Image by Karen Marker
Korleth sat cross-legged on the landing, peering down between the newel posts and letting the cacophony from the Final Rest Inn's common room wash over her. Her increasingly practiced eyes flitted over the crowd, searching for a likely target. It had to be someone who was free with his coin but not so free as to attract the attention of the thugs scattered with arrogantly apparent motives among the notorious inn's crowd of regulars. And, of course, it had to be someone drunk; that much was obvious. But it also, she reminded herself, has to be someone I can outrun if things go badly, as they had four or five towns back. What had been the name of that place? The Broken Cat Tavern? The Green Hat Tavern? She sighed. It didn't matter, they had slipped out of town before word could spread, her Uncle Dunn cursing her and complaining the whole time about having to sleep out in the open again. In any case, the first part was easy; the room was filled nearly to overflowing with happily soused travelers seeking shelter from the unusually crisp autumn night.
The combined smells of roasting pork, fresh sawdust and strong beer battled with the stench of unwashed bodies for dominance in her nose. She hadn't eaten since morning when her uncle had doled out unequal portions of stale hard tack and her mouth watered with imagined possibilities.
Untethered, her mind drifted back to events earlier in the day. They had arrived that afternoon looking for a cheap room. Second-rate accommodations were all her uncle would ever pay for though he was happy enough to part with coin in exchange for a good pint of ale or four. Uncle Dunn had been haggling with the innkeeper over price when Korleth had turned to survey the common room. What she had seen had made her eyes widen and her jaw drop. It was the largest fireplace she had ever seen. The single black hearthstone that dominated the Final Rest's fireplace was easily five times as long as she was tall and occupied the common room's entire East wall. Even at that early hour, a fat pig had been rotating on a spit under the bored ministrations of a hollow-eyed boy close to her own age. Forgetting herself, she had exclaimed in a sort of thrilled wonder, “Uncle Dunn, do you see -”
Her uncle, a large unshaven man with a false smile and eyes that wandered in her direction in a way that made her nervous of late, had gruffly cuffed her ear and told her to, “quit acting like such a bumpkin.”
Grintl, her little goat of a sister, had chimed in, “Yeah, Korleth, don't be such a pumpkin!” And, oh, how that had made her uncle laugh. And he kept laughing until noticing a stranger staring at him from the gloom of the common room's afternoon shadows with apparent distaste.
“Wha'd you be staring at, stranger?” he demanded.
The man, a Katerian by his short stocky build and dark hair, only shook his head and turned back to his meal. The metal beads dangling from the ends of the man's braided black and gray-tinged beard rattled softly on the oaken table before him. The sound seemed loud in room's midday emptiness.
“What!” her uncle insisted, taking a first step in the man's direction.
“Do you want a room or not?” the man behind the bar inquired, clearly impatient.
Uncle Dunn had let it go and turned back to the business at hand, praise the Gods. She had been afraid that he was going to make another scene. He hadn't then but an hour later, in their room, he did decide to come back and milk Grintl's little mistake with a malicious gleam in his eye. “Yeah, Kori. Don't be such a pumpkin!” he had said in a falsetto imitation of Grintl's voice and his mean-spirited guffaw had rumbled forth. Each time it earned him a curious grin from little Grintl who clearly didn't understand what was so funny but who did understand that if uncle was in good spirits, she might get something other than stale bread for dinner.
It's so unfair! Korleth thought, forcing her mind back to the present.
So? Why don't you just run? Why not just hop on the back of a passing wagon? You'll be gone a full day before he really gets around to believing you're gone. It was the voice that Korleth sometimes heard in her head at night while staring at the water-stained ceiling of a strange room, or when shivering under a thin cotton blanket while sleeping in the rain. It always told her to run while she could; to look after herself first. It was dangerous, that voice, always so persuasive.
No! she told it. Grintl's a fart-eating goat sometimes but I can't just leave her behind!
Couldn't you, Korleth? Uncle Dunn won't do anything to her.
But wouldn't he, she wondered. If she left, she wasn't so sure that Uncle Dunn would put up with Grintl very long.
Korleth discovered without much surprise that the sharp throb that had been taking up residence at the base of her skull the past few weeks had returned. She hugged her knobby knees against the twin swells of her fourteen-year old breasts as if by doing so she might arrest their growth, as if they were to blame for her glances she had caught her uncle giving her when he thought she wasn't looking. Glances that made her skin crawl.
