Tears stained the grubby cheeks of the small boy who passed through the kitchen. He hoped no one noticed him. He filched a sticky bun from a tray cooling at the end of the large table. A wooden spoon rapped his wrist, and he almost dropped the sweet.
“Ask next time, boy,” said a gruff voice, and the cook laughed and shooed him on.
He flashed a practiced I’m-just-a-sweet-mischievous-boy grin back at her, but inside the worm of hatred and jealousy continued eating his soul. Even the cook had the talent he lacked. He didn’t rub his wrist until he was out of her sight. She'd smacked the bruise his brother gave him at weapons practice.
His younger brother, who beat him at sword practice again. They were the same size though the boy was older by two years. His brother always beat him. To make it worse, Daryl felt so guilty when he did— like today—that he offered hints and advice about sword moves as if he were a mighty weaponsmaster. The boy always nodded and listened, his head tilted and his focus intense, smiles and gratitude hiding the burrowing worm of hatred, the centipede of rage. His was a small twelve-year-old body crammed to overflowing with jealousy.
Hate him. Hate him. Hate him. The words pounded in his head in time with the throb in his bruised wrist.
He made his way down the hall leading to the cellars. He bloodied a fingernail unfastening the rusty latch on the massive, iron-banded door and hauled it open, huffing with effort.
The boy jumped as high as he could, snagged a torch with the tips of his fingers and flipped it out of the holder. He snatched the brand from the floor before it snuffed out and passed into the dank corridor beyond, pulling the heavy door to behind him. His boots rang on the stone floor, and he made his way to the next room where a lone guard sat at a crude table half drunk, the remains of his meal pushed to one side.
The guard, Pol, leered at him with a look half lascivious, half fearful and licked his tongue across his thick bottom lip. The child knew Pol liked young boys, but he was the guardian's son—off limits. He pranced, slim hips swaying, across the guardroom to the metal door on the other side, his head tilted and his lips pursed in a provoca- tive smile. He cocked a hip and rolled a hand in a “come here” gesture. “Open it, Pol.”
The guard’s broad face flushed. Pol ducked his head, quirked a smile and lumbered over to open the door. The boy brushed against his arm and slipped through.
He climbed down worn stone steps to a narrow corridor lined on one side by small barred cells with sturdy iron locks. Wide- spaced torches threw dim light on the brick and stone walls. The cells held an air that both repulsed and called to him. A shadowy figure huddled in one, and a pale face looked up with desperation from another as he passed. It was scary. And titillating. He relished it.
Each time he came, he explored farther into the labyrinth of halls. He moved beyond the spaces that were still used and into the forbidden areas where little boys could get lost. Dust and spider webs covered everything except the center of the halls where no one but him had walked for years.
These underground passages enthralled him. The terror, fear, and pain-soaked stone and brick walls and floors spoke to him in a
language his bones recognized. He breathed deep, sucking it in. He wanted to suck it into his body and hold it there.
Some of the rooms he passed were open. Some hid behind black iron doors as massive and formidable as the first. Most of them were locked, some only latched, though the latches were often rusted
shut. He worked on them for weeks with a tool filched from the black-smith and managed to get several open. All he found was small, dank rooms with sweating stone walls, hard bunks, a few wisps of rotted straw, a hole in a corner with a faint reek of human waste.
But the last time he came he discovered a narrow door hidden in an uncanny there-yet-not-there twist of the walls at the end of a long hall- way. The spider webs were so thick he’d used the torch to burn his way through. Its walls were rough unbroken stone rather than the large blocks of the other passages.
He'd missed it at first. It flickered in and out of his sight. Someone had put a talent illusion on it that was decaying. It was so far back in the labyrinth of tunnels he carried chalk to mark his way so he wouldn't get lost. Arcane symbols were carved in the lintel and etched on the black wood door's intricate lock. He was determined to get it open. Last time the lock defeated him. He spent so much time on it that his torch sputtered and dimmed, and he'd run back before he found himself in complete darkness. This time he was better prepared. He carried a file, a small metal pry rod, a small hammer, and another torch. The child didn't care if the blacksmith's assistant he stole the tools from got beaten for losing
them. He needed them.
