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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Hambly Barbara
 

«05 Icefalcons Quest», Barbara Hambly

 

Darwath Book 5

 

Had the Icefalcon still been living among the Talking Stars People, the penalty for not recognizing the old man he encountered in the clearing by the four elm trees would have been the removal of his eyes, tongue, liver, heart, and brain, in that order.

His head would have been cut off, and, the Talking Stars People being a thrifty folk, his hair taken for bow strings, his skin for ritual leather, and his bones for tools and arrowheads. If it was a bad winter, they would have eaten his flesh, too, so it was just as well that his misdeed occurred in the middle of spring.

The Icefalcon considered all this logical and justified: the laws of his ancestors were not the reason that he no longer lived among the Talking Stars People.

All the horror that followed could have been avoided had he minded his own business, as was his wont.

Sometimes he felt that he had spent entirely too much time living among civilized people.

It had been a bad year for bandits. The summer following the Summerless Year had seen more than the usual bloody strife in the rotting kingdoms that once made up the empire of the Alketch in the South, and bands of paid-off warriors, both black and white, drifted north to prey on the small communities along the Great Brown River.

It was said they had penetrated far to the east, into the Felwoods, though few came so far north as the Vale of Renweth. Now it was spring again. When a woman's screams and a man's thin cries for help sliced the cold, sharp air of the Vale, the Icefalcon guessed immediately what was going on.

In the round clearing in the woods about three miles upslope from the Keep, he found pretty much what he expected to find.

The scene was common in the river valleys these days: an old man lying with a great bleeding wound in his head by the remains of a small campfire, a donkey squealing and pulling its tether, and a burly, coal-black warrior of the Alketch in the process of dragging a buxom red-haired woman into the trees.

In the filmy eggshell brightness of the spring afternoon the old man's blood glared crimson, the warrior's yellow coat in brilliant contrast to the emerald of the grass, the beryl of the close-crowding trees. The knife in the woman's hand blinked like a mirror.

Seeing no point in making a target of himself by crossing the meadow openly, the Icefalcon ducked immediately back into the belt of hazel and chokecherry that ringed the clearing and kept to cover as he worked his way around.

The woman was putting up a good fight. She was as tall as her attacker and of sturdy build, dressed as a man for travel in trousers and a padded wool jacket. Still, the man got the knife away from her, twisted her arm behind her, and seized her thick braids.

The woman cried out in pain-she had not ceased to shriek throughout the encounter-and the Icefalcon simply stepped from behind an elm tree next to the struggling pair, flipped one of his several poignards into his hand, and slit the warrior's throat.

The woman saw him a split second before he grabbed the man around the jaw to pull his head back for the kill.

She screamed in what the Icefalcon considered unreasonable horror-what did she think he was going to do?-as the man's blood soused over her breast and belly in a raw-smelling drench, and jumped away as her attacker collapsed between them. The Icefalcon had already turned, sword in hand, to scan the woods behind.

"Shut up," he instructed. "I can't hear anything." A single bandit was even rarer than a single cockroach.

But there was no second attack. No sound in the woods, at least as far as he could tell over the woman's hooting gasps.

He glanced back at her after the first quick check and pointed out, "Your companion is hurt."

"Oh!" she cried. "Oh, Linok!" and rushed across the clearing to where the old man lay.

After looting the fallen body of weapons, the Icefalcon followed more slowly, listening, watching all around him, tallying sounds and half-guessed movements in the shadows of the trees. She'd made noise enough to have brought the armies clear from the Alketch, let alone from higher up the Vale.

He came up on her as she was dabbing clean the old man's scalp. The cut looked ugly, blood smeared all over the round, brown, wrinkled face and matted dark in the salt-and-pepper hair. "Hethya?" moaned the old man, groping for her arm with a shaky hand.


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