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EIGHT

WHEN in the midst of deadly danger, time slows. Fragments. It is me, the moment, the circumstances.

As it was now.

I saw Del, down. The glint of sun off her bared blade, lying against stone. The spill of white-blond braid. The sandtiger's compact, bunched body, blending into the rocky background as it squatted over her.

I bellowed at the cat as I ran. Anything to distract him, to draw his attention from his prey. Del was unmoving: probably unconscious, possibly dead.

"Try me!" I shouted. "Try me, you thrice-cursed son of a Salset goat"

The sandtiger growled, then yowled as it saw me. I threatened his prey. For a moment he continued to hunch over Del, then came up into a crouch, flexing shoulders. Jaw dropped open. Green eyes glared.

Everything was slowed to half-time. I watched the bunching of haunches, the leap; judged momentum and direction; knew without doubt what was necessary. My nearly vertical blade, at the end of thrusting arms, met him in midair. Sank in through belly fur, hide, muscle, vessels and viscera, spitting him to the hilt I felt the sudden weight, heard the scream, smelled the rank breath, the musk of a mature male. Without pausing I ducked head and dropped shoulder, swung, let his momentum carry him through his leap. Over my head, and down.

I was conscious of the horses screaming, but I paid them no attention. I was focused only on the sandtiger, now sprawled on the ground, jaws agape, tongue lolling. For all I knew he was dead already, but I jerked the blade free, then swung it up, over, down, like a club, and severed his head from his body.

Then I dropped the sword. I turned, took two running strides, climbed up into the boulders. "Bascha . . ."

She lay mostly face-down, one arm sprawled across a cluster of rocks. Her torso was in a shallow guliey between two boulders. Legs were twisted awry.

"Del?"

There was blood, and torn burnous. I caught the tangled rope of hair and moved it aside, baring the back of her neck to check for wounds. She had not had time to face the cat fully. His leap had been flat, then tending down. Front paws had curled over her shoulders, grasping, while back paws raked out, reaching for purchase.

He had leaped at her back, intending to take his prey down from behind. But Del had moved, had begun to turn toward him as I yelled, had begun to unsheathe her sword, and he'd missed his target. Instead of encircling her neck with his jaws, snapping it, piercing the jugular, the big canine teeth had dug a puncture and furrow into her right forearm and the top of her left shoulder at the curve of her neck. The main impetus of the bite had fouled on harness and sheath.

I planted my feet as firmly as possible in the treacherous footing, then bent, caught a limp arm, and pulled her up. I squatted, ducked, levered her over one shoulder, head hanging, braid dangling against my thigh, while her legs formed a counterweight before me. I rose carefully, balancing the slack-limbed drape of her body. Teeth clenched, I made my way slowly down the boulders, found level footing on the flat, sandy crown of the bluff, and carried her to the lean-to. I had tossed her rolled bedding there while unpacking the gelding; with care I slid her over and down, arranged her limbs, set her head against the bedroll. Then, lock-ing my hands into the front of her burnous, I tore fabric apart along the seam, exposing her body in its sleeveless tunic.

Exposing arms and legs, and the sandtiger's handiwork.

"All right, baschagive me a moment here . . ."

Almost without thinking I unbuckled the harness, worked the leather straps and buckles over her arms and out from under her body. Tossed it aside in a tangle of leather and brass. Yanked my knife free of its sheath, cut swathes of her burnous, and began wadding it between torn flesh and what remained of the tunic's high neck. Claws had cut through it, into the flesh beneath, baring the twin ridges of collar bones. One claw had nicked the underside of her jawbone at the angle beneath her left ear, trickling blood across her throat.

More fabric was sacrificed for her right forearm as I bound it tightly. Then I worked my left arm under her back, lifted her, tipped her forward against me. Her head lolled into my shoulder.

"Hold on, baschaI'm taking a look at your back."

The sandtiger had attempted to set hind claws into her lower back and the tops of her buttocks, but all he'd managed to do as she turned was pierce the leather of her tunic. Very little blood showed through. So, the worst of the damage appeared to be the bite wounds at the top of her shoulder and in her right forearm, plus the deep claw lacerations reaching from the first upswelling of both breasts nearly to her throat.

Of course, that was the visible damage. Inside, beneath the flesh and muscle, sandtiger poison coursed through her blood.

