The two Naguri advanced, backing Erith up against the line of trees at the edge of the clearing. He edged a step to one side, aiming for the bare patch of ground under the largest tree. As long as they didn’t push him too far back to get a full swing, the footing would be better there than on the trampled snow in the clearing.
“These are not Harali lands,” said the one with the bear-claw necklace.
“They aren’t Naguri lands either,” Erith replied, unobtrusively resting the point of his sword on a tree root. His injured arm tired quickly, and he would need all his strength to survive the inevitable fight.
Motion caught his eye. Another man was approaching the clearing at a run, and he felt his stomach twist. Son of the Dark Woman, there are three of them! Maybe he wouldn’t survive this after all. The two facing him had not yet seen the third, though.
“But maybe you have kin here in the Spirit Mountains? I thought it just a rain-tale, that the Naguri were bastards of the bolgash….”
Erith leaped back as the Naguri lunged, slamming into the trunk of the large tree behind him. Heavy, wet snow slid from the branches onto his enemies, giving Erith precious time to raise his stiff sword-arm while they clawed snow out of their eyes. He struck with all his remaining strength at the larger of the two, the one without the bear-claw necklace. His sword connected solidly and the Naguri screamed, twisting in agony.
Erith struggled to free his stuck blade before the bear-claw Naguri could attack, and felt his foot slip in the new wet snow. He went down hard, pain lancing through his knee, and jerked back as a knife blade sliced through the air where his head had been. Wet drops of blood sprayed his face, tasting of bitter metal, and he waited for the pain to follow, but it never came.
He heard footsteps and heavy breathing behind him, and he fell to the ground and rolled. He felt the third attacker slam into his ribs and stumble over him and onto the body of the slain Naguri. Erith staggered to his feet, nearly stumbling himself on the splayed legs of a deer, its belly split for gutting.
That’s where the blood came from, Erith realized. They’d been hunting when they had seen him and attacked. That explained why the Naguri were so far away from their lands, not that it helped him now. He’d thought he’d be safe going this far north.
The third Naguri tugged his tattered cloak and dropped it to free his arms. Erith glanced about, hoping to find some means of escape, but his enemies were on him before he could put any plan into motion.
Erith was the better fighter, but they were two and he was already weary and injured. He could feel his battle rage weakening as he fought, desperately trying to just keep their blades away. He gasped for breath and saw it white in the cold air.
I am a warrior of the Harali—I will not die in fear! Erith gritted his teeth and lunged. The bear-claw Naguri stabbed him in the side, and Erith grunted with pain but managed to grab the hand with the knife, pulling it out and twisting until the blade was in his grasp and free to slash across the man’s neck.
Then he felt the crushing blow of the third Naguri smash into his leg, and agony overwhelmed him. Erith felt himself hit the ground hard. He had no more strength to lift his sword, and now he was unable to run.
He scrabbled as best he could with his one working leg away from the approaching Naguri, who had a snarling grin on his face and his sword raised high. Erith felt the dead deer’s stiff hair under his hand.
“Where would you go, then?” his enemy taunted. “Your people are far, and we are many.”
“Not my people any more,” Erith gasped. He shifted his hand further, seeking. “Kill me, and you please them.”
He saw the momentary confusion in his enemy’s eyes. It was just enough time for Erith to grab the still-warm entrails in the deer’s belly and throw them under the man’s feet. The viscera were slippery and the ropes of intestines caught around his ankles, tripping him as he struck with his sword. Erith let go of his own sword and grabbed the man’s arm, pulling it up and away and stabbing with the knife, rolling over and pinning the Naguri with his weight until the man stopped struggling.
Erith took deep, gasping breaths until his heart calmed. Then he wearily took the knife and cut strips of cloth from his dead enemy to bind his wounds. The stab wound in his side was ragged and bleeding sluggishly, but the slash in his leg was a more serious problem. It took time, sitting in the cold snow, before he was able to slow the bleeding. Then he carefully crawled on one knee to the gear the hunters had left. A leather-wrapped spear gave enough support that he could walk, painfully. Nothing else was of any use to him, besides a handful of dried meat and berries in one of their carry-bags. He simply wasn’t strong enough to carry more than his sword.
Erith hobbled over to the dropped cloak and picked it up. It had fur trimming, even though it was ragged, and if the only way he could go now was toward the mountains, he would need the warmth.
