he warrior spurred a tired manhorse onward as night faded to dawn. In the foothills, pursuit was easier to evade, but mountains were tricky. They could save or betray as they chose, thought the swordsman. I can get into that valley, find a trail over into-
"Get him!" shouted a voice from below, and another, "I see him!" Arrows whizzed by, one lodging in a scrub oak. I'm going to have to turn and fight, or be shot in the back. There, among those boulders- The canyon floor was a maze of huge boulders tumbled by flood. Sirat Tho'anchur, wearing tunic and breeches of chocolate-colored wool, turned the manhorse toward the confusion of great stones, and once out of sight among them, turned the beast loose, leaving gear to rattle on the three-meter-tall beast's harness. On the way, a loose oak branch... Misdirection can only help. Too little time to set traps, but-
Pursuers rode into the boulder field alertly and in order. Sirat clambered atop one boulder, leapt to another, as the manhorse tried to follow, took an arrow and began screaming and fleeing the enemy soldiers. The resulting echoes did nothing to aid the enemy in finding Sirat.
Above, blue night and the Hundred Stars. The face of great Butros, in half phase, was partly visible over a mountain shoulder, but the valley was in shadow, lit mostly by Toner and Glebe, moons covered in ice and dust. Crossbow in hand, Sirat took aim in their light and shot.
Thok and a soldier's manhorse bolted. Thok and another soldier fell, screaming in pain. Return fire: Sirat ducked behind a boulder, let arrows click off it, then slid silently into firing position atop another. The repeating crossbow needed levering to work the magazine, and couldn't be fired prone. Thok, a miss, and thok, a manhorse was hit, increasing the volume of the conflict. Sirat used long-ago training to shut out noise, tiredness and pain, to fight above all.
Above all. And a smile crossed the dark swordsman's face. Thok, and a third soldier fell, when Sirat shot the larger target, his manhorse. How many of them? Ten? Thok, and a miss, thok, and Sirat saw a soldier flee, unable to bear the rain of bolts from the repeat-fire crossbow Sirat carried. One fewer, but how many now?
irat did not know. The long chase had been by night, up from the flat of the Nurro plain across the foothills of the Charthas. There were soldiers coming into the cleft below, and Sirat, sitting where a smaller boulder rested across a larger one, was not visible against the surrounding mountain-dark. Thok, and a ninth bolt missed. The soldiers shouted and rushed toward where the small swordsman sat. Ha. Bad idea. The crossbow's lever chambered one last bolt. Thok, and the leader of the charge went down, struck his head on stone audibly, was very still. Sirat drew sword and leaped down from the stone, swift and silent as the marsh-lion whose name the swordsman bore. "He's-" and a soldier yelled, cut across the neck and chest by a sword that could chop steel as easily as wood. Wood did, Sirat reflected, make a better fire. Soldiers advanced, spear carrying. Sirat parried, cut and thrust, the weapon's point chopping through leather, metal and the skull of another man. Two more men faced the swordbearer across a narrow lane of grass between two stones. They seemed unable to decide how to proceed. Sirat decided for them by wiping blood and brain-stuff from the white sword, and moving into Glebe's light so that mail and helmet shone under the far moon. "He's there!", one soldier said. "Get him!" And they rushed in a cleft, that, Sirat thought, ten soldiers could hold against a legion were they brave enough. One came at Sirat, cut with an axe. The sword failed to deflect the blow, and Sirat felt what would be an agonizing bruise on the left shoulder, if nothing broke. "Got'im!" yelled the axeman, but then a swift cut came in across his throat. His last words died in a horrible gurgle, as did he. His companion fled, and Sirat decided to let the man go.
Sirat had a long journey to make tonight. We should hide, thought the woman who had spent her whole life fighting, dressed as a man. No. The castle was too close. She could be there before the army was-
It would be on a strange manhorse; her own had fallen silent during the battle. She found it eventually, lying in pain amongst the stones, and ascertained that it could walk-two arrow wounds, painful but not fatal. It cried as she kindled a small fire, hidden in a rockshelter, and salved its wounds before she ate. A manhorse belonging to one of the soldiers came, lured by the smell of food, and she fed it - it was a gelded male - and then saddled it, and rode leading her own mount until dawn came.
Her manhorse, following her, fell twice, and then, the third time, she had heard bone snap. There was no way to carry one of the things, not without a wagon and a team of additional manhorses. She said the prayer for the dead, facing Lord Sun, and cut its throat.
She and the strange manhorse stayed with the body until its face was cold in the dawn of a rainy-season day; she prayed facing east; clouds did not rob the Sun of its deity. The new manhorse limped ere she had gone much further, and she dismounted and walked, leading it, until she got to the valley where her master, Etroklos, had a castle.
