They had found the Chooser of the Slain's narrow blade wrapped in linen, buried beneath an abandoned elf-house. In that dark room, the sword's hard silvery metal — longer than any of their bronze swords — had seemed lit by the moon. Women love the warrior-priest. A horse screamed behind them. Instead, armed men swarmed from the gullies between the rocks, hacking at the riders. Behind him, men cried out as they protected his escape. His horse twisted along the narrow paths between stones.
It stopped abruptly, avoiding a chasm. Blood stained his cloak. His horse stumbled sickeningly beneath him. Its leg snapped, caught between rocks. He rolled clear. The rocky ground slammed the sword into his back. His face passed over the edge of the chasm. Breathless, he recoiled from the drop. If they died returning to Parliament, did it matter that they had found the Sword? For the first time in six thousand years, the light of the sun fell on the silvery blade bringing fire to its length.
It vibrated in his hands. Reiko hid from her children, blending into the shadows of the courtyard with more urgency than she felt in combat. To do less would insult them. Aya turned more slowly and studied the courtyard. Reiko smiled as her daughter sniffed the air, looking for tracks. Her son crashed through the bushes, kicking leaves with each footstep. As another branch cracked under Nawi's foot, Reiko stifled the urge to correct his appalling technique.
She would speak with his tutor about what the woman was teaching him. He was a boy, but that was no reason to neglect his education. Watching Aya find Reiko's initial footprints and track them away from where she hid, Reiko slid from her hiding place. She walked across the courtyard to the fountain. This was a rule with her children; to make up for the size difference, she could not run. She paced closer to the sparkling water, masking her sounds with its babble. From her right, Nawi shouted, "Have you found her? She put her tiny hands on her hips, staring at the ground. Reiko and her daughter were the same distance from the fountain, but on opposite sides.
If Aya were paying attention, she would realize her mother had retraced her tracks and jumped from the fountain to the paving stones circling the grassy center of the courtyard. Reiko took three more steps before Aya turned. As her daughter turned, Reiko felt, more than heard, her son on her left, reaching for her. He had misdirected her attention with his noise in the shrubbery. She fell forward, using gravity to drop beneath his hands. Rolling on her shoulder, she somersaulted, then launched to her feet as Aya ran toward her.
Nawi grabbed for her again. With a child on each side, Reiko danced and dodged closer to the fountain. She twisted from their grasp, laughing with them each time they missed her. Their giggles echoed through the courtyard. The world tipped sideways and vibrated. Reiko stumbled as pain ripped through her spine.
Fire from the sunset engulfed the sword and split the air. With a keening cry, the air opened and a form dropped through, silhouetted against a haze of fire. Horses and men screamed in terror. Where was the Chooser of the Slain? Where was the warrior the sword had petitioned? A bandit snarled a laughing oath and rushed toward them. The others followed him with their weapons raised. In that brief moment, when he stared at her wild face, he realized that he had succeeded in calling Li Reiko, the Chooser of the Slain.
Then she turned. The air around her rippled with a heat haze as armor, dark as night, materialized around her body. He watched her dance with deadly grace, bending and twisting away from the bandits' blows. Without seeming thought, with movement as precise as ritual, she danced with death as her partner.
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Her sword slid through the bodies of the bandits. He watched the point of her sword trace a line, like the path of entrails on the church floor. The line of blood led to the next moment, the next and the next, as if each man's death was predestined. Her blade descended, burning with the fire of the setting sun. Why had she stopped? Her arm trembled.
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She grimaced, but did not move the sword closer. Her face, half-hidden by her helm, was dark with rage. Her dark eyes, slanted beneath angry lids, widened.
She pulled back and her armor rippled, vanishing into thought. Skin, tanned like the smoothest leather stretched over her wide cheekbones. Her hair hung in a heavy, black braid down her back. Only the gods in sagas had hair the color of the Allmother's night. Had he needed proof he had called the Chooser of the Slain, the inhuman black hair would have convinced him of that.
