An excerpt from
The Storm Witch, by Violette Malan

 

Chapter One

Parno Lionsmane pulled the hood of his cloak down over his forehead and hunched his shoulders against the rain. Here it was, practically high summer, what his Partner Dhulyn Wolfshead would call the Grass Moon, and the rain was coming down as though it was already well past the Harvest Moon. He caught Dhulyn's eye as they sidestepped the flow of water running down the centre of the narrow cobbled lane. She was frowning, and he knew that more than the weather troubled her.

"Cheer up," he told her. "A few more days at most, and the whole misunderstanding will be cleared up."

His Partner nodded, but almost as if she wasn't listening. Dhulyn was Senior to him -- though she was younger, she had been longer in the Mercenary Brotherhood, having come to it as a child -- and that was part of the problem.

"It's only the Tarkin of Hellik's court they are sending to," he added, "not all the way to Imrion."

This time Dhulyn looked at him as she nodded, and Parno smiled to himself. "I would not have thought it so difficult to find a Brother Senior to me in a city as large as Lesonika," she said. "I thought this would all be over by now."

Both looked up as thunder rumbled.

"A good thing we left the horses, after all," Dhulyn said. She dodged a fountain of water pouring from a greatly overworked gutter overhead. They'd come down from the port of Broduk on the Catseye, the typical wide single-masted ship of the Midland Sea, with both their warhorses and their pack horse in makeshift stalls on the deck. Just now Dhulyn had decided that all the beasts would be happier in the warm, dry stable provided by the Mercenary House. And the crew of the Catseye would be happier as well. Captain Huelra didn't often ship horses -- in fact, Parno was fairly certain Dhulyn Wolfshead was the only person Huelra would trust with horses aboard his ship.

"It could be worse," Parno said now.

"How?"

"It could be snowing."

Parno didn't like the way Dhulyn shook her head without even a token smile. He knew her well enough to make a good guess at her thoughts. If there could be such rain -- with thunder -- in the Grass Moon, why not snow? As it was, the hay was flattened in the fields, and oats and young barley would be washed out or stunted if the weather didn't improve soon. Which meant a poor harvest, which meant trouble. Parno brightened. Which generally meant work for the Brotherhood.

The streets inclined more sharply as they approached the harbour where the Catseye was moored, but even so the water was over their ankles more than once before they reached the comparatively dryer docks. Here at least the volume of water had somewhere to go -- into the sea. Lesonika had a deep harbour, and in addition to half a score of the smaller Midland Sea vessels like the Catseye, one of the tall three-masted ocean-faring ships were also moored there.

Dhulyn slowed almost to a halt, turning her head to stare at the tall ship as they passed it, her normally bright cavalry cloak hanging in sodden folds and darkened to a dull red by the rain. Parno's own cloak, though just as good a mix of inglera fleece and wool, slapped wetly around his calves as the wind took it.

"I thought so," she called out to him as he reached her side, her rough silk voice just audible over the pelting rain. "Those were Long Ocean Traders at the Mercenary House. Did you see them?"

"The ones in the scaly vests?" he said. "What could they want with our Brothers?"

"Delivering Fressian drugs, perhaps."

Parno pursed his lips in a silent whistle, taking a longer look. If his Partner was right, and the ship was carrying even a few casks of fresa, fresnoyn or fresnant, he was looking at more money than he'd seen in many a moon.

There were sailors out even in this weather, seeing to the mooring lines. The tide was beginning to ebb, Parno saw, and the amount of water flowing from the town into the boat basin -- enormous as it was to the city dwellers -- would make no difference to the sea level; lines still had to be adjusted, anchors checked. Everywhere there were bare masts, but the usual harbour sounds of creaking stays, shrouds and halyards could not be heard over the drumming of the water and the rising noise of the wind.

"Demons and perverts," Parno cursed as a spray of water caught him fully in the face. Dhulyn's laughter did not help. They ran the final few paces to the Catseye and pounded up the gangplank. There was no sentry at the top, but given the rain and the wind, Parno was not surprised.

There was no glow of light from around the door of Captain Huelra's tiny cabin and Dhulyn turned immediately toward the entrance to the hold. Their own sleeping quarters were below, their hammocks strung up along with those of the sailors, and Parno hesitated only a moment before following her. A cup of the Captain's brandy would have been more than welcome, but the dry clothing in their packs below beckoned even more strongly. And if it came to that, Parno thought grinning, there was a newly purchased flask of Berdanan brandy hanging at his own hip.

Not that someone else's brandy didn't always taste better.

