Continuing Tales


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 31 of 69

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"Let’s see what you can do, then.” Alanna’s voice was playful, but her eyes held serious interest as they headed into the garden.

Daine wrapped her fingers nervously around the bow, almost embarrassed at the thought of firing a weapon in front of the Lioness of Tortall.

“I’m really out of practice,” she started, and then breathed out, “Well, you know that! It’s why we’re practicing.”

“Exactly.” Alanna smiled, but she glanced at the bow with concealed fascination.

She had her own private idea about the weapon. From the moment that she’d first seen it she’d recognised the odd work of divine hands. As a woman who spent most of her life around weapons, she had never seen a bow like it. It was larger than most longbows, but the wood was light and supple enough to make the extra weight easy for the smaller woman to draw. The carvings on it were nothing like the maker’s marks it should have had, either: it was decorated like an ornate hunting bow, but there was no doubt that it was a weapon designed to see serious combat. She wondered if an arrow from it might be able to pierce armour, it looked that dangerous!

And yet Daine had been evasive about it, telling a story of an impatient seller packing up his wares, and selling her this weapon cheaply rather than have to take it home unsold. When Daine had asked if she could find a space to practice with the weapon Alanna had jumped at the chance to help.

“Here.” They stopped in a clearing, and Alanna gestured at the trees. “Horse chestnuts. Big leaves – try for one of them, first. Then I can throw nutshells if you want to try moving targets.”

Daine nodded and drew an arrow from her shoulder holster. She was relieved when the bow didn’t warm under her fingers again – it was unsettling enough to be distracting! But once again the bow just felt right in her hands, and when she shot at the leaves she hit them right in the centre with ease. The same thing happened when she tried to shoot the small nuts from the tree, and finally when Alanna threw some discarded shells through the air she picked them off one by one.

“You didn’t miss a single shot.” Alanna breathed, almost unable to believe her eyes. Daine rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly, and went to collect some arrows.

“I used to be quite good.” Her voice was muffled. “I guess it’s something you don’t forget.”

“No,” Alanna told her, “It is. Daine…” She hesitated, and then asked: “Did you get this bow from a… a god?”

Daine froze, and then said, carefully, “If a god wanted to help me, don’t you think they’re a little late?”

“Um.” Alanna made a noncommittal sound. “Is that what you told yourself?”

“I don’t know what to think, really.” The girl slipped the arrows back into her holster and shouldered it. “He looked like a normal huntsman…”

Had he, though? Now she thought back, she hadn’t ever seen him properly. She could just recall his impatient eyes. Most of the rest of him had been hidden in shadow. Alanna saw her look of indecision, and crooked a finger for the girl to come closer.

“Look,” she said, “The gods have their limitations, just like the rest of us. If you patron god is a hunter, then how could he have helped you before? What would have happened if you’d been given a bow in the prison?”

“Or perhaps they are helping someone else.” Daine countered. “Since they gave me a weapon right before the war. It would help you to have an archer who couldn’t miss a target if she tried, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes!” Alanna grinned, “But my goddess is a lot less subtle than that. The only god who seems to be able to do anything with any ulterior motive is the trickster – my husband’s patron - and if he’d been in the market I bet he wouldn’t have even tried to look ‘normal’. He’d find the very idea offensive.”

“Do you think I should… ask them? Pray, or burn incense, or something? I don’t really know how to get them to talk to me.”

“If you ever work that one out, tell the priests. A lot more people would make offerings in the temples if they could guarantee answers!” Alanna shrugged and started to walk back to the house. “I wouldn’t worry. It doesn’t matter why they gave it to you, really. It’s nice that they did, and I wouldn’t think about it any more than that.”

“Then… will you promise me something?” Daine hesitated, falling into step beside the knight, “Will you keep it a secret? I don’t want them to know.”

“Not even Numair?”

Daine laughed out loud. “You know as well as I do that if you’re trying not to overthink something, the last thing you should do is tell Numair about it.”

Hazelle was waiting for them impatiently when they got into the house, and grabbed both of their shoulders in surprisingly strong hands to stop them from leaving. “Both of you,” she said, “Are coming with me.”

“Is it an assignment?” Alanna’s eyes gleamed, and then she frowned when Hazelle shook her head. When the old woman explained why she wanted them, the knight groaned loudly and threw her scarf against the wall. “I don’t need a damn tailor, Hazelle!”

“It was your plan to confuse the officials, wasn’t it?” Hazelle matched her stubbornness with sharpness. “If you keep running around looking like you’re fresh from the battlefield then they’ll have a good idea of why you’re here.”

