The Path Trilogy, Book One
Path of Fate
Open Road Media
Originally published by:
Roc (November 4, 2003)
Reisil, a young healer is forced to make a bitter choice to save her people from the threat of war. As PATH OF FATE begins, a truce has halted the fighting between Reisil’s native land and its neighbor. But traitors on both sides plot to shatter the fragile peace. On the night of the welcome celebration, kidnappers steal the daughter of the foreign ambassador from her bedchamber, leaving behind a trail of blood. To free her friend before she can be used to reignite the war, Reisil must join a band of rescuers she fears to trust. As Reisil journeys into enemy lands, she will be betrayed…Magically soul‑bonded to a goshawk against her will, Reisil struggles to overcome her own fear and hatred.
Praise for Path of Fate:
“Plausible, engrossing characters, a well-designed world, and a well-realized plot distinguish Francis’ debut.” —Booklist
“This is an entertaining book—at times compelling—from one of fantasy’s promising new voices.” —David B. Coe, author of BONDS OF VENGEANCE
Reisil’s spine twinged protest as she lurched into a shadowed wagon-rut. Her next step caught the lip of the uneven furrow and she sprawled on the hard-baked road, scraping her chin and inhaling a mouthful of powdery dust. Coughing, she struggled to her feet. She brushed the graze on her chin with tender fingers, pleased when her fingers came away unbloodied. An anxious glance revealed that no one had witnessed her clumsiness. She sighed, licking the dust from her lips.
Not that she wasn’t willing to be the brunt of a joke, but people in Kallas saw her as the child she had been thirteen years ago, rather than as a capable tark. Tripping over her own feet didn’t do much to revise that perspective. She snorted. The fever that swept through the town three months ago had done even less. Nevermind that it was one of those illnesses that had no cure. All that really helped was sleep, fluids and time. Nevermind that only two men had died—one with a weak heart and the other with bad lungs. Many more would have died, if Reisil hadn’t been there.
She shook her head. All Kallas knew was that there had been a major illness three months after her arrival and she’d been helpless against it.
No, she admonished, pulling herself up short. That wasn’t fair. The townspeople knew well enough that things would have been worse without her. But she had wanted to shine. She wanted them to see her as a rock in the storm, not as the little abandoned girl they’d fostered.
Reisil bent and dusted herself off, scowling at the tear in her trousers. If only the fever hadn’t been so recalcitrant . . . .
But she still had time, she reassured herself for the umpteenth time. She had six more months before the Council voted on accepting her. They’d paid for her upbringing and her training. Surely they’d want some return on their investment? Surely they wouldn’t decide they’d rather have no tark than her.
Strain pulled the corners of her mouth down. The fact was the Council could very well vote against throwing good money after bad in support of a less than competent tark. After all, for the seven years since her predecesssor’s death, Kallas had made do with wandering tarks who preferred the rambling life. Which was not what she wanted to do. She meant to settle down, and right here.
Humor wriggled up through the morass of fears. Certainly tripping over her own feet would not make them reject her, she chided herself. She giggled. Any more than dribbling food on her shirt or bumping into furniture. It was her skills that counted and she had confidence in those.
She gripped handles of her pack firmly. Six more months. Plenty of time. She nodded sharply and strode forward, her back straight as she set her feet carefully on the uneven ground.
Alone in the pre-dawn, Reisil approached the gate, fishing a handful of nutmix from the pouch dangling from her belt. Behind her, the empty road rolled toward the river like an elegant pearl snake in the moonlit morning. Rising from the gauzy darkness, Reisil heard rumbling voices from the river as captains rousted their crews out of bed. From the wall above came the jingle and thump of armor and booted feet as the watch changed shift.
She halted before the inset pedestrian gate beneath the portculis and yanked firmly on the chain. Within, dull tin bells tinked and clanked. After a few moments, the spyhole slid back revealing a lantern-lit square. Reisil could see a pair of bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows below a wrinkled brow. She stood on tiptoe to be seen better, though in truth she was not especially short at five foot seven.
“Reisiltark! Is there an emergency?” The guard scratched his beard and yawned, while Reisil scrambled to recall his name.
“No emergency, Beren,” she replied, triumph at the memory brightening her voice. “I’m just going to replenish supplies. Aftermath of the Lady’s Day,” she said with a little shrug and a grin. The wrinkles in Beren’s brow smoothed and he chuckled understanding.
“Just a minute,” he said. The spyhole snapped shut and Reisil heard the bars slide back one at a time.
He waved her inside, the metal plates on his shoulders and chest clanking together softly, the boiled leather beneath it squeaking.
“The Lady’s Day is one of rest. But I never lived one, but that it was the day after that saw a lot more rest than not.” His teeth were uneven as he smiled.
“I didn’t rest,” Reisil said with a little sigh and a roll of her eyes. Beren laughed and clapped her on the shoulder.
“Reckon not. Folks like to celebrate the Lady’s Day. Get a little boisterous with it, I suppose. Give themselves sour stomachs and such.”
Reisil nodded. “Used up a lot of my stores.”
