Katarina drew in a deep breath and leaned forward to place her ear against her father’s broad chest. Her mother had taught her the trick, and without the sound of her own breathing to interfere, she could hear her father’s breath clearly. What she heard gave her hope. Not two days ago, when she’d done the same thing, the gasping rattle had made it clear the winter fever still threatened her father’s life. Now, he still had a gasping quality when his breathed, the deep rattling noise she’d been taught to associate with the deadly winter disease was gone.
“So, oh wise healer, how fares your patient?”
Hearing that strong, steady voice again told her she had gotten her father on the road to recovery. She sat up, and did her best to put the severe face her mother had always worn to scold a patient who’d done something foolish. “I think, mind you, I think the patient will survive…if he doesn’t do something as foolish as riding about in a pouring spring rain without a cloak or anything else to keep him warm.” Her scolding drew a chuckle from her father, which brought on a bout of coughing. No, he’s better, but far from well. “But you have to stay abed for at least another two days, father. You need to let Turnal carry on doing your duties as leader of the Borders. He is your second, isn’t he? Maybe you should trust him to do what you trained him to do.”
The coughing subsided as she spoke, and it left her father looked drained. He held her eyes, a clear attempt to challenge Katarina’s judgment, but she matched his stare, and lay back. “Ah, how can I face my troops, forced by a mere girl to abandon my duties? The shame may undo me.”
He spoke through a smile, and Katarina did her best to smile back. “Oh, I think they’ll understand. After all, how many of them have I treated this past year and more?” She touched her father’s forehead, felt the slightly warm skin, and shook her head. “Whether they can accept a great warrior being ordered about by a ‘mere’ girl or not, you’ve still a fever. I’ll make up some more willow bark tea for you, and I expect you to drink every drop!”
That drew another chuckle, this time without the coughing, and a broader smile. “I hear and obey, oh wise one!”
Katarina let herself smile as she exited her father’s sleep nook. The return of his sense of humor was a better indication of his returning health than anything else. She took the few steps to the second, smaller nook where the herbs and other items her healing required were stored. The large earthenware crock she stored her stock of dried willow bark stood at one end of her work bench. She pulled it to the center and worked the wooden stopper out of it, ready to set to work pulverizing the main ingredient in her mother’s remedy for winter fever. When her hand encountered only a thin layer of left-over bark, she remembered planning to harvest some the day before. Tending to a nasty ax wound old Salan Tegue had given himself had distracted her from the task.
She leaned the crock over, saw enough to take care of her father, but knew fetching more could not be postponed. She emptied the crock into her mother’s old stone mortar, added a handful of dried spearmint leaves, and began crushing the mix.
“He was able to get to the privy yesterday without my help, so he should be safe while I take care of my harvesting.” she reasoned with herself, and hoped she was right.
Katarina finished her grinding and retrieved the smallest kettle from its place beside the fire. She had filled it when she’d drawn water at first light, so she empty the mortar into it and hung it on the crane before swinging it over the fire. That done, Katarina returned to her work space to collect what she’d need, and the first item she needed stopped her. Her mother had drummed it into her head that a healer never used a knife for both cooking and herb preparation. To harvest the small saplings she’d been taught were the best source of bark, she would need the biggest of her knives…and that knife needed sharpening. The small whetstone she usually used should have been sitting on the shelf where she normally stored it, but it wasn’t.
He couldn’t have, could he…damn you, Tomran! Her older brother had been complaining the night before that his hunting knife needed a fresh edge. It wasn’t hard to imagine him deciding he could get away with borrowing her whetstone to sharpen his knife. The stone wheel he and father normally used would have been too much trouble for him to drag out. No, he’d have used hers, and the gods alone knew where he’d left it after he’d finished. She wanted to climb up and tear through his part of the sleeping loft they shared, but finding something as small as her stone would take time. Then she remembered the blade her brother had recovered from the bandit’s horde. It hung from a peg near the front door, a blade he’d said was too long to use as a skinning knife, but too small to fight with. Her father had recognized it, calling it an honor blade. Supposedly noble women carried them to kill themselves rather than suffer this dishonor of having their body violated.
