by Deborah J. Ross
Chapter 1: Kardith of the Rangers
Scaling the final hill was like climbing into a sea of ice. Up and up we went, one shivering, dogged step after another, woman and mare. My fingers had gone numb, laced in her mane, and I could no longer tell if she pulled me along or the other way round. I envied her, with no thought but to keep going.
As we neared the crest, I squinted up at the sky, as white and airless as if some vengeful god had sucked it dry. I reminded myself there were no gods here in Laurea, vengeful or otherwise.
The mare plodded on, head lowered, one ear cocked toward me and the other flopping, snapping at a sucker-fly without breaking stride. Her neck and shoulders were so wet they looked black, the dapples hidden under flecks of foam. Suddenly her head shot up, ears pricked. She snorted and lunged forward, nearly yanking my arm off.
The next moment, I stood on the crest of the hill, sweating and shivering at the same time. As far as I could see stretched green and yellow patches of wheat, barley and hybrid oats, all outlined by orange bug-weed. A farmhouse flanked a silo, pond, and vegetable plot. The mare nickered, scenting the ripe grain.
On the horizon, a line of trees marked the river. Serenity, it was called, typical dumbshit Laurean name. The trees looked blue from up here and I could almost see the smaller tributary snaking in from the northwest. Where it dumped into the Serenity, colder than winter snot, the trees bunched as if they’d scrambled up on each other. Buildings hid among them, glass and rock as pale as weathered bone.
Laureal City. Back on Kratera Ridge, I thought I’d never see it again. Now I remembered the streets, so smooth and flat, the rows of trees in flower and fruit at the same time. The courtyards with their fountains and gardens, set between angular geodesics or inside tall, square houses where a dozen families might live together.
I remembered standing in the Starhall with the other Ranger candidates. Pateros hearing my oath, just as Guardians have heard Ranger oaths for hundreds of years. The light in his green-gold eyes and the grainy softness of his voice as he talked about beginnings and moving beyond the past. But it didn’t sound like the usual Laureal wishcrap. It seemed to me the demon god of chance had finally turned my way and smiled.
I remembered too much.
The gray mare shook her head and stamped one hind hoof. The metal shoe clicked against a stone buried under the trail dust. By now I’d stopped sweating, but I was still shaking and my hands hurt. I opened my fingers and pulled free of her mane. My right hip twinged as I mounted up and swung my leg over the rolled sleep-sack and saddle bags. I let my body sway with the mare’s east gait and my lower back popped and felt looser.
The gray mare tucked her hindquarters like a cat and started down the hill, reaching and sliding in the loose dirt. She was Borderbred from the wild hills between Archipelago and the Inland Sea, the best horse I ever owned. I spent a year’s pay to buy her rough-broke, then started her gentle all over again. The first thing I did was take that Mother-damned bit out of her mouth…
Listen to me, nattering on to hide how scared I am.
Me, Kardith of the Rangers. Scared.
I don’t scare easy. The Rangers still talk about “Kardith’s Leap” as if I were some kind of hero. Six or seven years back, three of us got jumped by a pack of hothead norther kids out for their manhood blood or shit like that. That was before the northers came looting and burning clear past Brassaford until General Montborne’s army stopped them. There was Derron, just made Captain, and me, and a blustery man named Westifer who didn’t make it back from Brassaford alive.
I’d unhorsed one norther kid, vaulted on his pony’s back and wheeled around, trying to spot the breaker. Not the leader — the breaker. The heart of them. Not the big one screaming orders. Take him out and some other damned fool will jump up and do the same. But kill the breaker and all you’ve got left is a bunch of solo heroes.
There he was — a skinny kid who had not got his growth yet, the only sane one of the bunch. Edging toward Westifer, who was down on his knees in the freezing mud. I booted the pony into a gallop, drew my long-knife and stood up on the saddle pad.
Westifer was about half a second from explaining his sins to the father-god. I leapt for all I was worth. Landed splat on top of the norther kid. He twisted out from under me, grabbing for leverage. I shoved my knee hard into his balls. His grip went slack for just an instant, long enough for me to whip the knife around. He let go just as I nicked his face, high on his cheekbone, a nasty cut that would leave a scar. Then the yellow-haired kid galloped by and scooped him up and they all bolted out of there.
“Wolf-bitch,” Derron said to me back at camp, “isn’t there anything you’re scared of?”
Not what gives him nightmares, that’s sure. Norther steel, a quick death or a long bloody one, it’s all the same to me. The twisted places on the Ridge you can’t quite see but can feel on the back of your neck, the nameless things that came snaking into your dreams. He was right, they didn’t scare me.
Going back empty-handed without doing what I’d come to do, that scared me.
