Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Paid in Gold and Blood, Chapters 23 and 24

(Two chapters are posted every Sunday and Wednesday. Links to the other chapters can be found HERE)

Chapter Twenty-Three

As they left the building a group of well-armed women herded a dozen frightened children up into the trees beyond the village.  Some carried babies as well.  Katashan watched them go, wishing them will and whispering magic to keep them safe, though he couldn't be certain it would work. Then he turned towards the battle.  He couldn't see through the twist of the main path and past the buildings, but he could hear the clash of swords, and the cries, oaths and prayers of those fighting.

He grabbed Onshara by the arm.  "I need a sword."

Both she and Cork shook their heads, though Cork had the foresight to snare Lord Fordel as he started by, the man intent on throwing himself into the battle.

"I want you safe, not in a fight!" Onshara said, trying to push him back.

"I will be safest with a sword to protect myself!"

She shook her head again,  but Cork finally came to his aid.  "Find him a sword, Lady Onshara.  He's right -- better to be protected than not."

She shouted at someone to bring two swords, and then looked at Lord Fordel, who tried to pull free of Cork's hold and looked annoyed that he would not look go. Katashan put a hand on the young lord's shoulder, relieving Cork of that duty.

"I must get down to the battle," Fordel said to him.  His eyes flashed, and Katashan felt a little whisper of magic growing with his rage.  "Those are my people attacking.  I might be able to order them off."

"But even you don't think you can," Onshara said.

"That doesn't mean I shouldn't go down and try!  And if that doesn't work, I will fight them."  He looked up at Katashan, "With whatever means I can."

"As will we both," Katashan answered.

"Priest --" Onshara said, but she stopped when someone hastily brought swords.  She took one and held the other out to him, reluctant though she was to hand it over.  "Take care, priest.  We still have need of you."

They rushed down to the battle.  Katashan nearly tripped on the downhill slope before he made himself slow.  He didn't need to go breathless and crazed into this battle.  He would protect the people best if he kept his head.  Protect the people and the book which might hold more secrets.  It gave him a little hope again.

Cork, Fordel and Onshara stayed with him as they reached the line of battle at the first row of buildings.  The dead from the last attack had not yet been taken away and he already saw three more added to that number and not yet covered in shrouds.  None were children this time but it did not make the loss any less in his mind. 

He'd never liked to fight in battle, even now against enemies he knew were evil.  He parried and parried the first man who came up against him, and saw the changes in the stranger's face as he realized he had engaged someone who knew swords far better than he did.

Katashan would have let the man go if he'd chosen to back away and to leave the field of battle.  But instead stranger stepped away, and looked around, trying to find an easier target.

"Go, you fool," Katashan told him, sword coming up again.  The enemy snarled something, lost in the din of battle, and tried to attack a young man who already had one soldier on him.  The soldier didn't, for some reason, expect Katashan to come after him. 

When Katashan stepped in and made the kill as clean as he could.

And he dared not stop to think about it as another came for him; a larger man this time, and though this one didn't have skill, he did have strength and power.

Katashan heard, through the clash of swords, Lord Fordel ordering the men to put down their weapons.  His voice soon became frantic and then angry.  The men paid the words no heed, though Katashan soon realized they wanted to reach their new lord for different reasons.  Killing Lord Fordel would leave this area without leadership, opening it up for anarchy which would be a gift for men like this.

Katashan had no trouble fighting the new man back and finally gave the killing blow.  He'd taken a little cut on his arm, the blood flowing with fire and magic.  He thought he should seal the wound and save that power, but he hadn't the time.

Cork fought like a madman as he tried to protect both Lord Fordel and Katashan.  He took dangerous risks: Katashan saw Cork swing at one man heading his way, and then charge one of the three men advancing on Fordel.  Katashan moved closer to Fordel, both to keep Cork from trying to protect them both and leave himself exposed and to help protect Fordel, who continued to draw too much attention.  Fordel, having spent considerable time with his late father's troops, at least knew weapons.

Swords and axes clanged in a dull cacophony of sound, blunted by the curses of some, the cries of others.  The sounds blended into a murderous magic of its own, deadly and alluring, in the dark way of all battles.

But men tired on both sides, drew back. . . .

"They want Lord Fordel dead," Cork said, breathless as he stepped back by Katashan in a moment of near calm.

