Exhausted, Ferret sat back from the work table. Her palms felt as if they bled.
"Why do we have to do this? Can't we get spirits to do it for us?"
In grim silence the Mage-Fabricant Gann looked at the girl through the liquid amber gloom that filled the cot that served them as shop and dwelling. Gann's hair was shorn close to her heavy head, and was the color of the iron she taught the girl to work. Her foot continued to pump the treadle, the wheel to spin with its rhythmic creaking.
Ferret made a frustrated gesture. Her forearms and biceps burned, and despite the late-winter wind keening beneath the stars outside and reaching with dozens of invisible fingers through no more visible cracks in the dwelling's fabric, sweat had soaked through the scrap of linen tied around her head. Her mentor was a large woman, with forearms thick as another's thighs from years of labor; yet even Gann strained to turn the handles and cut the long spiral grooves -- the rifling -- inside the barrel clamped to the heavy oaken table. The girl, with perhaps twelve summers behind her (not even she knew for sure), could barely budge the cutters with all her slight weight.
"What's the point of magic if we have to work like this?" the girl asked. She was almost crying. Exhaustion, frustration, and pain blended into an incandescent stream of injustice. It wasn't fair.
Gann nodded, not quickly but decisively. "So be it," she said in a voice as rough as any of the precious files hung on pegs on the wall. She stopped working the pedal. Her wheel, the heavy granite circle of a grindstone, began to slow. She laid aside the cutting-tool she had been grinding and stood.
She spoke words, low. Thick competent hands made subtle gestures.
The oil lamp flame sank low, to the merest mutter of orange. The walls, inward-curving to form the ceiling, vanished into dark. The shelves of books and retorts and arcana, the racks of tools, became mere hints of glints.
Ferret backed away from the rifling-table. She knew a sense of imminence so intense she felt like jumping out of her skin. She felt it turn into an awareness of presence.
Gann threw up both hands, callused palms foremost, uttered a single plangent syllable. Aside, to Ferret, she muttered, "Always remember: the word of Control. No matter how benign it may pretend to be, a Summoned being will take what it will and do what it lists if you don't compel it, and quickly!"
A shadow had gathered by the table's head. Lacking substance, it yet gave off a feel of oppressive weight. Perhaps it was merely that it was unmistakably, undeniably there, so near Ferret might have thrust her hand into its darkness, had she been more foolhardy than she actually was. She felt her hair, to her perpetual annoyance kept cropped as close as Gann's, stand straight from her head.
The handles, as of their own, began to turn. The cot filled with a wail of tormented metal that shamed the storm outside. It went on and on, and then the bit was free.
The work was done. Gann spoke a brief syllable, raised two fingers. The shadow vanished. The lamp-flame sprang back like a spring uncoiling.
Ferret began to breathe once more.
"What have you learned?"
She stared at her mentor as if the words held no meaning for her. For some seconds they did not. Then it came to her that she had learned that the presence of the magical so immediate and real made her heart race -- and also filled her with what she belatedly recognized as fear, so great it made her knees quake and her stomach churn. She knew none of this was what Gann asked after.
"What have you learned here, eh?" Gann repeated.
"I -- " Her throat felt like the rocks of a dry streambed. She had to try again to speak. "I've learned, well -- I've learned that magic can do our hard labor for us!"
Gann nodded ponderously. "Indeed. But have you learned how to do the job yourself, without magic's aid? What if no spirit would come -- as often they will not? And have you learned the cost of magic? What coin would you pay a spirit for doing your job for you, then?"
"Pay? But I thought you commanded them."
"You can command them. Command all you like. But will they obey?" Gann shook her head. "At least as perverse and willful as humans are they. To compel them takes force, great force, and how gladly do compelled humans perform their tasks? Like human slaves, coerced spirits work as little and poorly as they may. And always they look to turn upon you. If you want good service -- not to mention if you wish ever to be able to sleep soundly again -- you must pay. Indeed, as in all things, always, you do pay: in fear and force, or in something they desire.
"And what might that be, eh?"
Mute, the girl shook her head. She feared she knew.
"You see." It was no question. "The spirits' favored coin is what you'd least wish to part with: you. To know what else they will accept... takes much more study than you have done, little miss."
Gann rose and stumped to a shelf, picked up an earthenware jug and unstopped it, signal that the evening's work was done; she took no wine or beer when working with steel or spirits alike.
"The Wise Wizards have taken on themselves the burden of ruling all the World," she said, as to herself, as she glugged wine into a mug. "So wise and good are they that they can brook none who will not submit to them with all their hearts. If you would own yourself, girl, magic you must master. But magic alone will never defeat them, for their mastery in its arts is unassailable. Only in combination with cunning and the skills I teach you can we find hope of staving off final defeat."
She held the mug, rolled it slightly in her hand, gazing into the depths. "And maybe, when I'm feeling giddy, of winning..."
With a shake of her head she thought better of drinking the wine just yet and handed the mug to Ferret, who eagerly accepted. The Mage-Fabricant took down her long octagonal-barreled rifle from its brackets above the door and sat down beside the lantern to examine its spring-lock and refresh the powder in its covered primer-pan.
"In such humble tools as these -- the making of which I am doing my poor best to din into your skull, girl -- our chances of overthrowing the Wizards before they enslave us perpetually lie." She patted the colorfully case-hardened steel of the sideplate with the affection another might show a pet. "If only we could learn some art to let us shoot them faster."
