The first thing Kitty did when she got out of sight of the Order of Order was to duck into a waystation and change her clothes, taking off the musty gray habit and putting on one of the much-used dresses that had been gifted to the Order as a charitable donation.
Maybe it would have seemed a stupid act of rebellion, if anyone had witnessed it. After all, both the habit and the dress had been a gift from the Sisters, as well as a letter entreating its reader to offer Kitty whatever help she requested on the road. "If you won't take our offer of a ride back to your father's house," Mother Phyllis had said, "at least you can take the protection of our order. No one will trouble a Sister of Order."
Kitty had her doubts about that, but even if it had been true, there was nothing she wanted less than to bear the ugly and uncomfortable robes of a Sister of Order any longer than she had to. Besides, the Sisters certainly hadn't wanted her protection. Why should she want theirs?
The second thing Kitty did was to take her hair out of its tight, severe bun. She was so used to the slight tugging at her scalp that when her hair was suddenly hanging in dark waves to her waist, she felt for a long moment as if something was completely wrong, like she was standing naked in front of a crowd of men or something. But that moment was gone in the space of two or three breaths, and then, without thinking overmuch about what it would look like when it was done, she took her knife from her belt and sawed off her hair, handful at a time, until she could pull a chunk of it forward and see it line up, more or less, with her chin. It didn't matter if it looked terrible. All that mattered was that she didn't look like Sister Jennifer anymore.
And then, well, then, she walked south. There wasn't much of anywhere to go north, not unless she wanted to cross the border into Briopia, which she didn't, and probably couldn't anyway. And maybe spring had already come further south.
She wasn't going back to her father's house, that was for certain.
It was the cruelest sort of late winter day, the kind with a bright sun and a blue sky and a hint of something in the wind that promised spring even as it bit at your face and froze your fingers numb. Kitty didn't really mind, though, as she ambled unhurriedly down the Queen's West Road. This was the kind of wild, ridiculously illogical thing she had scarcely even let herself dream about doing—she had no roof over her head, no way to earn a living, no protector, nothing but some dry jerky and lumpy bread in her pack, and it felt wonderful.
She met few people on the road south. After all, who went north in the winter? Her hand flew to the stolen kitchen knife at her belt the few times she came across a small party of farmers making their way to the nearest village, but they simply gave her strange looks and left her alone.
Night, when it fell, was cold and damp, but having spent most of her youth and all of her adult life to date within the clammy walls of the Order of Order, Kitty was used to the cold. There weren't many towns on the West Road—too close to the borders of Fairyland—but there was the odd cluster of houses, marking the places where a few stubborn clusters of landholders pushed at the frontier. Kitty picked a quiet one, with no hint of movement from the main house, and slid into its barn. The walls were thin, with cracks between the boards, but the stalls blocked almost all the wind and the body heat from half a dozen irritable farm horses warmed the straw enough that Kitty slept quite comfortably.
She woke before dawn, in the cold gray of early morning, for Morning Prayer. The smell of sweaty horse and dirty straw confused her, until she remembered where she was and breathed a prayer to the Rule Giver, hoping that she'd woken before the farmers. Stealing a few handfuls of cold water from the horses' trough, she drank deeply and splashed a little on her face before wrapping her cloak around her and setting forth again.
Adventure gleamed a little less brightly that day. Kitty's feet hurt, and the food in her pack was already starting to run out. She supposed the Sisters had assumed she would catch a wagon to her father's house, but she still let herself resent their stinginess for a minute. As she chewed her way through the next-to-last piece of dried meat, she forced herself to look squarely at the problem: what was she to do?
Go back to her family, begging them to take her in until they sent her back to the Order with another bribe or worse, to some husband of her parents' choosing who wasn't picky about a dowry?
No. Not even an option.
Somehow live in the woods, like a hermit in the Book of Rule, far from any living souls?
Tempting, but how would she do it? What did she know about living in the woods? She knew most of the basic medicinal herbs, but you couldn't live off of those—well, maybe you could, but Kitty certainly didn't want to try.
She'd have to find some kind of job. A maid, maybe—she had the sewing skills, even if she didn't have the manners. But nobody around here needed a maid, and besides, if she'd wanted to spend her days sewing and staring meekly at her feet, she could have stayed with the Sisters of Order.
Well, she'd have to find something to do. She vowed to stop at the next village, look as humble and polite as she could, and see if she could wrangle some food or maybe even a job out of someone.
The road was even quieter today. Trudging along the wide, even paved road by herself made Kitty nervous, raising a chill along the back of her neck that had nothing to do with the wind. She squinted at the pale gray sky and tried to work out in her head just how far the border was from here. It was hard, when she had only a vague idea of how far she'd traveled, but it seemed to her like the border had to be miles off, so that couldn't explain the empty roads. Maybe folk around here just didn't have anyplace exciting to be. It wasn't as if the Sisters of Order travelled the Queen's Roads that often, either.
At any rate, there didn't seem to be any villages off the main road on this stretch of highway, so Kitty veered off towards a tree-lined side street slanting southwest. The overgrown shrubs along its dusty edges cut the wind somewhat, and its narrowness made it seem cozy in comparison to the desolate West Road. Maybe, Kitty thought, she would run across another cluster of stubborn homesteaders, or even a little village. Maybe she'd meet some desperate farm-wife who could use a strong girl like Kitty to milk her cows and sweep out her shed. One who had a warm meal and a soft bed she was willing to share with a stranger. Kitty began to wish she hadn't cut her hair so thoughtlessly. A demure braid would've suited her purposes very nicely. Oh, well.
As it turned out, a braid couldn't have helped her anyway, because there was no sign of life at all along the road. Kitty's waterskin, which she hadn't thought to refill in the horse trough, ran out part way through the afternoon, and she found her mouth grow dry even as her eyes and nose leaked in the cold. She tried chewing a waxy green leaf from one of the evergreen shrubs in hopes of getting some moisture from it, but it was so bitter she had to spit it out almost immediately.
"Pissing fuckrot," she muttered. Even the knowledge that no one was going to slap her for cursing wasn't comforting enough to brighten her mood. She'd done enough shifts of duty in the infirmary in the summer to know that you could die in a matter of days without water. Even if it was cold, water was still a necessity. Why couldn't it have been a snowy winter? The thought that she couldn't have a drink, if she wanted one, made her as thirsty as she'd ever been. Rot finding a village, Kitty needed to find a source of water as soon as she could.
She sat down to think, wedging a rock from the road and brushing the dust off it before putting it in her cheek. Didn't heroes in the Book of Rule always do that in the desert, to keep the moisture in their mouths? It tasted awful, but she kept it there as she thought. Well, first things first—she needed to get off the side road. Maybe she'd get lost on her own, but the underbrush, which had gotten as tall as her head as she'd walked along, made it difficult for her to see anything on either side of her, and she couldn't find water if she couldn't see.
It'd probably make it easier to listen for running water away from the few rustling, dead leaves surrounding her, too. She stood up and pushed her way through the east side of the road. Shit. She really was in the middle of nowhere, she thought, gazing at the featureless expanse of grasses and bald patches of dirt that stretched out as far as she could see.
Now, how to find water? She certainly couldn't see any. Standing still, she tried to listen.
This had been such a stupid idea. If the Mother of Order could see her now, she'd laugh. And then she'd drag Kitty over by her ear to the kitchen and make her scrub every inch of it as punishment for being such an idiot. What did Kitty know about living on her own? What did a new name mean if you didn't have any new skills to go with it?
Wait. She thrust all thoughts of the Mother of Order out of her mind and focused on a sound—a swishing sound, but maybe a little different than the swishing of the grasses. Maybe. She thought of the creek on the edge of the Order's lands, the constant little rush of water over rocks that followed you around whenever you were in the garden or the orchard, and decided that she was definitely hearing water somewhere.
She turned around a few times, trying to figure out where, exactly, she was hearing it. Walking east made the sound fainter; walking north or south didn't make it seem any closer. Kitty was getting pretty thirsty by the time she poked back through the brush onto the other side of the road.
The sound was definitely louder on this side, echoing out over the low hills. The grass looked greener on this side, and a dark smudge of forest a short ways in the distance seemed to hem the grasslands in, as if it were a long and narrow cow field.
Kitty hadn't realized that she was anywhere near a forest—there certainly hadn't been any visible when she was on the Queen's road. She paused and briefly wondered how far west the side road had taken her, but dismissed the thought after only a moment. She still had to be miles away from the borderlands, and besides, fairies or no, she really did need to find some water. She was starting to feel a little sick, and she sat down and rested for a few moments before getting up again to follow the rushing sound.
For once, the Giver's luck seemed to favor her, and she hadn't walked very long at all before coming across a small stream, bubbling over a bare streak of rocks stretching through the grass. She fell to her knees at its side and drank until her throat stopped feeling dry and her stomach started feeling full, and then she lay down until the world stopped spinning.
By the time she'd woken up—she must have drifted off at some point by the side of the stream—and filled her waterskin, the sun was hovering low on the horizon.
Rot and ruin, she was still in the middle of nowhere, with no empty barn or deserted stack of hay in sight. To top it all off, she was as hungry as she'd ever been, and there was nothing but a couple of withered old apples in her pack.
She would have stopped and eaten one, but there wasn't time—there weren't a lot of options for a girl out in the wilderness like this, and undoubtedly the temperature would drop after the sun did. She needed some kind of protection from the elements, and if the woods were the only shelter around, well, that's just what the Giver gave, and anyway, she had her knife.
Maybe she paused on edge of the woods, staring into its shadowy depths before stepping inside, but there was no one to witness her cowardice, no one to mock it or to reproach her stupidity for entering an unknown forest in the first place. When she finally stepped in, dry sticks and crinkled leaves crunching underfoot, nothing greeted her at all but the raspy noise of the wind scraping over the bare trees. She stood a little straighter. She wasn't afraid of an empty forest.
Still, it probably didn't pay to go too deep into it, particularly when there didn't seem to be a path. That wasn't a very good sign, but it wasn't necessarily a bad one, either—didn't fairies use trails to lure people into their lands? Kitty paused and turned her head to look back. She could still see the stream and the grasslands through the trees, and as long as she could see her way out, she thought, she hadn't gone too far.
The sun was setting in earnest now, leaving the light in the forest red and dim, so Kitty hastened to drag the biggest sticks she could find over to the nearest tree and leaned them up against its thick trunk. She cross-hatched the bigger sticks with smaller ones and then thatched the roof of her little lean-to with leaves. By the time she had finished, the thick blue dimness in the woods had deepened to the true darkness of a starless winter night, and the sweat she had worked up began to evaporate from her face and under her arms, leaving her shivering.
The lean-to was just big enough for her, and she wrapped her cloak around herself and ate one of her apples before the exhaustion of the day overtook her and she fell into sleep.
She dreamed that the clouds moved as swiftly across the sky as a curtain being drawn, revealing bright stars and a crescent moon that bathed the forest in silvery light. The sound of the wind in the trees was softer now, like a whisper, and around and above her, Kitty heard women's voices.
"Mother Phyllis?" she asked. Maybe the past few days had been the real dream, and now she was back in the Order Infirmary.
A woman laughed, and then one of the voices said, "I am not your mother," sounding irritated.
Kitty opened her eyes. In the dream, her lean-to had vanished, along with the tree it had been leaning against, and two women stood before her. One seemed almost as wide as she was tall, with dark hair piled in an imposing crown on her head; the other was thin and wiry, with blonde curls. The dark-haired woman was scowling regally at Kitty, her eyebrows drawn together and her mouth tight, while the blonde woman had a hint of a smile about the corners of her lips. The women looked much more alike than Kitty might have expected.
"Who are you?" Kitty asked.
"You're trespassing on our land, sleeping at our feet," said the blonde woman wryly. "I think we'll ask the questions."
"Your land?" asked Kitty unthinkingly.
The brown-haired woman breathed out angrily through her nose and said, "Yes, our land. I know you humans think that everything you can set foot on is yours, but this forest isn't. If I'd known you'd take my courtesy as an invitation to move in, I'd have killed you the moment you took water from our stream."
The last part of the woman's words filtered only dimly through Kitty's awareness; at the word "human," she brought her hand up to wrap her fingers around the iron and silver charms at her neck and said, "You have no right to be here. The Fairyland border is miles away."
The blonde woman's—fairy's-- smile faded at this, and she narrowed her eyes. The other fairy raised a hand, and suddenly roots, hard brown ones and thin white ones like worms, were wrapping around Kitty's feet and legs and she found she couldn't move an inch.
"Stupid rutting human," said the fairy. "You think we're fairies?" She walked over to Kitty and pulled the charms from Kitty's hand, rubbing them between her fingers. Neither burned her skin. "Whatever the fairies may have agreed to," she said, her voice growing deeper and louder and echoing off the trees, "no human king or queen banishes us from our own lands. Our mothers and grandmothers and their sisters have lived here for a thousand years—do you think we'll leave because some thin-skinned spoiled child tells us to?"
A year ago, even a month ago, this would have been the sort of dream that sent Kitty jolting out of sleep, sweating and shaking in her bed at the Order, but she'd been frightened many a time since then, faced things that she'd thought would have her pissing herself and cowering in a corner. Now, some sort of angry not-fairy woman scarcely even rated. "What are you, then?"
"What?" asked the dark-haired woman, looking nonplussed.
"Sorry, that was rude, wasn't it?" Kitty asked, feeling almost recklessly brave. "I do apologize for trespassing—I didn't know this land belonged to anyone. But if you're not fairies, and you're not humans…."
"What are we?" the blonde woman asked, smiling again. "Well. You're right. That is a rude question." She stepped closer to Kitty and to the other woman, peering at Kitty with a sort of detached curiosity. "Suffice to say that the people in these parts know we're here, even if they don't know what we are, and they leave us in peace. Unlike you."
"I didn't mean to bother you," said Kitty. "If you'd like, I can give you something for letting me stay here. I mean, I don't have much money, but if there's something you'd like me to do for you, perhaps I could earn my keep."
"Earn your keep," said the dark-haired woman with a snort. "You are a bold one, aren't you? What do they call you?"
Well, they called her Sister Jennifer, but she was leaving that name behind. It was a shame that the first ones to hear her new name would be these dream-women, but then, beggars couldn't be choosers. "My name is Kitty," she said.
"Hmm. Kitty." The woman seemed to ponder it. "And what brings you to our home, Kitty?"
"Wait," Kitty objected. "It's my turn to ask a question. Aren't you going to tell me your names?"
She actually laughed at that. "Stars and ashes, the humans get more presumptuous every year, don't they?"
The blonde woman nodded in affirmation, but she smiled at Kitty as she said, "You may call me Nancy, and my sister is known as Ann."
Kitty wondered what their real names were—Nancy and Ann didn't sound like very supernatural names—but she sensed that she had probably pushed the sisters far enough, and she didn't want to see what happened when their amusement swung back to anger. "I'm honored," she said, and Ann rolled her eyes.
"You are. Will you answer my question now, Kitty? Why have you come, and why should we let you leave again unharmed?" Her voice had lowered into a lulling rhythm, and Kitty found she couldn't look away from her eyes.
"I came because…because I didn't have anyplace else to go, and I needed shelter for the night." It was the truth, but for some reason Kitty felt compelled to explain further, the words bubbling up as if against her will. "I came from a nunnery—the Order of Order, it's where all the nobles and rich of the north send their daughters when they don't want them. It's where they take anything interesting and good about a woman and either wear it out of her with work or spoil it out of her with flattery. I saved them—I saved them—but a woman who fights apparently isn't living by the Giver's Rule, and they couldn't have that. Didn't want me there." It was ridiculous, Kitty'd hated the Order, so there was no reason for her throat to be choked and her eyes to burn with tears.
"So," said Nancy, and the roots around Kitty's legs loosened. Ann frowned thoughtfully, but did not object. "They banished you, this Order of Order, and sent you to wander without a guide or a protector."
That rankled. "I don't need a protector," said Kitty, as fiercely as she could manage.
Nancy laughed softly, just a puff of breath. "Some might disagree," she said. "And you most certainly need a guide, if only to keep you from wandering uninvited into others' lands. Not everyone is as kind as we are—there are those who would kill a human the moment she stepped out of her own people's territory."
"That's terrible," Kitty said. Nancy shrugged.
"Well, it's no more than your folk would do to an imp or a werewolf or a centaur," she said. "We are, after all, in the midst of a war."
It was on the tip of Kitty's tongue to say of course they'd kill an imp or a werewolf or a centaur—imps made your cattle ill and your crop fail, werewolves would eat you alive if they caught you, and centaurs went around raping women—but it occurred to her both that saying such things was hardly likely to win her favor with Ann and Nancy, and that she had never personally heard of an imp or a werewolf or a centaur doing anything outside of old fairy tales, which the Sisters of Order had always said were full of nonsense. Instead, she said, "I'm not fighting a war against anyone."
Nancy laughed harshly. "Oh, neither am I. Perhaps we innocent bystanders ought to form an army of our own. Do you suppose many humans would join us? I've always thought--"
"Kitty," Ann interrupted. Nancy sighed and shut her mouth, gesturing for her sister to go on. Ann ignored her and looked intently at Kitty. "You believe in a Rule." Waiting for Kitty's nod, she continued, "Do you believe in the First Rule?"
Kitty sighed and began to recite, "Unto the world the Giver hath Given a Rule, to govern each season and kind and creature, and each must obey--"
Ann waved that aside with an impatient gesture. "No. The First Rule, the one that human and fairy and tree spirit and all the races agreed on all those generations ago—'Repay a kindness with a kindness, and an injustice with justice.' Do you know that rule, Kitty? Do you believe in it?"
Kitty had never heard that one, but it sounded like a pretty good rule, so she nodded.
"Good," said Ann seriously. "Then I will tell you this, human—your folk begin to forget us. You're proof of it. Soon they'll forget the promises they made, and they'll come with fire and axes and they will burn us to the ground and plant wheat and oats in our ashes. We cannot keep them away forever. It is no longer so easy as it once was to call on our brothers and sisters for aid." Under the anger in her voice was a terrible sadness, and a certainty—the kind of certainty the very old and sick had, the certainty that death was near.
"Now, my sister and I will do you three kindnesses, Kitty. First, we will forgive you for trespassing on our land, and let you sleep in peace under our branches. Second, we will offer you what weak protection we can. Wherever our word is good, you shall not be harmed. Third, we will help you to find your own people, so you can live in whatever way pleases you without having to make your home with us. In return…." Ann breathed in deeply, and shared a solemn look with Nancy. Her voice had risen from the lulling, persuasive rhythm of before; now, she was practically singing. "In return, you will do three kindnesses for us."
"What kindnesses?" asked Kitty, mesmerized.
"First," sang Ann, "you will lead your people away from our home whenever they draw near. We will bring them to you, but you must take them away again, and not let them hunt our beasts or hack at our trees. Second, you will never, as long as you live, burn down our brother and sister forests so that a human settlement may be built there. Perhaps your king will sign another treaty with the Fairy Folk and your people will expand even further into our ancient homelands. I cannot stop this—but you will not help them. And third, remember this." Her eyes met Kitty's, dark and serious. "You may not remember the details. But remember that we have done you a kindness, and remember that, not so long ago, our folk were friends. And when the trees or the river or one of the Fairy Folk seeks an audience with you, grant it. I do not ask you to sympathize with our fight; only listen." She settled back on her heels, looking exhausted.
Nancy stepped forward and laid a hand on her sister's shoulder. "Well, Kitty?" she asked. "Do you agree?"
It was easy enough—if she didn't agree, they'd probably kill her, and if she did, well, when had she ever wanted to start a farm on the frontier? When had a fairy ever wanted to talk to her? Never, and she couldn't imagine that one ever would. "I agree," she said.
The sisters smiled. "Very well," said Ann. "We have struck a bargain, and we will hold you to it, as I would expect you to hold us. I bid you a good night, then, Kitty, and a long life." They stepped back, then, and the roots binding Kitty's legs receded entirely. The sisters reached out to clasp hands and looked up at the sky, looking as if they were drinking in the moonlight. And then, of all things, they began to sing, a rolling, slow song like a lullaby, Oh, my love, my darling….
The night closed in around Kitty like a thick, warm blanket.
Kitty opened her eyes. Light was filtering through the leafy roof of her lean-to. She was warm, but stiff from sleeping curled under her small roof, and she slid out from under it to stand up and stretch.
It looked like a bright, clear morning. A bit cold, but least the wind wasn't blowing. She must have been exhausted the previous night, because dawn had obviously passed her by hours before. A pity, since her goal for the day was to find her way back to the Queen's Road and maybe, if the Giver's luck was with her, to make it to some kind of village or town before nightfall. It would probably be a long walk, so she had no time to waste.
She sighed and gathered her few possessions from the lean-to before pausing to look at it one last time. It was built against a thick tree. The tree was dark with age and moss and close enough to a thin tree with pale, papery bark that their roots intertwined. Kitty tried to impress the image upon her mind, in case she found herself in need of shelter again in the near future. The little make-shift shack had served her well—she couldn't remember the last time she'd had a night of sleep so deep and satisfying.
It didn't take long to find the little overgrown side road again—even without a path, in the daylight, it was easy enough to see where the forest ended, and the smudge of hedges and trees lining the road was visible from a long way away. Kitty knelt by the stream to fill her waterskin one more time when she heard, of all things, voices, coming from the side road.
"Fuck a duck," a man's voice said. "Where are we?"
