An amnesiac Merc on the run falls for a sorceress hiding deadly secrets. In the Kingdom of Askela being born a Magi means slavery to the Kings Witch Proctors or a death sentence. Rebecca will do anything to save her family from them—she accepts marriage to a Merc with a price on his head, not expecting to fall in love. But to be together, Andre and Rebecca will start a war to remake their entire world. Can They do it?
Spell of The Magi
A Portal World Tale
On a planet called Earth in the Milky Way Galaxy, a way to travel from world to world was discovered in the late 22nd Century. Were these new worlds simply other planets in the known galaxy or did the gateways lead to other dimensions with other physical laws? Or perhaps—both?
Earth itself was constantly beset by strife and wars. The portals became simply another item to be fought over. It came to pass that a group on the losing side of one of these conflicts captured and held a Portal for a space of half a year, and seeing inevitable defeat in their future, sent their families ahead to another world. As the winning forces flooded the city, the last of the losers fled through the Portal, erasing their destination as they left so they couldn’t be hunted down by their enemies.
Travel now to the world of Rulari, the new home of the escaping Terrans. Not only does time march differently on Rulari, but this world answers to the rule of will, of heart, of mind and of magic as much as the laws science had governed earth.
Humans are very adaptable and began to prize those families with the ingrained talent to use magic. In the years since man first came to Rulari, Seven Places Of Power were searched out, new portals established and enclosed in keeps held by the seven of the most powerfully gifted families. Formidable wards were created and set to assure the keeps stayed in the control of the families, who were sworn to serve the best interest of the magic users or Magi as they came to be called. One of these ancient keeps was Ironlyn, on the northwestern sea of the country of Askela. It is held by a family named Mabinogion.
Kathlea Mabinogion, heritary Draconi to the shire of Ironlyn, was a powerful, unregistered Magi. Her much loved husband Maxton was a great soldier, but he had no talent other than his swordplay. Magi were highly valued in the kingdom of Askela but only if a registered member of the Shan’s Elite Magi Proctors. Unregistered Magi were hunted by the Magi Proctors and forced to join. When a Magi became a Proctor, to ensure loyalty only to the Shan and the Proctors, the Proctors insisted all family ties be broken. To breed stronger Magi, the Proctors would choose a mate for you. It mattered little to the Proctors if the Magi ‘recruited’ was already mated, in a relationship or if they even liked their assigned partner. If she had been a registered Magi, Kathlea would never have been allowed to marry Maxton. If the Proctors caught her now, they would try to force her to mate with a male Magi they had chosen and her children would be tested for Magi talents. Any of her Magi gifted children would be separated from her and sent to a special school where they would be indoctrinated in loyalty to the Proctors above all else. Maxton would be killed outright.
Years ago, the rebellious unregistered Magi of Askela had formed a network called the Magi Cadre organized to enable Magi to escape the nets spread by the Proctors. Travelers like the Maginogion family picked up Magi hiding from the Proctors and aided them to escape to neighboring countries where the Magi Laws were different. For the truly desperate, there was Ironlyn Keep and a portal to another world. As the spymaster for the Cadre, Lewys Mabinogion, Kathlea’s father traveled around the kingdom eking out a living selling spices, potions and medicine to various villages. While Lewys and his family worked at overseeing the Cadre network, Lerrys Maginogion, a cousin without Magi abilities held Ironlyn for them.
Magical in itself, Ironlyn had defied attempts by the Shan and the Magi Proctors to force their way into it. Unable to break the wards or decipher the spell that created them, the Proctors continually searched for members of the bloodline in the hope they would be able to force a way into the Keep and control the Gate.
Kathlea had born Maxton three children, Rebecca, age ten and the twins Catrin and Owen, age four, all of whom were showing signs of nascent Magi talent. There was also hope of a fourth child, but Kathlea hadn’t yet shared that with her family on that fatal day when the Proctors found them.
On Rebecca’s tenth birthday, the Proctors found them. Her grandparents had driven their wagon into a nearby village to meet their contact and pick up a Magi hiding there. Kathlea and Maxton had stayed behind because it was rumored the Proctors were in the village, and Lewys Maginogion felt that two Traveler wagons would draw too much attention.
Rebecca and the twins had been playing under the wagon when Kathlea suddenly stood up and looked towards the town.
“What is it?” Maxton demanded.
“He’s coming!” Kathlea gasped. “I feel him. He knows I’m here.”
She turned to Rebecca. “Go! Hide where we found the berries. Be quiet, and keep the twins quiet also. Don’t come out whatever you see or hear. Promise me!”
“I promise,” Rebecca said. She grabbed Catrin and Owen’s hands and ran into the bushes. They barely made it before the Proctor and his men thundered into camp.
Unknown to Rebecca, her mother cast a shadow spell on the children to keep them from being noticed. While her attention was diverted, the Proctor cast a Binding Spell on her to keep her from using her Rainbow Magic to help her husband as he fought the Proctor’s guards. Rebecca could see the bubble of magic over her mother push outward as Kathlea tried to break through it. Hidden in a hollow in the brush with her hands covering the mouths of her brother and sister, she watched in terror as her father fought the guardsmen who came with the Proctor.
Catrin whimpered. “Hush!” Rebecca breathed and the children obediently stilled.
The Proctor had brought ten guards with him. Maxton fought like a demon to reach him, slaying all but four of his guards before an unlucky strike brought him down. Kathlea screamed.
“Shut up woman!” the Proctor yelled. “You are Magi and a strong one. I will let him live if you do not resist.”
Sobbing, Kathlea allowed herself to be led away, the bubble binding her to the saddle. The remaining guards loaded up their dead and wounded comrades and followed their master.
Rebecca made the twins wait until the Proctor and his men had disappeared before they came out of hiding. Maxton was unconscious but alive. Anghard, Rebecca’s grandmother had just begun to teach the girl healing, but she bathed and bound her father’s wounds as well as she could, applying a poultice of crushed bayberry and skunkweed to stop the bleeding.
Lewys and Anghard had been forced to watch as the Proctor led their captive daughter through the village, arriving back at the camp to find Maxton alive but still unconscious.
As soon as he recovered, Maxton left to follow and try to rescue his wife from the Proctors. The family packed up and left the area, traveling in a roundabout way toward the Capitol city of Khios where the Proctors were headquartered, hoping to be able to help their daughter and her husband.
Lewys learned through his contacts that Kathlea had arrived there and been taken into the inner courts for training, but he could discover nothing more. Almost a year later, news came that Maxton and Kathlea were both dead.
“It is a tale of love and defiance to inspire rebels against the Proctors for generations,” the woman, an escaped Magi, brought the news. “He fought his way in to her, and they defied the Chief Magi Proctor himself, but they were trapped on the highest tower of the castle above the ocean cliffs. They kissed each other and jumped into the ocean. It is believed they drowned.”
Anghard sobbed. Lewys Maginogion’s face was hard.
“Someday, I will kill them,” he said. “All who support this cursed system that destroys families.”
The woman telling the tale looked frightened. “There is more,” she whispered. “It is rumor only, but they say before her husband found her your daughter was delivered of a babe who was smuggled out of the compound by a servant woman.”
“What happened to the child?” Anghard asked, a desperate hope in her voice.
The woman shrugged. “Your daughter had been kind to her and she was well paid to smuggle her out of the nursery. That is all I know. I’m sorry.”
“You are sure the babe was a girl?”
The woman hesitated. “That is what I was told, but—”
Anghard pressed her hand. “Thank you.”
She turned to her husband. “We can’t go back to Ironlyn until we find the child, Lewys.”
Thirteen years passed and the family never forgot their lost daughter or the child she might have born. The night the wasting fever took Rebecca’s grandmother, spring was just starting to push up through ground that was frozen hard with winter. She and Catrin had been able to find only a few spring blooms to scatter on her body as they prepared it for the dawn service.
Rebecca stood under the funeral Pyre looking up at the sky, feeling the weight of responsibility on her shoulders, now that her grandmother was no longer there to share it. Anghard had fought the wasting sickness, and fought hard, but after months of agonizing illness, she succumbed. “You will be Draconi now,” she told Rebecca. Holding her granddaughter’s firm young hand in her wasted one. “Take care of your grandfather and your brother and sister. It will be up to you to find our lost one.” She had pressed an amulet into Rebecca’s hand. “Use this to help you skry for her.”
“I’ll find her grandmother,” she vowed. “Mother is gone, but if her child lives, I’ll find her. I promise.”
Rebecca’s straight, blue-black hair, plaited into a braid as thick as a man’s arm, fell to her waist. Clear grey eyes below slanted eyebrows stood out against her porcelain complexion that never took a tan. The resemblance between her and the woman now resting on the funeral pyre was uncanny.
“It’s hopeless; we will never find our baby sister,” Catrin said, wiping her eyes. She and Owen were sixteen now, a tall strapping pair, with curly dark hair, their father’s green eyes, and sunny smiles. Just now their faces both showed evidence of grief.
Rebecca looked over at Lewys Maginogion’s ravaged face. He would miss his beloved Anghard. She reached for her sibling’s hands. “He will stay with her tonight, I think. Let’s go back to camp.”
Dinner that night was a simple stew which they ate in silence. Afterwards, Owen moved the rope corral around the unicorn herd to a fresh location. The herd consisted of twenty mares and half-grown colts. It was their Grandfather’s pride and joy. Moving from village to village, Lewys would occasionally sell one of the younger ones, if he decided an owner was worthy to own one, but they all knew the herd was destined for the pastures of Ironlyn when they finally took up residence there.
Anghard’s funeral pyre would be set afire at dawn, as was the custom. Rebecca and Catrin were finishing up the supper dishes and setting out the bread to rise for breakfast the next morning, when they had unwelcome visitors–several men from the town outside the Trade Station where they camped.
The leader, John Thomas Lazarus was an important man in the nearby village of Joppa. He had expected these Travelers to be awed by his importance, and was displeased when they were not.
“What, no dancing around the fire? I was looking forward to that,” he said jovially.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lazarus,” Rebecca replied quietly. “We are not entertaining visitors tonight. This is a camp of sorrow. Our grandmother Anghard passed into the great beyond this afternoon. Please excuse us.”
She went back to wiping down the clean plates, ignoring him, hoping he would take the hint and go away.
Instead, he threw some coins down on the ground. “Here, I’ll pay for my entertainment.”
She made no move to pick up the coins. “No, Sir.”
Lazarus frowned, but he hesitated. “Maybe I should ask the old man. Where is he?”
“Grandfather is sitting vigil with Grandmother,” Owen, who had just returned to the camp, replied.
Lazarus looked at him in incredulity. “You mean someone really did die?”
The three just looked at him in silence.
“I see. Alright, I’ll be back tomorrow then.” He turned and left.
Owen spat on the ground at his back.
“Make sure he really leaves,” Rebecca said. “I intend to skry for our lost sister tonight, and I don’t want a witness.”
“He and the others have left the Trade Station Circle and headed back into town,” Owen reported. “Becca, are you sure this is a good idea? Grandmother always did it before.”
Rebecca pulled out the bronze stone that had been Anghard’s last gift to her. “Yes. I feel her spirit strongly tonight. She will help me before she passes on. I know it.”
