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A Spell for the Lost

THE WIND WAS out of the southwest, carrying the acrid odor of baking rock. The sun was out of the same quarter, and backlit the magician in the weed-choked square, casting spears of light into the eyes of his audience.

Moonhawk, the magician’s traveling companion for this month or so, sat on the cistern wall, face turned aside the sun-spears, and watched each gesture with care.

It was to be a rope trick now. Lute showed the crowd the length of common brown cord, called a lad from the audience to test its strength and, finally, tie it snugly into a loop and hold it high above his head.

Lute held up the circle of steel and waved it under the rope-holder’s nose. The lad called out that it was only a saddle-ring.

Moonhawk leaned a little forward where she perched on the wall, opening herself to nuance, as she had been taught in Circle. The ring-and-rope trick always baffled her, though she had seen it fifty times in the past month. Perhaps this time—

“And now,” Lute intoned, voice thinned only slightly by the wind, “by the grace of the elements of hemp and iron, by the impermanence of the things we aim to touch and hold, by the wind and by the sun—Ho!” He made a forceful gesture of throwing—and reached forward in nearly the same instant to steady the village lad who had staggered, letting the rope loop sag.

The lad got his feet under him and shouted aloud, holding the rope up so the crowd could see the loop, unbroken, with the saddle-ring threaded neatly as a pendant, spinning lightly in the wind.

There were then as always several from the crowd who must need test rope, knot and ring, all under the magician’s tolerant eye.

Moonhawk settled back on her wall, a most un-Witch-like curse on her tongue. Befatched again, Goddess take the man! Well, she would simply ask him the way of it. But it galled her to need to do so.

The crowd had demonstrated to its own satisfaction that rope and ring were inextricable. Lute had the mating back and untied the knot, with a well-worn patter praising the skill of the knot-tier and the efficacy of the knot. He slid the ring free, hung the rope over one shoulder, frowned at the ring and with a gesture vanished it. The audience roared, men stamping their feet and women clapping their palms together, and Lute announced the show was over.

“But if you will, friends, a bit of something for the work expended—a coin, an egg, a loaf, a sup of ale—for, as great as magic is, not even the greatest magician can conjure himself a meal . . .”

It was a giving crowd. By the time its disparate portions had wended home, five eggs, a new loaf, and a quarter-sausage had come to rest on Lute’s tattered yellow prop cloth.

“And if a great magician cannot conjure himself a meal, does it follow that he may not conjure a meal for another?” Moonhawk asked, stepping forward and bending to retrieve the three nesting wooden cups.

Lute looked up, mischief glinting in his dark eyes, gaunt face stern.

“The ways of the Craft Magic are not for the student to ridicule,” he said austerely. “You will learn these mysteries in the proper order and with the proper respect. Until then, you will keep a civil tongue in your head, madam.”

He sounded so like old Laurel, the Witch who had the training of the child Moonhawk, that the adult—woman and Witch in her own right—laughed aloud. Lute grinned, and waved a graceful hand at the accumulated bounty.

“Besides, we’ve conjured enough for a fine dinner and a bit left aside to break our fast. And—” A flourish, a snatch, and he held out a quarter-moon, brittle with age. “A coin to trade for ale at the inn. I’m told this village boasts an inn.”

Moonhawk glanced about her, frowning as much against the ill-kept square as against the sun. “It does?”

“There you go again!” Lute cried, slipping the cups from her hand and placing them carefully in his bag. “I can’t recall the last time I spoke to so disrespectful a woman.”

“No doubt my early training is to blame,” Moonhawk returned. “And the fact that one is used to city comfort!”

“No doubt,” Lute agreed, with mortifying sincerity. He finished the various fastenings and straightened, gripping the bag’s handle and giving it a sharp shake. The legs retracted with a snap—mechanical magic, this, not sleight-of-hand. He gestured, showing her the dusty square and rag-tag huts.

“Look about you well. For the world is more nearly like this than it is like Dyan City. The lot of common folk is hard work and short lives, relieved—and the Goddess smiles—by love, and by children, and by an occasional diversion such as myself.”

He dropped his hand, and in the fading light looked abruptly tired. “For the most part, the Goddess blesses those more, who live nearest the Temples.”

