Berika’s head hurt as she walked to, the fallow field. The warm morning sun, usually welcome this late in the year, was much too strong for her sensitive eyes. The bells dangling from her crook and the sheep in her flock were discordantly loud. Her mouth felt like the wrinkled peelings at the bottom of a cider keg–which was hardly surprising, considering how much of Rimp's apple brandy she'd guzzled the previous night.
Drinking had seemed like a good idea at the time. When Auld Mag, the village hedge-sorcerer, got the Brightwater mist into her and spouted King Manal’s proclamation of victory over the Arrizan-Imperial host, unbridled celebration seemed the only proper response. The war every Walen secretly feared would end with defeat and annihilation had been won. Rimp, the richest and most miserly man in the village, rolled out the keg of cider he’d bunged almost a decade ago, when the war began.
While the potent, cloudy brandy flowed freely, no one remembered the cost of those ten years: the men who would not return, including Berika’s father and her eldest brother, Indon. The scars were bom by those who fought, and by those who waited. Mag sat in the Brightwater mist, reciting one proclamation after another, and the villagers drank themselves stiff. (The old woman had more basi than many Eyerlon sorcerers, but she was too frail to reach for the Web more often than once a month, when the moon was waxing full. King Manal’s victory proclamation was old when she plucked it down.)
A burr found its way into Berika’s wooden shoe. Her next step crushed it. The spines pierced her woolen hose like a swarm of stinging insects. Coming on top of her hangover, the itching was, more than the shepherd could ignore, She sprawled in the high, dry grass, took off her hose, and removed the wicked little hooks one by one. The flock surrounded her, nibbling her dark blond braids, her clothes, and anything else they could reach. Berika gave the nearest rump a solid thwack with the crook. The noise made her cringe, but it got rid of the flock. She rubbed her aching eyes, and let her thoughts wander.
It had been midnight, maybe later, when she had dragged her stool to the hearth where the Brightwater, mist rose from a cauldron. Mag’s eyes were closed; her voice was a cracked whisper. Berika gave the old woman a sip of brandy, then listened while the hedge-sorccrer recited another proclamation. A magga-trained sorcerer, a sorcerer who learned the art from the Eyerlon masters, could pick and choose among the Web’s messages, but a hedge-sorcerer had to take each precisely in its turn.
The week-old proclamation Mag recited with Berika’s brandy on her tongue commended the beguines for their selfless service during Walensor's ordeal. Berika thought some special providence had brought her to-the hedge-sorcerer's side.
Berika revered beguines not for their nursing and nurturing–the twin missions mentioned in the king’s proclamation–but as the only refuge for women who could not become sorcerers and would not become wives. Berika’s dream of reaching the Web and thereby leaving Gorse for a sorcerer’s fife in Eyerlon was not idle-Auld Mag was her great-aunt, and her mother, Ingolde, was certain to become the next hedge-sorcerer when Mag died. But she was birth-betrothed to Mag’s son, Hirmin, and if she did not reach the Web before her seventeenth birthday her betrothal would be consummated unless she escaped to the beguines.
Sorcery remained the cleanest way out of her dilemma. No betrothal could stand between a child-sorcerer and the wonders of Eyerlon. The Basilica would compensate both families with fresh-minted gold. But try as she might, Berika had not reached the Web. By the time she was fourteen, and the other girls her age were marrying, Berika’s efforts were tainted with desperation; she began to think more seriously of the beguines.
The unwelcome betrothal was the result of a bargain that Berika’s mother had made with Auld Mag long before Berika was born. Ingolde never admitted what she’d gotten in return, but her first daughter was irrevocably promised to Mag's only child Hirmin. If Hirmin were handsome like Berika's brothers, or gentle like her, father… If he’d had any merit whatsoever--but Hirmin Maggotson was ugly without and brutal within. When she was little, Berika feared him; as she grew, her fear solidified into acid hate
A girl needed a dowry and her family’s permission to become a beguine. Ingolde got surly whenever her daughter raised the subject: An oath was an oath, she’d snarl, always adding that she kept hers. An unmarried woman–a girl became a woman by decree on her seventeenth birthday could join, without permission or dowry, if she crossed the beguinage threshold as naked as she’d come into the world. The nearest beguinage was in the Donitor’s city of Relamain, a place almost as far from Gorse as Eyerlon itself. Berika didn't know how many days’ walking she would need to reach Relamain, but if she hadn’t reached the Web by dawn on her birthday, she was determined to find out.