Etroklos was glad to see her.
he army was lined up down the whole length of the valley. On either side the Chartha mountains stretched, with a narrow pass to the west. The army faced the east wall of Etroklos' castle tower, with manhorses in the van ridden by axemen, a troop of the Neanderthal-like durrick mercenaries with the enormous maces they alone could lift. Following these men came a troop of crossbows, on foot, spear-armed infantry in hundreds, and a baggage train of supply carts drawn by manhorses. At the fore rode an armored presence with a banner-bearer and a personal guard on matched three-meter-tall manhorses: the Khus Taranth himself. The castle, built to block the pass, had weathered attacks before, but these were bad odds.
Inside the tower, Sirat conferred with the wizard Etroklos. "They'll camp downstream, cut off our escape route, or try to," the wizard said, standing by the tall narrow window that had served as an arrow-slit. "You can go now, if you want to. Cross the pass to the west and take a good manhorse; you can make it to the bottom of the valley."
"I won't leave, wizard," said Sirat, who reviewed plans of the castle, where Taranth's household troops had cornered them. "I swore and won't go back."
"You're released." Etroklos was small, slight, beardless in cowl and robes of brown linen, a belt holding the tools and devices of wizardry and a fireweapon which neither Sirat nor any other was ever allowed to handle. How old it was, or the origin of its smooth maybe-metal and jewel-like fittings, none knew. That it would kill surer and farther than arrows, they were both well aware.
"I said I won't go." Sirat's face was weathered and tanned deep brown, and her body was stocky and well muscled, browner even under Davis' orange light than the cloistered wonder-worker who employed her. She wore black silk tunic and trousers like a rider, arms bare and smooth; by her side was her sword of ancient white metal and a repeating crossbow. Scars of knife and burn wounds lay thick on her arms and face. Strands of gray in close-cropped hair belied the impression of youth. "Call for terms, and give him what he wants, flee with me in the airwing, or die. I won't go to save myself. Then what good is my oath?"
"None would know.. "
The swordsman made a face.
"I'd know. And you would, were you alive." The wonder-worker had applied drugs to her wounded shoulder and strapped it; her right arm at least would work.
"I'll be alive." There was dark mischief on the wizard's face. "Not by fleeing. What good is a wizard with no ancient devices? Who on Pendleton's would respect me?"
"Any who knew what a dangerous will-worker you are," said the swordsman, and grinned. "Lord Sun hides, and I'll pray." She went up a ladder to the flat roof above the lady's solar which the wizard had made into a workroom and study, atop the fourth floor of the west tower. Khus Vanap's family, now moved to a house in Nyotaishar, had sold the castle to the wizard for the price of a working, self-powered irrigation system. There were people who would expect ghosts and demons from a wizard, but regular water in the dry Nurro was as good or better.
he stood atop the tower's flat roof, guttered to drain katabatic monsoon rain into the cisterns. Lord Sun, Davis' Star, edged closer to the black circle of Butros, the gas giant which Pendleton's World orbited; in the cloud decks, Sirat saw flickers of lightning from storms bigger than worlds. The other faVashala in the castle's garrison knelt in the keep yard, or prayed where they were. In the distance faint Marin shone near the horizon. Sirat knelt and began praying as Lord Sun's rim kissed the atmosphere of Butros, the noon eclipse beginning. The wizard's soldiers below, a mere few hundreds against the four thousand of the enemy, prayed as well. Davis's Star disappeared into a red haze and then was gone, the sky suddenly blacker than night. The Hundred Stars and the moons alone lit the world, as she stood in a breath of cold air from further up the Charthas, rainy-season winds smelling of the cold downpours rolling off the Tidepeaks. Bright Urmston hovered near the horizon in gibbous. She finished the charen and stood, thanking the God who gave light and life to the worlds.
She walked to the edge of the roof, built of bavath-wood and concrete blocks salvaged from an Arhabataran ruin, (civilizations rose and fell on Pendleton's, and left the knowledge-monuments, the knowstones, behind to instruct those who rebuilt), and looked down the narrow valley, passing the rooftop catapult as she did so. It might be sheer wizards' folly, but Lord, she did love to fly. Maybe a chance to do so would come before Etroklos bought peace, or fled or died. She didn't know.
She was a sworn-virgin, living as a soldier, as a man, doing as she was told. Torches were kindled and she saw the outlines of camp, rows of tents, a central command station - too far for the fireweapons to reach- she automatically thought. She could fly over, but a skywing was horribly fragile. One arrow and she was a dead woman. Hmmm. Nasty surprises demoralized any army. But fighting a wizard, weren't they likely ready for aerial attack, for fireweapons, for poison or plague?
She would be, in their place. But of course she was sworn to the wizard, even privy to a few secrets of sorcery: she could wire a lightning-lamp or a sparkjar, load and loose a firethrower, and above all (ha!) she was one of fewer than a hundred on her world who had flown since the last taChaharamat sky-lords fell. The greater mysteries were probably beyond her, even with monastery schooling; Etroklos had spent a lifetime garnering what she knew, (though all save herself thought the wizard to be male) and wizards could be very jealous of their secrets. Often Sirat Tho'anchur wondered why the wizard took no mate, nor a child, even though foundlings were not rare in the Nurro.
