Power’s Shadow – Chapter 1, pt. 2

Powers-Shadow-Rough-2

Chapter 1 – Continued

“You should have run, you know,” Marta said.

Sela nodded glumly. “Father always said that, if there was a bone for common sense, I was born without it. To which I always replied something to the effect that the nut never falls far from the tree. It doesn’t seem as funny now.”

Longfeather had put Sela with Marta and the both of them against the far wall but, except to take Sela’s sword and keep the arbalest trained on them, seemed to pay them little heed. Every now and then there came a faint pecking sound as Bonetapper worked at the cords of the net, but Marta didn’t dare look and betray his progress, if any. Longfeather, if he heard, also paid it no notice. He seemed deep in thought.”If you’re wondering what to do with us,” Marta said finally. “I could offer a few suggestions. Letting us go comes to mind.”

“I’m a pirate of some reputation,” Longfeather said. “and knowing that, what would you suppose the odds are of my agreeing to any such notion?”

Marta heard the words and read his intent. Whatever his pretentions of nobility and refinement, he was a pirate, a thief and, when the occasion demanded, a murderer… Marta blinked, hearing the words echo in her mind as something important, something just beyond her reach. She ignored the feeling. There was no time. “I do know who you are,” Marta said. “and I also know that you wouldn’t be hiding alone in an abandoned watchtower snaring, of all things, gulls for food if you weren’t‑‑shall we say‑‑in straits?”

Longfeather dismissed that with a wave of one immaculately gloved hand. “A temporary setback.”

“Your patron is unhappy with you, yes?”

For a moment Marta clearly had the pirate’s full attention, then he shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of dismissal that didn’t quite come off. “Boranac of the Five Isles is known for his temper. It never lasts long.”

“No, because whatever makes him angry has a tendency to disappear. I gather you chose this way to disappear rather than his way.”

Longfeather’s pretense at calm did its own disappearing act. “The greedy sod seized my ship! He knew the last venture had been profitable.”

“You were holding out on him, weren’t you?” Sela said. Marta glared at her, but it was too late. A new notion apparently came into the pirate’s mind.

“You both know entirely too much about me. Yes….” The word came out as a hiss. “Now it makes sense,” he said. “The girl’s sword, the talking raven…oh yes, I heard him. When the snare first sprang and he was too surprised to pretend. You’re a finder witch and this charming child with the master blade is an assassin. Of course, who would suspect? Boranac sent you, didn’t he?”

“It’s my father’s sword!” Sela said hotly. “The one you didn’t manage to steal!”

“Add revenge to the mix. Oh, the tale gets better and better. Well, at least I know now what’s to be done.”

Marta sighed. “I don’t suppose it would do any good to point out that you’re full of horse apples?”

“Spare me. You think I’m not so familiar with lies that I can’t see them?”

“Too familiar, I imagine,” Marta said. “To the point you can see little else. But it won’t make any difference if Boranac finds you, will it? Let us assume what you say is true, and the Chief of the Five Isles did send us. You kill us and he’ll just send someone else. Probably several someones, who’ll find you as easily as we did.”

Longfeather glared at her. “Then you admit it.”

Single‑minded thing, aren’t you? Marta shrugged. “I merely ask you to more fully consider your situation.”

Longfeather seemed to do just that. “It is a problem,” he admitted. “but I have no alternative.”

Marta shook her head. “That’s another point on which you are mistaken. I can arrange it so that Chief Boranac never finds you.”

Longfeather smiled grimly. “I could throw myself into the ocean from this tower and arrange the same thing. Probably in a less painful manner than what you have in mind.”

“Longfeather, I swear I can keep you alive and well. Think of it–safe from the Chief of the Five Isles for as long as you‑‑or he‑‑lives.”

Longfeather pointed the arbalest at Marta’s heart. “I don’t believe you,” Longfeather said. “Unfortunately for you‑‑”

He was interrupted by a small black thundercloud of black feathers and anger. Bonetapper‑‑whom everyone but Marta had quite forgotten‑‑hurled himself out of the net as one last cord parted under his beak. He flew straight at Longfeather’s face. Startled, Longfeather threw up the arbalest and fired. Unfortunately for Bonetapper his aim was more lucky than skilled. Feathers flew, and Bonetapper bounced off the wall, rolled, and was still.

It was all the time Sela needed. She crouched, rolled, and came up with the sword Longfeather had made her drop. She nimbly dodged the now-useless arbalest that the pirate threw at her.

Marta stared at the limp raven, numb.

“‘What cannot be taken, can be given,'” she said softly, too soft for the others to hear. The Second Law of Power. There were limits on all things, and that included Marta’s power over Bonetapper. She could not have ordered him to sacrifice himself this way; that he had to do on his own. She was more than a little surprised that he had. I wonder‑‑ Marta heard the hiss of steel on leather and forced her attention back to the here and now.

Longfeather had his own sword out, a mirror copy of the one Sela held. It was clear enough from his posture and movement that he knew how to use it.

“That’s Leafcutter,” Marta said grimly. “One of the swords you stole from my father.”

