Read Fires of Azeroth Online

Authors: C. J. Cherryh

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

Fires of Azeroth (4 page)

It was not, at least, a hall where one feared an assassin's knife or poison. Vanye sat at Morgaine's right-an
ilin
should stand behind, and he would rather have tasted the food that she was offered to be certain, all the same; but Morgaine forbade that, and he gave up his apprehensions. In the pen outside, the horses fed on good hay, and they sat in this bright, warm hall amid folk who seemed more inclined to kill them by overfeeding than by ill will. When at last no one could eat any more, the children who did not wish to be quiet were cheerfully dismissed into the dark outside, the oldest of that company leading the youngest, and there seemed no thought in any one that the children might be in any danger in the dark outdoors. Within the hall, a girl began to play on a tall, strangely tuned harp, and sang beautifully with it. There was a second song which everyone sang, save themselves; and then they were offered the harp as well-but playing was long-past for him. His fingers had forgotten whatever childish skill they had once had, and he refused it, embarrassed. Morgaine also declined; if there was ever a time when she had had leisure to learn music, he could not imagine it.

But Morgaine spoke with them instead, and they seemed pleased by what she said. There followed a little discussion, in which he could not share, before the girl sang one last song.

Then dinner was done, and the villagers went their own way to beds in their houses, while oldest children were quick to make their guests a place nearest the fire . . . two pallets and a curtain for privacy, and a kettle of warm water for washing.

The last of the children went down the outside steps and Vanye drew a long breath, in this first solitude they had enjoyed since riding in. He saw Morgaine unbuckle her armor, ridding herself of that galling weight, which she did not do on the trail or in any chancy lodging. If she were so inclined, he felt himself permitted, and gratefully stripped down to shirt and breeches, washed behind the curtain and dressed again, for he did not utterly trust the place. Morgaine did likewise; and they settled down with their weapons near them, to sleep alternately.

His watch was first, and he listened well for any stirring in the village, went to the windows and looked out on this side and on the other, on the forest and the moonlit fields, but there was no sign of movement, nor were the village windows all shuttered. He went back and settled at the hearth in the warmth, and began to accept finally that all this bewildering gentleness was true and honest.

It was rare in all their journeying that there awaited them no curse, no hedge of weapons, but only kindness.

Here Morgaine's name was not yet known.

The morning brought a smell of baking bread, and the stir of folk about the hall, a scatter of children who were hushed to quiet "Perhaps," Vanye murmured, smelling that pleasant aroma of baking, "a bit of hot bread to send us on our way."

"We are not going," Morgaine said, and he looked at her in bewilderment, not knowing whether this was good news or ill. "I have thought things through, and you may be right: here is a place where we can draw breath, and if we do not rest in it, then what else can we do but kill the horses under us and drive ourselves beyond our strength? There is no surety beyond any Gate. Should we win through-to another hard ride, and lose everything for want of what we might have gathered here? Three days. We can rest that long. I think your advice is good sense."

"Then you make me doubt it You have never listened to me, and we are alive, all odds to the contrary."

She laughed humorlessly. "Aye, but I have; and as for my own plans, some of the best of those have gone amiss at the worst of times. I have ignored your advice sometimes at our peril, and this time I take it I reckon our chances even."

They broke fast, served by grave-faced children who brought them some of that hot bread, and fresh milk and sweet butter besides. They ate as if they had had nothing the night before, for such a breakfast was not a luxury that belonged to outlawry.

Three days went too quickly; and the courtesy and gentleness of the folk brought something that Vanye would have given much to see: for Morgaine's gray eyes grew clean of that pain which had ridden there so long, and she smiled and sometimes laughed, softly and merrily.

The horses fared as well: they rested, and the children brought them handfuls of sweet grass, and petted them, and combed their manes and curried them with such zeal that Vanye found nothing to do for them but a bit of smithing- in which the village smith was all too willing to assist, with his forge and his skill.

Whenever he was at the pens with the horses, the children, particularly Sin, hung over the rails and chattered merrily to him, trying to ask him questions of the animals and Morgaine and himself, little of which he even understood.

"Please,
khemeis
Vanye," said Sin, when he leaned to rest on the edge of the watering-keg, "please may we see the weapons?" At least so he put the words together.

He recalled his own boyhood, when he had watched in awe the
dai-uyin,
the high-clan gentlemen with their armor and their horses and weapons . . . but with the bitter knowledge of bastardy, which-for he had been a lord's bastard, gotten on a captive-made the attainment of such things desperate necessity. These were only village children, whose lives did not tend toward arms and wars, and their curiosity was that which they might hold toward the moon and stars . . . something remote from them, and untainted by understanding.

"Avert," he murmured in his own tongue, wishing harm from them, and unhooked the side ring of his sheathed sword, slipped it to his hand. He drew it, and let their grimy fingers touch the blade, and he let Sin-which filled the boy with delight-hold the hilt in his own hand and try the balance of it. But then he took it back, for he did not like the look of children with such a grim thing, that had so much blood on it.

Then, pointing, they asked to see the other blade that he carried, and he frowned and shook his head, laying his hand on that carven hilt at his belt. They cajoled, and he would not, for an Honor-blade was not for their hands. It was for suicide, this one, and it was not his, but one he carried, on his oath to deliver it.

