The setting sun, reflected off the white stones of the road, was dazzling to old eyes so Marin heard rather than saw someone skitter from the shadow of the flanking forests to run but ten paces before her. Marin chuckled silently.
"You had best move on, old man," a fierce voice hissed from the tiny figure swathed in black. "You would do well to sleep further on this night."
"But the road is open to all, child," Marin said placidly in her rasping contralto, shuffling forward slowly to see better. "And the sun is setting."
A bitter laugh escaped from the black-draped stranger. "None would know better than I when the sun sets, old man. All the more reason for you to make haste in leaving this place. You are not safe here." The face of the stranger was hidden by a loose hood, but she brought emphasis to her words by flicking the folds of her cloak back from a tiny white hand holding a small jeweled knife, a white hand with long obsidian fingernails.
Marin's seamed face broke into a smile. "Brave soldier," Marin clucked reprovingly, resting her slight weight on a staff of rowan wood. "To stab an old man as he sleeps. In truth, there are few who would harm one of my clan, child."
The figure in black pulled herself up to stand more straightly. "I waste no love on men," she spat. "Even old men would do well to flee."
Marin's smile grew. "What a fierce little thing you are, child." She issued a dry chuckle. "Thank Eaumere I am not an old man else I would be quaking in my shoes." She extended her arm, palm forward so that the last rays of the sun painted the branding on her palm brilliant red.
The stranger gasped. "I didn't know! You are so tall!"
Marin pushed back her dove-gray hood and let her white braid slip down her shoulder. Several paces of hair coiled itself at her feet. Those who served Eaumere never cut their hair. "Does your hatred extend to a servant of Eaumere? Even a woman who has seen as many decades as I have?"
The black figure dropped to her knees stiffly on the hard white stones, the jewelled knife falling with a clatter and a single spark. Words wrenched themselves from between the stranger's lips. "Sea Sister!"
"Are we so rare, child, that I should send you speechless?" Marin asked softly, reaching to grasp a black-tipped hand in her branded one. "Come, child, you have made me curious."
The stranger shook back her hood as if trying to clear her head and reached for her fallen knife. "You should flee, Sea Sister. Those who serve the Mother in all Her guises are not welcome here."
"Welcoming doesn't seem to be your best quality, child," Marin admitted, leading the girl back to the shelter of the trees. "I have been here long enough to know the prejudices of this country, which makes me wonder how you knew my sign. There is no mark on your hand."
"I am no one's sister."
Marin regarded her carefully, her black eyes glistening. "I chose the name Marin de Eaumere, Sea Sister of the twelfth level, daughter to Eaumere. I must pity one who has no clan, no name." Marin's voice had its own fluidity, like the lapping of warm waves on a crystal shore.
"I have a name!" the girl said hotly. "I chose the name Cauchemar de Bête Noir, and I live on my own level, sister to no one, daughter to no one, answering only to the call of my heart."
"Cauchemar," Marin said reflectively. "In my land, that word means nightmare, nightmare of the black beast. What nightmare is the call of your heart?"
"I am vengeance," said Cauchemar, staring glassily into the trees.
Marin shook her head sadly and gathered a pile of dry wood for a fire. Her head jerked up as she heard soft sacred words on Cauchemar's lips. The wood burst into flame. Marin leaned back against a tree to study her companion.
Cauchemar was tiny, but certainly not the child she first appeared. Thick matted hair surrounded a pallid face with a cloud of black. Her face was thin, her chin pointed. Her lips were full, but bleached white as her skin. Only eyes, moss-green, added color to a portrait of black and white. There was depth to those eyes. The face was stony, blank, but an endless well of sorrow shimmered in those verdant eyes. And a green fire of fury. And an endless sky of loneliness. If ever she had been a child, she was a child no longer.
"You have a look of one of the Mother's own," Marin whispered. "Yet, you do not bear any of Her marks. Refusing your destiny can bring you nothing but grief, child."
"You err, Sea Sister. I do not belong to the Mother, to anyone. I have nothing more to grieve."
"But you share Her gifts. There have been no women who could command the gifts of Feumere for a hundred years. That is not a blessing to be taken lightly."
