Heroine - Egeria
The harsh rasp of a strange man’s voice woke her. Where was she? Dried scallas and peppers hung from the rafters of the -- loft? She put her feet on the rough wood floor. Memories surfaced slowly. She was Egeria and this was her home. She turned her head and stared at the huge empty bed. Where was Malara? Egeria had no memories of ever sleeping alone in the loft. Always her sister had been with her.
“Where is she?” the stranger bellowed. “Malara ails.”
“Don’t shout. Egeria’s moon-touched and slow, but she obeys.”
The sound of her father’s voice drew her to the opening where a ladder led to the lower floor of the farmhouse. She stared at the stranger. Who was he?
“She should be here to tend the fire and fetch the eggs for my breakfast.”
Egeria frowned. Why did this man give orders? The farm was Malara’s legacy from their mother. She smoothed the skirt of the dress she’d slept in and pulled on the fleece-lined ankle boots. As she climbed the ladder, a wave of dizziness nearly made her fall.
She glanced around the large main room. Fireplaces stood at either end. Around one was a circle of chairs. Near the second, a more massive one, stood a long table flanked by benches and chairs at the ends. On the wall near a door, an open cupboard held dishes. Pans and kettles hung from hooks on the stone wall of the hearth.
“What kept you?” A muscular man with red hair grabbed her arm. “See to your chores.”
“Who are you?” Only garbled sounds emerged. Where were her sister and her brother?
“Idiot.” The man pushed her toward the hearth. “The fire. The eggs. Can’t you remember anything from one day to the next?”
Egeria raked ashes from the banked fire. She added kindling to the glowing coals. When the flames leaped high, she reached for several logs. This return to a routine stirred memories. She donned her cloak and lifted the egg basket.
Outside she opened the door of the pullet house. Straw spilled from the waist-high shelves on three sides of the narrow shed. She collected eggs from beneath the squawking layers. Then she spread grain in the feeding trough. Her thoughts churned with bits of knowledge.
As she returned to the house, her brother hailed her. “You are late. Has he been at you again?”
She turned. “Who?” Her tongue felt less tight.
He stepped back and shook his head. “He wouldn’t dare take you the way he has Malara. No man would harm one touched by the Mistress.” He frowned. “’Tis foolish to tell you these things for you don’t understand.” He opened the kitchen door.
His words set off an avalanche of thoughts. Tave was her father’s name. Trag, her brother’s. There’d been trouble and many soldiers. Then the stranger had come.
She put the egg basket on the table. Malara stood at the hearth. Strips of shoat sizzled on the flat stone griddle that jutted from the side of the huge fireplace. Steam rose from a kettle hanging on a hook.
The stranger put his arms around Malara and stroked her abdomen. “Are you sure you nest my son?”
Daughter, Egeria thought. How did she know that?
Malara bowed her head. “The Mistress has withdrawn her blessings from me these past two lunars. What else can it be?”
He touched her pale gold hair. Tenderness showed in his light brown eyes. He released Malara and turned to the table where Egeria placed dishes. “One place only. The rest of you eat when I’m done.” He raised his fist.
“Radon, don’t strike her,” Malara cried. “She follows a routine and your coming has made a change. She’ll learn the new pattern in time.”
He rested his elbows on the table. “Should the coming child be a girl, will it be like her?”
“If the Mistress gives me one of her daughters, I’ll rejoice. Egeria sees things we don’t. Wait ‘til you see how her garden grows and the amount of honey from her hives.” She placed a full plate in front of him.
He caught her hand. “Be glad I’m only a former soldier and not a follower of the gray priests. You’d be beaten for speaking of the whore you worship.” He shook his head. “When I took this farm as payment for my time of service, I thought I’d have an inner court of two women. After my brother arrives I’ll visit
Tears filled Malara’s eyes. “Radan, you can’t bring a strange woman to upset the harmony of the house.”
“Fool. I’m allowed as many women as I have coins to pay the taxes. This farm is rich. In the spring, a women’s court will be built. Then none but my eyes can feast on my women.”
Hero - Jetan
Just before the evening meal, Egeria heard an equis neigh. Radan opened the door, shouted a greeting and ran into the yard. “Jetan, come to the house. Why did you take so long to reach the farm?”
Egeria watched the men. The newcomer’s green eyes shone with laughter. His light red hair hung in a braid to the middle of his back.
“Been busy. Stopped here and there to earn coins by tending beasts.” He pointed to the equis. “This beauty was a gift from the Thamaturg after I treated his favorite mare. I’ve coins aplenty.”
Radan laughed. “For poor boys we’ve prospered. Look at my farm and house. Makes Pa’s look like nothing to brag about. There’s an orchard and a woodlot across the road that’s mine, too. Trag, take his equis.”
They brushed past Egeria. Their faces showed they shared a heritage, but the younger man was taller and leaner. He moved with a lithe grace. His eyes held none of the anger that smoldered in his brother’s eyes.
“Set a second place,” Radan ordered. “Jetan comes to stay a bit. Tave, fetch the jug of fermenti and move your things into Trag’s room.”
