Continuing Tales


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 23 of 69

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Alanna arrived with the first snowdrifts in a flurry of swearwords, bundled up in so many layers that she was almost a globe. The servant had to open the door as wide as it would go to let the woman in, and then stood with her hands pressed over her ears in shocked silence as the knight shed her warm layers with a different curse for each one. It wasn't until a blaze of cropped red hair appeared and the globe had taken the shape of a short, stocky woman that the swearing stopped, and the servant handed her a cup of hot cider in some relief.

"Shall I fetch..." she began timidly, and wasn't at all surprised when the loud woman interrupted her.

"No, let me warm up first. I'm a bear when I'm cold, and I've not seen any of them for years. I don't want them to think I've gone completely feral!" She sipped at the cider with a sigh of satisfaction, wrapping both hands around the warm clay cup. "This is very good."

"Thank you m'm." The servant bobbed a curtsey, and busied herself picking up the discarded clothes. From the corner of her eye she could see through the window into the courtyard, where a string of stableboys were pointing at the kitchen and whispering to each other. The rear of a gorgeous stallion was just being led into the stable, and some of the boys were following it with wide eyes. Although the creature's tack and saddle were old and worn, it was clearly a fine horse.

"I know. I'd've bought a run-down nag if I thought it could get over those passes, but once the snows hit, well..." Alanna shrugged and kicked off her boots. "I have a dread of being trapped in some god-awful snowed-in valley for the winter. I'd rather have to tell a few lies once I arrive here, than freeze my toes off on the journey."

"Yes m'm." The maid bobbed again.

"Yes m'm." Alanna mimicked ironically, and took another mouthful of cider. "You know any other words? I'm in a good mood for a chat."

"Shouldn't I fetch..." the woman tried again, and flinched when the knight shook her head and flung herself into one of the chairs by the fire.

"No, you're perfect. Just what I need. You can tell me about them."

"Yes m..." the servant blushed, and then laughed. "You want to gossip, my lady?"

"Gossip, chat... gather information..." Alanna listed, waving a hand carelessly. "Yes. I do."

"About your friend?" The woman asked, and the knight could hear the curiosity in the question. The servants were, apparently, as keen to hear stories about Numair as she was. Well, in for a copper, in for a king's ransom... she sighed and stretched out her legs.

"About someone that I knew ten years ago, who I still care about, but who I don't know much about." She said carefully. The servant smiled thinly, and fetched a cup of steaming hot milk from a large pot on the stove.

Deliberately relaxing, the maid stretched out her thin legs in an imitation of the knight's, leaning back against her chair with a sigh as she took in the warmth of the fire. She began to speak as an equal, describing everything that had happened over the past few weeks. Alanna listened with interest, and although she asked many questions, they were said in such a wry, joking tone that the maid couldn't fathom what she meant to find out.

"You say they do magic lessons together?" She asked, fluttering her fingers in the vague shape of an explosion. "Isn't that a bit risky? I'd thought to see you all running for your lives from an untrained adult mage."

"Miss Annette?" The servant laughed and folded one leg under her. "Well, she's not so very old. And the way I hear it..." she leaned forward, and her voice took on the fluid tones of a storyteller, "They're both as bad as each other! Ma'am said that they need to stay together, or else..." she waggled her eyebrows suggestively, and made the same explosive hand gesture Alanna had made.

"They linked their magic together?" For the first time, the knight's bright tone faded, and she looked almost sickened, as if a bad memory was forcing its way through the years. "H... how? Why? When?"

"No, it has to be an excuse." The maid said dismissively, and sipped her milk. "It was such a worry to them when they were sharing a bed, but once the Lady Karenna came between them, well... they barely say two words to each other a day! And those are usually said in anger."

"So, they had a fight." Alanna forced herself to smile and drink her cider, and not think about Thom. She had to force down the urge to find this Annette girl and pin her down, to search her gift for... for what? The shadow of a long-dead mage? It was a ridiculous thought, but it was one of the first things that she genuinely thought might have kept Numair away from Tortall for so long. She made her voice light. "People fight. I thought you had interesting things to tell me!"

"People do." The servant stirred floating cinnamon dust into her milk with a grubby finger, then licked it clean. "But we don't think they're people. Not really. Not if they're from the..."

"Vivien!" The voice was sharp, if refined, and the maid flinched upright so quickly she spilled the rest of her milk. Her mistress descended on her with a face like thunder, but it was only when Alanna rested a hand on the woman's arm that Hazelle found another thought to interrupt her tirade. "Oh, Alanna! When did you get here?"

"Not long ago." The knight beamed and gestured frantically at the maid behind the lady's back. The servant gasped gratefully and ran for it, disappearing into the cellars. Hazelle smiled wryly at the disappearing back.

"I'll have to fire her."

"I wouldn't. If no-one gossiped in this kitchen at all, it'd attract more attention than some silly stories from a kitchen maid." Alanna drained her milk and stood up. "I've actually been in the valley for a few days, in the inns. Their stories are close to hers... although, of course, they think they're visiting nobles from another valley."

"That's Karenna's fault, not my servants." Hazelle said darkly. "We're drawing her in for information, but you always have to give something back, don't you?"

Alanna smiled and followed Hazelle out of the room. "That's what George says." She tucked her hands into her belt, and muttered under her breath at the old woman's bent back. "But I would never surrender like that."

"It's not a war." The woman said sharply, rounding on her. "You don't surrender. You find weaknesses, and exploit them, and if it takes a few arguments and a few wild rumours to do that then you take the hit."

The knight stopped, and caught Hazelle's wrist to lead her to a window. With a hand held carefully out of the icy draft, she gestured at the valley they could see spread out around them.

"Like I said, Lady Hazelle," she said coldly. "I spent the last week in your valley, as a stranger, asking questions. Do you know that every third man of fighting age works in the forts? Of course you do. Do you know that all the mages in the valley are holed up there, and the aura around those places is so dense I can't even scry there? Yes, you must know that. And you know that all the criminals in Galla – all the ones who are violent, or who have strong gifts, all the dangerous ones, are kept in those two castles. You know all this. And you're still telling me it's not a war? You look at them, and you see a valley with a few corrupt, petty lords. I see a group of power-hungry men who are building an army, right on the border of Tortall!"

She turned around, and her violet eyes were fierce. "I'm here, in your house, because my friend asked for my help. On the other side of the border, my men are gathering because my country is under threat. You can play this game any way you like, my lady, but don't tell me it's not a war. If we're lucky, then it won't be. But we can't pretend that's not what's going on here!"

"Lucky." Hazelle said, her eyes an odd mixture of defeat and intrigue. Alanna glanced at her, and the corner of her mouth turned up.

"Well, it all seems to pivot on our mutual friend, doesn't it?" She said, and the light note was back in her voice. The old woman smiled, but the expression was weak.

"It's not just him. It's both of them. They're inseparable, even if they're furious at each other like they are at the moment. But if I had to place a name on it, then your pivot is... is Daine." She said, and for the first time her voice was reluctant. "But if it truly is a war, as you say, then... please, Lioness, I wouldn't usually ask this, but..."

Alanna thought back to the servant, and remembered wanting to shake Numair's stray and scour her gift for the sickness that had killed Thom. Her face set. "No. If it's her fault," she said, "If she's the reason they're mobilising... if it's her battle, then she must fight it."


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 23 of 69

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