THE MIRROR OF WORLDS – snippet 14:



            "Big fella, isn't he?" Karpos said, straightening and backing against a pilaster. He hadn't drawn his bow, but the broad point of his arrow was pointed at the spine of the man on the floor.


            "Yes, he is," Ilna said tartly as she knelt beside the stranger. Though there was nothing overtly threatening in Karpos' tone, Ilna knew that a big man looking at another big man is always thinking about a fight. Her brother Cashel had generally been the biggest man in a gathering….


            The stranger groaned again. His face was turned slightly toward her; his moustache quivered as he breathed, and he had a short black beard as well. She'd guess he was about forty–old enough for a peasant, but this one hadn't been a peasant. His hair and nails were neatly trimmed, and his skin was smooth except for the scars–a cut above the right eye, a trough in the right forearm that could've been made either by a blade or a claw, and a puckering from a sharp point below the left shoulder blade.


            A hard smile touched Ilna's mouth: this one was a warrior. She guessed that if she rolled him over, she'd find the mate to the pucker somewhere in his upper chest where the point'd gone in. Why he lay here naked and unconscious while the priests outside had died fighting the catmen was a question to ask as soon as the fellow could speak.


            "Karpos, get some water," Ilna said. "I don't see any injury but there's something wrong with him."


            "Asion!" Karpos shouted to his partner. "We found somebody! Fetch us water!"


            Ilna frowned but didn't object. The hunters were her companions, not servants. Karpos was afraid to leave her alone with the stranger. His concern was misplaced, but it was a harmless mistake.


            Ilna only wished that her own mistakes had all been so harmless. If she hadn't made a particularly bad mistake, she'd have a better reason to exist now than the hope of killing every catman in the world; though killing catmen seemed to be enough.


            The floor of this temple was of simple stone flags instead of the designs in tile or mosaic that she'd seen elsewhere. The stranger brushed them with his palms, feeling for a purchase. His eyes remained closed.


            "Here!" said Asion, striding swiftly out of the sunlight with a dripping mass in his left hand; the knife in his right pointed toward the ground, not a threat but assuredly ready for any trouble that arose. "I didn't see a gourd around so I soaked some cloth in the fountain."


            "Off one of the bodies?" his partner said. "You're no better than a dog sometimes, you know, Asion?"


            "Hey, I cut off the skirt," Asion said defensively. "There wasn't any blood on that part. Who's the guy?"


            Ilna took the sodden linen from the hunter. She was more than a little inclined to agree with Karpos, but Asion had done what'd been requested. Since she hadn't told him what means to use, she had no right to complain about how he did it.


            While she considered whether to daub the corner of the stranger's mouth or perhaps to mop his brow, he lifted his head slightly. His eyes opened, but only a slit. Bracing his arms, he raised his torso and brought his knees up under him.


            Asion backed away, wiping his left hand on his rawhide breeches. He raised the knife to his waist with the point forward.


            The stranger stood and opened his eyes. He glanced at the two hunters and smiled faintly. Then he looked at Ilna; the smile vanished. He'd risen smoothly, but his body swayed for an instant after he'd found his feet.


            Ilna's face tightened in slight irritation. The man couldn't have been as old as she'd thought, not and carry so little fat. She'd mistaken the flaccidity of unconsciousness for softness. Now that he was alert, the flesh was molded tightly over his bones.


            She handed him the wet cloth. "What's your name?" she asked.


            She sounded peevish. She smiled a flash of self-awareness: I spend most of my life in a state of slight irritation, punctuated by moments of extreme anger. It's as well that I don't like being around people, because I wouldn't be very good company.


            The stranger wiped his face, squeezing out runnels of water that splashed on the floor. When he'd finished with his face, he began to rub his shoulders and chest. The rag was by now merely damp.


            He smiled at Ilna. "What is your name?" he said. His words were clear and audible, but his voice had the odd, echoing intonation of a gong speaking.


            Ilna glared at him. "I'm Ilna os-Kenset," she said, because it was quicker to give an answer than to argue that that she'd asked him first. "What is your name?"


            "And what're you doing in this temple?" Karpos said harshly. He'd backed two steps and now had drawn back his arrow enough to spread the bowstring into a flat V. Ilna suspected the hunter wasn't aware of what his fingers were doing. He was dangerously tense.


            The stranger looked at Karpos and smiled again. It wasn't an ingratiating smile, simply one of amusement. He dropped the rag on the floor and stretched, raising his arms to their full height. His fingertips came impressively close to the crossbeams of ancient timber supporting the roof trusses.


            "Answer me!" Karpos shouted, drawing the bowstring a little farther.


            Turning to Ilna again, the stranger said, "My name is Temple?"


            She thought she heard a question in the words, but the tone might have deceived her. She glared at Karpos. She'd taken the hank of cords out of her sleeve and was knotting them without paying conscious attention to what her fingers were doing.


            "Karpos, put that bow down now," she said in a voice that could've broken rocks. "Put it down or I'll leave you here! You'll be no good to me."


            Asion stepped between his friend and the stranger, murmuring reassuring words. Karpos let the arrow rotate parallel to the bow-staff, holding both with the fingers of his left hand alone. "What kind of name is Temple?" he shouted to the back wall.


            "What is a name?" Temple said; softly, slowly. He still sounded amused, but he looked at the two hunters with a gentleness which Ilna hadn't expected.


            Ilna grimaced and began picking out the knots from the pattern in her hands. "What happened here? Why were you spared when the catmen attacked?"


            "Was I spared?" Temple said, looking down at his naked body. He was certainly big–as tall as Garric and even more muscular. Temple wasn't a broad plug of a man like Cashel, but he gave the same impression of tree-like solidity. Softly, barely whispering, he went on, "It's been a long time. Very long."


            "Answer me!" Ilna said.


            He met her angry gaze. "The Coerli didn't attack, Ilna," he said. "Others did. I do not know them, but it was the others."


            Then, scarcely audible, "Very long."


            "I didn't think it was the cats neither, mistress," Asion said in a tiny voice. He was staring at his right big toe as it drew circles on the stone floor.


            Ilna spat out a short, bitter laugh. The cords in her hands gave her the power to kill or compel; she could drive Temple mad or make him say anything she wanted to hear.


            And none of that was the least use to her now. She didn't know what it was she wanted, and she needed a better reason to kill than the fact she was–as usual–angry and frustrated.


            "All right," Ilna said to the hunters. "There's no point in our staying here. There'll be food in the huts. We can milk the goats before we leave, too. I'd like a drink of milk."


            "What about the bodies, mistress?" Karpos said quietly. "Do we leave them, or…?"


            The dead were merely meat of a sort that other men didn't eat; they didn't matter. But–


            "We'll put them in one of the huts and block the door with stones," she said after a moment to consider. The cold smile touched her lips again. "I suppose that makes it a mausoleum. The sort of thing rich people have… when they've become dead meat."


            "Ilna, you are leaving?" Temple said.


            Ilna looked at him sharply. "Yes," she said. There wasn't much reason for him to remain here at that. "Do you want to come with us?"


            Then, in a crisp tone, "You'll have to find clothes if you come."


            "I will find clothes," Temple said. He flexed his arms and smiled at her again. "And I will come with you."