THE SWORD HIT the slate paving with a wooden clatter. Andrixine followed it a heartbeat later, her bruised knees making a sodden thud that echoed dully in the old creamery-turned-practice room.
"I hate this," she grated between clenched teeth, refusing to gasp like a cow in labor despite the racing of her heart and the sweat that blinded her. A vision of her warrior friends among the Sword Sisters mocking her weakness stabbed at her heart and mind. Her shoulders shook as she braced herself stiff-armed against the floor. Palms slid on sweat-slicked stone.
"You have been out of your sickbed only five days, daughter." Brother Klee picked up her practice sword and carried it to the wall rack holding other blunted wooden weapons. "Enough for today."
"No. I have to keep working." Andrixine flinched as her voice banged off the stone walls. "Please?"
For a moment, the two simply looked at each other, volumes of communication passing between the emaciated noblewoman and the tall monk with silver in his dark hair and beard. She shuddered, her fine trousers and linen shirt drenched in sweat from a mere ten minutes of sword drills. He breathed normally, his dark blue robe barely disturbed. Andrixine sat back on her heels. Her warrior braids, thin twists of dark hair bound with the silver cord reserved for nobles, swung free of the clips that held them out of her face. A gasping laugh escaped her, and she raked more sweat-drenched strands of hair out of her too-pale face.
"You lasted ten strokes longer than yesterday. The regimen is intended to make you stronger, not send you back to your sickbed." He held out a hand to help her stand. "If you exhaust yourself, how shall you stay awake during your contemplation time in the chapel?"
"This is like no training regimen I've ever known." Andrixine wobbled as she regained her legs. "You say it's meant for kings and Oathbound warriors--why use it on me?"
"We have no training programs for noble maidens who will inherit their fathers' estates," Brother Klee said with a smile. That earned him a snort from the exhausted, noble maiden leaning on his arm. His smile faded. "You must know, we believe you were poisoned."
"Who would poison me? Who would hate Lord Edrix Faxinor enough to attack his heir?" She shuddered and twisted free of his support, to stagger to the bench next to the door.
"Not your father, Andrixine. You. Who profits if you do not inherit?"
"Lorien doesn't want the estates. She'd be a troubadour if she could. Or spend her life in Court, dancing and dictating fashion. None of the boys want the bother. They want to be soldiers. Not that I blame them," she mused, nodding. "I would give anything to take my oath of celibacy and join the Sword Sisters."
"Anything but Faxinor, you mean. You were born to serve, Andrixine Faxinor. Your heart is loyal, and you know your duty clearly. You are a true servant of Yomnian, and you will always put the right ahead of your own desires and dreams. That is why we chose to give you this training regimen reserved for those entering holy service." His dark eyes mesmerized her. "Despite your summers training with the maiden warriors, you are still an innocent at heart. You think too well of the entire world, despite knowing enemies wait to destroy Reshor. Think, Andrixine. Your illness came on you too suddenly, too severely to be mere disease. What happened just before you fell ill?"
She stared at the monk, sensing she knew the answer already but that it was one she wished to keep hidden even from herself.
"We were on a tour, Mother and Alysyn and I. We visited Uncle Maxil at Henchvery. He was angry at me, like always."
"Why?" he snapped, like the Captain of the Guard at Faxinor Castle, drilling a new recruit.
"I refused to marry Feril. Again. He was furious. Icy furious, so you could only see it in his eyes." She closed her eyes as the scene played itself in her memory.
Feril, her sneering, greasy, overweight cousin, pouting because she refused to consider him a suitor. Her uncle, dark and regal, drawing his dignity around himself like a cloak as his manners turned cold.
"Then what happened?"
"We left the next day. Alysyn fell ill, and we stopped at Maysford. I was so worried about her, and certain Feril would try some nasty trick in revenge, and so glad to be heading home, I didn't pay attention to how badly I felt." She opened her eyes. "Is it only good fortune that when trouble strikes my family, Snowy Mount is close by to help us?"
"Yomnian's hand is on you, just as it was on your parents when they fled Sendorland to save their lives. Snowy Mount has always been and always will be a refuge for those in need, a haven for those who devote their lives to contemplation and study and healing, an anchor for those who give their lives to Yomnian by serving others. Your mother brought you here to the mountains to heal because she trusts us implicitly."
"Even so close to the border with Sendorland," Andrixine murmured. "Isn't she afraid someone will learn Arriena of Traxslan is here, and send someone to kill her?"
