Of Absence, Darkness
Book 2 of Death’s Lady
by Rachel Neumeier
Portals open both ways
Daniel never imagined that Tenai’s memories of her earlier life might be absolutely true. But when he and his daughter are swept up in the plots of her enemies and dropped abruptly into a world of dark magic and darker history, Daniel must find a way to aid Tenai against the all-too-real echoes of her past.
Though the hidden schemes of Tenai’s enemies offer peril enough, the worse threat comes from within: if Tenai cannot master the vast rage she still carries, her own fury may shatter her world.
The Death’s Lady trilogy is up there with my favourite Neumeier series. (Don’t ask me to rank them: I couldn’t do it!) Here she has created yet another unique fantasy world, with yet another consistent and compelling magic/metaphysical system, and, (sorry to be so boringly repetitive) yet another set of fascinating character relationships.
If you’ve read pretty much anything else she’s written, you’ll notice that she loves exploring power dynamics, trust and loyalty, and she’s got a killer trio of characters here to work with. Tenai, who is sworn to Lord Death in order to enact a terrible vengeance, and doesn’t quite know what to do with herself now that her vengeance is accomplished; Daniel, who was once Tenai’s psychiatrist and is now her friend, and does not belong in her world; Mitereh, the son of Tenai’s hated enemy, now a young king pursuing a hard-won peace. I loved all three, and I loved the complicated situations that force them to keep choosing what and who they believe in, when the consequences of their choices affect whole nations.
I loved the way sorcery works in this world: it’s visceral and beautiful and kind of creepy. I loved Lord Death: nicely implacable, frightening, and just other.
Daniel’s daughter Jenna becomes an important character in these books, and I just loved Jenna! What would you do if you’d grown up reading fantasy and then suddenly you were thrust into a fantasy world, and it was a lot dirtier and bloodier than you were expecting? (With a lot more biting insects!) And the men keep wanting to protect you, not understanding that [slight spoiler for Book 1] (view spoiler)
As I said in my review of the first book, I tend to enjoy Neumeier’s self-published books more than the traditionally published ones. She’s got such an imagination! Who would make a middle-aged, bald psychiatrist the protagonist of a magic kingdom fantasy? If you like her writing, if you liked Tuyo, and the Griffin Mage series, you will definitely like Death’s Lady. This one sort of reminds me of The Goblin Emperor a bit, maybe because it similarly uses kindness as a strength.— Goodreads review
Daniel’s first impression of Tenai’s world was of darkness.
They had been at Jenna’s college graduation, he and Tenai. Jenna had wanted Tenai to come, of course, so she had taken a day off from her job—easily, now that she was Brian McKenna’s full partner and the senior master at his third martial arts dojo. Tenai had been gravely interested in the graduation ceremony, as she was still interested in new things she encountered in her life. She had been smiling a little, pleased by the happiness of the young graduates. She knew a handful of them, of course: some of Jenna’s college friends, like Jenna herself, were habitués of her dojo. But nothing could make Tenai look like an ordinary parent or friend.
Daniel had been conscious of the sidelong glances Tenai attracted—tall, with that unusual bone structure; carrying herself with an absolute physical confidence that was clearly out of the ordinary. No doubt some of the attendees thought he and Tenai were a couple and were wondering how a man like him had attracted a woman like her. The thought hadn’t bothered him: anybody with an ounce of discernment was going to be struck by Tenai. Even sixteen years after having built a normal life for herself, she still stopped the eye.
As far as he could tell, Tenai hadn’t even noticed the reactions she engendered. Well, she was no doubt used to double takes, and she was focused on Jenna anyway, rising to greet her when the young woman tossed her cap into the air and ran back to them, the sun no brighter than her happiness.
They had been heading back toward the car after the ceremony. Jenna had grabbed his hand and then Tenai’s. She had pulled them, linked hand-in-hand-in-hand, into nearly a run. They had been laughing, pleasantly guilty because they were skipping out on the reception. Even Tenai had been laughing.
And now they were elsewhere. The change was jarring, like missing an unexpected stair, only more so. Daniel had been holding Jenna’s hand, but his daughter’s slim hand was no longer linked to his own: they’d both stumbled hard and lost their mutual grip. He knew he yelped, and heard a shocked little cry of surprise from Jenna. There was ground underfoot, not pavement; he had fallen and caught himself on one knee and the palms of his hands, and it was earth and grass under his hands, not blacktop. The very air had changed: much more humid, warm with a moist heaviness not at all like May. It smelled of growing things. He could not see anything.
A long hand reached out of the darkness, closed on his elbow, lifted him back to his feet, and let him go again. From quite near, Jenna’s voice, sounding very young in the dark, a child again instead of her almost-twenty-two, said, “Daddy?” in a tentative tone.
“Jenna?” he said quickly. “Tenai?” He took a step, and stumbled again over the uneven ground. It was not completely dark, he found. It was the contrast between the place they had been and the place they now were that blinded. Overhead, a half-moon rode through torn fragments of cloud.
