Kisea paused at a crossroads, squinting at the sign in the gloom of a drizzly and heavily overcast late afternoon, and finally running her fingers over the rain-slick wooden boards to check the shapes of the characters.
Straight ahead or to the east, there was no way she'd reach the next village today. If she turned to the west, though, it was no more than a couple of miles. She wasn't happy about going any deeper into human-dominated lands than this road had already led her; the broad disputed areas along the borders tended to be friendlier to those who fell through the cracks. On the other hand, she had enough coin on her to pay for a meal and a bed for the night, and ready cash tended to change attitudes. She was fairly sure she was skirting along the Jordan province by now, and she had a much better chance of being safe there than she would in the Larkin province. Ironically, the same thing that made Jordan somewhat safer for crossbreeds meant she dared not stay long, but for a few hours, the chances were very low.
The alternatives were walking all night, or sleeping on soggy leaves or needles in whatever shelter she could improvise. Again.
She turned west.
At least, not long past midsummer, it wasn't cold. She could count her sturdy waxed-leather boots as a blessing, too, a gift from a cobbler: she'd cured his daughter of recurrent nightmares that kept the whole household from sleeping through a night and left the girl terrified of her bed. Her calf-length hooded coat of tightly-woven and felted wool with the oil intact likewise had been a gift: the much-loved husband of a skilled weaver had been kicked in the head by a cow, which had made him prone to bursts of aggressive anger until Kisea had minimized the damage. Most of her belongings were either directly thanks-gifts or bought with outright coin from those who had nothing she needed.
They didn't care how she did it. She was a telepath, and she healed minds where other telepaths had failed or refused to try, and that was all that mattered to them. She doubted very much that most of them would have cared in the least how badly the Telepath Assembly would like get to their hands on her.
Not that she had any intention of obliging the Assembly. Ever.
She trudged onwards, head down. Farmers would be blessing the thin rain, which would saturate everything and make the plants grow madly with harvest approaching. Even knowing that, she wished it would go away. Days like this, her mood usually matched her surroundings; she found herself brooding on the injustices in her life that had led to her endlessly walking the hundreds of miles of road that crisscrossed the North. Everything she owned, she carried, because she had no home to leave anything else in and no friends she dared trust. Being born to a human mother and a siren father had been no choice of hers, nor was her highly unusual psychic gift. Human-siren crosses often turned up strong telepathic abilities, after all, and sometimes they were variants on the common ones. Her vagabond existence could be traced directly back to those two facts, especially the latter.
And yet, it was a part of her, and she would die before letting anyone tear it away from her.
Even if it meant hiking in weather like this.
Lights, ahead. Not many of them, but any light was welcome as a sign of shelter.
As she drew closer, she stifled a sigh. This was a very small village, probably not much more than a hundred people all told. There would probably be a tavern of some sort—locals always wanted a place to drink and socialize, and there'd be the occasional party of travellers through—but probably not rooms to rent. That meant the tavern floor.
Well, at least it should, in theory, be dry.
The village buildings clustered primarily around a crossroads with a couple of secondary roads that supported more houses. The ones in the very centre would be the businesses that catered to the farmers who owned, not particular fields, but generations-old right and responsibility for strips of land in multiple fields that varied in best use. It was nonetheless easy enough to identify the single-story building she wanted, made of the ever-available wood that provided all village structures, the shutters closed against the damp. The branch hung over the door, off a faded sign she couldn't read, still had a couple of green leaves on it: new ale, not all that long ago.
She lifted the primitive latch and went inside, grateful the moment she stepped across the threshold for the respite from the rain. She pushed the door shut, against some resistance since either hinges or wood had warped slightly, and turned to face the room.
With the hearth-fire aided only by inexpensive tallow candles in wall sconces, the room was patchy gloom not much better than outside. It was less so near the hearth, which was inevitably where most of the current patrons had collected. She could see a little better than a human could, enough so to get a clearer impression of the room than anyone in it would gain of her.
