How the Swordsman Ran Away
"Quili! Wake up! Priestess!"
Whoever was shouting was also banging on the outer door. Quili rolled over and buried her head under the blanket. Surely she had just come to bed?
The outer door squeaked. The banging came again, now on the planks of the inner door, nearer and much louder.
"Apprentice Quili! You must come!" More banging.
The trouble with summer was that there was never enough night for sleeping, yet the little room was still quite black. The roosters had not started yet. . . No, there was one, far away. . . She would have to waken. Someone must be sick or dying.
Then the inner door squealed open, and a man was waving a rush light and shouting. "Priestess! You must come -- there are swordsmen, Quili!"
"Swordsmen?" Quili sat up.
Salimono was a roughhewn, lumbering man, a farmer of the Third. Normally imperturbably placid, he was capable on rare occasions of becoming as flustered as a child. Now one of his great hands was waving the sparking rush light all around, threatening to set fire to his own silver hair, or Quili‘s straw mattress, or the ancient shingles of the roof. It scrolled brilliance in the dark. It flickered on stone walls, and on his haggard face, and in Quili‘s eyes.
"Swordsmen. . . coming. . . Oh! Beg pardon, priestess!" He turned around quickly, just as Quili fell back and pulled the blanket up to her chin.
"Sal‘o, you did say ‘swordsmen‘?"
"Yes, priestess. In a boat. By the jetty. Piliphanto saw them. You hurry, Quili. . ." He headed for the door.
Quili wished she could take off her head, shake it, and put it back on again. She had walked away most of the night with Agol‘s baby, surely the worst case of colic in the history of the People.
Swordsmen? The rush light was filling the tiny room with fumes of goose grease. Piliphanto was not a total idiot. No thinker, but no idiot. He was a keen fisherman, which could explain why he had been down on the jetty before dawn. There would be more light down by the water, and a swordsman‘s silhouette would be distinctive. It was possible.
"What are you doing about them?"
Standing in the doorway with his back firmly turned, Salimono said, "Getting the women out, of course!"
That was wrong. That was all wrong. Quili knew little about swordsmen, but she knew more about them than Sal‘o did. Hiding the women would be the absolute worst thing to do.
"You mustn‘t! It‘ll be an insult! They‘ll be furious!"
"But, priestess. . ."
She was not a priestess. She was only a Second, an apprentice. The tenants called her priestess as a courtesy because she was all they had, but she was only seventeen and Sal‘o was a farmer of the Third and a grandfather and Motipodi‘s deputy, so she could not possibly give him orders, but she was also the local expert on swordsmen, and she knew that hiding the women would be a terrible provocation. . . She needed time to think.
"Wait outside! Don‘t let the women leave. I‘ll be right there."
"Yes, Quili," Sal‘o said, and the room was dark. Plumes of phantom light still floated on blackness in her eyes. The outer door banged, and she heard him shouting.
Quili threw off the blanket and shivered herself a coating of goose bumps. The flags were icy and uneven as she padded across to the window and threw open the shutter. A faint glow entered, accompanied by a hiss of rain and dripping sounds from the roof.
One of her two gowns was muddy, for yesterday she had been thinning the carrots. Her other was almost as shabby, yet somewhere she still had an old one she had brought from the temple. It had been her second best then and was better than her other two now -- gardening ruined clothes much faster than being an acolyte did. She found it in the chest, yanked it out, and pulled it over her head in one long, shivery movement. It was surprisingly tight. She must have filled out more than she had thought. What would swordsmen think of a priestess who wore a tight-fitting gown like this? She fumbled for her shoes and a comb at the same time.
Her wooden soles clacked on the paving. She opened the squeaky outer door even as she reached for her cloak, hanging on a peg beside it. The bottom edge of the sky was brightening below a carpet of black cloud. More roosters screamed welcome to the dawn. She was still dragging the comb through her long tangles; her eyes felt puffy and her mouth dry.
On the far side of the pond, four or five of the smoky rush lights hissed amid a crowd of a dozen adults and some frightened children. Two or three more people were heading toward them. Light reflected fuzzily in the rain-pebbled water; other lights danced in a couple of windows. There was no wind, only steady, relentless drizzle; summer rain, not even very cold.
She splashed along the trail, around the pond to the group. Rain soaked her hair and dribbled into her collar. Silence fell at her approach. She was the local expert on swordsmen.
Why would swordsmen be coming here?
Several voices started to speak, but Salimono‘s drowned them out. "Is it safe, priestess?"
"It isn‘t safe to hide the women!" Quili said firmly. Kandoru had told stories about deserted villages being burned. "You‘d provoke them. No, it‘s the men!"
"But they didn‘t do it!" a woman wailed.
"It wasn‘t us!" said others. "You know that!"
"Hush!" she said, and they hushed. They were all older than she, even Nia, and yet they hushed. They were all bigger than she -- husky, raw peasant folk, gentle and bewildered and indistinct in the gloom. "Sal‘o, did you send a message to her ladyship?"
"I think maybe all the men should go. . ."
There was another terrified chorus of "We didn‘t do it!"
"Quiet! I know that. I‘ll testify to that. But I don‘t think it was reported."
There was a silence. Then Myi‘s voice growled, "How could it be reported?"
There had been no swordsmen left to report it to.
Would that matter? Quili did not know.
When an assassination went unreported, was it all the witnesses who were equally guilty, or was there some other, even more horrible formula? Either way, she was sure that the men were in danger. Swordsmen rarely killed women.
"I‘ll go and greet them. They won‘t hurt me." Quili spoke with as much confidence as she could manage. The priesthood was sacrosanct, wasn‘t it? "But I think you men should all go off wood cutting or something until we know why they‘ve come. Women get food ready. They‘ll want breakfast. They may go straight on to the manor, but we‘ll try to keep them here as long as we can, if there aren‘t too many. . . How many of them are there, Sal‘o?"
"Well, go and tell Adept Motipodi. Wood cutting, or land clearing up on the hill until we find out what they want. Arrange signals. Now, off you go!"
