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Where the Goddess Sends




TIME AGO ONE went out from Circle, sent by the Mother’s Own Word. The one was called Moonhawk, and she knew neither the face nor the name of what she went Seeking.

The course of Seeking wound through the land and through the seasons and brought Moonhawk to a place that stank of Evil.

It is told that she hesitated at the edge of this place and thought she would not go in. This is the first of the things told here which must without fail be said: Moonhawk thought she would not go in.

At the moment of thinking so, she heard the Voice of the Goddess and the Words were: “Enter, thou.” Obedient, Moonhawk went forward.

The second thing that must without fail be said is this: Moonhawk was afraid.


“THAT’S MINE.”

Lute flashed a grin sideways and upward, chidingly.

“Apologies, Noble Lady. The bag is mine. It contains the necessities of my trade. The repository of magics, you might say. Dangerous in untutored hands.” He gripped the disputed item and straightened, smiling with urbane idiocy.

“You will understand my reluctance to place so beauteous a lady as yourself in the slightest peril.”

The lady took a breath that brought the principals of her beauty into high display, and thrust out her lower lip.

“It’s mine.”

“Noble—”

“She said,” the walking mountain at her side interrupted, “that the bag’s hers, tricksman. Are you calling Lady Drudae a liar?”

Lute sighed inwardly. The intervention of the mountain was as unwelcome as it was inevitable. He made a mental note to curse himself roundly for visiting this Goddess-blasted place at all, and smiled more widely.

“It would give me nothing but joy to surrender my bag into the care of the Noble Lady if I did not know that it contains instruments of dread magic. Even now, I might place it in her hands safely, for I should be here to hold her protected. But think, sir, what if I were to leave the bag with the very Noble Lady and withdraw myself and my protection over the boundary of your delightful village, as we all know I must. What then?” He affected a shudder. “I cannot complete the thought.”

It was doubtful that the mountain had ever completed a thought in his life. The lady was more facile.

“You say only you can keep me safe from these dangers?”

“I say it, Noble, and it is veriest truth.”

She frowned, then smiled with pretty malice. “Why, then, it is simple! Since the bag is mine—and only you may control it—you must be mine, too!”

She laughed and clapped her hands.

“Take him to the pit, Arto. And leave the bag here.”


MOONHAWK CAME INTO the place of darkness and she was afraid. Still, she held her head high and made her step firm, as befits a Witch-in-Circle, and gazed upon those that crept out from between the thatch-bald hovels with calm eyes and compassion.

“Goddess give you good even,” she said softly to the one who ventured nearest, though the taste of its emotions sickened her. Terror lanced the creature and it scuttled back to its fellows. The boldest lifted a hand, showing rock.

Moonhawk stopped, anger heating fear. “For shame! Is this how you treat a traveler, most blessed of the Mother! I claim travel-right, and mean you no harm.”

“Travel-right?” That was the boldest, rock yet steady. “You claim travel-right in Relzda?”

“If this be Relzda, then I do.”

The rock-bearer laughed like another woman’s weeping. “If you claim travel-right, you must go to Lady Drudae. I can show the way.’

Moonhawk bowed her head. “It is a kindness, sister. My thanks.”

“No kindness. Your cloak is fine.” With no further words, she scrabbled between two lean-together huts.

Listening in vain for the Goddess, Moonhawk followed.

Lady Drudae sat upon a wooden throne in the center of a drafty hall. The floor was dirt and the wall-rugs threadbare. Smoky oil-lamps gave uncertain light. There was a musk of rotting wood.

“Come forward.” Petulance rather than command. Moonhawk and her guide obeyed.

“Well?”

“This one claims travel-right, Noble Lady,” gabbled the bold one, not so bold now. “I brought her. Her cloak, Noble Lady. My bounty, my—”

“Shut your horrid mouth!”

The rock-bearer did so, bending until her unkempt hair brushed the dirt floor. Moonhawk stood forward, sharpening her eyes in the gloom.

The woman on the throne was beautiful: red-gold hair above a face the uninitiated would claim for the Goddess. The robe of doubtful crimson revealed her breasts, in the manner of Circle robes. But this one was not of Circle.

