An epic young-adult fantasy written under my pseudonym E.C. Blake and published by Shadowpaw Press.
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Chapter One: Cabbages and Caravans
“Oof!” With a grunt, Petra lifted another basket full of cabbages to shoulder-height, wondering how every basket could be heavier than the one before when they all held the same number of cabbages. He lugged the basket to the storewagon. As he dumped the vegetables into the wagon bed, he gave Cort a glare that should have called down Blue Fire from Vekrin and fried the other boy on the spot. But Cort, his fellow Priest-Apprentice, his roommate, and supposedly his friend, remained disappointingly unfried.
He also remained unhelpful while Petra continued to carry cabbages to the wagon. He didn’t even look around to watch Petra work. Cort remained entirely focused on a pretty, brown-eyed, barefoot serving girl, talking to her in a low voice while she smiled at him and twirled a strand of her long blonde hair on her finger.
It seemed that whenever Petra and Cort were sent to the market to bring back fresh food for the Temple kitchens, Petra alone focused on the produce. Cort had eyes only for the girls.
Petra didn’t see much future in talking to some servant lass he’d likely never see again. Girls weren’t allowed in the Grand Temple of Vekrin. He’d have plenty of time to talk to girls when he turned eighteen in a couple of years. Though still a Priest-Apprentice, he would be allowed to roam the city more or less at will during his free time.
It wasn’t that he didn’t think about girls—he thought about them quite a lot—it was just that there was very little he could do about those thoughts.
He groaned and threaded his way back through the crowded market, sprawled along the east wall of City Primaxis. At the farmer’s canvas-shaded stand, he refilled his basket for the umpteenth time. The Temple cooks required cabbages in rather alarming numbers. The wives and servants who bustled through the market shopping for their household needs could just pick a couple of heads off of the farmer’s table. Petra, and theoretically Cort, had to buy dozens.
This time, when Petra returned to the wagon, Cort met him with an empty basket. He put it on the ground and held out his hands. “Here, I’ll take your cabbages,” he said brightly. “You take the empty basket and fill it up again.”
Petra stared at him suspiciously. “Are you ill?”
“No, I feel great.” Cort kept his arms outstretched.
Petra handed him the full basket, and Cort’s eyes widened as his arms drooped. “Hey, these things are heavy!”
“Really? I never noticed.” Petra bent over and picked up the empty basket. As he started for the farmer’s stand again, he glanced back to see Cort picking up heads one at a time from the basket at his feet and placing them carefully and individually into the wagon, rather than dumping the whole basketful in at once. Petra rolled his eyes and returned to work.
When Petra returned with another full basket, Cort again traded him his empty basket. As he did the time after that. And the time after that. When adding one more cabbage would have caused the wagon to overflow, Petra paid the farmer with silver coins. He returned to the wagon to find Cort standing on the spokes of one of the wheels, fussing over the load. As Petra climbed into the seat and took the reins, the other boy clambered up beside him, giving the cabbages a last searching glance.
Petra looked around. “Where’d that girl go?”
Cort shrugged. “Disappeared!” Then he flashed a grin. “Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s roll! These cabbages aren’t getting any fresher!”
Petra stared at him for a moment. Then he shook his head and flicked the reins.
The placid grey carthorse started a slow plod down the market’s main path, framed by vendors’ stands. Despite Cort’s strange urgency, they couldn’t move quickly through the crowds. The horse, used to the press of humans, was careful not to step on anyone. People got out of the way eventually, but so slowly that foot traffic kept passing them.
At the edge of the market, finally free of the crowds, Petra turned the wagon toward the Great Gate in the north wall, only to find himself facing a new obstacle. A long line of brightly painted wagons trundled straight at him. With no room on the narrow dirt road for two wagons abreast, he urged the long-suffering horse to one side.
“Freefolk!” Cort said. “I didn’t know they were due today!”
“Well, it’s not like they tell the Priests they’re coming,” Petra said. “Since they hate us.”
Cort looked at the cabbages. “I hope they don’t take too long to get out of our way.”
The lead wagon approached, driven by a grey-haired giant of a man whose eyes never turned from the path. Next to him sat a girl about Petra’s age, wearing black trousers and a dark-green tunic, her long black hair pulled back into a practical ponytail. The blue gem in the hilt of a sheathed dagger at her hip glittered in the sun. So did her blue eyes, which flicked from Cort to Petra, appraising them and dismissing them in the same instant. She turned her gaze forward again as the wagon rolled past.
“Cute,” Cort said. He leaned closer to Petra. “I’ve heard the Freefolk have wanton women who dance naked for City-dwellers,” he whispered. “I wonder if she’s one of them?”
Petra shot him a skeptical look. “Naked?”
“That’s what I heard.”
Petra snorted. “Sounds like wishful thinking.”
“My cousin says he saw it.” Cort scratched the back of his head. “’Course, he might have exaggerated. He does that.”
“Doesn’t matter anyway,” Petra said. “It’s not like we’ll ever see it. Priests of Vekrin are forbidden from entering Freefolk camps. Our god wouldn’t like it.”
Cort sighed. “I know. But a man can dream, can’t he?” He glanced at the cabbages yet again.
Petra watched the rest of the wagons sway and creak past, red and blue, yellow and green, gold and silver, shining in the sun. Fully enclosed, many had shuttered windows and small chimneys, like small houses on wheels. A few—grim and grey and sealed and locked—must have carried stores, or possibly weapons. And then there were the strangest ones of all, with curving tops completely covered in what looked like sheets of black glass and driven by pairs of stern-looking women in yellow robes.
Petra felt uneasy as those yellow-clad women turned unfriendly gazes his way. Freefolk Wise Women. Priestesses of the goddess Arrica.