Wedging his torch in a small hole in the wall that seemed fashioned for it, the boy touched the lock, jerking his fingers back from a faint tingle, but he persisted till his slender fingers swelled and bled, and the ancient lock finally clicked open. His hands stung, and his wrists ached. In spite of the cold in the corridor, salty sweat burned his eyes. There had been a spell on the lock.
The boy had no talent. He shouldn't have been able to force it open.
That intrigued him. Eager heat flushed his skin.
He moved the torch closer to better see the door. The strange mark- ings carved on the lintel hadn't been above any of the other doors. This
door was wood, smooth, dark, fine-grained. Just above the latch was a tiny mark, worn smooth. He traced it with his fingers to be sure it wasn't just a defect in the wood. Like the ones on the lock, it wasn't like any symbols or letters he had seen before.
He lifted the latch, smooth and black like the lock, coated with dust and cobwebs but not rusted at all. He felt the same slight sting of magic. It wasn't talent. That he knew. He could sense talent in others though he had none—the only person on Adalta born with no talent. His insides twisted and he swallowed against rage so old and familiar he might have been born with it.
He hesitated before he opened the door, the hand holding the torch shaking. Sudden warmth pulsed and spread low in his groin. There was power behind that door, and he ached for it. He pushed it open and stepped into a passage with smooth walls and ceiling that flowed and curved. Arcane symbols were carved in measured places along it. Small sharp rocks littered the floor.
He checked his torch—halfway burned—and picked up the extra one. The boy wasn't expected back until dinner. No one would miss him. No one ever missed him he thought, with a sourness he could taste, except The Good Brother. The Talented Brother. Familiar fury beat in his chest with the beat of his heart and pushed him on.
The boy stepped through the door feeling as though he stepped into a new life, a life with the power he had lacked since his birth. The long narrow hallway disappeared into the darkness beyond his torch light. Tripping in his eagerness, he walked through the twisting corridor that appeared endless, the only sounds his quick footsteps and his eager breath.
Finally, the passage ended. He stared in awe at an enormous space, at glittering walls and ceiling that disappeared in the darkness beyond the light of his torch. Scattered columns ran from ceiling to floor. But the cavernous space didn't make him feel small. A terrible power pressed against his
body. He craved it, breathing it in through his open mouth, tasting it.
Tense, quivering with anticipation, he approached one of the pillars. Its surface was smooth and covered with vertical rows of
symbols in narrow columns, calling to his anger, pulsing with faint light.
I can figure these symbols out. I know I can. They hold the secrets to the power I want. I know they do. I don't need to dance around waving a silly sword. There is power here. I'll be stronger than my brother. I know I will.
He traced the unfamiliar, angular symbols with trembling, lacer- ated fingers. He watched, fascinated, as dark blood seeped from his mangled fingers and was sucked into the carved symbols. A surge of heat knocked the boy to the stone floor, senseless.
When he came back to himself, an enormous figure stood above him, hazy and flickering in the torchlight. The child shook in fear and awe seeded with eager curiosity, even a glee that aroused pleasure deep and low in his belly.
“Who are you who comes to me?”
The resonant voice echoed through the chamber. It filled the boy's head until he thought it would burst. Black wings of pierced metal spread behind the towering figure with small, constant movements. The boy could see the pillar through the being that was both there and not there.
Its humanoid body was half mechanical and half flesh. The insect- like face with deep-set dark gold eyes was close enough to human to intensify his terror and anticipation. A silver medallion swung on a chain from one clawed hand, clutched by sharp-taloned digits with tiny gears for joints. The being stared at the boy for a long time. He didn’t move. He couldn't move.
“You are but a child.” Vipers of anger and frustration coiled in the cold words.
The being held the medallion out, and the boy reached for it. The being's fist closed it into his, and a delicious shudder shook the boy's body. Metal talons pricked his skin, leaving a weeping red weal across the back of his hand.
“I am the Itza Larrak. The last Larrak on this planet. It has
taken me long and long and long to create you. You are my freedom and my revenge.” The lipless mouth twisted. “The longer revenge ages, the sweeter it tastes. And mine has been aging for five hundred of this world’s years.”
The boy didn’t move, didn’t blink. His eyes burned. Sharp shocks danced in and over his body, through his muscles, up and down his bones.
The Itza Larrak’s delicate, pierced metal wings opened and closed with melodic ringing. “I will teach you.”
