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Beguilement: The Sharing Knife #01by Lois McMaster Bujold
Chapter OneFawn came to the well-house a little before noon. More than a farmstead, less than an inn, it sat close to the straight road she'd been trudging down for two days. The farmyard lay open to travelers, bounded by a semicircle of old log outbuildings, with the promised covered well in the middle. To resolve all doubt, somebody had nailed a sign picturing the well itself to one of the support posts, and below the painting a long list of goods the farm might sell, with the prices. Each painstakingly printed line had a little picture below it, and colored circles of coins lined up in rows beyond, for those who could not read the words and numbers themselves. Fawn could, and keep accounts as well, skills her mother had taught her along with a hundred other household tasks. She frowned at the unbidden thought: So if I'm so clever, what am I doing in this fix?
She set her teeth and felt in her skirt pocket for her coin purse. It was not heavy, but she might certainly buy some bread. Bread would be bland. The dried mutton from her pack that she'd tried to eat this morning had made her sick, again, but she needed something to fight the horrible fatigue that slowed her steps to a plod, or she'd never make it to Glassforge. She glanced around the unpeopled yard and at the iron bell hung from the post with a pull cord dangling invitingly, then lifted her eyes to the rolling fields beyond the buildings. On a distant sunlit slope, a dozen or so people were haying. Uncertainly, she went around to the farmhouse's kitchen door and knocked.
A striped cat perching on the step eyed her without getting up. The cat's plump calm reassured Fawn, together with the good repair of the house's faded shingles and fieldstone foundation, so that when a comfortably middle-aged farmwife opened the door, Fawn's heart was hardly pounding at all.
"Yes, child?" said the woman.
I'm not a child, I'm just short, Fawn bit back; given the crinkles at the corners of the woman's friendly eyes, maybe Fawn's basket of years would still seem scant to her. "You sell bread?"
The farmwife's glance around took in her aloneness. "Aye; step in."
A broad hearth at one end of the room heated it beyond summer, and was crowded with pots hanging from iron hooks. Delectable smells of ham and beans, corn and bread and cooking fruit mingled in the moist air, noon meal in the making for the gang of hay cutters. The farmwife folded back a cloth from a lumpy row on a side table, fresh loaves from a workday that had doubtless started before dawn. Despite her nausea Fawn's mouth watered, and she picked out a loaf that the woman told her was rolled inside with crystal honey and hickory nuts. Fawn fished out a coin, wrapped the loaf in her kerchief, and took it back outside. The woman walked along with her.
"The water's clean and free, but you have to draw it yourself," the woman told her, as Fawn tore off a corner of the loaf and nibbled. "Ladle's on the hook. Which way were you heading, child?"
"By yourself?" The woman frowned. "Do you have people there?"
"Yes," Fawn lied.
"Shame on them, then. Word is there's a pack of robbers on the road near Glassforge. They shouldn't have sent you out by yourself."
"South or north of town?" asked Fawn in worry.
"A ways south, I heard, but there's no saying they'll stay put."
"I'm only going as far south as Glassforge." Fawn set the bread on the bench beside her pack, freed the latch for the crank, and let the bucket fall till a splash echoed back up the well's cool stone sides, then began turning.
Robbers did not sound good. Still, they were a frank hazard. Any fool would know enough not to go near them. When Fawn had started on this miserable journey six days ago, she had cadged rides from wagons at every chance as soon as she'd walked far enough from home not to risk encountering someone who knew her. Which had been fine until that one fellow who'd said stupid things that made her very uncomfortable and followed up with a grab and a grope. Fawn had managed to break away, and the man had not been willing to abandon his rig and restive team to chase her down, but she might have been less lucky. After that, she'd hidden discreetly in the verge from the occasional passing carts until she was sure there was a woman or a family aboard.
The few bites of bread were helping settle her stomach already. She hoisted the bucket onto the bench and took the wooden dipper the woman handed down to her. The water tasted of iron and old eggs, but was clear and cold. Better. She would rest a while on this bench in the shade, and perhaps this afternoon she would make better time.
