They left Silver Pass and the donkeys began to pick up speed on the downward slope so animals and men trotted along at a good pace. Katashan could have wished them to travel with less fervor towards the distant shores, however warm and inviting they looked. The magic had left him weak though he dared not show it and risk the others asking questions. Instead, he trudged along at the end of the caravan, keeping pace with the travois carrying the body. They'd attached it to the last, and most placid, donkey. He kept his arm on the donkey's rump, grateful for even that much aid to keep to his feet.
Katashan often glanced down at the snow-shrouded form. She bothered him in ways the others wouldn't understand. Power clung to her long after they left the mountain top, and he couldn't shake the feeling that whatever had tried to grab him back at the site still followed behind, malevolent and unhappy at his tampering.
Tyren stopped at the snowline and silently helped Katashan pack more snow in around the body even while his men mumbled and glared. The day had moved to late afternoon, the growing shadows ominous and uninviting. Once they had left the pass, he couldn't always see the ocean, except occasionally the view cleared of trees and rock. Closer, each time, though still too far away. And what safety would there be in the lowlands anyway?
"We be movin' faster now," Tyren warned as he stood, brushing his hands against his dirty cloak though Katashan could tell it wasn't the snow he tried so desperately to wipe away. "I want to reach the caravansary before dark."
Katashan nodded empathically. He wanted inside walls tonight, behind the safety of wood and stone, where he could surreptitiously set a quick ward. This was not a night to make an open camp. After Tyren left him, he paused only long enough to make certain they had the body secured for rougher travel. He stood and swatted the donkey before Tyren had a chance to complain about another delay. They began jogging down the gentle slope, and then up again over a foothill. No one paused and he heard few comments over the next few hours. They made a steady pace and by evening he could clearly catch the scent of the sea on the breeze.
Over the next hill they reached a slope filled with the decimated stumps of trees, probably cut away by the lowlanders which meant they were closer to civilization. A fog began to build near the ground, wrapping the stumps and twisted saplings in ghostly white arms. As the sun sank lower in the sky the shapes changed colors, taking on a hint of red and blood.
His fingers began to tingle; not a good sign. Katashan dared a quick and found the fog following him and closing in. He still felt the whisper of magic from the body as well, and he feared that it drew something towards them.
From the way the others began to pick up speed again, he thought they sensed something wrong as well. The donkeys spooked at a sudden gust of wind and even the men had trouble keeping up with them as they hurled themselves onward. Katashan purposely fell behind, placing himself between the body and whatever followed them.
He didn't dare use any magic openly. The southerners proscribed the art and occasionally had a habit of rising up and killing anyone they suspected of having the ability, at least during the war. Katashan had known this before he headed for Cyrenia, but since he'd intended to leave the trappings of his former life behind, it hadn't mattered to him. And now, barely a day into the new land, and he'd already broken his vow. Somehow, that didn't seem like a good omen.
Katashan briefly considered abandoning the body, but leaving a receptacle of power discarded on the road, and within reach of something that obviously wanted it, didn't sound like a good idea.
They pushed on over the rolling hillside and down towards the base of the mountain, breathless now and even the donkeys panting as they topped another small hill. The fog had gathered in the ravine behind them and there he could see shapes forming and shifting in the near darkness. If there had been even the least bit of breeze he could have pretended it was normal.
Tyren reached the top of the incline and gave an inarticulate yell that startled everyone, but a moment later Katashan could see the light from a building somewhere not far ahead. The others, seeing shelter so close and the night nearly upon them, did not look back. Katashan slowed, and stopped at the top of the final incline. He spun, pulling the knife from beneath his tunic once more. The blade flashed in the dark, magic drawing magic out.
He hadn't a chance for any subtlety this time. He quickly stabbed at his finger, slicing it open, and spattering the ground as he cast a hastily whispered spell. The magic brightened for a moment drawing a line between him and the oncoming enemy. The misty almost-human shapes drew back. They would have to abandon the path to reach him and the body. Traveling over unbroken ground would slow these unformed creatures. Paths gave access to more than just mundane traffic. In fact, some magical apparitions couldn't find their way, except by the paths traveled and clearly marked.
"Hey, you fool norther," Tyren yelled from somewhere far behind him. "Get ye'r ass moving or ye'll spend the night outside with the fog!"
