/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: The Rhapsody Trilogy

Rhapsody: Child of Blood

Elizabeth Haydon

Rhapsody is high fantasy, descended from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings through Eddings’s Belgariad and Malloreon series, complete with an elf-like people, cannibalistic giants, fire-born demons, and dragons. Inquiring fantasy readers will wonder whether it can live up to such distinguished predecessors. The answer is yes. Haydon’s first fantasy is a palpable hit. The three protagonists are well-realized characters whose adventures are by turns hilarious, horrific, and breathtaking. Best of all, though elements are drawn from familiar sources ranging from Norse myth to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Haydon’s magic worldbuilding is convincing, consistent, and interesting. Rhapsody, a young woman trained as a Namer, can attune herself to the vibrations of all things, tap the power of true names, and rename people, changing their basic identities. Her magic lies in music: "Music is nothing more than the maps through the vibrations that make up all the world. If you have the right map, it will take you wherever you want to go," she tells her adoptive brothers. They are "the Brother," a professional assassin able to sense and track the heartbeats of all natives of the doomed Island of Seren, their homeland, and his giant sidekick Grunthor, a green-skinned Sergeant Major who enjoys making jokes, using edged weapons, and honing his cannibalistic palate. Inadvertently, Rhapsody has renamed the Brother Achmed the Snake, breaking his enslavement to Tsoltan the F’dor (a fire-born demon). Tsoltan sends minions in pursuit to rebind Achmed. The three escape into the roots of a World Tree, Sagia, emerging transformed into another country and century. But have they truly escaped the F’dor’s evil? And how does all this relate to the prologue’s story of Gwydion and Emily, two young lovers brought together across history and then separated by the mysterious Meridion?

Elizabeth Haydon

Rhapsody: Child of Blood

To November, October, and September

the three best months of the year

with love and appreciation

for all they have given me

THE PROPHECY OF THE THREE

The Three shall come, leaving early, arriving late,
The life stages of all men:
Child of Blood,
Child of Earth,
Child of the Sky.
Each man, formed in blood and born in it,
Walks the Earth and sustained by it,
Reaching to the sky, and sheltered beneath it,
He ascends there only in his ending, becoming part of the stars.
Blood gives new beginning,
Earth gives sustenance,
The Sky gives dreams in life—eternity in death.
Thus shall the Three be,
One to the other.

THE PROPHECY OF THE UNINVITED GUEST

Among the last to leave, among the first to come,
Seeking a new host, uninvited, in a new place.
The power gained being the first,
Was lost in being the last.
Hosts shall nurture it, unknowing,
Like the guest wreathed in smiles,
While secretly poisoning the larder.
Jealously guarded of its own power,
Ne'er has, nor ever shall its host bear or sire children,
Yet ever it seeks to procreate.

He modified the miniature bristle. Finally satisfied, he meticulously dabbed the liquid onto the eyes of the boy in the now-frozen image and waited to see that the solution had spread across the sapphire-blue irises to the corners of each canthus. The window of opportunity would be small and final; it was important that the boy be given every chance to see things clearly and quickly. When he was done he recorked the phial and set it back on the gleaming disk.

Meridion removed the spool from the Time Editor and replaced it with a different one, another Past, even older. This he spun out with even more care, owing to its extreme age and the nature of the place from which it had come, now vanished beneath the waves. It took a great deal longer to find the right point on this thread, but Meridion was patient. It was important to do this correctly; much depended on it.

When he finally found the right place he stopped the frame again and picked up a different tool. With a practiced hand he made a smooth, circular slice, plucked the image from the first strand, and placed it gently into the second. He looked through the lens to check his work.

The boy had not lost consciousness, as he had expected, but instead lay writhing facedown on the ground with his head cradled in his hands, frantically rubbing his eyes. Meridion was both amused and sorry. I should have known he would fight it, he thought. He sat back and turned the viewing screen onto the wall to watch the outcome of his work and wait for the moment of meeting, and of exit.

1139 year. THIRD AGE.

The pain subsided as quickly as it had come. Gwydion spat out the dust from the road and rolled onto his back, allowing himself a deep groan. He glanced at the sky above him and was instantly aware of the shift not only in location but in time of day. A moment ago it had been early morning, and now it was afternoon, winding toward evening. That he had been removed from where he had been was clear to him; he had no idea where he was.

Gwydion had been blessed with a pragmatic nature, and after a moment of adjusting to the new surroundings he stood and began calculating what to do next. How or why this had happened to him was not an issue for the moment.

The air of this place was thinner than the air of home, and Gwydion knew it would take some time for him to acclimate to it. Glancing around, he spied a small copse of trees a short jog away, and he hastily made for it.

Upon reaching the shelter he sank to the ground and began to inhale in short, shallow breaths, slowing and expanding each one until his lungs began to assimilate, shielding his watering eyes to give them a chance to adjust. Then he felt for the items he had brought with him on his way to town: his dagger and pouch were still there, as well as his waterskin and the apple. He took a quick drink. As he was capping the skin he felt faint vibrations in the ground below him. A cart, or something like it, must be approaching.

Gwydion sank lower to the ground as the ever-thickening dust cloud signaled the arrival of the group. He could see three men walking beside the cart, which was pulled by two oxen with a calf following along behind. It was laden with barrels of grain and loose straw, and a fourth man was driving it. The dress of the men was unfamiliar to him, although it was apparent that they were peasants, probably farmers.

Gwydion listened as carefully as he could over the rumbling din of the cart's wheels. His eyes throbbed slightly and then were drawn to the farmers' lips, strangely accentuated in the haze that filled his view. Suddenly his vision became intensely clear; it was if he could see the words as they were formed in the men's mouths, and could hear them as if they were being spoken directly into his ear. When he recognized the language pattern, his head began to spin.

They were speaking Old Cymrian. It isn't possible, he thought. Old Cymrian was essentially a dead language, used rarely in the holy-day ceremonies of religions other than his own, or as a vanity language among those of Cymrian lineage. But it was being spoken here, between peasants, as common vernacular on an average day in farmlands. It wasn't possible, unless... Gwydion shuddered. Serendair, the Cymrian homeland, had been gone for more than a thousand years now, vanished into the sea in the cataclysm that swallowed the Island and some of its neighbors in volcanic fire.

His ancestors had come from there, as had those of a few of his friends, but by and large the refugees of that land were a dispersed people, the casualties of wars they visited upon the lands of their hosts. Could there still be an untouched pocket of them here, wherever he was, living as they had thirteen centuries before?

As the cart and its accompanying dust cloud rumbled out of sight, Gwydion's head emerged from the patch of trees and brush to watch it go. He saw it make a laborious climb up a graded hill to the west and disappear over the summit. He waited until he knew that he could reach the top of the hill with them in sight while remaining unseen, checked to be sure there was no one else on the road, and then made for the summit himself.

The countryside was hilly, and when he got to the top he paused a moment to take in the sight of the late-afternoon sun favoring certain pastures with blankets of gold. This rolling land was beautiful, and he knew he had never been through these parts before, or he would have remembered it. It was verdant in the heat of summer, the green earth filling the air with the rich scent of life.

The farmlands stretched out as far as he could see in an endless expanse of field and meadow dotted with trees but no real forests. There was no sign of any major waterway either, except for small streams that crossed the pastures, and the wind held no scent of the sea.

Gwydion had no time to wonder where he was; the light was beginning to leave the sky, and the cart was almost out of sight. Its destination was probably the small village he could see past the next valley. Between here and there were several small farms and one large one. He decided to stop at the first small farm and see if he might find lodging and, with any luck, answers.

Gwydion removed the gold crest ring from his hand and tucked it quickly into his pouch. He took one last look around the hilly vista, and drew in a deep breath. His lungs had gotten used to the air here; there was a sweetness to it, mixed with the scent of pastureland and barns, a richness that spoke of a happiness he had never known in his short life.

A sense of calm overtook him. There was no time to wonder how he had gotten here, and no need. Whatever the reason, he was here now, and he meant to make an adventure of it. He took off in a dead run for the farmhouse at the dip in the road, where candlelight was just beginning to shine in the windows.

A number of men were finishing the day's chores when he reached the first small farm, bringing the plows and animals back into the barn and making ready for the night. The sunset was a brilliant one, and it bathed the farmhouse and the surrounding pens with gentle streaks of crimson and pink.

The farmhands were laughing and joking; there was a festive mood in the air for the end of such a long day. Gwydion located the man he thought was the farmer. He was distinctly older than the others, with a shock of silver hair crowning a body still strong and muscular, and he directed the others with a soft voice that belied his great height.

Gwydion moved to the end of the carriage path next to the house, hoping to catch the attention of the farmer without seeming threatening. He stood there for a moment, but the men were hurrying to be finished and didn't see him.

"Partch!" A woman's voice called out over his head, and Gwydion turned around. An older woman, most likely the farmer's wife, was standing under the eaves of the house, pointing at him, and calling to the tall man. "Looks like you've got a new hand." She smiled at Gwydion, and he returned her grin. This was easier than he had thought.

The farmer gave the reins of the last of the horses to another of the men and came over, brushing his hands on his shirt. "Hello there, Sam," he said, offering his hand to Gwydion. "Looking for work?"

"Yes, sir," Gwydion answered, shaking hands. He hoped his pronunciation was correct. That the language was not his mother tongue was instantly apparent to the farmer, who slowed his words in an effort to be more easily understood. He gestured to one of the men, who came over, wiping his hands on a rag.

"Asa, show Sam here the shed. You can get settled; I'm afraid you missed supper, boy. But the foreharvest dance is in town tonight, and these young fellas are goin'. Why don't you ride along? There's bound to be food there if you're hungry."

The woman clucked at her husband. "We have scraps he can have now, Partch. Here, young man, come with me." She turned and went into the farmhouse.

Gwydion followed her, taking in the sight with amazement.

The walls were stone with a wood interior, and the furniture was simple but well crafted; it bore the hallmarks of Cymrian artistry. The spindles on the chairs and staircases were turned in the exact manner of the railings on the altar of the basilica in Sepulvarta, the holy city of his homeland, the tables fashioned similarly to ones he had seen in the Great Hall in Tyrian.

"Here you are, dear," she said, handing him a plate of leftovers. "Why don't you take this with you out to the shed and clean up a bit? The foreharvest dance is a big thing in these parts—do they have one where you come from?"

Gwydion accepted the plate with a smile. "No, ma'am," he said respectfully.

"Well, I'm sure you'll enjoy it; it's the last dance before the marriage lottery, so you best have fun while you can." She winked at him, then set about finishing her work.

"Marriage lottery?"

"You don't have one at home?"

"No," said Gwydion, following her to the door. She swung it open for him and walked back toward the two men, who were washing with the others at the well.

"You must not come from a farm community, then."

"No, ma'am," said Gwydion. He thought of the place he lived and hid his smile.

"Well, you better get ready. It looks like the others are almost ready to leave."

"Thank you," Gwydion said to her gratefully. He took a scrap of the bread and ate it hurriedly, then followed Asa to the shed where the hired hands slept.

Gwydion leapt from the wagon as soon as it came to a stop. The ride had been rocky, but pleasant, and the farmhands agreeable, if not talkative. He had sensed a reserve from the beginning, and he wasn't sure if they were distant because he was unfamiliar or because of his mixed bloodline. Without exception the men were human, as were the farmer and his wife and everyone else he had seen thus far. The pure, homogeneous makeup of this place was so unlike the rest of the world, where half bloods dominated.

The village was ablaze with light, lanterns set on barrels and strung in trees, making for a festive mood. The community was obviously not a wealthy one, but the farms seemed substantial and the people reasonably fed and clothed for the most part.

Noticeable was an absolute lack of luxury, and Gwydion's eyes took in the details of decoration that had been fashioned out of simplicity—fresh-cut boughs of evergreen trees and fragrant flowers festooned the main hall that apparently served the community as house of worship, meeting place, grange, and school. Long tables laden with baked goods and harvest foods were set to the sides of the large open room with a dirt floor, and muslin love knots were tacked everywhere.

Despite being used to a far more wealthy and sophisticated life, Gwydion found himself taking in the homespun celebration with delight. There was a simplicity here that felt easy on his shoulders; it stood in marked contrast to the dull and ponderous ceremonies of festivity he was used to.

Excitement was starting to fill the air as people began to arrive, young women in pale-colored broadcloth dresses, young men in clean muslin shirts. There was a musician with a stringed instrument he didn't recognize and two others with minarellos, sometimes called groan-boxes back home. They were dragging barrels over to a place behind the food table. The village was making ready to celebrate the upcoming harvest, both of crops and of marriageable young people.

As the room started to fill, Gwydion began to sense that he was not going unnoticed. More than once a group of young women passed in front of him, looking him up and down, then whispering to each other in excitement and young laughter. This made him quite uncomfortable, but it was momentary; the group would disperse quickly or move on, to be joined by others or by some of the young men. He gauged the girls to be about his age, fourteen or so, while the boys seemed four or five years older, although there were a few that were younger. Gwydion went to the refreshment table and was encouraged by an older woman to help himself, which he did gladly. No one asked him who he was, despite notice being taken that he was not local. Many others were apparently here from outside the village as well. When addressed by the villagers, an unknown young man was generally referred to as Sam or Jack; now he understood the farmer's greeting earlier.

An older man came into the room carrying a large wooden box, and a swirl of excitement rose up from the crowd. He made his way to the table and the woman behind it began clearing an empty spot for the contents of the box, which turned out to be a large number of small parchment sheets and several inkpots with quills and writing reeds.

Here the crowd began to separate by gender, with the young women continuing to mill about while the men hurried to the table, searching through the papers for specific ones, and, upon finding what they sought, scribbling on them with the quills. Gwydion was familiar with the concept of dance cards, and it seemed to him that perhaps that was what these were. He decided that this would be a good time to get some air.

The night had come while he was inside, and now the sky was totally dark. The lanterns and candles illuminated the area, and people continued to arrive, amid laughter and arguments and other sounds of excitement. They jostled past Gwydion as if he weren't there.

He was aware as he watched them of the seriousness of this festive ritual. Despite the light mood there was an undertone of solemnity, of portent, that was palpable. In a community such as this, mating and the propagation of families was essential to its survival.

Gwydion left the area around the meeting hall, looking to find a dark place where the stars were visible. He was well versed in astronomy, and suspected that he would be able to discern where he was once he got a clear look at the night sky.

The lantern-light played havoc with the visibility, and he needed to get a good ways away before he was able to see anything. When he finally could, it didn't help much. He didn't recognize any of the constellations, or even a single star. A very bright one hung deep in the sky by the horizon, but even that was unknown to him.

He felt a cold wave of fear wash over him. Until now he had expected that it would be relatively simple to navigate home once he had ascertained where he was. But if even the stars were foreign, he was much farther away than he had originally thought, though the season was certainly the same as the one where he had been. Nothing was making sense. Gwydion sat down on a bank of barrels and fought the panic that was rising in his throat.

Across the road a slight movement caught his attention, and he turned to look. Someone was moving behind the identical bank of barrels that lined the roadway, crouching low and peering over the tops of them toward the meeting hall. Gwydion decided to investigate. He had left much of his gear back at the farmhouse, but he still had his dagger, and he drew it now and ran silently across the road, circling around behind the line of barrels.

When he was in position he rose carefully and rested one hand on a barrel, looking around it to spot the intruder. To his surprise it was a young woman, hiding behind the line of barrels and watching the comings and goings of the crowd.

He couldn't see her face. She had long straight hair with just a hint of a wave to it, and it hung like a silken sheet down her back. In the dark it appeared to be the color of pale flax, and Gwydion was struck by the desire to run his hand down it.

He reached out and instead tapped her on the shoulder. She started and gasped, reeling around to face him and nearly toppling the empty barrels into the road.

The look of shock on her face did nothing to diminish his instantaneous impression that she was undoubtedly the fairest thing he had ever seen. Her face was delicately formed, with large, dark eyes fringed with black lashes and an upper lip shaped like a longbow. Unlike the other young women at the party, she was clearly of mixed blood, as he was, and thin. As she backed up toward the barrels her hair fell over her shoulders, obscuring much of her upper body and the corsage of flowers that adorned her breast.

"Don't be frightened," Gwydion said as gently as he could. "I'm sorry if I startled you."

The girl took a deep breath, and her enormous eyes ran rapidly over his face. She blinked abruptly, as if trying to clear away sudden stinging tears. It took a long moment for her to be able to respond, and when she did the wonder in her voice made his stomach tighten with excitement.

"You're Lirin," she said. The words held as much awe as he had ever heard uttered before.

"Yes, partly; you are, too?"

She nodded slowly.

Gwydion coughed to cover the flush he felt creeping into his face. "Uhm, are there many of you, I mean, Lirin, around here?"

"No," she said, and the amazement was still in her voice. "Except for my mother and brothers, you are the first I have ever seen. Who are you?"

Gwydion thought about how to answer her. He wanted more than anything to tell her the truth, but he wasn't sure himself what that was.

"I'm called Sam," he said simply. "What about you?"

The young woman smiled for the first time, and Gwydion felt a strange stirring he had never experienced before. It was heady, and frightening, and dizzying all at once, and he was not sure that the control he normally had over his face or voice was still in place.

"Emily," she said, and then she looked behind her. Two young men were approaching, bantering between themselves, and looking around the area. The young woman backed up, almost into him, and then ducked quickly behind the barrels again. Gwydion sat down next to her, hidden from view as well.

Together they watched as the men searched around, looking down the dry dirt road and over the neighboring fields. Just then the music started, amid a swelling of laughter and applause from inside, and the men turned back toward the hall. Emily waited until they were out of sight, then let loose a long sigh.

"Do you know them?" Gwydion asked, wondering what he had missed.

"Yes," she said curtly. She rose up onto her knees to see better. Catching sight of no one else, she relaxed, then stood once more and brushed the dirt off her skirt.

Gwydion stood as well. In general he had little use for women, young or old; being motherless, he had little experience with any. But this girl was different somehow. There was an innate intelligence in her eyes, as well as something indescribable, and he was fascinated by her. Perhaps it was that she was the singular example of her race whom he had seen so far. Or it might have been the mild humming in his eyes and his utter inability to break his gaze away and stop looking at her. Whatever the reason, he wanted to make sure she didn't walk away.

"Why are you hiding? Don't you like to dance?"

She turned to face him again, and Gwydion felt the strange sensation once more. It began in his groin, but rushed rapidly to his head and hands, leaving those areas weak and perspiring a little. "I love to dance," she said. Her tone was wistful.

"Well, then, shall we? I mean, would you like to?" His voice sounded inane to his ears.

Emily's eyes filled with regret, and she shook her head. "I can't," she said sadly. "Not yet. I'm sorry."

"What's the matter?"

She looked behind her again. Seeing nothing that bothered her, she turned back around. She gave him a direct look. "Doesn't this all seem, well, barbaric to you?"

Gwydion stared at her in astonishment, then let out a laugh. "Yes, actually," he said, trying not to be rude at the same time he was being honest. "Yes, it does."

"Well, then, imagine how I feel."

Gwydion felt his liking of her instantly increase. He put his hand out to her. "Come out of there," he said.

Emily gave a backward glance, then took his hand and allowed him to assist her over the debris around the barrels. They walked a little farther down the road, then looked back toward the hall. The dance was in full swing, with merry music issuing forth and the sound of excited voices filling the night air. It was warm, with a soft breeze; a perfect night.

Gwydion had so many questions that he didn't know where to start, but he was sure that he did not want to frighten her off by overwhelming her with his need for information. He pointed to the corsage.

"Are you here with someone?"

Emily's brows furrowed; then her eyes followed his finger. Rapidly, understanding crossed her face.

"No," she said, smiling slightly. "These are a gift from my father. You don't come to the foreharvest dance with anyone, that would be counterproductive."

"I see," Gwydion said. Now that she was out in the lantern-light he took the opportunity to study her more. Her dress was velvet, probably a dark blue, and it was cut with a deep, curving neckline. Underneath it at the throat was a modesty piece that matched the lace at the hem, studded with a line of small silver buttons of simple manufacture. A tiny matching ribbon pulled two of the front strands of her pale hair off her face, securing them at the back of her head.

Her Lirin blood was obvious in her slim build and delicate features, but she was only three or four inches shorter than he was, probably just over five feet. Despite the calluses on her hands, and a small scar on her wrist, she had an absence of the coarseness that some of the other farmgirls had, and there was an air of dignity about her that belied her age. He wished he could tell more about the colors of her complexion and beautiful dark eyes, but the light was too weak.

He was suddenly grateful for the first time to his own father for the years of intense insistence regarding Cymrian language study. "Well, what are you going to do now? Since you obviously don't want to go in."

Emily looked back at the hall. "I think I'll just wait here until my brother comes to fetch me at midnight," she said, sounding a little disheartened.

"Seems like a pretty miserable way to spend a summer evening."

"Well, there are varying degrees of misery. It could be worse."

Gwydion nodded sympathetically. He could see that her family must be somewhat better off than most to afford her the trimmings on her dress, though in his family's circles she would still be seen as a very poor peasant, or at most a common landowner. Her family's relative wealth, coupled with her appearance, had obviously made her a prime target for the young hunters inside. Unlike the other young women, however, she was unwilling quarry, and he respected her for it.

"I have an idea," he said, casting a glance around. "There's a clear, flat area over there near the meeting hall, but not too near. I'm sure we can hear the music from there. Why don't we have a dance or two there? If you're willing, of course." All his years of etiquette training stumbled over his tongue and he screeched to an awkward halt.

Emily's face brightened, and Gwydion's heart rose. "What a wonderful idea," she said happily. "I would love to. Thank you."

He offered her his hand once more, and led her across the road and over the fields to the small clearing he had seen. They ducked quickly to the side of the building when more people came through the door, but managed to avoid being seen.

A mazurka was ending just as they reached the field. They stood, facing each other in awkward silence, until the next dance began. Gwydion put his hand on her waist, and was almost unbalanced by the thrill that shot from his fingers up his arm to his head. He took her hand as she lifted the edge of her skirt, and they followed the rhythm of the music across the field, turning in time.

Almost immediately there was a problem. Though the dance was a simple two-step, Gwydion's training had been in classical military style, and as a result, the unsophisticated step Emily used caught his foot on the fourth pass. She trod lightly on his toe, and embarrassment flooded her face. He ignored it, going on, but at the same point in the next set of passes it happened again. She stopped, looking humiliated, and turned away quickly.

"I'm terribly sorry, Sam," she said. "You must think I have all the grace of a farm animal. Maybe you should go back inside."

Gwydion took hold of her shoulders and turned her around. "What are you talking about? I'm the one who doesn't know the dance. Please don't do that."

"Do what?"

"Start acting like I'm one of them." He gestured at the hall. "I'm enjoying your company, Emily, and I can't think of anything you resemble less than a farm animal. Do you know what the next dance will be?"

Emily's smile returned. "Probably a courting twirl."

"Well, can I have another go of it? I think I can handle that." She nodded. Gwydion noticed that he had not released her hand, and she had not pulled it away, so he held it as they stood, waiting for the waltz to begin. When it finally did he was careful to stick to the basic steps and not add any of the flourishes that he had been taught for use at court.

This time they meshed perfectly, and he could see exhilaration take her as they waltzed across the field in time to the diminished music. When she was excited her eyes caught the light, or perhaps they generated it themselves. Either way, by the time the dance was finished they were sparkling brighter than the illumination from any lantern.

"Emmy, what are you doing out here? Are you coming in?" She whirled around. Gwydion looked over her head to see a small group standing at the edge of the field, staring at them. The speaker was a dark-haired young man of mixed race; he concluded that this must be her brother. In addition there were two young women and one of the boys who had been out looking for her earlier. All wore expressions containing varying degrees of displeasure.

"Everyone's waiting for you, Emmy. You've missed three dances already and your suitor card is messed up completely. Come on."

Emily straightened her shoulders. "I'll be in eventually, Ben," she answered with an annoyed tone. "And I couldn't care less about the suitor card. I didn't put one in the basket, so I shouldn't have one anyway."

"Everyone has a suitor card," said the other young man, his annoyance a match for hers. "And I had the first dance. Now get in here."

Gwydion watched Emily's back go rigid. "Don't you dare speak to me like that, Sylvus," she said coldly. "I'll be in when I'm damned good and ready." He swallowed a laugh at the look of horror on the faces of the young women, and the astonishment of her brother and Sylvus. Ben smiled slightly, and turned to the other boy.

"See, didn't I tell you? Are you sure you want to risk ending up with that for the rest of your life?" He winked at her and went back inside, followed by the girls. Sylvus stared at her. Finally he spoke.

"Hurry up, Emily, I'm waiting." He went back inside, with a backward glare at Gwydion.

He heard her mutter under her breath. "Yes, and you're insufferable, too."

Gwydion leaned his head down near her ear. "Good for you," he said encouragingly. "Want to take a walk?"

Emily gave his question no thought at all. "I'd love to. Come, I'll show you my favorite place in all the world."

The moon was just beginning to rise as they ran down the road and cut across the field, heading up the slope of a rolling hill and leaving the noise and light of the party behind them.

Gwydion had always been happier outdoors than inside, and as a result spent much time running and walking out in the world. Despite that training it was difficult to keep up with Emily, who, her dress and sensibly laced shoes notwithstanding, climbed the hill without even breathing hard, running most of the way.

Gwydion had still not completely adjusted to the thin, warm air, and found himself struggling up hills and steep grades, trying to stay beside her, but more often lagging behind. Occasionally she would remember he was there, and slow her steps, or turn and offer him her hand. Finally he decided not to release it when her excitement spurred her to hurry again, and she got the message. They climbed the rest of the way together, hand in hand, at a speedy but reasonable pace.

Just before the summit she stopped in a shaft of moonlight that made her hair look silver. "We're almost there," she said, and he could see her eyes sparkle again in the dark. "Close your eyes."

Gwydion complied, and followed her blindly up to the top of the grade. She turned a little to the right, and gently led him behind her.

"Watch your foot, there's a hole here."

He stepped around it, and felt her come to a stop. He could hear the intake of her breath as she released his hand.

"All right, you can open your eyes now."

His vision adjusted automatically, but his breath was taken even further away by the sight. The valley stretched out below at his feet, bathed in moonlight, as far as he could see. A variety of fields made it up, some tilled, some fallow, with a great willow tree in the middle bending down over a stream that bisected the land. Even in the dark Gwydion could feel the beauty of the place, made somehow more intense by Emily's love of it.

"Where are we?"

Emily sank to the ground and he followed her lead gratefully. "This is one of the hills that overlook our farm," she said. "My dowry lands are the fields in the middle by the stream, where the willow stands. I call this place the Patchworks, because in the light it looks like the quilt on my bed, with the different textures and colors of the fields."

Gwydion looked at her face shining in the moonlight, and heard a door in his heart open. There was something much more than the alien chemical excitement that had been coursing through him from the moment he laid eyes on her, leaving him feeling giddy and stupid. Deep inside him he felt a need more intense than he had ever felt before.

It was as if he had known her his whole life, or perhaps merely that his life had really started when he met her. Either way, and for whatever reason he was here, he knew he couldn't bear to be away from her for even a moment now. And there was something in her eyes that told him she was examining these same strange and wonderful feelings within her own heart.

She turned and looked into the valley again. "Well, do you like it?" she asked, a little anxiously.

He knew her meaning, and added his own to it. "It's the most beautiful sight I have ever beheld."

Awkwardly he leaned toward her, hoping that his lips would find her willing. He had never kissed anyone except in gestures of respect, and so moved with agonizing slowness, his extremities going cold in the expectation that she might dart out of the way in horror.

Instead, when his intentions became clear to her she smiled, closed her eyes, and leaned into his kiss quickly and with eagerness. He had not anticipated the softness of her mouth, or its warmth, and the sensation sent cold shivers through him, even on this hot night. She touched his face before their lips parted, and the gesture went straight to his heart.

Then, as the happiness he was discovering began to envelop him, an icier feeling rose up to meet it. He looked over the valley and the picture in front of his eyes began to shift, the luminescence turned from moonlit silver to the flat gray of caustic smoke.

In his mind's eye he could see the valley in the aftermath of a devastating fire, the pastureland smoldering, the farmhouses and outbuildings in ashes. The ground was razed, and the fields swam in rivers of blood that seeped through the whole of the pastureland. Gwydion started to tremble violently as the red tide began to surge up the side of the valley below them, coming their way with an unstoppable insistence.

"Sam?" Emily's voice was filled with alarm. "Are you all right? What's the matter?"

Gwydion snapped out of his reverie, and as he did the vision vanished, returning the valley to peaceful silver again. A look of consternation had taken up residence on Emily's face. Her fingers still rested on his cheek, and he took her hand. His own was shaking uncontrollably.

"Sam?" Emily's eyes grew darker, and worry flooded her face.

"Emily, where are we? I mean, what is the name of this village?"

"Merryfield."

His stomach began to cramp. Merryfield was a common enough name; it could be anywhere. But on the ancient maps he remembered there was a village by that name, somewhere in the midst of the Wide Meadows, the great expanse of open plains that made up a large part of mideastern Serendair. The Meadows had been devastated in the war; none of the human villages had survived. And even when peace was restored, the villages were only beginning to be rebuilt when the Island was destroyed.

"What are the nearest towns? Cities?"

Emily's concern was growing as each moment passed. "There are no towns or cities around here, Sam, not for more than a hundred leagues. My father only goes into the city once a year, and he's gone for more than a month when he does."

"What's the name of the city, Emily? Do you know?"

She squeezed his hand in an effort to calm him, though he could see she had no understanding of his panic. "We're in the middle of two. To the west, on the other side of the great river, is Hope's Landing, and to the southeast is Easton. That's the biggest city in the land, I think."

Gwydion's eyes began to sting. It can't be, he thought desperately, it can't be. Both of the names she had mentioned were cities in Serendair.

"Sam?" His panic was beginning to take Emily over, too. Gwydion looked into her face. His eyes cleared suddenly, his vision became intensely acute again, and from the depths of his despair his pragmatic nature reemerged.

Of course, he thought, his fear subsiding instantaneously. He was here to save her from the destruction of the Island. He knew how, and to whom to go, and when they would need to leave. Some beneficent Fate must have sent him back in Time, given him this chance, though he had no idea why.

He looked at her again, and smiled, and that realization came to him as well. This must be his soul mate; he knew it more certainly than he knew his own name. He could see it. With the clarity of the knowledge came a sense of calm assurance and growing joy. Emily was his soul mate. It was easy to believe, given how much he knew he loved her already.

Gwydion took her face in his hands, and pulled her into another kiss. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," he said when he released her. "I need to tell you something."

She moved back from him a little. "What?"

He tried to keep his voice from cracking, as it occasionally did when he was excited or anxious. "We have to leave as soon as we can, and go east to the Meadows. If anything happens to me, or if we get separated for any reason, you must promise me you will find someone named MacQuieth, or Farrist, or Garael. Please, promise me."

Emily stared at him in amazement. "What are you talking about?"

Gwydion thought about how to explain, and then realized he couldn't. How could she possibly understand now? No one knew this was coming; the war had not even reached here, and the death of the Island was centuries after the war. Then a sadder thought occurred to him. Perhaps he wasn't destined to go back, either. Perhaps instead he was to live, and die, here, in the Past.

He took her face in his hands again and studied it carefully. Despite his irrational behavior, she seemed to understand his distress, and she wanted to soothe it. Her eyes sought answers in his face. They were dark with concern; their sympathy had no visible bottom to its depth. It was a face he could look at forever and still not tire of, or even fully know everything about. Tenderness welled up inside him, choking him, and he decided, without a second thought, that dying here with her was infinitely better than going back to living without her.

The moonlight shifted and filled her eyes, and she smiled. When she did, his fear of the situation evaporated, and he kissed her once more, lingering longer this time. The wonderful, queasy feeling returned to his stomach as he felt her lips part slightly and her breath filled his mouth. The intimacy was more than he could handle without losing control completely.

He drew back, and found a look of wonder on her face. "I can't believe you really came," she whispered. "Where are you from?"

Gwydion was astonished. "What do you mean?"

Emily took his hands, her excitement spilling over from her eyes to her body, which began to quiver happily. "You were my wish, weren't you? Have you come to save me from the lottery, to take me away?"

Gwydion swallowed. "You could say that. Why do you think I'm your wish?"

Her face held no shyness, no awkwardness. "I wished for you to come last night on my star, right after midnight, and here you are. You don't know where you are, do you? Did I bring you from a long way off?"

Gwydion's eyes grew larger, and he gave her a silly smile. "Yes, definitely."

She sighed. "I can't believe it. I waited for almost a year for the right night, and it worked. You've finally come. You're finally here." A single tear formed in her eye and rolled rapidly down her face, making the intensity of her smile even brighter. There was magic in her, he decided. Maybe magic strong enough to really have brought him here over the waves of Time. She stood and offered him a hand. "Come on," she said. "Let me show you the fairy fort."

They walked down the face of the valley, slowly this time, toward the stream that wound through the pasturelands. As they descended the hillside Gwydion watched the unfamiliar stars move farther away, and the black sky stretch out above them, filled with endless promise.

When they reached the stream Emily stopped, then looked around in dismay. The water was moving more rapidly than she had expected, and the banks were marshy; one of her shoes sank in and stuck tight. Gwydion helped her pull it free, but when it emerged it was covered with mud. She looked helplessly over to the willow tree where she hoped to take him, and then down at the intricately laced shoes.

"I'm sorry, Sam," she said, disappointment clotting her voice. "I don't think I can make it, and I can't really take my shoes off—they take hours to put on as it is. You should still go, though. The view from under the willow tree is amazing."

"There really wouldn't be any point in going without you," Gwydion said. He looked around for an easier place to ford the stream, but found none. A thought occurred to him, but he didn't know if he could bring himself to suggest it.

"Well, you could carry me," she said, as though reading his mind. "That is, if you don't mind."

"No, not at all," he said in relief. His voice cracked at the first word, and he hid his embarrassment by tying up the ends of his cloak to keep them from dangling in the river. When the heat in his face had subsided he put his arms out. He had never carried anyone before, and he swore to himself that if he dropped her he would find the nearest poisonous plant and put himself out of his humiliation.

Emily came to him without a hint of caution. She wrapped one arm around his neck, and then, as if guiding him, took his arm and placed it behind her knees. He lifted her with little difficulty and carried her carefully to the stream, and then across it. He kept walking once out of the water, wending his way through the soggy grass to the willow tree, where he put her down gently.

It was a magnificent one, with many trunks surrounding a main shaft wider than he could have reached his arms around three times. The tree had grown enormously tall with its ready supply of water, and the delicate leaves cast lacy moonshadows on the ground, like summer snowflakes.

Emily patted the willow lovingly. "Farmers believe that a solitary tree in the middle of pasturelands is the home of all the fairies that live in the fields," she said, looking up at the tallest branches and smiling. "That means this tree is very magical. It's terrible luck to lose a fairy fort to lightning or fire, and no farmer would ever cut one down."

Gwydion thought back to his vision, the pasturelands burned and desolate. He had seen the willow then, blackened and dead, and he shuddered involuntarily at the memory. He turned back to Emily. She was walking around the tree, her hand resting on the branches above her, speaking to it softly in a language he didn't understand.

When she came back around to him she smiled. "So, now that you've seen it, what would you like to do next? Do you want to go back?"

"Not yet," he said, returning her smile. "Do you know anything about the stars?"

"Yes; why?"

"Will you teach me?"

"If you'd like." She started to sit on the ground under the tree, but he stopped her. He loosed the drawstring of his cloak from around his neck and spread it out on the ground for her.

Her grin of approval made him shiver. "Sam?"

"Yes?"

"Would it bother you if I took off my dress?"

Gwydion felt all the blood drain from his face. A moment later, he was painfully aware of the place to which it had decided to run. Before he could speak she interrupted him, embarrassment in her voice.

"I'm sorry; I should have been more specific. I mean this part." She touched the blue velvet overdress awkwardly. "I assure you, I am quite modestly attired beneath it. It's just that this is my only fancy dress, and if I spoil it, it will break my mother's heart. Would you mind?"

Many answers ran through Gwydion's head, and the corresponding expressions all passed over his face in an instant.

"No," he said.

Emily turned her back and walked over to the tree again. He watched her unlace the bodice of the velvet overdress and slide it over her shoulders; it was off before he had a chance to realize that his blatant stare was rude. She stepped out of it and hung it carefully over a tree branch, then turned to face him once more. She now wore a sleeveless gown of white lace. The modesty piece he had seen before was part of the bodice, and the crinoline was long and full, like the skirt of a summer dress.

She sat down on his cloak, and he took his place beside her. "What do you want to know about the stars?" she asked, looking up into the night sky. Her hair hung down over her shoulders, and it was all Gwydion could do to keep his hands off it.

"Anything. Everything. I don't recognize any of them, so whatever you can tell me would be a help. The stars are different where I come from." It seemed a simple, factual statement to him, but Emily's face shone with wonder at the thought. She settled back on the ground, stretching out with her head resting against the green moss that slanted up against the base of the willow tree.

"Well, first and foremost, that's Seren, the star that the Island is named for. Most nights in the spring and summer it is directly overhead at midnight."

Gwydion settled down beside her. He stretched out his arm behind her, trying to avoid touching her too soon. As she had several other times that night, she read his mind and took hold of his arm, pulling it around behind her shoulders. The movement didn't even stop the astronomy lesson she was imparting.

She continued to point out stars and constellations, telling him a little of the lore and whatever history she knew. She seemed to have an impressive background in it, some of which was navigational. Gwydion made note of that odd fact, but after a moment he was no longer watching the heavens, as she was, but had relocated his gaze to her face. It was glowing with its own celestial light, and he felt he was learning far more by watching the stars in her eyes than by looking into the sky. He rolled onto his side and bent his arm behind his head, grinning like an idiot.

After a long time Emily looked up, as if awakening, and saw the silly look on his face. She blushed in embarrassment and sat up quickly.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to blather on."

"You weren't," he said hastily. "I was listening very carefully." He held his arm out straight. "Tell me some more."

She lay back down again, staring straight up at the sky. This time her face was solemn, and she said nothing for a moment. When she finally spoke her voice contained a note of sadness.

"You know, ever since I can remember I have dreamed about this place," she said softly. "Until recently I had the same dream almost every night—I was out here in the dark, under the stars, holding out my hands to them. And in my dream the stars would fall from the sky and into my hands, and I could hold them fast; I would make a fist, and see them glimmer in between my fingers. Then I would wake up, and when I did, I always had an extraordinary feeling of happiness that would last through the morning at least."

"And then my dream changed. I think it was when I was officially entered in the marriage lottery. I was eligible for it last year, but my father said it was too soon. This year it was unavoidable, and, despite my wishes, and theirs, my parents gave in to tradition and town practice and put me in like a horse on the auction block. My whole life is changing now, and my dream changed with it. Now, it comes much less frequently, and when it does it's not the same."

"How is it different?" His voice was sympathetic.

"Well, the beginning is similar. I'm here in the pasture, in the dark, and the stars are just as intensely bright as before, but when they fall into my hands they fall right through them; I can't hold on to them, and they tumble into the stream instead. I find myself looking down into the water, and the stars are lying there at the bottom of the stream, shining up at me."

Gwydion felt the sadness in her voice seep into his heart. "Do you have any idea what it means, if anything?"

"Yes, I think so," Emily replied. "I think I finally came to understand that all the things I had dreamed of seeing, and of doing, are not going to come to pass. That instead of seeing the world, and going off to study, and all the other marvelous adventures I had hoped to have when I was young, what actually will be my fate is what all my friends dream about—marrying someone of my father's choice, settling down and raising a family here in the valley. In a way, I had hoped to do that, too, eventually; I love this land, and I could be happy here. But— I thought—" Her words slowed and she fell silent.

"Thought what?"

"I thought there was going to be more for me. I know that's selfish and childish, but I had hoped that I would one day see the things and places that come to me in my dreams."

"I think the change reflects my acceptance that this is never going to happen. That in a few days I will give up those silly hopes. I'll marry someone chosen from the lottery who, with any luck, will be kind to me, or at least not cruel, as some farm men are, and I will live and die here, never setting foot outside the valley. I guess I have known all along that would be the case. The dreams come even less frequently now. Soon I expect they will stop all together, and then I will forget them and get on with my life."

Her words made his stomach turn. "No."

"No?"

Once again the pragmatism descended, and the answer was inordinately clear to him. Gwydion sat up, cross-legged, and pulled her up with him. "Emily, what are the courting customs here? What protocol do I follow to avoid the lottery and ask your father directly for your hand?"

Emily's eyes sparkled, then almost immediately darkened again. "Oh, Sam," she said sadly. "He'll never let me go with you. He has saved for my dowry since I was a baby, kept these middle pasturelands for it, just to assure that whoever I married kept me here in the bosom of the family. He'd never consent to you taking me away."

Gwydion felt as if he would vomit. He couldn't explain to her in words the urgency to get away from this place. "Then will you come anyway, Emily? Will you run away with me?"

She looked down at her hands. His throat tightened and his shoulders began to tremble as he waited for the answer. Finally she looked up, and the expression in her eyes was direct.

"Yes," she said simply. "It would be a real waste of a wish not to, don't you think?"

Relief broke over him like a spray of cold water. "Yes; yes I do." He pulled her into a tight embrace, resting his hot cheek on hers. "Is there someone who can marry us in this village?"

Emily sighed in his arms. "There will be in a few days, after the lottery. Everyone will be marrying then."

Gwydion pulled her even closer. He had no idea how long they could delay leaving, but the risk would be worth it. He resolved to wait, and not frighten her unnecessarily.

"Sam?"

He released her reluctantly, and sat back, looking at her with new eyes. When the sun had risen that morning, he had been totally free, and utterly alone; his life was that of other boys his age, with little thought of the Future, and little belief in it.

And now he was looking at his wife. He had always wondered what the other half of his soul looked like, and was delighted, and humbled, to see it was so incredible; he was actually amazed to know he even had one. The prospect of living by her side for the rest of his life filled him with a heady, if terrifying, feeling. In years to come, as he mourned her death over the endlessly passing days of his lifetime, he would think back to this moment and remember the way she had looked when he first saw her with his new eyes, eyes that still believed that life held a great measure of love for him.

"Yes?"

"Do you think we might see the ocean? Someday, I mean."

At that moment he would have truthfully promised her anything she asked of him. "Of course. We can even live there if you want. Haven't you ever seen it?"

"I've never left the farmlands, Sam, never in my whole life." A faraway look came into her eyes. "I've always longed to see the ocean, though. My grandfather is a sailor, and all my life he has promised me that he would take me to sea one day. Until recently I believed it." She looked into his eyes and saw a trace of sadness there, and quickly looked away. Innately he could see that the sorrow he felt for her made her sad for him instead. When she looked back, her eyes were shining as though she had thought of a way to make him feel better. She leaned near him, and whispered as if imparting a great secret. "But I've seen his ship."

Gwydion was astonished. "How can that be, if you've never seen the sea?"

She smiled at him in the dark. "Well, when he's in port, it's actually very tiny—about as big as my hand. And he keeps it on his mantel, in a bottle. He showed it to me once when he came to visit."

Tears stung his eyes. For all the famous and special people he had met in his life, he was sure that the purity of their collective souls couldn't hold a candle to hers. He was unable to breathe for a moment. When he did, he said exactly what his heart was thinking.

"You are the most wonderful girl in the world."

She looked at him seriously. "No, Sam, just the luckiest. And the happiest."

His hands trembled as he touched her bare arms. Their kiss was deep, and held all the promise of a nuptial blessing. For the first time it was easy for him, and the difficult part was bringing it to an end.

"Sam?" Her beautiful eyes were glistening in the light of the moon.

"Yes?"

"I have two things I need to tell you."

He could tell from the smile on her face that neither would be difficult to hear.

"Yes?"

Emily looked down for a moment. "Well, the first is that if you kiss me again, I think we will end up consummating our marriage here, tonight."

His trembling grew to an uncontrollable level. "And the second?"

She ran her hand down his face until it came to a stop on his shoulder. "I really want you to kiss me again." As if in a trance, Gwydion smoothed his cloak out on the ground, and Emily lay down on it. He sat back on his heels, looking at her for a moment, until she put her arms out to him. With a catch in his throat he eased down next to her and came into her embrace, hugging her as tightly as he could without hurting her. He held her like that for what seemed like a very long time, until her hair brushed the tips of his fingers, and he gave in to the desire he had had all night to touch it.

His hands ran down her hair over and over again, relishing the cool, smooth feel of it, like polished satin. Gwydion felt her hands slip into the circle his arms made as he held her, and begin to loosen the tie that bound his shirt closed. He shivered as she gently pulled the shirt loose from his trousers and slid her hands up his abdomen to his chest, where they came lightly to rest. The gesture gave him courage, and he closed his eyes as his lips sought, and found, hers. He could feel them trembling as much as his were.

The warm night wind blew over them, caressing their hair.

Gwydion released her with one arm and leaned back, taking in the sight of her. There was no fear or embarrassment on Emily's face, just a look of loving approval.

His eyes didn't leave her face as his hand went to the bodice of her garment, taking the first tiny heart-shaped button between fingers that shook as though the wind were a wintry blast. As the material came apart beneath them his hands shook even more, until on the fifth button they lurched in a spasm of nerves and tore the button loose from the lace.

Gwydion stared down at his hand in horror. "Emily, I'm so sorry," he gasped, embarrassment flooding him and turning his face red as the setting sun had been. His panicked glance returned to her face to find her smiling in amusement. She took the button from him for a moment, turning it over in her hand. "Aren't they pretty?" she said, almost as if musing to herself. "My father brought them back for me from the city on his last trip as a birthday gift. I'm sure they cost far too much money."

"Emily—"

She stopped him by putting two fingers of her other hand on his lips. She replaced the button in his hand, closing his fingers around it.

"Keep it, Sam," she said. "As a memento of the night when I gave you my heart." She felt hot tears fall on the bare skin below her neck, and she wrapped her arms around him and pulled him to her chest. "It's all right, Sam," she said. "You won't hurt me. Really. It will be all right."

