"It's not far now, my lad," said Tier. "That's smoke ahead, not just mist we'll find a nice village inn where we can warm up."
His horse snorted at him in reply, or more likely at a bothersome drop of rain, and continued its steady progress down the trail.
The horse, like the sword Tier carried, was of fare better quality than his clothing. He'd scavenged both the horse and sword from men he'd killed: the sword in his first year of war, the horse earlier this year when his own mount had been killed beneath him. A warhorse bred and trained to carry a nobleman, Skew had carried Tier, a baker's son, through two battles, six skirmishes and, by rough reckoning, almost a thousand miles of trail.
He was a valuable horse, though in the first few weeks of Tier's journey the avarice in the eyes of the ragged men in the areas torn by years of war had as much to do with hunger as gold. Tier had waited eagerly for one of them to attack him, to ambush him if they could. But something, maybe the battle-readiness that still lurked under his calm facade kept them away from him.
But in the more prosperous areas away from the Empire's borders, the chances of an attack were greatly lessened, damn the luck. A fight would have given him momentary respite from the dread he felt toward his current task -- going home.
So many were dead. The two young men from his village who'd signed on with him to fight in a war half a continent away from their home had died, as had many other young men hoping for gold, glory or escape. Tier had survived. He still wasn't quite certain how that had happened -- he certainly hadn't planned on it. He had never sought death, but any soldier knows his demise could come at any time.
If the war had lasted forever, Tier would have fought until he died. But the war was over, and the post the Sept he'd served offered him was nothing he wanted. He had no desire to train up more young men for battle.
So now he rode back home. It would have never occurred to the boy who'd crept out of the family home almost a decade ago, that coming home would be so much harder than leaving.
Tier's massive gelding shook his brown and white mane, splattering Tier with water. He patted the horse's neck.
"There, what did I tell you, Skew?" Tier said. "There's a roof down there, you can see it between the trees."
He looked forward to the warm common room of an inn, flooded with noise and ale -- things to fill his emptiness. Maybe a bit of cheer would stay with him until he was home.
He was getting closer. Even without a map, the bitter taste of old magic that filled these mountains would have told him so. Though the battle had been over long ago, wizard's magic had a way of outlasting even memories and the Shadowed had been a great wizard. Closer to the battlefield of Shadow's Fall, riding the forest paths could be dangerous. Near his home village, Redern, everyone knew to avoid certain places still held in fell magic's grip.
Unconcerned about magic of any kind, the brown and white patchwork-colored gelding picked his way down the narrow mountain pathway, and, as the slope turned gentle, onto a dirt track that in turn widened into a cobbled road. Shortly thereafter the small village Tier'd glimpsed from the hills above emerged from beneath the trees.
The wet stone houses, so different from the wooden villages he'd ridden through these past nine years, reminded him of home, though there was a softness to the architecture that his village did not have. It wasn't home, but it was a proper village. It would have a market square, and that's where the inn would be.
He envisioned a small warm room, bathed in golden light from the fireplace and torches - someplace where a soldier could get a good, hot meal and stay warm and dry.
As he drew closer to the town market, the smell of smoke and roasting meat filled the air. It was reflex only that had him loosen his sword and made the gelding flex and snort: too much war, too many villages burned. Tier murmured to Skew, reminding him they were done with that part of their lives, though he could not make himself re-secure his sword.
As they turned into the market square, he saw a burning pyre.
Evening was an odd time for a funeral: Tier frowned. This close to home they would bury their dead, not burn them. He looked through the crowd and noticed there were no women or children watching the fire.
It was an execution not a funeral.
In most places where the memories of the Shadowed lingered, they burned witches. Not the high-born wizards who worked their magic for the nobles who paid them they were above village justice; but the healers, hedgewitches, and Travelers who offended or frightened the wrong person could find themselves in serious trouble. When such a one burned, the village women would watch from the darkened windows safe from the wrath of the dead.
Strangers like Tier sometimes found themselves taken for Travelers or hedgewitches. Still, he was armed and had hard coin to pay his way -- and from the smell of smoke and flesh, this village had already slaked its bloodlust. He rested his hand on his sword hilt, and decided it would be safe enough to stop for the night.
Tier rode by the pyre with little more than a glance, but that quick look had told him that the man in the center of the burning wood had been killed before the fire was lit. A dead man was beyond aid.
The sullen crowd of men gathered around the pyre quieted further as he crossed near them, but when he took no notice of them, they turned back to their grim entertainment.
As Tier had expected, he found the inn on the edge of the village square. There was a stable adjacent to the in, but no one manned it. Doubtless, he thought, the stable boy could be found in the crowd in the square.
Tier unsaddled Skew, rubbed him down with a rough cloth, and led him into an unoccupied stall. Looking for hay he noticed a hand cart bedecked in Traveler's trappings, leather fringe and bright paint, sadly faded. So the man they'd burned had been a Traveler.