At the woman’s side a man—hulking and muscle-gripped—stood stoic. There was a gash below one eye and a purpling bruise along the line of his jaw.

“Well,” said the woman again. “Travel-right, is it? You are bold.”

“I am in need,” Moonhawk replied levelly. “Night comes and I ask the boon of a roof.”

“Do you? But this is a hard land from which to scratch a living, traveler. We have little to give. Even the favor of a place to sleep must be balanced by a valuable of your own.”

Moonhawk bowed her head. “I will work for the House with gladness. I sing the Teaching Tales, give news, heal . . .”

Lady Drudae was laughing. “Hear her, Arto? She can sing! She does not fear labor!” The laughter stopped. “You misunderstand, traveler. The boon of a roof demands the balance of a—personal—favor.” A snap of shapely fingers. “Arto!”

The man’s sluggish face lit and his lust was a thrust of jagged ice.

For a second time Moonhawk feared, and stepped back, gathering her mantle close.

“I do not choose to give that gift,” she said, flinging the words like stones to stop him.

He laughed then, low and idiotic, and she knew he would heed no words of hers. She retreated, thinking of the door and of the way to the boundary lintels; and the voice of the Mother was thunder within her: “Stay, thou! Do not turn away!”

The man lunged forward, snatching her cloak. Whirling, she left it in his hand and stood ‘round to face him, clad in travelers’ breech and shirt.

He threw the cloak aside and the creature who had guided her here scrambled forward in the dirt, wadding the cloth against her. The man lunged again.

Moonhawk danced away, but his hand had touched her arm. Thrusting away fear, she stood straight and, staring into his dull, exultant eyes, reached out, as those in Circle may—

His cry was hoarse with terror and he bent double, hands gripping his privates. “It burns! Noble Lady—aid me!”

Moonhawk stepped around him. “Be still and you will have no pain. Seek to harm me and you will burn.” She withdrew her attention from the man and laid it upon Lady Drudae.

“I am charged by the Mother’s Word to come to this place. I require—”

It was here that the Goddess in Her wisdom withdrew Her hand from about the person of Her daughter and allowed a well-aimed rock to fell her from behind.

***

THE EYES WERE open and of indeterminate hue; the face was blank, whether by intent or by nature it was not yet possible to know.

Lute nodded pleasantly and smiled.

“How lovely to see you wake! Allow me to offer congratulations. The mountain has only recently stopped wailing, from which I surmise that your aim is superior to my own. Well-played! I wish I’d been there to see it. Sound is useful, but I sometimes find it a bit confusing when not aided by sight. Don’t you?”

The eyes blinked once, slowly.

“Who are you?”

“A thousand apologies, Stranger Lady! I am Lute, Master of prestidigitation, illusion, and sleight-of-hand. No doubt you’ve heard of me.”

The eyes closed. Lute sighed and settled back against the dirt wall.

“Is it a little incongruous,” the woman wondered eventually, “for a Master of magics to be sitting at the bottom of a hole with his shirt torn and blood on his chin?”

Lute considered her shuttered face. “A minor reversal of fortunes. Only let me lay my hand upon my bag and neither this nor any other hole may contain me!”

“Oh.” The eyes were open again. “Where is it? Your bag.”

He pointed upward with a flourish. “Lady Drudae has it in her tender keeping.”

“I see.” She twisted her angular self gracelessly and sat up. “You’re an optimist.”

“A pragmatist,” he corrected gently. “But enough of me! What of yourself? What are you hight? Whither are you bound? How came you here? How will you go away?”

She raised her hands, feeling in the thick, unraveling knot of her hair. “Moonhawk. Where the Goddess sends me. Upon my two feet. The same.” Her hair became a cascade, obscuring gaunt features.

“Moonhawk.” He chewed his lip. “This is no good place for a name out of Circle. Call yourself otherwise, if you’ll take my advice—unless you’ve come to convert the heathen?”

She laughed, a pleasing sound in the dankness of the pit. “Hardly.” She ran pale strands through combing fingers. “You are devout?”

“I was raised to the Way and have traveled a good deal—

“Have you been to Huntress City? The lamps—harnessed lightnings, I was told, from the ships that brought our foremothers here.” He waved a hand upward, indicating the greasy shadows of oil light. “Far different, this.”

