Wine of the Gods 03: The Black Goats




The Black Goats

Pam Uphoff



Copyright © 2011 Pamela Uphoff

All Rights Reserved





Cover Art credit P.A. McWhorter




This is a work of fiction. All Characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional. Any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.

Chapter One
Late Winter 1352
Village of Ash


Picking rocks was only fun for the first half hour.

Pity it was such a good way to practice magic.

Never walked barefoot through the mud, feet chilly in the early spring. Her blonde hair was braided back out of the way and her skirt was her shortest and scruffiest. She stopped and centered again, and reached for the Earth power. It flowed up sluggishly from the wet soil, and showed her the bright spots of more rocks. The annual freezes and thaws in the valley caused the slow and inexorable displacement of rocks in the fields, and removing them was a necessity before the fields could be plowed. The witches had the advantage of seeing the rocks that were near the surface, and so prevented a good deal of damage to the plow, not to mention saving the farmers a bit of time. Never could see the bright sparks of rocks in her immediate area, and one by one drew them up to the surface, and flung them down to the road.

She was careful to miss the people on the road. Her grandmother Answer was showing the teenagers how to break the rocks up into gravel. None of the three younger girls had grasped her abilities yet, but they would soon.

"Never! Mostly! I've got a big one!"

Never chucked her last stone down the hill and joined Likely around the boulder that was just peeking out of the dirt.

The Triad of the Crescent Moon joined hands briefly, then stepped back and lifted the boulder free. It rolled and bounced down the hill, and as it approached the road, Never reached out with a spider web of heat and the joined power of the triad. The boulder landed, and the impact and unequal thermal expansion combined to shatter it.

More or less where it ought to be.

Mostly giggled. "Show off." She elbowed Never, and headed back for her own transit.

Likely wrinkled her nose. "I don't know how you manage to control things that far away. You haven't even lost your virginity yet."

"More practice, less time in front of the mirror." Never dodged the return mud ball and got back to her own transit. It was spring; if they were going to have any people passing through, it would be in the next month or so. The problem was, there really wasn't much of anyplace to go to, north of Ash. To advance to the next level of magical ability she needed to lose her virginity and have a baby. The other members of her triad were a year older than she was, and had ventured down to the town of Wallenton to find suitable men. Most likely she would have to as well.

The sheep and cows were out nibbling at the new sprouts of grass that were quickly covering the slopes that rolled up to the forest. The sheep were kept in loose order by the nasty goats the Sheep Man kept. Solid black, with an even more evil mien than ordinary goats possessed, and big. They ranged from one that could have passed for a pony to the nearest one that probably only weighed two hundred pounds. She shied a dirt clod its way, just on general principles. The cows were mostly the local milk supply, although two of the mage-farmers had small beef herds. They kept three teams of horses. Those horses and the elderly dun gelding that pulled the muck cart at the tavern were grazing in a clump across the road.

The valley was very close to self-sufficient.

Its inhabitants were certainly independent.

To the best of their knowledge, they were the last
surviving magic users on this world.




Once spring farming chores started, ways to make money multiplied.

Oscar toted fleece to the press and tried to ignore the Sheep Man. Why did every adult in the valley seem to think it was their duty to turn spring into a non-stop test? School, such as it was, was

"I know you heard me, boy."

Oscar sighed. "One thousand, three hundred and fifty-two years since our ancestors were exiled from heaven and earth for being magical. One thousand and nineteen years since the comet fell and killed nearly everyone. Thirteen gods. Three kinds of magic. Now please, can I just work?"

The wicked old man laughed. And used some subtle kind of magic even the Archmage had admitted to not understanding to whip the fleece right off a suddenly nude ewe. And the next and the next.

Oscar had some vague memories of working on other sheep farms, before running off and finding Harry. Somehow his memories were of much smellier sheep, and much dirtier wool full of sticks and burrs. Probably just because he was lost and working for barely adequate food that stopped as soon as the work was done. But it seemed like more people went hungry
out there
, than here in this high isolated valley. Three and a half years ago he'd staggered half-starved up to the back door of Harry's tavern to beg for food, and found heaven, no matter what all the teachers said.

"I dunno where you got your schooling, boy, but you've got the silliest damned ideas. It's the gods that got exiled, when they were trapped on this side when the gates of heaven closed. It was in the middle of a war between witches and mages, when the strongest magicians were trying to make themselves gods."