She was reading his mind again. Gwydion felt a wave of sureness crest over him, and he brushed the flimsy fabric out of the way, lowering his lips to the hollow between her breasts. With all the tenderness his young soul could muster he kissed her soft skin while his free hand gently slid the top of her frock off her shoulders and onto the ground beneath her.

His hand returned to the swell of her small breast, and with the slightest touch, his fingers caressed the pink nipple, followed by his mouth. As his lips touched the delicate skin she began to shiver, and the sensation swept through him, leaving him cold and burning at the same time.

Wonder filled his heart as the moonlight came to rest on her beneath the tree, illuminating her face that had been shining already without it. Her eyes glittered in the light, and he saw tears in them that matched his own. The look in those beautiful eyes was so certain, so sure, that to question what they were doing would have been to scoff at the magic they were both undeniably feeling. Gwydion's lips returned to the breast he had laid bare, and his hands moved beneath the crinkly skirt. When they made contact with the warm skin of her legs he was afraid his excitement would give way there and then.

In turn she pulled awkwardly on the laces of his trousers, and then made some calculated adjustments. As the waistband came loose she pushed them down, freeing him from the restrictions that had been keeping him in check, and exposing him briefly to the wind. Gwydion shivered violently and moved closer to her, seeking her warmth. He leaned up over her and looked down. The expression in her eyes broke his heart.

"I love you, Sam," she said. "I've been waiting for you for so long. I always knew you would come to me if I wished for you."

Then slowly he was inside her, moving as gently as he could, trying not to lose control as he began to gasp in the throes of unimaginable pleasure.

Emily trembled beneath him, and her hands moved up his back, pulling him closer, drawing him in. He could hear her breath grow shorter; she tilted her head back and as she did his lips moved to her throat, kissing it gratefully. He was bathing her neck with tears, and he felt one of her hands leave his shoulder and move to his head, caressing it with a comforting motion.

When they were finally completely joined he lay above her, within her, motionless for a moment, afraid that if he moved or took a breath he would awake to find that this was only a dream. Even if it was, he was unwilling to let it end yet.

Emily's other hand came to rest on the side of his head and she kissed him, imparting a wordless, loving encouragement. Then she began to move slowly, rocking him from below, wrapping one of her legs around his.

From the bottom of his toes Gwydion felt an exquisite heat rise, and with it came an insistent movement that matched hers, building the fire he felt in his stomach into a raging inferno that swelled within him and consumed his entire body. He lost touch with his thoughts and let them drift away on the warm night wind, concentrating instead on the rhythm of her heart beating beneath him and the delicate sounds she was emitting.

She whispered his name, or what she thought was his name, and the thrill of hearing it drove his excitement higher. The word became a cadence she repeated, spoken softly over and over as she began to grow warm and sigh with pleasure. The sound reached down into his heart, pushing him past the gates of control, and as the thunder rolled up within him he felt her begin to cry out, gripping him as an anchor as she was swept away by the same wave he was riding.

Time became suspended; how long he made love to her he couldn't realistically gauge, having nothing to compare it with, but it seemed to last an eternity. With each passing second he felt the love in his heart for her expand until he was sure it had outgrown his body. He had expected this event to come much later in his life, and to be far less meaningful, so the shuddering sobs that consumed him when it was over took him completely by surprise.

"Sam?" Emily's voice was alarmed as she pulled him nearer.

"Gods, did I hurt you, Emily? Are you all right?"

She kissed him tenderly, and then pulled back to look into his eyes. "Are you kidding? Did it feel like I was hurt?" She laughed, and the feeling shot through him like a hot bolt of lightning, running up his spine and resonating in his forehead.

He bent his head down over her shoulder, weak with relief. "Emily, I would never, never hurt you on purpose; I hope you know that."

She look him straight on the eye. "Of course I do. Why would you ever hurt something that belongs to you? Because I do, Sam. I'm yours."

He sighed. "Thank the gods."

"No," she said seriously, "thank the stars. It was them that brought you to me."

Gwydion lifted his head with great effort and stared into the moonlit sky above him, sprinkled with grains of light like sand from a diamond beach.

"Thank you!" he shouted. Emily giggled, then sighed as he moved regretfully away and began to put himself back together. She adjusted her clothing as well, and as they finished dressing a look of disappointment came over her face. She turned toward the village, then back to him.

"That's the Lorana waltz. We had best get back, the dance will be ending soon."

Gwydion sighed. He would have been happy to stay in this field with her forever.

"Oh, all right," he said.

He took her hand and pulled her up, then drew her into his arms and kissed her once more. When he looked at her face he saw no trace of regret, or second thought, just blissful contentment.

He put his cloak back on and lifted Emily off the ground, carrying her across the stream again, knowing that they were crossing the threshold of the place she loved, the place she thought of as home. He felt a twinge of sadness at the knowledge that their hasty exit would mean this was the last time he would ever carry her over that threshold.

They crossed the fields hand in hand, walking more slowly than they had coming here. When they crested the face of the hill, the grip of Emily's hand tightened suddenly.

He turned to her anxiously. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, but I need to sit down for a moment."

Gwydion took hold of her other hand and helped her to the ground, then sank worriedly down beside her. "Emily, what's wrong?"

She gave him a reassuring smile. "Nothing is wrong, Sam. I just need to rest a minute."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Can I ask you something?"

"Of course, anything."

"How old are you?"

"Fourteen. How old are you?"

She thought for a moment. "What time do you think it is?"

"About eleven o'clock, I would say."

"Then I'm thirteen."

Gwydion looked at her, puzzled. "Why does the time matter?"

"Because in an hour I'll be fourteen, too, like you."

Now he understood. "It's your birthday?"

"Well, tomorrow."

He pulled her into his arms. "Happy birthday, Emily."

"Thank you." She grew very excited. "Wait; I have an idea! Do you want to come to supper tomorrow?"

Gwydion hugged her tighter. "That would be wonderful."

She pushed out of his embrace, and he smiled at the eagerness on her face. "You can meet my parents and my brothers. Maybe if my father sees how happy I am with you he will give his consent."

"What time?"

"Why don't you come about five—we eat at six."

He looked down at his dusty clothes regretfully. "This is all I have to wear, I'm afraid."

Emily touched the material of his shirt. It was woven of a fabric finer than she had ever seen before, and the craftsmanship of all the garments was superior to even the needlework of the best seamstresses in the village. "This is fine," she said simply. "I'll show you my house on the way past."

Gwydion was rummaging around in his pockets. He pulled out his pouch, and looked inside it. There was nothing that would make a suitable gift, and he doubted there would be any merchant in the village from which to purchase one. He took out the five gold coins he had brought with him on his way to the market, and put them in her hand.

"This is all I have; it's not much of a gift, but I want you to have something from me tonight." Tomorrow he would search the pasturelands for the most beautiful flowers he could find.

Emily's eyes widened in amazement, and a look of horror came over her face.

"I can't take this, Sam—this is as much as half my dowry." She turned one of the coins over and stared at it. The face minted on it was that of the prince of Roland, a land that would not exist for another seven centuries. She took his hand and opened the palm, returning the coins. "Besides, if I come home with that, my parents will think I've been doing something terribly wrong."

His face flared crimson in understanding. Then a different thought occurred to him. He rummaged in the pouch again, and pulled out another coin, copper this time. It was small and oddly shaped, with thirteen sides, and he opened her hand and put it in. Then he pulled out another just like it.

"As far as I know, there are only two of these in all the world. They have no real value other than that, but they're very special to me. I can't think of anyone better to give one to."

She examined the coin for a moment; then she smiled and drew him close. "Thank you, Sam; I'll treasure it. Now, we better get going."

He helped her stand and brushed the loose grass off the back of her velvet dress. "I wish I had a better gift for you." They began to walk down the hill leading to the village and the meeting hall.

"You couldn't give me a better gift than what you've given me tonight. You came here from far away in answer to my wish. Who could ask for more than that?"

He put his arm around her. "But it's your birthday."

"Do you really want to give me something special?"

"More than anything."

She smiled, and slid out from under his arm, taking his hand instead. "Tell me about the places you've been, the wonderful things that you've seen," she said, her eyes gleaming in excitement. "Talk to me about where we will go, what we will see someday."

"Well, since you've never seen the ocean, we could begin with the tall ships that will carry us across the wide Central Sea."

He told her of the masts and the riggings and the woven net beds called hammocks that the sailors slept in, of the great port of Kesel Tai, where ships from around the world sought the trade and wisdom of the Sea Mages. He told her of Port Fallon on the shores of his own lands, where a great lighthouse stood a hundred feet tall, illuminating the way for lost mariners. And lastly he told her of the Lirin port of Tallono, whose exposed bay had been turned from an open mooring to a sheltering harbor with the aid of a woman who held the wisdom and power of dragons.

Emily listened in rapt excitement, drinking in his words. She broke loose from her reverie long enough to show him her family's farm. It was the large one he had seen from the summit of the first hill. Warm carriage lights burned out in front of the pasture gate in welcome.

There was so much Gwydion would have told her—of the river so cold and wide in some places that its opposite bank could barely be seen through the heavy morning mist, the river that led up to the Lands of the Gorllewinolo Lirin, where she could meet many of her mother's people, and even as half-caste she would be welcomed.

He would have told her of the Oracle of Yarim, with its mad prophetess, and of the great city of Sepulvarta, where the priests held their temples and the people were ruled by the Patriarch. And he most certainly would have told her of the Great White Tree, but before he could they were back in the village, approaching the entrance of the meeting hall. He promised himself, as their steps slowed, that one day he would show her all the things he knew she wanted to see.

When they came to the place he had found her hiding, she turned quickly to him as a thought occurred to her. "Do we have a patronymic? A family name?"

Gwydion felt a shiver of delight pass through him at the thought of her sharing it, but was at a loss to explain the nomenclature to her. "Yes, sort of. It's complicated. And my name is different as well. You see, the way—"

"Emmy, there you are! Where the blazes have you been? Justin is here, and he's looking everywhere for you, as are a few other people." Ben's voice was filled with relief as well as anger.

Emily ignored the question, pulling Gwydion over to where her brother stood. "Hello, Ben. Did you enjoy the dance? This is Sam; Sam, this is my brother Ben."

Gwydion put out his hand, and Ben looked at him for a second, shifting his focus. He shook Gwydion's hand, then turned to Emily again. "You're going to catch it when Father finds out."

"Finds out what?"

"That you didn't go to the dance."

"I most certainly did go to the dance, and I had a wonderful time."

Ben was turning red with annoyance. "You didn't dance once, Emmy. There are an awful lot of upset fellows in there."

Emily started to laugh. "I did so dance, just not inside. You even saw me. Let it go, Ben; I had a lovely evening."

"Emmy?" The new voice was deeper, and Gwydion turned to see a much older youth hurrying toward them. He also had dark hair, and he was a head taller than Emily. She ran to meet him and he lifted her off the ground in a wide embrace.

"Happy Birthday, Ugly," he said affectionately, kissing her cheek. "Did you have fun? Was the dance nice?"

"The best ever," she answered, grinning. She introduced her oldest brother, Justin, to Gwydion as well, and he walked with them to the wagon Justin had brought to drive her home in.

As her brothers hitched the horses, Emily turned to him again. "Thank you, Sam," she said softly. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"At five on the nose. Happy birthday, Emily. I'll be thinking about you every moment until I see you again."

She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and ran to the wagon. Pain welled up inside him; he had no idea how much truth was in the last words she heard from his lips.

"I love you," he called after her as the horses began to pull away. She put her hand to her ear, signifying she hadn't heard him. He watched the wagon rumble off into the darkness, Emily waving until she was out of sight.

The next morning Gwydion rose before dawn with the other farmhands, preparing to work as the other men did, bare-chested in the summer heat. He wrapped his waterskin and dagger, along with his shirt, in his cloak and stowed it beneath the cot he had slept on.

As he was putting it away he noticed three small, dark spots on the lining of the cloak. He pulled it back out and looked at it again; they were tiny bloodstains.

Gwydion checked his back to see if he had been injured without his knowledge, but could find nothing. He stuffed it beneath the cot again and set to work on the day's chores. As a new hand he was given some of the lighter, but dirty, tasks, and he watched in dismay the inevitable and increasing soil on his trousers.

When the farmhands took a break for breakfast at sunrise he went out to the pastureland, looking for flowers to give her. He spied a patch of wild columbines growing amid clouds of nymph's hair and decided they would be perfect flowers for Emily's birthday bouquet. Then he went to the well and washed his pants clean with a rag, hoping to remain somewhat presentable. It would not do to meet her father and ask for her hand smelling like the inside of a barn, although many years later it occurred to him that the scent would not have been unfamiliar to the man.

In the hope that breakfast or scraps from it might still be available, he headed toward the farmhouse. The heat of the morning made his head swim a little, and as he approached the porch he felt dizzier than he ever remembered feeling before.

* * *

Someone had stopped the frame. He checked the tools once more, then gently pried the image loose from the delicate thread. It stuck for a moment, and he smiled in amusement; it was almost as if the boy's force of will were holding it fast. Carefully he slid the first strand forward to the exact place from which he had removed the piece, and replaced it, wiping the strand to cement it back in place. Then he looked through the lens again.

* * *

Gwydion appeared in midstep on his way down the forest. Everything was exactly as it had been on that achingly fresh morning, everything except his memory.

He whirled around on the path. The sun was rising in the sky, as before; the birds were calling to each other in trees that glistened in its light. He felt a faint chill as the warm wind blew across his naked chest. Otherwise all things were as they had been.

Panic coursed through him, and his heart began to pound as he darted wildly up the path, then back, trying to deny where he now was. His hands clutched at the air, trying to reach back to the other reality, but his efforts only resulted in stirring the wind around him and raising a bit of dust from the road.

His stomach roiled in agony at the thoughts that were pounding in his head: had he been hallucinating? Was he going insane? The prospect that it had not been real was better than the belief that it was, but he knew in his heart that the events had happened. He never in his wildest imagination could have made up something as wonderful as Emily.

Emily. The implications threw a cold, gangrenous feeling into his stomach and legs. Where was she? What had happened to her? He remembered his warning to her about being separated, and winced in anguish at her look of confusion that had followed it. Did she understand him, understand the urgency of his admonition? Had she survived?

He felt for the items he had brought with him, but they weren't there; the waterskin and dagger, his shirt and cloak. His chest tightened at the thought of the cloak, rolled around his gear under the cot, and he went cold as the realization hit him of what the bloodstains were. They had made love on it, and the blood must have been Emily's, the sign of the loss of their mutual virginity, the consummation of what felt like a marriage.

Despair began to consume him as he searched his pockets, and then he felt a sense of calm descend. He reached deeper and pulled forth his pouch, the one possession he hadn't left in the shed.

With shaking hands he pulled open the drawstring and felt carefully inside it. A smile touched the corner of his mouth when his fingers brushed it, hidden at first in the corner of the bag. Carefully he drew the tiny object out; it was the button she had given him the night before. Proof of his sanity, proof that his memories were not hallucinations.

He sighed deeply as immeasurable sadness overwhelmed him. He thought of the cloak, and the other possessions, and the shed, and the farm, all reduced centuries before to cinders, only to be scattered over the ocean on the other side of the world where the Island had its grave. The thought that her ashes blew about in the fair sea wind as well was not to be contemplated; Gwydion knew that would be enough to make the possibility of his insanity real.

His father would know what to do. She surely had lived, and had found the leaders of the Cymrian refugees he had told her about in the Patchworks. She must have come on one of the great ships. His heart rose in the hope that she had, for it would have been her first opportunity to sail the ocean she wanted so desperately to see.

All of the other terrible possibilities—that she had been killed in the war, that she had survived the war but had died before the Cymrians left, that she had boarded one of the ships but hadn't survived the voyage that had taken the lives of so many, that she had landed but had died since—all were relegated to an unopened room in his mind. First he had to go home and talk with his father. His father would know how to find her.

Gwydion turned and started for home. The day had lost its shine, to his eyes, if no others; dark and foreboding clouds were rolling in. He took five steps before the loss overwhelmed him and he fell to the ground, lying facedown in the road as he had the day before. A tremendous, racking sob tore from his throat, a scream of pain that frightened the wildlife for miles around. And then he bent his head over the dust of the path and wept.

* * *

On the morning of her birthday Emily took advantage of the offer to be excused from her chores and slept in past sunrise. Her dreams were sweet, if intense, and she was deep in the middle of a particularly poignant one when she felt, rather than heard, a high, heartrending cry.

Nooooooooooo.

She bolted upright in bed, trembling. The sunlight was pouring through the curtains and the birds were singing; it was a perfectly beautiful day. She rubbed her hands up and down her arms to shake off the feeling of deep fear that had settled on her like a cold mist.

The memory of Sam and the night before flooded back into her cheeks, and the bad feelings vanished like a dream. She leapt from her bed, singing, and waltzed across the room in her white muslin nightgown, counting the moments until she would see him again.

The day dragged by. Emily busied herself by helping her mother make the supper preparations, sharing as much of the story as she was willing to. As evening came she grew more and more excited, until her father remarked that if she grew any happier he could light the carriage path with her.

As the appointed time for his arrival came and went, Emily stood at the window in her best white blouse and a pink broadcloth skirt, watching intensely. The supper hour came and went as well, leaving the lovingly prepared repast cold and uninviting by the time her mother gently drew her away from the window and made her eat. It was a quiet, sad affair with little talking; the look in Emily's eyes swallowed any hope for cheerful conversation.

After supper her brothers and parents gave her gifts, which she smiled on and praised as best she could, even though her heart wasn't in it. As the night came and deepened she went back to the window again, certain in her belief that he would come eventually.

Finally, long past midnight, her father took her gently by the arm and suggested she needed her sleep. Emily nodded and headed numbly for the stairs. As she started to climb she looked back at her parents, and was brought out of her trance momentarily by the sadness on their faces. She knew they ached for her, and she couldn't stand the thought.

She gave them both as bright a smile as she could muster, and made her voice sound confident.

"Don't worry, Father," she said. "There will be lots of other boys in the lottery I can fall in love with." She watched as they both drew sighs of relief, and her mother's eyes lost their worried look.

"That's right, honey; there certainly will be."

She blew them both a kiss as she ascended the stairs. She spoke the rest of the thought to herself.

"But I never will."

Years later, after the same amount of time of fruitless search, Emily came across MacQuieth, one of the people the boy had mentioned to her that night in the Patchworks. It was completely by accident, on the streets of an immense city, and though he was a warrior of great renown, and she was no one, she summoned her courage and asked him about the boy. MacQuieth initially was annoyed, then kinder when he saw the look of intense hope in her eyes, a look that spoke of a soul that was clutching the last vestige of belief in life.

"I'm terribly sorry," he said, wincing as he watched her face absorb his words. "But I never saw anyone like that, nor have I ever heard of anyone by those names." And the warrior stood, his attention successfully diverted from his task for perhaps the first time ever, watching as she walked away and into anonymity, her shoulders lower than a moment before. MacQuieth was not prescient, but even he knew he was watching a human soul as the life went out of it, blending with the throng of the great unwashed, beginning the descent into the meaningless existence of those who only marked the days until death came for them.

* * *

Gwydion waited for the Seer's answer as patiently as he could, but his desperation and pain would have been obvious to anyone. That the Seer was also his grandmother could only help, he reasoned.

Anwyn studied his face, a look of profound curiosity in her searing blue eyes, the color of which was more intense even than Gwydion's. How her grandson had managed to elude the stoic nature that was inbred in the family was of great interest to her. Though the realm that was her gift to see into was the Past, she felt enough of the Future to know that one day Gwydion would be a powerful man, as was each person in the family, and that he had more potential than any of the others to bring the line into its dynastic glory again. That made him a valuable asset to control.

My soul mate, he had insisted, his voice breaking. I'm certain of it, Grandmother. Please. The liquid that glinted in his eyes obviously came from a wellspring deep within him; the Eye-Clear would have worn off long before he had thought to come to her for answers. Anwyn could not see even a residual trace of it, but was certain of its use nonetheless.

Who had used it on him was another matter; the formula for the elixir had gone to the depths of the sea with Serendair a thousand years before. And though she had a partial answer to his question, some of the events Gwydion described—the stinging eyes, the transportation across Time itself—were hidden from her sight into the Past. Anwyn shook off the disturbing thought and focused on her trembling grandson once again.

He had climbed at great risk to see her, braving the biting wind that screamed with fury around and within the rockwalls of her cavernous castle, high in the darkest of the isolated crags of the pale northern mountains. His hands still bled from where he had gripped the rocks in his cold ascent to her lair. He clearly had been quite driven to see her and she so rarely had visitors, especially these days. Even in his preoccupation and despair it was good to have company again, especially the company of one who could be of use to her someday.

She thought about his question, and a distant look came over her face as she realized the implications of what she had to say to him. It would take careful thought to deliver this news appropriately. She took his hands in hers and began to wrap his bloodied knuckles with a soft cloth. Her smile was almost sad as she spoke.

"She did not land—she did not come. I am sorry, child. She did not set foot in these lands, nor in Manosse. If she was Lirin, the stars of this land would know her had she been anywhere beneath them, and they do not. She went to no other land. And she was not among those to leave on the ships from the Island before its destruction."

"Are you certain? There must be a mistake. Please, Grandmother, look again. Are you sure she didn't go off course with the Second Fleet?"

Anwyn hid her smile, and went back to the altar where the tarnished spyglass lay. It was the second most ancient artifact in the land, the scrying instrument that her father had used to behold this land for the first time. She picked it up and held it for a moment, feeling the warmth of its power. Then she walked to the great window that faced the sea a thousand miles away, and put the glass to her eye once again. She watched for a long time, then lowered the spyglass, turning back to her anxious grandson once more.

"Well, child, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but no one by that name or description was among those to leave on the ships from the Island before its destruction. She did not land; she did not come."

Anwyn watched as he began to sink to the ground, collapsing under the weight of his grief and her pronouncement, his body heaving with the force of his sobbing. She turned slowly back to the altar, smiling as she replaced the artifact.

"Well, then, how about some lunch?"

1146 year, THIRD AGE

He moved like the shadow of a passing cloud, unseen, unnoticed, even by the wind that blew around him as if he were not there. He crept up the rise to the crest of the hill, his mismatched eyes scanning the fields below. It was partially in shadow, the scorched grass bent from the wind that rippled across the valley. Aside from the wind, nothing disturbed the silence.

As darkness covered the land he rose to a stand. The Brother turned and looked over his shoulder. He nodded and returned to his reconnaissance.

A moment later an enormous shadow joined him on the summit of the hill. In the remaining light of the setting sun the hilts of the weapons that jutted out from behind the giant's back resembled the armored claws of a gargantuan crab. The Sergeant matched the angle of his vision to the Brother's, then spoke.

"How long we got?"

The figure in black paused before answering, his hooded head angled as if listening to a distant conversation.

"They are a quarter of an hour behind us. They are not what concerns me."

"I know." The heavily armed giant sighed. "We ain't gonna make it, are we?"

The Brother's eyes did not leave the horizon. "Ultimately, probably not." After a moment he looked up at his seven-foot companion. "You might, if you leave now, head elsewhere."

"No, sir," the giant replied, a wry grin revealing a carnivorous smile. "Oi've come this far; 'twould be a pity to turn back now. Besides, it'd only be a matter o' time before they caught up with me. If it's all the same to you, sir, Oi'd rather buy it 'ere with you."

The Brother nodded, and his gaze returned to the horizon once more. "Well, then, I'd rather not be caught with the hunters behind us." With a shrug of his shoulder the large, crossbow-like weapon the Brother carried across his back swung into his hands, and he was off down the face of the hill.

"Oi suppose not," said the giant to the wind, the only thing that remained with him on the hilltop.

The descent of darkness was heavier than the footfalls of the Brother, whose passing was unnoticed even by the small creatures of the field. Unseen as well; black weapons on black cloak, he was as tall and thin as one of the fading shadows to which he now clung. He made no sound, left no tracks, there was no way to tell he was there unless one happened to be keen-sighted enough to pick him out of the darkness in which he was wrapped. And that would have been most unfortunate for the witness, for, no doubt, his pulse would have quickened, his heart would have hesitated for a split second, and that would have been enough. The Brother would have sensed it, and the witness would have died before his next heartbeat.

The Brother slipped through the gusts of the wind, avoiding disturbing in any way the myriad vibrations of the world that few beside himself could sense. His targets were formidable, the signatures of their personal power strong; his former master had spared no expense in the hunt. The Brother had expected no less.

He dropped to one knee and positioned his weapon. Beneath his veils a grim smile took up residence. His targets were now in range.

He could not see them, not yet, but he didn't need to. In the distance he could feel the tread of their footsteps, the beating of their hearts. Like a shark in the water he could smell their blood, sense their movements. It was the reward of his inhuman inheritance, though he was more sensitive to these things than even Dhracians of full blood. He was the Brother; this was his gift.

He closed his eyes and sensed the movement of the air, the changes in the wind, the subtle currents that might alter the shot. Then he released his breath and gently squeezed the trigger of the weapon in his hands.

No bolt or quarrel was fired from the bow. Three whisper-thin metal disks, each the size of a maple leaf, were hurled from the three-foot-long weapon, projected by the force of recoil. They cut through the air, their course altered slightly by the strong breeze, but the marksman had accounted for those changes. Long before the projectiles had reached their target the Brother had reloaded and fired again, and again, sending volley after volley into the foreheads and eyes of his victims nearly a quarter-mile away.

Then the Brother was off, even as the first three disks sliced into the left eye socket of his first target, each one driving the other deeper into his skull before erupting through the other side and into the throat of the next victim. Four more of his predators died before they even noticed anything.

Only the commander had a moment to turn his head and look into the face of his own death before it met him. In the distance, already at the summit of the hill from which he had listened, the Brother paused and spared a backward glance.

"The commander was fast," he said to the giant, who nodded.

"Not fast enough, though, eh, sir?"

"Not this time."

The Brother's patrol of the area surrounding their campsite that night had assured him there was no one to witness their fire. Nonetheless, Grunthor placed three metal sheets in a barricade around it to block out the light. Extraordinary precautions were what kept them alive.

The giant Bolg looked questioningly at the heavy sack that contained their rations, and the Brother nodded. Grunthor sat down before the fire and opened the sack, dragging forth the haunch of a hind they had killed two days earlier.

Using one of its long bones as a spit, he positioned the meat on two small notches in the metal sheets, turning it over the low flames. The two sat in silence until the outside of the meat was charred, the Brother keeping his ear to the wind. Grunthor paid no attention; he knew the routine. If something was wrong, he would be told.

After a while the giant Bolg took the meat from the fire and ripped off a palm-sized piece. He handed it, still dripping with juice, to his companion, taking the remainder for himself. The Brother watched as Grunthor sheared the flesh from the bone with his teeth. Then he sliced his own piece with his dagger and began to eat. It had a foul, slightly fishy taste to it. He swallowed.

"This is pretty close to rotten."

The giant Bolg nodded. "Well, guv, we could start in on the dry goods."

"No. We need those for the trip along the Root."

"Oi know, but this is all we got left."

"What about the honey?"

"We ate it yestaday."

The Brother put down the rest of the meat. "Then tomorrow I'll hunt."

They returned to their accustomed silence. After a moment Grunthor stretched out downwind of the fire. The Brother watched the giant as he fell asleep. He let his mind wander, and was lost in the memories that had brought them to this place in time.

He recalled how he had walked across the devouring blackness that was the Deep Chamber of the F'dor. He could not stop his boots from sounding loudly on the polished obsidian floor.

The walls of the chamber were so distant that even if the room had been lit, he would still have had a poor view of the black volcanic-glass surfaces, intricately carved with obscene patterns. Despite the braziers burning with black fire, there was no illumination within the cavernous chapel except the circle of light that the Dhracian assassin had approached.

Within the circle stood the figure of a man clad in the crimson robes of the demonic priesthood, the man who had summoned him here, once human, now the human host of a demonic spirit, blended into one obscene entity. A man he would never have accepted voluntarily as a client.

The Brother had clenched his teeth as he fought against his instinctual reaction to the place, and to the creature he approached. Needles seemed to run in his veins as he repressed his natural response to the perversions of nature that were conducted here. His ancestral hatred, born of generations of racial crusades by the Dhracians against all F'dor, revolted at being in the place his race's enemies had made their home.

Both sides of his bloodline—the vibrationally sensitive Dhracian inheritance of his mother and the Bolg's love of the deep earth bequeathed to him by his unknown father—rebelled at the defilement of what had once been a holy site. Strongest of all was the disgust he felt towards the demonic spirit clinging to the no-longer-human figure that stood before him now. The Lord of a Thousand Eyes. The F'dor Tsoltan. His master.

When he stepped into the circle of light he heard a soft voice speak, warm as honey.

"I have a job for you."

The dark priest's red-rimmed eyes searched the Brother for a reaction. The Dhracian's sensitive nerves screamed at the intrusion, a sensation similar to the prodding examination of a butcher searching for the best cut. The Brother did not answer. He was doing all he could to keep from breathing the same air.

"Your hand," said the demon-priest.

The Brother unclenched his fist and slightly extended his left palm.

The F'dor chuckled in the darkness. "Your resistance amuses me still," it said. "By now you've learned there is no way to reclaim your true name. Your service is too valuable to me. There is no price for which I would ransom it back to you, nor will I reveal how I obtained it."

Directly in front of the Brother a vine grew up from the glass floor. It seemed made of glass itself, spiked with obsidian thorns. A key was wrapped in its highest tendril.

"Take it."

With a decisive motion the Brother plucked the key from the vine. The obsidian tendril shattered like the stem of a fragile wineglass.

He held the key up before his half-Bolg eyes, the night eyes of a people who had risen up from the caves, smiling inwardly at the increase in the rhythm of the demon's formerly human heart, the only outward sign of its consternation at his defiance. The key itself was unremarkable except that it was made from a dark bone, its shaft curving as a rib might.

"You will take this key to the base of the failed land bridge to the northern islands. The foundation of this bridge contains a gateway unlike any even you have ever passed through. The fabric of the Earth is worn thin there; you may experience some discomfort. If you have passed through correctly, you will find yourself in a vast desert."

"You will know the direction to go, and an old friend of mine will come to meet you. Once there, you will agree to the time and date when you shall serve as his guide through the gateway to this side. My only concern is that it be as soon as possible. Return to me, and I shall prepare you as his guide. Is this clear?"

"Yes."

"You will tell me of the arrangement, and carry any message he might send."

"I am not a page."

"How right you are. You are but a footnote." The talisman around the neck of the demon caught the light from a distant brazier and glinted, black, in the darkness. Within the golden circle of flame was a pattern of red stones that spiraled into the center of the amulet, in which was carved the image of a solitary eye. It bore the same piercing stare that now met the Brother's own.

The F'dor approached him, and the Brother's nose wrinkled from the reek of burnt flesh on the demon's person, and especially its breath. It was a stench that accompanied all those of its race, but his master's malodor was particularly strong.

"I want this done quickly. It will make whatever trivial catalogue of death you think yourself responsible for a mere jot, an afterthought of inconsequence. I am the true master, and you will be my thrall until you follow me willingly, or are swept away in my victory."

He had done as the demon demanded.

The Brother had no compunction about death, did not shirk in the presence of evil, but what he had encountered in the wasteland beyond the horizon defied any horrific description of which his mind might be capable. In the face of the destruction that would ensue, the devastation that would come over the world, he decided instead, for the first time in his life, to run, to abandon all he had, to risk an eternity of something worse than death. Even for him, anything else would have been unthinkable.

The Brother shook off his thoughts at the stirring in the distance that had alerted his senses. The key was in his hand, glimmering slightly in the darkness, and he slipped it quickly back into the pocket where he carried it.

He looked in the direction of the vibrations and felt the presence of approaching wolves. They were a long way off, but they were on the prowl. A discordant vibration indicated they were not ordinary lupines, but animals used as eyes by the F'dor.

He made a soft clicking sound. Grunthor's eyes opened at once, and his hand went immediately to his weapons belt. He turned in the direction of the Brother without making a sound.

The Brother made a few fast hand signals: six wolves, three on each flank. Grunthor nodded, and with one hand drew his great bow. With the other he placed a large metal lid on top of the fire, smothering it without allowing the smoke to escape. The Brother held his own odd weapon, the cwellan, at the ready, while Grunthor positioned his pike close at hand. They waited.

The Dhracian's head tilted to one side as he concentrated on the animals. The wolves didn't even slow down. They continued on their prowl until they had passed over the horizon and beyond his senses. They had not noticed the small camp in the hidden dell. When they were well away, the Brother nodded and took a breath, exhaling deeply. Grunthor did the same.

"They're getting closer," the Brother said.

"No surprise really, is it, sir? They've got our scent, and we've got that key. They can probably feel it."

"I know. We have to make haste to another city. Get lost in the crowd."

"Lovely. Oi know how much you like cities."

When the deepest part of the night had passed and the summer rain began, the two broke camp and headed for Easton ahead of the approaching thunderstorm.

* * *

"More soup, love?"

"No, thanks, Barney." The young woman glanced up at the barkeeper hovering over her and smiled. "It was good, though." She returned her attention to the messy pile of parchment pages and odd objects that littered the table in front of her, scratching away furiously with a quill and humming softly to herself.

Barney sighed and brought the soup tureen back to the bar, enjoying the physical thrill that always resulted from being the recipient of that smile. Then he glanced furtively about, hoping Dee hadn't seen him grinning like a fool. Dee loved the girl too, but it was best not to rock the marital boat.

Under the pretense of wiping clean the ale-spattered surface, he indulged in another look. The girl brushed a loose strand of golden hair out of her eyes and touched her throat absently, untangling a simple gold locket that hung from a delicate chain around her neck.

She was still writing away at an intense pace, pausing every now and again to examine one of the assorted small things on the table before her, or to pluck a few strings of the shepherd's harp resting on her lap beneath the table. She was glowing with quiet excitement, and despite her being tucked away at her favorite table near the back of the bar, that excitement was radiating through the crowd of regulars and generating quite a din. Generally the middle of the day was a dismally quiet time at the Hat and Feathers; today it was as loud as a holiday night. No wonder Dee loves her, Barney thought, chuckling to himself. She's good for business.

Few noticed the stranger enter over the clamor of voices and clinking of tankards. He made his way impatiently through the crowd, searching the tables until he came to hers. The man stood over her, waiting for her to look up, but she ignored him and continued with her writing, frowning as she scratched out the occasional mistake.

Finally he spoke. "You're Rhapsody."

She did not look up, but moved a few of the papers into a neater pile and drew forth a fresh sheet of parchment.

"Well?"

She still did not favor him with a glance. "Oh, sorry. Thank you for reminding me." There was a pause, and then she spoke again. "If you'll excuse me, I'm rather busy."

The man swallowed, choking back the anger her dismissive tone raised in his gullet. He could feel the eyes of some of the patrons shift to him, and he attempted to keep his voice calm.

"I am here representing a gentleman friend of yours."

There was no break in her concentration or the focus of her attention. "Really? And who might that be?"

"Michael, the Wind of Death."

The hubbub in the Hat and Feathers died away, but the young woman didn't seem to notice or care. "Either they have redefined the words gentleman and friend in this language, or you're making very sloppy use of it," she said. "What does he want?"

"Your services, naturally."

"I'm not in the business anymore."

"I don't think your professional status is of much interest to him."

For the first time she stopped writing and looked up at the stranger. The eyes that met his contained no hint of fear and were such a startling green that he took a step backward. "Well, what he wants is not of much interest to me," she said evenly. "Now, if you will kindly excuse me, as I said, I'm very busy." She returned to her work once again.

It took a moment for the man to recover his composure. As the look of rage spread over his grizzled features, the bar patrons began to exit or at least move to safer corners. His hand slammed down on the table, fingers spread wide to crumple the pile of parchment.

He stopped in the nick of time, the blade of her dagger pressing between his middle and index fingers just before the point of drawing blood. The motion that had put it there was so quick and fluid that he hadn't even seen it.

Rhapsody looked up at him for only the second time.

"Now, I believe I've been polite, but you don't seem to be listening. If you have smudged one note of my work you will henceforth only be able to count to six, and you will need to drop your pants to do so. Now please, go and leave me in peace." With all eyes now on her she reinked her quill and returned to her work, her hand still on the dagger.

The stranger glared at her, removed his hand gingerly from the table, and left the bar, jostling past a few of the remaining patrons and slamming the heavy wooden door behind him. Barney watched him go, and then came to Rhapsody's table, a look of concern wrinkling his kindly face.

"Don't you know who he works for, darlin'?" he asked anxiously, watching Dee begin to gather the plates and debris left on the hastily vacated tables.

Rhapsody was methodically stacking the parchment leaves and rolling them into scrolls. "Of course. Michael, the Waste of Breath. What a ridiculous name."

"I wouldn't be talking so disrespectfully, love. He's become a lot more dangerous of late. And he has a lot more ears than he used to."

"Oh dear. And he wasn't all that attractive to begin with." Rhapsody stuffed the roll of papers into her oilcloth satchel, and began to pack up the small items on the table, saving out only a wilted primrose and a scrap of vellum.

She corked the inkwell and tied it carefully into the pocket she had sewn within the sack, wrapped her harp in its burlap cover and placed it in on top. Then she began to write again on the vellum scrap, methodically and slowly this time.

"On second thought, Barney, I will have some more of that soup."

The others were already breaking camp when Gammon reached the outpost outside the northwestern wall of Easton. He could tell by the tone of Michael's voice, barking commands to his henchman and berating the men-at-arms, that this was not safe news to deliver. His only hope was that the wild instability that had plagued their leader of late might cause him to forget the errand that Gammon had been sent out on. That hope was dashed with one look at Michael's face.

"Where is she?" he demanded, striding to Gammon and shoving aside the lackey he had been abusing.

"She's apparently out of the business, sir."

Michael's eyes opened wide and Gammon saw within them a battle for self-control raging. "You couldn't find her? How could you miss her?"

Gammon hesitated, then plunged ahead. "I found her, m'lord. She refused to come."

Michael blinked, and it seemed to Gammon that his eyes darkened and grew calm again.

"Refused. She refused?"

"Yes, sir."

Michael turned and watched the men packing up the horses and the weapons.

"Perhaps you misunderstood my order, Gammon," he said calmly as the sour black smoke from the doused campfires billowed toward them and over the wide meadow, where it hung like dirty wool in the air. "I didn't want you to ask the wench if she would like to accompany us. I expected you to bring her back."

"Yes, m'lord."

"Now go back to town and get her. Gods, she barely comes up to your shoulder. Drag her by that beautiful golden hair, if necessary. Did you see her hair, Gammon?"

"Yes, sir."

"I have thought about that hair for a long time, Gammon. Can you imagine what that hair feels like in your hands?"

"Yes m'lord."

"No, you can't, Gammon," Michael said, his voice cold and emotionless. "You can't because the pouch between your legs is empty. You have never had her, have you? I thought not. It is not something one such as you would survive."

"Now I, Gammon, I have had her, and I have never experienced the equal of it. She's part Lirin, did you notice that? Lirin women have an especially sweet taste, did you know that, Gammon? Hers is particularly fine. And—well, let us just say that her hair is only the beginning of her charms, charms you could not even begin to imagine."

"Perhaps, though, Gammon, if you remain in my good favor, I will let you try her out a little. Just enough to make your wretched life worth something while keeping you from any major damage, hmmm? Once I've had my fill of her—or should I say she's had her fill of me? What say you, Gammon? Would you like that?"

Gammon knew this trap. "I'll go get her, m'lord," he said.

"Good man," said Michael, and he returned to the field.

Rhapsody had just finished the last penstroke on the scrap of vellum and was blotting it dry when Gammon returned to the Hat and Feathers. The tavern was now empty save for Barney and Dee, and they watched in dread as he strode to her table again and stood across from her. As before, Rhapsody did not look up at him as she finished her work.

"You will come with me," Gammon said.

"Can't today. Sorry."

"Enough of this," Gammon snarled. He grabbed with one hand for the long fall of golden hair held in place by a simple black ribbon; with the other he drew a short sword.

The tavernkeepers watched him double over in pain as Rhapsody slammed the table forward into his groin and pushed him up against the wall with it. He gasped as she ground the corner of the table into his genitals, and his head bobbed down over the table board. She knocked his sword onto the floor next to him, retrieved it, and then leaned forward over the table and spoke directly into his ear.

"You are a very rude man. Go and tell your commander that I said what he was planning to do to me he should do to himself. Do you understand?"

Gammon glared at her, and she put her dagger to his throat before moving the table for him to pass.

"One more thing." she said as she backed him toward the door. "I will be leaving right after you, and I won't be back. Either you and the other thugs you will undoubtedly summon to help you can bother these people, or you can try to catch me. I wouldn't waste the time here if I were you." She threw his sword into the filth of the street.

Gammon spat at her as he left the bar for a second time.

"A very rude man," Rhapsody repeated to Barney and Dee. She dropped a handful of coins onto the table, then gave Dee a quick hug. "I'll go out the front door. You should probably close up until suppertime. I'm sorry for any trouble I've caused you."

"Be careful now, dear," said Dee, fighting back tears.

Rhapsody pulled her cloak from the peg by the entrance and donned it quickly. She slung her satchel over her shoulder and onto her back, and made for the door. As she passed him she gave Barney the scrap of vellum along with one last smile.

"Good luck to you, Barney," she said, kissing his cheek. "And if you should ever come upon a troubadour, get him to play this for you."

Barney look down at the scrap in his hand. On it were graphed five straight lines and a series of musical notes. "What is this, darlin'?" he asked.

"Your name," she said, and she left.

Dee went to the table, pocketed the coins, and picked up the soup bowl and spoon, and the discarded quill. "Barney," she said, "come have a look at this."

There on the table lay a primrose, fresh and fragrant as the moment it was picked.

* * *

The back streets of Easton were dark and cool, a haven from the scorching sun. The two men traveled silently over the cobblestones, past bickering merchants and domestic squabbling, unnoticed in the shadows. That Grunthor could pass without being seen attested to the blinding heat of the day and the depth of the shade in the streets. Normally his sheer size and mass stopped conversation and traffic on the rare occasions he entered a city.

The Brother could sense the more crowded streets long before they got to them, the deafening vibration of the heartbeats of the unwashed masses throbbing in his ears and skin. Whenever a large group of people were present in an upcoming street they would circumvent it, taking an alternate route, adding time to their journey but increasing their chances of going unnoticed.

They picked their way down a deserted section, avoiding scattered refuse and the human garbage that was sleeping off the last night's binge, belching and muttering at the cobblestones beneath their faces. Neither man looked down as they stepped over the drunkards and piles of rubbish, dodging the obstacles with a practiced gait.

The upcoming alley was empty, the Brother knew, and it was a feeder street to the external thoroughfares of the southeastern section. A few blocks more and they would be within reach of the wharf, and the surrounding bustle would swallow them up into anonymity.

The Brother and Grunthor had traversed most of the alley, were within fifty yards of its end, when a commotion spilled into it. A handful of clumsy town guards rounded the corner and came into the alley, chasing a street wench. The men came to an involuntary stop in the shadow of the buildings.

* * *

Rhapsody stepped into the street in front of the Hat and Feathers, scanning the area for any of the miscreants and lowlifes she remembered from Michael's ragtag band of followers.

The pub was on the Kingsway, one of the busiest of Easton's thoroughfares near the northwestern gate, and the street was teeming with human and animal traffic, pounding with noise and stench. Not seeing anyone she recognized as one of his ruffians, she crossed the muddy road, avoiding as best she could the puddles of muck left over from the last night's thunderstorm.

At the center of the Kingsway she met up with Pilam the baker, attempting to navigate a heavy wheeled pushcart covered in burlap through the bemired street. Like a stone breaking the flow of a river, he was causing the stream of people to part and pass around him, sometimes narrowly missing him. His bald pate was red with exertion and shiny with sweat, but his face broke out in a wide grin when he saw her.

"Rhapsody! How are you this fine afternoon?"

"Hello, Pilam. Here, let me give you a hand with that."

Rhapsody scanned the street again, dodged some merchants who were skittering around the obstacle, then took hold of the near side of the cart and raised it out of the rut that was preventing it from moving. Pilam gave it another push and the cart lurched forward, scattering a pile of flat loaves of bread from under the cloth covering. He caught one as it fell, then offered it to her as they again joined the traffic propelling down the muddy street.

"Well, thank you, dear. Please, take this, with my thanks."

"Pilam, you are so gallant. Thank you," Rhapsody said, tossing her head in a manner that made the golden fall of hair catch the light and flashing him a smile that made him weak in the knees.

She stuffed the bread into her pack, then looked around again. Her exaggerated movements had caught the eyes of a number of passers-by, which was her intention; the more witnesses who saw her away from the Hat and Feathers, the safer Barney and Dee would be.

As she came to the cross street, she noticed a familiar-looking man engaged in an intense conversation with a town guard. Quickly pulling up the hood of her cloak, she stepped behind a line of barrels in front of the boyar's shop and watched as a second guard joined the conversation. Then the three of them made their way rapidly down the street toward the Hat and Feathers.

Rhapsody looked on anxiously as the men approached the tavern, stopping passing townsfolk on their way. After having no apparent luck with the first three or four people they asked, a woman nodded in answer to their questions and pointed up the street in her general direction. She sighed in relief as they turned and ran back toward her, the opposite way from the Hat and Feathers. She put her hood down again and rounded the corner onto the cross street.

Leaving the Kingsway put her out of the mercantile district and into the narrower, alleyed streets of residential buildings. Rhapsody knew this area well; it was easy to find alcoves and porticos in this section of town in which to hide. She was almost to the end of the first block when she heard shouting behind her.

She wheeled around to see about a dozen men, several of whom were town guard, running at full tilt toward her, drawing weapons. Rhapsody was amazed. Michael had never been able to count the town guard among his lackeys when she had been unfortunate enough to have commerce with him, but that was almost three years ago. Apparently Barney was right about his growing influence. This was going to be more difficult than she had thought.

