Originally published in The Lorelei Signal, October 2008
Kara stopped her horse, not ready to intrude despite her orders. Her first posting since completing her training as an A’Lin and she had to clean up a mess left by some boneheaded male who only thought with his spear. E’lyn warriors were more problems than they were worth, her ge myr always said. Kara took in a deep breath, steadied herself, and approached the two figures standing in the street ahead of her.
The Prefect didn’t pause in her tirade against the young man who stood before her, only glancing at Kara while she dismounted and came up to stand at an angle, consciously not aligning herself with this disgraced man.
“Due to your failure, your incompetence, we have lost another ten head of cattle and fourteen sheep!” The Prefect nearly spat out the words, flecks of spittle shining white on her flushed skin. “We’re just lucky that your bumbling has cost us no lives!”
The young man stood in the middle of the street while the Prefect circled him like a hawk about to strike. At her words his head snapped up. “Two dead!”
The Prefect waved her hand. “Just two males and none of mine, thank the Founder! If your men die because of your idiocy, that’s their price for following such a leader. You’re a fool and you have proven it upon the bodies of your men.”
Kara nodded. Just what she’d been told. This e’lyn had failed and so they had called her in to succeed where he’d failed. An A’Lin’s mægen instead of the e’lyn’s steel.
Kara’s focus shifted back to the Prefect when that formidable woman turned to her. “I’ve been waiting,” growled the Prefect.
The woman’s face seemed most comfortable creased in a frown. Kara stepped forward, moving to stand next to the e’lyn who stared straight ahead, not even bothering to acknowledge her. His black tunic looked yellow from road dust and a gash in the shoulder nearest to her exposed a wound caked with blood. Even standing as tall as she could, Kara came only to the Prefect’s chin. The frown creasing the woman’s brow deepened as she stared at Kara.
“You’ve completed your training? Including the Solitary?”
Kara tried to project confidence. “Yes, Prefect.”
“Hummph. You’ll do, I suppose. Your name is Kara, is it not?” Not waiting for an answer the Prefect moved to stand in front of the young man she’d been haranguing just a moment before. “This boy, this e’lyn, is called Rhue,” she said, jabbing a finger against his chest. “He and his men are now under your command.”
“There is no need for A’Lin interference, Prefect. It isn’t necessary.” Rhue’s voice quivered with, what Kara suspected was suppressed anger, even as his words were cloaked in civility.
“You’ve failed, e’lyn. Failed to clear my woods of bandits, something that should have been simple for such a powerful warrior.” Kara winced at the scorn lashing the man. “I should have known no man could do this unsupervised and I have too much to do to coddle some fool boy. From now on, you’ll follow the orders of this A’Lin.”
Kara watched Rhue from the corner of her eye. A pleasant enough profile with his long hair pulled back into the braid of a full e’lyn, a strong jaw now clenched, and grey eyes that stared straight ahead. He had bristled at the Prefect’s words, his mouth a tight, silent line.
“Now get to it, both of you.” The Prefect turned away, moving towards the entrance to the building they stood before. “Rhue can fill you in on what inane measures he has taken so far. I want this situation resolved quickly, before the Festival. That gives you three days.”
“Yes, Prefect,” Kara replied. Rhue said nothing, only nodded once and spun on his heel, facing her for a moment. Kara’s eyes widened in surprise when she saw his full face. A terrible burn scar marred the left side, extending from his temple to his chin. His face twisted with contempt at her reaction and he pushed past her to march off down the street.
Kara turned to follow rushing to catch up with him. “E’lyn!”
He stopped and turned to face her, looking her up and down. Barely standing as tall as Rhue’s chest, Kara knew she would never be mistaken for a warrior. Her vrai syr often joked that a strong wind could blow his youngest daughter over. The disdain on Rhue’s face brought Kara up short. No one had ever shown – as either a daughter of her House or as an A’Lin – such disrespect.
“Oh great A’Lin, what would you say to this, your humblest servant?”
“E’lyn, ‘humble’ is to you an ill-fitting cloak.” Kara tried to keep her voice even despite her growing anger.
“I am hurt, Great One. Humility is my most worn suit.”
