Our children can make us mighty warriors or reduce us to bawling infants. They give us strength in times of trial, and leave us kittens in times of frustration. My babies are no different...
Atop the judgment dais, Euriel Idundaughter-Kergatha struggled to break free before Hecate's priests dragged away her seven-summer old daughter. Little blonde Liandra kicked and screamed as the baldheaded men in red tunics towed the child across the audience chamber floor. Each shriek stabbed into Euriel's heart as they echoed off the vaulted marble ceilings and rattled the stained glass mosaics.
"Mother!" Liandra implored, hands thrust toward her, blue eyes wide with panic.
Euriel twisted her arms against the stone that had encased them. She wouldn't let them take her children. Cosmodarus was a city of peace, neutral and outside the boundaries tread by the avatars. They had no right to be here; no right to take anyone away.
Especially not her daughter.
The click of hard boots climbing the dais steps echoed through the chamber. Euriel felt a prickly-cold sensation hum through her body as someone stepped close. The air filled with a stifling musky-sweet odor; the smell of dying flowers.
Euriel tore her gaze away from daughter and glared at the avatar. Only a creature corrupted with the magic of a dark pantheon lord could make her flesh crawl like this. Recognizing the night hag Mishaka, she spat at the evil creature's feet.
Hecate's avatar was a pale knife of a woman dressed in spike heeled riding boots and layers of white silk. Her perfect face with its moon-gray eyes and broad blood-red mouth would have been attractive were not the rest of her so black and twisted.
Mishaka glanced at the spittle on the floor, brushed back her translucent hair and sneered. She clacked forward and gripped Euriel's face, long nails biting into her cheeks. She spoke in a breathy tenor that made the stones tremble. "Surrender Euriel, don't waste your time trying to break my bindings."
Growling, Euriel jerked her face back from the woman's loathsome touch. She focused all her attention on the two pillars of rock pinning her arms. Mishaka had taken her by surprise. If she'd sensed her coming, this situation would be different indeed.
Her heart pounded. She stole a glance toward Liandra. Her little girl was only visible as a darkened shape dwindling down the hall. She had to get to her.
She concentrated all of her will on her right arm. She was Idun's daughter. The blood of the Aesir flowed through her veins. I must be free.
A red haze filled Euriel's vision and heat surged through her. My children. My husband. My kingdom. She increased the pressure on the material gripping her arm. Euriel focused until she saw each granule of the irregular surface trembling under the force of her love and determination.
Mishaka's icy voice threatened to break her concentration. "This display is foolish."
Like a prayer answered, she felt Odin's gift sing through her. "I-- think-- not!"
Her right arm came free in a rumble of shattering stone. Mishaka's eyes went wide and her mouth opened in a scream. She didn't get out a sound before Euriel's hand clamped around her throat.
Fury driving her, Euriel yanked the despicable woman forward and shoved her hard into the pillar still gripping her other arm. Mishaka's head impacted the surface with a thud.
She pulled back and slammed her again. "Feel--your--folly!" She punctuated each word with a hammer blow into the rock.
Euriel pulled the dazed and bloody avatar close. Sparks crackled and snapped around her fingers as she clamped down with all her will, forcing her nails deep into the avatar's resilient flesh. "Tell me again how you plan to succorund my children! How you will tear out their minds and make them hosts for Hecate." Blue fire sizzled around her hand as she brought all her magical birthright to bear, smashing the frameworks of demi-urge that linked this vile puppet to her mistress. Teeth gritted, hand shuddering with the strain, she pressed harder as Mishaka, still conscious, clawed at her wrist. Black blood welled around Euriel's burning fingers. "Speak, avatar bitch, I hear not your boasting!"
Mishaka only groaned and twitched. She would pay for the indignities and torture, for her gloating and overconfidence. The avatar's eyes rolled up, and blood bubbled from her lips.
Justice served. A few moments longer and this evil spawn would be back in the abyss where she belonged.
