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Edge of the World

Chapter Text

I stood on the outer wall of the fort looking over the fallow fields and the sheep pastures to the darkly wooded hills beyond. The strings of blue glass beads on my arms caught the sun as I raised my spyglass to survey the horizon. I saw no one on the dirt road or any raised dust to indicate travelers.

“The roads clear!” I yelled down to the small group waiting beside the main gate with saddled horses.

“Then let’s get going,” my half brother Tobias called up.

I scrambled down the ladder and landed with a thump, jarring the rifle that I had slung over one shoulder. The ten women waiting with Tobias were all equally armed. We were not taking any risks, not when we were traveling with a man.

I nudged Tobias playfully, “Someone’s eager to go courting.”

He snorted, “I just don’t want to miss the festival.”

My full sister Rebecca laughed, “Right and the lovely O’Connor twins don’t have anything to do with that.”

Tobias gave her a wide smile, “Maybe they do. Be nice to me and I’ll get them to put in a nice word for you with their older sister.”

That made our audience laugh and Rebecca blush.

“Children!” snapped our father from where he was waiting with my mother to see us off.  His sun-darkened face was creased with worry. “Now is not the time for joking. You need to travel quickly and get to the Western fort before dark. Stay focused and keep your eyes sharp, we’ve heard more than enough reports of bandits.”

He’d have forbidden us to go today, if he could have, but as head of the fort my mother had overruled him. The road might be dangerous but this was not an idle social call. Courtship was a serious matter for the survival of the forts.

We were a small enclave less than a hundred and fifty people and most of us were related in one way or another. If we didn’t want to end up inbred, like the weird people over in the Juniper Enclave to the East, we needed to find partners from the other forts. There were few enough chances each year for courtship, just the festivals and the occasional trading trip.

“We’ll be careful Papa, we promise. This isn’t the first trip I’ve lead.” Rebecca told him shouldering her rifle and vaulting up onto her mare. At twenty-seven she was the captain of the fort guard and my mother’s expected successor.

My mother shook her head. “You had better, and Rebecca do not forget about buying those rams, I want at least three good breeding ones. Have Kate pick them out and don’t pay more than ten silvers each.”

“Of course,” she promised.

My mother came over to me and kissed me on the cheek. In spite of her years she still moved with an easy grace and her long dark braid was just beginning to show streaks of grey. She looked down at my wrists and ran her hands over the cool beads that she had wound on for me the night before. She spoke softly enough for just me to hear, “And you be careful sweetheart. This is you first festival wearing a conceiver’s colors. Women will act differently towards you now.”

“I know.”

“And don’t get seduced or share anyone’s bed during this festival, any woman who’ll tumble before courting isn’t the kind you want.”

I blushed.

“And if anything happens… well there’s a bundle of herbs in your pack and you know how to make the tea.”

I blushed even darkly, “I won’t need that.”

She patted my shoulder, “I’m sure you won’t, but I know what it is like to be young and foolish.”

 

We all climbed up onto our horses and the women on guard duty opened the heavy wooden gates and we rode out, ten riders and three pack horses. The morning was clear and bright and Rebecca set a quick pace, giving the horses a chance to stretch their legs. The riding horses were too valuable to be left vulnerable in any of the outer paddocks and spend most of their lives within the fort’s stables when not being exercised or used for travel.

We passed through the fields, now fallow from the harvested corn, beans and squash. It had been a good harvest and we were well provisioned even if the next year brought a late spring. Two of my cousins were watching one of the forts flocks of sheep as they grazed what remained in the fields. When that was gone they’d take them back up into the hills to graze as much as they could before the first snow forced them to bring them into the fort.

Past the fields we rode up into the hills and the road began to wind. Some in the fort thought we should clear the trees on the hills for the lumber and to prevent the danger of ambush. My mother had always refused. She said we’d have worse problems if we left the hills bare and caused landslides.

Soon we were in dense forest. We made good time. We were all skilled riders and young. We rode with my brother at the heart of our formation. He wore a cloak that hid his face, so that it wouldn’t immediately be obvious from a distance that he was a man. If bandits struck, they’d be certain to try and kidnap him.

I kept my wrists covered. The blue bracelets were a risk to wear while traveling but they took a good hour to wind on and I couldn’t do it without help. I would probably not wear them on future journeys to the same fort.

Rebecca never wore the red and orange bracelets of a kindler, although she was open about being one. I wasn’t sure if her refusal to mark herself was because she wasn’t looking for a wife or simply because she didn’t want to make her nature clear to potential kidnappers.

In our group there was one other conceiver, Maggie my cousin. The other women were all ungifted. They would all faced with the much harder choice than I ever would. If they were seeking a husband or gifted wife they would probably have to move to another fort to marry. Men and gifted seldom left their own forts to marry, truth be told some forts even forbid it.

As for me, I didn’t feel ready to marry yet and certainly not to have children. I did want to go and dance and be treated like a full adult for the first time at a festival. I wanted to flirt and kiss and be wanted. If I didn’t find a lover in River fort there would be the spring festival in Ash Fort and the midsummer one in Western Fort. I had all the time in the world.

We reached the fort by early afternoon. River Fort sat high in the hills at the place where to rivers joined. They grew a rich crop of grain every year from water they diverted from the river and traded well in salted fish caught from the river.

They had a high pine wall that circled their fort and were up on the hillside above a large dock. They ran sheep and horses in a series of sloping pastures around the fort.

Their real livelihood deepened upon their docks and the boats in them. They did very, very well in trade and fishing. Their dependence on the river and the vulnerability of the dock made them richer but more at risk of attack then any of the other Five Forts and they took precautions.

They also had a set an archaic cannons they could use to level any hostile boats that came up the river or raiders that came down the road. At least, that was the official story, I had never witness either of the cannons fired during my lifetime and sometimes wondered if they actually still worked. They had a larger guard than any other fort I had ever visited and their fort had been carefully built to overlook the curve of the river. If I were to find a wife here willing to leave her own fort, she’d likely be one of their fort guard. Any woman trained as a guard in River Fort would be welcomed back in my own as a new addition to our guard.

We rode in through the great gates of River Fort and a group of young girls hurried forward to take out horses and stable them for us. We were one of the first groups to arrive and most of the adults in the fort were running about madly finishing the preparations.  

The inside of the fort was made up of one great central hall ringed by important smaller buildings such as the kitchens and the smithy. Beyond them were the houses where families lived and the guard’s dormitories that made up the rest of the fort. I had more than a few ungifted cousins living in the dormitory, there was good silver to be made working as a River Fort guard.

The forts leader, a graying haired man named Marcus greeted us graciously and pointed us in the direction of the traveler’s quarters to set down our things and then the kitchens to grab something to eat. The travelers quarters were really just one of the side rooms off the great hall with enough space to throw down some bedding but they were the best we could hope for during a festival with so many people coming.

When I put down my bedroll too close to the door, Rebecca pointedly picked it up and relocated my bedding to the space between our brother’s and hers well against the far wall. I got the feeling that she’d made certain promises to our mother about keeping me out of trouble during my first festival as an adult.

We didn’t change out of our traveling clothes as the festival proper wouldn’t start until that night. We made our way to the huge kitchens of the great hall. We sat at one of the side tables as several of the women busy cooking efficiently ladled out bowls of soup to us. We ate quickly and then those of us that didn’t have other business made ourselves useful.

Tobias went off to find the twins, Rachael went to go help construct the great trestle tables that would hold the food that night and I soon found myself enlisted to carry water from the well to the kitchen. It was hot, tiring work but I didn’t mind. I enjoyed waiting at the well and listening to the gossip of the other girls helping.

I’d been to River Fort often enough over the years when the roads were safe, visiting with either my mother or my sister. I had friends and family there. One of those friends, Suzy a golden haired ungifted girl my own age had all the good gossip. She knew who’d taken a lover, been unfaithful to the lover they had or fallen pregnant over the four months since the last festival.

She nearly squealed with joy when she saw my bracelets. “You’re a conceiver! I knew you could do healing but I wasn’t sure you were fully gifted. Why didn’t you tell me before?”

I shrugged as I lifted up the bucket I had just filled, “Because you can’t keep a secret and my mom didn’t want anyone to know until I was of age.”

“Yea but…this is big news Katie! We need to find you a wife.” She told me as she filled her own bucket

I rolled my eyes and turned towards the kitchen, “It’s my first festival wearing the bracelets I’m not looking to marry yet.”

She hurried after me, “Then we should find you a lover.”

“Like who?” I was half afraid Suzy was going to suggest herself. I liked her but not in that way. We’d played at kissing games when we first coming into our early womanhood but not much more, she’d been ready for a lot of things before I was. She’d gone off to find a proper lover and we’d stayed friends. In truth she was too much like a sister and a little too hyper for my tastes.

“My sister Jen has always kind of liked you.”

That was news to me. There was no way a woman as attractive as Jennifer Harper, who was already captain of a river boat at twenty-two, wanted me. I set down my bucket halfway across the courtyard and turned to look at her. “Really?”

Suzy brushed her wavy hair out of her face with her free hand. “Well yea, you didn’t notice?”

“I guess not.”

“Dance with her tonight. You’ll see.”

All afternoon the groups from other three forts, Acorn Fort, Northern Fort, and Western Fort. I greeted old friends and helped more with the preparations. When the sun started to set I went with Rebecca and the other women from our group to the fort’s bathhouse. It was about three times bigger than the one in our own fort, but then again River Fort had about three times as many people. There wasn’t time or room for a hot soak, just a quick scrub down with cold water and soap. A dip into the warm tubs would have to wait until after the first night of the festival when all the women from that fort and the visitors from four others weren’t trying to get clean all at the same time.

Back in the room I dressed quickly in my best boots, a pair of clean un-dyed hemp trousers and well woven lambswool shirt of a dark blue.

I had spun, woven, cut and sewn the shirt myself but my mother had given me the rich blue dye to stain it. She’d traded for it from a traveler and just the small amount of the powder necessary had cost her three sheep skins. The shirt was the finest thing I owned.

I put a set of copper hoops in my ears, again from my mother, and a brightly colored quartz set in colored thread about my neck. I wore my dark hair lose about my shoulders, although no matter how many times I combed it a few strands refused to stay in place.

I didn’t need a looking glass to know how I appeared. I’d gotten my father’s leanness but not his height. I was a half head shorter than Rebecca and barely reached Tobias’s shoulder. I still didn’t understand how Rebecca had turned out so tall and me so short when we shared both parents.

My modest curves had also failed to ever fill out as much as I’d hoped they might. I wasn’t flat chested but it was a good thing that I had an attractive heart shaped face because I wasn’t going to have any problem getting women to look me in the eyes.  

Tobias ruffled my hair when he saw me step out of the room,

“You look good sis.”

He was dressed more simply, his shirt and trousers both made of un-dyed hemp. His hair, the same dark brown as my own was tugged back into a queue. He didn’t need to dress up, he was a young man in a world where they were increasingly rare. Anyway, He was handsome in his own right, tall and dark eyed like our father but of a stronger build. His skin, like mine, was pale by nature, although his far more frequent time in the sun had worn it to a rich tan.

Rebecca emerged from the room a minute later, dressed much as my brother was, although she’d carefully braided her own hair. We walked out to the bonfire together. Long tables had been laid out in the late afternoon with all manner of food and drink. It was the host’s duty to handle all refreshment, and our own fort would do the same for the next festival.

I sat with my siblings at the long trestle table and the clatter of so many people. We ate salted green corn and fresh venison and fish. The woods beside the river were good for hunting and the game was fat for the coming winter.

There was hard cider that the fort had made itself and wine from much farther down river. There was also strong corn liquor that Rebecca counseled me not to touch. I drank the cider, watered with the cold clear well water.

When the food was gone and bottles were being passed around, the head of the fort, Marcus, stood up and gave a fairly long winded speech. Suzy, who was sitting across from me kept making faces the whole time and it was all I could do not to laugh.

The old man finished with a ceremonial blessing and at last the fire was lit and a fiddle struck. Suzy grabbed my wrist and pulled me into the swirl of bodies on the cleared green about the fire. It was a tradition of ours as old as our friendship. If we were in the same fort for a festival we always danced the first reel together. Suzy was an enthusiastic, if not terribly skilled, dancer. We had fun though, whirling around the circle to the quick steps of a reel.

We danced the second and the third song as well and then returned to the tables breathless and laughing in search of water. I had just raised a tankard to my lips when Jen approached our table, her attractive face flushed from the dancing.

She was tall and lanky with the strong arms and shoulders of a woman who made her living on the river. Her skin was well darkened by the sun to an almost earth brown and her short wavy hair was the color of rich honey. She wore well cut trousers of worked sheepskin and a hemp shirt dyed a warm green. I had never seen such a brilliant green before and my first thought was to ask her where she’d bought the dye. A year before I would have, but remembering what Suzy had told me earlier, the words stuck in my throat.

Jen made a shallow bow to me, “Miss Weaver.”

She’d never greeted me like that before, not like a potential suitor. She’d always treated me like her little sister’s friend, calling me by my first name with an easy familiarity.

She held out her hand to me to me palm up, “May I have this dance?”

“Yes,” I took her hand, too embarrassed to meet her eyes. Her palm felt warm and callused beneath my own. I knew my palm to be soft from the lanolin and wool I worked with every day, my fingernails stained at the quick from dye.

She led me to the green and I followed. The fiddle slowed into an easy waltz. She pulled me against her, one hand on my waist and the other covering my own. I rested a hand on her shoulder and had to look up to see her face. She was nearly as tall as Rebecca.

She offered me an easy smile, “I like your bracelets Kate.”

“My mother made them for me,” not necessarily the most suave thing to say but the words tumbled out.

“They suit you. I always thought you might be a conceiver.”

I raised an eyebrow, “and not a kindler like Rebecca?” The conversation felt strange, people normally didn’t just talk about things like this.

“I suppose.” A bit of uncertainty flashed across her face and she changed the subject, “I knewyou were gifted since you closed the cut on my forehead two winters past.”

“You got it getting me out of a tree. It was the least I could do.”

“I believe it was my little sister who got you into trouble in the first place.”

Just like Suzy to want to sneak into an orchard and pilfer apples in the middle of a festival night. Four years ago seemed like a long time. Jen had seemed very dashing when she’d come looking for her sister and caught me when I fell out of the tree, perhaps less dashing when my fall sent us both to the ground in a painful tangle and caused Jen to hit her head.

“Fair enough,” I laughed. “Although she’s seldom led me wrong either. She told me I should dance with you tonight.”

“Oh really? I think I should be grateful to her then.”

The song finished and the music changed for a circle dance. We found ourselves pulled apart into two opposite moving circles. By the time that song finished another woman was waiting to ask me to dance.

I didn’t get much chance to rest that night. I’d been at festivals before and most of the women knew me, many from childhood, but that night I was the only gifted wearing her bracelets for the first time.

I’d wanted to ask Jen to dance again but I could never seem to quite get to her before someone else wanted my attention. Friends wanted to congratulate and tease me and women who didn’t know me as well wanted to dance as an excuse to get a better look at me. Before I’d just been a young girl, now I was a conceiver and of age to marry.

As the night wore on I found myself dancing with a woman I’d never met before, which was a rare enough thing among the Five Forts.  It wasn’t hard to guess that she was working as part of the fort guard. She had a soldier’s build and the worn but well kept clothes of a mercenary. I was fascinated by her hair, cut just beneath her ears and a deep red that could be found nowhere in the forts. I guessed her age to be somewhere in her early twenties, or slightly younger.

She bowed formally when she asked me to dance and moved with more grace than her rougher appearance suggested.

“My names Cali Walker,” she told me.

“I’m Kate Weaver, I’m from Ash Fort. What about you?”

“North of here”

That was rather vague, which meant either she didn’t want to say where she was from or wasn’t from a fort or enclave at all.

“Just north?”

“My sisters and I are mercenaries, we go where there’s work.”

“Sisters?”

“Tavi and Mel, I’m sure you’ll meet them before the festivals through. They’re almost, but not quite, as good looking as me.” She was certainly good at winking.

As we danced, she pulled me a little closer than decorum would have dictated and I almost yelped when her hand on my waist started to wander. I grabbed her wrist and relocated it back to its proper place. She smirked but kept her hand where I’d put it.

The fiddler took a much deserved cider break and Cali and I wandered back over to the relatively empty tables to find something to drink. I found one of the water pitchers but it was empty.

Cali offered me a tankard and I took it. The un-watered cider was strong and sweet. I sat down at the edge of the table and took a deep drink and then a few more. She sat beside me on the long bench.

She was looking at me with an expression I did not think I had ever been the cause of before, an intense and hungry look. She reached forward and brushed a strand of hair from my face.

“You know, you’re one of the prettiest girls I’ve seen in a long time.”

I opened my mouth to reply and she kissed me. Her lips were soft and warm and her hand at the back of my head was strong. I wasn’t sure what to do but I knew what I wanted to do, so I kissed her back.

The world felt hazy and full with the buzz of the cider, the thrill of the night and the raw excitement of the woman kissing me. She pulled me off the table and half into her lap as she slipped her other hand under my shirt against the bare skin of my back.

I was beginning to realize that I might be in over my head but I didn’t want to stop. A loud and pointed cough saved me. I broke the kiss and looked over Cali’s shoulder. Rebecca was standing there, looking less than amused.

Cali felt me tense and turned her head to see what the interruption was. She gave Rebecca a far too evaluating once over for someone who already had a woman in her lap.

“Let me guess, you’re her big sister?”

“Yes.”

“If I said you came from a very attractive family, do you think I could convince you to join us?”

I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.

Rebecca’s eyes narrowed further.

Cali got the hint, “Right, then. I know better than to cross a protective older sibling.” She helped me up, “Kate, it was a pleasure to meet you. I hope you’ll dance with me again tomorrow night.” She gave a quick formal bow and was gone.

“Bed,” said my sister firmly and took my arm to guide me as I was a bit wobbly on my feet.

“Are you mad?” I asked as we crossed the central square where the fire was beginning to die down.

She sighed, “Not at you Katie, not after what I was like at my first festival away from the fort. You need to be careful though, that woman’s a mercenary and she isn’t from one of the forts. You don’t know her or her family. She was older than you too, she could have taken advantage of you.”

The world was spinning a little. I might have been drunker than I thought, “So I should just kiss girls I know?”

“I think you should walk before you run…or jump into a stranger’s lap”

The small room where we’d laid out our bedding was half empty. Some of our party, including Tobias had found other lodging for the night. I suspected that if Rebecca wasn’t keeping an eye on me she might have done the same.

Chapter Text

 

I woke the next morning with an unpleasant pounding in my head. I sat up and that just made things worse. I was apparently the last up in the room and warm light was spilling in through the small window cut high in the wall. I really should have headed my sisters warning about the cider.

I rolled out of my bedding reluctantly, dressed and dragged myself to the kitchen in pursuit of willow bark tea. In the large building that made up the forts separate kitchen, John, one of the forts primary cooks, was bustling about directing a small army of pre-teen girls and one boy in an epic dishwashing effort in the great concrete basin that lined one wall of the kitchen.

He looked far too cheerful in the morning. Then again, I’d seen him and one of his wives depart the festivities early carrying home two of their sleeping daughters. He was on the older side of forty, had five wives, and was a father twelve times over. He was the sort of man my mother would describe as being good at being a husband and father. Much as she loved my father, she often describe him at being good at getting on her nerves.

John gave me a sympathetic look when he saw me, “Hey Kate, you’d best sit down.”

He went to the kitchen hearth and poured water from a great metal kettle into a sturdy ceramic mug. He set some willow bark into it to soak and then fetched some candied ginger from a box on the shelf. He set both things in front of me. “willow bark for the head pain, ginger for your stomach.”

I accepted both with a weak nod. After I’d nibbled a bit of the ginger and drank some tea he came back with a hunk of dark bread.

“Best get this down or your stomach will never settle.”

I stared at the bread desolately. Every bang of the pots in the sink was like a hammer against my head.

He pulled up a chair and sat down,“trust me. I was young once too. The bread will help.

I ate the bread in slow careful bites and gradually my stomach did indeed begin to settle and my head hurt less.

The clang of dishes began to die away as the young assistants finished up the drying and putting away. They started to slink away with the furtiveness of children who know that if they linger there will soon be more things to do, there always is in a kitchen.

“Better?” he asked kindly.

“I think I’ll live.”

“You should try to drink a glass of water or two before you go to bed next time. Half the pain in your head is from dehydration.”

“I’m never drinking again.”

“Yea I used to say that too,” he stood up and gave my shoulder a squeeze like I was still a kid and went to go start chopping up some vegetable.

I wandered out of the kitchen. I was indeed feeling a bit better and I’d lost too much time already. I could already see the blankets and even a few stalls that had been set up in the cleared common. If I wanted to get some trading done, I needed to do it before the best things were gone.

I went back to the room and fetched the heavy bundle that represented most of my best work as an apprentice weaver that year. I went back to the commons and laid it all out on a sheep skin.

I was an apprentice but my teacher was one of the best. Old Maggs might be half blind and bent and twisted with age but she could make you a shirt in a day from the shearing. to the spinning. to the weaving. to the cutting and sewing. Of course, with a fort full of children, I didn’t need to do most of the unskilled work like spinning myself after I’d begun my apprenticeship. Most of my lessons had been in weaving, both on the great looms that took up half the hall and the small lap looms that allowed detailed work.

I laid out a selection of cloth on my sheepskin. I never tried to sell finished garments, no point cutting cloth until you knew who you were making it for. I had rough wool cloth, lambs wool cloth of far greater value, cloth from the wool of long haired goats, flax cloth and even a very small sample of linen. I’d bought the fiber for the linen cloth from a boat at River Fort the year before and thought it was nice, it was expensive and labor intensive to work with very often. Some of the cloth was dyed, although all with the cheaper easily available natural dyes that didn’t add much to the cost or labor of the overall product.

The things I was proudest of where the wool blankets with the complex geometric designs. They were made of the only yarn that I had dyed with materials I traded for and they were brilliant with their colors. Maggs might be near blind but she remembered how to make dyes, and oh such colors. Weaving on its own was one thing, weaving with colors was a completely different one. If I could have, I would have only made the blankets and wall hangings but that wasn’t practical and no one, even the richest fort dweller, could afford to buy them very often.

Once everything was laid out, I stood up and looked over the other blankets and stalls. Several of the other people selling wares were eyeing my wares with interest. There was one woman with pots and pans, all iron, as well as a few steel knives. She was a blacksmith in Acorn Fort. The man had a fine assortment of leather goods, from saddles to belts to boots, to vests, to satchels. An old woman had a small assortment of musical instruments, mostly wooden penny whistles, a few drums, and two fiddles well carved from what I could tell. A younger woman had a mix of wooden goods, mostly kitchen implements and some carvings. She also had some very nice jewelry of bronze and glass.

There were other things too, although none held my interest so much as the blacksmith’s wares. I might not be looking to marry yet but if I ever wanted to, I needed to start putting together a trousseaux and this was a good place to start. I’d get gifts when I married but even my family couldn’t supply all the things I’d need to start a household.

The blacksmith smiled at me, “Now what might you be needing lass?”

I considered. Her iron ware was good but she was known for her steel work. New wives were always gifted pots but people forgot to give them knives. I walked over and examined the blades she had laid out. One caught my eyes above all the others, a well crafted dagger that would serve just as well for chopping vegetables or cutting thread. I lifted the blade and felt its fine balance in my hand. I saw no imperfections in the steel. It was as much a weapon as a tool and I wanted it. I just had to figure out what I had that the blacksmith wanted. I didn’t have any gold, silver or bronze of my own to pay her with.

“It’s a good blade, one of my best. A girl your age should have one to protect herself, especially a girl with blue on her wrists,” she said.

“I’ll trade you two lengths of wool weaving for it.”

She rolled her eyes and brushed her graying hair away from her face. We both knew we had a good bit of bargaining before us and I’d started very low. “Oh come on lass, you can see the value of the steel. I want two of those colored blankets you’re known for.”

“The value of the dyes alone, much less the lamb’s wool and the labor, is worth four times this dagger.”

“I believe you about the dyes, but don’t overestimate your labor, I know your just old Maggs apprentice. I’ll throw in a pot, a medium sized one, to sweeten the deal.”

“The blanket is worth two daggers and a pot.”

“I’ll make it a pot big enough for dying.”

“I already have one.”

She considered me carefully, “You give me the red and blue blanket, which I can tell is your best work and two lengths of un-dyed wool cloth and then I will give you the dagger and its mate.

She reached into her satchel and drew out a twin to the dagger. She had me there. She knew I would want the matching pair.

“Deal,” I knew that was the best I was going to get. It was hard to say who’d gotten the better bargain. I wasn’t going to find better steel this side of the mountains and unless she visited old Magg’s she wasn’t going to get a better blanket.

The old man with the leather work offered to sell me a belt sheath to use with one of the daggers and concealed boot one for the other. He wanted a blanket but as fine as his leather work was, it wasn’t worth one. Thanks to Suzy’s gossip I knew his eldest daughter was pregnant, and offered him one of the smaller lambswool baby blankets I’d done on a lap loom. It had the same designs as a large blanket but had required less dye and materials. I knew I had him when I suggested he give the blanket to his daughter when his grandchild was born.

I made a few more small trades and even sold some cloth for silver coins. It was more common to trade goods but I knew anyone in or beyond the forts would take silver or gold. I was considering folding up my sheepskins and going in pursuit of lunch when I saw Cali crossing the field, another equally tall and red haired woman walking beside her. The sister wore her hair long and held back in a braid.

They reached the stalls and Cali pretended to look over the other wares while eyeing me. Her sister followed her gaze briefly but was soon busy bargaining with the blacksmith over a knife.

Cali knelt down beside my blanket and considered the lengths of cloth and three remaining colored blankets. She ran her hands over one of them, “These are beautiful,” she said it while looking at me.

I had to fight not to blush, “Do you want to trade for one of the blankets?” Smooth, very smooth.

She glanced down briefly at the blanket, “I’m not sure I could afford one. Did you make these?”

If she’d been eyeing something less valuable I’d have given it to her as a gift just for the look of longing on her face.

“Yes, I’m an apprentice weaver.”

I could see the interest in her expression deepen slightly. I wasn’t just a pretty girl, I was a girl who was learning a valuable trade.

Her sister finished bargaining with the blacksmith and paid for her knife with silver. She came over to join her sister.

Cali stood and so did I, “Kate this is my sister Tali.”

Tali gave me a slow evaluating look and I could see a calculating intelligence behind her eyes. She offered me a simple formal bow. They really must be northern if she’d done that instead of offering me her hand.

“Good to meet you, Cali told me about you,” her tone was very suggestive.

I looked away, too embarrassed to meet her gaze, “Do you want to trade for any of the cloth?”

She shrugged and looked down at the blanket. After a moment she did actually seem to be fairly interested and knelt to examine a length of woolen cloth, it was the same quality as the shirt she was wearing. She examined it with the eyes of a woman who knew the value of things and I got the feeling she was a bit more practical than her sister.

She stood up, “I’ll give you half a silver for this.”

No bargaining, no pretense of beginning with a lesser offer, she’d told me exactly what the cloth was worth. I accepted the half coin from her just as formally. I didn’t ask to weigh the coin, it had the stamp of the Five Forts, a five pointed star and I knew she’d been paid it by the fort for her service as a guard. It would weigh what it should.

“I hope you will dance with me tonight,” she told me as she accepted the cloth from me.

“If you ask me,”

“And me too,” Cali’s gave me that damn irresistible grin of hers and then they both walked away.

I watched them go and felt completely off kilter. I wasn’t sure what had just happened

I packed up what remained of my wares and dropped them off in the room before heading for lunch, if anyone else wanted cloth they could come find me.

Lunch was not the sprawling plenitude that dinner the night before had been. I had to go to the kitchens to get my plate of soup and hunk of bread. Another feast for the coming night was in the works and the kitchen already resembled a war zone. If I was going to be a good guest, I’d probably need to spend the afternoon helping out again.

I sat down at one of the long trestle tables with my bread and soup. I didn’t see any sign of Rebecca or Tobias. Who knew what they were up to? Knowing Tobias the twins had roped him into helping with some of the repairs on their mother’s house, probably the roof. Those two women had him wrapped around their fingers.

As for Rebecca, well she had a rather cat like talent for vanishing sometimes. I suspected she might well have a lover in one of the other forts that she saw at festivals but I couldn’t even guess who, she was very private.

I had just finished my food when Suzy descended on me like a flock of pigeons.  She flopped onto the bench beside me.

“Oh Kate. How could you, and after I told you about Jen too! She saw you with that mercenary you know.”

“Uh…”

“We’ll it’s all right. I think being jealous will just make her more determined and she’ll certainly never tell you that she saw you practically tumbling that woman.”

“Suzy!” I hissed. She was talking kind of loud. I needed to get us out of the amused earshot of plenty of adults who’d known me since I was a toddler. “Not here!”

She frowned and then her face lit up as an idea came to her, “Come on, lets go talk in the orchard. You can tell me everything there.”

She grabbed my arm and dragged me across the green and through the open wooden gates of the fort. She didn’t release me until we reached the cool shade of the apple orchard. We sat down in the rich green grass and she crossed her arms expectantly.

“Alright spill.”

“Spill what?”

“Tell me what it was like to kiss Cali! She’s so sexy and roguish. I don’t think she’s ever even noticed me. Maybe she would if I was a conceiver.”

I was mildly confused. I thought she was indignant on her sister’s behalf but apparently she’d forgotten about that. “It was good I guess.”

“Good? Did you heart get all fluttery? Did you get all…well you know the way it feels when you get all warm and achy in parts you’re not supposed to talk about?” For such a bubbly girl Suzy had an almost terrifying fascination with tumbling.

She’d proudly explained everything there was to know about love and sex to me when we’d been about nine, or more accurately the theories she’d formed on the matter from overhearing adults talk about it. I’d later made the mistake of repeating some of it to Rebecca and we’d had a long and embarrassing conversation in which she clarified the things that Suzy had been confused about or simply made up.

“I kissed her, I didn’t bed her Suzy.”

She leaned forward, her eyes shining, “Tell me everything.”

And because she was Suzy and would repeat everything I said word for word to half the fort later, I only told her what she already knew, that I’d danced with and kissed Cali and that was all. I loved her like a sister but I’d learned long ago never to tell her secrets.

When she realized that she wasn’t going to get anything else out of me she hopped up and grabbed my wrist again, “come on, let’s go see Jen.”

“What?”

“If you want her not go give up, you need to show you are still interested in her.”

“Who says I’m interested in Jen?”

She rolled her eyes, “I do because I know you. Now come on, she’s overseeing boat repairs down at the docks.

 

 

We found Jen up in the rigging of her river boat, The River Queen. It was one of the biggest boats I’d ever seen and required at least a ten person crew to manage the sails when going up river. It could only dock in the towns that had deep harbors or long docks. They depended on a set of small rowboats to trade with smaller settlements. I’d heard that there were much bigger boats and even ships hundreds of miles away where the river met the sea but I’d never been there.

“Jen!” Suzy yelled. “Come down and say hi to Kate.’

Jen scrambled down the rigging with an easy grace when she saw us. Even dressed in frayed pants cut off at the knees and a worn shirt without sleeves she looked damn good. Her sun darkened skin shone with a light sheen of sweat and her golden hair was tussled.

The smile in light blue eyes was genuine and a little bit hopeful as she lept over the side of the boat onto the scarred wood of the dock.

“Hi,” she said almost shyly.

“Hi,” I returned. What do you say to a woman after she’s seen you making out with another one the night before?

Suzy saved us by nudging her sister none to gently, “Jen, don’t you have that thing you wanted to give Katie?”

She nodded quick, “Right,” she jumped back into the boat, rooted around for a moment and then came back with a small leather bag. She was blushing furiously as she held it out to me. “I found this in a little settlement in a mining town to the North. I remembered that you said you were looking for a brighter blue dye.”

Awkwardly I took the bag and opened it. It was full of crumbling blue stones. On top of them was a scrap of dyed wool the same rich blue as a jay’s tail feathers. “This…this is perfect.” I’d heard of blue stones but I’d never been able to get any. I had no idea of their value and that troubled me.

I looked up at her, “What did you trade for these?”

She looked away, “Nothing much, the stones are common up there. I can get you more if you want.”

A season before I would have started bargaining, insisting that I pay her for the stones and arranging the price of her bringing me more. I couldn’t do that now, not if these were a gift…possibly a courting gift. I’d already accepted the stones, what did that mean?

I stared at my feet, “Yes, I would. I’ll bring you something I make with the dye next festival.” That left things a bit more equitable, a gift offered in exchange for a gift.

“I’d like that.”

Suzy propelled me away before either Jen or I could make a bigger fool of ourselves. As we crossed back over the meadow the head shepherd called us over to one of the paddocks. Joan Woolworth was in deep negotiations with my sister Rebecca. The object of debate appeared to be a tethered ram.

When Suzy and I reached the paddock Joan motioned towards the sheep with a weather worn hand, “Kate girl, you tell your sister how much this sheep is worth, especially the wool. Your teacher, old Maggs, buys half her fine wool from me she does.”

I glanced at Rebecca nervously and she shrugged. I knew my mother had told her to try and trade for some new breeding stock to add to our own herds, preferably one’s with thicker and better fleeces then the ones we had now. We’d had a few freeze to death in an early cold snap last year.

I climbed over the fence and knelt beside the ram to rub my hands in his thick fleece. He bleated at me and rolled his eyes. The quality of the wool was low.

I looked up at the formidable old shepherdess. “It’s true you sell some of the best wool in the Five Forts, Joan, but none of that’s come from this sheep.”

Joan scowled at me but I could see a hint of respect in the way she nodded her head, “It’s the best you’re going to get for an offer of a silver a head.”

I stood, “Then we’ll offer you a bit more but buy fewer stock.”

“Alright lass, come out to the other paddock with me and we’ll settle which ones you want.”

Rebecca trailed behind us as I picked three young rams and then she and Joan settled back into angry negotiations. Eventually a price was reached. It more than our mother had told us to pay but necessary. We’d bring the rams back with us when we returned.

I was considering the three rams with a sense of satisfaction when Joan leaned against the fence beside me.

“I heard you danced with my daughter Sasha last night.”

Sasha was an ungifted girl a few years older than me. She was slender and pretty and had long brown hair the color of chestnuts. She and I had been friends for years and I had been somewhat baffled by how shy she’d been the night before when she asked me to dance.

“Yes.”

“She’s a good girl my Sasha, a skilled shepherdess and smart too. We don’t need so many shepherds in this fort. She’s thinking about striking out on her own soon, finding herself a place in one of the other forts.”

“I’d imagine so.” I had a feeling I knew where this was going.

“When she marries, I’m going to her give her fifty head of the best Moreno as her dowry and a pair of our best sheepdogs, a breeding pair mind you.” Joan was nothing if not practical, but then again she had six daughters to find a place for in the world and none of them were gifted. “you could make a worse match than with a shepherd, what with you being a weaver and all. The two of you could do well together.”

I looked at my feet, “I’m not sure I’m looking to be getting married just yet.”

“When you are, remember what I told you.

“I will.”

“And just so you know. Bell and Nellie have the same dowry as Sasha.”

I made my escape politely and headed back towards the fort.

 

I found Tobias busy nailing shingles up on the O’Conner roof. There was no sign of the two twins. I climbed up and took a hammer to help him.

“I think Joan just offered me fifty sheep to marry her daughter.”

Tobias laughed. “Last year she offered me a hundred and fifty to marry her two eldest. I might even have considered it if either girl had the faintest interest in me.”

I knew from fort gossip that Bell was now engaged to another ungifted girl and Nellie, while happy to collect lovers, wasn’t looking to marry any time soon.

“Jen gave me blue dye stones,”

“Not very romantic but I guess that means she knows you well.”

“And one the mercenaries introduced me to her sister and she bought some of my cloth.”

Tobias paused in his hammering and sat back, “ah…I heard about last night by the way. Gill and Till told me that you should really steer clear of the Walker sisters.”

Just as he finished the sentence two dark haired heads popped out of the balcony window and the two O'Connor twins, Gillie and Tillie came up onto the roof, one carrying a basket of food and the other a bottle of wine. I still couldn’t tell the two beautiful young women apart, although Tobias swore he could. Today the only difference between them that I could tell was that one had on a necklace with a blue stone and the other an identical necklace with a green stone. You could never count on the necklaces though, they liked to switch them around. The truest tell was that Gillie chewed her nails and Tillie didn’t.

“Hey Kate,” said the one with the blue.

“Who’s talking about the Walker sisters?” said the green.

I folded my arms and leaned back against the shingles. “Was everyone watching me last night?”

“Pretty much,” said the first twin as she settled herself on one side of Tobias and her sister on the other. The one with the basket passed around bread and cheese.

I took some morosely and then accepted the wine bottle when it was passed to me and took a sip.

“Like we told your brother, you should watch out for those three, especially Cali. She’s the charming one.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

The farther twin shrugged, “Not exactly, at least not if all you’re looking to do is tumble but if you start courting you should know what you’re getting into.”

Her sister nodded, “Right, Cali isn’t just looking for a wife for herself. The three sisters are trying to find a conceiver for all three of them. Since they’re mercenaries they can’t exactly support a wife each, but one wife and one set of kids they could. If they marry a girl from a fort they’ll be able to join the fort and have a place in the winter.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because they made an offer to Laura a few months back and she told me about it after she turned them down.

That was a lot to take in. One conceiver marrying a set of sisters was a lot less common than a kindler or a man doing the same but it wasn’t unheard of. I had considered the possibility that I might eventually take more than one wife, but three to start out with wasn’t exactly something I’d thought of.

“I see.”

The closer twin gave me a quick hug, “Just be careful honey. It’s your first festival wearing you beads.”

They passed around the wine again. Now that I could focus enough to taste it I realized how good it was, it was a light and sweet wine from white grapes. I’d only ever drunk something like that before during the first toast at a wedding.

“What's with the nice wine?” Had I interrupted something?

“We’re celebrating,” Tobias told me. “Gillie and Tillie finally agreed to marry me. They’re coming back with the Ash Fort with us when we leave.”

“Oh wow! Congratulations!” They’d been courting almost two years. It was about time.

The Gillie blushed. “We wanted to get a house set up before the baby is born in the spring.”

My eyes went wide. “You’re pregnant?”

She laughed, “not me, Tillie.”

I turned to Tillie, who did not look particularly pregnant. She had to be at least four months in though, that was when Tobias had last seen her.

“I’m going to be an aunt.” It would be the first child born to any of my siblings, at least within a marriage. I didn’t get to be an aunt to any of the children that Tobias was only a gene father too, any more than he was a dad to them.

I suppose there was Rebecca’s daughter Gina, who she’d had with Heli in Northern Fort, but that was complicated. They had never been married and the child had been conceived by accident in the flush of a youthful romance during a midsummer festival. When Heli had born the child, she insisted that Rebecca was only a gene mother not a second mom.

As birth mother, Heli had that right to decide that, even if it broke Rebecca’s heart. In the Five Forts, gene parent only had rights to children if they were married to the birth mother.

I could understand why Tobias was so relieved that the twins had accepted his proposal, especially now that one was carrying his child. He’d wanted to be a dad for a long time, although as far as I knew he’d never considered marrying anyone other than the twins. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face, “I’m going to make you the most beautiful blanket for the baby I’ve ever woven.” We drank the rest of the wine and then I left them to their celebrating.

 

...

 

I wandered through the fort in the late afternoon and found it almost empty. I heard yelling coming from one of the outer pastures and followed the sound. Nearly everyone had gone to gather around one of the outer enclosures. It was time for the contests to begin.

River Fort wasn’t known for its horses so they didn’t have half the riding contests or even the bull riding that other forts did but it wasn’t a festival without bronco riding. Tobias had held the record for it until two years ago. Last year a young man in Ash Fort had been killed during the winter festival when he was thrown and all of the five forts agreed to ban men from the bronco and bull riding contests. They were just too valuable. Tobias was still mad about it.

There had been talk about banning kindlers too but it hadn’t happened yet. I suspected that it was just a matter of time until one of them got killed and they banned them as well. I thought the bronco riding was stupidly dangerous but I could see the thrill of it.

I arrived at the field just in time to see Rebecca flung from the back of an unbroken horse. She hit the ground in a roll and scrambled back under the fence before the animal could trample her.

She stood up grinning, blood dripping down her face from a shallow cut. The crowd roared. I swore and ran over to her, yanking a cloth from my pocket to wipe her face.

“You told Mom you wouldn’t enter this year.”

“What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Anyway I stayed on for almost a minute. I think I might win.”

One of the stable girls caught the horse and led it out of the ring. The crowd fell silent as another woman climbed onto a fresh horse behind the stall of the barn door. A whistle blew and the gate flew open. An infuriated stallion burst out with a red haired woman clinging to his back.

At first I thought it was Cali but I saw her with Tali across the field leaning on the fence yelling. She saw me watching and grinning.

I looked back at the woman and the horse. I couldn’t get a good look at her not with the horse rearing and kicking. She was a blur against the midnight black of the animal’s back.

Thirty-seconds, one minute, two, at least that was my guess of time. I saw the head of the fort turn over the sand glass at least five times.

The horse tried every trick he knew to get her off his back, bucking and weaving. Gradually it began to wear down, tiring. There was no sound from the crowd as they watched in amazed silence, only the pained snorts of the horse.

At last he began to stagger, exhausted. The woman sprang off the horse’s back when he lay down and tried to roll onto her. She barely ducked under the fence before the horse lurched up, snapping at her and almost catching the edge of her shirt.

She stood up laughing and gasping for breath on the safe side of the fence. I’d never heard applause as loud as the crowd gave her then. I finally got a good look at the woman. She had to be Cali and Tali’s sister, she just looked too much like them not to be.

She wore her fire red hair shorter than either of her sisters and was taller too and younger. While her sisters had a sort of lanky strength, she had muscles. I got the feeling she’d stayed on the horse by sheer strength as much as skill.

There was one more woman waiting to compete but she bowed out, saying that she couldn’t possibly beat that time. The fort leader read out the times as we all gathered by the side of the enclosure. There was no question that the red haired woman had won. She’d stayed on for two and half minutes and hadn’t even really been thrown in the end. It turned out her name was Mel Walker

She accepted the wreath of hedge roses from Marcus and there was more cheering. When turned around, the watching crowd went silent. Now was the moment that we were all waiting for, why women and men risked their lives in the bronco riding.

The winner got a crown of hedge roses to give away and the woman or man she gave it too became the Autumn Queen or King for the rest of the festival. A years before Tobias had won it and given it to the twins who’d shared it.

Cali subtly pointed towards me and Mel nodded almost imperceptibly. She crossed the watching circle of women and men towards me. Very graciously she bowed and held out the crown.

With trembling fingers I took it and placed it on my head. I couldn’t hear whatever it was she said to me because of all the applause but I liked the warmth in her eyes. She reached out to run a hand through my hair and before I realized what was happening she’d kissed me, light and quick on the lips. That got a whole new round of applause and some wolf whistles. We pulled apart and she told me, “I’ll see you tonight beautiful,” and walked away.

Chapter Text

The next thing I knew Suzy was dragging me off to get ready for the feast. I told her I would wear the same clothes as the night before but she said I was Autumn Queen and needed a dress and a proper one too, not that she really had any dresses either. This led us to seek out her mother who agreed to lend me one of hers. A few alterations later the blue wool dress fit me, even if we’d had to take in the bust and take up about four inches of the hem.

Suzy then spent an inordinate amount of time braiding ribbons into my hair and I did the same for her. Her mother also agreed, laughing, to let us use some of her makeup as well. She was originally from one of the cities south of forts along the river and knew how to uses plants and pigments to make colors to paint the skin. We stained our lips with a dull red paint made from berries and Suzy brushed a tiny bit of crumbled red dust into my cheeks. Darkening out eyelashes with a mix of ashes and other things proved a little harder and we had to get her mother’s help. The final result in the in mirror wasn’t bad.

As the sun began to set I put the wreath of roses back on and Suzy and I walked down to the commons. Mel was waiting for me at the head of the table, where the champion and the Rose Queen always sat. She bowed to me again and I took her hand. We sat and the meal began.

I could barely look at her, I felt so shy. It was well beyond me to even try to eat anything.

“Cali said your name is Kate,” her voice was warm and rich as wildflower honey mixed with rum.

“And you’re Mel,”

We were both stunning conversationalists. I got the feeling that she was better at action than talk.

“You’re a weaver?”

“Only an apprentice. I’ll be a journeyman in another year and a master in three. I hear you’re a mercenary.”

“yea, my sisters are too. We’re with the fort garrison for the winter but we’ll probably hire out as trading caravan guards in the spring. There’s good money in it.”

“Where did you start out?”

“We’re from a farmstead up in the North.”

“Do you still have family there?”

She drank from her tankard to give herself a moment before replying, “No.”

I got the feeling I shouldn’t ask anymore about that. Instead I asked her about guarding caravans and we spent the rest of the meal talking about that.

When the time came Marcus gave another long winded speech. It was somewhat improved by by the amount of ale that everyone had consumed by that point. Then the fiddler struck a note and Mel and I stood up to dance.

She wasn’t as graceful as Cali but she led well. We danced a whole reel on our own with all the eyes of the fort on us. I suppose that should have been every girls dream but mostly I was just terrified I’d trip and make a fool of myself.

The song shifted and the other waiting couples joined the dance. At the end of the reel Mel handed me off to Tali who danced one song with me and then passed me on to Cali.

“So what do you think of my sisters?” Cali asked me.

For once in my life I decided to be playful, “I think Tali’s a better dancer and Mel’s a better rider.”

“I’ll give you the first but how can you know the second. You’ve never seen me on a horse.”

“If you were the better rider you would have entered the contest not her.”

“Fair enough, although I’ve plenty of other talents.”

“Oh, really?” The song ended and we found ourselves on the edge of the green.

“Want to find out?”

Gods, she looked good in the firelight. I was getting the feeling that I was about to get myself in over my head again.

A hand on my shoulder surprised me and I turned to find Jen, “Can I have this dance?”

Cali pushed between us and locked eyes with Jen. “She and I were just leaving.”

“No we weren’t.” I tried to protest but neither woman heard me. They were too busy glaring at each other like a pair of angry dogs. They weren’t drunk but they weren’t fully sober either and that made things dangerous. They were about evenly matched in height and build, although Cali was rangier and held herself like she’d been in more than a few fights.

“She doesn’t want to go anywhere with you mercenary.”

“And you think she wants you at all river rat?”

“Right now I don’t want to even talk to either of you. I’m going to go get a drink,” I turned to go back to the tables and walked straight into Mel, who’d come over to see what was going on.

I stumbled and she caught me. It was a completely innocent move on her part but Jen must have seen it differently.

“Let her go!”

“Hey I’m not done talking to you!” snarled Cali and grabbed her arm, which was definitely a mistake.

Jen threw the first punch. They hit the ground in an angry tangle of limbs about five-seconds later.

Mel gently pushed me aside to go to her sister’s aid but I grabbed her wrist and tried to pull her back, “No! Don’t fight.”

She turned and looked at me in confusion, unwilling to shake me off for fear of hurting me.

“Kate!” someone grabbed me around the middle and yanked me away from her.

I found myself shoved behind Tobias. “Don’t touch my sister!” he snapped at Mel. He must have thought he was seeing a struggle between us and had come to protect me.

Mel raised a hand to strike him and then lowered it when she realized who she was confronted by.

Tobias fell into a fighting stance, “What are you afraid to fight someone your own size?”

She just held up her hands, palms out, “I don’t hit men. My sisters raised me better than that.”

Behind us Jen and Cali were still tumbling in the dirt and all around us people had gathered to watch or were running over. It was Suzy and Jen’s mom who ended the fight. She threw a bucket of water over the two combatants.

They sat up and looked around in confusion like a pair of wet cats. Marcus forced his way through the crowd.

“What in the name of the gods is going on!”

Tali materialized from the crowd like a shadow, “A misunderstanding, nothing more. No steel was drawn and no one is seriously hurt.”

Marcus considered the scene before him, “Jen, Tobias, Kate, Cali and Mel. Meeting house now! As for the rest of you lollygaggers, the show is over, get back to dancing or drinking yourselves into a stupor.”

No one moved, “Now!” he had a booming voice when he wanted too. The crowd bled away and we all trekked after the old man to the empty meeting house. He lit an oil lamp and made us all sit at one of the great tables.

“Alright now tell me what happened. You each get one sentence.”

“She hit me,” said Cali pointing at Jen. She had a split lip and a lot of dust in her hair.

“Because you grabbed me right after your sister grabbed Kate,” snapped Jen who was probably going to have an ugly bruise on her chin. Her nice linen shirt was ripped down the front.

Marcus turned to Mel questioningly.

She shook her head, “I didn’t grab anyone, Kate ran into me and I caught her so she wouldn’t fall.”

Marcus looked at me.

I nodded confirmation, “That’s true.”

He looked over at Tobias, “And what was your part?”

Tobias answered with more then his allotted sentence. “I thought I saw Kate struggling with Mel so I ran over. I pulled my sister away from Mel. She got mad but wouldn’t fight with me.”

Marcus considered all of this. I wondered if he would ask anyone to tell the whole story but he didn’t. Maybe he thought none of us would tell the truth. “So Kate, no one actually harmed you in any way?”

“No.”

“And Mel and Tobias, you two didn’t actually fight?”

They both nodded.

“Alright then this is just a matter of a fist fight between Jen and Cali. Was the fight over Kate? A yes or no answer will suffice.”

They glared at each other and then Cali shrugged, “yea, I guess it was.”

Marcus didn’t look amused, “Shame on you both for fighting over a woman. Jen, as your father I would have hoped I raised you better than this. You’re a grown woman and a riverboat captain; don’t make me rethink the responsibilities I’ve given you.”

Jen hunched her shoulders, “I’m sorry.”

He father nodded sharply and shifted his cold gaze to Cali. “Ms. Walker, don’t you dare forget that you’re a hired mercenary not a member of this fort. I can terminate you and your sisters’ contract any time I want. If it hadn’t been my daughter who threw the first punch I’d kick you out right now. As it is, consider yourself on notice. Fight again in my fort and I’ll throw you out even if it’s into a blizzard.”

“I understand,” she nodded to him respectfully.

I felt my stomach knot when his eyes fell on me, “As for you Kate, don’t pretend your innocent in all of this. Children who play with fire shouldn’t be surprised when they singe their fingers. Now, all of you get out.”

We did. I wanted to at least talk to Jen but Tobias took my arm and firmly led me away. The only place I was going was to bed.

I woke the next morning without the pain in my head that I’d had the day before but I wanted to curl up and die when I remembered what had happened the night before. I dragged myself up and went out to the commons. Today I was early enough to actually get breakfast.

I took a seat beside Rebecca. She took one look at me and pulled me into a quick hug. “It’s okay Kate, you’re not the first woman two drunken idiots have gotten into a fight over. At least you didn’t hit anyone.”

“Thanks,” I reached for a hunk of bread and cheese from the bowls in front of us.

I had just raised the food to my lips when Suzy plopped down beside me in her usual way.

“Tell me everything!”

She looked far too gleeful in my opinion. I told her an abbreviated version of events that didn’t make anyone look bad.

When I was done she told me, “You should go talk to Jen, let her know you’re not mad at her.”

“I am mad at her, she threw the first punch.”

Suzy made a face, “Yea but she doesn’t deserve to feel as bad as she does right now. She thinks you’re going to hate her forever.”

“Fine, where is she.”

“At her boat. I’ll come with you.”

I stood, “I’ll go alone.”

I left the commons and headed through the gates. As I turned towards the river, Tali materialized from somewhere, probably leaning in the shadow of the wall. I had the distinctive feeling that she’d been waiting for me.

“Kate,” she called, “hold a moment.”

I paused on the path.

I saw that she had a bunch of Blue Iris flowers in her hand and she bowed before offering them to me. “These are by way of apology.”

I accepted the flowers. “You’ve got nothing to apologize for.”

“My sister does.”

“She should apologize to me then.”

“She thought I might do a better job of pleading her case today than she would. We’ve both a gift for words but she is better suited to using them for seduction and me to seeking forgiveness. Might I walk with you?”

She offered me her arm and I took it, hooking my own with hers. It felt strangely formal, although I’d seen plenty of courting couples do it. It was less intimate than joined hands but more so than walking side by side. I turned us towards the orchards. I could hardly go down to the river now. The air was cool, the first chill of winter slow to fade with the rising sun.

“I am sorry we had only one dance last night. I had hoped for more,” she told me.

“You’re a good dancer.”

She smiled, “Cali told me you said that.”

“Do you tell each other everything?”

“After you have fought back to back with your sisters, you do not keep secrets from them.”

I paused beneath one of the apple trees. The air was rich with the smell of over ripe fruit. Everything good had been harvested and there was only the rotting ones on the ground left. I looked up into her attractive face, “So all three of you are really courting me then?”

“Yes.”

“And what do all of you think of me?”

“Cali wants to sweep you off your feet and carry you to bed, but she wants to tumble every pretty girl she meets. I think Mel is half in love, although that is as much from seeing you with the Autumn Queen crown on your head as any charm of your own. She has something of a romantic heart.”

“And you?” I moved to fully face her, pulling my arm from hers so that I could rest my hands on her shoulders.

She pressed closer to me and I could feel the heat of her skin through our clothes, “I like you.”

“Just like?”

“I don’t yet know you well enough to say.” She moved a hand to run it through my hair. I thought she’d kiss me but she didn’t, just watched me with those evaluating green eyes.

“That’s not very romantic,” I told her.

“No, but it’s honest. Romantic is for quick tumbles. Honest is for courting a wife and the fair ends tomorrow.”

“Who says I’m looking for a wife.”

Tali laughed softly, her voice sending warm shivers down my spine. She ran her hands lazily up and down the blue beads on my arms. “Honey if you weren’t at least considering it you wouldn’t be wearing these.”

I could feel the heat of her hands through the glass, “maybe I’m looking but I’m not going to marry anyone yet. Tonight I won’t dance with just you and your sisters.”

Her other hand found my back and slowly ran up and down the curve of my spine, respectfully never going too low. “Dance with whoever you want, but you won’t find a better dancer than me. All I asked is for you tell me if I should hope. If you ask us, my sisters and I will come to the midwinter festival in Ash Fort.”

“Come if you want, I’ll dance with you in the great hall but I don’t promise anything more.”

She pulled me flush against her, “You’re a smart little vixen.”

“I thought Cali was the one who wanted to tumble me.”

“She’ll tumble anyone, I hold out for the beautiful ones.”

I leaned up and kissed her. Her lips were warm against my own. I almost pulled back when I felt her tongue flick against my closed mouth.

In my meager experience of kissing, no one had ever done that before, although I knew what she was doing in theory. I opened my mouth against hers and things got very interesting, very fast.

I had my back against a tree before I even registered how I’d gotten there. My whole body felt alive and desperate. She got a hand under my shirt, running it over my stomach and then cupping a breast. I gasped against her mouth. She pinched a nipple and my world almost went white.

She pressed a knee between my legs and that felt well…I might have been a virgin but I knew which direction things were going. I turned my face from hers, “Wait.”

She started kissing my neck.

“Stop,” I managed.

“Do you really want me too?”

I didn’t, not really. Gods I wanted her to keep touching me but I knew where that would lead and I wasn’t ready.

“Yes, no. Not in the middle of a damn apple orchard.”

She nuzzled at my neck, “We could go somewhere.”

I reached up to push her away, “No.”

She let go of me and stepped back, laughing softly, “You’re actually a virgin aren’t you honey?”

I blushed crimson, “Yes.”

She kissed me on the cheek, “Then you deserve better than this for your first tumble and certainly need more time to make up your mind.” She stepped back from me. “You’ll dance with me tonight?”

“Of course,”

“Then I’ll see you then.”

She was gone in an instant. I leaned against the tree and struggled to catch my breath. When I finally did I realized that I had dropped the flowers she’d given me and they were all trampled on the earth about my feet.

I collected what remained of my wits and went looking for Jen. She was up in the rigging of the boat alone and didn’t see me approach. I grasped the side of the boat and jumped onto the deck. I almost stumbled as it shifted under my feet in the soft lull of the current.

“Hey Jen!” I called up.

“Hey,” she called down in surprise. She scrambled down the rigging and was beside me in an instant.

“Listen Jen,” I began.

She held up a hand to silence me, “Kate, before you say anything, I just want to apologize for last night. I don’t know what came over me, I’ve never been the jealous type before. I’ll understand if you don’t want me courting you anymore, but please know I really like you.” She didn’t look at me, her faced flushed with embarrassment.

