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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 15: Outside the Walls

Updated: Jul 4, 2021

Two nights after that glorious stay in the Lord’s Castle, Cora’s heart leapt with joy once again as she prepared for her first official outing with Montpeleón. Word was out: they were courting, and Cora’s mind raced with anticipation. With trembling hand, she adorned her hair with an emerald-studded silver comb that held in place most of her scarlet locks on the left side of her head.

While she prepared, she contemplated discussing the Wilder Tower mystery with Montpeleón during the theatre performance. But when Harold Kotting announced his arrival, all thoughts for the mystery evaporated. Cora dashed to the window and pushed the curtains aside. Standing on the front walk with his hat in one hand and a long-stemmed rose in the other, her suitor waited expectantly.

“Have a good evening,” Velma Kotting said as she patted Cora lightly on the arm. “And make sure he behaves himself.”

Cora dipped a brief curtsey. “I will, and thank you.”

A sleek hansom with driver waited in the street, and the alderman in his Trelini suit bowed deeply when Cora opened the front door of the house to join him. She practically floated down the porch steps to his side, her mind a fog as the pomp and formality of their first official night together began.

Montpeleón treated her with utmost respect throughout the evening, exercising every convention and committing not even the slightest breach of etiquette. He was stately in dress and decorum, and in all his ways he treated Cora as a gentleman’s lady. His speech was deferential to her and sprinkled with praise of her beauty and talents, particularly when in the presence of other ladies.

The theatre troupe, Entr’acte Theatrix, performed a tragedy about a young woman becoming mentally unstable until she no longer recognized her friends, family, or, in the end, even herself. The show finished with a lengthy monologue from the tragic lead as she battled with her increasing degradation until even her words were no longer decipherable. Cora cried as the lights began to fade with the woman’s grip on reality, finally going completely dark as she uttered her last word, the simple plea: “Help!”

When the stage lights were relit, the audience burst into thunderous applause, though there was hardly a dry eye among them. Afterwards, Montpeleón treated Cora to a private meeting with the cast, which quickly became nothing of the kind. The players ignored her as an outsider while they concentrated their attention on their old friend from Kedeth, reminiscing about shared events from their past and laughing at old jokes. Try as he did, Montpeleón could not divert their focus from him, and for her sake he had to whisk Cora away before it became overly uncomfortable.

He returned Cora to the Kotting’s house a full hour before midnight, but as she turned the latch to the front door, Montpeleón placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Miss O’Banion,” he said softly.

“You may call me Cora,” she said, shuddering slightly from his touch.

“Cora, then…I hope you have enjoyed the evening, as I know I certainly have.”

“Yes, I did. Thank you, Montpeleón.”

The alderman paused, and Cora watched him with interest. Is he nervous, too?

“Please, Cora, call me Monty. My full name, unfortunately, is much too laborious.”

She smiled warmly. “Good night, Monty. I did enjoy myself, and your company.” She turned the handle, and once more she felt his light touch on her arm. Is he going to kiss me?!

“Miss Cora, I would like you to accompany me later this week to another theatrical production, a comedic one this time, by a troupe I do not personally know. We should not need to dress so formally.”

Cora gazed into his nervous but hopeful eyes. The whole scenario amused her immensely. It’s like we’re still in secondary school. This man is acting like an adolescent schoolboy! “I should like that very much,” she said softly.

She half expected what happened next, but it still shocked her and provided a charge that stayed with her for the entirety of the following day as well. Montpeleón slid his hand gently down Cora’s arm and lightly grasped her hand. She could have easily pulled away had she a mind to resist, but she knew what was coming, and her mind had quickly been reduced to a sort of unreasoning paste. Slowly, ever so painfully slowly, Montpeleón raised her trembling hand and, with his gaze never leaving her bright green eyes, now wide with expectation, he tenderly placed a kiss on the back of her hand.

If her other hand had not been on the door handle already, she might have fallen over.

“Good night, lovely Cora,” he said. Then as her lips numbly mouthed the same words, he turned, walked the short distance to the street, and entered the hansom. “Home, Fredricks,” he said to the driver, and seconds later they were gone, leaving nothing along Sterling Way except the distant sound of a pair of cats snarling over some discarded food.