Then King Manal’s words in Mag’s voice shattered Berika’s hopes:
For all dim we are thankful to the beguines, and we commend their selfless devotion to the sick and injured of Walensor, we cannot overlook the empty hearths and silent nurseries of our kingdom. We decree it is time to replace the generation we have lost. We hereby release each beguine from her vows.
Moreover, to each man who fought for Walensor against the Arrizi scourge, we bestow the inalienable right to take two wives, by marriage or freehold, and he shall pay no poll tax on his second wife, nor on her children.
Further, shall one or both of these wives be a beguine released from her vow, the crown treasury shall pay him a gold mark for her dowry. And finally, we decree that for ten years hence, no woman shall be given refuge at the beguinage unless she be proved barren.
Bright welts rose where the burrs pricked Berika’s skin. They burned, but they were not the cause of the tears rolling down her cheeks. She lacked the basi to reach the Web in time, and last night, she’d learned that her king had bolted the beguinage door. Worst of all, Hirmin who had fought for Walensor, did not even have to marry her. He could take her in freehold as it she were chattel property like the sheep–
Shuddering, Berika realized she couldn’t see--or hear--them. Gods willing, they would have stayed on the high path to the fallow field, but sheep were godless. Shapeless Au, creator of all things including the gods themselves, made shepherds for sheep and decided nothing further need be done.
With her hose dangling around her neck, Berika thrust her foot into the shoe and stumbled along the low path. The bell-ewe, the boldest of the flock, was up to her belly in mud and churning determinedly toward the swift stream. The rest–bless their empty heads– dawdled on the bank. Berika charged at them, wailing like a demon and cringing inwardly each time the bells hit the crook. When she had them intimidated she plunged into the mud after the mired ewe.
She walloped the ewe with the long crook. Its rear end jumped in the desired direction, but the front kept churning. It was thirsty, it smelled water, and it was going to stick its nose in that water.
“Stupid, gods-forsaken sheep,” Berika cursed as mud filled her shoes. “Good for nothing–” Except sheep weren’t good for nothing; in her house, sheep were everything.
If, by some miracle, the ewe did reach the water, it would promptly drown–since sheep were too stupid to hold their breath when they drank, or lift their heads when they swallowed. Steadying herself with the crook, Berika slogged deeper into the quagmire. She lunged; she lost both shoes, but got a solid grip on its fleece.
With her shoulder against its shoulder, Berika shoved the ewe toward, the bank. The sheep squirted onto firm footing; the shepherd got a mouthful of muck. Spitting and cursing, she looked up in time, to see the filthy beast test the mire again.
“Don't you dare!” Berika, grabbed the crook and jangled its bells.
Square-pupil eyes blinked solemnly; the ewe took another step forward. Berika shrieked. The ewe shook itself and scampered toward the rest of the flock. Berika made a quick, futile search for her shoes.
Once Berika had the flock in the fallow field she could relax until it was time to take them back to the village. The fields of Gorse grew more rocks than grain; there was a waist-high wall around the fallow field. She rinsed the mud from her legs and the stale cider from her mouth. Her headache was gone; she could, be thankful for that at least.
The shepherd searched for a spot where she could watch the flock, dry her skirt, and yet not see too much of the wild forest. King Manal, on the day of his coronation some fifty years earlier, had granted an assart charter to a handful of peasants, Berika’s grandfather among them, who swore that a lightning fire had already burned the trees on the forest edge. It was always in the king’s interest to increase the size of the kingdom. The Compact prohibited men from destroying any ancient tree, it said nothing about the rights of mortal men when some nonmortal power did the killing for them. And so the village of Gorse was founded, as other villages had been founded by assart charter. The charred, skeletal snags were chopped up for houses and firewood. Plowed fields replaced the wild woodlands and in a few years Gorse looked very much like any other hamlet on the remote Fenklare border.
