Note: Written for Rabbit for Yuletide 2009.
It happened that on the fourteenth day of autumn, in the two hundred and seventy-third year of the reign of His Imperial Majesty Tortaalik I of the House of the Phoenix, the Baroness of Daavya, a young woman of the House of the Dzur, stood on her balcony, brushing her hair and looking out over the wide sweep of her lands: the small neat village outside her manor walls, the wide fields running on either side of the Tameysta River, and, beyond them, the deep forest that stood between Daavya Manor itself and the vassal village of Blackwater to the east.
This woman (who is known to her intimates as Tazendra) was full with the quiet joy that many, even those who are not Dzur, understand: that joy that comes from a life full-lead, and an ancestral home well-run. But another desire that is difficult for those of other Houses to understand was growing in her breast, and after a moment she rapped her hairbrush impatiently on the rail of her balcony and turned to her Teckla housemaid, who was busy sweeping out the ashes from her fireplace.
"I wish to go on a journey," she said.
"Yes, my lady," the housemaid said, without any surprise, because such fits of restlessness were not unknown of Tazendra. "Today, my lady?"
"Yes," Tazendra said, and then laughed, which also did not startle the housemaid, for the Baroness was known for her good cheer. "It is a fine autumn day; I see no reason to delay. Send for Mica, and tell him to make preparations for a journey of, say, four days."
"Of course, my lady," said the housemaid.
And indeed, by the time Tazendra had finished dressing and readying herself for travel, Mica, who was not unaccustomed to his mistress's wishes, had prepared travel packs for two, and three horses—his mistress's favorite mare for her, and his own preferred small horse for himself, and a pony to carry the packs.
"Are we ready, then?" Tazendra asked.
"I believe we are, mistress," Mica replied. "Only—"
"Where are we going?"
Tazendra laughed again, and then said, "I suppose I must decide. Let us say . . . let us say we are going to the village of Blackwater, beyond the forest. I have not visited it in some time."
The first halfday of the journey was uneventful, and so at this point we will pass over it swiftly, saying only that Tazendra was pleased by the farms she passed as they traveled along the road that ran beside the Tameysta River; and that the farmers were not displeased to see her, for she was known for her kindness to her vassals, and known also for her inconsistent attention to them, which is in some circles viewed as a blessing.
So they traveled without incident until late in the afternoon, when they were finally deep within the forest, where the once-broad road became narrow and winding, broken by stout tree roots.
"I believe it may be time to hire some Vallista to straighten this road and make it right again," said Tazendra, "and also to fix the bridge there, for I daresay it will fall apart come but another fifty years. Hie, listen to me, worrying about roads and bridges! But," she said, in a more considering tone, "I suppose it is one of the duties of a liege to worry about that sort of thing, for all that it is less glorious than battle. Also, I think Aerich would care about the roads, for all that I do not, and these are his lands as well by liege-holding."
Mica smiled and said nothing, content to listen to Tazendra speak.
"For my own part, I like the wildness of the road, though I expect it makes things difficult for the people of Blackwater to bring their goods to—" and then she paused and tilted her head. "Do you hear that?"
"I fear I hear nothing," Mica said.
"Hm," Tazendra replied, and then with a quick wrench she turned her horse toward him and threw him the reins, which he caught by reflex. Her horse safely in Mica's hands, Tazendra leapt down, drew her sword, and charged into the brush.
Mica knew better than to be surprised, and so he simply dismounted and considered his situation. He could wait for Tazendra here, but it was difficult to anticipate what his mistress might need if he did. Perhaps she would decide to singlehandedly take on a pack of norska, and he would be needed afterwards to clean and skin them and pack up their pelts. Or perhaps she would find a rogue sorcerer and go into battle with him, and she would need Mica to help her put out the resulting fires. Or perhaps she would be seized by one of her passions for physical exertions, and he knew that when she was full of spirit she could run for hours, and he might have trouble finding her afterward if he stayed behind. And so he rearranged the three horses into a string, and led them after Tazendra.
When he found her, his mistress was standing with her sword bare in one hand, facing a group of bandits in Jhereg gray. As a true lady of her land, Tazendra took banditry as a personal affront to her.
"Five to one," Tazendra was saying, her smile flashing like her sword in the light of the bandits' fire. "By the gods, I do not like these odds." (It may be noted that, by the pure numbers, the odds were five to two, but Mica would have been the first to admit that he did not count himself in such a reckoning, or at least did not do so unless there was no other choice.)
"Lay down your sword and perhaps we will not hurt you. Much," said the leader of the band, a large and ugly-faced Jhereg man.
"Aha! But you misunderstand me."