Moonhawk kept still. She knew the correct response—knew that every teaching she had ever received told her she put her immortal self at danger, traveling with such a one.

Yet, his voice reverberated with Truth, and Witch-sense showed her his sincerity. She sighed. The man sowed disquiet like gladola seeds. And yet—

“Master Magician!” The woman’s voice was breathless with hurry and though she herself was somewhat better dressed than most of the crowd had been, her hair was coming unbraided and dust lay thick upon her. She rushed up to Lute and caught his hand in both of hers; Moonhawk marked how well he controlled the instinct to snatch the precious member away.

“Lady,” he said, respectfully, bowing his head, and taking the opportunity to slip his hand free. “How may I serve you?”

“My daughter,” she began, and lay her hand against her breast. “Oh, thank the Mother you are here! My daughter said that you would not aid me, but I pray—Indeed, how could you not? It is the responsibility of power to aid the powerless!”

“So I have always been taught,” Lute said carefully, while Moonhawk opened herself to the other woman’s self and scanned each nuance of emotion.

Distress, she found, but no disorder such as madness might generate. She glanced at Lute and saw he had reached the same conclusion.

“Before aid can be bestowed, we must be aware of the nature of the problem,” he told the woman gently.

“Yes, certainly!” she cried, and gave a breathless little laugh, though Moonhawk detected no joy in the sound.

“It is my daughter,” she said again. “Three days together she has been gone. Her sister would have it that she is only about some madcap scheme and will return when it occurs to her, but she is not like that! Wild she may be, and heedless of manner, but her heart is good. To worry me so—and she must know that I would worry! No, I cannot believe her so cruel. She must have fallen aside of danger—she may even now be lying in some rock-catch, broken-legged and hoarse from calling . . .” Her voice faltered and Lute stepped expertly into the small silence.

“Lady, I am distressed to hear of your trouble. But surely this is a matter for those of the village who are familiar with the country roundabout and who will know where best to search.”

“They have searched,” she said, suddenly listless. “They say—they say she must only have gone off with a lover and will return, in a day or six. They say, no one could stay hidden so long, from all the wilder-wise.” She bent her head. “They say, unless she is dead.”

“Goddess forefend,” murmured Lute devoutly. Moonhawk slanted him a slicing look, which he disarmed merely by refusing to meet her eyes. He kept a grave face turned toward the woman. “But this other—that she is gone with a lover to celebrate the Goddess’ best joy—is that not possible?”

“With her own betrothed sitting at my hearth, wringing his hands and wondering what is come of her? I say again, Master Magician, she is not a cruel girl.”

“Ah.” Lute did glance at Moonhawk then, eyes explicitly neutral, then looked back at the grieving mother. “What is it you think I may do for you, Lady?”

“Find her!” she cried, and made as if to clutch his hand again, a move he adroitly avoided. “You have magic . . . power . . . the sight . . . In the name of the Goddess, Master Magician! In the name of she who bore you! My child must be found. My child—” She gasped, bent her head and struck her breast three times, slowly, with a shaking fist.

Lute cleared his throat. “Alas,” he said, face and voice betraying nothing but the utmost sincerity, and perhaps a shade of sorrow. “There is magic and there is magic. I have no ability to find what is lost—”

“But I have,” Moonhawk said abruptly, and lay her hand briefly upon the woman’s head, feeling the warmth of the unraveling hair beneath her palm. “Peace on you, Sister,” she said in traditional benediction. She took her hand away and met the woman’s incredulous stare with firm coolness.

“You are—Sing thanks to the Goddess! You are of the Circle?” The woman’s eyes shone with tears, with transcendent hope. “A priestess?”

“I am Moonhawk,” she said austerely. “Witch, Healer, and Seer. I may find that which is lost, by the grace of our Lady.” She glanced aside, saw Lute watching her intently; returned her gaze to the woman. “There are certain items I require in order to search most efficiently.”

“Certainly!” The woman cried. “Certainly—and you shall have them! You shall come—both of you shall come!—to my house, sup with us, sleep, you may have all I have. Only find her, Lady Moonhawk! Find my child.”

“I shall try,” said Moonhawk and felt a sudden chill.

THE WOMAN’S NAME was Aster and her house was a large one, set just above the village, with two goats in the front yard and a hen house in back. Taelberry twined up an arbor by the door, the heavy purple blossoms silking the air with fragrance.

