Sunday, August 15, 2004

A snippet from Paid in Gold and Blood:

When he started forward with the body all the horses turned, their ears back and looking far fiercer than he had expected. Taking a dead body, and especially one imbued with magic, past already half panicked animals did not seem wise. He would have to get them settled first. More magic and more time -- and when he looked back outside, the tendrils of fog moved closer to the walls.

Then he unexpectedly heard the clap of horse hooves on the stone of the road. The sound echoed eerily, and he couldn't guess which direction the animal traveled from, though it seemed unlikely there would have been anyone that close behind them.

A moment later the sound centered on trail leading away from the mountains, and a ghostly figure of horse and man came into view. The figure riding sat wrapped in a black hooded cloak, the same color as the horse he rode, so that they looked like a single piece of night taking shape in the mist-filled darkness. Katashan took a step back toward the gate, ready to yank the body inside and brave the others.

"Ah, I made it!" the stranger said. He threw back is hood -- dark hair, pale face. That did not much help Katashan's feeling that he ought to be retreating to safety. The man swept off his remarkably calm horse and looked around, his eyes settling on the travois and the ice packed blankets.

"She's dead," Katashan said.

"I would certainly hope so at this point."

Someone, at least, with a sense of humor. Young, too, but he didn't seem to have the bravado of most young men Katashan had known at home.

"They're not going to let you in, I'm afraid," Katashan said, waving a hand toward the door. His finger ached, but it had stopped bleeding. "They're spooked by the fog, and the body."

"Ah. I see." The stranger looked out at the fog and made a little dismissive gesture. "They're not from around here, then. We have such fogs quite often. But then, from your accent, you aren't from here either. Are you a Northerner? Tarisian?"

"Yes. You are local?"

"Mostly," he said, and flashed a smile. "I travel quite a bit. Shall we go inside the walls? There are bandits in the area, and the weather is cool besides. I think there is a shed we can share? Providing, of course, there is room for the three of us."

"This does not bother you?" Katashan said, indicating the body.

The smile left his face. He looked older. "It bothers me a great deal. But I do not want to stand out here in the night and invite the sort of people these walls were made to protect us from. Shall we go in?"

"The horses are spooked. I think if I get them food and water, they'll settle. Can you --"

"I'll stay here and watch," He said, and drew back his cloak. A long-bladed knife showed in a sheath. "You get to handle the horses."

Katashan glanced back out at the fog, and then hurried to the work dragging feed and buckets of water over -- and imbuing both with enough magic to keep them content. By the time he had finished, the stranger had brought his horse and the travois inside the walls. He shoved the gate closed with such haste that it worried Katashan.


"I might have seen a figure in the fog," he said. "I thought it best to get inside."

Katashan nodded, and moved to put the bar into place. "Your horse is well behaved. Do you think he can be left outside a stall tonight?"

"Night will be quite content with a little hay," he said. "And, since we are spending the night in close quarters, we should introduce ourselves. I am Peralin."

"Katashan," he said, started to bow and then offered his hand instead, the custom in the south. They clasped each other's wrist. Peralin had warm, soft skin, and had not been traveling long from the state of his clothing. Katashan felt as though he would never be clean again. "Can you take her back toward the shed? The sooner we get her out of the area with the animals, the better. I'll get gate secured, and make certain the horses are settled for the night."

The man picked up the rope to the travois, whistled to his horse, and started toward the back of the enclosure. Katashan silently thanked the Goddess for the presense of someone willing to help, and not as omen bound and skitterish as his other companions.

Katashan kept an eye on Peralin until the man had slipped into the shed. Then he hurried to the gate, pulling out his blade and slicing the poor finger once more. He made quick dabs on the inside of the bar, out of notice, and whispered an incantation as he put the bar in place. Fingers of fog that had started to work their way through the crevices and over the top of the wall retreated even before he finished.

When he looked back, Peralin stood at the doorway to the shed. Katashan unobtrusively pushed the blade away again. "I thought I better check to make sure it's sealed."

"Yes, that's a good idea." He pulled his cloak tighter. "The night is going to be cold. Let's get settled, share a little dinner perhaps?"

"I have very little left in food."

"And I'm over stocked for the short journey I'm going to make."

"You are very kind."

"And glad for the company," he said as Katashan came to the shed. Peralin had already set a little candle in place, dispelling the darkness. It didn't seem like such a bad place. "All in all, I thought at best I would be spending the night alone, since I had no intention of sleeping with a group of snoring, bad-tempered men. You seem the far better choice."

"And my companion?" he said, nodding to the body that was settled against the wall.

"I doubt she snores."

"Perhaps you should know something more before you make a final decision about staying here. I found her, bound in ropes and chains, and with a knife through her heart, at the base of a Verina Guardian. I believe she had been sacrificed, and I can't guarantee that she is such safe company as she appears."

The man's dark eyes didn't flicker, though he remained still for a half dozen heartbeats. Then he shrugged. "I'm glad you told me. It makes things much easier. Here, have some wine. I think you need it."

He reached within his cloak and pulled out a decanter and two crystal goblets.

He could not have been carrying them there.

Katashan would have sensed magic had he used it. He knew of no spell strong enough to hide such power from him. This stranger had no magic. But he did have power -- and there was only one other way --

"Gods protect me," Katashan said. He put his back to the wall, and knew he had no chance to make it out of the shed and the stables before -- whatever this was caught him.

"We shall share wine," Peralin said, putting the goblets on a ledge by the door. He poured the liquid; it sparkled as it fell, glittering in the candle light. A scent, rich and heady, filled the tiny area and left Katashan half dizzy. When Perelin held a goblet out, he shook his head and pressed harder against the wall, his hand reaching for his blade.

"Don't," Perelin warned. "Take the wine."

"Who -- what are you?"

"A guard," he said. "You need one tonight, don't you?"

"I might need one from you," Katashan said.

"Not everything of the dark and the night is your enemy."


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