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Her Need Will I Answer

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Woman's Need calls me
As Woman's Need made me
Her Need will I answer
As my maker bade me.

It started with a thrown horseshoe.

And it wasn't the horse doing the throwing.

Tarma shena Tale’sedrin stood in the stable yard of The Prancing Pony (one of umpteen million Prancing Ponies they had encountered throughout their adventures), staring at the group of drunken men tossing horseshoes at a metal pole. They appeared to be attempting to loop the horseshoes over the post from approximately twenty paces, but they still cheered when the horseshoes didn't even hit the stake.

Kethry, ever attuned to Tarma's various moods of annoyance, raised an eyebrow. “Thinking you could show them how to do it better?”

“It's a silly game,” Tarma said, sniffing derisively. “Why are they getting points when they miss?”

“Because those are the rules. I'm surprised horseshoes isn't a time-honored Shin’a’in tradition,” Kethry teased.

“We live on the plains, she'enedra,” Tarma retorted. “We import most of our metal. Horseshoes are too valuable to go throwing around.”

“Ah,” Kethry said, mentally chalking up another Shin’a’in fact. They might have been partners for almost a decade, but they were still learning things about each other's cultures. Kethry wondered, sometimes, if she would ever completely understand Tarma, because not a week went by when the Swordsworn didn't surprise her with that strange mix of pragmatism and mysticism that defined the people of the Dhorisha Plains.

Deciding that arguing the value of horseshoes – a game that had been very popular with the Fifty Houses that Kethry herself hailed from – was a losing battle, she decided to let the subject drop. “Are the horses set for the night? The innkeeper gave us a decent price on the room, and I'd like to use it.” She rubbed her eyes ruefully. “I'm not as young as I used to be.”

“Obviously we need to spend more time on your physical training if six hours in the saddle wearies you, Greeneyes. Need can only work with what she has.”

Kethry's hand fell to her stomach, which was softer than it once had been. Giving birth to three children hadn't stolen her beauty, but it had rounded it out somewhat. What had once been solid muscle built from soldiering with the greatest mercenary company in the world was now gentled by the lines of motherhood.

Tarma had a point about her getting soft. She might be an Adept at magic, but part of what made her dangerous was her magic sword, Need, which gave her the skills of a master swordswoman. She knew that if Need needed to take over for her, she would likely end up very, very sore, since Need wouldn't care about the muscles that weren't there anymore.

But she wasn't about to admit that out loud to Tarma. There was no point in giving the Shin’a’in extra ammunition for teasing. “I haven't needed Need in years,” she replied airily, before offering her best guileless expression. “Thankfully my magecraft is strong enough that I don't need to utilize less civilized skills.”

“Not even going to touch that bait,” Tarma replied. “And yes, in answer to your question, the horses are set. Can you believe they don't even have a stableboy? The maid told me the owner cut the last one loose after he was caught stealing, and that travelers are expected to either hire a village lad themselves or take care of their own horses.”

“Do you want to find somewhere else to stay?”

“There is nowhere else. I'll check on the children in the middle of the night. Warrl can bed down with them after he comes back from his hunt.”

Kethry nodded. Battlemares were fierce and able to protect themselves, but that wouldn't keep Tarma from worrying. Having over a hundred pounds of sharp-toothed lupine kyrie on guard would be enough to settle her mind. “They don't make inns like they used to,” Kethry sighed. “The last place we stayed didn't even offer breakfast.”

“We're getting old,” Tarma replied. “And spoiled. Would you rather we live like we did during the Jkatha campaign?”

Kethry shuddered. “I'll take the amenities of civilization, thank you very much. Let's make it an early night so we can get moving early tomorrow. The sooner we get home, the better.”

Tarma agreed wholeheartedly. While once she had enjoyed adventuring, she had grown settled at their school, with family all around her. This particular Prancing Pony was located on the outskirts of Keyold in Menmellith, one of the most god forsaken countries they had ever traveled. Normally they wouldn't have bothered to leave the school, but the King of Rethwellan had requested their presence as his escort during the coronation of Tarabuk the Eighth of Menmellith, and one didn't say no to the king who had granted them their land charter without very good reason.

That hadn't kept them from grumbling about having to spend almost a month on the road. However, when they arrived, it quickly became apparent that Stefan was more interested in reminding Tarabuk of his powerful allies and how very small Menmellith really was than making Tarma and Kethry unhappy. The latest in the line of Menmellithan kings had all the makings of a petty despot, so Stefan's political machinations were an adept move designed to keep problems from developing. Kethry had managed to take Tarabuk's intended aside for some “advice” sessions about marriage, and felt fairly confident the young woman would find enough of a spine to keep her husband from doing something horrible.