“I’ll have yours as well when I’m done, but that’s just business. I’m not going to enjoy this,” Longfeather said. “Just so you understand.”

Sela looked grim. “For my part, I plan to enjoy it a great deal.”

Marta admired Sela’s courage but not her sense. Longfeather was a veteran of many such fights, with his life in the scales on each. There was no way Sela’s experience could match his.

The first moments of the duel confirmed as much. Sela was quick, and parried and moved well. Longfeather was quick too, and he was stronger. He proved it by beating past her parries on two occasions. The first time he barely missed her chest. The second tore a ragged hole in her mailshirt at the shoulder. Sela winced but did not lose either her guard or her composure, for which Marta was grateful. She needed the time Sela was providing. She also needed the application of the most recent Law of Power she had acquired. Softly, so that only she could hear, Marta spoke its name.

“The Appearance of Power, Once Accepted, Becomes Power Itself.”

The Third Law. Marta had considered collapsing the floor under Longfeather’s feet; it would be easy enough to do with an application of the First Law. But in a structure already weak from time and rot the result would be impossible to predict. She chose the Third Law instead and hoped she chose right.

“She’s better than you are, Longfeather. You’re a fool if you haven’t noticed.”

Marta worked her understanding of the law like a sculptor and Sela was the vessel. Suddenly a parry that was a shade slow seemed a shade faster. A strong beat, blade to blade, seemed even stronger. A fast lunge of Sela’s appeared, to both herself and Longfeather, to be even faster.

Longfeather pulled back a bit, frowning. Marta smiled. Her plan was working. She kept shaping, refining, adding. Nothing real, since she had nothing of substance to work with. A bit of illusion, one spoken suggestion, a furtive wave of her hand and a stronger wave of concentration, all bits of the humblest magic her mother had taught her, now put to greater service by knowledge of the Third Law.

The pirate was starting to perspire, and Sela was starting to smile again. The only thing needed right then for Longfeather to believe in Sela’s superiority was for Sela to believe it too.

“He’s good, Sela, but not as good as he thinks. It’s mostly bluff.”

“Woman, be silent!” Longfeather snarled, but he had no more breath or effort to spare on Marta.

Perfect.

Longfeather was in full retreat, his parries growing more and more desperate, his attacks half-hearted and tentative. The tip of Sela’s sword sliced the top of Longfeather’s sword hand and he dropped the blade, cursing in pain. Another moment and Sela had her point at his throat.

“Kill me if you’re going to,” he said. “But don’t gloat about it. I never did.”

Sela took a firmer grip on the hilt but Marta held up her hand. “Sela, no.”

Sela blinked. The affect of Marta’s magic was beginning to fade from her, and the anger of battle with it. Still, there was more than enough remaining. “Why not? He robbed my father, and the pain of that helped carry him to his grave. He killed Bonetapper. He was going to kill us too!”

“Which would have been a mistake on his part. Should we make one of our own? Killing him would be a waste, and the Powers hate waste.” She turned to Longfeather. “Are you willing to bargain now? Or shall I let Sela finish you?”

Longfeather eyed the sword at his throat. “I’m hardly in a position to argue.”

Marta shrugged. “Argue? No. Still, the choice is very much yours. Has to be. Otherwise any agreement we make will have no force.”

Longfeather didn’t think about it too long. “Name your terms.”

“Just these: You will serve me as I direct until either you die or the Chief of the Five Isles does…and however he dies, you must play no part in it. In return, I will keep you hidden and safe until what time as your debt is paid.”

Sela shook her head vigorously. “The bastard won’t keep his word. Don’t listen to him!”

Marta smiled again. “Sela, if you don’t trust him, trust me–he damn well will keep his word. He won’t have any choice.”

#

Marta stood by the raven’s still form while Sela gathered up the rest of Longfeather’s weapons, including her father’s other sword. She looked a little ill. “I didn’t enjoy that as much as I thought I would. I might have died…or killed. I can’t say I care for either result.”

“You may have to use that sword again, Sela. Such things happen. But if I were you I’d consider my reasons very carefully.”

She nodded. “I will.” She paused, and added. “I’m sorry about Bonetapper. He wasn’t so bad, if a little crusty.”

Marta just nodded. When she spoke, it was to the raven. “You were willing to sacrifice yourself to save us. Life for life, and that was your debt. It is paid.”

With those words the raven grew, and changed. In a moment the body of a small, wiry man lay in the raven’s place, with dark hair replacing most of the feathers. A man who was, as both Sela and Marta could plainly see, very much alive. “Not so bad, indeed,” he huffed.

Sela gasped. “He was faking!”

“Doubtless,” Marta said.

The man who had been Bonetapper rolled to a sitting position. His dark eyes were bright with exultation, even as he groaned. He pointed to a streak of red on his shoulder. “I wouldn’t call this faking. Or this…” he said, indicating an egg‑sized knot on his forehead. “It stung like hell. Still, as I recall, you seemed to imply my ‘willingness’ to sacrifice myself coin enough. You didn’t say I actually had to do it.”