From the road to the north, hoofbeats and a jingle of harness sounded. No creak or rattle of wheels, but quite a lot of hooves. The farmwife glanced up, her eyes narrowing, and her hand rose to the cord on the bell clapper.
"Child," she said, "see those old apple trees at the side of the yard? Why don't you just go skin up one and stay quiet till we see what this is, eh?"
Fawn thought of several responses, but settled on, "Yes'm." She started across the yard, turned back and grabbed her loaf, then trotted to the small grove. The closest tree had a set of boards nailed to the side like a ladder, and she scrambled up quickly through branches thick with leaves and hard little green apples. Her dress was dyed dull blue, her jacket brown; she would blend with the shadows here as well as she had on the road verge, likely. She braced herself along a branch, tucked in her pale hands and lowered her face, shook her head, and peered out through the cascade of black curls falling over her forehead.
The mob of riders turned into the yard, and the farmwife came off her tense toes, shoulders relaxing. She released the bell cord. There must have been a dozen and a half horses, of many colors, but all rangy and long-legged. The riders wore mostly dark clothing, had saddlebags and bedrolls tied behind their cantles, and—Fawn's breath caught—long knives and swords hanging from their belts. Many also bore bows, unstrung athwart their backs, and quivers full of arrows.
No, not all men. A woman rode out of the pack, slid from her horse, and nodded to the farmwife. She was dressed much as the rest, in riding trousers and boots and a long leather vest, and had iron-gray hair braided and tied in a tight knot at her nape. The men wore their hair long too: some braided back or tied in queues, with decorations of glass beads or bright metal or colored threads twisted in, some knotted tight and plain like the woman's.
Lakewalkers. A whole patrol of them, apparently. Fawn had seen their kind only once before, when she'd come with her parents and brothers to Lumpton Market to buy special seed, glass jars, rock oil and wax, and dyes. Not a patrol, that time, but a clan of traders from the wilderness up around the Dead Lake, who had brought fine furs and leathers and odd woodland produce and clever metalwork and more secret items: medicines, or maybe subtle poisons. The Lakewalkers were rumored to practice black sorcery.
Other, less unlikely rumors abounded. Lakewalker kinfolk did not settle in one place, but moved about from camp to camp depending on the needs of the season. No man among them owned his own land, carefully parceling it out amongst his heirs, but considered the vast wild tracts to be held in common by all his kin. A man owned only the clothes he stood in, his weapons, and the catches of his hunts. When they married, a woman did not become mistress of her husband's house, obliged to the care of his aging parents; instead a man moved into the tents of his bride's mother, and became as a son to her family. There were also whispers of strange bed customs among them which, maddeningly, no one would confide to Fawn.
On one thing, the folks were clear. If you suffered an incursion by a blight bogle, you called in the Lakewalkers. And you did not cheat them of their pay once they had removed the menace.
Fawn was not entirely sure she believed in blight bogles. For all the tall tales, she had never encountered one in her life, no, nor known anyone else who had, either. They seemed like ghost stories, got up to thrill the shrewd listeners and frighten the gullible ones. She had been gulled by her snickering older brothers far too many times to rise readily to the bait anymore.
She froze again when she realized that one of the patrollers was walking toward her tree. He looked different than the others, and it took her a moment to realize that his dark hair was not long and neatly braided, but cut short to an untidy tousle. He was alarmingly tall, though, and very lean. He yawned and stretched, and something glinted on his left hand. At first Fawn thought it was a knife, then realized with a slight chill that the man had no left hand. The glint was from some sort of hook or clamp, but how it was fastened to his wrist beneath his long sleeve she could not see. To her dismay, he ambled into the shade directly below her, there to lower his long body, prop his back comfortably against her tree trunk, and close his eyes.