She ought to know; Sirat had been one herself, when she was a little girl named Kitten.
She went down to confer with the staff, as cookfires winked in the camp down the valley and the Hundred Stars shone above. A moment's light: immense flares of lightning in the black circle of Butros, from where storms bigger than Pendleton's or old Earth raged in footless halls of sky.
ime to go in; the wizard would sit in council soon.
"Khus Taranth wants the motors, the flame-engines,. " Etroklos told the gathered staff, as Sirat and the khus Vethas, commander of the wizard's men, sat with them and the wizard's apprentice, a girl named Veyash.
"And not the weapons, lord?" Vethas, a bearded man of middle height, asked. "They would serve him well."
."Were he a wizard himself!" Etroklos smiled. "He doesn't know how to shoot, and if he did, how to hit. It takes care and skill to charge and use the weapons so that one can practice often enough. It's true; he may seek the weapons, and myself to serve him. Or Veyash, if he thinks that she knows enough," Etroklos said, looking at the apprentice in her loose chudhsch, her pen busy as she recorded the meeting in code. Outside the guard were piling ammunition and securing the water supply, which was lifted by windwheel from a well.
"My notes he cannot read and I'll tell him nothing." Not all wizards' writings were in code, but Etroklos insisted on the apprentice learning the basics. "He seeks the flame-engines because he thinks them easier to operate."
"Yes," said the wizard. "Enough have seen them that he thinks he need only fill the firebox and light it, keep the joints oiled. It's not that simple." Too few people on Pendleton's knew how to run a flame-engine, even if there were fossil fuels as Old Earth had once had.
"Lord," said the First of the guard, "can we not escape while the noon eclipse holds? Your books would go into ten crates, would they not? And our manhorses can climb the cliff face behind the castle; we can seek safety in the Alegan, can't we?"
"It may yet," the brown-draped wizard said, "be needful. If we can hold here, then we can be spared a trip. And abandoning my household-they don't deserve it. Sirat, the guards are ready?" Sirat nodded.
"Lord," the small apprentice said, "Can you not give him the flame-engines, if that's what he seeks?" She had fled an arranged marriage to a fat old man with rotten teeth, and chosen math, science, and magic. Sirat was the traveler who'd brought her to the wizard. Learning and practicing the science of wizardry was not an easy life.
"Well, then. Send a message out with one of the soldiers that we'll parley." said Etroklos. "Veyash, double-check the water supply. First?" Vethas, First among the soldiers, looked up at the mention of his rank. "Arrows and spears all round, and put a crew on the catapult, with fire grenadoes. Be ready as soon as we can see to shoot."
"I'll send Tarat; he's the best," said the captain of the guard. Etroklos nodded. The guardsman and the apprentice rose to leave.
"Second, stay a moment." Sirat, whom another age would have called the wizard's champion or shadow or executive officer, stayed. "Tell me. Are the men ready?"
"For what, lord? They'll fight, yes. How ready they are to die in the face of that huge army, I do not know."
"Plain human fear." She shifted position. "Sir, what are you going to do? Khus Taranth moved an army here in rainy season. He's got men enough to smash this place. How do you expect us to live through this?" The wizard closed the door and sat on a nusswood chair.
"I won't tell you to trust me, hoping for some surprise." The lined face looked old, in a way that a bearded face never did. "Maybe we should have fled when we got the word he was coming, hid what we could, taken the rest into the wild. I don't know." .
"Khus Etroklos, what does he really want?"
he small figure sat up straighter. "I am almost certain that he knows about the expedition from Vokherke that you intercepted. He wants the windbox. Yes. We are its sole possessors?"
"I don't know, master. I was lucky to get out alive," replied Sirat.
"I know how badly you were hurt." Etroklos had used magic to heal the little swordsman.
"Well, can you give him the design?"
"I can, but I can't get the Churgani to grant him a monopoly. He is afraid that we'll sell it to someone else." The wizard smiled. "Half of being a wizard is knowing which way the other fellow will jump.. "
"Ha. Well, will he take the windbox and something else?" The double-acting piston bellows was a re-invention with enormous potential, since it doubled the force of pumped water or air or....other things. "The new mill, or a wagonload of war-drug?"
"Giving war-drugs to the nobility is like giving liquor to a mantiger," said Etroklos.
"And the windbox. Will the Khus Taranth go away?"
"He will want more from us; men who extort always do. But we can take them if my soldiers, Khus Vathas' men, can remember one thing."
"What is it?"
"Not," the wizard said, "to touch the copper bands around the wicker fence. I spoke of this to no one because a secret shared-"
"-is a secret lost. I can warn them to within an inch of their lives. I can't make them do it."
"No. I wanted-this is a secret, too, you know."
"My soul on it." She touched the faVashala relic in the hilt of her sword. "I keep your secrets, Lord Etroklos. I have told no one you were born in a woman's body."