Pain exploded in the back of Euriel's skull. Lights spun in her vision. The shock broke her grip on Mishaka. The avatar toppled to the floor, flopping and jerking. Before Euriel could orient, another impact drove her to her knees. The world grew fuzzy.
"Dear Mishaka," a male voice said from behind. "You really must learn not to underestimate these people. After all, they are the children of gods. You have to expect more from the mother of two Savants; much, much, more."
Euriel tried to guard herself. She only caught a glimpse of black-black eyes and a broken yellow-toothed grimace before he brought the mace in his hand crashing down for the third time...
In the Guild, making a mistake can be like losing a finger or toe. One error too many and you can find yourself without a livelihood, or simply robbed of your life entire...
Scorch Marks and Bad Memories
In Wren's fifteen summers as a Guilder, she never once got set on fire. She found the experience one she hoped never to repeat. As she topped a stone wall in an alley behind the wizard Cinnabar's tower, the magic struck her in the back. The impact felt as if someone hit her ribs with an axe. The blast shredded the leather hauberk she wore, sending pieces of it shooting off in trails of smoke and sparks. She screamed and fell to the cobbles clutching her breasts and stomach.
"Wren!" she heard Grahm yell.
She focused through the pain to keep from falling unconscious. The effort made every sensory detail stand out in bold relief.
An icy sea breeze guttered down the night-darkened lane, blowing scraps of parchment through skeletons of broken crates and barrels. Wren clawed at the dirty stone, the slightest movement sending shrieks of pain through her body.
She had to quit the Guild. Nothing was worth hurting like this.
Wren, the Brethren Guild's premier two-story girl, had topped herself. Up a hundred paces of mirror-smooth tower wall, through a narrow window, and past all the wizard Cinnibar's magical wards and traps. From within a secured room, behind mithril-steel walls, past an array of tricks, runes, and locks she had come away with the fifty-thousand crown Malicent gem. In this heist, she and Grahm had succeeded in breaking the much vaunted sorcerer-ring defenses that had stymied thieves for more than two centuries. The feat established their team as was one of the best infiltrators ever.
How ironic to foil all that security only to get caught by the wizard himself. From a tower window, two hundred paces away, he managed to clip her with a fire spell.
She may have proved her skill, but the wizard had made her pay for the privilege. Wren the thief was now Wren the living blister.
Grahm shook her, wild blond hair wreathing his boyish face. His wide dark eyes and quivering lip might have looked comical some other time.
"Go away. I'm dying!"
"You're not dying! Come. I hear guard whistles."
Grahm dragged her up. Her skin burned as if she'd spent a day unprotected in the desert.
"Where's the gem?" he asked.
"In the pack. It must--"
His lithe body sheathed in green leather reminded her of a leaf-jumper as he went over the wall at a run.
His voice echoed behind the wall. "Found it! Coming--" His words were interrupted by a brilliant white light and a crack of thunder. He cried out in pain.
The pack flew over the wall and landed near her. Grahm came after it. Another bolt of lightning smashed the top of the wall behind him. He flipped and landed by her.
"You scared me!"
"I scared you?"
He snatched up the pack and yanked her toward the street. She staggered and he supported her. When she put an arm around his waist, she felt charred material and blood.
"You're hurt!" She experienced a pang as she caught a whiff of smoldering leather and flesh.
"Just keep going!" He tried to conceal the pain, but his voice cracked.
Guard whistles blew a few streets away. Turning east on Dragon Road they headed away from the waterfront into the warehouse district. A low mist writhed through the maze of alleys, lofts, and silos carrying the fetid odors of dead kelp, fish and excrement. Derelicts lurked in the sheltered spaces, shadowy silhouettes that leaned, crouched and sprawled.
