My mam always told me there’s three ways to prosper best and all begin with L.
Location’s one. No prospering’s ever done by thief or witch if the job begins in the wrong place or time. Lissom tongue is next. No matter how much wisdom a gal has to her, good learning don’t go far if she can’t talk her way out of a bad deal. And last is Lightning Touch. That means the effortless sliding of nimble fingers in and out of pockets without bein’ cotched.
My mam knew these L’s right better than any I’ve met. She could charm the gold (and other things) right out of any feller’s britches. We’d a Red Lamp and Physic House just outside the palace gates of the Grand Corsair of Roon. Back then us Red Lamp girls was good for much more than pleasure to bodies in need. We were spies, healers, and counsellors. We had the ear of high folks on Roon. And witchery. Mam passed hers on to me. No brag, just fact. She could fix the dying so they might live again. She could deal with those what needed killing. She called it her laying-on-of-hands.
My da was one who lived and loved, so she said. Word was
he’d been a Corsair, like so many were on Roon in my younger day, his gull-grey Xebec as swift and trim as any true seaman’s craft could be. I guess I got his beak of a nose and his uncompromising temper. Handsome, mebbe. I can’t say. ‘Easy on the eye’ got him nowhere in the end. My da was hanged after a fierce battle in a little town called Skyhaven upon the rugged Isle of Inach. Hanged from their Raiders Gate along with the rest of his crew. The villagers torched his ship, the fools. No good sense of true thievery among the lot of ’em.
Rank, lubberly fisher folk. Heads so far up their arses they needed to shout to be heard.
Don’t guess Mam grieved at his loss. Not for long. She was a cool witch. For her it was business first and womanhood second. Most like, I’d be just like her, save for my ’nuncle Vongy.
The day Mam died, that sodding bag of dead man’s piss knocked me over my tender young pate and threw me into the orlop of a pirate ship. I’d just turned thirteen. So there I was, cotched and away out there on blue water. Now, that was a real bad location. No silver-tongued happiness was gonna save my cherry. A little maid no more, I’d begun on the road to the witch I am.
Isk, the captain, was no true Corsair. Pirates ain’t. Pirates’ll rut with a post if there ain’t no goats aboard, and the goats breathe easy if there’s girls. Old Isk was a barnacle-bottomed fiend with a snout like a dead salmon. His breath smelled like toenail slime. His frowsty periwig was so greasy even lice wouldn’t live on it. His hands were never still.
He didn’t bother to untie my hands. Keeping me bound got him randy. He’d a preference for young flesh and he had it often. He made it clear to his crew I was his property, bought and paid
for with his coin (leastways ’til we got to the mainland and he could get a better trade for me).
I took his using of me and I festered with hate. Pretended I liked it. I used that lissom tongue my mama had taught me, trying not to vomit in the doing. Knew well enough to wait my time ’til we made Trinceport.
That first night we come ashore, just beyond the oil and tar smell of the Trinceport ship-yards, on our way to our louse-rid bed in the attic of some noisy ale-house, we passed a stinking midden. It lay beside the hulking fish-gutting house.
To my delight I spied some fungi growing near. A clutch of White Hoods! I knew ’em well. I managed to trip and fall flat on my face, my bound hands flailing, and snaffled one into my rags without Isk seeing me.
How I longed for a decent time to dry them proper (more pain in the dose), but given my hasty need, I took the ghostly cap and sprinkled the spores into Isk’s claret. He drank deep, got randy. I did what come un-natural.
Later that night, when them White Hoods took effect, when that bugger was unable to do more than whimper, I thumbed out his eyeballs and fed them to him. I didn’t bother with his tiny balls. Without his eyes, his sailing days were over.
I grabbed Isk’s meat knife and a bannock or two for my tattered pockets and I was out that windee and into the shore mist faster than a clam can fart.
Farther up the hill above the scum-shacks of Trince lie the palaces and the high houses of the merchant guild. I didn’t dare go there, though I was hungry; I’d heard enough from Traders in Roon to know that was folly. Those buggers have dogs that can chew the skin off your face.
I ran out-town instead, warming up some as I ran. (I refused to take that bugger’s cloak with his smell and his rot inside.) I stole some eggs and some windfall apples from a fisher-folk steading and got as far away as I could before anyone knew what I’d done to Isk.
I lost (and I do mean lost) myself deep in coast dunes with a nail-paring of a moon lighting my way and then the blacknight hulks of trees so old they were standing even when them infernal Kahin lived in these lands. Back then there were some places where the trees were tall as mountains. No undergrope ’neath them monsters. I expected bears, or pards, or even restless ghouls, but nothing on our Goddess-green soil was gonna make me stay where Isk’s crew might find me.