Catrin unrolled the ancient map of the kingdom, stretching it on the wooden folding worktable that served a variety of uses. She held down the map corners with four flat stones.
Rebecca pulled the necklace over her head and held the stone in one hand. She cut a small prick in her finger and rubbed it over the stone. Holding the stone over the map, she rubbed the blood on its surface.
“Bone of my bone, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, seek now she who is lost.”
Catrin picked up the knife and did the same. Handing the knife to Owen, she too rubbed the stone and map with a bloody fingertip, and repeated the chant.
After a second’s hesitation, he repeated the actions and joined in the chant.
At first, nothing happened, but finally, the stone began to swing gently. There was a surge of power and then the stone pulled strongly toward the west, finally coming to rest on the symbol for the village of Buttersea.
All three felt the soft caress as Anghard left them for the final time.
“What have you done?” Lewys demanded.
Catrin looked up at him with tears running down her face. “It was grandmamma. I felt her,” she sobbed.
“We all felt her,” Rebecca said coolly. “Look, we have a destination.”
Lewys stared down at the map with the stone resting on it. “Yes,” he sighed. “We will be going west in the morning. I heard from Cousin Lerrys. He needs to leave Ironlyn. The local Proctor is getting suspicious because so many Magi have disappeared in the area surrounding Ironlyn. We will go home. That village is on the way. If your sister is there, we will find her.”
Rebecca nodded. “We will be ready.”
“I need to go into Joppa tomorrow and pick up the supplies I ordered. You three will stay here and pack up so we can leave when I return,” Lewys instructed.
At dawn, Lewys came to wake them. They stood quietly, while he lit the pyre, watching in silence as Anghard’s earthly remains were consumed.
Breakfast was a subdued meal. Afterwards, Lewys put a pack saddle on one of the mares, saddled his stallion, Sunrise and left for Joppa, the village outside the Trade Station. His grandchildren began packing the two wagons for the journey. It was a complicated process. The limited space meant that everything had to be stowed in exactly the right place or it wouldn’t all fit.
Packing took longer than it should have because Owen kept stuffing things in higgledy-piggledy. It was obvious he was in a hurry. After she had unloaded and re-packed the things he had already packed several times, Rebecca turned to him in exasperation. “What is wrong with you? This will take forever if you aren’t more careful. Why are you in such a hurry?”
Catrin laughed. “He wants to get done so he can hurry over and say goodbye to Fiona,” she said with a knowing look.
“The Station Master’s daughter?” Rebecca inquired.
“Okay, take off then,” his sister said. “The way you’re working, we’ll get on better without you. Scram!”
Her little brother kissed her cheek and loped off toward the Trade Station.
“Grandpa told us all to stay here,” Catrin remarked.
“I know,” Rebecca replied, “but he’s only young once.”
Catrin laughed and began repacking the pots and pans Owen had made a mess of.
“Leave a space for what Grandpa is bringing back,” Rebecca reminded her.
“What is it, do you know?” Catrin asked.
“Not a clue,” her sister replied. “He was very mysterious about it.”
“Well, we’ve finished,” Catrin said, a few minutes later. “I suppose we can harness the unicorns. Whose turn is it today?”
Lewys’ prize unicorn herd were mostly draft animals and to keep from overusing any of them, the family rotated the ones used to pull the wagons.
“Let’s rotate the teams,” Rebecca suggested. She went to the rope corral and called four mares to her. She was about to lead them over to the front of the first wagon when they again had an unwelcome visitor; Lazarus was back.
“Not leaving already are you?” he asked Catrin, looking the girl up and down in a way that made her flush with embarrassment.
“Yes, we are,” Rebecca answered him. She deliberately led the four large unicorns between him and Catrin, forcing him to move back out of the way.
“Really?” he sneered. “Leaving without allowing me to sample your wares? I don’t think so.”
Rebecca’s eyes narrowed. She understood exactly what type of ‘wares’ he referred to, but pretended she didn’t.
“I’m afraid we’ve already packed away our herbs and medicines, Mr. Lazarus,” she said.
“I’m not talking about any piddly spices girl and you know it,” he said.
“Catrin, get in the wagon and lock the door,” Rebecca told her sister.
Catrin hesitated, but obeyed her.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lazarus,” Rebecca continued, “but we aren’t receiving visitors, and my grandfather and brother will be back soon. I need to get our unicorns harnessed. Please excuse me.”
She lined up the unicorns and was preparing to throw the first harness over one’s back when Lazarus grabbed her.
Rebecca fought him, but he was stronger than she. When she landed a lucky kick on his knee, he slapped her hard across the face. The dizzying blow stunned her long enough for Lazarus to rip her blouse open. He yanked her to him and mashed his mouth down on hers.
When she tried to turn her head away, he grabbed a handful of her hair and forced her face back to his. With her arms pinned against his body, she was unable to move. Finally, she managed to free one of her arms and stabbed at his eyes with her fingers.
Lazarus hit her again, this time with his fist. She stumbled and fell to her knees, dizzy. He knocked her the rest of the way to the ground, following it up by falling on her body. He tore her blouse the rest of the way off, biting at her bared breast. The pain brought her awake, and she clawed at his face and head.
When she felt him fumbling at the buttons on her pants, she knew she wasn’t going to be able to stop him unless she used her Magi talents. Rebecca was a fire Magi; fear and anger ignited her Magic. A fireball burst in his face, causing his greasy hair to catch fire. Lazarus screamed and drew back, slapping at his burning hair.
Suddenly, he was knocked off Rebecca by the solid twack! of a camp shovel wielded by Catrin, who had disobeyed her sister and come to help. He fell to the side, unconscious, with his hair still smoldering.
When Lewys and Owen arrived a few minutes later, they found Rebecca leaning on her sister’s shoulder while Catrin applied one poultice to her swollen face and another to the vicious bite mark on her breast.
Lewys looked down at Lazarus in silence. He had checked the man for life signs and was disappointed to find him still alive. “You should have made sure he was dead,” he informed his granddaughters.
“We can still do that,” Rebecca said, half hysterically.
“No, child we can’t. It would be murder. Owen, go and get Trade Master Jordan.”
When Catrin started to take Rebecca inside the wagon, Lewys stopped her. “Better he sees her just like she is, so he knows this was justified,” Lewys said.
The Trade Master arrived in Owen’s wake, puffing. He was a round man, no longer made for running.
“Oh, no, Oh, no,” he kept repeating, wringing his hands. “This is bad.”
“It was self defense,” Lewys reminded him. “Look at my granddaughter. Since when is it bad to stop a man from raping her?”
“Since the man is John Thomas Lazarus!” Jordan snapped. “You don’t live here. He is the most powerful man in this county. He owns half the farms around here and at least a third owe him money. He pretty much does as he pleases.”
“Including rape?” demanded Lewys.
“I’ve heard rumors,” Jordan said. “Well, the first thing is to get you out of here. You boy,” he pointed at Owen. “Get those unicorns harnessed. I’m going to the village to round up a few men to help me collect Lazarus and take him back into town to a healer. You need to be on the road by the time I return from town. I can give you about an hour. Who knows? Maybe he’ll die in the meantime and solve both our problems.”
While Lewys and Owen harnessed the unicorns to the wagons, Rebecca threw off her torn blouse and put on a loose comfortable shirt. She mounted the wagon box and took her place to drive.
“Are you able to do this, girl?” her grandfather looked up at her from the back of his golden unicorn.
She set her hat firmly on her head and nodded. “Yes, lets just go away from here.”
They camped that night by a small creek deep in the black leaf forest, Lewys having decided that it would be wiser to avoid the Trade Stations until they were a long way from Joppa. Spring had brought out a few fresh grasses in the glade next to the stream for the animals to feed on.
The next morning, he ordered the sides of the wagons whitewashed, so they would appear a different color. Catrin was told to prepare a concoction he said would dye the unicorn’s coats a different color. It turned Sunrise and the mares’ golden coats to a dull brown.
To make Owen appear older, he brought out a fake beard for him to put on each morning, and told him to stop shaving. He would do the same.
It was while they were dyeing the unicorns that Rebecca found the three hungry kittens near the body of their mother. They were very young and hadn’t yet grown the white manes they would have as adults. Gathering up the kits in her arms, she brought them back to camp. Milking one of the nursing unicorns, she mixed the rich milk into a feed for them.
For several weeks, the family continued to travel north and west avoiding any villages and Trade Stations. Spring was in full bloom, when they camped in a clearing outside the village of Duranga. Duranga had no proper Trade Station, but the town had designated the clearing as common ground where Travelers or Trade Caravans could stop over.
A Spell Is Cast
Harry Sims, the proprietor of the Glass Slipper Tavern, was an unhappy man on this fine spring evening. He should have been happy. The Glass Slipper was full. The Spring Jamborees for local stock collection and sale had just finished and all the holdings, small and large were in town and spending coin freely.
The chief cause of his unhappiness was not the rowdiness of the crowd; he was long accustomed to that. No, the cause of his worry was the five-man dice game going on in the corner. Harry knew four of the five players well. Leej Jonsyn, the rug merchant, was losing and was going to be in trouble with his wife. Ruddy Tyer, a long, skinny kid from Gryphon’s Nest, was still reasonably sober but he would lose his Jamboree bonus before the end of the night. Charger French, a squatty rider from back in the badlands with, it was said—but not where he could hear it—a reputation for shady deals. The fourth player was Jajson Buttersnake the son of old ‘Rock’ Buttersnake, the biggest cattle breeder around. Jajson figured he was top dog in the town of Drycreek because no one dared challenge the son of old Rock. Rock ran a tough, salty crew of drovers. They didn’t much like the boss’s son, but they would take his side in a fight.
It was the fifth dice thrower who worried Harry. Harry had seen him ride into town earlier that day on the highbred, dapple war unicorn presently taking up space at Harry’s hitching rail. The stranger wasn’t a big man; he stood around five-eight with a short, neatly trimmed black beard and cold green eyes. To Harry, who as a young man had seen quite of few of his kind, the stranger had ‘Merc’ written all over him. His clothes were of too good quality and too clean, his thigh-high boots too new and shiny, and the saddle on that fancy unicorn stud was too pricey for a coin-a-day drover. His needle-gun was tied low on his leg in a well-worn holster, and unless Harry was mistaken, in addition to the knife on his belt, he had a blade down his back, one in his boot, and a second gun hidden in his other boot.
Absently, Harry polished a glass while he tried to place the man. He didn’t look that familiar, but the blood feud over to the south between the RedBird and Smoker clans had just finished. Before he died, the Smoker Chief Hutchins had claimed Rupert RedBird was hiring paid Mercs, and the stranger had ridden in from the south.
The practice of hiring fighters from the Merc Guild in disputes wasn’t against the law, but it was disapproved of by Shahen Tarragon. Since the Merc Guild was very powerful and used by many to settle disputes, his disapproval didn’t mean much. The Guild was composed of hundreds of small and large bands of independent fighters and reputed to have ties with the Wild Magi. The Mercs were completely independent of any government, and the Guild’s influence stretched through all seven of the human kingdoms. Since siding with the Shahen against the Guild might mean you couldn’t hire their fighters in your next dispute, few landholders wanted to chance angering the Guild. Rumor had it the Shahen was also trying to consolidate more power to the crown by discouraging the larger holders from keeping their own private armies. The Shahen wasn’t having much luck with that either.
