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Furies of Calderon, Page 4

Jim Butcher

Chapter 4

  Isana looked up from her scrying bowl with a faintly irritated frown. "That boy is going to get himself into more trouble than he can explain his way out of, one day. " Wan autumn sunlight streamed through the windows of Bernard-holt's main kitchen. The smell of bread baking in the wide ovens filled the room, along with the tang of the sauce sizzling on the roast turning over the coals. Isana's back hurt from a morning's work that had begun well before the sun rose, and there wasn't going to be a chance to rest any time in the immediate future.

  Whenever she had a moment to spare from her preparations, she spent it focused on her scrying bowl, using Rill to keep a cautious eye upon the Kordholters and Warner's folk. Warner and his sons had added their efforts to that of Elder Frederic, master of the steadholt's gargants, as he and his brawny son, Younger Frederic, cleaned out the half-buried stables of the vast beasts of labor.

  Kord and his youngest son lazed in the courtyard. The elder boy, Aric, had taken up an axe and had been splitting logs for the duration of the morning, burning off nervous energy with physical effort. The tension in the air throughout the morning was cloying, even to those without an ounce of watercraft in their bodies.

  The hold women had fled the kitchen's heat to take their midday meal, a quick round of vegetable soup and yesterday's bread, together with a selection of cheeses they had thrown together then taken out into the steadholt's courtyard to eat. The weary autumn sun shone pleasantly down on the courtyard, the warmth of its flagstones sheltered from the cold north wind by Bernardholt's high stone walls. Isana did not join them. The tension building in the courtyard would have sickened her, and she wanted to save back her strength and self-discipline for as long as she could, in the event that she had to intervene.

  So Isana ignored the rumble in her own belly and focused on her work, a portion of her thought reserved for her fury's perceptions.

  "Aren't you going to eat, mistress Isana?" Beritte looked up from where she was carelessly slicing the skins from a mound of tubers, dropping the peeled roots into a basin of water. The girl's pretty face had been lightly touched with rouge, and her already alluring eyes with kohl. Isana had warned her mother that Beritte was entirely too young for such nonsense, but there she was, hollybells in her hair and her bodice laced with deliberate wickedness beneath her breasts-more eager to admire herself in every shiny surface she could find than to help prepare the evening's banquet. Isana had gone out of her way to find chores to occupy the girl's day. Beritte often enjoyed seeing young men compete with one another for her attention, and between her bodice and the sweet scent of the hollybells in her hair, she'd have them killing one another-and Isana had far too much on her mind to be bothered with any more mischief.

  Isana glanced at the girl, eyeing her up and down, before she reached for the poker and thrust it back into the oven, into the coals where one of two tiny fire furies that regulated the oven wasn't doing its job. She raked the poker through them, stirring them, and saw the flames dance and quiver

  a bit more as the sleepy fury within stirred to greater life. "As soon as I have a moment to spare," she told the girl.

  "Oh," Beritte said, somewhat wistfully. "I'm sure we'll be finished soon. "

  "Just peel, Beritte. " Isana turned back to the counter and her bowl. The water within stirred and then quivered upward, resolving itself into a face- her own, but much younger. Isana smiled warmly down at the fury. Rill always remembered what Isana had looked like, the day they'd found one another, and always appeared in the same way as when Isana, then a gawky girl not quite Beritte's age, had gazed down into a quiet, lovely pool.

  "Rill," Isana said, and touched the surface of the water. The liquid in the bowl curled over her finger and then swirled around quietly in response to her. "Rill," Isana said again. "Find Bernard. " She pressed an image from her mind, down to the fury through the contact of her finger: her brother's sure, silent steps, his rumbling, quiet voice, and his broad hands. "Find Bernard," she said again.

  The fury quivered and swirled the water about-then departed the bowl, passing through the air in a quiet wave Isana felt prickling along her skin, and then vanished, down through the earth.

  Isana lifted her head and focused on Beritte more sharply. "Now then," she said. "What's going on, Beritte?"

