Fawn came to the well-house a little before noon. More than a farmstead, less than an inn, it sat close to the straight road she'd been trudging down for two days. The farmyard lay open to travelers, bounded by a semicircle of old log outbuildings, with the promised covered well in the middle. To resolve all doubt, somebody had nailed a sign picturing the well itself to one of the support posts, and below the painting a long list of goods the farm might sell, with the prices. Each painstakingly printed line had a little picture below it, and colored circles of coins lined up in rows beyond, for those who could not read the words and numbers themselves. Fawn could, and keep accounts as well, skills her mother had taught her along with a hundred other household tasks. She frowned at the unbidden thought: So if I'm so clever, what am I doing in this fix?
She set her teeth and felt in her skirt pocket for her coin purse. It was not heavy, but she might certainly buy some bread. Bread would be bland. The dried mutton from her pack that she'd tried to eat this morning had made her sick, again, but she needed something to fight the horrible fatigue that slowed her steps to a plod, or she'd never make it to Glassforge. She glanced around the unpeopled yard and at the iron bell hung from the post with a pull cord dangling invitingly, then lifted her eyes to the rolling fields beyond the buildings. On a distant sunlit slope, a dozen or so people were haying. Uncertainly, she went around to the farmhouse's kitchen door and knocked.
A striped cat perching on the step eyed her without getting up. The cat's plump calm reassured Fawn, together with the good repair of the house's faded shingles and fieldstone foundation, so that when a comfortably middle-aged farmwife opened the door, Fawn's heart was hardly pounding at all.
"Yes, child?" said the woman.
I'm not a child, I'm just short, Fawn bit back; given the crinkles at the corners of the woman's friendly eyes, maybe Fawn's basket of years would still seem scant to her. "You sell bread?"
The farmwife's glance around took in her aloneness. "Aye; step in."
A broad hearth at one end of the room heated it beyond summer, and was crowded with pots hanging from iron hooks. Delectable smells of ham and beans, corn and bread and cooking fruit mingled in the moist air, noon meal in the making for the gang of hay cutters. The farmwife folded back a cloth from a lumpy row on a side table, fresh loaves from a workday that had doubtless started before dawn. Despite her nausea Fawn's mouth watered, and she picked out a loaf that the woman told her was rolled inside with crystal honey and hickory nuts. Fawn fished out a coin, wrapped the loaf in her kerchief, and took it back outside. The woman walked along with her.
"The water's clean and free, but you have to draw it yourself," the woman told her, as Fawn tore off a corner of the loaf and nibbled. "Ladle's on the hook. Which way were you heading, child?"
"By yourself?" The woman frowned. "Do you have people there?"
"Yes," Fawn lied.
"Shame on them, then. Word is there's a pack of robbers on the road near Glassforge. They shouldn't have sent you out by yourself."
"South or north of town?" asked Fawn in worry.
"A ways south, I heard, but there's no saying they'll stay put."
"I'm only going as far south as Glassforge." Fawn set the bread on the bench beside her pack, freed the latch for the crank, and let the bucket fall till a splash echoed back up the well's cool stone sides, then began turning.
Robbers did not sound good. Still, they were a frank hazard. Any fool would know enough not to go near them. When Fawn had started on this miserable journey six days ago, she had cadged rides from wagons at every chance as soon as she'd walked far enough from home not to risk encountering someone who knew her. Which had been fine until that one fellow who'd said stupid things that made her very uncomfortable and followed up with a grab and a grope. Fawn had managed to break away, and the man had not been willing to abandon his rig and restive team to chase her down, but she might have been less lucky. After that, she'd hidden discreetly in the verge from the occasional passing carts until she was sure there was a woman or a family aboard.
The few bites of bread were helping settle her stomach already. She hoisted the bucket onto the bench and took the wooden dipper the woman handed down to her. The water tasted of iron and old eggs, but was clear and cold. Better. She would rest a while on this bench in the shade, and perhaps this afternoon she would make better time.
From the road to the north, hoofbeats and a jingle of harness sounded. No creak or rattle of wheels, but quite a lot of hooves. The farmwife glanced up, her eyes narrowing, and her hand rose to the cord on the bell clapper.
"Child," she said, "see those old apple trees at the side of the yard? Why don't you just go skin up one and stay quiet till we see what this is, eh?"
Fawn thought of several responses, but settled on, "Yes'm." She started across the yard, turned back and grabbed her loaf, then trotted to the small grove. The closest tree had a set of boards nailed to the side like a ladder, and she scrambled up quickly through branches thick with leaves and hard little green apples. Her dress was dyed dull blue, her jacket brown; she would blend with the shadows here as well as she had on the road verge, likely. She braced herself along a branch, tucked in her pale hands and lowered her face, shook her head, and peered out through the cascade of black curls falling over her forehead.
The mob of riders turned into the yard, and the farmwife came off her tense toes, shoulders relaxing. She released the bell cord. There must have been a dozen and a half horses, of many colors, but all rangy and long-legged. The riders wore mostly dark clothing, had saddlebags and bedrolls tied behind their cantles, and—Fawn's breath caught—long knives and swords hanging from their belts. Many also bore bows, unstrung athwart their backs, and quivers full of arrows.
No, not all men. A woman rode out of the pack, slid from her horse, and nodded to the farmwife. She was dressed much as the rest, in riding trousers and boots and a long leather vest, and had iron-gray hair braided and tied in a tight knot at her nape. The men wore their hair long too: some braided back or tied in queues, with decorations of glass beads or bright metal or colored threads twisted in, some knotted tight and plain like the woman's.
Lakewalkers. A whole patrol of them, apparently. Fawn had seen their kind only once before, when she'd come with her parents and brothers to Lumpton Market to buy special seed, glass jars, rock oil and wax, and dyes. Not a patrol, that time, but a clan of traders from the wilderness up around the Dead Lake, who had brought fine furs and leathers and odd woodland produce and clever metalwork and more secret items: medicines, or maybe subtle poisons. The Lakewalkers were rumored to practice black sorcery.
Other, less unlikely rumors abounded. Lakewalker kinfolk did not settle in one place, but moved about from camp to camp depending on the needs of the season. No man among them owned his own land, carefully parceling it out amongst his heirs, but considered the vast wild tracts to be held in common by all his kin. A man owned only the clothes he stood in, his weapons, and the catches of his hunts. When they married, a woman did not become mistress of her husband's house, obliged to the care of his aging parents; instead a man moved into the tents of his bride's mother, and became as a son to her family. There were also whispers of strange bed customs among them which, maddeningly, no one would confide to Fawn.
On one thing, the folks were clear. If you suffered an incursion by a blight bogle, you called in the Lakewalkers. And you did not cheat them of their pay once they had removed the menace.
Fawn was not entirely sure she believed in blight bogles. For all the tall tales, she had never encountered one in her life, no, nor known anyone else who had, either. They seemed like ghost stories, got up to thrill the shrewd listeners and frighten the gullible ones. She had been gulled by her snickering older brothers far too many times to rise readily to the bait anymore.
She froze again when she realized that one of the patrollers was walking toward her tree. He looked different than the others, and it took her a moment to realize that his dark hair was not long and neatly braided, but cut short to an untidy tousle. He was alarmingly tall, though, and very lean. He yawned and stretched, and something glinted on his left hand. At first Fawn thought it was a knife, then realized with a slight chill that the man had no left hand. The glint was from some sort of hook or clamp, but how it was fastened to his wrist beneath his long sleeve she could not see. To her dismay, he ambled into the shade directly below her, there to lower his long body, prop his back comfortably against her tree trunk, and close his eyes.
