Lady, Warrior, Healer, Thief

By Leslie Ann Miller


Disclaimer: There is some violence in this story.




CHAPTER ONE - RESCUED

The sun burned her eyes, and the tears flowed freely down her face. The town square was whitewashed in blinding light, the jeering faces of the human crowd distorted into pale, warped visages...Eyes. So many eyes filled with hatred. She closed her own against the pain.

They whipped her until she could no longer stand. Her body hung limply from the whipping post by the wrists. When the guards stepped back, their lashes delivered, the crowd pelted her with filth and garbage. She didn't understand the curses they screamed. She didn't care. She couldn't care. She couldn't think or feel. There was only pain...And then there was nothing. Blessed, blessed darkness. She let herself fall into it like a weary traveler coming home.

"Is...Is it d-dead, K-Keen?" The voice of a human woman penetrated the darkness, bringing with it a red haze of pain and incredible thirst.

"Gods hope! A blackelf so far from the mountains is an ill omen," another woman answered. Her voice was deeper and hoarse. It reminded Wraith of the voice of her mother's master herald, one of the few blackelves who had occasion to speak out loud often.

"Imagine!" a third woman's voice said coming nearer. "I've never seen one before."

Wraith tried to open her eyes, but found she couldn't move. She couldn't even feel her hands.

"Well, with any luck you're soon to see more," the hoarse voice said brusquely. "Let's move on. There must be an inn here somewhere. Eastrift is the first town this side of the Rift."

Cool fingers pressed gently against Wraith's neck, and she flinched from the touch. "Mother of trees! It's still alive!" the third voice said in surprise.

"I'll kill it," the hoarse voice said, also coming nearer.

Wraith's mind reeled. She wanted to speak, to beg mercy, but her body was blocked by pain, her mind floating in darkness and confusion. Perhaps it would be good to die quickly.

"No, Keen, don't!" the third voice exclaimed.

"It's dying, Merlynn," Keen said. "It would be merciful not to let it suffer any longer. The townsfolk will never know we did it."

"B-but, Keen," the first speaker said. "M-maybe, Merlynn is right. M-maybe it can help us..."

"How would a half dead blackelf help us?" Keen asked. "More likely it would try to slit our throats or use its magic against us...warn its companions we are coming. You know blackelves can't be trusted."

"How do we know that for certain?" Merlynn asked thoughtfully. "What's it doing above ground anyway? Perhaps it could lead us through the caverns."

Keen snorted. "You know the stories as well as I do. They murdered the old king, remember?"

"Yes, but..." Merlynn hesitated.

"No buts. It's suffering. I'm going to kill it. I want to get some peaceful sleep tonight. It's been days since we've had a good dinner and a bed."

"M-may I say something, Keen?" the first voice stuttered.

"Of course you can," Keen snapped. "And stop asking me!"

"Well," the first voice said. "I - I was thinking. It is p-possible that it m-might help us if we, if we help it."

"And what makes you say that?" Keen asked.

"I-I read in one of father's tomes...b-by the great sage, Soldaris...who, who said that b-blackelves m-might worship G-Gods like our own. Not, not the s-same as ours, of course... But, but it c-could be that they have Gods of hospitality... you know... so if w-we help it, it m-may help us."

There was silence for a moment. Wraith fought to remain conscious as the pain threatened to overwhelm her.

"You know Jewels," Keen said, finally, "I can't read. But everyone agrees: blackelves are evil. It seems to me that if they had any honor at all they wouldn't have tricked the old king into the mountains in order to murder him. I don't think I'd trust this great sage Soldaris of yours."

"W-well," Jewels said seriously, "He was c-considered to be a v-very wise man... I...I thought it might be worth considering since we are t-trying to find one... I mean, m-maybe we can learn something from it. Besides, if we save it, we can always k-kill it later, can't we? There's n-nothing wrong with that, is there?"

"Come on, Keen," Merlynn said. "There're three of us. Surely we can handle one half dead blackelf. If we can't, we shouldn't be here in the first place."

