As promised, today I start the serialization of Power’s Shadow. The cover on the left is a mockup, and will likely change. This first section will be a little longer than normal, due to the fact that the natural break point fell where it did. If you haven’t read Black Kath’s Daughter then some of this might be hard to follow. The premise is that Marta is a follower of the Arrow Path, which is both a method of attaining magical power and a debt bond between the witch and a Power called “Amaet.” As for Amaet’s nature, I fall back yet again on Black Kath’s Tally Book: “The difference between a Power and a god is mostly procedural. You worship a god. With a Power, you negotiate.”
“The problem with The Arrow Path or any route to power is that it tends to attract two sorts of people– those who seek power for its own sake and those who seek it as a means to an end. You’d be hard pressed to choose which of the two is capable of the greater evil.”
– Black Kath’s Tally Book
“Girl, am I to understand that you are threatening me?”
Marta eyed her would‑be robber with mixed curiosity and amusement, but the raven on her shoulder was just amused. Its croak sounded very much like a chuckle.
The girl in question stepped away from the scraggly bramble bush she’d been hiding behind and took a firmer grip on her sword. She wasn’t that much younger than Marta, though her bedraggled condition and the obvious fear in her eyes made her look like an armored waif. Her hair was deep black to Marta’s red gold, and worn in a long braid down her back so it wouldn’t catch on her mailshirt.
The girl waved her sword in menace, or something like it. “I told you to step down!”
Marta sighed. “Oh, very well. I could use a stretch.” Marta slid from her seat and stood beside her red and blue cart in the grassy clearing. The mare took the opportunity to munch some of that grass while Marta looked the girl slowly up and down, taking in her dirty, pinched face, her patched clothes, or what showed of them. Marta’s eyes lingered for a moment over the mailshirt well-fitted to the girl’s slim frame, and again on the gleaming sword. “I gather this is your debut as a…well, what shall I call you? A highwaygirl?”
Whatever reaction the girl had expected, Marta clearly wasn’t giving it to her. “I’m not to be trifled with! Do you know what blade this is?”
Marta shrugged. “Since you asked‑‑the style is shortscythe, favored for fighting on foot rather than mounted. It’s clearly Master Solthyr’s work and to my knowledge he only made seven finished blades of that type. Three are believed to be in the King’s Armory at Lyrksa. One was given as a gift to the king of Borasur-Morushe. Two were stolen from Master Solthyr himself by the pirate Longfeather last year. It’s said that Longfeather gave one to his patron, the Chief of the Five Isles, and kept the other himself. Let’s see…that only leaves Shave the Cat unaccounted for. Would this be it?”
The girl just stared at her. “Who are you?”
Marta smiled. “My name is Marta, Black Kath’s Daughter. Shall we get on with this? I have business to take care of, and it won’t wait forever.”
“Business, she calls it,” said the raven. He sounded casual enough, but he had also quietly removed himself to a safer perch on the top of Marta’s brightly painted cart. Marta, for her part, could not bring herself to be so concerned. Despite the girl’s rough appearance and obvious desperation, Marta just could not see harm in her.
She wants to be fierce, but I don’t think it’s in her nature –
Marta hesitated then. She had felt a sudden rush of…recognition. That was the only word that fit, which was strange since Marta had no idea what she was recognizing, but it was the same sort of feeling she had whenever she touched upon one of the Laws of Power, and especially one that she did not already possess. It was there, within her reach, and perhaps somehow connected to this strange girl. Marta knew that, though try as she might, she could not quite grasp it. She took a little of her annoyance out on the raven.
“Do be quiet, Bonetapper. Next she’ll be asking me to explain you and, frankly, I’d rather not. Now then, what is it you want, girl?”
“So I assumed. You can’t have it,” Marta said. “Was there anything else?”
There wasn’t, because the girl gave up. She put Shave the Cat back in its sheath and sat down on the grass. Marta thought she was going to cry, but she didn’t. She seemed too angry for that.
“But I don’t want to die,” she wailed. “Damn all, it’s not fair.”
