Robert White

1155 Aberdeen Ave NE
Renton, WA. 98056-2828


'Ulth was a Predator for his band and times were lean. Somewhere out here was game, and lives depended on him finding it. He was old, for a Predator, but the band was running out of options. If he made a kill today, it would be days before the flesh was safe, and by then most of it might be gone. In that time many of the band would probably be dead.
Times were very lean.
But there was game out here somewhere.
He stalked the brush patiently, and silently. Looking. Peering. Maneuvering himself and his weapon with years of leavened experience, and with just a hair too much of desperation and urgency.
Every now and again he stopped to consider his weapon. It was more than a pointed stick but less than a spear. It would be generations before the spear was a real invention. Still, he considered it, knowing that there must be a way to make it better. It could be straighter. It could be longer. The point could use a little more time in the fire. There was nothing to be done about any of that now.
It was in one of those pauses when he heard the sound.
Something large, on the ground, trying to be quiet. Trying to do... something...
'Ulth went as fast as he dared. Faster even. There were other predators in these hills. They were just as hungry and far better armed with their claws and teeth.
By the time he topped the rise he knew there was prey up ahead. The deep grunts were a sure sign, but that usually was the sound he heard when the prey leapt in escape. It was a sound 'Ulth associated with a lost meal, but this one wasn't moving.
He peered over the rise and there it was. A hornbuck. Huge, fat, and inexplicably, miraculously tangled in a dead-fall.
'Ulth was filled with genuine gratitude. He didn't have the words, they didn't exist yet, but he whispered them anyway. "Your death will save my people. Your flesh will feed my family. It has to be this way. We will honor you. Celebrate you. You are a miracle." He just kept repeating it all in endless variations. Thoughtful grunts of thanks as he drew close.
The beast looked up at him and their eyes met and locked. It was tired and the words seemed to be understood, even in the absence of comprehension. Maybe the animal was tired from struggling in the tangle. Perhaps it was something else. It lay in the rocky snarl of branches as if waiting.
'Ulth plunged his pointed stick deep, in through the place where neck met shoulder, and into the body in search of the heart.
Story would hold that the kill had been instant and perfect. Story would lie. The stick was a crude weapon, the beast large, and 'Ulth had never had such an easy angle before. The pointed stick missed the heart and pain inspired the buck to free itself with its whole last effort. Moment by moment 'Ulth struggled to find the heart with his stick while the buck struggled for freedom.
The two happened at once. The dead-fall broke and the beast surged to its feet as 'Ulth wedged his stick, suddenly tangled in the shifting tree trunk, at what had to be the only available, but unarguably wrong angle. It was merest fortune that the lunging and the rolling and the struggling found something vital inside the massive chest and the beast fell.
What before had been genuine gratitude at the chance became overwhelming praise for life, fortune, and concepts that 'Ulth could barely conceive. And he bid the beast fare well in the dreaming that must be death.
'Ulth called out to his band. A loud and distinct call that would bring them to find the kill. By the time his band arrived he should be long gone.
Then it was time for the least pleasant part of the predatory task. 'Ulth found a heavy stone and stove-in the beast's chest to grudgingly break away a space in the ribs. Then he used his specially sharpened hand stone to saw through hide and muscle and sinew until he found the heart and cut it free.
'Ulth hated this part, but it was his duty, his job as Predator. The madness was his to endure. His to take in sacrifice for his people.
'Ulth bit into the heart, chewed, and swallowed along with a massive swallow of the blood and... nothing happened. Well, not exactly nothing. He felt the beast's spirit come upon him but only gently. There was no violence, no anger. The overwhelming orgasm of predatory lust and madness did not fill his mind to overflowing as it had every other time. As it always must for him, and every other Predator in the memory of the people.
This was a new thing.
He took another bite of the fleshy heart and there was nothing else. No echoes. No pain. No decay.
This was a new thing indeed.
Normally the band would have to leave the kill to the scavengers for a time. Letting the flesh turn, waiting till the spirit finally fled. They'd work to let the scavengers have the smallest portion while still taking enough of the spirit away with them. Days of watching the flesh dwindle as the band starved, that or risk the madness and eat, where those who ate of madness would become Predators themselves, or be lost to the madness forever.
But now there was this wholly new thing.
He ate more. Eating instead of feeding like a hunting animal. This new thing needed a new word. This wasn't Flesh, and it wasn't scrap, it was a new thing, and he christened it Meat. He took another chewy bite. He would teach this new word to the people.
Eventually the band arrived, ready to take up their hungry watch, and 'Ulth showed them the new thing. They were cautious at first, but 'Ulth ate his fill of Meat and got the bravest of the others to eat as well. When there was no madness and no struggle they all ate this Meat and none of the band died from hunger that moon.
And it was the good fortune of the people that 'Ulth was uncommonly smart. He pondered how this Meat came to be, how this new thing was different from dead Flesh.
When another Predator brought down prey again, 'Ulth checked a drop of its blood and found it to be dead Flesh. It's killer was off in the throws of his madness and it made 'Ulth think again on the miracle of Meat. About what was different and what was the same.
The next time 'Ulth took prey, he thanked it and told it what its life would mean to the people and bid it well in the dreaming that must be death before he took its life. And the miracle of Meat happened again.
It took time, but 'Ulth found he could even call the miracle of Meat from dead Flesh if he gave thanks and explanation and bid it well before the first bite was taken.
But the miracle of Meat was hard to explain. The people didn't yet have the words. So when the Predators went out and found prey, they would call for 'Ulth to make the miracle instead of following the way of madness.
This too was a new way and needed a new word, and 'Ulth called this the Hunt.
In time, freed from the curses of Flesh and buoyed each season by the miracle of Meat the band grew huge. The young grew taller and stronger than they ever had before and there was more food, and less worry from other bands and the predators that were not people.
But 'Ulth was deeply worried. With children and grandchildren and even great grandchildren around him he had found none that he could make fully understand the miracle. No other seemed to grasp what it was to bid away the curse of dead Flesh. When 'Ulth died, he knew, the miracle would be lost and the band would fall to madness and be destroyed.
Still, he was very smart, and he found a daring thought.
There was one Flesh that was forbidden. The dead Flesh of the people was known to bring a madness that none could survive, but what of living flesh?
One of his grandsons was brave enough to dare, and 'Ulth cut a strip of flesh from his arm and gave it for him to eat. And there was a sharing, and understanding of sorts between them for a few moments, but it faded to nothing in just a few hours. It was the right thing, but it was not enough. He could not keep his life if he expected to give his full understating to his grandson.
So he got together four handfuls of the people and took them aside. He made them learn as best they could the words of the miracle. Then he made them understand what he fully intended and they promised to do the forbidden with him and keep it secret. He was 'Ulth, the keeper of the miracle, and that was enough to make them obey.
On a calm night, away from the rest of the band, the two full hands of men, and two full hands of women, his grandsons and granddaughters in blood and by courtesy, met with 'Ulth in a clearing. He cut a long strip from his aged leg and divided it into equal parts for those there, and collected from each a small bit of flesh, and they all ate.
There was a oneness amongst them, and 'Ulth performed the miracle of Meat one last time. He bid himself to become Meat but didn't give his spirit away to the dreaming, he bid it stay and teach his children so they would know the way of the miracle, so they would be Hunters.
When he expired as he said he would, they ate of him, as they said they would, and the miracle of Meat was paled by the miracle of understanding that they shared.
That is how 'Ulth became the first god of civilization, even before there were words enough. That night was born the god of the Hunt, and somewhat by accident the god of funerary rights and of the dead. His true name was lost before the coming of the spear or the bow. As words were found and knowledge shared amongst bands which grew into clans then cities and kingdoms, the first god became one of several and, on occasion in some kingdoms, many. Different cultures gave him different names, and different stories, claiming him for their own. Some even forswore his godhood altogether. But the truth of the miracle of Meat and its necessity lived on, proven again and again as theology evolved into understanding.
And in one corner of the world, or another, through all the generations, as true Hunters grew old and prepared to die, a sacred and ancient right persisted unbroken; keeping the spirit of the first god, and uncounted generations of knowings, alive.

Chapter 1
Dreams of Summers Past

Vin was not yet a Hunter, Tam was not yet a Husband, and the trail they were on was assuredly not the Alhma pass. If something didn't change for them soon, they'd be dead. The boys were not children, but they were not yet men. Vin was entitled to call the spirit of fire from the heart of wood, and Tam could consecrate a roof or hearth as shelter for man and beast alike. But there was no wood and no roof here, just blowing snow and barren rock.
It had been two days since the caravan was attacked. They'd been forced to flee along the ridge. They'd lost their pursuit, if anybody had even seen them go, and they'd managed to lose themselves far more thoroughly.
There was no thirst, what with the snow, but that carried a danger of more cold and less thought. Vin was well trained enough to really understand that the colder they got the worse their decisions would get. Cold would make a man foolish long before thirst would drive him mad. This rocky place had nothing to burn. There might be something small, some old summer scrub, buried in the snow, but to stop and dig randomly in hopes of wisps of last years grass would be to give up and die. That would not be smart.
Tam followed Vin, but not silently. Though perhaps slightly out of his mind, he wasn't asking stupid questions. He wasn't making useless suggestions. He wasn't a child. But the cold had perhaps taken a corner of what he knew, and hidden it away. He was chanting to himself. A quiet and continuous loop of the consecration of shelter. At first he was doing it to drive out the misery, then the cold, then finally the tiny voice in the back of his head that said they were going to die very soon. The consecration wouldn't work out in the open, in the very definition of unsheltered, but it made him feel better.
Vin looked back at Tam for the hundredth, or thousandth time just to make sure he hadn't lost his companion, and discovered that he finally had. Tam was yelling something he couldn't hear over the wind, and splashing through the dry blowing snow, up the steep embankment on their left flank.
Vin yelled "No! Stop!" after him. Even his novice hunter's eye told him there was nothing to be had there. The choice was simple, keep doing the smart things he knew, or run off up there into stronger, colder wind, and die.
He couldn't afford to think long about it, he'd lose sight and bearing on Tam in just a moment, and standing still for moments more than that would mean surrender as well. He made pursuit.
It was harder to go up the hill than he expected. Vin envied whatever madness held Tam, that he could move through these conditions with that kind of abandon and not fall or flounder. When he caught up Tam was digging like a madman, yelling the sacred words of a Husband. Words secret to his training. Words Vin was never meant to hear. But such is madness, and soon they would be dead, so what the harm?
The snow was so hard, fine, and cold that it didn't want to pack and the wind was blowing as much into the hole as Tam seemed to be clearing out. If Vin was going to die, helping a sacred madness didn't seem to be the worst possible passing immediately available. He set to trying to keep the fresh snow from invading the pointless dig.
Tam plunged his hands deep into the snow, arched his head back, and shouted more words. Then Vin felt it, like a deep bass note or a warm wind, a shudder went through him and maybe the ground. Tam stopped chanting and resumed digging, but it seemed now that the snow fell away easily and the wind struggled to help him to clear the excess.
Tam finally revealed a crevice in the rock and yelled "Get in. Get in now!" at Vin.
This didn't make a lot of sense, but Vin shouted "uh, sure" over the wind and got down on all fours. The tiny space didn't look like anything that Vin could actually fit through, but from all fours and with a little slinking of the spine he managed to squeeze into the crack, only to find a much larger space beyond.
Tam was right behind him, pushing him onward until they were both inside. Tam said a few more words, with a lot less certainty, and then they huddled together for warmth. The protection from the wind and the blessing of Shelter combined to fortify them enough to make it almost safe enough to sleep.

