Continuing Tales


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 59 of 69

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The first wave of Gallan soldiers streamed into the camp in a roar of shouts and charging feet, trampling tents and fallen Tortallans with the same wild viciousness. Karenna saw them from the top of the distant rise where they'd camped. She shrieked and ducked back inside her tent, almost stumbling over her long skirts as she huddled beside the sturdy tent pole and trembled.

"They're here!" She whimpered, and screwed her eyes shut in prayer. "Oh, dear beloved gods, help us!"

"Of course they're here." The grumbling old maid didn't sound any different than she had an hour ago, when she was complaining about dropping a stitch in her knitting. She glanced up at the girl's white knuckles as they wrapped around the pole, and her wrinkled mouth thinned in a dry smile. "It's a war, mistress. What did you expect?"

"But I wasn't supposed to be here when the fighting started! Not me!" She cried, and shrieked in fear when someone ran past the tent. "I'm just supposed to be spying! Why didn't da warn me?"

"He probably had other things on his mind." The maid tied off the end of her row, bit off the trailing thread, and then slid the knitting off the bone needles. She sighed at the probably-ruined knitting, stowed it carefully in her apron, and then handed one of the long needles to Karenna. The girl stared at it blankly and the woman snorted and dropped it into her lap.

"What's that for?" Karenna whispered. The maid shrugged.

"If they get too friendly, aim for anything soft and squishy." She deftly hid her own needle in her sleeve and then sat back down, looking bored. "There's too many of them for it to do much good, mind, but at least I can tell your father I defended you."

"What?" Karenna stood up with a shriek and then squeaked as the needle fell to the floor. She dropped back to her knees, scrabbling for it. "They wouldn't dare to…!"

"They're soldiers. They won't know you're a miss-high-and-mightiness." The woman lay back with a contented sigh and shut her eyes. "And even if they did, they wouldn't care. Not everyone in the world has been trained to kotow to you, you know."

Karenna stared at her, tears starting in her eyes. She really does hate me. She realised with sudden sickness that broke through her terror. She stared at the dozing maid. She had never treated the woman any differently from any of the other servants, but then, she'd never treated any of them with anything other than a sweeping disdain.

She'd thought that she was being regal, refined. A lady. When she was a child her father had smiled approvingly at her when she learned to wave away the servants without deigning to look at them, and told her off for referring to them by their first names. She realised with a shock that she didn't even know her chaperone's name: she was just one of the many women who waited on her. She heard a crash outside, and a scream, and felt her teeth chattering in fear.

"If… if we get out of this… alive…"

The woman opened one yellowed eye. "I know, I know." She waved a hand wearily. "I'll be beaten…"

"No." Karenna's voice held some of her old regal command, and she bit back the tone with a flash of self-hatred. "No, if we live I… I'd like to know your name. And the others."

The maid stared at her, and her mouth opened for a moment in slack disbelief, and then she cawed out a cry when someone thundered through the tent opening in a clatter of armour. He skidded to a halt, clumsy in his haste, and fell to the ground with a crash.

"Stay back!" Karenna screamed hysterically, "I have a knitting needle! I'll use it!"

"What?" The soldier shook his head, dazed, and then recovered himself. "Lady, we have to get you away from here. They're heading towards this rise."

Both of the women nodded and followed him at a half run without another word. The man ran at a steady pace, but even so they were both struggling to keep up after a few minutes. Behind them, the screams kept them running in pure terror, but sometimes they had to stop and stare back at the lower ground as a bright explosion, or a haze of purple fog, or a bolt of greasy lightning burst in the middle of the battle.
Soldiers fought each other viciously, but with those brutal spells the hardest warriors' skills meant almost nothing. They might exchange blows with the gods of war, but a magical swarm of oversized insects or a scalding cloud of steam would floor even the toughest soldier. When a mage was killed there was always a cheer, and the soldier's defensive shapes clearly involved staying near a mage who could cast a good shield in a hurry.

The trail the women had camped along was on a slope, a respectable distance away from the coarse tents of the men and the refugees. This was as it should be, and Karenna had never been so grateful to be as far away as possible from the nerve centre of the camp, which heaved with insect—like dots in the distance. The man ran determinedly uphill ahead of her, and despite her fear she was beginning to feel dizzy. Karenna fumbled at her corset lacings as she ran, tearing her fingernails in the ties as she tried to loosen it enough to catch her breath.

