The Forest of Orphans
I was about to die.
Worse, I was about to die with bastards.
Not that I was afraid to die, but maybe who you die with is important. It’s important who’s with you when you’re born, after all. If everybody’s wearing clean linen and silk and looking down at you squirming in your bassinet, you’ll have a very different life than if the first thing you see when you open your eyes is a billy goat. I looked over at Pagran and decided he looked uncomfortably like a billy goat, what with his long head, long beard, and unlovely habit of chewing even when he had no food. Pagran used to be a farmer. Frella, just next to him in rusty ring mail, used to be his wife.
Now they were thieves, but not subtle thieves like me. I was trained in lock-picking, wall-scaling, fall-breaking, lie-weaving, voice-throwing, trap-making, trap-finding, and not a half-bad archer, fiddler, and knife-fighter besides. I also knew several dozen cantrips—small but useful magic. Alas, I owed the Takers Guild so much money for my training that I found myself squatting in the Forest of Orphans with these thick bastards, hoping to rob somebody the old-fashioned way. You know, threaten them with death.
It pays surprisingly well, being a highwayman. I was only a month in with this group, and we had robbed wagons with too few guards, kidnapped stragglers off groups with too many, and even sold a merchant’s boy to a group of crooked soldiers who were supposed to be chasing us. Killing never came easily to me, but I was willing to throw a few arrows to keep myself out of the shyte. It’s the way the world was made. I had more than half what I needed for my Lammas payment to the Guild to keep them from making my tattoo worse. The tattoo was bad enough already, thank you very much.
So there I was, crouched in ambush, watching a figure walking alone down the White Road toward us. I had a bad feeling about our potential victim, and not just because she walked like nobody was going to hurt her, and not just because ravens were shouting in the trees. I had studied magic, you see, just a little, and this traveler had some. I wasn’t sure what kind, but I felt it like a chill or that charge in the air before a storm that raises gooseflesh. Besides, what could one woman have on her that would be worth much split seven ways? And let’s not forget our leader’s double share, which would end up looking more like half.
I looked at Pagran and gave him a little shake of my head. He looked back at me, the whites of his eyes standing out because he’d mudded himself, all but his hands, which he left white to make handcanting easier. Pagran used a soldier’s handcant he’d learned in the Goblin Wars, only half like the thieves’ cant I learned at the Low School. His two missing fingers didn’t help matters. When I shook my head at him, he canted at me. I thought he said to repair my purse, so I checked to see if money was falling out, but then I realized he was saying I should check to see if my balls were still attached. Right, he was impugning my courage.
I pointed at the stranger and made the sign for magicker, not confident they would know that one, and I’m not sure if Pagran did; he told me there was a magicker behind me, or at least that’s what I thought at first, but he was actually telling me to put a magicker in my arse. I looked away from the chief bastard I was about to die with and back at the woman about to kill us.
Just a feeling I had.
* * *
To walk alone down the White Road through the Forest of Orphans, even on a pleasantly warm late-summer day in the month of Ashers, you would have to be a magicker. If you weren’t, you’d have to be a drunk, a foreigner, a suicide, or some sloppy marriage of the three. This one had the look of a foreigner. She had the olive tones and shaggy black hair-mop of a Spanth. With good cheekbones, like they have there, a gift from the old empire, and there was no telling her age. Youngish. Thirty? Built small but hard. Those sleepy eyes could well be a killer’s, and she was dressed for fighting. She had a round shield on her back, a gorget to save her throat a cutting, and if I didn’t miss my guess, she wore light chain mail under her shirt.
The blade on her belt was a bit shorter than most. Probably a spadín, or bullnutter, which would definitely make her Ispanthian. Their knights used to be the best horsemen in the world, back when the world had horses. Now they relied on the sword-and-shield art of Old Kesh, known as Calar Bajat, taught from the age of eight. Spanths don’t take threats well—I was all but sure if we moved, it would be to kill, not intimidate. Would Pagran think it was worth bothering? Money pouches hung on the stranger’s belt, but would Pagran order the attack just for that?
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