“Where are you headed?”
“East gate and up into the hills. I could go around, but it’s so much faster to cut through town.”
“True enough. But you be careful. That bunch of squatters in the copse is getting bigger. Made themselves a regular village. They haven’t got much and they don’t mind taking what they need from a body. Nobody’s complained yet, and until one of them crosses the line, there’s nothing we can do to roust them out. But Kallas doesn’t need its tark being the one they take after. Mark my words and be careful.”
“Thanks, Beren. I hadn’t realized there were so many. What brings them here?” Reisil could have bit her tongue. As if it wasn’t obvious. The war had never come to Kallas. Why wouldn’t refugees come here, running from the burnt-out shells of their homes and the fields trampled and scorched, wells poisoned with a stew of dead animals, salt and lye? They were looking for a new start, and isolated Kallas had more to offer than most places. “I mean, now that there’s a truce, I’d have thought they might have gone home to rebuild,” she explained lamely.
“Most have. Patverseme soldiers didn’t taint much as they could have. Didn’t have the supplies and wanted to leave themselves some good lands and wells. But what they did was enough to drive folks away. Can’t fight if you can’t eat.
“As for our squatter folk, fact is, we feed ‘em. Kallas is tender about that,” he declared proudly. “We’re generous to those as don’t have much. They know it and so they stick around, keep coming back, ‘stead of going back home and breaking their backs to build up what they lost. Wouldn’t be so bad, but a lot more have come the past month or two. Nest of beggars is what they really are. But now that the ahalad-kaaslane are here . . .” He trailed away, shrugging eloquently.
The ahalad-kaaslane were the Blessed Lady’s eyes and hands in Kodu Riik, dispensing justice, setting wrongs to right. No one disobeyed the ahalad-kaaslane without reprisal from the Blessed Lady. If even one ordered the squatters to leave, they would. Or face the Lady’s wrath.
Reisil shuddered. Those poor, ravaged people had already suffered too much. She hoped they would listen and obey. The Blessed Amiya was as generous as the sun and the earth, as unforgiving as the wind and the cold. If the war had already inflicted a heavy toll on them, the Lady’s retribution would be far greater if the squatters did not accept the judgement of Her ahalad-kaaslane.
Reisil’s mind skipped to Juhrnus and she nearly groaned. Newly-chosen ahalad-kaaslane, he had been the bane of her childhood. Time had done little to make him grow up. He was as malicious and hateful as ever, more so now with the power of being ahalad-kaaslane. To have him sit in judgement of those devastated people— Reisil shuddered again and then recalled herself with a start.
“They’re back? When?” The four of them—two newly minted and two experienced ahalad-kaaslane—had departed nine weeks before, and Reisil had been grateful for the respite from Juhrnus’ endless pestering.
“Last night, just as we were shutting the gates. Not that they can’t come and go as they please. I expect Varitsema will talk to them first thing this morning about the squatter problem. He’s been frothing at the mouth about it.”
“That’s good. Until then, I’ll be careful,” Resil said with a ghost of a smile, uncertain that running the refugees off was the right answer, and departed with a little wave.
The streets of Kallas were mostly deserted. Lady Day ribbons and streamers still decorated doors, windows, trees and lamposts. The smell of cedar burnt in the Lady’s honor wafted through the still air. Here a figure skulked along, huddled in a cloak too warm for the balmy morning, hastening home before an illicit absence was noticed. There a stray dog galloped after a scent, whining eagerly.
Upstairs above a cobbler shop, a rectangular window glowed, and from it emanated the wailing cry of a baby mingled with the sobbing of a woman. Reisil hesitated on the walk below, wondering if she should offer aid. The baby shrieked and Reisil made up her mind. In all likelihood, she would be summoned later, after daybreak, but they would not find her then and she was here now. The baby was Shen’s and Ulla’s first child, only three months old, born in the last days of the fever. The boy’s unrelenting wail, despairing and frantic at once, told Reisil his colic had not not subsided in the week since her last visit.
Reisil rapped on the door, then dug in her supplies for what she might offer. She hadn’t brought much, intending to fill the pack with her harvest. But she had one or two things that might help.
The door swung open. Inside stood a young woman clutching her hastily-donned wrap tightly at her throat, her wide eyes shadowed, her sleep-tousled hair framing her face in a fuzzy halo.
“Yes? Oh, bright morning, Reisiltark!” Relief washed her voice and Reisil smiled sympathy. She doubted the neighbors had had much sleep in the night, much less the servants.
“I was passing,” she explained. “I have some things that might help your mistress, if you would take them to her?”
“Oh, but— Don’t you want to come up?”
Reisil shook her head. “It’s not really necessary.” And Ulla would not welcome being seen in such a state. She was a young wife, and Shen was his mother’s favorite son. Though she desperately desired Nevaline’s approval, Ulla knew Shen’s mother found her wanting. And certainly as soon as news reached Nevaline about yet another wakeful night, she would bustle over to take charge, once again proving how deficient a wife Ulla was. All Reisil wanted to do was quiet the baby and let Ulla and Shen have a few hours sleep before the invasion.