“There aren’t many places to compare with the glory of Huntress,” she said softly. “I would like to visit someday—Goddess willing. The last news I had was that Huntress Circle was collecting everything that might be from the Ships and placing all within a warded treasurehouse.”

“So? All the more reason, then, for one of the Circle to visit Lady Drudae. She possesses a most interesting artifact.”

He waited, gauging the moment. She was silent, combing her hair.

“You are incurious.”

She glanced up. “I am sitting in the mud at the bottom of a hole with a kitchen magician for my companion and a village of depravity above. My head hurts. My cloak is gone. I’m hungry. And cold. I see no way out of the present coil and no reason to be in it at all.”

“Ask your Goddess, if you lack reasons.” He had not intended his voice to be so sharp. “I’m told She has a plenitude.”

“She does not Speak.”

Lute shifted and carefully extended his legs.

“If my bag were here, we might dine on cheese and bread and fresh milk,” he said musingly. “I would share my cloak and mix you a tincture I learned in the Wilderwood that is efficacious in the soothing of headaches.” He sighed. “Rot those lamps—it’s getting dark. I hate to talk to someone I can’t see.”

Moonhawk raised her head, tracing the flicker of Power to the man—and out of him—flowing to the sticky floor.

A small blue flame appeared in the mud between them; faded, flickered, and steadied. The man Lute settled back, sighing as one who has expended much effort.

“Light at least, Lady. I apologize that it does not give heat. If I had my bag . . .” He let the sentence go, peering upward for a moment before settling harder against the fabric of the pit, hope as thin as the wan blue light.

“Please, my name is Moonhawk—and I thank you for the gift. You should conserve your strength.”

“My strength will return soon enough. They won’t come for me tonight, I think. More likely tomorrow mid-morning—after Lady Drudae is angry.”


“OPEN IT!” She augmented the order with a ringing slap across the man’s ear.

“Lady, I cannot! It does not—there is no— see nothing—”

“Open it or fry!” This time she aimed her blow at the bag, knuckles sharp, as if she struck the idiot’s simpering face.

“Lady, it is not possible!” pled Kat. “Perhaps the trickster told the aye—”

Clink!

They froze; turned as one to stare at the bag sitting, inviolate, on the high wooden table.

Beside it lay a solitary token of the type used to count score in gambling games.

“Where did it come from?” wondered Kat.

“The bag . . .”

“Lady, the bag is not open!”

“Where else would it come from?” she cried. “Do you have such a thing? Do I? It must come from the bag!” She snatched at the clasp, swore; lifted the whole with fury’s strength and slammed it upon the table. “Open, damn you!”

The bag sat, shuttered and uncowed.

Lovely shoulders drooping, Lady Drudae turned away.

Plingplinkbinkplunk!

She spun. Rolling unhurriedly down the slope of the table, four bright pottery marbles: red, blue, green, yellow. Lady Drudae stared them to the edge of the table and watched them fall, one by one, to the dirt floor.

“Fetch the magician.”

***

MOONHAWK SAT AT the bottom of the pit and listened.

Lady Drudae’s voice she heard most—strident and scolding, then threatening. Less often came the undistinguished bass rumble of a man’s speaking. Least often, she heard Lute’s clear, trained voice. He spoke very few words for one who seemed to like them so well. Most of the words he spoke meant ‘No’.

“You will open that bag now,” Lady Drudae stormed. “If you do not, Kat will break your fingers.”

“If he does so, Lady, heed my warning! Run away from here as fast as you may. For the bag becomes its own master if I have no hands to lay upon it. Listen! And believe.”

Very nearly did Moonhawk in her pit believe, though straining Witch-sense brought no taste of power, other than the gall of evil.

“So . . .” hissed Lady Drudae. “Kat!”

A moment’s incredulous silence was followed by a man’s hoarse scream.

They threw him down from the edge.

Moonhawk broke his fall with her body and he rolled away, coiled around his ruined hand, sobbing.

“Lute.” She touched him and he shuddered, sob catching on a gasp.

Witch-sense questing, she found a mangled chord of clarity within his terror, caught it and wound it round with calm, feeding comfort in a riverflow until he let her touch the pain and share it.

