"I don't know about you, but I'm going to give myself a proper wash," Rithia said, leaning against one of the walls with a sigh, the shadow of the eaves making a diagonal line across her face. She flicked a sweat-soaked strand of hair from her forehead, and wrinkled her nose at Cienne. "Those two Armitans weren't even breathing hard. I feel quite overmatched."
"Really?" Cienne grinned, raising an eyebrow in the way Vanagar could not reproduce.
"Well, in the fitness stakes, at any rate," Rithia replied, giving her lithe body an unashamedly sensuous wriggle. "Jester's Cap, I wish I was going on that scouting expedition!"
"Don't we all," put in Jaelith, putting down the pair of buckets he was carrying, sloshing water in little glowing waterfalls. All the empty beer kegs and other containers the inn-keeper could find had been filled, including a simply massive barrel in the kitchen which had taken absolutely forever. These last bucket-loads were to distribute from room to room. "If we have to be dropped in the middle of Irrelath, it seems a pity that we're supposed to sit safely inside this circle and not go look at anything."
"Safely?" Keevan echoed. "How safe is it, really? Did you see the Armitans getting rid of that horse's corpse, this morning? The wolves had been at it, and it was inside the circle."
"Hostile intent," Rithia replied, as if that explained everything. "You don't feel hostile towards dead meat, Keevan."
"Couldn't they have set up a better ward? I know there's varieties which will keep everything out."
"And all of us in," Rithia said, dryly. "This one's not perfect, sure, but neither do those mages have to maintain it, or put it up or down every time we want to go out. Besides, would you risk offending the Greater Gods by marking their ward down as inadequate and putting up your own?"
"There they are!" Zerith interrupted, a note of excited triumph in his voice. Hurriedly everybody followed the line of his pointing finger, and Vanagar, no less eager, soon located two figures standing side by side in a break in the trees, apparently looking back at the inn on the hill. A third joined them and she thought, by height alone, that it must be Kier. She had heard Lady Kinrathen call him that. Kier. He was her bondsman.
"They're making good time, almost halfway there already. They'll be at those buildings before midday." Jaelith rose on his toes, as if he thought that would help him see better. "The lake curves around to the west, so they'll be longer getting back."
The figures moved away from the lake's edge and though they craned for some time to come, did not reappear.
"Why'd that black-haired woman get to go?" griped Zerith. "She wasn't even carrying a weapon."
"That's what you get for not coming down early enough, Zer. You miss out on all the gossip," joked his brother.
"Well, you're the one who didn't wake me!"
"Revenge for a night of snoring."
"I do not snore," Zerith said, firm, but not rising to his brother's bait. "What gossip?"
"Ever wanted to see a ghost-layer, Zer?" Cienne asked, flicking his arm lightly. "Seems that what she is. Doesn't fit the image, to be sure."
"A ghost-layer?!! You're kidding me!"
"I saw a ghost-layer once," Rithia mused. "He looked like he never washed, practically foamed at the mouth. Do you think she could be lying?"
"Why would she?" Vanagar asked, picking up her buckets abruptly and taking them inside, nearly tripping climbing up the drop at the door and cursing herself for the typical clumsiness. Couldn't even make a good exit.
Giving one bucket to the inn-keeper, she took the other upstairs, shut herself firmly into the room she shared and locked the door. The others could just wait if they wanted to come in. Then she sat on the bed and stared down at dark liquid. A bucket full of magic.
Vanagar was not at all sure why she was suddenly in such a foul mood. It had something to do with Rithia knowing at least as much about magic as she did; something to do with the fact that no-one had congratulated her on spotting the oddness in the water, hadn't called her 'sharp-eyes' like they had the ghost-layer; something to do with that cool, calm woman's inclusion in the scouting party. She didn't think she disliked the ghost-layer like she did Rithia, but something of the same jealousy rose up. The woman was so much what Vanagar wanted to be. Not a beautiful attention-grabber like Rithia, but a competent, self-assured, quietly good-looking person who was special. Who was invited on scouting trips, and didn't look frightened when odd things happened, and had people treat her like she was someone, not just part of the background.
Her mother had lectured her on more than one occasion about self-pity and jealousy. "Be who you are, Vanagar, and care less about who other people are." But her mother was another of those people Vanagar could only helplessly envy and vainly try to emulate. Respected and powerful, handsome and graceful. Vanagar was her father's child, all long-boned and lean, but without her father's fire to enhance her plain features. A great gawk, clumsy of tongue and body, without an opinion worth putting forward.