Still watching the crowd from the landing, Korleth let the fingers of her right hand stole to her throat and sought out the wooden medallion that she wore on a leather thong around her neck. Without thought, she traced the symbol carved into its face with the pad of her index finger as her mother had taught her to do when she found herself angry or afraid. Trying to ignore the throb at the back of her head, Korleth took a deep breath, let it out slowly, forcing her shoulders to relax. She turned her attention back toward the rush of sound below and let her eyes drift, focusing on nothing and everything at the same time. She felt her breathing slowly settle into a deep, even rhythm and the common room in front of her began to swim. Even the sounds became muffled as if she were hearing them from a neighboring room.
Sometimes when she gripped the medallion and closed her eyes she felt she could “see,” even better than when her eyes were open. The clutter of everyday life before her would disappear but the pink tinged afterimage on the inside of her eyelids somehow captured the essence of the scene. This second seeing, as she thought of it, hid the mundane details; the everyday bustle blurred in her mind's eye and got fuzzy around the edges. But as the scene moved - and moved it did, she could see the action continue just as if her eyes were open - she found that the important objects or people stood out. They picked up faint multicolored glows. Exactly why something or someone stood out when she closed her eyes was a mystery. For now, it was enough just to be able to see who might be an easy target and who might get in her way.
From her vantage point on the landing, most of the room was visible. Over next to the door the outline of the imposing Khaj doorman was plainly discernible in a pale halo of rusty orange. There, next to the fire, a purple hand slipped the purse off an unsuspecting traveler's belt. On the other side of the room, an amulet, wrapped in a beautiful glow of amber, stood out like a blazing star on a moonless night against a sultry woman's breastbone.
As she watched the scene unfold, a not-quite-random pattern of dull gray and sickly green auras over in the far corner gradually drew her attention. She saw a flash of ochre as a slim dagger was passed furtively under the table between what she recognized immediately as two of “the dangerous ones.” In the corner itself, hemmed in by this invisible gauntlet, sat a figure whose bright blue glow threatened to flatten all the other auras into pallid and watery pastels. With a growing sense of wonder and alarm, Korleth watched as the figure's head slowly, almost ponderously, turned in her direction. At once its halo began to brighten.
Korleth's eyelids flew open. The figure's blue outlines were replaced by the solid lines and features of a man with the braided beard. It was the same Katerian who Uncle Dunn had tried to goad into a confrontation earlier that afternoon. His eyes, nearly hidden in the deep recesses of his heavy brow, blazed at her, into her, with that same brilliant blue that had surrounded him moments earlier in her mind. That gaze pinned her where she sat.
You, child! Where did you get such a power? a booming voice demanded. The man's mouth hadn't moved but Korleth had no doubt to whom the voice belonged and she winced as echoes rebounded into all the far hollow reaches of her head.
She found her arms and legs in passive rebellion as she ordered them to help her stand. As the panic beast pushed past her defenses - and hadn't it only been lying in wait for such a chance - Korleth closed her eyes and shook her head violently from side to side. Her fist tightened on the medallion around her neck and just as suddenly as they had gone traitor, her limbs were once again free and on the move.
And now, another voice, this one shrill and familiar, spoke up. Run, Korleth. Run you silly fool! Run, run, run! For once, Korleth agreed and sprang to her feet. As she turned toward the steps to the second floor, she caught a brief glimpse of the Katerian striding across the floor of the common room, the crowd parting before him like water before the prow of a heavy ship. In that glimpse, she saw something else as well; several of the men with the gray and green auras were nonchalantly rising from their seats and converging on the Katerian from behind. And then her feet were pounding up the steps.
Korleth's feet nearly flew from beneath her as she rounded the corner at the top of the stairs and fairly charged into the arms of a gruff, heavy set man clearly on his way down to join the evening's revelry. She would likely have rebounded down the stairs if the man hadn't caught her by the uppers arms.
“Whoa, there, little one,” the man said. “Where're you going in such an all-fired hurry?” The man, middle aged and nearly as obese as her uncle, wore threadbare traveling clothes and stank of garlic and weeks-old sweat. The smells made Korleth feel dizzy.
“No. Let me go.” She recognized the panicked voice as her own only vaguely. The sound of heavy, deliberate footsteps ascending the stairs reached her and she pleaded, “Please, sir.”
“Sure, Luv,” he said, wearing a half-smile of curious interest and releasing his grip on her arms. “But you ought'nt go busting around corners like-”
But Korleth was already pounding down the hallway toward the T where the hall split left and right. She was just on the verge of turning right, toward the room she and Uncle Dunn and Grintl were sharing, when it dawned on her that no safety lay in that direction. At best, she could expect a sour welcome from Uncle Dunn if she stormed into the room with trouble on her tail. He would surely beat her soundly once they were safely out of town.