One square room, which occupied the full ground floor. Four long tables on trestles were arranged in a cross with the ends pointing to the corners; in one space between the arms was the hearth, with a cast iron cauldron over it on a metal arm, and in the opposite was a small counter in front of a few barrels stacked in a neat frame. The door she'd used was in a third space between arms, and directly across from it was another door, which probably led to a privy and any outbuildings.
Kisea had seen places like it before. Often, rather than belonging to any individual, they belonged to a group of women as a cooperative venture. The woman who was serving might do that regularly, or might be taking her turn, depending on the local division of labour.
The patrons were clustered along the two tables that stood nearest the hearth. Overwhelmingly human: earth-coloured hair, sun-weathered skin, sturdy build, practical trousers and shirts in solid colours of muted dyes. The sole woman stood out like a goat among sheep, pausing in the act of filling a cup from an earthenware pitcher; she wore a simple chemise and bodice and long heavy skirt, tendrils of her greying beaver-brown hair escaping from the intricately-braided multicoloured net that attempted to confine it.
The sole other non-human was equally obvious, though he'd chosen a seat far from the noisy group by the hearth, at the end of one of the other arms of the cross: black hair, pale skin that saw the sun much less often than that of most humans, rangier build though details were hard to see under the tooled dark leather of the padded jerkin he wore. Interestingly, he wasn't alone; with him were a middle-aged local and a younger one.
Kisea, ignoring several dozen pairs of eyes watching her, made her way to the end of the fourth table, as far from everyone else as she could manage. With considerable relief she let her willow-framed leather pack slide off her shoulders. She'd have liked to keep her hood up, but her coat had picked up enough moisture to be growing uncomfortable, so she unfastened the carved wooden buttons and shrugged out of it. In this lighting, her elbow-length braided hair, the red of Southern paprika, might pass for deep brown if she was lucky.
“Here, I'll hang that near the hearth for you,” the woman said sympathetically, and Kisea let her take it, not without a faint twinge—without a decent coat, travelling in the North was suicidal, and one of that quality wouldn't be easy to replace. “Man outside still with beasts?”
“No,” Kisea said. “Just me. The companion I was travelling with expected more than I was willing to offer in trade for his company and protection.” Let her assume she meant sexual favours. “Since I really need to get where I'm going, I've had to take a chance on travelling alone.” More accurately, she needed to not be where she was last. “I give you my word, I'm not a harlot or a thief, and I'm not after anything but a dry place to sleep tonight and something warm to eat.”
The woman regarded her doubtfully for a moment, her surface thoughts shouting to Kisea that she had strong reservations about her intentions, then shrugged. “Not sure if you're brave or desperate or foolhardy, on the road by yourself, but it's your own business. I'll bring you a meal. There's no rooms to rent, here, just space by the hearth overnight. A penny for both.”
“Which is far better than outside. Thank you.” Kisea slid a hand under her long outer tunic and, by feel, freed a silver penny from the lining of her belt.
The coin magically alleviated any further questions; the woman bore Kisea's coat away to hang neatly to dry. Kisea dropped wearily into the bench, wishing she could have her back closer against the wall both for security and so she had something to lean against. She took a chance, let her eyes close for a moment. She wasn't going to get a chance to strip to the skin and dry self and clothing thoroughly, but the sturdy wool of her coat and even of her trousers and tunic had kept her linen chemise and drawers and tooled-leather bodice from anything more than the humidity that permeated everything. The tunic's three-quarter sleeves had allowed the exposed wrists of her chemise to get wet, but that would dry quickly.
She opened her eyes again as her mental senses gave her a proximity warning; the woman set a tray, really nothing more than a flat board, in front of her, bearing a generously large wooden bowl of thick steaming pottage, a round of dark bread, and a rather coarse pottery mug. Kisea thanked her and fished her own carved wooden spoon from one of the side compartments of her pack.