“Daddy?” Jenna said again, frightened.
“Hush,” said another voice, velvet and dark as the night. Tenai’s voice, but her slight accent had taken on a less familiar edge in this place, unutterably more foreign. “Hush, child. There is no danger for you here. See, here is your father.” Faintly visible as their eyes adjusted, Tenai led them together.
Even in the dark, even through his own shock and fear, Daniel felt her anger, burning across the surface of his skin as though he stood too close to a fire. He hadn’t felt that for a long time. He said, “Tenai?” again, and his voice shook.
“I am well enough, Daniel,” answered that velvet voice. Pale moonlight slid down Tenai’s cheek as she turned her face toward him. “I am angry, yes, but I have reason for my anger. I am my own master. Do not be afraid.”
“Where are we? Where are we?” Jenna’s teeth chattered despite the warmth of the air, and Daniel put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. He was terrified himself, and fighting it. It was hard to believe that this was real, and for a moment Daniel even thought that maybe it wasn’t real, that this was a weird and complicated hallucination; probably they were all still running over the sunlit parking lot, with the car just a few yards away—they would bang into it any minute, and that would jar them out of it—jar him out it, probably no one else was hallucinating this way, that’d be a mass hallucination, and too strange for belief –
The night was quiet around them, all of them, Jenna and Tenai and himself. The warm, humid air was unstirred by any breeze. It carried living country scents that had nothing to do with a large city.
“Where we should never have come,” Tenai answered, speaking to Jenna. “Not even I, and certainly not you. This is my world, and I am sorry that it is unlikely to offer you a fine welcome, child.”
“You brought us here?” Daniel asked, leaving aside for the moment other questions, like, You mean this place is real? You mean that everything you told me was true? Incredulity ran through him like a tide, and certainty, as strong, that it was true. He stood still, caught for a trembling instant between convictions. At the same time, all the stories Tenai had told him of her long, long life in this world crowded at once into his memory, and for a moment he was so frightened he was close to throwing up.
Jenna broke the moment, by asking in her clear, trusting voice, “But where is this place? Your world? Tenai, what do you mean?”
“The land is called Talasayan,” Tenai answered her. “Once, it was my home.”
She was angry, angry, angry. That was unmistakable. Daniel heard other emotions in her voice as well: grief and loss and something very like joy, in a complex tangle. He asked her again, “Did you bring us here, Tenai?”
For a moment, he thought she would not answer. She walked away a little distance, far enough to be lost in the night, but then she came back, her arms full of branches. She dropped them on the ground and a moment later, fire caught in the center of the pile, golden and homey as any other campfire, utterly welcome despite the smothering warmth of this night. The fire blazed up. The crackle it made against the too-silent dark was comforting as a blanket. Its light showed Tenai’s face more clearly, fine-planed and foreign and not comforting at all. She said, “Not I, Daniel. This was never my intention nor my action.”
“Then whose?” Jenna asked. She was still shivering, but not so much now, in the light of the fire. She held out her hands to the warmth as though it offered hope of safety.
Tenai glanced at her, a glance so filled with impassioned anger that Jenna blinked and stared and even took an involuntary step back; probably, Daniel thought, without even knowing she had done so. “Not my friends,” Tenai said, and turned away to gather another armful of wood.
“This is my expectation, Jenna, yes.” Tenai stirred the fire with her foot. Sparks flared and floated up into the darkness. She spoke without looking at Jenna, at either of them. “This should not have occurred. I did not imagine it could occur. Someone has done this, and because you were holding my hands, this person has done this to you as well as to me. Now you are here. I am very sorry.”
“You’re serious? I mean, this is a … a different world? For real?” Jenna turned in a circle, gazing out into the darkness. “I mean … for real?”
“Can we just … go back?” Daniel asked.
“Wait, you want to just go home? Without even looking around? Seriously?”
“Jenna …” Daniel let his voice trail off. He had no idea how to say, This isn’t a fantasy movie. Terrible things happened here. Tenai suffered terrible things here—Tenai did terrible things here. He didn’t know how to say any of that without frightening his daughter. He said instead, “Tenai, can’t we just go home?”
Tenai was gazing at him. Very likely she knew exactly what he was thinking. She said, her voice soft, “At midwinter. At midwinter I will be able to tear open the veil. I am sorry, Daniel. There are ways to open the veil, but it is not so easily done out of season. It would take great power to tear it open now.”
“Someone did,” Daniel pointed out.
“Yes.” Tenai looked into the sky, at the broken clouds. “Someone made a great sacrifice tonight. A sorcerer poured the blood of that sacrifice out upon the earth for this. I have such skill, but whom should I kill, to gather so much power into my own hands?”
“It takes human sacrifice to do this?” Daniel demanded, shaken.
Jenna, shocked, said, “You do human sacrifice here? You don’t, really?”