Alanna sighed and kicked her feet against the tiles. Daine felt the corners of her lips twitching in amusement as she watched an adult soldier behaving like a sulky child.

“Do I need to come, too?” Daine asked, looking hopefully away from the lady towards the comparative freedom of the servant’s quarters. If she escaped now she could help Bennette peel potatoes and listen to the cheerful servant’s cheeky gossip until Numair emerged from whatever boring magic book he was reading. Hazelle narrowed her eyes at her.

“Am I looking at the young lady who burned her last dress?” She retorted.

“It was ruined!” Daine didn’t need to look around to know that now it was Alanna who was grinning. She stuck out her tongue at the knight. “And I didn’t burn it, she did! Make her go instead.”

“Honestly, children.” Hazelle sighed dramatically and herded the two women towards the door. “I shudder to think that you’re the last hope for Tortall.”

As much as she protested, Daine was pleased with her new dress. At the last minute she had run up to her room and fetched the belt that Numair had given her. When she asked the tailor to make a dress to match it he had found a bolt of soft green fabric embroidered with scores of tiny ivy leaves and he promised to make it into a simple gown by the evening.

Alanna was less easy to please, and eventually Hazelle had put her foot down and chosen the fabric for her. It was a very sulky woman who emerged from her room that evening dressed in warm ivory velvet. In token protest to the smart attire, her hair was the same messy tangle it had been when she’d walked through the garden that morning.

“Well, I don’t know about the officials, but you’re certainly confusing me!” Numair greeted her when she ventured into the upstairs hallway. He had been waiting outside her room with his hands lazily linked through his belt. “Didn’t you always used to dress well at court?”

“There are few things in the world more terrifying than Thayet thinking you’re badly dressed.” Alanna muttered, “And smug mages who are lucky enough to be allowed to wear tunics to parties will find out that one of the few more terrifying things is me when I’m annoyed.”

“Ah, you look fine.” He leaned back against the wall and glanced at her. “If your clothes are the only things you’re worried about, then you’re a fool.”

She scowled, understanding his barbed meaning immediately. He must have waited outside her room to challenge her but she had no patience for his meandering way of getting to the point. Her own voice was quite blunt.

“I know you don’t like this plan, but it was Daine’s idea, too.”

“I know.” He said, “But I don’t think she would have suggested it if you weren’t here.”

“I didn’t force her to agree. She’s a bright enough girl to know her own mind.” Alanna snapped. Numair waved a hand, dismissing the terse exchange impatiently.

“That’s not what I meant. I’m certain that you wouldn’t have been able to talk her in to doing something she thought was a bad idea. But… but you’re agreeing to this because of Tortall, and the border, and the soldiers you command. Daine is only thinking about the men in that room, and you don’t seem to realise how scared she is of them. She knows exactly how dangerous these men are, but you’ve given her hope that they can be defeated. You seem to think they’re unorganised, impulsive idiots who will be easily tricked. In truth they are vicious, cunning men. They’ve been clever enough to hide this plan from Tortall for years. They won’t be afraid of four strangers in fancy clothes.”

“Then what do you suggest we do?” She snapped. “Run away to my soldiers at the pass and let the officials barricade off the valley until their army is ready to invade? We need to know what they’re planning. And you’re wrong.” She took a breath, and then pressed on: “You’re wrong about Daine. She may be scared of them, and I wouldn’t blame her, but she’s determined to do anything she can to stop them. She’s got her priorities right. You’re so focused on protecting her that you’d let Tortall burn.”

“That’s unfair.” The soft voice made them both turn, and Alanna flushed at the hurt expression on the girl’s face. Neither of them had noticed Daine arriving, and she fixed them both in a glare. “Numair exiled himself for years because there was a chance that he might be a threat. The only reason he did that was to protect Tortall. And for all you know, Numair, you might be right to say that I’m so shallow I’m only doing this for revenge. Is that right, Numair? How well you must know me! I’m not at all noble or… or brave, so don’t pretend I am.”

Daine took a deep breath and looked away from them, her expression unreadable. “If you two want to keep arguing then go ahead. It seems like a fair good idea for us to spend our time fighting with each other, rather than with the people who want to hurt us. But I’m going. If I’m going to do this then I want to make the most of every minute.”