Dhulyn heaved back the hatch and dropped straight into the hold, ignoring the ladder placed to one side. She moved immediately to the right, leaving Parno a clear space to follow her. He rolled his eyes -- even here Dhulyn would follow the Brotherhood's Common Rule and enter the room as though staging an attack -- but he followed her precisely, landing lightly, knees slightly bent, blinking in the lantern light, his right hand on the hilt of his sword, his left on his knife.

And froze.

"Carefully, Paledyn. No sudden moves, if you please." The softly accented voice came from a dark-haired, heavily moustached man holding a the spiked end of a garwon to Captain Huelra's head. Huelra sat, wrists and ankles bound, on an upturned cask of the cook's milled flour. Two candle lanterns, one on the floor and one hanging from a hook on the mast, cast double shadows over the scene. Parno gritted his teeth and resisted the urge to look at Dhulyn. He hadn't seen a garwon since his Schooling. Long, thin, and fiercely sharp, it was used by divers as an underwater hand weapon. The point actually rested on the skin of Huelra's temple, and could be through the comparatively thin bone and into the man's brain before either Parno or Dhulyn could move. And that did not take into account the young woman with her arbalest already cranked back and pointed at Dhulyn Wolfshead, or the half-dozen others, armed and standing farther back in the shifting shadows.

Parno noted automatically that both the moustached man and the woman were bare-headed, though both wore the oddly patterned scaly vests that he'd seen at the Mercenary House. Long Ocean Traders. He couldn't be sure about the others, though he thought at least one more also wore mail. Parno smiled. As usual, Dhulyn had been right to take precautions -- better careful than cursing, that's what she always said. Anyone else would have come down the ladder the normal way, and been caught with their backs to the enemy.

He leaned against the ladder behind him and lifted his hands away from his weapons. Out of the corner of his eye he could see that Dhulyn had already done the same. They were by no means out of options, but with that garwon at Huelra's temple, a straightforward attack was low on their list.

"You are Paledyn? What is called here the Mercenary Brotherhood?" The same man spoke again.

"We are." Without moving her hands Dhulyn tossed her head and the hood of her wet cloak fell back to reveal her Mercenary badge, the blue and green of the tattoo across her temples and above her ears bright even in this light. Parno still was not used to seeing her with her hair so short, just a damp cloud the colour of old blood around her face. Parno tossed his own hood off with a shake of his head.

"I am Dhulyn Wolfshead," his Partner said. "Called the Scholar. I was Schooled by Dorian the Black Traveller. I have fought at Sadron, Arcosa and Bhexillia." And Limona, thought Parno, though perhaps she was right not to mention that particular battle until the Mercenary House here in Lesonika had ruled on the consequences of it. "I fight with my Partner, Parno Lionsmane," Dhulyn concluded.

"And I am that Parno Lionsmane with whom she fights," Parno added. "Called the Chanter and Schooled by Nerysa Warhammer of Tourin."

There was a moment -- just a moment -- when the eyes of the arbalest woman had shifted, glancing at Dhulyn's badge, but the man holding the garwon on Huelra never moved.

"Come with us," the garwon holder said. "Now. If not, we kill your friend."

"Or," Dhulyn answered in her most reasonable tone. "We can wait until your wrist gets tired and then kill you."

The skeptical snort that sounded from the shadows came from the third man on the left. Parno automatically calculated distance and angle. Dhulyn did not take her eyes from the garwon.

"Crew of the Catseye are aboard our ship," the man continued in the same even tone. "You don't come, or we don't return," he shrugged. "They'll be killed."

Parno had to admit he was impressed. The moustached man spoke as though he was commenting on the weather. There weren't many who could be threatened by a Mercenary Brother and not even change colour -- no matter how many armed men stood in the shadows behind them.

"Huelra, is this true?"

"Wolfshead, it is. You'd been gone a few hours -- and half my crew on shore leave after you -- when these came on board under a trading flag, may their ship have plank worm. Why should I doubt them?" Huelra looked as though he'd like to spit, but couldn't turn his head. "They took us handily, curse their keel, and they took my crew away.That much I saw before they hauled me down here."

Parno could see that under Huelra's fear and rage was a measure of embarrassment at being so easily caught. He'd probably been flattered that the Long Ocean Traders had approached him at all.

Dhulyn smiled her wolf's smile, her lip turning back from the small scar that marked it. "If we didn't care about Huelra," she said to the Trader, "we'd hardly care about his crew." This time the man blinked, and Parno stifled a smile of his own.

"It isn't necessary to hold people hostage to hire us," she added. "You might simply offer us money."