Tier walked past the cart and took a forkful of hay back to Skew, though his eagerness to spend the evening in the Tavern had ebbed considerably since he'd ridden into the village. The nearness of violence had set his nerves on edge, and the quiet stable soothed him. He lingered until full darkness fell, but finally the thought of something hot to eat overcame his reluctance to face people.
As he walked out of the stables, only a few figures were left silhouetted against the light of the fire: guards to make sure the man didn't come back to life and flee, Tier supposed. He'd never seen a man with his throat slit come back to life and cast magic. Oh, he'd heard the tales, too -- even told a few himself. But he'd seen a lot of death, and in his experience it was final.
When he entered the tavern, he was taken aback by the noise. A quick glance told him that no one had noticed him enter, so he found a place between the stairs and the back wall where he could observe the room for a moment.
He ought to have realized that the mob wouldn't have dispersed so easily. After a killing, most men sought alcohol, and the inn's common room was filled to bursting with men, most of them half-drunk on ale and mob-madness. He considered retreating to sleep in the stables, but he was hungry. He'd wait a while and see if things would calm enough that it would be safe for a stranger like him to eat here.
The room rumbled with frantic laughter, reminding him of the aftermath of battle, when men do crazy things they spend the rest of their life trying to forget.
He had cheese and flatbread still in his saddlebag. It wasn't a hot meal and the cheese was a bit blue in spots, but he could eat it in peace. He took a step toward the door.
As if his movement had been a clarion call, the room hushed expectantly. Tier froze, but he quickly realized that no one was looking at him.
In the silence, the creaking of wood drew his eyes to the stairway not an armslength from where he stood. Heavy boots showed first, the great bull of a man who wore them, followed at last by a girl the man pulled down the stairs. From his splattered apron, the man had to be the innkeeper himself, though there were old callouses on his hands that might have come from a war axe or broadsword.
The innkeeper stopped four or five steps above the main floor, leaving his captive in plain view. Unnoticed in his position near the back of the room, a little behind the stairs, Tier faced the growing certainty that he was not going to get a hot meal and a soft bed tonight.
The distinctive silver-brown hair that hung in sleep-frayed braids almost to her waist told Tier that she was a Traveler, a relative, he supposed of the dead young man roasting outside.
He thought her a child at first, but her loose nightrail caught on a rounded hip that made him add a year or two to her age. When she looked up at the crowd, he could see that her eyes were clear amber-green and older than her face.
The men in the inn were mostly farmers; one or two carried a long knife in their belt. He had seen such men in the army, and respected them. They were probably good men, most of them, with wives and mothers waiting for them at home, uncomfortable with the violence their fear had lead them to.
The girl would be all right, Tier told himself. These men would not hurt a child as easily as they'd killed the man. A man, a Traveler, was a threat to their safety. A child, a girl- child, was something these men protected. Tier looked around the room, seeing the softening in several faces as they took in her bewildered alarm.
His assessing gaze fell upon a bearded man who sat eating stew from a pot. Hand-tailored noblemen's garments set the man apart from the natives. Such clothes had been sewn in Taela or some other large city.
Something about the absorbed, precise movements the man made as he ate warned Tier that this man might be the most dangerous person in the room -- then he looked back at the girl and reconsidered.
In the few seconds that Tier had spent appraising the room, she'd shed her initial shock and fright as cleanly as a snake sheds its skin.
The young Traveler drew herself up like a queen, her face quiet and composed. The innkeeper was a foot taller but he no longer looked an adequate guard. The ice in the girl's cool eyes brought a chill born of childhood stories to creep down Tier's spine. Instincts honed in years of battle told him that he wasn't the only one she unnerved.
Stupid girl, Tier thought.
A smart girl would have been sobbing softly in terror and shrinking to make herself look smaller and even younger, appealing to the sympathies of the mob. These weren't mercenaries or hardened fighters, they were farmers and merchants.
If he could have left then, he would have -- or at least that's what he told himself; but any movement on his part now, would draw attention. No sense in setting himself for the same treatment of the dead man in the square.
"Where's the priest?" asked the innkeeper sounding smug and nervous at the same time. If he had looked at the girl he held, he would have sounded more nervous than smug.
The crowd shuffled and spat out a thin man young man who looked around in somewhat bleary surprise to find himself the center of attention. Someone brought out a stool and a rickety table no bigger than a dinner plate. When a rough sheet of skin, an ink pot and a quill were unearthed, the priest seated himself with a bit more confidence.
"Now then," said the innkeeper. "Three days lodging, four coppers each day. Three meals each day at a copper each."
Tier's eyebrows crept up cynically. He saw no signs that the inn had been transported to Taela where such charges might be justified. For this inn, two coppers a day with meals was more likely.
