An excerpt from
The Sleeping God, by Violette Malan

Parno Lionsmane stepped off the end of the ship's gangplank with deliberation. He and his Partner, Dhulyn Wolfshead, had only been aboard the Catseye for the four day trip from the Isle of Cabrea, but it was enough for muscles to begin to adapt, and it wouldn't do for people to see a Mercenary Brother uncertain on his feet. Parno headed down the pier to where Dhulyn stood with the horses, his big grey gelding Warhammer, and her own spotted mare Bloodbone, rubbing their faces and caressing their ears while they became accustomed once again to the feel of land underneath their hooves.

The horses showed every sign of putting their sea voyage behind them. As Parno walked up, Bloodbone was snuffling Dhulyn's shoulder, but both horses were alert, flicking their ears, bobbing their heads and generally taking an interest in what was going on around them, as battle-trained mounts tended to do.

Dhulyn was doing the same, though in her own peculiar way. Still holding fast to the horses' bridles, she was watching a group of children play a skipping game further along the pier, not far from where she stood. Having had no real childhood herself, it had always seemed to Parno natural that Dhulyn showed a great curiosity in the childhoods of others. She smiled as he neared her, her eyes still watching the children's game.

I'll tell her later, he decided. The news he'd just learned from the Catseye's Captain was disturbing; just how disturbing would have to wait until the comparative privacy of their inn. There was a surprising number of people about in Navra's harbour, considering most travellers were still waiting out the last of the winter storms.

"It's the same rhyme," Dhulyn said as he neared her. "That sweeping rhyme the children were singing in the street in Destila."

"You sure? Those kids were playing a game with blindfolds."

"Nevertheless, it's the same rhyme, same cadence, same consonance. How do these rhymes and games get transplanted from one place to another?"

Parno shrugged. Dhulyn had spent a year in a Scholar's Library before taking her final vows to the Mercenary Brotherhood, and she'd never lost the habit of making these scholarly observations. "Adults like you see them, I would suppose, and carry them home for their children, like new toys."

"It would be interesting to trace the songs and the games back, try to find the point of origin from which they spread."

"You think such a point could be found?" Parno said, smiling. His years with Dhulyn had taught him that many the countries of the eastern continent told folktales and stories of amazing similarity.

"Unless it goes back to the time of the Caids, then it will appear to have sprung up everywhere at once." Dhulyn shrugged one shoulder. "Ah well, a dissertation subject for some Scholar no doubt. And meanwhile, here we are back in the land of the Sleeping God."

"The Sleeping God's worshiped everywhere," Parno said, taking Warhammer's rein from her.

"But here, on the Letanian Peninsula, he is the first god, is he not?"

"The Brotherhood recognizes all gods," he reminded her.

"And all gods recognize the Brotherhood." She turned fully to look at him. "I told the first mate where to send our packs. Has the place changed very much? Do you remember the way to the inn you've been telling me about?"

"What do you think," he said, grinning as he took Warhammer's bridle from her.

"I think you got lost in our cabin last night."

Parno swung, Dhulyn ducked, and the children looked over from their game, excitement plain in their faces BB as was the disappointment when no fight broke out. Dhulyn, grinning for the benefit of the children, tilted her chin toward the end of the pier.

They led the horses away from the Catseye, dodging seamen and dock workers loading and unloading from the ships and fishing boats tied up along the pier. Warhammer and Bloodbone were spoiling for exercise, but the streets close to the docks proved to be so uneven that Dhulyn suggested they continue afoot. Parno was just leading the way down a narrow lane when his Partner froze.

"Did you hear that?" she said, her rough voice unusually loud in the cold air.

"The market?" Parno said dryly, bracing his feet as Warhammer, not as well trained as Dhulyn's Bloodbone, shied slightly, pulling him forward.

Dhulyn held up one finger to silence him and listened again, eyes narrowed, head on an angle. Parno shrugged, wishing he'd worn his heavier cloak, and waited for Dhulyn to agree with him. The main market, if he remembered correctly, was off to the east, closer to the salt works, but the barrows and stalls of the fish market, the one that served the docks and the ships, could be seen off to the other side of the pier they'd just left. Even this late in the afternoon, the buzz of the buyers and sellers, the calls of the merchants hawking their wares, even the sound of an optimistic flute, were still clear in the crisp air. But if Dhulyn thought she'd heard something else . . .