The man slowly shook his head, without moving his eyes from Dhulyn's face.

Demons and perverts, Parno thought. This was taking too long. "I'm going to take my cloak off," he said. "It's wet, and it's cold. I've brandy here in this flask, and I see no reason I shouldn't drink some. We understand that if we don't cooperate you'll kill Huelra's people. Tell us why we should stop you."

Now the man was round-eyed with surprise -- though still not afraid. He turned his head, almost enough to look at the young women holding the arbalest. "You're Paledyn," he said finally. "Mercenary Brothers. People won't die when you can save them."

Interesting. Not untrue, in and of itself, just interesting the man should say so.

"Dhulyn Wolfshead is Senior Brother," Parno said. "Here and now it is she who will decide who lives and who dies. So we might as well relax, while she's listening to your request." Parno moved his hands to the clasp of his cloak and let the sodden garment fall to the floor, where he kicked it to one side. Dhulyn was already tossing hers toward the spot where their packs were tied securely against sliding should the ship roll. This time the man did glance quickly at the woman behind him, as he lowered his garwon. The woman herself relaxed, but Parno noticed that she did not release the crank on the arbalest.

"Come," Dhulyn said, the merest edge of impatience in her voice. "Tell us what you require of us." Parno opened the flask of brandy, took a swallow and tossed it to Dhulyn. She caught it neatly in her left hand, but held it without taking a drink. That made three times they had moved without anyone using a weapon. If they could keep this up, they could end up by all drinking together.

"Malfin Cor of the Long Ocean Nomads." The man had lowered his weapon, but he had not put it down, and he still had his hand on Huelra's shoulder. "Our ship is Wavetreader, and this my sister-captain, Darlara Cor." The woman inclined her head.

"Offer to hire and you say no? Then what?" the woman Darlara spoke up. "Our time, and our funds, running out. You must cross the Long Ocean with us --"

"If not," Malfin Cor said. "We kill Captain Huelra and his crew, burn Catseye."

Parno raised his eyebrows. That point had already been made. This did not seem like the kind of shrewd and subtle trading the Nomads had the reputation for. He waited, expecting Dhulyn to make a counter-suggestion of her own, but she had fallen silent, and perfectly still. She seemed not even to notice the slight motion of the Catseye under her feet. Parno took the chance of looking directly at her. What he saw almost made him reach toward his sword once more. Dhulyn's face was as still as a statue, and what little natural colour she had was drained away. But what shocked Parno most was the almost invisible trembling of her lower lip.

"But why must it be Mercenary Brothers you take?" When she finally spoke, even her voice seemed pale.

The two exchanged quick glances again. "Been told it must be, will be, it was Seen."

Dhulyn's knuckles went white as her grip on the brandy flask tightened. Blooded demons, Parno thought. A Seer. These Nomads had been sent by a Seer. He started to relax. He and Dhulyn had been trying to find a Seer for moons now. If these Nomads had been sent by one . . .

"Paledyn we must bring," the man was saying. "Spokesmen between our people and our enemies. Spokesmen they will trust."

"Let me guess." Dhulyn's rough silk voice was almost faint. "You need such paragons because your enemies no longer trust you to deal honourably with them?" Parno blinked. His Partner must have some reason to ignore the mention of Seers.

The two Captains Cor inclined their heads in unison, apparently unfazed by the implication. "Never been much meeting of souls between us," the woman Darlara said. "They're landsters, and we're of the Crayx."

"Managed trade in the past, but now . . . " Malfin Cor shook his head. "Even that's stopped. Won't speak to us."

"You think you can force us to trick them for you?" Dhulyn took a swig of the brandy.

"No! Need you to deal honourably with them. Wish you to negotiate in good faith."

Dhulyn looked down at the flask in her hand, and back up at the Nomad Captains. "May I suggest that kidnapping us by threatening to kill our friends may not be the best way for you to begin."

Malfin Cor took in a deep breath and released it slowly, as if he was trying to keep his temper. "Paledyn -- Mercenaries, we've tried all other ways. Say we should offer money -- very well, what will you take?"

Ah, he's got us there, Parno thought. He'd be having fun, if Dhulyn wasn't so pale, and so still.

Dhulyn was still hesitating. "There are other Mercenary Brothers here in Lesonika. Let me find you one of those," she finally said. "We have a matter for judgment in our House here, a matter of our Brotherhood, and we are not free to take employment until it is resolved."

Now Parno thought he understood Dhulyn's behaviour. They were bound by all their oaths of Brotherhood to await the summons of their House. Kedneara the late Queen of Tegrian had asked for a judgment of outlawry against them -- mistakenly of course, but she'd died before being able to withdraw it. They had sworn documents from the present Queen, but if they missed this judgment, if their documents were not presented, it could very well result in outlawry for them.