“Here we are,” said Aster, leading them to the flower-hung porch and working the latch. “Lady Moonhawk, Master Lute—please be welcome in my home.”

“Peace on this house,” Moonhawk returned in proper ritual.

“Joy to all who live here,” Lute said sweetly, bowing his head in respect before stepping over the threshold.

Moonhawk followed, then the host, into a kitchen smelling of new bread and warm spices. By the hearth stood a slim and well-made young man, dejectedly stirring the stew pot. From another portion of the room hurried a girl: brown hair neatly done into a knot at her neck, sturdy hands drying themselves briskly on a clean white apron.

“What’s this?” she cried, her eye full of two tall, ragged strangers; then she spied Aster. “Mother? You said nothing of guests—”

“I said I was gone to fetch the magician from the village, if he was still there and looked kindly on my case,” said Aster sharply. “As it happens, he did, but could do nothing for me. However, his traveling companion has skill in finding what is lost and she has consented to help.”

“Traveling—?” Again, those quick brown eyes counted Lute and Moonhawk, flashed back to the older woman’s face. “You bring us a pair of gypsies to guest?”

“Even not, gracious Lady!” cried Lute. “For gypsies have the foresight to bring their houses with them, where I am so dimwitted as to have no house at all!”

“And so we ask travel-grace,” added Moonhawk, in her deep, level voice, “from charitable homes along the way.”

The boy at the cauldron laughed once, a sharp-edged sound carrying more scorn than merriment. “Bested, Senna,” he called out. “Make welcome before they eat you alive.”

“Wrong also, young sir,” Lute said dulcetly. “For what person of dignity will stay in a house where welcome is not a gift?”

“As it is here,” cried Aster, bustling forward, “most sincerely! Senna! Cedar! Your manners want brushing! Bow to Lady Moonhawk, Witch of Dyan Temple, and to Master Lute the magician! Lady, Master—my eldest daughter, Senna; and—and Cedar, who is betrothed to my youngest—to Tael . . .” She caught her breath hard, then straightened and clapped her hands together.

“Quickly now, children! Senna, show the Lady and Master to the guesting room. Cedar, take hot water to fill the basins. Give them houserobes, Senna, and put their things to wash. I will be along in a moment with wine and a bit of cheese, to help you through till dinner . . .”

So directed, the two young things obeyed with startling will, and it was not too long before Lute was reclining shamelessly among a mountain of pillows, wineglass in hand, dressed in a houserobe of rich vermilion wool.

“Much better than eggs,” he announced with satisfaction, and took a deep draught of wine.

Moonhawk looked over from the table at which she was combing her hair and paused, comb arrested. Lute glanced up, eyebrow quirking. “Yes?”

She recovered herself, finished the stroke and began another. “It is only that you look very nearly respectable, dressed so.”

His eyes gleamed and he brought his glass up to drink.

“Who is he, Zinna?” demanded a girlish falsetto from across the room. “What do you mean who? That handsome fellow in the red gown, of course! Do you suppose he’s a wealthy merchant? Perhaps a noblewoman’s son . . .”

Moonhawk laughed, conquering the urge to turn and stare at the girl she knew was not there, put the comb down, picked up her glass and moved over to the pillows. “I didn’t say handsome,” she protested. “I said respectable.”

“My hopes dashed,” he sighed, face reflecting unsurpassed sorrow. He assayed the glass, slanted his eyes at her face. “Perhaps I’ll have a try for the eldest daughter. This will be hers someday, after all, and with a few manners I’m certain she’d be quite tolerable.”

“A mannerly woman is very important,” Moonhawk agreed with false gravity and he inclined his head.

“Present company excluded, certainly.”

She froze on the edge of hurling the contents of her glass into his gaunt brown face; sighed and shook her head.

“Always one step before me, Master Lute,” she said, with equally false softness.

He tasted his wine. “Hardly that. At the most, half-a-step ahead and half-a-step to a side.” He leaned forward suddenly; surprisingly extended a hand. “Come, cry friends! I swear I hadn’t meant it to sting so sharply!”

Carefully, she put her hand in his, felt his fingers exert brief, warm pressure and then withdraw, leaving something light and cool in her palm. She cupped her hand and turned it over, revealing a tael-blossom.