She turned back to look the way she had come. An involuntary squeak escaped her lips as the Katerian, not much taller than Korleth herself but much heavier, arrived at the top of the landing behind her and turned in her direction. She swiveled her head to the left and made out what appeared to be a back set of stairs leading down. Without a backward glance, she threw herself pell-mell in that direction.
Korleth had no idea how many twists and turns she had taken but eventually she found herself pushing open a heavy, iron-bound door and stepping into a squalid courtyard at the rear of the inn. She gasped hoarse gusts of steaming breath into the heavy shadows as she fought to catch her wind. To her right she could just make out the outline of the stables. She was tempted by the thought of burying herself into the sweet smelling hay in the loft. She thought better of it, deciding that would probably be the first place he would look.
To her left, she could see the square-shouldered outlines of a low stone building standing to the rear of the courtyard, back against the high wall that surrounded the inn. The shadows in that area seemed denser, heavier somehow, in that part of the courtyard. It was almost as if the faint glow of light leaking out from the safely shuttered rooms above was swallowed up when it shown in that direction.
For a moment she was tempted to take her chances in the hayloft but then her street intuition kicked in and she reminded herself that shadows were exactly what she wanted right now. She swallowed her foreboding, pulled up the collar of the short cape she was wearing against the chill, and headed into the deeper shadows surrounding the stone outbuilding.
She had just managed to squeeze into the narrow gap between the building and the wall, skinning her ankle in the process, when a spear of dim light stabbed out of the door through which she had come only moments earlier. The Katerian stood in the doorway, feet spread, staff planted on the lintel next to his right foot, and turned his head slowly from side to side as if sniffing the air. His shadow seemed to ride the spike of illumination leaking out of the inn like it was some great imaginary beast.
Oh, Korleth. You've done it now you addlebrained cow. You've let yourself be chased into a dead end. With all that noise going on in the common room do you think they'd hear one young girl out back? And even if they did, do you think any of them would care? Yon man is likely going to have your hide as a trophy. Korleth wasn't surprised to hear the voice of Little-Miss-Runaway in her head again. Nor was she surprised that this voice seemed to have forgotten that running is what got her here in the first place.
Korleth felt a burning in her chest and realized she had been holding her breath, afraid that even that tiny sound would give her away. Go on, go on, she thought, her held breath slowly turning her lungs into a single scorching ball of liquid fire. Whatever you wanted with me, I'm gone. So just go back in where it's warm and your coin can buy you a nip to fight off the night's chill.
The Katerian took two large steps into the courtyard and let the door swing closed behind him on mildly protesting hinges. The courtyard was thrown once more into darkness though Korleth could still see his short tree-trunk like outline next to the building some thirty or so paces away.
Unable to hold her breath any longer, Korleth pursed her lips in an effort to let built up pressure escape in a small quiet stream. Her body, however, had other ideas. As soon as the gate of her mouth was cracked open the breath exploded out of her in a rush of invisible steam.
The shadowy outline of the man's head cocked to the side. For a moment the posture gave him the eerie look of a man hanging from a gallows. She nearly yelped when he turned and started in her direction.
Korleth heard that same voice inside her head that she had heard earlier when the Katerian had looked at her. The urgency was gone now, however. It had been replaced by, what, patience?
There's no reason to be afraid, child. I want to help, not to-
At that moment the inn's back door banged open again. Korleth had only a moment to praise the Gods for providing a distraction before she recognized three of the thugs who'd been tailing her pursuer. While she was afforded only enough of a glimpse of the newcomers to recognize them as the same men who had been sporting the gray-green auras, it was clear that each of these thugs was easily a head taller than the Katerian who had turned to face them. Korleth's short-lived sense of elation was immediately replaced by one of foreboding. At least it was only three of the seven, or had it been eight, that she had identified as potential problems.
“Ho there, Spug,” said one of the men. “Nice 'a ya to come out back here, without an invitation. Weren't he, fellas?”
There was an assenting guttural grunt from one of the man's two companions.
Stay there, child. Not a sound, do you hear? Not a sound!
The Katerian, ignoring the insult, regarded the three men converging on him for what seemed an eternity before replying. “Now what would you gentlemen want?” His voice was calm and laced with just a tinge of sarcasm.
“Me an' the boys?” the group's leader asked lightly. “Oh, we just wanted to have us a little talk with you about some property of ours you seem ta' be carryin'.” The three men, arranged in a rough line, had stopped five paces short of the Katerian who had planted his wooden staff defiantly, and somehow threateningly, in front of him.
“Whoa there, Spug” said the leader. “Don't get your tits in a wringer. We just want to have us a little chat's all.”
“I've nothing of yours, as you well know.” As he said this, the Katerian's left hand gave a sharp tug and pulled the leather hood from the staff's head, exposing a crystal the size of Korleth's fist. “Neither do I have the time nor inclination to stand here in the cold and banter with you over the merits and dangers of waylaying strangers on the road.”
