Unguilded, p.9

Unguilded, page 9



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  Two days later, Mika led the burro and cart off the road and along a narrow path. The mountain pines arched over the rutted track, shielding them from the afternoon sun.

  “A farmer lives down this way,” Mika said. “I trade with him.” She looked over at Kara. “I wasn’t going to stop, he won’t like me bringing you along, but he might have news of Rillidi.” Mika frowned. “The road’s quiet for this time of year. I don’t much like it.”

  An hour later they rounded a bend in the path, and a meadow came into view. Much like where Mika and Allon lived, there was a small cabin and a couple of smaller out buildings. No smoke rose from the chimney, and two burros huddled miserably in a small fenced-in field. The animals raised their heads, and one brayed loudly.

  “I don’t like this,” Mika said. She handed the lead to Kara. “You stay here.” She walked to the edge of the trees and paused to stare out. After a long look, she started to jog towards the cabin.

  Now both burros were braying. Zayeera answered, and Kara had to tug hard on the lead to keep her from going to them.

  Mika reached the small window on the side of the cabin and peeked in. Her shoulders slumped, and she turned and waved Kara forward.

  Kara pulled Zayeera down the path, out of the trees and into the clearing.

  By the time she’d crossed the meadow to the cabin, Mika was tending to the burros. She’d found a bucket somewhere and had dumped fresh water into a trough. As soon as the water hit the wooden trough, the burros had their heads in it. The burros were thin, their coats matted and dull, and any grass in the enclosure had long since been cropped to the roots.

  “Your friend?” Kara asked. She tied Zayeera up and rummaged in the cart for the bag of feed.

  “He’s inside,” Mika said. She took the bag from Kara. “He must have died in his sleep.” She shook her head and poured some grain into a second trough. One burro stopped drinking, sputtered a bit, and then shuffled over to the grain. “It looks like it was a while ago—a month, maybe more.” She ran a hand over the ribs of one burro. “It’s a good thing I decided to stop in now. These two wouldn’t have lasted until my return trip.”

  “Are there any other animals?” Kara asked.

  “Not really,” Mika replied. “There’s some wild goats around. Terach used to catch and milk them, but they’ll be fine without him.”

  “Terach made the cheese.” She felt a little pang of loss, as though she’d known the man from eating the cheese he’d produced.

  “Aye. I’ll clean out any cheese that’s left on my way home,” Mika said.

  “And the burros? Are they coming with us?”

  “No,” Mika replied, absently stroking one burro. “I’ll give them some more grain in the morning before we leave, then I’ll set them free. Burros around here are never far from being wild. These two will be fine.”

  Mika unhitched Zayeera and left her in the enclosure with the other burros.

  “We’ll want to sleep outside,” Mika said. She tossed Kara’s bedroll to her. “The cabin’s probably not fit for us what with Terach being there for so long. But we’ll look around for anything useful. Terach wouldn’t have minded, as long as his things go to help an unguilded.”

  “He didn’t like guilds?” Kara asked. She wasn’t sure she wanted to enter the cabin, wasn’t sure she liked the idea of taking a dead man’s things, but she had so little of her own that she couldn’t afford to refuse anything.

  “Terach,” Mika said and smiled. “He hated guilds. Especially Mage Guild. I never learned his story.” Mika glanced over at her. “But I suspect he was Mage Guild. Always kept to himself, did Terach. He told me once if I ever brought anyone else he’d be more likely to kill me than trade with me. I believed him. I only let you come because I had a feeling something was wrong.”

  “And you were right,” Kara said. “Let’s get in the cabin before we lose the light.”

  Mika opened the cabin door. A few flies buzzed out, along with stale air and a hint of rotting food.

  They left the door open and started their search in the kitchen.

  Kara found a knife and unsheathed it. The six inch blade looked sharp enough to strip willow twigs for teas and balms. A water skin was another prize, along with a cook pot small enough for one. She spied a shelf lined with books and thought that Mika was right—Terach had been Mage Guild.