  "I'm sorry?" the girl asked. She flushed bright red and turned back to her peeling, knife flashing over the tuber, stripping dark skin from pale flesh. "I don't know what you mean, mistress. "

  Isana placed her hands on her hips. "I think you do," she said her tone crisp and severe. "Beritte, you can either tell me where you got the flowers now, or you can wait until I find out, later. "

  Isana felt Beritte's fluttering panic, dancing around on the edges of the girl's voice as she spoke. "Honestly, Mistress, I found them waiting for me at my door. I don't know who-"

  "Yes you do," Isana said. "Hollybells don't just miracuously appear, and you know the law about harvesting them. If you make me find out on my own, by the great furies, I'll see to it that you suffer whatever is appropriate anyway. "

  Beritte shook her head, and one of the hollybells fell from her hair. "No, no, mistress. " Isana could taste the way the lie made the girl inwardly cringe. "I never harvested any of them. Honestly, I-"

  Isana's temper flared, and she snapped, "Oh, Beritte. You aren't old

  enough to be able to lie to me. I've a banquet to cook and a truthfind to prepare for, and I've not time to waste on a spoiled child who thinks that because she's grown breasts and hips that she knows better than her elders. "

  Beritte looked up at Isana, flushing darker with awkward humiliation and then snapped back with her own anger. "Jealous, mistress?"

  Isana's temper abruptly flashed from a frustrated blaze to something cold, icy. For just a moment, she forgot everything else in the kitchen, all the events and disastrous possibilities that faced the steadholt that day, and focused her attention on the buxom girl. For only a moment, she lost control of her emotions and felt the old, bitter rage rise within her.

  Every kettle in the kitchen abruptly boiled over, steam flushing out in a cloud that curved around Isana and flowed toward the girl, scalding water racing over the floor in a low wave toward her seat.

  Isana felt Beritte's defiance transformed in an instant to terror, the girl's eyes widening as she stared at Isana's face. Beritte thrust her hands out as she stumbled out of her chair, the feeble wind sprites she had collected slowing the oncoming steam enough to allow her to flee. Beritte took a jumping step over the nearest arm of the onrushing water and ran toward the kitchen doors, sobbing.

  Isana clenched her fists and closed her eyes, wrenching her mind from the girl, forcing herself to take deep breaths, to regain control of her emotions. The anger, the sheer, bitter rage howled inside her like a living thing trying to tear its way free of her. She could feel its claws scraping at her belly, her bones. She fought it down, forced it away from her thoughts, and as she did the steam settled and spread throughout the room, fogging the thick, rough glass of the windows. The kettles calmed. The water started pooling naturally over the floor.

  Isana stood amidst the sweltering steam and the spilled water and closed her eyes, taking slow, deep breaths. She'd done it again. She'd let too much of the emotion she'd been feeling in another color her own thoughts, her own perceptions. Beritte's insecurity and defiant anger had glided into her and taken root in her own thoughts and feelings-and she had let it happen.

  Isana lifted one slim hand and rubbed at her temples. The additional senses of a watercrafter felt like being able to hear another kind of sound- sound that rubbed against one's temples like eiderdown, until she almost felt that it was grating her skull raw, that blisters would rise on her face and scalp from the sheer friction of all the emotions she felt rubbing against her.

  Still, there was little she could do about it now, but to control herself and to bear what came. One couldn't open one's eyes and
later simply decide not to use them. She could dim the perceptions Rill's presence brought to her, but she could never shut them away altogether. It was simply a fact a watercrafter of her power had to live with.

  One of many, she thought. Isana crouched down, murmuring to the tiny furies in the spilled water on the floor, beckoning them until the separate puddles and droplets began running together in the center of the floor into a more coherent mass. Isana studied it, waiting for all the spare droplets to roll in from the far corners of the kitchen.

  The reflection of her own face looked back at her, smooth and slender, and barely older than that of a girl's. She winced, thinking of the face Rill showed her every time the fury came. Perhaps it was not so different from her own.

