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
Raven hangs back from Walthorn, fearful of the moment when its scents and sounds will overwhelm her. She pauses a short way off, regarding this big, rambling one-story stone guesthouse, its well-built wings, and its tall central entrance. There’s a large barn nearby, strong smells of livestock. She can already smell the guesthouse bog, and she hears lots of noise – dishes banging, banter, singing – as Walthorn is well into dinnertime. At last Raven walks to the door. She leans against it, steadies herself, knocks gently, knocks hard, and finally opens it herself and steps inside.
Inside it was noisy and poorly lit. A narrow corridor led to her right, opening wide to drunken lugs singing at the bar. A pimply-faced, dirty-blond boy seemed to have trouble standing. Several farm laborers banged their mugs as they sang,
Offal, offal, offal,
We KNOWS where it goes,
We KNOWS where it goes.
A foreign-looking man, flushed complexion, curly-haired, stood to one side holding a drink, trying to keep apart from the singers. He wore good wool clothes, and his large eyes looked hard at Raven as she walked by.
She stepped into the common room and saw Gretel and Trudie sitting with a nasty-looking man, a sour, thin-faced scoundrel with a shock of light brown hair.
She smelled good kitchen smells and not-so-nice people smells. There were two young serving girls in the common room, carrying food and clearing the main table. An ochre-skinned woman, quite outlandish-looking, sat at a far corner. A couple, perhaps a farmer and his wife, cuddled at the common table, at the opposite end from Gretel. The woman hugged her man, and the man ran his finger down her arm, slow enough to make Raven’s skin crawl. She thought she would never sit with them.
“Claire. Come. Sit with us!”
Unwillingly, Raven walked over to Gretel. She would have to deal with this problem of her own making. “I’m sorry, I’m not Claire. I’m Raven.”
“What do you mean? I know you. Aerm, perfectly well. We were together. At Redthwen.”
“Gretel, I mean, my name’s really Raven. I was afraid to use it at Redthwen.”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I decide to be Claire.”
“Gretel, when you decide who this woman is, you must introduce us, and invite her to sit down. Little one, you need not stand over us like a serving girl.”
“Derk: You are right. Raven! This is: Derk. Please, sit with Derk.”
Raven sat down next to Trudie, rather far from Derk. Trudie had been staring in her lap, but Raven’s presence stirred her to look up.
“Derk, tell me again about my Grandma!”
“Trudie, I already told you about your grandma.”
“Tell me again!”
“I already told you again.”
“Tell me again anyway!”
“Gretel, the child is boring. DO something with her so she stops.”
“Derk: You know very well. I must not.”
“Then raise a hand to her!”
“Derk, You’re: a fool.”
The foreigner Raven had seen at the bar joined them. He removed his handsome jacket, laid it beside him on the bench and sat next to Derk. He plumped his clean white tunic and turned to Gretel. “Do we have a new friend, then?”
“Raven, this is, um, Jomes. Jomes, Raven from Redthwen, I told you.”
“I remember no Raven,” said Jomes in some annoyance.
“I’ll explain. Later,” said Gretel.
“Derk, tell me again about my Grandma!”
“Trudie dear, your food will come soon. You can eat it. Be a dear: wait. Derk has to leave soon. I want to talk to him.”
“Is he going to sleep in your bed again?”
“Gretel, I told you, she is boring.”
The foreigner gestured as he spoke. “In my homeplace, it is not like this. My children are silent until I speak to them. Then, they answer me. Or I punish them!” He patted the table to emphasize ‘punish,’ unconvincingly.
“Jomes, you’re: a fool. Go sell all your junk. To your wife.”
“I have a very nice perfume, Gretel, made with a touch of cat-scent. My wife cannot afford it, but perhaps you, or this new friend...”
“Don’t suave me, Jomes, I’m not: aerm. One of your rich buyers.”
Derk turned his eyes to Raven, as though noticing fleas on the bed. “What brings you to us here at Walthorn, little one. Have you lost your way? Are you following Gretel? Can you afford to stay here?”
Raven did not like Jomes, Jomes smelled like a ferret. But she liked Derk even less. Tall, thin, oily, Derk seemed to want only to flatter himself. His hair fell flat on his flinty cheeks. He placed his hands together and caressed his long fingers as he talked. His body smelled clean, too clean, not a hint of sweat despite the hot air pouring out of the kitchen.
Raven felt awkward. She had no cover story, had not expected to have to explain herself. But as she stared back, Derk seemed to lose interest, turning to Jomes.
“Those pages you showed me last night, those ver-ry interesting and special pages. Might I have them, do you think?”
“You could not afford them, Derk. I should not have showed them to you. For them, I go to a buyer in the north. It is bespoke, he had asked me to find such for him.”
“You prefer the apple in the high tree to the berry on the bush, Jomes. Something could happen to you on the way, something could happen to you here at Walthorn. I cannot offer as much as your buyer, but I’m here, my coin’s ready. What do you say?”
“I say that I was a fool to show my valuables to a bastard. If something happens to me before I leave Walthorn? That same will happen to you!”
“Jomes, Jomes, I was merely suggesting, take no offense.” But Derk extended the two longest fingers of his hand toward Jomes’s throat.
Gretel reached out, laying a palm on Jomes’s fist and squeezing Derk’s arm. “Boys, boys. You will be friends! No undue attention here. We have else to manage. Relax.” They relaxed. “But Raven. Why are you here?”
Well, thank Derk for giving her a few moments to think. “I was painfully hurt recently, I’ve not healed. I thought to rest here for a few days. It’s a treat I can’t really afford. But why earn coin if I don’t spend it?”
“I’m sure they can use another maid,” murmured Derk. Raven stood, trying to control her anger. She walked back out to the bar, where the barman poured drinks. His black hair bounced and bobbed in rhythm to his motions.
The dirty-blond boy reached out a long thin arm and grabbed her. He seemed drunk enough to fall, but his grip was firm. “How much to bed you, woman?”
“Let go, boy.” She tried to pull free without making a scene. The youth stumbled and righted himself by grabbing her. Raven twisted his fingers back hard and he let go.
The boy uttered a moan and fell to his knees. The barman appeared behind him, clenching a fist. “That’s enough, Callum, away with you.”
“I can’t leave, Rogier,” moaned Callum, “I haven’t had all the women yet.”
“You’re drunk is what you are,” said Rogier. He seized Callum and shoved him in the general direction of the door.
“Miss, I apologize for that filth, can I help you? I’m Rogier, barman, though not by choice.”
“Maybe you’d rather be a fighter? I’m Raven.”
“Barmen have fights enough. I’d rather own this place. Do you want dinner? Ale?”
“Can I order a room from you?”
“No dear, find Clarkie in the main room.”
“Who is Clarkie?”
“She’ll be the smartest old woman in that room. She owns this place! Look for her dark red tunic.”
Raven turned and saw that very woman talking to the loving couple in the far corner. She went over to her.
“Excuse me, you are Clarkie?”
“Yes, little one.” Clarkie gave her a calculating look, and Raven resisted a temptation to explain herself.
“I’d like a room, for a month or two, with dinners.”
Clarkie looked her up and down. “Will you work for it? Bring me a dressed fawn from time to time, or rabbits, I’ll make it a silver a day.”
“I’ve no beasts for you now.”
“Bring them every few days! What do I call you?”
“Raven, do you require a locked room? The rooms on that side of my inn can lock.”
“That’d be good.”
“Two silvers per night then, not one.”
“No lock then.”
“Very well, go down that other way, you’ll see a room with a large B on it. Will you recognize a B?”
“I think so.”
“Excellent.” Clarkie turned to the nearest serving girl, an emaciated, weaselly thing leaning against a wall. “Aedrian, note this little new guest of ours.”
“See that room B has two cushions, a linen sheet, mattress with fresh straw, a water pitcher and a clean chamber pot.”
The girl sighed. “Yes, ma’am.” She wandered tiredly down the hall.
As Raven looked for a new place to sit, a warm, friendly voice called to her, “Comm sit ouith me!”
She walked over to this corner, where the strange-looking foreigner ate alone. She had ochre skin, pointy ears and thick pouty lips. Her large, blocky head sat atop light gray clothes that hung loosely round her stocky trunk. Her eyes slanted humorously, suggesting that she was living in a joke. This woman’s body scent was heavily masked by heady spices, a delicious protective cloud.
“Come! I am Castia, how are you called?”
“A pleasant name. Do you resemble your namesake?”
“My name’s a cruel joke, my parents hopes all dashed. I’m sure a raven sees well, to find what it desires from the air. My eyes are poor, like most people, I guess. And what need has a raven of a nose?”
“Ouee all have noses, Raven. Ouahy do you say that?”
She’d done it again, bringing attention to her hidden skill. But maybe this strange woman wouldn’t notice. Raven sat down and looked in fascination at the implement in Castia’s hand. Castia’s meat was cut into small pieces on the trencher. She picked up the meat with a small metal thing, a short handle with three spikes at the business end.
“Castia, what is that?”
“How did you get your meat all cut up?”
“I cut it myself, silly.”
“Doesn’t fork make you eat slowly? A hand is faster.”
“Do you hurry to eat? Ouahy hurry? Food is good.”
“I’ve never seen a fork.”
“We have them ouere I come from. You sat ouith the bitch and bastards over there, hey?” She smiled, a very welcoming smile. The other serving girl, who looked better fed and happy, hurried past, setting an ale and a chunk of hard bread in front of Raven.
“More ouater please,” said Castia.
“You drink water?” asked Raven. “It’ll make you sick, unless it comes from a fresh creek.”
“Not if I’m careful.”
“How can you be careful about water?”
“You’ll see. Ouay did you sit ouith those people? Do they pay you or something?”
“I met Gretel and the little girl at Redthwen. Why are you curious about me?”
“I’m sorry. I forget how guarded people are. I’m very curious. But you didn’t answer my question. Am I improper?”
“I did answer you, I knew them from before.”
“Then you knew to avoid them. They feel bad to me, especially the very tall one.”
“Castia, I spend most of my time alone. Then I come into a strange place and I see familiar faces. Or I see familiar faces, and also a strange, different face in the corner of the room. So I go sit with that familiar one who calls to me.”
“How sad, but you are not like them?”
“No, thank the Holy One.”
A pot of water came, and Castia placed her hands over it, palms down. “Pardon a moment, Miss Raven, I must think clearly.” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and held it. Then the water boiled, roiling, bubbling, emitting steam that left droplets on the woman’s palms. And then she relaxed. Raven stared in fascination, and Castia smiled helpfully back.
“I can do that a few times a day. I rarely drink ale. Ouay do you people thank this Holy One?”
“He’s the source of all that is good in this world. Don’t you pray to him?”
“If I have time to relax and think clearly, I try to strengthen my bits of magic. Magic flows from ouat is best in nature. People can choose to be good or bad, I think. I choose good, but for me it’s a personal decision. It makes it easier for me to make my magic, I think.”
Castia spoke Auslander quite clearly, yet some of the sounds she made seemed too pure. Raven noticed that the woman took especial care to begin a word with a ‘w’ sound, lingering over it as if it did not come easily to her. Raven’s meat arrived. She tore it into pieces and began to eat, quick handfuls thick with bread and gravy.
“Do you like to try my fork?”
Raven considered this offer. “No, I would not. Suppose I liked it? I’d get one for myself, use it, and be remembered everywhere I go.”
“You do not ouish to be remembered?”
“Only by one or two people. It’s best that I slip away unnoticed.”
“If you pray to your Holy One hard enough, ouay must you slip away unnoticed?”
Raven blushed. “May the One reward me,” she said. “Anyway.”
“I hope it for you then. Are you rich and healthy?”
“Castia, really you are much too curious. I’m all right. Can you do a lot of magic?”
“No. I trained at a fine magician. I learned a few first steps. She said to me, ‘Castia, you practice very hard, but you lack the power. You cannot go further, you may only find pain that way. Keep ouat you have, that’ll be enough for you.’”
“I tried other magicians, they said the same. I have only a little of the inner fire, but I love my magics. I am proudest of this: If I fall from a height, then I fall very slowly. It is my best magic.”
“Does magic make you tired?”
“Yes. I can do only a few magics a day, or I fry my guts, doing too much.”
“What does ‘frying your guts’ mean?”
“It’s a horrible pain. I shall not feel it again, I hope.”
“Castia, where do you come from?”
“From Zhourain. By boat. My friends and I came to your northern harbor, it’s the closest one. There are very few Zhouraini in Ausland, I believe.”
“If they all look like you, I’ve never seen any before. I know about our two big ports to the north and west. They say Ausland has an eastern harbor also. I’ve never crossed the mountains to the east.”
“Of course there’s an eastern port, some of my friends went there. And you have a southern port, many ships there too?”
“The south is terrible, be glad you didn’t land there.”
“How can it be terrible? I’ve seen much of Ausland. A little hotter or colder, it is the same.”
“The south’s not the same. It’s very cold there, and there are the mines.”
“Surely Ausland values its mines? I saw many ships leaving Ausland carrying jagd, to Zhourain and everywhere. Jagd must pay for all the things ships bring into Ausland.”
“Not so many things, I think. Spices, furs, cloth, what else? Otherwise, we make our own. But jagd! It’s so beautiful.”
“In my country, people carve it into lovely shapes. They say some rich man made his whole house of jagd. Every piece, shiny black, it carves easily, yet so solid.”
“We don’t value our mines, Castia, we fear them. My uncle stole food. They gave him a punishment, three months in the mines.”
“That’s what I said to my father: three months, not so bad. Father hit me! He said, three months, a year, so what? No one ever returns from the mines.”
“Did your uncle return?”
“Never. Maybe he mined gold, silver, copper, iron, maybe he mined the precious jagd. Those are our mines. We never heard of him again.”
“Castia, what is it like on a boat, crossing the sea?”
“Fearful. Ouee had three magicians to calm the sea and slow the highest ouinds. Still, you are a small thing in the great sea. If the ship takes too much ouater, you drown. Maybe that happened to your uncle?”