Actually, “heretics” was one of the nicer things City-dwellers typically called Freefolk. Other popular slurs were “shiftless,” “thieves,” and “immoral.” Yet despite the mistrust the Citydwellers felt toward the Freefolk, Primaxis depended on them. Visiting Freefolk brought news, travellers, and luxury goods to each city of Nevyana from the other cities that were strung like gems on a necklace along the King’s Way. Petra couldn’t think of them without hearing the sing-song rhyme children were taught even before they could read. It named each city from south to north: “Primaxis, Otraxis, Trexis, Ceturxis, Pentaxis, Saxtixis, Septixis, Octixis, Nonixis, Desmixis, Viandaxis, Divpaxis, these are the god’s twelve cities.”
Only Freefolk could safely camp after dusk outside the walls of the cities and villages. Each night, as they travelled their secret routes through the woods far from the King’s Way, they erected a mystical Fence of Blue Fire to protect them from the depredations of murderous Nightdwellers. Like the Fire Curtain that surrounded the Temple, the Fence would strike dead anyone who touched it. However, the Curtain drew its power from the giant Godstone at the Temple’s heart, tons of solid, immovable rock intricately engraved with magical symbols, whereas the Freefolk Fence was portable. The Priests assumed the strange glass-topped wagons had something to do with powering the Fence, but the Wise Women no more told the Priests their secrets than the Priests told theirs to the Wise Women.
Those who didn’t travel with the Freefolk could only hope to survive a night on the road through force of arms, and even that was no guarantee. More than one heavily guarded caravan had vanished without a trace. So, too, had every expedition of the Unbound, a strange new cult whose members rejected the authority of king and god and goddess alike. The Unbound claimed they were travelling west beyond the mountains to settle a new land, although what kind of settlement could be made with maybe one woman for every ten men, Petra didn’t understand. The cities’ rulers let them go—to rid themselves of troublemakers, Petra suspected. He and Cort had discussed it and figured the Nightdwellers killed and probably ate the Unbound before they’d travelled more than a day or two.
“Uncooked Unbound,” Cort had joked. “Yum!”
Two armed men on horseback brought up the rear of the Freefolk caravan. Once they had ridden by, Petra urged the horse back onto the road. They rolled north for a couple of hundred yards, the massive city wall looming to their west, sixty feet tall and ten feet thick. City guards stared down at them from the battlements of the giant round tower at the city’s northeast corner as they rounded it and turned west into the glare of the afternoon sun.
After four or five hundred yards, the road they followed joined the King’s Way, created by Vekrin himself. Paved with smooth, unbroken white stone that had not cracked or discoloured in all the centuries since it was laid, the King’s Way led from Primaxis to the destroyed city of Divpaxis, hundreds of miles to the north. For most of that distance, it followed the Great River, which also wound through Primaxis before rolling out the southern end of the city into the farmlands and wilderness beyond.
The King’s Way bypassed most of the cities, curving around their walls, but it led directly to the Great Gate of Primaxis. Petra and Cort drove up to that gate, which was flanked on either side by two more giant towers. About a third of the way up those towers, a matched pair of crossbowmen stood on wooden platforms extending from the stone. They watched the comings and goings below.
The guards who concerned them, though, stood at ground level. They were far from a matched set. The one on the left was tall and stout, the one on the right short and skinny. Both wore red surcoats over silver mail, the surcoats marked with the king’s twelve-pointed golden crown. The same crown also gleamed on the towering timbers of the two halves of the gate itself.
“Hi, you two,” said the bigger of the pair. “Got your cabbages, I see.”
“Did you see the Freefolk pulling in?”
“Had to get out of their way on the road,” Petra said. “How long are they here for?”
“A few days.” The guard grinned. “In fact, I’m looking forward to visiting their show tent later tonight.”
“Is it true the girls dance naked?” Cort blurted.
Both of the guards laughed. “Someone’s been telling you tall tales,” said the portly one.
“But they are a bit scantily clad,” the skinny guard put in. “Too bad you lads won’t get to see.” He winked at his companion.
Cort’s face fell.
The first guard laughed again. “Get on inside, you two. You’ve got starving Priests waiting for those cabbages.” He made a face. “Although personally, I’d rather starve.”
Petra shared his opinion of cabbages but kept the thought to himself. It wouldn’t do for a mere Priest-Apprentice to criticize the Temple’s cuisine. He flicked the reins and drove the wagon through the open gate and up the broad boulevard beyond, which lead straight to the king’s palace, atop the hill at the southern end of the city. The Temple lay off to their left, about halfway to the palace, isolated in a vast green field, a visual reminder that the Priests were a breed apart, that they were concerned with the worship of Vekrin and not with the everyday mundane concerns of ordinary Citydwellers.
Shops and houses lined the street. Many were shuttered, and a few in ruins, emptied by the plague that had ravaged Primaxis when Petra was a toddler. His mother had been among the dead. He had no memory of her.
Each of the cities and every village and town in between had similarly suffered, some even more than Primaxis. Some villages had been completely destroyed—not by the plague but by the Nightdwellers, who came howling in as the defenders fell ill.
Petra and Cort trundled up to the gate leading into the Temple courtyard, first passing between the tallest of the sigil-inscribed posts surrounding the entire complex. At night, the Fire Curtain’s blue glimmer filled the spaces between all the posts, protecting the Temple from any possible attack. Not that either Nightdwellers or Freefolk could possibly penetrate the city to mount such an attack, but the Great God Vekrin’s commandment was unequivocal: every night, the Fire Curtain must protect the Temple. And so, every night, it sprang to blue, shimmering life.
The Temple itself had a few small doors opening directly through the wall into the greensward on three of its sides, making it pretty much impossible to defend when the Fire Curtain wasn’t active. Because of that, Petra thought the main purpose of the courtyard wall, and the guard now holding up a hand to halt them, was to keep a close watch on wayward Priest-Apprentices.