"This is the last time I listen to your directions," another man said. "Well fucking done, Brett. You can explain to Morrissey why we've gotten the caravan lost again."
"Piss on that," said a third man. "I can see the main road from here—we'll just cut across that field."
Kitty's first instinct was to shout out to them, to tell them she was here. Having gone for days without seeing another human soul, she longed just to talk to someone. But the noise of horses' hooves and weapons clanking brought her back to her senses. This wasn't just a party of farmers on their way to market, this sounded like an army. Maybe not even the Queen's. Some of the men had Eastern accents; for all she knew, they could be a band of brigands. Even if they weren't, it would probably be a stupid mistake to reveal herself to who-knows-what kind of strange men. No, what she had to do was to follow them—surely they weren't just wandering around aimlessly. They were obviously on their way to somewhere, and wherever it was, it probably had people, maybe people who could offer Kitty a job or a place to sleep.
Quietly, she stood and drew nearer to the road. At first, she took care with each step to be as silent as possible, but the men were chatting and shouting at each other so loudly that it seemed pointless to worry about being heard over them.
They were a strange bunch. Some of them spoke the same way as the peasants who farmed around the Order; some had Eastern or Southern accents; some spoke in unfamiliar tongues. The ones near the front were loud and free in their speech, but as Kitty, who walked quite slowly compared with the horsemen, fell behind, the men near the middle spoke more rarely and when they did, they seemed more restrained and respectful. Near the very back rode a small knot of women in a wagon, commenting on the narrowness of the road and wondering aloud if the caravan was headed in the right direction. Kitty was surprised at that. She'd certainly never heard that the Queen's Army took women, and knowing Mother Phyllis, if women actually could enlist in the Army, she probably would have heard a dozen dull sermons about it. Perhaps brigands accepted women among their ranks, although Kitty couldn't imagine what woman would ever ride with the kind of brigands who had attacked the Order. Not one with any self-respect, that was certain.
Despite their horses, the party's pace wasn't so quick that Kitty couldn't keep them in view or hearing range. Her stomach growled so loud, she was afraid that they would hear it, but nobody seemed to notice her as she trailed them across the plains. At least she had a full waterskin today, and somehow, even though she wasn't a part of their little army, just being around people made her feel less lonely, more whole. Perhaps she wasn't as suited to a life of lone adventuring as she had thought.
Night saw the band of brigands or mercenaries or soldiers, whoever they might be, settled by a little creek, its quick waters already pushing aside the ice of winter and flowing loudly over the rocks. Kitty envied them their tents and fires as the sun went down. Most of all, she envied their food. She hoped they reached a town soon.
Settling down behind a tree, she gathered her cloak around her and tried not to think about hot food, pies fresh from the oven and pots of bubbling stew. It was quite difficult, with the sounds of laughing and eating going on in the camp behind her.
The voice, a young and female one, sounded far too close to Kitty—too close for her to move away without being noticed. She huddled in on herself, trying to make sure all of her was hidden by the tree.
"Hey, you. Behind the tree."
Kitty's breath caught in her throat.
"Don't worry—I'm not going to hurt you." The voice sounded amused. "I just thought, since you've been following us all day, maybe you'd like to introduce yourself." There was another long pause before the voice added, "I'm Cassadee."
Kitty let herself be afraid for a moment before mentally shaking herself. What kind of woman would let herself be scared of a friendly young girl? The kind who hid herself away in a nunnery so as not to have to deal with anyone but the prim and well-born and religious, and Kitty wasn't that kind of woman. She stood up, her joints stiff with cold, and turned to face the other woman. "I'm Kitty."
"Nice to meet you, Kitty," said Cassadee with a smile. She was dark-haired and freckled with cheerful features—not at all intimidating, really. "Where are you headed?"
Kitty shrugged. "Nowhere in particular," she said honestly. "I'd like to get to a town or village to find a job, though."
Cassadee made a noise with pursed lips that sounded like "mmhmm," nodding as if she knew Kitty's plans better than Kitty herself did. "Got any money?"
Unfortunately, the Order of Order didn't really believe in paying for things, and they really didn't believe in letting the sisters on the lower rung of the hierarchy do any of the little purchasing they did. "A few coins," said Kitty, thinking of the handful of silver pieces she'd managed to save in the pouch stuffed in the waist of her underskirt. "Not much."
Cassadee nodded knowingly again. "Got any food?"
Kitty's stomach growled in response, and Cassadee's smile grew.
"Guess that answers that question," she said. "Well, that tears it. Come on, Kitty. I'll trade you—you tell me your story, I get Patti to serve you up some bread and butter and soup."
"Wait," said Kitty, torn between an overwhelming desire to eat a decent meal for once and wariness about joining a group of strangers. "They won't mind? I mean—who--"
"Eh," Cassadee said dismissively with a shrug, "if you're just staying for the night, Morrissey doesn't need to hear about it, and if you're staying longer, well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
That didn't exactly reassure Kitty, or explain who this group of armed men and their little cluster of women were, but the prospect of warmth and food and company made another night sleeping under trees even less appealing than it had been already, so Kitty gave Cassadee her politest smile and said, "All right. If you don't mind sharing your food, I'd be happy to join you. I don't have much of a story, though."
Cassadee gave her a quick grin. "Oh," she said, "I don't believe that for a second." She reached out to grab Kitty's hand and pulled her into the orange circle of light cast by the camp's fires.
They deftly avoided the loud, boisterous circles of men as Cassadee dragged Kitty to a small fire, around which sat half a dozen women. They looked up at Kitty and Cassadee's arrival, and the oldest one, a tough-looking woman with wispy gray hair, said, "I see you brought a guest."
Whether the woman was pleased or displeased, her tone gave nothing away, and Kitty fought the urge to pull her hand out of Cassadee's and run. It wouldn't do her any good now, anyway. "My name is Kitty," she said.
"What are you following us for, Kitty?" asked the gray-haired woman archly.
Before Kitty could answer, Cassadee rolled her eyes and stepped forward. "For pity's sake, Patti, she's not a brigand! She's just lost and looking for town so she can get a job."
Patti looked at Kitty appraisingly, and something she saw made the expression in her eyes soften. "Well, then," she said. "I suppose you'd better sit."
So she sat. The other women introduced themselves one by one: Patti, the gray-haired one, was clearly their leader, judging by the way the others deferred to her; Jenny was big-eyed, with a toothy smile and a jumpy manner; Tanya was wild-haired and serene-faced; Norah was solemn and quiet; Thao had a frank smile and a mobile face, and her hands moved as she talked; Swati was unsmiling and looked profoundly unimpressed. They were from different places, no two of them were the same age, but they all talked with the confidence of women profoundly at home in themselves, who knew what was going on and what they wanted.
Kitty told them her story, with some of the more damning parts left out. She told them about her family, about being sent to live in the nunnery as a girl, about deciding that she wasn't meant to live between the walls of a cloister. When she was done, Patti settled back in her seat and stared. "Doesn't sound to me like you'd do well in a town," she said. "Only work there is maid's work."
Kitty privately agreed, but she said, "I can do maid's work."
"Can you?" asked Swati skeptically.
She nodded. "I can cook a little, and I'm good at sewing—all kinds—and I can clean just about anything." Being a merchant's daughter in a nunnery for the young ladies of the nobility wasn't good for much, but it did teach you a lot about mending and embroidery and peeling potatoes.
Patti rested her elbow on her knee and her chin in her hand and looked thoughtfully at Kitty. "Hmm."
"Well?" asked Cassadee expectantly.
Patti frowned. "Well what?"
"Can't we take her on? At least until we hit Kor?"
Kitty felt protests bubble in her throat. She hadn't come to them to beg for a job, she'd only come because Cassadee had invited her, and besides, she wasn't at all sure she wanted to be a…whatever it was Patti and the other women were. Camp followers for an army of some kind, with who knows what kind of duties?
"I don't do the hiring," said Patti.
"Oh, come on," Cassadee said, rolling her eyes. "Morrissey doesn't bother himself with us, so long as his laundry gets done. Everyone knows that."
"Wait," Kitty objected. "I don't need—well, I mean, I do need a job, but that doesn't mean I'm asking you for one."
Jenny twitched her shoulder in an amused little shrug and asked, "You think you can get a better one somewhere else?"
"I don't even know what you do," Kitty said honestly.
Patti sighed loudly. "Girls today. All right, Kitty, I'll tell you what the job is, and if you want it, I'll see what I can do. That sound fair?"
Kitty nodded cautiously.
"The men here? They're soldiers for hire. They do a little bit of fighting on the frontier, but mostly, rich merchants and folk like that hire them as guards. Now, even the toughest soldiers got to eat and change their clothes every now and then, and that's what they pay us for—cook them meals, do the washing, and if someone gets hurt, we do a bit of nursing. I know what folks think, but whoring ain't part of the job unless you want it to be. Any of the men gives one of us any trouble, you come to me and I sort 'em out, or you go to them."
She jerked a thumb over to a nearby campfire, and Kitty craned her neck to make out the shadowed figures sitting around it. There were four of them, one tall and skinny, one shorter and broad, and two shorter still and of middling build. "Who?" she asked. "The big ones?"
Thao snorted, and the rest of the women smiled. "You could do that," Norah said. "They're kind enough, even if they hardly ever make sense. But no, we usually go to the women there. Lindsey and Jessicka."
Kitty felt a jolt of something in her chest and peered more closely at the smaller figures around the fire. If she narrowed her eyes enough, she thought she could make out dark hair and the faintest suggestions of curves. "Who….?"
"Not a peep out of you," said Patti sternly. "It's an odd thing, nobody'll deny it, but those two fight just like the men do. Get paid for it, too. And they don't think much of any of the men around here pushing themselves on us. Hard to even think of the shit they must have taken over the years, but they're a blessing for us, so I won't hear a word said against them around this fire."
"I wouldn't…." Kitty could barely find the air to breathe. Women warriors. Professionals. She could never have even dreamed of such a thing at the Order, but there they were, not a stone's throw away, sitting around a fire and laughing with the men. If they could do it, surely she could—well, that was stupid. She didn't know the first thing about fighting, not really—a little luck did not a warrior make. But maybe, if they were willing to teach her…. "I'll take it."
"You'll take what?" Patti asked.
"The job. If you're offering it to me."
"You don't even want to know what it pays?" Jenny's eyebrows were almost at her hairline, she'd raised them so much, but the tilt to her lips still looked amused.
"Any money's better than no money, right?"
"That's true enough," said Patti wryly. "All right, girl. I'll give you a go. You got a bedroll?"
"No," said Kitty. And then, because there was no reason in the world not to be polite to a woman who had just given her a job, she added, "No, ma'am."
Patti smiled briefly before frowning again. "And no money, either. Hmm. Can't have you just lying on the ground." She chewed on her lower lip for a moment before saying to Cassadee, "You brought her here—she can bunk with you for the night. Tomorrow I'll see about getting her some gear." Turning again to Kitty, she asked, "You got anything you can trade? I can get you a good deal, but it won't cost nothing, and you're better off not being indebted to anyone."
Kitty wracked her brains for a moment—the cloak wasn't worth anything, and besides, she needed it; same with her knife; and who'd want an old nun's habit? But then it hit her, and she reached into her dress to pull out the silver charm of the Giver's Path that hung around her neck. "Here," she said, pulling it over her head to hand it to Patti.
Patti took one look at it before shoving it back at Kitty, putting her hand around Kitty's to wrap her fingers around the charm. "No. No, girl, you hold onto that. You never know what you'll run into out here."
"What, you mean like fairies or werewolves?" Kitty laughed without really meaning to. "I don't believe in those stories."
"What do you mean you don't believe in them?" Swati asked with narrowed eyes. "What's to believe or not?"
"Well…." Kitty paused. "They're all in Fairyland now, aren't they? And I thought they'd mostly died out, anyway." Something niggling pulled at her memory for a moment, but she brushed it aside. How many times had the Sisters told her that superstitions were a weakness? And now certainly wasn't a time to be weak.
Swati snorted. "Died out. Well, you're not long for this world, Sister." She brushed past Kitty, out of the circle of women and over to a fire surrounded by a handful of drunken men, singing loudly and out of tune.
Baffled, Kitty looked questioningly at Patti.
Patti's expression was stern, the lines around her mouth pronounced and her brows drawn together. "She's in a pissy mood, no doubt about it," she said, "but she's right to warn you. I'm not saying we run into fairies or centaurs or the like every day---I know plenty of folks who've gone their whole lives without seeing one—but especially when the work takes us near the border…." She closed her eyes briefly, and a slight tremor seemed to shake her. "Better safe than sorry, is all I say."
The other women murmured in agreement.
Kitty assented meekly, too tired to argue and not at all sure she wanted to, anyway. Cassadee led her to a little tent not too far from the fire, bidding farewell and goodnight to the other women as she did.
"Sorry I don't have an extra bedroll," she said, tossing Kitty a blanket.
"That's all right," said Kitty wearily. "It'll still be better than anyplace I've slept in a while."
Cassadee flashed her a quick grin. "You'll like it here, I know you will," she said. "I could tell the second I looked at you that you were our sort."
Kitty spread the blanket on the ground and looked at Cassadee. "Your sort?" She wasn't sure she could see much of a similarity.
"Our sort," Cassadee said firmly. "You know. The sort who don't sit around at home and marry the first boy we fuck. The kind who like a bit of adventure." She settled down on her bedroll and looked up at Kitty. "Girls like us. You know." She said 'us' like an intimate secret between herself and Kitty, and even in the dark, her teeth shone white in her broad smile.
Kitty felt herself flushing. She'd never really felt like anyone's sort before, but the way Cassadee said it, warm and inviting, she thought maybe she could be Cassadee's kind of girl.
In the morning, Patti brought her a patched little tent, an old soft bedroll, and a handful of copper discs. "Here," she said. "Bit of advance pay—just be sure you earn it."
And she did. Oh, did she. There were something like sixty men (plus Lindsey and Jessicka, she reminded herself) in the little army, and all of them were terribly hard on their clothing. The men took care of their own gear, for the most part, but the cart horses and their gear was the women's province, along with the gear of the army's boss, Morrissey. And cooking enough food, literally, to feed an army, was a lot more work when you didn't have a kitchen or a stone-fisted booming-voiced nun whose job was to spend the day overseeing the cooking.
Kitty lost track of how far they traveled—they were already well past the point where she could recognize her surroundings, and she'd never spent so much time riding in a wagon that she could calculate how far it could take her in a day. "Where are we going?" she asked Cassadee when they paused briefly to water the horses.
"Kor," she said. "With spring coming, the merchants'll be gathering there, getting ready to take their stuff to Par or Briopia or Kolfa. They're the sort who're usually looking for guards."
"Kor," Kitty breathed to herself. Her father had been there many times; she'd used to sit on his lap when she was a little girl and beg him for a present from the big city and a story about the people and places he'd seen. Those days were long behind her, but the yearning to see the city for herself one day wasn't.
Cassadee caught her whisper and laughed. "I was just like you, last year," she said. "Never seen the city. Well, not that one, anyway."
"And how was it?"
Cassadee paused to think about it. "Big," she said. "More people than you can even imagine! Other than that…." She shrugged. "Of course, we didn't go to any of the nice parts, the Opor palace or the Gardens or any of that. But the part I saw was just like any town you go to, but with more people and bigger buildings."
What a dissatisfying answer. Kitty sighed in disappointment and directed her attention back to Tanya, who was driving the cart. It didn't look too difficult, and Kitty thought that she herself could try her hand at it with a little practice.
The day stretched on in monotony and soreness and pricked fingers—though Kitty had done a lot of sewing in the Order, she'd never had to do it while sitting on a moving cart. Still, though, it was a thousand times better than the Order. There was no silence here, no piously averted eyes and primly stern faces. Everyone laughed and shouted and farted and talked as loudly as they liked, the women and the men, and though a few of the women seemed to be a bit dubious of Kitty still, and a few men had given her unpleasant leers as they passed her their torn clothing, Cassadee and Tanya, whose cart Kitty had been sharing all day, were nothing but friendly and warm.
They stuck to the main road. It was hard to tell whether the road was straight or not, because at various points the dark smudge of woods to the east seemed miles away, only to seem ready to grow out onto the road a few hours later. A number of the men, and Tanya as well, made the sign of the Giver's Path over their hearts whenever the woods grew close. When Kitty asked Cassadee about it, the girl grimaced and said, "Folks say that a long time ago—before there even was a Fairyland, back when they just walked around among normal folk—a lot of them lived in these woods. They're all in Fairyland now, of course but still…." She gave Kitty a smile tinged with embarrassment and nerves. "I'll be glad when the road swings east."
Kitty took a look at the woods, looming darkly only a stone's throw from the road, and said without even thinking about it, "The East Fork'll take us to Kor more quickly—we should hit in just a couple of miles."
"More quickly?" said Tanya with a sharp look. "How do you figure?"
Kitty didn't even know why she was talking. What in Giver's Goodness did she know about roads, anyway? Nothing more than anyone who'd ever looked at a map, and probably a lot less than every man and woman here. But something half-remembered struck her, and she said, "A Queen's Messenger brought courtesies to the Order a few months back. He said the West Road was under repairs. Something about flooding in the autumn carrying stones from the road away."
Tanya raised an eyebrow. "Where?"
Kitty cast her mind back and closed her eyes, trying to remember the skinny messenger with the wild hair and the too-tight clothing. Where had he said he had ridden from? "Around Ridgemont?"
"You don't say," said Tanya with a frown. "And us wintering in Briopia…." She jerked her head in Cassadee's direction. "Cass. We picked up a few Southern fellows a month or so back, right? D'you remember which ones they were?"
"Sure," said Cassadee, looking a bit surprised. Kitty couldn't blame her; Tanya's tone had picked up a wholly unexpected note of urgency.
"Well, go and find them, girl! See if Kitty here's right about the road down south being damaged." Tanya turned her head to Kitty and said, "Those merchants won't wait for us—if they've all found guards before we even get there, we're shit out of luck."
Kitty had never imagined that camp followers could have that much influence on which road a roving band of mercenaries took, so she was as surprised as she was strangely flattered that, when the East Fork appeared in the road, they took it. On the other hand, this particular band didn't seem to have a particularly good sense of direction, and if Tanya had convinced Patti, Kitty could easily see Patti convincing anyone to go her way.
Night fell rapidly that evening, the sky fading from red to black in what felt like a matter of only a few minutes. They pitched camp in a surprisingly efficient fashion for such a ragtag band—well, all except for Kitty, who needed help from Cassadee and Thao to set up her tent. Neither of them gave her grief about it, but Kitty was embarrassed nonetheless, and vowed to master the art of pitching tents as quickly as possible.
Supper that evening was less awkward, now that Kitty was no longer a stranger. Even Swati had to admit that she had pulled her weight, for a newcomer, and Jenny and Norah both complimented her on suggesting the route change. (As it happened, their Southern recruits, while not exactly the most observant young men, had confirmed that the roads south of Ridgemont were under repair.)
After supper, they had gone around the fire and sung. Kitty didn't know most of their songs, but she could work out the choruses easily enough, and the feeling of shouting out the last line of "Jack the Baker" with the other women made her heart quiver with more than the vibrations of her voice. She was someone's sort, now. She was part of something.
She slept well that night.
In the morning, she and Cassadee caught a ride on a cart with Swati and Thao. They were something of a wonder to Kitty—Thao talked a lot, and Swati spoke only rarely, and the few things she said sounded ironic and completely uninterested in continuing the conversation. And yet, it was clear that they got along like bread and butter. Kitty silently told herself to ask Cassadee about them later, when the wagons stopped to water the horses.
The mid-afternoon stop, however, found Cassadee talking to a short soldier in shabby equipment, Swati and Thao standing by the water watching the horses, and Kitty alone in the cart. She was seriously considering whether she wanted to wade in after the horses—after four days on the road, no sense of rebellion could quell her disgust at the sweat and grime she felt accumulating in her hair and armpits and everywhere else—when a voice said from somewhere behind her, "You're new, aren't you?"
Kitty looked over her shoulder to see a woman, slender and dark-haired and clad in a black tunic over worn but well-cared-for leather armor. She felt her heart rise in her throat. Surely this was Jessicka. Or possibly Lindsey. She hadn't seen them well enough in the dark to know one from the other. "Yes," she said, her mouth dry.
The woman smiled. "I'm Lindsey." She drew her horse close to the cart, close enough to reach out and clasp Kitty's hand.
"Kitty," Kitty managed.
Lindsey looked behind her and called, "Jessicka!" Another unfamiliar woman emerged from a cluster of men and horses, leading a sturdy-looking brown mare. She raised a hand in friendly greeting as she drew near Lindsey and Kitty.
Jessicka was a bit bigger than Lindsey, but with the same kind of dark-haired prettiness. Kitty didn't know what she was expecting warrior women to look like, but it wasn't like this—Lindsey and Jessicka looked like they could've been Sisters of Order, or farmwives, or any other kind of woman you met every day. Normal, except for the armor, and the bows on their backs and swords at their sides.
Introductions quickly dispensed with, Jessicka asked, "So, Kitty, why'd you sign on with this group, anyway?"
Unable to think especially clearly, Kitty answered, "I, uh. I needed a job."
"You did?" Lindsey sounded…not skeptical, not really. Maybe just interested. At Kitty's questioning look, she said, "Just. You sound, well, rich. Like you've been to school. And Patti said something about you being in the Order of Order?" She waited for Kitty to nod in response and then said, "Isn't that where the nobility send their daughters?"
