The wicked heroine, p.6
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.6

           Jasmine Giacomo

  Chapter Two

  The cave lay snug and quiet, while a dim glow from the coals in the round fire pit coated the ceiling and walls with a sleepy warmth. The snow-laden wind could be heard thundering faintly outside. Fresh air circulated slowly through air holes about the cave, melting snow outside. The meltwater plopped from the tip of a stone corkscrew trough that was molded to the ceiling, falling down into a carved cistern in the back corner floor.

  The smell of drying meat wafted throughout the room, as the suspended drying rack rotated slowly several feet above the fire pit, its motion generated by wooden fan-blades that turned gently in the coals’ thermal updrafts. Near the cave’s entrance, three curtains of patchworked skins were suspended at intervals between rods, top and bottom, with wool stuffing around the edges, creating dead air spaces that protected the cave’s warmth from the chill of winter. Beyond them, the great wooden door–thick, solid and circular–fit snugly into the cave’s mouth, its construction the work of an entire warm season. The sleeping woman on the bench near the fire rested easily beneath her light blanket.

  A thud came at the door. The woman’s eyes moved beneath her lids, and for several seconds that single motion was the only indication she did not sleep. Then she rolled to her feet, a small blade appearing in her hand. Clad in her ankle-length linen garment, with a dark braid swinging down her back, she padded quickly toward the curtains and warily parted each pair in the center. She slipped through and closed each behind her before opening the next.

  As she pushed aside the last curtain and approached the door, a freezing draft wafted over her bare feet. She stopped suddenly, seeing that a figure had opened her outer door and fallen motionless on the floor within. The wind swirled around them both, filling the cave’s entryway with its icy grip.

  She moved quickly to the door and looked out into the last few feet of the cave’s mouth. There was one set of tracks, quickly being obliterated in the swirling wind. Since her porch had nothing else to tell her, the woman closed the door firmly, tucked the blade away, and bent over the still figure on her floor. The person was bundled heavily in furs and wool, and was face down.

  Some idiot hunter? the hermit wondered. Worthwhile game was scarce above the tree line. She reached for the figure’s far shoulder and turned it over, pulling off a furred hood, wool cap and mask, to reveal the face of a young girl, pale blonde eyelashes nearly invisible against her cheeks. Surprised–when had she last been surprised?–the woman pulled the girl through the curtains to warm her up.

  After depositing the youngster by the fire pit and making sure the entryway curtains were doing their job, she pulled the girl’s frozen clothing off, then wrapped her in a thick wool blanket. She saw that the fingers on her visitor’s right hand had been frostbitten.

  The girl had worn a small pack under her outer coat; the woman shamelessly picked through it. Food and water, some rough drawings of random lines–or were they maps? Two small books, written in Versal, the common language of the many peoples inhabiting the continent of Cyrmant, at whose southern end her cave was located.

  That amused her. Hardly anyone for dozens of miles in any direction could read or write, in Versal or anything else.

  The brunette made sure the girl was resting comfortably, then lay down on her sleeping bench, positioned so that she could watch her for signs of stirring.

  Those signs came several hours later, when the girl sighed and tried to rise, but found herself hampered by the thick blanket. The woman slipped over and assisted her in sitting, propping her back against a bundle of leathers against the cave wall.

  “How do you feel?” the woman asked in Versal, finding her voice quite rusty and unfamiliar.

  The girl looked around, taking in the trappings of the cave: the slowly rotating contraption over the fire pit; oddly constructed spheres made of reused metal; boxes and shelves–clearly handmade–yet holding well-cared-for supplies; and fabrics that might have once been sacking, dyed with natural colors and hanging against the walls like a poor woman’s tapestries. Other decorated hangings of reddish skins were interspersed with landscape carvings etched right into the walls.

  The fantastic sight was unfamiliar, and the girl’s eyes turned toward the cave’s occupant: a woman perhaps twenty years older than herself, in good health, with dark brown hair that laced down her back in a thick braided rope. Her garment of old linen was clean and neatly patched. Dark green eyes, an odd color the girl had never seen before, gazed placidly back at her.

  “Where am I?” the blonde visitor finally asked.

  “You are in my home. You stumbled against my door last night. Do you remember?”

