Continuing Tales


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 43 of 69

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Numair paced the small tent, irritably pulling at his hair and muttering to himself as he walked back and forth. He raised his hand to pull the tent flap aside, and the sight of the black feather mark etched into the back of his hand made him freeze. Then, with a loud curse, he turned away from the exit and resumed pacing.

He’d been confined to the camp for months now. At first it had been endless waiting for the scouts to finish their survey of the mountain so they could decide where to dig. Now they were digging diligently, and sometimes he was needed to blast away weakened seams of rock or shore up collapsing tunnels with his gift, but more often than not he was uselessly stuck in his tent. It was intolerable.

Alanna was sympathetic up to a point, and had agreed to let him study with the other mages in the morning. Numair had sharply asked her why she was happy for him to risk his gift with other mages and in the tunnels, but she still forbade him from helping Daine. The woman’s temper flared and she banished him to go and peel potatoes in the mess tent.

Strangely the mindless chore had kept him occupied enough for a few days to calm things down. Then the official’s first squadrons had mobilised and Numair was left alone in the camp as soldiers fanned out across the valley. Sometimes he was needed as a mage and he took great satisfaction in blasting away scores of troops, but more often the risk of his losing control meant that he could only cast a few spells before having to retreat and leave the soldiers fighting alone. And didn’t that feel like another betrayal! He had started glaring at anyone who dared to came near him and kicking at the ground. Alanna finally lost her temper again and told him to keep to his tent.

He didn’t realise, she told him, the effect that he had on the soldiers. They had heard stories. Everyone had heard the stories. And whether they were fuelled by fear or bravado, the men who approached him all wanted to know if those stories were true.

“They’re bored enough to goad you.” The knight had said flatly, and had shoved the mage to his feet. “I don’t want you to lose control just because some poor page lost a bet.”

“I thought I wasn’t going to lose control,” he retorted, “You took care of that, remember? I’m not hunting down those bastards who took Daine away, so that makes me perfectly safe, right?”

“Wrong.” She snapped, and pushed him into his tent.

He might have turned to argue then, but Alanna had too much to do to waste time babysitting insane mages. Throwing the rough edge of the tent flap shut behind her, the lady knight soon forgot that she had been angry.

The new soldiers were trickling in over the mountains from the heart of Tortall in small, inconspicuous groups. They brought stories and letters from everyone from the king to Alanna’s children, and they brought their own fury at the trick that the neighbouring country was trying to pull. It would take too much time to explain to them that the officials who were leading the army of mages were quite separate from the king of Galla and his court.

Alanna was sure that the king knew all about it, of course. Karenna had let that slip. But his majesty had given the officials enough independence to mean that if their plan fell awry he could claim he knew nothing about it.

Well, their plan would fall awry. She was determined of that. And she had her own plans. The mountains were a treasure trove of ambush points and potential traps. There were so many places for her spies to hide that it was almost laughable. The officials may have a fortress in the cliff-ringed valley, but they couldn’t know every inch of the miles of cliffs and caves that surrounded them.

Numair had found one weakness beneath one of the forts, and in a few weeks the scouts had found several more. Tortallan soldiers, clad in the greasy, soot-stained furs of trappers, had crept unseen into the valley and were putting their feet up by Gallan fireplaces and complaining loudly to the innkeepers about the hard winter they’d spent struggling for food. Other soldiers – the ones who could fake the soft mountain burr- were working in the fields, tilling the land and chatting about the snowdrops which the ladies always seemed to swoon over whenever they found one... silly weeds that the plants were!

Every one of the soldiers was under strict orders, and Alanna trusted most of them to carry them out: they were to blend in, to make friends with the civilians. When the war started, the mages would pour out of the keeps, and the knights the officials were amassing would come with them. The civilians would be swept away in a wave of bloodlust and fear. The army would want them to fight, and would do anything up to snatching sons from their homes to gather foot soldiers. Alanna was determined that it wouldn’t happen. She knew that a battle could be won by the people who fed the army, or who washed their clothes. When the war began, she wanted those people to be on her side. And so she told the spies to protect them, and to stop them from being conscripted, if it came to that.

Without foot soldiers, the officials might find themselves struggling. Alanna smiled and stretched her arms up to the sky, content with a long day’s work, and didn’t see the bird circling above her outstretched fingers.

The bird cheeped softly, uncomfortable flying when the sun had nearly set and the night predators were starting to prowl.

Alanna might have heard the cheep, but it was still close enough to sunset that it was lost in the general chorus of birdsong. 
Alanna couldn’t have heard the soft voice that spoke to the bird, its words gentle and soothing as it coaxed it to fly closer to the fires. 