“Such a sacrifice was made tonight,” Tenai answered. “That is the only way to open the veil, save at midwinter. And the sacrifice must go consenting into the country of Lord Death.” Her voice was soft and dark as the night that waited outside the small light of the little fire. “I have enemies. Sixteen years ago, I had many enemies, and no friends at all. What sorcerer brought me across the veil into this land,I do not know. Nor for what purpose, though I may speculate. But I very much doubt this was anyone who meant to do well rather than ill.”
Daniel touched Jenna’s hand; reassurance for them both.
Tenai went on in the same soft voice. “I think it unwise to linger here. I do not trust the intention of anyone who would reach across the veil to bring me back into this world. That there is no one here to meet me suggests either that my enemies did not know precisely where I would be when I came back across the veil, or that they did not care where I would be. I think they did not care. I think they believe my presence will serve their purpose no matter what I choose to do now that I am here. But I may be mistaken. I think it best to walk away from this place, lest someone searches through this night to find me.”
Daniel cleared his throat. “Ah. Ah, won’t the fire draw searchers, if there are any?”
“Let it draw all eyes.” Tenai’s beautiful voice was in that moment chillingly angry, a tone Daniel had not heard for more than a decade. “Nothing would please me more,” said Tenai, still in that savage tone. “Let the one who called me know that I am here.”
Stooping, she buried her hand in the heart of the fire and came up again, holding a handful of flame in her naked hand. It blazed up in her palm, bright and eager and far too real for something that should have been a special effect. Tenai threw her head back and said harshly, “Let the taste of my blood wake the fire from its rest! Let the smoke of this burning carry my name on the wind, to the terror of my enemies!”
Jenna made a small wordless sound, and Daniel hugged her hard. He found he was holding his breath.
Tenai stopped, and drew a sharp breath, and went on in an easier tone, “The feel of the wind, the sense of the night, these tell me no one is very close. We will go at once. We will not be here to meet anyone who comes.” She had opened her hand, letting the fire drip back down among the branches and burn in a more natural way. Her hand seemed unmarked.
“Can you … do magic, Tenai?” Jenna asked, voice high and startled and yet somehow fearless. The shock, Daniel could see, was already leaving his daughter. She liked the idea, he understood. She didn’t really believe that anyone could have killed someone to do magic—or she was thinking that most magic couldn’t be dark and bloody. The sense of unreality was already leaving her. It still held Daniel, typical of a sudden shocking occurrence, of course, victims of car accidents almost universally reported that it took long, long minutes to believe that the accident had happened to them. So this was what that felt like.
But Tenai half-smiled, attitude easing a little more as she answered Jenna. “Sometimes,” she said. “Depending on what you would call ‘magic.’”
“Damn,” Jenna breathed. With clear enthusiasm.
Daniel, more wary than his daughter and hearing the hidden constraint in Tenai’s voice with an experienced ear, chose not to question any of that, not yet, not now. He asked only, “Do we have a place to go?”
Tenai tilted her head back, looking at the sky. They were in the midst of an open, rocky meadow, with scattered trees visible as lacy shadows against a slightly lighter sky. She was silent for a moment, in apparent reverie, but said at last, “The taste of the air, the pattern of the stars, the shape of the mountains against the sky, all these things tell me where we are. We are far north, near Kandun, hard against the heels of the mountains. Chaisa is not very near here, but neither is it so very far away. We will go there.” She offered Daniel and Jeanna each a hand, guiding them to turn away from the fire. To walk away, leaving it burning behind them.
“Chaisa is still your land? After so long?” Daniel thought again of the brutality this world could hold, and shuddered, trying not to let Jenna see that.
“Always mine,” Tenai said, sharp and definite. “No one will have laid hand to it. There is safety there. I will protect you, I promise you. And that is no careless promise, Daniel.”
Daniel found he believed this. He let his breath out and nodded.
“How far is it?” Jenna asked. She had pulled off her graduation gown and bundled that under her arm; beneath that, she was wearing decent slacks and a dark gold blouse—not entirely suitable hiking attire, but at least she’d chosen flats rather than heels for the ceremony. Daniel’s clothing was no more suited for walking a long way across country. He hoped Chaisa was not that far.
“A little way. A hundred and fifty miles, more or less, I think it would be.”
“A hundred fifty miles!”
Tenai slanted a quick smile at her. “We will do well enough, Jenna. Your cars make it seem a long distance to walk. It is not so far, although a lot of the road is through the mountains. Soldiers would walk that far in seven days. Fewer, perhaps, if the road were good. I would like to find the road, the broad road that lies between the source of the Barun river and the Gos, although I am not certain we should walk openly on so well-traveled a road. Still, we shall see. There will be smaller roads through the mountains that we may find and use more safely.”
There was a road, later. Dirt, but rutted with the evidence of wheeled traffic. Jenna swung along with a long, free stride, but Daniel, already breathing hard and wishing he’d worn more comfortable shoes, was wondering whether he was going to make it a hundred and fifty miles. Go on without me, he imagined himself saying plaintively, collapsed in the road. He imagined Tenai’s nonplused look and almost managed a smile.