For just a moment Oscar could see his old schoolroom in his mind. High and airy, bright sunlight and the breeze from a thousand miles of open ocean. The Master turning to frown. "No, Prince O'Kar, the Sea Kings' magic is a form of mage craft, not a separate . . . " Oscar cut off the memory quickly. It led to horrible things, to someone he'd called father lying bloody . . . Things he didn't want to remember, that were finally getting faint with age. He shook himself and hauled the fleece to the press. How did those scrawny sheep carry this much weight around on those spindly legs?

The Sheep Man was all warmed up and ready to sheer, and as Tivo and Fossi sent the sheep through the chute, the fleece fairly flew off them. Theo carried about every third fleece
; being only twelve it was a tough job even for him. Fiber was only eight, so he wasn't allowed to help with the sheep yet.

The press was heaped to overflowing and the Sheep Man stopped long enough to work the lever and squash the wool down and tie it into a huge bale.

Then back to the sheep. They ran out of sheep in the mid-afternoon, and the Sheep Man took them back to the tavern for celebratory drinks and a belated lunch. And pay. Oscar's stash was downright heavy, these days. He knew perfectly well that the old man was feeding him more than the value of his work, and then paying him on top of it. It just made him work harder. Harry . . . Harry was just absolutely trustworthy. Almost worthy of worship.

He'd gotten into a fight, the first time someone referred to Harry as the God of Travelers.
was allowed to insult Harry. Bran had beat him up, sat on him, and explained that it was the literal truth, not an insult. The three gods had gotten tired of the world and retired here. There was nothing wrong with Travelers, despite the spotted horses, and occasional thievery, and risqué dances, and selling weak magic charms. And did he understand that, or did he need to be thrashed again?

They'd been best friends ever since.

And there was something about Harry, the Auld Wulf and Lady Gisele . . .

Someone—probably the Auld Wulf—had made the trip up the mountains and brought back ice. Easy this time of year. The witches had made ice cream in a dozen flavors. Even chocolate, that they had to pay good money for. They all made pigs of themselves, and kidded the young witches doing the cooking and serving today.

"Oh no! Question! They didn't let
cook, did they?"

Question dripped ice down Tivo's collar, but a stern look from an older witch kept it from turning into a battle. Just as well. Question might be a girl, but she sure knew how to fight. Come to that, so did everyone in the valley. Even if they didn't know their history properly.

"We must not forget." His teacher's voice sounded in his head as he stepped out of the tavern’s front door. History was important, to understand context. To react correctly. To see a problem before it reached crisis proportions. He spotted the flash up the road to the south. Riders cresting the low hill that separated them from the next little valley. Organized riders in a file. He bolted to the corner and rang the bell. Three rings for danger. Because history was full of war and mothers and fathers lying in blood.

Chapter Two
Late Winter 1352
Village of Ash


Captain Bail Wullo halted on the slight rise and eyed the village of Ash.

"Pretty, ain't it?" Sergeant Gruff rode up beside him. "I'm surprised they don't have a wall."

"Yes." The captain frowned at the splash of color in the middle of the green valley. "Must not get bandits up this high?"

"Unlikely." Lieutenant Byson Treham pulled up to his other side. "They probably just pay them off, or possibly shelter them." The handsome young noble frowned at the village. "We'll have to put a stop to that." He smirked a bit as if looking forward to it.

Damn high-bred puppy is going to cause trouble.
Bail sighed. He'd deal with it when it happened.

A few freshly plowed fields showed rich brown soil, and closer up would probably show the new sprouts of spring growth, but most of the valley looked like it was used for grazing. "They're a bit late getting their crops in, but I suppose that's the altitude, and later thaw."

"Aye, but the pastures are greened up. I suppose they wait to sow in case of late frosts."

"We had a miserable long cold winter in most of the kingdom, but maybe it was normal for them."

Bail nudged his horse forward again, and the sergeant followed, with the troops on his heels, the wagons with their equipment bringing up the rear. He heard the sharp ring of a bell; they'd been spotted. The road was muddy but firm under an inch of slop, as if the peasants had graveled it in the last year or two. Hard to believe. Perhaps there was a rise in the underlying rock just here, to give the road a hard foundation.

There was a bridge of sorts at the low point between the slight hill they were descending and the slight hill the village stood upon. Just close-packed logs thrown across, and dirt piled on top, it was adequate for what was just a runoff channel, not a year-round stream. The channel ran downward to the west, to the small river that wound though the little valley. Stink River, the Mayor of Wallenton had called it, with a faint smell of sulfur to it. It was bank full, and judging by the low snow line on the mountains to the east, would no doubt remain full till mid-summer. There was a water wheel, turning away. Did they still have stores of wheat to grind, after the long winter? That made them more prosperous than most villages, and an even richer target for bandits. Perhaps he should listen to Byson.

