Whirls of dust from the collapse filled the inside of Isanaholt’s stables, and made the sunshine slipping here and there through the roof into soft, golden rods of light. Isana stared at the enormous crossbeam in the steadholt’s stables. It had broken and fallen without any warning whatsoever a moment after she had entered the barn to distribute feed to the animals. If she had been facing the wrong way, or if she had been any slower, she would be lying dead under it with the crushed and bloodied bodies of a pair of luckless hens instead of shaking with startled terror.
Her first thought was of her holders. Had any of them been in the barn, or the loft? Furies forbid, had any of the children been playing there? Isana reached out for her fury, and with Rill’s help created a crafting that slid through the air of the barn-but the barn was empty.
Which was probably the point, she thought, suddenly struck with a possible explanation for the accident. She stood up, shaking still, and went to the fallen beam, examining it.
One end of the beam was broken, snapped off with ragged spikes and splinters of wood standing out from it. The other hand was far smoother, almost as clean as if it had been trimmed with a mill-saw. But no blade had done it. The wood was crumbling and dusty, as if it had been attacked by an army of termites. A furycrafting, Isana thought. A deliberate furycrafting.
Not an accident. Not an accident at all.
Someone had tried to kill her.
Isana suddenly became more intensely aware of the fact that she was alone in the stables. Most of the holders were out in the fields by now-they had only a few more days to plow and sew, and the herders had their hands full with keeping track of mating cycles, assisting in the delivery of the new lambs, calves, kids, and a pair of gargant digs. Even the kitchens, the nearest building to the stables, were empty at the moment, while the steadholt women working there took time for a meal of their own in the central hall.
In short, it was unlikely that anyone heard the beam fall- and even more unlikely that they could hear her should she call for them. For a moment, Isana wished desperately that her brother still lived at the steadholt. But Bernard didn’t. She would have to look out for herself.
She took a deep, steadying breath, and stole a couple of steps to a wall where a pitchfork hung by a hook set into a beam. She took the tool down, straining to be silent, willing Rill’s presence to continue sweeping through the barn. The furycrafting was hardly precise-and even if there was a murderer lurking nearby, if he was a man of enough detachment, he might not have enough of a sense of emotion for Rill to detect. But it was better than nothing.
Woodcrafters could, when they needed to, exert the power of their furies to hide their presence from other’s eyes, if enough vegetable matter was nearby to use as material. At the behest of a woodcrafter, trees would shift their shadows, grass would twist and bend to conceal, and all manner of subtle illusions of light and shadow could hide them from even skilled, wary eyes. And the barn was almost ankle deep in the rushes laid to help keep it warm during the winter.
Isana remained in place for several silent moments, waiting for any sign of another’s presence. Patience could only help her-it would not be long before the steadholt began to fill with holders returning from the fields for their midday meal. Her attacker, if he was here, would already have come for her if he thought her vulnerable. The worst thing she could do would be to lose her head, and run headlong into a less subtle attack.
Outside, the beat of running hooves approached the Steadholt, and someone road a horse in through the gates. The animal chafed and stamped for a moment, and then a young man’s voice called, “Hello, the steadholt! Holder Isana?”
Isana held her breath for a moment and then let it slowly out, relaxing a little. Someone had come. She lowered the pitchfork and took a step toward the door she had entered.
There was a small, thumping sound behind her, and a rounded pebble bounced once and then fell into the straw. Rill suddenly warned her of a wave of panic coming from immediately behind her.
Isana turned, raising the pitchfork by instinct, and only barely saw the vague outline of someone in the half-shadowed barn. There was a flash of steel, a hot sensation on one of her hips, and she felt the tines of the pitchfork bite hard into living flesh. She choked out a scream of terror and challenge and drove the pitchfork hard forward, throwing the weight of her entire body behind it. She drove the attacker back against the heavy door of one of the horse stalls, and she felt in exquisite detail the sudden burst of pain, surprise, and naked fear that came from her attacker.
The tines bit hard into the wooden door, and her attacker’s crafting of concealment wavered and vanished.
He wasn’t young enough to be called a youth, but not yet old enough to be considered a man, either. He seemed to be at that most dangerous of ages, where strength, skill, and confidence met naivete and idealism; when young men skilled at the crafts of violence could be manipulated into employing those skills with brutal efficiency-and without questions.
The assassin stared at her for a moment, eyes wide, his face already pale. His sword arm twitched, and he lost his grip on the weapon, an odd blade slightly curved rather than the more typical gladius. He pushed at the tines of the pitchfork, but his fingers had no strength in them. One of the steel tines had severed a blood vessel in his belly, she judged, some part of her mind operating with clinical detachment. It was the only thing which could have incapacitated him so quickly. Otherwise, he would have been able to strike her again with the sword, even though wounded.
But the rest of her felt like wailing in sheer anguish. Isana’s link to Rill was too open and too strong to easily set aside. All of what her attacker felt flowed into her thoughts and perceptions with a simple, agonizing clarity. She felt him, the screaming pain of his injuries, the sense of panic and despair as he realized what had happened, and that he had no way to avoid his fate.
She felt him as his fear and pain faded to a sense of dim, puzzled surprise, quiet regret, and a vast and heavy weariness. Panicked, she withdrew her senses from the young man, her thoughts screaming at Rill to break the connection with the young killer. She all but sobbed with relief as the sensations of his emotion faded from her own, and she looked him in the face.
The young man looked up at her for a moment. He had eyes the color of walnuts and a small scar over his left eyebrow.
His body sagged down, the weight pulling the tines of the pitchfork free of the door. Then his head lolled forward and a little to one side. His eyes went still. Isana shivered and watched him die. When he had, she pulled on the pitchfork. It wouldn’t come out, and she had to brace one foot against the young man’s chest to get enough leverage to withdraw the pitchfork. When it finally came free, lazy streams of blood coursed down from the holes in corpse’s belly. The corpse fell to its side, and its glazed eyes stared up at Isana.
She had killed the young man. She had killed him. He was no older than Tavi.
It was too much. She fell to her knees, and her belly lost control of its contents. She found herself staring down at the floor of the stables, shuddering, while waves of disgust and loathing and fear washed over her.
Footsteps entered the stables, but they meant nothing to her. Isana lowered herself to her side once her stomach had ceased its rebellion. She lay there with her eyes closed, while holders entered the stables, sure of only one thing: If she hadn’t killed the man, he would certainly have killed her.
Someone with the resources to hire a professional killer wanted her dead.
She closed her eyes, too weary to do more, and was content to ignore the others around her and let oblivion ease her anguish and terror.