Perfect Heroes #3
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The enemy stands at the border...
Ardra needs a strong warrior to save her fortress...
Neil needs a place to lick his wounds and heal...
he wishes he'd gone to Tahoe!
Ardra separated herself from her escort
with orders that they set camp at the base of Hart Fell before
full dark descended, and then walked swiftly through the trees.
Above lay the hut of Nilrem, the wiseman. At the sun-rising
on the morrow, as tradition dictated, she would seek what
wisdom he could offer in her quest. She held little hope of
much more than kind words and expressions of sympathy.
Honor and duty required she make the
She had a long night of waiting ahead.
As she moved to higher ground, she quickened her step. She
did not want her party to know she was about to indulge in
an ancient ritual, that of the old gods, that practiced by
Her serving women might nod in understanding,
but they would also be quick to disdain any belief in the
ritual. Men would smile and nudge one another with their elbows.
But at this time when she most needed help, she would appeal
to any god--ancient or otherwise. The folly of her superstitious
belief might result in ridicule and contempt, but follow the
way she must.
The ground beneath her feet was cushioned
with pine needles, a handful of which she put in her waist
pouch along with her flint and eight small candles. The occasional
tiny woodland flower gleamed white in the gathering dusk,
filling the air with a soft, hopeful fragrance. She gathered
dry twigs as she walked along. A snap made her pause. She
listened but heard nothing more. No animals stirred. With
a shrug, she moved on.
She came out onto a high meadow, her
arms full of dry twigs and branches. Despite the windy conditions,
she gathered rocks and built a fire, using the dry pine needles
as tinder. It was a small fire, stubborn to light. The eight
candles she set out within the ring of stones were even more
Fearful the flames might die in the
capricious breezes before the sun set, but doing as tradition
bid, she rose with a handful of dirt and faced the red orb.
It sat on top of a distant mountain. It appeared impaled on
the peak, its glow like blood oozing down the steep slopes.
She shivered. With great impatience, she waited, eyes on the
Despite the sun's gleam, the sky was
an angry purple, the air heavy with expectation. Low murmurs
of thunder came across the far plains. Flickers of lightning
traced paths between mountain tops.
When the perfect moment came--the moment
when the sun was just ready to set--she held her dirt-filled
fist over the struggling flames and slowly sifted the dust
from her palm. The fire died. Next, she walked around the
ring of stones eight times. With each round, she sifted dirt,
extinguishing one candle in each circuit.
Breath tight in her chest, she then
turned her face to the heavens and awaited the coming of the
conjunction--the first in fifty such conjunctions--when all
four moons would rise together, already in alignment and coming
when the sun had not yet completely disappeared. An ancient
augury. Of what, she knew not.
They came. The first of the four moons,
blue-green, smaller than the sun, but magnificent in color,
cast green into the heavens to mingle its cool color with
that of the purple and red.
The rest of the moons rose. Legends
said they were sisters, holding hands to kneel before their
mother, the sun. A blessing some ancient prophesies said,
a warning said others. Some feared seeing both the day orb
and the night orbs at the same time, in such a precise row.
Others marveled. Ardra felt only empty.
It was time to complete the ritual.
She knelt, struck her flint, and nurtured a new spark in a
handful of dry needles and shredded cloth, blew into the embers
her wishes--prayed to the ancient gods just as women had done
since the beginning of time.
When the small coal was glowing, she
scooped it up and lifted it reverently to the orbs, then cast
it onto the kindling as legend said to do. She held her breath,
leaned forward, willed the flames to survive. The small flames
crackled, took, ate the twigs, fought the errant gusts of
wind. Now, she must light the candles anew.
A sound behind her made her look up.
Three men stood there. Dirty men. Outcasts.
Her throat dried. With unsteady legs,
she rose. They held rough sticks loosely in their filthy fists.
She stumbled back, the fire between her and them. They came
at her slowly, their intent gazes skimming up and down her
One grinned. His tongue licked along
his lower lip. The gesture sent a flood of fear through her.
She glanced over her shoulder, to the
trees and the way down to her guards.
The outcasts leapt over her fire.
She whirled around. To run.
A man blocked her way.
A man afire.
She screamed. He stood bathed in the
last of the sunlight, rooted in flames of red and gold, his
eyes black holes in his white face.
She danced to the left, stumbled on
her hem, went down on one knee. The outcasts fell on her from
behind. Pain flashed through her shoulder from a harsh blow
of a stick.
They tore at her jewels. One grasped
her hem and tossed it up.
The flaming man swayed and shimmered.
She fought grasping hands, kicking,
clawing with her nails, wordlessly begging the stranger for
The red and gold man staggered forward,
clasped his hands together, and smashed them with a great
swing against the filthy head of the outcast now questing
beneath her skirts.
