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Farsala Trilogy #02: Rise of a Heroby Hilari Bell
Chapter One: Soraya
Soraya tried to urge the iron-mouthed mare to a faster pace, but the mare — who had probably pulled an ore cart before Soraya stole her from the miners — plodded stubbornly onward in the deliberate walk that seemed to be the only gait the worthless creature possessed. The sun was setting, painting the new spring grass that covered the low hills with mellow golden light. Soraya wondered if her home was still there.
She'd been forced to travel at night once she reached the Great Trade Road, for fear of encountering one of the mounted squadrons that scouted ahead of the Hrum army. Her rough, sturdy britches and sheepskin vest could have been worn by any peasant boy, but her straight, black hair marked her as the descendant of a long line of deghans — and the one thing all the rumors agreed on was that the Hrum were taking the deghans' families prisoner. She'd considered cutting it, but unless she shaved herself bald, her hair would still betray her. Though it wasn't a certain indication of rank. Soraya had seen girls with hair as straight and black as hers wearing peasants' gaudy skirts, and her own father had had curly, peasant-brown hair.
The messenger's account of her father's death flashed through her mind. "Shot full of arrows like a...It was quick, girl. Um, Lady."
Soraya thrust the memory away. She was a hunter herself. She had seen the death arrows brought. Forget it. Forget it. Merdas came first now.
Her father's death and the defeat of the Farsalan army, which he had commanded, left all Farsala open to the Hrum. But they didn't seem to have destroyed much so far. Even when she reached the Great Trade Road, where the Hrum troops were moving, most of the small villages she passed through, and the towns she skirted, were completely intact. Only occasionally did she scent the bitter stench of recent fire, or see townsfolk removing the blackened remains of some building whose owners, for whatever reason, had resisted the Hrum.
Of course, rumors abounded. Soraya sometimes stopped in the smaller villages, where she would purchase dinner from an innkeeper who had no idea that the meal served for her breakfast. There she learned what she could about the road ahead. She never had to ask for the whereabouts or doings of the Hrum — it was the primary topic of conversation: The main army was here, it was there. Setesafon had fallen. Setesafon had defeated the Hrum, and the leaderless remnants of the Hrum army were looting the countryside. The Hrum were besieging the capital city and negotiating with the gahn to leave Farsala forever, in exchange for all the gahn's treasure, for a yearly tribute of taxes, for half the populace to be carried off as slaves....
Soraya cared little for the rumors, except for making certain there were no troops on the road in front of her. With her father dead, and all the deghans perished, Farsala would fall to the Hrum as surely as day fell to the night. The only question was whether she could reach her home and get Sudaba and Merdas away before the Hrum found them. Or had her mother and brother fled already? Or been taken as slaves, or...No, they couldn't be dead. If they were dead, Soraya would have nothing left at all.
She had little enough, in truth. Golnar had left a pack, filled with food, in the house where Soraya had been hidden over the winter from her father's political enemies.
If her father had sacrificed her, as the priests demanded, might he have won the battle and survived? Soraya's heart contracted, and she pushed the thought away. She didn't really believe in propitiating the war djinn. No one did, not anymore. Especially not the political enemies who had cynically demanded her sacrifice, hoping to catch her father defying the gahn's order, hoping to take his command. But her father had outwitted them.
Soraya had gone into hiding, more or less willingly, for her father's sake, and to help him save Farsala from the advancing Hrum. But she would gladly hand Farsala to the Hrum on a platter, or the priests her head, if it would bring him back.
Tears blurred her view of the road, and Soraya wiped her eyes impatiently. She had wept too often in the last few weeks. But after she had wept out her first grief, she had resolved to do what her father would have wanted. A deghass' first duty is the continuation of the house. Soraya had to find Merdas and save him. He was only three years old now — two, when she'd seen him last — worth nothing as a slave. But surely even the Hrum wouldn't kill a child. Not out of hand, for no reason. Surely.
In the bottom of the pack Golnar had left for her, Soraya had found a small purse of smaller coins. It was generous of Golnar, the farmwife who had been Soraya's servant in the hidden croft where she'd spent the winter, to have left her any money. Soraya wondered if she'd had to argue with her husband about it. He was a practical man, with two sons to feed — it must have galled him to leave anything useful behind. On the other hand, Soraya's father had paid Golnar and her family to take care of Soraya. Oh, well. They'd left what they could.
It hadn't been enough to buy a horse, so Soraya had hiked to the nearest miners' camp and stolen one. She could repay them someday, she supposed. And she hadn't stolen one of their best horses, though that was more because she feared a good horse would make her conspicuous on the road than out of consideration for the miners. Deep in the mountains, the miners posted no guards. Soraya had opened the door to the shed that protected the animals from jackal packs, and selected a plain, sturdy-looking mare. She had saddled her and led her out without the slightest problem, though her palms had been slick with sweat.