  She lifted her hand and traced her fingers over her cheek. She had a pretty face, still. Most of forty years, and she barely looked as though she had lived twenty of them. She might look as old as thirty, if she lived another four decades, but no older. There were no lines on her face, at the corners of her eyes, though faint shades of frost stirred in her auburn hair.

  Isana rose and regarded the woman reflected in the water. Tall. Thin. Too thin, for a woman of her age, with scarcely any curve of hip or breast. She might have been mistaken for a gawky child. True, she may carry herself with more confidence, more strength than any child could muster, and true the faint grey touches in her hair may have granted her an age and dignity not strictly warranted by her appearance-and true, everyone in the whole of the Calderon Valley knew her by name or sight or reputation as one of the most formidable furycrafters in it. But that did nothing to change the simple and heartless fact that she looked like a boy in a dress. Like nothing any man would want to marry.

  Isana closed her eyes for a moment, pained. Thirty-seven years old, and she was alone. No suitors, naturally. No garlands to wear, or dances to plan for, or flirtations to plot. That was all long past her, even with the apparent youth her watercrafting bestowed on her. The youth that kept her always a bit distant from the other women her age-women with husbands, families.

  She opened her eyes and idly bade the spilled water to make itself useful and clean the floor. The puddle began sweeping over it obediently, gathering up bits of dust and debris as it did, and Isana went to open the door.

  Cold air poured in, sharp contrast to the steamy kitchen, and she closed her eyes, taking deep, bracing breaths.

  She had to admit it. Beritte's words had stung her, not simply because she'd been feeling too many of the adolescent's intense emotions, but because they had rung true as well. Beritte had all the luscious curves and rondure that would draw any man in the Valley to her-and indeed, she had half a dozen of them dancing on her strings even now, including Tavi, though the boy tried to deny it. Beritte. Firm and ripe and able to bear strong children.

  The way no one had thought Isana would ever be able to.

  She pressed her lips together and opened her eyes. Enough. There was too much work to be about to let an old pain rise to the surface, now. Thunder rumbled over the Valley's floor, and Isana crossed to the northern window, opened it, and eyed the mountain peak to the north. Garados loomed in all of his surly majesty there, snow already gliding further down his shoulders and toward the valley floor, warning of the coming winter. Dark clouds gathered around his head, and as she watched, they flashed with dark green lightning, sending another rumbled warning across the Valley. Lilvia, then-Garados's wife, the storm fury, gathering up clouds for another assault on the people of the Valley. She would wait all day, gathering the warmth of the sun into her cloud-herds and then send them stampeding across the Valley in a rush of thunder and wind and, like as not at this time of the year, sleet and icy rain.

  Isana pressed her lips together. Intolerable. If only a decently gifted windcrafter would settle down in the Valley, they might blunt the worst of Thara's storms before they ever reached the steadholts-but then, any windcrafter that strong would be serving as a Knight or one of the Cursors.

  She walked to the sink and touched the spigot, alerting the furies inside that she desired water from the well. A moment later, it spilled out, cold and clear, and she filled a pair of pans before letting the furies stop the flow of it, then went around the kitchens and refilled the water in the pots that had boiled over. A moment later, she took the bread from the ovens, setting it out in its pans, and slipped the next round of pans into their places. She glanced around the kitchens once more, making sure that everything was in place. The puddle was finished with the floor, so she shooed it out the door to ease into the earth beside the threshold and sink back into the ground.

  "Rill?" Isana called. "What's taking so long?"

  The water bubbled and stirred in her scrying bowl (which doubled as her mixing bowl most days), and then three little splashes announced Rill's

  presence. Isana crossed back to the bowl, drew her braid back over her shoulder, and regarded the surface of the water intently as the ripples stilled.

  The fury showed her a dim view from what must have been a stagnant pool somewhere in the Pine Hollows. A murky shape that could have been Bernard paced across the image in the bowl and then was gone. Isana shook her head. Rill's images were not always entirely clear, but it seemed that Bernard and Tavi were still pursuing the missing flock.

  She murmured a dismissal to Rill and set the bowl aside-and then noticed a sudden lack of sound from the courtyard. A breath later, the tension levels of Bernardholt swelled into painful intensity.