Gorse was, however, different from its distant neighbors in several ways. It belonged to King Manal, himself, for the length of his personal reign, not to the donitor of Fenklare, and for this the folk of Gorse were duly grateful: The king had more important things on his mind than collecting the customary dues of a solitary and struggling hamlet while the donitor’s nosy taxmen could not set foot on the assart land.
But there was a darker side to Gorse’s assart rights. The forest goddess, Weycha, understood the Compact differently. She regarded the cultivated lands of Walensor with considerable suspicion and she hadn’t forgiven the village for plowing the soil where her trees had grown since time immemorial. But Weycha was not a powerful goddess, not at least in Eyerlon where the Web plunged through the Basilica’s golden dome. King Manal did not fear her, but Berika and her neighbors knew better.
They left the largest snag among the fire-killed trees untouched. They built a roofless fane around it, so its lifeless branches might, continue to feel the sun, the rain, and the wind. Where other villages cluttered their fanes with the votive images of every god and demigod connected to the Walensor Web, Gorse directed all its devotions to Weycha. When greenwood sprouted from the charred bark, they would knew they were forgiven. Until then they were wary of Weycha and her forest.
Berika found a place on the wall with the right vantage on both the flock and the forest. After drying her feet with her hose, she spread them and her skirt out to dry. There’d be hell to pay for the lost shoes, but nothing compared to the greeting she’d have gotten, if she’d lost the ewe. As bad luck went, Berika was doing pretty well.
It was, she reflected, the story of her life: precious little good luck, and the best bad luck for days around. Even Hirmin, bad as he was, he was also the sole heir of two village founders, with unentailed rights to half the orchard and an eighth of the plowed land. The Arrizi hellfire poison had taken a mean-spirited man and transformed him into a crippled monster, but it still continued to fester in his, lungs; eventually it would kill him.
Ingolde knew to what kind of a man she’d promised bar daughter. When she saw how his hellfire wounds lingered, she, made no secret of her relief. Four years, five at the most. He’ll be dead by the time you’re twenty-two. Live with him a few years. All that he has will come, to you–stay with you if his children are taken to Eyerlon. It's a small price.
Widowed Embla would leap at the chance to be Hirmin’s wife. Ingolde had taken the. young widow and her children into the shepherd’s house last winter after Embla’s husband died. EmbIa wouldn’t go cold or hungry, but she had nothing to call her own. Heldey, who was, closer to, Berika’s age, and the childless widow of Berika’s oldest brother, Indon, would gladly leave the shepherd’s house for Hirmin’s bed.
There simply was no better situation for a woman, noble or common, than unentailed possession of her dead husband’s property.
“I won’t do it,” Berika shouted to the uninterested sheep. “I hate Hirmin. I’ll, kill myself first–” Her voice trailed off. That was an empty threat: Her hate was too potent for self-destruction and killing him was no better. Berika had never seen anyone stoned, but she knew she didn’t want to be executed for her husband’s murder.
“Two more months: The rest of Gleaning, all of Slaughter, and seven days of Greater Hoarfrost, that’s all I needed.” She looked at the sky, where the great gods dwelt within and beyond the Web. “Forty days and I’d be seventeen. I’d be in Relamain. I’d have pledged myself to the beguines; I know I would have–” Her voice faded again. Pledging wasn’t enough. King Manal’s proclamation, which cancelled vows, would certainly cancel a new beguine’s pledge. The beguinages were lost as a refuge.
Eyes tightly closed, Berika raised her face to the sun. She poured her soul into the effort, but the Web, as ever, remained beyond her reach. Her eyes began to water and she returned to her bent-over misery.
“Dear gods, help me. Some one of you, hear me and help me. I’ll do anythirig. I swear it, but don’t make me many Hirmin. Give me the basi to reach the Web. Show me another path. Please?”