"There!" Dhulyn's head jerked up and she swung herself into the saddle urging Bloodbone with her knees into an opening between two houses, turning away from the docks. Parno was mounted and only half a length behind his Partner before Bloodbone's tail disappeared from view.

The alleys between the houses and buildings in this quarter of Navra were none too clean, and the streets were not much better, Parno found as he followed Dhulyn out into a wider avenue. The freezing and thawing of early spring had heaved the cobbles and paving stones and left them slick underfoot. Even the dirt lanes were more than half slippery mud. Not the best conditions to be racing your horses, but Parno knew better than to argue with his Partner. He ducked an overhead sign with a swallowed curse. He was willing to wager practically anything he owned that it wouldn't be her horse that went down as she rode it much too fast around the next tight corner.

And he still had not heard anything out of the ordinary.

The labouring breath and clattering hooves of their horses made enough noise that the few people they encountered had plenty of time to get out of their way. Market day it might be, but away from the market itself and the busy areas around the docks, most townspeople finished their business early in weather like this; the day was turning cold, and the sky promised snow. One tall old man, well-wrapped in a red wool cloak, looked up in surprise as Dhulyn Wolfshead galloped past him, and called out angrily, not noticing the tattoos of their Mercenary's badges, even though both she and Parno were bareheaded from habit.

They turned into a street of better class houses, a few of them as much as four stories tall with the featureless lower walls that spoke of interior gardens or courtyards, or both. Not so fine as nobles' houses, to Parno's experienced eye these looked like the homes of well-to-do merchants. And suddenly Parno smelled smoke, and saw as they rounded yet another corner a three story house with flames dancing in two upper windows that gave on the street.

Even now, he could not hear the sound of the fire, and he knew that Dhulyn -- Outlander or no -- could not possibly have heard it either. This burning house must have been some Vision she had Seen.

The usual crowd of people who gather out of nowhere at any sign of trouble were milling around in the irregular square in front of the burning building, but something was wrong -- more wrong than just a house on fire. Parno frowned as he urged Warhammer forward. He'd seen many a mob in his time as a Mercenary, and this one wasn't behaving normally. Those closest to the fire acted as he would expect, some craning for a better view, others pointing and yelling -- shock and excitement both apparent in faces and stances. As for those farther away, far too many were standing far too still, hands hanging limp, heads all, as he now realized, at the same angle. And aside from some shoving, and what looked like a fist fight breaking out on the far side of the crowd, no one was doing anything. Not putting out the fire, not bringing water, not even helping to drag out furniture. In fact, two men seemed to be preventing someone from coming out of the house . . . Parno edged forward into the opening Dhulyn had made in the crowd just as a man put his hand on Warhammer's bridle. Parno bared his teeth as the man looked up. His eyes widened when he saw the red and gold tattoo reaching from Parno's temples to back above his ears, and he backed away.

Closer now, Parno could hear the flames as they ate through the house wall, blistering the stucco to the right of the doorway. A woman at the front of the crowd threw a stone at the upper window on the left, screaming something Parno couldn't make out.

Flames or no, Dhulyn rode Bloodbone right through to the front of the house, swung her leg over the pommel of her saddle and jumped off, knocking the two men who'd been blocking the doorway sprawling over one another. The darker of the two sprang to his feet, a cudgel ready in his fist. Dhulyn stepped in close to him, knocked his arm away with her left forearm, brought her booted heel down sharply on his instep and drew her sword from the sheath that hung down her back.

All without taking her eyes from the doorway.

A young girl burst out of the now unguarded door, but was choking too much to actually speak.

"Children upstairs," Dhulyn called out to him as Parno drew rein beside her, using Warhammer's size and wickedly rolling eyes to push the crowding people further back.

"I'll go," he said, tossing her his reins. Demons and perverts, he thought, not for the first time thankful that he didn't See what Dhulyn sometimes Saw. Children. He pulled his feet from the stirrups and, steadying himself with his hands on the pommel, hopped up on the saddle until he was balancing on Warhammer's back, wishing he was wearing something with more grip than his boots.

"Keep your eyes open." He didn't have to tell her to watch the crowd. She'd have noticed before he did that something was amiss.

Out of the corner of her eye Dhulyn Wolfshead watched Parno make the small jump that got his fingers hooked on the window sill above them. The muscles in his arms bulged as he drew himself up, swung one leg over the sill and was gone into the smoky darkness within the house.