“Then I fear it has grown threadbare. Mend it.”
Rhue inclined his head. “I will take your command to heart, Wise One, and hasten to amend my ways. But first I must see to my men.” He turned away from her to head down the street.
“E’lyn, you forget the Prefect’s command.” Her words brought him up short. “See to it you take good care of my men. Then meet me in the tavern, there,” she pointed,” at dusk. We need to discuss these bandits you have failed to destroy.” Kara turned and walked away, uncertain, for the first time in her life, that a man would do as she ordered.
The sun set by the time Kara finished her dinner in the tavern. Few in this northern Border village had seen an A’Lin and they showed their respect – fear? – by isolating her. She longed to have shared her meal with the other A’Lin in the Enclosure this night, laughing, joking, and discussing the day passed and the day to come. No doubt these Borderers felt they were respecting her privacy, but Kara wanted someone to talk to.
A cold wind ruffled Kara’s hair when the tavern door opened. The door slammed closed, shutting off conversations as well as the chill night air. Rhue stalked through the room to stand before her table. “You desired to speak to me, A’Lin?”
Kara sighed. I didn’t mean him.
Standing before her in a clean black tunic Rhue looked more like a shadow in the tavern than a patron. His face bore the same haughty look he’d worn that afternoon. She pushed her plates aside and motioned for him to sit.
“That’s twice now you have failed to show me the respect I’m due. I don’t care what the e’lyn taught you about those with Gifts. You will treat me with respect. Do you understand me?”
Rhue pulled a stool out from under the table and sat, elbows braced on the table. “I had no need to be taught by the e’lyn to understand those with mægen.” Rhue’s hand reached up to his burn scar before hastily putting his hand back on the table. A mocking smile curled his lips. “I learned it early on. So, aye. I understand.”
“Do you? Tell me, Rhue, what do you understand?”
Rhue sat back on his stool, his eyes locked with hers. “As much as I know of mægen you know less of fighting. I doubt you’ve had to face this kind of physical threat before and are unsure if your leoht mægen will suffice. You desire respect before you have earned it.” Rhue paused for a moment, his eyes flicking away from Kara’s. “But, neither have you earned my ill regard.”
Kara snorted. “Why thank you. I didn’t know the e’lyn were so learned.”
He shook his head, the mocking smile returned. “There is more learning than that found in the A’Lin Enclosure, Kara. Those of you with Gifts from the Founder give us our queen, guide the guilds, and lead our country. But the e’lyn, we keep the history and do your fighting. The e’lyn get dirty and bloody in the fields and woods of this land while you stay pristine in the capitol. We know Implin as few others do for we have ridden all of it.”
Kara felt her face grow red. “Oh? And what does this vast experience tell you about me?”
Rhue studied her face a moment. “You are young for a fully trained A’Lin; about my own age, is my guess. You’ve been sent out to the field to gain experience. Since, A’Lin don’t often travel to the Borders where they might find physical danger, I hazard you were told to stay here in town, directing my activities from afar. Perhaps, if you have skill in Farseeing, you can find the bandits. So that our men can move on them. There would be little one with either the eorð mægen or wæta mægen could do in a battle.”
“So you own that I may be of some use to you?”
“Aye.” Rhue signaled to the barman who came with a second cup. Kara waited while Rhue filled his mug from her pitcher.
“How long have you been assigned here?” she asked.
“We arrived on the peninsula a fortnight ago. The Prefect had requested fighting men to root out these bandits. I was dispatched with ten others.”
“Ten? Why no more?” Kara refilled her own cup and took a moment to drink, studying Rhue all the while.
“Bandits are disorganized. Any more than half a dozen and they begin to fight amongst themselves. Ten e’lyn seemed sufficient.”
“Continue,” Kara said. “Please,” she offered.
Rhue’s eyes met her, his surprise clear. “We have seen these bandits just twice, although we have seen their effects often. They have struck seven times: five times hitting lone homesteads and twice pitched battles with my men and me.” He frowned and stared at the floor. “They are sighted but before we move on them they are gone, leaving nothing for my best trackers to follow. The two skirmishes were ambushes both.”
