The winds of early spring keen over the shores of the Celta Sferyn, the Dragon Sea of the north, troubling the red sands at Rodrantir, the jet-black grains among the black boulders of Mór Feria, and the white sands at white-walled Andrastir, ancient queen of cities. The dead are restless in their cairns; armor upon the bones of warriors centuries gone trembles and rattles: new peoples walk these lands and do not know the names of the dead.
A millennium past, a mighty race rose out of the rich hills of Peria, makers of a vast empire. They called themselves the Sferiari, the People of the Dragon, possessing great art, great science, and great magic. Rumor of their power spread far beyond the bounds of empire, and that alone helped hold them secure. But legends of their wealth, too, spread far; and tales that their magic was a thing of blood: that any child of a Sferan mother might be born to wield the power of the High Kings. That tale was not wholly false; as to the truth, as a later High Priest of the Lord of Death was moved to grumble when questioned about his devotion to so grim a patron: “Men fear discipline far more than they fear death.”
When the Sferan empire broke, barbaric folk, drawn by the glitter of glory and gold, swept in over the scattered pieces. Some protected fragments -- Rodrantir behind her unassailable walls, Daria across the wild sea, rockbound Mór Feria -- kept much of their imperial character for centuries, while the hordes overwhelmed the rest, even the Sferan heartland, green Peria, though that was her own fault.
Talherne High-king, troubled by rebellious barons, called the chieftain of the wild Geillari to his aid in controlling what little remained in his Sferan hands. Berulf came with his stern sons; and Talherne earned the name “Last-king.”
The remnants of the twelve great Houses of the Sferiari were forced back, but slowly, every foot of ground the invader gained nourished with the blood of both sides. And still the younger race pressed in, and raised their beaded and feathered tokens, rude imitations of silken imperial banners, over the rubble of ruined imperial cities.
Smoke rolled across the view in her Mirror, pierced by spear-flash and the shrieks of men. She breathed upon it, a blossom of flame: another vista, another prospect in her land, but the same scene, the same cries. Another breath; yet another battle. Pausing, she glowered one-eyed at it, her thoughts coiling in serpentine deliberation.
It was not the warfare that troubled her: men brawled and bit like any other beast. Neither did she care for the mewling of affronted ghosts. But the lack of a proper king offended her. These new folk entered into her power in ignorance, and their unschooled kinglets squandered her ancient gift. She had a debt to pay; and if from time to time she grumbled over her own long-ago choice, she did not excuse herself. Uralia’s children were not served by this untidy feuding.
Once again she breathed upon her mirror. This time it showed a darkened man-hall, of imperial fashion, polished and elegant. Presently it also showed a rumpled brown robe bearing a stout, sleepy figure. Marennin bent her one eye upon it darkly.
You become like them.
I am like them, the figure retorted over a chuckle.
Marennin ignored this. I want.
Of course. You are the very incarnation of Desire. Perceiving that he had amused her, he bowed. What, then?
Panic and Rage warred for mastery of her. Of the two, Rothesay favored Rage. Fear churned in her belly, cold and sickly till she feared she would vomit as she ran. Much better to turn, face down the peril, fight back in fury’s lively blaze. But an unaccustomed push from good sense, seldom her close companion, kept her flying now, for they were five men grown, the chieftain of the holding and his sturdy carls, and she was alone and not yet seventeen.
They meant her no harm, so to speak: the whoops and cries ringing in the budding woods were more merry than cruel, and they laughed as they pleaded for her to stop. Ordinarily the Harrowater men left her well enough alone, partly for the temper, and fists, of her foster-brother Alrulf, and partly for awe of old Padriag-na-Clure, whom they called a wizard and Rothesay called master. Ordinarily, they did not surprise her alone in the forest, and themselves half-drunk with new ale, either. She planted a thin hand on a dew-slick fallen trunk, vaulted lightly into a patch of greenbriers, and wished on every scratch and runnel of blood about her ankles: I wish I had more power than they do! I wish I had any power. . . .
She wanted to be angry, wholly angry and not afraid. She wanted the power to send them flying from her, to make her fury matter. She did not want civility, not now: she wanted their fear, so abject they would never presume to affront her or her sisters again; so deep that they would stand away from her in awe when she walked in the town. She wanted to be older, and stronger (bigger -- no; she was quite tall enough, thank you, albeit a little more flesh to her bones would be nice). She wanted an arsenal of spells to make her a force to be reckoned with throughout the Fergubragh coastland and beyond; but Padriag had not (yet?) taught her anything usefully offensive.
She leaped from a grey rock, and slid more than ran down the slope below, upon a thick blanket of old leaves treacherous with dew. She was not flying blindly: she knew the Forest behind Harrowater well. They did, too, of course, if not better; but the one place she might possibly hide was not far away.
Down the tumbling defile, cutting up and out by the three oaks, and over the next stiff fold: there it was. She did not stop for a view. They had been toying with her, savoring the chase, careless of her path, but now they guessed and redoubled their speed, though she heard the disbelief in their cries.
Here was the haunted peerie-hall, or so folk called it, High Court of the Little People of Peria, built into the flanks of Deorgan-hill where ancient beeches grew strangely gnarled. Its bracken-hung entrance moved about queerly, it was said, and changed size, being sometimes a black maw to swallow a giant, sometimes a tough squeeze for a stoat, and sometimes not to be found at all, not even if one had marked the spot with banners. Not that many tried. Colder tales than peerie-magic whispered about the hill: ravens flocked there in unusual numbers, and more than one sober carl had seen, and heard, a great black dog with eyes of flame baying on the hilltop under a merciless white moon. And the Lord of Death Himself was said to walk the hill at times, and watch the darkening world.
Rothesay did not know if Padriag believed in any of the Great Ones -- or in the little ones, for that matter. But neither did he disbelieve, and a mild I’ve-never-met-one was thin armor against time-honored terror. The villagers feared to go near the hole, Rothesay among them. But outside, she knew she was in trouble, whereas inside, she only might be.
There: the dark mouth of the hill gaped hungrily before her, girl-high, and she dived through, tumbling in a bruising somersault onto smooth flags. Rolling wildly back onto running feet, she crashed straight into unyielding stone. Reeling, she found emptiness to her left and blundered into it, following the labyrinth wherever it went, so long as it was away from the men. A muddle of voices echoed after her; out of it, she heard one phrase ring clear: “ -- be outbraved by a girl?” She blundered faster.
All at once, walls and floor dropped away, and she pitched forward into the blind dark, down a few steps, to land with a clatter amid a litter of hard, poky objects. She froze, stifling a groan, listening. No spectral hands grabbed at her out of the cold and musty silence, no bodiless voice demanded her business. Only the light behind her own eyelids moved in the blackness, and, as her heart slowed, she heard again the distant murmur of voices.
She sat up cautiously. Things scraped metallically on the stone floor. Recovering some of her wits, she flexed her hands as Padriag had taught her, felt for the powers, and held a bit of pale magelight in her palms.
The vaulted room was larger than her whole hut. A great mound dominated the opposite half of the circle, an untidy heap of objects topped by some sort of chair. No sign of another exit, nor any sure place to hide. She thought fast.
Quickly she loosed her braids and teased them into a rakish mess. Her errand in the woods this morning had been spring foraging for her family and for Padriag; festooning her arms with the pokeweed from her sack, she started back up the stairs and into the echoing passage. A little thought turned the magelight a deathly blue, and she set it to glow upwards from just under her chin. She worked up a drool and foam about her mouth, assumed an expression of horror and agony, and began to moan -- very realistically, like someone who has just pitched face-first into a pile of hard poky things.
