, walk! You have to look. She trudged miserably round the inn, looking and sniffing.
Garfie’s body ought to stink by now, she’d catch wind of it if she were at all close. She sampled all the aromas that came to her and began to suspect that Garfie lay in the one place she would never check: Redthwen’s bog.
She sorted odors out as they came to her. The normal scents of the guesthouse with its fires, ale-brewing and cooking; the faint, ubiquitous, worrisome, tart vinegary aroma; birds, rats, voles, and standing hay. And fresh flowers, as she drifted farther from the house. She found no fresh water.
She tried the surrounding forest, where creeks might be. She moved deeper, farther into the pines, coming at last to a pretty, wide flower-filled meadow, but still, not to water. The unsettling tart aroma she had noticed yesterday was strong here. Why did she associate it with danger?
Early spring flowers faced a warm sun. Birds twittered, there were colorful butterflies, and honeybees serviced the flowers. A giant hovering insect – some would call it a tiny bird – visited orange trumpet-shaped flowers. Raven felt no cheer from these sights. Even the lovely flower aromas gave her no calm. She lay down on the sparse, rough meadowgrass and buried her nose in the good, clean dirt.
Tears would not come. She thought of her rape in the night. She was still in pain. She should be in total anguish, rage, ready to seek vengeance. ‘It will be better in the morning. You will feel all right.’ Gretel’s power of suggestion had stolen her ability to feel, to suffer. When would she mourn her loss of control, the moment of being crushed by Garfie? Mourning would come upon her at some inconvenient future moment. It was not going to be fair.
Sitting up again, she noted a light, bright greenness behind the flowers at the edges of the meadow. She turned around and that green was everywhere, not close, but hiding always among the surrounding trees. The tart scent came very strongly now, and she jumped up, drawing her knife.
And then she saw the giant head. Snake-like, monstrous, towering over her, slipping closer, a big body behind that head, the long green tail reaching to everywhere. Its wide open mouth breathed vinegar at her, its tongue flickered like a punishing whip. It closed to within ten long strides of her...and she swooned.
“Raven, wake up! Wake, witch, wake!”
Some man was pulling at her arm. She clenched her hand, but the knife was not there, only rough crabgrass. She swung her fist, punching as hard as she could.
“OW! Ow, that hurt.” He sat down beside her, nursing his ear. That was Orvannon’s dark voice, his clean, acrid smell. A long, strong red-skinned hand rubbed his ear. All she’d ever seen of his skin was red.
“Vann! I’m sorry.”
“You punched too well, Raven. You’re back to full strength.”
“I told you I was back to full strength, four moons ago!”
“Well, we needed you then, but I didn’t believe you. You were sick last fall, deeply sick.”
“And now you find me in a swoon. You won’t believe what happened to me.”
“Tell me, Raven. How did you swoon?”
“Simply a monster came, a giant monster with open mouth and whippy tongue, and clouds of vinegar breath, and I swooned. And you’ll not believe me.”
“I believe, Raven. I can smell the apple vinegar myself. Tell me about your monster.”
“Its green tail was all round this meadow, it reached everywhere. And the monstrous head! Like a snake but far taller than I. And the breath, it made me swoon. And then you tugged my shoulder to wake me up. You were a fool, I told you how to wake me.”
“I wiggled your toes, as you told me. I waited. I rubbed your ankles. I tugged your legs, but still, you slept. Then I took the knife out of your hand and pulled at your shoulder.”
“My knife! Where is it, give it back!”
“Orvannon, I shouldn’t have hit you. I’m glad you found me.”
“You’re easy to track, Raven, you don’t disguise your path.” He gave her back her knife.
Raven slipped the knife into its holder, then seemed to remember something and stepped awkwardly back. “Don’t stand so close to me, Vann, I stink.”
“Not to me, Raven. To yourself perhaps.”
“You’re lying, Vann, but I’ll pretend to believe you.”