"All right, all right," Keen grumbled. "Heal it if you like. Perhaps we can get some information out of it later. There are ways of making even shags talk. But Jewels and I are spending the night in an inn. You'll have to handle it by yourself tonight. I don't suppose it could hurt you in the shape it's in now."

"Thanks, Keen," Merlynn said softly. "I think I can manage. I'll wait for you in that clearing where we saw the fox earlier. No one will find me there."

"Right, let's just get it out of here before the town guards come by. You two hold it up while I cut the ropes."

Cold hands grabbed Wraith's shoulders, and she fainted, her last conscious thought a prayer that the human would cut through the ropes and not her wrists.

Wraith drifted back to consciousness sometime later. She was lying on her stomach, and she could feel soft bandages on her back. Breathing was painful, but not unbearable. Her head was resting on something soft, and a fire crackled nearby.

Cautiously she opened her eyes. It was night. A fox was staring at her from the edge of the woods. She could see the glint of the firelight in its brown eyes. It blinked at her, turned, and disappeared back into the dense underbrush of the woods.

She turned her head to the other side and was blinded by the firelight. She winced and closed her eyes tightly.

"Ah, so you're awake," a voice said from across the flames. Wraith recognized Merlynn's voice.

She turned her head back to the woods, frightened to be so close to a human. Every human she'd ever encountered had tried to kill her.

"Don't be afraid," Merlynn said soothingly. "I know you don't understand me, but please don't be afraid. I'm not going to hurt you."

Wraith could not believe it was true. Someone was walking around the fire. A pair of soft leather boots and stained trousers kneeled in front of her. Curious gray eyes in a pale white face framed by dark brown hair followed. "My name is Merlynn," the woman said with a smile. "Merlynn," she repeated, pointing at her chest. "I'm a healer. How are you feeling?"

Wraith didn't answer, wondering at the lack of hatred in the healer's eyes.

"Not very well, I would imagine. It's terrible what they did to you. So cruel." She was silent a moment. "I've never seen a blackelf before, but I'm sure you can't be as evil as all the legends say. You certainly don't look like you'd steal babies to eat. In fact, you don't look that frightening at all, except for those silver blue eyes of yours. I had always envisioned blackelves having black eyes. I don't really know why. But nevertheless, you're hardly big enough to be much of a threat to anybody. More like a child...Or perhaps you are a child?"

Merlynn rocked back on her heels and regarded Wraith thoughtfully. "What are you doing above ground, anyway? Looking for babies to eat? These aren't the only lashes you've received. Where did you get the old scars?" The woman smiled, looking at her closely. Her tone was reassuring, her manner comforting. She was wearing a bone hilted dagger.

Their eyes met. Merlynn blinked.

"Here I am rambling on. What must you think of me? You need rest, you've lost a lot of blood." She shook her head and touched her forehead briefly, looking away. "And water, you must be thirsty."

Merlynn stood, and Wraith listened as her footsteps crossed to the other side of the fire. She struggled with the pain in her body and the confusion in her mind. Humans were evil, cruel. Yet this human woman was being kind to her.

Merlynn kneeled before her again, a water flask in her hand. "I'm going to roll you onto your side so you can drink," she said. "I don't mean to hurt you." She set the flask down slowly and put her hands gently on Wraith's shoulders.

Wraith flinched inadvertently. Although gentle, the touch still smarted, and her eyes filled with tears. But her thirst was overwhelming. She suppressed the pain in her mind as Merlynn rolled her over and put the flask to her lips. She drank greedily and did not stop until nearly half the flask was gone. Much of it ran down the side of her face, but the relief from thirst made her swollen back throb all the more. She did not notice when the human gently rolled her back onto her stomach, or covered her with a warm blanket.

***********

She awoke to the sound of voices overhead. She could tell that it was light outside by the redness of her eyelids. It hurt, and she held her eyes closed tightly, listening to the argument taking place above her.

"She can't be moved," Merlynn was saying.

"Well, we can't stay here," Keen said just as firmly.

Silence followed.