The Itza Larrak faded until it was gone, but the faint ringing still echoed, and the ominous sensation still lingered. The boy stood, frozen until the sound died away, but the menace remained—a promise. The medallion in his hand burned cold, frigid with latent power like that of the Itza Larrak and the strange-blood touched symbols on the pillars.
I will take it. The boy's thoughts soared. I will take the power in these markings if it means years of bloody aching fingers to do it. The Itza Larrak will teach me, and I will learn.
He pulled the chain over his head and tucked the medallion inside his shirt. It seared his thin chest with glacial cold and worked its way into his young soul with a familiarity he didn’t notice.
Marta Rowan sighed and rubbed her aching feet. The walk to Rashiba Prime from the desolate barrens where the heli- shuttle set her down was long—longer than she anticipated. Distances always seemed shorter for eyes tracing planet surveys than they were with feet on the ground in boots. Adalta's one continent was immense.
Cold, wet wind from the barren rocky hills blew loose hair across her face. Shelter under the small twisted evergreen next to the rough road was welcome, and she leaned back against its furrowed trunk.
Once again I start over. On a new planet, this time alone. It wasn’t a new thought. She’d just never felt so lonely before. Maybe it’s the desolation here where nothing’s been replanted.
She shifted her butt off a small sharp rock and fished her water bottle from her pack. Marta wondered if loneliness was why Father never left her behind on the ship when he went on his missions after her mother died—because an advance agent on a strange planet led an isolated life, having to keep so much hidden.
Colonists on the diaspora planets were suspicious, even afraid of those who'd elected to stay on the Ark ships and become traders
wandering the stars. Who would be suspicious of a father with a small girl? This was her second trip to a planet since he died and her first without a partner. Though her last partner hadn't been much better than being alone.
The late winter light shone warm in spite of the mist-laden air and the cooler climate under the enormous red sun. The rest was welcome. Whatever her doubts, it was good to be off the ship and on a new planet. She couldn't handle a job that trapped her aboard the immense consortium ship.
Father would have liked this barren, backward planet with its mix of Earth flora and fauna the colonists brought with them and the few native species that still survived. And its marvelous mix of the eighteenth Earth century and the modern, pre-collapse Earth civilizations. Bicycles and swords. Pre-collapse blue jeans and swirling spider-silk velvet cloaks that would have looked proper in Victorian England.
She tucked loose strands of hair behind her ears, lifted the auburn mass from her neck to cool it and finger-combed it into a thick knot on top of her head. She poked hair sticks through it, draped her short cape across her and settled back against the tree. Long legs stretched in front of her, she pointed and flexed her tired feet.
Too soon a spear of sunlight flared red against her eyelids and drove away the shade of the tree. Her head swirled out of sleep. Her eyes blinked at the glare of the sun now halfway from noon to the horizon in the west. Had she dozed that long? She stood and stretched. Her vertebrae made soft pops along her back. Parting the tough reeds that surrounded the stone-bottomed spring, she knelt to refill her water pouch.
Water swirled up around her hands. She froze, frowned. For a tiny bit of infinity she was surrounded by minnows that flashed silver in the light, moving with them as one. Then she was back, looking down as they scattered away from her hands.
She splashed her face with cold water to clear her head and drank her fill from cupped hands. This was the third time she’d gotten lost in something—something other. She forced her thoughts
away from that and toward soaking her road-weary feet in the cold water .
The rumbling clatter of a wagon and an out-of-tune singing voice approached, and she pulled on her boots, grateful for the interruption. Maybe she could beg a ride.
Marta stepped behind the rough thicket on the other side of the spring. She shook the evergreen's fallen needles out of her long green wool split skirt, pulled down the sleeves of the matching waist- length jacket, and draped her cloak over her left arm. From the images sent to the ship by the spy bugs, her clothes were enough like the female patrol members that few of the travelers on the road through this empty countryside had bothered her. She figured the short sword at her belt helped.
A wagon appeared with a metal frame and wicker sides rolling on tall, rubber wheels and loaded with lumpy brown tow sacks. Marta recognized the silvery metal salvaged from the spaceship that brought the colonists. How had they been able to work that metal with their primitive forges? Space metal turned into a wagon pulled by a horse— this was the world she was assigned to in one image.