Because of his father’s mental illness, the Shahen had been named Regent and virtually ruled Askela in his father’s stead. Attempting to force the nobles to disband their large standing armies using his Magi Proctors might cause a rebellion against his already uneasy reign. It was common knowledge the neighboring Kingdom of Jacite would attack immediately if a war broke out between the Shahen and his nobles. Despite the Proctors’ Magi talents, they were outnumbered by the Mercs whom the landowners would doubtless call upon for help if he tried to force their compliance.
Harry swore softly to himself. If he was correct about the identity of the fifth dice player, it might mean he belonged to a troop he could call on if there was trouble. He was alone right now, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have allies nearby. Harry was sure trouble was brewing because Jajson Buttersnake was drunk. When he was sober, he was a poor player and an even worse loser. Because he ran with the Buttersnake mob, he was usually safe when he had a tantrum; no one in his right mind wanted to start a fighting ruckus with Old Rock’s crew.
Harry had a bad feeling the fifth dice player wouldn’t give a damn how tough Old Rock Buttersnake’s crew was. There was just something in that dark face that said, ‘I don’t care’. The fight would probably cause a lot of damage before things got settled. And it was going to happen in his place too, he thought bitterly.
Suddenly Buttersnake stood up, scattering dice and coins. “I want a new set of dice!” he cried. “You shouldn’t have won that throw!”
The stranger came up out of his chair in one swift, clean movement. He slapped Jajson across the mouth, knocking him into the crowded bar.
The room exploded away from young Buttersnake. Leej Jonsyn, the rug merchant, dived away from the table so fast he knocked over his chair.
Jajson Buttersnake staggered to his feet, a trickle of blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth. He was white with fury. “You cheated!” he shrieked, pawing for his gun. He fumbled and almost dropped it in his rage.
The stranger waited until Buttersnake had his needlegun coming level before he drew and fired. His gun made a loud snapping noise as the puff of compressed air sent a fatal needle right down Buttersnake’s throat.
In that instant, Harry recognized the fighter. Hammer Smith was the handle he went by, but Harry had come from the coast, and he knew Hammer Smith’s real name was Andre Benoit. Benoit was a free-lance Merc who joined the Mercs at the tender age of sixteen, in the coastal area at the south end of the kingdom. He typically took on jobs that didn’t require the services of an entire troop, but he had allies among the Merc Community. Hammer Smith was reputed to be in his twenties, but he was already known as a dangerous man. It was said that he never drew a weapon unless the man was armed and facing him but if you pushed him, you died. Jajson Buttersnake died.
In the stillness after the weapon fire, Hammer Smith calmly reloaded his weapon, scooped up his coins from the table and quietly walked through the swinging doors. Whispers started in his wake.
“Shot him in the mouth,” someone said.
“Old Rock isn’t going to like this,” said another man.
“He won’t care. That’s a hard man,” a voice said.
Hammer Smith mounted the dapple unicorn and set off at a brisk trot.
“So much for a warm bed for me and a soft stall for you, Blackfeather,” he said. “Unless, I’m mistaken we’re going to have a bunch of irate drovers on our tail soon. Why did I sit down at that game, anyway?”
Blackfeather’s stride increased to a smooth, ground-eating lope. The double moons were full, making the road as clear as day, but Hammer Smith knew he was going to have to leave it soon. He started looking for a good place to leave the trail. Behind him, he could hear angry shouts and then the snap of needle gunfire.
“Okay, boy,” he spoke softly to the unicorn, who cocked an attentive black ear, “let’s ride some lightning.”
Blackfeather was fast. Hammer Smith had traded him off a Cat Man who had used him for racing. The trouble was he had beaten every unicorn in the area so often that no one would race against him anymore, and the Cat Man was broke. Hammer Smith had traded him a half-broke unicorn with the disposition of a poison beetle crossed with a snapdragon, an extra needle rifle and twenty coins in eating money.
He knew if he could get a start on the impromptu mob forming behind him, he could make it across the line into Cat Man Territory. Not the safest place in the world to be, but safer than here, as it was unlikely any posse would follow him there. The Shahen had given orders that entering Cat Man territory was forbidden. No one wanted to re-start the raiding again, and the Cats would undoubtedly see any group of armed men as breaking the treaty. Single riders entered at their own risk, and might be ignored, if he was lucky.
Suddenly ahead of him came the pound of running hooves and a wild screeching yell. Perhaps a mob coming in late off a Jamboree? If so, it suited Hammer Smith’s needs just fine.
He checked the unicorn and faded off to the side, stopping under a kaleidoscope tree about twenty feet away from the road. The moon flecked through the shinny, semi-transparent leaves, causing light and dark shadows that blended with Blackfeather’s coat, making the unicorn practically invisible.
A more cautious man would have taken the opportunity to scuttle out of there quick. But Hammer Smith was not a cautious man. Grinning, he watched as the mob from town ran full tilt into the celebrating drovers.
Chuckling, he started Blackfeather around the tree and to the north at an easy lope, heading into a forest of more kaleidoscope trees. In the melee behind him, he heard the snap of air guns as some fool started shooting; he knew everybody soon would be doing the same.
Karma has a way of catching up with a man. He paid a price for the inattention caused by his unholy amusement. In the darkness, he never saw the tree branch coming that dealt his head a smashing blow; stunned, he blacked out. Only his instinctive riding ability and Blackfeather’s superb gait kept him from falling off. Several times, Blackfeather shifted stride and course to ensure his rider stayed in the saddle. Puzzled at being given no other signals, Blackfeather continued to travel west, taking the easiest route.
The sun was just coming up when Hammer Smith awoke. Blackfeather had slowed to a walk. Muzzily, Hammer Smith peered around. His head hurt and he was having trouble focusing his eyes. Blackfeather mounted the top of a small rise and started down toward a creek gurgling below.
Hammer Smith blinked harder to focus his eyes because he was sure he was seeing things. The loveliest girl he had ever seen knelt by the water washing her face. Straight black hair fell in a curtain to the ground around her, some of the strands floating in the water.
Blackfeather stopped at the edge of the creek and lowered his head to drink. The girl lifted her head to stare back at Hammer Smith out of the clearest gray eyes he’d ever seen. She stood, pulling her hair back over her shoulders. Her crimson night robe clung to the swell of her breasts and hips, making a bright splash of red against the green plants growing on the bank of the stream.
At that moment, Hammer Smith was beyond appreciating nature’s decorating schemes. The whole world felt unreal. There was no one in it but him and the girl, and never would be. He nudged Blackfeather across the stream and stopped beside her.
She looked up at him with no sign of fear. He stared down at her. It seemed as if her eyes grew enormous and he was diving into a huge pool of gray water. This time, he did fall off his unicorn.
Rebecca tried to break his fall, but since he outweighed her, she ended up on the ground with him on top. Awkwardly, she sat up, wriggling out from under his weight. His head lolled back against her breast.
“Gosh!” exclaimed her sixteen-year-old brother Owen, “where did he come from?”
“Over the hill,” Rebecca said absently, looking at the dark face. He wasn’t bad looking; of course, you couldn’t tell much with that beard…
“What’s the matter with him?” demanded Owen’s twin, Catrin. Like Rebecca, she was still in her nightclothes.
Rebecca had found the caked blood matted in his hair.
“He’s been hurt,” she said. “One of you go and get Grandpa.”
“Gosh!” said Owen again. “That’s a funny place to get hurt. Do you suppose somebody whacked him?”
Blackfeather nudged Hammer Smith curiously with his soft grey nose. Why was he so still? Absently, Rebecca patted him.
“He’ll be fine,” she said to the unicorn. Blackfeather snorted gently and wandered off to crop some grass growing by the bank.
Pulling up the straps of his suspenders, Lewys Maginogion, awakened out of a sound sleep by Catrin, hurried up to them. His sharp old eyes took in the situation at a glance.
“Owen, unsaddle that unicorn and take care of it. Catrin, go fix up a bed in my wagon.”
As the two hurried to obey, he knelt beside Rebecca.
“He’s got blood on his head. Owen thought maybe he’d been whacked in a fight,” she said.
Gingerly Maginogion turned Hammer Smith’s head, running a finger in the gash on the top of his head and forehead.
“You’ll make it bleed again,” protested Rebecca.
“He’s out like a candle. Doesn’t feel a thing. We’d best get him in the wagon and that wound dressed before he wakes up.”
Unobserved by Rebecca, Lewys Maginogion looked pensively down at the lovely visage of his eldest granddaughter, who was looking down at the face of the young man resting in her arms. It had been months since the incident at Joppa, and in all that time his beautiful Rebecca had not voluntarily let any man touch her, flinching even whenever Owen or her Grandfather touched her accidentally. Yet she held this stranger against her with no sign of shrinking.
They put the unconscious man to bed in the wagon Owen shared with Lewys. As Lewys cleaned and dressed the wound, he thought about what he had learned in the village yesterday, and a plan began to form in his mind. Only if the young man proved worthy of course…
Twenty minutes later, dressed in a grey cotton shirt and trousers, Rebecca was sitting on a folding campstool, brushing her hair with the aid of a hand mirror.
A pan of sliced meat was sizzling on the fire, and Catrin, similarly dressed, with her long curly hair tied back was making sourdough wafers, her face flushed from the fire.
Owen was brushing the mud from the stranger’s unicorn. Blackfeather seemed to enjoy it, one hip cocked as he sleepily munched a bag of grain.
Lewys Maginogion surveyed his brood proudly. They were good kids all of them. Owen was growing tall and straight as a young fire tree. He was gangly still, but his green eyes met a man head on.
His twin, Catrin, took after Lewys’ mother, being tall and buxom with thick curly dark hair. For all she was starting to draw the men’s eyes like bees to nectar, she was still enough of a child not to notice their admiring stares.
His gaze dropped to his oldest granddaughter. With her hair drawn back, the resemblance to his dead wife was eerie. Rebecca wasn’t the looker Catrin was; her red-lipped mouth was too wide, and those gray eyes under her slanted brows gave her heart-shaped face an unearthly beauty, but he knew from his own experience many years ago just how potent a spell that exotic loveliness could cast. He had been caught in just such a web years ago when he first laid eyes on his dead wife, Anghard.
“All of you, come here,” he said. “I need to tell you what I learned in the village yesterday. Catrin, leave those biscuits alone. We won’t starve in the next ten minutes.
Obediently, Catrin and Owen seated themselves on a nearby log. Rebecca turned to face him on the folding campstool, a thick black braid lying over her shoulder.
“John Thomas Lazarus has put out a reward for our arrest for unauthorized magic. I saw it posted on the wall outside the sheriff’s office.”
“But we haven’t done anything!” Catrin cried, tears trembling on the ends of her lashes.