"We seem to have reached an imp-pass," Jewels said finally.

"Jewels," Keen muttered, "You have an incredible talent for stating the obvious. Now, why don't you explain to Merlynn why we can't stay here."

"W-well," Jewels said hesitantly, "I. w-was actually going to say that there w-wasn't any reason why we couldn't. I'm sorry, Keen, b-but, really! This land isn't being used, and, and, the local lords wouldn't know we were here. The t-townsfolk might figure out that we were the ones who cut down the b-blackelf, but w-why should they? I mean, especially since you and I s-stayed the night at the inn. Don't you think?"

"No I don't think!" Keen exploded. "I've been given four months to complete this quest. Four months, and that is all! If we're to have any time at all in the blackelf tunnels, we need to get there quickly."

"Keen," Merlynn said so softly that Wraith barely heard, "it doesn't matter how much time we do or do not have in the blackelf tunnels, and you know it."

"Why do you say that?" Keen asked after a long pause.

"You know as well as I that we aren't coming back," Merlynn said quietly.

"Is that what you think?" Keen demanded. "Is that what you truly think?"

"Yes," Merlynn said evenly.

"If that is what you honestly feel, then why in all the Gods' names did you insist on coming along?!"

"Keen," Merlynn said calmly, "I would follow you to the very depths of Death's Dungeon. I owe you my life, and I'll die defending yours. I just don't understand why we have to rush towards it."

"Rush towards it?! We are hardly rushing towards anything! Toad fussels and hen farts!" Keen blustered.

Wraith felt Merlynn smile. "We're less than a half moon's march from Westmine provided we don't have trouble in the Rift," she said. "That's well ahead of our original plans. We've been making good time since Jewels has been keeping pace. I suggest that we wait here at least a day to let our...prisoner...heal. We'll travel faster if she's healed, and I think we could all use a rest before crossing the Rift. And this will give the blisters on Jewels' feet time to mend."

"All right," Keen agreed slowly. "But I can't help but notice that you keep calling it a `she'. I don't want you getting attached to it, Merlynn. Remember that my task is to kill one, this 'Wraith.' I don't want you developing a soft heart for these things."

Wraith started. Surely she could not have understood that correctly… How could they know her name?! Why would they want to kill her?! It was impossible! Unless, of course, her mother had betrayed her to the humans... But that didn't make any sense, either. Her mother would not have anything to do with humans except to kill them.

"I know," Merlynn said. "But I'm not a warrior, Keen. I'm a healer. All living things deserve respect. Good and evil -- both deserve compassion."

"Just don't let sentiment stand in the way of my quest," Keen warned. "I know that no one believes this can be done. I know that's why it was given to me. I'm getting old, expendable. I'm not needed anymore. But the King commanded my captain to send someone, and that someone happened to be me. I've never disobeyed an order in my life, Merlynn, and I don't intend to start now. I swore an oath to serve the King with my life, unto my death. And I will not break that vow until the Gods themselves tell me to. You don't have to come with me. Let your conscience be free on that account. But don't cross me, either of you."

"I won't, Keen," Jewels said quickly. "I'd rather d-die than...well...I'm like Merlynn... I - I mean, not that I think b-blackelves are human, but I'd f-follow you anywhere. You saved me from b-being thrown...I mean, you saved me from those men, and n-not because you wanted to get my d-diamond broaches, whatever you may say...and then, then you took me in... I-I owe you m-my life, too. And, well, you may not understand this, but I owe m-myself, as well."

"You don't owe me anything," Keen said. "You gave me the broaches. They brought me enough gold to keep me in ale for three years, if I hadn't been sent on this fool's errand."

"You could have held me hostage and d-demanded ransom from my father," Jewels countered. "He would have p-paid it, you know. To get me b-back. But you n-never even asked my name."

Keen laughed. "Don't go giving me any ideas. Your real name is your own affair. You say you don't want to go back to your family, and that's not my business, either. But you don't have to continue on with me to pay some debt you feel you owe me. You can leave, Jewels. No guilt, no regrets. You're free to go at any time. You can manage on your own. You're book learned, perhaps you could apprentice to a mage somewhere."