Wren's energy ran out by the next intersection. She tripped and fell. A gust chilled her burns like the lash of a whip. She looked seaward. Half full, Pernithius, moon of the harvest, loomed behind towers of clouds advancing on the city like an army. Triatus, the russet moon, peered like a demon's eye between gaps in the gray masses.
"Get up. Those guards are close."
She struggled to her feet with his help. "Grahm, that magic did me. It's only a matter of time."
"Fish feathers, Cinnibar can't kill you with one spell. I have a stash of healing potions. That'll fix us both." He glanced back the way they'd come. Several figures moved toward them. "Go!"
He towed her stumbling down market aisle, weaving around broken carts and stalls, scattering spoiled vegetables and fruits left from the day's bartering. Their pursuers broke into a jog. In a shaft of moonlight, Wren saw they weren't city guards.
She clutched his shoulder. "Those are Dagger guildsmen!" The Cult of Dagger had been disbanded three seasons ago. She thought all their members had been run out of town or slain.
"I know," he replied, turning them at a corner and heading down a narrow lane between two old tenements. The guilders reached the alley in time to see them turn.
Grahm rushed south on Caravan Street where a dozen streets and alleys branched off into darkness. He pulled her behind the cover of some stairs and paused to let Wren catch her breath.
Her mind whirled both with the pain and revelation. The presence of the Dagger guild meant trouble. If they were back in the city it could mean only one thing. "Have they come to make war on the Brethren?" she asked.
"Maybe. I heard Vulcindra say they have a new leader--a priest of Set. Who knows what zealots like that will do?"
She shivered. The burns only gave the illusion of warmth. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "The Dagger guild was bad before. Now they're reinforced by Cult fanatics. You know whatever they do it won't be anything good. Why didn't Vulcindra tell me about them?"
He peeked up the street to see if their pursuers were near. "Vulcindra doesn't trust you. Sully speculates she's afraid you'll take her job. She said they wouldn't be in town in any strength for another tenday. Guess she was wrong."
"Damned witch is wrong about far too many things." She gritted her teeth. "Grahm, we can't fight the Dagger guild without Desiray. No one has talked to her since the spring solstice." She glanced around the steps. The enemy guilders had paused up the street. "Vulcindra will be useless in a war. We'll get slaughtered!"
"You must be feeling better."
She grabbed his collar and pulled him to eye level. "The Cult of Set sacrifices their female captives to the jackal god. Being a handmaiden of Set is not how I want to spend my afterlife!"
"Your wind is back. Here." He removed his cloak and draped it around her shoulders. Even the light pressure of the cloth brought a flash of pain. "Third alley on the right. We lose them and get my stash."
Creeping along the wall they used the stairs to cover them. The Dagger guilders had spread out, making a sweep of possible escape routes. Grahm and she could slip them. They knew the city better than anyone in the Brethren guild. Tarmagal and Vulcindra, Desiray's seconds didn't even grow up in Corwin. Both knew little of real thieves' business save administration. At least Tarmagal could fight, put a sword in her hand and she fought like the devil. Even she would be better than Vulcindra and her lack of organization. She still didn't know why Desiray let that incompetent run things, she was little more than a pretty decoration.
She and Grahm stayed in the shadows, using hidden crevices between buildings and stalking through abandoned shops. The Dagger guilders lost all chance of pursuit after the third turn.
Grahm's stash was a hidden room in the wine cellar of the Savvy Centaur Inn. She walked through the smoky commons, the cloak hugging her nude body. The smells of kerf, tobacco, ale and mead made her dizzy. Three maids tended a ragtag host of Corwin's lower caste, most of whom were more intent on harassing the women than eating.
His face concealed by curly masses of hair and beard, the barkeep more resembled a bear than a man. Grahm gave him a few silver coins, and he opened a door behind the bar.
They descended wooden steps into the cramped cellar. It smelled of spoiled grain, cask oil, and old tallow. Several kegs of mead and ale stood in a corner near a chute entry into the back alley.