She got down from the wall and began to twirl around. Walenfolk did not ordinarily spin like tops to attract the attention of their gods. They made offerings in their fanes or had a sorcerer place their plea in the appropriate nexus of the Web. But once, when Berika was a little girl who had lost the brightly colored bead that was her most prized possession, she said a private prayer just this way, whirling until she collapsed. When she opened her eyes, the bead lay beyond her outstretched arm, under a piece of firewood. She still had the bead, she still spun when she prayed. There was always a chance it might work again.
The hangover wasn’t quite gone, the shepherd fell sooner, and harder, than she expected. She rolled onto her back and waited for the ground to stop moving before she tried to sit up. When she was certain she knew up from down, she opened, her eyes. Praying brought her face to face with Weycha’s forest and a very strange shimmering something on the far bank. She blinked, slowly and deliberately.
“Bright shining water…” she murmured.
The apparition did resemble the Brightwater of sorcery, though its colors were all golds, ambers, and reds, with only a twinkling of green and no blue at all. Berika’s heart leapt to die conclusion that the gods had heard her prayer, her mind held back. If the, shimmering object was an answer to her prayers, then she did not understand it. This was not like finding a lost bead. The gods had granted Berika–a girl who could not reach the Web–a gift they seldom gave their chosen basilidans.
“A fetch,” she said aloud. “I fetched!”
Her voice carried across the water. The apparition raised its head. It didn’t have a proper face, its eyes shifted and glowed. Berika opened her mouth, intending to scream. She whimpered instead. A dark hole appeared beneath the burning eyes. It sprouted a band, raised it, and pointed an unnaturally long finger at her.
Berika understood: There was only one way -to escape Hirmin. The gods, hearing her prayer, had sent a fetch to kill her. Death, she quickly decided, was not an improvement over marriage. She grabbed a stone from the wall and threw it. The fetch scrambled for cover, and so did the shepherd . By the time Berika lifted her head above the wall, the fetch was perched on a, partly submerged rock.
“Are you the hazard my lady fears?”
The girl’s terror melted into confusion. He–the fetch had a raspy, deep voice seemed afraid of her.
“I’ve come to find the hazard dud threatens my lady. Do you threaten my lady?”
Rheumy-eyed Mag, with her knobby fingers and whiskers, was more dreadful than the fetch, who was quite small and shivered each time he spoke. Berika was emboldened to stand erect. She jangled the crook. The little creature vanished behind his rock.
“Go away. You don’t belong here.”
The fetch darted toward the bank. He lost his footing on the slick stories and tumbled into the frigid stream, where he floundered. Berika’s first impulse was to rescue him, as she’d rescue her sheep or any other living creature. But the fetch wasn’t any living creature. She bit her knuckles and was relieved when he clambered out of the water on the forest’s side of the stream.
The fire was gone from his eyes. His bright, shifting colors were muddied. The fetch could easily pass for a dirty, scrawny toddler. He wrapped Ins arms about himself and shivered, violently.
“Go back. to your own kind,” Berika told him. “Go quick! They’ll take care of you. Stay away from the stream. You're too little. It’s too deep and you can’t swim. It’s dangerous.”
His hands stopped moving “Dangerous? Danger? Hazard? I must protect my lady from hazard. I must protect my lady from danger. Are you danger?”
Berika sighed. “The water…you godless sheep. The water! Go back where you came from. Tell them I don’t want to die.”
The fetch knelt. He dragged his hands through the water. He smelled his fingers and licked the moisture from them. “The stream will not harm you. It is not danger. It is not hazard. My lady says hazard will come from outside. You are outside.” He shoved his foot into the water.
He hadn’t killed her; Berika suspected the fetch couldn’t kill her. She was calm enough to appreciate the irony: an incompetent fetch sent to an incompetent sorcerer. “It’s all a mistake,” she, shouted. “There’s no danger here. None at all. Go back to your lady and, tell her there’s no hazard.”
He cocked his head, listening to something Berika could not hear. “Hazard is on your side of the water. Far beyond. A lady died with hazard. Not my lady. I protect my lady from hazard.”