“Named for the berry that gives the good wine,” murmured Lute. “Heedless, but not cruel. And the elder sister’s a shrew.”

Moonhawk glanced up. “You think she left with forethought—and intent?”

He shrugged. “Perhaps they argued—the shrew and the heedless one—or perhaps love’s veil was somehow shredded and she saw that dull young fellow for the boor he is.”

“Quick judgments, Master Lute,” she chided him. “You were with them for less than a quarter-glass.”

“It’s my business to make quick judgments,” he said, unperturbed. “Magic must be good for something, after all.” He waved a hand at the hourglass, now three-quarters done. “We shall soon have the opportunity to make less hurried appraisals. And then you will do your magic.”

“Then I will ask the assistance of the Goddess in the pursuit of truth,” Moonhawk corrected austerely, and he sighed.

“I WILL REQUIRE a new candle,” Moonhawk told Aster, “a length of string or thin rope and something that belongs to Tael—preferably something she often had about her.”

“At once,” said Aster, face glowing with the half-sick hope that had filled her all through the meal, so that she pushed her food around the bowl and shredded the good, warm bread into untasted crumbs. She turned to her eldest, who was hovering with Cedar by the fire. “Senna. Bring Lady Moonhawk what she requires.”

“Yes, Mother,” the girl said quickly enough, though her mouth was turned down with ill temper. She bustled out and returned with a new candle in a wooden holder, a cord of fine white wool, a bright blue cloak and a string of pierced beads. She placed them, one by careful one, on the table, saw Moonhawk’s eye on the cloak and faltered, a blush warming her cheeks.

“I know some feel it is sacrilege, Lady Moonhawk, for one of the world to wear Circle blue. But Tael loved the color. She spun the thread, wove the cloth, dyed it in taelberry juice, fashioned the cloak—all with her own hands. Being so, I thought it might aid you. This . . .” her fingers caressed the beaded necklace.

“Is my troth gift to her,” Cedar finished harshly, and laughed. “Which she hardly wore.”

“Still,” said Aster, “it must have meant a great deal! Perhaps fear of losing it—”

“Yes, of course!” he said bitterly. “But the truth is that she would rather wear that length of leather and that stupid bit of wood—” He caught himself, folded his lips and made an awkward bow. “Your pardon, Housemother; my concern and grief make me short of temper.”

“I see that it does,” Aster replied, “but in just a few moments, Lady Moonhawk will find her and—”

“I also require,” Moonhawk interrupted, “quiet. You may repair to the parlor. I will call as soon as I have found what there is to find.” She looked hard at Aster. “Remember, this lies with the Goddess, not with mere mortal hope.”

The older woman bowed her head, hand rising to touch her breast. “We abide by the will of the Goddess,” she said devoutly. She beckoned the others with a sweep of her hand. “Come.”

Moonhawk bent to arrange the items upon the table: candle to the north, string coiled before her, one end tied securely about the trothing gift. The cloak she considered for a long moment before laying it about her own shoulders and twisting the brooch closed.

“You may leave also,” she said, without turning her head to look at Lute, leaning silent against the mantle.

“Ungracious, Lady Moonhawk!” he returned. “You watch my magic, after all. Fair trade is fair trade.”

She did look at him then, for the fine voice carried an undercurrent of what—had it not been Lute—she would have identified as worry. “I have done this before,” she said, wishing it didn’t sound quite so tart. “It’s a very simple spell.”

“Nothing can go wrong,” he agreed pleasantly, then brought a fingertip to his lips. “But here I am babbling when you require silence! Forgive me, Lady.” He sank soundlessly to the bench and folded his hands in his lap.

“Silent as the dead, you find me. My master insisted upon the same condition when he was working, so neither of us is novice at our task.”

Far more distracting to argue with him than to acquiesce, which she did with a tip of the head. She then ignored him, closing her eyes and offering the prayers that would ready her for the work.

Lute bent forward on his bench, foreboding like a chill handful of stone in his belly.

Moonhawk’s breathing deepened; the lines smoothed out of her face, leaving it at once childlike and distantly cruel. She raised her left hand, eyes still closed, pointed a finger and lit the candle. She lowered the hand, lay it on the coil of twine and pulled in the necklace, holding it in her right hand.