“I might punch you back, and we’d be even. Agreed?”
“Vann, a man forced me last night, my quirrel’s so sore. I want no punch.”
“And where’s this man, I’d like to meet him.” Orvannon’s suddenly cold voice thrilled her. It had been easy falling into a false love with him, much harder falling out again. Now he would be her avenger, had she needed one. But really, he was just her master, she his agent.
“His name was Garfie. He’s dead.”
“No, an old woman named Gretel followed me into his room and knifed him. She knifed him right well.”
“Who is this Gretel? And what did you do with the body? I know none seek you.”
“I went back to my room and slept. She cleaned up and disposed of him.”
“You failed to follow her? How could you trust her?”
“Vann, she has the Voice of Command, and it is fierce! I thought I resisted her, but I did just what she told me to do.”
“Raven, you’re trained to resist any Voice of Command.”
“I tell you, Vann, her will was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I could not resist.”
“So powerful, and she not known to me? Well, what else did she command?”
“Oh, just to kill the first man who woke me and to be good always!” Raven smiled a bitter smile. “No, she told me to go to my room and sleep. She said all would be well.”
“So well in fact, you’re near tears. But when I was at guesthouse this morning, looking for you, I heard of worthless Garfie who stole away in the night. They said you’d gone walking, and hardly anyone was about: that innkeeper and his thug Abarham. And where IS Garfie’s body, Raven? Didn’t you look for it this morning?”
“Yes, I looked. Gretel’s body’s bent, she couldn’t carry Garfie far. I think Garfie lies in guesthouse bog, where I would never look. Send an agent, Orvannon! Send someone to check that bog of dung.”
“There’s none I can ask to go there. So, the more important matter. The prize of your last mission. You have it?”
Raven panicked a moment. She’d hidden the bizarre item in her bag for days. It was a coarse black powder in a drawstring purse. She had rubbed the stuff between her fingers, smelled it and even tasted its disgusting taste. A lot of it was charcoal, there was sulfur, and another faint scent was tantalizingly unfamiliar. The powder made her think of rotten eggs, garlic and skunk. She had kept it dry and safe from fire, as Orvannon demanded. Despite her curiosity, she had been unable to guess what made the strange powder so desirable, or its owners so secretive. Vann’s command to her had been simple: Find a well-hidden bag of unusual black powder in Nocton district and steal it. She knew she had done it, this had to be it.
But was it still there after her swoon? She sniffed the bottom of her bag and got a hint of the powder’s distinctive aroma. Raven took a deep, calming breath. Then with knife she cut open stitches that held the bottom compartment of her bag. She removed the rumpled drawstring pouch and handed it to Orvannon. He opened the pouch, stuck two fingers in and took a quick look. Then he closed it and dropped it into his own belt pouch.
“Indeed, that’s it. How did you get it?”
“You didn’t give me enough to go on, Orvannon.”
“I know, Raven. I told you though, I thought you’d succeed.”
“But how, Vann? You said, ‘Look for the black powder around Nocton, a courier will bring some occasionally.’ And you described its scent so clumsily.”
“But where did they bring it? And from where? And how did you get it? And can I watch that place now, to intercept more?”
“As to intercepting, I think they’ll choose a new place. You ask too many questions at once, Vann, can I speak?”
“Direct and brief answers save time, Raven. I have other agents who understand this, and I can train another in your stead. When will you learn?”
Orvannon’s words hurt. Not because he judged her no special hero; that was fair. She tried to imagine herself quitting and settling down somewhere. Her skill, she knew, could be used peacefully to earn coin and make a quiet life for herself. If Garfie’s seed was growing in her garden, perhaps she would raise the child. Or if not, seek out a just man to father one in her.
But she remembered the angry mob chasing her out of her own home town when they discovered what she was. And she remembered another time and place, being thrown off a bridge into a swift river, almost drowning, when people discovered what she was. And she remembered being pelted with pebbles that hurt, running off in pain, when people discovered what she was. Until she could dissemble, really dissemble, there was no point to that charade of settling down. And dissemble, truly dissemble, she could not. Not all the time.