All the men ran. Quili huddled her cloak about her. "Myi? Prepare some food. Meat, if you can find any. And beer."
"What if they ask where the men are?"
"Tell lies," Quili said. This was a priestess speaking?
"What if they want us to. . . to go to bed?" That was Nia, and her man Hantula was almost as old as Kandoru had been.
Quili laughed, surprising herself. She was having nightmares of bodies and blood all over the ground, and Nia was dreaming of a tussle with some handsome young swordsman. "Do it, if you want to! Enjoy yourself!"
Incredulously Nona said, "A married woman? It‘s all right?"
Quili paused to drag up memories of lessons in the temple. But she was sure. "Yes. It‘s quite all right. Not any swordsman, but with a free sword it‘s all right. He is on the service of the Goddess and deserves all our hospitality."
Kandoru had always said that it was a great honor for a woman to be chosen by a free, but when Quili had known him he had been no longer a free sword. He had been a resident swordsman, limited to one woman, limited by age; limited also by failing health, although sometimes he had sounded as if that had been her fault.
"Kol‘o won‘t like it," Nona muttered. She had not been married long.
"He should," Quili said. "If you have a baby within a year, it can have a swordsman fathermark." She heard them all hiss with sudden excitement. She was a city girl and expected to know all these things. She was also their priestess; if she said it was all right, then it would be all right. Swordsmen never raped, Kandoru had insisted. They never had to.
"Really? A whole year? How soon?"
Quili did not know, but she glanced up at Nona‘s face. The flicker from the dying rush lights was too blurred to show expression. If she were pregnant, then that wasn‘t showing, either. "Hold on to it for a couple of weeks, and I‘ll testify to the facemarker for you."
Nona blushed, and that did show, and the others laughed. They had little to give their children, these humble folk. A swordsman fathermark would be worth more than much gold. To a girl it would mean a high brideprice. To a boy, if he were nimble, a chance for admission to the craft. Even a young husband would swallow his pride for those and talk of being honored, whatever he truly felt. The laugh broke the tension. Good! Now they would not flee in terror or unwittingly provoke violence.
But Quili had to go and meet the swordsmen. She shivered and clutched her cloak tighter yet. Suddenly she realized that she had met only one swordsman in her whole life -- Kandoru, her murdered husband.
The rain might be faltering. Dawn was certainly close, the eastern sky brightening. The roosters were in blatant competition now. Leaving the twittering women, Quili splashed off along the road. One way led to the manor, the other to the River and the jetty. Beyond Salimono‘s house and the dam, the track dropped swiftly into a little gorge, and into darkness.
She went slowly, hearing the slap of her shoes in puddles, trying not to imagine herself tumbling into the stream and arriving at the jetty all covered in mud. Going to meet swordsmen. . . She should have brought one of the rush lights.
Why would swordsmen be coming here?
They might be coming by chance, but few ships or boats came downstream, because southward lay the Black Lands -- rough water and no inhabitants. It was even less likely that swordsmen would have come upstream, from the north, for that way lay Ov.
They might be coming to avenge Kandoru. Swordsmen were utterly merciless against assassins, swordsmen killers. Kandoru had told her so, many times. She would have to convince them that they were looking in the wrong place. A priest or priestess must never tell a lie and was therefore a favored witness, even if she had been his wife and not disinterested. And there were a dozen others. The killers had come from Ov.
But the assassination had not been reported -- or at least, she did not think it had been. She did not need to repeat the code of the priesthood to know that prevent bloodshed came very high on her list of duties to the Goddess.
A pebble rolled under her foot, and she stumbled. Even in daylight this bend of the gorge was a tunnel, confined between steep walls and overshadowed by trees. The stream bubbled quietly at her side. The rain had stopped, or could not get through the canopy. She picked her way carefully, testing every step, stretching out her hands to feel for branches.
If these swordsmen had come by chance, then they might not know about Ov. They might not know that they would soon be in terrible danger themselves.
Or they might have been brought by the Hand of the Goddess. In that case, their interest must be more than just one murdered old warrior. Their objective might be Ov itself -- war! There might be a whole army down by the jetty. That was what Kandoru had said to the first rumors of the massacre in Ov: "Sorcerers are not allowed near the River!"
Then, when the rumors had became more solid, he had said, "The Goddess will not stand for it. She will summon Her swordsmen. . ."
Two days later Kandoru had himself been dead, felled before he even had time to draw his sword, slain by a single trill of music. He had been a good man, in his way. He had lived by the code of the swordsmen, an honorable man, if not a very understanding or exciting husband for a juvenile apprentice priestess. She wished she could have helped him more. She should have pretended a little harder.
The local expert. . . but all she had were vague memories of the stories Kandoru had told her, rambling on for hour upon hour, an old man with nothing but his memories of youth and strength, of wenching and killing; an old man clasping his child bride in clammy embrace in a barren bed through endless winter nights. She should have listened more carefully.
Quili stopped suddenly, heart thumping. Had she heard something ahead of her? A twig snapping?
She listened, hearing only the stream and pattering dripping noises. It must have been her imagination. She went on, more slowly, more cautiously. She had been crazy to come without a light, for she knew that her night vision was poor. The priesthood was sacrosanct. No one, not the worst brigand, would harm a priestess. So they said.
She ought to be rejoicing at the thought of Kandoru being avenged. At fifteen she had been married; at sixteen a widow. At seventeen she found it hard to mourn, however much she reproached herself. She could perhaps have gone back to the temple, when Swordsman Kandoru had no further need for her services, but she had stayed. The tenants had made her welcome and they needed her. So did the slaves, much more so. Her ladyship had let her remain in the cottage and she provided basic fare - - sacks of meal and sometimes even meat. She sent small gifts once in a while: sandals not too badly worn, leftover delicacies from the kitchen.
If the swordsmen did know about the sorcerers -- if they were planning an attack on Ov -- then there must be a whole army of them.
Floundering in the darkness, she almost walked into a vague shape standing square in her path, waiting for her.
She yelped and jumped backward, losing a shoe. "Priestess!" she squealed. Then she managed a slightly lower: "I am a priestess!"
