Hell and High Water


Chapter One


Four Corners



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Peace is but a shadow of Death,
Desperate to forget its painful past,
Though we hope for promising years,
After shedding a thousand tears,
Yesterday's sorrow constantly nears,
And while the moon shines blue,
By dawn, it will turn a scarlet hue.
- Kuja, Final Fantasy IX



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Discipline Cottage, at Winding Circle:
The garden was flooding. What were you supposed to do when the garden flooded? Briar was prepared for everything else but this, and Rosethorn wasn't there to help. It wasn't like the plants could be moved. If it'd only been a few of them he would have temporarily potted them but he couldn't very well move the whole stuffing garden. He didn't have enough pots. He tried asking Rosethorn through their magic, but the moment he reached out to her he knew she was busy. Her magic was a bright silver flare, in a circle with others, all focused inward. Briar took the hint and backed off.


The tarp he'd set over the rows of plants, and the bricks and logs surrounding them did nothing to keep the water from seeping in through the ground or the wind from blowing up the edges of the tarp. He'd tried staking it down. That lasted longer, though the end result was the same and he got drenched in the process. Briar was left with no other option but to resign himself to letting most of his plants drown. He saved what he could in pots, walled off the rest as well as was possible, and then attacked the chore of cleaning his workroom to get his mind off their pain. There was just nothing more he could do. The rain had been pouring down for weeks, and the ground had soaked up more than it could handle.


What he needed was Tris, but he had no idea where she was, as it had been three years since he had last seen her. Even then she and Niko had come back from their trip south so exhausted Tris barely managed to get to bed, let alone catch up with everyone. They stayed one night, and were gone the following morning before Briar could even say good-bye. Niko seemed to be trying to make up for the four years he'd rooted himself to the four children. Last Briar'd heard he and Tris were heading east over the Pebbled Sea.


All his other foster sisters were close, at least. Daja lived with Kirel in Summersea, running the most suscesful blacksmith shop on the Pebbeled Sea now that Frostpine had 'officially' retired. Sandry stayed with her uncle, taking over the duties his failing health forced him to concede, and Lark was staying with them to ease the Duke and keep Sandry at peace.


Briar and Rosethorn lived alone at Discipline, though lately Rosethorn stayed so much in Winding Circle Briar was getting lonely. Whenever she did come home, it was only to sleep or tend her plants, and he felt a little silly asking for attention. It used to be he could always count on Tris for company on rainy days when no one else was around. Quiet company, 'cause she'd always be reading, but somehow just her presence was enough. She would be curled up somewhere comfortable with a book and he'd bring his shakkan in to fiddle with or plants that needed extra fussing and that would be enough. She didn't bug him with too many questions or expect him to keep her entertained, and she never seemed annoyed with his company.


But Sandry wrote him every week and Daja would visit when she had time. All the news he could ever get of Coppercurls came from what Rosethorn heard of Niko, which was never more than a few hastily scribbled sentences. Apparently he wasn't much for writing either.


A tendril of the ivy growing in a pot on the windowsill snaked out to catch his wrist and Rosethorn's crisp voice broke into his thoughts. Briar, I won't be coming home for dinner. Something's come up that needs my attention here. What was it you needed earlier?


The garden is flooding and I don't know what to do
, he replied bluntly, staring out the window through the rain at his poor plants. The ground is soaked, more mud than dirt, so even if the stuffing tarp stayed on it wouldn't matter.


She was busy. He knew she was talking to someone else when he had to wait for her answer. I assume you've potted what you can? Then there's nothing else to do but wait the rain out.


I know. I just don't like it.


Our garden isn't the only green being flooded. I know it hurts, but the plants will recover in time. Rosethorn cut herself off abruptly, leaving him alone again.


Briar felt unreasonably restless. The rain was making him crazy. He started pacing the length of the cottage, all the way from Rosethorn's workroom to the attic, which they had turned into a kind of junk room when Lark moved out. He cleaned his room, the girls' old rooms, everything but the attic and still felt caged and full of energy. Briar finally came to a stop in the living room, eyes narrowed at the door.


Cabin fever.


And he had no idea what to do about it. Or at least...


Briar let his eyes drift to the stairs. It'd been years since anyone had tackled the attic with cleaning in mind. He knew because the last time he'd gone up there he remembered thinking there was enough dust to plant a forest in.


