The wicked heroine, p.32
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.32
 

           Jasmine Giacomo

  ~~~

  On the morning of the equinox, the entire city turned out, dressed in pale spring blues and greens, to bid a cheering farewell to the departing caravan.

  The sky was lit with the first rays of dawn as Sanych made her way to the first dozen horses in the lineup. She eased past crowds of well-wishers, bustling servants on last-minute errands, and the occasional stack or bundle of supplies yet to find a home on a wagon. Stervan Sengril, Rhist Armala and Braal Runcan milled near the wagons, checking a list and pointing at various crates, arguing good-naturedly among themselves.

  “Archivist Sanych,” Geret said in greeting, seeing her approach as he adjusted the saddle girth on his fine bay horse. “I see you’ve chosen travel wear that’s unlikely to topple off in my presence,” he added with a grin, as he took in her travel-worn light brown leather pants, blue tunic and dark, stained leather overcoat. A full water skin rested against her right hip, and a wide-brimmed leather hat covered her light hair and hid most of her face in moderate shadow. The toes of her sturdy boots were scuffed with wear.

  “As you noted, Geret, I have done this before,” Sanych replied, unsmiling.

  Geret stepped closer to her and lowered his voice. “She’s not coming, is she?”

  “No. She left.” Sanych’s flat tone left no room for Geret to inquire further without being rude, so he picked another topic.

  “You’ve got a fine horse here,” he commented, tilting his head in the direction of the mount Sanych had chosen to send over to the caravan yesterday. “Where did you get him?”

  It seemed a troubling question; Sanych didn’t look at him as she answered. “Meena chose him for me, down in Braltre.”

  “Oh, I see. Did you get the basic itinerary I sent over to you?”

  “Yes, thank you.”

  One of the caravan masters bellowed to his assistants down the line that it was time to mount up. In the din, the boyish eagerness in Geret’s voice was almost lost on Sanych as he asked, “You were out on the road a few days ago. Can you tell me what it’s like out there?” His tone finally teased a small but genuine smile from Sanych’s lips.

  “You make it sound like I rode in here with dragons breathing fire at my horse’s heels, Geret. It’s just a road.” Sanych’s gaze drifted to the road ahead. Ahead, not behind, she told herself. That road’s already been traveled.

  Geret chuckled. “Sorry. I’m a bit excited.” He bounced on his toes a few times.

  “I see that,” Sanych returned. Then she took pity on the young man’s sense of adventure. “The weather’s still cool. Once we get off the heights of Vint and Hardyk and cross the border into Kirth, who can say? We might encounter the sirens of the silver sands; our path takes us near where they’re rumored to live. And if we manage to miss them and their mesmerizing songs that lure men to their parched doom, there’s always the hope that sea pirates will attack us, looking for the treasure we don’t have yet. Maybe their captain will whisk you off to sea and make you dive for your weight in pearls before she sets you free.”

  Geret’s eyes got wider, and so did his grin. “Sirens of the silver sands? Sea pirates? Before we even get off the continent?”

  Sanych gave her eyebrows a quick lift. “You asked,” she said, turning away and walking over to her horse. The stocky roan was shedding his winter coat in patches, having ridden north into weather equal to the middle of his summer. He whickered softly at her approach, her scent being the only one he knew in Highnave.

  Geret pursed his lips as he watched her step away. Someone tapped him deliberately amongst all the bustling and jostling, and Geret turned to see one of the caravan masters. The man handed him a speaking cone.

  “You want we should stack up some of the empty boxes over here for ya’s?” the man, whose name he recalled as Brem n’Kirra, asked him deferentially.

  “No thanks, Brem,” Geret answered. “I’ve got it covered.” He took the speaking cone and mounted his horse, climbing to his feet on the saddle, then pivoting the animal around slowly, so that he looked back on the endless dozens of horses and attendants who had ended up in his charge. The people gradually saw him and quieted to hear him give the Benefortuna, the traditional Vinten speech given before any great or lengthy undertaking.

  Geret swallowed and raised the cone to his mouth, holding it with one hand and the reins with the other. “They say that fortune favors the brave, and that good luck and favored blessings may be begged of the gods,” he said into the cone, his voice reaching the many thousands of listeners. “But in Vint, we trust to Wisdom. We pride ourselves on what we have learned, and what the future can teach us. Experience and knowledge are our coin, and to this end, we set forth on a quest, the likes of which have never been seen in Vint, and will likely not ever be seen again. We travel to the far reaches of the globe, to the lands where night reigns while we enjoy the day, where the sun beats down when we rest easily in our beds. We travel in search of experience, of knowledge, and of wisdom. We travel, because there is much we do not know, and our hearts crave fulfillment. We travel for the glory of Wisdom, and the glory of Vint!”