Fawn jerked and nearly fell out of the tree when the farmwife reached up and rang her bell after all. Two loud clanks and three, repeated: evidently a signal or call, not an alarm, for she was talking all the time in an animated way with the patroller woman. Now that Fawn's eyes had time to sort them out in their strange garb, she could see three or four more women among the men. A couple of men busied themselves at the well, hauling up the bucket to slosh the water into the wooden trough on the side opposite the bench; others led their horses in turn to drink. A boy loped around the outbuildings in answer to the bell, and the farmwife sent him with several more of the patrollers into the barn. Two of the younger women followed the farmwife into her house, and came out in a while with packets wrapped in cloth—more of the good farm food, obviously. The others emerged from the barn lugging sacks of what Fawn supposed must be grain for their horses.
They all met again by the well, where a brief, vigorous conversation ensued between the farmwife and the gray-haired patroller woman. It ended with a counting over of sacks and packets in return for coins and some small items from the patroller saddlebags that Fawn could not make out, to the apparent satisfaction of both sides. The patrol broke up into small groups to seek shade around the yard and share food.
The patrol leader walked over to Fawn's tree and sat down cross-legged beside the tall man. "You have the right idea, Dag."
A grunt. If the man opened his eyes, Fawn could not tell; her leaf-obstructed view was now of two ovals, one smooth and gray, the other ruffled and dark. And a lot of booted leg, stretched out.
"So what did your old friend have to say?" asked the man. His low voice sounded tired, or maybe it was just naturally raspy. "Malice confirmed, or not?"
"Rumors of bandits only, so far, but a lot of disappearances around Glassforge. With no bodies found."
"Here, eat." She handed him something, ham wrapped in bread judging by the enticing aroma that rose to Fawn. The woman lowered her voice. "You feel anything yet?"
"You have better groundsense than I do," he mumbled around a mouthful. "If you don't, I surely won't."
"Experience, Dag. I've been in on maybe nine kills in my life. You've done what—fifteen? Twenty?"
"More, but the rest were just little ones. Lucky finds."
"Lucky ha, and little ones count just the same. They'd have been big ones by the next year." She took a bite of her own food, chewed, and sighed. "The children are excited."
"Noticed. They're going to start setting each other off if they get wound up much tighter."
A snort, presumably of agreement.
The raspy voice grew suddenly urgent. "If we do find the malice's lair, put the youngsters to the back."
"Can't. They need the experience, just as we did."
A mutter: "Some experiences no one needs."
The woman ignored this, and said, "I thought I'd pair Saun with you."
"Spare me. Unless I'm pulling camp guard duty. Again."
"Not this time. The Glassforge folk are offering a passel of men to help."
"Ah, spare us all. Clumsy farmers, worse than the children."
"It's their folk being lost. They've a right."
"Doubt they could even take out real bandits." He added after a moment, "Or they would have by now." And after another, "If they are real bandits."
"Thought I'd stick the Glassforgers with holding the horses, mostly. If it is a malice, and if it's grown as big as Chato fears, we'll need every pair of our hands to the front."
A short silence. "Poor word choice, Mari."
"Bucket's over there. Soak your head, Dag. You know what I meant."
The right hand waved. "Yeah, yeah."
With an oof, the woman rose to her feet. "Eat. That's an order, if you like."
"I'm not nervy."
"No"—the woman sighed—"no, you are not that." She strode off.
The man settled back again. Go away, you, Fawn thought down at him resentfully. I have to pee.
But in a few minutes, just before she was driven by her body's needs into entirely unwelcome bravery, the man got up and wandered after the patrol leader. His steps were unhurried but long, and he was across the yard before the leader gave a vague wave of her hand and a side glance. Fawn could not see how it could be an order, yet somehow, everyone in the patrol was suddenly up and in motion, saddlebags repacked, girths tightened. The whole lot of them were mounted and on their way in five minutes.
Fawn slipped down the tree trunk and peered around it. The one-handed man—riding rear guard?—was looking back over his shoulder. She ducked out of sight again till the hoofbeats faded, then unclutched the apple tree and went to seek the farmwife. Her pack, she was relieved to see in passing, lay untouched on the bench.
