Children grow up with stories of wizards and swordsman. Even my children did — although the glamour of those stories rather died when they saw the real creatures in action. War-wizardry turned cottages and fields to dust, and swords twisted in the guts of fathers and mothers far more often than they cleaved the necks of sinister villains.
The pair who met us at the river crossing — one each, a brawny bronze-haired swordsman and his pale wisp of a wizard companion — seemed to expect a reputation of heroes from legend. When Gretya hid behind my skirts and Wimar began crying, the swordsman even looked a little hurt.
The wizard murmured something to him and he stepped back. A silver circlet gleamed in the wizard’s white-blond hair, suggesting he kept to the Covenant. That by itself wasn’t enough to let my heart beat any easier.
The last party to cross had run the ferry along its ropes to the opposite bank and then, thoughtlessly, left it there. The swordsman was tugging at the pulley to guide the raft back. He nodded to the wizard, who called,
“There’s plenty of room for all of us to board, ma’am. Or if you prefer, you and the children can cross first. We don’t mind waiting, and we have no wish to trouble you.”
He was trying to soothe me, but as my fear died down my irritation rose perversely. “You don’t wish to, eh? Then I must beg your pardon for preferring company that doesn’t upset my…charges.”
“Charges?” He examined us more closely. “Are you a sort of —”
“Trimeya Kaduran. Late of Endover, until it burned. I watch after these children — eight of them, I see you counting — because after the summer war swept through Amath there isn’t anyone else who can.”
“You’re from Amath?” the swordsman asked. His tone was unexpectedly soft.
“We’ve come that way, too,” the wizard said. “I’m Anweth n’Mansaken. My friend is Rathin Ormyer.”
“And you fought in the war, did you?” I forced the words past a tightening in my throat, part lingering fear, part anger.
“Not for long,” Rathin said. It seemed he had to force the words past a tightness of his own.
With a final pull, the ferry bumped against the sticky clay of the shoreline. I was set to march towards it when Anweth gasped aloud. Unthinkingly, I turned to him with an outstretched arm; he sounded so much like Hammet in one of his nightmares that I wanted to offer comfort.
Rathin reached him first, a supportive hand on Anweth’s shoulder — while the fingers of the other intertwined with his. Absently I noticed the gesture, and though it wasn’t hard to puzzle out what might cause such a thing to be second nature to these men, it wasn’t as if I could think much less of them.
“Premonition?” Rathin murmured.
“Yes.” Anweth blinked eyes that threatened for a moment to roll back in his head. “They’re back.”
Rathin turned to me. “If you’re going to go, get going. You’ve seen enough of this war, at least you can skip meeting the Crimson Standard.”
My gaze flew up the trail, as if I would see coming up it the ranks of mercenaries carrying banners dipped in the blood of previous victims. Nothing, of course. Yet… “He has premonitions?”
“Yes, I do,” Anweth said, each word falling with careful precision. He seemed to be nursing a headache.
Esma had grabbed my hand at the Crimson Standard’s name, and I tried to clasp hers back reassuringly, without feeling at all reassured.
Rathin released Anweth and made one final tug on the ferry line, looking at me pointedly. I started herding the children aboard. Anweth followed, shrugging off our offers of help, then Rathin and I took the absent ferryman’s place, grasping the rope above and pulling, driving the raft over the water. It was harder work and slower going than I expected or liked. Caris and Doran, the eldest children, helped us, and Anweth joined in once he seemed to have regained some strength. Looking back at the shore, I saw mounted soldiers approaching it. Yes, there were crimson standards, waving in the breeze like washing. But no amount of washing could ever make them clean.
“What if they try to wade across?” Hammet asked me.
“Pray that they don’t,” I said. Anweth turned to me. “What would you tell him?” I whispered in reply to his look. “Go on, say it.”
Anweth released the rope and knelt before Hammet. I hadn’t expected the move, and tensed, not wanting either of these men closer to my children.
I kept pulling the line, bringing us towards the other shore where we could part as quickly as possible.
“Don’t worry,” Anweth told Hammet. “Your Aunt Trimeya is going to take care of you, and Rathin and I will handle the Crimson Standard.”
Doran looked up. “‘Aunt’s’ a term of respect in the south,” he told me. “My father’s brother moved to the merchant cities down there, would come up visiting. He’d picked up the habit, and our mother’s mother was suddenly Auntie Getra. They always…” His voice faded away. They were all dead now, except perhaps his uncle down in Calda. Maybe Doran would find him one day, have some family left.
And in the meantime, I’d be his aunt. I’ve been called worse things, by far.