"Good!" said a youth‘s soft tenor. "And I am a swordsman. In what way may I be of service, holy lady?"
It was an absurd situation. Standing on one leg in the dark, with her heart still bounding wildly from the surprise, Quili could yet appreciate the absurdity -- neither she nor the stranger could see the other‘s rank. Who saluted and who responded? But of course swordsmen would never send a mere First to scout, nor a Second either. He must outrank her.
So she made the greeting to a superior, managing not to fall over, even in the final bow: "I am Quili, priestess of the second rank, and it is my deepest and most humble wish that the Goddess Herself will see fit to grant you long life and happiness and to induce you to accept my modest and willing service in any way in which I may advance any of your noble purposes."
The swordsman retreated one pace, and she heard, rather than saw, his sword whip from the scabbard on his back. She almost lost her balance again, before remembering that swordsmen had their own rituals, flailing their blades around in salute.
"I am Nnanji, swordsman of the fourth rank, and am honored to accept your gracious service."
The sword shot back into its scabbard again with a hiss and a click. Kandoru had not handled his so slickly.
"Do you always stand on one foot, apprentice?"
She had not thought he would have been able to see. "I‘ve lost a shoe, adept."
He chuckled and moved, and she felt a firm grip on her ankle. "Here it is. Stupid-looking thing!" Then her foot was pushed back where it belonged, and the swordsman straightened up.
"Thank you. You see very well. . ."
"I do most things very well," he remarked cheerfully. He sounded so young, like a boy. Could he really be a Fourth? "Now, where is this, apprentice?"
"The estate of the Honorable Garathondi, adept."
The swordsman grunted softly. "What craft?"
"He is a builder."
"And what does a builder of the Sixth build? Well, never mind. How many swordsmen on this estate?"
He grunted again, surprised. "What‘s the nearest village, or town?"
"Pol, adept. A hamlet. About half a day‘s walk to the north."
"There would be swordsmen there, then. . ."
It was not a question, so she need not say that the resident swordsman of Pol had died on the same day as her husband, or that his assassination could not have been reported, either. Prevent bloodshed!
"What city? How far?"
"Ov, adept. About another half day beyond Pol."
"Mm? Do you happen to know the name of the reeve in Ov?"
He was dead, also, and all his men. To answer just "No!" would be a lie. Before she could speak, the swordsman asked another question.
"Is there trouble here, Apprentice Quili? Brigands? Bandits? Work for honest swordsmen? Are we in any immediate danger?"
"No immediate danger, adept."
He chuckled. "Pity! Not even a dragon?"
She returned the laugh with relief. "Not one."
"And you haven‘t seen any sorcerers recently, I suppose?"
So he did know about the sorcerers! "Not recently, adept. . ."
He sighed. "Well, if it‘s safe, then we must have been brought here to meet someone. Like Ko."
"Have you never heard the epic How Aggaranzi of the Seventh Smote the Brigands at Ko?" He sounded shocked. "It‘s a great tale! Lots of honor, lots of blood. It‘s very long, but I‘ll sing it for you when we have time. Well, if there‘s no danger, then I‘d better go back and report. Come on!"
He took her hand and began to lead her down the road. His hand was very large, his grip powerful; but his palm felt oddly soft, unlike the hands of the farm workers -- or even her own hands, these days.
Strangely, she did not feel nervous at being hauled into the unknown by this tall and youthful stranger. She stumbled in the ruts. He muttered, "Careful!" but he slowed down. There were three stream crossings on the trail, and she could barely see the stepping-stones, but he could, and he guided her.
"You were brought by the Most High, adept?"
"We were! The sailor says he‘s never heard of a ferry being taken before. We‘ve come a long way, too! Very far!" He sounded satisfied, not awed at all. Of course the River was the Goddess, and any ship might arrive at an unexpected destination if it bore a Jonah, someone She wanted elsewhere. Free swords were notorious Jonahs, always being moved by Her Hand. Such manifestations of Her power happened too frequently to be truly miracles, but they were not something that Quili could ever regard as lightly as this brash young swordsman seemed to.
The trees thinned out, the valley widened to admit grayness, and now she could see better. He was even taller than she had thought, lanky and astoundingly young for a Fourth. He seemed no older than herself, but perhaps that was just his carefree manner -- he chattered. Kandoru had been a Third. Few in any craft advanced beyond that rank.
"How can you tell how far you were brought?" Quili asked.
"Shonsu could tell. He knows everything! And we didn‘t come all in one jump. He woke at the first one -- I think he must sleep with both eyes open." Whoever Shonsu was, Adept Nnanji seemed to regard him with more respect than he did the Goddess. "I woke at the third -- the cold woke me." The swordsman shivered. "We came from the tropics, you see."
"What are tropics, adept?"
"I‘m not sure," he confessed. "Hot lands. Shonsu can explain. But the Dream God is very high and thin there. He got wider as we jumped north. And lower. You can see seven separate bands here, right? When we started, he was fainter and most of the arcs too close together to separate. And we moved east, too, Shonsu says. The rain only came with the last jump."
Shonsu must be a priest, she decided. He certainly did not sound like any swordsman she had ever heard of.
"How could he possibly know about going east?"
"The stars -- and the eye of the Dream God! It happened about midnight, and dawn kept coming closer and closer. You‘ll have to ask Shonsu. He says it‘s still the middle of the night in Hann."
Hann! "You‘ve been to Hann, adept?"
He glanced down at her, surprised at her reaction. She could see well enough now to tell that his face was filthy, smeared with dirt and grease. "Well, not Hann itself. We were trying to cross to Hann, from the holy island."
"The temple!" she exclaimed. "You were visiting the great temple, then?"
Adept Nnanji snorted. "Visiting it? I was born in it."
"Yes!" He grinned hugely, big white teeth gleaming. "My mother was near her term. She went to pray for an easy labor, and -- whoosh! There I was. They only just had time to get her into a back room. The priests thought it might almost rank as a miracle."
He was teasing her. Then the grin grew even wider. "My father had put six coppers in the bowl, and if he‘d made it seven, he says, then I‘d have been born right there, in front of the Goddess Herself."