It was a good while later before Cora finished turning the door handle.

When she awoke the next morning, she had no recollection of going upstairs to bed or of the conversation Velma Kotting claimed to have had with her. The sensation of that simple and polite kiss remained with her throughout the day, fogging her mind. She chided herself for acting like a ninny, but every time she replayed the events of that night—especially that rapturous moment on the porch—she fought anew the urge to lapse into daydream.

The sun had already set that evening when Cora snapped out of yet another reverie of her first outing to the realization that something direly important was about to transpire. The hour candle steadily burning on her bureau indicated a bit past the ninth hour. In a small panic, she donned her armor and filled her backpack with various items. She frowned at her lute. Now would be a nice time to know how to call my lute out of thin air. I’ve got to learn that spellsong.

Cora checked her appearance in a mirror, making certain her leather armor was not visible beneath her clothing. She slung the pack over her shoulder. It perturbed her that the hilt of her rapier poked out the top. Any city guardsman catching her in the streets fully armed and armored would have every reason to suspect she was breaking probation. Never mind what they would think when she left town.

But this was one night she dared not go without her weapon.

* * * * * * * * * *

Near the tenth hour of the evening, in the southern district of Wilder, Cuauhtérroc sat on the edge of his bed, methodically smearing various colored dyes across his face and chest. White stripes under his right eye indicated fearlessness. The blue line down his nose meant focus. Alternating black and white markings on his chest, each one carefully placed, designated previous kills—both animal and human. Several cross hatches on these lines were the tally of Amurraks he had slain—fourteen in all. The wavy red lines on his sternum stood for the fire that had consumed his homeland and were a clear signal of the purpose for his challenge.

The panther warrior carefully draped the freshly cleaned black pelt across his shoulders and fastened it in place. Beneath that he wore his bandoleer fitted with several leather pouches, each containing something of personal value. Should he die this night, those pouches would hold meaningless trinkets to a person coming across his body, but they were the totems that would usher his soul away from this foreign land to the equatorial mountains of his ancestors. Should he prevail, the one empty pouch would hold a new trophy—the right ears of two Amurraks.

A sudden clamor of voices alerted him. Ermine Wilkins was arguing with someone at the front door of her house. The savage shook his head bleakly. He did not want or need to hear this again. How many times do I have to tell Cora O’Banion that I am honor-bound to reap vengeance upon the Amurraks for the slaughter of my people? She is my closest ally in the mainlands, but she can be as useless as pricklegrass is for wiping boundas.

The door to his small bedroom opened, and Cuauhtérroc spun around with a firm grasp on his macana.

Cora stepped in over the protests of the lady Wilkins and hoisted a thumb over her shoulder. “She said I’m not supposed to talk to y—”

Her breath caught when she saw his tribal war paint. “Oh my…”

Cuauhtérroc looked over Cora’s shoulder at his hostess. “It ees okay for Cora O’Banion to be here.”

The elderly woman shook her head. “Well, I don’t know what you two are up to, but ye probably shouldn’t be doin’ whatever it is.”

“It’s going to be all right, Mrs. Wilkins,” Cora answered as she gently closed the door. She turned to Cuauhtérroc. “Now, about what you’re doing…”

“Do not say dees words.”

“I agree, Cuauhtie. No more talking. Now’s the time for action.”

“What? Now you say I can do dees?”

“No,” Cora stated as if it were the most obvious truth, “I don’t think you should do this. But I know you’re going to fight them no matter what I say. And there’s no way I can stop you.”

“Den why are you here?”

Cora unshouldered her pack and set her lute beside it. “I’m going with you.”

“No,” the savage said matter-of-factly.

“Cuauhtérroc, you’re my ally. What’s more, you’re my friend, and I mean that. I don’t know why you insist on killing these women—all right, they’re Amurraks—I still don’t understand it at all. But you’re not going at it alone. If you can be stubborn, I can be stubborner.”

“Dees is not your fight.”

Cora stepped forward and stood toe to toe with him, which forced her to crane her neck to look him in the eye. It wasn’t an intimidating pose she had struck, but she meant to emphasize her words with bodily gestures, ones that he could understand. She poked a painted fingernail on his chest. “Who’s going to get you through the city gate? Who’s going to sing you that song of courage you like? Who’s going to shout curses upon your enemies? Who’s going to bandage your wounds or, should you lose, drag your stupid arse back into the city?”

