Jehan’s Legacy By Jack Mulcahy
The night’s silence was broken by the gurgle of a man being strangled, yet to the strangler, the noise seemed as loud as a shout. Barbary grunted with effort as she garroted the life from the man. She was of medium height, with a sun-bronzed, oval face, large, dark eyes, high cheekbones and firm pointed chin. She wore the uniform of the Army-in-Exile of Auriga: a plumed brass helmet, articulated shoulder armor, and a cuirass of many-layered canvas. The cuirass hung below her sword-belt, its lower half cut into feather-like strips that protected her lower abdomen and groin.
Barbary kept the garrote tight around the man’s neck for several heartbeats after he quit moving. Then she unwrapped the leather thong and let him drop. Calmly she drew the knife from the scabbard and hacked off his finger below the knuckle. She held up the grisly trophy a moment, nodded, and placed the finger in the leather pouch that hung from her belt. Then she dumped the dead man into a cloaca. She darted down the wooden walkway in front of a row of shops, careful to keep in the shadows of the overhanging tile roofs. Bad luck she’d encountered him in the first place, and only her well-trained reflexes had granted her the victory. Reflexes plus the help of Saint Jehan, of course.
Barbary was just breathing a silent prayer of thanks to Jehan when a shout shattered the night. Uttering a curse, she gave a quick look over her shoulder, and saw a knot of soldiers racing around a corner. She tried to blend into the shadows, but someone shouted, “There she is! Don’t let her get away!”
She lunged down the walkway, wheeled around a corner into an alley. Her sandaled feet made only faint sounds in the unpaved street, though to her the noise was like a drum that would lead her pursuers to her. From a thong around her neck, she drew a many-faceted crystal, which contained the Magic that had enabled her to enter this accursed city. Six of its facets had gone dark. That was bad. When the crystal went completely dark, she would be unable to pass through the sorcerous Barrier that enclosed Rahesh-the-City. And if those soldiers caught her, Goddess alone knew what might happen to her, for women here were all slaves, and a woman caught bearing arms would be crucified.
She’d not wanted to use her Magic, but there was no help for it. She fled around another corner and skidded to a halt behind the public toilets. To lose her pursuers she would need a spell that did not use much magic. She ran her sweating hands over the building’s wall, absorbing the essence of the sun-baked clay, then made that essence her own, to assume the form of a wall closing off the end of the alley. Some enemy mage could notice the disturbance in the mystical plane soon, but she’d not need long; the mirage would send the soldiers looking elsewhere.
But when she drew on the Magic, the world turned upside-down. Her vision blurred and her head felt as if it were caught in a winepress. She crumpled to her knees, trembling. Now the shouts were accompanied by footsteps, running toward her. Frantically she poured more magic into the spell. Pain screamed through her head and her heart thrashed as if it would explode.
Finally the Magic obeyed and she become the illusion, just as a girl dashed around the corner from the other direction, followed by a woman covered from neck to ankles in a shapeless slave garment. Between the gloom of the alley and her blurred vision, Barbary could not see anything clearly, save that they both had red hair. The two stopped short when they confronted the “wall.”
“Valeriya!” the girl hissed. “What are we going to do? This alley should take us through to Cheap Street!” Her terrified voice clawed at Barbary’s heart.
Three soldiers appeared at the mouth of the alley, their shadows eclipsing the fugitives. The woman whirled to face them, hiding the girl behind her long skirt. “Stay behind me, Mira, and move with me,” she directed, backing against the illusory wall so close that the Aurigan could smell her sweat. “Be ready for my signal.”
Goddess! Barbary thought. They were running away! Now they’ll be recaptured, thanks to me! She tried to alter the spell’s patterns. If she could shift the illusion’s solidity, they might slip through and get away. But when she tried this, she nearly passed out. She swore to herself and sent a silent prayer to Saint Jehan.
Maybe Jehan was listening. Or maybe the red-haired woman had already earned her favor and didn’t need Barbary’s prayer. Barbary watched her back away to the left of the men, not resisting, but not surrendering, either. To them, it looked like a terrified slave cowering, but the Aurigan could see how the woman kept the girl hidden behind her. Like Saint Jehan, long ago, hiding her daughter Voada from evil Ludd and his pain-magic. The way Barbary’s mother had protected her the day the soldiers came. In dreams, she still heard her mother’s voice crack reciting Jehan’s Litany when she gave the girl to the Angel who would smuggle her to Auriga and freedom.
