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Rated: 18+ · Novella · Fantasy · #2317845
Novella. Can orphan Sigrun figure out who should pay for her family's loss?
Floating? I shifted in my sleep.

Softness. In every direction, softness held and carried me.

Where was the straw of my bed, the slat on the side, the coarse burlap? I stretched my legs and found–nothing?

I opened my eyes; wooden slats loomed–the ceiling? I brushed aside the cobweb that dangled in my face.

The web, like a shadow, passed through my hand, dangled through my eye.

Coughing up my horror, I rolled.

Beneath me, the body of a girl–the girl from the mirror–lay in my bed.

The moonlit girl lay clutching a pillow. Straw-white hair gleamed in the light of the moons. Fever-stunted arms clutched the pillow. She–it–looked more like a hollow puppet costume than my body. Did that thing even breathe?

Sigrun–that's what my family called that body, my body, when I lived in it. Ill at ease in there–since the fever dream six summers ago–it seemed natural to haunt my room. Instead of looking to get tied up in that Sigrun costume again, I looked about for a rescuer–my pixie friends come to carry me home, beyond the white gates.

A bluetail nightbird, wearing a crown of fire, flew to my window.

No. Please. I wanna go home. My pixie messenger, arriving in the flesh, could only mean to fetch Sigrun, not the real me.

Officer Nightbird landed at my window and knocked.

The fey rhythm brought to mind the harps from home in the clouds. I shook my head and looked for something to grab–my hand passed through the rough-hewn ceiling like a shadow.

Like a bug draining out of a bottle, I let the floating sweep me to my bed. At the same time my lungs skittered to life, drawing me in.

Groaning as my ribs locked into place around me, I grabbed the pillow and pulled it over my ears.

Yet the royal rhythm of Officer Nightbird tapped in my ears and thundered in Sigrun's heavy bones.

I longed to scream, 'go away.' To banish my imaginary friends as the pointy-hatted sorcerers could–like Aunt Myrrha insists. Instead, I sighed and muttered into the bed, "Must it always be me?"

Foggy headed, uncertain even where I lay, my body struggled to waken against my will, as I buried my face in the silk and feathers.

Still the pecking continued. I felt the thunder in my bones even as it ticked in my ears.

Waiting for a pixie officer to go away made no sense, for me, anymore than trying to hold the line against the dawn. With a whine I raised my head to see who had come.

My pixie messenger rode a nightbird, not a squirrel, I noted, and wondered why. At least I imagined that.this nightbird had a fire crown like my friends from the fever dream. Had I dreamt of this? "Come, my friends, Supposed to be a little girl." As in, little girls do not go exploring the wilderness at the call of their imaginary friends, not at least till they're strong enough to master their sword strokes.

Stil tapping at the glass with a certainty that came from the service of the High King, Officer Nightbird repeated his summons.

In moments I would do the right thing, be out the window, on some all-important quest from the high King. But it wouldn't be all good. I whispered, hoping to keep this secret. "I'm not supposed to talk to my imaginary friends."

Officer Nightbird managed to look down his beak at me, despite being perched below me.

I grasped the back of my neck, sorting words. I admitted, "I am a freeman, destined for battle."

The bird tipped his head, looked down his nose at me.

I couldn't refuse the call. I would never do that to my Aunt and Uncle, smear their honor like that. But Aunt Myrrha placed her faith in her own swordarm, had none to place in the pixies. She desperately needed me safe at my post–in bed, like a good little apprentice swordsman. "I shouldn't have to choose between duty and family. Not yet."

Officer Nightbird shook his head and fluttered off.

Had I been granted reprieve? I looked upon the orange and brown of the forest, full of pig faced bandits and reveling nightwolf priests, with a mixture of longing and fear.

Among the autumn leaves stood a squirrel. As sure as a broadsword, he watched me.

I could no more turn away the pixies by my word than I could parry away the dawn by a sword stroke. I sighed and opened the window.

I pulled open the window and stepped onto the ridge of the roof–I wouldn't fall through, but the harm I cause might be more than I could repair.

The wood groaned as my weight pushed it into place.

I wasn't sure I could maintain my balance, stay on the narrow beam. Aunt Myrrha and Uncle Mack slept blissfully deaf to the voices of the pixies. Without me to warn them, then how would they awaken in an attack? I tried to shrug it off. "Gonna be in so much trouble. If I even make it home."

The chill air sent a shiver running up my spine.

Just the first touch of cold. I would be fine.

Officer Squirrel lowered the nut he was chewing at and chittered at my joke.

Unlike Uncle Mack's faerie stories–tales of weird willow wisps, and ornery kobolds–my pixies would shepherd me, so long as I kept going back to the path. Whether they lead me Home, or only back to my post here in my Aunt and Uncle's farmstead fortress.

I rushed down the beam, leapt to the tree. I grabbed a branch and swung down.

The soft cold ground rose up to catch me.

I couldn't help but think that by abandoning my post, I left my sleeping family flat footed against the rages of our neighbors, the urgan bandits.

Even Mack's massive ironwood doors would fall against the urgan battering hammers, but with a massive protest–if it w6as locked.

I ran to the door and checked it, found it ssolid. Holding back the monsters in my heart I rounded the back.

The rear exit held as solid as the cornerstone of Castle Balthispeare.

Relief flooded through me. A mob of urgan bandits pressed around Myrrha would stclimb over their friends to test their prowess against her; together Mack and Myrrha would hold them off longer the thought of battle could cling to Uncle Ker's pig-shaped head. Given the time to grab their weapons, they would be, at worst, a bit lazy on the day's chores. I smiled and made for the fence.

In the shadows of the bushes, twin eyes burned yellow. Like an old schoolmaster, the beast of the forest–neither cat nor dog–growled his warning.

But no answers came from the old man of the forest, at least, none to do with me or my pixies. I looked around for a sign.

Bleating in the darkness rang in the still forest..

In the meadow ahead, under the coppery light of the second moon, a little lamb in a steel trap.

My ankles hurt to watch the steel chew at her as she tugged.

Slow, and gentle, I stalked the lamb.

Again and again the frightened lamb threw itself against the hungry steel to get away from me, crying out to the High King for rescue.

My heart thumped with the power of its terror, though I had come to save it. I grabbed the leg and rooted around in the shadows for the release.

Each time I came near the switch, the lamb jerked the trap around.

"Be at ease," I said.

The lamb jumped.

My words only spooked it. I time, more by luck than by measure, the button slapped my finger and the lamb slipped free.

The wounded baby ran into the forest.

My heart leaped and soared, feeling her freedom more real than my own bones. I didn't dare to ask what message my pixies meant to send.

A rescue is just a rescue, sometimes. The golden dog in the broken cage that we nursed to health. The men chilled to sleep in the forest by the bite of the ghostly shadow ravens. And the foolish tinker who very nearly went to see uncle Ker and his band of brigands without a proper tribute. If I had not heard the pixies, all would have fared so much worse. To understand my role didn't require me to believe that this held some higher hint for me. No, my pixies watch over people, but to be a force for good in the world, they need our help. That was all I knew about it, and I needed no further orders to understand my role.

Looking for guidance in the dark, I stumbled face first into a flying twig.

Into the tree I leapt after the squirrel that kicked the twig my way. Carried less by the strength of my arms than driven by the hot breath on my heels, I pulled myself to sit on a branch .

A regiment of squirrels surrounded and watched me.

I could almost see their fire crowns, feel their aura as I looked down upon the Old Man Wolf, eying me.

Had I liberated his meal? Was that his upset? Surely he hadn't set the trap, though. I fussed back at him, "That wasn't yours. You didn't…"

He tilted his head and–did he raise an eyebrow?

The shape of his paws, almost as if they had thumbs, and the look in his eyes. Those eyes…

They dared me to deny that he could have set the trap. I knew so little, just a sheep being led away from the jaws of the wolf. Could I really not be wrong about this?

In the darkness above, slithering between brown and orange, a plum-scaled serpent caught my eye.

The serpent held me in disregard, a surgical attitude far too colder than hate, then looked forward to the lone apple on her branch. Her sinews encircled the apple stem, plucking it, stealing it from the heavens.

Bruisey black, Winter's Apple pulled the light from my hands. A wounded purple, a shade of wine richer than that for the naughtiest of adults.

The serpent leaped from the tree, toward the morning star.

Mouth agape, curiosity burning in my belly, I stared into Winter's Apple. I needed to know, needed to have this inside me. "Surely it's not forbidden to.."

But the assembly of soldier squirrels stared, black eyes far too large, too still.

I shuddered and dropped the apple, rolling it toward the Old Man Wolf.

Sighing, Old Man Wolf shook his head and righted the apple. He laid his chin on his paws and set to watch me.

I couldn't tell whether he was waiting for me to ripen or he was guarding me against the darkness. Either way, I clung to my post in the branch, looking up to the pixies.

They danced about the tree as squirrels should.

The moment my body chose the pixies over the evil-hearted apple, I saw approval in the squirrel's eyes. Satisfied with 'my' decision, I sat back, wrapped my elbows up in the crooks of the tree.

Far below me, the Old Man Wolf eyed me like a student who had gone truant during her lessons.

Officer Squirrel came to me and touched my knee.

I was being told to hold my position. I supposed I might never know more than the frightened lamb. Did it matter? Even if I became as smart as the old wolf, would I ever be able to see as well as they can from above the clouds?


At dawn's first light, I felt myself slipping down and my lungs skittering. I gripped the tree limbs and looked down at the hungry Old Man Wolf.

But what I saw sitting below was more man than beast, entirely human at first look. He had the same gray and black hair, a close croped beard, and matching clothes, and his eyes burned just slightly yellow–it might be my imagination. I shuddered and gulped.

"Beginning to think ye'll never come down from there."

I was confused by the Old Man's statement and gripped the limbs tighter.

"Your spirit walk, ya fool haunt."

I struggled to remember the dream I'd been having, but the effort fuzzed out my head.

"Now I'm all presentable, why don't you come down and we can get you home."

I aimed a few feet ahead of him, and let go of the tree.

Old Man Wolf sprang forward and plucked me from the air, hoisting me over his powerful shoulders. He offered me an apple. "Figure you're too good for the earth, seeing Vivianca's apple all untasted."

The snake. How did I know her name?

"The fall would have done you a spell of good." He shook his head.

The apple shone red in the sunlight, completely without the bruisy black enchantment that had so impacted me.

He tossed the apple away and shrugged. "More's the pity. Do your whole pack a world of good."

My legs pinned to his chest, I rode across his shoulders as easily as a sack on a burro. I kicked and struggled, like the lamb in his trap. Pinned, I settled a bit, glancing about."Where are you taking me?"

We crossed Wilt's Creek. The old man coughed a laugh. "Hef, irresponsible, even for your age. Did you not map the path home?"

Being led, I did not need to navigate, I protested silently. I balled up my fists and smacked the Old Man's shoulders.

My peasant-girl punches, more arm than fist, would bring scolding from Aunt Myrrha, but I knew that knowing–really knowing how–meant knowing how to talk around the issue. My punches could bite like a dagger, if I so desired, or they could tap out a message. Old Man Wolf knew my heart.

He simply patted me. "I'll drag you safe to your den, little haunt."

Haunt. He kept using that word, the word for things that didn't belong–things called by sorcerers– like the shadow ravens or bone puppets. Cursed, ominous haunts harmed the people about them. Surely a different word named the folk who heed the call and do the good.

"Needed to stop your witchery, least till you're old enough to know with whom you speak."

How dare he? "My pixies hold the highest standards."

"Pixies?" He laughed. "Crazy little backwood witch. Your friends care nothing for you, for anybody on this earth."

He stank a bit of Vivianca, a hint of vicious on his breath, but very human–just that whiff of dark smoke on the edge of his heart fire. "They're better than you are."

"They know the harm, but care only for their precious standards." He adjusted me on his shoulder for better comfort. "Mark your words, you'll be wishing you'd taken our help."

A sense of wrongness fluttered in my stomach as if I were ready to cough something up. "No… there's no harm."

"They don't belong here. They don't understand us and they don't care." He harrumphed. "Right now, neither do you."

"I…" I wanted to protest that I was a little girl, like anybody else, but I knew better.

His voice softened. "You know, you're not the only one who has friends. The outsiders, ha, so called pixies? They have enemies too. Villains and monsters aplenty."

Vivianca. My blood ran cold. I knew better than to talk to her. Even my hands rebelled against her.

"Far worse." He shook his head sadly. "Vivanca has more in common with your outsider friends than you."

My skin crawled as the thought slithered about my waist.

"If only I had known, that day I went to the gates and brought you back. A sprinkling of water, consecrate your second birth."

He meant the Wolf that had dragged me from Shariel, and bound me in Sigrun's bones. But that had surely been a dream, a fog of the Dread Fever that stunted me and set me on my path. Or, a clean window on my pixies?

We rounded the hill and came to the fence. Old Man Wolf sprang over the fence and strode up the stairs, setting me on Mack's weathered oak porch.

The spyhole opened before Old Man Wolf raked his nails on the ironwood of the door.

"This belong to you?" He gripped my shoulder. "Thank the Wolf if it does."

The bar thumped and the door swung open to reveal Myrrha's angry face.

My shoulders fell and I shrank back a half step, looking to hide behind Old Man Wolf.

The expression on her face held me in check.

I forfeited my move.

Old Man Wolf strode in, eying the door like a child's toy. "This won't hold back the throngs, you know."

"Sigrun, did you go on another of your adventures?" Uncle Mack, smoothing back his straw white bed-messed hair, haltingly stepped down the stairs. He locked his sword into place–a clip meant to avoid others stealing it as he sized me up. "You could surely have been better equipped.

"Don't encourage her." Myrrha glared at Uncle Mack, then knelt before me. "You're too old for this."

I opened my arms to hug her, but she ignored that, checking my head and my eyes, feeling for the fever.