Rebecca said nothing, but she shut her eyes and clasped her hands in her lap. Magic users were regulated by the King. Powerful users were recruited to serve in the Kings Magi Proctors. Less powerful magic users were required to buy a license to use magic, or if proven to be of the right bloodlines, used as breeding stock. In either case, Magi were tested and licensed and paid a fee to the King to practice their arts. At least it worked so in theory. In practice, the rule of the Proctors over Askela’s Magi gifted was absolute. Almost no licenses to practice magic were ever issued. Unauthorized users could be hung without trial if they committed crimes using magic.
Owen started to curse, and was immediately called to order.
“Owen I’ll not have you using words like that in front of your sisters,” Lewys said sternly. “Besides, saying a thing like that about a man can get you killed in a challenge.”
“Even when he deserves it?” asked Catrin wryly.
“Yes,” her grandfather said flatly. “Especially if he deserves it. It’s about how powerful he is, not if he deserves the name.”
After a short struggle with himself, Owen said, “Yes sir. Sorry, girls.”
“Never mind that,” Catrin said. “What are we going to do?”
Her grandfather patted her hand. “I’ll think of something,” he said. In fact, he already had a plan in mind, but he wanted to talk to their guest before he came out with it.
“Now, how about breakfast? Am I to starve to death today?”
“Grandfather, what exactly does that notice say?” demanded Rebecca.
He took it out of his pocket and handed it to her. She frowned as she read it aloud. Travelers such as themselves always had a bad reputation in any new town, being automatically suspected of thievery and other less savory actions. Combined with hints of outlaw magic this spelled real trouble. Lewys and Owen were wanted for the assault and attempted murder of John Thomas Lazarus, Catrin and herself for a magical assault on Mrs. Charity Lazarus and for burning a wagon. All were hanging offenses, and the fact that most of it was a tapestry of lies wouldn’t matter. In fact, only Rebecca had used any magic; Catrin had used a shovel, and Owen and Lewys had both arrived after the incident was over. Although defending herself hadn’t been a crime, with the memory of the day the Proctor took her mother fresh in her mind, Rebecca didn’t think being turned over to the Proctors was a better fate.
They had left the village quickly after the incident hoping an old man traveling to his new hold with his grandchildren might escape notice. They never gave their real names when plying their trade as sellers of herbs and medicines in a village, but the descriptions of them on the flyer were very close. Upon fleeing Joppa, they had turned the gaudy signs on the wagon’s side inward and whitewashed the outside so the wagons looked more like ordinary travelling wagons. Unfortunately, Lewys’ treasured herd of beautiful golden draft unicorns were very noticeable, and they had been forced to stop several times and reapply the dye that turned their golden coats to a muddy brown.
“Sorcery my foot!” Owen exclaimed. “That old hag probably died of spleen when she found out what her supposedly God-fearing husband was up to!”
“Look for the mote in your own eye,” quoted Lewys, “before speaking of the one in your neighbors.”
Owen made an angry noise. “I don’t care! And don’t quote that stuff at me! I’m sick to death of—”
“Stop it! Please!” Rebecca cried.
Everyone looked at her in astonishment. She was weeping. Rebecca never cried.
“This is all my fault,” she sobbed. “I should have just done what he wanted—”
“Wash out your mouth of that filth girl!” Lewys roared. “No granddaughter of mine and Anghard’s would make a whore of herself for any reason! You did just as you should have,” he added more gently. “So did Catrin. What’s done is done, and we live now, not in the past.”
“Uh—breakfast is ready,” Catrin inserted. “That is if anyone is interested.”
They stayed another day by the creek tending to the wounded man and touching up the dye they applied to the unicorn herd. The man didn’t really wake up, but Lewys was able to get a couple of spoons of broth down him.
The first night after everyone had gone to bed, Lewys sat up late. Another man might have been ashamed of himself for what he intended to do. Lewys Maginogion was not. He had a plan to protect his family but he needed more information about his patient before he could decide how much of it was workable. He opened the saddlebags Owen had taken off the unicorn. There wasn’t much in them. One of the bags held a clean shirt, an extra needle gun, a small sleeve weapon, a package of kophie and a battered cup and pot. The other held tools for making needles and small containers of compressed air. The most interesting things he found were a gold pendant with a man and woman’s image inside and a small packet of letters.
Most of the letters were addressed to Andre Benoit. The oldest of these was dated almost ten years ago and had been written to a schoolboy.
My dear son, Lewys read, Mr. James, the head master from St. Anthony’s visited us today and I am afraid your father is very angry with you. Dearest, you must learn to control that dreadful temper of yours or one day I fear it will lead to serious trouble. I am very proud of you for standing up for that poor young man, but was it really necessary to half-drown his tormenter in the chamber pot? And did you really need to break a valuable urn over Jimmy Hendricks head? Not but what I do sympathize with your desire to hit him with something. A more horrid brat I’ve yet to meet, and his mother is just the same—but I hear your father coming. All my love dear and do try to stay out of trouble for a few days. Mama.
There were several others, all in the same vein. The last one was not written by his mother. Instead, it was written by the Cleric at a church.
My Dear boy, my heart goes out to you at this time. I wish I could be with you to comfort you, but as I cannot, I can only tell you to call upon He who is our greatest comfort in our grief as well as in joy. Your mother did not suffer at all. Dr. Thomas tells us the fall killed her instantly. Your poor father is sorely stricken. I hope this mutual sorrow will heal the gulf that has opened between you. Call upon me if you should feel the need for my services and I will come. God be with you, Respected Vincent McCauley
There were two other letters. One was from someone named Marie. It was just a note thanking him for the money to get back home to her family and telling him of her upcoming Handfasting.
The last one was addressed to someone named Hammer Smith, desiring him to come a village named Cutterston and quoting a price of seven thousand silver coins for unnamed services.
Thoughtfully Lewys re-folded the letters and replaced them. A handful of letters wasn’t much to base his plan on, but they were all he had. ‘The Divinity helps those who helps themselves’ he reminded himself. It had been one of Anghard’s favorite sayings. Just the thought of her somehow made her seem closer. Would she have approved of what he intended? He thought so. Comforted, he turned into his bedroll and went to sleep.
The next morning dawned bright and clear. Looking into the wagon Lewys found his patient awake.
“Well,” he said, “you scared us a mite son. How do you feel?”
Andre Benoit touched his head gingerly. “If I move will it fall off?”
“Headache? Well, I think that can be helped.” Lewys rummaged around in Anghard’s medicine box until he found a small leather packet filled with white powder. He poured a tiny amount of the powder into a tin cup, added water and swished it around.
“Here,” he said, “handing Andre the cup. “This should do the trick.”
Andre accepted the cup gingerly. “Who are you?” he asked.
Lewys looked at him in well-feigned surprise. “Why don’t you know?”
There was a small silence as Andre finished his medicine. “No,” he said at last, “I don’t guess I do.”
He paused, searching his memory and then he frowned. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think I know who I am.”
“Good Lord,” exclaimed Lewys. “I’ve heard of such a thing, but—”
Andre took him up sharply. “What do you mean?”
“Why, memory loss after a blow to the head. When I worked on cattle station one summer, a fella got knocked on the head like you. He claimed he didn’t know who he was either. Of course, we didn’t believe him at first, but we came down to it in the end.”
Lewys rubbed his chin. “As I recall, that fella never did get his right memory back.”
Andre carefully set his cup down on the wooden chest next to him. “Do you know who I am? How I got here? How did I get hurt?”
“Whoa son,” Lewys flung up a hand. “One thing at a time. First, your name is Andre Benoit and you’re engaged to marry my eldest granddaughter Rebecca.”
Lewys told that whopping lie without a blink. He rushed on before Andre could question him. “You’re in bed because it looks like someone took a whack at you. We’re not sure how it happened. You rode off hunting prong horn yesterday and your unicorn brought you back. I’m afraid there isn’t a lot more I can tell you about yourself before you joined us a couple of weeks back, because we only just met you.”
For once in his quick-tongued life, Andre was struck speechless. The story sounded fantastic and he wanted to hear more, but he was very tired and found himself drifting back to sleep. Lewys watched him for a minute more, then rose and left the wagon.
That had been relatively easy compared to what was next—explaining to Rebecca, Catrin and Owen what he had done and getting them to go along with it.
The girls were down by the creek, washing clothes. Owen was making a fresh pot of kophie. He had heard what had gone on between Lewys and Andre. He scowled at his grandfather and opened his mouth to speak. Lewys shook his head at him.
“Where are Rebecca and Catrin?”
“Down at the creek.”
“Good. Come with me; we’re going to have a family conference.”
“We just did that yesterday,” Owen grumbled under his breath as he followed Lewys. “Much good as it did us.”
Arriving at the creek, Lewys said jovially, “You two girls look as lovely as flowers in springtime this morning.”
Catrin and Rebecca exchanged glances over the bucket of dirty clothes. When their Grandfather started showering compliments, it generally meant he was up to something.
“Thank you,” Rebecca said politely.
Both girls waited.
Lewys cleared his throat. “All of you read that wanted notice I brought back from town, didn’t you?”
“We read it, Grandpa,” Catrin replied.
“Well, then you know there weren’t images of us, just a description of an old man, two girls and a younger man. It occurred to me that what we need here is a bit of misdirection. Now we can’t change our looks, but we can become a party of five instead of four. Ironlyn is still many weeks’ travel from here and there are several villages between it and us, including Buttersea. If we travel through those villages as a party of five, everyone who sees us will think of us a group of five people not four, even if the fifth member of the group doesn’t stay around long.”
Catrin was the first to speak. “You’re talking about the man on the war unicorn. Has he agreed to this?”
Owen made a rude noise. “He’ll probably stay. You should have heard that pack of lies Grandpa fed him!”
“What if he finds out about the wanted notice?” Rebecca asked. “He might decide to collect the two thousand coins by turning us in.”
“He might not turn us in but not want to stay either—”
“Quiet!” Lewys glared them individually into silence.
“Our young friend—his name is Andre Benoit incidentally, has lost his memory because of that clout on the noggin he took.”
“Permanently?” Owen asked. “What if he starts remembering?”
Lewys waved that aside. “Makes no difference. It’ll stay lost long enough to suit us. Now stop interrupting me! Where was I?”
“Memory loss,” Catrin supplied.
“Yes. Well I told him we met him a couple of weeks ago on the trail. He went hunting for meat and came back with a cut across his head. I also told him he was engaged to Rebecca so he’d have a reason to stay around.”
Benignly he smiled at his offspring who stared back at him with varying degrees of exasperation, horror or amusement.
“Why you old reprobate!” Catrin exclaimed.
“You,” said Owen forcefully, “are a sneaky, underhanded, unscrupulous old—I don’t know what.”
They both carefully did not look at Rebecca who had gone dead white. She raised stricken eyes to her grandfather.
“I’m sorry Grandpa, but I can’t,” she whispered. “He might want—I can’t do it.”
Lewys jerked his head at Owen and Catrin. “You two go back to camp. Rebecca and I need to talk. And mind, you remember what I told you if you talk to Andre.”
Obediently they started back to the fire. Lewys put an arm around Rebecca and felt her involuntary stiffening.