Katarina retrieved the blade from its resting spot. She had given it only passing attention, having no intention of killing herself rather than being raped. Someone had wiped the scabbard down, but the ornate decorations were still thickly crusted in dirt, like it had lain somewhere for time out of mind. “I wonder, will it still have an edge on it?” she asked herself as she grasped the hilt and drew the blade.
The demon had promised Julana sleep, but that sleep was not undisturbed. Often, as if in a dream, she felt the presence of others. Sometimes just a vague impression that someone nearby, like a person had walked into a room and disturbed her sleep. Occasionally, she saw more, almost as if she were looking through someone else’s eyes at the world around her. But the disturbances faded, and sleep once again took her.
This time, though, the feeling of being inside another person was stronger than any she’d experienced. She saw the inside of a small cottage, one a farmer might own, as clear as if she were standing in the room. Then she felt the demon, as if he stood at her side.
“You sense it too, do you not Wielder? This one may be the one we have waited so long for…”
Katarina held the blade at arms length and it felt far heavier than it’s small size warranted. The hilt felt strangely warm, almost as if she were touching a living creature. She looked down its length with the sunshine streaming in the door play over it, and saw an edge unblemished. She touched it, only a light caress of her finger, and jerked the finger back, surprised at how deeply blade had bitten. Its more than sharp enough for what I needed she thought as she slide it back into the sheath.
The vision suddenly vanished, leaving Julana in the darkness again. But the presence of the demon seemed to grow. When it addressed her, it sounded confident.
“Wielder, she is of your blood! The taste is faint, but it is there. She can command me, she may even be able to sense you, if you try to address her. Your wait has not been in vain! She may be the one who grants you your freedom.”
Katarina laid the blade aside and checked on the tea. The water was beginning to bubble at the bottom of the kettle, but it had yet to reach the rolling boil she knew it needed. Her long skirt would do for the hike to the river bank, but her boots would better at keeping the biting insects away from her lower legs than the clogs she had on. She got them on and laced up by the time a thick cloud of steam rising from the kettle told her the tea was done. She drew the crane out into the room, wrapping a fold of her skirt around her hand to to shield it as she retrieved the kettle. The big beaker she’d been using to treat her father stood on the counter along the wall, She put a dollop of honey in it before pouring it full of the steaming liquid.
She found her father had propped himself up while she’d been busy. “I’d scold you, but I would have had to get you sitting up anyway. Now, get down as soon as you can, then stay sitting until I get back…this is the last of the willow bark, so I need to harvest some more. I should be back before lunch time, but there’s soup in the big kettle by the fire. So if I’m not back before you get hungry, I will forgive you getting out of bed to get something to eat! Do try not to get out of bed for anything besides that or the privy, and yes, I do mean no getting out of bed if someone comes by to gossip!” Her father opened his mouth to interrupt, but she raised a hand to forestall him. “I mean it! Mother would have skinned you alive for doing something as silly as riding through a spring rain storm without a cloak. All I am doing is forcing you to stay in bed until you’re better, so be grateful for small favors.”
Her father ducked his head, but he didn’t try to hide his smile. “I feel I’ve been ‘skinned’ by that tongue of yours, my daughter.” He lifted his eyes to meet hers as he continued. “There’s more than a little of your mother in you. She could not have delivered a sharper rebuke-and yes, I will stay abed, barring hunger and other bodily necessities. Now go, attend your harvesting in peace, I shall be a good boy.”
“I hold you to your word, Captain of the Borders!” She put her hand on his shoulder and smiled as she squeezed it. “I’ll be back soon, father. Take care.”
“And you too, my daughter.”