That was pure blasphemy, but his grin was irresistible. Quili laughed in spite of herself. "You should not joke about miracles, adept."
"Perhaps." He paused and then spoke more humbly. "I‘ve seen a lot of miracles in the last two weeks, Apprentice Quili. Ever since Shonsu arrived."
"He‘s your mentor?"
"Well, not just at the moment. He released me from my oaths before the battle. . . but he says I may swear to him again."
"Watch this puddle!" Nnanji let go her hand and put his arm around her, guiding her by a muddy patch. But he kept his arm there when they were past, and the light was quite good now. She began to feel alarmed. She was glad of the protection of her cloak. She had rarely spoken to a Fourth before and certainly never been hugged by one. He was smiling down at her, being very friendly. Very.
There were few free men close to her age on the estate, only two unmarried. They all treated her with awed respect, because of her craft, and they had nothing to talk about anyway, except the crops and the herds. She had forgotten what real conversation was like. But she had never had a real conversation with a man, only with other girls, her friends in the temple, years ago. He was speaking to her as an equal. That was flattery, and she was worried by how good it felt.
Why would the Goddess send such a filthy swordsman? It was not only his face. Now they had reached the bottom of the gully. Ahead of them lay the River, stretching away to the eastern horizon, brilliant below the cloud. Color was returning to the World. The sun god would appear in a few moments. Rain was still falling, but gently, and she could see water streaking the dirt on the swordsman‘s bony shoulders and chest. Even his kilt. . .
Quili gasped. "That‘s blood! You‘ve been hurt?"
"Not mine!" He grinned again, proudly. "Yesterday we had a battle -- a great feat of arms! Shonsu did six and I drained two!"
She shivered, and his arm tightened around her, so she could not break loose. She pulled her cloak tight. This intimacy was appalling behavior for a priestess, but that steely grip gave her no choice. Kandoru had never held her in public this way. He had expected her to walk one pace behind him.
"You. . . you killed two men?"
"Three, yesterday. Two in the battle, but earlier I had to challenge for my promotion, and one of them chose swords instead of foils. He was trying to scare me, so I killed him. I didn‘t like him much, anyway."
She began to laugh, and then stared up with growing horror and belief at his satisfied smirk. Two of the swordmarks on his forehead were swollen, obviously new. His hair was black and greasy, but there were patches of red showing through the filth. His eyes were pale, the lashes almost invisible, and the runnels of clean skin washed by the rain were very light-colored. Apparently this murderous, callous youth was normally a redhead. The black in his hair had been applied deliberately, and then it had smeared all over him.
"Please, adept!" She struggled to break loose. They were almost at the jetty. The banks of the River were sheer cliffs of pebbly sand, and the only level land was the patch of shingle in the notch cut by the stream. When the River was high, there was barely room to turn a wagon, but today it was low, the flats were wide, and the landward end of the pier stood completely out of the water.
A small single-masted boat was tied up at the far end. There was no great army of swordsmen waiting, then, but there might still be a couple of dozen of them. Suddenly very frightened, Quili squirmed harder.
But the swordsman held tighter, still smirking down at her as he propelled her toward the jetty. The edge of the sun god‘s disk rose over the wide waters of the River. "I like you!" he announced. "You‘re pretty. The Goddess didn‘t make much of you, but She did very good work on what there is."
Quili wondered if she could slip out of the cloak and run. But he would run much faster than she would.
"I was only a Second in the temple guard," Nnanji remarked, "until the Goddess sent Shonsu. But starting today, I‘m a free sword."
"What do you mean?" She knew quite well what he meant.
"Why do you suppose the Goddess sent you to meet me? See, I‘ve always had to pay for women until now -- except the slave girls in the barracks, of course. I bought a slave of my own yesterday, but she‘s no fun. Your Honorable Garathondi will offer us hospitality for a few days. . ."
Quili panicked. "Let me go!"
Nnanji released her at once, looking surprised. "What‘s wrong?"
"How dare you manhandle a priestess that way?"
She had shouted, trying to bolster her courage. Nnanji looked hurt. "I thought you were enjoying it. Why didn‘t you ask sooner? Do you mean. . . well, I‘ll wait until I‘ve got cleaned up. I am a mess, aren‘t I?"
Quili straightened feathers. "I‘ll think about it," she said tactfully. Apparently he had meant no violence. He was like a large puppy, fresh from a mudhole somewhere, wanting to romp. She had told Nia that it was her duty. That advice no longer sounded as easy to take as it had been to give, but it would be her duty, also, if he wanted her. Given time to adjust to the idea. . .
"I‘d better wait until you‘ve had a look at Shonsu," he said sadly. "Women go glassy when they see him. Well, come on! He‘s waiting."
What? Did he think she had come down to meet the visitors just so she could get first choice of the swordsmen? Arrogance! Unbelievable arrogance! Speechless, she followed more slowly as Nnanji went striding along the pier. He whistled a four-note signal, although now the sun was shining through the rain, and he was quite visible to whoever was in the boat.
She listened for a reply and was astounded to hear a baby crying. Swordsmen bringing babies?
Nnanji stopped at the end of the jetty, peering down and speaking to whoever was waiting there, doubtless reporting that there was no danger. Immediate danger was what he had asked about, so she had not lied. But Quili had not had time to work out how her ladyship might be reacting to these visitors. Uneasily Quili now concluded that Lady Thondi might already be sending word to Ov that swordsmen had arrived. How long did it take a horse to reach Ov? How long for sorcerers to ride back? Perhaps the swordsmen would not interpret immediate in quite the same way she had.
Nnanji reached out his arms and caught a baby, as if plucking it out of the sky. He cuddled it to him, and the yells stopped.
As Quili reached him, he turned round and grinned. "This is my friend Vixini." The baby was about a year old, obviously teething. It was a slave baby -- Quili‘s mind staggered.
Then this so-bewildering swordsman reached down a helping hand, and another man sprang up on to the jetty. Nnanji remarked offhandedly, "My lord, may I have the honor of presenting Apprentice Quili?" Then he went back to tickling the naked baby, as if he were unaware of what he had just produced.