“Child, you’ve got to do it. Ironlyn is the last hope of the Magi. You know we need a safe place to go—it’s getting dangerous to keep up the traveling medicine wagon, we are beginning to be too recognizable. The Proctors were asking questions about us in the last town before Joppa. That flyer will give them the excuse to hunt us down. It takes one of the blood to hold Ironlyn and control the Gate. We can’t allow it to fall into the any hands but ours. Besides the Magi Cadre is counting on us to take over at Ironlyn. You know how important that is to what we do.”
She pulled away from him and covered her face with her hands.
“Don’t you see, he’s going to think its real! I dread having even you or Owen touch me and I know you aren’t going to—every time a man even touches my hand I remember—”
She broke into sobs.
Lewys’ heart ached in pity, but he steeled himself against her tears. If she didn’t overcome this fear, she would go maimed all her life.
“Rebecca, you know it isn’t natural to feel that way. You must face your fear and overcome it. What is between a man and a woman is good, not evil.”
“What happened to me was evil!” she flashed.
“The man is evil and what he did was bad,” Lewys agreed. “I’m sorry your first experience was so ugly, but you cannot allow it to rule your life child. Do you want to end your days a sour old maid with no children to light your days as you light mine?”
Her eyes closed. “Grandpa, please!”
Lewys sighed. “Well, child I won’t force you to do this for our benefit. The Magi Cadre will find someone else to handle Ironlyn. I can sell the unicorns—”
“Stop it!” she cried. She knew her grandfather loved his unicorn herd second only to his family. It would break his heart to let them go. Her refusal would bring hurt and destitution on everyone she loved and the innocents they were charged to protect. She lifted her chin and wiped her eyes.
“You’re right. There is no other way,” she took a deep breath and gave him a watery smile. “I’ll try the best I can.”
Lewys hugged her. “That’s my brave girl. I knew I could count on you.”
Rebecca deliberately forced her body to relax. Andre would be in bed for another day or so, she hoped. Perhaps by that time she could learn not to flinch.
Catrin and Owen both looked at her anxiously when she and Lewys returned to the fire.
“Are you alright, sis?” Owen asked, his eyes widening as he realize Lewys still had his arm around Rebecca’s shoulder and she had not only walked all the way back to camp that way, but didn’t move away.
“I’m fine Owen,” she smiled at him, a rather strained smile, but a real one nonetheless. “I have agreed to Grandpa’s plan.”
Owen opened his mouth, thought better of what he had been going to say, and shut it again.
Lewys gave his granddaughter a last hug and moved toward the fire. “Catrin are you burning the biscuits?”
“No, Owen is. It’s his turn to cook,” she replied.
“Aggh!” Owen leaped toward the fire to rescue his mistreated breakfast.
Rebecca took a deep breath, poured a cup of kophie, and mounted the wagon steps. Andre was awake.
“I brought you a cup of kophie. Breakfast will be ready soon.”
“I hope you’re Rebecca, because if you aren’t, I’m engaged to the wrong girl.”
An involuntary laugh was surprised out of her. “What a thing to say! It would serve you right if I denied it!”
He smiled back at her, running his eyes over her possessively.
To cover her nervousness, she said hastily, “Here, let me help you sit up. You can’t drink kophie lying down.”
This was an error, she soon discovered. It brought her entirely too close to him, making her sharply aware of him as a man. He did nothing to ease her nervousness and when she attempted to help him sit up so she could place a pillow behind his back, he put both arms around her waist and leaned against her, inhaling her scent from her breast.
“Ummn—you smell good,” he said.
“Your kophie will get cold,” she said, pushing against him.
“Better cold kophie than a cold woman,” Andre retorted teasingly. But he allowed her to settle him back against the pillow and hand him his cup.
“Where’s yours?” he asked, lifting the cup to his mouth. Any doubts as to Lewys Maginogion’s veracity had vanished the instant he set eyes on his supposed fiancée. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to him that he should have wanted to marry Rebecca. She was everything he had ever dreamed of in a woman. He was a little puzzled and hurt at her reaction to his embrace though. His dream woman wouldn’t have pushed him back.
Rebecca retreated to perch on the foot of the blankets. “Grandpa says you don’t remember us.”
Andre almost laughed aloud at this simple explanation for her stiffness. She must feel extremely awkward to have him declare he was in love with her, ask her to marry him one day and then the next be told he didn’t remember her. No wonder she hadn’t responded.
He smiled warmly at her. “I plead guilty, but since I fell in love with you again on sight, I feel I deserve a suspended sentence, don’t you?”
Rebecca’s lips twitched. “Maybe I do and maybe I don’t. There’s your pack. Breakfast is in ten minutes.” Shaking her head, she left the wagon. A few minutes later, she heard Andre’s boots hit the floor.
A Tangled Web
Over the next week, the family worked out a rhythm of doing things. Sunrise and Blackfeather had shown an instant mutual dislike, so to keep the two studs away from each other while traveling, Lewys rode his golden stallion Sunrise and Andre rode Blackfeather. One or the other of the men helped Owen drive the unicorn herd of mares and their offspring. The two girls each drove a wagon with a white-maned kitten or two sitting on the seat beside them.
The kittens had doubled in size over the past weeks. When they reached their full maturity, they would weigh approximately thirty pounds and would have developed mottled grey/green coats and long silver manes. Their breed were superb hunters, in the wild they often hunted in a pride, however they easily adapted to domesticity.
Fortunately for the success of Lewys’ plan, Andre was still suffering from the effects of the blow to his head so he was too tired in the evenings to attempt to do more than steal a few kisses from Rebecca. To Rebecca’s surprise, she gradually became accustomed to Andre’s attentions, and even managed to occasionally return a kiss.
The morning before they entered Coverville, the next village with a Trade Station attached, Rebecca brought out one of her grandfather’s soft, homespun shirts, a green bandana and a large soft hat like the ones worn by herdsman and handed them to Andre.
“Your clothes make you look too much like a hired fighter,” she said. “These will help you blend in better on the way through town.”
He turned them over in his hands, looking at her thoughtfully. He noticed that both Rebecca and Catrin had changed their usual attire this morning. Instead of the better-quality blouses they usually wore, both girls had donned faded homespun shirts and large, soft hats. In addition, Rebecca had used something to darken her porcelain white skin to make it seem tanned.
“Who are we hiding from?” he asked as he began to unlace his shirt.
She hesitated, distracted by the muscled torso he displayed as he pulled the shirt over his head. When she didn’t answer, he met her eyes, enjoying it as she turned bright red at being caught staring.
“Like what you see?” he asked, smiling. Stepping in closer, he slid a hand around her neck to bring her mouth up for a kiss.
Up close, his body gave off a warm musky scent and she was surprised to find she wanted to touch those smooth muscles. When his mouth closed over hers, she brought up her hands to rest on his chest enjoying slightly prickly feel of his sparse chest hair under her palms. As he felt her response, his hand slid down her back pressing more of her body against his. Things might have progressed even further if there hadn’t been an interruption.
“Ouch!” yelled Owen, as he dropped the hot pan he was using to heat water for breakfast.
Rebecca gasped and stepped back from Andre, who let her go. Several encounters like this had convinced Andre that his girl wasn’t cold, she was just shy, so he was satisfied with the progress he was making.
“Rebecca,” he reminded when she started to back further away. “Who are we hiding from?”
She took a deep breath. “You might as well know there is a wanted flyer out on the four of us. Grandpa saw it in the last town we passed through.”
” You mean a wanted flyer On you?”
She nodded. “When you see it, you may not want to travel with us—”
Andre made a rude noise. “Do you have a copy?”
Rebecca climbed up inside the wagon, brought back the flyer and handed it to him.
Andre read it, a heavy frown gathering on his face. “None of you are violent. This guy Lazarus did something, what was it?”
Instead of answering, she bit her lip and turned her back, her hands covering her face.
Her reaction told him everything he wanted to know. Andre was silent while he mastered the black rage that had suddenly risen in him. He knew better than to let it out; giving in to anger had caused him plenty of trouble in the past. He looked at Rebecca’s shaking shoulders and closed his eyes.
“Rebecca,” he said, gently turning her to face him, “It’s alright. He won’t touch you again, I promise.”
To his dismay, she burst into tears, burying her face in his chest. Not knowing what else to do, he simply held her and rubbed her back until the storm of tears subsided.
“What’s the matter with Rebecca?” demanded Lewys, coming around the wagon.
Silently, Andre handed him the flyer.
“Oh, she told you, did she?” inquired Lewys. “Well, I suppose you had to know.”
“I asked her what we were running from,” Andre said.
Lewys sighed regretfully. “I should have made sure that animal was dead, but it would have been murder. I wanted to get my family away from there before they raised a lynch party.”
He handed Andre a handkerchief to give to Rebecca who had stopped weeping.
“Breakfast is almost ready,” he said, “Go and wash your face girl, so your brother and sister don’t see you’ve been crying.”
He motioned Andre to step out of hearing of the wagon. “I suppose you want to know what happened, don’t you?”
Andre shrugged. “I can guess. How bad was it?”
“Not quite as bad as it could have been. We were getting ready to leave that morning. Owen had gone to say goodbye to the Trade Stations daughter he was sweet on, and I’d gone into Joppa to pick up some stuff for the kid’s I’d already paid for. The girls were about to harness the unicorns, so we could leave when I got back. I guess you’re aware that some folk have peculiar ideas about Travelers. When Lazarus showed up, Rebecca told Catrin to get inside the wagon and stay there. He had Rebecca down on the ground when Catrin hit him with a shovel. Owen and I got there a few minutes later. I should have made sure he was dead, but I wanted to get my family out of there before we were arrested.”
Andre flicked the flyer scornfully. “So, this is because they blame you for defending yourselves?”
“Looks like it.” He shrugged. “The Trade Master warned me to leave as quickly as we could. Lazarus is a rich man who pulls a lot of weight around that area. Travelers are always easy marks though. Even before this happened we always made it a point to look as ordinary as we could when we pass through a strange village.”
He looked over at the younger man. “You’ve been good for Rebecca. It broke my heart to see her flinch whenever Owen or I accidentally bumped into her. She’s never done that with you and she’s easier with us too. I want to thank you for that if nothing else.”
They drove through Coverville and stopped a few miles outside of it at one of the Trade Stations the Shahen required be set aside for visiting trade caravans. The caravans were usually run by families or groups who made their living buying and selling goods as they traveled from village to village. Depending on their wares, most caravans had regular stops where they were expected at certain times of each year. A lone Traveler could sometimes pay a passage fee and journey along with them as a part of the group, which was safer than traveling alone.
The Trade Stations had been created to cut down on the friction between the visiting Travelers and town merchants. They were a kind of village in and of themselves; usually a Trade Station was run by a family who received a stipend from the Shahen to keep them in order. Station Masters were allowed to make what profits they could from fees for the goods sold in the Trade Store, using the bath and wash houses, or in some cases renting rooms. If a Traveler caravan came through they might stay for a week, selling things they brought, trading with the villagers, and sometimes putting on entertainment for the town. This Station had a store that sold a few staples such as canned goods, blankets, pots and pans and such.
When they arrived, Owen and Andre set up the temporary rope corral to contain unicorn herd. to keep them from attacking each other, the stallions were picketed separately, on either end of the two wagons.