"What mage would take me without g-gold or references? And I will never, ever, go back to my family."

"Are they so terrible?" Merlynn asked gently.

Jewels did not answer immediately. "Y-Yes, and no," she said slowly.

Wraith could feel Jewel's pain even through her own. Betrayal. Fear. They were emotions she understood all too well.

"I don't suppose you can understand what it's like to be r-raised as a proper lady," Jewels continued. "It's...It's terrible. Er, rather, it wasn't so t-terrible until I started reading books. I...I got bored, you see, with doing embroidery and, and all the other things a lady does, and...and it seemed unfair that my brothers could go into the library, but I was f-forbidden. I was taught to read as was proper, but f-father said that reading would only fill my head with silly n-nonsense. Now I-I suppose he was right. But then I-I thought it very unfair, and, w-when I said something about it, he just said that I was not to trouble myself with th-things that only men needed to know. But, but that only made me more curious, so I started sneaking in late at night to read. And I read...stories...books...tales of heroes and battles and adventures. It was f-fun, exciting! It was like, well, I can't explain it...And then father c-caught me. He...He threatened to lock me up at night. And then he started talking about m-marriage, making m-me marry this horrible... well... I-I couldn't bear it. Even my b-brothers... I'll not go back."

"You ran away so you wouldn't have to marry someone you didn't love?" Keen asked in as soft a voice as Wraith had heard her use.

"Y-Yes."

Wraith knew it was a lie. Jewels was afraid to go back, but not because of the threat of marriage.

"Surely your father wouldn't force you to marry now that he knows how much you're opposed to the match?" Merlynn said.

"You don't know my f-father," Jewels said.

"Well," Keen said slowly, "Now you find yourself in a tale that's worthy of one of those books you used to read."

"I'm glad you're here," Merlynn said.

Jewels sighed. "I am t-too. Even though this isn't exactly what I had in m-mind when I read the s-stories. One doesn't think about the c-cold and the rain and the d-dirt and the soreness and the hard g-ground when you're just reading about adventures. And I'm afraid that I'm a b-burden to you. I just d-don't know enough to b-be of any help."

"You are, however, willing to try to learn," Keen said brusquely. "And I think that it's time to try another lesson in trapping. I don't want to go back into town, and I don't want to use our rations while we sit around here waiting. Come along and we'll set some traps for tonight."

"Oh, Keen, m-must we?" Jewels' voice trailed off as they moved away.

"Yes, we must. You're too squeamish. One of these days you'll have to skin them, too..."

"Just don't set something that might hurt the fox!" Merlynn called after the receding voices. Somebody, probably Keen, rumbled something in reply, but Wraith only heard Merlynn's heavy sigh as she sat down beside her.

"Well, that's that, then. One blackelf saved from the spit at the expense of some poor rabbit."

Cool hands lifted the blanket off her back and touched the bandages. Once again, against her will, Wraith flinched at the touch.

"So...you're awake again?" Merlynn asked quietly. "And probably wondering if we were talking about you, I would imagine. I'm afraid you're at least partly right. Keen must sound terribly frightening. But really, she's not. Look at what she's doing for Jewels..."

Wraith gasped as Merlynn pulled the bandages free.

"I'm sorry," Merlynn apologized. "I have to change the poultice. I hope you realize that I wouldn't be doing this if we were planning to kill you. Anyhow, just listen to my voice. I'm only trying to help."

Wraith gasped again as Merlynn smeared a cold salve over her wounds. She started to shake uncontrollably from the shock.

"I'm so sorry," Merlynn whispered. "It's almost over. Goddess, I wish I knew more about you. I've never worked with a blackelf before. For all I know I could be killing you. But no, you're healing, and faster than you should. Are you shaking from cold...or fear? Cold, I hope. But maybe fear, too. Keen does sound hateful sometimes. I suppose she probably has reason to. But really, she's a very good person at heart. And I won't let her hurt you. Not unless you do something to deserve it."

