[Author's Note:

Though this is a complete novel, I'm still happily accepting critiques, since it's going to get a major rewrite eventually. My studio buddy Sarah Cloutier is working on a prequel, and I'm in the process of outlining and writing the rest of the series. The characters won't change, and key events won't change, but some dialogue and references will necessarily end up different.]

Prologue

The innkeeper glanced up with an automatic smile as footsteps clomped down the stairs, though she seemed a little perplexed by the chorus of clinking noises that accompanied them. Then she saw which guest it was, and quickly pretended she hadn't been looking. One didn't want to seem too eager to please, with mercenaries. Kastor had to clear his throat twice before she deigned to notice him.

"Please don't drag your armor on the stairs," she said crisply. "The buckles gouge the wood."

He glanced down at the mess of black leather hanging from his hand. "Sorry."

"What do you need?"

"Black tea, sweet. Strong enough to plant a flag in. And breakfast. If there's any." Kastor offered her a sheepish smile, knowing he'd risen too late to get the good stuff.

"There's nothing left but porridge."

He shrugged. "My own fault. Do make it hot, though, will you?"

"Eight." When he just stared at her, she said it more slowly. "Tea and porridge, eight pennies. Those are the copper ones, boy."

"Yes, thank you for being so specific," he drawled as he fished in his purse. He counted the pennies onto the counter.

"Have it out to you in a minute. And don't put your boots up on the chairs."

"Yes, ma'am."

The few customers in the common room were clustered by the fire; Kastor sat by the door. Compared to the weather he'd grown up with on the high plains, early spring in Semnia was balmy. He was hoping to get farther north before summer. He didn't think he could stand those hot, still, thundery nights again, not when he'd be alone this time. And I'm thinking about that again. I wasn't going to think about that. He piled his armor on the next chair over and busied himself with checking it.

By the time his order arrived, he'd assured himself that being packed up for a few weeks hadn't harmed the leather. He ate quickly, gulping down the whole pot of tea; as its wakefulness spread through him, he put the armor on. That got him a few odd glances from the others, and a scowl from the innkeeper, but he ignored them. Kyri armor wasn't much more than a stiff, tight jacket, functionally, and they wouldn't stare if he were putting on a coat, would they? When he buckled on his swords and knives, though, they stopped staring.

He wanted to apologize, to tell them: Look, I'm really not a troublemaker, I'm not even the kind of mercenary you think I am, I'm a bodyguard -- for nuns! -- and you can stop being afraid -- but of course there was no way to begin that discussion.

Finished dressing, having checked through his pack to make sure he hadn't left anything in the room, having scratched at his chin and examined his fingernails to reassure himself that he'd remembered to shave and wash, he found himself with hours to spare. His job didn't start until noon. Good; it would give him time to compose his mind.

A little wine would help with that, too. Just a little, though. He ordered a bottle. The look the inkeeper gave him said that he'd just confirmed all her nasty suspicions, and she now expected him to get drunk and start busting up the place. But she didn't say it out loud, so he couldn't refute it.

He poured a beaker and sipped it. Then he pushed it away and took a battered journey-book and a grease-pencil from his pack. He flipped quickly past last summer's wretched poetry, not wanting to be reminded of -- that stuff -- and went to the page where he'd written the details of his current job. Checked it over. Allowed himself another sip, pushed the wine away again. Tried to be proud that he was keeping his promise to himself, not to use wine in place of courage, not to try to drown memories that only bobbed up like corpses anyway, but wasn't proud. He drew a little picture of a dragon eating a chair. He drew a bee. Checked the time again. Sipped the wine.

The door banged. Kastor glanced up, and felt the world spin under him. The pencil broke between his fingers. I'm hallucinating. I'm still asleep. Why is he here? And how? And oh gods, I'm going to have to talk to him --!

Then the newcomer gave him a cheerful smile, and the sheer insanity of smiling at a time like this filled Kastor with pure, clean anger. He growled, "Oh, sweet mercy -- not you again."

The yellow-haired man with the manic grin dropped into a chair as if the words had been an invitation. "Why, Auberlane, old friend, that was positively rude. And after I've gone to such an effort to chase you down."

Kastor felt a muscle in his jaw begin to twitch. He unclenched his teeth just enough to speak. "Don't use that name. Don't sit here."

"You still want to use your given name, Kastor my bitterness? Like a peasant?"

"I want you to leave."

"But I won't, you know."

"Why not? It's what you're best at," Kastor said venomously, then composed himself by an act of will. He would not embarrass himself. But he would stay angry. Gods help him if he stopped being angry; he wouldn't be able to speak at all. He gulped wine, no longer caring whether it made him drunk. "Fine. I'll ask. What do you want, Mikah?"

Mikah beamed, pleased beyond all sanity by Kastor's surrender. The creature looked human enough, despite his golden skin and odd amber eyes, but his thought processes weren't quite in line with the human norm. Just near enough that you could get complacent dealing with him. Then he'd spring some horrible callous weirdness on you, reminding you in the harshest way that he was not human, but Mara. Kastor didn't know how many others in the world knew that there were Mara still among them, let alone that Mikah was one. Kastor had never been so naive as to think the immortal's sharing of his identity had been a mark of trust, but he'd thought it was an afterthought, insult to injury. Apparently he'd been wrong; it was a leash.

The Mara rested his elbows on the table conspiratorially, clasping his long-fingered hands beneath his chin. "The question of the moment, my despoiling, is what you want. Whatever it is, I have it in my power to give it to you. Well, that's a simplification, but it will come to pass nevertheless. What do you say?"

That sounded like a surrender, an apology; Kastor knew it wasn't. "I say it's cowardly of you not to speak clearly. I know damn well you can if you want to."