All in all, it had been a worthwhile trip, but both wanted to get back home. They had been vagabonds for too many years not to appreciate the warmth and love of the place they had built for themselves. Kethry missed Jadrek, and worried about how he was handling the children. The school might be closed for the summer holiday, but Jadrek was just one man against three very rambunctious youngsters.

Kethry started to turn her back on the horseshoe game in favor of the inn when she felt something rise within her, an all-too-familiar compulsion she hadn't experienced in almost a year.

“Oh, no,” she murmured.

“Oh, what?” Tarma turned her head, her blue eyes narrowing dangerously as she saw Kethry's pinched expression.

Kethry waved her fingers at the hilt of the sword she carried. “I don't think we're going to be getting an early bedtime after all.”

Tarma groaned, smacking the flat of her palm against her forehead. “I hope we at least get some kind of bedtime. I'm really not up for a long quest.”

“Now who's spoiled?” Kethry teased, before sighing. “We'd better get moving. The sooner we answer, the sooner Need will be satisfied.”

Kethry had tried to explain to Tarma what she felt when Need called her. It was something she hadn't been able to put in words, because she couldn't say that Need's call was like anything else she had ever experienced – it wasn't the compulsion she sometimes felt when Jadrek looked at her, or the ever-present thrum of Tarma's existence in the back of her soul. It wasn't like the existence of her magic or the power she felt when she cast a spell. It wasn't even the protective instincts she'd never suspected she possessed until giving birth to Jadrie.

It was none of those things. For lack of better explanation, Need was more compelling and less emotional.

When Kethry had been a young mage, she had allowed herself to get wrapped up in Need's Just Causes. She could look back on her idealism in hindsight and realize that meeting Tarma had saved her life. If Need had her way, Kethry would have worn herself to death fulfilling the sword's demands to protect women. Becoming she'enedran with Tarma had helped decrease the blade's thrall, and Tarma's own stubborn goals had helped Kethry battle the blade's more trivial demands. It had been a balancing act, but the sword only spoke up when something was important nowadays.

But when Need called this strongly, Kethry had no choice but to follow the sword's wishes. She didn't hear a voice, or any kind of explanation, but simply understood that she needed to go that way because some woman was in trouble.

Ironheart and Hellsbane both took to being re-saddled with good grace. This was the first time this particular Hellsbane had been off the plains, but Ironheart was an old hand and was proving to be a good mentor to the younger mare. Since Ironheart didn't complain, Hellsbane followed her lead.

“Did you call Warrl back?” Kethry asked as she checked the provisions to make sure they were ready for a hard march. Kethry could feel Need's pull, and understood the blade was reacting to something within a day's ride to the northwest. Thankfully the ever-prepared Tarma had overpacked rations, which meant they would have enough for up to three extra days without needing to stop.

“He's on his way, but told us to go ahead without him. He said the forests around here have been heavily hunted by the peasantry, so he wanted to go further afield before taking down big game,” Tarma told her. “He's a bit put out that his good intentions might make him miss the first real adventure of this trip.”

Kethry snickered, but couldn't manage a full laugh. “We're going back the way we came,” Kethry said. “He should be able to find us easily.”

“In time?”

Kethry lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “In time for what is the question. I don't know if we'll make it in time.”

“Wouldn't be the first time that's happened,” Tarma said, unable to not think of Idra. “Let's get going. I'm curious now.”

Menmellith was a mountainous country which resembled Karse more than anywhere else they had ever traveled, which was not surprising since the country had once been a part of Vkandis Sunlord's favored land. Kethry was glad to be riding the warhorses, because most animals wouldn't have managed the treacherous terrain with dusk approaching. She sighed wearily as they started back up the long, steep slope that led to Keyold. A part of her wondered if the new queen was the one in danger – since Kethry had met her personally, it would certainly explain the power of the call. Need liked to react to women she had “met.”

Princess – now Queen – Elena of Thurbrigard hadn't been a bad sort, although she was unfortunate enough to be marrying a jackass for a husband. Tarabuk was handsome and wealthy, but he was also ignorant of the lives of anyone outside of the court, and covetous of a couple of nearby counties owned by other nations. Stefan had told Tarma and Kethry, privately, that he hoped that Elena would be able to become a power behind the throne, which is why he wanted her to meet with them.

Thankfully, Elena had also been the third daughter of a relatively poor kingdom. Her father had been widowed before she could even walk, and the second queen he'd married in pursuit of a male heir had not been kind. She had grown up without much of the spoiling that would normally be a princess' lot in life. The result was a practical girl with a good head on her shoulders, and plenty of empathy for the less fortunate. Elena had immediately suggested sending any offspring to Tarma and Kethry's school when they were old enough to make sure the children learned similar compassion and how to be useful instead of merely placeholders.