She hesitated as she put a fresh bandage over the salve. "Not that I think you would. I don't believe you'd try to hurt me. And Keen can look out for herself. But Jewels. Now, if you tried to hurt Jewels, I would have to let Keen kill you. I'd never forgive myself if you ended up hurting one of us."

Wraith felt Merlynn's hand tremble slightly on the raw skin of her back. Tears squeezed out her tightly closed eyes. She wanted to speak, to tell Merlynn that she would never hurt her, the only human that had ever been kind to her. She never wanted to do any harm at all, but her mouth could not form the words. Instead, her teeth chattered loudly.

"Goddess," Merlynn said, and smoothed the cloth gently. "What am I thinking? You're hardly in any shape to do anybody harm." She pulled the blanket back up and stood. "You should sleep again, if you can."

Almost as if a spell had been cast, she did.



Dogs. They were after her. They could smell her. They could smell her sweat, her blood, her very essence. They could smell every step she made. Her heart pounded. They were worse than any blackelf tracker. How in the name of the Banished God did you hide from something that could smell your footsteps from three days before?! Up. They couldn't climb. She scrambled up the wall and across the roofs. Never in her wildest nightmares had she ever dreamt of anything quite as horrible as dogs. And to think that humans kept them as pets?! She'd as soon cuddle a dragon. She flew across an alley as easily as she'd leap a crevasse in Home. Home. What was she thinking? Not Home. She could never call that Home again. She was Out-cast. Exiled to this miserable world of light and sky and wind and rain and stars and moons and dogs. And humans. She ran lightly up the shingles of the old inn and heard the braying change behind her. They'd know she was up here now. She stopped and tried to gather her thoughts, blocking out a rising panic. She had to get out of the town. If she could get across the outer wall, they probably wouldn't follow her. Or would they? How deep was their fear and hatred of blackelves? She knew so little about them. She only knew what would happen if they caught her...but she dared not think about that. Nor did she dare think about the vast nothingness above her. After two cycles of the Outerworld's seasons she still wasn't used to it. Voices shouted in the streets below. Torches were being lit, and she shaded her eyes from the light. The whole town would be out looking for her soon, the streets filled with the dogs' hateful braying. Howling...Howling...



Wraith woke in a cold sweat, the howls still echoing in her mind. It was dark again, but the moon was bright. She could hear somebody snoring. She couldn't shake the dream. Braying. Suddenly, she was wide awake. It was no dream. She was really hearing it. The nightmare wasn't over. She opened her eyes and looked around.

To one side, the coals of a fire still smoldered. Facing her, with her back to the embers, was Merlynn. She was sitting cross-legged, her head nodding in sleep. The bone hilted dagger was lying unsheathed across her knees. One hand rested lightly on the hilt. On the other side of the coals were two figures wrapped in dark brown cloaks. Wraith couldn't see their faces, but one of them was snoring loudly. Only a human could make such a noise. The dog's bark raised in pitch, nearer now, and Wraith felt her hair stand on end. The dog would be followed by townsfolk. Townsfolk who wanted her dead.

She rolled onto her side and grimaced at the pain. What was the use? She couldn't go far like this. She didn't even have any clothing. What was she to do? Run into the night naked like some wild animal? Well, that's what they thought she was, wasn't it? Gods of Blessed Darkness, if it was time for her to die, why subject her to this horror twice?! She denied the thought. No. They would enjoy that too much. She'd not die at the hands of humans or their dogs and give her Gods the chance to laugh. Not if she could help it.

Silently she sat up, letting the blanket slide to the ground. She sat for a moment trying to catch her breath and adjust to the agony in her back. It was almost unbearable. But the night air was cool, and it helped ease the burning. Slowly, without making a sound, she leaned forward and slipped the dagger from under Merlynn's resting hand. Humans were terribly unaware of their surroundings most of the time, almost as oblivious as shags. She hadn't needed much from them... clothing mainly, and a few simple tools, but she had taken those with ease. She'd gotten careless in the town, a mistake she'd never make again.