I reached foreword and tilted her face back to look at me, “and I like you too.”

Her eyes went wide. “Really?”

I had to stand up on my toes to kiss her. It was awkward at first as if she was too surprised to realize what was happening. Then as if a dam had burst she pulled me flush against her and kissed me back passionately. Her hands didn’t wander, but damn she could kiss.

“You have no idea how long I’ve wanted you. I’ve been half in love with you ever since that day in the apple orchard.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“You were little sister’s best friend and you weren’t of age yet. It wouldn’t have been proper.” That was just like Jen, always worried about what was proper or honorable. Of course, from what Suzy said, she often used that to cover up her own shyness.

I ran my hands through her short wavy hair, “You’re too noble for your own good. I’ve had a crush on you for years too.”

She nuzzled at my neck, “Can I court you then?”

I pulled back, “I’m not looking to start courting seriously yet.”

Her dark blue eyes were hurt, “You mean not with me or not with anyone.”

“Not with anyone, tonight I’m going to dance with whoever I want to and if you want to dance with me you have to accept that.”

She considered me for a moment, “I can accept that. I still mean to win you though. I can prove to you I’m better than any woman in this fort or beyond it.”

“You could be the best woman in the world and I still might not want to court with you. How about we just see how well we get on."

She nodded and then grew suddenly serious, “There is one other thing, you don’t have to say yes but I want you to consider it. In the spring I’m taking the River Queen all the way up North to where the river narrows. I mean to trade for new wool sheep and it would be good to have someone along who could judge their worth. If you came you could do that and trade for dyes too.” Not the most romantic proposal I had ever heard but certainly the most earnest.

“I don’t know the first thing about boats Jen.”

“I could teach you.” She offered me a hopeful grin.

“And what would we travel as? Friends, lovers, partners in a trial marriage?” I was no fool, I knew Jen’s intentions and I was beginning to know myself. If I got on a boat with her we’d be tumbling within a week and if I wasn’t careful with the teas I’d be with child well before we got back.

“Whatever you want. You can give me your answer at the midwinter festival. I’ll come to Ash Fort.”

“I’ll give you my answer then. Just so know the Walker sisters are coming to the festival to court me too.”

Something approaching anger flashed in her eyes for a moment but she fought it down, “It doesn’t matter.”

We kissed once more briefly and I left her on the boat.

Suzy and I spent the afternoon helping in the kitchens for the final night of the festival. After all the trouble night before I figured I owed a certain amount of service in apology. Mostly Suzy and I hauled water from the well, although we also ended up peeling mountains of potatoes and shucking baskets of corn.

Suzy talked non stop the whole time. I was actually surprised to learn that among everything else that had been going on, she’d dance with a very attractive kindler from Mountain Fort. Her name was Sam and she was a blacksmith’s apprentice, in fact the apprentice of the woman I’d brought my knives from. Suzy was in no rush to marry but she did intent to tumble the blacksmith’s apprentice that night if she could. It wouldn’t be her first time.

I cautioned her to be careful that night. It was one thing for her tumble another ungifted, when there was no risk of conception and another to tumble a kindler who could get her with child. Suzy rolled her eyes and told me she’d been drinking the red tea regularly.

“You should be drinking the red root tea too. My mom says that all women who are of age should, so that accidents don’t happen.”

“I haven’t tumbled anyone yet. There’s no need.” There were two kinds of tea that women drank. The first was known as red tea. Women who tumbled regularly drank it. Red tea was always brewed in a red pots and present at all breakfasts. Children and men were strictly forbidden from touching it. The problem with the first tea was you had to drink it every day without fail or it didn’t work and you had to drink it for almost a week before it was fully effective.

The second kind was known as blue tea. Women only drank that as an emergency contraceptive the day after tumbling, if they hadn’t been drinking the red tea. The problem with the second tea was that it could be kind of hard on the body and caused stomach cramps. It wasn’t safe to drink too often. The two teas could interact badly, and you had to wait a few days after drinking blue tea before you could drink red tea.

There were other methods of birth control as well but none quite as effective or safe as the teas and so they were the most common, at least among the forts. For women who were traveling there was also a more distilled form of red tea you could carry in a flask, but you still had to brew a new batch every couple weeks and it tasted terribly bitter when it was cold.

Methods became a little less reliable and a little more dangerous once a pregnancy took root. There were other herbs that could be taken a few weeks later and even harsher after a month or more. Healers generally didn’t like to terminate a pregnancy after the first three months unless it was making the mother sick, although they would.

Suzy gave me a long look, “well my mom would say that you should start drinking the red tea well before you're ready to tumble. I’m surprised yours doesn’t.”

I shrugged, “She said I shouldn’t be tumbling yet at all. Although I guess she did pack me dried blue tea, so that’s kind of a mixed message.”

Suzy rolled her eyes. “When you go home you should start. You need to be ready if you want to tumble anyone at the winter festival. If you tumble tonight I guess you’ll have to drink blue tea tomorrow.”

“I’m not going to tumble anyone tonight.”

“You say that now but you have some very attractive suitors.”

“I’m not going to sleep with your sister tonight. I’m also not going to sleep with any of the Walter sisters either, however the hell that would work.”

Suzy shrugged, “Yea and I said I wasn’t going to tumble Betty Whitmore last year and we know how that ended. Lust makes you dumb and impulsive and there isn’t anything wrong with that. The important thing is that you don’t use it as an excuse to act like a jerk to the people you tumble and don’t conceive children you don’t want.”

I smirked, “You sound like your mother.”

“She knows something about sex and love. I’ve got five full siblings and she and my father are still happily married.” five full siblings and fifteen half siblings. Her father had four other wives and probably also knew something about love and sex. Marcus had apparently been quite the handsome man in his youth, even if that was long since faded. He was a good enough husband that all of his marriages had lasted.

That night was the most restless of all three. It was the last chance for courting couples from different forts to tumble or promise to wed for four months. My brother danced all night with the twins, reveling in their last festival before they married. Suzy disappeared early with her blacksmith’s apprentice. Rebecca also left after a few songs with a pretty ungifted woman who she’d been dancing with for the last three nights.

I was careful make my first dances with women I wasn’t that invested in. I danced with Sasha and her sisters and other women I’d grown up with. Then I danced once with Jen and then each of the three Walker sisters in turn.

Jen caught my hand as soon as I parted from the third sister and as soon as that dance was done Cali was waiting. I could feel the tension between them as I released Jen’s hand and reached for hers.

I danced with her but when Jen was waiting for me after that, I refused her. Instead I crossed to the tables and asked a sleepy looking ungifted girl, Mary, who I was friends with, to dance with me. She seemed surprised but agreed.

As we twirled around the circle I saw Jen ask another woman to dance and so did Cali, as if they both wanted to show that they weren’t waiting for me. Mary and I finished dancing and I went for a drink of cider. When I lifted the tankard to my lips, I found it sweet and cold. I sat down and caught my breath.

I was surprised when Mel sat down beside me.

“Give me a moment, I need a break from dancing,” I told her.

She shrugged and poured herself a mug of cider, “That’s okay. I just wanted to sit.”

We sat in silence for a moment. I was half afraid she was going to apologize for the night before as well and I was very tired of women apologizing to me.

She didn’t. Instead she rested an elbow on the table, looking at me like I was the best thing she’d seen in a long time.

“You know, you’re still the prettiest Autumn Queen I’ve ever seen.”

“I don’t have the crown anymore.”

“Doesn’t make you any less pretty.”

“Your sister told me you are half in love with me,” the cider made me bold. Bold enough to touch the side of her face.

She kissed my wrist, “She told you the truth.”

“I barely know you. You barely know me. You can’t love me.”

“I don’t know much of love but I know I want you little queen.” She caught my wrist and kissed a line up my arm to my shoulder to my collar bone.

I was entranced by the warmth of her lips against my skin. She nuzzled my neck, her words half lost against me, “I like your skin, and the scent of you and your warmth. I want to pleasure you and see desire in your dark eyes.”

She had me and she knew it. It was all I could do not tilt up her chin and kiss her. Her hands wandered, one finding my breasts through my shirt and the other slipping beneath the cloth and caressing the warm skin of my lower back. Her voice was as rich and sweet as wine.

“I bet you make the sweetest sounds,”

That sobered me quick enough. I pushed her off my neck, “I’m not tumbling you tonight.”

She just pulled me closer, “You sure?”

“Wanting doesn’t make it a good idea.”

She kissed me on the forehead and then drew back. “As you wish.”

I was both relieved and mildly disappointed. She’d respected my refusal and I felt all the safer with her for it.

I felt the weight of the bench shift and turned to find Jen sitting on my other side. She and Mel exchanged a look.

“She’s a lady, treat her like one,” said Mel before she stood up and left.

In the end I didn’t tumble anyone that night. I danced until almost dawn and then crawled into my own bedding in the nearly empty room. I think I made the right choice.

Chapter Text

We set out in the late morning the next day. It took a long time for the twins to say all of their goodbyes. Their parents were sad that they’d miss the wedding but they didn’t want to travel all the way to Ash Fort. It was a hard ride and their aging father Marcus was in no shape to traverse it.

Eventually we set out with the addition of the twins on their mares and a pack horse that carried the possessions that made up their joint dowry. Their true value to our fort wasn’t in linens of cookware though, but rather the skills they brought. Gillie was a midwife and Tillie a healer. Neither had a strong enough gift to be called a conceiver but they could both sense an injury and knew the proper medicines to bind wounds and make a teas and tinctures.

We also had the three sheep we’d traded for tied to the pack horses we’d brought. Sheep don’t like it but the fastest way to transport them is tied up and thrown over a saddle.

We rode with the party from Western fort until we reached the crossroad and then we were turned south down through the forest. It was a cold overcast day and a light rain began to fall the moment we entered the cover of the trees.

We had just stopped to pull our oil skins over ourselves and our packs when I saw movement in the forest.

“Get down!” I yelled an instant a rain of crossbow bolts fell on us. One pierced my cousin Julie in the chest and she fell from her horse as a dead weight. Another struck Rebecca in the shoulder and she cried in pain, although she didn’t fall.

My horse reared and tried to throw me. I clung to his mane and he bucked wildly. I lost my seat and was thrown. I know I felt a rib crack as I hit the ground; it was all I could do to scramble away from my horse’s flashing hooves. All around us women were running foreword from the forest with weapons drawn. A few of our own got their rifles up in time, most didn’t. I saw two strangers in heavy cloaks yank Tobias from his horse. He went down struggling and swearing.

He drew a knife and fought, stabbing one in the chest but the other had him, slipping a garrote around his throat. He went limp and with the help of another they dragged him away. I stumbled to my feet and drew my knife. My rifle had been with my horse.

Without thinking I ran after them into the heavy cover of the trees. I couldn’t let them take my brother. I didn’t get far. A strong hand grabbed me by the back of my shirt and slammed me into a tree. I looked up into the face of an unfamiliar man more than twice my size. He had a short sword raised to stab me.

“Wait!” yelled a woman’s voice. “Take her, don’t kill her. She’s a conceiver. Look at the bracelets.”

Another figure raced foreword and a cloth was pressed against my face, it smelled strange and when I fought for breath a wave of dizziness overwhelmed me. I tumbled into a horrible, gaping blackness.

 

 

When I woke again I was bound, lying across what I realized must be a horse. Every step of the animal hurt my broken or bruised ribs and made me whimper with pain. I could see nothing and realized that a hood must have been placed over my head. I could barely breathe. Panic made me hyperventilate and I managed to choke myself into oblivion.

I came slowly to an unhappy awareness as I was being lowered from the horse. Someone yanked the hood from my head and I blinked into a hazy twilight. A woman with cold grey eyes and an ugly scar across one side of her face knelt in front of me.

I felt the cold steel of a knife against my throat, “Tell me the truth girl, are you really a conceiver?”

Fear almost paralyzed me. She pressed the blade hard enough to cut the skin and I whimpered, “Yes.”

“Good, you get to live then” she withdrew the knife and stood up. I looked around and saw that we were sitting not far from a small fire on which a pot was already simmering. We were in a clearing in which there were about ten unfamiliar figures, all in heavy cloaks of different dull colors. There were fifteen horses, including my family’s packhorse without the sheep.

I could see a slumped figure leaning against the tree next to me with bound hands. Even in the fading light I could tell that he was my brother. He had an ugly bruise on one side of his face and his eyes were half closed.

Someone else came over and leaned down to tilt my head up, “She’s a pretty one. Maybe we should keep her for ourselves.” Her eyes were the same cold grey as the scarred woman but she seemed a bit younger. They were kin of some sort or other, probably sisters, maybe cousins. She might have even been attractive if she wasn’t looking at me like a lamb ready for the slaughter.

“We can’t keep a fort woman, if she ever escaped or were found it would be the death of us.”

“Once we get her big with a child she wouldn’t run.”

“We’ll use the money we get from her to pay the dowry of a conceiver from another enclave, there are girls in Juniper Enclave.”

“Their women are ugly and inbred. We’ll have healthier daughters with this one.”

The scarred woman brushed my hair from my face, considering me carefully, “You may be right, Kavi. We’ll never be able to buy a woman this good. The problem will be keeping her.”

The scarred woman turned back to me. I could barely see her face in the flickering glow of the fire but I could tell her smile was cruel, “So what do you think girl? Do you want to take your chances with my sister and me or would you rather be sold on the common market and end up somewhere worse? I promise we at least won’t beat you.”

“My fort will be looking for me, my mother will pay you well for my safe return. She’ll pay even more for my brother.”

“Oh honey, I know that they’d sooner string me up than pay me a ransome. You’re never going to see your home again.”

“Who are you?”

“Bandits, what else?” said the younger one. She sat down beside me, half crawling into my lap. Her skin was warm where she touched me but I was terrified of her. She reached behind me and untangled the mess of my braid.“Don’t worry sweetheart, my sister and I will take care of you now.”

“Don’t touch me!”

My cry woke my brother and her jerked against the bonds holding him. He turned his head and saw the bandit half on top of me.

“Get away from her you bitch!” he snarled.

The bandit was not impressed. “Is she your lover honey?”

He looked sick, “She’s my sister.”

The scarred woman laughed, “I thought I saw a family resemblance. You come from good stock.” She moved to my other side, stroking the side of my face as she spoke.

“Please don’t hurt her,” begged Tobias.

“We don’t intend to hurt her, just fuck her,” said Kavi.

I turned my face away from her lips and felt them against my cheek. “No.”

“I’ll fucking kill you when I get free!” cursed Tonias.

They ignored him and I struggled against my bonds for all the good that it did me. They had their hands all over me and everywhere I didn’t want them too. Panic began to rise in my chest.

A deep voice boomed through the clearing, “Eli, Kavi, don’t get ahead of yourselves. That conceiver is worth more than you and your sister’s share of the take for this raid.”

I looked up fearfully and saw the man who’d almost killed me standing over both women. I had never seen a man with so many scars before. He seemed to me a towering beast and armed to the teeth with a sword, and knives and even a crossbow thrown over one shoulder.

The scarred woman laughed, “Don’t get started John. You’d have killed her if I hadn’t stopped you and her value wouldn’t have been added to the take at all. Beside she’s worth about a tenth as much as that young man over there, not to mention the horses. Kavi and I could keep the girl and still be owed a few pieces of silver after we sell everything.”

“We’ll see what the boss says. If the girl really is a conceiver she won’t be worth shit if you get her knocked up before we sell her. You will wait until the boss says she’s yours before you fuck her.”

“That old bitch can go fuck herself. She wasn’t even on this mission.”

The man bristled. “Don’t talk about her like that. You and your sisters would still be starving on the side of the road if she hadn’t taken you in and you know it.”

“And you’d be a whore servicing women for one silver piece a fuck in a shitty brothel,” laughed the younger sister.

“At least I was the one being paid, you probably have to pay women to touch you,” he replied levelly.

Another woman entered the circle of the fire’s glow. She had long dark hair pulled back in a braid, a weather worn face and cold dark eyes. “What about the boy. I wouldn’t mind a chance at him.”

The man snorted, “You’re too old and bitter to get with child Mary.”

“Who said I wanted anything but pleasure from the pup.” The woman went to kneel beside my brother, which proved to be a mistake. As soon as she was close enough, he drew up his knee and kicked her hard in the gut.

“Don’t you fucking touch me you bandit bitch!” yelled Tobias. His face was a mask of fury.

The woman cursed at him, “You’ll regret that boy.”

“Leave him!” snarled the man. “Touch him again and I’ll tell the boss. She wouldn’t want you infecting him with some nasty disease before we try and sell him.”

“Fine,” the woman spat and strode off into the shadows.

The man gave the other two bandits a long cold look until they slunk away as well. Then he sat down beside the fire, titled his face foreword and set to drinking from a flask. I recognized it as my sisters.

“How can you work with them? You’re a man just like me,” said Tobias.

The man tilted his hat back up, “You and me ain’t nothing alike boy. Don’t go thinking us having something similar between our legs gives us some kind of brotherhood. I kept the bitch off of you because you’re more valuable without the clap.”

“If you want money my family will pay it.”

He spat into the fire as he stood, “The Five Forts never pay ransom, I ain’t no fool. Now shut the fuck up before I have to gag you.”

He walked over to Tobias, tugging something out of his satchel. Tobias flinched away but couldn’t escape the bag the man put over his head.

I pressed my back against the tree when he turned his gaze to me. His eyes were blank, almost bored. He looked at me the way I looked at difficult sheep. I didn’t try to pull back when he put the bag over my head and walked away.

After a long time I called softly, “Tobias.”

“I’m here Kate,” his voice was horse and weary.

“Are you…” I didn’t know what to say. Presumably he was still tied to the tree.

“I’m here, that’s all that matters. Try to sleep while you can.” Even after everything he was still my big brother, still trying to protect me.

I didn’t think it was possible but when I closed my eyes against the darkness of the blindfold I slept.

In the morning one of my captors I didn’t recognize took away the bag, unbound me from the tree and one took me to use the bushes. She at least didn’t look at me with anything but boredom and impatience. My captors gave me some water and a bit of bread to eat and then I was blindfolded and placed on a horse, at least sitting this time. My hands were bound in front of me to the saddle horn. A woman climbed up behind me and reached around me to take the reins.

“Morning love, don’t give me any trouble today and I’ll see that you’re treated well.” I recognized Eli’s voice.

I was too tired to curse her so I said nothing. We set out and I found just how painful and tiring it could be to ride a horse blindfolded with my hands bound. I couldn’t balance very well and every jolt went to my spine. At least I had the saddle but the stirrups were set so that I couldn’t reach them. I had no way to control the horse.

I felt something uncomfortable in my left boot when I pulled it against the horse and realized with a shock that I still had my boot dagger. How they could have missed it when they searched me I couldn’t guess. They’d taken my belt dagger.

The whole party rode in silence; this at least gave me hope. We had to be close enough to the main road that they still feared pursuit. Around midday, when my stomach began to ache with hunger I heard the gurgle and rumble of the river.

Eli drew the horse up short and climbed down. She left me bound to the horse. I could see nothing but I heard new voices. There was no stomping or snorting of new horses but I could swear I could hear water lapping against the hull of a boat and the crack of light sails in the wind.

A murmur of voices began to rise, at first softly and then growing louder as tempers flared.

“…you promised my sisters and I a conceiver!” It was Eli’s voice.

“I promised enough silver to buy one. I didn’t say I’d give you one this valuable.” The second voice was female and hoarse, worn rough by time and hardship.

“You owe us this, after what happened to Sal last season, you owe us.”

“A crippled sister is hardly worth a conceiver.”

“She was injured protecting you, or have you forgotten that life dept?”

There was a long silence after that, although I could hear a feint shuffling of feet as if a great deal of people were trying not to look at each other.

At last the second voice replied, “I don’t forget my debts Eli. Take the girl if you want her, but I won’t have you bringing her back to the hideout. She’s not some river trash or wandering gypsy that no one’s going to miss, she’s a fort woman and her kin are going to be looking for her. Gods help you and yours if any of those fort bastards find you with one of their breeders, especially a pretty young thing like her. She’s better sold on far away and as quick as possible.”

“We’ll take that risk upon ourselves. A healthy young bride is worth it.”

“Then we’ll be parting from you for the rest of the season. Go hide the girl wherever it is you slink back to and if you’re still alive come next spring you know where to find us.”

There was more sound of quite talk and then a banging and shuffling of things being loaded onto a boat. A short time later I felt someone untie the horse reins and climb back onto the horse behind me. A wave of panic washed over me when she began to urge the horse into a slow walk.

“Tobias!” I yelled.

“Kate,” he called back. “Kate!” and then his voice was muffled as if someone had covered his mouth.

“No, please no! Don’t take him,” I tried to free my hands from the saddle horn but it did me no good and only spooked the horse, which began to shy.

“Hush girl," Eli smothered my voice with a cloth. She pressed me against her as I sobbed into the fabric. She kicked the horse into a canter and we rode away from the sound of the river. When she took away the cloth I cried soundlessly and she wiped my face clean in an almost gentle manner.

“Sh, sh easy love. No one’s hurting you.”

“Go to hell.” I spat.

“Well she’s an angry little thing isn’t she?” laughed Kavi’s. It sounded like she was riding close to us. I’d been too upset to even hear the sound of the second horse.

“She’s got reason enough, we just took her from what kin she’s got left. Let her fret a bit.”

 

 

We stopped around dusk and Eli removed my blindfold and helped me from the horse. She unbound my aching wrists as her younger sister started the fire.

“Don’t try to run. I can promise you that I’m faster and if you do we’ll bind you hand and foot.”

I scowled and rubbed my wrists. She let me sit in the middle of the clearing as they tended the horses. In spite of what she’d said I got the feeling that she was testing me. I knew better than to try anything yet.

When the food was ready Kavi told me to sit down beside the fire and gave me a bowl of warm corn mush and dried meat along with a tin cup of tea. It was the first warm food I’d had since the morning of the day before and I bolted it down so fast I was almost sick. I had no real experience with hunger; it wasn’t something I’d often felt before even in the depth of winter. Ash Fort had enough stored corn and grain to last a brace of bad winters.

Once my stomach settled, I began to feel sleepy. I had just closed my eyes for a moment when I felt Kavi’s hand on my shoulder. It finally sunk in that I was now alone with two women who intended to make me their wife, willingly or not.

The smart thing would have been to comply, bed them both that night and wait until they slept and slip away. I might even be able to steal one of the horses. My fear of being raped and violated was more than I could bear though.

“Hey beautiful, are you cold?” she asked softly and pulled me against her. I jammed my elbow into her stomach. She fell back with a whoosh of pain and I sprang to my feet. I didn’t even think to go for the dagger, only to run.

I made it a few steps before I crashed straight into Eli. She grabbed me roughly and before I could react she had caught one of my wrists and pressed it painfully behind my back, bringing me to my knees. It hurt like she was wrenching the joint out of place and I stopped fighting knowing that she could easily dislocate my shoulder.

“Stupid girl,” she murmured.

A moment later Kavi was beside us with rope in her hands. They quickly bound my wrists behind my back. Kavi didn’t make the ropes too tight, but I knew no tricks for escape.

“Hold her and I’ll take her first,” Kavi’s hands were slipped under my shirt, pulling her body flush with mine from where she knelt behind me.

“No,” snapped Eli.

“You want her first?”

“She is our bride not some tavern slut. We can’t bed her for the first time bound and struggling in the dirt.”

Kavi didn’t release her hold on me, “What and you think she’ll fight us less if we fuck her on a bed the first time instead? We stole her Eli, she’s never going to be willing. We may as well break her in as soon as we can.”

“She’s going to be the mother of our children. We can at least give her a day to accept her new life.”

Kavi pulled away from me, dusting off her clothes as she stood up, “Sure, you can be very respectful before you fuck her on her back like any other woman. I’ll wait so long as I get my chance at her when the time comes.”

“You will.”

That night they bound my wrists in front of me and my ankles as well before laying me down on a sleeping mat. They didn’t take off my boots and so didn’t find my dagger. They took turns keeping watch but Kavi was not as dutiful as her sister and I saw when she drifted off where she sat beside the dwindling fire. I reached down and grasped the dagger. I held it between my bound hands and rapidly sawed at my ankles, the knots were far too dense for me to try and untie with my bound hands.

It took an agonizing eternity but I freed my ankles. I sat up and holding the dagger between my knees began to rapidly saw at the rope on my wrists. It cut quickly and fell away. For half an instant I considered slitting my captive’s throats in their sleep but I feared that one might wake while I killed the other. Also in truth I was no killer, even in all my fear I wasn’t sure I could slit a woman’s throat.

I massaged my aching wrists and stood. I walked softly to where the horses were all tethered together at the far side of the clearing. I had just reached to untie one of the halters when a heavy hand descended on my wrist.

I looked up into Eli’s shadowed face. She’d never been asleep at all. I tried stab her with the dagger and she caught my wrist as easily as if I were an angry child. She twisted my arm until I dropped the dagger.

“Foolish, foolish girl.”

I didn’t try to fight anymore.

She pulled me against her almost gently and whispered in my ear, “You’ve used up your chances. If you ever try to run or raise a blade against my sisters or me again I’ll cut the tendon in your left leg. You’ll limp for the rest of your life, never be able to run far or fast enough. I don’t want to but I’ll do it”

Fear clenched my heart and I didn’t make a sound. She dragged me back into the camp where Kavi had slept through the whole encounter. She bound my ankles and wrists again before throwing an arm over me and falling asleep with me pressed against her.

 

 

We rode out at dawn in the same manner as the day before. I knew we were heading away from the river and soon I could guess that we were going up into the mountains because I could feel the slope of the path.

We stopped that night beside a stream. They kept my hands bound, but at least in front of me instead of behind. I could feel Kavi watching me hungrily. She gave me a bowl of food and mug of tea just as she had the day before. The tea was very bitter and I wondered just how old the leaves she was using were.

I tucked my feet under me and stared into the fire, unwilling to speak with my captors.

Eli sat down on the far side of the fire with Kavi and began to eat her food. Kavi watched her sister thoughtfully.

“You know that if we wait until we reach the farm we’ll have to let Sal have her first, what with her being the eldest.” They were talking like I wasn’t even there.

“That’s her right. We wouldn’t even have the girl if it weren’t for the debt the boss owes her.”

“Yea…but she’s not here and we captured the girl. If we bed her before we get back, I’ll let you have her first. She might even be a virgin, you want that don’t you?”

Eli laughed softly, “You can’t wait even a day can you Kavi?”

“I already gave her the Fire Flower Tea.”

My heart almost stopped as I realized what had happened. I should have realized that I was being drugged. Fire Flowers were common enough and their crushed petals made a powerful narcotic. Some said it had aphrodisiac properties, although everyone agreed that it made the user dazed and pliable to the point of helplessness. It wasn’t something most people would willingly take and its use was banned in the forts.

I tried to stand and found that I could not. The two sisters were beside me in an instant. Eli tugged me to my feet,

“Come on love, let’s get you lying down.” She helped me stumble a few wavering steps over to a waiting bedroll and then eased me down onto it. I tried to sit up and Kavi gently pushed my bound hands over my head.

Eli straddled me, quickly catching my lips in what would have been a passionate kiss if I’d been willing. In my dazed state it was hard to remember that I wasn’t. My body felt warm and pliant and I could feel a familiar ache in certain parts of myself that no one but I had ever touched before.

I turned my head away, trying to push away the effects of the drug and my own traitorous body. She just moved lower to kiss my neck and nuzzle at the laces of my shirt. She paused to push the garment up above my breasts. She was faced with the white cloth with which I’d wrapped them before my journey.

In an instant she had a knife in her hand from her boot. I recognized it as my own. She cut the white linen and nicked my skin when she did so. I hazily resented the ruin of the expensive cloth.

She lowered her mouth to one of my breasts and I gasped. The feeling of warm lips was well…and then she swirled her tongue. I moaned and then hated myself for it. I bit my own lip until I tasted iron. For a brief moment I had clarity.

“Stop, please stop.”

Eli kissed me on the cheek, “Don’t worry I’ll be gentle with you.”

“No…” I tried to protest but my world was going fuzzy and then she kissed a trail down my neck to my breasts. She caught one and then replaced her lips with her fingers, rolling the nipple, before working her way lower.

Kavi must have tired of waiting because I felt her lips on my neck and then her hand on my other breast. She didn’t need to hold me down anymore, I couldn’t have moved if I wanted to.

Eli reached my pants and undid the buttons with a practiced hand. I wouldn’t lift my hips for her, but she got my pants down anyway. She even paused to get my boots off so that she could get my pants fully off.

A new panic seized me when I realized just how naked I now was. I tried to kick her. She caught my foot easily and pressed it back down onto the blankets.

“Easy love, don’t fight. You’ll like this next part. She pressed my legs open and brought her fingers against my vulnerable core. I tried to struggle again and in that instant I heard a rifle bark.

Kavi gave a cry and tumbled away from me. Eli was on her feet in an instant, the knife in her hand.

She dove to the side as a second bullet made the tree behind her explode in a shower of bark. Panic seized me and cut through the haze of the drug, even with my hands bound I tried to roll out of the way. I kept low and crawled towards the edge of the clearing.

Kavi must have been only been winged because she fired back into the darkness with a pistol. Eli took the momentary silence as a chance to grab me by the shoulder and roughly drag me back across the clearing, half throwing me behind the cover of the trees and tethered horses.

Both women knelt behind the animals, scrambling to get the rifles from the saddle bags. Eli got hers first and fired at a flicker of movement at the forest's edge.

“Untie me, I’ll fight,” I begged but they ignored me. If I were unbound I could at least run.

“Stay down!” hissed Eli.

More shots rang out and one of the horses screamed as it was hit. If you’ve never heard a horse scream, it’s a sound worse than an injured child. The animal’s legs buckled under it and it pitched to the ground still making its horrible high-pitched wail.

Kavi’s left arm hung at an awkward angle and she was shooting one handed with her right hand. Eli braced a rifle and stared into the darkness and the flickering light of the fire.

The next shot caught her in the back and she fell foreword without a sound. A figure raced foreword from the dark and slammed into Kavi before she turned with her pistol. She went down with a howl of pain and within an instant we were surrounded by three figures.

I cast about wildly for a weapon, not that I could have used one very successfully in the state that I was in.

“Easy honey, it’s us Kate.” I could have wept at the sound of Mel’s voice. In the flickering light of the fire I could just make out Tali dragging a struggling Kavi to her feet and Cali kneeling beside a moaning Eli.

Mel knelt beside me, “Here, I’ve got you.” She lifted me as easily as one might a child, although I was grown woman. I must have been trembling because she carried me back to the fire. She set me beside it, cut the rope that bound my hands and draped a blanket around my shoulders.

Her arms were strong and secure around me, “Sh, sh, I’ve got you. You are safe now.”

My world was still spinning from the fire flower and slumped against her. “How…?”

“The survivors of the ambush made it back to the fort and a search party came looking. We followed the trail to the river and then the horse tracks split off in two directions; one with ten horses the other with three. My sisters and followed the three horses and the rest followed the main party.”

“There was a boat, they put Tobias on it.”

“We thought there might have been, Jen and her crew are searching the river right now.”

I nodded wearily and nuzzled closer to her, the drug made me want her more than I cared to admit. I couldn’t sort my own feelings from the tangle of hormones and emotions that were washing over me.

Distantly I heard the horse’s screams cut off abruptly and I knew they’d cut the poor mare's throat. Tali shoved a bound Kavi into the light of the fire and Cali dragged a limp Eli. When Cali set Eli down I could see just how badly she’d been injured. The front of her shit was a mess of blood and there was an ugly wound in her chest. She was still taking slow wheezing breaths but she wasn’t likely to last long.

Kavi was still bleeding heavily from her shoulder but her face was alert and frightened in the firelight. Tali shoved her to the ground and dug a boot into her wounded shoulder. She screamed and she sounded just like the wounded horse. I covered my ears.

“Where are the other bandits? Where is the man you took?” Her voice was an angry bark.

Kavi turned her face away. Tali dug her boot in harder. Kavi whimpered in agony but didn’t reply.

Tali kicked her in the ribes, “Tell me you bitch!”

“I’m no traitor!” spat Kavi along with a good deal of blood.

Tali drew her own pistol but instead of turning it on the woman beneath her she pointed it at the limp woman a few feet away, “Tell me or I’ll kill her.”

“She’s already dying you bitch!”

The shot exploded the ground beside Eli’s head. She was too far-gone to even flinch.

Tali set about reloading her pistol slowly. “The next shot goes into her head.”

“No, please.”

“Then tell me where they are!”

Kavi spat more blood, “Tend to my sister and bind my wound and I’ll tell you.”

“Tell me then we’ll see about your wounds.”

“My sister first,” begged the injured woman.

Cali laid a hand on Tali’s shoulder, “I’ll see what I can do for the bandit, you find out what you can from this one.”

Kavi’s eyes followed her as she went back to Eli and calmly set about putting a compress of cloth against the motionless woman’s chest wound. Even I could have told them all that Eli was about a few minutes shy of bleeding out but most women can’t accept when a sisters dying and Kavi was no different.

She started to babble, “The boss and the others, they took the boy down river to sell. The rest went overland to take the horses and the sheep back to the hideout.”

“Where will they sell him?”

“I don’t know. They’ll take him to all the small communities by the river. The White Rock enclave bought a man from us four winters past and said they wanted more. Maybe they’ll pay for him. If they won’t, they’ll go on to the Red Dirt farmers and then maybe all the way to the coast.

Tali nudged her with the toe of her boot, “and where’s this hideout.”

“I can’t tell you they’ll kill me.”

“I’ll kill you and your sister if you don’t.”

Kavi sat up wearily, looking towards her sister, who Mel was still kneeling over. ““I really don’t know. Somewhere south on the river. They never trusted my sisters and I enough to show us. We always met them at an abandoned dock near the start of the raiding season.”

“Can you show us where?”

“Fuck no, they’ll do worse than kill me if they find out I betrayed them. Now I want to know how the hell my sister is before I say anything more.”

Cali looked up, “She’s been dead since before you started talking.”

Kavi swore and then slumped to the ground in defeat, “Then you can go ahead and kill me. I am not going to say any more.”

Tali knelt beside her and drove the heel of her hand into her shoulder, making her whimper like a kicked dog.

“You’re not done yet bitch. Don’t you dare believe we’re going to let you die easy after you stole a man and a goddamn conceiver. If you don’t want to die screaming you’ll lead us to this damn hideout.”

Kavi never answered, she must have passed out from the pain or blood loss. Tali spat when she saw that her victim had gone limp. “Bring me the fucking bandages Cali, we can’t have her bleeding out too.”

Mel did and they set about binding the unconscious woman’s wounds before binding her hands to make sure she wouldn’t be a problem when she woke up…if she woke up.

When their task was done Tali and Cali joined us beside the sputtering fire.

“Oh gods Kate, I’m sorry,” murmured Cali.

I turned my head away from her when she tried to touch my face.

Tali hung back with her arms crossed, “We didn’t catch up to you until tonight. We meant to wait until they were asleep and then kill them but then…but they started to hurt you. We waited until they were too distracted to hear us approach and then we attacked.”

I couldn’t stop shivering, “You had to wait until she had her hand between my legs?”

Tali seemed to have no idea what to say so instead she turned towards the fire and found the kettle that had been set aside earlier. She filled it with a waterskin and set it back on the hook. “We did what we had to. I’ll make the blue tea tonight. Nothing will come of what they did to you.”

I buried my face in my hands, “They never…they never had the chance.”

“And the two other nights?” asked Cali very gently.

I shook my head sharply, “they didn’t”

The three sisters all exchanged a look that I knew was doubtful.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” I half sobbed.

“Sh, sh,” said Tali. “We believe you. It’s just that sometimes women who’ve been hurt don’t always want to say what happened to them.” She pressed two bags into my hand. “There’s the blue tea in the blue bag and ordinary black tea in the green one. Mix the one you need into the mug and that will be the end of it.”

She gave me the mug of warm water and they busied themselves about the ruined camp. I mixed the black tea into the mug and drank. It was warm and good and helped with the weakness and nausea of the fire flower, even if my skin still felt on fire. I tried not to think about the dead woman or the shallow grave they were digging. I just wanted to be left alone and allowed to sleep. When the tea was gone I set down the mug and curled up alone on one of the abandoned bed roles.

Tali knelt beside me and said very gently, “Do you need anything?”

I shook my head and she left me to sleep.

Chapter Text

 

I woke up sick the next morning and ran to the edge of the clearing to vomit. The Fire Flower had left me feeling much like the morning after I’d drunk far too much but with considerably more muscle pain.

Tali followed me and offered me a damp cloth. I cleaned my face.

“You okay?”

“They gave me Fire Flower.”

“I thought so, your pupils were dilated last night. Nasty stuff.”

I didn’t dare ask how she knew. I had a sinking suspicion that she might have rescued a woman from kidnappers before or at least dealt with the aftermath.

She gave me some candied ginger to chew on back at the fire. In the night they’d buried Eli. Mel was gone and Cali was tending a pot on the fire.

Kavi was bound hand and foot on the cold ground, which couldn’t have been good in her injured state. She eyes were closed and she was the deathly pale of a woman with a grave injury. Her shoulder was bandaged but I had to wonder if she was going to survive or if my rescuers would let her. I’d hated what her sister and her had done to me but I’d never witness violence or death before the frantic moments on the trail a few days before and I was deeply disturbed.

Tali saw me looking at the sleeping woman and misinterpreted my expression, “I wish I could let you slit her throat here and now but we need to take her back to be interrogated properly. If her wound doesn’t fester she might live long enough to be hung for banditry in River Fort. If it’s any consolation you should be able to watch that.”

A wave of nausea washed over me again. It took Tali’s help to get me sitting down on a log by the fire.

Cali gave me a bowl of oatmeal and after a few forced bites my stomach finally began to settle.

“We need to go after Tobias.”

Tali and Cali exchanged a look, “We will, we have to go back to the river first and meet up with the guards posted there to drop off the prisoner and send word back to the fort.”

“Okay.” I didn’t say that I intended to go with them when they went after Tobias, I could fight that battle when the time came. We cleaned up the camp and among the bags we found my daggers and sheaths, I clipped one to my belt and the other back into my boot. I found a rifle too and I nearly cried when I realized that it was Tobias’s. I slipped the strap around my shoulder and carried it.

We set off for the river with five horses, the three that my rescuers had brought and the two surviving ones of my kidnappers. They bound Kavi to one of the horses and tied the horses reins to one of theirs.

We camped that night a half days ride from the river. Tali and Cali dragged Kavi away from the fire. I guess they didn’t want me to see what she was going to do to interrogate her; it wasn’t hard to guess that it probably involved a knife and her shoulder wound. I heard the screams. It sounded worse than the time a shepherd broke her arm in a far pasture and bound it wrong herself, so that when she came back at the end of the lambing season the healer had to re-break the bones before she could set it.

I sat by the fire with my hands over my ears but I could still hear her. Mel sat with me, her eyes down and said nothing. When they dragged Kavi back she was passed out and her shoulder was bleeding anew.

“I have a list of the forts the bandits traded with,” Tali announced looking grimly satisfied. Cali just looked sick.

We reached the river a few hours shy of midday. The River Queen was waiting for us with her crew and several River Fort guards. I hadn’t realized that the small river was one of the feeders of the Trinidad River, but it had to be if the River Queen had made her way up it.

Jen leapt from the side of the boat and ran to meet us. She lifted me down from my horse and hugged me closer.

“Oh gods Kate, I thought I’d never see you again.” Her arms were warm and strong. She smelled of the river and lye soap.  If there was one woman I knew would never hurt me, it was her. I closed my eyes and clung to her like she was the last solid thing in the world.

Cali climbed down from her own horse, “She’s safe and uninjured, little thanks to you river rat.”

Jen glared at her, “I came as soon as I had word where to go, mercenary.”

“Just like a boat captain to arrive once the fighting if finished.”

“Enough,” I snapped giving her a sharp look and turned back to Jen’s familiar face, “I saw my sister take an arrow to the shoulder. Is she alive?”

“She was on her feet with her arm in a sling when I last saw her. Gillie’s alive too but she came back on a stretcher. Her sister’s unhurt. Three others didn’t survive: Tonia, Emmy, and Martha. Our people did at least kill two bandits though.”

One of the women, who I guess was probably the most senior member of the guard waiting by the boat, if her short graying hair was any indication, spoke up, “Ladies, there is not time for this. Tali, I want a report so we can decide what to do next.”

Tali told the sisters story of tracking the bandits and what they’d learned from the injured woman still bound to the horse.

When she finished, Jen said, “We should get reinforcements and go straight to the White Rock Enclave and take Tobias back.”

The old guards-woman did not look impressed, “If we do that we’ll start a war with them and their allies. We can’t just go attacking other enclaves or accusing them of buying stolen men until we know if they have the lost boy or not.”

Jen scowled, “I’ll go and see if he’s there.”

The guard wasn’t impressed. “And they’ll hide him from you Jen, they know you, your crew and your boat. If they’ve bought a stolen fort man, they’ll hide him well from you.”

Tali smiled, “They don’t know my sister and me though. We’ve never stopped there before and if they’ve ever heard of us they just know we’re a group of three mercenaries for hire. It should be easy for us to show up asking for work and maybe even scope out the place. We’ll find the boy, if he’s there, and then call in all of you and your dogs to get him back.”

“That’s not a bad plan,” said the guardswoman, “Jen can take you down river and drop you off far enough that you can walk to the fort without them ever seeing the boat. You find out what you can and then meet her down river. Then if you need them, we can send reinforcements.”

“I’m coming,” I said.

Everyone looked at me like I was a child who’d wandered into a council meeting.

I scrambled for words, “Tobias is my brother, it is my duty to save him. More importantly he knows and trusts me. If there’s a chance to rescue him, he’ll follow me without question. He barely knows the Walker sisters. He might not trust them or believe they’ve really come to rescue him.”

The captain of the guard tilted her head slightly to the side as she considered, “That may be but you're no soldier or guard and you won’t be much help in danger. And well…” she glanced at my wrists with the beads, “Your forts already lost a man they shouldn’t have to lose a conceiver too.”

I scowled at her and then a thought occurred to me, “Maybe a conceiver is what you need. The Walker sisters are a group of mercenaries, even if they can get into an enclave, no one will trust them. If they’ve got a young conceiver with them, they’ll seem a lot more respectable.”

“That’s too dangerous,” snapped Jen but the women from the fort guard considered it, “You might have a point kid. Nothing opens gates quiet like having a conceiver with you, and hell most enclaves won’t try to steal one like they would a man or a kindler. Give me your beads and I’ll send Rya along with the Walker Sisters as a fake conceiver,” she motioned at a young guard member who was with her.

Rya shook her head “That won’t work. I was with Jen last season on the boat.”

“I’m going then,” I insisted

“I don’t like it. Kate, I want you to go back to the fort,” said Jen.

I met her gaze levelly, “I can’t, not without Tobias. It will kill my father if I come home without my brother.”

There was a great deal more arguing but eventually it was decided that Jen and her crew would take the Walker sisters and me downriver. One of the fort guard would stay by the river in case the other search party came back and other fort guards would ride back to the fort with the prisoner and news of what was going on.

As the ship drifted downriver we sat on a ring of barrels above deck and came up with a plan for our story for when we came to White Rocks Enclave.

Tali didn’t waste any time, “We’ll start off saying that you’re our wife.”

“Wife?”

“You look too different from us to pass you off as a sister.  You’ll never make a convincing mercenary either, you’ve got the look of a fort or enclave about you.”

I folded my arms. “What do you mean by that?”

Cali laughed, “You look to healthy and unscarred, plus you’ve got all your teeth. Your hands are soft and you talk too well.”

“Which is why she shouldn’t go,” snapped Jen.

Tali shook her head, “No it’s exactly why she should. She’s our ticket into the enclaves. This close to winter they won’t be that sympathetic to a trio of mercenaries but if we’ve got a conceiver wife with us they might, especially if we say she’s pregnant. No enclave anywhere would turn away an exhausted woman with child, the codes of hospitality will require they give us shelter for at least a night.

“I don’t like it,” Jen said.

“It’s my risk to take,” I told her and that was the end of it

 

 

I didn’t realize how tired I was until one of the crew offered to show me how to use one of the hammocks below deck. She helped me scramble into the tangled netting and the moment I lay still I was asleep.

I woke in the very early morning hours and slipped gracelessly from the hammock to the deck and went above. There was no light save that of a glow upon the horizon and the brilliance of the lantern at the ship's prow.

There was a woman at the helm and two keeping watch on far sides of the boat. I noticed a familiar figure leaning against the railing and looking out towards the shore.

“Jen,” I said softly.

She started and turned to me.

“Kate,” She unclasped her cloak and held it out to me, “Here you shouldn’t be out in this cold without a cloak.”

I didn’t have one. Any other time I would have been too proud to take hers but in that moment I needed all the kindness I could get. I let her drape the cloak around my shoulders and leaned against the railing with her.

“I meant to offer you the bed in my cabin but when I looked for you, you were already asleep below deck in a hammock and I didn’t want to wake you.”

“I slept fine.”

The sky was gradually lightening, shifting from a deep purple to a brilliant orange and gold. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a sunrise, at least not since lambing season.

“I wish you’d gone home, I wish I could go with you today,” she said softly. “I don’t trust the Walker sisters, they’re mercenaries.”

I turned my head to look at her and was struck by how the light caught her short hair, turning the gold of it into almost a halo about her face.

“I trust them.”

“How can you?”

“They rescued me.”

She got real quiet for a while and her lips thinned. Whatever she’d have said next she never got the chance because the helms woman yelled out that there was a log in the middle of the river and Jen ran up to the wheel to help direct her around it.

 

 

In the late afternoon the boat pulled into a shallow shoal well up river from White Rocks Enclaves and the Warren sisters went ashore with me. It would have been more believable to arrive at the fort mounted but the boat was too small to carry horses easily and we’d left all of them with the guards by the river to take back to River Fort.

It was a long walk along the river road and soon my feet were hurting. Although I often wandered the hills around the fort to find herbs for dyes, I spent much of my time in front of a loom. I wasn’t accustomed to long marches on a hard dirt roads.

The air was chill but not freezing and we walked in the shade of the river willows. My own pack had not been among the things we found among my captives belongings and it may indeed have still been on my horse, which as far as I knew hadn’t been taken and was now safely back in River Fort.

Jen had given me a satchel from the boat. One of the younger crew members, a slender young woman close to my own size, had gifted me a few items of her own clothes. I’d promised her new ones in thanks next spring when I saw her again. I was dressed in her clothes now, loose wool trousers and a linen shirt under a light wool cloak that was pleasantly warm.

As we walked, a thought struck me, “Should I cut off my beads?”

“Why?” asked Cali.

“If I really was traveling, wouldn’t I want to hide the fact that I’m a conceiver from the rest of the world at least on the open road?”

“Right now they’re the best protection you have. No woman will kill you with those on your wrists, not unless she wants to cross the gods.”

“No she’ll just kidnap and rape me. Hell who’s to say the people in White Rocks won’t just kill you three and keep me.” I was beginning to have doubts about the plan.

After a moment Tali said, “I’ve heard enough about this enclave to know that they are not that bad. They might buy a kidnapped man out of desperation but they’re not so hard up for genes that they’ll murder three guests just so that they can keep a single conceiver. Enclaves that start doing things like that soon find that no one will trade with them.”

Which implied that she’d seen some enclaves that were indeed like that. I gave an involuntary shiver. I stared at the colorful beads on my wrists. They’d filled me with so much hope and joy and led to me being helpless on my back with an unwanted woman over me. Just a few days before, I’d been so naive as to think that being desirable wasn’t dangerous.

“When this is all over, I’m never wearing the beads again. I’d rather people think me ungifted.”

We came in sight of the large riverside enclave. It was up in the white cliffs beside the river. A small harbor led to a modest set of wooden buildings largely dedicated to trade by the river. Up beyond them was a complex of ladders that led to a whole series of cave dwellings, adobe and wooden dwellings built into the protecting rock of the cliffs themselves.

They must have seen us well before we reached the edge of the harbor because a group of five women came to meet us. Four of them were young, three had crossbows slung over their shoulders and one had a rifle across her back. The fifth, a graying haired matron was unarmed.

Beyond them I could see three boats docked and other women busy unloading a day’s catch of fish. A few barefoot little girls ran around the docks but no little boys, so close to the river they were probably guarding their boys carefully if they had any. I could see more figures up among the cliff homes and hear women yelling back and forth. I didn’t see or hear any men.

The grey hair woman called a polite greeting to us, “Hello travelers. Who might you be and what brings you?”

The Walker sisters shifted almost instantly. Tali moved forward to speak for us and Mel and Cali moved in front of me protectively.

“We’re mercenaries seeking work for the winter.

The woman considered them, “I’m afraid we’ve no need of more guards, we’ve enough able bodied women to feed as it is.”

“We understand. Then we only ask for to purchase few day’s food and rest before we continue down river.”

“We are not in the practice of shelter unknown travelers,” she said coldly.

“We’ve copper and silver to pay. Please our wife’s exhausted and three months gone with child.”

The woman’s face softened, “Let me see her then.”

Warily Mel and Cali stepped away from me and I went forward. The grey haired woman gave me a long evaluating look taking in everything from my clothes to the beads, “You’re no mercenary child. How did you fall in with theses three and where do you belong?” Her voice was kind.

I tried hard to play my part, “I belong with my wives and where I come from is my own business.”

The old woman huffed, “At least you’ve got a voice. Now, you’d best tell me who might come looking for you or we’ll turn you away. I won’t have trouble brought to my doorstep.”

“I’m from a small river farm farther north but they won’t be looking for me. My parents threw me out when I told them who’d sired my child.”

She looked at me with doubtful dark eyes but eventually shrugged and turned back to Tali, “Whatever the truth is I won’t have it said that White Rocks turned away a weary woman with child. You can stay tonight in the guest house in the lower town and buy your food and drink in the tavern. Anything else you want, you’re free to trade for. No going up into the upper town. Margret here will show you where you can stay,”

She turned and walked away, limping and leaning heavily against the cane she used to walk.

Margret was a tall blond girl with a crossbow slung over her shoulder. She gave Cali a highly flirtatious and very un-guard like smile, “Let me show you where you’ll be staying. My birth mom runs the guest house.”

I was a little confused. If the enclave had a guest house then they were clearly more accustomed to having visitors than they originally acted like. Was there sudden caution a new thing?

Margret led us through the lower town, which really was just a few storage buildings, a large and well built wooden tavern set against the cliff wall and the adobe guest house, also built against the cliff wall.

The guesthouse wasn’t as big as an inn, but it was large enough to hold a group five times our size. In better times it must have been a source of some income. The building within had at least six rooms that led off from the main common room with the hearth.

A plump woman who looked like an older version of Margret greeted us enthusiastically and showed us in.

The room she led us to was modest but comfortable and shared one wall with the cliff. It had two heavy wooden beds, already made up with woolen bedding and a well-swept floor covered in hand woven rush mats. The heavy wooden shutters were thrown open to let in the fresh air on the river side of the room.

“I’m afraid I can’t offer you a meal in the guest house, we’ve had so few visitor’s we’ve shut down the kitchen for the winter, but you can get a good meal over at the Tavern, my sister runs it and she does a good stew and ale. If you need anything my room is just down the hall. After the sun sets they’ll be a guard here too,”

“You don’t trust us?” asked Cali with one of her more charming smiles.

The woman shrugged her shoulders and adjusted her shawl, “It’s nothing personal dear, it’s just the policy, what with all the bandit trouble on the road and such strange people about of late. Don’t fuss over it though, the guard for tonight is just my daughter. She won’t give you any trouble.”

“We will look forward to her company,” said Cali trading a not so subtle glance with Margret who seemed to return it.

“As will I. We haven’t had visitors for a while.” I swear she batted her eyes.

I wondered if I should be acting jealous of the brazen flirting, since I was supposed to be Cali’s wife. I didn’t have the energy though. The two women left and I sunk down onto one of the beds.

Cali sat next to me laughing, “Gods I forgot how flirty enclave girls can be, they get all hot and bothered any time they see a new face.”

“You are not going to sleep with her,” said Tali sitting on the opposite bed, “We don’t need trouble, not here and now.”

“If there’s only one guard and we need a distraction…”

Her words were cut off by a knock on the door. A slender brown haired woman entered. She had a satchel over one shoulder and quick grey eyes. She had a very practical look about her.

She offered us a formal bow, “Hello, my name is Gia. I’m the enclave healer. I was led to understand that there was a woman with child.”

I blushed in spite of myself. “That would be me.”

Gia nodded and set her satchel down o the bed, “Right then. I want the rest of you lot out so I can look her over.”

Panic welled up inside of me. I knew that any midwife worth her salt could tell if a woman was pregnant or not. If she looked me over she’d know the truth.

“You don’t need to see me, nothing’s wrong.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” she told me curtly. “Now the rest of you shove off for a moment.”

“We’ll stay,” said Tali.

The healer put her hands on her hips, “No you won’t. There’s things a pregnant woman won’t say in front of her lovers that need saying. Now spare the poor thing some embarrassment and get out unless you’re pregnant too.”

To my rising alarm, Tali and the others exchanged a look and then stood up.  We hadn’t thought the fort would send a healer, much less one so insistent. Tali paused to touch my shoulder and lean close enough to whisper in my ear, “Trick her somehow.”

Then I was left alone with the healer. She closed the shutters and poured from the pitcher on the bedside table into the bowl and scrubbed her hands with lye soap.

“Alright dear, pants off and lie back on the bed. We will see how you’re doing. Do you know how far along you are?”

“Three months,” I didn’t move.

She blinked when she turned back and found me still fully dressed.

“Have you not had a healer look you over before?”

I shook my head, “Not for this.”

She sighed, “trust me, it won’t hurt. Now come on, you’ve got three wives you can’t be embarrassed to let a midwife check you. I’ve tended half the women of this fort through their pregnancies.”

I knew it would seem crazy to keep refusing to let her check me but I also knew what she’d find. I made up a story and did my best attempt to act. I cast my eyes towards the floor.

“There is no baby. I already lost it.”

Her face softened and she sat down on the bed next to me.

“What happened?”

“My monthly bleeding didn’t come when it should have so I thought I was pregnant and I told them I was. They got all excited, they said they loved me, they said they’d marry me, they said they’d steal me away if I wanted them too. I love them, all three of them. We made plans because we knew my parents would never let me go away with three mercenaries.

“Then…after I hadn’t bled for two months I woke up one morning and there was blood on my underclothes. It didn’t hurt any worse than my normal bleeding. I was afraid that if I told them they wouldn’t want me anymore, wouldn’t risk taking me with them. So I didn’t say anything and I still ran away with them. I know it’s a lie, but I’m sure I’ll get pregnant again soon enough.”

The midwife didn’t say anything for a long, long moment, just looked at me.

“Are you lying to me girl?”

I shook my head.

“You might have skipped a month, you might have conceived and lost. There’s not much of a difference that early on. If there was no pain, I wouldn’t fret.” She grew more serious, “Are you sure you want to be carrying a child for those three, on the road, with no home to birth or raise your baby in?” She was using the same tone my mother used sometimes when she was trying to talk sense into me.

I tried to keep up my act but it was hard with those piercing eyes looking at me.

“I love them.”

“You’re a young fool.” Her hand was gentle on my shoulder, “Listen, honey, if you’re having second thoughts about running away we can send you back up river on one of our boats. If you’re really a conceiver your farm will take you back even if it takes longer for your parents to forgive you. You don’t have to spend the rest of your life with a bunch of mercenaries even if you married them…which I doubt.”

“No, I love them. I want to stay with them.” Damn it, the last thing I needed was this woman’s good intentioned meddling. I was beginning to wonder though, if a member of the fort showed this much concern for a strange conceiver, were they really the kind of women who bought kidnapped men? Although the bandit did say that they’d sold them one last year. If they were desperate for genes wouldn’t she be trying to talk me into staying in the fort not going home?

Those eyes were on me again, “What you tell your wives is your business. I’m your healer so I won’t say a word to anyone. If you change your mind about going home, send for me again and I’ll arrange it.”

I paid her a copper piece and she stood and left, talking her bag with her when she went. The moment she was gone Cali, Tali and Mel hurried back in.

“What happened, did she find out you’re not pregnant?” asked Tali.

“Yea but she won’t tell anyone, at least I don’t think she will. She tried to talk me into leaving the three of you and going back to my own home.”