A giant! He was taller even than Nnanji, vastly wider and deeper, thickly muscled. His hair was black, and his black eyes fixed on Quili with a cruel, ruthless intensity that turned her bones to straw. Rape and death and carnage. . .
Nnanji was young to be a Fourth. This huge menace was a few years older, but far too young to be a Seventh. Yet there were seven swords marked on his forehead, and although his kilt was dirty, rumpled, and obviously bloodstained, it had undoubtedly started out as the blue of that rank. He must have been sheltering somehow from the rain, for the faint smears of gore on his chest and arms were quite dry.
Momentarily Quili trembled on the verge of turning and fleeing before this terrifying barbarian giant, then she began to stumble through the greeting to a superior, remembering that Nnanji had said women went glassy when they met Shonsu. She did not feel glassy, she felt like an aspen; her hands shook in the gestures. Kandoru had told her that never in his long career had he ever met a swordsman of higher rank than Sixth. She herself had never spoken to a Seventh of any craft -- except her ladyship, and everyone knew that her husband had bought that rank for her years ago. But no one would or could buy seven swordmarks.
She bowed, then straightened. The deadly gaze did not waver or shift from her face. The giant‘s arm rose. The sun god streaked and flashed on a sword blade. "I am Shonsu, swordsman of the seventh rank, and am honored to accept your gracious service." His voice seemed to rise from depths unimaginable. Then the muscles of his arm bunched again as he shot the sword back into its scabbard.
The formalities over, Lord Shonsu put his hands on his hips and smiled.
The transformation was miraculous, as if another man entirely were standing before her. He had a wide, friendly grin, absurdly boyish for his size. Hardness suddenly became male good looks; thoughts of barbarians vanished. This enormous young lord was the most incredibly masculine man she had ever seen.
"My apologies, apprentice!" He had the deepest voice she had ever heard, too, a voice that seemed to echo all through her with shivery promises of confidence and competence, of protection and consideration and good humor. That smile! "We are not in a fit state to come visiting unannounced like this, and at such an unsociable hour."
Glassy now, very glassy.
"You. . . you. . . are welcome, my lord."
The smile grew warmer still, like the rising sun. "You show great hospitality in coming to meet us. . . and no small courage?" His eyes twinkled. "I hope that my gory friend did not startle you too much?"
Quili shook her head dumbly.
"There is no swordsman nearby? And what of priests? Have you a mentor?"
"He lives in Pol, my lord."
"Then you are our hostess for now, at least until this Honorable Garathondi appears."
"He lives in Ov, mostly, my lord. His mother, Lady Thondi, is in residence. . ."
"You‘ll do every bit as well," the giant said with a heart-melting chuckle. "Nnanji tells me that you know of no task that may be awaiting our swords here?"
"Er. . . none, my lord."
Lord Shonsu nodded in satisfaction. "I am glad to hear it. We had our fill of slaughter yesterday, as you can see. Perhaps the Most High has sent us here for some rest and relaxation, then?" He boomed out a laugh and turned back to the boat.
Quili doubted that Adept Nnanji had had his fill of bloodshed. She saw that he was watching her with quiet amusement, rather wistfully. She felt herself blush, and looked away.
Her eyes returned of their own accord to Lord Shonsu, and now she noticed the sword on his so-broad rippling back. The hilt beside his black ponytail was silver, gleaming in the rays of the sun god and the rain. There was a huge blue stone on the top of it, held by a strange but magnificently crafted beast -- a griffon. She knew that the griffon was a royal symbol, so that was a king‘s sword. The great gem could only be a sapphire, and there was another, matching stone, in Lord Shonsu‘s hairclip.
But. . .
But these men were supposed to be free swords. Free swords were men of poverty. Kandoru had explained often -- free swords served only the Goddess, wandering the World to stamp out injustice, to regulate other swordsmen and keep them honest, to guard the helpless. Having no masters, they would accept no reward except their daily needs. A genuine free sword took pride in his penury.
A king‘s sword? The gem alone was worth a fortune, and the craftsmanship was superb, priceless.
How could any honest swordsman acquire something like that? Bewildered, she looked at Nnanji‘s sword to compare it. Nnanji was still holding that incongruous baby, which was gurgling and enjoying his attention, but Nnanji‘s eyes were on Quili.
"It belonged to the Goddess," he said.
He nodded solemnly. "It is very old and very famous, probably the finest sword ever made. The man who crafted it was Chioxin, the greatest of all swordmakers, and it was the last and best of his seven masterpieces. He gave it to the Goddess."
Quili turned away to hide the horrible suspicion that flared up in her, which must not show in her face. These men had come from Hann, from the mother of all temples. They had fought a battle. Had someone tried to prevent their leaving -- the temple guard that Nnanji had formerly belonged to? Was that sword the reason? Had this Shonsu stolen that royal sword from the treasury of the Goddess‘ temple?
But if he had, then why had She let the boat leave the dock when he boarded? And why had She moved it here, where there were sorcerers? Swordsmen of the Seventh were very rare and very terrible. Nnanji had said that Shonsu had killed six men in the fight -- perhaps the Goddess had few swordsmen capable of bringing such a colossus to justice. But sorcerers certainly could.
Had they been brought here to die?
She felt sick with indecision. Was she supposed to aid these men, or not? What of preventing bloodshed? Whose blood? A mere apprentice should not be faced with such conundrums.
"Apprentice Quili, this is Jja, my love."
The woman smiled shyly, and Quili received another shock. Jja was a slave; her face bore a single stripe from hairline to upper lip, and she wore a slave‘s black. His love? The woman was tall and only that hateful badge of slavery and the close-cropped maltreatment of her dark hair stopped her from being spectacularly beautiful. No, she was beautiful in spite of those. Her figure was magnificently proportioned to her height, yet she moved with a sensual grace: strong and competent and serene. Even a Seventh could not change a slave‘s rank, but it seemed ironic for a man of such power to love a mere chattel. He was introducing her as if she were a person, though, and watching for Quili‘s reaction. She smiled carefully and said, "You are welcome, also, Jja."