Marta put her hands on her hips. “By the Seven, girl, who asked you to die?”
“What choice do I have?” the girl asked, all misery. “I can’t sell my father’s sword; it’s all I have left of him. I won’t beg, obviously I can’t steal, and the only work I’ve been offered is in a brothel. Maybe that’s better than starving to death, but by the time I knew for sure it’d be too late.”
Marta nodded. “Your name is Sela, isn’t it?”
For a moment the girl seemed to forget her anger and frustration to stare, wide-eyed, at Marta. “Is there anything you don’t know?”
“Many things, including what’s to be done with you. Let’s think about that later, shall we? Bonetapper and I will camp for the night and have a bite of supper first. Would you care to join us?”
The food at Marta’s campfire was simple but abundant. Sela tucked in to the barley soup, hard bread, and cheese, and didn’t emerge for some time. Her hunger dulled enough, apparently, to give curiosity a chance again. “How did you know my name?”
“No mystery there. If you had Shave the Cat from your father, then your father was Master Solthyr. That makes you Sela, for there was no other child.”
“You knew my father?”
“Somewhat,” Marta said, since it was her nature to tell the truth, unless of course there was a good reason not to. “For a person who never actually met him, that is. Most adepts become aware of each other, in time. I made it my business to know a bit about your father and you, only because it’s to a witch’s advantage to understand who else is working change in the world.”
Sela frowned. “My father was a swordsmith, not a magician.”
Marta laughed. “When mastery reaches a certain level, there’s very little difference.”
“If you’re Arrow Path then you’re a witch,” Sela asked. “Could I have possibly chosen a worse person for my first mark? But at least that explains the talking raven.” She glanced at Bonetapper, happily pecking at a soup bone on a nearby rock. There was no fear or accusation in Sela’s tone, just more curiosity. “So. What would you have done, if I hadn’t changed my mind this afternoon?”
“That depends. Are you any good with that?” Marta nodded toward the sword.
“A bit,” Sela said. “The king’s own weaponmaster trained me, as a favor to my father. He said it would help keep the local swains at bay. Father was too busy to do it himself.”
“Well‑trained, then. I probably would have had to kill you,” Marta said frankly. Noting the look on Sela’s face, she smiled again. “Take that as a compliment, for what it’s worth.”
“I-I’ll try to remember it so.”
“Also for what it’s worth, I’m sorry about your father, but did he make no provision for you at all? Had he no property?”
Sela shook her head. “Almost nothing. Father was a master, true enough, but not very practical. He was paid well but he spent most of it importing different types of steel, or precious metals and stones for finishing. And he was always testing, experimenting with exotic fluids for quenching, Tobek firecoke… It all cost a great deal.”
“Improving his art,” Marta said.
Sela looked grim. “That may be, but when he died both his art and his worth to the king went to the grave with him.”
“Small wonder. A king’s gratitude is the dearest coin he possesses, and the wise one spends it no more than he must.”
Marta considered. She had sensed a Law, and something about Sela’s presence had triggered that feeling. The girl would be trouble, clearly, but what sort? There was good trouble and bad trouble. One was absolutely necessary for her quest; it stirred the cauldron of possibilities. The other was just plain difficulty of the quite ordinary sort, and best avoided.
There was only one way to find out, unfortunately. “Sela, I suggest a temporary alliance. With me. At least until you get a better grip on your future.”
“I think I would be foolish to refuse. But why would you be so kind?” Sela asked.
“Kindness,” said Bonetapper, glancing up from his soup bone. “What a notion.”
Marta smiled a rueful smile. “I’m afraid Bonetapper speaks the truth there. I’m on a dangerous path, and that extends to anyone with me. You may not think I’ve done you a favor before long.”
“Father spoke of the Arrow Path sometimes. You’re seeking the Seven Laws of Power, and power is always dangerous. That still doesn’t explain why you would want to help me.”
“I’m afraid it does. Once the quest for the Laws of Power has begun, it can neither be put aside nor abandoned. Seek and you will find them. Hide from them and they will find you, and that’s most dangerous of all. So, once someone takes the Arrow path, by definition there are no random encounters. I felt the presence of a Law of Power almost from the moment I met you.”