“Lute. I am Healer.” She did not force trust; did not stint on what she gave.

Slowly, the coiled body unwound. He flopped to his back, eyes stabbing hers.

“Good. Now it is my turn to give a gift . . . I must touch it, Lute. I am Healer. Through me flows the love of our Mother. Through me flows Her strength—to you, Her son . . .”

She held the mangled member now; felt and knew utter destruction: the tiny bones ground and shattered and hopeless. Around them, the highly trained muscles mourned.

Moonhawk took breath, drawing in strength, and crossed over into that gray space from which all Healing takes place.

The man beneath her hand screamed; she exerted the Will necessary to quiet him. The Inner Eyes saw bone shards reform, fit together, settle into the cradle of tissue, seal into wholeness—into health.

She let breath escape; removed Will and hand and sat back, face dripping sweat, body shuddering.

“In Her Name it is done.”

Lute caught her with two good hands as she toppled sideways, and lay her gently down, head pillowed on his thigh.


MOONHAWK BLINKED IN the gash of sunlight and tried not to breathe through her nose. The one called Kat held her arms twisted behind her back and he stank like last week’s slaughter.

Lute’s hands hung free. He faced Lady Drudae over a dull blue tube and smiled as if the terror in him was no more real than dreams.

“You know what this is?” The Lady asked him, voice unnaturally calm.

Lute bowed his head. “I do. I beg leave to remind the most gracious and noble Lady that, fried, I am of no use to her.”

“How is your hand mended? It was broken beyond praying for—Kat?”

“It was, Noble Lady,” his voice boomed over Moonhawk’s head. “You know me!”

Lady Drudae nodded, eyes flicking to Moonhawk. “You. How comes the magician’s hand to be whole?”

Moonhawk met the mad blue eyes steadily. “I Healed him.”

“So.” The eyes widened. She lifted the tube. “Do you know what this is?”

“No.”

“Then I will show you.” Her voice rose. “Arto! Bring the nemrill!”

The Lady backed away, tube lowering. The mountain shadowed the door arch, a bundle of fur swinging from a huge fist.

“Throw it in and stand away!”

The bundle hit the dirt floor, rolled into a puddle of sunlight and came up spitting, fangs showing, tail fat with fury, claws at ready.

This nemrill was none such as they had at Temple, pleased with the world and themselves. The ferocity of this creature startled the Healer; its fear pierced her.

Lady Drudae laughed, pointed the tube and pressed the thumb-stud.

There was a zag of lightning; a stink of ozone. The nemrill was encased in a nimbus of flame, shrieking in mortal agony. Moonhawk reached within; saw Lute start forward while the Lady laughed and—pop!

The nemrill was gone.

The stink of scorched fur and frying flesh reached Moonhawk and she gagged, sagging shamefully in her captor’s grip. Lute turned to her; was halted by a shake of the tube.

“Now, magician, listen closely. Open the bag—or she fries. You see?”

He lay a hand on the bag; withdrew it. “It is a long process, Noble Lady; and fraught with peril. I have not eaten in some time—a simple oversight, no doubt! My strength is not sufficient to the task. If I err, we may all fry!”

“I marvel you carry so dangerous a thing with you.”

“It is wise to keep the danger you know best to hand, Lady.”

Hesitation that Moonhawk tasted as her own, even as her powers faded. Food . . . She separated her need, hurled it into the madwoman with the last of her strength.

“Very well. Arto—bring food for the magician. Kat—tie her.”

Lute carried the bad bread and doubtful cheese to her, ignoring the tube though his nerves shrieked. He halved the meager portion and raised a cheese bit to her lips. “Eat.”

“Look, Kat!” Lady Drudae shrilled. “The magician is kind! He shares his meal with a stranger! Or is she not a stranger? A night in the pit together, with no other entertainment—and she would not have Arto!”

Moonhawk felt the flare of his fury, held his eyes with hers. “My thanks to you, Brother.” Shoulders aching with the strain of the rope, she took the cheese and ate.

He fed her the bread and gave her a drink of pure, icy water. Then he ate, taking much longer than he might. She had the sense that he was gauging something, counting . . .

The Lady shifted irritably, fingers tightening on the tube. Lute offered more water; had another sip for himself and turned.