She took a long draught in defiance of the many comments that tiresome old woman had made about drinking 'cursed water', then found a washcloth in her gear and bathed herself thoroughly, dressed in fresh clothing and wondered what they would do about laundry.
"We're too privileged a lot," she murmured to herself, not abandoning her mood, but making an effort to move past it. "It was the prices Hobben was charging – folk like Zerith and Rithia don't do laundry, or tan skins, or whatever else we'll end up doing. Lords and Ladies. Babes in the Wood."
Unlocking the door, she made her way cautiously downstairs, not wanting to be questioned on why she'd gone off like that, morosely reflecting that it wasn't as if anyone had come after her to see if she was all right. She looked around at the empty common room, thinking that it was the first time she'd seen it without occupants. They were all outside in the sun, watching the last of the bucket-carriers trail up the hill, or trying to glimpse the scouting party. Or shut in their rooms sulking.
Deciding she didn't want to rejoin her friends, Vanagar strode back and forth a moment, then deliberately went behind the bar, since it was a place she would not usually have dreamed of trespassing into. Here was the register, tucked away from its usual pride of place, stains and crumpled pages showing the reason why. Vanagar opened it curiously, and found her own name, Vanagar Neeson, scribbled hurriedly. She'd taken more care in the previous two inns, because it had been a novelty, but she'd been distracted when they'd signed in here, mainly because Zerith had been having a 'discussion' with the inn-keeper over the extortionate charge for their rooms. That would be the last money he'd see for a while, she thought with satisfaction, then checked herself, and let sympathy rise for Jomny Hobben. His entire livelihood and family dumped into the middle of Irrelath. At least, if and when Vanagar left, she wouldn't be forced to leave all her possessions behind.
Vanagar hated feeling sorry for herself, and when she was, she usually thought of someone in a worse situation. Her problem was, she really wasn't much like the person she dreamed about being, wasn't - she searched for the correct word - quietly valiant. Someone who did not seek glory, but simply tried to get things done as they should - the opposite of Zerith, and not very much like Vanagar, who always thought about how other people would react to the things she did. Well then. Although she knew it would be impossible for her to stop thinking about how other people would react, she could at least try to be the person she wanted to be. She wouldn't be do-nothing, say-nothing Vanagar, but nor would she go the other way and make a complete fool of herself, trying to slay dragons or something. No, she would make herself useful. She would do what she knew she could manage, would no longer try to speak when she didn't have anything to say, any more than she'd keep quiet when she actually did have something to contribute.
Determined to get herself out of her mood, to start being something other than a spectator, but not wanting to go back to the others, who would only exacerbate her feeling of failure, she slipped through the kitchen. The staff had been joined by a couple of the guests in preparing a carefully rationed midday meal. Vanagar would offer to help, but she was the world's worst cook. No, there had to be something she could do to help which wouldn't end up with an inedible lunch.
Taking the back door, she followed the steady banging noises, interrupted by a creaking and sharp curses in the Armitan tongue. Funny how you could always tell it was an oath, no matter the language. Cautiously rounding the stable, taking care to avoid stepping in the dried blood, Vanagar hesitated, watching the two remaining Armitans, and one of their guardswomen, trying to disassemble the outer wall of the stable. They noticed her immediately, stopped and looked at her, and she felt herself flush crimson, but plastered a faint, brave smile on her face.
"I'm no hand at carpentry," she said, in a small, but determinedly even voice, "but if you need help I'd be glad to hold up a wall or something."
There was a brief, deadly little pause which shrivelled the spark of courage that had prompted her gesture into a small, shamed kernel, but then the male Armitan gave her the slightest of smiles in return, and inclined his head. "We thank you for your offer, Ker." He gave the heavy hammer in his hand, one of the small supply of tools the inn-keeper had actually not been keeping in his cellar, a disgusted look. "We are, I fear, no experts in the field ourselves, and need all the help we can find."
"Oh! How stupid of me!" Vanagar exclaimed, and hurried to make herself clear before they decided she was giddy in the head. "Cienne - one of my friends - her family are architects. She knows...well, more than me about building, at least. I'll go get her."
She hurried off, immediately asking herself, as she did so, why in the world she was going to deliberately put herself into the background again. But fetching Cienne was still a useful, if small contribution. As long as Rithia didn't turn out to be a master carpenter, she'd let herself feel that she was doing the right thing.
