(Aizhou, on the Kamarya border, 7 Brightsun, 1022)


It was a pleasant day in the border region between Kamarya and Aizhou.  The sun was shining, a soft breeze was blowing, and best of all, there were no border guards in sight.  This happens when one has taken some care to avoid the customs stations on the main roads, and opts for what might be politely referred to as an unofficial route instead.

The wagon bumped along the rutted, overgrown track, dry grass crackling faintly under the wheels.  There were three men in the wagon--two on the seat, one riding in the back--and they looked ordinary enough at first glance.  A second and more thorough look suggested a certain roughness that most normal peasants wouldn't have, as well as a notion that these men might have a knife or two--or more--concealed somewhere in their clothing, and a willingness to use them.

Since they'd gone to such lengths to avoid troubling the local border patrols, it came as a considerable shock to them when the third man caught sight of a group of twelve riders coming up the track behind the wagon at a fair turn of speed.  A hasty consultation was held, even as hands drifted toward weapons.  The Azvom clan, the Horse-folk, had earned a ferocious reputation.

The horses didn't slow down as they caught up to the wagon.  The riders turned their mounts slightly, splitting the band in two lines that streamed along either side of the rickety-looking cart, then flowed back together in front of it.  The wagon horse, possibly smarter than its driver, stopped in its tracks rather than running into the lead horse--a massively built grey stallion that had a look which suggested he would not appreciate being run into.

"Ho there!" called the big grey's rider, swinging down from the saddle.  She was quite tall for a woman, and wore her curly chestnut hair pulled back in a high ponytail.  A quiver was slung across her back; a horse-bow hung from a strap on the saddle.  "You're far off the beaten path, so we thought we'd drop in and see what's about."

The wagon driver smiled awkwardly, which unfortunately exposed a number of rotten teeth.  "We're just on our way to visit a cousin of ours who lives about ten miles south of here.  This way's a shortcut."

"Is it?  The fellows at the border station didn't mention a wagon such as yours coming through the checkpoint today."  She sauntered up alongside the wagon, glancing into the back of it with curious violet eyes.  Various travel supplies--a water cask, a folded-up tent, a few packs and such--occupied much of the wagon bed, along with a large, rough brown sack that had a rather odd shape to it.

The driver tried for a comradely sort of look, which would have worked better if his face hadn't been designed for less friendly expressions.  "Well, we've got a few things aboard that we'd prefer not to show the border guards.  Little gifts for our cousin."

"You're from Aizkaur, judging by your clothes."  The woman smiled.  "I've heard of the kind of things that mountain folk like to brew up behind the tool shed."  She laughed out loud.

The three men laughed dutifully, but there was a definite nervousness to it.  The driver nodded.  "That'd be about right."

The woman was still casually looking over the items in the wagon bed; her eyes went to the sack again.  "Carrying potatoes, too?"

"They keep well on the road," the driver answered carefully, licking suddenly dry lips.

"I can understand wanting to avoid the border station.  Those fellows can be a bit . . . overenthusiastic about their duties at times."  The woman glanced at the three men, who nodded in fervent agreement.  "But I'd be remiss in my own duty if I just let you go on past without a quick look around your cart."  Without apparent effort, she boosted herself up into the wagon bed with one boot on a wheel.

The three men looked at each other, then at the woman, and then around at the other riders.  All of them had dismounted and were watching with somewhat more than casual interest; several of them had their hands resting on sword pommels.

The man in the back of the wagon lost his nerve as the woman started idly poking about; his hand went to his belt dagger.  There was a sound like a roomful of whispers, and the riders on the ground were suddenly all holding their swords.  The man didn't have a chance to actually do anything with the dagger, because he was still trying to draw it when the tall woman turned with swift grace and kicked out with one long leg.  The side of her boot caught him just under the jaw, lifting him off his feet and throwing him against the side of the wagon; one of the riders grabbed the back of his tunic and yanked him the rest of the way out.  The other two men, trying to scramble off either side of the wagon seat, found themselves in a ring of steel.

"Just hold onto them for the moment, Hirei," the woman said calmly; one of the riders, a man somewhat shorter than she was but with powerful shoulders and arms, nodded.

She continued to casually examine the contents of the wagon bed.  It all seemed fairly innocent, right up until she got to the sack of "potatoes".  In her experience, potatoes didn't move by themselves, nor did they make a faint groaning noise.

