Three bodies lay just ahead, two middle-aged human males and a catman. They'd been hacked savagely by swords  or axes: one man had been disemboweled and the Corl's head clung to his shoulders by a scrap of skin–its spine was cut through. No weapons were in evidence, but the catman's muzzle was bloody.


            "We don't have to worry about what's behind us, now," Karpos said. "Hold up before we check on what might be waiting inside, right?"


            Without taking his eyes off the temple and sprawled bodies, the hunter raised his right arm and waved to his partner. Before returning his fingertips to the nocked arrow, Karpos wiggled his long dagger in its sheath to make sure it was free.


            Ilna didn't think they needed to wait for Asion, but she didn't argue the point. If it'd mattered, she'd have done as she pleased–and seen to it that the hunters did as she pleased also. She didn't need to prove her power; that was for weak people.


            She considered for a moment, then put the hank of yarn back in the sleeve of her outer tunic. She'd woven the cloth herself, and she'd also woven her cloak of unbleached wool that shed water like a slate roof.


            Karpos and his partner wore breeches and vests of untanned deerskin with the flesh side turned out. The packs that they'd left back on the ridgeline included fur robes for cold weather, though the season had advanced so that they were no longer necessary even at night.


            Ilna suspected the men continued to carry the robes because the town to which they'd previously hiked every Spring to sell packloads of lizard gall didn't exist in the world after the Change. They were unwilling to give up the few aspects of their past life which still remained.


            The hunters had decorated their vests by sewing on the scalps of Coerli they'd killed since joining Ilna, a double-handful each. Ilna didn't object, but of course she didn't take trophies herself.


            All that mattered to Ilna was the killing. When she'd killed all the catmen in this world, she didn't know what she'd do. Die, she hoped, because her life would no longer have purpose.


            Asion joined them, holding the staff of his sling in his right hand and cupping the pocket and bullet in his left. "Have you guys noticed the pond?" he said with a frown in his voice. "Why did they do that, d'ye think? Throw the plants in?"


            The little temple was set up three steps from the ground. Forsythias grew around both it and the small, round pool in front of the building. Several bushes had been pulled up by the roots and thrown into the water. The men who'd done that had mortal wounds, clearly. One of them lay on the curb with a yellow-flowered branch clutched in a death grip.


            "What do they have a pond there anyway?" said Karpos. "Are they raising fish? It's too small."


            "I don't know," Ilna said. She didn't add to the statement, because there was nothing to add and she saw no point in wasting her breath. "Let's go on, then."


            The pool surprised her as well, though she didn't bother saying so. Ilna hadn't seen a temple till she left Barca's Hamlet some two years–or a lifetime–before, but there'd been plenty of them in the cities she'd passed through since then. Ilna didn't pay particular attention to buildings, but she had an eye for patterns. She'd certainly have made note of a temple facing a pool if she'd seen one. This was the first.


            Karpos knelt and placed his right index and middle fingers to the throat of the first corpse, a man lying on his back. The fellow's hair was white, as much of it as was left; his forehead rose to the peak of his scalp. His face was as calm as if he'd been praying, though the wounds that'd killed him–three deep stabs in the lower body and a slash that'd broken the bone of his upper right arm–must've been extremely painful.


            "Dead since daybreak," Karpos said, rising and touching the bowstring again. "Maybe a little longer, but not much."


            Ilna looked into the pool, her face frozen into a deliberate lack of expression in place of her usual guarded silence. The water was clear and so shallow that she could see the narrow crevices between the stone blocks paving the bottom. Forsythia stems cast jagged shadow, and there were smears where mud'd washed from the roots of the plants.


            "He was a tough bastard, I give him that," Asion said, his voice oddly gentle. He nodded to the corpse on the coping of the pool. "He had to crawl most a' the way. Look at the trail."


            "Yes," said Ilna. "I noticed."


            All the corpses were at least middle-aged; this fellow was older yet. To look at, he seemed soft if not precisely fat; the sort of man who did no more work than he had to and was readier to lift a tankard than a hoe.


            Perhaps that had been true. The man's last living act, however, had been to pull a full-sized bush out of the ground and drag it ten double-paces to the pool while his intestines spilled out in coils behind him. He'd been laid open as if by a cleaver, but he hadn't quit until he was dead.