She heard the voices ahead falter and fall silent. Rounding a turn, she saw their leader, Fil the Blackhand, chief of the Harrowater branch of Clan Dunhaldring, frozen and gaping at the apparition drifting apparently bodiless out of the gloom. With a little concentration she brought her hair up, floating, and sent tendrils of it reaching towards them. The men stepped back. She crept forward a little faster. They jumped backward, stumbling, bumping into one another, and one of them, young Solla, she thought, the braggart of the village, tripped and fell with a shout. Rothesay extinguished the magelight, and thoroughly spooked, the men bolted. She heard Solla scramble to his feet and stagger after them, fear feeding on fear.
She followed them silently till they were back outside and arguing angrily, fearful and ashamed of their fear. Fil wanted to try again; the others said he was mad, but they were going to go get their ducks and then a bowl, or two or three, more like, of the new mead at the hall.
Fil objected desperately, “But what about the girl?”
There was a pause. Rothesay, child of the strange noblewoman who had died on Harrowater’s shores so many autumns ago, might be an outsider, but she was their outsider, one they had defended more than once against cousins from Outing and Faldghyll. Decent human feeling, even for a whore’s fosterling, demanded some kind of rescue effort. Afraid they would try, Rothesay loosed a long, hoarse howl. She meant it to be a shriek of the bloodcurdling variety, but her throat, tight and raspy from her panicked flight, let out only a rough bellow unexpectedly low-pitched, weird and grating. Then there came a thudding of feet pounding away through the undergrowth, and the silence of solitude.
She glared out after them, but a great glee welled up in her: she had made them run. She thrust her fists skyward in a rush of triumph, cracked her knuckles on the low stone ceiling, and chuckled ruefully over the torn skin and showered weeds. It occurred to her that inventiveness was a kind of power, and one she could claim. Maybe she could come home from this hole and wrap herself in its dark dread and mystery: then see if men would dare trouble her again! Presently satisfied that they were well and truly gone, she lifted her chin, pulled her spine to regal straightness, and mocked their fear by boldly making her way back to the vaulted room, guided safely by magelight now a warm, familiar gold. She looked about, with proprietary interest.
The chair atop the heap was almost a throne, with a small heap of its own on the seat: a helm of strange and fierce device, and the teeth of a skull within gleaming palely, in the middle of age-blackened armor. Under the ancient warrior’s ruined feet, the mound itself was a pile of armored bodies -- his last foes, she guessed from their irreverent disarray -- armored, but not armed: to prevent their challenging him after death? So this was a barrow of some kind, and no peerie-hall at all. She looked about interestedly for ghosts, was disappointed to see not a flicker of a spectral aurora. Ghosts troubled her not at all; there were a few about town she knew well, to say nothing of Padriag’s cohabitants up in the old Sferan villa, and she would have liked to know who might haunt here, and what they would reveal. Had she dreamt this was a burial-hall, and not the gateway to the peerie-realm, she would have visited years ago. She tossed her head in disdain for ‘common knowledge,’ and vowed she would not fall victim to it again!
A sword lay by the old warrior’s feet; small jewels glittered on its scabbard. His own weapon, probably; and her heart leaped. Her brother Alrulf was handsome, strong and young -- and poor. A sword of his own, now: he could go far with that, a lot farther than being a lowly hayward, in thrall to his own clan, tending other men’s cattle and struggling to earn a place his mother’s lack of standards had otherwise denied him. A sword would give him a seat in the clan council, a voice equal to old Fil’s, maybe even -- she hardly dared think it -- make him one of King Kelmhal’s own hearthwards. She picked her way over the bones and armor and gathered it up, half-afraid it would vanish into dream. She made a shy, respectful bow to the warrior’s remains, prayed for his spirit’s rest, and begged his blessing. It’s for a good man, she wanted to tell him; but all in silence, reluctant to break the breathless, ancient stillness. Then she drew the blade, to see how it had survived the years.
A soundless thunderclap slammed the breath from her, pain like fire seared her whole body as though every muscle strained to its limit and beyond, tearing her asunder. She never noticed the floor hitting her.
Rothesay’s eyelids fluttered open -- she could tell because she could feel them, light as nervous butterflies -- but to no purpose: she could see nothing. Her ribs hurt, as from falling on hard poky objects like ancient armor, and she remembered where she was. She sat up sharply, and swayed far forward, banging her nose on her knees. Startled, she summoned the magelight again, with giddy hands that seemed to have a life of their own, and stared about her. The old bones lay quietly.
Other than bruises, she felt now no pain at all; she felt marvellous, with that tremblingly weightless sensation that usually followed upon overexertion. I wonder what I’ve been up to? She eyed the sword warily where it lay on the cold flags. It made no answer.
It was an exquisite piece of metalwork, of plain and flowing lines, beautiful and compelling -- and steel, iron forged to imperial temper. The Geillari were swiftly learning the art of ironmaking, but as yet, King Kelmhal alone among the Dunhaldring bore anything like this prize: sword or spearhead, knife or axe-blade, his clansmen wielded bronze. She had seen the king’s sword, the steel like water under the sun, once a year at the harvesttide festival; she had never before seen iron, though she knew it was supposed to be black, like charcoal, like the Lord of the Earth Himself. She glanced up, round-eyed, at the slumped skeleton on the throne. Who could he have been, rich but crownless, buried with respect but without splendor? No memory of what history she had learned of Padriag suggested anyone, though, to be sure, Padriag’s version of history touched more heavily on the ebb and flow of wolf-dynasties and the lordship of beech and willow, than on the seasons of men.
She took up the crackling, brittle scabbard, looking for a hint. Padriag had taught her a spell, her favorite to date, for opening one’s mind to the story of an object; but nothing much came to her now, a trace of ancient violence and perhaps shame, but beyond that, only a queer and starry silence, like nothing else she had ever felt. Frowning, she looked in the usual way. There had been a writing, embroidered on the once-black leather amid flowery tooling; she could make out few of the fine letters, and not enough to spell words in any of the languages Padriag had taught her. More interesting, though, was the large medallion dangling from the buckle by a knotted thong: two serpents, lichenous bronze and blackened silver, looped, knotted, each biting the other’s tail: the kalasin, an ancient symbol and she knew it well. What was different was the blossom nestled in the center of the coils, five petals translucent in seashell delicacy.
Sferan this old hole certainly was, by the grace and elegance of every line from chair leg to helm to stitchery, to say nothing of the steel; and so, very old: Dunhaldring had dwelt in this land fully two centuries now. Today, anything Sferan brought a pretty price among the Geillan conquerors. With what she might find in here, she realized with a dawning thrill, she might pay her foster-family’s kin-debt, no, make them one of the wealthier families in the clan! She bounded up, heedless of bruises, meaning to sift through the remains for whatever she could carry away before word could spread, and others rifle her hole. But instead of coming up neatly on light, lissome feet, she found herself flying, as it seemed, entirely weightless -- weightless until, flailing madly, she crashed into the bones.
She lay very still, while the bouncing and slithering subsided; in the dark, for her magelight had collapsed again; and she marvelled at this curious rebellion of her body, where every command was smoothly obeyed with tripled or quadrupled effort.
It was the sword, she supposed: that -- blast -- had thoroughly addled her. A fine gift for a beloved brother! Where there was ancient wealth, of course there would be powerful magic as well. She made light yet again and crept back to it, without attempting to stand, not yet ready to face up to whatever curse she had loosed.