  The young girl paused to recollect. “Yes. I was…” The girl’s voice, at first slow and contemplative, sped up as she recalled her situation the night before. “…Searching for a woman. My quest. I’m looking for an old woman, or maybe two women: a teacher and her student.” Her eyes flicked again around the room. “Do you know if anyone like that lives nearby? Where are we on the mountain? I think I got lost in the dark last night.”

  The brunette eyed her visitor with concern. “There’s no need for excitement. You need to eat and drink, then rest some more. Those fingers you’re clutching are frostbit,” she said, indicating the girl’s right hand.

  The young blonde looked down at her fingers in dismay. All four fingers were deathly white, reddening with blood flow only where they met her hand. “Wisdom, no!” she said, her voice a wail of despair. “This is monumentally bad! Will they fall off? Can you save them?”

  The hermit moved closer and took the girl’s hand, examining the injured fingers. “I am no physick, child.”

  The girl’s face paled as the gravity of her possible loss weighed on her. Swallowing nervously, she met the woman’s dark green eyes. “Please?”

  Something in the girl’s face touched the hermit. “First,” she said, having made up her mind, “tuck them inside your shirt.” As the girl did so, pressing the frozen digits against her warm skin, the woman continued, “Next, you need to eat. I have snow-weasel soup I can heat up; you must drink only its warm broth. We will see about solid food later.”

  Her visitor nodded acquiescence. She followed the brunette’s movements with her eyes as she fetched a pot from a hole in the wall. The girl realized she did not know the woman’s name, so she asked for it.

  “Call me Meena.”

  “My name is Sanych elTiera. I’m a journeyman Archivist at the Temple of Knowledge, in Vint.”

  Meena continued her task of heating the soup, which had frozen in its pot, and did not reply.

  “I have come on a quest to locate the woman, or women, I spoke of earlier.”


  “It’s imperative that I locate her, or them. You’re sure you don’t know anyone like them around here?”

  Meena poked at the thawing soup as it dangled over the coals by a counterweight system.

  Sanych pursed her lips. The hermit was not being very helpful. Another tack might bring about the information she sought. “I see you’re using Belvar’s Principle to dry your meat. Where did you learn that?”

  Meena glanced up at the bladed contraption that was currently turning her meat strips above the coals. She turned speculative green eyes to Sanych.

  “Used to travel. Learned it from a ranger.”

  “Belvar was a ranger,” Sanych mentioned. “One of his descendants might have taught you.”

  The woman didn’t look up from stirring.

  Sanych pursed her lips and exhaled through her nose. “And your water collection method. If I’m not mistaken, that’s patterned closely after the Yangul tribes of the Hollow Desert, about four thousand miles east of here. The sluices are carved around existing stalactites. Their upper holes let warmed cave air melt the snow, then drain it down into pools. Or in your case, your cistern. Very artistic. How did you learn that?”

  “Like I said, used to travel.” A pause. “How do you know all that? You’
re what, twelve?”

  “I happen to be fifteen,” the girl said, her voice prim. “It’s the minimum age journeymen can leave on their Archivist quest. I had to wait eighteen weeks till my birthday. Eighteen whole weeks!”

  Meena stopped poking at the nearly-thawed soup and looked directly at Sanych. “We’ve got some time ‘til you can get back out there; why don’t you tell me your quest while I fill you up and get you warm?”

  Sanych didn’t know what to make of this Meena. She was indeed a woman living on the mountain, but she was young and alone. She didn’t wear the Shanallar’s torc, and seemed rather thick. The facts didn’t fit. She figured it wouldn’t hurt to spin out her tale for a while.

  “The Temple of Knowledge, where I live, is just outside Highnave, the capital city of Vint. We don’t worship any of the gods of the neighboring nations; we preserve knowledge, in the form of books, scrolls, parchments, anything we can get our hands on. Our purpose is to preserve the written word, and to advise the Magister of Vint, our ruler. My mentor at the Temple says we’re like the Magister’s extended memory. I was taught from a very young age how to cross-reference information with other, possibly unrelated works. It sounds simple, but it’s a lot of hard work. My mentor says I have a gift, and he’s right. If I read a page once, I can remember anything on it.”

  Meena raised a skeptical eyebrow.

  “For example,” Sanych continued, “I’ve been studying an old legend for my quest: the legend of the Shanallar. It dates back about four hundred years. The one book we have on the Shanallar’s exploits doesn’t even say if this person was male or female.