Malara offered hot herb-scented cloths. The man washed and sat at the table.
“My thanks, lady,” Jetan said.
Radan punched his brother’s shoulder. “No thanks needed. She does what is right to honor a guest. Have you grown soft since I last saw you?”
Jetan shook his head. “Just using the manners Ma taught us.”
“The family? Have they recovered from the earth shakes?”
“Last I heard. Not been home for more than a year. Ma was ailing. Pa beat her bad when the last born was a girl. Couldn’t help her so I left. I won’t go back.”
Radan poured fermenti into two small cups. “Neither will I. We’re best gone. Nothing for us there.” He touched his cup to Jetan’s. “You can find a place here. Lots of families need a man with coins to pay their taxes.”
Egeria placed a platter of fried pullet and hearth-roasted taters on the table. Radan gestured to Malara. “She’s first woman of my court. Carries my quickened seed.” He pulled her onto his lap. “Next week I’ll go to
Angara and fetch a second woman.”
Jetan pointed to Egeria. “And her?”
Radan snorted. “Moon-touched. Locals believe to bed her will bring ill luck. Don’t want to stir them so I leave her alone.”
Jetan lifted a piece of pullet from the plate. Moon-touched? He could swear he’d seen awareness in her blue eyes. His gaze followed her movements at the hearth and his body heated with thoughts of plowing her. If he could win her, there would be no thoughts of sharing with Radan. Where did she sleep? Though if she was proscribed, he’d have to be wary. “Maybe I should visit the pens. Been near three months without a woman.”
Radan shook his head. “One of us must stay and I’ve a great need to get away. Since taking the farm at harvest, I’ve been no further than the village. Spend some days here and see if there’s a woman on one of the nearby farms you fancy.”
Jetan’s gaze drifted to Egeria. She walked like a filly newly come into season. Moon-touched? Maybe and maybe not.
The Villain - Gamish
The Villain - Gamish
Gamish, the Thamaturg, sat on the high seat in what had been the banqueting room of the house he’d taken from a wealthy merchant. She’d protested the seizure. To solve the problem, he’d stopped her heart.
He’d made changes in the house for his was an austere nature. Gone were the paintings, sculptures and delicate furniture. The white marble floor had been metamorphosed into a livid blue that reminded him of the merchant’s face at the moment of her death. The changes pleased him as did the extensive glass-covered gardens where he grew the herbs and flowers he used in the censor.
He lifted a dirose from a vase and watched the oily liquid drip from where he’d removed a thorn. He took care that none of the oil touched his skin for the burns were slow to heal.
His thoughts weren’t completely on his guests. He had other concerns. The servants of the Lord of Shadows had won their first battle with the creatures of the Mistress, but a second confrontation would soon take place. The things his minions and fetches had revealed had convinced him that somehow the Three had escaped to complete the ritual of transfer. Somewhere in Keltoi there were women who could hold her power. Surely they were as yet as weak as suckling babes. If he could find them before they learned control, he could subvert them and thus bring defeat to his co-rulers.
Knowledge, he thought. He must seek the identities of those who would come. He rose and strode from the hall. His gray-blue robe billowed like a storm cloud driven by a gale force wind. He reached the basement chamber where he used his talents to seek and destroy. One of his coterie was sent to the pens for a slave. While he waited for her arrival, he selected herbs from his stores. Into the censor he placed hellbane, mistle and mandra. A few drops of dirose oil completed his preparations.
Two priests dragged a wild-eyed girl into the room. Once she was shackled to the wall, Gamish dismissed the men. He tore the coarse wool robe from her trembling body. She screamed and he savored her terror. Tears ran down her cheeks. He caught them in the censor where they beaded on the dirose oil. He slashed her wrist and captured the stream of blood in the censor’s well.
With a glowing coal taken with tongs from a brazier, Gamish set the herbs aflame. A cloud of dark foul-smelling smoke rose. He inhaled the aroma and laughed. The girl’s eyes widened with fear. He swung the censor until the smoke clung to her naked body.
“Show me the one I seek, the one chosen by the Mistress of the Moons to stand against the Thamaturg of the Lord of Shadows. Become her voice.”
Slowly the fetch’s features took on a fragile beauty. Her pale blonde hair darkened to a light gold.
He grasped her breast. “Who are you? I would know your name.”
“M ... m ... moon-touched.”
He laughed. The girl’s altered features changed. “Do you want my services, Thamaturg. For a price I’ll walk with you.”
He waved the censor. “Begone, Mistress of the Dark. The Lord of Shadows has no need of you.”
The second face, at once beautiful and ugly, disappeared. Gamish stared at the girl. She screamed and struggled against the chains. Her body arched and the metal links beat against the stone in a syncopated rhythm. He heard her spine crack.
Too soon dead, he thought. There was more he needed to know. If the one he would call when it suited him hadn’t interfered, he would have more than a face to identify the one he had to seek. His laughter gurgled. The Mistress’ choice was flawed. How could a moon-touched female resist his power? He poured the smoldering contents of the censor over the fetch and watched the process of disintegration. Now only he would know the face of the one who would never be Healer.