He staggered on for some time before he realized he was leaving a trail of blood in the snow. Erith was tired enough that he thought for a moment about how to remove it before shaking his head. Even if the Naguri knew where he was going, they would not pursue him. Among the people of the High Plain, the phrase “to go to the Spirit Mountains” was another way to say “to die.”
He stopped for a moment, breathing heavily, and looked back the way he had come. The clearing where the Naguri had set upon him was lost in forest; the High Plain, farther away, was only visible as a bright, distant haze in the light of the setting sun.
An icy breeze found its way through a rent in his tunic, and he pulled his stolen cloak closer as he resumed his climb. He had to keep moving. Every time he stopped it was harder to get moving again. He had been running—and fighting—for longer than he could clearly remember now.
Fighting was all he had left. He could feel a broken rib grinding every time he leaned his full weight on the spear to climb, and lightheadedness made it even more difficult to keep his balance—and he could not afford to fall.
Erith knew he was only delaying the inevitable. The dead-white sky held the promise of yet another winter storm, and he was in the Spirit Mountains. Well, he had traveled wounded before. And as for the spirits…the legends spoke of them, but surely even a bolgash or a bloodraven would be somewhat daunted by a sword.
His hand clutched convulsively on the hilt. They had come close to taking it, at the turos. His one slender hope of survival…which would be useless, if he did not find shelter soon.
Erith continued on even as the pale sun set. There was no shelter anywhere; the trees were sparse and thin, scattered among boulders and the mountain’s jagged stone. The night became one long delirium of travel, forcing one foot before the other. He wasn’t aware of when he had dropped the spear, only that it was gone. He wasted precious time trying to find something to replace it.
After struggling slowly to the top of a ridge, he found a curiously carved tall stone. Near it was a pole with a ragged piece of cloth at the top. Erith tried and failed to think of any people who were supposed to live in the mountains. The pole would make a useful replacement for the lost spear, and it looked long-abandoned. He squinted, staring at the deep colors of the sunset. Was that a trail of smoke far ahead, or a dark edge of a cloud? It was faint, or maybe he was dreaming again.
The pole helped him go faster, and he descended the ridge back into forest. He headed for the direction he had seen the smoke trail. Real or not, he needed a goal. Even in the dark he kept the vision in his mind, using the moonlight to locate landmarks he had seen during the day.
At one point he roused from his waking dream and slowly realized something blocked his way. Small twigs scratched his face and snagged his hair, and he caught the tangy scent of fresh sap. He blinked and took a clumsy step back. A tree. He would have to go around it. Why was it there? He shook his head to clear it and looked about.
The tree was on the edge of a pleasant glade, with a few low bushes clustered around a tall, weathered boulder. Golden light washed over the glade, enough to show that one bush still bore a single, many-petaled flower. A small part of his mind wondered at the flower blooming in midwinter and the bright golden light that shone although the moon had set and the sun had not yet risen. He trudged on.
When Ronne emerged from her quarters, Kashan was already stretched out in front of the main door. He heaved to his feet as Ronne approached, barely letting her reach the door latch in his impatience. Ronne glanced outside, closed the door behind the snowtiger, and sighed. The sky was dead grey, which meant yet another storm was coming.
She went to the storeroom next to the kitchen. There was only one barrel of grain left—she would have to ration that; once it was gone there would be no more. She reviewed the rest of the supplies, thankful that much had been deemed too heavy to remove. Firewood was plentiful. She might go hungry, but she would be warm.
At least she could hunt. Otherwise, her situation would be much more dire. Ronne wondered if the court had thought of that when they had exiled her, or if they really hadn’t cared if she starved. How many years could she live like this, if needed?
If a storm was coming, she should walk the bounds. She could take the hunting javelins as well, in hopes of fresh meat. One last check of the perimeter before being stuck inside with nothing to do but stare at the walls. Kashan would be bored, as well.
Ronne took her light armor from the stand and fastened it, taking care with the worn strap at one shoulder. She stepped outside, closed the door firmly, then placed her spined helm over her braids and strode out into the frozen landscape.