For a long minute, Cuauhtérroc stared down at the songsage with her glossy red fingernail jabbed into his sternum, right in the middle of the fire he had painted there. It occurred to him that she had a fire in her as well, and it was being stoked this very moment. The truth was he didn’t want her to die. She had no duty to fight Amurraks. On the other hand, wasn’t his purpose in coming to the mainland to acquire an army that also had no duty to fight Amurraks? What if Cora O’Banion is my first recruit? What if this woman is to fight by the side of panther warriors against those brutal women from the southern jungles? It would destroy all traditions, but maybe the Great Father of the Fire Mountains is already destroying that anyway.

Cuauhtérroc retrieved the jar of black paste from the side table and scooped a dollop onto his finger. Cora’s eyes followed his movements, and they widened as he approached her face with the blackened finger.

“What are you doing?” she asked with alarm.

“If you are going to fight dees Amurraks, you must be made ready.”

The panther warrior smeared a pair of black stripes under her left cheek and crossed them with a third, running from under her eye to her jawbone. “Dees are marks for dees young warriors.”

He pushed up Cora’s sleeves and finger-painted a black circle on the outside of each arm and placed a small black dot inside the circles. “Dees are for strength.”

After wiping his hands on a soiled cloth, the savage took up the red paste. He looked down at Cora’s chest. “Dees is for your heart. Open dees shirt.”

Cora hesitated for a moment, staring intently into Cuauhtérroc’s dark eyes. With nervous hands, she opened the top two buttons of her shirt and watched Cuauhtérroc smear a fiery symbol across the upper portion of her armor and the skin between her collarbones. “You have dees fire in your heart, Cora O’Banion. It ees like your hair.”

The panther warrior stepped back and looked her over. “Now you are ready,” he said solemnly.

As she examined herself in a small mirror. Was she ready? Hardly. She looked more like a child pretending to play at barbarism. She stared for a time at the tribal paint, slowly tracing the lines Cuauhtérroc had smeared across her skin. Gradually, her expression changed from wonderment to acceptance. It was a start, but she needed to be resolved, firmly decided, and hardened against all doubt. She had to be ready to protect him, to bolster him, and if required, to kill for him.

Cora set down the mirror and turned to him with a nod. “Let’s go.”

Ermine Wilkins had already retired to her small bedchamber when the pair struck out into the darkness of the poorly lit streets of Wilder District. She would have surely objected to their going out dressed like that. Fortunately, the night skies were mostly overcast. The moon’s full orb hid behind a veil of clouds and cast an eerie, pale-gray glow across the rooftops.

Cora tossed the savage a ragged woolen cloak for cover, and she donned one like it for herself. She instructed Cuauhtérroc to walk slightly stooped and keep his head down, hoping this rudimentary disguise could get them past the guards at the western gate. Of course, that would be only half the challenge, for they would also need to reenter after dealing with the Amurraks. Assuming they survived. She mentioned the potential for failure at every turn. One or both of them could fall or even die in the conflict, but it was equally possible they could be arrested before they even got there. Or worse, they could be arrested on the way back, their victory stripped from them before they could savor it.

They had several blocks of city streets to canvass before arriving at the western gate, but they saw hardly a soul along the whole of their walk. It was nearing midnight, and no sober persons would be about at this hour. Their best bet was to fall in with the drunken rabble. It would be impossible for Cuauhtérroc to pretend he was drunk, but Cora was going to do her best. She told him to say nothing, to act like he was sick, and to keep limping. Likely no one noticed a pair of sodden drunks bumbling about looking for their homes or a random place they might lay their muddled heads for the night.

Cora softly repeated the chorus of a famous tavern ditty, mixing up the lyrics every so often and laughing raucously when she “forgot” the words. She tripped about, sometimes ambling down the middle of the street and sometimes staggering along storefronts, pausing at the occasional tree to fake vomiting.

“Dees is why I do not drink your ale, Cora O’Banion,” Cuauhtérroc said in hushed tones as she “recovered” from another wave of pretend nausea.