Kethry thought the girl might be exactly what Menmellith needed. If Tarabuk decided that starting a war was in his own best interests, the king would be shocked to find that his own worst enemy was his wife.

Maybe he was smarter than they thought, already realized what Elena could potentially become, and had decided on a preemptive strike.

She gnawed on her lip, wondering what the appropriate thing to do would be if that proved to be the case. Elena was not the rightful ruler of Menmellith, but maybe it was time for the Tarabuk dynasty to come to an end. Tarma and Kethry had participated in revolts before, and the results had been more just countries.

“Stop thinking so hard, Greeneyes,” Tarma said from in front of her. “I can hear you worrying, and the answer is simply we'll find whatever we find when we get there. Have patience.”

There were so many possible retorts to that comment, but Kethry couldn't think of any that she hadn't already used on Tarma. It was a sign of how long they had been together. Ninety percent of being a mercenary had been about traveling and waiting for the action, whether it was as a caravan guard or part of the Sunhawks, and they had squabbled plenty of times about Tarma's occasionally hair-triggered sense of justice. Tarma was paradoxical when it came to her patience levels, since Tarma had spent over a year training and hunting down the people who had slaughtered the Tale’sedrin, but the merest mention of Leslac or one of his songs would send her through the roof in no time flat.

Once, when Kethry had been young and stupid, she would have relished the anticipation of setting out on a new quest. Now, with the perspective (and scars) of too many battles, she could only wish it was over already.

The trip, like most of the ones Need demanded, was less than pleasant. Need didn't pay attention to human things like the need for roads or bridges. Trailbreaking was never a good idea at night, not even with the legendary battlemares as mounts. There was too much of a chance for the horse to misstep, or to encounter one of the less-than-friendly nocturnal denizens of the forest. The moonlight was strong, but as they proceeded, their way wound deeper into the back country and further from all remnants of civilization.

When Kethry nodded at an uncut path that was almost seventy degrees in slope, Tarma decided to attempt caution. “Can we rest for tonight?” Tarma asked. “I don't like the looks of this lack-of-road.”

Need, like Tarma when it came to Leslac, was not known for her patience. Now that she had taken up a Just Cause, she would not be contented with anything less than success. If they decided to lie down, Kethry was likely to spend a very uncomfortable night reminding the blade she was the master, and not the other way around.

But Tarma wouldn't have asked if she hadn't felt it was necessary to protect the horses.

“Just until it's light,” Kethry compromised.

Need settled into a softer yank. Kethry would have called the sense disgruntlement, if the sword had been capable of emotion.

Tarma flashed a grateful smile. “Let's set up camp. No fires.”

Kethry sighed, wistfully thinking of a cup of the tea she had in her saddlebags. She could use magic to brew it, but such a luxury would be foolish. Part of the responsibility of being a mage was respecting magic, and not using it for every little whim.

Without speaking any further, they automatically fell into the habits of setting up the camp together, with Tarma unsaddling the horses and Kethry setting wards around the perimeter to allow them to rest safely. The horses were rubbed down thoroughly as Kethry pulled together something resembling a dinner from their rations.

It was old hat, but the rhythm lulled Kethry into a bit of nostalgia. She wouldn't trade Jadrek and her brood for anything, but there were times when she missed feeling young and unencumbered. Those times were rare, but not uncommon, especially when trying to juggle the responsibilities of running a school, a family and continuing her own studies.

“Do you miss this?” Kethry asked as she slashed a couple of rolls open to make impromptu sandwiches. “You and me, out on the open road?”

Tarma paused in currying Ironheart. “You and me are out on the open road,” Tarma returned quickly, before flashing a smirk. “Are you thinking about running away for good?”

Kethry considered tossing some extra cumin into Tarma's sandwich just to spite her. “Jadrek would probably object to raising the children on his own,” she said mildly, before slanting her own smile. “You?”

Tarma let herself be distracted by a particularly challenging snarl in Hellsbane’s mane, pausing to untangle the bulk of it with gentle fingers before working it out with the comb.

Her silence didn't go unnoticed.

“You?” Kethry echoed again, sounding a bit worried. “Do you miss it?”

“I miss some of it, some of the time,” Tarma answered. “I miss being young and foolish and thinking I knew everything about the world. I don't miss the lack of food, stupid bandits or that idiotic bard. We're blessed, she'enedra.

Kethry was glad she resisted the temptation to spike Tarma's meal with the hated herb. Tarma was rarely sentimental, and Kethry enjoyed it when she let glimpses of her gentler side through.

“We are, in more ways than one.” She turned her hand over, showing the well-worn scar the goddess had marked on her palm, tying them together as she'enedran forever. Tarma saw her, and turned her hand over and lifted it in silent thanks to her Goddess for the joy that Kethry had brought back into her life.