She opened her eyes.

“By the grace, with the aid and in the Name of the Mother, I reach out to the one called Tael.” With a smooth flip of the wrist, she hurled the necklace far across the kitchen, paying out the twine until the beads hit the stone flooring with a rustling clink.

“With the will of She Who Is, I call Tael to me.” Moonhawk intoned, and began, slowly, to pull in the cord.

It came easily at first, sliding over the stones with a half-audible murmur. But midway to the table the cord faltered in its smooth passage through Moonhawk’s fingers, picked up—and faltered again.

Lute craned forward, gravel-dread gone to ice in his gut, saw the necklace move jerkily into the circle of light cast by the candle—and stop altogether.

The Witch continued to work the cord, taking up the slack, then tightening the drag, until it stretched taut against the necklace, which moved no more, but lay as if welded to the floor.

He looked back, saw Moonhawk’s eyes closed and sweat on her face, the cord taut as a lute-string between her hand and the troth-gift, quivering and giving off a faint, smoky luminescence.

The ice in his belly sent a shaft lancing upward into his chest and he came off the bench in a silent rush, meaning to shake her, to pull away the cord, even to shout—

The beads shifted against the floor with a sound like sobbing and, obedient at last, hurtled through the air to land with a clatter upon the table top, half-an-inch from the Witch’s long hand.

Lute froze, staring at her face, willing her to open her eyes, to shake her hair back, extinguish the candle and put aside the blue cloak; to mock him, even, for his terrors—

She sat, still and silent as death. Beside her, the candle flame flickered and went out.

Finally, he moved; relit the candle and set it so the light fell full on her face. It was then he saw that she was crying.

“Moonhawk?” A cracking whisper; much unlike his usual manner. He reached forth a hand and touched her, lightly, on the shoulder. “Moonhawk.”

She gasped and hurled back in her chair, lifting a warding hand, eyes wide now, and bright with terror.

“Moonhawk!” He caught the uplifted hand, and nearly gasped himself at the coldness of her flesh.

“Ah!” She cried and bent her head, making no effort to take her hand from his. Her breathing shuddered. “Gone,” she mourned. “All gone. Goodbye sun. Goodbye flowers. Goodbye love. Hello dark. Mother? Mother! Where is she? Why is there no rest, no sweet embrace and welcome home?”

“Moonhawk!” He held tight to her, cupped her chin in his free hand—sacrilege, and worth a stoning, to touch the sacred body of a priestess without her aye—and forced her head up. Wide, unseeing eyes stared into his.

“Moonhawk sleeps,” she said, still in that young, grief-sodden voice. “Tael was called and Tael is here—and here will remain until right is done.” She put her hand up and gripped his wrist in cold, ice-cold, death-cold fingers.

“Avenge me.”

THEY WERE GATHERED in a bright-lit parlor two steps down the hall from the kitchen: mother, daughter, and son-to-be, all with a bit of work to hand. The boy was mending a harness—competently, Lute noted with surprise; the shrew was setting tiny, precise stitches into a shirt. Aster sat with her work held lightly in her right hand, needle poised in her left—but she was not stitching. Her eyes dwelled dreamily upon the candle flame and she seemed lost to her surroundings.

Nonetheless, it was she who looked up as Lute paused outside the room, and she who rose to greet him.

“Master Lute. Is there—has Lady Moonhawk found my child?”

He smiled and bowed with professional grace, trying not to think of the mourning wraith he had left in the guesting-chamber, tucked among the pillows.

“The Lady Moonhawk,” he intoned, “has wrought a very powerful spell. Your daughter has indeed been located and—Goddess willing—will be home tomorrow morning.”

Joy lit Aster’s face. She clapped her hands and looked to where her eldest still sat, calmly stitching.

“Senna, have you no ears? Did you not hear Master Lute say that your sister will be home tomorrow?”

She glanced up, brown eyes hard as pebbles. “And did I not say she would be home when she had done with whatever madcap scheme she was chasing?” She bent her gaze once more to her stitching.

“You would believe that some ill had come of her. Ill never comes to the likes of Tael, who laughs at everything.” She made a particularly violent jab at the fabric with her needle before concluding, half-whispered, “As she will be laughing at all of us, tomorrow.”