At last they built another fire in a sheltered spot a little way from the road, this one far more discreet than the first. There was even breakfast as the sun came up: a rabbit Tenai had knocked over with a well-thrown stone and gutted with a delicate little pocketknife Daniel had not known she carried. Tenai cleaned the knife on the grass. She did not re-fold it and put it away, but laid it aside by her knee.
Jenna shifted a little closer to the fire. “It smells good.”
“Your people are right to say that hunger is the best spice. Rest while the meat cooks. We will walk again after we eat.”
Daniel stifled a groan.
Tenai slid a glance his way. “You are not so tired that you cannot go on.”
Forcing a smile, Daniel said, “I guess not, Tenai. Jenna, are you all right?”
Jenna looked up with a quick frown. “Sure.”
“Of course,” Tenai agreed, with a hint of humor. “Certainly you will be able to walk your poor father into the ground with your young vigor. I shall try not to exhaust either of you.”
“Jen’ll be fine,” Daniel said. “I’m the one who’s going to have a coronary on one of those uphill stretches.” He smiled at his daughter and Jenna smiled back. Her smile was a little stiff. She was worried about him, Daniel guessed, and assured her, “I’m just kidding. I’m not that out of shape.” He felt that out of shape, but he was trying not to show it.
He found Tenai’s eyes on his face. She did not speak, but met his eyes when he looked up, with a wry half-smile and a small nod. Feeling obscurely reassured, Daniel leaned back against the bole of a tree and relaxed, muscle by muscle. It was almost impossible to believe that just hours before they had been sitting on hard-backed school chairs, watching young people file decorously up to a stage to receive their diplomas, and now they were sitting on the ground in a different, God help them, world, watching a rabbit sizzle over a campfire.
Taking the rabbit’s liver, Tenai impaled it on a separate sharpened stick and put that over the fire as well. “Enchantment is like ash,” she said. Although she was not looking at either of them particularly, Daniel thought she was speaking especially to Jenna.
Taking up her tiny knife, Tenai flicked the blade against the ball of her thumb. Blood welled from the slight cut, vivid crimson drops. Tenai held her hand out over the fire, letting several drops of blood fall into the flames and onto the sizzling liver. The fire blazed up, but died back down before anyone could recoil.
“Fire and smoking blood,” Tenai said, “and the will of the sorcerer, imposed on the world: a power bought with pain and sacrifice—the sorcerer’s own, or that of another. No magic is without price, and it is all, like ash, bitter on the tongue.” She slipped the cooked liver off the skewer, dusted it with ash from the fire, sliced it into two portions, and held it out, flat on her palm. “Liver, which is the seat of memory,” she said. “Fire, for thought, and blood, to seal the spell and set my will upon it.”
Jenna, her eyes steady on the older woman’s face, was the first to reach out. Daniel stopped his daughter with a touch on her elbow. “What will this do?”
“Eat it, if you will trust me,” Tenai said, unsmiling, “and find out.”
The rabbit’s liver was indeed bitter, whether that was the meat itself, or the ash, or the blood. When the last piece was gone, Tenai sat back on her heels. She did smile, then. “Trust is a powerful force,” she said, but in a much easier tone. “For a great deal of magic, the sorcerer needs the cooperation of the one to be enspelled.”
“But what did that do?” Jenna asked. “It tasted horrible enough it ought to do something!”
Tenai tipped her head to one side. “It frees the tongue. You will find that you answer every person in the language in which he speaks to you. A far easier method than I was forced to use, for all you will find that you stumble over some words that do not translate well. Language constrains thought; you will find difficulty expressing some of the thoughts to which you would give voice. Still, you are fortunate to have this spell. Your English was a difficult language for me to learn.”
“You couldn’t use that spell for yourself?” Daniel asked.
“It was your trust that gave the spell power. To use the same spell on oneself would require a considerably larger sacrifice, lacking that source of power.” Reaching out, she checked the roasting rabbit, and picked up her knife again. “So, my companions. I think you will find this meat more to your taste.” She added, deadpan, “It tastes like chicken.”
Daniel laughed, startled, and Tenai grinned in return, a quick flash of teeth, and set about disjointing the rabbit.
It didn’t take that long to eat this peculiar breakfast, and then Tenai insisted on going on. Daniel suppressed every protest. If Chaisa offered any promise of safety, then he wanted to get there. He couldn’t begin to work out how long it would take a middle-aged man of generally sedentary habits to walk a hundred and fifty miles. Quite a few days, probably.
The land grew a little more wooded as they walked, so that it wound now past numerous small copses of trees. Mountains might have been a strong term, but the land was hilly enough that the road ran uphill and downhill, often uncomfortably steep. The little track met a real road, not wide, but at least closer to level. Every step drove home the reality: this was a real place, and it was not America. Or Earth. And yet it did not seem an alien place, either. The trees were aspen and birch and maple, nothing especially strange or remarkable. There was both a sense of the ordinary and a sense of the fantastic in every step, which produced an odd dichotomy of feeling.