"Ha!" Cauchemar said derisively. "She cannot even protect Her children. How can She protect Her gifts?" She whispered and a forked tongue of lightning flashed from the cloudless night. She opened her hands with another muttering and a bower of fragrant ferns grew themselves for the old woman's bed.
"Where did you learn this?" Marin asked in an awed voice, shocked despite herself. No one but those sworn to the Mother ever commanded Her gifts. None of those sworn had ever learned more than one discipline, and none but men had held sway over Sky and Fire in centuries. "Fire, Earth and Sky? How did you learn?"
Cauchemar shrugged. "My mother took the oath of service to Terremere, Earth Mother, back when people still revered the Mother in all her forms. It was not so long ago that no one would harm one of her children, daughter or son. Then the followers of Puissance the Swordmaker came. They stood in their red robes of state before a city drunk with power and decreed that those who serve the Mother be killed, that those who has sworn to peaceful existence, who had taken vows to hurt no living soul, be slaughtered so as not to infect the power of the swordwielding."
Cauchemar's voice faded away for a moment as she remembered. "Those sworn to the Mother would not fight back. They were slaughtered as sheep, words of forgiveness on their singed lips, blessings gasped from their torn throats. My own brother, sworn to Feumere, burned at the stake without a whisper of blame. Where was the Mother then?"
"How could they kill a Fire Brother with flame?"
Cauchemar sent her a scornful glance. "They cut off his branded hands, all of their branded hands." She turned accusing eyes to Marin. "Where was the Mother she served when my mother lay on the slab, branded hands severed from her body, her heart cut open to bleed into the Earth she worshipped? Where?"
A tear slid over the wrinkles on Marin's face. "Weeping, child, weeping. Weeping tears of blood."
"What good did that do my mother? My father stole me away and hid me in the forest, then went back to the City of Puissance and took out his loss on those who had slain his princess, my mother. He took the revenge the Mother would not take and her children could not. He was not Her son, Her sworn. He would do what She would not, avenge their deaths." The words were bitter.
"And what did he gain, child? Did he return from the city, gorged in blood, free of sorrow?" Marin asked sharply.
Cauchemar started, her face slipping, for just a moment, into a mask of unspeakable loneliness. "He didn't come back," she whispered, eyes wide. "He stayed too long. I think he planned it that way, knowing he would die when morning came and his powers faded. He wanted to die because she was dead, but first he had to hurt them as they had hurt him, hurt her. That is the way of his people."
Cauchemar ignored her, lost in remembrances. "In the forest, I was found by a fleeing Sky Brother, Nuage, son to Cielmere. It was he that taught me of love, to know what it was that my father lost to the Puissancers. He begged me to become as my mother, sworn to the Earth, but I could not. There was too much of my father in me."
She stared at Marin defiantly. "You think I did wrong, but I did as my heart insisted. Of all the things he asked of me, it was all I denied him. Did I wish to feel as he did? He hid in the forest and pined the Sky he could not see. I did not want such a burden, a crippling of my soul. But I loved him. Did I not feel his pain already?"
Cauchemar paused briefly, then continued more calmly. "When he asked that I let our daughter offer her allegiance to the Earth, I could not say him nay. They went to the lake and built a pyre. I watched from the shadow of the forest as he came back to life in the sun, as my husband and my child revelled in all of the Mother's forms at once. I watched . . . " Cauchemar swallowed, her voice catching on a sob.
"Child," murmured Marin.
"There were archers . . . " Cauchemar gasped at last, a single tear falling from each eye. "They knew the lake was sacred to the Mother. I watched, but I could do nothing as the they killed the man I loved, the child of my heart." Her breathing quickened.
She turned cold eyes on Marin, angry again. "You, you would tell me that it is only a senseless tragedy, like the plague. Where was Cielmere? Where was Terremere? Where was the lightning and the hurricane?" Lightning flashed behind her and a sudden gust of wind made the fire crackle with a burst of crimson sparks, though she made no gesture, spoke no spell. "Where was the earthquake?" The faintest tremor rumbled beneath them. "They loved Her! Where was She when they fell into the dust, arrows in their throats?" Cauchemar leapt to her feet with feline grace and stared a challenge at Marin. "Where was the Mother?"