“I’m sure not. People go to the mines in boats that hug the coasts, stopping at fishing villages along the way. They get there.”
“Raven, I say good night now, I need my sleep. Sit ouith me in morning?”
“If we wake together, sure. Goodnight, Castia.”
Castia licked her fork clean and dropped it into a flat pouch sewn onto the side of her robe. Raven marveled at that little pouch that had no need to hang from a belt. She’d never seen the like.
Castia went toward the other side hall, away from room B. Castia’s figure fascinated Raven, she stood straight and seemed to float rather than take separate steps. Raven finished her dinner and also went to bed.
After eating breakfast and briefly visiting the woods, Raven wandered as casually as she could to the barnyard in search of Tericia. She had not asked about the woman, wanting to draw no attention to her connection with Orvannon’s message-sender, wanting even less to draw attention if Tericia lay murdered in that forest.
A fat, dirty woman about her age, fair-haired and wearing a bulky dress, was slopping the pigs. Despite her bulk, her face looked familiar. Raven waited, running her hands nervously over the smooth fence posts, feeling the knots in the old, dry wood. She needed time to adjust to the pig smells, they overwhelmed her at first. Then she approached.
“Tericia?” The woman set her bucket down and faced Raven.
“Who’d wish t’ know then?”
“I’m Raven, are you well?”
The woman savagely kicked her bucket, not quite hard enough to overturn it. “I’m a lost woman, like to lose my job with pigs and sheep. And I’m good at birthing sheep, me and my young sister Berenda, too. But yestereve when I was home with my little ones, and Berenda was to be here with the birthing, she was nowhere to be found, two ewes and two lambs were lost, and they’re blaming me for it. They say she went off with a man. Or they say I’m blameful forgetting, that I never asked her to come here instead of me. And where pray tell’s my sister?” she wailed, “A reliable girl, always willing to help me in my need.”
“Perhaps she’s with the Holy One,” ventured Raven.
Tericia looked sharp. “And what little bird put that in your heart, tiny one? Have you done with my own flesh and blood then? Try you to comfort me?”
“To comfort you,” said Raven, feeling awkward.
Tericia spat a big gob of spittle, right between them on the ground. “I’ll have none of it!” she said. “Go back to your high and mighty friends at the house.”
“Magna!” said Raven.
“Oh, Magna, now. Well as you’re Raven, I’ve no message for you.” Tericia spat again, a little closer to Raven this time.
“I send a message.”
“Keep it short, few words if you please.”
“Wyrm stays on Redthwen side of river.”
“Worm stays Redthwen side river.”
“That will do.”
“Be off then, I want no sight of you.”
“I send a second message.”
“Say it then.”
Raven took a deep breath and then, not looking at Tericia, she spoke. “Murdered young woman hidden, buried near Walthorn.”
“Bitch! Tell me not where, I want no favors from you. ‘Murdered young woman hidden, buried near Walthorn.’ I’ll send that too.” Tericia picked up her bucket and walked stolidly to the pigs.
Raven went to the river to start her first full spring day at Walthorn. She hid her things, swam a chilly swim and dried out in the sun. Then she crossed that bridge to hunt wyrm. She’d no idea which way to go, but north of the bridge, she picked up the tart scent. It was faint, at first directional, but soon touching her nose from everywhere. She found an open meadow ringed with pink-blossomed cherry trees and thought to wait there for it, to see if it would come.
Wyrm smell increased, and she began to run, aimlessly, this way and that. What was she doing? What if wyrm did come to her, she had no plan. She rushed back toward the road, checking wyrm scent carefully, she didn’t want to run straight into the thing. She hurried back to Walthorn, to her room. She had to plan.
At dinner that night, Castia sat with – of all people – Jomes. There were cups of ale and wine in front of them, and they both seemed drunk yet trying not to show it. Raven was furious with Castia, wasting her time with Jomes, who was definitely “one of the bastards.” Raven ate alone.
Raven awoke suddenly, smelling Derk in the dark.
“Lie still, little one. My knife needn’t poke you.” His voice was soft, insinuating. She wanted to move fast, to surprise him somehow, but she had to know exactly where he was.
“Just lie there,” said Derk. “No sudden moves, you’ll be fine.” His long, dry fingers slid across her cheek, withdrew, came down in a hard pinch.
“Oww.” Where exactly was he?
“That’s right, little one, you know how to lie still, it goes well with you. Don’t move.”
His cold knife touched her neck and she froze, while his other hand slipped down her underdress, exploring.
“Not much breast, is there? Do you wish you had more?” Two fingers squeezed, hard.
“Shhh, lie still, I’ll soon be done.” He drew his lingering hand out.
“You’re a very good girl, little Raven, hold still awhile longer.”
She heard him take a step or two, and felt a tug at the far end of her covering sheet.
“Spread your legs for me now, you hold them too close.”
Raven lunged at the foot of the bed, punching hard, but she hit only air. She heard a hard THUD behind her, twisted to look back but saw nothing.
“Ha...ha...ha,” said Derk. It was a forced laugh if ever she’d heard one, so at least she knew that Derk didn’t think any of this was funny. Raven slid her hand up the mattress. Straw stuck out where Derk had punched his knife down.
Raven took a tortured breath. “Leave, Derk. Leave me alone.”
“Oh, I shall, Raven. I may return tomorrow night when you’re fast asleep. You must be a very light sleeper, you woke quick tonight. But tomorrow I’ll bring you a gold coin. A whole gold! What will you do for a gold, hey, Raven? Better gold than a knife, don’t you think?” She felt sudden coldness as his knife whipped across her cheek. But there was no cut, he must have used the flat of the blade. She jumped out of bed, but he was at the door, he slipped out and the door closed, leaving her in darkness.
Raven wrinkled her nose. The bastard had used her chamber pot. The total bastard!
Raven did not sleep the rest of that night. She leaned against her door, knife ready, nightmares of Derk keeping her awake.
Next morning a shaky Raven breakfasted alone on boiled barley water and hen eggs. She wondered if Derk was gone, she hoped his dreadful appearance in her room had been preliminary to slinking away.
Raven spent the day quietly. She went to the river and swam, washing off the soiled mental residue of Derk’s touches. She explored overbridge, finding a meadow where she could clearly smell wyrm. She was not ready to face it, though. She killed two rabbits and took them back to Clarkie.
“And what do you bring me those bloody carcasses for?” asked Clarkie. “Out of here now, go round out back to the kitchen. Give them to Dunjle, you’ll know him, he’s the strong, bald one.”
Behind the guesthouse there was a lot going on, great pots on log fires boiling soup and stews and much chopping and hacking to prepare fuel for the fires. Two stolid horses pawed the ground, waiting for their master to deliver his meatpies so they could pull their cart home. From a metal pot on glowing coals came the heady aroma of wine spiced with cardamom, a luxury item Raven did not expect she’d ever drink. The strongest aroma of all came from a giant tun where oats and malt fermented to become tomorrow’s ale.
The outdoor kitchen odors were much better than the smells inside. Raven eyed the big pots sadly, knowing they were much too hot for her to gnaw on.
A bald man who towered over her set down his axe and said, “What’s this, rabbits?” He placed a hand on hers, lifting the carcasses and sniffing.
“Yes, and you are?”
“Raven. I’m staying here. Clarkie told me to bring game to you.”
“You skin a rabbit mighty well. Bring me fawns, Raven, I want fawns! And if you kill a deer too heavy to carry, tell me and I’ll send Rogier for it.” Dunjle moved closer to her, his big belly protruding toward her chest. “I’ll be nice to you too if you like, just say so, you know where I am.”
Raven managed a weak smile and a ‘thank you.’ Then she went around front and entered the inn, looking for dinner, wondering if she could ask Dunjle to kill Derk.
She found Castia and joined her. The “bitch and bastards” were getting up to leave, so she held her silence until they left. Then she asked, “Castia, help me?”
“You’re a one, Raven. You sit down at me, ignore me like a stranger, or are you giving me the insult? Then you’ve nothing better to do than turn away from me and listen to them. And now, it’s oh, help me.”
“Castia, I’m sorry, but it’s them. Or rather Derk. He came to my room last night.”
“Did he pay you?”
“I didn’t invite him! He snuck into my room and made me fear his knife.”
Castia’s expression changed from cold frost to deep concern. “Ouat did he do to you?”
“I dared not move. He toyed with my body, and he...”
“I’m afraid of him. He said he would come back tonight, with his knife and a gold piece. I don’t want him in my room.”
Castia looked down at her hands and casually picked a hangnail. “I might take the gold piece,” she said. Raven gaped at her.
“Actually,” continued Castia, “I’d explain to him that he could come into me ouith as much pleasure as he might expect from any Auslander ooman, but sad to say, he might not get out again, except by ripping off a part and leaving it inside. Raven, are you horrified? Do you really believe me so different? It’s a lie, but it serves.” And now they both laughed.
“But ouat is to be done?” asked Castia. “Ask something of me.”
“I want to be awake when he opens my door. I want to cut him with my knife. But I can’t stay awake all night, would you stay up with me? I can sleep first, you’ll wake me later.”
“I’ll join you after dinner, I need time to practice. I’ll knock on your door later, two strong knocks like this, you’ll know it’s me.” She rapped the table.
Raven smiled, feeling a little better. “My room is ‘B.’”
“I know ‘B,’ I’ll find you.”
Raven was glad to hear those two knocks, and the two of them huddled in her unlit room.
“Raven, you must sleep first. I can get you up after moon rises, that will be near middlenight.”
“It’s cloudy, you’ll see no moon tonight.”
“I know where moon is. Like many Zhouraini. Can you say ‘Zhouraini’”?
“Quite good, it’s a good first try. I can say ‘Auslander’ yes? Now you try again but not so fast, let the sounds slide across your tongue, Zhouraini?”
“zshou Raay nee?”
“It is good. Good! Moun ptil lestaia amm torallty.”
“Castia, I can’t say that, what did you say?”
“We Zhouraini say that, when baby says its first oord. It means, ‘from the first to all the rest.’ There are more than a larg ptili in Zhouray.”
“What’s a larg?”
“You’d say a hundred hundreds, that’s a larg.”
“Well there is one Derk in Walthorn. What will you do, if he comes here when I’m asleep?”
“I’ll scream loud and scream more. At least you’ll stop sleeping.”
“A bad plan I think, but it is a plan. I’ll try to sleep now.”
Raven lay on her mattress, pulled the cover up, buried her nose under the cushion and tried to sleep. It was impossible. She heard Castia breathing, and gradually got used to Castia’s spicy perfumery. It was going to be a long waking n–.
Castia shook her awake by the shoulders. Cursing herself for failing to tell Castia how to wake her safely, she barely resisted the desire to punch her waker across the room.
“I’m awake, I’m awake, stop!” Raven said.
“Shhh, you’re at middle-night, everyone sleeps.”
“Castia, I must use the chamber pot, please, don’t stand so close.” Castia moved obligingly beyond the washstand.
“You sleep now, my turn to stand watch.”
“No, you and I both stand now. If he comes, I shall aid you.”
Raven stood by the door, where she would see Derk’s hand if he pushed it open. Castia stood behind her, a little farther from the door. Raven was not sure why Castia chose that particular place, but was too tired to ask. They stood a long while. Once Raven felt Castia leaning on her, and pinched gently to waken her. Once Castia caught her as she was dozing off and starting to fall. Then:
“Shhh, he’s coming!”
“Raven are you sure, I hear nothing.”
“He’s near the door!”
The door began to open, slowly and silently, pushed open by the point of a knife. Then the door swung wider and Derk’s wrist was in view. As Raven readied her knife to strike, Castia reached a hand past her and wiggled fingers, mumbling strange sounds. Derk’s hand froze in place, providing a perfect target. Raven pricked the flesh between his thumb and long finger.
Derk hissed, “Bitch! Bitch!!” But he didn’t move, so Raven sawed gently across the back of his hand. Suddenly Derk yanked his hand back, dripping blood. They heard him run off. Castia reached past Raven and closed the door.
They were silent a moment, then Castia began to giggle, a delicious, throaty giggle, and Raven joined in. They giggled quietly, wanting to wake no one, and of course they wanted to hear if Derk returned. They laughed and laughed. Finally, Castia squeezed Raven’s hand and they stopped.
“He might come back.”
“I know. Castia, it’s your turn to sleep, I’ll watch.”
“No. Go back to plan one, I’ll scream if he returns.”
Raven went back to the bed. She felt happy, incalculably happy considering how much in fear of Derk she’d been a short while ago. “What did you do when he opened the door? You wiggled your fingers.”
“I froze him for a moment. It’s a good magic.”
“So he was a perfect target for me to cut him?”
“To cut him, yes!”
“Do you think he knows there was a magic spell?”
“I think so. But Raven.” Castia leaned in close to Raven, she could smell the salty, sweet saliva on Castia’s tongue. “I bet he thinks it is your magic.”
“Castia,” said Raven, “if you ever wake me again, do it by my feet and toes. And stand clear in case I come awake punching.”
“You did not punch me last night, I got you up by your shoulders.”
“You were lucky.”
“Oh. Then I shall remember. Now I ask myself, did you ever...”
“You know, you lie ouith a man, afterward you both sleep, then he ouakes you, and you hit him hard?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Did he lie ouith you again?”
“No. And yes, I was sorry.”
Castia giggled again, the same throaty giggle. “Good night, Raven. Sleep better than before.”
Raven woke in the morning to clear sky and a strong sun. Castia lay slumped on the floor by the door. Fearing the worst, she ran to her, but obviously Castia was alive. There was certainly blood on the floor, but it was caked and dried, Derk’s blood. She shook Castia’s shoulders. Castia came awake, aiming a handchop at Raven’s head. The hand swept across her view with incredible quickness, stopping just short of cracking her nose. “Is that how you do it?” Castia asked.
“No, I punch with my fist. And I hit hard, but I can’t move as fast as you. Is that more of your magic?”
“No, that is open-hand combat. I have trained all my life, I am superb.”
“Can you teach me?”
