When Conley awoke, she didn't recognise the room. Sunlight
was angling through a gap in the shutters, falling on the end of her neat,
little bed. Her clothes were folded in a tidy pile on a chair over to the right,
beside the small fireplace. A short distance to the left was the door, old,
wooden, deeply varnished. She was alone. She was also very, very hungry.
On her left arm was a small patch of linen, stuck there with
some kind of gum. She peeled it off and examined it. Looked like a happy
shot, only bigger, and with no markings. She threw it into the fireplace.
Where was she? Surely not CBT, the sun would never be this bright in that
hole. How long had she been asleep? She was ravenous.
She swung herself out of bed, picked up her clothes. They'd
been washed, ironed, aired. That sticker on her arm must have been some
kind of black-fac sleep shot, something to keep her out for a few days.
Sleep shots weren't perfected yet, leastwise no reputable company sold
them. She wondered what the side-effects of this particular illicit brand
Dressed, she wandered to the window and peered between the
shutters. Her room overlooked a small courtyard from one floor up. Geese
chased a young goat into a stable, cats lazed on an elderly, decrepit,
upturned cart. It was around mid-day. There was no-one about. Lunchtime?
Another pang reminded her of the emptiness in her stomach. She'd do her
hair and face later. Strange, she didn't feel thirsty.
She walked to the door, turned the handle. Open. She wasn't a
prisoner, then. Downstairs, she could hear voices. Should she stay here in
her room, or go down and find what all this was about? A rumble in her
belly made the decision for her.
The steps were old, well-maintained, but creaky. She heard the
voices stop a moment, then start up again. A chair scraped back from
beneath a table. She descended into a cheery, country kitchen. Pots and
pans and used plates were stacked by a sink, but her attention was seized by
a batch of newly-baked bread rolls, cooling by the window. The smell was
deliriously enticing. Eagerly, she picked one up, and tore off a chunk with
her teeth. Mmm, warm, tasty, so real. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply.
The door behind her opened; she span round, guiltily. Roween
was standing there, beaming a smile. "Conley! How do you feel?"
Hastily, Conley swallowed her mouthful of bread. "Hungry,"
she announced, and took another.
Roween chuckled. "Well, eat as much as you like - you're the
one paying for it!" She walked over, placed her hand on Conley's shoulder.
"Seriously, though, are you alright?"
"I feel fine," she answered, still chewing. "Where and what is
"It's a farmhouse Medreph recommended. Quiet, about two
days' ride from Cala Bay Town following the White River. They take in
occasional guests to make a few extra clicks."
"Is Medreph here?" She picked up another roll; they tasted so
"No, he has some last-minute things to do in Cala Bay Town,
then he's leaving for Elet across the wilderness."
She paused between chews. "The wilderness? That's going to
be tough - I've heard stories, there are people-eaters in there. I don't
believe that stuff about having snakes for fingers, but still, I'm not sure that
personally I don't prefer the idea of walking through a war..."
"He's made the trip before, but yes, it's dangerous. He doesn't
have much choice this time, though, not if he's taking wagons. At least the
wilderness route is the quicker, anyway. Do you want butter on that bread,
or is it fine as it is?" She pushed the dish; Conley eagerly cut a dollop,
pasted it into a roll to melt.
"Who was that you were talking with just now?"
"Ah, that's the farmer and his family, we'd just finished lunch.
Want to meet them?"
"How long have we been here?"
Roween blushed, turned her head. Conley couldn't tell whether
she was still looking at her or staring out of the window at the geese.
"About ten days."
Her eyes widened. "Ten days? And two days to get here? I've
been asleep almost a fortnight!"
"And another day in CBT. Medreph had to sedate you, you
were coming apart. He got his hands on some prototype sleep shots a black-
fac spits for MedSpell, they're safe but you can't tell how long they'll
"Two weeks, no wonder I'm so hungry!" And so stiff, sore,
"We've been funnelling soup and water into you every day,
waiting for it to wear off. I thought we'd better leave Bay Town and go
someplace it was safe until you awoke. We could have taken the shot off,
course, but we figured the longer you slept, the better your chances of
waking up sane."