That sounded like a particularly bad idea. Katashan shoved the little blade back into place beneath his tunic and turned around, holding his hand clinched closed as he jogged toward the building set back from the cliff side. He could hear the ocean not far away, but he couldn't see it in the growing dark and fog.
Katashan found a single, low building of some length. High walls surrounded it, and Tyren's men already had the first donkeys through a gate and into a yard. By the time Katashan arrived the animals had gathered, still fully laden, by the water trough and hay. Several of the caravan workers had gone in after them and began stripping away the bags from the creatures' backs, ferrying them from one man to another and into a shed that they closed and a local locked up for them. The men didn't go near the donkey pulling the travois and Katashan hurried to turn the poor creature loose. It had done a good job with little complaint.
The others avoided him, and he saw crossed-wrists when they passed the travois. Word had already spread to the main building, and he saw a group of men arrive at the doorway, scowl, and go back in.
He could hear horses in the stables beyond the yard where the donkeys had been tuned loose, and the sounds of contentious men inside the building. The scent of food, laden with strange spices, filled the air. He would have rushed to that food on another night, but right now the scent almost made him ill.
He started to take the body inside the gate and to the stables. Then he realized the horses would not brook a dead body near them, especially one so laden with magic. The members of the caravan would not be happy with a dead body in their sleeping quarters either.
He didn't intend to sit outside the walls in the cold with it, though. Not on a night like this.
"Tyren is there another building?" he asked. "I'll take her and stay there for the night."
"You'll stay with the body? Why not just leave her there?" Tyren said.
"Because it would not be wise to leave her to fate and wolves tonight, would it?" he said, still trying to keep his calm. He refrained from saying he didn't trust the people here, whom he didn't know. Fog rolled in around the building and he couldn't tell if it came naturally or with a purpose. "We have, you know, taken her from the place where she was murdered --"
"Sacrificed," Tyren said. He spat on the ground, and growled an inarticulate curse as he realized the implications at last. His eyes looked up the road and then darted to the fog tendrils moving restlessly around the walls. "Damn you, norther!"
"Once the Goddess directed us to her, what could we do?" Katashan asked, trying to remain calm. "In a choice between making enemies of Verina, or someone who must seek power, I will side with the Goddess every time."
"You bastard. You knew what you were getting us into, didn't you?"
Tyren's men had gathered, glaring and unfriendly. He didn't want a confrontation, especially since he couldn't expect to find allies here.
"We should have left the body," Tyren insisted. "You've brought unnatural trouble down on us!"
"You know that's not --"
Tryen reached for him, and Katashan barely danced back out of the way. He saw a flash of fire in Tyren's eyes and suddenly suspected there might be other magic at work here, magnifying the darker emotions of the men who, wisely, wanted nothing to do with trouble of this kind. Katashan felt an uncommon urge to throw himself into the fight as well, but he lifted his hand and when Tyren swung, he blocked the blow and left a small smear of blood on the man's tawdry cloak.
Katashan stepped back and muttered a quick spell, hoping the words sounded like a curse in his own language. He knew Tyren spoke some Tarisian, but he hoped the caravan master's rage precluded his understanding very well just then.
Tyren swung again, hitting Katashan in the shoulder and sending him sprawling against the trough and startling the donkeys. However, the fight seemed to go out of the man with that blow, though not his anger. Katashan suspected, under the circumstances, that part might be real. He could not even blame Tyren for it.
Katashan got back to his feet, shaking his hand and spattering a few more drops of blood on the ground as he cursed under his breath again. He hoped he had managed enough magic to hold back the darker forces until he could ward the compound.
"Is there another building where I can stay with her for the night?" he asked again, keeping his voice calm, even in the face of Tyren's rage.
"There be a hay shed," Tyren said, nodding curtly beyond the stable area. "Take her there, and mind that you don't upset the horses or we'll have hell to pay with the other's here. We'll talk in the morning about what more is to be done."
Katashan started to mention contracts and breach of faith but that would only inflame the situation tonight. Instead, he gave a single, polite nod. Tyren herded his men and the strangers up the stairs and through to the door that led into the building. Katashan could see tables, bedding and a fire in the corner. He would have welcomed that warmth at another time.
As the caravan master reached the door, the others in ahead of him, he turned glared back at Katashan one more time.
