Blogging about Christmas and all later on….for now, it’s Pledges of Honor Chapter 4. Just got a lovely review on Goodreads by someone who couldn’t put the book down. Oops, now I need to get cracking on Beyond Honor.
So here it is, Chapter Four, in which Katerin finally gets the remembrance spell lifted and she realizes the significance of Wickmasa….
And as always, if you want to read the whole thing, the books can be found at Amazon, Nook, iBooks, Kobo, and etc. Or if you’re not already signed up for my newsletter, do so today and you’ll get a chance at getting a free copy? I’m giving away two copies of Pledges of Honor and Netwalk’s Children as a part of my New Year’s newsletter. What a way to start out 2016! Message me or send an email to jrw at aracnet dot com.
“Ahhh.” Katerin eyed the platter of roast beef on the long common table. She’d already helped herself to it twice, along with the bowl of mixed roasted root vegetables and the light, fluffy, warm bread with fresh butter.
“Eat up,” her Tauri friend Senai encouraged. “You’ve lost weight this season.”
“Don’t I know it,” Katerin shook her head ruefully. “A long and hard circuit. Then that Saubral attack wiped out all my earnings.” She drank her beer.
“Hard luck, that. At least you’ve got a winter contract. And you’re going back out, to where?” Senai frowned at Katerin.
“Wickmasa. Up past the Northern Pass, near the Clendan border.”
“Never heard of it.”
“You’re not the only one,” Katerin muttered. When the plate of sweet cake came to her, she handed it on without taking any. She was too full to eat the rich cake stuffed with berries.
“I’ve heard of Wickmasa,” Yevtin, one of the other far-ranging circuit healers, chimed in from his seat next to Katerin.
Katerin turned toward Yevtin. “So what do you know about Wickmasa?”
Yevtin ran one hand through his curly dark hair. “I’ve run into Wickmasa’s Makri at the Trading Fairs in Nere,” he said. “I’ll swing by Nere at times during my circuit to pick up supplies. Easier than backtracking here. He always seemed to be doing a lot of non-Healer-type trading.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Yevtin took a bite of sweet cake and chewed it thoroughly, then dabbed at his mouth and beard with his handrag. Katerin sipped her beer, recognizing the signs of a classic Yevtin tale preparation.
Yevtin swallowed some beer and set his mug down firmly. He leaned closer to Katerin and rested his left elbow on the table, shutting out others from their conversation.
“You have to understand that Makri never talked a lot about village business,” he said, keeping his voice low. “The place has a remembrance spell.”
“Yes. I know.” Even now Katerin could feel her memories of Wickmasa starting to fade away. She leaned in closer to Yevtin. Usually Yevtin’s tales were loud and boisterous. This time he met her eyes seriously and quietly, his voice near a whisper.
“I’m not subject to those spells any more,” Yevtin continued. “Not after, well, you’ll learn. Listen. Makri wasn’t like most village healers when they hit Nere. Those other village healers, they’re swapping healing tales, and remedies, and all sorts of wild stuff. Figures, since most of them are from the back of beyond.”
Katerin nodded, knowing exactly what he meant from her own experiences. “Makri didn’t talk?”
“Not about the village, no. You’d barely know he was from Wickmasa. He wasn’t looking for remedies and new herb mixtures, either. No, he was always gathering information on the latest Saubral movements or trade issues.”
Katerin pulled back slightly from Yevtin. “That’s not a healer concern!”
“Lower your voice, girl,” Yevtin cautioned, sitting up quickly. Senai cast a worried glance over at Katerin.
“It’s all right,” she told Senai. “Just talking.”
Katerin leaned closer to Yevtin. “So what’s a healer doing gathering information that should be a war chief’s concern?”
Yevtin reassumed his position with arm and hand blocking his lips from others, and nodded slowly. “Exactly. He spent time with questionable traders.”
“Starberry and other products from those sources. He wasn’t always as careful as he should have been. I had to bail him out of trouble a couple of times. But he was my apprentice when he came to the Healing House, and I thought I should help him.”
“Makri apprenticed? On a healing circuit?”
“There’s not a lot of other options for training village healers.”
“He didn’t strike me as having the savvy to make it through a regular season’s circuit.”