"I didn't have any," I said, reflexively, and cleared the lie from my throat. "I mean, the fireberry didn't do anything, I promise."

"You know better than to eat that, with your history." Mack smiled at me and tussled my hair. "What are we to do with you? So like your uncle, before…"

One look from Myrrha halted his sentence. "Mack, do you speak Krolesh?"

Blushing, he pulled his hand away and stepped aside.

"They warned you to rein in her witchery," Old Man Wolf growled. "You are in a precarious position."

"I care nothing for portents, Old Man Wolf." Myrrha stood up and walked to his face.

She looked rather like the painting of San Keorg in the face of the dragon. She had no sword, but could surely bring the big man down anyhow. For a moment, I felt a twinge of fear for Old Man Wolf.

Old Man Wolf regarded her as a foolish student who, having confused a cutlass with a broadsword, refused to accept her mistake.

"We're not giving her to the monks." She stood up to him.

"The cavalry will not hear your horn, my children." He shook his head sadly. "I have no more of the elixir."

"We gave it to her," Mack lied.

Myrrha eyed the sword cabinet. "You said you would stand by us."

"I will grieve the chance to repay." He pointed to the locked room.

Solemnly Mack pulled out a key and let Myrrha and Old Man Wolf in. As the door clicked shut, the winding of mother's music box sang.

I could not hear their words, only the tones, reminding the words I had learned to the song. Alas, my lady, you do me wrong…So small, compared to the haunting melody–greensleeves, Mack called it– but it belonged in the harps of the High King's court, far above the clouds.

Whatever they had to say must be important, and, though I strained to hear, not meant for my ears.

When they returned from the conference, Old Man Wolf's shoulders slumped. "My condolences, Sigrun. Mack, and Myrrha, you have been my greatest friend. I wish I could stand with you, but I have not finished my work here."

"What is the matter?"

"This is all my fault. I should have never brought you back. Should have known where your mother sent you."

I stepped forward. "I don't understand."

"The Forest Mother has different laws, sweet child. You, your friends, they do not belong."

"My imaginary friends?"

"If only they were imaginary. If only they were pixies." He brushed my hair out of my eyes. "You would not be a child soldier."

"But I'm a freeman. Already training for the sword." I said. "And the work my friends do–I'm not afraid."

He knelt before me and stared deep into my eyes.

Myrrha stepped forward, but paused.

"I am. I am terrified beyond my ken. As are Mack and Myrrha, in their way." He let that sit for a moment, fiery yellow eyes tearing up. "But for you, the fear–that is the lightest weight your courage will ever have to bear."

I stood there, eye to eye with this man–who had to stoop while kneeling–and a cold place inside shook me.

"Perhaps one day, you will forgive this old man and his Forest Mother their hand in your destiny." He stood up, and walked away.

I stepped forward, but Mack held my shoulder. "I didn't mean to steal your meal."

Slowly, the old man shook his head, facing forward–as if the great doom from Mother's stories might reduce him to salt for daring to look back.

Myrra slapped the door shut and barred entry, leaning against it as if she might hold out the future. "Good grief."

Mack shrugged. "Perhaps…"

"We're not retreating. Not unless you have a royal summons."

"Still it might be time to consider…"

"You're as bad as Sigrun, head full of nonsense."

"The Mother of the Forest speaks to him. He knows things, and…"

"We are freemen, not witches. If we listen to the trees then we'll forget our own hands come battle time.."

"It's not foolishness. He brought our Sigrun back."

Myrrha's eyes opened in shock as she scowled.

"Come now, she knows. The Old Man Wolf as much as said."

"We have discussed this. My decision is final."

"Like your sister's decision to let Sigrun go home?"

The fever dream. Mother and Father Highly had called Shariel to take me. I had never told anybody I had gone home.

"I couldn't let her go." She looked out the skylight. "They can't have her."

"I'm with you." Mack hugged her. "All the way. Even to the mazes beyond."

He spoke of the dark and nasty place where wicked spirits lose themselves so that they would not have to see the look on the High King's face. An expression of eternal loyalty, small and shallow compared to what I see in his heart.

Myrrha's moment of emotion lasted only a boot click before she pushed him away. "We have work to do."

Mack went to the door.

I followed him, eager to begin my training for the day.

"You've had your adventure for today. Inside."

Small for my age, I struggled to get my sword up. Sure, my form looked good, good for a carnival actor, not a a swordsman. "Myrrha!"

"Don't Myrrha me. Plenty needs doing here."

Mack shrugged and continued outside.

I could cook almost as well as Mack and far better than Myrrha. Every day I stood inside my arms fell behind by a week. Yet not even Ker could brute force his way around my aunt. "Yes Myrrha," I said.

She tried to hide her smile of victory as she poured the blue apple preserves into the pie crust.

She felt safer having me here, and I took comfort in her comfort. I smiled and chose not to pester her about how easily I could read behind her warrior's mask of strength. It wasn't meant for secrets, but only for honor.

In the corner, a couple worn out brooms sat behind the combat-grade 'pitchfork.'

Mack fought like he'd been born with a sword in his hand, and taught like he'd never had to learn. Myrrha explained everything so much better. While the outdoor drills might be better, a warrior wages her campaign where she stands. I grabbed the broom handles and offered one to Aunt Myrrha.

Myrrha put the blue-apple pie in the fire to bake. "You know we can't spar in the house."

I looked around. Our pig-faced neighbors had shattered or slashed everything in the kitchen. The chairs were just blocks of wood, and the table, reinforced by steel, had been repaired scores of times. "But Uncle Ker's men already broke everything."

"You're not an urgan and I said no."

A human warrior had to take every chance to train. The five minutes they spend today could be the difference between life and death. Though in truth, I realized, already we trained. I had made an attempt, and she had deflected: thrust and parry. I bowed, and reached to my belt for a blade–a pixie blade. I held it in a challenging position.

Myrrha smiled, drawing her own blade–an equally imaginary one. "Challenge accepted." She swung her sword lazily about, leaving numerous apparent weaknesses for me to strike.

Each hole, a baited trap. I ignored these obvious moves and made a pointless strike at her strength to occupy her.

She deflected it with ease. "Very good, avoiding the obvious. Remember, no move ever is safe."

The move and countermove here was far more real than a game of chess, though to a peasant or royal it might appear mere dancing. I could never hope to outthink her, even if she did not go all out–not for several years, if ever. Perhaps a desperate move might be called for, though even that would be easily countered with the finely honed instincts of a freeman adventurer.

She struck me in my weakest point, as I rushed to bring up my sword.

She began to relax, forgetting the story of doom that Old Man Wolf had told.

At just that moment the shrill cry of a shadow raven–Eat! Eat!–cut through the kitchen.

I looked up to the skylight.

In the clouds, a death's head leered at me.

I dropped my guard to stare at the skull- shaped cloud. The chill in my blood warned that this was no ordinary fancy, but a true warning–a dire alarm sent by my pixie friends.

"When you carry a sword you must ever pay attention," Myrrha said, launching a strike. "Even an imaginary one."

The next three strikes, easily parried, would have cut me down if allowed to land–driving home her message. A message I not only understood, but dearly wished to return to her while I had the chance.

She gauged my response.

I struck at Myrrha, not even worrying about getting through, as I sized her up. I had never seen a sign of doom before. This had to be important, but Myrrha would hear nothing of it. I had to talk sideways. "When is Mother coming back?" As in, before the enemy comes?

Shock played across Myrrha's face.

I lunged, and kept my eyes on her–I meant the question seriously. Half my life Mother had been gone, and I had never asked. I hoped that this might alarm Myrrha as the raven had me.

She batted away my attack as if it were choreographed. "Hard to say. It's as important as it is dangerous, what they do."

"It's only urgans. If they were dangerous monster men, you would never let Uncle Ker in the kitchen."

She struck my sword several times in rapid succession. "Ker's not a soldier, and decent enough. He keeps his men in line, for the most part."

I threw a few useless attacks, weaving as if trying to win our game. This got me nowhere. "Why do we live in Urgan lands, anyhow?"

"These are human lands, mostly."

Having no time for peasant-girl tales–and no complaint I could safely report–I glared at her.

"Heh," she said, sheathing her weapon. "Never could put one over on you. You see, we have certain rights.."

As freemen, we could vote and bear arms–but had to answer the call to defend the farmers and the royals with our lives. I nodded and shrugged.

"But it takes more than rights to survive." She dabbed the sweat from her forehead as the scent of the blue apple pie stung at our eyes. "We had a penchant for saying what we believed."

I sat down on my wooden block.

I tilted my head.

"So it was that our friends turned, and the Good Reverend Mayor Kollen took to award us this post–a homestead that would surely cost the lives of ten men."

Seemed like an inordinately nasty thing to do. I scowled. The death's head above got no friendlier as I did.

"And with a balance of strength and diplomacy that would have earned us a dukedom, had we learned it in time, we have thrived and built our home."

From free citizen to a duke–and a shot at the crown. Was it really that difficult to survive here?

"Yes, it really is that surprising." She smirked. "To those who don't know us."

I looked again at the burn mark on Myrrha's arm–a tongue. She had said it was a dragon, but Mack called it a salamander–a firebreather the size and shape of a horse. Was it an omen of doom, or merely an alert. Mack and Myrrha had faced so many adventures, perhaps Myrrha could handle it. I walked to the sword cabinet and fumbled with the combination.

"Oh, Sigrun, I can barely trust you with the pixie sword. We're not playing with Lumoc."

The blade was civilized enough, no matter how hungry, and no law called even for peace ties in her own homestead. "I just… feel better if you wear it."

"Oh, Sigrun, where is this coming from?" She brushed my hair out of my eyes. "Is this another portent? You know how I feel."

I frowned.

"You understand, I cannot live in fear."

She stood up to check the pie, and then turned to me again. "I know it's dangerous, but what do you want me to do. Knock at the gates of Balthispeare like refugee children? 'Please, Queen Medusa, can you harbor a lost freeman?"

We would never do that, but I found myself nodding so much my head sloshed.

"You'll get over it, when you're larger." She poured a drink for herself from the pitcher. "When you're big and go on your own fabulous adventures like your mother."

The pride of being strong like Mother–easily as powerful as Myrrha and Mack put together–swelled in my chest.

Then suddenly Myrrha jumped, and knocked over the pitcher.

I found myself standing halfway up the stairs before I even questioned my move. Had I heard another shadow raven cry?

In answer, the rhythm of urgan marchers in the distance. Pounding at each other's breastplate, howling and snorting.

"Hide away, and stay hidden. No matter what."

"Yes'm." Even if I could argue with Myrrha, I could never argue with Ker.

In a whisper that carried as though by magicc, Myrrha told me, "Love you, kiddo."

Once there I closed and barred the door and breathed a sigh of relief.

I dug under my bed, pulling away the secret panel. I grabbed the spyglass.

Two ancient glass marbles from a time when glassmaker wasn't a slur against humanity. From the days when the ancient Amerik empire spanned the earth and put the moon Nasa in the sky. Thousands of years old, this tiny door glass had survived, a sign of the true spirit of humanity. I held the tiny thing in my hands for a moment, part of a grand tradition.

I considered crawling into my hidey hole beneath my bed, where Myrrha meant me to be. But the door would hold long enough for me to scramble down. And not knowing… I could not bear it. I crawled over to the knothole in the floor, pulled up the loose slat and wedged my spyhole into the floor.

By then Vog stamped in the doorway. Bristling with male energy, he slammed down the pig they had slain on our table.

when the steel trappings held, he jumped in a v for victory.

I reveled in the relief that came to Vog with the survival of the table. That was the urgan way–looking for things to break, and hoping they held together. At least as decent as they were insane.

Behind him Ker tramped in, bashing the door against the wall, bending the knob and hinges–not for the first time. "Hail thorga!" he yelled.

Thorga meant glassmaker, a terrible thing to urga, a people as clumsy as they were strong. But really, he meant human. An urga prefers to test his friendship with the rudest words he knows, lest it break at a later time. Looking at him, I swelled with feelings of power, of a life lived by the glory of being a giant among men, and of being ready–more ready than the noblest human–to die.

"Hail you stinking orc," Mack said, smiling broadly as he slapped Ker's breastplate. Mack continued snapping his brigandine armor closed and belting it into place. "Look like we got pig to roast."

The urgan warriors roared and stomped their approval.

Normal, perfectly delivered. Like every other visit. Did my pixies lie? Did they call a false portent? I began to hope.

"Me pig. No cook."Ker pulled out his sword, and his voice raised above a yell, petering out–a mistake that would get him killed, even if Mack let him live. "No thwack in face of tribe."

The urgans stopped and stared; you could hear a leaf drop.

Mack drew his arming sword, holding it low and behind him–willing,not eager, to fight. "Let us settle this like the pig headed men we are. There is no need for coward's toys."

"No care. No peace. Must have death!" Ker swung the blade overhead, more like a woodsman than the lowliest brawler.

Mack held the bridge of his nose as he diverted the childish swordstroke of Ker. "My friend?"

"No friend. No thorga. Haunt must have death. Death death death!"

The other urgans stamped and chanted in time with their chief. In time with a black cloud forming around Ker's head.

Across the room, a sickly, stunted old urgan–not even so tall as Myrrha, and almost as thin–sent out puffs of smoke from a pipe that spun round Ker's head.

A crown of smoke, as dark as the fire-crowns' light, as dirty as the pixies were clean.

No, I realized, feeling a sudden desire to douse the world in boiling oil and scrub it with steel brushes until it all dissolved and washed away. All the world had been coated in filth.

I had never imagined such filth as I saw before me. I nearly vomited, and scowled, turning the disgust on myself. "Sigrun, we do not hate!"

I closed my eyes and silently called out to the pixies, but they were gone… they could not reach me. Had they even sent my omen–or had it been the runty stranger's friends? "Why have you forsaken me?"

"Ker, this path invites destruction." He slapped away every one of Ker's increasingly simple, desperate swipes.

Still my uncle warned his friend away. Why did he not smite the monster where he stood?