            "Mistress?" Karpos said. He sounded puzzled and therefore worried; people who accept great danger as a fact of life become concerned when faced with things they don't understand; they knew all too well what might be hiding within the unknown. "The cat didn't kill this fellow. It was a blade did this."


            "The Coerli had weapons," Ilna said harshly. She turned from the body and the pool. "The survivors took them away. There's nothing amazing about that!"


            "Then who was this cat chewing on?" the hunter said, pointing to the dead Corl. "Look at his muzzle, the blood and–"


            He saw Ilna's face and swallowed. "Sorry, mistress," he mumbled in a small voice. "I guess it was the cats."


            "Mistress, who's this fellow?" said Asion from the steps up the front of the temple. Most of the bodies were there in a ragged pile. "What is he, I mean?"


            Asion had stuck his sling beneath his belt to get it out of the way, drawing instead his long steel knife; that was a better weapon for a close-in tangle with anything that pounced on him from the temple. With his free hand he dragged a corpse out by the ankle.


            The corpse of a man, Ilna assumed; but its chest was abnormally deep, its belly smaller and flatter than a corseted woman's, and its skin had the smooth black gleam of polished coal. Its genitals were very small.


            The corpse was nude except for the round metal shield hanging from a neck strap; its right hand death-gripped the hilt of a sword that looked serviceable for either slashing or stabbing. It could easily have been the weapon which'd killed both the white-robed humans and the Coerli… and the fellow's throat had been worried through by what were almost certainly a catman's long jaws.


            "There's more blacks under here," Asion said. "Three or four, I'd guess."


            "I don't know who they are," Ilna said coldly. She was angry at the hunter for asking a question that she couldn't answer, and even more angry with herself for not having said so at once instead of forcing her companions to wait.


            She walked toward the temple entrance, skirting the corpses. "And it appears that the weapons were in the hands of the blacks, whoever they are," she added, though by this point she did so merely as a public admission of her mistake; the hunters already knew she'd been wrong. "Not the Coerli."


            Ilna disliked stone. The rational part of her mind knew she was being silly to think that stone disliked her as well; but not all of her mind was rational and she did think that, feel it deep in her bones. She walked up the leveling courses and onto the porch, smiling at the cool gray slabs beneath her feet.


            I'm walking on you, she thought. And I'm fool enough to think you know that.


            Despite being stone, it was a very attractive building. The porch extended on all four sides, supported on fluted columns. The temple proper had solid sidewalls but only two more columns at the front. Ilna walked between them and into the main room. There were hints of intricate carvings just under the roof, but the only light came through the entrance behind her.


            At the far end were two statues on square stone bases: an inhumanly serene woman and a female Corl. The round base between them was empty; the statue, a nude man, had fallen forward onto the floor.


            "Hey, why're they praying to a catman?" said Karpos. His voice startled her; her attention had been so focused on the statues that she hadn't heard the whisper of his deerskin-clad feet entering the temple behind her.


            "It's probably the Sister," Ilna said. "The Lady and the Sister, the Queen of Heaven and the Queen of the Dead."


            She looked at the image of the Corl again. "Or perhaps a demon. If there're any of these people left alive, we can ask them."


            "Not a soul," Karpos said. "Asion's looking around more, but we'd've heard something by now besides the goats if there was anybody."


            He didn't sound concerned. The hunters weren't cruel men, but they were hard and even in life the folk of this community had meant nothing to them.


            "Why'd they make the Sister a Corl?" Karpos added, scratching his left eyebrow with the tip of his bow. "I never seen that."


            "Do I look like a priest?" Ilna snapped. "Anyway, I said it might be a demon."


            She knelt, peering at the base supporting the Lady's statue. Her eyes had adapted to the dimness well enough to see carved on it was an image of the Shepherd, the Lady's consort. He held his staff ready to repel the hulking, long-armed ogres attacking from both sides. The base beneath the female Corl had a similar scene, a Corl chieftain with a flaring mane who raised his knob-headed cudgel as winged, serpent-bodied creatures threatened him.


            The base from which the male statue'd fallen was plain. Ilna rose to her feet, frowning. "There's nothing here," she said. "We'll check the living quarters before we decide what to do next. There's huts on the other slope."


            Someone groaned at Ilna's feet. She jumped back.


            "Sister take me, mistress!" Karpos said, pointing his drawn bow at the figure on the floor. "That's not a statue! It's a man!"


About Eric Flint

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