The room was already swarming when Daine slipped through the door, shaking her head at the herald when he drew a breath to announce her. She recognised some of the men and woman as the ones who were always at these gatherings – some were spies from other countries, some were the local dignitaries who were automatically invited. She didn’t recognise some of the others, but this time she had a plan. She stood near them and shut her eyes as if she were listening to the music. Without the distraction of their fine clothes and pleasant smiles, she recognised three of the officials by their voices alone, and shivered.

“Are you cold, my lady?” The voice was friendly, but she recognised the man as Lord Parsey: the official who had spoken to her in the tailor’s on her first day with Hazelle. She looked up and made herself smile, shaking her head. He tutted sympathetically and held out a hand. “Since we’ve been formally introduced, I can ask you to dance.” He said, “That should warm you up!”

She smiled and took his hand, hoping he would see her hesitation as shyness rather than disgust at having to touch him. He made polite conversation for half the dance, and then said something which made her start and ask him to repeat himself.

“I said, it’s a shame that Lord Orsille can’t be here tonight.” He spun her around carefully and took hold of her hand for the promenade part of the dance. “His daughter is heartbroken, it seems. He’s rather fond of her, so he didn’t like the idea of coming face to face with your cousin.”

She cut her eyes up at him, and the part of her that was Annette smirked in a confiding way. “Are you asking me to gossip, my Lord Parsey?”

“Gossip? I?” He returned the smirk. “Why would I gossip about why my dear friend’s daughter has been hurt?”

“Why would I gossip about my cousin?” She returned, and took his other hand for the reverse dance. As fast as her mind was working, it found a moment to mentally thank Hazelle for the dance lessons. She could almost do this dance without thinking. Still, she had to find an answer, and in the end she said, “I just don’t think it was working out. My cousin is a little… fickle.”

“Is that right?” Parsey raised an eyebrow. “He seems constant enough to you!”

She fumbled his hand for a moment, and knew that she hadn’t been quick enough to hide her confusion. “To me, my lord?”

“Yes!” He looked baffled at her confusion. “Apparently Karenna is blaming you for what happened. If you hadn’t been taken ill, it seems, then he would not have been distracted with caring for you, and she would have… what is the vulgar word she used?” he thought for a moment, and smiled. “Ah yes, ensnared him.”

“Truly the words of a woman in love.” Daine said darkly, wondering how she had ever tried to like Karenna. Parsey seemed to share the thought, because his eyebrow rose, and he nodded.

“I am glad you are recovered from your illness, Mistress Annette.” He said formally, bowing at the end of the dance. She nodded, still a little confused, and then remembered to curtsey. When she looked up he was walking away, glancing back thoughtfully every few steps.

So, that’s the story they’re using. She thought, making a mental note. Clever. So in this story, it’s our fault that they’re not here, but there’s no mention of the assassins…

“D… Annette,” Numair said the false name a little clumsily, and she turned to see that he looked awkward, as if he were ashamed. “Do I owe you an apology?”

“You could just not say anything,” she said, realising that she was still annoyed with him. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

“Okay.” He handed her a glass of cider and intentionally ignored the hint to leave her alone. “What shall we talk about instead?”

When she was silent, sipping the spiced drink and not meeting his eyes, he started chattering inanely. “Oh, my dear cousin, I fear that my dearest friend may be angry with me! I thought to bring her flowers but, alas, it is winter. Then I happened upon the plan to bring her a whorl of frost, as they are almost like flowers, but it melted! I thought through every poem I have ever heard, but none of them mentioned how to beg for forgiveness with a puddle, and so I am desolate...”

She couldn’t stop herself from smiling. “You’re impossible.”

“No, I just know when I’ve been caught in the wrong.” He said, his voice serious. “I spoke badly, and I’m sorry. So is Alanna. I still think this is a bad idea, but it’s decided now. And Alanna was right – there’s really nothing else we could do that wouldn’t have just as many flaws.”

“High praise.” Daine’s voice was dry, but she caught his hand for a moment. “Thank you for trying to protect me.”

He raised his other hand for a moment and touched her cheek, then dropped it with a nervous glance at the room around them. No-one seemed to have noticed, and he squeezed her hand in reply before he let go, ready to walk away. “Have a good evening, my little one.”

The moon had almost filled the empty, icy sky by the time the last of the guests trailed away, and several of the servants were dozing in quiet shaded corners when the head footman bolted the heavy front door shut and pulled the bar down across its rivets. Daine yawned and rubbed her eyes, wondering if the room was really spinning or if her tired mind thought it was still dancing. There had been so many new men that Hazelle had asked her to dance with, and her arms felt stiff from holding them out in the stupid gestures that were supposed to be so graceful.