She stared steadily at it. There had been voices, before she woke; only a shred of a memory of a dream of voices remained; but one of them had been -- its. She thought it looked back at her, now, watchful, waiting; but then, she often thought many wild things, she chided herself, and she was certainly not now at her clearest. Then she drew a breath, screwed up her face and all her courage, and, shivering, grabbed the hilts again.
She lifted it gingerly, and disappointment crushed her. It was much too light for a real sword. It had been perhaps a ceremonial sword, a shell of burnished tin and not steel at all, buried with the warrior in token while the real one passed to his heir -- or his vanquisher. No wonder she had felt no emanation of its history. She sheathed it; then, cringing, drew it again. There was no blast. It was fine. And it looked nice. Let Alrulf decide for himself if it were wholly junk, or if it might be traded away for something useful, a cloak, maybe, or an axe.
She stood up and swayed, and decided against trying to take out anything but the sword and the pendant just yet, she felt so queer. Stumbling awkwardly out into the sweet air, she found that it was nearly sunset. The whole of the day gone! The family would be worried, worried and hungry: with Thyrne married, and Elflin and her beloved Mina buried two winters ago, the three littlest ones looked to Rothesay for mothering, and here she was two miles from home and their supper half in her sack and half spilled across the threshold of some forgotten Dragon-lord’s forgotten tomb. She wrapped the sword in her tattered once-green cloak and staggered homeward under the trees, not dizzy, but giddy, feeling no earth under her feet, yet so careful that she tripped only twice and caromed off only one tree-trunk.
Over the shoulder of Deorgan-hill she climbed, hurried through Dead Man’s Hollow, and finally breasted the ridge and looked down on the little fingerlet of the sea, narrow and straight as if cut by some unthinkable harrow, to which the village owed what renown it had. Brown stone cliffs, mast-high, shaped a channel only a few feet less slender than a single slender fishing boat of the north-coast folk, so that it seemed little more than a long step, for a leggy fellow, from one cliff to the next. Rothesay slithered down through the bracken to the sea-path at cliff’s edge to the west gate, and the rope bridge beyond.
To her right, a tall grey stone in the likeness of Sorche, Lady of Fire, gazed with a cryptic smile into the flaming West; to her left, Ges the Silent, Who was Death, with stars for eyes watched the world unmoved. From this height she could see also north to the cliff head, and the standing figures there of Maolin the Earth-lord and Dere, Night. Sferan names, Geillan tradition. Rothesay dropped a spray of sassafras at the feet of each western guardian -- the honors at the Lady’s feet greatly outnumbered those at the Lord’s, but Rothesay answered to a strong sense of fairness -- and swayed over the bridge into Harrowater. Almost at once she met the eyes of one of the brown-robed brethren, come from King Kelmhal’s seat at Dunford to bring word of some foreign holy man they called a Prophet; sad and reproachful eyes. Averting her own, she climbed carefully down the path cut in the landward slope of the hill and hurried through town. Padriag ignored these new founts of human wisdom as cheerfully as he ignored the old, and though she herself was curious to know more about the whole business, just now she felt altogether too queer and anxious to be safely home.
Home, on the far side of the village, was a wattled gray bulk huddled where beach ran out from under stumpy dark trees, beyond the east-stones of Kavin of the Air and Mór the Lady Wisdom, beyond the huts even of the edgelings, those remnants of the older lords of Peria who had not retreated before the invader. Drat! The east end needed thatching worse than ever. She had meant to tend to that this morning, and surprise Alrulf by having it patched before he came back. Instead she had spent the last couple of days painting a border of knotted rose-vines about the door and window. She was very proud of the result -- but she was going to regret it in tomorrow’s rain. The ragged wicker door dangled open from someone’s recent passage, and she smelled soup.
Pushing in, she was greeted with a joyful squeal. Matkin, Thyrne’s little son, not yet a year old and already running, caught sight of his foster-aunt and fled coyly back to entangle himself in his mother’s skirts, squealing with laughter.
Thyrne, eldest of Anie’s mixed brood of many fathers, started up from the soup pot as the truant oiled in and hunkered down on the only chair, a block of Sferan marble against the mud wall, as though hoping to blend into it.
”Whera you been -- ?” she began in rough Sferan, her curt tone changing to wonder as Rothesay slid the sword into view. The little ones, Brannar, Meryth, and Persli, crouched over their bowls, stopped eating to gape. Matkin, uninterested, and finding that his aunt had forgotten to chase him, bobbled eagerly back to her and demanded to be picked up by pounding on her knees.
“It’s for Alrulf,” Rothesay said unnecessarily, and unsteadily.
Thyrne bent a fierce searching gaze upon her, on the draggled hair and the scraped knee and torn trousers (men’s gear, Alrulf’s castoffs: she had long outgrown the hand-me-downs of any woman for miles about), and the face unusually pale under an amazing collection of smudges. Dropping the soup ladle, she dunked a corner of her apron in the water jug and applied it vigorously to the smudges. Rothesay submitted with the patience of a kitten; but presently she found herself trembling all over, and then thinking of the chase and the barrow, the sword and the bruises, the priest and the thatching, and not least the magic that shook her limbs and that had robbed her of the day, began to cry.
Thyrne squeezed her shoulders hard. “Roshi -- ? Someone has been awful to you?”
‘Being awful’ was family language, remnant of their childhood speech, for the harassment attendant on being a whore’s get. Drawing a shuddering breath, Rothesay patted her sister’s hands and launched a marginally coherent recital, not helped by Thyrne’s plying her with soup, bread and question, nor by discovering she was ravenous.
“Uh!” Matkin commanded, raising his arms. “Uh!”
“He means ‘up,’ ” his mother prompted.
“I speak fluent Baby,” Rothesay admonished her gravely.
“So pick up him!”
“I don’t want to -- ” Rothesay began uneasily.
Rothesay waved the jibe away impatiently. “I’m afraid to. . . . Ever since I woke up, I’ve felt so strange: as though I were made of soap bubbles, and everything else were, too, for that matter. Just walking, I push myself over. I’m afraid if I pick you up, love,” she said to Matkin, who grinned toothlessly, “I will up and toss ’ee right through t’ roof!”
“Not to be silly, look you,” said Thyrne. “Pick up him -- hurt he’ll be in heart if you neglect to spoil him.” Thyrne, proud woman, disdained her native Geillan tongue and spoke instead the Sferan, as if she were a woman of rank in the clan. She did not speak it well, being also too proud to mingle with the edgeling folk, but tried to pick it up unobtrusively from her young sisters, who were not.
“Better a broken head than a broken heart,” said Rothesay, her cheer beginning to recover, and, dispelling a sniffle, gathered up the joyous Matkin, very carefully. “Soap bubbles,” she said to Thyrne through his wild brown fuzzy hair, by way of confirmation.
Thyrne snorted, having no patience with mystery. “Half starved you are, is all,” she said, refilling Rothesay’s bowl. “Ah -- be all right here, then, will you?” she inquired worriedly. “I’ve to get back to Mat, of course -- I left his supper him, but he would have me home the night. . .”
“Oh, aye,” Rothesay replied airily, and keeled over onto the hard dirt floor.
Thyrne jumped up with a gasp. Meryth shrieked. “Roshi!” yelled Brannar, leaping up and over her bowl in one move. Startled but unhurt, Matkin scrambled off her chest and batted her in the face. Rothesay burst into giggles.
“Oh -- !” An outraged Thyrne snatched up her son, to restrain herself from kicking Rothesay in a tender spot. Brannar cheered, laughing too. “Bad as she is, you,” Thyrne snapped at her.