That night Ferret lay in her crib bed, pulled out from beneath a work bench, clutching her stuffed baby alligator. It was part of Gann's obligatory collection of mage arcana. Ferret had appropriated it at once, when Gann had taken her in years before. Its tough hide pressed hatchmark indentations in her cheek, which she felt not as harshness, but reassurance.
She did not sleep. Instead she stared at the handles of the rifling-table, straining in the wisps of starlight floating now and again through storm-clouds and the windows, afraid she might see them turn of themselves again, yet unable not to look.
At last, shortly before dawn, she slept.
"You missed," Silvertip said unnecessarily.
Biting back a curse -- because she knew such might well be heard -- the girl rested her rifle's brass buttplate on a root. She hurriedly pulled the turned brass cap from a wooden cartridge and poured a fresh charge of powder down the slim rifle Gann had gifted her with two midwinters ago. The hare she had fired at, and failed to hit, took three leisurely hops forward and turned back to stare insolently at her from beneath the snow-laden branches of a holly bush.
While her friend, who really was a ferret, watched with obsidian-bead eyes, the girl called Ferret opened the deerskin pouch hung around her neck, dug out a leaden ball, placed it on the rifle's muzzle like an apple in a cup. Here was the curse of the rifle, what made it so painfully impractical in battle, the ill Gann's solitary researches here on the skirts of the Last Mountains sought to cure. To take the rifling, and thus spin when fired, so that, stabilized, it would travel straight -- unlike a ball from a smooth-bored musket, whose flight was as unpredictable as a wounded bird's -- the projectile must be slightly larger than the bore. Ferret must therefore keep the ball balanced on barrel's tip while she took from her belt an iron ramrod and a mallet. Then she had to pound the ball down the four feet of barrel to rest upon the powder charge, with the spiral lands resisting every inch.
By the time it was done she was winded, her body ran with sweat inside her furs, and her arms shook so badly from exertion, she could scarcely hold the weapon, let alone her aim. The hare had long vanished, although it had passed a goodly time sitting and watching the girl as if amused.
"Humans," Silvertip said. "You always have to use some object to do a job your own teeth and nails could do better and quicker. And much less loudly."
Ferret made a face at the thought of trying to kill a hare with her teeth. Or even her nails, which were trimmed more severely than her hair. "Getting close enough to bite a hare would be quite a trick. I can't follow them down their burrows as you do."
Silvertip hopped sideways to express her own amusement. "You just have to learn to work within your limitations."
The girl looked away, glad her friend's poor eyesight had likely kept the weasel, black and silver in her lush winter pelage, from seeing her expression. Ferrets loved to torment their friends, but it was mischief, not malice: always they stopped short of drawing blood. Except by accident, as Silvertip just had.
Ferret drew great pride from her shooting. Gann lavished as much gruff care on teaching her that skill as she did the arts magical and mechanical. And yet Ferret had missed a shot at a stationary target barely ten paces away, a shot she'd had the skill to make at half her age; all because she had not been able to master her own excitement.
Hunting served Gann as relaxation, and her ward as recreation; and of course put meat in their pot and furs on their backs against the brutal northland winter. But deeper purpose underlay it. Ferret knew that one day not a meal but life beyond the next handful of heartbeats might depend on her making a shot.
Indeed, it once had already.
The winter before a snow-leopard had come into the region. Ferret actually knew of it before her teacher, which gratified her greatly. Her friends among the lesser predators, who hunted by stealth and were themselves the cat's potential prey, had told her of its advent. At first it contented itself taking game from the woods: hares, ground-squirrels, a yearling doe. Then it started snatching dogs and cats away from the steadings of the Good Mothers down in the valley below Gann's cot. And finally, one evening, it took a child, a girl -- no males were permitted within the Vale of Good Mothers -- who had wandered amongst the trees at play. The tiny corpse was found, half-eaten and frozen through, the next morning, not five paces from where last the child had been seen.
The Mothers would kill no beasts themselves, and abominated the fact that Gann hunted, and doubly so that she imparted, or at least encouraged, that love in her ward. But now, as so often when there were tasks they could or would not undertake, they beseeched Gann to help them. Along with will, they lacked the skill. Their own magics, not inconsiderable, were helpless against the elemental hunger of the cat.
So Gann had taken Ferret on her first truly serious hunt -- a hunt, as Gann solemnly explained, in which they were as much prey as the leopard. Far smaller than the great white tigers which occasionally ghosted through the region, usually on their way to somewhere else, the snow leopard was also far more menacing. While no one who confronted a tiger in the forest had been known to linger, none was known to have been slain by the giant cats, either; whereas at least once a generation a snow leopard appeared that eviced a taste for human meat. The leopards were frankly smarter than tigers, or so Gann said; and their stealth was unmatched by man or beast. A person could walk within reach of one concealed in bush or tree and never know it -- until she turned and looked full into those pale-jade eyes, by which time it was much too late.
The hunt took many days and several close escapes on both sides. Ferret had learned sound stalking skills, from Gann and her own efforts; and from the forest animals with whom she could speak, as her mentor could not, she had learned both skills of stealth and some simple ferret-magic such as partial invisibility in wood or field, which the Mage-Fabricant acknowledged with a surprised but approving nod.