"Who would send word, in the middle of winter? Who would care that Lady Faxinor was once a noblewoman of Sendorland? Who would want to take revenge?"
"Uncle Maxil would love to send her back to her nasty relatives," she said, going very still. "Brother Klee, my uncle hates me because I won't marry his son. He hates my sisters and brothers, because seven of us stand between Feril and Faxinor becoming his inheritance. But he would never kill us. His wife, Gersta of Henchvery, would gladly murder to get what she wanted, but she's been dead fourteen years now."
"Andrixine, heir of Faxinor, hear me," Brother Klee intoned, pulling himself up straight and tall, so she could see the warrior hidden inside the peaceful, silvered monk. "You are touched by Yomnian's hand. You are a faithful servant of the All-Creator, and that alone makes you a target of evil forces. You should have died of that poison, but you did not. Put aside the words of men and false loyalties that blind you. Listen with your heart and with the spirit Yomnian put within you, and you will know the truth, and the true path to follow."
She stared into his dark eyes, shivering as she had done when illness racked her body and wasted away her muscle, and delirium kept her mind prisoner.
For three long heartbeats, the bearded monk vanished. The man who stood before her had Brother Klee's eyes and wide shoulders, but he was clean-shaven and thirty years younger. Instead of the simple blue robe of a holy scholar, he wore battle-scarred leathers and shining chain mail. His warrior braids were long and dark, bound with the red of an Oathbound warrior and the blue of holy service. He held a naked sword in his right hand, the scabbard in his left.
The scabbard was a dull ivory color, like bone, the fine designs dark with the grime of years--maybe blood. Andrixine sensed she should recognize the sword by the scabbard alone.
The sword's blade looked clear as crystal and seemed to swallow up all the light and send it back tripled, blinding, fractured into thousands of razor-sharp pieces. The pieces struck at her eyes, penetrating her mind and spirit, sending terror through her that she had never known, even in the worst of her fever dreams.
Andrixine cried out and jerked free of the vision. Shuddering, she pressed her fists into her eyes.
"Daughter?" Brother Klee dropped onto the bench next to her and put an arm around her shoulders. "What is it?"
Andrixine shook her head. How could she tell him? He would think she had relapsed.
She knew that sword, if only because it had haunted her dreams nearly every night since she had regained her right mind. Maybe even before that.
Andrixine's hand itched to grasp the pommel, and her arm ached to test the weight and balance of the blade. If Yomnian's spirit touched her, as Brother Klee said, was this a warning or a quest she had been given? Or a delusion sent by dark spirits, to blind her to the path she should follow in life?
She was Andrixine Faxinor, heir and first-born of Lord Edrix Faxinor. She was destined to care for the Faxinor estates, to make a high-born marriage and provide herself with a suitable heir. Her duties required she train soldiers to protect Reshor whenever King Rafnar called for them. Her duties would not let her go free, to live the life of a warrior maiden in holy service with the Sword Sisters.
She most certainly could not follow a vision quest for a sword that called to the depths of her very soul.
"Nothing," she finally whispered. "I'm just tired. My head aches a little."
"Your heart aches as well," Brother Klee said. "You know what I have said is true. You have enemies, and they will not go away no matter how much good will you bestow on the world."
"No." She opened her eyes and tried to smile at him. "They will not. Thank you for making me see."
"GLAD TO BE heading home?" Jultar asked. The white‑haired warlord smiled at his apprentice and arched his back. "Or is it just my old bones soaking in the sun for a change?"
"Glad and soaking, sir," Kalsan answered with laughter thickening his voice.
The band of warriors rode their horses two‑by‑two across the spring‑green Kandrigori Plain. Sunshine soaked through thin shirts, warming muscles made tight by a cold winter navigating the mountain range between Sendorland and Reshor. Ten warrior spies were few against the soldiers patrolling the barrier between two unfriendly countries, yet small enough to avoid notice and to find crucial information which ambassadors and envoys missed.
Kalsan frowned despite the luxurious warmth. The two years of spying had been harsh, and he had earned his warrior status ten times over. Soon he would trade his green apprentice cord for the red of an Oathbound warrior in Yomnian's holy service. He welcomed spring, delighted to return home to Reshor--but knowing war approached took the sparkle from the sunshine.