“As long as she didn’t try to keep you here,” said Cali. “Now come on I’m starving let’s go to the tavern and see what gossip we can collect.

We left the room and found a bored looking Margret in the common room. She had an unloaded and forgotten crossbow resting over the back of her chair. She stood up when she saw that we were going out and shouldered the crossbow.

“I’ll show you to the inn.”

We stepped out into the gathering dusk and walked towards the warmth of the tavern. When I looked up I could see the whole hillside alight with fires shining out from the many windows. There had to be close to a hundred of them. The population of the enclave was bigger than I had originally guessed. There had to be more dwellings set back farther in the rocks that hadn’t been easily seen in daylight.

Stepping into the tavern was like being smacked in the face with a gust of hot air. It was already crowded and full of women, most of the tables taken and a good fire burning in the hearth. The sound of voices, clinking mugs and laughter filled the place. All women’s voices. I didn’t see a single man.

In my past experience among the forts, where there was alcohol there were men, whether they were brewing it, selling it, or drinking it. My father had the best whiskey still in all of the Five Forts and my uncle in Ash Fort ran the pub there. An enclave this big had to have men, they just weren’t letting them into the tavern.

There was a half beat of silence as we stepped in through the door as everyone turned to look at us and then the sound resumed. The looks weren’t hostile, just curious and we did have Margret with us.

She led us through the press of the crowd towards a hard wooden table close to the cool stone of the natural wall and we sat. Cali made sure to sit next to Margret. Mel and Tali sat on either side of me.

More than a few women turned to watch us pass or stared at our table. Just how long had it been since they’d had visitors? A lot of eyes lingered on me and I again regretted the bracelets.

Among the crowd, I could see two women who wore the red and gold beads of kindlers and at least three had the same blue ones as me. They had gifted among them and they weren’t hiding it. If this was a sample of the fort population though, they didn’t have very many gifted. Here is was only about one in fifteen  unlike my own fort where it was closer to one in seven. I was not seeing enough gifted to account for all the children running around.

Margret made some hand motions at the bar and a curvy young woman close to my own age hurried over with a tray of ale carefully balanced. She set down the mugs efficiently even as she eyed Mel with considerable interest. Mel seemed embarrassed by the attention. For all her appearance of strength, she was pretty shy.

I sipped at my ale and found it light and hoppy, watered as was normal for ale served with a meal. It was a safer choice than drinking straight water in an unknown fort.

The barmaid came back a moment later with bowls of rich fish stew and flaky brown bread still warm from the oven. As we ate, Cali set about talking to Margret and was none too subtle in her flirting. Margret wasn’t either but she was very curious about where we’d come from. I had a feeling she’d been told to ask questions.

Cali was a good liar and made up details about the farm I was supposed to have com from. “It was a good place and a shame we can never go back. It’s was actually run by a man, the only large river farm I’ve seen that was. I’m guessing things are different here,” Cali motioned at the entirely female room.

Margret shrugged, “Were careful with what’s ours.”

“Surely you don’t treat men like property the way the Lowland clans do?” asked Tali.

Margret looked embarrassed, “Well not exactly…but we do protect them. A man’s place is in the home not in public. The gods wouldn’t make so few of them unless they meant us to value and shelter them. Some might say the same of gifted. Your wife’s family can’t have been guarding her very well if you and your sisters were able to carry her off.”

“We didn’t steal her,” said Tali quickly. “She chose to come with us.”

“So she left with her family’s blessing? If she’d been born here she’d have been better watched. We don’t let our kindlers or conceivers leave.”

I felt a chill stab at my heart. I bit my lip so that I wouldn’t say what I wanted to next. Tali laid a hand over mine and spoke, turning the conversation the way we needed it go. “I think I can see the wisdom in that. It doesn’t look like your fort has that many gifted to lose.”

Margret frowned but then shrugged, “well I guess you see the truth of it. There’s been fewer in this generation than the last.”

Cali frowned, “That doesn’t make sense, there’s more gifted everywhere in our generation than our mothers.”

She shook her head and tipped back her mug to take a deep drink before speaking, “Everywhere but here. Our last generations of elders made a bad decision. They chose to trade too many of our gifted in marriage exchanges for men from the other enclaves. The hope was that if most children born in the fort had a father rather than a kindler or a gene mother then we might have more boys in the next generation. But so few boys were actually born and not that many lived to grow up either. Of that generation only two reached adulthood and one managed to die of a fever.

I closed my eyes and tried not to think of how often women in my own fort miscarried children sired by men, how often the lost babies were boys. I tried not to think of the three half brothers and one full brother who’d died in infancy.

Margret kept talking, “As for the girls, well almost none of them were born gifted since most children sired by men aren’t gifted unless the mother was. All of the gifted we’ve got are mostly the children of the few gifted who we didn’t trade. As it is, most of them are already married, a couple times over in most cases. We’ve four conceivers and all have two wives except for the one with three. Of the two kindler’s, one has only one wife but will kindle for any woman who asks. The poor woman gets asked so often, she barely sees her own wife. The other has seven wives who are always fighting over her.” She lowered her voice and motioned towards the kindler over by the bar, “she spends a lot of her time in the tavern avoiding them.”

Tali considered that, “That doesn’t sound too good. Why don’t you gene share with another enclave that has men and kindlers.”

“The thing about gene sharing is that you have to have something to offer in return.”

Cali frowned, “I’ve seen a lot of kids running around though. Are they all really from one man, two kindlers, and four conceivers?”

Margret scowled and reached for her mug again, “We are not inbred if that’s what you’re implying. We find ways to get new blood.”

“How?”

Margret glanced around and then leaned forward, “We bought another man four years ago.”

“You mean marriage traded?” Cali lowered her voice.

“No, we bought a stolen one from bandits. He cried for a week before he’d even talk to anyone. He was alright after that though. I guess he accepted things. She was well on her way to drunk now.

I felt sick and if Tali hadn’t put a careful hand on my shoulder I might have done something stupid. How could this woman just talk about a man’s kidnapping, captivity, and sorrow like it was nothing?

Cali put on all her charm. I could see that she was running a hand up and down Margret’s arm on the other side of the table, “just one?”

Margret lowered her voice almost a whisper, “I know we want to buy another but we haven’t. Those same bandits came down the river yesterday and offered to sell a young man for a small fortune. One of our messengers recognized him as a fort man though so our elders said no. They said we couldn’t risk it, if the forts ever realized we had him there would be war and we couldn’t afford that, not even for a healthy young man.”

Before I realized it, I was pushing to my feet. Tali grabbed me and yanked me quickly to the side.

“Wait, puke outside.” She said far too loudly and dragged me towards the door. Before I realized it we were out the door and in the cool evening air.

Anger thrummed through me. I wanted to go back inside and shove a dagger against Margret’s throat until she told me everything she knew about my brother. Even infuriated, I realized the folly of that.

We waited in the cool night air until our companions emerged from the bar. Margret looked worried, “Is she okay?”

“The pregnancy’s made her stomach kind of chancy,”

“Should I get the healer?”

“It’ll pass,” I told her.

We walked back to the guest house, Cali and Margret trailing behind the rest of us. I knew Cali was trying to get more information. I pretended to indeed be sick, leaning lightly against Tali.

When we came in Cali did not follow us back to the room and it wasn’t too hard to guess that she’d gone off with Margret, presumably to get more information. How far she would go with her I didn’t want to think about. Tali paused long enough to throw a dark cloak around her shoulders and then slipped out the window, telling Mel, “I’m going to make sure that story lines up. If I’m not back in three hours get Kate the hell out of here and then come back to rescue me or avenge my death.”

Mel closed the shutters and we were left alone in the small room lit only by an oil lamp. My head was still reeling and I sat down on one of the beds.

“Fuck!,” I swore, “Fuck! They don’t fucking have Tobias!”

Mel’s eyes went big at the sound of me swearing. A moment before I’d wanted to break something but the look on her face made me laugh. My laughter just confused her more.

“Kate?”

I couldn’t decide whether to keep laughing or sob, so I just closed my eyes and lay back on the bed. “I thought for certain that he was here and that we’d rescue him, now I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again.”

“I’m sorry,” I felt the bed shift as she sat down beside me.

I wanted her to touch me, to lie down beside me and pull me into her strong arms. She didn’t though, too shy or too respectful I guess. If I wanted anything from her, I’d have to ask it.

I forced myself to sit up and set about unlacing my boots. She watched me like I was a spooked horse that might bolt at any moment.

“You can share my bed tonight,” I said without looking at her.

“You mean…?”

“I mean that there are only two beds and I feel safer with you than your sisters.

“Right,” she blushed and looked down.

I pushed back the covers and crawled under them. I was too tired and heartbroken to stay up any longer. A few minutes later she turned down the lantern and slipped under the blankets, carefully keeping to her own side.

I waited half a beat and then said, “You can hold me if you’re careful where you put your hands.”

Her arms slipped around my waist and pulled me flush against her. Her body was warm and I rolled over and turned my face against her shoulder. I could feel her chest rising and falling, hear her steady heartbeat. She smelled like smoke and leather polish.

I don’t know when I fell asleep but when I woke light was streaming in through the open shutters. I was still wrapped up in Mel’s arms and she was deeply asleep. Across the room Cali and Tali were asleep too, each on their own side of the bed, although Cali appeared to have stolen all of the covers.

I didn’t have to ask Tali if she’d found anything. I knew she hadn’t or she’d have woken me. Mel woke when I slipped from her grasp and we went together to the common room. A new guard was dozing beside the ashes of the fire. She woke groggily and pointed towards a tin of tea on the mantle when she saw me stroking the coals and putting a kettle over the flame. There was already bread and cheese laid out on a tray.

Mel and I drank the warm black tea when I brewed it and ate our share of the bread and cheese. Not long after Cali and Tali wandered out. I noticed that Cali had a mark on her neck and almost teased her about it but didn’t. I was almost surprised that there wasn’t even a shadow of jealousy in me. I didn’t know what to think of that because I was still attracted to her.

We set out as soon as we’d paid the owner of the guest house. There was no reason to stay any longer. We walked a few miles downriver and at noon we met the River Queen waiting for us in a deep harbor.

Chapter Text

We sailed down river our hearts heavy. Our first hope for finding Tobias was gone. The Walker sisters used to the time to brush up on their sword practice. I sat on a barrel and watched.

Mel had gotten her river legs already and moved with, if not grace, at least not clumsily across the deck. Tali had yet to find her balance and after falling once gave up and joined me in sitting and watching. Cali’s balance was good enough, even if sudden shifts of the boat tended to startle her. She and Mel danced across the cleared part of the deck, clashing with the two handed mercenaries blades they carried.

The members of the crew, who were not actively sailing the ship, all paused to watch and cheer or offer advice. Jen came out of her cabin and came and sat beside me on the crate, pointedly on the opposite side from Tali.

Cali noticed her when she and Mel rested long enough to each take a drink of water that one of the younger members of the crew offered. She strode over towards Jen, stumbling a bit as the boat shifted beneath her.

“So what about it, river rrat? Do you fancy crossing blades with me?” She motioned towards the saber that Jen always wore on her hip, at least since she’d left port. I’d never seen her carry a blade in River Fort.

“Not particularly,” said Jen coldly.

“Are you afraid?”

Jen raised an eyebrow, “I might hesitate to fight your little sister, she can at least stay on her feet properly on a boat, but a fool like you? No.”

Cali’s face darkened, “Fight me then.”

Jen stood with an easy grace, “If you insist.”

She drew her cutlass. I knew little about swords but someone had once explained to me that a short-sword was better for close combat, such as might happen on a boat.

She and Cali lunged at each other like a pair of dogs. Cali had her in retreat in less than an instant, striking at her in quick brutal slashes and lunges. Jen danced back easily, giving ground in a slow circle.

She waited for her chance until the boat shifted again, Cali stumbled and Jen whacked Cali’s blade from her hands. Cali hooked Jen’s knee with her boot. Jen went down, losing her own sword.

Cali rolled them swiftly, pulled a dagger from her belt, and held it against Jen’s throat. She had a brief moment of triumph before she made a very soft, almost animal like, sound of surprise.

“Get the fuck off me before I gut you,” growled Jen. I caught the flash of a dagger between them, Jen had it against Cali’s stomach.

“You’re as dead as me,” hissed Cali.

“Dead is dead,” said Jen.

They could have very well stayed like that until the end of time but one of the women keeping watch chose that moment to yel, “Captain, we’re coming up on the Red Dirt Enclave.”

Jen and Cali traded a look and then scrambled apart. They both stood awkwardly straightening their clothes. One glare by Jen set the crew to scrambling to prepare the ship to land.

Less than a half hour later we left the boat upriver and walked on foot towards the harbor town. We reached it at dusk.

The small town was ringed by a large wooden fence and looked more like a fort to me than a town.

“What’s your business?” a woman called down from high up on the wall.

“We’re seeking shelter for the night,” called up Tali. “You have an inn have you not?”

“Aye we do,” called down the voice. “When we open the gates, we expect your hands to be empty of weapons. A guard will come and search you and we’ll be taking your weapons until you leave.”

“And if we don’t like that?” called up Cali.

“Then don’t come in,” yelled back the guard.

The gates creaked open and we went in. We found ourselves in a small inner section of the wall with two women.  The moment the gate closed behind us, we were trapped.

The women weren’t being threatening, they didn’t need to be, not with five rifles pointed at us from up on the wall. They were a mix of young and old, all wearing well kept wool and leather.

One of the women, wearing a dark brown sash over her coat motioned us foreword, “We’ll be checking you and taking your weapons, you’d best just tell me what you have.”

Quickly and efficiently she divested Mel of her sword, Tali of all the same as well as a boot knife and Cali of the same as well as even more knives.

I only had my knives and the young woman looked at me very doubtfully when I handed them to her. I tensed when she frisked me but her hands were quick and professional and didn’t go anywhere they shouldn’t. She paused for a moment on my wrists when she pushed back my sleeves and found my bracelets.

“You should arm yourself better little conceiver,” she whispered in my ear.

‘I’ve got the three of them to protect me,” I hissed back.

She nodded politely, “It seems you do.”

Our weapons gone, we were allowed into the fort.The one who had searched us introduced herself as Captain Black. She actually offered to show us to the inn and we accepted.

We wound our ways through the narrow streets of the bustling town towards the inn. The town was about twice the size of River Fort and the buildings were close together and all had thatch roofs. It was a miracle that it hadn’t gone up in flames yet.

Women of all ages were hurrying about the streets and watched us as we went past. We crossed what was clearly the market square where stalls were just closing up. I didn’t see a single man.

Before we entered the inn, Captain Black held us up and spoke to Tali, apparently assuming that she was our leader.

“Be careful, this isn’t the safest place. Not right now. We’ve had trouble with bandits on the road and the inn is half full of mercenaries who haven’t come through here before. Get a private room and keep that conceiver girl close and her bracelets hidden, gods know why your even letting her wear them.”

“We’ll keep her safe,” Tali promised.

“Very well, when you leave you can collect your weapons at the main gate.”

We pressed into the inn, Tali first and then me between Cali and Mel. The tables were made of heavy scratched up wood and the floor covered in rushes. A great fire dominated one wall and a bar the other.

The crowd was about half locals I guessed. The locals had well woven woolen shirts and decently treated sheep leather coats and boots. They all had the worn look of farmers and mostly shared the same dark hair and eyes. The other half had the dusty look of travelers, mostly mercenaries, if the scars were anything to go by. There wasn’t a male anywhere among them.

My companions seemed completely at ease in the place. A lean innkeeper with an ugly scar across her face came bustling up to us. Tali gave her silver and asked for a private room. The woman nodded curtly and beckoned over a girl to lead us up the creaking stairs.

The room she offered us was small and had only one large bed, taking up most of the space. It looked clean enough and we set down our packs. We didn’t have much of value left now that our weapons were gone.

We walked back downstairs in pursuit of a meal. A lot of eyes watched us curiously as we found one of the few empty tables. We’d no sooner sat and given our order to a busty barmaid than a dark haired stranger sat down at our table without invention.

She was tall and had a fighter’s build as well as the short hair cut favored by mercenaries. Her face was angular but attractive and her eyes were a sharper green then I’d seen before. “Hey you lot,” she said with a smile.

“Hali!” laughed Cali and clasped her hand, “It is good to see you alive you old good for nothing.”

“You know I’m too hard to kill, now who’s this girl with you. Don’t tell me that three of you are taking on apprentices.”

“More like a wife,” said Tali evenly.

Hali’s expression shifted quickly and she smiled, “Damn. You three finally found one. I didn’t think any self respecting conceiver would have you lot.” She gave me a thoughtful look, “That said, you could do worse than this trio. They’ll do right by you. If they don’t, come find me and I’ll do you better.” She gave me a wink.

I had no idea how to reply.

“So what’s the news, is any of the old crew still running around?” asked Cali.

The woman shook her head, “Hell if I know. I’m signed up with the guard here for the winter. The pay isn’t much but the barrack’s are warm enough, the food’s decent and the ale passable. I might be able to find you three the same, although I don’t know about finding a safe place for your wife. You might be able to get her a place lodging with a family if she’s willing to work.”

“Thank you, but we’re like to be heading down river come dawn. We want to put some distance between ourselves and this girl’s kin. They won’t be thanking us for the loss of her.”

“You’ve stolen her then?” she asked carefully.

“I came with them willingly,” I said.

She woman shrugged, “Aye, but I doubt that’s what your kin will say if they come looking for you.” She turned to Tali, “You need to be very careful. Wife or husband stealing, willing or not, is getting to be a hanging offense around here.”

Tali leaned forward, “What do you mean?”

“About a month ago a young kindler went missing about the same time a company of five mercenaries headed out. The woman had been seen getting pretty chummy with the mercenaries during the months that they were here and people connected the dots. Word started to go around that she’d either gone with them by choice or been taken. A party of guards from the fort went after her, all of them enclaves women but none of them her kin.

“They brought her back. She was a bloody mess beaten half to death and her clothes torn like she’d been well...you know. The enclave guards said that the mercenaries did it to her and that they’d killed all of them for it. The thing was though, when they rode into the courtyard, the girl didn’t look like someone who’d just been rescued. She had the frightened rabbit eyes of a woman still among wolves.

“I knew the five mercenaries. They were a rough and tumble lot but they were all decent enough types. I wouldn’t put it past any of them to seduce and run off with a naive young woman but kidnapping, rape and beating? I can’t believe that.”

She was barely speaking louder than a whisper and her attractive face was creased with worry.

“Did the girl ever say what happened?” asked Tali.

“She killed herself that night, slit her wrists. The enclave stopped letting their gifted leave the walls at all. There’s even been talk about keeping them out of the inn. Words gotten around and no mercenary will dare look, at much less touch, a gifted enclave woman.”

“Damn, if they’re acting like that about their gifted I can’t imagine how protective they’ve become of their men.”

Hali took a long drink of her ale, “That’s a little scary too. When I’ve been here in years past, they let their men walk around within the walls. Hell the innkeeper’s husband even worked in the taproom. He was a fine fellow, I tried to drink him under the table once and lost spectacularly. Now though, you never see any men in public at all.”

“They must still have them because their still selling breeding services through artificial methods. Rumor has it that some of the men can even be bought in the flesh for the night for the right amount of silver, just like you can buy a woman in most inns.”

I almost choked on my ale, “buy?”

Hali laughed, “They don’t have prostitutes where you come from honey?”

I think I blushed crimson. The forts didn’t have a lot of laws but it was forbidden to sell genes or bodies. Any man in the forts who was asked to provide seed to sire by artificial means would have been thought rude to refuse. Most unmarried kindlers would kindle if asked, especially on festival days, but it was still their right to refuse.  As for the other thing…well money never changed hands for sex, offers of sheep in exchange for marriage aside.

Cali laid an arm around my shoulders, “She had kind of a sheltered life before she met us. Try not to scandalize her too much.”

“Awe but it is fun.” she had a wonderful smile that reached her eyes.

“You shouldn’t flirt with a married woman,” I told her.

She leaned forward and covered one of my hands with hers, “I’d like to do more than that. I don’t think your wives would mind sharing you with me, if you’re interested. I’ve bedded each of them before.”

That was a little too much information. I yanked my hand back.

“It’s a closed marriage on her part,” said Mel sharply.

Hali raise an eyebrow, “Why don’t you let her speak for herself. How about it Kate, are you interested?”

“No, I don’t sleep with strangers!” I blurted out.

“You know my name, I’m not really a stranger.” She tried to look innocent, batting her eyes at me.

“I don’t bed shameless flirts either.”

She smirked, “Have you not bedded Cali then?”

“I make an exception for her.” This was actually kind of fun.

Cali pulled me against her and kissed me on the cheek, “And I’m glad you do. Now Hali, stop embarrassing my wife or I won’t drink with you tonight.”

Hali grinned, “Oh, gods forbid. I’d rather lose all the lovers in the world than you as drinking buddy.”

Tali stood up “and on that note, we’re leaving you two idiots to your ale and going to bed. I know better than to try to keep up with Hali and I’d rather not be around to see Cali try.”

I stood and I went with her. Mel hesitated.

“Mel,” called Tali.

Mel cast a mournful look towards the tankards on the table but followed. We headed up the stairs back towards our room. Tali lit a candle from the lantern outside our door and carried it in to light the lantern in our own room.

I’d no sooner sat down on the edge of the bed then she’d pulled on her dark cloak and headed for the window.

“I’m off to see if I can figure out where they’ve hidden their men. Mel, lock the door until Cali comes up and don’t leave Kate alone. This place makes me nervous.” Then she was out the window and gone.

Mel latched the window and sat down on the far edge of the bed to take off her boots.

“Sorry about Hali,” she said. “She can be kind of crude.”

“Have you really bedded her?”

Mel blushed, “We were snowed in up river at the Reinhart Compound three winters past with her. It was a long, cold, and boring winter. Tumbling was one of the only things to do that was both entertaining and warm and Halie was the cutest and most willing woman there. She got around to each of us before the spring thaw.”

Hard to argue with that, “Is Cali going to tumble her tonight?”

Mel shrugged and tugged off a boot, “Probably not actually, when those two drink together they generally get pretty focused on the getting drunk. Hopefully Cali will stay sober enough to get what information she can out of Hali.”

“You don’t trust Hali enough to tell her the truth?”

Mel tugged off her other boot, “I’d trust her to guard my back against bandits but beyond that I don’t know. She is not one for keeping secrets.”

“I’ve got a friend like that,” I said thinking of Suzy. The memory filled me with a wash of homesickness and made my heart hurt.

I wrapped my arms around myself and shivered in the cool air of the room. Mel’s arm was warm on my shoulders.

“You should get under the blankets before you catch cold,” she said gently.

A sudden spark of boldness came over me and in one quick motion I moved from beneath her arm to straddling her lap, my knees on either side of her legs. I couldn’t say which of us was more surprised. I felt something desperate and frantic beating inside my chest, as if I was both tumbling out of control and snatching back something I’d lost.

I rested my hands lightly on her shoulder. I kissed her on the lips and then moved back before she could deepen it. I caught her hands on my shoulders when she reached to pull me closer.

“No,” I said softly. “I want to do the touching. Put your hands on the bed, if you move them, this stops.”

I saw a flash of something in her eyes that was a mix of lust and amusement, “Whatever you need.”

I perched on her lap enjoying this strange position of power. There was a delicious rush in having this strong woman beneath me merely because I wanted her to be. I held her captive by her desire for me. I ran my hands over her back almost experimentally feeling the warmth of her skin and the strength of her muscles beneath her shirt. It was delicious touching without fear, having control given to me willingly after I’d had my own so cruelly ripped away.

I leaned forward and kissed her again, lightly. When my need began to get the better of me I moved up my hands to cup the back of her head and deepen the kiss. She was very, very good at kissing.

My courage grew and I slipped a hand under the back of her shirt running my hands over the bare skin of her back. Gods she felt good. It took me a little longer to work up the nerve to run my fingers over her stomach and then up.

I’d never touched a woman’s breasts before other than my own. Mel had wrapped hers in a cloth, like most women wore when they were traveling, she gasped when I brushed my hands over the material.

I searched desperately for the knot and undid it without seeing. When I worked my fingers beneath the unraveling cloth and found a nipple, she broke the kiss and turned her head to catch her breath.

“I need to touch you.”

I leaned closer, nuzzling her neck, “Move your hands and we stop.”

“You’re killing me.”

“You’ll live.” Gods I needed this. I could feel all the fear and helplessness of that horrible night washing away in a flush of power and pleasure.

I ran my lips across her neck, sucking and kissing. She moaned and it was all I could do not to echo the sound. I wanted her so much it almost hurt but I didn’t let her touch me.

I felt her jerk, every time I tightened my fingers on her nipple. I lowered my mouth and brought my lips to one, just like Suzy had once told me women liked. The sound Mel made told me that she probably did too.

“Kate,” she sounded desperate.

I kept doing what I was doing.

“Let me touch you, please.”

I wanted her so much I couldn’t refuse, “only above the waist.”

At the first brush of her hands, I panicked for half a breath, flashing back to the feel of hard earth beneath my back and my bound hands above my head.

I pressed a hand against Mel’s shoulder and she stilled. She didn’t kiss me, didn’t touch me, just waited.

I took a few deep breaths. I breathed in the familiar scent of her. I was here. I was safe. This wasn’t what had happened before.

I leaned down and kissed her again. She kissed me back with enthusiasm. She did the same to my neck that I’d done to hers and soon had a hand beneath my shirt. She found my breast quick enough and I gasped my surprise against her mouth. Her fingers on the nipple felt…well I could understand why she’d reacted the way she had earlier.

She kissed lower and pushed up my shirt. When she brought her lips to where her fingers had been, I thought I saw stars. I clutched at her shoulders and made a sound somewhere between a whimper and a moan.

Then the door, which we had forgotten to lock, thumped open. I rolled of Mel with a sound of surprise.

“Hey Mel do you know where Tali packed that river map we bought, I want to…” Cali froze in the doorway for half a second and then slipped in very quickly, closing and locking the door behind her.

“You're tumbling her?” her voice was as soft as a whisper and very hopeful.

“Not yet, not until she says she’s ready.” Mel pulled down her own shirt and look at her sister carefully. She threw an arm almost proprietarily around my shoulders. I removed it by her pinky finger.

Cali she sat down on the edge of the bed. “Can I touch you?”

Desire and fear warred inside of me. I wanted her more than I cared to admit. I was a little afraid too, I didn’t trust her as much as I did Mel. I tumbled ahead anyway, the frantic feeling inside my chest getting worse.

“I keep my pants and you stop if I tell you too,”

“Whatever you want.” Damn if she didn’t sound just like her sister.

She crawled onto the bed and leaned down to kiss me. Her lips were warm and skilled, her mouth opening against my own. Her hand found one of my breasts, catching the nipple between her fingers. I found myself between her and Mel, who’s hand was on my other breast and her lips the back of my neck.

I was lost and tried to grab back some control. I scrambled at the laces of Cali’s shirt. I couldn’t get the knot without looking.

She rolled back, laughing softly and pulling me on top of her. I liked that. I straddled her waist and tugged at the laces opening her shirt and ducking my head down. She tangled her hands in my hair when I untangled the white cloth she’d wound around her chest and brought my lips to a breast.

“Ohhh gods, you’re getting brave little one.”

I felt another set of hands on my back and breath on my neck, “Tell me what you want Kate.”

I wanted to be touched everywhere, I wanted to tumble. I wanted to reclaim everything that had been ripped from me. I wanted to touch Cali everywhere and feel Mel’s fingers inside of me.

“I…I want.”

There was a loud knock on the door that almost rocked it off its hinges. “Open in the name of the Enclave Guard.”

Mel was off me and on her feet in an instant. I scrambled to turn to face the door and Cali yanked her shirt closed with one hand while drawing a concealed dagger with the other.

“Open or we break it down!”

“Wait,” snapped Mel. She motioned towards Cali to hide the knife and then went to unlock the door, yanking it open angrily.

The two women standing in the doorway and wearing guard’s brown cloaks seemed surprised. I don’t think they’d expected to find the three of us in the state that they had.

“Yes,” snapped Mel. “What the hell do you mean banging down our door?”

“A boy has gone missing, we’re looking for him,” explained the older of the two guards, although she couldn’t have had even a year on me. She was looking anywhere but at the bed.

Mel gave them both a long look, “Obviously he’s not here.”

“Umm, well were supposed to search the room,” stammered the younger guard. She edged forward into the room looking about quickly and even ducking to look under the bed.

“What happened?” I asked pretending considerably less interest than I felt.

“Never you mind,” she told me and went to the small cupboard by the wall.

“I don’t think a grown man could fit in there,” I could be a smart aleck when I wanted to.

“He’s young. He might,” she snapped indignantly and opened the empty cupboard.

She scowled at it and then strode for the door, “Let’s go, he ain’t here.” They left without apology for the interruption, slamming the door behind them.

A moment later there was a rapid tapping at the window and I ran over to unlatch it and let a rain soaked Tali in.

“What the hell happened?” She snapped shaking out her cloak, “The guards are running around like ants from a kicked hive. I barely made it back.”

“They were just here, said a man was missing,”

“I didn’t see him. I found the other five though. They’re keeping all of them in one of the central buildings with a big courtyard. No sign of your brother Kate.”

“You find anything out?” she asked Cali.

“Hali still knows how to do that thing…”

“I mean anything useful.”

“Hali said that a few months ago a new man did show up in the fort, more like a boy around fifteen with blue eyes and blond hair. He had a strong northern accent. The fort leader said they’d paid a dowry for him from another fort and would foster him until he was of age but he sure as hell didn’t act happy about being there. Most places, even enclaves won’t marry off a man until he’s at least sixteen, if not older. He tried to escape in the first week, got as far as the wall, tried to get over it with a rope and fell, broke his ankle. I guess it healed if he made a second attempt.”

A chill went through me. How many men had been kidnapped and dragged away from their families like Tobias? I swore and dug my hands into the blankets, “Tobias is twenty-five and as dark haired as me.”

“I know,” admitted Tali and sat down next to me, “It is not sounding like he is in this fort Kate. We’d better get out of here first thing tomorrow before any worse trouble starts.”

“And do what?”

“Keep going down river, keep looking. We won’t give up until we find him.” Cali promised.

I fell asleep that night between Mel and Cali. I could tell that Tali had guessed something had happened between us but was discreet enough not to say anything.

 

We woke early the next morning, gathered our things and headed out. The fort still looked a lot like a rattled beehive, women hurrying around, especially guards, and most looking worried or angry.

When we went to the main gate they said we couldn’t leave. I could tell Tali was just gearing up to argue when suddenly a commotion started on the wall and the guards waved us out of the way.

They dragged the gate open and a party rode in. At the head was Captain Black. There was a slight figure in a cloak with bound hands on the horse in front of her. As they rode past I got a good look beneath the hood at the frightened young eyes of a pale skinned boy. One side of his delicate face was molted with a dark bruise.

A shock ran through me. I knew exactly what his fear and despair felt like. Before I could even open my mouth to speak, they’d thundered past. The guards watched them ride in. Tali didn’t miss a beat,

“There, you’ve found him. Can we go now or are you going to detain us more because your fort can’t keep track of its own men.”

The guard yelled something up the wall and got a response, “Yea, go ahead and get out of here. We’re ending the lock down.”

They gave us our weapons and half pushed us out before slamming the gate behind us. We made quick tracks downriver to meet the River Queen.

Chapter Text

There was a long argument on the boat. We’d gone to the two forts that Kavi thought most likely to be where the bandits sold Tobias. Jen wanted to go back to the fort and report. We all ended up shouting as we sat on the boxes beneath the crackling sails in the morning sun.

“It’s a wild goose chase. We should go back and see what the other’s have found out,” said Jen.

“By then it may be too late. If we’re ever going to find him it has to be right after they’ve sold him,” said Tali.

“Then we’ll put you ashore and you can make your own way back when you tire of chasing geese.”

“Fine, let us and Kate off at the next fort.”

“You’re not taking her with you. You’ve endangered her enough as it is.”

I glared at Jen, “It’s my risk to take. I won’t go home without my brother.” Gods knew I couldn’t let him end up like that boy, like I very nearly had myself. As long as I had breath in my body, I wasn’t going to abandon my brother to the cruelty of strangers.

Jen flinched, “You don’t realize how dangerous the world outside the Five Forts is Kate, especially for a conceiver like you.”

“Fine, then I won’t be one. I’ll take off the bracelets and no one will know.”

That just made her more worried, “It’s not that much safer for a fort born woman.”

“You’re as fort born as me. What makes you any different?”

Jen sighed and leaned back against the ships mast, crossing her arms, “I’ve been up and down this river countless times since I was twelve, you’ve never been this far from home before.”

I crossed my own arms and scowled at her from the box I was sitting on, “If it’s so dangerous why’d you invite me to travel with you next spring? Is it only dangerous when I’m spending time with a certain trio of sisters and not with you?” It was a low blow and I saw the hurt in her eyes.

“No…Kate, I made that offer before the bandit attack. We’d have mostly gone to the safer trading ports. I’d have never let you off the boat in the places these three think we need to go to look for your brother.”

“Jen you may be the captain of this boat but you don’t have a damn bit of say in what I do when I’m not on it.”

She realized her mistake, “I didn't mean…”

“I’m going to do what it takes to find Tobias and I don’t care if you think it puts me in danger.”

Her eyes narrowed, “Fine, but like you said, I am still the captain of this boat. I’m on your side. I want to find Tobias too but we have to at least do it in a smart way, not just charge in blind.”

She had me there. I felt my anger bleeding away. “How?”

Her face softened, “Then we need to decide if we’re going to stop at all the possible forts or just the more likely ones. If we skip some, we might pass him by but if we don’t we may be too late to find him if he’s transported inland.”

I didn’t actually know what answer was best. Tali saved me.

“From what the bandit said, they probably offered him to every place they passed if the first two forts didn’t take him. We’d do better to be thorough and at least ask at all of them and spend time in the major cities and forts.”

Jen nodded, “Does everyone think that sounds reasonable?”

She looked around at me, the Walker sisters and those of her crew who were listening. Most nodded, including me.

“Then we’ll do that. At the next shallow I want to put a boat ashore with two women who can take a message back to the fort and tell them what’s going on. It’s almost a weeks journey at this point on foot but we’ll give them enough money to buy horses if they come across any. Have I got any volunteers?”

The crew all traded looks and after a moment two women came forward. One was a dark haired woman in her thirties, “If it’s all the same I’d be happy to go. My wife’s due in about three weeks time and I’d like to be there if I can.”

A slightly older woman also nodded, “I’ve two toddlers back at home and I promised them both I’d be home before winter. I wouldn’t mind making good on that. It’s looking like this may take longer than we thought.”

We put them ashore to carry the message back and set sail again on the swift current of the river.

That afternoon, I took off my bracelets. I spent about a half hour trying to undo the knots one handed without any luck. At last I was ready to cut them but Tali, who’d been watching me, stopped me.

“Wait, don’t destroy something that beautiful. Let me help.”

We sat on one of the crates and she carefully used her nails to work at the complex knot until it came undone and slowly unwound the bracelet from my right wrist, undoing each twist of the string and beads after each circle of my arm. When she was done, she handed me the first long string of beads.

“This is delicate work; it looks like the pattern was made to fit your wrist.”

I took the beads and offered her my other arm. “It was, my mother made them for me.”

She worked at the second knot, “She’s talented. Is she a jewelry maker?”

“No, she’s the leader of our fort. She was the captain of our guard when she was younger, but she got thrown from a horse and had to retire after that.”

Her eyes widened a bit. A fort leader’s daughter was well beyond the range of a mercenary, at least under normal circumstances. “Is she gifted like you?”

I shrugged, “I know she has a strong healers gift but if she’s a conceiver or a kindler she’s never said, not that it matters since she married my dad.”

She began to unwind the second bracelet, “You’ve got a father?” she sounded a little surprised. Most gifted women were usually born from female pairs with a gifted gene or birth mother. It was rare for a man to sire a gifted daughter unless the mother was also gifted herself. A lot of enclaves, although not the Five Forts, would not let a gifted woman marry a man, considering it a waste of the woman’s gift.

No on in the Five Forts would have dared to tell my mother she couldn’t marry my father, especially since he came to Ash Fort specifically to marry her. My father had eventually taken other wives, as we expected, but it was always understood that he was my mother’s consort first and foremost. She was fort leader but she still consulted him on all important decisions.  

“Yea, Tobias and I share a father, not a mother. Did you have a male sire or are you gifted born?” It was an intimate question. You never asked a woman about her parentage unless you were looking to marry her or have a child together and wanted to make sure you weren’t close kin.

Despite the number of gifted in the Five Forts, a lot of marriages were still between ungifted women who got their children through the help of a kindler or man outside of the marriage. For this reason, it was generally considered a good idea to make sure you weren’t half siblings before courting. I obviously knew I wasn’t kin to Tali but I was curious about where she came from.

Her hands began to shake a little as she unwound the final twist of the beads. She kept her eyes down. “I knew the coward who sired my sisters and me on our bitch of a mother mother but he was no father to us.”

Her attractive face was twisted in anger and her hands shook even more as she set the string of beads down on the crate beside me.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“It’s okay. You meant no harm by it and you’ve a right, what with how my sisters and I have been courting you. We’d never ask you to wed us without telling you everything of who we are and where we come from.”

I noticed that she didn’t offer to tell me all of it just then. “I understand.” I gathered up the two strings of beads and put them into a bag.

“Thank you,” she kissed me on the cheek and it was one of the gentlest kisses I had ever received.

The next morning I woke to the sound of clashing blades. I tumbled out of my hammock and ran above deck with my hand on my belted dagger sheath only find Jen and Mel sparing. Mel had one of the crew’s cutlasses in hand and Jen was clearly instructing.

“Good, good. You’ve got great balance, you're a natural sailor. Now don’t flinch back so much. You have to get closer with a shorter blade.”

I sat down on a crate and watched. Mel wasn’t graceful but she was strong and quick. Jen fought like a dancer, her feet barely touching the deck, every movement fluid. She retreated against Mel’s frantic attack, only to quickly duck foreword, catch her blade with her own and flick it down to the deck.

Jen motioned with her head for her to pick up the blade. Mel raised an eyebrow, “Do you take me for a fool? The first thing my sisters ever taught me is not to trust the bitch you’re fighting.”

Jen smiled, a real smile that reached her eyes, “We’re not fighting, I’m teaching you.”

She walked over to the blade and flipped it up with her boot, catching it in the air, “Same difference, I’ve most of my scars from sparing with my sisters.”

“That’s a bit harsh,” said Jen as she walker to the water bucket and filled a tin cup.

“Their lessons have kept me alive haven’t they?” Mel put the blade through her belt loop and accepted a cup from Jen. “You’re a good swords woman but I don’t see that you have any scars to boast.”

Jen leaned against the water barrel, “No, I don’t. Scars are the mark of a mistake and as a captain, I can’t afford to make those. My crew and I have killed every woman who’s ever boarded our boat with ill intentions.

Mel watched her out of a corner of her eye, “You get a lot of pirates on the Trinidad?”

Jen shook her head, “Not here but farther down south near the ocean. We’ve been attacked more than once in the deep waters near the coast. It’s one reason we don’t go that far much anymore. We’ve had trouble a few times when we’ve tried to trade with a less than honest enclaves as well.”

I pushed away from the barrel I was sitting on and walked over, “You’ve never told me about any of that.” All the times since she’d told Suzy and me stories of the river they’d never involved danger or death.

A lot of things crossed Jen’s face, “They weren’t fit stories to tell my little sister or her friend.”

“Do you still see me like that? Someone you have to shelter and protect?”

She didn’t quite look at me, “Not shelter, you’re a grown woman, but protect of course, you’re a conceiver.”

Something tightened in my chest and I couldn’t decide if it was disappointment or anger. “Then if you want to protect me you should teach me how to fight.”

She blinked, “You already know how to use a rifle.”

“Yes, but I can’t take it with me into any of the towns. I want you to show me how to use a sword and dagger.” I’d never learned to use a bladed weapon, never needed too. I was a weaver. The only times I’d ever even carried a rifle was when I was in the far pastures for the lambing or traveling between forts.

While there was a decent supply of old rifles in the forts, they were generally considered too valuable to normally be taken anywhere but between the forts. There were a few on the River Queen but they were next to useless in close combat and didn’t work if they got wet either.

Before Jen could reply Mel said, “I’ll teach you but it’ll have to be with a two handed mercenary blade.”

Jen gave her an ugly look, “No need, she asked me and I will.” She drew her blade and offered it to me handle first. “Here we’ll start with how to hold it properly.”

Mel rolled her eyes but walked away. I took the cutlass, slipping my hand into the basket hilt. It was heavy and weighed down my arm.

Jen moved behind me. “There, now raise your arm but don’t over extend it. Turn your body to make a smaller target and keep one foot in front of the other. Use your other arm for balance.”

Her hands adjusted me in a way that I wasn’t sure was instructional or flirting.

“Back straight,” he hand was warm against the small of my back, pressing lightly.

She moved away from me, “Now move forward, keep the sword where it is but focus on keeping your feet.”

The next two hours pretty much went like that. We didn’t even spar and my arm was burning. I felt like a fool but Jen seemed pleased.

“You’ve made a good start. If you’re really serious we’ll practice every day.”

“Can I borrow one to take ashore with me?”

She shook her head, “Not until you know what you’re doing. One of the best ways to get killed is to carry a blade you don’t know how to use.”

Late afternoon found us nearly within sight of the large trading town, Harper’s Landing. The River Queen set the Walker sisters and me ashore. It was a short walk along the river road. I was getting used to walking.

My wrists were bare and I looked to all the world to be nothing more than an ungifted girl.

“This is a tougher place than the last two,” Cali warned me. “Stick close to us and try not to draw attention.”

“I understand. What’s our story?”

“If anyone asks you’re still our wife.” Said Tali. “You’re a pretty young thing, best that women know you’ve got protectors. People will believe that a trio of mercenaries might share and treasure a girl like you, even ungifted.”

“I’m getting tired of being called a pretty girl. I’m a grown woman,”

“Barely grown sweetheart and like I’ve told you before you have the look of a prosperous enclave or a big farm. River towns and struggling farms don’t breed healthy women like you.”

I frowned and kept walking, “Couldn’t you at least say I’m a new mercenary.”

“Mercenaries don’t usually come as short and skinny as you.”

“Spies and scouts and sometimes archers do,” said Cali.

“But they don’t look like she does.”

“They might start out like her before they toughen up,” suggested Mel, being uncharacteristically talkative. “You remember Julie don’t you? She weren’t no bigger than Kate and she was a good scout. She was pretty too, even after she lost the ear.”

“Wasn’t half as good looking with only one ear,” said Cali.

“Didn’t stop you from tumbling with her,” laughed Tali.

“Well she was very good with her hands and even better with...”

“Cali!” snapped Mel when she noticed how I was blushing. “Don’t talk like that in front of Kate.”

“She can talk however she wants in front of me.”

Just then we crested the hill and Harper’s Landing came into sight. It was a large, sprawling harbor town and the smell hit us before we even reached it. They clearly didn’t dig deep enough privies. The town had walls on only two sides since it had the river to their front and the cliffs to their back. The river road ran past them, although it dipped and turned in the shadow of the cliffs.

We walked down the slanting path into the shouting voices of a busy deep harbor. Along with other scents, the smell of fish hit us hard. It wasn’t hard to guess what one of the main sources of food for the town was.

There were two bored looking guards at the gate. They were as young as the ones in the last enclave and armed not with rifles but crossbows and long knives. They didn’t look like they expected to need their weapons.

“Names and business,” said one girl, although I saw no indication that she was going to write anything down. Paper wasn’t cheap so the town it might not have found worth it to keep records of that kind of thing. The guards also might not be able to read or write, literacy was fairly rare, even in larger towns, although it was nearly universal with the Five Forts.

“I’m Tali Walker and these are my sisters Cali and Mel. This is our wife Kate. We’re passing through and stopping for the night. Can you recommend an inn?”

The other girl answered, “Well the Scarlet Lion is nice but expensive, The Green Crown is cheapest but word is they’ve got fleas. If I were you, I’d stay at the Drunken Hedgehog, modest price and clean enough beds, plus my cousins run it. Just stay on this road and take a left at the main square.”

“We’ll go there then,” promised Tali.

We made our way into the town. The streets were crowded and there were more people than I’d ever seen before outside of a midsummer festival. I even spied a man or two, although always with at least one woman at his side. The streets were narrow and steep. It took half my attention not to trip in the uneven cobblestones streets. I’d never before seen a street lined with stones and they felt strange and hard beneath my boots.

We reached the main square. It seemed huge to me and had a large well in the middle of it. No one was foolish enough to drink river water when they could drink spring or well water instead.

We turned and soon found the inn. It had a very large painted wooden sign with a very interesting painting of a drunk hedgehog on it.

Tali led the way inside, like she always did. It was pleasantly warm, although the fire in the great hearth was just coals. Long wooden tables lined the walls and the floor was covered in fairly fresh rushes.

A plump middle aged innkeeper bustled over, “What can I do for you?”

“We need a private room for the night.”

She gave us a thoughtful look, “How many beds you be wanting?”

Tali shrugged, “Doesn’t much matter, these two are my sisters and Kate here’s our wife.”

“One bed will do you all then and be cheaper than two. The room’s small but it’ll be warm. Come on, I’ll show you up.”

She led us up the stairs and unlocked a heavy wooden door with a key that she gave to Tali after receiving some silver. Mel, Cali and I went in to set down our bags. The innkeeper hung about in the door and spoke quietly to Tali.

“You recently married?”

“What business is it of yours?” asked Tali.

“None, although if neither the girl or the three of you are gifted and you’re looking for breeding services I can tell you where to go. The fall’s the best time to conceive, it means any child will be born in early summer. There’s much less chance of losing a summer baby to crib cough or fever.

Tali considered for a moment and then offered the innkeeper a couple of copper coins, “If we were where looking for a way to get our wife with child, where would you tell us to go?”

The innkeeper quickly proved so chatty I began to suspect she’d have told us anything we mostly wanted without a financial incentive.

“There are two places in town, one more respectable than the other. The Red Roof’s more of a cat house and specialized in ungifted women of certain skills but they do have a man and offer artificial services. I wouldn’t go there for that though, they were fools and sold the man in body as well as seed and rumor is he caught something from a river rat. Even if he never touches your girl you don’t want anything from him put in her or she might get sick.

“The Violet Crown is a better kept place and they only sell their man’s seed so he’s clean. I wouldn’t recommend buying it though, the man’s past the age of his seed being worth much and hell even when he was young he was ugly and inbred. Even if an artificial go takes, you might not like the look of the baby that’s born.

“If you don’t mind a kindler touching your girl you can go to either place. Jessica at the Red Roofs good looking and healthy but from what I’ve heard she can be kind of rough. If your girl is not used to that kind of treatment you might not want to put her through it, especially since Jessica will only service her if she can do it alone. There’s Jane at the same place, but you don’t want a kid with her nose.

“Now your best bet is at the Violet Crown, they’ve got two kindlers, both decent women, Tania and Kelly. Tania’s the better looking of the two and a better hand with young wives. She’ll be respectful and gentle and will let you and your co-wives stay and help. I know for a fact she’s sired plenty of healthy babies.

“What’s more, the owner of the Violet Crown is a good healer, my sister in fact, she’ll look over your girl ahead of time and be able to tell you what days she can conceive. That way you’ll only have to go and pay for one night. If the first and second try don’t take, the third will be half price.” The innkeeper looked very pleased with herself.

Tali seemed a little embarrassed, “Sounds reasonable but I don’t much like the thought of a stranger touching my wife, even a respectful kindler. Are you sure no one’s selling the artificial breeding services of a man who’s neither old or diseased?”

The innkeeper shook her head, “Nah, no one’s selling any young man in any capacity, body or seed. Shame that. I miss my poor dead husband enough I might even pay for that sort of company. Men are hard to come by these days and there have certainly not been any new ones in this city, not even through marriage trades.” She signed, “You’re much better off with an honest kindler, gods know they’re cheaper and cleaner. Now do you want me to go talk to my sister? She could come by later and test your wife to see when she should be able to conceive.”

“We need to talk it over. I’ll let you know what we decide.”

“You do that,” the innkeeper nodded and left. “Don’t take too long, especially if you want to reserve the kindler for an hour on the right night. I’ll even give you a discount on the room here for the days you’ll need to wait.”

After she shuffled off, I could tell Cali was trying very hard not to laugh, “She’s certainly a shrewd business woman.”

I sat down the edge of the bed, “Did she really just…”

Tali sat beside me, patting my shoulder, “Don’t act so shocked honey. How do you think most ungifted outside of the forts get pregnant? Gifted are rare and men even more so, most ungifted can’t hope to marry one. Most ungifted conceive their children through a place like the Violet Crown or Red Roof.

I felt cold, “Do you think the bandits sold my brother to a place like one of those.”

“I don’t know. It’s possible although not likely, at least not in a place so close to where your brother was taken. The madame of a cat house in a port this small would never be dumb enough to buy a stolen man, not when her establishment would be the first place the man’s kin would look for him.”

“Then why are we even here!” I snapped.

“Because there’s a chance that the bandits aren’t as smart as we think they are, and also we might be able to pick up gossip,” said Cali. “Any operation large enough to mount the attack the bandits did needs to pick up supplies somewhere and here’s as good anywhere for that.”

I sat up, “So how do we hear the gossip.”

“Go to the pub of course.”

The night air was cool when we stepped out and I pulled my cloak closed. Half their journey seemed to be taking place in fire lit taprooms and I wasn’t convinced that I was coming any closer to finding my brother.

The tap-room/central inn of the town was huge, as big as the meeting hall of river fort if not even larger.

A wave a hot air hit us as we pushed the front door open and walked into the music and smoke filled interior.

I’d never seen so many people in one place outside of a festival. There was a fiddler playing beside the fire, her voice a bit scratchy but good enough. The large cavernous room was lined with rough wooden tables and had wooden booths at the sides.

After the last two places we’d been I thought I’d see only women, but I spied a few men in the crowd, surrounded protectively by women but still there.

We’d barely crossed the threshold before a loud booming voice called out,

“Cal, Tali Mel! It’s good to see you sorry lot!”

The largest man I had ever seen, or possibly a bear, barreled toward us and swept Cali up into a hug. I’d have been afraid that he was crushing her if she hadn’t been laughing so hard.

“Bernard you old fool? How are you?”

“Well lass, well,” The huge man set her down and stepped back. He seemed about twice as tall as my father, which was saying something. I assumed that there was a face somewhere among the mass of black and grey hair and beard but I couldn’t be entirely certain.

He was armed to the teeth, even in the tavern he had a long sword slung over one shoulder and knives clearly visible on his belt. I wasn’t sure why anyone that huge needed to bother with a bladed weapon, he could probably just hit anyone who threatened him into the next century.

He traded greetings with Tali and Mel, hugging Tali without lifting her and patted Mel on the shoulder. He looked me up and down, which didn’t take him very long, “Now who’s this slip of a girl? Don’t tell me that the three of you have finally found that wife you were looking for?”

“This is Kate, she hasn’t agreed to marry us yet but were hopeful,” said Tali. She’d told the truth instead of sticking to the cover story. She must have trusted him.

He made an elegant bow and offered me a hand the size of a dinner plate.

I took the hand and offered him the best smile I could. I already liked him. “Nice to meet you.”

“Then it is a pleasure to meet your lass. The names Bernard O'Connor. You must be something special to have charmed these three. I’ve been trying to convince them to marry me for years, without any luck.” He seemed to be joking.

Tali laid a hand on my shoulder, “Don’t take it personally Bernard. You can’t blame us for not wanting to be outshone by the seven Valkyries you’ve already married.”

Speaking of which, I finally noticed the three women with Bernard. They were all equally well armed as their husband if not quite so tall. They had the build of mercenaries, although guessing from their range of hair and skin colors, none of them were kin to each other.

“And what makes you thinks we’d have any of you as co-wives?” asked the oldest of the group with a fond smile. She was a lean woman with streaks of grey in her hair and scars on the dusky skin of her arms.

Cali grinned at her, “My incomparable charm surely?” She turned back to me, “Kate I would like you to meet Fiona, Desdie and Mina.” She motioned in turn to the graying haired woman, a blond one in her forties and a woman with curly black hair and much darker skin that was probably in her late thirties. “Fiona is the leader of the O'Connor Mercenary Company. She taught my sisters and me everything we know about fighting.”

All the three women offered me a polite nod and I returned the gesture. I got the feeling that they weren’t as prone to hugging as their husband. We moved towards the large booths at the back of the inn. We sat with Fiona and Bernard in one of the large horseshoe shaped booths. The other two women had faded back into the hustle and bustle of the tavern

Once the bar maid had deposited tankard on the table Fiona gave my companions a look I’d seen my own mother give younger members of the fort guard when she thought they were up to something they shouldn’t be.

“Now, what brings you three here on the cusp of winter and with a girl who looks like you carried her off from the forts?”

“It’s a long story,” Tali pitched her voice low and cast a quick glance around the room. Someone would have to be practically leaning against our table to hear us in the din of the tavern and the table was walled by the wooden sides of the booth on three sides. I wondered how much she trusted this woman, from the look on her face I guessed a lot.

“I’ve time,” said Fiona gently. “If you’re in trouble you know we’ll help.”

Tali nodded, “Then in confidence I can tell you were on a mission for River Fort. Kate’s brother was stolen by bandits when they raided a party returning to Acorn Fort after the fall festival. We caught one of the bandits and got her to tell us where they might try to sell the boy and now we're making our way down river checking all the places he might be. We mean to find him and steal him back.”

Maybe she didn’t trust her completely,  she hadn’t mentioned anything about me being a conceiver or the River Queen.

If anything Tali said surprised Fiona she made no sign of it, “Were they the Halliard Crew?”

“That’s the name we got out of the bandit we caught, although she got pretty incoherent in the end. What have you heard?”

Fiona leaned even farther forward. “I’ve heard of that lot and they are bad business. They’ve been raiding all up and down the river this fall. They’ve even attacked a few homesteads not too far from where our own farm is. We’ve just finished up a contract with a trading caravan and are heading home ourselves to make sure the rest of our family is safe.”

“I’m sure they are all fine,” said Bernard gently, “We’re several days travel from the river, and those that were attacked were on it. The children have Stella, Luca and Debbie to protect them, not to mention the oldest children are nearly grown themselves. Why Bobby’s as tall as I am now and Rose is deadly with a rifle.”

“I still won’t feel right until I see them safe, not after what they say they found in the ashes of the Walter’s Farm,” snapped Fiona.

“I know love and we’re going home tomorrow,” he promised her. “If any bandits dare show their faces on our side of the river we’ll string up the corpses as a warning.”

She sighed and sat back looking at Tali again, “If you want my advice you should take this pretty girl back to the forts where she belongs and give up the boy as lost. I’ve never heard of anyone getting back someone that the Green Woods Bandits took. You’ll probably never find him and even if you do he’ll be too well guarded to steal back. You’ll just get yourselves hurt or killed.”

Anger flared up inside of me. I was tired of being called a girl, as if my youth made me stupid. I leaned forward and glared at her, “Would you give up, if someone stole one of your family, your husband or children? How can you tell me to forget my brother?”

Her frown deepened, “Would your brother want you in danger?”

“No but he’d put himself in danger for me and that’s what matters.”

She met my gaze evenly, her eyes sharp and tired, “Aye, I see your point girl. If anyone ever took Bernard I’d tear this world apart and leave a trail of blood until I found him.”

I had a very hard time imagining anyone, even the bandits who’d kidnapped me, managing to bring down, much less carry off, a man as formidable as her husband.

Bernard laid a heavy arm on his wife’s shoulder, “You know I’d die fighting before I ever let myself be taken away from you. Gods pity any fool who tries.”

She took his hand in her own smaller ones and kissed his palm, “That’s why I married you dear. I’ve no time for a husband who can’t defend himself and fight by my side.” She looked up at him the way my mother often looked at my father. I half thought they’d kiss but she seemed to remember herself and turned her attention back to us.

“If you’re going to keep looking then be careful, don’t tell anyone what you’re looking for and watch your back. Keep a close eye on Kate too, don’t let anyone know what she is.”

Cali almost choked on her drink, “And how do you know what she is?”

Fiona raised an eyebrow, “The three of you are looking to marry her, which tells me enough, also she’s got tan lines on both wrists, like she’s taken off bracelets. I’m guessing she’s a conceiver since the forts wouldn’t let a kindler run off down river, even for a lost brother.”

“You’re as damn observant as ever,” laughed Cali.