At length Gann and her apprentice found themselves facing the beast. As it gathered itself to leap, it was Ferret, placed in the lead by Gann, who must make the shot. And while the Mage-Fabricant stood right behind her, her larger-bore rifle ready, Ferret knew that should she miss, she would almost surely go down beneath the creature's teeth and claws, sorely hurt if not killed.
She did not miss. The snow leopard fell like an avalanche, into a flurry of dying limbs and snow that had ended at the toes of Ferret's boots.
Ferret had known then the most mixed emotions of her life: elation, relief, and an infinite sadness. For the snow leopard was far the most beautiful thing she had ever seen, and to see the light fade from those great gem eyes, to see them change from wonderments to dull lumps of offal, had torn her heart.
She wept disconsolately until Gann reminded her that beautiful the leopard might be, but she had stolen a human child's life. And perhaps the life awaiting one of the Good Mothers' dependents was one of servitude and toil, but still, life it was, a human life. That was important to Ferret, too; but still she mourned her fallen foe even as she rejoiced in victory.
The leopard's skin Gann had cured and made into a cape for Ferret, with its head a hood. Ferret wore it today, as she always did to hunt. She liked to pretend sometimes that it imparted to her some of her fallen foe's skills at stealth. At the very least, the pale spotted hide did serve to camouflage her, if not as perfectly as it had its erstwhile owner.
"Why so quiet, Longlegs?" Although the girl had been called Ferret as long as she remembered, and believed she'd appropriated the name for herself, an actual ferret would hardly call her that. Indeed the fact humans called her by that name thoroughly scandalized Silvertip and her clan, Ferret knew, though they would never let on.
"I'm thinking how I'm an even worse shot now than before, wrung out as I am," the girl said. "And how much better a weapon of war the rifle would be if we could only reload it quickly without draining ourselves. Then even longbowmen couldn't prevail against us, if we had cover to lie behind and shoot."
"We small hunters don't concern ourselves with such things," Silvertip said. She rolled onto her back and peered at the girl. "Let's hope you never have to -- that we never have to," Ferret said, stooping to scratch her friend's belly.
Yet even as she spoke those words, Ferret knew she didn't feel them. Actually what she felt at some point of her internal compass was eagerness for the Wise Wizards and their hard-handed servitors, the Iron Men, to come to these mountains. Then she, Ferret, could wreak appropriate vengeance on them for killing her mentor's family, and torturing and driving Gann into exile. She would teach them!
She did not understand then what lessons truly remained to be learned. Nor by whom.
In the end she got her rabbit, sharing the meat with Silvertip, small as the total portion was, for friendship's sake. And a few days later, as another of the less agreeable tasks which were her lot, she found herself cleaning Gann's sorcerous paraphernalia.
She had taken up a thick glass retort, among the humblest and most-used of any magician's tools, and was cleaning its narrow outlet by plying a dowel with a spare scrap of the hare's fur wrapped around the tip. The scrap fit snugly within the tube, scrubbing it well, and still slid easily in and out. Ferret was fascinated by the way the fur swirled into a spiral as she drove the dowel into the retort with a turning motion.
A turning motion.
Snug yet easy.
She stared at the objects in her hands as if she had forgotten how they came to be there. Can it really be so simple?
"Think you, child, that it's really that simple? That some idle afternoon fancy of yours can bring you success in a quest in which I, and many others besides, have failed for years?" Gann's voice was always deep and gruff, but today it was something Ferret had seldom heard of it: harsh.
The days had lengthened and patches of bare soil had begun to appear through the snow. The sky was white, bright, pitiless, making the day seem colder than it or even the seeking wind really was. Despite Gann's sour skepticism, despite a near-hostility which perplexed Ferret and upset her, but could not in the end dissuade her, the girl had cajoled her mentor out here to the hollow near the cot, begun by the dislodging of a boulder in a rainstorm and eked out by Ferret's and Gann's hands, where they practiced shooting. Gann insisted they shoot only against a solid background, and not hard stone, either; that could fire back a lethal ricochet. "You may miss your mark, child, but bullets always hit something. Be ever mindful of what lies beyond your aim-point."
They had set an old stump in the hollow, twenty paces from where they now stood. On that stump rested a chunk of kindling, about as big as two of Gann's fists, to serve as a target.
"Do you?" Gann demanded.
It took all Ferret's courage to face up to the anger in her teacher and surrogate mother. "Yes," she said. "I don't say I'm better than you. But I know I'm right."
"Bah," said the older woman. "I indulge you far too much for a foundling I came upon wandering in the woods. Daylight's in short supply yet, and you do waste it." She turned away.
"Wait!" Gann looked back at her with wrath in her eyes, a paler and chiller grey than her hair. Fury seemed to burn in them. "Can't you even watch me?"
How she could hit anything now Ferret didn't know. Tears blinded her eyes, hot as blood. She felt as though she were losing Gann, as though the older woman was on the verge of walking out of her life. Yet part of her did not care. She was right, and she would not give in.
Or am I right? she wondered suddenly.
She spun and fired, not at the mark, but at the raw earth bank beyond. The ball made a loud slap and dug a crater in the melt-engendered mud.
"I missed on purpose," she said, as her fingers flew to the bandoleer where she carried her powder-cartridges with all the speed long practice could impart.