Kara took a deep drink then set her mug down. “Describe this morning’s battle to me. Have you worked with A’Lin before in this way? Do you understand what I ask?”
Kara leaned against the wall behind her. She touched the amulet lying between her breasts, preparing herself for what she needed to do next. The amber stone, etched with glyphs, provided her a focus that eased her into a trance. Then she could access this aspect of the leoht mægen that gave her the ability to See the events as Rhue described them for her.
“North we rode, toward the pass, after noon. The sun in a clear sky, our shadows cast before us. Forests of pine and cedar with patches of poplar, surrounded the narrow trail we traveled. Single file we rode, a breeze blowing against our backs.”
The details in Rhue’s description painted the scene in Kara’s mind.
A cool breeze blew, smelling of pine and rich loam damp from the fall rains. The caravan from Kunsha was due and Rhue hoped to both guard the caravan and catch the bandits in their efforts to take it. The path narrowed and they fell into a single file. Rhue knew they were too exposed so he sent a pair of his best scouts ahead and detailed another pair to guard the route behind.
A deer shot out of the forest ahead of them, just where the path ran between shoulder-high rock walls. Rhue scanned the woods to either side, sure that whatever had startled the deer would not be friends to the e’lyn either. He whistled, bringing the men up short. They unslung their bows in deft, efficient movements. With quick hand gestures, he formed his men into two lines of three, with himself to the rear and another warrior at point. He saw no sign of his scouts.
Arrows flew from the trees to their left, the slope of the hill putting the attackers above them. Almost as one, the e’lyn brought out their small, round shields to ward off the darts. As soon as the shields made use of the bow difficult for the e’lyn, the bandits appeared, charging down the path toward them. Pinned between arrows from the left and attackers ahead, Rhue reformed the lines, keeping the shield wall toward the arrows while allowing the other line to free their swords. Rhue’s heart beat faster as he pulled his own sword from the sheath.
“Much better than duty in the capital, what say you e’lyn?”
“Giese!” Came the shouted response as the forces clashed.
Stop. Kara struggled to guide Rhue’s thoughts. Focus on the attackers like you couldn’t during the fight. See their gear, their clothes. Show me.
The man in front of Rhue wore chain mail, close linked, but rusted by neglect. He swung a morning star from the days of his mother’s father. Rhue leaned back in the saddle as the points of the star whizzed past his face. A short sword scored a hit on the e’lyn to Rhue’s left, nearly severing his head from his body. With a shout, Rhue responded, thrusting his sword into the stiffened leather breastplate of the bandit. Rhue withdrew his sword, watching the bandit topple from his short, mountain-bred pony. Another bandit swung a mace and struck Rhue so hard on the shoulder his head snapped back, filling his mouth with the bitter taste of blood. He growled and spat the blood at his attacker. Swinging his sword, he struck the bandit across the neck where linked mail ended below his dented helm, sending him to the ground.
Another of the e’lyn took a wound, crying out in pain, the only noise an e’lyn would make in battle. Rhue didn’t think any of his men had escaped injury. They held their own against the brigands, but Rhue didn’t know for how long. Thanks to the narrowness of the path, the brigands could attack only from the front. But as Rhue tried to open up the field by moving his men back down the path, arrows rained down on them from the woods. Pinned between archers behind and brigands ahead, Rhue chose the brigands. At least sword to sword he stood a chance.
The pair of men Rhue had dispatched to ride behind caught up with them, riding fast through the hail of arrows. Rhue whistled and the e’lyn pushed the battle to the enemy. The bandits broke off, made to flee up the path when the two scouts came upon the fight. One more bandit died in the clash, but so did the second of Rhue’s men. Arrows began to streak toward them again from the trees as the bandits made their escape. Rhue whistled and his men began retreating toward the village.
Kara opened her eyes slowly, took in deep breaths that anchored her in the present. She gulped the wine from her mug, a stinging sweetness that warmed her parched throat.
Rhue watched her, his face a patient mask. Before she said another word he had signaled to the barman for a plate. Soon, she was munching on crisp fall apples and sharp cheese. The food pushed part of the fatigue aside.
“You fought well and saved your men.”