Katashan nodded and parried away two blows before he killed another man with an easy move -- and he regretted that moment, when he took advantage of his skill over someone who was no match, even though he knew this necessary. 

"They know he's the rightful lord and he's ordered them back. They disobeyed, and they can expect no mercy from him now," Cork said, summing up the situation that looked increasingly desperate.  "He does still have an army to come after them.  If he tells the tale, no lord will hire them, and they'll be hunted in every land."

"Safer with him dead," Katashan said.  Even Onshara had come to help protect Fordel.

He couldn't tell how many soldiers had come to the attack.  At first Kat thought he saw only a few dozen, but the number seemed to grow, as though for every one they killed, three more took his place.  He fought them back, and back again.

"Get me a horse!" Lord Fordel suddenly yelled.  "I can lead them away!"

"No!" Katashan breathless, hadn't time to say more as he swung, sword-against-sword.  The enemy would wear him down by sheer numbers as he fought them back again, with Cork and Fordel at his side.

"Damn!  A horse!" Fordel shouted again, frantic.  "Cork -- I am your lord!  Get me a damned horse!"

Katashan saw Cork turn back at Fordel, white-faced.  He even missed the sword swung at him, but Katashan caught the weapon in time.  Cork looked around frantically. When he started for a horse the enemy had abandoned, Onshara stopped him.

"No," she said.  "We shall not allow Lord Fordel to ride away and sacrifice himself."

"They'll follow me!" Fordel yelled, frantic, angry and careless.  He very nearly got a sword through his side, if Katashan hadn't moved quickly to protect him as well.  "I can get them away --"

"Until they kill you and come back," Onshara said.  She shook her head.  "No. Better to have you here and fighting with us, rather than dying alone!  Here you can still protect my village, and help my people. Alone, your death would mean nothing!"

He glanced around, wide-eyed, afraid and angry at the same time.  "It's not right!"

"No, it isn't," Onshara said.  She had to fight back another as well, and Fordel leapt to her aid, quickly killing the man.

And in that moment they found another small lull in battle, both sides pulling aside, winded and wounded.  Katashan could see the soldiers already preparing to charge again.  He needed more time to rest.

"Give me your word you will not try to run, Lord Fordel," Onshara demanded.  She even caught hold of his arm.  "Do this or otherwise I will put my people to watch over you, even though they could be better used to help protect the village."

"I am not your responsibility!"

"You are.  You are a guest in my village.  You are fighting for my village against your own people.  You are, by some laws, even my lord.  I will do my best to keep you safe, because it is far better to have you alive as a friend then dead as a martyr.  Give me your word, Lord Fordel."  She looked at the enemy who started to gather again, obviously intending a new attack.  "We haven't time to waste."

Katashan saw the way Fordel looked at the line of men on the trail below the village, their swords ready and bows brought out.

"Damn them."  He looked at the others and bowed his head in capitulation.  "You have my word I will not try to lead them away, Onshara.  I shall stay and fight with you, to whatever end we meet."

She nodded her head in thanks and then began ordering her own people to their places.  Katashan, Cork and Fordel retreated with the rest of the villagers to the first line of buildings, where they had better coverage from the bows.  They'd not used them before while their own men were in close combat.  Onshara's people didn't give them any easy targets.

"They're going to try and go up over the rocks and get behind the village," Onshara said, pointing out where some of the soldiers had begun to slip around to the side of the building.  Fordel started that way, but she caught his arm and spoke softly.  "They're in for a surprise.  Those areas are trapped for more than a quarter mile on all sides.  It's an easy way to be rid of some of these people."

She sounded blood-thirsty, but Katashan saw something different in her eyes.  She desperately wanted to protect her people.  Kindness had made her stop Lord Fordel from throwing his life away -- kindness and honor.

"Why are they still attacking?" Cork asked.  "They know Lord Fordel is now their commander."

"I suspect --" Katashan lifted a hand, letting a little of the blood from his arm give him power.  "Yes.  There is magic. Subtle. They will not even know it, but the power directs them here."

Onshara put people back to guard the building and the book -- and then looked at Katashan again, as though wondering if she could order him back as well.  He lifted his head to meet the argument and she gave up without a word.

A deep breath. Another.

And the enemy charged again.