"Like yourself, yes. I took the virgin's vow when I left home to study with old Thumet. Better to hide as a boy than risk what a woman faces in a dormitory of men, or be sent home to sew. Oh, the boys were after each other, too, but Thumet would never have taken a woman student." The old mouth crooked. "I called myself Spark, then. I am Charcoal now."
Sirat nodded. "I became a man for a less kindly reason. The power for the machine?"
"The wind. The mill atop the west tower feeds it. I have lightning-jars for when the wind fails, but in this valley-"
"It doesn't." Pendleton's 140-hour day created extreme weather conditions, and civilizations were in peril from them, or profited, or both. "Very well, then. They aren't to touch the wire. What other traps are in your sleeves?"
The wizard smiled. "The poisoned arrows. There should be enough for each archer to have ten. You know how the firethrowers work." Pendleton's did not have gunpowder in this era.
"Yes. We have enough of the liquid fire to keep them going, at least for a while. If the foe take them, they know to plug the nozzles-. " Sirat cringed, at the thought of liquid fire exploding all over the keep walls.
"A nasty surprise." There was nothing feminine about Etroklos' laugh, but listening, Sirat thought it was more like a boy's giggle than anything else. Sirat herself had found that walking was the most noticeable difference between men and women, and she walked like a male.
"Understood. What if they get into the keep?"
"Lord Sun forbid. We take to the escape tunnels, by the underground stream, and carry my books with us. The skywing is too obvious." And it meant leaving all they had made behind, Sirat knew.
"The lightning will slow them, and if we can kill enough soldiers with arrows and fire while it does, then they'll break. It's a gamble. Sirat, are you ready to play?"
The black-clad swordsman nodded and rose. "I'll go and see."
"Have the kitchen maids set wine and food in the arch of the gate. The Khus Taranth's forces outside, ours inside."
"I'll tell them." It was a compromise.
The messenger returned: the general would meet in one hour.
It would do. Sirat walked down the spiral stairs to the court of the keep and reviewed Vethas's soldiers. They bore swords and bows, spears and each had two quivers of arrows, half smeared with nux vomica. She told them the plans and pointed to what looked like the ritual barrier around a shrine, a braided mess of wire looped round posts. "Don't touch it." She repeated the warning until they all understood.
"Why not, sir?" asked young Thennor.
"Lightning magic, Thennor." Which might even work. But lightning could not be commanded.
When Etroklos came down with his apprentice, in her best blue chudsch, carrying writing things, the general and his men were waiting. The cook's girl was there with wine and cakes. Etroklos greeted the general and both sat, while the wizard ate and drank, then the general, who feared poison.
The wizard and the warlord sat guarded by fire and lightning. Sirat nodded to Khus Taranth's manservant and mixed wine. The long second day was heating up, seventy hours of day ending in crashing rains.
The servant poured four goblets. The steward and Sirat drank, and then their two masters.
"Well, magic-monger," said the nobleman, "you have a decent vintage here."
"What the rain promises it sometimes delivers, yes," Etroklos replied. "My villagers here keep the old vines for long; they say age improves."
"It may be so." Taranth crunched the spiced nuts that had been set out with the wine. "I rotate the crops and plant as the monks' school dictates, but no one can force the land. So," he went on, "you want the knowledge that the monks have."
"Are you so ready," Etroklos asked, "to offer me what I want?" The wizard sipped the mixed wine. "Yes, I want their knowledge, and your men gone from my lands. As for my other wants, they're hardly relevant."
"Ha! I won't inquire," said the Khus Taranth. Was there gossip about the wizard? Sirat thought that Etroklos would be amused. "But know that four thousand follow me, and you have few to your name." Sirat knew that workmen labored feverishly at the walls; the castle needed all its strength. Not four hundred followed Etroklos, man, woman, the children, and his virgin champion.
Etroklos replied. "It may be so, but my castle holds against ten times the number of its defenders, and you have not seen my weapons." Was that true? "Return home and keep your army."
"Men pay high for your advice, wizard. I have not come for it.. "
Etroklos smiled. "Your fee will be higher than I normally charge, regardless." Was Etroklos baiting a man who had a huge army? "You haul an army to my gate-"
"Because you trespassed on land that is mine by inheritance, and stole the knowledge of the ancients!", shouted the angry Khus Taranth.
Sirat kept a careful eye on the nearness of Taranth's troops. Was this a plan to storm the gate and kill Etroklos in the process? She didn't like it.
Etroklos replied quietly. "Me? It was faTheyist monks who excavated that knowledge-monument, and my own armsmen took nothing but a scroll. If you wish the knowledge on that monument, seek it of those monks, men of your own faith." Or send men to climb a glacier that killed, and hope that they returned.
"Who water the wine and give us what they deem 'proper and useful.' I need what they withhold," snarled Khus Taranth. Such as designs for weapons, and formulas for poisons.
"Then buy them from a wizard. We have studied long to know what we do. And we-"
"Gouge hardworking plain folk and lock knowledge away," Taranth said, "until you're pleased with the money-beads we heap in your soft hands!" The warlord's face darkened.