“And you’re not observant enough, in spite of all I’ve tried to teach you,” sighed Fiona. “Gods know why I ever let the three of your leave our company and go off on your own.”

“We’re not your daughters,” said Tali gently.

“I half wish you were. Gods know I’ve helped raise two dozen children from my co-wives even if I never bore any of my own. Just because you and your sisters were nearly grown when I met you, don’t mean I didn’t do the best I could to teach you. You know that if you ever need to come back to the O’Conner mercenary company, you’re always welcome. We’ll find a place and work for you.”

“We know and were grateful,” There was more emotion in Tali’s voice than I’d ever heard.

“Good,” Her smile reminded me of my mother’s, sad and sweet at the same time. “Now enough about this. I want to know what you three have been up to in the past year.”

As if by some unspoken signal, or possibly because of a hand gesture on Bernard’s part, the other two women drifted back over to the table and sat down.

The barmaid brought stew and more ale. The stew was warm and rich, the ale sweet as fresh apples. I listened to the people around me talk contently, not really feeling the need to say much myself.

Not another word was said about bandits or lost brothers. From the conversation I gathered that the Walker sisters had once been part of the O’Conner mercenary company, when they were as young. Bernard told good stories and had a talent for making everyone laugh.

“Now you see we all joined a trading caravan that spring. This was before the Walker sisters signed on with us. I still don’t know how they got the caravan to hire them as guards, they were so young, but somehow they did.  Tali must have been all of about seventeen, and never a colder or more careful young woman have I ever met, but she did have two little sister to watch out for. Cali was fifteen and just realizing how far she could get with her looks and charm, which was always getting her into trouble. Mel though, she was all of fourteen, scrawny and shy. She didn’t get tall like she is now until the next year.

"Fiona, gods know, is a bleeding heart, even if she’ll tell you different. She took these three sorry cases under her wings right away. On the first night she made sure they got put into the same tent with two of our older daughters Whitney and Nellie, who were about Tali’s age and came along for us as their first season as mercenaries.

It was good too, because I didn’t trust the merchant who was running that caravan. She might have taken advantage of girls on their own, but wasn’t stupid enough to go near our girls or anyone else Fiona decided she was watching out for. We were barely a few days out before Fiona started including the three of them in the weapons lessons she was giving our daughters. You could tell right away that Tali didn’t trust her, but she wanted the lessons. Someone had already taught the sisters how to use a blade and bow and they learned everything new quicker than our own daughters. Now, I should get to the point of the story, which was Mel’s first romance.”

I swear Mel blushed when he said that and gave him a pleading look, but he didn’t stop the story.

“The head of the caravan guard was a tough old kindler who’d lost an eye in some past battle. Her wife was the head cook and the loveliest, if plumpest, woman I ever met. The two of them had only one daughter but she was a looker. She was all of about fifteen and had the prettiest blue eyes and the lightest gold hair you ever saw. Everyone suspected she was probably a kindler like her sire because she had a strong healing gift and could close cuts and mend injuries.

All three Walker sisters were crazy about her, and tried everything they could to get her attention. Tali being practical, hung around and talked to her, Cali brought her flowers and Mel being shy and awkward started helping her with kitchen chores.

Now the cook’s daughter didn’t much take to Tali or Cali but she liked Mel, started spending a lot of time with her. One afternoon Fiona and I found Mel, sitting out by the stream we’d camped by looking all scared and panicked. She looked like she wanted to talk but wasn’t going to say anything while I was around so I went away and Fiona sat down with her. Later Fiona came back to our tent and barely closed the flap before she about half died laughing.

“You see Mel was convinced that the cook’s daughter had to have gotten her pregnant. When Fiona got to talking to her though it became pretty clear Mel was a little shaky on how exactly babies were made or even what sex was exactly. Apparently no one, not even her sisters, had explained things to her. Fiona had to tell to her that she wasn’t going to get knocked up from just kissing a girl, even if the other girl was a kindler.”

“You should have seen how the cook’s daughter kissed” said Mel. She was blushing nearly as red as her hair.

Fiona rolled her eyes, “Still, honestly I would have thought…what did you think the bits below the waist were for?”

That just got everyone at the table laughing. Mel rolled her eyes and accepted the mockery good naturally, “I certainly know now.”

“Glad you listened,” said Fiona before sharing a conspiratorial grin with everyone else at the table. “After I talked to her, I gathered all three sisters and had a very long talk about where babies come from and how to avoid accidentally getting with one. Truth be told I’m not sure even Tali knew what I was talking when I got to the teas.”

“I did,” protested Tali and then realizing how silly she sounded added, “although it was good for Cali and Mel to hear.”

There was more laughter and more ale. It was late and the stars were bright by the time the three of us stumbled back to our own inn. I’d drunk more than I’d meant to and I was leaning heavily against Mel’s shoulder.

Her step was steady, she’d drunk as much as me, but the ale seemed to barely affect her. She felt good and warm against me as we wound our way through the empty streets. The innkeeper opened the door to us when we knocked and watched us climb the stairs with a knowing smile.

Tali pushed open the door to our own small room and lit the lamp. I sat down on the edge of the bed, tugged off my cloak and kicked off my boots. I grabbed at Mel the moment she sat down beside me.

She seemed rather surprised when I crawled into her lap and tried very determinedly to push her down onto the bed but she let me. When I kissed her she tasted of the sweet ale we’d both drunk. I scrambled at her clothes hungrily, pausing only when I felt someone run her hands down my back.

I turned my head and kissed Cali awkwardly from where she was sitting behind me. I felt the bed shift as Tali sat beside the three of us. I reached for her before I thought the action through. She kissed me too, tugging the tie from my hair and running her hands through my braid.

When we pulled apart for breath she murmured against my neck, “Have you any idea what you’re doing beautiful?”

“I want you,” I murmured

She pulled back and kissed me on the forehead, “your very drunk little conceiver,”

“I still want you, all of you.”

“Oh honey, we want you too. Tell us that in the morning when you’re sober and calm, then you can have us all tomorrow night.”

I sat up and frowned at her. The brief feeling of control I had was slipping away, “But I want you now and I know you want me.” The room was kind of spinning. She wasn’t wrong about me being drunk.

“I know,” she kissed me again and then so did her sisters, “but you’ve been hurt recently and now you’re acting frantic like something other than lust is riding you. I laid with a woman once when she was like that and she resented me afterwards, I don’t want you to resent me.”

My desire vanished in an instant. I sat up, “The bandits didn’t rape me. They never had the chance.”

Tali stroked my hair, “That doesn’t mean you’re not still hurting inside. I’m a bitch in a lot of ways, but this is one thing I won’t use to get between your legs.”

I felt the sob well up before I could stop it. I covered my face and felt hot tears pour through my fingers. Frantic sobbing sounds clawed their way from my throat. I lost myself too it, in too much pain to care about how ugly it was. All the fear and desperation and anger of the last few days washed through me. At some point I ran out of tears.

“Lie down,” Tali whispered in my ear, “we’ll still hold you.”

“Okay,” I murmured. I was feeling very tired. I stretched out between her and Mel, wrapped up in the warmth of their bodies and the security of their arms.

Chapter Text

I woke in the morning with my head hurting, still curled up with Mel, Cali at my back. Tali was already up, busy packing up the few things we’d brought.

Mel must have felt me shift because she opened her eyes sleepily and slipped from my grasp. Cali did the same soon enough and I forced myself to sit up and go in search of my boots.

I felt a bit like I’d hit my head against the wall a few times but I remembered everything clearly. With the hammers in my skull at the moment, lust was about the last thing on my mind.

We went downstairs for a quick breakfast that I barely picked at, paid the innkeeper, and headed out to meet the River Queen. We pushed off and floated down river before the sun had done more than barely kiss the horizon.

It was a long day on the river. I didn’t feel great for most of the morning but after I ate a little bit of bread life began to seem better. About midday we stopped at a river farm and I went ashore with Jen. We made the excuse of asking if the family wanted to sell any sheep. Only women came to talk us, although I saw a man hanging back near the barn and two little boys clinging to his sleeves. Three little girls came much closer, hiding behind one of the women and looking at us with curious but not frightened eyes.

Their sheep were a pretty sorry lot and it was clear that they wouldn’t have had the coin to buy Tobias even if the bandits had tried to sell him to them. With a healthy young husband though, I doubt the family would have wanted to buy Tobias anyway.

We bought a bale of wool in order to not seem suspicious and pushed off again. We stopped at two more farms, one with a middle aged woman who wore a kindler’s bracelets and negotiated carefully when she sold us grain and another where we bought corn from a family of ungifted sisters that bragged about their new conceiver wife. I didn’t think either family would have bought Tobias.

We made good trades but were no closer to finding Tobias. “The river farms are too prosperous, none of them are desperate enough to buy a stolen man, not when they can legitimately pay the marriage price for a man or gifted woman from another family or just trade one of their own brothers or gifted sisters in a marriage swap” said Tali thoughtfully as she helped the crew put away the corn from our last stop.

“Do you think we need to look inland then?” Jen asked her.

“No, the bandits won’t bother doing that. We just have to look farther down river in the bigger towns and enclaves; they’ve more silver and desperation.”

That afternoon Jen gave me another sword lesson. The crew started to hang about to watch by one glare from Jen sent them back to their own business. We still didn’t fence but she said my footwork was getting better. It felt good to be close to her, to listen to her familiar voice.

I could remember the last time we’d been so close like this. It was the midsummer festival at River Fort, the year after I fell out of the apple tree. Suzy and I had always been thick as thieves but that year she had been sick with a summer cold and couldn’t run around with me. When I went to her house, her mother turned me away at the door, saying she didn’t want me to get sick too.

Jen had been sitting on the porch steps doing something with a bit of rope. I sat down beside her dejectedly. After a moment I asked her.

“What are you doing?”

“Practicing sailing knots.”

“During the festival?”

“I have the practice them every day, especially if I want to someday be a river captain.”

I had doubted she’d be one soon, most captains were well into their middle years. I didn’t say that though. She looked too happy.

“Can you teach me how to tie that?”

“Sure, this a double eight knot.”

We sat together on the porch in the warm summer afternoon as she showed me each knot about a hundred times before I could get them and then guided my clumsy fingers through the turns. She was patient and kind, as if she would have happily spent the whole day teaching me.

I can still remember the roughness of her hands, already toughened by a youth spend on the river, the warmth of her breath on my ear as she leaned over me. I started feeling something for her that day, I just never acted on it. She was Suzy’s big sister after all and already a sailor on the River Queen. What interest would she have in me?

We slept that night on the river. I tossed and turned in my hammock but couldn’t drift off. I climbed out of the mess of woven hemp and went out onto the deck. I don’t know why I was surprised to find Jen there sitting on one of the crates.

We weren’t alone of course, there was one of the crew women up at the helm to steer but she was out of hearing range and kept her eyes on the river.

“Hey,” said Jen softly when I sat down beside her.

“Hey, yourself,” I said back.

I could feel a strange hesitancy between us but she was still the last truly familiar person I had left as the world around me became more and more strange. I reached for her hand and her strong fingers clasped mine. I rested my head on her shoulder.

She slipped an arm around me and pulled me close. “how are you holding up?” she asked gently.

“Well enough.”

“Going into the towns…it’s not too much for you?”

“No.”

“And the Walker Sisters aren’t trying anything?”

I tilted up my head to look at her, “nothing more than I let them.”

“You and them, you haven’t?”

I let go of her hand and turned my face away “Would you still want me if I had? Would you want me if anyone had tumbled me before? If the bandits had?” I knew my voice sounded choked.

She looked like I’d slapped her but quickly gathered herself. Very softly she asked, “Did the bandits?” She took a slow breath and something colder entered her face, “Should we have killed that woman for you instead of sending her to the fort? Did you need to see her die to feel safe again?”

I’d never seen Jen look like that before. I shivered in spite of the cloak I had wrapped around myself, “No, the bandits never got that far, at least not in a way that could have gotten me with a bastard. Even if they had, seeing the bitch dead wouldn’t have helped. I saw her sister die and it brought me no peace.

“I understand,” she said without explaining. “Even if they had Kate, you have to know that wouldn’t make you any less of who you are. It sure as hell wouldn’t make me care about you less.”

“I know,” I believed her that she still cared about me, I was less certain as to the rest. I didn’t think I could ever get back the sense of security and self that had been ripped away from me during those days but I was trying.

We sat for a long beat in silence. “And the Walker Sisters? If I tumbled them would you not want me anymore?”

She bit at he lip nervously her shoulders tense. “That’s not what I meant when I asked. I just…I wanted to know where I stood with you. If you're courting them seriously and don’t want me at all then I’d like to stop making a fool of myself.”

Her words caught me off guard and it took a while to think of the right response, “I’m not courting anyone right now Jen. I’m trying to rescue my brother. I’ve been hurt and scared and I don’t know what I want.”

“I’m sorry. I’m pushing you and I’ve not right too.” She looked away. Her golden hair was almost the color of silver in the moonlight. I could see the sharp outline of her nose against the shadows of the boats stern.

Without thinking I reached for her hand again, “You do care about me though?”

She squeezed my hand, “Yes Kate, I really do, more and more every day.”

“I care about you too Jen. When all this is over, I’ll try to figure out just how much.”

Her lips were soft and warm when I pressed mine against hers.

She was a very good kisser, better even than Tali. I was almost disappointed with how respectful her hands were. I clung to her and pulled us as close as I could. I felt her fingers tightened with want and I knew she wasn’t being respectful from lack of desire.

We kissed slowly, lazily, simply enjoying what we were doing without trying to move on to anything else. I liked that. I liked her. I never felt overwhelmed with her the way I did with the Walker sisters.

When we broke the kiss she whispered, “When this is all over, after we’ve brought your brother home safe and you’ve had time to think, I still intend to ask you to come traveling with me on the River Queen.”

I buried my face in the warm lanolin scent of her woolen sweater. “I don’t know what my answer will be.”

Her hand was strong and warm as she rubbed slow circles against my back, “I wasn’t asking for an answer yet.”

I kissed her warm pulse at her neck before pulling away and standing, “I should go in.”

“One last kiss?”

She made it count.

The next morning we reached the juncture of two rivers, the Trinidad and the Red, where they became the Swift Water. I’d lived my whole life within a day’s travel of the Trinidad but never before seen the Red. It flowed from the west and wasn’t so much Red as light brown from the red dirt that muddied it. The two rivers were cloudy with silt where they ran together.

Not far from the convergence sat the great trading town, Harbor Town. It had once been the Green Haven bunker but was now a place of some thousand souls and even more travelers. Trading caravans from the north ended here, the merchants put their wares upon barges and following them down to the coast or heading back the way they’d come.

Here there were boats, two even three times the size of the River Queen. Huge, heavy steam boats that never could have sailed the shallow Trinidad river. I’d never dreamed a boat could be so big or a river so deep as what I saw there. I knew the stories but the actual sight took my breath away.

The River Queen set us ashore a half days journey from the port. The Walker Sisters and I set out again on our own. There were ruts in the wide road from carts regular travel, something I’d never seen before.

As we walked we were passed once by a woman on horseback and then later by a slow moving cart heavily laden with grain, driven by an old woman and warily guarded by two young women with crossbows. The old woman traded a polite nod with us and the young women glared as they passed us.

I didn’t believe my eyes when we came into sight of Harbor Town. It was huge, stretching across nearly a quarter mile of river front and then back and up into the bowl of the hills beyond.

There seemed to me to be hundreds of buildings all dull in the midday sun with their red tiled roofs. Tali told me that the river mud could be cooked into a sort of clay that let them make the red tiles. It was far better than wood or thatch for a roof. The city was known for its red clay and tiles.

Clay was so rare in our own area it was only used for ceramic pots and bowls, certainly not for anything as common as roofs. Only one house in River Fort, the home of Jen’s father, had a roof like that. Jen had brought him back the tiles a few years earlier.

The grey smoke of cook fires rose above the town and the scent of midday meals drifted over everything along with the stench of dung and poorly dug latrines. The sound hit us well before the road turned and wound down into the town. I’d never heard so many voices before.

“There must be as many people there as all the Five Forts.”

“Honey, in the big wide world the forts aren’t all that big.”

I felt as if she’d just cracked my image of the world.

Cali offered me a quick smile from where she was walking beside me, “It seems scary at first but you’ll get used to it. Don’t worry, you’ve got us to look out for you.”

“I’m not scared. I just don’t see how we’re going to find Tobias among so many people.”

“As big as the world gets, men still aren’t so common. If he’s here we’ll find him,” promised Tali.

The road twisted and we followed it until at last we came to the gates of the town. There were a lot of guards there, six alert ones, instead of the customary two bored one’s we’d have usually expected to encounter.

Two were up on the wall with bows, two on the ground with swords and then one very old one and very young one. The girl was armed with the scroll and pen of a scribe and the old one had the grey hair and steel eyes of a woman who’d seen it all.

We walked up and the old woman looked us up and down carefully, “Names and business.”

Tali spoke for us as she always did, “Tali, Cali, Mel and Kate Walker. We’re just passing through on our way south.”

The old woman didn’t look impressed, “Do you really expect me to believe that the dark haired girl is kin to you three redheads?”

“No, she’s our wife. She took our name.”

The old woman nodded, “That I’ll believe. Have you got any weapons to declare or goods to trade?”

“Sword and knives like any sensible women on the road. No goods.”

“Fire arms?”

“Do we look that well off?” asked Cali. We deliberately didn’t bring the rifles with us when we entered the towns because those would have marked us as being from the forts or very wealthy. They just weren’t something most mercenaries could afford to carry. The ones that the Walker sisters had used to rescue me had all come from the forts and weren’t their own.

The woman shrugged, “Well fed enough anyway, but if you’ve got no horses you’ve probably not got any hidden pistols. No firearms are allowed into the city but you can keep your bows, just don’t cause trouble with them please? Try not to stab anyone in the inns either, the penalty for murder is execution. We’ve just had a hanging this morning and it would be nice to go at least a week or two before the next one.”

“We’ll stay out of trouble,” Tali promised.

“You do that. Now it’s a copper coin per person to enter the town.”

Tali grumbled but she handed over the coins and we were soon on our way. The streets were narrow and winding. I didn’t see how anyone ever got a cart down them, although several women seemed to be attempting such.

There were actual gutters, stone ditches at the sides of the road to drain off rain. I’d heard of such things but never seen them. We wound our way through the streets between the buildings, most two stories high, towards the center of town. There was a great square branching off from a huge courtyard and a well.

The entire square was ringed with merchants’ stalls selling everything imaginable. I was feeling both excited and overwhelmed, especially when I spied a merchant who appeared to have brightly dyed yarn in her stall.

Cali took my arm and gently tugged me along with the group. We wandered up yet another street and at last found ourselves at an inn that Tali seemed to know. Once inside the door in the dark interior we were greeted by a man about the size of Bernard but not half so friendly.

He was gruff with graying dark hair and wore a stained cook’s apron that may have never seen soap and water in its existence. He gave my companions a less than pleased look, “What do you trouble makers want?”

“A room for the night,” said Tali, almost meekly.

“Last time you were here your sister started a fight.”

“I was justified, the other woman struck first!” said Cali.

“And we paid you for the damages,” said Tali. “Not that I think that broken table was worth what you said it was.”

The man’s craggy face softened slightly, “Well you did pay and apologize.” He narrowed his eyes, “Now how do I know you won’t cause more trouble this time?”

Tali tilted her head towards me, “We’ve a young wife who won’t stand for it.”

The innkeeper looked down at me. His expression softened as he considered me. “Have you got these three in hand then lass?”

I tried to stand tall, which was hard when I had to tilt up my head to see his face “as best I can.”

“Good then, you can all stay, although for your sake rather than these no goods.”

He took down a ring of keys from the wall and led us up a series of creaky stairs. I realized that the inn was at least three stories. We came to a door and he unlocked it with a heavy metal key that he gave to Tali after she gave him some coins.

He paused for a moment, considering me again. His tone was gentle rather than aggressive but I could see a certain interest in his eyes, “Now you wouldn’t be looking for breeding services would you?”

“What do you mean?” I knew what he meant although I’d rather I didn’t.

“If you’re interested, I’d be happy do it for free the natural way. You’re pretty enough.”

“Umm,” I think I blushed crimson. I’d never had a man proposition me before.

Tali moved in front of me quickly, “We don’t share her, and we certainly wouldn’t want any children with your nose.”

He raised an eyebrow, “Don’t get offended, it was just an offer…and honestly not one I make very often. You can go pay a silver coin at the Leaping Stag for the seed of a man far uglier than me if you want to.” He shrugged and turned to head back down the stairs. He paused suddenly,

“Unless you aren’t needing such services at all. She isn’t a conceiver is she? I would have never expected you three to do that well for yourselves.”

How could he just ask that? Did people outside the forts have no manners or discretion at all? I was glad that Tali was standing in front of me because my face might have betrayed me.

“No, but she’s already carrying thanks to the services of a friend’s husband. We’ve no need of you,” she told him.

He nodded, “Now that I’ll believe. Ask my head wife Jenny, if you need any herbs or teas for her. She’s one of the towns midwives.”

“At reasonable rates I’m sure,” said Tali.

The man shrugged, “But of course,” and left.

As soon as the door closed I asked, “So you three started a fight?”

“That really surprise you?” asked Mel as she sorted through her bag.

“Not the fight but that you paid for the damages.”

Tali shrugged, “It's best to stay on friendly terms with innkeepers since you never know when you’ll be back by. Cali might not have thrown the first punch but she did egg the woman who did it into hitting her.”

“She was a rude bitch.”

“A rude bitch with friends. They’d have beaten you half to death if Mel and I hadn’t been there to back you up. Now try to stay out of trouble for once, no fights while were here. We’re going to need to split up to find out what we can. Cali I want you to go looking for some of our less savory contacts, Mel I want you to go the White Hart tavern and see what you can hear without saying too much yourself, and Kate you and I are going to a brothel.”

“A what?”

“They are the first place to start looking for your brother. You can stay here if you’d prefer.”

“No, I’ll come.”

 

A half hour later Tali and I were winding out way through the busy streets. Before we left she had me change into a well made wool dress, that I guess she’d borrowed from one of the crew of the boat and put up my hair for me in a quick twist rather than the braid I usually wore. She gave me one of my own beautifully woven shawls, which I now realized she must have been among the things retrieved from the recovered horses. I had put my bundle of remaining weaving on a different horse than my pack.

We passed back through the street of inns to the main square and paused to buy some meat pies from a vendor for lunch. There was a young fiddler standing nearby and playing slightly off key. She had an open case in front of her and a couple of copper coins and pins in it. Several women and a few raggedy children had gathered around to listen to her.

We sat down beside the fountain to eat. I bit into the small pie and tasted spices that I never had before. I bolted the first and ate the next one a little slower. “Why do you really want me along with you? You could have told me to stay in the room or sent me to the tavern with Mel.”

She shrugged, “You make me seem more respectable. With your voice, your mannerisms, you can pass as high class enough to go to some of the better brothels in the city, places that might not even let me in. We’re going to pretend you’re a well off tradeswoman and I’m your slightly less reputable bodyguard and lover, but not wife.

“Aren’t I a little young for that, being a tradeswoman I mean?”

“Nah, not for a weaver. They’re a respected group here.” She leaned close enough to run a hand over the soft wool of my shawl. “If you ever really did set up shop here with your skills you’d make a good living. You’d be doing well enough for yourself to have some money, but not necessarily enough to marry a man or a kindler, at least not without sharing with a lot of co-wives. A tradeswoman might even prefer the freedom of not being a second or third wife and chose to instead have one ungifted wife and conceive outside the marriage or simply never marry at all.

I finished my food and brushed away the crumbs, “What the hell do I even say in a brothel?”

“That you’re looking for breeding services and want to see the men they have. Most women looking to conceive will shop around first to try to find an attractive and healthy sire for the baby. At any brothel that has breeding services they’ll be a madame who’ll come and talk to you. You’ll request to see the men, ask about their health that kind of thing, thank the madame, pay a three copper consultation fee and leave. If she asks about kindlers, say you’re not interested.”

I turned and looked at her, “How do you know this much about brothels anyway?”

Tali smiled thinly, “Do you think I used to be a whore?”

“You’re charming enough.”

Her eyes went wide and she couldn’t seem to decide whether to wince or laugh, “I guess I can take that as a compliment. I’ve never sold myself Kate, though it is as much a luck as anything else that kept me from the necessity. When my sisters and I were young mercenaries we couldn’t often make enough during the year to get through the winter.  Most brothels here will hire extra security in the winter in exchange for bed and board. We wintered in several different brothels in this city.

“Won’t they know you then?”

“Aye, which is why I’ll need you for them to think I’ve any legitimate business in returning other than looking for work.”

“Let’s get going then.”

Tali led me through more winding streets until we came to one that had a lot of unlit red lantern handing beside the doors and fairly ornate carved wooden doorways, some with rather suggestive carvings. All the buildings were two stories, most with balconies, although empty at this time of day.

Tali went first to building that had a big painted wooden golden crown hanging over the front, like the sign for an inn. I knocked on the door uncertainty and it swung open. We walked into one of the largest rooms I’d ever seen outside of an inn.

I felt as if I’d stepped into a fairytale kingdom. There were long wooden couches all over the room, laid thick with cushions and heavy woven carpets on the floor. The walls were covered in rich, often naughty tapestries. There were some even wilder tile murals on the wall and a few stone statues that seemed to be lacking clothing or modesty.

I was too stunned to do more than stand and stare. The modestly dressed young women who’d opened the door for us gave me a knowing smile.

“First time here then?”

I blushed and nodded.

“If you’re here in the day you’re probably after a baby rather than fun. Sit down a moment and I’ll go find the madame.”

I watched her go in mild confusion. She must not have been a prostitute, not in normal pants and shirt. Maybe she was a servant or the door keeper?

It wasn’t until she’d darted through a doorway that I noticed a considerably less young and less friendly looking women leaning against the wall, clearly well armed with a sword at her hip and a dagger in her boot. She had more than a few scars and the look of a mercenary about her.

When she saw me staring she offered me an amused smile, I guess she didn’t think I was a threat. She gave Tali a slightly more careful look.

“You can’t take your blades up with you.”

“I know,” Tali unclipped her weapons belt and offered it to the guards-woman. The woman took it and raised an eyebrow, “You can’t take the other knives either.”

Tali gave her a polite nod and quickly produced a few more well secreted knives from her boots and sleeves. The guard took them and set them on a shelf not far from the wall.

“Are you wintering here?” asked Tali.

“Aye,” said the guards-woman, “this season and last. The foods good and I’ve only got to share my room with one other guard.”

“I last wintered here a couple years ago, I liked it. Madame Blanchard is an honest woman.”

The guard returned to her position of leaning against the wall, “That she is. I’m guessing your fortunes have turned for the better if your back here as a client.”

Tali smiled at her, “Not a client myself, although my employer is.”

The guards-woman gave me an amused look, “Employer?”

I shrugged, “I hired her as a guard to travel down river with me to this city but... well we might be thinking of marrying soon.”

The woman rolled her eyes. “You should watch out for mercenaries. Wed her and you’ll only ever see her in the winter months, although mind you if she brings home her pay instead of drinking it she’ll provide well enough.”

A door on the stairs opened and a well-dressed matronly woman descended them. Her hair was the grey of gunmetal and the weave of her dress was of the finest and best dyed red linen I’d ever seen. For a woman closer to sixty than fifty, she moved with considerable grace.

She offered a shallow formal bow when she reached the bottom of the stairs. I stood and returned it.

“Hello my name is Eleanor, my assistant said you’re looking for breeding services, come into my sitting room and we’ll consult.”

She paused for a moment when she noticed Tali behind me and offered a more open smile, “Tali dear, I haven’t seen you for years. Welcome back to the city. Are you and your sisters well?”

Tali bowed, “Thank you and yes.”

She went back up the stairs and Tali and I followed her. We passed a few closed doors on the wide hallway and then she opened one and we stepped through into a simpler room. The carpet was a warm red and the walls were without hangings, a large open window dominated one wall. It didn’t have any glass but the shutters were thrown open to let in the cool afternoon air.

There was a large wooden desk as well as two couches with pillows thrown onto them. She sat down on one and motioned Tali and I towards the other. There was a small table set between the two couches and we had no sooner sat down than the young woman returned with a tea tray.

She set down a delicate ceramic pot with three equally delicate cups. I’d never seen the like before and barely dared lift the cup when the assistant filled it and set it before me.

The young woman bowed and left. The Madame took up her own tea cup, sipped it once and then gave me her full attention. “Now dear, before we get started you understand that there is a three copper consultation fee.”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell me what are you looking for.”

I blushed in spite of myself, “to have a child.”

She gave an almost maternal look of condescending amusement, “Well yes, but how dear? Through a man or a kindler? We’ve both here.”

“A man artificially, if that’s possible.”

“Of course, although you realize that a kindler would be cheaper. There’s only one fee for an hour with a kindler but if you want a man’s seed you also have to also pay for the healer that will do the insemination.”

“I understand and I’d still prefer it. I can pay.”

“You’ve a lover who you want to be faithful to then?” she tilted her head towards Tali.

“Yes,”

She gave Tali a nod then set down her cup and turned back to me, “If that’s what you want you’ve four choices for men. There are two men who live in the brothel, John and Bobby; you can see them both today if you want.”

“Do they just sell seed or do they also sell other things?” I knew I should ask.

“They do and I can understand if you might be worried about catching something but we are careful here.”

“And the other two?”

“If you want a man who only sells seed but not himself, there are two who work through the brothel, Brian and Marcus. They both have wives and families. Neither are here right now but either will come in if you’re willing to pay. Brian is in his thirties and tall and lean with blond brown hair. Marcus is closer to fifty, shorter and more muscled with dark hair. Now don’t let his age worry you though, he’s got nearly fifteen children from only three wives, and three of those children are sons, if you ask me he’s your better bet.”

It didn’t sound like Tobias was in the brothel. I wasn’t sure what I needed to ask to find out for certain. Maybe he was there and they weren’t offering him to unknown clients.

“Only those four?”

“None suit you?”

“I’d rather pay for seed I know is safe, from a man in the brothel who’s not married or sells himself.”

She laughed and took up her cup again, leaning back into the cushions. She seemed me a great deal like a contended old cat. “Oh child if you’re that scared of catching something you should hire a kindler instead. Gods know women can pass on fewer things to each other than men can. We’ve three kindlers in the brothel and I can swear they’re all clean. You can even bring along your lover, so long as she only touches you. There’s no need to be ashamed in taking a bit of pleasure in a conceiving.”

I bit my lip, feigning uncertainty, “I’ll think about it. Would it be possible to see the two men who live in the brothel?”

“Yes of course.” She ran a bell and the young woman came and after a quick conversation she left.

A few minutes later the door opened and a sleepy young man wandered in. He had curly brown hair a bit past his ears that was flat on one side like he’d just been in bed, which the robe her wore over a pair of sleeping pants rather suggested. The other man was dark haired and about my father’s age. He clearly hadn’t been asleep and was dressed as if he were about to go out into the city. He looked bored and slightly annoyed.

“This John and this is Bobby,” said Madame Eleanor.

I had no idea what I was supposed to say. Should I ask them to turn around in a circle or something? I felt weird, like I was looking at rams to buy except they were people. It wasn’t like I could go check the quality of their wool. As for checking other things…the things I knew to check when buying a breeding ram, I sure as hell wasn’t going to check that on a human.

“Okay,” I said softly.

The Madame rolled her eyes and waved the two men away. They left with as little fuss as they’d come. “If you don’t like them you can come back tonight and meet the other two men or the three kindlers. I’d show you the kindlers now but the poor dears are asleep. If you decide on one, we’ve an in-house healer who can check you and see what day would be best to try for a baby.”

Gods I was blushing I knew my face was red, “Um…I’ll see.”

“Dear girl don’t act so embarrassed. I know you’re going to go see what the other brothels have and you are right to. You should choose the sir of your child very carefully. Don’t worry; you’ve not wasted my time that’s why I charge the consultation fee.

“Now, if you want my advice should come back here and tumble with one of our kindlers, preferably Evie. She will treat you gently and has kindled plenty of pretty dark haired babies. She’ll be cheaper than a man and...” her expression softened slightly, “there’s less chance of a miscarriage with a female sire. A kindler will always sire a daughter but half the time men sire sons and most of those never draw breath or live long once they do.”

I almost choked on my tea, how could she talk about that, so blithely so lightly. This was the tragedy that had marred the lives of my mother and godmothers, led to so many small graves. We all knew that most boy babies didn’t live, we had prayers for them when they didn’t, but we didn’t talk about it.

I took a slow shaky breath, “I’ll think about it.”

The young woman showed us out and I paid her the consultation fee from the bag of coins Tali had given me. When we were back on the street, Tali took my arm and led me to a wall to lean against and catch my breath.

“What just happened?” I asked her.

“We figured out that they don’t have Tobias.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure, with as picky as you were being she’d have trotted him out if she’d had him.”

“Why was she pushing the kindlers so hard?”

“That’s no secret. She can sell them by the hour. A man’s, especially when he’s not young, is usually only good maybe once or twice a night for service or seed, even with herbs. The Madam’s not trying to cheat you, an hour with a kindler is cheaper and probably a better bet for getting pregnant than a man’s cooling seed. For a tradeswoman of modest means, that would be the better choice.”

“What do we do now?”

“Go on to the next brothel. You’re shopping around aren’t you? Don’t worry. If Tobias is on this street we’ll find him.”

Five brothels, five cups of tea and a lot of coins later we hadn’t. I’d seen a lot of sleepy men and a few equally sleepy kindlers but no sign of Tobias. Just like the first madame all the other one’s after her seemed pretty keen to get me to pay for a kindler instead of a man but when I insisted they all showed me the men they had. I’d always assumed that men in brothels must be a broken sad lot but these men were mostly just tired and unconcerned looking. As far as I could tell the brothels of this town weren’t mistreating them.

The final brothel we went to was something of a shock. It wasn’t as nice the others and the madame who talked to us had cold eyes. She didn’t offer us any tea. It was the most run down of all the buildings we’d entered and had no couches in its main room.

The owner barely spoke with us before she sent for the men and conceivers there. One of the “men” wasn’t more than a child, fifteen at best. He had a tired, lost look about him. One of the kindlers was equally young. She had an ugly bruise on the side of her face.

I felt dirty just standing there, even dirtier paying the consulting fee before we left.

“This place couldn’t afford Tobias even if the bandits did offer him,” Tali told me.

“How…how do they have a boy or a kindler that young?”

“I don’t know,” Tali admitted. “Desperate families sometimes sell their children.”

I wrapped my arms around myself, walking quickly, wanting to get away from the red lantern street.

“How could they…and why the hell does this town allow it?”

We walked back into the main square. Tali went over to a merchant who was selling cider and came back with two metal mugs of the sweet drink. We sat down on a stone bench near the stall.

Tali drank half her own mug before she spoke, “Kate, maybe you grew up in a place where they protect children and young men and women but the rest of the world isn’t like that. Goddess knows, very few people ever looked after my sisters and me but ourselves.”

I looked out into the peaceful square. A different fiddler was playing, a young woman with a scar on the side of her face and an equally worn fiddle.

“The three of you have had a hard life then?”

“Not as hard as it might have been, if anything we’ve been goddess blessed since we left home.”

Her shoulders were slumped and her eyes tired.

I knew I had no right to ask but I did, “Where did you come from?”

“Somewhere we’re never going back to.” Her tone left no room to ask more.

She must have seen something in my face because a serious look came to her eyes. “let me take back the mugs and then we’ll go back to the inn and I’ll tell you more.”

We walked back through the late afternoon. The room was empty when she unlocked it and she sat down on the edge of the bed. I sat beside her. Instead of touching me she kept her hands in her own lap. I knew she didn’t want to talk and felt bad for causing her too.

“You don’t have to tell me anything Tali.”

“No, my sisters and I, we’re courting you, you’ve a right to know our history. We were born on a farm compound in the mountains up in the North. I guess it was an enclave, although there were no walls.

“Our father had six wives and our mother was the oldest. Our father wasn’t a cruel man but he took no interest in his children’s lives. He left us to our mother’s care and for that I can never forgive him. Our mother, well, there are monsters in this world and they don’t all wear the faces we paint on festival masks. She was a harsh woman and if that had been all she was I could have forgiven her for it, even all the times she struck me or knocked me around.

“That wasn’t the only way she hurt me. I never told anyone what she did to me at night. I don’t know why. When I was smaller I thought that it was the way of things and when I got old enough to realize it wasn’t, I was too ashamed.

“It never occurred to me that’s she’d hurt Cali too until one day I found her crying. She was about ten year, close to the age my mother started with me. This time I did go to my father and the son of a bitch called me a liar. He said that any problems between women weren’t his to resolve.

Her hands shook in her lap, “I even tried to go to my grandmother. She told me that I was lying and slapped me. If it had been just me I would have given up, but it wasn’t. I was Cali’s big sister; I had to protect her.

“I was just a twelve year old girl though; I couldn’t defend my sister from our mother, so instead we ran away. We took Mel with us. She was just nine, but I knew that if our mother had hurt Cali she’d hurt Mel soon enough. Cali and I didn’t tell Mel the real reason we left, we still never really have. We’ve done everything we can to shelter her and I think it is for the best. She still thinks we ran because of the beatings.”

“You ran away, the three of you?”

“One of our stepmothers, the youngest one who had no children, helped us. She’d always been kind. When she caught me taking food from the larder she got the whole story out of me. She gave us what food and coin she could for the journey. She wasn’t brave enough to protect us from our mother but she helped us get away at least.”

Her eyes were distant and cold but I could see the pain in the way she hunched her shoulders.

I laid my own hand on her shoulder. She flinched at first but then slowly relaxed.

“How did the three of you survive on your own?” I asked gently.

“Stealing mostly. As soon as were out of the mountains we went along the river road and it was summer. No one guards the potatoes in their fields or watches their chickens that closely. We came to this city without coin and by some miracle I tried to pick Madame Eleanor’s pocket in the marketplace. She caught me and offered me a job as a maid, hired my sisters too.

“We survived our first winter washing floors and sheets and chamber pots. Madame Eleanor was an honest enough woman. She paid us only with room and board but she never tried to sell any of us and that’s something.

“I can remember one time I was washing the floor downstairs in the late afternoon and a client came in. I noticed she was watching me. I tried to look as small and unimportant as I could but it didn’t work. I heard her ask Madame Eleanor for me. I just assumed I’d have to do it, that it was my lot in life. I’d never truly believed that Madame Eleanor was going to give us a place to stay just for doing housework.

“Madame Eleanor didn’t miss a beat. She never even answered the woman just turned to the guard and told her to throw her out immediately. I knew my sisters and I were safe after that.

That winter, one of the brothel guards an old mercenary named Raya took a shine to my sisters and me, spent half the winter telling us stories and teaching us how to handle a knife and a bow. That summer she offered to take us with her when she signed on with a merchant caravan.

We weren’t old enough to be guards but we paid our way as shepherds and dogs bodies. Raya looked out for the three of us and kept teaching us her trade. I suppose she was no fool, she had no children of her own and would soon be too old to guard caravans anymore. It wasn’t a bad idea for her to adopt some family late in life. She made sure I learned and learned fast. I was sitting night watches for the caravans on the return trip and earning a few more coppers than a servant normally would.

We passed that winter in the Golden Crown again and joined the same caravan with Raya the next spring, we did the same for four years, not always the same caravan or the same brothel. On the return journey, on that last year, bandits attacked us. Raya took an arrow in the shoulder and died a few days later from the infection. Goddess rest her soul.

“My sisters and I, we were on our own after that. I was a grown woman; nearly seventeen and the next spring I got us work on a caravan on my own. That’s when we met Bernard and Fiona and their company. There’s not much to tell after that. We’ve worked in what seems a hundred places, as guards, soldiers, enforcers and any other situation when people are willing to hire an extra set of hands with a bow or blade.”

She sighed and took a breath, “We’ve never had a home, not a place where we ever felt safe. It may not be noble of us but that’s one reason we want to marry into one of the forts, they’re some of the only decent places we’ve ever found.”

I took my hand from her shoulder and met her tired eyes, “Is that why you want me? Because I can give you and your sisters a home?”

She caught my hand and kissed my palm, “Not just us but our children. You’re pretty and gentle Kate but there’s strength to you too. You’ll protect and nurture what’s yours with all the ferocity of a forest cat. Together we could raise daughters who would always be safe and loved.”

I closed my eyes as she kissed my wrist and then the soft skin of my arm.

“And are a place in a fort and healthy daughters all you want from me?” I asked in a very soft voice.

I felt her chuckle against my skin, “Oh I want so much more than that.” She ran her lips over the sensitive inner curve of my elbow and kept working her way up, “You are after all a very pretty girl.”

I felt my own breath quicken. “A girl am I?”

“I can make you a woman.”

“I’m already a woman, I don’t need to tumble you to be one.”

Before she could reply the door crashed open.

“He was here!” crowed Cali.

“What?” I was off the bed like a released arrow.

Cali quickly closed the door behind her and sat down beside us on the edge of the bed, “Well rumor is that a boat matching the description of the bandits’ stopped up river about three days ago and sent a couple of woman into the town.

“One went around and asked at the brothels if they were looking for a new man. The legit one’s turned them down since they don’t deal in stolen men and the less legitimate one’s didn’t seem to have enough gold. A young bandit also went to the back door of the house of the city leader. Apparently the bandits had heard that she and her sisters were looking for a husband. The fort leader sent out two of her guards with the bandit to see the man. She was smart enough not to risk letting the bandits kidnap her.

“The two guards saw a young man matching Tobias’s description. They said he was looking pretty roughed up, his hands were bound and he was clearly drugged. One of them recognized him from when she’d been at one of the Five Forts for a festival.

When she came back and told the city leader that the boy was a kidnapped fort man the woman turned down the bandits flat, although apparently she said that if they could bring her a man from somewhere else she might be interested.”

“How did you get all that information?

“The guard who recognized Tobias is sleeping with one of the kitchen maids in the city leaders house, the kitchen maid is also sleeping with a girl who works in Red Wagon tavern. That girl sold what she heard to one of my contacts.”

I clenched my hands, “He’s gone then?”

Cali nodded, “We’ll leave at first light when they re-open the gates of the city and meet the River Queen where she’s docked.”

“Alright,” I let out a tired breath. It tore at me to know we’d missed Tobias by just three days but at least he was alive and we were getting closer.

That night the Walker sisters didn’t say a word about what had almost happened in the last inn. I still wanted them but I hadn’t liked the frantic desperate feeling that had driven me that night. If or when I chose to be with any of them I needed to be because I wanted them not because of the aching lonely feeling that kept chewing on my insides.

I laid down that night in the bed I shared with Mel. I wanted to Mel to reach out for me but she didn’t. I rolled closer to her, laying my head on her shoulder and pulling her arms around me. She pulled me closer and I felt some of the fear and tension of the day easing. She didn’t say anything, just held me and that was what I needed.

Chapter Text

 

We came upon a large farmstead around sunset. It was a huge compound with several buildings and probably more than one family. The moment it came into sight we had to make a decision. Did we take the time to stop and ask if they’d seen the bandits boat or did we keep going?

Sarah wanted to keep up the chase and so did most of the crew after what we’d seen on the farm but we couldn’t forget the other reasons we were after the bandits.

“We should find out what they’ve seen,” argued Jen.

“I’m not so sure captain,” said the first mate, “the Goodsmiths have always been a damn suspicious lot. I don’t like the idea of docking anywhere near them this close to sunset.”

“I don’t like it either,” said Tali, “But the less you like these people the more likely it is that the bandits have tried to or did sell your stolen man to them. I say we dock, play dumb and see how they react. We'll go in peacefully but keep our weapons on hand.”

There was some grumbling but we decided we’d stop. The moment we came fully into sight, a child who was fishing on the docks dropped her pole and bolted for the house. A moment later five women came down to meet us, one older woman with short grey streaked hair and four others varying between youth and middle age.

I came on shore with Jen,Tali, and Cali.We were going to say we were looking to buy sheep and they needed me for that to be particularly convincing.

The greying woman nodded towards us, “Captain Jen, we haven’t seen you here since last spring. What brings you back down the river on the cusp of winter?”

Jen bowed to her formally, “Well met, Evie Goodsmith, we’re on a trading trip. We’re looking to buy sheep.”

“It’s not really the season for that.” She had eyes like a stoat and I could tell she wasn’t missing a damn thing.

Jen nudged me, “I promised my fiancé ten southern breeding rams as an engagement present and we're to be married at the winter festival.” I’d never thought that Jen was a good liar but she didn’t even blink.

The woman's thin lips turned in a grin and she gave me a nod, “You're a smart woman, if you wed with only a promise and no sheep you’d never get the sheep.” She looked me up and down, “You wouldn’t be Hannah Weaver’s daughter by any chance would you? You look familiar.”

I hadn’t been expecting that. “Um, yes.”

“I never forget a face and you’ve got hers. Now if you’re after rams we’d be happy to sell you a few, everyone says we’ve the best breed for wool on the river. You’ll have to wait until morning though; it’s already too dark to go messing with the outer corral. The four of you are welcome to spend the night in our home, although there is not room for your crew.”

“We couldn’t possibly impose,” said Jen quickly.

“I insist. I won’t let it be said that the Goodsmiths are bad hosts.”

Jen and Tali exchanged a quick look. I thought we’d get back on the boat.

Jen straightened her back, “Do you swear that we are safe by all the laws that bind guest and host before the gods.”

The laughed, her voice worn and lyrical, “Damn if you’re not your father’s daughter, every bit as smart as that canny old fox. I’ll cross any woman living but not the gods of the hearth. Anger them and soon enough you won’t have a hearth. I swear that if you drink with me, me and mine will do no harm to you and yours beneath our roof nor upon our lands so long as you keep faith as guests."

She snapped her fingers and one of the younger women produced a skin of wine. The old woman drank deeply and then passed it around. When it came to me I managed at least not to cough at the bitter sharpness of the strong home-brew. Everyone relaxed visibly. Bandits might break an oath but it was unlikely homesteaders would, they were far too superstitious a breed.

Jen went back and told the first mate what was happening and then we followed the five women to the house. The yard was already dark as we crossed it and though I saw a child closing up the chicken coop there were no animals left in the yard save a pig snuffling around. We entered the largest of the buildings that ringed the yard, a stone first floor and wooden second floor house.

The common room we entered was alight with a large hearth on one wall. A long trestle table was already half set out with the evening meal and about ten more women of varying ages and three little girls watched us with rapt attention. I saw one child who may have been a boy poking his head around the corner and then darting back. It was hard to tell with children that young, especially since most mothers dressed all children the same. It made it harder to identify or snatch boy children.

Evie coughed pointedly and all of the younger one’s set about hurriedly finishing setting the table. It wasn’t hard to guess she was the family's matriarch. Soon enough we were ushered to sit and bread and chicken soup were urged upon us.  They weren’t hurting for food. The bread was good quality and well made and the chicken soup was rich with fall vegetables. If they were trading, it was successfully.

Jen was seated to Evie’s left, who was at the head of the table. I was seated between Jen and Tali. It didn’t give me much chance to talk to anyone so I just listened. I noticed one of the dark haired women in her early twenties who’d met us at the docks watching me. When I caught her gaze she looked away. I couldn’t figure out why she was so curious because I saw nothing of desire in her eyes. Even when a little girl came and tugged on her sleeve, she just distractedly picked the child up and set her in her lap without ever really paying her much mind.

I barely heard when Evie said, “So tell me Kate, how is your mother?”

“Fine when last I saw her. Forgive me for asking but how is it you know her?”

Her mouth twitched like she was forcing down a smile, “I met her when I was a young woman and traveled up to River Fort for the fall festival. She sired my first daughter, Gina.”

She tilted her head towards the dark haired woman.

I choked on my bread.

The woman offered me her hand across the table, almost unseating the child. Not knowing what else to do, I took her hand. Now that I knew who she was, it wasn’t hard to see the vague resemblance. I had enough half siblings to know how to look for little things. There was something about the shape of her eyes and nose that was my mother's, although the rest of her face was not.

“I welcome you as blood kin,” she said softly.

“And I accept your greeting cousin.”

It was always considered proper to refer to a half sibling, if their birth mother was not married to your gene parent, as a cousin instead of a sister or brother. I’d always wondered if my mother was a kindler but it had never occurred to me before that she’d ever acted as one, that she might have sired children before she met my father.  It was also possible that Evie was a conceiver but it would have been rude to ask her that. It was also very unlikely a conciever would have risked the long journey upriver for a festival, when ungifted women often did.

I wasn’t sure what to say to Gina. I’d learned often enough that children I’d grown up with were sired by my father and it had never been a surprise but they hadn’t been strangers.

“Is she yours?” I motioned at the little girl, who upon realizing she was being watched drew back against Gina.

Gina gave her a squeeze, “Nah, she’s my younger sister’s. I haven’t got any.” She tilted her head towards a dark haired and clearly pregnant young woman a little farther down the table who was smiling and laughing as she talked to a blond woman who may have been her wife, “Emily is a conceived, the only one of my sisters who is gifted. I mean really gifted, I can close cuts but I’m not a conceiver”

She lowered her voice, “Mom got all my siblings off a neighbors husband but she always said my gene mother was a kindler with a strong healers gift. I guess I didn’t get it. What…what is your mother like?”

I struggled for words; somehow it felt almost impossible to accurately describe someone I’d seen almost every day of my life. “She’s dark haired like you and me and tall, much taller than me. She’s the fort leader and probably the bravest woman I know, but kind too.”

We talked until long after the food was cleared away. When the hour grew late one of the women, a slender brown haired girl perhaps a year older than me who’s name was Ally, came and said she’d show us our rooms. I said goodnight to Gina and followed her along with the others.

We went up the second floor and she walked ahead carrying a candle and talking a lot. She paused at one door and said to Tali and Cali, “Here you two can stay here. You’re sisters right so you won’t mind sharing the bed?”

“We’d rather all be in the same room,” said Jen.

She chewed on her lip, “My mom said to give you two rooms. They're just across the hall from each other.”

She was already hurrying to open the second door across from the first. The second room was considerably bigger. I guess it made sense, Jen was a boat captain. Ally went in without looking back and set about lighting the table lamp. With a shrug Jen followed her and I did the same, casting a final glance over my shoulder at Cali and Tali.

Ally seemed to spend a long time bustling around the room and only went towards the door when Jen gave her an odd look. She paused there, took a deep breath, pushed the door shut, and leaned back against it.

I was reaching for my sword when I realized that she wasn’t going for a weapon but pulling her dress over her head. She scrambled out of her underthings and stood there shivering with her arms crossed over her breasts. If she hadn’t looked so scared she’d have been pretty attractive with her slender waist and long legs.

Her face was red and she was shaking a little bit, “Mom says you can’t turn me away because you’re guests. I’m in my fertile time and you have to sleep with me. You…you can both have me if that’s the only way you’ll agree, since you’re engaged.”

Jen took a blanket from the bed and held it out to her, “I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”

The girl took the blanket with a trembling hand, “What do you mean?”

“You’re a beautiful woman and I’m honored by the offer but I don’t think you desire either us. Why are you doing something you don’t want to?”

She wrapped the blanket around her small breasts, “Because I’m the only one of my sisters who’s in the right place in her cycle to get pregnant tonight.”

Jen cast me a look of pure confusion and then a thought finally occurred to me. “You think one of us is a kindler don’t you?”

She nodded and pointed at me, “You have to be. Mom says your mother was so you must at least be weakly gifted. You’ve got a fiancé who’s a boat captain and buying you sheep, why would she do that if you weren’t gifted? Mom said you had to be a kinder not just a conceiver because a conceiver’s not worth ten good breeding rams and a boat trip right before winter.”

I sat down on the edge of the bed, “I don’t know how many sheep I’m supposed to be worth but I’m a conceiver. I can’t get you pregnant.”

“Yes you can, you're a kindler!” she stomped her bare foot.

“Truly, I swear before the gods that I’m not a kindler. If I lay with you, I’m the one who’s likely to get with child not you.”

She drew the blanket closer around herself, “You really aren’t a kindler are you?”

“I’m not. I’m sorry. If I’d realized your mother thought I was a kindler, I’d have said something.”

She shook her head and hurriedly began to try and dress without dropping the blanket. I really had no idea what to do. She got her dress on backwards and hurriedly reached for the door,

“I’m sorry,” I tried again.

She fled.

I looked at Jen, “Did you see any of that coming?”

She shook her head, “No. When she said Gina was your gene sister earlier, I just figured she’d invited us in because she wanted her to meet you. I didn’t realize she thought you were a kindler.”

“If I was a kindler would I have really had to sleep with that girl?”

Jen sat down next to me with an odd expression on her face, “You could have said no but it would have been rude, especially after drinking the host wine. Some say it’s bad luck or angers the gods for an unmarried man or a kindler to accept hospitality beneath a roof and then refuse to gene share.”

I nodded and drew my knees up under myself, “Tobias isn’t here is her? If they’d just bought a man they wouldn’t be shoving one of their grown daughters at a stranger they thought might be a kindler.”

She sat beside me and slipped an arm around me. “No probably not. Don’t judge them too harshly for what just happened, It’s how families this far out survive as often as not. It’s hard to find men or gifted willing to move to a new farm, at least unless it’s a marriage swap with another gifted, so families like this have got to find ways to gene share or they’ll have no new generation. A guest in their own house may seem a better and safer option to them than sending a girl on a dangerous journey to a fort festival or even paying for services in a city brothel.”

She paused, “And besides you’re not exactly a stranger here. The matriarch of the family got her oldest daughter from your mother. She knows Weaver genes aren’t bad.”

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or grimace. “And apparently I could have half sisters all up and down the river who I’ve never met.

“You’ll have to ask your mother, although she might not know either. Plenty of kindler will lie with strangers at festivals without ever finding out if it took.”

That was a lot to take in. It was weird thinking of my mother as a kindler, an actual kindler who’d acted like one, and not just a gifted healer. I guess she’d been young once too. Somehow it was just hard to think of her having a life before my father. It seems impossible that there had been a time before that familiar story of her meeting my father in a mountain enclave during her travels, them both falling madly in love, and then him running away with her to Ash Fort.

In an odd way knowing that she could have had a family with any ungifted woman, that she’d chosen my father because she loved him, that made it all the more meaningful. I was fairly certain my parents loved each other, even if they did have impressively loud arguments beside the hearth when they disagreed, especially about matters that concerned the governing of the fort. Mostly my mother would yell and pace and my father would cross his arms and say “you’re wrong Hannah.” Sooner or later my mother would run out of steam and as often as not finally admit she hadn’t been as right as she’d thought she was.

A fluttering of homesickness flickered in my heart. I was so very far from my own hearth and everything I knew. I leaned back against Jen, enjoying the reassuring warmth of her arms.

She pulled me closer, softly kissing the back of my neck. I felt a pleasant shiver run through my body. I tilted my head up to kiss her and found her lips as pleasing as they’d been the last time.

For once I wasn’t burning with frantic desire nor feeling like I had something to prove. I deepened the kiss and began to almost tentatively tug on the laces of her shirt. Her breath quickened and she slipped a hand under my shirt, running her open palm over the warm skin of my back.

I heard a door open and close across the hall. Jen was on her feet in a flash and slipping across the room to crack open our own door and look out. She pushed the door wider, made a few quick motions with her hands and then stepped back in. She said nothing until she was next to me on the bed and could whisper.

“Cali just slipped out. She’s going to see a women who invited her to meet her in the kitchen, at least I think that’s what she meant, her hand gestures weren’t that clear. Tali’s going to scout around, she went out the window, that or Cali was trying to tell me a raccoon came in the window.”

“And us?” I leaned closed.

“We should stay here, if our host sends another daughter it would be best if we were here to refuse. If they find us gone, they’ll be trouble.”

I nodded.

She moved away from me regretfully and stood, “And we should stay sharp, we don’t know when there might be trouble. I’ll keep watch and you can sleep.”

“I’ll keep watch too.”

She sat down with her back to the door, “Alright, I’ll wake you when it’s your turn.”

I wouldn’t have minded kissing a bit more but she seemed rather determined to stay focused. I lay down and before I realized it the sun was flooding in through the shutters. Jen was already up and tugging on her boots.

I yawned and stretched, “you said you’d wake me.”

“You looked like you needed the rest and I wasn’t going to deny it to you.”

I hurried to pull on my own boots just as there was a knock on the door and Cali and Tali came in. Cali had several love bites on her neck she’d attempted to cover with a white handkerchief but tied too loosely.