  She headed to the shelf, intent on seeing what treasures had been collected over the years. As she passed the open door to the bedroom, she caught a sense of movement. She stopped, unsure if she really wanted a closer look. Animals had not gotten into the cabin, but insects would have.

  She peered into the room and frowned. Wisps of grey hair were visible on the man’s head, which thankfully faced away from the door. What skin she could see was dry and leathery, and the body was covered with a thin, green blanket. Terach had been an old man then, by the looks of his hair, and as Mika had said he’d died in his sleep. Except that a grey-black mist swirled around him. The grey-black of Mage Guild Secundus Valerio Valendi.

  Kara bit her lip. The morning after she’d met Mika, the day Zayeera had woken them up so early—a grey-black mist had flowed over the burro, parted for Kara, and swept past Mika. Then it had gone up to the Mountain Road. Had it traveled all the way here, to this clearing? Had Terach been caught by it?

  Because she knew that the mist—the spell—had killed this man. She shivered. If Zayeera hadn’t woken her up, would she still be alive, or would she have simply slept while the mage mist killed her, dying in her sleep just like poor Terach?

  “Find anything, Kara?” Mika called from the kitchen.

  “Uh, just checking his books.” She hurried past the bedroom door to the bookshelf. “There might be something you can surprise Allon with.”

  IN THE END they took very little. It had taken Terach a lifetime to accumulate everything in this cabin, but other than the books and the few items Kara claimed, Mika had only a small pile set aside to pick up on her way back from Rillidi.

  “Not much of his food was still edible,” Mika said, setting the stew pot onto the hot coals of the fire.

  They’d built their camp close to the burro enclosure, and Terach’s two huddled close to them, perhaps afraid to be forgotten again.

  “The garden was picked pretty clean by animals,” Kara said. “Looked like rabbits mostly, and maybe a couple of wild burros.”

  “That’s good. When I set Terach’s free, they may be able to find the wild ones.”

  Kara dumped some potatoes into the stew pot and sat down, staring into the flames. She hadn’t told Mika about the mist—hadn’t told her that her friend’s death may not have been as peaceful and natural as she thought.

  “Terach was a fine man, once you got to know him,” Mika said. “Never would have guessed he was such a reader, though. How many books did you count again?”

  “Twenty-seven,” Kara replied.

  “Twenty-seven,” Mika repeated and shook her head. “And not one of them from me. Someone else was his book trader. I’m not sure if I’m grateful or offended.”

  “Be grateful,” Kara said. “Some of these books would be illegal for a Mage Apprentice to own, let alone an unguilded.”

  One book in particular had caught her attention—a book by Santos Nimali, at one time the Mage Guild Primus. It was handwritten in a spidery script—a workbook, probably of spells—that one she was keeping. She wondered how much her mother might give to have such a book. Not that she would ever get it from Kara.

  “You’re right,” Mika agreed. “Being caught with books only a Mage had a right to is a good way to get dead.” She poked at the coals under the pot. “But there’s some that will be safe enough for me to carry?”

  “Oh yes. Allon will like the book on mountain plants,” Kara said. “It has drawings of them and describes how to use them for healing and food. You can read them on long winter nights.”

  “Never thought I’d be able to read,” Mika said and turned to

  “I think I got the better part of the bargain,” Kara said and smiled when Mika nodded.

  “As do I,” Mika replied. “Which is the best kind of trade.”

  THEY BROKE CAMP early, eager to leave this place of death behind. Mika gave all three burros some grain, then she freed the two that had belonged to Terach. They cropped the grass in the meadow while Kara and Mika packed the cart and harnessed Zayeera.

  The burros followed them from the meadow along the road through the trees, but when Kara turned to look for them half an hour later, they were gone.

  Late that afternoon they reached the track that led to Villa Salva. A mining town like Grana, it was set so high in the mountains, Mika said, that newcomers were short of breath for days. And it was cold at night, even in the height of summer. But gold was mined there, so it was worth the extra hardship.

  An hour later they had to pull off the road as four Merchants, each driving a wagon pulled by a team of burros, passed them.