"Cienne," she said, trying to emulate the ghost-layer's coolness and not come galloping up all excited and foolish. "The Armitans are pulling down the stable and I told them that you might be able to help, given that you've at least an association with builders. Will you?"
After a startled moment, Cienne nodded. "Why not?"
"That'll pass the day," Jaelith murmured, and took hold of Keevan's arm firmly as he drew breath to speak. "Seems a good idea to me."
Abandoning their buckets, they all trooped around the side of the inn and Cienne, after ascertaining exactly what they were planning to do, told the Armitans how to do all manner of interesting things, like the best way to knock a board loose while retaining a relatively straight nail, and which parts of the stable they could move without disassembling completely. Vanagar saw her prediction come true, and was relegated completely to the sideline, with no-one even thinking to ask her how she had come to be talking to the Armitans. Her burst of bravery slid into the past, unnoticed, and she nursed an odd mixture of hurt and satisfaction.
The two Armitans were called Ritnar Elmaran and Vanion Lanstea, the guardswoman with them was Margara Fenseer. They didn't exactly become chatty - were exceedingly formal, in fact - but with names attached they seemed more like people and even Keevan stopped being hostile after a while, especially when Ritnar lifted an end of the heavy cross-beam with one hand and developed this amused and sleepy expression when it took Jaelith and Zerith both to lift the other end.
Everyone started at the cries, and nearly lost grip on the section of wall they had been raising. It was hurriedly lowered before most everyone dashed towards Arvan's cries. They found him, dark eyes wild, clawing at the stones of his brother's grave.
"Arvan!" Jaelith said, hurrying to help Allia restrain their friend. "What are you doing? Let Jerian rest in peace."
"But he's not there!" Arvan replied, struggling as a great sob wracked his body. "He's not there!"
Nor was he. The pile of stones they had so carefully collected and laid over Jerian Panwood's body the previous night now hid only grass. Investigation of the cook's grave, which appeared undisturbed, revealed the same. The corpses of the dead had gone.
"We buried him alive! He wasn't dead! He wasn't dead!" Arvan cried, his voice growing ever higher, his breath gulping in and out in great gasps. Allia, to everyone's surprise, drew back a hand and slapped him firmly.
"Arvan. Stop this. You know as well as I that he was dead."
After gasping for a few more breaths, Arvan nodded, and looked about him, his eyes clearer than they had been since he'd realised Jerian's lack of movement meant more than a brief loss of consciousness. "Yes. He's dead. Someone's...taken his body?"
"Ger, Van, look around. See if there's any sign of who's been here," ordered one of the mercenaries, gesturing to his fellows.
"Seinfal. What goes on here?" It was the merchant leader, expression reassuringly commanding.
"Someone, or something, has taken the bodies, Ker Ekridge," the mercenary replied.
"The stones weren't even disturbed," Jaelith put in.
"Like they melted into nothing," agreed one of the noisy farmers, who had been lounging in the sun, watching them attempting to reconstruct the stable with many a sly smirk. He wasn't smiling now.
"No animal tracks," said one of the mercenaries to the one called Seinfal. "Though the area's pretty well tramped. Can't make much out."
"They've been raised! Raised from the dead!" This was the other farmer, who Vanagar vaguely remembered being called Bol. He made a gesture to ward off evil. "That ghost-layer's behind this, mark my words!"
Disbelievingly, Vanagar shook her head, but no-one noticed.
"Why would she do that?" Rithia asked, echoing Vanagar's own words, the ones she could not find the voice to say, now that it was important to do so.
"Why does a ghost-layer do anything? She consorts with the dead!" The man's face took on a curious mixture of excitement and horror. "'Tis unnatural!"
"It is a bit of a coincidence," Zerith said slowly. "A ghost-layer and disappearing corpses."
"Zer!" Jaelith said sharply.
"Well, they didn't just get up and walk away by themselves. Who else but a ghost-layer...?"
"You forget, we are in Irrelath," said Ritnar, reminding everyone there of the Armitans' presence. During past disputes, the Armitans had stayed well out of the arguments.
"Just so," said Ekridge. "Speculation will gain us nothing. When the ghost-layer returns, you may be sure that she will be questioned. Until then, go back within the circle, all of you. Seinfal, I want a regular patrol of the perimeter from now on. A watch at the door simply isn't enough. For now, take one of your men and go over the entire hill, look for any clue." He paused, looked over the more than thirty people who had gathered about the graves, trailing up the hill to more cautious watchers by the inn's slowly swinging sign. The wind was picking up again, but was only cool, not numbingly chilly. "The rest of us will search the inn, though I don't think it likely the bodies will be there."