They fought a long, disjointed battle through the last hours of daylight.  The soldiers, though persistent and well-armed, could not get past the villagers, who were determined to hold their own, and who had the better cover.

Even so, the soldiers didn't give up.  Katashan finally resorted to magic to stop a group who nearly breached the wall; a dangerous ploy since he already felt weary.  He drove them back and the villagers even regained some lost ground.  It would keep them safe for a little while longer.

Katashan stood with his back to the wall of a building and gasped for air, trying to focus on the world again.  Where were Cork and Fordel?  For a moment fear of finding them dead stopped him from even looking, but they slipped into his view, moving towards him and looking relieved.

"That was far too close," Fordel said.  He leaned back as well.  A cut in his shoulder had been bandaged and didn't look too serious.  Katashan had started to reach out and see if he could help heal the wound, but he stopped.  None of them might survive if he didn't get control.  His magic might be the deciding factor and he had to be careful of how he used it.

"Sunset is coming," Cork said, weariness sounding even in his voice.  He shook his head, damp hair falling into his eyes.  "Damn them. Why don't they pull out?  We've killed at least half already, and I don't know how many fell to the traps."

"Because they know, when the sun goes down we will be in a worse position," Fordel said, looking around with a desperate shake of his head.  "Once it's dark, we'll never be able to see into the trees, or guard all the walls."

"We may surprise them," Katashan said.  He looked around and found Onshara.  She stood by the dead, her head bowed.  He didn't want to go there -- but he did, with the other two trailing along.

"We've not much time," he said.  "Darkness is falling and --"

"And there's not much we can do," she said, sounding defeated already.

"No.  I need help.  It will not get dark."

"You can stop the sun?" she said and scoffed.

"No, but I can create a small one."

She started to speak, blinked, and looked as though she almost dared to hope, but she buried the emotion away in the next breath.  It was not a time for hope, he supposed.  "Do you have the power?"

"I can do it for a while."  He bit at his lip and looked at his hands, knowing what this work would take from him.  He could see no other way they would survive.  "You should be ready to take advantage of the light which will likely startle the soldiers.  I can't say how long I will hold it."

"Will you survive?" Fordel asked.

"I hope so," he answered truthfully.  "But I won't guarantee so.  However, if we don't do something daring, none of us are likely to survive. Don't argue with me."

Fordel looked back at him, eyes narrowed.  They were both tired and worried -- and they both knew the chances of survival were slim.  However, before Fordel could begin to argue Katashan felt something and turned --

"She's here, isn't she?" Fordel said softly.  He rubbed at his arm, as though he, too, felt the cold.

"Yes," Katashan said.  He looked out into the graying night hunting for the movement he knew too well.  He saw nothing yet, but he could feel her, the cold touch of death on the air.  "Yes, Sherina is here and far too close.  That's another danger.  However, she likes the dark, and my light will surprise her as well.  Whatever you do, stay out of her path.  She can kill with a touch."

No one argued They passed around a little food, a flask of water, and dealt with both the injured and the dead.  Katashan kept his place near the wall and watched, trying to find some weakness in the enemy and trying to find a miracle he that would save these people.

Was he a fool to stay here?  Shouldn't he try to escape, because the bigger war needed him still?

But he couldn't do it.  He could not walk away when this time he truly might help.

As darkness came closer, the enemy again began to gather into a mass.  They looked weary but no more so than the villagers who stood around him.  Both sides could not stand through the night in this battle, and he couldn't guess which one would fall, at least if he could bring the light.

Katashan put a hand on Onshara's arm, stopping her before she stepped away to talk to villagers.  "Spread the word that there will be magic light, but I cannot say quite when or for how long.  Just tell them to be prepared and not to despair."

She agreed with a nod of her head, but he could see the despair in her eyes, and light alone would not dispel it.  Onshara slipped away without another word. 

Katashan, glanced at the shrouded bodies and quickly moved away from the dead again.  Cork and Fordel kept close beside him, stopping when he did to stare out at the line of dark shapes and the occasional glint of a weapon.  The sun had nearly gone down and shadows crept out the woods like pieces of death come to claim the world.

Death . . . yes.  He found Sherina at the edge of the soldiers, a white filament of movement, like a cloud tethered to the ground.  The soldiers moved away from her though they plainly only worried and didn't fear her.  They had made some kind of pact, though he doubted the soldiers were as safe as they might think.