  There were Warriors—two in front and two behind—guarding whatever was in the wagons. Gold probably, although Kara wasn’t about to ask.

  It was the first time she’d ever seen Warrior Guildsmen, and she tried not to stare as the hard-faced men strode past, their broadswords hanging down their backs and their leather armor creaking as they scanned the road ahead and behind.

  The gaze of one Warrior flitted over her, and she had to fight the urge to run. Instead she stared at the ground and tried not to think about the book tucked away in her pack, the book that was likely full of secrets and powerful spells and incantations. Then the wagons were past them, and Mika steered Zayeera onto the road.

  “We’ll camp early tonight,” Mika said. “There’s a place to stop not far from here.” Mika turned and spat into the dust. “Just as soon let them others get ahead.”

  “Yes,” Kara agreed. She didn’t want to even think about sharing a camp site with them. Not that the Warriors would allow it—she doubted they’d be willing to share anything.

  IT WAS AN hour before dusk, and they’d already set up their camp. Onions and wild mushrooms simmered with dried goat meat in the stew pot.

  Kara pulled a book out of the wagon and headed over to Mika, who sat with her back to a rock, staring out across the valley. The sunset had painted the tops of the mountains pink.

  “We have some time to study,” Kara said. She sat cross-legged beside Mika. “Is there anything you want me to go over again?”

  Mika blinked. “No. I think it’s best if we leave off my lessons and start in on yours.”

  Kara looked at her, puzzled.

  “I need to tell you about Rillidi,” Mika continued. “What to expect once we get to the city, who might not want us there, and about the unguilded I know. Those Merchants today reminded me that we might not always have campsites to ourselves. Can’t go around talking about unguilded when Guildsmen are around.”

  “No,” Kara said. “Especially not around Warrior Guildsmen.”

  “Don’t worry about the Warriors.”

  “They didn’t look friendly.”

  “They’re not,” Mika replied. “But they are professional. As long as it didn’t interfere with his contract or guild, you could stick a knife into someone sitting beside a Warrior, and he wouldn’t intervene. Their skills and talents are only used to honour their guild and contracts. Gyda, they’ll even hire out to unguilded, as long as there’s no need for them to break Guild Law.”

  Kara was stunned. She’d never even considered that unguilded could hire Guildsmen. “With a Guild approved contract?”

  “Aye. That way they can hire out to non-Tregellans.” Mika grinned. “Seyoyans like to hire Warriors.”

  “They do?” Kara had read that the dark-skinned, light-haired people felt at home in Rillidi, with its islands and bridges and boat travel. It reminded them of their own land, a string of islands far to the south. Some of the rarest healing herbs came from Seyoya.

  “I thought Seyoyans weren’t violent.”

  “They’re not,” Mika said. “But they steal from each other. Think it’s a great joke. They hire Warriors to protect their goods from friends and family, but they are not allowed to kill. Any death nullifies the contract, and Warrior Guild does not get paid.”

  “So no one dies.”

  “Not for a very long time,” Mika said. “And the Seyoyans hire the best Warriors. I heard they even hire Assassins, though Warrior Guild never actually admits they exist.”

  “Assassins who are hired not to kill,” Kara said. “It seems a strange thing to do.”

  “Seyoyans I’ve met had an odd sense of humour,” Mika agreed. “But they’ll trade with unguilded, which is good for my business. Now, about Rillidi. The unguilded mostly keep to the original island, Old Rillidi.”

  “The others aren’t safe?” Kara asked.

  “Not as safe,” Mika replied. “The rest are controlled by the guild that owns the island. Some guilds are less welcoming to unguilded than others.” Mika smiled. “The Arts Guild is the friendliest and a lot more fun than other islands. But Old Rillidi Island, no one really knows who owns it.”

  “I thought Mage Guild owned it,” Kara said. “At least that’s what I’ve read.”

  “They’d like to own it,” Mika said. “But the truth is it’s owned by the descendants of the First Guildsman. They’ve been Mages for generations, but Old Rillidi is older than any guild, so ownership has remained with the family.”