With a resigned sigh, he grabbed a pitcher full of water and a handful of dust rags.




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At Winding Circle Temple, in Emelan:

Honored Dedicate Moonstream clasped her hands behind her back and stared through her reflection in the window glass at the rain streaming down over Winding Circle. Behind her twelve of the most powerful mages in Emelan shifted uncomfortably in their seats, exchanging worried glances.


"And what did you say his name was?" Moonstream asked finally, her voice clipped but soft.


"Shadowshifter," a man in the red Fire Temple robes replied. Dedicate Skyfire's sharp blue eyes were unusually grim. "Alan Shadowshifter."


"Niklaren Goldeye should be here for this," an Air Dedicate mumbled to herself.


"And Duke Vedris."


"Someone should warn Lightsbridge."


"Messengers have been sent," Moonstream said quietly, her voice hardly louder than the rain. The room behind her once again settled into stillness.


"Isn't there anything we can do?" the Air Dedicate asked timidly.


"No. We do not have enough information to do anything. All we know is that anyone who can scry is seeing this Alan Shadowshifter," she spat the words. "And disaster. We cannot act without more than that."


Another silence, broken only by thunder and rain. Then the same timid voice spoke. "I thought scrying the future showed you all possible--"


"Yes," Moonstream said. She finally turned to face them. "And in every one, he is there. In every one, there is horrible destruction." Moonstream met the eyes of all the people in the room, adding softly, "In every one we die."




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In the Namorn Empire, Lake Glaise near the Olart border:
It was six days since the bandits had killed his fellows and left Mune of the Namorn Border Guard fatally wounded, alone, and too far from any help. The knife wound in his leg was festering despite his best attempts to keep the thing clean, and made any kind of travel excruciatingly painful.


Mune had buried his comrades as soon as he'd been able, cursing the bandits all through the grim task. With his leg wound he'd never make it far enough to warn Girith of them, the closest village at nearly a week's hard ride north 'round the lake. But he had to try. Mune had sworn himself to protect innocents from the likes of folk such as the bandits -- he'd given near thirty years to serving the border guard.


Now it seemed he must give his life. Mune gathered all the loot the bandits had left behind -- three water flasks, his sword, and the flat bread and dried meat that were border guard standard rations -- and set off limping through the forest, heading north.


It was early spring, the air was laced with a damp chill, and the woods dripped in the steady drizzle of rain. Mune kept his course steady, and set the pace as fast as his leg could manage it.


Mune had grown up in country like this, thick woods and steady rain, but that had been a very long time ago. His wound soon took with the fever brought from infection, and Mune spent his nights by the fire remembering things from his childhood to forget the pain of his leg.


His family had never had much money, but growing up as the baby in a pack of nine Mune had never given money much thought. His days were spent running wild in the woods with his brothers, teasing squirrels and rabbits and the goats that had belonged to old Mistress Porter, who lived alone out in the forest depths.


Until the night the raiders had come, burning everything, and his father had made the children go into the trees while he stayed and fought them and died and was burned, too. The raiders had carried his mother off, and it was the last time he'd ever seen her. He still prayed, now and again, that she'd met an easy end and was at peace.


His brothers had half-dragged half-carried his sisters through the woods, in the dead of night, to Mistress Porter's cottage. Stumbled up the steps, knocked on the door -- and Mune would never, even if he lived a thousand years, forget the look on that old woman's withered brown face in the lantern light, or her patient kindness through the years till they were grown. The old Trader woman took them in, set them by her fire, got some food into them. And then she began speak in a very quiet voice, and the words still stuck in Mune's mind as if it had been yesterday.


"Sometimes," she'd said, in her worn, creaky voice, "sometimes in life things happen. Important things. Things you know will change your life forever. It's the gods' doing. But," she'd added, looking hard at each of them in turn, "but there is a balance to it. To everything in Nature. Now you listen, and listen good: you gotta pay your debt. You gotta pay back the favor the gods done you, or they'll take what you owe, and you'll be worse off then when you started.


"It can be paid back in different ways. Giving some money every month to them that need it. Taking in someone homeless -- or, sometimes, just sometimes, Oti Bookkeeper will have somethin' special for you to do. Me, well, I got me nine children to raise. But you gotta pay your debts. Any way you can. Never leave a debt unpaid."


