Narova the Skagit: Chapter Eight
Black Hand Ledger Entry — October 8th of the 13th Year After Old Empire
Successfully completed the Lullaby on the Morganthi Wizard Boris Blithe in Tinkertown City. Eight-hundred gold pieces added to the treasury. Blithe died at the hand of Narova. Dagger to the brain. Ulnar of the Black Hand was killed. Crossbow bolt to the face.
Vexen is angry with Narova, but has still agreed to send her on the Davad Thorn job as we planned. Baron Glowery has promised a spell book rumored to have been read by thousands of people, all who failed to bind with it. He assumes it junk. I think my rescue of Narova in the basement three years ago might finally pay dividends.
Chapter Eight: All the Fucking Horses
I got lucky and found some Leaf of Norn and Yellow Aster in the hill country north of Olagathi. Both herbs were extremely rare, and I used them to make a potion that dulled almost all of the pain in my chest but didn’t numb my wits like opium does. If I was in the potion-selling business I could have gotten a hundred gold pieces for a single vial. But I’m not, so I drank a lot of it and spent the days thinking about my spell. What it might do. What I might become.
Falen must have told me a dozen times not to try a spell on my own if I was lucky enough to have one bind to me. It’s a real good way to wind up with brains leaking out your nose. But it would have been three weeks of riding before I got back to the Holdfast. That is a long time to sit with magic wrapped around your bones and not used it.
Magic is a taxing kind of thing—power drawn directly from your body’s Spirit. That is how the wizards explain it, anyway. It’s a little wishy-washy to me, but you don’t need to believe all their scrolls and studies about Spirit in order to do magic. You just need a spell that’s wrapped around your bones. Whatever you tap into when they cast a spell, some people have more of it than others. There are men who can only cast their spell once or twice a week, and afterwards they spend an entire day in bed, like a drunk recovering from a long binge. But true wizards like that Morganthi asshole Boris Blithe can incinerate an entire town with Wrath spells and feel no ill effects besides a small tremor in their fingers.
And, of course, there’s always the poor bastards who try their spell once and turn their brain to mush. Not enough Spirit for even one cast. My point is that magic is a blind gamble with very high stakes.
I tried to ignore the warm ribbons of power wrapped around my fingertips, running up my arms and along my throat. A spell is like being bound eternally in strands of invisible silk. You need only tug at them with your mind to activate the thing. For the first week, I managed to avoid the temptation—just munched on dried beef and made myself sleeping tonics when dreams refused to arrive on their own. One night, when my chest was feeling better, I stalked a mountain goat by moonlight and killed it with a knife, just for a distraction.
But for me, the wilderness is a place where my thoughts always win out eventually. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t stay with the other Skagit—my people have always been one step away from feral. It is easy for a true Skagit to lose themselves among the wolves and the wilds and moss-lined rivers of our forest lands. But it is not easy for me.
Ten days after I bound to the nameless spell, I started plucking at its strings.
It wasn’t easy. Doing magic is like trying to resuscitate some long-forgotten childhood memory—the power is tied to you in a way that can never be undone, but it rests behind a hazy series of winding passages and locked doors. I started slow, just trying to tug a single thread of invisible silk. Rub it between my thumb and forefinger. Get some extra length and then wrap it around a few fingers. When I pulled on it until I could feel a tingle in my toes and my clit and the cracked bone in my chest. My vision went hazy and my hearing got so sensitive that I could hear mice feet scrambling across the fields. The thump of owl wings ghosting after them in the dark.
It was a feeling the Touched never told me about. I was intoxicated by it.
For three days that’s all I did. I rolled the name of the spell over and over in my head as I rode. But just like masturbation,you can only tease yourself for so long before you break. One night I slowly wrapped my invisible thread about each of my fingers, spread them taught, and whispered the spell out loud.
I started moving my fingers around slowly, the way a baker kneads doe, repeating the spell and trying to find the right position. I didn’t realize magic would involve so much trial and error. I stayed up until the fire was nearly dead and my throat was raw from repeating the spell so many times. And just when I was about to give up and get back on my horse for a full day of riding on no sleep, I said the spell one last time and my stomach dropped. A warm sensation filled my body so fast I almost came.
Everything went dark. There was a pop. And then I was in the water, thrashing around and fighting for air.
I thought I was dead. Leave it to Narova the Idiot Skagit to melt her brain down to goo alone in the wilderness. It seemed strange that dying would feel so much like getting dropped in a lake, though.