The pottage had more grains and root vegetables in it than anything else, but then, since it had probably been stewing on that fire with more ingredients added at need for weeks, if not months or years, she had no problem with that. She tore the bread, thick dark rye that would be heavy and filling, into chunks and dipped it into the pottage while it cooled a little. The ale proved to be rather thin and weak, but not much surprise if the better and stronger stuff was saved for the locals; it was safer than water, anyway. She took her time eating, unexciting as it was. For the past several days, she'd had only limited dry biscuit and jerky and even less pemmican and dried fruit, mostly eaten on the move since camping was an exercise in misery. Comparatively, this was an enjoyable change.
Finished, she asked the landlady to watch her pack for her while she made use of the privy, a trip she vowed to make no more often than absolutely necessary. Aside from the unpleasantness of the facilities, it took her closer to the men by the hearth than she liked. Far too many of them turned to watch her, the raucous conversation dropping off briefly before picking back up once she was past.
“She's got red hair,” one hissed, none too quietly, to his friends. That sent the surface impressions she was getting from them, already uncomfortably speculative, into a frenzy of sexual fantasy. She kept her gaze carefully away from them, watching only the floor and her destination, and made her strides long and purposeful with as little sway as possible; her tunic, unbelted, was already loose enough to minimize her curves, to what little extent anything could. A couple called invitations, which she pointedly ignored; she'd learned the hard way that any response at all was encouragement.
The landlady was amenable to Kisea moving one of the benches to the corner, against the wall, and in fact helped her do so. Kisea, with nothing else to do, drew out the bag that held her worn-smooth weaving tablets with her current project and sundry supplies. She unlaced and drew off her boots, setting them under the bench to let them and her feet air out, and arranged herself with the far end of her weaving hooked around one wool-socked foot outstretched on the bench. She attached the other end to the belt under her tunic, and wriggled until her back was against the wall for support. Colourful patterned belts, trim for clothes, and the like could sometimes be bartered, and it didn't add much to the weight of her pack; there was, as well, something soothing about turning the collection of random strands into a neatly-ordered attractive pattern. It was something she could control, something with a beginning and an ending, something wonderfully ordinary and commonplace.
She saw, in fact, the landlady's body-language change, and the surface feelings Kisea got from her smoothed out considerably. The strange red-haired woman travelling alone was, despite her odd behaviour, doing the kind of productive small task that many women did when they had time. The landlady even scolded one of the men for loudly telling an extremely bawdy joke about a female half-siren who worked her way through a series of male livestock looking for a lover who could satisfy her where human men had failed to do so.
Kisea could have told her that she'd already heard it, in multiple variants, including one that made the half-siren male and one that made her other half alasir rather than human. Nor was it the worst 'joke' in circulation about mixed-blood sirens.
Staying quiet, staying calm, keeping any projection tightly under control, meant no 'siren tricks' even involuntarily, as the defence mechanism it had probably originally been. A high sex drive and a different set of values around sex didn't mean what human and alasir fullbloods, the men especially, seemed to enjoy believing it meant.
The alasir, or part-alasir, gave her a courteous nod as he left with the pair he'd dined with. She picked up a faint sense of speculation from him, a feeling of trying to put pieces together; possibly she'd run into him somewhere before, but it was more likely she just reminded him of someone else.
These were farmers, for the most part, and others who worked for a living, and who needed to be up early in the morning; the noisy socializing that in a larger town would have gone on well past the high part of the night wrapped up relatively early, all wandering off to their own beds.
The landlady banked the fire in the hearth, snuffed most of the candles, wished her a good sleep, and left her alone.
Kisea put away her weaving, tucked her pack into the corner to serve as a pillow of sorts, and unstrapped her extra blanket, in its own moisture-resistant wrapping, from the bottom of her pack. Had it been colder, she'd have moved nearer the hearth; as it was, the blanket was enough. She did loosen the lacing on the front of her bodice, just for the extra bit of comfort. The candles would burn out before much longer, so she let them be.
Hard bed though it was, after scant sleep the previous night without shelter and two days of trudging through drizzly gloom, once she'd made sure the knife from her belt was in easy reach she fell asleep quickly.