It was, not that that had ever done Kitty any good. "What are you asking me?"
"I think," said Jessicka, "what my friend here is trying to get at is, why would you need a job? Haven't you got a father somewhere paying for your bread and bed?"
Kitty drew herself up straight, her nervousness forgotten. "Not that it's any business of yours, but spending the rest of my life in a nunnery or getting married to some sixty-year-old merchant didn't appeal to me, and those are the only options my father's money would buy me."
"Fair enough," said Lindsey easily. "So what is it that you want to do? I mean, given every option, which would you take?"
It was easy enough to answer, now that the possibility was presented to her. "I want to do what you do," she said firmly.
Jessicka laughed, and Lindsey peered at Kitty as if she couldn't quite figure her out. "Huh," she said finally. "Well. Good luck with that, then. It's not an easy path, Giver knows."
"Can you even fight?" asked Jessicka.
Before Kitty could answer, the booming voice of the army's leader shouted out, and suddenly the cluster of horses and men was moving rapidly. Lindsey and Jessicka exchanged glances before Lindsey turned to say, "Well, we'll see you around, Kitty," and the two of them rode off.
They were as good as their word. Two days later, a weedy man with bad hair rode up alongside the wagon while Swati and Thao were helping mend a broken axel on Patty's cart. "Hey," he said, low, looking at Kitty from under his brows in what might have been flirtation but looked vaguely sinister.
"Hello," said Kitty warily. The men so far (save Morrissey, who'd taken a moment to look Kitty over and tell her not to get pregnant and run off) had mostly ignored her, and she was just fine with that.
Cassadee wrinkled her nose at the man. "This here's Kitty," she said. "She's new, and if you scare her off before she's even gotten to see a battle, Morrissey'll tear your balls off with his bare hands."
"I'm not gonna scare her," said the man, still with his voice low and trying for smoothness. Did he really think talking like that won women's hearts? "Just wanted to say hello, welcome her to the camp." He reached out from his horse to put a hand on Kitty's knee.
She scooted away on the wagon's bench, out from under his hand, and pulled her skirt down instinctively, though it already covered her legs. "Don't," she said.
The man narrowed his eyes. "What, are you shy or something?" He turned his eyes to Cassadee again. "Heard she used to be a nun?"
"That's right," said Cassadee, "so she's not interested in your dirty hands on her."
"If you weren't such a bitch," the man said, "maybe you could get yourself a real man instead of them beardless little pukes."
"Well, Rob," came another voice from behind, "if you weren't such a horse's ass, maybe you could get a girl to look at you twice, and you wouldn't have to go around harassing people."
Kitty, Cassadee, and Rob all turned to see Lindsey and Jessicka riding up, looking at Rob with smiles that seemed to hide something sharp. Lindsey must have been the one to speak, because Jessicka cast a brief glance at her and said, "But then, that's a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma, isn't it? If he wasn't a horse's ass, he wouldn't think to harass girls into fucking him—and if he didn't harass girls into fucking him, maybe he wouldn't be such a horse's ass."
Rob scowled. "You rotting cows!" He didn't seem to think much of his chances against the two women, though, or else he decided that giving Kitty a hard time wasn't worth the trouble, because he jerked his horse's head around and went trotting off into the midst of a cluster of men. A few of their heads turned, looking disgustedly at Lindsey and Jessicka, but they simply smiled serenely and fell into an easy pace alongside the wagon.
"Thanks," said Cassadee.
"Ah," said Lindsey with a casual wave of her hand, "it looked like you had it under control. We just don't like Rob."
"That fucking rat turd," Jessicka added, spitting on the ground.
"You see?" Lindsey met Kitty's eyes with a smile, and Kitty felt a stirring of some altogether unfamiliar feeling, her heartbeat racing and her face suddenly warm.
Over the next few days, no one bothered Kitty again, and she only saw Lindsey and Jessicka from a distance, much to her regret. One night a week or so after the incident with Rob, though, the camp having been pitched and supper cooking in Patti and Tanya's huge pots, the circle around the fire that Cassadee drew Kitty to looked a bit different.
Some of the usual women—Cassadee, Thao, Swati, and Jenny—were there, but so were Lindsey and Jessicka, as well as four men that Kitty had seen about the camp but couldn't name. One looked like a string bean with uncombed hair, and one looked like a brick wall with a rather sinister-looking beard; these two sat next to Lindsey and Jessicka and looked at Kitty with amusement. Two of them were little more than boys, one tall and skinny and one short and skinny; these two seemed to be friends with Cassadee and greeted her and Kitty earnestly.
Tanya arrived shortly after Kitty and Cassadee had sat down, carrying her own bowl of stew. She looked around the fire before declaring, "This is a regular party, isn't it?"
"Oh, every day's a party for me, honey," said String Bean, who, if Lindsey and Jessicka were to be believed, was actually named Jimmy Urine. Kitty had a hard time believing they weren't having a joke at her expense there.
"Well, you might have invited me," Tanya said tartly. "I think I deserve a little entertainment, don't you?"
Brick Wall—Steve--snorted. "What did you have in mind?"
Tanya settled onto a large, flat rock and settled back, holding her bowl close to her chest. "I say we go around the circle. Ten people, ten stories, and they'd better be good ones." She grinned and added, "Starting with someone else, of course, since everyone else here has had a chance to eat."
Everyone else settled into their seats—some smiling, some looking thoughtful, but everyone seemed to know what was going on but Kitty. She hadn't the faintest idea what she would say when it was her turn. What kind of stories did they want? When she was a little girl, her parents had told her bedtime stories, and at the Order, Mother Phyllis had read a bit from the Book of Rule every night, but she didn't think that either of those was the kind of story they had in mind.
Jenny, who was sitting next to Tanya, said, "Well, if no one else wants to start…." The rest of the people around the fire urged her on, and she began.
She had a funny voice, kind of quavering and vulnerable but also a little haunting, and it seemed to wrap around every word she spoke, making everything she said more frightening than it had any right to be. It was a story about a man who'd been raised by a witch, who enchanted him to look like a deer, and the woman he fell in love with. Kitty thought maybe her mother had told her a version of it when she was a child, but it wasn't as dark as the way Jenny was telling it.
At the end, both the man/deer and his true love drowned in a river, and when Jenny's voice died away, everyone else sat in silence for a long moment. Kitty felt as if all the air had been sucked out of her lungs, like someone had hit her in the stomach. What was there to say to something so sad?
Finally, Steve said, "Fuck a duck, that was depressing."
"No shit," said Jimmy. "Rot and ruin, Jenny, I thought this was supposed to be a party."
"I liked it," Jessicka said, but everyone made dismissive gestures at her.
Jenny shrugged, looking wholly unperturbed by the group's criticism. "You don't like it," she said, "you tell a better one."
"Well, fine." Jimmy stood up, adjusted his trousers, and proceeded to tell the most disgusting, vulgar story Kitty had ever heard, about a baker and his wife and the truly astounding number of people they managed to cheat on each other with. Kitty found herself laughing from time to time, but she felt ashamed of herself every time.
Steve apparently felt no such qualms, and he applauded heartily when Jimmy was finished. He then told a silly story about a farm boy in the big city that had everyone breathless with laughter when he was done.
One by one, they told stories—a happy one about a girl who rescued her parents from a wicked band of fairies, a sad one about a pair of young lovers whose parents caught them at it and killed the young man, a ridiculous (but apparently true) one from Thao about the time she was mistaken for the mayor's daughter in Indburgh. Finally, only Lindsey and Kitty were left.
Lindsey gestured to Kitty as if to say, "Go ahead," and Kitty said, still desperately trying to think of a decent story, said, "Oh, no, you can go first."
Lindsey laughed, said, "All right, then," and pursed her lips as her eyes searched the sky, looking thoughtful. "Right, right," she finally said. "I've got one. You know what we haven't had much of tonight? Stories about the gods. And since we've got a former nun here and all…." Kitty felt herself blush. "…I've got a good one for her. The one about Moon Maiden and Atlanta."
Kitty wondered if she was supposed to know who either of those people—if they were even people at all—were. Nobody else looked confused, although Jessicka, who was looking at Lindsey with what looked like exasperation, rolled her eyes. "Moon Maiden?" she asked hesitantly, hoping she sounded encouraging and not like she was criticizing Lindsey's story choice or anything.
"Sure," said Lindsey easily. "Moon Maiden's always good for a story." Swati and Cassadee and Tanya nodded in agreement. Kitty shrugged. It didn't really matter anyway who Moon Maiden was—she could probably figure it out from the story.
Something seemed to occur to Lindsey, and she narrowed her eyes. "Wait," she said, sounding incredulous. "You…you don't know who Moon Maiden is?" Several around the fire made scoffing noises, but Lindsey didn't move her eyes from Kitty's.
Kitty had nothing to say, so she just shook her head.
"Wait," Cassadee objected, "how is that even possible? You were a nun!"
Jenny shook her head. "Oh, she's just fooling around. Of course she knows."
All eyes were on Kitty now, and she wanted to hide herself under the log she was sitting on. "I really don't," she said. "Who's Moon Maiden?"
"Only the Rule Giver's daughter," said Thao with wide eyes. "The goddess of the moon?"
Kitty felt the word blasphemy rise to her lips, but she forced it down. That was Mother Phyllis or Sister Michele talking, not her. Instead, she said, "The Rule Giver doesn't have any daughters. Or a wife, for that matter. He's the only god. That's what they taught us at the Order of Order, anyway."
"You fucking kidding?" asked Jimmy. Kitty shook her head, and he let out a loud breath.
"How weird," said Cassadee, sounded fascinated. "You know, Jersey said they don't hold with Moon Maiden down south, but I figured...Jersey, you tell it!" She poked the short man next to her.
Jersey shrugged and said, "Yeah, no, I hadn't heard of Moon Maiden 'till I went to Briopia. But we still have Lady Life and the River Son and the Ocean Son. And I guess we have a few folks who go for the Great Mother." Kitty suppressed a noise of shock at that—talk of the Great Mother was going past blasphemy and into heresy. Happily, Jersey didn't notice as he continued, "But nobody who thinks Rule Giver's all alone up there. I've never heard of that."
Kitty felt embarrassed and irritated—with herself, for not knowing what they were talking about; with them, for looking at her like that when she was the former nun, for Giver's sake, so didn't it stand to reason that maybe her way was the right one?; and with Mother Phyllis, for stamping so hard on anything blasphemous that now Kitty had no idea how ordinary, everyday people worshipped. Well, as ordinary and everyday as mercenary armies usually were.
She was about to excuse herself and tell everyone she was too tired to tell a story when Lindsey raised up her hand and cut off the chatter with a gesture. "Well," she said, "Now I really have to tell this story. I think you'll like it, Kitty—Moon Maiden's just our sort of goddess."
Our sort. Kitty remembered Cassadee's words of a few days ago, wrapped her cloak more tightly around herself against the cold of the night, and settled in to listen to Lindsey's tale.
The story started before life had ever sprung up on earth—Lindsey said she'd better start at the beginning, just to get Kitty and Jersey caught up. Rule Giver and Lady Life had married, a wedding that lit up all of heaven, and when their wedding night was over, they had had four children: River Son, Ocean Son, Sun Maiden, and Moon Maiden.
Three of the children were dutiful toward their parents, marrying and populating the earth. The fourth was Moon Maiden. She came out only at night, when no one but the wolves and the owls was around. She swore to her parents that she would never marry, and instead she devoted herself to everything that women weren't supposed to do—she learned blacksmith's work, she built great ships and sailed them onto the sea like a Parian pirate, she forged her own sword and taught herself to fight. But her favorite thing of all was to hunt, her maidens by her side.
She never felt lack or loneliness until she met Atlanta, the swift-footed daughter of the king of Llor. Atlanta had run into the forest to escape her suitors, and as soon as Moon Maiden saw her, her heart melted like snow in the sun and every bit of her burned with passionate love.
When Lindsey got to this part in the story, her voice grew low and her eyes as she looked at Kitty were dark over the fire. Kitty felt an uncomfortable warmth in the pit of her stomach. What a silly story, she thought. Who'd ever heard about two maidens falling in love? She shot a glance around the fire. Steve was listening with a kind of amused smile, as if he'd heard the story before; Thao and Swati were leaning up against each other, looking profoundly content; Cassadee and Jersey and her other boy, Mike, were leaning forward to listen interestedly. Nobody seemed terribly shocked or upset.
At first, Atlanta refused Moon Maiden as she had refused all her suitors, but the forest life suited her, and she stayed to hunt with Moon Maiden and her company. Before long, she realized that no matter how fast a woman runs, she can never outrun love once it has crept into her heart, and she and Moon Maiden lived as lovers live.
The Prince of Kolfa, however, could not give up on his quest to wed Atlanta and gain the throne of Llor, so one day, in the morning when Moon Maiden was sleeping, he grabbed Atlanta from her bower and forced her onto a ship, to sail to an island off the south coast of Kolfa where none could find them until he had made their marriage complete.
When Moon Maiden awoke and found Atlanta gone, she wept and screamed and moaned. The stars asked her what was wrong, and when she told them, they said, "Why, Moon Maiden, listen to the birds! Can't you hear? They've been telling you who has taken her, and where."
When Moon Maiden heard that Atlanta had been kidnapped, she screamed in rage and pulled at the tides until the Prince's ship was dashed on the rocks. Atlanta, who had been waiting for a chance to escape, jumped off the sinking ships and ran over the waves, so swiftly that only the toes of her shoes got wet. She ran so fast that before Moon Maiden had had time to dry her tears, Atlanta was holding her in her arms and kissing the tears away. They spent the rest of Atlanta's life roaming together in the woods, and when at last Atlanta's life gave out, Moon Maiden went to beg her father for favor—the first and last time she ever did so—and put Atlanta in the night sky as the brightest star, so that they could always be together.
Kitty had been lulled by Lindsey's voice into a superficial calm, but when the story ended and Lindsey looked at her once more with a funny smile playing about the corners of her lips, she felt the strange warmth in her stomach again.
"Hey," said Lindsey softly, "it's your turn now."
Kitty blinked. She couldn't think. She felt like she had dreamed this exact moment before, and every breath she took felt familiar. How could she possibly be expected to make up a story now?
So she didn't. She told a story about a little girl, the daughter of rich merchants who had aspirations of nobility—a daughter who constantly disappointed her father and mother by making too much noise, by running too fast and dirtying her dresses, by playing with her older brother's swords. When her parents threatened her by telling her she would never meet a suitable husband if she acted like that, she told them she didn't want a husband, anyway. And so they had sent her north, to the nunnery where the wealthy and noble sent their daughters, in hopes that the propriety and clean habits of the highest ladies in the land would grind the wildness out of their girl. It didn't work. The girl had never truly had a place among them, a commoner among nobles, a wild child among women devoted to order. Finally, she had left, to discover a world more strange and frightening than she had expected, and to find a place in it where maybe, in time, she could fit.
When she finished, there was a long silence, and then Tanya said with brisk cheer, "And you were afraid you couldn't tell a story!" She stood up, brushed off her skirts, and put a hand on Kitty's shoulder. "Well! I think time got away from us a bit!" She pointed to the sky, where the moon had already passed through quite a bit of its journey across the sky, and said, "I think Moon Maiden there is telling me to get some sleep. Good night, everyone!"
People drifted away from the fire in ones and twos then. Cassadee left with her fellows in tow, though not before sending Kitty a questioning look, as if to ask whether she was all right. The answer was far too complicated to put into words, so Kitty waved her off with a smile. Jimmy and Steve gave Kitty knowing smirks and traded some silent, secret joke with Jessicka and Lindsey before chasing each other into the night like a pair of small boys.
Finally, it was only Jessicka and Lindsey and Kitty. "So," said Jessicka when Jimmy and Steve were out of earshot, "What did you think of your first Moon Maiden story, Kitty?"
"It was…." Kitty found her mouth was dry, and she swallowed and licked at her lips before trying again. "Well. I've never heard a story like that before. That's the kind of story you'd have had to do a penance or two for at the Order of Order."
The other two women grinned. "I have a feeling," said Lindsey, "that we probably wouldn't have fit in too well at the Order of Order." Stretching her arms above her head, she yawned and leaned back, resting her elbows on the ground, before saying, "Moon Maiden's kind of our patron goddess. Jessicka's and mine, I mean, but maybe some of the other women's around here, too. You can see why, can't you, even if this is the first you've heard of her?"
Kitty could. Once the unfamiliarity of the idea wore off—this "multiple gods" idea was the sort of thing that could send Mother Phyllis off on a rant against heresy that would last for hours—she suspected that she, too, might easily become a devotee of Moon Maiden, if not an actual worshipper. Whether she was a true goddess or not, the idea of someone brave and strong enough to defy the Rulegiver and live happily outside his plan for her…well, it gave Kitty a thrilling kind of hope. Even in the divine realm, she wasn't alone.
"I've got a whole bunch of stories about her, if you ever want another," Lindsey said. There was something to her voice that made Kitty think she was asking a question, and not about stories, either.
She let out a breath slowly, feeling the strange kind of wild disbelief that she'd felt when she chopped off her hair and started down the road away from the nunnery. "I don't know what you meant," she said slowly. "Telling me that story."
Lindsey tightened her mouth into a thoughtful frown, and Jessicka stood up. "This is where I leave," she said with a wry twist to her mouth. "You'll let me know how it turns out, Lindsey?"
"Yeah," she said. "You going to bed?"
"Shit no," Jessicka said with a grin. "I'm grabbing my bow and doing a little archery practice. Between you two and your stories, I've got some repressed energy to work off."
Her smile at Lindsey as she left was mischievous; her smile at Kitty was warm and strangely understanding. It seemed that everyone knew more than she did. Kitty only hoped she would be let in on the secret soon.
As soon as Jessicka was no longer even an outline of shadow in the darkness, Lindsey sighed and said, "Why do you think I told it to you?"
Kitty shrugged. "To shock me, maybe? I never really thought of myself as sheltered, but I guess I must seem that way to you."
Lindsey shook her head, looking distressed. "No, no. Well, maybe a bit of the last part. I just thought—well, I suppose you don't hear a lot of the stories about nunneries."
"What?" Kitty didn't quite know what she'd expected Lindsey to talk about, but it certainly wasn't stories about nunneries.
Lindsey gave Kitty an embarrassed little smile and said, "As you can imagine, you hear a lot of dirty stories in this kind of work. And in all the stories about nunneries, well, either a man is sneaking in to service all the nuns or, well, since it's only girls and women in there…." She shrugged demonstratively. "They service themselves. Or each other." She began a gesture with one hand before abandoning it and wincing. "I thought, well, maybe you'd never heard of Moon Maiden, but that didn't mean you'd never heard of the other thing. The thing that women can do with other women."
"Hmm," said Kitty, thinking of about a hundred different things at once. Suddenly, everything she'd thought the world was seemed less real, and things she'd never let herself imagine took on a new kind of vivid color. "I haven't, but take it a step further. Just because I've never heard of it doesn't mean I've never thought of it."
"What?" said Lindsey with a confused, disbelieving laugh.
It was Kitty's turn to smile now, and she said, "I didn't think of love at all, any kind of love, in the Order. I mean, there were pretty girls, lots of them, but they usually either thought I was beneath them because my father wasn't the lord of such and such or the baron of so and so, or they were too devoted to the Rule to ever think about even leaving and getting married, much less…." She had run out of words to describe what she was thinking. "I don't even know what I'm talking about. What would two women even do? Could you even call it sex?"
"Yes," Lindsey said firmly. She seemed to have regained the confidence she'd lost before. "You could definitely call it sex."
"It's so weird, though," said Kitty. "Do people actually do that?"
Some of the light went out of Lindsey's eyes, and she said, "You know Thao and Swati?"
Surprised at the apparent change of subject, Kitty could only nod.
"Swati was with Morrissey's band when I joined five years ago. Thao came a couple years back, and from the moment the two of them met, it was like…." She seemed to search for the right words. "It was like a story, where two people meet, and right away, they just know." She drew a little closer to Kitty, her dark eyes solemn. "It's not…well, you know, when your preacher comes to town to talk about the Rule and tell all the girls to get married before they start getting too lustful, he never mentions the kind of sex that doesn't involve men at all. But it's different here, you know. It's not like living in one of those towns, and I'm guessing it's not like your nunnery, either."
"No, not really," said Kitty. "So. Should I take it that all…this," she asked with a gesture that she hoped encompassed Lindsey, the story, the lonely quiet of the fire in the night, and the whole conversation, "is meant to teach me about what it is like?"
"Maybe," said Lindsey, her expression growing warmer again. "Would you like me to?"
Kitty thought about the Rule and purity and her family. And then she thought about the years she had spent, not knowing quite who she was but knowing that she'd never find out as long as she was stuck being Sister Jennifer. So fuck the Rule and purity and her family. "Yes," she said. "I would."
Lindsey's tent was larger than Kitty's, but filled with things like armor and horse gear and whetstones and, of all things, a couple of little pots of paint or dye and a piece of wood with the outlines of a face painted on it. Lindsey shoved all of them aside and beckoned Kitty inside.
"Do you want anything to drink?" Lindsey asked as she freed her hair from the plain black ribbon that tied it back. "It's nothing fancy, but I have a couple flasks of wine somewhere around here."
Why not? "All right," said Kitty. "That'd be really…nice."
"Well, all right then," Lindsey said with a grin, digging around in a couple of packs until she pulled out a small glass flask, the wine inside so dark a red that it was almost black. Lindsey took a long, slow swig of it before handing it to Kitty.