"Then become a wizard yourself. Sirat, more of the Greatstar vintage," said Etroklos.
"Master? Should I leave you? I...I'll go right now." Sirat sent a soldier for the wine. She returned with the asked-for amphora and they once again mixed the wine to avoid poison. The two combatants had ceased insulting each other and instead spoke of chickens and wine, as if gentleman-farmers.
"And so the chickens need to be fattened on -- ah, thank you, Sirat," said Etroklos. The wizard sipped. With water in a basin, Etroklos washed hands. "Now. This is the issue. The title to the valley below the Shando She'anna extends to the ridgetop.. "
Khus Taranth produced from a sealed case a document nearly illegible with age. Attached was a map labeled in a mixture of Old Safalo and Farash.
The wizard looked a bit too smug. Taranth pushed the wrinkled palm-paper across the table.
"This is impressive." The old wizard read down the page, nodding from time to time. "And a forgery. Good job. Who did you use?"
"Magic-monger, don't accuse me! Men!" The sworn-men of the Khus Taranth rose at his word and departed, two of the wizard's guards removing the furniture while two others closed and barred the gates.
Sirat went to check on the soldiers. The long lower yard of the keep was the place for soldiers to come in, and Etroklos had put the magical fence there. If they tried to encircle the outer walls, they could move only a few men at a time without coming under fire from the walls and towers.
The wizard's men were unlikely to desert, given the huge enemy army in place before them. The rain had stopped and the sun of secondday was out. Twenty-five hours to sunset. A breeze was blowing up the saddle between the mountains. It was cooler here than on the Nurro plain. Soon secondday would become hot, and shatter into rain.
So, bombardment, and then frontal assault. Sirat racked her brain asking herself what else the nobleman would do. Bombardment would be simple: Khus Taranth couldn't use fire without destroying what he had come to claim: the windbox bellows. In the close quarters of the keep yard, the magic would make a killing zone. .
The wizard was atop the tower in the heat of early secondday. "Lion, how are my soldiers?"
"They are well, sir. I have to ask how long the fence will hold them."
"If the wire is intact, a hundred legions could die on it."
"Why doesn't the governor intervene?" Sirat asked.
"Not while the Protector is weaker than a puppy and the war with the Alegani continues, he won't. No troops are free for policing, and Taranth stands high at court."
Sirat spat over the parapets. "Men who think themselves above the law. Men who think they can loot and rape where they will."
"You speak," the small wizard said, "from experience."
"I can tell it."
"Magic." Sirat spoke flatly.
"If looking at someone's face is magic, then yes. And I suppose it might be." Etroklos laid a small hand on Sirat's sleeve. "If you want to tell me anything, we might not have another chance to talk."
Already men moved to the outside of the wall of the keep. Orders were to fire when they came in range.
"My name was Kitten," said the woman whose male name was Lion.
"I didn't know," replied Etroklos, the wizard who'd named herself for charcoal, the most powerful fuel in the world.
"I was eight years old."
Arrows arced from the bowmen on the walls, and killed a few soldiers. The Khus Taranth's men moved slowly, bearing tall shields which covered a man head to toe and could be propped up to stand on their own. Sirat leveled her crossbow, with repeater magazine atop it, and looked with fear at the fireweapon that the wizard bore. She had seen it used only twice before.
Sirat said, "It was the war between the Khogani and the Churgani, the struggle for the Chan Hills. Soldiers came and demanded food, what beer we had." Was the cold that she felt truth? Or death?
Etroklos took out the thick tube of the weapon, leveled and sighted in on the space beyond the walls. On the north wall, a ladder appeared. Guardsmen closed on it, pushed it off. More ladders, more than there were guards for.
"Ah." The wizard was listening as usual.
Sirat felt the fear of telling, of loosing secrets, like arrows, to land who-knew-where.
There were enough crossbow bolts. Sirat emptied the ladders of their soldier crews and let the guardsmen push them away, or in two cases yank them away and haul them over the walls to the inside.
A lull. "They wanted...well, they wanted my mother. I guess that's the best way to put it." She shuddered seeing it all over again.
"The simple folk," said the wizard, "are the prey of all. I'm sorry. I abhor it. Among the ancients it was not always so."
Sirat wondered briefly how much Etroklos knew of the people who had made the wonderful artifacts that the people of the Nurro desired, inherited, could no longer copy. She wondered how much anyone knew. "They..."
"I understand." The wizard looked at her, holding the ancient fireweapon. "I'm sorry." The thread of fire from the weapon laced out, cut a soldier screaming to pieces.
"They.....used her, till she fainted, bloody. Kept me there, watching, crying, lest I escape and warn neighbors. The more she screamed the more...excited they got. My father was dead, since he had talked back to them. Where my brothers are I have no idea." She sighed. "Dead, too, I think. If they are alive they wouldn't know who I am."
he soldiers came forward for another assault on the walls. No ladder reached the towers at the corners of the fortress-castle, and the towers permitted enfilading fire, so scaling the walls cost many, many lives. "Sirat, you need tell me no more. You are my champion. No story will change that."