Petra tugged the reins to stop the wagon. The guard came to his side of the wagon and looked up at him. “You were gone longer than I expected.”
“Held up by the Freefolk caravan.”
The guard nodded. “Right. Heard they were here.” He stepped back. “Well, you’d better get those cabbages to the—”
A muffled sneeze came from behind Petra. Startled, he glanced over his shoulder.
There was no one there.
Petra felt a sudden sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach as the guard, eyes narrowed, stepped forward again. “Who sneezed?”
“Sorry!” Cort sniffed and wiped his nose. “Allergic to cabbages!”
“It wasn’t you,” the guard growled. “Or Petra.” He walked down the side of the wagon and peered into the back. Petra gave Cort another scathing look, but once again, to his great annoyance, Vekrin failed to incinerate his “friend.”
The guard reached in and shoved a few of the leafy green balls around. His eyes widened. He reached deeper.
“Hey!” A blonde female head suddenly erupted through the mounded cabbages. “Keep your hands to yourself!”
Petra closed his eyes and clenched his jaw to keep from swearing. He took a deep breath. Then he opened his eyes again and glared at his roommate. “Really?”
The girl struggled to her feet, waist-deep in produce. She pulled a green leaf from her hair and tossed it aside. “Are we inside yet?” she said to Cort. “Can you show me all the wonders of the Temple now?”
Cort looked at the guard. “Ummm . . . I don’t suppose I could convince you she climbed in on her own, and I had nothing to do with what happened?”
The guard glowered at him.
Cort sighed. “No, I didn’t think so.”
The guard picked the girl up by her slim waist, pulled her out of the wagon, and swung her to the ground. “Go home,” he said. “No women allowed in the Temple.”
“Oh.” She sounded disappointed. “But Cort said—”
“Cort,” the guard said, “made a mistake.”
“You can say that again,” Petra muttered.
“’Bye,” Cort said cheerfully to the girl. “I’ll look for you next market!”
The girl gave a tentative wave and then dashed off like a scalded cat as the guard took a step toward her. Then he turned to Petra and Cort. “Deliver your cabbages. Then report to the Master of Apprentices for punishment.”
“Yes, sir.” Petra flicked the reins, and the carthorse lumbered back into motion. He glared again at his roommate. “Cort, you—”
“‘If you don’t try, you can’t succeed,’” Cort said, quoting an old proverb. He grinned. “Hey, it almost worked.”
Petra shook his head. Cort would never change. He had a hard time imagining his friend as a full-fledged Priest. I hope the Priesthood survives. Be a shame if centuries of traditions came crashing down because of Cort.
He glanced at the sky. Well, Vekrin hasn’t struck him down with Blue Fire, so I guess He isn’t worried.
They rolled forward to face their punishment.
Chapter Two: The Wisest
Amlinn watched the bustling market roll past as her grandfather, Clan Leader Dainann, led the Freefolk caravan to its campground outside City Primaxis. Her eyes flicked over two boys about her age, watching from a grey wagon loaded with cabbages. They wore the blue tunics and trousers of Priest-Apprentices. She felt a fleeting pang of sympathy for their sad lives, trapped in the Temple day after day, trapped in the city even after they grew up.
But they disappeared from her mind almost the instant she saw them. With every yard they travelled, the time grew nearer to the premiere of the new dance she had been working on with the Sun Organist, Annjia, since they’d rolled away from City Trexis two weeks before. Last night, in the privacy of the rehearsal tent, he’d told her he’d never seen her dance better. Tonight, she would perform the dance for the first time in front of an audience.
Citydwellers. Like the ones in Trexis who . . .
She shook her head. She couldn’t let her anger at what had happened in Trexis affect her performance tonight. She should be thinking only of her dance, not of those who would witness it.
But first, she had to think about chores. Leaving the market behind, the wagons rolled into the open meadow where the Freefolk always camped. Every city had a similar clearing outside its walls, and every clan knew it intimately. The wagons spread out, each to its accustomed place, and the Freefolk set about making themselves at home.
For Amlinn, that meant jumping down and seeing to the horses, freeing them from the shafts of the wagon, giving them a good brushing, and then feeding them the mixture of oats and corn they’d earned. Once they’d been groomed and fed, she would release them to graze in the corral that was even then being made of rope strung between posts driven into the ground.
Grandfather hopped down the moment the wagon stopped moving and headed off to hear the outriders’ reports. The outriders ranged ahead, behind, and to each side of the caravan, watching for unusual activity, especially signs of Nightdweller activity. He returned just as Amlinn tugged a heavy feed sack out of the storage compartment in the bottom of the wagon. She let it thud to the ground and then undid the hook holding the hinged compartment open. It banged shut. “There’s only one more sack of feed left, Grandfather,” she said, looking up at him.
“We’re all short because of leaving Trexis so abruptly,” Grandfather said. “I’ve sent Orinn and his boys to the market.”
Amlinn pulled at the sack’s string to open it. The rich smell from the sticky mixture of oats and corn, laced with molasses, made her stomach grumble. It smelled good enough for her to eat, never mind horses. She took down the first of two nosebags hung on the side of the wagon and the wooden scoop that dangled between them. Then she jammed the scoop into the feed sack with considerably more force than was really required. “I wish we didn’t have to buy anything from the market,” she muttered. “After what happened in Trexis . . .” She pulled out the full scoop and dumped its contents into the nosebag. “We’re supposed to be ‘free’ folk. But we’re dependent on the cities for so many things. Even though they hate us.”
“You can’t blame all the Citydwellers for a few louts in Trexis,” Grandfather said mildly. “And remember, we’ve got eight wagons full of trade goods from the north that we’ll be delivering into Primaxis tomorrow. The Citydwellers depend on us just as much as we depend on them.”