A faint blush spread over the high cheekbones, the dark eyes were lowered. "Thank you, apprentice." A good voice. Jja turned to take the baby, who was now sitting on Nnanji‘s shoulders, wedged in place by his sword hilt. Little Vixini resisted, screaming angrily and clutching the swordsman‘s ponytail.
Then Lord Shonsu‘s strong arm pulled another woman up from the boat. "This," he said, "is Cowie." There was an odd note in the way he spoke, as if he had said something funny.
Cowie was another slave, and another sort of slave. If Lord Shonsu was the epitome of masculinity, then Cowie was the ultimate sex partner. Quili had never seen a figure so exaggeratedly female, and it was barely concealed at all by the flimsy wisp of garment. Her breasts strained against it, her arms and legs were soft and voluptuously rounded, her face was a lovely and sweet nothing. At the sound of her name, the provocative lips parted in an automatic smile, but her eyes continued to stare blankly at the shore.
Quili remembered her misgivings about her own too-tight gown. In this company she was not going to be noticed.
Nnanji had said something about buying a slave. She glanced at him, and he turned away.
Then another black-clad figure was lifted up by hands below, accepted, and gently set down by Lord Shonsu. He was very tiny and very old, his head totally hairless, his neck a crumple of wrinkles. The gown he wore appeared to be both too large for him and also a woman‘s garment. A black headband covered his brow. Quili blinked in astonishment at this apparition -- babies, slaves, and beggars? What other surprises would Lord Shonsu produce?
"This is Honakura, who prefers to conceal his rank and craft," the swordsman said. "I don‘t know why, but we humor him."
The little ancient wheeled around angrily, waggling an arthritic finger to scold the giant swordsman towering over him. "You must not speak my name, either! A Nameless One is exactly that -- no craft, no rank, no name! Address me as ‘old man‘ if you wish."
Lord Shonsu regarded him with mild amusement. "As you wish. . . old man. Apprentice, meet one old man."
Honakura, if that was really his name, turned back toward Quili. He chuckled and smiled, revealing a mouth devoid of teeth. "Thus I also serve Her," he said.
"You are welcome. . . old man."
Lord Shonsu boomed a laugh. "And this. . ." He dropped on one knee and reached down into the boat. Then he sprang upright, hoisting a youth bodily into the air, a First. He floated there, his shoulders gripped in Shonsu‘s great hands, and he beamed down at Quili as if there was nothing undignified about such an unorthodox arrival, or as if Sevenths clowned with Firsts all the time.
The big man‘s voice came from somewhere behind the boy‘s grubby white kilt. "This is our mascot. Apprentice Quili, may I have the unparalleled honor of presenting the dreaded Novice Katanji, swordsman of the first rank?"
Then he let go. Novice Katanji landed unevenly, stumbled, recovered, and grinned. He fumbled for his sword hilt, which was canted over behind his left shoulder.
"Leave that!" Shonsu said quickly. "You‘ll decapitate someone -- probably yourself."
Katanji shrugged, still grinning, and made the salute to a superior in civilian fashion. Bewildered, Quili responded. It was very rare to make formal presentation of a First; slaves and beggars were always ignored. Lord Shonsu not only had a peculiar sense of humor, he must also dislike formalities and ritual.
The young Katanji was a dark-eyed imp. His single facemark was raw and new, his curly black hair cropped short like a child‘s. There was a hairclip precariously balanced in it, but no ponytail resulting. He was grubby, but not as filthy as Nnanji, and innocent of bloodstains. Remembering Nnanji‘s story, Quili could guess that Novice Katanji had sworn to the code of the swordsmen only the previous day. Nnanji must be his mentor, for surely no Seventh would take a First as protégé. Yet perhaps this unconventional Shonsu was capable of even that.
"You are welcome also, novice," Quili said.
His big eyes regarded her solemnly. "Your gracious hospitality is already evident, apprentice." Then those eyes dropped, to linger over her cloak.
Quili glanced down and saw that the right side was stained, the faded yellow cloth marked by streaks of grease, and even perhaps blood, where Nnanji had hugged her against himself. She looked up in mingled shame and anger, as Novice Katanji turned away with a deliberate smirk showing on his face. Impudent little devil!
"No more strays, sailor?" Lord Shonsu was addressing the two men still in the boat. "Then you will come ashore for food and rest before you seek to return?"
"Oh, no, my lord." The captain was a fat and obsequious man. He would probably be very glad to be rid of so strange a cargo. To carry a Jonah reputedly brought good fortune to a vessel and normally the Goddess sent it home again promptly, but Lord Shonsu would be an unnerving passenger.
"We must not keep Her waiting, my lord," the sailor explained.
"May She be with you, then." Shonsu reached in a pouch on his harness and flipped a couple of coins down. They glinted in the sunlight. Free swords paying gold to mere boatmen?
"There we are, apprentice. Seven of us looking for a bite of breakfast." Lord Shonsu had turned to Quili again with high good spirits. He was amused -- her astonishment must be showing. Two swordsmen, two slave women, a boy, a baby, and a beggar? What sort of army was that?
Then the menacing frown snapped back, and he stared along the jetty at the road vanishing into the notch of the gorge. He swung around to Nnanji.
Horror fell over Nnanji‘s face, and he jerked to attention. "I forgot, my lord."
Nnanji gulped. "Yes, my lord."
For a moment Shonsu‘s eyes flicked to Quili, then back to Nnanji. "I suppose there has to be a first time for anything," he said darkly. "Apprentice, we have a problem. I assume that we need to climb at least as high as the top of that cliff?"
"I am afraid so, my lord."
Shonsu turned back to the boatmen, who were fumbling with sails. "Wait! Toss up a couple of those pallets. . . and the awning. Thank you. Good journey!" He stooped to untie a line. Nnanji jumped for the other, watching to see exactly what Shonsu did and copying him.
Kandoru would never have played at being a dockhand, nor a porter, yet now this incredible Seventh gathered up the pallets and tarpaulin and went striding landward along the jetty, the astonished Quili having to trot to keep up with him.