Fawn jerked and nearly fell out of the tree when the farmwife reached up and rang her bell after all. Two loud clanks and three, repeated: evidently a signal or call, not an alarm, for she was talking all the time in an animated way with the patroller woman. Now that Fawn's eyes had time to sort them out in their strange garb, she could see three or four more women among the men. A couple of men busied themselves at the well, hauling up the bucket to slosh the water into the wooden trough on the side opposite the bench; others led their horses in turn to drink. A boy loped around the outbuildings in answer to the bell, and the farmwife sent him with several more of the patrollers into the barn. Two of the younger women followed the farmwife into her house, and came out in a while with packets wrapped in cloth—more of the good farm food, obviously. The others emerged from the barn lugging sacks of what Fawn supposed must be grain for their horses.
They all met again by the well, where a brief, vigorous conversation ensued between the farmwife and the gray-haired patroller woman. It ended with a counting over of sacks and packets in return for coins and some small items from the patroller saddlebags that Fawn could not make out, to the apparent satisfaction of both sides. The patrol broke up into small groups to seek shade around the yard and share food.
The patrol leader walked over to Fawn's tree and sat down cross-legged beside the tall man. "You have the right idea, Dag."
A grunt. If the man opened his eyes, Fawn could not tell; her leaf-obstructed view was now of two ovals, one smooth and gray, the other ruffled and dark. And a lot of booted leg, stretched out.
"So what did your old friend have to say?" asked the man. His low voice sounded tired, or maybe it was just naturally raspy. "Malice confirmed, or not?"
"Rumors of bandits only, so far, but a lot of disappearances around Glassforge. With no bodies found."
"Here, eat." She handed him something, ham wrapped in bread judging by the enticing aroma that rose to Fawn. The woman lowered her voice. "You feel anything yet?"
"You have better groundsense than I do," he mumbled around a mouthful. "If you don't, I surely won't."
"Experience, Dag. I've been in on maybe nine kills in my life. You've done what—fifteen? Twenty?"
"More, but the rest were just little ones. Lucky finds."
"Lucky ha, and little ones count just the same. They'd have been big ones by the next year." She took a bite of her own food, chewed, and sighed. "The children are excited."
"Noticed. They're going to start setting each other off if they get wound up much tighter."
A snort, presumably of agreement.
The raspy voice grew suddenly urgent. "If we do find the malice's lair, put the youngsters to the back."
"Can't. They need the experience, just as we did."
A mutter: "Some experiences no one needs."
The woman ignored this, and said, "I thought I'd pair Saun with you."
"Spare me. Unless I'm pulling camp guard duty. Again."
"Not this time. The Glassforge folk are offering a passel of men to help."
"Ah, spare us all. Clumsy farmers, worse than the children."
"It's their folk being lost. They've a right."
"Doubt they could even take out real bandits." He added after a moment, "Or they would have by now." And after another, "If they are real bandits."
"Thought I'd stick the Glassforgers with holding the horses, mostly. If it is a malice, and if it's grown as big as Chato fears, we'll need every pair of our hands to the front."
A short silence. "Poor word choice, Mari."
"Bucket's over there. Soak your head, Dag. You know what I meant."
The right hand waved. "Yeah, yeah."
With an oof, the woman rose to her feet. "Eat. That's an order, if you like."
"I'm not nervy."
"No"—the woman sighed—"no, you are not that." She strode off.
The man settled back again. Go away, you, Fawn thought down at him resentfully. I have to pee.
But in a few minutes, just before she was driven by her body's needs into entirely unwelcome bravery, the man got up and wandered after the patrol leader. His steps were unhurried but long, and he was across the yard before the leader gave a vague wave of her hand and a side glance. Fawn could not see how it could be an order, yet somehow, everyone in the patrol was suddenly up and in motion, saddlebags repacked, girths tightened. The whole lot of them were mounted and on their way in five minutes.
Fawn slipped down the tree trunk and peered around it. The one-handed man—riding rear guard?—was looking back over his shoulder. She ducked out of sight again till the hoofbeats faded, then unclutched the apple tree and went to seek the farmwife. Her pack, she was relieved to see in passing, lay untouched on the bench.
Dag glanced back, wondering anew about the little farm girl who'd been hiding shyly up the apple tree. There, now—down she slid, but he still gained no clear look at her. Not that a few leaves and branches could hide a life-spark so bright from his groundsense at that range.
His mind's eye sketched a picture of her tidy farm raided by a malice's mud-men, all its cheerful routine turned to ash and blood and charnel smoke. Or worse—and not imagination but memory supplied the vision—a ruination like the Western Levels beyond the Gray River, not six hundred miles west of here. Not so far away to him, who had ridden or walked the distance a dozen times, yet altogether beyond these local people's horizons. Endless miles of open flat, so devastated that even rocks could not hold their shape and slumped into gray dust. To cross that vast blight leached the ground from one's body as a desert parched the mouth, and it was just as potentially lethal to linger there. A thousand years of sparse rains had only begun to sculpt the Levels into something resembling a landscape again. To see this farm girl's green rolling lands laid low like that . . .
Not if I can help it, Little Spark.
He doubted they would meet again, or that she would ever know what her—mother's?—strange customers today sought to do on her behalf and their own. Still, he could not begrudge her his weariness in this endless task. The country people who gained even a partial understanding of the methods called it black necromancy and sidled away from patrollers in the street. But they accepted their gift of safety all the same. So yet again, one more time anew, we will buy the death of this malice with one of our own.
But not more than one, not if he could make it so.
Dag clapped his heels to his horse's sides and cantered after his patrol.
The farmwife watched thoughtfully as Fawn packed up her bedroll, straightened the straps, and hitched it over her shoulder once more. "It's near a day's ride to Glassforge from here," she remarked. "Longer, walking. You're like to be benighted on the road."
"It's all right," said Fawn. "I've not had trouble finding a place to sleep." Which was true enough. It was easy to find a cranny to curl up in out of sight of the road, and bedtime was a simple routine when all you did was spread a blanket and lie down, unwashed and unbrushed, in your clothes. The only pests that had found her in the dark were the mosquitoes and ticks.
"You could sleep in the barn. Start off early tomorrow." Shading her eyes, the woman stared down the road where the patrollers had vanished a while ago. "I'd not charge you for it, child."
Her honest concern for Fawn's safety stood clear in her face. Fawn was torn between unjust anger and a desire to burst into tears, equally uncomfortable lumps in her stomach and throat. I'm not twelve, woman. She thought of saying so, and more. She had to start practicing it sooner or later: I'm twenty. I'm a widow. The phrases did not rise readily to her lips as yet.
Still . . . the farmwife's offer beguiled her mind. Stay a day, do a chore or two or six and show how useful she could be, stay another day, and another . . . farms always needed more hands, and Fawn knew how to keep hers busy. Her first planned act when she reached Glassforge was to look for work. Plenty of work right here—familiar tasks, not scary and strange.
But Glassforge had been the goal of her imagination for weeks now. It seemed like quitting to stop short. And wouldn't a town offer better privacy? Not necessarily, she realized with a sigh. Wherever she went, folks would get to know her sooner or later. Maybe it was all the same, no new horizons anywhere, really.
She mustered her flagging determination. "Thanks, but I'm expected. Folk'll worry if I'm late."
The woman gave a little headshake, a combination of conceding the argument and farewell. "Take care, then." She turned back to her house and her own onslaught of tasks, duties that probably kept her running from before dawn to after dark.
A life I would have taken up, except for Sunny Sawman, Fawn thought gloomily, climbing back up to the straight road once more. I'd have taken it up for the sake of Sunny Sawman, and never thought of another.
Well, I've thought of another now, and I'm not going to go and unthink it. Let's go see Glassforge.
One more time, she called up her wearied fury with Sunny, the low, stupid, nasty . . . stupid fool, and let it stiffen her spine. Nice to know he had a use after all, of a sort. She faced south and began marching.
Last year's leaves were damp and black with rot underfoot, and as Dag climbed the steep slope in the dark, his boot slid. Instantly, a strong and anxious hand grasped his right arm.
"Do that again," said Dag in a level whisper, "and I'll beat you senseless. Quit trying to protect me, Saun."