“Vann, they brought that bag to an outbuilding on Larasse’s domain in Nocton. I know not from where it came. I had found a suspect smuggler’s dropoff, and I watched it for your prize. I broke in by brute force and set the building afire to cover my traces. Vann, give me my new assignment.”
“Raven, you haven’t told me anything. Begin at the beginning, tell me the whole story.”
She sighed. Why couldn’t he just let her do that at the first? “I went to Nocton and walked all around. It’s a big district! But to the west, nearest the sea, that rich man Larasse has his great domain, a big house, open fields, many buildings. He loves his plantings, it was easy to get work among those who dug and shifted soil for him. Even in early spring his trees, his shrubs, his flower plants must be just, just so. He fancies the look of his place, he leaves torches burning all night to light up his grounds.”
“Where did you stay, while you worked there?”
“There’s a guesthouse in Nocton, and that’s where I wanted to be. The smells are awful in guesthouses, but the mattresses are soft, there’s real food and, usually, good ale. But it was the forest for me this time, or I’d look odd. ‘Dig our dirt by day, little woman, then rest The Holy One knows where, and come back and dig for us again.’
“I suspected one outbuilding built of thick timbers. It had no windows, small roof holes and only one door, and he kept it locked. There was a sign on the door, “Willem: Smith,” as though some Willem lived there. Larasse would go in there long times, always bringing a lantern. Usually he was not alone, but I worked alongside other workers, and they said his companions were strangers.”
“How did you know he kept it locked?”
“Well the lock was there to see, wasn’t it? Right low near the ground: one big loop of metal round the doorpost, another sunk in that heavy, heavy door, the two of them held together by some blacksmith’s box with a keyhole. He bent down, inserted his key and those loops fell apart; or he hooked them together again to lock it. I took the place for a dropoff because wagons would come there, loaded with goods. The driver would park before that building’s door, Larasse would come out with his key, and I would see nothing go on or off that wagon. They moved something in or out, Vann, but by stealth!”
“And then, did you sniff out the powder?”
“Indeed, asking myself, could this be it? Could Orvannon describe it so poorly? As often as I dared, I wheeled a barrow of dirt nearby when those wagons were there, and I got a sniff of the scent: charcoal, sulfur, and...something else. Now I had to get into that locked building, and in this I had luck.”
“But you said, there were workers there, torches burning at night, when was it safe?”
“In a great nightstorm, it was safe enough. Heavy rains, rolling thunder and wicked strokes of feary night lightning. Windy rain blew out Larasses’s night torches. Those lightning strokes made a bright light to see me by. But would you see me, if you were hiding your head in the mattress when thunder roared, or straining to look through all that rain? I took a long-handled iron mallet, and I stood there, soaking in rain, but never mind that.
“Vann, I feared that lightning! Each time I raised my mallet-shaft high, I saw myself asking for that next lightning bolt to come downshaft and roast my body. I never want to feel lightning, Vann, never!”
“And so, you broke the lock.”
“I broke it. And I went inside.”
“And you found the black powder there.”
“Well, not at first. The place was a desperate jumble inside, tumbled shelves, piles of rubbish, broken wheels and saw-horses, stained cloths. But there were aromas there – so special. It was dark, and I tripped in that dark, but I found, oh, a row of little pots with special mixtures in them.”
“So near the prize? You stopped for little pots?”
“Orvannon, you cannot understand. Every pot had something different in it, all things special to me, and such lively aromas! I’m sure they came from flowers, from seeds, from mustiness that grows in earth. But not in Ausland. One smelled wonderfully of orange.”
“What is orange?”