“Give these to your mistress,” she said, handing the girl a jar and a pouch. One spoonful of each into a cup of a water every four hours. No more than that.”
Reisil made the girl repeat back her instructions twice.
“I’ll return later to see how he is,” she said, then shooed the maid upstairs.
The sky had begun to lighten, though the moon still leeched color from the world. Reisil hurried along the side streets like a ghost, keeping her eyes fixed on the walk in front of her. Old pain pricked as she passed a narrow brownstone with deep windows and a dark door. The home of Bassien and his wife Kivi. When had she lived there? Maybe when she was seven or eight? Reisil shook her head. She couldn’t remember.
There had been so many houses, so many families. Dozens. Good families with money. No one who took Reisil in was forced to. Every three months she would move to another house—so that no family would have to bear the burden of her keep for too long. They fed her, clothed her, kept her clean, gave her a place to sleep. As much as they’d do for any stray they took pity on. But she wasn’t one of theirs. They never forgot that. Neither did Reisil.
She sighed. It hadn’t been all bad. Not even mostly bad. The adults had always been kind. The worst had been the children who had been…children. They had liked to tease her about having no parents: that she’d been found in a horse trough, the dust bin, a midden wagon, the gutter, a rain barrel. She made an easy target.
Reisil had also been a slight girl, all bones and angles. The children, often led by her nemesis, Juhrnus, called her a walking skeleton, and just as deaf and dumb, for her habit of restraint. Nor was it wise to invite further persecution by protesting or tattling. When they tired of namecalling, they liked to pelt her with the crabapples and juniper berries that grew abundantly in town, chanting rhymes like:
Who is Reisil’s mother?
Who is Reisil’s father?
Who is going to feed her?
Who is going to bother?
And, Naughty little Reisil,
Aren’t you so ashamed?
Scaring off your mommy.
You’re too ugly to claim!
She could hear them even now, and remembered running away, remembered the black bruises from the hard-thrown missiles.
Kolleegtark’s cottage had become Reisil’s refuge. He’d always let her in without any questions, leaving his back door open when he wasn’t home. He encouraged her to sit at his table as he worked, to watch as he treated his patients. It was there she’d learned to love healing. She’d coveted Kolleegtark’s independence and the esteem the townspeople showed him. She envied the way everyone seemed to be his friend. She swiftly concluded that being a tark meant a person’s background didn’t matter. Kolleegtark father had been ragpicker, his mother a laundress. No one cared. Tarks were welcomed and respected everywhere.
Reisil scrubbed her hands over her face, surprised to find her cheeks wet. Idiot. That had all been long ago. It didn’t matter anymore. Or it wouldn’t, once she was safe as Kallas’ tark. Most of those who had teased her so unmercifully hadn’t done so out of real malice. She had just been different and an easy target. Usually Juhrnus started it and the rest just followed like sheep. Now those same children invited her into their homes, confiding their secrets, entrusting her with the care of their families.
Reisil squared her shoulders. She was no longer a child to cry over old hurts. No, her tears were in honor of Kolleegtark, who had died while she was away. He had been her first friend, kind and gentle, and he deserved the tears far more than the scrawny memory of Reisil, who now had so much.
Kallas continued to wake around her. Maidservants appeared with swinging baskets, heading to market. Fragrant scents of baking bread and roasting meats drifted tantalizingly in the air. Bells jingled, doors slammed, and birds erupted into song.
The eastern gate bustled with wagons loaded with vegetables and meat for market. Many of the farmers carried long-knives, cudgels, and bows. Several of them surrounded the gate guards, voices raised in complaint about the squatter’s village.
Reisil edged past a sweet-smelling cargo of melons, carrots, radishes and lettuce. Good as it smelled, she couldn’t help but notice the melons were tiny, the carrots thin and leathery, the lettuce stunted. The farms were too far from the river to make use of its water, and there had been little rain.
Just outside the gate, Reisil paused at the common well, saving the water in her flask for her ramble. Situated just beyond the walls, the well was a kindness to thirsty travelers. Reisil selected a chipped pottery mug from those dangling from wire hooks around the wellhouse roof and scooped a cup from the already full bucket.
The wind brushed dry fingers over Reisil’s moist brow as she drank. She closed her eyes and lifted her face into it, drawing a deep breath, tasting dust. It was looking like a third drought year. Added to the damage caused by the Patverseme invaders, there would be precious little food for people like the squatters who already had nothing. Even Kallas was feeling the pinch, with a number of its wells running low and gritty. Several enterprising men had begun hauling water from the river in wagons and selling it in town. At least the truce meant an end to the fighting for awhile. If only it would rain, there was still time to salvage crops before winter.
Reisil opened her eyes. The sky glowed sapphire, and she squinted against the sun’s fiery brilliance as it crested the eastern hills. Feeling time pressing at her, she drained the water from the cup, making a face. It tasted like metal. She replaced the cup on its hook and set off over a grassy swell, avoiding the traffic and dust on the road.