"Sorry," Saun whispered back, releasing the death clutch. After a momentary pause, he added, "Mari says she won't pair you with the girls anymore because you're overprotective."
Dag swallowed a curse. "Well, that does not apply to you. Senseless. And bloody."
He could feel Saun's grin flash in the shadows of the woods. They heaved themselves upward a few more yards, finding handgrips among the rocks and roots and saplings.
"Stop," Dag breathed.
A nearly soundless query from his right.
"We'll be up on them over this rise. What you can see, can see you, and if there's anything over there with groundsense, you'll look like a torch in the trees. Stop it down, boy."
A grunt of frustration. "But I can't see Razi and Utau. I can barely see you. You're like an ember under a handful of ash."
"I can track Razi and Utau. Mari holds us all in her head, you don't have to. You only have to track me." He slipped behind the youth and gripped his right shoulder, massaging. He wished he could do both sides together, but this touch seemed to be enough; the flaring tension started to go out of Saun, both body and mind. "Down. Down. That's right. Better." And after a moment, "You're going to do just fine."
Dag had no idea whether Saun was going to do well or disastrously, but Saun evidently believed him, with appalling earnestness; the bright anxiety decreased still further.
"Besides," Dag added, "it's not raining. Can't have a debacle without rain. It's obligatory, in my experience. So we're good." The humor was weak, but under the circumstances, worked well enough; Saun chuckled.
He released the youth, and they continued their climb.
"Is the malice there?" muttered Saun.
Dag stopped again, bending in the shadows to hook up a plant left-sided. He held it under Saun's nose. "See this?"
Saun's head jerked backward. "It's poison ivy. Get it out of my face."
"If we were this close to a malice's lair, not even the poison ivy would still be alive. Though I admit, it would be among the last to go. This isn't the lair."
"Then why are we here?"
Behind them, Dag could hear the men from Glassforge topping the ridge and starting down into the ravine out of which he and the patrol were climbing. Second wave. Even Saun didn't manage to make that much noise. Mari had better land her punches before their helpers closed the gap, or there would be no surprise left. "Chato thinks this robber troop has been infiltrated, or worse, suborned. Catch us a mud-man, it'll lead us to its maker, quick enough."
"Do mud-men have groundsense?"
"Some. Malice ever catches one of us, it takes everything. Groundsense. Methods and weapon skills. Locations of our camps . . . Likely the first human this one caught was a road robber, trying to hide out in the hills, which is why it's doing what it is. None of us have been reported missing, so we still may have the edge. A patroller doesn't let a malice take him alive if he can help it." Or his partner. Enough lessons for one night. "Climb."
On the ridgetop, they crouched low.
Smoothly, Saun strung his bow. Less smoothly but just as quickly, Dag unshipped and strung his shorter, adapted one, then swapped out the hook screwed into the wooden cuff strapped to the stump of his left wrist, and swapped in the bow-rest. He seated it good and tight, clamped the lock, and dropped the hook into the pouch on his belt. Undid the guard strap on his sheath and made sure the big knife would draw smoothly. It was all scarcely more awkward than carrying the bow in his hand had once been, and at least he couldn't drop it.
At the bottom of the dell, Dag could see the clearing through the trees: three or four campfires burning low, tents, and an old cabin with half its roof tumbled in. Lumps of sleeping men in bedrolls, like scratchy burrs touching his groundsense. The faint flares of a guard, awake in the woods beyond, and someone stumbling back from the slit trenches. The sleepy smudges of a few horses tethered beyond. Words of the body's senses for something his eyes did not see nor hand touch. Maybe twenty-five men altogether, against the patrol's sixteen and the score or so of volunteers from Glassforge. He began to sort through the life-prickles, looking for things shaped like men that . . . weren't.
The night sounds of the woods carried on: the croak of tree frogs, the chirp of crickets, the sawing of less identifiable insects. An occasional tiny rustle in the weeds. Anything bigger might have been either scared off by the noise of the camp below, or, depending on how the robbers buried their scraps, attracted. Dag felt around with his groundsense beyond the tightening perimeter of the patrol, but found no nervous scavengers.
Then, too soon, a startled yell from his far right, partway around the patroller circle. Grunts, cries, the ring of metal on metal. The camp stirred. That's it, in we go.
"Closer," snapped Dag to Saun, and led a slide downslope to shorten their range. By the time he'd closed the distance to a bare twenty paces and found a gap in the trees through which to shoot, the targets were obligingly rising to their feet. From even farther to his right, a flaming arrow arced high and came down on a tent; in a few minutes, he might even be able to see what he was shooting at.
Dag let both fear and hope fade from his mind, together with worries about the inner nature of what they faced. It was just targets. One at a time. That one. And that one. And in that confusion of flickering shadows. . . .
Dag loosed another shaft, and was rewarded by a distant yelp. He had no idea what he'd hit or where, but it would be moving slower now. He paused to observe, and was satisfied when Saun's next shaft also vanished into the black dark beyond the cabin and returned a meaty thunk they could hear all the way up here. All around in the woods, the patrol was igniting with excitement; his head would be as full of them as Mari's was in a moment if they didn't all get a grip on themselves.
The advantage of twenty paces was that it was a nice, short, snappy range to shoot from. The disadvantage was how little time it took your targets to run up on your position . . .
Dag cursed as three or four large shapes came crashing through the dark at them. He let his bow arm pivot down and yanked out his knife. Glancing right, he saw Saun pull his long sword, swing, and make the discovery that a blade length that gave great advantage from horseback was awkwardly constrained in a close-grown woods.
"You can't lop heads here!" Dag yelled over his shoulder. "Go to thrusts!" He grunted as he folded in his bow-arm and shoved his left shoulder into the nearest attacker, knocking the man back down the hillside. He caught a blade that came out of seeming-nowhere on the brass of his hilt, and with a shuddering scrape closed in along it for a well-placed knee to a target groin. These men might have fancied themselves bandits, but they still fought like farmers.
Saun raised a leg and booted his blade free of a target; the man's cry choked in his throat, and the withdrawing steel made an ugly sucking noise. Saun followed Dag at a run toward the bandit camp. Razi and Utau, to their right and left, paced them, closing in tight as they all descended, stooping like hawks.
In the clearing, Saun devolved to his favorite powerful swings again. Which worked spectacularly bloodily when they connected, and left him wide open when they didn't. A target succeeded in ducking, then came up swinging a long-handled, iron-headed sledgehammer. The breaking-pumpkin sound when it hit Saun's chest made Dag's stomach heave. Dag leaped inside the target's lethal radius, clutched him tightly around the back with his bow-arm, and brought his knife up hard. Wet horrors spilled over his hand, and he twisted the knife and shoved the target off it. Saun lay on his back, writhing, his face darkening.
"Utau! Cover us!" Dag yelled. Utau, gasping for breath, nodded and took up a protective stance, blade ready. Dag slid down to Saun's side, snapped off his bow lock and dropped it, and raised Saun's head to his lap, letting his right hand slide over the strike zone.
Broken ribs and shattered breathing, heart shocked still. Dag let his groundsense, nearly extinguished so as to block his targets' agony, come up fully, then flow into the boy. The pain was immense. Heart first. He concentrated himself there. A dangerous unity, if the yoked organs both chose to stop instead of start. A burning, lumping sensation in his own chest mirrored the boy's. Come on, Saun, dance with me . . . A flutter, a stutter, a bruised limping. Stronger. Now the lungs. One breath, two, three, and the chest rose again, then again, and finally steadied in synchrony. Good, yes, heart and lungs would continue on their own.
The stunning reverberation of Saun's targets' ill fates still sloshed through the boy's system, insufficiently blocked. Mari would have some work there, later. I hate fighting humans. Regretfully, Dag let the pain flow back to its source. The boy would be walking bent over for a month, but he would live.
