Read Fires of Azeroth Online

Authors: C. J. Cherryh

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

Fires of Azeroth (7 page)

"You are not of them," said Bythein faintly.

"Did you not suspect so?"

"At the last, lady. But you are not our enemy. Come back and be welcome again."

"I thank you. But we have business elsewhere. Do you trust yourselves to them?"

"They have always taken care for us."

"Then they will now."

"We will remember your warnings. We will post the guards. But we cannot travel Shathan without their leave. We must not. Good journey to you, lady; good journey,
khemeu.
n

"Good fortune to you," Morgaine said. They rode from the midst of the people, not in haste, not as fugitives, but with sadness.

Then the darkness of the forest closed about them, and they took the road past the sentries, who hailed them sorrowfully and wished them well in their journey-then down to the stream, which would lead them.

There was no sign of any enemy. The horses moved quietly in the dark; and when they were far from Mirrind, they dismounted in the last of the night, wrapped themselves in their blankets and cloaks and slept alternately the little time they felt they could afford.

By bright morning they were underway again, travelling the streamside by trails hardly worthy of the name, through delicate foliage that scarcely bore any mark of previous passage.

From time to time there came a whispering of brush and a sense that they were being watched: woodswise, both of them, so that it was not easy to deceive their senses, but neither of them could catch sight of the watchers.

"Not our enemies," Morgaine said in an interval when it seemed to have left them. "There are few of them skilled in woodcraft, and only one of them is Chya."

"Roh would not be here; I do not think so."

"No, I do doubt it. They must be the
qhal
who live here. We have escort."

She was uneasy in it; he caught that in her expression, and agreed with it.

A hush hung all about them as they went farther. The horses moved with their necessary noise, breaking of twigs and scuff of forest mold . . . and yet something insisted there was another sound there, wind where it should not be, a whispering of leaves. He heard it, and looked behind them.

Then it was gone; he turned again, for the trail bent with the stream, and they were entering a place not meant for riders, where often branches hung low and they must lean in the saddle to pass under ... a wood wilder and older than the area where they had entered the forest, or that which surrounded Mirrind's placid fields.

Again something touched at hearing, leftward.

"It is back," he said, becoming vexed at this game.

"Would it would show itself," she said in the
qhalur
tongue.

They had ridden hardly around the next bending when an apparition stepped into their path-a youth clad in motley green, and tall and white-haired ... empty-handed.

The horses snorted and shied up. Morgaine, in the lead, held Siptah, and Vanye moved up as close as he could on the narrow trail.

The youth bowed, smiling as if delighted at their startlement. There was at least one more; Vanye heard movement behind, and his shoulders prickled.

"Are you one of Lir's friends?" Morgaine asked.

"I am a friend of his," said the youth, and stood with hands in his belt, head cocked and smiling. "And you wished for my company, so here I am."

"I prefer to see those who share a road with me. You are also going north, I take it."

The youth grinned. "I am your guard and guide." He swept an elaborate bow. "I am Lellin Erirrhen. And you are asked to rest tonight in the camp of my lord Merir Mlennira, you and your
khemeis."

Morgaine sat silent a moment, and Siptah fretted under her, accustomed to blows exchanged at such sudden meetings. "And what of that one who is still watching us? Who is he?"

Another joined Lellin, a smallish dark man armed with sword and bow.

"My
khemeis,"
said Lellin. "Sezar." Sezar bowed with the grace of the
qhal-lord,
and when Lellin turned to lead the way, taking for granted that they would follow, Sezar went at his heels.

Vanye watched them ghost through the brush ahead, somewhat relieved in his apprehensions, for Sezar was a Man like the villagers, and went armed while his lord did not.
Either well-loved or well-defended,
he thought, and wondered how many more there were thereabouts.

Lellin looked back and grinned at them, waiting at a branching of the way, and led them off again on a new track, away from the stream. "Quicker than the other way," he said cheerfully.

"Lellin," Morgaine said. "We were advised to stay by the streamside."

"Think nothing of that. Lir gave you a sure road; but you would be til tomorrow on that track. Come. I would not mislead you."

Morgaine shrugged, and they went.

They called halt of their guides at noon, and rested a time; Lellin and Sezar took food of them when it was offered, but disappeared thereafter without a word, and did not reappear until they grew tired of waiting and began to follow the dim trail on their own. Now and again came birdsong which was unnatural with so much moving; now and again either Lellin or Sezar would disappear from the trail, only to reappear at some far turning ahead . . . there seemed even shorter ways, though perhaps none that a horseman could take.

Then in late afternoon there was the faint scent of wood-smoke in the air, and Lellin returned from one of his and Sezar's absences to stand squarely in their path. Hands in belt, he bowed with flippant grace. "We are near now. Please follow me closely and do nothing rash. Sezar has gone on to advise them we are coming in. You are quite safe with me; I have the utmost concern for your safety, since I stand so close to you. This way, if you will."

And Lellin turned and led them onto a trail so overgrown that they must dismount and lead the horses. Morgaine delayed to take
Changeling
from her saddle and hook it to her shoulder-belt, the matter of an instant; and Vanye took not only his sword but his bow and quiver, and walked last, looking over his shoulder and round about him, but no threat was visible.