“Next time, your premonitions might cut it a little less close,” Rathin grunted to Anweth as we landed.
“I’ll be sure to specify that when I next give orders to the Astet in heaven,” Anweth said drily. Then he glanced at me, perhaps expecting me to take exception to the blasphemy.
I was beginning to suspect he’d named me ‘Aunt Trimeya’ half in mockery.
“There are plenty of things I might choose to object to about you,” I said, “without even bothering with what comes out of your mouth.”
I might have landed a blow on him. He stared at me wordlessly until Rathin tapped him on the arm. “We don’t have time to spare, Anweth, Let’s let the lady go.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said. “That’s much more generous than the terms I could expect from most mercenaries. But then…” I caught myself in time.
“Then…?” Rathin gestured, inviting me to continue. But without even waiting for another word from me, he strode to the post where the end of the ferry line was tied. A stroke from his sword severed it, and the raft vanished downstream.
The Crimson Standard still waited on the other side of the river. Perhaps they didn’t want to risk such a strong current.
“No doubt you have good reasons to hate mercenaries, ma’am,” Anweth said, “but Rathin and I are feeling the war as much as you are. We regret ever being part of it. Is a little courtesy too much to ask?”
I gestured to the wilderness around us, with the most feared mercenaries in Amath just across the river. “Does this look the proper place for courtesy?”
He glanced at the children, gathered behind me.
“I’m trying to protect them,” I said, “not teach them fine manners. Though—” I stepped closer to him, continuing in a lower voice, “you’d be one to preach propriety, wouldn’t you, when your lover’s hands have roamed all over you in front of—”
“Perhaps he should have let me fall,” Anweth suggested blandly. “Or would you have caught me?”
“I simply think it’s a little rich to hear lessons on courtesy from perverts.”
I regretted the words as soon as I’d said them. They were true enough, but I should know better than to express my every opinion, especially to two strangers who, despite what they were, had been nothing but helpful. It was hardly as if the children or I would take harm—after all we had seen—from the sight of a single touch, which might even to innocent minds look innocent.
“I see I’d be wasting my breath,” Anweth said, and he turned away from me. “Yes,” he called to Rathin, “Let’s let the lady go.”
“What did you say to him?” Caris murmured to me as I led the children away.
“An irrelevant truth,” I answered wearily. Caris was one of the eldest of my children, not only in age; for a long time she’d had no choice but to accept some weaknesses in those she relied on.
The rest of the day was a long walk. We weren’t followed; perhaps Rathin and Anweth had taken a different path, or stopped to rest, or perhaps the Crimson Standard had crossed the river after all. It wasn’t any of our business anymore.
We went without a fire that evening, sitting close with blankets on our shoulders for warmth. Caris knelt beside me, Esma and Wimar falling asleep in our laps. She spoke quietly so as not to disturb them.
“Those men today were helpful. Even if they were ex-mercenaries. It was a…surprise, but a pleasant one.”
Her expression was impossible to read in the dark. Perhaps it was only my guilty imagination making her soft words accusing?
“They were lovers,” I said.
“That’s a large assumption to make just because two men are very easy around each other—”
“The way they touched made me suspect. When I voiced my suspicions to the wizard, he didn’t deny them.”
“Still,” Caris said, “it seems a small enough thing. If you hadn’t already disliked them for their history—”
“Why does it matter?” I hissed. “Rogues or inverts, you can’t expect me to sing their praises just because we left their company unharmed. Is it too much for me to ask honesty and decency in a person before I respect them?”
Caris was quiet a long time, Esma resting peacefully in her arms. She rubbed the child’s back, and at last she said, “When you took me in, I had nowhere else to go. I’d fled my home after soldiers burst in on us one night. They…before my family’s eyes…I thought I’d die of shame at the time, but I lived. Deep down, beneath the pain and humiliation, I was proud of that. And then my father and mother gave me a knife. They expected me to cut my wrists, to die for my lost honor. So long as I lived with them my humiliation was a lasting disgrace on my family.
“So I left. They asked too much for the sake of decency.”
“Such decency,” I said, “sounds entirely indecent.”
“It seems so clear to us, doesn’t it? It’s more important to spare others harm than to live unblemished.” Caris sighed. “The logic of my own thoughts sometimes leads me to unexpected places. Uncomfortable ones. And certainly not very honorable.”
“But what makes honor, Caris? You have strength and courage. Even if I cannot see the entire world with the same eyes you do, I know you’re worthy of the respect of anyone you meet.”
“Yet how few show it,” she murmured. She was given to introspection and sometimes melancholy, and none of my words could draw her from it now. I pressed her hand, offering comfort.