And Myrrha eyed Lumoc in the sword vault–the stranger stood in front of it. She slipped a cleaver under her apron.

She should not need it. In urgan law, there were no innocent dead–just survivors and deserters. If Ker failed, or if Mack failed, they believed truth had been made.

"Death, death, death," they chanted and stomped, the thumping shaking the earth about them.

"Die Mack die!" Ker lunged and struck.

At last Mack nodded. "Very well, my friend." He plunged his sword through the rusted plate and deep into the giant pig's heart, leaving it there.

Ker stumbled back, his head lolling back as he reached for Mack's sword buried in his heart.

Myrrha hacked at Ker's right shoulder, cutting to the bone.

But the arm did not care that Ker was dead, or that it had been cut to uselessness. The sword reached straight back to slash at Myrrha. Meanwhile the off hand proceeded to pull the sword from its own chest and hacked at Mack.

The cloth armor deflected far better than Ker's rust plate, but Mack bled in places from the rabid undead assault, as he jockeyed for the pitchfork.

The curse came from the runty stranger. Take him down, and Ker might finally die. I ran to the door, to throw the bar away and call out to my Aunt and Uncle.

Grabbing the bar I saw the words–the first I had ever learned to read: "No matter what."

Horror warred with duty as I froze in place. I slunk back to the spyhole.

Myrrha lie downed, grasping Lumoc's cabinet in front of the runty stranger. Mack saw her and said, "Is this how I am repaid?" And skewered Ker with his pitchfork, levering the fat beast above his head.

But the runty stranger resumed his chanting even as he clutched a wound on his leg.

Ker's arms once again slashed and beat at Mack until the men collapsed under the weight.

The runty stranger stood atop the pile. In broken Krolesh, he proclaimed, "Now I rule tribe, this how all thorga vampire take pay."

The other urga slapped and thumped and stamped in rhythm as before.

In perfect urga, he commanded, "Now the time has come to root out the menace. Search for human piglets, destroy this plague where it starts."

My blood ran cold as I scrambled for the bed.

The door to my bedroom splintered and groaned against the force of an urgan being thrown against it.

My sweaty palms slipped on the panel as it fell back into place and I grabbed it again.

Again the door thundered and crackled against the force that would soon destroy it.

Meanwhile other urgans ransacked and smashed everything in Mack and Myrrha's room.

I lifted the panel and shimmied under it, pulling it down over me as the door shattered.

Little bits of ironwood slipped under the panel as it clicked into place. Knowing I had been seen, I held my breath–more out of loyalty than any desire to live.

Yet they set to destroying my bed and my wardrobe rather than pulling me out of my smuggler's vault.

Thunder and creaking and cackling and snorting.

At long last another urgan stamped into the room. "Nothing in here either? Looks like thorga eat their piglets."

The sickening thud of wood against skin. A wheezing voice snarled, "Shake the glass from your helmet, brother. Thorga are not like us. Probably their piglets–wormlets, really–merely die by fever."

Vog grunted with the effort of a useless attack. "Stop that, Shaman Korog!"

"The way they would have us die, huddled in fear."

Vog attacked again and again.

A nother rap to the face–the only place Vog had no armor–and a tripping blow sent him falling. "Mind your manners, Vog. For I will make you thorgabent."

I didn't know the word 'thorgabent' but from the disgust in Korog's voice, knew it to be the worst word, worst among a language of bad words.

Vog got up and cursed, a stream of hateful words stronger and more powerful than any bards, showing how he wanted to hunt down and destroy Korog.

The passion resonated in me, and it was all I could do not to reach for a sword–and, finding I had none, all I could do not to rise up and claw the runty monster's eyes out with my dying breath.

"Better. Almost urgan. Stupid, but I can work with that." Korog marched away. "Maybe make you apprentice shaman."

The other urgans clapped their approval.

"First step," he said, knocking Vog over again, "Stop hitting floor with snout. Use somebody else's."

That got a snorting roar of laughter from the others as they marched out of the room and down the stairs.

Vog crawled to his feet on top of my smuggler's vault, not even so large as a coffin–made for me in my smaller days.

The panel, meant only to sit beneath my bed, bowed under the weight of this heavily armored, fat pig of a man.

My tiny arms pushed against he panel, willing it to return to it's proper shape even as the splinters pressed into my cheek.

Vog's poetry descended into incoherent raving as he tromped forward.

I thought my cheekbone might crack under the pressure.

At long last he stepped off my panel and the wood rose ever so softly.

Tears came, slowly at first.

I wanted to scream my sadness, but held my silence out of honor–for Myrrha's last wish. "No matter what," I breathed.

Beneath me they bashed about the kitchen, singing songs I dare not recount. The smell of roast–a terrible sweet scent not of pig.

I could not stop crying. I thought I might drown in the waters. My face burned in shame and horror as I thought of it.

How dare you cry for yourself, when your aunt and uncle…

I could not finish the thought.

When at last I rose from my smuggler's grave, stingking of sweat and shivering with hunger, I surveyed the bones of my room fpr weapon worth holding. Finding only dust and splinters, I proceeded to the doorway.

Down upon the stairs slept the monsters I and uncle Ker had once called family.

I don't know if I spoiled for a fight or simply to follow Mack and Myrrha on the fire, or probably both.

I stepped gingerly over Vog's lolling arm and beside Kellen.

The beast snorted and rolled.

His arm rose beneath me, trapping my ankle, sending my toe against Kellen's tusk as I fell face first onto her codpiece.

My nose ached and I blushed, dearly glad I wore trousers—as I readied myself for the crushing power of Kellen's fist.

Yet Kellen simply snorted in another breath.

How had I survived? How had Kellen–I looked around.

Each of the monsters in my home slept. As though a flock of shadow ravens had eaten their souls. As though even Old Man Wolf's Forest Mother could not rouse them.

In the center of the room, Ker's face leered at me from the wooden tip of Macks pitchfork. Beneath, Myrra's red hair and Mack's silver.

They mercifully looked down to the floor, to avoid my eyes. I dropped the nothing in my hand and clapped over my mouth as tears burned behind my eyes.

There on the floor, beside the empty sword vault, in a pool of green blood, lie Myrrha's cleaver gleaming red in the last embers of firelight.

I took up the blade, weilding it like a hatchet, and spied Korog's bare throat.

From the stairs I heard Mack's voice. "Not like this."

The black smoke curled around the cleaver and rose up my arm, filling me with a nauseous hunger for blood.

"I'm not supposed to talk to my imaginary friends."

"By now you know they are real."

"I don't think that word means what you think it does."

"We had reasons to lie. This." Mack opened his arms, palms up. "Those are done now."

I willed him to become a dog. He was a figment of my imagination and should obey. That's what Myrrha told me. "It's not fair. You could appear in any form. Not Mack. Not now."

"If you do this you will never be free."

Mack had loved Ker, had seen these monsters as people. But for now I had trouble seeing them as even monsters–they were filth, a green stain to be cleansed. "You're just evading justice."

"How many urgans have you seen me slay? Better each than Korog."

Three fine warriors sprung to mind, each testing themselves against Mack's mettle. "So you've lost your senses."

"If I thought you could, I would ask you to judge him.."

"This …" I couldn't find a name, not even in the urgan arsenal of hateful words, foul enough for this shaman that slept before me. "He must answer for this. I have never wanted anything dead so clearly."

"Of course you feel that way, now." Mack stepped down a stair or two until he stood even with me. "But tell me. Is this what Sigrun would do?"

I could see and feel the black cloud around my head, sharpening and strengthening me. "I don't care. Or, even know."

"And how can you judge a servant of the darkness if you cannot judge your own heart?"

The smoking cleaver itched in my hand.

"How then would you be any different than Ker or even Korog?"

"I will be victorious!"

"Would you?" He opened his arms. "I am begging you. Forsake this easy vengeance. Leave him to those meant to right this wrong."

"Ker! Korog!" I looked at Ker, and screamed, "Tell him! I am nothing like you!"

The pig head flapped its mouth in time to my words–all of them voiced my sentiment.

I dropped my cleaver just over my toes.

I smiled, a vicious mask like the death's head cloud. "So I do have power."

"The outsiders want you. There is nothing that could hurt you here, excepting the call to vengeance.

I stalked back to Korog, leering. "So I do have power." I retrieved Myrrha's cleaver.

"Take your time. Do not enter heedlessly into this bargain."

I stared down upon the helpless body of the stunted urgan, and wondered what bargain Korog had made. What had been done to him that he had assumed the crown of black smoke. I shook my head.

I dare not look upon the heads of my family, nor even into the eyes of the bastard Uncle Ker. Nothing before or since had felt so wrong as the steps I took out that door and into the night of a thousand campfires.

Gripping the handle of Myrrha's cleaver, as if some bit of Myrrha might rub off on me, I stepped aalone into the night of a thousand campfires.
Campfires littered the landscape, twinkling like wicked stars in the night.

What reason Korog's twelve man army had for this escaped me as I clung to the shadows like a wounded rat.
Running barefoot on the cold soft ground, I could barely feel if I were running or flying. I gripped Myrrha's cleaver.

The only scrap of my family legacy, I searched for some hint of her strength. Finding only the hardness of wood and steel, the sharpness of blade, I willed it into my being until I fancied myself becoming a monster myself–not an urgan like Ker, but small and deft like a wicked clever pixie.

Wisdom and madness fused into aserviceable tool of battle, like handle and blade.

This drove me further into the night than any sane little girl ever would dare to venture.
Further than my legs willed to run.

When at last a tree tentacle reached up through the grass to rip my feet from under me, I found myself barely ready to catch the grass with my hands.

A bush stopped my roll.

I pushed away, but the ground refused to budge. It clung to me. I prepared for the hungry urgan chefs to skewer me and take me to my pyre.

Only the song of the crickets answered my cry for help from the pixies.

The bush shaded me from the light of Luna and Nasa.

Unable to rise from my fall, I accepted the bush as my inn, its roots as my pillow.

I'd no idea why twelve urgan bandits needed a full centurion's mess of campfires. If they were warning that they had come to destroy the world, I reckoned that they had already done that. My world, anyway. I had no idea why the crickets sang the urgan's bloodsoaked shanties or why it stained all the universe red. Least of all, I had no idea why I of all people–one miserable deserter–should be spared.

I supposed that the evil had spared me because it recognized a haunt for what it was–claimed me for one of its own.

I had never chosen the darkness, had always aspired to help. That, I supposed, was the tragedy of being a haunt. Broken, yet not destroyed, you could hardly help the harm you inflicted.

Helplessly–yet eagerly–I sank into the quicksand called sleep, hoping to drown the fever fires and bury the dreadful haunt named Sigrun.


The music of cobblestones against hooves and wagon wheels started softly in the distance, growing louder.

The brambles of the bush tore into my hair.

I got to my knees and gripped Myrrha's cleaver.

The people coming would not help someone with a knife. Even a little girl running scared.

I would keep Myrrha's cleaver close to my heart, I decided, and slipped it into my shirt.

From knife wielding maniac pixie to calculating assassin? The thought sent spasms of horror through my body as I saw how creepy I was.

Still I smoothed my shirt over and walked toward the road.

No! Sigrun, no! Please don't hurt them. But I forced a smile and stepped toward the road.

A one horse carriage clicked toward me, carrying two people. The man stood short for a boy, his thinly-bearded face too large for his shoulders; the woman, of emerald eyes and razor-sharp ears, had a sleek gracefulness that looked more at home in a picture book than in reality. Defiantly not human, still they had the smell of thorga's heart about them. For the first moment I dared to hope that I might escape the kitchen fires of Korog and his men.

The woman inquired, "Pray tell, little girl, have you gone astray?"

The little man reined in his horse. "Go on, get back to ye'r family. No place for solitary travel."

Sweating and trying not to shiver, I looked back homeward–the words did not come.

"Get on. Your family will worry their death."

Ker's voice boomed, "Shake the glass from your helmet! No huma piglet out wander alone."

The woman's eyes followed mine to look upon the ghost of Ker, stamping and gesticulating at them.

"Insane no take Sigrun in hand…"

The woman put her hand across the little man's heart. "Ben, I don't think she can. Let us take her."

"You and your ideas, Corielle." He shuddered sarcastically. "Ye know how the constables feel about–what is the word?–kind-napping?"

"Worry later," she pronounced, gesturing for me to come. "If the urgans find us, you'll wish they were lawmen."

"Heh, not so sure. I sleep better after bashing around urgans than dusting up constables. Besides, when last have you seen urgan bandits in these parts?"

"Keep up your nattering," Corielle bit her lip, staring at imaginary Ker's ghost, "I've a feeling we'll see them tonight."

"Can't leave her, I'll warrant." He reached out a hand. "Why do ye travel alone?"

Trembling, looking back at my home, I stood there. Even the whine wouldn't come out.

Ben sat and stared.

I blushed and looked at my feet. As a freeman–especially of eleven summers–I should have the courage to speak my heart.

"That settles it, then." Ben reached out his hand. "If she'd anywhere to go, suren she would be there. Get up here, little one."

Eager for the warm softness of his spirit and his touch, I took his hand and climbed up.

He laid a blanket on me and brushed the hair out of my eyes. "We'll be going nowhere until you tell us why you travel alone."

Please, Ben! Don't… I can't. If he knew what I had done–how I had betrayed my family for my own safety? My heel beat against the seat of the wagon.

"She will answer your questions." Corielle grabbed her shirt and shook it like it meant something. "Later. For now, she's under my aegis."

"Canna grant sanctuary here, Corielle." Ben shook his head. "Nay, the human's donna count your gods' home among the rightful churches."

"Perhaps not, but my word will turn the lawmen away from you."

"Eh, that it will. Till I try to help ya." With a smirk, he shook his finger at her. "This will be trouble, you know."

"That we came for." She matched his smile and tugged the reins in his hand.

The horses jerked us forward.