“I’m sworn to teach no one.”
“It’s all a secret?”
“Not at all. My masters told me they could imagine no oorse teacher than I. I’m sworn not to teach, don’t laugh at me! If I teach you badly, you might fight poorly and die.”
Castia returned to her room, leaving Raven to wash. She hoped she would see Derk at breakfast.
In the main room, Castia looked remarkably fresh after their long night. Of course they sat down together, but Raven really wanted to eavesdrop on Gretel and Derk. The “bitch and bastards” sat nearby, with Derk between Jomes and Trudie, a large cloth wrapped round his right wrist. Raven said a soft ‘Ow’ to Castia, and they both nearly laughed out loud. Then she looked down at her morning ale, trying to keep her face straight.
“Derk, why did you wrap your hand?”
“I told you, Trudie, the tooth-birdie brought me a present that I will give you when your last child’s tooth falls out. I’m keeping it safe, I don’t want to lose it.”
“Show me it!”
“Gretel, the child’s a bore again. What shall we do with her?”
“We shall: act truly grateful. That Trudie’s been given into my care, Derk. Now, act that way. Trudie, darling. It’s not nice to ask people why they, aerm, wrap themselves.”
“Derk’s not ‘people,’ I can ask HIM.”
“Derk, what did happen to your hand?”
“Jomes, if you’d like to come to my room after we eat, I’ll gladly show you, using YOUR HAND FOR AN EXAMPLE.”
Raven made the terrible mistake of looking at Castia. Castia spit out a mouthful of ale, clapped her hands over her mouth and tried to suppress a laugh. Raven choked on an attempted slow, cool, breath. She put her head down to table, tipping over her ale, reaching out and catching it before much had spilled. Somehow, their antics attracted little attention.
“And Derk. Just how much do you expect: to disappoint Trudie? When her loose tooth soon falls? She will expect, aerm, what you said. From the tooth-birdie.”
“Dear Gretel, I go south today to run a little errand. When I return, two or three days hence, I’ll have visited a fair where the tooth-birdie sells her wares. Trudie, I might trade your tooth-birdie gift for an even better one.”
“Don’t trade, I want that one in your hand!”
“Well, you shall have it then. You see, Gretel, children are SO EASY to please.”
“So are men. Perhaps that tooth-birdie has a few whores. In her store, for you.”
“Only the best for me, Gretel.”
“Derk, why did you wrap your hand?”
“Trudie, I TOLD you!”
Raven ran back to her room, closed her door and let out of whoop of joy. She’d left a nice piece of baked apple behind, but oh, what fun!
Raven decides she needs to study wyrm for a while. She will have to get up close to it and endure a few swoons. She does not trust wyrm to leave her unharmed, so she’ll need a way to keep safe. She might tie herself high in a tree when she knows wyrm is nearby, and then let wyrm come and swoon her. She will wake up much later, and perhaps she will have learned something.
Raven went overbridge and scouted out some stout vines, cutting a few long ones to tie herself with. She wandered about, eventually reaching another meadow where wyrm-scent was strong. She climbed up a tree more than twice her height, tied herself to both branch and trunk, and waited.
Her memory had not exaggerated the sight: the long, long, long light green quivery tail surrounding the meadow. The tall mouth, not quite reaching up to where she was, the flickering tongue, mouth breathing dense vinegar at her, the sense of danger, the wondrous, heady smell!
She woke in a chilled afternoon, the sun low. She was stiff. Getting untied and down out of that tree was a chore. And what had she learned?
She breakfasted quietly the next morning. She took a long swim. It was warm, it was pleasant, and her afternoon plans felt an utter chore.
She found wyrm.
It looked the same.
She swooned the next day, too.
And the day after.
The following morning, Raven went to ask Tericia if there was a message for her, a fool’s diversion, seeking a break in her routine.
“You will stand back! You will, aerm: calm down. Nothing is happening here! You’re all hungry. Go eat. Trudie, DO SOMETHING.”
“Mar-, Gretel, You always tell me NOT to do it.”
“Well just do it now.”
Raven heard Gretel and Trudie, but she could not see them, the corner of the barn blocked her line of sight. A line of big pigs filed out of the sty where a fence had broken, trailing round the corner. Raven drew her knife and ran.
Rounding the corner she found a dozen pigs milling and grunting. They had trapped Gretel and Trudie against the barn. Trudie, incongruously, was dancing in the open space between Gretel and the pigs. A large male in front pawed the ground and appeared about to charge. Raven ran, jumped and launched herself at that pig.
The male moved as she jumped and her knife missed. She body-slammed the pig, feeling pain and sliding to the ground. Her knife flew away toward Gretel. The pig wheeled around angrily at Raven, screamed and lunged toward her face. It screamed again as Raven crawled back, then suddenly that pig reared up, turned and hobbled away in pain. Raven’s knife bounced at its every step. Gretel had stuck it deep into the pig’s flank. All the other pigs followed the male, and the crisis was over.
Raven’s robe smelled far too much of pig when she pulled herself up. She threw up at the disgusting odor, ran to the wounded pig to collect her knife, then hurried back to Gretel and Trudie. Tericia had been nowhere in sight, but now she showed up.
“What did you do to my pigs then?” said Tericia. “The meat at guesthouse’s not good enough for ya?”
“What happened to their fence?” asked Raven, pointing to the broken sty.
“Oh, I’ll have ta get them back in then,” said Tericia.
“Everything’s okay, Tericia,” said Gretel. “The one pig: attacked me. Raven came. And saved us. The pig is all right. I just cut it a bit. With, um, Raven’s knife. You will dress its wound. It will heal. Everything will be fine.”
“Everything will be fine,” said Tericia. She bent over and picked up a handful of mud. She patted the big male gently, hummed to it and rubbed mud into its wound.
“Not much of a knife, Raven,” said Gretel. “Trudie: You will stop dancing!”
“Don’t do that to me! You said I could.”
“I thought those pigs: would kill us. Now we’re all right.”
“You’re not supposed to tease me.”
“I’m not teasing you, Trudie. I just changed my mind.”
Raven was not happy with Gretel’s dismissal of her ragged-edged knife. She asked, “Have you ever stuck a pig before?”
Gretel clasped her hands. “Definitely not.”
“Maybe my knife is okay.”
“Well you could, aerm, put it away.”
“It’s dirty. I’m filthy. My robe’s really filthy. I have to wash.”
“In the river north of here. A lovely place.”
“Raven, I believe you saved our lives. I thank you. I did – I did something for you. You’ve returned the favor. Without thought for your safety.”
“How did you two get trapped against the barn?”
“Trudie was playing near the pigs. I looked up. They were coming out at her. And that, aerm, disgusting male got angry. He stirred them all up. Trudie you must stay away! From the pigs.”
“You have to say it nicely, you know that, Gretel.”
Gretel sighed. “Trudie, please do not play: near the pigs.”
“That’s a good girl. Raven, maybe you and I can work. Together. I’m supposed to be stopping somebody. From: doing something here. But I don’t really know what it’s about. I might need some help. A young, healthy person.”
Raven suppressed a shudder. “How much?”
“How much coin? Do you ask that?”
“I need coin, Gretel. Coin.” She looked down, trying to appear embarrassed, because she was sure she knew who Gretel was supposed to stop. “Are you getting paid for this? I could use some of it.”
“Well, we’ll see. But perhaps you’ll want to help me. You’ll–”
“Got to wash!” yelled Raven. She cupped her hands over her ears, being careful not to cut her ear with her own knife, and ran away.
Derk was back, breakfasting with Gretel and Trudie. Raven sat at the far end of the long common table with Castia. Enough time had passed that they could watch each other and Derk without giggling. Raven was sure Castia was thinking right along with her: What had Derk gone to get, and was he going to use it against her? Should she stay in her own room tonight or with Castia? The two of them ate and drank, not talking, just listening.
“Here’s my TOOTH, Derk, where’s your wrap? Where’s my tooth-birdie present?”
“I told you, Trudie, I might trade it for something better, and I did.”
“Let’s see it, let’s see it, let’s see it!”
“It’s in my room, just wait.”
Derk sauntered off, returning shortly with a heavy dark green felted cloth, which he unrolled on the floor with a flourish. It was longer and wider than Trudie. The girl looked at it in dismay. “Derrrk, what IS it?”
“It’s a cloth mat, yet it cannot burn. You can stand on it all you want, Trudie, it’s yours.”
“Oh, Derk,” said Gretel happily, “wherever did you find it?” Trudie hopped down off her stool and began to dance on the cloth pad.
“I told you, Gretel, I traded it from the tooth-bird.”
“What else did you get: from that tooth-bird? You awful man.”
“Tooth-bird arranged for my bum to be wiped by a whore, Gretel. Think of the luxury.”
“You swine. Trudie. Please. Stop dancing.” Trudie stopped, climbed back onto her stool and stared at her thumb.
“And what else did the tooth-bird give me?” murmured Derk.
“I don’t know, Derk. What did she give you?”
“Information. Informaaaahtion, Gretel. Bevricus will be five days north of Redthwen, and he has a name for us.”
Derk put his head next to Gretel’s and they had a quick whispered exchange, while Raven and Castia tried to appear uninterested. Then Derk leaned back.
“So I leave at once.”
“Be careful, Derk. He’s not going to just give it to you.”
“Why not? We’re all together in this.”
“Because it’s his way. Bevricus will tell you. First, do thus. Then he’ll tell you that what he really wants is in some wizard’s cupboard. Which wizard wants you to get him: a second wife. Before he’ll cooperate. Bevricus is all goat pee, Derk. And he’s smarter than you.”
“Go yourself then. Do you think you can talk to him better than I?”
“I can. But I’d not stay alive up there very long, would I? Caution keeps me alive, not power. Go with Other’s blessing, Derk. Go. In good speed.”
After the three had gone, Castia turned to Raven. “They really don’t care ouat you hear, do they? And they’re supposed to find out some name? At least, you don’t have to deal ouith Derk tonight.”
“I thought he’d gone south to get something awful to kill me with.”
“So did I. Who do you think is this name that Derk ouants?”
“After breakfast could you come to my room? I have something to tell you.”
Raven’s spring routine continued. Mornings, she often swam and tried not think about wyrm. The warmer weather brought more fish to her part of the river, and once she made a hurried exit when a bear came out to hunt for them.
Swim or no, she crossed river’s bridge to hunt wyrm smell. She could usually find wyrm whenever she wanted. She knew approximately where it must live, but she could not find its lair. When she found a direction to its odors, she would move nearer until it surrounded her. Then she’d find a safe place, climb a tree and tie herself up with long vines, to wait.
When wyrm came, she would wake from her swoon much later. Once, she recovered from swoon at night and had to return to Walthorn in menacing darkness, hearing worrying sounds and smelling wolf and badger near the road.
One evening in the common room, Raven saw Castia with Jomes again. Raven was so lonely she determined to join them. But as she approached, their boorish drunkenness put her off. She moved away to a side table and watched them, angry with her friend for sharing any laughter with one of the “bastards.”
And share they did. Mostly they stared stolidly at each other. But then Jomes mumbled something, Castia roared and then Jomes roared. Or Castia would whisper a remark, Jomes would reply, and then they would giggle and reach for their drinks.
Raven scanned the rest of the room for anything to draw her attention away from that pitiful sight. She spotted a fine victim, a big man making free with the ale and gobbling a great stew. A traveling trader from the looks of him, a bit older than she, his hair seriously tangled like her own. He wore a handsome warm tunic and expensive, well-kept boots. She wandered over and stared at him, hands on hips.
“Hey there, you’re not a serving girl!”
“Indeed, may I join you for dinner?”
“Plenty of room elsewhere, but suit yourself.”
Raven sat down, and the cheerful serving maid, Merri, brought her a trencher, stew meat and unspiced wine. She began to cut her meat into small handfuls. “I’m Raven, and you?”
“Why are you here, Ned?”
“Resting up for my next journey south. I’ve just traded away the last of my stock. I’ll purchase more at Kenneby’s.”
“What was your stock, then?”
“That would be telling, little Raven.” He look a big swig of his ale. Ned smelled good to her, a scent of thyme-water. Few men splashed themselves with scent. She wondered where he had learned this habit; if it was a habit.
Raven held up her wine cup. “No doubt I could match you drink for drink and more,” she said, then set down her cup and returned to her meat.
“You’re half my size. Where would you put it?”
“I’ve been known to put it somewhere.”
Ned sat still a bit, then continued. “Say I get a big skin of ale. Drink for drink, right here at table?”
“Too loud here,” said Raven, “I’ll match you in your room after meal.”
Ned grinned. “And what should a man do in his room, if he finds himself with a drunken woman asleep?”
Raven stared him down. “I don’t know if that drunken woman would ever know what that man did.” Ned guffawed.
Later in Ned’s room, they matched drink for drink from a heavy skin of ale. Ned’s coat lay on the mattress, and on his wash table was an open box that, she fancied, might be full of coin. She’d not drunk much at meal, and though the ale was getting to her, she thought he would capsize sooner.
After perhaps their sixth draft, the lantern guttered out, filling the room with the odor of tallow. He got up unsteadily and placed a hand on Raven’s shoulder. “R-Raven...fr-fricken.”
“You’re too tired, Ned,” she said. She gently pushed him toward the mattress. He tottered and slumped on it face down. Raven reached quickly to catch his falling head so that he didn’t bang it hard, laying him down gently.
Ned began to snore, crouched in nearly the same position she’d been in when Garfie forced her. She felt about carefully in the dark, checking the pouch on his belt. It contained coppers and a little silver, which she transferred to her bag. Then she moved quietly about the room checking for other valuables.
There was nothing of interest other than that box on the washstand, but what contents! It held dozens of silvers and coppers, even one of the tiny gold coins. She stole a handful of the silver.
She regarded the sleeping Ned, face down, knees on floor, like a woman about to receive a man. She imagined him a woman, and she plunging a man’s great phallo into Ned’s miserable bottom. And then – Holy Other – she imagined a great stab of knife pain and death puncturing her own ribs.