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask for some water—all the wine they drank at the Order was heavily watered down. But then, you didn't leave your name and your family and maybe even your god behind just to be the same person you'd always been, so she accepted the flask and drank deeply.
It was more intense than she'd expected, sour and fruity and with an aftertaste that burned at the back of her throat. She coughed, and Lindsey laughed softly, taking the flask from her and setting it on top of a wooden crate in the corner of the tent. "Slow," she said. "Just take it slow." Kitty felt her cheeks burning in embarrassment, and she reached up to wipe her mouth, but Lindsey's hand, warm and strong, reached out to grab hers.
"I can take care of that for you," she said. Kitty wanted to laugh—it was as silly and obvious a line as any that the ridiculous characters in Jimmy's story would use. Something in Lindsey's eyes stopped her, though. In the dim light of the moon shining through the tent's thin oiled canvas, there was a kind of vulnerability in the other woman's expression. Kitty swallowed the laugh and nodded, waiting with a funny, light tingling through her whole body in anticipation of whatever Lindsey would do next.
She leaned forward. The hand that wasn't grasping Kitty's reached up to brush imaginary drops of wine from Kitty's mouth, her fingers so light and soft that Kitty could almost convince herself that they never really touched her face.
"This is all right, Sister?" Lindsey asked, her voice low.
"Don't call me that." Kitty reached down into herself, into the core of wild bravery she knew was there, and pulled Lindsey closer to kiss her.
It was warm, and wet, and sour with wine—nothing like she had imagined when she was a child her older sisters had told her romantic tales. She waited for love to blossom in her heart, but felt only heat and excitement and a kind of recklessness. Was this what love felt like? She couldn't be sure.
"Kitty," Lindsey murmured, pulling her mouth away to breathe the word along Kitty's cheek. Her hand moved, as soft as before but more certain, down from Kitty's mouth down to her neck, lingering at the curve of her breast.
Kitty had touched herself there, but she'd never felt another's hand give her that particular kind of pleasure, so she whispered, "Lindsey. Please…a little harder?"
A disbelieving puff of warm air tickled at the soft skin under Kitty's ear, and the hand at her breast pinched. Kitty squirmed.
"No, no…," she muttered, frustrated at the way words seemed to have suddenly abandoned her. "Firm?"
"Ah," Lindsey breathed, and the pinching fingers loosened, her hand solidly cupping Kitty's breasts, pressing gently as her fingers rubbed circles on Kitty's breastbone.
Kitty sighed in pleasure. She wriggled her own hand from Lindsey's grip and brought both hands up to the other woman's face, to brush the sweaty hair from her forehead and smooth her fingers along the expanse of skin that seemed so open to exploration.
"What do you want?" Lindsey murmured.
Kitty couldn't imagine, she couldn't remember the hours she'd spent with her hand under the covers at the Order when everyone else had gone to sleep, she couldn't think enough to remember her fantasies, which paled against the reality she found herself in. "I don't know," she said, and then, because she'd been raised to be polite, "What do you want?"
Lindsey laughed again, just an amused huff of air, and said, "Worry about it later. Let's—my mouth? That sound good?"
From what Kitty'd seen of Lindsey's mouth so far, it was wonderful, nothing better, so she nodded and felt the shape of the other woman's smile against her face.
They stepped backwards, and Lindsey shifted her weight and pulled or something, and they were sinking awkwardly onto the bedroll. It was thicker than Kitty's, probably because Lindsey hadn't had to settle for whatever Patti could find. It was hard to muster much envy, though, when there was a woman pulling up Kitty's dress so they could have sex.
They wrestled with the dress for a long moment. Kitty refused to lose her virginity with a worn dress covering her head blocking her vision, so she finally wriggled out of it completely and threw herself back into kissing Lindsey.
"Holy rotting Moon Maiden," Lindsey breathed as Kitty's mouth found her neck, "and here you had me thinking all those stories about nuns weren't true!"
Kitty nipped at her for that, a feeble kind of punishment, and Lindsey grinned hungrily and pushed Kitty firmly down onto the bedroll, so that she was lying down and Lindsey was propped up on her elbows, hovering over her with her breasts hanging in front of Kitty's face like some kind of never-before-seen but unimaginably tempting fruit. But then they vanished, hidden behind the curve of Lindsey's neck and shoulders and her curtain of black hair as she lowered her head to press hard little kisses over Kitty's own breasts, pausing every now and then to suck and nibble as if she liked the taste of Kitty's skin. Kitty had never felt this particular kind of moist warm pleasure punctuated with tiny points of pain, and she felt warmth gathering between her legs, excitement curling in her belly.
Lindsey worked her way down Kitty's body, every now and then lowering her own body so the soft, smooth skin of her breasts brushed against Kitty. Every inch of Kitty felt alive and awake, and no story had ever filled her with a greater desire to learn what would come next.
There was a funny kind of tickling as Lindsey blew a warm path of air down from Kitty's navel, rustling the hair between her legs and making her feel like a cat being gently stroked in the wrong direction. And then—
Then there was an almost inconceivable heat as Lindsey's tongue shot out, nimble and strong, to trace circles and firm lines over places where only Kitty's fingers had ever been. Around her nubbin, over it, in between the wet folds of skin, and then in her opening, in and out again, not quickly but surely.
"Giver—preserve--" Kitty managed, but she couldn't finish the prayer as Lindsey's tongue pressed firmly on her nubbin while her finger—and when had she brought her hand down their—pressed into Kitty's opening.
Lindsey chuckled, and Kitty felt the vibrations in a line of pleasure up her spine, so intense it almost hurt. "Lindsey…." she said.
"You like it?" Lindsey said, but she'd pulled her face away from Kitty's crotch to say it, and Kitty whimpered.
"Oh, don't worry." Lindsey's breath was panting, as if she herself was feeling a bit of the intensity running through Kitty's bones, but her smile was confident and unshaking. "I'm not done yet." And then she was over Kitty once again, her mouth sucking at Kitty's right nipple while her fingers found her opening, two fingers, a third brushing against her nubbin, and something inside Kitty blazed bright for a moment, tightening, making even her toes curl with pleasure like an itch that needed scratching, and she thought maybe she shouted, or would have, if Lindsey's mouth hadn't moved up to cover hers.
And then everything loosened again, and the satisfaction was like a tangible thing, something that could be tasted and smelled and felt on the skin. "Oh," said Lindsey, "oh," and then Lindsey was moving, straddling one of Kitty's thighs and moving herself, rubbing herself on Kitty.
"Are you…," asked Kitty, clarity starting to return. "Should I…."
"My breasts," Lindsey gasped. "Could you…could you just rub at them?" Kitty felt something warm and wet through Lindsey's trousers as the other woman slid back and forth against her leg.
Unsure of what she was doing, Kitty leaned up a bit, propping herself on one elbow, and reached out with the other hand to caress one of Lindsey's breasts, rubbing gently and firmly, as she rubbed her own belly when she had monthly-blood cramps. She felt awkward, unskilled, but Lindsey didn't complain, breathing hard and short and bending her head, her unbound hair tickling along Kitty's collarbones.
"Kitty," she said harshly, "Kitty, I'm…." And her voice rose high at the end, like a muffled shriek, and she bit her fist while continuing to, well, hump Kitty's leg.
She stopped after a moment, taking her fist from her mouth. "Well," she said. "That was…how did you like it?"
Kitty felt unaccountably like a blushing maiden in a tale, despite what she had just done. She wanted to return the question, make some attempt to preserve her modesty, but looking at her own naked body, the sweating Lindsey still straddling her thigh, it seemed ridiculous. "I liked it. A lot." It didn't quite seem to cover everything, but it was all she could think of.
Lindsey's face relaxed into a smile, and she wiped her face on her sleeve. "I'm glad. I thought you might." She pushed herself to her feet with a slight grimace and stretched. "If you don't mind staying the night…." She shot Kitty a quizzical look.
Kitty couldn't even imagine wandering out again into the night now. "I don't. I mean, I'd like to."
Lindsey nodded. "Well, all right then," she said. "Let me change into a night shirt, and I'll get us a clean blanket."
Kitty watched as Lindsey made her way over to a bundle of clothing, hoping to see the other woman naked, as exposed as she was. But somewhere in between making out the shape of the bundle and the way the white night shirt shone in the dark tent, even the half-reality of the scene seemed to lose its definition, and she fell into sleep before she'd even realized she was tired.
In the cold gray light of early morning, she awoke, stiffer than usual and with a funny taste in her mouth. She looked over to where Lindsey slept, sprawled out on her bedroll, and thought about waking her. But she couldn't think of what she'd say if Lindsey were awake, and besides, it wasn't like either of them had gotten too much sleep last night, so she just slipped out from under the blanket, slipped her dress back on over her head, and went back to her tent.
The morning was chilly, the grass covered in frost. The sun was up just enough to turn the sky in the east a pale pink, but not enough to feel warm or to dispel the stillness over the camp. The only noise was the fire crackling outside of Cassadee's tent, which was next to Kitty's. Cassadee was huddled over a small pot, stirring it with the long wooden spoon she kept hanging from her knapsack, but she looked up as Kitty approached.
"Where'd you go last night?" asked Cassadee with a frown. "Well, I mean, I know where you went, but you shouldn't leave your tent all alone at night. You want someone to steal your stuff?"
"No." Kitty shivered in the morning chill. "You're right. I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about." Cassadee searched her face. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. I just…." She struggled to find the words. "All this time, I didn't…it was like…" She sat down next to Cassadee, needing the warmth of the other girl's friendship more than she needed the heat from the fire. "Have you ever felt like you didn't really know yourself? Not all the way?"
"Not really," said Cassadee matter-of-factly. "A troupe of actors used to come by my town, and I knew the first time I saw them that I sure as shit wasn't going to live and die in that town. And I guess everything I ever needed to know about myself kind of came from that." She was silent for a long moment and then said, "You never did it with a woman, huh?"
"Never did it with anyone," Kitty mumbled. "I was in a nunnery, remember."
"Oh," said Cassadee. "Oh, Kitty. I get you, now." She left the spoon standing straight up in the pot like a little flag and put an arm around Kitty. "Ratfuck of a way to find out."
Kitty had let her head rest on Cassadee's shoulder for a minute, but then she lifted it. "What do you mean?"
Cassadee shrugged her other shoulder. "Just, doing it with Lindsey's not exactly like your first time in a love song, you know? I mean, I haven't," she said hurriedly. "I like men too much to do that kind of thing. But I hear stuff. She's not interested in romance, Lindsey. She likes friendship, and she likes sex, but I don't know if she really loves anyone, not like that." She turned her head to look into Kitty's eyes and said, mock-sternly but with a real seriousness underneath, "So don't go falling in love with her, all right?"
How did you know if you were in love with someone, anyway? Everyone in the stories seemed to know without being told, but then, the only women who had sex in any of the stories Kitty had ever heard were married women or women who were foolish and got ravaged and then died when their virtue did. What would it mean to fall in love with someone you couldn't ever marry?
Well, anyway. Kitty didn't think she was in love. "I won't," she said, and she meant it. Cassadee squeezed her hand around Kitty's shoulder once before letting go and standing up.
"Well," she said. "Soon as I'm done with my breakfast, Patti and me are making oatmeal for everyone else. Wanna help?"
Kitty kind of wanted to go to sleep in her own tent for a while, or at least to lie on her bedroll and think about what she'd done that night, but Cassadee had been so kind to her all along, kinder than she'd ever had any reason to expect, and besides, Kitty was actually being paid to help. She accepted the bowl of oats that Cassadee handed her and ate. It was bland enough to be tasteless, but that wasn't anything Kitty wasn't used to. At least it was warm.
She half expected Lindsey to approach her at some point during the day—to tell her it wasn't happening again, to ask her to spend another night in her tent, to tell her it was a mistake, just to ask how Kitty was. But she didn't. She smiled sleepily at her over her bowl of oatmeal when Patti ladled it out to the men, and she waved cheerily at her from horseback while riding to the front of the party, but they didn't speak at all. Kitty wondered if this was something she always did—found a new girl in the camp, told her a story about Moon Maiden, fucked her, and then acted as if it didn't happen.
"I wouldn't say always," said Swati. Kitty hadn't even realized she was speaking out loud, and her face flushed painfully with embarrassment. Swati raised a wry eyebrow at her from her seat in the cart, but didn't comment. Instead, she said, "She and I used to fuck sometimes. Back before Thao and I. She's a great person, Lindsey, don't get me wrong, but if you're looking for the Moon Maiden to your Atlanta, well, don't bother, because she doesn't take sex that seriously."
"I don't need her to take sex seriously," said Kitty, although the idea of just having sex for fun shook her world almost as much as having sex with woman did. "I'd just like her to talk to me."
"Oh, don't worry," said Thao. "She's gonna talk to you. Just don't expect, you know, romance."
"I don't." She also didn't expect Lindsey to stumble out of Jimmy's tent the next morning, looking supremely satisfied. It seemed like the kind of thing that ought to have made her jealous, but instead, she was just confused. Sex was too new a thing for her—she was miles away from being able to contemplate sleeping with a woman one night and a man the next, much less actually do it.
Lindsey caught Kitty looking at her, and the relaxed, content expression tightened into something else. "Kitty," she said, not hostile, but almost wary.
"Are you and Jimmy…." She thought about what she wanted to ask. "Are you going to get married? After you stop being guards?" Maybe Jimmy was the sort of man some of the others had told stories about last night, the kind who didn't mind if his wife slept with other people. It might even be easier for him to accept if they were other women.
The question seemed to catch Lindsey off-guard. "No!" she said, as if the very notion was ridiculous. "Where'd you get an idea like that? Jimmy's like my brother."
Huh. Kitty had three brothers, and she'd never had sex with any of them, but then, there was clearly a lot about these things that she didn't understand. "Okay," she said, and she turned to leave.
Lindsey grabbed her by the arm before she could go. "Wait, Kitty," she said. "Look. I didn't mean to—it was just for fun. You understand that, right?"
"It wasn't just fun for me," Kitty said. Before Lindsey could say any of the things her alarmed expression promised, she cut her off and added, "Don't worry. I'm not in love with you or anything. I'm grateful. I didn't know women could do something like that, and now I do. And I want to do it again, and suddenly all these things I couldn't figure out about myself make sense. So, thank you."
Lindsey looked at the ground for a long moment. Then she mumbled, "Way to make me feel like shit."
"I wasn't trying to," said Kitty honestly.
"That makes it even worse."
There were times when Kitty didn't like the new person she'd become in the last month or so. Didn't trust her, didn't know her. This was one of those times. She tried to walk away again, but Lindsey stopped her with a word. "Kitty," she said. "I like you. I liked the other night, a lot. And if you wanted to do it again some time, I'd be happy to, it's just…." She shrugged. "I'm not interested in settling down. I like sleeping around. I know you used to be a nun and everything, I'm not trying to shock you, but that's just how it is. I don't think I was made that way."
Mother Phyllis would say that everyone was made to follow the Rule. That's what the Rule meant—everyone was born to fulfill their roles as assigned by the Giver. Kitty believed that, too. She just didn't think she and Mother Phyllis had ever agreed on just what that role was. If Kitty's was to turn her back on her family and her life in order to become a camp follower and love women the way some of the younger Sisters of Order had talked about loving men, well, then, maybe Lindsey's was to love everyone and no one, to fight like a beautiful, strong goddess who couldn't be tied down by one girl. "Okay," she said to Lindsey. "That's okay."
Lindsey smiled a little ruefully and said, "I'm glad you think so. Now, if you don't mind, I think I'm gonna sneak off to my tent and change into some real clothing." She wasn't in her trousers and leather armor, Kitty noticed for the first time. She was just wearing a plain white shift. It made her look less like Kitty's mental picture of Moon Maiden and more like a woman.
"See you around," she said, and Lindsey smiled and returned the farewell before striding off toward her tent, her clothes and boots in her arms and her feet bare but her step just as confident as if she were swinging a sword.
Kitty slept with Lindsey three more times on the road to Kor. Every time, Cassadee peered at her the next morning with concern, her gaze as intense as if she were trying to spy into Kitty's heart. Every time, Kitty thought that that heart was a little more whole. She was Kitty. She liked women, and that included having sex with them. Lindsey liked both men and women, and she slept with both of them—with Kitty, with Jessicka, with Patti, with Jimmy, with soldiers Kitty didn't know. She was all right with this, and she felt, deep in her heart, that the Giver must have been all right with it, too, or she wouldn't feel so happy about it.
Maybe she was supposed to feel like a scorned girl in a tale--all heartbroken, as Cassadee seemed to expect, or like she'd been corrupted by the loss of her chastity. It was hard to muster up any kind of shame, though, when the camp followers treated her more like one of them every day, when Lindsey and Jessicka swung companionable arms over her shoulders sometimes and talked about adventures they'd had, when even the leers and remarks of the less respectable men ceased to make her blush, and she talked with Jimmy and Steve and Jersey and Mike as easily as she would with any woman. She didn't even know if Mother Phyllis would recognize her as Sister Jennifer, and she didn't care either way. Even her anger was different—it had mostly gone away.
By the time they reached Kor, spring was in full bloom, and Kitty'd gotten better at mending and cooking than she'd been even at the Order. Somehow, it was more satisfying to work when you got paid and you liked the people you worked with. She hadn't brought up her dream of being a fighter like Lindsey or Jessicka again. It had never seemed like the right time. Especially when she was with Lindsey. Anyway, she was in no hurry. It felt like she had all the time in the world.
Kor was much as Cassadee had described it: full of people, like the people you saw in towns everywhere, full of big buildings and paved streets and markets full of shouting vendors hawking their wares. Nothing you wouldn't expect from a city, and yet, after ten years of nothing but the Order of Order, Kitty wanted to drink in every sight so deeply she would never forget any of them.
Patti laughed at her. "It won't seem so shiny and new in a few years, mark my words," she said.
"It's not shiny and new now," said Cassadee, but she still looked excited. "Come on, Patti, no one needs us for anything now! Can't we go to the market and see what they have?"
Patti sighed, sounding long-suffering, but Kitty wasn't fooled these days. Patti loved all of the women who worked under her, like a mother maybe, or an older sister. Maybe one day, Kitty hoped, she would love Kitty that way, too. She'd had a couple of mothers now, but she liked Patti better than both of them put together. "Come here," said Patti to Cassadee, but when Cassadee hopped down and walked over to Patti's cart, Patti looked at Kitty with a quizzical expression.
"What are you waiting for, Sister? A Queen's Summons?"
Kitty walked over, not knowing precisely what to expect, and she was completely surprised when Patti reached out her hands and put one silver piece in Kitty's hand and one in Cassadee's. "Don't think you're so special," she says. "Everyone gets a bit of coin—the prices on bread and milk were good back in that last village, so we've a little extra. And don't spend it all on something silly!"
"We won't," Cassadee assured her, but Kitty just closed her hand around the coin. Three months ago, money wouldn't have meant a thing to her—she wasn't allowed to go anywhere to buy anything, and if she had bought anything, she wouldn't have been allowed to keep it, and if she'd bought something Mother Phyllis didn't approve of, she probably would have been punished for it, too. There was something wonderful to be said for holding a coin in your hand and knowing that whatever you bought with it was yours.
"Thank you," she said as sincerely as she could to Patti, and Patti waved her thanks away with a dismissive gesture.
"Eh," she said. "Everyone needs a day off every now and then."
Kitty and Cassadee walked to the market hand in hand, the sun warm on their hair and on their faces, and Kitty felt as light-hearted and giddy as a child.
"What kind of job do you think we'll get?" she asked. They had been travelling to town so long, it was easy to forget that they'd be travelling right back up as soon as they had a merchant caravan to guard. Easy to forget if you weren't Kitty, anyway.
Cassadee shrugged, not looking terribly interested. "Whoever it is, we probably won't get to see much of them. 'Specially if they've got women traveling with them. For some reason, the wives tend to turn their noses up at us."
Kitty thought about how her mother would have reacted if she'd been in a wagon train with a group of rough, rowdy women, some of whom slept with multiple men and some of whom slept with women and all of whom drank and cursed and worshipped commoner gods, and thought, Yes, they do tend to do that.
"The men'll probably leave us alone, though," said Cassadee as if this were a bright side. "Merchant men are usually more interested in their stuff than in getting laid."
"Where do you think we'll go?" asked Kitty. She refused to let her spirits be dampened by Cassadee's matter-of-fact manner.
"Hmm," Cassadee said. "Probably north again. I hope south, though. Wouldn't it be fantastic if we got to go to the coast? I hear it's beautiful. If you squint real hard from Blue Point, they say you can see a little bit of Par."
"Which island?" Kitty had learned all 386 of them like the back of her hand once upon a time, when the nunnery had gotten a commission to copy an atlas.
Cassadee looked at her, a little confused. "I don't know. The big one?"
Perhaps changing the subject was in order. "So what kind of things do they have in the marketplace here?"
This was a subject closer to Cassadee's heart. "Oh, everything," she said effusively. "Cloth from Kolfa—and you wouldn't believe the cloth they've got there, light as anything and wears like iron—all kinds of treats, pastries and such, fresh fruit, buttons and needles and every color of thread you ever wanted—and if I remember right, there's a man here with a booth makes a cheese pie you'll be thinking about for the rest of your life."
Kitty let Cassadee's chatter fill up her head as she tried to picture the market.
The reality of it was so much bigger than she could ever have guessed. Hundreds of booths, literally hundreds, people everywhere, a thousand tantalizing snatches of bright color and mouth-watering smells every direction you turned.