Gann sneered. "You waste powder and shot, as well as my time!" The Mage-Fabricant abominated waste.
"And then," Ferret said through tears. "And then -- "
For this experiment she had borrowed Gann's rifle, with Gann's grudging consent. Now she took out one of the smaller balls cast for her own piece, laid it on a scrap of rabbitskin, fur side down, and with ramrod alone, never touching a mallet, slid it swiftly and smoothly the length of the barrel to rest upon the powder-charge she had poured down it. She dashed a pinch of powder into her palm, threw it into the pan, closed the frizzen, pulled back the plunger of the spring-lock and engaged it. Then she shouldered the rifle's unfamiliar weight once more. Able to see nothing through a screen of tears but a dark blur which was the rifle's nub front site, and a lighter, diffuse blur which was the target beyond, she forced herself to concentrate on squeezing gently, applying pressure not just with the finger on the trigger but the whole hand, until to her surprise, as she was taught, the gun slammed her shoulder and bellowed.
The kindling-shard went flying.
The second shot had been delivered in under half a minute. Three times, at the least, more quickly than any human had fired a second rifle-shot, in at least a century of trying.
Gann stood, not speaking. Until a tear rolled down one great slab of cheek.
"So long," she said in a clotting voice. "So long. And you have found it, in one single daydream."
All at once she swept forward and gathered Ferret in her arms like great oak trunks. "My dear one, my dear little one," the Mage-Fabricant said, "I am so sorry! Even were you wrong, I should never have spoken so.
"You have the gift, the gift I never had. Three children have I brought into this world, ultimately to their sorrow. Many decades have I spent gathering and ingathering knowledge. I have studied and I have learned. Yet never have I had a spark of the fire that blazes in you: the ability to create. To bring something new into the world from my heart and mind.
"Forgive me, child, please. Forgive me my jealous anger, that you could do with ease what I cannot, what I never could..."
"No, Mage-Fabricant!" Ferret cried. "Don't beg me! Please. I forgive you, you were right, I never meant to hurt you!"
Gann drew a deep breath and held the child out at arm's length. "Nor I you. There, Ferret, I'm sorry that I scared you. I was wrong. I know much, I am wise, but I am not always right, nor can I be. Learn that and you will be well rewarded, though not half so well as you deserve for what you have discovered. Now calm yourself, and give a happy old woman a hug."
Taking care to rest the rifle against a lean-to stand they had erected at their shooting spot, Ferret hugged her mentor again, feeling small but safe against the older woman's bulk.
"Now let's go back to the cot and start making some new dies to cast smaller bullets for your rifle." The Mage-Fabricant coughed. "And also to cut up some linen rags to use instead of rabbit skin. That burned fur stinks most abominably. Small help to our riflefolk that they can shoot quickly, if by the third shot they're too sick to aim!"
"So then, good Gann, when will you give your daughter over to us, to be raised as a girl-child ought, in the true ways of Women?"
Gann laughed. "If you summoned me here to prate about things which will never happen, you've wasted both our times; but I shall have recompense, and you'll go whistle."
Ferret stood as far behind the Mage-Fabricant's hip as she could without it being obvious, to her mind at least. The Good Mothers frightened her.
That made her angry. But she could do nothing about it, despite the rifle she cradled, to the visible scandalization of the deputation from the Valley. The iron code Gann had taught her, never to use force save in defense of herself or another, forbade the weapon's use.
They weren't very fearsome on the face of things: three women with long hair braided and coiled against the restless spring wind, with large bodies like Gann's, but soft, mounted on snow-white asses. One wore a gown of green, another of brown. The third and foremost wore pure white. They had none of the girl-serfs they referred to as their "daughters" with them. They were, of course, unarmed.
The Mother in brown had spoken the challenging words, and frowned in a most unmotherly fashion (or so it seemed to Ferret, who had no conscious memories of a mother to fall back upon, but only fantasies gleaned from books and tales and, most of all, a child's longing) at Gann's still brusquer reply.
"But of course it's for her sake," the Mother in green said soothingly. "All little girls everywhere should come to us, where we would open their eyes to the truth."
"To be your servants, so you can wax as large and flabby as you are," Gann said.
"Not your daughter," the Green Mother said ingenuously. "We would cherish her especially, and train her to become one of us."
Gann looked down at her ward. Ferret could not speak. But she could shake her head, and did so vigorously.
"She chooses not. It's settled."
"You'd let a child's selfish choice should interfere with what's right?" the Mother in white demanded in round outraged tones. "You live in our lands; should not our laws apply to you?"
"We do not live in your lands. You've no claim on these woods, as well you know. You daren't even come into them, although getting off your asses and hiking through them would do you a world of good."
"But we took you in, we have shielded you -- " the Green Mother began.
"Granted. And I -- and even this girl-child you're so eager to make into a helpless waif -- have likewise shielded you: from the snow leopard, from Northern Screamer raids, from night-things you don't care even to think about. Among other services I have done and do you. You've your value from me, at least."
She folded arms over her breast. "Now. You sent a sorcelled dove to whisper in my ear that you wished speech. So: give me a reason not to regret I didn't shoot it and roast it for our table!"
The Mothers gasped, and the Green Mother swayed in her saddle as if stricken. They knew better than to remonstrate with Gann about her habits, horrid as they were. They feared Gann's tongue more even than her rifle, and they regarded that with superstitious dread.