Ned slept on while she relived every detail of her encounter with Garfie. The terror of being grabbed, the smell of his overexcited body, the awful feel of his rough fingers, the searing pain of his mis-angled thrusts, her sore soft flesh that had not healed for days, his seed that she was definitely not growing, and her terrible rescuer. It will be better in the morning, Gretel had said. You will feel all right.
It was not all right. Everything was wrong: Her life of pilfering, the foolish dragon-hunting, the loneliness, pain and misery. She had no real friends and only one goal in her life: to do Orvannon’s bidding. She believed he served The Holy One who, alone, might give meaning to her life. But what if Orvannon served some other power? How could she be sure about him? It was all useless. And stupid, and pointless. And where might she go to find a better life? Raven wept, a strangled, goofy weeping as she tried to muffle her sounds, not to wake Ned.
When the sobbing left her, she withdrew some silvers from her bag. How much silver had she taken from his pouch and his open box? She knew not. Worse, she knew not how much coin she’d had in her own bag before. She carefully counted her own coin, finally deciding what it might be right to give back. It pained her to give up this silver, but her actions tonight so shamed her, it seemed the tiniest way to wash off a bit of the stink.
There was a slushing noise as Ned slid, straightening his body and flinging his arms on the floor. And then he curled up. He sighed and breathed more deeply, more evenly. He seemed a sweet man, why had she wanted to rob him? How many like him had she already left behind, desperate to recover their losses?
She put one more of her silver coins in his box, poked the door open, stepped quietly into the empty corridor, and returned to her room. She cried herself to sleep that night, imagining a great scale, one side pushed up high, holding her good deed tonight; the other side pressed low, weighed down by all she’d done before.
At breakfast, Raven cringed to see Ned walking straight to her. He sat down opposite, smiled, and said, “Are you human then?”
Not trusting herself to speak, Raven nodded.
“More fairy, I think,” he said. “You shamed me, taking coins from my pouch, and putting extra silver in my box. When I woke, pouch empty, I feared my box was empty also.”
Raven managed a small nod.
“I just wanted to say thanks. May be, I’ve learned a lesson.” He got up and left.
I gave him one of my own silver, thought Raven. Holy Axe.
After more days of monotonous swooning, Raven decided to try a wyrm offense. She would not hide in a tree. She would stand her ground, hold her breath, and when wyrm came, she’d run at it and attack. She would cut it with her knife, at least once. Maybe she would learn something.
And that is how she came, on a bright warm morning, to stand in a great open meadow of flowers and butterflies, as tall wyrm approached her, immense tail flowing everywhere, tongue licking, flicking at her. She stared transfixed at its towering mouth, holding her ground.
And she awoke from her swoon on that same spot. She had never swung her knife. Wyrm had not even seemed close to her. She’d had no chance to run at it nor lay hand upon it, before she swooned. What might it have done to her while she lay on the ground?
Yet here she was, healthy, no untoward wound. I need some advantage, she thought, as she walked back to Walthorn. Something to let me get close, maybe something to wound wyrm from a distance. I need: Gardia!
How well she remembered her visit to Gardia, the endless fascination with the magics in the museum. How she had imagined herself bound up in their magical protections or wielding them. Orvannon had said she might come to Gardia when she had a plan. Well she lacked a plan, but she knew she needed something. Let her go there!
Back at Walthorn she stopped near the pigsty and accustomed herself to the pig smells. Tericia watched her with pitiless eyes, seeming to know that Raven became powerless near the pigs. Raven edged near Tericia.
“Magna. No messages for you of course.”
“I would send: Can do it better with something from you know where.”
“Too long. I send short messages. Shorter, please.”
“Is this short enough: Can do better with thing from there.”
“Oh, but I hope he’ll understand. It’s cryptic.”
“He always understands,” said Tericia. And she spat a great gob of spittle, right next to Raven’s boot.
Raven dined with Castia. It was a busy night at Walthorn, but the “bitch and bastards” were away.
“Raven, have you been avoiding me?” asked Castia.
“Why do you need me, you have Jomes.”
“I do not ‘have’ Jomes. I’ve just spent a few evenings talking to him.”
“And what else?”
“Really, Raven, are you jealous of me?”
“Jomes is a bastard. Jomes makes me angry. Jomes is not my friend.”
“He’s not my friend either.”
“But you drink too much with him. You were stupidly drunk with him. You don’t get drunk when you’re with me.”
“Jomes is a close person, but he talks a little more as he loses his judgment.”
“What does it matter, what he says?”
“Raven. Perhaps it does not matter at all.”
“Castia, what are you doing here, you’ve been here longer than I.”
“I might ask: ouat are you here for? You go out every day, you come back, you seem happy, or sad or bored, nothing much seems to change, and apparently Derk and Gretel now have your name.”
“I have a job to do. It’s hard, I’m trying to figure it out. I don’t know why Derk isn’t making more trouble for me.”
“Oould you like me to help?”
“No, I want to help you. What do YOU do?”
“I think you’re turning our talk around.”
“I started by asking about you.”
“Some paths of Zhourain are secret. I’m ouatching and ouaiting. And getting a little bit of information.”
“Castia, I think you didn’t tell me anything just now.”
“I’ll tell you who’s interesting, Raven. The little girl.”
“Trudie? I know what you mean. She doesn’t play like little girls. She just...sits and looks at her lap. When I was her age–”
“No, it’s not that. It’s the magic. She has it. A great magical power.”
“Much, much stronger than I. And in such a young child!”
“Truly? Then I’d like to see her do some magic, what can she do?”
“I felt her try to cast a spell, just once. She started, her power overwhelmed me, but then she stopped. I’d rather not see her make any spell, I think.”
“So Castia, what do you wait here for?”
“For several things. And none of them happens. And there is a thing that might bring my best friend to me, and there is a thing that might take me away before he arrives.”
“I’m sorry not to be your best friend.”
Castia looked at her incredulously. “But of course, my best friend is a man.”
Raven swallowed. “What’s his name? What’s he like?”
“He is big and tall. An archer. Not very sure of himself, but he should be, it is very charming. I speak of him no further, unless he comes.”
“Do you think he’s forgotten you?”
“I trouble myself: is he alive?”
Raven’s heart no longer lay in the chase. She sought wyrm and swooned, to make sure nothing had changed. Then she wasted some days. She bathed at river, hunted game, sat in her room and napped. She made up excuses to wander, oh, not too far from those pigs, where Tericia might see her. After six days, Tericia waved.
“Magna. He says: Go to the place.”
Raven ran back to her room to treasure Orvannon’s command. She spent the remainder of the afternoon reminding herself of the route, how she would walk to Gardia in safety. At dinner, she broke the news to Castia.
“Yes, I’m going on a journey.”
“Are you all secrets, can you tell me the place?”
“I shall not, but I hope to be back in less than one whole moon. Perhaps I’ll find you?”
“Perhaps, but if I’m still here, I’ll be miserable. Raven: You and I shared that great night together, foiling Derk. I name us deep friends, sisters! In future times, you MUST find me.”
“And you must find me! Perhaps some day we can speak truth about what we’ve been doing.”
Raven ate a big dinner that night, and they chatted much, but not about anything that mattered. Next morning she explained to Clarkie that she was leaving, but might return. She looked for Castia to say one more goodbye, even knocked on her locked door, but did not find her.
Raven stepped out into the warm, welcoming summer. She walked briskly until she’d left the smells of Walthorn behind. She stopped at the river to take in a few breaths of its friendly scents. Then she returned to the main road to travel northwest. She was on her way to Gardia Borough and Gardia Museum, the museum of Ausland’s great, legendary magics.
It takes Raven about ten days to get to Gardia. Would you like to know the details of her journey there? Look, we’ve got a story to tell, let’s get on with it.
Her first time in Gardia Borough, the museum had surprised Raven. It was low to the ground so she walked right past it, looking high in the air for nonexistent towers. But now she knew where to look: the simple wooden entrance with the word “Museum” on it, framed by delicate cherry trees and fronting a patchwork of interconnected one-story huts and houses. There were no soldiers or guards in evidence, which she thought quite puzzling, considering that Gardia was thick with mystical magical artifacts. Perhaps everybody knows they don’t work, she mused, everybody but me.
She stepped up to the door and hit it hard with her fist, embarrassed to see a new crack appear. How soon will they notice I broke their door? she wondered. Would they still let her in?
The door opened and a nice young man smiled down at her, a welcoming smile. He was a hand taller than she, straight brown hair and a rueful, friendly face. “What do you want here, little woman? Have you an errand?”
When he spoke, she saw he had dark teeth. He seemed – to her – soft and useless, dressed in pointless finery that would attract mud in the woods. But he was a Gardia person! She was in awe of Gardia, she wanted to show anyone there much respect.
“Sir, Orvannon permits me to come to Gardia, seeking a gift.”
“You are Claire?”
“Wait a moment.” He picked up a long parchment roll, twisted it part way and examined it carefully. His reading skills obviously exceeded hers, but she was exasperated, having no idea what he was doing. Finally he looked up.
“I’d forgotten what he wrote. Claire, Raven, he says it’s the same. You are welcome, I’m Jem. Come in.”
She entered, and he shut the door. She breathed deeply, surprised at how few odors there were. The furniture was maplewood, there was nothing else of note. Except a humming sound, quiet and continuous, really quite annoying now that she was aware of it. “Jem, I hear a hum. What is it?”
“Oh, you hear the hum?”
“Yes, I hear the hum.”
“Is that your gift? Few, other than children, hear the hum.”
“Jem, who said I have a gift? I’m just here to find something.”
“Orvannon’s letter says, and I quote to you: She will be Claire or Raven. She has a unique gift. Do not ask regarding her gift! It is hidden. She seeks something in Gardia that none else want. If she finds it, she will tell the trustees how she will use it. If the trustees agree, and they should, you must deed it to her, free and clear.
“We had a frightful argument over this letter. Imagine giving one of the great artifacts to...” He looked at her.
“A very short bumpkin,” she suggested.
“Well, yes, though that was not quite the way the elder trustee put it. I’m the young trustee you see. My father died,” he added sadly, “Just before we received Orvannon’s letter.”
“Thanks. It’s still...”
Raven took a step toward Jem but could not think what to do. She stared at him sadly, and he smiled ruefully back at her.
“So what happened to the trustees’ frightful argument?”
“Oh, Orvannon always gets what he wants,” said Jem. “Except once...but ever since then he gets his way. But the elders are not happy!”
“Is that why they’re not here to see me?”
“Oh no, they have other work. I’m the shiftless one who can be here days, so here I am. Well. The idea is, you go into the museum, you wander the halls, and then you say, ‘I want that one, it will enable me to dig the well,’ or whatever. Then it better be nothing any hero can likely use, neither a sword nor a bear trap, and then I hope we can give it to you. Have you been to Gardia before?”
“Oh yes,” she said breathlessly. “I was so happy. A wonderful tour, I saw many of the museum rooms.”
“You may enter the museum now,” said Jem, “and search as long as you want. That humming sound protects Gardia from attack, and it will hurt you if you try to take something, let us say, without permission. If the humming stops, then something has gone seriously wrong, and you are to come back here as soon as possible. If you hear it stop, that is. As I said, many visitors would not notice if that humming started or stopped.”
“I just wander in, that’s it?”
“Yes, go ahead. Don’t be afraid, nothing will bite you.”
“You’re teasing me, I think? It’s okay, I just want to know.”
“Raven or Claire, I’m not teasing, I swear by the One. Our treasures are locked safely in their rooms, so that you can’t hurt them, and they can’t hurt you. I’m just a bit preoccupied, asking myself why I stood up for letting a...a bumpkin? into our precious museum to take something from us. I’m sorry, you wanted to know, that’s what I’m feeling.”
“I’m Raven, not Claire, and I don’t want to go wandering all over your museum.”
“You don’t?” Jem seemed happy for the first time since she had arrived.
“No, I want a docent.”
“Do you know what a docent is?”
“Of course I know what a docent is. That is why, that...is...why, I’m asking you for a docent. I want a guide who knows Gardia and can explain it to me, just like we had on my tour. Why are you unhappy Jem?”
“Well, I must ask you to wait. Tradition requires that we honor every request for a docent. But I will have to find one. Meanwhile,” he winced. “I leave Gardia in your hands. Stay in this room. Do not turn anything on. Don’t turn anything off. Do not hit anything with your fist. If someone else enters this room, you are to tell them they must stay with you. If they attempt to enter the museum, um, can you detain them?”
“Will they be a hero, Jem?”
“Ha! Never! The heroes are quite busy now.”
“Then I’ll detain them. But I don’t see how I might turn anything on or off.”
“Good. It’s best you know not. I leave you,” and Jem rushed out the front door.
Raven examined the crack she had made in the door, which went right through its thickness to the inside. What came over me? she wondered. She settled onto a maple bench. Someone had worked the wood incredibly smooth to the touch. Swirls in the woodgrain entertained her briefly. But then, with no interesting aromas to occupy her, she dozed.
Jem’s noisy return woke her up. A gangly young woman stood behind him. She was at least three heads taller than Raven, the tallest female she’d ever seen, long fingers, thin arms, long legs and an awkward gait. Atop her long neck, a round wide head barely balanced, with broad eyes, a happy full mouth and a tiny nose. Her hair was brown, straight like Jem’s, and cut short in front to expose lots of forehead.
“This is Myrn,” said Jem. “Myrn, Raven. Raven, Myrn. Myrn knows the museum very well. She is your docent.”
Raven greatly doubted this. Myrn looked the friendly simpleton and was much too young, not even twenty. The girl’s whole body seemed to jangle out of alignment as she moved, barely managing to recover after each step. How well could a youth know this place? It had taken Raven ten days to get to Gardia and might well take ten days to get back, almost a moon’s cycle wasted on a fool’s errand. She was to be led by a callow teen.
“I may be here for some days,” Raven said. “Do you have time to spend with me?” Perhaps I’ll get a different docent tomorrow, she thought.
