I am told the sign of excellence in Eccles is a stamp. The mayor of the town visits the shop and stamps the door with a special crest that says this place is one of the best in town.

How that mayor earns his money I haven’t the foggiest, I’m sure. But on to my point.

Crafters and smiths have guilds to tell them who the best is. Generals have victories like glittering stones around their neck. Kings and Queens are judged from the day they die to the end of time.

Out here, in the sticks and the mud, all we got is our common sense. Oddly enough, we get by.

Tomas Bartlebie, later Grand Warlock

 

Ionas made sure the doors were locked, back and front, before he left the inn. In the moonlight, the bell silent, Nettinam looked like every other town he’d been through.

Except for the shouting and the fire and smoke rising from behind the hulking building on the courtyard corner. He cut right, following a trail of lanterns hanging from high hooks, then left up the first side road.

He stopped.

Up the road, just behind a short white-fronted building, flames leapt below a billowing plume of smoke, blowing away across farmland and pastures. It looked large enough to be a barn, that was for sure, and silhouetted next to it was another one. From here, the shouting had no words.

Probably someone knocking over a candle, he thought. Or some such thing. He should go back and watch over Sarea. In a wool town, the hounds would be elsewhere, feasting on someone’s sheep, not in the middle of town setting fire to a barn.

A barn that probably smelt like sheep.

He jogged up the road, keeping to the shadows. Just to check it out. Maybe help out filling buckets. He paused at the corner of the white building, watching. Not just buckets – they had a well, a pump, and what looked like a long metal pipe. Half a dozen men worked at the pump, and another half dozen hoisted the pipe up, spraying water across the flames. More people – and there were definitely some skirts – ran around with the buckets, putting out hissing fallen embers.

On the edge of the fire-lit area, dark shadows moved. He ducked back behind the building, cursing under his breath. If he was lucky, the smoke would cover his scent –

A low howl hung over the noise.

Damn.

He bolted, dropping his silence spell. His footsteps rang out on the stone. He slid at the corner, turned left, away from the inn. Behind him claws scrabbled on the road. Ionas didn’t stop to look. He kept running.

There was only one road off to the right, he remembered. A thin, twisting one. He turned sharply, stumbling into the wall, and tore off into the gravel and the dark. And it was black, here, the firelight at his back, the moon shadowed by clouds. He could hear, over his breath, the sounds of what he hoped – desperately hoped – were six hounds.

He caught the glint of light on water. Ionas reached a bridge and vaulted over the edge, landing with a stumble on smooth pebbles. The water came up to his knees. He paced forward, breathing heavily. He clapped, summoning an aura of pale blue light.

He couldn’t hear the hounds on the grassy banks. Just his own panting. He stood still, a good three foot of water on either side of him, watching for the blur of movement in the dark.

There! One came flying at him. He turned, raising his arm to form a magical shield –

– and was bowled over from the opposite direction. He managed one breath before he went under water. He dragged the hound under with him, looping an arm around its sinewy body. It fought back, twisting in his hold and scrabbling at his side. He clung on somehow, filling his body with magic-powered strength.

The water around them heated up. He jerked his head away from the snapping jaws, reaching for something – anything! – to hold them steady in the water. His free hand closed around rough wood. A tree branch lodged in the river bed. He dragged them close to it, twisting his body around to press the hound against the pebbles, hot water burning his face and his hands, brain screaming for air.

He gritted his teeth and waited for the hound to still, the internal flame cooling under his grip, movements weakening.

It stopped moving.

He let it go and went for the surface, gasping for breath. The bridge wasn’t in sight. Two hounds snarled at him from the opposite bank. He checked backwards and found three behind him. Not so eager to jump me in the water now. He grinned at them.

Which left him trapped in a stream on a cold night. His grin faded. He managed his feet on the rounded pebbles, cold beating at him. Shaking himself didn’t do much good – soaked to the bone, coat and shirt and shoes and all.

Ionas looked down again. He stamped a foot experimentally. The gravel shifted. He held his hands out, curling magic around what had to be centuries of stones, he raised them to just below the water’s surface. He fisted his hands, waiting. It took freezing cold minutes, a lifetime, before they started to creep forward.