  The crowd burst into excited cheers and whistles, and Geret couldn’t resist pumping his fist into the air, still holding the speaking cone. Finally he slid down into his saddle and handed the cone back to Brem.

  The stocky man nodded in approval and waved his free arm forward, ending with his hand pointing toward the empty road ahead. “Caravan ho!” he shouted in his deep, resonant voice, nudging his mount into motion. Behind him rode two of the other caravan masters, then Geret and his group, which included two colorbearers carrying large Vinten flags, followed by skilled contributors to the quest and members of the nobility. The remainder of the caravan was composed of servants, drivers and their wagon charges: food, supplies, baggage. And all along the caravan, in twos and threes, rode heavily armed guards.

  The quest was on its way. As they finally began riding, Geret nodded to Counts Runcan, Armala and Sengril as they fell in next to him. Sanych rode on one far edge of their group, with Salvor Thelios on the other. These would be his traveling companions for the next few seasons. He already knew the Counts well enough, and he knew more than he wanted to about Salvor. That left him with Sanych. She was younger than he by a couple of years, but she was certainly no child. She was already his favorite companion, simply by default. He slowly edged his way over to her, trying to appear so casual as to be aimless.

  “Good morning again,” he greeted her.

  “Good morning, Geret.”

  “I just wanted to thank you again for coming. It’s great to see someone around my age coming along on this long journey. I’m glad you’re here.”

  “Really? Why? I haven’t done anything yet.” Sanych was clearly puzzled.

  “You don’t have to do anything for me to appreciate your presence, Archivist,” he said, meeting her eyes. “Just be yourself.”

  “I’m not feeling much love toward myself at the moment, actually,” Sanych confessed quietly.

  “You’re not regretting coming, are you?” Geret asked, concern edging his voice. They hadn’t even gotten out onto the main trade road yet.

  “No. Not that. I just feel like it’s my fault that Meena left. I’m really not familiar with feeling at fault.”

  At that, Geret laughed out loud. “Don’t worry, Sanych; I’m familiar enough with the feeling for both of us.”

  “Really?” She looked over at him, intrigued.

  “It’s true,” Geret said, warming to his topic. “Let me tell you the tale of the summer day I made it rain ice-water.”

  Sanych squinted, trying to determine if he was joking or not. Geret enjoyed regaling her with his most spectacular prank. By the time the caravan began to squeeze between the carved cliffs which marked the edge of the valley of Highnave, Sanych’s laughter echoed up the cliffs alongside Geret’s. He looked up at the walls, as if he might see her voice bouncing about, and saw something that caught his attention.

&n
bsp; Sanych noticed his upward gaze and looked as well, and soon everyone at the front of the caravan was staring at a lone figure perched on the top of the overhanging wall of the western outpost. Its left hand held something too slender to be made out at this distance. It was silhouetted against the bright blue sky, but its stillness indicated it was watching them as intently as they were watching it.

  “That’s no guard,” commented Brem. “Archers,” he called. Two of the guardsmen at the front of the caravan nocked arrows and drew back on their bowstrings, aiming at the figure sixty feet above the road.

  The figure cocked its head slightly, perhaps in amusement.

  Sanych’s eyes widened as she recognized the gesture. “Stop!” she shouted, standing in her stirrups. “It’s the Shanallar!”

  The archers lowered their weapons. At the same moment, the distant figure shouted, “Halla hablah ‘anna ‘lah!” and leaped off the edge of the wall. Gasps and exclamations followed, as every eye that could see Meena watched her spiral down a slender rope in a lazy helix. Her feet hit a knot that was tied in the end of it about a pace off the ground, and she stepped off lightly.

  “Call a halt,” Geret urged Brem, as he rode forward to meet Meena. Sanych, torn, gave in to her doubts and stayed behind.

  Brem ordered the caravan to stop. Geret pulled up in front of Meena amid echoing shouts and neighs.

  “Shanallar,” he greeted her, giving her a small bow from his saddle. He tried to rein in his excitement at seeing her once more, but he couldn’t be sure by Meena’s expression if he was succeeding.

  “You again, and still impatient, I see.”

  “It’s my nature, I’m afraid. Along with not following the rules, and sneaking up on trouble and goosing it before running away.”

  That got half of Meena’s mouth to smile. “And you’re in charge of this rabble?” She waved a hand at the jumbling caravan behind him.

  “That’s what they tell me. Will you join us this time, Meena?” he asked earnestly. “Sanych said you’d left, but you’re still here after two days. Have you changed your mind?”

  “Just because I’m not here doesn’t mean I’ve left.”

  “Oh. I guess Sanych misunderstood.”

  “It’s possible; I embrace the cryptic on occasion. To be honest, I was–” Meena looked up at his happy, handsome face, framed by light waves of hair, his brown eyes glowing even here in the dim canyon, and changed what she was going to say. “I was expecting a bit more fanfare, or at least a horse. I’m not walking to Shanal, O Discourteous Princeling.”