Korleth watched, almost mesmerized, as the crystal head of the staff took on a faint blue glow, the milky color of pond ice in the middle of winter. As the Katerian spoke, the glow began to flicker and intensify, filling the courtyard in a harsh cold light and throwing dancing shadows into the far corners. From behind him the Katerian's outline seemed to take on titanic proportions. “If you think that the three of you are strong enough to rob someone of my Order, then you may have a bitter surprise in your near future.”
“N-no, Spug. Honest. We may have made a mistake.” It seemed to Korleth that the man's earlier bluster had been replaced by a quiver of fear. “We were just having us a little fun's all.” Korleth realized there was something queer about that voice. He and his two companions weren't backing away. They seemed to be backing off a bit but they were really just moving around to either side. It dawned on her that the tremor in the thug's voice wasn't caused by fear, at least not all of it, but also by a growing excitement; the fever of the hunter closing in for the kill.
But why aren't they afraid, she wondered. They should be. Gods! They should be!
Korleth heard the faint scrape of leather on stone to her left from atop the high wall that enclosed the courtyard not six paces from where she hid and the mystery of the bandit's lack of fear was solved. She watched in muted awe, as a man pulled himself smoothly up. Once there, he knelt and laid an arrow with practiced silence across the string of the bow he held in his left hand.
Oh, you jackals, she thought. You backstabbing, thieving jackals! She was only mildly surprised to learn that sometime during the past few seconds her allegiance seemed to have shifted to the Katerian. Perhaps her experience with Uncle Dunn these past few months had made her more sensitive to the avarice of bullies.
She started to cry out a warning but then bit it back. No, Korleth! You can't. These men aren't just bullies, they're bandits! And once they know you're here, seeing this… Little-Miss-Runaway's voice was back in her head and for the second time in a day Korleth was forced into frustrated agreement. It seemed her sensitivity to bullies was not the only part of her affected by her recent travels. Her instinct for survival had been sharpened as well.
The group's leader shifted his gaze upward and over the Katerian's shoulder, toward where the bowman perched on the wall. His eyes grew wide with triumph and from a sheath behind him he drew forth a wicked looking dagger, its burnished blade at least a foot long.
With growing horror, Korleth understood that these men had no intention of simply robbing the Katerian. They meant to kill him. Looking at the man's wide, excited eyes, she guessed that murder was almost as dominant a reason for waylaying this short man as was the robbery.
The Katerian, perhaps having read the leader's glance over his shoulder as a clever ruse, stood where he was, feet spread shoulder width apart, unaware of the danger behind him. With a soft whisper of words Korleth couldn't make out, he raised his staff a few inches off the ground and suddenly brought it down into the packed earth with a muffled thump. Blue fire sprang from the crystal, arching across the ten feet to the thugs in a silent flash. The leader cried out in agony as slivers of electric ice flashed up his dagger, into his arm and across his chest leaving little trails of crystalline electricity behind them. The man's lips pulled back from yellow teeth in a grimace and he collapsed in an ungainly heap.
At the same moment, there was a muted thip! from the bowman on the wall and an arrow sprouted from the center of the Katerian's back. Korleth watched as he staggered, using his staff for balance, trying to maintain his feet. The light from the crystal snapped out, as if it had been suddenly covered. As he sank to one knee, the two remaining thugs sprang in and were on him, clubbing him until he lay sprawled face down on the cold earth.
In moments, the thugs had rifled through the Katerian's clothing, snapping up a purse, a gold chain and the now dark staff.
“Hurry, dammit,” the bowman said, clambering down off the wall and taking up the reigns of command. “Someone's likely to have heard that stupid sot's cry.” Pointing to the taller of the remaining two thugs he said, “Check to see if Jarred's alive.”
The taller thug hesitated a moment, as if thinking over how taking directions from someone other than his leader might play out in the weeks ahead, then gave a little shrug and bent down over the leader's body.
“Ya, he's breathing.”
“It figures,” The bowman growled. “He didn't have the sense to just die outright. Now we'll have to carry the bastard.”
The three of them gathered up their fallen leader and together they half carried and half dragged his limp body out a hidden gate in the courtyard's rear wall.
When the sounds of the thugs had moved off, Korleth cautiously emerged from her hiding place. Despite the bandits' fears, no help seemed to be coming from the inn.
Now you've done it right and proper, Korleth, she chastised herself. This man probably meant no harm and here he lies, no doubt dead. You'd better get your skinny shins moving and get out of here before someone does come.