“He didn’t have the skills and flexibility to last on a circuit. Village, yes, where things are predictable and constant. Otherwise, he was pretty naïve. Which made his behavior in Nere stand out. He was doing a poor and way-too-obvious job of intelligence gathering.” Yevtin stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I didn’t think he was a spy. He was too reckless, too talkative. I thought he might be running some trades for the Fan kindreds and earning some gold working for smugglers here and there.”
“He’s one of the last people I’d finger for being a smuggler.”
“Well. Yes. But the timing was always good for him to be working something for the Fan. He always seemed to be in Nere either before or after a Clan gathering.” Yevtin suddenly fell silent.
Katerin looked up. Eldoran glowered at Yevtin.
“Hate to rush you away from dinner,” Eldoran said, “but the Council is ready.”
“I’m just about done.”
“I’ll be waiting outside.” Eldoran nodded to Yevtin, holding his eyes for a moment, then strode away.
Katerin looked over at Yevtin, but he had turned back to face the table. “Can you tell me any more?” she asked.
Yevtin half-turned to Katerin. “Only this. If you’re doing business with Wickmasa, my friend, then you need to watch your every move. That place is god-haunted in ways you don’t want to know about.” He waved her away. “You’d best get going. Council doesn’t want to wait these days. Lots of business before winter.” His voice lowered. “Maybe more. Later. Private.”
Katerin chugged down the rest of her drink and wiped her face. “I’ll meet up with you when I’m done,” she said to Senai.
“Any idea when you’ll be back?”
“Whenever the Council gets done with me.”
Senai made a face. “If it’s not too late, I’ll be by the fire. Otherwise, come talk in my room.”
“Our room,” Katerin corrected. “They bunked me in with you.”
“I’ll fix your bed if you’re not back before I hit the bag.”
“Thanks. I’m hoping they won’t keep me that long.”
“Good luck,” Senai said.
Katerin swung her legs free from the bench, stretching before she walked. She ambled out of the dining room and onto the front porch. Eldoran scowled at Katerin.
“Shouldn’t be listening to gossip,” he told her.
Katerin shrugged. “With a place like Wickmasa, it’s hard to tell what’s gossip and what’s fact. As it is, I’m fighting that gods-cursed remembrance spell.”
Eldoran nodded abruptly. He stomped down the steps. “You have to be careful about how much you talk,” he growled.
Katerin slid to a stop in the mud. She could feel the cold glop oozing in through a crack in her left boot. Boots. Tomorrow. First thing I do.
“Eldoran,” she said, her voice cracking slightly. “By the Goddess’s left tit, can you tell me what is going on?”
Eldoran sighed and faced Katerin. “If I knew for certain, I’d tell you.” He took her arm and got her walking again. “You’re the only one who can go to Wickmasa. Not after what Imnari wrote. You’re the only healer that Wickmasa will accept.”
“And if I don’t accept?”
“Katerin, you’re already too deeply involved. It’s safer for you to continue than not.”
“Damn it, Eldoran, there’s too much secrecy! I’ll only take so much of ‘it’s the Goddess’ before I want some answers! If the Council wants me there so badly, then give me a reason!”
“Katerin, there’s a lot at stake here. Political. Not just with humans, but with gods. We need someone there that we can trust. A good observer as well as a good healer.”
“Observer? Am I going to be asked to spy?”
“We need you to collect information. Just observe. Field reports from a village healer. That’s all we want. Nothing complicated.”
“What kind of field reports?”
“Weather. Illnesses. Anything out of the ordinary.”
Eldoran shook his head at her. “Get through the winter in Wickmasa with as few complications as you can. I promise that you’ll have a smaller route next season, perhaps even just a summer route instead of a big spring-summer-fall route like you had this year.”
“You can guarantee that?” Katerin stopped again, pulling her arm free and staring at Eldoran. She’d had no idea he held that much influence in Council. Or is my Council appearance just a sham, and he’s the real negotiator for my services? For being in a rush, he’s certainly willing to waste time talking.
Eldoran glanced around to see if anyone else was within earshot. He lowered his voice.
“If you can get through this winter without incident in Wickmasa, you’ll be able to pick and choose what route and what villages you want,” he said. “By the Goddess’s gold necklace, I swear it to you.”