The warm, gushy sentimentality of that night only extended so far. Tarma woke up the next day with her back sore from sleeping on a couple of stones, which aggravated her deeply-scarred body in a way a bed in the traveler's inn would have avoided. Kethry sat up a couple of minutes later, her eyes blurry, and Tarma knew Need had been tugging at her all night. Tarma brushed the sleep seed out of her eyes, mentally resolving not to let her temper snap just because she had gotten spoiled by creature comforts.

And then it began to rain.

It was just enough of a drizzle to make the clothing uncomfortable, but not enough to warrant the use of magic to protect them. It made for a sour, gray breakfast and an even more dank morning. It was hard to be in a good mood without proper weather. Tarma missed the cloaks Kethry had traded for in Jkatha, wishing she had thought to pack them.

In Leslac's version of their world, they would skip straight to the action. Real life was much less exciting, which was probably why Leslac always overlooked the mundane details. Adventuring was uncomfortable, and they certainly didn't look like the valiant heroines of story about an hour into the ride. So much for the joys of being a master mage and swordsmistress.

They were decidedly bedraggled by the time they pulled out lunch. Thankfully, they knew each other well enough not to attempt anything beyond the basics of conversation, since both were feeling cranky and a misspoken word might lead to a quibble.

“She's about an hour away,” Kethry said another miserable couple of hours later. The sun had come out and moved into the western part of the sky, but they were still damp and Tarma's clothing was starting to itch.

Tarma thought for a second about riding hard just to get this over with so they could get back on the road home, but arriving exhausted to a potential fight would be a fool's mistake. Fast-pace chases were death to plenty of stupid mercenaries, and she and Kethry weren't dumb. Saving a couple of minutes now could kill them in the end, and wouldn't help them save the woman in need.

They compromised, and took a brisk pace that cut the time down. The group they were tracking contained about ten, with at least one of the horses balking periodically enough to kick up earth outside the rest of the group. Looking for trail sign was decidedly easy when the ground was wet enough that each hoofprint left a distinct track and the escaping party had no idea of their pursuit.

When there was less than ten minutes of distance between them, Tarma gave Kethry the handsign for a stop. Kethry pulled Hellsbane up next to her, and made a gesture with her hands to raise a silencing spell. “How do you want to do this?” Tarma asked.

“Need's not acting up too much, so I don't think our quarry is going to do anything... unfixable soon,” Kethry said. There was nothing that caused Need's fury quite like “unfixable” violence against women. “We have time to close in and survey the group. A couple of spells should keep them from noticing us. How far away is Warrl?”

“Still a couple of hours. He got sidetracked by a kyrie pack that makes this area their home range. Apparently there was a dispute that needed an impartial opinion, and Warrl agreed to arbitrate.” Tarma gave a slight smile. “I didn't think this was desperate enough to ask him to decline.”

“You're probably right,” Kethry agreed, although she wasn't happy about not having their reserves closer by. They were good, but it was better not to be overconfident.

They moved closer, and started to catch sights of the group they were pursuing through the trees. The group was wearing a variety of colors, and wasn't dressed for tramping through the woods, which confirmed their suspicion that they weren't dealing with a mercenary group or anyone with a lick of common sense. As they closed in, Kethry started to scan the group for the sign of the woman they were there for.

And didn't see any possibilities. The group was comprised of men, and unless one of the bulky frames was hiding something surprising underneath their clothing, there wasn't a woman in the party.

But there was a very out of place horse. At the center of the group was an unsaddled pale mare that acted skittish and occasionally stumbled. She was tied by a lead rope from her halter to the horse in front of her, but wore no other gear. Kethry winced as the horse barely avoided taking a fall that risked breaking a leg.

Kethry didn't like this setup at all.

Tarma sensed there was something wrong as well, and a feeling of foreboding started to creep across both of them. Tarma signaled to speed up, starting to wonder if she was imaging things. The horse wasn't just pale, but pure white. Then the horse balked, tossing her head back, and Tarma caught sight of the pure, unmistakable blue eyes.

White coat. Blue eyes.

“Oh, crap,” Tarma muttered, speaking low but knowing Kethry's spellwork was good enough for them to have a conversation at the top of their lungs without catching their quarry's attention. “How the hell did a Companion wind up here?”

“Valdemar is on the northern border,” Kethry murmured in reply.

“But her Herald....”

“Might be unable to help,” Kethry interrupted before Tarma could pursue that path of thought. A Herald would never let his or her Companion be hurt without fighting to the death first. If they were lucky, the Herald was merely incapacitated. If not...

Well, Tarma and Kethry had been the bearers of bad news before.