Jultar of Rayeen, the toughest, most cunning of King Rafnar's warlords, had been chosen to lead the spying party. Kalsan of Hestrin, with no hope of ever inheriting the Hestrin estates, had chosen to train as a warrior late in his teens, and he was lucky to have Jultar choose him as his apprentice. He was proud to serve his king and country. However, the news of impending war, which their band carried, dampened his joy. All winter he had warmed himself with memories of the pretty girls he had met on the journey to the mountains. Knowing war approached pushed thoughts of stolen kisses and dancing in village squares far to the back of his mind.
"It's for King Rafnar to handle now," Jultar said, leaning closer to his apprentice so his long, white braids bound with silver and red cord swung in the breeze. He reached out and tugged on Kalsan's thin dark braid. "You've earned these and the right to be named full warrior at solstice. A warrior knows when to carry his burden without stinting and when to lay it down. Lay it down, boy. Rafnar can handle the burden, and Yomnian is able to bear all. Trust Yomnian if you cannot trust the king."
"Yes, sir." Kalsan grinned, knowing his master called him "boy" to tease him. He was twenty‑seven and taller than half the seasoned warriors riding behind him. Kalsan reached down and stroked the scabbard of his sword. He was a warrior.
Maybe not an Oathbound warrior like Jultar's band, but someday. Kalsan read the holy writ and prayed and tried to live in physical and mental purity. Two winters of privation had been good training, teaching him discipline and just how much he could live without. Yet he wondered if he would ever attain the spiritual depth to hear Yomnian's call on his life.
What should he become when he took his vows? Simply a warrior, ready to ride out at the king's call? Or a warrior scholar? Or a warrior priest? Could he put Yomnian and Reshor ahead of his dreams of adventure and glory? Perhaps he didn't want to reach the capital because then he would have to choose, and Kalsan had no idea what to choose.
Visions of the girls he had danced with and kissed haunted him during his morning prayers. Visions of a faceless, slim maiden carrying a burning sword haunted his sleep. Was that Yomnian's call, or one of those strange metaphors that only a seer or Renunciate scholar could interpret?
Kalsan shook those troubling thoughts from his mind, even if only temporarily. He glanced over his shoulder, taking in the reassuring, familiar sight of the war band: browned by the elements; dressed in leathers and rough cloth; each man armed, in good health and riding their horses as if man and beast were one.
Behind them lay the mountains, ahead lay the Blue Shadows Forest. They would skirt Snowy Mount with its seers, healers and scholars. They might pause a day to catch up on gossip and get a feel for the thoughts and emotions of the common people before starting down the long spider web of trade roads. Two weeks of hard, fast travel eastward on the King's Highway would take them to King Rafnar in Cereston. Then, Kalsan knew with relief sparkling in his gray eyes--then he could lay down his burden.
"MY HAIR IS turning red." Andrixine began to laugh, but the rasping in her voice killed her humor. She tossed the long, sun‑brightened brown braid over her shoulder and swallowed hard, daring her throat to keep hurting.
Brother Klee had warned her the fever damage to her voice might never fully leave. She hadn't minded that she would never be able to sing because she had never been musically inclined. Laughing was a different matter. Now it was gone, stolen by the threads of pain that ran through her chest and around her throat when she tried to laugh.
Andrixine swallowed hard, feeling the ache become a tight knot through her body. The glorious sunshine and the colors of springtime in Blue Shadows Forest faded. The joy of wearing trousers again and riding her blood bay stallion, Grennel, did not pulse as warmly as a moment before.
Winter had passed in the struggle to regain her health and strength. Andrixine had thrived on the strict exercises and spiritual training Brother Klee imposed on her.
After praying and struggling to think logically, Andrixine knew the healers at Snowy Mount were right: she had been poisoned. But what should she do? Would the enemy continue to strike at her, or someone else in her family? How could she protect them?
"Keep silent," Brother Klee had counseled. "Pretend you suspect nothing and use the confidence of your enemies as your shield and their trap. Gather evidence they cannot deny."
"I will find out, and they will pay," she whispered. Andrixine knew it was petty, but she vowed to enjoy punishing the ones who had taken her laughter.
"Did you say something, dear?" her mother called, leaning out of the canopied wagon. She held four-year-old Alysyn on her lap. The little girl giggled and swatted at Grennel's tail, so conveniently swaying within her grasp.
"Nothing, Mother. Talking to myself."