"I'm bolting this closed," Tyren said, patting the weather-worn oak door. "Don't try to get in with us."
Katashan gave a regal bow of his head which annoyed the man. No matter. He didn't want to spend tonight with them and the journey was all but over anyway. He could find his way to the city from here, if he had to. The door slammed shut and he heard the bang of a wooden beam shoved into place. The windows had already been shuttered, but he could clearly hear the muttering and curses of those inside.
The last donkey, still tied to the travois stomped it's feet restlessly. Katashan untied the ropes and let the travois settle fully on the ground while he pushed the animal into the yard with the others. With that done, he went to examine his shelter for the night. The building looked small, but the roof intact and the door sturdy enough to close against the chill night. Katashan peered within, his eyes narrowed against the darkness and saw nothing but hay.
Night had fully arrived and a single flickering torch by the larger building's door gave him his only light. Covered stalls stood to the right, all but three of them filled with horses. The animals watched with worried glares.
Tyren appeared briefly at the door, dropped a leather pouch on the step outside and pulled the door shut again with loud bang, startling all the creatures. The leather bag contained his personal supplies, so at least he wouldn't go cold and completely hungry tonight.
Time to get his companion put away so he could finish warding the building and settle in for the night. He grabbed the ropes of the travois, but as soon as he started forward with the body all the horses turned, their ears folded back, and looking far fiercer than he horses ought to look.
Taking a body imbued with magic past already half-panicked animals did not seem wise. He would have to get the horses settled first which meant magic and more time. He could see the tendrils of fog had moved closer to the walls and lingered at the half-open gate.
As Katashan reached the gate, he unexpectedly heard the clap of horse hooves on the stone of the road. The sound echoed eerily through the night and he couldn't guess which direction the animal traveled from, though it seemed unlikely there would have been anyone this close behind them.
A moment later the sound centered on the trail heading down to the shore and within a heartbeat a ghostly figure of horse and man came into view. The rider sat wrapped in a black hooded cloak, the same color as the horse he rode, so that they looked like a single piece of the night taking shape in the mist-filled darkness. Katashan took a step back, ready to slam the gate shut.
"Ah, I made it!" the stranger said as he threw back is hood to show dark hair and a pale face. The man vaulted 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 the building, I'm afraid," Katashan said, waving a hand towards the door. Raucous laughter and shouts erupted from the inside, and a sound that might have been a body hitting the floor. Maybe he shouldn't complain so much about being left out. "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 a local?"
"Mostly," he said, and flashed a smile. "I have traveled quite a bit in the service of my lady. Shall we go inside? 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 don't 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?"
Katashan nodded and moved aside, letting the stranger and his horse inside the wall. He started to pick up the rope to the travois again, wondering how to get the stranger away so that he could ward the walls.
"The horses are spooked. I think if I get them food and water, they'll settle."
"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 gate, where fog was slipping a little inside -- normal looking, but still sinister. He pushed the gate closed in haste and dropped the bar into place, though he still hadn't warded, not with someone standing this close.
"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, after months on the trail, and few places to bathe, 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 feed the horses and get the donkeys settled for the night."
The torch on the building wall had started to flicker fitfully already, casting out more smoke than light now. Peralin frowned as he glanced around the area, but he didn't slow to pick up the rope to the travois. He whistled to his horse and started toward the back of the enclosure, the horse following close behind. The horse wasn't bothered by the scent of death or even magic, which made him a soldier's mount. Katashan silently thanked the Goddess for the presence of someone willing to help and not as omen-bound and skittish 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 his finger once more. He made quick dabs of blood on the inside of the bar, out of notice, and whispered an incantation of power that ran from it to the gate to the wall 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 and started herding the donkey's into a fenced corner of the enclosure. The black horse -- Night -- stood like a guard outside the shed, and Katashan thought anyone -- or maybe anything -- would be leery of going up against such a formidable animal.
He fed and settled the horses and donkeys and then grabbed his pack from by the door and approached the shed. He looked past toward the wall with a frown, and for a moment Katashan thought he might know about the magic. If so, he said nothing.
"The night is going to be cold," Peralin said as he stepped aside. "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 some of 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?" Katashan said, nodding to the body that was settled against the wall.
"I doubt she snores."
Katashan looked back at him and weighed many things, but mostly he thought about the danger he might be putting this man in.