Here was another Angel trying to fulfill Jehan’s Legacy. She sidled left. The Raheshis followed. Barbary saw the opening that created, and prayed they didn’t see it.
“Come forward,” the first man said. All three stopped. A large gap had opened between the men and the alley walls, but the woman was cornered. If she started forward along the wall, the men would move that way and cut her off.
But the woman did not move forward. Instead, she opened her blouse, exposing her breasts. “Please, master,” she whimpered. “I’ll cooperate.”
The man turned to his friends. “Shall we toss to see who gets her first?”
They closed in and the woman cried, “Now!” The girl dashed from behind her. The soldiers lunged for her, but the woman threw herself in their path and the girl squirted through.
But the Angel was not so lucky. The soldiers fell upon her, overpowering her. Two of them pinned her arms behind her and dragged her to her feet. The leader swatted her a vicious backhand that snapped her head back and brought a low growl to Barbary’s throat. “She won’t get far,” he snarled. “And Magister Nejemiya will deal with you!”
In moments, they had bundled her away and the alley was silent again.
Barbary returned to her own form. “It’s not my fault,” she said softly.
A noise nearby made her whirl, knife at the ready. It was the girl, who had hidden in a nearby doorway. The pale oval of her face was like a ghostly apparition out of the darkness. Her gaze stabbed Barbary like a poniard.
“I couldn’t help her,” Barbary said. “I tried.” But her mother’s words from long ago echoed in her mind. “‘I can’t’ accomplishes nothing. ‘I will try’ can accomplish wonders.”
I have a mission. She started to speak to Mira, but the girl had vanished.
She felt the tension ease. It’s out of my hands now, she told herself. The kid may get away, at least. This had nothing to do with me or my mission.
She glanced at the crystal, saw the darkening of several more facets. Wolfshit! I have to get on with this, or I won’t be able to get out! She looked down the alley where the girl had gone. She’ll make it, she told herself again. Saint Jehan will see to her.
“Remember, Captain, the crystal’s power will wane.” Two weeks before, on a sunny winter morning, General Eurydice was turning the crystal over and over in her hands. Barbary swung up into the saddle and waited, her hands clenching and unclenching on the horse’s reins. Everything seemed to move slowly this morning: General Eurydice, giving her last-minute orders; a squad of soldiers being harangued through their drill by their sergeant; even the crows flying over Jehan’s Lair. She wished the General would just give her the damned crystal, but held her tongue. One did not hurry the Commanding General of the Grand Army of Auriga.
“We think getting in won’t be difficult,” General Eurydice went on. Barbary wondered if Eurydice realized she was repeating the instructions Barbary had memorized already. She sighed, louder than she’d intended, and Eurydice gave her a piercing look, adjusted the patch over her missing eye, and cleared her throat. “Since you know this so well, Captain, perhaps you’d prefer I not continue.”
Barbary lowered her eyes. “No, General.”
Eurydice nodded. “You’re impatient,” she said. “Don’t deny it. You’ve always been that way. I suppose that’s better than being content to wait behind the lines.”
“Yes, General,” Barbary answered.
“But you must understand this is not something to just rush into. Not only is this an extremely critical mission, but you are not, I repeat, not expendable. Get in, accomplish your purpose, and get out. No heroics, no notions of glory.” She paused, and her single eye narrowed. “And none of these ideas you’ll kill the Most Favored. Do you understand?”
“I understand, General.” Barbary tried to keep her face neutral. “But if anyone deserves death, it’s her. The last one bathed in virgins’ blood to keep herself young.”
Eurydice’s eye narrowed. “Nonetheless, Captain, I repeat. You are not to attempt to kill her. If you make such an attempt, you will seriously jeopardize this mission. And that is something we cannot afford. Do I make myself clear?”
Barbary hesitated a moment. She knew the General meant what she said. But how can she possibly criticize me when I come back from this mission with both the information she needs and the head of the Most Favored? She was sure Eurydice would forget that order when she pinned the Jehan’s Staff on Barbary’s uniform. “Yes, General. You’re perfectly clear.”