“Senna—” her mother began, shock blighting the joy on her face.

“Tomorrow?” That was the boy, rigid as a carving on the stool, harness forgotten in his hands. “If she’s close enough to be here tomorrow, why don’t we go and fetch her tonight?” He turned wild, glittering eyes on Aster.

“You’d do better not to let your hopes rise, Housemother! What do we know of this Lady Moonhawk, in truth? What word have we, except her own, that she is Circle-trained? Does she come to us properly clad—no! She comes like a ragged gypsy fortune-teller, bearing company with a—”

“Cedar!” Aster commanded. “Hold your tongue!”

“Yes, do,” said Senna, bending to put her work into the basket. She stood and glanced from her mother to the boy. “Morning will be here soon enough, and then we can all judge the truth of the foretelling.” She yawned, covering her mouth with work-scarred fingers.

“I, for one, believe the Lady, by whatever means she gained her knowledge,” she concluded. “And now I am going to bed, the better to speed morning along. Mother?”

“Yes,” said Aster distractedly, and turned to lay her mending haphazardly on the chair. “A good notion.” She straightened and held out a hand. “Master Lute, thank you for your service to us. I will just step down the hall, Senna, and give thanks to Lady Moonhawk, also, and then—”

“Lady Moonhawk,” Lute interposed smoothly, “was exhausted with the working of magic and has since retired. Doubtless there will be a time for speaking together, tomorrow.”

“Doubtless,” said Senna, sarcastically. She put a surprisingly solicitous hand under Aster’s elbow. “Come to bed, Mother. Goodnight, Cedar. Master Lute.”

“Dream sweetly,” Lute wished, and bowed them out of the room. He turned in time to see Cedar come to his feet, harness falling unnoticed to the floor. He shambled forward, and started badly when Lute touched his arm.

“I see you’re as wide awake as I am,” the magician said, smiling into the bewildered young eyes. “Do the grace of walking with me. A touch of evening air and a bit of exercise are doubtless just what we both require.” The boy simply stared. Lute smiled more widely, took a firmer grip on the arm and pulled him, unresisting, toward the kitchen and the door.

“Come,” he said softly. “I’ll tell you a story while we walk.”

THE MOON WAS high, limning the countryside in silver, and the stars hung pure and unflickering just out of Lute’s longest reach. He looked around with genuine pleasure.

“What a delightful scene! What delightful country, certainly, once one climbs out of the village. I thought of settling here this afternoon.”

“But your mistress has no mind to rest,” Cedar said, with a touch of his former acidity.

“You mistake me, child. I am my own man. And the Lady Moonhawk is indeed a Witch-out-of-Circle, properly attired or not. We happen to travel in the same direction. When either of us chooses a different way, why, then we shall part company.”

Cedar unlatched the gate and they stepped through onto the track. Once more Lute looked about him. “Truly delightful! What direction shall we walk?”

Hope flickered in the boy’s face, clearly discernible in the moonlight. He turned east, toward the village. “This way,” he said eagerly.

Lute extended a hand, caught the boy’s arm and turned him firmly west. “I’ve a fancy for this way, myself. Come, walk with me.”

Hope died in that instant; the boy’s shoulders sagged and something in his face crumbled—but he stayed stubbornly rooted, resisting the gentle tug of Lute’s hand.

“Come,” Lute repeated. He gestured with his free hand and plucked a silver bit from the starry air. Taking the boy’s resistless fingers, he turned palm up and placed the money there, closing the fingers firmly.

“Here now,” he said. “You’ve agreed to guide me—and taken my coin to seal the bargain. Let us walk this way.” He pulled more sharply on the arm, and this time Cedar went with him, walking silently on rock-hard path, with Lute keeping pace beside.

They had gone for some little distance, silent, but for the magician’s now-and-again comments on the surrounding country, or the stars, or the breeze, when Cedar glanced over.

“What is the story?”

“Your pardon?”

“The story,” the boy repeated impatiently. “You said you would tell me as we walked.”

“Ah,” said Lute softly. “The story.” He went another few steps along the path, glancing upward as if to ask the moon for guidance. “The story,” he said again, “is this: Not very long ago—nor very distant—there walked on a path very like this one a young woman and her betrothed. It was a dewy morning, or a brilliant afternoon—though doubtfully evening, for she did not wear her cloak against the chill and it was not the moon’s time of fullness—the path would have been too dark.