She put the point to her chest. So. It came to this. Not that she had much to live for. Out-cast, hated, and alone… so alone. Two human years, after all, was better than she'd ever expected to do. She supposed she should be grateful for it. She had once thought to earn her death in the honorable defense of Home, but that was not to be. She was not afraid to die. But she would not be whipped again. Never. She closed her eyes and tensed her arms to drive the dagger home.

"What are you doing?" Merlynn's soft voice startled her.

The healer's eyes were open, watching her, puzzled.

Wraith swallowed and glanced towards the sound of the dog in the distance.

Merlynn's eyes followed hers, then widened in surprise as she recognized the sound. "What?! A bloodhound?! Keen! Jewels! Awake!" She jumped to her feet and grabbed a quarterstaff lying on the ground by the fire. She looked at Wraith in alarm and held out her hand. "Give me the dagger, quickly, before Keen sees!" she whispered urgently.

Wraith hesitated. Their eyes met. Merlynn trusted her to give it back. She swallowed, suddenly confused. A human would trust her? Merlynn trusted her? In utter confusion, she put the dagger in the healer's outstretched hand.

Merlynn smiled, wryly, and sheathed it in her belt. "Keen! To arms!" she cried.

The snoring bundle gave one last snort, tossed off the cloak, and clamored quickly to her feet, drawing her longsword from its scabbard. "What is it?!" she asked.

Wraith observed the warrior curiously as she quickly surveyed the surrounding darkness. Keen was short for a human, and stocky. Her thick, uneven dark hair was streaked with gray, and a long scar ran across her forehead. More scars criss-crossed her arms and hands. She held her sword with the ease and confidence of long experience, as if it were merely an extension of herself. Wraith could see that she would be a formidable opponent in battle.

Merlynn nodded towards the forest. "Bloodhound."

They both glanced at Wraith as she pulled the blanket protectively around her shoulders.

"Ah," Keen said absently, picking up a small round shield. She toed Jewels in the ribs. "Wake up, Jewels. We have company coming."

The sleeping bundle stirred and stretched. "Huh?" she mumbled.

"Get up!" Keen repeated, nudging her again. "Now!"

Jewels scrambled to her feet awkwardly, blinking rapidly behind small round spectacles and a smudge of dirt on her cheek. Jewels was tall and thin with a wild mass of curly black hair and pale, smooth skin. Her torn blue dress was hitched up around her knees revealing long brown stockings and short leather boots that didn't appear to match. "Is that a d-dog?" she asked, squinting into the darkness. She absently pushed her spectacles up with her left index finger.

"Sounds like a bloodhound," Keen said sourly. "Probably sent by the villagers," she added, tilting her head meaningfully towards Wraith.

"Oh!" Jewels said nervously. "Then why is it c-coming from the direction of Gideon?"

Keen didn't have time to answer as the huge dog burst out of the surrounding dark woods.

Merlynn stepped in front of Wraith, staff in hand, as the dog charged straight for them. Keen positioned herself by Merlynn's side.

The dog gave one last deafening howl and, as Wraith, Merlynn and Keen watched in amazement, charged to one side. Jewels gave a frightened squeal as the huge animal leaped on her instead, knocking her flat on her back. It planted both front feet squarely on her chest and bared its teeth, slobbering and growling only inches from her face. Jewels stared back up at it in unabashed terror.

"K-K-Keen?" she stuttered, "Help!!"

Keen stepped around the fire pit and thumped the dog on the head with the flat of her blade. It collapsed without a sound.

"OOOOO!" Jewels rolled the limp body off of her with a grimace and tottered to her feet, backing away from it.

Keen grabbed her arm to keep her from tripping over a backpack. "Are you all right?"

"Y-yes...I m-mean, I th-think so!" she shivered. "W-why was it after m-me?!"

Merlynn bent over the dog and ran her hand over its ribs. "Half starved. It must have escaped from the tracker several days ago."