"Apprentice, can you find us a wagon? The old man can probably manage, but Cowie. . ." He smirked again as he said that name. "Dear Cowie has lost one of her sandals. I should hate her beautiful soft feet to be damaged."
"I am sure I can find a cart, my lord," Quili said. A cart for a lord of the seventh rank? And would there be any men left to harness the horse? She had watched it being done often enough. . .
"That would do very well," Shonsu said cheerfully. They had reached the land, where the jetty stood above dry shingle. Quickly he spread the tarpaulin over the planks, then he jumped down and put the pallets below it. As his companions arrived, he reached up and lifted them down effortlessly. "We shall be comfortable enough in here until you return."
"I shall be as quick as I can, my lord."
"There‘s no hurry. I need to have a private talk with Nnanji, and this seems like a good chance." He flashed that heart-melting smile again.
Confused and unhappy, Quili mumbled something -- she was not sure what -- and headed for the road. As she entered the gorge, the sun tucked itself up into the clouds, and the World became gloomier and more drab. She had not lied, but she had left these swordsmen in ignorance of their danger. She must try to prevent bloodshed. Merciful Goddess! Whom was she supposed to shield -- the workers, or the sorcerers, or the swordsmen?
Wallie paced slowly back along the jetty, gathering his thoughts. His boots made hollow drum noises on the weathered planks, and beside him Nnanji‘s kept time. Nnanji was waiting in excited silence to hear what revelations the great Lord Shonsu was about to impart.
The jetty was stained with cattle dung -- probably the estate exported cattle to the nearest city, Ov. The River was very wide, the far shore a faint line of smudge, and no sails marred the empty expanse of gray and lifeless water. At Hann the River had been about the same width, yet Hann lay a quarter of a World away. The River was everywhere, Honakura had said, and in a lifetime of talking with pilgrims in the temple, he had never heard tell of source or mouth. Apparently it was endless and much the same everywhere, a geographical impossibility. The River was the Goddess.
No sails. . . "The ferry‘s gone!"
"Yes, my lord." Nnanji did not even sound surprised.
Wallie shivered at this evidence of divine surveillance, then forced his mind back to the matter at hand. Twice before he had told his story, but this time would be harder. Honakura had accepted it as an exercise in theology. Believing in many worlds and a ladder of uncountable lives, he had been puzzled only that the dead Wallie Smith should have been reincarnated as the adult Shonsu, instead of as a baby. That was a miracle, and priests could believe in miracles. Honakura had wanted to hear about Earth and Wallie‘s previous existence, but those would not interest Nnanji.
Jja had not cared about the mechanism or the reason. She was content to know that the man she loved was hidden inside the swordsman, an invisible man with no rank or craft, as alienated from the World as she was. Only thus could a slave dare to love a Seventh. Nnanji‘s attitude would be very different.
The two men reached the end of the pier and stopped.
"Nnanji, I have a confession to make. I have never lied to you, but I have not told you the whole truth."
Nnanji blinked. "Why should you? It was you the Goddess chose to be Her champion. I am honored to be allowed to help. You need not tell me more, Lord Shonsu."
Wallie sighed. "I did lie to you, then, I suppose. I said my name was Shonsu. . . and it isn‘t."
Nnanji‘s eyes grew very wide, strange pale spots in his grimy face. No man of the People could ever look unshaven, but his red hair had been blackened the previous day with a blend of charcoal and grease. Later adventures had added guano and cobwebs, road dust and blood. Now thoroughly smeared, the resulting filth made him look comic and ridiculous. But Nnanji was no joke. Nnanji had become a very deadly killer, much too young to be trusted with either the sword skill his mentor had taught him so rapidly or the power that came with his new rank -- a swordsman of the Fourth had the potential to do a mountain of damage. Nnanji would have to be kept under very close control for a few years, until maturity caught up with his abilities. That might be why the gods had ordered that he be irrevocably bound by the arcane oath to which the present conversation must lead.
"I did meet with a god," Wallie said, "and what he told me was this: the Goddess had need of a swordsman. She chose the best in the World, Shonsu of the Seventh. Well, he said that there was none better, which is not quite the same thing, I suppose. Anyway, this swordsman failed, and failed ‘disastrously.‘"
"What does that mean, my lord?"
"The god wouldn‘t say. But Shonsu was driven to the temple by a demon. The priests‘ exorcism failed. The Goddess took his soul -- and left the demon. Or what Shonsu thought was a demon. It was me, Wallie Smith. Except I wasn‘t a demon. . ."
He was not telling this very well, Wallie thought, but he was amused by the puzzled nods he was being given. Others might mock at so absurd a yarn, but Nnanji would want very much to believe. Nnanji had a ruinous case of hero worship. It had suffered an agonizing death the previous day, but then the Goddess had sent a miracle to support Her champion, and Nnanji‘s adoration had sprung back to life again, stronger than ever. He would grow out of it, and Wallie could only hope that the education would not be too painful, nor too long delayed. No man could live up to Nnanji‘s standards of heroic behavior.
They turned together and began to wander landward again.
"Another way of looking at it, I suppose, is as a string of beads -- that‘s one of the priests‘ images. A soul is the string, the beads are the separate lives. In this case, the Goddess broke the rules. She untied the string and moved one of the beads."
Nnanji said, "But. . ." and then fell silent.
"No, I can‘t explain it. The motives of gods are mysterious. Anyway, I am not Shonsu. I remember nothing of his life before I woke up in the pilgrim cottage with Jja tending me and old Honakura babbling about my doing a fast murder for him. Before that, as far as I recall, I was Wallie Smith."
He did not try to explain language, how he thought in English and spoke in the language of the People. Nnanji would not be able to comprehend the idea of more than one language, and Wallie himself did not know how the translation worked.
"And you were not a swordsman in the other world, my lord?"
Manager of a petrochemical plant? How did one explain that to an iron-age warrior in a preliterate World? Wallie sighed. "No, I wasn‘t. Our crafts and ranks were different. As near as I can tell you, I was an apothecary of the Fifth."