“So unless the second oldest daughter was lying to me, we’re the first boat that’s stopped in a week. They saw something similar to the bandits boat come by a day ago but it went on through. Apparently, that boat stopped here last year and tried to sell them some swords and other goods that seemed like they might have been stolen.

“When they didn’t buy then, the women in the boat got nervous and left quickly. My best guess is the bandits were smart enough to realize that if this farm wouldn’t buy stolen swords, they wouldn’t buy a solen man. Also farm girls are as horny as I remember, even better than enclave girls. They’re eager enough for a new face, but they’ve still had enough lovers before to know what they are doing. She could do this thing…”

She petered out under Jen’s sharp look.

Tali patted her shoulder and took over, “I checked the out buildings, aside from a lot of sheep and horses there’s not much interesting.  The conceiver daughter and her wife live in a smaller second house next to this one but there’s nothing special about that.”

I nudged Jen and she related our own nocturnal adventures.

Tali sighed, “Tobias isn’t here but the report of the boat may be accurate. We had best be on our way quickly.”

“We still have to pretend were interested in sheep,” said Jen, “the forts need to keep the goodwill of the river families.”

Breakfast was an awkward affair, all the more so because although the girl from the night before wasn’t there, Evie was giving us very cold looks over her morning tea. All she ever said to me, which she did very quietly as we walked out to the sheep pen was, “You really must be as charming as your mother if you’ve managed to get that boat captain of yours to agree to pay a kindlers marriage price worth of sheep stock for only a conceiver. Your pretty but not ten good breeding rams worth of pretty.”

I just blushed and said nothing. If only Jen had known a damn thing about sheep or dowries the whole thing could have probably been avoided. If she'd said only three rams, they’d have thought me a conceiver.

The sheep were not as good as Evie had bragged. They were actually shorter haired than the ones at my own fort and with a lower grade wool.  Evie said they were good meat animals but my fort’s breed was already good for that and there was no point breeding better animals for meat when they might still freeze to death in the winter from their shorter coats. We didn’t buy sheep and left, if not on bad terms, not smiling ones. We bought dried meat, a couple baskets of apples and water just to try and keep open the possibility of future trade relations.

 

 

We set off down the river with heavy hearts. We were no closer to finding Tobias and we’d lost a night on a false lead. Jen went into her cabin to nap and Cali and Tali headed below deck to catch a few hours of rest. Apparently I was the only one who wasn’t tired. I found the sword I’d been practicing with and set to doing the forms that Jen had been showing me.

My muscles burned and ached but he repetitive motion felt wonderfully smooth and mechanical like pressing the foot peddle of a loom and passing the shuttle. The thought of weaving made me ache with a sudden wave of homesickness.

I looked out at the unfamiliar river, the rocky shore, the tall spruces that grew beside the water. I was a long, long way from home. All my life I’d loved the stories of my mother’s travels but I’d never wanted anything more than to spend my days in the warmth of the weaving hut where I’d been learning since childhood to make the beautiful patterns like old Maggs did.

I’d never dreamed of the open river, never like this. I wondered what it would have been like if the bandits had never attacked and I’d instead first traveled the river because I took Jen on her offer to travel. What would it have been like to discover the world at her side instead of being dragged into it kicking and fighting.

Would I have even had the courage to leave everything I knew for a journey, even if it would have been for only a few months. I had no idea if I was changing for better or worse, but I knew I was changing and I couldn’t bring myself to regret that. With the wind to my back I returned to the sword form and practiced until I could no longer raise my arm.

That night I was tired enough to fall asleep quickly in my hammock.

 

 

I was practicing swordplay with Jen on the deck of the River Queen the next day when she suddenly froze like a dog who’d caught a scent on the wind.

I lowered my own sword, “What is it?”

She didn’t reply at first, just raised her eyes to the horizon, “Something bad.”

I caught the smell then, a faint hint of smoke. It was not the sweet clean scent of the grass fires that sometimes charred the hills around my fort during summer droughts or the familiar woody scent of a bonfire. It was acidic and foul, as if painted wood was burning.

We turned a bend in the river and I saw a dark black cloud billowing up from the shore. The crew began to yell and run around. Jen drew her cutlass and barked orders. “All hands on deck.”

The crew moved into position like they’d been born to it. Five women went to the railing with rifles in hand, the rest kept to tending the boat.

The youngest crew member, a girl of thirteen scrambled up the rigging to the crows nest and raised a spy glass to look.

“It’s the Smith’s farmstead!”

One of the rifle women, Sarah, a blond woman in her thirties, who was a cousin of mine, made a sound like a hurt animal.

“My sister married into that farm.” She turned frantically toward the captain. “We have to help them!”

Jen’s face hardened. “We have to make sure it is not a trap first.” She turned and called up to the girl in the crows nest as we drew closer. “What more can you see?”

“The barn and the house and some other buildings are on fire. I see bodies on the ground. No one’s moving.”

Sarah grew more frantic, “Please!”

The first mate Helen gave Jen a sharp look, “We’ve traded with them before Captain. We owe them what help we can.”

Jen straightened her shoulders. “Sarah, Cali, Tali, Mel, Hallie, Rebecca prepare to go ashore. Helen you have the helm, stay sharp.”

We were in full sight of the bank now and the burning farmstead. It was a large farm but not a compound. A farmhouse, a barn and a few outbuildings ringed a central yard a short distance from the river.

We tied up alongside a heavy wooden dock and the landing party leapt the distance. I ached to go with them but I trusted Jen enough to know she’d have told me to come if she needed me.

They stayed close together as they hurried down the dock and into the wide dirt yard at the heart of the burning buildings. Several paused to kneel and check bodies as they moved. I saw Sarah stop and stay beside one crumpled figure.

There were five buildings more or less. The barn’s roof was ablaze and the house was catching quickly. The house was a two-story building with a stone first floor and wooden second. The rest of the buildings were so far burned I couldn’t tell what they were.

Then the wind shifted and we all heard the unmistakable sound a baby howling. The women in the yard froze and then like a loosed arrow Mel bolted into the burning house. I heard Cali cry her name but Tali tackled her before she could follow her in. No one stopped Jen.

I watched her vanish into the growing haze of smoke that was overwhelming the yard. My heart was in my throat and I would have given anything to help. I was no fool though and one more woman in a burning building wasn’t going to improve things.

As I watched the smoke darkened and a sickening crack shook the house. The top story came tumbling down but the stone first floor held. I felt sick and if I hadn’t been clutching at the railing I’d have fallen. I couldn’t look away, couldn’t turn from the destruction of two I held so dearly to my heart.

Suddenly two stumbling figures, one half dragging the other emerged from the smoke and the women in the yard ran foreword to drag them safely away. They’d barely gotten to the center of the yard before the house gave and the remnants of the second floor smashed down into the first, sending up a flurry of ash and burning shards.

The whole party retreated quickly to the dock, carrying the woman Sarah had stopped beside. The crew scrambled to get down a gangway and everyone came on board. We pushed off and went downriver to get away from the smoke and heat of the ruined farm.

I barely noticed. I had eyes only for Jen and Mel. Jen was kneeling over, coughing desperately. Her skin was coated with ash and there was an ugly gash on her wrist, her blood bright and red against the ash.  Beside her Mel was struggling for breath and clutching something small and wailing beneath her cloak. One of the women helped ease the baby from her arms and carried it away.

The moment Mel straightened up Tali ran forward and slapped her hard enough to jerk her head back.

“You idiot! You fucking idiot!”

Mel hunched her shoulders and looked away.

Tali shook her, “You could have fucking died. Nothing is worth you fucking dying! Don’t you understand that!”

“It was a baby Tali,” she said softly.

The fight went out of Tali and she hugged her taller sister to herself, “I know, but you still could have died.”

A sudden ragged cough to my left caused me to turn and see Sarah kneeling beside the woman they’d carried on deck. She was young, barely a year older than me.  I knew her then, Sarah’s sister, Marta. She was my second cousin, although I did not know her well. Her face was a mask of blood but under it I could see that she had the same light blond hair as Sarah and similar features.

An ugly wound in her side was seeping blood through the bandage the boat healer was trying to press to it.

When she spoke her voice was tinged with pain but still lucid, “It was a brown boat, a light skiff with no flag. We had never seen it before. I didn’t trust them, even when they said they wanted to trade. Madeline said we might as well see what they wanted. The damn idiot let them onto the dock. They…”

She broke down into desperate coughing and I saw blood on her lips. I wasn’t much of a healer but even I knew one of her lungs had been punctured. There’s not much even a highly gifted healer can do when that happens. I knew my own gift, barely strong enough to close shallow cuts, wouldn’t help.

“They had a man, they offered to sell him.  They had a bag over his head and when they pulled it off I realized I knew him. He was Hannah’s son, Tobias. I was so surprised to see him, I said his name. They demanded to know how I knew him and when I wouldn’t say things went bad fast. One drew on us and then Madeline drew her sword and everything went to hell. There were more of them than us.”

She choked up more blood and shuddered. “My husband went down fighting but I know they took Lily , stupid little fool was so proud of wearing her orange beads. You have to get her back. She’s just a girl. Goddess only know what they’ll do to her.”

Her eyes got cloudy with pain and she clutched at Sarah's hand, “You have to, you have to.” She started to mumble after that, her words too tangled to discern. The healer had the crew carry her below decks then.

I barely noticed that the baby had stopped wailing. When I looked over I saw that one of the crew was busy washing the baby’s forehead and pressing a cloth to the ugly cut there.

I sunk exhaustedly down onto a barrel. Across the deck I could see Mel sitting between her sisters. Tali had a protective hand on her arm and Cali was hugging her with frantic affection. Jen was on her feet giving commands.

We didn’t stay to bury the bodies, not when the bandits were so close. We pushed off and sailed downriver. The woman we brought on board died less than an hour later. We stopped very briefly at a farmstead farther down the river, just long enough to give them news and buy a nanny goat. The baby wasn’t old enough to eat entirely solid food and we had to feed her somehow. The farmers said they’d seen a boat that matched the description of the bandits vessel go downriver but hadn’t stopped. They said they’d seen the smoke. They never explained why the did not go to investigate. They said they’d at least go to bury the bodies.

Dawn found us looking out on an empty river. I was standing out by the railing when I heard a muffled cough behind me. Jen came and leaned against the railing beside me. Her left arm was bandaged where she’d had a burn. She’d washed off the soot at least.

“Have you slept at all?” I asked.

She shook her head. “Have you?”

“I can’t, not when he might be this close.” What I didn’t say was that the image of the burning farm had haunted me every time I closed my eyes. When I’d  been able to drift off for a minute I’d dreamed of Ash Fort engulfed in flames and woken in a cold sweat.

I felt Jen’s hand on my shoulder, gentle and strong. “Kate, you know we haven’t got much hope of overtaking them. The River Queen’s a beautiful lady, but she’s a cargo boat and slow. The only way we’ll catch the bandits skiff is if they stop. After murdering a farmstead they are going to be running like hell.”

“Why…why would they do that. They couldn’t have even known the farm had a kindler girl when they attacked and they killed the only man there.”

“Fear probably. When they realized that the farmstead knew Tobias, they were probably afraid the family would attack them to get him back and drew first. Bandits are paranoid bitches.”

“But everyone? I shook my head frantically, “Even the damn baby? They burned the place with the baby still in the house.”

“Hell if I know. They had no compunction about killing the families older children. We saw the bodies. Maybe they just didn’t find the baby. It doesn’t matter. They are child murders either way and there’s a special place in the deepest circle of the seven hells for them.”

I looked out at the water feeling cold and empty, “Why'd they kill the husband instead of taking him like my brother?”

“He probably fought harder. They caught your brother by surprise, this man they didn’t. Men are stronger than you think and they’ll fight as bravely as women do to protect those they love. Living out here isolated on the river, I’m sure he knew how to use a sword.”

And if Tobias had seen them coming, if he’d been a better fighter, would they have killed him? I shook away the thought and listened to Jen.

“Sarah says the oldest daughter of the family was thirteen. She couldn’t have been hard to overpower. Who knows why the family let the girl wear the beads so young but theu probably saved her life the way yours saved you.”

And nearly gotten me raped. I clutched at my throat suddenly unable to breath. For a moment I was on my back on the ground again, trapped and helpless. What if they did to that girl what the other bandits had tried to do to me? What I knew they’d done to Tobias.

I felt Jen’s arms around me and realized I’d sunk down to the deck, my whole body shaking.

“Breath honey, breath.”

I clung to her fighting to ease the desperate panic clawing at my chest.

“I’ll never let anyone hurt you again ever,” she promised.

A few weeks before I’d have believed her, expect I’d been kidnapped while riding at my brother and sister’s side, surrounded by other kinswomen. If there were two people in this world I’d have believed could protect me, it was Rebecca and Tobias. Rebecca had been shot and Tobias dragged away and I’d been taken trying to save him.

I wiped my face with my sleeve and looked up into her warm blue eyes, “No, you’re going to keep teaching me how to protect myself.”

I saw something in her eyes that I couldn't quiet read, either desire or respect, possibly both. “You have my word.”

She helped me up and we spent the rest of the morning sparring. We practiced until every muscle in my body ached and somehow that helped more with the fear than anything yet had.

 

The sun was high and heavy on the river by the time I went to wash in the barrel of river water near the mast. We never drank river water, not when we could fill our barrels with clear well water at every port but we used it for everything else.

I was a little surprised to see Cali sitting on one of the barrels in the shade of the sails. She had a squirming infant in a sling and was trying to convince her to suck on a drinking horn with a bit of soft leather tied to the tip as a teat. She held the baby with surprising gentleness and was speaking to her very softly.

“Sh, sh, it is all right love. Drink just a little bit, please.”

I sat down next to her and she glanced over at me. The baby chose that moment to finally begin sucking and she quickly turned back to her, an expression of relief washing over her face.

“She hasn’t eaten all day. I was afraid she wouldn’t take the goats milk at all. Sarah tried with her all last night, I took her at dawn so she could get some rest.” She looked down at the baby, “We’re not even sure what her name is or who’s child she was. Sarah’s sister died before we could ask her. Sarah says her sister hadn’t written her since last winter and didn’t mention any of her co-wives being pregnant.”  

I looked over at the baby. She had a bandage on half her tiny head and her nose and cheeks were singed. She didn’t have any hair yet so there was no way to tell if it was the same color as Sarah’s. “Poor things, she’s all alone in the world.”

Cali shook her head, “She’s not alone. She’s got kin and a place in the forts, whether she’s blood to them or not. Sarah says she’s taking the baby home to her wife in River Fort.”

I knew longing when I heard it.

“When this is over I’ll make sure you and your sisters have a place in the forts.”

She looked up, her dark green eyes uncertain, “You mean it?”

I flushed, “The forts already owe you and your sisters for saving me. My mother owes you for that and she’ll owe you more when we come back with my brother. I’ll make sure she pays you with a position in the fort guard.”

Something went out in her eyes, “That’s kind of you Kate, but that isn’t a place, not a real one, not a home where my sister and I would belong. No matter what you say, no fort ever wants mercenaries to stay, no matter what they owe them, not unless they marry into the fort. If we take an owed reward it’ll be simpler if were silver, we can take it with us and there’s no complications that way.”

I knew I’d said the wrong thing, “You want silver?”

“I want you but you’re not a reward I can be paid. You’ve got to share yourself freely.  If I can’t have you though, if you like that stuck up captain bitch better than my sisters and me, then tell the forts that silver is as good as anything else to buy us food and shelter through the winter.”

I wearily stretched out my legs, “What makes you think that me liking Jen means I don’t like you?”

A bitter smile graced the edge of her lips, “I’m not dumb Kate, I know your going to choose sooner rather than later and girls like you tend to make the safer choice. You may even tumble me but we won’t be on the river forever and Jen can offer you a lot more that my sisters and I can. I’m willing to bet she’s not as good in bed as me and I’m sure she’ll get on your nerves pretty quickly but she’s a fort leader’s daughter and has her own boat. Even I know she could provide for you better than a trio of mercenaries.”

Something cooled inside of me, “If that’s all you think of me you’re a damn fool And for the record I can support myself, I’m a weaver. I could have all my children by different women without ever marrying and still be able to support a family just fine on my own. If I marry any woman it will be because I want her not because she has sheep or a boat.”

To be fair, if I had a baby without a spouse to help with the cost or care, I’d likely end up having to remain in my mother’s household rather than starting one of my own but I would hardly be destitute.

She bit at her lip nervously and the baby in her lap began to squirm. She lifted her up to start to rub and then lightly whack her back until she spit up on a clock, “I’ve a chance then?”

“If you don’t keep acting like a damn fool.”

“I’ll try,” She gave me a real smile and we settled into a comfortable silence.

The baby in her arms started to yawn and then closed her eyes, her small-reddened face scrunched up with concentration. I hoped her burns wouldn’t scar to baddly, she looked like she’d likely be a beautiful child.

“You know, I wouldn’t have pictured you as being good with babies,” I said at last.

She shrugged, “I grew up with a lot of younger half siblings. Helping out in my stepmother's homes was a way to get away from my own. They never said anything about the bruises but they let me stay as long as I wanted.” She glanced at me and I knew she saw something in my face, “Tali told you about our childhood, didn’t she?”

I nodded.

“And she didn’t scare you off?” I could hear the fear in her voice.

“No, of course not.”

“Good.” She reached for my hand and I clasped hers.

 

Sunset found us still on the empty river. We’d passed a few smaller compounds and stopped very briefly at one but most were too small for the bandits to have possibly tried to sell Tobias.

I was sitting after the evening meal with a mug of cider in my hand when Jen came to sit down beside me. She slipped an arm around my shoulders and I leaned back against her.

“I know we didn’t find him there Kate but we’ll be at Mirror Wall soon and gods knows if he’s anywhere, he’ll be there.”

She caught me a little bit by surprise. For once I hadn’t actually been thinking of Tobias. I heard a boot against the deck and looked up as Tali walked over. I could tell Jen was giving her an ugly look because she offered her one back as she sat down on my other side. Tali slipped an arm around my waist. Jen’s eye’s narrowed but she didn’t say anything.

“You know if you two want to fight or fuck, I can go,” I said.

They both tensed and then Tali leaned over and told Jen.

“I’m game if you are, just don’t expect to get me on my back in any circumstances.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

To my surprise Tali laughed, “You know, for a fort girl, you’re not half the stuck up bitch I originally thought you were. I think I could even learn to tolerate you.”

“Same here, maybe not your middle sister, she’s a pain in the ass, but I can put up with at least you and the younger one. Mel’s a sweetheart.”

That was probably as close as they were going to get to shaking hands or any other form of truce. I had no idea what to make of it.

"You know I'm kind of impressed that you can both sit with me and not try and kill each other.

Tali smiled, “Jen and I have no need to hate each other, after all,” she gave me a thoughtful glance, “this isn’t a zero sum game for your fort girl and my sisters and me, unless you say it is.”

I flushed. It was a fair question though. “It isn’t necessarily,” I said softly.

Something crossed Jen’s face and it wasn’t a happy look but it wasn’t angry either, more resigned. “So that’s how it is?”

“For now I guess.”

“Then I accept that you’re courting with both me and the Walker sister for now,” she said, “As for Cali, I’ll stop picking fights if she does but don’t expect me to do anything more than tolerate her.”

“I’ll talk to her, tell her to back down a bit,” Tali told Jen.

We sat like that for another long moment in silence. I’d have actually liked them both touching me if they hadn’t both still felt so tense. I pushed away and stood, “and that’s enough of that I think.”

I wandered to the far side of the ship. Mel was sitting one of the boxes with the baby girl in her arms. Cali was leaning over her trying to explain how to use the makeshift bottle. Sarah was sitting nearby eating and watching them both tiredly. The circles under her eyes were getting deeper. She’d lost her sister and found herself charged with an orphaned infant she had no idea how to care for.

Cali adjusted Mel’s arm and she finally got the horn at the right angle for the baby to drink.

“She doing okay with the goats milk?” I asked leaning my back against the railing. Not that we had anything else to feed her, if she wasn’t. In the forts, she could have been given to a nursing mother, but there obviously wasn’t one on the boat.

“She’s eating,” said Cali. “Her burns are healing slowly and going to scar but there are worse things. At least she’s alive.”

Mel hung her head, “It’s my fault. She…she got burned when part of a beam fell on me. I tried to shield her with my back but she still got hurt anyway.”

I remembered how Jen had been half dragging her when they got out of the house. I had been so distracted I hadn’t watched the healer treat her afterwards.

“How badly were you hurt?”

She shrugged her shoulder and then winced, “just bruises and a few burns. I’ve had worse for less cause.”

The baby shifted in her arms and stared making a low unhappy sound. Cali passed Mel a cloth and started to explain to Mel how to burp her. Her first attempt at lightly pressing the babies back didn’t work but she got it when Cali convinced her to give her a more solid pat. The baby spat up, yawned and went to sleep. Mel settled her back into the cloth sling she’d been using. She didn’t coo at her or rock her the way inexperienced people sometimes will, just held her still the way your supposed to do with a sleeping baby.

I didn’t realized that Cali had been watching me watch Mel until she smiled at me when I looked up. I blinked and looked away.

She crossed the deck to lean against the railing next to me. “She’s pretty cute with a baby huh?” she whispered.

“You are too but you lack subtlety sweetheart.”

“You’ve finally figured me out.” She gently nudged me with her shoulder, “besides aren’t conceivers supposed to love babies and be impressed by women who are good with them?”

I raised an eyebrow, “And how many conceivers have you known? If you’re so good with babies then you or Mel can have the first one if I marry into your family.”

“Sure so long as you don’t mind me tumbling with some strange kindler and then asking you to help me raise a baby that’s not yours.”

“I was under the impression that you tumble whoever you want to regardless.”

She laughed but it didn’t reach her eyes, “that bother you?”

“No,” it was actually the truth. I liked Cali exactly as she was. “So long as it doesn’t mean you want me any less.”

Her face softened, “Oh Kate, nothing could make me want you less.” She leaned closer, “Even if I haven’t had you yet.”

I ran a hand down her arm, “I’m not something to be had.”

“A woman to be known better then,”

“Yes,” I murmured and kissed her.

She was a good kisser, I had to give her that. She had neither the skillful certainty of Tali, the sweet gentleness of Mel, nor the restrained desire of Jen. There was something about her though, her eager and almost desperate passion that burned through me to the core.

We kissed for a long time, just leaning against the railing in the golden light of the fading sun. A few weeks before I’d have been too modest, too shy, and certainly too worried about the disinterested crew. To the crew’s credit, those on deck,  spared us no more than a few glances as they went about their evening chores.

I felt a strange sort of joy and calm bubble up inside of me. I hadn’t lost this. The bandits hadn’t taken it from me. There was still room in my life to discover and explore. I could touch and be touched and not be hurt or afraid.

My body ached for more but for once I was in no rush to calm that need. There was time, there was as much time as I wanted. I could kiss Cali without having to tumble her right then.

When it began to grow dark I pushed away, “I should go get some rest.”

“Alone?”

“Somehow I doubt even you could get two people into one of those damn hammocks.”

“Is that a challenge?”

“No, I’ll see you tomorrow.” I went down before her. I passed Tali and Mel playing cards with the crew below deck and gave them both a nod before crawling into my hammock alone and sleeping more soundly than I had in some time.

Chapter Text

There were a few tiny settlements along our way but we were heading on to a town so large it could almost be considered a city, Mirror Wall.

It was a four day journey. I noticed that Mel was spending more and more time with the crew. She secured knots and climbed up into the rigging nearly as well as any woman born in River Fort.

Cali, who’d finally gotten a slightly better sense of balance, spent a lot of time sparring with Tali, she still tripped some though. The crew would often gather to watch them and offer advice or heckling. A few even sparred with them. Most carried a cutlass like Jen, which were better boat weapons, but one of the women, Izzie, who’d grown up at my fort before marrying into River Fort, used the same kind of sword as the Walker sisters.

She wasn’t as good as any of the sisters, having not had much training. Tali was happy to teach her. At my fort, the focus had always been more on rifles and crossbows. We were shepherds and farmers, if faced with a threat we were more likely to retreat and defend than engage directly.

I still practiced with Jen early every morning. We’d started sparring a little, although mostly she just made me go through sword forms and told me to fix my feet. One morning I noticed Tali and Cali watching us.

When Jen and I broke apart for a drink of water Cali told me, “You know, that kind of silly footwork and those forms aren’t going to do you any good in a real fight, you should let me teach you something useful.”

Jen gave her an ugly look, “That kind of footwork is how I keep from falling on my ass on a shifting boat, something you’re not very good at.”

Cali scoffed, “And why are you teaching her to fight on a boat? If she tries anything as fancy as you’re teaching her on land, she’ll get stabbed.”

“Or not stabbed, you’ve been watching enough you should have noticed I spend half the time teaching her to keep her side facing her opponent to make a smaller target. It’s a miracle you’re still alive the way you face your opponents head on.”

“I aint’ no coward like you.”

Jen’s eyes narrowed dangerously, “I’m many things mercenary but a coward is not something my friends nor my enemies have ever called me.”

Tali gave Cali a sharp look and Cali bit down whatever she was going to say next.

There was a long tense silence. At last Tali broke it, “What my sister meant to say is that, Kate, we think you’d benefit from a few lessons from us as well a Jen, if you’d like them.”

I nodded, eager to ease the awkwardness.

“No time like the present then.”

She glanced at Cali who offered me her sword and took up her own. We went out on deck and Tali spent the first couple minutes showing me how to properly hold a mercenary blade. It was one handed but heavy and bladed on both sides. The steel was shiny although the balance didn’t feel as good as the cutlass I had been practicing with.

It was harder to hold because it was heavier and longer and it made my arm ache. I’d spend my entire life throwing shuttles across a warp and slamming a loom but steel was something different entirely.

We practiced for about an hour. I half expected her to use it as a chance to touch me, or at least slip an arm around my waist. She was all seriousness though and used the same tone in correcting me I’d heard her use with Cali. I learned a lot at least.

Jen and Tali spent most of the time coming up with a plan for the next city, Mirror Wall, where we were sure the bandits must have at least tried to sell Tobias. They seemed to have reached if not a peace at least an alliance. Tali told me what she knew about the small city.

“It’s got walls like a fort, but they’re made of old scrap metal, tall and strong. There must be almost five thousand people living there. It’s so big no bandits would ever dream of raiding it. You’ve never seen so many people in your life.

“They do a lot of metal work and weapons making. People say that there must be a supply of metal there from the before time. It’s a good place to buy knives and swords at any rate. They’re an oddly religious folk too, they say their descendants from a prophet from the before time who saw the cataclysm coming and built a great bunker where his disciples sheltered for nearly twenty years,” said Jen.

Tali commented, “I don’t know about that but I do know that they were originally an enclave that came out of an underground compound and they all have the same odd religion. They’ve got a great big building in the middle of their city made of stone with a high roof they call a cathedral.

“I went to a service once to see what it was all about. As far as I could tell it was mostly singing, calling on a god for mercy, a list of things you were not supposed to do and a great deal of worrying about what happens after you die. The weird thing was they only had one goddess for everything. They call her Hashi. I don’t know how they get by. I mean, how can you pray to the same deity for love, luck and money? Their poor goddess must be overworked. I wasn’t much for it, I prefer a proper mix of goddesses big and small. I’m rather partial to Coyote the trickster myself.”

I smiled, “and I pray to Minerva the weaver most of the time and Baa the sheep goddess in the spring during the lambing.

“Baa is not a goddess, just a folk story,” said Tali.

“She’s a goddess when your livelihood depends on sheep and a successful lambing season.”

“Don’t go mentioning Baa in this city, they’ll laugh at you or call you a heretic. They don’t much like hearing about any gods but their own.”

We disembarked and set out on the road well before we came into sight of the city. It was a big enough port that the River Queen could go dock without attracting attention but we still wanted to show up separately. Jen finally gave me one of the cutlasses to take with me, although she warned me to keep it in my pack and not openly carry it. I had my dagger on my belt and boot at least.

We had to walk half a day before we saw those distant rusting walls. When Tali said that they were metal I’d hoped they’d gleam but instead they were a burnt orange and I had to wonder just how strong they really were. Once any metal started to oxidize, after the rust got to the heart of it, you don’t put any trust in it.

Maybe the city was so big though that just the idea of the metal walls, mattered more than the strength of the crumbling tin. As we got closer I saw also through the tin sheets of the wall were definitely nailed to proper wooden ones. These women were no fools.

As with every fort before, there were guards at the gate, but theses ones were only bothering to stop carts. I think that they were mostly concerned with taxing merchants. They barely spared us a glance.

We wove through the bustling city. The streets were wider than any I’d known and they were laid with stone. There were deep gutters on either side of the street and elevated pathways to walk on.

The gutters were well littered with refuse but I could imagine that a good rain might wash them out. A lot of people were trying to go in a lot of different directions and many were either trying to do that with a horse, a hand cart, a wagon, or in the case of one girl, a flock of geese. Mel went first and gently pushed her way through the crowd clearing the way for us. She was big enough not to get pushed out of the way and kind faced enough that most people would take issue with her.

There were women everywhere but very few men. Those I did see were not alone, always beside at least one wary looking woman. Any man in the forts would have laughed if he was told he couldn’t go outside unescorted. Then again any man in the forts was normally within the safety of high walls and in sight of his kin. My brother had been kidnapped when he left those walls, was it any wonder here that women outside the forts were so protective of their men?

We reached a crowded inn that Tali knew and went in. A few quick words and a bit of copper got us a room, although not one as nice as those we’d had before. For once no one asked our business or seemed to even care for our names.

We went our separate ways again to learn what we could. Cali went to pick up what gossip she could down at the harbor, Mel went to the taverns and Tali and me to see what news we could find on the street.

Tali told me to dress respectably, so I put on the best dress that I had and wrapped the weavers shall around my shoulder. We set off through the city. We went in pursuit of lunch first.

We wandered into one of the many squares and bought some meat pastries from a cart. As we ate I could tell that she was considering my appearance. “Were going to have to buy you another dress, that one just won’t get us into the better brothels here.”

“It won’t?” I looked down at the heavy blue wool. It was a good dress, if rather practical. I knew that the crew member I’d borrowed it from usually wore it when she went ashore. The spinning and weaving were not as fine as I might have done myself and the dye had been added after the weaving, but it wasn’t too shoddy.

Tali shook her head, “No, not for the high class places and those will be the most likely to have the coin to buy a young man like your brother. You’re going to pass for a woman of means. You don’t act like one but you do talk like one and that may be enough.”

“What do you mean talk like one.”

“You know, with all those big words you use, like half the damn people in the forts do. You sound all fancy”

“I don’t sound fancy.”

“You sound educated.”

“I am!” I’d gone to school for half a day five times a week until I was eleven just like all the other children in the fort before I started my apprenticeship. I could read and write and do sums. Knowing numbers was essential for planning out half the weaving patterns I designed and made me able to write them down.

Tali rolled her eyes, “I didn’t say it was a bad thing. Right now, we need you to seem like you’re educated.” She stood up brushing crumbs off her pants, “Come on, we need to find that dress.”

This did not in fact involve going to a dress shop, instead we wandered down the busy streets until we came to what was clearly a street of second hand garments. We looked at the stalls, none of which seemed to have anything better than the dress I was already wearing.

Up the street a bit, on the corner of a much nicer garment district, we found what we were looking for. A second hand clothing shop full of finer things than I’d ever seen before. Tali sorted through a few shelves of clothes as a shopkeeper hovered and eyed her uncertainty. She found a dark green dress and held it up to me.

“I think this will do.”

I reached out and touched the soft garment. It was lambs wool for certain and dyed in the weft, the emerald color well seeped into the fibers. It had been spun thin and woven on a light loom, the fabric felt impressively light in my hands. The sewing too had been carefully done.I wasn’t so certain about how low the neck had been cut through. Why would anyone make a wool dress that wouldn’t keep you warm?

“Its well made.” I took it from her and examined it. I didn’t know much about sewing but it only took me a moment to figure out what was wrong with it. “There’s a rip in the front and a stain at the waist.” Neither easily fixable, although they probably could be with a good hand at a needle and thread. The stain seemed to be from wine and the rip from someone trying to get if off someone else too quickly.

The shopkeeper, a matronly woman gave me an evaluating look, “You’ve a good eye, dear. I’ll sell it to you cheap. If you take it up to my sister’s sewing shop two streets over, she can mend the rip and cover the stains.”

We haggled a few minutes over the price until we reached what it was worth and Tali paid the coins. I wasn’t sure the shopkeeper’s sister wouldn’t cheat us but I didn’t know any tailors so we took the dress up the street to her shop.

An equally matronly looking woman looked over the dress, mended the torn front and sewed a bit of wool lace to hide the repairs and added a wide belt of darker green fabric to cover the stain. For a few coppers more she took up the hem and took in the waist so it fitted me better. She sold me a silk ribbon to put up my hair that looked very nice. When we left the shop I looked better than I probably ever had, even when I borrowed Suzy’s mother’s dress to be May Queen.

My boots were not a perfect match. They were leather and well made, if heavy and practical. There wasn’t money to buy different shoes and the skirt mostly covered them anyway. We paused in one of the busy squares beside a well before we went on.

“I think you’ll do,” Tali told me after a thoughtful look up and down. “Now try to act like you’re from a family of means, a merchant’s daughter. Don’t act haughty or anything but say what you want rather than ask for it.”

“Will you pretend to be my lover again?”

She laughed and raised a red eyebrow, “Honey with you dressed like that I’m not sure they’ll even believe a rogue like me is your bodyguard.”

“What’s my story then?”

“You don’t have a story. You have a part. A rich merchant’s daughter doesn’t explain herself. We go to the brothel, you say you want to speak to the Madame, you tell her what you want, you pay the consultation fee and you don’t tell her anything about yourself. I’ll just be your silent bodyguard.”

“What about the other brothels, the cheaper ones. Will we go to them next?”

“Tomorrow, today we’ll cover the expensive ones since they are more likely to have been the ones with enough coin to buy Tobias.”

I was nervous as hell by the time we came to the cities street of red lanterns. I took a deep breath and let Tali open the door of the first one for me. We stepped into a far grander room than I had ever entered before. It made the first brothel we’d visited in the last city seem gaudy and vulgar.

It could have been the palace of a queen in a children’s story. There was very little to tell that it was actually a brothel. The walls were covered in rich tapestries all of geometric designs and the murals on the wall were of forest and river scenes. Not a woven, carved, or painted depiction of a naked person in sight.

There were two well armed women by the door. They both offered me a quick nod and Tali a more careful look. A well dressed young woman hurried over.

She made a shallow bow to me,

“Welcome to the Ruby Ring, what might we do for you?”

I returned her bow, “I want to talk to the madame about breeding services.”

“Of course, just a moment”

She left and then returned a minute later. “The madame will see you, please come this way. Your guard will have to stay here.” She was looking at Tali distastefully.

“I’d rather she came with me.”

Her lips narrowed, “You must be new to the city, otherwise you would know that no one is allowed to bring a guard with them beyond the atrium of the finer establishments. If you do not feel safe here, perhaps you should seek the services of a different house.”

I traded a quick glance with Tali and she gave me an almost imperceptible nod.

“Forgive me I was not aware. She will remain here.”

The woman offered me a fake smile and ushered me up the central staircase to the second floor. She led me to a heavy wooden door and knocked.

I was shown into an almost spartan office, decorated with nothing more than a few wall hangings and a wooden shelves filled with ledgers. A woman, close to my mother’s age and just as stoic, sat at a heavy wooden desk with a large window of clear square glass panels set in wooden window frame behind her. The sheer cost of that glass, utterly free of air bubbles was probably worth as much as the  entire River Queen.

The woman looked up but did not stand or offer her hand. “Welcome, Ms…?”

“White,” I told her and sat when she motioned towards a chair. The woman who’d brought me had entered the room and leaned against the wall, casually observing our conversation.

“How may I help you?” asked the madame.

“I want to consult your brothel about artificial breeding services.”

“Any specific requirements?”

“Only that the sire is healthy and not going to pass on any illness to me. I also wish to see the gene provider in person.”

She nodded, “That is reasonable. Do you have other specifications?”

“I’d prefer a man with dark hair and eyes as well as skin as light as my own.”

“There is a man in this brothel who meets that requirement, his name is Mark. I’ll send for him now.”

She motioned to the assistant and the woman ducked out, we waited only a moment before she returned with a sleepy looking young man following. My heart fell when I saw him. He wasn’t Tobias.

The madame saw my reaction and as soon as the man had left she asked, “He wasn’t what you’re looking for?”

“Not tall enough,” I lied quickly.

“He’s the only male brunet in the brothel, there’s a kindler woman taller than him with black hair if that’s what you’re looking for. She’s quite attractive too.”

My heart sunk further, I didn’t think Tobias was here, if he was the madame clearly wasn’t going to show him to me during this consultation.

“That’s alright. I think I’ve seen what I need to.”

She stood and offered me her hand, “Once you’ve been to the other brothels and found nothing better, feel free to come back here and talk again.”

I stood up as well and shook her hand. The moment her palm touched mine I felt the sudden hot brush of her gift. An ungifted wouldn’t have even felt it but I did. I gasped and tried to pull away but the woman behind me already had me by the shoulders.

“How dare you!” I gasped. There are some things that are not done, using your gift to sense another person’s body outside of healing or lovemaking is one of them.

The madam shrugged, “Don’t squawk, I’ve done you no harm child, now sit down again. I want to know why a conceiver, who’s wearing a mended dress that doesn’t match her boots or work worn hands is pretending to be seeking breeding services in my brothel.”

The woman behind me pushed me into a chair with more strength than I would have thought her slender frame would have provided.

I tried to stay calm, I hadn’t yet been hurt or threatened. The other woman had already drawn back from the chair and was now leaned against the door.

“If this is how you treat your clients, I’ll go somewhere else.”

She arched a delicately plucked eyebrow, “You’re not a client and you never intended to be one. A conceiver doesn’t pay for breeding services, not when she can get herself with child by any willing woman she finds in a tavern. You’re not seeking pleasure, since for that you could have come in the night without subterfuge, if you had the coin. You came here during the day under false pretenses. I think you’re looking for a certain dark haired young man.”

I half choked on fear and hope and said something stupid, “Do you know where he is?”

She sat down on the edge of her desk, an almost sympathetic frown softening her lips. “and now I know for certain that you are. You really aren’t very good at subterfuge are you child?”

I bit my lip and didn’t say anything more.

She sighed, “I don’t have your young man but I think I know who and where he is. Telling me why you’re looking for him and maybe I’ll help you.”

I probably should have lied but I was desperate, “He’s my kin who was taken.”

“Now that I’ll believe.”

“You’ve seen him?”

“No but I’ve heard of him, two days ago I got word through some less than respectable channels that a group of bandits were looking to sell a young man. I didn’t bite.” Something cold and proud burned in her eyes, “This house might sell flesh but we don’t traffic in the unwilling. I can’t say the rest of the cities madams have the same sort of conscience but rumor has it none had the coin to buy the man. One of the wealthiest families in the city, the Waters sisters, did. As of yesterday, they have a handsome new husband with dark hair and dark eyes.”

My heart was in my throat. Tobias was in the city. Caution froze me though.

“Who are the Waters sisters?”

“They were once merchants and rich ones, now their the city leaders. Their mother ran half the trade in this city, legal and otherwise. Before she died the old bitch whelped four pups worse than herself. Now they’ve got the reins of power and are sharing them between the four of them surprisingly well.”

“Why are you really telling me this?”

“I have a grudge against the youngest sister, Eli. She’s a mean piece of work, pretty and charming at first glance but batshit insane and dangerous behind closed doors. She hurt one of my ungifted girls badly a couple years back, scarred up her face among other things. I banned her from my brothel and got her blacklisted from every other house on the street of lights. She and her sisters took that as an insult, one day the woman she hurt vanished and turned up in the river.”

“You want revenge.”

She smiled very thinly and I saw that her hands were clenched in her lap, “I’m smart enough not to directly seek it against a woman who can murder with impunity. The girl she scarred wasn’t particularly good natured but she was in my employ and came to harm beneath my roof. She sure as hell didn’t deserve to be murdered or have her body dumped as if she were no one. I should have known she was in danger, I should have better protected her and I failed in that. It costs me nothing though to tell you and your well armed friend downstairs what I know. You’d have heard it from gossip anyway.

“Can you offer me any further help?”

“I can tell you that the oldest sister, Joan, didn’t marry the new husband with her sisters, even if she bought him for them. She’s been looking for a conceiver wife for years but never had any luck finding one. I made sure the story about what her sister did to the prostitute got out and ever since no high ranking family has dared let one of their conceiver daughters marry anyone in that household. It’s one thing to marry a daughter to a woman of questionable character and another thing entirely to marry a daughter into a family where there is a woman who might take a knife to women.”

She paused, looking at me thoughtfully, “That’s all I’ve got to say and you didn’t hear any of it from me.”

She dismissed me from her office and we did not shake hands again. Tali was waiting for me in the lobby. The moment we were out the door, I told her we had to find the others and talk. We found Mel in a tavern and Cali in a considerably seedier part of the city. We made our way back to the inn and sat in our room talking in hushed voices sitting on the two beds in the small room.

They’d all heard much the same that I had, although the versions Mel had heard left out the bandits and most of what Cali had heard didn’t have a very good description of the man.

“So if it is Tobias how do we get him back?” I asked.

The three sisters exchanged worried looks, Tali spoke “First we have to find out more about the Waters family and their household. They’re probably guarding him more dearly than gold.”

“And then?” I snapped impatiently.

“Then we talk with the folks on the River Queen and come up with a plan. If a family bought him, at least he’s not going anywhere. We have time.”

I slammed my hands down on the bed. “No we do not have time! They’re probably raping him as we speak.”

Cali coughed, “I’m pretty sure they’ve already done that.”

I whirled on her. “How can you talk like that? It fucking matters.”

She looked away, “I just meant…” and she didn’t say what she’d meant.

Tali laid a hand on my shoulder, “Haste isn’t going to help your brother Kate. If we want to successfully rescue him, we have to know what we’re doing first. That means taking time to scout out where they’ve got him and coming up with a good plan. We’ll act when we’re ready, not before.”

I clenched my hands and looked down. “Like you waited to rescue me until those bitches bitch had me on my back and helpless.”

“Yes, because that meant my sisters and I all survived the fight. Because that’s was our best shot at rescuing you.”

There was something cold and sharp in Tali’s face. Something that almost frightened me. She was a woman who could wait while another woman was being raped so that she’d have a clear shot at the attacker rather than risk the lives of herself and her sisters  in an earlier attack, who’d let a baby die in a fire before losing a sister in a desperate rescue attempt. She’d tear the world apart for the lives of those she loved and sell her soul along the way if that’s what it took.

I looked up, “What is the plan.”

We talked and talked and when the sun set, Tali went to find the Waters’s house and scout it out. Mel hiked back up river to tell the River Queen what was going on. That just left Cali and me.

We stayed in the room at first. The air felt tense and I knew it was my fault. I could tell I was making Cali nervous. She busied herself cleaning a small pile of gear on one of the beds.

I got up and started to pace, “you don’t have to babysit me, you should go to the taverns and see what you can overheard like you were doing earlier,”

“I’m not sure there’s much more to hear, besides Tali said to stay with you.”

“What? Because she thinks I’m dumb enough to march up to the Waters’ home and demand my brother back?”

Cali shrugged without looking up, “Not that exactly, it’s just that she says that people always do dumb things when they’re angry and you’re angry Kate.”

“I am not-” I had to cut myself off before my tone contradicted me. I glared at the window so I wouldn’t glare at Cali. “Okay fine I am.”

I paced a few more times and then snatched up my shawl and threw it over my shoulders, “I can’t just sit around. Let’s at least go to a tavern, see what we can learn.”

I was halfway out the door when Cali called, “At least put on your boots first.”

I stormed back in to do just that. We stepped out into the night together. The city had slowed, at least somewhat now that the sun had set. Our inn was on a quiet street of other small inns, most of which only had small kitchens to serve their guests.

We wound our way to the more major thoroughfares, towards the big inns and alehouses where locals gathered. I strode quickly trying to burn off my frustration. Cali walked beside me, easily keeping pace with her longer legs.

At least she did until I took one sharp corner and then another. I heard a large cart clack past and Cali call out for me to wait but I didn’t. I practically slammed open the heavy wooden door of the first big ale house I came too. The heat and light of the interior was a little overwhelming, as was the smell of spilled beer, bodies and cooking food. I felt a little sick but fought it down, trying to push my way through the crowded room towards the bar. I wanted to shove everyone who got in my way. I didn’t, I’d been raised better than that.

I reached the heavy wooden counter, nudged my way through the women gathered there and realized that I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never actually ordered anything for myself in an inn before. I’d been too young the few times I’d visited any of the forts that had inns and on our journey Tali had always done it.

It didn’t much matter though because the bartender didn’t seem to notice me. She was busy hurrying about filling tankards and taking coins. Maybe I was supposed to do something to get her attention.

“What do you want lovely?”

I jumped and turned around to realize that there was a tall dark haired woman standing close but not too close to me. She wore worn and well cared for traveling clothes and a mercenaries sword on her hip. Her lean face was more than a little pleasing to the eye.

She offered me a smile that showed smooth white teeth, “You are trying to get a drink right?”

I nodded.

“What do you want?”

“Ale I guess,”

She nodded and leaned over me and called out, “ Ale,” while holding up two fingers.” Her voice was far louder and bolder than I might have dared. The bartender gave her a nod and a moment later plonked two tankards in front of us in exchange for the two copper coins the woman offered.

She took the tankards and set off through the crowd like a fish through water, glancing over her shoulder, “You’re coming right?”

Wondering what the hell I was doing, I followed her. She thumped down the mugs at an empty booth. After glancing around quickly, I sat.

She offered me another open smile and nudged one tankard towards me, “Your new here aren't you?”

“Traveling through,” I admitted.

“I figured, your accent is pretty northern.”

I nodded as I looked down at my tankard, “Do you usually buy drinks for strangers?”

“Pretty ones.”

I felt my face heat up a little bit and oddly I didn’t mind. It struck me then that she wasn’t up to anything nefarious. She was just flirting with me. I gave her a careful smile back.

“So who are you or do women in this city not have the good manners to give their names?”

“Rosa Oak of Red Creek and you?”

“Kitty Carter,”

“Well Kitty, welcome to Mirror Wall. What do you think of the place.”

“Big.”

She raised an eyebrow, “Just big?”

“I haven’t known a lot of cities.”

“It’s not the worse I’ve been in or the best. I came here this year looking for a place to winter between guarding caravans. I got into the city guard but they paid badly and their dorms were drafty. Besides I’ve seldom known a more corrupt lot. I’ve nothing against a bit of coin changing hands now and again but they were systematic about it.”

“You still in the guard?”

“Nah, I got a better offer to work as a guard in the City Leaders home. It was pretty easy work even if they live in one hell of big compound and are a fucking paranoid lot.”

My jaw nearly dropped. I had not exactly been expecting to actually find a member of the Waters family guard. I struggled for words, “Didn’t they just get a new husband or something?”

“So I’ve been told. I only guarded the outer compound and I never actually seen the guy.  He’s gotta be stolen, why else keep him locked up like a fox in a cage. He’s probably some poor farm boy who got snatched off his mother’s dock.”

“And you still work for them?”

She shook her head, “Not anymore as of this lovely evening. The youngest sister of the four finally made a pass at me and I figured I’d best get out of the household before she decided to push the issue. I’ve heard bad stories about what she likes to do with women and knives.”

“Ah, so you're unemployed,” I tried to sound playful.

“Better that than staying in that house. I’d rather guard an honest brothel any day.”

A loud cough caught both our attention and we looked up to see Cali standing there, her face flushed from running.

“Rosa, I see you’ve found my fiancé.”

The mercenary offered her a playful smile, “Indeed I have. I’ve half a mind to win her away from you. Sit down and drink with me, I haven’t seen your sorry face in a blue moon.”

Cali gave her a sharp look and slid into the booth, throwing a proprietary arm around my shoulder. I resisted the urge to elbow her in the ribs.

“So you two know each other?” I asked. I was beginning to get the impression that Cali and the other Walker sisters knew every single mercenary within a significant radius of the river.

“My sisters and I have guarded a couple summer caravans together with her.”

Wren offered me a conspiratorial grin, “she’s not been my biggest fan ever since I spent most of last summer tumbling her oldest sister and not her.”

Cali rolled her eyes, “As if I’d have you.”

“Well, if you and your fiancé are offering. I mean she seems pretty interested.”

I decided I’d had enough of that, “We’re not.”

“Shame,” she leaned back against the booth stretching out her legs. It was clear from her posture she’d been mostly playing. “So how are you sisters Cali?”

“Fine.”

I could tell the conversation had swung away from where I needed it. “Wren was just telling me about working as a guard with the city and then the City Leaders house.”

“If you and your sisters are looking for work you don’t want to go to either of those places,” explained Wren.

The conversation went on for about an hour after that. Not much else Wren said sounded all that useful to me. When we got up to leave Wren said, “Give my regards to the others and tell Tali I’m staying at the White Hart if she’s interested in seeing me again.”

Cali and I walked back through the cool night air. “Kate, you just can’t run off like that. You don’t know this city.”

“I found out something useful.”

“Yes, I guess you did.”

Chapter Text

Early the next morning we all went back upriver on foot to talk with Jen on the River Queen. The night before Jen had told Mel that she wanted to talk to all of us. We gathered in her small captain’s cabin.

Tali’s report about the Waters compound wasn’t good. It had multiple inner courtyards, one which she thought might have its opening covered by a grate. All the outer walls were well guarded. She hadn’t dared try to get into the actual building.

“I’m not even sure of the floor plan, much less how to safely get in and out. These people know their business, there were at least fifteen guards in the main compound alone. There might be a chance of snatching Tobias, if I knew exactly where he was but I’d probably still need backup.”

Jen chewed on her lip thoughtfully and leaned back on the crate she was sitting on, “What if you had inside information or even backup from within the house?”

Tali leaned forward over the heavy table, “what are you thinking?”

“We’ve no reason to think these women know Tobias is from Ash Fort or any of the Five Forts and I doubt he’s fool enough to say where he is from if he’s still got any dream of being rescued. What if I went? I could say I’ve come to speak on River Forts behalf about improving trade relations with Mirror Wall. That should at least get me and a few of our women in through the door.”

Tali frowned, “That’s assuming they haven’t somehow figured out he’s from the Five Forts, he’s been recognized before. Besides your plan might get you in the door, maybe even in for a meal, but it won’t get you to where they are hiding Tobias.”

“I could try and get in as a guard,” said Cali.

“If you could get hired, and even then you might not get close enough. You said that mercenary woman who worked there, Kali, never even saw Tobias.”

A thought occurred to me. It chilled me to my core but I brought it up anyway. “What about me?” Everyone looked at me. “I could get in. The madame of the brothel said the oldest daughter was looking for a conceiver wife. They’ve already bought a man from bandits, surely they’d do the same for a conceiver.”

Jen paled, “No, absolutely not. We’re not endangering you to get Tobias back.”

“Then how else are we going to get in? Some of the crew could pretend to be bandits and sell me to the Waters sisters. That would get me into the house and close to Tobias. I’d find a way for him and me to escape or get word to you where we were.”

“And in the meantime they’d rape you!” snapped Jen.

I flinched but held my ground. “They’re raping Tobias every day. They’ll keep doing it for the rest of his life until we get him out of there.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice yourself.” Jen was looking at me like I’d proposed cutting off my own hand.

“Have you got a better plan then?”

“I’ll think of one.”

And she tried. We all did. The best we came up with was trying to get Cali hired as a guard and sending in Jen to talk about a trade agreement and see if either could come up with something.

No one was happy after a morning of arguing. When we broke for lunch I went onto the deck and glared out at the river. I turned when I heard footsteps.

“Kate,” Jen said softly.

I didn’t look at her. She leaned against the railing beside me. “I know you are upset but you have to be patient.”

I whirled on her, “How can I be patient. He’s here!”

“Were not completely certain of that.”

“How many other stolen men do you think have been sold here by bandits in the last few days?”

“I get it Kate, I really do. I can’t risk you though, not for a plan we’re not even sure will work. For all we know, if you go into that compound we may never be able to get you out. I couldn’t live with myself if that happened.” She looked at me with those honest blue eyes of hers and I felt my heart break a little bit.

“You don’t have to live with it, I do. My brother is in that house and I’m getting him out. If it was Suzy wouldn’t you?”

“I…” Her face hardened and she pushed away from the railing. “I’m not letting you do it. We’ll find another way.”

“Jen.” I called after her.

She froze for a moment with her back to me. “I’m not changing my mind Kate. As the captain of the River Queen, I’ll forbid my crew from helping you with this plan. We will find another way.” Then she went back into her cabin.

I walked back into the city with the Walker sisters in silence.  The hour had grown late and we paused in one of the squares to buy meat pastries from one of the vendors and sit beside a well to eat.

I stared at my food for about five minutes before I gave up any intention of eating it. “Do you think it would work.”

Beside me Tali tensed, “It doesn’t matter, you’re not doing it.”

“That’s not what I asked, would it work?”

“It did when we rescued Sage,” said Cali very softly.

Tali gave her a sharp look, “That wasn’t the same.”

“Tell me about it,”

Cali opened her mouth to speak and a glare from Tali silenced her.

My hand tightened on the pastry, crushing part of it, “Tell me damn it!”

Tali sighed and gave Cali a nod,

“Sage is the oldest daughter in Fiona’s and Bernard’s family. We met her the second season we traveled with their mercenary company. She’s not Bernard's blood daughter. Her mother had her with a kindler years before she married Bernard. Bernard and Fiona raised Sage as their own after her mother was killed by bandits while guarding a caravan. Fiona and Sage were always really close, probably since Fiona was never able to have any children of her own.

“Sage was a kindler. She kept pretty quiet about it while she was on the road but she’d wear the bracelets at festivals, the way most kindlers do. The second year we traveled with Bernard’s we were guarding a caravan that passed close to a major trading fairground on the day of a summer festival.

“She and a few of the younger women broke away from the main caravan to go to the festival that night with the plan of catching up to the slow horse carts afterwards.  The women who went with her said that Sage put on her bracelets and went off to find a lover for the night but the next morning no one could find her.

"Our whole company went to the fair and asked around. A few cracked heads later we found out that other’s at the fair had seen her go off with a woman from the White Oak enclave. A few more threats and bribes let us know that the entire party from the White Oak enclave had left early that morning with their wagon. We tracked those daughters of bitches back to their enclave a few days travel away. We weren’t able to catch up to them on the road.

“Their whole compound was built up in the mountains with a sheetrock wall on one side, damn near impenetrable and it was a big place, almost the size of Ash fort. There had to be at least a hundred women in there. There were only seven of us; Bernard, Fiona, two of Bernard’s other wives and my sisters and I. We knew we couldn’t just storm it and hope to get Sage out.

“It was Bernard who came up with the plan of pretending we were bandits looking to sell a kidnapped man. If they were desperate enough to kidnap a kindler they might buy a man. His wives didn’t like it but Fiona backed him, she’d tear the world apart to save a daughter, even risk her husband.”

I blinked, “I can’t imagine anyone ever believing Bernard was a prisoner.”

Cali shrugged, “We managed it, even if he had to let us rough him up a little bit, bind him and have him act drugged for it to be believable. We sent Fiona to the gate to say she had a man to sell, she led a couple of their people back to where we were in the woods, sold him to those fucking bitches and then retreated into the forest to wait.”

“It took him three days to get things into position but we were ready when half the place burst into flames. We scaled the wall and threw the front gate open. We killed the first couple of guards we met and Bernard and Sage came bolting out of one of the burning buildings before more got to us.

“We ran for the hills where the others were waiting for us with the horses. Some of the enclave women pursued us and we drew them far enough into the forest to circle back behind them and killed them with crossbows before they could retreat. I’m still not sure how many women we killed, but we didn’t lose any of ours, even if Fiona took an arrow to the shoulder. We saw smoke from the fire for hours.”

I listened with bated breath, “So it worked.”

“With crazy hill folk in the middle of nowhere, not a city,” said Tali, “And no offense Kate but you're not Bernard. He literally broke open the door of the room they were keeping him in and strangled two guards.” She paused for a moment when she saw my face hadn’t changed, “And Kate, you’re a conceiver not a man.”

“What does that matter?”

“You’re not used to…well think about how what those bandits tried to do to you tore you apart.”

My eyes narrowed, “And you think rape violates men less than conceivers or kindlers or ungifted women?”