"And such sweet little human, not much bigger'n me pa." He winked at me and ruffled my hair. "Sure and she'll be no trouble at all."

I smiled at the charm of the man Ben, and choked down the thought of Old Man Wolf's warning. I needed their help, just for safe passage. The shadow ravens kept quiet, the clouds did not leer, and I would be out of their wagon before Korog's outsider friends caught up to me.

Unless the smoke crown formed about my head. Would Korog's curse draw my cleaver–what if my hands betray me the way they had Ker? Perhaps poison my will the way they had Korog? I should toss away my cleaver, but I did not dare.

So we rode out the day watching the sun rise and fall, as we cut our own ruts into the grass criss crossing the roads. When the sun reached the mountains and brought the first blush of nightfall, Ben bid his mare pull beneath the violet leaves of a fey elm.

Ben hopped down and pulled out a fire drum full of oiled wood chips. He took a red tipped twig and scratched the inside of the metal until it sparked out in a candle flame. He dropped the flame and it filled the barrel, lighting his face red.

Corielle stretched out her willowy hand. "Going to sit there all day?"

I took her hand. The fires of her spirit smelled clean like the pixies, yet open and wild like the wolf. I jumped down and went to warm myself by their fire.

Corielle took a shaped pan and a glass bag of vegetables that rustled like autumn leaves at her touch. It opened with a loud pop, and she poured it into the pan.

No pit and no earthen wall to hide the fire; the monsters could see our flames in the darkness as well by the heat as by the light. There might be time to cook, but I noted the need to extinguish the fire for them, if need be. I began to understand the Old Man Wolf: I needed to watch out for my earthly friends.

The smoke rippled and distorted as it should but the heat never touched me.

I reached and almost burned my hand in the smoke.

Yet the perfect oily blackness of the barrel remained cool.

I lowered my hand from the brim, down finger by finger, toward where the flames touched the metal. Yet each inch of the barrel had no change, chilling my hand. Even at the base, where the fire met the ground, the barrel remained as cold as Wilt's Creek. I had heard of such an oil, an eternal cold blackness.

Just as the metal blocked the fire from the eyes of wolves, the magic blocked the eyes of monsters. The hungry watchers of the night would not see our fires from their shadows in the woods. Only the dragons would see our campfire–and humans, even evil humans, need not fear being reduced to a pile of gold. My new friends might well be prepared for more than a walk in Medusa's royal garden of glass statues.

Corielle handled the black cone by a spot of black oil. She rested that against the edge of the barrel until the food sizzled. Ben took out a stringed instrument and sat in the mushrooms beneath the fey elm.

"At ease, little warrior." She pointed near Ben. "Enjoy."

I hated to leave the fires, the one in the bucket and the one in Corielle.

She tilted her head and brushed my hair into place.

Meanwhile as Ben strummed the long neck instrument about his knees, he told a tale.

I knew the story of Erinos the Wicked and his tragic flight to the mazes beyond.

When the angels–was he speaking of my pixies?–of the High King came to bring Erinos home after death, he ran. He ran as far and as long as he might.

In time he came to a hole in the ground, like those that the cave urgan flee from the Dragon's justice.

In the mazes he found no respite, no ground to rest. Every wall spoke of his life, all painted large for anyone to see. Behind each corner the angry minotaur's footsteps echoed with his own.

He prayed for forgiveness andd for forgetting. He prayed to find a safe place to sleep.

For a thousand years he fled all those who came for him.. He fled in fear of their wrath. He fled in fear of the justice he must pay. And more than anything, he fled in fear of the look on the face of the High King when he came to the gates.

He fled without sleep or water or rest.

Until at last came the man he knew best. "Ah, Medregor, my foolish friend. How could you have truted me so?"

"I have come for you."

"I cannot run. Not any more. Of all people you most deserve your recompense."

"Oh, my foolish brother, can you believe those ledgers still stand? He brought him in for a hug. "Those are for the living. For fools. They were never important."

"So I can go home?"

"We cannot bear another day withoutyou." Medregor lifed Erionos and carried him back to the gates.

The story stood as a clear question, clearer than if he has simply used the words, "Little one, your family must love you. Why are you away from them?"

I looked back, upon the wreckage of my house, the monumment to Ker. I watched Myrrha ignore the little shaman and I watched myself pay heed to that blasted note barring my way to rescue them.

All of that came out at once in an incoherent, babbling whine.

Corielle's green eyes smiled upon me, despite her lips trempling with the echo of my own torment. She spoke to the real me, behind Sigrun, the words, "Ayashi Cayun."

With that and a touch of her fingers a rolling white mist came upon all of that, so that it seemed ghostly and far away. With each breath it became further until I could not make out the details of this ancient tragedy .

"All wounds heal, little one." She watched me.

I nodded and took a deep breath.

She smiled and stepped back. "This closes the matter of her history. She comes with us.."

"Such a love for trouble."

"I am trouble," Corielle swaggered up to him. "It's yourself that aim to marry it."

"And we'll make a bride of ye soon enough, never ye mind."

"I'm not sure you could handle me."

She twitched and grabbed the staff from the cart.

Ben threw his instrument up to the top and drew his sword.

In the distance an urgan band beat and howled its way toward us.

A look from Corielle.

"Yes'm," I said, crawling into the junk atop the wagon.

I cowered up there like a rat as I beheld Ben and Corielle.

Ben's thick, variant cutlass–shorter, and with enough handle for a second hand–gleamed brighter than the night allowed, with fire of its own. The thing looked sturdy enough to bite through the solidest urgan armor. Corielle's staff would deflect a sword and rattle their heads but be useless against all but ruined iron and steel. Did I detect a cool mist coming off the sinews of wood, or was I going mad with the fever of hope?

As the rabid march of pigs appeared I knew in my stomach which to believe.

Corielle stood beside Ben, ready to greet the urgans.

No one actually cares, I thought. Look at them, like children watching the fireplace for San Nikklau instead of drawing the line for the plague of urgans. I buried my face in my hands.

There could be only one reason that able bodied young adults would embrace the scourge before them. Death had visited them, had kidnapped their loved ones. They wanted to join them beyond the gates.

For their part, they stood with grace and ease, ready to do battle as freemen should.

I thought of Ker–as he had been, strong and big and proud. He would have been the same in the kitchen of a dragon. Being an urgan meant never having to cower. But so did being a freeman. I raised my head.

The head urgan carried a twisted spear. He called in broken Krolesh, "Surrender and you make dead quick. No medkek."

Medkek–my stomach wanted to spit up the knowledge of that. Red hot, ready to be beaten into shape–it was a word for steel in an urgan forge, yes, but also for prisoners. "Please, High King, do not let them understand the urgan"

Ben sneered and brandished his sword. "Ah cute piglets. I would love to watch you try to … whatever."

The first one lowered his spear. "Thorga not like this." He lowered his head and charged.

Like a clueless child, Ben gawked, veering off impossibly late. The blade of the spear squeaked itself dull on his breastplate.

His cutlass hung useless, reverse grip in his off hand, sliding between the urgan's elbow and breastplate.

A green splash and a squeal from the urgan tell that Ben's blade went deeper than it should.

Everybody knew that reverse grip had no purpose, even the drooling urga. Everybody except Ben, who knew how to deliver a masterstroke with this wrong tactic.

The hapless point-urgan strode into Corielle's attack, looking up in time to catch the foot of the staff in the snout, and the head of it from the back of his helmet.

He stumbled to the ground behind them. He planted his spear to stand, only to sag back to the dirt, nose down and still.

The third row of attackers slapped one another.

A tall black boar of a bladesman snorted, "I'd no idea he was so thorgabent. I'd have shattered him myself."

His left partner backhanded him. "You'd have tried, little one."

From far back one growled, "Save the boy for last. Golden-haired piglets make best stew."

But Ben and Corielle showed no disgust at the monstrous banter, for which I thanked the High King.

Ben lanced the jowls of an urgan carrying an ornamental headsman''s axe–childishly huge -bladed thing. She probably didn't even feel herself bleeding out.

Corielle caught a true long handled battleaxe, pulling it out of the urgan's second hand before braining him. Stupidly he tried to lift it one handed as it plunged and bit the ground, tripping him in the process.

With another stroke she drove his nose into his brain. Instant death.

The urgans had no idea how far they came from actually landing a blade. If they had, they would not have felt the need to test these heroes before me.

Every masterful stroke of Ben's cutlass parried an ax or dug between plates of armor. The sweeping swings of Corielle's staff sprained necks and ankles and tripped and brained the enemy.

It all happened too fast to even see with my speaking mind.

Behind every one that fell, ten more waited. And how many scores more besides? Inside of me the delicate candle of hope petered. With it, Sigrun's fear flickered and died out.

At the same time I looked upon the urgans, wild and rowdy, running with eager abandon for their death–not circling like a moth, but racing to test themselves. Would they live or die? Would it be glorious or horrid? The time had come to find out.

What's more I thought of Ker, of the power of his presence. Of a life lived by dint of one's own arms and lungs. Of living and dying as if success and failure were all plotted out.

With the death of Sigrun the thorga child, was born another. After the death of the world, when things can only get better,one can do nothing to stop the dawn. An idea rose up in my lungs, and burned my forheajd.

I threw aside the rat-hovel and leaped down. With steps that would have made Ker proud, I swaggered forth.

The world cared not. The battle raged.

My arms shook limp, my legs barely held away the earth.

I would faint dead away the moment that it struck me, yet I would rather die among them, offering the little I could. With a voice that came from Ker's ancient fathers, I raised my hands. My voice thundered, "Tho, mek medkek. Ha mek thorgabent."

The entire army of urga, frozen in their formation, gawked in silence. Their faces wore the question: Had this little girl told them to prepare to be beaten into shape? Did she really mean to reduce them to cowering shadows of human weakness?

Corielle shattered six noses and disarmed a half dozen more.

Ben's sword sliced throats, stabbed hearts, and cut away fingers.

"Shaman girl destroy all!" screamed a huge urgan, who turned and ran even before his sword clattered to the ground.

8u vOne by one, the monster men turned, finally stampeded in horror of the monster that matched my voice.

The suicidal rage hit a boiling point in me, and the idea of me thretening an army–even the weakest of them–seemed so absurd that it took my breath away. Like a crushing serpent around my lungs, the laughter took my breath. I doubled over, gasping and cackling.

The last thing I remember, a set of willowy arms beneath my ribs lifting me away.


Next I new, I found myself lying in Corielle's lap. She smiled down upon me as we rode toward the sun.

Corielle pulled the reins to stop the horses. "The bridge is just a half mile down."

"Our horse won't hurt the river."

"How much more suspicious will they be, us crossing so near the bridge?"

"I'd rather not stain my sword with human blood." He huffed. "Even the worst constables are better than the best bandits."

"You don't think they know about the urgans?"

"From your mouth to the ears of the dragons."" He turned his horse to the river.

"Hold there," the guard said, standing in front of the bridge.

Ben slowed. "Hail, good fellow." He offered a piece of paper to the guard.

His partner stood beside Corielle.

"This can't be your daughter." The blond man drew his morning star from his belt.

Ben coughed. "We ran into some urgans. Her parents fought valiantly."

I nodded, looking scared.

"Look at her, the girl is frightened. These aren't her friends." The blond man declared.

"Have a little respect. Her parents just died." The scarred old man reached out to brush my hair. "Probably the first pork face she ever saw."

Urgans are people, not pork faces! I flinched away from his nasty word.

The "This isn't a travelling caravan. They probably killed her parents or kidnapped her."

Ben leaned over to whisper, "They were saving her for lunch."

The men frowned and the old man grabbed for his weapon.

"I have granted her sanctuary," Corielle soothed, "By the offices of the divine, it is my duty to take her to safety."

"Your eldritch gods have no place in a lawful society," the old man said.

The blond wagged his morning star and spat. "It seems she'd be safer with us than with some flighty elf and a half pint."

Ben's hand twitched toward his sword as he inched forward in his seat. Corielle grabbed a necklace and displayed it, as though trying to frighten an unseelie fairy.

From above, a light shimmered down upon her. Her pendant glowed with divine fire, or so I imagined.

"Our intentions are lawful," she said, spraying him with the light from above. "We are the custodians of this child."

"I ain't some vampire afraid of a necklace," the blond fumed. "Release…"

"Murphy, you never did have the sense to come in out of the rain." The old man stepped in front of him. "Now stand down and let them pass."

"For the love of the Forest Mother," the blond swore. "If you let that child go…"

The old man shook his head. "Can you not feel the holy presence?"

He curled his lip. "Just because they smell good, doesn't…"

"You will stand down." The old man pushed the blond back.

"I will report you."

The old man turned to Corielle. "Send my apologies to the High King."

Twice I had nearly brought harm to Corielle and Ben. More surely would come. Did they understand what they had brought upon themselves? I looked to the clouds, to the squirrels in the trees.

Nothing. The entire world seemed empty of guidance, not a hint to be seen. Had my pixies abandoned xssxssme? It could not be that I simply was on the right track.

The walls of the city rose up against the eastern sky. Ten score people rode in ahead of us.

The glass statue of Medusa stood watch over all, her hair pointing at each of us as we passed in.

The shadow of the gate fell upon me, marking my passage from one life to another.

Tears welled up in my eyes and I dared not say goodbye. There was still time, I could let my courage falter.

I looked at Carolie, into her eyes. I looked also to Ben, felt his warmth upon me.

When at that moment, fear turned directions. They were truly thorga–glass urgans. Delicate and precious, beyond measure. I could not let the wild dark smoke of the evil pixies near them.

I had not understood the fear in mother's eyes. Had asked so many times why had she run from me. What about me could be so terrible that she would prefer the blades of the cave urgan battle machine to her own daughter?

But the shards of a broken person, those could never be picked clear. I would never be able to free myself of Myrrha's pain. If I destroyed Corielle? Or if I watched Ben catch an ax for me?

My family was crazy brave with their own safety because they knew. A body could only be hurt so much, but a heart?

