Roween awoke, jerked; her head was lying on Conley's
shoulder. She moved away, quickly - too quickly: Conley stirred, wheezed,
"Is it morning?"
"Yes, I think so." She clambered for an internal ladder. "I need
to use a pot."
"Your back is covered in bits of hay."
"Gives me something else to itch instead of my legs."
"I had that problem, it's some kind of substitute for silk they
used to make the material clingy; turn your tights inside-out, they've been
brushed soft that side."
"Really? I'll try that." She was on the external ladder now.
"The horses are still around, that's good."
* * *
It was a modest river, but the banks were steep and awkward.
There was a bridge, of course, but beside it stood a small, stone building: a
"Do you think they'll be looking for us?" Conley asked, low.
They'd dismounted, were in a hollow on the side of a small hillock.
"Everywhere," whispered Roween. "News will have spread as
"If we could get out of these clothes, they're so noticeable..."
"Close up, people will always notice us. You yourself know
how easy it is when you're looking for someone with eyes like mine."
Conley half-grinned, foolish. "Well back home you're unique,
everyone else gets fixed. Hereabouts, there'll be - " She registered
Roween's weary gaze. "Not many anywhere, right?"
"Covering my face would just be suspicious. Oh well, we can't
get across here; we'll have to try rig up something further downstream."
She made to stand.
"Wait a minute," Conley took her shoulder, nodded to the
checkpoint. "I can take that out, easy."
"How many people are inside?"
She shrugged, "I don't know, it's small - no more than a dozen,
"And how many of us are there?"
Conley sighed. "Oh come on, Ro, I can do for them on my
own, they'd run from light-primes!" She peered out of the hollow again,
sought signs of activity.
"Not when their god has just died they won't. We're
Messenger-killers, they'll already have invented a score of stories about our
evil magics, our false ways, it's their holy duty to try destroy us, whatever
the cost, whatever we throw at them. Hot, anyone who takes us will be set
for life, a saint!"
"There must be something we can do, they'll have food in
"Dark-primes, that's what you want. I could stand those..."
"Dark-primes?" She cocked her head, puzzled.
"Like light-primes but - "
"I know what they are, Ro, I discovered them!" Irritated, "I
mean, what use are they in this context?"
"Light spells convert a little matter to a lot of light. Why light?
Because it's the purest form of energy. Dark spells convert a lot of energy
into a little matter. What matter? The purest form."
"I don't know what it's called, but I do know it's a gas and it
goes bang when ignited."
Conley turned, grinned. "Now I like that idea! It would attract
attention, though, the noise."
"I don't think it'd be too bad if you centred the spell inside the
building - we'd hear it here, and I'd probably smell it, but it wouldn't
travel miles. The main problem as I see it is we'd need an awful lot of light
to get a worthwhile amount of gas, probably why no-one's really used it
"How many 17 light-primes worth?"
"I'd guess at... Oh." A laugh. "Millions! Silly idea, sorry."
Conley was staring downwards, eyes unfocused, knocking her
knuckles together. She nodded, looked up. "Why not just transmute matter
directly, a bit of wall or something? Why mess about making it from
energy at all?"
"What, with a standard transmutation segment? But if you don't
follow it with a target matter sequence it remains in its original form, and
no-one's discovered gestures to signify anything explosive yet, not that I
"Theoretically, there's a dual light-prime that you can cast on
light, and likewise a dual dark-prime you can cast on matter. That would
convert matter directly to this gas of yours."
"Yes, but they don't prove. For the dark version, the main seg
is way red, the glue to the tail is colourless though the red will swamp that,
but the rest is green, there is some red in it, oh but we can forget the glue,
we'll be recursing on the first seg, and on the way out it'll only be
repetitions of the tail, so no need to stick them to each other. But that still
isn't enough, it all falls down, no colour predominates. The same applies
for the light version, except there it's the main segment that's green and the
tail that's red."
"In Rhiev, you told me how to make any spell provable: pad it
with palms until it's biased to blue."
"But..." Why not? She smiled. "Well I have to admit it, Con,
you're a genius!"
Conley blushed, looked to one side and back, head lowered. "I
wouldn't say just because..."
"It'll need a fair number of cycles, I'm just thinking, maybe
half an hour's worth?"
She raised her eyebrows. "That many? And then there's all the
palms, it'll be an hour before I'm finished. You'll need to keep a verify
count on the way up so I know how many to - " She stiffened, looked
beyond Roween, put forefinger to lips, listened. Slowly, she crouched, slid
back down out of sight.
"Something on the road?"
"A wagon, do you think they'll see the horses?"
"Do the gestures."
* * *
"I'm telling you, Con, you're one short."
"We agreed at 1,000, didn't we?"
"Yes, and since then you've done 998, if you include this one."
"I've done 999. Look, there's an even number of gestures in
this spell, and I always start with my right hand, so I should be holding this
last palm with my left. In that case, why is it with my right?"