“They don’t seem to realize it.” Amlinn scooped out another helping of feed. The “louts” in Trexis had jumped a couple of Freefolk boys as they’d hurried out of the city at dusk, beating them bloody. The city guards put a stop to it, and her grandfather protested strongly to the city authorities, but the consensus among the Freefolk was that the attackers had probably been let off with little more than a warning.
“King Stobor realizes it,” Grandfather said. “The Priests of Vekrin realize it, though they don’t like it, what with us being ‘heretics’ and all. They hate the fact the Goddess’s gift of the sunscales and the Blue Fire Fence protects us wherever we go, while they are bound to their clumsy Godstones. But without us, they would not enjoy the wines of Pentaxis or the fine cloths of Desmixis or a thousand other luxuries.” He smiled at Amlinn. “And without the cities, neither would we.”
Amlinn thought privately that the Goddess Arrica could have done a lot more to set her chosen people free than simply giving them a protective fence. That was its own kind of heretical thought, so she said nothing out loud. They might call themselves Freefolk, free to roam wherever they wanted in all the wide world, but in practice, all they did was travel the length of Nevyana, from Primaxis in the south to Viandaxis, the northernmost city still inhabited.
The Freefolk camped outside the city walls, not inside them. They hunted and fished as they travelled, but their nomadic lifestyle did not lend itself to agriculture, so they had to buy food and wine and horse feed and a hundred other things from the cities. They were not nearly as free as they liked to think.
Still, we’re better off than those living inside the walls, she thought, recalling the Priest-Apprentices she’d just seen on their wagon full of cabbages.
“You premiere your new dance tonight, do you not?” Grandfather asked. He probably thought he was changing the subject, but her dancing, though she loved it dearly, was another thing that tied them to the cities, and another thing the attack by the Trexis boys had cast in a new light. In addition to trade, the Freefolk’s other source of income was entertainment—jugglers and singers and fire-eaters and acrobats and instrumentalists and, yes, dancers. Amlinn’s mother had danced. Amlinn’s most precious memories of her mother—and she had very few memories at all—were of her leaping and twisting on the show tent stage to the music of the Sun Organ.
The better-received the entertainment, the more money the Citydwellers would give the Clan, and the more necessities and even, occasionally, luxuries the Clan could buy.
Amlinn loved to dance, loved the way music flowed through her body. But she also knew that the best way to ensure a good reception from the Citydwellers who came to the Freefolk show tent —mostly men—was to wear as little as possible. And so tonight, when she danced the new dance she loved so much, she would do so half-naked, trying not to think about what was going through the minds of the men in the audience as they watched her.
She knew Grandfather would not object if she chose not to dance. She’d had to overcome his resistance in the first place. He had never liked the fact her mother had danced, either. “I don’t like to think of men ogling you,” he had told Amlinn two years ago when she had first broached the idea.
“Mom danced,” Amlinn argued. “I’ve watched other dancers. Who cares what the Citydwellers think? I want to dance like Mom. It helps me feel closer to her. It helps me remember her.”
Grandfather had hemmed and hawed but finally consented.
“Who cares what Citydwellers think?” had proved to be a harder question than she originally thought. She’d been taught how to take care of herself. She could fight, and she always carried a knife when she wasn’t on stage, but if she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and a group of city “louts” caught her alone . . .
Those thoughts went through her mind in an instant. But all she said to Grandfather was, “Yes. It’s come together really well. I can’t wait for you to see it.”
“And I can’t wait to see it.” He gave her a small, crooked smile. “You’re looking more like your mother all the time, you know. I . . .” His voice trailed off. He cleared his throat. “I’d best go check on the fellows setting up the show tent. There might be some patching to do before tonight.” He glanced toward the city. The market, so busy and full of life not long before, had already largely vanished. Only a few vendors still raced to collapse their stalls, load their carts, and hurry inside the sheltering walls before nightfall. The sun had vanished early behind a rising wall of dark grey clouds. “Looks like it’s going to rain,” Grandfather commented, then headed off toward the centre of the camp.
Fifteen minutes later, with the horses seen to at last and the light quickly fading, Amlinn sought out Samarrind, Wisest of the Wise Women of Arrica.
As she crossed the camp, she glimpsed Grandfather by the show tent, carefully examining the canvas as the crew stood by. Before she reached the yellow-clad Wise Women, who were beginning to set up the Fence, the tent started to rise, its bright colours dimmed by the darkening sky.
Samarrind, shorter and slighter of build than Amlinn but white-haired with age, knelt in the dirt with her wagon-partner, Milla, herself twenty years Amlinn’s senior. Milla leaned back to wipe her brow and gave Amlinn a friendly wave before continuing to scoop out a shallow depression. Then she picked up the Fence’s keystone, resting at her side, and placed it in the depression. The complex twining shape of the copper-filled sigil carved into the black stone glinted dully in the grey light.
Samarrind slowly straightened her back, grimacing. “Daughter,” she greeted Amlinn. “How was your day?”
“Long. Boring,” Amlinn said.
Milla climbed to her feet, brushing the dirt from her hands, and helped Samarrind stand, too. The Wisest looked down at the half-buried keystone. “Very good.” Then she turned to survey the rest of the camp.
Other pairs of Wise Women worked on either side of them, about fifty steps in each direction. To their right, one of the women waved. A moment later, so did one to their left. Samarrind nodded. “The circle is complete. The lesser Fencestones are in place.” She glanced west toward the rain clouds that swept ever nearer. “The sun is almost down. Step aside, Milla, and I will activate the keystone.”
Milla took three steps back.
Though the gathering clouds were impenetrable to Amlinn’s vision, she knew that whether the sun was visible or not, Samarrind could tell to within a few seconds exactly when it would set each day.