"Twenty-one coppers," announce the priest finally. Silence followed.
"A copper a day for storing the cart," said the nobleman Tier had noticed without looking up from his meal. By his accent he was from more eastern regions, maybe even the coast. "That makes three more coppers, twenty-four coppers in total: one silver."
The innkeeper smiled smugly, "Ah yes, thank you, Lord Wresen. According to the law, when a debt of a silver is incurred and not remanded-" From the way the word was emphasized, it was obvious to Tier that "remanded" was a word that seldom left the lips of the innkeeper. "-that person may be sold to redeem the debt. If no buyer is found, they shall suffer fifty lashes in the public square."
Flogging was a common punishment. Tier knew, as did all the men in the room, that such a child was unlikely to survive fifty lashes. Tier stepped away from the door and opened his mouth to protest, but he stopped as he realized exactly what had been happening.
His old commander had told him once that knowledge won more battles than swords did. The innkeeper's motivation was easy to understand. Selling the girl could net him more than his inn usually made in a week, if he could sell her. None of the villagers here would spend a whole silver to buy a Traveler. Tier would give odds that the innkeeper's knowledge of law had come from the nobleman -- Lord Wresen the innkeeper had called him. Tier doubted the man was a "lord" at all: the innkeeper was flattering him with the title because of his obvious wealth -- it was safer and more profitable that way.
It didn't take a genius to see that Wresen had decided he wanted the girl and engineered matters so that he would have her. She would not be beautiful as a woman; but she had the loveliness that belongs to maidens caught in the moment between childhood and the blossom of womanhood. Wresen had no intention of letting her be flogged to death.
"Do you have a silver?" the innkeeper asked the Traveler girl with a rough shake.
She should have been afraid. Even now Tier thought that a little show of fear would go a long way toward keeping her safe. Selling a young girl into slavery was not a part of these farmer's lives and would seem wrong. Not even the innkeeper was entirely comfortable with it. If she appealed to his mercy, the presence of the other men in the inn would force him to release her.
Instead, she smiled contemptuously at the innkeeper, showing him that she, and everyone in the inn, knew that he was exploiting her vulnerability for profit. All that did was infuriate the innkeeper and silence his conscience entirely -- didn't this girl know anything about people?
"So gents," said the innkeeper, glancing toward Wresen who was finishing the last few bites of his meal. "A dead man cannot pay his debts and they are left to his heir. This one owes me a silver and has no means to pay. Do any of you need a slave or shall she join her brother where he burns in the square?"
The flush of anger that had highlighted her cheeks paled abruptly. Obviously, she hadn't known the other Traveler had been killed until the innkeeper spoke, although she must have suspected something had happened to him. Her breathing picked up, and she blinked hard, but otherwise she controlled herself until all that showed on her face was anger and contempt.
Stupid girl, he thought again -- then he felt the tingle of gathering magic.
He'd been nine long years in the Imperial Army under a Sept who commanded six wizards doubtless that was the reason Tier was contemplating helping the Traveler rather than running out the door like a proper Rederni. Those years had taught him that mages were just people like anyone else: this girl was unlikely to be able to save herself from a mob of frightened men. After they saw her work magic, no one else would be able to save her either.
She was nothing to him.
"One silver," Tier said.
Wresen started and shifted to alertness, his hand touching his sword staring at Tier. Tier knew what he saw: a travel- stained man, tall and too thin, with a sword on his belt and his years in the Emperor's army recorded in the myriad small scars on face and hands.
Tier opened his belt pouch and sorted through a smattering small coins before pulling out a silver round that looked as though it had been trampled by a dozen armies.
"Take off your hood," said the innkeeper. "I'll see a man's face and know his name and kin before I take his money."
Tier tossed his hood back and let them see by his dark hair and eyes that he was no Traveler. "Tieragan from Redern and late of the Imperial Army under the Sept of Gerant. I'm a baker's son, but I gave it up for the battlefield when I was young and stupid. The war's ended by the Emperor's writ, and I am homebound."
The girl's magic died down to a slow simmer. That's it, he thought, take the time I'm giving you to remember that one man is easier to take than a whole room. You don't really want revenge, you want escape. He didn't know whether he was saving her from these men, or the men from her.
"If you take her, you won't stay here," blustered the innkeeper. "I don't want her kind in my inn."
Tier shrugged, "I've camped before, and my horse will take me a few hours yet."
"Two silver," said Wresen abruptly. He set his hands on his table with enough force that his sword bounced and the big silver ring on his left hand punctuated his words with a bang. When all eyes turned to him he said, "I've always wanted to sample Traveler bread -- and that one looks young enough to bring to heel."
At last the man had made his move, and Tier had been thinking furiously about how to beat him. Tier couldn't afford to offer much more than Wresen's two silver. Not because he didn't have it, the better part of nine years of pay and plunder were safely sewn in his belt. But because no one would believe that he, a baker's son and soldier, would spend so much money on a woman-child no matter how exotic. On the other hand, a bored nobleman could spend as much as he wanted without comment.