Turns out I wasn’t dead. I was in a fucking lake.
I surfaced in a big sputtering mess. The water was freezing and already I could feel my limbs rebelling into cold shakes. I took a whole bunch of big, shuddering gasps and then I looked around, my black hair matted against one side of my face so I couldn’t see very well. To the right was the skeleton outline of a primeval forest.
To the left side was a fire. Flickering with low light. It was about a hundred strides away. My fire.
“The fuck?” I muttered.
The magic hadn’t killed me, but the water certainly would if I stayed in it much longer. I swam towards the fire, fingers and feet and limbs feeling like an army of skin-gremlins was pecking at them with needles. I got to shore. Slipped and smacked my face into the cold mud. I felt a warm trickle work its way down my forehead. My blood was still a little warm, at least. At the fire, I held my hands over the embers for a minute until I got some feeling back, then I took all the dry wood that I’d saved beneath an oiled leather blanket and put it over the embers. Shivered. Waited.
The wood ignited in an orange burst of life-saving heat. Normally I’d never burn a fire that big in the wilderness—you could see it for miles—but I didn’t really give a shit right then. I stripped off my wet leathers, wrapped myself up in the same bear fur I’d fucked Izzy on, and stood as close to the fire as possible until I stopped shivering.
At dawn, I checked my fingers and toes and ears for frostbite. The smallest toe on my left foot probably needed to be cut off—the nail was black and I couldn’t feel the skin when I poked it with the edge of my throwing knife. But I figured that could wait until I got back to the Holdfast. Life is unpleasant enough without the memory of removing pieces of your own body. Other than the toe, I seemed to be fine.
I broke camp and started riding. I needed to figure out what that spell had actually done to me, and a day on a horse always gives you plenty of time to think.
The magic of Terranum was divided into four classes: Wrath, which Boris Blithe had used to destroy that tavern wall, was the most common. Anything that caused violence or destruction of physical objects stemmed from Wrath. Deceit, which both Vexen and Mordred the Unseen used to do things like convince people’s bodies they couldn’t move, or turn invisible by the light of the full moon. Rejuvenation, which Sleepers almost never used because all but the rarest of Rejuvenation spells could only be cast on other people, not yourself. Juvi Mages usually found themselves a cushy position in some court or another, watching over a count or a lord who wanted to live forever. The last class was Vision. Baron Glowery had been using a Vision spell to make sure I’d removed Davad’s eyes while he was still alive. Some vision spells let you see the past, other’s let you see into the minds of people and animals. Liars said they had spells to see the future.
People talked about other types of magic—power that was pulled from darker places and didn’t fit into a nice box—but I always figured it for bullshit bragging. Lies passed between drunk or bored wizards. Still, Rynoa’s spell to control animals didn’t really fit into one of the four classes—seeing an animals thoughts was one thing, controlling a murder of crows and two wolf hounds was another.
I wasn’t sure where a spell that moved me from a campsite to a lake fit. Deceit, maybe? Although swimming around in that icy water wasn’t a trick. The magic moved me.
Not a particularly safe thing to test. What if I’d ended up in a rock instead of a lake? Seemed like a really anti-climactic way to die—Narova the Skagit vanishes in an eye-blink for no apparent reason, never to be seen again until some mason digs up a boulder and finds a crushed up skeleton in the middle.
Blink. I liked that name for it. Even without any magic, a lot can happen in the space of an eye-blink. Cut a throat. Fire a crossbow bolt. Move across a room.
I tried to remember what I was thinking about when the magic kicked in. Nothing, really. Just pissed off it wasn’t working. Maybe that was the problem: I hadn’t told the spell where to take me, so it put me above a fucking lake and nearly killed me. My toes and fingers were still tingling from my swim, and I didn’t quite have the courage to rush into a second try. I sat by the fire that night pulling softly at the magical thread, but nothing more. I fell asleep before the sun was all the way down, and I dreamt of the cedar forests that grow reckless and ancient across the Skagit lands of my youth.
When I woke up, there was a knight standing over me. He had a boil on his nose, and he was grinning at me with crooked yellow teeth.
“Hello, kitty cat,” he said. “You make your fires too big.”
He punched me in the face with a mailed glove and everything went black.
I woke up tied to a horse or a mule or maybe donkey but probably not given my distance from the ground. The knight had thrown me over the beast’s back the same way you’d haul a bag of rice.