“We owe it to Roald,” Kethry said. “And... I think she's why Need called.”

Tarma's head jerked back. “Seriously?”

Kethry shrug. “Need is pointing right at her.”

“But I thought Need only worked for human woman....”

“And apparently Companions,” Kethry corrected dryly. “They're special.”

Tarma nodded, not bothering to point out that she understood the nature of the Companions more deeply than Kethry. Despite Kethry's magical nature, she was decidedly uncomfortable whenever the topic of gods came up. If Need decided the spirits of human women stuck in horse-shaped bodies qualified as under her jurisdiction, then the stupid sword would have them tracking this group from here until the end of eternity. There was nothing the blade was if not stubborn.

Best to just do what they had to so they could be on their way back home. “Ten of them, two of us,” Tarma said. “Not the best odds.”

“Ten of them, two of us, and Need in a mood,” Kethry replied. “I can cast a sleep spell to take them down, and we should be able to keep them off her until we've made our escape.”

“Should we wait?”

Kethry understood the question Tarma was really asking: will Need let you wait?

It had been so long since Need had last compelled her that Kethry had to think on it for a moment. Her body might be getting softer, but her will had only become more determined as time continued to pass. Now that she was a mother with littles of her own, she understood how deeply a woman could fight for what she believed in.

“Yes,” Kethry replied. “We'll be fine until they set up camp. Unless things go suddenly south, she's not in any more imminent danger.”

Aside from being dragged around by a group of idiots and not having the sense to stop fighting against them. A dumb beast wouldn't know any better, but a Companion should — assuming she hadn't gone mad. The thought of a maddened Companion sent shivers down Tarma's spine.

There were stuck with more hurry up and wait. The story of a merc's life.

Kethry maintained the silencing spell over them as a precaution, including a “nothing unusual is happening” web as a sign of her deep paranoia. They possessed the skills to evade detection without using magic, but one wrong move could send things going down a very bad path. Caution was their byword, and the leylines in the area were strong enough that Kethry felt confident she wouldn't run out of energy, especially since it was apparent the group was traveling without a mage of its own.

They were obviously not well trained, because not once did they stop to see if anyone was pursuing them. Even a hedgewitch with less than a week of training would have been smart enough to ward the camp, and any experienced fighting group would have set more than one outrider on duty given their numbers. These were soft men, unused to the difficulties of the world. While they wore their swords comfortably, they wouldn't be ready to deal with half of what Tarma and Kethry could – and would, if necessary – throw at them.

The dead giveaway were the two men dressed in the uniforms of the palace guard of Menmellith.

“What does Tarabuk want with a Companion?” Tarma muttered. “If he's killed the Herald and intends on doing something with the Companion, he's biting off more than he can chew. Valdemar may be isolationist, but they're not passive.”

Kethry wondered if that was why Need had summoned her – not to save the Companion, but to save what she represented. If Tarabuk started a war on his northern neighbor, many people, including women, would suffer and die. Need had never shown such consideration before, but Kethry suspected there was still more to the sword than she knew.

“I don't think he's smart enough to know how stupid that would be,” Kethry said after a moment's thought. “And I don't think any of that crew is smart enough to take out a Herald unless they got really, really lucky.”

“So what...” Tarma started to ask, before something caught her eye and distilled her unease into something more concrete. She blinked, recognizing what had been nagging her as being off.

“Something's wrong,” Tarma said. “With the Companion.”

Kethry, to her credit, refrained from a sarcastic response. Instead, she merely lifted an eyebrow to encourage Tarma to continue.

“That Companion only has shoes on its rear hooves,” Tarma said. “Why would a Companion only wear two shoes?”

“Maybe they took off the front shoes to hobble her. It would explain why she hasn't had any luck escaping.”

“Anyone trying to remove a Companion's shoes against the Companion's will would end up kicked into meeting their gods,” Tarma argued. “And I could be wrong, but from here it doesn't look like the Companion has ever had shoes on its front hooves.” This was one of those times when Tarma’s Shin’a’in-bred horse sense was simply amazing; Kethry had no idea how she could see that from more than twenty paces away.

Kethry shifted in her wet clothes, consciously deciding now was not the time to point out that Tarma was stating the obvious. Need had never had them quest on behalf of a nonhuman before, and finding a Companion – wearing only two shoes – being led around by a bunch of barely competent palace guards didn't make any sense. Companions were formidable on their own, and a normal Companion could have already torn this motley crew into bits to free itself.

“Need still wants to save her,” Kethry said.

“I understand, but I still don't like this. Times like this, I wish I was better at mindspeech,” Tarma said. “We have to wait until Furface gets back to talk with her.”