By the time the sun had risen overhead and the shadows had shrunk away, Reisil’s pack bulged with collected booty, as did the string sack she’d brought with her. Sweat dampened her undertunic and her stomach growled. She munched more nutmix from the pouch at her waist. Her day had been profitable. She was most excited about the seedlings she’d collected to plant in her garden. Growing the plants herself would not only save time and energy hunting for them, but it was another claim laid on her cottage and on Kallas.
She ambled down the crease of a hill, following a deer track. The sun flickered through the rustling leaves overhead, dappling her skin. Grateful for the shade, Reisil made no effort to speed her steps. Though she had worn a wide-brimmed canvas hat over her black hair, she felt prickly with the heat, and dirty. She wanted a swim in the river and some cream for her mosquitoe bites.
Throughout the morning, Reisil had worked her way through the hills in a long, sweeping arc, and now descended to the road east of Kallas. She waded through the hedgerow of purple vetch and betony, pausing on the dirt to adjust the straps digging into her shoulders. As she walked, puffs of dust rose about her feet and powdered her legs brown.
The road rose before her in a long, steady hill. Halfway up, Reisil stopped to unclip her flask and drink the last of the tepid water, pushing her hat back to wipe her brow with her sleeve.
The Lady Day celebration two days before had been boisterous, with games and dancing followed the bonfire in the Lady’s grove. Everyone in town had contributed food or drink to the feast after, and the festivities lasted well into the night. Reisil had spent the next day attending to countless little injuries and maladies stemming from the previous day’s revelry. In all the excitement, she had not had a quiet moment to offer the Lady her own thanks.
“A tark is the Lady’s right hand,” Elutark always said. “The ahalad-kaaslane dispense Her justice, tarks dispense Her healing. Our gifts come direct from the Blessed Amiya Herself.”
Kollegtark had said much the same thing, and like Elutark, each night at dusk he had lit a rosemary-scented candle for the Lady, saying She cupped Her hands around Kodu Riik’s fragile light and kept the land safe from darkness. Reisil had marveled at the candles. Always set in a window to guide the sick and injured, neither wind nor rain ever doused the flame. This, to Reisil, had always been the definitive sign of the Lady’s endorsement of a tark The night of her return to Kallas, Reisil had lit her own candle for the first time, setting it in the wind and watching into the early hours to see if would blow out. She had fallen asleep, and her joy in finding her candle still burning the next morning continued to bubble in her veins even now.
The Lady’s Day celebration and aftermath had not given Reisil the opportunity she wanted to properly offer her gratitude to the Lady. Reisil had therefore planned to break her noontime fast in the green silence of the festival grove, where she could also make her devotions. Thus despite the heat and her fatigue, she continued to trudge along the dusty road, mouth dry, sweat trickling down her back and between her breasts.
She had forgotten the squatters in her fatigue and so was startled when she crested another hill and found herself suddenly in the midst of the “village,” which in reality was little more than a squalid camp.
She trailed to a halt. Bits of ragged clothing hung from bushes. Reisil supposed they had been hung there to dry after a wash, but they appeared dingy with dirt. Bloat-flies rose and fell in lazy swarms, while dogs and children chased each other in the dust. Woodsmoke stung Reisil’s lungs and there was a smell of burnt porridge and rancid meat. The shelters were rude at best. A blanket spread over a framework of cut branches. A lean-to made by fastening green boughs to the low-hanging branches of a traveler’s pine. A sagging wagon box given privacy by attaching a quiltwork skirting of dried animal skins.
The village seemed entirely populated by shrieking children and barking dogs, and Reisil supposed that many of the adults had gone to Kallas or the surrounding farms looking for work, or foraged for food in the hills. As she wandered through, the children stopped their play and clustered around, eyeing her curiously and with a hint of both hope and fear.
Before Reisil could do more than offer a smile, there came an agonized groan from within the trees along the north side of the road. It started low and rose to a howl before dying away in a wrenching wail, sending goosebumps prickling along Reisil’s arms and legs.
“What’s that?” she asked, pushing through the crowd of children toward the source of the sound.
A boy of perhaps twelve years stepped in front of her and put a grimy hand on her arm, his brown eyes flat and unyielding.
“This ain’t your business. You best get along.”
Reisil brushed his hand off as the tortured cry came again. This time he grabbed her pack and yanked, twisting her around. His lips curled like a cornered weirmart, his head hunching low.
“I said, you git,” he growled and his tongue was wet and pink against his dust-browned lips.
Reisil paused, taken aback by his hostility. But when the cry came again, she jerked her pack out of his hands, shoving him back with the heel of her hand.
“Get out of my way, boy,” she said, already looking over her shoulder for the source of the cry. “I’m a tark, and someone here surely needs me.”
His voice changed, sounding hopeful. “Yer a tark? Why dinya say so? Come on!”
She followed after him as he darted ahead into the trees. He led her to a shelter at the confluence of three close-growing spruce trees. She would have missed it if she hadn’t had a guide. The sweeping branches of the trees had been propped and tied together to form the braces of a roof. On top of those had been spread more branches as thatching. A series of bushes and vines had been planted and woven together to form a lattice work that would eventually grow into thick, leafy walls. From the outside, the shelter appeared to be nothing more than dense undergrowth.