"Eager to get home?" Lady Arriena Faxinor brushed a pale blue scarf aside, revealing the elaborate braids woven into her golden hair.
"Not half as much as you are." Self‑consciously, Andrixine adjusted the single braid hanging down her back to her saddle. Her lack of head covering told the world she was unmarried. Her thin, silver‑wrapped warrior braids could not halt the social assault that signal provoked.
Until she wore the marriage band on her wrist and bound her hair up at the back of her head, the world would see her unmarried condition and her estate before they saw the trained warrior--or the girl hungry for a sense of reason and understanding in her life. Andrixine hated the restless feeling, the sense of something more waiting for her to do and to be, if only she could hear Yomnian's voice. Prayer and contemplation and reading holy writ only calmed her for a little while, never fully healed the spiritual "itch" and hunger.
If she could join the maiden warriors and dedicate her life to service, would she be free of this restlessness? Would the purple cord of a Sword Sister in her braids free her from unwanted attentions? She could only dream the answer was yes; as heir of Lord Edrix Faxinor, her life was not hers to live as she pleased.
"Your brothers and sister have likely driven your father and the servants to distraction," Lady Arriena continued with a sigh that was part laughter.
"And half dismantled the castle?" she added.
"But that is half the pleasure of returning. The surprise of seeing how much damage they didn't do, and putting it all back together."
Andrixine smiled. She truly was eager to get home, too, to see her siblings and fit back into the daily routine of Faxinor Castle. Her guilt at keeping her mother so far from home through fall and winter overshadowed her own joy at homecoming.
Lady Arriena Faxinor was an oddity in her devotion to her children. She never gave them over to wet nurses from birth, like most grand ladies, and cared for her offspring with as much devotion as any peasant woman. Lord Edrix Faxinor complained it was a waste of money to hire more than one nurse for their children. But he said it with a smile in his lady's hearing, and they always laughed together.
Andrixine wondered how she would feel about her own children someday. As heir of Faxinor, it was her duty to continue the bloodline, dispense justice and manage the family estates. She did not need to know war craft, only to understand enough to gather soldiers when the king called.
Some said she had gone too far in her devotion to duty when she earned her warrior braids. What use were they in a time of peace? But Lady Arriena had been born in Sendorland, and she had taught her children that no matter how loudly Sendorland spoke peace, it always plotted treachery. Its people hated Reshor's prosperity and individual freedoms. Sendorland believed its holy mission was to turn Reshor into a grim shadow of itself.
Andrixine grew up knowing war would come and trained simply to protect her mother. The men of Sendorland feared a prophecy that a woman carrying a bright sword would begin their downfall. Andrixine liked to imagine the discomfort the sight of her warrior braids would give her mother's vindictive Traxslan relatives.
Thought of her braids made her smile. She reached up and stroked the thin twist of hair and silver cord on either side of her face, hanging from temples to waist. They kept people from looking further and seeing the gauntness of her face, the wide, Faxinor bones which illness had revealed. Tanned and healthy now, back in the saddle and not jolting along in the wagon with the other women, Andrixine wanted no pity from anyone. She leaned slightly to the left to catch the flash of Grennel's white socks. They shimmered, matching the white blaze down his nose. As if he knew his rider admired him, the stallion pranced for a few steps. She laughed and patted his neck.
"Andrixine?" Lady Arriena leaned a little further out from her seat in the wagon. Alysyn giggled as sunbeams caught her eyes and danced across her hands.
"Yes, Mother?" She nudged Grennel, and the stallion slowed his pace so they could speak face to face.
"I said, your father won't recognize you when we get home."
"No, I've finally lost all my baby fat--and Alysyn found it." Andrixine leaned over to tug on her little sister's red-gold curls. Alysyn laughed and tried to catch her sister's lean, brown hand with her chubby pink ones.
"Baby fat." Lady Arriena gave a most unladylike snort. That meant the maidservants were asleep in the afternoon heat trapped under the wagon's canopy. The two menservants riding ahead of them nodded off in their saddles. "You've lost what little figure you had. The only thing to show you're a woman is your hair."
"Mother..." Andrixine sighed. "I promise I will look like a woman when the need arises." She smiled when she realized she actually looked forward to dressing up and dancing.
If only she didn't have to dance with earnest young suitors who were more interested in an estate than a bride. She couldn't even enjoy a simple dance at a harvest festival anymore without someone listing the qualifications of her partner as marriage material.