“Annette,” Hazelle said, and the girl jumped. She was so sleepy she’d barely realised the woman was there. She looked up guiltily and saw that the old woman’s eyes were as sharp as ever, although the skin around them was puffy with tiredness.

“Yes, ‘m?” She mumbled around another yawn. The lady smiled.

“I’m sorry, child. I know you’re tired but I need you to report back to me before you go to bed. I wouldn’t want you to forget some important detail by the morning.”

“Report back?” Daine asked, and then thought about all the new people. “Oh, you want to know if they were officials.”

When Hazelle nodded the girl shook her head with absolute certainty. “Not any that I’ve met, that’s for sure. They were all strangers to me. Is that all you wanted to know?”

“Yes, that’s all.” The woman patted her on the shoulder affectionately. “There’ll be lots of new people this time, and I’ll be asking every night, Annette. If you recognise someone I’d like you to tell me as much as you remember about what they do in the keeps.”

It turned into an almost pleasant ritual. For the next few weeks, after the door had been safely bolted against the retreating backs of their guests, Daine would meet up with the old woman and describe anyone she recognised over a glass of warm milk and some biscuits. Often the meetings were quite brief since Daine only knew the men she’d had direct contact with in only one of the keeps, but sometimes there was a lot she had to recount.

There were men who were responsible for organising the prisoners’ food ration, and then there were men who oversaw every single warhorse who the girl had been asked to treat in the fort’s impressive stables. Hazelle noted down all of them in the same impassive way, but it was difficult for Daine to watch Numair’s expression when she spoke. He knew more about her past than anyone else in the world, and yet there was so much that she hadn’t shared with him that she couldn’t bear to see his reaction. She kept descriptions of her own personal encounters with each man as brief as possible, and never explained how they’d treated her beyond a few flat words.

Then there was the man who Hazelle seemed more interested in. Why was she interested? Because Daine had taken two steps into the cards room that evening and turned white at the sight of him. Before she could collect herself she had to dart outside and vomit into the snow. Of course Hazelle was interested.

“He was a soldier.” Daine said in a dead little voice. “He was in charge of the guard mages. They’re slimy, pathetic cowards who stop the other slaves from escaping and think that makes them better than the rest of us, somehow. He was in charge of them. That’s all.”

“Why did you react like that, then?” Hazelle asked. Daine shot her a look that was so bitter, so black, that the woman’s mouth closed with a snap.

“He made me remember something that’s not important to you, and that you can’t use for your war, and that isn’t any of your business. That’s all.”

Numair hadn’t been in the room when Daine had been sick, and he definitely hadn’t heard what she’d said to Hazelle, but that night he took one look at her and knew that something was wrong. He waited for her to climb into bed, seeing the defensive way that she wrapped her arms around her knees, and then very carefully thought about what to say.

“You do that when you remember.” He said softly, knowing better than to try and touch her when she was in that state.

She didn’t look up, and he hesitantly wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. She flinched at being touched for a second, and then smiled apologetically at him and tugged the warm wool around her body more securely.

“You know what you said to Alanna a few weeks ago?” She whispered eventually. He looked puzzled, so she filled in: “About me agreeing to this spy stuff to get revenge on those men, not to help your country?”

“It was unfair.”

“It might be true.” She shrugged. “I saw a man tonight… an official… and I thought how unfair it was that someone like him is nothing to people like Alanna and Hazelle. To win the war they’d have to ignore him and focus on someone far more important. But the important people - the ones I recognise, at least – they didn’t hurt me nearly as much as the people like him. The only important official I’ve recognised is Orsille. He’ll be targeted. I’ll get some vengeance, I guess.”

She winced and lay down on her back. “But not the others. Not the man I saw today. And they deserve it, too. I saw him today and I just wanted to claw his eyes out.”

“What…” Numair cleared his throat, stopping his question in its tracks with a guilty expression. Daine cut her eyes sideways at him.

“What did he do? It’s alright,” her voice was gentle, “I knew you’d want to know. I worked that out before I even came in the room. And I guess you can tell Hazelle in the morning, and then I can apologise for yelling at her earlier without her nagging me with questions.”

“Is he as bad as Orsille?” Numair asked instead. Daine shook her head.

“It’s not as simple as that. I mean, Orsille did what he did because he knew he could get away with it. But he – the man tonight – ugh, I don’t even know his name! – But did it because they paid him money to do it. Does that make it better or worse? He had two jobs. I told Hazelle about one. He was in charge of the guard mages. I didn’t tell her about the other job.”

