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THE DREAD (4)

 Light was already streaming through the smoke hole in the roof of the gar when Jair awoke. Kenver was sleeping soundly beside him, but Talwyn had rolled onto her side, awake, absently stroking Kenver’s dark hair. In the light, the slashes on her cheek looked even worse than Jair remembered from the night before. Carefully, they extricated themselves from Kenver’s wide-flung arms and moved quietly outside the tent, where Pevre joined them.

“It’s going to take a few days for those wounds to heal,” Pevre said, taking in their still-tender injuries with an appraising eye. “Nature of the beast that got you. Could have been worse. At least it wasn’t teeth.”

“I didn’t know shadows had teeth,” Jair muttered.

“Those weren’t exactly regular shadows,” Pevre replied, his voice rough from lack of sleep. “If you hadn’t figured that out already. The line between waking and sleeping is just like twilight or daybreak, or the solstices. It’s a place where the threshold between our world and other realms is thinner, easier to cross. Sometimes we cross over; sometimes something else does. Just like a summoner’s magic can cross between the realms of the dead and the living, other magics can invade thoughts or dreams, even memories. We’re lucky such magics are rare. They can be a terrible weapon.”

“Chief Pevre! Cheira Talwyn!” One of the trinnen warriors came running up to them. He stopped and made a quick bow. “Two elders from one of the nearby villages approached our night guard. They said they have no one else to turn to, and they need our help.”

Jair and Talwyn exchanged glances. “I thought the villagers along this route pretty much ignored or avoided the Sworn?” Jair murmured.

“They do,” Talwyn replied. “They keep to themselves, and so do we.” She looked to the guard. “Why did they come to us? Why not go to the king’s patrols?”

 The taller of the two warriors nodded. “I asked the same thing. With the preparations for war, it appears that patrols in the area are almost nonexistent. I think they were desperate. We’ve heard a little of their story, but I think you should be there for the rest. Their problem may have more to do with us than they know.”

Talwyn, Jair, and Pevre followed the taller guard, while the shorter man stayed behind on Talwyn’s orders to guard Kenver while the boy slept. The guard led the way to the large common lodge. The Sworn’s gar were large circular structures held up by an easily collapsible frame of light but sturdy wood. The heavy cloth of the gar and the fanlike ceilings could be insulated for warmth in the winter with a layer of cloth batting or sheepskin, or left to be a single layer of cloth in warmer seasons. The lodge was the largest of the moveable structures, and the entire tribe of guardian warriors could fit inside for important rituals when the need arose. Now, the large gar held only three guards, a half-grown boy, and a ragged man.

“What has brought you to our camp?” Talwyn stepped forward. Despite her injuries, she was fully in command as the Sworn’s shaman. She spoke Common instead of the Sworn’s consonant-heavy language, but the ancient language of the nomadic guardians accented her words.

Both the man and the boy made awkward bows. “Forgive us for disturbing you,” the man said, “but we had nowhere else to go. The king’s soldiers are gone to the war, and there’s no other justice within several days’ ride. Please, m’lady, we need the help of a mage. My village won’t last another night.”

Jair could see from Talwyn’s expression that she was both intrigued and moved by the man’s entreaty. Talwyn gestured for them to sit, and everyone but the three Sworn guards did so. By unspoken agreement, the guards remained standing, just a few steps behind their unexpected visitors.

“Tell me why your village needs a mage,” Talwyn said.

“It started when someone began stealing the bodies of our dead,” the man replied. Jair watched closely as the man spoke. At first glance, he’d taken the stranger for being in his middle years, but as Jair looked more carefully, he saw that hard work and deprivation had etched the man’s face more than time, and he revised his estimate of the visitor’s age downward by twenty seasons. The boy, whom Jair guessed to be twelve or thirteen summers old, seemed to shrink into himself as if wishing to disappear, or to be completely overlooked. Something’s scared both of them badly, Jair thought. That’s the only thing that would bring them here.

“A week ago, someone or something tore up our burying ground. They dug up the bodies and dragged them off.”

“Was there anything left behind, like sacrificed animals or rune markings?” Talwyn asked, leaning forward with interest.

The man looked surprised. “No, m’lady. Nothing at all, not even tracks. We thought it might be looters, but what little was buried with the bodies was left in the graves. Our village is too poor to bury anything of value with the dead, when the living make do with little.”

Talwyn nodded, and her smile gave the man courage to continue. “A few nights after that, two of the shepherds came screaming back to town in the middle of the night. They’d been out in the fields since before the grave robbings, and no one had been out to tell them about it. Swore they’d seen dead folks walking out along the ridge, and named them, all the ones taken from the burying ground. Scared nearly out of their minds they were, and these aren’t children. These are young men who have fought off wolves and robbers.”