She flinched, “That’s…fuck I don’t know Kate. I just mean that at least Bernard was a married man and a mercenary when he went into a pit of vipers, you’re a fort born virgin. If what happened to him there tore him up, he hid it well. If we sell you to the Waters sisters, they're going to rape you and hurt you and that damage is going to run deep.”

I met her gaze, “I can survive it. I can live with being raped, I can’t live with abandoning my brother if there’s any way to rescue him. I can’t leave him to this fate, I can’t. Now are you going to help me or not?”

She looked at me for a long time. She cast a quick glance at her sisters and then at last nodded, “We’ll do it. If there’s one thing I understand, it’s what it means to be willing to do anything to protect family.”

It took the rest of the evening back in the room to solidify the plan. Tali would go to the house tomorrow pretending to be a bandit and say she had a conceiver to sell. She’d lead whoever from the house came to see me to the forest outside the city. I’d be bound and blindfolded and waiting with Cali and Mel.

They’d sell me and presumably I’d be taken back to the house. I’d find Tobias and either try to escape with him or send some kind of signal. They’d be watching. If I didn’t manage anything in the first day they’d tell Jen and she’d go ahead with the original plan as going in seeking a trade agreement. While her people were in the house I had to try and get a message to them or set a fire and create a diversion that would allow them to help Tobias and me escape. We weren’t sure how Jen would react when the Walker sisters told her but I imagined it would be bad. Surely she’d still try and help me though?

With all plans made, there wasn’t much left to do. We sat solemnly in the small room. Tali was utterly motionless like a rabbit hiding against the ground. Cali paced back and forth, her hands twitching at her side. Mel sat beside me on the second bed, her hands in her lap, the image of misery.

Wearily I laid my head against her shoulder. She jumped and then lay an arm around me and pulled me closer. She felt warm and safe. I took a slow steadying breath.

“I don’t want to go into that house tomorrow as a virgin.”

Cali froze in her step and Mel pulled me closer. Cali spun on her heel, “You couldn’t have finally decided you wanted to bed us yesterday or the day before or any day but this one?”

“Cali,” said Tali sharply.

Cali ignored her, “Is this the only way you want us? We’re a better option for losing your virginity to than a rapist?”

“No,” I snapped, “That is not what I mean at all. I’ve had so much ripped from me that I don’t want to miss another chance. I might not ever walk out of that house. I want you three to be my firsts, I want this to be my choice.”

“And if you weren’t going into the Waters house tomorrow would you still want me?” There was so much hurt in her eyes.

“Yes, I just wouldn’t have found the courage to ask you yet. I’ve wanted you and Tali and Mel since River Fort.”

Her face softened and she knelt on the floor beside the bed, resting a hand on my knee, “And you truly mean that? I’ll lay with you tonight if it’s what you need Kate, but if all I am to you is a willing body, it’ll break my heart. You’re the one woman in this world I need to be more than a body to.”

No one had ever told me that love could hurt like this did. I tilted her face up to meet my eyes, “You are much, much more than a body. You are sweet and funny and courageously brave.” I leaned closer, “Don’t you realize that the thing that frightens me most about what’s going to happen tomorrow isn’t that I’ll be hurt but that I may never see you and your sisters again.”

I leaned down and kissed her and she kissed me back. I felt tears on her cheeks. They were salty against my lips. When I broke the kiss, she rose up to straddle me on the bed and I scooted back to lean against Mel.

I looked over to Tali who was still sitting on the other bed, watching us with an unreadable face. I held out my hand to her and she came and took it, sitting beside me on the bed. She tried to hide the tears in her own eyes, but I saw her wipe them away.

She stroked my face gently with her free hand, “Tell us how you want this dear one.”

I flushed, “All of you together, if that’s okay,”

She smiled, “Of course,” and kissed me deeply.

My heart was frantic inside of my chest, joyful and uncertain all in the same moment. Cali slipped her hand beneath my shirt and claimed my lips again as Mel kissed the back of my neck. She caught a nipple between her fingers and made me whimper.

When I raised my arms, Tali helped me pull my shirt off. I gasped at the sudden chill of the room. Mel scooted back, tugging me until we were near the headboard and Cali could properly lean over me without the risk of falling off the bed.

The feel of her lips against my nipple sent a shiver of pleasure through me and brought a gasp to my lips. I made a second sound when I felt Mel’s hand on my other breast, her fingers gentler than Cali’s had been. Cali kissed lower, making a trail down my ribs and stomach. I arched at the warm feeling of her mouth, my hands scrambling at her shirt.

I got the edge of it and tugged. She raised up just long enough to scramble out of her shirt and sat back so that I could see her. I reached forward almost tentatively, laying my hand against one of her perfect breasts, running my thumb over the raised pink nipple. I could barely focus with Mel’s hands on me.

Cali took a sharp breath but pulled away so she could tug at the laces of my pants. I raised my hips to help her tug them off me. A sudden shock of vulnerability washed over me when they were gone and I realized I was naked with three women who were not.

I felt warm lips against mine as Tali leaned over me again. I tugged at her shirt and she broke the kiss long enough to yank it over her head. Her breasts were smaller than Cali, just as she was leaner than her sister. A long red scar ran from beneath her left breast to her flat stomach.

She caught my eyes and raised an eyebrow, “what do you think?”

“You’re beautiful,” I murmured. “You going to take off your pants too?”

She smiled. It was one of her rare, actual smiles, not one that showed her teeth, just a turn of the lip that lit her eyes.

I jumped when Cali nudged my legs a bit wider and started to kiss my inner thigh.  I was about to rest my hands on her shoulder when Tali whacked her lightly on the back of the head, “Hey, don’t get carried away. I’m the eldest.”

Cali looked up, “And I courted her first.”

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or shove them both away.

“She should say for herself,” said Mel. She kissed my ear, “Who do you want first Kate?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer for a moment. What did I want most? Tali’s certainty, Cali’s passion, or Mel’s gentleness? I couldn’t possibly pick one over the other.  Of course I didn’t really have too.

“I want Mel to hold me and Cali to touch me and you to fuck me first,” I scrambled for words “and then Cali and then Mel.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Tali promised. Mel stayed where she was and Cali moved to lay beside me so she could touch me without getting in Tali’s way.

Tali kissed me once more long and deep and then nudged my legs open with her elbow and ducked down. She went slow, kissing my leg and brushing her fingers against my core before she brought her mouth to it.

Something froze in me for a moment, horrible memories of that night on the ground sprang up and I forced them down. I couldn’t let that night take this from me, I couldn’t. I felt Mel warm and strong behind me, her arms around me. Cali’s lips warm and gentle on my breast. I was safe. I was in control.

I tugged up Cali to kiss her as Tali’s tongue found my clit. The feeling was sharp and electric, brighter and clearer than even the best moments when I touched myself. I gasped and clutched at her shoulders with one hand and Cali with the other. I was no judge of such skills but Tali was very, very good with her lips and tongue.

Cali kept kissing me, even as I gasped my pleasure against her lips. Her right hand found the same breast. Mel kept one arm around me and the other on my left breast. She kissed the back of my neck and ear.

A familiar tension coiled through my body. It wasn’t my first orgasm, I’d had them since Suzy explained to me how to touch myself but it was a thousand times more intense.  

Tali’s ministrations grew more ardent and she shifted from moving her tongue to sucking on my clit. I cried out against Cali’s mouth and shuddered. Even as the familiar release sparked, I felt something else, the sudden warm fire of my gift. I’d seldom felt it before, barely known it as anything more than the warmth in my hands when I healed other’s small injuries. It had never been a thing I associated with pleasure before, and yet in that instant it was all consuming. For an instant I could feel Tali, every part of her from the breath in her lungs to the beat of her heart and then it was gone.

I slumped back against Mel, turning my face away from Cali so I could catch my breath. I was vaguely aware that the bed shifted as Tali moved to my side and Cali was suddenly over me.

Her body felt heavy and warm as she leaned over me to kiss my cheeks and the edges of my eyes. Her hands wandered slowly at first, as if patiently rekindling the pleasure that had just faded.

When she ran a hand down my side I arched against her, parting my legs for her when her fingers traced lower. She brought her fingers to me, brushing them lightly over the sensitive bundle of nerves.  I wanted her inside of me but didn’t know how to ask.

She guessed what I wanted though. Her fingers traced lower and then she pressed one slowly into me. I gasped and pressed against her. She added a second, still moving carefully, her warm green eyes locked with mine, watching my every reaction.

I’d had my own fingers inside of myself before but having someone else's was beyond words. She brought her thumb to my clit as she gently rocked her hand and it was almost more than I could bear.

I clutched at her shoulders and rode the pleasure her steady fingers could give me. The second release sparked nearly as quickly as the first. Cali felt my body tense and quickened her fingers inside of me and against me. I closed my eyes and let myself go. I felt my gift again in the last moment, nearly lost in the sound of my own frantic breaths.

My body felt heavy as I came back into myself but I still burned. Mel nuzzled my ear, “you can rest a moment,”

“No I want you.”

I turned in her arms, straddling her lap and resting my hands on her shoulders. Her eyes went a little wide in surprise and then she laughed and pulled me into her arms. She took a long breath as she looked me over.

“You are beautiful Kate,” she whispered. She ran her hands over my shoulders, my arms, my back.  She looked into my eyes like they had all the answers.

I tugged at her shirt, wishing I could just tear the cheaply woven cloth.  She let go long enough to pull it off. I brought my mouth to one of her breasts and felt her move beneath me.

I jerked a little when someone began to touch me from behind and someone else from the side. I was beyond really caring which sister was doing what. Mel tugged my face up to kiss me again and then pressed her hand between my legs.

I was slick and desperate. Three of her fingers slid into me easily and I clenched around them. I rocked against her sword calloused fingers. A hand reached around to find my clit again and another to catch my nipple. Warm lips bit my ear. My world was nothing but skin and touch and pleasure. I let go again. I’m not sure what my gift did, all I felt was life and fire.

I slowly came to my senses curled up in Mel’s arms with Cali wrapped around me from behind and decided I was right where I wanted to be. I closed my eyes and drifted to sleep.

I woke in the early hours of the morning, still where I’d fallen asleep. I saw Tali sitting beside the window, wrapped in a blanket. Her face was blank and her eyes shadowed. I wanted to say something, to go to her but I didn’t think I could move without waking Cali and Mel. There was something isolated and cold about the way she sat that I didn’t think even I could cut through.

Not long before dawn Cali stirred in my arms, mumbling something in her sleep. I kissed her, bringing her back into the world of the waking. I kept kissing her when I decided I liked the sounds she was making, even kissed all the way down her body. Her cunt tasted like water and salt and something good I didn’t have a word for. She clenched around me when I pressed my fingers into her but was oddly silent when I brought her to her orgasm.

When I rolled onto my back I noticed Mel watching hesitantly. I reached for her, touching her everywhere. She clutched at me, her hands tense like she wanted to grab harder but was afraid to hurt me.

“Please.”

I stretched out beside her and pressed my hand between her legs. Her body was warm around my fingers when they found their mark. I was a little afraid that I was pressing on her clit to hard with my thumb but she just bucked against my hand with such desperation I didn’t change what I was doing. She came with frantic breaths and slumped boneless onto the bed. I rested my head on her chest and listened to her heartbeat slow to a steady rhythm.

I must have slept because before I knew it Tali was gently shaking my shoulder, telling me that it was time to go. More than anything in the world I wanted to curl back up beneath those blankets. I wanted to stay with my lovers and forget the world, forget the bandits, forget Mirror Wall, forget the River Queen, even forget Tobias. I wanted to be a coward and I think everyone I knew would have forgiven me for it. I knew I’d never be able to forgive myself, so I got up and dressed in the dim light of dawn and went out to save my brother.

Chapter Text

The day dawned cold and grey. Tali wound on my bracelets for me before we left the inn. Mel stayed in the city and Tali, Cali, and I walked a long way outside the walls. We didn’t go out through the gate but slipped through a hole in the wall Tali knew about. We couldn’t have the city guard remembering that we’d left that morning, not that they were particularly likely to remember much of any comings and goings in a city that big.

We stopped about a mile away from the city in a clearing close to the river. I’d worn the simplest clothes I had. Cali had me sit on a rock as she tore my shirt and scuffed up my shoes and rubbed dirt into my hair and smudged my cheeks.

I almost cried when she took a length of rope out of the pack she was carrying. She set down the rope beside the rock, “You know you don’t have to do this. You can still back out.”

“I know,”

“You know the moment they take you there’s no going back.”

“I know.”

“And you're sure,”

“Yes,”

She hugged me and then gently took my wrists and bound them in front of me with a careful series of knots. Even when I tugged on them I couldn’t get loose.

After that she held up a cloth blindfold so I could see it, “I’m going to put this on you now, you’ll need to seem dazed and disoriented.”

I nodded and she tied it over my eyes. She kissed my cheek, “And Kate, so you know. Whatever happens, we’ll get you out or there or die trying. We don’t abandon our own and you’re our lover now.”

She pulled a bag over my head and I was lost to darkness. For a moment I couldn’t even breathe but I forced myself to stop hyperventilating. Eventually the fear eased and I waited.

It wasn’t long before I heard footsteps and the clink of well armed women. It was hard to hear much with the bag over my head but I made out someone ask.

“This is her?”

The bag was yanked off my head and I gasped for breath.

“How do we know she’s a conceiver, you could have put the beads on her,” said an unfamiliar and gruff voice.

“That’s why you brought a healer isn’t it? Test her.”

“Hold her still, I don’t want to be kicked,” said another voice. I felt hands on me. I couldn’t say who’s and then there were fingers against my arm I felt the rude brush of another woman’s gift. It was no different than a healer’s touch and yet I hated it.

“She’s a conceiver all right.”

“We’ll go tell the boss then. You lot better still be here when we get back and there better not be any more of you.”

“We will be, just bring the money we agreed upon.”

The footsteps went away and after a moment I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard Tali’s voice.

“The first parts done. You know it’s still not too late to stop this Kate. Please say the word and we’ll go back to the River Queen.”

I felt tears seeping into the blindfold. “No, I have to do this.”

When I heard footsteps again there were a lot more of them.

The bag was yanked off my head again and I gulped in cool air.

“See, just like I said. She’s as pretty a farm girl as you’ve ever seen,” Tali’s voice sounded rougher, almost ugly.

“Pretty enough I suppose. Goddess only knows where you stole her from. I’m sure she’s got kin combing the river for her.” it was another woman, her tone almost aristocratic.

“Nowhere close to here, and what little kin she had have other problems than finding her. Now do you want her or not. We can find a more eager buyer if you're not interested but you’re not going to find another healthy young conceiver this good looking.”

The footsteps got closer, “She is good looking, which makes me wonder what you’ve done to the poor thing. She’s not of much value to me if she’s already carrying one of your bastards.”

“You wound me,” said Tali, her northern accent even rougher, “my sisters and I aren’t stupid enough to damage good wares. We ain’t touched her. Besides what would be the point? We sure as hell don’t want a whelp from her and aside from that a conceiver ain’t no different from an ungifted woman once she’s between your legs. We could have all the whores we want for a year for what this girl is worth.”

“Longer than that I imagine, consider the quality of establishments your probably frequent. Very well, I will buy her. If you have misused her, a dose of the right tea will undo the result. Come back to the city with me and I will pay you.”

“That wasn’t the deal. You were supposed to bring the silver here.”

“Half of the silver here. You’re get the rest when we’re in sight of the city.”

“Fair enough.”

Someone took my arm and tugged me to my feet. I think it may have been Cali but she didn’t breath a worth. We walked for what seemed like a long time. I kept stumbling.

Eventually up ahead I heard the sounds of tethered horses and we stopped again. There was a clink like a bag of coins changing hands and someone else took my arm and then other hands were lifting me up. I found myself on a saddle, struggling to keep my balance even with a woman behind me to steady me in place.

A gruff voice, the first voice I heard, not the second, told me, “I’m going to take off the blindfold but I won’t untie your hands, do we have an understanding girl.”

“Yes,” I whispered.

When the blindfold was gone I found myself on a horse with a stranger behind me wearing nice but clearly mercenary garb. She had a badge on her shirt with a river on it. There were seven other women, all wearing similar clothes and arms and mounted on horses. They had the same badges on their shirts.

There was one woman on a finer horse than the rest who was wearing good wool pants and a well dyed blue linen shirt. Her hair was a light brown and her eyes the color of river mud. She was probably in her late thirties and no grey streaked her hair. She was tall and of an athletic build that would have been attractive if her gaze hadn’t been so cold.

I studied them as best I could on the short ride into the city. We rode in through aside gate. Once in the city my captor threw her cloak around us both to hide my bound hands. We rode through side streets, presumably to attract less notice, although at the speed at which we rode, I doubt they were looking too closely.

At the heart of the city we came to a great house with heavy brick outer walls walls. A wooden door creaked open and we rode into a courtyard.

“Bring her this way,” said the woman with the fine clothes.

The woman I’d ridden with led me by my arm, not roughly but not giving me any chance to resist. I was led through a back door of the house, through one hallway and then another. More than one door was unlocked before we went up steps and came into what could only be described as a study. It was a room full of record books and scrolls. The furniture was made of a heavy dark wood I’d never seen before. A huge window of valuable glass dominated an entire wall. It was cut through with a solid metal grid work and looked out over a walled yard. It might have been made so in order to use smaller less valuable pieces of glass or to make it impossible to break into the room through the window.

My captor nudged me towards a comfortable looking wooden chair with a soft blue cushion.

“Gretchen do not ruin the chair. Her clothes are filthily,” said the well-dressed woman, as she handed off her cloak to one of the women who had followed us.

“Forgive me,” the guard murmured before glancing around. Seeing no other option slipped off her own cloak and she laid the inner side against the chair before pushing me down onto it.

The brown haired woman motioned to several others, “Go fetch food and drink, have a bath and room prepared in the inner chambers as well. Tell the healer I’ll need her services again as well. If my sisters ask after the girl, tell them they can see her when she’s had a chance to rest.”

They all left the room, save the one whose cloak I was sitting on. She stayed by the door, eyes alert but disinterested.

The woman pulled up a chair closer to mine and drew a knife from her belt. I scrambled back in my chair raising my legs to kick her and defend myself. She caught them.

“Easy, easy girl. I’m just freeing your hands. I’m not a monster like those bandits I just rescued you from.” She used the same tone of voice I’d heard Tobias use with frightened horses. “I’m Joanna Waters, the leader of this city, and no one is ever going to hurt you again while you’re under my protection.”

I looked at her fearfully, playing my part to the hilt, “I’m Sally.” I’d used my real name often enough in the search for Tobais that it seemed wisest not to use it now, in case she did hear about a girl named Kate looking for her brother.

I lower my legs back down and offered my wrists. She carefully set the blade against the rope and in a few gentle tugs had it cut. It fell away and I let out a breath of relief.

She took my hands in her own, gently rubbing my wrists to get the circulation back. I saw something odd cross her face.

“Your wrists are not bruised at all, did they not always keep you bound?”

I forced myself into my role, “No, they stopped binding me after the first few days when I stopped trying to run.”

She nodded almost sympathetically, “How long did they have you?”

“I don’t know. It’s all a blur, at least two weeks, maybe three. We traveled by horseback but they hid those when you came”

“Goddess, did they…?” Her tone was probably meant to be sympathetic and a little shocked but she was watching me with nothing but calculated interest.

“Did they what?” I used the smallest voice I could, drawing my knees up under me on the chair.

“Misuse you,” she said very gently. “Forgive me for asking but if they did, there are ways to be sure nothing comes of it.”

I shook my head, “No, the shorter sister wanted to but the eldest wouldn’t let her. She…” I faked a sob, “She said that I was too valuable.”

“Good,” she murmured and got close enough to stroke my arm, “at least you didn’t suffer that. You don’t be afraid anymore, you are safe here.”

There was a knock on the door and a woman wearing a simple grey tunic and trousers that probably marked her as a house servant came in with a tray. She laid it on a table beside my chair. There was bread and meat and a jug of ale.

“Go on eat, you’re probably starving. I doubt they fed you properly.”

I tried to act like I hadn’t eaten in weeks, although truth be told that for all I’d survived I’d never been starved. I reached for the bread and bit into it hesitantly. My stomach knotted and I could barely swallow it. She was watching me so I took a drink of water and kept eating mechanically.

When the food hit my stomach, the tension eased and I realized that I was actually hungry. I hadn’t eaten much of anything the night before and we’d left the city too early for breakfast that morning. It was well past noon.

She let me eat in silence. When I was done I wiped my lips with the back of my hand, only to notice there had actually been a napkin on the tray. I closed my eyes briefly to gather myself for the part I had to play.

I met her curious, mud brown eyes, “Will you help me get back to my family?”

“Who are they?”

“River farm folk way up north near the blue mountains.”

She nodded, “Oh Sally, you must realize it’s too late in the year to go that far north. The roads will soon be covered in snow and no boat will risk getting stuck in the ice.”

“In the spring then?”

She leaned closer, her hand on my arm again, “And do you really think they’ll take you back after what’s been done to you?”

I shrunk against the chair, “but the bandits didn’t.”

“Your family won’t know that, nor will your neighbors. You’ll bring only shame to your kin, the conceiver who ran off with bandits.”

“I didn’t run off with them! They took me from the fall festival.” I’d prepared the story in advance.

“And were you wearing your beads? Did you dance with any of them?”

“I…” What I was thinking was how much I hated this woman, hated her with my entire being, hate that she’d dare make a kidnapped and abused conceiver think her abduction was her own fault. I kept all of that from my face. “Where can I go if I can’t go home?”

“You’ll stay here of course. You belong in Mirror Wall now.”

“I’ve no kin here, I know no one.”

She stroked the side of my face, “I’ll take you into my household and make you kin. I’ll marry you and give you back your respectability.”

I turned my face away from her, “I can’t. I have a fiancé. I have to go back.”

“You know she’d never take you back now. Besides if you leave, how can you possibly pay me back the debt of the silver your freedom cost me. It was over a hundred silver coins.”

My sound of surprise wasn’t fake. That was a lot more than the flock of sheep I’d once been offered to marry an ungifted girl. Even I knew she was lying about how much she’d payed the Walker sisters. “I’ve never seen that kind of money in my life.”

“Then let it be your bride price and we’ll forget it.” She kissed me on the forehead. “Now, I’m sure there’s a bath and a bed waiting. Go wash and rest and we’ll talk again in the morning.”

She tilted her head towards the woman by the door who came forward to show me through it. She didn’t grab my arm this time, instead she laid a hand against the small of my back. She must have felt how tense I was because she whispered in my ear.

“Don’t try anything stupid girl, you throw a punch at me and I’ll make you regret it for years.”

She led me through more halls and a heavy iron door where a guard was standing and then into a courtyard. It was large and laid with red bricks around a central water capturing pool that surely ran down to a cistern. When I looked up, I saw a delicate crosshatch of metal bars that blocked any escape.

I didn’t notice the figure sitting beside the pool until he took a startled breath and stood in one motion, dropping a book on the ground. Tobias was a ghost of the man I’d once known. He was painfully thin and his face and arms were marred with healing bruises.

His shoulders were slumped like a beaten dog’s. His hair was carefully tied back and he wore a fine linen tunic and trousers but somehow he still had a wild unkempt look about him. Only his eyes were the same. The moment they met mine, I saw both hope and despair in their brown depths, a mirror of my own.

Gretchen nudged me, “Ignore him, he’s mostly harmless.”

“Who is he?”

“The new husband of three of the younger sisters. Not the boss’s husband though, you’ll get her all to yourself.”

And then we were through the courtyard, up a set of inner stairs, down another hall and she was pushing me into a large room. Its large barred window looked out into the circular railing that overlooked the courtyard. It was pleasantly furnished with a large bed, heavy dresser in one corner of the room, and a small table. There was a decently woven rug on the floor and the walls had a few simple tapestries. There was already a metal bath filled in a corner of the room, two more buckets of warm water waiting.

“I trust you can bathe yourself. Don’t take too long, the healer will come see you soon. There’s lice soap, so if you picked those up from the bandits use it.”

She left, locking the heavy door behind her. Not knowing what else to do I stripped off my torn and dusty clothes and stepped into the tub. Normally I loved nothing more than a warm bath, I hadn’t had more than a quick rub down with a cold cloth since I left River Fort, but I was too afraid to take any pleasure in the warm water. I scrubbed quickly and put on the clothes that had been laid on the bed, a well woven but simply cut woolen dress.

I had just sat down on the edge of the bed when I heard footsteps and a key in the lock. A woman with a healers bag over her shoulder stepped into the room. She was simply dressed in well-made clothes and had grey streaks in her neatly braided blond hair. She had a cup of something in her hand.

“You’re the healer?” I asked her.

“Yes,” I recognized her voice instantly as that of the healer who’d checked my gift. “Now, before we start, drink this dear. It will help your nerves.”

“I’m fine.”

“All the same, drink it.”

I took the cup. It smelled bitter and familiar, even beneath the honey she’d tried to mask it with I recognized the smell of herbs in the blue bag that Tali had given me on the night I’d been rescued.

I looked up at the woman standing over me and a moment of understanding passed between us.

“I don’t need it.”

“Drink it anyway. This is the only way Joanna will every believe your first child is hers.”

“No.”

“I’ll have the guards hold you down if I have to girl. This must be done. It won’t hurt you, it’s just blue tea, your stomach will cramp a little. If you’re near the end of your cycle, your bleeding may come early, that’s all.”

I resentfully took the mug and drank down the first bitter sip. It was only as I took the second that I wondered if I might actually be undoing something. Could I have conceived by one of the Walker sisters the night before? Even if I had, I’d probably still have drunk the tea on the River Queen, now wasn’t the time to be making that kind of choice.

I finished the tea and handed the mug back. She took it and set it aside before washing her hands with the pitcher on the table by the wall. “Now let me check you over.”

She was quick and professional, running a hand over each side of my neck, checking my eyes and ears, no different from any healer checking a patient. I felt the feint brush of her gift.

“Now lie back, I’ve just got to see that nothing's wrong with your lower parts and you can rest.”

“What?”

“My employer will not be happy with either of us if you give her something.”

“I’ve never!”

“Probably not, I still have to check. Now lie down. I’ve treated hundred of women for every illness you can imagine and delivered more babies than I can count. You’ve nothing I’ve not seen before.”

I did as she bid. She was quick in her poking and prodding at least. When she was done she told me.

“You’re clean and healthy. If the tea causes you anything other than cramping, send for me.”

After she left, I tried the door and found it securely locked. When I went to the window, I found I could see nothing but the dim balcony that looked down onto the courtyard, but not the courtyard itself. Not knowing what else to do I lay down and slept.

I woke to the sound of a hand tapping on glass. I jumped out of bed and ran to the small window that looked out onto the corridor. Tobias was standing there in the dim moonlight.

I tugged open the window so that we could speak through the second layer of metal meshwork. He reached through to clasp my hands. “Kate, thank god you’re alive.”

“More than alive, I’m here to rescue you. The River Queen’s in the harbor and we’ve got people on the outside.”

“How?”

“The Walker sisters rescued me.”

Suddenly he tensed and pulled away, “I have to go.” He was down the hall and out of my sight in an instant. I pulled away from the window and stepped into the shadows. A yawning guard wandered past my window, pausing for a moment when she noted the open panes and then shrugged, probably figuring it wasn’t like I could get out. When she was gone, I closed the window and went back to sleep.

Chapter Text

In the morning a young woman in dull servants clothes brought me a tray of food. Two others came for the bathwater that had been left the night before. The guards locked the door behind the servants. I ate the breakfast and was soon pacing restlessly.

I checked every inch of the room. There was no way in or out, save the heavy wooden door and the barred window. I opened the glass to let in a cool breeze but I still couldn’t see anything but the hall and the door of the room across from me.

I jumped a little when the door opened again and Joanna came in. She wore a fine  green linen shirt and equally well made black trousers. Some part of me wondered how the dyer had gotten that rich a dark green hue.

I took a step away from her. “You never said I was to be a prisoner.”

“You’re not. The locked door was simply a precaution for your own safety. Women rescued from bandits can sometimes be a danger to themselves or others in the first days after their rescue. Once we have spoken, the door will no longer be barred to you.”

I bowed my head and sat down on the edge of the bed, “I understand.” I understood exactly what was going on. I wondered how she could think I was that dumb. “Am I free then to go where I want?”

“Within the inner part of the house for now. Once you’ve proven you’ll do nothing desperate, you’ll have the freedom of all the grounds.”

“Not the city?”

She sat down beside me, “Surely your recent ordeal has taught you that the world is not safe for a conceiver, especially on her own. Once we are wed, you may leave the house in the company of me or my sisters.”

“And when will that be?”

“When I’m certain you're carrying my heir.”

I jerked away from her and faked shock, even as my dread began to grow.“You’d bed be me unwed?”

“You must understand. I’m the leader of the city. I cannot be burdened by a barren first wife. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble conceiving. You have my word that I will wed you properly in the temple the day I know you’re carrying. I will treat you as my wife in all other respects until that day.” She reached for me, “Now no more worries. I will do what’s best for you.”

I stood and backed away from the bed. “No, not until we’re wed.”

Something ugly flashed across her face. Her eyes narrowed and her lips thinned. “The sooner you lay with me the sooner we will be.”

“No.” Real fear and panic were rising in me.

“Calm down, you’re being irrational. I’m asking nothing more of you than a fiancé’s right. ” I saw her hands tense in annoyance.

“We’re not engaged. I barely know you.” I had known this would come but the thought of letting her touch me filled my stomach with dread. Even knowing it was pointless, everything inside of me cried out to run or fight.

“Do not make me force this,” she stood and took a step towards me.

I retreated back towards the door, even though I knew it was locked.

“You’re no better than the bandits. At least all they wanted was silver. Tumble me like this and you’ll be a rapist. Force me now and I’ll always hate you,” the panic in my voice was genuine.

She paused then, her face blank but her eyes angry, “And what would you prefer, a bed strewn with roses? You’re a ruined woman, I bought from bandits. This is what you’re good for now.”

I couldn’t fake tears but I tried, “I’m not ruined, I’m not. They never had me, no one ever has. Please, I can’t do it for the first time like this. Please can’t you court me like a real suitor, treat me like your fiance not a whore? Do that and I’ll come to your bed willingly, even if it is before we marry.”

I saw her hands unclench slowly. She tilted her head slightly to the side, “You’ve truly never lain with a woman?

I nodded.

“Then perhaps I am being unnecessarily blunt. You’re young and frightened and you’ve suffered an ordeal.” Her whole posture shifted, suddenly open and welcoming, her voice cajoling. “If you’re to be my wife I should treat you with proper respect and show you that I can care for and protect you. That is what all conceivers want after all.”

I’d bought time, probably as much as I needed. “That is all I want.”

“Come here then,” she motioned me closer.

I stepped forward tentatively and she pulled me into her arms. She held me, rubbing slow circles against my back. “There see, I’m not so frightening.”

I tried to force my body to relax but I couldn’t and I stood there like a half broken horse ready to bolt.

She caught my chin and forced my face up. There was nothing hesitant in the way she kissed me. I kept my lips pressed closed against her. After a moment she pulled away.

“If we are not to tumble this morning, then I have some time. I will take you to meet my sisters and my brother-in-law. You’ll like Tobias, he’s northern born like you. If I didn’t know any better I’d almost say you could be brother and sister, you’ve each got such dark hair and eyes.”

She rapped on the door and the guard opened it and let us out. We descended the stairs into the central courtyard. I caught sight of Tobias. A woman with the same wavy light brown hair as Joanna, although worn a bit shorter, was leading him towards a door on the far wall. She was taller and more athletically built than Joanna and wore the grey cloak of the city guard. She had an attractive face, although a scar across one cheek marred it.

She had a grip on Tobias’s wrist and he was letting himself be led. His shoulders were slumped and his eyes down cast. She glanced at me quickly and then looked away, trying not to show too much interest.

“Sal, wait a moment,” called Joanna. “I want you to meet Sally.”

The woman turned, releasing Tobias so she could look me up and down, “Is this the conceiver you found?” she asked her sister.

“Yes.”

“She’s cute, kind of tiny.”

I wasn’t sure whether to be insulted or laugh. I suppose I wasn’t very tall, most people didn’t point that out though.

“Not everyone is as obsessed with height as you are,” said Joanna.

“True, at least you found me a husband taller than me.”

“You’re lucky I found you one at all, they are not exactly easy to come by.”

Sal rolled her eyes, “The way you brag about it you’d think you were the one to marry him. You know you’re welcome to him if you want, even if you have a conceiver wife as well. Ella and Kelly won’t mind.”

“I’ve no interest in falling pregnant, goddess knows why you want to. Besides, I can't imagine what pleasure you can possibly find in bedding a man, they are so oddly put together.”

“What little you know,” said Sal, “There is no accounting for taste. Did you want something else or can I be about my business?”

“No, go ahead. Sally can meet Tobias later.”

They left going into one of the rooms on the first floor. Joanna took my hand heading towards the gate.

“That’s my second youngest sister. She’s the captain of the city guard. She’s not my brightest sister but by all accounts she is the best natured and most loyal.”

The guards opened the heavy metal door and we walked into a far more normal looking corridor. She led me down a hall and up more stairs to knock on an unguarded door and be called in by a voice.

A sharp-faced woman was sitting at a desk, surrounded by papers. She had Joanna’s hair and a body as lean as a stoats. She wore a well-cut grey dress and a string of river pearls around her neck.

“Is this the girl?” she asked without looking up.

“She is. Kelly this is Sally.” Joanna nudged me forward.

“You paid too much for her. If you’d just waited, I could have gotten you a marriage contract for one of the conceiver daughters from Half Tree Enclave.”

“You’ve been saying that for years. The first girl married within the enclave and the second won’t be of age for nearly a year. I’ve waited long enough to get an heir.”

“Don’t blame me. If you’d kept better control of Ella, you could have married any city born conceiver woman you wanted. After what she did, no family will ever agree to marry a daughter into our household while Ella is still in it.”

“Don’t you dare put that on me,” snapped Joanna. “None of us knew how bad she was getting before she scarred up that whore.”

Kelly finally looked up, “You won’t let me send her away and she’s not getting any better. She just scared off another guard.”

Joanna sighed, “Which one?”

“Her name was Kali something or other. She didn’t even try and get her weeks pay, just walked out.”

“Did Ella…?”

“No, she never got her hands on her. The rumors have gotten to the point that any guard she makes advances towards just leaves.”

“We can afford to lose a few guards.”

“Yes but not a husband. I don’t like you letting her sleep with Tobias, even if a guard has to be there. It’s only a matter of time before she finds a way to hurt him before she can be stopped.”

“She hasn’t tried to hurt him yet. Honestly I don’t think she has the same madness towards men as she does women. She never hurt any of the men in the brothels.”

“More like she’s smart enough to know what she can and can’t get away with. Now, I’ve got things to sign. Go rule the city.”

If her curt send off bothered Joanna, she didn’t show it, “As you will Kelly. You keep us from drowning in un-tallied accounts and I’ll keep the city elders happy.”

We walked back into the hall and the down a set of stairs. I heard the familiar clash of steel long before we reached the outer courtyard. There were several women wearing the river crest of the house, busy sparring with blunted swords.

I noticed a wiry young woman with curly brown hair half past her ears. She wasn’t dressed as a guard and wasn’t practicing with any of them. She was jabbing at a stuffed dummy, which was nothing unusual in sword practice, carefully aiming each strike and jab. She didn’t notice our approach.

The guards did and paused in their practice to quickly bow to Joanna before she waved them back to their tasks.

“Ella,” called Joanna.

“Joanna,” said the woman lowering her blunted blade. She had a beautiful face, with a full lips and wide blue eyes. Her smile was easy and open, perhaps a little too open. “Is this her?”

“Yes, this is Sally, she’s to be my wife.”

She set down the sword. “Welcome to the family.” Her voice was warm and almost seductive. Was this the woman they feared would hurt Tobias?

“Thank you,” I said not knowing what else to say.

“Joanna’s lucky, you are far more lovely than she deserves.”

“In life we seldom get what we deserve, the trick is making sure that it is more,” said the older sister. “Come on Sally, let’s go in.”

We went back into the house. Once we were out of earshot Joanna very quietly, “She’s a sweet woman, she really is. She just has episodes sometimes, nothing you need to worry about. Just don’t let yourself be alone with her and if you ever see her carrying a weapon into the inner courtyard call for the guards.”

Apparently the rumors were true. I wasn’t sure how this affected my escape plans. I was trying very hard to remember all of the house that I had seen. It was bigger than I’d thought because we returned by a different hall to the gate that led back into the courtyard. Joanna kissed me on the cheek beside the water collection pool and left, promising to send for me that evening.

I was left alone in the courtyard. I set about investigating. I climbed the stairs, which led to my hallway. There was another set of them that went up higher but the gate was locked. I wondered if it would be possible to climb up to the next balcony and if that opened to the rest of the house, probably not. I waked around my floor and figured out that all three doors probably led into rooms since I could see into them through their windows and all seemed to be closed rooms, only opening onto the courtyard.

Even if I could get to the third floor there was still the heavy metal grate over the roof. Maybe what I needed was a pry bar. The grating had to have been made in a blacksmith’s shop, possibly as one piece, but it was surely secured with something and that must be the weak point.

The first floor looked much the same. My theory was that the only way in or out of the courtyard was through the heavy metal grated door that always had a guard on the outside of it. The woman on the outside had a key. How could I find a way to convince her to open the door or drop the keys where I could reach them?

I sat down beside the small pool and considered the courtyard. The second floor was held up by a series of beautifully carved columns, they were covered with depictions of swans. There were also a fair number of plants, all set in stone pots and planters. The floor was covered in an alternating pattern of blue and white tiles. I’d never seen anything like them before.

A door opened and Sal came out from the room I’d seen her enter earlier. She was busy fastening her cloak but she paused a moment when she noticed me sitting beside the fountain.

“You alright there?” she said, her voice genuinely concerned.

“I…” For a moment I almost said I wasn’t, as if I were answering someone I knew, someone who wasn’t an enemy, someone who hadn’t just raped my brother. I forced myself back into my role. “I’m just a long way from home.”

“I’m sorry. This place will feel more familiar soon.” She left.

A short time later Tobias emerged from the room. When he saw me his face brightened and then fell, as shame crept up on him. He sat down beside me on the stone bench.

“It’s…it’s just easier if I don’t fight. I’m tired of being tied down. I suffered enough of that with the bandits.”

I felt cold and hot and sick all at the same time. I wanted to rip the heart out of every woman who’d violated him.

“Tobias, you don’t need to explain anything. I understand.”

He closed his eyes like my words hurt him. “I thought I’d never see you again Kate.”

“I’m going to get you out of here.”

“This is just some messed up dream. I wish you weren’t here. I was ready to give up and now I can’t. Not anymore.”

“The twins are both alive, Gillie’s hurt but alive and her sisters fine. Your child will be born in the spring.”

“Gods.” he took a slow steadying breath and when he raised his head I saw the old Tobias again. “What do you need?”

“Tell me everything about this place.”

In the end it turned out he didn’t know much more than me. He’d only been there a few days longer. The guard at the gate changed four times a day. A guard patrolled inside at night, usually only once very late and once very early. The door to the third floor was always locked. All the other doors on the first and second floor were locked aside from the one to Tobias’s room.

No one entered the courtyard aside from the Waters sisters, guards and sometimes servants. Everyone was let in and out by the guard on the gate. The servants only ever came in escorted by guards. He had no idea about the rest of the house, he’d never been let out into it and he’d been brought in with a bag over his head.

Our conversation was cut short by the sound of the gate opening. Ella walked in. The moment he saw her, Tobias tensed like a frightened hare.

“Tobias,” she said warmly.

“Hi Ella,” he replied with a forced smile.

She stopped in front of us, one hand resting on her hip, “Are you busy talking to your new friend or do you have time for me.”

“I can talk Ella.”

“In your room?”

He looked down, “You know you have to bring a guard.”

Something changed in her eyes, “You don’t trust me?”

“I do but Joanna made the rule and I don’t want to upset her.”

“I’m your wife and she’s not. That means you obey me not her.”

When Tobias didn’t move she grabbed his wrist and tried to tug him up. He didn’t budge. He was heavy enough that she wasn’t taking him anywhere he didn’t mean to go.

“No Ella.”

“You fucking bastard,” she struck him with her free hand faster than a coiling snake, her face a sudden mask of rage.

Tobias took the blow, letting his head turn and hunching his body. He didn’t fight back.

I leapt to my feet and shoved the woman away from my brother with all my strength. “Leave him alone.”

She moved quicker than I would have thought possible. Her punch sent me backwards. I landed hard, throwing out my right arm to catch myself and managing only to bang it painfully as I fell into the collection pool.

The water was bitterly cold. I grabbed at the side of the pool, water in my eyes. I felt someone grab me hard and then a hand on my throat. I tired to scramble at her hands but I couldn’t see and my fingers were wet.

“Ella stop!” Tobias yelled.

Something happened and she dropped me. I hit my head on the stone edge of the pool, hard. I went down and my world spun. I wasn’t sure which way was up but I kicked and felt air fill my lungs. I got my hands onto the edge of the pool and hauled myself out of the water, coughing as blood half blinded me.

When I raised my head I saw that Tobias had hauled a struggling, screaming Ella away from me. He didn’t try to stop her from hitting and clawing him, just kept a desperate grip around her waist until the guards came and helped restrain her.

Tobias knelt by my side, worriedly brushing the hair from my face. His hand came away red.

“What the hell is going on!” Boomed Joanna’s voice from the gate. Ella calmed the moment she heard her sister’s voice and went limp in the guards’ arms.

The leader of the city stormed into the courtyard. She took in the sight of me kneeling soaking wet with a head wound and a disheveled Tobias beside me, as well as her no longer struggling sister.

Her face darkened with blood, “Damn it! Who let this happen! Who let Ella into the inner courtyard alone! ”

None of the three guards dared speak.

“Who was on duty?”

The two oldest both looked towards the youngest one, a short freckled woman. Her face went pale.

Joanna stepped towards her, “Was it you?”

The woman nodded fearfully, eyes on the ground. “I…I was here on my own so there was no one to go in with Ella when she came. She…she said you gave her permission.”

“So you took my younger sister’s word over mine, even though I have specifically told every guard in this house that Ella is never to enter the inner courtyard without a guard, ever.”

“I…” the woman stuttered.

Joanna took a breath, calming herself. “Get out of my sight. I’ll deal with you later.”

She looked back at the other guards, “And you two stop standing around like idiots. One of you go find a healer before my fiancé bleeds to death on the tiles.”

One of the women darted away and with a sigh Joanna went to Ella. Ella had her eyes downcast, like a shamed child. The remaining guard had a pretty good grip on her other arm.

“Oh Ella, what was it this time,” Joanna sounded infinitely tired. “Why did you hurt Tobias?”

Ella kicked her foot against the ground, “Tobias wouldn’t come with me when I told him to, even though he’s my husband. I said the vows, he did too, so he is my husband. He has to obey me.”

“Yes he is and you’re his wife, that means that you have to take care of him. Part of that is protecting him from yourself and never being alone with him, you don’t want the same thing to happen to him that happened to that whore.”

Ella shook her head rapidly; “I won’t do that to him. You told me I can’t.”

“Good, he’s far too valuable to replace. Now why on earth did you attack Sally? You know she’s mine. You’re not allowed to touch her.”

Her face twisted into something ugly, “She attacked me. She attacked me like that whore did before I cut her up.”

Even kneeling on the floor, I felt my blood go cold.

“Kate didn’t attack you Ella?” Joanna asked me, her tone clearly suggesting she expected the answer to be no.

Before I could answer, Ella did. “She did. She pushed me!” she sounded like an angry little girl.

“No she didn’t. Now go rest. I don’t want to see you again until tomorrow. You’re banned from entering this courtyard until I say differently.”

She motioned to the guard and the woman hurriedly led Ella from the room. She came over to us and Tobias stood, helping me up. Joanna’s eyes went to him first, checking him over quickly.

“Did she hurt you anywhere other than I can see?”

He shook his head.

She finally looked at me. For a moment I saw nothing but evaluation in her eyes and then a mask fell into place. She reached for me and then thought better of it when she remembered the blood on my dress.

“Darling, you must have been so frightened. You are safe now.”

Just then, the healer hurried into the courtyard with more guards on her heels. She took one look at me before snapping, “What is she doing on her feet. We’ve got to get her to a room before she falls down.”

Before I realized it, strong hands were half carrying me away. When I was back in my room, the healer washed my forehead with hot water and gave me a strange tasting tea. It wasn’t fire flower but it dimmed my awareness of the world and made me feel floaty. I barely felt it when she took a curved needle and made tiny stitches in my forehead.

When she was done, she helped me strip off my dress and with the assistance of a maid eased me down into the warm metal tub of water. I was so dazed from the blow and the tea that I didn’t even care how red the water they washed off me was.

I barely heard the door open.

“How is she?” asked Joanna.

The healer stood, “Knocked about, frightened, and likely to scar.”

“That’s a shame, she’s got such a pretty face.

“Your lucky you’ve still got a wife at all, look at the bruises on her neck, a bit longer and she’d be dead.”

Joanna moved closed to the bath “Remember who pays you healer and don’t overstep your place.”

The healer straightened her back, “You’re welcome to hire another healer if you dislike my services, but you will have to file an official complaint with the guild first.”

“I’d rather put up with your sharp tongue than deal with that bureaucracy. Now, leave me with my wife.  I’d like to speak with her alone.”

“Don’t leave her in the tub, with the shava tea she could easily fall asleep and drown.”

“I wasn’t planning to leave her in the water.”

With a displeased look the healer left. Joanna stripped off her outer tunic and rolled up her sleeves of her dark shirt before kneeling beside the tub.

“How are you darling?”

I drew my knees up to my chest, suddenly painfully aware of how naked I was.

“My head hurts,” the words felt heavy in my mouth.

She reached over the edge of the tub and ran a hand down my arm, “You mustn’t set off Ella again, like you did today.”

I looked down at my bare knees and said what she expected me to, “Sorry.”

“Sh, I’ve already forgiven you.”

Her hand brushed my left breast and I tensed.

“I can’t stay angry with you, you’re far too beautiful.” She traced the tips of her fingers in a slow circle around the nipple. “You’ve such a lovely body.”

I jerked clumsily away from her hand, caught somewhere between fear and anger. Water sloshed over the edge of the tub and splashed onto the floor, soaking her trousers.

“You-!” she stopped herself and bit down what she was going to say next. She forced her face to soften, “You need not fear me so. You know I won’t hurt you.”

“No one’s ever touched me.”

“I’ll be gentle with you.” She straightened up, “Now let’s get you out of the water. It must be cold by now.”

It was all I could do not to cringe when she reached for me in the warm water of the tub. I laid my hands on her shoulders for fear of being dropped and she lifted me with more strength than I would have thought she possessed.

My wet body soaked her shirt and pants; I suppose she’d decided it didn’t matter if she sullied them more now. She carried me to the bed and laid me down. I reached sluggishly for a blanket the moment my naked back hit the blankets but she caught my hands, pushing them down at my sides easily.

“None of that, don’t be embarrassed. I want to see you.”

Fear coiled in my stomach. I tugged weakly to get my hands back and she easily kept them where they were, leaning over me heavily.

“Easy, I’m not going to fuck you yet. I just want a proper look.”

My face burned and rather than shame, fury sparked inside of me. She had no right, no right at all to make feel this helpless, to take anything from me that I did not freely give. I’d never wanted to kill a woman before but in that moment I did.

She must have seen something on my face because for a moment her eyes widened.

“Aren’t you a proud girl.” She pressed down harder on my wrists, “Do you think I’m overstepping my rights as your fiancé? Do you think you have the right to refuse me? Your body, your life, even your future children became mine the moment I paid silver for you. I should fuck you here and now, helpless and on your back, just to show you your place.”

I tried to struggle but the tea made my limbs heavy and I was so tired. I couldn’t get my arms free from her iron grip. She waited until I lay still beneath her and then released my wrists, “Are you done now? Will you be good now?” she asked. She sounded like she was speaking to a disobedient child and I was disturbingly reminded of the tone she used with her sister.

“Yes,” I whispered. My throat felt ragged and there were tears seeping from my eyes. I had never hated any woman as much as I hated her in that instant, not even the first bandits who’d tried to rape me. Somehow the deliberateness of her cruelty made it even worse.

“There now that wasn’t so hard.” She sat back to consider my body, lightly running her fingers over my breasts and stomach. “I shouldn’t fault you for your modesty, it suits a virgin, if indeed you really are one. You know you are beautiful, such a delicate body.”

She traced a finger over the edge of my eye, feeling the wetness between her thumb and pointer, “Don’t cry dear one. I won’t take you the first time like this, not when you’re hurt and scared.” She kissed me once on the forehead. “Now get some rest. You’ve had a long day. I’ll expect you to behave better tomorrow.”

And just like that she turned and left, the unlocked door banging behind her. I curled up as small as I could beneath the blankets and shivered violently. Pain and weariness fought to drag me down. I’m not sure which got me first.

Chapter Text

I woke to a maid bringing me a tray of food and tea. I crept from beneath the covers, my whole body sore. I ate and then dressed in the clean dress and soft slippers that had been left for me.

I went down the steps to the first floor and was just about to step out into the courtyard when I heard voices. I ducked into the shadow of hallway and looked out.

Tobias was beside the pool again, except he wasn’t alone this time. The hawkish woman from the library was sitting with him. She sat in a far more relaxed position than she had in the library, one leg crossed lazily over the other. Her long hair was loose about her shoulders and she was leaning towards Tobias. She’d just handed him a leather bound book.

“Here, I expect you to have read this by the end of the week. You’ve little enough to occupy your time so you may as well improve your mind. At least you can read, I’m surprised your family taught you, most don’t bother to do that with boys. So many women believe that a man has little use for intelligence but I won’t have my children sired or raised by a fool.”

Tobias looked down at the book listlessly, “Is it another story?”

“A history this time. My mother commissioned one of Mirror Wall before she died. You should understand the city in which you now live.”

“I’d have to see more of it than these four walls for that,” for an instant he sounded like himself again.

Kelly stiffened, “And what could possibly lie beyond these walls that you might want? You know it is not safe for a man.”

Tobias said nothing.

Kelly patted his arm, “Be content with the book for now.”

When he wouldn’t look at her, she turned his head and kissed him once lightly on the lips before standing. “You’ll be a father soon enough, by next fall surely, and then you’ll have children to help raise and it will not seem so small here anymore.”

I waited until she’d left before I went out into the courtyard. Tobias jumped a little when he saw me.

He began to say my name and then stopped himself, “Ka-Sally. How’s your head?”

I shrugged and sat down, “It hurts. I’ll live.” So did my neck. The bruises I’d seen in the looking glass were more than a little ugly; at least the dress I’d been given had a high neck.

“You shouldn’t have tried to protect me,” he lowered his voice, “you can’t be my sister in here Kate. You’ll only make things worse for us both if you try to help me.”

“How can you say that, you protected me too.”

“That’s different, she could have killed you. She wasn’t going to kill me.”

I wasn’t sure I believed that. I didn’t think anything short of a slit throat would keep Ella from killing whoever she wanted.

“She hit you.”

Something approaching anger flashed across his face, “She’s not the first woman who’s hit me or done worse. I can survive if it’s just me. I can’t survive if my little sister dies because of me.”

My heart broke a thousand times. “I’m getting us out of here. I’m not sure how yet but I’m going to.”

Just then the gate clanged and Sal came in. Her hair was ruffled as if she’d been out in the wind and her cloak was thrown over one shoulder. She smiled openly when she saw Tobias and me.

“Oh good, you two have made friends.  Toby, I’m sure the real reason you’ve been acting so glum is you are just lonely. Kelly’s always working and I can barely find time to get away from running the damn guard to see you. Honestly those city guard idiots can’t find their asses with both hands. How hard is it to make a patrol schedule?”

She leaned down to kiss him once. He responded mechanically, tilting his head to accommodate hers but keeping his hands on the bench. When she sat beside him she dropped a bundle into his lap.

“I brought you some candied fruit. You like candied fruit right? Men are supposed to like sweet things.”

He unwrapped the package listlessly but didn’t touch the contents. The sweet smell of candied peaches filled the air.

Her face fell, “You don’t like it?” She sounded like any other nervous woman courting a lover. Was she completely blind to how miserable he was?

“I’m not hungry,” he said softly, closing the bag and handing it to me.

Sal laid an arm around his shoulders, “Are you still upset about what happened yesterday? Joanna promised it wouldn’t happen again. The guard who let Ella in alone is gone now.”

She stood tugging him up with her when he didn’t reply. “Come on, let’s go to your room. I’ll make you feel better about all of this.”

He followed her with his eyes downcast, never looking back. I was left alone. Even to this day the smell of candied peaches sickens my stomach.

Having nothing else to do, I spent most of the day reading the book that Tobias had abandoned. It was a history of Mirror Wall, although probably a very romanticized one. It was all about a prophet gathering people together after the end of the old world and constructing the city.

I’d heard other stories about the old world. A lot of women in the Five Forts said our rifles, or at least the oldest ones came from then. We could make new bullets but actual rifles were almost impossible to construct without the original parts that we could seldom make ourselves. Most blacksmiths just focused on making good crossbows instead.

In the oldest stories, there were as many men as women and people didn’t live in enclaves or forts but instead big cities and towns. I never really believed that. I knew the history book I had in my hands had to be made up when it said that their city founder had been a man. River Fort might be run by a man, but as far as I could tell men had no power in any of the cities or towns outside of the Five Forts.

Near sunset one of the maids came to tell me I had to get ready for dinner. I didn’t understand what she was on about but I went back to my room with her. She gave me the finest light blue linen dress that I had ever seen. The fabric was as well woven as my best work and the dye was the brilliant blue of the summer sky. The stitching was small and delicate and had to have taken days. She helped me tug the dress on in several parts and pull tight laces in the back.

I couldn’t understand why anyone would make a dress that a woman could not put on herself. To hide the bruises on my neck she gave me a lacy white scarf and helped me arrange my hair so that the stitches on my forehead were hidden. The shoes she gave me were soft like those I’d worn all day, shoes I couldn’t run away with, at least not very far.

Joanna entered the room just as the maid was finishing,

“My dear you are the image of loveliness. If I didn't know better, I’d never believe you’d been born on a river farm. I’m sure you will make me proud tonight. You’re to be on my arm for an important dinner, the captain of a boat from one of the Five Forts has come to talk about trade.”

It took everything in me to keep my face blank, “How should I act.”

“Pretty and quiet, you’re my conceiver wife. No one expects you to say much.”

She took my arm firmly and led me from the room as if I didn’t know how to walk on my own. This time when we went back through the house I was carefully to memorize every turn we made. I needed to be able to find that inner courtyard again in an instant.

The sun was low on the horizon when we came to a large room, filled with comfortable chairs. I nearly gasped the moment I saw Jen. She was talking to Kelly and wearing the same clothes she’d worn that festival night. I saw Sarah and one other member of the River Queen’s crew to her left. They were both unarmed.

Sal and Kelly were in the room but not Ella. The moment I came into her view in the doorway Jen’s eyes grew wide. Kelly turned to see what she was looking at.

Kelly hurried foreword. “Captain Hart, this is my eldest sister Joanna, the head of Mirror Wall and her new wife Sally.”

Jen bowed once, her eyes never leaving me. Joanna offered a far more shallow bow and I clumsily copied hers.

Joanna smiled and gave Jen a conspiratorial look, “She is beautiful isn’t she. Most new brides are, just don’t look at her too much or she’ll become vain.”

Jen laughed and it sounded false, “Forgive me. I’ve been on the river for several weeks and have forgotten my manners.”

“I’m sure a few nights in civilized company beneath my roof as a guest will return them. Now come along to dinner, my cook is a very temperamental woman and will not be pleased if we let her fine soup go cold.”

She led the way into a long high roofed room that reminded me of the great hall at Ash fort, except it only had one table in it and the three walls were covered in fine tapestries. The other wall had several large glass windows and we could see out into the city.

I was seated beside Joanna with Jen to my right. So close to her I could see the faint freckles on her cheek, if only I could find some way to talk to her.

Servants brought bowls of some kind of squash soup. My stomach was a knot inside of me but I managed to eat a few bites.

Kelly began to ask Jen about the wool yields of River Fort but Joanna gave her a sharp look, “Honestly Kelly, our mother raised us better. We do not discuss business at the table.”

