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Chapter Fifty-Eight

There was no escape from the Shadowlander camp. We were trapped. And I did not know what to do.

Ram said, Be Kina. Big, gentle, slow Ram. He thought faster than I did.

It was a task of illusion, only slightly more difficult than making witchfires run over armor. It took just a minute to transform both of us. Meantime, the Shadowlanders closed in, though not with the enthusiasm you would expect of men who had caught their enemies flatfooted.

I raised Shadowspinners head high. They recognized it. I used an augmentation spell to make my voice carry. The Shadowmaster is dead. I have no quarrel with you. But you can join him if you insist.

Swan had an impulse. He bellowed, Kneel, you swine! Kneel to your mistress!

They looked at him, a foot taller than the tallest of them, pale as snow, golden-maned. A demon in mans form? They looked at Blade, almost as exotic. They looked at me and at Shadowspinners head.

Ram said, Kneel to the Daughter of Night. He was so close I could feel him shaking. He was scared to death. The Child of Kina is among you. Beg for her mercy.

Swan grabbed the nearest Shadowlander, forced him to his knees.

I still do not believe it. The bluff worked. One by one, they knelt. Narayan and his arm-holders started chanting. They chose something basic, repeated mantras, of a sort common in Gunni ceremonials and Shadar services. They differed mainly in including lines like, Show mercy, O Kina. Bless Thy devoted child, who loves Thee, and, Come to me, O Mother of Night, while blood is upon my tongue.

Sing! Swan bellowed. Sing, you scum! Typically Swan, he roared around forcing the slow to kneel and the mute to cry out. His actions were not sane. Sane men do not force enemies who outnumber them a thousand to one. They should have torn us apart. The thought never occurred to them.

We are a feeble-minded species, Blade observed in wonder. But youll have to keep escalating or theyll start thinking.

Get me water. Lots of water. I held the Shadowmasters head high and shouted for silence. The devil is dead! The Shadowmaster is cast down. You are free. You have won the countenance of the goddess. She has blessed you though you have turned your faces away for generations, though you have denied and reviled her. But your hearts know the truth and she blesses you. I raised the intensity of my witchfire showmanship, became a fire with a face. She has given you freedom but no gift is free.

Blade brought a waterskin. I need a goblet, too, I whispered. Keep the water out of sight. I continued trying to generate a state of hysteria. That was less difficult than reason suggested it should be. The Shadowlanders were tired, terrified, hated the Shadowmasters. Narayan led another singalong. Blade brought me a goblet from Shadowspinners tent. I prepared it. The spell was difficult but once again I achieved an unexpected success.

I knew the water in the goblet was water. It tasted like water when I took a drink. I drink the blood of my enemy. To the Shadowlanders it looked like blood when Narayan and his arm-holders started using it to smear marks on Shadowlander foreheads. I invested those marks with the power to stick. Those men would bear the stain of blood as long as they lived.

They even put up with that. A lot of them. A lot decided to try their legs and headed for home.

After a few hundred had been marked I ordered the Shadowlander officers to join me. Several score did so, but most had chosen to stretch their legs. Their class was more committed to the Shadowmasters than were the rank and file.

I told the Shadowlander officers, There is a price for freedom as theres a price for everything. You are mine now. You owe Kina. She asks one task of you.

They did not ask what. They wondered if they had been stupid to stay.

Continue to beleaguer Dejagore. But dont fight the men trapped there. Take them prisoner when they try to escape, expecting only those called the Nar. Theyre enemies of the goddess.

That was what they had been doing anyway, I learned. The flooding had played havoc with what food stores remained in the city. Mogabas rationing ignored the natives. Disease was rampant. The natives had revolted already. Mogaba had thrown hundreds from the wall to drown. The lake swarmed with corpses.

Such draconian measures had cost Mogaba the support of many of his soldiers. They had begun deserting. Thus the prisoners in the camp stockade.

There had been nothing but silence from that stockade. Maybe the prisoners did not know what was happening. Maybe they were scared to attract attention. I sent Blade to let them out and tell them where to find Mather.

If the Shadowlanders did not stop me Id have to accept this absurd twist as real.

They did not raise a murmur. At dawn they marched off to take their posts in the hills.

Narayan sidled up wearing his biggest grin. Have you doubts yet, Mistress?

Doubts? About what?

Kina. Have we her countenance or not?

We have somebodys. Ill take Kina. I havent seen anything this unlikely since my husband... I wouldnt believe it if I wasnt here.

They have lived under the Shadowmasters for a generation. Theyve never been permitted to do anything but what theyre told to do. Penalties for disobedience were terrible.

That was part of it. So was the will to defy oppression. And maybe Kina had something to do with it, too. I did not intend looking the gift horse in the mouth.

The majority of the prisoners had gone. I had had two held to interview. I told Narayan, Ill see Sindhu and Murgen now.

They came. Sindhu remained Sindhu, wide and stolid and brief. He told me what he had seen. He told me we had friends there. They would stay in place, ready to serve their goddess. He told me Mogaba was a stubborn man who meant to hang on to the last man, who did not care that Dejagore had become a hell of disease and hunger.

Murgen told me, Mogaba wants a place in the Annals. Hes like Croaker was about throwing up times when the Company suffered worse.

Murgen was about thirty. He reminded me of Croaker. He was tall, lean, permanently sad. He had been the Company standardbearer and Croakers understudy as Annalist. In the normal course twenty years down the road he might have become Captain. Why did you desert? It was not the sort of thing he would do, regardless of his opinion of his commander.

I didnt. One-Eye and Goblin sent me to find you. They thought I could get through. They were wrong. They didnt give me enough help.

One-Eye and Goblin were minor sorcerers, old as sin, perpetually at loggerheads. Together with Murgen they were the last of the Black Company from the north, the last of those who had elected Croaker Captain and made me his Lieutenant.

We talked. He told me the men we had recruited coming south were disaffected with Mogaba. He said, Hes trying to make the Company over into crusaders. He doesnt see it as a warrior brotherhood of outcasts. He wants it to be a bunch of religious warriors.

Sindhu interjected, They worship the goddess, Mistress. They think. But their heresies are revolting. They are worse than disbelief.

Why was he incensed? A prolonged exchange failed to illuminate me. No godless person can comprehend those minute distinctions in doctrine that provide true believers excuse for mayhem. It is hard enough to accept the fact that they really believe the nonsense of their faiths. I always wonder if they are pulling my leg with a straight race.

Those two gave me a lot to digest. I tried. But it was morning. Sleep or no sleep, it was time to be sick. I was sick.

Chapter Fifty-Seven | Dreams of Steel | Chapter Fifty-Nine