Read Fires of Azeroth Online

Authors: C. J. Cherryh

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure

Fires of Azeroth (2 page)

"It is only that we are still within the influence of the Gate we have just left," Morgaine had reasoned in the beginning of their flight northward, when the sword had first warned them. But as the distance widened between them and that power, still the sword gave the same disturbing answer, until there remained little doubt what the truth was. Morgaine had muttered things about horizons and the curving of the land, and other possibilities which he by no means comprehended; but at last she shook her head and became fixed upon the worst of her fears. It was impossible for them to have done other than flee. He tried to persuade her that; their enemies would surely have overwhelmed them. But that knowledge was no comfort to her despair.

"I shall know for certain," she had said, "if the strength of the sending does not diminish by this evening. The sword can find lesser Gates, and it is possible still that we are on the wrong side of the world or too far removed from any other. But lesser Gates do not glow so brightly. If I see it tonight as bright as last, then we shall know beyond doubt what we have done."

And thus they knew.

Vanye eased himself of some of the buckles of his armor. There was not a bone of his body which did not separately ache, but he had a cloak and a fire this night, and cover to hide him from enemies, which was better than he had known of late. He wrapped his cloak about him and set his back against an aged tree. His sword he laid naked across his knees. Lastly he removed his helm, which was wrapped about with me white scarf of the
ilin,
and set it aside, shaking free his hair and enjoying the absence of that weight. The woods were quiet about them. The water rippled over stones; the leaves sighed; the horses moved quietly at tether, cropping the little grass that grew where the trees were not. The Shiua mare was stable-bred, with no sense of enemies, useless on watch; but Siptah was a sentinel as reliable as any man, war-trained and wary of strangers, and he trusted to the gray horse as to a comrade in his watch, which made all the world less lonely. Food in his belly and warmth against the night, a stream when he should thirst and surely game plentiful for the hunting. A moon was up, a smallish one and unthreatening, and the trees sighed very like those of Andur's lost forests-it was a healing thing, when there was no way home, to find something so much like it. He would have been at peace, had
Changeling
pointed some other way.

Dawn came softly and subtly, with singing of birds and the sometime stirring of the horses. Vanye still sat, propping his head on his arm and forcing his blurred eyes to stay open, and scanned the forest in the soft light of day.

All at once Morgaine moved, reached for weapons, then blinked at him in dismay, leaning on her elbow. "What befell? Thee fell asleep on watch?"

He shook his head, shrugged off the prospect of her anger, which he had already reckoned on. "I decided not to wake you. You looked over-tired."

"Is it a favor to me if you fall out of the saddle today?"

He smiled and shook his head yet again, inwardly braced against the sting of her temper, which could be hurtful. She hated to be cared for, and she was too often inclined to drive herself when she might have rested, to prove the point. It should of course be otherwise between them,
ilin
and
liyo,
servant and liege lady .. . but she refused to learn to rely on anyone . . .
expecting I shall die,
he thought, with a troubling touch of ill-omen,
as others have who have served her; she waits on that.

"Shall I saddle the horses,
liyo
?"

She sat up, shrugged the blanket about her in the morning chill and stared at the ground, resting her hands at her temples. "I have need to think. We must go back somehow. I have need to think."

"Best you do that rested, then."

Her eyes flicked to his, and at once he regretted pricking at her-a perversity in him, who was fretted by her habits. He knew that temper surely followed, along with a sharp reminder of his place. He was repared to bear that, as he had a hundred times and more, intended and unintended, and he simply wished it said and done. "It likely is," she said quietly, and that confounded him. "Aye, saddle the horses."

He rose and did so, troubled at heart. His own moving was painful; he limped, and there was a constant stitch in his side, a cracked rib, he thought. Doubtless she hurt too, and that was expected; bodies mended; sleep restored strength . . . but most of all he was concerned about the sudden quiet in her, his despair and yielding. They had been travelling altogether too long, at a pace which wore them to nerve and bone; no rest, never rest world and world and world. They survived the hurts; but there were things of the soul too, overmuch of death and war, and horror which still dogged them, hunting them-to which now they had to return. Of a sudden he longed for her anger, for something he understood.

"Liyo,"
he said when he had finished with the horses and she knelt burying the fire, covering all trace of it. He dropped down, put himself on both knees, being
ilin. "Liyo,
it comes to me that if our enemies are sitting where we must return, then sit they will, at least for a time; they fared no better in that passage than we. For us-
liyo, I
beg you know that I will go on as long as seems good to you, I will do everything that you ask-but I am tired, and I have wounds on me that have not healed, and it seems to me that a little rest, a few days to freshen the horses and to find game and renew our supplies-is it not good sense to rest a little?"

He pleaded his own cause; did he plead his concern for her, he thought, then that instinctive stubbornness would harden against all reason. Even so he rather more expected anger than agreement. But she nodded wearily, and further confounded him by laying a hand on his arm-a brief touch; there were rarely such gestures between them, no intimacy ... never had been.

"We will ride the bow of the forest today," she said, "and see what game we may start, and I agree we should not overwork the horses. They deserve a little rest; their bones are showing. And you-I have seen you limping, and you work often one-armed, and still you try to take all the work from me. You would do everything if you had your way about it."

"Is that not the way it is supposed to be?"

"Many the time I have dealt unfairly with you; and I am sorry for that."