He hit his fists together. Water and stones erupted, showering both banks. Hounds yelped and darted back and he scrambled for the bank, hauling himself up the slope. His feet slipped on the grass, and he tripped and stumbled his way across the stones. He formed some into a ring around him with a wave of his hand, setting the grass between them on fire in the shape of runes, and sagged to his knees. He waited.

Nothing.

Had that show been enough for them?

He breathed steadily, adrenaline fading. His arm ached. He reached across to touch it and found blood on his fingers. Startled, he twisted around, peering at his arm.

A great big bite straight through his coat. “You bastards,” he said “Ann gave me this!”

His only answer was a haunting howl, and a… bleat?

A white shape walked towards him. A sheep. It sat down beside his stone circle. He stared at it. It ignored him.

Laughter bubbled out of his chest. The sheep glared at him. “Oh, don’t give me that,” he said. “It’s your own fault! You’re a sheep!”

It baaed at him. He covered his mouth to stifle the sound of more laughter, head down, shoulders shaking.

“Here,” a man said. “How’s you?”

Someone with a shepherd’s crook, Ionas thought, and when he looked up he found it was true. “Sometimes things just seem ridiculous,” he said, pushing himself up. “I appear to have been found by your sheep.”

“That you have. I’ve been chasing this’un halfway across the commons.” The man surveyed him. “You’re glowing,” he said.

“I am.” Ionas spread his hands. “This happens. You haven’t had any trouble, have you?”

The man shrugged. “You look as if you have.”

“Let’s just say it might be better for your life if you walked back into Nettinam with me,” Ionas said. He gestured at the bite mark. Now it was really started to sting. “Things hunt in the dark.”

“That they do,” the shepherd said. He tapped the sheep with his crook. “We’ve a pack of wild dogs hereabouts. Careful on the way back.”

“And you,” Ionas said.

The shepherd nodded solemnly, turning away with the sheep at his heels. Ionas sighed, glancing around. Now, what way was it back to the bridge?

:-#-:

The town hadn’t changed since he left. The fire was lower, almost out, smoke and steam rising above the buildings. He locked the inn’s front door behind him and creaked up the stairs.

Betty Singer was still awake, sitting on the bed. She hadn’t moved. He stood in the doorway and cleared his throat.

“I couldn’t get some warmth and company around here, could I?” he said.

She looked up at him, blinking as if she’d never seen him before, and started. “What happened to -”

“Fire dogs,” he said wearily. “Please.”

“Kitchen,” she said.

Back down the stairs and into the kitchen. She got the hearth fire going whilst he stripped off coat and shirt. The coat was of tougher material than he’d thought, only torn on the sleeve but with deep scratches down the side that hadn’t quite gone through the thick material. His shirt was probably ruined. If not from the holes, from the blood. But his arm wasn’t so bad. Bleeding holes in the pattern and shape of a dog’s jaw littered the top and underside of his upper arm.

“Lucky,” Betty said. “That could be bad.”

“Just needs cleaning and binding,” he said. He could probably do it to the least of Sarea’s standards, anyway. Not that he wanted her to know about it.

Let her be able to sleep at night without worrying over him.

Betty took his coat from him, surveying the damage. “I might be able to patch that,” she said. “If we’ve the cloth.”

He flopped back against the wall. “I can fix it, I just need some scraps to work with.” He sighed, running his right hand through his hair. “It’s not your grandfather that’s haunting you.”

She raised her eyes. “Is it not?”

“Your grandfather died sixty years ago. It’s a piece of a demon.” He spread his hands. “They can reach through the Wall and spread a little influence here. Taking on the face of a dead man to haunt a relative is easy. There’s marks you can use to drive them away. I’ll show you them.”

“You would?” Betty’s hands tightened on his coat. “Why would you do that?”

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said simply. “Regardless of my feelings.”

“And you’d do it for nothing, would you?” Oh, those were Sarea’s eyes. Sarea’s grandfather’s eyes, probably. Betty peered at him as if he would tear off his skin and become of the deathless creatures before her eyes. “What’s the price?” she said.

Not that she knows what the deathless are. He shook himself. “Just treat her with a little more kindness,” he said. “You’ll probably never see her again. And… the answer to a question. What’s your grandfather’s name?”

“Gavirn Sahar Durasoona,” Betty said quietly.

 

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