“But I don’t know any of the Laws,” Sela said.
“That doesn’t matter. You may be the key to my understanding of a new Law, so it’s to my advantage to help you. See how simple it is?”
Bonetapper finished eyeing the one last scrap of meat on his soup bone and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. He rejoined the conversation. “You call that simple? I call it horrible.”
Marta nodded. “That, too.”
As always along the Arrow Path, Marta had no destination in mind. Instead she had a goal, and the direction she chose to reach it was based on instinct and little else. After two days’ travel from the time of Sela’s arrival they were very close to the Southern Sea. There was more than a hint of salt on the wind. Sela spotted the tower first, but before she could say anything Marta was already reining in the mare. “Is that a watchtower of some kind?” she asked.
Sela nodded. “There are others like it all along the coast, but the Sea Kings haven’t raided since my grandfather’s time, and the Lord of the Five Isles is well-bribed not to do so now. Some of the more remote outposts have fallen into disuse, I suspect.”
“I’d say we have the proof of that right here,” replied Marta.
The tower was on a narrow spit of land and solidly built of fitted stone but had not been maintained, by the look of it, for some time. Vines grew from base to crenelations, some of which had fallen to half-bury themselves in the rocky ground or roll off into the churning sea. Seabirds nested in the niches and broken stonework; their harsh cries filled the air.
Marta called to Bonetapper, perched in his normal spot atop the wagon. “Have a look around, please.”
The raven grumbled something inaudible and flapped off toward the tower. That the nesting birds didn’t take very kindly to his intrusion was an understatement.
“They’re trying to kill him!” Sela said.
“They’ll fail,” Marta said, grinning. “Or if they don’t, it’s his own fault. Lazy thing could use the exercise.”
In truth, the raven seemed to dodge the mobbing birds nimbly enough. After a moment he was past their frantic attacks and flew into what looked like an archer’s window near the top. He didn’t fly out right away. He didn’t even fly out after a few minutes. By the time a quarter hour had passed even Marta was apprehensive.
“Something’s wrong, and I don’t think it has anything to do with birds.”
Marta backed the cart up until she found a spot of grass. She jumped down from the bench and fetched water and a bit of hay from the wagon, but she left the mare’s harness on. “We may have to leave in a hurry.”
“We’re going in after Bonetapper?” Sela said. “Couldn’t that be dangerous?”
“Of course,” Marta said. “To both questions. Are you coming?”
Sela nodded, though she clearly wasn’t happy about it. She unsheathed Shave the Cat and fell into step beside Marta. “He’s not really a raven, is he?”
Marta glanced at Sela. “What gave him away? The fact that he can talk?”
Sela reddened a bit but shook her head. “Magic would explain that, as it could almost anything, I suppose. Yet there’s just something…well, not raven about him. More than speech. His whole manner is human.”
Marta smiled. “Grumpy human, rather. I see you pay attention, Sela. That’s rarer than it should be. Now pay attention to this tower. We can discuss Bonetapper after I get my hands on his feathered hide again.”
Sela glanced sideways at Marta but didn’t say anything else until they were almost within bowshot of the tower.
“You’re not carrying a weapon,” she said.
“If by that you mean a sword, I seldom do.”
“Then what you said about killing me yesterday was just a bluff?”
Marta sighed. She wasn’t sure what path Sela was considering and didn’t have time to find out. “Not all weapons are steel. Let me show you something.”
Marta reached down and picked up a big chunk of broken limestone, about the size of a gourd. It was heavy; Marta braced her wrist with her right hand and held the piece up on her left palm, like a bust on a pedestal. In a moment what had been a large chunk or rock was no more than a collection of pebbles, falling to rattle faintly into the grass and leaves. Marta dusted her hands on her tunic. Sela just stared, mouth open.
Marta smiled. “What Power Holds, Weakness Frees. That’s the First Law of Power. It can have great effect, properly applied.”
“Y-you could do that to a person?”