Marta laughed. “True enough. My word is my word, Bonetapper. You are free.”

The man who had been Bonetapper didn’t have to be told again. He got up and hurried down the stairs as fast as he could, unused to human legs as he clearly was. He didn’t look back, or spare one more word in Marta’s direction.

Sela blinked. “That’s it, then? It’s done?”

“Why? What were you expecting?”

Sela thought about it. “Well, I don’t know, really. You and he were together for a long time, I gather. Some sort of regret, perhaps?”

“What is there to regret? His debt to me is paid and he is his own man again. I wish him joy with it, and hope he makes a better go as a human being than he managed the first time around. I have my doubts, though.”

“I suppose we’ll never know. So. Are we finished here?” Sela asked.

“Almost.” Marta put on Longfeather’s discarded gloves. They were of thin leather on the palm and fingers but the wrist and cuff were much thicker and stronger. The gloves were a bit large for Marta but they would serve.

As would Longfeather.

Marta held up one gauntlet. “Time to go.”

The goshawk that had been watching the scene from the rafters with sullen rage clumsily hopped down to land on Marta’s wrist, fighting for balance. He clearly didn’t have the full knack of perching yet. “I never agreed to this!” he wailed, which was a difficult thing for a goshawk to do.

Marta followed Sela down the stairwell, the goshawk riding precariously on her wrist. “This is exactly what you agreed to,” she said. “Think about it.”

#

They traveled for three days along the coast. Neither Sela nor Longfeather questioned Marta about this. Sela was in no particular hurry and Longfeather was still too much in a sulk to pay attention.

After nightfall on the third day Marta sat on a fallen log in a clearing some distance from their camp. She wasn’t sleepy‑‑she was expectant. She waited, but not for very long.

Bonetapper slipped out of the trees. He approached Marta hesitantly and kneeled at her feet. He looked terrible. His clothes were torn; there was a trickle of blood from his scalp and the bandage on his should was showing signs of red as well.

“Hide me,” he said.

Marta glared at him. “What happened?”

Bonetapper shrugged. “A man has to earn his way.”

“And I suppose the folk you ‘earned’ your way from will be along soon?” For answer, somewhere to the west came the baying of hounds. Marta shook her head in disgust. “You know what you’re asking, don’t you?”

“Better than anyone,” he said, his frustration more than a little evident. “Still, I’ve decided there are worse things than being a raven. It’s not fair, though.”

Marta raised an eyebrow. “Oh? How so?”

“You helped that brat of a girl, and she wasn’t made a raven, or a hawk, or horse, or whatever you need to serve you best.”

“That’s because she never asked anything of me. You did. Or have you changed your mind?”

Bonetapper shuddered slightly. “No.”

“‘As you were your own, now you are mine. As I will you, so shall you be.’” Marta repeated the ancient ritual of debt and bonding. It was a different sort of magic than that of the Laws, but even the Laws were not the sum total of everything. That might have been a Law itself, so far as Marta knew. Perhaps one day she would find out.

In a moment all was done. Bonetapper flew off to join the once and future pirate on top of the cart. Marta rose, yawned, and stretched. Best to wake Sela in case there was trouble from Bonetapper’s pursuers, but that was just a precaution. Marta wasn’t really worried. Or, for that matter, surprised. But the expectation she had felt for the last three days was gone.

Was this all I was waiting for?

Marta felt no other hints on the wind, no sense of the direction she should take now. She was disappointed but not, she reminded herself, as much as Bonetapper must be.

“Poor raven,” she said aloud, “it’s much simpler to change your appearance than what you are‑‑”

Marta stopped, suddenly short of breath. She felt dizzy, and fevered, but she wasn’t ill. It was the same recognition she had felt before, sudden as a blow and much more powerful. The same thing, though fainter, when she’d met Sela, and again with Longfeather, though she’d foolishly ignored the feeling. Marta was not yet certain what it meant, but she knew it had to do with appearances. Sela’s armor and pretended fierceness, Longfeather’s refined pose… Marta turned the words around, felt them with her mind, listened to them carefully, saw and heard the way they wanted to fit together. She was close, so very close…

“‘Changing Appearance Does Not Mean Changing Nature.’ The Fourth Law of Power.”

So simple.

Or rather, deceptively simple. As the Laws usually were. Like a stone that only showed a few inches above the dirt but kept the rest of itself hidden deep in the ground. The Law had implications, and new abilities that contemplation of its truth would eventually reveal to her. There would be time for study and testing later. For now, it was enough that the Law was hers.

Back at the camp there arose a clatter of avian squawks and screams, with Sela’s angry warnings blending in. Marta sighed. Longfeather was just enough a real goshawk and Bonetapper a real raven for trouble, and if murder wasn’t in Sela’s nature that might yet be overlooked in Longfeather’s case. Still, Marta thought it might be the right sort of trouble.

After all, if she could keep those three from killing each other, by comparison finding the Fifth Law should be a stroll on the beach.

 

((End Chapter 1 – To be Continued))

(c) 2014 Richard Parks

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