Katerin studied Eldoran’s eyes. “What about my credit? I won’t earn as much with a shorter route.” Gods, she could replenish her credit; plan to retire to an easier life. This last year had been rough. Pay off the last debts for her training, so that the only thing she owed was for Terani’s support. Yes. A good contract would be worth a winter’s work.
“Between what Wickmasa’s committed itself to, and the raised contract pay for your summer season, you’ll make more this next season than you did this one you just finished.”
“All right,” she said. “I’ll cooperate. But I need that remembrance spell lifted right now.”
Eldoran rested both hands on her shoulders. “Katerin. I told you I’d lift that spell myself. More than that, I’ll ride out to Wickmasa with you and a couple of apprentices to make sure that you’re set up properly.”
“I’m going to hold you to that promise,” she said. “And, as for escorts, I’d prefer finished and experienced healers, not apprentices.”
Eldoran grimaced. “You drive a hard bargain. I suppose you want Senai and Yevtin?”
“Why not? Senai’s my training bond-friend, and Yevtin has a tie to Wickmasa through Makri. Better choices than two apprentices who don’t have a clue about magic, healing, and politics.”
Eldoran shook his head, but a faint smile twisted his lips. “Healer Katerin, you’re a hard bargainer with reasons I can’t break apart, even in the name of secrecy and security.”
Secrecy and security. Katerin shivered as his words confirmed her suspicions. Only the Council spoke in these terms.
“You’re negotiating this contract for the Council right now,” she said.
“Because Wickmasa is a subject that not even all of the Council is free to discuss,” he said. “We’ll write up the contract tonight.”
“I’ll want a Council steward to check it before I sign.”
“And that would be Yevtin, the old busybody.”
Katerin grinned at Eldoran. “Exactly.”
Eldoran threw up his hands. “All right, Katerin. Just as long as we can get this done tonight, so we can get you outfitted and back on the trail day after tomorrow.”
Katerin slipped her hand into his elbow. “Then let’s go lift this spell and get this contract written, shall we?”
Eldoran shook his head at Katerin. But they walked arm-in-arm the rest of the way to the Council longhouse and Eldoran’s office. Katerin noted the desk already had a parchment laid out on it, with writing implements waiting. Her Blue Starry Robe mask and Eldoran’s Fan mask, three times the size of Makri’s, lay on the table. Katerin shivered at the fan markings on Eldoran’s mask. Even though it lacked the twisted snarl of Makri’s mask, the Fan characteristics still haunted her.
What had he done to that mask to make it look that way? Or did it change to reflect who he’d become? Her own mask had softened and mellowed in sharpness over the years. It seemed paler than it had been. Masks could change to reflect changes in their makers, or so she’d heard.
“I want this remembrance spell gone before you sign the contract,” Eldoran said. “Yevtin will insist on it.”
Katerin nodded. She closed her hands into fists as Eldoran gently pressed his fingertips on both sides of her temples. She whispered the invocation to Dovré after him, and bit her lip as the heel of his hand hit her forehead.
Memories streamed back. Wickmasa. Wickmasa was closely tied to the Leaders of the Two Nations of Keldara and Clenda. Alicira, the Aireii First Wife of Heinmyets, the Leader of the Two Nations, had ties to Wickmasa. Alicira had diced with the god Staul someplace near Wickmasa to win herself a conditional freedom from Zauril the tyrant from the distant land of Daran, who’d abused her and stolen the leadership of Medvara from her. After that, she’d met and negotiated a protective alliance with Heinmyets, the Inoucain leader of Keldara, and the woman who was now his Second Wife, Inharise, kin to the Tauri leaders of Clenda. That alliance protected Alicira and the daughter she’d had with Zauril, Rekaré, until Rekaré gained her magic at age thirteen.
Rekaré had disappeared near Wickmasa, along with Heinmyets and Inharise’s son, Cenarth, while traveling to Medvara to fulfill the treaty with Zauril that had kept the War in abeyance. Her disappearance was why Keldara and Clenda trembled at the brink of open war with Medvara, and why Zauril’s Saubral allies had doubled their raids on Keldara.
Katerin’s hands tightened into fists as the implications of what Wickmasa was came clear to her. Eldoran’s eyes met hers and he nodded, grimly.