“Almost time,” Samarrind murmured. She knelt, and from beneath her robes drew a rod about the length and diameter of Amlinn’s little finger, made of copper engraved with delicate, intricate symbols. She closed her eyes. “Almost.”
Amlinn might have been imagining it, but it seemed to her that the gathering twilight darkened at the same instant that Samarrind touched the rod to the sigil of the Fence’s keystone.
With a crackle, the Fence sprang to life, and a wall of glowing blue light surrounded the Freefolk camp. The hair on Amlinn’s head and arms stirred as though alive, and a sharp smell assailed her nostrils. Some Freefolk claimed to hate it, but she loved that odour. It meant the Fence was working. It meant the Nightdwellers couldn’t get in.
It meant tonight, no children would lose their parents to the monsters of the forest.
Twelve years ago, Amlinn had awakened to the terrifying sound of grown-ups screaming. Her parents had been just outside their wagon, enjoying wine and conversation with friends around the fire. The Nightdwellers had found a tree loosened by some recent storm and pushed it over. It crashed into the roof of one of the wagons, forming a ramp and opening a gap in the top of the Fence. Even as the tree burst into flames, the Nightdwellers raced up and over it, taking the Freefolk by surprise.
Everyone around the fire, five men and four women, had died horribly, torn limb from limb. Amlinn and four other children were orphaned in that moment. Not far away, three more women had died trying to protect their children, to no avail: three boys and two girls, all under the age of seven, had likewise perished. The Nightdwellers, four furred, screaming beasts, were slain with crossbows and their bodies flung unceremoniously over the Fence as a warning to their fellows in the forest, but far, far too late.
Except for the screaming, Amlinn’s only other memory of that night was Samarrind kneeling beside her, wiping her tears, and giving her Sisspeth, the small rag doll she’d kept in her bed ever since. The Wisest had picked her up and told her to close her eyes. Then she’d swiftly carried Amlinn away. That night, Samarrind had cared for and comforted her. Though Amlinn had soon moved into her grandfather’s wagon, Samarrind had continued to care for and comfort her ever since.
Now, with the Fence glowing blue, Amlinn moved forward and held out her hand to the woman who had been the nearest thing she had had to a mother for most of her life. Samarrind took it with a small smile and let Amlinn help her to her feet. She squeezed Amlinn’s fingers. Amlinn squeezed back before letting go and turning away to look toward the centre of the camp. Her throat constricted strangely, and she seemed to have something in her eyes. Dust, perhaps, from the rising wind beginning to whip the flags atop the show tent. “The east gate will re-open in a couple of hours,” Amlinn said, her voice rough. “The City-dwellers will descend upon us.”
“I know,” Samarrind said. “They will come to watch you dance.”
Amlinn heard the disapproval in Samarrind’s voice. It wasn’t what she needed to hear right then. “Will you?” she asked, not looking at the Wisest. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Please?”
“Why does it matter to you?” Samarrind said softly.
Amlinn turned to face her again. “Because I don’t dance for the Citydwellers,” she said fiercely. “I dance for myself. I dance . . . I dance for . . .” Her throat tried to squeeze shut on her words. “I dance for my parents. For Mom, who danced before me. The applause of the Citydwellers means nothing. But . . .” But if you would applaud, it would mean everything, she wanted to say. The words would not emerge.
Samarrind’s dark eyes studied her face. “You know I disapprove,” she said at last.
“I know.” Amlinn tried a small smile. “But truthfully, Samarrind, making me a Wise Woman would have been a very un-Wise thing to do.”
“On the contrary, I think you would have made a fine Wise Woman,” Samarrind said. “You showed great aptitude for learning our lore. You’re bright and self-assured.” She cocked her head to one side and smiled a little in a return. “It’s still not too late.”
Amlinn shook her head. “I dance, Samarrind. I’m learning to sing. I’m even writing music. It’s what I really love. I appreciate what you do, what all the Wise Women do, and of course, I love the Goddess, but it’s not the life for me.”
“Ah, well,” Samarrind said. “You’re still young. I will not give up hope yet.” She gave Amlinn’s face another searching look, then sighed and gazed past her to the show tent. “I wish I could watch you dance, Amlinn. For you, I wish so much I could. But I cannot.” She took a deep breath and once again met Amlinn’s gaze, her face framed by the blue glimmer of the Fence. “I have spoken out against this undignified practice of entertaining the Citydwellers, the Vekrin-followers, too often to make an exception. Even for you. And to listen to the Citydwellers’ lewd comments as you dance . . . no. I cannot, Amlinn.”
Amlinn stared at the ground. “I’m sorry for asking,” she said in a small voice.
“No,” Samarrind said. Her hand touched Amlinn under the chin and lifted her head. “No, do not be sorry, child. Dance as you have never danced before. Dance for your mother. Dance for yourself. Ignore the Citydwellers and their catcalls.” She smiled. “And someday, when we are far away from every city, dance for me. I would like that very much.”
Amlinn’s heart lifted. “So would I,” she breathed. “So would I.” She threw her arms around Samarrind. The Wisest’s small frame felt almost child-like in her embrace. “Thank you,” she whispered. Then a bell rang in the centre of the camp and Amlinn pulled back, clearing her throat. “Dinner. I’ll talk to you later and tell you how it went.”
Samarrind nodded. “Please.”
With a half-smile and a wave at the watching Milla, Amlinn turned and headed toward the fires blazing at the heart of the camp. As twilight deepened, the big tent glowed like a jewel from the sparkglobes within. A few tentative notes rose from the Sun Organ; Annjia, preparing for the evening’s program.
Amlinn looked west through the blue shimmer of the Fence to the walls of City Primaxis, little more than shadows in the vanishing light. Soon the city guards would re-open the east gate, which, like the Great Gate, closed at sunset. Crowds would stream toward the Freefolk camp, to sample exotic foods from the stalls being erected near the show tent, to buy goblets of exotic wines from the cities of the north, to buy broaches and earrings and scarves and a hundred other trinkets unavailable anywhere else . . . and, of course, to watch the musicians, jugglers, fire-eaters—and dancers.
