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C. Dale Brittain

Voima

PART I:

Lords of Earth and Sky

CHAPTER ONE

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Roric put his sword across his knees and his back to the guesthouse wall. When they came to kill him in his bed asleep, they would find him neither in bed nor asleep.

Swallows swooped through the twilight air, then disappeared back toward the barns as the sky went from yellow to darkest blue. He shifted on the hard bench, listening but hearing nothing. Even the wind was still. He reached into the pouch at his belt and absently rubbed the charm there with his thumb: the piece of bone, cut in the shape of a star, that had been tied into his wrappings when he was first found.

It would be good, he thought, to see Karin one more time. But it did not matter. They had said their farewells as though they knew they would not meet again short of Hel.

The moon rose slowly above the high hard hills to his left. His shadow stretched at an angle, dark and liquid, across the rough surface of the courtyard. He bent to tighten a shoelace and turned his head to be certain the soft peep off to his right was nothing more than a night bird. There was another shadow next to his. Someone was sitting beside him.

He was on his feet with his sword up in an instant. But the other, seeming for a second less substantial than his shadow, did not immediately move. When he did, it was to stretch out weaponless hands, palms up. “Would you attack me unprovoked?”

Roric did not relax his guard. “You intended to do the same to me!”

The other gave an amused chuckle. He wore a wide-brimmed hat that shadowed his face from the moon. “So that is why you are sitting outdoors when all others are asleep.”

“If you are not come to kill me,” said Roric cautiously, “and you have not come to warn me, why are you here?”

The other did not answer for a moment, and when he did it was in a soft voice. “Perhaps it is because we could use you.”

“Me?” said Roric bitterly. “A man who may be dead before morning, and if he lives will be an outcast at least, and probably outlawed as well at the next Gemot? No one needs me.”

“I do not think you will be dead before morning. But I must agree,” with another chuckle, “that you will be of less use to us if you are. I need to ask you several things, and I am interested in your answers.”

Roric leaned on his sword, listening but still hearing nothing ominous among the quiet sounds of the night. The other person, whoever he might be, was not a wight or he would not cast a shadow. But his soundless materialization on the bench suggested someone of great voima: a Weaver, perhaps, or a Mirror-seer-even a Wanderer. But if he were one of these, he should already know the answers.

“All right, then,” said Roric, and a smile came and went for a second across his face. “We may as well talk while we’re waiting for the attack to come.” In the moonlight this man-if he was a man-seemed so unreal, so much a product of his own vision, that he could have been talking to himself.

“Then what have you done, Roric No-man’s son, to make your fellows want to kill you and cast you out?”

“I’ve loved a high lord’s daughter,” shortly.

“And so your king has come to kill you?”

“How did you know a king wants me dead?” demanded Roric, raising his sword again. This person who knew his name but apparently not much else could in fact be one of the king’s men, here to distract him from the coming attack, only seeming insubstantial because of night and moonlight.

But the other again gestured with upturned palms. “This is a royal manor, and the crown on your shoulder- clasp suggests royal service. Is your king planning to kill you himself?”

“No, not with his own hands. He couldn’t!” with a grim laugh. Roric lowered his sword again; whoever this person was, he did not seem one of Hadros’s men. “The king is my sworn lord, and he would be outlawed himself. But I wondered at the time why he sent me to this manor on such a trivial errand. Still, I did not suspect treachery until I saw the warriors arrive by stealth: three of them, my king’s fiercest fighters. I would not have seen them at all if I had not forgotten my knife in the hall at dinner and gone back for it.”

“Sit down by me,” said the man. Roric had still not seen his face. “I do not like having to look up at an armed man when I’m trying to talk to him. Now tell me,” when Roric had slowly seated himself, his sword again across his knees, “do you intend to kill these warriors?”

“I will not stand quietly while they kill me!”

“But are they not beneath your notice?”

“One of them I could certainly outfight,” said Roric, “probably even two. Three I think will be harder… My tale is already short, because it starts with me, but the end should be very interesting.”

There was another faint chuckle from beneath the broad-brimmed hat. “So your intent is to give up your life to make a glorious song? I would not have thought a life for a song a good bargain. The song will not cause your king much distress, nor comfort the lady.”

Roric did not answer but stared straight ahead at the moonlit side of the barn on the far side of the courtyard.

“And tell me,” added the other, “why loving your king’s daughter should be such a crime.”

“She’s much too high-born for a man without kin, but she is not really his daughter,” he started to say, then stopped. He thought again that if this person with a shadowed face-if he even had a face-was a Wanderer, he should already know this. For someone of great voima, he seemed remarkably ill-informed. “And you tell me, who it is who wants to use me, and for what purpose!”

“We have enemies,” said the other, still in that mildly ironic tone, “whom we made deliberately, made ourselves, and are now finding a little harder to un make. We have watched you for some time, Roric No-man’s son. If you come with us, it must be of your own free will. A mortal, a man like you, may be able to help us, as well perhaps with another issue we are considering…”

“Then you are not a mortal yourself?” Roric asked slowly. It was sometimes said that warriors on the field of battle saw the Wanderers striding in their midst, but his battle was not yet joined-and he himself had never expected to see one of the lords of voima out of legend come to meet him.

But before the other could answer there came the sound Roric had been straining for the last four hours, of stealthy feet scrunching on gravel.

He was on his feet in an instant, his back pressed against the guesthouse wall. The moon in rising had left a slice of darkness here, and he would see the warriors well before they saw him. No time now to wonder about the lords of earth and sky. “It’s been pleasant having this little conversation,” he muttered to the person beside him, “but I think we will have to postpone the rest.”

Good, they had brought a torch with them; the fir rosin smoked and sizzled, and the flame burned orange. Their dazzled eyes would never pick him up. Especially now: clouds came up abruptly in a clear sky and darkened the moon.

He breathed very quietly, thinking fast. He had intended to sell his life as dearly as possible, but now he had another plan.

The guesthouse door was around on the side. They knocked; the sound was of a sword hilt wrapped in a cloak. “Open the door for us, Roric,” called a guttural voice. He recognized it; it was Gizor One-hand, whom he had

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