Chapter One

Long past sundown, Magiere walked into another shabby Stravinan village without really seeing it. Peasants lived the same way everywhere. All their bleak, shapeless huts began to blur together after six years, and Magiere only noted their number as a gauge of population. No more than a hundred people lived here, and perhaps as few as fifty. None showed themselves this late in the night, though she heard the creak of a door or window shutter as she passed by, someone peeking out when she wasn't looking. The only other sound was the scrape of her hunting knife on hard wood as she sharpened the end of the short wooden pole no longer than her arm.

Darkness didn't frighten her. It suggested to her none of the fear-conjured threats that made these peasants shudder behind their barred doors. She checked her falchion in its sheath, making sure she could draw it out easily if needed, and continued her stroll toward the far end of the village. A drizzle of rain began, which soon matted down her black hair, smothering any crimson tint it might have shown in the light. With her pale skin, she must look as baneful to the villagers as their visions of the creature they'd hired her to eliminate.

Not far outside the village she stopped at the communal graveyard to survey the fresh mounds of earth, each surrounded by tin lanterns put there to keep evil spirits from seizing the bodies of the dead. There were no headstones or markers as yet on these new graves—they had been buried in haste before such could be prepared. She turned back through the village again, studying the buildings more closely this time as she looked for the one most likely to be the common house.

Most of the peasants would be gathered in some communal building, seeking safety in numbers. She glanced around for anything large enough, but all the huts looked the same—drab, weatherworn timbers with thatch roofs and clay pot-chimneys. They were dismal and silent, like everything else in this hope-abandoned land. Garlands of dried garlic bulbs hung across the few windows. The only signs of life were the few streams of smoke rising into the night sky. Slight tinges of iron and char scented the wet air. An unattended forge must be smoldering somewhere nearby. People dropped everything at dusk in times like these.

Movement caught Magiere's eye. Two shivering figures ran across the muddy road. Their tattered rags exposed filthy skin. Magiere absently slipped her knife into its sheath, then gathered her own warm cloak a bit tighter. The figures scurried toward the graveyard, trying to keep the gusting breeze and rain from snuffing out their lanterns.

"Hello," Magiere called out softly. They both jumped and whirled toward the sound.

Thin, wretched faces twisted in alarm. One of them backed away, and the other jerked up the wooden pitchfork he was carrying. Magiere remained still and let them see what she was, but she gripped the wooden pole a little tighter. Understanding the mentality of these people was a large part of her job. Very slowly, beneath her cloak, her free hand settled on the falchion's hilt, ready to draw. It paid to take care around panic-stricken peasants.

The man holding the pitchfork peered uncertainly through the rain at her studded leather armor and pole. The fear on his face changed into a vague semblance of hope.

"You are the hunter?" he asked.

She gave a slight nod. "Have you more dead?"

Both men let out a slow breath of relief and stumbled forward.

"No… no more dead, but the zupan's son is close." The second man gasped, then beckoned with his hand. "Come quickly." The peasants turned and fled back up the muddy center path.

She followed, stopping when they did at a door with a small sign above that had been worn unreadable long ago. This rough building had to be their common house, since the village was far too remote to have an inn catering to travelers. "Zupan" was their name for a village chief. He, along with some of the villagers, would be waiting inside for her.

An expectant sigh slipped through her lips as she wondered what this zupan would be like—a cold, hard sell she hoped. The ones who fawned over her, in hope that she wouldn't suck the village dry, were the most repulsive. It was easier when they resisted, until she made them realize there was no other reasonable prospect than to pay her price or wait to die.