Last Quarrel

Dorothy J. Heydt

Her wits grew as weak as her body, and her soldier's life seemed a tale told of somebody else, long ago and in another country. Perhaps it was a mercy, since it kept her from longing to be out again and on the march; there were days when she could not even remember any more whether she had held her sword in her right hand or her left. Her ambitions were shrunken, and she dreamed not of marching into new lands but of walking in her garden and pulling up young carrots that her jaws had the strength to chew.

When the Frost Moon was new in the west, a cat invited himself into the cottage, a rangy young tomcat with grey stripes from his nose to his tail. Thin as a hop-pole when he came to her, he grew sleek on her broth and bread and spent hours lying heavily in her lap, purring soft and deep as distant thunder. It was a comfort. To eat, sleep, and watch the crows fly past was enough for him, and she tried to follow his example.

Once or twice during the winter a messenger would go by, picking his way over the frozen road between the army and the King. Valmai learned that the wizard's keep was beseiged; the army had built its camp at the foot of the mountain and settled in for the winter. The wizard was said to be hard-pressed, his goblin troops faint for lack of fresh meat and his mercenary men deserting in droves. Some of them made their way to the camp and bought their freedom with what they knew.

Kendrick passed on these bits of news in a voice afire with eagerness. Valmai, barely listening, drew her blankets closer around her and tucked her hands under the cat's striped flank to keep them warm. The time now seemed incredibly long ago when she had marched in order of battle, wound up an arbalest and loosed a bolt at a gliding shape with a man's wicked heart wrapped in a green serpent's skin.

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