Tier shot Wresen a look of contempt.
"You'd be dead before your pants were down around your knees, nobleman," Tier said. "You aren't from around these mountains, or you would understand about magic. My armsmate was like you, used to the tame wizards who take the Septs' gold. He saved my life three times and survived five years of war, only to fall at the hands of a Traveler wizard in a back alley."
The mood in the room shifted as Tier reminded them why they had killed the man burning outside.
"We-" he included himself with every man in the room "-we understand. You don't play with fire, Lord Wresen, you drown it before it burns your house down." He looked at the innkeeper. "After the Traveler killed my fighting brother. I spent years learning how to deal with such -- I look forward to testing my knowledge. Two silver and four copper."
The innkeeper nodded quickly as Tier had expected. An innkeeper would understand the moods of his patrons and see that many more words like Tier's last speech, and he'd get nothing. The men in the room were very close to taking the girl out right now and throwing her on top of her brother. Much better to end the auction early with something to show for it.
Tier handed the innkeeper the silver coin and began digging in his purse. Eventually coming up with the twenty-eight coppers necessary to make a silver and four. He was careful that a number of people saw how few coppers he had left. They didn't need to know about the money in his belt.
Wresen settled back, as if the Traveler's fate was nothing to him. His response made Tier all the more wary of him -- in his experience bored noblemen seldom gave up so easily. But for the moment at least, Tier had only the girl to contend with.
Tier walked to the stairs, ignoring the men who pushed back away from him. He jerked the girl's wrist and pulled her past the innkeeper.
"What she has we'll take," Tier said. "I'll burn them when we're in the woods you might think of doing the same to the bed and linen in that room. I've seen wizards curse such things."
He took the stairs up a pace that the girl couldn't possibly match with the awkward way he kept her arm twisted behind her. When she stumbled, he jerked her up with force that was more apparent than real. He wanted everyone to be completely convinced that he could handle whatever danger she represented.
There were four doors at the top of the stairs, but only one hung ajar and he hauled her into it and shut the door behind them.
"Quick girl," he said releasing her, "Gather your things before they decide that they might keep the gold and kill the both of us."
When she didn't move, he tried a different tack. "What you don't have packed in a count of thirty, I'll leave for the innkeeper to burn," he said.
Proud and courageous she was, but also young. With quick, jerky movements, she pulled a pair of shabby packs out from under the bed. She tied the first one shut for travel, and retrieved clothing out of the other. Using her nightrail as cover, she put on a pair of loose pants and a long, dark colored tunic. After stuffing her sleeping shift back in the second pack, she secured it too. She stood up, glanced out the room and froze.
"Ushireh," she said and added with more urgency "He's alive!"
Tier looked out and realized that the room looked over the square, allowing a clear view of the fire. Clearly visible in the heat of the flames, the dead man's body was slowly sitting upright and from the sounds of it, frightening the daylights out of the men left to guard the pyre.
He caught her before she could run out of the room. "Upon my honor, mistress, he is dead," he said with low-voiced urgency. "I saw him as I rode in. His throat was cut and he was dead before they lit the fire."
She continued to struggle against his hold, her attention on the pyre outside.
"Would they have left so few men to guard a living man?" he said. "Surely you've seen funeral pyres before. When the flame heats the bodies they move."
In the eastern parts of the Empire, they burned their dead. The priests held that when a corpse moved in the flame it was the spirit's desire to look once more upon the world. Tier's old employer, the Sept, who had a Traveler's fondness for priests (that is to say, not much), said he reckoned the heat shrank tissue faster than bone as the corpse burned. Whichever was correct, the dead stayed dead.
"He's dead," Tier said again. "I swear to it."
She pulled away from him, but only to run back to the window. She was breathing in shaking heaving gasps, her whole body trembling with it. If she'd done something of the same downstairs, he thought sourly, they wouldn't be looking to ride out in the rain without dinner.
"They were so afraid of him and his magic," she said in a low voice trembling with rage and sorrow. "But they killed the wrong one. Stupid solsenti, thinking that being a Traveler makes one a mage, and that being young and female makes me harmless."
"We can't afford to linger here," he said briskly though his heart picked up its beat. He'd gotten familiar with mages, but that didn't make them any more comfortable to be around when they were angry. "Are you ready?"
She spun from the window, her eyes glowing just a little with the magic she'd amassed watching her brother's body burn.
Doubtless, he thought, if he knew exactly what she was capable of he'd have been even more frightened of her.
"There are too many here," he said. "Take what you need and come."
The glow faded from her eyes, leaving her looking empty and lost before she stiffened her spine, grabbed both bags resolutely and nodded.