"She'll come for me," Katashan said with a wave of his arm toward the ghost.  He looked at Cork and Fordel and shook his head before they started to speak.  "Don't get in her way.  I have a better chance of stopping her if I don't get distracted trying to save others."

Neither argued, though whether they would really stay back, he couldn't say. 

"Not much longer." Fordel wearily pulled his sword back up as the soldiers formed a line. 

The night drifted to a cold, empty silence filled with expectations. They stood their sides in a last moment of peace before Katashan heard orders shouted.  He wanted to step out into the forefront and meet the enemy head on.  He had powers he could call upon still . . . but so did she.  He looked out toward the trees and couldn't find Sherina, and that worried him.  He dared not move too hastily or forget he faced more than men in this hellish battle.  Did her immortal mage lover wait nearby as well?  Katashan still didn't have all his enemies in sight, and the ones he could clearly see were also the least dangerous, no matter how often they attacked.

Twilight passed into night and the enemy attacked.  Katashan held back a little longer as the villagers fell in before him and stood firm.  Fordel stayed with Onshara and even Cork joined the villagers in the lines, though he remained close to Katashan. 

The soldiers came on, shouting ragged cries, weary -- but Katashan waited still.  The villagers would tire quickly and his light would help them best after they began to fail, to give them strength once more with a little magic shed upon his companions.

He wondered when she would come for him...

He leaned against a cottage wall, the Ritual Blade in his hand, ready.  He would not let her take this village the way she had the soldier's camp and suck the life out of everyone here.  He would not leave more dead children behind.  No.

When she finally came for him, a screaming apparition in the night, he raised a bleeding hand and sent her back as much by will as magical power.  She howled and on again.  He could hear cries of dismay from the villagers and saw the line start to falter, so he finally sent a globe of light flying out to fill the sky and banish the shadows.  She shrieked, became transparent and fled back to the shadows.  He had expected as much, given her penchant for showing up at night.

The light pulsed with his laboring heartbeat.  He could hear the battle, but he dared not look, focusing on the magic and the power he fed into the light, parceling out his life, hoping he could hold on and give them the ability to win.

Drop of blood by drop of blood . . . midnight passed.  He whispered prayers for the dead as best he could and hoped the Gods took them kindly into their fold.

On his knees. He hadn't realized he'd gone down, but he held to the light.  He heard shouts all around him.  Please Gods, let them finally win --

But he knew from the sound the villagers made that they did not shout in victory.  Weary, hardly able to move, he lifted his head and blinked, watching as more soldiers arrived on horseback.  Another two hundred?  Perhaps more.   They could not fight more men, fresh to the battle --

"Gods," Onshara whispered, her voice shaky.  She dropped to her knees beside him.  "Priest, if you can go --"

"No, no," he said.  Fear gave him power again and the light brightened.  Probably a waste, but it was done and the others seemed better for it.  "Where was I when you needed me?"

"Don't," she said and gently touched his arm.  The light faltered and dimmed.  "You have done more than we could have asked from anyone.  You, Lord Fordel and Cork.  Don't --"

Sherina swept down at him.  He saw the movement and barely shoved Onshara aside in time.  Sherina's face, baleful and filled with glee, leaned closer as though she meant to kiss him.  He threw fire and blood into her and she slipped back, snarling, though she didn't go far this time.  Grabbing the ritual blade, Katashan cut deep into the palm of his hand, and sent blood spattering across her face.  She screamed in whatever pain something incorporeal could feel, and retreated to the woods in a howl of wind that sent dust and leaves scattering around them.

"Damn, damn," Onshara whispered.  "We need help. And there is none to be had."

The sound of wild hoof beats . . . coming from the night and the dark.  He stood, and when Onshara gave a cry of fear he put a hand on her arm.

He knew the sound of that horse.  He felt a surge of hope at last, something that overlaid his own despair.  Sherina retreated and disappeared into the trees, her anger sending branches breaking.

Onshara cried out in dismay again and brought up her sword.

"He has come to our aid," Katashan said.  He swayed on his feet, lost the link to his magic, and his light started to die --

And then came back, brighter than before, but not by his power.  Cork rushed back to Katashan, knowing what the sound meant as well. Fordel came with him, limping badly, his leg gashed and bleeding.  Cork grabbed hold of Fordel just as rider and horse emerged from the dark and raced through the line of soldiers.