Katarina sliced a wedge off the big round of cheese, and stuffed it into the smaller bag she carried when she went any distance from home, then added one of the left-over rolls from the night before. Her own lunch taken care of, she slung the bag over her shoulder and grabbed the odd blade, intent on sliding it into her belt. Her fingers began to close about the hilt, but she drew back. Before, the hilt felt unnaturally warm, but now it felt as if the hilt, the whole knife, were quivering. Katarina bent close, peering at the blade as if to see something odd about it, but it looked as it had before. It would take half the morning to walk to get to the stand of willows, though, so she shoved it under her belt, ignoring the odd feeling it transmitted to her fingers. Oddly, once she’d released it, she sensed no vibration from the blade, it was just a weight trying to drag her belt down.
That done, she was out the door and through old gate that closed their small garden off from the road. She let her stride lengthen, knowing it would let her cover ground without winding her. Her house set just beyond the edge of Stoneferd, and she soon passed through the East opening through the low wall that surrounded the village. As every other day, the small huts inside the wall that would have held a guard in times of trouble were empty. But while there were no guards, plenty of people noticed her entrance into town and call out greeting.
The walk from one side of Stoneferd’s enclosed area to the other took little time at al. Ahead, she saw the other opening in the village wall, and beyond it, the graceful stone arch of the bridge over the Sullis. The bridge stood next to the only viable ford over the broad Sullis, which gave the village its name. Next to this entrance also stood the sanctuary to Gorm, and the priest sat outside it scanning those how moved past him like a hungry dog hoping to snap up a choice morsel. She saw his head turn towards her, saw the studied blank look shift to a scowl and saw him rise with growing dread. Her parents didn’t follow Gorm, and she thought his religion harsh, so she hoped to have to suffer nothing more than a misplace blessing. Her luck was not with her today, though, as the priest stepped in front of her.
“Sir priest, how may I help you?”
The followers of Gorm thought women little better than animals, so she kept her eyes down, hoping a demonstration of subservience would allow her to pass.
“Why do you go armed, woman? You know the laws, yet you bear a weapon! Do you desire the death due all women who think themselves fit to bear arms?”
Katarina let her hand brush over the pommel, and again she felt the odd sense that of vibration. “But sir priest, this is no weapon. Know you not the tradition of the honor blade, intended to allow a woman to keep her virtue and honor intact?”
The man snorted, putting more derision into that one sound than he could have said in a week. “You feel the need to protect your virtue? From what, or who?”
“Did not my father, and my brother, wipe out a band of outlaws not ten days ago? What if some escaped, or were not there when the attack took place? Can a woman not worry about such things?”
Perhaps the reminder that her father commanded the Borders, the local militia company, caused the priest to rethink his attitude. Perhaps he felt he’d made his point. Katarina didn’t care, she was glad when he stepped aside so she could pass. He did not, however, let her pass without getting in the final word.
“Go, do whatever it is you intend to do, healer. But know your place, and show the priests of Gorm the respect due them!”
Clenching her jaw to keep in several sharp responses unsaid, she continued walking. Ahead, his head slowly rising above the curve of the bridge, she saw Taris, the smith’s son. Almost the exact opposite of Katarina’s tall, slender build, Taris looked so much like a troll that visitors often accused him of being one. His short, thick legs supported a barrel chested body that seemed to sprout his two long, heavily-muscled arms and a head that looked affixed directly to it. He and Katrina were of an age, though, and had been friends forever. He saw her and his face split into a broad, gap-toothed smile.
“Kat! What brings you into the village?”
They stopped, facing each other, and Katarina extended her hand to shake the one Taris offered with the question. She had seen those hands wield a hammer, folding iron to make steel, for long periods, but his fingers closed gently around hers.
“I need to harvest some willow bark. What takes you away from the forge?”