“We’ll be all right,” said Rothesay, gathering herself back onto her seat, unable to smother a grin. The joke worked a tonic in her veins, driving out dread.
“Huh!” Thyrne wrapped up in her shawl; Matkin stuffed some of it in his mouth. She paused in the doorway and glared thoughtfully at her uncanny sister.
They were little alike: Thyrne, blonde as sunshine and sturdy as oak, her hard blue eyes about on a level with Rothesay’s bony shoulder, was in every line a child of her father’s race. Rothesay was little more than a loose plait of long willow-withies, with eyes green as a whole forest, and her dark hair shone with a queer wine-colored light. Only Padriag remembered the mother well enough to note the daughter’s striking likeness; most folk looked on her queer coloring, her improbable height, and especially the unearthly androgynous beauty of her face and supposed her to be fairy-sired after all, as the dying mother had claimed. Now they wove stories about her, and dressed her in the cloths of their fancies. They said she had a ‘way’ with animals: the orneriest pig in the sty would make a fawning fool of itself at her approach, and the king of the badgers ran at her bidding to keep her and her sheltering family from starving, be the winter never so cold. This was so much nonsense, of course. The only thing about pigs was knowing how to scratch where they itched, same as with people; and there was no such folly as a ‘badger king.’ Badgers were matriarchal.
Thyrne had long ago ceased heeding, or arguing against, the stories, and only worried that the bratling’s scrawniness would keep her from ever wielding a proper spear, and who would wed her then? Neither had she any love for Padriag; still, mage’s apprentice was better than whoreling, and might yet win her some honor. “Well, never thought I’d say it, but -- take yourself off t’ auld wizard, first thing the morning. Mind me?”
“I mind,” said Rothesay meekly. She glanced back at the three littlest sisters. “Thanks.”
Thyrne grunted a retort and hobbled out with her son and her limp, both in their way her trophies of war.
Later, Rothesay snuggled with her little sisters like kittens on a single pallet beside the smoldering fire. She and Cherusay had been refugees from a court of some kind: misty scraps of careless infant memory glimmered with traces of bright silks and burnished mail aglow in the light of candles countless as stars: Daria across the Dragon Sea, said Padriag; sister and subject-realm of the immense power Peria once had been. Now Daria’s castaway listened to the high soughing of the wind through the tattered thatching, and sighed. The roof would have to wait.
The next morning found Rothesay, true to her word, at the top of the hill on Padriag‘s doorstep. No greeting answered her knock and hail: the wizard had not yet returned from this latest of his odd little disappearances. Shrugging, she murmured the small charm that asked the wizard’s door to loose its latch for her, her slim fingers sweeping gracefully in the accompanying gesture. The door, darkly friendly -- most objects in the wizard’s home were at least partially awake, and of widely variable tempers -- obliged; the latch clicked and she slipped inside, into the dim cavernous hall and its familiar smells of rare incenses and old pipe smoke.
Stone mosaics colored the polished floor; the rooms were wide and airy, though the bright frescoes were fading. This had been the main house of a villa of fair breadth. The outbuildings, the barns and stables, servants’ quarters, shops and smithy had long ago burned in war, or been pulled down to raise Harrowater; what remained had been only modestly restored by Padriag, but it still staggered the Geillan imagination to know that it had been the home of a nobleman of no very exalted rank. The Sferan cities that lay countless leagues to the south, some still unconquered, shimmered in local imaginations as wonders of gold and light at the very edge of reality.
She puttered about her usual tasks with unusual care. The dusting was easy: there was little damage she could do with only a feather duster for weapon. The broom gave her a few scares, as when a thoughtless thrust bowled over the standing mirror and a still more witless recovery bent a corner of its brass frame in her hand; though she was almost more afraid of its cover coming off than of its breaking: what she had seen in it when with the wizard more than inspired her to leave it alone when without him; it had a macabre humor. But when the copper pot slipped from her polishing cloth like a seed squirting from its pod and shot out the kitchen window (luckily open under its deep eaves, for airing) into the garden, she began to think she had had enough of housekeeping for a while.
She carried the surprised pot back in, very thoughtfully. Setting it down, she balled up one thin hand into a fist, and regarded it as if it were one of the many fabulous puzzles that crowded the wizard’s shelves. Of a sudden, out she half-strode, half-tripped to the garden again, not heeding the doorlatch bending under careless pressure, seized up a plank of ash that had been waiting too many summers to become a garden bench, and propped it up against the window opening. Then she paused, looking again at her fist. The skin seemed thinner, more delicate than ever across her tattered knuckles; the ash, very hard. She thought about the chieftain, and the wild leer she had imagined on his face as she ran; she remembered the perfectly real taunts of the hunters, and threw all her force into the ash. The wood burst in two with a sharp retort, almost as one with the crack of wood on skull.
She blinked up at the dark eaves and the cloud-streaked strip of sky beyond them. The crest of her forehead throbbed with blunt pain; groping, she found a knot already swelling in her hairline. Beside her lay two pieces of ash, cleanly broken, but she could not recall feeling an impact, either of hand or head. A little while longer she lay, hoping that this was not the beginning of a new pattern in her life, to knock herself daily senseless, then dragged herself out of the wet grass and into the house.
Later, clean and poulticed, she settled herself with tea and a slim codex in front of a small and cozy fire, moodily sucking her bloodied knuckles, hoping to do no more mischief. If she had had some thought of laying into Blackhand Fil, the plank cautioned her against it; how ash compared with human meat she did not know, but rather fancied the wood would prove much the hardier of the two. She wondered who now might have a side of beef hanging where she could slip in and take a poke at it. (And what would they say if they came in and caught me beating up their larder?) She chuckled it off and turned to her text, fire-magic of the Sferan warrior-mage Artame, to work on her translation; but her mind was not on her parsing. Who would have beef hanging at this season?
Shortly, she gave up her pretense of study. She tidied up codex and cup, gathered a few apples and a small cheese into her tunic skirts for the family, tucked the sword under her arm and trotted off, still unsteady on her queerly powerful feet. Down the wizard’s round green hill, picking a route to circle rather than pass through town, she ran weightless as mist, vanishing into the willows at the edge of the common fields, black with the tilling and the damp, on under the eaves of the east-side woods. But she did not go home, she kept on eastward, coming out on a remote section of the beach, among concealing brown crags. There for hours more, she played at hurling rocks and stones, boulders, really, into the roaring grey-green surf, without coming any closer to understanding what the old tomb’s magic had wrought in her.
The sun was setting, knifing a last gleam between low, sodden cloud-skirts and the lowering hills as she at last approached her house.
They had company: three horses stood in the sandy, shell-strewn yard, nosing disgustedly among the salt-hardy weeds for something sweet. Rothesay stopped dead. These were no slow, stupid farm animals. Their plain, sturdy trappings conveyed nothing to her, but the creatures themselves rippled with strength, strength matched to speed, and they looked up intelligently at her approach. She knew all the local horses. No one in Harrowater owned such beasts. Who did, that they would ride to the door of the meanest hovel in a remote fisher-hamlet, and why? Without thinking to ask the horses, Rothesay bolted for the door of her home.
Before she had cleared two uncannily long strides, a man stepped out, slamming the feeble old door back on its leather hinges, breaking loose more cracking withies. Sheen of helmet, glint of mail in the dull light set her scrabbling to stop, slithering into the sand. Apples rolled free, to the great interest of the horses.
“Huh! She’s here!” the man barked over his shoulder. “Get up, girl.”
Rothesay climbed shakily to her feet as two more strangers stormed out amid a small knot of bleating children, the littlest sisters, Brannar, Meryth, and Persli, followed by a growling Thyrne.