This feeling intensified as the sun rose higher. The brightening day lent every tree and grass-blade and rut in the road a solidity that nothing had possessed until the sun created it. It was very quiet, except for the wind through the grasses and the occasional cry of an unseen bird. It was warm enough to be uncomfortable already, promising real heat later in the day.
Jenna swung along with her long-limbed young energy, pointing out soaring hawks and the occasional scuttering lizard, still too interested in their adventure to mind the lack of normal breakfast foods and baths and the other comforts of civilized life. They might have been on a normal camping trip.
Except that vacations were planned in advance and had delineated endpoints. Daniel didn’t like to think of the surprise and worry of friends and colleagues when he and Jenna vanished literally off the face of the Earth. They couldn’t go back until midwinter, Tenai had said, and from the feel of the air it was now surely the height of summer. Months, then. Well, there would be months to think of some story to explain this abrupt disappearance. It would take months, to come up with something plausible. Maybe Jenna could come up with a good story. She read adventure novels. She’d probably be better at it than he was.
Meanwhile … he really didn’t know what Dr. Martin was going to think when he failed to turn up at Lindenwood on Monday. Or Tuesday. Or at all.
Thinking about his patients was worse. Barbara Ridenour … Barbara suffered from chronic and deep depression, unrelieved by antidepressants, which for her produced only side effects. Her sister had at last brought her to Lindenwood. At least Barbara had listlessly cooperated, permitting herself to be admitted. Daniel had hoped that he might find a way to help her. Now who would find the time for the protracted, unrewarding work that might eventually commute this woman’s suffering? Anne Felton—perhaps borderline, perhaps schizophrenic, with some subtle hints of rapid cycling; Anne didn’t trust doctors. She had—the work of months—just begun trusting him. Now he’d vanished without laying any groundwork for his absence. She was going to fall apart. Daniel closed his eyes in pain, imagining this. Perhaps Dr. Martin would pick her up fast enough to prevent too deep a crash.
All those patients who needed him. And he was here.
Daniel could do nothing about that. He glanced up the trail. Tenai walked with a long, easy stride, expression calm and abstracted and closed. Certain she could protect them—or putting on a confident manner so that they wouldn’t be too frightened? He couldn’t tell. She probably really could take them home again, or she wouldn’t have promised that. But not until midwinter. Midwinter! And, all his abandoned patients aside—what might this strange, dangerous country hold for Daniel and his daughter in the intervening months? Would they ever get back at all?
Daniel cleared his throat.
Tenai sent him an unreadable look in response. “Daniel, my friend?”
“What’s going to happen?” he asked Tenai, watching Jenna shove her hands in her pockets and stride ahead of them. His heart twisted with love and fear for her. “Do you know? Can you guess?” He tried to smile. “I know when I’m out of my depth, Tenai.”
She gave him a serious nod. “Yes,” she said. “The great thing is not to let anyone else know it. To smile while you are drowning and trying to learn how to swim. We will go to Chaisa, my friend, and draw its walls about us in safety until I can tear open the veil again and send you home. I have every hope that this will be a simple exercise.”
“And your enemies will wait for all that.” Daniel tried not to look skeptical.
“I do suspect the intention was only to bring me back, and let my very presence act in some way to fulfill their will. If that had not been so, if my enemies knew where I was and wished to take me up, I think we would have met them before this. I have every expectation I will indeed be able to bring you to Chaisa. The distance is not so far. Unless an army lies between, I think I can bring you there. Once I have had a chance to set myself there, not even an army would be glad to assault me.”
She added a moment later, “However, bandits on the road, ignorant of my name, may be less wise. Jenna!”
There was time to call Jenna back, time for Daniel to catch his daughter by the hand and throw a panicked look at Tenai.
She seemed quite calm. The men she had spotted, a dozen or so men mounted on horses, had gotten quite a lot closer in those few minutes. They spread out a little as they came, and picked up the pace of their approach. Several of the men called out, whoops of delight that were not at all reassuring. One man with two women, all on foot and no one armed—the approaching band saw no threat there. It was perfectly clear what they wanted. The creaking of saddles, the jingle of bits, the thud of hooves on hard-packed earth: all ordinary sounds, but carrying extraordinary menace. Everything seemed to be happening very slowly.
Daniel said, “Tenai—”
“Only stand here and be still,” Tenai told him. “You will be safe, I promise you. After this, we will have horses, so that will be useful.” She looked carefully at Jenna, touched the young woman’s shoulder. “Have no fear,” she said. “If men come past me—as they will not, but if it should happen—then trust your training, my child. You have been well taught. Defend yourself and your father. Yes?”
“Yes, yes, I will!” agreed Jenna. She was up on her toes, her eyes wide with terror and excitement.
Tenai nodded and walked away from them, toward the bandits. Tall as she was, she seemed tiny against that whole mass of men and horses. Her hands were empty. She was not even holding her little knife.