With Del slumped against me, I untied the thongs on her bedding, unrolled it with a snap and flip of my hand, eased her onto it. Now it was time. Time I knew.

I bent over her, then slowly lowered my head. Rested my ear against her chest, petitioning all the gods I'd cursed for all of my life that she not be dead.

The beating was slow but steady.

My breath left on a rush of relief. I did not sit up immediately.

I pressed dry lips against her brow and did more than petition. This time I prayed.

When it became clear the bite wound in the top of her shoulder did not intend to stop bleeding on its own despite my ministrations, I did the only thing I could. I built a quick, haphazard fire in the rock ring outside the shelter, arranged my knife so the blade would heat, and when steel glowed red, I wrapped a flap of leather around the handle and carried it back inside the lean-to. Del was as pale as I'd ever seen in a living woman, even to her lips. Apologizing in silence, I ground my teeth together and set the hot blade against the wound.

Blood sizzled like weeping fat over a fire. The smell of burning flesh was pungent. I felt my gorge rise and fought it back down; Del would hardly appreciate it if I threw up all over her. I was aware of a detached sort of surprise; I had cauterized various wounds in my own body more times than I could count. But never before had I done it to Del.

She stirred, twisting her head. Her mouth sprang open in a weak, breathless protest. I tossed the knife aside, caught both her hands, and hung on.

"I know, bascha. I know. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Her eyelids flickered. "Del?"

But she was gone again, hands lying limply in my own. I set them down, noted blood had soaked through the bandage on her forearm, and turned on my knees to gather up more makeshift bandages.

The world around me wavered.

Not surprising. Reaction. I shook my head, wiped sweat out of my eyes, grabbed gauze and folded a section into a pad. After unwrapping blood-soaked bandages, I bound the pad to the seeping wound. What it needed was stitches, but I had nothing to use. The stud was gone; he'd departed in blind panic during the sand-tiger attack. It meant the loss of half our food and water and other supplies, including the medicaments Del had packed. I had nothing for treating her except the crude bandages I'd already fashioned out of burnouses, cautery, and a bota of Vashni liquor, which had been put into our pouches without either of us being aware of it.

I'd considered using cautery on the forearm bite wound, but decided against it in favor of pressure and tight binding. Del would scar regardless, but using hot steel on it would twist the flesh, binding it into stiffness. She needed the flexibility to handle a sword. Nor would she thank me if I did something that harmed her ability to wield one.

I sighed when finished, let my eyes close for a moment. The day was nearly done. The sun straggled down the sky, preparing to drop below the horizon. The long desert twilight would provide light for an hour or so, and then it would be night, with only the stars, the moon, and the dying fire for illumination. I needed to find more wood, but I didn't want to leave Del that long.

Still, two swords were lying out there, hers and mine. I'd taken no time to pick them up since pulling Del out of the rocks. For the moment she was lying quietly.

I stood up, crouching beneath the low roof, and ducked out the open front. Muscles protested as I straightened. Del's gelding nickered softly as he saw me. He at least had remained despite the sandtiger attack. When I had time to track down the stud, who probably wouldn't go far, I intended to have words with him.

I went hunting. Del's sword lay between two of the boulders. I picked it up, climbed back down to mine beside the dead cat. I set both blades aside, grabbed the hindlegs, and dragged the sandtiger farther away from the camp. Scavengers very likely would come for his carcass; I'd just as soon they did so from a greater distance.

Something occured to me.

Smiling grimly, I unsheathed my knife. With great deliberation I cut out each of the ten curving front claws. I tied them into the remains of my burnous, then gathered up the swords and went back to the lean-to.

Del lay as I had left her, very still upon her bedding. The sun, going down in a haze of red and gold, gilded her face and lent it the healthy color it lacked. I propped both blades against one crude wall, caught up a bota, and sat down to once again dribble water into her mouth, bit by bit so she wouldn't choke.

In the final vestiges of the dying day, seated next to Delilah, I cleaned my blade of sandtiger bloodhers had never made contact propped it once again beside hers, then untied the sandtiger claws from the rags of my burnous. Employing knife, Vashni liquor, and grim deliberation, I began to clean them of blood and tendon. When I had time, I'd drill a hole in each one, string them on a thong, and set it around Del's neck.

I glanced down at her, noting the pallor of her face. "I made it," I said. "I survived. So will you. You're tougher than I am."