“So they went, these two, and as they went, they talked. Alas, the talk turned from pleasantries and flirtations to distressful, hurtful subjects. The lover accused the girl of being unfaithful to him, cried out that she refused to wear his troth-gift; that she refused, perhaps, to fix the date of their final vowing. He demanded to know the name of his rival; demanded to know by what right she—a woman grown and mistress of her own life—by what right she continued to wear the necklace she had always worn—the one he had not given her.

“He demanded these things, petulant, and she ignored him—ran a little ahead or to the side or exclaimed over a flower.

“Goaded, he said other things, ugly things, striving to be hateful, to hurt her, as a child will try to wound the adult who has disciplined him.” Lute paused, glanced back at the boy, who had stopped on the silvery path and was staring ahead, hands fisted at his sides.

“Cedar?” he said softly. “Is that how it was?”

“She laughed at me!” the boy cried out. “Laughed! But I swear by the Mother—I never meant to kill her!”

“But you did kill her,” Lute said, still soft.

“It was an accident!” Cedar half-raised his fists, anguish twisting his face. “She laughed and then she—she said that she was sorry, that of course she wouldn’t wear my gift, that she had never—had never considered me a life-partner—” His voice caught, as if on a sob. “She said that she saw she had been wrong, that she had tried to be kind to me, until I outgrew my—my—” He brought his hands down, still fisted, to rest tautly against his thighs.

“I hit her,” he said, and bent his head.

“One blow killed her?” Lute wondered, soft as thought. “Or were there more than one?”

“One!” Cedar wailed. “Only one, as the Goddess knows my soul. But she fell—I heard her head hit the rock and then she didn’t get up . . . I knelt beside her and tried to—tried to lift her head—” He swallowed hard. “The blood . . .” He looked up and Lute marked the tears that dyed his cheeks silver in the moonlight.

“There is a—a spring-cave not far away. I carried her there; piled rocks around her so that the animals . . .” He swallowed again.

“It was early morning. After—that evening, I went to Mother Aster’s farm, asking for Tael. She wasn’t there. I waited—and I’ve been waiting. Soon, they would have given her up! Senna would have decided that Tael simply didn’t wish to be found. Aster would have mourned—and taken up more good works in the village—and forgotten. Soon, there would have been—would have been peace. But you had to come and that Mother-blasted woman—how did she know?” he screamed suddenly, lunging forward and swinging a fist, randomly, it seemed to Lute, who merely stepped aside and let the rush go past him.

The boy whipped around, admirably quick, though still a shade uncautious, and braked so strongly he went down on a knee, loose stones clattering across the path.

“Wisdom, boy,” Lute said, no longer soft, and plucked a silver sliver from the air. He made a magical pass and showed the kneeling youth a quick succession: sliver, stiletto, dagger, nothing. Sliver, stiletto, dagger . . .

Cedar licked his lips.

“Consider illusion,” Lute directed. “Consider reality. You hold the coin I gave you still within your fist. Which of these is real, Master Cedar? Will you gamble your life that I only juggle air?” He ran the sequence again, and again, using the rhythm of the moves to add force to his words.

“The Lady Moonhawk is a Witch. She called Tael and come Tael did, demanding what right remains her—proper burial, benediction—truth. Our duty tonight is to have her home, laid out and decent for her mother to see at dawnlight. Your duty then is to tell the truth—for justice and peace—and your own salvation.” He vanished the dagger for the last time and stood staring into the boy’s eyes.

“Peace never came from lies, child. And hearts do not forget so quickly.” He gestured. “Get up.”

Cedar did, as if the gesture lifted him, and Lute nodded. “Show me the place.”

“All right,” said Cedar and turned westward once more on the path, Lute walking just behind.

IT WAS MANY hours later that Lute went into the laundry; stripped off the fine red robe with all its stains and tears; and washed, scrubbing himself from hair to toenails, rinsing and then scrubbing again. When he was done, he combed his hair and braided it, dug the silver knife from the sleeve of the discarded robe and used it to scrape the stubble from his cheeks.

Lastly, he dressed in his own clothes, damp though they were, and stood, shivering, thinking about the night’s work.