Light and sound erupted around us. Several of the children cried out. I kept a rein on my tongue, but leapt high enough to almost shake Wimar from my arms.
The wizard, Anweth, stood before me in a blaze of silver light. His voice echoed around the clearing. “Trimeya Kaduran, you must go. The Crimson Standard is following your path. We’re trying to hold them back, as long as possible—” His voice fell into a groan, pain and fear thick in the sound. His image folded over and vanished.
Caris was on her feet, Esma clinging to her skirts. I passed Wimar to her and went around the clearing, gathering the children together and soothing them, collecting my own nerves somewhere along the way.
“I know you’re tired,” I said, “but we have to start walking again. Another few miles, and we can sleep for the rest of the night.”
“With the Crimson Standard after us?” Doran asked.
I spoke to him in a low voice. “They won’t come after us tonight. They take prisoners when they can, and kill them slowly. They have—” The names caught in my throat; I shook my head sadly. “But at least the wizard sent us warning. They’ve protected us to the end.”
Yet my stomach clenched at the thought that it was far from over.
Doran closed his eyes with a deep, strengthening breath. Caris appeared beside him, already calm. She pressed Esma and Wimar to me. Her expression was composed and deliberate.
“No, Caris,” I told her before she could say a word.
“You’re right, we have to save the children. It’s what Rathin and Anweth would sacrifice themselves for. But I—I can’t—my own strain of honor won’t let me leave them unaided.”
“You couldn’t! Caris, a young woman like you in the Crimson Standard’s midst would be—”
“I know the sort of thing they might do,” she said coldly. “They have several interesting innovations for the torture of men. Did you know that?”
“I forbid you to go, Caris.” Our eyes met by starlight. She was about to refuse me. I said, “I’ll do it.”
Doran gasped, as if he could take my words from the air.
“A graying-haired woman like me would be of less interest to them,” I said, half-trying to convince myself. “And I…Caris, you are strong and honorable. Doran is kind and wise. The world needs people like you, and the children, and… Anyway, I’m only a sour person with good intentions. Much more easily spared.”
I took the purse from my belt and gave it to Caris, and wrapped my blanket around Esma’s shoulders. “I’ll follow you…if I can. Wait for me, if you will, somewhere safe. Good luck, my loves.”
I kissed each of them goodbye and, as they disappeared down the starlit road, I turned my own steps back the way we had come.
The Crimson Standard had a fire, larger than a cottage hearth, with their bloodstained banners wafting in the heated air above it. On a frame nearby, two prisoners were bound. Rathin’s wrists looked raw from struggling. Anweth hung still beside him, eyes covered by a woven leather band wrapped cruelly tight. The weaving chilled me to look at—a wizard’s blind, keeping his powers in check.
Most spells relied on words, if not also elaborate gestures, intricate symbols and arcane ingredients. A gag was enough to keep most wizards in check. But Amathan captors try to leave their playthings free to scream.
I wiped damp hands on my skirt and walked into the firelight.
Bright-eyed faces above solid red tunics turned to me, split into grins and laughter. They were surprised. It was my only advantage, that and the fact that I was pureblooded, golden-skinned and raven-haired Amathan. We had in common a superiority over any lesser people.
Rathin started when he got a good look at me, but nobody noticed and he had no reason to reveal our prior connection.
That was my part of the plan, just forming as I stood there. “I see you’ve come across the mercenary scum staining these words,” I said to the Crimson Standard. The ease with which I hit that tone of contempt did not leave me proud.
“That, and an honored matron,” said one man, gray-haired and scarred, who must be the leader of the band—until the day came when he fell in battle to be replaced by an equally ruthless successor. He seemed less than convinced of my honor, but also content to let me speak.
“A matron with no home,” I said sourly. “My village burned by marauding monsters like those two there. I’ve seen children terrorized and old men slain by their kind. These two in particular…”
“You have history.” The Standard’s leader raised his eyebrows, taken aback or perhaps amused by my venom.
“Yes,” I said. “Are you going to kill them?”
“In time,” he said easily.
“Let me help.”
The few chuckles greeting my request were warm, even approving.
“Would you like something to eat first?” one man asked.
Any reply I could make to that—I hunger only for revenge, perhaps—seemed a little overdone, so I only shook my head in stern silence. And held out my hand for a knife.
The leader took one from a block beside the fire. A butcher’s blade, thick and jagged, but with a fine sharp tip. He took my arm as if escorting a fine lady, and led me to the prisoners on the frame.
“We’ll give you one,” he said. “Do what you wish, make it as thorough as you like—or can.”
