THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 29

Ilna lurched to her feet. The boat shifted with a scrunch of gravel, throwing her down again. This time her bruised right knee landed on the gunwale. The additional sharp pain on top of the battering she'd just taken made her dizzy, but she managed to catch herself before she tumbled onto the beach.

She closed her eyes and steadied herself. She supposed she should've gotten up more carefully, but if she'd been seriously injured she wanted to know about it now. Besides –

Ilna smiled, not widely but widely for her.

– while she wasn't rash, she generally acted on her initial impulse. Once that had taken her to Hell, but who was to say that she wouldn't have gotten there anyway? Anyway, that was in the past.

The beach was shingle like at Barca's Hamlet; here the fist-sized chunks of rock were red sandstone instead of the black basalt she was used to. Though by this time, Ilna supposed she was used to anything the world could put her into, as well as some things that had nothing to do with the waking world at all.

Ingens groaned. He was still holding onto the mast, so he hadn't been clubbed unconscious while the vessel was being thrown around.

Ilna leaned over the secretary and removed her lasso. She had to lift his right leg to get the silken noose clear.

"Ouch!" Ingens cried, twisting his head to look up at her. He'd bloodied his nose, though it wasn't broken or he'd been giving it more attention than he did the leg he was kneading with both hands. "What did you do me?"

"Beyond saving your life?" Ilna said coldly as she looped the cord so that she could loop it around her waist again. "If I hadn't taken it off when I did, you'd have died of gangrene in a week or two. What you're feeling is the blood coming back into your leg."

"I'm sorry," the secretary muttered to his hands. "I wasn't . . . I didn't mean to complain. I wasn't thinking clearly. Wasn't thinking."

People were coming from huts to the right, above what would have been the shoreline before the Change. Ilna saw nets drying on racks; the men of Ortran must still fish, though now in the river rather than the Inner Sea. Two men, then a third, began to trot when they saw Ilna was watching.

"Good day!" Ilna said as they approached. "We've been thrown here by the earthquake."

Her fingers were knotting a pattern that would sear anyone looking at it like a bath in boiling oil. That was her reflex when she met new people, but in this case there was more than the usual reason for it.

The whole village was coming, down to babes in their mothers' arms. The villagers didn't look hostile, precisely, but they certainly didn't seem friendly. The men wore the crude knives that were as much a part of peasant dress as a tunic.

"You're on Ortran, now!" called a burly man whose beard was lopped off square a hand's breadth beneath the point of his chin. He'd lost his right ear in the distant past; only a lump of gristle and scar tissue remained. "You're under our laws!"

The three leaders paused a double-pace short of the boat. Ingens got to his feet, but he seemed willing to let Ilna talk for both of them. He usually travelled with Hervir, of course.

"I don't see any sign of damage here," he murmured, nodding toward the village. "Those flimsy huts should've been thrown down. Can the earthquake just have followed the river?"

"We have no intention of breaking your laws," Ilna said coldly, letting bigger questions wait on immediate need. "We're only here because we were caught by the earthquake. We'll go on as soon as we're able to arrange a crew for our boat."

This place must be about the size of Barca's Hamlet, several double handfuls of huts. The villagers lacked the bits of ornamentation – a bracelet of carved wood, a ring mounted with a pretty piece of quartz – that some of them would've had back home, but they seemed well fed.

"I want enough cloth for a tunic!" said a woman with a voice like stones rubbing. She glared at the woman beside her as she spoke; they both could've been any age from twenty to forty beneath the grease. "I want cloth for two tunics, because I got shorted last time. You know I was, Achir!"

"We don't take slaves here on Ortran," said a pale blond man, another of the three leaders, "but you're castaways and all you come with is salvage to us. You have the tunics you're wearing, no more."

"Aye, that's the law of Ortran," said the third leader, a fat old man who'd taken this long to catch his breath after scurrying to reach the vessel. He nodded solemnly. "The law of our fathers and their fathers before them."

"You're under royal law now," said Ingens sharply. "You can't rob travellers simply because your fathers used to rob them!"

A boy from the back of the crowd shied a stone. It missed Ingens' head, but he shouted and ducked away.

Ilna held up the pattern she'd knotted. The villagers staggered back screaming as if she'd flung live coals in their faces. The fool who'd been nattering about the laws of his fathers gasped twice, clutching his chest. His face flushed so red it was almost purple; he toppled forward onto the shingle.

Good, thought Ilna. Maybe you'll have a chance to chat with your ancestors about why they should've come up with different laws.

"I curse you!" she shouted to the departing crowd. The words didn't have any effect except to frighten the unpleasant fools further, but that was worthwhile. "May your limbs burn till they fall off!"

Not everybody had been looking when she'd displayed her loose pattern, and those at the edges of the mob hadn't gotten the full effect. They all joined the panic as their neighbors fled in screaming agony. The only remaining villagers were the red-faced fellow, now breathing in snorts like a hog, and a girl of eight or nine who'd been knocked down. She was bleeding from a cut on the forehead.

"What did you do?" Ingens said. "Have you killed them?"

"No," said Ilna, folding the pattern into her sleeve. There were more people coming, but these were on a path through the hills farther inland. "Well, not most of them. The effect wears off in an hour or two."

She climbed from the boat and knelt beside the trampled child. Pity that it couldn't have been the brat who'd thrown the rock, but he'd been glaring at Ilna when she spread the pattern. Being stepped on and hitting your head was minor by comparison with what the boy was feeling now.