The first man reached for Rothesay’s arm. Brannar, ten and fearless, broke from the flock and seized his baldric. “Roshi, run!” she shrieked. He tore himself effortlessly from her hungry grasp and flung her roughly to the sand.
Rothesay vaguely noticed her weight shift oddly, as if body moved ahead, towing thought after, but paid no heed in her rage. Her thin avenging fist swept up smashing into the side of the man’s helmet, numbing hand and arm with the shock: he measured his length and more upon the ground. She had a moment of deep gratification before the second man snarled, leaped past his friend and drew his sword to frighten her. Sunset glimmered on the length of the blade like a corpse-light.
Rothesay obligingly panicked. And out flashed the barrow sword, sped by a will other than her own; again she felt her body move seemingly without her. Steel on bronze whispered and chimed, the stranger’s sword whirled flickering into the dusk, and the barrow-blade stooped like a falcon to the kill. Rothesay rebelled, tried to reclaim command of her flesh from whatever demon-power possessed it, and the descending sword broke the man’s shoulder instead of severing his neck. A last, insolent flourish defied her shock and the blade licked into the open face of the man’s helmet, once, twice as he crumbled to the sand, clutching his arm, choking in pain.
From beyond the ridge of grass-crested dunes, the cold surf rolled its thunder over the silence in the yard. Sand crunched under someone’s tread: the third and last standing carl edged toward his fellow writhing at Rothesay’s feet; but he did not look at him. Following his riveted gaze, Rothesay saw at last what still compelled his fascinated horror, what vision rooted her family in silent thrall. The side of the first man’s head, helmet and all, could have collected rainwater. Something darker pooled there now. Aghast, Rothesay turned to her sisters, seeking some token of reassurance, some wakening from the nightmare darkening about her, and found in their white faces only terror of the changeling.
She could bear no more. With a little wail of desolation, she turned and fled, blundering, into the gloom.
An hour later she fetched up, bruised, torn, shaking with horror, on Padriag’s back doorstep, huddled in under the wide eaves away from the wanton rain that cast itself upon the earth, wiped rain and tears from her face with the back of a hand equally wet. With the sword clenched under her arm, her thin shoulders hunched against the wet, she reached for the door-charm, meaning to hide out here till the wizard chose to return from wherever he had gone.
The heavy wooden door swung open silently. Silhouetted in the cheery yellow light, a little round button mushroom of a man beamed kindly up at her. He opened his mouth to speak, but stopped, overcome by a sudden delight. “Stand on one foot!”
Stunned, but habituated to Master Padriag’s erratic fancies, Rothesay complied wordlessly. The little man began to chuckle, and then to laugh, a soft but deep and fruity spasm that rippled through his whole body. “The very picture of a southern black heron! Come in, my dear. Tea’s hot and the cakes are just -- about -- ”
“Burned!” Rothesay, smelling the tang, sprang for his oven door. The forgotten sword crashed to the flags, her overwhelmingly obedient body flung her over the kitchen bench, and she sailed gracefully into the rack of pots and pans that hung by the fireplace. Tin and copper rang down around her.
“No, the first batch burned,” Padriag amended, following placidly. He stood gazing down on her, a slight smile crinkling his cheeks like an old apple. She stirred, cautiously; pans slithered away like pieces of ancient armor as she looked back up, eyes brim-full of two days’ terrors; then she seized the hem of his brown robe and wept into it bitterly. With immense tenderness, then, he patted her wet hair, before bending low to murmur, “As will this batch in a minute.”
Rothesay shook herself, bewildered; more pans slid away. “Oh. Right.” Padriag moved off to the hearth oven. “I’ll just pick these up, then,” she said vaguely, suiting action to the tone. Moving as if in a dream, she eased each one back into its rightful place, and when she turned to find the wizard, it was at the table laid with white cloth, yellow candles, gold cakes, and dark, dark tea.
She tried several times to tell him what had happened, but he shushed her, claiming that in no wise could she give an intelligent account with stomach empty and mouth full and would she pass the cream or must he charm the pot? Then there was the washing up, which Padriag always performed -- or had her perform -- in silent reverence, and indeed the ritual served her well this evening, a warm and calming immersion in the eternity of a mundane chore.
At last they settled by the fire in Padriag’s great hall, in a half-sphere of firelight, the room beyond lost in the night. Aided by a foamy tankard of Padriag’s ale, she told in a low, quiet voice about the hunters and the barrow, the sword and her queerheadedness since; and the men at her home, and what happened there.
“The one -- I guess I killed him,” she murmured dully. “He’s dead -- he must be dead, and I hit him. . . . So I think that the sword is an agent of evil magic. It’s too light to be real, and yet it broke the other man. Master?”
Padriag picked up the sword from the fur at his feet and chuckled. “Is it?” he inquired brightly, stroking the tooling of the scabbard. “Just fetch down the Hallack, will you, ywysta?”
She obeyed with a sigh. Kief Hallack was author of a monstrous great tome of arcane practices, Padriag’s favorite reference work; and also, apparently, of the alchemical mystery whereby lead might be transmuted into parchment, retaining only its weight as a reminder of its former character. The book took an evil delight in its heftiness. Without love, she clasped the almost cubic volume to her heart, vowed to provide Master Padriag with so much furniture as a bookstand, and heaved mightily.
Flying over backwards, she feared desperately for the fate of such a mighty codex upon the stones, and pillowed it on her midriff. “Whoof!” It was the last thing she said, or did with breath, for some minutes; but a clatter by the hearth diverted her from her impacted lungs.
The barrow sword had fallen to the floor as Master Padriag lay back limply in his seat, arms dangling loosely at his sides, his body quivering like a tea-jelly with spasms of silent laughter. Rothesay hurled imaginary imprecations at him.
She had recovered her breath, the book, her seat and her ale before Padriag recovered himself. Still chuckling, he ground a knuckle into the corner of his eye to clear away the tears, and asked reasonably politely for what she thought had happened.
Frowning, she put down her ale and lifted up the Hallack to balance it on one hand. It was rather awkward to hold single-handed, but it was not heavy. “I guess I tried too hard.”
“Mm-hmm.” Padriag blinked thoughtfully at her, still smiling. “Thank you, child -- and I’d like you to take care of a little something for me.”
The ‘little something’ turned out to be nothing less than a complete reorganizing of the wizard’s library, followed by moving half the woodpile from the back porch to the niche by the main fireplace and the other half into the kitchen, and capped by bringing the keg of ale up from the cellar -- and then taking it back down when Padriag decided it took up too much space in the kitchen. He hated to be crowded. Sporadically, he would call for this or that volume -- and of course the one had to be put back to make room for the next on the little gaming table. Rothesay fulfilled her tasks faithfully, in silence though strongly suspicious of their spurious nature. It would do no good to ask why: the master would explain only when the thing had run its course. But he would always explain, and she had learned faith, and patience.
She did not fail to notice that it was all vastly easier than it ought to have been. She shortened the work by carrying four times as many books as she had known herself capable of, and felt limited by volume rather than by weight, at that; and as for the keg, by rights she should never have budged it. At least, by the time Padriag had her put the last book away and they sat down to a late supper of apples and cheese, she had gained a new idea of how heavy things were now.
She said as much when he asked if she had learned anything. Padriag shook with soundless laughter again. “Roshi, my dear, in most respects you have been easily the quickest of all my apprentices, but when a matter touches you personally, you promptly quit thinking. If I told you that I had carried the keg up from the meadhall, should you more reasonably infer that ale were suddenly lighter or that I were suddenly stronger?”