“I fell into a trap that killed your men!”
“They were e’lyn, trained to fight? And to die? Had they known of their deaths?”
Rhue glared at her, then nodded his head in curt answer. “An A’Lin had foretold to them the manner of their deaths, if not the place and time. They were prepared to die in such a fashion.”
Kara nodded. “Did you have to leave the bodies of the dead?”
“No. Later in the day, I rode back with two of my least injured men. The bodies of the bandits were gone, as was the gear from the e’lyn and horses. But at least my men could be burned properly.”
“Then they will rejoin the Spiral.”
“Very touching, A’Lin. Maybe they will be reborn as women with mægen. How ambitious of them to die like that.”
Kara gritted her teeth. “And your ambitions, e’lyn? Do you aspire to actually catch these bandits? Yes? Then perhaps you will keep your mouth shut and listen. As a woman and an A’Lin I have skills you lack. Would you turn from a sword offered to you because you didn’t like its sheath? We will ride tomorrow to the site of your battle. Perhaps I can See something you cannot.” Kara stopped, shook her head. “Tell me one more thing. Wasn’t that the caravan I passed on the way in to town, heading for the port?”
“Aye. It arrived, all untouched.” Rhue glanced down and then back to face Kara. “Funny, that. Don’t you think?”
Smoke hung in a thick, choking haze above the remains of the farmhouse. Rhue walked among the debris of the outbuildings, his scarred face held rigid and expressionless. Kara remained on her horse, out of the way of the warriors searching the grounds. The smoke had appeared in the sky as Kara and the e’lyn had traveled to the last battle site. Fearing the worst, they had raced over the rocky hillsides, only to find their fears confirmed.
Kara Felt only Rhue and his men. Most of the livestock were missing save for the charred and stinking remains of those lost when the barn burned. The bodies of the crofter’s husband and son lay where they fell, wearing nothing but their wounds and blood. The crofter herself could not be found.
“Without your help we did better than this, A’Lin. Four now dead and these bandits are still free.”
“They made a mistake today.” Her voice echoed in the still air. She coughed, the smell of death a taste in her mouth she longed to wash away.
Rhue marched up to stand next to her horse. “Oh, aye, Great One. That they did. They made so many mistakes that they now have more cattle, have left more dead, and have disappeared into the hills with no trace. Obviously, these bandits are incompetent.”
“These are no bandits.”
Rhue stared at her. “What did you say?”
She sighed. “Six homesteads hit by hill bandits and only two dead? I’m not speaking of warriors felled in battle. Only two dead. A rich caravan from Kunsha passes over the very roads that the bandits have been haunting, yet arrives in our ports unscathed. In your vast martial experience, e’lyn, tell me: when have you ever known bandits to be so careful of lives, or so respectful of trade?”
Rhue turned to look around the ruined farmstead. “They frighted the crofters but didn’t kill until today. The hit targets of little value to us, but ignored a rich target from Kunsha.”
“Indeed. The farms targeted were chosen carefully, with no two so close together that one could aid the other and all set in indefensible valleys. These bandits even set their ambushes with great precision. Military precision. In your memories I saw the direction of the sun, the placement of the archers and the path of retreat. Do simple brigands or ‘disorganized’ bandits make such use of tactics?”
He faced Kara again. “Not bandits. Kunshan?”
Rhue rubbed at his scar. “Aye, Kunshan. In these disputed lands of the peninsula, they have long itched at our presence. So, they raid yet stay careful of life so as not to start on open war. Disrupt on a minor scale, cause problems to us and ours, but leave their own to make a profit in our markets.”
“And no doubt willing to come in and ‘help’ us poor Implinnae hold this land.”
Rhue nodded. “Until we hold nothing. You are devious, A’Lin.”
“I’m also a fool.” She dismounted, then leaned against the mare, her soul exhausted by the sight of the dead. “I’ve been trying to discover where these bandits are. I should have used my Gift to see where they will be.”
“That use of leoht mægen is not without its cost, Kara.”
“Less cost than what these paid. Food and rest will see me restored. Not so these,” she said, pointing at the bodies.
“Aye,” he said. “You need privacy, do you not?”