* * *
Her inner senses shrieked a warning, just before hands grabbed her. Too many hands, large strong ones, seizing on arms and legs, one over her mouth and muffling her scream, hands that tore her blanket aside. She fought, got a leg free to kick hard, felt something soft that was probably an abdomen judging by the lack of bone and the sudden whuff of expelled air, but other hands trapped that leg and more grappled the other one. Fingers dug in painfully in more places than she could quickly count. She couldn't get at her knife, which left her options terrifyingly limited.
One of the men from earlier, the one who had told the joke, wrapped the braid of her hair around one hand, and held the sharp edge of her own knife against her throat.
These were men who could and did slaughter livestock; she had no doubt he knew exactly how to kill her. Everything she sensed was about sex, nothing specifically violent, but moods could change in a heartbeat.
“Settle down. We're just going to give you what your kind always want. Pulling siren tricks, making sure all any of us can think about is fucking you, why are you acting all surprised?”
Kisea surrendered, breath coming in hard pants that were almost sobs, as she tried to consider her options rationally. She could deal with the ringleader, the one with her knife, but she counted nine men around her in total, and there was no way she could affect that many. If she could force even two to turn on the rest, that would probably give her a chance to escape, but there would be consequences later. She wouldn't make it clear of the village before they all came after her in fear and rage, and she might not survive that.
Badly outnumbered and defenceless, her best bet was to just go limp and hope she got through this with minimal injury, though the thought made her feel like vomiting up her meal.
Here we go again. I should've stayed out in the forest, even if I had to sleep outside again.
Lucky boys, picking the one siren who doesn't dare even try to lay rape charges here. The one province where they might actually be heard fairly, and the one place where they'd be more dangerous to me than to you.
One with a hand free reached up under her tunic and found the drawstring of her wool trousers, jerked it loose so roughly she grunted as the strong wide ribbon dug into her lower back. Another hand groped her left breast hard, her hidden anti-scrying charm grinding against flesh.
That's going to leave a horrible bruise.
She heard the door creak as it opened again. Someone late to the party?
“That's enough. Let her go.”
That accent certainly wasn't local.
“She asked for it,” said the ringleader belligerently. “Siren bitch in human lands, messing with our minds, why else unless she wanted this?”
“Then why do you need a knife at her throat?”
Kisea felt several of the hands pinning her loosen slightly, not enough to allow room for escape, but it matched the sudden currents of uncertainty she could sense.
“Playing coy, like all these bitches who run around pretending to be men instead of settling down with a husband.”
“I think not. And siren power is not selective. It does not affect some in a room without affecting all. I felt nothing, nor did my companions, nor did at least half of those present this evening. She is not responsible for the depravity within your mind. You simply use her siren blood as an excuse.”
Kisea definitely knew that accent: Equals Village, the oldest and largest of the mixed-race and crossbreed settlements, some way north of here. Begun by human and alasir, it had developed a creole of its own that mingled the two languages with contributions from others; some learned the original languages as well, but growing up there left an unmistakable mark, akin to but distinct from those of the other dominant mixed settlements.
“Who do you think you are, making accusations like that?”
“Someone armed, who is prepared to inflict damage as necessary to protect an innocent woman from being raped.” That tone left no room for compromise.
“It's not worth getting hurt over,” one of the others muttered to the ringleader.
“How do I explain broken bones to m'wife, or get the harvest in?” another said.
Cautiously, as though she might spring up and attack them, hands released her and the men backed away, most of them turning so they could watch both her and the main door. Kisea rolled off the bench and retreated so she had her back to the wall, her trousers held up with one hand. She had a second knife in a hidden pocket of her pack, but she didn't go after it. Clearly, she'd been rescued, and if only a single man turned on her again, she could defend herself from that.
The alasir-blood who stood there was at least half a head taller than any of them, and looked deceptively casual in the scant light of two guttering candles and the glow of the banked fire. His staff, a length of solid-looking wood bound with metal so polished it glinted, was grounded on the floor in front of him and held loosely in both hands. The eyes of a nocturnal carnivore caught the same weak light and shone faintly, an animal-like effect that frequently made humans nervous—especially when they remembered that those eyes could see most easily in what to them was darkness.