I edged toward thestreet, dangling my feet off the cart. People moved in and about the slow moving cart.

So it was that I fell to the cobblestones like a lost coin, snatched up by the crowd just as quickly.

Moments later I heard them calling for their lost little friend that stole herself away.

My eyes blinded themselves with tears; my throat ached to call out. I needed Ben and Corielle desperately, but could never be safe in their presence.

Every person in the city scowled too fiercely and moved too quickly to be interested in a little orphan; and so much the better. I lacked the strength to abandon another circle of friends.

Soon I learned to look between the people.

There were abandoned buildings, bird-filled balconies, and dark alleys where the rats ruled. It wasn't the mazes beyond, but there would be plenty of room for a wicked little deserter to hide.

The cold gathered and intensified, until the clouds began to weep. The rain gathered in my shirt and pressed the linens around my shoulders and against my cleaver.

Seeking shelter, I ducked down an alley.

I found a rotten crate that the rats had cleaned of garbage. It seemed more mansion than I would ever hope to deserve. Cold and empty, in heart and stomach, I curled up and fell asleep.

I awoke to find myself feeling clean.

I pulled out the cleaver, cutting my chest as I did.

Ker's blood had been there. I supposed that made me blood brother to him, as if our shared tragedy hadn't been enough. I looked around.

Giant red-furred jumping spiders crawled about looking for rats, easily the size of an apple.

My stomach growled angrily. The reds tasted bitter and would sour the unfortunate stomach that took them in, unlike the delicate violets that hunted the forest. But for the determined survivalist, they would strengthen the stomach and fend off starvation far better.

I raised the cleaver and looked out on the empty street ahead of me.

A fat boy dressed in fine robes of blue happened by, carrying a stick of meat–was that chicken? Beef? Violet ratspider? He looked at a scroll as he waddled by chewing at the kebab.

Every instinct inside me told me to grab the food and eat it before he could.

He looked up and the strange windows on his face slipped down his nose as he jumped. "It…" he tossed me the kebab. "It's okay; I–I guess I'm not that hungry."

I plucked it from the air, my body vibrating with pleasure.

He grunted in relief and ran.

"Wait!" Those robes were worth more than Mack and Myrrha's entire homestead. The stitching had to have taken a year. Even the men at the Duke's court did not dress so finely. The boy had eaten more than my entire family. He'd never missed a meal. And yet, I found myself chasing down the boy to return the stolen food.

His fat legs could not move half so fast as I did. He stumbled and threw his hands up. "I can get you more! Just, hold off."

Bloodsister of Ker, indeed. That's all this boy saw–a monster who by force of arms could take what she wanted. An all-consuming hunger that threatened to destroy him. And I might be broken, by fate, by Korog–by my own human weakness. But while I could not slay the monster in my belly, I could reign her in. I would not let Sigrun dishonor herself the way I already had dishonored her. "No, that's not right. This, it's yours. Take it. Please."

He stood as far as he could, taking it gingerly. "Um, then why have your kitchen ax out?"

The thought of ratspider meat made me want to throw up as I looked back at my alley. I lowered my stupid cleaver. "Hunting."

"You clearly need this more than me." But his lips quivered as he said that.

My pixies might have abandoned me–and deservedly so–but I would not abandon anything they taught. Standards made the difference between a freeman and a wretch. I had lost most of mine and would hold those few I still had left. "Not right, robbing."

"Yes, well, that's evident, I suppose." He pushed his glasses up on his nose and stepped back. "With your permission, my lady, I'd like to recuse myself as you look… ready to eat me."

I nodded, lowering my cleaver.

He turned and ran for all he could.

"Wouldn't have hurt him," I whined, licking my fingers sadly.

"Right noble, what you said to Olliver." A beefier boy in an ill-fitting leather cuirass swaggered up to me. He waved his table leg in my face. "Robbing ain't right for you, it is for Collen. You won't be needing your ax."

This one had something under his layer of fat. He'd have the strength to finish the sword lessons that stumped me. His hands had scars from where he had, evidently, tried to train. But his face and shoulders were as smooth and unmarked as the rich boy. Also, though he puffed out his chest and raised his chin, he didn't bother to watch me–he was too busy trying to impress. He'd never met a real fight–not even a sparring match, by my guess. The future held a lot of hard decisions, but this wasn't one of them. I didn't have a table leg and freemen didn't cut up peasants–not even for honor. I stepped back, lowered my chin like I was scared, and smirked. "Yes I will!"

The table leg went over his head and almost hit me on the backswing.

I got a stone's throw from him by the time he turned.

He took a few steps, but even at an all-out run, those ox-heavy legs couldn't keep pace with my leaping-lamb build. He stopped and sulked. "Yeah, well, better not show your face. Collen here will thump you for runnin', sooner than later."

I ducked around the corner.

"Didn't want her silly toy anyhow."

He probably would clobber me, one day while I slept. Still, worth it–if I ever saw Sigrun in the mirror, I wanted her to like me. That is, if she could ever forgive me for Myrrha, and Mack.

In time I made it back to my alley where the ratspiders lived. Shaking with the cold and my hunger, I swung and missed a ratspider by the breadth of a leg.

They did not move far from me.

I jumped again, and again. Ten times, and another ten. Each swing took something out of me and I got farther and farther from my mark. It dulled my senses far more than the wall dulled my blade. By the time I finished, it felt easily ten-score.

Dizzy and tired, I decided it better to die of hunger than fall and break my neck. I slumped against the wall.

One of the rats, a little white and black spotted one, came up and crawled on my toes.

She looked me in the eye and sat beside me.

Tiny, and dusty, with hungry ribs easily seen, this little creature shared much in common. I imagined her mother had been eaten by a spider. The people certainly had no use for her.

Above my head, one of the spiders crawled.

I thought of Vog's rant in the bedroom, how his desire had consumed his weakness and sharpened him.

I kept the spirit of that, shaping an oath that would spell doom for the marauding spider. "Always I shall turn to you until I have destroyed you."

I struck the ratspider.

Two legs fell to my feet and the six legged monster rushed away.

I shuddered. The smoke of Korog's fey had not done that–it had been me. My hate. Had the spider really been doing anything different than me?

My rat friend twitched her nose and ran for the shadows.

I pitched together a few loose bits from broken crates, brushed aside any flammable debris. With much effort, I managed to start a fire.

I balanced the legs on my cleaver over the fire.

Oils dripped and the meat shrank to half of the shell. The remainder turned an unnatural green.

I bit in and forced the putrid meat down. My stomach tried to reject it but the hunger held it fast as I choked down the second.

It seemed right that I should eat such things.

My spindly little fire hissed and cracked at the last of its meager fuel.

"Stupid kid. You can't be starting fires in the street." A man in a dark blue uniform stamped out the last embers of my fire, forcing a smile with his teeth that didn't show in his eyes.

The man's boots crushed it all from me. Dampened the fading fire inside me.

"Go on, get out. Little varmint!"

I ran.

Like an invisible ball and chain, My own spirits dragged me down.

But still I got away, because the watchman didn't chase, didn't need to. I wasn't that important. He wanted me gone. And I always had been.


Collen found me in every alley, every pile of junk that I found to hide. I took to looking up, a fortress less hidden and more defensible.

I chose a balcony of stone, abandoned except for an old cat that seemed content growling his protest.

I fashioned a torch from odds and bobs. I sweated my ratspider kebab. Once dried, an extra dose of flame covered the mealy mess in char, a layer of despair over the throbbing guilt. The smoky flavor almost held my disgust out of mind. But a deserter should live like this, eat like this, and that little bit of justice tasted sweet.

It wasn't only, or even mainly, the food that made my stomach squirm, though. Every time I relaxed I brought to mind my part in the battle between Ker and Mack. I tried not to ask whose job it was, to stop that; I didn't like my answer. To that end, I trained myself to mind the street. Vigilance, the drink of choice among grieving freemen.

By and large, the people of Balthispeare– shopkeepers and urchins alike–seemed too large to bother, too busy and too angry to deal with the likes of a lost little human rat.

I supposed they hadn't even a clue that things could be better. Either way, I kept out of their way, hiding in my balcony, being sure not to be seen by Collen, and watching the people in the square.

I watched the sad blond boy they called Dust. I watched him talk to people that weren't there–I could almost see his fire-haired ghost that clung to him. I watched him as he prowled the streets and ruled the other children.

Of all the people, he alone understood me. He not only saw my sadness, but planned to do something about it.

I watched each day at the second bell as Olliver went to the food vendors, and as Collen went looking for fights among people more my size than his.

As the bell clanged, Oliver wandered to the cookhouse tracing letters in the air.

I made them out. I saw a g and an x and a r and a bunch of others that Mack didn't know.

As Oliver checked his scroll for the right letters he tripped over a stone and bumped into a pickpocket.

A flash lit up the shadows the thief cast upon Oliver.

The young man shuddered a moment, and ran yelping and shaking his hand as though it had been bitten.

Olivet, confused, looked either way and proceeded to the old man in front of the cookhouse.

I could almost smell the duck meat, and taste the pickled vorend sauce that could make the worst ratspider taste good.

I could have been forgiven for not noticing how Dust had begun to shadow Oliver.

For his part, Oliver stumbled about in the rough cobblestone market, mumbling to his scroll.

Like a cat after a mouse, Dust shadowed Oliver.

I had a flash of headache as I tried to remember the boy's name. "Hey, dumb kid! Don't make it so easy! Olliver!"

Stunned like the flock of urgans, Oliver–mouth agape–stood and scanned the crowd ahead.

Dust rushed behind him, his hand like a hawk's talons on the kebab. "Thanks, dumb girl!" Dust called out, tossing the food to another boy.

I backed against the wall behind me and hit my head in rage. Face in hands, I sank to the floor.

The stone showed no sign of pity.

Everything I touched turned bad. I cursed the High King for letting me live instead of Mack or Myrrha. Guilt turned to sulking and sulking to sleep.

Before me, on the tines of the pitchfork, the heads of Mack and Ker glared at me.

They had not both been face up, and had not been in my balcony. But I had questions to ask. "Why?"

Mack's head cleared his throat. "You know why. Our lies gave you no reason to comply."

"I mean whose job was it to stop this? You obviously couldn't. Ker couldn't."

Ker snorted. "Wolf Man said no talk Korog but good ruleschange."

"Old Man Wolf warned me as well, to rein you in."

"So I am at fault. It can't be."

"Tho queestion. Sigrun no ask; mek thorgabent."

Foolish question? "I am a thorga." I scowled and stamped my feet.

Their dead eyes stared into me.

"This wasn't supposed to happen."

"Well, Sigrun," Mack began.

A rock hit me in the face.
I opened my eyes to see another bounce off the wall and hit me in the eyelid.

I found myself leaning against the balcony ledge. Dust peered over my shoulder and somehow managed to throw pebbles at my face.

"Wanted to touch base with you. I appreciate you working your mojo on Oliver, but I'll thank you not to interfere in my affairs."

I looked back at him, hanging by his elbows off the balcony wall like the horned pixie in Mother's books–the one that whispers lies into your head. "It's not right."

"Collen told me that story." Dust huffed. "But get this and mark it well, Watch Girl. Robbing might not be allowed up here in your citadel of the angels, but down there, it's my world."

"There' re other ways to survive."

"Ratspiders agree with you?" He laughed. "Enjoy your gray skin and rotten tongue."

He knew my hunting plans. Did he know everything?

He shrugged. "Just stay out of my work."

"No promises."

He sighed. "Then, I can't speak to your safety either."

I shrugged. I got a much colder sense than Old Man Wolf, much more in line with Vivianca. At any rate, safety ranked low. "That's nice."

"Won't be the first warning you've ignored." He shrugged. "Could be the last."

I hoped justice would finally come for me.

He slipped off the balcony, down to the earth below.


I wandered about, foraging, staying out of people's path. Kermit, the watchman who stamped out my fires, followed a predictable pattern. I followed in his wake, not wanting to see his face.

I kept thinking he suspected what I had done. That I had burned down my family's house. They tell that's what happened to his home.

In the midst of foraging I found a few things. The rats pointed out a clockwork bit that fell out of a man's bag. I trailed the man to his home and left it on his window.

Another kept leading me to a copse of orren mushrooms. I didn't know what they wanted until I saw the smith's boy's lesions. I cooked the mushrooms and gave him the medicine.

In a few days his lesions had scabbed over and he walked fully upright.

The boy was on the mend. I glared in confusion at the smith and his wife, dragging their boy past the real medicine to the same pock-marked apothecary who ignored it. I hoped I would never be that asleep on my post.

While I couldn't see the flame crown on the mice, that didn't mean they weren't messengers of the High King. Now when I feared to look in their eyes, feared to see who was really supposed to save Mack and Myrrha, and what I could do to make amends.

I could never pay that back, could never fill the hole. I could only hope to bandage it with a few kind deeds, and extend the wait for final justice a few, empty days.

With each passing day, as the frazzled look on the adults spoke more of accusation, I retreated further into the shadows. I counted only one face that would never judge me: the king of the streets, the kid they called Dust.

The ratspider watched me, smoke crown floating about its head.

The possessed ratspider hovered well within reach of my cleaver, as if begging me to take on the smoky crown.

I never knowingly hunted one of them.

A ratspider led my gaze down a dark alley, where I came upon Kermit, looking at a shrine someone had made.

"Never again, Carlotta." he sobbed Clearing his throat, he continued. "They call us glass people."

I felt for him. A full grown man, twice my height, with a stout warrior's build. Still totally helpless against the urgan menace.

"It's not because we are fragile, but because we care about foolish things."

Tho, the urgan word for foolishness and fraud, really meant 'glass.' I thought 'thorga' meant we made foolish fake things, or that we were fake, foolish urgans.

"I was corrupted by my desire to be a good and fair man. Vogbarad seemed a good enough man, and only half urgan. I am so sorry I let him in my house. So sorry I let him in my world."