But she found that she couldn't. Was the Katerian dead? Almost surely. The arrow seemed to be buried a full third of its length into his back. But that was just it, wasn't it; she didn't know he was dead. She had no idea what he had wanted of her but regardless of her fear, he hadn't seemed to mean her harm. She couldn't just leave him lying face down in the dirt to die without first checking.
Darting quick furtive glances toward the inn's rear windows, Korleth moved to where his body lay. A gust of cold October wind picked up some leaves and sent them skittering and twirling across the ground in a mini whirlwind. Korleth felt the wind's icy fingers caress the sweat at the base of her neck and was gripped by an uncontrollable shiver.
When she reached him, she bent low and placed a small cold hand next to his mouth. She almost jumped out of her skin when the body before her-for that's what she had assumed it was-let out a low moaning groan of pain. She was halfway to her feet and ready to flee when she regained control over herself and knelt back down. No, he's not dead yet. But he's in no shape to do me any harm, now is he? she scolded herself.
She pulled on the Katerian's shoulder, rolling him, with some effort, onto his side. She was rewarded with another agonized groan accompanied by several wet hacking coughs that left dark wet flecks on the ground beside his face.
The man opened his eyes, even that seemed an effort, and Korleth was struck by the depth of understanding that seemed to well up within them. Who was this strange man, she wondered. And what did he want of me?
His lips moved and a hoarse whisper reluctantly emerged. “Did they take the staff?”
Korleth nodded. “Yes. And your purse, too. You should be quiet. You're badly injured. I'll see if I can find a healer. Surely there must be one-” Korleth again started to get to her feet.
“No!” His voice was strident but softened almost immediately. “No need, child. I am beyond the help of any healer, I think.” With that, the Katerian nodded almost imperceptibly as if confirming his own suspicions. “I thought the staff was what they were after. I was careless to have…” He was once again wracked by a fit of coughing that left him gasping for breath. When the coughing passed, he continued. “But they didn't get the most precious prize, did they now?” And the slightest of smiles touched his lips.
A small fraction of the power that had first sent Korleth running now returned to his eyes. “Common thieves often overlook the unpolished diamond.”
“I don't understand,” Korleth said.
“Could I but be around to see it,” he said almost to himself, ruefully. His eyes had drifted away from her for a moment but now returned. “Inside my left sleeve… is a concealed pocket.” The Katerian's eyelids drooped and Korleth saw him exert an enormous effort and they swung upward once more.
Korleth reached hesitantly into the sleeve of his oversize traveling robe. Almost immediately she felt something hard and heavy. Her nimble fingers soon extracted the object from its nest of overlaying folds and brought it out.
“Is this it?” she asked, holding up to him what appeared to be a smooth black river stone with a rune carved on it's face. “But it's just a stone.”
“Not just a stone!” he demanded in a whisper. “Power, child. Power” With a huge effort he reached forth a shaking hand toward the wooden charm about Korleth's neck. “Power like this,” he said and tapped her once on the breastbone with a thick, trembling finger before dropping his hand back to his side.
“I want you to take it child.” And now the man's voice was so low Korleth had to lean forward and put her ear nearly against his lips to hear him. “Return it to my Order if you can. Use it if you must. But be careful. Its use comes with a price. Sometimes … sometimes…” Korleth bent still closer to hear this last. Only after several moments did she understand that this strange man had passed into the period of waiting that all creatures must endure before being born again into the world.
She felt an unaccountable sadness then. She had not known this man but she thought she might have wanted to. Now that path was closed and what lay before her was that same road over which she had been dragging her tired feet for the past several weeks; shuffling from one dirty town, one greasy tavern, to the next. Never really stopping, never getting to know anyone.
She lifted the stone up so what little light there was shown on its black face. Its dull gently rounded surface seemed to somehow absorb the light. She held the cool heavy weight in her left hand and with the fingertips of her right she traced the symbol that had been so delicately carved into its surface. At once the stone seemed to grow warm and the outline that her finger had traced took on that same milky ice blue glow that had blazed from the crystal staff head just moments ago. She was so startled by this change that she had to stifle the urge to drop it. She did manage to stifle it-though a nervous little chirp escaped her-and was rewarded by a pleasant sense of calm expectancy. It was like the charged feeling in the air just before a terrific storm but instead of inspiring dread, Korleth found that the feeling it gave her was one almost of exultation. This sensation of immense power waiting to be unleashed flowed outward from the stone and into the farthest corners of her body, driving her fear and fatigue before it like a forest fire. Gooseflesh broke out on her arms and the hairs at the nape of her neck rose in silent anticipation.