He put a hand on her shoulder and followed her out the door and down the stairs. The room had cleared remarkably doubtless the men had been called to witness the writhing corpse.
"Best be gone before they get back," said the innkeeper sourly, doubtlessly worried about what would happen to his inn if the men returned after their newest fright to find the Traveler lass still here.
"Make sure and burn the curtains, too," said Tier in reply. There was nothing wrong with any of the furnishing in the room, but he thought it would serve the innkeeper right to have to spend some of Tier's money to buy new material for curtains.
The girl, bless her, had the sense to keep her head down and her mouth shut.
Out of the inn, he steered her into the stables where the groom had already brought out his horse and saddled it. The Traveler handcart was set out too. The girl was light so Skew could certainly carry the two of them as far as the next village where Tier might obtain another mount but the handcart proposed more of a problem.
"We'll leave the cart," he said to the boy, not the Traveler. "I've no wish to continue only as fast as this child could haul a cart like that."
The boy's chin lifted. "M'father says you have to take it all. He doesn't want Traveler curses to linger here."
"He's worried that they'll fire the barn," said the girl to no one in particular.
"Serve him right," said Tier in an Eastern dialect a stable boy born and raised to this village would not know. The girl's sudden intake of breath told him that she had.
"Get me an axe," Tier said frowning: They didn't have time for this. "I'll fire it before we go."
"It can be pulled by a horse," said the girl. "There are shafts stored underneath."
Tier snorted, but he looked obediently under the cart and saw that she was right. A clevis pin and toggle allowed the handpull to slide under the cart. On each corner of the cart sturdy shafts pulled out and pinned in place.
Tier hurriedly discussed matters with the boy. The inn had no extra mounts to sell, nor harness.
Tier shook his head. As he'd done a time or two before, though not with Skew, Tier jury-rigged a harness from his war saddle. The breast strap functioned well enough as a collar with such a light weight. He adjusted the stirrups to hold the cart shafts and used an old pair of driving reins the boy scavenged as traces.
"You've come down in the world once more, my friend," said Tier as he lead Skew out of the stable.
The gelding snorted once at the contraption following him. A warhorse was not a cart horse, but, enured to battle, Skew settled into pulling the cart with calm good sense.
While he'd been leading the horse, the girl had stopped at the stable entrance, her eyes fixed on the pyre.
"You'll have time to mourn later," he promised her. "Right now we need to move before they return to the inn. You'll do well enough on Skew just keep your feet off his ribs."
She scrambled up somehow, avoiding his touch as much as she could. He didn't blame her, but he didn't stop to say anything reassuring where the stableboy might hear.
He kept Skew's reins and led him out of the stables in the opposite direction that he'd come earlier in the day. The girl twisted around to watched the pyre as long as she could.
Tier led Skew at a walk through the town. As soon as they were off the cobbles and on a wide dirt-track, Tier broke into a dog-trot he could hold for a long time. It shortened his breath until talking was no pleasure so he said nothing to the girl.
Skew trotted at his side as well as any trained dog, nose at Tier's shoulder as they had traveled many miles before. The rain, which had let up for a while, set in again and Tier slowed to a walk so he could keep a sharp eye out for shelter.
At last he found a place where a dead tree leaned against two others, creating a small dry area which he increased by tying up a piece of oilskin.
"I'd do better if it weren't full dark and raining," he said to the girl without looking at her. "But this'll be drier at any rate."
He unharnessed and unsaddled Skew, rubbing him down briskly before tethering him to a nearby tree. Skew presented his backside to the wind and hitched up a hip. Like any veteran, the horse knew to snatch rest where it came.
The heavy war saddle in hand, Tier turned to the girl.
"If you touch me," she said coolly. "You won't live out the day."
He eyed her small figure for a moment. She was even less impressive wet and cold than she had been held captive in the innkeeper's hand.
Tier had never actually met a Traveler before. But he was well used to dealing with frightened young things the army had been filled with young men. Even tired and wet as he was, he knew better than to address those words head on why would she believe anything he said? But if he didn't get her under shelter, sharing his warmth, she was likely to develop lung fever. That would defeat his entire purpose in saving her.
"Good even, lady," he said, with a fair imitation of a nobleman's bow despite the weight of the heavy saddle. "I am Tieragan of Redern most people call me Tier." Then he waited.
She stared at him, he felt a butterfly-flutter of magic -- then her eyes widened incredulously, as if she'd heard something more than he'd said. "I am Seraph, Raven of the Clan of Isolda the Silent. I give you greetings, Bard."
"Well met, Seraph," he said. Doubtless her answer would have conveyed a lot to a fellow Traveler. Maybe they'd even know why she addressed him as bard, doubtless some Traveler etiquette. "I am returning to Redern. If my map is accurate and it hasn't been notably accurate so far Redern is about two days' travel west and north of here."
