THE MIRROR OF WORLDS – snippet 17:





            Ilna paused at the head of the valley. She whispered, "Are you going to claim this wasn't the catmen's work, Temple?"


            She scowled at herself. The pattern in her hand made it clear that the Coerli were well beyond the sound of her voice by now. Perhaps she was speaking quietly in respect for the dead–a thought that made her scowl even blacker.


            "No, Ilna," Temple said calmly. "A band of Coerli killed them and did worse I suspect. There will have been children."


            Asion was part-way up a tree for a better view of the valley than Ilna and Temple got from the ridgeline. Karpos, crouched several paces behind them watching their back-trail, said, "What will we do now, mistress?"


            "What?" said Ilna. "We'll go down to the farm and see if we notice anything important from closer up. Then the two of you will track the beasts to their daylight lair–it's a bright day and early enough in the morning that you shouldn't be in danger. And when we know precisely what the situation is, we'll kill them. As usual."


            She was surprised to hear the anger in her voice, though she supposed anger was never very far from the surface. The sight of three bodies below had scraped off the cover.


            The three human bodies, that was. Ilna didn't care about the donkey butchered in the corral to the side of the main house, nor about the milch goat with her kid who'd run nearly a furlong from the kicked-over bucket and stool by the house. At another time she'd have been angry at the way the killers had deliberately torn the nanny's belly open and gripped her intestine so that she pulled it out as she ran, but they'd done the same to the woman who'd been milking her.


            She rose to her feet. "I'll wait here," Karpos said. He was out of sight.


            Ilna glanced at the cords in her hand, then began picking out the pattern. "There's no need," she said, but she didn't argue with Karpos as she started down the slope. He wasn't doubting her word, just continuing to do the things that'd kept him alive for however many years he'd been hunting dangerous animals. Temple and Asion, who dropped from the tree, joined her.


            The farmstead had been neat-looking. Oh, not neat by the standards to which Ilna'd kept her quarters and Cashel's in their uncle's millhouse, but with animals and no doubt children as Temple had said, not even Ilna could've guaranteed perfect order.


            The walls of the main building were logs trimmed with an adze and chinked with clay; they'd been touched up recently. Several roof shakes were brighter than their neighbors also, showing where rot and wind damage had been repaired.


            And none of it mattered now to those who'd lived here, because a band of catmen had killed them all. Ilna lips moved, though no one watching would've recognized the expression as a smile. She couldn't help what was past, but she was as sure as she was of sunset that this particular gang of beasts wouldn't repeat their slaughter.


            "Two days, I'd judge," Asion said, squatting by the corpse of the man who'd had time to snatch a sickle from the outbuilding. It had a wooden blade set with sharp flints, a dangerous enough weapon if he'd managed to strike anything with it; but of course he hadn't.


            From the tear in the corpse's bearded throat and the rope burn on his right wrist, a beast had thrown his line around the fellow's arm and set its hooks in his neck so that his attempt to slash with the sickle only dug them deeper. Either the beast holding the line or one of his fellows had then jabbed a slender point through the man's diaphragm, leaving him to slowly suffocate or bleed out.


            Helman, the butcher who slaughtered hogs when his circuit brought him through Barca's Hamlet, did so with equal cruelty, but Ilna herself didn't behave that way. She smiled again, though with no more humor than the expression of a moment before. If the hogs had trapped Helman some dark night on his rounds, she at least would've thought it a rare instance of justice being done.


            She entered the house. The door, suspended on leather hinges, was open but the sturdy crossbar lay just inside where the catmen had dropped it when they left. There hadn't been time to close the window shutters, so the catmen had entered through a casement, tearing the covering of leather which'd been scraped thin to pass light.


            Temple held his bronze sword before him, but his buckler was slung over his back to leave his left hand free. He knelt to touch a spatter on the floor of halved logs, puncheons. The blood was dry enough to flake away, as Ilna would've expected.


            "How many do you think it was lived here?" Asion asked. A bed was folded up against the back wall; he prodded the frame with the point of his knife, gouging out a splinter. He seemed tenser than Ilna'd expected.


            Ilna realized with a touch of amusement that it made the hunter nervous to be in a house. Had he and Karpos slept outdoors when they'd trekked into town to sell their lizard gall?


            She snorted. Most likely they'd stayed drunk the whole time, or at least drunk enough to ignore the roof over them.


            "The parents in the bed, with the infant in the cradle at the foot," Ilna said. As she spoke, she climbed to the half-loft above the single room. There was a real ladder nailed to the wall, not merely a young pine with the branches lopped short to form steps. "Up here…."