Rhapsody ducked around the corner and pulled up her hood once again. She hurried across the street and made for the second alley, which ran between a one-story shack with a thatched roof and a building with two floors fashioned out of mud-brick. The shack had a root cellar, and she was able to squeeze along the side of the hole and under some thatch fallen from the roof. She made herself as comfortable as she could, listening to gauge the guards' approach.

She could hear them for some time before they came into her line of sight, checking the alleys across the street. From the sound of it they had broken into smaller groups and were splitting up to comb the area more quickly. It also seemed to her that there were many more of them than before.

A group of three came around the corner and walked past her head. She took a deep breath and held it while they looked around, kicking over broken crates and boards, cursing.

She felt like cursing herself—how could she have missed Michael's ascent to importance? Her general loathing of him had won out over her common sense, and her miscalculation could cause her problems she was not prepared to deal with. But, she reminded herself, it's not like I had another choice. To have gone with Gammon obediently would have been unthinkable.

Rhapsody watched as one of the three guards scattered a pile of lump coal next to another mud-brick building a few blocks up. A man in a leather apron ran out into the street, cursing and shouting. As the argument grew heated she used the distraction to slip out of her hiding place and dashed around the corner, back toward the cross street that led to the Kingsway. She was almost to first corner when a cry went up behind her.

There was no way to make it back to the Kingsway now. There was also no hope of taking shelter in a house—even if the residents let her in, she might be responsible for bringing disaster upon them. Rhapsody fled, breaking into a run that took her up the first alley and three blocks deeper into the back streets before the guards rounded the corner. They were shouting, and as they pursued her up the alley two more appeared from a street just in front of her. She was trapped in the middle.

Rhapsody tried to run for a side alley, but she was brought to the ground almost immediately. The guard who seized her rolled her over onto her back and slapped her full across the face; she returned the favor by booting him in the testicles. As he hunched over in pain she scrambled to her feet and broke away from his grip, only to be grabbed by the second guard. He pulled her arms roughly behind her back, lifted her off the ground, kicking and struggling, and carried her back into the main alley.

"My, you certainly are a lot of trouble," he said into her ear as he jerked her down the street. "But I'm sure you'll make it worth his while, won't you? When he's rammin' it in you, darlin', think of me." His mouth closed on her neck, and his free hand groped her breast.

With great effort Rhapsody twisted one of her arms free, sending a stabbing pain from her shoulder to her fingers. Fighting to overcome the wave of nausea that followed the pain, she flicked her wrist to bring her dagger forth, twisting her fingers to make it slide into her palm.

She slashed over her head and behind her, aiming for his eyes. The speed with which she hit the ground as he dropped her and doubled over assured her she had struck her target. His screams shocked the three guards who had been following behind her and had stopped where they stood when they saw her captured.

Before they could move she had taken off again, running at breakneck speed down the main alley and into the darker parts of the back streets. When they recovered their composure the three gave chase, while the other tried to tend to his hemorrhaging companion. They saw her dart past two women carrying baskets of clothes and slip down yet another corridor in the street.

Rhapsody entered the alley and stopped, looking around for a place to hide. There was none. She ran forward again, then stopped abruptly when she saw two shapes approaching her from the other end of the street.

The first was a man of gigantic proportion in metal-banded leather armor wearing a helmet with a pointed spike on the top. The second figure was cloaked and hooded, his face covered with what appeared to be a form of veil, and though he appeared diminutive next to the giant, she knew he was tall as well. He moved with an agility that startled her; when he saw her he stopped immediately, about three steps sooner than the giant was able to.

Rhapsody looked behind her again. The three guards had rounded the corner and had closed the distance between them to about thirty feet. She was trapped between the strangers and the guards. Given what she knew about the guards, she decided to appeal to the strangers for assistance.

She turned to the two odd travelers. "Please help me," she gasped, puffing from exertion. "Let me pass." The strangers looked to each other, but did not move.

The guards slowed their steps but continued forward, walking three abreast. Rhapsody turned to face them again. She would need to convince them these strangers were her allies, powerful allies. She did her best to smile at the odd-looking men.

"Pardon me, but would you be willing to adopt me for a moment? I'd be grateful."

The man next to the giant nodded slightly. "Thank you," Rhapsody gasped again. She turned back to the town guard. "What an extraordinary coincidence," she panted, a smile of false bravado on her exquisite, sweating face. "You gentlemen are just in time to meet my brother. Brother, these are the town guard. Gentlemen, this is my brother—Achmed the Snake."

For a moment it was as though time expanded all around Rhapsody. Heat flushed her face and she heard, and felt, a distant but audible crack, followed by a puff, like a spark exploding, or smoke dissipating.

A strange feeling washed over her, unlike any she had ever felt; light-headedness from all the running, perhaps. She winced internally at the idiotic name that had come to her on the spot, but it seemed to have done the trick, because the town guard were now staring over her head in abject fear.

A series of soft thoop sounds whispered behind her and whistled past her. Faster than her eyes could track them shining projectiles, thin as butterfly wings, struck the throats of all three, toppling them over in rapid succession. The guards fell heavily into the mud of the alley, not moving.

Rhapsody looked down at the bodies, amazed. She turned to the strangers again. The smaller of the two was slinging a strange-looking weapon, shaped somewhat like a crossbow but with an asymmetrical curved arm, over his shoulder and under his cloak again. She looked at him in blank admiration.

"Nice work," she said. "Thank you."

The two strangers looked at each other, then around the alley. The cloaked one put out his hand to her. It was slender in its leather sheath, but the grip looked deadly.

"Come with us if you want to live," he said.

His voice was dry with an unnatural rasp to it; it was a percussive sound that widened Rhapsody's eyes with interest.

She looked quickly over her shoulder, hearing the approach of more guards, and then turned to the stranger once more and took his gloved hand. Together the three of them bolted from the alley and into the shadows cast by the afternoon sun setting over the back streets of Easton.

* * *

The walls of the vast city could no longer be seen and darkness was swallowing the meadows that surrounded Easton long before the three travelers stopped to make camp. They had left the city by the eastern gate, down by the docks.

Easton was a port city, a thriving relic left over from the days of the racial campaigns in the Second Age. Though its original planning, and recent attempts at restoration, saw it as a great center of art and culture at the crux of the trade routes, during the wars it had been refitted for defense, as a walled fortress, surrounded on three sides by great stone bulwarks eighteen feet thick leading down to the wharf. The bustle of the seafaring traffic made handy cover for their escape.

Rhapsody had run through the back streets of Easton before, had even been dragged once or twice, but never as purposefully as with these two who half-led, half-carried her through the yards and cobbled alleys. She was able to keep up with them only because of her knowledge of the city.

When they cut through two abandoned buildings well after the point where she was sure they were out of tracking range, however, she lost her bearings. Certainly they had also lost anyone who might have identified them at the scene of the crime. In front of a busy portside tavern, the slighter man stopped.

"These will do," he said, then stole two horses in broad daylight.

The giant lifted Rhapsody onto one of the horses, and they walked a few blocks before the men mounted and rode quickly out of town, across the fields south and along the sea.

The giant rode slightly behind, and Rhapsody could hear the horse working hard to keep up with the pace set by the man with thin hands. In fact, even though she rode in front of him, in the same saddle, she could not hear his breath. It felt only as if she were wearing a modestly heavy cloak instead of sitting in front of a person intent on escape, guiding the horse from behind her. The vibrations from the galloping horse hid her trembling.

They rode the entire afternoon. Rhapsody had never been outside of Easton's southern wall before, and kept casting mournful backward glances at the great gray vista of mud-and-thatch buildings, decaying marble temples, ramshackle stone houses, and towering statuary receding more and more into the twilight with each moment. At dusk she could barely make out the high, twisting wall that led down to the harbor, where distant lights were twinkling; it was nothing more than a faint black line in the approaching darkness.

Once they were out of sight of the city, they slowed their pace, but it was clear that the two men intended to put as much distance between themselves and Easton as possible. Even as night fell and Rhapsody had to acknowledge to herself that she was lost, and might have been kidnapped, not rescued as she first thought, they pressed on.

For a while Rhapsody had felt it was dangerous to the horses to keep moving when no one could possibly see a safe path. Then, without a sign or warning, they stopped. The night had come into itself, and the riders were surrounded by darkness.

"Get down." The voice seemed to come from the air.

Before she could react the smaller man quickly moved her from the saddle. He was down himself in an instant, and with a swift motion threw the reins to the other man.

"Grunthor, lose the horses." The veiled man vanished into the night.

Rhapsody lost sight of him almost immediately. She turned to the shape that the darkness made even more huge, simultaneously backpedaling a step and reaching quietly for the knife in her wrist sheath.

Grunthor did not look at her, but dismounted, tied up the reins on each horse, and stepped back.

"Get on with ya," he said, but the animals were so spent that they hardly reacted. As if he had anticipated this, the giant removed his helmet and moved to a spot directly in front of the horses, where both of them could see him clearly, even with all trace of twilight faded from the sky. He spread his arms and roared.

The sound rumbled and echoed through the horseflesh and through Rhapsody. For a moment the mounts were frozen, but after a breath they were reanimated and fled in the panic of prey in sight of the predator, wild-eyed and screaming.

Grunthor replaced his helmet and turned to Rhapsody. He took one look at the expression on her face and roared with laughter.

"'Allo, darlin'. Oi'm so glad to see it's love at first sight for you, too. Come along." He walked away into the night.

Rhapsody was not sure that it was wise to follow the giant, but was sure it was even less so to make him angry, so she took off after him. She struggled to keep up, trying to sort things out in her head. "Where are we going? Are we walking all the way?"

"Doubtful. We already been on forced march today."

At the edge of the horizon the full moon appeared and began to rise, golden, blanketed in the fog at the edge of the sea. Its light did nothing to illuminate the darkness; impenetrable blackness hung, heavy as pitch, in the summer air. Rhapsody thought she had good night vision, but she was still moving along more by touch and sound than sight.

She trailed after the giant as he followed a path that was apparently only visible to him until she nearly stepped into a small fire. Grunthor had sidestepped at the last second and had to put his arm in front of her to keep her from putting her boot directly into the flames.

A camp was already made. She was not sure if she didn't see it because he was in the way, blocking her view, or because of the darkness of the night, or the way the camp had been placed.

Grunthor moved to a spot upwind of the fire, took off his helmet, and drew a long breath before sitting down. He had paid little attention to her so far, and even though it would put her directly into his line of vision, Rhapsody went to the opposite side, keeping the fire between them, and dropped her pack to the ground. She wasn't bothered by smoke, and thought the flames might provide at least a small barrier if necessary.

In the firelight she took a good look at the giant across from her. Sitting on the ground, he was easily still eye to eye with her, which meant that he was a minimum of seven feet tall and at least as wide as a dray horse.

Beneath his heavy military greatcoat she caught a glint of metal. His armor was foreign to her, and better-made than she would have guessed. It looked like a kind of reptile-scale leather banded by support joints of metal plate, but she had not heard any scrape or other resonance from it the whole time. She was slightly alarmed that she had not heard much from his many weapons, either. He wore an extremely large ax and several wicked-looking blades, and had a number of hilts and handles jutting out from behind his armor.

His face was even more frightening. At least one tooth protruded past his lips, and it was difficult to tell what color his hide-like skin was in the inconstant light. His eyes, ears, and nose were exaggeratedly large on his face, and Rhapsody guessed that he was able to see, hear, and smell her much better than she could him. At the ends of his massive hands were talon-like nails that more accurately resembled claws. He was the stuff of an adult's nightmare. At the moment he was pulling food and something to cook it in from his pack, still ignoring her.

"Let me guess; you've heard of Firbolg but you never met one before, right?"

The sandy voice of the other man spoke directly behind her and Rhapsody jumped. She had not sensed his presence at all. She stared across the crackling flames at the giant. "You're Firbolg? You don't seem it."

"And just what do ya mean by that?"

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be rude," she replied, her face turning red in the light of the campfire. "It's just that, well, in my limited experience, Firbolg are thought of as monsters."

"And in my not-so-limited experience, Lirin are thought of as appetizers," Grunthor replied breezily, without rancor.

"I assume it's your preference not to adopt either of those assumptions," said the cloaked figure.

"Absolutely," said Rhapsody, smiling and shuddering at the same time. She had a feeling the giant wasn't kidding.

The thin man dropped a pile of rabbit carcasses near the giant.

"Who are you?"

"My name is Rhapsody. I'm a student of music. A Singer."

"Why was the town guard chasing you?"

"Much to my surprise, and chagrin, they were in the service of an imbecile who was looking to have me brought to him."

"Brought to him for what?"

"I assume for entertainment purposes."

"Does this imbecile have a name?"

"He calls himself Michael, the Wind of Death. Many of us call him similar, if less flattering, things behind his back."

The two men exchanged a glance, then the man in the cloak looked back at her again. "How do you know him?"

"I'm sorry to say he was a customer of mine three years ago when I was working as a prostitute," Rhapsody answered frankly. "It wasn't really by choice, but not much is when that's your profession. Unfortunately, he became a bit obsessed with me, and he told me at the time he would return for me, but he was such a pompous windbag that I never was much concerned about it. The first of several miscalculations on my part. The second occurred today, when he sent one of his slimy minions to fetch me, and I refused to come. If it had been his regular lackeys, I could have eluded them, but he's managed to enlist the aid of the town guard since I last saw him."

"Why didn't you just agree to meet 'im, and then go into 'iding?"

"That would be lying."

"So?" said the cloaked one. "That would be living."

"I never lie. I can't."

Grunthor chuckled. "What a convenient memory ya got there, sister. Oi seem to remember you tellin' them town guards that you and we was related. Oi think you might look a bit out o' place at our family gatherin's."

"No," interjected the sandy-voiced man. His eyes were full of clear comprehension as they stared at her. "That's why you asked us to adopt you first."

Rhapsody nodded. "Right. My attempt to dissuade them from bothering me wouldn't have worked if it wasn't the truth, at least on some level."

"Why not?"

"Lying is forbidden in the profession I have chosen; if you don't speak the truth, you can't be a Namer, the highest form of Singer. You have to keep the music in your speech on-key and attuned to the world around you. Lying corrupts those vibrations, and sullies what you have to say. It's not an exact science, since truth is partially influenced by perspective."

"That's the academic reason. As a more personal philosophy, my parents always told me deceit was wrong. More recently, it's because once I broke free of my old, uh, line of work, the thing I treasured most was the truth. There really isn't any in being a whore—you are always someone else's lie. And you have to bite your tongue and participate in other people's fantasies, many of which you can't stomach."

"So now that I am free of that life, I couldn't contain my loathing of Michael for one minute more. It was probably a mistake, but I'm not sure I could have done anything differently and still have lived with myself."

"Well, there's no 'arm done."

"Yes there is. I just exiled myself from Easton. I probably blinded one of the town guard in my attempt to escape, and now I can't go back."

The smaller man laughed. "I doubt there are any eyewitnesses."

"Maybe not that saw you," said Rhapsody. "There were many more that saw me—they chased me for eight street corners."

"Then you have a problem." The cloaked man sat back, surveying the field as the smoke from the fire formed a twisted tendril that pointed to the stars. "You could simply choose not to go back. Have you a family you would leave behind, or perhaps one elsewhere on which you can rely?"

The utter indifference in his voice gave Rhapsody the feeling that this was an interrogation, not an attempt at friendly advice. She was fairly sure she had been able to persuade them that she was harmless and relatively valueless, but the fatigue of the flight and uncertainty of her situation was beginning to take its toll. By now the giant Firbolg had skinned the rabbits and arranged the fire to cook them. Rhapsody did not know whether to expect them to offer her anything, but she would hardly have been surprised to see the game eaten raw. When she first undertook to become a Singer, one of the earliest lessons was an epic song of Firbolg history that had left a grisly impression on her, and her two rescuers had done little to change it.

The men moved as though they had traveled together for a long time. There was a routine to the tasks of preparing the meal that spoke of practice and mutual respect. The thin man had killed the rabbits; the giant skinned them. The giant arranged the fire; the other man found fuel. The entire meal, from the meat to some root that also required cooking, was accomplished and the campsite laid out without a word, one to the other. They behaved almost as if she were not there at all. Grunthor did motion at her once, across the fire, with a skewer heavy with sizzling meat, but she shook her head. "No, thank you."

For her part, she rationed out a small portion of the bread Pilam had given her, and stored it in a pocket of her cloak rather than return it to her pack. She was feeling more and more uneasy about her companions by the minute, and wanted to be ready to flee if necessary. Her pack was not within easy reach. Normally she would never have considered leaving her instruments, but when he stopped to eat, Rhapsody had caught sight of the thin man's face.

She tried to look at first without appearing to look, but as horrifying as the giant was, she was unprepared for the shock of the slightly more human face.

In the whole expanse of skin on the front of his head there was not a single smooth spot. It was not lumpy, but scarred, pocked, and it was marked with traceries of exposed veins. She had seen diseased faces, and faces marred by time and weapons and other scourges, drink and worse, but here it looked as if the entire army of Destiny's Horsemen had run roughshod over his face, sharply clipping flesh from his nose, thrusting the rest around with the force of their riding.

What truly caught her, though, were his eyes. As if plucked from two different heads, neither size, nor color, nor shape were matched in them, and their placement in this remarkable and terrifying face was not even symmetrical. He looked as if he were sighting down a weapon. Just then she became aware that he was staring back at her.

Rhapsody had been in the city long enough and was a quick enough reader of people to seldom be caught looking. Her recovery was swift, if fumbling: "So where are you headed next?"

"Off Island."

She smiled uncertainly. "You must have irritated someone really important, too."

A cloud passed over the moon. Rhapsody could vaguely tell that she should be aware of something.

She continued to stare at him through the fire, which seemed to have changed ever-so-slightly, and as she watched the thin man chewing, she saw the fire roar up and reflect in his eyes. She imagined that he was staring at her while chewing on her answers instead of the roasted rabbit she now felt foolish to have refused. Everyone deserves a last meal, she thought ruefully.

Somewhere in the deepest part of her, the part of her that was a Namer, a storysinger, she heard her own musical note ring through the roaring of the fire, through the silence of the men. The clarity of her Naming note, her touchstone of truth, told her that this was a trap, a trick of the fire. Then she saw the thin hands and the battlefield face step through the fire itself, and she knew it was too late to escape. She blinked with eyelids made heavy by more than exhaustion; the smoke must have contained a hypnotic herb with which she was not familiar.

He was angry, but he did not touch her. Instead, he grabbed her pack from the ground next to her and began rifling through it.

"Who are you?" the cloaked man demanded. His voice was a fricative hissing, his cloak still smoky from his leap over the flames. He waited for an answer.

"Hey, put that down." She tried to stand but satisfied herself with shaking off the trance.

The giant stood up. "Oi wouldn't do that if Oi were you, miss. Just answer the question."

"I already told you; my name is Rhapsody. Now put that down before you break something."

"I never break anything unless I mean to. Now, try again. Who are you?"

"I thought I got it right the first time. Let's see; I'll try again. Rhapsody. Isn't that what I said before?" Her head was swimming, her answers seemed fuzzy. "What did you put in the fire?"

"I'm about to put your hair in it. How did you know who I am?" He grabbed her injured arm with fingers that behaved more like shears, cutting off feeling to her wrist and hand. Without moving, her muscle began to spasm. There was a small shock of painful interrupted bloodflow at each heartbeat.

Rhapsody did not react. One advantage she had always had was that she could stand a little abuse. She had also learned that hiding her pain and fear could keep her alive.

"I have no idea what you're talking about. I have no idea who you are. Now let go."

"In the alley you named me before those guards."

Even though her fingers were going numb, Rhapsody remained steady. You gentlemen are just in time to meet my brother. Brother, these are the town guard. Gentlemen, this is my brotherAchmedthe Snake. Despite her drugged state, she felt embarrassment.

"I needed an ally at that moment, and you just happened to be there," she said. "It was the first scary name that came into my head, even if in hindsight it was rather, well—I'm sorry. I didn't mean to presume."

"That's not the part 'e's talkin' about," said Grunthor. "'Ow did you know 'e's the Brother?"

"Whose brother?"

For a moment, Rhapsody thought it had gone too far, that she was going to pass out. With each question the sensation that he was severing her arm with his grip grew more urgent. Suddenly, he relaxed his hold on her and looked across the fire at his partner, then back at her.

"I certainly hope you're only pretending to be this stupid."

"No, I'm afraid not. I have no idea what you are talking about. Is your name supposed to mean something to me?"

"No."

"Then could you let go?"

Grunthor moved to help her stand as the man with the nightmare face released her and returned to searching her bag.

"What 'e's sayin' is, those troops after you were nothing next to what's chasin' us. This is a serious business, miss. My friend wants to know 'ow you knew 'e is the Brother."

"I'm sorry, but I've never heard of the Brother, if that's your name. I was trying to convince them that you were my brother. That's why I asked if you would adopt me, so that it would be true. I guess this was an unfortunate coincidence. But I've already told you I never lie. So either believe me, or kill me, but do not break my instruments."

"I'll smash every one here if you do not tell me the whole truth. Perhaps you had well-meaning parents. Perhaps you were once a professional whore, perhaps you took a vow. Perhaps you now are the consort of some holier-than-unholy man who gets his jollies from your candor. Tell me now who you really are and how you knew to name me."

"First, tell me who you both are, and what you intend to do with me."

The piercing eyes regarded her sharply. "This is Grunthor. No one has concealed that."

The giant glanced at her quickly. "Although you can always call me The Ultimate Authority, to Be Obeyed at All Costs," he said lightly. "My troops always does."

The joke had its intended effect. The robed man exchanged a look with the giant, then seemed to relax somewhat.

"At the moment, Achmed is as apt an appellation as anything for me, since that is what you chose to call me," he said sullenly. "As to who I am, and your fate, both of those are yet to be determined. You spoke my name and then changed it. Normally this would only be an annoyance, but those who are hunting us can make the dead speak, and surely will if they feel they can learn something. Those dead idiots heard what you said. What is a trollop doing with expensive instruments?"

Rhapsody rubbed her shoulder, feeling the pain begin to abate.

"I am not a trollop. As I told you before, I am a student of music, and I have achieved the status of Singer of Lirin lore; our word for it is Enwr. My goal was to go on to become a Namer, a Canwr; it is a rare accomplishment but the skills are useful."

"Four years ago I was accepted as an apprentice. I studied for three of those years with Heiles, a Namer of great renown who lived in Easton, but a year or so ago he vanished without a trace, and I was left to finish my studies on my own. I was completing my final research just this morning."

"What can you do?"

Rhapsody shrugged, then held her throbbing hands closer to the fire.

"Assorted things. The main thing Singers study is lore. Sometimes lore consists of old tales or the history of a race or a culture. Sometimes it's the knowledge of a particular discipline, like herbalism or astronomy. Sometimes it's a collection of songs that tell an important story which would otherwise be lost."

The man now known as Achmed stared at her. "And sometimes it's the knowledge of ancient powers."

Rhapsody swallowed nervously. The subject of lore was more akin to a religious belief than a science. It was the way in which the people of her race and profession derived wisdom and power from the vibrations in the life around them. Since in the Lirin creed Life and God were the same thing, the use of lore was a form of prayer, a kind of communion with the Infinite. It was hardly something she wanted to be discussing with a stranger, and especially not this one.

She looked up to meet his gaze and found an intensity in his eyes that stung her own. It was compelling her to speak, silently demanding an answer.

"Sometimes, yes, but that generally is something known to Namers and Singers of great experience. Even then, the reason a Namer can draw on the power of a primordial element, like fire or wind, or on a lesser element, like time, is that they have intimate knowledge of it; they know its story, in a sense. That's another reason for the need for the vow of truth among Namers: if you should interject falsity into lore it dilutes its story, makes it weaker for everyone."

The hooded man stuffed her burlap-wrapped harp back into her pack and cinched the drawstring savagely. "So I'll ask you again, Singer; what can you do?"

Rhapsody hesitated. The man who had once been known as the Brother lifted her pack off the ground, balancing it precariously on one finger over the fire. It was as subtle a threat as she had ever seen.

"Not very much, outside of singing a rather extensive collection of historical ballads and epics. I can find herbs to throw into the fire to mesmerize people. Obviously that isn't going to impress you much since you can, too. I can bring sleep to the restless, or prolong the slumber of someone who is already asleep, an especially useful talent for new parents of fussy babies."

"I can ease pain of the body and the heart, heal minor wounds, and comfort the dying, making their passage easier. Sometimes I can see their souls as they leave for the light. I can tell a story from a few bits of fact and a good dollop of audience reaction. I can tell the absolute truth as I know it. And when I do that I can change things."

Rhapsody pointed to her pack, and he handed it over. She reached inside without looking, and took out a shriveled flower from her morning study session. Gently, to avoid crumbling what was left of the dried petals, she placed the blossom on her open palm and spoke the name of the flower as it might be said in the humid summer day of its glory.

Slowly, but strongly, the petals drank life into themselves and, as long as she whispered the words, bloomed again. Grunthor touched the flower with the tip of one claw, and it bounced a little, as it might if it were fresh. Then Rhapsody fell silent, and the life evaporated into the darkness.

"In theory, I could also kill a whole field of these by speaking the name of their death, if I knew it. So, I suppose the explanation of this afternoon's events goes something like this: We came upon each other in the circumstances you know. By happenstance I spoke your true name, for which I apologize most humbly, but it was, after all, an accident. And then I renamed you; now you really are Achmed the Snake, it's your identity on the deepest possible level. I'm sorry if that was presumptuous. I had no idea I could actually do it yet. I suppose that makes you my first."

"How ironic," said the man she had called Achmed, with a sneer. "I wonder how many other men have heard you use those very words."

"Only one," she retorted without a hint of offense in her voice. "As I said before, and am tired of repeating, I don't lie. Not knowingly, anyway."

"Everyone lies, don't be naive. I don't know whether your party trick has shortened the time we have, or covered the trail."

"Will you at least tell me who you are running from? I have told you all about what I was up to and who was chasing me, and here you have stranded me in the middle of gods-know-where, without a clue about who you are or where you're going or whether you're worse than what I left. I want to know if I should stay or take my chances back with the guards."

"This presumes you will be given a choice." Achmed turned his back on her and conferred quietly with Grunthor. For a very long moment she was stalled in her frustration and confusion. As her head cleared from the intoxicants she began to plot out how she might escape, and, if successful, find her way to somewhere she could survive. As she rearranged the displaced contents of her pack, Grunthor approached her. She turned quickly, but the other man was gone again.

"Miss, you should come with us."

"Why? Where?"

"To return to Easton is death. If the Waste o' Breath don't get you, then our particular problem will. You won't 'ave any chance to say you weren't with us, and they'll torture you until you tell what you know or die, whatever comes second."

"I could go to another town. There are plenty of places to hide. I'll be fine on my own, thank you."

"Your choice, my dear, but leavin' is better than stayin'."

"Where did the other one go?"

"Oh, you mean 'Uchmed'? Oi believe 'e went to scout for Michael, to make sure 'e ain't picked up our trail yet."

Rhapsody's eyes widened in horror. "Michael? Michael is following us?"

"Could be; it's 'ard to say. 'E was camped outside the nort'western wall when we left, so 'e probably ain't too nearby yet unless 'e is particularly intent on findin' you. Michael ain't got no trouble with us."

Rhapsody looked around in the darkness nervously. "Where are you going?"

"You can follow us as far as the forest, if you'd like."

"The Lirin wood? The Enchanted Forest?"

"Yeah, that's the one."

"I thought you said you were headed off Island."

The giant rubbed his jutting chin. "Oh, we are, believe me. But we're goin' to the forest first."

"What business do you have in the Lirin wood?"

"Actually, we're on a bit o' a pilgrimage, miss. We're gonna go see the Great Tree."

A look of awe came over Rhapsody's face. "Sagia? You're going to Sagia?"

"Yeah, that's right. We're gonna pay our respects to the great Lirin Tree."

Her eyes narrowed. "You aren't going to harm it, are you? It would be a tremendous mistake on your part."

Grunthor looked offended. "O' course not," he said indignantly. "We intend to do a bit o' paryin' there."

Rhapsody was mollified. "All right," she said, lifting her pack. "I'll go with you, at least to the wood."

"'Ow many miles you got left in you today, miss?"

"Whatever I need to have, I guess."

"Well, Oi'm afraid that makes you the only one. We been on the road all day, and we're campin' 'ere. Why don't you get some sleep, darlin'? We'll wake you in time to leave before daylight."

"Will we be safe? From Michael, I mean."

A look of utter amusement crossed the giant's face. "Oh, very safe, my dear. Not to worry."

"I can sit a watch," Rhapsody offered. "I have a dagger."

Achmed's voice came from behind her in the darkness. "Well, I for one will sleep much better now knowing you're protecting us, Rhapsody. Try not to hurt any small animals that might attack unless they're edible."

* * *

In the foothills of the High Reaches, within the Spire, the silent vault of obsidian that was its hidden seat of power, the red-rimmed eyes of the F'dor's human host broke open in the darkness.

The chain had snapped.

Slowly Tsoltan sat up on the smoothly polished catafalque where he customarily took his repose. He passed his hands through the darkness, grasping futilely for the invisible ends of the metaphysical restraint that had held his greatest trophy in servitude. Nothing; not even a frayed thread of his former absolute control.

The Brother had slipped his leash.

As his anger mounted, the air around the demon-priest grew suddenly dry and thin, on the verge of tangibly cracking. Tsoltan rose quickly and strode down the long hallways to the Deep Chamber.

Sparks ignited behind him, combusting tapestries, altar cloths, and the robes of a few unfortunate priests along the way. His minions gasped for breath in the smothering air and shivered in the black light of the flames, recognizing the fire for what it was—the prelude to the venting of the demon's wrath.

In fury he ascended the red-veined marble steps to the highest altar, his place of blood sacrifice. A solid block of obsidian, mined in the Second Age by the Nain of the Northern Mountains, it had once been the cornerstone of a temple to the All-God, the Deity of Life, built by the united races.

Now it rested at the top of the enormous staircase of concentric marble circles reaching to the unseen ceiling of the Spire, its leather limb restraints and metal collection vessels amusing testimony to how times had changed. It had seemed a fitting place to store the true name of the Brother, the Dhracian whose birthright had bequeathed him a link to the life's blood of the populace of Serendair. The Child of Blood, as he was known in some circles.

Vast ceremonial braziers, standing cold and silent, roared to hideous life in a wide, screaming circle of black fire as he raged past. The smoky flames threw grisly shadows on the distant walls, twisting and writhing in grim anticipation.

Upon reaching the sacrificial altar, Tsoltan hesitated for a moment. He extended a shaking hand and gently caressed the symbols of hatred exquisitely carved into the polished surface, tracing the crusted black channels that laced the smooth top, curving downward into a brass well in the center.

Through this metal mouth he had fed the assassin's captive soul the blood of the Brother's own race, and, when the Dhracians were largely exterminated, that of other innocents, by way of keeping his unique blood bond alive even in slavery.

It had been especially effective in insuring the Brother's cooperation in his master plan, though he had no illusions about the assassin's allegiance. It would have been a coup just to secure his services; the Brother had a reputation, prior to the capture of his true name, for taking only those assignments that he selected himself. His enslavement changed all that. It had made him Tsoltan's most effective weapon and his primary agent in the completion of the plan's final steps.

The F'dor's hands gripped the altar table more firmly now. He muttered the words of Opening in the ancient language of the Before-Time, perverse countersigns of power tied directly to the birth of fire, the element from which all of his race had sprung. The black stone altar glimmered for a moment, then glowed red as the fire within the obsidian burned, liquefying the stone into molten glass. With a hissing snap, the altar split in two.

Tsoltan tore through the layers of aqueous stone inside and reached into the hollow reliquary within the belly of the altar where the Brother's name had been entombed. When the name had first been brought to the altar to be sealed in the coffer it had been the most singular moment of satisfaction the F'dor had ever experienced, at least in this lifetime.

It was the culmination of great search and great expense, first obtaining the name, and then capturing it. Finally, the greatest Namer in all of Serendair had been persuaded, after months of torture so excruciating that it bordered on artistry, to write the name in musical script on a scroll of ancient silk. Tsoltan himself had taken the scroll from the man's lifeless hand and surrounded it lovingly with a whirling sphere of protective power, born of firelight and held in place by the spinning of the Earth itself. It had been a thing of great beauty, and securing it within the altar had left him strangely sad, almost bereft of the joy its capture had brought him.

Not, however, as bereft as he felt now. The reliquary held no radiant globe, no Namer's scroll, only the fragments and crumbs of silk left over from what seemed to have been a small explosion. Feverishly Tsoltan gathered the pieces, searching for the musical script, but what few shreds remained were blank.

A howl of fury echoed through the mammoth chamber, cracking many of the obsidian walls. Tsoltan's servants waited in dread to be called in, but heard no further sound. A moment later, their apprehension expanded into full-fledged horror. They could feel the darkness fall about them, palpable and cold as a mist on their shoulders.

Tsoltan was summoning the Shing.

* * *

Rhapsody was already in the throes of a nightmare when the enormous leathery hand cupped her mouth, snapping her eyes open. Her heart, thrown into feverish racing, pounded so loudly she feared it would rip forth from her chest, but like the scream Grunthor's hand had stifled, it remained in place for the moment, unable to escape, careening off her ribs in panic.

"Sshhh, miss. Don't move. Stay 'ere, darlin', and don't make any noise, eh?" The giant's voice was soft. Rhapsody nodded slightly. Grunthor removed his hand and moved away.

Beneath her back she could feel the ground rumble. She strained to hear over the whine of the night wind, and after a moment thought she could make out the sound of distant horses, many of them, galloping hard.

With great effort she twisted onto her side, taking care not to rise above the grassy scrub where she had fallen into her troubled sleep. The fire was gone without a trace.

Grunthor knelt beside her in a shaft of moonlight, his enormous shape obliterating any other view she might have had. He was gleefully pulling weapons from his back and boot scabbards, fondly examining each blade in the muted light, humming softly to himself. Then, with surprising alacrity and silence, he was gone.

"You don't follow directions particularly well, Rhapsody." The silky voice came from directly over her. Rhapsody choked back a gasp and quickly lay flat again. Above her was nothing but darkness. "Grunthor told you not to move. It was for your own good."

Near her head she felt a slight movement of air, and the darkness twisted before her eyes. Achmed crouched beside her. "Of course, you're welcome to make yourself a target if you'd like. After all, these idiots coming momentarily are friends of yours."

"Michael?" Even in a whisper, the crack in her voice was clear.

From within the veiled hood, mismatched eyes stared down at her thoughtfully for a long moment, then looked up in the direction Grunthor had gone. She was aware of a faint hum, an almost insectlike buzzing; then Achmed looked down at her again. When he spoke his voice was soft and vaguely hoarse.

"His men. He's not with them."

"How can you know that?"

A low, distinct sound of irritation came from above her. "You're right. Why don't you stand up, wave your arms, and call out to him? I'm sure he'll be glad to see you if he's there."

"I'm—I'm sorry," she whispered, swallowing the choking knot of fear that had risen in her throat. There was no response. She waited a moment longer, then squinted. She could no longer see him. "Achmed?"

The warm night wind blew over her, whipping loose tendrils of golden hair and a few dried blades of long grass over her face. Rhapsody closed her eyes as the rumbling in the ground grew louder; the horsemen were coming nearer. She tried to keep them shut, but found herself involuntarily searching for stars in the sky above her, its blackness muted in the blistering light of the full moon. There was nothing she could do now but wait and listen.

Karvolt, Michael's lieutenant, reined his horse to a slow walk, signaling the others to caution. The scorched meadow grass was high in the peak of summer and undulated gently in the night wind; otherwise, there was nothing in sight for miles around, nor had there been since they left Easton.

Nonetheless he had sensed a hesitancy in his mount, an unwillingness in the gelding that usually signaled danger, although it might just as easily be the animal's exhaustion instead. They had been riding at a ridiculous pace, inspired by the ferocity of their leader's reaction to the discovery that his quarry had escaped. Each of the nineteen other men in the hunting party reined his mount to a stop in response.

Karvolt's black eyes scanned the dips and swales of the Wide Meadows again, listening to the clamor of the overheated horses coming to halt over the labored breathing and muttering of his men. The night wind blew through his matted hair, caressing his neck, but instead of drying the pouring sweat it only served to throw a chill through him. He shook it off; there was nothing in sight, just the waving high grass and the billowing shadows cast by the moon.

Absently he wedged his forefinger into the collar of his mail to ease the chafed welt that was rising there. His glance shifted to the men, some wearily leaning against the necks of their mounts, others uncapping their waterskins and drinking gratefully. He patted the gelding and felt it trembling still. Karvolt looked around once again at the wide panorama of darkness.

Nothing.

"Careful," he instructed in a low, clipped tone; Karvolt was a man for whom words came at great mental expense. "My horse's actin' afright. Anybody else's?"

As if in response, from the ground in their midst came an earsplitting, heart-exploding roar, a war scream that was equal parts anger and mirth, triumph and savagery. Ascending with it, equally fast, came its source.

The flickering shadows of the midsummer moon only illuminated part of the man-monster, a hideous mountain of snarling claws, tusks, and muscle wrapped in hide-like armor, both worn on his body and, worse, an intrinsic part of it. The beast was whetting two gleaming blades, one against the other. As it reached its full height it threw back its head and laughed uproariously, a sound even more gruesome than its initial roar.

To a one the horses reared, screaming, tossing and trampling their shocked riders in their fright. A maelstrom of panicking horseflesh swirled in the windy meadow, a few resorting to rolling on the ground or bucking the soldiers off like stinging flies, amid the shouts and cries of terror.

After a few initial seconds of snorting misdirection the animals broke free and dashed off, in a loose, frightened herd, to the west. One unlucky soldier, unable to disengage from his stirrups, was dragged along with them, his screams echoing for only a moment, choking off abruptly long before the horses were out of sight.

"I think that's a unanimous yes."

Karvolt, who had managed to rise to one knee after disengaging from his fleeing mount, turned slowly and looked behind him, panting.

Coming toward him was what appeared to be a moving slice of the night. As it got closer he could make out that it was a man, swathed in a cloak with a deep, veiled hood, whispering across the field like an ill wind, coming his way unhurriedly. Karvolt scrambled backward over the broken body of one of his men, grasping at the hilt of his weapon with a shaking, sweaty hand.

He glanced quickly over his shoulder and then ahead again, judging the distance of the fallen saddle and saddlebags behind him to be just a few paces too far to serve as cover. Off to his left he could hear the sickening ring of metal and the subsequent thudding of falling heads and bodies as the giant lopped away, still laughing aloud.

Karvolt backed away, trembling, struggling to hang on to his composure and balance. Around him, men who had lost the fight against panic were bolting, only to be decapitated or impaled with something thrown by the chuckling giant. In his darkest nightmares, and all his bloody campaigns with the Wind of Death, he could never have imagined this. He rose to an unsteady stance and drew.

The other soldiers, some motionless in injury, others in fear, were bringing forth their weapons as well. Karvolt limped slowly back, his eyes all the while on the moving shadow, its cloak dancing smoothly in the warm wind.

The man was coming rapidly, fluidly, stopping before each of the fallen soldiers, swiftly removing their weapons from their hands, deflecting their final charges, with a patient, almost professional air. Though he knew they were attacking to the best of their remaining ability, it seemed to Karvolt that the soldiers were almost handing over their weapons to him. The shadow man moved faster than his strained eyes could follow, slitting a throat, inserting a dagger into an ear, respectfully, almost kindly.

He passed between each of the remaining soldiers on the ground, gliding from man to man like an angelic spirit, offering a hand to one as to a long-lost kinsman, then moving the blade from the soldier's grasp to his own and returning it, with one near-invisible motion, into the pit beneath the man's arm. With an air that was almost gentle he held down a hand to leave a neck exposed, dispensing death more swiftly and efficiently than Karvolt had ever seen, switching hands freely, never pausing, but never pushing. For all that Michael might call himself the Wind of Death, this truly was seeing the wind itself.

Time slowed for Karvolt as the realization came upon him, like a comforting mantle, of the imminence of his own death. Detachedly he was aware of the tightness of the skin around his eyes and across his brow. He knew his face was fixed in the skull-like expression of utter terror he had seen so often in the faces of his own victims, though he felt little of the actual fear it must be displaying.

As the hooded man finished with the last of his remaining comrades and started on the final approach toward him, Karvolt wondered with the last of his abilities of supposition how all the mothers he had put to the sword over the years had managed to fight until the end, as they invariably had. All his years of training and experience in murderous slaughter and the reactions that came with them had deserted him utterly in the face of death.

Summoning the last of his will, Karvolt swung the triatine that had been his father's before him, knowing that it was in vain, and fell back. The man stood over him now. Karvolt was sure he was being looked at from within the dark hood with sympathy. His weapon was gripped by a thin, iron-strong hand that closed over his own trembling one. The voice that spoke in his ear was courteous, almost courtly. "Allow me."

As even deeper darkness surrounded him, Karvolt was vaguely aware of the subtle twist that repositioned the triatine, then thrust the thin, triple-bladed sword through his chest.

In his last moment he noted the surprising lack of pain, and the absence of effort that the shadow before him expended on withdrawing the weapon; the weight of his own body falling away drew him off it quite cleanly. His vision closed in on him, starting at the outer edges of his eyes. He only heard fragments of the words the giant exchanged with his executioner. "You certainly took your time gettin' to 'im, sir."

"He had an interesting blade. Add it to your collection."

Grunthor returned he found Rhapsody exactly where he had left her, motionless, staring directly above her. He pushed aside the body of one of Michael's soldiers who had fallen within a hairbreadth of her, extended an enormous hand, and dragged her gently to her feet.

"Ya all right, miss?" The Bolg followed behind her, watching her expressionless face as she surveyed the carnage in the field. Rhapsody nodded slightly, continuing her examination. She shivered in the wind and ran her hands over her arms as if chilled, but otherwise betrayed no outward sign of emotion.

"Quite a testimony to your charms," Achmed said, a grim half-smile visible even under his veiled hood. "I guess they were just dying to see you again."

Rhapsody stopped before Karvolt's body. The men watched as her slender back went rigid. She crouched down and took the corpse by the shoulder, turning it slightly to better see the face. Then, like a rolling wave, hate swam visibly through her muscles.

She leapt to her feet and aimed an impressively savage kick squarely at the corpse's head, then another, and another, with growing intensity. Between shallow breaths she began to mutter a string of inspired curses more vile than either of the men remembered hearing, much to Grunthor's delight.

"Balls! Not bad for a little sparker! She could teach me an oath or two, eh, sir? Figger she knows 'im?"

Achmed smiled. "What gave you such a notion? Give her another shot or two, then see if you can pull her off. We need to be heading on."

Smoke from the breakfast fire hung low in the heavy morning air, blending with the rising fog of dawn, as Achmed had intended. The girl was not back yet, having excused herself a few moments before and walked a short distance away, to the other side of a deep swale in the field, out of sight. He could feel her anyway, her heartbeat slow and steady, not as it would be had she been preparing to run. He stirred the fire and the clumping stew in the pot that hung over it.

Her words of courteous leaving were the first she had uttered all night, though she had not been given to speaking much before that, anyway. Grunthor had inquired several times in the course of their march if she was all right, and each time she had nodded politely, staring straight ahead as they walked. He knew that the giant felt her to be traumatized, but Achmed was more inclined to believe that she was traveling down old roads in her mind, roads much rougher than the rocky fields they were now crossing. It didn't matter to him in either case.

They would need to bring her along. It had been his belief and position from the first discussion with Grunthor after their exit from Easton, but he was even more sure of it now. Her safety was not of concern; her problems with the Waste of Breath were her own matter. Far more important was the insurance that having her alive would provide until he could determine what exactly had happened with his name.

The collar of his servitude, the invisible chokehold that he had worn since the F'dor had come into possession of his identity, was gone, broken from his neck as certainly as anything he had ever known. From the moment she had uttered her inane comment in the cool darkness of Easton's back alley he had been free of it, and more: he had actually become a different man. She had changed not only what he was called, but who he was, a dangerous power to be entrusted to one whose actions characterized her as idiotic. That power must be substantial, colossal, in fact, to subvert the will of the F'dor. A powerful idiot; marvelous. Achmed snorted in irritation.

The name change had not seemed to affect his birthright. He was still assailed by the pounding of the heartbeats of millions, drumming in his dreams and each waking moment as they had from the moment of his birth.

But the details of this new arrangement of identity remained to be seen. He would need to retain her, at least until they arrived at their destination, to insure that there was no unfinished business, no detail in the situation that he had not accounted for. The Brother, before his enslavement, had been the master of not only his own destiny, but the destiny of anyone else he chose. This Namer's actions might have returned him to that state, or might not have; he now knew nothing about himself whatsoever. Another man might have been grateful for the salvation. Achmed was merely annoyed.

In the distance he could hear a soft, bright tone rising on the morning wind, a sound that eased the age-old pounding in his blood and cleared his mind; the girl was singing. An orange ray of dusty sunlight had pierced the blue gloom of morning, illuminating the smoky haze around them. He turned quickly to look at Grunthor, who had just awakened and was staring off in the direction she had gone as if entranced. The giant then shook his head, as if shaking off sleep, and turned to meet his glance.

"What's that?"

The man now known as Achmed the Snake gave the pungent stew another stir.

"Devotions."

"Eh?"

He banged the metal spoon savagely against the side of the pot. "She's Liringlas, a Skysinger. The kind of Lirin that mark the rising and setting of the sun and stars with song."

The giant broke into a wide, pasty grin. "Lovely. And just 'ow do you know that lit'le bit o' fact?" Achmed shrugged but said nothing. Dhracians and Lirin had ancestral ties, but he deemed it a piece of information not worthy of explanation.