“Father sent me into town to make a deliver.” He slide a pack off his back, reached inside, and drew out a huge meat cleaver. “The butcher asked father to make him a new one, and we finished it last night. He’s trading us some of his smoked spice sausages, and both of us look forward to enjoying our reward!” He slapped his flat belly with his free hand and licked his lips like he were preparing to feast. Katarina couldn’t help but laugh at him.
“You always did think with your belly! May you take pleasure in your reward, sir smith!” She leaned close so Taris could hear her, but no one else “Just be careful that you have those sausages hidden in your pack when you go back home. Gorm’s priest is looking for someone to extort a ‘tithe’ out of, and I have no doubt he’d be more than happy to send you home with far less to feast on then you’d planned.”
She felt his attention shift and heard him give one of those low, rumbling growls that told anyone who knew him that Taris was angry. “So, that damned greedy vulture is perched outside his nest again today, is he? Why can’t he go back to Par Las so he can be with the king and all the others who follow his blasted religion?”
Katarina laid a hand on her friend’s arm. “You know the answer as well as I, Taris. It’s because the king knows his religion isn’t everyone’s religion, so he sends fine fellows like yonder priest out to spread the ‘joy’ of his beliefs…and to keep an eye on us. Now check that temper, or yours will be the next name he reads in his sermon, and the next one to draw the wrath of the king’s tax collectors too.”
“Aye, I hear you, and I’ll be a smiling lamb when I walk past him, and I’ll smile even wider when I walk past him again with my reward. Stop on your way back, father will be happy to share some of our bounty with you, and so will I.”
They parted, and Katarina hoped her friend would keep his promise. Normally a good person, Taris had a temper fit for a devil. Across the bridge and round the sharp turn that took the road along the rivers edge, she passed the forge. Inside, the din of hammer on metal told her Taris’ father was hard at work. Ahead stood the last building in Stoneferd, the big mill where farmers from days round brought their grain. Her father hated it being located outside the village wall, but the miller insisted nowhere within the village that match this site, and he was a master miller, not someone to be trifled with. He stood behind the half door he used as a counter, arguing with a farmer, but stopped to wave at her as she approached.
“Come for some more flour, Katarina? I’ve some fine wheat, ground this morning if you’re interested.”
“Thanks, Master Miller, but I’ve business up the river at Pertran’s Pool. Perhaps tomorrow?”
“I should have some left, but you know what they say, flour fresh from the stone is best of all. Safe trip to you.”
Waving her thanks for the blessing, Katarina let her stride lengthen again. It had been days since the last rain, so the road was packed hard, any ruts worn flat. Ahead, a week’s walk away, was the capital of her kingdom, Las, and the palace of the king, Regasan. Five days walk behind her lay the border with the neighboring kingdom of Delphina. The two kingdoms maintained a cordial hatred for each other, but both knew the value of the trade that moved along this road. So caravans of goods passed on an almost daily basis, and lone travelers frequently stopped in Stoneferd. But for now, the road was empty, its surface showing no sign of any recent traffic.
Katarina didn’t mind that one bit. The few piles of horse shit she saw were dry, so she didn’t have to worry about picking up a mess when she stepped on them. That meant she could keep her head down and concentrate on covering the distance as fast as possible. Soon, the road parted from the river, the low rush of water fading, leaving nothing but the occasional bird song and the rustling of the grass in the odd breeze. Then she passed the last farm, and the forest closed around the road.
The cloud-flecked sky disappeared, visible only through the rare opening in the leafy canopy. So too, the breeze fell away, now nothing more than a vague murmur coming down from far overhead. In that silence, Katarina heard the sound of horses hooves. They were still too faint to pick out individual horses, but when she leaned to get her ear closer to the road, she could tell they were moving at close to a full gallop. No wagon team moved that fast, so she knew it had to be riders.