Some died in that rush of Godling and immortal horse through the enemy.  Men shouted in fear and ran, panicked from the field.

Katashan thought they were saved, until he saw the frantic look that Peralin gave him.

The villagers began to kneel before Peralin, his name whispered through the lines.  Lord Fordel knelt as well, his face white with pain. However, Katashan and Cork headed for the Godling, which got shocked looks from nearly everyone.

"Drink this!" Peralin ordered handing down a goblet to Katashan.  "Drink it all, quickly!"

He did so, even knowing what it would do to him.  The liquid tasted of fire, warmth, power -- but it made him so giddy Cork had to grab hold of him before he melted into the ground.

The world came into sharp focus and he could too clearly see the dead and the wounded.  He wanted to help them all, and turned to start the work -- and stopped when Peralin caught his shoulder.

"We must ride, Katashan.  You need the strength to ride with me. And only you have the magic to survive such a journey!"

"Ride?" Katashan echoed, knowing he didn't at all want to be on a horse right now, let alone that one.

"Back to the fortress.  The dawn is coming too soon, and I cannot stay!  Come!"

He reached down and caught Katashan by the arm and lifted so easily Katashan felt as though he flew into the saddle.  Peralin somehow maneuvered him to the front of the horse.  Katashan started to slide down; not his idea, he just had little control of his body right now, between exhaustion and the wine.

"No, stay here," Peralin said, and touched his shoulder with a wish for him to remain.  After that he wondered if he would ever be able to leave the horse again.  Peralin leaned down in the saddle and put a hand on Cork's shoulder as well.  He looked up, stunned by the touch.  "I will take as good care of him as I can, Cork.  And I'll send him back with the troops as fast as I can.  It is the only way.  Hold out until they return.  I will open a path for the soldiers to return and they will be here by the dawn."

"Sherina -- we can't hold her off," Cork protested.

"The dawn is nearly here," Peralin said.  He waved a hand and the air filled with a sprinkle of stars for a moment.  "She will follow Katashan, but she cannot take the path I take.  I left some protection for you which will fade with the light, but so will she."

"Can't you order the soldiers away?" Cork asked, looking back at the army that had not retreated far enough. 

"They're madmen. Gone beyond reason and in the control of something already dead," Peralin explained.  "She controls them and many more like them, and she has links to things I cannot control.  Someone likely put them in her hands, but we can't see who it might be. Verina and I stand between them and this world. She holds the line, and I must take Katashan and run the gauntlet between them, and open a way back for the soldiers.  Humans against humans.  It's the best way.  You do not want the Gods to fight a battle here.  I take Katashan with me because he has the magic to follow the path back and bring the others with him."

"Then we must go," Katashan said, beginning to see the situation and understanding the problem far too clearly.  " Lord Fordel --"

"I'll keep the light strong," he said.

"Here," Peralin said and handed down another goblet into Cork's hands.  "Take this.  Each of you who fight here drink only a small sip.  This will give you strength."

Cork took the goblet and bowed his head in thanks.

"You have my blessing, all of you.  It may be of help," he said, his voice filling the village.  "Be strong.  Help will return."

He spun the horse and in the next moment they flew back through the ranks of the enemy.  Katashan closed his eyes, unwilling to see them killed, even now.  They were her thralls and even if they went willingly to her -- as some fools would -- he couldn't feel pleasure at their deaths.

In a dozen fast heartbeats they had pushed through the enemy lines and reached the wild woods.  He finally dared open his eyes as the horse slowed.  He even looked back.

"Yes, she follows us.  You need not worry about that part.  But I have something else to show you, Katashan.  Look ahead.  Watch."

Katashan turned.  Light and dark merged, moved, and the view changed.  He suddenly felt as though he could see forever; neither the darkness of night nor great distance impeded the view.  He saw a path that stretched from where he stood on the mountain all the way down past a spring fed stream, and through a draw -- out into the forest again, and then down to the trail to within yards from the fortress.  He could see it all, from the stands of trees to the owl sitting on a branch.

"Do you see it?" Peralin said.


"Mark this path in your mind.  Hold to it.  I have opened this way through the world for you, and you'll be able to return here in hours, rather than days.  It will remain open for all the daylight hours, and disappear again in the next sunset.  Do you have it?"