“That’s a fruit, a round thing to fit into your hand, to peel and eat, dripping with juice. I saw one once, when I was young and it was going to rot, but in Nocton I learned how good it might smell. Another pot, oh so many smells at once, I’m sure it was for spicing food, peppery and sharp and delicious, I don’t know how to describe it. Another smell,” she faltered.
“Another smell...a soft dead rotting smell. It put me off, until I thought what might happen if you mixed it with other scents. Those scents could be transformed, gaining depth and subtlety. I called that one the ‘base.’ And there were others...”
“That you cannot discuss with me. But perhaps with one of your own kind.”
“Vann, do not tease me. Not like that!”
“But, there must be–”
“I said! Do not tease me. You were unguarded, I will strike you with my knife.”
“You can’t, you know my speed, I’m always on guard.” But he moved back a step; a few muscles in his long arms and legs shifted, and now he really was on his guard.
“Surely,” he said, “by the One...”
Raven slowly raised her middle finger to her lips and gently blew: “Whhhh.” This was an old argument between them. She was alone in this world, truly as alone as any human could be. Orvannon disagreed, but she knew he was wrong. He must never trick her into wishing to find another like herself.
Raven continued her tale. “There was a heavy box under some moldy cloths that were recently moved. I sniffed it, and I liked it for the job. I opened that box, and I took the bag!”
“Raven, you’ve done well. And when next you come to Gardia–”
“Yes, yes, when next I come to Gardia, I can indenture my life to buy just one bit of Ausland’s wondrous magic there. I’ve been to Gardia and dreamed, but for me, Gardia Museum’s just a dream, that’s all.”
“Raven, we have things at Gardia that no hero will ever require. Should one of these fit your need, it might be a gift.”
“A gift! May I go to Gardia now?”
“With eyes as wide as a young girl in her first dress, you should NOT go to Gardia. Come instead as a wise, intent hand. I have a new job for you, let Gardia wait. But finish your story, how did you escape?”
“I wanted to escape without pointing too directly to my handiwork. I waited in there, a long time. I thought, a rain this hard, how long? It petered out. Inside that building was so much drystuff. I took my tinderbox and started a fire, and I ran.”
“But Raven, I told you: No fire near the black powder, it burns with force.”
“And you can see, it has not burned. I started my fire well away from it.”
“How did your fire go?”
“I don’t know, but I suspect that building’s all gone. They’ll take their dirty goods elsewhere next time. And now, Orvannon, what must I do for you next?”
“Kill the wyrm.”
“Wyrm? The monster that put me to swoon?”
“Why kill it? And how? And why me? And Vann, did you come all this way to tell me to kill that thing, and yet not warn me of its danger?”
“Raven, I came about quite a different thing, but I sense wyrm’s importance. It’s here for a reason, and it’s important to stop it. You shall kill it, and soon!”
“Why me, Vann?”
“Because it likes you. It will give you a chance that others might not get.”
“It likes me? It came at me. It swooned me!”
“And it did not swallow you. Nor bite you, nor kill you. I did not surprise it hovering over you. It left you when it pleased.”
“And how do you know this, perhaps I made it all up. There is no wyrm, I’m tired, I just napped in this lovely meadow.”
“Raven, I can see the signs from here, but let’s walk about and look closely, shall we?”
“Orvannon, I’m glad you track creatures so well, that’s sure how you found me. But please no lessons, they make my head spin. Oh, I suppose you can see where it smashed grass as it came and as it left, and you believe in wyrm.”
“I can see better. It gently depressed grass and brush, despite what you called its awesome size. A special wyrm, Raven, a magical wyrm!”
“A wyrm that loves everyone, perhaps. Let another lover cozy up to it.”
“Perhaps, but I see this: Raven, this wyrm’s your special adversary.”
“Or my destined partner. Perhaps I’ll go over to its side, if it please me.”
“Raven, this is what I ask: Kill the wyrm.”
“I can kill it better if I go to Gardia first.”
“And why would that be?”
“With that special gift I might find there.”