Grahm went behind the steps and pushed on a section of the wall. The stone grated inward. He vanished in the darkness. She heard him fumbling with something metal. The chamber became as bright as daylight. Grahm appeared in the doorway holding a hooded lantern. No flame flickered inside the glass, only a single luminous point.
"Priest light," she said. "Who do you know in the clergy?"
"Jharon. I told him I was looking after you."
She frowned. "You dog, playing on him like that." Jharon was a priest of Ishtar who courted her for a while, but circumstances never let it become as serious as both of them would have liked. She and Jharon remained good friends and he constantly urged Wren to break off her relationship with the Brethren.
Grahm shrugged. "Come in, milady."
She stepped into the small room. He'd furnished it with the basic amenities: a cot, table, closet and chamber pot alcove. Two of Grahm's paintings were the only decoration. One showed Mistress Desiray in her shining, white-haired majesty crouched near some orphaned children. The other depicted Ziedra, a dancer who used to room with Wren, whirling on a table top. Whenever Wren saw Grahm's beautiful portraitures, it made her wonder why he thieved for a living.
The orphans in the picture brought back remembrances of a crumbling temple and a battle. She was an orphan too, at least as far as she knew. The only parents she recalled were a couple of aged prostitutes who felt maternal toward a lost street waif. Someday, she'd find out what happened to her real mother and father. She'd learn why she had no memory of them or anything else that came before the day she escaped from Hecate's temple fifteen summers ago.
Grahm closed the door then went to the closet. In the lantern light, she noticed he looked pale. He worked at something in the wardrobe's bottom. A click and he opened a panel. He pulled out a sack and blew the dust off it.
"Salvation for the wounded," he said.
"Hail Ishtar," she groaned.
Grahm took out a vial of shining blue liquid and handed it to her. Removing another and uncorking it, he set the sack on the table.
"A toast to the feat not duplicated in two centuries!"
She pulled out the stopper and clinked her vial against his. "To the partner who dragged me out of there."
He nodded and they both drank the contents of their bottles.
The healing potion tasted like cider. She tingled all over and her flesh flickered and glowed as if her bones were giving off a bright light. She watched the skin of a reddened hand flake away to be replaced by the pale but healthy white she'd lived with for twenty-three summers. A gnawing itch replaced the burning pain and she rubbed at her arms and legs.
Grahm let out a sigh of relief, scratching at the wound in his side. "The itching is almost as bad as the pain."
"I'll take an itch over a stitch any time."
He smiled. "You know this is the first time I've seen you without clothes. You're quite well made even though you're not tall."
"We can't all be Myrmigynes."
Grahm took her face in his hands. "You could be my little Myrmigyne."
She backed up. "Don't be foolish."
His eyes flashed. "We've been partners for a while. Don't you trust me?"
She pulled his cloak close to her body. Grahm knew that she'd rebuked others in the guild who were simply after a quick poke. She'd yet to share with a man. She still didn't know what she saved herself for.
Grahm was lean and hard. She liked and trusted his face with its dark eyes and easy smile.
"We're working partners, not-- I don't know-- I never thought of you like that." She didn't want to tell him how much the idea scared her. The Brethren Guild had cared for her since childhood. Only quick feet and a quicker dagger had kept the men at bay. She spent her youth learning to pick locks, find traps, to hide, forage, and spy. The prostitutes who were Wren's surrogate parents never taught her about men aside from what to avoid. She'd dabbled in nothing more serious than kissing and fondling.
Grahm looked down at himself. "What's wrong with me?"
He drew her in for a kiss before she could stop him. She tried to push him away. He stifled Wren's resistance with a warm embrace that made her tingle all over.
Grahm pulled away after a few quick pecks on her face. "You're trembling."
Swallowing a lump she said, "I never--"
He put a finger to Wren's lips. "Not now, I want you to be ready. Besides, we have to warn the guild and get them ready to fight the Dagger."
She shook her head. "We really have to get out of this business."