“I do have days! Only let’s get into the museum proper, now!” Myrn grabbed her hand and pulled her along to the heavy door at the far end of the room. “Open it, Jem, open!” Jem slid his hand beneath a table, and the door opened. And that was one of the few magics Raven would see in action at Gardia.
They stepped into the first room of the museum and the door shut behind them. All was still except for the hum, and Myrn.
“We shall be Friends, Raven, I know it!” Myrn took Raven’s hands in hers, cupped them and ran her soft fingers over Raven’s calloused ones. She bent down and breathed gently on the ragged scar where Raven had almost lost a finger to an angry wolf. Myrn’s touch tingled more than Raven liked, she so rarely touched another person.
“Friendship. Let us swear friendship!”
“Myrn, maybe we should search the museum first, get to know each other. What do you think?”
Myrn’s face fell. “You don’t trust me?”
“If you knew me better, you might prefer another in friendship.”
“Jem explained. You have a gift, and I cannot ask about it. But Raven, I can befriend a person who has a gift.”
I just need this girl to lead me through the museum, thought Raven. “Okay, Friendship!” She extracted her fingers and gently squeezed Myrn’s in return, then waited to see whether they were going to share blood or something.
“By the One, I swear friendship.”
“Okay. By the Holy One, I too swear friendship.”
“Great!” Myrn swirled her arms around, and took just a few long strides to cross the room. “Into the museum!”
“Myrn, when I asked for a docent, I had an idea. Please don’t run off yet, I need a particular kind of thing. Let me explain.”
“What do you seek?”
During the long days of her trip to Gardia, she had often rehearsed this conversation. It had improved as she practiced it. She wasn’t sure it could work, but she was going to try. “Let me ask you a question. Suppose you don’t want to notice a bad smell. What do you do?”
“Why, I could hold my breath.”
“And suppose you needed to do this for a long time, too long to hold your breath?”
“I could put my fingers over my nose.” Myrn squeezed her nose and sounded very nasal. “I would squeeze my nose shut. I would take little mouthgasps for breath.”
“And suppose you needed to use your hands at the same time, oh, to fight somebody.”
“I could stuff a cloth up my nose, push it in tight. Then my hands would be free.”
Raven took a deep breath. Here it goes, she thought. Myrn was looking at her expectantly, she must think this was a game.
“Now suppose you were standing in the biggest, oldest bog of dung in all of Ausland, and you needed to stand there for a long time until you could catch a rat with your bare hands, and you needed to ignore the stench.”
Myrn went silent. Then suddenly she shrank back, eyes wide, fumbling behind her for the door. Raven flinched, thinking, don’t try to hit me, I mustn’t hurt you. She remembered Orvannon calling her, “Nose-witch! Nose-witch! Nose-witch!” Even though he had said it only once.
“Raven, is that your gift? Do you smell me?”
The question hung in the air. Unprepared, she nodded, wondering how to be kind, how to be vague, and still get help from Myrn.
“Raven, how well do you smell me? Oh by all Holy, by the Holy One, I am so sorry to make you smell me. I should be clean, I should be clean. I will be clean tomorrow. How does one get smell-clean?”
“I jump into a river and let it wash away the dirt, that’s what I do,” said Raven, happy to receive a question she could answer.
“And drown, too, that’s dangerous. We have a swift river next to Gardia Borough. People go in and don’t always come out again.”
“How often do they drown?”
“Oh, all the time. Isn’t there another way to get clean?”
“Myrn,” Raven hesitated. “Does my odor bother you?”
“Your odor is simply that of most people. It’s ordinary. It’s all right.”
“Oh...good.” Myrn seemed relieved. “Raven, you’d never guess, but you terrified me. When I realized. But: friendship! It’s terrible that I wanted to run away and leave you here, why would I do that?”
“People have hit me with fists and stones, and once they threw me off a high bridge.”
“I swear I shall not. Raven? What you seek here. Would you want it if you were, you know, in that dungbog?”
“Well, let’s go find it.” Myrn ran at once to the door, but Raven stood firm.
“Myrn, how well do you really know Gardia?”
“I’ve lived here all my life. Ten years, I’ve been every single day in the museum. Into every one of its rooms. I’ve played with every magic here. They didn’t used to lock it all up in the old days, like they do now.”
“So for ten years you’ve roamed the rooms here, day by day?”
“Well to be fair, I started to come here when I was five. My mother and father took me everywhere, and my mother was a docent. But not everyday.”
Not bad, Raven thought, not bad at all. It was time for her second plan, which she’d also rehearsed many times on her journey. “Myrn, I want to search the whole museum right here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sit down, close your eyes, and think. Think of a thing I should see.”
Looking dubious, Myrn folded her limbs and sank slowly, uncertainly, to the floor. Raven could see her think. Her eyes moved under her half-closed lids, and often her hands and feet twitched as if to take her to another place. After awhile Myrn opened her eyes and asked, “Is this all right? I haven’t said anything yet.”
“It’s good,” said Raven. “Keep thinking.”
Myrn lapsed again into silence. And then she said, “We want to go to Baker. The room is Baker.” Myrn got up and ambled off at a fierce pace. Raven ran after her, wondering if her “think” plan might work. They ducked in and out of rooms, and soon Raven just prayed that Myrn knew where she was going.
Baker was a disappointment. Lances and swords leaned against the walls, all of them handsome and some of them broken. Raven could not imagine why Myrn wanted her to have a sword, but Myrn was also unhappy. “It is the wrong room!” she said in dismay. Myrn did the obliging thing, nearly tripping over herself but settling on the floor once again and sinking into thought. Soon she was up again. “The room is Raken, not Baker! Come, it’s nearby.” And she led Raven on another chase.
“How do they come up with such strange names for these rooms?”
“I don’t know, they were all named before I was born.”
This time they arrived at a room of tables with wire cages. Some of the cages hung open, empty. The objects in the other cages were nondescript, strange, and they looked worthless. A moldy chick foot. A row of broken pearls strung together. A cracked shard of glass that shimmered many colors. Myrn led Raven to one corner of the room, and pointed to a little embroidered cloth bag. “There it is,” she whispered.
“There is what?”
“A thing for you. A magic, about smelling.”
“What does it do?”
“You have to hold it and try it. Would you like me to get it for you?”
“Myrn, I don’t think that’s the rule I agreed to. I’m not supposed to touch. That humming sound will do something to me. I’m supposed to – I don’t know – just choose.”
“I can get it for you. I can bring it out and you can try it. I can get anything out for you. Please, let me. You have to try it!”
“All right, I like to break a rule now and then. Give it to me.”
“I have to unlock it first.”
“Raven, you mustn’t watch me unlock. I want you to go into the next room. Through there. And close the door and wait. I’ll get you when I’m ready.”
“You want me to go through this door.”
“Yes, please. And wait there. Don’t open it, I’ll open it. Please do what I ask, Raven. Friendship!”
Raven went through the door, feeling the utter fool. She’d underestimated Myrn. She was now at the girl’s mercy, abandoned, lost in this maze of a museum, or prey for any sort of trick. The Holy One was punishing her for being so reckless as to force this trip to Gardia, she should not have come.
After what seemed like an eternity, Myrn opened the door. She held the little cloth bag in her hand, and she carefully, reverently, passed it to Raven. The cloth itself was amazing. Tinged with the yellowing of a hundred years or more, it still felt like supple new linen.
Raven opened the bag’s drawstring and peered inside. There were two small reddish balls, each a little larger than a pea or a bean. She took them out and felt them between her fingers. They were made from some soft material wound tight, extremely old cloth, soaked in something to harden them. Inevitably, she raised them to her nose and sniffed.
Raven smelled a faint aroma of flax. A familiar sticky substance that oozes from pine trees had been used to harden the balls, and the faintest aroma of that resin came to her. She could barely sense the scent of the red dye, but that odor definitely came from a familiar plant root whose name escaped her. And there was a faint, dried residue of sweat, people had touched these balls before her. All of these faint scents were overwhelmed by one other; the balls must have been soaked recently in a tincture of peppermint. She knew peppermint well, her mother had grown it, but she had rarely encountered it since then. She put the balls back into the bag. Myrn looked at her expectantly.
“What did you smell?” Myrn asked.
“Peppermint! I know peppermint. We boil it in water and drink it.”
“Myrn, so what?”
“Sniff it again. Take them out and sniff again.”
Raven did so. She sensed the same faint background odors from the cloth, the resin and the dye, but now the overwhelming odor was different. Impossible! But the peppermint had vanished, and now there was this big, banal mushroom smell. “Mushroom.”
“Put it back in the bag,” said Myrn, her excitement showing. “Take them out, sniff again!”
Raven did so. Roast Pork! And no odor of mushroom. Her empty stomach lurched. “Pork.”
“Put them in the bag. Sniff again!”
She did so. “Beet soup.”
Myrn grew more and more excited with each sniff. “Don’t you see, it’s YOUR magic, nose magic. You must take it. It’s what you need!”
“Myrn, to continue our previous example, if I were standing in the biggest, oldest dungbog in all of Ausland waiting to kill a rat, why would I want to smell peppermint, or beet soup, or mushrooms, IN ADDITION TO BOG DUNG.”
“You don’t understand,” Myrn pleaded.
“No, I certainly don’t.”
“You have to learn how to make it work.”
“Okay, how do I make it work?”
“I don’t know. Nobody knows. Perhaps nobody ever knew. But you, you can learn it.”
“It’s some magic toy. Why can I know anything about it? Why would it help me?”
Myrn stood very still, seeming to look far away. “When I was a child, I would sniff it. Sometimes I would smell a new odor, but mostly I got nothing. Nothing at all. But you, every time you sniffed, you found an odor. Every time! This magic has waited for you, it’s your very true magic. You should have it, not anyone else,” she finished fiercely.
“I’m sure I’ll think about it. What about all the other rooms? Could there be something else?”
Myrn looked down, and Raven thought the girl might cry. “Stay here,” she said, “I’ll close the door and put it back in its case.” While Myrn did her bit of unthievery, Raven thought hard. She faced a life-turning decision. She needed to know more. She needed options. She needed luck. What could she ask this Myrn? At least, she thought of one thing she had to know.
When the door opened again, she asked, “What is it called?”
“Oh, if you want it again just tell me, and I’ll bring it for you.”
“Now I’m not quite sure how to say this, but suppose a horse kicks you in the head tonight and you forget everything. Then I’ll have to ask the trustees for this magic, and I’ll say, I want the...what IS it called, Myrn?”
“It has no name.”
“It has no name, and it’s not in the lists of artifacts in Jem’s office.”
“Why has it no name?”
“You will be angry with me.”
“No I won’t. Why has it no name?”
“You’ll be very, very angry with me.”
“Myrn, I...Friendship! You must tell me why it has no name.”
“Raven, it is taboo.”
“How can it be taboo? There’s only one taboo, Myrn, and this thing...”
“Have you heard of the hero Ryantha, who sundered the bridge over the gorge between the living and the dead?”
“Yes of course, I loved Ryantha’s tales when I was little. She hewed a road, right through a mountain, with only her sword!”
“I loved Ryantha too. My mother told me, Ryantha wiped herself when she was infirm, and she took the cloth, slit it in two, and with her mighty strength she rolled it up into the tiny red balls, which, well, you see them back in that cage, in the little bag. You may be angry with me now.” Myrn stooped, holding her head low so that Raven could be angry with her.
“In other words, you were so sure that this magic was for me, that you would have me bring another lady’s bit of rag to my nose, and sniff?”
“I’m sorry, but: yes.”
“I’m not angry, the story is nonsense.”
“No, it is the legend! Legend is serious here. It’s not in the lists, but my mother told me, and her mother told her. It IS the legend.”
“Myrn, let me say something: The wetness people make – mucus, tears, sweat, blood, all that – they have distinctive scents that last. If you tried to hand me a thing that ever smelled of any of them, I’d know it.”
“All those...All of them?”
“Yes, I’d know them. Those little red balls may smell of peppermint, or mushroom or whatever. They also smell a little of linen, of the plant dye that made them red, and of the resin that binds them; and there’s the sweat of people who touched them; but...that’s all of their odor. All of it!”
“But they’ve lain here for hundreds of years!”
“Not long enough. They are just a pair of cloths rolled tight and dyed red.”
“But they are magic.”
“Okay, magic and red and cloth. And Myrn, if you believe what you say, how did you ever smell them yourself?”
“My mother told me about them when I was seven. I listened to her very carefully, but I didn’t know what ‘infirm’ meant. I didn’t understand the taboo, I was young. So I played with them and found that they didn’t always smell the same. I wanted to ask my mother more about it, but by then, well, I guess I had learned about the taboo.”
“Still, I may need to ask some trustee for it.”
“Well, you could bring them here and point. You know the name of the room. It’s Raken. But they’ll be pretty upset at not finding it in their lists. And they won’t understand why you want it.”
“I don’t understand why I should want it. I’ll just think about it. Now what else can you think of here in Gardia?”
The rest of the day was disappointing, Myrn’s heart was not in it. She took Raven to rooms that had nothing appropriate to offer. When Raven exhorted her to “think hard,” she replied that she already had, and she was sure the red things were the best choice. Eventually they were tired and hungry. Myrn led them out of the museum. Raven walked Myrn home, and Myrn introduced Raven to Eulwen, her slightly shorter mother. Myrn’s father was away at his work. Raven retired to her inn for some dinner and sleep.
Sleep would not come.
This was a life decision. That stupid nose thing was probably less useful to her than anything in Gardia, unless, unless, as Myrn suggested, she had passed a test with it, and would learn to control it. But if she learned to control it, what would it do? Waking and dozing, waking and dozing, she saw dawn creep into her room, and she made a decision. Her whole trip to Gardia had been foolhardy and stupid. She might as well do what at least one person – Myrn – believed in. Having made up her mind, she fell asleep until noon, instead of meeting Myrn at Gardia to resume their search in the morning.
Myrn is not at the museum. Jem is uneasy about this, but not eager to look for her. No problem, Raven knows where she lives and will fetch her. Meanwhile, she tells Jem, if Myrn arrives, she is to wait for Raven and “think hard.”