  Isana steeled herself against the perceptions and walked briskly out of the kitchen. She kept her breathing steady and held herself with rigid confidence. The holdfolk were pressed shoulder to shoulder, facing the center of the courtyard. They were silent, but for faint mutters and worried whispers.

  "Kord," she murmured. Isana stepped forward, and the holdfolk made way for her, clearing a narrow path through the onlookers until she could see the scene in the center of the courtyard.

  Two men stood facing one another in the courtyard, and the air between them practically thrummed with tension. Kord stood with his arms folded over his chest, the ground at his feet shifting and trembling. His greasy beard framed his smile sharply, and his eyes were bright and eager beneath his heavy brows.

  Facing him stood Steadholder Warner, a tall man, slender as a post, with gangling arms and legs and a head that shone bold but for a fringe of wispy grey hair. Warner's narrow, chiseled face had flushed bright red in anger, and the air around him quivered and danced like heat rising off an oven.

  "All I'm saying," Kord drawled, "is that if that little slut of yours can't keep her legs together and men out from between them, it's your problem, friend. Not mine. "

  "Shut your mouth," Warner snarled.

  "Or what?" Kord asked, throwing a sneer into the words. "What are you going to do, Warner? Run and hide behind the skirts of a woman and whimper for Gram to come save you?"

  "Why you. . . " Warner spat. He took a step forward, and the air in the courtyard grew detectably warmer.

  Kord smiled, a flash of teeth and said, "Go ahead, Warner. Call it to juris macto. Let's settle this like men. Unless you'd rather humiliate your little

  whore by having her testify how she seduced my boy in front of every Stead-holder in the Calderon Valley. "

  One of Warner's sons, a tall and lean young man with his hair shorn in Legion-fashion stepped up to his father and took his arm. "Pa, don't," he said. "You can't take him on in a fair fight. " The other two took up a spot behind Warner, while Kord's sons mirrored them behind their own father.

  Warner's daughter rushed to his side. Heddy's cobweb-fine hair rose and rippled in silken yellow waves in the heated air around her father. She threw a conscientious look around her, her face flaming scarlet with embarrassment. "Papa," she urged. "No, not like this. This isn't our way. "

  Kord snorted at the girl. "Bittan," he asked, glancing back at his son. "You stuck your wick in that sk
inny tramp? Might as well have gone after one of Warner's sheep. "

  Isana had to clench her fists and brace herself against the raw tide of emotions in the courtyard. From Heddy's panicky fear and humiliation to Warner's rage, to Kord's sly satisfaction and eagerness, every feeling washed over her, too intense to ignore. She forced them all away from her and took a breath. Kord's earth fury was a vicious beast, trained to kill. He used it to hunt and to slaughter his cattle. Any fury started taking on aspects of its partner, after a while, but even considering Kord himself, the earth fury was a bad one. A killer.

  Isana swept a look around the courtyard. The holdfolk all stood well clear of the conflict. None of them wanted to involve themselves in a struggle between Steadholders. Crows take her brother! Where was he when she needed him?

  The flood of intense anger from Warner grew more harsh-in only a moment more, he would give in to Kord's taunts and take the matter to juris macto, the Realm's legal form of duel. Kord would kill him, but Warner was too furious at the treatment of his daughter to consider that. Warner's sons, too, were flooding her with a growing torrent of anger, and Kord's youngest son burned with a barely disguised lust for violence.

  Isana's heart fluttered with all the emotions, piling on top of her own fear. She pushed them all firmly away, struggling to master them-and stalked out into the courtyard, squarely between the two men, and put her hands on her hips. "Gentlemen," she said, letting her voice ring out. "You are interrupting lunch. "

  Warner took a step toward Kord, his eyes never leaving the other Stead-holder. "You can't expect me to stand here and take this. "

  Kord sauntered forward a willing pace himself. "Juris macto," he said. "Just declare it, Warner, and we can settle this. "

  Isana spun to face Kord, meeting his eyes squarely. "Not in my courtyard you won't. "

  Bittan, behind Kord, let out a rough laugh and stepped forward, toward Isana. "Well, well," he said. "What we got here? Another little hold whore standing up for whore Heddy?"