Keen knelt and unbuckled the collar. She held it up for Merlynn to see, moving it back and forth in the glow from the fire embers. It sparkled with series of tiny gems. "I'd say this was worth at least a month's wages, wouldn't you?" She looked at Jewels, whose lips had gone white. Wraith doubted that the others would notice that small detail in the darkness, but wondered why the collar frightened the girl so.

"This dog didn't come from the town," Keen continued, still looking at Jewels. "I think he must have escaped from your father's men. He's going through quite a bit of trouble to find you."

Jewels' face hardened. "Well, he's n-not going to. I-I told you. I'll never go back."

Wraith collapsed weakly onto her stomach. That was a feeling she understood all too well. Never go back. But thank the Gods Below that the dog hadn't come for her. With a heartfelt sigh of relief, she collapsed into a deep, undisturbed sleep.



When Wraith regained consciousness sometime later, she became aware of several things immediately, despite the fog that filled her mind. The first thing she realized was that she was being carried, none too gently, over somebody's shoulder, probably Keen's to judge from the width. The second thing she realized was that her head was resting at a dreadfully uncomfortable angle against a backpack and that something in the backpack was jabbing her painfully under the chin. When she tried to open her eyes she realized that she was completely wrapped in a cloak or blanket and, judging from the brightness through the cloth, it was daylight outside. When she tried to shift her chin away from whatever it was that was jabbing her, she realized that both her hands and legs were tied, and in such a fashion that she couldn't move either. She was trussed up like an shag's dinner. Her back, however, was pleasantly numb.

The ropes binding her hands and feet could easily be removed using her Talent, but she didn't like to think what Keen would do if she unexpectedly freed herself. Kill first, ask questions later. Gods, what irony.

She smiled. Best let them believe what they would about her. If they didn't know she could speak, they wouldn't ask her questions. Besides, speaking the human language was as painful as it was difficult. And letting them know she could work "magic," as they so oddly called it, would only make them more frightened of her. From what she had seen, humans seemed to be especially afraid of things they didn't understand. She remembered Merlynn's trembling hand. Gods, if it weren't so pathetic it would almost be amusing. Of all the things between Sky and Stone, they had to be afraid of her!

Her mother's people had been afraid of her, too. They'd been afraid of her eyes. She smiled to herself. It astounded her that someone as hopeless and pathetic as herself could inspire so much fear in others. Her mother had named her "Wraith." The evil soul, unclaimed by Gods. Because she was half human.

She wondered what Keen would do if she found out that she was carrying the object of her quest over her shoulder. Well, no, that was silly. Keen would kill her. And Merlynn wouldn't stop her. So, she couldn't let them know. But, she was curious as to why the human King wanted her dead. It didn't make any sense. But then, when it came to humans, nothing seemed to make much sense. She just knew so little. But, for all that, with every living being Outer and Inner apparently wanting her dead, was it really any surprise that the human King wanted her dead, too? Blackelf Queen, Human King; it had a certain balance to it. She should not be surprised by any unpleasant plan her Gods might devise to torment her. Perhaps she should even feel flattered.

Nevertheless, it was time for her to leave. She was feeling much better. And staying with the humans would be pure foolishness. Let them get killed trying to reach the blackelf Home. She would leave as soon as an opportunity presented itself.

She hesitated at the thought. Merlynn. She realized with something of a shock that she owed Merlynn her life. Could she repay that debt by leaving her to die in the caverns? Merlynn had been kind to her.

They would die. There was no doubt in Wraith's mind about that. Her mother the Queen had ordered Her people to kill all humans without mercy ever since the humans last betrayed them. The Inner was Her realm. Ultimately, She hoped to drive the humans from all the mines, not just the deepest. If Keen, Merlynn, and Jewels made it far enough to be found by blackelves, they would be slaughtered mercilessly.

Not that blackelves enjoyed killing. But what the Queen commanded, they obeyed. Even when it meant Out-casting the Queen's youngest child and only daughter. Wraith grimaced, still tasting the bitterness of that cruelty. But bitterness, ultimately, would do her no good. She could not bring herself to seek revenge against those she'd loved, not against her mother or her own brother though he'd been the one to wield the whip against her and pronounce the banishment. No, her pain would go unavenged, and she would soon be forgotten by her people, truly a wraith, unclaimed by anyone.