It was only when the sun rose, and Soraya had tried to kick the mare into a canter, that she'd discovered the stupid beast wouldn't run if a lion were on her heels. But Soraya was almost there now anyway.
The lowering sun cast long shadows over the road. The ruts left by the winter's rains were still deep, but the mud only lingered in the lowest hollows. And even if the horse should pull a tendon, or be dragged bodily into the pit by Eblis, the djinn of sloth, it wouldn't matter, for the hills and fields along this stretch of road were as familiar as the lines of Soroya's own palm. She was less than an hour's ride from her father's manor, and after so many days of wishing the mare would hurry, it was sheer cowardice to suddenly wish that her steed would walk more slowly. Merdas will be all right. He has to be.
It had taken her two weeks to get home. Two weeks of hiding, of sleeping through the days in the brush, far away from the road. Of lying to everyone she spoke with, and feeling her heart beat more quickly when a man's gaze lingered on her face for more than a moment.
This was the hill that she and her father had so often raced their horses to when she was a child. But her father wouldn't have ridden around it with his eyes glued to the road to avoid the first sight of the house. He would have expected his leopard cub to have enough courage to look. Soraya lifted her gaze, and gasped.
Burned. The good stone walls still stood, but even from this distance she could see black streaks rising above the windows, telling of fire within. Soraya cried out and drummed her heels against the mare's sides. The mare jumped, and trotted for several paces before returning to her determined amble.
"Djinn take you!" Soraya flung herself from the saddle and began to run.
The road was rougher than she'd thought, but it was the growing stitch in her side that finally slowed her. Running was absurd anyway — no fires burned here now. Whatever had happened was long over. The Hrum had come, and gone. All that remained was to learn what they had done.
Soraya walked the rest of the way to the house, plodding as deliberately as the accursed mare, who followed her. She had to learn where Merdas and her mother, Sudaba, had gone. Or been taken. At least Sudaba loved Merdas, as she had never loved her daughter. She would keep him safe. Perhaps she had already fled with him to...to where? With the Hrum inside Farsala's borders, no place was safe. No place except with the Suud. But to get her brother to the Suud, Soraya had to find him.
She saw few signs of battle on the tough, outer walls as she approached the house. The ornamental bushes that some long-ago deghass had planted had been trampled, but their flowers still scented the air, warring with the stench of scorched timber. The outer gates that closed the long passage to the courtyard had been wrenched from their hinges and cast aside. A waste of good timber.
The stone-flagged passage was dark in the fading light, but it was empty and undamaged except for...What were those stains around the ceiling grates? Surely no one had...
Soraya walked forward and stood below the iron grid. It was too high for a girl who was small for her fifteen years to reach, so she knelt and felt the floor beneath the grating. Her fingertips came away rough with grit, and slippery with grease. Someone had poured hot grease through the grate as the Hrum soldiers passed below. That was what it had been designed for, in that long-ago time when the house was built, but...They must have been possessed! Surely they knew they couldn't defeat the Hrum, and angering them was the madness of the djinn of rage himself.
Still, Soraya found the corners of her mouth turning up. The House of the Leopard had fought to the last. Good for them! She knew that her father would have thought such helpless defiance a fool's gesture, but it lifted Soraya's heart.
She rose to her feet and walked on down the passage. The inner gates were still there, though their latch was broken, and one side sagged crookedly on a single hinge.
Beyond the gates Soraya could see the courtyard. The carved and polished railings of the second-story gallery were dark with soot and had been smashed in places, but Soraya could see that the rooms behind them were intact. Not all had burned, then. The central fountain seemed to be whole, though no sound of splashing water disturbed the stillness. That fountain had been the heart of the house. Its silence spoke of death, more clearly than even the shredded garden around it. Still, Soraya closed her eyes and listened.
No sound of servants cleaning and repairing damage. No scent of cooking. No footfalls. No childish voice, raised in laughter or indignation. They might have been hiding, but some other sense told Soraya clearly that Sudaba and Merdas weren't here. The house was empty, and had been for some days. Did her certainty come from the magic the Suud tribesmen had taught her? Perhaps, but what good were those shreds of domestic magic in the face of something like this?
Sudaba and Merdas were gone — but gone wasn't the same as dead. She needed more information.
Soraya reached out and laid her hand on the gate, but it was only a gesture of farewell. There was nothing for her here but memories, and she was a deghass. A deghass didn't let grief stop her.