  “I believe the Shanallar, mentioned in the Chronicle of the Fall of Aghas, is also the Great Sage of Hauma’poma, whose tale we have in three separate books. The one by Anoulus the Wise refers to the Great Sage as ‘she’. The most obvious clue that they’re the same person is that they both make reference to a bronze torc she wears, engraved with fantastic animals.”

  The hermit nodded, allowing Sanych to continue.

  “Now,” Sanych said, in her best debating voice, “most learned men of the age have concluded that ‘Shanallar’ is a title in some unknown tongue, similar to counselor, priest, magician, or the like. But I found a clue in Away and Home, a book on the travels of a young lordling who was gone for twelve years. He returned home to find that no one believed his tales. In his book he makes reference to the ‘distant land of Shanal, shrouded in mist and flame’ with numerous exotic beasts and peoples.

  “Do you see?” Tucking a blond strand of hair behind an ear, Sanych leaned forward to accept the heated broth from Meena’s hands, catching her breath and sipping a slow mouthful of the savory liquid from its baked clay bowl. “The Shanallar is simply a woman from Shanal.”

  Sanych thought Meena took her astonishing conclusion rather well. The hermit raised an eyebrow in mild curiosity. Or perhaps boredom. The young journeyman set her bowl aside to use both hands for gesticulation.

  “Most of the Masters in the Temple doubt my theory, but I’ll prove them wrong. I have all the facts; I’ve checked them. It’s what I do. They only doubt me because I’m young and I thought of it before they did. When I find the Shanallar, they’ll see I’m right.

  “I still haven’t been able to determine whether she’s a very aged woman, or a series of women who teach their successors and pass on the title,” Sanych said. “That’s why I’m not sure if I’m looking for an old crone, or a student and a teacher. But she, or they, must live in or near this valley.”

  Meena pursed her lips and decided to ask a question. “What makes you think the Shanallar woman or women didn’t just die out a few generations back? You think bad luck only affects normal folk?”

  “The Holy Witch.” The girl’s eyes burned bright with belief.

  Meena cocked her head to the side. “Come again?”

  “Thirty-two years ago, far north in the country of Nen Thakka, there was a woman known as the Holy Witch. She came from nowhere and left to nowhere. And she wore a bronze torc. She had the power to heal wounds, like the Shanallar and the Great Sage. Her wisdom and foresight came just in time to prevent the country being embroiled in a civil war, and she saved the Queen from assassination by her own niece.

  “The Holy Witch was named the Queen’s Champion and defeated the scheming princess in single combat. But she refrained from delivering the death blow, and then healed her. It was a masterful stroke of genius. The princess could not protest the defeat because the Holy Witch was not of royal blood and had no stake in the outcome, and her supporters could not avenge her as she had not been killed. There were riots anyway, but with the Holy Witch to advise her, the Nen Thakkan queen quickly arranged for peaceful settlement and married her niece off to a foreign king. They’ve traded civil war for international trade.

  “She has to be the Shanallar. And she was alive thirty-two years ago! Isn’t that exciting?” the girl asked, leaning forward with sparkling eyes.

  Meena wrinkled her brow. “If you say so.”

  Sanych sighed, then continued. “The final step in the Shanallar’s journey is from the Canticle of Jorru. It says a mysterious woman in a blue hood gave Jorru shelter in her tent as he traveled through the Icecap Mountains, and when he woke in the morning, his usual joint pains were gone. She said she was retiring to the ‘snow of summer’. The valley just upwind of this mountainside is practically clogged with cotton trees, and the innkeeper at the last village told me it snows here all year round; cold in the winter and fluffy in the summer. He told me a few hermit folk live up here on the mountain. So here I am, looking for the Shanallar. I know she’s here.” She nodded with emphasis.

  “You do seem to have a knack for remembering details,” the hermit commented.

  Sanych looked at Meena, a small ‘o’ of surprise shaping her mouth. She had just summed up her research for the last three seasons, and this cave woman could only comment on Sanych’s memorization skills?

  Meena spoke again. “You’ve told me you’re looking for this woman but not why you want her. Is your quest simply to prove she’s still alive?”

  “No. The reason for my quest is twofold. And I’m sure you’d love another half an hour of critical details and rare facts. I can see you’re overwhelmed with the work I’ve done so far,” Sanych said, eyes narrowed.