Mune's older sisters were all married off now, on farms or in the city. The littlest sisters, the twins, were with Mistress Porter still, but all the boys had joined border guard.


One of them was buried beneath the trees with Mune's other comrades.


Mune tried not to dwell on that, or blame himself for getting knocked unconscious into the bramble, leaving his friends to fight to their death. He tried not to, but more often than not he did. The pain in his heart took his mind away from the pain in his leg.


Mune was three days on the road when he came to an abrupt clearing in the trees. He stopped, frozen, taking in his surroundings. A little cottage stood on a small hill, its windows dark, no smoke rising from the chimney. The ground was covered in bright green clover up to his knees. A rotting barn sagged in on itself, behind the cottage. The silence that filled the clearing was ominous. Apocalyptic. Mune felt his nerves set themselves on edge.


A little girl -- three years old, maybe -- sat on the steps of the cottage, watching him quietly.


Mune was about to walk forward, but something about her stopped him. Her clothing wasn't odd, to say the least; loose black cotton dress, well worn but in good shape. Bare feet. Her hair was a light shade of black, and carefully combed. Eyes the color of clover-green watched him somberly as he walked with care through the clearing. A homemade stuffed goat toy was held protectively in one hand.


But she wouldn't answer any of his questions, and those vivid green eyes never left him, so Mune stepped pass her and knocked on the door. It swung open from the light force. The cottage looked deserted, abandoned, but for one thing.


The walls were covered in chalk drawings.


Most were so faded he could barely tell they were there, but on the wall beside the dead fireplace was a series of pictures etched in painstaking detail. Mune took a step toward them, to get a closer look. And then he stopped breathing. It was him on that wall, as sure as day, and done so well he couldn't doubt it. It was him exactly, perfectly sketched, more skillfully than he'd ever seen anything drawn in his life. He turned away, looked around bit, then started for the door to what he assumed was the bedroom.


Mune opened the door to the bedchamber, took one hard look at the pile of dark rags on the bed, and quickly closed the door, trying not to breathe in the rotting stench.


The little girl was standing in the cottage entrance, the stuffed goat toy clutched in one hand. She stared at him solemnly, waiting. Mune looked again at the pictures on the wall. The ones of himself, of his dead comrades lying strewn on the forest floor, of an infected knife wound and several different herbs, and of him and the little girl on a horse, a big black beast, riding through the trees.


Mune stared hard at the last picture. It looked a bit like a spindle, from the top, with a central shaft and the winding thread going in a circle around it, but there was something odd about it, something...more. Mune peered closer, until his nose was almost touching the wall. It seemed to change, every time he blinked, though he noticed nothing different.


Mune looked again at the child for long moments. He had the suspicion that destiny was giving him a wake up call, and being none too subtle about it. "It's not a spindle, is it?" He kept his voice gentle. "It's a place, and I'm to take you there. Is that right?" She nodded slowly, her eyes never leaving his.


Mune glanced around the cottage, and his gaze caught on a shelf, near the table, and the herbs stacked in bundles on it. The little child walked to it quietly. She could not reach the shelves and dragged a chair across the floor, clambered up it, and picked five different bundles of herbs, then went and set them on the table. Then she started watching him again.


Mune stared at her for a long, long time. It had occurred to him that one of those sometimes Mistress Porter had talked about was staring right back at him with clover green eyes. Mune had a debt to pay, for the old Trader woman that had taken him in. The gods were saying, It's time you paid it.


Mune had never let his debts go unpaid. Even if it meant leaving everything he knew to take a little girl someplace he didn't even know was real. Mune have been Trader by osmosis rather than birth, but Mistress Porter had installed her beliefs firmly in him, and Mune had been through enough freaky coincidences in his life to believe the things she'd told him about debts.


"Okay," he said, and smiled. She slowly smiled back. "I'll take you to the spindle place. Will you show me how to fix my wound?" The little girl put the herbs all together in a bowl, adding water from a clay pitcher, and then mashing them to a pulp. This Mune tied over his wound with a strip of cloth. When it was done, he asked quietly, "Do you have a name, little one?" The child pointed to the door.