"Cowardly? From you that's rich." Mikah laughed, then abruptly pushed his face close to Kastor's. He spoke in a theatrical whisper. "I have a job for you."

"I'm not available."

"That won't be a problem."

"No, I mean, I've got a job going. I'm expected within the hour, in fact."

"Don't worry about it."

Kastor remembered how troublesome it could be simply to converse with Mikah. Simple concepts just failed to get through to him. "I don't do that stuff anymore."

"You don't know what I want done."

"I play by local rules now, Mikah." He let his voice thicken in a sardonic drawl. "Look, I may not be an undying force of nature, but I do have some rudimentary mental faculties. If what you want done were legal, I wouldn't be any use to you. And I'm telling you I'm out of that business."

"Oh, I know," said Mikah lightly. "You're a bodyguard. For querulous old ladies and tender virgins. Who get to swoon under the protection of a tall-and-handsome without fear of ravishment. It's quite a racket you've got going. Trust you to make a profit from your perversion."

Kastor ignored that; it wasn't clear whether the Mara meant it as an insult or not. "And you don't need a bodyguard. And I'm not a thief anymore. End of discussion."

"Oh, now, Kastor --"

"End. Of discussion."

Mikah blew air up at the fringe of pale gold that hung before his yellow eyes. He shook his head pityingly. "Your loss." With a kittenish motion, all playful predator, he darted a hand across the table to flick at Kastor's ear. "Shouldn't have cut your hair, boy. Looks terrible." He sprang up and loped away.

Kastor had to jam his teeth shut to keep from calling after him. The conversation had gone by so fast. Did I just send him away? Did I just have the chance to tell him exactly what I think of him, and let the chance go? I should congratulate myself on my goddamned forbearance, I suppose.

Scowling, Kastor looked into his wine cup. I'll never see him again. That's what I wanted, right?

It had taken him all morning to nerve himself up for his job, to be polite to a stranger for days on end, to feign fearlessness while waiting for beast or bandit to attack his charge, and now it was all blown away. It was simply in Mikah's nature to wreck composure. He probably did it on purpose.

Mara. Kastor snorted. As a boy he'd loved the legends about the powerful immortals, the ones sometimes called the neutral angels. Their strange manipulations of mortal heroes had made them seem desirable, a thing to be discovered and basked in. He'd believed, with the rest of the world, that they were extinct, or gone to distant shores to expand their strangeness in larger lands, or had never existed in the first place. And all the while, they were passing for human, and mad to the last man.

At least, if Mikah could be believed. If the creature wasn't spinning a skein of lies to amuse himself. He might look like a handsome young man, might come across as a cheerful rogue, but he was a monster. What he'd hired Kastor to steal, last year, and the method of his payment... it was better to forget.

Nevertheless Kastor found his hand creeping toward the place where Mikah had touched him. Useless sentimentalism. Besides, it had only been the tip of a fingernail, and the gesture an insulting one. Nevertheless...

He touched his ear, and gave a short cry of surprised anger. One of his diamond earrings was gone.

"It figures," he muttered.

01

"Sister! Sister, your escort's here!" A barefoot girl in a shapeless blue shift came pelting breathless into the solarium, then stood hopping in place with excitement. "Sister, he's waiting in the courtyard."

Sister Magda Verity didn't allow the novice's impatience to rush her. She continued to wrap precious hand-copied volumes in oilcloth and set them in a trunk. "Thank you, dear."

"Mother Lucissa made me bring him some water."

"Yes, dear, I caught your emphasis on the male pronoun." She glanced at the child's faltering expression. "There's no need to worry. I'll be in no danger. But if you wish to hurry the man out of our courtyard, you may send Sister Hope to help me pack."

The child bobbed jerkily and ran. No doubt much of the convent was quietly outraged at the man's presence. Magda had not thought to share Sister Chime's letter with anyone but the Mother Abbess. It would have been unkind, she'd thought at the time, to spread word of the poor fellow's affliction. She had not thought how the sight of a male would disturb her sisters in contemplation. The vow of celibacy was not so easy for most as it was for Magda.

Now she found that letter in her travel satchel and reread it, considering whether it would be better to make it public. Weighing one man's discomfort against a whole convent's anxiety -- or, conversely, the prurience of a gaggle of girls against a secret that wasn't hers to tell.

I'm sending you an escort for your journey, read the relevant part. He is male, but something in the nature of a eunuch, and absolutely trustworthy. I pray you look past his rough demeanor and allow him to protect you on your way. The roads are not safe anymore, dear Sister, and your cargo is precious to me, as is your life.

'Something in the nature of a eunuch' was an interesting phrase, coming from Sister Chime. Magda's colleague and correspondent was a woman of science. It was not like her to be vague. Magda concluded that the matter was so delicate that even Chime had detected the need for discretion. She would not tell.

A heavy tread in the hall told of the arrival of Sister Hope. One of the four warrior-nuns resident to protect the convent, Hope would normally have been the one to escort Magda and her irreplaceable baggage. Magda searched the huge woman's face for any sign of resentment, but Hope's moonlike features were serene. True to her name, she expected the best from every event; in this case, she trusted Magda to have chosen rightly. Nor was she stupid. However cowlike her placidity, it was the result of long meditation, not lack of intelligence. She knew that her purely defensive martial skills would not suffice in today's lawless world.

She didn't need to explain this. Magda had looked to Hope for solidity since arriving as a novice six years ago. She smiled her thanks as she indicated the trunk, and Hope returned a cheerful nod.

"Hup." Hope hoisted the trunk of books to her shoulder. "There. I have a hand free, if you've anything else."

"No, thank you, Sister. My own things are here, and I'd best get used to carrying them." She lifted the small pack that contained her spare habit, toiletries, and meager travelling funds. It wasn't heavy. She gestured for Hope to preceed her. As they walked, she dared to open the subject that troubled her. "Sister, have you seen my escort?"

"Talked to him," the big woman grunted as she clomped down a stairway, burden jouncing on her shoulder. "Nice fellow. Strikes me as a man in search of peace. Suppose that's why he's working for us. Looked at me the same as at Sister Hirilyn, if that means anything to you."

It did. Sister Hirilyn, named for a virgin martyr, was unfortunately beautiful. She had joined the convent to escape the endless, sordid carnality of the world, which would not otherwise leave her alone. That the lovely nun would even show herself to the man implied that she sensed he was not a threat. Magda began to relax, chastising herself as she did so for having to be reassured. She should have trusted Sister Chime's word.

When she reached the pillared arcade that fronted the courtyard, however, she found she'd been premature. Perhaps the solidly centered Hope and the sensitive Hirilyn were not worried, but the gallery thronged with women who were not so sure. Whispers clustered and bloomed. Most merely disturbed at this departure from tradition, but some -- to Magda's shame by association -- angry or even lustful. She felt her face set into the expression of gentle distress it assumed when she caught one of her students carving on the desks.

"Step aside, ladies." Hope was still cheerful. She forged through a cluster of novices toward the mule that would carry the books. "Heavy cargo coming through. Rilla, watch your head there, child. Oh, Sae, couldn't you get the pack saddle on him? Let me help you."

"I can do it."

The new voice was masculine; its depth startled Magda, as if she'd just heard a familiar song played on an inappropriate instrument.

Emerging into sunlight in Hope's wake, Magda saw her escort first as a dark scribble of movement, in the act of flinging the pack saddle onto the mule with a gesture like a ritual dance. She clasped her hands together to conquer her unworthy anxiety, and looked at him.

Her half-formed idea that 'something in the nature of a eunuch' might mean a woman in disguise fled at once; a blue-shadowed jaw and prominent adam's-apple put paid to it. The man was well above average height, large-seeming in plates of black waxed leather, but his hands and face were thin. His skin was shockingly white, as if he'd been in prison. His black hair was cut untidily just above his shoulders, like that of a shepherd boy who let his hair grow all winter and then in spring gathered it at the nape of his neck and dragged a knife through it. When his gray eyes focused on her, she thought he looked too apologetic and sad to frighten anyone.

"Thank you for agreeing to escort me, sir. My sister in mercy urged me to trust you, and I shall. Unfortunately, she neglected to mention your name."

"Oh. It's Kastor. It's -- uh -- it was kind of Sister Chime to say such -- kind --" He grimaced. "Sorry." He thrust out his hand. When she offered her own, he shook it heartily. He had, she saw, the hilts of five blades visible about his person, as if a man with only two hands could possibly use so many. A pair of small daggers and a hunting knife hung at his belt, and two long swords crossed on his back. On his wrist, as he shook her hand, she saw an angry red scar like the mark of ragged teeth.

The handshake seemed to calm him. He went on more levelly: "Sorry to rush you, Sister, but we should probably be going if we want to stop at Luris tonight. I assume you don't fancy sleeping rough until the inns run out."

"I'm ready." She hugged Hope, waved to the others, and took the laden mule by the bridle. The animal came along placidly; natural beasts tended to trust Sisters of the Order, as did most humans. There was really nothing to worry about. It was all going to be fine.

As she followed the bodyguard's leather-slabbed back through the convent gates, though, a bubble of fear burst in her -- just a little one. All the way down the hill and onto the main road, these little bubbles kept coming up. At last one escaped in a nervous giggle, which made her escort turn to give her a perplexed look.

"I'm frightened," she explained. "I've never gone farther than Gare before. Odd, that being frightened makes me laugh."

Kastor shook his head seriously. "No, it's normal."

"Is it?"

He nodded, but didn't say anything further.

She went on talking, fishing for conversation. "Are the roads as dangerous as Sister Chime says? To hear her tell it, there's a bandit behind every bush."

"Just about."

"I see. But she put great stock in your abilities."

A nod.

"Are you very good, then? At fighting?"

A modest shrug.

"Come now, is it so hard to answer in words?" Then she heard her bantering tone and shook her head. "Of course it is. I'm sorry. I'm babbling because I'm nervous."

Again he glanced back at her, and this time he moved back to walk beside her. He flexed his hands from time to time as he walked, stretching the fingers as if they ached. "I'm the one who should apologize, Sister. I'm better at listening than talking." After a brief hesitation he offered a smile. "It's safe as far as Gare, you know. Probably as far as Garwater."

"But after that --? It's a very long way from here to Corathy."

"After Garwater it gets iffy. I know for sure there's a pack of wyr hanging around outside Merallis. Damn Legion can't be bothered to -- sorry. Language. Sorry."

"Never mind. Go on."

"No, that was it."

"Ah."

They walked quietly for another hour or so. Magda's feet had begun to ache already, and they weren't even out of Ytris. The city's suburbs still spread around them, the private parks of merchants and minor noblemen rolling placidly back from the tree-lined road. There was little traffic. Once they passed a gardener and his boy strolling along with bundles of tools over their shoulders; the man bobbed a greeting, the child too absorbed in goggling frog-eyed at Kastor to remember to bow to the nun. Once they were passed by a surrey full of young women, one of whom called out an apology for the dust as they passed.

Magda realized that nearly all the people she had ever encountered were good, kind, safe people. Kastor's appearance made her realize that. He was an interesting contradiction, and a sad one. She found herself thinking of him as 'the boy', though he was not much younger than she, perhaps older. His awkwardness, his child's haircut, and his oddly fine white skin made her think of him that way. But he was a child encased in leather, bristling with weaponry. Closed and locked behind his weary eyes. One did not, she supposed, become like that without having seen some very difficult times. There were people in the world whose repeated influence could do that to a person.

"Kastor," she said tentatively, "will you tell me about yourself? The journey will be more companionable, I expect, if we begin like that."

"I suppose. Yes. All right. There's not much to say. Do you know much about the Kyri?"

"Oh, are you Kyri?" She had thought the northern nomads had darker skin, but now that she was looking, the foreign cut of his armor argued in favor.

"Yes. I left when I was sixteen. I've been all over since then."

"Then Semnian isn't your first language."

"No."

"You speak it well. You've no accent at all."

"Thanks."

"Will you say something for me in Kyri?"

"Ang ehrughar mhahar dtheruun," he said promptly. His voice was softer when he spoke his native language, the breathy syllables rolling from him like a lullabye.

"What does it mean?"

"It's an old saying. Something like, 'foreign languages always sound like poetry.' It's what I say when people tell me to say something in Kyri." A wry smile tugged at his lips for a moment.
Magda was pleased at this evidence of wit. "Do you have family back in the highlands? Do you ever visit them?"

"No." And just like that, he'd closed up again.

"I'm sorry. I feel I've said something wrong."

"No, it's nothing. Tell me about your journey. When I escorted Sister Chime to the Rule and back, she talked about you. She admires you."

She understood his intention, and allowed him to change the subject. "I admire her as well. She was my first teacher, when I was a novice. It was she who nurtured my love of learning. We've continued to correspond since she moved to Corathy to oversee the library. With the permission of my Mother Abbess, Sister Chime charged me to collect rare texts from Ytris and the eastern cities for the library. The reason I'm going in person, rather than sending the books with a courier, is that I've been writing a book of my own, and I want to consult the library."

"Rare books? What kind?" He seemed genuinely interested.

"All sorts. The Library at Corathy strives to be inclusive."

"What's your book about?"

"Ecocosmology. That's the study of extraplanar beings and their interactions."

"M-hm." He nodded. To her surprise, he seemed neither impressed nor confused. "Do you have a new theory? I mean is it analytical? Because Seriarthis's bestiary is pretty complete, for all I've heard." When she didn't answer right away, he turned to her with that wry twist of the lips showing again. "I don't get much guard work in the winter. I read."

"Wonderful! We'll have lots to talk about, then! My book, well, yes, it's analytical. I don't know if you're familiar with the concept of thaumatopoeisis...?"

"Rings a bell, but I can't dredge it up just now."

"It's the process by which one thing, by magical means, becomes another thing. Or more than one thing. There are a great variety of thaumatopoeic processes, all different. Some are permanent, like the generation of trolls from stone -- once a stone has become a troll, it will never be stone again. Some are reversible, like the vampire's ability to turn himself into a swarm or a mist. Some are spontaneous, some require ritual intervention. It's been thought for a long time that this was a category of convenience, somewhere to throw all the metamorphoses that couldn't be understood. But I think I've found a commonality between them."

"Which is?"

"Well, to put it in layman's terms, all thaumatopoeic processes involve the recombining of essences. Nothing is created or destroyed -- simply recombined. There are more ingredients in the stew, you could say, than are apparent to the eye."

"Hidden factors."

"Precisely. In the birth of a troll, for instance -- it appears that a boulder simply, one night, gets up and walks. Usually after a storm, but sometimes in dry, hot weather. It's very rare, and the few firsthand accounts available to us are unreliable. No one has ever been able to recreate the event. But when you examine the larger circumstances of the event, you discover that the stone in question was considered interesting in some way long before it became a troll. Often these stones have names, and are either venerated as the home of place-spirits, or feared as some baleful influence. I propose that the belief energy of the local people, over decades and centuries, creates a receptive state in the stone. A potential for selfhood, if you will. Then, when conditions are just right, when sufficient energy is present in the form of lightning or what-have-you, the charge spontaneously recombines and takes anthropomorphic form.

"This would explain, for instance, why there are, to put it vulgarly, good trolls and bad trolls. Some trolls are frightening and evil, but some are helpful, guarding the local people against threats. And it's always the local population that's affected. Trolls do not wander. Why? Because their essence is the belief of those people, imbued in the stone. If a stone was considered unlucky, if it was avoided or placated, the troll would be threatening. If it was considered helpful -- you see."

Kastor nodded. "Seems to follow. But you can get, say, will-o-wisps, without anyone present within miles."

"Nevertheless it's an imbuement of life-energy with natural energy, combining with a material substance to create a new sentience."

"Fascinating. No, seriously, this is fascinating. Go on."

Flattered by his interest, and pleased by his apparent understanding, she rambled on about her theories as miles fell away unnoticed.

Over the next three days, Magda began to think of her guard as a friend. At least, a friendly acquaintance. As long as she didn't make him talk about himself, he was generous with his attention, encouraging her to lecture. She sensed that it wasn't mere politeness, either. He was as hungry for knowlege as her best students. In the questions he asked, he showed a prodigious intelligence.

The gods had made this man to be a scholar. He even looked like one, with his narrow face and long white hands. What had forced him from that path? She knew that if she asked, he would spit out some terse and unenlightening answer, and clam up for miles. Still, she hoped he would share it with her eventually. She was concerned for his soul. Perhaps, when they reached Corathy, she could get him to speak to Sister Chime. A more experienced listener might persuade him to unburden himself, and realign his path toward the peace he seemed to have lost somewhere along the way.

They drew little attention on the civilized roads between Ytris and Gare, but there was a bit of excitement. Twice, bands of young village toughs on their way to or from some festival threw lewd remarks at Magda. Once, Kastor merely looked at them, and their manners improved. The second time, a particularly drunk or stupid boy hefted his walking stick, began to encourage his friends to club down the guard so they could have a bit of fun with the nun. "He can't take us all at once," the boy explained. Kastor grimaced, as if preparing to plunge his hands into offal, and then suddenly both hands sprouted swords. Black swords, like splinters of night. Magda had not even seen them leave their sheaths. "Yes," he said tightly, "I can take you all at once." The ruffians believed it; there was no bloodshed.

Having to threaten the drunken boys seemed to make Kastor weary. Magda wasn't sure, but she'd thought the normal response would be to strut, to elicit thanks from his charge. Instead he behaved as if he'd been forced to do something shameful. She liked him more, for that.

In the evenings, as they rested at cheap inns, he borrowed books from her. He needed little sleep, he said; he knew charms that allowed him to store up his rest over the dull months of winter, and survive on cat naps during the working season. She was reluctant, at first, to allow him to touch the precious volumes. When she saw how carefully he washed and dried his hands first, though, and how reverently he held the books, she stopped worrying. While she slept, he sat outside the door and read. The light of a single candle seemed plenty for him; he didn't even make a special effort to align himself so that the light fell full on the page. More Kyri charms, she supposed.

Never, not even for a flicker's time, did he appear to view her as a sexual being. Even his gallantry was pure, when he opened doors or soothed her fears; she felt that he was responding to her office, rather than to her gender. This implied that Sister Chime's vagueness had been misleading, that Kastor was a eunuch in the simplest sense, perhaps deprived of his manhood in some accident or punishment. On this assumption, she allowed him his silence. She could not imagine how devastating such a thing would be. She'd never suffered a misfortune bad enough to give her insight into a loss like that.

On the afternoon of the third day, they reached Gare, the walled city on the river of that name. Though smaller than Ytris, Gare was busier, a center of commerce rather than of government and learning. The river was paved with boats and barges. The road was so full that they had to slacken their pace. On its dusty verges, as they drew nearer the gates, Magda saw whole peasant families clustered together for some warmth the early spring sun couldn't provide, with packs or barrows arranged around them and jealously guarded. The children bawled snottily. The parents seemed too weary to comfort their little ones. Magda hesitated for a few minutes, considering the propriety of what she wanted to do -- she wasn't ordained to preach, after all -- but decided it was necessary. She reached and caught Kastor's hand.

"Wait," she said. "I'd like to talk to these people."

"Which ones?"

She indicated the weary families beside the road. "They seem to need some spiritual comfort."

Kastor cast a wary glance around, then nodded. "I admit I'm curious myself. Sit there --" He indicated a grassy mound a few yards from the road. "Let them come to you."

"But --"

"Please. Refugees can be... erratic."

Uncertain what he meant, she seated herself on the knoll. Kastor knelt beside her, not relaxing. He watched everything at once. His eyes were never still. Magda stretched out her legs with a sigh. She took her shoes off to massage some feeling back into her feet. It seemed no one had noticed her here. How was she supposed to talk to the poor people if she didn't go to them?

"There." Kastor nodded her attention to a small figure picking its way toward them. A dirty child of indeterminate gender, of an age when running and leaping should be its normal methods of locomotion, slogging along like a weary ancient.

The child gave only a glance to Kastor, then fixed its sunken eyes on Magda. In a flat voice it said, "Ma wants to know are you a healing sister."

"I only know a few charms, but I might be able to help a little. I'll be glad to try."

The child nodded sharply. "I'll go get 'em."

Moving with a better will now, though still without a normal child's energy, the girl -- Magda had decided to think of the child as a girl to avoid using the word 'it' in her mind -- went back to her huddled knot of family. She led three adults and four children to Magda. This larger movement began to draw some attention from the other refugees.

Refugees from what? She had not heard of any wars.

"Brit says you're a healing sister," the mother of the messenger said when she arrived. Her voice, unlike the girl's, was full of a tightly suppressed but frantic hope. She thrust forward a boy of perhaps fifteen, who shyly held out an arm wrapped in filthy bandages. The hand that stuck out of the bandages was blotchy and swollen.

"I only know a few charms," Magda repeated as she took the boy's hand. "Let's have a look at this." She unwound the bandages gently, saddened by how the boy bravely bit his lip and didn't cry out. Beneath the wrapping, his forearm was swelled an angry red around a small patch of shiny black. A small pustule at the center of the black area wept pus.

"Spider bit me," the boy explained. "Day afore yesterday. Dunno what kind."

"Blue nomad," Kastor said sharply, and everyone jumped. "If you don't have a charm for it, Sister, I can deal with it. Have to cut the black spot out, though. Two days gone, well, he might lose the arm."

The boy winced, and Magda hastened to reassure him. "There's no need for that. I have charms against the venom of natural creatures."

"Sister, the blue nomad spider's not entirely a natural creature. You've never heard of it, have you?" The guard was reaching into the pouch at his waist, drawing on a pair of black leather gloves with stiffened patches across the backs of the knuckles. "Come here, boy. I'm not going to hurt you. Everyone else step away, please." He beckoned, but the boy didn't move. Kastor closed his eyes for a moment, then began speaking soothingly in Kyri.

Madga's scalp prickled as she felt the edge of the charm wash over her. The frightened boy relaxed, began to smile slightly. He went closer, reluctantly for the first step, and then eagerly as if going to a beloved friend.

The boy's mother reached for him, uncertainly. Magda swallowed down her own worries to calm the woman. "It's all right. Kastor is trusted by our Order. He won't harm your son."

"What's he doing?"

Magda didn't answer, just as perplexed as the mother was. Kastor was poking among the child's matted curls with his gloved fingers, checking behind his ears. Then he began stripping the boy's clothing from him.

A horrible thought occurred to Magda -- the reason Kastor was no threat to nuns was because he was one of those beasts who preyed on children. But there was nothing prurient in the guard's actions. He searched the child's torso briskly, then turned his tunic inside out and searched along the seams. That done, he quickly removed the boy's trousers. Magda averted her eyes, then reminded herself that most people of the peasant class saw no shame in nakedness; they bathed communally, slept together for warmth. The boy, indeed, seemed to find nothing strange in being stripped, though perhaps that was due to the charm Kastor was still repeating.

The murmuring broke off suddenly. "Ah." Kastor's gloved hand darted at the boy's inner thigh, just above his knee. He held out something glinting between his fingers, wriggling.

Curious and revulsed, Magda and the others leaned in to look. Caught in a vise of oiled leather, something squirmed that was more like a tick than a spider, blue-gray and nacreous like dead flesh. Kastor let them look, and then he crushed it.

"They're carrion-eaters," the guard explained. "It'll bite somebody, then cling on waiting for its victim to die. It lays eggs in the corpse. They're pretty common out on the Sei, we lose a couple-three people to them every summer. You can get dressed, son."

Magda bent to examine the crushed creature. "Cryptozoic, then?"

"Marginally. They're a bit smarter than your average bug. Venom's not too different from a brown recluse, though, as far as I can guess."

"If that's true, you needn't do any cutting." She held her arms out, and the boy came to kneel next to her. She examined the bite with her eyes and fingers, then with her mind. A whispered prayer, and it was done. She patted the boy's shoulder. "The poison's destroyed, and the rot stopped. It should scab soon, and if you keep it clean it will heal normally."

The boy stared wonderingly at his arm. His mother gave the same look to Magda, then burst into tears. Her effusive thanks were a bit embarrasing, but Magda did her best to take them graciously. While she assured the woman that it was the duty of a holy sister to help, that her thanks should go to Kaleya rather than to Her messenger, Kastor tapped Magda on the arm.

She looked up, and he jerked a thumb over his shoulder. All around the little group on the knoll, hungry faces clustered. Some thrust out injured body parts. Others raised a clamor for things Magda couldn't give, like food and money.

"Is this what you were expecting, Sister?"

"It'll do," she said.

They ended up camping outside the gates that night. There were too many people who needed Magda's help. Some afflictions, she could cure immediately -- the stings and bites of insects and animals, minor infections, fevers and sniffles. Some, like a broken finger and a number of scrapes and sprains, she treated with simple physicking. Kastor was kept busy fetching water, tending the fire that boiled it, holding a space clear around Magda so she wouldn't be trampled while she worked. Magda hadn't brought any healing supplies at all, no ointments or herbs, not having expected anything like this. Those whom she couldn't help, she directed to the temples. Though she was told there was no more room there, she maintained it was the best chance for help. She had to keep repeating that she was not a Healer, that the only charms she knew were those she needed to deal with the little troubles her students got into. For a man who'd had his foot crushed by a cart wheel, for a pregnant woman who feared a miscarriage, she could do nothing at all.

There were a few murmurs of hostility, from time to time. She would not allow Kastor to scowl these people into silence. It was from these dissenters that she learned what the peasants were fleeing.

Why, they wanted to know, had the gods allowed demons to run loose across the once-fertile farmlands of East Elenshire? Crops were wilting in the fields, animals sickening, there were monstrous births and sudden deaths. The people were starving, afraid. Where was Kaleya when people needed Her -- what had the Mother of Mercy done lately to stay the hand of her father Death?

Magda easily countered their naive arguments. "When the wolf is at the sheep, do you send your mother to chase it out? You send your strong son with an axe, do you not? Kaleya has given you the love and loyalty of your kin to support you. Against demons, pray to Sharis, pray to Desriel."

They had, apparently, but the Twins had not helped them either. Magda had been too obscure. She clarified.

"Send to the temple-fortresses, ask the Knights to help you. If there are truly demons loose in Elenshire, the Knights will surely come."

"What do they care for us?" someone spat. "Brother-Knights and King's Knights, there's no difference. Fat and greedy."

Kastor put in his opinion in a hard voice: "That's what the world's like. You didn't ask, did you? Hell, you could get my kin to come, if you promise them what's left of your herds. A Kyri raid-revel would be more than a match for a few hellspawn. Or do you figure somebody should wade into a devil's nest just because they feel sad for you?"

"Kastor." Magda's voice was a warning.

"I know you would, Sister. If you could. But running a knights' chapterhouse is expensive. Got to get the government involved, or a rich patron, if you want them to move."

Magda snapped her fingers. "What a good idea! I'm sure Sister Chime can get them to help. She's the King's second cousin, you know."

The murmurs of distrust changed to wary gratitude. Many didn't believe that anyone of noble blood would care for the plight of the peasantry. Magda assured them that noblemen had to eat as well, that the destruction of so many acres of farmland would catch their attention, and the loss of so many workers, even if pity did not move them. That was an explanation the refugees could believe. After that, those who had not fallen asleep asked for stories, and Magda relaxed into teaching.

She retold the comforting scriptural tales her youngest students liked. She told how Grandfather Death had taken the weary angel, and how, out of its gratitude for rest, Mercy had been born. She told the story of Saint Helen the Smith, whose defense of her village against woodwights had founded the order of warrior-nuns of which Sister Hope was a member. She missed Hope and her other friends at the convent. Much as she wanted to see Chime, interesting as her research at the Library would be, she already looked forward to going home. But she didn't regret having set out on this journey. She wouldn't have been able to help these people, if she'd stayed in her solarium among the parchment and ink.

After a few hours' sleep, she rose at dawn to set out again. It had crossed her mind to stay in Gare, to assist one of the temples there, but carrying word of the disaster to Corathy would be more useful. She and Kastor ate no breakfast. It would have been cruel to eat in front of hungry people, when she didn't have enough to share.

They passed through the walled city as soon as the gates opened. The guards were closely questioning all who came through, and turning away those who didn't have work or relatives waiting in the city. They didn't question Magda, though. Rather, they asked eagerly whether she had come to help deal with the sudden influx of poor and sick and lost, and whether Kastor had come to help keep order. They were sorely in need of both healers and fighters. They were disappointed when Magda told them her errand, but urged her to spread the word as best she could. Demons, after all, did not stay put, not like trolls. When they were through ruining Elenshire, who knew what they might do next?

"Good thing we're not heading to Feignere," Kastor said once they were out of the city. Magda nodded. Feignere was southwest from here, near the Nestrian border, and they'd have had to pass through Elenshire to get there. That would have been far worse than a few thieves and wyr to worry about.

Kastor had said it was probably safe as far as Garwater. Magda was nevertheless a bit concerned for the rest of their journey as they turned north along the river road. Two days to Garwater, and nowhere civilized to stay in between. River traffic had rendered the road obsolete for commerce, and what reason did anyone have to travel from Gare to Garwater, other than to buy or sell?

And beyond Garwater, there was nothing. Scattered villages and wilderness, all the way to Corathy at the foot of the mountains. The convent, with its famous library, had been deliberately placed in a region that was no use to anyone, to prevent its being attacked in time of war. While the Valley of the Wind's Eye was beautiful, and consumately defensible, its use as a fortress would be ridiculous; there was nothing worth sending an army to within a hundred miles. The road to the Wind's Eye Pass ran below the convent, but it was rarely travelled; there was nothing beyond it but tundra and poor nomads. A few times a year, the convent recieved an important visitor, someone with a large company of guards. More frequently, lone pilgrims made the journey, too poor to interest the half-feral savages that infested the region -- she caught the thought guiltily. Those she'd just thought of as an 'infestation' were Kastor's kin. Still, they were dangerous. He would protect her from them, though, wouldn't he?

The road wound along beside the river, sometimes overlooking it, sometimes so far that the smell of water faded away. The weather was perfect for walking. The sun was warm, but the air was cool, and there were only a few short spatters of rain from time to time, not even enough to muddy the ground. They went on in the way that had become routine for them: Magda lecturing, Kastor learning. He joked once, in one of his rare moments of levity, that he would take the free lessons as his danger pay, and count it worth at least three battles.

It was shortly after this remark that he interrupted her with a raised hand, narrowing his eyes. He whispered a few words of Kyri, and stopped walking. "Have you a charm against arrows?"

Magda, unnerved by his manner, now became outright afraid. "No. What --?"

"Make the mule lie down across the road. Sit behind it. I think they mean to rape you, so they probably won't shoot you, but I wouldn't recommend sticking your head up."

"Who?"

"I don't know. Go on, I can't make a mule do anything."

While she obeyed him, heart pounding, he spread his fingers before him as if reaching for something, spoke a few words, and swept his hands down. Magic; her scalp prickled.

Kastor took three deliberate steps forward and spoke in a parade-ground bellow. "I guess we're too far south for you idiots to know not to tweak a Kyri's tail. I'm telling you now, it's something you just don't do. I advise you to take a motherfucking lesson and leave."

Magda's eyes widened until they watered. With the farm boys -- he'd seemed so uninterested in fighting them. Now, his voice was rough with eager threat. His obscenity seemed carefully chosen to goad them, as if he wanted them to attack him, whoever 'they' were. Suddenly she was afraid of him, and she couldn't imagine how much more afraid the ones he threatened must be.

After a moment's silence, the reply came, in the form of an arrow. It sang out of the woods at the left side of the road.

Kastor caught it.

Had it been Magda's imagination, or had the missile slowed just a little as it neared him? He gripped it in his gloved fist absently, just beside his ear. It would have skewered his head. He turned toward where it had come from, sniffing the arrow's point like an animal. He whispered to it. Tossing it to his right hand, he threw it like a dart.

There was a twanging sound, and a yelp.

"Are you finished?" Kastor demanded.

A lone cry sounded in the woods, and then was taken up by a multitude of voices. Men burst out of the undergrowth on both sides. They were dressed in mud colors, but from what she could catch in the chaos, they were healthier and better armed than she expected bandits to be. Part of her mind knew she ought to crouch down behind the mule and its heavy burden, but she could not move. Wide-eyed, she watched the fight.

Kastor threw his two small daggers at the first men to show themselves, before they'd quite got clear of the woods. One fell; the other, oblivious to the hilt that had sprouted from his armpit, rushed screaming at Kastor with a hatchet in either hand. Kastor sprang straight up in the air like a startled cat, sweeping a hatchet aside with his foot, and as he landed his swords were in his hands. He decapitated the hatchet man with an offhand motion, as if his sword just happened to feel like looping there on its way to skewer the next bandit.

The paired swords were like nothing Magda had ever seen. Long and narrow, double-edged, they were made of some black stuff that didn't look like metal. He used them as if they were extensions of his will. They were never still. Even when a lucky bandit managed to block one for a moment, the block was instantly turned against him as Kastor, with a twist of wrist, slid around the blocking weapon to do something irrevocable to its wielder.

But the blades were not his only weapon. He used his feet and knees and elbows, the pommels of his strange swords, at one point knocked a man reeling with a tavern-brawl headbutt. His formerly pleasant face was hideous in fury. It was if the gentle man who'd guarded her had been imbued with a killing devil.

In a shockingly short time, only Kastor stood. Around him lay eight corpses. His white skin was spattered and streaked with terrible red. His black armor was sticky with it. In the sudden silence, Magda heard her own voice, begging him in a whisper to stop; realized she must have been doing it since the killing began. She was weeping.

Then, from the woods, like a sick joke, came the sound of someone applauding.