"Maybe when you started off from 1,000..?"
"I'll tell you why it's my right, it's because you can't count,
"You could have only done 997."
"Life to this, Ro, I'll show you, watch." She released the palm,
pointed to the checkpoint.
The force of the blast blew out an entire wall, brought down a
good part of the roof.
Roween was lying on her back, blinking. "Hell, Con, that was
loud!" She shook the dizziness from her head.
Conley was surveying her work through the descending dust
with obvious pride. "999, see? They must have had a candle burning in
there or something."
Roween shook her head again. "We overdid it, that kind of
damage... Let's hope the bridge is still intact." She sat up. "The horses!
Have they bolted?"
"I'll have a quick -", tiptoed, "no, you tied them well enough,
they'll soon calm."
"We'll take them with us, we won't have long to look around
before locals come to investigate..."
* * *
They guessed at six bodies in the first room, one outside who'd
been on guard. There'd be others, they knew, where they hadn't looked
"It's the efficiency of it that scares me most. An hour of
gesturing, seven people burned skinless."
Roween was close to tears. "Gods, Con, it's getting worse,
what's happening to us? I didn't even think, I was bound up in the
spellwrighting itself, I forgot what it would mean. Those were real people,
and we killed them - we didn't even bother with token agonising over it."
"We couldn't do much else, we couldn't stun them, put them to
sleep. We couldn't." She looked away, coughed. "The smell..."
"If I feel this bad about seven innocents, what's it going to be
like when..." She fell silent.
Conley had spotted something, wasn't listening. "In the
passage - lockers I think, and they're metal."
Roween followed her, treading carefully to sidestep still-
smoking straw strewn on the ground.
Two of the locker doors were torn off, the rest readily
succumbed to blows from a mace Conley took from one of the bodies, hard
to tell what gender.
Roween had found a bag, was stuffing it with anything that
looked useful. "We don't have much time, we can look at this lot later.
There's clothes enough, non-uniforms."
"I'll find where they did their cooking, there ought to be
something there that'll keep." She pulled back a smouldering partition
"Don't be long, I want to leave soon as possible."
"Me too..." She stepped through.
* * *
An hour later they were in a wood, off the road.
"It's no good, you must be too short to be a soldier."
Roween began to unbutton the shirt. "This would almost do as a
dress if it wasn't for the sleeves. Still, least you found something." She
reached for her blouse, hanging on a broken branch.
"The cloak didn't look too bad, you could wear that."
She sighed. "Black, though. Without something coloured to go
underneath, I'd still look like some kind of night demon, it'd..." She
stopped, frowned, suddenly pensive. "What else was in the bag?"
Conley shrugged. "Loads of stuff, useless mainly. Let's see,
soap, hairbrushes, a razor, scissors, a catheter, I think there's a mirror,
some pens... Just personal bric-a-brac, really."
"Shave my head."
Conley looked up. "What?"
"Cut off all my hair, then use the razor. Where are the
scissors?" She knelt down beside the bag, began to rummage.
"Are you crazy? Stop that!" She pushed her backwards, took
Roween rebalanced, put her hands on her hips. "If I can't look
like someone they don't expect to see, maybe I ought to try look more like
someone they do."
"That's just to be different, to stand out. No ordinary woman
looks like that, but a goddess, well..."
Conley rested her arm on a low, looping branch. "And you
think shaving off your hair will make people think you're Loneskh? Why
do you want to do this to yourself, Roween?"
She stood up, turned away, turned back. "Well what do you
suggest? We can't go blowing the damn out of every Follower we pass,
we'd deserve to be caught, executed. But if we used their beliefs against
them, turned their loyalties in our favour, we might get through this alive.
Ask yourself if the real Loneskh would have any trouble."
"There is no `real' Loneskh!"
"Con, as far as the people here are concerned, she's real as
rock. Look, their religion has lost its central pillar, it's collapsing, an entire
faith - they need something to provide support, quickly, to show them that
they haven't built their lives on falsehoods. They're desperate to believe; all
they need is a little evidence, their hope will do the rest."
"It'll never work. Inter-god feuding? Yes, why not, it happens
every day... Ah, but `Why are you riding around on a horse, instead of
"Oh we'll think of some story, Con, but you get the idea?"
She ran her fingers through her hair. "Well we can try it if you
like I suppose, we can always revert to our original tactics if it doesn't
work out." Roween was smiling. "I don't like this razor job, though -
there's some make-up in the bag we can use instead, lip and eye colours."
"There is? Good, the more extreme the better! Where did you
put the scissors?"
"I said no to the scissors, Roween - if this whole plan flops we
don't want you even more strikingly conspicuous than you are already."
* * *
"Hot, this is fantastic."
"I know, Con, you keep telling me! How much longer will you
"I just have to touch up this whirl of crimson here... Powders
do take longer than magic, but mistakes are easier to correct."