The world returned to his senses. Around the clearing, bandits were starting to surrender as the yelling Glassforge men arrived and broke from the woods. Dag grabbed up his bow and rose to his feet, looking around. Beyond the burning tent, he spotted Mari. Dag! her mouth moved, but the cry was lost in the noise. She raised two fingers, pointed beyond the clearing on the opposite side, and snapped them down against her armguard. Dag's head swiveled.
Two bandits had dodged through the perimeter and were running away. Dag waved his bow in acknowledgment, and cried to his left linker, "Utau! Take Saun?"
Utau signaled his receipt of Dag's injured partner. Dag turned to give chase, trying to reaffix the bow to its clamp as he ran. By the time he'd succeeded, he was well beyond the light from the fires. Closer . . .
The horse nearly ran him down; he leaped away barely before he could be knocked aside. The fugitives were riding double, a big man in front and a huge one behind.
No. That second one wasn't a man.
Dizzied with excitement, the chase, and the aftershock of Saun's injury, Dag bent a moment, gasping for control of his own breathing. His hand rose to check the twin knife sheath hung under his shirt, a reassuring lump against his chest. Dark, warm, mortal hum. Mud-man. We have you. You and your maker are ours . . .
He despised tracking from horseback, but he wasn't going to catch them on foot, not even with that dual burden. He calmed himself again, down, down, ours!, down curse it, and summoned his horse. It would take Copperhead several minutes to blunder through the woods from the patrol's hidden assembly point. He knelt and removed his bow again, unstrung and stored it, and fumbled out the most useful of his hand replacements, a simple hook with a flat tongue of springy steel set against its outside curve to act as a sometimes-pincer. Tapping out a resin-soaked stick from the tin case in his vest pocket, he set it in the pinch of the spring and persuaded it to ignite. As the flare burned down to its end, he shuffled back and forth studying the hoofprints. When he was sure he could recognize them again, he pushed to his feet.
His quarry had nearly passed the limit of his groundsense by the time his mount arrived, snorting, and Dag swung aboard. Where one horse went another could follow, right? He kicked Copperhead after them at a speed that would have had Mari swearing at him for risking his fool neck in the dark. Mine.
Now that she was finally coming out of the flats into the southeastern hills, the straight road was not as level as it had run since Lumpton, nor as straight. Its gentle slopes and curves were interspersed with odd climbs up through narrow, choked ravines that slashed through the rock, or down to timber bridges replacing shattered stone spans that lay like old bones between one impossible jumping-off point and another. The track dodged awkwardly around old rockfalls, or wet its feet and hers in fords.
Fawn wondered when she would finally reach Glassforge. It couldn't be too much farther, for all that she had made a slow start this dawn. The last of the good bread had stayed down, at least. The day threatened to grow hot and sticky, later. Here, the road was pleasantly shaded, with woods crowding up to both sides.
So far this morning she had passed a farm cart, a pack train of mules, and a small flock of sheep, all going the other way. She'd encountered nothing else for nearly an hour. Now she raised her head to see a horse coming toward her, down the road a piece. Also going the wrong way, unfortunately. As it neared, she stepped aside. Not only headed north, but also already double-loaded. Bareback. The animal was plodding almost as wearily as Fawn, its unbrushed dun hair smeared with salty crusts of dried sweat, burrs matting its black mane and tail.
The riders seemed as tired and ill kept as the horse. A big fellow looking not much older than her actual age rode in front, all rumpled jacket and stubbled chin. Behind him, his bigger companion clung on. The second man had lumpy features and long untrimmed nails so crusted with dirt as to look black, and a blank expression. His too-small clothes seemed an afterthought: a ragged shirt hanging open with sleeves rolled up, trousers that did not reach his boot tops. His age was hard to guess. Fawn wondered if he was a simpleton. They both looked as though they were making their way home from a night of drinking, or worse. The young man bore a big hunting knife, though the other seemed weaponless. Fawn marched past with the briefest nod, making no greeting to them, though out of the corner of her eye she could see both their heads turn. She walked on, not looking back.
The receding rhythm of hoofbeats stopped. She dared a glance over her shoulder. The two men seemed to be arguing, in voices too hushed and rumbling for her to make out the words, except a reiterated, "Master want!" in rising, urgent tones from the simpleton, and a sharp, aggravated "Why?" from the other. She lowered her face and walked faster. The hoofbeats started again, but instead of fading into the distance, grew louder.
The animal loomed alongside. "Morning," the younger man called down in a would-be cheerful tone. Fawn glanced up. He tugged his dirty blond hair at her politely, but his smile did not reach his eyes. The simpleton just stared tensely at her.
Fawn combined a civil nod with a repelling frown, starting to think, Please, let there be a cart. Cows. Other riders, anything, I don't care which direction.
"Going to Glassforge?" he inquired.
"I'm expected," Fawn returned shortly. Go away. Just turn around and go away.
"Yes." She considered inventing some large Glassforge brothers and uncles, or just relocating the real ones. The plague of her life, she almost wished for them now.
The simpleton thumped his friend on the shoulder, scowling. "No talk. Just take." His voice came out smeared, as though his mouth was the wrong shape inside.
A manure wagon would be just lovely. One with a lot of people on board, preferably.
"You do it, then," snapped the young man.
The simpleton shrugged, braced his hands, and slid himself off right over the horse's rump. He landed more neatly than Fawn would have expected. She lengthened her stride; then, as he came around the horse toward her, she broke into a dead run, looking around frantically.
The trees were no help. Anything she could climb, he could too. To get out of sight long enough to hide in the woods, she had to outpace her pursuer by an impossible margin. Might she stay ahead until a miracle occurred, such as someone riding around that long curve up ahead?
He moved faster than she would have guessed for a man that size, too. Before her third breath or step, huge hands clamped around her upper arms and lifted her right off her pumping feet. At this range she could see that their nails were not just dirty but utterly black, like claws. They bit through her jacket as he swung her around.
She yelled as loud as she could, "Let go of me! Let go!" followed up with throat-searing screams. She kicked and struggled with all her strength. It was like fighting an oak tree, for all the result she got.
"Well, now you've got her all riled up," said the young man in disgust. He too slid off the horse, stared a moment, and pulled off the rope holding up his trousers. "We'll have to tie her hands. Unless you want your eyes clawed out."
Good idea. Fawn tried. Useless: the simpleton's hands remained clamped on her wrists, yanked high over her head. She writhed around and bit a bare, hairy arm. The huge man's skin had a most peculiar smell and taste, like cat fur, not as foul as she would have expected. Her satisfaction at drawing blood was short-lived as he spun her around and, still without visible emotion, fetched her an open-handed slap across the face that snapped her head back and dropped her to the road, black-and-purple shadows boiling up in her vision.
Her ears were still ringing when she was jerked upright and tied, then lifted. The simpleton handed her up to the young man, now back aboard his horse. He shoved at her skirts and set her upright in front of him, both hands clamped around her waist. The horse's sweaty barrel was warm under her legs. The simpleton took the reins to lead them and started walking once more, faster.
"There, that's better," said the man who held her, his sour breath wafting past her ear. "Sorry he hit you, but you shouldn't have run from him. Come on along, you'll have more fun with me." One hand wandered up and squeezed her breast. "Huh. Riper than I thought."
Fawn, gasping for air and still shuddering with shock, licked at a wet trickle from her nose. Was it tears, or blood, or both? She pulled surreptitiously at the rope around her wrists uncomfortably binding her hands. The knots seemed very tight. She considered more screaming. No, they might hit her again, or gag her. Better to pretend to be stunned, and then if they passed anyone within shouting distance, she'd still have command of her voice and her legs.
This hopeful plan lasted all of ten minutes, when, before anyone else hove into sight, they turned right off the road onto a hidden path. The young man's clutch had turned into an almost lazy embrace, and his hands wandered up and down her torso. As they started up a slope, he hitched forward as she slid backward, shoved her bedroll out of the way, and held her backside more tightly against his front, letting the horse's movement rub them together.