Orvannon sighed. “Raven. Find wyrm. Study it. Plan to kill it. Then tell me you can do it better with something from Gardia.”
“Very well. How much time do I have? What is ‘soon?’”
“By the sixth moon. Five months time from now, no more.”
“You know something, Orvannon. Something you’re not telling me, else you’d have no such time in mind. And now, how am I to find wyrm?”
“Nose-witch! I smelt it when I was far from here. How far away can it be, and you not find it by your nose?”
“Vann, don’t be angry with me. Its smell had no direction for me, it came from all about.”
“Well, the wyrm WAS round about you, was it not? Wyrm everywhere, you said? Tell me Raven, did it smell only of apple vinegar to you?”
“Only partly, Orvannon. Wyrm smell is complex, deep, deeper than Larasse’s pots.”
“Well, Raven. You can smell it that well; you can find it.”
“How do I report to you, whether I’ve found it or not? How do you send a signal to me when you change your mind and want that monster to live?”
“Don’t stay at this guesthouse. Move to Walthorn, two days’ south. I met you here because I do not wish to be seen now at Walthorn. There’s a woman there in the sties, Tericia, who’s trusted with messages the usual way. Say ‘magna’ to her.”
“That’s it. Don’t forget.”
“Thank the Holy One that you take me away from here! Orvannon?”
“You continue my monthly coin?”
“Of course, with a fine bonus for your success. You can draw coin from Tyrus in Gardia whenever you’re there. But I must say, he tells me that you never do.”
“Let it build, Orvannon, let it build. I can’t risk my life forever, that fund is my day of rest. So, do I leave now?”
“First, take me to Gretel, I might recognize her. Might I see her without being seen?”
They walked toward Redthwen guesthouse.
“Vann, I’m called Claire here, not Raven. Shall I be Claire at Walthorn?”
“Using your false name again, Raven? When do I punish you for refusing to be yourself? You must be Raven at Walthorn. You may be there for months, you might meet someone who knows you.”
“Perhaps I’ll meet someone from Redthwen.”
“Then you’ll explain to them why you said you were Claire, though you’re really Raven.”
“And why is that, Vann?”
“By the Axe! I know not, only I know that half the time I find you, you’re Claire. Make up something.”
Chatting like old friends, they walked back to Redthwen.
Raven asked as casually as she could: “Abarham, where has Gretel taken her pretty little girl? I want to see her.”
“Gone,” shouted Abarham. “Gone, and Garfie’s gone. Are you going too?“
“Why yes, Abarham, if Gretel’s pretty child’s gone, why, there’s nothing to keep me here.”
“Eight silver!” came the innkeeper’s voice from the back room. “Eight silver for four nights, and none shall sleep in your bed tonight, should you change mind and return.”
“I’ve already paid you for tonight,” she said to the innkeeper, “I’ll not pay more.”
She went back outside to where Orvannon waited in the woods.
“She’s gone, Vann. They think she went with Garfie.”
“Bad news, I’d hoped to glimpse her.”
“Shall you walk me part way to Walthorn?”
“No, you wishful witch, I can’t come near Walthorn now. Escort yourself. Anyway, you won’t want me with you. There’s a river, a little north of Walthorn, where you’ll wish to be alone.”
After their seven years together, he knew her well. Her face shone with excitement. “A river near Walthorn?”
“A nice, lazy river. Rare traffic on its bridge. And it curves out of view just downstream.”
“A river! Shall I go now?”
“By all means. I’ll hear from you.”
“You shall. Goodbye Vann.”
He sadly watched his friend and agent walk south. Raven stepped so light and quick, he knew river called to her. He didn’t understand her love of river, but he knew it well. She’d like this one.
He greatly feared what should occur, when she actually tried to kill this wyrm. I know we have to slow the monster or pen it down here past summer, he thought. But by the Holy Oil, it’s not worth her death to hinder it. Perhaps she’ll wound it or confound it somehow. He could spare none to aid her, matters were coming to a head in the far north, and in the south as well.