Eurydice grunted. “As I was saying, Captain, the Barrier’s purpose is to keep slaves in, not keep people out. Your mission is to find out as much as you can about the thing’s sorcery. We know it somehow neutralizes the Magic in Adepts such as you. If the Raheshis have found a way to do that, we must find a way to defend against it. That’s where the crystal comes in.” She held the crystal up. The starlight captured within it threw gleaming lances in every direction, like shafts of sunlight.
With an effort, Barbary refrained from snatching the crystal from Eurydice. “General, with all respect…” she began. When Eurydice nodded, Barbary continued, “I’ve been briefed on the crystal. I know the facets will gradually darken as its Magic is used. I’ll get into the city, get your information, and get out. There’s enough power in the crystal for that.”
The General waited a long time before answering. “I sincerely hope you’re right, Captain,” she said. “If the crystal goes completely dark, you’ll be stranded.”
Barbary mustered a smile. “Don’t worry, General.” Her horse snorted and tossed his head, as if in agreement. She could accomplish both purposes, she thought. It would not take long to find out what the General needed. Then she could kill the Most Favored, the woman who besmirched the holy name of Saint Jehan. The woman who sent the soldiers to take Barbary’s mother into slavery long ago. Mama had paid for Barbary’s freedom with her own. It was time to settle the score.
The Temple of the Prophet Ludd dominated the spires and minarets of Rahesh-the-City. Built by Magister Nejemiya, the current Voice of the Prophet, it stabbed the sky with its hammered gold pinnacle over three hundred feet high. Barbary wondered how many slaves’ lives had been thrown away building the Magister’s monument.
The Temple faced a long plaza flanked by two-story marble colonnaded buildings. The columns gleamed in the night like ghostly sentinels. A broad staircase led to the Temple entrance, guarded at its top by two enormous stone lions. Barbary crouched behind a pillared outbuilding and drew out the crystal. More facets had dimmed; several had gone fully dark. The thought she might fail ghosted across her mind, but she banished it, thinking about Mama and the Angel who made it possible for her to grow up free. “I won’t fail you,” she murmured. “By Saint Jehan, I’ll kill that blasphemer. And maybe, just for good measure, I’ll send Magister Nejemiya to the pit after her!”
A broad, columned porch led to the Temple’s massive, gold-inlaid doors. Torches in gold sconces illuminated a single guard. From her pouch, Barbary took the finger from the sentry she had killed. Sticky with blood, it stank of rot already. She rolled it between her palms, letting the oils from the dead man’s skin mingle with hers, focusing on his image in her mind to conjure his shape. His yellow hair; the fine down on his cheeks; the scar stretching from his chin to his ear. Building and building; cotton tunic and boots of thin leather; pointed steel cap snugged under his chin with its leather strap. Willing her olive skin to pale, brown eyes to blue; stretching her limbs, thickening her torso.
But when the Magic came, she felt as if she were being torn apart. And not only was there the dizzying weakness, but the false image flickered as she took it on. Flashes of her own form appeared and disappeared, as if the spell were not taking hold.
It took all her strength to steady the illusion. She forced herself to swagger up the steps on legs that felt like dried sticks. “Hail Holy Ludd, Corporal, I’m your relief.” Goddess grant the man not decide to chat; she felt as if she might collapse any moment.
“You’re early.” The guard lowered his spear. “They just hauled a runaway before the Purifiers.” He winked and leaned against a marble Temple column. That must be the red-haired woman, who was captured because of Barbary’s illusion. The Aurigan wanted to strangle the leering bastard. Instead, she nodded, and he continued, “Be nice to watch, wouldn’t—”
His words broke off in midsentence. Horrified, Barbary saw that the spell was dissolving again, her own olive complexion spreading up her arm.
Before the cry was out of his mouth, she struck, dirk flashing, but he parried and jabbed her with his spear. She ducked, but the shaft hit her arm, numbing it, and the dirk clattered to the pavement. He thrust the spear like a pike. Barbary ducked under his jab, threw him to the ground, landed on top, fingers seeking his throat. He wrested them away and they grappled in the dirt, neither able to gain any advantage, until she saw her chance when his helmet fell off. In desperation she slammed her forehead into his twice, jarring him enough that he lost his grip on her wrist, and her fingers found the dirk. She buried the blade in his heart, stabbing again and again, spattering herself with blood.