"Yes," Katashan said, marking it in his mind so well he knew he would remember the unnatural trail forever.

"Good.  We travel a different way, filled with wonders and dangers, Katashan.  This is the only way we will get there in time before I must go back to my place."

"Then we must go," he said.

Peralin urged Night forward and they rode to . . . somewhere else.




Chapter Twenty-Four

Night moved forward and the world Katashan knew went away.  In its place came a swirl of color, a hum of sound, and a scent like everything wild in the world, brought together.  He could not breathe for a moment, inhaling  so much life.  Too much:  too rich for a mortal to breathe, see and hear.

They rushed through this place; man, Godling, and immortal horse.  He had no sense of direction or distance.  Only that they went, traveling through wonder that he could not name, and could barely perceive.

"They've spotted us," Peralin said softly.

"They?" he whispered, surprised words had meaning here.

"We're treading in a place where only those who are invited should go.  They ignored my requests, having no interest in a war between humans.  They stay apart.  It is their way."

Katashan nodded, as though he understood any of what Peralin was trying to tell him.

And then something moved in around the horse, startling even the stoic Night.  Katashan sensed a presence that had nothing remotely human in it.  He felt as though light and dark, sound and silence were all the same to them.  Katashan, who had faced many things strange and horrible, found himself panicking as he confronted something with which he could have no common ground.  How could he deal with them?  How could he --

Peralin put a hand to his shoulder, saying nothing but plainly suggesting calm.  He tried to take a deep breath, but the place still held too much life, and he felt as though he drowned in the very air.  He had to trust Peralin, who seemed more akin to him than he did to whatever lived -- existed -- in this place.  They rode on, and Katashan held tight to the belief that if he could not deal with them, then they could not touch him either.

That proved untrue.

Something grabbed, possessed -- held him -- theirs, their place, their find, their being.

Eddies swirled.  Light and sound, darkness, shouts, silence -- pain so intense his body felt like a living flame, burning so bright and loud --

Peralin did not let go of him, and held against the wants of things that had never touched such a life, that wanted another taste, wanted to have, their find, their place, their being now.

And Katashan, with whatever little sanity he had left, reached beyond pain and confusion, and knew this wasn't where he wanted to stay.  He grabbed hold of the Godling's hand and held so tightly he thought even Peralin might be surprised.

The horse moved unsteadily forward.  Peralin pushed aside the things that came too close, even though it took his energy.  Katashan realized his companion had less power here than he did in the mortal world, probably because this place was so different.

How far did they have to go?  How far had they gone?  He had no sense of distance or time now.

"Almost," Peralin whispered.  His voice sounded harsh, and he trembled, weakened by what he'd done.  And yet he pushed them away again and would not let these creatures take Katashan.  Katashan held his breath -- though he wasn't certain now if he had really breathed in this place after all.  They moved on.  Nor how long.  A moment?  An hour?  Surely years had gone by. . . .

Another of the beings grabbed him, a physical sensation as it tried to yank Katashan from the horse -- and Katashan knew he did not want to be parted from his companion.  He saw only a hint of movement, a ripple in the colors around them, but the creature held tight and drew blood along his leg.

Which unexpectedly helped.  Katashan swept out with magic and he thought he surprised the creature more than hurt it.  In that moment Katashan felt as though his entire existence grew alight with his magic, bright and fiery.  Painful, and beautiful.  Too much.

But Peralin kept hold of him.

They slipped out into the real world again.  He tasted it on the wind, the magic that belonged here, along with the life. The call of birds --

"Barely in time," Peralin whispered, gasping.  Katashan clung to consciousness as the horse continued to move, stumbling through the brush.  "Dawn is too close!"

They broke through a line of dogwood brush and down to the familiar trail.  There ahead stood the fort, rising out of the fog, illuminated by torches at the towers and gates.  Katashan heard men call out the alarm, surprised to find a horse and rider so close in with no sign before.

"Hold on, friend," Peralin said. "No time now for subtlety."

Katashan had barely enough wits left to worry over those words.  He looked up to see the closed gates of the fort before them, and the guards shouting out a warning to stop and identify themselves.

They did not stop: They went through the closed gate.

Well, that was bound to get some notice.

Soldiers scattered in the courtyard before them, and cries of alarm went up everywhere.  He heard Peralin's name shouted along with his; a strange combination he feared would be linked in legend for a long time to come.