He was humming some tuneless song to himself. All I could see were hooves and a muddy road. My stomach hurt where it rubbed against the animal’s haunches. My face hurt where that asshole had punched me. I tried to squirm around a little and the animal I was on brayed. Definitely a mule. I could hear the familiar breath and nicker of my horses behind me. The knight had brought them, too.
“You’re finally awake,” came his voice.
“Name’s Lorn,” he continued when I didn’t respond. “You’re my prisoner now, Sleeper. I’m taking you back to my liege.”
Being in a Sleeper’s Guild wasn’t strictly illegal, but killing people that a lord had preferred alive is a good way to make enemies. This country is filled with liege lords who had an unpleasant run-in with the Black Hands at one point or another. Like I said, Vexen Green did not discriminate much with his work.
“Who’s your liege lord?” I asked. That’d at least get me an idea of how much trouble I was in.
Izzy had killed Bastion’s first wife last spring with a nasty poison that burned out her stomach lining. There’d been a rumor Bastion had hired us himself, but it was actually a rival lord to the east who seemed to have a personal problem with Bastion’s happiness.
“He’s not a supporter of your Boss’s business,” Lorn continued. “I figure capturing one of Vexen Green’s playthings’ll fetch me a nice juicy reward. Might even make me a landed knight.”
I wondered how he knew I was a Black Hand for a moment, then remembered I had been wearing that stupid pin on my shoulder when I went to bed the night before.
“I’m not a plaything.”
“Whatever you say, kitty cat.”
“If you call me that again,” I said, trying to keep my voice level even as the donkey’s hip bones bounced and pushed at my chest, “I will rip your lungs out of your chest before I kill you.”
“Idle talk, kitty cat. Idle talk.”
We rode all day on that same muddy track. By midday, the skin on my stomach was raw and sore. By afternoon, it felt like someone was slowly sawing me in half. I couldn’t see the countryside but I could tell we were going northwest by angle of the sun on my back. At dusk, Lorn turned us off the track and took us up a steep, rocky pathway.
“Where the fuck are you taking us?” I asked after we’d been climbing for the better part of an hour.
“Meet up with some friends. Bastion men.”
“Why do you need to meet all the way up this fucking cliff?”
“Quiet, kitty cat.”
Eventually, the ground leveled out and Lorn stopped the donkey. He yanked me off the beast, threw me onto the ground, and kicked me in the stomach. He hadn’t hit me nearly hard enough to hurt me, seeing as I still had my armor on and was, in general, used to pain of a much stronger variety. But there was no reason to let Lorn know that, so I huffed and groaned and made it seem like he’d performed a great evil upon me.
“Shut your cunt mouth!” Lorn snarled, but he didn’t kick me again. What a pussy.
“Who’re ya hollerin’ at, Lorn?” came a voice. I looked around and got my bearings. Lorn had taken us to a small campsite set up on a rock shelf high up on some hill. There were pine trees everywhere, giving the place good cover without killing our view of the valley and the road below. There were three yurts set up, all of them covered with mossy blankets and pine needles so they’d blend in. There was a fire going, but it had been dug in a bit and was only embers—invisible from the road. They’d made a much more subtle camp than I had.
“Who you hiding from, Lorn?” I asked. For knights, their camp had a distinctly outlaw vibe.
“I hide my fires so I don’t get woken up with fists to the face, kitty cat.”
There were two other men coming over. They were both knights wearing the same blue cowl and cape as Lorn. Bastion colors, I guess. Lorn clasped hands with each of them and then jerked his head over at me.
“Found us a Black Hand Sleeper.”
The man who’d spoken first frowned at me. He had blond hair and a nose that had been broken very badly and never fixed. “How do you know her guild?” he asked.
“Oh, the big bag of fucking poisons strapped to one of her horses was a clue. Everybody knows the Untouched Hand love their fucking poisons.” Lorn motioned idly to my painted and the alabaster, which he’d strung up by some trees at the edge of the camp. Then he tossed the pin at the other man. “That was the other.”
“What is this?”
Lorn gave the man a disgusted look, then turned to the other knight. “Rikard, you as stupid as Clove?”
Rikard was tall and gaunt, huge pits on the sides of his face, as if a squirrel had scraped out the flesh or something. His hair was long and black—all fucked up from a day with a helm on top of it. “It’s a Black Hand’s pin, you idiot. Vexen Green used to leave them on the bodies he claimed.”