"Your father's last letter reached me before we set off yesterday morning," Lady Arriena said, a glow in her eyes. Andrixine longed to know such feelings for herself. "He's planning a grand festival to welcome us home."
"And help me choose a husband?"
"Andrixine...I wish I could say you will be as happy as your father and I, but I won't lie to you. Duty sometimes precludes personal dreams. You need a husband."
"Like a brood mare needs--forgive me, I shouldn't have said that."
"But in a way, it is true. If only you could conquer this task as easily as you did sword craft." Lady Arriena sighed, but Andrixine thought she heard a hint of laughter in her voice.
"It took practice, hard work and pain, Mother."
"It takes practice, hard work, patience and pain to bring about a true, satisfying marriage."
"You caught me out on that one, I must admit. Even those blessed to marry for love, like you and Father, have to work for your happiness." A glance ahead showed lights gleaming through the first shadows of dusk. "We're approaching the inn."
"Not soon enough. How you can stand that saddle all day long, I do not know. I lost all my stamina this winter, with no estate to tend. I ache from this wagon, despite the cushions."
"Practice, Mother." Andrixine grinned and set her heels into her horse's sides, escaping before her mother could respond.
How, she wondered, could her mother say she had lost her stamina, when she had rolled up her sleeves and helped the Renunciates at Snowy Mount all winter long? Lady Arriena knew from her Sendorland life what it truly meant to be idle and useless, and she refused to be that way or allow her children to grow up to be drones.
As Andrixine reached the head of their procession, the trail curved and entered a clearing. An inn sprawled from one edge to the other, with bitter black smoke curling up from two chimneys. The building seemed to sink into the ground as trees encroached from all sides. The inn yard had been churned into sharp ruts and pits. Andrixine dismounted to lead Grennel around the obstacle course. Her nose twitched as the mixed odors of animals and cesspool reached her on a shift in the breeze. The hairs rose on the back of her neck, and she wished she could turn around and urge everyone to leave.
If she were by herself, she could find a tree to put at her back, Grennel beside her and a fire before her. With three maids, two menservants and her mother and sister to tend, such a tactic was impossible.
"Why are we going this way?" she asked Jasper, the boy groom coming up behind her. His square, brown face, shadowed by a thatch of black hair, wrinkled in displeasure. She felt better seeing he didn't like this place any better than she.
"Your uncle advised us this was a better route, M'Lady." He shook his head, looking around again. "This is a longer trail home, but he said it would be safer and easier on the ladies." He bowed his head, ducking away from her studying glance.
Andrixine fought a smile at the boy's shyness. She remembered hauling him from the duck pond with her brothers. When had the realization of her station and womanhood hit him?
"I don't like the looks of this place. Play the scout when you bed the horses down, will you?"
"Yes, M'Lady." Light touched his black eyes, though he fought to retain a serious expression.
"Good. Until my father's soldiers meet us, we're depending on you and Tamas." She put Grennel's reins into his hands, then turned to meet the wagon as it came to a stop before the inn door.
She didn't doubt this route was safer; they had seen no one since they turned off the King's Highway just past Maysford. It was just like her Uncle Maxil's spite to send them down a deserted trail with bad inns. He was probably still seething because Andrixine had refused repeatedly to marry his oldest son, Feril.
What if her uncle was the one who had tried to poison her? The timing was right. She had fallen ill immediately after the visit to his home. Andrixine damped that thought, knowing it unworthy and disloyal to her father's family. Maxil's dead wife, Gersta was more likely to use poison to get her way, but she had died birthing dull-witted Aldis. Maxil might dislike his brother's children because they blocked his inheriting Faxinor, but he wouldn't resort to murder.
Andrixine's first sight of the innkeeper and his wife worsened her impressions of the place and made her wish she could speak her mind to her uncle. Both looked hungry, despite their bloated faces and forms. Their dull brown hair lay in tangled, greasy clumps across their foreheads and down their necks. Both had dusty brown eyes, and their pale faces were blotched with bad cooking and filthy living. Their tattered clothes were once rich garments, and Andrixine wondered where they got the originals. Cast-offs from grateful, charitable guests? Or stolen from guests who fled the squalid conditions?
"Only for one night," Lady Arriena murmured as her daughter helped her down from the wagon.
"Is my face that readable?" she replied as quietly.