“Um.” Rothesay put down her tea and flexed her hands thoughtfully. “I do seem to be a bit more capable.”
“A bit,” he agreed with a twinkle. “A triggered spell for strength is fairly simple to shape, though quite expensive to imbue -- he must have had a friend who was a worker: that sort of thing is not for the buying. It will wear off presently. It was intended, you see, for a -- a ‘last wind’ you might say, a final effort in battle.” His smile turned wistful. “My guess is that he never had a chance to use it. So I did. Did you think I was being entirely frivolous?” He rose, took a few steps to the newly-piled wood, pitched two more sticks into the fire, and returned to his seat.
“Books are better organized, too,” said Rothesay, snapping an apple in two, and privately rejoicing that she did not mash it into sauce. “But who was ‘he’? Where did he come from, and what could have happened?”
Padriag turned the sword in the firelight and peered at the inscription on the sheath. “Runedaur,” he announced.
Rothesay started, and signed one of the glyphs for warding off evil.
“Don’t be superstitious,” Padriag chided her. “Runedaur are only men.”
“Right.” Born men they probably were; but possessed by demons at their Oath-taking, according to legend. One Runedaur fought like ten ordinary warriors, it was said, and they drank the blood still warm, and in their halls feasted on the slain. They moved like ghosts and no wall could bar them. They could look into a man’s eyes and lay bare his soul, sap his will and compel him to unspeakable acts. Breathe no word against them, for the very wind bent to their desire, and brought them word of what men thought most secret and secure. Their sorcerous women called up storm and plague on the lands without; within their halls, the Runedaur harlots called up other, no less violent storms no man could withstand. And if that old hole was a Runedaur’s tomb, then it was fitting that Death and his minions haunt that hill, for the Runedaur were the Silent One’s chiefest priests.
Once upon a time they had also been the chiefest weapon in the hand of the High King of the Sferiari, their dread power leashed and compassed to the royal will for the shaping of an empire and centuries of peace after. Only the true king held the secret that commanded the Knights of Death. Only with the Master of Runedaur lay the authority to anoint that king. And since Talherne had died childless, no one of that line now lived in Peria, and the Runedaur ran lawless, serving whichever master offered the brighter coin, while Peria bled.
“Quite old,” he went on absorbedly, seeming not to notice her preoccupation. “Seventeen hundred, twenty-six of the Order, here; do you see?”
Padriag’s finger traced out the letters for her, but still she could not read the words: no vowels?
“Almost five centuries ago,” he mused; “well before Berulf’s Conquest; this fellow saw the glory days of old Peria. ‘Arngas.’ Arngas. I wonder which one? I shall have to send to their mother-house, at Colderwild: Dav maybe will know.”
“‘Fortune’ Dav?” she snorted.
“That is no way to speak of the Master of Runedaur,” said Padriag placidly, but with a twinkle.
“Master of marauders, you mean.”
“But a matchless scholar!” he laughed. “I must ask his opinion. It is no tin mock-up, my dear, but a true sword, and -- ” he tapped significantly at the smith’s mark just below the hilt, “Móriad-made, which is more to the point.”
“Ooo!” She snatched it from the table and studied it with new eagerness: the smiths of remote Mór Feria were fabled, and the blades from their forges were matters of legend. Iron had been their trade secret for centuries, and still in steel they had no peer. Especially they worked in star-steel, the rare metal cast from the heavens and that all the North now called Móriad-steel; her whole sword seemed made of the stuff.
“As you say -- oo. And Dav will be no less interested than you, child.”
Rothesay tore her eyes from the mythic wonder in her hands, to frown at Padriag in honest puzzlement. “You’re really going to -- to talk with. . . . But they’re destroying the country, Master! They betrayed King Talherne when Berulf invaded, and there’s been nothing but war for two centuries and at their profit off the Geillari and the old Sferan houses alike! Er -- ”
Padriag blinked her quizzically to silence. “I must ask, little one, what you know of war and conquest, beyond traveller’s tales and bard-song? Anstrede has known an uncommon peace since Berulf’s Conquest, barring the occasional border-feud -- with other Geillari, you observe. Bear in mind that it is seldom useful to take the vanquisher’s word about the vanquished. Our lord Kelmhal is on good terms with the Order.”
“You mean it’s a lie, then? They didn’t betray the High King?”
“That might depend on your definition of ‘betray.’ If your protectors are themselves slaughtered, does the failure of their purpose imply a betrayal of it?”
“Is that what happened?”
“Dear heavens, child, I have no idea! I meant only to suggest that whatever you may have heard might have some significance other than the obvious. If we wish to learn more about this fellow Arngas, and understand what happened to you, consulting with his Order is probably a practical first step -- though not if you take them from the outset for faithless liars.”
She looked down at the blade again, wondering what it had seen. Perhaps Arngas had been one of the hearthguard of the High King himself, in his day; though Andrastir was far away. She rubbed her eyes wearily: the hour was late, and she was unused to staying up past sunset. Padriag shooed her off to the kitchen-loft to sleep in a nest of spare blankets amid a fragrance of onions and old apples, and the milky fur of a few cats.
She quite failed to notice that she could not call to mind anything prior to tea with the wizard.
Ten miles away in the high hall of Dunford Stonekeep, Hautiger an-Velaker, Baron Sulk, Lord of Maightier and Enmath-in-Daria, closed his eyes and rubbed the crest of his nose with daintily weary fingertips. The wild tale pouring forth from his Perian host’s henchman owned no part of sense, but the essence of it was failure. Hautiger did not care how three armed men failed to capture a young girl, and felt that their creativity had been better employed in making results than excuses. Now he needed some excuse himself, for pursuing the matter without betraying the keenness of his interest.
He drained his cup and held it carelessly aside, and the boy scrambled to fill it. Only one boy to serve him; and a boy, at that: the brash new masters of Peria had so very much to learn yet of civilized ways.
Civilized: the Darian traced his host’s form with diplomatically veiled scorn, noting the coarseness of Kelmhal’s woolen tunic, red as bright blood and garishly trimmed in wild yellow fringe that matched his beard and hair. The singular garment ended at elbow and knee, baring Kelmhal’s hairy limbs bound in wide leather wrist-braces and soft fringed boots. Hautiger was sheathed in layer upon layer of patterned silks and fine linens, each garment subtly cut or folded back to display something of the one beneath; only his face was bare, from chin to false hairline, and what of his hands not hidden under many rings.
He sipped at his mead -- a good brew, he conceded, having discovered that he liked it sweet, as the Geillari made it, better than the bone-dry Darian -- and glanced about the hall. Pale polished granite, great blocks shaped and inlaid with a sweet skill their new owners believed was magical, soared overhead, throwing back whispering echoes that unnerved this superstitious race: not a little of Kelmhal’s bold reputation sprang from his temerity to dwell heedless among Sferan ghosts, and mock their insubstantial rage. Hautiger wondered if Kelmhal or his ancestors had discovered yet that one spot that must be here, in what the previous owners had called the Great Chamber, where every whisper converged, to be heard as clearly as if whispered in one’s own ear.
Room opened off from room through wide portals, half-covered now by hanging blankets of bright and rude pattern. The floor, a fine purple porphyry, sparkled with stars of Móriad-steel: the old Perians had had (and still had, where they endured) a fascination for constellations, and each great House took one as token. There by the vast hearth, the firelight struck sparks from the inlaid steel in the pattern of the Hunter, sign of the House of Morag -- or would, but for Kelmhal’s big trestle-table above it, and the braided rushes and herbs the Geillari considered so necessary to proper housekeeping. Doubtless it was, on the packed-earth floors of the wooden halls they raised for themselves; Hautiger failed to be impressed by the weeds being new laid down in his honor.