The slight against my torturing abilities I ignored. I reached again for the knife.
He let me take it, but stood studying me. “You must have noble blood,” he remarked. “The serf class seems to have lost their taste for these diversions. Has their rage burned out, I wonder? Or only their courage?”
“If it’s noble to hate, I am noble,” I said. “Will you give me the wizard?”
The leader stepped back, letting me approach Anweth. Beside him, Rathin watched me with a blank look, as if in shock or horror.
“Do you know,” I said, slowly, sourly, “what these two are to each other? The things they do to each other?”
The leader backed away farther, out of reach. As if afraid my disgust and hatred would boil over onto everyone around me. All the Crimson Standard were watching, hardly breathing. Some smiled, but some looked wary. As if their own tenets, when spoken from my mouth soaked in rage, made them uneasy.
“There’s nothing worth sparing here,” I said, stepping very close to Anweth. I raised the blade and willed my hand to be steady.
I slashed at the wizard’s blind, severing it over his brow. The blade nicked his skin, drawing a line of blood, but even as the pain stung him so did his power. With a gasp, he seized it and unleashed it in a string of liquid words. The ropes binding him and Rathin slithered off as if in revulsion.
I caught Rathin as he stumbled free. Anweth was already standing, flinging an arm out, shouting something. An acid white glow filled my vision, like silent lightning striking the ground beside me. Now Rathin was the one holding me, guiding me through the camp even as I blinked away shadows. He must have recognized the spell and shut his eyes before it struck. The Crimson Standard, unprepared, reeled blindly around us.
Rathin found his sword leaning beside the leader’s chair. He drew it and looked around.
“No time for that,” Anweth said beside us.
Rathin followed him into the forest with a curse. I threw him a look of understanding. I wouldn’t have minded if a few of the Crimson Standard had been cut down there and then.
At a final word from Anweth, the fire swelled, tongues grabbing for the banners hanging over them. They caught, and flames raced down the standard poles. They fell, burning, catching men beneath and between them. The conflagration spread to tents, supplies, uniforms.
“Was that war magic?” I panted to Anweth as we ran away.
“No,” he said. “Just a spell for lighting fires—magnified, I admit. But I’m not a war wizard anymore.” He slowed at one point, gasping in breath. “So you…ah…”
“It would have been dishonorable to have abandoned you after the help you offered us,” I said.
“I wasn’t certain at the time that you didn’t mean it.” He touched his forehead, wincing as his fingers found the cut. I offered him a handkerchief to stanch it.
“All things considered,” I said, “you’re not a bad sort. Neither of you are.”
He studied me, and said at last, “You aren’t, either, Aunt Trimeya.”
We caught up with the children by dawn, and as there was only one road through the forest, we took it together. In the end we parted at Surannah, a small village sending some wagons of extra produce up along the caravan route to Sarnost’an in the mountains. The carters welcomed the presence of a friendly wizard and swordsman. Rathin seemed no less pleased.
“It’s been too long since we’ve been caravan guards,” he said.
Doran would continue south, to his uncle’s family. For the time being I would go with him, and of course the children would come with me.
Caris found Rathin and Anweth as we were bidding farewell, and asked if she could travel with them.
“Not, of course, that I’d need your permission to travel with the caravan. I’ve talked to the carters and they already welcomed me.” She tossed her head and smiled. Utterly without shame. “But to have some companions, someone to look to for assistance or advice…”
“And how could we possibly assist you?” Anweth smiled.
“Your companionship, then. At least to Sarnost’an.”
“That you can have.” Rathin grinned and offered her his hand.
Before taking it, she turned to me.
“You don’t need my permission,” I said.
“No, but I’d like it, if you would give it.”
I kissed her forehead. “I can think of no one else I’d be happier to entrust you with.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“So what are your plans for Sarnost’an?” Anweth asked her as I walked away.
“I’m not sure yet. Perhaps I’ll open a shop, settle down.”
“Marry?” In a voice so low I had to strain to hear it—and I did, I admit, eager to catch these last hints of Caris’s future—Anweth continued teasingly, “Do you expect our advice on that? Help you find the best man? Because our opinions may—”
“Not necessarily.” She laughed. “I don’t need matchmakers, even if you’d be willing to play them. And even if I did… The first time I ever fell in love was three summers ago. Her name was Isema. I was too shy to admit it at first, but now that I know…”
Perhaps she meant for me to hear. But I think not. She laughed, utterly carefree, unselfconscious.
And yet, why should she be anything else? She was among friends who loved and admired her. She knew, and she must have trusted that we all did, that she had never done anything to be ashamed of, anything but what was decent and honorable.