Kitty stood at the Kolfa cloth booth with Cassadee for a while, admiring the textures and colors, but what she really wanted to do was wander. Cassadee saw this as soon as Kitty had thought it, and waved her away with a smile. "Go on, then, I'll meet up with you later. If you get lost, just look for the clock tower! There's a fountain underneath it—we can meet there when we're done."
The problem, thought Kitty, wasn't going to be getting lost. The problem was going to be dragging herself back to the army's train at the end of the day. Everything she'd ever wanted, surely it could be found here. A stand outside a blacksmith's, selling armor and knives and nails—a fletcher's, with so many arrows bristling with feathers that it seemed his little booth might take flight—a weaver with thick, warm-looking blankets in rich colors—flowers of every kind imaginable. Before she even knew what she was about, she'd spent the silver coin Patti had given her and two from her secret store on a small, well-used crossbow and a quiver of bolts. She hadn't told the vendor who she was buying them for, and he hadn't asked.
She spent another few coppers on a couple of the marvelous cheese pies Cassadee had mentioned, and if they weren't good enough for her to remember the rest of her life, she certainly would think about them wistfully and longingly for many nights to come. She'd already spent more than she had meant to at this point, but when she saw a shoemaker hawking his wares, she couldn't stop herself from buying a pair of tall, well-made boots. They would serve her a lot better in the camp than her old worn shoes did. In exchange for her old nun's habit and another small handful of coppers from her store, she bought a pair of trousers and a shirt. The women of the camp thought nothing of trading skirts for trousers, so neither would she. Besides she needed more than the one worn dress to wear—it was getting rather shabby.
And then—a bookshop.
Kitty paused. She didn't have the money for a book. It was ridiculous. And when would she have time to read it, anyway? And still she drew closer to the bookshop before she could persuade herself away from it.
The man behind the counter looked up at her, then back down at the book he was reading with a snort of disgust. She couldn't blame him. She was sure she didn't exactly exude an ability to pay for her purchases.
Whatever. She wasn't here to buy, anyway, she was here to look, and rot the man if he thought she was there to steal or damage the books. After so long in the copyroom at the Order, Kitty thought she knew pretty well how to handle a book.
She didn't even bother looking at the illuminated ones near the shop window. That was the sort you sold houses to buy—even her father wouldn't have the money for one of them, or at least, he wouldn't spend the money on it unless he really thought a particular book would enhance his reputation. Instead, she wondered over to the back of the store, where the odds and ends were kept. Half a dozen versions of the Book of Rule, she noticed, bound in various anthologies in order to fit your level of literacy or your profession. A fat volume of ancient Briopian verse, its cover torn; a green-bound book that, on closer examination, turned out to be a flowery, embellished form of the disgusting story Jimmy had told that first storytelling night, and—ah, what was this?
The bland brown cover had nothing on it. The text was small, and whichever scribe had copied the book out clearly hadn't intended for it to be sold to the general public, because it was full of scribal abbreviations and all the words were run together. If Kitty hadn't produced quite a few of those manuscripts herself, she wouldn't have been able to read it. But she could read it, and she only had to read a few pages before she realized: it was a book of fairy stories. Well, some of them were about fairies. Others were about selkies, werewolves, unicorns, gods and goddesses Kitty had never heard of who presided over rivers and mountains and lakes. One was about tree spirits.
Kitty felt a cold prickle across the back of her neck and carefully set the book back where she had found it. "How much is this?" she called lightly to the owner.
Looking profoundly irritated, he bustled over towards her. "How much is what?" he snapped.
She tried her best to imitate her mother's face when insulted by a lesser tradesman and said, "I'll wager you don't get much return business with an attitude like that."
The man scowled, as if he suspected Kitty was trying somehow to trick him. "Just what is it you'd like to buy?"
She gestured grandly to the nondescript little book. "I thought that one might be interesting."
Still scowling, the man picked up the book and glanced at a few of the pages. His expression slackened in surprise and not a little uneasiness, and he looked from Kitty to the book and then back again. "You want…this book?" At Kitty's nod, he added doubtfully, "Can you read it?"
"Of course I can read it," said Kitty scornfully. "Now, how much is it, and quick, before I take my purse elsewhere." My empty, empty purse, she thought.
The man gave her a measuring look. "I don't hold for this kind of thing. It must have ended up in some odds and ends batch by mistake." Kitty wanted to ask him just what it was he didn't hold for, but he didn't seem to be done. "Now. If you want it, I can let you have it for…six coppers."
Kitty was surprised at how low the price was, but she tried not to show it. She was down to her last few silvers, and there was no sense in wasting any more money than she was already doing. As much as she hated it sometimes, she was a merchant's daughter. "That's a laugh," she said, and made as if to leave.
"Wait," the man said. "Four. Take it for four. But you didn't get it here."
"As if I'd brag about setting foot in this place," said Kitty, but she handed over the coppers and tucked the book into her bag. The man watched as she walked out, a beady-eyed, nervous look. A strange, unpleasant man, Kitty thought.
By the time she made it to the fountain, Cassadee was tapping her feet impatiently. "Come on, Kitty!" she said. "Don't you want to see the merchants?" Apparently Cassadee's disinterest in their new employers lasted only as long as said employers were abstractions; as people, they were as interesting as anyone.
To Kitty's surprise, there was more than one company of merchants waiting with the camp while their heads finished negotiations with Morrissey. "That's pretty usual," Cassadee assured her. "A lot of the time the little ones will find a big one and pay to travel under their protection. Safety in numbers, you know?"
The "big one" this time was a Kolfan thread merchant who'd spent the last two years trying to sell thread and cloth to the Parians. He hadn't had much luck, so he was heading back north. If Kitty were the Parians, she didn't think she'd trade with him either; he had a sour kind of sneer, which made him look like the kind of person who didn't like much of anyone. He certainly dressed nicely, though. It wasn't much of a consolation to Cassadee, who really had let her hopes get up for a summer in the south.
The "little ones," Norah told them in a hushed whisper, were, in order of size, a well-to-do grain merchant bringing early crops from the south coast up to Briopia, three money-changing brothers and their entourage, a little knot of Guild craftsmen who built musical instruments, and a Parian spice merchant. "And the best part is," Norah said, "the spice merchant is a woman."
So she was—a heavy, dark, woman named Jill Scott with a constant, unimpeachable businesslike expression belied only somewhat by the determined jut of her chin. From the moment Kitty laid eyes on her, she was certain that Madam Scott was like no merchant she had ever known, and as they started off up along the Central Road, she was proven right.
Where Kitty's father and his business associates showed only enough interest in their own wares to know their quality and to sell them, Madam Scott knew every inch of the simple but beautiful, well-built covered wagon that housed her spices. She knew what plant each came from and what that plant looked like, she knew what spices suited each dish and what spices would make you sick if you mixed them and which ones would cure your cold if you put them in your soup. She knew how long to grind them if you wanted big flakes of spice flecking your bread and how long to grind them if you wanted a fine powder as soft as the Queen's flour.
Where her father and his friends bragged of their acquaintances among the nobility and the things they acquired with their wealth, Madam Scott neither responded to boasts nor made any of her own. She spoke of the people she knew as friends, or at least as business associates, and if they gifted her with bushels of fine crocuses for saffron or rich lands, she certainly didn't talk about it as far as Kitty could tell.
Which brought her to another thing. Kitty's father wouldn't have been caught dead talking with the guards he hired to protect his caravan, except maybe their chief. Madam ate around the fire with Kitty and Cassadee and Patti and the rest of the women almost every night, offering spices to perk up the food and telling stories about her adventures on the seas any time she was asked.
As if all of that weren't strange enough, Madam Scott also practiced magic. Not huge, frightening things, calling storms from the sky or making things burst into flames, but little charms, figures drawn into the corks of her spice jars to keep them from breaking and their contents from rot.
"Isn't that…." Swati was never especially sharp with Madam Scott, but her eyes were suspicious, and she exchanged an anxious look with Tanya.
"Isn't what?" Madam Scott looked up from tracing a pattern onto a glass label jar with a small charred stick from the fire. Apparently, she said, that spell kept moisture out of the jars.
Swati gestured. "Isn't all that…magic…fairy stuff? You know, evil?"
Madam Scott raised an eyebrow. "Magic is no more 'fairy stuff' than the rain or the sun." She returned to her careful tracing. "You know," she said casually, "there are many things which are neither good nor evil in themselves, but become good and evil depending on who uses them and why. Is a sword good or bad? Or fire?" She shrugged almost imperceptibly. "These aren't the kind of questions that have right or wrong answers."
"Whatever you say, Madam Scott," said Swati, looking at her with uncertainty mixed with a kind of respect that had nothing to do with the other woman's wealth or merchant status.
Madam Scott sighed and asked, "For pity's sake, what would it take for you to call me Jill?"
Cassadee, who adored her, said that she still didn't like women that way, but she might make an exception for Madam Scott—Jill, she corrected, starry-eyed. Kitty could understand that.
Interestingly, Jill never seemed to talk with Lindsey and Jessicka. Not in a cruel way, or as if she didn't like them—she just didn't seek them out the way she did the others. Lindsey and Jessicka, for their part, were quiet when Jill sat around the fire with them, watching her with a kind of hesitant curiosity. It made things awkward, a little, and it seemed to Kitty that she didn't see them as often as she had before. She didn't mind too much, though—they were still friendly with her, and now, when she wasn't working, she had conversations with Jill to pass the time.
"Those two women," she said softly to Kitty one day. "They're warriors, correct?"
Kitty knew Jill already knew that—she couldn't not—but she said, "Correct." And then, though she'd never actually seen them fight anyone but some of their fellow soldiers when they got drunk and handsy, she said, "They're very good." It wasn't a totally uninformed guess, Kitty figured, since Morrissey wouldn't have hired them if they weren't.
"Hmm," Jill said. "It must be lonely, with only two of them."
"They aren't lonely!" Cassadee protested. "They've got Jimmy and Steve, and they've got us."
"Of course." Jill nodded calmly. "And I'm sure you're a good friend to them, as they are to you. But it is so strange, the things that are considered men's work and women's work here, and I've found it very uncomfortable, sometimes, to be a woman in a job where people expect a man."
"Are there women warriors in Par?" asked Kitty curiously.
Jill gave Kitty a quizzical look. "There are women everything in Par," she said. Kitty would have asked more, fascinated by the bald statement, but suddenly there was shouting from the front of the caravan.
"To the wagons!" came Morrissey's booming voice, and a flurry of arrows flew over Jill and Cassadee and Kitty to land in the dirt behind them.
"Oh, horsefucking rat spit," said Cassadee, and she grabbed Kitty's hand even as Jill ushered them into her covered wagon and locked its door behind them.
"Can you tell who it is?" asked Jill. Outside, a man screamed in pain, and Cassadee winced.
"I don't--" she started. "It's hard to tell. Brigands, probably." She shrugged. "They'll probably leave us alone. I mean, we're in the littlest wagon here."
Jill frowned. "Hmm. I wish I could tell whether they were clever brigands or stupid ones."
What an odd thing to say when they were being shot at by strange men. "Why's that?" asked Kitty.
"Because if they're stupid," Jill said, "they will run right past us and go for that ostentatious jackass with the expensive cloth panels on his wagon. If, however, they're clever enough to take a deep breath and smell the spices here, they'll realize that what I have in this little cart is worth more than the rest of the caravan put together."
Kitty couldn't help but stare. Fuck, fuck, Jill was right. If the brigands had half a brain, they'd realize that Jill's wares were more expensive by the ounce than many a lord could afford. If Kitty'd had half a brain when she tasted the dishes Jill had seasoned, she would have realized it for herself.
"Giver have mercy," she said, involuntarily reaching for the charm around her neck. Cassadee put a brave face on, but clearly she was frightened, and even Jill looked worried under her calm front. They were probably all thinking the same thing, thought Kitty. Three women alone, in a wagon full of expensive spices, unarmed….
A horse shrieked in agony outside, and Cassadee bit her lip and closed her eyes.
Well, piss on this, thought Kitty suddenly. She wasn't unarmed. She still had the dagger she carried everywhere. She had her wits about her. And they had Jill's cart.
"Madam Scott," she said. Jill. Whoops. Worry about it later. "You have spices here to make people's eyes burn, right?"
Jill raised her head, looking at Kitty approvingly. "I do. Cheap ones, even," she added, sounding more merchantlike than Kitty had ever heard her.
"Well, all right then." Kitty took a quick look around the wagon. Her eyes lighted on a wobbling wooden structure in the corner. "How fond are you of that rocking chair?"
"My mother can make me another one." Jill stood, suddenly seeming so big that she could crush any brigand under her foot, and walked over to the rocking chair. "Here, Kitty," she said, "help me." Together, they picked the thing up and smashed it against the back wall of the wagon, once, twice, until its joints gave under the pressure and they could detach the runners on which it rocked. Each was as long as Kitty's leg and as heavy as a bow. They'd work well as weapons.
Jill and Kitty each took a runner, and they hefted them in their hands, testing the weight and taking a few practice swings. Jill's eyes met Kitty's, and they shared a brief smile, but there wasn't the time to congratulate themselves yet—the sound of the fighting seemed closer, louder, and Kitty felt a familiar thrill of tense fear in her chest. "They're getting closer," she said to Jill.
Jill nodded, her eyes on the wagon's door. "Come here, Cassadee," she said. Cassadee still looked scared enough to faint, but at least she'd mustered the courage to adopt a stubborn expression quite reminiscent of Jill's and to stand up to walk over to her. "Here," said Jill, handing her a little pot of something red. "Be careful, since there isn't much in there. But even a little bit will have a man clawing at his eyes as if he would tear them out." Cassadee took the pot, staring dubiously at it. She looked frighteningly young.
Kitty put an arm around her shoulder. "Hey, come on," she said. "You're the battle expert here. What do you and the others usually do?"
Cassadee shrugged uncomfortably. "They usually happen so fast I don't have time to think about it. I hitch a ride with Patti or Swati and Thao or somebody and we all ride out to the outskirts of the battle. Couple of the women have bows, and we pick off the brigands as they ride toward the rest."
"Well, all right," said Kitty. "Think of it this way—this wagon's not that big. They can only come at us one or two at a time, so just think of it as picking them off from here."
"It's not really the same when they're right there," Cassadee protested, but she seemed at least a little less frightened, so Kitty considered it a victory.
Outside, the sounds of battle were so close and loud that Kitty could pick out voices she knew, and she peeked out the tiny glass window in the corner of the caravan to see Jersey and Mike dodging arrows and slashing fiercely out at a masked bandit on a skinny black horse. She turned away from the window and tried to make her face as expressionless as possible. Cassadee didn't need one more thing to worry about.
For what felt like eternity but was probably only a matter of minutes, they huddled in the wagon, listening to the progress of the fight and trying to judge how it went. "Perhaps," Jill said under her breath, "these are stupid brigands, after all."
Even as she finished speaking, something crashed against the left wall of the wagon—probably a man's head, judging by the groan that slid down to the ground—and a rough voice called, "Shit! Let's see what we can get in this one. Gotta be something, right?"
"Well done, Jill," said Kitty with a glare, forgetting for a moment that she technically worked for her. Everyone knew you turned good fortune bad by commenting on it. Even Mother Phyllis had known that, for pity's sake.
"You and your ridiculous superstitions," muttered Jill, tightening her grip on her chair runner.
Kitty ignored her. Timing was everything in matters like this, and nothing good could come of being caught unawares at the wrong moment. She gripped her own runner, reached quickly to her belt to confirm that her knife was ready, and kept her eyes on the trembling door. Her heart was beating so hard, the corners of her vision throbbed, but her mind was as focused as it had ever been.
Jill's wagon was well-made, every inch of it, and the door stood strong after a handful of assaults. The lock, however, was less sturdy. One of the brigands had clearly had the foresight to bring an axe or something strong enough to break it completely free of the door, and with a sickening crack, a bulky man pushed his way through.
She didn't wait for Cassadee's scream, or for the man's own quick smile to turn into a smirk. She struck, as hard as she could. The man staggered back, clutching at his head, and she hit him again while two more men squeezed around him into the wagon.
Cassadee, evidently recovered from her fright moved quickly. She shouted, "Kitty, watch your eyes," but Kitty didn't need the warning to recognize the swift motion of Cassadee's hand as she flung a red cloud of powder into the men's eyes.
They shrieked in pain. Kitty met Jill's eyes in an instant, and they moved as one—Jill hit the one on the left, her strike as solid as if she were chopping wood, and as he fell back, she pushed him out the door with her chair runner. Kitty, meanwhile, hit the other one with all her strength, and he fell to the floor.
The other brigands hesitated now, on the brink between anger and surprise, and Kitty took advantage of their uncertainty to slam the broken door on the man who stood on the threshold, smashing his fingers. With a roar of rage, he pulled the door aside, and two others behind him ripped it completely from its hinges, one of them shouting, "Here, men! It's spices!"
Kitty struck the man holding the door a solid blow to his stomach, and while he bent over, bellowing in pain, Jill knocked him back so hard that he fell off the doorstep and onto the ground.
Having taken heart from the other women's success, Cassadee seemed to have found her own courage, and she began to hurl things out of the door, barely missing Kitty and Jill in the process: heavy iron cooking pans, empty glass jars, a small table. Few of her missiles found targets, but they made the brigands around the door scatter back to avoid being hit, and Kitty shot the girl a quick smile.
One of the brigands, a tall, broad man with a nose that looked as if it had been broken a time or two, looked up from one of Cassadee's shattered jars and glared at them with a rage that chilled some corner of Kitty's heart.
"Fucking bitches," the man said, drawing his sword as he stepped around his comrades, both standing and fallen. "I'm gonna gut you like the pigs you are."
Jill swung her chair runner threateningly, and Cassadee chucked another jar at him. He ducked easily, his lip raised in a snarl, and Cassadee fell back, her boldness temporarily frozen. He continued to stalk towards them, his gaze single-minded and hateful.
Kitty had no idea what possessed her—only a vague notion of catching him off guard. Without thinking too much about it, she darted out the door, dodging the swings and the grasping hands of the men around her, and pulled her knife from her belt. The big man was startled for only a moment by her motion before the rage returned, and he swung his sword, but she was too fast for him. In one clean motion, she raised her knife and slashed at the man's throat. Warm blood sprayed over her.
He swung again, weaker, and his comrades closed in around her, but their eyes were wide with horror, not anger.
"See if he guts anything," said a familiar voice, and Kitty looked up to see Lindsey, atop Susan, her dappled gray mare, her sword drawn and already a rusty dark red with blood. Jessicka and Steve were flanking her, Jessicka with a loaded crossbow and Steve with a heavy war axe.
Time seemed to speed up, then: Jessicka shot a crossbow bolt into the man closest to Kitty, Lindsey urged Susan into the midst of the crowd of men, and suddenly they were all running, some jumping on horses, some just running until Kitty couldn't see them anymore. Kitty just stood there, the blood cooling sticky on her face, while the man she had killed swayed and dropped his sword and fell where he stood.
The battle was over, then. The soldiers had fought the brigands off, and from the cheers coming from some of the men, Kitty imagined that they'd won without too much loss of property or life. That was good, she thought. If you were going to fight, it was best to win.
Somewhere, at some point, Jill came out of the wagon to wrap a blanket around Kitty's shoulder and usher her back inside, as gentle as if she were Kitty's mother. Inside, Cassadee smiled shakily at her, and Kitty found the calm to smile back, glad that all the fear was gone from Cassadee's face now. "You were fantastic," she said.
"Well, not like you," said Cassadee. "Ocean Son, Kitty, where'd you learn how to fight?"
It was Jessicka, standing in the gaping doorway with Steve and Lindsey by her side and looking down at Kitty with a cool, appraising gaze. "I'm guessing you didn't learn that at the nunnery." Her voice was dry, and something in it ruffled Kitty's feathers the wrong way.
"You'd guess wrong, then," she said, her voice sounding defiant to her own ears. It was the kind of retort that would have gotten her slapped back at the Order.
"What?" Steve said disbelievingly. "You joking me? That's what those rich fancy nuns spend their time doing? Fighting?" Lindsey raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"Well. No." Kitty looked down, feeling suddenly disgusting, the dried blood itchy on her cheeks and in her eyebrows.
Cassadee reached out to grasp Kitty's hand. "Come on," she said softly. "I mean, you protected me. You and Jill," she added, casting a grateful look in Jill's direction. "Nobody's angry or anything, we're just confused."
"Come on," Lindsey echoed. "Let's have the whole story."
Perhaps it was the word "story" that set her off. "Do you know why I left the nunnery?"
Steve shrugged. Jessicka asked, "Didn't you say all the other girls there were, I don't know, duchesses and countesses or some shit, and you were just some merchant's daughter and no one liked you?"
Kitty had to laugh at the bluntness. "Yeah. That's all true. But that's not why I left when I did. I left because the Mother of Order asked me to leave."
"Yeah?" asked Steve, and Lindsey made a beckoning gesture, as if of encouragement. Jill leaned up against the wall of the wagon, watching Kitty with curious eyes.
"She asked me to leave, because…." She sighed. "All right. The thing about the Order is, there aren't any men there, and it's far away from any kind of town bigger than a handful of families. There's not much by way of money there—some rich clothes, maybe, because a duchess can't look like a pauper even when she's a nun, and whatever else the Sisters sneak in, but it's not some treasure hoard. People don't always understand that, though—they think that since it's full of women from rich families, that it must be full of terribly valuable things."