* * *

Greywind was far beyond her prime. She had found no mate for four summers and while none had challenged her territory, it was only out of respect. The creatures had spurned her in the hunt and she had barely fed herself last summer. She was wise, and knew that she had spent far too much of herself in the dreaming. It was all she had left.
When she laid down for the winter she figured that she wouldn't see summer again except in the dreaming. There was little difference between the waking and the dreaming for her now anyway, except in the waking her joints hurt and the ground felt cold, and in the dreaming the prey was easy.
Then the dreaming turned strange. She knew what men were and she dreamed she had cubs that became men. She had always taught her cubs that men were dangerous but could be generous if you treated them well. There were times when she had hunted alongside men, but it was strange to have man-cubs. She wouldn't be there to teach them in their summers, so she tried to show them their lessons in dreams of summers past. Her cubs had an annoying tendency to fade when she walked those paths.
She roused to the waking when they suckled, knowing that they were drawing away her strength, but unwilling to deny them.
On one trip into summer she felt the strands of the waking fray and fall away. She turned back for her cubs but at first she could barely find them, so lightly did they dream. She waited and was rewarded as she felt them grow nearer. It would be hard to teach them only when they dreamed. Still, a mother doesn't abandon her cubs if she wants them to grow strong.

* * *

It took nearly two months for Vin and Tam to be found.
When the caravan hadn't reported in, the crafthalls and townsfolk went looking. They found the wrecked wagons and the bodies of the slain. Thief-takers and priests took over, tracking the living and the dead. The bandits were chased, with more than half captured, and the spirits of the dead were laid or banished as necessary. When the rolls were balanced there were two names unaccounted for.
That told the craftmasters that their charges had to be alive. Inquisitors examined the captured bandits before their executions, and learned that no captives had been taken. So hunters and seekers for the lost were sent into the fading winter.
The seekers found the boys and took their stories. They both told the truth, that they had found the cave. Tam had said the blessing of Shelter and then they had found roots to eat and small amounts of material to burn on the coldest nights. The story was completely true, except for the gaping omissions.
They never told anyone of finding the old Ice Cat in the back of their cave. Of being lost in the madness of the cold, and huddling with her for warmth. Of drinking her scant milk in their sleep, the milk that would have been for the hibernation-born kits the cat hadn't carried. Of the cat's death on the eighth day, or how they had eaten the meat and organs, and then hidden the body in shame.
All of that was sanak. It was sanak-al, a soul offense demanding purification, to drink unsanctified milk. It was sanak-el, a soul offense demanding banishment, to eat any Flesh that was not made Meat, or the Meat of any predator at all. By the time you added the part where the creature had died of unknown causes, and who knew what other particulars there were in this case, the whole thing was probably sanak-ol, a soul office demanding death, like eating the Flesh of man.
They'd conspired to keep it secret. The raw meat had tasted foul and greasy, but far less foul than the taste of certain death by starvation.
By the time they'd been rescued their seemingly uncanny feeling for the local terrain had led them to dig in the right places to find the roots to eat, and the scrub to burn.
The story didn't ring quite true, but it held no falshood. The boys were examined and deemed unharmed and untainted.
Over the next few years the incident was largely forgotten. Tam married, as expected and arranged, and had three children. Vin didn't marry, it wasn't something hunters did, but he found several mates amongst women in his craft and likely fathered several of their children. And nobody found the brother bond between the two to be surprising after what they'd been through.
By they time they were twenty-two, each was well known in their craft.
Vin was famous for being able to track any beast anywhere. Among the hunters it was more than that. They whispered amongst themselves. His seniors talked secretly about how easily his kills could be bid into the dreaming. His peers talked about how well he lead his teams. His juniors passed awed whispers when he appeared and vanished seemingly at will, invariably showing up when the least mistake or mischief was about. Dependable, unarguably effective, and a good person. Everyone was sure Vin was on his way to becoming a Master Hunter.
Tam's marriage was to a woman of higher station, but it was a good marriage, with mutual respect which quickly became love before even their first child. His wife never thought it strange when sometimes, in the midst of passion, he would ask her "do you want a child?" It became almost a secret ritual between them. That each of their children came exactly when they were wanted seemed no miracle. He was, after all, a trained Husband who's calling was the conservation of lands and animals. That sometimes Tam would leave in the middle of the night was no news. As often as not he would show up at a local farm before the farmer knew that there was any trouble. It was to be expected that on occasion there would be traces of blood in his clothes when he returned home.
So it went for nine years.
Nobody ever seriously thought the unthinkable. Nobody wanted to see that these two fine boys, grown into increasingly important men, were more than unusually talented.
Nobody knew that every so often, one or both would find themselves in the wild, doing the unthinkable, eating unsanctified kills. If anybody knew, they would certainly suffer sanak. But nobody would understand. This was something that instinct demanded of them. This wasn't the crime of dead Flesh. This secret hunt was something else. These were true kills, animal to animal, consecrated through the dreaming.
Just as Mother Greywind taught them.

Chapter 2
Strangers in the Valley

Tam stood in the noonday sun, leaning on his shovel, drifting gently across the surface of the dreaming. An adolescent farm cat with big tufted ears and a rediculously fluffy tail, stalked the unkempt field, pregnant and hungry. Tam sent her an image of a mole scurrying, warm and buttery, beneath the tiny mound to her right.
"What's on your mind?" Athon, the senior Husband for the east valley had walked up on Tam. Not that Tam didn't sense him coming through the dreaming, nor would ever dare tell him he was relishing in the imminent drama out in the field.
"I was just thinking that I'd recommend planting Priest Root here."
"That's a risky thought. You just trying to give the new-wed a rich start?" Priest Root was the single most valuable crop in the valley and it sucked the life from the soil, so it had to be marshaled very carefully. Giving the crop to a young couple, as wed-gift, was not sound judgment.
Tam gave him a no-nonsense look. "The hunters say there's no Night Fox in these hills this year. These fields are going to be ankle deep in moles." It went without saying that in turn there would no Kappa grubs to worry the root if the moles were there to eat them all.
"What about Enoch's fields? They are looking choice."
"He's been fertilizing from the slaughterhouse leavings. No moles. Lots of weevils. He's not gonna be growing anything but beans, garlic, and onion this season, least not if he's smart." It was somewhat forgone that he was not.
Athon made a noise of general assent at the assessments.
"So what brings you out here?" Tam asked, always to the point.
"Eh, Camien says his land is going bad out on the east end." Which was true enough, Camien had been pulling at that saw for weeks. Athon was out to check the new homestead, and probably all the husbandry work happening all along Lowridge this week. Athon was an exceptional leader so he didn't have to do much more than wander about and offer a nudge here and there.
They stood about and took in the land. It looked lazy and vague, but it was a few moments of real effort. A task that was almost, but not completely, unlike the dreaming. This was like looking down, or grabbing hold. They strummed the ley and listened to the harmonies the land returned though their bare feet.
"That'll do." Athon paused a moment, looking about. "Priest Root eh? Not a bad idea." Then he started walking further up the road looking thoughtfully at the earth.
In the field, the young cat had her mole. She strutted happily, mouth full of warm goodness, head and tail fiercely erect. Tam smiled at the ridiculous little beast as she scampered off to her barn.
Tam had missed the drama, the digging, the scraping, and the dieing, but it was just as well. The ley was still astir and there was no point in wasting the effect. He walked out into the field and prodded at the cat's tiny excavation with his feet, his mind's eye fixedly blind to the dreaming. The tiny natural opening in the earth, fresh dug and untainted, was an opportunity. Tam plucked at the thrumming ley and watched as the wave spread out in all directions.
In moments he could feel the wave break against the paddock, barn, and house. A bit later the boundary of the of the consecrations on the field came back along with the sizzling feeling as the old farm road drank and dissipated the energy. He pawed through the feelings looking for hot spots and blank areas. It was nearly impossible to feel individual bugs and worms, but if there were any places they were congregating or avoiding he would sense it, and then he'd need to find out why.
There was a bright glare in his mind's eye. His wife Jemir was busy laying her own bindings and wards on the kitchen of the new farmstead. She was a Master Cook and her bindings would guard against taint and disease even with the myriad and fascinating ways an average person, let alone a child, could find to contaminate a kitchen. Jemir's activity was like a blinding light in the corner of his eye, but he patiently endured it. With acceptance any distraction becomes simple fact, like a crick in your elbow while you are walking somewhere.
With the distractions sorted out, Tam reached out to the whole farm, and then along the road to the neighboring farms. The road throbbed slowly and potently, like a small artery in something large and sleeping. Tam could feel maybe six or seven other nearby lots and a good bit of the untenanted lands in between. A true master would be able to reach holdings much further away, but his unique personal perspectives, born of the dreaming, gave him better feeling for the ley over the untenanted lands than just about anybody.
Tam stroked the ley again and again, following where it led without thinking. Here was someplace soft and marshy that didn't belong. There was a unaccustomed new flow of water that spoke of undesirable runoff feeding that place. Small thing to slightly larger thing, a trail of subtle changes that lead to a large burnt spot. It looked like a lightning strike set a small field ablaze in the last storm. No big deal, but worth watching.
Tam stopped thinking like a Husband and noticed that he'd gone a far distance up into the untenanted lands. He smirked to himself and then let the dreaming come upon him. This wasn't quite wild land, where it was almost hard to avoid the dreaming, but nobody had lived out here for a several generations and so the dream was strong. He could see the wild foothills and they echoed and shimmered with a rich past.
Tam could see a trail of Vin woven through the hills and he touched it to find his present time.
"Brother! How are you?" Vin replied from the early morning.
"Well. How goes the hunt?"
The sending was a jumble of things done and places seen, "The land is rich, the hunt easy, but come see."
Tam stepped from his present time to Vin's and looked. They were in a rocky crevice in early morning, watching something pass. The dogs and horses, strongly domesticated, flickered at the edge of perception. The men on horseback were like wraiths glimpsed by lightning, they left no past and cast no future imprint in the dream. Holding to their exacting now was nearly impossible. Tam couldn't really see the riders. Vin could, since he was actually there in his now, but it was enough to get the message.
"Who comes?"
"Strangers." No other answer was possible. Vin and Tam could only talk in detail through the dreaming about people they both knew. Then again a surprising amount of information came with the thought. Vin must have been watching them for a while. There was a sense of authority and restrained aggression. Kings men, or soldiers. Important people, in their own minds anyway.
"I should go home."
"Good, I will greet them soon."
Waking, Tam guessed their shared dreaming was a good five hours old, and he started walking purposefully towards town.
Tam's mood and urgency spread silently as he came, as such things are wont to do in small communities, and by the time he reached the center of town almost everyone knew something was up.
The center of town was Kever's Dry Goods. A provincial trading post with a sitting area by the wood stove, and something like a bar. Jamir and her apprentice ran a public kitchen there that served bachelors, visitors, the displaced, and the like. Nearby there was a smithy, a school, and a meeting hall with attendant green, but Kever's was definitely the center. More got decided day to day around the stove or the bar than ever saw light in the meeting hall. So it was Kever's where a small selection of certain people gathered even before a boy came running, yelling about horses coming from the south east.