"What, I misunderstand you?"
"Yes, you do."
"Try not my patience any longer," said the ugly Jhereg, drawing his short wicked blade.
"By the gods," Tazendra said, "I mislike the odds, because I would that there were twenty of you, to be a proper challenge for me!" And with that, she raised her sword higher and flung herself into the fray.
Mica considered to himself that even five to one were not odds that he, particularly, would care for, or at least not unless his mistress was in possession of a flashstone, which she, at that particular moment, was not. But he held his tongue, simply admiring his mistress's bravery. He had not had the foresight to bring his bar-stool (being as neither he nor the Baroness of Daavya had expected such an interruption on the path to Blackwater), but he picked up a sturdy branch and held it ready in his hands.
Tazendra brought her sword up and with a cry of delight laid about her with it, striking first one and then another of the bandits with the flat, as though they were not worthy of staining her sword with their blood. But then she brought it point-down and drove it toward the gut of another of the bandits, where his piecemeal leather armor left a seam, as though deciding that a sword was meant to be bloodied and that no blood, in fact, was unworthy of the task.
Meanwhile one of the bandits, a light-footed fellow with the agility of a squirrel, leapt to her back and brought his dagger up to her throat. Tazendra was not wearing any gorget, as such devices were not to her particular liking, and so the brigand was able to prick her throat with the tip of his dagger before she seized his wrist and wrenched it, and then spun him off and into a tree. It was the work of but a moment for her to then drive her sword through his chest and pin him to a tree, an action that pleased her with its efficiently but which unfortunately also lodged the tip of her sword into the wood of the tree, such that she had to give a great wrench to free it. As she did so, another of the miscreants staggered to his feet and made as if to strike her across the back of her head with his staff; but loyal Mica struck first, hitting him across the back of his head with the tree branch.
This left only one of the band of thieves, who had been standing to one side and watching the battle. A disinterested observer—which neither Tazendra nor Mica were at that particular moment—might have found it curious that this particular bandit had an unusual glimmer of intelligence and curiosity in her eyes, and that she seemed unconcerned with the fate of her companions. When Tazendra finished with the others, she quietly made as if to flee into the woods. But Tazendra was swifter, and ran with hair flying after the brigand, and caught her by the arm and threw her down, and planted one booted food on her chest to keep her there, and raised her sword to slay her in one clean stroke. But Mica said, "Mistress!"
"What is it, my lackey?" Tazendra said with some impatience, her eyes still fixed upon the scoundrel at her feet. "For you perceive that I am currently occupied."
"Yes, my lady, and—"
"And you perceive that I cannot allow such insult as bandits on my own roads."
"Yes, my lady, and—"
"And surely my dear friend and liege-lord Aerich would not thank me for leaving any of them to rob again."
"Yes, my lady, but—"
"So pray tell, please, why you have stayed my hand at the moment of my triumph?"
"I will, my lady, if you will but be so generous as to leave me a moment to speak."
"Well," Tazendra said, weighting the blade in her hand and planting her heel more firmly against the breastbone of her opponent, "that is not too much for a loyal servant to ask."
"May I proceed, my lady?"
"I believe you may," she said.
"Then I will point out that it is unlikely that a band of this size, so ill-provisioned, has traveled so deep within your forest without aid."
"Oh, I see."
"And I will point out, furthermore, that it might be more prudent to question this one as to where she came from, and whether there are more, so that we can root out the rot at its source," Mica said, with his eyes lowered to emphasize the humility of his suggestion.
"Oh," Tazendra said. "Well, that is not badly said, although I must say it would please me much more to slit her throat where she lies. But perhaps you are right." She eased back with her boot-heel, and said, "Tie her hands and her ankles, so that she may not run, and we will question her."
Mica worked quickly to cut the pack-horse's bridle into lengths and then used them to securely tie the brigand's hands and feet, and then he hauled her to her feet. We will now beg the reader have patience as we discuss the manner and appearance of the brigand. She was a young woman, perhaps no more than two hundred by her looks, with the mixed features that are the mark of the Jhereg: she had something of a Dragon's sharpness of feature, with something of a Dzur's coloring, but without the clarity of either; both were muted and blurred in the fashion of a Jhereg mixbreed. She stood easily despite the tight bindings on her hands and feet, and looked at Tazendra with more curiosity than fear despite the naked and bloodied blade leveled at her. Indeed, the general cast of her face was one neither of anger nor of apprehension, but simply of inquisitiveness and good cheer.
Indeed, in a demonstration of her bravado, the Jhereg said, "You may as well clean your blade, now you have me bound."