Raven tapped gently on Myrn’s family’s door, but there was no response. She tried a harder knock, something calculated not to split the door, and waited. It opened, and there was Eulwen, looking much older in the noonday light. A very tall unhappy man stood behind her.
“I’ve come to fetch Myrn for more docenting at Gardia. Is she home?”
They did not answer her. “Come in,” said her father. “Close the door.”
Something was wrong. “What’s wrong?”
“Myrn’s gone,” sobbed her mother. “She made us take her to the river this morning. I don’t know why.”
“She didn’t fall in?” asked Raven. “She didn’t drown?”
“Oh no, nothing like that,” said her father. “She was kidnapped. They want a ransom.”
“How often does that happen here?”
“Kidnappings happen,” said her father. “I’m a well-known merchant, a good target. Only my daughter’s usually in a safe place, like Gardia Museum, not down at the river.”
“So how do you get her back?”
“The ransom request is ninety gold.”
“It’s typical in these cases. One negotiates. One borrows from friends. They might hold her for a month or two. Usually we families get our children back.”
“And when it’s not ‘usually?’”
Myrn’s mother fled from the room.
“I have sixteen gold here in the house. I cannot imagine collecting ninety. But with time, the price may come down. Ten days, a moon.”
“The price will come down? In a month?” Raven pounded both her fists on the wall, making the man jump. “And you’ll just sit there? You–” She pressed her knuckles tight to her lips. She must not tell this man he was a slug and a fool, she needed his help.
“Myrn-father, not days. Not a moon. One day. One day! Give me your sixteen gold, and I’ll return Myrn to you by nightfall.”
“I’m sorry, but I must ask you, little one: How do you plan to do this? It is unheard of in these troubled times.”
“I will go to them with your sixteen gold, and they will trade, or I will kill them.”
He regarded her skeptically. “You must know, that if you bring Myrn home, but not the gold, then I am ruined.”
“Give me those gold pieces stuffed in a bag of coppers so it seems like ninety gold. And tell me where to meet the kidnappers to ‘give’ them their ransom. Now!” Raven wished she had Gretel’s will power instead of her dreadful nose gift. She tried to look as certain as she could, deeply doubting he’d obey her.
He stared at her uncertainly. But he walked into the back room and came back with a small bag, which he filled with coppers from his purse, laying his gold on top. “I’m ruined, but you are right. Save my daughter if you can. Here on this scrap are their instructions. Until you get to the last path, it’s all well-known borough roads. Anyone can help you find your way.”
“Don’t kill yourself before I return,” Raven muttered. She gathered her increasing fury, took the bag and hurried off.
Raven hurried anxiously through the borough, but by the time she entered the woods, she was calm. She was on home ground now, familiar forest sounds and familiar smells everywhere. It was early afternoon with clouds above the forest cover. Soon she entered a little clearing, and there, in the middle, were two of Myrn’s kidnappers. They were short men, poorly dressed, one wielding a rusty hammer and the other a short sword. There must be more of them nearby. She hoped none of them used the bow. Arrows were her bane, she never knew when they came at her head, nor how to deal with them.
“I come about the girl,” she shouted.
“Have you the ransom?”
“Here,” she said, and flashed the gold as she strode up to them. She held out the bag but then she tossed it between them. As they reached for it, she buried her knife in the hammerer’s guts and punched the swordsman, knocking him flat. She struck hard in her rage, a rage over poor sweet Myrn being subjected to them, a rage at these kidnappers cutting her off from her magical artifact.
Then she knew: There were four more of them, sweaty with excitement, male stink and fear, rushing her from all sides. Good, she thought, all four sides means no arrows. Best not to stand in the middle. She ran toward the one she saw first. He feinted, avoided her response and planted his knife in her breast. There was a moment for him to stare at his knife in puzzlement, wondering why it had not penetrated her robe, before she slit his throat. The other three came at her together, but they were no match for her bold anger, or perhaps they underestimated what a tiny woman could do. Soon two of them writhed on the ground, while the others lay still. She rolled each over on his belly and pierced with her knife, practicing the efficient between-the-ribs backstab that Gretel had used on Garfie.
They were all dead now. She went through their belt-bags searching for coin – nothing there. Then she picked up Myrn-father’s gold bag and began purposefully circling the glade in ever-widening circles, trying to pick up another scent that – she would never admit to Myrn – she could recognize extremely well. Soon she found it, following the merest trace of it to a hidden clearing.
Safe behind a tree, she peered into the clearing and sniffed the air, wondering how well-guarded Myrn might be. Myrn was trussed in ropes. A bulky cloth bulged from her mouth, and she looked miserable. There was just one man sitting on the ground before her, sharpening his knife. Raven was sure she could burst into the clearing and take the man by surprise, but she had no desire to expose Myrn to the sight of that violence, no desire to let Myrn see her make a kill. So she waited, trying to beam helpful messages to the man’s stupid heart, though she knew she had no such power of communication.
“Man, you need to pee. Your belly’s full of vile crap. Step into the woods and let it out. You hunger for fruit. There’s a tree nearby with delicious apples. You want to pee, man, pee!”
And then he took her advice, sheathing his knife, standing up and briefly fondling Myrn’s cheek, a gesture that almost brought Raven hurtling from her hideout. But the man moved out of the clearing into the bushes and began to loosen his clothes. She moved in quickly behind him, ignoring the white bum he exposed and punching his head. He went down limp and she stabbed between his ribs, killing him before running into the clearing to give her full attention to Myrn.
“One moment, Myrn, and I’ll free you.” She ungagged Myrn, and tossed away the dirty, rough cloth that had filled her mouth.
“Oh, Raven, you’re a tracker, you found me! I didn’t know you were a tracker. It’s an honored profession, why didn’t you tell me? We’ve got to run, they might come back at any moment!”
“No worry, I’ll just untie you...and now we can go.”
Myrn was up now, flexing her long cramped joints that had been so cruelly tied. She flung her arms around Raven, held her tight and warmly kissed her cheek, a maneuver that went rather well. Then Myrn let go and began to run.
“No, not that way.”
“But it leads straight back to the borough!”
“That’s not a good way just now. Trust me, we need a little detour, this way. Friendship!”
“By the Holy One, friendship! You saved me from death, Raven. My father would never pay a ransom. He’s often told me so.”
Myrn opened the family door and they burst into the house. Her father turned several shades of gray when he saw Myrn, but Raven hastened to hand him the money bag, and he revived. “Mother, I’m home,” Myrn called, and her mother rushed happily in, hugging her with joy. “SHE rescued me, she tracked me down, she untied me, she brought me home!”
“Well, the kidnappers are still out there,” said Eulwen. “You stay at home now, and be safe.”
“Please,” said Raven, “I have one favor to ask.” They looked at her.
“Myrn must accompany me to Gardia. I want her to show me something again.”
“You want it, oh, Raven!” Myrn tried to hug her again, but this attempt fell quite beyond Raven’s expertise, and it did not choreograph well.
“It would be different if we knew those kidnappers could bother us no more,” said her father. “But Gardia museum’s a safe place, and Raven will take you straight there and back. But then stay with us here, Myrn. We thought never to see you again.”
The two of them set out for the museum.
“It is the right magic for you, Raven, how did you decide?”
“I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking about it. I decided that making one more crazy, foolish decision would hardly ruin my life.”
“Oh. But...you’ll see, it will be good. Let me unlock it and give it to you. You can tell Jem that you’re going to make your selection from Gardia another time.”
“I can’t do that, Myrn. I think that would really be stealing.”
“But you need not come back, ever. Besides, what will you tell them else?”
Raven was perplexed. She could say I’m taking this taboo thing, and I have no idea what I’ll do with it, and she could wait months while they decided whether she could have it. “All right,” she said. “We’ll do it your way.” And they returned to Raken room.
“I’ll go into the next room now.”
“No, stay with me. I owe you my life. You’ll see how I unlock the cage.”
She took Raven through a different door. And then Myrn reached high, as far as her long limbs would allow, her fingers extracting a funny-shaped piece of metal from an unseen hiding place. “This is an Unlocker, it’ll unlock anything,” she said. “There are ten of them in Gardia. They’re all listed as missing but I’ve hidden them all over the place. I wasn’t truth-telling when I said they used not to lock things up.”
Back in Raken, Myrn reached the Unlocker toward the protective cage and somehow it fell open. She reached through the opening and retrieved the little bag, handing it to Raven. “Take this too,” she said, “I have nine more.” And so now Raven had something of real value, an Unlocker. She felt a terrible thief, too. Would this museum adventure ever become known?
“Myrn, I’m going to give this thing a name,” she said, hefting the bag in her hand. “Ryantha’s thing, whatever it is, it deserves a name.”
“If it’s truly not taboo, then yes, it does. What will you name it?”
“I don’t know, I’ll have to decide.”
Myrn relocked the empty cage. Raven walked Myrn back to her house, alert for any sign of trouble, but quite sure that the dead kidnappers would not bother them. At her doorstep, Myrn leaned down and kissed Raven’s cheek once more, and then she ran into the house.
On her long walk back to Walthorn, Raven often thought about the two new items in her bag. She realized she had to learn to use both of them. Myrn had never told her how to unlock with the Unlocker. All she knew was that it would “unlock anything.” Well, she would try it on a friendly door somewhere.
Each evening before sleep, she practiced taking the red balls from their magic bag and sniffing them. Each time, they gave a different scent, and she began to think there might be something to this idea of “learning to use it.” She suspected a new thing about them: she could always identify what scent they gave off. The red balls never gave her an unfamiliar odor.
As the little treasure became familiar to her, many possibilities for a name passed through her mind. Gradually, for some unknown reason, she began to call them her “Willems.”
She had no way to know it, but news of her strange visit to Gardia soon reached Orvannon. He’d hurried there, and he quickly tracked her down. He caught up to her on the fifth evening. He circled round down-wind, but she heard sounds of bustle as he hurried into her little camp, and quickly stuffed her Willems away before he appeared.
“Ho, Orvannon! When I heard a sound, I thought to face a robber.”
“I’m glad to find you. You’ve been to Gardia.”
“I have, a beautiful place that I’ll always be happy to visit.”
“And you should be a celebrity there, but, strange, I gather you are not.”
Orvannon’s words stirred caution in Raven. He was toying with her, and this was not a chance meeting. “And why would I be a celebrity, Vann?”
“Oh, a band of seven brutes dead, their bodies cut by some ragged-edge knife, unburied and decaying in the woods. All Borough of Gardia talks about it. And – perhaps a totally separate matter – a young woman of the museum, your docent in fact, kidnapped and rescued by: you, Raven.”
“I did rescue her. It was vile to kidnap such a sweet woman.”
“And yet I wonder, while you are charged to kill your wyrm, how you find time to sally off to Gardia to no purpose. You risk your life on errands to which you’ve not been appointed, you waste near a whole moon, pleasing your whim.”
She blushed, angry, annoyed, ashamed.
“And I wonder,” Orvannon continued, “at the trustees of Gardia, upright gens, yet now lying bastards worthy of a great and painful punishment, for they conceal what they have done. They lie to me!”
“Of those trustees I know only young Jem. What lie does he tell?”
“They all say the same: You came to Gardia, you searched for two days, and you took away nothing. Nothing! I must know why they are so ashamed to tell me what you have. Out with it!”
Raven stepped closer to Orvannon, her gray robe – her prized gift from him – a great contrast with his clean, forest-colored outfit. The top of her tangled hair left off at his chin. “What will you do to Jem?”
“If I must get the truth from him, I shall pin him down and prick him with my sword till he spills more words than blood.”
“Don’t harm him, Vann. He and the trustees do not lie to you. They tell you what they know.”
“And what of this Myrn-child? Did she bewitch you? Did she lie with you in museum and give you such pleasure that you forgot all your charge? Is she now all the world to you, and not our wyrm? Tell me, that I may punish her properly.”
Raven deftly brought up her knife and pricked Orvannon’s wrist. He drew his sword even as she moved, and socked the hilt against her ear, knocking her to the ground. Then he pinned her knife arm with his foot and stood over her, sword pointed at her breast.
“What Raven, would you prick me?”
She squirmed beneath his foot, then lay still. “Orvannon, I want you to know that no matter how well you hid, I would find you and kill you, if I had no other desire in life. I held back my knife just then,” she said. “I could have struck deeper before you hit me.” She rubbed her ear.
“And why would you want to kill me?”
“Take an oath by the One that you will not punish or hurt Myrn in any way, after you hear my story. I’ll clear the trustees, but you must promise about Myrn.”
“Story first, Raven. I take no oath before your tale.”
“Afterward then. But your life hangs in balance, if you expose my friend.”
Orvannon smiled. “Nonsense. I can easily save my neck by killing you now or later.”
“Friend Vann, do that and you’ll have no special adversary for your wyrm. Let me up, I won’t say more while I’m down.”
He stepped off her arm and moved cautiously back, leaving some space between them. Raven stood up rubbing her ear, holstered her knife, and explained. “That child Myrn knows the museum better than any trustee. For fifteen years of her twenty she has gone there day by day, examining all and playing with all its magics.”
“She has done no such thing. All the magics are locked down, as you saw.”
Raven turned her bag over and pulled out the funny metal shape, which she showed to Orvannon. “She gave me this.”
“And what is it?”
“She calls it ‘Unlocker.’ She says it unlocks anything.”
“That’s nonsense. There were Unlockers in the museum, but in the last, oh, twenty years they all disappeared. They’re gone, none know where.”
“She stole them, Vann, she’s hidden them all over Gardia Museum. She’s been using them to play with the magics these many years! And now,” she yawned, “if you don’t mind, I’ll be on my way.”
“Of course, Raven. You’d be happy to leave now without my oath. And when you find wyrm locked in prison, you’ll know how to unlock it and release it again. Perhaps you said to Myrn at Gardia, ‘give me an Unlocker, and I’ll kill that wyrm!’ Yes? No? By the Holy Axe, what did she steal for you?”