To watch me, Amlinn thought. She hurried toward her dinner.
Chapter Three: The Gap
The night dripped, and Petra dripped with it.
For the fourteenth time, he passed the gate where the guard had discovered the girl beneath the cabbages. For the fourteenth time, he met Cort marching in the opposite direction. For the fourteenth time, Cort’s pace quickened. He didn’t look at Petra. Petra looked at him, but somehow the water soaking his friend still failed to burst into steam. Then the night swallowed Cort again, and Petra continued his endless, useless march around the Temple, “guarding” it against entirely hypothetical intruders who would promptly be fried by the Fire Curtain anyway if they were stupid enough to try to get past it. In which case, his and Cort’s entire function would be to call for Priests to cart away the charred bodies. Smaller victims, they had to deal with themselves. He’d already picked up three cooked birds and a crispy rat, tossing them into the bins located at each corner of the compound for disposal in the morning. “They take them straight to the cooks,” the Priest-Apprentices joked.
At least, Petra hoped they were joking.
If he were to touch it, the Curtain would turn him crispy, too, so he gave it a wide berth. It glowed on his right, a glowing, translucent wall of Blue Fire, hissing and steaming in the rain. Every twenty feet within its ghostly glimmer stood a thick square post of black wood. On the side facing the Temple, each post bore a magical sigil, a complex symbol cut into the wood and filled with gold. From each end of a crosspiece atop each post hung a sparkglobe, a glass sphere containing a bright tongue of Blue Fire. Supposedly, the sparkglobes lit his path around the Temple. In practice, especially in the rain, each illuminated only a small circle of ground, making the shadowed spaces between the posts appear even darker, the Blue Fire of the Curtain itself being far too dim to light much of anything.
Occasionally, the gloom was lit by distant lightning-like flashes from atop the dark bulk of the Temple. All around City Primaxis, magical Hearths took in that Blue Fire and turned it into the light and heat Petra was currently in such desperately short supply of.
As he and Cort passed each other at the gate, the rain redoubled its efforts to drown them. Even through the tin-roof patter of the drops on his steel helmet, Petra heard the Curtain hiss like a giant teakettle. Vast clouds of blue-tinged steam rose from it into the night.
The icy water poured over Petra’s helmet and down his neck. Useless and sodden, his blue woollen cloak hung heavy as lead from his mail-clad shoulders. His boots squelched with every step. His damp leather trousers chafed his thighs. He couldn’t even feel his fingers; they’d gone numb inside his soaked gloves eleven circuits ago.
They’d be nice and toasty wrapped around Cort’s neck. The fact that Cort was equally cold, wet, and miserable made his punishment a little easier to bear. Warming his fingers with a good long squeeze of his friend’s throat would have made it a lot easier to bear. But the Priests would make him do something even worse than this as punishment for murdering Cort, although he suspected they’d have a great deal of sympathy if he resorted to violence: they all knew Cort, too.
He swiped his sodden arm across his runny nose as he rounded the bin into which he’d earlier tossed the burnt rat, started down the backside of the Temple for the fourteenth time . . . and stopped.
Perhaps a hundred feet away, a patch of darkness interrupted the double line of sparkglobes and the steaming blue wall of the Curtain.
Heart suddenly racing, Petra blinked rain from his eyes. Sparkglobes did go black from time to time, the Blue Fire leaking through a flaw in the glass, but the Curtain? Never! Which meant someone must have deliberately opened that dark gap, to gain access to the Temple.
Someone who might still be inside.
He wouldn’t encounter Cort again until he’d rounded the far end of the Temple’s long, dark rear wall. For the moment, he was on his own.
He took a deep breath and started forward again, step by cautious step, grateful now for the rain, whose endless rush would surely mask the squish of his steps from the intruder.
There is no intruder, he tried to tell himself. How could there be an intruder? The Temple has never had an intruder.
Cort’s fault again, putting silly ideas into his head. Once every third fortnight, Cort received two days of leave to visit his parents, who ran the Three Stones Inn by the Great Gate. Last time, he’d come back with his cousin’s wild tale of naked dancing girls in the Freefolk camp—and an even wilder tale from a just-arrived traveller.
“Someone robbed the Temple in City Pentaxis,” Cort had whispered in the dark as they lay in their hard, narrow beds after lights-out.
“Robbed?” Petra whispered back. “And took what exactly?”
Petra shook his head. “The traveller was just trolling for free drinks. My father is First Keeper. He hasn’t said—”
“He wouldn’t, would he? What if a thief stole a firelance? That could start a panic.” Cort barely mouthed the words. The walls between rooms in the Priest-Apprentice’s dormitory were notoriously thin, and the outrageousness of his words could earn him a beating, or worse.
“You know what I think?” Cort continued, barely audible. “I think it’s tied up with that ‘Unbound’ cult. All those malcontents, packing up and heading off into the wilderness, claiming they’re going to start their own city. I figured they’d be Nightdweller food by now, but I’m starting to wonder.”
Petra had rolled over and said nothing more, but he’d stared into the blackness for a long time afterward, recalling the day a Priest had demonstrated the use of a firelance on a sheep carcass. He had learned many things about firelances that day. He knew they could only be used within the city walls and a short distance outside those walls, perhaps a quarter of a mile. He had learned one of the great secrets of the Priests of Vekrin: that it was not the blessings of the Priests that made the firelances work, but their careful construction and the magical sigils inscribed on their wooden shafts. Which meant that if someone stole a firelance, that person could not only use it within any city but also make more.