At first, that forest could’a been aflame from the rage in my heart. I cussed the dark, I cussed old Vongy, and I cussed whatever might try and git me before I got a chance to settle my score with that arse. I et my apples and my bannocks and I cussed myself sick.
By then, my chest hurt bad. Felt like the Gods was carving me empty with a trowel. Fact was, I wasn’t sure I’d followed Mam’s advice and picked a good location. I’d no silver, no map, and no true direction, and prob’ly no straight way of getting on any boat back to Roon wouldn’t sink like a boulder in a gentle swell.
I limped bare-footed over the cold, damp ground and the night come for me, into my heart and into my soul. I spewed out everything I’d et into a pile of tree needles and I went on. Empty and done withal. My innards went to hatred, cold and icy and sure. Could’a put my heart in a sling and used it for shot. That’s when I started to cuss the Goddess. “It’s you what
brought me here, damn ya, and I hate you, ya hear?” I hissed. Mist snorted from my nose-holes, quivering like ghosts before my night-sharp eyes. “We did naught but do your will, Leete. Both me and Mam. We was always true to ya with yer share of the silver we took. Now, how do ya pay me back?”
I shuddered with the force of my hate. Around me the air went cold as the vaults of the Spirit Kingdoms. Around me the screams of death. A stoat at a hare. A vixen screaming like a demon spirit. The snort of something huge.
Bear? Boar? I hunkered and froze. I clutched my puny knife tighter. Then I heard something strange. A clanking noise. My ears pricked. I knew the sound of good coin hitting metal. If any music could’a woke me up that was it. Luck was, it scared whate’er had been snuffling towards me. That thing give a ‘whoof ’ and bolted off, crashing away though the brush like a hut on legs.
“Fook!” breathed a voice not far off. Desperate. Young and skinny, I guessed, more by his voice than his form. A Red Lamp gal gets used to telling lots about folks without seeing ’em.
The clanking resumed. I crept soft and stealthy over the spongy ground.
It was black out as Garani’s bowels, but I went careful. Breathed slow and soft. Got closer to the clinking noise, peeked over the lip of ground made by a termungous tree-root.
“Fook!” he sighed again. He was less than five strides away and working hard at something on the ground by his knees. Was he a-running like me? “He’ll kill me. He’ll bloody kill me,” he moaned. His terror hit me like a fist. He searched blind at the ground,
looking little more than a flailing hump in the dark. Then he began to keen. “No. Please. No! Pleeese.” Stupid arse! My fingers relaxed a little on my knife and I got careless. Something crackled beneath me. I heard a gasp. The back of my neck fair prickled. I stayed as still as a salted codfish, but it did me no good. “I know you’re there, girl,” he said. Whatever had been there in his weakness were gone. The voice of him didn’t sound the same neither. It rattled like bones and stung me with a Power as old as the stars.
“I smell you, little witch, both blood and will. I am minded to take you as one of my own, one of my dark Azghillin,” he said. “Come out now, and it’s well. Try to hide, and I’ll take your soul.” Oh, Gods. What in Hells is an Azghillin? I cringed as something out of my ken hit me. He was gonna take my soul anyways. I might not be able to read minds like Clan do (thank all the gods), but the witch in me knows the sound of a lie. “Be light,” come the smooth command. Light bloomed under the trees so the young thief glowed like bog fire. He was mebbe sixteen or so — could see a throat apple on him that told me his nuts had dropped.
His black duds spoke of his trade. Coal-dusk hair in long braids, high cheeks, with up-tilted lids spoke to me of his people. Native Clan. A sack spilling coin lay on the ground just at his knee and spoke of his problem. I saw the hole in the stitchings what caused the spill, and a glint of a silver tube just poking out. He’d been into a hoard of some kind.
But it wasn’t him had conjured up the blue light around him. He was took over. By a ghoul or demon mebbe, or even something worse. His eyes were rolled back in trance so only his white eyeballs showed.
“Drop that knife and come here,” he said, staring at me with them terrible eyes.
My guts crept inside me like spiders. Power gripped me. I stood. I dropped Isk’s knife. My feet disobeyed my will and walked me towards him. I wanted to scream out a warding cantrip, but my lips were like corpse lips. This was no demon nor ghoul. This was Rogue Magic. Sorcery. “Ah, Gret,” he said. “You are so like your mother.” I gawped even as my gullet closed. Garani’s black tits! This Rogue knew my mam. Even now his voice tweaked the strings of my memory harp. I remembered a tall, grey-eyed Trader who’d come to our House when I was wee enough to dandle. He’d a load of silver with him too. He’d been nothing like any other of our patrons. Quiet, aye, and oh, so polite, but boiling beneath with something so wild I couldn’t bear to look at him straight.