A small, wiry man wrapped in a voluminous cloak, his grey- flecked hair standing in an unruly crest handled the reins of the little brown mare that slowed as they neared the spring. Horse and driver had a similar look. The horse's mane grew out of a roach cut and stuck up like her handler's.
The man sang a final verse of a bawdy tavern song —out of tune and with feeling. She decided to chance it and stepped into view when he was still some distance away, one hand resting on her sword. He slowed the wagon and looked her over with alert and canny eyes. She detected the pungent presence of onions.
“So, girl. You have the look of one 'as walked for a bit.”
She noted his country dialect and debated matching it. But it wouldn’t be in character with her quasi-uniform, so she answered in common city speech. “I have.” Marta took her hand off her sword hilt. “I see you have an empty place on the bench of your wagon— and maybe a place to stash my heavy pack?”
“By the look of that sticker you wear at your side, you have na worry 'bout traveling alone with a man, little bit that you are.” Marta figured she was a couple of inches taller than the wiry man and every bit as muscled. The well-worn staff in the holder
beside him was of polished dark wood with iron-capped ends and a fine staff for a farmer or trader.
A smile lit his lined face with humor, making it almost handsome. “Well, as the lad what was to come with me on this journey met with some trouble in the shape of a girl's...um...heart, and this road being too well traveled by those who might be tempted to see if I carry some- thin' more’n onions, you'd be welcome. If you be handy with that piece of metal and don’t just carry it for look.”
“I do well enough.” Marta slung her pack in the back wondering how bad her things would smell of onion when they parted. She blessed the sub-cortical language lessons. She’d passed her first test. “My name is Marta.”
“I be Bren.”
The little brown mare kept a steady pace. Cold drizzle moved in from the north making their afternoon wet and releasing the sharp smell of earth drinking rain. Vegetation was sparse—wiry bushes fit for nothing but holding the soil. And goats. Except for areas around springs, the colonists' re-seeding of the barren planet hadn't gotten this far. Wide-spaced pockets of growth sprouted from wind-blown seeds. How difficult survival must have been for those colonists on a world this barren. And they were immediately immersed in a war against other aliens who tried to take Adalta for their own. A war that hadn’t ended until it rendered the continent all but empty of life.
Bren entertained her with stories of his village—he had a wicked sense of humor—and some of his bawdy songs. Marta joined in on the choruses. He knew a lot of those songs and a plethora of old legends and tales. His stories of terrible battles of the colonists and the Karda against an enemy called Itza Larrak were new to Marta. Most weren't in the background data she'd studied. She collected a trove of cultural information from him she would record in her Cue, her communicator, later.
“It was a terrible struggle those first years. Can you imagine? The First Three Thousand were scatterin’ seed as fast as they could, gettin’ the animals out of stasis and the embryo banks, fightin’ the terrible mutations caused by the circle.”
The dry facts she’d studied for this mission gained color as she listened to his stories, imprinting them in her memory.
The wagon slowed, and Bren poked an elbow into her ribs. Marta caught herself on the side of the seat before she tumbled off and embarrassed herself. “Look there,” he said, pointing up through a break in the clouds. “Karda.”
Joy swelled in her chest, and she forgot to breathe. Two enormous flying figures were high in the sky, wings outstretched as they circled up a thermal. Sun glinted from bronze and gold wingtips. Their forelegs were tucked under, hind ones stretched behind. Manes and tails streamed.
“Oh, by the Lady Adalta,” Bren breathed. “Did you ever see anythin' more beautiful?”
She watched the creatures rise ever higher into the sky, spread their wings wide in a glide, and disappear into the clouds. And something inside her shifted. Her whole body prickled with the need to see them again. To get close to them. She grabbed the side of the wagon to anchor herself. The few images the spy bugs had sent couldn't compare. I can't believe I might fly on one of those beautiful beings. They are magical. What if I’m rejected for the training program? What if my cover story has too many holes?
Well-trained as she was at blending in on a new planet, the possibility of getting recalled or caught was too real. On this, her first mission alone she would not, could not, fail. A cold, hard knot formed in her stomach. Getting expelled was not the only danger. She was going to have to guard against commitment that went too deep. That might be worse than not being accepted. The beautiful horse-bodied, hawk-headed Karda filled her mind. A sharp, involuntary shiver shot up her spine. How could she not become attached to them? But Adalta wasn't her home. She couldn’t stay here forever.