Vexen’s youthful penchant for violence and showmanship had put me in a real fix.
“What should we do with her?” Clove asked, clearly trying to draw the attention away from his ignorance.
“Tie her up in the tent,” Lorn said. “Bitch is bound to be dangerous. And don’t fuck her yet, eh? I don’t mind you getting some but I don’t want to be sober and listening while you do it.”
Clove stripped off my armor and strung me up to a wood pillar that stuck up through the middle of one of their tents. He yanked on my tits a few times but otherwise obeyed Lorn. All I had on was a black shirt and pants made from thin cloth, which were stained with sweat and stuck to my skin. I’m sure Clove liked the view.
Clove may not have been familiar with the Black Hand trademark, but the thickheaded bastard knew how to tie knots. There was no way I was getting out of them.
Still, most men let their dicks do the thinking, so I made a pass.
“Hey there,” I said as he worked the final clasp on my left wrist into place. “If you let me go, I’ll make it worth your while.”
Clove punched me in the face. Hard enough for my vision to go white and the hearing in my right ear to die. He grabbed me by the jaw, twisted my head hard, and then rasped into my left ear.
“I’m gonna go outside this tent and get drunk. Then I’m gonna come back in and rape you senseless. It’ll be worth my while plenty.”
Clove was a loud drunk. I could hear him hollering almost right away—sucking down ale and bragging about some skinny knight whose head he had cut off the day before in a border skirmish.
“Wish I’d turned his skull into a cup or something,” he said. “Then I could drink to that pussy every night. You shoulda seen how high the blood shot out from his neck, Lorn. Like one o’ them fountains in Himeji. You know the kind?”
“Never been to Himeji,” Lorn grumbled. It didn’t sound like he liked Clove very much.
“You been to Himeji, Rikard?”
“You know what I mean then. The fountains, right?”
There was a silence.
“You two are more sour than that cat cunt is gonna be after I fuck her asshole,” Clove said. That got my heart pounding a little. Getting raped in the ass is one of those things you don’t need to experience to know you won’t like it.
“What is it with you and assholes, Clove?” Lorn asked.
“They’re full of shit, too. Why can’t you rape people like a normal person?”
“Because I don’t fucking want to. Why can’t you be a little more entertaining?”
“I brought the cat here, didn’t I?” Lorn said. “Bastion’ll like you more just for being associated with me. And you won’t have done anything besides get the bitch’s shit on your dick.”
“Bastion likes me plenty. I trained all them horses for him.”
“Anyone can train horses,” Rikard chimed in. “The Black Hand killed Bastion’s wife. Vengeance is a singular kind of commodity.”
“Why do you talk like that?” Clove asked.
“Like you know how to read and shit.”
“I do know how to read.”
“The fuck you do.”
I figured Clove was two or three horns of ale away from sticking his dick up my ass, so I stopped listening and started trying to figure a way out of this fix. There was no way I’d get out of the bindings—not without a week or two to work them loose.
So it’d have to be magic. I figured there was a half-chance casting Blink again without understanding it would get me killed. But if I didn’t’ do anything, I’d just die with a sore asshole in a couple days so it really wasn’t much of a choice. I started working the thread loose along my fingertips, which wasn’t easy with the bindings, but it wasn’t impossible, either.
I got a good grip on my magic threads and licked my lips. Tried to think of a way to avoid conjuring myself into the mountainside.
“Think of something different,” I muttered to myself. Something specific, and something nearby. I didn’t know how far I could Blink, but I figured this wasn’t the time to test my limits. I could see a big boulder through a hole in the tent flap. A big, moss-covered thing that should be far enough from the fire to be out of sight. Focus on the boulder. Focus on the boulder.
“Here we go.”
I clenched my fist around the thread and whispered the name of my spell.
Then the feeling of falling from the sky.
And then I was on the boulder, skin prickling up from the cold and knees against the rock. It had worked, except I was facing the wrong way, looking into the darkness. I didn’t move for a few moments, in case I wasn’t as covered by the shadows as I’d thought. But the knights were still talking and drinking uninterrupted, so I slowly turned around to face their fire.
They were below me. Sixty or seventy strides away. I guess I could go a little further after all. I hadn’t been able to smell Blink before, since I’d cast it in a bunch of water. But I could smell it now. The faint scent of burned cedar and loamy earth. I liked it.