A moment later the sweet music ended, taking with it the fragile sense of well-being it had brought a moment before. By the time Rhapsody returned to camp, Achmed's hidden face was wrapped in a scowl again. By contrast, the grim expression that had beset her features the night before was gone, replaced by a placid, almost cheerful mien.

"Good morning," she said. She smiled, and the giant smiled in return.

"Mornin', miss. Ya feelin' better?"

"Yes, thank you. Good morning, Achmed." She didn't wait for a reply, but sat down next to her gear and began tightening the leather bindings on her pack. "Thank you for your—assistance last night."

The sun cracked the horizon behind her, bathing her in a shaft of rosy golden light, causing her hair to gleam brightly. She pulled a crust of bread out of the pocket of her vest, then brushed the crumbs from the long sleeves of her white muslin shirt, stained with grass and dirt. She held out the bread, offering to share. When the men ignored her, she took a bite, wiping her mud-brown wool trousers free of debris.

"Eat quickly," Achmed said, ladling the stew into two battered steel mugs. "We have a lot of distance to cover today."

Rhapsody stopped in mid-chew, then swallowed painfully. "We? Today? What do you mean?"

The Dhracian handed Grunthor a mug, then raised one to his own lips, saying nothing.

"I thought—Michael's men are dead."

Achmed lowered his mug. "Are all Namers given to such rash leaps of assumption? He has many men. That was only one contingent. Do you really think it was the only one he sent?" He ignored Grunthor's glance and raised the mug to his lips once more.

Rhapsody's face went white for a moment, then hardened into a considered, calm expression. "How far to the Tree?"

"Less than a fortnight, if the weather holds and field conditions don't worsen."

The Singer nodded again. "And are you still willing to let me come with you?"

Achmed finished his stew, wiped the remaining droplets out of the depths of the mug with his forefinger, and shook it out, upside down, over the fire. He tossed grass into the other utensils, spun them out as well, and stowed them away, her question hanging heavy in the air. Finally, when the equipment was packed, he shouldered his weapon and gear, slipping both beneath the black cloak.

"If you can keep up, and keep your mouth shut, I'll consider it."

They made their way at a brutal overland speed, traveling in long stretches, for a dozen nightmarish days, stopping rarely, barely pausing before moving on. Traveling time was not limited to either day or night, but rather to Achmed's scouting. It seemed to Rhapsody that he had some sense of inner warning about the presence of other beings, man or animal, that stood between them and the wood.

They might hide for hours, waiting for a group of unknowing travelers to move out of their path. When this happened, she would take the opportunity to doze, not knowing when it would come again. Or they might go for an entire day at a forced-march clip if the way was clear. The men were used to the pace, and she could keep up fairly well, only needing to stop when she found the sun in the same place it had been once more without a rest break. After a week she was able to match their pace, and they traveled quickly, and in silence.

Finally, at noon on the twelfth day, Achmed pointed directly south and stopped. The two exchanged soft words in a language Rhapsody had never heard except between them; then Grunthor turned to her.

"Well, miss, you up for a good ten-mile run?"

"Run? We haven't stopped for the night yet. I don't think I can do it."

"Oi was afraid you might say that. 'Ere, then." He crouched down and patted his shoulder. Rhapsody stared at him, exhaustion making her confused, then realized foggily that he wanted to carry her on his back, a prospect she particularly loathed. She shuddered at the sight of the many hilts and blade handles protruding from various moorings and bandoliers that crossed his shoulders. It would be like lying down in a field of swords.

"No. I'm sorry, I can't."

The cloaked figure turned to her, and beneath the hood she could see the irritation in his eyes.

"We're almost there. Choose now: shall we abandon you here, or are you going to be gracious about Grunthor's offer of help? The woods are in sight; those that defend them are not. These are bad days; they take no risks with wanderers strolling near their outposts."

Rhapsody looked around. She had no idea where she was, nor could she see the forest. As she had several times since beginning the journey, she considered staying put, hoping that whatever she encountered after the two moved on would be safer company. But, also as she had decided before, her traveling companions rescued her, had not tried to harm her, and looked out for her in their own way. So she swallowed her displeasure and agreed.

"Very well, I'll walk as long as I can first, all right?"

"Fine, miss, just let me know when you're tired."

She rolled her eyes. "I've been tired for days. I'll let you know when I can't go on."

"Fair enough," said the giant.

* * *

The moon was on the wane. It hung low in the sky, trimmed with blood-red mist, a silent observer of the answer to the F'dor's summons.

From deep within the dark temple the call had come, channeled out through the massive stone steeple above, standing black against the night sky.

The towering obelisk was an architectural marvel, a joint masterpiece of man and of nature. Thousands of tons of basalt base and obsidian shaft reached up into the darkness that surrounded its well-hidden cavern in the High Reaches, Serendair's forbidding northern mountain range. The actual spire of the mammoth fortress a mile below the ground, the shadowy monolith pierced the racing clouds, thrusting skyward proudly, almost insolently, tapering to a point in which was carved the image of a single eye. As the chant began, the scraps of vaporous mist that hovered in the humid air around the Spire dissipated instantly; the eye was clearing, readying itself.

The ancient words of Summoning, spoken by the dark priest at the altar of blood sacrifice, were not known in the language of this Age, or even the two Ages previous to it. They came from the Before-Time, the primordial era when the elements of the universe were being born, and symbolized the most ancient and essential of all ties: the link between the element of fire and the race that sprang from it, the F'dor.

Twisted, avaricious beings with a deceptive, jealous nature, the few surviving F'dor shared a common longing to consume the world around them, much like the fire from which they came. Also like fire, F'dor had no corporeal form, but rather fed off a more solid host, the way fire grows by consuming fuel, destroying it in the process.

The demon-spirit that clung to Tsoltan, high priest to the Goddess of Void in the world of men, had made its way to power slowly, patiently, over time. From the moment of its birth in the Earth's fiery belly it had taken a long worldview, planning its steps carefully, willingly attaching itself to hosts who were weak or inconsequential in order to give itself the time to grow into the fullness of its potential.

Even as it passed, through death or conquest, to increasingly powerful hosts, it held back, reserved the time of its revelation, to insure that nothing compromised its ultimate goal. The possession of Tsoltan had been an inspired one, achieved willingly, early in his priesthood. The duality of his nature served to make him doubly strong, leant a strategic composure to his innate desire to devour. Living at one moment in the world of men, the next in the dark domain of black fire, Tsoltan existed on two levels, both as man and as demon.

And neither of them had the power he needed over the Brother.

From the ground around the Spire dew began to rise, steamy mist ascending into the scorching air of the summer night. Hot vapors twisted and danced, forming clouds that in the light of the just-past-full moon grew longer, taller, then began to hold a human shape.

First one, then several, then many, then a multitude of glistening figures formed beneath the unblinking eye of the obelisk, robed like the Brother himself, but with utter darkness within their hoods where a face would be. The bodily frames on which the mist-cloth hung began as thin and skeletal, but as the chant continued they took on the appearance of flesh, of a sinewy musculature, of fire-tipped claws, unseen indications of the demon's substantial investment of power expended in bringing them into being. The thousand eyes of the F'dor. The Shing.

In the great vault below, Tsoltan watched them assemble through the obelisk's eye, trembling with strain and joy. They lingered motionless in the air, absorbing more and more of the heat their master had committed to them, stripping it from himself, growing stronger as his power ebbed.

Within their empty hoods a glimmer could occasionally be seen, perhaps a moonbeam reflecting off the mist, but more likely the reflection of the lens of the immense eye which they now formed. In the world of living men one moment, in the spirit world the next, flitting back and forth between the two domains, much like their master himself, the Shing waited. They were as ephemeral as the wind, but not as fleeting: when sent forth to seek their quarry, they were as relentless as Time, as unforgiving as death.

Tsoltan clutched the altar, his strength waning like the moon on the fields above. In a moment his thousand eyes would set forth, resolutely combing each pocket of air, each step of the wide world, searching endlessly until they found their prey. When they finally came upon him, the results would be horrific.

The demon-priest trembled as weakness washed over him. The Shing would be taking virtually all of his life force with them, a heavy risk. As one knee, then the other, crumbled out from under him, Tsoltan wondered if the Brother would appreciate the compliment. His head struck the polished obsidian floor as he fell, splitting his brow and staining the stone with blood, an appropriate sign.

"The Brother. Find him," he whispered hollowly.

Tsoltan, high-priest, man and symbiotic demon-spirit, rolled onto his back and stared into the blackness overhead. A mile above, a thousand Shing turned and set forth on the wind, under the unblinking gaze of one solitary eye.

* * *

On the rare occasions that Achmed deemed a campfire safe, Rhapsody made sure to sleep as near to it as possible. Despite the blistering heat of midsummer, which lingered on well into the night, she found the crackle and smoke comforting, a reminder of the home she hadn't seen in so long.

Near the fire the voices in her dreams changed. They no longer repeated the jeering words of Michael and his ilk, but rather harked back to a deeper, farther Past, earlier, sweeter days near a different fire, drawing those days, if only for a moment, into the Present. Wrapped as she was in the fitful sleep of the outdoors, memories in the dark brought warmth, instead of fear, to her soul.

"Mama, tell me about the great forest."

"Get into the tub first. Here, hold my hand." Soap bubbles glistening in firelight, spinning in round whirling prisms, hovering for a moment, then disappearing before her mother's smile.

Warmth closing in with the water and the hot air from the hearth. "What did you put in the water this time?"

"Sit all the way down. Lavender, lemon verbena, rose hips, snow fern—"

"Snow fern? We eat that!"

"Exactly. Why do you think the water is so warm? I'm not bathing you, I'm making soup."

"Mama, stop teasing. Please tell me about the forest. Are the Lirin that live there like us?"

Her mother sitting back on her heels, crossing arms with rolled-up sleeves, leaned on the edge of the metal washtub. Her face was serene, but her eyes clouded over with memory, as they always had when thinking about the Past.

"In some ways, yes. They look like us, at least more than the humans do, but their coloring is different."

"Different how?"

"Their coloring matches the forest more. Ours is a reflection of the open sky and the fields where our people, the Liringlas, live." The hair ribbon pulling free with a gentle tug. "Now, for instance, if you were of the forest, this beautiful golden hair that your father is so fond of would probably be brown or russet-colored; those green eyes might be as well. Your skin would be darker, less rosy; that way you could blend in, walk the greenwood unseen, as they do." A cascade of warm water; sputtering, blinking.

"Mama!"

"I'm sorry; I didn't expect you'd turn like that. Hold still for a moment."

"Do the forest Lirin have little girls, too?"

"Of course. And little boys. And women and men, and houses and cities; they're just different from the ones we live in."

"Will I see them someday, too? Will I have a Blossoming Year and go to the forest like you did?"

A gentle caress on her cheek, the sadness in her mother's eyes growing deeper. "We'll see. We live among the humans, child; this is our home. Your father may not want you following the customs of my family, especially if it means you would leave for such a long time. And who can blame him? Why, what would we do without our girl?"

"I'd be safe among the Lirin, Mama—wouldn't I? They wouldn't hate me because I'm part human?"

Her mother had looked away. "No one will hate you. No one." The opening of a wide drying cloth. "Here, stand up, little one, and step out carefully." The harsh chill of the air, the rough fabric rubbing briskly on her wet skin. The soft warmth of her nightgown closing around her along with her mother's arms. "Sit in my lap, and I'll comb your hair."

"Tell me about the forest, please."

A deep, musical sigh. "It's as wide as your eyes can see—bigger than you can possible imagine—and full of the scent and sound of life. The trees within it grow in more colors than you have ever seen, even in your dreams. You can feel the song of the wood itself, humming in every living thing there. The humans call it the Enchanted Forest because many of the things that grow and live there are unfamiliar to them, but the Lirin know it by its true name: Yliessan, the holy place. If you are ever lost, the wood will welcome you because of your Lirin blood."

The crackle of the fire, its flickering light on her hair, so like her mother's. "Tell me about Windershins Stream, and the Pool of the Heart's Desire, and Grayrock. And the Tree—Mama, tell me about Sagia."

"You know these stories better than I do."

"Please?"

A gentle hand running smoothly down her hair, the bite of the comb. "All right, I'll tell you of Sagia, and then it will be time for devotions."

"The Great Tree grows in the heart of the forest Yliessan, on the northern crescent. It is so tall you can barely see the bottom branches. You could never see the top unless you were a bird, because those branches touch the sky."

"The legends say it grows at one of the places where Time began, where the light of the stars first touched the Earth. Sagia is as old as the ages, and its power is tied to Time itself. It is sometimes called the Oak of Deep Roots, because those roots reach out to the other places on Earth where Time began."

"It is said that its trunk root runs along the Axis Mundi, the centerline of the Earth, and its smaller roots spread throughout the Island, tying it to all things that grow. I know this is at least true in the great forest—it is the power of Sagia that creates Yliessan's song, keeps the forest safe. Now, come; the sun is setting."

The chill of the evening wind, the smudges of inky clouds lining the horizon on the final edge of the pale-blue sky. The glow of the bright star, appearing over the fields and valleys of the wide, rolling land. The sweet clarity of her mother's voice, her own awkward attempts to match the tone. The single tear on her mother's translucent cheek.

"That was very good, little one; you're learning. Can you name the bright star?"

"Of course, Mama; that's Seren, the name-star of our land."

Her mother's embrace, warm, strong. "That is also your star, child; you were born beneath it. Do you remember how to say 'my guiding star' in our tongue?"

"Aria? "

"Good, very good. Remember, though you live in the human world, though you have a human name, you are also descended of another proud and noble people, you have a Lirin name as well. The music of the sky is in you; you are one of its children, as are all Lirin. Seren hangs in the southern sky over the forest Yliessan. When all else fails, you will be welcome there. If you watch the sky and can find your guiding star, you will never be lost, never."

The grip of the huge, taloned hand, the caustic smoke of the campfire. The sting of the morning air. The deep voice ringing in her ears, drowning out the sweet one in her memory.

"Miss? Ya 'wake?"

If you watch the sky and can find your guiding star, you will never be lost, never.

Rhapsody sat up, clutching at the air in one last attempt to retain the memory. It was of little use; the dream was gone. She choked on the loss that welled up from inside her, then rose to a stand, brushing grass and twigs off her cloak.

"Yes. I'm ready to go now."

They had been in sight of the Lirin forest for several days before Rhapsody realized what it was.

Initially when she saw it, across the Wide Meadows at the edge of her vision, she was certain they must have inadvertently traveled east, that the broad, dark expanse in the distance was the shoreline of the sea. Like the sea it radiated a shimmering, undulating pattern of heat above it, lending it a mystical air, even from tremendously far away. Her mother's teachings notwithstanding, she was unprepared for the immensity of the forest, and the power that vibrated in the air around it.

They were hiding in a grassy thicket at midday in the endless meadow when the realization of what the dark panorama really was first occurred to her. Without thinking she stood, as if enchanted, and looked in the direction of the vast wood. Immediately Grunthor's enormous hand grasped the back of her vest and dragged her down into the brush again.

"What's the matter with you? Get down."

Angrily she twisted free and cuffed his hand away. "Let go. What's the matter with you? There's no one in sight, and I want to see the forest."

"Settle," whispered the sandy voice next to her. Rhapsody's protest died in her mouth, her words choked off by the authority in Achmed's tone. He was staring off to the west, crouched low behind the highgrass, his palm open to the air, the forefinger raised at an angle. "They've seen you."

There was the slight rustle of the wind in the distance ahead, then nothing more. After several long moments Rhapsody glanced to her side and saw Achmed still frozen in his crouch, his eyes closed, listening intently. She looked west again and saw the highgrass of the field ripple beneath the hot breeze. Still nothing.

Then, closer than she possibly could have imagined, off to the southwest she saw a face rise infinitesimally out of the scrub, its colors matching the dry brush so completely as to be almost indiscernible. The brown-gold hair crowning its head flowed in crimped waves that blended into the highgrass, the face itself almost the same color, shaped in the slender planes and angles that made her throat tighten with memory.

The large, almond-shaped eyes, the high cheekbones, the translucent skin, the slight build of the body hidden within the scrub, long of limb and muscle—Lirin. Darker somewhat than her mother had been, and than the Liringlas she had met the one and only time she had ventured into the meadows west of Easton. Perhaps these were the people known as Lirinved, the In-between, nomads that were at home in either the forest or the fields, settling in neither.

Suddenly she was aware of many others, not too far behind the scout, spread out through the billowing highgrass of the meadow to the west. A cloud passed in front of the sun overhead, casting a shadow onto the field, and in that brief moment of darkness she saw the glitter from two score or so eyes. Then it was gone.

Unwilling to look away even for a moment, Rhapsody could see out of the corner of her vision a glint of metal in the grass beside her. Achmed had drawn the cwellan as silently as the cloud had passed; it rested in his thin hands, ready but not yet aimed.

Grunthor's grip on her had eased and disappeared. Rhapsody's heart sank in the knowledge that the giant Firbolg was undoubtedly armed as well. Panic coursed through her, though she was only aware of it when she felt her cheeks redden; she was too busy trying to think of a way back from the abyss on which they now found themselves.

The hooded man had held his fire, which she took as a hopeful sign that Achmed didn't want the bloodbath that she knew was looming before them. That notwithstanding, having witnessed her two companions dispense with Michael's men, she had no doubt that they were capable of surviving being outnumbered, and were intent on doing so. This was the Lirin's land, however. She had no idea what advantage they had because of it.

In addition, Rhapsody was not sure on which side of the impending conflict she was safer. Though her two traveling companions had rescued her and had not tried to harm her, she did not trust them. The slaughter of Michael's soldiers had instilled in her a deep sense of apprehension, bordering on dread.

The Lirin were, in a sense, her own people with whom she felt a soul-deep bond, but to them she was a stranger, possibly an enemy. The woods are in sight, Achmed had said. Those that defend them are not. These are bad days; they take no risks with wanderers strolling near their outposts. Either way, she knew she was expendable. She felt a silent click on her neck as the cwellan disks were loaded next to her.

A stalk of dry scrub slapped her face, buffeted by the wind. Rhapsody closed her eyes against the onslaught of tiny grains she knew would be released by the bleached seedpod; she had studied highgrass in her training as a Namer. Hymialacia,her mentor had called it. Meadow grass, the fodder of the open spaces of the world. Its true name.

Its true name. The sense of danger vanished in the clarity of the answer. Rhapsody cleared her throat, parched by the heat and the fear she had been holding within it, and began to whisper.

Hymialacia, she said, speaking in the musical language of her profession. Hymialacia. Hymialacia. Hymialacia. Her skin hummed as the vibration she emitted naturally altered into a new pattern, pulsating, reverberating in the air around her.

Beside her Achmed reached out and touched her back; there was a tenuousness to the contact that told her he couldn't see her. She had blended as smoothly into the meadow grass as the Lirin; more so—for all intents and purposes, she was the meadow grass.

Rhapsody reached a trembling hand behind her and felt for Achmed's hand. Carefully she slid her fingers into the thinly gloved fist, whispering the song of the grass all the while. It had become a roundelay, a repetitive melody.

I am the Hymialacia. Achmed the Snake is the Hymialacia.

Over and over she whispered their names, blending into the roundelay the song of the wind, the clouds passing overhead, the name of silence. The grip tightened and pulsed like a heartbeat. Achmed was signaling his understanding.

A moment later he whispered something in a language she didn't recognize, and Grunthor turned his head to look at her. This would be harder: she did not know Grunthor's true name. A rustle in the grass a few dozen feet ahead almost broke her concentration. The Lirin had closed the gap, were almost upon them, spread thinly but resolutely through the meadows, approaching silently, relentlessly. Rhapsody closed her eyes and touched the giant's shoulder.

Hummock, she sang softly. It was a word she had learned early in her training when studying herbal lore, a word she had known from her childhood treks with her father through the wide open fields, over the swales and hillocks of her homeland. A knoll, a clumped elevation rising above the ground like a mound of soil. Hummock.

Rhapsody opened her eyes, still chanting her namesong over and over. Before her where Grunthor had been crouched appeared to be a small grassy hillock, with thin saplings of scrub trees sprouting from the ground atop it. She ran her hand over the brush on the knoll. Hummock. Hymialacia. The wind. The clouds above. Nothing here but the meadow grass.

Through the brush in front of her she could see legs clad in fawn-colored leather boots and trousers, close enough to feel her breath. Hummock, she whispered, trying to keep her voice steady. Obstacle. Dangerous footing. Pit. Hummock.

The gait of the approaching legs slowed, never stopping, then stepped smoothly to the south, circumventing the place where she knew Achmed was. She could see nothing there herself but the waving grass of the meadow, hear nothing above her own chant but the rhythmic buzz of hovering insects, the faint crack of the ground beneath Lirin feet, feel nothing near her but the heat of the blistering sun, the whipping of her brittle hair in the dry wind. Hymialacia.

She chanted the roundelay over and over until the angle of the sun changed and moved into her eyes. Rhapsody blinked; midday had given way to afternoon, shafts of light now bathing the rippling fields of gold and amber grass. The namesong faltered to a stop, her voice dry and swollen from exertion.

On her left side the grass parted. Achmed released her hand and rose to a stand.

"They're gone, out of range," he said.

Rhapsody looked to her right. The small hummock in front of her flexed and uncoiled, growing tall before her eyes again. What had appeared as the saplings of brush trees took on a more solid form as Grunthor's myriad weapons rose with him, still jutting out from the bandoliers and scabbards on his back. The former hill turned and smiled at her broadly.

"Well, miss, that was impressif."

"Indeed," said Achmed wryly. "Are you going to tell us that was another 'first' for you?"

As Rhapsody opened her mouth to reply, the clouds lurched overhead and the sky tilted at a strange angle. Achmed's hand shot out and grabbed her elbow, assisting her shaking descent to the ground. Once down she lay on her back and stared at the pinnacle of the sky above her, noting the swimming blue circles that hovered in the air. "Water, please," she croaked, then slipped into throbbing unconsciousness.

Dusk settled over the field like a gray mist, and still Rhapsody had not awakened. She lay silent, without moving, in a state of deep sleep the men had rarely seen. The girl was given to nightmares, and over the course of their journey they had become grudgingly accustomed to her fretful whispering and the occasional moans, as she tossed and trembled in the grip of night terrors that sometimes ended in her bolting upright with a heart-stopping gasp.

"No wonder she gave up the bizness," Grunthor had commented after one particularly wrenching performance. "Oi imagine 'er customers didn't get much sleep one way t'other." Achmed had just smiled.

Now she shifted slightly on her side, then lay quiet. The sun disappeared beyond the world's far rim, and the night watch passed from Achmed to Grunthor, who had been busy tallying and repacking the remaining supplies they had pilfered from the saddlebags of Michael's soldiers.

The Dhracian handed the Bolg Sergeant the waterskin from which he had been giving occasional drops to the unconscious Singer, then lay down on the northern side of the camp to sleep.

As the twilight deepened, Grunthor squinted for a moment, then strained to look harder into the distant horizon. After a moment he shook his head and settled back into his watch, only to sit forward again. He extended a foot and nudged the sleeping Dhracian, who did not move but opened his eyes.

"Oi see somethin'."

Achmed rolled to his side and sat up, looking off in the same direction as Grunthor. His vision was generally superior to his companion's, especially in the open air, but he saw nothing. After a moment's concentration he could sense no heartbeat drumming in the distance, a more certain sign that they were alone. He shook his head.

Grunthor shrugged, and Achmed started to lie down again, only to freeze as the Bolg quickly stood up.

"There it is again, sir. Oi'm sure. Far off, but somethin's there."

Achmed rose to a stand as well and walked to the top of a grassy swale, the crest of a rolling wave of earth. He stared off northward into the night, still seeing nothing. He waited.

Then a moment later he saw it too, a host of flickering lights, barely visible in the gray half-dark. In a heartbeat they glimmered, then disappeared again. There were hundreds, perhaps a thousand of them, crossing the distant meadows, spread uniformly out in a endless, near-invisible line, moving slowly south. A search party ? he wondered. But for what? Who or what might be so important that so many men were sent out in the dark to find it, guided only by lantern-light, here in the middle of nowhere?

Achmed closed his eyes and threw back his hood to better allow the vibrations of the oncoming heartbeats to impact his skin. He held his hand aloft, one finger in the air, tasting the wind in his open mouth to try and ascertain the source of the thousand different rhythms coming toward him. But there was nothing on the wind, no taste, no rhythm, no heartbeat. Only silence and evening breeze.

Once more he opened his eyes and stared, and saw it again, an infinitesimal flicker a thousand times over, moving steadily toward them, still far away but closer than a moment before. Movement, a twinkling light, repeated a thousand times, then darkness. Nothing on the wind.

Now the heartbeat that filled his ears, bristled on his skin, was his own.

"Gods," he whispered. "Shing."

Like crows before the coming storm they gathered up the sleeping Singer and their gear and fled blindly in the direction of the great Lirin forest.

Rhapsody awoke in darkness. The moon was gone, having all but vanished the night before into dormancy, and the sky was overcast with racing clouds. Woozily she tried to sit up, then reconsidered as the pain that encircled her head stabbed her violently behind the eyes. She settled for rolling slowly onto one side and propping her head up with her hand, her elbow resting on the stony ground. The groan that wheezed forth from her chest came from a voice she didn't recognize.

Immediately Grunthor was there with the waterskin, his hand behind her neck. Rhapsody drank gratefully, holding on to the skin with a shaking grip. When finally her thirst was slaked she sat up carefully and looked around her. Where before there had been nothing but open sky and highgrass all around them, now they were hiding within a thin copse of trees. A patch of night thicker than the rest of the air around her blotted out the dark horizon not far away.

"What's that?" she asked. All she could manage was a whisper.

Achmed looked up from behind his hood. "The forest." He smiled and looked away, but the Singer's reaction was unmistakable anyway. Her heartbeat intensified angrily; he could feel the blood rise to her face in fury.

"You carried me? All this way? How dare you."

"Yeah, she says that now. 'Ow come you didn't protest at the time, eh?" Grunthor's smile disappeared in the face of her building wrath. "Come on, miss, you didn't think we could stay out in the fields, did you? Oi didn't want to just leave ya there." A thin hand with a grip like iron clasped her mouth, the scratchy voice low and deadly.

"Bad call on your end, Grunthor. Now listen carefully, Singer, and rest your throat; it will be to your advantage on many levels. We are alone for the moment, but not for long. We are in the scrub-tree line, almost at the outskirts of the Lirin forest. This barrier is far more heavily guarded than the fields."

"Once inside the forest proper it is imperative that we get to the Tree as quickly as possible. Past the first major stand of trees to the southeast there is an outpost of twenty-four border guards. Being Lirindarc, forest Lirin, they are even more difficult to discern in daylight than the ones we met before you decided to take your little nap. What can you do to aid our avoidance of them and getting to the Tree?" He removed his hand, ignoring her withering stare.

"How do you know these things?" she spat. "Michael was not with the hunting party, which you knew somehow beforehand. The Lirinved—the In-between, if that's what they were—saw me, and you knew it. You knew they were there from hundreds of yards away. Now you know the number of Lirindarc and where they are within the wood? How do you know this? And why on Earth would you need me to help you at all?"

The strange eyes regarded her coolly; then Achmed looked off into the distance, considering his reply. He had no intention of answering her question; his gift of blood lore, the ability to sense and track any heartbeat of his choosing, was something that only one friend and a few enemies knew of, although his prowess as an unerring assassin was legendary among the seedier element in the eastern lands. He was trying to determine how to craft his response to achieve both his goals: gaining her cooperation while returning her to a more placid state.

Under normal circumstances the anger or dismay of a hostage would mean nothing to him, but this one was decidedly different. In addition to her obvious power and potential, there was something soothing about her when she was calm, an almost pleasant rhythm to the vibrations she emitted. It had an agreeable effect on his skin. Perhaps it was the result of her musical training. He took a deep breath and measured his words.

"We don't need you to help us at all. The Lirindarc do."

Her face went slack in shock. "Why?"

"Because you may be the one thing that can guarantee their safety if they come upon us."

Rhapsody's eyes narrowed. "What does that mean?"

The piercing gaze fixed on her again. "We have no need to harm these people. They, unlike the rest of the complacent fools in this land, are not asleep. The Lirin we met in the fields and the Lirindarc are attuned to the world around them. They know what is coming, or at least that something is."

Even in the dark Achmed could see her go cold. "What's coming? What do you mean?"

An ugly laugh came from beneath the veils. "How can a Singer not feel it, not hear it? Was it all the noise of Easton that drowned it out, kept you innocent, Rhapsody? Ironic; an innocent whore. Or are you just oblivious?"

Even in the dark Achmed saw her green eyes clear, and a hard, resolute look come into them. "Tell me."

"No, Rhapsody; you tell me. The Lirindarc from the eastern outpost are making their way here now; they'll be upon us shortly. Grunthor and I need to get to the Tree, and get there in all due haste. We will allow nothing—and I assume you know what I mean by this—to get in the way. Now, what can you do to ensure that no harm comes to them?"

The staunch expression on her face crumbled. "I—nothing. I've never been here before, I don't know where I am. How can you expect me to ensure anything?"

Achmed turned east and sighted his cwellan. "I suppose I can't. Grunthor, ready your bow."

Horror replaced the confusion. "No, please! Don't do this! Please."

The robed figure turned and looked at her without dropping his weapon. "Once more, then, I'll ask you: what can you do? After this afternoon, I would think you'd have a less pathetic answer."

A large hand came to rest on her shoulder. "Come on, now, miss, surely you can think o' somethin'. Think 'ard, now."

Rhapsody took a deep breath and cleared her thoughts, one of the earliest techniques Heiles, her first mentor in the science of Naming, had taught her. After a moment she heard a voice in her mind, a voice that had told her the only tales of these woods she had ever heard.

Mama, tell me about the great forest.

It's as wide as your eyes can seebigger than you can possibly imagineand full of the scent and sound of life. The trees within it grow in more colors than you have ever seen, even in your dreams. You can feel the song of the wood itself, humming in every living thing there. The humans call it the Enchanted Forest because many of the things that grow and live there are unfamiliar to them, but the Lirin know it by its true name: Yliessan, the holy place.

Achmed could see the change come over her face. "Well?"

The Lirin know it by its true name: Yliessan.

Rhapsody looked up at the stars. "Its name," she said softly. "I know the name of the forest." Her eyes cleared, and when she looked back at the two men her face was calm, the expression in her eyes deadly. "But let us be very clear, as we will be parting company shortly: I use it for their protection, not for yours."

"Fair enough," said Grunthor, grinning.

When the Lirindarc patrol passed directly in front of the three strangers a few moments later, they saw nothing unusual, heard only the sound of the wind singing in the trees of Yliessan, and continued on their way into the night.

By morning they had arrived at the outskirts of the Lirin forest. A gentle wind had picked up with the dawn, and Rhapsody loosed the black velvet ribbon in her hair, letting the breeze blow through it, cleansing her mind of the painful memories that lingered from the day before.

She stood before the unbroken wall of trees, her eyes trying to penetrate the forest edge and look into the greenwood, where in the distance she could see verdant leaves of every hue, dark and cool as the night even in daylight.

Her mother's image was with her still. Rhapsody felt a catch in her heart as she tried to imagine her as a young woman, a girl really, at the beginning of her Blossoming Year, standing at the threshold of the forest where she was standing now.

Slight; neither Rhapsody nor her mother was particularly tall, perhaps her mother's golden hair twined in the intricate patterns plaited by the Lirin for practicality and ornamentation. Dressed in a billowing tunic and borilla leggings made in accord with the old ways, the traditional woven leather mekva at her waist. Eyes gleaming in quiet excitement. Had she been happy then? Rhapsody wondered, knowing that if she had been, it did not last.

Her mother had spoken rarely of that time. Her pilgrimage to Sagia was made, in the tradition of her race, just as she was coming into adulthood. The time she had spent in the forest, learning its secrets, was a mystery to Rhapsody, as her mother had been loath to talk about it. It was only when Rhapsody was entering her teen years that she learned why.

Upon the completion of her Year of Bloom, the second year of her pilgrimage, her mother had returned to the fields to find her longhouse decimated, her family gone. It was only her absence that had saved her, and for many years thereafter she had mourned, wishing she had not been the sole survivor, the only one spared.

Had she been able to turn back Time, she would never have left the longhouse, would have preferred to die with them all, rather than face the world alone. Any happiness that she had found afterward had come in the wake of that memory, leaving Rhapsody to wonder if her mother had ever really gotten over it.

Now Rhapsody stood in the same place, feeling the same awe, the same anticipation that she supposed her mother had felt. Her Lirin ancestry had lain dormant in her for her entire life, though in recent years she had seen and come to know more full and half-caste Lirin than she had in childhood.

Easton was the thoroughfare of the eastern seaboard, so in her time there she had seen travelers of many different races and backgrounds. Perhaps now that she had come to Yliessan she would finally find welcome and acceptance among her mother's people. Perhaps she would finally find the strength to return home.

By sunset they had come to the forest proper, the exterior copses of trees and thickets becoming dense in the transition to the greenwood. The three travelers waited until the night was in full flower before venturing in, watching intently for eyes glittering in the dark.

Many times in the course of coming this far Rhapsody had whispered the namesong of the forest, singing the roundelay over and over again: Yliessan. Yliessan. Yliessan. It had seemed to her that the branches had moved aside in answer, that the brambles and scrub of the forest floor had not sought to hamper them in any way, allowing them to pass quickly, silently, in the dark.

All around her, in the sound of the wind through the leaves and the birds in the tree branches above them, she felt the greenwood answer back, as if calling her to itself. Yliessan.A sense of welcome, innate and primal.

There was a richness to the air in the forest that Rhapsody had never felt before; she drank it in eagerly, filling her lungs and finding them cleaner upon exhaling. She wished they had been able to arrive in light, because she would have loved to see what the forest really looked like. Though it was a sacred place to the Lirin, and only the Lirin knew its name, the legends of the enchanted woods and the Tree were common even hundreds of miles away in Easton among people who would never see a forest in their lives.

Unlike the exhaustion that had consumed her after she had hidden herself and the two men within the highgrass, the sensation she felt during their disguise as part of the forest was invigorating. From the first moment she had matched their vibrations to the signature of the forest, Rhapsody had been filled with a bright, calm sense of home, a cool serenity that cleared her mind and spoke in gentle tones to her half-Lirin heart. Yliessan. Welcome, Child of the Sky. Yliessan.

"Any ideas?" The words, spoken softly by the still-unfamiliar voice, caused Rhapsody to jump a little. Achmed was speaking into her ear, though a moment before he was nowhere near her.

"What do you mean?" she whispered back.

"The Tree; do you feel where it might be?" The tone held a strong tinge of disgust.

She closed her eyes and let the night wind brush over her face, and listened again to the music it made as it passed through the branches and leaves all around them. The rustling was not unlike the sound of the sea down the coast of the city, far enough away from the port to be free of its noise.

After a moment of careful attention Rhapsody could hear a low, deep tone resonating through the ground and hanging in the air above it. It was clear and singular, with a faint harmonic around it, and the more she concentrated the more she could hear its voice. She had no doubt that it came from the Tree.

She pointed southwest. "There," she said.

Achmed nodded; he had felt the tone as well. Silently they passed through the underbrush, making their way carefully in the dark. Eventually she found she was leading, but it was not a problem for her, as the tone was growing deeper and louder; she could now feel it through her feet.

The forest was vast. Rhapsody had assumed that they would not come to their destination before dawn, or perhaps even in that cycle of the moon. She was surprised to find the song of the Tree so nearby.

Finally, she began to see a pattern in the trees to the east, a thicker, darker line of evergreens forming an almost impenetrable barrier. The song was strong and clear, emanating from behind the treewall. Without a word both she and Achmed turned instinctually toward the sound and increased their pace. A few muttered curses were heard behind them, as Grunthor had to suddenly correct his course without warning. Apparently he could not hear or feel the song as they could.

The three crept to the tree line, feeling a presence of people in the distance around them, but seeing no one. Finally they reached it and stepped between the dark pines, trees thick with old needles and tall trunks, stretching up into the darkness so that it was impossible to see their summits. They passed between them with some difficulty; Grunthor in particular was hard-pressed to fit between the guardian trees. When they got around to the other side they stopped.

The leafy mulch of the forest floor gave way to pristine grass that even in darkness could be seen as neat and uniform; the light of the crescent moon reflected off it, touching the pale green carpet with silver. The lawn that began at the tree line stretched for a great distance, ending in another tree line, thicker than the first and composed of ancient, twisting oak trees.

As Rhapsody started forward across the smooth, open lawn she felt a light tug on the back of her vest.

"Wait."

Achmed and Grunthor had fallen back against the tree line, and were conferring softly in their common tongue.

Rhapsody felt her feet begin to itch, her body protesting the halt. The song of the Tree was calling her now, filling her with an intense need to hurry, to come, an almost magnetic pull that was painful to resist.

"I thought you wanted to make haste and get to the Tree," she whispered fiercely.

Achmed held up a hand to silence her and took one more look around. He was uncomfortable at the thought of crossing the wide lawn, open and unprotected by any tree cover or brush, but he and Grunthor could determine no way around it.

The grassy plain was a dry moat to the Tree, positioned between the two treewalls. He could see the immense branches hovering above them, forming a pale, unbroken canopy over this forest meadow.

Carefully he drew the cwellan out from behind his back and nodded. He could discern no heartbeats in the vicinity other than their own. The three travelers checked east to west as though about to cross the Kingsway, then broke into a brisk trot across the open lawn.

Past the next tree line they could see a deep vale, a glen filled with air even richer and sweeter than that in the rest of the Lirin woods. The noise of night in the forest died away as they crept through the oak trees into the glen; the stillness was palpable. Rhapsody looked before her but saw nothing for a moment.

An enormous shaft of moonlight had filled the glen past the oak tree line, making even the air before them seem white and solid. Then her eyes adjusted and she realized that what she was seeing was the Tree itself, the sacred white oak: Sagia, the Oak of Deep Roots.

Veins deep as rivers scored the surface of silvery-white bark, smooth as a pebble at the bottom of a riverbed. Rhapsody could see no branches, because the trunk of the Great Tree was so tall that the first limbs were high in the air out of sight in the darkness. Fallen leaves littered the ground, however, green and lush, with veins of gold running through them.

Her eyes could not behold all of the Tree at once, it was too mammoth. Its girth was such that she was not sure that should the three of them stand around it in different positions and shout they would even hear each other; eye contact would be out of the question. It would easily have filled the town square in Easton, a place where hundreds gathered for public events. Its sheer size held Rhapsody in awe, so much so that when she became aware again she no longer knew where her two traveling companions were.

She looked around for the giant and his cloaked partner, but they were nowhere in sight. The early symptoms of panic began to swell in her ears and fingers; her hands grew cold in the knowledge that she was no longer sure of their intentions. But the deep calm of the glen stilled the cramping in her stomach as a soothing, resonant hum filled her mind. It was the song of the Tree again, deep and abiding, and Rhapsody could feel the wisdom of ages past in its simple melody. She closed her eyes and listened, memorizing the sound. It was the most enchanting song she had ever heard.

As she stood, breathing in the song of the Tree, the knotting in her forehead and neck muscles that had been present for a fortnight since Gammon had come to the Hat and Feathers melted away. A sense of peace and rightness filled her, calling to parts of her soul that she had long forgotten.

She could hear her mother's voice again as she had in her dream, speaking to her in the Lirin language of her birth, telling her old tales and singing the ritual songs that celebrated the wonders of nature, wonders like this immense Tree.

She did not know how long she stood, eyes closed, listening with her heart to the hypnotic melody, but she came harshly to awareness when she felt a hand grasp her shoulder roughly and a voice speak softly into her ear.

"Where have you been? Come, we're waiting."

Rhapsody turned in surprise. "Waiting for what? I thought we were here to pay our respects to the Tree. That's what I'm doing."

"Come around this side. I've found the main trunk root."

Rhapsody shook off his arm. "So?"

"I am reluctant to shed blood here." There was warning in his voice.

The panic returned, and Rhapsody went cold again, then grew hotly furious. "What does that mean? Is that a threat?"

Achmed held something up; she had to look away as the light it flashed seared her eyes. When she was able to look again she saw it was a key, made of something like bone but gleaming like burnished gold, and filmy, as though it was made of captured sunlight reflecting in the dark.

"Want to see how it works? Or are you just going to stand there like an idiot?"

"No, I suppose I'm going to have to follow you like an idiot."

Angrily she trailed after Achmed around the side of the enormous tree. She looked up into its limbs again but could not even begin to gauge the top for the dark and the immense height of it.

When she came around it farther she could see a little of the first canopy of leafy branches in the vast reflecting pool that mirrored the Tree on the south side. Sagia's song reverberated in the water, sending silvery chills through Rhapsody's soul.

She tarried for a moment to drink in more of the beauty of the sight, and when she looked up Achmed was gone again. Hurriedly she ran around the southwestern side to where he had been headed, and saw him bent over in the shadows. She caught up with him and looked over his shoulder. He was reaching around near the ground, the key seemingly buried up to the handle in the base of the Tree.

"Watch," he said.

With a violent twist, Achmed turned the key, sending a shower of iridescent sparks in a slender stream skyward from the ground. A thin outline of red light, the size and shape of a small passageway, gleamed for a moment, then disappeared.

Rhapsody backed away, her eyes wide. She continued to stare as Grunthor wrenched a huge rectangular section of the root up and away from the ground. Within the hole that remained was a darkness so complete that she felt it was about to spill out at their feet.

"What are you doing?" she cried before Achmed could cover her mouth.

"Shhhh; listen, and I will tell you. This Tree is the sign that this is one of the places where Time itself began. Its roots lead to everywhere the power of this Island touches." He released her and turned her to face him. "We have to leave. We need to escape to a place of deeper power than even the demon who is chasing us—"

"Demon? "

"—all right; perhaps demon is an understatement—the monster who gave me this key, has access to. This Tree holds immense magic; it is tied to the fabric of the world. It's a metaphysical corridor. We need to go where the Tree's roots will take us."

Rhapsody glared at him. "So go."

Achmed held out his hand. "You too; come on."

"I can't go; I don't want to go," she said, her voice beginning to shake. "Why on Earth would you think I'd go with you?"

"How would you like to see the beginning of Time? You could see the heart of the Tree, or of the world. What would any Lirin give to feel the beating heart of this tree?"

"No."

Grunthor, who had peeled away a section of the Tree so that it looked like a doorway, looked up at her and grinned. "Tell ya what, miss. Come now, and you'll be able to stop us from damagin' the root. Leave us to our own devices and—"

Rhapsody gasped in horror. "You wouldn't dare! This is a sacred oak, the seat of wisdom of the entire Lirin population, not just the ones that live in the forest. To injure it in any way—"

"—would not be too difficult, miss."

Rhapsody's eyes opened even wider as Grunthor disappeared into the dark hole. Achmed moved to the Tree and watched as the giant descended, blocking her view.

"Don't you want to see what it looks like inside?"

Rhapsody did, despite her revulsion at what seemed a desecration, but the thought that these two marauders were entering Sagia made her stomach turn. Having seen their prowess in a fight she knew she had little chance to prevent it, but knew just as surely that she would gladly die trying.

"Stop," she demanded, and drew her dagger. "Get out of there."

"Last chance," said the strange, dry voice as the cloaked man disappeared. "Good luck explaining the damage to the Lirindarc guards who will doubtless arrive any minute. I wouldn't wait around here if I were you. Grunthor, you did bring your ax, didn't you?" The question, obviously meant to prod her into compliance, echoed up from the darkness.

Rhapsody looked around. In the distance she thought she did in fact hear the sound of people approaching. Worse, Sagia's song had changed, as if the sacred oak was in pain.

She ran to the place where the two men had entered to observe the damage herself, anxiously running a hand over the silvery bark and feeling the vibration in her fingers that she had felt before in her heart. As she was examining the Tree a hand shot out from the dark hole and seized her, dragging her inside.

Rhapsody screamed for help as Achmed passed her down to Grunthor and grabbed the key. He gave it a firm pull from the ground and spun to face her. As he did, the wall of bark closed behind him silently; then, with a final pulse of light, the key disappeared from his hand, plunging them all into total darkness.

When the darkness swallowed them, Rhapsody went absolutely silent. She gave the gloom a moment to settle, then tried to rip free from Grunthor's hands. It was a futile effort; she could hear the giant chuckle as he tightened his grip slightly on her. Instantly she knew that she was mired to the waist in tepid liquid, something more viscous than water, with tensile strands running through it, supporting her weight.

Seconds later she saw a tiny flame appear, and Achmed's nightmarish face came into the light; it was a sight that caused her to gasp again. Grunthor let go of her with one hand and reached behind him over his head, pulled out a small torch, and gave it to his partner. The smaller man lit it, and held it out to look around.

Above them, disappearing into the darkness, was a tapered shaft, the passage through which they had descended. The shadows from the torch leapt off its black sides.

Around them was a wide, irregular cylinder of softly translucent walls, striated in hues of sunless green, pale yellow, and mottled white. As the light from the weak flame passed over the walls she could see they were thick and fibrous, damming in the murky liquid of similar color which surrounded their legs and hips. Ropey strands twisted through the glutinous muck.

It seemed clear that once long ago the opening in which they now stood had been a tunnel of a sort, an irregular corridor descending through the vast root. Time and nature had filled in the base of the shaft with thick new growth, a crazily woven system of branchlike strands that crisscrossed the air around them and formed the netlike floor on which they now were balanced. The thick liquid had been displaced with the opening of the doorway, but ebbed and surged slightly, rising back through the network of vines below them.

Droplets of water from the dank, vapor-rich air came to rest on her skin, leaving it clammy and cold. Rhapsody looked back up from where they had come. In the torchlight she could see no opening. The walls of the tree trunk were as smooth as if they had never been opened.

She squirmed away from Grunthor—he released her when he saw Achmed nod—reached up, and ran her hands over the smooth wooden surface, looking for the break. There was none.