She smiled broadly at him and drug the back of her sleeve sloppily along her mouth. “An’ dat ish eggsacketally why I drink ash mu—hic—ash m—hic—a lot!”

At the western gate, a pair of bored guardsmen stepped wearily from their huts and approached the drunken pair.

“Finally going home, ‘eh?” one of them asked.

Cora stumbled slightly and caught herself on the guard’s shoulder. “I haffa—hic—go home,” she drawled, pushing herself back aright as she staggered toward the gate. “Come, hushban’…” she said to Cuauhtérroc, “Wait…you’re not my hush—hic—ban’.” She looked queerly at the second guard, a younger man with bright blue eyes and a strong jaw, and a lascivious smile crept across her face. “You’re my hushban’!”

The younger guard recoiled from her. “Get outta here, wench! Go home! And take this other sot with you.”

“Come on, biggun,” Cora said, beckoning Cuauhtérroc to follow, “I’m shure we’ll be home by mornin’.” She began to sing again, this time more loudly, “Oh…she was a pretty lash, dat—hic—dat shtole dish heart o’ mine…hic…shing with me, biggun! She was a pretty lash dat shtole…no…with golden hair sho fine…”

A quarter-mile from the gate, Cora stopped the act and removed the disguise. “Well, Cuauhtie, that was fun. I hope it worked.” She paused and looked imploringly at the savage. “And I hope I’ve never acted like that when I’ve had too much to drink.”

Cuauhtérroc stared at her, his silence speaking volumes.

She held up her hands. “I don’t even want to know.”

While Cora lit a pair of torches and set them on either side of the road, the savage removed his cloak and began a slow preparation for the coming challenge, dropping to one knee and placing both hands on the ground. He chanted phrases in his native Audrian tongue, his face hardening with courage and determination. He unclasped his macana and waited.

Cuauhtérroc froze and stiffened, his ears straining. He sniffed the air. “Dey are coming,” he announced, steeling himself for their approach.

The panther warrior’s eyes narrowed as he held his macana, gripped in both hands, in front of his chest. As if on cue, two dark-skinned Amurraks burst forth from the underbrush and took aggressive postures in front of him. The one on his left wore her black hair in long dreadlocks; the other was bald except for a tuft of hair growing from the base of her skull. They were dressed in leather armor from the waist down and war paint on their faces, arms, and torsos. Each carried a wooden buckler strapped to a forearm and wielded a heavy greatclub in both hands. And like Cuauhtérroc, neither was wearing anything from the waist up; their chests were bare and striped in white and red.

“You challenged us, panther warrior,” the lead Amurrak said in the Audrian tongue, “and my sister and I are here. And after we have killed you and eaten your heart, we will tell your people that you run with a white woman, that you need a pasty white mainlander to help you survive. I think that for you, surviving by a woman might be worse than dying to one.”

Not a muscle in Cuauhtérroc’s body flinched. “And after I have killed both of you,” he retorted in Audrian, “I will cut your filthy bodies into so many pieces that no one will be able to tell what you were. And I will scatter the pieces so far across the land that all will say the mainland consumed you.”

Quietly in the background, while the two opponents squared off, Cora began to chant.

“I am Mattawonah,” the Amurrak said proudly, “of the Tuomowec tribe. I have killed giant lizards, fanged serpents as large as your leg, and a saber-toothed tiger. I have slain two dozen of your people, and I will also slay you. Then I will enjoy killing your frail little white girl.”

The Amurrak tossed a dark, hate-filled glance over Cuauhtérroc’s shoulder at the songsage. Cuauhtérroc instinctively edged to his right to place himself a bit more directly between Cora and his foes. If they intended to harm her, they would have to come through him first.

“I am Cuauhtérroc, son of Cuauhtoolah,” he growled, “panther warrior of the Great Father. I have killed a black panther and eaten its heart. I have slain fourteen Amurraks in defense of my people. And in vengeance for the fires and death you visited upon them, I will also slay you.”

The faceoff was customary among tribal challenges, and it was expected that the two opponents would boast several times more of his own victory and his foe’s gruesome demise. But Cuauhtérroc had learned one thing from the Amurraks’ brutal destruction of his homeland: victory is gained by doing the unexpected. As Mattawonah began another description of how she would overpower him in especially grisly ways, Cuauhtérroc slipped his foot under one of his spears that was lying on the ground, kicked it up into his hand, and thrust it mightily into Mattawonah’s abdomen.