Rude they might be, and seeming so out-of-place in their new homes -- when they used them; yet they were formidable warriors, crafty and dogged; even their women trained to the spear, and fought by their men in almost equal numbers (though docile enough in the house, he noted). Moreover, they held loyalty to be a man’s sovereign virtue. Part of Hautiger’s errand in this land was to discover what might draw that loyalty; another part being, whose loyalty was most worth His Darian Majesty’s while.
It would be sweet to get home. Still, the hunting had been good sport; His Majesty of Daria, Rúmil an-Herumer, being a sporting man himself would be amused by the tales, at least, for Hautiger’s official report would be a disappointment. Kelmhal was not their man: the Haldr, the high chief of the Dunhaldring, king of Peria’s wild north coast, yes, but without influence beyond his own mountains. Nor was there point in trying to win Kelmhal’s overlord, Bruic, who ruled Anstrede, as near as Hautiger could make out, solely by virtue of his clansmen being too busy battling raider or neighbor to challenge him. Hautiger wondered how the Viscount Ruchier or Lord Grumarre, on similar errands elsewhere in this ravaged land, were faring. Personally he doubted that there was anyone in Peria yet who wielded enough power to be worth Daria’s interest.
Now Kelmhal at thirty-seven was yet a bachelor, and thereon hung this little fracas before him. Hautiger naturally had not subjected his gentle lady to the rigors of crossing the Dragon, to visit so rude a chieftain; yet neither was he inclined to spend his nights in chilly solitude. Kelmhal had been happy to discuss knowledgeably what his seat and his clan had to offer to the comfort of the flesh; and when rumor surfaced this morning of a girl, a whore’s foundling yet said to be a child of the Ceidha, thirteen-year-old bells chimed in Hautiger’s brain.
It was impossible, of course. The ship that had borne old King Herumer’s dangerous daughter and her half-fay bastard to a watery death in the depths of the Dragon Sea, had itself foundered with all hands: none had survived. Still, he wanted very much to see the wench, just to quiet the bells. The agent who shattered that vessel had cost Hautiger dearly.
And the fools had blown it. Drunk too much at an inn -- no, these barbarians had no such thing; it would be the local chief’s home and ‘mead-hall,’ he believed -- so that it was no task at all for a girl-thing with even a scrap of spirit to overpower them, as this fellow seemed to be insisting had happened. Why flaunt your inebriated incompetence, ale-wit?
A sudden violence jerked him from his covert sneering: Kelmhal had seized his hapless lieutenant’s shirt-front in a commanding fist. Hautiger recoiled: such a move was mortal insult on his side of the Sferyn, even between man and master. But the assaulted Geillath, far from objecting, only dropped his head back, slightly, a gesture the Darian regarded as disgustingly submissive but which for the Geilla betokened his absolute fealty to his lord.
Kelmhal stared hard into his man’s face. Hautiger made a quick double-take, and straightened attentively. Was Kelmhal -- ? Yes, by the gods! The Darian smothered a little smirk that doubted his host’s capabilities; but he watched nonetheless with a greedy interest, for Kelmhal had what Hautiger never would.
The Geillan war-bands, wolf-packs bringing down an ancient lion of the mountains, came to Peria for gold, they came for glory, and they came for magic. They found them all; and none of it quite what they fancied. The wealth mocked them: splendid houses they feared to dwell in, rich fields whose crops waned under their untutored plows, artistry and beauty that neither made nor maintained itself. The blood-price of glory was grievously high, and drove them to a fury of vengeance and an ever-higher price. As for magic -- they knew the tale:
Ages ago, when the Second Perians were barely more than the naked children of the gods, Uralia, High Priestess of the World Mother, of her authority forbade the destruction of a dragon’s egg, but instead tended it with hot sands from her tribe’s altar-hearth, and guarded it with such fragile spells as the gods had given humankind. After seven years it broke forth, twice as long as a tall man yet scarcely as thick as his thigh, and utterly black. Its talons, already the length of Uralia’s forearm, shimmered like pearls in the dust; and the tongue, lolling out between icicle-teeth in the huge ungainly head, was forked, blue, veined in black. And each great baleful eye glowed with a light more purple than the sky beyond the sunset.
The thing glistened in its birth-slime, which Uralia wiped clean with her hair. And when the tribe would not offer so much as a squirrel for meat for the hatchling horror, Uralia fed it with her own body, silent and unflinching as the dreadful beast devoured all but her long black hair.
Then it turned to her people and spoke like grating stones in their simple tongue, a cryptic phrase long graven at every Sferan lintel-stone:
“Life gives aye for life; now, honor for honor.”
Summoning Uralia’s twelve children by name, it breathed its fire upon them, and they were not burned, though their rabbit-skin wrappings fell as ashes to the ground. To the cowering tribe the monster spoke again: “Behold your masters. Uralia’s children, and their children’s children, shall command yours so long as my power endures. And this shall be their token.”
The dragon called Listas, the youngest, a child not yet come to womanhood, to take her mother’s obsidian knife and cut the fist-sized pupil from the dragon’s left eye. Black, searing blood spewed over the child’s hand, but she did not tremble or falter, but cut clean. As bidden, she placed a drop of the blood on the tongue of each of her siblings, and her own, and magic burned into them: they spoke without words, from mind to mind; brought forth fire from nothingness; shifted their bodies to whatever form they desired; they flew.
Then they stood once more before the dragon, awed to silence. Spreading her newborn’s gossamer wings, then she roared her name: “I am Marennin!” and soared above the sunset, and was gone.
Uralia’s children turned, naked and majestic, and their people grovelled before them, beholding the last of Marennin’s signs. Whatever they had been before, blond or brown or ruddy of hair, brown or blue of eye, all twelve had changed: their hair, their mother’s black; their eyes, the midnight-purple of the dragon’s; and ever after, whatever shape they took, still their eyes remained the same dark and amethyst hue, and so the High-Sferan born would aye be known.
Listas washed clean the stone from the dragon’s eye and held aloft an orb as large as the eldest brother’s fist. From its depths burned a violet flame that cast strange shadows among those who from that day called themselves the Sfer-iare, the People of the Dragon.
After the children of Uralia’s children, magic was indeed passed down in the blood -- if erratically. Knowing what to do with it was not.
Hautiger noted Kelmhal’s fingers flex, his lips move in a charm kept close under his breath, noted them with a distant professional interest. For those who wielded magic by blood, the actual gesture or words meant nothing, were nothing but a focusing device. For the merely trained wizard, however, they were considered crucial. Hautiger had only the rudiments of training; his lady wife, on the other hand, possessed both the blood-power and far more training than Kelmhal dreamed existed.
For Kelmhal, that blood-magic, the heirloom of his ancestor’s bloody marriage to the Moraigh heiress of Dunford, manifested in part as an ability to perceive another man’s thoughts, if he chose. He seldom chose: most thoughts of most men bored him, even when they made sense, and he wished often enough that he could shut out their spoken babbling and boasting as easily. He did not advertise his distaste, but used men’s fear of his Sferan power just enough to get what he wanted. Now, one of his hearthwards lay dead, one wounded, and one too excited to give a coherent accounting. Kelmhal poured all his skill and power, cobbled out of three decades’ trial and error, into the hapless Kelmric’s mind. Kelmric shivered in his grasp, but endured the assault on his psyche as faithfully as the one on his shirt.