Raven hurried on to Walthorn. She reached the bridge and it was as he’d said. Upstream, a brook surged, tumbling down some rapids, and the clean sound of water on rock filled the air. Downstream that water spread wide into a slow-moving river. Its banks were rocky and forested, concealing river itself as it swung round a bend. And there was none else using the road.
She walked to river’s bank and found a tight place to hide her things that a thief might not notice, a place where a sensible person would fear snakes. She tucked it all in there except her underdress, which she planned to wash as she swam. Then free of her robe, her bag, her knife and her short boots, she ran to river’s edge.
A rock out-cropping made an eddy-pool. Little fish swam there but fled as she stepped in. A frog croaked deep nearby as she plunged into the cold. Soon she was drifting with the current, washing and wringing out, reveling in the gentle wet that cleaned away dirt and odor. But her misery, her shame...river failed to clean that. The pain Garfie had forced upon her, his brutal revelation of her vulnerability, raked sick furrows of self-loathing over her thoughts.
Landing downstream she began the cold, careful walk along water’s edge back to her hidey-hole. If some large animal came out of the woods, she was ready to run back into the river. If any traffic approached the bridge, she’d hide in the forest. She smelled clean, even her toes would be clean until she donned her boots again.
Reunited with her belongings and shivering with the cold, she put on her robe, which she would wear single a short time while her underdress dried. She walked on to Walthorn. And then she noticed. The tart smell was gone. She’d left it behind before crossing the bridge. The wyrm perhaps would not follow her here. She was tempted to go back at once and search for it, but Orvannon had said, “Go to Walthorn,” and as Orvannon always knew more than he let on, there would be a reason. She’d settle in at Walthorn first.
Very near Walthorn her path took her past some old ash and hornbeam trees, and there she smelled death. A memory, she thought at first; but no, a fresh smell, recent. She stood still, identified its source, then walked past the ash onto a silent carpet of needles in a dense stand of resiny pine. Little sun got to this place, she felt she was walking into twilight. All at once: There was soft dark ground with brush and twigs all trampled. Peeling the stuff away and digging with her knife, she found the corpse of a thin woman a little younger than herself, lying face up in the shallowest of graves. She was dressed as a farm worker, she smelled of pig and sheep, and very little of rot.
This better not be Tericia, she thought. Could anyone be trying to cut off her contact with Orvannon? She carefully kicked the corpse over with her boot. In back, the woman’s tunic was caked with blood. She cut away the tunic and examined the death-wound. It looked remarkably like Garfie’s. She re-covered the corpse and continued on her way.
Approaching Walthorn, Raven saw a little hut at roadside. It had the usual drawing of an axe on its only door, and the usual, single west-facing window. When had she last entered a House of The Holy One? She’d been a child.
She stood uncertainly before the door. The Honester opened it and stepped out, his long, flowing white robe rippling in the afternoon breeze.
“Sun’s setting, it’s almost time for the Ceremony,” he said. “Please, come in.”
Raven looked down at the ground, at leaves brown and green fluttering over the hard-packed dirt.
“Please,” said the Honester. He reached out an open palm to her, to pat her shoulder, but Raven dodged his touch. Contact with another person usually flickered sparks of pleasure in her, disconcerting if caused by a friend, more so if by a stranger. Raven usually avoided stray touches, brushes and pats.
Reluctantly she entered Holy One’s house, angrily remembering another day, her parents standing behind her, insisting she go one more time to the short ceremony; sending her in, not offering to come themselves. Yet the odors that greeted her in the little house reminded her so fondly of her youth: that same patchwork aroma of the dozens who’d entered the little building before her, and of the scented holy oil.