As much as this flagrant interest frightened her, she wasn't sure but what the simpleton's indifference frightened her more. The young man was being nasty in predictable ways. The other . . . she had no idea what he was thinking, if anything.
Well, if this is going where it looks, at least they can't make me pregnant. Thank you, stupid Sunny Sawman. As bright sides went, that one stank like a cesspit, but she had to allow the point. She hated her body's trembling, signaling her fear to her captor, but she could not stop it. The simpleton led them deeper into the woods.
Dag stood in his stirrups when the distant yelling echoed through the trees from the broad ravine, so high and fierce that he could barely distinguish words: Let! Go!
He kicked his horse into a trot, ignoring the branches that swiped and scratched them both. The strange marks he'd read in the road a couple of miles back suddenly grew a lot more worrisome. He'd been trailing his quarry at the outermost edge of his groundsense for hours, now, while the night's exhaustion crept up on his body and wits, hoping that they were leading him to the malice's lair. His suspicion that a new concern had been added to his pack chilled his belly as the outraged cries continued.
He popped over a rise and took a fast shortcut down an erosion gully with his horse nearly sliding on its haunches. His quarry came into sight at last in a small clearing. What . . . ? He snapped his jaw shut and cantered forward, heedless of his own noise now. Pulled up at ten paces, flung himself off, let his hand go through the steps of stringing and mounting and locking his bow without conscious thought.
It was abundantly clear that he wasn't interrupting someone's tryst. The kneeling mud-man, blank-faced, was holding down the shoulders of a struggling figure who was obscured by his comrade. The other man was trying, simultaneously, to pull down his trousers and part the legs of the captive, who was kicking valiantly at him. He cursed as a small foot connected.
"No time to stop," grumbled the mud-man. "Need to go on. No time for this."
"It won't take long if you just . . . hold her . . . still!" He finally managed to shove his hips inside the angle of the kicks.
Absent gods, was that a child they were pinning to the dirt? Dag's groundsense threatened to boil over; distracted or no, the mud-man must notice him soon even if the other had his backside turned. The middle figure surged upward briefly, face flushed and black curls flying, dress pulled half-down as well as shoved half-up. A flash of sweet breasts like apples smote Dag's eyes. Oh. That short rounded form was no child after all. But outweighed like one nonetheless.
Dag quelled his fury and drew. Those heaving moon-colored buttocks had to be the most righteous target ever presented to his aim. And for once in his accursed life, it seemed he was not too late. He considered this marvel for the whole moment it took to adjust his tension to be sure the arrow would not go through and into the girl. Woman. Whatever she was.
He was reaching for another shaft before the first found its mark. The perfection of the thunk, square in the middle of the left cheek, was even more satisfying than the surprised scream that followed. The bandit bucked and rolled off the girl, howling and trying to reach around himself, twisting from side to side.
Now the danger was not halved, but doubled. The mud-man stood abruptly, seeing Dag at last, and dragged the girl up in front of his torso as a shield. His height and her shortness thwarted his intent; Dag sent his next shaft toward the creature's calf. It was a glancing hit, but stung. The mud-man leaped.
Did this one have enough wits to threaten his prisoner in order to stop Dag? Dag didn't wait to find out. Lips drawn back in a fierce grin, he drew his war knife and pelted forward. Death was in his stride.
The mud-man saw it; fear flashed in that sullen, lumpy face. With a panicked heave, he tossed the crying girl toward Dag, turned, and fled.
Bow still encumbering his left arm, the knife in his right hand, Dag had no way to catch her. The best he could do was fling his arms wide so that she wasn't stabbed or battered. He lost his skidding balance on her impact, and they both went down in a tangle.
For a moment, she was on top of him, her breath knocked out, her body's softness squashed onto his. She inhaled, made a strained squeaking noise, yanked herself up, and began clawing at his face. He tried to get out words to calm her, but she wouldn't let him; finally he was forced to let go of his weapon and just fling her off. With two live enemies still on the ground, he would have to deal with her next. He rolled away, snatched up his knife again, and surged to his feet.
The mud-man had scrambled back up on the bandit's horse. He yanked the beast's head around and tried to ride Dag down. Dag dodged, started to flip his knife around for a throw, thought better of it, dropped it again, reached back to his now-twisted-around quiver, and drew one of his few remaining arrows. Nocked, aimed.
Let the creature keep running, back to the lair. Dag could pick up those tracks again if he had to. One wounded prisoner would test the limits of what he could handle right now. A prisoner who was, most definitely, going to be made to talk. The horse vanished up the faint trail leading out of the clearing that paralleled the course of a nearby creek. Dag lowered the bow and looked around.
The human bandit too had disappeared, but for once, tracking was not going to be any trouble. Dag pointed to the girl, now standing up a few yards away and struggling to readjust her torn blue dress. "Stay there." He followed the blood trail.
Past a screen of saplings and brush lining the clearing, the splashes grew heavier. By the boulders of the creek a figure lay prone and silent in a red puddle, trousers about his knees, Dag's arrow clutched in his hand.
Too still. Dag set his teeth. The man had evidently tried to drag the maddening shaft out of his flesh by main force, and must have ripped open an artery doing so. That wasn't a killing shot, blight it! Wasn't supposed to be. Good intentions, where have we met before? Dag balanced himself and shoved the body over with one foot. The pale unshaven face looked terribly young in death, even shadowed as it was by dirt. No answers now to be squeezed from this one; he had reached the last of all betrayals.
"Absent gods. More children. Is there no end to them?" Dag muttered.
He looked up to see the woman-child standing a few paces back along the blood trail, staring at them both. Her eyes were huge and brown, like a terrified deer's. At least she wasn't screaming anymore. She frowned down at her late assailant, and an unvoiced Oh ghosted from her tender, bitten lips. A livid bruise was starting up one side of her face, scored with four parallel red gouges. "He's dead?"
"Unfortunately. And unnecessarily. If he'd just lain still and waited for help, I'd have taken him prisoner."
She looked him up, and up, and down, fearfully. The top of her dark head, were they standing closer, would come just about to the middle of his chest, Dag judged. Self-consciously, he tucked his bow-hand down by his side, half out of sight around his thigh, and sheathed his knife.
"I know who you are!" she said suddenly. "You're that Lakewalker patroller I saw at the well-house!"
Dag blinked, and blinked again, and let his groundsense, shielded from the shock of this death, come up again. She blazed in his perceptions. "Little Spark! What are you doing so far from your farm?"
The tall patroller was staring at Fawn as though he recognized her. She wrinkled her nose in confusion, not following his words. From this angle and distance, she could at last see the color of his eyes, which were an unexpected metallic gold. They seemed very bright in his bony face, against weathered skin tanned to a dark coppery sheen on his face and hand. Several sets of scratches scored his cheeks and forehead and jaw, most just red but some bleeding. I did that, oh dear.
Beyond, the body of her would-be ravisher lay on the smoothed stones of the creek bank. Some of his still-wet blood trickled into the creek, to swirl away in the clear water in faint red threads, dissipating to pink and then gone. He had been so hotly, heavily, frighteningly alive just minutes ago, when she had wished him dead. Now she had her wish, she was not so sure.
"I . . . it . . . ' she began, waving an uncertain hand at, well, everything, then blurted, "I'm sorry I scratched you up. I didn't understand what was coming at me." Then added, "You scared me." I think I've lost my wits.
A hesitant smile turned the patroller's lips, making him look for a moment like someone altogether else. Not so . . . looming. "I was trying to scare the other fellow."
"It worked," she allowed, and the smile firmed briefly before fleeing again.
He felt his face, glanced at the red smears on his fingertips as if surprised, then shrugged and looked back at her. The weight of his attention was startling to her, as though no one in her life had ever looked at her before, really looked; in her present shaky state, it was not a comfortable sensation.