  "Bittan," Kord growled, in warning.

  Isana narrowed her eyes at Bittan. The young man's confidence, arrogance, and a sickening rush of his lust whirled over her like a foul, greasy smoke. She watched him approach, arrogantly smiling as he eyed her, from her bare feet to her long braid. The idiot evidently did not know her by sight.

  "Going bad early," Bittan commented. "But I bet you'd be good for a tumble. " He reached out a hand to touch Isana's face.

  Isana let him touch her for a moment, felt the desperate, arrogant need of the young man to prove himself in his own eyes. She reached up and seized his wrist and then said, voice cold, "Rill. Deal with this slive. "

  Bittan abruptly convulsed and threw himself backward onto the ground. He let out a strangled scream that cut off halfway through, as clear, foaming water burst from his mouth. He thrashed on the courtyard stones in a frantic tangle of flailing limbs. His eyes bulged, and he tried to scream again, nothing but water flooding from his mouth and nose.

  Kord's other son rushed to his fallen brother, and Kord himself rolled forward a step with an angry snarl. "Bitch," he growled. The earth bulged beneath him, as though preparing to lash forward.

  "Go ahead, Kord," Isana said, her voice icy. "But before you do, I should remind you that you are in Bernardholt, now. And you may not challenge me to the juris macto" She smiled at him, as sweet and venomous as she could manage. "I'm not a Steadholder. "

  "I can still kill you, Isana," Kord said.

  "You could," Isana replied. "But then, I wouldn't be able to call Rill off of your boy there, would I?"

  "And what if I could use one less mouth to feed?" Kord answered her, showing her his teeth.

  "In that case," she said, "I hope you're ready to kill everyone here. Because you won't get away with cold murder, Steadholder Kord. I don't care how far we are from the First Lord's justice-kill me, and there won't be a place in the Realm where you can hide. "

  Isana promptly turned to Warner and snapped, "Wipe that smile off your face, Steadholder. What kind of behavior is this to show to my holders, and their children?" She stalked toward Warner with a scowl twisting her features. "I'll have your word that you won't engage in this idiocy again while you're a guest in my home. "

  "Isana," Warner protested, he and his sons still staring at Kord and his own brood, "that animal on the ground is the one who raped my daughter. "

  "Papa," Heddy sobbed, tugging at Warner's sleeve. "Papa, please. "

  "Your word, Warner," Isana snapped. "Or I'll rule against you in the truthfind right here and now. "

  Warner's gaze snapped to Isana, and she felt his sudden shock and surprise. "But Isana-"

  "I don't care. You can't behave this way in my home, Warner, and my brother isn't here to knock sense into your fool head. Your word. No more of this duel nonsense. No more fighting in Bernardholt. "

  Warner stared at her for a moment. Isana felt the man's dismay, his anger, his helpless frustration. His gaze wavered and went to his daughter, and he softened, almost visibly. "All right," he said, quietly. "My word. For all of us. We'll start nothing. "

  Isana whirled back toward Kord, stalking toward the young man still choking on the ground, vomiting water. She brushed roughly passed the older of Kord's sons (Aric was his name, she thought), and reached down to lay her hand on Bittan's forehead. The boy had gone beyond thought in his animal panic. There was no arrogance there, now, only a fear so intense that it made Isana's skin feel cold.

  Kord sneered down at her. "I guess you're going to want my word as well. "

  "What would be the point," Isana snapped, keeping her voice low. "You're scum, Kord, and we both know it. " Louder, she said, "Rill. Out. " She stood away as Bittan spluttered and coughed, retching more water out, finally drawing in a gasping breath of air. She left him there, coughing on the ground, and turned to go.

  The stone of the courtyard folded over one of her feet with a simple and almost delicate finality. Her heart fluttered with her own fear as she felt

  Kord's cold anger on her back. She flicked her braid over her shoulder and shot him a look through narrowed eyes.