But the boy offered no hesitation as he dropped to his knees and squirmed inside. Reisil followed quickly.
The only light filtered feebly through the dense foliage. In the gloom Reisil saw a woman reclining on a pallet, clutching her stomach as she curled up into herself. Her voice rose razor thin and her neck tented with strain as she wailed Beside her another woman, equally young, clung to the stricken woman’s hand, bending to murmur soothing words against her ear.
“How long has she been like this?” Reisil asked the boy as she shrugged out of her pack.
“This morning. Not this bad though. Been getting worse all day.”
“Has she got family?”
“Me. My brother.”
“She’s your sister?”
“Nah. Carden’s wife.”
Carden, Reisil supposed, was the boy’s brother.
“Better go get him,” she said, taking in the woman’s sweating pallor, ragged breathing and unceasing writhing.
“She gonna die?” There was a matter-of-factness about his question that made Reisil’s stomach curl. But there was no time for him.
“Not if I can help it. Now get going.” After a tiny pause, he did as she asked. The rustle of leaves was the only indication that he’d left.
“What’s your name?” Reisil asked the sick woman’s attendant. She looked up, fear stretching the skin around her red-rimmed eyes.
“Ginle,” she said, her voice cracking.
“And who is she?”
Reisil crawled over to the pallet and ran deft fingers over the squirming woman’s stomach, pressing against the hard expanse. Detta moaned and flung out her hands in defense of the probing. Reisil gave a little nod to herself.
“Try not to let her twist, Ginle. I know it hurts, but she’s only making it worse.”
Reisil once again dug into the limited supplies of the emergency kit she kept at the bottom of her pack. Working quickly, she measured ingredients carefully into a flat-bottomed wooden bowl, mixing them together with a pestle.
With her fingers, she formed two pastilles from the moist mass.
The first she put between the agonized Detta’s cheek and gum, straddling her chest to hold her still.
“Detta, you must not swallow this. Do you understand? Chew it, and swallow the juice, but nothing else. All right?”
Detta whimpered and nodded, the white’s of her eyes like shining moons in the gloom.
“Good. Now there’s another one. We have to insert it below. So I’m going to undress you. It won’t hurt, but you’re going to have to pull your knees up and spread them apart. Can you do that?”
Reisil completed her ministrations, then dabbed Detta’s face with cool water mixed with crushed mint leaves. She didn’t know if her treatment would work. It depended on what had caused Detta’s innards to block up. But the pastilles had contained both a very strong aperient and an antispasmodic. If they were going to have an effect, it would be very soon.
And soon it was. A half-hour later, Detta sat up, wanting help outside, refusing to soil her home. A short time later, Reisil departed just as the worried Carden returned in the company of the boy.
“My wife, how is she?” Sweat runneled the dirt on on his florid face, and he panted with the effort of his hurried return. His left hand was missing, as well as his left ear. Scars of the war, Reisil thought, disturbed by the brutality of the old wounds.
“She’s better. Give her broth with a little bread floating in it, maybe add a bit of grain or vegetable in a day or so. She needs a lot of water. Try to keep her quiet. She should rest for a couple of days. I’ll check back later to check her recovery.”
Reisil’s stomach growled and she flushed as Carden took it as a signal to begin gabbling about food and payment.
“It’s not necessary,” she said, her voice revealing nothing of her impatience to be on her way. If Detta had continued to need her, she’d have stayed by her side without hesitation. But now that her patient was on the mend, Reisil wanted to be about her business. She still wanted to make her devotions to the Lady.
“I have my lunch,” she assured Carden, patting her pack with a tired smile. “And I am a tark. I am pleased to help anyone in need.”
She departed the squatter’s village at last, having accepted Carden’s offer to refill her water flask. He did so clumsily. He had been left-handed, Reisil realized, watching him hold the flask under his elbow to unstopper it before sinking it in a bucket of water, bubbles rushing out as the water ran in. What work could a one-handed man find? How would he rebuild a decimated home? Plow a field? Scythe a crop?
The afternoon sun had grown hotter, and Reisil’s steps were slow on the rutted road. The heat intensified her weariness, but the relief of Detta’s recovery gave her energy enough to struggle on. She thought of the pitiful village, remembering Beren’s prediction—that the ahalad-kaaslane would drive them all away. She shook her head. The village had not been so deserted because the people were lazy beggars. Only those too young or ill had remained behind, while everyone else went in search of work and food. Even Carden with his one hand.
Reisil wiped away sudden tears with an irritated hand. Tarks who got too involved didn’t survive long as tarks. It was her one weakness. Swallowing, she resolutely put the plight of the squatters from her mind. There wasn’t anything she could do about it. The ahalad-kaaslane would make that decision.
The Lady’s grove was as cool and restful as Reisl could desire. A shrine stood on the western edge of the clearing. Its simple, square lines were faced with colorfully glazed tiles with pictures of wild animals. Banding the top was a series of green tiles with red-eyed gryphons gambolling around. A crystal spring bubbled from an opening at its base. The water collected in a red-tile pool and then ran off into a rill. The same one that ran near Reisil’s cottage.