It was past dark when I reached the city and I’d mostly shoved my ghosts back into their graves. I let the gray mare pick her own pace and browse in the grain fields along the way. I couldn’t take her into the city, and besides it was too late to do anything more today. I was tired, bone tired.
The trail broke into part-cobbled roads, warehouses, and stock pens of smelly brush-sheep. Blue Star Stables had a big dirt yard, raked clean and smelling of sweet alfalfa, a barn on one side and a house on the other, solar lanterns hanging above the door. I caught the familiar sounds of stamping and hay-crunching.
I swung down and dropped the reins and the mare stood as if I’d tied her. I rapped on the house door. For a long time I heard nothing, just the soft pat-pat-pat of moth wings against the lantern glass and the animals settling down in the barn. The mare sighed and tipped one hind hoof. The shadows made her flanks look hollow.
Heels clicked on a bare wood floor and the door opened. A big-handed man, clean, no smell of drink on him.
“You got room?”
“Sorry, I’m full up.” He stepped down into the yard. He was no fighter, that was sure, but there was something about the way he moved through the darkness… He held the shadows close, as if he belonged to them instead of the open yard. This man had secrets, I thought, or maybe it was my own I was seeing in him.
“You know how it goes,” he said. “Noon today I was empty except for the rental stock and a few head for sale. Then suddenly everybody’s either coming or going. You could rub your mare down, feed her and tie her in the yard here with a blanket, but if she were mine, I’d get her a decent box indoors. It’ll be cold tonight.”
The mare butted her head against my hip, rubbing the places where the dried sweat itched. I liked it that the stableman hadn’t tried to touch her. He wanted to. He knew horses and his eyes were hungry on her.
“Cheap or good?” he asked, looking right at me for the first time. His eyes flickered over my Ranger’s vest, half-hidden under my cloak, and the long-knife strapped to my thigh. “Never mind. God help anyone who tries to cheat you.”
“Any one you like. They’re none of mine, I’m Laurea-bred.”
Who would I pray to, anyway? The father-god, whose secret name is death for any woman to pronounce? Mother-of-us-all? I’d sworn by her, though she never answered me. The demon god of chance — ay! there was one worth praying to…if I were the praying kind.
The stableman scratched the stubble on his chin. “All the big places are likely just as full, but if you don’t mind the feathers, Ryder’s got a stall or two extra. He runs a barnfowl yard. The feathers go to the bedding factory and the meat for sausages. The yard gets pretty bloody then, but it should be all right now. The priest comes the first of the month to give the blessing and Ryder cleans up good afterward.”
It wasn’t the death-stink I minded so much as the priests with their light and harmony shit. I’d seen the thrills they got from all that blood. They could sprinkle it on the ground and mumble their prayers to make it holy, but what difference did that make? They were all the same, priests everywhere.
I rubbed the mare down slowly, stroke after stroke, leaning my weight into the leather-backed brush. Trail dust and sweat crystals billowed into the air and clung to my face, my hands and clothes. The mare was slow to settle. She smelled the old blood out in the yard and every few moments she lifted her nose from the hay rack, jaw slack, ears pricked. Then she sighed, rubbed her whiskery nose across my shoulder, and chewed again. She finished the best of the hay, knocked over the empty grain bucket, and began to doze. I put away the brushes and closed up the barn.
The holding coops were on the far side of the yard, but still I found little piles of feathers everywhere — between the wood slats of the box stall, in the corners of the tack room. Bits of fluff too light for any broom. You can never get rid of them or hold on to them. Breathe on them and they’re gone.
Out in the yard, the air had a bitter edge. I drew my wool cloak around me and pulled the saddlebags across my shoulders.
A cobbled street led toward the lights at the center of the city and there I found the inn the stableman recommended, two rambling stories of weather-stained board siding, warm and well lit. I stepped over the threshold, from wooden steps to unglazed tile. The entryway led down a step and under an arch to the common room. The arch bore the usual carvings — flowers, birds, mythical insects with broad, bright wings, here painted in blue and yellow. A hum of voices reached me, along with the smell of ale and bread and maybe bean stew. I hated beans but my mouth watered anyway.
In the common room, someone chanted a bardic to the beat of a drum. I never could understand them, long-winded things stuffed with fancy words. How Gaea Slew Teknos. How Man Stole Sorrow from the Ahtoms. The Triumph of the Cosmick Pod.
Opposite the common room sat a clerk’s desk and staircase. As usual, sleeping rooms were upstairs and tub rooms along the corridor behind the office. Laureans were as crazy for baths as they were for bardics. You couldn’t find a house here without solar pipes across the roof. I remembered the first time I sank up to my ears in the hot springs near Darmaforge. All that water — Mother-of-us-all, so much water — and just to get me clean. Aviyya used to tease me about it.