When Rebecca went to the Trade station to pay the fee for access to the facilities, Andre went with her, casually catching her hand in his. This Trade Station was run by an older man and his wife called Tomilson. The wife, a plump, gray haired matron smiled knowingly at their clasped hands.
“Newlywed or courting?” she asked comfortably.
Rebecca blushed. “Uh—we’re not married.”
“Ah, courting then,” Sarsee Tomlinson said.
“Engaged,” Andre said firmly.
“Where are you folks traveling to?” her husband asked.
“Ironlyn,” Rebecca said.
“I see,” Tomilson said, withdrawing slightly. “That would make you the new Dracon then?” he asked Andre.
“That would be my grandfather,” Rebecca corrected, handing him the coins.
Several more families of Travelers arrived at the Station as the day wore on, parking their wagons or setting up tents along the circle designated for that purpose. Animals were expected to be kept outside the circle. Lewys made it a point to meet each of the new arrivals as they came in, taking either Owen or Andre with him as he encountered them. Most of the people they met were simply families or single men traveling on business, who were glad to get news from outside the area. In turn, Lewys asked them about the surrounding country and about Buttersea, the next village on the way to Ironlyn. When that village was mentioned, several of the men looked over their shoulders, and finally one of them, braver than the others, said, “I wouldn’t go there, if you can avoid it.”
“Why not?” asked Andre alertly. “What’s wrong there?”
Two of the men, brothers who were going to visit their relatives in Glassfall, exchanged glances. “We don’t know for sure,” one of them said. “But we hear rumors that some of the folk who go there don’t come back, or are robbed.”
“By the village?” asked Lewys.
Jorgon, the other brother, frowned. “I don’t think so. The story I got was it happens outside of town.”
“Yes, but I heard that some of the stolen goods ended up for sale in the shops,” one of the others chimed in.
Lewys nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you for the warning. We will be on our guard.”
After dinner, one of the men who had been a part of the discussion came over to their fire. Sorson Tobias was a tall, gangly man with an open face. “Dracon Maginogion, I have a favor to ask,” he said diffidently.
“What is it, Sorson Tobias?”
“First, may I ask if you still intend to go through Buttersea?”
Lewys nodded curtly. “We must. It’s on the road to Ironlyn.”
The man took a deep breath. “Well, you see, my family is traveling that way too, and I was hoping that we could travel together. I’ve heard that it’s safer to travel in a larger group. I have only the one wagon for myself, my wife and our young son.”
“How far are you going?” inquired Andre, watching him closely.
“Until I find work,” Sorson Tobias said. “I’m a bricklayer and I’m hoping there will be work in Snowdon, the next village beyond Buttersea.”
“We would love to meet your wife and child,” Rebecca said softly. “It must be very hard traveling this way with a young one.”
“Yes,” agreed Lewys. “Why don’t you bring her over now?”
The man nodded and left.
“Thank you, Rebecca,” her grandfather said. “That was well done. What do you think? Shall we let them travel with us?”
“Yes,” both girls said.
“I want to meet the wife. If everything is as he says, it would make it safer for us also,” said Andre.
“Owen?” his grandfather asked.
“I don’t feel anything harmful from him,” Owen replied.
Sarcee Anja Tobias turned out to be a pretty young woman who looked very tired. The little boy was a dark-haired moppet with curious blue eyes. His mother had wrapped a belt around the child and attached a short rope to it, one end of which she kept attached to her wrist. It was soon seen why this was necessary, as the child, Robern, immediately tried to escape his mother’s custody by darting away from her the moment his feet touched the ground.
It rained all the next day and the night before they were due to pass through Buttersea. There was no actual Trade Station around Buttersea, but an open ground under a grove of maconut trees just past the village was designated for Travelers. The trees provided some protection for the three wagons. The normally peacefully gurgling creek a little way inside the grove was threatening to overflow its banks. Lewys and Owen pulled out a large tarp, which they anchored overhead between two wagons to provide shelter from the rain and wind. The unicorns were bunched under the trees close to the wagons. The two stallions seemed to declare a truce during the storm, or at any rate, they refrained from attacking each other. The three kittens complained bitterly and stayed in the wagon used by the girls for sleeping.
A break easing the rain a trifle, allowed Andre and Rebecca to go down to the swiftly flowing creek for water to be heated for the dishes. Near the edge of the stream, Rebecca spotted the shivering girl at the foot of a tree. She now wore the pendant she had skryed with constantly, and it had retained a small glow. When she saw the girl, it suddenly heated up and glowed a bright blue through her shirt. Rebecca gasped and pulled it out, looking at the girl in shock.
“What’ is it?” Andre asked sharply.
“We’ve found her!” Rebecca exclaimed.
“Found who?” he demanded.
“Our sister. We were told she was born after our mother was taken by the Proctors and smuggled out of their compound. I’ll explain more after we get her back to camp.”
The girl was clad only in too-small shift and trousers, and she was barefoot. Her black hair clung wetly to her face.
“Oh, you poor thing!” Rebecca exclaimed going to kneel beside her. “Whatever are you doing out here by yourself?”
The girl raised drenched gray eyes to hers. “Don’t let them find me!” she begged.
When Rebecca touched her, the stone cooled, returning to its original bronze color. She tried to lift the child to her feet, but the girl fainted and would have fallen back down if Andre hadn’t caught her. He handed the still empty bucket to Rebecca and lifted the child in his arms.
“We need to get her back and dry her off,” he said practically.
“Put her in our wagon,” Catrin said when they arrived back at the camp. “I’ll bring some hot water. You get her out of those wet clothes.”
Rebecca hissed in anger when she stripped off the sopping clothes and found the child’s thin, pale-skinned body covered in welts and bruises from a recent whipping with a lash.
“Get some salve and bandages out of Grandmother’s medicine box,” she told Catrin. “This will sting when I clean these cuts. It’s a good thing she’s still out.”
Silently, Catrin handed her the things she’d asked for and opened their grandmother’s trunk. “What do you suppose happened to her? Where are her parents?” she asked, taking out a thick soft nightgown.
“Catrin, I think she might be our sister; Grandmother’s pendant identified her. Some animal has used a lash on her,” her sister said. “If her guardians allowed this—”
“You don’t know,” Catrin pointed out.” Maybe they did it.”
She handed the nightgown to Rebecca, helping her pull it over the child’s head just as she was regaining consciousness. While Rebecca helped the child into the bed and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, Catrin leaned out of the wagon door and asked Owen to bring a bowl of the stew from dinner and some of the hot tea in the pot sitting on the fire. The kittens converged on the child; one of them lying across her feet, while the other two snuggled up against her legs.
Rebecca unfolded a lap tray and spread it across the girl’s knees, carefully setting the bowl and cup down on it. When she saw the bowl and cup, the child’s eyes grew round. Hesitantly she cupped the bowl between her cold hands.
“Can you feed yourself, or shall I help you?” Rebecca asked.
“Is—is this for me?” the girl asked, hardly daring to hope.
“Of course, it is,” Catrin said holding out the spoon.
“You need to eat and warm up the inside as well as the outside,” Rebecca said, lighting the burner on the small warming oven.
They waited patiently until the child had finished the stew.
“What is your name?” Rebecca asked.
The girl looked frightened. “Selene. Please don’t tell anyone you’ve seen me. He’ll be looking for me.”
“Who will be looking for you, Selene? The man who beat you?”
The girl nodded jerkily. One of the kittens, sensing distress, climbed into the child’s lap, purring loudly. The girl reached out a tentative hand to stroke his back.
“Is he your guardian?”
“No,” Selene whispered. “The Magi Proctor’s man, Leroys Torrigan.”
“I see,” Rebecca said grimly. She exchanged a glance with her sister.
“Are you going to send me back?” Selene asked fearfully.
“No, child, we are not,” Rebecca’s voice was calm. “But if we are to protect you, we need to know everything you can tell us. Why were you with him instead of being sent on to the Shahen’s school?”
Selene shuddered. “Torrigan almost never sends anyone there. He keeps the young magi for a while and then they are sold off to another place. At least that’s what the girl who was there before me said.”
“Is she still there?”
Selene shook her head. “No, they took her out a week ago. That’s when Torrigan started training me.”
“With a whip?” Catrin asked, incredously.
“No, that was because I wouldn’t do what he wanted.”
“What did he want you to do?”
Catrin gave her sister a sharp glance. From her tone, she knew Rebecca had a good idea what the child was about to tell them.
Selene swallowed. “He took off his clothes and he wanted me to—to—”
Rebecca stroked the child’s forehead. “It’s alright, darling. I know.” She smiled down at the girl. “You have family now, and we will protect you and teach you how to use your gifts to protect yourself.” She settled the girl back down on the bed and tucked her into the blankets. “Catrin will sit here with you, and the kittens will keep you company. I will be in soon to join you. I need to get the dishes cleaned up first. Sleep now.”
Going to the door, she slipped on her rain slicker and went outside. When she approached the fire, she found that the Tobias family had gone to bed in their wagon.
“When did they leave?” she asked.
“Just after you went for water,” Owen responded.
“Good,” she told the three men. “I don’t want them to hear this.”
“How is she?” asked Lewys.
Rebecca held out her hands to the dying fire. “She has been whipped and beaten, starved, and I think an attempt was made to rape her.”
Lewys gave a hiss of dismay.
“We heard something about the Magi Proctor,” interjected Andre. “Is she a Magi?”
“Yes,” Rebecca said.
“Then she landed with the right family,” Owen stated.
Andre’s eyebrows rose. “Really? And when were you going to tell me about this?”
Owen looked at him in surprise. “I thought you knew. Didn’t Rebecca show you the flyer?”
“That isn’t the same as saying the words,” Andre retorted.
Rebecca lifted a hand. “Gentlemen please! We need to get our stories straight. Now, Sorson and Sarsee Tobias only met us two days ago at the Trader Station, so I think we can simply tell them that our younger sister Selene has been ill—spotted fever, I think—and we kept her in the wagon so that’s why she wasn’t introduced to them.”
Lewys stroked his chin. “With the storm, I think that will work. We wouldn’t let a sick child out in the rain. Ah—how old is my granddaughter?”
He suddenly focused on the pendant lying outside Rebecca’s shirt. The stone resting on Rebecca’s breast was quiescent.
“It’s her?” he said, incredulously.
Rebecca nodded, smiling with tears in her eyes. “Yes, I think so. She is the right age, and—she looks like grandmother.”
“Is someone looking for her?” inquired Andre. “When we found her, she said something about ‘not letting him find her’.”
“It’s possible. She said she was being kept by the Proctor’s man before she escaped.”
The three men exchanged glances.
“Are you alright with this?” Lewys asked Andre.
“At least the ground is going to be soft enough to bury a body,” he answered, and Lewys laughed, clapping him on the shoulder.
“Go to bed Rebecca,” her grandfather told her. “We’ll keep—?”
“Selene, is her name.”
“We’ll keep Selene safe.”
Andre walked her back to the wagon. “Don’t worry about anything. One of us will stay on watch tonight.”
She laid her hand against his face, giving him a tremulous smile. “Thank You,” she said softly. “You always make me feel safe.”