She had been ready to kill herself, when was it? Last night? But Merlynn had stopped her. Why had Merlynn stopped her? Was it possible that Merlynn did not hate her? It didn't seem possible, and yet, it did. But maybe the healer was only being kind to her as she would be kind to any wounded animal. And yet, most humans did not hate "any animal" as much as they hated blackelves. She still owed Merlynn her life. Whatever the cause for the human's kindness, that fact remained.

In Home, if a blackelf saved another blackelf's life, the debt was considered binding. The rescued individual was honor bound to their savior. According to the laws of Home, she, Wraith, was now bound to the healer. Her life belonged to Merlynn.

But would the law of Home consider a debt to a human to be binding? Surely not. But she was half human herself, so perhaps it would. Then again, she was no longer recognized by the blackelf Home at all, so she might not be bound to follow its laws. But, if the laws were an extension of Gods' will as tradition taught, she would still have to uphold them, or forsake her Gods.

Her thoughts were interrupted as Keen stopped suddenly and heaved her over her shoulder and dropped her roughly to the ground. Wraith's body seemed to explode at the impact. Every fiber in her being suddenly burned with a fire all its own.

She didn't even notice as Keen unwrapped the blanket from around her body. It hardly mattered when the sunlight blazed on her unprotected face.

"It's awake again, Merlynn. I felt it struggling. Give me that other potion, I don't want it to start kicking." Keen grabbed Wraith's hair and forced her head back.

"I don't know, Keen," Merlynn answered. "She doesn't look well. Perhaps the drug does not work on blackelves. She should have been asleep for the entire day with the dose I gave her."

Sleeping potions? Wraith thought angrily. No wonder her head was not clear! How dare they?! Shags used such potions to pacify their sacrifices. Blackelves used them as a last resort to deal with dangerous criminals. The sleep causing toxins extracted from fungi were dangerous and had unpredictable side effects. It took ages of careful study and practice to produce safe potions. Yet the humans had drugged her without a second thought.

She struggled despite the pain as Keen tried to force her head back.

"Gods damn this monster!" Keen exclaimed angrily. "I am NOT going to carry it all the way to the mines with it kicking like this, Merlynn. You make it drink while I hold it down."

Wraith had had enough. Gods damn these humans, too! She ignored the burning pain in her eyes and spat in Keen's face.

The human froze.

Wraith realized her mistake as Keen's cold anger washed over her, chilling her to the bone. The human stood slowly and drew her sword from its scabbard in one fluid motion.

Wraith closed her eyes tightly, the warrior's blinding image imprinted on her brain. It was now or never, she knew. She concentrated, focusing her mind and felt the energy tingle to life in her soul. With a thought she released it. It flowed down her limbs to her ankles and wrists. The binding ropes writhed like snakes and unknotted. The instant they were free, Wraith rolled away from Keen and came up standing.

But instead of the dramatic gesture she had planned to emphasize the power flowing through her mind, she staggered. The world tilted beneath her feet. She grabbed her head in agony. It was too much, the power used to unbind the ropes had taken too much of her energy. She was drained. She collapsed to her knees in exhaustion and despair, waiting for the human's killing blow.

The cold, sharp tip of a sword pressed against her neck. She didn't flinch. She heard Keen's heavy breathing above her and sensed the warrior's wrath.

"Gods curse it, Merlynn!" Keen grated, her voice heavy with hatred. "It used magic! Would you still have me spare it?! Will you dare stop me now?!"

"I don't think I could," Merlynn answered quietly.

"We can't trust it! None of us can fight against magic!"

"She didn't hurt us. Perhaps she didn't want to drink the potion." But Wraith heard the doubt in her voice.

"Gods mercy!" Keen exclaimed.

The sword stopped pressing Wraith's neck. An instant later her head exploded in blinding white sparks, and she knew no more.




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