Mercifully, the spring-cave had been cool, and the season not yet high summer. Sadly, something had been at one of the hands and there was, after all, the blood and other general nastiness attendant upon days-dead bodies. Her face—her face had been untouched, except for the bruise splashed across the right cheek.

In life, she had been beautiful.

Lute shuddered.

They had laid her in the parlor, across two benches pushed together, draped with an old quilt they had found near the wood box. They had crossed her hands over her breast—whole one over chewed—and combed her hair until it fell in gleaming waves straight back from her face to the floor.

Her eyes had already been closed.

“Blue,” Cedar had said distractedly, touching her hair, her face, her folded hands. “Blue as tael-flowers, her eyes. You would have loved her, Master Lute, if you had seen her—as she was.”

Lute shuddered again, whether in pity or revulsion he did not know.

The boy had declined to wash or sleep, saying it was not so long until dawn and if he was to see Mother Aster and tell her the whole, he might as well be there when she came down.

“Besides,” he said softly, eyes on the dead girl’s face. “She’s home now. It would be graceless, to let her in the night alone.”

Pity locked Lute’s tongue. Leaving the reminder of three abandoned nights unspoken, he had gone to wash.

Washed, and in somewhat better control of himself, he quit the laundry and went to the guesting-room, dread ‘round his heart like ice.

“MOONHAWK?” In the candle-glow he saw her, reclined among the pillows, wrapped in the blue cloak that she had not allowed him to remove. Her face was smooth, distant, childlike. Her breathing went in and out with regularity. He could not tell if her state was trance or sleep.

Sighing, aching in every joint, he sat on the pillows opposite, set the candle carefully aside and prepared himself to wait.

A scream wakened him.

Aster was the first he saw as he rushed into the parlor. Aster with her fist shoved against her mouth and her face white as her dead daughter’s. Then he saw Senna, wide-eyed and staring, but not at Tael—at something, it seemed, upon the floor. At something which, now that he noted it, Aster stared as well.

Foreboding flared, too late, and he stepped into the room, looked over Aster’s shoulder—

He had used a leather-hook; it lay by his right hand. The slash it had made across his throat was ragged—and very deep.

His eyes were still open.

“No!” Lute flung forward, went to his knees by the pooled blood, extended a useless hand—and pulled it back, clenched.

“Young fool! There was no need, no need.” The tears were hot, they fell into the pooling red.

A hand touched his shoulder; warm fingers gripped him. Behind him he heard Aster shift and clear her throat.

“Cedar was so undone by my—by Tael’s death that he killed himself. His love was such—”

“No,” whispered Lute, and—

“No,” said Moonhawk, as she gently kneaded his shoulder.

“Cedar killed your daughter, housemother—unintended, but he was the instrument of her death. We have the story, if you will hear it. And we will stay and help you bury them, with every proper rite, if you will have our help.”

“I STILL DON’T understand why he did it,” said Lute, playing a blue counter over his knuckles, disappearing it and reappearing a yellow, a red, the blue again, and, in addition, a green.

Moonhawk fed more twigs to the cook fire and glanced up at the starry sky. “Guilt,” she said softly, “and pain—he did love her, I think. In his way. But his way was too sober for her—the heedless one, remember? The one who laughed at everyone.” The fire flared and she ducked prudently back, keeping the blue cloak tightly around her.

“It happened so quickly—like a bad dream. To see her again . . . idiodicto know her dead . . .” She sighed. “May the Mother pity him.”

Lute glanced at her sharply. “And yourself? I find you wholly mistress of your own soul and not sharing it with some heedless, teasing beauty?”

She laughed and tossed her hair back over her shoulders. “My own self and no other,” she said softly. “Poor Master Lute. But while we were together, I did—dream.” She glanced down, in a sort of maidenly shyness foreign to her usual manner. “I was never a free woman, you know. In the Circle, there is—duty. Some of Tael’s memories were—interesting. I shall have think on them more fully, as Sister Laurel would have said.”

“More fully,” Lute echoed and shook his head, vanishing all four counters. “Well, take some advice and stick to my sort of magic in the future. Less dangerous. More lucrative.”

Moonhawk laughed and pulled the pan from the fire. “Eggs, Master Lute?”


So ends the second tale of Lute and Moonhawk.

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