Such a person would not be using the weapons on sheep. The thought of a living man reduced to charred meat the same way that carcass had been was the stuff of nightmares.
There is no intruder, Petra told himself again as he drew almost level with the dark opening. If the Priests thought there was the slightest chance anyone would break into the Temple, they wouldn’t have put me and Cort—of all people!—on guard duty.
But even as he thought that, a low moan rose from the night beyond the Curtain.
Chapter Four: A Thief in the Night
Amlinn spun across the stage to the wild, wailing music of the Sun Organ, finger cymbals ringing, bare feet and arms and legs flashing in the light. The ruby in her navel, the coins hanging from her scarlet breast band and headband, and the silver bracelets on her wrists and ankles glittered with every turn. The wide-eyed faces of Citydwellers spun in and through and out of her vision, pale blotches in the light of the sparkglobes hanging above the stage.
And then, as abruptly as a slap, the music ended.
Amlinn stumbled to a halt, panting, her skin wet with sweat that could not evaporate in the steamy air. In the sudden silence, she heard the steady patter of rain on the canvas high above. She smelled sweat and frying meat and her own musky perfume—and something else: the sharp smell of Blue Fire, the same nostril-stinging scent she had welcomed when Samarrind activated the Fence.
She looked left toward Annjia, who poked futilely at the red, yellow, and black keys of the abruptly silenced Sun Organ. Then the sparkglobes flickered. Amlinn looked the other way, toward the sunwagon hidden from the audience behind the painted curtain that created wings for the stage. In the uncertain backstage light, the wagon’s sunscales glistened like wet stone. But somehow, the sunwagon looked wrong. It took her a moment to figure out why: a black-clad figure, a living shadow, knelt atop it, tugging furiously at a sunscale with both hands. As Amlinn watched open-mouthed, the intruder gave a final wrench and pulled the glass square free.
Blue Fire flashed, and the lights went out.
Men and women shouted and screamed. Almost at once, tiny new flecks of blue light pricked the blackness as Freefolk rushed into the tent carrying lightwands. But only Amlinn had been in position to see the cause of the blackout—a thief stealing a sunscale, the greatest secret of the Freefolk, the Gift of the Goddess Arrica.
The first rule of the Freefolk flashed through her mind: “When you see something that needs doing, do it!” If she took the time to find Grandfather, the intruder would escape. Amlinn leaped off the back of the stage into near-pitch darkness, alleviated only by a faint glow trickling through an opening in the back of the show tent—an opening that shouldn’t have been there. With another jolt of outrage, Amlinn realized the thief had slashed through the canvas to gain entrance.
She felt her way toward that opening, half crouched, her hands outstretched to keep from tripping over ropes and barrels and other odds and ends littering the backstage area. Even so, she banged her shin against something that boomed like a drum, carrying above the hubbub of the frightened audience, out of sight beyond the stage. At the same instant, a dark figure blotted out the light in the slashed opening. He—or she—paused as though listening, then darted out into the rain.
Less than a minute later, Amlinn also emerged into the sodden night, shivering as water ran down her bare arms and belly and soaked her thin skirt, which clung to her legs like a second, ice-cold skin. She shoved stringy tendrils of hair back up under her headband as her eyes darted this way and that.
There! Wearing a pack that surely contained the stolen sunscale, the thief—a man, she could see now—hurried toward the blue glow of the Fence. Except, in one spot, there was no blue glow. Somehow, he had slashed an opening in the Fence, too, just as he had in the canvas of the tent!
Terrified the gap would close behind him, Amlinn dashed after him, her bare feet splashing through puddles. The intruder had only to turn around and he would surely see her, but instead, he bolted toward the city. Amlinn ran after him, heart pounding. She stumbled once and fell headlong, barely catching herself in time to avoid getting a mouthful of mud. She staggered up and hurried on.
The intruder slowed as he neared the east gate. Again, Amlinn glanced behind her. She could run back, call out to the guards at the portal, to Grandfather, but by that time, the intruder would have vanished into the city, taking the precious sunscale . . . where?
To the Temple, Amlinn thought with a shock of bitter certainty. To the cursed Priests of Vekrin. Who else?
To prove her theory, though, she would have to witness the sunscale being delivered. And so, instead of running back to the camp for help, she ran the other way, toward the east gate, a single ironbound wooden door, standing open, framed by sparkglobes.
The intruder entered the city unimpeded. The hidden guards didn’t challenge Amlinn, either. With the Freefolk encamped, curfew had been extended, and people could freely come and go. There was no way she would ask the guard for help. Reveal to the Citydwellers that a thief had successfully stolen a sunscale from the Freefolk? Never. Samarrind would skin her alive.
She emerged from the dark tunnel through the wall onto the cobblestoned street beyond. Ahead, the thief passed through the pool of light cast by a sparkglobe atop a tall wooden post. Amlinn ducked into a shadowed doorway, arms wrapped tightly around herself, trying unsuccessfully to suppress her shivering.
The thief paused and looked back.
Amlinn gasped. He couldn’t see her while he was in the light and she was in the dark, could he?
For a long moment, he stood staring back in her direction. Then, abruptly, he turned and strode away. Amlinn took a deep breath through chattering teeth and slipped after him.
Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t get too close. Just watch, see where he goes, then go tell Grandfather.
She hurried on, avoiding the occasional sparkglobes, accompanied by the soft clinking of the coins on her costume, clinking she desperately hoped would not carry through the constant patter of the rain.
Ahead and to the left, blue light flickered. The storm had brought no lightning. Those flashes could only mean she was getting close to the Temple of Vekrin, and that meant her suspicions were correct. Those damned Priests! When Grandfather finds out . . . when Samarrind finds out . . .!
She dodged from doorway to doorway, her feet so cold that she couldn’t feel her toes, though not cold enough to numb the sharp edges of paving stones. Three blocks farther on, the thief slipped through a pool of light from a lone sparkglobe in front of a dilapidated two-story building. He turned left and disappeared behind the dark, shuttered structure.