* * *

Inquisitor Sammas worried about Edham Valley, but then again he worried about everything. It was his job to worry. If any place had a heartland then Edham Valley was the heartland of Hedrain. Vast in size, easy to take, impossible to hold. In twelve hundred years no kingdom or polity had been able to hold any part of Hedrain for long if it couldn't make peace with Edham. The valley was massive, and full of intractably forthright and good natured people. Every year, along side prodigious amounts of food and fur, it disgorged a fresh crop of young people out to see and do. And it inhaled a smaller breath of prodigal wanderers returned with their young families or retirement bonuses. Edham existed as a bottomless wealth that could support any kingdom, and all it demanded in return was to be left alone.
Rulers had tried to bring Edham to heel, marching in armies to seize the land. That was a good way to lose an army. Some armies had been befriended and usurped by the fine people and good life, other times the people had simply melted away into the mountains and the Great Swamp. But three times, three terrible legendary times, there had been slaughter. Inexplicably, and without any seeming organization or identifiable leadership, the people of the valley had simply, completely, and mercilessly rejected the occupiers with a crushing defeat-in-detail that left nothing of the invaders but rumor.
So Sammas worried, over the valley, over his mission, and over how his own men would react. Two of his men were from the valley, and Sammas watched them obliquely. They were from the west valley, but still something changed about their demeanor as they came down the eastern pass. From the moment of that subtle change Sammas knew, or at least had to assume, they were being watched.
As Sammas and his twenty-odd men passed from the rocky defile of the pass proper three people emerged from the tree-line just down slope. They were hunters, plain as day, and while they clearly intended to greet them, they showed no signs of concern over their approach. Of the three, two were normal for the breed, but the third looked a wild man. Not hunched nor tentative nor unwashed, but completely in his element here in the mountains.
As they reached a comfortable distance Sammas reined in. He waited for the others to speak for a count, then two. For Sammas this was a power play, a reflex, then he realized his mistake. These hunters could wait an eternity in natural silence. There was no guile in their pause. He'd have to shake off the politics of home to be effective here.
"Greetings, I am Inquisitor Marril Sammas."
"Well met Inquisitor, the lands of Edham welcome you." It was surprising when the wild-man spoke. It was the correct formal greeting and there was no undertone of fear or reservation.
Sammas held to the formal "I seek a council."
"We haven't sat a full council in, well, forever." The change in demeanor at the pause was marked. Like Sammas had asked him for something pointless, like a dozen weasels in a sack. "I could take you to Kever's."
"Lead On." Sammas had no idea what that actually meant, but it was a start.
The wild man nodded to his companions, who turned back to the trees. Then he flipped his head to say follow me, turned down the road, and started walking.
Sammas and his men followed after a beat. Sammas recognized another lost opportunity as there would be no more talk for a while. The wild man set a brisk pace but still made it seem casual, like he was holding himself back.
At midday, as if on schedule, they reached a well-kept clearing. The two other hunters were there, along with a Cook finishing a stew and a fresh bale and water for the horses. It was spooky. The stew had to have been started more than two hours past and the road was mostly straight, but the hunters had beaten them the distance well enough to have got all this going.
The clearing itself was something of a trap. Hospitality was offered and had to be observed. There'd be no maintaining discipline or separation between his men and the hunters without giving offense. Whatever the men thought they knew would likely be all over the valley before his mission got anywhere. There was nothing to be done about any of this.
Sammas looked at his sergeant and casually said "Have them at it."
The sergeant wheeled his mount, and barked "Detail! And halt!" which brought the the somewhat disordered trudging of the men into sharp military order in the breadth of an odd shuffled step, followed by a precision two-step full halt. The sergeant glowered for a moment, maybe just for form's sake, then barked "Fall out!"
The two west valley men each grabbed a friend or three and all but dragged them to the chow line. Every detail of the gesture looked to Sammas like men taking their buddies home to meet family. The later of the two turned back and whistled for the rest of the troop and waved them in. Within moments the entire unmounted contingent was putting in for grub. It didn't take a minute for Sammas to see the first signs of local empathy take root in his men. The locals seemed to genuinely offer their welcome in a manner so real as to be subversive.
Sammas looked at his Sargent, a grizzled character to be sure, and could see professional appraisal at war with something else within the man. The Sargent looked him in the eye, and Sammas flipped one hand and said "that means everyone".
Within a half hour the clearing was practically a camp. The horses were picketed and the eight calvary men were eating with the foot-soldiers. Sammas held himself back a little, trying to get a read on the place, while his aide shadowed him like a spy. But they both had a hot bowl.
Sammas hadn't seen the wild man leave, but he saw him return. Before he had a chance to really wonder at the going, or the coming back, he was treated to something of a shock. The 'wild man' slipped a hand through his hair, stripping away some strange headgear, and then swung off his outer jacket, and wiped his hands and face with a warm cloth from the hearth, transforming himself into a clean-cut young man as if by magic. He handed his bow and garments off to another young man, stopped to check in with the Cook, shared a momentary intimacy with one of the women, then headed directly towards Sammas.
"Well met again, Inquisitor. Pardon the delay. I wanted to check on some pesky locals."
"Nah, a local troupe of Merath has been getting into everything up this way. Screaming from the trees and throwing, eh, stuff down on anything that moves. They're a good way off north just now. We should be down out of their range before they work back. So no trouble. What brings you to Edham?"
Sammas gave him a look that he hoped was slightly reproachful without being out-caste or insulting. "Ah, you are?"
He smiled after a moment and extended a hand "Oh... My failing... I'm Journeyman Hunter Ahvinahm, everyone calls me Vin."
Sammas took the offered hand gladly. The short name was downright neighborly. In the local custom, you didn't want to hear a full name. Anybody from Edham gives you his name, line, clan, and lands he's calling you out and means to put steel through some part of you. The informality let one knot ease from his back a touch.
"I've got the rolls and whatnot. Some crafthall packets. Old accounts. That sort of thing."
Vin grinned. "Hrm, Craft Master and Taxman business. Better you than me, I say. You want anything sent ahead?"
"No need, no hurry." Sammas replied casually. The fact that rumor would precede them was a given.
"Well you need anything seen to, you let me know." Vin said by way of parting, took a quick look about, and then jumped onto the end of the chow line.
Sammas' assistant handed him a packet that he didn't need to open. Prentice Hunter Ahvinahm Ferris Longridge etcetera featured prominently in the accounts within.
In the chow line Vin was careful not to turn or look around as a faint and distant rumble of warning rose unbidden from the dreaming.