"I'm glad you talked me into keeping the hair... This gunge is
all going to come off when I'm asleep."
"Don't worry so - now I've got the design worked out, it won't
take me as long next time. It'll be fine."
Roween grinned, "I know, I'm just getting excited." She held
her breath a moment. "Life, I didn't move just then did I?"
"No, no, it's alright, no damage done. Now let me have one
last look..." Roween turned her head from left to right; Conley nodded,
She looked around, eager, nervous. "Where's the mirror?"
"I'll get it." Conley reached inside the bag. "Now I must warn
you, Ro, you mightn't recognise yourself, it could be a bit of a shock..."
She handed her it, bit her lip.
Roween stared at her reflection, said nothing.
"If you don't like it, we can try something else..."
She was looking at the sides, the eyes.
"I mean, if it's all wrong, just say so."
Roween put down the mirror. "Con, this is perfect!" She picked
it up again, looked. "The way you've done this blue, all the way from my
eyelids to the hairline, I'd never have thought of it, and all this pink it's,
it's extraordinary! And my eyes, how have you made them look so big?"
"Just some white in the right places, black in others. I didn't
exaggerate the, er..."
"The squint, no, it shows enough anyway. Oh this is
unbelievable, I look so exotic, so un-me! It's like my reflection is someone
else mimicking my movements."
"Well you're supposed to have the visage of a goddess, but I
think it's reasonably obvious it's just painted on. Still, at least it looks
significant. Do you think the pastel effect is better than a gloss? The gloss
looked too harsh, too bright I thought; this is more friendly, but it'll dry
your skin out after a while. I stayed with the reds and blues because there
was more of those, enough for over a week unless it rains."
"No, this is exactly right, Con, it's better than I dreamed." She
sighed, still smiling. "I look so different, so mysterious." She frowned,
closed one eye, blew out her cheeks. "It's really me..."
"I hear your voice, but it sounds so bizarre coming from
someone else's mouth!" She'd put back the make-up, was reappraising her
"I'll have to remember what I look like, now, try act
accordingly, fit the image."
Conley nodded. "I'm glad we shaped the eyebrows, too, you
look really quite attractive now." A moment, then she blushed, hand to
mouth. "Oh I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply that you weren't - "
"I know, Con, it's alright - no, really it is." She stood. "So,
shall we eat before we set off?"
Hurried, "Yes, good idea. After, I can reapply the lips - I think
I might just make them a bit darker, there's a creamy navy powder
* * *
"Where are we going, anyway? In the long term, I mean."
They'd been back on the road for maybe ten minutes, hadn't seen anyone
"The Lowlands," Roween answered.
"Do you know people there?"
"Some, we're meeting Medreph."
"We'll have some tales to tell him! So how far away are we,
then? We only have food for a few days, and those bridge guards had no
real money. As for where we sleep - well we've no bedding, and we'll need
something to cheat the wind if we have to camp outdoors. I guess you miss
"I have a few rubies; we should look for a town, somewhere
big where you can exchange them without anyone's trying to rob you."
"Or worse..." This part of the road wasn't paved, was more of
a track, rutted by cartwheels, russet-leaved trees looming over the
"Capture, you mean? No: once we're out of Messenger country
we can relax, they won't find us on the other side of the Schaaldt."
Conley shook her head. "That's not what was worrying me."
Lots of puddles around, bad drainage. "Any woman, riding into town
alone, out here. They're different people, Ro."
She was looking down at her horse's mane. "Oh I see, yes,
that... Well our supplies will hold until we reach the Lowlands, and anyone
we meet on the way will either ignore, worship or kill us. No sense
denying it, though, we'd suffer if we were caught. If we can cross the
river, well I guess if we weren't from Cala we might find trouble of a sort
there - the people have a very relaxed attitude to life. I expect they'll leave
us alone, though - they suspect anyone from the magic states of having the
Conley puzzled-frowned. "They what?"
She shrugged, almost coyly, yet not; she looked so compelling
in the make-up. "They don't have contraceptive magic. Neither did we,
twenty-five years ago, and when it first came out there was a lot of,
"So the pox spread everywhere, yes. But we had a cure by the
end of the decade."
"A magic one, though. Out here it's unknown, they still treat us
like we're infected. So they won't cause us problems, not that way at least.
For other women it might be different, but then the same probably applies
for men. Medreph told me all this first time round, he thought I was
worried, but no-one else ever said anything, he may have made it up."
They rode a few strides further.
She cleared her throat. "Ro," hesitantly, "I've been meaning to
ask you. Does contraceptive magic have a good or a bad smell?"
No reaction. Had she heard?
"It's just that, well, if it's bad, does that mean you have to, you
know, abstain?" She felt embarrassed asking, couldn't kill the curiosity.
Three paces later, "I don't know how it smells, Con."
If it were possible to die of feeling worthless, at that moment
Conley would have done so.