And the Mercenary Brotherhood was the only home Dhulyn Wolfshead had ever known. No surprise that she was ignoring the reference to a Seer, and considering -- even if only for a moment -- letting Huelra and his people die rather than lose it. After all, death was what lay in store for all of them. Eventually.

But Captain Malfin Cor was shaking his head. "Must leave with this tide -- now, in fact. Who knows how long it might take to find others." He lifted his hand as Dhulyn started to speak again. "It's not we can't wait. It's the Crayx."

"I begin to see why they have problems negotiating with these others," Parno said, under his breath.

Dhulyn nodded, but slowly. "We could agree, and then kill you all."

Parno forced his eyebrows to remain at their normal level. That was a negotiating tactic he'd never heard her use before.

Another snort of laughter came out of the shadows behind Captain Darlara Cor. Before the sound died away Parno's hand flicked out, and the hilt of his heaviest dagger bounced off the forehead of the third man to the left. There was a THUNK as the man fell to his knees and pitched forward into the flickering light of the lanterns.

"You were saying?" Dhulyn's voice sounded courteous and soft in the sudden silence.

Blinking, Malfin Cor cleared his throat. "You would not," he said. "You are Paledyn." This time he did not sound quite so sure. "You would swear not to."

Dhulyn sighed and Parno caught her glance, lifting his left eyebrow in answer to her look. They would be bound, no question of it. For a Mercenary Brother there was no such thing as a forced oath. They would die rather than swear one. That was their Common Rule.

"And what prevents you from killing your hostages in any case?" Parno said. "Once we've agreed and we're at sea? I only ask since you admit that you can't be trusted."

Captain Malfin Cor bit his lower lip. "Of course," he said nodding, "that would free you from your oaths."

A creak of rope made them all look up.

"Wolfshead." Their friend Captain Huelra's voice was tight, but there was nothing else, no plea for himself or his crew. His throat moved as he swallowed. Huelra had no say here, no control over the events around him, so like a sensible man he stayed quiet . . . and trusted to his gods.

Well his gods were looking after him tonight, that was certain.

"How if I came with you myself, and my Partner remained here."

"Dhulyn!"

Even as she spoke Dhulyn knew what Parno's reaction would be. But it was too late to call the words back, and whatever else happened, short of breaking the oaths of the Common Rule -- short of breaking the oaths of their Partnership, to which her suggestion came perilously close -- she must do whatever she could to keep Parno off the Long Ocean ship.

Without telling him why.

"Without me," she said to him now, "the Mercenary House can rule quickly, they need not wait for a Brother Senior to me. You can explain what has happened here, and I will return as quickly as I can." She turned with lifted eyebrows to Malfin Cor and his sister-Captain.

"Our Crayx don't return until the spring," he said. "But one of the other Long Ocean Pods can bring you back, if our negotiations are finished."

"No." Parno's voice startled her, she had never heard him speak so sharply before. "We are Partnered," he said. "I will not -- I cannot -- be left behind."

"I am Senior --" Dhulyn began.

"In Battle," Parno said, touching his forehead with the tips of his fingers.

Dhulyn held off, but there was only one answer, and her Partner knew it. "Or in Death," she answered him lifting her own hand to answer his salute. She clenched her teeth against the words she could not say. Another rope creaked overhead, or perhaps the same one, and she cleared her throat.

"Let Huelra and his crew go," she said, her heart tight in her chest. "Now. Free them and we come with you." What was her alternative? Let them die? And when her Partner asked her why she'd let that happen -- because he would ask her, no question -- what answer could she give him then? That she could not tell him why, that it was all part of the one thing she had promised never to tell him?

"Wolfshead." The tone in Huelra's voice was now completely different. Evidently he had not been so very certain what their answer would be.

"Huelra," she said. She wondered if anyone else noticed the tightness in her voice. "You must be our advocate to our House. The documents they have already, but you must go, explain to them what has happened, and ask them to wait their judgment." She swallowed. "Ask them to look after our horses."

"It will be done, Wolfshead. Depend on me."

 

Dhulyn kept her attention on the last few items she was removing from their largest pack. They'd had to abandon much of their gear -- not counting weapons, of course -- after the battle of Limona, and even after restocking in Beolind there wasn't much. They had moved their packs only after having seen Huelra's crew restored to the Catseye, and the cabin they'd been given on the Wavetreader -- Co-captain Darlara's own, as it turned out -- was more than spacious. Or it would be, if Parno wasn't hovering over her like a schoolmaster looming over a student. She kept her hands busy and her eyes down. Not that it did her any good.