The girl started crying. The fallen man wore a silk sash, probably stolen from some earlier castaway. Ilna jerked it off, then reached back to dampen it in a puddle nearer the river.

It wasn't clean – neither the cloth nor the water – but it would do for the purpose. She daubed blood away from the cut, then lifted the girl's hand and pressed it onto the bandage. "Just hold it here till you stop bleeding," she said. "And stop whimpering, girl! You and your fellows can expect worse if you don't stop trying to rob travellers."

"There are more people coming," Ingens said, apparently thinking Ilna wouldn't have noticed them herself. "Four men and a woman."

Ilna glanced up. The newcomers approached with a deliberate dignity which set them apart from the fisher folk even more sharply than the excellent quality of their garments. The men were in dark tunics with appliqués of indigo around the hems, while the woman's mantilla and white gown both had the sheen of silk.

"Girl?" Ilna said. She gripped the child's chin and turned her face toward the newcomers. "Who are those people?"

"I don't know!" the girl said shrilly. "They're from the new town! They don't belong here!"

"What do you mean 'new town?'" Ilna said. The girl tried to tug away; Ilna held her shoulder firmly. "When you've answered my questions, you can go back to your home, but not before."

"I don't know," the girl repeated, but this time she whined the words. She seemed to have given up struggling, which saved her from being bruised. "It wasn't there before the sea disappeared. It hasn't any business here!"

Ilna didn't speak for a moment. "Mistress?" Ingens said in a worried whisper. "I know that the Change mixed the eras widely, but where there's an enclave in a district which is generally of another period, it means . . . I mean, it seems to me to mean . . . ."

"Wizardry?" said Ilna. "Yes, I've noticed that too."

She released the girl's shoulder and rose to her feet. "All right, child," she said. "Tell the people in your village that if I see them anywhere near this boat, they'll regret it. For a time. Now, go."

The girl was already running back the way she'd come. She was a dirty little thing whose eyes were set too close, like a pig's; but as she darted away, Ilna thought of Merota. Her mouth tightened.

"The grove where Hervir went to buy the spice was like that," Ingens said quietly. "Not Caraman itself, but that grove. That's why nobody from the town went there."

"Good day, Mistress Ilna os-Kenset," called the woman. Her voice was a cracking contralto which sounded as though the speaker was much older than the twenty-five or six that she appeared to be. "My name is Brincisa. I hope my servants and I can assist you in your present difficulties."

"How do you know my name, mistress?" Ilna said. She fished out the pattern she'd used on the villagers, but the part of her mind that fitted things together was quite sure it wouldn't be of any use against this woman. Though perhaps the four men with her . . . .

"Like you, I have certain skills," Brincisa said. She walked to within a double-pace of Ilna though her servants halted well back. "I saw that you were coming here and that you'd be in distress. Therefore I came to offer my assistance to a sister in the art."

Ilna grimaced. "Thank you for your offer," she said, "but we can pay our own way. Perhaps you can help us find a new crew, though? Ours were lost in the earthquake."

Brincisa wobbled and closed her eyes. A servant started toward her, but Ilna already had the other woman's arm; the servant stepped back.

"Are you all right?" Ilna asked. Brincisa was trembling as if she'd gotten up too quickly after a long illness.

"Yes, I'm sorry," Brincisa said. She opened her eyes again but put a hand on Ilna's shoulder to brace herself for a moment longer. "Just a spell of dizziness. It will pass."

She paused. Her eyes were a pale gray-blue, a startling color in a brunette with a dark complexion. Ilna wondered how she was able to keep her garments so shimmeringly white in this place.

"You said you would pay your way?" Brincisa said.

"Yes," said Ilna. "Of course."

She was aware that her tone had returned to its usual stiff reserve. For a moment she'd been reacting to Brincisa the way she would Tenoctris, weak after executing a major incantation.

Brincisa gave her a satisfied smile and took her hand away. "I'm all right now, thank you," she said. "In fact I was hoping that you could do me a service while you're here, Mistress Ilna. I have some ability in the art, but there is a thing I cannot do and I think you can. I would appreciate your help."

"What sort of help?" Ingens interrupted. "With respect, mistress, we have our own business to attend. We can pay for lodging in the usual fashion."

Brincisa looked at the secretary, then laughed. "Your concern does you honor, Master Ingens," she said, "but I'm not an innkeeper. And this isn't your affair."

Returning her attention to Ilna, she continued, "The favor I ask will be a trivial one for you to grant, and I can help you in return. But we can discuss that later, after you've eaten."

She gestured to her servants. "Two of you carry my guests' belongings to the house," she said. "You others wait here to keep the vermin who live on the shore from rummaging through the boat. I'll send you relief at sundown."

Ilna glanced at Ingens, but the secretary returned her gaze without expression. He was obviously deferring to her.

"All right, thank you," Ilna said. "And we can talk about the favor later."

She walked at Brincisa's side toward the track through the hills. Ingens was giving the servants directions about what they should bring from the boat.

Brincisa seemed to have recovered from whatever had caused her weakness. Ilna looked at her, wondering if a pattern would tell her anything. She doubted it, and anyway it would be discourteous to weave one her in Brincisa's presence.

Sairg had hated wizards and blamed Ilna for the earthquake, because she was one. He was quite wrong about Ilna.

But he hadn't been wrong that a wizard was responsible for the boat being picked up and deposited here, where the wizard Brincisa waited for them.