She sighed. "Mostly, we get the kind of thieves who try to sneak in, and the cook chases them out with her rolling pin or the Mother of Order shames them into going away. But sometimes, there are groups of men who don't care about the Giver's curse and don't mind braving stone walls. Ten years before my father sent me there, a group of twenty men broke in. They didn't find any money, and they were so angry that they killed the Sister in charge of the storerooms. The King hanged them all along the side of the road as a warning but…." She shrugged.
"When the warning bell rang, we were all supposed to go hide in the cellar. There's a secret room there—Mother Phyllis had it put in after the last attack. But I was out in the barn doing punishment work, and by the time I made it to the main building, they'd already knocked down the gates and were marching around, looking for…I don't know. A pile of gold, or something.
Now, the thing about living in one place for so long—especially when you don't get to go anywhere else—is that you know it like the back of your hand. At first, I just thought that I could find myself a good hiding place without leading them to the others in the cellar. But then I thought—from everything I heard, the brigands had totally torn the Order apart the last time—they'd ripped up the beds, torn open bags of feed and left them to rot, set things on fire, things like that. And I thought, 'Why just let them do it?'"
"Why indeed?" asked Jill softly. Lindsey, Jessicka and Steve just stared at Kitty as if she was a riddle they couldn't solve.
"And so…." Kitty shrugged. "It wasn't really fighting at first, so much as knowing my territory. I lured a pair of them into the storeroom and locked them in. One of them investigated the kitchen by himself—I hid in the pantry and then hit him in the head with a pan, then I locked him in the pantry. That was how it went—I picked them off one by one, until they realized that they were losing men. Then…well, then it got harder. They got more alert, and they got angry."
"What did you do?" Lindsey asked.
Kitty looked at her hands, remembering. "Then…then I thought I couldn't do any more by myself, and I went to the others in the cellar, to get help."
Steve snorted. "Yeah. Bet they were a great help."
"You don't understand," Kitty said, feeling strangely defensive. "When you're devoted to rules and order like that…I don't know how many times Mother Phyllis told me, 'You can't expect to make order in the world if you can't even order yourself.' In the Book of Rule, there's not a single woman who ever lifts a hand in violence. Not even in self-defense. That's men's work. I got Sister Sarah to sneak out and ride to the village for help, and I thought that was a pretty big accomplishment."
"Fair enough," said Jessicka, elbowing Steve in the side.
"The only problem was, trying to convince them to chase the men off—well, I did just what I was trying not to do, and drew the men to the cellar."
"Shit," breathed Cassadee.
"Right," said Kitty. "I could hear them coming, yelling and ranting and cursing, and the rest of the Sisters were practically frightened out of their wits. Except for Mother Phyllis, who was pissed at me for leading the men to them. It wasn't going to do any good to try and get them back into the secret room. Now, the stairs down to the cellar were rickety—they were very old, and no one went down into the cellar if they didn't have to, it was so musty and dark down there, so they weren't in good repair.
I didn't have time to think too much about it, so I grabbed an old shovel from the corner and hit at one of the steps until it broke, right down the middle, and then I knocked both of the pieces down into the cellar. The other Sisters were burning a lamp, so I blew it out, and the room was completely dark."
Lindsey began to smile. "They tripped in the dark, right? They couldn't see the missing stair."
Kitty met her eyes and returned the smile as best she could. "Right. And as they fell, I shoved them into the secret room. It was dark, but it was easy enough to tell the Sisters from the brigands in the dark, so if anyone tried to hit me, I hit him with the shovel and dragged him in. It was so much easier than I thought it'd be--it felt as natural as anything. Even after I locked them in and I realized that I'd left one outside—he'd hit his head when he fell, so he wasn't fighting or anything—it didn't frighten me. I just tied him up, and the rest of the Order and I went upstairs for Sister Sarah.
She brought the Queen's Army, by the way, a whole squad of them. But by that point, there wasn't much left for them to do. And then, well, by that point, as Mother Phyllis said, it was abundantly clear to everyone that I was no true Sister of Order."
"Wait," said Cassadee indignantly. "You saved them from brigands, men who might have done I don't even know what, and they just kicked you out?"
She sounded as angry about it as Kitty had been at the time. But now, here, safe in Jill's wagon, the injustice of it seemed unimportant, and she could look back on it with a calmer eye. "They already had problems with me," she said. "I wasn't neat enough, I wasn't that obedient, and apparently I wasn't as peaceful as one usually wants in a nunnery—it was never the right place for me. I'm glad they did it. I might not have had the courage to leave on my own."
"Oh, I don't know," Jessicka said. "It seems to me that if there's anything you're lacking, it's not courage."
"No shit," said Lindsey, and Steve nodded in agreement. There was silence for a long stretch. Kitty caught her breath and scratched dried blood off her face. The Order seemed like a lifetime ago, and her story seemed like just that to her—a story, about someone else, some other girl in some other not-quite-real time. It was hard to believe she'd ever been that angry, confused girl.
"Hey." Lindsey's voice broke in on her thoughts. "Those bandits back at the nunnery, did you kill any of them?"
"No." Not that that had convinced Mother Phyllis of her inner feminine compassion or whatever.
"Well, you sure as shit killed that fellow whose throat you slit." Lindsey's eyes were so intense that Kitty almost felt their gaze as a physical pressure. "You all right with that?"
She shouldn't be. Every life had a purpose under the Giver's Rule, and to interfere with that was not only to violate her own place in the Rule but to stop someone else from fulfilling whatever the Giver had intended for them.
But what of Cassadee's purpose? Or Jill's? The Giver couldn't look at their lives and say that they were worth less that of a man who had threatened to gut them like pigs, just for protecting Jill's property. Maybe she shouldn't have done it, shouldn't have killed him, but it had happened so fast, and the wagon was here, safe, with Cassadee and Jill unharmed, and in the grand scheme of the Rule, that couldn't be so terribly wrong. 'Repay a kindness with a kindness, and an injustice with justice,' right? She couldn't remember who'd told her that, but it sounded fair enough to her at that particular moment. I'm fine," she said. "You're safe, I'm safe, everyone's safe and sound." Something terrible occurred to her and she asked, "Everyone's safe and sound, right?"
Lindsey grinned crookedly. "Sure. Patti knows how to get those that need it out of danger. Last I saw, Jenny and Tanya and Thao were gathering up their nursing stuff to help out the wounded, and all the rest were helping them."
Kitty breathed a sigh of relief and leaned against Cassadee, who wrapped a comforting arm around her.
"My wagon has certainly seen better days," said Jill with a sigh. "I hope your leader doesn't expect full payment for guard services. Just because my rig is small doesn't mean I should have to protect it myself." She gingerly picked up a shard of broken glass from Cassadee's spice jar and put it down with another sigh.
Kitty pulled her head out of Cassadee's shoulder and said weakly, "We can help you clean it up," though she hoped Jill didn't need it cleaned in the near future. She didn't feel up to much of anything at the moment.
"No sense in doing anything now," Jill said. "Not while there are people who need fixing."
Lindsey didn't seem to be paying too much attention to the conversation, but she was still looking at Kitty with a curiously intense gaze. "Hey," she said. "Didn't you tell me and Jessicka once you wanted to be a fighter?"
What? The excitement of battle had worn off, taking any wits Kitty had used to tell her story along with it. She was exhausted and a little fuzzy, as if she'd just woken up from a deep sleep. "Yeah. Why?"
Jessicka gave Lindsey a sharp look before looking searchingly at Kitty, her mouth drawn into a thoughtful frown. "Huh. As far as projects go, a quiver of arrows is a shitload easier. Or a decorated shield."
"Another woman warrior's a lot more satisfying, though," said Lindsey, and Kitty felt a weird burning in her throat that could have been either hope or vomit.
"Wait, what?" Steve said. He looked at Lindsey and Jessicka, then at Kitty, and then he made a protective gesture on his chest, exaggerated enough to be ironic. "Oh, no. No, no, no."
Lindsey ignored him entirely, except for a dismissive gesture, keeping her eyes on Kitty. "Well. If you still want this kind of work, maybe we could help you a bit. Teach you fighting, see if Morrissey'll take you on with the rest of us."
"Oh, you get to be the one to talk to Morrissey," Steve said. "He already thinks I'm a few slices short of a loaf."
"That's because you are, said Jessicka irritably.
"Hey!" said Lindsey sharply. "Give the girl a chance to answer. What do you say, Kitty? Do you still think you'd want it?" Though her voice was still sharp, her smile was hesitant, as if she didn't know how she wanted Kitty to answer.
Kitty didn't share her hesitation. "Yes," she said, before a yawn split her face. She could barely keep her eyes open. "You think we could maybe start tomorrow, though?"
"Of course you can," Jill said firmly. "No one can expect you to fight anymore today. Cassadee," she added, "will Kitty be needed in setting up camp tonight?"
Cassadee still looked a little surprised, Kitty thought. "No, I don't think so," she said. "I mean, I'll tell Patti about what happened. She won't mind. We'll probably need her to help with the nursing tomorrow, though."
That was fine. Kitty had had to do more than one rotation in the infirmary back when she was still Sister Jennifer. Heh, imagine Sister Michele's face if she saw Kitty now, getting ready to be a woman warrior, just like Moon Maiden. Imagine Mother Phyllis' face if she heard Kitty thinking about Moon Maiden. Of course, if Mother Phyllis could hear her thinking, that'd make Mother Phyllis magic. Heh.
"I think she's crossed over," said Steve. "She's got that goofy look."
"She can sleep here tonight," said Jill. "Anyone who has done the work she has today should not have to get up and go set up a tent, not while I am here and have a spare trundle bed with no one to use it."
Lindsey nodded slowly. "Yeah," she said, and for just a second she and Jill looked startlingly alike. "She needs a rest."
Gentle hands washed the blood from her face and hair and laid her in a soft box, making her feel like a pampered kitten. She was too far gone with exhaustion to figure out whose hands they were.
The few days that followed were a flurry of activity, and there was no time for Kitty to begin training with Lindsey and Jessicka. Repairs had to be done to a number of the merchants' wagons, and there were fewer hands than usual to help with the repairs, since two had died and needed to be buried, some dozen were wounded, and half of the women were busy nursing them in the absence of a real healer. And throughout all the repairs and the nursing and the reassuring of spooked merchants, everyone still had to eat, clothes still got dirty—more so than usual, in fact—and there still had to be at least some people ready to fight in case they were hit with a second wave of brigands.
After that, though—well, after that, everything changed.
Lindsey and Jessicka, she discovered, trained most mornings while it was barely even light out and whenever they had a spare hour, since they had to be the sharpest and the strongest at all times to be accepted by the rest of the warriors. Lindsey was a soldier's daughter, with a thousand drills for building upper-body strength and mastering control of a sword; Jessicka came from a family of fletchers, and knew how to shoot as well as anyone Kitty had ever seen or heard of. And for some reason, they—and occasionally Jimmy and Steve, who seemed unbelievably easy with the idea of adding a third woman warrior to the army, once they got over their laughter—were willing to train Kitty, to teach her everything they knew.
Convincing Morrissey was a good deal more difficult—the man hadn't particularly wanted to take on Lindsey or Jessicka, Steve told her, but he'd had to, with more than half his force killed by Parian pirates. Now, though, they were more than sixty men strong, even with the two who'd been killed in the brigands' raid, and Morrissey wasn't likely to see the need to hire someone as a warrior when he'd been accustomed to giving her dirty laundry and criticism of her cooking.
The only way to do it, Lindsey told her firmly, was to do the job and do it well, before he'd even decided to pay her for it. And so for a torturous few weeks, she spent her mornings drilling, her afternoons cooking meals and scrubbing clothing, and her evenings riding patrols (and not just with Lindsey and Jessicka and Steve and Jimmy—the boss would never take her seriously if the other men didn't, they said, and so Kitty had to ride around with Jersey and Mike and their friends on a borrowed carthorse, trying to look alert and fierce.) She had never been so tired in her life, and not even the promise of sex with Lindsey could keep her awake past sunset.
Finally, one day, just as the weather was changing from spring's moist warmth to summer's parching heat, Morrissey said to her over a breakfast fire, "Well, pay's fifteen silvers a month, and if you drop your weapon and start crying in the first battle, I'll drop you back down to laundry wench faster than you can spit."
It wasn't a very encouraging speech, but she got an advance on her pay, and with a little help from her friends, she had enough to buy a dark gray mare too young and frisky for plowing from a local farmer. She was a bit wild, especially for a rider without much experience, but she was a good horse for the money. Kitty called her Pearl.
Jimmy clapped her on the back when she rode Pearl back into camp, and Lindsey and Jessicka both congratulated her, but her reception around the camp followers' fire was…well…
"I guess you think you're too good for us now," Norah said bluntly. "Fifteen silvers a month and all."
Kitty stared at her in shock. Norah was quiet, but she and Kitty had always gotten along well. She would have expected an opening like that from Swati, the sharpness of whose tongue didn't really have anything to do with how much she liked you or not, or from Tanya, who said what she thought and damn the consequences, but coming from Norah it hit like a kick in the gut. "Of course I don't think that," she said. "Why would I?"
"Yeah, why would you?" asked Jenny. "And while we're at it, why would you want to hang around us doing women's work when you can be a character in a Moon Maiden story?" She made a face, her nose wrinkling like she smelled something unpleasant.
Kitty was hurt, the sting all the sharper because she hadn't seen it coming. "You never said anything like that about Lindsey or Jessicka."
"'Cause they weren't ever one of us," Cassadee said solemnly, one corner of her mouth turned down.
And suddenly Kitty could see the hurt in her eyes, in the faces of all her friends as they looked at her around the fire, and she thought, it's easy to leave when you don't like the people or the life you're leaving. When no one's going to miss you.
She didn't know if anything she could say would convince them that she admired them just as much now as she had when Patti had given her the job—more, now that she knew them and had washed out all her stupid notions of what being a camp follower said about your character. That she loved them. Whether she could fit all that into words or not, she had to try. "Cassadee," she said, "I had three sisters. Not Sisters of Order, but my actual sisters. You knew that, right?"
Cassadee nodded, confused.
"Well, maybe you don't know that if I had to choose between all three of them and you, I'd choose you any day of the week." She looked around the fire, meeting each set of eyes one by one. "Any of you. I don't know how you feel about me, but as for me, well, you've all been so good to me, better than my blood ever was, you're like family to me, and that's not going to change just 'cause I got a raise and a different work schedule."
Cassadee smiled at that, a sunny one with all her teeth. Swati rolled her eyes but grinned a little, and Jenny put her chin in her hands and looked thoughtfully at Kitty, her eyes warm. Even Norah smiled a bit, just a little tugging at the corners of her mouth.
Kitty knew then that it was going to be all right.
The first month of her new job wasn't all that much different than her old job. They were still moving north, and if she had a horse now instead of catching a ride in a wagon, well, she could still draw Pearl up next to Thao and Swati's wagon and chat while they made their way. She still mostly ate with the camp followers, though sometimes she sat with her friends among the soldiers, and more and more frequently, Jessicka and Lindsey and Jimmy and Steve and even Cassadee's boys would sit with the camp followers in one big, rowdy, fun group. She still had time to talk to Jill, only perhaps they saw a little less of each other than before. There was something different about talking to a person when you were in charge of keeping them safe, Kitty realized—it made things more serious, and she thought she could understand why Lindsey and Jessicka had never made friends with Jill in quite the way she had. It was a kind of sad realization, so she didn't think about it too much.
Patrols were mostly boring. Once a couple of thieves tried to attach themselves to the back of the train without anyone noticing, hoping to slip in and slip out with some load of spices or a bag of money, but they weren't nearly as subtle as they thought they were, and Kitty and her patrolling partner, a laconic young man named Alex, chased them away easily.
Until the day with the werewolves, being a woman warrior was actually surprisingly easy.
The air was thick with moisture that morning, the heat almost oppressive. It looked like it might rain, and Kitty hoped it would. Maybe it would cool the men off and ease the sense of tension that ran through the camp.
Jill sniffed the air with concern over the breakfast fire and said, "Something bad's on its way."
Some of the women still looked a little sideways at Jill for fiddling with magic as she did, but Patti threw a small handful of salt over her shoulder, and Jenny and Tanya muttered the Giver's Prayer under their breaths. Swati spat on the ground.
"Doesn't take magic to tell something bad's coming," she said scornfully to the rather squeamish Norah. "Anybody with the sense they were born with could tell that."
After breakfast, the morning patrol rode back, looking nervous. One of them whispered in Morrissey's ear, and he rode out with them himself.
"What do you think that was about?" asked Kitty. She could hear the low hum of nervous murmurs running through the rest of the camp.
"Ah, who the fuck knows," Jimmy said, talking around the crust of bread he'd torn off and stuffed in his mouth. "Some of those new kids are scared of their own shadows."
They weren't the only ones scared, though. Morrissey rode back into camp not long after, his face drawn with tension. "Men," he said, ignoring the faces Lindsey and Jessicka made. Kitty stifled a laugh. "I want everyone armed and ready to fight. Battle formations on the west side!"
"Battle formations, my ass," Steve muttered as they shoved the last of their food in their mouths and quickly gathered their gear. "The old fart still thinks he's in the Queen's Army."
But even Steve shut up when they were all in a straight line around the eastern perimeter of the camp, watching a ragtag bunch of people in gray and brown making their way towards the wagon train.
"Oh, ratfuck," muttered Jessicka.
"What is it?" Kitty asked, feeling more frantic than she liked. The people coming towards them were on foot, dressed in what looked like dirty old pelts like wild men, and so they shouldn't have been frightening at all. And yet, even from afar, Kitty could feel something coming from them, like a miasma of ferocity and hate that couldn't be seen or touched or smelled, only sensed. Besides that, there was something almost dizzying about looking at them. She couldn't put her finger on it—it wasn't quite like looking at the sun, but there was the same sense that she was seeing something she shouldn't, and that there was more to them than met the eye.
"Fuckin' fairies," said Jimmy, shaking his head. "May all of them fucking rot in the ground! We're not even anywhere near their land."
"Seems they disagree," said Lindsey tersely.
The horses shifted uneasily under the men around them, and Kitty felt Pearl fidget and reached out to run a hand soothingly along the horse's neck. The fairies—if that's really what they were—were closer now, close enough that Kitty could make out their fierce expressions. They carried no weapons, and yet their glares and the wicked smiles a few of them were directing at the merchant wagon seemed to mean war.
"What do we do?" Kitty asked. Steve was tracing the Giver's path on his chest, and Kitty reached for the charm around her neck almost without thinking about it.
"We wait for Morrissey's signal," said Jessicka, looking tensely toward their leader.
"Piss on that," said Jimmy, "why aren't we fucking shooting them?" But he himself kept his crossbow nestled on the front of his saddle without lifting it to shoot.
"Hold your fire!" Morrissey said sternly from his place in the line. Apparently, Jimmy wasn't the only one who saw the appeal of sending out a volley of bolts. "Don't waste your ammunition while they're still too far for the shots to count. Remember, you may only get the chance to get one shot off before they're on us—don't you want it to take one of the bastards down?"
You may only get the chance to get one shot off before they're on us. Kitty shivered. She'd heard stories of fairies in the woods as a child, but she'd never truly believed them, and she'd certainly never thought she'd find herself facing an army of them.
The rag-tag bunch of fur-clad figures stopped just outside of the crossbow's range, and one of them, a little man with long straggly hair, stepped forward. "You're on our lands!" he shouted, his voice carrying and echoing off the trees and rocks. "Get off, before we kill you all."
Morrissey sniffed contemptuously. "We're not on your lands, fairy," he said. "Your king signed a treaty with ours a century ago, giving all the lands east of the Mountain Forest to humans to farm. The Clandestine Treaty—perhaps you've heard of it?"
The straggly-haired man returned his sniff, matching every ounce of Morrissey's contempt with his own, and then laughed. It was a horrible sound, high-pitched, like a wounded dog, and a quick glance around revealed that Kitty wasn't the only one shuddering at it. "You humans," he said. "You think we're fairies? He's not our stinking king, and we're not bound by his stinking treaty."
Morrissey's eyes narrowed, and he said, "Well, that's as may be, but our safe passage is guaranteed by the Queen, and I guarantee you, if you touch us, she will bring a hammer down on your mangy heads the likes of which you can't even imagine."
"Yeah?" said the man with another sharp, barking laugh, and the ragtag bunch of men and women around him echoed the laugh until Kitty's blood felt cold in her veins. "I don't think you have any idea what I can fucking imagine." And then the man was leaning forward, his straggly hair waving in the wind—no, it wasn't waving, it was spreading somehow, like a cape thrown over his back, and it wasn't hair, it was fur, and the man's face was somehow shifting, pushing outward, taking on the shape of a dog…or a wolf….
"Fire, fire, fire!" Morrissey shouted, and Kitty was shocked out of her horror enough to let off a bolt from her crossbow and load it again. The others, most of them, anyway, did the same, and a few of their bolts hit home, sending a handful of fairies—of werewolves—to the ground, hopefully dead. But the rest of them were running towards them, fast as the wind, and Pearl reared under Kitty, throwing her down.
The carefully constructed battle line fell to pieces as riders were thrown from their horses, or as wolves tore them down. Kitty watched one horse fall, a chunk ripped out of its chest, as its rider struggled to unsheathe his sword quickly enough to defend himself. She didn't have the time to find out whether or not he succeeded, because she had only a moment to gain her footing from Pearl's throw in which to pull out her own knife.