The attack caught everyone by surprise and spoiled the chant Cora had been building. The bald Amurrak screeched and charged at Cuauhtérroc with her greatclub. The savage blocked her attack and rolled around her charge, landing his macana across her back.

Mattawonah choked for a moment as the dark blood of internal organs poured from her belly. With a gurgled grunt, she began to pull it out. Her whole body trembled with the pain of retracting the weapon, but she stared fiercely at Cuauhtérroc while the spearhead slowly pulled at her flesh and blood trickled through her fingers.

Cuauhtérroc recalled his homeland, defending his tribe against his enemies. He was alone now, but his mission remained clear: kill the Amurraks. His people were counting on him. The eyes of his ancestors, looking down from the Fire Mountains, home of the Great Father, were watching him now. Fueled by such inspiration, he raised his arms and roared a great war cry.

The bald Amurrak trembled under the mighty shout, and as she cowered, Cuauhtérroc saw Mattawonah behind her, hefting his spear and preparing to throw it.

A strain of energetic music resounded across the area as Cora strummed a lively tune on her lute and interlaced a magical strain into the music. Strength coursed through the panther warrior as the music empowered him. That is good, Cora O’Banion.

Mattawonah circled around to Cuauhtérroc’s left flank, pulled her arm back and threw the spear. Time slowed for the panther warrior. Cuauhtérroc saw the spear leave Mattawonah’s hand, the wood shaft wobbling in the air as it arced toward him. Acting on pure jungle instinct, he darted forward to the bald Amurrak.

In response, she lashed out, delivering a ringing blow to the side of his head.

The blood flowing over his ear hardly registered, nor did the throbbing pain. Enraged and numb to everything, he grasped the woman’s arm, and with boosted strength from Cora’s spellsong, he yanked the Amurrak clean off her feet and directly into the path of the oncoming spear.

The spear pierced back, heart, and chest, protruding between the bald Amurrak’s breasts and spraying Cuauhtérroc’s torso with blood and bits of flesh and bone. He released her, and she dropped to her knees and fell to the side, never to rise again.

Mattawonah stared in disbelief at Cuauhtérroc’s tide-turning maneuver. As quickly, her stare turned to bitter enmity. Despite her wound, she screamed in fury and rushed after him.

Cuauhtérroc’s head began to catch up to his injury. His eyesight drifted in and out of focus, and occasionally he saw two of everything. He defended himself as well as could be expected, but Mattawonah’s relentless attacks broke through, landing blows on his arms, shoulders, and chest. He felt a collarbone snap, and several ribs. He partially blocked a second blow to the head, but the sheer force of the attack drove his own weapon into his face, dazing him further. He had no time to return the attacks; he could only defend and hope his head cleared enough to see an opening. Somewhere he heard music playing, but he couldn’t see where it was coming from.

He could barely see anything.

As Mattawonah crashed her greatclub against the savage’s arm, breaking the bone and catching the side of his head on the follow-through, all went black. He crumpled limply several feet away, his broken arm bent impossibly to the side.

The Amurrak glared at Cora with murderous eyes. “Now you,” she growled, stepping over the fallen savage.

Cora wanted to scream in fear, to run, to beg for mercy. Instead, that spark of fire Cuauhtérroc foresaw in her ignited, and she found courage. The resolve she had hoped for, the presence of mind that she had been seeking now filled her. The hesitance of her youth dissipated, intimidation in the presence of seasoned tribal warriors fled, and with utter clarity of purpose, Cora knew what must be done: Cuauhtérroc was down and she would have to finish this fight.

Years of training flooded her mind, recalling thousands of hours practicing and many more under Devin Rhynn’s tutelage. Her fingers acted of their own volition. She played a soothing chord progression well-designed charms, and with pounding heart, she began to sing. The golden notes of befriending refrains dripped from her tongue, and in response, the Amurrak’s shoulders slumped in relaxation. Her war fury was stripped, her wrath cooled, and Cora carefully approached with gentle steps.