"I will-" Sirat leveled her bow on the wall and shot three crossbow bolts into a group of soldiers who had scaled the outer wall, watched the strychnine take them into convulsion and agony. Smiled. "-tell you what lies behind me. You are the third who knows."
"Third?" Etroklos trained the fire-beam on the soldiers advancing to the gate with a battering ram covered in soaked elephant-pig hide. Slow and careful. "How doe you mean?". The beam cut through the thick hides, kept focused on one spot, and set the leather afire as a torch could not do. "Someone else knows all this?" A wizard was a knower of secrets, above all.
Screams came faintly from the men and manhorses who pushed the thing, a great sakela-wood trunk from the forested slopes below, the old Khus' hunting preserve which Sirat and the guards coursed sometimes for rabbit-deer and bush-hen. Boiling mist and smoke spouted from the leather shroud, and the ram stopped moving. Shouts, and Etroklos' firethrowers turned to enfilade the stopped ram at short range, manhorses pumping the bellows and human crews stripped to breechclouts in the heat. Blasts of flame hit the ram, and it began to inch back toward the enemy camp, out of the fire-throwers' twenty-meter range. After the fire-thrower stopped firing, the ram's crew fled from the torn and burning leather cover, wooden frame splintering around manhorses and soldiers. Etroklos' men cheered. The wizard muttered, "Don't have much fire left in this stick."
"The fire-throwers do well, though."
"They do, thanks to you, my lion."
Liquid-fire weapons were discovered and rediscovered over and over in Pendleton's long history. The apparatus of tank, pump and siphon had been copied from a knowledge-monument of the Chaskaharets, which Etroklos had found in a ruined city in the west.
Etroklos had added the windbox. The double-acting piston bellows pumped air on the in-stroke and the out-stroke, and thus doubled the amount of fuel and oxygen which could spray from the nozzle. The weapon had had a range of fifteen meters before the windbox. It was greater now. The result was death and disaster for anyone who attacked the castle; Etroklos had installed the firethrowers at each corner.
Sirat went on. They might not speak together again. "It was Khus Kaiget. He, she, I mean, was a sworn-virgin. Took me in and taught me the sword, the bow. How to live in an army camp. How to live with men, how to be a man." The army of Taranth massed on the north side along the old road.
Etroklos said only, "Ah." She looked at options, waved for a runner and sent a message. A boy ran with it. Sirat took a chance-shot at a running soldier, missed, swore. "You took the virgin's vow then."
"Before I was old enough to do more than look at men, as if I'd have wanted to after-"
"Yes. I...I'm sorry."
Sirat was moved. They had not shared confidences. Though the swordsman socialized with the soldiers, over jugs of beer and games of rats-and-dragons, the wizard had no friends, and spend her time alone. "Thanks, boss." She looked the old wizard in the eye.
"It's nothing. You know, I-. " Etroklos looked as though she was about to cry, which did not work in battle.
It hadn't worked for Kitten, either.
"Yes?" Sirat replied.
"I had my own reasons, I suppose. For wanting to be a boy. Of course, most wizards won't take a girl apprentice, and my fingers were too clumsy for the loom." They stood side by side, a woman dressed as a man and a woman dressed as a wizard. Sirat's hands were on the parapet, and Etroklos placed hers beside them. "You know, a wizard might marry." They did so, sometimes, Sirat knew. "Or not, like the monks."
"Yes. You didn't want to." The thought of a man touching her ever again had made Sirat a skilled and scary killer, though she hadn't been raped, not that time. She was fine on the battlefield, the practice ground, but wanted no lover, male or female.
"No. Not to.... Not to a man. Does that make sense to you?"
"It does. Yes. I've known such." Among women who lived as men, not all were sworn to virginity, Sirat knew. Some married girls, even raised children. Did some marry men? Perhaps it was so. She knew pairs of men who lived together; no army camp lacked them and some lived in cities as well. She had always felt a certain wry warmth around those couples.
Etroklos spoke. "I thought, when I met you. When I hired you, I knew that you had taken the vow. And you've served me well. Very well."
"Lord, thank you. I am glad to know that-"
"I had thought- that you, being a kind sort, might consider-"
"Khus Etroklos, to keep favorites, whether women or men, destroys any officer's command. I would never leave your service, but ask no more of me.. " Sirat placed a callused hand atop the small ink-spotted hand of the wizard.
"Sirat, you are most wise." The wizard looked downcast, nodded. "I will do as you say." Etroklos took a deep breath; Sirat could not read the wizard's cool, still expression. "Now as for the soldiers. They advance on me. I'll give'em enough wood to cremate themselves, how's that?" Etroklos was no better at heartiness than she doubtless would be at women's' housework.
"Haha. Good. Let me know what to do," Sirat said. Etroklos nodded. Sirat remembered the lessons in battle, the books analyzing the arts of war.