The next day, their way changed from the barren hills of sparse grass and short, gnarled trees to forest of tall hardwood and conifers—transplanted Earth species adapted to Adalta's red sun. In the slightly lighter gravity on Adalta, the trees grew to extraordinary heights. Sprawling limbs extended for impossible distances. Branches of conifers more than seventy feet long arched low, forming shadowed caves of shelter.
The needles and leaves of the evergreens were dark, dark green in the pale light of the red sun. Tiny emerging leaves and buds shimmered in a green haze in the crowns of the deciduous oaks and hickories and chestnuts—so tall that three horsemen could ride stacked one on top of the other and not get toppled by a stray branch. So much larger than images from Earth in the ship's files, yet still familiar.
Faint rustles came from the mat of leaves littering the floor beneath the trees. A small, red-furred animal, large triangular ears erect, stood on its haunches and watched her as the wagon passed, catching and holding her gaze. Feathery awareness touched her mind, a tiny tickle of consciousness.
Her eyes went wide. She could feel hunger and a strange, unafraid curiosity. The creature flicked a stubby tail and scurried into the under- brush. She knew its young were hungry. But how?
Animals in the wild just don't look you in the eye. They're shy and hide when they sense you coming. And how could I know it feels its young's hunger? Pain flared behind her right eye and settled there, throbbing.
Afternoon faded into evening. More and more feelings that didn’t belong to her intruded into her consciousness—tendrils of curiosity, sensations of hunger, the hyper-awareness of small animals scuttling over the floor of the dense forest. The larger, patient awareness of two hunting predators drew her away from herself into the complex world of the forest.
Her stomach was empty in empathy. Her head ached. She rubbed an ache in her knee, then jerked her hand to her side when she saw Bren rubbing at his. It wasn't her knee that was hurting. She kneaded frown lines between her eyes. Just as she thought her head would burst, the cacophony of feelings began to fade.
“You feeling poorly, Marta?”
Bren's voice echoed with concern. It jerked her out of the eerie hyper-awareness. “Just a headache. I'll be ready for tea and soup tonight.”
“Travelin' thus makes for some long days. It's my sittin' place what aches. We'll stop soon. There's a good spring ahead.”
She hunched her shoulders against the light drizzle. Cold dread ached in her bones. She'd come out of stasis faster than normal, and the attendants had warned her about going planet-side too soon. Is this strange hypersensitivity a lingering after effect? Will this compromise my ability to do my job? She shook her head to clear it.
The well-sprung wagon swayed as it topped a low hill, and Marta looked, appalled, through the wide spaces between the tall tree trunks at a desolate valley filled by an enormous dark circle. The road curved around it well away from its edge instead of heading the more direct way across.
The surface was bare and pockmarked. Scattered trees grew with twisted black limbs and trunks. Air wavered above the ground in a heat-like haze despite the cold. Erratic dust devils wandered as if the drizzling rain couldn't reach them, though no wind stirred the dry leaves and branches of the trees along the road. Pieces of dull black metal littered the surface like bones. She stared open- mouthed. A scratchy prickling washed her skin.
Marta shifted on the padded seat and rubbed her arms. She felt violated—as if something unclean reached for her. She wanted a bath. A circle of young trees and saplings formed even rows around the edges of the desolation. Even winter-bare, their health made a vivid contrast to the deformed vegetation inside.
Her mind flashed on views of the planet from the ship. She realized the forest they traveled through was a huge bowl, enormous spreading trees at the outside growing shorter and spaced closer until only saplings surrounded the desolation at its center.
She tugged at the small gold ring in her ear, hesitant to ask, but she had to know. “What happened here?” she asked Bren. “It must have been something terrible.” The troubling ever-present consciousness from the animals around her was absent from the circle. A greasy feeling of ugly wrongness hovered there.
He stared at her with genuine surprise. “You mean the Circle of Disorder?”
Apparently, this was not something unusual on Adalta, and she
should know about whatever this disorder was. She cursed the inadequate, haphazard briefing that overlooked this aberration. She missed her father, or even Galen Morel, her partner on the last planet. She shook her head again. She couldn't look away from the place.