The Amurrak gazed at her curiously, as if confused by this turn of events. She shook her head and blinked several times. She pulled at her dreadlocks and pounded a fist against her forehead. But Cora sang on, modulating her chording to penetrate the woman’s defenses.

Pounded by the relentless song, Mattawonah succumbed, lowering her greatclub and resting cross-legged on the ground. Blood from her belly wound dribbled into her lap, but her mind was no longer hers.

It did not belong to Cora, either. Controlling another person’s mind was a serious offence, likened to mental rape and punishable by death in some lands. Though Devin Rhynn had taught her the methods—indeed, he had once controlled her—she could not consciously commit the heinous act upon another person.

The Amurrak was only entranced, and as Cora held the woman spellbound, she danced with pendulate steps around the place where the Amurrak sat. With perfect timing, the songsage stopped strumming as she stepped near Mattawonah’s bare and unprotected back, her eyes settling upon a leather back-scabbard holding a massive blade.

Cora continued to sing as she contemplated the sword. I have to end this. She sang soothing and honeyed words, lulling the Amurrak into quiet complacency. Taking care not to upset this delicate balance, she slowly eased the large blade from the scabbard.

It was much heavier than Cora expected, and she nearly dropped it. It was awkward in her hands, and she wondered how anyone could wield such a weapon.

She raised the thick blade against the Amurrak’s dark-skinned back. It would be easy to drive the sword through her or to take her head with a mighty swing, but the very thought chilled Cora. She could not in good conscience deliberately kill someone in such a murderous fashion. Truthfully, she couldn’t stomach killing someone in any fashion, but certainly not someone helpless and enthralled. But I have to end this.

She ended her song and drew in a large preparatory breath. “Nobody messes with my savage,” she said through clenched teeth. Turning the sword sideways, she gripped it tightly in both hands and swung with all her might. The flat of the blade rapped the Amurrak across the side of her head, knocking her unconscious.

“And wear some clothes,” she chided.

Her knees wobbled as she became aware of what had transpired. Death was awaiting her, much closer than she wanted. The songsage now stood alone in the road. Outside the city. The night fell suddenly quiet. And cold. Three bodies lay about, and Cora desperately needed one of them to be alive.

She dashed to Cuauhtérroc’s side and felt for a pulse, breathing a heavy but grateful sigh of relief upon finding one. He was a piteous sight. She recalled his collapse after the banespider’s bite—another time she had rushed to his side and helped him recover. It occurred to her that she might one day look back on their travels and discover that she had often assumed this position.

Realizing she was pressed for time, Cora began to scrounge valuables from the Amurraks. It was becoming easier to accept the rite of spoils now. The Amurrak’s large blade might fetch a nice sum in the markets, but that was all she had. She rolled the bald woman over onto her back, and under the flickering torchlight her eye caught a unique symbol—an elongated, fanged skull rested atop the blade of a scythe—tattooed around the contours of her right breast. It was a symbol she had seen before, perhaps in a book and maybe even during her studies at school. A holy symbol, perhaps…or, an unholy symbol. Cora frowned at the tattoo, trying to recall its meaning. It frustrated her that nothing was coming to mind, but she could no longer afford to tarry.

It was a challenge to move Cuauhtérroc’s body without further damaging him, but she managed to roll him onto the hooded cloaks that previously had served as costumes. Now they became a makeshift stretcher that carried her ally as she dragged him ever so slowly in the grass beside the road.

Cora slowly progressed to the walls of Westmeade. Getting back into the city was going to be a challenge, and she began to accept that they would all be jailed again. But at least Cuauhtérroc would first be treated for his wounds. Oh, Maker of all that is beautiful, you spared my life through the Beauty of Song. Spare now Cuauhtérroc.

Moments later, a rugged traveler on a horse-drawn wagon ambled by. It was both a perplexing sight and a wondrous blessing. What’s he doing out here at this time of night? Is this an answer? Cora uttered a quick thanks to the Maker as the driver pulled his horse to a stop.

Bushy eyebrows shaded his eyes from the lantern hanging on his wagon. “Looks like you could use some help,” he said.

“My friend and I were waylaid by bandits,” Cora explained.