  Meena smiled slightly and tilted her head in a way that might have indicated she appreciated Sanych’s spirit. Or it might have indicated she was imagining tossing Sanych out on her ear in the snow.

  “It’s vital that I find this woman, or women,” the journeyman said. “If you can direct me to her, you’ll have the gratitude of the Temple of Knowledge: no small thing.” Meena gazed at Sanych as if waiting for more information. Sanych squeezed handfuls of her blanket in order to stop herself from yelling at the dense creature before her. She took a deep breath and said, “You’ve lived here awhile, I can tell. Surely you know of an experienced woman who can heal other people of their injuries. That’s got to stand out, if nothing else does.”

  Meena leaned forward, lips parting in a gentle smile. “And how are your fingers?”

  Sanych spoke quickly to get the question out of her way. “They’re fine; they don’t even…” Her eyes traveled to her fingers, pink and healthy. Then, after several moments, to Meena’s face. “Oh.”

  Meena smirked.

  “Oh, Wisdom!” Sanych breathed, wiggling her fingers and grinning widely. Her eyes darted around the room again as if seeing Meena’s contraptions for the first time. Even the soreness in my muscles is gone. I could hike the mountain again right now!

  “Most satisfying,” said Meena, leaning back and looking smug.

  “What?” asked Sanych, startled out of her excitement.

  “The clunk when everything fell into place in your head.”

  Sanych frowned, looking rueful. She had been wrong somewhere along the way; her facts hadn’t allowed for this woman to be the Shanallar. Where had she gone off track?

  “Sanych. You’re a very bright young woman. But believe me–and you know who I am now–when I say: you need to get out more.”

  Sanych blinked. I’ve been out for nearly ten weeks now; isn’t that enough?

  “Now that you’ve found me,” Meena said, “tell me the second purpose of your quest.” She got up and invited Sanych to the cot, where the journeyman sat and finished off her broth.

  After draining the clay bowl, Sanych set it carefully aside and savored its taste in her mouth a moment before speaking. “I need you to come back to Vint with me, to advise our Magister.”

  “A noble cause,” Meena remarked, her voice bland. “What does he require advisement for?”

  Sanych smirked ruefully. “Well, he didn’t quite send me, nor even authorize my trip. It was my own idea. He’s currently planning on allowing a group of experts to embark on an expedition to retrieve a unique historical object.”

  “That sounds entertaining. Is he interested in such things often?”

  “Not as a hobby, no. I happen to know it was the Dictat’s idea. They’re his ruling council.”

  “Ah,” Meena said, knowingly. “Are they trying to get his expedition killed?”

  “No, nothing like that!” The girl looked shocked for a moment. “They run the merchant and craft guilds within our borders, and offer lucrative fair and market licenses to local lords as eagerly as the next nation. Perhaps more so.”

  “I understand. They’re sending this expedition far away, then?”

  “Yes. That’s why I needed to find you. You’ve been there.”

  Meena sighed. “I’ve been many places. Seen many things. Many. Narrow it down for me.”

  Sanych took a deep breath. She knew that many did not believe that the artifact the Magister wanted even existed. But if the Shanallar is real, so must the artifact be. The Magister has far more proof of its existence than I did of Meena’s.

  “The Dictat has suggested to the Magister that he send an expedition across the sea to mythic Shanal, to retrieve the legendary Dire Tome, in order to use its magnificent powers to further our nation.”

  Meena’s throat closed. No sound came out. The expressions that Sanych saw flit across her face were frightening. Finally, Meena began to shake her head. Slowly, then more violently, until she seemed to shake loose the blockage in her throat.

  “No! No, no one must ever seek that book. It was hidden away for the safety of my people. For the safety of the world! He must not find that book!” Meena’s deep green eyes seemed to burst into verdant flame.

  Sanych stood and took a step back from her vehemence, eyes wide. For a moment they stared at each other.

  “Why?” was all that came to Sanych’s lips. The look on her face made her appear very young and lost.

  Meena exhaled and looked around her cave as if resigning herself to an unpleasant task, then stood up and dug out a knapsack and an oilskin duffel, and began jamming things into them. “They don’t call it ‘Dire’ for nothing,” she muttered.

  “Sorry?” Sanych asked from across the room.

  “Take me to the Magister. Now. Before he gets everyone in that expedition killed.”

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