Later, she was restless. A hand to her forehead told me precisely what I expected: she was fevered. Quite apart from the wounds, the poison from envenomed claws was enough to make her deathly ill, even to kill her. As a boy I'd been clawed in the face and across one thigh and had been very sick from sandtiger poison for three days despite the fact much of the venom had been expelled before I was clawed. Years later a couple of shallow scratches laid me low for hours. But Del had sustained much deeper gouges than I.

Earlier, I had hacked down some of the branches used to build the shelter, tossing them onto the fire. Now I threw the last of those I'd cut on the coals, waited for the flare of kindling flame, then knelt by her side. In the reflected firelight her cheeks were flushed, blotched red and white from the poison. Her lips and eyelids were swollen.

I dampened a cloth with water, then pressed it gently against her face. Lastly I wetted a corner, laid it on her lips, and squeezed. Her mouth moved minutely, responding to the water; I slipped a hand beneath her head, lifted it, dribbled tepid water into her mouth. Her throat spasmed in a swallow; then she began to choke.

Swearing, I dropped the bota and pulled her upright, then bent her slightly forward over my right arm. I let her head hang loose, chin hooked over my wrist. With a spread left hand, I pressed sharply against her spine several times, compressing her lungs. In a moment the choking turned to coughing. When that faded, I eased her down again, smoothing sweat-damp strands of hair away from her face.

"I'm here," I told her. "I left you in Staal-Ysta, when I thought you would diewhen I thought I had killed you . . . I'll never leave you again. I'm here, bascha."

The claw stripes above her breasts were oozing blood again. I dampened more cloth, cleaned the wounds, then pressed a folded pad against them, tucking it under the shredded ruins of her tunic.

The last of the roof branches I'd cut down no longer flamed. Light was fading. Outside the lean-to, the white gelding pawed at sand and soil. In a brief break from tending Del I'd watered him, given him grain, but he wanted grazing. Though he'd proven his willingness to stay put, I couldn't risk losing him as well as the stud. He was tied to the lean-to. If the gods were merciful, he wouldn't pull it down on top of us.

My own bedding, still on the stud, was gone. But the gelding's saddle, set next to the shelter, had borne a rolled-up Vashni blanket. I tugged it over, threw it across rocky soil, set my rump upon it. I ached in every muscle, and my eyes were burning with exhaustion. I rubbed them, swore at the gritty dryness that stung unremittingly, then slumped against the boulder forming the back wall of the lean-to.

Sharp pain forced a grunt of surprise out of me. I sat forward again, reaching over the top of my right shoulder. Stung? But the boulder had no cracks, no crevices to host anything, being nothing more than a giant, rounded bulwark at the bottom of the modest mountain.

I brought my fingers around, tipped them toward firelight, rubbed my thumb against sticky residue, then sniffed fingers.

Blood.

I felt again behind my right shoulder, sliding my hand beneath the tattered remains of my burnous. Found two curving gouges there the length of palm and fingers, bleeding sluggishly.

I shut my eyes. Oh, hoolies . . . when I'd slung the spitted sandtiger over my right shoulder

In my rage and fear, I'd felt nothing at all.

I tore the burnous off my torso, grabbed up the Vashni bota, squirted liquor down my back, aiming for claw marks I couldn't see. A burning so painful it brought tears to my eyes told me I'd found the target. I hissed a complex, unflagging string of Desert invective, breathed noisily, nearly bit my bottom lip in two.

When I could speak again, I looked at Del, whom I had liberally drenched. "Sorry, bascha" I croaked. "I had no idea it would burn so much!"

The world revolved again. Now I knew why. Knees drawn up, I leaned my head into them as a stiff-fingered hand scrubbed distractedly at the back of my skull, scraping through short hair. Before, in ignorance, all my thoughts on Del, it had been a simple matter to ignore the signs. But now, knowing, feeling, they were manifest.

"Not now," I muttered. "Not now "

Not yet.

We had only once been injured or sick at the same time. And then it had been on Staal-Ysta, forced into a dance that had nearly killed us both. Northerners had cared for her in one dwelling, while others cared for me. When I was healed enough to ride, knowing Del would surely die and that I could not bear to witness it, I left.

I wouldn't leave her again. I'd sworn it. But this time, now, there was no one to care for either of us.

I licked my lips. "All right," I told myself hoarsely, "you've been clawed before. Neither time killed you. You have some im-

munity."

Some. But enough? That I didn't know.

