David Drake: The Mirror of Worlds

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David Drake The Mirror of Worlds
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    The Mirror of Worlds
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David Drake

The Mirror of Worlds

Chapter 1

Ilna looked down the valley to the gray limestone temple and the slaughtered bodies around it. There were many corpses, though she didn't know precisely how many: when a number was higher than she could count on her fingers, she had to tell it with beans or pebbles… if she cared. Mostly she didn't care. These folk, the humans and the catmen who must've killed them and been killed in turn, were all dead. The dead didn't matter. Ilna had loved her family, Chalcus and Merota. They didn't matter either because catmen had killed them also. "It can't've happened long ago," said Asion, the small, dark man who cropped his hair and beard with a knife at long intervals. Ilna'd known the hunter for nearly a month, and she hadn't seen him trim it in that time. "I don't smell them in the breeze."

"There's no breeze," said Karpos, his ginger-haired partner, equally unkempt. He crushed a pellet of dry soil between the thumb and finger of his right hand, letting the dust drift to the ground. It fell straight, so far as Ilna could see. "You're just pretending you feel one." "There's a breeze," said Asion crooking his left index finger without taking his eyes off the valley. "The fuzz on my ears feels the wind even when dust won't drift. There's breeze enough that I'd smell them if they'd started to stink." Karpos' left hand held a short, very stiff wooden bow with an arrow nocked; its point was bronze, thin but with broad wings that'd require only a few heartbeats to bleed out the life of whatever he hit fairly. Asion had a sling with a short staff and linen thongs. For ordinary hunting he shot smooth pebbles, but he carried a few pointed lead bullets in a pouch; one of those was in the pocket of molded leather now. A word was cast into the metal of the bullets. Asion seemed to think it was a valuable charm, though he wasn't sure because the hunters couldn't read any better than Ilna did. Ilna didn't believe in charms of that sort. From what she'd seen since the hunters joined her, the strength of Asion's shoulders would be sufficient for most purposes. Ilna glanced at the strands of yarn in her hands, ready to be woven into a pattern to freeze the mind or stop the heart of anyone who saw it. She could instead knot the yarn into a simple oracle to answer the question, "Does an enemy wait for us below?" She did something similar every morning to choose the direction for the day's travels… but such care wasn't required now. She trusted the long, fine fur growing on the top of Asion's ears, and she trusted her own instinct to tell her if something ahead wasn't right, was out of place in a peaceful valley. She didn't feel that here. Ilna'd lived in a hamlet on the east coast of Haft until she was eighteen. Two years ago a wizard named Tenoctris had washed up on shore and everything had changed. She and her brother Cashel had left home forever, accompanied by their childhood friends, Garric and Sharina. And now- Garric was ruler of the Isles; his sister had become Princess Sharina of Haft; and Cashel had the only thing that'd ever mattered to him, Sharina's love. He could be Lord Cashel if he'd wanted, but the title meant no more to him than it would've to Ilna.

Ilna's lips were as hard as knife edges. At one time she'd have said she didn't want anything beyond what her skill at weaving brought her.

Then she met Chalcus and Merota, a man and a child who loved her… until they were killed. Ilna smiled. Death was the greatest and perhaps the only peace she could imagine. Until then, she'd kill catmen. "We'll go down," she said, standing and stepping out of the brush without waiting to see whether the hunters agreed. That was their business; they'd joinedher, rather than Ilna os-Kenset clinging to a chance-met pair of strong, confident men for protection. The skills Ilna had learned in Hell were far more lethally effective than the hunters' weapons and muscles. Though- Ilna knew that meeting Asion and Karpos wasn't really chance. Her oracle had directed her over a ridge and into a valley to the east of the one she'd been following for the first week after she left the royal army and her friends. Her surviving friends. The smell of a fire had led her to the hunters, smoking thin-sliced venison on a rack of green twigs. Asion and Karpos followed her because they were confused and fearful, while Ilna had purpose. The Change, the mixing of eras by wizardry, had turned the Isles into the single great continent which had existed in its far past. The hunters-Ilna assumed they were from a much earlier time; she and they struggled occasionally with each other's dialect, though they understood one another well enough-had been completely disoriented by what had happened. Ilna didn't understand the Change any better than the hunters did, but that was simply one more thing that didn't matter to her. She lived to kill the catmen, the Coerli, because they'd killed the man and the child who'd given her life meaning. The hunters would've been willing to do things they found difficult to be allowed to accompany Ilna. All she asked them to do was to kill, and at that to kill animals rather than men. That Asion and Karpos found as natural as breathing. Karpos went down with Ilna, angling a little out from her left side and letting his long legs carry him enough ahead that he could be said to be leading. His right thumb and forefinger rested on his bowstring, ready to draw it back to his ear and loose in a single motion. Karpos was a raw-boned man with beetling brows. He looked slow and awkward, but he'd shown that he was neither. Ilna smiled. The oracle of her cords wouldn't have led her to Karpos and his partner if they hadn't been the sort of men she needed as helpers.

Asion waited on the ridge, watching the back-trail as Ilna and Karpos walked down the gentle slope. The men had hunted dangerous game together for a decade, so they were naturally cautious. That was good, though the great scaly herbivores they'd hunted on Ornifal in their own day weren't nearly as deadly as the Coerli they preyed on at Ilna's direction. The valley'd been planted in barley or oats-the shoots were too young for Ilna to be sure; ancient olives budded in gnarled majesty among the furrows. Ilna gave a tight smile: the trees appeared to be randomly spaced, but they formed a pattern so subtle that she would've said no one but herself or her brother Cashel could see it. Almostno one, perhaps. Ilna didn't like pride, in herself least of all, and she especially disliked learning that she'd arrogantly assumed she was uniquely skilled. She smiled a little wider: since she disliked herself at most times, having a particular cause didn't make a great deal of difference. A goat bleated on the far side of the valley. There was a sizable herd, cropping the grass growing among the rocks on that slope. No one had kept goats in the borough around Barca's Hamlet where Ilna grew up. Goats were hard on pastures, though Ilna'd been told they gave better milk than sheep.

Sheep's milk and brick-hard whey cheese had been good enough for Ilna and her brother when they were growing up as orphans; good enough when they could afford them, that was. "They aren't straying into the crops," she remarked, her eyes narrowing as she watched the herd. The goats were aware of her and Karpos, but they didn't appear skittish or even much interested. "Though there's nobody watching them." The hunter shrugged. "All dead, I reckon," he said. "There's no fires burning and nothing to hear but the birds. And the goats, I mean. Do we have goat meat tonight, mistress?" "I'll tell you when I decide,"

Ilna said curtly. The hunters didn't appreciate how well trained the goats must be that they didn't stray into the crops. There'd been a time when Ilna took certain things for granted. Oh, not in her speech the way most people did, but still in the back of her mind: the sun would rise, the wind would blow, and Chalcus and Merota would go through life with her. So far the sun continued to rise and the wind to blow, but those might change in a heartbeat; and if they did, that would matter less to Ilna than the loss of her family had. Still, for now there were Coerli to kill. 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.

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