Chapter 3
Calls to Account

Old Lam huddled by the wood stove like it was cold out because at his age it was. Kiera was working the bar. Athon was taking a pint. With a Master each of Censor, Prophet, and Husband they had master representatives from each sacred realm, and of course with two prominent citizens in the form of Kever and Maes, they were one declaration of order away from sitting a lesser council.
To Sammas everything looked normal enough, mostly because Lam, Keira, Maes and Kever were exactly where they always were, and the two fistfuls of gawkers that had shown up to see the strangers treated the four as the fixtures they were. Dawn to late-night it was rare indeed to find Kever's ever more than one master short of a lesser council. Not that one was ever called officially. Things in these parts had a way of taking care of themselves when rational folk were left to see to their own business.
When Sammas entered, Maes and Kiera were discussing when it might be best to get a dozen or so diggers together to help patch the levy between the upper and lower bog. Sammas stopped to listen, his suspicious nature searching in vain for signs that their unconcern rang false. Edham was already getting on Sammas' last nerve. Well-honed professional paranoia can be stressful when nobody seems to be hiding anything.
Kever dug himself out of the back. He'd been shifting stock for weeks in preparation for the first caravans of spring. He already knew these visitors were not here for trade, but new business can come from any quarter.
He peeled his gloves off as he came and offered his hand, "Keversain Omec, Family Raedcairn, Clan L'wellan; First of the Trade Guild. Welcome to my establishment. What can I help you with?"
The man didn't look like he was about to draw steel to Sammas. It took a second to register that the trader was using down country manners to make him feel welcome. He paused a moment to choose between the upcountry greeting he'd been practicing and a full formal introduction. He took the proffered hand "Sammas, Inquisitor for the Court. I could use lodgings and a working room with a desk."
"Not heading in deeper then?"
"Not right off. I'm hoping to do as little traveling as possible. Best if I can get my business to come to me."
Kever gave him a shrug, "Can't hurt to ask I suppose."
After a quick mental survey of options Kever said "I've got several trading rooms in the back, or Ranya could open up the hall and find you some place there. Lets have a look here first."
Sammas picked a trading room. Any post of any size needs places for private business, and some of the rooms had private doors to the outside. He figured that no comings or goings went unnoticed around here, but it was still nice to have a direct route out. There was enough space in the largest room to seat a dozen people. He chose the second largest, mostly out of political reflex.
Within moments of selecting the room, Sammas' aide had men hustling in files, official instruments, and all manner of whatnot. Sammas watched the room's transformation with growing disease. This normal dressing didn't work here. Like the room was calling him a liar and in itself refused to be transformed. Finally he realized that his professional instincts were trying to make themselves understood.
"Stop. Put everything but the files back on the wain. And throw a tarp over the files."
Everything else didn't actually go back onto the wagon. Sammas kept a few functional pieces, the desk set with its seals and inks, the worn rack where he slung his coat and weapons, one at a time he held back or specifically asked for the items that had genuine purpose. It was weird to be putting together an appearance by putting away all the things he normally put together to make an appearance. No matter how he rearranged things something in the arrangement felt a little off.
Eventually, Sammas just put things square and called it good. The nagging feeling of wrongness wouldn't quite go away. It had been a long time since he last felt 'new place jitters' but there wasn't a lot to be done aside from trying to force himself to relax.
Once things were as settled as seemed likely Sammas sent everybody away and started in on an innocuous packet of papers.
That was like a cue, and Kever showed up right on it, carrying a small tray. Sammas stood up and Kever said, "nah, keep sit'n", put the tray down on the desk, and pulled up one of the other chairs.
The tray was old, and worn. On it there was a small loaf of bread, a shallow bowl, a smaller bowl of salt, a little phial, two plain cups, and a small pitcher of something.
Kever managed look comfortable in the hard chars, which wasn't too odd since they were his. "So what's your business here?" he asked casually. He was already poring out some oil into the shallow bowl.
Internally Sammas started to snark some casual comment about having already had this discussion when he saw Kever sprinkle some salt into the oil. With the tiniest start he realized that he was in the midst of a guesting ritual. Did people even still do that? The casual opening had almost gotten past him, so he answered informally but correctly. "Looking for truths that might be hidden. It's what I do."
Kever considered the statement while he pored out some sweet mead into each cup. He gestured and Sammas took his choice. The cup was simple and very old. If what he suspected was actually so, the wood for this service was cut from the same log as some key element of the outpost; a king post or central joist somewhere, and dated back to the laying of the original hearth.
Kever finally said "An important calling, an welcome in my place" with very real consideration. Then he tore the loaf, keeping half, and dipping it into the salted oil.
Sammas took the other half, and dipped it in the oil as well. As he did so he felt a pressure lift. Technically the ritual was over as soon as cup, bread, and salt had been offered and accepted. There was no actual need to eat.
Kever sat and slowly ate his piece of bread, and so Sammas did as well. It was soft, and warm, and hearty. The mead was light and sweet. Even the salted oil had a deep earthy flavor that didn't overwhelm.
"So these truths... anything serious?" Kever asked, as he leaned forward and offered more mead with a gesture.
"I doubt it. Mostly politics and old business so far as I can tell."
"We don't have much use for politics in these parts so I don't know how we can help you there. For the `old business' I'd see ya talk to Old Lam, he's known everyone's business long as I can remember." Kever laughed.
Sammas laughed as well, in these smaller towns there was always someone like that to be found. "Who is Old Lam?" Sammas had marked the name and the man when he'd arrived, but knowing which person was which wasn't always the same as knowing who was whom.
"He's our Censor for the whole east valley here down to Willow Brooke. Time was he sat for the whole of the east from Two Peaks all the way to The Swamp. Came out here to retire something like thirty years ago. But don't be fooled. What he knows the crafhall knows."
The Swamp was what separated east from west in the valley. It was practically its own region. The valley was rich with rivers and streams from the surrounding mountains. The swamp was hectare beyond hectare of bottom land, marsh, and bog. On its southern edge it opened into a great lake, which finally drained by dint of a thousand-meter fall into the Hedrain lowlands. The Thunder Gorges, filled endlessly with the echos of the falls, formed the headwater of the Tirine River which irrigated the great farmlands that fed most of Hedrain.
If Old Lam had sat from peaks to swamp he'd controlled fully half of Edham for the Censors. Clearly a Master in his craft. The question of why he retired to a border town was probably worth knowing. It could be a strong indicator of the valley's political climate.

* * *

Old Lam was old. He was also sharp. Not `sharp as a tack' as in `not as senile as you'd first think' but sharp the way a young man would think combined with a depth of wisdom that only comes with a lot of experience. He seemed frail. He was frail by many standards. That too was deceptive. He'd apparently lost all his least necessary bits first. What was left was painfully lean sinew, frought with age, supporting a intellect to be reconned with.
Sammas had nearly fallen for the Old part of Lam before he spotted the living craft Mastery of a Guardian of the Mind.
Lam had almost glittered with aproval when Sammas finally realized who he was dealing with.
It'd taken a good bit of chit-chat and formalities for the two to take the measure of one another. It was only after that point that the conversation at wood stove in the sitting area really got to things of import.
Old Lam opened the real conversation. "So crafthall business, politics, taxes, and accounts, yet you stop here and set up shop instead of heading down to Black Oak, or Mires Gate?"
That had, of course, been the most ovbious problem with stopping this close to the pass while claiming general business. Why wouldn't he head to a financial or political center with his aleged business? "There have been a lot of strange things happening in the Northren Reach and the Razors. Since all the raids on Seven Vales and Alhma started getting serious, well, a lot of things are not adding up when they make their way back from the north."
Old Lam made an uh-hua noise and then began the considerable effort to rise. "It goes back further than that" he said enigmatically and started for the door. At first Sammas was thinking that the conversation had ended abrubptly for some reason, but then Old Lam continued talking as he headed for the door. "Before the Northren Polity failed, there were some troubling irregularities."
Sammas jumped up to join Lam. The Northren Polity? That was practically ancient history. Sammas' aide would probably know the the relevant details but this wasn't supposed to be the kind of conversation he would need his aide for when he'd planed it "That was what, thirty-five years ago?"
"Thirty eight." Sammas got the door for the old man and stood ready to help him down from the trading post's porch. Old Lam was too used to the descent and didn't need the help. They were halfway from the trading post to the meeting hall before Sammas began to wonder how he'd fallen into a supplicant and helper sub-text in their interraction. But by then the old Censor and piqued his interest too much for it to matter.
"But go back further. Near eighty years now. Trade with the Polity started changing. Balance of goods. Pricing. Hagling. The little things. It all started going off. Briggandry was enevitable after the collapse. The brigands themselves are more worrying."
Sammas suddenly had no idea where this conversation was really headed. They themselves were on a B-line for the meeting hall. But the conversation was getting further afield than anything in Sammas' packets. Maybe the old man was too old after all, or perhaps he'd been put to pasture for being marginal. Sammas just decided to follow along to see whether the old man was really a source or not.
The hall, holding to no particular craft, was normally vacant. Someone kept it clean and ready. Nothing was dusty and everything was well maintained. It seemed a little over-large for the community in general. When Sammas looked about aprasingly, Old Lam said "Trade disputes. Sometimes amongst several parties" and Sammas confidance in the old man was bolstered. Sure. At the last outpost before the mouth of the east-valley pass they were likely to see issues arise involving any number of caravans and individuals. You'd need a big room. More importantly the old man knew the question without it even being asked.
Behind the main room was another large room full of records. The building hadn't looked this big from the outside. And this room had been cut down into the earth and went back under the main hall meeting area. The wrought-iron spiral staircase seemed almost a cruel prank on the old man, but he assayed it with aplomb.
Sammas glanced at some of the shelf labels as Old Lam lead him through the stacks. The records here probably went back two hundred years or more. They made several stops along the way where Lam would select a scroll seemingly at random and pass it to Sammas. Scrolls, not bound books. The whole thing was odd.
They reached a warm study room in the back and Old Lam closed the door. That the room was kept warm and well lit was a sign in and of itself.
"Set them there," Old Lam pointed to a strange stove arrangement, "and give them a few moments to warm." Then he sat near the same stove and they waited a bit as a slightly spicy note to the air began to strengthen.
Old Lam began unrolling scrolls. Sammas picked one up at random and examined it, fingering the slightly grainy paper.
"Caeveras fiber and hemp rag. Very alkaline and resistant to moisture and mildew. Much easier to work with when its slightly warm, stores forever if tightly wound about Caeveras stalk."
Sammas was amazed again at the answers to an unasked questions.
"These are unaffiliated traders" Lam said while touching the thickest scroll. "Then these two are affiliated with minor trading houses. And this is for South Forks, the southern most member of the Polity. And finally an index."
Lam quickly rolled back through the scrolls to a date about sixty years prior. There were comodities counts and prices along with a column of strange glyps that almost looked decorative. The `index' was fascinating. It was a series of numbers labeled things like price, yield and demand for each of Edham, Hedrain, and the Polity, though what all was yielded, demanded, or priced was not clearly mentioned.
The sales records were detailed by commodities and goods. Sammas wondered that anybody kept these kinds of records. Let alone here in the midst of seeming nowhere.
A quick run down ten or so years showed a reasonable variability and and consistency of accounts. Then at about fifty eight years ago there were was a strange turn. Fur and vegtables heading north stayed the same, but meat and meat animals started falling off. And the amount paid for everything going north started to go up. But for Edham and Hedrain the numbers were pretty consistent. The decorative glyphs started changing as well, dwindling. Finally by forty years ago everything headed for the Polity was totally out of wack and the decorative glyphs were effectively gone.
Sammas finally looke up puzzled. "What are these exactly" pointing at the glyphs.
"Haggling score. An assessment of how hard it was to agree on a price. How long it took."
Clever that. If you didn't know what the column meant you couldn't get upset about it. Pure visual information hidden in plain sight.
"So they stopped haggling? They stopped buying meat? And they started paying premium prices?"
"Yes. Exactly. And the smaller, unaffiliated traders started failing first. Like they lost interest in being good traders."
One of the last two scrolls came out now. Criminal activity comming from the passes north. Stable at first, then they start to rise even as the trading irregularities begin to build. At first it was robberies and food thefts, all sorts of crimes of necessity. Then it slowly transforms to crimes of debasement. Unnecessary violence, inhumane treatment, mysterious disappearances leading to grotesque recoveries.
Finally the last scroll. Sammas instantly recognized the seal of the Inquisition. Old Lam rolled it to its very start, about a hundred years ago. Dates, and names. At first one every few years. Then one a year. Then two. Then one a month or so. Then small groups at alarming frequency. Incidences of sanak. And no inqusition gone wild here; the sigels for the presiding Inqusitors varried, as did the presiding Judges when present. There were notations about rotations and investigations inside the Inqusition itself from Apprentice to Master.
Sammas took a moment to digest the ideas and then sat back, wanting to hear someone else say it. "So..."
And Old Lam came out and said it "The Guardians of the Polity failed."
There was a heavy silence. Then Old Lam took up a scroll from a cubby. It was thick like the first. He handed it to Sammas and said "Unaligned traders from Hedrain."
Sammas started rolling it back but Old Lam said "don't go too far."
Sammas took a look at the dates. It was about sixteen years back. He rolled the index forward to match then started down the columns heading to present day. Meat and meat animal purchases falling off. Prices rising. Bartering steadly falling lax...
Sammas looked up puzzled.
Old Lam looked grave and said "you need to speak to the Bog."

