They continued on, as they had for the past few weeks, and Tatyana’s pain was tempered as she realized they were nearing the end of the passes. She would soon complete her challenge and win the title of Morriganian. Something she had been striving so mightily for and for so long was no longer a distant goal. It was so far within her grasp as to seem inevitable. She would also be rid of Fisk and his ingrates.
That last thought made her realize she’d also be rid of Gannon and Adrian. She’d grown to like them and a few of the others, and this was a feeling she was unaccustomed to. She’d only felt close to her fellow Amazons, and even those she was close to were few in number. Feeling fondness for humans – Piatists, at that – was wholly unknown to her. Unknown, and unexpected. She wasn’t sure how to react to it.
She turned and looked back the way they’d come. Dark clouds had gathered over the pass they’d traversed.
“We were none too soon,” she told them. “The blizzards have closed the pass.”
“How much farther do we have to go?” Gannon asked her.
“There is a town perhaps half a day’s walk down the trail.”
“So,” Fisk said to her, “now that we’re near the end of our journey, what have you to say about Piat’s holy word? Has the journey not opened your eyes?”
“I’ve seen nothing to change my opinion on that.”
“Oh, come now, Tatyana,” Gannon said, his tone one of good-natured taunting. “You’ve seen nothing to change your mind?”
“You’ve witnessed at least one instance of the Blessed Father answering a prayer. When that ogre had Leecom he prayed for deliverance.”
“He’d have done better to defend himself.”
“Would he? A fraction of an instant after his prayer you saved his life.”
Tatyana looked at him, her face inscrutable. Then it broke into a smile.
“Perhaps you’re right, Gannon!” she laughed, mocking both Gannon and herself. “Perhaps I was the instrument of divine intervention!”
“I’m glad you all find the holy word so amusing,” Fisk reproached. “You said there was a town a half day’s walk down the trail?”
“Yes,” Tatyana replied.
“Then we have no further need for you.”
“I would be going that way even if I hadn’t guided you, so I guess we’re stuck with each other for a few more hours.”
Tatyana turned away to continue down the trial, but then fiery pain exploded in her right leg, immediately feeling engulfed by fire. Her eyes blazed with fury and her fangs were bared as she shrieked in pain and rage and found the knife stuck in the back of her thigh. She pulled the knife out, but the poison on its blade was in her and doing its work. The wound smoked and sputtered. Looking at Fisk, she saw his empty knife sheath, and he was even still in the stance of someone who’d just thrown a knife. She took a step towards him.
Kill him and this will all have been for naught, she reminded herself.
If I am to die, another part of her answered, I will have the
satisfaction of taking my killer with me.
She took another faltering step.
No, she decided. My last act in this life will not be to fail my challenge.
The world began spinning, and she corkscrewed to the ground. Her vision swam but she could still hear. Fisk came to stand over her.
“You’ve died before, remember?” he mocked. “You should have nothing to fear.”
“You traitorous bastard,” she growled.
“Anything that serves the Blessed Father is of the Kingdom of the truth. Even deception.”
“Fisk, what have you done?” Adrian cried. “She guided us through the mountains. She saved our lives! She did everything she promised she would! How can you betray her?”
“She serves the Kingdom of the Lie! If that town is as close as she says, she was not long from murdering us!”
“If she wanted us dead, why did she not kill us, or let the saber tooth or the ogres do it? Why bring us all this way, getting her bones broken and her blood spilt, so she could kill us at the end?”
“Who can fathom the mind of a demoness? But she proudly admitted to rejecting the Blessed Father and his holy word. That places her in the Kingdom of the Lie. Her actions are irrelevant. Look at her eyes, her fangs! Remember how she shamelessly bared herself for us all to see! She has warped your mind and soul, Adrian! Can you all not see that?”
“You blind fool,” Gannon said as he shook his head.
Her stomach rolling, Tatyana forced herself to her hands and knees. She then rose to her knees. Even wounded and on her knees she was imposing. She was eye to eye with several of the priests. Fisk watched her, unbelieving, as she stood, weaving and unsteady but upright. Her eyes cleared and focused on him. She staggered over to him, her hands grabbing hold of his vestments and jerking his face into hers.
“Nothing,” she growled through bared fangs, “nothing is going to stop me from winning my challenge. Not you, not your poison, nor your hate, nor death itself. I will be dubbed a Morriganian. And if I ever see you after that I will pull your heart out through your anus.”
She shoved him away and staggered. Her entire body was engulfed in roaring agony, her leg feeling like it was immersed in a lava bath. She took a moment to realize Adrian was standing before her. He was holding her spear out to her. Wordlessly, she took it and limped down the trail.
They reached the village at sundown. The inhabitants came out to meet them. To Fisk’s disgust, they swarmed around Tatyana, getting under her arms and bearing her weight as they led her to a stable. She needed a place to lie down but all of the beds in the village were too short, so they placed her on a pile of hay. The last thing Tatyana remembered before she fell asleep was the smell of the putrefying wound in her thigh. Others saw to the priests’ comfort.
Several days later Tatyana was awake but feverish when her three mentors came into the stable. She struggled to her feet.
“You have completed your challenge,” Aisha said.
“I have, Mistress.”
Aisha nodded, then said, “Be seated.”
Tatyana eased herself back into the hay, her right leg held stiff before her.
“How do you think you did?” Kassa asked, one eyelid made droopy by scars.
“I believe my performance was fair. I was sorely tempted throughout the whole thing to abandon the enterprise altogether. I spent weeks saving necks I wanted to slit. I endured aggravation, provocation and insults, but I achieved my goal.”
“We know. We read it through the pendant we gave you.”
“Has it occurred to you,” Ilsa said, “that all you have accomplished was to bring further evil to your people? Piatists hate us and make no secret about it. In saving those you could’ve slain, you’ve ensured a dozen more will spread lies about us.”
“No, Mistress,” Tatyana finally answered. “I hadn’t thought of that.” After several moments of silence, she went on. “But I would respectfully argue that in saving them I have demonstrated to some of them that we are not the demons they think we are. One of their acolytes, Adrian, came to respect me. Another one, Gannon, bore me no ill will, and several of the others came to at least accept me. I know they will speak well of us.”
“So certain, are you?” Aisha said.
“They are not all cut from the same cloth, Mistress. Most of them are narrow-minded fools, but others are worth something. Those that hate us are not the only ones who will speak of us. The rational ones will, too. They will tell others how an Amazon guided them through the mountains and guarded them from its dangers. They will know that we are not to be hated, even though we are not of their creed.”
“Do you truly believe that?” Aisha asked her.
“I don’t know, Mistress. But I believe it was worth trying. And I believe I acted in Morriganian spirit by doing everything in my power to make it happen.”
“And you’d be right,” she finally said. “Gannon, Adrian and some of the others have been singing your praises to us.”
She handed Tatyana a flask.
“Drink this healing potion.” Aisha shook her head and chuckled. “Pull your heart out through your anus! Tatyana, that was priceless! Get well. Your dubbing ceremony will be in a fortnight. Be sure you are there."