  Geret laughed at the sudden ease of bringing the mythical Shanallar on his expedition. He ordered one of the extra mounts to be brought up for her. Once she had mounted and the caravan was on its way again, Geret was determined to ride next to her.

  “Meena, may I ask you some things?” he asked her, his exuberance for her mere presence tamped down by his awe of actually being in it.

  Meena looked askance at him, seeing Sanych riding nearby. The young Archivist was distinctly not looking at her. She pressed her lips together once. “If you like.”

  Geret rode a bit nearer so that his voice wouldn’t carry, and asked a spontaneous question. “As excited as I am to have you with us, I see that something has happened between you and Sanych. Can you tell me what it is?”

  “Yes I can, but I’m not going to.”

  “But you’ve decided to join with the quest.” His grin could not be stopped by the serious nature of the topic.

  “I have my own quest: the book needs to be destroyed. Now is the time to do that, and we may both benefit by traveling together.” Meena’s tone was quiet but firm, and Geret blinked at the sudden change in her opinion. He didn’t want to think about what being at odds with a legend boded for his own goal.

  “What makes you say that?” he asked curiously. “You weren’t at all interested in coming along two days ago.”

  “You’re right. I wasn’t. Let’s just say, sometimes history tries to repeat itself just out of sheer spite. Spitefulness irritates me. That, and my hand’s been forced.”

  Geret frowned. “I don’t understand. How could someone force your hand? You’re the Shanallar!”

  But Meena only gave him a half smile and replied, “Those who force the Shanallar’s hand do so unwittingly, unless they have a death wish. Anything else you want to ask?” Meena asked, meeting his brown eyes.

  “About a million things, I’m sure,” Geret grinned. “But I’ll let you catch your breath. It’s not like we don’t have time along the way. Oh,” he said, remembering, “what was it you shouted before you slid down the rope? I didn’t recognize the language.”

  “You wouldn’t. It’s Tarnic, from further west than even Shanal. I said, Halla hablah ‘anna ‘lah.”

  “It sounds pretty dramatic, being shouted from the top of a cliff like that. What does it mean?”

  Meena’s lips twitched. “There’s more than one way to translate it. One of my favorites is ‘Beyond Death, Victory’.”

  “I like that. I think I’ll make it the expedition motto.”

  Meena winced, and a small laugh escaped her lips. “You go ahead and do that, Geret. Nothing could be more fitting.”

  Geret frowned a bit, wondering what she meant. “You must have quested many times before,” he said, changing the subject. “What were your other quests like?”

  Meena snorted, frowning a bit as if the question made no sense. “Quests. They all tend to blend together after awhile.”

  “Really?” asked Geret, disappointed. “You didn’t enjoy the adventure?”

  Meena looked at Geret again, her eyes heavy with age. “I never had the luxury of questing simply because I wanted to. I have sought a remedy for the Limbless Plague, a lost king whose throne was stolen by an evil usurper, and a prophesied child who was supposedly destined to reunite an empire in ruins. I have quested for truth, for justice, and for love. I have quested for things, for people, and for my own sanity. You name it, Geret, I’ve probably quested after it.

  “As for this quest,” she continued, “I have more than one goal in mind.”

  “Something other than destroying the Di–the book?”

  Meena’s jaw clenched for a moment. “I tell you what: if I find the things I seek, I’ll let you know,” she said aloud, knowing that if she found one of them, she’d have no inclination to explain, and if she found the other, telling anyone would be impossible.

  “Deal,” Geret agreed, enjoying the mysteriousness of her answer.

  Puppy, Meena thought. A cute puppy, though. Clearly, he intended to trot at her heels for the foreseeable future. “Can I interest you in a story?” she asked, raising her voice so that all the riders in her vicinity could hear her.

  “Absolutely!” Geret responded, grinning.

  “It’s one I hadn’t gotten around to telling to Sanych yet. It’s the tale of Curzon the Crooked and the Eye of Woe.”

  “Eye of Woe?” Geret breathed, already hooked. He saw Sanych ride closer in order to hear it, and he smiled.

  “Now,” Meena began, “Curzon the Crooked was born quite straight, in the kingdom of Gothrún, a land of fire and ice. They say he had the fire of the earth in his blood. But Curzon was not a great wizard, no. He was a common thief, and a coward. Afraid of his very shadow, the man ventured out only at night. He used his dexterity and skill to scale walls and pick locks, and his magic gift to slip past wards and alarm spells procured by the rich. Then one day the king’s most powerful wizard came to Curzon’s town.

  “The wizard, named Garrolf the Gilded, wore robes of gold and silver thread. He carried a golden staff, atop which rested the Eye of Woe. Its golden lid was shut unless danger was near, and those who knew of its power prayed that it remained so in their presence. The Eye’s gaze brought woe indeed: destruction, pain and death. It was a powerful weapon against the enemies of Gothrún, and only Garrolf could command it.