Dag glanced back, wondering anew about the little farm girl who'd been hiding shyly up the apple tree. There, now—down she slid, but he still gained no clear look at her. Not that a few leaves and branches could hide a life-spark so bright from his groundsense at that range.
His mind's eye sketched a picture of her tidy farm raided by a malice's mud-men, all its cheerful routine turned to ash and blood and charnel smoke. Or worse—and not imagination but memory supplied the vision—a ruination like the Western Levels beyond the Gray River, not six hundred miles west of here. Not so far away to him, who had ridden or walked the distance a dozen times, yet altogether beyond these local people's horizons. Endless miles of open flat, so devastated that even rocks could not hold their shape and slumped into gray dust. To cross that vast blight leached the ground from one's body as a desert parched the mouth, and it was just as potentially lethal to linger there. A thousand years of sparse rains had only begun to sculpt the Levels into something resembling a landscape again. To see this farm girl's green rolling lands laid low like that . . .
Not if I can help it, Little Spark.
He doubted they would meet again, or that she would ever know what her—mother's?—strange customers today sought to do on her behalf and their own. Still, he could not begrudge her his weariness in this endless task. The country people who gained even a partial understanding of the methods called it black necromancy and sidled away from patrollers in the street. But they accepted their gift of safety all the same. So yet again, one more time anew, we will buy the death of this malice with one of our own.
But not more than one, not if he could make it so.
Dag clapped his heels to his horse's sides and cantered after his patrol.
The farmwife watched thoughtfully as Fawn packed up her bedroll, straightened the straps, and hitched it over her shoulder once more. "It's near a day's ride to Glassforge from here," she remarked. "Longer, walking. You're like to be benighted on the road."
"It's all right," said Fawn. "I've not had trouble finding a place to sleep." Which was true enough. It was easy to find a cranny to curl up in out of sight of the road, and bedtime was a simple routine when all you did was spread a blanket and lie down, unwashed and unbrushed, in your clothes. The only pests that had found her in the dark were the mosquitoes and ticks.
"You could sleep in the barn. Start off early tomorrow." Shading her eyes, the woman stared down the road where the patrollers had vanished a while ago. "I'd not charge you for it, child."
Her honest concern for Fawn's safety stood clear in her face. Fawn was torn between unjust anger and a desire to burst into tears, equally uncomfortable lumps in her stomach and throat. I'm not twelve, woman. She thought of saying so, and more. She had to start practicing it sooner or later: I'm twenty. I'm a widow. The phrases did not rise readily to her lips as yet.
Still . . . the farmwife's offer beguiled her mind. Stay a day, do a chore or two or six and show how useful she could be, stay another day, and another . . . farms always needed more hands, and Fawn knew how to keep hers busy. Her first planned act when she reached Glassforge was to look for work. Plenty of work right here—familiar tasks, not scary and strange.
But Glassforge had been the goal of her imagination for weeks now. It seemed like quitting to stop short. And wouldn't a town offer better privacy? Not necessarily, she realized with a sigh. Wherever she went, folks would get to know her sooner or later. Maybe it was all the same, no new horizons anywhere, really.
She mustered her flagging determination. "Thanks, but I'm expected. Folk'll worry if I'm late."
The woman gave a little headshake, a combination of conceding the argument and farewell. "Take care, then." She turned back to her house and her own onslaught of tasks, duties that probably kept her running from before dawn to after dark.
A life I would have taken up, except for Sunny Sawman, Fawn thought gloomily, climbing back up to the straight road once more. I'd have taken it up for the sake of Sunny Sawman, and never thought of another.
Well, I've thought of another now, and I'm not going to go and unthink it. Let's go see Glassforge.
One more time, she called up her wearied fury with Sunny, the low, stupid, nasty . . . stupid fool, and let it stiffen her spine. Nice to know he had a use after all, of a sort. She faced south and began marching.
The foregoing is excerpted from The Sharing Knife Volume One by Lois Bujold. All rights reserved.
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