Gasping, she sprang to her feet, wrestled open the heavy Temple door and darted in, leaving the dead guard in his own blood. She paused to catch her breath and removed her blood-drenched boots so as not to leave footprints on the polished marble floors. If they had brought that red-haired Angel in here, the Most Favored must surely be watching them “purify” her. Perhaps she could accomplish two purposes, rescuing the Angel and killing the traitor. She moved barefoot down a corridor that smelled of oiled wood, murmuring Jehan’s Litany for strength. The Elder Witches had magically implanted the Temple’s layout in her mind, in case she might find the source of the Barrier’s magic there. Sword in hand, silently praying, she moved, vigilant as a leopard, down a broad staircase to a landing.
The murmur of voices prickled the hairs at the back of her neck. Not trusting her Magic, she slipped halfway up the stairs to hide behind an immense golden bull. Two men in the blood-red robes of Qabbraya priests paused on the landing where Barbary had just stood. She caught a whiff of perfumed hair and her blood froze when she recognized Magister Nejemiya himself.
“Why does she do this, Sihon?” he asked. He was a broad, handsome man with silvery hair. “Even when she seems to obey, she finds ways to thwart me.”
Sihon, shorter than Nejemiya and slight, said, “I warned you about this. She’s the most powerful Healer we’ve ever encountered, and her faith in her Jehan is strong.”
“I know, I know,” Nejemiya sighed. “And now, with this child…”
Barbary leaned closer to hear better. Sihon said, “Buying that girl was a serious mistake, my lord. You might have won over the woman, until she saw in that child her chance to fulfill this so-called Legacy. Her resolve has stiffened ever since that day.”
“I don’t need you to remind me, Sihon,” Nejemiya said. “We created the Barrier to block the starlight and prevent her replenishing her Magic, yet even that failed to stop her. I wish our own mages were as resourceful.”
Barbary stiffened. So that was what the Barrier did! She glanced at the crystal, and saw two more facets darken. Her heart turned to ice. If I don’t get this done soon, I won’t be able to report anything! She thought briefly of giving up the search for the Most Favored, but rejected the idea. I’ve come too far to abandon it now.
“My Lord,” Sihon said, “your ‘resourceful’ slave has placed us in serious danger. I’ve told you time and again, you never should have allowed her to live. But it pleased your vanity to keep her, and now you see the consequences. She marched right out with the child, telling the guard she was escorting her to the High Council. Even told him she was the Most Favored.”
“I wish there were some other way,” Nejemiya said. “She begged me to take her instead of the child for the sacrifice, but I could not bear the thought.” His wistful tone amazed the hidden Barbary.
Apparently Sihon heard it that way too. “If you’re allowing yourself to fall in love with her, you’re being a fool!” he snapped. “Resign yourself to it. If we do not find the girl by dawn, we’ll have to give your red-haired pet her wish.”
Their words trailed off as they resumed their descent.
The conversation filled Barbary with a new sense of purpose. Here was a chance to destroy the Most Favored and save the red-haired Angel, too. When she did that, she was sure Jehan would forgive her earlier error.
She took the steps two at a time, turned left, raced down a shorter flight of steps to another hallway lined with carved teak panels. Scenes from the Raheshi scriptures were wrought into the wood, showing Ludd tormenting Jehan. Barbary gasped at the lifelike detail of the work, as if the carver relished the acts he was depicting. “Damn them all!” she muttered. Enraged, she drew her sword, ready to slash the images, when a powerful blast of Magic nearly knocked her over.
The wave of Magic led her to a vaulted stone chamber that stank of blood, lined with rows of cells. All were locked save one. Its door hung on one hinge, the bars twisted as though by giant hands. The red-haired woman lay within, trying to raise herself off the floor. The girl Mira held her hand, whispering encouragement.
Both looked up in shock as Barbary entered, though their shock could hardly match the Aurigan’s. The woman’s face was battered and bruised, one eye swollen shut, her mouth puffy and raw, and her dress was plastered to her by her own blood. Even more horrifying than the terrible signs of torture, however, was the mark branded into her face, an eagle’s talon crushing a serpent’s head.
