The whole valley was filled with groves of pines and slender sweet-smelling trees separated by lanes of lush grass. It made for easy travelling, but Olaf Olaf's son had said it made his bad hand itch, and sent Tharvi and the other scouts ahead to make sure the dirtdiggers hadn't gotten up the courage to set an ambush.
Tharvi finished checking one copse on the southern side of the pass and slipped out into the grassy field. Fog, white in the early morning light, limited sight to no more than a score of paces, but Tharvi was sure no one was near. His sharp ears had won his a place among the scouts while the other battle-virgins stayed under the eyes of their fathers.
Tharvi wasn't sure which had alerted him first, the faint sizzling sound, the dull orange tinge to the fog, or the scent of woodsmoke, but he instantly fell to hands and knees behind a clump of waist-tall grass. Straining his ears, he could hear a rustle of movement, but the fog resolutely obscured any clear view of the fire.
Olaf Olaf's son had drilled into the scouts every minute for the past two days that they were to report back if they saw anything at all out of place, but that only gave Tharvi pause for a moment. Surely Olaf would want a complete report, and it only sounded like one person. Tharvi rose to a crouch and crept forward, hand on his sword.
An eddy in the fog suddenly opened up a pool of clear sight before Tharvi, although what he saw made less sense than the blur of fog. In the foreground a smallish person loosely clad in black crouched near a curved bronze sword thrust into the ground, applying a smoldering torch to the grass around the sword. Beyond the crouching figure an irregular array of similar swords stretched into the fog like a metallic graveyard, each stabbed into a black smudge on the ground.
Tharvi's eyes widened as the torch-bearer straightened and turned toward him. Her face was round and darker than any Tharvi had ever seen, with dark eyes set obliquely and straight thick black hair chopped off above her shoulders. Her clothing was equally foreign to Tharvi's experience: a knee-length robe of shimmery black stuff, open to show her front down to her belt, and loose black trousers of the same fabric. A strip of cloth across her chest covered her small breasts and nothing else. Tharvi recalled the stories of smoke-goblins with a twinge of fear, but the girl-- he couldn't gauge her face at all, but by her figure she had to be younger than he --didn't seem to have wings, nor did her eyes glow except with the reflection of the torch.
There wasn't any point in trying to hide-- she was looking straight at him --so Tharvi straightened up too, and waved at the field of swords. "What madness is this?"
The girl looked amused. "The defense of the Empire." Her voice was high and soft, and as accentless as that of Tharvi's sister.
Tharvi had to laugh at that. "The men of the lowlands are so soft- bellied they have to send wenches to fight for them? Well, you'll find our swords ready!"
Her smile vanished, leaving her face smooth and closed as a mask in the pale light. "All the brave words in the world won't help you, any more than they helped the last barbarians who tried the Empire."
"We don't need any help to take you dirtdiggers! You're not even worth fighting, just looting!"
Her smile returned. "Is that what your war-chiefs told you? You might have done better to listen to the bards. They might have been able to tell you something about the other clans who tried this pass."
"Tell how they sacked you, you mean! Even the weaklings of Orval's Clan could take a land defended by girls!"
"There are more kinds of power than that in a man's arm, Tharvi Harald's son." She turned her back on Tharvi and walked back through the field of antique swords.
Tharvi nearly jumped out of his skin when she addressed him by name. "What witchery-?" Then his eye caught the sway of her rear end as she faded into the fog and he realized that no matter how odd she was, there were more kinds of loot than just treasure and food! He dashed after her through a sudden concealing swirl of fog.
Tharvi caught her just as she paused at the edge of a broad design scorched into the grass. He grabbed her from behind, pinning her arms, and clutched a handful of soft bosom as he knocked her forward in a clumsy tackle. Instead of struggling, she ducked forward and Tharvi found himself flipping heels over head to land flat on his back so hard he was sure his spine had snapped.
Blinking up through the fireflies dancing in front of his face, Tharvi saw the woman draw a metal implement from inside her robe and point it at him. The flash and crash were like lightning striking close. The pain ripping through his chest was far worse than the fall, and in that shocked moment before he even saw his blood he knew he was going to die.
Tharvi curled around the wound as though he could keep the blood in with his hands, the woman's singsong chanting forgotten at the edge of his awareness. Death quietly began draping chains of ice and lead over his limbs, heedless of his tears. As the sun dimmed, Tharvi thought he heard a rustle like leaves falling and brushing against his body. Shapes without detail gathered him, stealing a little more of his life with each caress, growing a little more distinct with each drop of blood.
A woman's face hovered before his, dark and pointed with half-lidded black eyes, and black lips that twisted in a mocking smile as she took the blood from his mouth. Then she flitted away past the defender of the Empire toward the field of blades, and the last thing Tharvi Harald's son saw in that world was the nearest sword lifting itself from the ground.
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