  “But Mage Guild knows who owns it?”

  “I think someone in the guild does, yes,” Mika said. “Although it’s been kept secret for years. In the meantime, there’s no real authority on Old Rillidi.”

  “Is it dangerous?”

  “It can be. I’ll show you the places to stay away from. There’s a good many unguilded there living normal lives. Those are the folks I’ll introduce you to.”

  Chapter eight

  ARABELLA LOOKED UP from the report in front of her.

  “You’re certain the girl was a Mage Guild runaway?” she asked the Mage who stood before the council table. A minor talent assigned to Villa Grana, the man had probably taken this news as an excuse to come to Rillidi. She might have done the same in his circumstances.

  “Mason Guild believes she was,” the Mage replied. “But only one Mason saw her. The other one died.”

  “Fell off the side of the mountain,” Arabella read from the scroll. It was a copy of Mason Guild’s report of the incident. They were certain enough of the facts to advise Mage Guild of the death of a runaway.

  “But they are confident of the timing?”

  “Yes, Master Mage,” the man replied.

  “Thank you,” Arabella dismissed him. The man backed out of the council chamber, and Arabella set the Mason report down.

  “You seemed very interested in one dead runaway,” Castio drawled from across the table. “Is there something you’d like to share?” He swept a hand out, indicating the full council—eight Mages who ringed three sides of the table.

  “Please do share, Master Mage,” Inigo said.

  Inigo was the one of the youngest council members, younger than Arabella, and she knew he only tolerated her because he was Valerio’s creature.

  “I’m trying to be thorough,” Arabella said. “And it happened outside of Rillidi, so yes, I am very interested.”

  “Ah yes,” Castio nodded. “Keeping an eye on all that transpires in the country—since you yourself are . . . country.”

  “Yes,” Arabella said. She dropped her hands to her lap, hiding her clenched fists. It was an insult of course, but since she herself had claimed that being from outside of Rillidi gave her a different—and useful—perspective, she could not very well deny it.

  Castio smiled blandly before turning to other council business.

  Arabella stared at the date on the Mason report. It was not the day that Valerio told her his spell had been successful—the day she’d been elevated to council—the day s
he had conceived—but it was close. It was possible that the Mason had mistaken the date—or even changed it to suit himself.

  The date must be wrong. The girl died from Valerio’s spell—she didn’t think he’d lied about that. This Mason must have tossed her body off the mountain, changed the date, and claimed she’d fallen. Arabella rolled up the scroll.

  The girl had died—twice, so it seemed. She didn’t care about anything else, despite what she’d told Castio and the rest of the council. She had no more ties to the place of her birth, finally.

  She placed a hand on her stomach. And her child—hers and Valerio’s—would be born here, on Mage Guild Island.

  KARA GOT HER first glimpse of the city of Rillidi three days after they’d left Terach’s farm. The Mountain Road wound down to a plain, and beyond was a huge expanse of glistening blue. Pontus Bay. The dark masses of the islands, nine in total, loomed in the distance.

  “It’s a sight, isn’t it?” Mika came up beside her. “If you look hard enough, you can see Mage Guild Island, way off in the distance. It’s bigger than the rest and higher, of course.”

  “Because it’s above the water,” Kara said. “Have you been?”

  “Close enough to see the underbelly of it.” Mika paused, eyes wide. “That’s a wonder. Boats moored to docks that have steps that disappear up into the earth.” She shivered. “I didn’t go under—not with a whole island, a whole city, hovering overhead.”

  “But it hasn’t dropped an inch since it was first created and elevated,” Kara said. “At least, according to what I’ve been taught,” she added. She had to remember that not everything the guild had taught her as fact was true.

  “So they say,” Mika said. “But it’s not natural.”

  “Of course not,” Kara said and laughed. “It’s magic, same as all the other islands, except the first one, Old Rillidi.” The island where she planned to make a home.

  “But the other guild islands, they’re set into the water, not above it. They seem more natural.”

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