"You grieve for your loved ones as a lover and a mother. Do you think Her pain is less?" Marin asked softly.
"Where is Her justice then? She would not protect them. Can She not punish the ones who slew Her children without thought?"
"Child," Marin said gently.
"I am not a child. You think I should be grateful for the gifts of the Mother, but it is the gift of my father I treasure more. I am Vengeance, I am the Nightmare that stalks the woods." She gathered her black cloak around her. "I have wasted too much of this night already in talk. There is much to do." She spun to leave in a swirl of cloak, slipped into the shadows and dissolved into the darkness like a beast of the night.
That night, Marin did not sleep peacefully. In her dreams, she saw men sleeping around a dying fire. They were rough violent men sleeping while their prey, women with severed hands, lay dead, piled in wagons. From the silent forest came the whisper of a growl and then a streak of shadow, a burst of deadly black smoke with only the flash of its long white teeth and the gleam of its green eyes to show its substance. One stroke of a panther paw sent the head of the one on guard rolling in the underbrush. Another man woke to face the huge black cat, but could raise no alarm for its teeth had already found his throat. The last three died in their sleep with single swipes of its claw-tipped paws.
The panther paused, cleaning its face with a bloodied paw before making its cry and disappearing into the darkness with a flick of its midnight tail . . .
A priest slept fitfully in an abandoned woodsman's cottage, caught outside the safety of the city's gates after dark. There was a pounding on the stiff door followed by the frenzied stamping of horse's hooves. The man woke, clutching his blanket to his corpulent chin. He glanced through the window at the star-filled sky, but gasped as a black shadow blocked out those stars for a moment. He gasped again as the reverberation of thunder filled the tiny room.
The door shattered and the man screamed. Lightning from the cloudless sky showed the creature in relief. Silver shod hoofs sounded on the hard dirt floor with dread thumps. It was a unicorn of moonlit black, a silvery horn of terrible sharpness sprouting from the wide forehead. Green eyes of savage fury glared mercilessly at the fat priest. The unicorn pawed and nickered with a flash of its white teeth, but the sound was frightful.
The priest made a gesture against evil, the sign against his own God, but found himself impaled on that silvered horn a moment later. The unicorn, its horn now striped with gore, galloped into the forest with a scream of defiance . . .
A guardsman at the city's gate raised his head at the inhuman scream he heard from the forest, then dropped it again. 'Another,' he thought to himself. 'The unnamed beast of the forest has found another victim.' He started to his feet as a shadow passed over his head. He lifted his face and stared directly into the green eyes of a winged eagle as large as a man and as black as coal, then thought no more as the black talons buried themselves into his mailed chest.
More Marin saw: an ebony vixen darting from the shadow of a tree, a thick serpent strangling sleeping travellers in her raven coils. A kill, a cry and the creature would disappear into the forest. The first rays of sun brought Marin from her sleep, heavy-eyed, saddened. She blinked the sleep from her eyes and looked around her.
Cauchemar lay on the ground a few paces away, her matted hair spilled loosely on the ground. Marin rose gingerly and shuffled soft-footedly to her side. She checked the girl carefully and breathed a sigh that the sleep was that of exhaustion and not death.
'Poor lonely child,' she thought and reached a gnarled hand to stroke that hair. Cauchemar made no movement. Marin took out her comb and pulled it through the ratted locks. Sea Sister were famed for their hair and it hurt Marin to see such hair, even cut so short, in such a state. Cauchemar slept oblivious.
"You! Old woman!" a voice beckoned from the road as Marin straightened to her feet. Marin raised her eyes to the tall man waving at her. She moved from the shelter of the trees to the road, wrapping her long white braid around the back of her head.
The man stepped back briefly at the sight of her long hair, the flash of a branded palm. "Pardon, Sea Sister," he said courteously, taking off a hunter's cap. "Is this the road to Puissance?"
"Aye," she said. "Though 'tis a place that holds no welcome for those of my clan."
"I had heard that those who serve the Mother were not welcome in this land," the hunter admitted with an embarrassed look in his rich brown eyes. "I wonder that you roam here so near the city. Perhaps you should leave this place, Sister, before you are expelled from it forcefully."
"They do not expel, child. They destroy."