A knotted fiber close to her hip offered a higher ledge. With great effort she extricated a leg from the gelatinous liquid and brought her foot to rest on the strand. It seemed firm enough to bear her weight, so she felt around for a handhold, then lifted herself out of the fleshy slime.

Her head and shoulders ascended into the shaft, but still she could see no break in the wood of the Tree's core. Rhapsody's hands trembled as she ran them frantically over the shaft around and above her. There was no break, no hole, no tunnel in the Tree. The surface was solid as death.

"Where's the door?" she demanded, trying to keep the panic she felt out of her voice. "What have you done?"

"Closed it," Achmed answered without sarcasm.

Grunthor's hand came to rest on her back as she teetered on her fibrous perch. She was almost on eye level with him, and within those amber eyes, remarkable in their humanity above the rest of the monstrous face, there was a distinct look of sympathy.

"The door is gone, miss; Oi'm sorry. We 'ave to press on, we can't go back."

Rhapsody whirled around and glared down at Achmed, her eyes blazing green in the light of the torch. "What do you mean, we can't go back? We have to go back—you have to let me out."

"We can't. You're stuck. You may as well accept it and come along. We're not going to wait for you."

The air in her lungs grew heavier with each breath. "Come along? You're insane. There's nowhere to go but back through there." She jabbed a finger into the tapering shaft above her.

"You really are given to some amazingly incorrect assumptions." The man she had renamed Achmed the Snake shoved aside some hanging branchlike strands, pushed past her legs, and waded to the farthest side of the cylindrical wall, where the flesh seemed thinnest.

He removed his leather gloves and slowly ran his hands along the surface, probing the semi-flaccid barrier carefully, until he found the weakest spot. He glanced back at Grunthor, who nodded and drew from his back scabbard the strangely sharp, three-bladed weapon he had taken from Karvolt.

The giant assumed the same stance he would if throwing a spear. The muscles of his massive back recoiled, and with a single thrust he drove the triatine deep into the fleshy wall. Then he dragged the weapon down, bringing the bulk of his weight to bear on it, tearing loose a hand-sized piece of semi-solid fiber the consistency of melon. The musical vibration of the Tree, muted once they had entered the passageway in the root, surged around her in a frightening crescendo.

"Gods. Stop," Rhapsody whispered, stepping down off her foothold and back into the mire. "Sagia. You're hurting Sagia." She stumbled blindly toward Grunthor, only to be brought to a halt by the grip of a iron hand.

"Nonsense. This is a trunk root; the Tree has thousands of them." Grunthor ripped away a larger section of the fibrous wall, causing Rhapsody to shudder. "The hole in the root wall will close up once we're outside; this corridor is filling in as we speak. Or hadn't you noticed?" Achmed pointed to the viscous liquid in which they stood. Where once it had leveled off at her waist, the muck now reached almost to her breasts.

Once more the giant twisted the three-bladed weapon. The ripping sound reverberated off the liquid in which they stood. Then Grunthor looked back at them.

"Oi'm through, sir."

Achmed nodded, then turned Rhapsody to face him as Grunthor backed into the hole he had just made.

"Listen carefully; I'm only going to explain this once. We need to leave the inside of this root and follow it along the outside. There is a tunnel of sorts that sheathes the root because its flesh expands and contracts, depending on how much water it is holding. That tunnel will serve as our corridor; we'll find water and air there. With a good deal of luck it will lead us to a new place, somewhere safe from those who pursue us. Somewhere where Michael can never find you. But that is up to you."

"Now, you can come with us, or you can wait in here and drown inside the Tree when the root fills in. Your choice."

Dazed, Rhapsody pulled free of his hands and waded to the hole Grunthor had torn in the root wall. The giant moved aside slightly as she leaned into the rip and stared down. All she could see was endless darkness below. She looked up. Above her was more of the same. The shaft ran, with no visible limit, along the pale root that reached down into the abyss beneath them.

Achmed was checking the bindings on his gear.

"Well? Are you coming?"

The enormity of her situation fell on Rhapsody like an avalanche of mud. She was trapped inside the Tree, with no way out, and nowhere to go but into the endless hole below her; where it led to, the gods only knew. It was bad enough to be exiled from Easton, but the realization of what else she would be leaving behind made Rhapsody break into a cold sweat.

Rhapsody shoved Achmed aside, waded back to where the shaft had been, and pounded wildly on the tree wall above her. As her panic broke loose she began to shout for help, crying out as loudly as she could, hoping the Lirin who guarded the sacred Tree would hear her and pry her free. She waited, listening frantically for the sound of help coming, but heard nothing.

Achmed and Grunthor looked at each other, then returned to watching her. When a few moments passed Rhapsody tried calling out again. She repeated this effort four times before Achmed finally lost patience. He reached out and tapped her shoulder in annoyance.

"If you're done with your temper tantrum, I suggest you come with us. We're leaving now. Your alternative is to spend the rest of your short life screaming at a wall of solid wood; not very productive, but your choice nonetheless, at least until the root fills in the hole."

The finality of his words caused Rhapsody to dissolve into tears. It was not something she did very often; anyone who knew her would recognize it as a sign of utter despair. Achmed's eyelids and skin rippled with searing pain as the vibration of her lamentation passed over him. He grasped her arm, his voice unsympathetic.

"Stop that immediately," he ordered harshly. "I forbid you to do that. If you want to come with us, you had best understand that you are never to do that again. Weeping and wailing is banned from here on out. Now decide. Come if you want to—if you can refrain from that noise."

He stepped through the hole, ignoring the hard look Grunthor cast his way after his tirade. The giant Bolg turned to her and gave her what she had come over the last two weeks to recognize as a smile.

"Aw, come on, miss, it won't be that bad. Think of it as an adventure. 'Oo knows what we're gonna find, and besides, ya won't never have to see the Waste o' Breath again." He and Achmed exchanged a glance and a nod before the smaller man began to climb down the trunk root.

"Nor my family, nor my friends," Rhapsody said, choking back tears.

"Not necessarily, darlin'. Just because ol' Uchmed and Oi don't plan to return to Serendair don't mean you can't. But you can't get back from nowhere if you're not there yet, can you?"

Rhapsody almost smiled in spite of herself. The giant monster was trying to comfort her, while the allegedly more human of the two treated her, as always, with consummate indifference.

This whole event was taking on a surreal quality that made her wonder if she was, in fact, only dreaming. She rubbed the tears out of her eyes and sighed in exhaustion.

"Very well," she said to Grunthor. "I guess there's really no choice. There must be a way out somewhere, some place where the root comes up. Let's go."

"Atta girl," said Grunthor approvingly. "You follow me, sweet'eart. Oi wouldn't wanna take the chance o' fallin' on you." He grabbed hold of the trunk root and began to lower himself into the black hole, which had already swallowed up his companion.

Rhapsody shuddered. "No, we certainly wouldn't want that." She stepped through the rip in the root wall and found the fibrous outgrowth that the two men were using as a rope to lower themselves down, then took hold of it herself. Carefully she began her descent into the flickering darkness of the vast hole that sheathed one of the main lifelines of the Oak of Deep Roots. She was about to discover just how aptly the Tree was named.

* * *

Michael walked among the bodies of his men, staring down at a scene of savagery he had never been able to match. True, he had been capable of deeper depravity; there had been no torture or ritual dismemberment in the course of this slaughter, just a ferocious efficiency that rippled the hair on his arms with electricity.

Gammon walked silently behind him, keeping his eyes to the ground. He was afraid to speak, afraid to even meet his leader's glance because his own terror would be readily evident. Gammon had seen greater desolation, larger numbers of broken bodies beneath smoldering skies, but he had never seen so many men dispatched with such obvious indifference. At least Michael enjoyed his work. There was something far more frightening about this brutal nonchalance.

Finally Michael stopped. With a curt nod he directed Gammon to help the others, who were stacking the bodies neatly on the burial mound, then turned in a full circle, surveying the vast meadow where his hunting party had fallen.

He raised a hand to his brow and shielded his eyes, sensitive in their bright blueness, from the hazy afternoon light. There was no cover here, no place that the trap could have been easily laid. As far as his eyes could discern there was nothing but highgrass, brittle in the summer heat, waving silently as the warm breeze whipped through again, bowing in supplication before the sun.

There was only one answer. The Brother.

As the back of his throat tightened dryly, Michael thought about the girl. The sunlit meadow grass rippling in the wind reminded him of her hair, long tresses of golden silk entwined in his hands. How he had loved the feel of it on his chest in the darkness as she lay beneath him. He had carried the sensation with him even as he struggled to put other more erotic thoughts of her out of his mind, fearing the distraction might endanger him.

And now that she was gone, the highgrass would serve as a constant, nagging reminder of what he would never have again. For surely if the Brother had taken her, she was lost to him; the Dhracian had undoubtedly killed her and tossed her body in the sea even before leaving Easton. Not much was known about the mythic assassin, but it was common knowledge that he had no heart, and no vices of the flesh. Those were the only things that would have given Rhapsody a chance.

"Burn the bodies," he directed. "Gather whatever gear is left and saddle up. We're finished here."

* * *

Immediately there had been a problem.

Just below the rip Grunthor had torn in the wall of the root was a tiny ledge. It was more than likely a lichenous growth of a size that matched the mammoth proportions of the Tree, jutting out from the root wall. Rhapsody had lowered herself onto it without difficulty and peered over into the tunnel below, where the two men were rapidly disappearing, along with the weak, flickering light of the torch.

"Wait," she called, her voice shaking a little. "You're going too fast." Shadows danced on the tunnel walls around and above her, leaving her dizzy and sweating.

"Funny," replied the sandy voice from below, exaggerated and echoing. "One might rather think you're not going fast enough."

"Please," she called again, choking back the panic that was filling her throat.

There was silence, then the ledge shivered. Two enormous hands appeared at the edge of the bulbous growth, and Grunthor hoisted his upper body into view, his face damp from the moisture of the root. Even in the dark Rhapsody could see him grin.

"What's the matter, Yer Ladyship?"

"I don't think I can do this," she whispered, hating herself for the admission of weakness.

"O' course you can, darlin'. Just take your time."

"I'm Lirin—"

The Firbolg giant chuckled. "'Ey, don't remind me. Oi ain't eaten recently."

"—we don't do well underground."

"Oi can see that. Well, 'ow about Oi give you a lit'le lesson 'ere? Come on, Oi'll show you." He beckoned her forward with the wave of one hand while maintaining his hold on the fibrous rope with the other.

Tentatively Rhapsody crept to the rim of the ledge, swallowed hard, and peered over the side again.

"Now, there's your first mistake. Don't look down. Close your eyes and turn around." Awkwardly she obeyed. The vambraces of Grunthor's armor squeaked as a thick, muscular arm encircled her waist and drew her backward off the ledge. Rhapsody stifled a gasp.

"Right. Now, keep your eyes closed, spread your arms wide, and hug the root. When you're full around it, feel for an 'and'old."

Within the circle of Grunthor's arms Rhapsody reached both hands forward, running them along the surface of the root wall until her chest almost rested against the skin of the root itself. She shuddered as Grunthor shifted his weight to bring her even closer to it, the heavy, metallic odor of armor and sweat and the humid, earthy smell of the root filling her nostrils. After a moment she found a small indentation beneath her left hand, a thick root branch with her right. She gripped both firmly.

"Now the feet. Good. All right, now, open your eyes."

Rhapsody obeyed. Before her loomed the exterior skin of the trunk root, a thick, mottled hide scarred with rhizomes and lichenous growths, as jagged and rough as the interior had been smooth. She rested her ear against it and inhaled, breathing in the rich, sharp scent of it, listening to the humming pulse that vibrated in her skin and the edge of her scalp. There was solace in its song, even here within the dark tomb of earth.

"Ya all right?"

Rhapsody nodded, still resting her head against the root's sunless skin, ghostly pale in the blackness. The last of the feeble shadows fluttered, and the torch in the tunnel below flared out with a hiss.

"Now, ya see, you're doin' just fine. Don't look down, and take your time. Oi'll most likely catch you if you slip." The giant patted her awkwardly, then began to descend once again.

"Thank you," Rhapsody murmured. Carefully she felt for more handholds below. Upon finding them, she cautiously slid her foot down until she found another knot on the root. Her shoulders were on fire, her hands stung, her knees already felt the strain—and she hadn't even started yet.

How long they climbed down into the darkness was impossible to tell—hours, certainly, though it seemed more like days. Each time Rhapsody found another large growth or rhizome on the trunk root's fleshy skin she took the opportunity to stop and rest, allowing the screaming muscles in her shoulders and legs a moment's respite from the grueling routine.

She could no longer see her companions for the darkness and the distance between them. Achmed had staggered the climb so that each of them could take advantage of the resting spots. As he came to each outcropping he called out its location, and she and Grunthor would hang in place, waiting for their turns to descend onto the new ledge.

It was during one of these momentary rests, with her feet wedged into a scarred crevice in the root, her arms entwined in a desperate embrace about it, that the panic resurged.

The tunnel that sheathed the root had been wide at the Tree's base, stretching to unseen edges in the darkness around it. It had been carved out over centuries of the Tree's growth and the swollen rains from hundreds of springtimes, and as a result had seemed a vast and endless cave when they first began the long climb down.

The farther along the root they went, however, the more narrow the tunnel became. The body of the root itself had grown thinner, with more radix and branch rootlets sprouting from it. The Earth itself was closing in around them, and the closer the tunnel walls came in, the louder Rhapsody's heart pounded. She was part Lirin, a child of the sky and open spaces of the world, not made to travel deep within the earth as the Firbolg, Grunthor's race, were. Each breath was bringing dirty heaviness to her lungs and torment to her soul.

Her head began to spin. Separated from the sky, she was buried alive within the Earth, in a living grave so far down that she could never be found. Even in death, Lirin never entombed one of their race within the ground, but rather committed their bodies to the wind and stars through the fire of the funeral pyre. The awareness of the depths to which they had tunneled dawned on her, leaving her terrified. Deep; they had gone so deep. Too deep.

Suddenly it was as if every grain of dirt, every clod of clay in the ground above her had settled on her shoulders, dragging the air from her lungs. Her grip on the trunk root tightened as she grew dizzy and hot.

The song of the Tree, so comforting and ever-present at the onset of the climb, had dwindled to a bare whisper, taking what little courage she had left with it. The sound of her breathing and the painful thudding of her heart filled her ears, making her feel as if she were drowning. She began to gasp for breath. Too deep. It's too deep.

In her memory she heard her father's voice, stern but not angry.

Stop flailing.

Rhapsody closed her eyes, concentrating with the last of her will on her Naming note. Ela, the sixth note of the scale. It was among the first things she had learned when studying to be a Singer, the mental tuning fork that helped her discern the truth of a given vibration. It would help her remember clearly, even in her terror. She took a deep breath and began to softly hum the note.

The water of the pond had been cold and green scum floated on the surface. She could not see the bottom.

Father?

I'm here, child. Move your arms slowly. That's better.

It's so cold, Father. I can't stay above it. It's too deep. Help me.

Be at ease. I'll hold you up.

Rhapsody took another breath, and felt the tightness in her lungs slacken a little. The memory of her father's smiling face, his beard and eyebrows dripping, rivulets of water rolling down his cheeks, rose up before her mind's eye as it had from the surface of the pond so long ago.

The water won't hurt you, it's the panic that will. Stay calm.

She nodded, as she had that day, and could feel the droplets of anxious sweat shake off her hair, much like the pond water had.

It's so deep, Father.

A spray of water as he spat it out. Depth doesn't matter, as long as your head is above it. Can you breathe ?

Ye-e-ss.

Then never mind how deep it is. Concentrate on breathing; you'll be fine. And don't panic. Panic will kill you, even when nothing else wants to.

The next breath was even easier. Memories are the first stories you learn, Heiles, her mentor, had said. They are your own lore. There is more power in them than you will ever find in all your studies, because you wrote them. Draw on them first. Twice now she had reached back into the Past, and it had given her exactly what she needed.

Depth doesn't matter. Concentrate on breathing; you'll be fine. And don't panic. Slowly Rhapsody opened her eyes.

"Miss?"

The voice from below caught her by surprise, and the fear roared back. Rhapsody started, then lost her footing. She made a wild grab for the bark again and stumbled, sliding without purchase along the pale, slippery flesh of the root.

Rootlets and branches snapped beneath her arms as she slid, bruising her body and slapping against her face. The bark of the root's skin bit deep into her neck and hands as she fell along it, plunging down until she was suddenly, violently stopped by Grunthor's enormous mass. His body absorbed the shock of the impact without moving. Rhapsody looked up, her neck throbbing sickeningly, to see the great gray-green face wreathed in a cheerful smile.

"Well, 'allo, Duchess! Oi was 'opin you'd drop in! Care for a spot o' tea?"

The tension she had been lugging with her for a fortnight shattered, and, in spite of herself, Rhapsody laughed. The giant joined in.

"Grunthor." The dry voice from below choked off the merriment. The giant looked down into the darkness. "We'll be changing course here, following a different path."

"Wait 'ere, darlin', eh?" Rhapsody nodded. Grunthor helped her find purchase on the root skin again, after which he took out a small flask and gave her a drink. Then he climbed down to confer with Achmed. A moment later he was back.

"There's a fairly wide shelf in the root down a lit'le ways," he said. "We'll sleep there. If you want to hold on, Oi can carry you down."

Rhapsody shook her head. "No, thank you. If it's not too far I think I can make it."

"Suit yourself," replied the giant. "It's enough just to know that you fell for me." He descended the root, Rhapsody's soft laughter following him out of sight.

They ate their meal in silence and semi-light. Achmed had lit another torch and stuck it into a shallow fissure above them. Rhapsody basked in the illumination and warmth of the small flame. She had been too busy fighting the feeling of the walls caving in to notice the dark and the cold.

Achmed had gathered a number of different mold spores and growths from the skin of the root, and was testing their use as a source of fuel and light. One type of dense, sponge-like fungi held the flame well, and would glow for some time after being extinguished. Satisfied, he harvested a substantial number of them from the skin of the giant root and stored them in his pack.

"Got the light source," he said to Grunthor. "Should provide some minimal heat as well." The Firbolg looked up over a piece of the dried meat he had found in the provisions of Michael's men and nodded. "Water is no problem, obviously." In illustration, he wrung out a corner of his cloak, sodden from the climb along the damp root. A tiny stream of liquid splashed his boot.

Rhapsody finished her rations in silence. Suspended here, safe for the moment, she had had time to think about what they had undertaken. It was taking all of her concentration just to keep from losing the battle against the panic that lurked, ever-present, at the edges of her consciousness. She had not noticed when Achmed held out a sliver of green vegetable matter. He shook it closer to her face, finally drawing her attention.

"Eat."

Rhapsody accepted the food with a withering stare, then took several deep breaths, focusing on staying calm. She took a bite, then made a face. The vegetable was bland, with tough fibers running through it. Rhapsody chewed, then swallowed hard.

"Bleah. What was that?"

"The root." Achmed smiled, then looked away in amusement at the sight of the expression on her face.

"The root? You're eating Sagia?"

"Actually, you're eating Sagia." He held out his forearm to stop her from rising. "Before you vomit it up, consider again. We are down here indefinitely. We don't have enough food to last nearly that long. When the supplies run out, what do you suggest we eat?" He ignored the furious glance that had replaced the first expression in her eyes. "Or would you prefer I put that question to Grunthor?"

"Not to worry, miss," said the Firbolg giant, chewing on his supper. "Oi don't think you'd make much of a meal. You're on the bony side, if you don't mind my sayin' so. Apt to be tough and gamy."

"The amount of root we will take for food in any given place won't even be noticed by the Tree's parasites, let alone the Tree. You won't be doing it any damage, and you may actually live as a result. You'll just be taking that allegory of the Tree being the nurturer of the Lirin a little farther than most."

Rhapsody had opened her mouth to try and explain to the miscreant before her that Sagia was a living entity, it had a soul, but one word choked off her diatribe.

"Parasites?"

Grunthor snorted. "Come on, now, 'aven't you noticed the 'oles?"

Rhapsody's eyes darted around the darkness. She had been too busy trying to keep from plummeting down into the abyss below her to look for details in the scenery, and even now all she saw was the great, shaggy green-white wall behind them and the rocky tunnel around them. The size of the root and the cavern that sheathed it was monstrous, and had succeeded in intimidating her completely.

"No."

"You're in the ground, Rhapsody," said Achmed, his voice unnaturally patient. "Worms and insects live in the ground as well. They feed off roots—you have managed to notice that there are roots here, haven't you?" He saw the panic glazing her intense green eyes once more, and took her by the shoulders.

"Listen to me. Grunthor and I know what we are doing, at least for the most part. If you stay up with us, and follow directions, you may make it out of here. If you panic, you'll die. Do you understand?" She nodded. "Well, that's a start. Now, if I recall, one of the things you told us you could do as a Singer was to prolong sleep, is that correct?"

"Sometimes."

"That may prove to be important. Now, after we've rested, we're changing course. The root branches out on the other side, goes horizontal for a bit. We'll be following that. Get some sleep." He settled back against the root wall, his pocked face disappearing into the darkness of his hood.

Rhapsody moved closer to the torch, hoping the light would last at least until she fell asleep. She closed her eyes, but still could not escape the image of being covered with the unseen vermin that fed off Sagia's root.

The song of the Tree, so distant while they were traveling, swelled in the silence and filled her ears, then her heart, gently lulling her to sleep. With her last conscious thought, she hummed her Naming note, attuning herself to Sagia's song. It would sustain her in this place of living nightmares.

* * *

Far away, in a realm even deeper than Rhapsody had fallen in her darkest dreams, the great sleeping serpent stretched infinitesimally, immense coils unspooling in its slumber. Wound around the vestigial roots of the great Tree within ancient tunnels from the Before-Time, the beast lay in frozen darkness in the bowels of the Earth, awaiting the call. Soon war would rage, the door to the upworld would be opened, and its long-awaited feed would begin.

* * *

Achmed awoke in the darkness, shaking off the fragments of the dream that had been invading his repose. He knew instinctively, upon regaining consciousness, that Grunthor was already awake. The Sergeant was staring down at the girl, a look of consternation on his broad face, watching her toss and whimper in the throes of a nightmare.

"Poor thing." The Bolg leaned back against the root. "Think we should wake 'er?"

Achmed shook his head. "Definitely not. She's a Singer; she may be prescient."

"She certainly is, cute lit'le thing. Oi like 'er."

Within his hood Achmed smiled slightly. "She may have the gift of prescience, the ability to see into the Future, or the Past. Some Singers do, being in tune with the vibrations of the world. The nightmares may hold important knowledge."

Rhapsody began to sob in her sleep, and Grunthor shook his head. "Not much of a gift, if you ask me. She ought to give it back."

Achmed closed his eyes, trying to discern the heartbeats around him. There was his own, of course, and Grunthor's, the strong, steady thudding he knew almost as well. Then there was the girl's, flickering and racing anxiously. And all around them was the beating heart of the Earth, rich and vibrant, calling from far away but pulsing in its veins, the roots of the Great Tree. In his mind he set these rhythms aside, looking past them for something else. Something slower, and deeper. Something ancient.

After a moment he still could feel nothing solid. The hum from the Tree was loud enough to drown out everything but their three heartbeats. The Earth itself was masking all other sound except for the occasional dripping of water, the cracking of the tunnel walls as they crumbled imperceptibly. He couldn't hear it yet, but he would.

His musings at an end, he looked back up and studied his friend. Grunthor was still watching the Singer keenly, interposing his foot between her and the end of the ledge.

"We're going to have to lash her to the root with a rope when we start climbing, especially when she's asleep." Grunthor nodded, and Achmed rose smoothly to a stand, then looked over the deep ledge into the endless chasm below. It was growing narrower as the root tapered away to thin hairs. Achmed folded his arms and turned around again.

"How noble are you feeling, Grunthor?"

The Bolg looked up questioningly, then smiled. "Oi'm always noble, sir; it's in my blood. 'As been ever since Oi ate that knight a few years back. Why?"

"I think we're going to make a bit of a side trip."

The sensation of warmth on her face drew Rhapsody out of the dream that had been plaguing her. As the nightmare evaporated she opened her eyes.

Achmed crouched before her, a burning spore in his hand. His face was hidden deep within his hood. In the back of her mind, Rhapsody pondered sleepily if this was the first time she could definitely assign an act of kindness to him. He had roused her in the light, and had sought to keep his frightening face from being the first thing she saw upon awakening. She choked back the seething dislike she had felt for him ever since he had dragged her into the Tree. "Good morning," she said.

The cloaked figure shrugged. "If you say so. It still looks like night to me." He offered her a hand and pulled her to her feet. Rhapsody shuddered as she looked past him to the edge of their makeshift landing on the giant fungus. Tall shadows whispered across the face of the vast tunnel above them. The giant was nowhere in sight. "Where's Grunthor?"

"On the other side of the root. We're going to be taking a different path. You may like this a little more; we have to make a short climb up, but then it should be a horizontal journey, at least for a while."

She handed him back the rough camp blanket she had woken beneath, trying to keep her voice under control. "How do you know this path will lead us out of here? What if you are just getting us lost deeper within the Earth?"

Achmed ignored her question. He went to the root wall and grasped the rope that Grunthor had secured, then began to inch around to the far side of the root. "This way."

It was more difficult navigating the root sideways than it had been to climb down. Grunthor had secured a rope to the root on his way around it, pegging it in place. Rhapsody clung to the guideline and struggled not to look down as the muscles in her legs and arms shuddered from the new strain. The endless darkness below her loomed, frigid and menacing. The air was growing colder.

"Come on, miss, Oi got the rope. Take your time." Rhapsody took in a deep breath. She knew the giant still could not see her; he had been calling out routinely since she had started around, encouraging her. There was a note of uncertainty in the rich bass voice this time. The musical fluctuation told her that she hadn't moved recently, and the Bolg was wondering if she had fallen. She steadied herself.

"I'm coming," she called, amazed at how fragile her voice sounded. The weakness annoyed her, strengthening her resolve. She cleared her throat, and shouted.

"I'm almost to the bend, Grunthor."

A few moments later she crested the edge and looked around. The giant was standing there, grinning, his hand outstretched, at the mouth of a small horizontal tunnel. The root itself branched off, like a many-tubered vegetable, into the walls of the main shaft they had been descending, some above her, some below.

"Don't 'urry," warned Grunthor. "Take your time."

Rhapsody nodded, and closed her eyes. She clutched the rope and concentrated on finding the last footholds, listening to the rhythm of her racing heart. One by one, slowly. As she had the night before, she began to whisper her musical name in tune with the song of the Tree, and felt its music fill her, sustaining her, giving her strength.

After what seemed like an eternity she felt the grip of massive hands on her arm and waist, and the sickening rush of air as she was torn loose from the rope, then placed gently on solid ground. Rhapsody opened her eyes to find herself in a tunnel not much taller than Grunthor, the root's tributary running horizontally next to her. A choked laugh escaped her as she fell to her knees, reveling in the feel of firm earth. The giant laughed in turn.

"You like that, do you?" He offered her a hand. "Well, then, shall we be on our way, Duchess? We gotta catch up."

The exhaustion she had been fighting every moment since the climb began claimed her. Rhapsody shook her head, lay down and stretched out on her back. "I can't. I need to rest. I'm sorry." She ran her hand up the side of the narrow tunnel wall, staring at the crumbling ceiling above her.

The Bolg Sergeant's face lost its smile. "Oi'll give you a moment, Duchess, but then we're gone. You don't want to be where the ceilin' can cave in one bit longer than you have to be." His voice carried the quiet ring of authority that commanded armies.

Rhapsody sighed, then took his hand. "All right," she acquiesced. "Let's go."

They walked erect until the tunnel grew smaller, then squeezed through the small opening that sheathed the now-horizontal root. The ceiling was too low for Grunthor even to crouch, so they crawled along for some distance until the earth-tunnel widened into a broader vertical space once again. In the distance there was light, and Rhapsody's heart leapt. They must be near the surface.

Finally they came to the opening, struggling to hurry. When she emerged from the tunnel and stood upright, Rhapsody gasped.

They were standing next to a vast bulbous tower that loomed above them, with spidery flaccid branches sprouting from it, long thin trails of radix hanging next to it from the darkness above. By comparison, the root they had descended was nothing more than a branch of this one.

The giant root reached up into the vertical tunnel high above them out of sight. Unlike the absolute darkness of their descent, there was a faint red glow within this shaft, a dark light that held no radiance, just heat. There were no other horizontal tunnels, just more of this new root twisting into the chasm below.

The strangling disappointment of not being at the surface gave way to fearful amazement. "Gods, what is this?" Rhapsody said, thinking aloud.

"Oi believe it's the taproot, the one what connects the tree to the main line," Grunthor offered.

"Main line? What are you talking about?" A disgusted snort came from the darkness in front of her, and her weary eyes made out Achmed at the edge of the tunnel. Until that moment she had not seen him; he had blended completely into the darkness.

"One would think you would know your Lirin lore a little better. Had you thought this was the end? We haven't even made it to the real Root yet."

Fighting the devastation that threatened to consume her, Rhapsody thought back to the stories her mother had told her about Sagia. It is the Oak of Deep Roots, she had said, its veins and arteries are lifelines that spread throughout the earth and are shared by other holy trees, called Root Twins, around the world. She had spoken of its massive girth, but the outsize impressions of childhood perspective had led Rhapsody to expect a trunk of great heft, not a tree the size of the town square.

The main roots of the holy trees ran along something her mother had called the Axis Mundi, the centerline of the Earth, which the Lirin people believed to be round, contrary to the opinions of their neighbors. This main axle on which the Earth spun, reputed to be an invisible line of power, and the root of Sagia had melded together. That was the reason the Tree resonated with the wisdom of the ages, that it had grown to such an unbelievable height and breadth. It was tied into the very soul of the world, her mother had said. That might be the main line to which Grunthor had referred.

"You mean the Axis Mundi?"

"The one and only." Achmed spat on his hands, then took hold of one of the flaccid vestigial roots, called a radix. He pulled himself awkwardly off the ground, swinging slightly as the radix flexed, then positioned his foot in the crotch where an outsize knob was attached to the giant root.

He was able to scale the taproot slowly, compensating for the weakness in the smaller roots by keeping one arm wrapped around the vast green-white flesh of the main trunk. When he was ten or so feet from the ground in the tunnel he looked down.

"Saddle up, Grunthor," he said in the strange, fricative voice that had first caught Rhapsody's attention in the market. He looked at her now with an expression that hovered between contempt and indifference. "Are you coming?"

"How far up does it go?"

"No telling. There's nothing but this for as far as I can see, and my underground sight is good. What's your alternative?"

She was without one, and he knew it. Rhapsody was still unsure as to whether Achmed had been her deliverer or her kidnapper, but whatever he had intended, he was now her captor. He had dragged her in here, trapping her inside the Tree with no exit except through the root, and even that was looking more and more unlikely. She tried to keep the seething hatred out of her voice.

"Thanks to you, I have none. I'm coming."

The climb was arduous, with repeated episodes of slipping and a few almost-tragic falls. Initially it had been a little like climbing a ladder, and almost as easy. There were more knobs and lichenous growths on the taproot to serve as foot and handholds than there had been on the first root they had descended, the root of Sagia's trunk.

But as the first few minutes passed into an hour, the dull ache in Rhapsody's shoulders roared into full-blown agony. She tried to make better use of her legs to give her arms some respite, but even that did little to ease the searing pain and bone-deep exhaustion. The men had quickly outdistanced her, having far greater strength in their arms and upper bodies than she did, but even they were slowing slightly, remaining in view above her. At least Grunthor was; she could see nothing past him, except for the never-ending pale wall of the root.

Once they had been climbing for more than an hour Rhapsody could no longer see anything that even vaguely resembled the ground below them, just perpetual darkness. It was like being suspended in the sky among the stars, hovering above the world miles below.

The thought of the stars made her choke up, but she held back the tears, remembering her abductor's harsh warning about crying. Her mother's race, the Liringlas, the Skysingers, believed that all of life was part of their God. They held the heavens to be holy, the sheltering sky that touched its children, making them part of the collective soul of the universe. This was the reason they greeted the daily celestial changes with song, honoring the rising and setting of the sun, as well as the appearance of the stars, with chanted devotions.

The pain she had suffered in her life was her own fault. She had run away, abandoned her family as a teenager, but still had longed for the day when she might return, repentant, to the fold. The daily devotions, particularly the songs to the stars, were her way of comforting herself until that occurred. She would faithfully sing her morning aubades and evening vespers each day, thinking of her mother, knowing she, too, was chanting the ancient tunes of her people, thinking of the child she had lost. And now that child was trapped in the Earth, miles below the surface, possibly never to see the sky again.

"Ya all right down there, miss?" Grunthor's deep voice shattered her thoughts; the other two were many yards above her. The Sergeant was leaning away from the taproot, trying to discern what was delaying her in the darkness.

Rhapsody sighed. "I'm fine," she called, then began the laborious task of hauling herself up the towering root once more.

Finally Achmed found a ledge large enough for the two men to rest, with a smaller indentation in the root below it for her. Rhapsody settled into the pit, her body numb from the pain and exertion. Grunthor leaned over the ledge and handed her down a flask of water he had collected from the radix around him while he was waiting for her to catch up.

"'Ere ya go, Yer Ladyship. Ya all right?"

Too tired to answer, she managed a weak smile and a nod, then drank gratefully. A moment later Achmed's rope landed in her lap.

"Tie yourself to that outcropping of branches there," he directed from above. "We're going to sleep here. You should make sure you never sleep without it." Rhapsody looked up and met his glance, and in the fog of her exhaustion understanding came over her. There was no end in sight. There might never be.

They continued to climb. Any sense of time vanished. There seemed to be nothing at all in time or space but the root, the three of them, and the endless climb. How long it had been was impossible to tell; Rhapsody was rarely hungry, and the other two felt compelled to eat even less frequently than she did, so keeping track of the passing of hours or meals or breaths they took didn't serve to mark the passage of time. Eventually they gave up altogether, becoming resigned to the eternal journey, with the ever-dwindling hope that there would one day be an end to it.

Achmed and Grunthor had become accustomed to traveling with their hostage. She never complained, and rarely spoke, though she had some trouble staying on the root. She was small, and the trunk was too vast for her arms to gain any purchase, so as a result she slipped more frequently than they did, on occasion necessitating that Grunthor make an adjustment in pace to keep from losing her.

The most troublesome aspect to her company was the nightmares. The three companions endeavored to find sleeping places as close to each other as possible, Achmed in the lead, Grunthor next, and the girl bringing up the rear. Rhapsody never passed a sleeping session in peace, always awakening in a cold sweat or a panic, gasping wildly.

Being within the Earth intensified her dreams, changing them dramatically. They now began as distant visions, inexplicable sights that had no bearing on any real experience. Rhapsody dreamt often of Sagia, sometimes walking around it in the darkness of the silent glade, touching its gleaming bark in wonder, unable to find the hole through which they'd entered.

One night, in a particularly disturbing dream, she saw a star fall into the sea, and the waves around it erupting in fire, swirling into a towering wall of water that enveloped the Island, swallowing it. She saw Sagia, its boughs filled with thousands of Lirin singers, dressed in green, chains of wildflowers entwined in their hair and about their necks, singing sweetly as it vanished beneath the ocean surface.

She had moaned in her sleep, turning over in the ropes by which she had bound herself to the root. Achmed had been on watch, and tore off one of the millions of bulbous growths that disfigured the root, dropping it on her from above in hope of making her stop whining. It had the desired effect; she grew quiet again as her dream changed into an old one, one that recalled her past.

It was a dream of the bordello she had worked in a few years back. She could see the bedchamber again clearly in her mind's eye, the tawdry red furniture that was the decorating staple of every brothel, the extra-large bed. She shuddered in her sleep at the memory that unspooled itself against her best efforts to keep it in check.

Michael had been sprawled lazily across the bed, the mud from his boots soiling the linens.

"Well, there you are, Rhapsody, my dear," he said, his eyes opening wide in delight. "I was beginning to think you weren't coming."

"I wasn't," she answered tersely. "Why are you here? What did you say to Nana? Why does she look so upset?"

"I merely requested an appointment with my favorite girl. Surely there's no harm in that?"

"And surely she told you that I have declined to accept any more appointments with you, Michael. So why, then, are you still here?"

Michael sat up, the dirty boots shoving the bedspread onto the floor as they stepped down. "I was hoping you would change your mind, darling, when you saw how truly devastated your rebuff has made me." He took off his boots and nodded to one of his henchmen. The man closed the door behind her.

Her eyes narrowed, and her face set in anger. "You don't look too upset to me, Michael. Please leave. I don't want you here."

Michael looked at her in obvious admiration. She was tiny, but powerful, and he could feel her spirit coursing through his veins. She was the only one who not only stood up to him, but seemed to have no fear in doing so. While fear was arousing to him, this was even more so, especially when he knew he would win.

"Now, now, don't be so hasty, Rhapsody. I've come a very long way. Can't you at least let me tell you what I want?"

"No. I don't care what you want. Now get out."

"Ouch," he said, clutching his chest as though wounded. "You are so insolent, my dear. That's not something I tolerate in my men, but in you it's strangely stirring. And speaking of things that ought to be stirring in you, why don't you just come and sit down over here." He patted the bed next to him, and then began to unlace his trousers.

Rhapsody turned to leave. "I'm sorry, Michael. As I've told you, I'm not interested. I'm sure there are any number of others who are more than happy to serve you."

"You are so right," he said, as the henchman stepped in front of the door. "Though I am crushed by your lack of interest, I am prepared in case you are unwilling to change your mind. Would you like to meet her?"

"No," Rhapsody said, glaring at the grinning lackey. She was not intimidated in the least by the presence of the henchmen; surely Michael was aware that Nana's guards were the best in Easton, and far outnumbered these two. Nana had an arrangement with the town guard as well.

She could feel the frost in Michael's smile even behind her back. "All right, Rhapsody. Have it your way. I'm sorry we couldn't come to an understanding. Let her pass, Karvolt." The guard opened the door and made a sweeping gesture toward it, the cruel smile growing a little more radiant.

As the door opened, a third guard came into the room, bringing with him a child of no more than seven, trembling violently. She was Liringlas, like Rhapsody's mother, and the shawl that was draped around her shoulders had obviously belonged at one time to an adult. It was dirty and bloodstained, and as she came into the room the child's eyes went immediately to Rhapsody. The look of abject terror was barely held in check by the stoic face that the race naturally granted its members.

Rhapsody's eyes opened wide in horror, and she turned back to Michael, who was smiling broadly as he removed his pants.

"What's she doing here?"

"Nothing yet, obviously," he answered smugly, and the guards exchanged amused glances. "Goodbye, my dear."

"Wait," Rhapsody said, as Michael pulled his shirt over his head and settled back, naked, onto the bed. "What do you think you're doing, Michael? Where did this girl come from?"

"Oh, you mean her?" he asked innocently, pointing at the child. "That's Petunia, my dear ward. A very sad story, really. Her entire family perished when an unfortunate accident befell their longhouse. Tragic. But don't worry, Rhapsody; I plan to take very good care of her. You can leave now, darling."

Rhapsody pulled loose from the grip of the guard who had taken her arm and crouched down, opening her arms to the child. The little girl ran to her and buried her face in Rhapsody's shoulder.

"No, Michael. You can't do this. Gods, you really are the most repulsive thing I have ever encountered."

Michael laughed in amusement, his arousal becoming more intense. "No? And why not, Rhapsody? She belongs to me; she doesn't work here. We're just staying here tonight. I don't want the guests at the inn to be kept up too late tonight by any, er, noises; now, isn't that considerate of me? No one will notice here. In fact, it may even excite some of your customers more."

Rhapsody stared into his crystalline blue eyes; she saw no sign of a soul in them. The smile on his face was triumphant; he knew he had her. She looked back into the face of the little girl. Tears were brimming in the child's eyes. She trembled with fear and clutched Rhapsody tighter. Rhapsody closed her eyes and sighed.

"Let her go."

"Don't be ridiculous, she needs me."

Rhapsody cursed him in her mother's tongue. "Let her go," she repeated.

"Why, Rhapsody, what are you saying? You're jealous! Have you had a change of heart suddenly? Whatever brought that on? Was it, perhaps, the sight of me in all my splendor?"

"Hardly," she replied angrily, running her hand down the child's hair, whispering words of comfort into her ear in their common language. "All right, Michael, what exactly do you want?"

"Well, first I would like some privacy."

"I can certainly accommodate that request," Rhapsody replied, rising and taking the child's hand. "We will be more than happy to leave you alone."

Michael's eyes narrowed. "Don't waste my time, Rhapsody; this game is only fun for a short while. I will send the men away as soon as I have your word that you will meet my wishes upon delivering the child to Nana. I'm sure that's what you had in mind, isn't it? And I know I can trust you, darling. Your reputation precedes you."

"Well, that's one thing we have in common," she retorted. "All right, you sick bastard. I'll be back momentarily." She turned and led the child to the door.

"Wait," said Michael, and his tone had a frightening ring of victory to it that caused her to look at him again. "We haven't discussed my terms yet."

"Terms? Are you expecting something different this time, Michael? Sewing lessons, perhaps?"

He laughed. "You really are amazing, my dear. Impertinent even in the face of very real danger." He rolled onto his belly and crawled to the end of the bed, his muscles moving like those of a cat stalking its prey.

"Karvolt, take the child into the hall." His eyes glittered as the guard obeyed. Rhapsody patted the little girl comfortingly as she released her hand.

"Now listen, my dear. Here is the bargain: my men and I are here for a fortnight, after which we will be leaving for the foreseeable future. I will miss you very much while I'm gone; it will probably be years before we see each other again, though I promise I will come back for you. You're in my blood, Rhapsody. I dream about you almost every night. And I know you feel the same way about me." He smiled at the look of disgust that came over her face.

"Now, this is the first of the terms: I will have you to myself, whenever I want you, until I leave. Nana has graciously agreed to let me rent this room for the entire time. If you perform up to my expectations, which you always do, I will leave the child with you when I go. If you make this difficult, I will take her with me, and you will be left to imagine what is happening to her for the rest of your life."

"Now, the second term. You will want me, too, and tell me so. I expect you to be very demonstrative of the affection and desire I know is pounding through you right now."

"Well, desire anyway," Rhapsody said, trying not to let the seething anger she felt take over her voice. "I would be more than happy to demonstrate what I desire to do to you right now. Give me your belt."

"Karvolt? Is Petunia well?" An anguished cry of pain issued forth from the hallway, turning Rhapsody's blood to ice. "I'm sorry, dear, I didn't hear you. Now, what was it you were saying?" Michael laughed aloud at the murderous rage that burned in her eyes. "Why, Rhapsody, I do believe you're angry. Whatever is wrong?" His own eyes became wild, and the calm amusement that had been playing there moments before vanished before the oncoming storm.

"Now, back to the terms. You will not only meet my needs, you will engage in their succor willingly, with relish. You will make love to me with your words, as well as all your other attributes. I expect to leave here with your heart in my pocket, having placed one of my organs in yours repeatedly. Now, can you do that? Can you promise me a reciprocal situation?"

"No. I'm sorry. I agree to the first condition, but, as you've already said, my reputation precedes me. I can't lie about this, Michael. You would know it was false anyway."

Michael pushed up on his strong forearms. "Karvolt, bring Petunia back in here and put her directly under me."

Rhapsody wheeled as the guard dragged the little girl back into the room. "No, Michael, please. Please."

The child began to sob, and Rhapsody stepped in front of the guard, positioning herself between them and the bed. The guard lifted the little girl off the floor, and as she began to scream Rhapsody grabbed her, pulling her away. She turned and looked at Michael again. His eyes were gleaming with a frightening intensity.

"All right, Michael, I'll say whatever you want. Let her go."

"Show me, Rhapsody. Show me why I should believe you."

Rhapsody glared at the guards, whose smiles glittered brighter than the flickering light from the candelabra. Quickly she walked the child to the door, and bustled her into the hallway.

"Nana," she called down over the balcony railing, "please take her out of here and get her something to eat." She gave the child a brave smile and pointed down the stairs, where Nana and the others were waiting. After the girl had descended, Rhapsody sighed and went back into the room.

Michael was plumping the pillows when she returned.

"Well, Rhapsody? Tell me what you want." His voice dropped to a warm whisper, erotic, threatening.

Rhapsody met his gaze. Then, with a practiced hand, she slid her fingers into her shirt and, ever so slowly, began to unbutton it.

"Leave us," she said to the guards. "We want to be alone." His smile broadened. "Yes, leave us," he echoed. "This beautiful woman wants to be left alone to pleasure her lover. Isn't that right, Rhapsody?"

Rhapsody's eyes never dropped. "Yes," she said, staring at him. She removed her blouse and let it fall to the floor, causing his pulse to beat faster and his breathing to quicken. "Leave me alone with my lover."

Rhapsody's forehead furrowed, and she lurched to one side in the throes of the nightmare. She began to mutter in her sleep, and Achmed, perched on a trunk root higher up, tapped Grunthor with his foot.

Grunthor stirred and woke without a sound to full awareness. He followed the downward angle of Achmed's glance and saw the girl, eyes closed, murmuring, swearing epithets softly under her breath. Then she began to whimper, and her body rocked back and forth, trying to loose the bonds of the rope that bound her to the root.

Grunthor took hold of a long vine and rappelled backward, leaning out to reach the girl, who was now sweating, crying in her sleep. She struggled to break free, and just as Grunthor came within reach of her, she did.

Rhapsody began to fall into the endless darkness, waking as the world rushed by above her. She gasped and clutched wildly at the root, feeling her hands burn as they stripped along the radix. A huge hand grabbed her around the waist and hoisted her aloft, disorienting her totally.

"There, now, Yer Ladyship, plannin' to drop in on someone else now, are ya?"

Rhapsody fought for purchase, then to regain her perspective, and found herself upright against Grunthor's chest, his enormous arm wrapped tightly around her torso. She leaned back and looked up at him. His grisly features spread into a broad grin.