Numair waited in silence, not pushing her to say any more than she wanted to, and Daine blinked at the ceiling for a moment before she started speaking again. Her voice had picked up the odd lilt of storytelling from listening to Numair, and it was strange to hear her repeat back vile deeds in the same melodies that he used to describe beautiful distant lands. Numair shivered at the association and kept listening.

“Do you remember Anja? The witch with the dreadlocks who tried to kill me?” Daine waited for his nod, and then smiled crookedly. “She got to the prison a few years before I did, and before they threw her in the pit she was quite pretty. Handsome, really. She had this way of walking that made you think she was dancing. So, of course, the officials wanted her. They wanted to treat her the same way that they treated me. They put the extra charm on her bracelet and drew lots for her.”

“It was like a game to them. They made no secret of it. I’d only just been released from the cell under the walls and even I knew it was going on, for all that I was still trying to find my way and work out who to obey. They drew lots for her, like they did for every woman. The man who won…” a small smile crossed the girl’s face, and it was almost ugly in its sadism. 
“Well, I don’t know his name either. But later on we all heard him screaming. Turns out that while they were drawing lots, Anja was making plans of her own. She bit off the man’s tongue.”

Daine laughed then. It was a short, hollow sound which fell flat in the warm room. Numair found that he had been holding his breath. He let it out in a silent rush. He could well believe that the crazed woman who had attacked them in the solar could bite off another person’s tongue. But he didn’t know what it could have to do with an official’s job until Daine carried on.

“I heard it from my room and looked out into the courtyard. At first I couldn’t see anything, but --- Anja was laughing this strange, wild sound, and then the man ran out into the yard for help. He wouldn’t stop screaming but it sounded wet and choked because he was bleeding so much, and it caused such an uproar that everyone got involved, and a few of the other prisoners started shoving at the officials and guards, and before you knew it there was a brawl in the middle of the courtyard with this man bleeding and howling in the middle of it, and Anja just laughing, laughing, laughing.”

“The guard mages rushed in and broke up the brawl, and three people never woke up. All slaves they were, and no-one would have cared except that later on the official bled to death too. Skilled healers they might have, but I’ve never yet heard of a man who can make a new tongue from nothing-and-magic. After that the higher officials were angry. They threw Anja into the pit and that was the last I ever saw of her until they… until I… well, that’s another story. The point is that after the official died, the leaders told the others that if anything like that ever happened again there would be severe punishments, and not just for the slaves.”

“You’d think they would just decide to stop their stupid horrible games and leave us alone, but they didn’t want to give that up. So instead, they gave this man his new job. He called it ‘instructing’ but it was filthy, rotten work.”

“People used to try to hide when he walked past, just in case they were on his list. If any of the officials wanted one of us, this man’s job was to make sure that we were… were tamed. He took you into the soldiers’ barracks for a week or so, and by the time you came out…” she swallowed heavily. “Well, you’d learned that fighting back was useless.”

“I know some people who went in with brown hair and came out with grey, or who came out with the sort of scars that never properly heal. No-one knew for certain what he did, because it was always different, and the waiting… when we knew our time was soon, we were so scared of him that you could hear people sobbing at night five or six cells away. When he came for me I still had a voice. By the time they released me I couldn’t even scream.”

“What did he do to you?” Numair whispered, but he had his head cradled in his hands as if he couldn’t bear to look up. Daine shook her head and turned onto her side, her back to him.

“No, my love, I’m not going to tell you that.” She said distantly. “What he did to me was no worse than what he did to so many other women. I don’t know that I deserve pity or revenge any more than they do. And it doesn’t matter anyway, because he’s nobody. This game we’re playing will only punish the people who threaten Tortall, and for all his faults that man looks fair blameless as far as Alanna or Hazelle are concerned.”

She looked back over her shoulder then, seeing that the man was watching her with an odd expression in his black eyes, and she smiled self-mockingly. “That said, I did think about telling Hazelle he was a weapons master or something important, just to make sure that he didn’t make it out of this unscathed… but I’m not a liar. Not like that.”

“I would have lied. He deserves it.” Numair said darkly. Daine’s smile turned crooked.

“If you want to lie, tell me that you want revenge on that man for any other reason than because he hurt me.”

“That’s enough of a reason.” The man said darkly. “I don’t need any other.”

“I know you don’t.” Daine sighed and closed her eyes, “But I’m starting to think that I do.”


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 31 of 69

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