She read no hope in him.

“Now, if the Lady and her bodyguardian will stand well away . . .”

“Stand away! You can’t go—” Arto’s bellow spun Kat and the Lady around. Lute faded two light steps toward the bag, hope scalding.

Through the arch a ragamuffin crowd jostled, pushing bulky Arto before it like jetsam in a floodtide.

“Noble Lady! See what we bring! Bounty for all!”

“Enough!” The tube pointed unwavering at the center of the crowd. Voices halted and the tangle rearranged itself, becoming four of the village surrounding two who were manifestly not.

The man struggled against the rope that pinned his arms to his sides. The woman stood wary and alert in her bonds, dark eyes flashing.

“He has coins, Noble Lady!” cried one from the village. “And fine clothes! We followed and captured! We demand bounty!”

“You demand?” The tube had one target now and the blue eyes held only madness. The one who had spoken sparked fear and flung himself belly down on the dirt.

“Forgive me, Noble Lady. I spoke hastily.”

“Count your wretched life as bounty.” The tube averted its stare with reluctance. “And the rest of you! I’ll decide your bounty—if any! Go! Now.”

They abased themselves and went, Arto following. Kat came and stood behind the captives, grinning.

“Coins?” wondered Lady Drudae, eyeing them. “Fine clothing? And not so bad looking a woman, eh, Kat? We’ll give her to Arto, to atone for the one who wouldn’t have him.”

The man froze, horror pouring out of him. The woman’s head went up.

“I am well content with the man I have. We are travelers and sacred. In Her Name you must release us.”

Lady Drudae laughed. “Oh, well said! In Her name, release us. Oh, yes! Arto!”

MREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

A noise loud enough to stun the mind burst into the room: all save one were startled.

Now there was a rush of wind filling Moonhawk’s head as the room telescoped away, becoming tiny, tinier . . . This was the whole of the Power, as she’d tasted it but twice before: The Mother Herself was looking through Moonhawk’s eyes. Before the room was gone entirely from her human sight, she looked for Lute and saw him at the table, one hand on the magic bag, and one hand perhaps in it . . .


THE GODDESS DID pour Herself into the earthly form of Her daughter,idiodic Moonhawk. Rising up, She snapped the puny bonds of hemp.

With a glance, She caused the ropes to fall from the two captives and cried out in a Voice like the Wind That Scattered The Stars:

“Away! Take thy man and go!”

The woman caught the man’s hand. For a moment he resisted, thinking he might stay and fight. Then sense prevailed and he turned with his woman and they ran like wise rabbits away from that screeching place.

The murderer Kat started after, hands grabbing. Before his eyes the Mother flung images of past evil and he fell to the ground upon his knees, tears running his cheeks. Lute aided the Mother, striking with a mallet that unguarded head.

Lightning came at Her as the tyrant woman added screams to the din and the Mother laughed, for Lightning is Her Consort and will not harm Her. She raised a hand to the stream and deflected it upward, to and through the rotting roof.

Then the Goddess reached out once more, and put before Lady Drudae’s eyes another image, so that she dropped the death-tube.

A hand fell upon Her Person. A voice dinned in Her ears. The Goddess looked about, well pleased with Her work, and returned the body to Her daughter.

***

“MOONHAWK! Moonhawk!”

She blinked at Lute, stared at the fallen Kat, at the Lady, back to the far wall, fist jammed into her mouth, eyes fixed with rigid horror on something she alone saw.

“Moonhawk!” A shake that snapped her head on her neck.

“What?”

“The roof’s afire! Goddess blast you—run!”

Run. She fumbled at the body’s controls and began a shambling trot toward the door, the path she must take through the village to the northern edge unfolding before the Inner Eyes. Lute was right. She must run—

The door was abruptly blocked. Arto. Moonhawk breathed a prayer to the Mother and did not slow.

The mountain fell back and let her by. He was still standing with his hands empty at his sides when Lute passed a moment later, hands and bag ablaze with strange incandescent light.

Running was easier now. More natural. She added speed, weaving between the thatchless hovels, following necessity, oblivious to the shadows, vaguely curious of the light that had kept pace and then was gone . . .