Kara nodded. “What I need is full seclusion so when I begin to look into the future I don’t travel down the lifepath of every man here. But, I’ll make do.” She led them away from the small farm a scant hundred paces, past a screen of trees, and sat beneath a huge old oak, its leaves just beginning to turn. Rhue stood above her, his arms folded across his chest.
“Tell me where and when, Kara, so that we may have justice.”
She nodded, took the amulet from inside her tunic and cupped it in her hands. In two breaths she was focused, the light trance opening her to this use of her power. As she had feared, the presence of so many lives around her made focus difficult. Many times she had to wrench her mind back from a future path of one of the men. Then she found herself following the path of Rhue’s life and her conscious mind wondered how he would die. That knowledge would be a small gift she could give him for her failure to find the bandits sooner. What she saw shattered her focus, throwing her out of the trance.
“What is it? What did you see?” Rhue knelt next to her, his hand resting on her brow. For a second she saw him as the kind of boy he once might have been. What kind of shock, of calamity had sent him to take refuge with the e’lyn? But she Saw neither his beginning nor his ending.
“You will survive this battle, and many more,” she whispered, turning her eyes from his.
Rhue sat back on his heels, fear and hope chasing across the scared landscape of his face. “You Saw how I will die?” He asked with such hope that Kara had to close her eyes. “No other A’Lin has.”
“No.” She sighed. “Rhue, I could not see your death. Only that after tomorrow you will still be alive.”
“I don’t understand, A’Lin. All die. All return to the Spiral. Tell me my death so I can prepare for it!”
“I cannot. I followed your path, but saw no death for you,” she said. “Perhaps, your future is yet undecided, some event remains unresolved. I’m sorry I cannot set your mind at ease, except to tell you that you will survive the battle tomorrow.”
Rhue stood and turned his back on her. His shoulders shook with tension beneath his black tunic. “Waste no further time with me. I will have no other A’Lin disrupting my life. Or my death. Find these bandits and where they will be.”
Kara nodded though he could not see her. Not knowing one’s death was a terrible thing. That uncertainty could twist a person with fear, giving rise to all sorts of superstitions about death. She pushed the thoughts aside along with the distractions of so many lives around her. This time her Gift roamed freely down different paths searching not only places but times. A few minutes later, she slipped out of the trance. She stood, unsteady on her feet. Stumbling from fatigue, she approached Rhue and touched his shoulder. He turned to face her, his eyes cold.
“We have them,” she whispered, then collapsed.
Kara waited alongside Rhue and two of his men in the dark before sunrise. Three others had taken position across the narrow defile, awaiting the event Kara had Foreseen. Kara herself shivered in the chill air, her clammy hands grasping the reins so hard her knuckles shone white even in the dim light.
“Check your sword, A’Lin,” Rhue whispered. “If your Sight is true, we face better than two to one odds. I don’t have men enough to leave one idle guarding your back.”
Kara nodded and checked her short sword one more time. The sword slid easily from its sheath, its unfamiliar weight awkward in her hand. She eased it back in, but even those quiet movements sounded harsh in the stillness before dawn.
“Is it true,” Rhue asked, “that an A’Lin can’t foresee her own death?”
Kara’s head snapped up, her eyes locked on Rhue’s. She couldn’t see if he was mocking her. “True. I can’t use my power to see my death, or any woman with mægen. It is surmised that the use of power itself disrupts what may be,” she said, looking away. “I no more know the manner of my death than you do. In fact, e’lyn, mine may be today and I’d not know it.”
A distant clatter of hooves on the stone path reached them then and whatever Rhue might have responded Kara would never know. Rhue motioned to his men. They nocked arrows, drawing the bows full. The Kunshan force came into view as they crossed the ridge. Kara’s heart beat faster when she saw the truth of her vision. Almost twenty men filled the defile below. Rhue nodded once. Arrows streaked through the still morning sky. His men on the other side of the path let loose with their arrows as well, pinning the Kunshan down. Screams from men and horses shattered the morning stillness. The next volley found two more. By then, the Kunshan had retreated back up the valley towards the ridge.