"Are you all right otherwise?" he asked gravely. His right hand made an inquiring jerk. The other he still held down by his side, the short, powerful-looking bow cocked at an angle out of the way by his leg. "Aside from your face."
"My face?" Her quivering fingertips probed where the simpleton had struck her. Still a little numb, but starting to ache. "Does it show?"
"Those gouges don't look so good. I have some things in my saddlebags to clean them up. Come away, here, come sit down, um . . . away."
From that. She eyed the corpse and swallowed. "All right." And added, "I'm all right. I'll stop shaking in a minute, sure. Stupid of me."
With his open hand not coming within three feet of her, he herded her back toward the clearing like someone shooing ducks. He pointed to a big fallen log a way apart from the scuffed spot of her recent struggle and walked to his horse, a rangy chestnut calmly browsing in the weeds trailing its reins. She plunked down heavily and sat bent over, arms wrapped around herself, rocking a little. Her throat was raw, her stomach hurt, and though she wasn't gasping anymore, it still felt as though she couldn't get her breath back or that it had returned badly out of rhythm.
The patroller carefully turned his back to Fawn, did something to dismantle his bow, and rummaged in his saddlebag. More adjustments of some sort. He turned again, shrugging the strap of a water bottle over one shoulder, and with a couple of cloth-wrapped packets tucked under his left arm. Fawn blinked, because he seemed to have suddenly regained a left hand, stiffly curved in a leather glove.
He lowered himself beside her with a tired-sounding grunt, and arranged those legs. At this range he smelled, not altogether unpleasantly, of dried sweat, woodsmoke, horse, and fatigue. He laid out the packets and handed her the bottle. "Drink, first."
She nodded. The water was flat and tepid but seemed clean.
"Eat." He held out a piece of bread fished from the one cloth.
"No, really. It'll give your body something to do besides shake. Very distractible that way, bodies. Try it."
Doubtfully, she took it and nibbled. It was very good bread, if a little dry by now, and she thought she recognized its source. She had to take another sip of water to force it down, but her uncontrolled trembling grew less. She peeked at his stiff left hand as he opened the second cloth, and decided it must be carved of wood, for show.
He wetted a bit of cloth with something from a small bottle—Lakewalker medicine?—and raised his right hand to her aching left cheek. She flinched, although the cool liquid did not sting.
"Sorry. Don't want to leave those dirty."
"No. Yes. I mean, right. It's all right. I think the simpleton clawed me when he hit me." Claws. Those had been claws, not nails. What kind of monstrous birth . . . ?
His lips thinned, but his touch remained firm.
"I'm sorry I didn't come up on you sooner, miss. I could see something had happened back on the road, there. I'd been trailing those two all night. My patrol seized their gang's camp a couple of hours after midnight, up in the hills on the other side of Glassforge. I'm afraid I flushed them right into you."
She shook her head, not in denial. "I was walking down the road. They just picked me up like you'd pick up a lost . . . thing, and claim it was yours." Her frown deepened. "No . . . not just. They argued first. Strange. The one who was . . . um . . . the one you shot, he didn't want to take me along, at first. It was the other one who insisted. But he wasn't interested in me at all, later. When—just before you came." And added under her breath, not expecting an answer, "What was he?"
"Raccoon, is my best guess," said the patroller. He turned the cloth, hiding browning blood, and wet it again, moving down her cheek to the next gash.
This bizarre answer seemed so entirely unrelated to her question that she decided he must not have heard her aright. "No, I mean the big fellow who hit me. The one who ran away from you. He didn't seem right in the head."
"Truer than you guess, miss. I've been hunting those creatures all my life. You get so you can tell. He was a made thing. Confirms that a malice—your folk would call it a blight bogle—has emerged near here. The malice makes slaves of human shape for itself, to fight, or do its dirty work. Other shapes too, sometimes. Mud-men, we call them. But the malice can't make them up out of nothing. So it catches animals, and reshapes them. Crudely at first, till it grows stronger and smarter. Can't make life at all, really. Only death. Its slaves don't last too long, but it hardly cares."
Was he gulling her, like her brothers? Seeing how much a silly little farm girl could be made to swallow down whole? He seemed perfectly serious, but maybe he was just especially good at tall tales. "Are you saying that blight bogles are real?"
It was his turn to look surprised. "Where are you from, miss?" he asked in renewed caution.
She started to name the village nearest her family's farm, but changed it to "Lumpton Market." It was a bigger town, more anonymous. She straightened, trying to marshal the casual phrase I'm a widow and push it past her bruised lips.
"What's your name?"
"Fawn. Saw . . . field," she added, and flinched. She'd wanted neither Sunny's name nor her own family's, and now she'd stuck herself with some of both.
"Fawn. Apt," said the patroller, with a sideways tilt of his head. "You must have had those eyes from birth."
It was that uncomfortable weighty attention again. She tried shoving back: "What's yours?" though she thought she already knew.
"I answer to Dag."
She waited a moment. "Isn't there any more?"
He shrugged. "I have a tent name, a camp name, and a hinterland name, but Dag is easier to shout." The smile glimmered by again. "Short is better, in the field. Dag, duck! See? If it were any longer, it might be too late. Ah, that's better."
She realized she'd smiled back. She didn't know if it was his talk or his bread or just the sitting down quietly, but her stomach had finally stopped shuddering. She was left hot and tired and drained.
He restoppered his bottle.
"Shouldn't you use that too?" she asked.
"Oh. Yeah." Cursorily, he turned the cloth again and swiped it over his face. He missed about half the marks.
"Why did you call me Little Spark?"
"When you were hiding above me in that apple tree yesterday, that's how I thought of you."
"I didn't think you could see me. You never looked up!"
"You didn't act as though to wanted to be seen. It only seemed polite." He added, "I thought that pretty farm was your home."
"It was pretty, wasn't it? But I only stopped there for water. I was walking to Glassforge."
And points north. "Yes."
He, at least, did not say anything about, It's a long way for such short legs. He did say, inevitably, "Family there?"
She almost said yes, then realized he might possibly intend to take her there, which could prove awkward. "No. I was going there to look for work." She straightened her spine. "I'm a grass widow."
A slow blink; his face went blank for a rather long moment. He finally said, in an oddly cautious tone, "Pardon, missus . . . but do you know what grass widow means?"
"A new widow," she replied promptly, then hesitated. "There was a woman came up from Glassforge to our village, once. She took in sewing and made cord and netting. She had the most beautiful little boy. My uncles called her a grass widow." Another too-quiet pause. "That's right, isn't it?"
He scratched his rat's nest of dark hair. "Well . . . yes and no. It's a farmer term for a woman pregnant or with a child in tow with no husband in sight anywhere. It's more polite than, um, less polite terms. But it's not altogether kind."
He said even more apologetically, "I didn't mean to embarrass you. It just seemed I ought to check."
She swallowed. "Thank you." It seems I told the truth despite myself, then.
"And your little girl?" he said.
"What?" said Fawn sharply.
He motioned at her. "The one you bear now."
Flat panic stopped her breath. I don't show! How can he know? And how could he know, in any case, if the fruit of that really, really ill-considered and now deeply regretted frantic fumble with Sunny Sawman at his sister's spring wedding party was going to be a boy or a girl, anyhow?
He seemed to realize he'd made some mistake, but to be uncertain what it was. His gesture wavered, turning to open-handed earnestness. "It was what attracted the mud-man. Your present state. It was almost certainly why they grabbed you. If the other assault seemed an afterthought, it likely was."
"How can you—what—why?"
His lips parted for a moment, then, visibly, he changed whatever he'd been about to say to: "Nothing's going to happen to you now." He packed up his cloths. Anyone else might have tied the corners together, but he whipped a bit of cord around them that he somehow managed to wind into a pull-knot one-handed.
He put his right hand on the log and shoved himself to his feet. "I either need to put that body up a tree or pile some rocks on it, so the scavengers don't get to it before someone can pick it up. He might have people." He looked around vaguely. "Then decide what to do with you."