The Honester closed the door, and the two of them sat, facing each other on the ground across the low table. There were a few boxes in the room but no other furniture, the Honester lived elsewhere. The Holy Axe, Ausland’s symbol of authority, rusty with age, hung high in its honored place on the south wall, and the cups of holy oil and holy ale sat on the table. There was never anything special about the ale, but the oil might be pressed from rare nuts. She smelled walnut, and remembered other Holy Houses with the same oil.
“When the setting sun shines at my side, then we’ll begin,” said the Honester.
The setting sun lit the room with its beams of orange light, casting comical shadows on the Honester’s face. Raven hated the clean white robe, to her it was hypocrisy. She’d never smelled a clean Honester. They never bathed, they brought the scent of their dung into the Holy House; how could they serve the Holy One?
Sun shadows gradually shifted.
“And now we begin.” He rose and gently lifted the Holy Axe from its place, sat again and laid it on the table. He dipped his fingers in the oil, rubbed them on the axe, finally running one oily finger along blade’s edge. He began to hum the familiar song.
When Raven was young, people told her the melody was ancient, hundreds of years old, created just so by the Holy One Himself. But she had a good memory for melody, she knew it was ever-changing, she knew it was always a little different in every different place. And now she heard how it had acquired new contours in these last twenty years. She caught on quickly, adding her high voice to his. He stared at her in concentration as they sang together. The song ended, there was a brief silence. Then he lifted the cup of ale and spoke the familiar words:
“Long ago, even before the time of heroes, the Holy One walked all through Ausland. He was everywhere, everyone saw Him. He had a word of guidance for all, showing good people the truth, and freeing those mistaken from the error of their ways. And then – He hid, He left us on our own. Some say He believed we now understood how to find the true path and would always be good. Some say He thought us children, relying solely on the word of a parent, and left us alone that we may learn to find the true way by ourselves. Still we pray to Him, He hears us, He guides us and grants us all things good. Thanks to the Holy One!”
“Thanks to the Holy One,” she responded.
The Honester raised the ale to his lips and downed the whole draft, shaking out the last few drops upon the oily axe blade. “By the Holy Axe that keeps the peace; by the Holy Oil that lubricates and smooths; by the Holy Ale that brings on praise; be blessed, little one,” he said.
“Be blessed, Honester,” she responded. But then she asked, “Honester, must the Holy One be a man?”
“Why do you ask? He is a man.”
“And he comes to you in your thoughts as a man among men. It should be the same with me, he should come to me as a woman among women. But he comes to me differently, as a man comes to a woman.”
“You speak nonsense child, the Holy One is as He is.”
“Some say the Holy One hid when the Other God came. ‘Other,’ with greater power, delighting in all things bad.”
“How dare you speak thus in Holy One’s House? There is no Other. No Other God!”
“But you know there are magicians who get their powers from Other, they say their magics prove It exists. Their magics prove Other is powerful.”
“So they claim. They lie.”
“And now the Holy One hides from this Other. He can only help us indirectly, lest Other find him out.”
The Honester’s face was barely visible in the redness of the setting sun, but Raven could see he was horrified.
Then his face relaxed. “I understand. You are sick,” he said. “Very sick. Tell me, do you really believe in this ‘Other?’”
“I don’t know what is truth, Honester.”
“Well I understand you. Your terrible deeds weigh you down, fill you up, and you’ve come to me to be healed. I’ll begin to heal you. Let me show you something.”
He rummaged in a low box, but Raven stood up. Of course I’m sick, she thought. I’m sick from shame. My quirrel’s sick-sore. I’m filthy with stink-dirt no river can wash.
“Never mind.” she said. “Honester, eat your Holy Axe.” She walked outside into the late twilight, slamming the door behind her. Outside there was delicious quiet, and she regained her calm. The air smelled clean. This is the Holy One’s world, He’s given me leave to dwell well in it. Why, she wondered, am I at peace with the Holy One out here, and so angry with him in His House? Why did I pretend, even for a moment, that I believed in ‘Other?’ And why couldn’t the Holy One protect me from Garfie?