Mam had shut the door between me and her and him, but even so, I scarpered down beneath the table’s cloth and shook like a jelly until he left.
The Rogue gestured to the ground just before him. “Sit there. Face me. I would look inside your mind.”
I sat. I obeyed like a fettered hound. By Gods, I’d of rolled and begged if he’d wanted me to. An invisible hand gripped me by the face and held me so I couldn’t look away.
“Choose to serve me as your mother did; or choose not, and die,” he told me, like he was discussing the weather.
Mam would never serve a Rogue! I wanted to cuss him aloud, but my lips were clamped. No? The thought come fast to my mind. Think on her success, and on her death.
You killed my mam, and the babe she had inside her. I didn’t care I was touching minds with a Rogue, I was that bloody mad. The Goddess killed them. Not I. She will brook no rival in me. I snarled. Even with a bound muzzle I could still do that. I shut off my mind with all the rage I could summon.
The boy-lips moved again. “You are strong. Your hatred tells me you believe what I say. You disowned your Goddess tonight. I saw that memory still hot inside your head. You have broken your ties with Her. Your uncle Vongy belonged to the Goddess, my dear, not me. He’s Her pawn but I can make him your pawn, Gret. Make him squirm like the louse he is, before you crush him.”
His words teased me. Aye they did. I could almost feel Vongy’s neck in my grip. If I’d only guessed his mind before Mam died, I’d of slit his pipes first and fed his vulture’s gizzard to the Grand Corsair’s wildcats. “You are so much stronger than this craven boy,” said the Rogue. The boy’s form wavered, became that of Vongy. Sly, greedy, mean, soulless bastard. This felt like no lie to the witch I am. It felt like a true Seeing. With a purr of satisfaction Vongy reached out and grabbed one of the coins from the ground. “All mine now, dear Lady,” he whispered with a sleethy sneer. “I thank you for showing me which of her poisons to use on my sister.” Oh Gods. My hands trembled. He deserves everything you do to him, my dear. Choose my path and you
will prosper. All I ask is that you aid me to put Her down. Among those coins before you lies a silver Scroll. Within it lie the seeds of my Betrayer’s undoing …
His anger hurt so deep inside me it had no fathom. The semblance of Vongy vanished and became the thief-boy once more, and of a sudden the pressure at my face relaxed.
“What’d the Goddess do to you?” I said aloud at last. I stayed where I was. It could be folly I was listening to this Rogue, yet I felt his anguish.
“She took me from the Stars and made me love her. So long ago, it’s folly to count the years. She took my magic to her own, became a Goddess with my Powers. She stole from me, and worked to destroy me.”
“You want revenge, like I do on Vongy,” I said. That this being—whatever he was—was a Rogue, I did not doubt. Yet he spoke Truth. I felt it in my bones. He’d been done ill, like me.
“I want justice, Gret. I am old. Older than a dragon with his fires out. Revenge is such a petty word for my last and deepest need. This fickle Goddess has thwarted the Stars, and the Stars do not forget. I am of the Stars — a Star lord. I had the power to move Suns and Moons, but now, I am diminished. Body after body I have taken over the centuries, forever on the watch for those like you to serve me. Will you join my band of young assassins? You would surely be one of the best. Will you be one of my Azghillin?” “This boy’s an assassin?” I replied. My wits were at war now. “A useless one and a worse thief.” The Star lord made a noise of disgust. “These coins upon the ground, this precious item. He has lost himself in this forest like the fool he is. If you join
me, Gret, I advise you to take the sleeve knife he bears and kill him. He will only hinder you.”
I looked at the full sack of coin. I didn’t guess it counted anywhere near to what I’d lost in Roon, but it’d be a start. “Kin I have what’s in this sack?” I asked.
He nodded. “All but the Scroll. That comes to me. But more, I will give you Power. You are strong, little witch. You have great will. I do not doubt you can be taught to conjure and to cast, once you have learned from me. Are you with me? Speak swiftly. It is dark and this failed assassin tires.” “And Vongy’s mine?” He grinned like a wolf and extended his hand to me. “I can teach you to take him to pieces and throw him to the Rift Demons.”
