Marta breathed in the brisk upper air of the foothills as Sidhari circled up the rising thermal. She'd fought to be the Mi'hiru for this expedition. Altan was taking Guardian Stefan's place in the annual trade talks with Restal, and Marta knew her assessment of the politics between the two quadrants, as well as the outcome, would be information Kayne would relish. Restal and Toldar were both her territory.
But it was difficult to keep her mental barriers up when she and Altan were together so often. She was still getting used to hearing Sidhari in her head. Altan's voice brought on vicious headaches—and the occasional doubt about her sanity.
Altan and the other two Karda Patrol, Captain Dalt and Patrolman Lyall, circled with her, gaining altitude to make another sweep of the borderlands between Toldar and Restal. Her cheeks were tight with cold, tendrils of hair escaped her braid and blew across her face. Grateful for her long sheepskin vest and heavy flying clothes, she pulled her hat tighter over her ears, tucked the stray hairs in, and bent her mind toward the Karda, focusing on Sidhari's vision, so much sharper and far-reaching than her own. One of the many benefits of her expanded link with Sidhari was the ability to share her sight and sometimes her sense of air currents.
A fragment of Altan's thoughts touched her mind, and she slammed her mental walls up immediately. She looked over at him and saw him grimace with pain then wave his arm toward a narrow valley to the Northeast. A roiling plume of dirty grey smoke rose out of the red and gold autumn-hued trees. The four fliers wheeled as one on Altan's signal and headed for the valley. They swooped closer, and a small village came into view. Several structures burned. Fierce flames blazed from windows of the stone buildings, and thick smoke roiled up from burning thatched roofs. Fat columns of smoke rose straight up into the still, cold air.
They dove for the ground. Sidhari swept up behind a raider aiming a weapon at a big villager laying into another rider with an iron bar. Her talons ripped into him, tore him from his saddle, and she beat her way back up. The man screamed as they climbed, and he struggled to force his weapon around to Sidhari's breast. Marta looked over Sidhari's shoulder and gasped. Was that what she thought it was?
~Drop him, Sidhari. Drop him right now!~
Sidhari released him, and he fell, screaming, arms whirling, grabbing at empty air. They'd been high enough. His career as a murdering thief was over. He was a dead heap on the ground.
The giant Karda dropped one wing to go vertical and wheeled back to the village, pressing Marta hard into the cantle. Karda and riders swooped and tore into the men, talons ripping. The ones they didn't haul into the air and drop they knocked to the ground, blood spraying from long gashes. Villagers swarmed the fallen with knives and cudgels. She grimaced when one almost severed a raider's head with a hoe.
She saw Kibrath sink his terrible talons into a rider's head and lift him from the saddle. He flew high over the woods beyond the village and dropped him. The raider fell and was impaled like grisly fruit hanging on a stark, dead tree.
Three raiders, hunched so low in their saddles they looked like lumpy packs from above, spurred their mounts frantically for the trees where the Karda couldn't reach them. Marta gasped as a streak of fire from Altan set one aflame. Oh, gods of the galaxies. I'm going to have to find time to think about what that was. Altan signaled for Dalt to follow the other two who were too close to the trees for fire.
The other three fliers circled down to the grassy meadow outside the village and landed. They tore away saddle straps, leapt from the Karda, and ran toward the buildings. The villagers were passing slopping buckets along a line from the well at the center, trying in vain to control the blaze consuming whatever was inside the most prominent building. Too many bodies lay still at the edge of the central square. Several younger women huddled near one building wrapped in blankets, their faces bruised and shocked, eyes blank and staring. Three older women, skirts belted up, bandaged wounds and tended to those lying on the ground or sitting leaned against one of the unburnt houses.
Altan went directly to the wounded. Marta and Lyall went to the bucket brigade. By the time Altan joined them, she had blisters forming in spite of her gloves.
He stepped to the side of the bucket line, not joining them. "The wounded are stable enough for the moment. I need to help here first."
To Marta's surprise, he knelt with his hands flat on the ground, as close as he could get to the fire. As she passed heavy bucket after heavy bucket, she watched him, mystified. His head down, he concentrated, his shoulders tense. The fire damped down, flames slowed. She stared, transfixed, until the person next to her bumped her with a full bucket, and water slopped on her skirt. She reached for it and passed it on
The flames slowed but didn't go out, and he sat back on his haunches, face pale. He turned to a man in the line who wore a burn-marked leather apron and watched Altan with hopeful eyes.
"It's too fierce. If I'm to help the wounded, that's all I can do here. I'm sorry."
The man closed his eyes, nodded acceptance, and went back to passing buckets. After a long hour of trying, it was clear there was no saving the burning structure.