I was unarmed and unarmored. The cautious Sleeper would have counted her blessings and ghosted off into the woods, spent a night shivering and hungry, glad to have escaped with her life.
But I don’t like the idea of dumb knights pushing their dicks up my ass. And I wanted my horses back. So I climbed down from the boulder, found a fist-sized rock in the darkness, and started working my way towards the fire.
I thought about Blinking down a little closer, but didn’t want to push my magic luck any further than I already had. I picked my way back towards the fire, careful to keep my feet away from any sticks or leaves or loose rocks that would make noise.
Rikard was the closest to me, with his back turned. Clove was in the middle, still sucking down ale and hollering about something. Lorn was farther away, across from the fire and almost facing me. That was too bad—of the three knights, Lorn seemed the sharpest. And the most sober.
One rock and three armored knights. All of them had kept their chainmail on, and all of them had their swords within arm’s reach. Lorn had a knife strapped to his belt and Rikard had a loaded crossbow on the ground next to his seat. It wasn’t a particularly good situation for me, but it was a shade better than being tied up in the tent waiting for the ass rape. And it wasn’t going to improve much by me waiting around doing nothing.
I crept forward, heading right at Rikard’s back, keeping my eyes on Lorn. He was frowning and mostly just staring at the fire, but every once in a while he flicked his gaze out into the darkness.
I was about three strides away from Rikard when Lorn put a hand up.
“You smell that?” he asked.
“All’s I smell’s your ass,” Clove said.
Lorn shook his head. “Forest. Forest and earth, almost like someone’s casting…”
His eyes locked in on me.
“The bitch is Touched!” Lorn yelled, dropping his horn of ale and drawing his sword.
I covered the distance between Rikard and me before he had a chance to turn his head all the way around. Slammed the rock into his temple as hard as I could and felt the crunch of his skull cracking. A shard of bone shaped like an arrowhead sprouted from beneath his dark hair and Rikard fell over dead.
Lorn took one purposeful step towards me. I threw the rock as hard as I could at his face. Had it aimed perfect, right between his eyes.
He twisted his sword so the flat of the blade covered his head—an instinctual move you only get from years of depending on a weapon to keep your heart beating. The stone pinged off the edge and cracked Lorn in the right eye socket.
He grunted and fell over, one arm in the fire.
Clove hadn’t even put his horn of ale down, just lowered it a little. His reactions were drowned by liquor. So I jumped over the fire and kicked the horn as hard as possible. It smashed into his face, shattering and slicing a deep, long gash from the edge of his mouth to the middle of his cheek. I jumped on top of Clove, picked up one of the horn-shards, and stabbed him the throat three times. “Is this worth your while, asshole?” I snarled.
I was going in four a fourth when I heard the sound of Lorn picking up his sword behind me. Hefting it into the air over his head.
I ducked and slid to the left, blade passing over my head and then exploding the earth next to me. A big chunk of dirt flew up and blinded me in one eye. I rolled away and tried to stand up but caught Lorn’s boot in the chest before I could get my bearings. That sent me tumbling back over Rikard’s corpse.
Lorn didn’t say anything. Just grunted and came at me again, sword pulled back and prepped to run through the middle of my heart. There wasn’t time to think and there wasn’t time to move.
There was only time to squeeze down on the thread, glance at the ground behind Lorn, and cast Blink.
The smell of cedar and earth filled my nose. Lorn’s back filled my vision.
“The fuck?” he grunted, stopping his charge.
I ran up behind him, grabbed the knife at his belt, jumped on his back, and slit his throat.
Lorn fell over and I flipped him around so the last thing his eyes ever saw would be Narova the Skagit.
“Should have let me be, knight,” I hissed. “Now you’re dead and gone, and I get to keep all the fucking horses.”
I dressed, loaded the weapons and armor onto the knight’s horses and strung them together. Then I checked my two mounts. Falen’s paint was calm as usual, almost bored with the enchanted carnage I’d inflicted on our captors. He was a horse meant for an old, tired killer. Not for me. The pale mare looked at me with hungry, wild eyes. She swished her tail and gave an approving whiny at the damage I’d done. I touched the moon-sickle between her eyes and got a weird tingle in my skin, almost like the horse’s heartbeat was tied to my fingers. It only lasted a moment, then disappeared.
“Crescent,” I whispered. “I’m going to name you Crescent.”
I slung myself onto her back and leaned down over her ear. “Just don’t tell anyone else. Our secret.”