"I know you, sweetling. Your father and I endured rough living when we were young, but never as foul as this." She swept the yard with one more wincing glance, then straightened her shoulders. She put on the smile saved for trying situations and turned to face their hosts.
ANDRIXINE SAT ON the narrow, splintered ledge of the window, dressed only in her long‑sleeved gray shirt. The dream of the sword had awakened her again.
The sword hung in a sling of golden cloth. The blade possessed a clarity like glass. White, blue and gold light radiated from the blade. Its bone scabbard lay next to it, aged with years and wear. The sword hung over a simple cot, from the ceiling of a small stone room with nothing but a trunk and pegs in the walls that held dark blue Renunciate robes.
Brother Klee had swords, but they were wooden. The only real, metal swords at Snowy Mount had been her sword, inherited from her grandfather, and the swords Tamas and Jasper carried. The regimen of her healing had included sword craft, archery and horsemanship, but the arrows had been blunted, and the only spirited horse had been Grennel. If Brother Klee had fighting swords, she knew he would have shared them with her.
Andrixine knew why she dreamed of swords--she longed for any excuse to avoid choosing a husband. The rough life of a Sword Sister was a pleasure tour compared to long hours of holding court, dancing and listening to pretty speeches.
She took a deep, cool breath of the night air. With the fires banked for the night, the air smelled more wholesome. She didn't mind the aroma from the stables and the pig and hen yards. The animal smell was natural; the effluvium of unwashed furniture and bedding could have been avoided, and was therefore intolerable. All during dinner, she could taste the grease and grime in the air. Andrixine couldn't imagine how such shoddy housekeepers stayed in business. Mentally complaining about their disgusting hosts occupied her thoughts until her mind drifted into a sleepy haze.
She slid into a dream of summer training with the Sword Sisters near Faxinor Castle. Andrixine stood on the practice field, battering friends with a wooden sword that turned real. She stopped, horrified as she drew blood--and the young women gathered around her turned into filthy, leering men who reached out greedy hands for her. Andrixine swung hard, and the sword burst out with blinding light, incinerating her attackers.
Andrixine jerked awake in the windowsill, for a moment hearing the thuds of swords hacking into flesh, the cries of dying men and women shrieking in fear.
All was quiet in the room; her mother lay in one narrow, lumpy bed and Alysyn in the other. Andrixine had taken her baby sister to sleep with her to allow their mother a decent night's rest.
Something banged softly in the yard below her window. Andrixine felt a sudden chill and reached for her trousers. She cast a glance at both sleepers. Neither stirred. She heard nothing from the room where the maids slept. She crept back to the window, tucking her long shirt inside her trousers.
Unnatural silence reigned. She listened for the animals in the stables as she put on her belt and fastened her knife in place. If all was well, the animals would not listen with the same wariness she felt. Andrixine gave one tug to her belt and knelt before the window.
Chilled, she stared at the shapes and shadows of a dozen men creeping through thin patches in the forest several hundred yards from the inn. They carried weapons: swords, spears and ropes.
"Mother." She placed her hand over her mother's mouth. "Mother, listen." Andrixine couldn't see her expression. "Men are surrounding the inn. Get dressed." She took her hand away and stepped back to take her sword from under the bed. She already knew what to do. She would slip down to the stables and wake Jasper and Tamas and bring them to protect their party before the approaching men reached the inn.
"Rixy..." Alysyn moaned, waking. She rolled over and looked at the two poised between the beds. "Me go."
"I can't take you, poppet. It's dangerous. Bad men are coming."
"Me go," the child insisted, louder.
"I can't take her," she appealed to her mother.
"It might be better. What if you can't get back?"
"We'll all go together, then."
"Small numbers are easier to hide. I have to wake the maids. You go first." Lady Arriena managed a brave smile.
Andrixine bit back a rebuttal. She felt the fear her mother hid. She nodded and snatched up the shawl that had been covering the child in lieu of the dingy bedclothes.
"Help me make a sling," she said, flinging the cloth over one shoulder. Quickly, her mother helped her tie it so the largest part hung at her waist. "You have to be quiet, Alysyn. Understand?" Andrixine waited for one quick nod from the child and snatched her from the bed, depositing her in the sling so her legs straddled her sister's waist. She hesitated only a moment, then put her sword into her mother's hands. Andrixine knew she could outrun any ruffian, even with Alysyn's weight in her arms.
"Yomnian guard you," Lady Arriena whispered, squeezing her daughter's shoulder. Then she reached for her clothes.