“Wickmasa truly has need of you,” he said, the lines in his brown face sagging into loose tiredness.
Katerin nodded back. “Now I understand.” Alicira. Heinmyets. Inharise. Rekaré. She’d only met Rekaré once, as a wild child running with her stepbrother and the rest of the kidpack that belonged to the Leader’s immediate kinfolk. The children were not openly shown in wintertime, when Heinmyets and his wives held court in Dera, the capital of Keldara and Clenda. But she’d seen them during a chance encounter out on one of her summer trading circuits years ago. Heinmyets and family were much less formal in the summer, especially deep in the heart of Inharise’s country in Clenda. Katerin’s throat tightened at the memory of the wild young Aireii horsewoman, she upon whom so much depended. Young and carefree then. Not likely to be so carefree now, if she still lived, and was not a secret captive somewhere.
“Do this,” Eldoran said, “and not only are you free from your training debt, but we will clear you from any further obligation to Karnoi and Cirdel’s priests for the care of Terani.”
Katerin jumped slightly. “How—Eldoran—that—that’s more—” Since she’d never known her father, the obligations for Terani’s support after she’d gone into the dreamless sleep had been hers alone, and one reason why she carried such a heavy contract over the years. Others in her training cohort had long ago paid off their training but she’d always had to send payments to the priests of Waykemin’s Healing House to assure the best treatment for Terani. The mother who had never been a mother. If this contract could finally free her from this obligation, it’d be worth it.
“The Council is willing to do it,” Eldoran gently rested a hand on her shoulder. “We should have helped you long ago.”
“I thank you,” she said softly.
“If we can keep from open war throughout the Two Nations this next year when Rekaré comes into her majority, I’ll be thanking you,” Eldoran said. “That’s how important your job in Wickmasa will be.” He picked up his mask. “Are you ready to swear?”
“I am ready.” Katerin picked up her mask. A soft chord sounded deep within herself as she held the mask to her face with one hand and took Eldoran’s free hand with her other. The mask’s wooden shape stretched, becoming living wood as the Goddess took life within her and within the mask.
“I, Katerin, Healer of Blue Starry Robe, do swear this my vow,” she began, her voice clear and firm, much like the voice she heard when the Goddess spoke within her.
Gods, it had been too long since she had taken the mask to herself. Perhaps this winter she could bring it to Wickmasa. After all, she wasn’t going to be traveling. She’d like to have it nearby.
“You did what?” Senai sat up in her bed, blinking. “You committed me to do what?”
“It’s just escort duty,” Katerin told her. “You, Yevtin, and Eldoran are escorting me to Wickmasa.”
“Katerin, I’ll have your head.”
“Relax.” Katerin slid into her bedroll. “You and Yevtin are getting a nice-sized bonus. Yevtin made damn sure of that when he reviewed the contract.”
“So Yevtin’s in on it, hmm?”
“I wouldn’t do this without a Council representative.”
“Smart move.” Senai ran her hands through her long dark hair, detangling it before throwing it back behind her shoulders. “So what did the old skinflint drag out of the Council for us?”
“You two are getting ten gold bars. Each.”
“Ten gold bars? But that’s a whole season’s worth!”
“Yes. Ten. Seven from the Council. Three that the Council and Eldoran don’t know about from me, at the end of the winter.”
“Three from you? Katerin, this isn’t just an escort job, is it.”
“No,” Katerin said, “it’s not.”
“Oh, Goddess. What else do I need to do? Flub up some aristo’s healing contract?”
“Nothing that big. Just keep in touch with me this winter. You’ll be writing to Deyatim. She’s the shaman of Kinherit. I’ll introduce you to her on our way out.
“So you’ll be writing every moon?” Senai asked.
“No. At the full and new moons. You should be getting two letters with every delivery. I’m told Wickmasa has regular trader caravans.”
“Katerin, just what have you gotten yourself into?”
“I—there’s more than I can tell. Just don’t wait. If you miss two letters from me, bring help.”
“It’s that bad.”
Senai bounced out of her bed and hugged Katerin. “I’ll bring help if I miss one letter.”
Katerin leaned her head against Senai’s chest. “Thank you, Senai. Thank you.” And I hope you never have to fulfill that promise.