Soraya turned, and walked out of the passage and into the gathering dark without looking back. The village that served the manor was only a little farther down the river road. At least some of her father's servants would have survived. She could get help, and information, from them.
The moon hadn't yet risen, so she was forced to grope through the grass around the walls for a piece of broken shutter. Even with flint and steel, she couldn't make it burn without the magic the Suud had taught her. The discipline of meditation calmed her, and perhaps the memory of those months when she'd deserted the mountain croft to go live with the Suud was helping her as well. At first Soraya had regarded the tribespeople as being lower than Farsalan peasants, but once she came to know them...
Soraya shrugged off the memory. Missing the Suud was a human thing, alien to the spirit she hoped to reach. Forcing out all thoughts of the present, she sought the bright, still place inside her where Maok had taught her to find magic. Reaching her own shilshadu had become easier with practice, and Soraya had always loved touching the shilshadu of fire. Even the tiny spark struck from her flint was alive with that joyous, hungry dance. Still, it was an effort to yield her spirit to that of the flame, to convince it that this cold wood provided it with the air and fuel it needed. Eventually the wood burned well, and Soraya let the link fade, let herself become only human again.
She felt more hopeful than she had before. Perhaps it was because melding her spirit with the spirit of fire delighted her, but Soraya suspected that the core of warmth in her heart had more to do with old friendship than new magic.
Her improvised torch only illuminated the road a few yards in front of her, and it seemed to take her hours to reach the scattering of houses around the central square. Darkness concealed the garish paint that marked the doors and shutters of peasant homes, but Soraya smelled only the musty scent of the dried dung peasants used for fuel — no burned wood. The village had been spared. Had surrendered?
Soraya had ridden down this street hundreds of times, and she had no idea which house belonged to the old headman — she'd never had reason to care which peasant lived in what hovel. But everyone had to know what had happened at the manor. The second house on her left showed the dim glow of candlelight around the closed shutters and under the door.
Soraya opened the door and stepped into the dimly lit room. It held a middle-aged man and woman, clad in the brightly embroidered garments of peasants, a table, benches, and two chairs by the fireplace. It was so similar to the main room in the farmhouse where she'd spent much of the winter that a pang of something almost like homesickness touched Soraya's heart. Which was absurd, for she'd hated the primitive croft. And if she'd felt safe there, well, this man and woman, rising openmouthed from the chairs by the fire, weren't Golnar and her husband.
"Lady Soraya!" the man gasped. "Where did you — I mean, forgive me, Lady, but we'd heard you were dead." His head bent in the short bow most peasants used in casual situations. "Enter, Lady, and be welcome."
"She's already in," the woman muttered. She had risen when her husband did, but she didn't bow. Her closed face was vaguely familiar. One of Sudaba's maids? Yes, that was it, though if Soraya had ever heard her name, she couldn't recall it.
"Hush, Marlis," her husband murmured.
"Well, her father was always knocking," said the woman rebelliously.
Her father had knocked before entering peasant homes, Soraya remembered. Her mother had had no patience with it.
"I require information and assistance," Soraya told them, taking the chair the man had vacated. It felt good to sit in a chair again. "Where are...What happened at the manor house?" Cowardice was despicable in a deghass, but she couldn't quite bring herself to ask straight out.
The man's creased face softened. "Your moth — The lady Sudaba and the little lord both live, Lady," the man told her. "When I last saw them, they weren't even hurt, though the lad was properly scared."
Relief struck like a hammer blow. Soraya had refused to admit they might be dead, but now the painful knot below her heart relaxed, and the hearth fire blurred and brightened.
"Here now," said the man kindly. "Let's be getting you a cup of tea."
Marlis moved without prodding, to fill a kettle and put it on the fire, but her back was stiff with resentment.
Soraya cared nothing for her — all her attention was focused on the man, and she blinked back tears and faced him squarely. "Where are they?"
"Ah...well, I don't exactly..."
Soraya had come to detest the sight of pity in men's eyes.
"The Hrum took them," she finished calmly.
She had known it ever since she'd seen the stains around the grating. Only Sudaba would have ordered that, and the Hrum only captured those who fought them. So if they weren't dead, Soraya knew what had become of them. And curse her mother for the daughter of Kanarang! Only one possessed by the djinn of destruction would have committed such folly.
The man was talking about the battle at the manor. He'd been too old to take part himself, but many of the village's younger men had been there.
Marlis slapped a mug onto the hearthstone in front of Soraya, so abruptly that hot tea splashed over the side. Soraya opened her mouth to demand a clean mug and less insolence, and stopped at the blaze of anger and satisfaction in the woman's eyes.
If I make them too angry, they don't have to tell me anything.