"We are afraid," the White Mother said.
"More so than usual, I gather. Why?"
The Mothers passed a look around. "There have been Men within our borders," the White Mother said.
That was strongly proscribed. Aside from providing protection on the Northern flank, Gann performed sundry services the Mothers declined or lacked ability to do for themselves, such as making metal items for their use, and repairing such tools as they could bring themselves (or order their "daughters") to use. The least remarked but possibly most valuable to all concerned was serving as intermediary, negotiating on the Mothers' behalf with male traders on the Valley's frontiers. Gann gained a handsome profit on these exchanges, which she turned round and spent on materials so that she could rifle still more barrels and send them out into the world, hopefully to the hands of those opposed to the Wizards and their Peace.
"Iron Men," the Mage-Fabricant said. "I've heard."
Gann glanced down to her ward again. The girl's face was ashen. Her animal friends had told her of strange men cased in metal seen riding through the hills. Ferret had for some reason not known a night's sleep since undisturbed by nightmares.
"The Wizards have done many great and wonderful things," the White Mother said, in a tone which suggested she might have been trying to convince herself little less than Gann. "They have rid the world of kings -- "
"A great good indeed. Even I credit them for that."
" -- and of their wars. They will put an end to strife, to weapons, to spells."
"Except in their own hands, of course."
"Of course." The Mother seemed genuinely surprised. "Where should such things lie, if not solely in the hands of those wise enough to use them for Good?"
"To answer that would take more time than is left me on this plane," Gann said. "So let's take the encomia for granted and get to meat."
The Mothers shuddered again. The Brown Mother started to cloud up; the White lifted one milky hand without looking and stilled her.
"Why, these barbaric intrusions of their servitors -- " the White Mother began.
"Surely you'd wish to help us," the Green Mother said.
"It's your duty as a woman," said the Brown Mother.
"If you wish to fight them, you'll find me beside you with rifle and spell, that I promise without reservation."
"Fight them?" The Green Mother shuddered, looking ill once more.
"We are not lacking in magical means," the White Mother said stiffly.
"I know that. But what then would you have of me -- leaving aside my daughter?"
The Mothers looked helplessly at each other. "Well," said the White Mother, "we rather hoped you'd, well, know what to do."
"I see. You want me to fix this problem. Just like all the other things I've fixed for you, without your having any idea how, nor the ghost of a wish to learn."
The White Mother beamed like the sun coming up. "Exactly."
"I wish I did know how. I wish for the Wizards and their Iron Men to go away every bit as fervently as you do."
"You won't help us?" the Brown Mother said.
"I never said that. Only that I don't yet know how. I shall think on it, but promise nothing more."
She turned and started to walk away. Ferret fought to restrain herself from scurrying after. Then the Mage-Fabricant halted and glared suspiciously back at the mounted trio.
"You're not going to reach accommodation with the Wizards, are you?"
"Assuredly not," the White Mother said, forestalling with a single raised finger a fresh outburst from her colleague in brown. "As we have said, the Wizards have done many worthy deeds, and their designs are worthier still. But they are Men. Their way is rape. They will rape the Earth; they would rape us, and carry off our helpless daughters to be playthings at their pleasure. They cannot come in. We will never let them."
"I shall do what I can to help you, then," Gann said, "once I figure out what that's going to entail." This time she walked off without looking back.
Ferret did, but only once.
"They have a point, I fear," Gann confessed, once out of sight on the long walk back to the cot. "They do buffer us from the world, which means the Wizards and the Iron Men. It's why I brought us hither: I was confident the Mothers' ancient animosity toward all things Male would ensure they resisted any attempts at incursion to the best of their abilities."
Ferret made a skeptical sound. She still didn't trust herself quite enough to speak.
"They do have their ways. There are reasons male traders never wander into the Valley. Good reasons. And then again, it's not as if there's that much danger to the North we protect them from."
Which Ferret knew was true enough. The Last Mountains crescendoed straightaway to mighty peaks with little by way of foothills for a prelude. Only a handful of passes within fifty miles east or west were ever clear in the warmest summer's height, and they led nowhere salubrious. Occasional leopards made the trek, and the odd human raider, and the rarer manifestation of somethings not wholly of this world. Ferret had sometimes sensed these latter in night's midst, and then spent the ensuing dark hours clutching the baby alligator in terror, while Gann made smokes and spells and much forceful muttering.
"You won't give me up to them, will you?" the girl asked with genuine apprehension. It seemed to her too that their arguments held sense.
Gann shook her hoary head. "I've done with giving up things -- and people the more. We have arrived at a time in which the slimmest shoot of resistance is crushed with the greatest severity. Yet even the most supine acquiescence cannot guarantee one will not be crushed.
"When the Wise demanded of me my children, I gave them up -- adults they were by then, and free in their choice, but I felt pride, aye, strange as it seems, to give my two sons to the great War for Peace. And after in the Purges, they took my daughter as well, and suddenly all seemed less worthwhile, although my questioning came much too late to save those dearest me. When they took from me my home and my fortune and my name, the fruits of decades' labor, all that seemed trivial, next to what I had given up already.
"And then they asked for my soul. At that point I determined I would surrender no more, and retired here to this frozen end of the World, where for a time at least they could not find me to make more demands in compassion's name.