“You've never seen a Circle of Disorder?” Bren's expression was puzzled.
“What happened here?” she repeated. “Are there more places like this?”
He didn’t answer for a moment, then shrugged. “Circles of Disorder. How is it you do na know? Young ones are always warned.”
Unsure what to say, she gambled on a semblance of the truth. “My... my father never told me. I don't remember ever seeing one.”
“Dangerous thing, that, for a father na to tell a child. They've always been. It na be safe for anyone where power is distorted so. Some few's been cleared of the danger. That's why the Guardians plant the special bred trees and grasses. Over the years they cleanse the soil and order the power so's it'll meld back. I don't know how you ha' na heard on 'em, or seen 'em. When our ancestors came to Adalta, there were many, many more. Circles hundreds of kilometers across until the trees grew over them. Some still are. This is a small one. The Guardians can never stop the planting so long as the slightest circle left by the Larrak remains.”
She held her mouth tight, ignoring his sideways look at her, and nodded. That was the problem with relying on the early scouts' information. They tended to stay in the settled Primes, their data limited to what they could discover there. The spy bugs roamed further, but they couldn't have sensed what she had—the pervasive evil that hovered as if it waited, beckoned. She continued to watch through the trees until they crossed the ridge. And wondered. What kind of power? And what or who are the Larrak?
The next morning was cold and wet. Marta and Bren rode wrapped against a freezing drizzle in blankets and cloaks, Bren's waterproof ground cloth stretched over them both. He stopped in the middle of a description of the western coastlands. He clucked at the mare, and the wagon sped up a little. They were leaving a broad meadow and approached another thick wood, the earthy smell of the damp forest humus reaching them on the light breeze.
“We be traveling through this wood for the rest of the day. Here is where I would'a sorely missed that big, brawny lad, Jeryl, the knot- head, were you not wi' me. Stay awake, lass. And keep your sword close in that pretty scabbard. You'll not want to lose it here. There be'nt many folk in this wood, but they be dangerous.” He clucked at the mare again, and they moved on at a brisk pace.
Marta let the tarp and blanket fall and adjusted her sword belt. They traveled at the faster clip for an hour. Then she sensed something to the right of the track ahead of them. Someone, not something. Two someones and they felt off, wrong, dangerous. She shook her head. I'm going crazy, that's for sure. How can I feel someone there, when I don’t see anyone?
The sun's rays were still behind the trees to the east, the wooded trail dark beneath the trees. There was too much silence: no birdsong, no small animals rustling in the leaves. Though she tried to block it, the unease of the many small awarenesses surrounded them. And the two large, ugly human consciousnesses. Bren tensed, shook the reins and clucked to the horse to hurry her.
A dirty, rough-dressed man stepped from behind a large oak, a lip- twisted sneer on his face, and grabbed the mare’s bridle, jerking her to a stop. A tall, wide-shouldered youth swaggered out behind him, a heavy knife almost as long as Marta’s sword in one hand.
She saw Bren's eyes flick around looking for others. She sensed — she knew—there was no one else.
“Look here, boy. Visitors,” the older man said. His smiling mouth gave Marta a too good look at too many bad teeth. He also wore a pair of knives as long as Marta’s short sword strapped to his thighs. “I wonder what they brung for the toll.”
“There be no toll on this road.” Bren's voice came low and lazy, almost friendly.
Marta's tension eased. Bren might be well able to take care of himself.
“Now how else are we to feed our young 'uns,” said the man. “A sack or three of yon onions and what coin you have will see you on your way. And if you have no coin, well, the girl can pay. We be a long time away from home.”
The young man behind him leered at Marta, showing a few brown teeth. She felt sick. Adrenaline surged. Her body tensed, and she shrugged the tarp from her shoulders.
“Pa, I think they'll not have enough coin. She’s pretty.”
“A sack of onions I can spare, but there's naught else we'll give you.” Bren stood to move to the back of the wagon, steadying himself with a hand on the stout black staff in the holder behind the seat.
“Oh, look, Pa. The lass wears a pretty little sword. Here, I'll take that and a taste o' you, too.” He reached to drag her out of the wagon.