A chill passed down Soraya's spine. She was at the mercy of these peasants. Oh, they wouldn't dare harm her, but if they refused to aid her, to tell her where Sudaba and Merdas had been taken, there was nothing Soraya could do about it. And even more chilling, there was nothing to stop them from telling the Hrum where she had gone.
The man, sensing her tension, had fallen silent.
"I thank you," said Soraya. Even to her, the words sounded stiff and unnatural. Marlis snorted. Soraya scowled, but she had to go on. "I appreciate your telling me this. Your hospitality." As if hospitality wasn't the clear duty of any house — especially to a deghass! Peasant manners. Her father had tried to teach Soraya about them. Why hadn't she paid more attention?
"That's all right, Lady," the man said gently. "We're glad to be helping you."
"For your father's sake," Marlis added.
Clearly not for hers. But why did this woman dislike her so? Soraya didn't remember being particularly unkind to her mother's maids.
"Ah, he was a fine master, the high commander," said the old man. "We were sore grieved to hear of his death, and that's Azura's truth. He must have hurt the Hrum bad before he...um..."
"Died," said Soraya calmly. She'd had weeks to face it, but even though her voice was calm, she felt the annoying tears slide down her face again. She wiped them away and picked up the tea. It was scorching hot, and bitterly strong. It helped.
"Well, yes," said the man awkwardly. "But the Hrum have taken Desafon, so they say, and are moving right on to the gahn's city. And they're not bothering much with anything along the way, so the commander must have been angering them plenty, for them to send a squadron this far off the Trade Road just to loot one manor and — "
"And take two slaves." Soraya sipped the tea again. Alive, she reminded herself. That's the important thing.
"Oh, they took more than two. All the lads they captured, who had helped with the defense, were hauled off with 'em." For the first time, anger stirred in the old man's voice.
Soraya cared nothing for peasant slaves, but awareness of his helpless fury, his caring, pulsed through her. She had been more aware of the people she met on the road, but she'd put that down to fear — and despite the woman's hostility, she didn't fear these people. Was this extra awareness of how they reacted some effect of the magic the Suud had taught her? Or was it just that in learning to see the Suud as people, she had learned to see people in a way she hadn't before?
Perhaps Marlis had reason to dislike her. Either way, it didn't matter.
"Where did the Hrum take them?" Soraya asked quietly. "Do you know?"
"Main army camp," said the man promptly. "Least, that's what we heard. All the slaves, all the loot, goes to the main camp, to be writ down before they ship them off."
"Well, that shouldn't be too hard to find." Soraya finished her tea and set the mug on the hearth. She stood, turning toward the door. The moon would rise shortly, and the road was sufficiently familiar that she could manage until it did.
"Here, you're not going now," the man protested. "It's being night!"
"I traveled nights all down the Trade Road," Soraya told him. "I only came on in the light today because...because I couldn't sleep." So near to home, hope and fear had flooded through her nerves. But Sudaba and Merdas were alive. As long as they lived, she could find a way to free them.
"But — "
"I'll be all right," Soraya interrupted. "My horse will have scented the village herd. She'll be grazing beside their pen. She's slow, but sound. She'll get me there. After that..."
She didn't know what she'd do after that.
"Lady." It was Marlis who spoke, and for the first time, her voice held something besides resentment. "You're never going to the Hrum's camp. There's an army there. They'll take you too, or kill you, or — "
"I'll have to find a way to avoid that," said Soraya, wry humor prickling through her weariness. "But if the Hrum camp is where my mother and brother are, then that's where I'm going."
The woman's eyes met hers, lighter brown than most peasants — they looked faded. "You're not afraid?"
Soraya's head lifted proudly. "I'm a deghass." A deghass didn't let fear stop her.
"Well, that's as may be," said the man. "But even a deghass has to sleep. You'll spend the night in our bed, if you'd be willing to sleep so humble. It's not what you're used to, but it's clean, and as good a mattress as any the village can offer."
Sleep. In a bed, in a warm room, instead of in the brush beside some stream. It was infinitely tempting, but...
"I should go on. I could be a third of the way to the Trade Road by morning."
"Yes, and sleep the day away, and by dusk you'll be in exactly the same place you'd be in if you spent the night here and traveled in the day! Your father commanded an army, Lady. Let me ask you just one question: What would he be saying to you right now?"
The words sounded in her mind as clearly as if her father had spoken them. "That to march day and night to a battle, and arrive too tired to fight, is so stupid that only a deghan would do it."
The weak, foolish tears were flowing down her cheeks again, but thinking of her father wasn't quite as painful this time. And as always, he was right.
"I thank you for your hospitality," said Soraya. "Truly." She smiled at them, and to her astonishment, Marlis smiled back.
Copyright © 2005 by Hilari Bell
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