The owls might be nearby and the humans are around the fires. 
The bird said nervously, circling around the columns of heat in the air. They have bows. In the winter they eat birds, when there’s no other prey. I don’t like the humans.

But you’re very small, and they’re not very hungry. The voice told it, and there was a hint of impatience in its calming tone. They won’t be interested in you, I promise.

Why do we have to look at the humans? You found your camp. That was what you wanted, wasn’t it? The bird sounded petulant, and the girl in its mind sighed. 

I’ve been looking for the camp for months now. I’ve found lots of camps. But not the right one. 
She told it sharply. I need to find one person. No-one else will understand what we are. Just one human. And … gods, but I think he might actually be here. Please, please stop fussing. I know he’s here. And he’s not going to hurt you either.

I don’t like it. The bird repeated stubbornly, Why can’t we go home? Then you ask one of the others to bring you here tomorrow.

Daine stopped herself from screaming at the creature. It took a huge effort.

The birds had worked out some kind of rota, and she had explored the valley in the mind of a different bird every night since she started her plan. Some of them were curious, enjoying exploring new places and asking dozens of questions about the strange things the humans did. Others, like this one, had taken her into their minds more grudgingly, and only wanted to fly a few miles before insisting that they return home.

The first few weeks, Daine had asked the birds if they could look for Hazelle’s house. They had flown there so quickly that it felt like a dream. The girl remembered the weeks it had taken Numair and her to climb across the goat trails to the town from the fort, and wondered why the distance seemed shorter.

It was only after the third night that she remembered that she might not be in the fort. The first few minutes she spent in each bird’s mind were always a sightless blur of pain and relief, and by the time her vision cleared they were flying through rocks that could have been anywhere. She couldn’t return to look, either: although her trick worked, her mind could only fly for a short time before it was hurled back to defend the shell of her body.

When they reached Hazelle’s house it was shrouded in darkness. Daine told the bird to leave without a second thought. The creature paused and roosted on the roof, its voice curious as it asked why.

They’re not there. She explained, trying to hide the disappointment in her voice. The humans I need. My flock. They’re not there.

Then we should find them. The bird sounded as if it were pointing out the obvious to a young child, and Daine cheered up a little when she realised the creature was offering to help her look. She thanked it, and it sounded surprised. Of course! I can’t imagine losing my flock. You really are careless, human. When we find them you must promise not to do it again!

And so the hunt began. And now, long weeks later, the cowardly bird refused to drift any lower than the edge of the firelight.

Daine nearly reached out with her gift in frustration, knowing instinctively that if she forced the bird to comply the others might not trust her again. She gritted her teeth mentally and said, 

Look, he probably has some food. Seed. Nuts. Berries. I don’t know. Food the other birds don’t have.

The bird paused for a moment, and drifted a little closer to the fire. Like all the flock, he was scrawny from the long winter, and the words were like a magic all by themselves. He cheered up, and some of the cheeky playfulness of all sparrows crept into his cunning voice when he fluttered down to a tent post and repeated: Food?

By the time they found the right tent the bird was enjoying the game, feeling his passenger’s excitement and chattering about how jealous the other birds would be at his amazing meal. Daine let him chatter, only needing a few moments to peek into each tent before knowing to tell the bird to move on.

The camp was vast, far larger than Daine could have expected from what Alanna had told her. It was cunningly hidden, meaning that a few tents were scattered behind a rock, and a few more were in the lee of a cave, and the whole encampment was spread over several miles. It took longer to search than she had hoped, and she couldn’t hide her growing impatience as the bird fluttered from one group of tents to another.

The bird nearly sped on from one tent before Daine managed to find her voice and said, weakly, Wait, stop! That... that’s him. That...

I’ll go in then. The bird said cheerfully, and then paused as it thought about her voice. Why did you sound odd? You said he wouldn’t hurt us. Why are you sounding scared?

I don’t know. Daine fought down the rising shivering feeling and looked through the bird’s eyes again. She stared at the shape of the human. He was lying on a bedroll with wide open eyes, staring at the ceiling.

The passing months had made him thinner and his eyes were over-bright and sunken as if he’d been ill. His hair and clothes were dishevelled as if he no longer cared to spend time on his appearance. The last time Daine had seen him they’d been getting ready to go to one of Hazelle’s parties. He’d looked elegant and strong and his eyes had glowed when he looked at her. Now he looked worn, tired. His cracked lips moved as he stared up at the roof. He raised a hand and tugged fitfully at his nose, gesturing at the ceiling as if he were thinking aloud.

Daine saw all of this in a glance, and more besides. After so long the sight of him made her want to scream and laugh and cry all at the same time. A map of Galla lay untidily on the floor beside his bed, tattered as if he had poured over it for hours and hours, and in the square inches that made up the valley there were hundreds of tiny crosses and notes in his meticulous scrawl: 

Empty ruin – hiding place? 
Rumours: north of here. 
2 weeks in this tower then moved – east?