The wolf was on her before she could take a breath, snarling, its breath hot in Kitty's face as it pushed her to the ground. She reached out with her knife, stabbing blindly and hitting it squarely in the ribs. It bounded off of her, whimpering, and looked at her with—well, if she didn't know better, she'd say it was an almost confused expression.
"What are you waiting for?" one of the wolves who was still half man growled, and the wolf yipped at him. He narrowed his eyes at Kitty. "They wouldn't."
Who were "they," and what wouldn't they do? Kitty didn't know, and she wasn't about to find out, because Lindsey, who'd somehow managed to keep Susan under control, rode by like a hero in a song to strike the man-wolf's head from his shoulders completely. The first wolf growled and made a leap for her foot, trying to drag her from the horse's back, but she kicked it aside and shouted, "Kitty, you all right?"
"Fine!" she shouted. She'd managed to reload her bow before Pearl had thrown her, and she sent a bolt off toward a wolf heading in the direction of Patti's wagon. It stopped and tilted its head again, pointing its nose at her and sniffing with that same confused expression, and Kitty felt the hair rise on the back of her neck. Why wasn't it running towards her to attack? What did it smell on her that made it hesitate like that?
You're the only person in the Giver's Great Plan who'd complain about a werewolf not attacking her, she thought wryly, and she moved to load her bow again.
In the end, they managed to kill half the ragtag little band and send the rest scurrying off to the woods to lick their wounds, but the toll they paid was high—almost a third of their horses were killed, along with half a dozen men. One of them was Rob, the man who'd tried to sweet-talk her when she'd first joined the army, and she surprised herself by mourning his death as much as those of the others. They'd died hard, torn apart by the wolves when they'd been thrown from their horses, and she wouldn't wish that on even the sleaziest and most unpleasant of men.
Her friends had come off rather well, all things considered. Steve's horse had thrown him, and he'd broken an arm, Jessicka had gotten bitten on the leg by one of the beasts, and Jimmy and Lindsey had both gotten some deep scratches, but there were no life-threatening injuries among them, and the camp followers were all unharmed.
"How about you?" Jimmy asked Kitty after Jenny had finished stitching the deepest of the scratches on his chest. "Seems to me like you got off without even messing up your hair!"
"Don't be stupid," Kitty said, still feeling a little uneasy about how the wolves had behaved around her. She showed them all the bruises on her arms she'd gotten breaking her fall from Pearl's back. She concluded, "I guess werewolves just like you more. You must smell like food."
"Oh, yeah, smells like dinner," said Jimmy, standing up and turning around, sticking his rear end in Kitty's direction. "You want a sniff?"
That night, after she'd talked with Cassadee and Thao and Swati to get their versions of the battle (and to reassure Cassadee that Jersey, who'd gotten some flesh bitten from his arm in an attempt to shield his face, was going to be just fine), Kitty retired to her tent, troubled.
She had already lain on her bedroll and closed her eyes in a vain attempt to fall asleep when she remembered the book of fairy tales she'd bought all those months ago in Kor. It wasn't as if anyone was going to catch her reading it alone in her tent, she reasoned, or as if they'd even care if they did. Besides, if they were going to face more unnatural beasts than fairies in these parts, the more she knew about them the better she could fight back, and surely the others could understand that. Still, she felt unaccountably nervous as she lit a tallow candle and curled on her bedroll with the book.
The section on werewolves was long and included a section on their origins (they were said to be the descendants of a king cursed by the Giver for cannibalism) the nature of their transformations (supposedly tied to the moon, although the werewolves today seemed to be able to change at will whether the moon was even out or not) and ways to kill them (silver seemed to be the key). Maybe this last was the reason they'd left her alone, she thought as she fingered her charm. Maybe…but then, Jessicka carried her pay in a saddle bag, and Kitty was fairly sure she had some silver coins left from last pay day. Why hadn't the wolves sensed it, as they seemed to have with Kitty, and left her alone?
She fingered through the pages, more or less sure she'd gotten everything useful out of them but still unsatisfied and unable to sleep. She flipped restlessly though a chapter on water spirits, scarcely taking in the words as her eyes moved over the page, and then turned to one on tree spirits.
Tree spirits, the book said, are said to be among the most ancient of mythological creatures, having sprung from the earth only days after the Creation. In the sect of the Great Mother, they are said to be harbingers of life and fertility, and in some rural areas, offerings are still made to spirits whom they call "The Mothers of the Forest."
The words sprang unbidden into Kitty's head: No human king or queen banishes us from our own lands. Our mothers and grandmothers and their sisters have lived here for a thousand years….Who had said them? Who had—
It was as if a door had suddenly been opened in Kitty's mind, letting in a feverish flow of things she didn't remember she had hidden away. The two sisters, one dark and one fair, their reluctant kindness, the bargain she had struck with them, all of it returned like a memory from her childhood, clear and perfect but distant. What had they said? Wherever their word was good, she wouldn't be harmed? Well, was their word good among werewolves?
Oh, Giver, was she marked in some way, something about her that screamed, "This woman is the friend of tree spirits and fairies?" She hoped not, oh, how she hoped not. It was such an unexpected kindness on the part of the spirits, a good where one might expect only evil, but those spirits couldn't know how little she wanted a protection that would set her apart from her friends, would make her seem like a witch. She sent up a quick prayer to the Giver, unable to decide whether she should feel grateful or cursed.
She felt herself all over, trying to feel if any part of her felt, well, fairy-touched, then she chided herself for her stupidity. If it were something human eyes could see, someone would have seen it—Lindsey, if no other person she traveled with. If she couldn't see it, than no one could, and as long as they didn't encounter anymore werewolves, no one would be the wiser about the deal she had made in Ann and Nancy's forest.
Unfortunately, the Rule Giver didn't seem inclined to let her hide it.
Two weeks later, a band of centaurs with long wild hair and bows as tall as a grown man attacked the merchant train on the Northern Plain. The centaurs didn't have the kind of supernatural communication the werewolves had with their howling and dog-language, but they were stronger than humans and as good at human weapons as the soldiers themselves were. They lost another handful of men, and again, Kitty came out totally unscathed, save her pride, when a female centaur with sharp features and dark hair looked down her nose at Kitty and said, "Ann and Nancy must have lost their rotting minds" before turning away, leaving her sprawled on the ground without so much as a scratch.
By this time, almost the whole army was sporting some kind of wound, and as soon as the carnage had been somewhat cleared, Kitty could feel the attitude in the camp change as far as she was concerned. Others besides Jimmy noticed that Kitty, the newest soldier in the band and a woman to boot, had come out of both battles without a scar to show.
She had always gotten on pretty well with Alex, one of the younger soldiers who'd let her ride patrols with his group of friends, but when she went to visit him in Patti's tent, which was being used to treat and house the wounded for the time being, his expression was tight and angry.
Before she'd even gotten a chance to ask how he was doing—he'd been shot through the arm with a crossbow bolt—he said, "I see you came out smelling like a rose."
"Rotting rose," someone muttered from a nearby bedroll.
Fear tightened in her chest, making her lungs burn. "I--" she started, unsure how to respond. "Just lucky, I guess."
"Fucking bullshit," muttered Alex, giving her a resentful look. The soldier on his other side spat on the ground in disgust, and Jenny sent her away with a kind of hostile suspicion that Kitty had never heard from her before.
But even more worrying than that was how fast it seemed to spread. When she swallowed the lump in her throat and turned to walk back to her tent, every man she met between Patti's tent and hers traced the Giver's Path on his chest and half of them also made a gesture that, as she'd recently learned from Swati, was supposed to protect someone from witches. She hurried past the place where Cassadee and the rest of the camp followers usually set up their tents—if she had to see that kind of fear and hate in Cassadee's eyes, she thought she'd probably burst into tears.
Giver's Goodness, who'd have thought protection could prove to be such a curse?
Clustered around her tent when she reached it were Jimmy, Steve, and Lindsey, and Kitty wanted to cry at the looks of dark suspicion on their faces. Jimmy'd taken an arrow to the shoulder in this bout, and Lindsey had gotten, of all improbable things, punched by one of the centaurs she'd disarmed. Somehow, her expression looked particularly damning when accented by a black eye.
"We sure are getting a lot of, shall we say, unusual attacks on this trip, aren't we?" Jimmy said. His voice was higher than usual, his calm obviously forced.
Kitty swallowed and nodded slowly. "I've never seen so many strange creatures." She wanted to say she'd never seen any strange creatures at all before she'd started at this job, but it wasn't true, if you counted Ann and Nancy, and she didn't think they'd believe her anyway.
"No?" asked Steve. "You sure? Because they seem to know you."
"They don't," she said. "I swear they don't."
"You know what I heard?" Jimmy said with the same high-pitched false casualness. "When I was a kid, my pa'd tell me stories about how fairies could hide themselves with glamour—make themselves look however they wanted. They'd just slide on into towns and farms and whatever, with no one the wiser, and once they were in…." He drew a finger across his neck, mimicking the spray of blood with a gesture at the end.
"Oh," said Kitty. "I never heard that. I heard that they couldn't touch iron, though, without it burning them. Did you hear that one?" She reached conspicuously for the iron buckle on her belt, clutching it tightly.
"Yeah," said Lindsey, her eyes cold. "I heard that one. But did you hear what that werewolf said the other day? 'We're not fairies,' he said. So I guess that means there's all kinds of horrible things out there, and maybe some of them can touch iron just like humans."
The three of them stood, anger in every line of their bodies, and Kitty wondered, almost disbelieving, Would they hurt me? To think of all that had passed between them…but then, if she had really given them away to whatever creatures roamed this land, she would have betrayed them far more grievously. She weighed the benefits and downsides in her mind for only a moment before deciding—she had to tell them the truth. "Please," she said, "I need to tell you something."
Lindsey's face softened a fraction, but only a fraction, and her eyes were still accusing. "What?"
Kitty shot a nervous look around the camp, with their suspicious expressions and gestures against evil, and said, "Not here."
They refused to enter Kitty's tent, and Kitty remembered some nonsense folk tale about not accepting hospitality from a fairy, lest they trap you in their kingdom with magical obligation. She couldn't decide whether she wanted to laugh or cry at the thought that her friends—her friends, the people who'd taught her to hold a sword, and helped her build the muscles in her arms, and fought for her with Morrissey—could possibly think she was some supernatural monster. She forced all her emotion down her throat. She understood their fear.
They made their way to Jimmy's tent, which was cluttered but closer than either Lindsey's or Steve's, and Kitty told them the whole story, everything she knew about Ann and Nancy and that night in their forest.
When she was finished, she glanced around the tent to gauge their expressions. Lindsey's face was carefully neutral; Jimmy looked vaguely disturbed; Steve was incredulous.
"Wait a minute," he said. "So you mean there's some, some mark on you telling the rotting fairies to leave you alone?"
"I guess," said Kitty. "I don't know what it is, but they just kind of get near me and then…go away."
"We noticed," Jimmy said with raised eyebrows.
"Look," she said, "I didn't ask them to do it, and if I could get them to take it back, I would. I'm not a traitor. It kills me that our men keep getting hurt, and if there was anything I could do to stop it…I'm not off, you know, running out to the woods and telling the centaurs to attack."
"I guess not," said Lindsey with a laugh.
"Well, wait, let's think about this a little." Steve stood up and started pacing, frowning in thought. "Let's say for a second that they didn't mark you. Because you don't remember them putting a spell on you, right?" At Kitty's nod, he continued, "Plus, if they'd actually made you, I don't know, a friend of the fairies, it would have changed you. You'd be different."
Different than what? Kitty couldn't help but think that she was a lot different from the girl who'd met Ann and Nancy in the forest that night, but she didn't think that was what Steve meant, and besides, he and the others didn't seem suspicious of her anymore, so she kept her silence and nodded again.
"Right," said Steve. "So, if it isn't in you, this mark must be…a token, or something, something they gave you."
"What kind of token?" asked Lindsey with a frown.
He shrugged. "I don't know. But whatever it was, it's something she would have had then and still has now."
"Not just something I have," Kitty said, "but something that I carry out into battle with me."
"Good thinking," Steve said, pointing at her as if she'd said something brilliant. "So! What would that be?"
"It's not the horse or any of the gear," said Jimmy. "That's all new."
"My clothes are new, too," Kitty added. "Well, except for my belt. But…I mean, the belt's the same as it's always been."
"What about the stuff in it?" Lindsey's face abruptly took on some of the sharpness it had lost earlier, but there was nothing hostile in it now—she looked alert, like she'd caught the scent of something she was hunting. "The stuff in your belt pouch, I mean. You have one, right?"
"Well, yes." She reached down to pull it off. "I mostly just keep my money in it, though. I think I'd have noticed if there was some fairy—tree spirit—token in it."
Steve reached out to grab it. "Maybe you would and maybe you wouldn't," he said, and he spilled the pouch out onto his bedroll, sending coins rolling out. There weren't that many—Pearl had taken almost all of Kitty's money, and keeping her fed was taking up most of the rest of it at present. All that was left were a few coppers and…a golden leaf?
Kitty bent to stare at it, vaguely aware that Lindsey and Steve were doing the same on either side of her. It was as perfectly veined and shaped as a real leaf, but it shone like metal, and when she reached hesitantly to touch it, it felt like metal as well.
"Fuck a duck," Jimmy said under his breath, reaching over the other three to pick up the leaf. "Feels like a coin," he reported.
"Put it down, you idiot!" Steve stood up quickly to knock it out of Jimmy's hand. "They didn't give it to you, they gave it to Kitty. What if it has a curse on it so people won't steal it, huh? Did you ever think of that?"
"Shit, I wasn't stealing it," said Jimmy disgustedly. "Keep your pants on, Mother." When he shot another look down at the leaf, however, his eyes were worried.
"Well…" Kitty began nervously, "what should I do with it? You think maybe if I threw it out into the woods, that would do it? Make the fairies realize that I'm not under their protection anymore? Or maybe if we put it in the fire?"
"The fire, maybe," said Lindsey, but Steve shook his head.
"It's like you all got hit with the stupid stick," he said. "Didn't you ever listen to your mama's bedtime stories? If there's one thing you don't do with fairy gifts, it's fucking with them. It'd be like when that king and queen didn't invite the witch to their daughter's name-day, and she got offended and cursed the baby to death. How much more pissed do you think those tree spirits would get if you ruined a gift they gave you?"
Kitty was about to ask how they'd even know she'd destroyed it, but it occurred to her that she didn't know how the werewolves and centaurs had been able to sense the leaf in her belt pouch and what it meant, either, so maybe fairy creatures had ways of knowing things that humans couldn't even imagine. "What should I do, then?" she asked.
Steve knelt on the floor and, using the corner of his tunic as a shield between the leaf and his fingers, picked the leaf up and handed it to her. "Hold onto it, I guess," he said, "and hope we don't get attacked again."
It wasn't much of a hope. The whole caravan veered east in hopes of avoiding invading bands of magical creatures from the Mountain Forest, but they still spotted little winged things spying on them from the trees and saw the tracks of unnaturally large wolves clustered outside their campsites. They were losing men to more than injuries, now—soldiers were running off in the night, one or two at a time, and Morrissey's expression was cloudier every morning.
They stopped for the night at a good-sized village called Sawyer in order to stock up on supplies, find some real healers for the injured men, and hopefully do a little recruiting. Kitty took advantage of the opportunity to spend her last few coins on a real bed for the night and a bath.
There were few people in the inn's common room. Doubtless, Kitty thought, the town had fewer visitors than usual these days, what with all the werewolves and centaurs prowling the surrounding lands.
The serving maid seemed almost pathetically grateful to have another customer, and the meal she brought Kitty was far, far more plentiful and luxurious than she would have expected for the money. As the woman bent over the table to take plates of roast beef and cheese pasties and spiced pork-and-apple tarts from the tray, she also gave Kitty a spectacular view of her ample bosom.
Kitty instantly felt a flush of warm blood coloring her face, and she looked down to stare at the food and thanked the maid as politely as she could until the woman went away. How disgusting, she thought, mentally kicking herself, to ogle the poor woman like that! It would never have occurred to her to stare at a woman's breasts like that before sleeping with Lindsey. Then again, she thought, it wasn't as if there were many breasts to see at the nunnery, besides her own. She decided to push the whole incident from her mind and devote her attention entirely to the food, which looked delicious.
She succeeded so spectacularly that she didn't even notice the woman drawing up beside her until a female voice said, "She's pretty, isn't she?"
Kitty choked on a bite of her cheese pasty and turned her head. Sitting next to her was a woman she'd absent-mindedly noticed sitting on the other side of the common room, a slender, dark-haired woman with freckles across her face that made her look younger than she probably was.
The stranger laughed. "Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to startle you." She waited for Kitty to swallow the lump of cheese in her throat before saying, "The serving maid, Edele. She's pretty, right?" She gave Kitty a helpless smile. "I noticed you, earlier." Leaning closer, she said in a conspiratorial tone, "Don't worry, I'm very good at being discreet. I'm the sort who notices a pretty girl, too."
"Oh." Kitty couldn't decide whether to be mortified that someone had noticed her blushing at the sight of a woman's chest or elated that she had found another woman like herself. How many were there, she wondered? Suppose there were some back at the Order? Suppose Mother Phyllis was like her? Such a possibility could scarcely even be contemplated.
"I'm Victoria," the other woman said, flipping a lock of glossy brown hair back over her shoulder.
"Kitty," said Kitty. And then, to change the subject to something more easily discussed in public, she asked, "Are you from Sawyer?"
Victoria took a sip of her ale and shook her head. "Kor," she said.
"I've been there. It's lovely," said Kitty politely. "What brings you here?"
"You mean when everyone else is packing their bags and heading south, away from the fairies?" Victoria's expression was light, but her tone…Kitty couldn't quite interpret it. It seemed curious, maybe even challenging, under a veneer of wry humor.
"I didn't say that."
"You didn't have to." Victoria sipped again at her ale, wiping her mouth clean of foam. "I saw you when you came down here, too. Looking around the room, figuring out that there aren't nearly as many people in this inn as there ought to be."
There was something irritating about this, as if Victoria knew more about Kitty's mind than she herself did, so she let herself sound a little testy as she said, "All right then. Why are you here, when all the werewolves and whatnot seem to want to attack everything and everyone they find?"
Victoria let out an amused huff of air. "I came here to meet someone," she said. "A friend of a friend, you could say." She set down her ale and reached for a grape on Kitty's plate. "You going to eat that?"
"Take it," said Kitty irritably. "Is this something you do often? Sit down with strangers, act mysterious, and take their food?"
The other woman laughed at that. "Only when the strangers are pretty. Especially when they're pretty hired mercenaries. I don't see very many of those these days."
"Well, if they're there, I'm sure you find them," said Kitty. This woman didn't seem to be fazed by anything—some of the townswomen had drawn the Giver's Path over their hearts or gripped at protection charms when they saw Lindsey and Kitty and Jessicka ride out with their bows and leather armor, but Victoria, despite her words, acted as if she saw women warriors every day, as if she'd seen enough and knew enough that nothing surprised her anymore. "Hey," Kitty said, a thought occurring to her. "You seem to know just about everything about everything." Ignoring Victoria's chuckle, she asked, "Do you know why there are so many strange creatures about? I rode south from near the Briopian border just a few months ago, and I didn't hear anything about fairy attacks."
"Well," said Victoria thoughtfully, "I couldn't say much about what the werewolves are thinking. I mean, who knows what goes on in a beast's head? Might as well ask a thundercloud what it thinks. But I can tell you that I've heard a little something about the Queen."
"The Queen?" asked Kitty, confused.
Victoria nodded. "Yeah. Word is, she's finishing up marriage negotiations with Par."
"Marriage?" Kitty had never heard anything about the Queen's getting married. She made a mental note to ask Jill if she'd heard anything from the Parian end.
"Mm-hmm. To a Parian prince, one with a navy like you've never seen or heard of in your life. And from what I hear, the Parians have a sort of peace with the fairy creatures down south—selkies, mermaids, that kind of thing. But that obviously wouldn't work if he married our Queen, now, would it? The people wouldn't stand her being married into a people of fairy-lovers."
"I suppose not," said Kitty, feeling vaguely troubled. Ann and Nancy sprang, unbidden, to her mind, in all their dignity and righteous anger, and she tried to banish them with a sip of her own ale.
"Of course not," Victoria continued. "So probably the marriage contract will include something about the Parian navy wiping out all those selkies and mermaids, and maybe something about Parian troops to take on the fairies in the Mountain Woods." She shrugged. "If I were a fairy, maybe I'd think now was the time to strike. Before the Queen's Army gets too big to be conquered by anyone."
"You make it sound like a war," Kitty said cautiously. She'd always thought fairies were a thing of the past, stories told to scare children or a few remnants of a dying breed. The way Victoria talked, though, made them sound like a country planning on invading.
"Honey," she said, "I'm pretty sure it is a war. Or it's going to be, anyway." She leaned back and gave Kitty another enigmatic smile. "But what do I know? I'm just a clerk from a Korian counting-house."
Kitty snorted, more rudely than she'd intended but no more than she felt. "Just a clerk, my ass."
Victoria's smile grew, warmed into something less enigmatic and more real. "D'you know, Kitty, I think I like you." She beckoned the barmaid over for another round of ale, saying to Kitty, "What do you say we find something a little more pleasant than fairies to talk about?"