Father had made one thing clear long ago: horsemen were trouble. Borders moved as mixed companies, a few riders accompanying the main force on foot. Only the king’s cavalry, bandits and raiders rode as a group, and father made little difference between them. All of them treated ordinary people as little more than objects to be robbed, murdered or, in the case of women, raped. His advice for a civilian forced to deal with them was to never deal with them, but to hide if the chance came, or run away and hope they were too lazy to follow.
Ahead, Katarina saw a stand of thorn bushes, and got off the road to work her way behind them. As she settled in, the sound of of the horses grew distinct enough to her to make out two individual riders, even the slight jingle of their harness. She drew in a breath, even knowing it would make her no closer to invisible, and waited.
“Yandar! Yandar! Slow down! We’ll founder the horses if we keep driving them this hard!”
The hoof beats slowed, became distinct events, and she found she could hear the rasping breathing of the horses. The riders must almost be in front of her. Then one horse stopped moving, and she heard another voice she had to assume was Yandar.
“Aye, we might founder the horses, but if I have to spend one more night in a flea-ridden country inn, I’ll go mad! All I want to do is get to this blasted village, find the person we’re looking for, and get our ‘business’ concluded. The faster we do that, the faster we can return to the capital.”
Katarina caught the emphasis on that one ordinary word, business, and knew without explanation that these men were about something more than buying and selling.
“Well, Stoneferd should be the next village, and we won’t be able to just ride in, take care of the task, then ride out again. I mean, even with a royal warrant, we can’t just walk up to a man and kill him now, can we?”
They were going to kill someone, in Stoneferd? But who? Nobody had been away from the village for any length of time for as long as Katarina could remember. Who could have earned the king’s wrath, and why?
“Jartun, if I knew what this Taris Sigred looked like, I’d cheerfully ride up and lop his head off without stopping. Now, can we get going?”
Taris! Why would the king want him dead? The shock caused Katarina to gasp, and the riders heard the noise. The voice of the one called Jartun called out.
“You, in the bushes there! Come out! Come out were the king’s messengers can see you!”
Katarina froze, hoping silence would fool the men into believing they’d mistaken some forest sound. It didn’t.
“I said come out! We have no argument with you that you do not cause. Just step out where we can see you…step out, and if you can help us in our mission, we’ll reward you for your help.”
Katarina had no intention of helping these men kill her friend. She turned away from the road and keeping as low as she could, ran into the forest.
“There! Headed into the woods…it’s a woman! Stop, blast you!”
Knowing she’d been seen, Katarina abandoned any thought of trying to hide. She straightened and ran as fast as she could away from the road and the killers. Maybe if I can lose them in the forest, I can make my way back to the road and get to the village ahead of them. It was a good idea, but she’d have to get the two men hopelessly lost before she had even a hope of outrun their horse to the village. But it also distracted her enough that she didn’t see the root which snagged her foot and sent her sprawling. When she tried to rise, the wave of pain putting weight on her ankle caused told her she’d at least twisted her ankle, possibly broken it. The broad trunk of an oak rose just ahead, and Katarina drug herself towards it, hoping at least to keep her attackers from slaying her without the chance to see them.
The bark against her back felt good, like sitting against a rough stone wall. So this is where I die? She looked around, taking in the wide-spaced trees, the green-tinted light, and somewhere deep inside of her screamed No! This is not where I’m going to die! At least not without a fight! She knew she couldn’t stand, and wondered what sort of fight she could put up sitting on the ground. She didn’t have long to think about it. A rustling in the undergrowth where she’d tripped told her that those following her were not without skill. As she watched, a tall, heavily-built man dressed in a fine tunic and breeches thrust his way into view. He stood, looking at her a moment, a drawn sword in his hand.
“There you are! Looks like you’re in no shape to run any further, and that’s just as well. Making me thrash about in this forest should earn anyone the death penalty. But making me do that and spying on messengers of the king…that should earn you something a bit worse, don’t you think?” His voice was that of the one called Yandis. He sheathed his sword, then leered at Katarina. “And I think I know what extra ‘punishment’ you deserve. It’s been far too long since I enjoyed the company of one of the capital whores, and even longer since I had something as young as you to satisfy me. Who knows, if you pleasure me sufficiently, I might even be willing to let you live. What say you? Are you willing to earn your life?”