Berika’s throat tightened: not hazard, but Hazard. Her fetch knew the name of Walensor’s defeated enemy. The last thing Berika wanted was to interfere with the Arrizan Pyromant, dead or alive. “You can go back to your lady.” She chose her, words more carefully, and slipped one hand behind her back to search for another loose stone. “Hazard's gone. He and his army were, crushed at Tremontin when our sorcery brought the mountains down. You tell your lady. The war’s over, the men are already on their way home.”
Was that fire flickering in, her fetch’s eyes, or some trick of sunlight reflecting off the water? Either way, Berika’s terror returned.
“Tremontin. Tremontin died, not hazard. I must protect my lady from hazard.”
Berika hid her trembling fist in the folds of her skirt. “If Hazard's not dead, he’s on the far side of the pass with no army. The war’s over. Go home.” Her voice lacked authority; the creature didn't move. “There’s no way for an Arrizi army to get into Walensor now that Kasserine and Tremontin are both gone. And anyway, this is the Donit of Fenklare; there’s never been any fighting here.”
“Donit. Fenklare. Fenklare Donit.”
The fetch seemed enthralled by the sounds he made, Berika judged it was time to try to escape. She had a leg over the wall before a breeze rattled the crook bells.
“Wait! Wait for me!”
Common sense suggested otherwise, but a lifetime of being Ingolde’s daughter reminded Berika that catastrophe wasn’t a fetch, or his lady, or even Hazard, Pyromant of Amazon; it was the back of her mother's hand if she showed up without the sheep. Still, Berika knew sheepherding better than she knew anything else, and she had the flock moving before she heard the splash.
“Wait for me! Wait! I need you.”
Berika prodded, the bell-ewe into a trot; the rest followed. The flock was noisy, but not noisy enough. Splashing was replaced by the snap of dried grass. She cursed Ingolde for not marrying the pigkeeper. Pigs were worth move than sheep, and pigs didn't need anyone’s protection. They stood their ground. A half-grown boar could kill a man. Sheep just got sheepish.
She knew she was doomed when the ewe’s nose went up. A moment later the whole flock was jammed together, staring at the sky.
“Why do you run? Do you know this hazard?”
Berika spun around with the crook braced. The fetch was barely a step behind her. She cracked the hooked end against his head, then reversed her grip on the stick and rammed the iron-wrapped ferrule into his gut. The fetch collapsed with a groan. He was much bigger than he’d seemed from the wall, and clothed in rags instead of leaves. Berika didn’t waste more time wondering how she’d been so mistaken about his appearance. She ran for the village leaving the flock behind.
Beyond the fallow field was a hill; beyond that, the apple orrhard. Beyond the orchard was the millpond and the fish weir; and beyond the weir was home. Berika had never needed much of a head start to beat her brothers home. Near the crest of the hill she dared a glance over her shoulder.
The fetch was at the bottom of the hill. He was man-sized, man-shaped, and not at all scrawny. There was a red smear on the side of his face, but it wasn’t slowing him down. Berika tossed the crook aside and lifted her skirt to her thighs. His pace matched her own; his stride was surely longer. Her lungs burned. The fetch’s breath–she could hear it as he got closer–was even and easy. He’dcatch her before she reached the orchard.
Berika screamed when he caught one of her braids. She lunged forward and, for a heartbeat, was free of him. Then a hand closed over her shoulder and they both crashed to the ground. The shepherd writhed like a snake. She kicked and scratched. She bit whatever flesh came near her teeth. The fetch yelped and scrambled away.
Boys and men could leap directly to their feet; girls and women had to get untangled first. Berika didn’t need much time–she’d worn an ankle-length skirt since she’d learned to walk–but she took more than she had. The fetch came forward in that time, and staying away from Berika’s face, he twisted her arm and planted his knee between her shoulders. The fight went out of her with a sigh.
“You say you are not danger, are not hazard--but I think I should not trust you. You draw my blood. What would you do to my lady?”