"Stop, stop!" She gasped, nearly fainting. "I… can't…"

"This is why only idiots wear clothes like this…miss." The maid caught up, huffing heavily, and efficiently started sawing through the knots with her belt knife and a certain amount of destructive glee. "They take hours to get on you, hours to clean, and they make you even more useless…"

"Thank you." Karenna breathed out in a rush, and then gasped in another breath. She was too tired to retort to the woman, but for some reason she felt her mouth twisting up in a smile. Perhaps it was relief at having gotten away from the fighting, but with the sweet summer breeze on their faces and the peaceful mountain trail ahead of them their terror was starting to fade, and relief made both women smile breathlessly at each other. At the same time, they both had to stop their eyes from drifting, horrified, to the bloodbath that they had just escaped.

"What are you doing?" The soldier demanded, running back down the hill towards them. He was one of the new recruits, they saw, with sandy Gallan hair sticking raggedly out of the bottom of his ill-fitting helmet.

"I said run!"

"I have to… to… get my breath…" Karenna told him, and looked up with a question in her over bright eyes. "Where are we… running to?"

The man hesitated and looked up the hill. There was nothing there, just trails that got thinner and thinner as even the trappers and goats stopped venturing up the steep cliffs. "There's… the lady Alanna said… to meet her…"

Karenna looked up at the mention of Alanna's name, but the maid caught her elbow with a warning look.

"He's lying." She said levelly.

"Lying?" The girl gasped, and then glared at the man when she realised exactly how stupid his story had been. Did he think she was dimwitted enough to believe that Alanna would leave her camp at such an important battle? She had even seen the distant glow of violet magic in the throng, casting shields that covered hundreds of men at a time. Of course Alanna wasn't here. She straightened herself up, using her most regal voice. "How dare you lie to me!"

"Horse gods protect me from nosy old hags." The soldier spat on the ground, and then he was suddenly moving, darting forwards with something shining in his hand. There was an odd sound, like water pouring through gravel. Karenna gasped as the hand on her arm constricted and twitched, turning white as the woman shuddered. Blood poured from the gaping wound in the old woman's neck.

"No!" She grabbed at the maid, and her stomach turned at the smell of coppery blood. She stared at the soldier in frozen terror. He was casually wiping his knife on his sleeve.

"I… I'll kill you!" She whispered, hand moving glacially. He glanced at her disdainfully.

"With what, mistress? A knitting needle?"

She gulped and raised it anyway. "I… don't… want…"

"Oh, calm down." He dragged the maid's corpse out of Karenna's grasp and threw the lifeless body down the side of the hill. She rolled down to the cliff edge, dropped out of sight, and then hit the rocks at the bottom with a sickening thud. Karenna's stomach turned, and she fell to her knees, retching and shaking.

"I'm here to take you home." The man sounded bored, as if nothing untoward had happened. "Your father sent me."

"You killed her!" Karenna couldn't look up, and the thought of her maid's choked cry made her heave again. I never found out her name…

"It's a war. Your father's war. People die. And now they'll think you fell off the cliff with her if they bother to look. They won't know you were a spy." The man sounded completely unconcerned, but a stronger note of disgust crept into his voice when he added. "She should have kept her mouth shut."

"You killed her." Karenna struggled to her feet, raising the needle again with hatred in her eyes. The man reached out, and she swiped at him. The point of the bone caught him across the wrist and he swore loudly, shaking the hot blood from his cuff.

She circled him, her eyes mad with fear. "I don't want to go with you! You can go to hell!"

"Bitch." He spat, licking blood from his wrist. With one easy movement he reached out and grabbed the needle, snapping it easily between two of his thick fingers. She whimpered and took a step backwards, away from him, but he moved like a snake, and the last thing she saw was his furious expression before his arm crashed into her head, and the world went dark.


Strange sounds echoed through the caves, and the small band of prisoners grouped a little closer together than they normally would. They weren't used to exploring these tunnels, and would have kept a wary eye out if there was any light. As it was, when they had split into smaller groups to search the tunnels they made sure that the ones with the best hearing were listening intently, acting as look-outs in a world without things to see.

"It's coming from over there…" Pebbles tugged the leader's sleeve in the right direction. "I've not heard a sound like that, not never."

"It sounds like… like fighting." Another hear-out whispered, "But not like the cave people. They don't have… metal, and wood, and… is that leather?"

"Soldiers," Numair breathed, and tugged at the leader's other sleeve. "Can we head towards them?"