She broke out of the village into a clearing ringed with rock—an ancient corral, perhaps—the carved shapes of boundary markers towered, just beyond.

She raced across the opening, eyes on the markers, necessity urging her on. Her foot struck a hidden rock and she hurtled forward, catching herself on her hands, rolling up—and freezing.

Encircling her, not mere rock, but a crowd of rag-tag creatures. She saw a flash of dark blue—her cloak. And the woman who wore it held a stone.

All of them held stones.

She reached within, but her powers were gone to ash. She reached without and touched nothing but hatred. Necessity burned in her. Fear turned her legs to jelly.

The one who wore her cloak drew back her arm, grinning. Moonhawk braced herself.

“Make way!” cried a voice and the human wall broke as a thin man in a torn shirt burst through, bag in hand. He slammed to a halt and spun in a wide circle, rounds flashing from his hands.

“Gold! Gold for all!”

“Gold!” The crowd fell as one, scrabbling in the knotted grass.

Lute grabbed her arm and pulled her with him, nearly jerking her arm from its socket.

The villagers were still grubbing for the coins when the two of them passed the boundary stones.


“OF ALL THE STUPID—why run this way? The eastern boundary was closer—and easier going beyond. Or am I to believe you came in this way?”

“No,” said Moonhawk absently. “I came in by the eastern way. Here.”

“Here what?” he demanded, but she was going away from him like a sleep-walker. Cursing under his breath, he followed.

In a moment he heard the voices of the recent prisoners.

“North for a bit, then,” the winded traveler was saying. “We’ll turn south beyond the hills. There’s time for a short detour, isn’t there, Maria?”

The woman’s doubt was palpable. She hunched in her cloak, dark eyes tired now, not flashing.

Moonhawk stepped around the rock that sheltered them, the magician trailing.

“Go due north,” she said, voice deep with Foretelling. “At the end of seven day’s walking you will come to a town by a wide river. The name of the town is Caleitha. When your daughter is born, take her to Circle there. They will Know her.”

She sagged suddenly and felt Lute’s hand beneath her elbow as she smiled. “The Goddess Herself intervened for you, Sister. Be joyful.”


LATER THAT EVENING, Moonhawk fed twigs to a fire while Lute grumbled over the state of his property.

“Is your bag really worth so much?”

“So much?” He stared at her in disbelief. “My dear Master, may he rest in the arms of the Goddess forever, taught that a magician’s receptacle is his life.” He stood, bag in hand. “It’s his prop.” A sharp shake and legs appeared. Lute set it firmly on the ground.

“His means of living.” Bright scarves dazzled in the firelight.

“His safe.” Coins glittered and clinked.

“His watchman.” A moment of that hideous noise that had started the escape!

“His lightning.” A quick flash of pyrotechnic light danced about his hands.

“And his restaurant.” A tin arced across the fire and she caught it, laughing.

“Hardly fresh milk!”

“Fresher than we had elsewise,” he retorted, and came to sit near her, letting the bag stand. “Where do you go now?”

“Where the Goddess sends me.”

He nodded and moved his long hands. A wooden top spun in one palm. He played with it, dancing it over his fingers, vanishing it from the right hand to appear in the left. Moonhawk laughed in wonder.

“How are you doing that?”

He glanced up with a grin. “Magic.” The grin grew speculative. “Would you like to learn?”

“May I?”

“You seem to have a certain aptitude. And I need an apprentice. Been putting it off far too long. Since we both go where the wind blows us, there’s no need for us not to go together, is there?”

“No,” said Moonhawk, “there isn’t.”

“Good,” he said and vanished the top. Standing, he went to the bag. “We should, though, head more or less toward Huntress City.”

“Why?”

He turned and the firelight glinted off the dull blue barrel.

“I took this from the Noble Lady’s hall. It seems to me such a thing belongs with others of its kind, under the careful eyes of those who know their dangers, rather than loose in the poor, half-wild world.”

“Will I have learned magic by the time we reach Huntress City?” Moonhawk wondered and Lute laughed as the weapon disappeared into the depths of his bag.

“It depends on how apt a pupil you are.”


THUS DID MOONHAWK and Lute meet and decide to travel together across the world, this with the blessing of the Goddess, our Mother.

***

The first tale ends here.










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