"He didn't even want to hurt you! That's how monstrous they are. He never understood, thought it was your fault his 'playful slap laid you dead."

I stepped back, unable to understand. Naked and exposed, I looked into the ratspider's eyes.

The smoke creeped up to me.

I fumbled for my cleaver, vaguely aware that I could put the blame on Kermit. He had known the darkness of the urgan heart, the evil that Circe had wrought on the world in forging the urgan menace. Perhaps he should have slain Ker. I could deliver my judgment to him, and be done with the load of guilt that haunted me.

He kept his back to me, as if awaiting my decision.

But that was a will o' wisp leading down the smoky path. I wasn't that far gone; the pixies didn't need a tho Mack to preach. Choking down my bloodthirsty frustration, I turned from him, back toward the sunlit path in the middle of the plaza.

Even then, the glittering day could neither warm me nor tell me where to aim my feet.

I wondered if Erinos really had found a labyrinth or only a city. I dared think that, like Erinos, all these people were more lost than wicked, more guilty than harmful.

I wanted so badly to find the person to blame, to cut them down, or to be cut down. Every sound–the clack of wagon wheels, the cawing of birds– seemed to be chanting, begging me for an answer. Whose job was it to protect my innocent aunt and uncle?

But in my bones I knew the answer, and I could not bear to hear it. The mazes of Balthispeare could not hide me, and the chatter of children could not drown out Myrrha's screams. How long would I run, before finally finding the punishment I deserved?

I cooked my ratspider legs, drowning them in the fires, hoping to smoke over the disgust. But no amount of fire could cover what was inherently bad.

I choked it down and sat against the wall. With the back of my head, I taped out the rhythm of my question, "Whose job? Whose job was it?"

One day I hoped it would be enough–that I would punish myself enough to make Myrrha feel better, to make the real Mack visit me in spirit. Till then I could only cover a bit of the pain in my gut with the headache.

As my will weakened, my rhythm slowed and my head sagged against my shoulders.

A thousand urgans on pitchforks stood before me as a sharp sensation flashed in my forehead and the orange light flooded my vision.

I grunted softly.

Another pebble hit me dead center in my forehead as my eyes flickered open to see a figure sitting ahead of me, on the wall of my balcony.

For a moment I thought I had a twin, or a demon conjured from a mirror.

Straw white hair, a hungry haunted look, blue eyes that saw me—saw straight through Sigrun, to the haunt that possessed her bones. "Bout time you answered my summons," and flicked a miniature sling sending a pebble right to the already-sore spot in my head.

"What," I said, blocking any further attack, "is the problem?"

"No problem, Watch Girl." He stretched, and hung over the ledge like before. "I got your number. Viv said to call you in on this one."

Why did that name sound familiar? I stretched and stood. "I don't want any of your games."

"But this one is right up your alley, lives in your special crate Viv said." He laughed.

Hanging by his elbows off the ledge, he seemed a smidge smaller, less threatening–but despite his small frame, I felt no safer than among Korog's men. "Now, who? No. What?"

"We've got invaders. They want to come in, ruin our neighborhood."

"So, the watch…"

"You're not gonna believe. I didn't." He paused until I wanted to scream. "They're urgan."

I could finally strike against real enemies–and die fighting for my people, as I should have done. Something didn't echo right, I knew; but the cold inside felt good for a change. If he wore a wreath of smoke about his head, I could forgive that.

"If you're interested in taking action, then follow me." He raised his hands and slipped down.

I sprung to my feet and leapt down behind him.

"I knew that would hook you." He led on.

He took me through the twists and turns of Balthispeare, down back alleys and in places where adults could never tread.

In the little nook between places housed a bench where Collen sat beside Olliver, like a bounty hunter with a wealthy and somewhat befuddled trophy. Collen raised his table leg. "Hey, I told you what would happen…"

"Down boy," Dust said. "She's with me."

Collen pouted. "I guess you get a pass, then."

Dust smirked. "More like you get a pass. She's our own junior Watch Captain."

Collen gaped, as if angered by the idea that he couldn't handle a girl.

"Down, boy. Mind your place." Dustin ruffled Collen's hair and turned toward me. "You know Collen, and, I gather, also Olliver here."

I peered at Oliver, who seemed as comfortable as a hen at a kebab kitchen.

"Ooh, you're the girl tried to help me."

"I'm sorry I couldn't help more."

Dust grinned and pinched Oliver's fat cheek. "I'm not. Olliver has to pay his fair share."

"It's a trifle," Olliver said, looking down at a silver bell on his belt. "My family provides susten–ah, we do all right."

"You see? Olliver gets it." Dust looked sharply at me and Collen, as though we did not.

"So what gives? It doesn't seem like Olliver is qualified to run with you boys."

"There is room in my empire for everyone," Dust declared. Then, after a moment, he whispered, "If they can accept their place."

The tone of that made me step back half a foot. After an uncomfortable silence, I cleared my throat. "So, what's the story?"

"Well, the urgan menace has come to Balthispeare, and it threatens Olliver as much as it does you or me."

He had said as much. "And?"

"We're about to send the first urgan to the mazes beyond."

You don't send people to the mazes; they run there. "Fair enough, but how? We're not exactly mercenaries."

"Well, blue money bags here is gonna buy himself something nice and tasty. Then he bumbles about… "

"He's bait?"

"Oh, my yes," Olliver said. "Please help, Watch."

The fear in his eyes said it all. "Mazes below."

"It was his idea."

"I referenced the Manual of General Ruses," Olliver said, paling. "I did not suggest using myself as a sacrificial pawn."

"Very wise of you to give me credit for your scholarship," Dust said.

Olliver straightened at the word 'wise' in spite of himself.

"And brave of you, as well. The empire will reward you, should you survive."

Oliver got red in the face and edged toward the end of his seat.

"Have some faith. We're all going to the gates but none of us today." He lowered his chin and smiled, staring at Oliver through his eyebrows.

"Don't… do not… don't do that." Oliver looked away, pulling at his collar.

Dust stepped too close to Oliver. "Unless you're saying that I'm not worthy to lead?"

Oliver started to sweat, and play with the silver bell on his belt.

Dust swaggered one slow step forward. "You saying that you would be a better leader?"

Of course he would be, I thought, but bit my tongue. A drunken rock would be better.

"Not in any manner am I saying that," Oliver whimpered.

He's too smart to say that. I'm not. I stepped forward.

But Dust broke his vicious madman stare and smiled, patting Oliver on the back. "Good to hear you're on board."

Didn't say that, either. Dust fenced with words as well as Myrrha's swordsmanship.

Dust held his own tongue to force Oliver's.

"Yes, well, certainly it is the classic option." Oliver straightened his robe. "Against a superior opponent."

Dust smirked and, quietly, purred, "We shall prove ourselves superior."

"Of course, you take my meaning." Oliver refused to look Dust in the eye.

Mack appeared, eying Oliver, brow furrowed.

The boy didn't belong in this fight. "Well, Mack?"

Mack watched.

Dust's autumn elf ghost–with hair of fire and rich, bark toned skin–turned and stormed off through the wall, shaking her head at the boy.

"Don't mind the girl," Dust told me. "Doesn't understand the human heart."

"So what is the plan?"

"Collen comes raging at the marauding orc," Dust paused at that term.

I twitched at the nasty word for urgan–whether because it was rude, or because it was too thorga, I could not say.

Dust nodded and smiled. "His club held high. You and I come in from behind."

I looked again at our crew. Three boys and a warrior who together might weigh less than our opponent's arms. I ignored the question of why an urgan might rob Oliver, and focused on what Dust might really be planning. "If you'll excuse me, we're kind of small for this job."

"We'll let you lead the next offensive, Watch Girl." He sneered. "Trust me, this'll be glorious."

"Ambushes can be many things." Mack shook his head. "'Glorious' has never been one of them."

Dust's plan fell apart in my mind. The four of us could get to the field, but from there? I imagined Collen rising from wanna-be-bully to impudent champion–unlikely enough. Dust pulling his back alley stratagem brilliantly—that much seemed reasonable. Whatever Dust did might never be good, but he did it well.

Then I foresaw the urgan grabbing Collen's club after allowing a few blows. The urgan would punch him across the field.

I would slip in and get his attention while the others slipped off.

Toe to toe with urgan death, like it should have been in the kitchen. I smiled, and nodded.

Dust and Collen slapped hands and shared grins. Oliver took a deep breath, and tugged his collar.

The boys thought I liked our chances. Little did they know. Victory would be sweet, surely, and I would do everything in my power, but all I needed was for the three children to slip away in the confusion. The thought of doing my family proud–for the first and final time–brought a grin that would look at home on Dust's face.

Dust reached out his fist to Collen, who matched the gesture. At Dust's glare, Oliver joined, leaving room for me. The three eyed me expectantly

I closed my eyes to cover my eyeroll before touching knuckles with the boys. "All right, I'm in, but keep your head down."I eyed Dust.

"Aren't you adorable." Dust chuckled. "Just don't be afraid to get your hands dirty."

The smoke of the night hung thick, casting a halo about the mage lights of the city. Fire haired Kiele paced, looking away.

The smoke brought Kiele against her will to see what she could not bear to watch. It also muffled her calls to me; I was not meant to hear. Like a cloak about my shoulders, it hung in the air but waited for my invitation. However well suited its cast was to my mission, I needed my acts to be my own.

Collen strode about half in shadow under my balcony. Dust knelt touring with some rocks, looking the innocent boy.

In the middle of the plaza, Oliver carried his bag of pastries. His hands and his voice shook.. "Where are my friends? I hate wandering alone. I hope nobody takes these donuts."

So much sweat dripped from Oliver's brow that it made my forehead itch, even through the soul-smothering haze. His clumsy act would scare off any human rogue, but the implied threat of a setup could draw the urgan bastards hunting for kids to rob. I took my place at the edge, in tht twilight band between the night and the magelights–to the right of Dust, on the far corner from Collen.

Small even for a human, a pig-nosed green shadow skulked in the shadows, looking at Oliver but creeping zig-zag toward him. His head darted about, jumping and cringing at every sound.

The dehumanizing smoke multiplied my alarm at the impossible sight of a frightened urgan, even a piglet. "Dust, we have to call it off."

"Hush, Watch. I told you we had it in hand."

In that instant I understood Kiele's distress.

Dust laid a reassuring hand on me. "We got this. It's gonna be great."

There was still time for me to abort. The night could swallow me.

"Oh I hope my friends save me. I am alone here," Oliver called.

Dust smiled at that, eying me.

He knew if my hate could not drive me to this dastardly act, my code would bind me to it. Oliver had been the bait, but I wondered for who he had set the trap?

"I got you."

Kiele looked at me with sadness in her eyes.

Oliver looked down at a scroll.

Just then the urgan sprang from the shadows.

Collen roared and charged.

Oliver stood tall and read from the scroll. Blue fire sparked at his fingers.

The urgan ran past and grabbed the bag.

Oliver pointed and threw the blue fire at the urgan's feet, freezing his boots to the cobblestones.

The urgan fell flat on his face as the boots cracked and split rather than release the ground. Ice ran up his legs and cracked his skin, letting it bleed green.

Dust strolled up to him, pulling out a straight smoking tube..

"I mek bad self," The piglet stammered. "I mek found donuts for you."

"Shh," Dust whispered, and puffed dust from his blowtube.

"Shaman Dust, plea...ack" He coughed and coughed, struggling and slipping away.

The dust clung to the piglet's face.

I knew where that venomous Dust got his name. "This was a murder."

"Not at all." Dust bowed, held his hand up to me. "We saved him for you."

Collen bounced and grinned. "We know how much you hate them dirty pigs."

The 'smile' on Oliver's face didn't reach his eyes as he pulled desperately at his collar.

"For it to be murder, Oliver," Dust said, "Wouldn't that mean this boy is a person?"

Oliver "um, well, actuallyy…"

"He glared at the bo and shrugged. "Don't answer that."

I lookd down, at the boy. The truth is I didn't much care who paid the price, so long as somebody did–even me. That's who I saw, laying there, face down. A little refugee running scared, doing all she could. None of it turning out good.

It would be so easy to kill that little girl and take my place in Dust's empire. I could join an army and strike at the evil spreading misery among the people. I could walk in the sun, command respect and what passes for honor..

Surely he did something wrong, had earned our ire somehow, but did he deserve this? Even the High King did not condemn people so easily. Could she do more? I lowered my cleaver.

The smoke turned acrid and started to sting my eyes.

"Really, Watch Girl? Sure that's how you want to play it?"

I looked sadly at the boy, longing for all that this would buy me. Then, slowly, I nodded.

Collen stamped and swung his club.

Kiele put her hand over her chest in relief.

"Those ideals worked so well for your friend," He gave Collen the thumbs up, and cleared his throat. "Kermit? If that's how you're going to be, why don't you…"

My skin crawled at the thought of what he was about to say.

"Go home. I'm sure your family misses you."

He does know everything. I looked around in the smoke for Mack's face. Gone.

Collen grinned over the pig, swinging his club over his head in prep.

My arms might be frail, and my cleaver, small, but I could stop his club. Probably only once, but I might destroy it. After that, I didn't know. I forced myself to breathe, four in, hold, four out, in that repetitive square.

"You know, I'm sure," Oliver mumbled, "that it's been scary for our quarry, Perrin, as well. Perhaps he has learned…"

"Stupid wizard, only thing urgans can learn is to hit sooner and harder." He shrugged. "Something humans must study. What I want to know, Watch Girl…"

Kiele looked rapt, hopeful.

Dust sidled up to my left ear. "When are you going to stand up and take responsibility?"

Kiele made a triumphant gesture that drew a look of contempt from Dust.

Oliver looked about ready to spit his lunch. The boy wizard's discomfort told me he would try to help, but I had created this by my desire to stand against evil. That's what I was doing–as best I could tell–and I didn't need to make things worse. I gave him the warrior's sign to back off, hoping he was broadly-read enough to understand.