Korleth was vaguely aware that she was allowing herself to get lost in the sensations rolling through her. She was also aware that at any moment someone might decide to look out their window at the back of the inn, or to check on their horse in the nearby stables, and that she had be discovered kneeling here next to a murdered man's body. There would be questions and, quite possibly, accusations. It would make no difference, she knew, that an arrow had killed him and that she had no bow, or arrows for that matter. Korleth had enough experience to know that in such situations emotions ran high and logic seemed always to be at low tide. But the glowing warmth coursing through her felt so wonderful that she thought she might happily sit here all night, blithely ignoring the voice of caution, if she could only go on feeling this wonderful surging power.
After perhaps a minute of mind-numbing intoxication, Korleth once remembered something the Katerian had said. Hadn't he murmured something about a price for using the stone? She supposed that he might have been referring to a price paid in coin but, looking once more at the body in front of her, she didn't think that was it. She guessed that the price paid had something to do with the sensations the stone gave to the one who used it.
Slowly, reluctantly, Korleth slid the black stone into a pocket sown into her simple dress. Almost immediately the sensations of power slipped away. The stone still felt warm against her skin through the course fabric but now the mantle of fatigue and fear that been following her around for so long draped itself once more across her slim shoulders. Only now it felt as if the weight of that imaginary garment, woven of two parts anxiety and one part exhaustion, had increased several fold.
Brushing the dirt from her dress, Korleth struggled to a standing position. At once her vision clouded around the edges as the shadows filling the courtyard seemed to rush in at her from all sides. She bent over, placing her hands on her knobby knees and closed her eyes until the feeling of light-headedness that had threatened to seize her passed.
Gods! I've never felt so tired, she thought. I'll be lucky if I can climb the stairs back to the room. She looked back down at the dark form of the Katerian sprawled at her feet. I really should do something about him, though. I can't just leave him here to grow cold, alone in the darkness of this filthy place where any passing stray dog can call him dinner.
She thought briefly about getting help from the inn and dismissed the idea almost as soon as it arrived. That would lead to questions and Uncle Dunn hated questions. As much as it chafed at her sense of right and wrong, Korleth knew that she was in no shape to go dragging a body around this small ugly town in the dead of night. And where would she take it anyway. She had heard a couple of the inn's patrons talking about a priory at the top of the hill overlooking the town. But, no, it was all she could do just to stand; someone else would have to handle this sad job. She straightened, brushed a lock of errant hair back out of her eyes with a dirty hand, and shuffled wearily back into the inn.
It took her several minutes to find the room she shared with her uncle and sister. She supposed the events of the past half hour might have something to do with the fuzziness that made thinking so difficult right now.
She knocked. The sound of heavy footsteps came to her through the door and then the wooden bolt rasped back in its slot and the door swung inward. Her Uncle Dunn loomed in the doorway, a smile painted on his face that pulled his lips back and revealed too many of his dingy ivory-colored teeth.
“Korleth, my dear, come in.”
He reached out, grabbed her firmly by the upper arm and dragged her roughly into the dimly lit room; he was no happier to spend money on candles or oil than he was on food. He closed the door hurriedly behind her and slapped home the bolt.
“We've been waiting for you. What have you got for us, dear one?” His voice seemed soft and sugary, as if drenched in honey, but there was a quavery undertone that he seemed to get lately when he had been without a drink for too long.
Korleth glanced toward the corner where Grintl had curled up on a pile of straw and fallen asleep.
“Nothing,” she said. Here it comes, she thought, he'll start shouting and…
But the sudden storm clouds that wiped the smile off her uncle's face this time weren't those of annoyance, or frustration, or even anger. They were full blown thunderheads. Uncle Dunn's face flushed bright crimson with sudden fury.
“Nothing, you stupid whelp?” His voice rose to a gravelly shout. “Then what are you doing back here?”
“There wasn't anything to be had,” she protested with the sudden panicked feeling a non-swimmer gets when they realized they've jumped into deep water. “The thugs are thick down-”
Korleth saw her uncle's meaty fist blur toward her head from the side. She saw this clearly. Duck, Korleth! a voice inside her head nearly screamed. But she found her exhausted body might as well have been made of lead for all the speed she could summon. There was a bright blaze of pain and she found herself lying in a crumpled heap on the floor, the left side of her head sending razor-sharp lances of light through her exhausted mind.
“Nothing.” her uncle repeated almost matter of factly. His voice had fallen back down to something resembling normal but a new smile was forming on his face that Korleth didn't like at all. It surfaced on his face like something dead and bloated rising toward the surface of a murky swamp.
“Well, Deary, then I guess it's time to lighten our load isn't it. I've been meaning to hold off until we reached the capital, you're being family an' all. But if you can't bring in the coin then there's too many mouths to feed around here, aren't there? You haven't left your poor old Uncle Dunn much choice.”