Marta went with Altan to help with the wounded. He knelt beside a young boy, unwrapped his bloody bandages, and held his hands over a slash high on the boy's arm. Marta watched in disbelief as the wound slowly knit itself together from the inside out. Altan focused, his face intent, until a narrow red line was all that remained of the ugly sword cut in the boy's arm. He went in turn to three other wounded, pulled back bandages, held his hands over each wound for several minutes, then nodded to the woman caring for them. A fourth man leaned against the house, in great pain, his shoulder drooping wrongly, his other hand clasping his upper arm. Altan gently moved his hand away and held his own hands to the shoulder.
After a moment, Marta heard muffled popping sounds, and the shoulder snapped back into position. Altan instructed one of the women to wrap the man's arm in place with a sling, then he stood on wobbly legs.
Marta grabbed his arm to steady him. It was the first time she had touched him since she'd begun hearing his telepathic voice. Heat bloomed inside her, and she let go, rubbing her hand on the side of her skirt. Altan was looking around for more wounded and didn't notice. Marta stared at him, shocked beyond words at what he had done. He healed all those wounds, some of them terrible, in half an hour.
Altan found the village headman, the blacksmith, Matyn, among those drinking deeply at the well in the dirt square that was the village center.
"They had some kind of talent weapon that killed from a distance. Warn't nothin' we could do. They went through all the buildings and every house, taking what they wanted, then set fire to the big storehouse and two other houses. If you hadn't come...." Matyn looked at the burning building. "Our winter supplies, our seed stock...." His voice trailed off. He looked over as a roof beam crashed down into the still burning hulk, the winter stores for the whole village flying up as bright embers into the afternoon sky. "Would'a been worse if you hadn't come when you did." He stared into the dying fires. "My wife...." He shook his greying head and looked away. His broad shoulders hunched forward, girding against pain.
They walked across the dusty square, gray ash swirling around their boots, to a row of bodies, some lying too still, their faces covered. Altan knelt beside a young man and pulled the crude bandage around his middle aside to look at his wound. He frowned. "What kind of weapon did this?"
"A talent weapon." The man held his hands out with forfingers crossed in a warding-off gesture. "Most on 'em had swords and bows, or crossbows. But one just squinted down a funny kind of stick thing at Merl here, and he fell—made that hole in him. Him and several others just fell when he pointed that stick thing at them. A terrible talent weapon. Just killed everyone he aimed at 'cept Merl. Didn't make a sound." He paused and looked at Altan with questions in his eyes. "Don' think they were ordinary bandits. It would'a been much worse. They'd 'a stole more. They didn't want supplies—they just wanted to kill,"—he looked down—"and hurt our women."
Altan nodded, and the blacksmith went to comfort a man standing and staring, shoulders slumped, at the smoking blackened stone ruins of a house. A heavy beam fell with a crash. Sparks and soot flew.
Marta looked more closely at the wound as Altan held his hands over it on either side of the boy's shoulder. The narrow oval hole that pierced the flesh of his upper arm had leaked too much blood, and the skin around its edges was heat-seared. It smelled of burnt-meat. Her eyes widened. She knew what weapon made that kind of wound, and she knew there were not supposed to be any on this world anywhere. But that's what the bandit she and Sidhari dropped from the air had been carrying. She hadn't wanted to believe her eyes.
Altan laid the young man back down and pulled the rough blanket back up to cover his face. "The wound is a mess inside for such a small entry hole. How is that possible?" he murmered.
He moved to the next of the dead who were laid carefully in a long row under the eaves of the large inn. He knelt, pulling back the first man's shirt to show the same kind of hole in his chest. He laid his hand on it and bowed his head.
Altan frowned and sat back on his heels. "Behind the small entry hole, there is a much larger wound. Half his thorax is a scrambled mass of blood, tissue, and bone. The boy's wound was like this. I've never seen anything like it."
Marta thought he was talking more to himself than to her. How could he see inside the body? She swallowed her question.
He turned to the next body, that of a young girl. A hole gaped in her throat, her rough tunic soaked with blood, her fair hair matted with it. Her face seemed surprised, almost smiling. Her wide-open blue eyes stared up into Marta's as if to say, "What happened?" Marta was trapped by those eyes for several minutes, then tore her gaze away, confused and frightened. What was she to do? She knew what had caused these wounds, these deaths. And she couldn't say.