I stared at his open palm and sighed at such promise. To be able to cast a soul into the Rift of Shadow? Great Gods! Now that was Power! Even the sensuous fingers of comely men have never held such power in my hottest passion. It wasn’t a boy’s hand I’d be taking. I’d be taking the hand of a God, or something as close to one as made no never mind.
The failed assassin set there like a post. I could kill him. He was useless. The witching part of me that sniffs out foulness told me he was already lost. His soul had been took by Garani a long time ago. Moreover he was a coward. I’d heard that in his whining earlier. I didn’t shrink from the thought of being an assassin. Moreover I hungered after revenge on Vongy and I sniffed that silver. There’s dark in me. “You gotta loose me if ya want my hand,” I said. “Be freed,” he replied. “Come here, Gret.” And I did, though this was no command, I leaned forward with full intent to seize his hand and do his will.
Yet, right in the midst of my move I remembered one last thing my mam had told me.
The worst location ya can ever git in is a place betwixt the Gods in a battle. Naught but Garani’s own mischief can come of such folly. If ya find yerself in such doings, drop everything, git out, and don’t stop running. Now here was me, doing just that. I didn’t seize the hand held out. With Lightning touch, I grabbed that Scroll-tube instead. It was hard as a club and it did just fine. I ironed that boy’s pate so hard he went down like a butchered ox. The bog-fire went out of him and I knew in the dark I’d kilt him. Smelt it too. Wet brains. By Gods, this round is yours, came a last wisp of thought as that Star lord lost his grip on my mind. Then nothing. Into me come a great freedom and I set there thinking until first dawn. It was a grey day, but a good one. I snaffled them coins and the Scroll I’d gonked the assassin with and wrapped them all back up in the sack (well tied) and, remembering the earlier suggestion, I found the assassin’s little sleeve knife in its soft leathern wrist-sheath. Sharp as a bodkin it were. Its hilt was yellowed bone. I knew enough about saw boning to tell that bone had been culled from a human arm. I strapped that unholy thing around my own wrist and stuck Isk’s blade into my new Azghillin boots (too big, but my feet were still growing).
I turned the dead assassin on his side, fumbled about his corpse in the half-light, and found a welcome pouch tucked between his back and his cloak. As I’d hoped, there was food in it (hazelnuts, dried fruit, oats, and jerked beef) and a decent water skin at his belt. I snaffled his dark cloak and hood. Hells,
he didn’t need them anymore, did he? The rest I left and turned him back on his face. Though he didn’t deserve such, I whispered a cantrip over him to keep the ghosts away and the ravens from pecking out his lights. More to save the souls of any who might stumble across his bones than for his dark shade.
By then, the sun was rising. Felt new warm upon me. Now I knew where East was. It was time to git.
I spent that whole day hiking uphill through wilds and thinking. That damned Scroll weighed heavy in the sack at my shoulder. As long as I had that thing, that Star lord would find me. Knew it even worse as I come to a cliff from which I could stare down on the valley of the Great River. I watched a warren of coneys jumping about like they’d not a care in the sky. Lucky coneys.
Before me the whole of the South Dales spread out around the great fan of the River. Felt like anybody could find me up there — or I could find them. I was my own witch now and that’s how I wanted to stay. Nobody’s fool but my own.
Below me splashed a falls. I could feel it through the rocks beneath me. I set on my hunkers and dug out them nuts and munched. Tugged that Scroll-tube from my sack. It was a rich and sparky thing, ancient gravings along its sides, something a-rustle within that smelled of musty magic. That it held something potent I sensed. I didn’t look within. Didn’t want to. Didn’t need whatever curse lay in that thing to foul up my three L’s.
That it would fetch me decent silver, I knew—maybe even a trip back to Roon and Vongy—if I sold it to the Merchant Guild. But that way, soon or late, it would git to that Star lord. He’d follow the path of trade back to me, and I wanted that link broken. He was more than I wanted, both then and now. See, I knew a bad deal when I smelled it.
I et from my store, set a snare, caught a coney. Knew I’d not go hungry that night. I stood at last and faced the drop before me. “I don’t want this, I tell ya,” I called to the air. “I don’t want you and I don’t want Her. Ya hear me?” Thought I heard laughter on the wind. “Well, fine!” I cried. “You laugh at me, Star lord. I don’t care. I’m my own witch. I ain’t yours and I ain’t Hers. Here’s at ya!”
I took that thing and I heaved it, as far as I could, up and out. It flashed in the air, turning and turning, till it fell into sound and deep. I heard it clink on the rock, and then a far splash.
I sighed. Now it was out of my ken and carried by water. Beyond the touch of sorcery. I hoped. “Find that,” I told him.
Laughter answered me. I laughed back.