"Thank you," she said, her brows knitting together. She looked around the endless tunnel in the dark light, then back to his face. "Thank you very much."

"My pleasure, darlin'. If Oi might be so bold as to suggest it, you best sleep on the root between us, eh?"

"Bad idea," came the voice from above. "You can't be certain that a falling body, even one that small, wouldn't catch you off guard and unbalance you, Grunthor."

"'E's right, miss; sorry," Grunthor said, looking at Rhapsody with what she swore was sympathy.

"I understand," she replied, taking hold of the root once more. She started to climb down, but her foot slipped against the slime on the main vine. Grunthor's hand shot out to steady her again.

"'Ere, missy, come on up 'ere," he said as he lifted her effortlessly from below him. He carried her like a child back up to his perch, then stretched out again, positioning himself horizontally between the trunk root and its tributary branch. Gently he pulled her down onto his chest and slung an enormous arm around her.

"Why don't you just sleep 'ere, Yer Ladyship?" he asked, patting her awkwardly on the head. "Oi'll keep you safe, darlin'."

Rhapsody looked up into the monstrous face, and decided that what she saw there was kindness, not appetite. Despite his monstrous appearance, and what she knew he was capable of, he had been kind to her. She could trust him, at least.

"Thank you," she said softly, giving him a shy smile. "I will." She put her head down on his chest and closed her eyes.

Grunthor shivered. "Oooooh. Beware the smile, sir; it's a killer."

"Thanks for the warning," came the voice from the root above. "Somehow I think I'll manage."

"I see a break in the tunnel."

Rhapsody and Grunthor awoke to the strange voice echoing slightly in the tunnel around them. The earth generally absorbed the sound, so the reverberation caught them off guard.

Rhapsody sat up, her hair blanketing the wide chest of the Firbolg Sergeant whom she had been using as a mattress.

Grunthor looked up. High above, barely in sight, he could see an infinitesimal change in the red glow, as if there was airspace above it. He nodded in agreement.

"Right, then, let's make for it in all due 'aste," he said, helping Rhapsody back onto the root above him.

They resumed their climb. It seemed to Rhapsody that the journey was less difficult now that the end might be in sight. She found new strength in her limbs and a more sure footing in her step just imagining being above the ground in the air again. She had tried hard to suppress thoughts of escape while climbing in the endless darkness; it caused feelings of panic and frustration to set in, making her abandon hope and crushing her spirit. Even now she exercised caution about being too excited.

It proved to be a wise move. Even with them climbing as long as they could without stopping to rest, the break in the tunnel seemed no closer. They made a sleeping camp, as was their custom when they had exhausted their ability to climb, and doled out the remains of the stores Achmed carried.

As she swallowed the dried beans and the pieces of Sagia's root Achmed had harvested, followed by a cup of water droplets collected from one of the tiny, hairlike rootlets that were the tributaries of the taproot, Rhapsody felt a sense of desolation creep over her. She had been able to avoid thinking about her dream from the previous night, distracted by the prospect of the end being near and comforting herself with the knowledge that Michael would never find her now. Unbidden, her mind wandered back to the horrible memory.

The most disturbing thing about Michael's behavior during those nightmarish two weeks was not the depth of its depravity, but its wild unpredictability. He would go for days sometimes, locking her alone in the room with him, refusing to let her leave, demanding constant attention. Then, for no apparent reason, he would drag her down to the dining room and take her on the breakfast table amid the cutlery and startled expressions of his lieutenants, who had little option but to watch or look away while their meal grew cold and congealed.

Sometimes his jealousy ruled him. She had seen him bloody one of his lackeys for looking in her direction. On other occasions he would force her service as many of his men as he could find, one after another. She had wished for death, but it had not come, and instead she comforted herself with the thought that at least the child was safe.

Finally the day had come when he was to leave. Rhapsody stood and watched him pack his horse; his mood was surprisingly jovial for once. His smile was broad as he took her face in his hands, kissing her goodbye with great care.

"Well, now, Rhapsody, it certainly has been wonderful to see you again. I can't wait until this assignment is over. Will you miss me?"

"Of course," she had said. The lies no longer made her choke.

"That's my girl. All right, then, Karvolt, get Petunia and let's be on our way, shall we?"

Rhapsody had felt shock ripple through her. "What? No, Michael, she's mine; that was the bargain."

"Yours? Don't be ridiculous. I promised her dear father, right after I sliced his head through, that I would take care of her myself. You can't expect me to go back on my word, now, can you?" Screams could be heard inside the house, and Karvolt emerged, carrying the girl.

Rhapsody began to panic. She knew it was certainly within the makeup of Michael's character to have abused her under the terms of the agreement, and then break his word; the prospect was too awful to bear. He was grinning from ear to ear, watching the tears run down her face as he blocked her attempts to reach the girl. Finally, against her will, she gave in to sobbing.

"Please, Michael, no. Don't break your word. Give her to me. Please."

"Why should I, my dear? I have just had the most satisfying two weeks of my life; in fact, I think all the pleasure I have ever had put together could not compare to this time. I'm used to regular sexual exercise now; someone has to satisfy me. Petunia will do as a temporary substitute."

Rhapsody grabbed his arm as he turned. "Take me, then, Michael; leave the girl." She knew what his last words meant: the child was expendable. He would use her horribly and then kill her.

Michael's face glowed with triumph. "How touching. Now, who would have believed you are the same girl that refused me before my men a fortnight ago? I guess my attention was enough to change your mind, eh, my dear?"

"Yes." Rhapsody thought bitterly how true this was. Many things she had believed in had died in the intervening time.

"Well, what do you know? I'm even better than I thought. I'm sorry, Rhapsody, but I can't help you. I doubt you will wait for me in the meantime, so I can't very well be expected to wait for you. Saddle up, Karvolt." He turned to go.

In a last act of desperation, Rhapsody pulled him back into her arms and kissed him. She could feel his heart beat faster as his surprise wore off, and he began to grope her enthusiastically. She drew him as near as she could stomach to and whispered into his ear.

"Please, Michael; would you do this to a woman who loved you?" She knew he would take her words as she meant him to, even though there was none of that meaning in them for her. It was a purely rhetorical question.

Michael pushed her away and looked into her face. "You love me? You, Rhapsody? Swear it, and I will leave her with you." Behind him she could see Karvolt watching her with interest from the saddle, the screaming child tied roughly behind him.

"Take her down first, and give her to Nana, and I will swear it."

"It will need to be a sincere oath, Rhapsody. I don't intend to be toyed with."

"It will be, I swear it."

Michael motioned to Karvolt, and he untied the girl, swung her down, and led her to Nana, who rushed her back inside. Michael watched until they were out of sight, then turned to Rhapsody again.

"All right, my dear, what was it you wanted to say?" Rhapsody took a deep breath. "I swear by the Star, that my heart will love no other man until this world comes to an end. There; is that enough for you now, Michael?" His smile of victory made her sick. Michael bent and kissed her gently.

"Yes," he said quietly. "I love you as well, and there will be no other in my heart either; my bed, perhaps, but not my heart. I will be back for you, Rhapsody, and when I return we will be together always."

She nodded dumbly, knowing that what she had just sacrificed had meant less than he thought. She had no heart to compromise, anyway. She had given it away long before, and it had died with the one who took it.

Rhapsody watched, her arms clutching her waist, as the contingent rode off, Michael's broad smile glinting brilliantly in the sun as he waved to her. She waited until they were out of sight, then went behind the bushes and retched.

"Vermin."

Rhapsody sat up in shock. Achmed must have been reading her mind. My sentiments exactly, she thought ruefully. Then she followed his extended finger in the direction he was pointing and gasped. Spilling down the root above them was a moving wall of pale, wriggling shapes, larger than her forearm, making their way toward the heat exuded by the three of them.

Trembling, Rhapsody nicked her wrist to draw forth her dagger. The length of the blade was only as long as her palm, with a hilt of half the size. These wormlike creatures were easily three times as long, which would mean that even while she was attacking them they would be on her.

Suddenly the wind was knocked out of her by a tight grip around her waist. Grunthor seized her around the middle and dragged her off the root, lowering her down to a position behind him. Then he climbed a little higher until he found a spot with a wide crevice in the root shaft where he could perch. Rhapsody followed his lead, locating a patch of thin roots that formed an outcropping sufficient to secure herself.

Above her she could hear the air being rent with the whispering sound of the disks from Achmed's cwellan. She prayed he didn't misfire; the missiles would fall on her or Grunthor.

"Draw," he said in a warning voice to Grunthor. The vermin had moved at an astonishing speed, slithering down the root, over every surface and irregularity without a perceptible delay. They swarmed over him, covering his robes. As his hands slashed, lightning-fast, with a blade she could not see, the bodies began to fall, some of them contacting her as they pitched into the darkness below.

The vermin were larvae the color of the pale root, but with thin purple veins that scored their surfaces, and similarly colored heads engorged with blood. One fell into her hair, biting at her scalp with small, sharp teeth that were set in rows within its head. It was all she could do to refrain from screaming.

Grunthor had drawn an enormous sword, thin and long with a pointed tip, and was knocking scores of them off the root above him, precipitating another shower of writhing bodies.

With her reaction speed, born and nurtured on the streets of Easton, she quickly parried the falling larvae and turned her attention to the sluglike vermin that had swelled past Grunthor and were coming down the root at her. There were scores of them; she knew if this many had made it to her, the men above her must be engaging hundreds, if not thousands of them.

In between delivering sweeping blows to the tide of parasites, Grunthor cast a glance her way.

"'Ere, you can't fight with that lit'le thing," he said, kicking an enormous mound of wriggling flesh off the root next to him. Rhapsody barely had time to dodge out of the way of the falling lump. "'Elp yourself to one o' my long weapons." He shifted his body slightly to allow her to grab any one of the many handles that jutted out from behind his pack.

Rhapsody shook her head, attacking the two worms that were clinging to the root above her. "I don't know how to use anything but a dagger," she said, slashing off their heads and pushing their bodies off the taproot with two swipes of the knife. A third larva sank its teeth into her upper arm, causing her to cry out in surprise. She shook her arm violently, trying to dislodge it.

"Turn," Grunthor ordered. Rhapsody obeyed. The giant Bolg leaned back and stretched his arm down, skewering the larva on the tip of his sword. He wrenched it off her with a twist of the weapon and she cried out in pain again as it took a small piece of flesh with it into the tunnel below. "We'll 'ave to give you some lessons after all this, miss," he said as he turned back to the larvae on him.

"If I live through this," she muttered, striking the next batch of vermin off the root.

"All mine are dead," called Achmed from above, turning and rappelling down the root to where Grunthor was perched.

"Oionly got this patch o' little buggers; 'elp 'er Ladyship," said Grunthor, stabbing at the last mass above him.

"Lie flat," Achmed ordered. Rhapsody complied, pressing herself against the root, squashing a larva beneath her chest in the process. She closed her eyes as the cwellan disks whizzed by her, slicing through the vermin around her.

"You can open them now," the voice, thin and sandy as river silt, said from above. She did, and drew in a breath at the face staring at her in the dark.

It had been a very long time since she had seen Achmed's face. He generally traveled in the lead, while she took up the rear, and so she had forgotten how startling his visage was, especially in the dark.

"Thank you," she whispered, her voice coming out like the croak of a crone. Then she noticed his forearm. "You're bleeding," she said.

Achmed didn't look at the wound. "I suppose." He looked up at Grunthor. The Sergeant nodded. Achmed started to climb back up into his position at the lead.

"Well, let me dress it before you go. Who knows if they have some sort of venom." She spoke steadily, her voice belying the pounding of her heart as the reality of the attack caught up with her. Rhapsody had always found that in situations of great danger she was able to function calmly, almost detachedly, until the danger had passed. It was afterward that the symptoms of panic set in.

"I'll live," the robed man responded. Grunthor shook his head.

"She might be right, Sir. 'Oo knows where them worms came from. They might be servants of our lit'le friend."

Achmed seemed to consider for a moment, then slid back down the root until he was positioned across from her in the outcropping. "All right, but don't take forever about it."

"You're late for an appointment?" Rhapsody retorted as she opened her pack and drew forth her waterskin. She took Achmed's forearm and turned it over in her hand. The wound was deep and bloody. Gently she poured some water onto it, feeling him tense but observing no reaction on his face.

Grunthor moved closer to watch as she opened a phial with a pungent smell of spice and vinegar. Rhapsody soaked a clean linen handkerchief with the witch-hazel-and-thyme mixture and applied it directly to the wound, wrapping it in filmy wool. Achmed twisted away.

"Hold still; I've never done this before," she chided.

"Well, that's reassuring." He winced as the spice-soaked bandage began to drench the wound with its vile-smelling liquid, a dismal burning sensation beginning under the skin. "I hope you realize I don't need both hands to kill you, if it was your intent to deprive me of one."

Rhapsody looked up at him and smiled. Her face was bruised and bloody from the fight, but her eyes sparkled in the darkness. She was beginning to take to his sense of humor, and against his will Achmed felt an inner tug. Grunthor was right; she had a powerful smile. He made note of it for future reference.

She returned to her work, humming a tune that made his ears buzz. He imagined that the slight vibrating sensation was mirrored on his wounded wrist, which no longer stung.

"Stop that noise," he instructed harshly. "You're making my ears ring."

She laughed. "It won't work if I stop the noise, that's the most important part. It's a song of healing."

Achmed looked her over as she continued to hum, and after a moment the wordless tune grew into a song. She sang in words he didn't recognize.

"Oh, 'ow pretty," said Grunthor from behind her. "Well, sir, if we can't find work when we get out o' this stinkin' 'ole, maybe 'Er Ladyship 'ere will teach us some tunes and we can go on the road as a team of wanderin' troubadours. Oi can see it now: Doctor Uchmed's Travelin' Snake Show."

"Great idea," Rhapsody said as the song came to the end. "Let me guess: you sing tenor, Achmed." She received a surly look in response. Slowly she began unwrapping his wrist. "You know, you both really ought to have more respect for music. It can be a very powerful weapon, as well as whatever else you need it to be."

"That's true; my singin' voice can be quite good at inflictin' pain. At least that's what the troops use ta tell me."

Rhapsody's smile grew a little brighter. "Go ahead, scoff if you want to. But music of one form or another will probably be what gets us out of this place."

"Only if you annoy me so much with your singing that I use your body as an auger and drill us out of here."

She laughed. "Music is nothing more than the maps through the vibrations that make up all the world. If you have the right map, it will take you wherever you want to go. Here." She stopped unwrapping Achmed's arm and opened her pack, pulling out a dried blossom.

"Remember this? You thought it was a parlor trick, but that was because you don't understand how it works. Even now, after all this time, it can be made new again." She ignored the sarcastic glance that passed between them, and put the flower into Achmed's palm. Quietly she sang its name, and went back to unwrapping his bandage as she waited for his reaction with amusement.

Grunthor leaned over her shoulder and watched as the petals began to swell with moisture and uncurl, stretching to their full length again. Even in the acrid tunnel, the faint fragrance of the primrose was discernible over the stench of stagnant water and the sweat of their bodies.

"But it only works with flowers?"

"No, it works with anything." She pulled the bandage away, and surveyed her handiwork. The wound was closed, and almost gone. What had a moment before been a deep, jagged gash was now a thin line of raised pink skin, and after a moment even that had vanished, leaving the forearm as it had been before the combat.

Even Achmed seemed somewhat impressed. "How does it work?"

"It's part of what a Namer can do. There is no thing, no concept, no law as strong as the power of a given thing's name. Our identities are bound to it. It is the essence of what we are, our own individual story, and sometimes it can even make us what we are again, no matter how much we have been altered."

Achmed gave her a sour look. "That must be profitable in your line of work—how many times have you sold your own virginity? Does it bring a better price each time?" He watched her wince, and felt a twinge of regret. He didn't like his own reaction, and so filled his voice with sarcasm. "Oh, I'm terribly sorry. Have I offended you?"

"No," she said shortly. "There is very little you could say that I haven't heard before. I'm used to men making jackasses out of themselves."

"'Ey!" said Grunthor in mock offense. "Watch it, sweet'eart, I haven't 'ad a good meal in a good long time."

"Another example," she said patiently. "You see, men have the upper hand in size and strength, and many of them have little compunction about using it when they can't win with their wits. Who do you think came up with the idea of prostitution in the first place—women? Do you think we enjoy being degraded on a daily basis? I find it incredibly ironic; it is a service in great demand, and one that I can assure you few women go into unless they have to." She dabbed a little of the healing tonic onto her own cuts and vermin bites, then offered the phial to Grunthor, who shook his head.

"Men are the ones who want it," she continued. "They often go to great lengths and great expense to obtain it, and then turn around and insult the women who provide the salve for this overwhelming, insistent need of theirs. Then the men act as though such women are somehow to be ashamed for their actions, when it was the man's idea in the first place; that's what I cannot fathom."

"Anyone can understand a starving person resorting to stealing in order to feed his family, but somehow a woman who is forced into that life by the same threat, or that of violence, is less than a person. Never mind the man who is making use of the service. He has nothing to regret, and in fact it is usually he who expects her to accept the scorn and derision as something she deserves. I say all of you can blow in the wind. I'm going to remain celibate."

"Right," Grunthor chuckled, "sell a bit here, sell a bit there—"

Rhapsody spoke another word, and the giant's leering commentary was choked off in midword. The giant continued to move his mouth, but no sound emerged for a moment. His eyes widened with surprise, and he looked over at Achmed.

Achmed reached over and roughly took hold of her collar. "What did you do to him? Whatever spell you cast, take it off now."

Rhapsody didn't blink. "He's under no spell; he can speak if he wants."

"Oi doubt it—oh, Oi guess Oi can at that, now. Sorry, miss. Oi didn't mean to be offensif."

"No offense taken. As I told you, there's very little you can say to insult me that I haven't heard before."

"Well, no one here will sit in judgment of you. We have sort of a 'live and let live' philosophy, wouldn't you say, Grunthor?"

Grunthor snickered, then nodded. "Oh, yes, miss. Live and let live. Or, pe'raps 'kill and eat' might be more like it. You got to remember, Oi'm a Sergeant Major by trade; Oi kills and eats folks as part of my job. Well, actually, just kills 'em; the eatin' part is actually what you might call a side benefit. Countin' coo, as it were." Rhapsody just nodded and went back to rewrapping the bandages.

"So how did you take away his voice, then, if it wasn't a spell?"

"I spoke the name of silence," she said, "and it came, for a moment, anyway. It was the most powerful thing in this, well, this space, because it was in the presence of its name. How's your wrist feeling?"

"Fine. Thank you."

"You're more than welcome."

"Oi 'ate to break up this lit'le love festival, but we ought to get movin', eh?"

"You're right," said Achmed, rising from the taproot and brushing off the dead vermin that remained around them. "I'm running out of disks. We'll have to make the best use we can of them from here on out if the vermin return."

Rhapsody shuddered as the carcasses fell around her, covering her head to keep the pieces out of her hair. She repacked the flower and healing herbs, and followed Achmed back off of the outcropping and onto the root, to begin once more the seemingly endless climb to nowhere.

"You're the dirt of the ground Oi walk on.
You're pond scum under my heel.
Just try disobeyin' my orders,
Oi'll feed ya three feet o' black steel.

It's a crime to despise the Sergeant.
No matter what 'e thinks o' you be sure
not to spread your opinion or
you'll wind up for sure in the stew."

Rhapsody smiled to herself as Grunthor's ringing bass died away below her. The Bolg Sergeant clearly missed the troops that had been under his command, though he had not elaborated much about who they were, or what had happened to them. His marching cadences helped him pass the time, and gave her an interesting window into Bolg military life. More than anything, it made her appreciate that she had not yet become part of the menu.

A small thicket of rootlets offered a moment's respite from the climb, and she took the opportunity to stop, trying to find warmth. As she rubbed her hands furiously up and down her arms, Rhapsody endeavored to stop her heart from pounding in the anticipation she could not control. The sickening feeling in her stomach from too many disappointments did little to quash the hope that was now lodged in her throat.

Finally, after an interminable amount of time, they were almost to the tunnel's break. Above them in the darkness stretched a vast ceiling, too far to see the top, where Rhapsody hoped they might soon see sky. Perhaps it's dark outside, she thought, but in the pit of her stomach she knew they had been traveling for far more than the span of a single night since the opening had come into view.

"Wait there," Achmed called down to them as he approached the opening. Grunthor came to a halt as well and waited as the dark figure climbed the rest of the distance up the thickening root tower.

As the taproot grew closer to the opening of the tunnel it widened dramatically, and seeing the outside edges became impossible. Grunthor and Rhapsody watched as Achmed faded from view, scaling the enormous root trunk above them and disappearing over its edge.

While they waited, Rhapsody looked over at Grunthor. During their interminable journey she had grown quite fond of him, and grudgingly friendly with his comrade as well, though she still had not forgiven him or determined his motives. Now that it seemed as if they might be near the end, she had come to realize how the giant Bolg was more a man than many she had met, not at all the monster she had been told of in childhood horror stories.

"Grunthor?"

The amber-eyed Sergeant looked over at her. "Yes, miss?"

"In case I don't get a chance to thank you after we get out, I want you to know how much I've appreciated your kindness, in spite of, well, the way we ended up together."

Grunthor looked up to where Achmed had disappeared and smiled. "Don't mention it, Duchess."

"And I apologize if I hurt your feelings in any way, back in the meadows when we first met, by my comments about thinking of Firbolg as monsters."

Grunthor's smile brightened noticeably. "Well, that's awful nice o' you, Yer Ladyship, but Oi got a pretty thick 'ide; Oi didn't take no offense by it. And you're not so bad yourself, you know, for one o' them glass-Lirin. They're the worst-tastin' o' the lot."

Rhapsody laughed. "What kinds of Lirin have you known, besides Liringlas?"

"Oh, all kinds. Oi've seen Lirin from the cities, and Lirin that live in the dark 'ills, and Lirin from the sea. They all look somethin' the same, you know, all angles, skinny lit'le buggers with pointy faces and big wide eyes. Come in all different colors, mind you. You're not a full-blood, are ya?"

She shook her head. "No, half. I guess I'm a mongrel among Lirin."

"Aw, well, mutts make the best dogs, they say, miss. Don't feel bad. It makes for a nicer appearance, Oi think. You're a pretty lit'le thing, as Lirin go, not so sharp-lookin' and fragile."

"Thank you." She smiled at the odd compliment. "You're the nicest Firbolg I've ever met, but, as you noted, I've only ever met one."

"Two." The voice from the root above her caused her to jump a little. Achmed had returned.

"No, I've never met any but Grunthor."

Achmed's expression turned into something more resembling a sneer than a smile. "Well, far be it from me to correct the facts of the All-Knowledgeable, but you've met two."

Rhapsody looked puzzled. "Are you saying you are also Firbolg?"

"Perhaps we shouldn't use her for food, Grunthor; she shows a glimmer of intelligence." The giant made a mock sound of disappointment.

She looked from one to the other, vastly different in appearance. Grunthor was at least a foot taller than Achmed, and where the giant was broad and muscular, with massive arms and hands that ended in claws, Achmed, from what she could see beneath the covering of robes, was wiry and of thinner build, with bony human hands. She turned to the giant.

"Are you a full-blooded Firbolg?"

"Naw."

The robed man snorted. "Did you think you're the only half-breed in the world?"

Color flooded Rhapsody's face, visible even in the dark light. "Of course not. I just thought Grunthor was Firbolg."

"Grunthor is half Bengard"

The Bengardian race was a little-known one, reputedly from a distant desert. They were said [Garbled]

the size of the taproot luscule in contrast to this Grunthor whistled. The endless glowing ground that [Garbled]

[here comes the piece of Russian text in replacement of missing English piece]

Бенгарды были малоизвестным народом. Их племена обитали где-то в далеких пустынях. Про них говорили, что они ужасно высокие, а их тела покрыты шкурой, похожей на змеиную. Она немного знала их фольклор и несколько песен.

— А ты?

Ее спутники переглянулись, прежде чем Акмед ответил:

— Я наполовину дракианин. Так что мы все тут дворняжки… Ну что, в путь?

Рапсодия уже достаточно хорошо изучила своих спутников, чтобы знать, когда следует задавать вопросы, а когда лучше помолчать.

— Разумеется, — ответила она. — Я совсем не хочу здесь задерживаться.

Она встала и потянулась, чтобы немного размять затекшие ноги, а потом последовала за двумя друзьями вверх по огромному корню.

— Сюда, мисси, давай ручку, и Ой тебя вытащит.

Рапсодия с благодарностью вцепилась в протянутую лапищу Грунтора. Он легко поднял ее с уступа, на котором она остановилась, и поставил у выхода из туннеля. Не в силах справиться с собой, она опустила ресницы, моля всех святых, чтобы черное пятно у них над головой оказалось ночным небом, усыпанным звездами. Но когда она вновь открыла глаза, черное пятно осталось черным пятном, уходящим в бесконечность.

Однако перед Рапсодией открылось поразительное зрелище. Земля у них под ногами была белого цвета — совсем как корень, по которому они карабкались. Только она едва заметно светилась и пульсировала, и ее голос торжественным гимном отзывался в душе Рапсодии.

Грунтор присвистнул от удивления. Бесконечная мерцающая поверхность земли, которую переполняла могучая, пульсирующая сила, оказалась шире Великой реки, рассекавшей остров Серендаир на две части. Эта поражающая воображение дорога имела множество ответвлений.

Рапсодия едва сдерживала разочарование:

— Боги, что это такое?

— Истинный Корень. Тот, по которому мы взбирались, был всего лишь боковым отростком, возможно, соединяющим Сагию с Осью Мира. Неужели ты думала, что мы добрались до конца нашего путешествия? Мы, считай, еще и не начинали его. [/Russian replacement]

She fought back the tears she had been forbidden to shed. "I can't go any further," she said, her voice coming out in a whisper.

The robed figure took her by the shoulders and shook her slightly. "Listen! Can't you hear the music around you? How can a Singer, a Namer, particularly a Lirin one, not be awed by the music of this place? Even I can hear it, I can feel it in my skin. Listen!"

Over the beating of her sorrowful heart Rhapsody could hear the hum, a great vibration modulating in the endless cavern around them. Against her will she closed her eyes and drank it in. It was a rich sound, full of wisdom and power, unlike any she had ever heard. Achmed was right, as much as she hated to admit it. There was something magical here, something unique in all the world, a melody that moved slowly, changing tones almost infinitesimally, unhurried by the need to keep pace with anything. It was the voice of the Earth, singing from its soul.

Rhapsody let the music flow through her, washing over the pain and the anger, healing the wounds from their combat with the vermin. She attuned her own note, the tone that was her musical name, to the voice of the Root, as once she had to the song of Sagia, and felt it fill her with its power. A moment later she opened her eyes to see the men conferring, pointing to the different pathways that extended out from this juncture. It was as if they were at a crossroads, trying to decide which way to go.

Finally Achmed turned to her. "Well, are you over your crisis? Are you coming, or are you staying here forever?"

She shot him a look of hatred. "I'm coming. And don't speak to me in that tone. It wasn't exactly my idea to come in the first place." She rubbed her hands, beaded with moisture. At first she thought it was from her anxiety, but a moment later noticed that she was similarly damp on her clothes and boots. The moisture in the air hung heavy here; it was a dank place.

"At least we don't have to climb anymore, darlin', eh? That's for the better, anyway." Grunthor winked at her as he shouldered his pack.

"This way," Achmed said, pointing to a path leading off the left side of the Root.

"Why?"

"Because it feels right," he said without rancor. "You, however, are welcome to go whichever way you please." He and Grunthor climbed over a thick rise in the ground and began following the enormously wide, glowing path into the darkness of the cavern. Rhapsody sighed, shouldered her gear, and followed them.

They made camp when they could walk no longer. The ceiling of the cavern was now in sight, visible in the dark light as they approached the place where the Root seemed to pass through a tunnel in the Earth.

"Since this Root runs through the Earth, there will probably be extremes in the space around it," Achmed observed as they made ready to eat and get some sleep. "Right now we're in a cavernous place, probably because so many of the Root's tributaries meet here. Soon I fear we will be in very close quarters. That tunnel ahead may be the normal space the Root has around it, and if that's the case I think we will be doing a good deal of crawling. In addition, the air is unlikely to be very pleasant. Perhaps if Grunthor is going to train you in the sword, he'd be best do it here, while we still have some space. After we've had a rest, of course."

"You think he needs to?" Rhapsody asked anxiously.

"No, I think you have need for him to," said Achmed tersely. "Those worms came from somewhere. I doubt they were just on the taproot. I would guess we will see them again. It's your choice."

Rhapsody turned to the grinning Firbolg giant. "If you're willing to train me, I would be grateful," she said, "but I don't have a sword."

"Oi can loan you one, darlin'. Actually, it's just a longknife for me, but for you it'll serve as a sword." Grunthor plucked a long dagger from behind the small of his back and presented it to her with a deep bow.

Rhapsody took it shyly. The blade was longer than her thigh, and sharp. It made her nervous even to hold it.

"I'm not sure," she said hesitantly.

"Listen, miss, them worms are gonna eventually get you if you don't keep a better distance," the Bolg Sergeant said. "Ol' Lucy there will 'elp ya."

"Lucy?"

"Yep, that's 'er name."

Rhapsody looked down at the short sword. "Hello, Lucy. Do you name all your weapons, Grunthor?"

"O' course. It's tradition."

Rhapsody nodded, understanding coming into her eyes. "That makes perfect sense. Do you find that you fight better with a weapon you've named?"

"Yep."

Her eyes began to sparkle with excitement. "Why, Grunthor, in a way, you're a Namer, too!"

The giant broke into a pleased grin. "Well, whaddaya know. Should Oi sing a lit'le song?"

"No," said Rhapsody and Achmed in unison.

"Get on with the lessons," added Achmed. "I'm only willing to wait for so long before pressing on."

Grunthor was feeling about his back, trying to decide on a weapon with which to spar. He pulled two more of his blades out. The first one was a long thin sword he called Lopper. Rhapsody shuddered at the imagery, remembering the night in the fields with Michael's men. The other was a thick, three-sided spike he introduced as the Friendmaker. He must have decided to use this one, because a moment later he slid Lopper back into its place behind him.

"Why do you call it 'the Friendmaker'?" Rhapsody asked nervously.

"Well, you may 'ave somethin' there, with all that name and power stuff," said Grunthor as he took his position. "Take the Friendmaker, for instance. Oi called 'im that, and now, when people see 'im, they instantly want to be my friend. Those that live, o' course."

"Of course." Rhapsody smiled sickly. "I know I do."

"Well, that goes without sayin', miss. Oi should 'ope we're friends, we been sleepin' together and all."

Rhapsody smiled in spite of herself. "All right, friend. Let's have at it."

The sound of clashing steel rang through the cavern around the Root. The giant Firbolg had swept Rhapsody off her feet repeatedly. She was beginning to tire of getting up, only to find herself on her back a few moments later. Most disheartening was that she knew he was holding back, taking it easy on her as a beginner.

Grunthor had left many openings for her that she had tried to follow through on, only to find herself disarmed or compromised in some other way. Finally she took to seeking the openings he had not made obvious, and his approval was growing.

"That's it, Duchess, keep at it, now." He parried her blow. She stripped Lucy the sword down the side of the Friendmaker, only to find him in defensive position again. "Come on, don't give in, sweet'eart. Oi know you can do it. Knock me off the bloody Root. Do it."

Rhapsody swung twice more, futilely. Grunthor was too fast for her. She stepped back and took a deep breath.

"STRIKE!" Grunthor bellowed, causing her to jump away even farther. "Get your pretty 'ead out o' yer arse and pay attention, or Oi'll rip it off and stick it on my poleax!" Rhapsody stared at him in astonishment. The giant's eyes opened in surprise as well. He regarded her sheepishly.

"Sorry, miss, sometimes Oi slip back into my Sergeant Major role."

Rhapsody bent over at the waist, trying to catch her breath. When she stood back up she was still laughing.

"I'm sorry, Grunthor. I guess I just wasn't cut out to fight with a sword."

"Perhaps," came Achmed's dry voice behind her. "But you should learn anyway. What you need to change is your attitude."

Rhapsody regarded him between breaths. "Really? And what new attitude do you suggest I adopt?"

The robed man came and stood beside her, taking her hand and turning it over. "First, however you initially grasp the sword, change your grip a little, so that you focus on how you're holding it. Don't take your weapon for granted. Second, and far more important: tuck your chin. You're going to get hurt, so expect it and be ready. You may as well see it coming."

"You're spending too much time trying to avoid the pain instead of minimizing it and taking out the source of what will injure you further or kill you. If Grunthor weren't holding back you would have been dead in the first exchange of blows. You should accept that you will be injured and decide to pay him back in spades. Learn to hate; it will keep you alive."

Rhapsody threw her sword onto the Root. "I'd rather not live at all than live that way."

"Well, if that's your attitude, you won't have to worry long."

"I don't want to act like that. I like Grunthor."

The giant Bolg rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, the feelin's mutual, miss, but if you don't learn to take care of yourself, you're worm-meat."

The sense of irony that came over Rhapsody she had felt before, each time she considered her situation and realized that she was indeed in the company of two strange men of monster lineage, stuck within the Earth, crawling along a giant root. The sweet one, the one that looked at her from time to time in a wistful manner she could only interpret as thwarted appetite, was trying to convince her to attack him in order to save herself. The more human of the two, proving the deception of looks, was still treating her with consummate indifference. She picked up Lucy again.

"All right, Grunthor, let's give it a few more passes and then we'll stop."

The Sergeant broke into a wide grin. "That's it, miss, 'it me just once, and make it a good clean blow, now."

When Grunthor was finally satisfied with her performance Rhapsody sank down to the ground, bruised, disheveled, and hungry. She rummaged through her pack, looking for the small sack in which she kept the remains of the loaf of bread Pilam had given her. She gripped the bag a little tighter and began to sing, chanting the name of the bread, as she had since the day the baker had given it to her. In her song she described it in music the best she could, flat bread, barley loaf, soft.

When the namesong was over she opened the sack and took out the bread, breaking off a sizable piece for herself, then offering the remainder to the men. After all this time there was still not a speck of mold on it, even in this humid place, and it was still able to be chewed. By rights it should be harder than a lump of coal by now.

"What was that, now, miss, a blessin' o' some sort?" asked Grunthor, taking the piece she held out to him.

"In a way. I called it by its name." Rhapsody smiled at him, then proceeded to eat her portion. Achmed said nothing. "And is that 'ow you got it to stay fresh?"

"Yes. It remains as it was when it was first baked."

Achmed stretched out on the thick smooth flesh of the enormous Root. "Well, when we wake up, why don't you call it something else? I've always liked the name 'Sausage and Biscuits,'" he said. It was the first joke Rhapsody ever remembered him making.

"I can recall its original state, but I can't change its nature," she said, chewing her bread. "If I had that power, you would be a good deal more pleasant, and I would be home."

Perhaps it was the pulsing power of the Axis Mundi beneath her head as she slept, but Rhapsody was now plagued incessantly with even more vivid nightmares.

The dreams that night were especially intense. Clearest among them were repeated visions of a man, drowning in darkness, smothering in endless pain. All around him was a blanket of mist. She tried to brush the vapor away, but it hung in the air, unwilling to be dismissed. Rhapsody struggled to wake, but the exhaustion was too great.

She moaned and wrenched from side to side, falling off Grunthor's massive chest as the image changed. It was the picture of another man, his face formless except for eyes, rimmed in the color of blood. He was digging about in the darkness, passing his hands through the air, grasping after something that he could not find. Words formed in her mind, and unconsciously she whispered them aloud.

The chain has snapped, she said.

Achmed, lying on his back and staring into the darkness above him, heard her and sat up. He looked down at her face, contorted in the struggle with the torturous dreams; she looked like she was losing the fight. He tapped Grunthor, who sat up as well.

The man with the blood-rimmed eyes looked up at her, and the image of his amorphous face filled her mind. The eyes, the only identifiable feature, stared at her as though memorizing her face. She knew she should look away, but something held her in an iron-fast grip. Then, as she watched in horror, each of the eyes began to divide, replicating itself, multiplying over and over, until there were dozens, then scores, then hundreds in the formless face. All staring at her.

The Lord of a Thousand Eyes, she whispered.

One by one the eyes broke off the misty face, independent but identical. A cold wind blew in, catching each of them, carrying them across the wide world. And still they stared, unblinking, focused on her.

On the surface of the world above, war is raging, she murmured.

"What's she on about?" Grunthor asked softly.

Achmed waved him into silence. He had heard her name the F'dor.

In her dream a handsome face appeared, gleaming with the patina of youth and moonlight. His cheek grazed her own as he embraced her, nuzzling her ear.

This is all I have; it's not much of a gift, but I want you to have something from me tonight, he said. Then the gentle hands tightened their grip, and muscular legs forced hers apart as the soft breathing turned to the heightened panting of lust.

No, she moaned. Stop. It's all a lie.

He laughed, and the clutching hands on her arms squeezed painfully. Iwould never, never hurt you on purpose; I hope you know that.

Stop, she sobbed. I want to go home.

Home? You have no home. You gave all that up, remember? You gave it up for me. Everything. Everything you loved. And I never even told you I loved you.

Gasping in the throes of the nightmare, Rhapsody began to choke on her tears. Grunthor, who had grown visibly more upset with each passing moment, reached over to help her. Achmed caught his arm.

"She might be prescient," he said warningly. "She may be seeing the Future, or the Past. The information might be important."

"Don't you think keepin' 'er from a fatal fit might be a lit'le more so, sir?" Achmed saw the angry look in the giant's eye, and moved aside. Gently Grunthor took her arm and shook her awake.

"Miss?"

With a violent lurch Rhapsody sat up; then she recoiled and belted him in the eye. It was a beautiful shot, innately aimed, with her entire weight behind it, and carried with it the impact of a blow from a man twice her size. Grunthor fell back on his rump with a thud.

Achmed chuckled. "See what being a considerate fellow buys you?"

Rhapsody, now awake, blinked back the tears and stumbled over to the giant, who was gingerly touching his eye as it began to swell.

"Gods, Grunthor, I'm sorry," she gasped. "I didn't know it was you."

The Bolg looked up at her and grimaced with an expression that might, under different circumstances, have been a smile.

"That's all right, miss. Quite a nice right cross you got there. Where'd you learn it?"

She was rummaging in her pack for her waterskin. "My brothers."

"Oi see. Well, Oi guess since we adopted you, perhaps you would do me the favor of thinkin' o' me as one o' your brothers, and don't 'it me with that lovely right cross again, eh?"

A hint of a smile crossed her face as she dabbed his eye. "Who do you think I used it on the most?"

"Oh."

"I'm so sorry."

"No need to be, darlin'. 'Ere, put that away. Oi'm all right. Come and lie back down, and perhaps we can get a lit'le more rest." Rhapsody obeyed sheepishly.

When they woke they gathered their gear and moved into the endless low tunnel before them.

Rhapsody had become so accustomed to crawling through cold, wet rock, had been chilled for so long, that she had forgotten what it was like to be dry, not to shiver. The musty smell of the earth and the stale water that pooled within it permeated everything.

Her clothes were constantly damp, and had been for as long as she could remember. At times it seemed as if there had been no other life but this, that her memories of the Past had only been dreams. This was the reality, this never-ending trek along the Axis Mundi.

They had been climbing, walking, and crawling on their hands and knees for so long now that they knew nothing else. Time had passed endlessly, and still they woke after each session of uncomfortable sleep to the same nightmarish reality.

Unlike the two Bolg, who seemed to have no fear of the depths of the Earth or enclosed spaces, Rhapsody still spent a good part of her waking hours silently battling her thoughts of suffocation and enclosure. Part of her routine consisted of driving out the realization of how far below the surface of the Earth they were, how precarious their air and space was, especially during the frequent cave-ins.

She was grateful that they avoided too much hands-and-knees crawling. Most of the time they were able to stand erect, or occasionally walk stooped over, which was barely better than crawling. Every part of her body, and especially her back and knees, ached with each step, each moment they moved along the sandy, rocky floor of the endless tunnel. There was little respite from the torture, even in sleep.

She still failed to understand how Grunthor was able to force his enormous body through the tiny crevasses by which she felt crushed. When Achmed finally declared they were stopping, usually once they had made it out of a tight, wet enclosure, she would sink gratefully into exhausted sleep, only to be wakened by her nightmares.

They grew in intensity the farther they traveled within the Earth, causing Achmed once to threaten to push her off the Root. When room allowed, she slept on Grunthor, finding some comfort in the strength of the massive arms, although waking to the grinning greenish face had taken some getting used to at first.

Achmed's demeanor had changed. Once they had reached the Axis Mundi itself he became more reserved than usual, distracted even, as if he was listening for something just outside the range of sound. His voice had dropped to a near-whisper, though he had not opposed speaking or being spoken to, at least any more than he had before. His preoccupation was apparent to Rhapsody, so she tried not to disturb him, and instead directed most of her conversation to Grunthor.

When space allowed enough air to converse while traveling, the two men taught Rhapsody the Firbolg language, known as Bolgish, more to be polite than anything else. It was their common tongue, and to converse in it made it seem as if they were trying to exclude her. In return, in the rare moments when light permitted, she taught Grunthor to read. The lessons never lasted long.

Rhapsody had awakened from her sleep to find Achmed himself pale and clammy, muttering under his breath, much as she routinely did. The tunnel had been narrow for some time, through several stretches of travel, without respite, and several cave-ins had recently occurred.

Grunthor, who had cleared a large blockage of rock from their path a few hours before, slept through his friend's nightmare undisturbed. She raised her head off the giant Bolg's chest and watched for a moment, then rose slowly, and carefully climbed over her sleeping partner to the lookout spot where Achmed generally made camp for himself.

When she reached him she felt her own pulse quicken in concern. His eyelids were twitching rapidly; he was breathing shallowly and moaning intermittently. Gently she stroked his forehead and whispered to him.

"Achmed?"

The Dhracian struggled a moment more, and then his eyes snapped open, cleared from sleep.

"Yes?" His voice had an even drier edge than usual to it.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes."

She caressed the side of his cheek as she would that of a child in the night. "You seemed to be having a nightmare."

The mismatched eyes glared at her. "You think you have an exclusive right to bad dreams?"

Rhapsody fell back as if slapped. His eyes had shot sparks at her the same way his cwellan flung forth its disklike missiles.

"No, of course not," she stammered. "I'm sorry, I was just—never mind." She crawled back over Grunthor, now awake, and settled back down against the absurdly muscular chest. She had planned to ask what he was dreaming about, but realized upon seeing his reaction that she did not want to imagine something that could frighten Achmed.

Beneath her, Grunthor closed his eyes and drove the thoughts from his mind. He already knew.

Finally Achmed seemed to find what he was looking for. They had followed the Root into a voluminous cavern, with walls so distant as to be indiscernible in the dark. The robed figure had slowed, then come to a stop.

"Wait here, and try to be quiet," he said softly. "If I'm not back by the time you wake, go on without me." Before Rhapsody could question him, he was gone.

When she turned around and looked to Grunthor for an explanation, she shuddered. The expression on the broad face was grimmer than she had ever seen.

"What's he doing?" she whispered nervously.

The giant reached out a hand to her, pulling her silently down to the floor. The air was chillier than usual, and he opened his coat, offering her his shoulder for a pillow. Rhapsody lay down and he drew the great mantle around her. Slowly he let out a deep sigh, his eyes staring into the darkness at the distant ceiling overhead.

"Rest now, miss."

Achmed cast a final look around the immense cavern before he began his climb across the Root to the passage he had finally seen. Unlike the other tunnels, it carried no branch of the Root but lay empty and silent, undisturbed in the darkness.

He had been following the low, flickering heartbeat for a long time. He had caught the first whispers of it just after they had climbed off the taproot onto the Axis Mundi. Swelling intermittently through the loud hum of the Tree, it was the echo of a low and distant thudding in the earth beneath his feet.

It had been his intention, when he and Grunthor first laid their plans of escape from Serendair, to avoid this place at all costs. What lay within the tunnel, coiled within the belly of the Earth itself, was the horrific destiny of the Island. The knowledge of its existence, and the plans for its awakening, had been part of the reason he had sought to leave, though he knew that something even more cataclysmic was waiting for its time to come forth as well. Something he had seen with his own eyes in the desert beyond the failed land bridge.

That he had been able to find its pulse at all was still of some surprise to him. His blood-gift, his tie to men's heartbeats, was a legacy granted to him as the first of his elder race to be born on the Island. This thing preceded him; it was from the Before-Time. And it was not a man. Perhaps the inadvertent choice of names that Rhapsody made that afternoon in the streets of Easton had something to do with it, had given him entry into its blood, access he would not normally have had.

The pulse was almost imperceptible, slow in the frozen depths below, but it was definitely there. By the volume of the blood that ran through its veins, there could be no mistaking that this was what he sought.

He stopped. For the first time that he could remember, Achmed felt paralyzing fear.

His own death was not a concern to him now, nor had it ever been. Death was his partner, something he had dispensed as the consummate master of his trade. The incessant vibrations of the world that irritated his physiology on a daily basis, that which others defined as life, was not something to be cherished, but often just endured.

Occasionally upon dispatching victims he had seen a kind of peace come over their faces, a sense of imminent rest that intrigued him. Certainly he knew that many deaths he delivered came as a relief to those who hired him.

Part of his birthright had been his judgment, his discretion. He was not a ravager, like a pestilence or a war. The death sentences he bestowed were, in fact, often the only sense, the only justice in the tangled strife of the world. He was not afraid to meet death himself. It owed him.

What frightened him was the breathtaking, mindless, incomprehensible scope with which that grim entity was looming. The devastation that would be visited upon the land was absolute; once the wyrm had extricated itself from the earth in which it hibernated it would devour everything it could find. It would eclipse him a million times over as the master of dispensing death. It would be worse than an eclipse, a dark sun of ultimate ruin, not making death the shadow, but bathing the world in itself.

