Read Fires of Azeroth Online

Authors: C. J. Cherryh

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

Fires of Azeroth (6 page)

But Sin joined him and helped him as he always had; and Vanye found it impossible to be hard with him. He set Sin finally on Mai's back, which was Sin's constant hope, whenever they would take the horses out to graze, and Sin stroked the mare's neck, and suddenly burst into tears, which he tried to hide.

He waited until the boy had stopped his crying, and helped him down again, and they walked together back to the hall.

Dinner was a mournful time. There were no songs, for they had buried Eth at sundown and they had no heart for singing. There was only hushed conversation and few even had appetite, but there were no animosities, no resentment shown them, not even by Eth's closest kin.

Morgaine spoke to the people in the midst of dinner, in a hush in which not even a child cried: babes slept in arms, exhausted by the day's madness, and there was a silence on all the children.

"Again I advise you to leave," she said. "At least tonight and every day hereafter, have your young men on guard, and do what you can to hide the road that leads here. Please believe me and go from this place. What Vanye and I can do to delay the evil, we will do, but they are thousands, and have horses and arms, and they are both
qhal
and Men."

Faces were stricken, the elders themselves undone by this, which she had never told them. Bythein rose, leaning on her staff. "What
qhal
would wish us harm?"

"Believe that these would. They are strangers in the land, and cruel, even more than the Men. Do not resist them; flee them. They are too many for you. They passed the Fires out of their own land, that was ruined and drowning, and they came here to take yours."

Bythein moaned aloud, and sank down again, and seemed ill. Bytheis comforted her, and all clan Bythen stirred in their seats, anxious for their elder.

"This is an evil we have never seen," said Bythein when she had recovered herself. "Lady, we understand then why you were reluctant to speak to us.
Qhal!
Ah, lady, what a thing is this?"

Vanye filled his cup with the ale that Mirrind brewed and drank it down, trying with that to wash the tautness from his throat . . . for he had not shaped what followed them and now threatened Mirrind, but he had had his hand on it while it formed, and he could not rid himself of the conviction that somehow he might have turned it aside.

One thing of certainty he might have done, and that regarded the Honor-blade which he carried, a kinslaying that might have averted all this grief. In pity, in indecision, he had not done it. To save his life, he had not.

And Morgaine: indeed she had launched what pursued them, more than a thousand years ago as Men reckoned time . . . men who had not trespassed in Gates. Her allies once, that army that followed them-the children's children of men that she had led.

There was much that wanted drowning this night. He would have gotten himself drunk, but he was too prudent for that, and the time was too hazardous for self-indulgence. He stopped short of it, and, likewise in prudence, ate-for the wolves were at their heels once more, and a man ought to eat, who never knew whether the next day's flight would give him leisure for it.

Morgaine too ate all that was set before her, and that, the same as his, he thought, was not appetite but common sense. She survived well... it was a gift of hers.

And when the hall was clear, she gathered up what supplies they could possibly carry, and made two packs of it .. . more than to distribute the weight: it was their constant fear that they could be separated, or one fall and the other have to continue. They carried no necessity solely on one horse.

"Sleep," she urged him when he would have stood watch.

"Trust them?"

"Sleep lightly."

He arranged his sword by him, and she lay down with
Changeling
in her arm . . . unarmored, as they had both slept unarmored since the first night in Mirrind.

 

Chapter Three

Something moved outside. Vanye heard it, but it was like the wind, stirring the trees, and did not repeat itself. He laid his head down again and shut his eyes, drifted finally back to sleep.

Then came a second sound, a creak of boards; and Morgaine moved. He flung himself over and came up with his sword in hand before his eyes were even clear; Morgaine stood beside him, doubtless armed, confronting what suddenly appeared as three men.

And not Men.
Qhal.

Tall and thin they were, with white hair flowing to their shoulders; and they bore that cast of features that was so like Morgaine's, delicate and fine. They carried no weapons and did not threaten, and they were not of that horde that had come through at Azeroth: there was nothing of that taint about them.

Morgaine stood easier.
Changeling
was in her hand, but she had not unsheathed it. Vanye straightened from his crouch and grounded his blade before him.

"We do not know you," said one of the
qhal.
"The Mirrindim say that your name is Morgaine and your
khemetf
is Vanye. These names are strange to us. They say that you send their young men into the forest hunting strangers. And one of them is dead. How shall we understand these things?"

"You are friends of the Mirrindim?" Morgaine asked.

"Yes. Who are your enemies?"

"Long to tell; but these folk have welcomed us and we would not harm them. Do you care to protect them?"

"Yes."

"Then guide them away from this place. It is no longer safe for them."

There was a moment's silence. "Who are these strangers? And who, again, are you?"

"I do not know to whom I am speaking, my lord
qhal.
Evidently you are peaceloving, since you come empty-handed; evidently you are a friend of the Mirrindim, since they raised no alarm; and therefore I should be willing to trust you. But call the elders of the village and let them urge me to trust you, and then I may answer some of your questions."

"I am Lir," said the
qhal,
and bowed slightly. "And we are where we belong, but you are not. You have no authority to do what you have done, or to tell the Mirrindim to leave their village. If you would travel Shathan, then make clear to us that you are friends, or we must consider that what we suspect is the truth: that you are part of the evil that has come here, and we will not permit you."