"Best to stay away." The man said quickly, his breath a little shallow. "Don't want to get mixed up."

"We're already mixed up, idiot." Pebbles said, "Have you not looked at that pathetic bronze thing round your wrist lately?"

"I got mine for setting a bakery on fire." The man retorted. "Bakers do that. Not warriors."

"Bakers do it with ovens. You did it trying to hide your mistress's corpse." She returned. "Are you scared of people who might actually be able to fight back against your oh-so-dangerous choking spells?"

"Please," Numair cut across them, trying not to sound impatient as they moved forwards in their defensive huddle. "I think that's what we're looking for. If soldiers found a way in, then…"

"Well clearly…"

"Obviously, we…"

"It is indisputable that…"

"Forward!" Pebbles declared, her teeth grinning dimly in the gloom. Numair breathed a silent sigh of impatient relief and followed them.

The noises grew louder far before they found the cave, as the clash of weapons and the cries of the fighters echoed in the caves. A few times they took a wrong turn, only finding out they were going the wrong way by the listeners arguing over whether the noises had grown quieter. The caves twisted and turned, and Numair started to wonder how they would ever find their way back. The prisoners didn't seem too worried, but then they had nothing to return for. One part of their pit was much like another, although they didn't seem as comfortable in the darker cave-people territory as they had in their own section of the caves. Their mocking voices were quieter, and they seemed to tease each other more viciously as the light grew dimmer and dimmer.

Then, with a strange suddenness as they turned another hairpin corner, bright blue light lit up the tunnel. They blinked, rubbing their eyes, and muttering curse words under their breath. Numair realised that the prisoners hadn't seen daylight in a long time when they started talking about how it was brighter than they remembered.

"It's not daylight," he said, his voice apologetic as they looked wistful. "It's… well, the cave reflects back the light, and intensifies… er, makes it brighter."

The prisoners shrank back, and he realised they were uncomfortable out of the shadows. They stared at the floor, eyes narrowed, not meeting each other's eyes. The sounds of fighting were louder now, but they clearly didn't want to go into the brightly lit cave.

"We've found it," Pebbles said, her voice unusually cowed. "Let's… go back and… and tell the others. Get your wolf cub. Then we can talk about coming back."

"Something's happening!" Numair stared at her, and she looked away quickly. In the light her skin looked almost fish-white, and her eyes were oddly milky. He persisted, trying to be sympathetic but wanting to shake the lot of them. "You said you'd help!"

They blinked, and looked away, and he cursed broadly and pulled away from the group. A few hands grasped weakly after him, but when he glared back at them they weren't looking up. They inched closer to the wall and crouched there, waiting, in the shadows. He threw up his hands in silent frustration and left them. After a few steps he was running, seeing that the corridor went on for a long time with no sign of the fighters.

Then – there! The world was full of writhing shadows, and he skidded to a halt. The stone floor, already damp with icy water, was sticky with warm blood as the people fought. There were only tens of people, but it looked like hundreds, because for every man there were dozens of writhing shadows on the gemlike walls. Catching his breath, Numair saw that half of the fighters were the cave people, dressed in rags and flinching away from the brighter flashes of light.

The other men were wearing armour in Tortallan colours. Numair caught the edge of the wall in his shock. They must have broken through into the caves! He thought, his mind racing, and then he was running forward. He had seen a man he recognised – one who was shouting orders which echoed into meaningless sounds. Grabbing a short sword from one of the fallen men, he started fighting his way through the fray.
It was too thick. He was shoved back so many times that he started to grow dizzy, his clothes sticking to his skin as he fell into puddles of water and blood by turns. Each group was so focused on fighting the other that they barely noticed the strange man trying to break through their lines. He forced himself to turn away, clutching the sword in frozen fingers as he ran back down the tunnel towards the prisoners. They would fight the cave people, he knew. They'd told him stories: most of them had friends who had been dragged away by the creatures over the years. They'd also told him about the pieces they'd managed to recover. The amount of detail they described them with had made him feel faint, but he understood their vengeful hatred of the mad mages completely.

"Cave people! Fighting!" He yelled back at the prisoners, hearing the short words echoing down the corridor and hoping they would be clear enough to be understood. "Help!"