“Let's keep to the original plan,” Kethry said. “If it turns out this is some kind of trap, we'll deal with it then.” She gave a cynical look at the men dressed in turquoise and mauve, wondering if they were deliberately trying to look incompetent as one after the other they stepped off the road and relieved themselves in the bushes.

As the Shin’a’in were fond of saying, plans, like eggs, were best when fresh. Tarma and Kethry had cut their teeth on dealing with things that went wrong five seconds after engaging, but every now and then something went exactly right.

They trailed after the group, which was heading back to Menmellith. As the sun marched through the sky toward evening, Tarma struggled to keep her incredulousness under wraps and treat the group seriously. The men were too busy bitching about how miserable the weather was and debating what they were going to do when they got back to civilization to pay attention to much else.’ The apparent leader of the group – the one riding the roan – finally called a halt about an hour before sunset, and the men set up camp.

Tarma and Kethry waited until the men had eaten and were pleasantly full. They tied the Companion to a tree off to the side and pulled out a couple sets of dice and started two different gambling matches. Tarma shook her head as she realized there was no one standing as sentry.

Dumb, dumb, dumb. If Tarma had been in charge of these men, she would be peeling back their ears for their sheer worthlessness.

“Now?” Tarma suggested.

Kethry nodded, pulling into the leylines to draw power for a deep sleep spell. It was tricky business to cast a good sleep spell when you were an Adept, since it was a matter of using just the right amount of power. Too little and it would be ineffective; too much and the spellcaster might end up inadvertently putting people into a much more permanent kind of sleep.

But Kethry was an Adept because of not just her power, but her skill. She pulled out the perfect amount of power to have the group yawning seconds later, and blissfully passed out and snoring loudly the moment after. A couple of them started to drool.

Tarma stepped out of their careful spot of invisibility and made her way to the Companion, moving quietly by stepping with the ball of her foot first as a matter of practice. She made sure to approach the Companion from upwind to avoid startling the mare.

Only to have the mare rear anyway when she appeared next to it. Tarma frowned, wondering how different Companions were from the horses she was used to dealing with. They were supposed to be as intelligent as humans – surely the mare would have smelled her approach.

“Calm, friend,” she murmured in a low voice, speaking roughly in Valdemarian. “I'm here to help.”

The Companion shied away, and Tarma shook her head. She knew from her experience that Companions should be treated like they were people – since they were, just not in human shape. The mare showed no recognition of what she was saying, and Tarma didn't want to waste time getting into a long explanation. Hoping that actions would speak louder than words, she went to untie the lead rope from the tree and gestured for the mare to follow. “Come on, let's get out of here.”

The Companion was having none of it. She reared, kicking her unshod front hooves toward Tarma's face. Tarma's reflexes kicked in before her brain, and she reacted like she would with any other horse, stepping calmly out of the way and letting the mare kick. “Calm down!” she ordered, hoping the Companion still had enough sense to listen.

Kethry gestured frantically for Tarma to keep as quiet as she could, and Tarma grimaced. Kethry's spell was good, but fighting to settle a Companion would break through the lightly enchanted sleep. Already the nearest two men were starting to stir.

“Come on,” Tarma hissed, gripping at the halter. “We need to get you out of here.”

The Companion just shook her head, and Tarma had to wondered if there was something it was trying to tell her. Then it took a deep breath, and took a couple of steps around the men that were sleeping. Tarma watched her move, checking the mare for some sign of injury that would explain her odd behavior. Aside from moving more clumsily than she should, there were no marks on her body except those caused by dirt. Curious, but Tarma didn't have the time to think of the whys and wherefores at that moment.

Instead, Tarma kept to the Companion's side and coaxed the mare out of the clearing.

As soon as they were back to Kethry, she raised an eyebrow. “Should we do something to punish them for kidnapping a Companion?”

“I think Tarabuk can handle them,” Kethry said wickedly. “Nothing like reporting a failure to a bad master.”

“You're a very scary woman when you want to be,” Tarma said approvingly. “Want to bet several of them won't report back?”

“No bet,” Kethry said, before turning to the Companion. “Need's still unhappy,” she said. “I don't know what she wants, but she's not content with us just freeing her from them.”

“Does Need want us to march her all the way back to Valdemar?' Tarma asked with disgust. “That will keep us away from home until the winter season.”

“I don't know,” Kethry said, tossing her hands in the air. “Need isn't satisfied, but I don't think she means for us to go all the way to Haven. Sometimes I wish she could talk and just tell me what she wants, because I am not good at these kind of guessing games.”

Both Kethry and Tarma turned to stare at the Companion. Tarma wouldn't have thought it possible before, but the Companion managed to look pathetic.

“What are we supposed to do now?”