"Put me back on the road. Or just point me to it. I can find it."
He shook his head. "Those might not be the only fugitives. Not all the bandits might have been in the camp we took, or they might have had more than one hideout. And the malice is still out there, unless my patrol has got ahead of me, which I don't think is possible. My people were combing the hills to the south of Glassforge, and now I think the lair's northeast. This is no good time or place for you, especially, to be wandering about on your own." He bit his lip and went on almost as if talking to himself, "Body can wait. Got to put you somewhere safe. Pick up the track again, find the lair, get back to my patrol quick as I can. Absent gods, I'm tired. Mistake to sit down. Can you ride behind me, do you think?"
She almost missed the question in his mumble. I'm tired too. "On your horse? Yes, but—"
He went to his mount and caught up the reins, but instead of coming back to her, led it to the creek. She trailed along again, partly curious, partly not wanting to let him out of her sight.
He evidently decided a tree would be faster for stowing his prey. He tossed a rope up over the crotch of a big sycamore that overhung the creek, using his horse to haul the body up it. He climbed up to be sure the corpse was securely wedged and to retrieve his rope. He moved so efficiently, Fawn could scarcely spot the extra motions and accommodations he made for his one-handed state.
Dag pressed his tired horse over the last ridge and was rewarded on the other side by finding a double-rutted track bumping along the creek bottom. "Ah, good," he said aloud. "It's been a while since I patrolled down this way, but I recall a good-sized farm tucked up at the head of this valley."
The girl clinging behind his cantle remained too quiet, the same wary silence she'd maintained since he'd discussed her pregnant state. His groundsense, extended to utmost sensitivity in search for hidden threats, was battered by her nearby churning emotions; but the thoughts that drove them remained, as ever, opaque. He had maybe been too indiscreet. Farmers who found out much about Lakewalker groundsense tended to call it the evil eye, or black magic, and accuse patrollers of mind reading, cheating in trade, or worse. It was always trouble.
If he found enough people at this farm, he would leave her in their care, with strong warnings about the half-hunt-half-war presently going on in their hills. If there weren't enough, he must try to persuade them to light out for Glassforge or some other spot where they might find safety in numbers till this malice was taught mortality. If he knew farmers, they wouldn't want to go, and he sighed in anticipation of a dreary and thankless argument.
But the mere thought of a pregnant woman of any height or age wandering about in blithe ignorance anywhere near a malice's lair gave him gruesome horrors. No wonder she'd shone so brightly in his groundsense, with so much life happening in her. Although he suspected Fawn would have been scarcely less vivid even before this conception. But she would attract a malice's attention the way a fire drew moths.
By the time they'd straightened out the definition of grass widow, he had been fairly sure he had no need to offer her condolences. Farmer bed customs made very little sense, sometimes, unless one believed Mari's theories about their childbearing being all mixed up with their pretense of owning land. She had some very tart remarks on farmer women's lack of control of their own fertility, as well. Generally in conjunction with lectures to young patrollers of both sexes about the need to keep their trousers buttoned while in farmer territory.
Old patrollers, too.
Details of a dead husband had been conspicuously absent in Fawn's speech. Dag could understand grief robbing someone of words, but grief, too, seemed missing in her. Anger, fear, tense determination, yes. Shock from the recent terrifying attack upon her. Loneliness and homesickness. But not the anguish of a soul ripped in half. Strangely lacking, too, was the profound satisfaction such lifegiving usually engendered among Lakewalker women he'd known. Farmers, feh. Dag knew why his own people were all a little crazed, but what excuse did farmers have?
He was roused from his weary brooding as they passed out of the woods and the valley farm came into sight. He was instantly ill at ease. The lack of cows and horses and goats and sheep struck him first, then the broken-down places in the split-rail fence lining the pasture. Then the absence of farm dogs, who should have been barking annoyingly around his horse by now. He stood in his stirrups as they plodded up the lane. House and barn, both built of weathered gray planks, were standing—and standing open—but smoke rose in a thin trickle from the char and ashes of an outbuilding.
"What is it?" asked Fawn, the first words she'd spoken for an hour.
"Trouble, I think." He added after a moment, "Trouble past." Nothing human flared in the range of Dag's perceptions—nor anything nonhuman either. "The place is completely deserted."
He pulled up his horse in front of the house, swung his leg over its neck, and jumped down. "Move up. Take the reins," he told Fawn. "Don't get down yet."
She scrambled forward from her perch on his saddlebags, staring around wide-eyed. "What about you?"
"Going to scout around."
He made a quick pass through the house, a rambling two-story structure with additions built on to additions. The place seemed stripped of small objects of any value. Items too big to carry—beds, clothes chests—were frequently knocked over or split. Every glass window was broken out, senselessly. Dag had an idea how hard those improvements had been to come by, carefully saved for by some hopeful farmwife, packed in straw up from Glassforge over the rutted lanes. The kitchen pantry was stripped of food.
The barn was empty of animals; hay was left, some grain might be gone. Behind the barn on the manure pile, he at last found the bodies of three farm dogs, slashed and hacked about. He eyed the smoldering outbuilding in passing, charred timbers sticking out of the ash like black bones. Someone would need to look through it for other bones, later. He returned to his horse.
Fawn was gazing around warily as she took in the disturbing details. Dag leaned against Copperhead's warm shoulder and swiped his hand through his hair.
"The place was raided by the bandits—or someone—about three days ago, I judge," he told her. "No bodies."
"That's good—yes?" she said, dark eyes growing unsure at whatever expression was leaking onto his features. He couldn't think that it was anything but exhaustion.
"Maybe. But if the people had run away, or been run off, news of this should have reached Glassforge by now. My patrol had no such word as of yesterday evening."
"Where did they all go, then?" she asked.
"Taken, I'm afraid. If this malice is trying to take farmer slaves already, it's growing fast."
"What—slaves for what?"
"Not sure the malice even knows, yet. It's a sort of instinct with malices. It'll figure it out fast enough, though. I'm running out of time." He was growing dizzy with fatigue. Was he also growing stupid with fatigue?
He continued, "I'd give almost anything for two hours of sleep right now, except two hours of light. I need to get back to the trail while I still have daylight to see it. I think . . . ' His voice slowed. "I think this place is as safe as any and safer than most. They've hit it once, it's already stripped of everything valuable—they won't be back too soon. I'm thinking maybe I could leave you here anyway. If anyone comes, you can tell them—no. First, if anyone comes, hide, till you are sure they're all-right folks. Then come out and tell them Dag has a message for his patrol, he thinks the malice is holed up northeast of town, not south. If patrollers come, do you think you could show them to where the tracks led off? And that boy's—bandit's—body," he added in afterthought.
She squinted at the wooded hills. "I'm not sure I could find my way back to it, the route you took."
"There's an easier way. This lane"—he waved at the track they'd ridden up—"goes back to the straight road in about four miles. Turn left, and I think the path your mud-man took east from it is about three miles on."
"Oh," she said more eagerly, "I could find that, sure."
She had no fear, blast and blight it. He could change that . . . So did he want her to be terrified out of her mind, frozen witless? She was already sliding down off the horse, looking pleased to have a task within her capacity.
"What's so dangerous about the mud-men?" she asked, as he gathered his reins and prepared to mount once more.
He hesitated a long moment. "They'll eat you," he said at last. After everything else is all over, that is.
Subdued and impressed. And, more important, believing him. Well, it hadn't been a lie. Maybe it would make her just cautious enough. He found his stirrup and pushed up, trying not to dwell on the contrast between this hard saddle and a feather bed. There had been one unslashed feather mattress left inside the farmhouse. He'd noticed it particularly, while shoving aside a little fantasy about falling into it face-first. He swung his horse around.
"Dag . . . ?"
He turned at once to look over his shoulder. Big brown eyes stared up at him from a face like a bruised flower.
"Don't let them eat you, either."