There was silence, just the echo of the fight behind him, and then he heard an odd whooping sound that was so piercing he thought the clash of metal stilled for a moment. Carolling out the shrillest battle-cry he'd ever heard, Pebbles came streaming down the passage in a blur of gleeful fury. The others followed close behind, some with expressions closer to nervousness, some with oddly determined grins on their faces.

"Just kill the cave people! Not the soldiers!" Numair shouted as he kept up with them. Pebbles tossed her head, but he couldn't tell if she was agreeing or dismissing him before they crashed around the corner and collided, full speed, with the throng of people. There was a general cry of shock from everyone. The cave people, Numair realised as he grimly dragged one back from a soldier by the grimy hair, made noises more like animals than humans. It was as if they genuinely couldn't understand words any more.

The creature groaned and snuffled as it was hurled into the fray, and then hissed between rotting brown teeth as it spun around to attack him. Numair raised the sword, and they both cried out in shock when the cave creature's violent advance threw it full-force onto the blade. The creature crackled out an odd cry and looked down at the sword for a moment, and then its eyes shuddered shut. Numair tried to pull the sword free, imagining the next blow coming and him not being able to defend himself. There was a more human cry, and he looked around to see the captain about to slit a prisoner's throat. Numair recognised the baker. To the soldiers, he realised, the prisoners were just more ragged cave people.

"No! They're on your side!" He shouted, darting forward without the sword and raising his hands in surrender. Around him, the cave people were either dead, dying or fleeing for their lives. The soldier looked at him narrowly, and the mage found himself babbling. "Captain Obrams, It's me! Numair – the… the hawk mage? Do you know me? I'm friends with Alanna…"

Obrams let go of the prisoner abruptly. The baker scowled and spat at him before slinking away. The soldier wiped the spittle off tersely, meeting Numair's eyes. "Yes, I know you, mage. Friends. That's not what she's been saying since you left."

"I can imagine." He breathed out heavily, only just realising that his heart was racing. "Did you break through?"

"Through? Oh, in to the caves? No." The man scowled and kicked at the fallen body of a cave person. "They broke out. We were waiting in the caves to set an ambush, and they dragged three of my men through this crack in the wall. Didn't even notice it was there, suddenly three of my best men were gone! When we followed them they pounced on us. Didn't realise there were so many of the vicious little bastards."

"Ambush?" Pebbles had fought like a demon, but she didn't sound at all out of breath. She strolled up to the soldier with her head tilted to one side and her hands on her hips. A knife dripped blood onto one of her bare feet, and her other hand held… Numair had to look away quickly… an ear. The captain scowled at her.

"We missed it. Got the message from Alanna just after we caught one of these blasted things chewing on one of the squire's feet. Why did no-one tell me there were cannibals in the mountain?"

Numair barely heard the question. He looked around at the chaos in the cave, and saw that many of the fallen men were wearing Tortallan livery. They were being picked over by his band of prisoners, who were casually taking weapons and boots as if they were in a tailor's store. Some had already pulled tunics over their ragged clothes, grinning at each other as they found biscuits or dried strips of meat in the soldiers' bags.

"Are they safe?" The captain was asking, his jaw a set line. Numair looked up, his eyes apologetic.

"Safe as houses." Pebbles inspected her ear, her eyes challenging him. "Safer than the cave people. We saved your lives. We don't like people owing us. Better you pay back now. The dead, they don't care what we take. We're even." She shrugged and turned away to search her own collection of corpses. Numair shuddered, and then tried to explain what was going on as quickly as possible to Obrams.

"I have an idea." He finished, his voice rapid. "You need more people – and powerful people, if you've already missed your ambush, right? They've already agreed to help me and Daine if we free them. Get your mages to take the chains off them in exchange for them fighting. You saw how they fight, they're fearless. And there are more of them further back in the caves, lots more, and they all want to get out of here. I'll send them this way. Orsille has an army of mages, it's true, but if they agree…" he couldn't stop a slow grin from creeping over his face, "If they agree, then we will, too."

"They're mad." The captain said, but his drawl had some interest in it. He stroked his beard absently, and then crooked a finger at Pebbles. "Come on, you. I know you're listening in. You have that glint in your eyes, ma'am. My cousin gets that look."

Pebbles winked flirtatiously at him, unable to stop a smirk from crossing her face. She stood up straight and looked around the room at the other prisoners. One by one, they looked up and nodded their agreement for her to be their spokesperson. She grinned widely and stuck her hands on her hips, strolling forward and throwing the ear away.

"Let's talk terms." She said.


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 59 of 69

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