I traced the curve of my skull, growing less distinct as my hair lengthened. Beneath it there were elaborate designs tattooed into my skin, visible now only at the hairline above my forehead. They marked me a mage. IoSkandic. A madman of Meteiera.

I wiped sweat from my face with a trembling hand. Could magery overcome sandtiger poison? Could magery heal?

I knew it could kill.

Del made a sound, an almost inaudible release of breath coupled with the faintest of moans. I tried to move toward her, but my limbs were sluggish. Cursing my weakness, I made myself move. I nearly toppled over her, but a stiff arm jammed against the bedding kept me upright.

"Bascha?"

Nothing. Sweat ran from her flesh, giving off the stale metallic tang of sandtiger venom. I tasted the same in my own mouth.

Time was running out. Hastily, clumsily, I snagged the water bota, soaked the still-damp cloth, draped it across her forehead. Droplets rolled down into the hollows of closed eyes, filling the creases of her lids, then dribbled from the outer corners of her eyes, mimicking the tears Del never wept.

I tucked the bota under her right hand, being careful not to jar the bound forearm. I curled slack fingers loosely around the neck. I checked bandages for fresh blood. Found none. Felt a stab of relief like a knife in the belly.

"Hold on," I murmured. "Just hold on, bascha. You can make it through this."

The gelding whickered softly. I glanced out. There were, I realized, three fire rings in front of the lean-to, overlapping one another, merging, then springing apart again. I scowled, narrowing my eyes, trying to focus vision. Nothing helped.

I swore, then grabbed a corner of the Vashni blanket. Tugged it toward Del. Managed to pull it atop her, cover most of her body save head and sandaled feet.

"I know it's warm," I told her, "especially with a fever. But you need to sweat it out. Get rid of as much as you can." I stroked roughened knuckles against one fever-blotched cheek. "When I can, I'll go to Julah. Fouad can find us a healer. Then"

I broke it off. When. Then. Who was I fooling?

If Del were conscious, she'd insist on the truth.

On Meteiera, near the Stone Forest where the new mage was whelped atop a rocky spire, I had conjured magic. I had dreamed and made the substance of dream real. Set scars lifted by magery back into my flesh. Formed a seaworthy boat out of little more than stormwrack and wishing.

Now I wished Del to live.

I bore tattoos under my hair and lacked two fingers, souvenirs of Meteiera, where mages and madmen lived and died. I had been then, and could be now, what I needed to be.

Del's life was at stake.

"All right, bascha, I'll try." I drew in a deep breath, sealed my eyes closed. "If I'm a mage," I said hoarsely, "if I'm truly a mage, let me find the way . . ."

I had done it in Meteiera, knowing nothing of power beyond that it existed. Blue-headed Nihko had told me those of us us! with magery in our blood had to use it, had to find a way to bleed off the power, lest it destroy us. But I had escaped the Stone Forest before learning much beyond a few simple rituals and prayers and the discipline of the priests; I was but an infant to the ways of the mages of Meteiera.

Discipline.

It claimed its own power.

I gathered myself there beside Delilah, body and soul, flesh and spirit, and tried to find the part of me that had been born atop a stone spire in far-off ioSkandi. I knew nothing of the doing but that I had done it. Once, twice, thrice. Since then I had locked the awareness away, concentrating only on the physical, the retraining of a body lacking two fingers.

A shiver wracked me. Something slammed into my body, buffeting awareness like a wind snuffing out candleflame. Weakness swam in. I meant to move aside; I tried to move aside, to find and lean against the wall of stone regardless of claw gouges, needing the support. But my limbs got tangled. I could not tell what part of me were legs, which were arms, or if I even retained my head atop my shoulders.

Power eluded me. What strength was left diminished like sand running out of a glass.

Fear for Del surged up. "No" I murmured, "wait" But all the strength poured out of my body. I slumped sideways, vision doubled; fought it, attempted to push myself upright; went suddenly down onto my back on hardpacked soil and sand. "wait "

An outflung arm landed against unsheathed blades propped against the sidewall. I felt one of them, in toppling, fall across my elbow. It was the flat, not the edgebut by then I didn't care.

I was dimly aware of a flicker of stunned outrage, and a voice in my head. Notlike this

In the circle, yes. If a man had to die. But not from the last wayward scratch of a dying sandtiger.

"Bascha" I murmured.

But the world was gone.


SEVEN | Sword Sworn | c