It was not quite a clearing, not in the sense of Mirrind's broad circle. Tents were placed here among wide-spaced trees-and one tree dwarfed all the tents: nine or ten times a man's height it rose before it even branched. Others at the far side of the camp soared almost that high, and spread wide branches, so that shadow dappled all the tents.

Their coming brought a stir in the camp, with
qhal
and Men lining the aisle down which they walked, where the light came greenly down, and the only sky showed golden-white in comparison to the shadowing branches.

None threatened them. There were tall, white-haired
qhal,
male and female; and small dark human-folk ... a few elders of both kindreds stood among them, robed, old Men and old
qhal,
alike even to the silver hair at the last, though Men were sometimes bearded and
qhal
were not; and Men balded, and
qhal
seemed not to. The younger folk whatever their sex or kind wore breeches and tunics, and some were armed and some were not. They were a goodly-looking folk together, and walked with a free step and cheerfully, moving along with the strangers who had come to them as if all that animated them were curiosity.

But Lellin stopped and bowed before they had quite crossed the camp. "Lady, please leave your weapons with your
khemeis,
and come with me."

"As yon have remarked," said Morgaine softly, "we two have outlandish ways. Now, I have no objection to handing my weapons to Vanye, but how much more are you going to ask?"

"Liyo,"
Vanye said under his breath, "no, do not allow it."

"Ask your lord," said Morgaine to Lellin, "whether he will insist on it. For my own opinion, I am minded not to agree, and to ride out of here . . . and I can do that, Lellin."

Lellin hesitated, frowning, then strode away to the largest of the tents. Sezar remained, arms folded, waiting, and they waited, holding the reins of the horses.

"They are gentle-seeming," Vanye said in his own tongue, "but first they separate us from our horses, and you from your arms, and me from you. If they go on, we shall be divided into very small pieces,
liyo."

She laughed shortly, and Sezar's eyes flickered, puzzled. "Do not think I mean to let that start," she said. "But bide easy until we know their minds; we need no unnecessary enemies."

It was a longish wait, and all about them the folk of the camp stood staring at them. No weapon was drawn, no bow bent, no insult offered them. Children stood with parents, and old ones remained in the forefront of the gathering: it was not the aspect of a people who expected violence.

And at last Lellin returned, frowning still, and bowed. "Come as you wish. Merir will not insist, only I do ask you leave the horses; you cannot expect to take them too. Sezar will see that they are safe and cared for. Come with me, and see that you keep peace and do not threaten Merir, or we will show you quite another face of us, strangers."

Vanye turned and took from Siptah's saddle Morgaine's personal kit, and shouldered the strap of that. Sezar took the reins of both horses and led them away, while he trailed Morgaine, and she walked beside Lellin to the green tent, that largest one of all in the camp.

The flaps were back, reassuring, indicating less chance of outright ambush; and the
qhal
inside were elders, robed and unarmed, with old Men, who looked too advanced in years to use the daggers they generally wore. In their midst sat an old, old
qhal,
whose white hair fell thickly about his shoulders, confined with a gold band about his brow in the manner of a human king. His cloak was green as the spring leaves, the shoulders done in layers of gray feathers, smooth and minutely black-edged, a work of remarkable skill and beauty.

"Merir," said Lellin softly, and bowed, "lord of Shathan."

"Welcome," Merir bade them, a low and gentle voice, and a chair was unfolded and offered Morgaine. She settled, while Vanye stood at her shoulder.

"Your name is Morgaine; your companion's is Vanye," said Merir. "You stayed in Mirrind until you took it upon yourself to bid its young folk venture into Shathan, and lost one of them. You say now that you are going to Azeroth, and you warn of invasion out of the Fires. You are not Shathana, neither of you. Are all these reports true?"

"Yes. Do not expect, my lord Merir, that we understand much of what passes in your land; but we are enemies of those who have massed out on the plain. We are on our way to deal with them, such as we can; and if we must have your permission, then we ask it."

Merir gazed on her a long time, frowning, and she on him, nothing yielding. At last Merir turned and spoke briefly to one of the elders. "You have ridden far," he said then. "You are at least due hospitality while we talk, you and your
khemeis.
You seem impatient. If you know of some imminent attack, say, and I assure you we will act; or if not, then perhaps you will take the time to speak with us."

Morgaine said nothing, and sat easily, the while such hospitality was arranged, and while the old lord gave instruction for the preparation of a tent and shelter for them. For his part, Vanye stood with his hand on the back of Morgaine's chair, watching every move and listening to every whisper ... for they two had knowledge of Gates, and of the powers of them, knowledge which some
qhal
had lost and which some would kill to learn. Whatever the gentleness of the folk, there was that to fear.

Drink was brought and offered them both; but Vanye leaned forward and took the drink from Morgaine's hand sipped at it first and gave it back to her before he took a drink of his own. She simply held the cup in her hand, though Merir drank of his.

"Are these your customs?" Merir asked.

"No," said Vanye out of turn, "but they are, among our enemies."

The other
qhal
looked displeased at that forwardness with the old lord. "No," Merir said. "Let be. I shall speak with them. Go, all who should. We shall speak," he added then, "of things belonging to the inner councils of our people. Although you have insisted that your
khemeis
must remain with yon, still it might be well if you dismissed him as far as the outside of the tent."

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