“Fine,” the ringleader spat, tossing Kisea's knife across the room; she heard the metal ring against one of the stones of the hearth. “She's all yours. Both of you, get out of our village.”
“Soon,” agreed the alasir-blood, stepping aside in an invitation for the men to pass him and leave. As the last crossed the threshold, he closed the door.
“Are you injured?” he asked her gently.
She shook her head. “A few bruises. I don't think they actually planned to beat me or kill me unless I fought back too much. Thank you. Your timing is wonderful, and I'm extremely grateful you chose to get involved at all.” She hiked up her tunic so she could reach the waistband of her trousers, retied them, and wriggled it up further so she could secure the laces of her bodice again, wincing from the pressure on her abused breast.
The alasir-blood, meanwhile, retrieved her knife, inspecting it as he crossed the room to her. “Good steel, that.” He offered it to her hilt-first; she accepted it and returned it to its sheath, under her tunic. “I should have been here sooner. I'm sorry it took me as long as it did.”
“You just saved me from being gang-raped by a bunch of humans who had convinced themselves that I was forcing them to do it. Why are you apologizing? You even did it without actually having to hurt anyone. I'd rather not get tangled up in legal issues. Especially one siren against nine men whose wives would swear blind their husbands would never consider straying on their own.” She gathered up her blanket, shook it out vigorously, and rolled it back up.
“I know. It is, I think, one of the worst forms of prejudice among far too many.” There was none of the cold iron that had been in his voice when he'd demanded the villagers release her, only sympathy. “Though we are, barely, within Jordan lands, and Lord Jordan is making considerable effort to eliminate it in law, things change slowly and this is a very small place on the very edge. Can I ask why you travel alone?”
She'd been hearing about those efforts. And about who was now responsible for enforcing them, as well. It was the sort of news that the mixed-blood community in general found extremely relevant.
“It isn't my first choice, I promise. I wouldn't read minds and emotions for someone who wanted to pull a confidence scam. He threatened me, so I told the local authorities what I knew and then ran for it before he got out of prison.”
“Where are you going?”
“I was thinking. I'd wander through Eyrie. What brings you to a human village?”
“An escort job, now complete, leaving me with nowhere I currently need to be. I could go to my parents in the Village, but now I think of it, I do have friends in Eyrie I have not seen recently, and it isn't so far from here. And any road is shorter with company than alone.”
Kisea strapped the blanket, in its wrappings, back into place on her pack while she considered that. Travelling with company had a considerable list of advantages, and he'd already saved her once. He clearly knew better than to believe the things the ignorant 'knew' about sirens. And it was only three days, maybe four, to Eyrie, nearly as large as the Village.
“I'm Kisea,” she said. “Do you have a name?”
She didn't raise her head from her pack until she was sure her expression would betray nothing. He might be a way of staying safe between here and Eyrie, but as soon as they got there, she'd have to make sure they parted ways, preferably before he could introduce her to any friends he had.
That puzzled look earlier wasn't just that she reminded him of someone. Had she seen him in better light, she'd probably have recognized him, though it had been long ago and she'd had a different name then.
“I don't think I'm going to be able to fall back asleep here. I imagine you prefer to travel at night? Shall we see how far we can get before the villagers wake up and questions arise? Maybe by morning we can find some decent shelter that has less vermin in it.”
He inclined his head. “Will you wait here, where it's dry, while I fetch my pack? I don't believe they'll return.”
“All right. I think this village owes me another bowl of pottage, anyway.” Why turn down hot food?
“I won't be long.”
Once the door shut behind him, she sat down on the bench, her back against the wall, and closed her eyes, slowing her breathing. As her attention turned inward rather than outward, she felt the crystal that hung at the hollow of her throat begin to warm; had anyone been present, they'd have seen it begin to glow under the collar of her tunic.
She checked Kian first, found him moving away from her as expected, his surface emotions predominantly thoughtfulness and determination, with a strong overtone of frustration and anger and a current of relief: nothing out of place, no impression of ulterior motives. She set a corner of her mind to keeping track of where he was, so she'd know when he was returning.