There was a moment of silence and then she turned to Jen, “Are you married?”

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“I find that hard to believe of an important captain like you, unless you’re not as successful as you're putting yourself forward as being. Surely you can afford a conceiver or kindler’s bridal price, if not that of a husband.”

“Perhaps I could here but in the Five Forts. No one in River Fort pays a groom or bride price to their intended’s family, although ungifted do bring dowries into marriages. I’m courting a conceiver, but whether she accepts my suit or not is her decision alone.” She managed to keep her face mostly blank as she spoke. 

“How quant, I suppose such romanticism is possible in a place like the Five Forts, I have often heard that gifted are far more common there than elsewhere.”

“I cannot speak to that, only that our marriage customs may be slightly different from those here. How did you and your wife meet?”

“I paid a bridal price to a farm family.”

Jen looked at me, “What family are you from? I know most of the one’s along the river.

I froze for a second. She’d given me a chance to speak, I had to say something useful, something that would tell her where the courtyard was.

“The Kellers, you wouldn’t know them, their farm is at the heart of a valley to the east.” Surely Jen would realize I meant that I was being kept in a room at the heart of the house on the eastern side of the building.

“I see. How are you finding Mirror Wall?”

I pretended to blush, “I’m very happy, but I miss the open sky, it’s hard to become accustomed to living within brick walls, even if I have a courtyard to sit in.”

The servants brought the next dish, this time fish in a sauce that tasted like the last of the seasons dill. My stomach hurt worse. Sal asked Jen about the fort guard at River Fort and Jen talked, seemingly easily, about how River Fort’s guard was made up half of locals and half hired mercenaries.

“And the guards here?” she asked.

“About the same, half local, half traveling mercenaries. One of my mother’s greatest mistakes was letting the city guard unionize just like every other damn trade group in this city. At least they are selective and will only let locals into their guild. Guild guards are reliable but expensive. To make up the difference we hire mercenaries from outside the city.”

The fish changed to a sweet tart. Normally I loved nothing more than sweet things but I could barely touch it. I sipped carefully at my cider and kept silent like I’d been told to.

When the meal finished Joanna turned to Jen, “Why don’t you and I retire to my sitting room, there will be stronger drink and a fire to keep away the chill. It is a better place to talk. We can talk trade tomorrow but tonight I’d like to simply learn more about the Five Forts.

Joanna headed for the door motioning to Sal to do something with me.

Jen paused once she was in the hallways. “Your wife will not be joining us?”

“Why would she?”

Jen shrugged. “I do not know the customs here but in the Five Forts, usually spouses are included in major business negotiations. My mother always said that it is best to speak to a woman and her wife at the same time, lest the evening after you think you’ve made a deal, her wife undoes it with a few words spoke softly in bed.”

“And you think I’m that easily swayed by the words of a pretty woman?”

“I meant nothing,” said Jen.

Joanna shrugged, “Then I’ll take no offense by it. Perhaps Sally can join us tomorrow night.”

One of the guards took me back to the inner courtyard. There was no sign of Tobias but the door to his room was closed, so I guessed that he was with one of the Water’s sisters. I ached to pace the courtyard restlessly but I feared that the guards might report my actions to Joanna.

I went back to the room that I hated to call my own and attempted and failed to get the damn dress off. It was laced far too tightly in the back for me to easily free myself. A bored looking young servant appeared and with deft fingers helped free me from the laces. She offered me a white nightgown and I tugged it on.

“Do you want me to comb your hair ma’am?” she asked blankly.

“It’s alright, I’ll do it.”

She left me and I tugged out all the pins that had been placed in my hair so I could brush it. A deep weariness set in. I lay down on the bed for just a moment and sleep took me.

I woke to the soft touch of a hand on my shoulder,

“Sally.”

I blinked my eyes open, the room was lit only by a lantern set on the table.  Joanna was stretched out beside me on the bed.

“You were very good tonight. I’m proud of you.”

“Proud?”

“You carried yourself well. I think that poor boat captain wanted you desperately.”

I sat up, scooting back against the headboard and away from her, “She seemed nice.”

“Of course she was. Women from the Five Forts always have manners. They act like they're so much better than anyone else but they treat outsiders like crap and guard their men and gifted jealousy, just like anyone else.”

“Oh,” I was afraid I’d say something that would betray me.

She leaned closer, “So are you really from the Keller family from at the heart of a valley to the East Valley or was that just a pretty lie for the river captain?”

I froze for a moment. I had no idea how well she knew area. “Do you really care?”

“Any woman would want to know where her wife is from.” She leaned over me resting her hands on my arms.

“You never even asked my last name before now.”

She pulled away, “Aren't you reproachful tonight.” She rolled onto her back beside me on the bed, “I don’t suppose there is much point in you telling me anyway. I don’t know the East Valley, or really anything more than a day’s ride from the river. All the trade that comes into Mirror Wall is from the river. When I was a little girl my mother let me go up the river on my Aunts boat once, we went as far as River Fort, I saw all the river towns.

“I was never allowed to go again though. My mother got paranoid after the first assassination attempt against her and she kept my sisters and I as close as she could. Now she’s dead but I can’t risk leaving the city, even in my sister’s hands. Sal’s too dumb to be trusted with anything but the city guard and Kelly’s sly enough that she might decide I’m not really necessary if I’m gone too long. As for Ella, well, Sal would let her run wild and Kelly would lock her up like an animal.”

I knew better than to say anything about that. I couldn’t get over the strangeness of her talking to me, as if I really were her wife. She seemed to think that lying together like this was completely normal and not terrifying for me.

She stroked my arm almost lazily, “Did you have sisters?”

“A few.”

“Then you know what it is like. I’m sure you miss them.”

“Yes.”

“They are lost to you but you have mine now. I know Ella frightened you but Kelly and Sal are good company. Once the River Fort people leave you’ll start eating your meals with all of us most nights, it will help with the loneliness.”

Just then we heard a loud commotion and yelling coming from somewhere in the house. Joanna jumped up, “Stay.”

She hurried from the room, collecting her sword belt from the chair as she went. I hadn’t even noticed. I had to remember in case she did it again. I had potentially been less than four steps from snatching it up and turning the blade against her.

I followed her out the door and down the darkened hall. The commotion was coming from outside the courtyard gate. Joanna strode across the courtyard. Just beyond her I could see three guards through the gate. Two of them had one of the crew, Sarah, by the shoulders.

“What the hell is going on?” snarled Joanna as the guards opened the gate for her. I hung back behind one of the courtyard pillars so I could listen and see but not necessarily be noticed. Sarah did though because she caught my eye and winked.

“We caught her skulking around the courtyard gate,” said the oldest guard, the one who wasn’t restraining Sarah.

“I wasn’t skulking. What kind of place it this where you mistreat guests like this.” Her voice was slurred as if from heavy drinking, except I knew that Sarah never drank. I’d heard people comment about it at festivals.

Joanna motioned the guards to let go of Sarah, “I’m sure my guards meant you no insult but you are in a restricted part of the house used only by my immediate family and myself, what are you doing here?”

“This isn’t the servants quarters?”

“No, obviously it is not. Why were you trying to go there?”

“A pretty maid said she wanted to see me later, said to come to her room.”

Joanna looked less than impressed, “Did she actually say that or did you infer it?”

“What does infer mean?”

Joanna rubbed at her temple. “Never mind. Which maid was it?”

“Brunet one.”

“Most of them are brunet.”

“Well then the pretty one.”

“If you can’t even remember the woman’s name I doubt she wanted you in her bed. In fact I will thank you to kindly not trouble any of my household staff. There are plenty of brothels in this town, if you’re seeking company go to one of them.” She nodded to the guards, “Kindly escort her back to the guest quarters.”

When they were gone Joanna leaned against the courtyard wall wearily. “And I told you to stay Sally.”

I stepped out into the courtyard, “I was curios.”

“I should teach you what happens when you disobey me, but I don’t have the energy tonight. Go to bed. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

She left and the guards locked the gate after her.

 

I woke to the sound of the door slowly opening. When I looked up a plain young servant came in with a tray of food. She set it down along with clothes for the day and left without a word, not even responding when I thanked her.

I got up and dressed. As far as I could tell there were no clothes kept in the room. Every night I was left with nothing but a nightgown. Joanna must have thought I was still likely to attempt to escape. Even the day shoes I was given were soft soled.

I had just finished the bread and honey I’d been brought when I heard a commotion in the courtyard and hurried out. I went out onto the corridor balcony to look down..

Ella and Sal were angrily facing off while Tobias hung back out of the way between two of the pillars. Two guards were slowly edging towards Ella, while looking towards Sal for approval.

“He’s my husband and I brought a guard, why can’t I have him?” whined Ella.

“Because he’s my husband too and you hit him. Maybe Joanna forgives you without consequences but I don’t. You don’t get to touch Tobias again until I’m sure you’ll behave.”

Ella scowled, “I’ll be good, I promise.”

“You’ve promised that before. Goddess only know how many times I’ve had to cover things up for you when you failed.”

“I didn’t mean too.”

Sal crossed her arms. “You never do and that’s why I don’t trust you. I don’t want you in this part of the house alone or accompanied until I say so.”

“I’ll tell Joanna.”

“Go do that, she’ll back me up.”

Ella tensed like she was going to attack her sister but the guards were ready. They each laid a heavy hand on her shoulders. Ella gave them both a furious look and then snarled at Sal before turning sharply to walk out.

“This isn’t the end of it.”

“I know Ella, honey, I know.”

Ella slammed the gate thunderously behind herself and the two guards followed her wordlessly.

Sal crossed her arms and watch her go. I couldn’t see her face from where I stood.

When she turned back around she had a forced smile. She held out her arms to Tobias, “It’s all right sweetheart. I won’t let her hurt you again, you’re safe.”

Tobias went to her reluctantly. “Joanna will let her back in.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” she hugged Tobias and kissed him on the forehead, although she had to stand on her toes to do that. “Come on, let me help you forget about this.”

Tobias let himself be led away.

When I went down to the courtyard I found the same book abandoned again and read for the next hour or so. Some time later, when Sal came back out she paused a moment.

“Hey, you doing okay? I heard you took a pretty nasty gash to the head the other day.”

I pushed my bangs back to show her the stitches that were healing nicely if the bedroom mirror was any indication.

Her frown deepened, “Damn. I’m sorry. Ella should have never been alone in your courtyard, or in the courtyard at all as far as I’m concerned. Listen, woman to woman, I need you to tell me if she tries to come in here again. I’m not sure the guards will keep her out and Tobias is so afraid of her I’m worried he won’t tell me if she does.

“I will,” I promised.

“Good. I knew I was going to like you. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a little much that Joanna’s keeping you locked up in here. You’re a conceiver not a man or a kindler and your proper place is helping run the household. When I think the time is right I’ll have a word with her. Surely she’ll let you out once your pregnant.”

“Thank you,”

She was making it harder to hate her. Things would have been much simpler if she were a complete a monster like Joanna and Ella.

She left and shortly after Tobias came out of the room. He stretched and winced.

I set down the book. “You okay?”

“I think I pulled something in my back.”

“She hurt you?”

He shrugged and then winced, “More like I re-injured something from the bandits.  They kept me tied up a lot.”

“Sit down, let me see if I can help.” I was by no means a talented healer and could barely close cuts but even my gift was strong enough to ease the pain of torn or strained muscles. Easing muscle pain was one of the first things the fort healer had taught me to do before she decided there was no point in teaching me much more.

He sat on the bench facing away from me. I felt him flinch when I laid the palms of my hands against his linen clad back.

“Tobias?”

“It’s okay.”

I closed my eyes and focused on the warmth of skin beneath his shirt, the rush of the blood beneath it, the feel of the muscles and tendons. The familiar heat of my gift came to my hands.

I pressed hard with my fingers, finding the sprained muscle that ran through his back and shoulder, repairing the damage as I used my hands to ease the knots. I’d done the same countless times before for family and friends, especially my mother who’s back injury had never truly healed after the riding accident that forced her from the for guard.

I leaned close enough so he’d hear when I spoke, “Jen and her crew are here. Sarah was at the gate last night. They know where we are. Be ready, they could come for us at any moment.”

“Thank the gods,” he whispered.

He shrugged his shoulders as the pain eased. I could feel the familiar tiredness at the back of my eyes that always came with even the simplest healing.

I was so focused I didn’t hear the gate open, although Tobias did, suddenly tensing like a frightened animal.

“Well aren’t you two cozy,” said Joanna as she entered, “you've barely known each other three days and you’re acting like close as kin.” Her tone was playful but her eyes weren’t. She sensed something, although she wasn’t sure what.

I froze but Tobias was ready, “Actually we think we might be. We’ve compared family names and we may be cousins.

“Really?” Joanna looked at me instead of him.

“We’re from opposite ends of East Valley.” I said quickly. “Most of the valley is kin of one sort or another.”

“I’m just so glad to have someone from home, someone who understands,” He kept his eyes downcast as he spoke. It was unsettling to see him acting so demurely.

“That would explain the resemblance,” said Joanna. “It does make me wonder how inbred that valley is though. No wonder, considering how poorly they guard their men and gifted.”

She laid a hand on my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek, “ Now I can’t stay long. I just came to bring you a gifted before tonight and then I’ve got business to attend to.”

She pressed a small wooden box into my hands. When I opened it I found a delicate silver hair clip with blue opal stones set in it. I’d only ever seen silver work so fine brought up the river by the boats. No one in the Five Forts could have made it.

“It was my mother’s but it wouldn’t be proper for my sisters or I to wear it. It may as well adorn you.  When I know I can trust you to treat things properly, I’ll let you wear the rest of her jewelry.”

I held the silver work carefully in my hands, even I knew what the swirls and stones meant, “Your mother was a conceiver?”

Something odd passed over her face. “Technically I suppose but in no other way. She was never weak the way most conceivers are. She married my gene mother, the City Leader when she was fairly young. When my gene mother was assassinated, while my birth mother was still pregnant with Ella, she seized control of the city, executed her wife’s killers and ruled single handedly for the rest of her life. I don’t really remember my gene mother. Perhaps that’s for the best, Mom always said she was a fool.”

She straightened her back, “It’s all in the past now anyway. Wear that hair clip clip tonight,” and then she left.

The moment she was gone Tobias whispered, “she suspects.”

“I know, I’ll try to tell Jen she needs to act tonight,”

That night a maid came and helped me into another linen dress with all its laces in the back, this time green. She gave me slippers with harder soles than the ones I was given to wear in the courtyard. They were still not fit for a city street. I twisted up my hair and caught it with the clip.

When I glanced in the fine looking glass on the wall, I barely recognized the woman looking back at me, elegant and delicate. I looked like a girl out of a story, some heroine in a tower waiting for her ungifted lover to rescue her. I hated it

With my hair up I could see the curve of my neck and the dark bruises that had yet to fade. The maid fussed around me, adjusting the collar of the dress and tying lace to hide the marks.

Joanna met me at the gate and took my arm to lead me to the receiving room. Everyone from the night before was there. Jen bowed to Joanna and me, her face emotionless when I entered. When I glanced at Joanna at my side I saw that she was watching her carefully.

We went in to dine and I was seated between Joanna and Jen. The meal passed largely without incident. I watched for a chance to somehow signal to Jen that our time was running out.

I only had a few chances to speak. I was so nervous I could barely eat but I forced myself. The meal was over before I found another chance to talk to Jen. Joanna again invited Jen to the sitting room. This time she told me to come along.

The sitting room was smaller and a warm fire was already burning. Joanna sat on a small couch and motioned me to sit beside her. I did and she laid an arm heavily over my shoulders. Jen and Sarah sat across from us.

A servant brought small glasses of a sweet peach liquor. I drank carefully, it vaguely reminded me of something made with apples at Ash Fort. Joanna took a box from the table and set about tapping something sweet smelling into a pipe.

“Do you smoke tobacco?” she asked Jen.

Jen shook her head, “No, it doesn’t grow well in the area around the forts and it is too expensive to trade for from the South. A few of my crew will buy it for themselves when were far south but there’s not enough market for it to waist cargo space when we go all the way to the coast, not when we can buy salt.”

I’d seen some of her crew smoke a few times, but paid it little mind always assuming it was a river sailor habit since I’d never seen anyone outside of River Fort do it.

“There are farms a bit farther east from here who grow a hardier variety. We could see if they’d be interested in selling some of it north instead of south, through the city with a commission of course.”

“That would be worth looking into."

"I'll send word."

I could feel her stroking my arm and fought very hard not to react as I quietly sipped at my drink. She tugged me over and kissed me once, almost affectionately on the side of my mouth.

Jen bit at her lip, the way she always did when she was scared or angry. The moment she realized what she was doing, she stopped but Joanna had already seen something.

“Sally, can you bring me that box from the mantelpiece,” she asked me. I wasn’t sure why she was asking me when a servant had just left the room and there was a guard by the door but I stood up and went to the mantelpiece, lifted up the box and started back. I tripped over something, I would only later realized that Joanna had stuck out her leg deliberately.

“Kate!” Jen moved quickly enough to catch me, nearly upturning the table between us and saving me from hitting it. She froze the instant she realized what had passed her lips.

“I knew it!” snarled Joanna. She moved swiftly grabbing my wrist and hauling me away from Jen and motioning the guard foreword.

“Keep them here. I’m going to have a word with my wife.”

I tried to struggle but she had my wrist twisted painfully behind my back and dragged me out the door before I could get my feet under me. The study was only a few stumbling steps down the hall. She shoved me in and I hit the floor hard.

“You know her, you fucking little whore you know her!” she hissed. "Your name is Kate isn't it!"

I scrambled away from her, my back hitting a heavy wooden desk. “No, I don’t. I’ve never seen her before she came here.”

She stormed towards me, “I’m not blind or stupid. You were never a farm girl, you’re from the Five Forts aren’t you, you and the boy both”

“No.”

“You’re a goddamn plant aren’t you? You’re are here to steal the boy back. Here to take what belongs to me and mine” She grabbed me by the throat and dragged me to my feet, slamming me against the desk as I desperately clawed at her arms. “That’s not fucking going to happen.”

Her hand tightened, “My guards are going to kill that handsome river captain of yours and the filthy liars she brought into my house. I’ll send my guards to slaughter ever member of her crew down to the cabin girl.”

She shook me, “Then I’m finally going to have you like the little bitch you are. I’ll get a child on you and after its born, I’ll give you to Ella, let her do worse to you than she ever did to that whore.”

My hand scrambled backwards and closed on the heavy handle of a letter opener.  She never saw it coming when I jammed it up under her ribs with all my strength, just like Tali had taught me to. Hot blood poured over my hands and I lost my grip on the blade.

Joanna made a sharp gasping sound and stumbled away from me, clutching at the desk before she fell. She hit the floor shuddering as the pool of blood beneath her grew. I stumbled back, my hands trembling violently. I’d slaughtered sheep before, sharp clean cuts across the jugular; this was absolutely nothing like that.

The door to the study crashed open and Jen burst in, a bloodied sword in her hand. It wasn’t hers but one of the heavy two handed blades the guards used.

“Kate!”

Her eyes widened at the sight of me and Joanna, who had gone still on the floor. Then she grabbed my wrist, “Come one, we have get out of here. Sarah’s gone to find the others.”

“Wait. Tobias!”

“Where.”

I looked back into the hall, took a moment to orient myself as an odd intense calm came over me. “This way,”

over me. “This way,”

We ran through the hall and down the steps. I nearly barreled into a maid just as she was stepped through a doorway. She made a small frantic cry and ducked back into the room she’d come from.

“Keep going, she’ll probably hide,” snapped Jen and we kept running. Two more turns finally brought us to the gate of the inner courtyard. The guard leaning against the gate didn’t see Jen coming. She never had a chance to draw her blade before Jen stabbed her in the gut, rushing foreword to cover her mouth with her hand and muffle her cry.

Jen twisted the blade and the woman went limp. She slowly eased the body down, snatching the keys from her belt. She dragged the body out of the way as I tried the keys until I found the one that unlocked the gate door. We did it all with barely a sound.

Sal and Tobias were in the courtyard. At the sight of us Sal drew her blade and shoved Tobias behind her. “Run, lock your door and don’t come out no matter what.”

Jen lunged at her and Sal raised her blade to block her. They met with a savage grace, all quick brutal thrusts and crashing steel.

Tobias darted around the far side of the pool to get away from the fight. He’d just reached me when Ella came in through the gate. She had a sword in her hands, the one I hadn’t thought to take from the dead guard. There was an ugly, almost gleeful, smile on her face, her perfect white teeth were bared.

Tobias stepped in front of me as the mad woman raised her blade.

“Ella, you have to put the sword down. You know Joanna doesn’t let you have a real one.” His voice was as even and calm as if he were speaking to a frightened horse.

“Oh, she won’t get mad this time. Not if I’m protecting you. Get out of my way husband, I’m going to see that girls insides.”

Tobias started walking foreword, his hands crossed to protect himself if she struck. “Ella, you're confused again. Drop the blade before you hurt someone or Joanna will be angry.”

Slowly I eased around to the right. I didn’t have a weapon but I picked up one of the potted plants.

Ella had forgotten me, her eyes now on Tobias. She clutched the sword. “No, it is mine. You can’t take it from me.”

Tobias didn’t stop. He got close enough to reach for her arm.

She moved back before he could catch it, “You fucking bastard.” She lashed out and caught his arm, making a long red slash down the length of it.

I threw the pot at her face and it hit her hard, sending her stumbling backwards She dropping her sword on the ground. The pot shattered on the tiles, sending fragments of pottery and dirt everywhere.

I lunged for the sword as Ella leapt at Tobias, her hands going for his throat. She’d miscalculated though, even beaten down and injured, Tobias was still a grown man and stronger than her. He caught her and in one violent motion and flung her away from himself.

She slammed against one of the courtyards stone pillars, the one with the swan carved into it. The back of her head cracked against the bird’s beak and came away with an ugly smear of blood and other things. She fell to the ground lifeless, her too wide eyes unseeing.

Tobias stood there for a moment in shock. Across the courtyard I heard a cry of pain as Jen’s sword finally caught Sal in the side. She slumped to a crouching position as Jen knelt over her. She tried weakly to raise her sword but Jen stepped on the blade.

For an instant they locked eyes. I thought Sal might beg but she didn’t. I thought Jen might spare her but she didn’t. In one quick motion Jen brought her sword across the woman’s throat. Dark red arterial blood stained Jen’s fine grey shirt.

When she turned to me and Tobias there was something cold, almost peaceful about her face. She stepped away from the growing pool of blood.

“Come on, the others should be waiting in the stable yard.”

I took up the fallen sword and led the way, since I knew the house best. We saw no more live guards as we wound through the hallway, although we passed two bodies slumped in their cloaks.

The stable yard was empty save for shadows but the moment we stepped out a low whistle brought up Sarah and the other two sailors from the River Queen. We had to step over a woman’s body to slip out through the side gate she’d opened.

The moment we were out on the cold dark streets I heard another whistle. I looked up and saw Tali’s outline on a nearby rooftop. She lowered down a rope ladder and we sent up Tobias first, then me, with the sword shoved into my belt so I could keep it.

She led us across the roof and then a short leap to another and another on the narrow alleys of the city before we climbed back down and ran along the dark streets, where Cali was waiting. Far behind us I could hear an alarm being raised.

We ran like the very hounds of the underworld were on our heels. No one stopped as we bolted through the sleeping dockyard. The River Queen was already pushing off when we reached her. I leapt the distance over the dark water and was pulled into Mel’s arms as the rest of the group followed.

“Kate,”

All around us the crew was raising the sails. The clamor in the city got louder and louder as we reached mid river and the faded with the lights of the city as we turned the bend.

“You’re bleeding.”

“It’s not mine.”

“Good.”

In the dim light of the moon I saw Tobias standing by the railing watching the river. He was clutching his arm. I pulled away from Mel to go to him.

“Tobias?”

He turned to me and wavered a bit on his feet, “Did we get away? Are we safe?”

“Yes, were safe now. We’re going home.” Well, we would be as soon as we started going north again instead of south. I tore the hem of the ruined dress and set about making a quick bandage for his arm. The healer would be able to do better but she was tending an even worse looking wound on Sarah’s leg.

Tobias stood there as I worked. When I had the bandage on, I closed my hands over his arm and called up my gift. I felt the warmth of my own heartbeat, the blood flowing through my fingers. I felt the blood in Tobias’s veins, his heart pushing it. I reached out to find the broken skin and veins of his arm and slowed the bleeding before I began to knit them back together.

A wave of dizziness took me before I could do much. He caught me with his good arm.

“We can’t go home Kate, not until we rescue Lily.”

“Who?” I said wearily, feeling the deep exhaustion that always followed using my gift for healing.

“The kindler girl the bandits took from the river farm.”

He didn’t get a chance to say more. The healer finally bustled over to see to him and Jen was suddenly at my side. The last thing I remembered was lying down alone on her bed in the captain’s cabin.

Chapter Text

I woke to the familiar rocking of the River Queen. I was afraid to open my eyes, afraid that it was all a dream, that I would wake back in that dark little room with a locked door.  The sound of the door opening and closing snapped my eyes open.

Jen stood in the door, a heavy ceramic jug in her hand. I sat up and then reached quickly to pull up the covers when I realized I was naked. Someone had gotten my dress off the night before. I vaguely recalled the boat healer helping me tug off the blood stained garment.

Jen averted her eyes, “I brought warm water. I thought you might want to wash.” She set down the jug on the shelf by the bed and lifted down a tin basin from a hook on the wall. She poured the warm water into the basin and hot steam rose up before she added cooler water from another jug that was already there. “I’ll go,”

“No, stay please,” I said softly.

She sat down on the edge of the bed.

I pushed the covers away and stood. My nipples tightened at the chill air of the room. I almost wished I hadn’t looked down. There was dried blood all over my hands and arms and some on my chest and stomach where it had soaked through my dress.

A hundred kinds of hurt and weariness passed over Jen’s face, if my nakedness register at all she didn’t show it. Her eyes lingered on the marks on my throat. “Did Joanna do that to you? Was she the only one who hurt you?”

Wearily I knelt in the tub of water and began to use a cloth to scrub at the dried blood starting with my face.

“Ella did this to my neck. She went into a rage when I protected Tobias from her. She tried to strangle me but she never did anything else. As for Joanna, she never had the chance to rape me, thought she came close. I’m glad I killed her but it cost me something and I don’t like it.”

The blood wasn’t coming away easily, not now that it had dried. Jen knelt beside the tub. She took the cloth from my shaking hand and set about quickly and effectively scrubbing my shoulders and chest.

“Killing always costs you something, especially the first time. I was only twelve the first time I took a life.”

I looked up at her, “What?”

“It was the first year my aunt brought me on the River Queen. We went all the way to the coast. River pirates boarded us just outside of Gillian City. My aunt gave me her dagger, shoved me behind some crates and told me to hide.

“One of the pirates stumbled over me. She had a sword in her hand and raised it ready to stab me. When she saw that I was just a girl, she hesitated. I didn’t. I stabbed her under the ribs with the dagger. It took a long time for her die. She didn’t stop making sounds until the battle for the boat was over; just lay there on the deck clutching at the dagger until she was still.

“My aunt said I did right. That the woman would have surly killed me if I hadn’t killed her first, that she was a pirate and had forfeited her life the moment she boarded our boat. Sometimes I still remember the confusions in her eyes when she saw me. Whatever she was, she wasn’t a woman who could have thoughtlessly killed a child and she died because of it.”

“You’ve killed others.” It was a statement not a question.

“Yes, to protect the River Queen and her crew and now for you and Tobias.”

“Does it ever get any easier?”

“More familiar at least. I’ve never killed a woman who didn’t draw on me first, at least not before that guard last night. I’ll answer for all of it when I cross the veil.”

Jen finished with scrubbing me and carefully poured a bowl of warm water over my head before rubbing some sweet smelling soap into her hands and gently scrubbing at my hair. I relaxed into her calming touch.

The sound of a lot of familiar raised voices drifted into the cabin. Suddenly the door banged open.

“Damn it I will talk to her!”

Tobias froze in the doorway as he took in the sight of me naked in the basin and Jen kneeling beside me. The anger twisting his face melted into surprise and embarrassment. Men tend to be awkward about nudity in a way that women never are. I suppose it is because their bodies are so different from most of the people around them.

“Oh…” He took one quick step back and slammed the door behind him.

Jen seemed untroubled as she reached for the water pitcher and poured more over me. “I should probably go talk to him. He’s been raving about going after the kidnapped kindler girl since he woke up.”

“We’re not?”

“I need to take you and Tobias home, your family has been suffering long enough and we have to turn the boat soon before winter sets in and the river freezes. We’re less than a days sailing from where two forks join together again, we can take the East one back up above Mirror Wall without ever passing the city.”

I stood, shivering in the cool air of the cabin, “We’re just going to leave a young girl to those monsters? They’ll do everything to her that they did to Tobias.”

Jen looked down as she handed me a pile of clothes, “They probably already have Kate. I can’t risk endangering my crew further in an attempt to find a girl who is not even kin.”

“She’s Sarah’s kin by marriage, just like the baby. That whole family died because Sarah’s sister knew Tobias.” I pulled on pants and a shirt that Jen had laid out for me.

“I know. That doesn’t change my duty though.”

She went to the door and called in the first mate, Helen, as well as Sarah and Tobias.

Tobias came in glaring at Helen. Sarah followed, carrying the baby in a sling. The Walker sisters came in with them even though Jen hadn’t asked for them. Jen gave them an ugly look but they just fell in around me, as if reclaiming space. They weren’t going to be left out of this.

“All right, we’re going to have this out now so no one can say later that they weren’t heard. Tobias, I want you to tell me exactly why you think we can find the kindler girl the bandits took.” Jen reminded me a little of her father standing like that, straight backed and distant. If she hadn’t fallen in love with the river she might well have made a fine successor for fort leader.

Tobias wasn’t impressed, “Her name’s Lily. The bandits killed her family because her stepmother recognized me. The bandits kept her with me in the hold of their boat. After they burned the farm, they took us downriver a few days to hideout they have up at the head of a small tributary. I think I can recognized it if I see it again. I was above deck when the boat left the river to go up to it. They blindfolded me but didn’t do a very good job of it and I could see out from under it. I saw a huge red cliff with a rock formation shaped like a spire at the top it before we turned.

“The God’s Watchtower,” said Jen, “I know it.”

“The hideout is small, a couple buildings right up close to the water but half hidden by a rock overhang. We were there one night and in the morning they took me upriver by horse three days to the city where they sold me."

“They kept Lily in the hideout, I overheard them saying that they thought she was too young for any well off brothel or family to buy her, probably any river farm either. They were going to try to take her up into the hills, to one of the more desperate enclaves. She’s probably still there. I know I can find the hideout again. We have to reach her before they sell her into some well defended enclave and we can’t get her out.”

Jen nodded and looked to Sarah, “Say your piece, I know your waiting too.”

“She’s my kin captain, by marriage, if not blood. She was my sister’s stepdaughter. I wasn’t there in time for my sister, I at least owe her surviving family what help I can give.”

“I understand. And you Kate?” Jen turned to me.

“I don’t know her but I know what it is to be carried off and hurt because you are gifted. No one should have to suffer that. I was rescued before I gave up hope, this girl needs to be too.”

“Anyone else got anything to say?”

Helen stepped foreword, “I feel as bad about the girl as anyone else captain but we’re probably less than a week or two from the first freeze, I can feel it and when that comes it’s only a matter of time before the river starts locking up. We’re already farther south than we should be at this time of year if we want to get back safely. If we go looking for that girl, there’s a good chance we’ll have to spend the winter in dry dock in an unfamiliar city, far too close to the new enemies we’ve made. I’ve a family of my own back in River Fort, I want to get back to them.”

Jen stood there, hands at her side, biting her lip. She realized what she was doing and stopped before she spoke again.

“I’ve heard what you all have to say. As the captain of the River Queen I have to put the boat and her crew before my personal feelings. We left the Five Forts with the mission of rescuing Kate and Tobias, we have them safely on board now. I cannot ask the crew to take on the danger of an armed raid against a bandit stronghold for the sake of a girl who’s a stranger to us and may not even still be there."

“Then I’ll go alone,” snapped Tobias  “I’ll die before I leave that girl to those daughters of bitches.”

Helen pushed away from the wall where she’d been leaning, “And just how do you think you’re going to get to shore?”

Tobias edged towards the door. “I’ll swim if I have to!”

“And freeze to death in the frigid water? No, you won’t.”

“Are you going to stop me?”

“I’ll have you tied up and chucked in the hold if I have to.”

“Do that and you’re no better than the bandits!” He clenched his hands into fists and stood to his full height.

Helen barely reached his shoulders but she didn’t back down. “Your mother and fiancés won’t think that when we bring you home safely.”

“No!” he bared his teeth.

I moved to his side and glared at Helen. Hell would freeze over before I let anyone bind him again.

“Wait!” snapped Jen. “No one is tying up anyone, not on my boat, not when we fly the flag of the Five Forts. We will talk about this like civilized people.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” said Tobias. “I’m going.”

“I’m going with him,” said Sarah.

“I’m not letting him out of my sight again,” I added.

“My sisters and I go where Kate goes,” said Tali, finally speaking up after remaining silent the whole conversation.

Jen glared at her, “Have you forgotten you signed a contract with River Fort, mercenary?”

Tali shrugged, “We’ll forfeit our remaining pay and winter shelter, we owe Kate a far greater duty than the forts.”

Jen’s eyes widened in recognition. She looked to me pleadingly and I held her gaze calmly. Her shoulders slumped in hurt and surprise.

“You’ll set us on shore then?” asked Tobias.

Jen bit at her lip, “I can’t just leave you and Kate. You’re the reason we’re here.”

“Then take us as far as the bandits hideout at least,” I said.

“You know I can’t let you go into that kind of danger alone.”

“Come with us then.”

“I…” She looked down and then slowly straightened up, “I’m with you then, duty be damned. I won’t let you face those bitches alone.”

“Captain,” said Helen quietly, “you can’t drag the entire crew into this madness. They’ve got families back at River Fort, they signed on for a rescue mission not a vendetta.”

“Then I’ll ask for volunteers, we’ll go part of the way over land to the hideout. No woman who doesn’t want to fight has to. I’ll make you acting captain the moment I set foot on shore.”

Helen’s lined face tightened but she nodded, “If you can convince enough of the crew to follow you, I won’t speak against your plan.”

“Gather them then”

We all went out onto the deck and Helen called for the crew to gather. When she had everyone’s attention she began.

“I know that plenty of you have noticed that were coming up on the curve for the alternate Mirror Wall fork. We’re not turning and we’re not going back yet.”

An unhappy murmur rushed through the crew. Jen gave them a moment and then raised her hand for silence. “I know as well as any of you how long we have until the first frost. I know you’ve got families you want to get back to and it’s for the sake of those families that we have to keep going. Tobias knows where their hideout is and we’re going to rescue the kindler girl they stole from the river farm.

“Those daughters of bitches bandits attacked us on our own roads. They killed our ungifted and kidnapped a conceiver and a man. If we let them get away with it, they’ll attack next season. If others hear that the Five Forts are weak, there is no telling what kind of trouble we might face. We have to protect our wives and husbands, sons and daughters. We have to show the world just what happens to those who attack the Five Forts.”

There was a nodding of heads. Jen smiled, she knew she had them.

“The turn for the hideout is two days sailing away, give or take. Sharpen your blades, say the proper prayers and get ready. We’ll be stopping upriver and approaching on land, catching them in their beds.”

A few of the younger members of the crew cheered. The older one’s knew better. Jen didn’t do anything dramatic, like drawing her sword, the way a captain in a ballad would have. “Now get back to work, the lot of you. The River Queen won’t sail herself.”

Jen went back into the cabin with Tobias and Helen to plan and I found myself alone with the Walker sisters beside the railing as the rest of the crew returned to their work. A cold burst of wind over the water sent my loose hair dancing over my shoulders.

Mel went to hug me but Tali caught her arm, “give her space.”

Tali looked into my eyes, searching for new fear or hurt and found none.  

“The bitch never got the chance to rape me and I killed her for trying.”

“Good,” she took my hand, her palm warm and callused against mine. “Now tell me once, and tell me truly. Do you still want my sisters and me? Are we your lovers now or was the night we shared just a moment of fear and loneliness? We understand if it was.”

I drew her head down with my free hand, “It was a thousand times more than that and you know it.” I kissed her long and deeply.

We were both breathless when we pulled apart. I sensed a woman to each side of us and turned first to kiss Cali and then Mel in turn. “You’re all my lovers. I wanted you that night and I want you now.”

I caught Cali’s hand as it started to wander and kissed it, “Which doesn’t mean were going to do anything in the middle of the deck or in the crowded hold.”

“Awe,”

“You’ll marry us then,” said Mel, her voice soft and vulnerable.

“I’ll give you my answer before we return to River Fort, that’s the best I can promise for now.

Tali kissed my cheek, “You have to figure out things with the River Fort woman first don’t you?”

“I do and I will. Regardless of what happens with her and me though, I need time to decide about us.”

“We’ll wait for an answer then,” said Tali, “and we'll keep out of what’s going on with you and Jen.”

Cali nuzzled my neck, “Which doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep trying to seduce you again.”

“Good.”

I spent most of the day practicing sword fighting with the Walker sisters. When Tobias came out of the cabin, I was more than a little surprised when he came up and asked to spar with Tali.

She gave him a doubtful look, “Listen, I understand that you’ve more reason to take up a blade against the bandits than any of us but there’s no time to train you.”

“I’ve been training since I was a child. Give me a sword and I’ll show you.”

I almost said that the basic lessons we received as children hardly counted for anything, but two weeks ago I’d barely known how to hold a blade.

Tali shrugged and asked Mel for her sword and passed it to Tobias. He took it and fell easily into a proper stance. Tali tilted her head slightly to the side as she re-evaluated him and then made a quick low jab. In an instant they were dancing across the deck in a flurry of quick strikes and retreats.

“Your mother teach you to fight like this?” asked Tali, clearly impressed.

“My older sister Rachael. My mother wouldn’t let me train to be part of the fort guard but she let my sister. Rebecca taught me everything as she learned it.”

“She must be a good fighter, or at least a good teacher.”

Tobias ducked a strike and almost got a blow to her side with the flat of his blade. Tali had a dagger in her hand in an instant and caught his blade. She threw him back with a hard kick to the chest that sent him to the deck.

“She never taught you to fight dirty though and that will get you killed with bandits.”

Tobias got to his feet just in time to find that Cali had a dagger to his back. “Tali’s told me a hundred times to watch my back. Hasn’t anyone ever told you.?”

Tali sheathed her sword, “You’ve got potential but you’re not ready for a real fight, not one like this yet.”

“To hell with you all,” snarled Tobias. He slammed the hilt of his sword into Cali’s gut. She hit the deck with a gasp of breath. Tobias lunged at Tali. “Fight me like a woman damn it!”

Tali had her blade back in her hand in an instant and blocked. It took her less than one sharp motion to twist Tobia's sword and knock it down onto the deck. Mel stomped a foot onto it when Tobias dived for it.

He scrambled back up and threw a punch at Mel. She brought up her arms to block but didn’t strike back. He kicked her in the leg. She made a sound of pain but remained unmoved, keeping her hands up to block her face.

“I won’t fight you.”

“Fuck you! Just because I’m a man doesn’t make me weaker than you. Hell I’m bigger than you.”

I moved as close as I dared, “Tobias, calm down, they are not the enemy.”

He whirled on me, his hands clenched at his side like he was fighting not to lash out at me too. “Don’t you dare tell me to calm down Kate. Don’t you ever say that to me again. I’ve been kidnapped and beaten and raped. I saw an entire farmstead murdered because one woman knew my name. If I were calm, I’d be a lunatic. I’m angry and I’m going to get revenge on the women who hurt me and murdered that farmstead. I’m going with the raiding party even if I have to swim to the damn shore.”

He stormed below deck, nearly knocking over one of the crew members walking past carrying a pile of rope.

I went and helped Cali back to her feet.

“Fuck he’s strong,” she said tugging up her shirt to show me the bruise on her side from the sword hilt.

“You shouldn’t have snuck up on him. What did you think would happen?” I asked.

She shrugged, “Wasn’t sure actually, usually I don’t give anyone I’m sneaking up on enough time to react.”

I looked to Tali, “So do you think he can fight now?”

Tali shook her head, “He can fight, but blind angry like that he’ll die. I’ll tell Jen just as much.” She sheathed her sword, “I may as well say it now, you’re not going either Kate. You're not ready. You may be someday but right now your too inexperience. It’s not just because you’re a conceiver, I’d say the same of any ungifted woman.”

A cold shock went through me, “I survived the City Leaders house. I killed Joanna.”

“Yes but this isn't the same. The City Leaders house was a matter of opportunity and escape, not a night raid. I believed you could do all those things and you did. This is different.”

I didn’t like it but I understood.

The dinner bell rang and we left it at that.

 

I was standing beside the railing watching the sunset when Jen came to stand beside me.

“So…” she began and then gave up.

We stood in silence for a long time. I broke it.

“Yes, not that it’s any of your business but I bedded the Walker Sisters and intend to keep doing it.”

She looked at the distant shore instead of me. “I have to ask, why them, why first. Was it because they agreed to help you with a plan that endangered you and I wouldn’t?”

When I looked at her I knew my face was stone, “That question was beneath you Jen.”

She clenched her hands on the railing, “Yes, I suppose it was. Forgive me.” She closed her eyes “I was so afraid I’d lost you Kate, I was ready to kick down the door of that house with sword in hand, consequences be damned. Then seeing you there, with the bruises on you and I couldn’t act yet, you have no idea how much that cost me. I don’t care who you marry, it doesn’t matter if you never even look at me again, all I want is to know that you are safe and happy.”

I wasn’t sure if I should cry or kiss her, “Jen you went into that house for me. You helped me save Tobias and fought for us. I’m safe now because of you.”

She smiled hesitantly, “You’re safe now because you stabbed that bitch before she could murder you.”

“And then you got us out of the house. We took care of each other.”

She reached for my hand almost hesitantly, “I’ve still got a chance with you then?”

“How can you ask that? You have for years.”

Her fingers clasped mine desperately, “I love you.”

I tilted my head up, “I love you too."

She brought her lips down to mine, softly at first and then hungrily. I kissed her back with equal need, clutching at her shoulders for balance. Her body was warm against mine. Distantly I heard a couple cheers and then some angry shushing sounds. Apparently we had not gone unobserved by the crew.

"Lets go to your cabin," I whispered.

Jen nodded and took my hand, her fingers intertwined with mine. It was a short walk and I did not remember to feel self-conscious until the door closed behind us.

We stood there, looking at each other uncertainty in the dark cabin. Jen pulled away from me long enough to light the lantern and fill the small room with warm gold light. I wanted her so much it made my chest hurt.

"Jen," I said softly.

She dropped the flint she'd just used to strike the lantern and turned back to me, her handsome face softened with longing and hesitation. She came back to me at the edge of the bed, catching my hands in her own.

She kissed me once more, almost painfully gentle, cradling my face in her hands.

"I'm not made of glass,” I told her.

Her kiss changed in an instant, suddenly desperate and all consuming. She pulled me too her as if I'd slip away from her.

I tugged at her shirt finding the laces and scrambling at them. She'd knotted it too carefully and I couldn't undo it. I gave up and slipped my hand under instead, running them over her flat stomach and then the shifting muscles of her back. She broke the kiss with a gasp.

I pulled away just enough to sit down onto the edge of the bed and tug my own shirt off.

Her eyes lingered even as she hesitated. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. I need you."

She sank to her knees before me and ran her hands over my still clothed legs and knees. I drew her close again, gasping as the fingers of one of her hands found my nipples and caressed them with considerable skill. She kissed her way down my neck, pausing to suck at my throat and bring shivers of pleasure through my body.

I raised my hips and she took the hint, tugging at my pants so we could get them off. I shivered when I realized that I was fully naked in front of her.

She raised her eyes to my face, "Your beautiful."

My heart almost broke in a thousand wonderful ways. I wanted that moment to last forever but I was burning with need.

"Please Jen."

She kissed me once and then brought her fingers to my aching center and found me slick. She brushed her fingertips over the nub of pleasure and I jerked with the sudden flash of sensation. She brushed again and again and it was all I could do to clutch at her shoulder and whimper.

She pushed me back onto the bed, stretching out beside me, keeping me in the circle of her other arm as she worked me to small desperate moans. When her fingers pressed finally into me I was more than ready.

I cried out and jerked against her hand nearly overwhelmed with need as she curled her fingers up inside of me to find just the right place. She added another and pressed her thumb against my clit, slowly and steadily rocking her hand. I felt as if my whole world were slipping away as I clutched at the cresting pleasure inside of myself.  When I forced my eyes open, I found hers waiting for me.

"I love you Kate Weaver, I love you so much," she whispered. The sheer honesty in her voice and face nearly broke me.

"Jen," was all I could manage before the shudders took me, my body clenching around her hand. I felt her then, every part of her from the breath in her lungs to the steady rhythm of her honest heart.

She worked me through my release and then slowly eased her fingers from me and pulled me as close as she could, her right hand still slick with my essence. I curled against her, wishing that I could stay forever in her arms and cling always to the feeling of love and security that came over me.

She held me until I felt my strength begin to return. I stretched out once, kissed her lightly on the lips and began to finally properly unlace her shirt. There was so much I wanted to do to her.

Chapter Text

I woke at dawn wrapped up in the warmth of her arms. A deep sense of contentment blossomed in my heart. I didn’t have to leave Jen’s bed like I had the Walker sisters. We might be going to fight the bandits but this time I didn’t have to go alone.

Jen was awake her face unreadable in the dimness of the cabin.

“Hey beautiful,” she murmured.

“Hey yourself, I yawned and stretched lazily, shifting to rest my head on her naked shoulder. “You sleep well?”

“Some. I’m not sure I really believe that you’re here. I’m afraid that this is a dream and that I’m going to wake up all alone and you’ll still be locked away in that house in Mirror Wall.”

I pushed up enough to kiss her cheek, “I’m here.”

Her hands tightened around me, “I know.”

We lay as long as we could until the first mate rang the bell for the change of the watch and we got up for breakfast.

A few of the crew shot Jen and I a glance when we left her cabin. I swear I heard a few coins changing hands. River crews will bet on the color of the sky given the chance.

Jen and I got our bowls of oatmeal from the cook’s pot and sat down together on some crates. A moment later Tali plopped down on my other side. She and Jen exchanged a long look and then they nodded to each other and settled down to eat. I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved or unnerved.  

I spent most of the morning helping to mend sails, a never-ending task on the River Queen. According to Sarah I was good at it.

Tobias spent all morning pacing the deck. I had nothing to offer that would help, so I gave him his space. When we were children he’d always wanted to be left alone when he was upset and I’d learned to respect that.

I was just finishing up putting on a heavy canvass patch when I noticed Jen and Tali standing by the railing speaking quietly together.

I wondered if I should go join them but something stopped me. They had things they needed to work out between them. When I went below deck to get more thread I heard the words, “River Fort,” and “household.” I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

Below deck, I found the box with the thread and was just reaching into it when I heard my name spoken very softly. I whirled around me to find Cali in the shadowed light that filter down through the hatch.

She pressed a finger to her lips and offered me her hand. I took it. We ducked behind more crates to a secluded spot where she’d thrown down some burlap bags and a blanket. I almost laughed but I didn’t.

She tugged me down as we scrambled at each other’s clothes, trying very hard not to make too much noise. I landed on top of her where I wanted to be and kissed her hungrily. She got my shirt over my head and I got my hands into hers.

She moaned beautifully when I pinched her nipples. The tie of her pants proved more difficult but I got it, laying my hand against the warmth of her core. She leaned up to kiss me just as I slipped my fingers into her slick warmth. She gasped against my mouth when I pressed my thumb against the spot of pleasure just above her slit.

Her lips found my breast and I could barely focus on what I was doing. When she pulled back I grabbed her for another kiss. I move my fingers sharper inside of her and I felt her clench around them. She bit her own lip to stifle the sound as her whole body shuddered. I stilled my hand and stretched out beside her as she caught her breath.

Apparently she didn’t need to because in the next instant I found myself on my back with her between my legs. I helped her yank my pants off. When she put her mouth against my cunt I had to bite my own wrist to stay silent. She was very, very good with her tongue. I still wanted more.

“I need you fingers inside of me.”

She obliged. She thrust two and then three fingers into me as I arched against her desperately. I didn’t last very long. Pleasure flashed through me in a wave of tension of and release, every muscle in my body trembling. For an instant I felt again what I had felt the first time I slept with her, every beat of her heart and mine and then I was laying on the scratchy blanket beside her.

"I missed you, you know," she whispered.

I rolled over enough to kiss her neck, "I missed you too."

"Please never ask me to help you go into danger like that again, I just can't do it."

"I won't, whatever danger we face after this we face together."

I would have happily laid there forever but we weren't exactly in a truly private spot. It would be at least a little embarrassing if a member of the crew stumbled over us.

Just as I reached for my shirt I heard someone enter the hold with a wailing baby.

"Cali, you around here somewhere?" called Sarah, "I can't get her to stop crying. Please, I know you've got some trick to get her to sleep."

Cali didn't reply but scrambled for her clothes.

"She's asleep," said Mel's voice from somewhere close enough that I knew she'd been keeping watch.

"In the middle of the damn day? Please just take the baby before I lose my mind."

There was the sound of a very careful handing off of a baby and then the wailing got worse. I heard Mel frantically trying soothe an infant that just wasn't having it.

Cali clearly couldn't bear the sound either. She stood up with her shirt half laced and hurried over.

"Give her here, give me that cloth as well. You fed her without burping her again, didn't you? How many times do I have to explain this?"

"Sorry. Damn it, it's just a lot to remember and she never shuts up. What the hell am I doing with this baby? There's a reason I've never born one."

She had the unfortunate luck to sit down on one of the crates that I was hurriedly finishing dressing behind. She blinked once when she looked over and saw me yanking my shirt down. Then she laughed.

"Sorry Kate, I didn't mean to interrupt you two. Gods I'm getting old, I can't even remember that this is the part of the hold where women sneak off to fuck."

"It's okay," I stood up blushing.

Cal was busy whacking the babies back and getting her to spit up which at least put an end to the crying. Mel was watching the whole procedure intently, as if she expected to need to do it in the future.

Sarah leaned over, "As a member of the crew I'm pretty much obliged to tell you that you should marry the captain, but if you want my advice you should marry Cali too. You may never have to change a diaper."

"I'll keep that in mind," I sat on the crate, not knowing what else to do. "Although babies are not exactly what I'm thinking about right now."

"I can't say I like them much either but my wife does, has always wanted one. She's barren though. As much as I love her, I've never been willing to go get myself knocked up by a kindler or man to bear a child for her. She'll be happy when I bring this one home, although I wish the poor thing came to my care under kinder circumstances."

Adoption wasn’t unheard of in the forts but it was rare. Women usually didn’t bring unwanted pregnancies to term. If an older child became orphaned usually other family took them in.

Cali brought the now sleeping baby back, "You're doing all right. It's not like they explode. Just burp her next time."

Sarah gave her a doubtful look but took the baby and went back up to the deck.

...

When the sun set we were a days sailing from the God's Watchtower. The plan was to sail through the night and day and hide in an inlet a couple miles from the bandits hideout before going overland. We had to hope that they weren't watching the river that far from their hideout.

That night would be our last before the battle. Jen gathered the crew and went over the plan again, going over which of the crew was to go and which to stay. Much of the crew, Sarah and the Walker Sister were going. Tobias and I weren't. He didn't like that.

He was smart enough to wait until the crew had dispersed to ask to talk.

"In my cabin," said Jen.

Tobias nodded and followed when she opened the door, I went along. Once in the cabin Tobias stood there, back rigid, hands clenched,  "If I was an ungifted woman instead of a man, you'd let me go."

"No, I wouldn't. I'm going after the girl with my best women, people I'd fought with before and know I can rely on. I can take two more veteran fighters with me because you and Kate are staying here under Helen's command to help protect the boat. If you want to save that girl more than you want revenge you will accept this."

"Do you actually mean that?"

"Yes, I do. I haven't seen you fight enough to know if I can trust you to follow orders in an offensive attack but I've known you since we were children and I can trust you to defend the River Queen."

He frowned but I could see from the slump of his shoulders that he'd calmed. "And you'll give me a sword?"

"Yes, you and Kate both."

"I don't like it but I'll accept it, for Lily's sake if nothing else."

"Good. Now I need to talk to Kate."

He left and I found myself alone with Jen in the small cabin.

I sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Did you really mean all that or are you just trying to keep Tobias and me out of danger?"

She busied herself pouring something from a bottle into two mugs and offered me one.

"Both in truth. I'm still a captain of the Five Forts; I can't in good conscience take gifted or men into danger when I don't have to. Your lives are just too valuable. If I die it's only my life that's lost, if you or Tobias do, the potential children you could have had go with you."

I'd been told that kind of thing all my life and I didn't like it. I sipped at the fiery whiskey and for once didn't cough. "And what of the children you might have had with me? Your life is worth as much as mine Jen, if for no reason other than the sake of those who love you."

Her hand shook as she set down her glass, "and do you love me?"

"Yes, and I'll tell you as many times as I need to until you believe me."

She sunk down to her knees before me, reaching for my hand, "Will you marry me?"

I took a slow steadying breath. “Would you still ask me if I said I wanted to marry the Walker Sisters as well.”

She didn’t waiver, “Yes.”

“Even if you’ll never know which of the children I’ll bear will be theirs or yours.”

The did consider that for a moment before nodding. “I can make peace with that. I will love any child of yours, be they my blood or not.”

I took her hands. “You truly mean that?”

“Yes, Kate. I love you. No price I might pay to be with you is greater than what it would cost me to lose you

"Then my answer is yes, a thousand times yes."

She rose up enough to kiss me and I pulled her as close as I could. Things went the way they had the night before.

After we'd finished we lay naked and content together on the soft blankets of her bed.

"When all this is over, when we’re home I'll ask my father for my grandmother's old house, it's been empty since she died. It needs some repairs but it is big enough for us and the Walker Sisters too."

"Is that what you were talking with Tali about earlier?"

"We came to an understanding."

"Oh really?"

"We'll share a household. They'll be part the River Fort guard in the winters and hire out with caravans to bring in more money in the summers. One or two of them will always stay with you to help you with the children when I'm gone on the River Queen for the summer trading."

And just like that she had her whole life and mine planned out. "And what makes you think I want to move to River Fort?" I asked carefully.

"You don't like it?"

"We'll talk about which fort we're going to live in later but more importantly what happened to wanting me to travel with you on the River Queen?"

She sat up, "You still want that after all of this? You're not sick of the river and being in danger?"

"I'm not. For the first time in my life I feel strong and alive. I don't have to become a permanent member of the crew but I want to see more of the river."

"Then we'll do that. I want nothing more in the world than to make you happy Kate."

In the flickering lantern light I could see the sincerity in her blue-grey eyes.

"And I you. When this is all over we're going to have to sit down with the Walker sisters and make sure we're all happy with things before any marriages happen."

 

 

When her breath deepened in sleep I slipped from her arms and tugged my clothes back on. The deck was dark and mostly empty. All of the crew not on watch were trying to get what sleep they could.

I found Tali leaning against the railing.

"You can't sleep either?" I asked as I came to stand beside her.

"I never have been able to before going into danger. Mel's always out like a light and Cali settles down once I've talked to her."

I leaned my head against her shoulder, "Are you scared?"

"I'm always scared, I've got two sisters to take care of."

"They are grown women."

"That doesn't mean I'm not still their big sister."

That I understood. "I wish I was going with you tomorrow, I don't like being left behind."

"Now you know how my sisters and I felt when we let that monster ride away with you."

I had no idea what to say to that. We stood sharing company if nothing else.

"So you talked with Jen about a shared household? Were you that sure I'd agree to marry you?"

"To some degree, it was more that I had to make sure that my sisters and I could live with her if you said yes to us both."

"Can you?"

"I think so. She's a good woman, even if she is a self-righteous fort born brat."

"Good to know. The answer is yes by the way, for you and your sisters."

She pulled me into a kiss so sudden I almost lost my footing. I kissed her back with an equal measure of need.

With our foreheads pressed together she whispered, "We'll finally have a home won't we? After all these years my sisters and I will finally have a family to return to."

"Do you love me?" It wasn't a fair question to ask without offering my own answer first but I had to say it.