The sign of the Qabbraya. The mark worn by the Most Favored!
With a cry, Barbary sprang forward, brandishing her sword, but Mira threw herself in front of the fallen woman, crying “Don’t you dare!”
“Child, she’s bewitched you! She’s a criminal! She’ll betray you to the Raheshis!” But when she moved to go around the girl, Mira shifted to match, a move eerily like the way the red-haired woman had shielded her from the guards.
“She’s my Angel!” Mira snapped. “She’s protected me from them for the past two years, and I won’t let you or anyone else hurt her!”
“Mira,” the woman groaned. “Leave me. They’ll—”
“Never,” Mira interrupted. “You didn’t leave me. How could I leave you?”
The tender look that passed between them speared Barbary’s heart. Again she was a child, held in her mother’s arms one last time before Mama gave her over to the Angel. But it had been the Most Favored who demanded young Barbary be sacrificed to the Qabbraya. “Mira, let me help you,” she said softly. “We’ll get away. I can get us through the Barrier.”
The girl shook her head. “Not without Valeriya.”
Valeriya pushed herself up, to all fours, then to her knees, then to her feet, leaning on the cell door like a crutch. The strain showed in the reddening of her face, and the veins that stood out in her forehead and her neck, but she said, “Mira, get away now. They want you more than they want me.”
She took a step and nearly fell. In spite of herself, Barbary caught her arm. The woman met Barbary’s gaze. Her uninjured eye was a soft, golden brown. “Help Mira,” she said. “If you can get her out of this hole, then for Jehan’s sake, do so! I ask you as her Angel.”
Barbary looked from Valeriya’s face to Mira’s. She’s a criminal, she told herself. She has no right invoking Jehan. Yet Barbary could not forget the images from the alley, how she outwitted the guards so Mira could escape. I never knew doubt could be so terrible.
Her heart froze when she heard footsteps, voices shouting orders. The Magic that drew here Barbary must have drawn the Magister! She grasped her sword, ready to fight, but Mira cried, “We’ll get away! Valeriya will show you!”
“She can’t—” Barbary began, but her protest died in a gasp of disbelief. Valeriya stood on her own, no longer leaning on the cell, all her injuries healed.
“Come! There are secret passages he thinks I don’t know about!” she said. At the end of the corridor, she grasped the hand of a statue of the Prophet, and a section of stone wall slid away. “Come on!”
The three dashed through the aperture, and the door slid shut noiselessly behind them. “This Temple is full of these passages,” Valeriya explained. “Before Mira came to me, when I wasn’t as strong, he had me believing he could appear out of nowhere. Then Mira followed him one night.”
“You taught me to keep my eyes open, Valeriya,” the girl said. “You would have figured that out on your own.”
Barbary shook her head. Which one is the Angel here? “How did you recover so quickly?”
Valeriya grimaced. “When he chose Mira for the sacrifice, he filled me with the Qabbraya sorcery to force me to fetch her. But when he gave me to the Purifiers, he forgot to tell them to draw the pain-magic out of me first. So I used my own pain to feed the sorcery.” She gave a short, mirthless chuckle. “I’ll grant, it’s not how I’d have chosen to gain power, but as Saint Jehan said, in war you use any weapon. If he’s fool enough to give me the key to my prison, I’m a worse fool if I don’t use it.”
Barbary said nothing. She saw the glow in Mira’s eyes when the girl looked at Valeriya, and wished she had that same faith. She still could be leading us into a trap.
“How will you get through the Barrier?” Valeriya asked, startling Barbary.
The Aurigan hesitated a moment, then took out the crystal. Valeriya nodded when Barbary explained it. She hoped her voice did not betray alarm at how many more facets had gone dark. Valeriya confirmed Nejemiya’s words. “Our bodies can store some of the Magic we draw from the starlight, but we must replenish what we use. Ten years ago, when I was captured, I used my Magic recklessly. I wasn’t going to let them make me a slave!” Her mouth twisted in a slight moue. “Such a fool I was, trying to use the Healing Magic as a weapon!”
“But he said the Barrier didn’t stop you!”