  "This isn't over, Isana," Kord promised, his voice very quiet. "I won't stand for this. "

  Isana faced his dark stare, the cold and calculating hatred behind it, and borrowed from it, used it to steel herself against him, to return ice for ice. "You'd best hope it's over, Kord," she said. "Or you're going to think what happened to Bittan was a kindness. " She flicked her eyes down to her foot and back up to him. "There's a space for you in the barn. I'll have some food sent down for lunch. We'll call you at dinner. "

  Kord remained still for a moment. Then he spat to one side, and nodded toward his sons. Aric collected the gasping Bittan, hauling him to his feet, and the three of them walked toward the wide doors of the roomy stone barn. Only as they left did the ground quiver beneath Isana's bare foot and let her go.

  She closed her eyes, and the terror she'd been holding back, her own, flooded out and over her. She started shaking, but she shook her head to herself, firmly. Not in front of everyone. She opened her eyes and looked around at the courtyard full of people. "Well?" she asked them. "There is a lot of work to do before the feast come sundown. I can't do everything around here by myself. Get to it. "

  People moved, at her words, started talking again amongst themselves. Some of them shot her looks of mixed respect, admiration, and fear. Isana felt that last, like frozen cockleburs rolling over her skin. Her own folk, people she'd lived and worked with for years, afraid of her.

  She lifted a hand as tears blurred at her eyes-but that was one of the first tricks a watercrafter learned. She willed them away from her eyes, and they simply did not fall. The confrontation, with its rampant tension and potential for murderous violence, had shaken her more than anything in years.

  Isana drew in a careful breath and walked toward the kitchens. Her legs kept her steady, at least,
though the weariness now crawling over her was nearly too much to bear. Her head ached with the efforts of the morning, with the pressure of all that watercrafting.

  Fade came shuffling out of the smithy as she passed it. He moved with an odd little drag of one foot. Not a large man, he had been badly burned when he had been branded with a coward's mark, disfiguring the left half of his face-though that had been years ago. His hair, nearly black, had grown

  out long and curling to partially conceal it, and the scar tracing over his scalp, presumably a head wound also suffered in battle. The slave offered her a witless smile and a tin cup of water, holding it up to her along with a fairly clean cloth, far different from his own sweaty rags and burn-scarred leather apron. "Thank you, Fade," Isana said. She accepted both and took a drink. "I need you to keep an eye on Kord. I want you to let me know if he or his sons leave the barn. All right?"

  Fade nodded rapidly, his hair flopping. A bit of drool flicked off his half-open mouth. "Eye on Kord," he repeated. "Barn. " He frowned, staring into space for a long moment and then pointed a finger at her. "Watch better. " She shook her head. "I'm too tired. Just tell me if they leave. All right?" "Leave," Fade repeated. He mopped at his drool with one sleeve. "Tell. " "That's right," she said, and gave him a weary smile. "Thank you, Fade. " Fade made a hooting sound of pleasure and smiled. "Welcome. " "Fade, you'd better not go into the barn. The Kordholters are there, and I get the feeling they'd not be kind to you. "

  "Ungh," the slave said. "Watch, barn, tell. " He turned at once and shuffled off, quickly despite the drag of his foot.

  Isana put Old Bitte in charge of the kitchens and returned to her room. She sat down on her bed, her hands folded on her lap. Her stomach fluttered nervously, but she forced herself to take deep breaths to stay calm. She had headed off the most immediate trouble, and Fade, despite his lack of skilled speech and his simple manner, was reliable. He would warn her if something else came up in the meantime.

  She worried about Tavi-now more than any time she could remember. He was safe enough with Bernard to look after him, but her instincts would not relent. The pine hollows were the most dangerous stretch of land in the valley, but to her weary senses, the danger seemed deeper than that, and more threatening. There was something heavy and foreboding in the air of the valley, a gathering of forces that made the storm brewing over Garados look weak and tiny by comparison.

  Isana laid down on her bed. "Please," she whispered, exhausted. "Great furies please keep him safe. "