He and Grunthor would buy time by leaving now, escaping to another part of the world. They could probably live out the remainder of their lives and die in bed before it came for them. It had been their original plan.

And yet here he was, on the doorstep of its sanctuary, trying to find the antidote to a poison far more virulent than he could ever negate, something older than the Earth itself.

There was something ironic in the need he felt, heartless killer that he was, to try and preserve the lives of those innocents left behind, the unwitting populace of the Island, and eventually, the Earth. He was now physically unable to pass this chance by, not to intervene.

He stood at the edge of the chamber, breathing the bitter chill. Something about having been the intended agent of the wyrm's release, or the bait, or his loathing of the demon who had tried to command him, or all of these things, made him plan against all better instincts to keep this monstrous force asleep, hidden.

Try as he might to shrug it off, the need to act had clutched at him mercilessly, refusing to let go. He didn't understand its genesis, but he knew it had something to do with Rhapsody.

Somehow she was bound to this as well. He would need her if he was going to make the attempt, would have to convince her that she was capable of this immense undertaking. She would benefit from the confidence he displayed in her, even if, in the depths of his heart, that faith was uncertain. The consequences of a misstep were dire. The consequences of not making the attempt were more so.

Rhapsody was dreaming of darkness. The light of the candle-flame had flickered as the door of her bedroom creaked open. The rustle of the bedclothes as her father sat down beside her.

Are you all right, child?

In her sleep Rhapsody shifted to move away from the root now beneath her ear. She nodded.

Dark, she whispered now, as she had then. I'm afraid, Father.

He had wrapped her in the bedclothes as he lifted her from her bed and carried her outdoors, under the star-sprinkled sky.

I used to do this with your mother when she first came here, when she was afraid.

Mama was afraid of the dark, too?

The scratchy roughness of her father's beard against her cheek as his arms encircled her, forming a wall of protection that would keep her safe.

Of course not. She's Lirin, a child of the sky. Much of the time the sky is dark. She was afraid of being away from it, of being enclosed. And of the darkness within.

In her sleep Rhapsody folded her cold hands and buried them between her knees.

Isthat why you made the window in the roof?

Yes. Now, look into the sky, child. Can you see the stars?

Yes, Father. They're beautiful.

She could still see his smile gleam in the blackness around them.

And would you be able to see them but for the dark?

No.

You cannot see the beauty without facing the darkness. Remember this.

She thought she knew what he meant. Like when you first brought Mama, to live here, and the people of the village were unkind to her?

The smile had disappeared, along with its light.

Yes, like that.

How did the village come to change its mind about our family, Father? If they despised Mama so when you first married, why did you stay?

She could see his face in her memory, wrinkles pocketing around his eyes as he smiled at her again.

We needed to face that darkness. And we did, together. I will tell you something that I want you to remember. If you forget all my other words, remember these: when you find the one thing in your life you believe in above anything else, you owe it to yourself to stand by itit will never come again, child. And if you believe in it unwaveringly, the world has no other choice but to see it as you do, eventually. For who knows it better than you? Don't be afraid to take a difficult stand, darling, find the one thing that matterseverything else will resolve itself.

Tears fell onto the glowing Root below her. She had listened, had remembered, had taken his words to heart. And, in doing what he said, she had lost everything. Even him.

"Rhapsody?"

The word was spoken so softly she thought she was only hearing it in her mind. Rhapsody opened her eyes and found herself staring up into the darkness of Achmed's hood, the gleam of his gaze fixed on her. She nodded silently.

"I have a story for you. Its ending isn't written yet. Do you wish to hear it?"

Slowly she sat up and took the hand he offered her. As on the day she had first accepted it, the grasp was firm and clawlike, but now his hands were bare, the leather gloves gone.

She thought for a moment that this was still a dream, but the clarity and openness of his gaze and words was something she knew she could never have imagined. He pulled her carefully to a stand and led her from the sleeping giant to a sheltered spot some distance away. He pointed into the darkness.

"Over there is a tunnel unlike the others we have followed. There have been many like it, but I doubt you've noticed them. The tunnels were not carved by the Tree's roots, but have been here since long before its acorn was ever planted."

"Deep within that tunnel is a beating heart. You have asked repeatedly how I know where I am going. The answer is that I can sense almost any pulse in my skin. I know that what I am saying frightens you, because even though your outward expression has not changed, your heartbeat has quickened. If you become lost within this place, if you fall down a root shaft or are buried alive by a cave-in, I can find you, because I know the sound of your heart."

Rhapsody rubbed her eyes in an effort to clear her mind. The words, spoken softly in the now-familiar dry tone, bore no resemblance to anything Achmed had ever said to her before. She concentrated on the music in his tone, and found empathy there. And concern. And fear. She shook her head to clear the lingering cobwebs of sleep; she must still not be thinking clearly. Her skull was pounding.

"Listen to me. I've been following a pulse. First it was that of the Tree itself, but once we found the Axis Mundi it changed; now I have been following that other heartbeat to this place. Something terrible rests in there, something more powerful and more horrifying than you can imagine, something I dare not even name. What sleeps within that tunnel, deep in the belly of the Earth, must not awake. Not ever. Do you understand me? You once said that you could prolong slumber—"

"Sometimes."

"Yes. I understand. This must be one of those times."

Achmed's eyes searched the Singer's face as she struggled to wake more fully. He wasn't doing very well with his explanation. He needed her to understand what he was asking of her.

She had been as uncertain of her abilities as he now was, from the moment she had renamed him by accident to her shielding of their presence from the Lirin of the fields and forests. He had come to realize that this was at least in part because she had finished her studies alone; her mentor had disappeared with but a year left in her training.

His blood ran cold at the thought. Tsoltan had once made a casual reference to a Namer in his thrall. Perhaps there had been an earlier connection between Rhapsody and himself than he had realized.

She had been consuming the flesh of the Root, as he planned, almost from the very beginning. There was no question that it had affected her, as it had Grunthor and himself. They had passed a lifetime or more, or so it seemed, down here in the depths of the world, and had not aged a moment, at least by the vibrations he had been able to sense. The Tree tied to Time itself had prevented its ravages. If anything, they were healthier, stronger, even younger than they had been upon entering Sagia.

But there was also another change in her, an inner strength that he had not felt when they first met. Whether it had come from long hours of practice or as a gift from the flesh of the Tree, Rhapsody was becoming a Namer of great power. He hoped it would be enough.

"I need to know what it is if you want me to try to make its sleep last longer," Rhapsody said softly. "You're talking in riddles, or avoiding the whole story, which is a minor form of deception. I told you long ago that power is in the truth. I can't help you if you keep me in the dark."

Achmed exhaled slowly. He stared at her for a moment, as if gauging her soul. "You named me Achmed the Snake because it sounded frightening to you, didn't you?"

"Yes. I told you that a long time ago. And I've been embarrassed about it ever since."

"Perhaps you shouldn't be. It may have been the only thing that allowed me to find the tunnel. When I was the Brother, I was tied only to the blood of men and women. It may have been the serpent name you gave me that helped me hear this beating heart."

"In the Before-Time, when the Earth and seas were being born, an egg was stolen from the progenitor of the race of dragons, the Primal Wyrm. If we live to get out of here I will one day tell you its name, though it would not be wise to do so now."

Rhapsody nodded in agreement.

"That egg was secreted here, within the Earth, by the race of demonic beings born of elemental fire. My former master was one of them."

"The one who gave you the key?"

"Shhh. Yes." His voice dropped even lower. "The infant wyrm which came from that egg has lived here, deep in the frozen wastes of the Earth's interior, growing, until its coils have wound around the very heart of the world. It is an innate part of the Earth itself; its body is a large part of the world's mass. It sleeps now, but soon that demon wishes to summon it, and will visit it upon the land. Rhapsody, I can't explain its size to you, except to say that Sagia's trunk root was a mere piece of twine in comparison with the taproot, yes?"

"Yes."

"And the taproot was a thread compared with the Axis Mundi. The Axis Mundi is like one of your hairs in comparison with this creature. It has the power to consume the Earth; that was the intent of the thieves who put it here. It awaits the demon's call, which I know for certain is intended to come soon." He blinked, and Rhapsody could no longer see his face. "I know this, because he planned to use me to help bring this about."

"And that's why you ran?"

"Partly."

Rhapsody sat back, and looked at him with new eyes. Hithertofore it had been obvious that her two companions had histories that were nefarious; it was impossible to conclude anything else after the slaughter of Michael's men. And yet despite their pasts there was a nobility to both of them.

Grunthor's she had seen right away. He had been her protector from the beginning, advocating for her with his partner, assisting her in her climb, protecting her from her dreams. It was this other one in whom she had seen no good until now.

You cannot see the beauty without facing the darkness. Remember this.

"And rather than circumventing this place you have brought us here in the hope that we can help contain it."

"Yes, if possible." The mismatched eyes glittered in the darkness. "And even then, Rhapsody, you will only be buying time. You will never have the power to destroy it completely, nor I, nor any living soul."

She rested her throbbing head in her hand. "I can sing it a song of slumber, but I don't have any idea if it will work. And I will have to be very close to it to ensure it hears me."

Within his hood she heard a sigh. "I had suspected that. Grunthor and I discussed that possibility."

"And he objected, which is why you waited until he was asleep to talk to me."

"Careful, Rhapsody, you sound almost astute. You're going to ruin my opinion of you."

"I have an idea, but I'll need my pack," she said, hiding her smile. "You are more likely to be able to get it without waking Grunthor."

"Before you do anything foolish, why don't you tell me what you are planning?" Achmed handed her the pack, remembering a night long ago by the light of a hidden campfire in the fields outside Easton's wall.

So I'll ask you again, Singer; what can you do?

I can tell the absolute truth as I know it. And when I do that I can change things.

When the thought passed he looked up again. Rhapsody was untying the rawhide strings that held the burlap cover over her shepherd's harp.

"Thanks for your confidence in me." She pulled the ragged cloth loose and uncovered the instrument. It had not been damaged by its time within the Earth, much like Pilam's bread. "You said that at some point this beast will be summoned."

"Yes."

"What if it didn't hear the call?" Achmed stared at her blankly. She tried again. "In order to summon something, you need to know its true name. Of course, I don't know this thing's name. But if we could obscure the call, keep the beast from hearing it properly, or feeling it, perhaps it would just stay asleep and not answer. At least for a little while."

A fragment of a grin crawled over Achmed's face. "And how would you achieve this?"

"I'm not sure yet. But I'll have thought of something by the time we get to the tunnel."

With great care they crept across the vast, glowing Root, taking their time to ensure silence. Eventually they came to its edge and stepped off it for the first time onto the black basalt rock through which the Axis Mundi ran. In the shadows not far from the Root's edge was an immense tunnel, so huge that it faded into the darkness of the stone around it, its edges barely visible.

The closer they came to the tunnel, the colder Rhapsody felt. When they were close enough for her to see it, she knew why.

An icy wind was rising from the depth of the vast circular cavern. Her ears and fingers stung as it blasted through, freezing the wet clothing to her skin.

"Gods," she whispered. "Why is it so cold?"

Achmed slowly turned to her. When he spoke his words were measured.

"The demonic spirits that secreted the egg here took the element of fire with them when they went upworld to keep the wyrm in hibernation. They wanted it to grow to its greatest possible size before setting it free. I think that's why the vermin are attracted to heat and light." The natural percussion in his voice seemed stronger, as if his teeth were chattering.

"Are you all right?"

Achmed smiled through the ice that was forming on his lips. "I'm pondering hibernation myself."

"What do you mean?"

He leaned slowly over so she could catch his whisper. "You're the one who named me Achmed the Snake."

Concern filled her eyes as Rhapsody reached out and brushed the frost off of his face. His movements were now so slow as to be almost imperceptible. "Gods," she whispered again. He was trapped, living up to the reptilian name she had given him.

What have I done ? she thought miserably, watching him freeze where he stood. If I fail and wake the serpent, he will be unable to escape. He'll be its first victim. No; its second.

"I'm going to take you back first," she said, taking his frigid hand. "You can't stay here."

With the last of his remaining mobility, Achmed shook his head. His eyes, still piercing, sought hers and stared down at her.

"Rhapsody," he said with great effort, "you do this. I will wait." His words had the ring of finality to them.

She looked down the tunnel into the icy darkness. "Can you still sense its heartbeat?" He blinked twice. "Good. All right, then, I'm going to set up right here. You need to tell me if it reacts to anything I'm doing, if it starts to wake. I'm going to begin softly, so we can stop if we have to. Give me a moment to gauge the direction of the tunnel."

Quietly she put down the harp and tiptoed into the vast opening. Its walls were wider than she could see in the dark, its ceiling higher, so once inside she was blind. She rested her hand on the wall and leaned forward slightly to try and estimate the angle of descent, but could see very little. The dirt beneath her hand was sandy and cold. The tunnel sloped downward, curling into the distance. Rhapsody returned to where Achmed waited.

"The wyrm must be very far away," she whispered. "I can't see an end to the tunnel."

Achmed struggled to speak. "The tunnel—wall—"

She moved nearer to hear him. "What about the tunnel wall?"

"—is—a scale in—the—skin of—the wyrm."

Frost ran through her veins as she realized what he meant. He had said that the body of the serpent was a large part of the Earth's mass, but she hadn't realized that it was part of the cavern around them. If the immense tunnel wall was a tiny piece of one of its coils while its heart was far away, deeper within the belly of the Earth, then surely there was nothing in the known world that could contain a beast of this size should it arise. And she had touched it.

Fighting nausea and panic Rhapsody sat on the ground and took up her harp. She cleared her mind and attuned herself to the diffuse music in the air around her. After a moment, its low, smooth tone began to fill her ears. There was little fluctuation, just the occasional variation in the monotone up or down a half-step. A sign of deep sleep.

Softly she began the simplest slumber song she knew in the same key as the music around her. She looked to Achmed's face, looking for signs that the heartbeat of the wyrm had increased, but his eyes remained steady, watching her intently within the frozen prison of his body.

The melody wove through the music in the air, matching its tune. Slowly Rhapsody added a harmonic element, and noted a slight increase of warmth in the air around her. She looked up at Achmed, questioningly, and he blinked once. Still no change.

A stray thought knocked on the door of her mind, and Rhapsody shook her head to drive it out again. The import of what she was doing, and its potential consequences, was something that had to remain in abeyance until she was finished. Otherwise it would have buried her in its weight.

When the demon summoned the wyrm he would be using its true name, something that would match exactly the musical vibration it was attuned to. She needed to change that vibration subtlely, needed to wrap it in a slightly discordant song.

When using music to cause pain, it is better to be slightly sharp or flat than either of those things in the extreme, her mentor had said. If she did it slowly enough, took it up a degree at a time, perhaps the wyrm would not notice the subtle change, but it would still be enough to interfere with the call of its name.

Rhapsody breathed in time to the song, focusing all the rhythms of her body. All sense of time melted away as it had in the Wide Meadows. She had no idea how long she played, repeating the monotonous refrain over and over again, varying its tone infinitesimally. She shaped it as a roundelay, singing the repetitive melody again and again, over and over.

She added a slightly different beat to the rhythm. Suddenly Achmed's eyes opened wide; the heartbeat had leapt, the ocean of serpentine blood had begun to pump. He blinked furiously.

Rhapsody scarcely noticed. She was attuned to the song herself; it had become part of the fiber of her being. She continued to play, raising the key a half-step.

The wall of the tunnel vibrated as the great beast stretched slightly, then settled back into sleep. The air cooled imperceptibly, the heartbeat slowed. Achmed closed his eyes and sighed, willing the dangerous game to end.

Hours later, Rhapsody finally rose, exhausted, still playing, and walked back to the entrance of the tunnel.

"Samoht." she said to the instrument. Play on endlessly.

The harp continued the lullaby, even as her fingers left the strings. Over and over the roundelay played, repeating the same complex melody. Rhapsody set the instrument carefully on the floor of the tunnel near the entrance, then stepped back. On it played, endlessly. Samoht.

She turned and went quickly back to Achmed, whose eyes were now closed. Fighting fatigue, Rhapsody stood on tiptoe and sang his name into his ear.

"Achmed the Snake, warm; come."

Achmed blinked but didn't move. The command in the song had not worked.

Exhaustion roared through her, consuming the last of her strength. She fought back tears with the effort to remain standing, and grasped his arms, pulling with all her might.

"Come on. Please."

Still there was no response. Rhapsody pulled harder, trying to drag him from the tunnel's maw, but her strength failed her and she only succeeded in knocking his frozen body to the ground, where it lay unmoving.

Tears began to flow, and even the act of crying made her too tired to think. Grunthor. She had to get Grunthor.

Blindly she stumbled back toward the Root where they had left him. She got to the edge of the Root before she fell and landed, sprawling, on the glowing surface of the Axis Mundi.

For a moment she lay, too spent to go any farther, her ear resting against the humming floor beneath her. The song of the Root filled her head again, bringing with it ease, solace.

Rhapsody took a deep breath. The music of the Root had sustained her before. Perhaps, even in her utter exhaustion, there was strength she could tap. She began to sing her Naming note, ela, trying to match the tonal modulations of the Tree.

After a moment she felt a fragile spark of energy enter her legs, and she stood slowly. Grunthor was here somewhere. She had to find him. She had the strength to find him.

Concentrating on the Root's song she pushed on, step after agonizing step, keeping her head down, breathing slowly, until she was stopped in her tracks by the grip of huge hands.

"Miss! Are ya all right?"

"Achmed," she choked, looking up into the face of the Bolg. He was trembling. "Help me get him out of there."

Without a word the giant swept her up in his arms and ran back to where she had come from.

Achmed was still lying on the ground, motionless, when they reached the spot where he had fallen. While Grunthor took off his greatcoat Rhapsody patted the Dhracian's face to check for signs of awareness and was overjoyed to see the familiar scowl radiating up at her from the frozen features.

With an efficient sweep the Bolg Sergeant swathed him in the greatcoat, then lifted him to a stand. Grunthor hoisted Achmed's body, too stiff even to bend, against his chest and shoulder. He turned to Rhapsody.

"Can you walk on your own, miss?"

Rhapsody nodded, watching Achmed carefully. Color was returning to his face, and he flexed his limbs slightly. Rhapsody smiled. She took his hand and gave his arm a solid pull, and was not surprised to find resistance in the muscles. He bent forward slightly and whispered in her ear.

"Look."

She turned and stared back at the tunnel. Slowly it was filling with slender threads of light, like the gossamer of a spider's web. Each new repetition of the melody had formed a new strand, attaching itself in a circular pattern to the cavernous walls of the tunnel.

"The song is freezing in place," she murmured, fascinated.

With each new round the threads grew thicker, the sound of the song louder. Its key was now up three notes from where it had been when she started, different enough, with any luck, to jangle the namesong when the demon eventually spoke it. The roundelay, something Singers learned early in their training in order to be able to sing harmony with themselves, continued on, creating more strands of glowing spider-silk. Each strand hummed, repeating its simple melody, vibrating like the strings of her harp, each song beginning a few seconds apart.

"After a while it's going to be cacophony," Rhapsody said.

Grunthor nodded. Already the vibrations were in pleasant discord, like a band of musicians without a conductor, each playing at his own speed.

"Come on, miss, let's get out of 'ere," he said.

Once they left the wyrm's tunnel Achmed's strength returned rapidly. He was able to walk almost immediately and insisted on being allowed to do so, listening, as before, for the sound of the thudding pulse. It was unchanged.

They fell back into the business of finding an exit from the earth, traveling in their accustomed silence for the most part. Achmed had not spoken about the incident with the wyrm, and Rhapsody avoided mentioning it, hoping that one day they would be able to talk about it openly. She understood that there were many battles still to be fought and won in Achmed's memory before he would be able to do so.

For a while the root tunnel ran fairly straight. It didn't tend to twist much, though it often varied its elevation, winding up or down at will, undoubtedly following whatever water source had once allowed the Tree to grow roots this deep, probably the father of what was now the sea. The deeper within the Earth they seemed to burrow, the more often they seemed to encounter slightly wider tunnels, allowing them to walk upright for longer before crouching or crawling again.

Occasionally they would come to great open spaces, places where the ceiling of the tunnel arched high above them, giving them room to breathe freely. Grunthor had speculated that these tunnels were places where the Root had once taken on great quantities of water, swelling in response, then shrinking again as it grew longer. These places were often the most dangerous of all. Cave-ins were common, and it was here that the infestation of vermin was oftentimes the worst.

"They're coming." Achmed's voice roused Rhapsody from her fitful sleep. She swallowed dryly and drew Lucy. They had camped in a cavernous place and there was sufficient room to use the weapon.

Despite becoming accustomed to the endless task of destroying the vermin, she never really had been able to overcome the horror those words always struck in her soul. Her years in the streets had given her the fortitude to face many abhorrent tasks, however, so she brushed the hair off her forehead and looked up into the darkness above her.

Will this never end?she thought as the wriggling worms came into view. They had learned to fight them in the dark, since light made the vermin more excited, causing them to move more quickly and attack more ferociously. How many times have we done this now?

The dim light of the glowing lichen in the cavern allowed her to see them coming along the Root. Like a blanket of creeping decay, they swarmed forward, falling from the branches of the Root above them.

The three companions lined up on the Root surface, Grunthor with Lopper at the ready, Achmed drawing the thin silvery sword he hadn't deigned to give a name. The vermin began to drop from above, at first one by one, then in swarms like leaves in autumn.

As was always their unspoken custom, the three formed a circle, slashing at the vermin as they fell. Only Achmed could match the speed of the worms; Rhapsody and Grunthor instead had learned their patterns of movement. The giant Bolg and the Lirin Singer had become accustomed to predicting when they would strike, dodging their painful bites with a twisting motion which at once they turned into a cutting strike. It didn't always work—at times they would miss—but most of the time they would cleave the vermin and be ready for the next attack.

The crawling mass was coming closer; soon she and Grunthor would have to deal with the devouring carpet instead of the strays dropping from above. They left it to Achmed to guard them from the overhead assault while they began their rhythmic slaughter of the oncoming crawlers.

Rhapsody took the left, Grunthor the right, as they hacked wildly at the creatures, Achmed swinging above them to swipe the dropping parasites out of the air.

It often occurred to Rhapsody while they were engaged in this vile activity that this, more than any other action, demonstrated the trust that had grown between the three of them over time. Achmed's weapon whistled past their ears and scalps, diverting the painful attacks of needle-like teeth and insidious venom that caused an insatiable burning itch and occasional fevers.

He left himself completely open to the attack of the encroaching mass, relying on the efforts of the other two to fend off the majority of the creatures. Occasionally in the thick of the fight Rhapsody would find herself musing about how the unequal contributions of all three had grown into an impressive display of synchronized fighting, one in which she had eventually come to feel an equal partner.

The hideous popping of the creatures' flesh as they were severed with the sword, the repulsive smell that their fluids left on clothes for days afterward—it had all the qualities of a full-fledged nightmare each time the task was undertaken. Finally she would look up to see one or the other of the Bolg giving the all-clear signal, as Grunthor was doing now, and she collapsed in exhaustion after kicking a space on the ground clear of the worm bodies.

Now came the cleanup, the crucial act of checking every crevice of their bodies and clothing for the smallest creatures that would hide, attaching themselves to their skin. Generally the vermin were able to wait, without moving, until their host was asleep, before burying their purple heads in the skin like a tick and feasting on blood, leaving behind illness and stinging pain.

Rhapsody was grateful to Grunthor for showing her the old Bolg trick of keeping at least one thumbnail long so that it could be pressed down the seams of their clothes to kill the parasites. This was, she discovered, the real reason why Bolg kept their nails long enough to be claws: it allowed them the tool to cleanse themselves of nits and lice.

"I'm sorry," she had told him, "I thought it was to maul your opponent with."

"It works well enough for that, too, miss," he had replied with a smile.

Now she completed her check-over and looked up to see Achmed staring off into the distance.

"What's the matter?"

He turned to Grunthor. "Have you noticed an increase in their numbers of late?"

"Yep."

"Perhaps it's the heat."

"What heat?" Rhapsody asked, bewildered.

Achmed looked at her in mild surprise. "You can't feel it?"

She concentrated on the air around her. It did seem a little warmer. "I guess so," she said uncertainly.

"There's fire near 'ere; Oi can feel it, too," added Grunthor.

Fear darkened Rhapsody's eyes. "Why would there be fire on the Root? Could it be from mines, or a volcano?"

"Perhaps," said Achmed casually. "Or perhaps we're near the center. Legend has it there is fire at the core of the Earth."

A faint choking sound escaped Rhapsody's throat. She knew of the legend as well, and the thought made her heart sink. If they were only now nearing the center, they had come less than halfway. Additionally, the fire at the center of the Earth would surely be an obstacle they were unlikely to overcome, leaving them trapped deep within the world.

"Are you coming?" Achmed's voice broke her reverie. She rose slowly, stretching the cramped muscles of her legs and back, feeling the bitter sting of the bites that had pierced her defenses. "I suppose," she said. She slid Lucy back into its sheath over her shoulder and took up her place on the Root again.

Before long they knew they were in trouble. There was still no fire in sight, but they could feel the increase in heat, like an inferno or the flames of a forge, growing hotter in the distance ahead of them.

Rhapsody's hair, which had been wet and stringy for as long as she could remember, now dried into clumped patches the consistency of straw. The heat from whatever fire source lay ahead also dried out the fragmented remains of her clothes, which were now little more than tatters after all this time and distance. With the warmth came both pain and comfort. Her skin cracked in the heat, but her bones and joints welcomed it, as the constant aches abated a little.

In addition, there was a change in the song of the Earth here. One of the only pleasant parts of this experience had been the occasions when she could lie flat on her back or stomach and feel the deep, modulating vibration that she had heard early on, the sound of the Root singing with life, echoing with the vast collective wisdom of time. There was more life to the sound now, a faster change in the tonal melody.

"I wonder if the Root feels healthier in the absence of the vermin," she said.

"Wouldn't you?" Grunthor said, poking her.

"Our efforts have undoubtedly put a substantial dent in the pest population," Achmed said, looking at the basalt walls around him.

"Not substantial enough—you're both still here," Rhapsody joked. Achmed smiled; it was an expression she wasn't sure if she had ever seen before. Like the Root, their moods seemed healthier as well.

The fire took its time to come into sight. They had lost all tools to gauge time below the surface, so it was impossible to know how long they had sensed the heat without it coming into view, but Rhapsody had long been proficient in the Bolgish tongue, and Grunthor had mastered not only the written word but calligraphy and musical graphing as well.

How long has it beena, year? More ? Rhapsody thought one night. Surely we have been feeling the heat for that long, still without finding the source. She began to doubt they would live to do so.

They became aware of it first as a distant glow, the rocks at the edge of the tunnel glimmering red in the dark. The heat increased; they had felt it for as long as they could recall. The memory of the cold, wet crawling had been almost forgotten, although there was a great deal of water still around them. The earth itself was dry, purged of its moisture by the climate of heat.

The newfound warmth made for easier traveling, but it held its share of perils as well. Occasionally clothing or other dry goods would burst into flames unexpectedly, metal weaponry would become too hot to touch. Finding drinking water became more difficult, and more a cause for concern.

Finally Achmed stopped, and the other two followed his lead as he peered off into the distance. "Fire," he said simply. Grunthor squinted, then shook his head. Rhapsody gave it a halfhearted try, but saw nothing. She had learned ages ago that her vision was no match for Achmed's, especially in the dark.

They walked on, growing ever closer, until even Rhapsody could make out the flickering flames that filled the tunnel ahead of them. The Root itself, the ground below them, cracked occasionally under the pressure of their steps. The cavern ceiling above them became enormously high. As they approached, even at their seemingly snail-like pace, it became evident that the entire passageway was engulfed in flames.

The fire at the Earth's core burned in myriad colors, more darkly than fires in the open air. Flames twisted and danced within the incandescent wall, blue and purple and white in harmony with the fiery shades that Rhapsody was accustomed to. There was no space around it; the inferno reached to all edges of the passageway, forcing its light and liquid heat over and through every opening and crevice. She stood, enraptured by the sight, her eyes stinging from the intensity of the furious light. She closed her eyes.

"Bloody krekin!" Grunthor swore behind her. "We're trapped. We might as well 'ave stayed in Easton." Achmed said nothing.

From behind her eyelids Rhapsody was listening, not to her dismayed companions, but to the fire's song. Unlike the low, slow tone of the Earth, the firesong roared and crackled with life, singing a melody more exquisite than any she ever remembered hearing.

The sound drew from her soul memories almost painful in their sweetness, nights before the hearth where her mother brushed her hair, harvest bonfires ripe with the sounds of dancing and celebration, her first kiss by the light of a campfire in autumn. The brilliance illuminated her face, shining off her tangled hair, making her glow with its radiance. There was a call in the sound of the flames, an invitation to the dance, and she longed to accept. Involuntarily she took a step forward.

Strong, bony hands seized her shoulders and spun her swiftly around. She opened her eyes in astonishment to the sound of Grunthor's shocked roar.

"What do you think you're doin'?"

Achmed, who still held her by the shoulders, studied her face. "Where are you going, Rhapsody?"

The word fell out of her mouth before she had a chance to stop it.

"Forward," she said.

"I'm going through," she said simply. Grunthor laughed aloud.

"If you wanted to commit suicide, Oi would o' been glad to 'elp you in a way that wouldn't damage the meat," he said. "Come on, miss, shake it off."

"Look," Rhapsody said, losing patience, "I'm not going back. I can't. None of us can. Remember those cave-ins? The path is blocked. We'll never get out that way. The only way to go is forward."

"Exactly how do you propose we do that?" Achmed asked. His tone was sincere, or at least as full of sincerity as he was capable.

Rhapsody took a deep breath, knowing that what she was about to say would sound inane, at best. "Do you remember what I said about names, and how they can make us what we once were?"

"Vaguely."

"Well, I've been thinking about it ever since this possibility arose. I think the only way to broach the fire is to wrap ourselves in the song of our names and hope that we are remade on the other side."

"You first, my dear," chuckled Grunthor.

"Of course," she said hastily. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

"You really are desperate to get out of this tunnel," said Achmed. His tone was the cross between sympathy and sarcasm that Rhapsody referred to as sympacastic.

"Have you got any better ideas?"

She sat down on the root and unslung her ragged satchel, removing her higen, a palm-sized stringed instrument resembling a tiny harp. "If I make it through, I'll come back for you if I can." She brushed the dirt from the fragments of her cloak and stood again. "If I don't come back, at least you'll know to try something else."

Grunthor shook his head, staring at the inferno before them. "Oi know that without you tossin' your life away."

"Let her go," said Achmed quietly.

Rhapsody smiled. "Thank you. At least if I don't make it you'll finally be rid of me."

Grunthor was growing visibly upset. "If Oi'd wanted to be rid o' ya, Oi'da done it ages ago. I could o' snapped your neck with one 'and and been done with you."

She put her arms around the trembling giant. "Well, maybe you could have back then. I've had some pretty good sword training since." She pulled him tighter, and he bent to embrace her. "Goodbye, Grunthor. Don't worry. I'll be back."

He pulled away and looked down at her, mustering a smile. "Oi thought you always had to tell the truth."

Rhapsody patted his cheek. "I am," she said softly. She turned to the robed man who had vexed her so much, had trapped her within the Earth in the first place.

"Goodbye, Achmed."

"Hurry up," he said. "We're not going to wait long for you."

Rhapsody laughed aloud. "Well, that's incentive." She shouldered her pack and walked away toward the inferno. The two Bolg watched as her tiny black shadow grew longer against the roaring flames, then disappeared in the wall of billowing heat and light.

When she got as close as she could endure, Rhapsody closed her eyes, resting her higen against her chest. The tiny strings were hot to the touch; her fingers burned as she plucked them, trying to discern the right song, a song of herself.

She knew the single note that reverberated in her soul, ela, the sixth and final note of the scale. Each person is attuned to a certain musical note, her instructor had said. Rhapsody had been highly amused upon discovering her own: She was the sixth and final child in her family. The note fit her easily; it made sense to her. She sang it now, feeling the familiar vibration. The melody that would capture her essence was more elusive. Her true name, set to music, was easy enough; she started with that.

From the simple melody line she built another refrain, a tune that resonated inside her and made her skin tingle. Note by note, measure by measure, she constructed the song, adding her voice to the composition she played on the higen. Then, gathering her courage, she walked into the fire.

As she reached the edges of the roaring inferno her eyes began to sting from the intensity of the light. Pain seared them shut. She kept walking, still singing, praying that if she was wrong she would be engulfed quickly, and not suffer too long.

There was a natural wind to the fire, and it blew her blond tresses around her, illuminating her hair like a torch. It was becoming harder and harder to breathe. Rhapsody opened her eyes to find herself within the fire's walls.

The innate song of the fire was louder now and she matched her own namesong to it, singing in harmony. Instantly her eyes ceased to sting; she found, upon opening them, a realm of glorious color, whipping around her like meadow grass in a high wind. A sense of peace and safety washed over her. The fire knew her. It would not harm her.

The gleaming hues, sapphire blues twisting through sheets of blazing red-orange and tongues of yellow, billowed around her. Rhapsody felt the pain in her joints and bones melt away. Vaguely she wondered if she was being immolated, consumed in the fire's maw. It was a sensation akin, in a way, to joy, a feeling of being surrounded by ultimate acceptance. She sang loudly, turning the melded tunes of the fire and herself into a song of celebration.

The way before her grew clearer, patches of darkness appearing for a moment, only to vanish without a trace. She steeled her nerve and kept walking; it took all her strength to leave the core. If she gave in to the sweetness of the place she knew she would stay forever, happily absorbing the song of the fire until it took her as part of itself.

Suddenly the delicious heat left her face; it was like being slapped with a cold ocean wave. Rhapsody opened her eyes and saw darkness before her, though the fire walls were still flickering at the periphery of her vision. Before her stretched a tunnel similar to the one she had just left, but with slightly different features. Though she was still within the fire's embrace, she felt a shiver run through her. She had made it to the other side of the core.

She spun around quickly and hurried back through the fire, singing all the way.

On the other side of the core Grunthor waited anxiously, staring into the blinding conflagration, sweating visibly through the pores of his gray-green hide. After what seemed an endless delay he squinted, then pointed into the flames.

"Oi see 'er, sir!"

Achmed was nodding. He had spied her shadow a moment before, tall as the cavern ceiling, flickering in between the waves of fire and disappearing again.

The woman who walked out of the blaze vaguely resembled Rhapsody, but was very different in appearance. Her hair was no longer the color of pale gold, but had been burnished in the fire to the shade of warm, clear honey. She waved to them from the fire's edge.

"Come on," she urged, her voice swallowed by the roar of the flames. "I don't know how long the pathway will stay open."

The two Firbolg ran to the edge of the core, shielding their eyes from the heat. Rhapsody held up her hand to stop them too late. The hood of Achmed's robe ignited, ripping into flame. She watched in horror as Grunthor threw him to the ground and smothered the fire, rolling him in the white-hot ash of the floor.

Achmed's name she knew; she had given it to him. She chanted it now, over and over. Grunthor helped the stunned man rise, and assisted him to the edge of the fire wall. Rhapsody held up her palm to the Sergeant, signaling him to wait, and took the Dhracian's hands in hers. His eyes were clearing as he heard the song of his name. It must be causing the same sense of well-being in him that she had experienced.

When she was sure he could stand erect, Rhapsody transferred the tune to the higen, playing as Achmed stood at the edge of the fire. She began weaving a song for him, based around the melody that was his name.

"Can you feel the song tingling on the surface of your skin?"

"No." The tatters of his hood crumbled and fell to the ground, exposing the terrible burn that now marred his forehead and eyes; Achmed was blind. Rhapsody's own eyes stung at the sight of it. The wound looked excruciating.

She thought quickly. "Tell me something about yourself I can add to make it reflect you better," she said. She added the musical notes to the melody that spelled out Firbolg and Dhracian. "Shall I rename you back to your old name, the Brother?"

Achmed shook his head violently, spattering droplets of sweat into the flames that dispersed into mist on impact. His face reflected the rippling light of the fire behind her.

"What child were you in the family?"

With great effort he spoke. "Firstborn."

Rhapsody nodded and wove the word into the melody. From the look on his face she could tell that he had felt some sort of additional sensation with its inclusion.

"Just one more trait, Achmed, anything that is part of your identity. What is your profession?"

Achmed began to shake as the shock of his injury overcame him. He bent as close to her as he could, trying to allow her to hear the word.

"Assassin," he whispered.

Rhapsody blinked. Of course, she thought. She began to sing the song again, adding the new dimension.

Achmed's scarred eyes opened wider, and he nodded sightlessly as he felt the song surround him, as she had. In the next instant a memory flickered behind Rhapsody's eyes. It was the image of Achmed at the twisting nexus where thousands of differing paths along the Root met, nonchalantly choosing their course through the belly of the world. He had been unconcerned, had seemed so sure of his choices that there had never been a breath of hesitation as to whether they were heading in the correct direction.

Once Grunthor had whispered in her ear that the Dhracian was following the beating heart of the Earth, feeling its pulse, being guided along its veins and humming pathways the way he had once sought his prey in the realm of the air, the world above.

Unerring tracker. The pathfinder, she sang. Achmed's body grew translucent and began, like his face a moment before, to reflect the light of the Great Fire. Rhapsody reached out and pulled him into the flames. She hurried him through to the other side, singing with all her ability as a Namer. She deposited him just outside the wall of the fire and ran back to get Grunthor.

The sight of the trembling giant standing in the reflected brilliance of the billowing fire's edge squeezed Rhapsody's heart. The amber eyes, transfixed in a look she recognized as stark terror, relaxed somewhat upon seeing her, but his face was still contorted with obvious worry.

"Where is 'e, darlin'? Is 'e all right?"

"Come on!" she shouted over the pounding roar of the flames, waving him on wildly.

Grunthor ran to her, grabbing her by the shoulders. "Is 'e all right?"

"Don't be afraid, we're going to make it—"

A snarling howl issued forth. It rumbled through the massive muscles down through the clawed hands that gripped her upper arms, choking off her assurances and turning her words into a gasp of pain. "Where is 'e?!"

Rhapsody clutched his hands and pulled free of them. "He's on the other side. He's blind, but he's alive." She saw relief temper the ferocious expression on his face, noticed his mighty jaw unclench ever-so-slightly, and she felt another twist of her heart. She knew the fear that held sway over him, and knew also that none of it had been for himself. With a hand that shook she reached up and patted his monstrous cheek.

"What is your Firbolg name?" The giant opened his mouth, and a serious of whistling snarls came out, followed by a clicking glottal stop. Rhapsody exhaled, then closed her eyes. "Tell me again," she said, righting the panic welling inside her.

Listening carefully to the sounds above the noise of the flames, she matched her voice as best she could to Grunthor's. After several tries she could feel a hum in return emanating from in front of her. When she opened her eyes again, Rhapsody could see a halo of light gleaming around the Sergeant.

"And you're Bengard as well?" Grunthor nodded. Child of sand and of the sky, son of the caves and lands of darkness, she sang. Bengard, Firbolg. The Sergeant Major. My trainer, my protector. The Lord of Deadly Weapons. The Ultimate Authority, to Be Obeyed at All Costs. The electric hum grew louder.

Grunthor broke into a toothy grin. "That's it, miss. Oi feel positively a-tingle. Now let's get to 'im, eh?"

Rhapsody smiled in return. "Grunthor, you're such a faithful friend, strong and reliable as the Earth itself. Here, hold my hands."

She led the towering Bolg through the flames, chanting his name and the characteristics she had ascribed to him, singing the namesong over and over, until the shadows that were dancing off the walls of fire swallowed them.

She blinked and looked around. They were on the other side, out of the flames, surrounded by darkness. Rhapsody buried her face in Grunthor's chest, trying to absorb the sudden, stinging absence of the fire's warmth without bursting into tears of loss.

The giant watched in the dark as Rhapsody began to remove the bandages. They were deep in the tunnel now, the light of the fire still reflecting off them from a distance. She had dressed Achmed's eyes with some of her healing herbs, over the Dhracian's sustained protests.

Achmed lay with his head in her lap, muttering impatiently as she unwound the linen strips.

"I told you this was unnecessary. I can see."

"Well, why didn't you say so before I wrapped you up?"

"I was unconscious," he said indignantly.

Rhapsody chuckled. "Oh, yes, that's it; I thought you seemed unnaturally cooperative." She pulled the second of the layers off. "Now, this was just a palliative treatment to ease the pain—"

"I'm not in pain," he interrupted angrily.

"—and we'll need to treat the wound once we get to a safe—" Rhapsody stopped her thought again, staring blankly at the Dhracian's face. Achmed's wound had vanished.

"Gods," she whispered.

Achmed ripped the remaining bandage off his head. "I told you I was healed."

Grunthor was staring at him as well. "Uh, sir, you're a lit'le more 'ealed than you think."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Grunthor drew his poleax forward, a long spearlike weapon with a hatchet head on one side that he called Salutations, or Sal for short. "Have a look. That wound you got in that knife fight in Kingston a few years back?"

"Yes?"

"Gone, sir. See for yourself."

Achmed seized the blade with both hands and stared into it deeply. A moment later he grasped the waist of his shirt and examined his abdomen.

"My scars are gone."

"Mine too," Grunthor added, looking over to Rhapsody, who was looking at her wrist. She met his gaze, then nodded.

"All our wounds are gone, and our scars have vanished. Why would that be?"

Rhapsody smiled. "Think about what I told you all that time ago."

Achmed sat up and thought back to their first fight with the vermin, the time when she sang her first healing song and mended the wound on his forearm.

Go ahead, scoff if you want to. But music of one form or another will probably be what gets us out of this place.

Only if you annoy me so much with your singing that I use your body as an auger and drill us out of here.

It's part of what a Namer can do; there is no thing, no concept, no law as strong as the power of a given thing's name. Our identities are bound to it. It is the essence of what we are, and sometimes it can even make us what we are again, no matter how much we have been altered.

"Are you saying that we have been remade?" Rhapsody shrugged. "I don't know, I think so. I was sure the first time I walked through the fire I could feel my body burn away, almost like I was being immolated. Because I sang each of our true names through it all, I think whatever damage life or circumstance inflicted on our bodies was not mirrored on our new ones. Are there any other manifestations that we might be able to check?"

Achmed slowly ran his hand around the base of his throat. The invisible chain that the demon had once controlled him with had snapped when she renamed him in the alleys of Easton, and had been gone for so long that it was impossible to tell. Bones that had once been broken felt as strong and healthy as if they never had sustained injury, but he was not certain they had shown any indication of it before the fire, either.

"I don't know; is your virginity restored?"

Rhapsody turned away as if stung. Normally she ignored jokes of that sort, but the cleansing, horrifying, ecstatic experience of passing through the fire had exhausted her ability to absorb the jest. Grunthor saw the look on her face and glared at Achmed angrily. The giant looked back over at her again, then found his mouth open in amazement.

"Darlin', turn around a minute 'ere."

"Leave me alone," Rhapsody answered. "I'm not in the mood for any more teasing."

"No, miss, please," Grunthor insisted. "Oi want to 'ave a look at your face."

Slowly Rhapsody turned back toward him, though her eyes remained averted.

"Criton," Grunthor murmured. Achmed looked up and felt his jaw go slack as well.

Rhapsody had been a beautiful woman before her walk through the fire, though time and soil had diminished her appearance somewhat in their endless trek along the Root. That had changed considerably; the walk through the core had burned away any imperfection, leaving a creature they hardly recognized in front of them.

The long golden hair was sparkling in the light of the distant fire, gleaming like liquid gold. Her complexion had been purged of any flaw, leaving skin the color and consistency of a rose petal, glistening in the darkness. When, a moment later, she turned to look at them in annoyance, her emerald eyes flashed, clearer than gemstones, and caught the rays of illumination in the tunnel around them. She had been comely; now she was more than magnificent. Even to Firbolg eyes the aura of unnatural beauty was evident.

"What?" she asked, irritation evident in her voice. It took Grunthor a moment to find his voice. "Gods, Yer Ladyship, you're beau'iful."

Rhapsody's newly gorgeous face softened, and the expression that crossed it caused both men to flush warm and experience a sudden swelling below the belt. "You're more than welcome, Grunthor! I was happy to help," she said gently. "It was the least I could do to pay you both back for the times you've helped me."

"That's not what Oi meant," Grunthor said. "You're different."

Rhapsody's brows drew together. "What do you mean?"

"He means," came Achmed's thin voice, "that if you were back in your old line of work you could ask any price and get it, just for the opportunity for a man to look at you."

Rhapsody shook her head in annoyance. "I wish you'd stop going on about my old profession," she said. "I don't torment you about your past sins. And believe me, no one pays just to look."

Achmed sighed. They would now. "Rhapsody, you look better than you did. You're stunning."

Rhapsody looked over at his face in the light of the distant fire of the Earth's core. Achmed had always made a point of remaining cloaked and hooded whenever possible, behaving in many subtle ways like a man who felt his appearance to be unpleasant to behold, even freakish. Now, seeing his countenance unguarded in the light, she couldn't understand why he had. He wasn't ugly, at least in her estimation. There was a strange beauty to his face, in fact; instead of a face that reflected atrocity, she saw a distracted god's unfinished work.

It was easy to imagine the rendering that had created him, the unfinished head of a sculpture placed on its body, all full of kneadings and excess clay, unrefined, with just a small crimp to approximate a nose, some uneven thumb marks where the eyes might one day be, another swipe of the thumb to make a half-smiling, half-grimacing, lipless mouth.

The mismatched eyes, the fine scoring of vessels beneath the surface of the skin, had come together to form a work of art, not attractive in the classical sense, but fascinating and rare. Perhaps he was seeing something much the same in her.

"You know, you're not so bad yourself," she said, smiling slightly.

Achmed looked at Grunthor, and they both shook their heads and looked away. She didn't understand. It was becoming obvious that was she wasn't going to.