"Perhaps you should know something more before you make a final decision about staying here," he said and leaned against the wall inside the building. "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. This 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, lucky he had his back to the wall. Peralin stood in the doorway and 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 Peralin held a goblet out, Katashan shook his head and pressed harder against the wall, his hand reaching for his blade.
"Don't," Peralin warned and stilled Katashan in his movement. "Take the wine."
"Who -- what are you?"
"A guard," he said with a deceptive little shrug. "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."
That, most certainly, was the truth. And this person didn't need to have gone to this much trouble if he'd intended harm. Katashan finally took the offered goblet, though he didn't drink. He felt his legs start to tremble; too much in one day, both in the power he had used, and the surge of strong emotions. Katashan had tempered both his magic and his passions in the last years.
"Sit and drink your wine. You need it."
He sat. He sipped. Why not? If Peralin was an enemy, he was already within the walls and past the wards. Katashan knew he had little defense against something with enough power to pull wine (and very fine wine, at that) from somewhere else. Even a tiny sip filled with him strength and left him giddy for a whole new reason. The liquid held the very taste of life and power, but it didn't help to clear his head.
"Where did you come from?" Katashan finally asked.
"I used to be from the north, like Verina," he said and smiled. He settled on the floor beside the door, stretching out and looking more comfortable than he ought to be in such squalor. "But I have traveled far since then. Just not often in this . . . form. However, Verina asked me to watch over you tonight. She does not ask such favors often."
He believed in the Goddess, of course though not in such a way that made this so personal. She asked another being to watch over him?
"What have I gotten myself into?"
"Now there is the question. And I fear I cannot fully answer it. Whoever made that sacrifice on the mountain top did so by pulling power from the Verina Shrine but we do not know what you are dealing with, Katashan. We believe it might be a new power, young and anxious to gain ground in the world. A mage of some power could do it. Or else it is something very, very old and just awakening again. Either can be extremely dangerous."
"What about her?" Katashan asked, waving a hand toward the body.
Peralin sipped his wine and frowned which was a not a reassuring sight. "Be careful of her. Whatever happened -- the power clings to her. She is a magnet for trouble, my friend."
"I'd already guessed that much."
"You were wise to ward the wall," Peralin said. "You've awakened things out there tonight, and we can't tell if they come at the heed of some power or if it's just backlash from breaking the spell."
"But I have made an enemy, haven't I?
"Didn't that occur to you when you took her from that place, knowing someone would not want her gone?"
"I hadn't thought about it," he admitted.
"Because you only knew it was wrong and needed righting," Peralin said with a nod.
He reached back within the cloak that still rested around his shoulders and began pulling out a few more items.
"Bread and cheese?" he asked, sitting them on silver plates between them The bread held a scent of the oven still and he didn't doubt it was still warm and fresh. "Perhaps some orange slices, still warm from the sun of . . . somewhere else."
Katashan's mouth watered at the sight of the fruit. He hadn't had oranges in years.
He glanced from one companion to the other, briefly wondering which of them was the more dangerous.
"Why the hell not?" he finally said.
"Why not, indeed. Feel free," Peralin said, waving towards the repast.
Katashan dared to eat the soft, fresh bread, creamy cheese and a piece of orange. The last tasted as though it had come straight from a tree in some paradise. He'd never tasted something so perfect. Then he picked up his goblet of wine and sipped again. The liquid tasted likelife in a liquid form: sunlight, spring, honey, ambrosia. He leaned back, shoulders relaxing.
"Rest well," Peralin said. "The Gods alone know what might come tomorrow."
"Really?" Katashan said, meeting his companion's look this time. "Do you know?"
Peralin smiled brightly. "No, not always, at least not at my level. If we did know what would happen, I would not be here tonight to protect you, would I? I would be out dealing with the trouble before it got this far. And besides life -- well, existence, at least -- would be terrible dull, don't you think, if everything were easily handled, everything known and nothing up to chance or choice?"
Katashan shrugged and sipped more of his wine and then curled up in his blanket and slept, certain, at least, that his guard could handle any trouble tonight.
"Wake up. It's very nearly dawn."
Katashan turned over and stretched. He hadn't slept so well in months. In fact, he was rather startled to find himself in a hay shed stretched out on the cold, hard floor.
