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Leaving behind the sound of Yamurik raising his voice with whatever caravanner he was berating, I walked around the broad porch, staying out of the rain as long as possible and walking slow to hide my lingering pain. Ecena fell in step behind me. I paused at the double doors through the front wall of the office structure, took a moment to pull up my hood and brace myself to descend the few stairs, and then stepped beneath the eaves and out into the muddy, churned up roadway.
The compound was comparatively quiet. A single pair of oxen stood waiting outside one of the nearby barns, and steam issued from the many windows of the long, two-storey structures standing in ranks behind them. The workers were at work; a couple of them were sloshing from one barn to the other, heads bowed against the rain, or crouching in the lee of the barn and sharing a pipe. Dops pattered off my hood as I turned to the front gates, a short distance away through the mud and drizzle.
Ecena followed me, but even from the front of the offices I could see the woman waiting outside the gates, her way barred by four of my soldiers. There was a presence about her. She was brighter, or larger, or more solid, than the transient rain and dirt and the people in front of her, people somehow made small and insubstantial in their brigadine coats, carrying their spears and shields. They looked like glass.
Before them, she was a gnarled, stalwart old tree, somewhat stunted and narrow, twisted, hardened by weather and sun and time. She seemed immovable. Her skin was the color of an old tree, beaten deep brown by sun and wind and weather. Her hair was black-turning-gray, straight, divided and bound by a variety of leather strips, cords, and beads. She wore a ragtag assembly of clothes from places I had never heard of – wool here, silk there, leather and boning and bright colors. An old bow and a round shield were on her back, a narrow, curved saber of an unfamiliar style at her waist. A fine-boned gray horse waited a few steps away, head up and attentive.
The woman’s narrow eyes met mine as I neared. A smile tweaked the corner of her lip, and a more disconcerting expression was hard to imagine. I must have hesitated, and when I continued toward her, I realized I’d shown my limp and tried to correct myself for the final steps. She noticed. I couldn’t meet her steady, appraising gaze.
I stopped in front of her. After a few long breaths, she spoke. “Well?” She spoke Lonireilan and her accent was thick and foreign, something I’d heard only in Ibandran, and only at a distance.
“You – ah.” I didn’t feel like the superior she had requested. How had an old woman reduced me to this? I tried to look at her again, and again her stare sent my view tumbling down into the mud. “I am Corporal il-Lonireil.”
“Il-Loniriel? And a corporal? You’re just a babe. You Serehvani, boy?”
“Yes.” I gritted my teeth as I recalled myself. “No I’m not. You can’t call me that.” With hesitation, I added, “Peasant.”
“Peasant.” She nodded. The smirk quirked at her lip again. “Let’s speak Serehvani. I prefer it.”
Inwardly, I blew out a breath. “If you insist.”
“I do.” She switched languages without a second’s hesitation, but her accent was no less thick. “Let me pass. I’ve got business with Yamurik.”
“What business?” My hands shook. Why? I forced myself to look at her. This was just some drifter from the canyonlands. Why should I fear her? There were five of us. I was letting her make me look stupid and weak. I glanced around at the others. Some looked away, but Ecena couldn’t hide her amusement and her friend, Ahdan, had taken up a place beside her. He’d been whispering something, but stopped when I saw him and cocked his head with a smug look.
I turned back to the stranger. “Any business you’ve got with Yamurik can go through me.”
I waited, but there was nothing else. “Well, ah, then go away.” I pointed most distinctly out into the city. She made no move.
“I don’t take orders from infants, boy. It’s raining. I’m tired. I’m only asking you as a courtesy. You understand? Let me past or this will go badly for you.”
I had been thinking of words to use. Something about her stare, her posture, made it hard to concentrate. My gaze kept straying to the earth. Finally, I found a good word and lifted my chin. “Crone!” I said, triumphantly, “get out of here. Or you’ll be sorry.” It wasn’t much of a threat. It was even less of a threat than I’d imagined, but I knew next to nothing at that time.
“Crone? Peasant? You’ve got a mouth on you.”
“You’re about to have a boot on you.” I’d found my voice and the words came without thinking. It had always been a problem, but I’d always been big enough to answer for my tongue.
Her eyes widened a little. “You don’t have any idea who you’re talking to.”
“I’m talking to an old woman with a death wish.” I glanced back at my followers and spoke Lonireilan. “Lick of shit. You’re right, Ecena, she won’t listen.” Ecena grinned a little. I could feel her and the others coming back to me.
When I looked back at the old lady, she’d changed. All trace of amusement was gone. My heart froze in my chest and my own bluster turned to ash, filling my throat.
“Listen to me.” She took a slow step forward. Her gaze captured mine. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t think of looking away. All I wanted was to run, but I froze. It was, I realized, what a hare feels like when it stumbles upon a plains cat. In a quiet, precise tone, she said. “Make way. Or I’ll make it myself.”
I fought to speak, and as I did so I realized we’d all taken a step back at her approach. No one smiled or smirked. Ecena cowered. Ahdan, big and broad behind her, shook. His spear point wavered in the air, half-lowered.
I quailed before her. My mind, my bluster, my very spirit, deserted me. “I can’t let you in,” I whispered.
“Believe me – you can’t keep me out.”
I believed her. “Who are you?” I needed something. At least I could tell my superiors her name. Maybe then they wouldn’t have me whipped.
“Go and tell Yamurik that Mire Storm, warrior of the Crade, is on her way in.”
I heard Ecena gasp. The word meant nothing to me, but the sound of it fell on my ears, my heart, like a hammer. A bell, tolling. Behind me, Ecena whispered, “Let her past, il-Lonireil.”
I nodded. I stepped back and looked around me at my fellows. “Let her in. Just watch her.” Before they could answer, I ran off through the rain to tell Yamurik, and I had never been so relieved, and I had no idea why.
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