The huntsman started, brown eyes wide with shock. "They would not kill, surely, a Sea Sister! Not one who would follow the Mother! What harm would you do?"
"There is much you do not know." She pulled her hood over her coiled hair. "I am Marin de Eaumere. Come and share breakfast."
"I am Réel de Bonarc. How came you here, Sea Sister?"
"I came on a quest," she answered, stoking the smoldering fire. "Why are you here, my child? You come from a land that still reveres the Mother, I think."
"Oh, I am no politician," Réel said with a self-conscious cough. "What care I about the policies of those who fill my purse? I came on my own quest, Sister. There is a beast in these woods, a creature that strikes without warning, leaving bodies torn in a thousand ways. No one is safe in these woods."
"I slept here safely enough," she said calmly, handing him some bread. "Perhaps this creature respects those of the Mother."
Réel laughed derisively. "This creature is a monster, caring for nothing. It murders innocents and the City of Puissance hired me to hunt it down."
"Innocents? There is much you do not know, huntsman." She waved her hand over the ground beside her and a small spring filled a shallow hollow with water. Directing Réel's gaze into the pool, she murmured and its surface clouded, then darkened to show a firelit face before a starlit sky. The woods took on an eerie quiet as Cauchemar's voice whispered about her brother, her mother, her lover, her child. The image changed to show men slaughtering a sisterhood who worshipped Terremere, then the same men's bodies slain by the night panther. It showed a priest condemning six newly branded children to death, then that same priest, eyes opened in death, crouched on a pallet, clutching the hole that punctured his heart.
Réel turned his head away and scrambled backwards, tripping over the sleeping form of Cauchemar. He glanced at her face and then stopped, the reflections in the pool forgotten. Cauchemar's black locks glistened in the morning light. Her lashes lay thick against her ivory cheek. She was a beautiful and delicate as a glass bead and his breath caught in his throat.
"Who is she?" he breathed, eyes locked on her face, peaceful in repose.
"She is an enemy to the ones you serve, hunter. It was her face you saw, her voice you heard tell of the fate of those who serve the Mother. The ones you serve would kill her as gladly as they would kill me." A shadow crossed Marin's features. "Thought they might not kill her right away, poor child."
The huntsman swallowed, then tore his eyes away. "You seek to turn me, old woman. I came her to kill a beast and that's what I will do, then leave, my conscience intact. Why should I care what the Puissancers do? It is not my land after all." He took up his bow and turned to the road.
"And what of her?"
He swung around sharply. "Take her away from here, Sister," he said harshly. "Take her north to my country where you can both be safe." He strode forward and gripped Marin's arms. "Promise me you will take her to safety!"
"There is no safety for her, for me. What can happen one place, one time, can happen elsewhere, elsewhen." Marin smiled sadly. "And she will not leave, not yet. She is willful."
"You take her," he growled again and gave Marin's arms a shake, then stalked off, down the road toward Puissance.
It was noon when Cauchemar opened her eyes. "You?" she asked sleepily as her gaze focused on Marin. "Why are you still here?"
"Why are you still here, child?" Marin returned amicably, stirring stew.
"I have work to finish," Cauchemar said defiantly.
"Ah! As do I, child, as do I. Come, have some stew."
"You killed?" Cauchemar asked with some alarm.
"Nay, child, you know we cannot take but soulless life. There are some very tasty roots that make a hearty stew. Fill up."
"As if you need teach me Earthlore," Cauchemar said sulkily.
"Yes, you showed me yesterday what powers you command. Why is it no one else can do these things without a branded palm, a vow to the Mother?"
"I don't know. Maybe no one tried. I would listen to my mother and, when I used her words, Earth would obey me. I would watch my brother and Fire would perform for me as well as it would for him. Nuage was shocked that I could copy his commands to the Sky, but he learned to believe. It is only the words, the gestures after all."
"Yet your brother could not save himself from the Fire without his hands. No, child, the Mother gives Her gifts, choosing who to bless. Until now, She has only chosen those who vowed to serve Her. Why you, child, why you?" The last question seemed more for herself than Cauchemar.
Cauchemar shrugged. "Maybe She could not stop me. Apparently there is much the Mother cannot do."