"My clan, only Ushireh and I, was traveling to the village we just left," she returned, shivering now. "I don't know where Ushireh intended to go afterward."
Tier had been counting on being able to deliver her back to her people. "It was just the two of you?"
She nodded her head, watching him as warily as a hen before a fox.
"Do you have relatives nearby? Someone you could go to?" he asked.
"Traveling clans avoid this area," she said. "It is known that the people here are afraid of us."
"So why did your brother come here?" He shifted the saddle to a more comfortable hold, resting it against his hip.
"It is given to the head of a clan to know where shadows dwell," she replied obscurely. "My brother was following one such."
Tier's experience with mages had led him to avoid questioning them when they talked of magic he found that he usually knew less after they were finished than he did when he started. Whatever had led the young man here, it had left Seraph on her own.
"What happened to the rest of your clan?" he asked.
"Plague," she said. "We welcomed a Traveling stranger to our fires one night. The next night one of the babies had a cough by morning there were three of ours dead. The clan leader tried to isolate them, but it was too late. Only my brother and I survived."
"How old are you?
That was younger than he expected from her manner; though from her appearance, she could have easily been as young as thirteen. He shifted his saddle onto his shoulder to rest his arm. As he did so, he heard a thump and the saddle jerked in his hold. The arrow quivered in the thick leather of the saddle skirt which presently covered his chest.
He threw himself forward and knocked her to the muddy ground underneath him. Holding her still despite her frantic battle to free herself of him, a hand keeping her quiet, he spoke to her in a toneless whisper.
"Quiet now, love. Someone out there is sending arrows our way, take a look at my saddle."
When she stilled, he slid his weight off of her. The grass was high enough to hide their movements in the dark. She rolled to her belly, but made no further move away from him. He rested a hand on her back to keep her in place until he could find their attacker in the dark. Her ribs vibrated with the pounding of her heart.
"He's two dozen paces beyond your horse," she whispered, "a little to the right."
He didn't question how she could see their attacker in the pitch-darkness of the forested night, but sneaked forward until he crouched in front of Skew where he held still, hoping that the mud which covered him head to toe would keep him from being a target for another arrow.
He glanced back to make certain that Seraph was still hidden, and stifled a curse.
She stood upright, her gaze locked beyond Skew. He assumed she was watching their attacker. Her clothes were dark enough to blend into the forested dark, but her pale hair caught the faint moonlight.
"Seraph," said a soft voice. It continued in a liquid tongue Tier had never heard before.
"Speak Common," answered Seraph in cold clear tones that could have come from an empress rather than a battered, muddy half-grown girl. "Your tongue does not favor Traveler speech. You sound like a hen trying to quack."
Well, thought Tier, if their pursuer had intended to kill Seraph, he'd have done so already. He had a pretty good idea then who it was that had tried to put an arrow in his hide. He hadn't seen that Lord Wresen carried a bow, but he supposed that there might have been one in the man's luggage.
"I have killed the one who would hurt you," continued the soft voice.
Tier supposed that it might have appeared that he'd been killed. He'd thrown himself down half a breath after the arrow hit and the saddle and blanket made a lump on the ground that with the cover of tall grass might look like a body from a distance.
"Come with me, little one," Tier's would-be killer said. "I have shelter and food near by. You can't stay out here alone. You'll be safe with me."
Tier could hear the lie in the man's words, but he didn't think Seraph could. He waited for the man to get close enough for him to find him, hoping that Seraph would not believe him. After spending two silver and eight copper on her, as well as missing his dinner, Tier had something of an investment in her well-being.
"A Raven is never alone," Seraph said.
"Seraph," chided the man. "You know better than that. Come, child I have a safe place for you to abide. In the morning I'll take you to a clan I know of, not far from here."
Tier could see him now, a shadow darker than the trees he slipped between. Something about the way the shadow moved combined with his voice gave his identity to Tier: he'd been right, it was Wresen.
"Which clan would that be?" asked Seraph.
"I-" Some instinct turned Wresen before Tier struck and Tier's sword met metal.
Tier threw his weight against the sword, pushing Wresen away to get some striking distance between them where Tier's superior reach would do him some good.
They fought briskly for a few minutes, mostly feeling each other out, searching for weaknesses. The older man was faster than Tier had expected; but he wasn't the only one who'd underestimated his opponent. From the grunt Wresen let out the first time he caught Tier's sword, he'd underestimated Tier's strength something that was not uncommon. Tier was tall and, as he'd often been teased, slight as a stripling.
By the time they drew back to regroup, Tier boasted a shallow cut on his cheekbone and another on the underside of his right forearm. The other man had taken a hard blow from Tier's pommel on the wrist and Tier was pretty sure he'd drawn blood over his adversary's eye.
"What do you want with the girl?" asked Tier. This was too much effort for a mere bedmate no matter how Wresen's tastes ran.