That was direct enough, and Vanye clenched his hand on the hilt of his sword and held his senses alert, not alone for the three who stood before them in the hall, but for the undefended windows about them. In the firelight, they were prey for archers.

"You are well-informed," said Morgaine. "Have you spoken with the Mimndim? I think not, if you consider us enemies."

"We have found strangers in the woods, and dealt with them. And we came to Mirrind and asked, and so we were told of you. They speak well of you, but do they truly know you?"

"I will tell you what I told them: your land is invaded. Men and
qhal
have come through the Fires at Azeroth, and they are a hungry and a dangerous people, from a land in which all law and reason has long since perished. We fled them, Vanye and I ... but we did not lead them here. They are prowling, hunting likely prey, and they have found Mirrind. I hope your dealing with them let none escape back to their main force. Otherwise they will be back."

The
qhal
looked disturbed at that, and exchanged looks with his companions.

"Have you weapons," Morgaine asked, "with which you can protect this village?"

"We would not tell you."

"Will you at least take charge of the village?"

"It is always in our keeping."

"And therefore they welcomed us ... not knowing us, save as
qhal."

"Therefore you were welcomed, yes."

Morgaine inclined her head as in homage. "Well, I understand a great many things that puzzled me. If Mirrind shows your care, then it speaks well for you. This I will tell you: Vanye and I are going back to Azeroth, to deal with the folk who have it now . . . and we go with your leave or without it."

"You are arrogant."

"And are not you, my lord
qhal?
You have your right.. . but no more right than we."

"Such arrogance comes of power."

Morgaine shrugged.

"Do you ask leave to travel Shathan? You must have it. And I cannot give it"

"I should be glad of your people's consent, but who can give it, and on what authority, if you will forgive the question?"

"Wherever you go, you will be constantly under our eye, my lady-whose speech is strange, whose manners are stranger still. I cannot promise you yea or nay. There is that in you which greatly alarms me, and you are not of this land."

"No," Morgaine admitted. "When we began our flight, it was not at Azeroth. It is your misfortune that the Shiua horde chose this direction, but that was not our doing. They are led by a halfling
qhal
named Hetharu; and by a halfling man named Chya Roh i Chya; but even those two do not fully control the horde. There is no mercy in them. If you try to deal with them face to face, then expect that you will die as Eth did. I fear they have already shown you their nature; and I wish above all else that they had come against me and not against Eth."

There were looks, and at last the foremost inclined his head. "Travel north along the stream; north, if you would live. A little delay to satisfy our lord may save your lives. It is not far. If you will not, then we shall count you enemies with the rest. Friends would come and speak with us."

And without further word the three
qhal
turned-the one in the shadow was a woman. They departed as noiselessly as they had come.

Morgaine swore softly and angrily.

"Shall we take this journey?" Vanye asked. He had no eagerness for it, but likewise he had no eagerness to gather more enemies than they had.

"If we fought, we would work enough ruin that these innocent folk would lie exposed to the Shiua; and probably we would lose our own lives into the bargain. No, we have no choice, and they know it. Besides, I do not completely believe that they came here unasked."

"The Mirrindim? That is hard to think,"

"We are not theirs, Sersein said. This afternoon when Eth was killed and they doubted us-well, perhaps they sought other help. They were anxious to keep us here tonight. Perhaps they saved our lives by holding us here. Or perhaps I am too suspicious. We shall go as they asked. I do not despair of it; I have felt from the beginning that the
qhalur
hand on this place was both quiet and not greatly remote."

"They are gentler than some
qhal
I have met," he said, and swallowed heavily, for he still did not like proximity to them. "It is said,
liyo,
that in a part of Andur's forests that are called haunted, the animate are very tame and have no fear ... having never been hunted. So I have heard."

"Not unapt." Morgaine turned back toward the fire. She stood there a moment, then laid down
Changeling
and gathered her armor.

"A leave-taking."

"I think we should not linger here." She looked back at him. "Vanye, gentle they may be; and perhaps they and we act for similar reasons. But there are some things-well, thee knows. Thee well knows. I trust no one."

"Aye," he agreed, and armed himself, drew up the coif and set on his head the battered helm he had not worn since their coming to Mirrind.

Then they departed together to the pen where the horses were.

A small shadow stirred there as they opened the gate . . . Sin, who slept near the horses. The boy came forth and made no sound to alarm the village ... shed tears, and yet lent his small hands to help them saddle and tie their supplies in place. When all was done, Vanye gave his hand as to a man .. . but Sin embraced him with feverish strength; and then to make the pain quick, Vanye turned and rose into the saddle. Morgaine set herself ahorse, and Sin stood back to let them ride out.

They rode the commons quietly, but doors opened along their way all the same. Sleepy villagers in their nightclothes turned out to watch, silent in the moonlight, and stood by with sad eyes. A few waved forlornly. The elders walked out to bar their way. Morgaine reined in then, and bowed from the saddle.

"There is no need for us now," she said. "If the
qhal-lord
Lir is your friend, then he and his will watch over you."

Other books

Grace by Calvin Baker
The Gallant by William Stuart Long
TITAN by Stewart, Kate
A Siren's Wish by Renee Field
Why Kings Confess by C. S. Harris
William W. Johnstone by Savage Texas
Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane
Spy Sinker by Len Deighton