The exhilaration of passing through the fire diminished quickly as the three travelers repeated the steps they had made, trudging and crawling over the Root that seemed to stretch into Time itself, endless and unyielding. The journey was only slightly less arduous because of the knowledge that they had passed through the center, and now were at least more than halfway to the potential end.

Perhaps the despair, bordering on insanity, from the first part of the journey had been a factor of the pulling away from the old life. Now, though the trek was every bit as endless, though time passed with same agonizing lethargy, there was hope at the end of the tunnel, at least most of the time. As the wall of fire receded into distant memory the light had gone with it, and now they walked in darkness again, talking occasionally if only to stave off madness.

Their clothes and leather goods were ragged and worn, their boots gone, the knees of their trousers nothing but holes in tattered fabric. Grunthor had sacrificed the caplet of his cloak and Rhapsody the spare strings for her harp to make new footwear for them. They tied the cloth around their feet and legs to protect them from the jagged stone of the basalt tunnel, buttressing the soles with strips of leather cut from what had once been their boots. Even with the improvised footgear, by the end of a traveling session their feet were often bloody and bruised.

Rhapsody had taken to singing her devotions to the stars again, though day and night had lost their meaning, and she was as far away from the sunrise and the night sky as it was possible to be.

She began to interpret dawn as the time of their rising from sleep, and sang the aubade, the morning love song, as she dressed and attempted to comb the snarls out of her gleaming tresses. When they stopped, worn out, and made camp, she would sing her nightly vespers, sometimes falling asleep from exhaustion in the middle of the song.

Grunthor and Achmed had taken to listening to her, silent in the dark, never speaking until she had finished. Often they would pass a few more moments in dismal conversation, making plans they knew might upset her were she awake.

Strangely enough, time had exhibited no physical manifestation on any of them. The fire had taken away their scars, and some of the wrinkles and lines the men had achieved as hallmarks of battle and a difficult life. If anything, the three of them looked younger than they had when entering Sagia an eternity before.

Rhapsody seemed to glow more as each day passed. An aura of attraction, almost like a magnetic field, was evident around her even in the darkness, though generally her face was not visible. The perpetuity of their mutual youth seemed to belie the endlessness of their journey. The thick coating of mud that covered them made their actual appearances hard to discern, anyway.

Eventually it became clear that they were traveling closer to the surface of the Earth. They had climbed and crawled through consistently uphill passageways, scaling another towering taproot like the one they had first ascended.

The tunnel had become horrendously wet and slippery again. The chill had returned to Rhapsody's bones, along with the aches in her joints. It became a matter of routine for them to struggle through waist-deep patches of water or mud. On more than one occasion they had been besieged by a flash flood that almost drowned them all.

Finally they entered a horizontal cavern, drier than the previous tunnels had been. The ceiling was higher here, and they could walk erect amid the dripping stalactites that hung ominously from the ceiling above them. Stalagmites had formed as well, jutting up from the tunnel floor like the lower jaw of a great beast within whose grisly mouth they were traveling.

They walked with great care beneath the rocky outcroppings. Grunthor had sustained several wounds from bumping into them, rubbing against them, or having the vibration of their footsteps occasionally jar one loose.

They entered one section of cavern where a long, thin stalactite hung at an odd angle, jutting down from the side of the passageway wall near the ceiling. Owing to its precarious position, Achmed had walked by it cautiously, taking pains not to disturb it.

As Rhapsody passed beneath it a sudden brightness filled the tunnel. The glow was muted by the earth that surrounded the stalactite; nonetheless, the three travelers squinted in unison. Their eyes, used to an eternity of darkness, were unaccustomed to the brightness that even the dim glow produced. Grunthor muttered curses in the language of the Bolg—his head had been closest to the rock outcropping when it began to shine.

Rhapsody reached up and touched the glowing formation. It was just barely within her reach, hanging at a slanted angle from the wall, unlike the millions of other stalactites they had passed. As she did, some of the rock crumbled from the point and fell to the bottom of the tunnel. A blazing beam of light and flame broke forth from the rock, causing all three travelers to cry out in pain and shield their eyes.

"What is that?" snarled the harsh voice in the lead. Rhapsody peered through her fingers. The tip of the stalactite was burning, tiny flames licking up the shaft of the formation. She stared at it in wonder, then put her hand out to it again. As her fingers neared the flames they intensified and the light grew radiant. When she pulled back, the fire returned to its former state, burning quietly inside the rock.

With the same certainty that led her through the fiery core, she carefully began brushing away the crumbling outside of the stalactite. The rocky matter fell away easily in one piece that tumbled to the ground, leaving a gleaming shaft of burning light, flames traveling up it while the base glowed ethereally. Rhapsody caught her breath.

"It's a sword," she said softly.

The Firbolg looked at each other. She was right; emerging from the slime-covered wall was a flaming sword blade, its shaft beneath the flickering fire glowing intensely blue-white and engraved in intricate patterns.

"Can you pull it out, miss?" Grunthor urged.

"Do you think she should?" asked Achmed.

"I don't think I can reach it," Rhapsody replied, looking at the ground for some sort of natural elevation. Grunthor bent down on one knee and patted his thigh.

"Up ya go," he said, grinning at her.

Rhapsody returned his grin. She rested one hand on the enormous shoulder and climbed up onto the ledge he had made with his leg.

The top part of the stalactite was now in reach. She grabbed it where it met the rock wall and gave it a wrenching pull. The sword came loose with no more resistance than if it had been hanging by a thread. Rhapsody would have lost her balance and fallen on her back had Grunthor's massive hand not shot out and steadied her.

She climbed off his knee and sat down on it instead, holding the sword by the blade despite the flames that ran up and down it, so her companions could see it. It was made of something that resembled silver, though its sheen was different. Beneath the glowing light and the flickering flames the blade was slender and lightweight, with intricate runes adorning it.

The hilt was made of the same white-silver metal, beautifully fashioned, with a crosspiece that, along with the pommel at the base, was made to look like a star. Within the hilt was a setting from which a gem, or something like it, had been pried; it was empty now, the prongs bent outward uniformly. It rested in her hands, burning brightly, without harming her at all. Achmed removed a glove and held his own finger near it, withdrawing it quickly.

"Oi think it likes 'er, sir," Grunthor said.

"No accounting for taste," muttered Achmed. Rhapsody laughed. There was a look on his face that almost resembled a smile.

"Kinda makes you wish we'd slapped a few o' these pointy things down, don't it, just to see what's inside. Oh well, looks like you got yourself a fine sword, Yer Ladyship. Oi hope can use it with some credit to your instructor."

"I'll practice next time the tunnel widens," Rhapsody promised, handing Grunthor back the sword he had loaned her. "Thanks for letting me borrow Lucy."

"It may be unwise to say so, but I believe we're coming to the end of the Root," Achmed said quietly. "What do you think, Grunthor?"

"Well, we're nearer the surface than we 'ave been since we started down this stinkin' 'ole," the giant replied, looking around. "'Oo knows, we might be only a few miles away from the air."

"That's comforting," said Rhapsody. She was still staring at the sword. Fragments of distant images tugged at the outskirts of her consciousness, but nothing she understood. She blinked, and the fragments vanished.

Achmed bent down and picked up the black piece of the rock cylinder in which the sword had been encased.

"This might do for a scabbard until you find something else. I don't think leather or anything like it would work." He took a small broken piece of the rock and dropped it in the top of the makeshift scabbard, plugging the hole that she had made in the bottom.

Rhapsody resheathed the sword, plunging the tunnel into dark light again. "Did you want me to keep it out for light?"

"Not until we have a need of something brighter than we have," said Achmed. "Let's press on. I want to see where this trunk root goes."

Rhapsody and Grunthor brushed off the sediment from the stalactite. Once their eyes had adjusted, they followed him into the never-ending passageway yet again.

"We're very near the surface; I know it."

They had been crawling for an agonizingly long time, the fissures in the rock growing smaller and smaller, leaving them nothing more than a burrow tunnel sized for a large animal to squeeze through. Grunthor had gotten stuck several times, requiring him to be dug out.

Rhapsody felt her heart leap at Achmed's words. She had been fighting the feeling of suffocation for so long that she feared she might lose what slight grip she still had on reality.

She came to a halt behind Achmed, who had stopped in his tracks, rolled over onto his back, and pulled off one of his thin gloves. He ran his hand over the rock wall above and around him in the silence of an ancient memory.

The fabric of the Earth is worn thin there.

He craned his neck and turned back to Rhapsody. "Draw that thing; I need some light."

She complied, lying on her back as well and pulling the sword out of its makeshift scabbard. Carefully she handed it to him by the hilt.

Achmed held the sword above his head and up to the wall like a blazing torch, feeling his way, using his heels to move himself along. Suddenly he pulled the weapon back in front of his face. In the flickering firelight he examined the handle, his eyes glittering as he turned the weapon over in his hands.

"Gods," he whispered.

"What's the matter?" Rhapsody asked in alarm. She felt Grunthor squeeze forward and press his head up to above her knee, balancing on his palms, which he had positioned on the ground to either side of her thigh.

"Daystar Clarion," Achmed said, his voice a little louder. Grunthor made a sound of disbelief.

"What?" Rhapsody asked, panic beginning to set in. "What does that mean?"

"Are you sure, sir?" asked Grunthor.

"No question."

"What are you talking about?" Rhapsody shrieked. The sound of her own voice frightened her; it was past the edge of rationality.

Achmed tossed the sword onto the tunnel floor past him and clutched his head with his hands, muttering obscenities in Bolgish. Grunthor exhaled in resignation and moved away a little. He patted her leg awkwardly.

"It's a famous sword from the Island, Duchess," the Sergeant said despondently.

"From the Island? From Serendair? Are you sure?"

"Yes," Achmed snarled. "It's unmistakable, though I don't know why it's on fire. The gleam of the starlight is still there, as are the runes on the hilt. It's definitely Daystar Clarion."

"So that means—"

"We're back where we started. We may as well have never left."

Rhapsody tried to absorb the sense of despair that filled the tunnel. Unlike her Bolg companions, her heart leapt in joy. They were home. It hardly seemed to make sense, but, nonetheless, they had managed to take a wrong turn somewhere and end up where they had begun. The excitement that was welling up within her beat down the fury she felt at having spent so much time in agony, separated from her loved ones, only to wind up here again. She was home.

"We have to get out of here," she said. "Keep going."

Achmed sighed. "This is the end of the tunnel. The trunk root's tunnel is too small to go any further."

Rhapsody's heart froze. "How are we going to get out?"

"With the key, I guess."

Cold waves of panic washed over her. "We don't have the key, remember? It vanished when the door in Sagia closed."

"You know, you really are gullible." Achmed pulled his hand out from behind his back and gesticulated; in it appeared a black bone key, no longer glowing as it had.

Rhapsody's face went blank with shock.

"You bastard."

Grunthor's hands shot out and grabbed her by the shoulders, correctly anticipating her furious lunge at Achmed. She struggled violently, futilely, to break free of the giant's grip, clawing at the air between them.

"You bastard. You lying, scum-sucking, manipulative bastard !"

"Technically true, but there's no real need to insult my mother." Achmed ran his hand over the ceiling again, ignoring the heat that was beginning to radiate from the white-hot rage building in the tunnel behind him. His fingers sensed the rip in the fabric of the universe, a thin metaphysical opening, directly above him.

He inserted the key, or tried to. Nothing happened. A resounding clinkechoed through the tunnel as he met with solid rock. He tried once more and still met with no success. In disgust he threw it to the ground, lay back, and cursed again.

Rhapsody's anger vanished. "What's wrong?"

"It doesn't work."

"Excuse me?"

"It doesn't work," he repeated softly. "I guess we weren't the only things remade by the fire."

His hand returned to the ceiling, and as he did a vision formed in his mind. It was related to the sense of direction he had had all along, a rapid soaring through the rock, through layers of earth and clay and dry grass and snow until his mind's sight burst into the sunlight. He gasped aloud and closed his eyes in pain.

Rhapsody reached for him. "Are you all right?" Achmed shrugged her away. "Leave me alone. I'm fine, except that I'm back where I started and trapped at the only place we can get out. The gods must be laughing themselves sick right now."

"'Ow far to the surface, sir?"

"I don't know. Several hundred feet."

Grunthor stretched his massive frame along the floor of the tunnel, sighing as his cramped muscles uncoiled. "Is that all, then? 'Ave out o' there, if you please, sir, and Oi'll start diggin'."

Rhapsody tucked her knees under her and twisted to look at him. "Grunthor, didn't you hear him? He said we're still several hundred feet underground."

"Then we better get to it, eh? You got somethin' better to do, Yer Ladyship? 'Ere, move out o' there." Rhapsody stared at him as he pulled out a small retrenching tool, known unimpressively as Digga. She picked up her sword and did as he asked, followed a moment later by Achmed.

"Do you know what you're doing, Grunthor?" she asked nervously as she crouched in an indentation in the tunnel.

"Nope."

She blinked, then looked to Achmed, who shrugged. "All right," she said finally, "I suppose there's something to be said for winging it."

Grunthor lay down at the head of the tunnel. Taking the small shovel in both hands, he coiled and then thrust it into the wall with all his weight and might. There were sparks, but no visible impact on the stone. He repeated the motion, and a few chips of stone flew. Then again. And again.

Soon he slipped into a rhythm, smashing the tiny tool into the rock over and over. The iron began to bend, but he continued relentlessly. Rhapsody and Achmed set up in the tunnel behind him, passing back the debris from his digging, shoving it behind them to avoid blocking the passageway.

"Isn't this an excellent way to bring the ceiling down on our heads?" she asked the Dhracian as he handed her a good-sized rock. She had to raise her voice to be heard over the sound of Grunthor's strikes.

"Not really," he replied, turning away to gather more stone shards. "If you want him to accomplish that, I'll ask him to dig straight up."

"No, thanks," she replied hurriedly. Achmed had a look of quiet anger in his eyes; she wasn't sure if he was being sarcastic or sincere. The latter was far more frightening.

As the hours passed, several things became clear to the two companions who crawled behind Grunthor as he chiseled his way out of the earth. The first, and most obvious, was that there was no longer any way to stop him; the giant Bolg was unresponsive to their calls to slow down, to rest. It was as if he had taken on a life-and-death struggle with the Earth itself, refusing to give in, even if it would mean his demise.

That prospect seemed somehow unlikely. Another conclusion the two others had come to was that Grunthor was more than a man possessed, he was becoming part of the Earth as he worked.

He now aimed unerringly for the tiny fissures and faults in the granite, sending large chips flying off the rockface. Each crack, each weakness made itself apparent to him in a way that filled the tunnel with the sound of ringing metal and crumbing stone.

Rhapsody watched him work with a smile of wonder on her face. Grunthor, strong and reliable as the Earth itself, she had called him in his namesong, among other descriptions. She was seeing the truth in her words before her.

The last revelation they had mutually come to was that, for better or worse, they would either succeed here or die now. The tunnel behind them was filling with the rubble from Grunthor's efforts, blocking any escape back down the way they had come.

The understanding of this had been exchanged wordlessly. Rhapsody had looked back at the wreckage to find Achmed staring in the same direction. Their eyes had met, and both had smiled with the look of shipmates clinging to the last piece of a storm-ruined ship.

Grunthor stopped only once, long enough to turn Digga at a different angle. Then he began shearing sheets of rock off the wall before them, his trajectory changing slightly. He was as a gem-cutter, seeing intrinsically the perfect place to strike the stone. The more he dug, the more refined became whatever gift of sight into itself the Earth had given him. He seemed to see not only the cracks in the wall but how those cracks stretched into the surrounding bedrock, and where the bedrock eroded away into the soil far above it. He now had to break the debris he was passing back to Rhapsody and Achmed into smaller pieces, as it was growing too large for them to move.

His sense of conscious thought receded; he fell deeper and deeper into himself. Whatever awareness of the world around him that remained vanished, along with dreams of the Future and the memory of the Past. There was only Grunthor and the Earth, and then just the Earth. He could feel the element as if it were his own body. It was all that remained of the universe, and he was part of it, just the soil, and the clay, and the rock. And then there was no more rock.

Grunthor stumbled out into the air in shock. The wind around him stung his eyes and nose with its freshness, making him feel strangely morose. The blood that had been pumping in great volume from his racing heart slowed suddenly, leaving him faint. He staggered into the new darkness and pitched forward on his face. The earth that a moment ago was entwined around him with a lover's warmth bit painfully, coldly into his eyes.

Immediately behind him Rhapsody and Achmed emerged into the freezing night air. The Singer was on him a moment later, clutching his shoulders in alarm.

"Grunthor! Are you all right?"

He nodded numbly; it was only nominally true. The sensation of being ripped from the bosom of the Earth, expelled from the warmth into the icy wind, was worse than the separation of birth, worse than the pain of death. Grunthor raised himself up onto his hands and knees. His palms and fingertips stung in the snow.

Rhapsody watched him stand and exhaled in relief. Then, her mind assured of her giant friend's safety, she looked around her and stopped, thunderstruck.

She stepped all the way out of the hole in the ground as if she were stepping into paradise. The air around her was clean and bright in the light of a waxing moon; they were in a forest clearing at night. She laughed shortly, and turned around as Achmed emerged fully from the tunnel. Another giggle escaped her; then she was overcome with shuddering sobs and fell to the ground, at once crying, laughing, rolling in the snow.

Achmed helped Grunthor rise, then walked off to the edge of the clearing, taking in the sights around him. His compatriot stared blankly into the distance, the amber eyes clearing as he returned piece by piece to the realm of himself.

Their hostage, the woman they had brought along and kept alive only because he had not been certain if she would be necessary to recall his old name, having been the vehicle herself of its change, gibbered like a lunatic, digging her hands into the snow beneath her.

Sour bile rose in the back of his throat. If they were back, if this was Serendair, then he had forfeited his birthright. Instead of the beating of a million hearts on the wind, the sound he had known all his life, the air was strangely quiet. The only rhythm came from the slowing pulse of Grunthor and the quickening one of Rhapsody. It was as if no one else in the world was still alive but the three of them.

Rhapsody began to gasp, still in the throes of her tearful laughter. The sound echoed through the forest. Achmed looked suddenly around them. Then he strode to the giddy Singer and grasped her by the arm, hauling her roughly to her feet with a jolt. The look of ecstasy vanished from her face, replaced by one of stunned amazement.

"If your orgasm is over, do you think you might be quiet?" he barked. Rhapsody stared at him, then pulled her arm free, her face hardening into a glare.

"Shut up," she said angrily. She walked away from him and looked up into the heavy canopy of forest branches where a sprinkling of stars glimmered down at her. Her rage melted away instantly at the sight and she glanced above, looking for a break in the tree limbs where she might be able to see them without obstruction. She started to make for the clearing's edge when Achmed's firm grip closed on her shoulder.

"Hold up."

She twisted furiously away. "Don't touch me."

He ignored her command. "Don't go running off until we make some plans. We have no idea where we are, and who lives here."

Rhapsody pulled her arm free, but already she was beginning to see the wisdom of his statement. "I'm not going far," she said sullenly. "I need to see the stars. Don't try to stop me."

Achmed's eyes ran over her face. It was very different in the dark night air than it had been an eternity ago when they had entered the primeval forest of the Lirin. In addition to the strange physical perfection that had seemed to come over her in the fire, there was a commanding air, a charisma unlike anything he had ever seen or experienced. He looked back to Grunthor, who was walking back to the hole from which they had come.

"All right; be careful," he said, then turned and jogged to catch up with their companion.

Rhapsody waited until Achmed was out of the area, then cleared her mind as best as she could from the jangled cobwebs that the horror of the trip along the Root had woven into it. The stars gleamed above her, shining like the scattered pieces of the soul of the sky. She was vaguely aware of forbidden tears that welled up, only to freeze, unspilled, at the edges of her eyes.

Slowly, as if in a dream, she drew forth the ancient sword she had found within the Earth. Its flames billowed up the blade, licking the glowing steel but conducting no heat through the hilt; the weapon's handle remained cool and dry in her grip. Then, as if directed by a voice only her hands could hear, she held the weapon aloft.

Instead of her view of the stars diminishing in the light of the flames, they seemed to grow brighter, though perhaps it was the blurring of her unshed tears that made it seem so. Rhapsody opened her mouth but no song came forth. She swallowed, fighting down the pain that had risen from her depths. Then she tried again, singing the vespers of the evening star, the song of Seren, for which the Island had been named, the star of her birthplace.

The sweet notes rose slowly up into the sky, captured by the wind that was blowing tattered clouds around the stars.

* * *

Far off to the south, in the heart of different forest, another woman woke from sleep to a vibration hidden from her by the passing of many years. The sword has returned, she thought, but there was more than that on the wind. It was a longing she didn't understand but thought she had felt before, a sorrow that clung to the outer edge of remembrance. Like a shadow on the face on the moon it passed over her, then was gone. A frown touched the ancient Lirin face.

* * *

Grunthor looked back down the tunnel. He was slowly returning to himself, though the bond with the Earth remained, solid and reassuring, resonating up through his feet.

Every sinew was on fire, every muscle ached with a weariness he had never known before, not even as he and Achmed had made their desperate escape from the hand of the demon. He shook his limbs. He had one more task to perform before he could give in to sleep.

Grunthor closed his eyes and leaned on the edge of the earth-hewn tunnel. His hand ran along the entrance lovingly, sensing, as he had while digging, each strength, each flaw in the ground. He steeled his resolve and struck the ground with all his might at the precise points of greatest weakness. The exit from the Earth collapsed in a rising cloud of fine dirt and crystals of snow. The giant sank to his knees on the ground.

"No exit now." Achmed's voice came from behind him.

Grunthor raised his head at Achmed and grinned, an action that took the last of his remaining strength. "We knew that 'ad to be when we came," he said. "We knew we weren't goin' back."

Achmed chuckled sardonically. "Back? We never left."

Grunthor laid his head down on the snow-carpeted earth, feeling the comforting rhythm of its beating heart beneath his ear. "Not so, sir," he muttered. "This ain't where we came from. We're on the other side o' the world now." Exhaustion took him and he fell into a dreamless sleep that brought him a deeper knowledge of the land born of his bond with the Earth.

Achmed didn't need to confirm what the giant had said; a moment later he heard a deep sob from the edge of the glen. Rhapsody had seen the stars. She knew.

The breeze picked up just before dawn, blowing a shower of fine ice crystals across Rhapsody's face.

She woke with a start and sat up, shaking off her dream to find that she hadn't been dreaming. The air had gained a bitter edge in the night, and the sky was now perfectly clear, the stars beginning to fade but still glimmering, as if reluctant to leave. The dawn was coming, bringing with it a wash of violet light barely visible through the trees.

One of the crude camp blankets they had used for warmth, with minimal success, on the Root had been placed over her. She had been sleeping beside Grunthor, who was still unconscious. They were in a sheltered copse of thick brambles. A small fire crackled a few feet away, overhung with a spitted rabbit, roasting in the flames.

Achmed sat across from her under the bare branches of a forsythia bush, watching her silently. He nodded to her as she pulled off the blanket. Involuntarily she smiled at him in return. Then she turned to the sleeping mountain snoring beside her and checked him over. Grunthor seemed none the worse for his heroic undertaking.

"He's fine," Achmed said over the sounds of the fire.

"Good," she replied, and stood slowly. Her muscles had stiffened in the night, leaving her sore and feeling her age, whatever it now was. "Excuse me a moment."

She walked toward the east, grateful for the ability to sense direction again, and found a clearing from which she could view the coming dawn.

As she had the night before she drew the sword, marveling at the coolness of the hilt below the flames that rippled up the blade, burning more intensely than the campfire. Faint tones of purple and rose touched the fiery weapon, turning the flames the color of the sunrise. Rhapsody could feel the heat on her face as she stared at the sword, entranced by its beauty.

Daystar Clarion, Achmed had called it. It had a musical ring to it, like the sound of a trumpet call at dawn. She held the weapon aloft, closed her eyes, and began her morning song to the sunrise, the aubade with which the people of her mother's family had bade the stars farewell with the coming of day. She sang softly, not wanting to call attention to herself.

Her thoughts cleared; she could see the blazing weapon hovering before her in her mind's eye, could hear its song, and noted in amazement that it changed its pitch, its vibration, to match hers. A surge of power swept through her unlike anything she had ever felt and she panicked, dropping the sword in the snow.

Rhapsody opened her eyes and gasped, sweeping the weapon from the ground. The fire had not been extinguished by its brief contact with the cold, wet earth; in fact, it was glistening even more brilliantly when it came back into her hand. She shuddered and sheathed it quickly, then walked back to the camp, where Grunthor was just coming to consciousness.

Achmed had been watching Rhapsody carefully. She cast a small, lithe shadow, standing at the rise in the clearing, her eyes searching the sky in the east. When the first ray of light crested the horizon it caught in her hair and set it aglow, gleaming brighter than the sun itself would a moment later.

The shimmering gold of her hair crowned her face, rosy in the dawn, emerald eyes sparkling in the morning light. She was sending forth vibrations like nothing he had ever felt before, radiating the intense purity of the fire through which she had walked. It seemed clear that she had absorbed some of that element in the course of passing through it, tying it to herself in song. The compelling call of the flames burned in her now; she was mesmerizing, hypnotic to behold. All imperfections of the flesh now burned away, she had become beautiful beyond compare by human standards. The prospect fascinated him, as did all opportunities to tap or harness power.

After she had finished her devotions she came and bent down next to Grunthor, who was stretching in obvious pain and fighting off wakening. Rhapsody rested her hand lightly on his shoulder and sang softly into his ear.

Wake, Little Man,
Let the sun fill your eyes,
The day beckons you to come and play.

Eyes still closed, Grunthor broke into a vast, pasty grin at the sound of the Seren children's song. He rubbed his crusted eyelids with his thumb and forefinger, sitting up with a groan.

"Oi smell food," he said, wrapping an arm around Rhapsody.

"I hope you're referring to the coney," Rhapsody said, looking over at the fire. "O' course."

"Well, one can never be certain with you, especially in your grasp. How are you feeling?"

"On top o' the world, miss," he said with a laugh. "Oi certainly likes it a lot better up 'ere than down in its bowels." His enormous eyes took her in. "Duchess, 'ave you done somethin' with your 'air?"

Rhapsody laughed. "Yes. I've smeared it with mudfilth and grime and left it unbrushed for time undetermined. Do you like it?" She jokingly pulled at the edges of a mass of tangles, a flirtatious look of humor on her face.

"Actually, yeah. Oi guess grime suits you, miss. Maybe more women ought to try it."

She gave him a playful shove and walked over to the fire, where the rabbit flesh was cooking. As she approached, the embers leapt into new flames, charring the outside of the meat. "I think this is done, Achmed; if we don't get it out of there it will be ashes. Here, Grunthor, can I have the Friendmaker for a moment?" Grunthor drew forth the wicked-looking spike and handed it to her. Without a thought she reached into the fire and plucked the meat from the spit with it, then pulled her arm out of the flames and gave the spike to Achmed. Grunthqr whistled. "That was nice."

"What?"

"How does your arm feel?" Achmed asked her. She was looking at Grunthor in confusion.

"Fine. How is it supposed to feel?"

"Well, judging by what you just did, I'd say charred." Rhapsody shrugged. "The fire's not that hot; I was only in there for a moment. Well, come on, are you going to share? Grunthor's hungry, and I have a vested interest in seeing him fed."

Achmed slid the rabbit off the skewer and tore it asunder, handing half to Grunthor, then dividing the remainder between himself and Rhapsody.

They ate in silence, the men watching in amazement as Rhapsody devoured her portion. She had rarely eaten meat in the time they had known her. Perhaps the endless slivers of the Root had given her an appetite for something a little more substantial, or just different.

When the meal was over and the gear repacked, Achmed threw snow onto the fire. Rhapsody stood and cast a glance around, then shouldered her pack. "What's the plan?"

Achmed looked up at her from the ground and smirked. "You seem to have an idea of where you're going."

"Well, I certainly don't want to stay here. I have to find whatever settlement there is in these parts and make my way to the nearest port city."

"You're heading back, then?"

"Of course. I wouldn't have left if I'd had a choice." Her jaw set, but both of the men noticed the flicker of a muscle in her cheek. The journey on the Root had left them with no sense of how much time had passed. It seemed almost as if a century had gone by, though that was not possible given their apparent lack of aging.

The prospect that her friends and members of her family might have died in the intervening time had always been a real one for Rhapsody, but she had not allowed herself to think about it while crawling along the endless tunnel. To contemplate it would have been to become unable to go on.

"All right," said Achmed, "I suppose that's fair enough. Grunthor and I will see you as far as the nearest major town. Then you can determine if you need our help in getting to the port. We owe you that at least."

"Thank you," Rhapsody said sincerely. "I feel safer knowing you'll be traveling with me for a while."

"But if you're going to travel with us, you have to observe the same rules we do. Bolg generally have to abide by a higher standard of caution." She nodded in agreement. "Then let's start with language. We'll speak only in Bolgish. You're proficient in it now. Serendair had some major ports, and the language of men and the Lirin that lived there undoubtedly was used in sea trade, but no one except the Bolg speak Bolgish."

"Very well," Rhapsody said in the language. Grunthor laughed.

"You just told 'im he did a good job," the Sergeant said. Rhapsody shrugged. "It takes a while to get the usage issues of a language, and to learn the idioms if it isn't your native tongue. Most languages are easy to pick up the basics in, if they have a consistent base, which most do. It's like a musical pattern."

"Well, if we're agreed on the language, let's talk strategy. We have no idea where we are, or what lives here. We are obviously not at the base of whatever Root Twin was connected to Sagia; we must have left the main trunk root when we started digging. That's probably a good thing, since we know Sagia was guarded. It's a fairly safe bet that there are people somewhere around here and we don't want to meet them, at least not yet. We want to know as much as possible about them and the area before they even know we're here."

"Agreed," Rhapsody said. Grunthor nodded as well.

"And when we do make contact, let's keep as much information as possible among ourselves until we agree to share any of it. It's safer for all of us that way." The Singer nodded quickly. "Oh, and one more thing: Rhapsody, I suggest you keep that sword of yours under wraps until and unless you really need to draw it, or at least try to be sure no one sees it who doesn't need to. It's a powerful artifact; I don't have any idea how it came to be here, on the other side of the world, wedged in the Earth. I doubt it's a good sign."

"All right. Can we go now? The sooner we get on the road the sooner we'll get to port." Rhapsody danced with impatience.

Achmed and Grunthor exchanged a look. They had nothing but time. It was a heady feeling.

After an hour of brisk marching Rhapsody began to shiver. When they left Easton it had been the height of summer, and she had been dressed for it. Now the rags that had once been her clothes were worn thin and full of holes. Even in prime condition they had not been adequate for wintry weather.

Rhapsody had hoped the pace of the walk would keep her warm, but the bitter wind that blew through the forest chilled her as the dampness of the tunnel never had. Despite its continuous state of sogginess, the heart of the Earth was warm for the most part. Here, above, outside its skin, the cold was debilitating.

"'Ere, missy, 'old up," Grunthor commanded.

He unbound two of the wool blankets they had slept beneath the night before, prized possessions they had dragged with them along the Root. Then he drew Lucy, and with a quick slash ripped a hole in the center of each blanket. He tossed one to Achmed, who pulled his head through the hole and draped the blanket around him like a tunic. Then he gave the other to Rhapsody as he sheathed the sword.

Grunthor smirked as she put it on. The makeshift covering was much larger on her, hanging down over her wrists.

"I hope you don't have to fight anything like that," Achmed said in amusement.

"I hope so, too," she said. "Given the sword I'm using, I'd probably light myself on fire."

"Well, then, you wouldn't be cold no more, would ya?" said Grunthor as they took up the trek again.

The snow was deep in places, but Achmed seemed to be able to tell just by looking at the lay of the land what path to take to avoid the drifts. It was almost as if he was following a map laid out in his mind.

Grunthor also seemed to have a natural understanding of the land. He knew where the drifts were unstable, where creeks were hidden under the blanket of snow, and where, far from view, they would find walls of thorns or deadfalls that they needed to avoid. From time to time he would point these things out to Achmed, who would immediately adjust their course. For men who were in unfamiliar territory, Rhapsody noted, they seemed to know the land as if they had traveled it before.

Mid-afternoon the sky began to darken. The day seemed to have been too short, even for the dead of winter. Rhapsody had heard that in the southernmost parts of the Island of Serendair the sky darkened very early and that dawn came quite late during the winter. As a child, she had been told by her grandfather that out at sea, on the few small islands that lay even farther south, the nights were even longer. She began to wonder if in fact they were in some southern land, where the winter nights seemed endless but the summers were blessed with long days.

She was about to comment about this when Grunthor suggested a quick course change due east, which brought them to a narrow roadway that ran north-south. Its age was hinted at by the size of the great oaks and ashes that lined the edge of the road and formed an arch of branches high above, giving it the look of an ancient basilica. It was well maintained, with slight ruts on its rocky surface from wheels of wagons and carts. The snow along the route had been tramped into icy brown mush. They stared in silence at the road for several moments.

"Well, I guess we're not alone," Achmed said at last. Rhapsody felt a momentary glimmer of exhilaration at the realization that a road like this might lead to a city, and that even if it were not a port city, she could likely find her way to one from there. But her excitement was held in check by the understanding that the road also might belong to hostile people, or might be thousands of miles from the sea. Still, it was a start, and would eventually be the first step in finding passage back to Serendair.

After some hours Achmed stopped short.

"What's going on?" Rhapsody asked, only to be silenced by a curt hand motion.

He had heard a noise, a sound that was outside his range of hearing. Unbidden, a picture of the place they stood formed in his mind's eye; a moment later, the scene was moving. His vision was racing down the road at an incredible speed, accelerating. The trees became a blinding blur; the swiftest of the turns and bends in the roadway sent his balance spinning.

He had always been blessed with an unnatural sense of direction, which he had utilized on the Root to find the way through the Earth. The fact that Daystar Clarion, something from Serendair, had been waiting for them on the other side was a paradox he had yet to fathom. But now, since he had passed through the fire, seeking the right passage or path had become the dizzying experience that was now occurring. Grunthor's hand shot out and grasped him by the shoulder, steadying him.

"Ya all right, sir?" Achmed nodded, bending over and resting his hands on his knees, hanging his head down to regain his balance. "Was it like it was on the Root?" He nodded again.

"There's a herd of animals coming, and a thatched hut down a bit. The road itself forks after that, but then the vision faded. This new ability I seem to have been blessed with will probably prove useful, but it's going to take some getting used to."

The sound of braying could now be heard in the distance. The three travelers scanned the horizon. Grunthor pointed and led them to a well-hidden gully below a deep snow bank that provided good cover and a clear view. They crouched down behind an ice-covered log and waited.

Achmed shrugged the cwellan from his back into his hands and held it at the ready. As his vision had sped down the road he had seen a child traveling with the beasts; now he tried to lock his heartbeat on to the boy's. Like a wild shot, a misspent arrow, he sought in vain, finding nothing. The world darkened in his mind for a moment. He had lost his bond to blood, just as he had feared.

The thought of the lost gift struck him like a missile from his own weapon. His abilities to hit targets at ridiculous distances, to feel the changes in the rhythms of the world were still there, but no longer as intense as they had been.

Where once he had heard the deafening sound of millions of hearts beating, now all he heard was relative silence punctuated by the sound of Grunthor's ferocious, thudding pulse and the slow, steady rhythm of Rhapsody's. His unique ability, his lock on the heartbeat of his prey, had been the price of his freedom. The loss of it was worse than being blinded, being maimed. The implications of his deprivation began to take hold, making him weak with nausea.

The herd came into view on the roadway. Shaggy, thickly built cattle with great arching horns, they plodded the ground with a sound not unlike thunder.

Driving them with a long, flexible stick was a young boy, in his teen years undoubtedly, wearing the simple clothes of any Seren farmboy. He was whistling an odd tune that Rhapsody had never heard before. By his side was a black-and-white herding dog, much like the ones her father had owned while she was growing up.

She turned to Grunthor and nodded at the young man, but the giant shook his head. She returned to watching the child and the animals until they were out of sight.

Once the roadway was clear again, she looked to Achmed. Even with his face partially hidden, she could still see what resembled devastation in his eyes. "What's the matter?"

The Dhracian said nothing, but Grunthor seemed to know at once what was wrong. The two Firbolg had discussed the possible effects leaving the Island might have on Achmed.

When he was the Brother, his gift had been tied to the Island, as the first of his race born there. Child of Blood, the Dhracian sage had said, Brother to all men, akin to none. By the look on his face Grunthor knew what they had feared had come to pass. The bond was broken, the blood lore gone. Brother to none. He rested a hand on Achmed's shoulder. The assassin merely shrugged and, after checking the road again, climbed over the log and back onto the path.

They made their way down the road to the farm Achmed had seen in his vision, an animal barn and a simple hut with a small garden cleared from the forest.

The larger of the two buildings, where the cattle were housed, was little more than a roofed kraal, but the farmhouse was much better built, a design that utilized the least amount of material possible to the greatest effect.

Set above the doorway was a hex sign similar to the ones Rhapsody had seen her whole life. If the pattern of this one was the same as those in Serendair, to which it was strikingly similar, it was set to ward off fire and disease. She passed this information along to the others in a whisper. Again they hid and watched.

A man came out of the house as the boy approached it, and greetings were passed, but none of them understood the words. The two farmers carried on a pleasant exchange as they penned the animals, returning finally to the farmhouse. Once they had gone inside, the three companions relaxed.

"Did you recognize the language?" Rhapsody asked.

"No, but some of the words sounded familiar," Achmed said. Grunthor shrugged. "Did you?"

"No. I don't know how to explain it, but it seems to have the same cadence as our own tongue, only with slightly different rhythms and word patterns."

Grunthor chuckled. "Maybe all you 'umans talk alike," he said.

"Maybe. What do we do now? Shall we knock and ask for shelter?"

The two Firbolg laughed simultaneously.

"Oi don't think so, Yer Ladyship."

Rhapsody looked indignant. "And why is that such a stupid idea?"

Achmed sighed. "Well, in our experience, Firbolg don't generally get the best of receptions when we knock on doors. You might be welcomed. In fact, I'm sure you could get a bed for the night, but I doubt it would be empty, if you take my meaning." Rhapsody shuddered. Achmed chuckled. "Of course, it's really up to you. I don't know how much you're craving a warm night."

"Not that much. What do you suggest?"

"Well," Grunthor began, "to the north, there are a number o' farms like this one. To the south the road comes to some kind o' village. It ain't exactly large, but it's pretty well built. Beyond that, the road goes on for some way."

"But Oi'll tell ya what—about 'alf a mile into the woods, just to the southeast, there's a nice lit'le dell, with a tree fallen over it. If we was to throw a few more branches on that tree, we could build a fire, and 'ave a cozy lit'le den that no one could see."

Achmed and Rhapsody stared at him for a moment. They looked at one another, then stared at the Sergeant again.

"Precisely how do you know this?" Achmed asked.

"Oi don't know. Oi just do. Oi got a feelin'."

"I see. Well, let's see how right your feeling is."

Grunthor's "feeling" turned out to be as accurate as a map, or a skilled guide. He seemed to know the terrain and the structures that touched it naturally, as if the Earth had been whispering her secrets in his ear as he slept. He gave them a list of its traits: the land they were now in was a series of hills, made from limestone and clay, pushed together by great underground pressure from the south.

For miles around and as far as he could sense, the land was completely wooded. None of the people who lived on the land had cleared it; instead they kept small subsistence gardens to feed themselves, sometimes trading their wares with each other. Their livestock were forest cattle, and served as barter for the other things they needed; he surmised this by the frequent patterns of transport of the animals to market. There was a small town farther east with no defenses to speak of. It and all the farms had been laid out willy-nilly with no eye to fortification. And there was the Tree.

"The Tree?" Rhapsody asked, unable to contain her excitement. "The Root Twin?"

The Sergeant shrugged. "Oi guess. It's not far from 'ere, a lit'le to the south. It's like the great Lirin Tree we came through, only it roots are everywhere. It's like the 'ole forest is part of it."

Rhapsody drew her sword and held it over an armload of wet kindling she had gathered in the hope of drying it out. "My mother used to say the same thing about Sagia. She called it the Oak of Deep Roots—I had no idea how true a name that was. The Lirin believed Sagia was tied to every living thing. If this is the Root Twin of that tree, I'm sure it's the same."

"Oi don't know about that, but this tree 'ere certainly is tied to all the forest. It was like Oi was standin' in a wide plain, and Oi could see this thing at the edge o' my vision, even though Oi didn't know it was there, ya know?"

"Not really," Rhapsody admitted, setting the fire alight with her sword. The wood blazed up immediately, consuming the wet wood as though it were dry and seasoned.

"I do," Achmed said. "When you see the world vibrationally you can't see forever, but some things stand out like beacons, things of great power."

Grunthor sat up, a look of interest on his face. "You think Oi can see vibrational-like?"

"No, not from your description. It sounds more like an elemental bond. Like you're one with the Earth. Like you know what it knows."

"Yeah, like that."

Achmed tossed a handful of dried burrs onto the fire. "The Ancient Seren, the first people of the Island, were like that. They were each bound to one of the five elements: earth, air, water, fire, or ether, the element they believed the stars were made of."

"Lore," Rhapsody said. "Ancient powers, the elements' stories."

Achmed nodded. "Perhaps by passing along the Root, each of us came to be bound to one of the elements. That would explain my sudden ability with paths and trails. As I found the right path to take, I gradually began to gain the ability to see down those paths to their terminus. I have kept that ability, but now it works not just with roots, but with any path I set my mind to."

"Or perhaps being in the presence of so much power just brought forth natural ties you already had," said Rhapsody, standing more wood up to dry by the fire. "Both of these newfound abilities seem to be based in the earth, which is, after all, where the Firbolg come from, isn't it?"

"Yes."

"I think it's more likely that. I haven't been tied to anything—"

Achmed chuckled. "Actually, Rhapsody, I think you've been affected the most of all of us." He stretched out his legs before the bristling fire to warm.

"How so?"

"Well, in case you'd forgotten, you've taken to warming Grunthor's chest at night with your body to stave off your nightmares. They're dreams of the Past and the Future, aren't they?"

"Some," she admitted, "but that's nothing new. I've always had dreams like that." She pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on her arms to keep warm.

"They certainly seemed more intense on the Root, miss, than out in the field when we first got you," Grunthor said.

"Perhaps, but that may have had something to do with the place we were trapped within, and the company, no offense."

"That gift, that lore, if you will, is called prescience, the ability to see the Future, or the Past, and to absorb images and memories from objects or places. You've had it happen once or twice, if I'm not mistaken."

"Yes, but Namers have the ability to do that, too, in a way. We can attune ourselves to a specific note that picks up vibrations, at least occasionally anyway. It's a skill."

Achmed smiled. "Well, that may be, but it doesn't explain the fire."

Rhapsody looked up at him from her curled position. "What about the fire?"

"You haven't noticed the fire?"

She was beginning to grow irritated. "Of course I have; I built it, you numbskull."

Achmed rose and held out his hand to her. "Come here."

Reluctantly she gave him her hand and allowed him to pull her to her feet. He led her several yards away, then pointed at a large flat stone that jutted up at an angle from the snow.

"Take off your scabbard and leave it there," he said.

Rhapsody unbelted the thin stone sheath that held Daystar Clarion and placed it carefully down on the stone, then turned to face the Dhracian, trying to contain her annoyance. "There. So what?"

"Now have a look at the fire."

"I see it," she said. The wood had caught fairly well, and was burning quietly, snapping occasionally as a wet ember splintered in the heat.

"Good. Now walk slowly toward it."

Curiosity was beginning to replace her displeasure. She made her way carefully back to the camp, watching as the fire grew in intensity, rising as if to greet her. The emerald eyes opened in amazement; the flames leapt, roaring higher. Rhapsody backed away, and they settled down again.

"Gods," she whispered as her heart began to race, "what's happening?"

"It's you, miss," said Grunthor.

At his words she panicked, and the fire burst from its circle and crackled skyward, roaring to the height of the branches some ten feet above. The wood she had fed it a moment before dissolved into white-hot ash.

The giant laughed aloud. "See? But if you don't stop it, you're gonna burn up my lit'le den 'ere, maybe set the whole forest ablaze."

Rhapsody glanced at him, and then at the bonfire that was flaming in front of her. "Calm down," she directed, but the fire only grew more intense, reflecting her excitement. She took a deep breath and concentrated as she did before attempting something with her music. The fire responded immediately, settling down into a merry blaze again.

Rhapsody closed her eyes and focused her mind on calm thoughts. A moment later she opened them to find that the campfire had diminished to a flicker no brighter than candlelight. She broke her concentration and set the fire free, watching it climb back to the level of a normal campfire, then tossed another pile of wood onto it to replace the fuel that had burned into dust a moment before. Rhapsody turned to Achmed again. "Do you think this is a factor of the sword?" she asked.

"No, but it may be why the sword started to blaze when you touched it."

"The sword was glowing before I touched it. It almost blinded Grunthor."

Grunthor patted her back. "That might be because it was callin' you, miss; it recognized its own element in you."

Rhapsody was beginning to tremble, partly from the significance of what they were saying, partly because, in her heart, she knew they were right. "And you think the sword tied me to the element of fire?"

"I don't know," Achmed said. "I don't know enough about this sword. I still don't understand what it's doing here on this side of the world. And I don't know what causes it to burn as it does. When I knew of it, it glowed with starlight, but not flames. I'm fairly certain your tie to fire came when you sang us through the inferno at the Earth's core. I think that's when each of us changed. Certainly our bodies did."

"Maybe the fire just prepared us for the change," Rhapsody suggested. "Or maybe it was from eating the Root; I often wondered if it was a good idea to be ingesting something so powerful. It's possible that it changed us, made us susceptible to these elements. Perhaps you gained this—this path lore, or whatever it's called, when you sought out the way along the Root. And Grunthor tied himself to the element of earth when he threw himself into smashing through the rock, and me when I picked up the sword."

"No," