And because it’s Friday, here’s the first chapter of Pledges of Honor, currently on pre-order at Amazon and scheduled to go live on December 3. Katerin finds out that there’s something rotten in the village she’s taken overnight refuge in…..
Gods, but it felt good to sit next to a good solid fire burning strong inside a stove after days of bushwhacking in the cold and wet! Katerin Healer propped her hands behind her and leaned back on her stool to take full advantage of the heat playing across her entire body, stretching her feet closer to that warm stove. This border village of Wickmasa was two days west of her usual circuit, but at least she and her horse Mira had reached it.
Safe. Warm. Finally.
A rich scent whispering of damp fertile soil and sun-warmed sweet fruit rather than the sage and pine of this village’s high mountain meadows teased her nostrils.
“What is that? Starberry?” she asked Wickmasa’s healer, Makri, who stirred a small pot that simmered on top of the stove.
“You’ve a good nose,” Makri said. “Starberry wine it is indeed, this year’s vintage.”
Katerin frowned. Saubral produce starberry wine.
Makri caught her frown. “It’s not tainted,” he said quickly. “We don’t trade directly with the Saubral. I got this starberry at the Harvest Fair in Nere a month ago. I always like to lay in a supply for winter. It makes a good winter cough potion base. I—we—don’t trade with Saubral here.”
“I know it makes a good potion base,” Katerin said. “I’ve used it myself.”
I just don’t like being around it so soon after a Shadowwalker attack. Especially after she and her horse Mira had escaped that attack two days ago, in a place that should have been safe. Starberry so soon after didn’t feel right. Not remembering details she should be able to remember about Wickmasa definitely felt wrong.
Makri handed a cup to her. “This is starberry with a touch of Dovré’s Blessing and winter’s mint. I find it helps to settle the soul after a time like you’ve just had.”
Katerin cautiously inhaled the aromatic scent rising from the cup. She knew the recipe. But if he had gotten the proportions wrong—gods, Dovré’s Blessing was rare and often substitutes were sold as the true herb. Such substitutes were at best ineffective and at worst, could kill. Not knowing much about Wickmasa and the competence of this healer Makri didn’t help her uneasiness about this potion. Most border villages couldn’t afford to maintain their own healer, but depended on circuit healers to pay periodic visits. She’d never met Makri at any healer’s gathering, which gave her even more grounds for caution.
Still, he and the village had given her shelter for the night. Mira hadn’t seemed bothered by the place, only grumping about sharing a corral with Makri’s horse instead of wandering free. Wickmasa was clearly Keldaran, not part of the Saubral, in both longhouse lodge style and in the Keldaran banner flying high above the headwoman’s house. The village guards had greeted her in the name of the three Leaders, Heinmyets, Alicira and Inharise. All good signs. She was just nervous after that Shadowwalker attack.
The drink was probably safe. It didn’t smell of the poisonous analogs to Dovré’s Blessing. Katerin delicately dipped the tip of her little finger into the potion to taste it.
No bitterness but a tiny sour tang that shouldn’t be present in a well-prepared potion. Beginner’s work, not the work of a skilled potioner. Not poisonous but not the true Blessing, either. Or else the proportions were so low as to be ineffective. She ventured a small sip.
The real thing, she decided. The proportions are off, and the winter’s mint is souring the Blessing. Safe enough for tonight and possibly relaxing after all.
“Thank you,” she said to Makri, who had settled on his chair, leaning against the tripod back. “Thank you for this and for dinner.”
“What else could I do?” Makri shrugged eloquently with a dancer’s grace. “Healer’s Code.”
“Not all who’ve studied the Code necessarily follow it. One has to be cautious.” Maybe she could find out where he studied. At the least that would ease her mind about the potion.
Makri scowled. “I’m of the Fan. We take our obligations seriously. I didn’t study at the Healing House in Dera long but it was enough to learn my Code and my potions!”
“My apologies if I have offended.” Katerin bowed deferentially, then drank a large swallow of starberry to reassure him of her trust. More prideful than most healers. And Fan, too. “I did not realize that you studied at Dera. I’ve never seen you at the Healing House.” The Fan were one of the oldest Inoucain clans, unlike her own, Blue Starry Robe. Makri didn’t act like the three other members of that oh-so-rare clan she’d met.
Makri sighed softly. “I am sorry,” he said in a low voice. “My studies were cut short through a need to come back here and serve. I am a simple healer, not as trained as you circuit healers are. I came to the Fan through my father. He died many years ago. My mother and siblings are Red Chestnut Leaf, and she took me to the Fan kindreds every summer.” He gestured toward a small wooden mask hanging on the wall that she had not noticed before, his coming-of-age mask. It had three small fans etched on each cheek. Something about the twisted snarl on the mask repelled Katerin and she had to look away from it.
Small mask, small fans. He was not high in the Fan hierarchy. No wonder he might be a bit defensive, especially if he’d lost his father young. Fathers were important to the male-dominated Fan, more so than most clans. But the nightmarish scowl with dark highlights on the mask bothered her. Usually Fan masks didn’t have such hideous grimaces. Her own Blue Starry Robe mask sported a serene smile, despite the turmoil that’d raged deep inside her during the coming-of-age summer she’d carved it, so soon after leaving Chiyan.
She sought for a new subject, something that would ease the tension. Her rump started to itch. An image of itchy gray mare came from her horse Mira, followed by stupid gelding covered with buffalo dung.
Katerin stood, sighing. Mira had taken a dislike to Makri’s horse Soisan. Mira was quirky about her likes and dislikes, though usually she didn’t let a lower-ranking daranval like Soisan bother her this much. Darenvelii, the horse breed with extra sensitivity to the Goddess Dovré and an ability to mind-talk to bonded humans as well as between each other, had a strict hierarchy and Mira was close to the top ranks. Her strong abilities made it possible for Katerin to work a circuit alone in safety—most of the time, she reminded herself. Except when a Shadowwalker and his houndriders are where they shouldn’t be.
Perhaps Mira was, like Katerin, more shaken by this last Shadowwalker encounter than she’d admit, even though they’d had worse experiences. Mira’s last bondmate had been killed by a Shadowwalker curse. Maybe Mira was just remembering that time.
“You’re going out?” Makri asked as Katerin rummaged in her saddlebags for some salve.
“Mira’s complaining about an itch. I’d better see to it.” It shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve checked her morning and night to make sure that Shadowwalker hasn’t left a mark on her. She’s been clear.
Still, Mira worried. Which meant Katerin worried. The Shadowwalker shouldn’t have been roaming free that deep in Keldaran territory. Probably spying. The Shadowwalker and his two houndriders had been more interested in torturing her pack mule and rifling the goods the mule carried than in following Mira and Katerin, a sign, perhaps, that they were lost and hungry rather than seeking prey. Still, it’d been two days of long, hard, furtive riding through rugged canyon country to avoid any possibility of pursuit and they’d both lost their way. She’d thought they were heading deeper into Keldara when they’d been heading for the border instead. A beginner’s mistake, not one that either she or Mira should have made
It could have been the work of a Shadowwalker spell. Itchy skin was one sign of those.
“Can’t Soisan help her?”
“I need to do this myself. Mira worries.”
“Sure glad Soisan isn’t that fussy.”
Katerin shrugged. “She’s a pahlevi daranval,” naming the highest level of daranval skill. “Proud of it but particular.”
Makri half-smiled. “If that’s what a pahlevi’s like, then I’m grateful Soisan’s a lesser daranval.”
“It does have its advantages,” Katerin agreed as she rummaged through her pack. “My first daranval was one like Soisan. I appreciate Mira’s skills.”
“She’s not your first?” Makri said, disapproval in his voice.
Dear Goddess, he’s one of those Fan. Odd that he’d ended up as a Healer if he was as rule-bound as some of the Fan clan hierarchy could be. Most of those Fan were judges. Maybe he should have gone with Artel the Judge or Terat of the Waters.
“The Goddess is infinitely flexible,” she said instead of the sharp retort she wanted to say. After all, he had fed her and was putting her up for the night. She owed him a certain degree of courtesy.
Itch, itch, itch, Mira thought at Katerin. Itch touched with worry, followed by gray daranval mare pacing the corral, stupid mud-colored gelding covered with buffalo dung.
Katerin taking care of Mira, Katerin thought reassuringly as she put a lit candle stub in a tin lamp and tucked the salve in her pocket, picturing scratching Mira’s itchy spot and putting salve on it. She shrugged into her heavy winter jacket made from wolf hide and lined with sheepskin, pulled on her deerskin gloves, then slipped out of the lodge.
Winter wasn’t far away from these high mountain valleys. Her breath came out in white clouds and small ice crystals formed on the grass. The Hunter’s Moon swung high overhead, past the sky’s midpoint, suggesting that morning was not far off. Dinner had taken longer than she thought. Well, she had arrived late, and getting settled into Makri’s lodge did take time.
The village patrol passed by Makri’s corral as she fumbled with the rope securing the gate.
“Katerin Healer, visiting Makri Healer, on my way to the Healing House for the winter,” she confirmed to the soft-voiced challenge from the woman guard. “Just checking on my daranval.”
Mira nickered a soft welcome and moved near the fence as Katerin spoke.
“Good eve,” the woman acknowledged, and rejoined her watch partner.
“Good eve,” Katerin responded. She closed the gate, tying it shut, scratched Mira’s neck, then worked her way back to Mira’s hindquarters. She raised the lantern high and opened one flap to look at the rump. Nothing there.
“Darling, it’s all in your head,” she murmured softly to the mare. “I don’t see a thing.” She put down the tin lamp, unwrapped the leather bag which held the small bentwood salve box, and scooped out a big glob of salve.
Mira swung her head around to watch as Katerin rubbed in the salve. Itch, itch, itch. Itch bad. Katerin doing Sight to check on itchy spot.
Katerin laughed. She rubbed in the last of the salve, wiping her fingers clean on Mira’s coat, then scratched her way up Mira’s spine to her withers. “Dear one, I already did that. But if you insist, I’ll do it again.”
Mira nudged her softly. Itch, itch, itch. But the intensity of her image had softened.
“It may not work. I’ve had starberry wine. You know what wine does to my healing senses. And starberry’s worst of all.”
Mira pressed her forehead hard against Katerin’s body. They stood together for a moment, Mira’s anxiety overwhelming both of them. Then Katerin took a deep breath. She half-closed her eyes, calling upon Dovré. Healing vision rose around her hands, shimmering with a faint blue glow in the moonlight. Katerin moved her hands over Mira’s itchy spots, projecting the glow down, searching even below the hide for a possible fragment of Shadow.
Or was there? Something didn’t feel quite right, but it wasn’t from Mira’s haunches. Katerin pushed harder, and her vision winked out. She growled, and tried again. This time the glow refused to stir. Dovré’s Gift was often inconsistent when coupled with wine, especially the Saubral-brewed starberry wine. Starberry had a lovely taste, but gods, it could interfere with her healing senses.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Mira. “I can’t raise my sight.” She scratched the long bones just below Mira’s eyes. “I’ll check it in the morning, and have Makri look, too. All right?”
Makri and Soisan covered with buffalo dung, came back to her.
I wish I knew why she’s taken such a sudden dislike to them, Katerin thought, careful to hide that thought from Mira. She continued to rub Mira’s nose.
Mira jerked her head away. She snorted, then turned her head, ears pricked, toward the other end of the village. Then she blew hard again, staring off in the direction that had caught her interest. Her nostrils flared wide as her ears swiveled. She snorted a third time, and stomped with her right hind. A war horse’s warning signal to her rider, carried over from her previous life as a war mare.
Katerin’s fingers closed on Mira’s mane as fear clutched at her gut. She leapt on Mira’s back. Better to be mounted if trouble was near.
“What is it?” she asked Mira.
Stark, mineral-cold Shadowwalker scent. Faint, very faint. Katerin shivered as scents poured through her nose as Mira would smell them. Had that Shadowwalker been on their trail after all? If so, the village guards would take care of it first. Mira flipped up her upper lip, trying to sort out that trace of Shadowwalker. It was old. No, newer Shadowwalker scent. Gods. It was so very small, and yet so near. Katerin called on her healing vision, straining to look into that shadow world of the gods that whispered on the edge of human awareness to find the source of the Shadowwalker essence. Her vision refused to stir.
It’s followed us here, she thought, chilled. Against all odds, that Shadowwalker followed us here.
And that, too, was wrong. Such persistence wasn’t common in Shadowwalkers, unless they had a particular calling from the dark side of the god Staul, the Destroyer. But gods, she didn’t think she’d done anything to make Staul the Destroyer angry at her. Staul the Balancer held firm here in Keldara, not the Destroyer, not as long as Heinmyets, Alicira, and Inharise lived and ruled.
Soisan walked toward them, head lowered, his ears pinned back, a shadow dampening the brightness of his silvery poll. The Shadowwalker scent grew stronger as he approached. Mira squealed and lunged at Soisan with her teeth bared. The gelding stood his ground, rearing to meet Mira, the moonlight making his silver-colored hooves shimmer.
Katerin’s healing vision returned, flooding her senses as Shadowwalker essence poured forth from Soisan.
“Get away from him, Mira!” Katerin yelled.
Mira twisted away from Soisan as he lunged at Katerin, jaws open wider than any horse’s should be. Mira bolted, kicking at Soisan to keep him away from them, bellowing her rage and fear.
The guards ran toward them, carrying torches.
“Possessed daranval!” Katerin screamed. “Soisan’s possessed! Get us out of here!”
Someone flung the gate wide open. Mira charged through the opening, Soisan in swift pursuit. Makri burst out of his lodge, running hard toward them.
“Makri!” Katerin pulled the ritual knife from her belt and flipped it toward him. Better for all that Soisan’s bondmate killed him before he infected others, horse and human alike.
Makri flinched but caught the consecrated blade’s handle. Katerin wheeled Mira around Makri. Soisan followed. Makri stepped in front of Soisan, checking his headlong rush after Mira for a moment, and slashed a good, clean slice across Soisan’s throat. Katerin straightened Mira out, drawing Soisan away from Makri. She kept Mira moving until Soisan collapsed, then pivoted Mira to face him. Makri held the knife at arm’s length as dark green goo dripped from it instead of blood, staring at it instead of containing the foul stuff.
It fell to her, then. He’d not been trained to deal with Shadowwalker possession. Not a village healer’s skill.
Katerin muttered a binding chant as the shadow rose from Soisan’s throat instead of life’s blood, capturing the ravenous spirit of Shadowwalker-in-gestation which sought to conquer and control living beings. Mira added a deep mareish nicker to right the imbalance caused when one of Dovré’s Own succumbed to a Shadowwalker’s possession.
Makri’s head sagged. He dropped the blade, half-reaching toward Soisan, then stopping. Two of the villagers gently pulled Makri toward his lodge.
“Bring me my bags,” Katerin ordered someone. She leaned on Mira until the guard brought her saddlebags, then searched through them until she found the pouch containing blue dust sacred to the Goddess. She used the dust to make a sacred circle around Soisan and called down Dovré’s cool fire upon Soisan’s body. The ritual ending for a daranval, even one possessed. Leave no bonded daranval to the earth, the Goddess had ordered when gifting the darenvelii to humans. Otherwise, their spirits roamed restlessly.
The Goddess took Soisan back quickly. When the cool blue fire faded, Katerin collected what she could of the ash and mixed it with protective herbs; sage, cedar, and juniper. She gave two handfuls to a guard to scatter around the village, reserving a handful that she put in a small wooden box that she tucked into one of her pockets, to scatter around Makri’s lodge. At least Soisan would contribute to the protection of the village, despite whatever lapse had led to his contamination.
Wickmasa’s shaman for the god Artel, Twana, helped Katerin purify herself and Mira, marking their foreheads and shoulders with protective oils while whispering prayers to the Bright Judge. Then she smudged both of them with a mixture of sage and cedar. Katerin took a deep breath of the aromatic smoke. It cleared her mind of the remnants of Makri’s starberry potion.
“What about Makri?” Twana asked when they were done.
Katerin glanced toward sunrise’s first glow lighting the horizon to the east. A night without rest, and odds were she’d best be moving on today.
“It’s horrible to have to take the life of one’s own bonded daranval, to violate the bond given by the Goddess. But it’s the only thing he could have done, with Shadowwalker possession,” she said to Twana, trying to avoid a direct answer.
“How could Soisan get possessed without Makri knowing? Could he have consented to it?” Twana asked, giving voice to Katerin’s thoughts.
“I don’t know,” Katerin said. “If you don’t know the feel of Shadowwalker possession, you might not recognize a subtle exposure.”
“But where would he have been exposed?” Twana asked. “We’ve not had any contact with Shadowwalkers here.”
“And I shouldn’t have been attacked by a Shadowwalker on my healing circuit.”
“True.” Twana shivered and thrust her hands in her pockets. “The Tyrant Zauril stirs again in quest of his lost daughter.” She winced as she spoke, as if speaking the words hurt.
Twana’s words stirred a brief memory. The daughter of Alicira and the Tyrant of Medvara, Rekaré, had disappeared near Wickmasa.
This might be important. Katerin didn’t realize she’d spoken out loud until Twana raised her eyebrows.
“What might be important?”
Gods, now she couldn’t remember. Katerin tried to think back. What had she just thought was important?
She couldn’t remember. “I’ve forgotten.”
Twana’s face softened. “Not surprising, after all you’ve been through.”
Her tone seemed to be too relieved to Katerin for the circumstances. Still, there was no time to examine this further at this moment. “Has Makri been checked?”
“I saw to Makri before I came to you. He appears to be without physical hurt. But mentally?” She shook her head. “A spirit of despair has taken him. Worse than is typical for losing a daranval.”
Katerin nodded. “I’d best see to him.” The shock of losing one’s own bonded daranval, even a lower-level one like Soisan, could be hard, and healer’s connections were tighter than most. “Sometimes the Shadowwalker curse touches not just body but also the mind.” That was extremely likely given that no one, not even she or Mira, had noticed Soisan’s possession until now. Gods, what was he trying to do with that potion if he was under any influence from Soisan? Good she hadn’t drank any more of it than she had. She glanced again toward the east, gauging the growing light. “He’s not alone?”
Twana shook her head. “No. His brother Metkyi is with him, along with others who care for him. Please. Help him. He isn’t a master healer, but he’s from here, he knows our folk, he knows our needs. More than that, his mother.” Her voice caught oddly for a moment. “His mother was from an old Wickmasa family.”
“I will try to help him,” Katerin said. She went to Mira for strength and reassurance, wishing they could leave now instead of dealing with this. I’m tired, she thought rebelliously. Tired and too long out on the trail.
The sun broke over the mountains. Katerin pressed her forehead to Mira’s. Then she stood up straight, pulled back her shoulders, and walked toward Makri’s lodge. As she neared the lodge, she heard raised voices arguing. A tall young man who resembled Makri ran out the door, then hesitated, turning back toward Katerin, holding himself stiff and straight, his face twisted with distress.
“Healer Katerin?” he asked. Something about the way he stared directly at her with a single-minded focus made her shiver. Memories stirred and flickered away. This must be the brother Twana had mentioned.
“I am she. You are his brother Metkyi?”
The man grimaced. “Yes. Perhaps you can talk sense into him. Where’s Twana?”
“She is coming.”
“Good. I’m going to hurry her along. He won’t listen to me, perhaps he’ll listen to you! His thoughts are storm-snared and wind down twisted trails. I can’t get him to listen to reason.”
“Then I’d better go to him.” Katerin turned away from Metkyi.
As she entered the lodge, she saw things were worse than she thought. Makri sat next to the stove, the materials for ritual suicide arranged around him. He ignored the two young women pleading with him, staring straight ahead. He startled and flinched back as she strode across the lodge toward him.
Katerin shivered. Shadowwalker curse indeed. Whatever had possessed Soisan had touched Makri as well. I don’t know if I can counter this. He had painted his face with Fan mourning symbols and had already sacrificed a fingertip, sloppily leaving the blood to pool around him instead of cleaning up. Not usual. The long obsidian ritual blade rested on its wood stand next to him, along with a dish full of the traditional black dust poison. Makri’s broken mask lay in front of him. The scent of starberry overwhelmed Katerin and she wobbled in front of Makri. Starberry with a rotten scent underneath. No question about it this time. Poisonous analog to Dovré’s Blessing, making it a curse rather than a blessing.
He’s already gone far down the twisted ways.
“Stop this,” Katerin said, doing her best to project a confident voice. “Makri, do not succumb to the Shadowwalker.” Katerin took Soisan’s ashes from her pocket. “Let me mark you with these.”
“NO!” Makri jumped up and slapped her hand, sending the ashes flying around them. The box landed on the broken mask and it burst into flame. Makri broke into a high-pitched, ululating scream. Fire rose around them where the ashes had scattered as he continued to scream. The other women bolted from the lodge, leaving Makri and Katerin to face each other.
This isn’t of Dovré or even of Staul. Mira, help me!
Nothing. She could visualize the small gray mare in her mind but a transparent barrier seemed to lie between them. Something’s blocking her. What is it?
She looked around, saw the pot with the starberry wine in it still sitting on the stove. Get rid of that. The scent is influencing him and it’s keeping Mira from me. She picked it up.
Makri wrenched the pot away from Katerin, splashing most of it over his body. The spilled potion burst into flame. She tried to push him down to put out the fire but he shoved her across the lodge. Then he seized the dish full of black dust and thrust some in his mouth, pouring the rest over his body. The dust caught fire.
“MIRA!” Katerin screamed. Oh gods, no, no, no. Bile rose in her throat and she choked on it. The starberry she’d swallowed and part of her dinner came up before she could stop herself. Mira’s mind touched hers, giving her strength to spit out the sour remnants in her mouth. She scrambled back to her feet and grabbed a blanket to smother the flames.
Makri’s body tightened and convulsed as the poison began to work. He seized the obsidian blade and pointed it at his gut, then writhed onto it. Flames gushed from his body along with blood as he fell. The fire’s heat drove Katerin back. Metkyi and Twana burst into the lodge. She tried to stand but a coughing fit doubled her over. Metkyi and Twana drug her out of the lodge. She would have fallen coughing as they stumbled out but Twana and Metkyi kept her upright. Metkyi handed Katerin a waterbag and she drank three huge swallows. Her gut settled. She leaned against Mira, and forced herself to watch as fire took Makri’s lodge.
“I am so sorry,” she said softly. “I tried.”
“There was nothing you could do,” Metkyi growled. “He chose his course. Damn him.” He strode away.
Twana shook her head and followed Metkyi. Katerin watched as flames consumed the lodge, sick to her stomach. She wanted nothing more than to ride away from this place and never come back.
But she had a job to do. She had to make certain that Soisan was an isolated contagion. Her pledges as a healer required it. Her honor as a healer required it.
“My lady healer, the Eldest wants to see you,” a guardswoman said to her.
“I will be there,” Katerin said.
“Do not tarry long,” the guardswoman warned.
“I need to gather my things and find out what may have burned.”
“Your bags are over there,” the guardswoman gestured to where Soisan had fallen. “I brought them to you.”
“I remember now. Thank you.”
“And if your tack is not saved, we will give you what you need.”
“Thank you,” Katerin repeated mechanically. “I will be along shortly.”
“I will tell our lady Imnari.” The guardswoman bowed and left.
“We’ve got work to do,” she told Mira. “But first, we’ve got to meet the Council.”
Gods, she wasn’t looking forward to this meeting. Not after this violation of healer pledges and healer honor.