Peralin stood by the shed door, which he had pushed partly open. The world looked inky black outside, and a cold damp breeze blew in. Somewhere nearby a bird made a startled chirp, as though the idea of the coming morning came as a surprise.
With a start, Katashan rolled over and looked at the wall. The body still rested there, shrouded in cloth, with snow and still packed around her. He felt chill, knowing today he would be taking the body of this woman to some authority.
"Are you awake?" Peralin asked, sounding anxious. Katashan grunted a reply and nodded as he sat up. "Good. You need to open the gate."
"Why?" Katashan asked, stretching his shoulders and slowly standing.
"Because," he said with a little wave of his hand out into the dark, "you sealed it last night with a spell, and I cannot open it without a bit more show than I think either of us wants to make. And I need to be away before the dawn and before your companions awake. I don't think you really want them to know I was here, now do you?"
"No, I suppose not." Katashan brushed at his rumpled clothing, dusting off bits of dirt and hay. He still felt remarkably good, although his hand hurt when he moved it. The finger he had sliced open looked swollen and the wrist looked inflamed as well. He hadn't taken much care last night, so worried about other things. He didn't want a fever settling in and started to reach for his travel bag to see what healing herbs he might still have.
"Give me your hand," Peralin said. He reached, touching warm fingers to the cool back of Katashan's hand. He didn't pull away as Peralin wrapped both his hands around Katashan's wrist.
For a moment he felt dizzy, wild, elated. When Peralin drew his hands away, Katashan had to brace himself back against the wall, trying desperately to focus on the world again.
"You should have prepared me for that," he said, gasping.
"Well, warned me at least." His vision finally came back into focus and his breath came with less of a gasp. He looked down at his hand and spread his fingers a few times. Nothing hurt. In fact, old scars had disappeared, and even the slight pull in his knee seemed to have faded. "Thank you."
"I didn't want anyone noticing the recent wounds," Peralin said. "The less notice others take of you, the better. Right now we suspect the powers involved in the sacrifice were caught by surprise, and the mage is having trouble finding her again."
"But we've barely gone a few miles!"
"I think that, in fact, is what has confused them. You broke the bonds of a major spell. I suspect they don't realize they are looking for a mortal. No one in this part of the world has possessed that sort of power for more than a century."
"Surely someone must still know the magic."
"What would make you think such a thing?" He nudged Katashan out the door and towards the gate. Night came out of the darkness and followed them, far too well-behaved for a real horse.
"They must know magic," Katashan insisted with a shake of his head. He lifted the bar and settled it to the side, away from gate and brushed aside the ward. "We had our mages on the front lines. They were powerful men and women. How else could the southerners have won the war?"
"The locals don't have that kind of power. A few hedge wizards and others, in hiding, have some power but they were not with the army. The priests have some power, but they don't go to war either. Look to other reasons for the win." He swept up into the saddle, dark cloak and dark horse almost lost in the black night. Katashan could only see the face now, still deceptively young and human. "We will meet again, I suspect. You've many long nights ahead of you. I will be of what aid I can, but you know that our abilities to work within the real world are limited."
"Take care, Katashan."
Peralin rode out of the gate and into the night. The hint of fog retreated and disappeared as he passed by and the sound of the horse disappeared long before he could have ridden far, at least on trails that mortals take. Katashan watched for a long while as the sun rose, turning the gray and black world to a green paradise of bright trees and sea blown grass. He could smell the ocean on a soft breeze.
The door to the main building snapped open behind him, spilling out the scent of wood smoke and the mumbled curses of men awakening to a new day. Tyren stumbled out, shading his eyes against the bright morning light. He took a couple limping steps forward shrugging and scratching, as he looked around.
"Damned flea-bitten building," he mumbled, then noticed Katashan. "Trouble?"
"No. It looks like a much better morning than I had expected."
"Ah. Good." He went to the well and pulled up a bucket of water, watching Katashan who headed back toward the shed. "Hey. About last night --"
"We were tired after a day filled with difficulties. Today will be better. How far to the next village?"
"Should be there about sunset," Tyren said, obviously willing to let the matter go. "This is the half-way point between the last stop and the town."
"Not very many villages along this trail? I would have thought the shoreline would be littered with them."
