It had once been a village. Not years ago, but hours ago. Houses were still burning. Buildings and statues were smashed. What had been a pleasant grassy square was blackened. In the distance, hoarse, dog-like shouting could be heard, and human screams.
“What is this place?” asked Hermya.
“It doesn’t matter now,” said Trilla. “Sarai-chei is in there. I can hear her.” She rushed toward a house that was still largely intact. The front door was closed, but muffled screams were coming from inside. Trilla tried to open the door. It was locked. She tried to force it, but it was too solid.
“Stand aside, please, Trilla-chei,” said Goldenhead. Trilla moved away from the door, and Goldenhead drew her pistol with a flourish. She leveled it, and the door splintered inward with a deafening explosion. Trilla gave a low whistle and ran inside. Two huge two-legged fur-covered beasts were bending over something on the floor. Trilla knew the ‘something’ was Sarai-chei. She grabbed one of the beasts by two great handfuls of fur and flung it across the room, smashing it into a wall. The second beast turned toward her and roared its anger. Trilla leapt above its flailing claws and delivered a flying pile-driver kick to the head.
The first creature was now recovering and came at Trilla. Trilla was angry. She could see that Sarai-chei was motionless and covered in blood. There was no time to waste on these ugly, grunting monstrosities. She picked up a heavy chair, and ripping off one leg, threw the rest of it at her attacker. The monster staggered back and then cast aside the chair. As it did, Trilla brought down the stout chair leg on its head and rained several blows in succession with the makeshift cudgel. The creature, howling, ran out of the door. Goldenhead, seeing its approach, drew her pistol, but it ran off into the distance. Trilla turned furiously to the second monster, which also fled.
“All clear in here,” shouted Trilla. “Hermya-chei, please see what you can do for Sarai-chei.”
Hermya and Goldenhead entered the house. Hermya went straight to the unconscious and bloodied body of Sarai.
“Can you do anything?” asked Trilla.
“She’s still alive,” said Hermya. “Badly hurt, but I think I can help.”
“Foul beasts. I should have killed them,” said Trilla.
“You did what needed to be done,” said Goldenhead.
There were a few more chairs strewn around the room. Trilla fetched two of them and invited Goldenhead to sit down. She looked a little ruefully at the chair she had pulled apart and then smashed against a monster. She hated destroying the elements of a home, though really it seemed a laughable regret in view of the general destruction in this house and in the entire village.
Goldenhead seemed to guess what she was thinking and laid a hand on the back of Trilla’s hand. They were both quiet, not wanting to disturb Hermya’s work. After a few minutes, Hermya said, “She’s coming around.”
“How is she?” asked Goldenhead.
“Better than I had hoped. Some of her injuries were less than they seemed, but also she is healing amazingly.”
“You mean you are healing her amazingly, Hermya-chei,” said Trilla.
They came over to look at Sarai-chei. Hermya was still kneeling over her, and she was indeed stirring. There was color in her cheeks and there seemed to be no open wounds now.
“Trilla is right,” whispered Goldenhead. “You have improved astonishingly since you healed her yesterday.”
Sarai seemed fully awake now. She took Hermya’s arm in a surprisingly strong grip. “They’ve got my family. Please save them.”
“The demons?” asked Hermya.
“Yes. They went west. A lot of them. They have my family.”
“How long ago?” asked Trilla.
“Not long. A few minutes before you got here. They weren’t moving fast. You could catch them.”
“We’re not an army,” said Hermya. “It’s just the three of us.”
“Please,” said Sarai desperately. “You’re their only hope. If you don’t save them, they would be far, far better off dead.”
“You and I could try,” said Goldenhead. “Hermya-chei could look after Sarai-chei.”
“No,” said Trilla. “They may be back. For all we know, the two that ran out of here went for reinforcements. We can’t leave anyone here.”
“Can we move Sarai-chei?” asked Goldenhead.
“We have to,” said Trilla.
“What do you say, healer?” asked Goldenhead.
“Trilla is right,” said Hermya. “It is too dangerous to leave her here. I think I can move her.” Hermya closed her eyes, and furrowed her brow with concentration. Sarai seemed to close her eyes and drift back into sleep, but her sleepiness was visible not only in the way that a person’s sleepiness is visible to an outsider looking at her body. She became more vague in outline. Hermya opened her eyes and stood up, and Sarai’s body, almost more like a wraith now, floated beside her.