Kitty felt a brief moment of panic at the flirtatious note in Victoria's voice, but only a brief one. After all, she thought, she'd managed all right with Lindsey. And if she could manage that without getting her heart broken or going mad with guilt, surely she could handle just about anything.
The morning saw her a bit wiser in the arts of cunnilingus, though not much wiser so far as Victoria's story was concerned. Kitty'd bet anything she owned or loved that Victoria was no counting-house clerk, but the woman was clearly uninterested in talking about her past, and, well, Kitty could certainly respect that. All in all, she thought, the trip to Sawyer was a success—she was well-fed, well-bathed, and well-fucked, the caravan had picked up a handful of soldiers (not as many as Morrissey had wanted, but more than Kitty would have thought he'd find), and Lindsey and Jessicka looked faintly proud when they realized how Kitty had spent the night. Plus, Kitty, thought, she might have a new friend in Victoria, assuming they ever met again.
The trip north seemed to be going a bit more smoothly, as well. The road was mostly clear of human bandits, who were probably avoiding the open country for fear of fairies, but they were free from supernatural attacks, too. The tense mood in the camp started to ease, and if the bulk of the soldiers weren't terribly keen on Kitty's company, well, that wasn't so surprising, and as long as Jill and the camp followers stood by her and her friends, well, Kitty was content.
Even the weather seemed better, getting cooler and drier the farther north they went. The North wasn't a fantastic place in the winter, Kitty knew from experience, but it was lovely in the summer. They were some fifty miles east of the Order of Order, too, so she didn't have to worry about running into a familiar face on the road. Not that they'd recognize her, she thought, but it was one more load off her mind.
"Maybe it was just a phase, like the weather," Cassadee said, when they got to talking about the fortunate lack of supernatural attackers. "Aren't the werewolves controlled by the moon or something? Maybe…maybe something in the stars got them and all the others riled up, but it's over now, and they all went back where they came from."
"Good thinking, Moon Maiden," Thao said, making the women around the fire laugh.
Kitty poked at the fire with a stick, feeling strangely restless. "Maybe," she said, but for some reason, with the moon a sickly yellow overhead and her odd conversation with Victoria still clear and sharp in her head, she couldn't think that all their troubles were behind them yet.
Two days later, the sun rose blood-red over the horizon. "Red sky at night, sailors' delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning," Cassadee recited. She frowned. "I can't remember why they're supposed to take warning, though. Something to do with wind, I think."
"Well, thanks for that, Mother." Tanya rolled her eyes. "You're a regular font of wisdom."
Take warning. Something prickled at the base of Kitty's spine, and she put down her bowl of barley meal on the pile with the other dirty dishes. "Anyone seen Jill?" she asked. "I want to ask her something."
"She's back in her wagon," Swati said, standing up. Though her tone was light, her eyebrows were drawn together in concern. "I brought her breakfast earlier. What'd you want to ask her?"
Kitty shrugged. "I don't know," she said. "I just have a bad feeling."
Maybe a few months ago, the women would have laughed. But these days, bad feelings got taken pretty seriously, and they worked together to clean up the plates from breakfast as quickly as they could, not wanting to be caught off guard by anything.
She didn't know if it was the leaf in her belt pouch or some kind of newly-developed sense of danger jabbing at her nerves, but whatever it was, it proved true. Around mid-morning, an arrow, white as a moonbeam and slender as a willow whip, hit Jersey's horse right through the head before anyone had even heard it coming. The horse fell over, dead, and if Jersey hadn't been so quick to jump, he'd have been crushed under its weight.
Immediately, the camp erupted into chaos. The frightened merchants retreated to their wagons while the camp followers took their bows and arrows behind the cover of the caravan and the soldiers calmed the terrified horses as best they could, grabbing whatever weapons and armor were close at hand before circling the caravan to face the enemy.
Any hope that they were facing human bandits died in Kitty's chest as she blinked back tears in the bright morning light. The people—if you could call them people—in front of her glowed with a faint, unearthly light, as if each was lit from within by his or her own personal star. They were dressed in armor that looked like leaves and tree bark, which should have made them look shabby and wild, but instead made them look as if the forest had sent them out in a tide of warriors, a unified wave of tree-soldiers.
An unexpected burst of…what was it? Sadness? Desperation? Confusion?...wracked Kitty's heart. Remember that, not so long ago, our folk were friends. That was what Ann and Nancy had said, all those months ago, giving her a token of their own friendship to keep her safe. Surely, surely they would understand that she had a right to defend her friends, her people, but at the same time, guilt pierced her at the thought of repaying their kindness by attacking, well, tree people. For all she knew, they were related somehow to the tree spirits in the forest. For all she knew, today she might kill someone dear to them, make them regret they had ever extended a hand of peace. Rot them, why had they done it to begin with?
Perhaps so she'd have thoughts just such as the ones she was having, making her hands tremble as she brought an arrow to her bow.
She let it fly, and it joined the hail of arrows from the others, falling on the fairy army surrounding them. Some of them hit flesh. More of them didn't. The fairies had a way of stepping aside at the last moment, letting the arrows pass them by as if they were shadows. With calm, implacable expressions, they let fly more slender white arrows. Men and horses screamed, and Kitty shuddered, trying to block out their cries and grip her bow as the foe advanced.
"Fire at will!" Morrissey shouted, and they all fired again, over and over, but the arrows passed through the fairies without causing any more than a few wounds. The fairies closest to Kitty eyed her with curious, resentful expressions.
And then the fairies were upon them, quick as the wind. Considering how few of them there were, they seemed to be everywhere, slashing and stabbing. Everywhere except where Kitty and Pearl stood.
Giver curse it. Would Kitty be the only one left? Not if she could help it. She rode into the midst of the battle, yelling a battle cry in a fierce voice she didn't even recognize as her own.
She caught one fairy under the ribs with her knife, piercing his bark-armor with enough force to make him—her?—stagger back, and he or she glared at her before vanishing into thin air like a sun-vision when you got too close. Another was slashing at Susan's legs—but Susan was a fierce horse. She kicked one away while Kitty jabbed one in the back with her spear, leaving Lindsey free to shoot at the others surrounding her.
"Thanks," Lindsey panted. "The others?"
Kitty shot a quick glance around. Jimmy'd lost his horse, but he seemed to be holding his own well enough with his sword, grinning manically as he whirled in the middle of a knot of green-clad fairies. Steve, Steve, where was he….there, there he was, swinging his axe from horseback, making the fairies around him scatter. Relieved, Kitty turned to look in the other direction. At first, she saw no sign of Jessicka, and thought to ride around to the other side of the caravan, when out of the corner of her eye she saw it—long, dark hair against the trampled green of the grass. Jessicka was lying on the ground, and a tall fairy stood over her.
It—he or she--had wounded her in the leg, left her bleeding on the ground, and now threatened to kill her with a sweep of his or her cruel sword—not metal, but as long and brown and sharp as a dark thorn. Kitty shot at the fairy, and the sword swung in the air, knocking the arrow to one side as easily as if she'd thrown a stick at it. Lindsey was already turning in Jessicka's direction, her relief turning into alarm, but there wasn't time to wait. Kitty pressed her knees into Pearl's sides, urging her on. Sensing danger, perhaps, or simply tired of fighting, Pearl refused to go any further when they got within twenty feet of Jessicka and the fairy, so Kitty dismounted and ran as fast as she could. Her breath pounded in her chest, and her thoughts flowed in and out as quickly as the air in her lungs, burning just as much.
If I'm going to have this gift, she thought, what better use could I put it to than to save someone else? And with that, she stepped between Jessicka's fallen body and the downward swing of the fairy's blade, closing her eyes and waiting for the blow to fall if it would.
There was a long moment of silence, and Kitty tentatively opened her eyes. "Hmm," said the fairy. "A nice display of selflessness, there. I can almost see what Ann and Nancy were thinking." She couldn't tell from the voice alone whether the fairy was male or female. There didn't seem to be any breasts under the armor, so she went with 'he,' though who knew whether women fairies even had breasts anyway.
"You'll go, then," said Kitty, summoning the courage that had fled at the sight of the sword swinging towards her neck. "You'll leave us alone?"
The fairy sighed. "I said almost." The sword swung again, this time low, cutting through the bottom of Kitty's pouch. Her month's wages, along with the golden leaf Ann and Nancy had given her, fell to the ground. Still pointing his sword at her, the fairy leaned down to pick up the leaf. "I'll just be keeping this," he said. "No sense in giving you one more weapon to beat us with." He flicked the tip of his sword at them. "Go now. If you can."
Kitty didn't wait for a second invitation. A few frantic attempts to get Jessicka off the ground failed almost immediately—the leg wouldn't carry her weight—but it was all right, because Kitty felt the almost giddy strength that came of knowing she had escaped death, and would have to move quickly if she was to escape it again. She picked Jessicka up, slung her over her shoulder, and moved as quickly as she could in a direction she hoped meant safety.
The leg wasn't good. Morrissey called in a real healer from a local village, who came to them laden with charms and wards against evil. Jessicka wasn't the only one wounded—far from it—but she was the most seriously wounded who didn't die within hours of being brought in. Her leg was cut almost through—it was the same one that had been bitten by the werewolf weeks before, and infection had set in, making the whole leg inflamed and red.
Jessicka wouldn't wake up.
Two mornings after the fairy attack, Kitty went to visit her, only to be met with a truly bizarre sight: Lindsey, her sword to the healer's neck, Jimmy and Steve standing nearby hesitating between anger and fear.
"What's going on?" asked Kitty, as casually as she could.
"This bastard," Lindsey gritted out. "I found this bastard getting ready to cut off Jess's leg." Despite her anger, she seemed near tears. "Cut it off. When Jessicka wakes up, how could I tell her that I let some copper-penny quack take her leg?"
The healer bit his lip and said, "Look. The leg's just about been torn off at the knee, here, and it's, it's a rotting cauldron of infection. The question's not whether she's going to lose the leg, now—it's whether she's just going to lose the leg, or whether she'll lose her life, too."
Lindsey didn't let her sword down, until even Steve and Jimmy started to look a little nervous. "Lindsey…." Kitty said gently.
"I know," said Lindsey tightly, and she lowered the sword. Her voice was as sharp as a blade, though, as she said, "You'd better save the rest of her, or you'll have me to deal with."
Jessicka fought off the fever for three days and nights after he took the leg off. For three days and nights, every man in the camp walked around with a face like his father had died. It seemed for all that a woman warrior was a strange and laughable thing, Jessicka was their woman warrior, and they'd already lost so many comrades. For three days and nights, Tanya asked Kitty to help her pray, and Kitty dug up every prayer she could find in the recesses of her memory. For three days and nights, Lindsey and Jimmy and Steve hovered outside the healer's tent, their faces less worried than desperate.
On the fourth morning, Jessicka opened her eyes, sighed, and said, "I could eat a horse."
Kitty had never seen a man cry for joy before, let alone two. She pondered saving the memory for a time she needed a quip in a light-hearted exchange of insults with Jimmy and Steve, but eventually she discarded the idea. Even if they didn't mind, and they weren't the sort to, it wasn't the kind of memory you kept in your reserve of insults. It was the kind of memory you kept back for the days you needed to remind yourself that there was love in the world.
On the fifth morning, while Jimmy and Steve were telling Jessicka a funny story, Lindsey and Kitty were listening, and Jill and Cassadee were talking to the healer about what kind of food to feed a woman recovering from fever, Morrissey came to the tent and said, "We're moving on."
The healer frowned and said, "I really don't think she's ready--"
"That's fine," said Morrissey, "because she's not coming."
Half a dozen jaws dropped around the tent. "What exactly are you saying, Morrissey?" asked Jimmy, his voice deceptively calm. Or maybe not so deceptively—the edge was apparent to anyone with even a superficial acquaintance with Jimmy.
"Look, the girl's fought hard, done good work. But I can't pay wages for a one-legged man, much less a one-legged woman." He couldn't seem to meet anyone's eyes as he produced a small pouch of money from his belt and tossed it to the floor next to Jessicka's cot. "There, now," he said. "Let's part friends and have an end of it."
"That's not fair," Cassadee began, but Lindsey clearly wasn't in the mood to wait her turn to speak.
"Let's part friends and have an end of it?" she asked, her voice rising in outrage. "Listen, dickweed, leg or no leg, Jessicka's a better fighter than any ten of the fucking bunglers you hired in Kor, and if you think you're gonna--"
"He's right," said Jessicka dully. "How am I supposed to fight now?"
"Uh, that crossbow you keep in your pack?" Steve suggested. "Throwing knives? I hear they can make you wooden legs these days, and I will get those fucking fiddlemakers to make you one, don't think I can't do it."
"I can't get on a horse," said Jessicka, staring at the stump where her leg had been. Her voice was as melancholy as Kitty had ever heard her. She winced and thought about the day they'd met, Jessicka's friendly smile and easy laugh, how Kitty had looked at her like a hero in a poem, not like a real woman whose body and dreams were as fragile as anyone's. How quickly things could change. "Morrissey's right," Jessicka continued. "If you're going to make Sudul before winter, you have to cross the Briopian border soon. I'd just hold you up."
Morrissey gestured as if to say, See, even she agrees with me, and Cassadee appeared to have the wind knocked from her sails, but Lindsey was not about to back down. She reached to pick up the money pouch and poured it on the ground. It was mostly copper, with a few silvers. "Say you are right, Morrissey," Lindsey said. "Say Jess can't fight anymore. What is this bullshit?" She gestured at the pile of money, which looked smaller and more pathetic the more Kitty looked at it. Barely enough to pay the healer for another week's services if Jessicka had to pay for her own food and lodging as well.
Lindsey glared fiercely up and said, "She and I came here five years ago—this is what you give a new boy when he breaks an ankle and you drop him off at his mother's. When Matt got that shoulder wound, you sent him off with a pound of gold. When Ben got it in the eye, you gave his wife and children a whole pissing pile of money. Jessicka gets injured fighting for you and this is the gratitude you show her?"
The chief shrugged uncomfortably. "We're short on money, and you and I both know she doesn't have a family to support."
Everyone was too appalled to speak for a long moment. Finally, Jimmy stood and said, "Fuck it! You don't want Jessicka, well, I don't want you. I quit."
"Me, too," said Lindsey hotly.
Steve looked from one of them to the other and then rolled his eyes before turning to Morrissey. "Well, I guess I quit, too. This caravan is just gonna have to get along without the Steve Right touch, so, you know, good luck with that."
"This is fucking ridiculous," said Morrissey with a scowl. "Just because--"
"Oh, don't," Jessicka said.
Jimmy looked at her pertly and said, "My, you're just interrupting everybody today."
"It's bad enough that I don't have a job, but you guys…." Jessicka struggled to sit up. Lindsey was still sitting by her cot, hovering over the little pile of money, and Jessicka put a hand on her shoulder. "Linds," she said, "don't give this up for me. You know you won't find another gig this good anytime soon."
Lindsey lifted her chin stubbornly. "Piss on that, Jess," she said. "You and me, we're family. You don't have a job, I don't have a job."
"Giver preserve us from idiots and women," said Morrissey. "Fine, quit, see if I care." Without even looking back at the four warriors he'd lost in the span of a few minutes, he stomped out of the tent.
In the moment of silence that followed, Jill cleared her throat. "Excuse me," she said. "But who said that you don't have a job?" Everyone turned to stare at her, including the healer, who was in the process of putting a cool compress on Jessicka's forehead. Jill smiled at them serenely and said, "I think I'll be leaving this caravan soon—the journey to Sudul is a long one for little profit, and I think I could have much better luck on the east coast. I find myself in need of a guard to take me there." She squinted thoughtfully. "Four, perhaps, to ride, once I am ready to leave, and one to stay in the wagon in case any brigand should make it past the other four."
Jessicka looked at Jill as if her heart was breaking. "I couldn't do that, Madam Scott," she said. "I wouldn't want to leech off your charity."
"What charity?" Jill asked. "Your fever has not yet gone away, and maybe that's why an intelligent woman like you has not yet realized that your friends are right. Do you think your life ends because your leg is gone? Do you think there's nothing you can do? Bullshit. You never shot an arrow with your legs. And what part of her body does a strategist use but her head?" Her voice softened, and she put a hand on Jessicka's shoulder. "And if, when we reach the coast, you decide that being a warrior isn't the path you choose anymore, well, you'll see your new path more clearly if you look at it with clear eyes and a clear mind. Nothing has ended yet."
"Kitty," she said, and she turned to Kitty. "I noticed that you have not quit here. Yet."
The eyes that had been on Jessicka suddenly swiveled to look at Kitty, and she felt herself suddenly on shaky ground. How could she possibly leave the friends who'd helped her so much—Lindsey, who'd taught her so much about fighting and sex and herself, Jimmy and Steve, who'd helped to get her a job she'd always wanted, Jessicka, who'd spoken up for her? And at the same time, how could she possibly leave Cassadee and Patti and Swati and Thao and all the rest—the first real friends she'd ever had, who'd taken her in on trust and nothing more?
"Jill," she started, "I--"
"You should do it," Cassadee said in a small voice. Suddenly, the attention was on her, and she swallowed deeply and mustered up a ghost of her usual sunny smile.
"Cass…." Kitty hoped she didn't start burst out crying, and she took a couple of deep breaths before continuing. "I can't just leave you. I mean, you're…." She wasn't sure how well 'you're like the little sister I never had' would go over with Cassadee, so she said simply, "I love you, you know?"
Cassadee nodded quickly, visibly blinking tears from her own eyes. "I know. I know. Me, too. But when are you gonna get another chance like this? Not anytime soon. We don't go to the coast that often—just north and south, north and south, same rotten roads over and over, and it's okay for me, it's like home, but for you…." She shrugged. "I dunno. When you first got here, I thought you were a road kind of girl, like me, but now I think maybe you wouldn't be happy doing this forever. Maybe you need a bigger kind of adventure."
Kitty really was crying now. "I am like you," she said. "Remember? That's what you said back then. I was your sort."
"Of course," Cassadee said, her own mouth twisted down at one corner. "You are. Always, and that wouldn't change wherever you were." And then, in a movement so quick that Kitty half-expected an attack, she wrapped her arms around Kitty in a tight embrace, burying her face in Kitty's neck and sobbing twice, leaving a warm wet trail on Kitty's skin before darting out of the tent.
Jill stood up and peered out of the tent after her. "I'll offer her a job, too, but I don't think she'll take it," she said. "She's happy here, I think. But you, Kitty…." She shrugged. "Think about it. Talk to the others. Regardless of what that brute of a man says, he will not leave today. The rest of the merchants are not prepared. It would make me happy if you were to come with me, but even if you don't, you will always have my friendship."
"Thank you," Kitty managed to choke out, feeling completely lost.
Jill nodded and gave her a brief, distracted smile. "Well. If I'm to leave the wagon train, I have all kinds of things to arrange back at my wagon. I hope you all will excuse me."
"You're the boss now, ma'am," said Jimmy. "Don't feel like you have to hang around on our account."
When Jill had left, Kitty wiped her face with her hands and took deep breaths until the pain and love in her heart had faded in intensity from a burn to a bruise. As soon as she thought she had her face under control, she turned to the others in the tent and looked at them, trying to figure out whether, on the off-chance she decided to go, they would even welcome her to this new, small guard. Regardless of how she felt about them, she was still a new, relatively inexperienced fighter. For that matter, she was still the one who'd made a bargain with a pair of ancient, dangerous tree spirits. It would have been totally within their rights not to want to have to worry about her, to say, "Kitty---"
It was Lindsey. Her expression was sympathetic. "What?" asked Kitty.
"What, she asks," said Jimmy. "What do you think?"
"You leaning towards coming on this zany adventure out east, or what?" asked Steve. "I mean, I think I'm gonna take her up on it—it's not like we got anything better to do. But as far as I know, you still have a job."
"I don't know," Kitty said. "I mean, would you even…." Want me to come? But she couldn't finish the question. It sounded too whiny, too unsure, too little-girl. Even if that's the way she was feeling, she certainly didn't want to inflict her insecurity on friends who had bigger problems to worry about.
Apparently, though, she didn't even need to finish the sentence, because Lindsey was already drawing near to her, touching her shoulder hesitantly as if she wasn't sure she had the right to touch Kitty. "Kitty," she said, "If you don't want to come, if you want to stay with Cassadee and the others, I'd totally understand. But you saved Jess, and as far as I'm concerned, that makes you family. Of course we want you along." The hand on her shoulder squeezed gently, and the look in Lindsey's eyes was tender in a way Kitty had never seen, even in the afterglow of sex. It warmed Kitty's heart in a way that had nothing to do with romance and everything to do with love.
"Shit, yeah," said Jimmy, and Steve nodded, and they, too, were looking at her like they really liked her, didn't want to go away without her.
Kitty shot a look over at Jessicka, who was looking thoughtfully down at her hands. As if sensing Kitty's scrutiny, she looked up. "Hey," she said with a ghost of her former smile. "Where there's life, there's hope, I guess." She looked over at Steve. "So. Wooden legs?"
"I can make it happen," Steve said, and Jimmy made a rude noise.
Lindsey laughed, soft but real, and something clicked in Kitty's heart. She would always love Cassadee like a sister, and admire Patti. She would always care for all of them. And if Cassadee was the only one who thought she should go, if the others all wanted her to stay, she would. But they didn't need her, not really, and as strange as it seemed…she thought that maybe she had a place here, with this little group of oddball warriors, a small but necessary part to play.
Nothing has ended yet, she thought, recalling Jill's words. Maybe it's all just beginning.