Chapter 4
Devils within Details

Sammas watched the Bog-Men come up the road in the evening dusk. He was used to seeing such men shunned since they handled refuse, waste, and the dead. In his mind they were supposed to be hunched and distant people ostracized by all but their own. Here they were welcomed and vibrant members of the community. A small bevy youngsters ran to meet them and help them rinse down their wading gear and get them stripped to their skivvies.
The other thing that was different, there was no stench. There was definitely a smell of peat and earthy decay, but it was a natural note to the profession not a miasma. These were generally happy people with a seeming satisfaction of their important role in the local community. Tired, sure, but smiling and appreciative of the help being offered by the youngsters.
The true oddity finally set home in Sammas' mind. The adolescent contingent being so helpful were actually competing with one another to be helpful. They were looking to be called to apprentice. For the Bog. As if it were a choice position. Then again he'd seen some of these same younglings being helpful or at least attentively under-foot at other times in other professional capacities around town.
Finally one man stood out in the pattern. He had an odd writing arrangement, one of those Caeveras-paper scrolls bound along a board. He was talking to the men coming off the bog and directing the whole scene. Getting everybody rinsed, stripped, showered, and, apparently, medically checked; all while the kids sorted and cleaned gear and tools.
As things got more sorted and calmed, Sammas approached the manager. He waited a moment to get the man's attention.
"There's a draft." His first words were a surprise.
"What?" Sammas was confused.
"You were wondering about the kids. There's a draft come springtime. Kid wants his choice of apprenticeships, he's gotta show himself in a lot of ways. Bog ain't top choice, not bottom neither, but Craft, Clan and Calling all share notes on the ups and the laggards. We got a lot of kids to sort every year. Specially if they want to go down-slope to the Halls."
It was getting odd, the way these people seemed to know what he was going to ask all the time.
"Same questions. Every stranger. Every time. Not that hard to guess what's on yer minds when we watch your eyes."
Okay, that was just too creepy.
"So what can I actually do for you mister Inquisitor?"
"Old Lam sent me..."
The foreman cut him off. "He didn't send you to me, you wanna be seeing Iliese," then he nodded to a kid who went running.
Apparently everybody knew everybody's business around here.
"And what will Iliese tell me that you cannot?"
"I just run the Bog, its her that sings with the dead."
Singing with the dead. That was an old wives tale. The old saying held that the bog knows everyone's secretes in time, which Sammas always figured was just a platitude about death being the final equality between men. Platitudes being what they were, the old wives said that the dead wouldn't talk, but they could sing.

* * *

To say the old woman had 'haunted eyes' would have been a terrible pun. It would also have been the opposite of the truth. And perhaps she wasn't terribly old as well. She held a weathered late middle-age perhaps. With deep brown eyes that knew too much, but found what they knew endlessly amusing, though nothing near weightless.
She smiled and held out a hand "ah, the Inqusition comes, chasing the wrong prey to start, no doubt."
"Eh, yea..." What do you say to that? "Old Lam sent me."
"And good that he did. I don't suppose he told you why?"
"Not so much, now that you mention it."
Iliese waved for Sammas to follow and said "That's Old Lam for you. You need to meet some dead fellas."
Sammas didn't say `right' in that long, drawn out `you must be balmy way' that he really wanted to. "So that really works, the dead will sing to you?"
Iliese gestured to a waiting rack of clean bog gear and then started loading into her own. The implication was obvious and there was likely nothing else to be done but go along with the whole thing. Sammas was starting to think that there was some sort of joke being played here. But if it was a joke it was being played in deadly earnest.
"That's close enough to the truth of it, though its more singing with the dead, or to them, than them singing to me. You'll see for yourself come midnight."
And so it was. Iliese mixed some tart smelling stuff in a glass retort of some kind, then hefted it along with a small case and led Sammas out into the Bog. The few times he'd gone to such places before it was a stinking morass of sucking mud and decay. This bog was rolling and vast, but it didn't smell of trash, it was the terribly intense but identifiable tang of peat and churning vegetation. There were places where it was spongy and wet, but they never seemed to be on anything less than firm footing.
After a while they stopped on a tiny dry rise.
"All day," Iliese intoned without preamble, "the sun shines down. It sings a song of so many notes and such intensity that it drowns out the spirits and forces them to hide. People feel safe, washed in the light and the sound they cannot hear, because it holds everything at a distance. But in the night, when the earth beneath their feat casts its shadow up into the sky, the spirits can extend their reach out of our bodies, and the ground, and even the past. Only at night, or in the deep underground, can the dead be heard. The daylight is never haunted."
Sounded very mystical. Very arcane. It sounded like the hokum that was used to swindle the gullible. "So what happens here at night?"
"Mostly nothing, not by itself. The dead have no motive, no life to force themselves out of their place. The soul is gone when the body dies. Least-ways it usually is. But the spirit remains. The echo of a soul's whole lifetime, a memory with no breath of life in it at all, can linger. A strong soul can leave many spirits. Always one within the body, but sometimes one within a place, or one that follows a living person."
That wasn't anything Sammas had ever heard before. A strange piece of lore. It sounded a little too tidy, but whatever. "So you are going to call up one of these spirits? And then tell me what it says?" That was how these things usually worked.
"Not as such, no. I brought you here to see, not to gossip. Just you wait."
And that's what they did. They waited. For hours. Sammas even dozed briefly. The creepy mood was set. The dark played it tricks. And Sammas grew bored.
Then, in the still cold darkness, long after the chemical lantern had grown dim enough to be nothing but a mote in the night that might well have only been his memory of the light, something changed.
Iliese was humming to herself. It was almost hypnotic. Almost primal. Almost tuneless. But it held Sammas attention. Perhaps it truly was hypnotic.
Then there was the feeling of not being alone. Of being observed. Passionlessly but pervasively there was a scratching at his awareness. Iliese might as well have been absent, she seemed lost in her own tune, distant but solid.
Then the lights came. Like moonlight shimmering on water, there were shapes of light. But there was no moon tonight, and the water was beneath the peat, and the shimmering bits were in every direction. One shimmer was within arms reach and Sammas reached out to touch it, just to see if it were real.
His mind was filled with a sense of time. He'd expected something funerary, something of bones moldering in peat, but this was a glimpse of mornings, a lifetime of mornings condensed into one thing. Family coming and growing and leaving to make lives of their own. All seen as one moment of peaceful awareness.
Sammas was hooked. He move to another light. This one was filled with a passion that seemed like anger but was also something more, like the anger was a mask over a need for the world to make a different kind of sense. A time after work and food, but before sleep, dissatisfied and disgruntled puzzlement at the way of things.
And there were others still. Each a snapshot of a time of day. One person who found the dark of late night to be their moment. Another at the breach of dawn. Each spirit had its moment. It's focus. And it was soothing to perceive, even when that moment was something of violence or pain. There was a rightness to it all.
And then he came to one that was wrong. The sense of moment was moot, or missing, or something he didn't have a word for. It was a shock. Like the light was false. Like it was empty. And as soon as he touched the first one he became aware of others. He could see the lights that were different. He began to search those out. They were interred small groups at times, or just one here and another there. He instinctively began to try to understand the difference. He wanted to quantify what it was he felt.
It was the first rumbling of dawn that pulled Sammas from his wandering. And dawn did rumble. With the first brightening of the sky the spirits became grainy and then whatever it was that let him become aware of them was overwhelmed for a moment.
Then some inner eye closed on it all and he found himself calf deep in wet peat some thirty meters away from the old woman.
He found his way to firmer ground and worked back to the dry rise.
"You saw?" she said, certain that he had.
"Who are they?"
"They are the sanak that we find coming in from the north. They aren't beast touched, tainted, nor unclean of spirit. They are simply... empty. None of our traditions lay claim to them. It is nothing the Bog had seen before."
"What does it mean?"
"You are the Inquisitor, that is your question."

