I slept in a tangle of brush in a hollow. I’d fled through olive groves and precariously perched hillside paddies, running out of hope, till I’d stumbled onto that pocket wilderness in a ravine. I was so far gone I’d just crawled in, hoping fate would be kind.
A crow’s call wakened me from another terrible dream. I opened my eyes. The sun reached in through the brush. It dappled me with spots of light. I’d hoped nobody could see me in there but that proved a false hope.
Someone was moving around the edge of the bushes. I glimpsed one, then another. Damn! The Shadowmasters’ men. They moved back a little and whispered.
I saw them for just a moment but they seemed troubled, less like hunters than the hunted. Curious.
They’d spotted me, I knew. Otherwise they wouldn’t be back there behind me, murmuring too low for me to catch what they said.
I couldn’t turn toward them without showing them I knew they were there. I didn’t want to startle them. They might do something I’d regret. The crow called again. I started turning my head slowly.
There was another player here, a dirty little brown man in a filthy loincloth and tattered turban. He squatted behind the brush. He looked like one of the slaves Croaker had freed after our victory at Ghoja. Did the soldiers know he was there?
Did it matter? He wasn’t likely to be any help.
I was lying on my right side, on my arm. My fingers tingled. My arm was asleep but the sensation reminded me that my talent had shown signs of freshening since we’d come down past the waist of the world. I hadn’t had a chance to test it for weeks.
I had to do something. Or they would. My sword lay inches from my hand...
It was a child’s spell, an exercise, not a weapon at all, just as a butcher knife isn’t. Once it would have been no more work than dropping a rock. Now it was as hard as plain speech for a stroke victim. I tried shaping the spell in my mind. The frustration! The screaming frustration of knowing what to do and being unable to do it.
But it clicked. Almost the way it had back when. Amazed, pleased, I whispered the words of power, moved my fingers. The muscles remembered!
The Golden Hammer formed in my left hand.
I jumped up, flipped it, raised my sword. The glowing hammer flew true. The soldier made a stabbed-pig sound and tried to fend it off. It branded its shape on his chest.
It was an ecstatic moment. Success with that silly child’s spell was a major triumph over my handicap.
My body wouldn’t respond to my will. Too stiff, too battered and bruised for flight, I tried to charge the second soldier. Mostly I stumbled toward him. He gaped, then he ran. I was astonished.
I heard a sound like the cough of a tiger behind me.
A man came out of nowhere down the ravine. He threw something. The fleeing soldier pitched onto his face and didn’t move.
I got out of the brush and placed myself so I could watch the killer and the dirty slave who had made the tiger cough. The killer was a huge man. He wore tatters of Taglian legionnaire’s garb.
The little man came around the brush slowly, considered my victim. He was impressed. He said something apologetic in Taglian, then something excited, rapidly in dialect I found unfamiliar, to the big man, who had begun searching his victim. I caught a phrase here and there, all with a cultish sound but uncertain in this context. I couldn’t tell if he was talking about me or praising one of his gods. I heard “the Foretold” and “Daughter of Night” and “the Bride” and “Year of the Skulls.” I’d heard a “Daughter of Shadow” and a “Year of the Skulls” before somewhere, in the religious chatter of god-ridden Taglians, but I didn’t know their significance.
The big man grunted. He wasn’t impressed. He just cursed the dead soldier, kicked him. “Nothing.”
The little man fawned. “Your pardon, Lady. We’ve been killing these dogs all morning, trying to raise a stake. But they’re poorer than I was as a slave.”
“You know me?”
“Oh, yes, Mistress. The Captain’s Lady.” He emphasized those last two words, separately and heavily. He bowed three times. Each time his right thumb and forefinger brushed a triangle of black cloth that peeped over the top of his loincloth. “We stood guard while you slept. We should have realized you would need no protection. Forgive us our presumption.”
Gods, did he smell. “Have you seen anyone else?”
“Yes, Mistress. A few, from afar. Running, most of them.”
“And the Shadowmasters’ soldiers?”
“They search, but with no enthusiasm. Their masters didn’t send many. A thousand like these pigs.” He indicated the man I had dropped. His partner was searching the body. “And a few hundred horsemen. They must be busy with the city.”
“Mogaba will give them hell if he can, buying time for others to get clear.”
The big man said, “Nothing on this toad either, jamadar.”
The little man grunted.
Jamadar? It’s the Taglian word for captain. The little man had used it earlier, with a different intonation, when he’d called me the Captain’s Lady.
I asked, “Have you seen the Captain?”
The pair exchanged looks. The little man stared at the ground. “The Captain is dead, Mistress. He died trying to rally the men to the standard. Ram saw it. An arrow through the heart.”
I sat down on the ground. There was nothing to say. I’d known it. I’d seen it happen, too. But I hadn’t wanted to believe it. Till that instant, I realized, I’d been carrying some small hope that I’d been wrong.
Impossible that I could feel such loss and pain. Damn him, Croaker was just a man! How did I get so involved? I never meant it to get complicated.
This wasn’t accomplishing anything. I got up. “We lost a battle but the war goes on. The Shadowmasters will rue the day they decided to bully Taglios. What are your names?”