The remaining two e’lyn appeared at the top of the ridge. They fired arrows into the confused knot of men and horses from behind, killing two more. The Kunsha broke into organized ranks, their leader dispatching three teams, each moving toward a group of e’lyn. Bows went onto e’lyn backs and their swords came out.
Rhue spurred his horse, leading the charge. His small force struck the Kunshan from three sides, pushing them back together. The clang of metal became a counterpoint to the cries of wounded men and beasts.
Under cover of the trees, Kara watched the battle unfold. Rhue’s men fought well and in silence, the surprise of their attack pushing the battle in their favor. The three-pronged attack prevented the Kunshan forces from mounting a charge. Brigands fell under the onslaught. The stink of blood filled the air along with the cries of dying men. Rhue lost two men, but the Kunshan many more. As the numbers became even, the Kunshan fought with greater desperation. Kara could no longer see who might win. She pulled her amulet from beneath her tunic and focused on it, falling into trance.
Blocking out all sounds of the battle, she willed her mind down the future paths of those below, fighting to focus on the scene as a whole, separate from the individual lives bleeding away before her. She opened her eyes and Saw the battle, both as it was and as it might be.
Multiple images overlaid the scene before her as each man made decisions that saved his life or cause his death. The impact of so many lives in flux threatened to shatter her mind. Ignoring her growing fatigue, she stretched even further, not mere moments into the future but a handful of minutes, willing to See anything that might aid Rhue in the fight.
In her vision she Saw half a dozen men racing over the ridge to the right, men of Kunsha intent on saving their comrades. Kara shook off the trance, then cried in pain as her mind snapped back into the present. Her shout to Rhue was lost in the noise of battle. She pulled the sword from its sheath and drove her heels into the beast’s flank, racing out of cover and towards the ridge.
She crashed into Kunshan reinforcements just as they topped the ridge. One man fell from his horse in the impact. She swung her sword and met nothing but air. She swung again, her sword striking metal. The impact numbed her hand and shot pain up her shoulder. That she held onto the sword at all she counted as victory. One of the soldiers, his face snarling behind his beard, lifted his mace high. Kara, her arm too numb to block the attack, waited for the blow to fall. Surprise and frustration raced across the man’s face when an arrow buried itself in his chest.
“Kara!” Rhue appeared at her side, sword in hand. “I foresee a different manner for your death!” He laughed and put his horse between hers and the remaining Kunshan force.
Kara woke with the sun slanting into her eyes. Her head pounded so loudly she was certain all heard her heart’s beat. Rhue and his men moved about the battle site, checking for wounded and dispatching the dying. Dead men and horses littered the ground, their bodies split, hacked apart. The stink of blood and shit felt palpable in the air. Kara choked and sat up, the smell worse even than the pain in her skull. When she moved to rub her face she discovered her hands were sticky with blood.
Rhue sent his men away and walked over to Kara. For once no mocking smile curled his lips. Instead, Kara would swear she saw concern in his eyes. “I’ve never heard of an A’Lin who attempted to Foresee a battle while in the midst of it. You took a great risk, Kara.”
She shook her head, then moaned as the motion sent waves of pain rattling around her skull. Once she stopped moving, the pain eased. “I did my part. No more.”
“Others would have done less. Thank you, A’Lin.” Rhue’s bow to her took her by surprise.
Embarrassed, she turned away and surveyed the battle scene. “We won, I assume.”
“Aye,” Rhue answered. “All but a handful of the bandits lay dead around us. Those few still living raced back to Kunsha fast as feet or hooves could take them. I thought it best to let them go.”
Kara smiled. “Their leaders won’t much like the message they bring.”
“That is my hope.”
Kara studied Rhue for a moment. A few new cuts rent his tunic, the black stained deeper with blood. She didn’t know how much of it was his and knew he wouldn’t tell her. “You did well, Rhue. Once you knew the true scope of things, you and your men won victory. The Prefect will be pleased.”
His mocking grin returned. “No, Kara. I doubt she will.”
Kara laughed, then groaned out loud. “Don’t! That hurts my head.”
“Yes, Great One.” Rhue took her arm and helped her toward the horses.
Story ©David O. Engelstad
Illustration © Chaz Kemp