"I'll signal when enough of them are on the old road," said the wizard, indicating space between the north wall of the castle and the huge cliff that walled the valley. "I've told the men to trap them with arrow and fire as they try to encircle us. If enough hits them, they'll break and flee, no matter how disciplined they are."
Yes. "Yes." Sirat drew breath. "Master, you think that we can win this battle?"
"I think that we can do one of two things."
"What are they?" The drills each day, the endless exercise. Always before a sworn-virgin was the alternative: marry, when men had ruined her female life, and bear child after child till she was worn out and old. No.
Soldiers massed in the old roadbed, the first units reaching the end of bowshot to the west of the castle. Units of cavalry rode closer to the cliff, bows ready, so as to be able to shoot over the heads of the foot units to their left.
Etroklos spoke her plans. "The alternatives. One. We break them and they flee. End of story." More soldiers hurried into the road corridor. To the south of the castle, she saw fewer men, but the wet ground there around the old streambeds was no good for marching, and there was less space. Not a source of worry. "Two. He sues for peace, and we demand something from him in return, or we give him something, and he goes away." The old-young face smiled. Frowned at the movement of Taranth's men.
Etroklos gave the signal in the heat of secondday. At once, the firethrowers and bows poured shot into men who had a cliff to their backs. Sirat took careful aim, muttered a verse of the Charen, and shot bolts into the nearest cavalry units. In packed units of men, arrows hit.
Germ warfare was useless on a planet with so few pathogens, but nux vomica had come across a hundred light-years along with amanitas, maize and the housecat, on the ramscoops that had peopled Pendleton's World. Millennia had seen terraforming and evolution: cats had becomes marsh-lions and Schnauzers were now bear-dogs. Strychnine had lost none of its power, and men and manhorses screamed, gasped and twitched, while the unhurt trampled each other to escape. Blood and bone were smashed into the mud. A mass of arrows at each end of the corridor between the castle and the cliff wall mowed men down, and each manhorse hit went berserk, kicking and crushing soldiers and other mounts to death in a muddy mess of gore. Sirat put as many bolts as she had into the nearer masses of men, watched with a grim smile as soldiers tried to remove poisoned, convulsing mates from the field, were injured or killed for their pains. When her first quiver was exhausted, she sent a runner for more. A female body didn't make for a good longbowman, but the crossbow drew on lower-body strength, steadiness and endurance. It was ideal. Down in the castle's bowels, pages and serving-girls painted brown death onto arrowheads, refilled quivers, reloaded magazines, and handed them to runners. The followers of Etroklos might have other goals, but as warriors, they excelled.
he old road corridor was a mass of trampled and scorched mud, filth, and dead and dying men and their mounts. Etroklos scanned the battlefield with a rectangle of glasslike material, an ancient magical device, held before her eyes . "Taranth has gotten next to no men through, and no way to surround us. Good shooting, by the way, Lion." The wizard secreted the clear viewglass in an inner pocket.
"Thanks, boss." Sirat let off two more bolts at a fleeing patrol, swore as they rode out of range back to the army's main camp. "No sign of sappers?"
"Not with the water table this high. They'd be washed out."
While they talked, a strange sight had raced toward them. A body of troops had advanced to cover the retreat from the road corridor, and when they got within bowshot of the castle walls, they had split, and from the middle had come a rectangle of durrick, the heavy and powerful neoanderthals of Pendleton's World. Holding shields above their heads, they carried the battering ram. And despite shouting and shooting on the part of the castle's men, they carried it to the gate. The firethrowers swiveled clumsily and one of them got a blast off-two durrick fell, burnt, but the rest closed ranks and-
BOOM! "We have trouble right now! Troops to the courtyard!" shouted Vethas, the First of the wizard's soldiers, leading every man he could find to the gate's inner side. Sirat nodded to the master and leapt down the stairs to the bottom of the tower, sword at the ready. BOOM!!
The gates, reinforced with metal, cracked and splintered. Sirat knelt behind the copper-wreathed fence and took up position, crossbow in hand. She could get one bolt, maybe two, into the durrick ere they swarmed over the fence and smashed the human soldiers as if they were songbirds. Her hair stood on end, strangely. BOOM!!! She had her sword, and better, Etroklos' warning never to touch the magic copper strips. There was a weird hum.
The durrick swarmed in, to meet an arrow-storm. They were at the copper fence and-
Stopped. Some screamed in fear, some gasped. Sparks snapped and crackled, like the children's game of rubbing feet on carpet. But this magic froze the huge Neanderthals, made them prey for arrows-"DON'T touch them! Don't touch the fence!" bellowed Vethas. The men had been warned, but weren't always mindful of this in the heat of battle. A handful of durrick ran free. She saw one take a soldier in each massive hand and smash them together till their heads were red ruin. Another simply smashed soldier after soldier with a steel mace that must have weighed ten kilos, cracking shields and crushing helms until a spear in his back brought him down. Sirat shot two durrick in the face and one in the neck, and was frustrated as the poison took so long to work: the massive, heavy bodies required a larger dose. I need more nux vomica. She grinned at the thought of larking off to a spice-market.