Bail's horse cocked an ear at the hollow thump of his hooves on the rude bridge, but never varied his long swinging walk. Bail had forgone the showy and ill-tempered war horse he usually rode in favor of a good riding horse with experience in the mountains for this trip. With luck he wouldn't regret it.

The delegation that advanced to meet them was smaller than he'd expected. The old man had a weapon, but he was leaning on the spear like it was a cane. Bail eyed the old man's wide shoulders, stooped now, and judged him a retired foot soldier.
From somewhere to the south, he was darker than Bail. The woman in the lead was quite large herself. Both tall and broad, with rough chapped hands, wearing a long gown in good material, but cut in a severe style from a generation ago. Several young men, older boys really, and a good-looking redheaded woman watched from a distance as the older pair walked past the first house and out of the village proper.

Bail caught movement in the windows of the first houses and wondered how many people were watching.
And whether they were armed.

"Good afternoon, Captain." The woman had a strong confident carrying voice. "It's been a long while since the King's troops have come though. How may we help you?"

Bail eyed the pair.
Peasants, my ass
. "We're an engineering detachment, here to survey a new route through the mountains. The King’s magical advisor says that the earthquake that was felt all the way to the sea last fall has opened a new pass."

"Indeed?" the woman cocked her head. "It was quite a strong quake. Will you be reinvesting the fortifications along the Old Road, then?"

"Yes. Our surveys will start from there. Our maps indicate that an old fort is twenty miles further on, at the head of your valley."

The man nodded. "The distance is correct, but there are hills, small mountains really, between us. The fort looks the other way, out over the Old Road, or what of it that the lava from Mount Frost didn't cover, a thousand years ago." He looked over the column of foot troops. “You'll be needing a place for tonight?"

Bail shrugged. “I realize the village can't house us all, but we'd appreciate a well-drained field to camp in, and the officers will need accommodations."

The two exchanged glances, but apparently didn't need words. "Please do use the grange barn just the other side of the village." The woman said. "I'm Agate Accure, Mayor of Ash, and this is Harry, who owns the Fire Mountain Inn."

"And my pleasure to put up yourself and your officers," The man took over smoothly. "Will you be bringing in provisions to Fort Stag, or buying?"

Bail heard Lieutenant Byson shift sharply in his saddle, no doubt disliking the lack of subservience. He himself preferred straightforward business dealings.

"Buying. We have tax certificates for payment." He braced himself. These country folk always wanted coin.

Instead of the expected sneer, there was an exchange of looks again. The man and woman nodded at each other.

"Why don't we all sit down to dinner at Harry's place and talk about what you're going to need?"




Never unstrung her bow and stashed it with her quiver of arrows in the back entrance of the tavern, beside the bows and quivers of her Sisters-in-Power. She was the last in, having lingered to watch the officers ride past. The silly men had no idea a dozen witches had been posted at every vantage, with enough arrows to kill all the soldiers three times over.

"Oh, look at that hair!" Likely was standing on tiptoes, trying to block Mostly's view of the taproom through the slit of the barely opened door from the kitchen.

"I want to see, he ought to be mine!"

"You both had your turns," Never pointed out. "Your timing was off, or something. So I get this one."

Likely turned and frowned at her. "You're barely advanced enough for this."

"Oh, he's got nice shoulders!" Mostly had taken over the door crack.

Justice wandered past and took a quick look herself. "Holds himself proud," she commented.

That got Idea interested. "Good straight nose and high cheek bones, very handsome."

"Arrogant as all get out," Glorious stepped away from the roast she'd been basting to take a quick look. "Look at that sneer."

Answer was supervising the cooks tonight, and hopped off her stool to join the crowd at the door. "All of you get back to work, or go away to help elsewhere." She applied her eye to the crack. "Oh yes. He's perfect. Never, take the wine out. Don't be too forward, playing him along for a bit brings more power."

"Yes, Grandmother." Never cradled the wine in one arm, and picked up the tray of glasses in the other.

She was the youngest member of the Triad of the Crescent, and it would be a real coup if she could advance to Half Moon before the others. The powers of a witch jumped with each stage of her life. To reach the next level she needed to lose her virginity, and bear a daughter. Observing the arrogant snot of a city noble, she rather thought she was going to enjoy it. Because the more involved the chase, the more the psychic energy of the male would build up and transfer to her. Some said that rape was actually the best, but she didn't think it kind to other women to train a man to violence and force. Well, she dropped her eyelashes demurely as he looked her over like a farmer looking over broodstock, maybe she'd make him use a little force.