“Meet up with Warrl,” Kethry said. “He'll be able to talk to her, and maybe then we can figure out our next steps.”

It was as good a plan as any. Not trusting the Companion to have the sense to follow, she reached out and secured the lead rope to Ironheart's saddle. The Companion let herself be tied up, and Tarma mentally reached out to Warrl to urge him to cut the kyrie formalities short and get his furry butt in gear. Tarma didn’t like weird, and she wanted Warrl to tell her what was going on as quickly as possible.

:That:, Warrl said within seconds of arriving, :is not a Companion.:

“What do you mean, she's not a Companion?” Tarma asked aloud, rephrasing Warrl's information so Kethry would understand what he had said as a matter of habit.

Kethry blinked, before turning her mage sight back to the animal, which glowed a transcendent blue. “It's a magic white horse.”

“There's no monopoly on magic white horses,” Tarma replied dryly, although her hackles were up. Shin'a'in had a saying: coincidence usually isn't. “Furball, if it's not a Companion, what is it?”

Warrl's lips curled in an a fashion that displayed both his disgust and his sharp, sharp teeth. Tarma knew she wasn't going to like his answer. :A very stupid woman,: he informed them. :A stupid, greedy, selfish woman who managed to offend her gods.:

In their time, they had been forced to help more than one woman who didn't deserve it. While Need was often right about the injustices faced by women – since there were so many, it was easy to find a “deserving” cause – the sword didn't have a brain and couldn't discriminate between anything except gender. Justice was an entirely different thing than desperation, and Tarma and Kethry both believed that sometimes people should be left to reap what they had sowed. If Warrl didn't like this woman-in-Companion's-shape, then Tarma and Kethry would prefer to leave things as they were.

If only they could explain that to Need.

“Let's see if we can settle Need down without interfering too much with divine justice,” Tarma said. “Messing with someone else's gods is never a smart thing to do. I know the Star-Eyed wouldn't appreciate it if the situations were reversed.”

Kethry, who was always more compassionate, sighed, and quickly checked with her magesight to make sure her instincts were correct.

It was definitely a magical horse, but no one had “signed” the work. Kethry scanned as deeply as she could, but didn't see a cause. Which meant that Warrl was likely right – as he usually was.

“I think we at least need to turn her back into a human to satisfy Need, which will screw up any divine justice plan. I don't see any mage mark on her, so I'm not breaking any human laws, but...”

:It wasn't targeted at her,: Warrl said. :She wanted to be the most beautiful thing in the world, so she stole the shoes from the person they were intended for. And the shoes granted her wish, in their own way.:

“A Companion certainly counts by some people's measure,” Tarma replied. “Though their outside beauty is matched by a good heart.”

:Not even a god can fix someone's heart unless they think to ask:.

“I know that, Furface. This is a classic case of 'be careful of what you ask for.' So if we take the shoes off, she should return to her normal, uncharming self?”

:Maybe she'll be a bit wiser,: Warrl added.

“Any objections to turning her back into a woman?” Tarma asked Kethry.

The mage shook her head. “Need isn't going to be satisfied until the woman is really 'saved,'” she said in disgust. 'I don't see any curse on the shoes, so they should be fine to take off... putting them on was the problem.”

Tarma went over to her travel kit to remove the farrier's gear she kept neatly packed in oilcloth. It wasn't as full a kit as she would have liked, but traveling with a smithy was impractical. She had the basics to remove a horseshoe.

“Can you settle her?” Tarma asked. “Keep her calm, and I'll remove the shoes?”

Kethry agreed readily, coming around to take the halter and rubbing the horse's neck in a soothing fashion and making calming sounds. Tarma grinned in approval. Kethry had come a long way from the sorceress who would only ride a donkey.

Even though the mare wasn't really a horse, Kethry's actions seemed to have a positive effect. The horse stopped shifting, and Tarma was able to work her way around to the back and lift one of the rear legs so it was resting against her thigh.

Only to find that she couldn't see any nails in the horseshoes. The silver shoes were perfectly smooth, and Tarma couldn't see how the metal was attached to the hoof.

“Keth?” she called. “I think we have a problem.”

Kethry peeked over the horse's shoulder. “What's wrong?”

“These aren't normal horseshoes. I don't see any horseshoe nails or any way to take them off.”

“...that makes sense,” Kethry replied after a second. “A curse powerful enough to shift a person's form would be stronger if bound together with a physical object. Gervase's third law...” she mused, turning the spell over in her head and starting to see how the spell would work.

Tarma sighed and set the mare's hoof down. “Think about the magecraft later,” she said. “Can you break the spell?”

“Not without some serious research, and my library's back in Rethwellan. I suppose we could take her back with us, but I hate the idea of her being trapped like this for weeks.”