The weather-beaten man’s eyes sparkled. He set his reins aside and stepped down. “I saw a couple of fallen bodies back by the stream. Indecent, if you ask me. But I see you doing the hard work of dragging your friend back into town. I could give you a ride…”

A huge weight rolled off her shoulders as she accepted his offer. If this man suspected her of any wrongdoing, she couldn’t tell. Together they lifted Cuauhtérroc’s body into the wagon, but the driver said nothing more about it—or anything else—the short way back to town.

To her great surprise, at the western gate of Westmeade, he vouched for her as his daughter and paid the toll for the both of them. The guards tipped their hats in welcome and wished them a good night. No inspection of his goods, no questions about their business or travels. Cora marveled that Westmeade had such lax security, but she was not in the least inclined to care about that tonight.

The wagoner dropped off Cora and Cuauhtérroc at Riverwalk Park. She thanked him warmly and insisted on both reimbursing the gate toll and paying him a day’s wages for the assistance. He politely refused, tipped his hat, and lightly snapped his horse’s reins.

As he slowly rolled away, Cora’s mind filled with wonderment. His presence was answered prayer. She noticed on the wagon’s tailgate a brown circle with a radius line from center to bottom carved deeply into the wood. Images from her studies of the Sects flashed through her memory—it was a crude rendition of the Pathers, those who believed life was a journey. Many called them listless, but tonight this man was exactly where he needed to be.

Another image from her studies flashed through her mind. The symbol on the Amurrak’s breast was the rune of Death! She was a follower of Falasteron, the black son of the Great Dragon, Vaeroloth! Stunned by the realization, Cora stood motionless in the street for a while, contemplating the fact that she and Cuauhtérroc had been battling followers of the very source of evil. Why are Amurraks in league with Falasteron? Her proximity with unmitigated evil had been too close, and Cora shuddered, as if she had been sullied by contact with them. Perhaps I should have run her through.

She involuntarily shuddered and hurried to Ordin’s lean-to in the park, where the mystic was none too excited to be awakened. Shinnick growled in the darkness as if to emphasize the point.

Cora placed a hand on his shoulder. “Ordin…please. Cuauhtérroc’s in bad shape.”

With a loud gruff, Ordin peeled back his blanket and followed Cora to the trail where the wagoner had left Cuauhtérroc. “Cripe,” the mystic mumbled as he lifted the cloak covering the savage’s body. “What’d he do this time?”

“He attacked the Amurraks outside the city.”

Ordin dropped the cloak and looked back at Cora with an expression that perfectly blended irritation with amazement. “Did he kill ‘em? Please say he did ‘cause I’m tired of his mopin’ around.”

“I think so,” Cora replied. “One is dead for certain; the other has probably bled out by now. It was gruesome, Ordin, clubbing each other until their bodies broke.”

“That’s what war looks like.”

“It’s ugly and I don’t like it. The Maker created Beauty, and we spend so much time ruining it.”

Ordin ran his fingers through his hair. “Well, help me get his heavy arse off the road.”

While they half-dragged, half-carried Cuauhtérroc’s body back to the lean-to, Cora shared with Ordin more of the details of their conflict. She told of the warpaint, the drunken disguises, the verbal challenges, the gore and the pain, her spellsongs, and finally of her decision not to kill the helpless Amurrak.

Ordin unwrapped Cuauhtérroc and began examining his wounds. He shook his head. “You shoulda killed her. Cuauht’s gonna wanna know that he won the battle.”

“I couldn’t, Ordin. Not after I had charmed her. That’s not right.”

“Don’t get me started on what’s right and what ain’t.”

“I kept her sword, though. It’s frightfully heavy.”

Ordin frowned over some of the savage’s wounds. “He’s in bad shape.”

“Is he…is he going to make it?” Her eyes began to brim with tears of regret.

“I’ll do my best, but he really ought to go to the Solarium.”

Cora sighed sadly. “We can’t let anyone know about this.”

“I know,” Ordin said as he inspected Cuauhtérroc’s head. “They’ll throw us in jail, and that right there…that ain’t right.”

After a sniff, Cora wiped her eyes. “Ordin, I can’t stay. I should, but I can’t. I have to get back home or the Kottings will wonder what happened. And if they start wondering then that leads to—”

“Go home, Cora.There ain’t much you can do here anyway.”

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