The smell of charred wood clung to the clearing and large, scorched spot opposite the shrine told why. Four times a year a fire was kindled before the shrine to celebrate the Lady’s generosity, and Her victorious light holding back the Demonlord’s night. The Lady Day fire always burned highest and longest. It was the longest day of the year, when the Lady’s power waxed greatest.
Reisil skirted around the scorch and knelt before the shrine, pulling off her hat. So tired was she, that she sat for several minutes, unable to focus on a prayer. She opened her mouth and then closed it. Finally, she bowed her head and let her thoughts tumble together, swirling and rolling like a quick-running river. With them came her fears, her hopes, her pity for the squatters, her desperation to stay in Kallas. Above all else was her gratitude.
“My heart and my hands belong to you, Blessed Lady. You have given me so much. A home at last. Let it be your will that it remain so,” Reisil whispered fervently. And then she dug a Rosemary candle out of her pack and set it on the shrine. She lit it with a steel and flint, watching the flame lengthen and flicker.
Her stomach growled again, reminding her of just how hungry she was. Pressing a hand to heart, Reisil bowed a deep obeisance to the shrine and then retreated to fallen log nestled in a hollow just beyond the clearing. She smiled and sighed as she sat back against it, stretching her legs out before her. The lush grasses were matted here, the leafmeal furrowed. Someone had completed an assignation here during the Lady’s Day celebration. She chewed her nutbread, wondering who it had been, and if they had been married, or hoped to. Her mind flew to Kaval, leagues and leagues away. She blushed in the leafy silence. If he were here now, what they would do! Her flush deepened, remembering the warm, sleek skin wrapping his ribs, the swell of his buttocks, the rough warmth of his chest.
A belligerent voice shattered her daydream and made her stomach clench. She tensed to flee, but didn’t have time to escape without being seen.
“Haven’t you been listening at all? The Patversemese are monsters. They didn’t just invade, they spoiled. Look at what’s happened to these squatters! Look at Mysane Kosk! How can you defend them?”
There were the sounds of scuffling boots and crackling twigs and then four figures—no, Reisil corrected herself, eight figures: four human, four animal—entered the Lady’s grove. Juhrnus stalked in first, his jaw jutting like an angry bull. He carried his ahalad-kaaslane draped across his shoulders. The green and yellow striped sisalik splayed contentedly on its pale belly, black claws clamped around Juhrnus’ bicep in a gentle grip. The lizard’s long, prehensile tail wrapped Juhrnus’ other arm three times down to his wrist.
Junrus was dressed like his companions, in sturdy leathers with a sword on one hip, a long knife on the other. Everything he wore was new—a sign of his recent choosing. He was taller than Reisil by a few inches with a wide, muscular chest, powerful legs and a square, boyish face. Thick brown hair fell in shaggy locks over his forehead and past his collar. If Reisil hadn’t known him, if he hadn’t spent her entire childhood tormenting her, she might have thought him attractive. She knew many girls did. But she did know him and the very sight of him made her blood boil.
After came Felias. She was about the same height as Juhrnus, dressed nearly identically. Her round face was framed by curly brown hair. Like Upsakes who followed, her ahalad-kaaslane was a weirmart. It crouched on her shoulder, hissing at Juhrnus, needle-sharp teeth clacking together as it snapped at the air. The mink-like animal lashed its thin tail from side to side, the hair on its back standing on end. By the look on Felias’ face, she was as angry as her ahalad-kaaslane.
Reisil’s lips tightened in a sympathetic grimace, having too often been on the receiving end of Juhrnus’ attacks.
“I’m not defending them!” Felias retorted hotly, facing Juhrnus across the firepit, hands on her hips. “All I’m saying is that peace is better than letting the war go on.”
“At any cost? Have you eyes? Look at the squatters village! Most of the men missing hands and ears and eyes. The women and girls swollen with their rapists’ babies. Do you think they want the Patversemese to get away with that? And what about Mysane Kosk? What’s to stop the wizards from doing that everywhere?”
Reisil blinked, startled by his genuine anger and concern. This was a side of Juhrnus she had never suspected.
“The Lady is,” said Sodur mildly, wiping his brow with a ragged square of linen he pulled from his pocket. Lanky, stooped, with thinning hair, he looked older than his years. Adding to the impression were his patched boots, threadbare elbows and limp, battered hat. He had a pinched face as though perpetually hungry, his thin, crooked nose and squinting eyes adding to the effect. His ahalad-kaaslane, a silver lynx, lapped water from the spring before sprawling in the shade, panting.