Nor did they emanate a power that was clear as daylight to her Avatar senses.

Pulling her belt dagger, she bent and cut the cord holding the sack closed.  The wagon driver started to move forward, opening his mouth, but the threatening flash of swords stopped him in his tracks.  As if he'd never moved at all, the woman pulled the cord away and opened the sack.

She found herself looking down into eyes as richly violet as her own, though bleary and unfocused.  Those eyes were set into a face that was strong-boned and strikingly handsome despite bruises, scrapes, smudges of dirt, and a certain hollow-cheeked look that suggested he hadn't been very well fed recently.  His face was framed by dark hair that glinted reddish in the light, though it was dulled by its unkempt and tangled state.

The man groaned again, quietly, and a cloth pad tumbled from the folds of the sack as he stirred.  A faint whiff of a sickly-sweet odor emanated from the pad as the woman stirred it with the toe of her boot.  She lifted her head and looked at the wagon driver.

His nerve finally broke.  With desperate strength, he lashed out, knocking two of the riders aside, and bolted through the gap opened in the circle.  Snatching the reins of a horse from its youthful holder's hand and dealing the boy a harsh blow for extra measure, he flung himself onto the animal's back, sawing at the reins and driving his heels into its flanks.  Frightened, the horse wheeled about and leapt into a gallop.

"Hirei!" the woman shouted, holding out one hand.  The man ran the few steps to the big grey horse and pulled the bow loose from its strap, tossing it up to the woman.

The horse was already a good ten yards out and accelerating, the fleeing man hunched over in the saddle and jerking the reins to make the animal weave this way and that in its gallop, hoping to avoid arrow fire.  Nevertheless, it was without a moment's hesitation that the woman drew an arrow, nocked it, and let fly, all in one flowing movement.  Her murmur of "right shoulder, into the joint" was hardly any louder than the hiss of the arrow leaving the string.

There was a scream, and the wagon driver tumbled out of the saddle.  Shed of its tormentor, the horse slowed down, tossing its head nervously.

"Bind them," the woman said coolly.  "Hirei, go fetch him back.  Senka--"

"I'm sorry, your Ladyship," the boy burst out tearfully.  "I just let him--"

"No, you didn't 'let' him.  He clouted you right hard, didn't he?  He's a grown man, and you're still growing yourself.  Now go and fetch your horse, he'll want calming."

Senka gave her a grateful if embarrassed look, and ran out in Hirei's wake to do as he was told.

The two men, who were now sitting on the ground and tied at wrists and ankles, stared up at her.  "You killed him!" the one who had been riding on the wagon seat said accusingly.  The third man was still in little condition to talk; the mark of her boot was showing clearly under his chin.

"Did I?" she said calmly, cutting the sack away from the dark-haired man and then starting on the ropes that bound him up, knees to chest with his arms behind him.  "It's hardly undeserved.  You *do* know that kidnapping is against the law, don't you?  Especially kidnapping those of noble blood, and a lord of the Kaprom clan certainly qualifies."

"How do you know anything about what we're doing?" he sneered.

She straightened up and stared down at him with icy eyes.  "Avatars recognize Avatars.  Every child knows that.  I can see what he is, and I can see what sort of crime you tried to bring through my territory."

Hirei walked back to the wagon and slung the driver off his shoulder, putting him down next to his companions.  He was noticeably not dead, but definitely dazed and in a certain amount of pain.  The arrow sticking out of his back, piercing the right shoulder joint, probably had something to do with that.  The talkative fellow stared at the arrow for a long moment, then looked up with an expression of terror.  His companion gave him a confused sideways glance.

"That's . . . she's the Horsewoman," the first man said weakly.  "The chieftain of the Azvom clan."

"It took you that long to figure it out?" Hirei said curiously.  "You're most definitely not from around here.  If you really did have a cousin in the area, you'd probably have known her on sight.  Lady Viroka's not what one would call low-profile."

"I heard that, Hirei."

"I intended you to hear it, Ladyship."

Viroka finished cutting the ropes, then resheathed her dagger and took hold of the man's right calf.  "This is likely going to hurt.  Deep breath, now."