"An
elarrh
thing," they concluded, in tones of awe; and he had not the least idea of their meaning, but they ceased asking, and showed no more desire to touch it.

"Sin," he said, thinking to draw a little knowledge from the children, "do men with weapons come here?"

At once there was puzzlement on Sin's face and in the eyes of the others, down to the least child. "You are not of
our
forest," Sin observed, and used the plural
you-
surmise which shot all too directly to the mark. Vanye shrugged, cursing his rashness, which had betrayed him even to children. They knew the conditions of their own land, and had sense enough to find out a stranger who knew not what he should.

"Where are you from?" a little girl asked. And, wide-eyed, with a touch of delicious horror: "Are you
sirreri?
n

Others decried that suggestion in outrage, and Vanye, conscious of his helplessness in their small hands, bowed bis head and busied himself hooking his sword to his belt. He pulled on the ring of the belt that crossed his chest drawing the sword to his shoulder behind, hooked it to his side. Then: "I have business," he said, and walked away. Sin made to follow. "Please no," he said, and Sin fell back, looking troubled and thoughtful, which in no wise comforted him.

He walked back to the hall, and there found Morgaine, sitting with the clan elders and with some of the young men and women who had stayed from their day's work to attend her. Quietly he approached, and they made place for him as before. For a long time he sat listening to the talk that flowed back and forth between Morgaine and the others, understanding occasional small sentences, or the gist of them. Morgaine sometimes interrupted herself to give him an essential word-strange conversation for her, for they spoke much of their craps, and their livestock and their woods, of all the affairs of their village.

Like,
he thought,
a village discussing with its lord their state of affairs.
Yet she accepted this, and listened more than she spoke, as was ever her habit.

At last the villagers took their leave, and Morgaine settled next the fire and relaxed a time. Then he came and rested on his knees before her, embarrassed by what he had to confess, that he had betrayed them to children.

She smiled when he had told her. "So. Well, I do not think it much harm. I have not been able to learn much of how
qhal
may be involved in this land, but, Vanye, there are tilings here so strange I hardly see how we could avoid revealing ourselves as strangers."

"What does
elarrh
mean?"

"It comes from
arrh,
that is
noble,
or
or,
that is
power,
The words are akin, and it could be either, depending on the situation . . . either or both: for when one addressed a
qhal-
lord in the ancient days as
arrhtheis,
it meant both his status as a
qhal
and the power he had. To Men in those days, all
qhal
had to be
my lord,
and the power in question was that of the Gates, which were always free to them, and never to Men ... it has that distressing meaning too.
Elarrh
something belonging to power, or to lords. A thing of reverence or hazard. A thing which ... Men do not touch."

Qhalur
thoughts disturbed him, the more he comprehended the
qhalur
tongue. Such arrogance was hateful. . . and other things Morgaine had told him, which be had never guessed, of
qhalur
maneuverings with human folk, things which hinted at the foundations of his own world, and those disturbed him utterly. There was much more, he suspected, which she dared not tell him. "What will you say to these folk," he asked, "and when-about the trouble we have brought on their land?
Liyo,
what do they reckon we are, and what do they think we are doing among them?"

She frowned, leaned forward, arms on knees. "I suspect that they reckon us both
qhal,
you perhaps halfling, . . . but after what fashion or with what feeling I can find no delicate means to ask. Warn them? I wish to. But I would likewise know what manner of thing we shall awaken here when I do. These are gentle folk; all that I have seen and heard among them confirms that. But what defends them . . . may not be."

It well agreed with his own opinion, that they trod a fragile place, safe in it, but perilously ignorant, and enmeshed in something that had its own ways.

"Be careful always what you say," she advised him. "When you speak in the Kurshin tongue, beware of using names they might know, whatever the language. But henceforth you and I should speak in their language constantly. You must gather what you can of it. It is a matter of our safety, Vanye."

"I am trying to do that," he said. She nodded approval, and they occupied themselves the rest of the day in walking about the village and the edge of the fields, talking together, impressing in his memory every word that could be forced there.

He had expected that Morgaine would choose to leave by the next morning, and she did not; and when that night came and he asked her would they leave on the morrow, she shrugged and in talking of something else, never answered the question. By the day after that, he did not ask, but took his ease in the village and settled into its routine, as Morgaine seemed to have done.

It was a healing quiet, as if the long nightmare that lay at their backs were illusion, and this sunny place were true and real. There was no word from Morgaine of leaving, as if by saving nothing she could wish away all hazard to them and their hosts.

But conscience worried at him, for the days they spent grew to many more than a handful. And he dreamed once, when they slept side by side-both slept, for sitting watch seemed unnecessary in the center of so friendly a place: he came awake sweating, and slept again, and wakened a second time with an outcry that sent Morgaine reaching for her weapons.

"Bad dreams in such a place as this?" she asked him. "There have been places with more reason for them."

But she looked concerned that night too, and lay staring into the fire long afterward. What the dream had been he could not clearly remember, only that there seemed something as sinister in his recollection as the creeping of a serpent on a nest, and he could not prevent it.

These folk will haunt me,
he thought wretchedly. They two had no place here, and knew it; and yet selfishly lingered, out of time and place, seeking a little peace . . . taking it as a thief might take, stealing it from its possessors. He wondered whether Morgaine harbored the same guilt ... or whether she had passed beyond it, being what she was, and impelled by the need to survive.

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