The first man to reach her had a sword naked in his hand. He did not strike at Tenai, but reached with his other hand to grab her. Daniel did not see what happened; it was too fast. The man was on the ground, sprawling, and Tenai was in the saddle, with his sword in her own hand. She no longer looked tiny. The other riders kept coming, but Tenai gathered the horse with experienced hands. It spun in place, half-staggering as it reared. Tenai balanced it with hands and legs and leaned far forward, shouting, her voice high and piercing. The animal came back to the ground and lunged forward, surging into a charge against the rest of the riders.
There wasn’t even time to think again that Tenai was far too outnumbered, that she couldn’t possibly beat back so many men. One man hurled himself to meet her; Tenai’s sword swept down and across, cutting across the man’s chest. He fell, not screaming: dead, or at least too badly hurt to scream. Tenai’s horse flung its head up and leaped over the toppling body, and Tenai swept her sword around without looking to block a crossbow bolt. It shattered against the blade of the sword.
That was impossible. All of this was impossible. Maybe Daniel hadn’t seen what he thought he’d seen.
Jenna hid her face against his chest for a second, and then looked back at the fighting as though she could not look away. Daniel knew how she felt. He felt the same way. Ten seconds into this battle and he already knew that battle was the wrong word. This was a slaughter. Half of the outlaws were already dead, and Tenai was untouched. There was blood on her hands and arms and face, but Daniel was fairly certain that none of it was hers and completely sure that if she took any wound, it wouldn’t slow her down.
Her face showed both savage rage and a kind of dark exaltation. She looked like a Fury, like a dark Valkyrie, like nothing human. As Daniel watched, she tossed her sword up in the air, caught it by the blade in front of the hilt, and flung it impossibly hard, like a spear, at a man who was running for all he was worth for the brush at the side of the road. It slammed into the man as he fled and knocked him flying into the shelter he had tried to reach—impaled back-to-front through the torso, and, God, Daniel hoped he was dead, but he heard the man’s gasps, nearly screams, from thirty feet away.
Tenai did not even look to see that the man had fallen. Her horse tucked back on its haunches and spun, and there was a knife in her hand from somewhere, not her tiny pocketknife, but a dagger as long as her hand. She hurled her horse forward at a tight group of three men with crossbows.
They did not break, not quite. Tenai and her horse were the target of three bolts at once. The horse went to its knees, screaming in a high-pitched voice for all the world like the voice of a little girl. But Tenai was no longer on its back. She had dropped off and left it. She’d been struck in the chest by one of the bolts, but she simply wrenched it out, not even changing expression. That crossbow bolt ought to have taken her instantly out of the fight; from the angle and placement and depth of that injury, it had obviously hit her lung. But she didn’t fall. She didn’t even slow down. She no longer held the knife. Daniel hadn’t seen her throw it, but after a second, as one of the bandits crumpled, he realized it was standing in the man’s throat. Tenai had a crossbow in her hands now, with the previous owner of the bow dead at her feet. She shot a man, rewound the crossbow and shot another. No one even returned fire. They were trying to run, that was all.
Tenai was not going to let them go. She had caught another horse, this one smaller and faster than the first; and she had found another sword, snatched up from the reddened earth of the road, and another half-dozen crossbow bolts retrieved from a dead man’s body, and the few remaining men didn’t have enough of a head start to matter. She jumped the horse neatly over one still-twitching body and shot a man scrambling into the trees, then bypassed a groaning man bleeding out from the stump of his leg and rode down the last, who struggled with a horse in the middle of the road. He fell, screaming, and she reined her own horse about and ended his screams with a short thrust of her sword. For a moment Daniel saw her face, before she turned her horse again, and she looked cold and focused and furious, all at once.
“Oh, my God, oh, my God,” Jenna repeated, too stunned to know that she was speaking; and Daniel tucked her close to his body and just held her, tight. Almost twenty-two was much too young to have to see this kind of blood and violence. Hell, fifty-two was much too young to have to see this.
The road had become a battlefield, and a charnel-house. The bodies of men and horses lay scattered over the packed-earth surface, blood clotting on the ground. Flies were already gathering, a muted hum quite audible from where Daniel stood with his daughter. Wounded men groaned and screamed, horrible sounds. The smell, of blood and ruptured bowels, was worse than the sounds.
Quite near, someone moaned, and then screamed, a raw, weak sound. Jenna pressed close to her father, flinching. Daniel held her tightly and looked for the injured man, dreading what he would see.
A man knelt by the side of the road, half concealed by the carcass of a horse. He faced them, about thirty feet away. He was not the one that had cried out, although there was blood on his face and his chest. He supported another man, hardly more than a boy, across his knees. It was the boy’s blood and the boy’s voice they had heard. A crossbow bolt stood up from his stomach and another from his chest. His face was bloody, and Daniel, in the relative quiet, heard the wet sound of his breathing and knew that one of the bolts had pierced a lung. Unlike Tenai, he was not proof against such injuries. The older man cradled the younger, murmuring too quietly for the words to be distinguishable.
Daniel shifted, thinking that he should go look at the wounded boy, reluctant to move. His daughter, shaking, clung to him. Nervous horses wandered among the trees at the edges of the road. The dirt surface of the road reddened as great pools of blood soaked into the earth. Flies hummed. From the trees a crow, first on the scene, called harshly.