Tazendra looked at her with disdain and said, "Fie! You will not tell me what to do, scavenger and leech."
The Jhereg shrugged and smiled a little, and said, "Do as you please. Only, it cannot be good for such a fine blade to leave blood to dry on it."
Tazendra frowned, but could not see fault with this, and so she held out a hand to Mica. He anticipated her, good lackey that he was, and was already retrieving a handkerchief from the travel pack and handing it to her. Tazendra cleaned her blade with much care, without taking her eyes from the Jhereg woman, and then handed the bloodied handkerchief back to Mica, who—used to this by now—did not flinch, but simply folded it up and put it back in the horse's pack.
Tazendra was very sure with a blade in her hand, and less sure in situations like this; in her adventures she had always left the details of delicate interactions to Pel, or Aerich, or Khaavren, as delicacy was far from her forte. So the reader will be generous in their interpretation when they learn that Tazendra's method of interrogation was to hold the sword to the Jhereg's throat and say, "Well!"
"Well," said the Jhereg.
"Well," Tazendra repeated, and then faltered, and then said, "So, who are you? And who do you work for?"
"I work for none but myself," said the Jhereg, "and as for them," and she indicated with her chin, her hands being bound, the dead assailants, "well, I joined them only this morning. I know nothing of what they were here for."
"Ah, you try to distance yourself!" Tazendra said.
"I speak only the truth. I do not need to convince you," said the Jhereg.
"Pray tell, how do you figure that?" Tazendra said. "For I hold the sword, and yet you are bound."
"Hm," said the Jhereg, and then her bindings fell to the ground, and she drew her sword.
Tazendra laughed with delight. "Ha! I am pleased."
The Jhereg closed the space between them, her sword raised, and said, "Oh, pleased?"
The Jhereg feinted, and Tazendra followed her feint and drove her backward across the clearing. "Yes, very pleased," she said.
"Pray tell, why pleased?" the Jhereg asked, circling around her. Tazendra followed her move for move.
"I would not expect a Jhereg such as you to understand."
"Perhaps. And yet—"
"And yet I would like to hear."
"Well," said Tazendra, slashing down from shoulder to hip—or what would be shoulder to hip if the Jhereg had not leapt out of the way with great agility. "Before, well, you were tied."
"And there is no glory in killing someone who is helpless."
"Ah, that is true."
"But now there will be glory aplenty," Tazendra said with a wild grin.
She pressed onward, and the two pursued one another around the clearing. First Tazendra pressed her advantage, and drove the Jhereg back such that she had to leap over the bodies of the dead; and then the Jhereg sallied forth, such that Tazendra had to leap backwards. It was a great battle, such that at one point Tazendra laughed aloud, and at another point the Jhereg grinned with savage pleasure.
In the end, their swords locked at the midpoint, such that neither Tazendra's great blade nor the Jhereg's smaller one had more purchase. Tazendra tried to press her advantage, but the Jhereg took a step back; the Jhereg tried to spin free, but Tazendra followed through her motion, so they stayed apace.
Somewhat to Tazendra's surprise, the Jhereg smiled, and not a mocking smile but a wide and generous smile. Though Tazendra could not know this, it was the very same smile that she had had on her face that very morning, looking over her lands. And then the Jhereg raised a hand and performed some sleight of sorcery, some sorcery that even Tazendra could not interpret or follow, such that Tazendra found herself standing some feet away with her sword still in her hand and full of confusion.
But to her credit Tazendra did not let the confusion stop her, but charged forward with her sword upraised. But when she reached the spot the Jhereg had been at, the Jhereg was no longer there, but was standing on a tree limb far above her.
"Come down, you daughter of a norska!" Tazendra said, but not without admiration. "Come finish this!"
Instead, the Jhereg saluted with her short shining sword, and said, "I'm glad I came to see you, Tazendra of Daavya. You did not disappoint."
"What, I did not disappoint?"
"Yes, you did not disappoint. I will be keeping an eye on you, Baroness. And should you have need of calling in a favor, drop the name Kiera the Thief into any Jhereg's ear, and I will know."
"I do not need aid of Jheregs," Tazendra said, sword still in her hand, as Kiera the Thief disappeared in the whirl of a cloak. "But I will remember you, of that I am certain."
With that Tazendra sheathed her sword, and took her mare's reins from Mica's hand, and made her way, whistling, back to the road. And so with her desire for adventure duly discharged, she turned back on the road toward Daavya Manor, urging her horse to a jaunty trot and singing a bawdy song along with the rhythm. Mica smiled to himself and did not remind her of Blackwater, or the bridge, for he knew his mistress's ways, and anyway he considered it a good day's work.