The rising sun gave light but little heat, and Erith slowly realized he could not last much longer. His leg had gone numb. This made movement less agonizing, but it was a sign the cold was beginning to win. He had to find shelter immediately or he would become wintermad, thinking he was warm while his body froze. Frowning, he squinted at the rising sun. Perhaps he was already wintermad, for hadn’t he seen the light of sunrise long before?
He looked about blearily, trying to focus. The narrow, rocky ravine he stood in was bare and exposed, with a bitter wind racing the length of it. He could see the tops of trees in the distance, which meant a valley below. Leaning heavily on the rock walls, he made his way slowly down the ravine and around an outcropping.
He stopped short. A huge beast with thick, black-striped white fur was visible no great distance ahead. It moved with power and grace, shoulders shifting as it paced on broad paws over the snow-covered ground, the long tail curving down and up again. None of the legends of the Spirit Mountains had mentioned a demon like this one.
Some small sound must have alerted it to Erith’s presence, for the heavy, round-eared head turned in his direction. As soon as it saw him it gathered itself and sprang over the snowdrifts in large bounds, the open jaws revealing a formidable array of teeth.
Erith backed up, trying to draw his sword, but his cold-stiffened hands only pulled it free from the scabbard to let it drop. His wounded leg buckled beneath him, and he fell heavily to the ground. Erith saw his sword spin away, just out of reach. The creature slowed its rush and padded intently towards him, making a strange wuffing noise. He made one last effort to reach his sword, pain racking his body, and felt his hand just touch the hilt as the world went dark.
“Kashan!” Ronne paused, then called again. “Kashan! Where are you?” She hoped he had not gone too far. The building storm looked like a large one.
She climbed a pile of boulders at the edge of the forest to check on the outer boundary marker, which was just in sight from that location. The flag was not visible, and she frowned. She would have to go all the way out there and raise it if it had fallen, but there was no time for that now. The storm would catch her halfway.
Then she saw scuffmarks in the snow, with streaks of pale red at the edges. Ronne drew her sword and moved cautiously, no longer calling to the snowtiger. The tracks were meandering and hard to read. It was possible they were from a wounded animal, but unlikely.
She followed the dragging tracks until Kashan appeared in view in an icy ravine, crouched over something lying in the snow. When he saw her, the snowtiger gave a chirruping call. Ronne walked with care on the uneven, icy ground. Her boots were far from new, and when they wore out she was not sure what she would do to replace them.
“What have you been hunting, warrior of twenty daggers?”
She stared at Kashan’s “prey.” Six feet and more of plains barbarian lay sprawled in the trampled snow, clad in a ragged woolen tunic and trews. He also wore a tattered, fur-trimmed cloak and boots even more worn than her own.
Had Kashan attacked him? She would have heard something, surely, and Kashan appeared more friendly than aggressive. Yet there was blood on the snow, and one leg of the trews was dark with dried blood.
She came closer, raising her sword. When she stood beside the man, she nudged him with her foot. His outflung arm fell away, revealing a face as pale as the snow beneath him and more bloodstained rents in his tunic. The only color he possessed was in his flame-gold hair. Another, more forceful kick produced no response.
Ronne went to one knee beside him, pushing the curious Kashan aside. Something—or someone—had wounded him badly. Who? Why was he here? The plainsfolk never came this way; their lands were far to the east.
A cursory examination revealed the man still lived, but barely. She sat back and regarded him, feeling her face return to the formal, expressionless mask she had worn for so many years, even as her mind wrestled with unaccustomed thoughts.
She was a swordnoble of the Empire. Her duty was clear. Any threat to the safety of the Empire could not be permitted. But how much of a threat was he? He was alone, and dying as she watched.
There were those who would have left the man to die. Killing such a one had no glory, and their duty would be fulfilled. With her…gift…the Imperial Court had never believed she did not seek glory. Well, the court was not here to judge.
Many of his wounds were not fresh. He had been traveling injured for some time, and over difficult terrain. Respect was due such courage, even if he was a barbarian. It was a cruel death to die of cold, unworthy of a warrior.
She raised her sword to give the unconscious man a deathblow. As she struck, Kashan butted his head against her and she lost her balance, the blade landing harmlessly in the snow. Annoyed, she waved the snowtiger away and prepared to strike again.