Katarina had never been with a man, but like any country girl raised around livestock, she knew what he meant. She also knew he had no intention of letting her live. Her hand brushed against the scabbard thrust into her belt, and she wondered if taking her own life might be better than letting this man rape, then kill her. Be damed if I let that happen! The anger rose from deep inside her, and she closed her hand around the hilt of the blade. There was no vibration now, no, it was like she could feel joy radiating from the weapon, as if the blade itself wanted to fight. She drew it, saw the light gleam off the weapon, and somewhere inside her head, a voice spoke to her.
“Wielder, I await you command! Tell me what you desire of me, and I will do it!
Katarina’s mother had told her that having someone say they heard voices in their head was a bad thing. She had no chance to reflect on this odd event. Her attacker had stopped when she’d drawn the blade, but the smile on his face told her it wasn’t from fear, but from amusement.
“Ah, you desire to fight, do you? With that?” He laughed, waving his hand contemptuously towards her weapon. “By all means, child, fight all you can, it will just make taking you that much sweeter!”
He stepped closer, and as he came within her reach, Katarina tried to stab him. His fingers closed around her wrist before she was aware his hand was moving, stopping the tip of the blade just short of the center of his chest.
“You have fire, girl. Now, let’s see what fire you have between your legs!”
No! If only the damned blade were a little longer, I could have killed him!
Again, that strange voice echoed in her head.
“I hear, my master, and I obey!”
Katarina watched the seemingly solid metal stretch until the blade slide into her attacker’s chest. His eyes wide, he tried to speak, but no sound came from his lips. Then he fell atop her, and his blood began soaking Katarina. She let go of the blade, pushing with both hands to get Yandar’s body off her, but he was far heavier than he looked. Finally, she levered him sideways, causing his lifeless corpse to roll off. Then she saw his face for the first time since she’d stabbed him. Yandar’s eyes bulged in their sockets, and his mouth gaped open as though he were trying to scream. She caught the earthy scent of someone shitting, and saw the front of his breeches go dark as his bladder emptied. She’d been with her mother when patients died, she’d smelled these things before, but this wasn’t the result of an injury or a disease. She had killed this man, and in that realization, her stomach clenched and she vomited her breakfast onto the dead man’s chest. She gagged, felt herself tense to spew more, then the spasm passed, leaving her shaking and wondering if she could do this again.
There’s another of them out there, and I can’t get away from him any more than I could get away from this one. Her hand wrapped around the hilt of the blade, and she felt a warmth, almost a welcome, as she drew it from the dead body. But where was the other man? Katarina heard the crackling of dead raspberry brambles, followed by a man cursing, off to her left, and knew the answer to her question.
“Damn it, Yandar, where did you go to? We need to find this person and deal with them. Where are you?”
From the noise the other man was making as he pushed his way through the forest, and the increasing volume of his voice, Katarina knew he was headed towards her. She’d been lucky and kill one attacker by surprise, but surprise the second one? An idea came to her, and choking back bile, Katarina grabbed Yandar’s dead hand and pulled. He moved, but not enough. She tried again, throwing her entire body into the effort. Yandar rolled atop her, and she grabbed the blade, pulling it close and hiding it as well she could under a fold of her skirt. Another burst of cursing, and she saw a nearby sapling sway wildly. Could she do this? There was only one way to find out.
Katarina began screaming, shaking the dead body as she did so, flailing her legs about as if she were trying to get the man away from her. “No! No! Please, don’t do this! I’m just a young girl, please, please let me give myself to my husband!” A louder crash, and a man pushed aside a stunted maple to step out from behind the tree that had seeded it. Katarina looked into his eyes and saw disgust at the scene. “Please, please sir! Please don’t let this man violate me!”