“The wizards destroyed Mysane Kosk because it was on the border and they somehow managed to breach the Lady’s protection. But their magic does not, as a rule, work inside the bounds of Kodu Riik. Only the Lady’s hand is at work here. The siege of Koduteel failed largely because the wizards could only aid the attacks from ships and the force of their magic wilted before reaching the walls. And because the Lady answered our prayers and sent aid. The rivers outside of Koduteel diverted so that there was no fresh water outside the walls. The firewood in the Patversemese camp would not burn, and the snows came early. Mudbogs appeared in the middle of camps and moles and groundsquirrels burrowed fields of holes to trap their horses’ legs. Wolves and bears prowled the camps and any game in the vicinity retreated beyond reach of hunters. The Patversemese had no choice but to withdraw.” A slight smile creased Sodur’s lips with the memory.
Reisil might have smiled at Juhrnus’ dumbfounded expression, if Sodur’s revelation hadn’t astonished her equally as much. Felias too, gazed open-mouthed at the elder ahalad-kaaslane. Sodur chuckled and patted her on the shoulder, flashing a quick grin at Juhrnus.
“You have heard stories all your lives of what the ahalad-kaaslane can do. Do not be so surprised. We are the Lady’s eyes and hands and we protect Kodu Riik—all of it, human and not. We are not defenseless against the wizards. You’re both ahalad-kaaslane now and must learn our secrets if you are to serve.”
“But, I don’t understand. Why is it a secret?” Juhrnus blurted.
“You question the Lady?” Upsakes demanded. He had paused in the shade at the edge of the grove, listening to the other three with lowered brows, arms crossed over his broad chest. He differed from Sodur like the sun to the moon. His clothing was clean and soft with wear. He stood upright with a military bearing and his gaze was sharp and darting. His weirmart crouched on his shoulder, clutching the pad sewn there for that purpose. At his reprimand, Juhrnus stiffened and hung his head. Reisil startled herself with an unexpected surge of defensiveness for the bully who’d made her childhood so miserable. The question deserved an answer.
“No, of course not. I— But, I don’t understand,” Jurhnus said, uneasy fingers stroking his sisalik’s grey and green head. The lizard bumped his head encouragingly under Jurhnus’s hand, eyes half-closed.
“And you don’t need to. The Lady would inform you if you did,” Upsakes said.
Despite her sudden and alien feeling of protectiveness for Juhrnus against Upsakes’ pomposity, seeing his face, Reisil had to bite her lips to keep from chortling. How she wished she could be the one to put that look of consternation on his face!
Sodur frowned at Upsakes, and then turned to Felias and Juhrnus.
“Come on, both of you. It’s time we announced ourselves. We’ll need a good pile of wood, and you might have to search a ways out. Everything close by was burned on the Lady Day fire.”
Felias and Juhrnus departed in opposite directions, Juhrnus red-necked and stiff-legged. Luckily neither approached Reisil’s hollow and she gathered herself to sneak away as soon chance provided. She did not want to be discovered evesdropping on the ahalad-kaaslane, even accidentally.
“What was that about?” Sodur asked his companion as he sat crosslegged on the ground, drawing out a small knife and a chunk of wood.
Upsakes turned a sharp look on Sodur and then gave a gusty sigh, lifting his weirmart down to the ground.
“Those two are enough to send the Demonlord screaming for mercy. Must they bicker all the time?”
Sodur chuckled. “Apparently. But did you really mean to hide the wizards’ inability to practice magic in Kodu Riik from them?”
“No. But I don’t want new ahalad-kaaslane to count on it either. What happened at Mysane Kosk shouldn’t have been impossible. And maybe if we hadn’t been so busy congratulating ourselves on our invulnerability, we might have done something to prevent the massacre. All those people, women and children, grandfathers and cripples, all dead.”
The bitterness and pain in his voice was raw and hard to witness. Reisil felt her throat tighten, knowing this was too private a moment for her to be intruding on. But neither could she escape without being seen.
Sodur’s hands dropped into his lap and he gave Upsakes a steady look. “It wasn’t your fault. You had no idea the wizards could attack like that when you sent those people there. None of us did. We all would have done the same thing.”
Though deeply sincere, the words sounded worn and thin, as if Sodur had repeated them too often.
“But it was the wrong thing, and everyone in Mysane Kosk paid the price. Because I sent all those refugees there to be safe.”
The self-recrimination in his voice struck deep in Reisil’s heart and tears rose in her eyes. Pity for him, pity for those who had fled to Mysane Kosk, thinking they’d be safe. Whole families had been slaughtered there.
“There isn’t anything that says the Wizard Guild couldn’t do something like that again. We can’t just assume the Lady is strong enough to hold against their attack. She wasn’t last time. We can’t have new ahalad-kaaslane wandering about thinking we’re safe from the Patversemese wizards when it isn’t true!” Upsakes strode up and down, chopping the air with his hands, while Sodur looked on from his seat on the ground. At last Upsakes paused and hunkered down on the ground facing his friend. He pulled a small bottle from the pouch at his waist and took a swallow, making a face at the taste. Sodur watched him return the bottle to its pouch and lean back against a spreading maple tree, eyes closed.
Rustling green silence drifted between them for a long minute. Bees buzzed in the clover and robins twittered overhead. Sodur bent over his wood, scraping his knife over the pale wood in his hand.