She pulled back far enough to look at me and I saw tears in her eyes, "I honestly don't know Kate. I gave up on those feelings so long ago. I feel more for you than I ever have for a woman before. I desire you with every inch of my being and burn and ache for you when you're gone. I'll fight for you; I'm willing to die for you. I know Mel and Cali love you. Is that enough?"

It wasn't a fairy tale answer, not the clear elegant declaration of undying love that young woman want to hear, but it was a far more honest answer than most courting women ever receive.  And the things she promised, I knew she would do them. Her actions seemed more like love to me than any words she could have offered me.

"Yes, it is."

She hugged me close and I felt her tears on my neck. "Then you have my word I'll be a good wife to you. I'll do everything in my power to keep you safe and happy and provided for."

"And I you."

She pulled back again, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. "Listen, Kate. If anything happens to me tomorrow, Cali and Mel are going to need you. Keep Cali out of trouble, she doesn't mean to get into it all the time but she still does. Keep an eye on Mel too, she's too kind for her own good."

"Nothing is going to happen to you."

"Just promise me."

"I promise."

We stayed like that for a long time, her arms around me as the river slid past.

When the stars began to fade Tali nudged me, "Go see if you can't get a little bit of rest."

I went below deck, not wanting to risk waking Jen by going back to the cabin. To reach my hammock I had to pass Cali's and Mel's.

"Kate," called Mel softly. Maybe she wasn't as asleep as Tali thought she was.

I knelt beside her hammock, "Hey there," and leaned down to kiss her. She reached up to tangle her hands in my hair.

I was tempted to climb into her hammock with her but I'd fallen out of one often enough on my own to know better than to risk it.

"Come with me," I whispered. "Bring your blanket.

She climbed gracefully to the ground and let me guide her to where I'd lain with Cali earlier. The sacks were still there. She set down her blanket and then we laid down together.

I got my shirt off just as she rolled over me, kissing me lazily, running her hands over me. The deck was hard beneath me even with the blanket but I didn't care. She found me still slick from Jen and easily pushed her fingers into my eager body. Her mouth was warm over my nipple.

I wouldn't have thought that I could find pleasure again so easily in such a short time but I did. I muffled my cries of pleasure against her shoulder and soon enough the familiar flush of life and awareness washed over me.

When my release was done I urged her onto her back and used my fingers to bring her to the same place that she had just brought me.  A few breaths after that I fell asleep with her on the hard floor.

Chapter Text

 The sounds of the crew moving about woke us both. We dressed and joined the others for breakfast. The stars were fading in the sky. We spent the day sharpening weapons and tearing linen bandages for the wounds we all knew would soon have to be treated.

Near sunset Jen turned the boat into the little inlet where we would hide. We drifted under low hanging willows and eventually dropped anchor before the river became to shallow and narrow for the River Queen.

Before they took the rowboats ashore the crew that was going and that was staying said their goodbyes. I went to Jen first. I knew I'd only have a moment with her before she had to start directing the crew again.

She stood silhouetted in the last light of the fading sun, her golden hair transformed to fiery amber. Her eyes were on the river and her hand on her sword hilt.

I laid my hand on her arm and she turned to me.

"Be careful," I told her. "Fight well."

"I will, I've got you to come back to."

We kissed, not forcefully or hungrily, but gently with all the hope and longing of the life we knew lay ahead of us, the life we intended to build together.

I went from her to Tali. "No words," she whispered as she tilted my chin up, "just keep your promises," and kissed me softly.

Cali pulled me close and kissed me before saying, "I'll bring you back a bandit's sword as an engagement present,"

"I'd rather you just bring back yourself whole and unharmed."

"I'll bring you both."

My goodbye with Mel took the longest. If she minded being last she made no sign of it. There was warmth in her eyes when she looked at me almost made my heart break.

Her arms were strong and sure around me. I rested my cheek on her shoulder, not wanting to let go.

"I love you," she said it so softly I barely caught the words.

"I love you too Mel. Keep close to your sisters and bring them and yourself safely back to me."

"I will I swear,"

I felt tears leaking from my eyes when I kissed her but I wiped them away before anyone could see.

The crew ferried across on the rowboat in several trips. I watched them vanish into the darkening forest just before the moon rose. Then there was nothing to do but wait and keep watch. We wouldn't push off downriver to pick up the hopefully victorious crew from a destroyed bandit hideout until dawn.

I stood at the railing for a long time, my hand resting on the sword I had taken from the house in Mirror Fort. The sound of a man's heavy steps told me that I wasn't alone.

Tobias's shoulders were tense and he was tapping his hand against his leg the way a cat might the tip of its tail.

"So..." I could hear the forced playfulness in his voice. He was going to talk about anything but what he was worried about. "All four of them?"

"Yep."

"Are you actually seriously courting them all or are you going to choose one?"

"I've promised to marry all of them."

He laughed and it sounded almost real. "Dad's going to rejoice when you bring home Jen and then have a heart attack when he sees the Walker Sisters."

For a moment I could pretend that everything was normal, that my big brother was teasing me about my life.

"Dad ran away from his own enclave to marry my mom. I’m pretty sure he understands about love and strange women." At least I hoped he’d understand. Neither he, nor my mother could tell me who I could or couldn’t marry but they could disapprove.

"True. He always does love to tell that story. The bedroom window he climbed down from gets higher every year." His smile held for a moment and then slowly faltered as if the effort to keep it was too much. He leaned heavily against the railing and his whole body slumped.

"How can I go home Kate? How can I just marry the twins like nothing's happened after...  I won't blame them if they don't want me anymore."

"How can you say that? You know they love you."

"They loved me before I'd been fucked by a damn crew of bandits and the leading family of Mirror Wall."

I felt something freeze in my own heart, "If either of them leave you because you were kidnapped and raped they are not worth marrying."

He shook his head sharply, "Even if they do how can I go back to them? What if one of the bandits gave me something, I can't risk bringing some disease back to my fiancés."

"...do you think you caught something?"

"No, but how can I know for certain?"

"We'll take you to a healer when we get back."

"All right," he seemed to relax a moment and then he tilted his head to look at me, "I don't understand how you can take lovers after what happened to you. I feel like I never want to be touched again. How can you want anyone, much less four women?"

I knew he was hurting but his words still stung. I wondered if I should say that the bandits and Joanna had never had the chance to fully rape me but I didn't want to talk about it. "You think I'm acting promiscuous because of what the bandits and Joanna did to me?"

Tobias slumped farther, "I didn't mean it like that. I just think you might be having the opposite reaction that I have. I don't want you to rush into a couple of marriages you don't really want."

The railing dug against my arms as I rested my head in my hands. Distantly I could hear night birds calling and water lapping against the hull. I answered him honestly, "I did react like that for a while but I think I worked through it. I'm not doing anything now that I don't want to."

I was surprised by the feel of his hand on my shoulder. It was the first time he'd willingly touched anyone since his rescue, "As long as it's what you want, that's what matters."

I nodded and then froze as I heard a very faint sound. Something had scraped on the side of the boat.

In one sharp motion, I shoved Tobias away from the railing and drew my sword with the other hand. I was slow in turning around and the blade meant for my throat caught my shoulder, tearing my shirt and the skin just above my collarbone.

The sharpness of the pain half blinded me and I frantically lashed out, kicking the woman hard in the legs and almost knocking her off the railing as she vaulted onto the deck.

I could hear Tobias yelling that we were under attack but I couldn't spare a thought to turn. I felt the solid presence of his back against mine. In the dim light of the deck the woman lunged at me and I blocked, our swords clashing against each other.

She was a lot taller than me and made of lean muscles. I shifted my weight sharply moving in the direction she was pushing me and forcing her blade to slide off mine as she stumbled. If I were Tali, I'd have had a dagger ready to stab her in the stomach but my left hand was empty. I didn't dare pause long enough to reach for the short blades on my belt and boot.

I darted back as she regained her balance. I could see other dark figures, two more at least on my side of the boat coming over the railing. The rest of the River Queen crew rushed up from below deck and down from the helm. My opponent began to circle me, trying to find an opening.

I kept turning with her, moving slowly backwards. I knew where every crate and barrel and rope on the deck was, she didn't. I felt the bump of coiled rope beneath my feet and stepped over it without lowering my blade.

In the darkness she caught her foot on a loop of rope and stumbled. I saw my chance. It was a clumsy thrust and went too high, scraping across her ribcage, instead of going under and in.  She cried out in pain.

I almost overbalanced but didn't fall. She didn't bring her sword back up in time and I caught her neck in a quick brutal cross cut. Her blood was as black as oil in the moonlight. She clutched at her ruined throat as she crumpled to the deck. I'd heard sheep make the same sound as they died.

My hands were trembling violently as I cast about wildly looking for more opponents. Two members of the crew were fighting a bandit up on the helm of the boat. One more had locked swords with a woman at the far end. To my left Tobias was forcing a bandit backwards towards the hatch of the hold. No one had bothered to try and go for a rifle from the hold to fight on the small, shifting deck.

His every motion was furious and brutal. The woman couldn't keep her ground and every blow she blocked nearly brought her to her knees.

She caught her blade in his hilt and flipped it from his hand, sending it sliding across the deck.

I didn't think, just acted.

"Hey bitch! Fight me if you are a goddamn woman!"

She turned sharply towards me, bringing her sword up to block the blow I landed on her. It was a fatal mistake. She coughed up blood as the man she'd thought she'd just unarmed stabbed her in the back with a dagger.

I stepped back as she fell to her knees. Tobias grabbed at the blade to take it back and she whirled on him with a knife in her hand. She caught his arm in a glancing blow and he kicked her in the chest, forcing her down. She screamed like an injured animal as her back hit the deck.

Tobias stomped the hand that held the dagger, snatched it up and slit her throat in one sharp motion. He came to his feet slowly, like a man waking from a dream. He kicked the body once and then finally raised his head.

"Fucking daughter of a bitch was the worst of them. She thought she was kind just because she never hit me."

A sudden quiet fell over the deck. I looked around and saw that the River Queen's crew had put down the last of our attackers.

"Kate, come help me," called Hali, the ship's healer. I ran across the deck to her as Helen was already barking the orders for us to raise the anchor.

Hali was kneeling beside one of the younger members of the crew, Jill, who was only a year older than me. She's taken a deep gash to the side and even in the dimness I could see the dark blood seeping through the bandage the healer was frantically pressing to her side.

"I...my gift isn't strong enough," I said as I knelt on the deck beside the injured girl and the healer.

"Please, she's my niece, just try. If we can only stop the bleeding she might live. Buy me time."

I pressed my hands beside the healers, I could feel the sticky heat beneath my fingers. My gift was slow in coming and a wave of dizziness took me the moment I felt the dying girl under my touch.

I tried to reach out, to feel the damage but all I found was pain. Her heartbeat was slowing, struggling to keep life even as it drained away. I could feel the depth of the injury in her side, I tried to close it but it was well beyond my strength.

I felt her final breath, her last heartbeat, the very warmth of her body begin to fade. I was shivering violently when the healer pulled me away, crying soundlessly.

Someone bandaged the shallow cut on my chest and someone else gave else me hot tea. At some point Tobias sat down beside me on the deck.

Her put his arm around me and pulled me close, like we were still kids. I rested my head against his shirt. I could hear the steady beating of his heart. Something in me calmed and the deep ache of cold began to ease. I was alive. Tobias was alive.

I raised my head and looked around, finally realizing that the shore was sliding past. The horizon had not yet lightened but the stars were just beginning to fade.

"What's going on?"

"We're heading for the bandits hideout early. Helen thinks that if that scouting party found us they might have also sent back a messenger. Jen and the crew could be heading into an ambush when they attack at dawn. We may arrive too late but we have to try."

It wasn't fair. It wasn't. I couldn't lose Jen and the Walker Sisters, not after everything we'd come through. Despair threatened to swallow me and then I forced it down. I felt for the blade I still wore at my side.

"Then if we're in time, I'll be ready."

...

 

With dawn came the sharp smell of smoke. We could see a dark cloud rising over the trees as The Gods' Watchtower came into sight. It was a huge rock outcropping of red stone. The tall spire from which it drew its name was only one part amongst a small formation of spires and stone piles on the cliff's that overlooked the river.

We turned a sharp right onto an inlet and sailed towards the smoke. The first sign of the bandits hideout we saw was a crumbling dock. A short distance away the unmoored burning hulk of a small river boat was drifting slowly towards the far shore.

There were bodies on the ground, I could see from the faded colors of their clothes that they weren't ours. Two figures stood on the dock and waved at us wildly. As we got close I recognized Sarah and one of the crew.

"We won!" I heard her yell, just as we docked. I was one of the first off the boat before anyone could stop me, vaulting the railing and leaping the short distance onto the rocking dock.

Helen was already ahead of me, "What are our losses?"

"Three wounded one dead. They didn't see us coming."

"Who!" I cried.

"Zoe's dead, Evi isn't in good shape and Vicky and Helen just have cuts."

Tobias pushed past Helen, "Did you find Lily?"

"No, there were no captives or even any girls her age. Come on, I'll show you what we found."

She led up a winding path towards the nearby hills. When I first caught sight of the bandit hideout hidden in the shadow of a rocky cliff, I couldn't help but think that it looked just like every other enclave I'd ever seen.

There was a main house, a stable, a couple outbuildings and pastures. I could even see horses and cows grazing.  One smaller building, I'm not sure which one, possible the summer cookhouse, was burning to the ground.

Chickens scattered as we entered the yard. No one had moved the bandits bodies yet and four women lay lifeless on the ground.

Jen came hurrying out of the house, her left arm in a sling.

"Kate, Tobias, you shouldn't be up here. We haven't finished searching the grounds."

"Don't even try to keep me out, not if you haven't found Lily," snapped Tobias.

He pushed past her into the house as Helen hurriedly went to Jen and started to tell her about the boat attack. I followed Tobias in. I nearly tripped over another body.

"Watch your step," called out Mel as she emerged from another room. I followed her back into the central hearth room. Cali was sitting on a crate as a Tali worked to bandage her forehead.

"Hey Kate, I'm going to have a whole new scar."

"Charming," I said, fighting very hard to hide my complete and utter relief that she and the others were safe.

I'd have smiled but there was another body on the ground. At least I thought it was a body until the grey haired woman moved. She wasn't dead but she was dying.

One of the crew was kneeling next to her, trying to ask her something, but the woman just turned her head away.

Tali said, "Mel, go see if you can find more cloth, I think I saw a storage closet in the kitchen.

Mel went into a room to the right and I followed her. The kitchen was surprisingly well kept for a place owned by bandits. I followed Mel as she began to look through shelves and then tugged open the door to a walk in cupboard. She went in and there was a sudden loud crash. She stumbled back out, frantically trying to beat off a whirlwind of fear and fury.

"No! No! No!" screamed the girl. She couldn't have been more than thirteen and was dressed like all the other bandits in worn and patched un-dyed clothing. She frantically lashed out at Mel with all the fierce panic of a trapped rat.  Mel tried to catch at her but she couldn't get close, not without getting her eyes clawed out.

The moment the girl saw her chance, she kicked Mel hard in the knee, sending her to the floor and bolted for the door. I was in her way. She collided with me and we hit the floor hard. I tried to grab her arm and she bit my hand. I lost my grip and she was up and on her feet just in time to find herself facing Tali and a drawn sword.

She tried to retreat over me but Mel finally caught her, grabbing her arms and forcing them to her sides.

"Easy, easy, we're here to rescue you."

"No! Let me go!" she wailed as she kicked and struggled against Mel. She was clearly doing Mel some damage but the mercenary didn't let go.

"Tobias!" yelled Tali, "Come calm her the fuck down."

Tobias poked his head into the kitchen and froze, "That's not Lily."

The girl took her chance and jammed an elbow in Mel's stomach as she got her heel against her instep. Mel stumbled back and lost her grip. The girl never made it more than a few steps into the main common room.

Tali caught her arm, whirled her around and slammed her against the common room wall with a sword to her throat. "Get me some rope before she gets free again."

The injured woman on the floor of the hall finally reacted, sitting up as best she could.

"She's gifted, she's gifted, don’t kill her!"

Cali went over and knelt beside her.

"Where did you steal her from?"

"She's not stolen, she’s my granddaughter." She coughed blood with every word.

"What the hell is going on?" declared Jen as she, Sarah and Helen ran into the hall and took in the sight of Tali and the crew member struggling to restrain the terrified girl. "Who is she?"

"Bandit girl," said Tali. "She was hiding in a kitchen cupboard."

"Damn," swore Jen.

She motioned everyone who wasn't struggling with the girl or tending the woman on the floor to come over to her out of earshot.

"Are you sure? She's not just a captive gone native?" she asked Tali.

"No, she's a bandit brat all right. I'm just surprised we haven't found more, a place this big. Just because most bandit women are ungifted doesn't mean they can't get with child from tumbling a man or a kindler and they'll raise and protect their whelps just like any other women."

"Where are they then?" said Jen. "We've nearly finished sweeping the place."

She noticed that Sarah was looking at her feet.

Jen's eyes narrowed, "You see something?"

Sarah flushed, "He was a man carrying a baby in his arms and leading a little boy by the hand, followed by about five other ragged children. He begged me to let them go. What was I supposed to do, kill them?"

"You should have told me!" yelled Jen.

"It was a split second decision. What the hell else were we going to do with them? We're fort people. We don't steal men and children."

"No we don't," agreed Helen, "which means we've got a girl we don't know what to do with."

"We could use her as leverage to interrogate the dying woman" said Tali, "The old bitch has already said she's her granddaughter."

"We do not torture children," snapped Sarah.

"We don't need to actually hurt the girl, just threaten that we will."

Jen gave her a sharp look, "Why don't I handle this."

She walked past all of us back to the old woman where she was slumped against the wall. She was looking worse, pale as stone and the bandages on her chest and leg had grown darker.

Jen knelt down beside her.

The woman blinked at her wearily, "Please, don't kill her like all the rest. She's a conceiver. Gifted are valuable even to fort folk like you, take her back with you."

"We have our own gifted, we don't need one of your brats."

The old woman sobbed, "then let her go, she's just a girl."

"I could do that, I'd like to do that." Jen leaned closer, "The thing is though that the whole reason we attacked you was to get back a stolen kindler girl from a river farm. If I can't return with that girl, I don't see why I should let this one live."

Jen would have never carried out that threat but the old woman didn’t know that. She coughed again and made a low deep sound of pain. She didn't have long, "You're looking for that half grown brat? The little golden haired kindler from Shade Farm?"

"Yes, if you tell me where she is and that granddaughter of yours leads me to her, you have my word as a river boat captain that I'll let her go unharmed."

The woman laughed, a sharp and broken sound, "We barely even got twenty silver for her. Are you telling me this wasn't for the Fort people we took but some river born whelp?"

"She's kin to fort people."

"You don't even known the meaning of kin, but all right, I've nothing to lose. Maybe you'll keep your word maybe you won't. If you don't, my ghost will haunt you to you're dying breath. The blond kindler was too young to sell in the cities. Only the seedier brothels would have bought her and they never have much coin. We took her up into the hills, offered her to some of the enclaves to the west.

"The Crooked Tree enclave bought her. It's a damn blighted place, too far out, too inbred and just desperate enough to buy a girl that's barely grown.  Iris will take you. She knows the way. I can't say what reception you'll get there but that's your problem not mine."

"If this proves to be a trick or an ambush, we'll kill her."

"It ain't. You just keep your hands off her and she'll guide you where you need to go."

Chapter Text

We set out on foot before the sun had reached its zenith, the trail was too poor to take the bandits horses. The old woman was dead before we left. The crew that stayed with the boat was already digging graves. Tali hadn't seen the point but Jen said that we weren't raiders like they'd been and part of that meant not leaving bodies for the animals.

Jen didn't want Tobias coming but he pointed out that she'd never be able to recognize Lily without him so he had to go. Once it was clear he was going, I said I went where he went.

The girl led us on a rocky path up into the hills with her hands bound before her and a member of the riverboat crew on each side of her. She didn't cry, didn't fight; just watched everything with cold angry eyes. Jen had wanted to untie her hands but Tali had warned her that doing so was a bad idea. Whatever oaths her grandmother had made, the girl was still ready to bolt the first chance she got.

The wind grew harsher and colder as we pushed up into the mountains. The trees became gradually shorter as we walked the path. It reminded me of the trees I'd seen up in the mountains around Hawk Fort.

Night came on quickly and the air was bitterly cold when we pitched our camp for the night. We snuffed out our fires as soon as we'd eaten. If there were more bandits we didn't want to make it easy for them to find us.

I was eating my lentils and dried meat when I noticed the bandit girl sitting beneath a tree under the watchful eyes of two of the crew. She had a bowl of food in her bound hands but made no motion to tilt it back and drink it.

Her lean shoulders were hunched and she was shivering, the thin coat someone had found her in the house was clearly not warm enough for her. I took the extra blanket I'd packed and went to take it to her.

She looked up blankly when she saw me approach. I held out the blanket, "Here" Then I realized how stupid I was being since she couldn't take it from me. I draped it around her shoulders.

"What's your name?" I asked, although I already knew it.

She hunched further into herself turning her face away.

I hated myself and the world as I turned away. I'd never dreamed that the bandits had children. It seemed deeply wrong that we'd had to kidnap a girl to find Lily. Even knowing that we weren't going to hurt her, that we'd let her go soon enough, didn't make it better. She likely had nowhere to go. We'd had cause to attack the bandit stronghold but that didn't mean the girl had deserved to lose her home and family. No one did.

I went and laid down my remaining blanket on the softest piece of ground I could find close to the cooling fire circle. I'd been allowed to come along but no one expected me to sit watch.

Tali and Cali came and laid their blankets on either side of mine.

"Mel's got first watch, then Cali and then me. We'll try not to wake you when we get up in the night," explained Tali as we sorted out the bedding. I was glad for the warmth of both of them in the sharpening chill of the night. I lay with my back to Cali and my head resting on Tali's chest.

I wanted to talk about the bandit girl but I couldn't seem to find the words. I had just started drift off when I heard footsteps on the fallen leaves and Jen's voice, speaking softly enough not to wake anyone who'd already bedded down.

"Kate? You around here somewhere,"

"Here,"

She trudged over and then stood there when she noticed that I wasn't alone.

"Um...." I said scrambling for a way to say the space around me for the night was spoken for.

Tali yawned, "Cali, give Jen your spot."

"What? Why?"

"Because we have to learn to share."

"Then why don't you?" she grumbled.

"Because I'm the oldest."

Cali got up taking her blankets with her. "Fine." She lay her blankets back down on Tali's other side and quickly curled up.

I rolled over to help Jen combine her blankets with mine and we settled in together. I felt her tense when her hands brushed Tali's at my hip.

"Get over yourself River Captain," said Tali sleepily.

"I wasn't-"

"We're bedding the same woman, we're just going to have to get used to each other. And for the record, I don't bite unless invited to."

"Good to know," I heard Jen murmur before I drifted off to sleep.

...

I woke in the night when Tali rose for her watch and Cali took her place. Just as Cali drifted off I realized I needed to pee. I slipped from between her and Jen and wrapped my cloak around myself to cross the camp for the downhill bushes on the far side of the darkened fire pit.

I heard the soft murmur of voices coming from the tree where I had last seen the bandit girl. I walked over as silently as I could and saw the girl sitting against the tree; the blanket I'd given her earlier was still wrapped around her. She was speaking softly to Tali who was leaning against the same tree and clearly on guard. The other woman who should have been on guard was sitting beneath a nearby tree and had fallen asleep.

"I know you’re scared, I know your angry. Don't let that make you dumb. These people really just want the stolen girl back, lead them to her and they'll let you go."

The girl gave a short sharp laugh, almost like a dog bark, "Do you think I'm stupid? You and your friends are going to slit my throat as soon as I take you where you want to go."

"No, I think you're as canny as a fox, it's the fort people who are dumb. They actually keep their word, which is no way to survive. They're not going to rape or kill you, they've got a thing about not hurting children and they consider you one."

"If they're dumb why are you with them then, I know you're a mercenary. I've met enough to know one when I see one."

"I know they won't stab me in the back.”

There was a long beat of silence, "Even if they don't kill me where the hell can I go?"

Tali shifted her weight. I heard a flint strike and the warm smell of tobacco filled the air. She must have bought some in Mirror Wall. "I think you already know where to go, probably wherever your father and those other children ran off to."

The girl spat, "He ain't my father, even if he's always been as kind to me. He didn't come to the lodge till after I was already born." Then she started to cry, a miserable suppressed sound.

Tali gave her a moment, "You can still find him and help him protect the other children. A man on his own doesn't have a very good chance in this world."

I had a feeling they might be talking about the same bandit man who'd nearly stabbed me to death and not given a damn when the bandits raped my brother.

"I'm not telling you where he is. I'm no fool. You just want to steal him and my little brother."

"Kid, if the fort people wanted to kidnap gifted or men they'd be acting a lot more interested in you being gifted, which by the way I know you aren’t.

"I could be," said the girl very softly. "My mum always said my sire was a kindler mercenary with a healers gift she met up north."

"You don't know what you are, even if you are gifted. There's no way an actual healer strong enough to test gifts ever set foot on your homestead. You aren't pregnant or holding a baby either so unless you've conceived and miscarried at a terribly young age or done the same to some other poor girl there's no way you know if your gifted or not. Your grandmother just said you were because she thought it might save your life. It did save that other girl from your people killing her, the one we're looking for."

"You murdered my family because of that stupid little bitch? Why the hell do you want her back? All she ever did was cry."

"You cry a lot too. You need to stop that. It makes you look weak. You can't afford that. As for the girl, she's kin to the fort people and that's reason enough for them. They'll leave a trail of blood to get back their own. Be careful of people like that, they are even more dangerous than the selfish ones."

"You helped them kill my mother and aunts, stop talking to me like you care."

"I did and I don't regret it. I'm alive and they are dead. That's why you should listen to me."

The girl had no answer.

I slipped back into the darkness and went about the business I'd set out to do. When I got back to my blankets I found that Cali had rolled over in her sleep and was snuggled up against Jen.

I was just trying to figure out how to get back between them when I noted Mel curled up alone and shivering. I nudged her just enough for her to crack her eyes and see that it was me before I slipped into her bedding with her. I fell back asleep in her arms.

...

I woke in the morning to some surprised sounds and sat up to watch Jen scrambling out of her blankets.

"How dare you!"

Cali seemed a little ruffled but recovered quickly, leaning back on her elbow and offering her best attempt at a leer that early. "Honey, you aren't exactly the woman I intended to kiss first thing in the morning either."

She stood with a yawn and looked around, finally noticed Mel and me. "There you are. Why are you always crawling into Mel's bed anyway? She warmer or something?"

"Among other things," I said as I kissed her on the cheek. "You're not bad either.

"I guess I'll take that as a compliment."

We had a long day of traveling ahead of us and another cold night on the ground after that. The next day we saw the first sign of the enclave when Tali spotted a small flock of goats up on a bluff well ahead of us.  They could have been wild but that seemed unlikely in the area. Tali swore she saw a small figure running away, possible a young shepherd running to warn her family.

We kept close together and pushed onward. By mid morning we'd passed a shearing pen and some evidence of campfires. At noon we saw the distant buildings of the enclave set within the protection of a small upper valley. We were ready for an attack if it came but it didn't. When we got closer we left two women with the bandit girl and continued. We were probably likely to get a better reception if we didn't show up with a captive they might know.

They didn't even have a wall to protect themselves, just a small huddle of buildings at the top of the world. I could see well-made pens of skinny goats, and patches of hardy mountain vegetables.  At the first moment of our approach, we saw figures frantically running about the valley floor, probably snatching up children and slamming doors.

A small pack of lean dogs raced out to threaten us. A decent volley of well-aimed rocks kept them at bay until seven women came up the path to meet us. They had to be close kin and all had the same dark hair and lean builds. All of their faces, even the youngest, bore the lines of hard lives.

They were all armed, though only three carried swords. The rest had clubs or knives and one had a very old crossbow. They were not well prepared to fight  group that had swords and rifles both.

The oldest, a greying haired woman who's long years had yet to take the strength from her back stepped forward, "I am Lillian Hunter of the Blue Flower Enclave. Who are you and what business brings you to us so well armed on the cusp of winter."

Jen straightened her own back, "I'm Jen Harper and we are women of the Five Forts. We're searching for a girl stolen from a burned and murdered river farm family who is kin of ours. Her name's Lily Swiftwater. We've reason to believe she's here."

If the women recognized the name, she showed now reaction on her face. "And why do you believe we've got a kidnapped girl?"

"The bandits who took her told us they sold her to your enclave."

"And you take the word of women who lives by the sword?"

"When I have actually taken the swords from them, yes. Do you have the girl or not?"

"We're under no obligation to answer you."

Mel, who was beside me, pulled me closer to her side, clearly anticipating danger.

Jen kept talking, "No, but we come to you in good faith. In our party we have a woman who is the girl’s kin by marriage and a man who was her fellow prisoner and has sworn to find her. If we came for a fight would we have brought a young man into such danger?"

The leader of the enclave gave a small nod and the women around her relaxed. "There's no need for extremes. Still, even if we have rescued a girl from bandits why would we let her go with strangers?”

"Why don't we ask her what she wants?"

"We cannot possibly allow you into our homestead."

Everyone tensed again. Jen held up her hands, palms out, "Then perhaps you could bring her here? If nothing else we will not leave until we see that she is whole and well."

"Absolutely not, for all we know you are bandits yourselves and want to kidnap the girl."

"If we intended that we'd have come in the dead of night. The girl is kin and we will see her. It is up to you how we proceed. There are twenty of us and we are well armed, how many able bodied women do you have?"

Hands went to weapons on all sides.

Tali stepped foreword beside Jen and held up a bag and jingled it. She had to raise her voice to be heard, "We have no more wish to fight than you do. We understand you may have had to pay the bandits silver to get the girl safely away from them. We'll pay you back that in gratitude for keeping our kinswoman safe."

"How much?" asked a woman with a scar on her face to the leader's left.

"Luca no!" snapped an older woman to the leader's right. "We can't let strangers carry her off.”

"Aye," said the woman with the crossbow, "and she's engaged to my girls. Who are they going to marry if she leaves?"

"Or my daughters," said another woman. "I don't want to send them to the festivals to try and get with child like I did my eldest. She never came back."

The leader held up her hand, "Everyone be quiet," She turned back to Jen, "I think perhaps we may be able to come to an understanding, one that does not end in bloodshed. Will you drink host wine with us and come speak beneath our roof?"

"Yes," said Jen.

One of the women produced a cup and a wineskin. Lillian filled the cup from the skin and drank before passing the cup to Jen. No one really moved until everyone had drunk, taking the cup was as good as giving an oath. When I brought the wooden cup to my lips, I found the liquid horribly bitter. It wasn't wine but rather some kind of distilled liquor made from berries and honey.

They led us down the hall towards the largest of the houses, a gathering hall and where most of the enclave members lived and slept during the winter. Half our group stayed outside and half went in. Tobias went to identify Lily and I went with him because if everything went to hell I wanted to be there to fight by his side.

A huge hearth dominated one side of the hall and long tables ran down one side. Lillian gave orders and soon food was brought to the table. It was simple fair, dry barley bread and a vegetable soup so thin it was clear.

A very old man came to the table, leaning heavily on a young woman's arm. His hair was white as an old ram's and his skin deeply wrinkled. His back was hunched nearly double from age and infirmity. He moved slowly as if every motion pained him.

He took a place at the table beside Lillian.

"My name is Daniel, I am the patriarch of this household. I have been told that you have come to take the girl." He spoke in a raspy voice.

"Yes, she is our kin," said Jen.

He slowly tilted his head, "Funny, she said all her kin were slaughtered and that she was born on a River Farm, not in the Five Forts."

"Kin by marriage to a murdered woman of the Five Forts," said Sarah.

"Does she even know you?"

He had her there. She flushed, "She might know my name."

"And yet you expect her to go with you?"

"I've got her little sister, we saved an infant from the burning farm."

The old man lifted a piece of bread with shaking hands and broke off a small morsel. He spent a long time chewing it before at last saying, "If you truly care about the well being of this girl you will leave her here, she's already lost everything she knows once. She need not suffer more. Here she will be well taken care of and valued.

He paused to raise a cup and drank, slowly; carefully so as to not slosh the cup with his palsied hand. "What is one kindler girl to you, a woman of the forts? I have heard that there are many gifted women there, even men. There have never been more than two men at a time in this enclave at any one time, my father in law and me, and then after he died it was my son-in-law and me. Sadly I outlived him as well. There have been no children born beneath this roof in ten years.

"This girl, she is the difference between life and a slow death for this enclave. This girl means that my granddaughters will have a wife that they will not have to go down to the river and risk the roads to travel to the festivals just to try and conceive. This girl will bring back the sound of children to these halls. She will have a place of honor, the same as I have and someday be the matriarch of the family."

"And what about what she wants," said Tobias. "Your family need these things, that doesn't mean she owes them to you."

The old man gave him a very tired look, "If you can say something like that your father didn't raise you properly boy. What a man or a kindler wants doesn't matter, we are held to a higher duty. We are the kindlers of life."

"We are more than just breading rams!"

"If that's how you've been used, then I am truly sorry for you. I pity any man who's never had the chance to be a father."

Anger and then grief and at last uncertainty flashed across Tobias's face. He sunk down into his chair.

"Leave the girl here," said the old man, "if nothing else, she will have the chance to be a mother to every children she sires. Such cannot be said of any life she might have in the wider world."

"And will she be forced to lie with half the household before she's even fully grown and have no say in it? Survival for your enclave is slavery for her,” said Tobias.

The old man raised his bushy eyebrows, "Truly do you think we're monsters? Lily won't wed anyone until she is of age, which most of my granddaughters are not yet either. They’ll all finish growing up together."

Jen leaned forward, "With all due respect sir, I think it is past time we heard what Lily thinks."

"I suppose you will not leave until you do and we certainly can't afford to feed you more than one meal."

He whispered something to a girl of about thirteen who'd just brought a pitcher of water to the table. She darted off and a few minutes later came back leading another girl by the hand.

The second girl's hair shone like gold, even in the dimness of the hall. She was tall and slender with sharp features and a pointy nose. She moved with the clumsy coltish grace of a girl not yet done growing.

Although she wore a shirt with long sleeves I could see the ugly rope marks still healing on her wrists. There was no hiding the fading bruise that had darkened one of her eyes, it was at that almost yellow phase that meant it had to be at least a week old.

She hung back, clinging to the other girl’s hand and eyeing us distrustfully. Then she saw Tobias. She dropped the hand and ran the last few steps across the room.

"Tobias! You escaped! You came to rescue me."

"I did,"

Tobias stood just in time to nearly get knocked over by her frantic embrace. She clung to him giving small frantic sobs.

When she calmed the old man asked her, "Lily do you know this man."

She pushed away from Tobias and nodded quickly. "Yes, he was a captive of the bandits too."

"Do you trust him?"

"Of course."

"He wants to take you from here, back to the Five Forts. I know nothing of the place but its reputation and I cannot say whether it is a better or worse place than here."

Lily looked frantically between Tobias and the old man and then the young girl who hovered in the doorway.

"I..."

The old man held up his hand, "Before you speak you should listen. I know life here seems hard, I know it is not what you were accustomed to beside the river but it is not a bad one. If you remain here my family can offer you a home where you will always be wanted and valued. My granddaughters will treat you with respect and die fighting before they let you or the children you might someday give them come to harm. I doubt the Five Forts can promise you the same."

Tobias spoke, talking directly to Lily instead of the old man, "I give my word that you will have a home in Ash Fort. My mother will adopt you into our family. I'll be your brother. As a member of Ash Fort you will be free to choose your own life, to marry who you wish or never marry at all if you don’t want to."

Lily gave a very small nod. Her face was hard like she was fighting down fear. "Then I'll go with you."

"And you are certain?" asked the old man. He was looking at Jen though, not the girl.

"Yes," said Lily.

Jen lowered her voice, "So tell me old man, what will it take for us to peacefully leave this place with our kinswoman."

"If my family is to lose our hope of a future in Lily we must be able to pay the full bridal price of a kindler or the grooms price of a man from a river family."

"You didn't pay the bandits that much."

No hands actually went to swords but quick looks were traded across the room.

"No, but somehow I doubt they will ever be bringing another girl to our door. Our scouts saw you lot dragging one of their brats up the path with her hands bound."

Jen straightened her back, "She's the only survivor of their hideout."

The grey haired woman stood with murder in her eyes. Her father laid a hand on her arm to stop her going for her sword.

"Did you kill the children too?" she asked very sharply.

"We saw no children but the girl we have with us," said Jen.

The old man said. "I had a grown daughter in that enclave. I won't lie and say she was anything but the worst of rogues but she was still my child and I doubt you even buried her."

"We buried all we killed." Jen's voice was low and dangerous. "We're not savages. They murdered our kinswomen on the road, kidnapped, raped and sold a man and conceiver, and then slaughtered a river family. They kidnapped a young girl and you bought her from them. So if I were you old man I wouldn't be claiming too many grievances. Ours run a lot deeper than yours and we've already proven we're willing to avenge them in blood."

She reached into her cloak and threw down a bag that clinked, "I am sick of bloodshed and misery. There are thirty five silver coins, let it be an end to this."

The old man looked at the bag and then stood slowly and painfully. He offered his hand, "I swear upon my father's grave that we will let you go in peace with the girl and carry out no blood feud against you and yours."

Jen took it, "I swear upon my mother's life that we will go in peace and carry no blood feud against you and yours."

Everyone finally relaxed. "If we let the bandit girl go will you take her in as kin?" Jen asked.

"She's not our blood and we can't afford to feed another ungifted girl through the winter."

"Very well."

They led us from the long house back into the late afternoon light. Lily clung to Tobias hand, as fearful as a child. The women of the house led us as far as the road above the enclave and then turned back towards the yard.

We met the two River Boat crew and the bandit girl a mile away. The two girls looked at each other with weary eyes, each showing neither fear nor hatred but a sort of weary acknowledgment.

We put as much distance between the enclave and ourselves as we could before sunset and made camp far from the trail. The air was bitterly cold. The enclave hadn't given Lily a cloak to take with her so Tobias gave her his and made do with a warm shirt.

We ate a quick dinner and doused the fire immediately afterwards. I was just coming back to camp from helping the cook wash dishes in a small stream when I heard yelling.

"No! Don't touch me!"

Lily was standing a short distance from the fire ring and had her arms crossed in front of herself and was glaring at the healer, Hali.

"I just want to look at your wrists dear."

"No!"

Tobias laid a hand on her shoulder, "It's all right Lily, she is a healer she just wants to help."

"Fine." Lily hunched up into herself and sat down on a log at Tobias's urging. Her entire body was as tense as a frightened hare as she let the healer pushed back her sleeves and apply a salve to her wrists and then her blackened eye.

The healer tried to ask if she had any other injuries but Lily just shook her head. Tobias motioned me over, "Can you sit with Lily while I talk to the healer?"

I nodded and Tobias went off with the healer. I sat down next to the girl on the log. She cast me one quick look and drew up her knees. I really couldn't think of anything kind or helpful to say so I just told the truth.

"The bandits kidnapped me too when they took Tobias."

She turned her head far enough to watch me out of the corner of her eyes, "You're the little sister he talked about, Kate. He said he thought he'd never see you again."

"I was rescued by River Fort mercenaries."

She nodded, her body slowly uncoiling. "If you’re Tobias's sister, then I'll trust you then."

"Thank you."

Tobias came back with the healer sat down to talk with Lily quietly. Tobias stayed and I went off to bed down for the night I was deeply exhausted. I found Mel already laying down her blanket; she must have had the early morning watch.

I lay down with her and drifted off, waking only shallowly when Jen curled up on my other side. It was near dawn when a sudden panicked cry jerked me awake. I was on my feet and reaching for my sword when I heard the healer yell. "Everyone go the hell back to sleep. False alarm."

The sound of a girl crying was still impossible to ignore in the darkness. I had to know who it was.

Jen caught my wrist, "I think it’s just Lily,"

"I have to go help Tobias."

I left her and Mel and felt my way through the darkness to the ground closest to the fire circle where the sound was coming from. Lily was sitting up in her bedding her arms wrapped around her knees and trembling violently.

Tobias had abandoned his own blankets to come and sit beside her, an arm around her shoulders, steadying her.

"Your safe now. The bandits are dead, they can't hurt you any more." He was using the same tone he'd once used to help calm me when I was a very small child.

The girl just kept crying. I knelt down where she could see me, "Can I sit with you Lily," I asked gently.

She nodded wordlessly and I sat on her other side on her tangled blankets. "Can I hug you like Tobia's is doing?"

She nodded again.

I laid my arm over her other shoulder, letting her feel the reassuring warmth of a person on both sides of her. Tobias began to sing a lullaby in a whisper. It was sweet and soft and familiar. My father had sung it to me a thousand times before I was grown.  It was about being home and safe and loved.

Gradually Lily stopped shaking like a leaf. Tobias began a second song and then another. He lad a low clear voice, fine enough to be a bard if he'd ever wanted to, if me were allowed to be bards that is. There was a man in Eastern Fort who always sung in their tavern and at festivals but he never even took the risk of traveling to the other forts to preform.

Lily fell asleep between us on the third song and I helped Tobias ease her back down and wrapped the blankets around her. Tobias drew his own blankets around his shoulders so he could sit up beside her through the night. He was clearly not going to be able to sleep.

I'd have stayed with him but he whispered, "Go try and sleep Kate, only one of us needs to do this."

I went back to my lovers and to my surprise sleep did indeed come. If Lily cried out in the next night again, I didn't hear it.

Chapter Text

Three days of hard travel brought us back down to the river and the bandits home. Lily became very edgy and nervous as we approached the site of her former imprisonment. The bandit girl stayed as silent as a ghost, walking with her eyes downcast.

Jen had wanted to untie her hands days ago but Tali had told her she'd try to get loose the moment she did and that wouldn't end well. I suspected that Tali was really more worried that the girl would be killed escaping than what she might do if she did. Whatever might happen we couldn't risk her running to other bandits hiding in the area, if there were any, and telling them where we were.

The bandit’s former home was already showing signs of disuse. The yard was silent and empty, the kitchen garden untended. There was a mound to the left of the house where the bandits had been buried in a communal grave. A large circle of ash marked where we'd burned our own few dead so we could take their bones and ashes home to their families. Even at the onset of fall, we had too much distance to travel to risk bringing bodies onto the boat.

For the sake of one kindler girl, we'd lost three of our own ungifted. We took nothing from the bandits building’s. Helen wanted to set fire to the place but Jen refused. "We're not bandits or raiders. We're women of the Five Forts. Let any woman who comes here see that we came only to get back what was ours, not for any profit or vengeance."

We set the meager number of goats, pigs and horses they had free, they were half wild already. We couldn't take them all with us on the boat and they'd die in their pens if we left them.

There was nothing left to do then but walk down the half ruined dock to the waiting River Queen. Lily went without a backwards glance and Tobias spat on the ground before he crossed the uneven planks to the boat. I looked back but I had no curses to give. I wasn't sure what I felt anymore.

Tali was the last to follow. She stayed back with the bandit girl, speaking to her quietly. She cut her hands free of the ropes and then gave her three things. A satchel, the long knife from her own belt, and a small bag of something that clinked of coins. The girl accepted all without a word.

She slipped the satchel over her shoulder, the knife into her belt, pocketed the coins. She bolted into the tree cover along the edge of the river as if she feared the hounds of hell were on her heels, that or perhaps she feared that a rifle ball might find her from the boat.

Tali's face was stone-faced whens he climbed onto the boat. Jen gave the order to cast off and we pushed away from the dock and all the death we had found there. The sky above was the clear bright blue of a late fall morning and even with my cloak on I shivered.

I went to stand beside Tali. She didn't reach out but I could tell she wanted the reassurance. Jen came to stand to her left side, watching the bank.

"How much of a chance do you think she really has?" said Jen.

"Enough. She might have looked like a child to you boat captain, but she wasn't, even before we killed her family. Girls grow up quickly on the edge of the world."

"Still," said Jen, "should we have just left her all on her own like that? Maybe we should have taken her back to the forts."

Tali gave a sharp, ugly laugh, "As what? A prisoner to be hung? A captured gifted bride to be imprisoned and raped? An angry young woman that no family would take in? You know perfectly well that she'd have no place in the Five Forts and those there wouldn't thank you for bringing back living proof of the brutal world beyond their walls.

She tilted her head to look at Jen, "We did the kindest thing we could by turning her loose like a wild thing and even so we may someday regret it. She could be a dangerous enemy someday."

Jen straightened her back, "I'd rather face a possible future enemy than kill a half grown girl today and betray all I value in doing so."

"You're a good woman Jen Harper, a stupidly noble one sometimes, but a good one."

"And you're a ruthless cutthroat, but not a heartless one."

Tali smiled and it reached her eyes, "You teach my daughter's honor and I'll teach yours how to not get their throats slit for it."

"Agreed."

I leaned against Tali, who put her arm around me. "And what will I teach them?" I asked turning my head to see Jen.

"Courage," said Jen without missing a beat. Oddly enough I knew she was right. It was not a word I would have given to myself a month before but now it fit.

We watched the shore darken as we slowly sailed upstream against the current, carried on by the River Queen's sails. Cali and Mel came to join us looking out at the shoreline. I felt content and peaceful for the first time since I'd left Ash Fort. Those I loved most in the world were with me.

"Do you want to marry at the Winter Festival or wait for the Spring one?" Jen asked me. The spring festival was more traditional for marriages but people still wed at the winter one.

"I've always loved the spring festival best."

I felt Tali shift beside me and I turned to see her trading a look with her sisters.

"What is it?" I asked.

"We were hoping you'd marry us as soon as we returned to the forts, or at least at the Winter Festival. It would make our place in the fort more secure."

I hadn't thought much about that, "Then I'll announce our engagement as soon as we return to Ash Fort and we'll marry at the Midwinter festival."

"And your family won't stand in the way?" asked Tali.

"You're arriving as rescuing heroes with a lost man and conceiver, I said. "They'll deny you nothing."

"What about your family, river rat," said Cali nudging Jen, "your father going to object to you marrying the same woman as a pack of mercenaries."

"He might not be thrilled but he approves of Kate enough not to say anything, besides I'm a grown woman I can make my own choices."

That night the wind shifted and the first cold flakes of snow drifted down from the sky.

...

It was a cold difficult journey back upriver. We weren't sailing anywhere near as fast as we had been going down river and the sails had to be constantly adjusted to catch enough wind to fight the current. Sometimes the oars even had to be broken out and the ship rowed upriver with the smaller boats.

Every morning we woke with ice on the deck and the edges of the river were just starting to show signs of icing. Snow fell once and then twice but never quite stuck. Lily kept crying out in her sleep but she quieted much more quickly after the first night.

She constantly followed Tobias like a shadow. Sarah had hoped Lily might show some interest in the baby or at least help her with it but she didn't. She did confirm that the baby was her half sister and Sarah's niece. Her name was Nina.

Tobias started teaching Lily basic sword fighting and that helped more than anything else. They'd spent hours or the deck carefully working through drills and Lily was always calmer afterwards.

The morning we at last glimpsed the River Fort dock snow had been falling heavily since dawn, turning the world white. One of the fort guards spotted us long before we arrived and half the fort was on the dock by the time we arrived.

"Tobias" Gillie was the first to the side of the boat. Her arm was in a sling and she looked gaunt and exhausted. All the same she clung to my brother with her good arm as soon as he climbed onto the dock,

"Gillie-" he tried to speak and then gave up, just letting her hold him.

Tillie joined them more slowly, moving with the caution of a pregnant woman who was walking on an icy dock. Gillie let her into the circle and they both clung to Tobias like the world was falling away. He stood stiffly between them and then began to sob, coving his face to hide the emotion.

"Jen! Kate!" Suzy nearly bowled me over. "Kate I was so scared, they said the bandits took you. Everyone said you were lost but Jen said she'd save you and I knew she would."

I hugged my friend, letting her familiar flow of words wash over me. Vaguely I noticed that Jen was trying to wriggle out of a hug from her mother while speaking to her father.

I saw Rebecca at the back of the group. She was deathly pale and leaning heavily on the shoulder of another woman, her left arm and shoulder heavily bandaged beneath her winter cloak.

She limped over to us and I gently nudged Suzy out of the way. I saw pain in her eyes when she raised them to me, "Oh gods Kate, I'm so sorry."

I pulled her into my arms, "For what?"

"I failed, I couldn't protect you and Tobias."

"You were hurt. You did everything you could."

"I-"

"Sh."

She didn't cry, Rebecca never cried, but I could feel something wet on my shoulder where she hid her face. "I thought I'd lost you both."

"We fought our way back home."

Her hand tightened on my shoulder and she didn't say anything more.

...

We spent one night in River Fort and rode out at dawn. Rachael was barely in a state to ride, weak as she was from the blood poisoning she'd survived, so she rode in a cart with Gillie, who was having a hard time riding with a broken arm.

Tillie, and the others rode. Lily came with us. Although Sarah had said she was welcome with her family in River Fort, Lily had never really warmed to the woman even if they were kin by marriage. By unspoken agreement she was staying with Tobias.

Jen and Tali rode by my side as Cali and Mel kept to the edges of the group, ready to fight at a moments notice.

I felt my heart in my throat as we rode out onto the frozen road. The air was bitterly cold and I could see my breath. The memories of a month past tormented me as we rode by the site of the ambush.

There were white wooden X's laid in the ground upon the places where our own women had fallen. I felt as if the shades of all who had died there watched us with the cold envy that the dead hold for the living.

I could see the tree where the bandit man had almost slit my throat. The bandit woman's word and the bracelets on my wrist were all that had saved me from becoming a shade myself.

We rode on, our eyes ever watchful, scanning the forest as we rode. We never stopped for the midday meal, didn't even eat in the saddle, just rode hard. I almost wept when the road turned and the valley of Ash Fort came into sight. I was almost home.

"It's beautiful," Tali told me as she reigned up her horse beside me.

"It's your home now," I said, "you and your sisters belong here with me."

She looked for a long time out at the valley. When she turned to me I saw something on her face I had seldom before. She was truly, genuinely, happy. It made her seem so much younger than the world weary mercenary she carried herself as.

The gate's were flung open for us long before we arrived. The entire fort was waiting for us in the main courtyard. A rider had gone ahead to tell them we were coming. Someone took my horse and I climbed down.

"Kate!" my mother nearly lifted me off my feet in a desperate hug. The next few minutes were a blur of hugs and words and tears. Tobias managed as best he could for a few minutes and then began to shy away from people.

My father took his arm and got him out of the yard with Lily following after Tobias like a colt after her dam. The fort healer was already at work fussing over Rachael and Gillie, barking for some women to help her get them all inside and out of the growing chill of late afternoon.

I found myself surrounded by eager family and friends in the midst of the courtyard, utterly overwhelmed and unable to answer the endless questions they asked of me. A momentary flutter of panic took me and then I felt Jen's hand on my shoulder and Tali's on my back.

My mother barked at the crowd to give me space and the yard quickly began to clear. There were equal parts joy and sorrow when she looked at me, as well as confusion when she considered how close Jen and the Walker sisters were standing. I knew she could see that the Walker sisters were mercenaries from the worn functional cut of their clothes and the weapons they carried.

I straightened my back, "Mom, I want to introduce you to Tali, Cali and Mel Walker. They rescued me from the bandits. They, along with Jen, helped me rescue Tobias. I’m engaged to all of them now. "

To her credit her eyebrows barely rose. She motioned me foreword to speak very softly so that only I would hear, "All three of them and Jen?

"Yes."

She laid a hand on my shoulder, "Are you pregnant, do you not know which one is the gene mother?" Her face paled before I could reply, "Goddess Kate. Even if it's by one of the bandits who kidnapped you, you don't have to marry your rescuers just to hide it. We can stop you from carrying any longer."

I shook my head, "I'm not pregnant and I've chosen them as my fiancés freely."

She frowned. “Truly?”

“Truly.”

“And your not just marrying them out of gratitude for rescuing you?”

“No, I love them.

“We will speak on this further, for now you must be exhausted." She kissed me on the forehead before she considered the three sisters. She spoke to Tali, having figured out which was the leader.

"I owe you and your sisters a great debt of gratitude for my daughter's safe return. Kate has already offered you her hand. I will give you my blessing under the condition that you wait until the winter festival to wed. I trust you will not give me cause to regret this."

Tali bowed her head, "You have my word that my sisters and I will always protect and provide for your daughter."

"And mine that you will have a place in my fort so long as you do. We'll see if you’re fit to serve in the guard later" She tilted her head towards Jen, "And I know you Jen Harper, have since you were a newborn in your mother’s arms. You're a good woman, you've helped bring my daughter and stepson back to me, I trust you'll be a good wife to Kate."

"I promise," said Jen.

My mother finally smiled then, warm and open. "Then I welcome you all to Ash fort. Come inside before we all freeze."

We walked together into the meeting hall amidst the first heavy flurries of snow that had begun to fall.

...

 

Spring came late that year, the last heavy freeze barely a week before the first of the lambing. I spent those first few weeks in the sheep paddocks, busy and bone weary. My gift wasn't strong enough to do much for people but I could help ease the birth of a lamb and know when it needed to be brought to be warmed at the fire so that it would live.

It was all I could do each night to return to the small house that my mother had given me and my wives as a wedding present and fall into a dreamless sleep in a lover’s arms. It had belonged to one of my great aunts who had died without children. Winter had been long and bitter but my bed had never been cold or empty. I spent the brief days finishing my apprenticeship and my nights forging the new ties of my marriages.

Tobias spent much of his time with Lily that winter. His mother had adopted the girl and taken her into her household. They spent much of their days beside the hearth in the great hall speaking softly. I never knew what they talked about but it seemed to help them both. Tobias never said anything more to me about his captivity, nor I to him of mine. It seemed there were some griefs we couldn’t share.

Lily had come into the fort as a quiet fearful girl, but she'd been slowly re-finding herself through the winter. She'd proven a skilled hand during the lambing and certainly earned her place in the fort. Though she seldom smiled, she seemed content enough.

Tobias's son was born on the first truly warm day of spring. The baby had dark eyes like his father and the usual shriveled pink look of most newborns. Tobias and Tillie named him Joseph. I know that winter had not been easy for Tobias, that even as much as he loved the twins he'd found it hard to be near anyone, even them.  When he held Joseph though, he seemed utterly calm, even happy for the first time since his kidnapping.

The first buds of spring were lost to a sudden frost but the second ones were in full bloom when Jen and my other wives prepared to set out for River Fort and the River Queen. We had only a day's ride ahead of us but we'd be traveling with at least ten other women, no one took chances anymore.

On the morning we were to leave, I went to the weaving shed. For once the looms were silent, too many women were going to River Fort as guards or tending the flocks. I found Old Maggs sitting beside the fire, the carpet beneath her was scattered with spindles, clearly abandoned by the little girls who'd been released from spinning lessons to see the travelers off.

I went to her, kneeling down on the mat as I had a thousand times as a child when I was learning to spin and listening to her stories. She looked at me through hazy old eyes set within the wrinkled folds of her worn face.

"I hope you are happy dear. I was ready to sink into my final years and now I can't until I train a new apprentice," she said this with her usual bluntness.

I stared at her speechless.

"I spent nearly ten years training you to be a master weaver and now you are just going to run off with some pretty mercenaries and a river boat captain. Who's going to help me run the weaving shop now? Who will help me teach all the next generation to spin and weave."

"I'll be back by fall, I promise."

She laughed at my earnest face and patted my shoulder, "And probably heavy with your first child and without a thought for the looms. It's all right dear, go sail up the river with your wives. I was young once too."

I kissed her on the cheek and went to the courtyard to meet the others. Jen already had a mare saddled and waiting for me. She looked wonderful in the dark blue cloak I'd woven for her that winter, dyed with the stones she'd given me. The Walker sisters stood to her side, Mel excitedly talking to her about the boat, Cali half listening, and Tali watching for me. I'd made Tali a cloak of dull brown like she'd asked, Cali a dark red one and Mel a forest green.

They still carried the same worn but well kept weapons they'd always had, although their sword scabbards were new, a wedding present from my father. In addition to the rifle over my shoulder, I was carrying a sword as well. It felt heavy on my hip as did the dagger in my boot. I wasn't going out into the world without a way to defend myself in an ambush.

Tobias and Rebecca had come out to bid us goodbye along with my parents. My father and Rebecca hugged me, my mother kissed my cheek, and Tobias pressed my shoulder.

I mounted my horse and rode through the gates of Ash fort surrounded by my wives to head towards the waiting river and our futures.