Tenai returned, her horse’s hooves raising little puffs of dust from the road, except where they squished in the blood. She had not gone far. None of the fleeing men had gotten very far. She rode now through the carnage without sparing a glance for the tumbled bodies, except for the briefest pause to finish a groaning man whose intestines were spilled out across the road. Her arms, her hands were covered with blood. There was blood in her hair and in the mane of her horse. It did not seem to trouble her. There was a hole in her shirt where she had torn out the crossbow bolt. That injury didn’t seem to trouble her either. She was not looking at Daniel or his daughter. She was looking past them, at the man who held the wounded boy. As though pulled by that pitiless gaze, the man raised his head and looked back.
Tenai rode toward him, in no hurry. Her sword dripped blood. The sun was at her back. Daniel could not see her expression. The man had none. His face was set and blank.
“Emel,” the boy said, choking a little. “Emel.”
The man said gently, “Hush, boy. You’ll be well enough.” His voice was deep and harsh, not quite steady. He tipped the boy’s head against his chest, so that the boy would not see Tenai approach, then looked up at her with resignation as she halted her horse.
Tenai sat on the horse, her sword slanted across her thighs, and studied him, not speaking.
The man said to her, in his deep, gritty voice, “He will die in a very little, Nolas-Kuomon. Will you not wait?”
“What is this man to you, that you should care for him?” Tenai’s own voice, inexpressive, held neither anger nor even any perceptible interest. If that bolt really had hit her lung, there was nothing to show it. It would have been easy to think he’d hallucinated her being struck by that crossbow bolt, except for the hole in her shirt. Besides, Daniel knew what he’d seen.
“Nothing,” said the man. He continued to hold the boy’s face turned away from Tenai, with her bloody hands and her sword and her pitiless eyes. “A boy. A companion of the road. Should one die alone, when one can die under the eyes and hands of a companion?”
Tenai backed her horse a step, her hand light on the reins. “I do not care,” she said. “Do as you please. But put me to no trouble, man. Do you understand me?”
“Nolas-e,” answered the man, bowing his head over the boy.
Tenai came to Daniel, leaving the horse with its reins dragging on the ground. Jenna was quiet, with the quiet of shock. Daniel had no idea what his own face showed.
“You are well?” she asked him in a low voice. Daniel, searching her face, saw the echo of black rage. But she was calm now, or at least she seemed calm. Looking at her, looking at the carnage she had made out of a dozen armed men, he could not believe what Lindenwood had thought it held. Probably Brian and the other martial arts people would have been less shocked.
Patient, Tenai asked again, “You are not hurt?”
“No,” said Jenna, and cried, “You killed them all!”
Tenai answered, without anger or impatience, “Your world is so gentle, is it? No one dies there?”
“Not like that,” Daniel answered. “Not for most of us—not in my life. Or Jenna’s. We don’t see—” His voice shook, and he stopped, tightening his arm around his daughter’s shoulders. She leaned against him hard.
Tenai lifted one shoulder in a tiny shrug. “Battle is difficult, perhaps, for those unaccustomed. But spare them no pity,” she added, speaking directly to Jenna. “Or pity them, if you choose; that’s well enough. But they would have killed your father and used you as their common toy, if they had overpowered you. As they would, had I not been standing in their way. All the men would have been at you. If you lived, you would have been kept to please the men, or sold to a river-house.”
“I will pity them anyway,” Jenna said, with admirable dignity.
“Gather the horses,” Tenai told her. “Tie them over there, where the ground is clean. They will be frightened and hard to catch. Can you do this?”
“You don’t have to, sweetheart,” Daniel said swiftly.
“It’s all right,” Jenna said, and picked her way into the woods after the nearest.
“A task to do is better than quiet,” Tenai said to him, not without pity of her own. “Being brave for frightened animals is better than being fearful by yourself. And you, Daniel. Gather the dropped bundles, if you will, and assist your daughter to catch the horses. I will ask you stay in sight. Will you be well enough?”
“I’m fine. But that boy—I should look at him—”
“He will die. There is nothing you can do now.”
“I could at least look—”
“Daniel,” Tenai said, lifting her hand to stop him. “He is at the very Gate. He has one foot already on the other side. There is nothing you can do.”
“All right,” Daniel said. He knew it was true.
“Take what you find back where the earth is clean. And keep your eye on Jenna. She is the one who may profit from your care now.”
“I?” A moment of incomprehension. Then an ironic tilt of the head. “The crossbow bolt.” Tenai sounded as though she had forgotten about that entirely. She lifted a hand to the long rent in her shirt. Then she shrugged. “Never fear for me, Daniel. The injury is nothing. Lord Death will not lay his hand upon me. He does not trouble himself over cuts and bruises, but mortal injuries he lifts aside at once.”
“I—all right. But I—” Daniel thought it was going to take some time to accept any of this.
“You will do well enough,” Tenai promised him.
