"Mistress?" said Karpos. His left hand twitched unconsciously, rotating the arrow back to nock. He caught himself, glowered, and snatched the arrow away with his free hand. "Mistress, do you think that's a good idea?"
"I think it's a humane idea, Master Karpos," Ilna snapped. "I don't insist that being humane is good, but it's how I prefer to act when I can. If Temple doesn't want to remain alone at the place his companions were massacred, then I can't say I blame him. When we arrive at a more suitable place, he can leave us."
She looked at the stranger. He was smiling again, this time very broadly. "Sorry," she muttered. "I shouldn't have talked about you as if you weren't here, Master Temple."
"Just Temple, Ilna," he said. He looked at Karpos and said, "I will not be a burden to you, sir."
"The Sister bloody knows you won't!" Karpos said in an undertone, but it was just words rather than a threat. Ilna knew–and Karpos knew as well–that if she ordered the hunters to carry Temple on a litter, they'd obey.
The chance of that happening, barring accident or serious wounds, was vanishingly small. The man was clearly as fit as the hunters and they'd spent their entire lives in the wilderness.
Asion cleared his throat. "Look, I didn't see weapons out there with the bodies," he said, "but maybe in the houses they have something for Temple. A sickle or a billhook or something. He oughta have a weapon, out where we're going."
"They should've had weapons," Karpos said. "Here in the middle of nowhere without a spear to hand when they needed one!"
"Right," said Ilna, pursing her lips as she considered. Tunics and a cloak for Temple shouldn't be difficult; he was unusually tall, but several of the dead men were fat enough that their garments should cover him adequately if in a rather different manner from the way they did the original owners. Sandals, though, or boots–
"I will have weapons, sir," Temple said. He turned and squatted, then slid his hands to midpoint on opposite sides of the stone barrel between the images of the Gods.
"Are you praying?" Asion said. Then, to his partner, "Is he praying, do you think?"
The muscles of Temple's back and shoulders sprang out in bold relief. For a moment there was silence.
"Look, buddy," Karpos said, "if that's solid, you can forget about moving it by yourself. It weighs more'n all three of us together, aye and the mistress too!"
Stone scraped though nothing seemed to move. Temple's legs straightened with the slow certainty of sunrise. The massive cylinder–it must be at least as heavy as Karpos said–rose with him. He started to turn, balancing the stone above his head.
"Get back!" Ilna cried, but the hunters were already scrambling away. Nobody could balance something that heavy for long. When the barrel tipped one way or another it'd fall to the floor with a crash that'd shatter flagstones into flying splinters.
Temple squatted with the grace of an ox settling, still holding the stone. His smile was as set as that of a bare skull, and his muscles seemed to have been chiseled from wood. He lowered the stone barrel to the floor with no more than a tock and a rasping sound.
"By the Sister," Karpos said softly. "By the Sister."
Asion's left hand gripped the amulet bag he wore around his neck. He was mouthing something, probably a prayer. He absently sheathed his long knife, though Ilna guessed he wasn't aware of what he was doing.
Temple shuddered and wheezed, drawing in deep breaths and expelling them with the violence of a surfacing porpoise. He continued to grip the cylinder, now to anchor him so that he didn't topple over backward.
After a moment he turned his head to look at Karpos. Between gasps he said, "I will… no-not burden… you. Sir!"
"I give you best," Karpos said. He sounded awestruck. "By the Sister!"
Ilna sniffed. As a general rule she disapproved of boasting, and the feat Temple had just performed was certainly a boast. Still, it'd settled his place in this community of men without a fight, and it'd opened what turned out to be a cavity beneath the stone by the simplest if not the easiest means available. She walked over to look inside.
"Ilna," Temple said firmly. He bent over the barrel again, squeezing his eyes closed. He opened them and looked at her. "I'll take care of that, if you please."
"Yes," she said, stepping back. She stood as straight as the pillars, her face set. The stranger had rebuked her courteously. She'd often rebuked those who meddled in her business, but much less courteously.
Temple stood. She'd expected him to lurch, but the motion when it came was as smooth as all his other movements had been. He nodded to the hunters, bowed slightly to her, and reached down into the cavity.
Ilna laughed; a brief sound and half-suppressed, but even so more humor than normally passed her lips. Both hunters looked at her in surprise. Even Temple, straightening with armor in one hand and a sword in the other, glanced over his shoulder with an eyebrow cocked.
"Temple," she said, honestly saying what she'd thought but not explaining why she'd found it funny, "you and my brother Cashel would get along well together. He's a strong man also."
And he, like you, she added within the amused silence of her mind, doesn't pick fights to prove how strong he is. Though if the two of you did fight, it'd be something to see.
The hunters were looking at Temple's equipment. Helmet, cuirass, and the round shield were all made of a metal Ilna didn't recognize. It had a copperish tinge, but it was too dark and had a hint almost of purple.
"So what is it, eh?" said Asion. "Is it bronze?"
"A sort of bronze," Temple said. His voice was quickly losing its odd intonation. He set the armor on the ground and, gripping the sheath at the balance with one hand, put his other on the hilt. "It's harder than most bronzes, though."
He drew the sword. The straight blade was of the same dark metal as the armor, but the edge shimmered brightly golden even in the dim light filtering through the door of the building twenty double paces behind them.
"I've never seen anything like that," Asion said, stepping closer. He moved his hand cautiously toward the sword as though he was about to pet a lion. "Where'd you get it?"
Temple lifted the sword slightly, keeping it away from the shorter man. Asion stepped back, and Temple shot the sword home in its sheath.
"I've had it a long time," he said quietly. "A very long time."
"Is there anything more you need here?" Ilna said sharply to break the mood. When Temple shook his head, smiling again, she went on, "All right, then we'll search the houses for food before we–"
"–bury the dead in one of them. And we'll get you clothes."
"I will bury the Coerli also, Ilna," Temple said. "You need not help."
Ilna glared at him, then shrugged. "If you wish," she snapped as she started for the door. "If you wish, you can walk on your hands all the way to where we're going!"
Temple left the armor where it was for now, but he slung the sword belt around his naked waist as he followed the others into the bright sun.