Then she scanned the rest of the village, found nine minds that were still awake and all in turmoil. Delicately, she insinuated herself into eight of them, left the germ of a nightmare that should give their consciences a chance to work. She doubted any of them were truly bad men; they probably believed the 'common knowledge' that sirens were sexually insatiable, that their mere presence caused uncontrollable desire in return, and simply never questioned the truth of it or the logic of needing nine of them to hold her down. Without the ringleader, they'd have gone home to their wives and had sex while fantasizing about sirens. That didn't mean she forgave them, since they'd have cheerfully raped her and blamed it on her, but it did mean that it shouldn't take much to make sure they hesitated the next time they saw a siren-blood.
The ringleader, however... she found him rousing his wife roughly, smothering her sleepy protests with a savage kiss, climbing on top of her.
What I can fix, I can also create.
She had to be careful, though, not to leave anything that would have direct associations with her; having him turn into a fanatical siren-hunter would be counterproductive. Nor did she want to do anything complex that would take a long time and leave her still working on it when Kian returned.
Absolutely the last thing she wanted was to leave any further sign of her presence, anything that would announce, to the one person who knew what to look for, that she personally had been here. As long as Kian never realized who she'd once been, she could be any siren-blood, not worthy of note.
She planted a seed, a single question, are you sure? and linked it to his sense of confidence so that each time he was certain of something, that question would whisper in his thoughts. The way minds created associations, it would spread gradually, triggered by a broader and broader range of conditions. Bluster and bragging might help him to cover it, but like creeping rot, it would undermine everything.
She sensed Kian approaching as she tied off all the ends of her work neatly, leaving no trace for a telepath without her unusual gift. By the time she opened her eyes, he was back inside and filling two bowls from the pot at the hearth.
He set the bowls on the table, went to the small counter to fetch two rounds of bread from under it and fill two mugs with ale. Kisea stretched carefully, making sure nothing had tightened during her brief trance, and joined him.
“Checking they've gone to bed?”
She nodded. “I'd rather no one was still awake to rouse a mob.” She groped for her spoon, dug into the pottage. “This can't be much to your tastes.”
He shrugged. “Meat would be better,” he agreed. “I'll hunt something small when we decide to stop. One advantage of being half alasir rather than full is a much better tolerance for vegetable foods.”
“I travelled with a full alasir for a while. That was tricky to work around sometimes. All the more since he grew up in Felorton and knew very little about hunting. Watching him with a sword was like watching a dancer, but you can't hunt with one if you run out of supplies between settlements. I don't like setting snares, they're too indiscriminate, but there were times we didn't have much choice. I hope he got himself settled somewhere.”
She'd enjoyed his company quite a lot, come to care about him more than she should have allowed, and would have liked to stay with him longer. It had, however, become painfully obvious to her that he needed a life very different from hers, and life had already treated him badly enough. Better for him and safer for her to go separate ways once she'd healed him enough to be sure he would no longer consider suicide.
“Not snares,” Kian said, and nodded towards his pack, leaning against the wall near hers; his staff was beside it, but strapped to the pack were a quiver of arrows and a compact recurve bow. “Bow may be more traditionally a woman's weapon, but I'm very fond of the wilderness and it is often of much more use there.” A smile flickered across his face. “I'm very quiet when I choose.”
Yes, I know. Stealthy enough to stalk a bird that doesn't even exist.
They spoke little while eating, which was fine by Kisea. She tried to make sure that there was as little in her current and recent life to hide as possible, since lies got complicated quickly, but it was going to be tricky making sure she let nothing slip he could use to connect her to her past life and she was glad to have a little time to think about it.
They left the soiled bowls and mugs onthe counter, and Kian dropped a pair of silver pennies in one.
“It was not the actions of the women who brew and bake that caused injury,” he said mildly, when she gave him a questioning look. “Best to leave them with a good impression, hm?”
He had a point, but Kisea had no compunctions about filching the last two loaves of bread from under the counter to add to her pack before they left the building. They paused at the well to empty and refill water-skins, and departed from the village.
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