Tarma looked at the false horse, frustrated. She wasn't used to having a horse-related issue that she couldn't solve herself. Suddenly a strange, slightly vengeful idea popped in her head, and she spoke before she could think it through. “They're magic shoes,” Tarma said. “Maybe they need to come off using a magic tool.”

Kethry shifted uncomfortably as Tarma's eyes fell to her sword belt. “She won't like it.”

“It can't hurt to try,” Tarma replied, beginning to mull the logistics. The idea was ridiculous, but the more she thought on it, the more she liked it. A sword wasn't a good tool to use on a horse – swords were only good for killing – but Need wasn't a normal sword, and this wasn't a normal horse. “Need won't hurt a woman, so I don't think you can do any damage.”

“I suppose...” Kethry said, knowing it was disrespectful and tempted in spite of herself. After all the times Need had dragged them through the mud on some hare-brained quest, Kethry would welcome the chance to get a little of her own back. “It can't hurt to try,” she agreed with Tarma.

“Are you comfortable unshoeing her?” Tarma asked.

“I've seen you do it a time or twenty,” Kethry replied, smiling so the corners around her eyes crinkled before walking around the horse to take the place of Tarma.

To both of their intense surprise, Need popped the shoes off with ease. Kethry slid the blade along with hooves, and somehow it managed to catch the nail-less shoes. Kethry cautiously levered each shoe, thinking Need made a surprisingly good shoe puller. It was yet another skill to add to the sword's already impressive resume.

It was also decidedly anticlimactic.

There were no bells, no whistles, no stretching of form as the trapped figure turned back into a human being. One moment, there was a Companion, and the next moment there was a naked woman, who promptly broke down into a fit of ugly, bitter tears. Without thinking about it, Tarma went to Hellsbane's saddlebags to pull out the first thing she could find that would cover the woman's nakedness. It didn't miss Tarma's sense of irony that it was a horse blanket.

Kethry was murmuring low, soothing sounds to the bedraggled woman, who was muttering in a Rethwellan dialect about Elena's shoes and how that horrible girl had cursed her for catching the king's attention. Concerned, Tarma looked at Waarl, who simply shook his head.

:She's Elena's stepsister. She stole the shoes.:

“So what do we do with her now?” Tarma asked, looking at the pitiful wretch, who kept switching between sobs and complaints about how she didn't deserve any of this.

:I say you bring her back to Menmellith and let Elena decide: Warrl suggested. :It will be a good trial for her fitness as queen.

That plan made sense, even though it would cost them a couple days travel to keep redoubling on their path. “Keth, are you up for a trip back to Menmellith?” she asked in Shin'a'in.

“It's either that or Thurbrigard, and I'd rather not travel three countries out of the way,” Kethry responded in the same language. “Maybe we can persuade Tarabuk to offer a reward for the return of his new sister-in-law.”

“Ha,” Tarma replied, rolling her eyes before something caught her attention.

On the ground where Kethry had discarded them lay the shoes, but their form had changed. Instead of horseshoes, a set of exquisite glass slippers made for delicate feet sat in the mud. Bending over to pick one up, Tarma shuddered as she noticed the insides were stained with blood.

“What do we do with these?” she asked, pulling her hand back before her fingers actually touched them.

“We return them to Elena, too,” Kethry replied. “They weren't cursed... just misused. It would be a pity to destroy such a finely crafted magic.”

Once upon a time, Tarma would have argued with Kethry's judgment about the shoes, her inherent distrust of magic causing her to see only the havoc the shoes caused. But she was older and wiser, and trusted her she'enedra to make the call when it came to things of magical nature. If Kethry believed the shoes belonged with Elena, then Tarma would make sure they were returned.
That didn't stop her from insisting that Kethry be the one to pick the shoes up. She might have trusted her partner, but Tarma was still Shin'a'in. “I'm not touching them,” Tarma told her.

“Fine, fine,” Kethry replied, rising to her feet collect the shoes, leaving the woman to her fit. She pulled a silk dress – the one she had worn for the wedding – out of the bags and bent over to collect the shoes and wrapped the shoes carefully. She was convinced they wouldn't cause her any harm, but it wouldn't hurt to be a bit cautious. Besides, the dress was a bit tight in the bust, so she wouldn't count it as a great sacrifice.

Almost as an afterthought, she collected one of her sturdy traveling robes to wrap the woman in. The woman didn't pay any attention as Kethry set it down beside her.

Wordlessly, Kethry also laid Need at the woman's bloody feet, hoping the sword's healing abilities would fix the physical damage the shoes had wrought. It was the best they could do, given the circumstances. Until the woman realized that what she had done had been her fault and no one else's, it was as Warrl had said earlier: not even a god could heal what was truly wrong with her.