“You’re hurting me–” Berika could do nothing but plead–and to her astonishment, pleading worked. He let her roll free. She would have rolled all the way down the hill, but he snatched her wrist before she got away. This time she moved with him when he twisted her arm, and found herself looking into an ordinary face.
“If you are not hazard, why do you run? Why won’t you help me?”
An almost ordinary face. The wide eyes shimmered with the red, gold, and amber she remembered all too well. The pupils weren’t round; they weren’t hard-angled like a sheep’s. They were star-shaped, and deeper than a starless night. Berika shielded herself with her free hand. She knotted her fingers in the traditional gesture against evil.
“Help me!” the fetch cried. “Help me–I beg you. I must protect my lady. Don’t you understand? I’m all she has–” He shuddered; he released Berika’s wrist. “It’s dark. I can’t see. I can’t see anything! My lady– Where are you?”
Against all caution and reason, Berika lowered her hand. His eyes no longer shimmered. The star-pupils grew round and huge. He called for his lady again.
“What are you?” she demanded, easily eluding his flailing arms. “Where did you come from?”
His breathing was shallow.
“What do they call you? What’s your name?”
A guttural, inhuman sound erupted from the fetch’s throat. He covered his face with his, forearms and rolled in the grass. Berika made certain her skirt was untangled. Whatever he was, man or fetch, she wasn’t going to stay anywhere near him. Then, with obvious effort, the fetch spot out a single intelligible syllable.
“Dart? What kind of a name is Dart? No mother would name her son Dart–that’s a dog’s name.”
The fetch was exhausted. He lay on his back, chest heaving, arms still thrown ever his face. “No mother–only my lady. Only my lady. I’m falling. It’s dark, and it’s cold, and I’m falling. Help me–”
Berika could escape. The fetch–Dart–was in no condition to stop her. She would have turned on her heel but the sheep were scattered across the hillside. By habit she counted them. If she would not abandon the godless sheep, then she could not abandon the creature her prayer had fetched,
“Do you hurt?” she asked, feeling foolish before the words were out of her mouth.
Dart said, “Fine-marp,” which meant nothing to the shepherd. Then he fainted.
“I don't think I can help you,” Berika whispered when he continued to lie there without moving. “I think I should go home and tell Ingolde–maybe Auld Mag. But first I’ve got to get the sheep. Ingolde won’t help either of us if I come home without the sheep.”
She had better luck than she had any right to expect. Her crook rose straight out of the grass, and the sheep flocked together without protest. She tapped the last straggler with the crook, and stubbed her toe. A gentle thrum rose from an impossibly large acorn at her feet.
“Find my harp.” The meaning of the fetch’s garbled words cam to Berika.
All sorcerers had touchstones. Auld Mag had a gnarled stick dud gave off sparks when she struck with it. Bards were sorcerers with an extra gift for music; their touchstone was often a valuable harp. Only one bard had visited Gorse during the war: a woman whose sharp tongue offended her noblefolk patron and completely intimidated Ingolde. Berika remembered her well. She carried her harp in a carved-wood swan. Dart’s harp case–assuming it was a harp case and belonged to him–didn’t look like an acorn. It was an acorn, seamless and perfectly formed except for the tooled leather strap where a stem should be.
Curiosity got the better of Berika. She stroked the smooth golden shell. Vibrations numbed her fingertips. She looked at Dart, who hadn’t moved. Mag’s stick worked for Mag alone, but anyone could play a harp. Was this Dart’s touchstone, or had he stolen it? A touchstone might well have the power to drive its misuser mad–and Dart was surely mad.
The next, inevitable thought formed in Berika's mind as Dart let out a chilling scream. She jumped away from the acorn.
“I wouldn’t–not really. Honestly. But I’ve got to pick it up–if I’m going to bring it to you.”
Suddenly wary, Berika covered her hands with her apron before lifting the case out of the grass. She carried it up the hill with her arms stretched out in front her.
“I’m not hurting it. I’m hardly holding it at all. I’ll put it right here beside you.’ She braced it against his side. He did not seem to be breathing. Berika could not make herself search for a pulse.
“I’ll get Ingolde.”
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