"I will not give you up, child. Not to the Good Mothers or any power on this plane or any other."
"But what if the Wizards come, in spite of the Mothers?"
She regretted the question as soon as it was spoken. Yet Gann simply smiled and stroked the girl's plush-clipped brown hair. "I will fight with all my soul and strength and craft to hold you, child. But I am but one, they many. In the end, you may need to save yourself, with all your forest-ferret skills of stealth."
Ferret clung to her and wept. "They must take me, too, then! I'll never leave you, Mage-Fabricant."
"Don't speak folly, child," Gann said. Though her tone was harsh she smiled through tears the girl could not see. "My life is accomplished; I have done what I could. Your future stretches limitless. I will not have you throw away what I have given you on futile resistance, much less what you've already earned through your own efforts and that lovely fire of creation which burns within you.
"If the time comes that I fall, if you would avenge me -- live free. And if you will, help others live free as well. In that my own long toil will be crowned with success."
Ferret pressed the trigger. The steel plunger thrust forward in its channel, knurled shaft striking sparks from a flake of flint into the pan. The rifle bellowed, kicked her shoulder, its barrel flaming and rising in the air in a billow of blue smoke. Sitting, knees up and wide and elbows braced within them, Ferret rode the recoil, let the sights fall back into line with her eyes, then lowered the long slim barrel more to see the target away across the little valley.
She was rewarded by seeing a white puff from the chalky boulder-face which had been her target, a good two hundred paces away. Not more than a handsbreadth, she judged, from the point at which she had aimed. Not bad, she thought, as she began the ritual of rapidly reloading which had become reflex with her in the weeks since she had discovered the great secret. She was now far quicker even than first she had been -- almost frighteningly quick, her firing would have seemed, to anyone who had ever shot a rifle; as quick, nearly, as one could shoot a laughably short-ranged musket with its smooth barrel. A skilled longbowman could still loose several aimed shots to her one; but given she did not have to stand bolt upright to shoot, as a bowman must, and could reload on the move from cover to cover (she had learned this, as Gann taught everything: by experiment, by trying) she would be willing to try her chances against one.
Of course even that quick yet infinitely broad imagination of hers could not really encompass the feel of a steel broadhead in her gut. She was still very young.
Having reloaded, she rose and shouldered her pack. The sun's allotment remained short though the air smelled of spring and buds had begun appearing on the branches of the trees. It was time to get back to the cot, the evening's meal and chores and lessons.
She walked home through lengthening shadow and honey light, a young predator proud and free in her forest home. She wore a deerskin jerkin over a blouse of fine linen from the Mothers' Valley, trousers of supple hide, strong boots; though it was warm for it already she kept her leopard-skin cape about her shoulders, albeit with the head-hood thrown back. She would always remember this day, the way she felt, the birdsong and riversong of wind in branches, the eagle soaring almost invisibly distant above the higher slopes, the quality of light, the caress of cool breeze on her cheek, the smell of soil and humus, the tang of wood smoke, the promise of the green explosion to come.
Even before she topped the final ridge into sight of her home she sensed something amiss. Nothing she could name reached her nostrils; yet she seemed to catch the scent of wrongness.
Instinctively she crouched, slipped from covert to covert as she came over the crest, stole in behind the bole of a birch tree to peer down into the clearing at the cot. Tiny it looked at this distance, the more so in that half of it or more was built into the slope, against the cold and wind and also, Ferret suspected, so that none could know the true shape or extent of the Mage-Fabricant's dwelling from without.
She instantly saw something amiss: heavy door askew within darkened doorway. Entry had been forced. She reached forth with woods-honed senses stretched by hastily whispered spells. She felt no hint of presence, although the wrongness, the smell-which-was-not-a-smell, persisted and grew greater.
Then she was running for the cot. She yearned to cry out, Mage-Fabricant!, but she knew better. Sound was trickish in these wooded hills, but carried.
Who knew what ears awaited?
Her pulse pounded louder in her ears than her footfalls and her breath was louder still when she reached the violated door. She hung a moment outside, unsure of what to do, then drank a long draught of air and plunged inside.
Gann's calm gaze greeted her.
From the shelf on which her head had been meticulously placed.
Within was a madness, furnishings and belongings thrown down everywhere in confusion, apparently by the fury of the Mage-Fabricant's last fight. Blood covered all as if sprayed from a bellows; already the early-season flies had congregated, bellies glinting green and purple in the light from outside. A haze of gun smoke hung in the air. The psychic stink of magic and fell force was so great the skin seemed to bunch on Ferret's cheeks, her back, the backs of her hands and arms.
Gann's body lay slumped between the rifling-table and her foot-powered lathe. It bore at least a score of ghastly wounds that Ferret could see in the one long look she forced herself to take. The head appeared to have been twisted off.
The Mage-Fabricant's rifle lay by Ferret's feet, stock shattered by impact, barrel twisted nearly double in what the girl knew with instant conviction had been a gesture of furious triumph by the Summoning which killed her. Gann had inflicted no lasting hurt on the otherworldly Thing which slew her. But she had caused it pain.
Even as the girl gazed in horror and sickness and sorrow about her, her senses continued to reach out around the cot. She felt more than heard the drum of hooves on springy turf. Still standing in the doorway she whirled.