Chapter 5
All Things Anew

Tam woke to the Dreaming not that woke was the correct word for it. He'd been having a regular dream, something nonsensical, happenings about the house and flying children or some such, and when he's stepped though his front door the dream had ended. The door stood open behind him for a moment, and he could have stepped back into the normal dream, but he closed the door and it vanished with the last of the dream logic. Even now sense of the normal dream was fading as normal dreams do upon waking.
Mother Greywind sat waiting, and Tam sat down before her. They butt heads and rubbed faces in greeting. Tam would always be a cub in Mother's eyes, and he felt the change come over him. He couldn't name the form if he'd needed too. Boy, kitten, something else. Not weak, nor helpless, but young most certainly, and dangerous as well. Not possessed of claws exactly, his hand could be paws maybe, or knives, or the combined potential of human ingenuity to do harm softened by a mother's possessive love. Or just hands.
In a moment Vin arrived. He repeated the greetings with them both and he too was clothed in Mother's sense of them. An ancient hominid, all ape and terror; a kitten happy and innocent to the world; a modern man; and some hint of humanity yet to come. It was all there in that familiar form that they only seemed to find under the gaze of Mother.
They tangled in greeting again and there was love between them all. It bound them, suffused them, protected them. And it changed them into creatures of the Dreaming as it always did. Meaning and intent, word and gesture, all became one thing.
"Come young ones" Mother stood and walked up the mountain cleft that was always their home.
Vin gamboled after her "Where are we going Mother?"
Tam didn't bother asking, there was never an answer that made sense to any question that could be asked so simply.
"Where we can see a man wake."
Tam snickered. Mother's answers where not to be taken lightly but they were always a puzzle. Perhaps the idea of such questions just didn't work when the Dreaming was as real as Mother's soul.
In a few steps they were out of the high mountains and down in Edham. A step further and they were in the bog. Then the steps were real, the strides became a measure of moving feet on soft, wet earth. Around them there were shimmers and strange lights.
"What are these?" Vin asked again.
This time Mother stopped and Tam did not laugh. She sniffed for a moment as if baffled and then said "it is a man."
Tam had never seen a man this way in the Dreaming, these shimmers were not the way of men here. He started to move to one and Mother admonished him and warned him with a hiss. "Beware, this is not a thing for you."
After that Mother was careful to lead them through the darkness between the shimmering. They finally came to a place where two men were.
These men too were not as men should be in the dreaming. One flowed and rippled the other, more typical, went from shimmer to shimmer and seemed to bathe in what was there.
"What is this mother?" Vin was always with the questions, but this time Tam listened intently for an answer.
"This one seeks you, he doesn't know whether he hunts, nor why. You must find him and take him up. Lead him on a new hunt. You have only the passing of the sun to reach him. There is danger with him. If he sleeps again before you reach him, he will sleep forever."

* * *

Sammas was lost. He knew where he was, but something was amiss in brain. Dawn had found him in the Bog, pushing the dead back into the earth and he swore he could hear the sun in his mind like a chorus or the roaring of the sea but ever so loud and wide and deep as to indistinguishable from silence.
Iliese had lead him from the Bog unerringly and got him a few youngsters to help him clean up even as the bog men gathered up for their day's work. While he stripped and showered they were pulling on their gear and talking about the day's work to come. Sammas imagined he could feel the seeping of water, slow and patient, in their words. But they weren't talking slow nor patient, they were just men going to a hard days work. Some energized by morning, some still tired from sleep or lack of same. But somehow...
With his clothes restored - someone had cleaned and pressed them while he'd been in the bog - and the boghouse behind him Sammas began to reconsider the night as he headed back to town. The road seemed hard under his boots and the day fine, but still he felt affected, and he didn't trust the feeling. Had the old witch done something to him? Had she drugged him? The old stories do not just come to life, and if they did, they would be the old stories, not some random things he'd never heard of.
Suspicion began to blossom in his mind, fueled by a flickering sense at the edge of his awareness. He was passing some fallow fields and and old homestead when he became aware that there was something flickering in the edge of his vision. He couldn't seem to turn the head or twitch the eye fast enough to catch whatever it was, but it was surrounding him.
The paranoid sense of impending ambush was creeping up Sammas' spine as he came over a short rise in the road and he drew steel when he clearly saw a rustling in the field just left of the road.
"Come out here" he barked, sounding a little overdone to his own ears.
A tiny yelp of surprise came from the brush and then a young woman, or perhaps older girl child, came to her feet and bustled out of the overgrowth.
It was an awkward moment. He expected arms, this being Edham and him feeling pursued, or perhaps a dress and a basket, her being a young girl and him used to some fairly strict gender roles for a girl that age. He faced nothing so dangerous, nor so innocent. She wore practical field clothes, boots, britches, and a tunic leather overs, and she carried a scroll on one of those writing things.
"Who are you and what do you here?" It was dumb to imagine her a spy, but paranoia was of the moment, and a spy wouldn't necessarily be well advised to be writing so obviously, as that would be hugely unprofessional.
The question was strange to her, but the man was a stranger, so allowances had to me made for guests and strangers. "I'm Miawain... uh" she reconsidered her address, "apprentice Husband Miawain Faracre. I am tallying the fallows sir."
Sammas put away his steel and looked puzzled for a moment. Something seemed odd again, the words didn't seem normal. "What does that mean?"
Miawain knew the man was an inquisitor, everybody knew that by now, and the question could mean a test. Of manners, or skill, or anything. "uh, I call up the lay and record my tally" she said, gesturing with the writing appliance.
That made absolutely nothing clearer to Sammas. "Show me." He wasn't sure why he made the demand, but something would out if there was duplicity here.
"uh..." she knew she was saying 'uh' too much but the whole thing was making her a little nervous, "so I go over into the fallow" she gestured to the field and looked at Sammas for permission to walk away, he nodded and followed. "uh, and then I speak the words and when I feel the lay of the land I write down what I feel. Right now I am doing soil wellness and helpful insects."
Sammas motioned for her to proceed. She wasn't sure she should, since you weren't supposed to use the words in front of the uninitiated, but he was an Inquisitor and a Master, so while she maybe stuttered or stumbled on the first few, she did as she was told.
The girl began a litany in her own professional cant. The words themselves didn't make any sense to him, but they wouldn't. The Inquisitors had their own cant as well, and he had memorized it dutifully and could speak it fluently. But as she spoke things happened. Her voice drew and beguiled the ear, but seemed to trap it as well. And the land. It changed. It responded. The feeling of being surrounded returned. It wasn't menacing at first, but it was so huge. And there were images. Frightening images. Pincers and barbs, biting, chewing, devouring implacably. Everywhere around him. Uncaring. Willing to sink tiny claws into his flesh if opportunity arose.
He was not aware he had fled till he was on the road and dozens of meters away. The feeling of being surrounded was there again, and now that he knew what it was he felt no better about it at all.
He passed out of range of the frightening young woman, but there were other insults and intimations on the road back. Nothing so clear, but there was everywhere about a sense of something aware, disinterested, unfocused, but all the more daunting for its ubiquity.
The bog witch had done something to him. He would get back to his rooms and he would do his job and find out what. Then he would get a stiff drink or five under his belt and things would be better.
Everyone he passed was part of it. The locals. They knew that Edham was alive and watching him. Watching everything. It washed through them and they were careless to its influence. It was like they were entranced. Affected into their ways by the influence of the place. This was the secret of Edham.
Sammas reached Kever's and as he stepped inside he felt its welcome. He was a guest here, a welcome guest, and the hearth was his to find. It was a splash of cool water on the fever that had come on him on the way back from the bog, and he mistrusted its influence. He went straight to his office and reached for a bottle. He knew he'd promised himself he'd figure out what the witch had done first, but the bottle seemed more promising.
"Greeings Inquisitor," the words breached a palpable silence that had all but hidden the stranger and stopped Sammas' hand half a breatdh from the bottle, "I am Tambrec Breland Brighthill, my brother Vin will be here in a few minutes. I think we have business."
The young man was well mannered and in no way overtly threatening. But if Sammas was a welcomed guest in this place the stranger was a fixture, a part of the wood and stone of the building. Still Sammas mistrusted everything around him. He stepped to the outer door and called to one of his men. One of his two East Valley men, Rory by common calling, was on duty. That too was mistrustful as Sammas could see the Edham in him as well.
"Go get the old Inquisitor Lam, and find my assistant."
True to Tam's word, Vin arrived in short order. The woods seemed to cling to Vin, accompanying him into the room. There was no conflict to that commingling of influence, even though Sammas caught tension in the unspoken dialog of expression that passed between the two.
Judging men was what he did. It was familiar and he was good at it. The thought of that familiar task seemed to push the throbbing pressure of Edham into safe perspective. Mayhap opening this bag of cats right now was the best thing.
Sammas sat in his chair and stared down the two young men. He'd read the reports. The suspicions from so many years ago. He had no idea why the issue had been resurrected, why his superiors would include a decade-old incident in his mission. The whole report was mighty strange, which was grounds enough, and the followups were exceptionally terse. Then there were notations form the senior crafthalls, and very specific draft orders concerning both of them. Yes, starting down this road now was just the tonic to clear the old witch's influence from his mind for now.
Sammas' assistant arrived first, and Old Lam came in just after, with the slow determination of advanced years.
There were formalities to observe of course, and Sammas rose to speak the Convocation of the Inquisition. They were simple cant he'd spoken hundreds of times. A call to order and a call for truth. This speaking was different, he really heard the words for the first time. They were not just some archaic tradition in a nearly dead secret language meant to keep strangers off balance and feeling disadvantaged, these words had weight. They had a reality of their own.
The dead of Edham had punched tiny holes in a blanket of blindness that had lain over his mind all his life. The morning had rubbed that grating wound raw, and his own words had torn something loose, laying him bare.
Sammas' assistant answered the formula. His words were so dead, so empty of meaning that it was painful to hear. That the cant could be so neutered tore deeper into his understanding. Edham wasn't wrong, something had been lost back home. Edham was normal, Hedrain was broken.
Sammas crumpled to the floor like he'd been hit with a brick. The assistant leaped to his side. Old Lam looked bemused. And Tam and Vin looked at one another. The questions passing between them were clear. Was that it, or were they too late? Had they done what Mother Greywind had wanted?