The little man said, “I’m Narayan, Lady.” He grinned. I’d get thoroughly sick of that grin. “A joke on me. It’s a Shadar name.” He was Gunni, obviously. “Do I look it?” He jerked his head at the other man, who was Shadar. Shadar men tend to be tall and massive and hairy. This one had a head like a ball of kinky wire with eyes peering out. “I was a vegetable peddler till the Shadowmasters came to Gondowar and enslaved everyone who survived the fight for the town.”
That would have been before we’d come to Taglios, last year, when Swan and Mather had been doing their inept best to stem the first invasion.
“My friend is Ram. Ram was a carter in Taglios before he joined the legions.”
“Why did he call you jamadar?”
Narayan glanced at Ram, flashed a grin filled with bad teeth, leaned close to me, whispered, “Ram isn’t very bright. Strong as an ox he is, and tireless, but slow.”
I nodded but wasn’t satisfied. They were two odd birds. Shadar and Gunni didn’t run together. Shadar consider themselves superior to everyone. Hanging around with a Gunni would constitute a defilement of spirit. And Narayan was low-caste Gunni. Yet Ram showed him deference.
Neither harbored any obviously wicked designs toward me. At the moment any companion was an improvement on travelling alone. I told them, “We ought to get moving. More of them could show up... What is he doing?”
Ram had a ten-pound rock. He was smashing the leg bones of the man he’d killed. Narayan said, “Ram. That’s enough. We’re leaving.”
Ram looked puzzled. He thought. Then he shrugged and discarded the rock. Narayan didn’t explain his actions. He told me, “We saw one fair-sized group this morning, maybe twenty men. Maybe we can catch up.”
“That would be a start.” I realized I was starving. I hadn’t eaten since before the battle. I shared out what I’d taken off the dead elephant. It didn’t help much. Ram went at it like it was a feast, now completely indifferent to the dead.
Narayan grinned. “You see? An ox. Come. Ram, carry her armor.”
Two hours later we found twenty-three fugitives on a hilltop. They were beaten men, apathetic, so down they didn’t care if they got away. Few still had their weapons. I didn’t recognize any of them. Not surprising. We’d gone into battle with forty thousand.
They knew me. Their manners and attitude improved instantly. It pleased me to see hope blossom among them. They rose and lowered their heads respectfully.
I could see the city and plain from that hilltop. The Shadowmasters’ troops were leaving the hills, evidently recalled. Good. We’d have a little time before they picked it up again.
I looked at the men more closely.
They had accepted me already. Good again.
Narayan had begun speaking to them individually. Some seemed frightened of him. Why? What was it? Something was odd about that little man.
“Ram, build us a fire. I want a lot of smoke.”
He grunted, drafted four men, headed downhill to collect firewood.
Narayan trotted over, grinning that grin, followed by a man of amazing width. Most Taglians are lean to the point of emaciation. This one had no fat on him. He was built like a bear. “This is Sindhu, Mistress, that I know by reputation.” Sindhu bowed slightly. He looked a humorless sort. Narayan added, “He’ll be a good man to help out.”
I noted a red cloth triangle at Sindhu’s waist. He was Gunni. “Your help will be appreciated, Sindhu. You two get this bunch sorted out. See what resources we have.”
Narayan grinned, made a small bow, hustled off with his new friend.
I settled crosslegged, separate from the rest, faced the city, closed out the world. The Golden Hammer had come easily. I’d try again.
I opened to what little talent I retained. A peppercorn of fire formed in the bowl of my hands. It was coming back.
There is no way to express my pleasure.
I concentrated on horses.
Half an hour later a giant black stallion appeared, trotted straight to me. The men were impressed.
I was impressed. I hadn’t expected success. And that beast was only the first of four to respond. By the time the fourth arrived so had another hundred men. The hilltop was crowded.
I assembled them. “We’ve lost a battle, men. Some of you have lost heart, too. That’s understandable. You weren’t raised in a warrior tradition. But this war hasn’t been lost. And it won’t end while one Shadowmaster lives. If you don’t have the stomach to stick it out, stay away from me. You’d better go now. I won’t let you go later.”
They exchanged worried glances but nobody volunteered to travel alone.
“We’re going to head north. We’ll gather food, weapons, and men. We’ll train. We’re coming back someday. When we do, the Shadowmasters will think the gates of hell have opened.” Still nobody deserted. “We march at first light tomorrow. If you’re with me then, you’re with me forever.” I tried to project a certainty that we could terrify the world.
When I settled for the night Ram posted himself nearby, my bodyguard whether or not I wanted one.
I drifted off wondering what had become of four black stallions that had not responded. We had brought eight south. They had been specially bred in the early days of the empire I had abandoned. One could be more valuable than a hundred men.
I listened to whispers, heard repeats of the terms Narayan had used. They troubled most of the men.
I noticed that Ram had his bit of folded cloth, too. His was saffron. He didn’t keep it as fastidiously as did Narayan or Sindhu. Three men from two religions, each with a colored cloth. What was the significance?
Narayan kept the fire burning. He posted sentries. He imposed a modest discipline. He seemed altogether too organized for a vegetable dealer and former slave.
The dark dream, the same as those before, was particularly vivid, though when day came I retained only an impression of a voice calling my name. Unsettling, but I thought it just a trick of my mind.
Somewhere, somehow, the night rewarded Narayan with bounty enough to provide everyone a meager breakfast.
I led the mob out at first light, as promised, amidst reports that enemy cavalry were approaching the hills. Discipline was a pleasant surprise, considering.