Afraid she would lose her quarry, Amlinn abandoned all caution and ran, jingling, as fast as she could. She pulled up short just before she reached the corner. Breathing hard, she cautiously peered around it.
A high wooden fence ran alongside the building and well past it to the end of a short, unpaved street. A final sparkglobe at the end of the fence lit a small patch of green on a grassy field. Perhaps a quarter of a mile beyond that, a long row of lights cut across the darkness. Blue glimmered beneath those lights, and above them flickered the lightning-like flashes she had seen from the bridge. Each flash briefly delineated a hulking black behemoth of a building: the Temple of Vekrin.
And the thief was heading straight for it across the grassy field.
Are they mad? Anger blazed so hotly in Amlinn that it momentarily banished the cold nipping her exposed skin. Priests, stealing the Goddess’s Gift? The Freefolk wouldn’t stand for it. They’d withdraw into the wilderness, city luxuries be damned. Trade would collapse. Businesses would fail. Citizens would riot. The kingdom could well fall apart.
Amlinn looked south and west toward King Stobor’s palace but could see only a faint glow through the mist. More than ever, she knew she’d made the right decision to come after the thief at once, by herself, without seeking help. She couldn’t accuse the Priests without being absolutely certain, and if the thief evaded her . . .
She took a deep breath and slipped around the corner of the old building and down the short street, clinging close to the shadows of the fence. Then she made a final dash past the last sparkglobe into the open space surrounding the Temple.
The squish of cold mud beneath her feet gave way to the wet tickle of grass. She wanted to run, but she had no way of knowing what obstacles might lie before her, and so, with agonizing slowness, she walked across the black greensward. Wary of being silhouetted against the lights behind her, she crouched low, slowing her progress even more. All the while, she strained her ears, listening through the patter of rain for the footsteps of the thief, clenching her jaw to try to stop the chattering of her own teeth.
She heard nothing.
Wishing with every step she had the dagger she had trained so hard to use, the dagger she carried everywhere but on stage, she neared the Temple at last, the lights resolving into a row of paired sparkglobes on tall poles. In the wagon-length separating each pole and pair of lights from the next, Blue Fire shimmered, the Priests’ protective Curtain, hissing and steaming in the pouring rain.
She stopped just a few steps from that deadly wall. Shrouded in vapour, the Curtain stretched unbroken down the length of the Temple. Where could the thief have—?
Something struck the small of Amlinn’s back with bruising force. She cried out in shock as it hurled her from her feet. Her face slammed into the muck. She spat mud and grass, turned her head, gulped a mouthful of air to scream, and then choked on it as a gloved hand clamped her mouth, shoving the scream back down her throat. Sharp knees pressed into her back. Heart pounding like a caged bird in her chest, she waited helplessly for the bite of a knife or the sudden twist that would break her neck. Instead, the weight holding her down shifted, though the hand remained over her mouth. Lips and hot breath tickled her right ear. “I don’t kill girls,” a voice whisper-growled.
The thief turned her face back into the grass and mud so that even though the hand slid away from her mouth, she could hardly breathe, much less scream. He tore at the hem of her skirt, and she heard it rip. She tried to kick him with her heels but couldn’t connect. A strip of cloth raked between her face and the ground, almost taking her nose off. It slid between her teeth and pulled tight, biting into the corners of her mouth. Then the thief pulled her arms back so far that her shoulders ached, and lashed her wrists together. As his weight vanished from her back, and she tried to kick again, but he seized her legs and held them down while he tied her ankles together. Then he rolled her onto her back, face-up in the rain, and disappeared in the direction of the Temple.
She sucked air through her nose, drawing so much rain with it that she almost choked. With a monumental effort, she rolled onto her side. By drawing her knees up and arching her back, she eased the pressure on her shoulders.
She now had a clear view of the Curtain and the black silhouette of the thief walking straight toward it.
The Blue Fire will kill him!
The thief raised his right hand. Something flashed, brighter blue than the Curtain. The glimmer vanished between two posts. Their sparkglobes blinked out at the same instant, and the thief walked through the gap into the Temple grounds.
With the Curtain down, Amlinn could see a deep-set door in the stone of the Temple wall. The thief went straight to it and touched it. Another blue flash, and the door swung noiselessly inward. He disappeared into the darkness beyond, and the door closed behind him.
Violent shivering seized Amlinn. All but naked, she would die of cold if she lay there through the night. She strained against her bonds, but it felt as if she were pulling her shoulders from her sockets. Gasping with pain, she folded herself up again and stared at the opening in the Curtain, trying to make sense of what she’d just seen.
That was no Priest. A Priest would walk through the front gate. Is the thief stealing from the Priests, too? Stealing what? And why?
Amlinn shivered helplessly on the cold ground, fuming at her own fecklessness. She knew how to fight! If she’d heard him coming, he would never have been able to render her helpless so easily. Before being allowed on stage for the first time, she’d been taught six ways to disable a man who made unwanted advances. She could outshoot many of the Freefolk men and handle a knife better than most. But the damned rain had foiled her senses, and that black-clad coward had knocked her down and trussed her like a beast without so much as a struggle.
Footsteps pounded the cobblestones beyond the Curtain. The thief, coming back? “I don’t kill girls,” he’d said, but maybe he’d thought better of leaving a witness. She twisted her head around as far as she could. A figure in a blue cloak and steel helmet slipped through the light of a sparkglobe.
Her heart raced with sudden hope.
The Priest stopped at the gap in the Curtain. She strained to shout but could only manage a moan against the gag.
Still, the Priest’s head snapped toward her. His sword flickered from its scabbard.
Then he stepped toward her through the gap in the Curtain.