* * *

Sammas came back to himself within moments. The change in perspective was overwhelming, intensely so, but it was too right to be harmful. In that biref darkness the catechisms of a lifetime plunged about in his head, overturning assumptions and ransacking a lifetime of prejudice while it looked for a stable point of view. Then his mind just blocked it out. Not the permanent block of denial, just the protective instinct that lets someone set aside an issue for later. There was nothing in his head to replace his old truths. Yet.
"Eh, what happened?"
His assistant was leaning over him closely, the others were giving them some space. "You collapsed sir."
That didn't sound right. "I must be tired." It sounded weak to his own ears. "Has the runner come back with the records we sent for?"
"He's due in tonight."
"Good, get rid of these people for now, I need to get some sleep."
Sammas made an exit and headed up to his room. He wasn't unsteady, or dazed really, it was more a case of intellectual shock. When he got to his room he didn't set up for bed, he pulled out a worn handbook. He studied the words, even though he knew them by heart, but they were just dead words on old paper. He whispered a few of them aloud and his own uncertainty and distrust was obvious to his own ear. It made his own words seem alien.
Once he realized that he was running his brain in circles, he racked in for a short nap.

* * *

A discrete knock woke him seeming moments later. The daylight belied the feeling since the sun had passed well into afternoon while he slept. There was no need to blink sleep from his eyes. The sleep had come like a pebble disappearing below the water, and it fled like a owl into the night. He was wide awake before the third knock.
His assistant slipped in. "The runner is back from the county hall. He has returned with a Speaker and the documents."
Sammas' first thought was "Why did they send a speaker?" "Alright, I'll be down in a moment."
The nap had settled out Sammas' jitters. He didn't even notice Edham all around him, though it was there if he chose to reach out. The menace was gone. Thinking back it hadn't really even been there in the first place. The girl had said something about surveying bugs and that's what he'd felt. Nohting threatening, just bugs. How had he missed that simple fact.
Sammas reached his office and eyed the Speaker. He'd expected what he'd always met before. A dry old man who would read dry words between dry lips in dry monotone. This man was younger, not even breaching into middle age, with a mercurial glint hanging about him.
Sammas held out a hand and the man seized it, speaking first. "Greeings Inquisitor, I'm Olwhin Delpines, first journeyman Speaker for the Dunnmedows Hall of Inquisition." Then he spoke The Oath of Veracity. It flowed beautifully baroque yet potently alive, and Edham rose to it, vouched for it, and Sammas became aware that it might be impossible to lie in the Inquisitorial Cant here in Edham. The words had power.
Sammas started to make reply, but it came out flat and he stopped. Olwhin didn't seem to notice, but Sammas knew that was only politeness. So it wasn't the words themselves that had power. He pondered a moment and decided to speak again, but more deliberately. He tired to mean the words as more than just rote. Edham responded, but it was fitful and uncertain, just as the words had been.
And Sammas found it exhausting. Each sylible had drained him just a bit more than the last. The missed bits seemed harder still than the bits that Edham answered to.
Olwhin waited patiently. Sammas was unsure why for a moment. Did he want Sammas to try again? There was no condesencion in the man's demeanor, nor forebearance or the faux patience that Sammas would have seen back home. He was simply waiting wihtout judgment.
Rather than try again at the response, Sammas said "Please, sit." and indicated a chair. His aide flashed him a strange look, which he chose to ignore. "So what have you broght me?"
Olhwin slung off a rather weighty backpack and set it next to the desk as he sat. "There is a considerable record of the incident and the trials and examinations. I've got the core records here and I am prepared to Speak whatever you might need from the principle proceedings."
Sammas opened the pack. The pages where thick and starchy in his hand. They smelled like knowledge and Edham was in them too. He flipped through a few sheafs and saw the Cant written out rich with dicriticals and annotations. The text plain enough to read where it was plain at all. But the same hand had also tossed and scribbled things amongs the text.
This was Edham agian. Sammas could sense it. So he decided to let it have its way. He handed the pack back to the young Speaker; "I'd like to hear the pronouncments for Ahvinahm."
Olhwin got to unpacking the satchel proper. He spread several shiefs, reading and mumbling to himself, scanning down pages instead of across words. I couple of times he begged pardon, seeming to lose his place or suddenly needing some other shief.
Olhwin cleared his throat a couple times, and said "this takes place in the lessor council hall of the Inquisition in Mires Gate. A full council sits. There are three principle inquisitors, one fore each of prosicution, defense, and verracity. There is a Judge five marshals and nine citizens. The counce consists of..."
"Go ahead and skip the naming and introducion, I just want to hear the pronouncements."
"Oh, yea, just a..." Olhwin flipps through several pages.
Sammas' sense of Edham magic is fading fast as the younger man semms to fumble and search. This is worse, he thinks, than the dry reading he's used to. He's about to call this all false when the man's demeanor changes utterly. Sammas watches the man grow still, trancelike.
Finally the speaking begins. His voice has changed pitch. It's the voice of a woman of middle age as protrayed by a younger man. There is no pantomime or exageration. "Before the decisions, are there any ammendments? Prosecution?" That was clearly the Judge.
His voice changes, a man, slightly older. "The prosecution holds that there is still too much unknown about what really happened to make a final determination. The boys are clearly hiding something."
The Judge again: "Yes, noted. But no quesitoning has given us any information about what that something might be. This is established. Defense?"
A new voice, male, younger than the prosecution, older than the judge: "The defense stands on the simple facts. There is no hint of complicity in any criminal act, or any act that would set the boy outside Gardianship. There is no trace of any sanak nor any corruption or ingress that is outside the normal bounds expected after such hardship. The issues of acts, that Prosecution keeps returning to, are not relevant to this court since this is not a calling to accout for misdeeds."
Judge agian: "Veracity?"
An older woman, senior to all the others: "It is common, even expected, that those who suffer that long outside the blanket of Gardianship would be exposed to more ingress or corruption than we can find here. The training as Hunter, while no means complete, and the companion's similar Husbantry are ample reason to explain the lack of taint during such an event. Since there was no source present for corruption of Mind or Soul, and since the both of those involved were themselves Guardians, abet limited in their skill, of the Body, there is no evidence to cast doubt on the otherwise suspicious lack of any ingress."
Prosecution: "So what of the hedging. The lies?"
Veracity: "What of them? The young are expected to be less than forthright about unsupervized time. It's in their healthy nature."
Prosecution: "But thats not an excuse."
Defense: "No excuse is necessary. The standard we would hold..."
The Judge, calm and confidant of her role: "Enough. All of these positions have already been heard."
The proceedings took a pause for a few moments, and Sammas realized he was watching the single speaker as if he were the real persons. As if the events were happening live before him. Sammas already knew the pronouncements. He stopped listenting to the words and started examining the performance.
This Olhwin was almost hypnotized by his task. He was reading ahead even while he was speaking, so that he'd have the timing right. The inflection. There were places where he stopped to clear his throat and the were the places where the originals had done so. In ohter places his hands or eyes seemed to seek information not properly present on the sheets. Sammas wonderd. Wondered what this would look like done by a Master Speaker and from a Master Scribe's records.
It was almost mean, but he let the Sepeaker run through all the Decrees and Pronouncements. It was fascinating to watch the performance.
When it suddenly ended the real Olhwin returned. "There were a couple of, um, inconsistencies in the transcription and, ah, some reaction information that I had to skip. Uh, was that what you needed?"
Sammas realized the young man was sweating. Not just nervous, but strained. His voice was a little rough, like it had been pushed to a limit just a little too hard. "Oh yes. That was fine. I just wanted to hear it for comparison to the final decrees."
"Oh, yes sir. The decrees are very clear, though the dissents from the council Prophet were ommitted by common consent of the council at large."
"The what now? There was a dissent?"
Olhwin started pawing thouugh his shief. "Yes sir. The um," he struggled to get a particular page out of a shief "the Prohpet disagreed that there were no hazzards to incursion of the Spirit since the both boys were that close to `murder and the loss of life' at the start of their ordeal. There were some followups ordered" Olhwin produced a paper from the bottom of the pile "but there was no taint discovered so after three years the matter was closed."
Sammas noticed that all the paperers were the same except this last. "Wait," he lifted the edges of several sheafs, "are all these copies? Only this is fresh ink." he said, gesturing with the adendum.
"Well, uh, yes, the originals are all still at the hall. This packet was ordered, um," more shuffling, "seven and a half years ago but it was never sent for." Olhwin handed him a receipt. "The second follow up was only five years ago. So that was coppied in just when we got your request."
"Who ordered the copy?"
"Prophet Hanrar."
"The dessenting council member. He's, uh, kind of a jerk." Olhwin said, running his finger down a string of Speaker's annotations, before his ears started to color at saying too much.

* * *

Now this was politics like Sammas knew them. It'd taken some digging. This Hanrar didn't like having his position and opinion ignored, so he sent off to get a differnet court involved. he'd ordered copies made in expectation of that missive being answered. Then... nothing.
Ten years later Sammas is here with a draft order for each of the two boys, now men, that read more like arrest warrents. But Hanrar himself has signed off on their fitness in the mean time.
The matter now was finding out what course of action would satisfy bureaucracy best. He'd likly have to take the men back no matter what. But there were many ways that could be handled.