After a long moment, Kelmhal released him with a little shove of disgust: the images in Kelmric’s mind were no more ordered than his spoken words; nor did Kelmhal know how to distinguish what a man had truly seen from what he only believed he had seen. Rothesay’s boyish appearance puzzled him.
“So a little girl -- ” he retreated to speech.
“She wasn’t little, I keep telling you! -- My lord. Skinny as a rail, but every bit as tall as me, Lord!”
“Whatever!” snapped Kelmhal, already exasperated to distraction.
“A tall one, eh?” Hautiger intervened. Cherusay had been of middling height; but the reputedly Ceidhan father would have sired a tall child, if tales spoke true; tall, and more. “Is she comely?” he inquired ardently, glad for a chance to pursue one interest under the veil of another.
“Oh, beautiful -- !” the rattled man retorted, his tone conveying both the degree of her pulchritude and the improbability of his ever voluntarily coming within arm’s reach of her again. Imitating his master’s imitation of imperial ways, he too spoke the High Sferan speech, though the Darian found Kelmric’s accent almost impenetrably thick.
“But where does a bratling kin-thrall girl get a sword, Kelmric? You’re sure it wasn’t a stick?” Kelmhal grappled with whichever fragment of the puzzle stumbled into mind.
“It was a sword, my lord,” Kelmric repeated, through gritted teeth. “And a man’s sword, no dainty Da -- ” He broke off, glanced guiltily at his lord’s Darian guest, and stammered. Hautiger disdained to notice. If the new Perians did not distinguish between the grace of a court sword and the weight of one reserved for battle, should he rub their noses in their crudity?
“A good, solid sword,” Kelmric went on awkwardly. “Disarmed Forld with it, near took off his shoulder -- and then she strikes, fwick, fwick!” He mimed two quick blows. “Could ha’ took out his eyes, but she didn’t.”
Kelmhal smacked the tabletop, rattling the wine bowls, and rounded on the fourth man present. “Sounds like one of your accursed breed, Cúrullan!”
The man so addressed lounged at his ease by the hearth, evincing no interest in the wrangle. He affected most un-Geillan raiment of unrelieved black, without so much as a shimmer of satin to betray movement or intent to move; but steel at hilt and pommel winked about him like stars in the night. Two pairs of stilettos openly adorned each forearm in black wrist-sheaths, four more brazened the tops of his tall boots, a sword swung at each hip. A cruel scar marred his brown face from the corner of his lip to his ear, mute marker of a time when he had received almost as good as he had given. Once upon a time, years ago in Herumer’s court, Hautiger had seen Herumer’s acknowledged master assassin sit just so, aloof from the bright courtiers and idly stropping a tool of his trade. This Cúrullan, too, kept his hands busy, and though it was no knife that glinted in the firelight, unaccountably Hautiger took the more care not to turn his back on him. He was embroidering.
Earlier, catching Hautiger’s fascinated stare, the fellow had turned his work to display it for him. Out of the black cloth in the hoop, a hummingbird shimmered at the edge of life out of fiery gossamer silks wrought in stitches of matchless delicacy: Sferan artistry had not been wholly crushed under conquering Geillan boots. Hautiger snorted. Two centuries of occupation and war, which the Sfera of Peria had steadily if stubbornly lost, and still the brawling Geilla worshipped the meanest scrap of the once-glorious civilization his own invasions helped pull down.
Most of the scraps. King Kelmhal had introduced this black Cúrullan as “my pet Runedaur,” and made it clear to Hautiger that Dunford maintained good relations with the Order, as another tradition out of her ancient days when she was known as Anvedras Silverlost. One of Cúrullan’s functions at Kelmhal’s court was to read for him what remained uncharred of the old books of Anvedras, and the names of her defenders who fell to Kelmhal’s remote grandfather. Then his bard-priests could honor the Sferan dead with their own and so, perhaps, quiet the whispering ghosts: it had occurred to Kelmhal that these, too, were ancestors. Hautiger wondered if Cúrullan had explained the architecture and Kelmhal failed to understand; or if he merely catered to the Geillath’s superstitions.
Yet though Kelmhal might keep fair with Colderwild, most of the invaders, Hautiger believed, no matter how settled, at their fondest avoided the dark knights; and more commonly, as the Sferiari were pushed further into the remote hills, dared to hate them openly. It might seem politically inexpedient in these times to make alliance with a Runedaur-friendly lord. Yet with common human perversity, some of those who hated the Order most were quickest to hire, or attempt to hire, its considerable, and expensive, power.
Cherusay had tried. Daria still wondered -- avidly -- just how she had intended to pay.
Now Cúrullan did not look up at his lord’s charge, but only growled, “Not to me.”
“Well, damn it, man, don’t just sit there! I’ve got a man dead, Kelmric says; that much is clear, though little else is. Chuck that bloody girl-craft and make yourself useful!”
Hautiger, foreigner though he was, winced superstitiously at his host’s bold rudeness, convinced that Kelmhal suffered a serious confusion as to which of them was the pet. Cúrullan himself paused to look up at the coast-king with discomfiting thoroughness. Then, sighing, he rose and came over, to lay a hand on the Geillath’s broad shoulder.
“Kelmhal, ywyst,” he said, his growling voice warmed by a kindliness Hautiger was not fool enough to believe, “sit.” Kelmhal sat. “Kelmric?” At the Runedaur’s waved suggestion, Kelmric plunked down promptly and watched the knight with round eyes. “Now, attend me,” Cúrullan went on patiently, levelling a skeletal finger at Kelmric’s chest and then sweeping it up in a wide arc that just missed his nose, till he pointed back at himself; and no one of the three marked that the Runedaur now commanded the complete attention of them all.
“I shall ask you a few questions, friend Kelmric. Take care,” and a breath of threat cooled his voice, “take care to answer only the question asked! Volunteer nothing! Only if it seems that you cannot answer as asked, then speak, to correct my error but no more. Got it?”
In a few quiet minutes, barring only a couple of outbursts from the agitated carl, swiftly choked back at the warning snap of Runedaur fingers, the tale of Kelmric’s adventure from his departure from Dunford to his return, lay plain and unbelievable before them. Cúrullan turned back to his hoop.
“Wait just a bloody minute!” Kelmhal barked. “That’s preposterous! That’s impossible! How did the girl do that? Where did that sword come from?”
“Beats me,” said Cúrullan. “I thought you wanted to get his story straight.”
“I want a story that makes sense, damn it!”
The Runedaur roared with sudden laughter. “Do you! Sense comes more expensive than you know, Kelmhal!”
“Teodhan drown your mystic’s prattle! What do you make of it, as a warrior?”
“How shall a warrior not be a mystic? Never mind, never mind! I make this,” he grinned, and shrugged: “something -- odd -- happened in Harrowater. And the explanation’s as likely to come calling here as a coney is to hop on your meat-spit.”
Kelmhal drew a deep breath of patience. Then to Kelmric he said quietly, “Assemble a company to return to Harrowater in the morning. I want to know what all this means by tomorrow evening. You’re in command.”
“Yes, my lord. As you will, my lord.” Kelmric bowed low and left, a downcast man. Cúrullan marked the tight set of his shoulders with masterful interest.
Night stirred languorously. “So, the little gift has passed on,” She purred. “It’s been a long time idle; I think.” Her companion offered no comment. He never did, of course: it was, She thought, one of His most appealing traits. One of them. Instead He traced what could be thought of as a finger delicately over the outline of what might as well be a breast; and She writhed in pleasure, and turned to Him again.
copyright L. Hunter Cassells 2007