“She’ll be safe like that,” said Hermya. “She can travel without any bumps or shocks.”
“So what should we do?” asked Goldenhead. “Should we really head west after those demons?”
“I think so,” said Trilla. “That is what Sarai-chei asked us to do. We can at least see what the situation seems to be and whether we think we can help.”
“All right, I’m game,” said Goldenhead.
“Hermya-chei?” prompted Trilla.
“We can look, but I don’t want to endanger Sarai-chei,” answered Hermya. It seemed as though she had formed a strong protective bond with her patient while she was under her care.
“All right,” said Trilla. “First give me a moment to check outside.” She left the house and after a few seconds shouted, “All right. You can come.”
Goldenhead and Hermya came out of the house with Sarai floating in Hermya’s train of being. The sun was bright and the sky blue with a few fleecy white clouds. Here and there flowers grew in little clumps that had not been burned or blighted. These touches of happy normality made the devastation of the little village feel all the more horrible.
Trilla noticed the unhappy atmosphere of the blondes and said, “Come on, let’s move out. West is along this road.”
“How far ahead do you think they are?” asked Goldenhead.
“Hard to say,” said Trilla. “They must have a fair start on us. I don’t know how slowly they are traveling.”
Hermya was only half listening to the conversation. She was fascinated by the way she was carrying Sarai in her stream. It changed the whole way she thought about her own physical (if it was physical) presence. She wanted to try something. She ran forward thirty paces or so, and then her feet left the ground—she was floating in her own stream with Sarai behind her.
“Greenies!” said Trilla, as Hermya flew upward and then turned around and floated back over her companions, turned again and alighted softly on the ground.
“That was wonderful, Hermya-chei!” said Goldenhead.
“I think I can carry both of you too,” said Hermya. “May I try it?”
“Oh yes, of course!” said Trilla.
“Give me your hands then.” Hermya stood between them and took one hand of each. “Run with me: flow with me!” she cried. She ran forward, pulling the others in her stream. After a few steps she began to rise and her two companions rose behind her. They flew like doves in an arrow formation, with Sarai, sleeping, floating behind them.
Hermya flew high, she arched backwards in a great ferris-wheel circle. She breathed the air and was one with the air. She was filled with exaltation, and the others lived her exaltation with her, flew her joy; for they were sisters, and they were one.
They flew westward, following the line of the road, to where high mountains rose against the sky, and in a pass among the foothills, they saw, for the first time, movement along the road. A troop of those demonic beings were marching west into the mountains. And with them were two wagons of rough-hewn wood, with poorly-shaped solid wooden wheels. The wagons were made like heavy wooden cages and inside them were maidens, blonde and brunette.
“I think we’ve found them,” said Trilla. “Can you put us down on one of those hills overlooking the road?”
“Certainly,” said Hermya, full of delight in her new freedom.
“Good girl,” said Trilla. “You see that hill a hundred yards or so ahead of them? Would you put us down there, near the top, on the side away from the road. That way we can watch them coming without them seeing us.”
Hermya glided in to the hillside, near the top and found a level area of grass where she could lay her patient. The other two dropped as lightly as cats onto the grass, still half-held in the stream of Hermya-chei.
Impulsively, Goldenhead made deep reverence. “Thank you, Hermya-chei,” she said. “That was truly wonderful. I feel as if I am in the presence of something holy.”
“I think I have been blessed with sacred gifts,” said Hermya simply.
Trilla was already at the summit of the hill, looking over at the road below.
“Goldenhead-chei, come here,” she called. Goldenhead made the short climb to where she was.
“There are thirty or forty of them, I should say,” said Trilla. “Do you think we can take them?”
“I don’t think we can necessarily defeat all of them,” said Goldenhead, “but I believe we have a chance to free the prisoners and get them clear. It would be dangerous for you, though.”
“I am a brunette,” said Trilla, “I can do anything. So long as you blondies aren’t in danger.”