  “Curzon coveted the Eye of Woe. He stole into Garrolf’s
warded chambers from the balcony on the top floor of the governor’s residence. He convinced Garrolf’s magic wards to let him pass; the wizard was not awakened by his presence. Curzon stood over the staff of gold and read its magic, like Sanych reads a book.”

  The Shanallar’s gaze was the only one in the group that did not travel to the young Archivist. Sanych lowered her eyes, a blush rising in her cheeks.

  “He stretched out his hand and took possession of the staff,” Meena continued, “and it did not resist him. But in his glee, he laughed aloud, and Garrolf awoke, reaching for the staff.

  “When the wizard found it in the hands of a stranger, with the Eye still closed, he gasped. ‘Who are you?’ he quavered. He knew that the stranger must be a very powerful man.

  “‘I am Curzon,’ the thief replied, ‘and I am taking the Eye of Woe.’ Well, this did not please the king’s wizard, and he attacked Curzon with the white tendrils of a deadly mist. They should have killed him, but they evaporated into nothing, and Garrolf the Gilded whimpered in despair.

  “But as I said, Curzon was a coward. All he desired was the gold in the staff and the thrill of stealing such a valuable object. He backed away toward the balcony, taking the Eye with him. Garrolf was no fool, though; he hurled an empty chamber pot at Curzon, hoping to take him off guard with a non-magical attack. That choice proved fatal, not only for Garrolf, but for many others as well.”

  By this point in the story, Brem had an ear cocked in Meena’s direction. Count Runcan smiled at the storytelling, and even Salvor listened quietly. Meena paused and took a drink from her water skin. Geret nearly burst with anticipation, waiting for her next words. She grinned at him before continuing the story.

  “You see,” she said, “the chamber pot struck Curzon in the head, dizzying him and breaking his concentration. For a moment, he lost control of his magic, which was holding the Eye’s defenses at bay. In that one moment, the Eye of Woe awoke, and its golden lid rose. Garrolf screamed in horror, a bare moment before he was burnt to ash by a massive gout of flame that shot from the eye’s pupil. Though Curzon tried his best to regain control, it was too late: the eye had begun its attack, and it could not be stopped until it had completed its spells. The force of the fire stream threw Curzon out of the room, against the railing of the balcony, and the bones of his back were crushed. He toppled over the rail and tumbled seven stories down. Luck was with him, though, and he landed in the fish pond.”

  Geret chuckled. It sounded like the sort of narrow escape he himself had enjoyed on occasion.

  Meena began wrapping up the story. “The governor’s house burned to the ground that night, as did many other structures that the Eye’s gaze fell upon as Curzon tumbled from the balcony. Many people perished. Curzon was arrested, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. Many hoped he would die of his injuries, sparing the king’s men the cost of a rope, but he did not. His back healed with a distinct twist to it, and thereafter, the denizens of Gothrún called him ‘Curzon the Crooked’, for his deformity as well as his thieving ways.

  “He escaped his death sentence by picking the prison lock and shuffling away through the wards set around him by the wizards sent by the king. But nowhere was safe for him. He became a ghost, a wanderer, just one more shadow in the darkness. No doubt, mothers in Gothrún scare their children into obedience to this day with tales of how Curzon the Crooked will come for them after dark.”

  Meena hushed, yet her listeners still leaned forward. When it became clear she was finished, Geret asked, “So, what happened to him? To Curzon? Was there really magic?”

  Meena turned to him and smiled. “You Vintens don’t believe in magic, do you?”

  Count Sengril gave a quiet snort of disdain. Geret looked down, embarrassed. “I want to. It just never seems to happen here.”

  “No, it wouldn’t, would it?” Meena murmured.

  “What?”

  “No geysers, either, right? No hot springs or the like?”

  “No, that type of thing is extremely rare on Cyrmant. I think there are some up near Nen Thakka, but that’s it.” Geret’s brow furrowed. “You didn’t say what happened to Curzon, though.”

  “You’re right,” Meena said, her smile maddening. “I didn’t. But ask me again later.”

  Grumbling about wicked heroines, Geret resigned himself to waiting. He caught Sanych giving him a sympathetic glance and gave her a half-grin.

  As the conversation picked up and turned to other topics, Geret remembered the parchment case his uncle had given him. His uncle had said to wait until the caravan was across the Kirthan border, but Geret decided he had no intention of waiting that long.

  He shot a glance toward Salvor, riding tall and aloof. Maybe Geret would finally learn what strange relationship existed between his uncle and Salvor’s father. Why had Halvor pulled out of the expedition at nearly the last minute? Geret resolved to read the secretive note from his uncle that very night. If the information inside was as vital as his uncle claimed, Geret needed to know it right away.

 
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