"Perhaps She does more than you think." Cauchemar only shrugged again in response. "I am curious, child, do you think you could learn the powers of Eaumere as easily as those of Her other guises?"
Cauchemar nodded. "I don't see why not. Would you teach me?"
"I begin to think it is why the Mother sent me after all."
"I will not take an oath to serve the Mother," Cauchemar warned. "If that is the price, I will not pay it. You can keep your water skills."
"There is no price, child. I think the Mother has other plans for you."
It was near dark when they finished, Cauchemar sending back into the ground the water she had called forth.
There was the sound of a step on the road. Cauchemar looked up and her face hardened. She reached into the folds of her black cloak for her knife, but Marin placed a restraining hand on hers. "It is an honest huntsman, child. Put your knife away."
"You!" Réel accused, striding forward purposefully. "You should have left as I told you."
Cauchemar flowed to her feet and stared at the huntsman defiantly. "Who are you to order us? Why should we take direction from you?"
Réel's face reddened further. "I am Réel, the huntsman. It isn't safe in the this forest and I know it is unsafe in the city. If you don't leave, you will be in danger from the beast as well as men."
Cauchemar laughed. "See the man tremble at mention of the beast. I have lived fifteen winters in this forest and have never stood in danger from any save man. The beast has roamed the nights here for two years and has made me safe, at last, even from men. I will go nowhere."
"Then stay with me, where I can keep you safe this night," Réel insisted, grasping her elbow. Cauchemar's blade slipped into her free hand and she brandished it in the huntsman's face.
"Safe? I will find my own safety! You are one of them!" She wrenched her arm from his hand. "Best you look to your own safety, huntsman, lest the beast teach you the manners you lack!" She turned in a flourish of black wool and slid into the lengthening shadows.
He stepped to follow her, but she was gone. "I told you," said Marin, still seated by the fire. "She is a willful woman."
"She could be killed alone in the woods tonight!"
"Aye, as could we all, but not from the beast, I think. It respects the servants of the Mother and she is just that."
"She wore no brands."
"The Mother has a use for her, even so. Soon, even she will know it." Marin smiled, the wrinkles in her face stretching. "Stew?"
Marin did not try to sleep that night, but sat quietly against a tree. Réel, anxious for her safety, wanted her where he could watch her as he waited for the beast. Marin was wakeful for his safety, and for Cauchemar's.
The moon rose and fell again. They heard, in the distance, the cries of men, the howls of beasts, but Réel would not leave Marin unprotected. There would be no Sister's blood on his hands.
There was no sound, but he knew when the beast approached. Perhaps it was a whiff of scent on the breeze or a feeling of impending power. He set his back to a tree and readied his crossbow.
Into the clearing, it came, a huge black star-silvered wolf, loping forward on silent feet. Réel raised his crossbow, aiming for a fierce green eye.
"No!" he heard harshly in his ear as the bow was struck down, the arrow plunging uselessly into the ground. He reached for his knife and had it unsheathed in his hand when he heard Marin's urgent whisper, "Do you do their work? It is Cauchemar!"
With surprising speed, Marin darted before him, grasping the wolf in a protective embrace. Réel fell to his knees, too stunned to move. The wolf, locked in the woman's arms, growled ominously, then howled fiercely. The beast wrenched her head back and then shifted, her body an inky amorphous nothing until she solidified into the body of the panther. With a sweep of her paw, she cuffed Marin aside, but her claws were sheathed and the touch was too gentle to harm.
The panther leapt forward and Réel fell backwards, his knife held in his warding hand. The green-eyed cat straddled his body and growled, the light in her eyes daring him to strike her with his knife. Réel looked into the eyes and knew them. "Cauchemar," he whispered, awed, and thrust his knife into the ground.
The eyes blazed with renewed fury. A huge paw struck him on the side of the head, but the claws were still sheathed for they left no mark. "No, Cauchemar. I will not hurt you," he said gently, reaching a hand to stroke her velvet face.
Cauchemar roared her rage, then shifted again, now the unicorn. "Cauchemar, will you be what you hated?" Marin called from behind her. "One who kills without thought, who murders those who will not take up arms against her?"