Maybe Jartun wasn’t a bastard like his friend. He slid his sword into its sheath, and as Katarina kept up her mock resistance, he approached. “Come on, Yandar! Leave the girl alone, or at least leave her what dignity she has.” He leaned down, grabbed the dead man’s shoulder, and pulled him off as Katarina drove the blade into his side. It went in with no resistance at all, and as Jartun staggered back, it sliced out, opening his midsection almost completely. His guts pouring out of the wound Jartun sat down, hard, staring the whole time at the spectacle of his insides hanging out. Somewhere, a blood vessel had been severed, and a tide of red began to flow out of his body to wet the ground about him. His eyes rose to fix on Katarina’s.
“Why? I would have let you go. I would have stopped him if I could have.”
She saw the man meant what he said, and felt tears forming in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but your friend wouldn’t have let me live…and I couldn’t let you kill my friend.”
The ghost of a smile played across his face, and Jartun gave a slight nod towards his dead companion. “You’re probably right, he was a bastard, wasn’t he?” he stopped, and drew a breath that sounded more like a sob than a normal breath. “Could you do me a favor? I’ve seen men like me, too many of them. I don’t want to lay here with the flies buzzing about me while the animals tear me apart. Could you take that knife of yours and kill me? Can you spare me that end?” His hand scraped at the hilt of his sword, like he were trying to draw it but couldn’t get his hand to close about the grip. His eyes shifted towards his hand, and he made another feeble attempt to draw his weapon. When he failed, Jartun focused on her again. “I can’t seem to draw my sword to throw it away, so I hope you’ll trust I won’t try to kill you. Will you help me, please? Will you release me from this life?”
Katarina forced herself to sit up, slid her weapon into its sheath, then pulled herself across the short distance that separated them. She stopped beside Jartun, and put an arm behind his back. “Sorry, but I can’t stand myself, so this is the best I can do.” The lightest push caused his body to tip backwards, and Katarina nearly went over with him. She shifted her weight, caught them both, and eased the dying man onto his back. His eyes were unfocused, but they steadied on her and she saw him smile again.
“Thank you. I didn’t want to come, but when the king commands something….” Jartun stopped speaking, his face twisting, and he drew a gasping breath. “I’ve heard men can take a mortal wound and not feel it. I never believed it, but I do now. Please, make it quick, let me go before I start screaming.” His eyes closed, and Katarina placed her blade against his neck. She’d planned to slice open the big blood vessel there, but the stroke passed through the flesh from one side to the other. Blood fountained everywhere, he gave a final, convulsive jerk, and Jartun was still. His face now slack, Katarina bent her head and let herself weep, knowing she had betrayed her mother’s creed to heal, no matter what.
“When I killed my first opponent, I was so sick I couldn’t stand. But there is no shame in killing to keep yourself alive, child.”
She should have been shocked by this new voice, one which sounded like a woman, but wasn’t. This woman sounded like she’d done what Katarina had, and taken no joy in it either. Perhaps I am going mad, as mother said people who hear voices are. Thinking herself mad didn’t bothered her, it gave her a strange comfort, almost an excuse for what she had done. The new voice was having nothing of it.
“You’re not mad, child, you just decided to fight back rather than be a victim. It shows you have courage, and that is something you should be proud of.”
It can read my mind! That did shock her, and it scared her far more than she wanted to admit. Like it came from some deep well of joy, she heard a laugh in her head, then the voice again.
“Yes, I can hear your thoughts, as you hear mine. Do be afraid! I think we are kin, far removed, but kin none the less. What is your name?”
“Katarina….umm, Katarina Agberand” she blurted out, forgetting for a moment that the disembodied voice didn’t need her to speak.
“I do not know your family name, Katarina, but I am glad to meet you, my distant relation. I am Julana, daughter of Kerman.”