Marta watched her feet kick through the tall grass as she walked toward the meadow where Sidhari waited with the other Karda, several buckets scattered around them. Someone had brought them water. She felt guilty for not thinking of it herself. She leaned into Sidhari's muscular shoulder, thinking furiously. It could be some time before she would be able to get off by herself and use her Cue to report what she'd seen. The man she and Sidhari dropped from the air lay just inside the trees at the other side of the meadow. She walked toward him, searching the grass. The akengun lay about four meters from where his body was crumpled, one leg bent at an impossible angle behind him. She tried not to look.
~They were murderers,~ Sidhari said.
~I know. It's just gruesome. You've killed before, too.~ It wasn't quite a question.
~I've lived a very long time, Marta.~
Marta turned to look at Sidhari in surprise. Sidhari had never said anything remotely personal to her before. Her origins, like all Kardas', were a close secret, which was a big part of what made finding the fledglings so special. Sidhari's feelings, other than her love for her rider, were carefully shielded, seldom leaking through her iron control.
A sudden flash of green light, a jolt of disorientation, knocked her to her knees. Her head filled with the vision of another village engulfed in smoke, people running for shelter, women screaming, children snatched up and thrown down again by rough, laughing men from the backs of their horses. Women ran, men on horseback running them down. The heat from burning buildings and terror from panicked villagers scalded her skin.
She felt held against something warm and hard. She looked up to see concerned green eyes looking down at her. She was lying in Altan's lap, his arms holding her tight. She looked around wildly—no horsemen, no bandits, only smoke from the familiar smoldering buildings and villagers staring at her.
She stood, not sure her legs would hold her, and moved away from him, embarrassed. Confusion warred with an unwanted desire to stay right there in his lap.
He stood with her, his sword-calloused hand circling her arm. "What is it, Marta? What happened? You were standing here frozen, and then you sort of went blank and collapsed. Are you sick? Was this fight too much for you?"
She looked at him in confusion, still caught in terror, unable to push it away from her. "I'm all right," she finally said, words croaking out of the thickness clogging her throat. "Just dizzy for a moment. It's been a long time between meals." She stepped away from him.
Not convinced, he waited for a better explanation. She didn't offer any, and he finally let go of her arm. If it was another attack on a village, there was nothing she could do. No landmarks, nothing that would tell them where—or even when—it was happening, if it even was. She hated this. Too many odd happenings too fast.
~How long are you going to be able to hold yourself between your two worlds?~ Sidhari asked her.
Marta looked up in surprise. ~What do you mean?~ she asked her Karda, her best friend.
Sidhari said nothing, just put her head down and continued stripping plump seed heads from the ripened grass. Marta gave up waiting for an answer she wasn't sure she wanted and walked back to the village square. She left the gun lying where it was. Its front flange was crumpled, so it was useless. When they found it, the blacksmith could use the metal. She needed to report this. And soon. The only akenguns she knew of were locked in the ship captain's gun locker. A seldom-used precaution against an emergency.
She walked back, her steps slow, her thoughts racing. She helped villagers move wounded inside the houses. Some stood staring hopelessly at smoking ruins. Altan talked with the headman, running one hand through his hair, pulling it from its tail. The leather tie fell to the ground.
He reached down to pick it up. "You won't starve over the winter. They didn't get to your mill. Guardian Stefan will send wagons with grain and seed for spring planting. Tell me what you think you'll need. We'll send what we can. It will be a while before I'm back in Toldar, but I'll send word to Father. We're on our way to Restal Prime now for trade talks. And talks about these border raids. You aren't the only ones hit lately."
He reached out and grasped the man's forearm. "I'll take care of it as soon as I can. And I'll make sure your healer has help dealing with the women who were forced. It takes a special kind of healer—and time."
Matyn expressed his gratitude for their help. They watched Dalt land, and she, Altan, and Lyall headed back to the meadow.
"They rode off to the Northeast, toward Restal and the edge of the mountains," Dalt told the others. "I got one with my bow, but the other headed down a brush-filled ravine. He got away. I figured one wouldn't be a threat. I doubt he'll be back, anyway." The wiry captain's smile was a grimace showing too much tooth.
"Matyn says they were hooded and masked, but he isn't sure they were raiders. If there was a strong talent with them, they were very successful raiders. Too successful. He also said they were too disciplined, at least before we got here," said Altan. "And they burned the grain in the storehouse. Raiders don't do that. They usually want to come back in the winter for more stores."
He turned to tighten the straps of Kibrath's saddle. "It's time to go. We're to meet the pack train at Bardil at dusk, and that's coming fast. We've done what we can here." He looked at Marta for a long moment, then shrugged, put his hand on Kibrath's shoulder and jumped from his knee into the saddle. The other three mounted, and they cantered down the meadow, shadows from the tall trees stretching across it. They took off one after the other and circled high into the darkening sky.