Korleth tried desperately to understand what he was saying, what he meant, but the immense bolts of pain that lanced through her head whenever she turned it made gathering her thoughts impossible.
She watched with bleary eyes as her uncle crossed the room and jerked Grintl roughly to her feet. Grintl, who had slept through the shouting, gave a startled groggy shriek and began to weakly flail her small hands against her uncle's chest, trying to get away. He forced her arms behind her back and gathered her in, paying no more heed to Grintl's blows than a bear might pay to the bees in a hive it was raiding.
“Stop it!” Grintl sobbed.
“What…” Korleth started. “Why…” Her head was spinning with the slowly dawning implications of what her uncle was saying.
“Of course,” he said, ignoring her partially formed questions, “I won't be able to get as much for her in this backwater.” He looked directly at Korleth, now, and when he spoke again his voice was low and harsh. “But even at this late hour I don't suppose I'll have much trouble finding a buyer.”
“Korleth?” Grintl was pleading now. Her face was laced with the hurt, pain and confusion reserved for the very young.
Korleth felt the blood draining from her own face. Her fingers seemed suddenly cold. Surely this was just her uncle's way to get her to go back down and try again. It had to be! The side of her head throbbed viciously and she remembered the terrifying fury she had seen in his eyes. Fearfully, slowly, she raised her eyes to his.
“Ah, yes,” he said. His voice had grown almost cheerful but his eyes still blazed with some terrible fever. “I see even a country girl such as you can get the drift of her circumstances if she has to.”
It was his eyes that convinced her this wasn't some cruel manipulation, that he had gone over some indefinable edge and actually meant to sell her little sister to some stranger for a few gold coins. Her mind struggled desperately for some way out of this. “M-me instead,” she said through bruised lips. “Leave her.”
He almost giggled at that. “Ho, ho! No, my dear Kori, that wouldn't do. You see I have plans for you, child-who's-not- a-child any more. I plan to enjoy your company a great deal between here and Nythoria where I may indeed find the coin you'd bring me too tempting to resist. But, no, today it's Grintl's turn.” He gave Grintl a jerk and crossed back toward where Korleth half knelt and half lay, making for the door.
Korleth dropped her head again. It seemed to have taken on an enormous weight and she thought she might never again have the strength to raise it. As her chin touched her chest, her eyes chanced across the Katerian's strange black stone laying on the warped wooden planks next to her. She realized in a detached sort of way that it must have fallen from her pocket when her uncle had knocked her down. Instinctively she reached out and snatched it, knowing only that she couldn't bear for her uncle to kick it out of the way.
As her fingers closed over the stone's smooth surface she immediately felt a molten flash of pain where the rune touched her palm. Simultaneously a huge surge of energy careened through her, ricocheting around inside her suddenly taut body like a lightning bolt caught in a small room, endlessly striking the walls and increasing in power until it chanced upon a way out. Korleth felt her back arch painfully and she flailed wildly with her free hand. Her fingers closed around some thick appendage, her uncle's ankle she supposed, and then the blinding, searing sensation of power abruptly departed. And then she was falling, spiraling into a seemingly bottomless darkness that was blissfully devoid of dreams.
When Korleth awoke it was to muscles screaming in protest, as if she had spent the previous day quarrying rock. Her whole body seemed to be one massive ache. A woman with a kind but cautious face was pressing a wooden bowl of warm broth to Korleth's lips. Korleth sipped it gratefully.
Rubbing her eyes with the fingers of her left hand cleared her vision enough to make out her surroundings. She was propped into a half sitting position on a cot in the corner of a small, neat room. Four small windows lined one wall and huge timber beams stretched to support a low ceiling. A fire blazed quietly in a stone hearth underneath a large cooking pot. Grintl, she saw, was asleep on a similar cot next to the fire. A long butcher-block table ruled the room from its center. Sitting on the far side of this scarred monolith of wood, dipping a thick crust of bread into a bowl of broth, was a gruff looking man in his middle years who she recognized as the innkeeper. He stared at her with calculating eyes.
“She's awake,” said the woman.
The innkeeper nodded. “'Bout time,” he said. His voice was surly but Korleth had an idea this tone of voice didn't come naturally to him. He looked at her a moment longer as if trying to come to a decision. “Girl, what in Gods name-”
“Uthan, can't this wait?” his wife protested quietly.
Uthan shook his head. “No. No, it can't. I've got the constable breathing down my neck about the body that was found out back and this girl's father or uncle or whatever is sleeping like the dead and can't be woken up.” He turned his attention back to Korleth and said, “I need some answers I think only you can give me.”