"And you," Andrixine breathed, before stepping to the door.
The floor felt gritty under her bare feet, but Andrixine didn't dare take time for her boots. She shivered as she slipped down the stairs. The ancient wood creaked under her steps but not loudly enough to warn anyone listening. She hoped.
The main room was a cavern of sour smelling darkness. She kept to the wall when she reached the ground, following it to the door into the owners' private rooms. Sour smells rose to wrap around her head as her feet slipped on something soft and slick. Andrixine refused to speculate on what it was. She opened the door--and found herself in an empty room. Some bits of trash, broken furniture, an empty bed visible in the moonlight, but no people. They had fled without warning their guests.
Shadows filled the yard between the inn and the stable where the grooms slept when she crept outside. She breathed a prayer and ducked down to make the dash in the open. Andrixine wished her shirt was black, not gray.
Grennel recognized her scent as she stepped into the stable, and nickered. To her relief, no other horse responded. She searched for an empty stall. Jasper had said at dinner there was no loft for them to sleep in.
"Jasper, Tamas?" She held her breath, afraid of silence that meant the grooms had been killed already.
"M'Lady?" There was a stirring in the hay, and Jasper's wide, tanned face appeared in the thin beam of moonlight slanting through a hole in the roof.
She opened her mouth, to be stopped as a shriek shattered the false peace of the night. It sounded like Cedes, the maid hired a week ago from Maysford. A wagon horse answered the scream, rearing up in his stall and coming down to the floor with a crunch of hooves on rotten wood.
"Attack?" Tamas growled. He rose, brushing hay off his clothes and rubbing one hand over his balding pate.
"Give me a sword. I have to go back for my mother." Andrixine didn't wait when she spotted the scabbards hanging on a protruding nail on the wall, but yanked the sword from the one closest. It fit her grasp awkwardly.
Andrixine strode from the stable into shadows. Alysyn's weight was negligible among all her other burdens. With her free hand, she stroked the child's head. Alysyn stirred the tiniest bit, and Andrixine prayed the child had fallen asleep again.
She couldn't go back for her mother until Alysyn was safely hidden. Turning her back on the sounds of feet banging on wood and doors or possibly bodies thudding against walls, she ran into the forest until her breath caught in her lungs. Was she far enough in?
Breathing a silent prayer, she untied the shawl sling, wrapped it around Alysyn and tucked her sister into the shelter of a thick cluster of bushes. Andrixine hesitated, flinching when another scream rang from the inn. That wasn't her mother--it couldn't be her mother.
She unsheathed the sword as she ran, knowing such a move invited danger. All she needed was to trip and fall on the blade. What good would she do her mother and sister then? Such thoughts vanished as she reached the inn clearing.
Light flared, tearing the darkness to shreds. Andrixine skidded to a stop, debris crumbling under her bare feet, and stared as the roof of the inn burst into flames. The faint breeze couldn't help the fire eat through thatching and wood with such ease. The whole building had to be rotten and dry where it wasn't clotted with grease and filth, made for a fire.
Andrixine moved around the side of the inn, heading for the main door. And froze.
An ugly, scarred ruffian shuddered on top of Cedes, crushing her into the rocky ground. The girl stared at the sky, mouth open in a silent scream. Another man held her shoulders down, but even Andrixine could see there was no need. Cedes had no fight left in her. Her skin was snowy contrast to her dark, luxurious hair. She was naked, red lines and bruises showing where the men had battered her into submission, then cut and ripped her clothes off her.
Andrixine stared as the man lifted himself off Cedes, laughing, and tugged up his trousers. The girl's blood spattered his legs. His companion got up and pulled his own trousers down to his knees, laughing. He was already blood-smeared, going back for more.
Andrixine looked at the sword in her hand and nearly dropped it. Her stomach twisted. She remembered the taunts Feril had flung at her over the years. He said her warrior's training was only play-acting; she could not face battle without freezing. Andrixine felt sick at the thought that he might be right.
"No," she whispered. "Yomnian, help me!" Her whisper turned into a shout as she flung herself from the bushes.
The man with a long scar from his right temple to his jaw and along his chin froze, kneeling between Cedes' legs. The other drew his sword and came at Andrixine, swinging. Cedes didn't move, didn't even hear her.
Yomnian, guide my hand, Andrixine prayed.