The warmth of the common room seeped through my cloak. Standing in the entryway, I wondered if I could stay awake long enough to both eat and bathe. I started toward the clerk’s desk and then stopped, caught by a ripple of music.
The bardic chanter, another man and a woman in the bright woolens favored by Laureans sat on a raised platform holding lap harps and a small drum. They settled into a melody, the drum marking the beat and the men’s voices weaving in and out of the woman’s clear soprano. First they performed a courting tune, followed by a jig-dance that had me and everyone else stamping our feet.
Then an old, old song:
“Harth now dons her robe of glee
Flow’rs and trees embrace her.
We go forth in harmony,
Children of one Mother.
For as we this glory see,
All the sacred season,
Reason learns the heart’s decree
And hearts are led by reason.”
Led by reason. I shivered. The lighted room seemed dim and far away. The saddlebags slipped from my shoulders to lie in a lump on my feet.
Led by reason. Maybe here in Laureal City. But out on Kratera Ridge, there was no University to be the safeguard of all learning, no Guardian, no Senate. Only a handful of Rangers between these rich fields and the hungry north.
Led by reason. Not me, and not here.
The performers packed up their instruments and left the dais for a drink with their friends. I headed for the clerk’s office. A hollow-eyed man looked half asleep behind the desk. How could he serve me? he asked.
“A room and a meal, meat if you’ve got it.”
“No, magistra, we keep to the old ways here.”
“Beans then, and plenty of bread but none of that yak-piss you call ale. What’s the charge for a bath?”
“No charge, magistra, it comes with the room.”
Ah yes, I sighed, this is Laureal City.
I left nothing in my room except a pile of dirty clothes. Bags, boots, and knives all came with me. The big wooden tub was set halfway into the tiled floor, with a shallow step outside and an inside ledge for sitting. It would probably hold four or five people if they were friendly. Hand-painted tiles in flowery designs decorated the floor and wood-paneled walls. I hung the pink cotton robe the inn supplied on a wooden peg.
Despite the illusion of safety, I double-checked the bar and hinges of the door. There were no windows, only a pair of narrow ventilation grilles that ran the length of opposing walls, and they were only about six inches high. I kept my long-knife right where I could reach it.
The steaming water smelled herbal and astringent. I sighed and lowered myself inch by inch. The heat turned my skin red, except for the whitened knife scars. Straight and clean-edged — hands, arms, shoulders, chest, thighs. One fool’s cut low on my ribs. Behind my back, where I couldn’t see them, knotted ridges twisted like threadworms, strips of skin that had neither feeling nor memory.
I should add that to my list of things that scare me. Remembering.
Remembering Aviyya’s fingers, light and quick. Her indrawn breath. We weren’t lovers yet, when we took leave together at Darmaforge. I didn’t know why I let her talk me into the steaming rock pools in the hills above the public bath house. I told myself afterwards it was curiosity. I told myself it was the dark, only one moon and all those stars. The truth was, we’d been in three skirmishes that week and something in the still being alive, the hours and moments of fighting back to back with her, had left me half crazy and hungry in ways I couldn’t name. And there was something in Avi — a wildness, a secretness, a loneliness, Mother only knows. But it was hard to look right at her. I turned away, fumbling for the lantern, and she touched me.
I fled into the shadows. I couldn’t face her, couldn’t show her my back again. Her eyes — the color of rain, the color of steel — were wide and dark. It was my own soul I saw in her eyes. Her throat moved, jerking up and down. No words, only that whisper, as weightless and persistent as a feather.
“You forget I’m not Laurean,” I said slowly, searching for words. “On the steppe, to the east, we call ourselves the Tribes.”
I don’t remember what else I told her — learning knife-forms with my step-father, wrestling and laughing in the alkali dust with my half-brothers, the water-plague that took them all. All except me. The endless, formless days lost in a fog of ghostweed and endurance while that old ghamel the priests whored me off to dreamed himself into permanent oblivion. And the son whose father I must never name — no! I didn’t tell her that. I don’t remember what else I couldn’t say, the years and deeds I had no words for, only that it didn’t matter.
Mother-of-us-all, take away those memories. How she cried for me, me who never cries.
I must think only of what I have come to do, of the man I must find.
I lay in the tub, the back of my head resting on the wooden rim, staring up at the grille on the far wall. Biting my lip. Gripping the hilt of my long-knife until my fingers cramped. Hearing my blood race through my ears.
Out, I had to get out of the water. It was the heat making me think crazy.
I wouldn’t get out. Not until my mind was clear of everything but my purpose here. Tonight I would sharpen my knives to steady my nerve. Tomorrow I would find him, Pateros, the Guardian of Laurea. Then, then, it would be safe to remember.
by Deborah J. Ross
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-039-2
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