Korleth dropped her eyes to her lap and her recently developed street-sense jumpstarted a thousand and one lies to get her out of this situation. Then she caught sight of the bandages on her right hand. She flexed the hand tentatively and a pain, its voice previously unnoticed amongst the choir of aches that sang through her body, rolled thunderously up her arm. Korleth's eyes flew back to the innkeeper's round face.
“That stone you had must have been mighty hot when you picked it up,” he said, answering her unspoken question. “It left burns on your palm that match that rune that's carved into its surface. There's going to be scarring and from the looks of it, it'll resemble a slave mark to those who don't look carefully. That's likely to cause you trouble down the road but for now you've got enough problems standing right on your doorstep. I've put the stone in a safe place. It's yours, I suppose, but you'll not have it back until I judge it safe, for you and others. Now, it's time to let me in on what's going on.” His tone wasn't threatening, merely matter of fact.
All thoughts of deception departed. She knew she had precious few options under the circumstances. The relief she felt at this decision came as a surprise; to unburden herself of this baggage she had been carrying around to a man and woman she didn't know, brought on feelings of lightheaded release rather than fear or anger.
Besides, she thought, where am I going to go with Grintl? We've no family to return to and winter's on the way; you can tell that just by the taste of the air.
“Yes, sir. I guess that sums it up. He is, was, … my uncle.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the relief of her decision she could feel tears welling into the corners of her eyes and she quickly wiped them away with the back of her uninjured hand. She told them, then. She told them everything that she could remember. About how she and Grintl had gone to live with their uncle when their parents had died of the fever. About how her uncle had whisked the two of them off into the night to avoid the debt collectors and had forced her to steal. And, finally, about the swirling events of the previous night. Neither the innkeeper nor his wife interrupted her story with the exception of a gasp from the wife when she described how her uncle had battered her face with his fist. She left nothing out and when she reached the end, she felt numb, cold. Even the throbbing pain on the left side of her face seemed to have abated.
The innkeeper was looking at her with pursed lips, his half finished bowl of broth pushed aside.
Now he'll ask me why I didn't leave sooner. Or why I didn't warn the Katerian about the bowman on the wall. And when I can't answer, he'll know what a coward I am and he'll kick us out, she thought. But even her disappointment at this prospect seemed distant and unimportant somehow.
But there were no questions. No accusations or recriminations. The innkeeper simply looked to his wife who gave him a brief nod, and then back to Korleth.
“I can understand how it must have been,” he said. He got up slowly as if the story had made him tired, crossed to the door and pulled a cloak off a wooden peg where it hung.
Despite their understated reaction to her story, Korleth felt sure he must be preparing to go get the constable to have her removed and wondered vaguely at her own lack of alarm at the possibility. Instead, the innkeeper turned back to his wife.
“You'll be all right with them for awhile, while I get this cleared up?” he asked.
She nodded, a sad smile on her lips.
“He nodded in return and turned back to Korleth. “And your name, girl, since you're going to be staying with us for awhile?”
Korleth could only look at him, bewildered, unable to understand what he was saying. “Korleth Adriani,” she finally managed in a small voice.
“Korleth,” he repeated slowly, as if rolling the name around in his mouth, tasting it like a fine wine. “Korleth. Well, my dear, I'm Uthan and my wife there's Ginny. You mustn't look at us with such fear, Korleth. Not all men are like your uncle, though gods know, we see our fair share of his like, and more if the truth be told. You'll stay with us, if you please, and help us out with the inn as long as you've a need. I'd not turn you and your sister out with no recourse, indeed, without any family to turn to. But you'll be expected to earn your keep.”
Korleth, felt a wash of relief flood through her and felt the tears coming again when a cold spike of apprehension drove itself into her gut.
“And Uncle Dunn?” she asked.
Uthan gave her a half-smile. “Nothing to worry about there, child. The healer doesn't expect him to last out the week; seems he can't take water or food and isn't likely to be able to if her guess is any good. No. I think you need have no further fear from that corner. Welcome to Grimwell,” he said, opening the door and letting in a gust of cold autumn wind. “Now get some sleep.”
Korleth let her head fall back onto the tick pillow and let exhaustion and anguish flee before a world of possibilities. Life, it seemed, sometimes dealt good cards as well as dark. She closed here eyes gratefully and found the Katerian's final words echoing once more in her mind. “Return it to my Order if you can. Use it if you must. But be careful. Its use comes with a price. But sometimes … sometimes…” But sometimes, Korleth thought as she sank into the warm embrace of sleep, sometimes, the gods decide to smile.
So began in Grimwell, at a crossroad familiar to both the famous and infamous, the story of Korleth, Archmage of Timberheim and Warden of the Western March.
*** The End ***