"If I ever was." Down went the last of her buttered roll. "So, I
suppose I should go and meet our hosts. But afterwards, we must talk..."
* * *
Eltreth was the farmer, Luseen his wife. The children all had
names, but wouldn't stay still enough for Conley to identify which was
which when Luseen pointed them out. They were a merry family, laughing,
smiling, different from the people Conley was used to; perhaps that's why
she felt a little awkward in their presence. Their openness, honesty and
friendliness were a revelation, but in a way she preferred the reservedness
more usually found in the sort of wayside accommodation she chose to
Roween got on with them very well, but then she was more
their level. She played continually with the youngest child while Conley
listened as attentively as she could to riveting conversation about cattle
diseases, the price of feed, Winter floods, drunk farm-hands, over-charging
blacksmiths and preparations for market. Although she did have one gossip
session with Luseen concerning the merits of `what people are wearing in
Cala this Summer', she nevertheless felt that, on the whole, she'd rather
have remained asleep.
Wistfully, Roween allowed the youngster to run off and join his
brothers and sisters. She winked, Conley assumed it was at her and not the
wall, apologised for taking up so much of the family's time, but she and
Conley would go upstairs now out of the way. Naturally, Eltreth and
Luseen thought her sincere. What a nice young woman.
* * *
Conley sat on the edge of the bed, Roween was slumped in the
chair, anxious, thinking. Conley was going to have to face things
eventually. Best now, get it over with before she regresses. "So why did
you do it, Con?"
Conley lay back on the bed. "Do what? Murder three hoods or
try to murder myself?"
"Murder your mother."
Conley lay still, stared at the ceiling. Slowly, she brought up
her arm, rubbed the temple where she'd slapped all the happies. She closed
Roween was panicking inside. It had just slipped out, so easily,
she couldn't help it. She'd had it all planned, she'd push Conley just a little
at a time, try talk about her childhood, bring in her mother, manoeuvre her
into confessing, try find out why she'd done it. Simple. But first answer
Conley gives, and she can't resist blurting a dumb smart reply. Hot, she's
awful quiet now.
"Roween," asked Conley, at length, "do you know what a
breaking rod is?"
Roween was almost too relieved at hearing her speak to reply.
"A breaking rod, yes, breaking rods, Agritech make them: it's a stick they
use for training horses."
"Horses and other spirited animals... They're expensive,
though, they need good workmanship or they snap. You tap an animal with
it, the animal hurts. Some kind of modified Mell segment, like in that
itcher I pulled for you. If you hit them hard, it hurts really badly. Hit
someone hard as you can, it's agony."
Roween knew the rest now, just a case of letting Conley tell it
"My father, he only married my mother for her title. Gave him
a foothold on the ladder. She married him solely for his money. Neither of
them felt anything for the other, never gave much attention. When I was
born, it was to give them an heir, that's the only reason. Maybe to give
mother something to do all day instead of getting drunk. Certainly did
that..." She laughed, bitterly.
"Anyway," she continued, "my father, he liked me, he really
did, still does, he adores me, used to take me to the Academy, show me
off, all proud. Mother hated me, maybe just because he didn't. One day she
came back from town with a breaking rod. Used it on me." Her tears
began. "Can you imagine what it's like to be beaten with one of those
things?" She choked a sob. "By your own mother?" Another sob. "Who
could I run to? Did she want me to go to her for comfort?"
"Why didn't you tell your father?"
"I was scared, so scared. And that was what she wanted me to
do, she was taking out on me all the anger, frustration, resentment,
everything she hated about my father. And she wanted him to know,
because that way she would be hurting him the deepest she ever could. I
wouldn't let her succeed in that, never."
"Was that why you started on the happy shots?"