Nnanji shuddered and bit his lip.
But there had been Detective Inspector Smith, who would have been so horrified by his murdering, idol-worshiping, slave-owning son. "My father was a swordsman."
Nnanji sighed in relief. The Goddess was not as fickle as he had feared.
"And you were a man of honor, my lord?"
Yes, Wallie thought. He had been law-abiding, and a decent sort of guy, honest and conscientious. "I think so. I tried to be as I try here. Some of our ways were different. I did my best and I promised the god that I would do my best here also."
Nnanji managed a faint smile.
"But when the reeve of the temple guard claimed that I was an imposter, he was correct. I did not know the salutes and responses. I did not know one end of a sword from the other."
Nnanji spluttered. "But -- but you know the rituals, my lord! You are a great swordsman!"
"That came later," Wallie said, and went on to relate how he had met the demigod three times, how he had managed to find belief in the gods, and how he had then been given Shonsu‘s skill, the legendary sword, the unknown mission. "The god gave me the ability to use a sword, he gave me the sutras. But he gave me none of Shonsu‘s private memories at all, Nnanji. I don‘t know who his parents were, or where he came from, or who taught him. On those things, I am still Wallie Smith."
"And you have no parentmarks!"
"I have one now." He showed Nnanji the sword that had appeared on his right eyelid the previous night, the sign of a swordsman father. "It wasn‘t there yesterday morning. I think it is a sort of joke by the little god, or perhaps a sign that he approves of what we did yesterday."
Nnanji said he liked the second possibility better. The idea that gods might play jokes did not appeal to him.
They reached the landward end of the jetty and turned to pace Riverward again. It was a strange story, almost as strange in the World as it would have been on Earth, and Wallie took his time, explaining as well as he could how it felt to be two people, how his professional knowledge differed from his personal memories.
"I think I understand, my lord," Nnanji said at last, frowning down ferociously at the rain-slicked, rough-cut planks. "You greatly puzzled me, for you did not behave like other highranks. You spoke to me as a friend when I was only a Second. You did not kill Meliu and Briu when you had the chance -- most Sevenths would have welcomed an excuse to cut more notches in their harness. You treat Jja like a lady and you were even friendly to Wild Ani. That was the way of honor in your other world?"
"It was," Wallie said. "Friends are harder to make than enemies, but they are more useful."
Nnanji brightened. "Is that a sutra?"
Wallie laughed. "No, it is just a little saying of my own, but it is based on some of our sutras. It works, though: look how useful Wild Ani turned out to be!"
Nnanji agreed doubtfully -- swordsmen should not have to seek help from slaves. "I would swear the second oath to you, my lord, if you will have me as protégé. I still wish to learn swordsmanship from you, and the ways of honor. . ." He paused and added thoughtfully, "And I think I should like to learn some of this other honor, also."
Wallie was relieved. He had half feared that his young friend would understandably flee from him as a madman. "I shall be proud to be your mentor again, Nnanji, for you are a wonderful pupil and one day you will be a great swordsman."
Nnanji stopped, drew his sword, and dropped to his knees. There were other things that Wallie wanted to tell him, but Nnanji was never plagued by hesitations or deep reflection, and he now proceeded to swear the second oath: "I, Nnanji, swordsman of the Fourth, do take you, Shonsu, swordsman of the Seventh, as my master and mentor and do swear to be faithful, obedient, and humble, to live upon your word, to learn by your example, and to be mindful of your honor, in the name of the Goddess."
Wallie spoke the formal acceptance. Nnanji rose and sheathed his sword with some satisfaction. "You mentioned another oath also, mentor?" The demigod had warned that swordsmen were addicted to fearsome oaths, and Nnanji was no exception.
"I did. But before we get to that, I must tell you about my mission. When I asked what the Goddess required of me, all I was given was a riddle."
"The god gave you a task and didn‘t tell you what it was? Why?"
"I wish I knew that! He said that it was a matter of free will; that I must do what seemed right to me. If I only followed orders, then I would be less a servant than a tool." Another explanation, of course, might be that the demigod did not trust Wallie -- either his courage or his honesty -- and that was worrisome.
"This is what I was told:
"First your brother you must
And from another wisdom gain.
When the mighty has been
An army earned, a circle turned,
So the lesson may be learned.
Finally return that sword
And to its destiny accord."
Nnanji pouted in disgust for a moment, his lips moving as he thought over the words. "I‘m no good at riddles," he muttered. Then he shrugged. It was Shonsu‘s problem, not his.
"Nor was I -- until Imperkanni said something yesterday, after the battle."
Ah! Nnanji had been waiting to hear this. "Eleven forty-four? The last sutra?"
Wallie nodded. "It concerns the fourth oath, the oath of brotherhood. It is almost as terrible as the blood oath, except that it binds both men equally, not as liege and vassal. In fact it is even more drastic, Nnanji, for it is paramount, absolute, and irrevocable."
"I didn‘t think the Goddess allowed irrevocable oaths."
"Apparently She does for this one. I think that is why the riddle says chain. If we swear this oath, then we‘re both stuck with it, Nnanji!"
Nnanji nodded, impressed. Again the two men began to walk.
Wallie let him think for a moment.
"But. . . you don‘t know your -- Shonsu‘s -- history, mentor. You -- he -- may have a real brother somewhere?"
"That‘s what I thought, too, at first: that I had to seek out a brother. But the god did remove Shonsu‘s parentmarks, and perhaps that was a hint. The oath is restricted, Nnanji. It may only be sworn by two swordsmen who have saved each other‘s lives. That can never happen in the ways of honor, only in a real battle. I think that is why we were led into that slaughter yesterday. I saved you from Tarru, you saved me from Ghaniri. So you have a part in this mission also, and now we are free to swear the oath."
Given the chance, Nnanji would have sat down cross-legged to hear a sutra, so Wallie began it before he could do so. It was short, as sutras went, and much less paradoxical or obscure than some. He needed only say it through once -- Nnanji never forgot anything.
Copyright Â© 1988 by D. J. Duncan