It hadn’t exactly been declaration of love, he reflected, but it gave him a warm feeling all the same. A man’s presence should make his woman feel safe. He turned his head and pressed a kiss into her palm.
Strangely enough, what she said was true. He had been with them for several weeks before Rebecca realized the hovering fear that had afflicted her since the attack had disappeared. It took a little longer for her to associate its disappearance with Andre.
They left the next day with the rain still pouring down. Catrin mentioned casually at breakfast that morning that they had better continue to keep Selene in bed and Rebecca agreed. Andre and Lewys both asked how she was doing, and Owen prepared a plate for her. Anja and Jerlyn Tobias accepted their story of a sick child without question.
Selene was a little harder to convince. When Rebecca took her breakfast in to her, she looked up warily.
“Who are you?” the child asked.
“I am Draconi Rebecca Mabinogion, and I believe you are the child we have been looking for. You see, our mother was with child when the Proctor’s took her. We were told she had smuggled the newborn baby out of the Proctor headquarters. We have been searching for that child for many years. She would be about your age.”
“Why do you think I’m that child?”
Rebecca took out a hand mirror from the drawer where she and Catrin kept their toiletries. She handed it to Selene, who looked at it in wonder.
“Look at your face in the mirror and then look at mine,” Rebecca instructed.
The child had the same pale skin, grey eyes with up tilted brows and black hair. Recent privations had thinned her face of any remaining childhood plumpness, so that the resemblance to Rebecca was very marked.
“What do you remember about your life before the Proctors found you?” Rebecca asked her. “Do you remember your parents?”
“I never knew anything about my father. The woman who raised me wasn’t my mother, and she didn’t tell me much. We moved around a lot. She told me if we got separated, I was supposed to go to a place called Ironlyn and they would help me,” Selene said slowly, “when I was older, Sara told me my mother was a great lady, but I wasn’t to talk about it. She caught the wasting fever in Wintermere. She had taken a job in a nursing home there. The family we were boarding with discovered I was Magi and reported me to the Proctor.”
Rebecca smiled at her. “We are on our way to Ironlyn, and I believe we are who this Sara was trying to reach. You are safe now. The family traveling with us have just come into our service, and won’t think it strange they haven’t met you yet, because we said you have been ill. You are staying inside the wagon until the weather clears so you don’t get sick again. As far as they are concerned, you have always been our little sister.”
“Why would anyone believe I’m your sister?”
“They will believe because they will be able to see how much you look like me and our Grandmother. Now, eat your breakfast, and don’t let the cats trick you—they’ve been fed.”
“What about someone who knows you?” the girl asked sensibly.
“For them, it is the same story; most of them know we have been looking for our parents fourth child. We simply say we have found you at last. Because of them taking our mother and other things, our family is bitterly opposed to the Magi system. All of us are unregistered Magi, and we belong to a group that helps Magi escape the Proctors. Now, after breakfast Catrin will bring you some warm water for washing and take you out to relieve yourself. For today, just rest and enjoy your breakfast. There are books over there in the chest if you would like to read.”
Rebecca smiled. “Yes, there are some there. Please help yourself to them.”
Since there had been no work for Jerlyn in the last two villages, the Tobias family was still with them when they arrived at the Linhaven Trade Station. The journey from Buttersea had been wet and miserable for everyone as the storm continued to pound the Travelers. They hadn’t been attacked outside the village; probably, Lewys had speculated aloud because not even outlaws wanted to go out in the rain.
It was late afternoon when they made camp at Linhaven Trade Station. The sun had finally broken out of the clouds that morning, and the air was beginning to warm up.
The journey had given Lewys time to evaluate Tobias. “Is bricklaying your only trade?” he asked him.
“Oh, my Jerlyn can do a lot of things,” his wife said proudly. “He made all our furniture and fixed our neighbor’s well when it got fouled.”
“Anja!” her husband protested. “They don’t want to hear all that.”
“I do,” Lewys said. “As I understand it, Ironlyn has been neglected over the past few years, and most of the staff are gone. I’m going to need a man who is handy with tools. Would you consider working for us?”
“I would be honored, Dracon,” Tobias said, bowing.
“Then let’s talk wages,” Lewys suggested. “Step into my office.” He indicated the spot by the fire next to himself.
“Is your sister Selene feeling well enough to join us for dinner?” Anja asked.
“That is a good idea,” Catrin said. “I’ll go and help her dress.”
I hope she will manage to find the girl something to wear that fits her, Rebecca thought ruefully. Clothing was something she hadn’t taken into consideration when deciding to introduce the girl as family. When they appeared, Rebecca was pleased to see that Catrin had obviously raided their Grandmother’s trunk for suitable clothes. Unlike her daughter, Angard had been a small woman, and the pink shirt and whipcord trousers fit Selene well enough. Catrin had even managed to dig out a pair of Gran’s old boots for the child.
Andre brought over folding stool for her to sit on, which she accepted with a shy smile.
“Yes,” Anja agreed, “That’s right dear. Spotted fever is nothing to fool around with. For tonight, you just sit and watch the rest of us work.”
Travelling with three wagons and a herd of unicorns slowed the journey even more. Andre and Owen took turns handling the Unicorn herd, but villages close to Trade Stations were getting further and further apart, and the animals were beginning to show the effects of the long journey.
“I think we need to stop and rest the unicorns for a couple of days,” Lewys announced after inspecting the herd. “The map shows Sandcrake, the next Trade Station, has a good pasture for herds because it’s a waystation on the Drover’s Trail. We can stay there for several days. The closest village is Wintermere and it is at least half a day’s ride, but that will mean we won’t have to worry so much about someone stealing our animals.”
“We’re low on meat too,” Andre remarked. “I saw pronghorn sign yesterday. If we stay long enough we can smoke the meat.”
“You’re very sure of getting a shot at one,” Jerlyn remarked.
Andre shrugged. “Some of the work I did wasn’t in towns. When you don’t have a steady supply of food, you learn to hunt.”
“We need to do some washing also,” Catrin put in.
Lewys was frowning when he returned from meeting the Trade Master.
“What is wrong?” Rebecca asked.
“I’m not sure,” her grandfather replied. “There is a copy of that wanted flyer Lazarus put out, along with others posted inside the store. It was being tacked up by a self-important little man when I came in. The Trade Master looked unhappy about it. He warned me the man who brought in the wanted flyers came from Wintermere. Said he was always checking on who was using the Station in the hopes of collecting a reward for reporting them.”
Andre rousted Owen out of bed before daylight to hunt the pronghorns he had seen. Rebecca and Catrin cooked a breakfast of biscuits and gravy in the dark for the hunters.
“They come out to feed at dawn and dusk,” Andre told Rebecca as he kissed her goodbye. “We want to be in place before that.”
Dawn was just breaking over the horizon when Rebecca and Selene brought the baskets of dirty clothes over to the Trade Stations Communal washroom. Rebecca worked the handle over a large tub to see if the water was hot, nodding approvingly when it came out warm.
“Good,” she told Selene, “we are the first one’s here. We won’t have to pay extra for clean water for our clothes.”
The younger girl looked at her curiously. “I’ve never used one of these places. How does this work?”
“Time you learned then,” Rebecca said cheerfully. “Start putting the clothes into the tub while I shave some soap into the water. We’ll take turns pumping the handle until the tub is full.”
Once they had the clothes in the tub of water, Rebecca sealed the lid, and showed Selene how to use the foot pedals to make the tub rock back and forth to wash the clothes.
Anja joined them, Robern again attached to her with a lead.
“You beat me here,” she said. “I thought I would be first.”
“They have several tubs,” Rebecca said. “This must be a busy station.”
The other woman nodded, dumping her basket into an empty tub. Rebecca noticed she had only a small sliver of soap to wash with and offered, “Here, we have extra soap. I know how hard it is to make it when you are traveling.”
Anja hesitated, and then took the bar and the shaving knife, smiling her thanks.
The women ran the clothes through a rinse tub and then through the Stations hand-cranked wringer to get rid of the excess water before taking them out to the communal drying lines.
Selene had volunteered to keep Robern occupied, and at Rebecca’s smiling nod, Anja had agreed. Because they were enjoying their talk, Rebecca and Anja were facing each other across the lines of wet clothes. They had almost finished the chore when Rebecca noticed the alarmed look on Anja’s face as she looked into the Station center circle. Hastily, Anja finished hanging up her load to dry and grabbed her basket.
“We should to go back to the wagons,” she said urgently.
Frowning, Rebecca turned to look behind her. A small troop of Mercs had ridden in. They stopped at the Station House, and one of them dismounted and went inside.
“Do you know them?” she asked.
Anja shook her head. “Not them specifically, but I know what they are. We had Merc troops stationed in our village several times before our home was burned in the fighting. The ones associated with the keep weren’t too bad—they lived in the village too and they had an interest in keeping the peace so they mostly behaved properly. The free Mercs—well let’s just say a woman didn’t want to be caught out alone with them around.”
Rebecca nodded. “Selene!” she called the girl who was entertaining Robern with a game of small sticks and pebbles, “We should return to the wagons.”
She picked up her empty baskets and started back through the washhouse to gather up her supplies. She still had more than two thirds of a bar of soap she had left to dry on the sink, and soap was, as she had told Anja earlier, hard to come by on the road. Anja didn’t bother, but hurried back toward the wagons, dragging a reluctant Robern.
Rebecca had just dropped the used soap bar into the empty baskets when a man entered the washroom. He was tall and wide, with sandy hair and a scruffy beard that needed the attention of a razor. He smiled when he spotted the two girls.
“Well, what have we here?” he asked.
Rebecca put an arm around Selene and moved toward the door. He moved to block their exit.
“Don’t run away pretty girl,” he said. “My name’s Jokan, what’s yours?”
Rebecca looked him up and down with no expression on her face. “I am Draconi Rebecca Sancha il’Maginogion, and this is my sister Draya Selene,” she told him haughtily. She didn’t often use her title, but she felt it might make him wary of offending her.
Instead he laughed. “My, aren’t you the high and mighty one. I’m going to enjoy getting acquainted with you.”
“We have not been introduced, Sorson,” she said coldly. “Kindly move out of our way.”
When he didn’t move and Selene gave a frightened whimper, Rebecca readied herself to use her Magi abilities. If she pushed past him and encouraged her shove with a telekinetic shove, it would make him step out of the way and they could get out the door. Just as she was about to make her move, Andre stepped into the room, and Rebecca felt a wave of relief. She relaxed, smiling reassuringly down at Selene. Taking in the situation at a glance, Andre shifted his body between the girls and the Merc.
“Is he bothering you, love?” he asked Rebecca, not taking his eyes off the other man, who was staring at him in astonishment.
“Hammer Smith?” he said incredously. “Where did you spring from?”
When Andre didn’t answer him, he apparently realized he had overstepped a line. “Is she with you? Sorry man, I didn’t know you were working for them.”
“I’m not,” Andre said. “Rebecca, take Selene and go to the wagons. Stay there, and keep Catrin there as well.”
He moved with them toward the door, and the Merc stepped aside so the girls could exit the building.
