The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 65)

Keiran’s very first sight ever of the truldemagar had come as a shock.

In Olluvarde’s broad underground passage of bas relief murals, she’d just finished scrutinizing the last panel, her silvery blue magelight glowing about her, when the trolls burst around the far corner by the stairs. They saw her at once and gave a great shout, charging.

She stood paralyzed a moment—in horror. She’d planned to await their approach, but her plans were not what held her motionless.

The truldemagar’s war gear was famous. All the north-land peoples spoke of its beauty and excellence. Keiran had heard the tales, of course, and knew bronze to be superior to the leather coats and flint knives of Fiors’ warriors. But the ferocious glint and clink of shining scale mail surmounted by gleaming helms gave these trolls a presence more alarming than anything she’d imagined. With their forearms and shins encased in bronze greaves, they seemed monsters of metal, alien and terrifying, as they stormed forward.

Heart in her throat—pounding, pounding, like the trolls’ booted feet hammering Olluvarde’s marble floor—she stared.

The tales waxed eloquent on the grotesque faces and warped bodies of the afflicted. She’d known to expect the curving and elongated noses, usually strangely blunt, sometimes cruelly pointed; the enlarged, cupped ears; and the sallow, sagging skin framing watery, bloodshot eyes. She’d imagined the hunched shoulders and crooked arms. But the reality of their deformities combined with the vast power in their muscled limbs and the battle rage twisting their faces unnerved her wholly.

The oncoming scent of their sweat rolled over her.

She turned and ran.

Her pursuers gave another mighty shout, their voices deep and growling.

And her feet responded with a burst of speed.

What are you doing? What are you doing? she asked herself. You meant to stand and await them. You meant to turn yourself over to them.

But she could not make herself stop. Not here underground, hidden from the sight of the sky, where unspeakable things might be done to her, unwitnessed. And how foolish was that? Thinking the presence of the day eye over her might offer any protection.

No matter her panicked logic, she raced along the curving passage like a hare fleeing before hounds, darting around a piece of fallen wall like a startled minnow, vaulting over clumped rubble like a leaping deer, her magelight still illuminating her way, the troll horde pounding at her heels.

Sias! Oh, Sias! she prayed as she panted.

What in Cayim’s hells did she think she was doing? Where in Gaelan’s grief did she think she was going? She’d entered this passage by the stairs far behind her, the stairs behind her troll pursuers. Did she think to burst out through some crack in the earth to feel the free air on her skin along with warm sunshine? Almost certainly she’d be cornered instead in some caved-in dead end, severed from any escape to daylight and freedom.

But she ran, and ran, the passage curving always to her right.

Were the trolls farther in her wake? Was she faster in her sandals and suede tunic with its fringed hem? Were they slower in their mail and boots, with their terrible swords out and weighing their arms?

The passage turned an abrupt corner, slamming into a smaller hallway, on the left a tunnel plunging down narrow stairs into darkness, to the right—oh, blessings! oh, blessings!—a level scrap of corridor running toward a ragged opening in the hillside and cool sunlight.

Keiran whirled right, diving for the light like a seal caught too long underwater and diving up for air.

Six pounding steps later and she was out, carried by her momentum across cracked flagstones to the edge of the terrace, where a tree-studded slope slanted down toward the woodlands.

She doubled back, hurtling up broken steps before the truldemagar could emerge. Fleet as a mountain goat, up and up, she fled out of sight through the forest of columns at the top of the steps, and then ducked behind a crumbling statue into its niche in a fragment of wall.

She crouched there panting and panting, heart slowing from its frantic beat, and knowing she was safe.

The trolls roared, angry and puzzled, as they stumbled onto the empty terrace and saw their quarry nowhere in sight.

She was safe. They’d never find her. She was safe!

And her plans had all gone wrong.

She’d hacked her hair short with the flint knife tucked into her belt. She’d bound her breasts tight, thanking Iona that she was slight, that her facial features were clean cut, not soft, and that she could pass for a boy.

She’d been ready to be taken peaceably. But that mob had been no sane scouting party. They’d have hacked her to pieces, not taken her prisoner. She’d had to run, as her body had known, even while her head argued.

But how could she retrieve her—not lost—her never-offered moment?

Gazing out at the courtyard on which her hiding place fronted, she had an idea. Most of the ring of columns surrounding the space were toppled or become jagged stumps, but one remained whole, towering to thrice her height. She did not think the truldemagar would be good climbers, heavy in all their war panoply. But she—she who had climbed the sea cliffs at home in search of gulls’ eggs—could surely reach the flat capital of that lone stalk of still-standing marble.

She would have to be fast. She could hear the trolls spreading out from that lower terrace, searching as they moved uphill.

Prying herself out of her hiding place—which was not safe, despite her earlier assurances to herself, but which felt so—was impossibly difficult, but she did it. How ludicrous that she’d hunkered there for even a moment. The trolls would have smelled her fear, even if they’d not glimpsed a protruding elbow. And they would not have given up until they found her.

She hustled across the courtyard on cat feet—she must not be heard—and thrust her fingers into a horizontal crack circling the column just above her head, while wedging her toes into another at waist height. Could she climb in her sandals? She must. There was no time to take them off.

The column had been fashioned in great barrel-like segments, and—luckily—time had weathered and widened the joints where they came together.

Up she went, like the climbing monkeys of the south. Just as she pulled herself over the slight outward slant of the capital to stand on its level top, the first troll appeared from below. He was not looking up, but around him, and he did not see her.

Iona’s breath! If she crouched down and made herself small, they might never see her. They could search and search every piece of this ruined hilltop, every niche, every cranny, and never find her.

Her mouth went dry. The scent of pine from the trees ringing the ruins floated up to her, resinous and bracing, prodding her ingenuity alive. She had to get herself taken—alive, not dead—or her plan for her people, for her pater especially, would fail.

Why had that plan seemed so easy in conception? Why did it seem so hard, now? She made herself stand tall, with her arms outstretched.

“Oiyez! Oiyez!” she called in her loudest voice.

The lone troll spotted her instantly.

“To me! Come to me!” he yelled, and his fellows boiled up the slope, while he unshipped his bow and nocked an arrow.

“Stop! Stop!” she screamed, working to keep her voice from a woman’s higher register. “I am truldemagar. I am one of you!”

“You look human enough,” growled the marksman, aiming his arrow.

She got ready to duck low, if he should let that arrow fly.

“But I’m not!” she insisted. “Look with your inner sight. My nodes are ripped from their moorings!”

“Lord Carbraes forbids the inner sight,” answered the troll.

“Then take me to him, and let him check,” she yelled.

Slowly, he lowered his arm. “I suppose we could do that,” he allowed.

The other trolls had gathered around him. After some muttering among themselves and more shouted conversation with Keiran, still atop her column, they agreed to let her down unharmed.

For all that, the moment she came within reach, they plucked her from her handholds, yanked her arms up behind her, and dealt her three swift belly blows.

As she doubled over, retching, one said, “Why he’s nobut a boy!” in astonished tones. “What’s your name boy?”

“Keir—” not Keiran, that was a girl’s name, and she must be a boy “—my name is Keir,” she choked.

“From Fiors, huh?” her questioner said, and then fetched her a thunderous blow to her head.

Her senses reeled into darkness.

“Whups! Didn’t mean to get his pate. That was a welcome, a slap to the back,” said her assailant, as consciousness passed from her.

She was glad he’d sheathed his sword, before he’d attempted his gesture of greeting.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 66)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 64)

Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)