With a howl of anger, the outcast turned
to the man. Another outcast, his feral smile a gap-toothed
sneer, raised his stick and signaled his friends.
From one moment to the next, the outcasts
abandoned her and swarmed the man. Suddenly free, Ardra scrabbled
backwards on her hands, then with a sob, forced herself to
stand up and run.
The trees seemed so far away, her feet,
iron weights. Breath on fire in her chest, she hurled into
the shelter of the pines and scrambled up the trunk of a tree.
The vision of the red and gold man
still danced in her mind's eye. The sense that he had been
conjured from the air made her tremble. Nay, her eyes had
deceived her. It was just his scarlet and gold robes aflame
in the remaining glow of light and her fear that had made
it seem so.
As she gripped the rough bark and pressed
her head to her hands, she could not forget his sudden appearance.
He had come just at the conjunction to save her. How she wished
for some means to fight the outcasts as he had fought for
Help. She must find help. Her heart
pounded, her breath seared her chest. Her men were at the
foot of the mountain. She must pass the outcasts to reach
them. Only Nilrem was near, and he but an old man. "Why
must I be a paltry woman? Useless," she muttered.
From her perch she could see nothing
. . . but she could hear. She wanted to press her hands to
her ears and block out the terrible noise, but doing so would
deny the man who, bare-handed, had come to her rescue. Finally,
she closed her eyes and waited.
Silence came quickly and when it did,
she cautiously slipped from the tree branches and crept to
the edge of her shelter. The outcasts were like scavengers
on prey. They had stripped the man who lay sprawled, his arms
and legs outflung as if beseeching the orbs overhead for mercy.
Was he dead? Her eyes filled. She lacked words to give voice
to her anger with herself.
Her pride may have cost the man his
life. A merchant he must be to bear no sword. He was certainly
not a warrior trained to fight and defend, yet defend he had.
The three filthy men crouched with
their backs to their victim, arguing over his robes, his belt,
and his pouch.
One of the men cried out. He shook
his hand, flinging something away as if it burned his fingers.
The others peered at the object then also backed away, their
arms filled with the man's clothing. They darted into the
trees with their booty and disappeared.
Her first instinct was to go to the
man. Her second to be guarded. Perhaps 'twas just a ruse by
the outcasts to draw her out. When the crash of their progress
down the mountain grew faint, she tiptoed from the shelter
of the trees.
They had left their victim no dignity
in death. Drawing off her cloak, she knelt to cover him, tears
rising in her eyes. "If I had been a man, I would have
killed at least one of them to pay for this." With a
hesitant hand, she touched his chest.
His heart beat strongly beneath her
palm. He rolled his bloody head from side to side and groaned.
"By the gods, you are alive."
There was hope.
She cast her cloak aside to examine
him. How terrible it would be if the man bled to death while
she fetched help.
His hair was not bloody. His face was,
but 'twas not blood that made his head so dark. She wondered
at the deep brown color, but could waste no time on the matter.
Quickly, fearful the outcasts might
return, she examined the rest of him. He was young, his battered
body as strong as a warrior's. None of his wounds looked mortal.
With a whispered prayer of gratitude
to the gods, she stood up and gave him a final look. Blood
ran down his inner thigh, a thigh hard with muscle. His stomach
was ridged with muscle as well.
Then her glance fell on his right arm.
She reached out to assure herself what she saw was real. Aye,
'twas the flesh of a strong man but painted with a serpent.
It coiled three times about his arm. She rubbed the tips of
her fingers over the paint, then sat back to think. With a
glance to the heavens, she saw the third moon had already
risen. "This is a terrible omen," she whispered.
Gently, she draped her cloak across
the man's body. He was taller than the common man, though
not as tall as some of her guards. If she covered his feet
her cloak came only to the middle of his chest. She tugged
the cloak up far enough to conceal the symbol on his arm,
leaving his feet exposed.
His eyes flickered open. "What
happened?" he asked. He licked his lips.
Ardra stood and backed away. He tracked
her movements and lifted a hand.
Nilrem, she thought. I must fetch Nilrem.
He will know what to make of this man and the strange symbol
painted on his arm. Something glinted in the dirt. A broken
chain. She bent and retrieved it. The outcasts had thrown
this away, been fearful of it for some reason.
Then she understood. Dangling from
the chain was . . . nay, it was impossible. It looked like
glass, but glass could not be shaped in such a manner. The
flames of her meager fire flared a moment, illuminating the
small object. A rose. The personal emblem of Tolemac's high
There in the dirt was another rose.
She threaded it on the broken chain and knotted it. Two perfect
red roses embedded in an impossible material.
She folded her hand into a tight
fist about the token and forced herself to go for help, when,
in truth, she wished to abandon her savior to the cold night.
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