"Naught but her safety," insisted Wresen for Seraph. The lie echoed in Tier's ears. "Which is more than you can say."
He made an odd gesture with his fingers and Tier dropped his sword with a cry as it became too hot to hold.
Wizard, thought Tier but neither surprise nor dismay slowed him. Leaving his sword where it lay, Tier charged, catching the other man in the stomach with his shoulder and pushing both of them back into a mass of shrubs which caught at their feet.
Wresen, unprepared, stumbled and fell. Tier struck hard, aiming for the throat, but his opponent rolled too fast. Quick as a weasel, Wresen regained his feet. Twice Tier jumped and narrowly avoided the other's blade. But he wasn't a fool; unarmed, his chances weren't good.
"Run, Seraph," he said. "Take the horse and get out of here."
With luck he should be capable of holding her pursuer long enough that she could loose him in the woods. If he could keep him busy enough, Wresen wouldn't have time to work magic.
"Don't be a more of a fool than you can help, Bard," she said coldly.
The other man swore and Tier saw that Wresen's sword had begun to glow as if it were still in the blacksmith's fire. Steam rose from his hand as he made odd gestures toward it with his free hand. Wresen was no longer giving any heed to Tier at all - which was the last mistake he ever made.
Tier pulled his boot knife out of the man's neck and cleaned it on the other's cloak. When he was finished, he looked at Seraph.
Her pale skin and face were easy to find in the darkness. She reminded him of a hundred legends, so must have Loriel stood when she faced the Shadowed with nothing more than her song or Terabet before throwing herself from the walls of Anarorgehn rather than betraying her people. His father had always said that his grandfather told him too many stories.
"Why chose me over him?" Tier asked her.
She said, "I heard him at the inn: He was no friend of mine."
Tier narrowed his eyes. "You heard me at the inn as well. He only helped the innkeeper add coppers I bought you intent on revenge."
She lifted her chin. "I'm not stupid. I am Raven -- and you are Bard. I saw what you did."
The words were in Common, but they made no sense to him.
He frowned at her. "What do you mean? Mistress, I have been a baker and a soldier, which is to say swordsman, tracker, spy, and even tailor, blacksmith and harness maker upon occasion -- and doubtless a half dozen other professions. But I make no claim to be a Bard. Even if I were, I have no idea what that has to do with you. Or what being a Raven means."
She stared at him as if he made as little sense to her as she had just done to him. "You are Bard," she said again, but this time there was a wobble in her voice.
He took a good look at her. It might have been rain that wet her cheeks, but he'd bet his good knife that there would be salt in the water. She was little more than a child and she'd just lost her brother under appalling circumstances. It was the middle of the night, she was shaking with cold and she'd held up to more than many a veteran soldier.
"I'll dispose of the body," he said. "Neither of us will get any sleep with him out here attracting carrion-eaters. You get out of the rain and into dry clothes. We'll talk in the morning. I promise that no one will harm you until morning at least."
When she was occupied getting her baggage out of the cart, he led Skew to the body and somehow wrestled the dead man onto the horse's wet back. He had no intention of burying the man, just moving him far enough away that whatever scavengers the body attracted wouldn't trouble them. It occurred to him that Wresen might not be alone -- indeed, it would be odd if he were because noblemen traveled with servants.
But all he found was a single grey horse tied to a tree about a hundred paces back down the trail and no sign that another horse had been tied nearby.
Tier stopped beside the animal, and let the body slide off Skew's back into the mud, sword still welded to his hand. Skew, who'd born with everything, jumped three steps sideways as the body fell and snorted unhappily. The grey pulled back and shook her head, trying to break free -- but the reins held. When nothing further happened the horse quieted and lipped nervously at a bunch of nearby leaves.
Tier rifled through the man's saddlebags, but there was nothing in them but the makings of a few meals and a pouch of silver and copper coins. This last he tucked into his own purse with a soldier's thrift. He took the food as well. There was nothing on the body either -- except for a chunky silver ring with a bit of dark stone in it. He deemed the ring, like the horse and the man's sword, too identifiable to take, and left it where it was.
In the end, Tier found no hint of who Wresen was, or why he'd been so intent on getting Seraph. Surely a mage wouldn't have the same unreasoning fear of Travelers that the villagers here had.
He took his knife and cut most of the way through the grey's reins near the bit. When she got hungry enough she'd break free, but it wouldn't be for a while yet.
By the time he rode back to camp, Tier was dragging with fatigue. Seraph had taken his advice; he found her huddled under the tree.
A second oil tarp, bigger and even more worn that his, increased the size of their shelter so that he might even be able to keep his feet dry. His saddle was in the shelter too, the mud wiped mostly off. He rummaged in the saddle bags and changed to his second set of clothing. They weren't clean, but dry was more important just now.