"What were you thinking?"

"Not now, my soul."

But he persisted, as she'd known he would. "How could you say you would go alone? Demons and perverts, we're Partnered, why would you say such a thing?"

Because you are going to die out there, she thought, her lips pressed tight. Because she'd known ever since she'd first touched him that Parno was going to die at sea. Her Vision had shown her the storm, and the deck tilting, and the wall of water that would sweep her Partner over the side. And she had promised never to tell him how he would die. Never.

"I was worried about the hearing," she said finally. "I lost my head."

Parno crouched down next to her, blocking her light, and put his hand on her shoulder. "And the Seer? You felt we must stay, and yet you wanted to go." Here he was, finding excuses for her.

"Now is not a good time to be touching me," she said from between clenched teeth.

Parno lifted his hand immediately and edged back. "Did you have a Vision? Is that what this is all about?" he said, lowering his voice.

Dhulyn froze, her hands caught flattening the pack for folding, her lower lip between her teeth. Partners did not lie to each other, as a rule. Was there any part of the truth that could serve?

"Yes," she said finally. "I've Seen that a sea voyage will prove to be unlucky for us."

Parno sat back on his heels, blowing out his cheeks. "Well then." He rubbed at the beard stubble on his chin. "Still, what could you do? Let them kill Huelra and his preople? A large price to buy our way out of some bad luck." He stood up and edged around her to where the heavy silk bag holding his pipes lay on the cabin's small table.

"Let's not worry too much, in any case," he said. "With your Sight so chancy as it is, it may be nothing more than the sea illness. Do you want to try using the vera tiles?"

Dhulyn shook her head. She closed the latch on the locker underneath the lower bunk and sat back on her heels, delaying the moment that he would expect her to turn toward him.

"Let it wait a day or two," she said. "My woman's time is coming. And it may be best if our hosts don't know of my Mark."

Parno nodded, rubbing at his face once more. He'd have to let his beard grow again, she thought. It was hard to shave at sea unless you'd had plenty of practice. Her heart lurched again. Practice he wasn't likely to get.

"It doesn't sound as though they have a problem with this Seer they've mentioned. Especially since they're doing what she asked. Still, chances are they're more familiar with the commoner ones, Menders, Finders, Healers."

"And if, unlike me, the Seer they know has been fully trained . . ."

Parno nodded. "They'll have the usual expectations."

They would, the same as any reasonable person. That she See for them, look into the future. And she would have to explain once again that her Sight was erratic, that she'd never been trained to use it properly, that her glimpses of the future were not as useful as people might think.

Very few ever believed her.

"Fine then, let's keep your Mark from the Nomads," Parno said. "At least until we have some idea of what they actually know about the Marked, and how they feel about them."

Dhulyn looked up at him. Parno was frowning, his eyes focused on the middle distance. Funny how he still thought of the Marked as 'them', she thought. But of course, to him she was his Partner first, and a Seer second.

"Still, it can't do any harm for us to check the tiles, just for ourselves, try to head off this bad luck you're talking about." He held up his hands as she opened her mouth.

"I know what you're going to say. Unreliable. But we know much more about your Sight now than we did before. If your women's time is near, and you use the tiles, that gives us the best possible chance of accuracy. After all, we know what to expect, it won't be the first Vision we've dealt with."

Dhulyn took a deep breath and consciously willed her hands to loosen from the fists she'd made. She was sorely tempted to merely tell him and be done with it. She could see so many evasions, so many half-truths coming up in the time they had left. But she'd sworn, hadn't she, when they'd first Partnered and she'd told Parno that she was Marked. Sworn it would be the one thing she would never tell him. The one secret that would free her to tell him everything -- anything -- else.

She'd done everything she could to keep him off the deep seas, the Long Ocean here in the east, the larger Round Ocean in the Great King's realm far to the west. Even here, in the Middle Sea, she'd made sure they only took coastal vessels such as Captain Huelra's Catseye.

And she'd done what she could to keep them from this voyage as well. Had she done the right thing? Could she have left Huelra and his crew to die? Was following the honourable path of the Common Rule really worth Parno's life? Tradition said that one Partner did not survive the death of the other, but that hadn't even entered her thoughts until now. She looked up, but her Partner was focused on his pipes, checking the air bag for soundness. It was Parno she wanted to save, not herself. But if she acted dishonourably, if she broke the Common Rule, what kind of life was she saving for them?



Violette Malan 2009