The man blinked blearily, then took a deep breath.  He almost expelled it through his ears when she forcibly straightened his legs, one at a time; cramped muscles screamed in protest, but aside from a faint and involuntary grunt, he remained resolutely silent.  Viroka gave him an admiring look as she began firmly massaging his thighs.  She'd been doing this sort of thing for horses since she was old enough to walk and tall enough to reach, and she knew what she was about.

"Shall I send someone back to the border station and get a detachment of Emerald soldiers to take this lot into custody?" Hirei asked, ignoring the whimpers of the wounded man as two of the other riders made ready to get the arrow out of his shoulder.

Viroka considered that as she soothed the former captive's aching muscles and worked the blood back into numb extremities.  "No," she said finally.

"No?  Ladyship, this is--"

"This is probably politics, Hirei."  She had to raise her voice a notch to be heard over the groans of the riders at the hated word, as well as the muffled shriek of the wounded man; one of the riders had kindly stuck a stirrup strap into his mouth for him to bite on as they pulled the arrow out.  "The man that they were hiding is Kaprom.  It's a long way between here and Aizkaur, and I don't think they would have dared to bring him here--through Kamarya, no less--if they didn't have some kind of arrangement with someone in Aizhou.  Let's not put them into official custody just yet."

"As you wish, Ladyship."  Hirei didn't look entirely comfortable with the situation, but he was clearly unwilling to hold an extended argument with his chieftain.

Viroka looked down at the man, who was wincing as she massaged his arms.  With the drugged vapors from the cloth pad dissipating in the clean air outside the sack, as well as the discomfort cutting through the haze, his eyes were clearing and he looked a great deal more alert.  "What's your name, friend?" she asked quietly.

"Erjutvu.  I am the heir apparent to the chieftainship of the Kaprom clan."  He had a smooth tenor voice, slightly hoarse and croaking at the moment.  "Where am I?  I heard you mention Aizhou . . ."

Viroka made a face.  "Politics."  She rummaged around in the packs until she found a wooden cup, wiped it as clean as she could, and turned the tap on the water cask.  Tepid water dribbled into the cup.  "Yes, this is Aizhou.  We're a few miles south of the border with Kamarya."

He drank the water with obvious relief, then tried to sit up; he emitted a small grunt and went pale.  Viroka caught his shoulder and eased him down again, then checked him over with professional hands.  "I'd say you have a few cracked ribs, Erjutvu."  She looked over the edge of the wagon.  "Hirei, send someone ahead.  I want a cell ready for those three, and a healer ready for this one."  She glance down at the Kaprom, then diplomatically added, "And a bath ready for him as well.  He'll probably feel better when he's clean."  She didn't mention that he would certainly smell better--it was fairly obvious that his captors hadn't been very considerate of him during their journey.

"Who are you?" Erjutvu said abruptly, looking up at her.

"Me?  Viroka, chieftain of the Azvom."

"You're a chieftain?  Then I . . . ah . . ."  His pride clashed with what he needed to say.

She studied his face a moment, evidently seeing his difficulty.  This was a man who obviously hated being beholden to anyone, or needing anyone's help in the first place.  "I offer you the hospitality of my house and clan," she said carefully.

"I don't--"

"I'll be very upset if you refuse it," she added.

"I won't--"

"In fact, I think I'll have to insist."

He glared.  "So I'm a prisoner still?"

"If it makes you happy to think of it like that."  She was clearly not intimidated in the slightest by his glare.  "At least I'm not going to tie you up and stuff you into a bag, unless you happen to like that sort of thing."  Standing up, she dusted her hands against the legs of her trousers.  "Stay in the wagon for the time being.  No point in making you ride if you're injured."

"You're giving me orders?"

"Would it get us anywhere if I said, 'It is my most respectful suggestion that you remain at your leisure, my lord'?"  She whistled, a short two-note sound; the big grey horse trotted up and stopped beside the wagon bed, allowing her to refasten the bow to its strap before climbing back into the saddle.  "Move up to the seat unless you want to share the wagon bed with those three," she added, jerking her chin toward the three kidnappers, who were being ungently boosted up over the tailgate.

"Impossible woman," Erjutvu muttered as he moved very carefully from the wagon bed to its seat.

"You haven't seen impossible, Lordship," Hirei murmured discreetly, stepping up and taking the reins.  "She's being unusually reasonable."