Seraph had turned her face away while he changed. Knowing she'd not sleep for the cold on her own, nor agree to snuggle with a stranger especially not in the present circumstances, he didn't bother to say anything. He wrapped an arm around her, ignored her squeak of surprised dismay and stretched out to sleep.
She tried to wiggle away from him, but there wasn't much room. Then she was still for a long time while Tier drifted into a light doze. Some time later her quiet weeping woke him, and he shifted her closer, patting her back as if she were his little sister coming to him with a scraped knee rather than the loss of her family.
He woke to her strange pale eyes staring at him, lit by sunlight leaking through morning clouds.
"I could have used this on you," Seraph said.
He looked at the blade she held in her dirty hands his best knife. She must have been into his saddlebags.
"Yes," he agreed, taking it from her unresisting hand. "But I saw your face when you looked at our dead friend last night. I was pretty certain you wouldn't want to deal with another dead body any time soon."
"I have seen many dead," she said, and he saw in her eyes that it was true.
"But none that you have killed," he replied.
"If I had not been asleep when they were killing my brother," she said, "I would have killed them all, Bard."
"You might have." Tier stretched and slid out from under the tree. "But then you would have been killed also. And, as I told you last night, I am no bard."
"Just a baker's son," she said. "From Redern."
"Where I am returning," he agreed.
"You are no solsenti," she disagreed smugly. "There are no solsenti Bards."
"Solsenti?" He was beginning to get the feeling that they knew two entirely different languages that happen to have a few words in common.
Her assuredness began to falter, as if she'd expected some other reaction from him. "Solsenti means someone who is not Traveler."
"Then I'm afraid I am most certainly solsenti." He dusted off his clothes, but nothing could remove the stains of travel. At least they weren't wet. "I can play a lute and a little harp, but I am not a bard though I think that means something different to you than it does to me."
She stared at him. "But I saw you," she said. "I felt your magic at the inn last night."
Startled he stared at her. "I am no mage, either."
"No," she agreed. "But you charmed the innkeeper at the inn so that he didn't allow that man to buy my debt."
"I am a soldier, mistress," he said. "And I was an officer. Any good officer learns to manage people or he doesn't last long. The innkeeper was more worried about losing his inn than he was about earning another silver or two. It had nothing to do with magic."
"You don't know," she said at last, and not, he thought, particularly to him. "How is it possible not to know that you are Bard?"
"What do you mean?"
She frowned. "I am Raven, you would say Mage -- very like a solsenti wizard. But there are other ways to use magic among the Travelers, things your solsenti wizards cannot do. A few of us are gifted in different ways and depending upon that gift, we belong to Orders. One of those Orders is Bard -- as you are. A Bard is, as you said, a musician first. Your voice is true and rich. You have a remarkable memory, especially for words. No one can lie to you without you knowing."
He opened his mouth to say something, he knew not what except that it wouldn't be kind -- but he looked at her first and closed his mouth.
She was so young, for all that she had the imposing manner of an empress. Her skin was grey with fatigue and her eyes were puffy and red with weeping she must have done while he slept. He decided not to argue with her -- or believe what she said though it caused cold chills to run down his spine. He was merely good with people, that was all. He was no magic user.
He left her to her speculations and began to take down the camp. If Wresen's horse made it back to the inn, there might be people looking for him soon. Without a word she stood up and helped.
"I'm going to take you to my kin in Redern," he said when their camp was packed and Skew once more attached to the Traveler cart. "But you'll have to promise me not to use magic while you're there. My people are as wary as any near Shadow's Fall. Redern's a trading town; If there are any Traveler clans around, we'll hear about them."
But she didn't appear to be listening to him. Instead, when she'd scrambled to Skew's back she said, "You don't have to worry. I won't tell anyone."
"Tell what?" he asked, leading the way back to the trail they'd followed the night before.
"That someone in your family, however far back, laid with a Traveler. Only someone of Traveler blood could be a Bard," she said. "There are no solsenti Bards."
He was beginning to resent the way she said solsenti, whatever the true meaning of the word, he was willing to bet it was a deadly insult.
"I won't tell anyone else," she said. "Being Traveler is no healthy thing."
She glanced up at the mountains that towered above the narrow trail and shivered.
There were not as many thieves in that part of the Empire as there were in the lands to the east where war had driven men off their lands. But Conex the Tinker, who found the dead body beside the trail, was not so honest as all that. He took everything he could find of value: two good boots, a bow, a scorched sword (he almost left that but greed outweighed squeamishness in the end), a belt, and a silver ring with a bit of onyx stone set in it.
Two weeks after his unexpected good fortune a stranger met up with him on the road as sometimes happens when two men have the same destination in mind. They spent most of the day exchanging news and ate together that night. The next morning the stranger, a silver ring safely in his belt pouch, rode off alone.
Conex would never more go atinkering.