She looked down at the man’s face and hesitated. Lines of pain had not yet been erased by unconsciousness, and he had a gaunt and careworn expression. Now she saw dried grass poking through holes in his boots, and a rip in his tunic that had been crudely pinned together with a small twig. How long had he been wandering like this? Perhaps he had been abandoned by his people, even as she had been abandoned by hers.
Her thoughts continued their rebellion, and she lowered her sword, looking at the golden emblem on the blade.
He will die even if I aid him. Surely it will not violate the Code to watch a barbarian die in the comfort of my house.
A single snowflake spiraled down from the leaden sky, landing finally on the man’s bright hair. She stared at it until it was joined by another.
He is far from home. I will give him a place to die.
She stood and sheathed her sword, then called Kashan from a hole he was investigating. With some effort, she managed to balance the barbarian’s limp body on the snowtiger’s back. Pausing only to retrieve the man’s fallen sword, she led Kashan and his burden down the steep slope from the ravine into the glen below.
Erith dreamed of carrying a flame and some nameless, heavy burden. If he had had a destination, he had long forgotten it; all that remained was the knowledge that to stop was to die. The cold, lifeless dark seemed to press in on the faint, flickering flame in his hands.
As the flame faded, his burden grew heavier, and he knew he could no longer continue. Just as he was on the point of collapse, the quality of the darkness changed. It was warm and comforting, and surrounded him like a soft black fur. He nodded in understanding. It is the Dark Woman, not her Son, now.
Vagrant sparkles drifted in thin swirls around him. One of the tiny crystals passed through the flame he held and the flame flared, burning brighter. He moved to catch more of the glittering dust, unsure why he did so, but as the flame grew more intense he remembered more. A feeling lurked in the back of his mind that there was something he should be doing, something he should be saying, but he could neither remember what it was nor open his mouth to speak.
Now his flame blazed like a new sun, and he thought he could see vague shapes in the distance. The ground he stood on was solid grey stone, with slight undulations in its surface. There was nothing living in sight, and for some reason that disturbed him.
He began to move forward again, toward a dark projection on the stone plain. Moving was difficult, but this time the air itself resisted him—he felt light, as if he were floating, and his feet found little purchase on the ground. As he drew nearer, the number of floating crystals increased. The feel of the ground under his feet changed too, and he looked down to see the rock crumbling where he had stepped, footprints of shards far behind him, then gravel, and just behind him, sand.
Now he could see that the figure before him was human, and from it streamed thick, glittering waves of crystals. Although his flame was blinding in intensity, the figure remained shrouded in shadow. He had to get closer, to see who was there, but it was impossible to move. Surely this was what he was seeking. In disbelief, he realized the person before him was chained…and suddenly everything vanished.
Erith woke to the small crackles of a fire burning in a huge stone hearth, half-remembered echoes of his strange dream reverberating in his head. He stared at the fire, bemused. A fire had not entered into any story of the afterlife he had ever heard.
He wasn’t sure what he had expected. All the tales of the people of the plains said the spirits of the dead rose to the skies, and if judged worthy, remained to be visible as clouds. His clan, convinced of his guilt, would have said Erith was doomed to the other fate—to be cast down to earth as rain to try again. He knew his kinfolk would be careful to avoid going out in a rainstorm for some time, fearing his vengeful return. But he was not guilty, he knew that in his soul. So where was he? What was he?
When Erith attempted to rise, he abandoned all speculations on the afterlife. A dead body’s wounds would not affect a cloud-spirit, so he must be alive after all—but he was very weak. His effort left him exhausted and barely clinging to consciousness, but after the first wave of pain subsided he began to wonder what had happened to him.
He lay on a makeshift pallet of folded blankets, covered by a faded quilt. His wounds had been bandaged. The fire burned in a large stone hearth, with iron hooks descending from above and an iron pot supported by a long-legged tripod over the coals. The room was also built of stone, the largest such room he had ever seen. Even the turos was not so large. He could see a sturdy wooden table with a pitcher and some bowls on it, and other gear that made it seem this room was merely a cooking place. It was nothing like the hide-and-cloth tents he knew from the plains.
Movement glimpsed from the corner of one eye made him turn his head, and he froze. The fearsome creature he had encountered in the ravine was there, and it ambled over to where he lay motionless with shock. Ice-white eyes surrounded by a mask of black stripes regarded him intently as he stared back, hardly daring to breathe.