She poured the wine, making sure the pretty blond got a good look down her blouse. The other officer, the captain, nodded absentminded thanks, deep in conversation with Harry and the Mayor. Something about tax equivalents, beef and sheep. Hmph. He might have at least have

She flounced back to the kitchen. "Shall I take them some bread and cheese?"

Question slipped quietly through the back door, and held out a brace of pheasants. "Since we didn't get to kill any soldiers," she explained.

Justice sighed. “So you felt you had to go kill something else." She took the birds and shook her head as her fourteen-year-old daughter slipped back outside.

"Elegant told you it was a bad match. I told you it was a bad match." Answer gestured to Furious to get out the deep pot to scald the birds for plucking. "You should have listened."

Justice nodded. "I'll give her six more months to come into power, then I'm afraid I'll have to try again."

Never shivered at the thought. Bearing a daughter might lift a woman from Crescent to Half, but the next stage couldn't be reached without the joy of feeling one’s  own child reaching out and seizing her own power. Question had been having her moon times for over a year now, with no stirring of power at all. All that work, and the little wretch just wanted to run the hills with Harry's orphaned wild boys. The other two girls of the Triad of the New Moon had just had their first moon times, so it was nothing unusual that they hadn't yet grasped the power. 

Well, Grandmother was the oldest member of the Dark Crescent, and she thought this pretty noble would be a good match, so hopefully Never wouldn't find herself in such an awkward position.

Abandoning her worries, she took the basket of bread and a bowl of creamy fresh-churned butter out into the tap room.




Bail resisted looking at the voluptuous bar maid, suspecting the mayor had fetched the prettiest girl in town to distract him from the negotiations. He needed all his wits about him, no doubt about that! The mutton turning on the spit in the public square might be a free feast for his men, but it was clearly going to be the last free anything he got from this mayor.

"So, if we provide eight sheep and one fatted ox and a hundredweight each of flour and potatoes per month, we'll get one hundred royals of tax credit. Now, what about hay and grain?" The mayor had beautiful, perfect, white teeth. She apparently used them to eat army captains.

Who'd have thought I'd need an accountant and a negotiator out here? I don't even have a quartermaster up here yet.
"At this point I don't know how large a garrison the king will post out here, so I'll just purchase what we need for the animals we have now, for the summer. Our survey should be done by then, and construction won't start until next year after the thaw." Old gods, that bar maid was spectacular! Deep honey-tanned  skin and bright blonde hair. Striking blue eyes . . . And clearly set on the lieutenant. Bail ruefully admitted that he was more than a bit lacking in the sort of looks that attracted the ladies. Maybe there were some plain girls about, that wouldn't mind . . . "Sorry, what was that?" He flushed, realizing that he had indeed been distracted.

"You've got six heavy harness horses, and three riding horses." The
tavern owner had rolled up his shirtsleeves and made himself comfortable.

The number and pattern of scars on his forearms confirmed his past as a soldier. But there weren't any of the tattoos that were ubiquitous in the ranks, so he'd been an officer, possibly well-born. What was he doing up here in a tiny village?

"So, then, grain and hay for the summer. Shall we say another hundred royals?"

"For hay, oh surely not." Bail pulled his mind back to the finances. "We'll graze the beasts when we're not using them. We'll want ten hundred weights of oats and twice that of barley . . . "




"You're supposed to be seducing the lieutenant, not the captain!” Happy snapped.

"A bit of competition is supposed to help,” Never sniffed. "Besides, I think he's being a bit tight with his tax certificates. So I was helping the mayor, too."

Old Blissful cackled. "The mayor can take care of herself, girl. You stick to what's best for the Pyramid of the Moon. I don't like it, that neither Likely or Mostly conceived. We're counting on you to keep it from being three in a row. There's whole Pyramids that have collapsed, when the children stopped being able to grasp power." She glanced at the back door, but said nothing about Question.

"Yes, Blissful." Never picked up another bottle of the Auld Wulf's red wine and twisted in the cork screw. A vineyard shouldn't have been able to survive in the mountains, but he'd planted along the outlet of the southern hot springs, and hadn't lost a crop to a freeze that she'd ever heard.

The northern hot springs belonged to the Sisters of the Moon. No one in the valley  went up there but the Sisters.

The lieutenant leered at her when she poured his wine, but with a quick glance at his superior officer, refrained from pinching her bottom. Just as well. She was too excited to do a good job of looking indignant, and if he got lazy and took her availability for granted she'd get very little boost out of loosing her virginity. Really, she couldn't just leap on him, she had to make him work to get her. He had to yearn. Maybe even ache or burn.

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