Commander Jeshra's voice rang in her memory, and Andrixine could almost feel the silver-haired Sword Sister's hand guiding her sword arm. Remember every victim, child, and let your love for them guide you--not the hate you feel for their abusers. Yomnian gave you skill. Use it to honor the All-Creator, not to entertain the Dark Spirits.
The ruffian brought his sword down hard. Andrixine sidestepped easily. Her strengths were in agility and tricky slashes, not brute muscle. She caught the last of the swing with her guard and twisted, guiding the stroke back to him. He stumbled, eyes wide and choked. Andrixine grinned. Good--her moves and skill frightened him.
She slashed upwards, letting herself go down almost to one knee, aiming for his belly. Bleating, the ruffian backed up, tripping in a deep rut. Andrixine followed through, slashing his arm just above the elbow before he could bring up his sword.
The scene repeated: Andrixine attacking, the man retreating, taking another cut, then managing to defend against worse injury.
Something was wrong. Andrixine wiped sweaty hair from her face and glanced over her shoulder. Listening for the gasps of her opponent to track him, she scanned the clearing.
Cedes' white body was a violation of the shadows. White, and red with blood glistening bright at her throat.
The scarred man had slaughtered Cedes and fled.
A pebble crunched in the dry mud under a boot. Andrixine felt the breeze from an arm swinging up in attack.
Her fever-scarred throat burned as she snarled and spun on her bare heel. Scooping low, putting all her anger into her arm, she slashed low and lunged up.
Everything stopped. Even the background crackling of the fire seemed to halt for three eternal heartbeats. The ruffian's sword clattered to the ground. Eyes wide, face pale, he dropped his head to stare at Andrixine's sword one‑third buried in his chest, caught where ribs met breastbone. Below the catching point, his belly slowly spilled opened, gutted like a pig.
Gagging, Andrixine pulled back her sword and fled. The smell of his blood was bitter, and the spatters scorched her sword hand. Her legs trembled. She didn't hear him clatter to the ground, didn't feel the rough ground tearing her feet as she ran for the burning inn and darted inside.
Thick, choking, blinding smoke hung from the ceiling, dropping lower with every step she took. Andrixine crouched low as she approached the stairs.
Flames danced down from the ceiling, reaching for her as she gained the upper floor. She paused, listening. No sound came from her mother's room but the harsh crackle as the fire ate its way down the walls.
She pushed the door open with the point of the sword, praying to see her mother crouched in the corner, sword raised and ready. Clothes were strewn on the floor, the trunk overturned and slashed. The beds were toppled, the frames smashed and the webbing cut. No sign of her mother.
In the next room, Andrixine found the same. She stepped further inside and beyond one bed found another maid; Lily, with her head nearly separated from her body. Her body was naked and bruised and bleeding, like Cedes. If Lady Arriena wasn't there, was she unharmed? Why rape two young women, and carry away an older woman...unless they knew she was noble? Would they leave her mother unharmed, for the sake of ransom? If they caught Andrixine, would they spare her for the sake of ransom?
Dream fragments told Andrixine that would not happen, if these men caught her. She refused to follow through on that thought, which stabbed with nausea as bad as what she had suffered that winter past. Quickly, she snatched at her braid and held it off her neck as she pulled out her knife. Her hair sliced off easily and fell in silence. She refused to look at the gleaming new carpet on the filthy floor. The hair left on her head hung in a ragged fringe to her shoulders. Her warrior braids felt unnaturally long.
With one last look around, she hurried down the stairs. Despite the smoke billowing past her, the flames threatening just yards away, she paused in the doorway to the inn yard and searched the clearing. No one else moved within sight. Why had the ruffians come and gone so quickly? All the tales she had heard from traveling swordmasters and Kangan, Captain of the Guard at Faxinor Castle, told her those men had come for a specific purpose, found what they wanted and fled. But what? Not just a noblewoman to ransom?
Then there was no more time. Cold prickles of warning touched her back, making her dart from the doorway. Scant seconds later, the roof fell in with a roar and a shower of sparks.
Her mother was gone. Where were Tamas and Jasper? Had the fight moved down the cart trail while she fought Cedes' rapist?
Andrixine knew she couldn't catch up with them, even if she could find the trail in the dark and smoke. Her eyes filled with tears, and she brushed them angrily away. Alysyn was her sole responsibility now. Fighting her churning stomach, she headed into the woods to find her sister.