The shock of the sight that greeted her was nearly as great as seeing the ruin made of her life and the only human being she was ever aware of loving: a rider, tall and stark, black against the brightness of the sky to eyes already accustomed to reeking gloom. A man, limbs and body encased in iron. An Iron Man, with a kite-shaped shield and a flange-headed mace upraised to strike her down, a mass of flesh and metal, bearing down upon her with avalanche speed.
At once it seemed the air had congealed to the consistency of molasses, so that the charger could only gallop through it with painful slowness. Ferret recalled the things the Mage-Fabricant had taught: the heavy steel breastplate was cunningly curved and might well turn a ball, even at the closest range; and the eye-slits let through the cylindrical helm were too small to reliably pass a shot even if she could strike one; for, slow as it was, the tidal up-and-down motion of the rider was too rapid for such precision. The vulnerable spot was the throat, where solid plate gave way to the linked iron rings called mail.
The spell, if such it was, ended. The armored horseman's charge became again a blur of terrifying mass in motion. He cocked his mailed arm to strike.
Her rifle was already at her shoulder. She pressed cheek to the cool maple of the stock, carved from a blank brought up from the lowlands by the traders, laid the front sight on the gap between helm and breastplate, fired.
The horse screamed as if hit, reared, nostrils flaring and eyes a-roll at the sudden flame and noise and pungent smoke that exploded in its face. Ferret cringed back into the doorway, rifle upheld in pitiful defense against iron-shod hooves.
The rider toppled over its croup and landed in the dooryard with a ringing crash.
The horse bolted off to the treeline downslope from which it had emerged, where it settled to a trot off among the boles. The rider emitted a bubbling moan. To Ferret's utter horror he stirred, sat up.
His helmet had come free. A torrent pulsed down the front of his cuirass, darker wetness against dark hardness. His hair was blond, close-cropped as hers, his nose plainly oft-broken above a sweeping moustache. His eyes were pale and wild and merciless as the sky.
Terrible remorse swept Ferret like a squall. "Forgive me," she cried. "I'm sorry, so sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you -- "
But of course she had. And even as she pleaded she reloaded her rifle. She wanted to be sick. He was a man, human, and she had broken him, doomed him...
He tried to rise, fell heavily back. "I'm done," he croaked. His mouth was a ghastly red brightness, as if itself a wound torn in his face. "You have killed me, little whore. Small good it will do you."
He gurgled, gagged, spat blood -- trying to hit her, although his aim was poor as hers had been true, and it went into the dirt. "Run -- as you will. The Demon will catch you and drag you from whatever hole you hide in. What was done to the bitch wolf who harbored you -- shall be done to you as well. No matter what you do."
By this time Ferret had her rifle reloaded and pointed at the humped bridge of his nose. The remorse had vanished. She was filled now with a fury so great her limbs trembled. She ground her teeth with the need to send another blast into the gloating face. But she could not. He was no longer attacking her, could not. Again the iron law of non-aggression stayed her hand.
For she had remembered. She knew now, from the terrible last vision of the rider huge and stark against the sky before she pulled the rigger and brought him low, why Gann had found her, an infant scarcely capable of walking, wandering naked and dirty in the woods with tear-gullies cut through the ash that coated her cheeks. She had seen such a sight before. The Iron Men had come to her village. Terror and sorrow seethed within her; but for her rage they would surely have eviscerated her.
"Run, little whore, run," the rider said, slumping heavily to his side, barely catching himself on mailed elbow. "Die tired, die screaming, die with your legs..."
He laughed blood and died.
Slowly Ferret lowered her rifle. It came to her that, while human life was precious, it was so in the abstract. She mourned the snow leopard, of her own kindred a mighty champion, far more than she could or wished to for a human, so-called, who preyed on his own kind at the hest of others.
Never again would she feel remorse at taking an aggressor's life. But as a true hunter, and to honor her first and still only worthy foe the snow leopard, she would strive always to kill as cleanly and painlessly as possible when kill she must.
She took but little time within the hut: a few supplies, a precious volume or two, small and not too blood-soaked, the dead stuffed baby alligator she always slept with, tucked into her pack. What she most needed to survive she carried inside her skull.
Humble as the cot was, Gann had assembled great treasure there: in tools, in knowledge. Ferret valued all. But far more she valued the life lost within, her true mother, taken from her as her blood-mother must have been (for she still harbored no memories of before, save the singular vision of armored rider against smoke-shot sky) by the Iron Men and their masters. All was lost to her. What wasn't wrecked or tainted was too heavy to carry. And so she left it all in flames, a fitting pyre for the great Mage-Fabricant who had fought the powers of this World and others to the end.
They made an unlikely cavalcade, riding up the Mothers' Valley toward the Mage-Fabricant's steading: a company of Iron Men, hard and grim. They bore the clasped-hands banners of the Wise Wizards as they rode, at their head their captain, and the young Wizard-Aspirant in the cowled robe of his rank, red the dark hue of blood, with the golden star-shaped badge of an approved Summoner glowing on his breast in the ending daylight. Beside captain and Wizard rode the foremost of the Good Mothers, half a dozen of them, including the White Mother, chiefest of all, and her deputies in green and brown.
At the Valley's head, a good three hundred paces off, a figure rose as if from the soil of the slope. A tiny figure, ridiculous yet defiant with the skin of a snow-leopard pulled up over its head and shoulders.