"No. The people cluster at the bays, but the rest of the countryside is wild. Too craggy and temperamental for farming this close to the shore." He splashed water over his face and scratched under his arm again. Then he scowled. "Don't know how they'll greet us with the dead we bring."
"I know. But it needs to be done. I will handle it as best I can."
Tyren frowned, and then nodded. "We'll leave soon. Be ready."
Katashan nodded and went back to the shed, checking the body. The ice had held up well, no doubt with Peralin's help. He packed up his scant supplies, thankful for the meal he'd shared with Peralin last night and for the chance to sleep. He hadn't expected to.
He pulled the travois out, found the good-tempered donkey from the night before and tied her to him again. In fact, he was ready long before Tyren could roust the rest of his men and get the donkeys packed. The four strangers with whom they had shared quarters last night acted equally surly in the morning light. Katashan watched in some relief as they headed in the opposite direction, up toward the mountains.
As they finally moved out away from the building, Katashan found himself looking over his shoulder. Worries over what had happened the night before, both before and after they reached shelter, haunted him for the first mile.
After that he gave in to the lovely morning with a bright and cloudless and a soft sea breeze blowing in off the ocean. They'd left the wintry mountains for the spring of this narrow coastland, and here crabapple trees, laden with bright flowers, filled the air with a wonderful perfume. Tyren, who sneezed almost constantly, didn't seem to appreciate it though.
The others soon began to pick up speed, the promise of the next stop in the journey luring them on. From the bits of conversation he heard, Salbay was a real town, and not just another cluster of ill-kept buildings at the crossroads of a trail.
Katashan kept his place at the back of the caravan again this day, most often walking behind the body. The trail wound along the edge of seaside cliffs, and opened often to a wide vista of the white-capped sea. Gulls seemed to float on the air currents, dipping now and then down to the shore or skimming the water. Dolphins leapt and played. Sometimes he saw small rocky islands jutting from the water where sunbathing seals and pelicans gathered in languid harmony. Once he spotted a ship farther out from the shore, too far to make out more than a colorful sail bobbing along with the wind.
At midday the trail began to climb again, but only by small increments, with wide even stretches between. On one of those stretches he saw a half dozen wrecks on the rocky shore below them, the bare bones of the ships gutted by fire and a now haven for noisy birds and more seals.
Tyren had called a halt for a meal and short rest. He came to where Katashan sat, his legs dangling over the cliff as he watched the animals below. The caravan master handed him some stale bread and a small bit of cheese.
"Thank you. Do you know what battle was fought here?" he asked, waving down to the shore.
Tyren obviously didn't like standing so near the edge. He backed up several steps in haste before he answered. "Don't know the name. Happened about six years ago. Most of these be the enemy ships, run aground in a storm and fog. Nasty fogs here and not a place for sailors who don't know the waters."
Katashan nodded. He had sailed, unwillingly, in enemy waters on stormy nights and he'd paid the price for it, though not with his life as doubtless many had in this battle. His three years in slavery had hardened him to many things . . . though not, he found, to the sight of ruined ships. He wondered what had happened to the crews. All dead? Slaves? Ransomed back to their people as he should have been?
Tyren looked over the edge again and grunted before he turned back to the others, already chiding the others for being lazy, and to get moving again. Katashan, knowing full well how long that would take, remained sitting and eating his food.
He tried not to remember his own time on the sea but the memories came to him anyway. And worse, he remembered being pulled from the frozen sea, half dead, and dragged to the village by people who had rushed to the shore to collect what they could from the wrecks in riches and slaves.
He banished those old thoughts by looking back at the blanket-shrouded body. That took away any memories of the past and replaced them with worries of what would happen next. He knew there would be trouble taking her to the town, and more so if she happened to be from there. The ice had begun melting and he could see a trickle of water gathering around her in the few moments they had paused for this break. Short of an obvious display of magic, Katashan could do nothing more than pack some leaves in around the body, hoping another layer of insulation would help slow the melt. They would reach the town at about sunset and long before a body that had spent the winter in snow would become a problem.
The donkeys complained as Tyren bellowed his orders, and the men were little better. Some scowled at Katashan, as though he was somehow responsible for the fact they had to go somewhere. The journey had been overlong and this stress at the end did not help.