Involuntarily, his lips turned up; she smiled brightly back through her darkening contusions. It gave him an odd feeling in his stomach, which he prudently did not attempt to name. Heartened despite all, he raised his carved hand in salute and cantered back down the lane.
Feeling bereft, Fawn watched the patroller vanish into the tunnel of trees at the edge of the fields. The silence of this homestead, stripped of animals and people, was eerie and oppressive, once she noticed it. She squinted upward. The sun had not even topped the arch of the sky for noon. It seemed years since dawn.
She sighed and ventured into the house. She walked all around it, footsteps echoing, feeling as though she intruded on some stranger's grief. The senseless mess the raiders had left in their wake seemed overwhelming, taken in all at once. She came back to the kitchen and stood there shivering a little. Well, if the house was too much, what about one room? I could fix one room, yes.
She braced herself and started by turning back upright anything that would still stand, shelf and table and a couple of chairs. What was broken beyond mending she hauled outside, starting a pile at one end of the porch. Then she swept the floor clear of broken plates and glass and spilled flour and drying food. She swept the porch too, while she was at it.
Beneath a worn old rag rug, ignored by the invaders, she found a trapdoor with a rope handle. She shook the rug over the porch rail, returned, and stared worriedly at the trap. I don't think Dag saw this.
She bit her lip, then took a bucket with a broken handle outside and collected a few live coals from the still-smoldering whatever-it-had-been, and started a little fire in the kitchen hearth. From it, she lit a candle stub found in the back of a drawer. She pulled up the trapdoor by its rope, wincing at the groaning of its hinges, swallowed, and stared at the ladder into the dark hole. Could there be anyone still hiding down there? Big spiders? . . . Bodies? She took a deep breath and descended.
When she turned and held up the candle, her lips parted in astonishment. The cellar was lined with shelves, and on them, untouched, were row upon row of glass jars, many sealed with hot rock wax and covered with cloth bound with twine. Food storage for a farm full of hungry people. A year of labor lined up—Fawn knew exactly how much work, too, as preserving boiled foodstuffs under wax seals had been one of her most satisfying tasks back home. None of the jars were labeled, but her eye had no trouble picking out and identifying the contents. Fruit preserves. Vinegar pickles. Corn relish. Stew meat. A barrel in the corner proved to hold several sacks of flour. Another held last year's apples packed in straw, terribly wrinkly and by now only suitable for cooking, but not rotted. She was stirred to enthusiasm, and action.
Most of the jars were big, meant for a crowd, but she found three smaller ones, of dark purple fruit, corn relish, and what she trusted was stew meat, and hauled them up into the light. A kerchief full of flour, as well. A single iron pan, which she found kicked into a corner under a fallen shelf, was all that was left of the tools of this workplace, but with a little ingenuity she soon had flatbread cooking in it over her fire. The jar of meat proved to be, probably, pork cooked to flinders with onions and herbs, which she heated up after she'd freed the pan of her bread circles.
She caught up on days of scant rations, then, replete, set aside portions made up for Dag when he returned. Clearly, judging from his lady patrol leader and his general build, he was the sort of fellow you had to capture, hog-tie, and make remember to eat. Was he just a goer, or did he live too much inside his own head to notice his body's needs? And what all else was that head furnished with? He seemed driven. Considering the almost casual physical courage he'd displayed so far, it was unsettling to consider what he might fear that pushed him along so unceasingly. Well, if I were as tall as a tree, maybe I'd be brave too. A skinny tree. Upon consideration, she wrapped the meat and the preserves in rolls of flatbread so that he might eat while riding, because when he came back, it was likely he'd be in a hurry still.
If he came back. He hadn't actually said. The thought made a disappointed cold spot in her belly. Now you're being stupid. Stop it. The cure for bad sad thoughts was busyness, right enough, but she was getting dreadfully tired.
In one of the other rooms she found an abandoned sewing basket, also overlooked by the raiders, probably because the mending that topped it looked like rags. They'd entirely missed the valuable tools inside, sharp scissors and good thimbles and a collection of fine iron needles. Were the blight bogle's—malice's—mud-men all men then? Did it make any mud-women? It seemed not.
She decided she would sew up some of the slashed feather ticks in payment for the food, so it wouldn't feel so stolen. Sewing was not her best skill, but straight seams would be simple enough, and it would put an end to the messy, desolate feather wrack drifting about the place. She hauled the ticks out onto the porch, for the light, and so she could watch down the lane for a tall—for whoever. Needle and thread and fine repetitive work made a soothing rhythm under her hands. In the quiet, her mind circled back to this morning's terror. Dwelling on it started to make her feel sick and shaky again. As an alternative, she wrenched her thoughts to Lakewalkers.
Farmer to a Lakewalker didn't mean someone who grew crops; it meant anyone who wasn't a Lakewalker. Townsmen, rivermen, miners, millers—bandits—evidently they were all farmers in Dag's eyes. She wondered at the implications. She'd heard a story about a girl from over to Coshoton who had been seduced by a passing Lakewalker, a trading man, it was said. She had run away north three times to Lakewalker country after him, and been brought back by his people, then hanged herself in the woods. A cautionary tale, that. Fawn wondered what lesson you were supposed to draw from it. Well, Girls should stay away from Lakewalkers was the one obviously intended, but maybe the real one was, If something doesn't work once, don't just repeat it twice more, try something else, or Don't give up so soon. Or Stay out of the woods.
The nameless girl had died for thwarted love, it was whispered, but Fawn wondered if it hadn't been for thwarted rage, instead. She had, she admitted to herself, had some such thoughts after that awful talk with Stupid Sunny, but it wasn't that she'd wanted to die, it was that she'd wanted to make him feel as bad as he'd made her feel. And it had been rather flattening to reflect that she'd not be alive to properly enjoy her revenge, and even more flattening to suspect he'd get over any guilt pretty quick. Long before she'd get over being dead, in any case. And she'd done nothing that night after all, and by the next day, she'd had other ideas. So maybe the real lesson was, Wait till morning, after breakfast.
She wondered if the hanged girl had been pregnant too. Then she wondered anew how the tall man had known, seemingly just by looking at her with those eyes, their shimmering gold by sudden turns cold as metal or warm as summer. Sorcerers, huh. Dag didn't look like a sorcerer. (And what did sorcerers look like anyhow?) He looked like a very tired hunter who had been too long away from home. Hunting things that hunted him back.
A girl baby. Maybe he was just guessing. Fifty percent odds weren't half-bad, for appearing right, later. Still, it was an encouraging thought. Girls she knew. A little boy, however innocent, might have reminded her too much of Sunny. She hadn't meant to be a mother so soon in her life at all, but if she was going to be stuck with it, she would very well try to be a good one. She rubbed absently at her belly. I will not betray you. A bold promise. How was she to keep a child safe when she couldn't even save herself? Also, from now on, I will be more careful. Anyone could make a mistake. The trick was not to make the same one twice.
She eventually ran out of ripped fabric, patience to brood, and the will to stay awake. Her bruised face was throbbing. She hauled the repaired ticks back inside and piled them four deep in a corner of the kitchen, because the next room was still a disheartening mess and she hadn't the energy left to tackle it. She fell gratefully onto the pile. She had barely time to register the musty scent of them, and reflect that they were overdue for an airing anyhow, when her leaden eyes closed.
Fawn woke to the sound of steps on the wooden porch. Dag back already? It was still light. How long had she slept? Blearily, she pushed up, eager to show him the overlooked treasures in the cellar and to hear what he'd found. Only then did it register that there were too many heavy steps out there.
She should have been overlooked in the cellar—I could have thrown a couple of those mattresses down there—She had just time to think What good is it to not to make the same mistakes twice when your new ones'll kill you all the same? before the three mud-men burst open the door.
Excerpted from The Sharing Knife Volume One by Lois Bujold Copyright © 2007 by Lois Bujold. Excerpted by permission.
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