"My lady." It was the young girl who had run out of the doorway. "My brothers --"

"I'm not your lady," Dhulyn said, "and my Brother's fetching yours." She glanced at the girl's soot-marked face. "Where's your people, then?" She'd known from her Vision the parents weren't alive inside the burning building, she'd Seen that much, but she hadn't been sure she and Parno wouldn't be stuck looking after a passle of orphaned children.

As the girl said something in which only the word 'shop' was clear, Dhulyn whirled, her sword knockng aside another stone that came hurtling at them. She turned her head, and smiled her wolf's smile at the thrower, an otherwise respectable-looking woman of middle years. The woman dropped the second rock -- taken from her garden by the look of the dirt on it -- and stepped back, pressing her lips together, but lowering her eyes.

"Will none of you fetch water?" Surely there had to be some well or fountain nearby. Those closest to her shifted their feet, looking down and away from her searching eyes. Some drifted even further off, one of them bumping into his neighbours in the crowd as if he couldn't see them.

Dhulyn again smiled her wolf's smile, and the people nearest her froze.

"I don't know what you have against this household," she called out, "but perhaps the neighbours might like to save their homes before they catch alight."

It was like tossing a snake into a hen coop. Sudden curses and determined scurrying, the quicker slapping the slower into movement. Dhulyn laughed aloud. "Blooded fools."

"It's bad luck to help the Marked, Mercenary," the stone thrower said, sharp nods punctuating her words. "Everyone knows that."

"Is it so?" Dhulyn looked and sure enough, there was a sigil next to the door that showed the house belonged to a Finder. She turned back to the woman, still smiling so the scar on her lip pulled it back from her teeth. "If I find the one who helped them to this fire, they'll learn what bad luck is."

Bad enough they were going to Imrion in the first place, she thought, watching that the people moving through the crowd were bringing water and nothing else, if this was the kind of trouble she and Parno found before they even got there. For herself, she didn't care, one country was the same as another, and work was work. But Parno had wanted Imrion, reminiscing constantly about his childhood there -- far too much for any Mercenary Brother, let alone a Partnered one -- until finally she'd given in. Looking down at the Finder girl's tear-streaked face, Dhulyn hoped she wouldn't curse the day she'd done so.

And she didn't like the look of the crowd. She never thought much of town men -- even country lordlings like Parno had once been showed more sense -- but this bunch was stupider than usual. Why half-a-dozen stood toward the back slack-jawed -- one was even drooling -- as if their wits had left them.


She looked up. Left-handed, she snatched out of the air a small bundle that turned out to be a little boy, continued the movement to lower him gently into his sister's waiting arms. Dhulyn looked up again to where Parno stood leaning out of the third storey window, a larger child dangling in his scarred hands. Dhulyn could see the flames close behind Parno's soot-streaked face. What was he waiting for? She took a breath to call to him, but something on his face stopped her from uttering a sound.

Even as he leaned out to drop the second child to safety, Parno froze, a finger of icy chill tickling up his back. He shivered despite the heat of the furniture burning in the room behind him. Every hair on his body stood up, even the tattoos on his temples seemed to itch. He resisted the urge to look around, feeling that someone was behind him, watching. He knew no one was there -- no one could be there.

Only his eyes moving, Parno scanned the crowd. Many watched him, but there was nothing that should give him this feeling of . . . his stomach twisted. Someone, some thing, patting thieves' fingers through his thoughts, probing his mind and soul . . . leaving darkness and confusion in its wake. Parno shivered, blinking, forced himself to take a breath, and another. Forced his breathing into the pattern of the Turtle Shora. In. Out. Forcing his thoughts --

Movement caught his attention and he saw a man in red robes with a brown cloak on the edge of the crowd, his eyes so green Parno could see them even across the square. The fire cast the man's shadow over the wall of the house behind him. But it couldn't be his shadow, it didn't flicker in the fire glow like everyone else's. Rather it was as still as a pool of ink, looming over the man in red and brown like a smudge, far too large to have been cast by such a small man.

Too large and too dark.

Parno shivered again, trying to shake off the feeling that somehow it was the shadow that watched him, dissolving his thoughts. He wanted to look away, needed to look away.

"Sir?" the boy had hold of his sword harness and was pulling on it. "Sir, the fire."

Parno jerked and lowered his eyes to the child's tear-marked face, dragging in a ragged breath of smoke-tainted air. His arms trembled, though the boy was no great weight, and the sweat on his face was not from the heat of the fire. Dhulyn still waited below, her face a pale oval in the darkening square. Parno shook himself, held the boy out, and dropped him into her waiting arms.

Violette Malan 2007