“What difference does it make, Orvannon? What hangs in the balance? Leave me to kill my wyrm.”
“You know nothing of the grand plans and currents that circle Ausland. I’ve many hard decisions to make, and I need knowledge when I make them. I need your story. Spill, Raven, name for me what she gave you.”
“It has no name, Vann. They say it’s taboo.”
“It’s taboo? Now I must think hard. Silence!” And he thought. After awhile:
“I remember as a youth, practicing my reading at Gardia, going over all the lists, again and again, trying to memorize all. And once I asked my mentor, Bardar, is every item in Gardia on these lists? He said to me ‘no, the list is not complete. Why there’s one item that’s taboo, none know what it’s for, and being taboo it has no name, so of course it’s not on the lists.’ It was in Raken room, the strangest room of all Gardia. Am I right, Raven?”
She took the little bag and held it out to him. “There are two red balls, within, Vann. “Take them out and smell them.”
Discomfited, he drew back. “It’s taboo.”
“Yes, yes, Ryantha’s dirty laundry, so goes the legend.”
“And Magic Lies In Legend. Do not dispute legend, Raven.”
“I dispute this one. If it were truly taboo, I would know.”
He colored with anger, his face an even darker red. “Nose-witch, I don’t want to discuss such things with you, but after hundreds of years–”
“I would know. And who’s to tell me otherwise, my nose-blind friend? Let me tell you: This legend mistakes. I believe all the legends save this one! Take this little bag in one hand, bring the balls out and smell them.”
Uncertainly he reached out and took the bag. He stared at it long, and finally he did as she asked. “I smell nothing,” he said flatly.
“Put them back in bag, take them out and sniff again!”
He did so. “No scent. Nothing.”
“Do it again, Orvannon!”
He did so. “By the One! Fresh saddle leather!”
“Put them back in bag. Try again!”
He showed some excitement now, but his next sniff drew blank. “Nothing, not even saddle.”
He did so. “Grilled Lamb. A fine smell!” He continued to try, soon announcing “Milk, rancid milk.”
“You see, Vann, it is nose magic.”
“And what does it do for you then, to help you kill wyrm?”
“I have no idea,” she admitted. “None at all.”
“So you sit around eventides, smelling Ryantha’s unnamed thing for your amusement, and you’ve no idea how to kill with it?”
“Then what made you steal these things from Gardia?”
“Please don’t be angry, Vann. This was Myrn’s doing, and she argued forcefully. I misbelieved her arguments at first, but I had a sleepless night. And I thought, I thought...”
“You thought to give in and return to Walthorn without disappointing your new friend.”
“No, no...I thought that, oh, coming to Gardia, meeting Myrn and hearing her arguments, it suggested a crazy providence from the Holy One. It all seemed to play together.”
“Well I’ve heard enough, I think. But how did Myrn argue?”
“Now first she said that this thing, which I have named by the way. I call those little balls my ‘Willems.’”
“And I know that name, you saw it in Nocton on that building you burned. Is there some connection to this thing?”
“No, but I liked the sound of the name. First, Myrn argued that it was the only nose magic in all Gardia. And second, she–”
“Wait Raven, she did not guess what you are?”
“You didn’t tell her? You know, you take a risk. Now that I know, I myself, when I’m with you, I must overcome a detestation.”
A terrible sadness welled her throat. This, from Orvannon! She looked at him sorrowfully. Yet really, she could not see any of that revulsion he alluded to. “But why?”
“I can hardly explain. You see through my clothes. You know my dirt. You know if I’ve run or walked to you. You must know if I’m sick. If I decay, you’ll know. You’ll know before I do, when I shall die.”
“No, I know I’m right. And you know if I’ve been with a woman. Unbearable, Raven. All I’d keep secret, I confide to you by my smell.”
“Myrn said she wanted to run away when she guessed. But she’s so kind...and now I’m afraid she felt as you do, I remember what she said.”
“Don’t be miserable, Rave. How did she guess?”
“I wanted to ask her to find a way to deal with wyrm’s vinegary scent, but I wanted to reveal nothing. I had my question ready, I’d thought it up on the way to Gardia. And I worked slowly into it.”
“Not all that slow I think, knowing you.”
I asked her, ‘suppose you were standing in the biggest, oldest bog of dung in all of Ausland, and you needed to stand there for some while until you could catch a fish with your bare hands, and you needed to ignore the stench.’ And, she just guessed. And her eyes grew wide...yet she helped me. She brought me to Raken room, she unlocked these things, she gave them to me and I smelled them, just as you did. And later she told me, and this was her second argument, that they worked better for me than for her, so they must be destined mine.”
“They didn’t work so well for her?” Orvannon’s dark voice was cold. “And this young mouse so rejects our society, and the guardianship of the Holy One, that even though we have but one taboo in all of Ausland, she rejects it also, to test these magics? Did SHE tell you it was not taboo?”
“No. She was six or seven when her mother told her about Willems and the taboo. But she did not understand what ‘taboo’ meant, so she played with them and sniffed them. Myrn says,” she continued proudly, “that only for me does it produce a smell every time.”
“You’re saying that for me and for Myrn, it often has no aroma, but for you it always has some?”
“Vann, it’s a strange magic, and I wish to learn it. I know nothing of why or how, but yes, it always gives some familiar smell to me.”
“Does it ever repeat itself?”
“Not yet, but oh, there are so many odors! I’ve tried to arrange them all in my heart, but my list goes on and on without end. Maybe some day, the Holy One’s providence will bring me a repeat.”
“I’m not ready to speak of the One regarding this thing. It may be evil magic, not at all good.”
“But Ryantha was good. A great hero, she was!”
“You reject her legend in this magic. Can you be so selective?”
“But Myrn is a kind friend. I’m sure my Willems are for good.”
“Perhaps. I must meet Myrn and decide for myself.”
“You will not expose her. Never. Swear me your oath, Vann. By the Holy One: Swear, or forfeit your life.”
Orvannon laughed. “I did promise this. I’ll keep my promise without a trace of guile.” He placed the red balls back in their bag and gave them to her. Then he raised both his long arms above his head, brought his palms together and said, “I freely promise by the Holy One, without trick or guile, that I shall cause no injury to this Myrn or the Gardia trustees, over the thievery from Gardia of that magic which has no name, nor the thievery of all the Unlockers. How does that sound? I don’t want to find your knife in my belly some day.”
“You’ve oathed well, Orvannon. Be of good spirit and keep it.”
“I shall. Are you relaxed, now? Calm?”
“It was good to share my tale with you. And I feared my death or yours, until you gave your oath.”
“All the same, I shall meet Myrn and make my own judgment. If what you say is true, she’s a rare resource in Ausland. Do you believe this magic can help you to kill wyrm?”
“I don’t know. But there’s time for me to study Willems, and perhaps Myrn is right.”
“Well I have your story, and I must be on my way. Let your next message to me be of success. I don’t want to know if you ‘learn’ to use your new magic, I want results. Goodbye, and do well!”
“Vann, before you leave. I need coin.”
“Why surely you have vile ways of supporting yourself in guesthouses like Walthorn, don’t you? Are you impecunious now?”
“I don’t do what I used. I’ve given it up.”
“Ah, I understand. A man forces you and you’ve no further taste for your little games.”
Memories of terrible Garfie flooded her heart, but no, she knew Orvannon was wrong. “You misjudge. I found a perfect victim at Walthorn. I went to his room, I drank him into a stupor. And by mishap, I took pity and gave him coin. I couldn’t take for myself. I’m done with it.”
“How came you to give, and not take?”
“Well I did take. I grabbed a handful of coin. But I saw...he was just an ordinary man, a little foolish, perhaps. He deserved his own coin. And when I took pity, I tried to put it back.” She finished in a whisper, “I could only guess, and I put back too much.”
“Poor Raven. Well, I have a small fortune for you, about twenty-six silver. When it runs out, move to the forest near Walthorn and hunt game. I can’t give you more.” He thrust his long fingers into a pouch and drew out many coins, which she received in her cupped hands.
“And if I kill wyrm soon, I’ll have left over.”
“Yes, you have incentive. May the Holy One inspire you! Goodbye.”
Raven watched carefully as Orvannon disappeared into the forest.
Four healthy walking days later, Raven reaches the river north of Walthorn, and Derk is waiting at the far end of the bridge, stroking the flat of his long knife across the back of his hand.
“Ho, Raven,” he calls. “Turn and leave.”
She stops, looking him over, trying to make a plan.
Derk takes a few steps toward her and flashes his knife. “Would you rather fight here? A fair fight in daylight? Or I can come to your room tonight and stick you in your sleep.”
“Which would you rather, Derk, fricken or kill me?”
Derk smiles broadly. “Fricken, first.”
Raven marches resolutely onto the bridge. “Then out of my way, or you’ll only get the kill.”
But Derk blocks her way, waggles his knife menacingly. She does not want this fight, she has no idea how it might go. She backs off the bridge, then runs upstream into the woods, to Derk’s derisive shouts of “Tiny little coward!” She has rarely adventured upstream. The fast creek is no good for swimming, but she’ll be able to cross it. She goes deep into the woods, slow going without a path, and finds a way over without getting soaked. Now all she has to do is come downstream and find Walthorn.
Or find Derk. He’ll guess what she’s doing, unless he thinks she really is a coward. She moves slowly, ready to detect his scent, looking everywhere, moving from cover to cover, wasting time.
She got back to Walthorn near sunset. Derk was waiting at the front door, holding his nasty knife in front of him. Raven was afraid to confront Derk even here. She went around back, where Dunjle stirred a burbly stewpot.
“Raven, you’re back, have you game for me?”
“No, Dunjle, soon I hope. But...could I come inside through the kitchen?”
“And when’ve you ever done that? You’re a proper paying guest at Walthorn. Go in the front door and say hello to Clarkie.”
Raven looked at her feet.
“What, is there a problem?”
“No, no, Dunjle, no problem.”
“That I’ll see for myself.” He strode round to the front, Raven running after to try to stop him. Dunjle took offense the moment he saw Derk with his knife. He rushed right up to the man and reached for his weapon. Derk swung it, nicking Dunjle’s arm, but Dunjle waded in with his fists, knocked Derk down and kicked his ribs. Derk lay on the ground moaning, while Dunjle picked up the knife and hurled it far into the woods. He went back to his cooking without a glance at Raven.
Raven edged around Derk and went inside to find Clarkie.
“Clarkie, I’m back, can I have a room with a lock?”
“Glad you’re back so soon, Miss Raven. Have you the coin? Locked rooms, an extra silver a day, you remember.”
“I’ve got it for a few days. I’m afraid I need it.”
Clarkie pulled out a heavy key chain. “Oh, I remember now, Jomes leaves tomorrow, you can have his room. But not tonight. One night back in your old room, Raven.”
“Clarkie, has it been empty all this time?”
“Aye, all this time. I’ll be glad to see that room working for me another night.”
“Is Castia still here?”
“Oh yes, and I believe she has something to show you in common room.”
Raven glanced outside before going into the common room. Derk was no longer lying on the ground. She’d like to believe he was badly injured, but...she didn’t.
In the common room she found Castia sitting with a big, tall Auslander. He had a handsome long green bow slung over his back. Chicken feathers dyed red were lashed to the top of the bow, a handsome decoration. Castia laughed while he patted her head in slow, kindly motions. His hands and fingers seemed incongruously small for a man so large.
“Raven!” shrieked Castia, “Normian, you must meet Raven.”
The archer stood slowly as she approached, and made self-effacing bows, backing away from her in apparent confusion.
“I’m, I’m, no, I’m pleased to meet Castia’s friend,” he said.
Then he extended a hand, which Raven cupped and held briefly. Everything else about Normian seemed big: his head, his trunk, his legs, his arms. His hair was cut short, his beard sparse.
“Good to meet you, Normian,” said Raven, enjoying his friendly smile. “Castia, I’m so glad you’re still here.”
“Not for long, I think. Raven, ouere did you go? And do you not like Normian?”
Normian moved his head back and forth to follow their conversation, as if he suspected that something would require an apology, and he wanted to be ready to provide it. She was not ready to say whether she liked him. He smelled good, but otherwise she’d not seen his good sides. “Castia, I went north on business.”
“Did you bring something to them? In the north, I mean?” asked Normian.
“No, but I learned a lot. I had a bad time returning here, though. Derk threatened me again, he doesn’t want me here.”
Normian looked concerned. “Castia told me, about a certain night here, the two of you. You took a terrible risk, I was so worried.”
“Normian,” said Castia, “you couldn’t be ouorried about me, I told you about it after it happened.”
“Castia, Clarkie’s going to give me a locked room tomorrow, but I don’t have one tonight. Could I stay with you?”
Castia looked doubtfully at Normian. Normian seemed to be elsewhere for a moment, but then he responded, “Oh, of course, of course, it’ll be all right.”
Raven looked back to Castia, puzzled.
“Normian and I share my room,” whispered Castia.
“Raven’s in need,” Normian said. “Castia, it’s, oh, it’s just one full night.”
“One of our last nights.”
“Did I make the wrong decision?” asked Normian. “Should I have said no?”
“Look,” said Raven, “I can camp in the woods tonight, I don’t think Derk can track me. He’s not feeling too well right now anyway.”
“Oh, Castia, you should have seen. He blocked my way into Walthorn, and Dunjle beat him and kicked in his ribs.”
Castia was quiet while they ate dinner. Afterward she asked, “How soon do you want to join us in my room?”
“I need to spend a little time in the woods,” said Raven. “Then I’d like to come and sleep.”
“What do you do in the woods after dark,” asked Normian, “that you couldn’t have done in the daylight?”
Raven tried to think of something polite to say.
“She doesn’t use the dung bog, Normian, not like you and I,” Castia explained. A slow blush appeared on Normian’s neck and spread up his cheeks.
“Look, Normian, let’s go. Raven, you come to us at your best time. I’m in room ‘S.’ I lock my door, so knock three times, okay?”