She nodded. “If you draw on the Magic slowly, you use less. It’s not how we were taught, and it has its limits, but it’s a way to stave off draining yourself completely, at least for a while. You can’t fight them head on. You must be subtle. Sometimes you settle for half a victory. I still have some Magic left, enough to fight the worst of his torture, enough to share with Mira when she needs it. When that goes…”
She did not finish. Barbary wondered what went through her mind. Does she delight in the pain of others, as the tales say? Or does she pray for Jehan’s mercy? Does she beg her to take away the fate that’s been laid before her? Does she wake in the night, crying out with pain that never leaves her?
They emerged in an alley. Grey predawn light nearly blinded her after the gloom of the passage. “This is the old part of the city,” Valeriya whispered, “the Kruidan, where the most miserable wretches you could imagine live. Even the Elite Guard fears this place. Stay close to me, and be silent, and perhaps we’ll come through this alive.”
Barbary clutched her sword as they slunk along through a maze of dark alleys and enclosed courts and shadowy doorways. Heaps of refuse lay stinking in the unpaved streets, and they frequently had to negotiate pools of dark water. Dark buildings scowled down at them, their windows shuttered with broken slats through which occasional faint light peered. Around one corner, Barbary gasped when they encountered the corpse of a man with his throat cut. Rats skittered about the body, paying the three fugitives little heed.
Barbary started to say, “It’s the soldier I—” when a hand grabbed her ankle and flung her to the unpaved street. Briefly stunned, she recovered her breath and stared up into a nightmare. Bits of flesh clung to bone, and lank strands of blond hair still flowed from under its peaked helmet. On its right hand was the stump of the right forefinger. Barbary rolled and kicked, freeing her ankle from the leprous grip, then slashed wildly with her sword. The creature roared like a voice from hell as her sword severed its arm, yet that did not slow it down. A red rage burned in its eyes as it seized Barbary by the belt and lifted her high in the air. She was as helpless as a child in its grip.
Suddenly, the thing’s grip loosened. She squirmed, saw Valeriya surrounded by a green aura. The red-haired woman raised her arms, and flames issued from her hands, green as the glow of the Qabbraya sorcery, engulfing the undead thing yet somehow not harming Barbary. She leapt from the thing’s grasp and seized her sword, but the horror was burning like dry tinder.
Valeriya, returned to normal, grabbed Barbary’s hand. “Move! We’ve just sent them a beacon where to find us!”
The three raced down the crooked, unpaved streets, dashing around puddles and heaps of refuse. They rounded a corner and were at the Barrier. Its sorcerous glow cast a green haze over everything. Barbary drew out the crystal. All but one facet had gone dark. “There might be enough Magic for two to escape,” she said.
They heard the sounds of running feet. Valeriya cried, “Take Mira! Get her out of here!”
I should do as she says, Barbary told herself. What did it matter what happened to the Most Favored? I don’t want to be stranded here. But where might I have been if there’d been no Angel for me? Where might I be now, if Valeriya hadn’t saved me from that thing?
“Save Mira!” Valeriya repeated. “Get her away from them, in Jehan’s name!”
“I won’t go without you!” Mira protested.
“Runaways!” someone cried. Valeriya’ calm veneer vanished. “You must!” she shouted. “Foolish child, don’t you know what they want to do to you?”
She dragged the protesting girl to the Barrier. The sorcery crackled and spat like trapped lightning. “Go with the soldier, Mira,” she said.
Barbary held the crystal, suffused in the glow of its remaining facet. Like Jehan’s graces, she’d once thought. She thought of her mother, and knew what she must do.
She pressed the crystal into Valeriya’s hand and called on the Magic. Ever closer came the soldiers. She heard their voices, their rapid breathing, like hounds on a scent.
When the spell was complete, where there had been one Valeriya, now there stood two.
Barbary shoved Valeriya and Mira through the Barrier before they could react. The last thing she saw was Valeriya’s face. Funny, I’d thought it blasphemy, the Raheshi’s claim that she was Jehan reborn. Maybe they were right after all, in a way they never suspected.
“Jehan go with you, Angel,” she murmured as the soldiers approached.
Sword drawn, she turned to accept Jehan’s Legacy.