He’s been looking for me, Daine understood in a rush of love and tearful hope, and the bird peeped happily. Once again Daine had to stop it from flying to the human. The creature squawked in frustration. 

What’s wrong? 

Daine didn’t know. She tried to explain: Maybe I just want to see him too much, but... but something about him feels... feels wrong.

Wrong? He feels safe to me. The bird sauntered through the gap as if he were chasing an earthworm, his voice scolding her. He feels like you. One of the People. He’s like a bird.

Yes. She whispered, and tried not to think the worst. That’s what it is. He’s like a bird.

Numair didn’t notice them for a moment, but when the bird pecked at the map his head snapped around so quickly that the sparrow flinched and jumped backwards, yammering. The man’s eyes narrowed and he sat up slowly, rubbing one of his hands as if it were responsible for bringing this bird into his tent. 

He doesn’t look like he’s going to give me seed.
 The bird pointed out. Daine mentally shook her head, and then sighed. 

He doesn’t know who I am.
 She told it. I thought I might be able to speak to him, in my mind... but I can’t. I guess I need my body for that.

Then what can we do? The bird asked. She thought for a moment, and then smiled at the thought of the bird’s natural playfulness. 

Steal his hair tie. 
She said. Look, he’s been running his hands through his hair – it’s nearly fallen out. Go and steal it.

The bird peeped a laugh, and sprang into the air so quickly that Numair gasped and ducked away from it. Before the man could react, the sparrow whisked the leather tie out of his hair and returned to the edge of the tent, holding it triumphantly like a trophy.

“What...?” Numair breathed, raising his head and staring at the creature incredulously. Daine felt a well of hysterical laughter rippling through her voice when she said, 

Now, give it back. Drop it in his hand.

The bird did. Numair stared at it blankly, his eyes flickering between the tie and the sparrow in wide-eyed amazement. As if he couldn’t possibly believe his own conclusion, he took a breath and whispered one word: “Daine?”

Cheep, please? Daine asked the bird, and mentally smiled when the little creature willingly erupted into a flurry of excited song. That’s enough, thank you! I think he understands now.

“Daine,” he repeated, and breathed out rapidly. “Dear gods, Daine...” He rested his head in his hands for a moment, and then looked up, his expression dazed.

Does he have food? The bird asked. Daine shushed it.

You have no sense of timing. Wait.

“Is that actually you, or...” Numair shook his head to clear it and knelt down on the floor, a look of breathless hope crossing his face. He peered closely at the bird for a moment, and then his mouth twisted ruefully and he shook his head. “No, it’s not, is it? It’s like the cat.”

The bird nodded, the gesture both awkward and playful. The mage forced himself to smile. He held out a hand, and after a moment’s persuasion from both him and the voice in its head, the sparrow hopped into his palm.

“Where are you, Daine? Where did they take you?” He demanded. Daine made the sparrow shake its head and the man seemed to shrink back. Even his voice grew quieter. “You don’t know either, huh?”

You’re near my nest. The sparrow offered helpfully. Behind that barred window.

He already knows about the bars, Daine sighed, And I don’t think he knows where you live any more than I do. It’s difficult to see when I’m too close to my real body.

“Then I’ll keep searching, I promise.” Numair said softly, pushing back his own disappointment. He gently stroked the sparrow’s head. If the gesture was loving, his next words were typically academic, and Daine almost told the bird to peck him for being so annoyingly logical.

“If it’s like the cat,” he said after a moment, “Then how are you doing this? And don’t tell me ‘safely’, sweet, because I know that’s a lie.”

What should I do? The bird whispered at her, feeling her hesitation. She thought rapidly, and then just told the sparrow to shrug. It would be an infuriating answer, but then, she thought, the question was fair stupid, too. It wasn’t like it mattered. What was important was that she was here, not how she had done it!

“Then you should go back.” He told her matter-of-factly, “Before you lose yourself.”

The bird made a rude sound and hopped away from the human, shrugging again for good measure. Daine let the creature play out its pantomime, distracted by looking at Numair’s reaction. He unconsciously wrapped his hand around the wrist where the bird had sat and stared at it, his expression torn between worry and relief.

Stop. She told the bird, feeling her heart twist. I can’t bear it. Go to him. Please.

The bird froze, and then ducked its head in something close to an apology, returning to the man’s hand when he timidly held it out, and even brushing its head affectionately against his thumb before cheeping quietly.

“I miss you so much.” He said, his voice cracking on the simple words.

The bird was asking for a reply when the girl was torn from its mind in a sudden whirl of pain. In a blind panic, the sparrow fled from the human into the night.


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 43 of 69

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