Peralin swept off the horse and left Night standing, stone still in the midst of chaos.  He pulled Katashan into his arms, and started up the stairs and into the buildings while everyone scattered.  They might have gone through more closed doors, but it hardly mattered to Katashan now.

Peralin took him straight up to Serrano's rooms, where the captain had just pulled on his tunic, and looked in shocked dismay as the door swung open and the Godling walked in.

"I leave him in your care, Captain," Peralin said. He placed Katashan in a chair and looked around, worried.  "I can neither stay nor lead you back to the village.  But here, have him sip this, and it will see him through.  Ride hard and fast.  They will not survive without your help."

He put a goblet in Serrano's shaking hands.

"What shall I do?" Serrano asked softly.

"Save the others.  Katashan knows the way back -- a special way I have prepared for you, and with his magic he can find the path again.  But if I don't return to my place before the sun rises, I shall never be able to help again.  And I think my work is not quite done here.  Take care of him."

The Godling turned to leave, but Katashan caught his arm, surprising Serrano, who whispered a sound of warning or maybe a prayer.  "Thank you."

Peralin nodded.  And then he left; a movement so swift that the bedclothes rustled.  Almost immediately shouts came again in the courtyard, and he heard the sound of horse hooves.

"Gods grant that he makes it back to his place in time," Katashan whispered.

Serrano stared at him, silent and still.  His face had gone pale white, and Katashan could see his chest move, as though he fought for a breath.  Then Serrano shook his head and shivered.  "What are we doing?"

"There is a village in the hills called Holding and it is under siege.  Lord Fordel is there, if you want a good excuse to mount a force to relieve them.  The attackers are the old lord's mercenaries, whom he had set on the mountain people before he died.  They refuse to come under Fordel's command partly, at least, because Sherina hasd her hand on them.  We must ride now."

"Ride now," Serrano repeated.  He looked towards the window.  Morning birds called out the songs of dawn.  "He was here."

"Yes.  To bring me to you," Katashan said.  He tried to stand and failed.  "Give me the goblet.  Then we ride.  This is something important enough for Peralin to risk his presence in the world.  We must go now."

Serrano finally understood the importance of the situation.  He crossed to him and held out the goblet.  Katashan took a little sip.  Another.  He dared not drink more, remembering how it had hit him back at the village.

By then the Captain had gotten enough of his senses back to order the soldiers to arms and prepare for a march.  Katashan rested a little longer, but he could hear the frantic haste of others all around the building and the courtyard.  He could also feel every cut and pain in his body, and even the elixir could not help him as well this time.

"Katashan," Serrano said, standing over him.  He hadn't realized he'd closed his eyes until then.  "Can you ride?"

"Not well. But I will.  We must go now."  He put aside the goblet and started to stand.  Only Serrano's strength kept him there.  When he looked into the Captain's face, he saw worry and fear.  "I have been to some other realm where humans do not tred tonight, Captain.  I have ridden on a horse of legend with a God to protect my back.  It will not have been for nothing."

"You'll ride with me this time," Serrano said.

"And grateful for it," Katashan answered.  He put his aching and bleeding arm across the man's shoulder and with Captain Serrano's aide, he limped out of the room.  It had been easier with the Godling carrying him up.  It was a damn long ways down to the courtyard again.

But they reached the horses and soldiers in good time.  The courtyard held wisps of fog, everything illuminated by the first hint of grey dawn.  Troops gathered, nervously glancing at him.  Oh yes, it would be a long time before he outlived that bit of legend when he and Peralin arrived.

Katashan hoped Peralin had made reached his appointed place in time, but not just because they might need him again.  Katashan realized he wanted to talk with the Godling when this madness was past.  He wanted to understand the ways of the gods better than he had, even if he never had reason to deal so intimately with them again.

Besides, he liked Peralin.

The others were ready to go.  The men on foot glanced around, asking each other if they'd seen Peralin, and wondering what work they were going to do for him.  Serrano somehow got Katashan onto the horse and slipped up behind him. The gate opened and they rode.

Katashan didn't like this journey any better, but he held on and led them back up the mountain and through the path Peralin had prepared for them.  He headed to the battle and the war -- and Sherina, who would find him again, if he survived to see another night.


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