Eventually Tyren got the line of men and animals moving. Eventually they made another short climb up the path, which brought them to the summit, and a wide -- though windy -- view to the north and south. Katashan stopped to take in the breathtaking scene from the bare cliff top that overlooked a rocky, wave-racked shore below. Along a curve to the north he saw the tip of a bay filled with a dozen colorful sails, and a moment later he found the village. A few buildings sat along the shore, but more nestled into the tiers of stone up the cliff side. Colorful roofs vied with what looked like gardens hacked out of the stone itself. He could see movement along the paths, and people traversing what stone stairs. Surprised, he stared for a long time, while the others moved on without him.
This was not home. The bayside villages of Taris were sprawling affairs, with shacks and tents along the tide line, and walls shielding the true city from the poor refuse living in those tenements. He traced the stairway path to the tree-shaded roofs of even more buildings on the very top of the cliff side, and at least one very large building in their midst. Everything looked so strange and exotic that he had to tear himself away from the view and jog to catch up with the others.
Tyren spun at the sound of running feet, his hand on his belt knife. He frowned, grunted, and turned back away. The others kept going without apparent notice now that they had their destination in view.
The trail wound up and down for a few more miles, and the sun had nearly slipped behind the curtain of the sea by the time they reached the cliff top buildings. These proved to be a solidly made fortress protecting the path down to the village. A half dozen inns and taverns of varying degrees of respectability stood close by the fortress, as well as stables and pens.
People watched them as they passed the first few buildings. Some knew Tyren, the man's name called from a couple doorways. For the moment, at least, people hadn't noticed the body, and they made no special notice of Katashan, who probably looked like one of the regular workers.
"This be Salbay," Tyren said, waving a hand towards the buildings. He sent his men to quarter the donkeys with instructions to meet again at some place they all seemed to know. Tyren stayed with Katashan and the last donkey as they headed straight for the fort. The travois, so obviously holding a body, drew the attention of those on the mud-packed path. Katashan saw crossed wrists and heard muttered comments as they passed. Although he spoke the language well enough, Katashan still had trouble following the guttural slang of the locals.
For the first time, he had second thoughts about coming to this far land. He had nothing in common with these people, who dressed in strange styles, the men with their hair cut short, the women in bright dresses, their hair hanging down their backs. Now, as he reached the end of his journey, he wanted to turn back --
But he could never return to the life that had already been ripped from him, and lost forever before he decided to come south. So he kept his pace behind the travois, watching warily as Tyren finally stopped by the fortress gate and presented his travel papers.
The guard, who looked like he must have been on duty for most of the day from the amount of dust on his chain mail and boots, glanced at the seal of the pouch and handed it back to Tyren.
Then he looked toward the body and shook his head. "Looks like you're bringing in more than spices and cloth, Tyren."
"Found her, up in the mountains," Tryen said. He looked to Katashan with a glare.
"She had been murdered," Katashan said. "I found her near the Verina Guardian at the Silver Pass, buried in the snow. She was not dressed for the mountains, and this being the closest lowland village, I thought it best to bring her here."
"He's not one of your workers, is he?" the guard asked, frowning even more.
"He's come from the north to set up a shop," Tyren said, glaring again.
"We have rules for foreigner merchants," the guard answered, looking Katashan over from head to foot as though gauging if he was worthy enough to do business here. Katashan almost protested that he hadn't decided on this town, but then the guard shrugged. "But that's not my business. And neither is she. You better go in to see Captain Serrano."
"This be his business," Tyren said, waving a hand toward Katashan. "Me and me men are going down to the Crate and Ale for the night. If you have questions, you can find us there."
"Tyren --" the guard began to protest, but stopped when the caravan master glared at him as well. He looked at Katashan. "Are you going to argue?"
Tyren flashed a yellow-toothed smile, nearly lost in the bush of his unkempt beard. He quickly undid the travois and began leading the donkey away.
"You have several items that belong to me, along with the merchandise I paid to ship with this caravan. I shall be by to collect them when I'm done."
Tyren started to mumble something doubtlessly rude, but he stopped, looked down at the travois, and back at Katashan. He nodded. "I'll have your items put under guard."
Katashan bowed his head in a polite thank you and said no more as he picked up the two poles to the travois. The guard called another to the gate, who looked out, listened to some whispered comments, and muttered a curse of his own. The gate slowly opened, swinging inward to a dark tunnel.
Katashan went inside feeling like a sacrifice willingly prancing right up to the altar.