"We'll do the ghost-layer's room first, while she's not around to put a hex on us!" said one of the farmers, with enthusiasm. "C'mon Bol. We won't let her get away with this."
Vanagar's opinion of Ekridge plummeted when he didn't object, but instead stayed his mercenaries with a gesture. "Best let them get it over with," he said, softly. "You never know, they might be right." He followed them up the hill at a less eager pace, taking the majority of the crowd with him.
"Why are they always so ready to find someone to blame?" Vanagar asked, helplessly, watching even Zerith, Keevan and Rithia following the tide. "What do they hope to achieve?"
"A very annoyed ghost-layer," Jaelith replied, grimly, taking her arm. "Come on, we better try and stop them from breaking anything."
There had been a time when Vanagar had been convinced that Jaelith cared about her, more than in the vague way he cared about everyone. Those sympathetic attempts to include her in the conversation had not annoyed her at the start, and she had read deep meaning into times like now, when he took her arm, or met her eyes to underline a joke they both appreciated.
All that uncertainty. That had only been a year or so ago. It seemed like an aeon.
Vanagar pulled her elbow unconsciously out of Jaelith's grip as they found the passageway ahead too blocked. The ghost-layer's room seemed to be just past the stairs. Vanagar had thought that door led to a cupboard.
"Look," came one of the mercenaries' voices, raised a little in anger. "You can see as well as I there's no bodies in here. There's no need to go through her belongings."
"Haven't you ever heard of the Hand of Glory, soldier boy?" one of the farmers replied, accompanied by the sound of a bag being shaken out, soft noises of cloth falling to the ground. "Doesn't necessarily have to be a whole body, does it?"
"They're mad," Jaelith said, darkly.
"Can't we do something to stop them?" Allia asked.
"Eh! This one's locked! Give me y'knife, Bol."
"Look you, enough's enough! Give that bag here!"
"Whatsa matter, soldier boy? You got something to hide?" There was the sound of scuffling, then a brief series of muffled thumps, and some slight murmuring from those who could actually see into the room.
"Bells! Nothing but bells!" The disappointment was clear in the man's voice.
"Broken too. Not a peep out of them."
"Take the stuffing out, numbskull. Fetch a nice price, these."
There was an exclamation of disgust from the mercenary. "Put it down and get out, you...!"
The noise shocked through the entire inn; one, two, three deep shivering claps that reverberated through wood and bone and flesh almost painfully. It was not a noise a hand-held bell should make. This was the tolling of a temple-bell, giving tongue to news of death. It was an ache in the heart, a cry of mourning, a call to the lost.
People screamed, man and woman alike. Vanagar was not sure she did not do so herself as she stumbled backwards, away from that noise. The bell tolled again as it clattered to the floor and was answered by a crackling boom that left the very air stunned into silence.
Seeing the Armitans, who had been standing disapprovingly at the corridor's entrance, run suddenly toward the door, Vanagar automatically followed, more than a little glad for an excuse to get as far away from the bell as possible. Outside, the horse reared, almost striking the guardswoman who had been stationed as guard beside it, but no-one really cared enough to watch, staring up at the sky, at the whirling black vortex of clouds that had appeared over the inn, sucking light out of the sky. A maelstrom of darkness growing larger and larger, spinning tentacles of cloud out across the valley.
A bolt of lightning arced down, accompanied simultaneously by a deafening clap of thunder that made the entire inn shudder. Vanagar saw it strike one of the consecrated stones, but could see little else, her world obscured by a line of white across her vision, all noise dimmed as her ears struggled to recover. Someone pushed her aside and she stumbled into a wall, held it for support and peered through weeping eyes, trying to make out what was happening now, registering only the thud of hooves before the next clap of thunder.
"They'll never hold him!" someone muttered - or yelled - by her.
"The Gods have mercy!" someone shrieked, loud even to Vanagar's deafened ears. Blinking seemed to help her eyes. She could see dim images, though every time she lowered her eyelids she found the bolt of lightning imprinted there. Straining to see, she spotted the horse a short way down the hill, still inside the circle, the two Armitans clinging to its halter, attempting to hold it by sheer strength of arm. But then lightning struck again, leaving the air crackling with ozone, and with a desperate surge the gelding flung the Armitans off, dashing wildly down the hillside towards the forest which lay east and south of the hill. Vanion started after it, stopped, turned back and helped Ritnar to his feet. They were heading back when the rain came, a sheer vertical wall of water that hit Vanagar like a solid blow. She staggered, immediately chilled, and joined the others in stumbling through the door.