A door banged open and a tall woman with dark, intricately braided hair entered. Her arms were full of logs, which she placed in a box by the hearth. The creature, meanwhile, had left him to lean up against her, making rumbling noises. She reached down and stroked its head, a smile disturbing the severe beauty of her narrow face. Brushing bark and moss from her arms, she turned to the pallet, freezing when her eyes met his.
Erith saw, with a chill of fear, her unnatural grey eyes, almost as light as those of the creature. Were they just different forms of the same spirit? Her angular face remained impassive, but her eyes blazed momentarily with anger and astonishment, and, most strangely, something akin to fear.
“What kind of spirit are you?” he whispered, his voice hoarse with pain.
One eyebrow rose. “There are no spirits here, man. Although not long ago you seemed certain to become one.”
Her voice was cool, and she spoke the language of the plains with a slight accent. He stared at her, wordless. If not a spirit, what was she? Her form was human enough, but her face was strangely angular and her skin light brown in color. There was also something in the way she held herself and the way she moved that jarred. She wore a lethal-looking sword and spoke as one accustomed to command. Her plain swordbelt was worn over a tunic of a nondescript brown color but intricate weave. Instead of a skirt, or even trews, she had long, soft leather boots over knit hose.
“But it attacked me!” he said, incredulous, looking at the beast as it sat beside her. “Now it pays me no heed.”
She regarded him for a moment before replying. “Kashan is a snowtiger, a predator of these mountains, but has no need to hunt half-dead barbarians to survive. You are of the plains?” He nodded. “Why did you come here?”
Erith grimaced. “My enemies fear this place…and I didn’t have anywhere else to go. My name is Erith, once of the Harali. I am outcast.” He shifted a little and winced. “I would have died without your aid. I owe you life-debt.”
“You owe me nothing,” she said shortly, and turned away.
“I owe a debt to whoever aided me, and I will pay what I owe.”
“Then you must repay Kashan,” she said, indicating the snowtiger, “for it was he who found you and carried you here. I have done nothing but stop you from bleeding on my floor. You owe me nothing.”
She went to the fire, lifting the lid of the pot on the tripod. An appetizing smell of spices and meat wafted out. Erith had not eaten well since he had left the turos, and he stared hopefully at the stew she ladled out.
She looked at him, then at the stew. Her mouth thinned, and anger flared in her eyes again. Abruptly, she placed the bowl by the pallet. “Eat, then, if you are hungry.” She filled another bowl for herself and did not look at him again.
Rather than risk spilling any, Erith left his stew on the floor and spooned it up as quickly as his weariness would permit. It was thick and richly flavored, and he could have eaten the entire pot. The woman left the room with her bowl in hand, and Kashan followed. Watching her leave through the fog of pain and fatigue, Erith wondered why she was so angry. She acted as if she were being forced to help him against her will.
He looked down at his now-empty bowl and shook his head in disbelief. She had brought him to this place, warmed and bandaged him—and had almost refused to feed him. He wondered where the rest of her clan was. There was nothing to indicate the presence of anyone besides herself and the…snowtiger. A very dangerous animal to keep about. Perhaps the rest of the clan had fled in fright. Shrugging, he pulled the quilt closer and returned to the oblivion of sleep.
Ronne sat in the dusty stillness of the empty greathall, her uneaten stew congealing in the chill. She stared, unseeing, at the moonrose banner hanging at the end of the hall. The golden flower glinted faintly in the gloom.
How could he still be alive? He had been too badly wounded to survive, she’d seen that quite clearly. By the time she had found him he had nearly bled to death. And now they could say she had fed and healed an enemy of the Empire.
He is hardly an enemy of the Empire all by himself, outcast. If it makes you feel any better, consider him a prisoner. It is not dishonorable to feed prisoners. And how is the court to find out? It may be a year or more before someone is moved by idle curiosity to see if you are still alive. It is most unlikely the barbarian will wait so long to betray you. In a year’s time, there may be no Empire.
It was only custom she had broken, not the law of the Code, but it still could be used as an excuse to justify her death. She laid her head on her arms, suddenly tired. Why must he choose my posting as the place to escape his enemies? Why should I care if there is one barbarian more or less in the world?
Kashan, concerned, nosed her shoulder. She reached out a hand to stroke his head. Outside the outpost walls she heard the first banshee wails of the storm skim high.