“Not much, I think,” said Goldenhead. “You see I can bombard them from here. That should shock them and put them into disarray. Meanwhile, Hermya can fly down and drop you in. You can get the prisoners out. You’ll probably have to fight several of those beasts, but I can give you artillery cover and try to keep most of them off you. If you can’t get the wagons open, I can try breaking them, but that would be risky for the maidens inside.”
“Goldenhead-chei, you are astonishing! Whoever thought a blonde would be our general?”
Goldenhead covered her face. “I just had an idea, that’s all,” she said.
“It is a truly magnificent idea,” said Trilla. “We’ll do it.”
There are times when events move so suddenly and so radically that nothing seems real any more. When she awoke that morning, Valdastre’s biggest worry in the world had been the terpander crop. It was doing well enough, but it really needed a little more rain. She had been wondering for the hundredth time about a new irrigation trench. Now the terpander fields were all burnt to the ground. Her house was burnt to the ground. The village temple was burnt to the ground—by her own villagers, to prevent desecration. The villagers themselves were either hiding in the mountains or dead, apart from Valdastre and her blonde and the few others who were being trundled in rough wooden cage-wagons drawn by creatures that were more like beasts than humanoids to a fate they could neither guess nor imagine.
Valdastre continued to do the only thing she could do. Figure the chances for escape. But there was no plan she could come up with. The cage-wagons were certainly not inescapable. They were not even locked, just held by crude hasps with a short wooden stake thrust through them. She could reach out and open the cage right now if there weren’t half a dozen beasts ready to maul her arm off the minute she put it through the bars. And if she did get out, what then? They were hopelessly outnumbered. There were three brunettes, somewhat battle-capable but not trained warriors, against more than ten times that number of brutes. And there were blondes to be protected at the same time. It just wasn’t possible.
And yet, if they were going, as seemed likely, to a demon camp, the odds were probably a lot better now than they were going to get. Maybe getting themselves—and the blondes—killed out here was the best thing they could hope for. The other two brunettes, one injured on the floor of the cage, but ready to try to fight if need be, and one from the other cage, looked to her for leadership. Valdastre squeezed her hands together, closed her eyes, and prayed to Dea for help or guidance.
And it came.
There was a sound, like a dull thud but loud—unbelievably loud. The wagon stopped rolling. There were hoarse shouts and cries. Valdastre opened her eyes and the beasts ahead of her were in disarray. A few were lying on the ground; others were running. The noise came again—this time from behind the wagons. Dust and debris flew high into the air, and demons went sprawling to the roadside. What was this? An angel from heaven intervening in earthly affairs?
Valdastre looked up into the heavens, and she saw the angel. It was like a huge white dove—partly a dove, partly human, and partly like a translucent spirit. It spread its great wings and glided down toward them, and from it dropped another white bird, smaller and somewhat less aethyrial. It was a white crane. The crane dropped to the ground, where it seemed to become a girl—a very small girl with red hair and a red uniform of some sort, yet her stance and manner was still that of the crane. For a moment she looked like a crane standing in the water, seeing nothing and unperturbed by earthly events, but at once she was tearing into the demons, throwing them, leaping, kicking, striking. More explosions came, raising sudden earth-storms of dirt, rock, and scattered demons.
Valdastre reached through the bars and opened the cage with the rapid movement that she had been rehearsing over and over in her mind for the past twenty minutes. The brunette in the other cage did the same thing. A demon turned toward Valdastre, and she delivered a spear-hand thrust to its face. It was the only fighting move she knew. She moved toward the crane-girl. She saw that she was very small indeed—no older than Sarai-cheri, and she looked—in some inexplicable way—as if she had been drawn with a brush on paper, with firm, clear outlines.
“You don’t need to help me,” said Trilla. “Just get those blondes clear.”
Valdastre had her orders now. She took command of her party. “Protect the blondes and follow me,” she shouted to the other brunettes.
Five demons rushed at Trilla at once, forcing her in toward the mountainside.
“They aren’t quite as stupid as they look,” said Goldenhead. “They are pushing Trilla-chei in under this side of the pass, where I can’t get a shot at them. I don’t know if she can fight that many at once. Can you fly me down over them?”
“Of course,” said Hermya. “Take my hand.”
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