"What do we do?" someone was crying. "What do we do?"
Vanagar blinked through her lightning-blasted eyes at a room full of terrified people, pale faces which flinched with each blast of thunder.
"It's a storm," Jaelith answered, sounding like his throat was dry. "We batten down, same as any other, and hope for the best. We brought this on ourselves." He glanced around, face still angry. The building shook, but didn't seem in immediate danger of falling down or blowing away. "Allia, Van, go get dry then come help me clean up the mess that was made. Maybe the rest of you could contrive to secure the doors and windows, and not break into the shadow mages' belongings in the process."
He stalked off, angrier than Vanagar had ever seen him. Silently she followed Allia, off to change clothing a second time that day, before returning to a tiny, dark and cramped room. With the inn shuddering the way it was, creaking and groaning beneath the background roar of the storm, Vanagar did not want to do more than curl under a blanket and wait until things stopped being quite so terrifying.
But she was being brave, she remembered, as she had been in speaking to the Armitans. If no-one was going to recognise that fact, well, at least she'd not feel such a useless idiot. Mother was always saying it was how you felt about yourself which was important.
"Allia, see if you could find us a light," she suggested, eyeing the innocuous-looking silver bell, not much bigger than one of the tankards they had been drinking out of, lying abandoned on the floor. An ebony handle, with a complex geometric design etched into the metal of the bell.
"Doesn't look possible," Jaelith murmured, approaching the bell with caution equal to a man attempting to creep up on a wildcat. He stooped, picked up a drift of white fluff, raw cotton or something, and glanced back to the door where his brother had appeared. "The Gods spare us if I accidentally set the thing off again," he said, easing his fingers into the hollow of the bell and trapping the clapper. Nothing happened, so he let out a sign of relief and began stuffing the cotton.
There were a dozen bells scattered on the floor, falling out of wrappings of soft leather. All were smaller than the bell that had brought the storm shaking the inn so violently, but Vanagar still did not want to touch them. She forced herself to do so, tightening the wrappings about them and lining them in a row on the bed. She could feel the power in them, and belatedly recognised the power that had rocked her when the bell had rung. One, part of a set of identical bells smaller than her fingers, had been squashed flat. She did not wrap this one, like a guilty secret, but laid it out on its square of leather, a crime displayed. Last in the line of a row of lumpy parcels on the bed, decreasing in size. She looked away, and saw a glimmer of blue on the floor as Allia appeared with a light.
Reaching down, she picked up a mass of shimmering softness, a dress made of panels of glimmering black and blue silk enhanced with curlicues of black embroidery, subdued, elegant and entirely beautiful. A dirty boot-print marred the bodice like a bruise.
"I feel so ashamed," Allia whispered. "We didn't do anything, but..."
"But we didn't try hard enough to stop them, either," Jaelith replied, still angry. He wrapped the last bell in leather, and placed it with the others.
Rithia had taken the dress from Vanagar, shaking her head as if she'd found a treasure of art desecrated. "I'll clean this myself," she said. "Silk of this quality is so finicky. How does she travel with it, without crumpling it beyond recovery?"
Vanagar could have told her that the dress had a strong enchantment woven into it, but kept silent, busying herself with gathering more scattered clothing, none so fine as that dress, but a few other pieces to belie the plain shirt and trousers the ghost-layer had been wearing. She folded them neatly onto the bed as Jaelith collected a scattering of other items, including a bag of white disks like the one the ghost-layer had set to glowing the previous night.
"These are magic, aren't they?" he asked, passing one to his brother.
"I think half the things in here must be," Vanagar said hastily, before Zerith accidentally activated the disc. "Best take care of setting anything else off."
For once she didn't receive a slighting comment in reply, but then the value of her opinions would hardly be foremost on people's minds, not when the inn kept shaking with the force of the rain, and every so often, less frequently it seemed to her, thunder split the air. Zerith handed the disc back to his brother.
"What a mess," he said. "Guess the storm will make the scouting party's day, too."
And they still did not know what had happened to Jerian and the cook's bodies. Vanagar shook her head, and picked up a heavy leather satchel, the lock of which had been broken open. Hopefully the ghost-layer would be as even-tempered as she looked.