Leaning against in the corner were two walking staffs, one considerably shorter than the other. Mune limped over to them. Carved into the wood with a shaky hand was the name Ros.


The taller staff was covered in dust, and said Granny.


Mune muttered a quick prayer to bless the old woman's spirit, then walked out of the house and around to the barn. He found the horse tied outside it, munching clover. It was a big animal, a draft horse, black with a white blaze and white feathers on its hocks. It was also wearing a saddle, bridle, and had several packs tied over its back. There were marks in the dirt, from the barn to the horse, where someone had dragged the stuff to the animal. And there was an overturned wooden box beside it. Mune narrowed his eyes and turned around.


Ros stood at the edge of the cottage, sucking her thumb and holding the stuffed goat toy. A small leather pack was strapped across her chest, and sticking out of some pockets were the same herbs she had used on his infected knife wound. Her staff lay on the dirt beside her feet. Clover-green eyes watched him more soberly than was appropriate for a child. Mune was being measured. The realization comforted rather than unsettled him, and the gruff warrior smiled at Ros again.


"Do you know which way this spindle-place of yours is?"


Ros took her thumb out of her mouth and pointed southeast.




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It was the wing of the hospital were the mad ones were kept. Some of them were tied to their beds, writhing and slobbering. Some crouched in corners, muttering to the gods. Some were locked in separate rooms, dangerous even to themselves. Some seemed completely normal, but all of them were crazy.


Not all of them were insane.


A sour smelling bundle of rags huddled in the shadows, bent over something on the floor. It lurched occasionally, quivered, but remained focused on its task. Whenever someone tried to look at it their eyes slid over it, seeing only a dark, oily haze from the edges of their vision. No matter the confusion or stillness in the rest of the ward, no matter the screams and wails and giggles, a steady stream of gibberish muttering rose from the bundle of rags, punctuated by harsh grunts. At the dead of night was the only time it changed its routine, and even then it would not leave the shadows. It moved in what may have been a dance, swaying and swinging its arms to wild music only it could hear, its guttural voice raising in a harsh, keening wail.


None of the patients would go near that corner.


Sometimes crazy is smarter than sane.





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Stinky Ymmot:
Well? What'd ya think? No romance just yet 'cause I had to set up the plot, but soon! I promise. Do you like it so far? Hate it? Please let me know!


It's three years after The Circle Opens, but you don't really have to have read that to understand it. It probably will have spoilers for that, though, because I'm including the students. Focuses mainly on Briar/Tris. Not that I have anything against Sandry, I just think Briar's better with Tris. It will probably be only about thirty chapters, less if I can manage it.


Tris in the next chapter, I promise! I ran out of room in this one. My computer can only handle things up to 20 KB and this is just a bit over that. Since I have lots of Tris I had to make it the next chapter.


In the back of Cold Fire, Tamora Pierce put a calendar and days of the week. I'm including them here to save confusion later on, and for anyone who needs them, along with any gods I might have mentioned in this chapter. The holidays mentioned as ours are ones we celebrated back in the Middle Ages so you probably won't recognize some of them, except for 'Longnight' and 'Dead's Night' (Christmas and Halloween).


Calendar:


Our month - Their Month - Their Holiday (Our Holiday)


January - Wolf Moon
February - Storm Moon
March - Carp Moon - Sunborn (spring equinox)
April - Seed Moon
May - Goose Moon - Wild Night (Beltane)
June - Rose Moon - Midsummer (summer solstice)
July - Mead Moon
August - Wort Moon
September - Barley Moon - Coldborn (autumn equinox)
October - Blood Moon - Dead's Night (Halloween)
November - Snow Moon
December - Hearth Moon - Longnight (winter solstice/Christmas)


Days of the week:


Our Day - Their Day


Sunday - Sunsday
Monday - Moonsday
Tuesday - Starsday
Wednesday - Earthsday
Thursday - Airsday
Friday - Firesday
Saturday - Watersday


Gods:


Oti Bookkeeper - headwoman of Trader gods. In the afterlife, when you die, Trader Koma (headman) weighs your life in his gold scales, and Bookkeeper writes down what you owe.


Disclaimer: The only things that belong to me are Ros and Mune and the plot. Everything else is the work of Tamora Pierce.


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