She drooped her head. "I guess so, yes. Once she hit me so
hard the rod itself made marks, that was just too much for me. I needed
something, something just to keep me alive." She cried. Roween moved
closer, onto the bed.
"I worked my way to bigger and bigger shots, in the end I
could double up deeps and still feel no better. There was no way out, the
beatings, they were killing me."
"And you couldn't fight back?"
"I was fourteen, she was my mother, I loved her, she had the
rod, what could I do? Then, one day, I went to a store downtown that I'd
never visited before, shady place, I thought they might sell stronger shots.
That's where I saw it, the breaking rod, the CBT copy of a Magicorp rod,
the reject. You hit something with this rod, it's you who gets the buzz. I
bought it. Cost me all I'd saved from my allowance, but I bought it.
Swapped it with my mother's rod. That night, I provoked her. Told her
what I thought of her, how after all these years she still hadn't broken me,
told her how I felt, what she was. I never saw her get so angry before.
Rage, it's not the word, she was like a maniac, breaking furniture,
throwing anything she could reach. At the height of her fury, I let her trap
me. She took the rod and hit me harder than she'd ever done before, harder
than she'd even contemplated before. Tore my leg. Killed her outright. I
knew it would." She ended the story with a voice as calm and steady as
Roween had ever heard.
"So that's when you threw yourself out the window?"
Conley smiled, nodded. "Didn't think I could live with it.
Maybe I was right?"
Roween's face was drained of blood, white as chalk. "Hell,
Conley, you poor girl." She hadn't known. Did anyone else?
"Last night, last week or whenever it was, I did the same. I
deliberately, calculatingly, lured those hire-guards to their death. I killed
them, cold blood, took their lives. I don't know why, I just did, and I
enjoyed it, the power. I guess if you try and forget things, they have a way
of coming back all on their own." She sat up, face wet with tears, a
mixture of anxiety, relief, faded torment. "Ro, what if I do it again? What
if I kill her again, Ro?"
Roween hugged her. "You won't, not now, not now you've
* * *
Next day, they left the farm and headed north. The White River
earned its name from the fast-flowing rapids that scored its passage to the
Eastern Ocean. No ferries plied it this high up, but there was a bridge
they'd reach tomorrow. Conley figured Roween planned to cross there.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"Davia," answered Roween. "Least, I am. You don't have to
come or anything." Oh, but you do!
"I still don't know how you do that dispelling trick. I'll leave
when you've told me." She spurred her grey, riding up alongside Roween.
"That's assuming you ever do. Or am I wasting my time?"
Roween shyly granted her a sympathetic smile. "It'll take
awhile, but yes, you'll pick it up. Before then, though, I have to school you
in other ways."
Conley cocked her head, quizzically. "What `other ways' are
these? What is it I must learn?"
Roween paused a moment, then posed the question. "Does
magic make people good or evil?"
"Neither." The track narrowed here, and she fell back behind
Roween's mare. "People are what they are, magic is simply a way of
making it easier for them to do what they would have tried to do anyway."
"So you see magic as a tool, to be used for better or worse by
its wielder. You don't see it as something which encourages its exponents
to take one direction rather than another?"
"No, I don't. Why are you asking this?"
"Well a sword is such a thing. Swords give people power over
others. There are some worthy uses, but none of them would be necessary
if it weren't for the unworthy ones."
Conley raised her voice so Roween could hear her in front.
"But swords were meant to be weapons of war; magic was conceived as a
means of healing."
"Yet now, our king proposes to make war using magic as his
"Our country is about to be threatened by a cruel, religious
tyrant. Justan would still have to make war even if all magic were disappear
"Would it be such a bad thing if that were to happen?"
Conley gaped, astounded. "Well yes of course it would be bad!
Think of the ills we could no longer cure, of the prosperity of our land, the
wellbeing of its people. We'd have no medicine, no surgery, no long-
distance communication, withered crops, death, poverty - magic is for the
good of everyone."
"Idealist," accused Roween, over her shoulder. "Your educa-
tion begins in Davia."