The procession halted. The Wizard-Aspirant threw back his cowl. His features were lean, dark, handsome, long jaw limned in black beard.
"What's this I see before us?" he asked.
"It is the child we told you of, Most Excellent," the White Mother said. "The evil child, execrable child, wild child." She shook her head. "A waste that she must perish, yet perish she must."
"It is simply Excellent," the Mage-Aspirant snapped without looking at her. "I won't tell you again."
The White Mother steepled her fingers before her and nodded her head many times. "It shall be as you wish, Mo -- Excellent."
"Now, what is that long slender object she carries?"
The captain snorted. "A rifle, Excellent. A firearm." He spoke the word with contempt. The Mothers gasped at it, although they well knew she had the weapon. It was as if they feared the word as much as the thing.
"Can she hit us at this range?" the Summoner demanded.
"One of us," the captain said, "if she's either very lucky or very skilled. But then as your Excellency knows it will be a minute or more before she can fire again: so it is with rifles."
"Ample time to Summon and Control," the Wizard-Aspirant said with a nod. "Which is why the spellcraft of the Wise and Good will always cast down any number of bandits with rifles."
As he spoke smoke puffed away from the figure up on the slope, stained near orange by the sunset. The ball struck a rock outcrop twenty feet in front of the Aspirant's horse's hooves and whined away, harmless.
The Mothers shrieked with one voice and began to sob and wail. "Cease that racket or I'll have you flogged!" the captain rapped. The commotion quieted.
"See? The Summoner is about his work already. Soon you shall see that contumacious wolf-cub torn apart before your very eyes -- a sight of which you were robbed, in her teacher's case!"
"Ooh," the Mothers said, and their anticipation seemed tinged with lust.
Up on the slope Ferret cursed herself with every foulness she knew. She had let herself get eager again, as she had with that rabbit in the winter's last hunt. She had not pulled off-target this time, but rather forgotten to compensate adequately for distance. That it was far the longest shot she had ever attempted did not enter her mind in exculpation; she risked a far worse fate than mere mauling beneath a leopard's claws and jaws for missing.
She was reloading again, with that near-mechanical precision she had instilled in herself over hundreds of shots. Already she feared it was too late. She could see a shimmering in the air down there at the head of the procession. But more she could feel the magic and fell purpose of the Presence gathering below. It was stronger than she had thought it could be, stronger than she had imagined -- as much stronger than the being Gann had Summoned to finish rifling the barrel that night as a tiger was stronger than her friend Silvertip.
No. As much stronger as the Sun compared to the merest taper.
And it was taking form. She gritted her teeth as if to still the violent quaking of her whole body as she rammed the ball home down the barrel. A monstrous crane it seemed, fourteen feet tall at least, with huge bloated body and long toothy beak, shining with its own light all over in shifting colors, sickly as the oils of putrescence spreading from a carcass rotting in a pond.
In terror Ferret keened through teeth and nose, a disminded sound, as of an animal in pain. But still she worked, surely, as if her limbs belonged to another: pour in the primer, shut the frizzen, cock the plunger, raise rifle to shoulder, front sight...
The Mothers' asses shied in terror from the thing taking form before them. Their riders, scarcely less terrified, could scarce keep them from bolting. Even the Iron Men's mounts whinnied and sidestepped, and the metalled riders themselves seemed less certain of their might, though their helms hid their whatever expressions shaped their faces. They had seen this sight before. But never grown accustomed.
"Behold!" the captain cried in exultation as the glowing monstrosity began to writhe and roll its own eyes in its rage to be fully in this world, to destroy. He threw his arms in the air. "Behold the might of the Summoning! Behold the might of the Wise, against whom none may stand!"
Even as he finished the spell the Mage-Aspirant turned his head aside to glower at the captain for risking distracting him at such a parlous point.
At that instant Ferret's second ball took him in the hinge of the cheek, carried away his lower jaw and half his tongue. The syllable of Control, unspoken, would never be.
Altogether solid and united with this world for a brief time, the Summoned leaned forward and snapped the Mage-Aspirant in half with one bite of its toothed beak. It shook out its leathery pearlescent wings, uttered a quavering shriek of satisfaction and of hate, and then set about slaking its furious desires at the expense of those who had been so impudent as to disturb it.
Ferret watched in fascinated horror, reloading yet again, unconsciously. That done she sat on a stone to watch, knowing with sorcerous surety that the Summoned was not even aware of her. Besides, its duration upon this plane was limited, and it had sufficient victims to occupy it.
Some of the more cowardly, or prudent, of the Iron Men, who had flown immediately upon the Mage-Aspirant's demise, may have saved themselves. Ferret watched the creature lurch down the road in pursuit, flapping its wings and squawking with what she took for demonic glee, until it was obscured by a stand of trees. She followed its progress by its awful corpse-light glow until that faded, with distance or return to the Summoned's own dimension.
Ferret rose. The starry black banner of the night had unfurled overhead; day lingered only in a pool of light, blood's color, along the western horizon.
The girl stretched, thrust the rifle high above her head with both hands. She gave voice to a single cry, a hawk-scream of triumph and grief and joy. It rang and rang about the snow-shod peaks. Then peace fell upon her with the force of mountains.
It was time to say farewell to what had once been home, and fare forth upon the rest of her life.
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