More soldiers, humans this time, poured into the gate, hundreds armed with axes and spears. Confusion. Some tried to push past the durrick, and were locked into place by the lightning-magic, magnet-made. Others circled up and fired arrows or crossbow bolts at the defenders. The courtyard became a melee. Creaking noises sounded and a loud SNAP of sparks, and the lightning-wall fell into the mud, heaps of corpses atop it. A gap formed in the mess and the enemy swarmed through.
Sirat had practiced daily with the sword and spear since she had been Kitten. Now she was a man of thirty Pendleton's years, and any master's equal, had she cared to teach in a salle d'armes. Her sword had been a piece of construction material, and before that a leaf spring in an Arhabataran-era wind-truck. Its blade curved and its grip was braided leather; its hilt was bronze and its pommel held a jewel grown around a faVashala saint's relic, a vial made from Saint Bave'eri's fingerbone. Now it faced two oncoming spearmen in its master's hand.
One came at her from the left, thinking her weaker on that side. She faked a thrust, pulled back, and chopped hard at the spearshaft, betting on the lowest bidder. The ancient metal cut deep into the wooden shaft. The other ran at her and jabbed a spear in her face. She parried with the bracer on her left wrist and then slashed, ratsnake-fast, at the spearman's face. Neither blow connected. The first spearman tried to flank her, and Sirat leapt up, landed a boot on the spearshaft and cracked it. She then parried a thrust from the second spearman, countered high, and smashed the pommel of her sword into the head of the first spearman. The spearman staggered and Sirat tripped him, cut at the second attacker, slicing across his face below the nasal of his iron helmet. The first spearman screamed as an arrow hit him and he began to gurgle and jerk in strychnine poisoning. Distracted, his comrade looked aside, and Sirat chopped his neck with the sword. In a spout of blood, he fell.
Three more soldiers came at Sirat and another soldier, young Thennor. Thennor stood at her side, and parried blows meant for her, while she did the same for him, saw an opening, thrust and cut into shoddy iron mail with the ancient weapon. Blood spouted over them. The man's comrade yelled and came at them, one throwing a spear. Thennor's mail took the spear and he sat down with a whoof. Sirat stood over him and chopped at the axeman's hands, cutting into one wrist; the axe dropped from a bleeding hand. The spearman cut at her with a long iron knife. She felt blood on her face, and then the sting of the cut, struck back reflexively with her fist, still holding her sword. Punched in the face, he fell, caught himself on one knee. Thennor stabbed him in the groin and the spearman went down, slicking the ground with blood from the great artery in his thigh. Thennor smiled at Sirat gave him her weakened left hand to bring him up. "Need the healer?"
"I need to fight!" said Sirat. They laughed.
More enemies came. Some were still caught on the lightning-fence's wire; some they battled hand to hand. Sirat fought, sometimes with the defenders who held the yard below the keep, sometimes alone in the heat of secondday. The firethrowers winnowed the troops who came through the gate and archers on the walls cut their numbers down further. Slowly there were fewer foes.
After what seemed a lifetime of war in the heat of a mountain winter secondday, Khus Taranth's men sounded the retreat. Spearmen retreated, some throwing spears at the wizard's remaining soldiers and some moving back in good order. Etroklos' soldiers moved the wounded to the interior of the keep for treatment, and Sirat reported to the wizard. "How goes the battle, lord?", asked the swordsman.
"I've done, we've done, what I intended. And you have done well." They stood at the arrow-slit window again.
What followed was that Sirat asked, "What did you intend?"
"I broke Taranth's army. Without him, the Alegani will take the lower Nyet, and with it-"
"Vokherkhe." The monastery held an immense store of knowledge retrieved by the monks and nuns over millennia, since the Safalo empire had withered. Legend called the monks doers of miracles. But in reality, their knowledge was better than any magic, since it could be learned by anyone who could read.
The red-robed monk Charthat, Sirat's foe, was a missionary from Vokherkhe.
He was the man who had taken the windbox.
Sirat spoke. "You want the library. Master, where are you going to put it?" There were Sun-knows-how-many volumes there from every civilization on the Nearside.
Soldiers on the muddy ground before the castle formed into lines and marched toward the pickets of Taranth's camp. In the near distance, Sirat could hear the Charen being recited for the dead, agonized four-note wailing in a minor key.
Etroklos smiled thinly. "I will find a place. I've put in a bid for any spoils that have writing on them. I don't want the monks themselves. They can chant somewhere else. I await a reply from the First of the Alegani legions. Sun grant it." Sirat was afraid to ask what she'd offered the Alegani military commander.
"Sun grant it." She took a deep breath, exhaled as she had been taught, emptied herself of combat-mindedness. "And bring us such a victory again, wizard. And. Should it be a girl you seek, there are marriage-makers, and we can find you a pretty one." The swordsman-who-was-a-woman said, "I'll teach her the sword and you can teach her magic. Would it please you?"
he wizard smiled. Rain spattered across the castle roof.
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