Raven visited the woods, and then she took out her Unlocker. A chance to open a locked room! She went to the other wing, found Castia’s door, and pressed the Unlocker against it. She expected that nothing would happen, and then she would knock. Instead there was a loud Clunk. The door swung open, and she stumbled in.
Castia stood up from the bed and waggled fingers at Raven, almost immediately saying, “Oh, it’s you!”
Raven felt the force of Castia’s spell, freezing her in place. For a tiny interval she could not breathe, her own body seemed to squeeze her, but then she was free and she tripped forward. Normian watched her, sitting on the mattress dressed only in a long, long blue tunic. The room smelled of sexual pleasure, lots of it. Raven felt very happy for Castia.
“Raven, I’m so sorry. I thought that door is locked, I thought someone forced it.”
“My fault, Castia, I forgot to knock.” She looked behind her. The Unlocker had worked well. A stout wood link, that should have connected the door’s iron loop to the wall, lay on the floor.
Raven insisted on sleeping on the floor. Normian carefully replaced the wood lock, twisting it to make sure it held, and then said that he should sleep on the floor, there would be plenty of room on the mattress for the two ladies.
“Let’s not argue,” said Castia. “Raven’s tired from a long trip. Let her go to sleep first, ouerever she might. You’ve got to make arrows, and I need to practice my freezing spell. I did it rather poorly I think.”
Raven used her bag for a pillow, found a bit of floor away from the bed and the draft, and settled down. Early sleep seemed unlikely, but perhaps if she pretended to sleep she really would. Breathing quietly and evenly, she could not help noticing why Castia had wanted her to fall asleep first.
Raven woke early and looked over at the mattress. It was narrow, intended for one, and Normian’s frame overflowed it. Castia lay partly at its edge, partly on Normian, her head snuggled against his chin. Raven tiptoed out, not waking them, quite sorry she didn’t know how to use her Unlocker to relock the door for them. She went to her own room, planning to sew her Unlocker safely inside her bag’s hard-to-notice compartment.
Sewing was always hard. Even with the big needle she carried, her eyes wide open, she must peer very closely to string thick thread. And then she must hold her bag close, to see where to put her few stitches. She must not make new stitch-holes every time, that would wear out the bag. She found the slight distresses that previous stitches had made, and struck there with her needle. All done, she went to breakfast. Castia and Normian were not there, in fact, the only other breakfaster was Jomes.
Raven searched for Clarkie and arranged to move into lockable room “O.” She paid for two nights, resolving to hunt game some more, and returned to the common room, sitting down in a far corner.
Merri laid a drink before her, pigtails flying, and disappeared into the kitchen. Jomes picked up his plate, moved across the room and sat down facing Raven.
“May I join you?”
“Will your tiresome friends join us as well?”
“No, they are elsewhere, I believe. We are the ones eating this morning.”
Raven did not reply. Jomes was Derk’s friend and without knowing him better, she was inclined to wish him dead.
“Raven, if I may trouble you, might you grant me the pleasure of showing you some of my wares?”
This man was annoying. Raven looked about for any excuse to move elsewhere. Where were the serving girls? Where was anyone?
“Jomes, you sell extremely expensive wares, do you not? I could never afford anything. Why waste your time?”
“If I may observe, the essence of the matter is this: There are three kinds of women.”
“I’m so glad to hear you say that. I’ve heard men say there are two kinds of women, and what follows is usually crude.”
“Raven, we’re not in the mud today. True, I sell beautiful things, and I think you will enjoy seeing them.”
“And why show me, knowing I cannot, will not buy?”
“As I was saying, the first kind of woman: she is rich. She sees my stock, she sees several pieces she wants, she does not need to choose. ‘I’ll take this, and that, and that.’ Coin changes hands, she’s happy, I have her money, I’m happy.
“And the second kind of woman: she has wants, she has needs. She has some means. She chooses carefully, the piece is a little too dear for her. But I lower my price a bit, she stretches her coin, we make a deal. She’s very happy.”
“And you are less so, because you’ve made less profit.”
“Not at all. True, I made less, but I know she appreciated it more. It’s a special deal for her. And then there are women like you.”
He brought his hands together and looked straight at Raven. He smiled, and she watched him try to pretend to be friendly.
“Women like me who could live to be a hundred, but could never afford any of your junk.”
“More or less. So let me show you–”
“No, WHY, Jomes? I can’t buy.”
“If you will be patient, Raven, this is a regular exercise for me. I attempt the impossible sale, and tomorrow my skill will be sharper to make the deal. I get to practice my art, and you get to see beautiful things, not junk, as I will show you. Exactly, sit quietly, and look at this.”
He waved his hands and suddenly a gem appeared in them: big, dark yet translucent, flashing brilliant colors in its flickering lanternlights. It was gorgeous.
“Raven, this is jagd, cleverly cut and polished. Would you not like to wear it?”
“I could live a hundred years, Jomes, and never could I afford that beautiful gem. Or any jagd. Ever.”
“Well, look at this.” He slipped the jagd into a pouch and suddenly a polished, triangular stone was in his hand. It was a delicious blue with flecks of gold. “This is lapis. It comes from far away. And this piece is magic. If I do this,” he said. Jomes passed his hand across the stone, from left to right. When his hand moved away, she saw the stone had changed. It now had patterns of light dancing in it, many colors, hypnotically shifting shapes.
“Do not look too close!” Jomes said. “As you see, the sight of it can trap your thoughts. But you can make it stop.” He passed his hand the other way, leaving the stone blue and gold as before. “Five hundred gold for this stone. But Raven, imagine what you could do with it! If you wanted to get past a guard, into a hoard, evade a soldier, leave a person bemused and unknowing, this is your piece.”
“Yet I could live to a hundred, Jomes, and never could I afford that amazing stone.”
“Just so, Raven. But think...why...in using it, you could earn enough to pay for it, don’t you think? Now look at this.” He put the lapis away and reached inside his tunic, bringing out a piece of soft leather. He untied and unwrapped it, and out came a rough, oily, plain flat stone, which he held up to show her.
Raven waited for him to continue, but he sat there, holding this stupid stone in front of her.
“What does it do?” she asked.
“Do? Why it does nothing. But you can do something with it. It’s a whetstone. I believe you have a knife. Sharpen it but a few strokes on this stone.”
Raven reached down and brought out her knife. She held the whetstone in her palm and began to stroke the knife across it. It had a wonderfully satisfying feel.
“Just a few strokes, three or four. Good, now plunge your knife into this table.”
“Into the table?”
Well, Clarkie was not there, in fact no one was there, so who would complain? She took the knife in her hand and plunged it down at the table, totally unprepared for what happened. The table offered no resistance. The knife drove in deep, up to the hilt. She let go of it, gazing at it in wonder.
“Pull it out quickly, before the effect wears off!” Jomes said, and she did. The knife came out easily.
“This is an imperfect magic, Miss Raven. It wears off quickly and the knife can be hard to remove. That’s why it is not so expensive, could you guess its price?”
“I would guess thousands and thousands. What does it matter? I could live to be a hundred, Jomes, and never afford that stone either.”
“But think what it could do for you! Did ever you want to bury your knife in your prey, to kill quickly, but you feared aiming wrong? A knife that glances off a rib, a knife that cannot penetrate a skull, such a knife begins the battle but does not end it. Do you get my drift? Raven,” he whispered, “is that stone not made for you? A mere three hundred gold.”
“I could never afford it,” whispered Raven. “Did I live to be a hundred.”
“Let me show you one more piece,” said Jomes. He wrapped the whetstone up and placed it back inside his tunic. Now he took out a handsome knife.
“It looks beautifully balanced,” whispered Raven.
“That does not matter,” said Jomes, “even though it is a throwing knife. Do you throw, Raven?”
“I’m out of practice. And that matters not, because–”
“I want you to try this one. It’s called the free-knife.”
“It’s free? It is not free!”
“It is called ‘free-knife’ because of how it throws. You will be surprised at its price. Of course you cannot throw it in here, but you can take it outside, and I’ll explain how you can put it to the test.”
“There’s no point my trying it.”
“Oh, there is. You must have the experience of it.”
“I doubt I could throw very well, just now.”
“Excellent, you’ll be a good judge of its quality.”
She frowned, puzzled. “I don’t see how.”
“Here is all I ask: that you take the free-knife outside and find two trees close together. Look well at the rear tree! Then stand a way off, so that the front tree entirely blocks your sight of the rear one. Then make up your mind that you will hit the rear tree.”
“I’m to throw at the tree I cannot see, the tree that is blocked from me.”
“Exactly. Then throw hard, throw anywhere! Go to look, you’ll find the free-knife buried in the rear tree, just where you proposed to hit it.”
“Yes, it is impossible,” he agreed. “That’s why you must try it.”
Raven reached for the knife, but Jomes pulled it away.
“A small matter,” he murmured. “You will understand, we do not know each other very well. I can’t have you walk off with my free-knife, never to return. You will leave some security, your bag perhaps?”
Raven considered this, but no, it could not be done. Imagine Jomes rummaging in her bag while she fooled with his knife. “I’m sorry, not my bag.”
“Perhaps you have something inside that you can leave with me, let me see.”
He reached for her bag but she pulled it away from him. What was he trying to do, anyway?
“Perhaps you have coin there? Why not leave me every last bit of your coin?”
Raven found this idea bearable. She dug around, eventually pulling out all her silver and coppers. Not nearly enough, she’d have to hunt game soon. She laid the coin on the table, and Jomes handed her the knife.
“You won’t need to practice. When you see what it does, you may not believe. Try it two, five, even ten times, and then come and talk to me.”
There was a small copse near the inn. She found a pair of thick trees only two strides apart, and looked carefully at a scar on one of them. She walked away so that the other tree blocked her view of the scarred one. She took the knife, marveling at how comfortable it felt in her hand. Then on a sudden impulse, she closed her eyes and hurled it deep into the forest. There goes all my coin, she thought, and she went to look at the rear tree.
The knife was stuck in the scar on the tree.
It was definitely the same knife. She glanced about hurriedly, but no one else could be seen. What was this trick? She pulled the knife out and tried again. She tried five, ten times. By the tenth, she knew the knife would really go wherever she wanted. What could she do with such a knife? She could hardly bear to think about it. A person wielding such a knife!
She reluctantly returned to Jomes.
“My coin back, please. And here’s your knife.”
“Isn’t that free-knife amazing?”
“Oh, yes, it was my great pleasure to throw it. I allow, you’ve done me a good turn.”
He handed over her coin and took the knife back. He started to put it away, but instead, began tapping it gently on the table, an even, slow, irritating beat. “I wouldn’t presume to tell you what you could do with such a knife, I’m sure your thoughts race much faster than mine. Even,” he added, “though you are of course an upstanding, righteous gen.” He shook his head. “We know of course, what an assassin could do with such a knife. And would you believe, Raven, would you believe, it costs only one hundred and forty gold?”
“I could live to be a hundred,” croaked Raven. “I’d never afford free-knife.”
“Just so, even though, because I have great need of gold right now, I could sell it for less. A hundred ten.”
Raven shook her head.
“I must put it away now,” said Jomes, but he continued to tap it on the table. “You know, in my travels I hear and see many things. There are errands, dangerous errands I admit, little tasks, by which one can earn much. And you’re a capable woman! Now if I were ever to hear of such a thing, a little job worth, oh a few hundred gold, you’d want me to tell you, wouldn’t you?”
“Jomes, you scum. You Scum! You’re worse than day-old horse seed that slips from the mare! Worse than the smelliest dung ever dropped by a sick farter. If they threw you into a mountain of man crap, it would toss you out, because dung is too good for you! Don’t tell me of your evil jobs.”
Jomes seemed not at all upset. He continued to tap the knife on the table, an insistent, uneven beat. “Raven, Raven, I apologize, I see the error of my ways. You’re right of course, I’m unworthy. Please forgive an overeager old trader.”
Raven sat in stony silence.
“Still, little one, should I hear of a brief errand, something worth more than free-knife, would you not–”
Raven reached for her own knife and slammed it point-down on the table, aiming right between the bastard’s open fingers. Her knife sank into the wood next to his voluptuous ruby ring, deeper than she’d expected. That whetstone! Jomes jerked his hand back as she grabbed her knife with both hands and began to rock it to pull it out.
It took awhile. When she believed it would come loose, she yanked upward with both hands and it flew free, banging her thumbs into her nose. She looked up and saw a different Jomes, a flushed face and angry eyes.
“You’re going to be trouble, aren’t you,” he said. “I’m going to TELL someone.” He got up and walked regally off into the side corridor. Raven wanted to laugh. His proud exit was diminished by the half-eaten breakfast he’d left behind, more so by the bench he’d upset getting up.
But she felt fearsick. All Jomes had to do was turn and hurl free-knife at her, he couldn’t miss. No one would know he’d done it, and worse, he knew exactly where she sat. She moved to the next bench but felt no safer. The two serving girls came to her now, Merri looking her over anxiously, while Aedrian laconically remarked, “He won’t need this,” picking up the remains of Jomes’s breakfast.
“Where were you?” asked Raven, “Did he pay you to stay away while he talked to me?”
“Ten coppers, each,” said Aedrian.
“Miss Raven, are you all right?” asked Merri, staring into her eyes.
“What are you looking for?” asked Raven.
“The lust, the Lust!” Merri said. “The first time, Master Jomes talked to a young man, a merchant. I came over afterward, and his eyes lusted so, I thought he’d throw me down and take me right here.” Merri giggled. “But then I saw, it was not lust for me, but for some thing, some thing of that Jomes. He looked after Jomes, he lusted.”
“So, how do I look? Am I all right?”
Merri and Aedrian both peered at Raven. “I’m not sure,” said Merri.
Raven tried to be calm. After all, if that free-knife had her name on it, it would find her anywhere. She downed her breakfast before hurrying back to her room, shutting the door with a sigh. There has to be something wrong with free-knife, she thought, else it would cost more, or I’d be dead. There has to be a catch, I should forget all about it.
But three full moons would pass before she stopped dreaming of Jomes’s free-knife.