Damien sort of sank out of sight. This was official witch business, if they were calling each other sister in that tone of voice.
"Years ago. I put inhibitions on her. I thought it was under control." Her voice went tight and high with pain. "But when I saw what she'd done to that man . . . I tried to kill her, but . . . She was able to shield, and then she hit me."
"And drained you. Almost enough to do permanent harm. But I think you will recover. Stay here, with the younger witches. Curious, Happy . . . " she was calling the roll of the oldest and most powerful as she walked out.
Damien slunk out through the kitchen and walked around behind the houses to Vani's house to listen to the hushed and horrified reports as they came and went picking up news and speculation. Damien, Code and Tony stayed indoors, none of them wanted to be anywhere near the angry witches. They kept an eye on the street, so they knew when the witches returned, knew that the fugitive had used a corridor and gotten a long way away from Ash.
Eventually Damien got up his nerve and slipped back to the Tavern.
Quicksilver was holding a baby, and sent another girl to serve him a second dinner.
"Sorry about the first dinner."
"I know when it's wise to abandon food and run for cover. Aren't you too young to have a baby?"
"Yep. Jade abandoned poor little Zodiac here. I figure everything will settle down soon enough, but they don't need to cope with a crying baby in the house tonight. One of us will take him on permanently. He's Answer's line, as I am, and probably a third of the pyramid. And related through my Dad, too. Maybe I'll just keep him. I haven't a clue who the father is, probably some fellow she killed."
Damien froze, a forkful of venison halfway to his mouth. When had that witch . . . last spring . . . late winter, really, the weather was so mild, but the rivers were still frozen . . .
"Oh? You should have told us. But I suppose you don't realize how we have to police ourselves, because no one else can." She reached out and touched his hand. "Wow. Someone's been playing with your genes. Jade, no doubt. She changed a few, add a bunch of our special stuff. Would you like them changed back? I don't know what your original ones looked like."
"Everything seems to be in working order, so let's not play any further, please." Damien could hear his voice getting a bit high, and swallowed panic.
Genetic engineering? They didn't just change the shape of my body, they changed the genes? At what point do I run away?
She shook her head. "No need for that. I wouldn't do it without your permission, and in fact I think I'd best take you to see my mother. Rustle's the best."
Damien gulped. "Yeah, I saw her turn a wolf into a sheep, once. Umm, I think not, thank you very much for asking."
"A wolf . . . I'd never heard that!" The girl grinned. "Well, if you ever change your mind, you know where to find us." She turned as the door opened and let in some young witches, and headed for the kitchen.
The witches sat as far away from him as possible, and whispered in gleefully shocked tones. Quicksilver, sans baby, brought a teapot and cups, and then pie and ice cream. Damien finished and slipped quietly upstairs. His dreams were odd, and involved swapping babies around until he'd lost all track of which were which. He woke in the small hours to the realization that the one baby that he was fairly sure really was his was the one he wasn't going to be allowed to raise.
He wondered if he dared ask about the other witch, and whether she'd had a baby as well.
But in the morning, he eyed the bronzed pepper pot and had to get a giggling waitress, a redheaded teenager misnamed Yellow, to rescue both salt and pepper from their bubbles before he tackled his eggs. Which led easily back to yesterday's experiments. His courtesy nieces came in, in the middle of the experiments. They all decided that a proper metal faucet would work better than a keg tap. Even though they couldn't do the bubble work, being normal witches, they could, and did mold metal simply by thinking about it. And glowing a bit. Damien shivered. He'd never seen a witch glow, before. The girls were getting strong.
Or am I the one with the problem . . . opportunity . . . oh shit!
"I think I'll find out how far the Crossroads are, when you've got enough water to try and ride a straight line." He looked innocently at his nieces and all their friends. Aged twenty-five down to thirteen year old Sanda and her buddies, a better looking collection of beautiful young women was hard to imagine. With the two bubbles on hand, they fixed him up with a couple hundred gallons of water and a hundred pounds of oats. He added all of his equipment from Earth, not wanting to leave it laying around where it could raise questions, and then dinner – lamb in a creamy ginger sauce – on top of it all.
The witches cheerfully sent him off to experiment with their creations.
Solstice looked on with wagging ears the first night, as he pulled all his camping gear out of one metal handled nothing, then filled one bucket with water from the faucet, scooped oats from the other . . . his hot dinner was still hot.
"I could learn to live like this, you know?"
The horse snorted in amusement.
It was three hundred miles to the Crossroads, just a hair south of due west. Damien had taken a lazy week, knowing that he could ask Harry to open the corridor to Ash and get right back, if the weather turned. Middle of December, by his reckoning. Odd, how the locals had tossed the designation of months, and just counted out the ninety-one days between solstices and equinox, their years ending and beginning the night of the winter solstice. Their days were a few minutes longer than Earth's, their year the same length, but shy one of their longer days. The genetically engineered exiles had apparently pitched the calendars with their watches when they arrived.
The eighth day he camped early, on the last hill east of the plains. He could see Harry's Tavern, and could have pushed on. But that would get him to what looked like a deep ravine as the light failed, and the air was just the right temperature for a nap in a hammock. He turned Solstice loose and got out his binocs for a look over the plain.
There was something glowing on the low hill north of Harry's.
He looked carefully, and found seven more.
"I've been there. I've walked up to and through most of those gates, and they never glowed before." He shifted uneasily, wiped a sudden sweat off his forehead. "Additions to my genes, eh? 'Special stuff' that Quicksilver called it. Holy crap. I'm too old to become a wizard." He sat down abruptly, and breathed into his hands until he was sure he wasn't hyperventilating.
Solstice whiffed at him, and Damien scratched his itchy spots while collecting his thoughts. "I've been fine for the last, well, nine months and a bit. So it's just a matter of how many fits the Army throws if and when we get back in contact. Unless I keep my mouth shut and don't give them reason to check my genetics, and then turn me into a guinea pig. Right, horse?"
The horse snorted agreement and went back to grazing.
Damien stood up and watched a carriage pulled by four horses trotting up the road. He wondered why they were pushing the pace. Surely they'd stop at the Tavern?
From where he observes the Battle of the Crossroads
Damien lowered his binocs and rubbed his eyes. Again. Good spy that he was, he never left things around where they could be found. So he had his vid recorder with him. Still running. Although it looked like there was nothing left but the burial. Any doubts he held about the identities of the soldiers who'd come out of the gate had been laid to rest when the beleaguered remnant had committed suicide rather than surrender. "Stupidest thing ever. As if any of them has information we much need. Or they need, rather."
He flopped down and started mentally composing his report. He'd stay long enough to watch what the Army did with all the Oner weaponry, then head back, across country to Wallenton. Make his report, hand the vid over to Andrai, then go back to Ash and collect the wagon and the other horse. Their periodic contact with the platoon in Fascia . . . if they ever got back in touch with Earth again . . .
He trained his binocs on the bloody field below. He'd seen magic in battles twice now. Can I learn to do that?