He bowed his head. Grant us your blessings. Reiko's breath hissed from her. He knew her name. She had dropped through a flaming portal into hell and this demon with bulging eyes knew her name. She had tried to slay him as she had the others, but could not press her sword forward, as if a wall had protected him. She controlled a shudder. What human had hair as pale as straw? Straw lowered his bulging eyes to the demon lying in front of him. His blood was as red as any human's, but his face was pale as death.
She turned from Straw and wiped her sword on the thick moss, cleaning the blood from it. She kept her awareness on the sounds of his movement as she sought balance in the familiar task of caring for her weapon. By the Gods! Why did he have her sword? It had been in her rooms not ten minutes before playing hide and seek with her children. Panic almost took her.
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What had happened to her Aya and Nawi? She needed information, but displaying ignorance to an enemy was a weakness, which could kill surer than the sharpest blade. She considered. Their weapons were bronze, not steel, and none of her opponents had manifested armor. They dressed in leather and felted wool, but no woven goods. So, then. That was their technology. He wanted her aid. Her thoughts checked. Could demons be bound by blood debt?
Straw raised his eyes; they were the color of the sky. She set her lips. What good would vengeance do? She pulled upon her reserves and, rising into the healing ritual, touched his mind. He had read of gods healing in the sagas, but bearing witness was beyond his dreams. The glow faded. The wound was gone. A narrow red line and the blood-soaked clothing remained. But her face was drawn. She was breathing.
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This is Li Reiko. How long did it take her to kill six men? Would moving her be a sacrilege? He grimaced. He would beg forgiveness if that were the case. The smell of mutton invaded her dreamless sleep. Reiko lay under sheepskin, on a bed of straw ticking. The straw poked through the wool fabric, pricking her bare skin. Her memory tickled her with an image of hair the color of straw.
Long practice kept her breath even. She lay with her eyes closed, listening. A small room. An open fire. Women murmuring. She needed to learn as much as possible, before changing the balance by letting them know she was awake. The sheepskin's weight would telegraph her movement if she tried grabbing the hand. Better to open her eyes and feign weakness than to create an impression of threat. There was time for that later. Reiko let her eyes flutter open.
Her hair was the color of honey, and her wide blue eyes started from her head. She stilled when Reiko awoke, but did not pull away. Reiko sat up. The sheepskin fell away, letting the cool air caress her body. The girl averted her eyes. Conversation in the room stopped. They had a nudity taboo. She reached for the sheepskin and pulled it over her torso. Her bound man had a daughter. And his people had a patronymic system — how far from home was she?
The girl lifted a folded bundle of cloth from a low bench next to the bed. Rage filled Reiko's veins like the fire that had brought her here. She waited for the heat to dwindle, then began dressing. As Reiko pulled her boots on, she asked, "Where is he? Behind Mara, the other women shifted as if Reiko were crossing a line. Mara ignored them. Parliament contained the line she should not cross, and they clearly would not answer her.
Her mind teased her with memories of folk in other lands. She had never paid much heed to these stories, since history had been men's work. She smiled at Mara. As she strode from the room she kept her senses fanned out, waiting for resistance from them, but they hung back as if they were afraid. The women's quarters fronted on a narrow twisting path lined with low turf and stone houses. The end of the street opened on a large raised circle surrounded by stone benches. Men sat on the benches, but women stayed below. Sheltering in the shadow by a house, Reiko studied them.
They towered above her, but their movements were clumsy and oafish like a trained bear. Nawi had better training than any here. Her son. Sudden anxiety and rage filled her lungs, but rage invited rash decisions. She forced the anger away. With effort, she returned her focus to the men. They had no awareness of their mass, only of their size and an imperfect grasp of that. As if guided by strings his eyes found her in the shadows. He dropped to his knees and held out her sword. Surprise crossed his face, but he bowed his head. Reiko climbed onto the stone circle. As she crossed to retrieve her sword, an ox of a man rose to his feet.