Marta shrugged. “In a manner of speaking. It depends on the person, and what flaws are there to use. Do you want to find out?”
“Not in the least,” Sela said. “But doesn’t this mean that now I know the First Law? Am I on the Arrow Path?”
It was all Marta could do to keep from laughing. “First, knowing the name of the Law is not the same as knowing what the Law is, or else my mother would have taught me the Laws by rote and saved a lot of time and trouble. No, you have to understand what the Law means, and that’s trickier. Knowing the name of the Law beforehand can actually interfere with that. Second, you don’t stumble upon the Arrow Path; you choose it.”
“I don’t think I’ll make a decision just now,” Sela said.
“Wise. Shall we continue?” Marta asked. Sela nodded, slowly. Together they reached the edge of the woods. There was still an open strip of weeds and small bushes about ten yards wide between the woods and the tower. There was no way to cross it unseen if anyone was watching. “Nothing for it. Let’s go.”
Marta slipped across the open ground as quickly and quietly as she could, with many quick glances upward at an empty window high above the entrance. No one appeared in the window. There were no arrows shot or javelins flung down. Marta considered this a good thing, certainly, but it didn’t reassure her very much.
There was no need to open the door; it had fallen off its hinges some time before. She slipped just inside, listening very carefully and giving her eyes time to adjust. The first floor was more or less what she expected; debris on the floor and dust over all. But the dust on the stairwell had been disturbed, and that very recently, by Marta’s reckoning. She motioned Sela inside, and they waited a bit for the girl’s eyes to adjust to the gloom. Then Marta took a deep breath and started up the stairs.
Well, not exactly. It was more like a squawk. As if he were consciously trying to squawk terror as a normal raven would, not‑‑as Marta already knew from her time with him‑‑as was usual for him at moments of genuine terror where conscious thought of any kind did not apply.
What are you trying to tell me, Bonetapper?
No more, Marta decided, than she had already surmised for herself. She followed the sound with a sort of determined fatalism, Sela close behind. The squawking became intermittent as they approached the top floor of the tower, then stopped. Marta signed, as best she could for Sela to wait, and listen. She went up the next several steps alone.
The top floor of the tower was a rough wooden platform already showing signs of decay. The roof above where the seabirds roosted had not yet fallen in, but there were patches of sunlight streaming though here and there. Together with what came from the windows there was more than enough light to see by. What Marta saw first was Bonetapper, caught in a net hanging from the ceiling. The second thing she saw was an arbalest. The man holding it stood by the wall just behind where the stairs reached the floor.
“Come up the rest of the way, m’lady. And please don’t do anything silly.”
Marta sighed and did as she was told. The floor creaked ominously under her slight weight, though it seemed likely that an unsound floor was currently the least of her problems. She studied her captor, as he did the same to her. He had long blonde hair that he wore in ringlets under a seaman’s cap. He was youngish and handsome in a rough sort of way. His clothes were those of a common seaman but the disguise was spoiled but his boots and gloves. They were of rich green leather and stylishly cut, almost aristocratic.
Marta didn’t ask his name. She didn’t need to. The traces of finery that he could not abandon and the pheasant’s tailfeather stuck through the crown of his cap told Marta everything. The child of a scullery maid and either a fisherman or a minor lord, depending on which story you believed. A corsair with pretensions to nobility and the gold to indulge them.
“Longfeather,” she said.
There might have been a muffled squeak from the stair below, or it might have been the tower settling. Marta hoped the pirate assumed the latter. No such luck.
“Tell your companion to join us. And quickly.”
“Run, Sela,” Marta said.
Longfeather pointed the arbalest a little less casually. “I wouldn’t advise it.”
Marta smiled grimly. “We only met a few days ago. What makes you think the girl cares what happens to me?”
“That,” he said.
“That” was Sela coming up the stairs, her sword sheathed, both hands carefully kept in plain sight.
Longfeather smiled. “Well, and well indeed. Set a trap for a gull and catch a pair of swans. This is my lucky day.”
((To Be Continued))
(c) 2014 Richard Parks