“A treaty might be what’s needed,” he said, not looking up. Upsakes reacted if yanked by a string attached to the top of his head.
“What?” he barked. “You’re not serious! Not after Mysane Kosk!”
“I know it’s not the popular solution. I know most of Kodu Riik would rather lose every one of their sons rather than make a deal with Patverseme. Even here in Kallas, and they suffered nothing from the war. Even those miserable squatters in that pisshole they call a village would slit their own throats before they’d sign a treaty with Patverseme. And Lady knows they’ve plenty of cause, but continued fighting will only make their lives worse. As it is, even with a treaty, they’d be hard-put to rebuild their lives with the drought and all they’ve lost.
“We’re ahalad-kaaslane. We’re not supposed to let our feelings influence our duty to protect and preserve Kodu Riik. Don’t you think peace is for the best? Look at the difference just a few months of truce have made. Imagine what a permanent peace could do.”
Upsakes launched to his feet and resumed his pacing, shaking his head furiously. “I’ll tell you what I told Geran. Patverseme can’t be trusted. This treaty is a ruse, buying time until the Wizard Guild finds a way to extend its power inside Kodu Riik.”
“I don’t think so. Our magilanes have managed to uncover a great deal of information inside Patverseme. Their intelligence shows that we’ve done a great deal to cripple Patverseme, even as they have us. The drought hurts them also. And it appears that the Karalis is no longer on good of terms with the Wizards Guild. In fact, there’s a split of some sort within the Guild itself. No, this may be the best opportunity we have for peace. If we wait, the Guild will surely collect itself and push to undermine the Karalis, or be rid of him altogether. Imagine the puppet they might replace him with. Or worse, one of their own.”
Reisil could tell that Upsakes was unconvinced, though the last prospect worried him. But he ceased pacing and propped himself against a tree, scratching at the stubble on his cheeks.
“So how do you think the squatters are going to take our news?” he asked Sodur in a sudden change of subject.
“The river is close by for water and there is open, fertile land. It’s a good place to start over, even with a drought. They will be content.”
“I hope so. I dislike having to uproot them after all they’ve suffered. First the Patversemese soldiers and then us.”
“Juhrnus, Felias and I will stay with them for awhile and give what aid we can. Try to ready them for winter. I’m sure we can convince Kallas to send supplies and labor as well. If only to get rid of their unwelcome guests,” he added mordantly.
“Varitsema isn’t going to be too happy having a new town spring up so close,” Upsakes said.
“He doesn’t have a choice about it, does he? And better twelve leagues away than on his doorstep. He’ll come around.”
Just then the underbrush crackled as either Felias or Juhrnus returned. Reisil took advantage of the distraction to withdraw.
The sun was sinking over Kallas, turning the pink walls fiery crimson. Reisil made her way quickly through the town, stopping for a moment at the cobbler shop to check on Ulla and the baby. All was well and she continued homeward, her pack made heavier with a loaf of bread and crock of fresh-churned butter.
Outside the walls, she followed the road’s zigzagging course, turning off where the path to her cottage cut away at a right angle. Despite her desire to be home, Reisil paused on the path, finding her gaze drawn further down, to the narrow bridge over the Sadelema which joined Kodu Riik to Patverseme. There were guardhouses on both sides—matching stone buildings broken here and there by arrow loops. Behind each one stood an archer. A reminder that the truce was only a truce and not peace. She thought of what she’d overheard in the Lady’s grove. Sodur thought it could be peace.
Reisil’s breath caught on a sudden surge of hope.
News of the truce had come at the end of winter. A promise of hope for the new year, ushered in by the warmth of spring. Reisil remembered spinning around her garden, arms outflung, laughing aloud.
If only it could turn into real peace. So many lives would be saved. Not that Kallas would see much difference. Ironic that the town had never seen a battle in all the five years the war had raged. Situated at is was, right on the border, it would have seemed like a prime plum for the picking. But in truth Kallas was just too small, too far out of the way, too uninteresting. It had no strategic value whatsoever, and certainly no monetary significance, not compared to the wealthier trade cities and more populated lands to the south. Maybe that’s why so many townspeople raged against the truce, against anything that smacked of giving into Patverseme. They hadn’t lost what others lost, they didn’t feel the pain of the war as others did.
Reisil sighed, thinking of the angry outbursts she’d witnessed from those she would have thought eager for the war to end. Even Kaval’s father, the tightfisted trader Rikutud, though peace would have mean a flourishing of his stunted trade. If not for Mysane Kosk—but that had changed everything. So many lives lost there.
But it wasn’t just Kallas. Even Sodur had acknowledged how against a treaty people like the squatters would be; people who’d lost hands and ears, like Carden; people who’d lost their homes and their families; people who’d been raped and maimed. They didn’t want peace. They wanted justice.
Reisil glanced over her shoulder, watching the plume of smoke curling up from the Lady’s grove. Not for the first time did she thank the Lady she was only a tark, and not ahalad-kaaslane.
“Let them take care of Kodu Riik, and I’ll take care of Kallas,” she said aloud. And then hurried off home to set her seedlings in the ground before the light faded.