Reiko's attention sprang forward. What did they think she was, if not mortal? Her pulse quickened. What were they saying? My arm was cut half off and she healed it. She understood the words, but they had no meaning. Each sentence out of their mouths raised a thousand questions in her mind. Before his hand touched her shoulder, she took his wrist, pulling on it as she twisted. She drove her shoulder into his belly and used his mass to flip him as she stood. She had thought these were demons, but by their actions they were men, full of swagger and rash judgment.
She waited. He would attack her again. Ingolfur raged behind her. Reiko focused on his sounds and the small changes in the air. As he reached for her, she twisted away from his hands and with his force, sent him stumbling from the circle. The men broke into laughter. It might take time but Ingolfur would learn his place. A man courted death, touching a woman unasked. Reiko cocked her head slightly.
Her bound man showed wit by appeasing the oaf's vanity. It was time for action. If they wanted a god, they should have one. I can defeat the Troll King. Ingolfur drew back involuntarily. Around the circle, she heard gasps and sharp cries. Around the circle, men followed suit. On the ground below, women and children knelt in the dirt.
They cried her name. In the safety of her helm, Reiko scowled. Playing at godhood was a dangerous lie. She lowered her sword. You must return me to the heavens. She shook her head. They say you must return me. You must learn how. Who here accepts that price for your freedom from the trolls? She sheathed her sword and let her armor vanish into thought. Turning on her heel, she strode off the Parliament's circle. His head reeled. She hinted at things beyond his training.
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Ingolfur tossed his hands. Ridding the world of the Troll King and her at the same time would be a joy. The answers eluded him. He had not cast a rune-stone or read an entrail since they started for the elf-house a week ago. He found Li Reiko surrounded by children. The women hung back, too shy to come near, but the children crowded close. For the space of a breath, he watched her play peek-a-boo with a small child, her face open with delight and pain. She saw him and shutters closed over her soul. Standing, her eyes impassive, she said.
He blinked, surprised. Then his heart lifted; maybe she would show him how to pay her price. He could barely keep a sedate pace to the church. Inside, he led her through the nave to the library beside the sanctuary. The other priests, studying, stared at the Chooser of the Slain. He was leading Li Reiko, a Warrior out of the oldest sagas, past shelves containing her history. Since the gods had arrived from across the sea, his brothers had recorded their history. For six-thousand unbroken years, the records of prophecy and the sagas kept their history whole.
When they reached the collections desk, the acolyte on duty looked as if he would wet himself. We will be in the side chapel. He had thought the gods would be larger than life. Here was something they could discuss. He took the vellum roll and the massive volume of sagas the acolyte carried and shooed him out of the room. He hesitated over another pair of gloves, then set them aside.
Her hands could heal; she would not damage the manuscripts. He did not look at the rendering of entrails. He watched her. She gave no hint of her thoughts. A cold current ran up his spine, as if he were eleven again, explaining scripture to an elder. I interpreted the opening in the bulge to mean specifically the Troll King. This pattern of blood means — ".
She crossed her arms. Tell me the prophecy in plain language. What did she see that he did not? That means you win the battle. She shivered. I want to understand how you deciphered this. In the midst of the training, a curtain of fire split Nawi from Aya and when they came together again, Li Reiko was gone.
Though they were frightened, they understood that the Chooser of the Slain had taken a rightful place in heaven. She tried phrasing casual questions, but her mind spun in circles. He was our conqueror and our salvation. The ranks of stone shelves filled with thick leather bindings crowded her. Her heart kicked wildly. The gods have left the Earth, but we keep records of histories as they taught us.
Forgive my trespasses, may I beg for your indulgence with a question? Reiko could not breathe. Reiko pushed away from the table. What had it been like for Aya and Nawi to watch their mother ripped out of time? He tripped over a bench and dropped to the floor.
Her sword flew from its sheath before she realized she held it. Her arms trembled with the desire to run it through him. But it would not move. She leaned on the blade, digging her feet into the floor. What protected him? I didn't know I was following the prophecy. Reiko staggered. A wall of predestination.
Empty, she dropped to the bench and cradled her sword. She closed her eyes. This was why he could not return her. He had not simply brought her from across the sea like the other "gods. If she were trapped here, if she could never see her children again, it did not matter if these were human or demons.
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