Kastor spun to face the sound. His face was hard as ice beneath its coating of gore. His swords' points followed the figure that stepped delicately onto the road.

It was a young man dressed in nobleman's hunting kit. Fine, pale-gold hair floated around his angelic face, having escaped a braid that was clasped with rubies. Gold embroidery edged his russet garments. He was not quite as tall as Kastor, and slimmer, but somehow Magda felt that this boy threatened the bodyguard in a way the bandits had not. The gilded hilt of a smallsword glinted at his hip, but he made no motion toward it as Kastor took up an attack stance. His light-brown eyes were laughing. He came on, still clapping.

"Oh, marvelous, my ruination. It's always a pleasure to watch you work. I am moved by your charnel glory. Do put those away, there's a good boy."

"I don't think so," Kastor said tightly.

"Silly thing. Do you believe you can do me any harm?"

"No." But Kastor didn't put his swords away.

Magda swallowed, found her voice. "Kastor, do you know this man?"

"Man." Kastor snorted. "Yes. He's here to harrass me about some work he wants done. I told you no, Mikah. As you can see, I've something on hand at the moment."

"Actually, I've come to talk to your something. Sister Magda Verity of the Order of the Vine, I presume?" The youth bowed to Magda, as deeply as if to a princess. "Too pretty for a nun. Still, the world of knowlege has reason to be grateful. Sister, I've a proposition for you."

Kastor snarled. "You sneaky bastard. Don't you dare." He moved to put himself between the golden youth and Magda. She saw a flicker of a russet sleeve beyond him. Abruptly he folded in the middle and fell across the kinked legs of a man he'd slain.

Magda cried out in horror. She stood, backing up. The youth advanced, still smiling. "Don't worry, pretty Sister. He's only sleeping. I wouldn't harm my bittersweet. He's too much fun."

A suspicion sparked in her -- not important at the moment, but she felt that if she kept the youth, the mage or what-was-he, talking, he would be slower to harm her. "Why do you call him that? It sounds like a term of endearment. Of a sort."

"It is. He formed an infatuation for me, once. It amuses me to remind him of it. Of course, he hates me now, so it's rather cruel of me. Must you keep backing away? I'm only trying to come near enough that I needn't shout. Here, I'll sit beside your animal, and you can stay there. Hello, animal."

The mule rolled its eyes, shivering, as the youth sat against its side. Magda stopped retreating. She, too, was shivering.

"Excellent," the youth said. "My name is Mikah. If you're half the scholar I think you are, you've guessed what I am."

"You're mistaken, sir. I'd say vampire, from your manner, but it's sunny."

"One down. I'll give you a hint. I was born with this face."

Magda began a retort, something about being in no mood for riddles, but something she'd unearthed in her research snagged at her mind. She gasped. "Mara?"

"Well done! I'd toss you a sweet, but I prefer to save my insults for those armed to reply in kind. Now, to business. I need your help. Note my choice of language: need. Without you, my enterprise is doomed. Along with, potentially, the future of your race, and the soul of mine. In return for your help, I offer you your heart's desire."

For a long time, Magda was silent. Legends swirled in her mind -- similar promises made to heroes who were duped as often as not. Heroes who thought they desired a kingdom restored or a lover's hand, and who were instead given blindness or death or some horrible transformation. This conversation was a danger to her soul. "My heart's desire, sir Mara, is no concern of yours. You may think I yearn for knowlege, but it is the process of learning, and sharing what I learn, that moves me. That, I have already. Beyond that, I desire to help my fellow man and please my goddess. That, you cannot give me. I beg you, wake my guard, and cease tormenting us."

"Oh, good!" He clapped his slender hands together. "A speech! Go on, do."

Magda shook her head. "There's no more to say."

"But you did catch the part where I said the future of your race hangs in the balance?"

"Your kind is not known for its strict adherence to truth."

"Nor is yours, Sister."

She winced. "That's true, unfortunately. I might even listen to you, if I were still only on an errand of scholarship. But I have a mission to inform the convent of a plague of demons in Elenshire, and that I cannot turn from. So I beg you, leave us be."

"You think the old priestess doesn't know already? She's got her hands full. Send your books by royal post. Come with me. Of all the people I've met, you're the first one who honestly knows her heart's desire, but that doesn't mean you've got it nailed already. You've got a shard. I have the power to give it to you in spades."

"And I --" A grunting voice from behind Mikah. Kastor winced to his feet, rubbing his head. "I have the power to detect bullshit. Begging your pardon, Sister. Mikah, for the love of mercy, bugger off."

"You're so rude, my slaughterling. You never let me make my offer in full. I'll still hire you, you know, with or without her little holiness. The payment's the same. Heart's desire."

"Allow me to reiterate: bullshit."

"No one ever believes me." Mikah stood. "Well, I'll travel with you a while. Maybe I'll think of some way to persuade you."

"Travel with us?" Magda's voice was small with dismay.

Kastor growled. "You will not."

"And you'll stop me how, exactly?" The youth -- the Mara -- sprang up to trot over to Kastor. This time the guard made no move with his weapons. Mikah raised a hand to Kastor's blood-smeared face, an embarrassingly tender gesture. For just a heartbeat's time, Magda thought she saw in Kastor's face the hunger that women should have inspired, running through him like a shudder. Then the Mara jerked his hand away as if yanking on a string, and all the clotted gore flew from Kastor's skin and armor to patter into the dust of the road. Mikah danced back with his hands spread, clapped them together sharply; the corpses of the bandits slumped suddenly to smears of black dirt, as if a hundred years of fertile decay had occurred in a moment. Their weapons were streaks of rust.

With a bright, childlike smile, Mikah beckoned to the shocked pair. "Come along, now. It's a lovely day for walking."