Chapter 6
Low Passage

Mother Greywind had been silent in the dreaming for weeks. They would see her from afar, or go to her places and not find her at all. This hadn't happened before and both Vin and Tam were starting to wonder about all manner of things. The Inquisitor had never called them back after the strange encounter and was busily dispatching a terrific number of small jobs to all corners of the county. Other traders began arriving for the spring season and Tam's level head cooled Vin's nerves.
Then everything changed.
Jamir called Vin in to her kitchens one afternoon as he headed through town to a call on the Short Reach trail, and he found Old Lam, Camien, and a woman he didn't recognize, waiting for him. The look on Jamir's face was concerned and somewhat impassive, but something short of true distress.
Camien said "Ahvinahm, life calls you," and then paused. This was an old saying that never ended well.
Vin looked to Jamir and her face tightened with an anger that clearly was not directed at him, but he didn't see any surprise there either.
Old Lam said "Don't taunt the boy, just get to the business" to Camien, then added "this must be done now, in secret, or it will come too late" directly to Vin.
Camien said "Take off your shirt. I'll work, they'll talk."
Vin paused and Jamir said "Quickly love, there is no time" as she started to strip off his jirkin herself. Before the shirt was all the way off, Camien thrust his hand onto Vin's bare skin over his heart, and began muttering an invocation.
Old Lam said "You are going to be taken son. Not too long from now and with less rough a cast than might be normal for such things, but do not mistake, it will be an arrest."
"Buy why?"
"Hush husband, listen."
"You've been caught up in proceedings. Old proceedings. So has Tambrec."
Vin sarted to go cold. Did someone know about the Dreaming? Would it mean anything if they did? What about the hunt Mohter Greywind taught them; there was what that looked like, and what it was in truth. It was an old fear, deep seated enough to return as surprise.
Camien's words penetrated Vin's moment of shock. It was an opening of the Ley that he'd never heard before. What was that for? What would it reveal?
Old Lam seemed to be pacing himself to Vin's shock. A master Censor at work on a revelation. "You will be examined, and tested, but you must keep a watchful eye. There is not enough time to tell you everything that you should know."
"Something is wrong beyond the mountains love. You will end up places that none of the others can access."
Camien's invocation was snarling at Vin's attention.
"Yes, Yes, you will be on trial. You will go to court before Guild and Guardians. We already know you will pass these tests as you have passed them here. But you will have the chance to appraise your appraisors. You and Tambrec both."
Jamir grasped his chin. "Normally this would be a celebration. A public honor. But you must not tell anybody what we've done here. This must remain a secret. Do you understand?"
Vin didn't understand at all. Whatever was happening was going so fast and so made no sense. He felt too many things too quickly. And it registered on him that the opening of the Ley was messing with his mind.
Vin nodded his head. Something had to be kept secret. Okay. Not hard since he didn't know what was happening.
Camien switched from cant to plain speach. "You have been judged. Your work has been judged. Before these witnesses, these masters and these kin and clan, I name you Guardian and Master Husband. Do you know this duty? do you take this name?"
Vin staggered. Things were rushing through his head. The Ley pounded behind his eyes and its strictures rushed through him, pushing at every corner of his mind. This was too soon. This wasn't the way of things. He should know more. He should be more seasoned. Something. But the stricture demanded an answer. Did he accept the responsibility, now and forever, for the earth below his feet?
Yes. He must. He could barely muster the words, but it wasn't the words tha matered, it was the willingness to submit to duty. There was some official, traditional, structured reply that he should have practiced nervously for days before a public specticale. Instead he slured out a barely descernable "yeah" of some sort.
The skin on his chest where Camien hand lay felt like it was searing under his touch. Where Jamir and Old Lam and the stranger were touching him - when had they laid their hands there? - burst with a numbing sensation and a veil was torn from his mind as they lifted their hands.
He was a Master now. A Guardian in full. No longer protecively wrapped by others who would stand Guardian over him. Naked before the truth, the infinite ways corruption could enter the body. His deepest mind, and his soul were still shrouded by those who Guard those avenues, but his body was absolutely bare to the possibility of contageon for the first time in his life.
Jamir was pulling his shirt back on. The impertenent thought - A Master should be able to dress himself - was making her task all the harder as he tried to manage it himself instead. The shock was too much. She hit his hands away to tie up his shirt, then pushed a lunch pail onto his hands.
"Short Reach. Hannagan's steading. Say it."
"Hannagan's steading."
"You must go there now dear husband. You must keep the secret. Keep walking."
"Yeah. Secret. Hannagan's steading. Walking."
Jamir kissed him at the open door, which was a distraction far more welcome, and then shoved him gently on his way.
Vin kept focused on Hannagan's steading. Walking like a drunkard at times. The land under his feet, Edham itself, pounding up into every corner of his perception. He just had to keep walking.
And so he walked right into his arrest.

* * *

When Vin was plopped down with Tam, Tam clearly looked worse than Vin felt. Neither of them had been beaten or even treated rudely. The arrests had been completely proper in form and bordered on the cordial. They weren't even tied up or oterwise restrained. The arrests had been largely pro forma, but the rules for arrest required what they required.
Tam's bloddy clothes looked very like he'd been taken in the field mid-butchery. Actually he looked sanak and beast touched, well the way that looked in the stories Vin had studied.
"Are you alright?" Vin whispered, and touched Tam's shoulder with his hand, and his essence with the Ley.
"Yes, brother, I am just, uh..." and Vin realized Tam had just gone through the same sort of thing he was still laboring under.
The Ley was screaming in Vin's head but it was clean of taint or corruption passing through Tam. "uh, okay, good."
"Do you have any idea what's going on?"
Vin reached for the Dreaming but the Ley was too strong in his head to let go. There was no point in trying to reach out to the soldiers with the Ley, it would only tell him if they were tainted. The Ley didn't give him any insight into their minds or souls. Being a Guardian of the Body didn't grant many of the esoteric insights like a Guardian of Mind or Soul might receive.
"Did anything odd happen to you before this?"
The Ley flaired in Vin's head when Tam whispered "yes".
They just sat there for a while. It wasn't like there was a lot of choice to be had in the matter.
Things got worse before they got better. At some point someone put together a pack for each of them and sent it to the soldiers. They got kitted out and marched out of the valley before the inner turmoil settled at all.
It was the Ley itself that woke Vin from his daze on the second day. Stepping outside the valley for the first time in a decade brought completely different sensations. Longer distances and echos he didn't recognize changed everything. It was like a kiss from a cousin instead of a wife.
Tam responded a few miles later to the change in the Hunt. They passed into Mother's territory. The high crags of the Ice Cats. The here and now was familiar from their times in the Dreaming that must be Death. It aligned his mastery with the familiar. But for that hasty induction he was no master.
They were bound by law - taken in fair arrest - but not bound by rope. Either one could have stepped from the path and vanished before any guard could react. This troup of gards wasn't even particularly full. Two prisioners. Eight guards, all lowlanders. Foot soldiers, not thief takers nor guilded to a profession. It was like they were being invited to escape. That itself might be a trap. Neither could remember if they'd given their parole for certain but they were being treated as if that parole had been accepted. They were supposed to go stand at trial. They were supposed to observe something as well. That was as much as either knew. That was their duty for some reason, and that duty didn't call for escape. Not now at least. But escape was tempting.
Vin's mind was making little circles exactly as large as his stride. A chant that might read "left, right, left, right" if it were that well formed. On each step he stomped on the Ley. There was no good reason. It was satisfying. It soothed the tummult in his head.
One by one the soldiers fell into rhythm with him without really noticing. Tam finally stepped on the beat with a kind of childish amusement, fully knowing that something was afoot. March became quck-march then double time and finally flat out run. Vin wasn't thinking, just listening to his feet, breath, and heart. Each footfall flexed the Ley and the Ley pushed back. Energy flowed in and out with each footfall, like breath, taking the waste away and bringing in sustinence.
They ran. Flat out, up hill and then down, clearing the entire pass in nine unbroken hours instead of four full days. The synchronized thrum of the Ley rang out in echos and harmonies, finally breaking when their column came upon a slow-moving caravan comming the other way. Like a man tripping over a rock, the power of the Ley stumbled and dumped the men out into their normal selves.
Vin, Tam, and all the soldiers were just looking at eachother. Their slack jaws and blank stares givng the caravan drivers pause as they drove by. Nobody spoke. Just the sound of horses and oxen pulling wagons broke the afternoon air.
Then... heat. Sweltering in the confines of jackets and winter boots. A single switch from foot-to-foot, squelching with overflowing sweat. Drenched, and aware at last, they raced to shed everything.
Packs come off easy. Jackets peel away. Shrits slog and splatter to the ground like rags spilled from a washbasin. Swolen laces hold their knots, making pants and boots a prision. And at last they can each swipe the rivulets from their bare skin; their bodies steaming in the afternoon chill.
They hadn't run faster than a man could run. Nor further really, if that man were athlete and the conditions ideal. But that was a high mountain pass and they'd been packed and kitted out. Disgust at the sodden mess comming off gave way to distrust. Each looking to the others and then choosing up teams. Soldiers versus prisoners the enevitable outcome.
Larken, the oldest of the soldiers, though not highest in rank, barked "Kielera's sour tit! Can we feed before we fight?" and the whole mood changed.
Hunger, thirst, and the breaks not taken for nine hours caught up with everyone. Canteens, snacks, and full bladders; each seen to in order of individual need. A short spade for a roadside latrine. And fire to be seen too. Everyone jumped in different directions.
Benton, young master of the obvious, asked "What the hells was that?" between bites. Loaf in one hand, water in the other, both held high while his piss coursed down a tree unassisted.
Jarl, the patrol leader didn't answer, still looking at the two prisioners suspiciously. He saw them both look at eachother with open puzzlement. "You don't know either, do you?"
Vin said "I've never heard of such a thing before", Tam shook his head and raised a shoulder in support.
Larken, diging in a pack for clean small-clothes, "eh, it's not some valley magic?"
Tam grunted around a strip of jerky, "No. There is no `valley magic'. And none of the ways..."
Benton said "Well it was something."
"Something, aye, but what?" Karuse asked from behind a tree.
Larken blocked Benton's reply "We're talking circles here. Cut it. We got to get a camp squared away before the cold takes us."
Tam found the remnants of an old fire circle and began righting the stones while Vin disappeared into the wood. Now that Larken had pointed out the cold they were all starting to chill for real. Tam laid a harth blessing on the circle about the same time Vin came back with a couple large chunks of wood. He didn't bother with kindling or a proper lay, he just put one chunk across the other in a T shape and called the heart of the wood to blaze.
Larken muttered "no valley magic eh" under his breath as the warmpth of an established fire radiated from stones.
The distrust melted as the heat blossomed. The hearth blessing, a touch overdone after nine hours of beating the ley, was unrelenting. The fire radiated a sense of safety and surety that quashed all suspicions and dissent.
After everyone had a few minutes to dry their sweat, Jarl took up her authority and said "Benton you're up, take Rue and Saltz. Find some water. That mess needs seeing to"
The three groaned and started picking through their dry gear looking for something useful to wear. The sodden mass of clothes was not going to have any takers any time soon.
Wearing blankets and spare skivvies, the three trudged off to find the creek that paralleled the road.

The Sacred Professions

Dramatis Personae
Ahvinahm Ferris Longridge
Tambrec Breland Brighthill

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.77.
On 14 Apr 2014, 19:53.