“I guess so. I hope so.” He rubbed a hand across his mouth. “That man over there. The one who isn’t dead. Are you going to kill him?”
A chilling indifference in that casual answer. He said carefully, “Will you please not? I don’t think I can take it. I don’t want Jenna to see you do it. And … I would prefer … may I say, as a friend, that I wish you would show mercy to an enemy, even if he doesn’t deserve it?”
A pause. One that stretched out.
Jenna had caught one horse, and another, leading them to the side of the road and tying their reins to branches. She avoided going among the bodies, keeping her eyes resolutely on the horses. Daniel didn’t watch her. He was worried about his daughter. He was worried about himself too; he felt seriously off balance. But he kept his eyes on Tenai’s face. A thoughtful expression had seeped into her eyes in place of that chilling indifference. “I cannot set a brigand loose to prey on travelers. But as you ask it, Daniel, I will consider what other choices I might have.”
Daniel let out a slow breath. “Thank you.”
A small, curt nod. Tenai walked away. She found a water flask tied to somebody’s saddle. She washed the blood off a horse’s shoulder and inspected the deep cut that ran across its neck and withers. The horse stood still under her firm touch. Tenai went through saddlebags, found the tools she needed, and began to stitch the cut.
Before she was finished, the surviving brigand lowered the body of the boy to lie back on the earth, got to his feet, and came slowly toward her. She glanced at him, and he stopped, but then came forward again when she did not move. He was not armed, so far as Daniel could see.
Tenai finished with the horse and turned to face the man, crossing her arms over her chest. She tilted her head to the side. Sardonic. Cool. Remote. She was not quite as tall as the man, but somehow seemed taller. If Daniel hadn’t known her … he hoped he did know her. He thought he did.
The man went to one knee on the rocky ground, resting his hands on his other knee. He was a thick-set man with shoulders like an ox. His long hair and short ragged beard were dark. He didn’t move like an old man. Probably still on the right side of forty, Daniel guessed. He was dark-skinned, but not as dark as Tenai: his complexion might have been the result of a deep tan. His eyes were an almost golden brown, the color of dark honey. His appearance was powerful, the bones strong and even harsh in his face. Although he looked nothing like Tenai, Daniel could see that there was somehow a certain cast of features they had in common.
“You have been a soldier,” Tenai observed, studying this man. It was not a question.
“Years ago, Nolas-e.”
“How is it that you came to be riding with these curs?”
The man risked a glance up, then dropped his gaze to the ground. “Nolas-e, there was trouble in my company. I killed an officer. I did not want to die for it, so I ran away.”
“And thieved for your bread.”
The man’s mouth tightened, but he said only, “Yes, Nolas-e. I came to that.”
“And now, do you still not want to die?” she asked him. “Even now?”
There was a slight pause. Then the man said, “Yes, Nolas-e. I would rather live, if you will have it so.”
“So you would neither lift your sword against me, nor run.”
The man looked up again. “Well,” he said, his deep voice almost apologetic, “Sixteen years ago, I was at Antiatan. I knew you at once, Nolas-Kuomon, when you laid your hand to sword.”
A pause. Finally Tenai said, “I happen to have need of a servant. You may therefore serve me, if you choose.”
Daniel sighed in relief. That wasn’t a solution he had seen—he didn’t know enough of this world to guess what possible solutions existed. He’d sort of thought of tying the man up and reporting him to the authorities, though, yes, that had probably been an unrealistic idea. He couldn’t exactly imagine this man as anyone’s servant. But whatever Tenai had in mind, this was far better than watching her carve the man up in cold blood. Far, far better than Jenna watching her do that.
The man ducked his head. “Nolas-e.”
“What is your name, man?”
“Emel. Emelan, Nolas-e.”
“I would not ask any family to own me, Nolas-e.”
One eyebrow rose. “Well, I should understand that. Emelan, then. Do you fear me, Emelan?”
“So you should. Will you serve me?”
A slight hesitation. Then the man bowed his head again. “Yes,” he repeated. “Nolas-e.”
“Drag the bodies out of the road. Find a sword for yourself, and one for me, better than this.” She waved a dismissive hand at the sword she had stabbed into the ground a few feet away. “Get the coin and any decent food and bring it to me. Also anything else I might wish to see.”
“Yes, Nolas-e.” The man waited a beat. Tenai, ignoring him, went back to caring for the horse. The man gathered himself to his feet and backed a careful step back, then another, before he turned to go back to the scattered bodies.
“We will go on from this place as far as we may before dusk,” Tenai stated, not quite looking at Daniel. “We should not like to sleep near this place, I think. There will be no need to hunt, if the food we find here is acceptable. I think we will ride until full dark. I would like to get closer to the mountains, if we can go so far.”
Daniel nodded. “That sounds good. Thank you, Tenai. I mean … thank you.”
A cool, dismissive nod. But she had become … at least somewhat familiar once more. More the woman he’d known for sixteen years, and less the terrifying figure out of history, Nolas-Kuomon, who savagely dealt out a death she had long ago given up for herself.