Cauchemar screamed frustration. Lightning flashed behind her as reared up on back legs that still straddled the huntsman and came down with all her strength, but the silver-shod hooves rent the forest floor and not Réel. He lay, unscathed, between her thrashing legs. Cauchemar shifted again, this time the black vixen, but her face was that of Cauchemar. "What of my father, Marin?" she cried fiercely, her paws tearing at the ground beside the man's head. "What of my mother and brother?" She looked with barely checked rage into Réel's face. "What of my husband, my child?"
"What of his wife? Will you leave her widowed for a crime he is innocent of? Look on that face, child." Cauchemar found her eyes locked to Réel's face, gentled in the starlight, softened by the tears that wet his eyes. Cauchemar bent and tasted a tear on her tongue.
"No!" she screamed, rearing back, shifting into the black eagle and thundering into the lightening sky.
"Cauchemar, no! 'Tis almost day!" Marin cried, reaching for her as she rose above their heads.
"Cauchemar! I love you!" Réel shouted to the fleeing bird. "There is no need to die for that! Come back!"
Cauchemar circled back slowly. She floated above him hesitantly, but he reached a hand up to her. "Cauchemar, do not leave me alone." She folded her wings to drop just as the rising sun struck her and she tumbled, a woman again, into his arm. He held her, clutched closely, as she sobbed, "I am alone, I am alone . . . "
"As am I," he murmured. "I have no wife, no one to mourn me."
"If I love you," Cauchemar wept into his tunic, "they will take you as well."
"I am harder to kill than that, little one," he said smiling, stroking her naked back.
"Her father was of the Bête Nuit, the Nightbeasts," Marin explained, shuffling forward, apparently infirm again. "She has that gift too." She took Cauchemar's chin in her hand. "You cannot be a nightmare, Cauchemar. You have too much soul."
"I will not be a sworn sheep for slaughter, Marin. Do not ask me."
"I do not, child. The Mother does not. You asked me what the Mother has done for justice? She created you, child. You are Her justice. You are Her sword. She cannot stand by as Her children suffer any longer. But you cannot be a mindless weapon. This city is a gangrene on the world, but you must kill only the sickness and leave that which is pure. That is the task She sets you."
"You cannot ask her, Marin. She'll be killed!" Réel protested, clutching her to him protectively.
"It is not for you to say, Réel," Cauchemar said gently, disentangling herself from his arms.
"And what of me?" Réel asked. "If you will risk yourself, what place is there for me?"
"You wait for me here, here where I am home," Cauchemar whispered, touching his arm.
"That is not my way, little one," Réel said softly. "To wait while you risk yourself in the city."
"Then wander into the city and scout for Cauchemar," Marin suggested. "You can find the corruption for her with the freedom of an unsworn man. You can be her right arm."
"And what of his protection?" Cauchemar demanded, alarmed. "He cannot command the Sky, the Fire. He cannot change into a shadow of the night." She gripped his arm tightly. "I cannot lose you to the Puissancers."
"They will not find me easy to kill, Cauchemar. I am a huntsman."
"You can be his protection, Cauchemar," Marin told her. "You can be the earthquake and the hurricane. You can watch him in the water as I taught you and you will know when he needs you."
Cauchemar closed her green eyes, breathing deeply, deciding. Her eyes opened. "I will take Her task, but I cannot vow to spare all life."
"She asks it not," Marin said softly.
Cauchemar stood proudly, lifting her head high. "I choose the name Margelle de Épée Merci, she of the merciful sword, daughter of the Mother in all Her forms." At those words, her body was consumed by fire. Lightning flashed from the sky to strike her. Water burst from the earth to engulf her as vines twisted up her body. When they fell away, her body was white no longer. Blood-red runes covered her, snaking down her arms and her legs, up her neck and sending tendrils around her still-white face.
"Nothing of Earth, Sky, Water or Fire can harm you now. There is nothing they can remove to take those powers from you," Marin intoned in a voice of prophesy.
"And my father's gifts?"
"They are yours as well."
Margelle took Réel's hand. "I will be there when you need me."
"Good," he said.
"And when I need you?" Margelle asked, stroking his cheek.
"Well, come and get me," the huntsman laughed. "I would welcome the beast if she has your green eyes."