He took a deep breath and walked away, holding his stomach.

"Collen, I know you're bad, and you're proud of it, but just don't."

Collen tilted his head. "What do ya mean?"

"Keep at it." Dust waved at Collen to come with him. "You've got what it takes, and one day you'll turn someone. Maybe even Collen."

Collen raised his arms in victory. "Yeah! You heard me. "

Once the other boys left, Oliver stepped behind me. "Can I offer you any help?"

I shook my head, and touched knuckles with Oliver. "Don't get tangled up in my mess, Oliver."

"For what it's worth, I'm proud of you."
"Keep that in the tip of that pointy hat."

"I don't wear a pointy hat," he said, and cleared his throat. "In public."

"That's my point. Now get out of here before I get you in more trouble."

He turned and walked off, at a quick pace.

I sat there guarding the piglet till the dust wore off.

"Kack ack," he said, and spat on the ground. Then he looked up, and fear filled his eyes.

I reached out my hand to help him up.

He jumped up and skittered back. "Why you mek ha live? Hate in you eye."

"Ker was an urgan who killed my aunt and uncle. You?"

The piglet snorted.

"He was a warrior. You're just… not. An urgan chief." I wiped the tears of frustration out of my eyes. "I just so wish I could pretend…"

"Thorgabent! Mother say." He hooted and jumped further back. "Preserve rotten garbage it destroy you."

Everybody had warned us. I choked up.

"Mother say thorgabent for let live."

A mother urga would say that. I took a deep breath. "Yeah. Humans are fools. But know this: I speak urga too. Ha mek medkek." I told him like a smith, I'd put the heat on him until he was ready to beat into shape. Nothing like a threat to booze away an urgan's blood.

"Heck kak!" he laughed, skittering back far enough to dodge a thrown cleaver. There, he sat on his haunches and showed me a splayed hand. "Ha mek you owed one from Perrin."

The gesture was sort of an urgan "thumbs up." Round here, last thing I needed, a favor from an urgan. I frowned and whispered, "Just keep it to yourself, Perrin, and we'll be plaza and fair."

Something hit me in the back of the head, leaving a gooey mess. "Pig farmer!" a little boy cried.

Proving my point. The bent over woman that kept the little boys strode up to me with a silver comb and some water. "He's right, you know. The pigs don't belong here. Why do you risk your life for them?"

She had nearly done when I pulled away. "Because maybe I don't belong either."

"Better go where you do." She spat on the ground. "Pig farmer."

In the distance, a flute played. The gentle acceptance melded with my mood to create quite a powerful effect.

My balcony would be overrun before I got fully asleep. I followed the musician's promise of a better day into the darkness between magelights.


One of the mice pointed me to an open door.

I couldn't see his fire crown but he smelled of the High King's court.

The door was ajar, and inside a blanket rolled out for sleeping in. Beside it, a candle and a flint tool. A layer of dust.

I took a deep, restful breath. Was this hint solely to help me?

On the walls there were etchings, in chalk.

They did not stink of Korog's smoke but neither did they mean anything, at least not in common Krolesh. The dust on top of the writing told me this place had been abandoned a while.

My hair stood on edge. The lack of cobwebs in this vault of dust suggested something else lived there. Feet the size of fingers left tracks on the shelves, and the shadows seemed too deep and dark.

I reached among the shelves, moved a few jars.

The shadows stuck in place, and slowly shifted to catch up with the jars.

So my hands could not be seen from inside those suspicious shadows, I hid them beneath the shelf and eased my cleaver into striking position.

Just as I made the decision to strike a patch of darkness jumped on my face, hitting it with seven creepy fingers. A golden warmth filled my face and Mack's front yard came into focus. Confused, I stepped back.

A portal, I guess Oliver might call it; a doorway–large enough to drive Corielle's wagon through–framed the scene.

One thing that my family taught me, it is possible to shrug off reality–to ignore what seemed most solid and most desired. I mean, not only with my faith in the pixies, but in preparation for this moment. I grabbed the thing from my face.

It held on, and the struggle sent waves of pain through me. Not the easy bodily pain, but the pain of stopping Mack and Myrrha's resurrection. Of having to watch them beg me to stop.

I fell to my knees as the thing bit deep into my hand. My hand cramped against my decision as I forced the dream devil spider into a jar and crammed it closed.

A rat pushed a stick of wax at me.

I daren't ask how I knew the purpose of that stick for fear the thing would win the next round, but instead traced the seal of the jar and copied a few of the etchings onto the lid and the jar.

I stepped away.

A fierce fizzing noise escaped, and the jar jerked around before finally settling.

It didn't matter that I did the right thing. That I might get confused about what to say was real and what should be imaginary. My body shook as I tried not to cry.

The tears drew strange lines in the dust.

I didn't care. The battle was over. I didn't mark the tear-sign with chalk, but only let myself weep. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

The intense waves of grief and self hatred, after some few minutes–they might have been hours, or weeks–abated.

I stood and eyed the jars, the wax and chalk.

I placed the spider's trap inside the proper, larger jar and writ the sign for ""danger," warning at least those with a middling education not to –what was the word Oliver used?–not to trifle with the contents therein. "If only someone had warned you," I said to the anonymous person who had previously lived in this cellar.

At last, one of Mack's stories proved true. This dream devil had likely been terrorizing the neighborhood, causing unexplained deaths and needless mischief. At least, if it had been as bad as Mack warned. I had done my duty to the High King. I crawled into the blanket and allowed the real grief that the dream devil had stirred up to have its time with me.

The man of the house, a widower, had lost much sleep. Within a day he reported feeling better than he had in months. He didn't mind me living in his basement, in fact he thought I had been.

But by the third day I found marks on the door saying "Imperial Press Gang."

Dust had found me.That morning I collected myself and left. I wrote a note to my friend upstairs, thanking him for the time but I had to leave.


I set out to find a new place to live, one more connected. An apprenticeship, or at least a job. I needed for people to know me. Perhaps then I might have a chance to get out of the next ratspider trap.

Yet all I found were angry giants. Seeing the grocer pushing a cart, I jumped out of the way and the man only harrumphed and shoved on. A muttering woman nearly tripped over me, also pressed on, not waiting to exchange apologies. The one man that noticed me ushered me out of the way so that some man in fine blue stitchery–perhaps a relative of Oliver–could walk by.

To them I was a rodent under foot. I liked that they were bigger and safe from me; that was how it should be, so I didn't try to get attention.

As the day wore on, I grew tired and my feet grew cold. I cut down alleys and watched people, looking for a sign.

My feet wobbled and my shoulders weighed on me when a familiar, dark blue uniform–Balthispeare Watchman– stepped out at the end of an alley.


The fire stomper. Kermit Velgen, barred my path. I looked behind me, and to either side, and found no escape. I nodded.

"You've been accused of brigandage and terrorizing. I'm going to need your–you have an ax??

When I met Oliver and Perrin. I had been ratspidered. "Myrrha's meat cleaver is the only thing left."

Kermit knelt down to face me. "The only thing left. You mean, from your family?"

Tears came and I pinched them off. I nodded, feeling returned to my childhood. "The urgans broke everything and everyone."

"Everyone." He brushed my hair out of my eyes. "You, most of all."

"I will never let go of it." I meant the cleaver. Not, whatever.

"Stand down." Mack's voice tried to soothe me, "You can achieve nothing here."

"I only want to file off a few edges," Kermit said. "Take some responsibility off you. You surely don't want to hurt anyone in your grief."

"Shake the glass from your helmet. I can't let go of my only legacy."

Kermit curled his lips and his eyes opened wide as his eyebrows pressed down. Then he took a deep breath, and quietly whispered, "Vick was right. You have been contaminated."

Dust peeked out from behind the corner to check upon his ratspider web.

From where I stood, Kermit seemed to be the enemy. "You're going to take the word of that… that…" I had no word.

"You've no idea how much trouble you're in. I should take you to face judgment." He paused.

That seemed to be a theme. Did I want to keep running? I shrugged/

"Sigrun, you know, the judges have never met the Urgan menace." He stared deep into my eyes. "They.. do not understand what the enemy does to us."

Mack laid his hand on my shoulder. "We are with you always."

I brushed him off.

"The blade is but a tool," he told me. "Your legacy is not bound up in some metal."

Mack spoke to the real me, but in this flesh I needed these things. I didn't want to surrender Myrrha, but at times we let them take hostages. It wasn't the worst I'd ever have to do. I pulled my cleaver out, in the less-threatening reverse grip, and gripped the false edge by my off hand. "I want her back."

He gently accepted the blade and sheathed it in his shirt. "When you are of age, come to me."

Like a holy relic, he carried Myrrha's blade near his heart. That didn't help. I turned and ran back.

Out of Dust's ratspider weave, beyond Dust's hiding post. Past the horror of the moment. Past my shame. Away from Mack's knowing eyes, I ran into the infernal smoke of the city.

The smoke didn't cover the city evenly, but came in patches.

I couldn't tell whether the smoky bits drew the hardest people, if they came there to hide, or if they hardened from the smoke. I wished I could talk to Ben again, delve into the lyrics and the lore, ask Corielle if she saw the smoke the same as I. They had things to teach me, things as important as where to grip a sword or when to lay it down. But until I could shake the curse upon me–if that curse was not my essence–I would have to evade them. I could not afford friends, even friends sent by the High King.

Neither could I afford to go it completely alone on Dust's streets. With the children and the ratspiders hunting me, and me without a blade or even the leg of a table. I needed a place to stay.

That's when I came upon a strange sign. A nightbird–awake in the day–fluttered past me and lighted on the sign, depicting, of all things, a green pig in a shack.

The Urgan Inn? I coughed and sputtered. "What kind of glass helmet would…"

People ignored me.

I lowered my head in shame. Kermit was right; I had begun to think like an urgan.. Perhaps the urga tho in my helmet–a head full of orcish foolishness– caused the destruction that swirled about me? Could I really blame the adults? I had to know who was to blame, even though it was surely me. But that wound had been dressed as well as possible, and starving in a gutter would not restore justice. I swallowed it down and pushed through the flimsy oak door.

The main room of the inn smelled of armor oil and sweat. Amid the tables sat rough and ready freemen in their scuffed and polished armor. Swords and axes hung ready, peace ties in hasty false knots or entirely loose. The glow of enchantment leaked from an assortment of sheathes–and not to the richest, or the most grizzled.
The sweet smell of home.

"Quit your gawking, kid." Even the innkeeper wore gambeson armor and sported a spiked club as he carried out a sloppy mug and bowl. "If you borrowed a penny, take a table. This is a place to buy food, not steal."

"I'd rather not,"

"What, leave?" The fat man laughed and stepped forward, as if threatening to barrel me over with his belly. "I can see that. You don't have a place here."

"Steal, actually." I'd die before I stole, but better not to show desperation in a battle, even a battle of words. "Was hoping you could help me with that, the not-stealing?"

"Well, what am I trying to do?"

I tilted my head, and started tracing the stones of the kitchen wall with my fingers.. "You have work and food. What's it going to be?"

"Look around," he said. "Don't these people scare you?"

I'd never heard anything so silly in my life. "What, thorga?" The situation seemed silly.

He folded his arms and stared.

"Humans. There's nothing but humans." I guessed they could be dangerous, men like that, but I didn't feel it. "Yeah, not afraid of humans."

"One of us, eh?" He grabbed me by the face, held me too close. His smokey gray and green eyes studied me. "The danger men, the ones who every once in a while like to visit civilization."

I pulled out of his grip, and started tracing stones on the wall, toward the kitchen door. "So what's it going to be?"

"I don't thi–"

I pushed through the door.

If I thought the host was large, or even Ker, the painfully white ugan in front of me dwarfed them both. "Take out of kitchen rat child."

I went numb in my hands. He meant that to be intimidating, and maybe it was–if his sheer size hadn't flooded me already.

The Inkeeper crept in. "I'm sorry, Briggen. i will…"

"This fine gentleman hired me?"

Briggen eyed the innkeeper. "That sure nice, Logan."

"I was telling her I didn't…"

"Ratchild!" Briggen waved Logan away such that Logan ducked, but needn't have. "You okay work for pigsnout?"

"I'm good with knives and really qui–." My mouth ran dry and my tongue tripped over words. "Quick. I hear we make good stew when we're little. And till then, I'm all kinds of medkek."

Briggen huffed.

Logan blanched.

I couldn't tell whether Logan was more afraid for me or himself, bu I wasn't sure it would matter.

Briggen grabbed me by the shoulder, picked me up and pinned me against the wall. He whispered, "Who precisely do you conceive yourself to be, you fever-stunted, necromantic infestation?"

"I, um, my family called me Sigrun, but…"

Logan, several shades paler, shook his head.

"You are not acquainted with me, nor I you, so you get one chance. Ready to learn? Be true to your word."

Chin tight against my collar bone, I barely managed a nod.

"No one, under any circumstances, is entitled to speak a single word of that inane prattle in my presence. So unless I start off in that trash…"

I couldn't feel my left arm at all. I think I nodded. "Huma talk. Ah, Krolesh."

A satisfied grunt and nod. "Still want work for pigsnout?"

The stone wall beat against my quivering heelsl and I couldn't get enough air to feel comfortable speaking. Did I want to? I had given him great offense; he let me live, making our 'friendship' true against the urgan test. And that meant his intentions toward me were far brighter than those of Dust. Favor the safer of two enemies, in any moment. I slowly raised my head–feeling my neck exposed–in a nod.

"Good talk, rat child. Now take upstairs, clean, sleep before work."

I couldn't wriggle out of his grip. "um, Mr Briggen sir?" I pointed to my shoulder in his fist.

He dropped me the few inches to the floor. "Don't be steponable just now."

Logan backed into the dining room doorway.

Briggen held up two mugs and a bowl to his cowed employee. "Logan, ya rolly chairlubber, you might need this, lest you be ready to pay the ratchildren you hire out of your own purse."