Once outside the door, Rebecca handed Selene the baskets. “Run to the wagons and tell Grandpa and Owen about this. Tell Catrin to stay with you at the wagons.”
“Andre told both of us to go,” Selene protested.
“I know, but that Merc isn’t alone. Andre may need help.”
Rebecca leaned back against the wall, listening to the men inside as she watched her sister run to their wagons. She looked around, checking for any of the other Merc’s headed toward the washhouse.
“If you’re not working for her family, how do you know her?” the Merc demanded.
“She belongs to me,” Andre told him. “Anyone who bothers her is going to answer to me, understand?”
“Sure,” Jokan agreed hastily. “No problem. I didn’t know she was taken. I saw a prettier girl over in the wagons anyway. One skirt’s as good as another.”
“Rebecca’s sisters, and the wives and daughters of any man who works for us are off limits, Jo. You be sure to tell the others. I’d hate to kill one of them over a misunderstanding.”
“Sure,” Jokan said. He went over to one of the full tubs and opened his war bag to dump in some clothes, whistling as he started his laundry.
Andre watched him for a few minutes, then turned and went out the door Rebecca had used. He stopped in his tracks when he saw her waiting for him, a small fireball rolling in her palm.
He caught her wrist, looking down at her hand. She closed her fist and the ball of flame disappeared. Curiously Andre rubbed a finger over her palm. It was cool to the touch.
“Didn’t I tell you to go back to the wagons?” he said.
“I know,” she replied, “but he isn’t here alone. I saw a whole troop ride in earlier.”
He looked at her, a small, delighted smile playing around his lips. “And you were going to use that to help me?”
She nodded, ducking her head and looking at him sideways, not sure how he would react to this display of Magi talent.
Andre brought her palm to his mouth and pressed a kiss into it. “I wasn’t in any danger, Darling.”
“Well, I realize that now,” she admitted. “I stayed because I knew he would have challenged Grandpa or Owen and I supposed it would be the same with you. Why didn’t he?”
“He knew better,” Andre told her dryly. “He and I worked together a couple of times. Jokan Locklear never saw the day he could beat me in a fight.”
He tucked her hand under his arm and started back toward the wagons.
“He called you by another name,” Rebecca said. “Hammer something.”
“I used the name Hammer Smith when I fought as a Merc,” Andre said, watching her expression to see if his past occupation offended her.
Rebecca nodded. If he was remembering, he might decide he wasn’t engaged after all. Tentatively, she asked, “Is your memory coming back?”
Andre hesitated. “Some of it. I remember being in the Mercs, and I remember a fight in a town, but anything after that is only bits and pieces.”
“I see. Is that man a friend?” she asked.
“Not really, we just worked together, that’s all.”
“I’m glad. I didn’t like him,” she admitted. “A friend of yours is always going to be welcome to me, but I’m glad that man isn’t a friend. He frightened Selene.”
He nodded soberly. “I saw that. I passed the word to leave you girls alone, but it will be better if you stick close to our wagons until they leave.”
“Anja and I both left clothes there on the drying lines,” she told him. “We will need to go back and get them this afternoon when they are dry.”
“I’ll go with you,” he promised.
“Was your hunt successful?” she asked.
He grinned. “Got two buck pronghorns. Owen did okay with his crossbow. We can spend a couple of days curing the hides and smoking the meat. I had to hang them pretty high; your cats kept trying to drag the meat down.”
They had parked their wagons far enough from the station house and any other Travelers to give them some privacy. Trade Stations were neutral territory, but they were hotbeds of gossip as well. Lewys never wanted to camp close enough to other Travelers that a casual observer could listen in on their conversations. Anyone could stop at the Stations and be sure to be let alone if they behaved properly. The Station Master had the right to summon the Sheriff of nearby towns if trouble occurred, but it was a rare occasion when it was necessary anymore. When the Stations had first been established, the Shahen had also stationed soldiers at them to enforce order.
The women spent the afternoon cutting the meat into strips. When Rebecca gave Anja a quarter of the meat, the woman teared up. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Andre showed Owen how to build a smoking rack while Rebecca and Catrin cut the meat into thin strips for smoking. Although it would take several days to finish curing, by evening the smoked meat was beginning to give off an appetizing odor. Selene had been given the task of keeping the kittens from burning their paws when they tried to get close enough to steal a strip of the meat.
The women were starting to prepare dinner when a man on an old zebra unicorn rode up to their wagons, stopping a little way from entering the camp. “May I come to the fire?” he called.
“Come in,” Lewys said easily. Tobias noted that Andre and Owen both moved into the shadows to cover the camp and he did the same, approving of the precautions.
The man was young, but he showed signs of hardship. His clothes were worn and the unicorn looked gaunt. “Dracon Maginogion?” he asked hesitantly.
When Lewys nodded, he said, “I am Sorson Lorkeet. I was told that you might be wanting some goats to restore the herds at Ironlyn?”
“Perhaps. Do you have goats?”
Lorkeet took a deep breath. “Yes. My family has been goatherds for many generations, but we recently lost our holding and are looking for a new patron.”
Andre and Owen came back to the fire. “He’s alone,” Andre said.
Lorkeet looked a little startled and then he smiled. “You are a careful man, Dracon.”
“Yes, I am,” Lewys agreed. “I’d like to see the goats before I talk any deals.”
Lorkeet nodded. “We are camped just over the hill there. We can go now if you want.”
“He’s alone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a trap,” Andre said. “He could have a crew waiting over there.”
Lewys looked at his grandson.
“Owen?” he asked.
Owen shook his head. “I don’t feel anything like that from him.”
Lewys stroked his chin. “I see. Well, I think that you and Andre will stay here just in case. Tobias and I will go and look at goats.”
While they were saddling the unicorns, Owen saw Andre go to the wagon and retrieve his needle gun and a sword which he belted on in addition to the long knife he always wore. Owen decided to imitate the example and went to the wagon shared by the men for his own crossbow and needle gun. Seeing the weapons, Andre nodded approvingly.
He signaled Owen and the pair of them slipped out of the firelight to make a round of the camp as Lewys and Tobias rode out. “Do you think someone is out here?” Owen asked.
Andre held up a hand and pointed at Blackfeather and the unicorn mares who were stamping nervously. “You see that? The unicorns think so and I don’t think its Lorkeet or his people. See how they keep looking back toward the road from the village? It might be an animal, but it could be human too. Let’s make a circle around the camp.”
What the unicorns heard was human. As they finished their circle, a small group of riders trotted right up to their wagons and stopped. Behind her, Rebecca heard Selene gasp in fear. She moved so her body partially shielded the girl, reaching back to grasp her hand.
“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” Rebecca demanded. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Owen moving into position behind the riders with the bolt drawn on his crossbow. When Andre came up to stand between them and the men, she felt a surge of confidence.
“It’s going to be fine, you’ll see,” she whispered to the girl. “Andre will take care of it.”
“I’m Korman, the Sheriff of Wintermere, and I’m looking for a fugitive,” the short, round man in the front announced.
“You didn’t stop at the Station to check yourselves in. That is a violation of Station Protocol. Approaching a camp at night without warning is a good way to get dead, Sheriff,” Andre drawled. “We don’t have any fugitives here. Just our family, our workers and their families.”
“So you say. I’m going to search the camp anyway,” the Sheriff said. “She could be hiding in one of the wagons.”
“She? It takes five men to hunt a woman?” Andre asked disdainfully. “Sheriffs are a lot tougher where I come from.”
“She’s not a woman, she’s a kid and she’s Magi,” the Sheriff said. He and the others dismounted.
“About the age of that one there,” a townsman in rich clothes said, indicating Selene, who shivered.
“That’s my little sister,” Rebecca snapped, putting a protective arm around her.
When one of the men started to approach the nearest wagon, Owen shot a crossbow bolt into the ground narrowly missing the man’s foot. “There’s more where that came from,” he called cheerfully from the shadows. The man backed up nervously, looking to the Sheriff for guidance.
“If you’re looking for a Magi,” Andre said, “Where is the Magi Proctor? You have no jurisdiction without one. I would advise you to mount back up and leave.”
The tone of his voice made Sheriff Korman take another, more careful look at Andre. When he did, he took a mental step back. Despite the soft clothes and herdsman’s hat, it was obvious this man hadn’t always been a Traveler. He was too sure of himself when confronting armed men. Andre’s hand rested lightly on his hip, within easy reach of the needle pistol, and his sword and knife in their well-worn sheaths had seen plenty of service. Everything about Andre shouted ‘Merc’ to the Sheriff, and he wavered. He had no lust to take on a trained Merc; he knew he would be the trained fighter’s first target in a fight. Damn that Sorris for a meddling Busybody. He hadn’t wanted to come all this way out here anyhow, he thought bitterly.
The decision was abruptly taken out of his hands. There came the thunder of heavy unicorn hooves, and Lewys rode smack into the middle of the dismounted riders, who scrambled to get out of the way. He wheeled the massive golden stud around to face them, not caring if the posse was trampled in the process.
“What the devil is going on here?” he roared, in his best Lord of the Manor voice.
Behind Andre, Rebecca put an arm around the shaking Selene’s shoulders.
Being dismounted was distinct disadvantage. The Sheriff was forced to look up into Lewys’ face. “I am Sheriff Korman of Wintermere. We are here in search of a wanted Magi.”
“A girl about that age,” the overdressed townsman pushed his way forward and started toward Selene. He stopped, backing off hastily when he suddenly found ten inches of fighting blade in his face. Andre held the knife in the easy grip of men who know steel.
“You’ve been told who she is,” Andre said softly. He stared directly into the townsman’s eyes, his own gone flat and hard.
“Sorris! Stand down!” the Sheriff shouted, correctly interpreting how close to death the townsman was.
Sorris backed away from Andre before turning on the Sheriff, blustering to hide his embarrassed fear. “See here, Korman, if you won’t do anything to find the girl, I will. I think these people are hiding her. I bet I have a flyer on them too. Look at this!” he thrust a sheet of paper under Korman’s nose.
Korman sighed. “Sorris, this plainly describes a party of four people. I count at least twice that number here. Get back on your unicorn before I decide to let this young man split you like a roasting bird. The rest you mount up also,” he added, going to his own mount.
“Sorry for the intrusion—” he waited for Lewys to supply the name.
“Dracon Lewys il’Maginogion of Ironlyn,” he was informed.
“Dracon Maginogion, my apologies to you and your family,” Korman said, reflecting sourly as he left that, he had probably just offended the Dracon of one of the strongest keeps in the area. Ironlyn was a long way from Wintermere, but the nobility had lingering memories.
As soon as the posse disappeared into the darkness, Selene jumped off her stool and threw her arms around Andre, sobbing, “Thank you.”
Taken aback, he patted her shoulder. “It’s okay, they’ve gone. You are safe with us.” He looked helplessly at Rebecca, who came and kissed his cheek.
“You were wonderful,” she told him smiling. “I knew you would keep us safe.”
“Hey!” her grandfather protested. “What about me? Didn’t I help too?”
Catrin laughed. “Yes, Grandpa, you’re wonderful too, and so is Owen. Thank you.”
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IT GOES TO PUBLICATIN ON JANUARY 31, 2018