Marta let him pull her and rolled off. She used the momentum to gain her feet, careful not to spin away in the lighter gravity. Her sword was in her hand before she landed, her stance shoulder wide, one foot in front of the other, her body relaxed. Energy surged up her body from the earth to anchor her. It heightened her awareness of everything around her. The world slowed. A corner of her mind saw Bren leap down and face the older man, his ebony staff a blur.
The big youth looked her up and down. He grabbed his crotch and rocked it. “Ready for this big sword? Me thinks you'll enjoy it. Throw that little sticker down and just relax. I don' wanna hurt you.” He leered. “You’ll enjoy a little—“ He said a word she didn't understand, but his intent was clear.
“Is that thing so little that you have to search for it in those dirty pants?” Marta smirked. “It doesn't seem big enough to do anything.”
She kept her focus on the center of the younger man's body, watching for movement. His face went dark with anger, and he lurched at her. The knife slashed wide, missing her.
Marta sidestepped, and he stumbled past. “Just leave us,” she said, “and perhaps you'll live until someone less kind comes along.” They were ignorant and inept, and they didn’t scare her as much as the powerful pulse she felt from the ground around her. She bit her lip and told herself to concentrate. More good swordsmen got hurt by losing focus than by their opponent’s skill with a sword. Stay in the moment. Watch for his mistakes. Then move fast and sure, no hesitation, no time for second thoughts. Hesitation and second thoughts meant certain pain, certain injury, certain death—or the “even worse” men like him always threatened when they faced a woman.
“Bitch.” He charged again.
She stepped off the line and slashed his leading arm. Marta turned, sword en guarde, as he stumbled past, eyes wide. His arm spurted blood from the deep cut. Bone showed white through his slashed sleeve. His bloody fingers lost their grip. The knife dropped and sliced through the edge of his boot. He hit the ground on his backside. “Pa!” he yelled. But his pa was busy.
She heard Bren's staff whistle, and half turned to watch, one eye on the big youth.
Bren smacked the long knife out of the older man's hand. The staff whirled around and landed a loud, cracking blow on the bandit's head. The man fell. The fight had taken moments.
“What do you say, Marta, lass? Do you think we've paid our toll?” asked Bren.
“I think they are adequately recompensed,” she answered with a grim smile.
“If recompensed means bloody, then I agree. We'll leave you then,” he said to the pasty-faced boy trying to staunch the bleeding in his arm with his other hand. “And may you have as good 'a luck with your next toll collection. Though should it be another old man and a young lass, be more wary.”
“Should we do something about his arm?” Marta nodded toward the youth.
“He'll not bleed to death. And if his pa recovers from the little bash on the head I gave him, he'll take care of it. Don’t worry about them, lass. They’re not worth it. We'll report 'em at the next village Guard Station. Akhara Quadrant is full of too many people like them. It could stand to lose a couple.”
“If they’re all as bad at fighting as these two, it probably will.” “Ye can’t leave me here to bleed to death!” cried the young man. “Oh, yes, lad. We can. I doubt you'll die from that little scratch.
Though t'would leave the forest a safer place without you.” Bren gathered up the three long knives and stowed them behind the wagon seat. He grinned and tossed two onions to the boy. “We don't want to be thieves. Here's payment for your knives.” Then he walked to the head of the little mare which had stood, if not placid, at least steady, through it all. Bren rubbed the twitching ears and whispered to her for a moment.
Marta leaned against the trunk of a giant white oak that spread across the road. Her body tingled with unspent adrenaline that seeped away as though absorbed in a warm embrace from the tree. The feeling was comforting and strengthening. She blinked and whirled to look at the tree. She reached to put her hand on the trunk then hesitated and turned away, determined to ignore the feeling. Afraid her strange experience had not been imagination.
Bren and Marta climbed back into the wagon, pulled the tarp back over themselves, and drove without speaking for a time. “You fight well, lass,” he said, breaking the silence.
“As do you, Bren. Though they weren’t much challenge. May I see your staff?” He pulled it out of the holder behind him and handed it to her. It was unmarked despite the hit she'd heard his unfortunate opponent land on it with his heavy knife. “What's it made of?”
“Ironwood. Grows on a tiny holding tucked up against the mountains away to the south in a little corner of Akhara Quadrant.”
“How did you come by it?” she asked, smoothing her hand down its black length.
His eyes crinkled. “I hav'na always been a onion farmer.”