Deciding that a subtle insult might be called for, I turned my back–as an insult to an urgan, but not a thorga–and climbed the stairs. I aftercounted that the big urgan's show of barbarian talk had nothing of Urga language in it. When he struck at Logan, he telegraphed the move and came nowhere near accidentally harming him. Still more telling, everything here in the Urga Inn looked shiny and new. Had his rage ever been more than a show? Even a giant like him could find no safe haven if Dust's adult soldiers ever detected a thorgabent to the big man's spine..

The stairs led to a hall with many doors.

Behind the one I picked, straw poked through the bedding. The mirror hung crooked, beside a clean towel. The basin sported a faucet.

The faucet had no water, noreven any pipes.

In relative safety for the first time in days, I began an emotional aftercount.

In this violent world, Mack had made it clear that a leader needed to decide when it was safe to vent. Sharing tears with one's people counted for more than showing strength in public. In here, I was both leader and crew, and that made it all the more vital.

Ker's voice growled approvingly. "Good. That wash away the glass."

"What?" I had not called to mind my imag/inary urgan.

"Thorga no cry, no laugh. Whole head in bottle."

Head in a bottle? That seemed glassier–more human, even poetic–than Ker's usual taste. Still it echoed the glass helmet they always called us on. I tried to reimagine him as Myrrha instead, or even himself with red hair. But despite all my aunt always said, even with my imaginary friends I was no more a wizard than Oliver was a swordsman. Ker's ghost, if that's what it was, remained.

He sat on an unseen stump. "Like ha mek thorga say, 'keep it bottled up.'"

"Bottled up" in a prison of fraud and foolishness? I scratched my nose and shrugged.

"Need money. Work too slow."Ker snorted. "Sigrun mek dead when sleeping Briggen."

"Murder and robbery? I can't do that."

"Not murder. Justice. Wereguid." Ker stuck his snout in my face close enough to steal my air. "Huma talk for tax on murderer."

He wouldn't go away, and I couldn't make him be someone else. I needed someone to talk to. "Why did Briggen talk to me like that?"

"Briggen want know if Sigrun wants work."

"But he can watch me."

"Briggen shaman blood. Subtle like huma, but sharp like urga. He hate anything maybe, so he test."

"That's stupid." I shivered. "He might have scared off any normal worker."

"Better now than when needed." Ker huffed. "Easy now, just walk in room. Careful, no smoke to mek sleep. Cut hard, mek yours money."

""I told you I can't."

"You cut up pigs for cooking."

"Okay, I can but I won't. It's wrong."

"Huma law say Briggen outlaw for born. Urga law say Briggen job stop Sigrun.

He wielded the rusty slag of his words with total professionalism. I folded my arms. "I just can't."

"Stop fussing. All solved." He laughed. "Easy way."

"I'm not going to kill Briggen for being an urgan!!"

Briggen bellowed, "Shut up rat child people sleep."

Had I ruined another home already? I clamped my hand over my mouth.

Ker laughed. "Never ha ordered. Pointing out why you don't." He stamped away through the walls.

When I woke, I tried my best to clean my face in the remnants of dried tears and climbed to face my urgan landlord.

"Ratchild no listen word. Good." He scrubbed my face with a wet towel and placed a bowl of stew in my hands.

Despite meat only mildly better than ratspider, the veggies and spices and my bottomless hunger made it seem fit for Medusa's table. I cried tears of joy and choked on my words. "Thank…"

"No mind. Eat or it stink." He slapped his belly. "Logan and I barely fit this place."

Facing the door, she had the travel braids of red hair, the green cloak. The odd sheath at her belt, with the left hand curl at the bottom–had the same shape and etching as Lumoc.

My heart leaped. Perhaps the Old Man Wolf had brought them back? Or Shariel? I ran to them. "Hey, it's me!"

But the familiar face of another woman smiled down on me. "Do I–Oh, Sigrun? My, you are a ways from home." She took the mugs from my hands, and my crushed spirit with it.

She gave me a pair of copper pieces, with one small gold Kroll beneath. She winked. "Not for the big guy. This is all you."

I wanted to ask her if she was mother's friend, why had she not helped Myrrha? But I knew the answer. Only one of us could have helped Myrrha. Only one of us was there. Sadly, I pocketed the coins.

A bird screeched.

I jumped. Had it been a shadow raven? I could not see the clouds.

"Go on, then," the woman said, looking at the door outside and winking. "We're not keeping you."

Did she hear an omen? Were there more of us than I ever dared to hope? Or perhaps she had merely discussed it with Myrrha. I stepped outside.

The clouds showed me nothing clear, not like before. I spied a noose and a judges hammer.

A voice in the distance "Please, please, honor. Show mercy."

The voice had been carried too far to be heard, except by the grace of the High King's pixies. Once again, I heard the call.

Mack's voice said, "Don't tell me you didn't hear that."

I had found a place for myself. Sure, Dust had said that I was responsible for the piglet. And to be honest, he was right–nobody else would care. It did mean leaving another home. Would I be welcome after leaving so soon?"

Spiders looked at me from the shadows. The rats watched me as well.

They needn't have. I'd rather have no home than dishonor the space I held. With one last, sad look at the Urga Inn, I turned and ran to see.

"You got believe, honor! I not mek-stolen that shaman Dust's food."

The sound lead me unerringly down the trail. I followed a few skittering mice as well, until I came upon an angry mob in a stark, smoke-filled plaza.

Kermit Velgen presided in the center of the crowd. Beside him, bound and kneeling, the tearful boy piglet Perrin.

"Hear ye, hear ye!" The watchman had the piglet bound beside him. He pointed to Dust, nursing a bloody rag on his forehead. "We have heard the account of the honorable child of humanity, Vick Chant. The valiant human defended himself against the rampaging barbarian you see before you."

Dust winced and held the rag to his forehead, the extent of his 'injury' unclear.

"Please, Honor! No mek dead me. Ha ugly. Ha look mean. Ha no attack. Just want be left alone. You saw. All saw! Shaman friend attack Shaman Dust."

I looked about. People of all ages stood, mesmerized. A few looked uncomfortable, but most thirsted for the blood and the spectacle the law called justice.

They had seen, at least many had, except the Watchman and I. Unless someone spoke, I would see another innocent struck down. All for a slander lesser than Dust had spoken against me. "Your honor, do not trust this boy. His lies nearly compelled me to kill the young urgan before me, as they compelled you to confiscate my cleaver."

"If you had acted in line with reason, this monster would not be standing before us today."

The man believes I should have killed the boy. Looking into Perrin's sad and lonely eyes, I feared he might have been better off.

The watchman stroked his chin. "I have heard you speak their words, and now you speak in their defense. Be glad; you are but a child. The penalty for sympathizers exceeds that for enemies."

"This is no true urgan! You've heard him beg for his life. An ordinary urgan would dare you to kill him, call you thorgabent for hesitating–even for holding this mockery of a trial."

"He would be right." The watchman straightened his collar.

The people roared at that.

"It is a peculiar foolishness of humans. We show mercy to those who are not capable of showing it in return. Merely because they seem somewhat like us."

I stepped forward, but the old woman, that cares for the children, grabbed me.

I strained to escape and yelled at the watchman. "You have no right!"

"I, Kermit Velgen, am a duly appointed officer of the law. Besides. We are at war with the urgan horde. Any citizen has the right—no, the duty—to stand in judgment of the enemy." He looked into the eyes of the piglet.

What he saw reflected in the piglet boy's eyes disgusted him. "This is cruel. I will delay execution no longer." He took my cleaver from his jacket and pulled it down on the skull of the piglet in a single chop.

The boy fell with a yelp, spilling green-black blood as he did.

I rushed forward and scooped him up in my arms as the crowd booed and hissed. The dying boy oozed green-black blood all over, but I didn't care. "Why? Why did they call me to you?" My tears burned behind my eyes but never came.

"You want to believe in them. I sympathize." He laid his hand on my shoulder.

I could not tell if he were speaking of the urgans or of the pixies–or somehow both.

Kermit put away my cleaver and stepped toward the crowd. He raised his voice and flailed his hands. "Get away. Justice is done! Find your entertainment elsewhere."

A cool mist rolled in on top of the smoke.

Ker strode out of the clouds. "Sigrun has answer."

Mack lagged a boot thump behind. "Getting ahead of yourself. Let her get her bearings."

I hugged the boy next to me. I couldn't stop crying.

Ker prodded, "You know. Who stand up?"

"That wasn't my question." I had demanded to know whose duty it had been. Suddenly, I realized, the question had been wrong. "I'm supposed to ask, who will stand up?"

Ker slapped his chest and the men beamed at me.

"It's me. I take the duty as my own."

Ker flapped his arms open and stamped dramatically. Mack nodded with equal approval.

"I mean, that's why I wouldn't hurt Briggen, let alone this boy." I held the boy closer. "But this is wrong. There has to be more."

Ker huffed. "The will mek the way."

Mack shook his head indulgently. "All along you listened, you believed. Now They listen. Ask, and he shall receive."

I put my hand on the boy's wound and pushed with all my heart until the green blood oozed back into his head. The wound pulled tight, as if after weeks of healing, and his breathing smoothed.

Mack smiled and nodded.

No sign of surprise on my uncle's face. .They had done more than merely guide me.

I blinked, and the mist disappeared. With it went Mack and Ker. Green blood covered my hands. The boy's breathing still ran smooth, and the wound seemed smaller, but still bled.

Eggs and pebbles rained down about me.

Between the eggs and pebbles, the familiar hoofbeats of Corielle's horse stirred up tendrils of hope.

"Suren you've outstayed your welcome, me lady," Ben said, grabbing Perrin from my arms.

Corielle grabbed me by my ribs. "Hope you'll forgive being rescued again."
"I don't understand."

"Perhaps we can find a better venue to discuss how your guides found us."

"My imaginary friends?" Only at that moment did I begin to understand that I had never used that word in quite the way everybody else did.

Corielle chuckled and sat me beside Perrin, then pulled the reins as another volley of pebbles and eggs demonstrated the opinion of Dust's army.

Ben fell into his seat.

"Och, they're barely even eggs," he groused. "Suren ye could wait for me to sit before…

But the adults had started moving into place.

"By all means, let's wait for the second wave," she said, winking at Ben. "Or even the constabulary?"

He pulled the reins and urged his horse down the way. "No no, it'll be no trouble 'tall."

We rode out of range before another egg hit, going this way and that before coming to rest at an odd building. It seemed not a place for living nor a house of business—no painting to depict the wares. Instead, the windows had colored pictures of people.

Ben tugged at his sparse beard. "Are you sure we should leave the cart?"

"If a thing happens," Corielle picked up the piglet and walked to the odd door. "I'll buy you another."

"Ah, Corielle, you know right well that I'm the treasurer, and most of our wealth sits right there."

I grabbed the door at her gesture, and she led us all in, including Ben. "Do be a dragonet and sit on the thing if that's what you're about."

Ben and I laughed at that one, and he shut the door behind the four of us. Candles alone lit the dark room. Arches and paintings covered the hall that led downward. The place felt strange, yet familiar, like dreaming about home: nothing sits how it should, yet it belongs the new way.

Corielle carried the boy to the end of the hall to a pink-glowing bed. She laid him down and looked at me. The light didn't reflect on her or anything around. Though Corielle knew about the glow, Ben could not see.

"Unbleeding." It wasn't a word, but that's what happened on that bed.

Corielle nodded. "You know what to do. Put your hand on the wound and push."

I laid my hand on his skull and pressed against it until he squirmed.

Corielle laughed. "No, your breath. Humans would say, heart, whatever. Push with that."

I took a deep breath and willed the pink light into his skull. Little bits of the blood returned to him. The skin pulled together and closed the gap, leaving a subtle pink scar.

My hand shook with the effort and power of the event. The second time made it real.

The piglet awoke and smiled. "Thank you! Standing for ha, Watch Girl." His eyes fluttered and closed.

Not for healing him, or saving him, but for speaking for him–standing beside him. In the madness of battle, in the haze of the healing bed, that's all that counted. Later one might count the outcomes, if fortune granted them such a luxury. I watched for him to take another breath.

Corielle pulled me away. "He's very tired. His spirit must decide whether to hold on to the flesh."

I let go, sliding my hands over his face, and down the side of his bed.

Her knuckle traced a letter on my cheek. "Come, we have much to discuss."

She led me away to a bench, one of many as long as the room. We sat side by side. I leaned against her as she let me rest my head in her lap.

"You understand what your guide said to you about having your answer?"

I wondered how she heard what my imaginary Ker and Mack had said when they existed only in my head, but that would wait. I felt around inside myself. "I'm still sad and angry and confused about Mack and Myrrha." I paused to think again.

She waited, meeting my gaze. The pink light reflected in her emerald eyes.

"After helping that boy, the world doesn't seem so broken." I took a breath. "The magic–that's great. But, just being there…"

Corielle sighed with relief. "So glad to hear that, Sigrun. I have a feeling you're going to be something extraordinary, something we've never seen."

Not someone special, but something. I wondered what she had in mind as I dared to dream a child's dreams—so I thought—of knights and battles and faerie princes.

"Remember, little warrior, you have only begun." She patted my shoulder. "Though it take you many lives, never need you do more than follow your heart. That is all that is asked of any of us."

Beyond the flickering torchlight, at the end of the hall, I caught a glimpse of the flame-haired elf woman that Dust called Kiele, nodding her head at me before turning and disappearing into the darkness. I wanted to ask Corielle if she saw Dust's guide also, but realized that this fire-haired spirit could not reach us.

Weeks like a hundred years had passed through me after the deaths of Mack, Myrrha, and Ker. Like taking arms against a sea of troubles, my fuzzy head could cover only the smallest part. Feeling old yet safe for the first time since then, I rested against Corielle. My eyes watered, and I closed them.

Corielle smiled up at me as I floated to the rafters, to consider the little puppet Sigrun and the adventures we had in store.

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