“The dead were walking? Where were they going?” Jair watched the men as they spoke, but nothing in their manner seemed false. Like Talwyn, he was riveted by their story.

The man gave a bitter chuckle. “The shepherds didn’t stick around, or follow. They lit out of there as soon as they realized what they’d seen. Said the dead were headed north, and that they moved sluggishly, as if pulled along by strings instead of free to move on their own.”

“Is that why you came here? To ask for help in binding your dead to their cairns?” Talwyn asked gently.

Their visitor shook his head. “No, m’lady. While I would not like to see them disturbed, the dead are dead. I wouldn’t risk the living to bring them back, if they’ve taken to wandering, so long as they leave us in peace.” His voice caught. “But that’s not the worst of it. Last night, it was like madness struck our little village. M’lady, you’ll think we’re awful people, but we’re just a small village of herders and farmers, scraping out a living and trying to pay our taxes. Even when Jared the Usurper—Crone take his soul,” the man said, spitting to the side to ward off evil, “took the throne, we didn’t run away, the way so many did. We hunkered down and let the worst of it pass us by. But we’re paying for it now, m’lady, because something’s found us. Something evil.”

“You said that madness struck. What do you mean?” Talwyn’s voice was soothing, and Jair knew that its calming effect was enhanced by her shaman’s magic.

The man shifted uncomfortably. He refused to meet her eyes. “Last night, ten people in our village were murdered. M’lady, there are only forty of us, just a few families. There warn’t no reason for it. Can’t blame strong drink, because the ones who have too much to drink on a regular basis slept through it all.” He shook his head, and dared to look up. His eyes were red-rimmed, as if he had been among the grieving.

“In the space of two candlemarks, it was like a shadow fell over the village. Husbands and wives who had never quarreled took a hammer or a hatchet to each other. Parents who loved their children with all their breath wiped out their whole families. Brothers set on each other or on their parents. There’s no one untouched, no one who didn’t lose someone. And we can’t even bury the dead, for fear that they’ll be stolen away.”

At the word “shadow,” Jair and Talwyn exchanged a hurried glance. “Did anything unusual happen just before the murders?” Jair asked gently. “Anyone new visit the village or pass by? Any strange symbols or markings on the trees or rocks?”

The ragged man shook his head again. “No one’s been by our village in weeks. What with the talk of war, the traders don’t travel our way. It’s several days’ ride into the nearest real town of any size. We don’t have enough coin for the peddlers to make an effort to come to us, and there’s no inn or tavern nearby.” He thought for a moment.

“But there was one thing. A few days before the murders, the hedge witch in our village went raving mad. She’d been complaining of headaches that even her potions couldn’t set right, but no one else had them. When we found her, she had gouged out her eyes and was slamming her head against a rock until she was bloody. She’d been clawing at her ears until they were practically torn from her head, and her nails were stripped down to the quick. All she’d say was that something wouldn’t stop calling her, wouldn’t stop humming in her head.”

“And where is she now?” Talwyn asked.

The man took a long breath. “Last night she got away from the ones who were watching over her. She ran into the fire and danced while she burned, and she used her magic to keep anyone from saving her. She didn’t want to be rescued. The last thing she said before she died was, ‘It stopped. I can’t hear them anymore.’ “

Talwyn and Pevre stepped away to confer in low voices. Jair sat silently beside the man, completely at a loss for words. The boy clung to his father, hiding behind a mop of unruly dark hair that covered his face. His posture and actions made Jair think of a much younger child, one just Kenver’s age. He’s seen horrors that would drive grown men out of their wits, Jair thought. Let him take his comfort where he can.

After a few moments, Talwyn and Pevre returned. “I’ll visit your village and see if there’s anything I can do to help, although I have to warn you, I’m not sure I can set things right,” Talwyn said. She held up a hand to stave off the man’s protestations of gratitude.

“We’ll go tomorrow. I’m too spent to work the kind of magic such a visit requires. You and the boy may stay the night in our camp. You’ll be safe here.”

It was apparent to Jair that the man chafed at the delay, even as he realized the necessity. The stranger nodded in acquiescence. “As you wish, m’lady. We’re in your debt.”

Talwyn spoke to the guards in the language of the Sworn, instructing them to make the strangers comfortable but to keep them under guard without implying that the visitors were prisoners. When the guards had shown the man and the boy out, Talwyn looked to Pevre and Jair.

“Once again, I have the feeling that our enemy across the sea isn’t waiting to bring the war to us,” Talwyn said. Jair could hear the fatigue in her voice, and he saw the tiredness that lined her face. “Even worse, they . . . or it . . . has the power to cause damage far behind the battlefields. And with all that power, whoever or whatever is behind this wants to free the Nachele to make it even worse.”