            She looked at the bedding, rolled neatly against the roof slope, and estimated the width of the portion of loft floor which wasn't being used for storage. "Three older children, probably. Though the tallest can't be more than a cloth-yard–"


            A normal yard and a thumb's-span; she'd heard folk from Cordin call it an ell.


            "–unless he sleeps doubled up."


            There was no chance, none, but Ilna nonetheless crawled to the bedding and pulled it back to make sure that no child had hidden within it when the catmen came. That hadn't happened, but she didn't mind wasting a few moments to be sure she wasn't leaving an infant who'd fallen unconscious after an elder had concealed it. She had enough on her conscience already.


            The blankets were goat wool, but they hadn't been loomed here. When Ilna touched the cloth, she got an image of stone-built farm buildings and a pair of old women murmuring as they worked their shuttles.


            "And the other man?" Temple asked.


            He isn't a peasant, Ilna remembered. Aloud she said, "A hired man; he's wearing the master's cast-off clothes. The tunic's too small for him. He slept in the outbuilding, I suppose."


            She came down the ladder deliberately, stepping on every rung and holding the rails. She wanted to get away from the beds the children would never return to, get out of this house; but she wouldn't let dislike make her act in haste. Mental discomfort was merely one of those things, like pain and hunger and bleak hopelessness, that you avoided when you could and bore when you couldn't.


            Temple gestured toward the fireplace; there was ash on his fingertip. "It's cold," he said. "All the way down to the hearthstone. At least two days."


            The catmen didn't like bright light. They must've come at dawn, while the family was starting the morning chores. The pack would be sleeping in a the shade of a booth of woven branches at this time of day.


            The Coerli showed real talent with wicker and bark cloth, though they didn't grow flax or raise animals for wool. They were beasts….


            The wooden chimney had been sealed with a thick coating of clay. Ilna frowned when she saw it, but there wasn't much free stone here; and the family hadn't died from a chimney fire, after all.


            The folk who'd built the farm had come from a more settled region. Did it exist now, or had the Change torn this farmstead an unguessible distance in time and space from where it'd sprung?


            That probably didn't matter. If it did, then she'd know soon enough.


            Asion was tracing the simple carvings on the top of a wooden chest with his fingertip. "My, that's fine," he said. Looking toward Ilna, he went on, "Mistress, where'd the kids go if we didn't find them here? They couldn't 've run if the parents couldn't, could they?"


            Ilna looked at Temple. The big man said, "The raiding party carried them off, Asion. They'll be more tender than the adults."


            There was no expression in his voice. He turned to Ilna and said, "I'd guess there were four or five males, and there may be females and kits in their lair. They'll be hunting again soon."


            "Yes," said Ilna. "Asion, take Karpos and locate the beasts. I wouldn't expect them to be very far away. I'll prepare matters here to receive them."


            "Yes, mistress," the hunter said, slipping through the door and drawing his sling from beneath his belt from where he'd been carrying it. He seemed glad to get away.


            Ilna looked around once more, then walked into the farmyard. Temple followed her. She'd hoped there'd be a loom, but that wasn't important; she could knot the necessary patterns by hand. She'd pick out yarn from the dead woman's tunic. The rip would make the task easier, and she could put the blood dyeing the wool to practical advantage.


            "Ilna?" said the big man. "Have you a task for me?"


            "I'll summon the beasts by lighting a fire on the hearth," she said. "I'll be waiting for them in front of the house, though. You might decide where the three of you should best be to act when they come to me."


            Her lips quirked into a smile or a sneer. She said, "After all, you're a soldier, aren't you?"


            She didn't like soldiers, men whose life was directed at killing other men.


            "Something like that," Temple said equably. He glanced around. "Asion in the goat's byre, under the straw to hide his smell. Karpos in the manure pile for the same reason. I'll wait in the house, because the Coerli won't take time to separate my smell from the previous owners' before they attack."


            "Yes, all right," said Ilna, taken aback by the speed with which he'd planned the  business. The hunters would prefer to hide in filth for the hours before the catmen came rather than to be inside a house… and Temple noticed that, as I did. "I'll get to work, then."


            "Ilna?" the big man said. "There's tools in the shed. I'd like to bury the dead. Since there's time."


            "Yes," said Ilna. "If you wish."


            She walked to the woman's corpse. She should've thought of that herself, but it wasn't her real job. Her real job was to kill catmen, and very shortly she'd have a chance to do more of that.

About Eric Flint

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