He tried to laugh, passing it off, and misliked more and more this sudden sinking into melancholy. Men cursed Morgaine, in Andur and in Kursh, in Shiuan and Hiuaj and the land between. More friends' lives than enemies' were to the account of that fell
geas
that drove her. Even him she had sacrificed on occasion; and would again; and being honest, did not pretend otherwise.

"Liyo,"
he said, "I understand you better than you seem to think-not always
why,
but at least
what
moves you. I am only ilin-bound, and I can argue with the one I am bound to; but the thing you serve has no mercy at all. I know that. You are mad if you think it is only my oath that keeps me with you."

It was said; he wished then he had not said it, and rose and found work for himself tying their gear to saddles, anything to avoid her eyes.

When she came to take Siptah's reins and set herself in the saddle, the frown was there, but it was more perplexed than angry.

Morgaine kept silent in their riding, which was leisurely and followed the bendings of the stream; and the weariness of his sleepless night claimed him finally, so that he bowed his head and folded his arms about him, sleeping while they rode, Kurshin-style. She took the lead, and guarded him from branches. The sun was warm and the sighing of leaves sang a song very like the forests of Andur, as if tune had bent back on itself and they rode a path they had ridden in the beginning.

Something crashed in the brush. The horses started, and he came awake at once, reaching for his sword.

"Deer." She pointed off through the woods, where the animal lay on its side.

Deer it was not, but something very like unto it, oddly dappled with gold. He dismounted with his sword in hand, having respect for the spreading antlers, but it was stone-dead when he touched it. Other weapons had Morgaine besides
Changeling, qhalur-soit
also, which killed silently and at distance, without apparent wound. She swung down from the saddle and gave him her skinning-knife and he set to, minded strangely of another time, a creature which had been indeed a deer, and a winter storm in his homeland's mountains.

He shook off that thought. "Had it been to me," he said, "it would have been small game and fish and precious little of that I must have myself a bow,
liyo."

She shrugged. In fact his pride was hurt, such of it as remained sensitive with her, that he had not done this, but she; yet it was her place to provide for her
ilin.
At times he detected hurt pride in her, that the hearth she gave him was a campfire, and the hall a canopy of branches, and food often enough scant or lacking entirely. Of all lords an
ilin
could have been ensnared to serve, Morgaine was beyond doubt the most powerful, and the poorest. The arms she provided him were plundered, the horse stolen before it was given, and their provisions likewise. They lived always like hedge-bandits. But tonight and for days afterward they would not have hunger to plague them, and he saw her slight hurt at the offense behind his words; with that he dismissed his vanity and vowed himself grateful for the gift.

It was not a place for long lingering: birds' alarm, the flight of other creatures-death in the forest announced itself. He took the best and stripped that, with swift strokes of the keen blade-skill gained in outlawry in Kursh, to hunt wolf-wary in the territories of hostile clans, to take and flee, covering his traces. So he had done, solitary, until a night he had sheltered with Morgaine kri Chya, and traded her his freedom for a place out of the wind.

He washed his hands from the bloody work, and tied the hide bundle on the saddle, while Morgaine made shift to haul the remnant into the brush. He scuffed the earth about and disposed of what sign he could. Scavengers would soon muddle the rest, covering their work, and he looked about carefully, making sure, for not all their enemies were hall-bred, men of blind eyes. One there was among them who could follow the dimmest trail, and that one he feared most of any.

That man was of clan Chya, of forested Koris in Andur, his own mother's people .. . and of his mother's close kin; it was at least the shape he lately wore.

It was an early camp, and a full-fed one. They attended to the meat which they must carry with them, drying it in the smoke of the fire and preparing it to last as long as possible. Morgaine claimed first watch, and Vanye cast himself to deep early and wakened to his own sense of time. Morgaine had not moved to wake him, and had not intended to, he suspected, meaning to do to him what he had done to her; but she yielded her post to him without objection when he claimed it: she was not one for pointless arguments.

In his watch be sat and fed the fire by tiny pieces, making sure that the drying was proceeding as it should. The strips had hardened, and he cut a piece and chewed at it lazily. Such leisure was almost forgotten, in his life-to have a day's respite, two-to contemplate.

The horses snuffed and moved in the dark. Siptah took some interest in the little Shiua mare, which would prove difficulty did she breed; but there was no present hazard of that. The sounds were ordinary and comfortable.

A sudden snort, a moving of brush ... he stiffened in every muscle, his heart speeding. Brush cracked: that was the horses.

He moved, ignoring bruises to rise in utter silence, and with the tip of his sword reached to touch Morgaine's out-flung hand.

Her eyes opened, fully aware in an instant; met his, which slid in the direction of the small sound he had sensed more than heard. The horses were still disturbed.

She gathered herself, silent as he; and stood, a black shape in the embers' glow, with her white hair making her all too much a target. Her hand was not empty. That small black weapon which had killed the deer was aimed toward the sound, but shield it was not. She gathered up
Changeling,
better protection, and he gripped his sword, slipped into the darkness; Morgaine moved, but in another direction, and vanished.

Brush stirred. The horses jerked madly at tethers of a sudden and whinned in alarm. He slipped through a stand of saplings and something he had taken for a piece of scrub . . . moved: a dark spider-shape, that chilled him with its sudden life. He went farther, trying to follow its movements, cautious not least because Morgaine was a-hunt the same as he.

Another shadow: that was Morgaine. He stood still, mindful that hers was a distance-weapon, and deadly accurate; but she was not one to fire blindly or in panic. They met, and crouched still a moment No sound disturbed the night now but the shifting of the frightened horses.

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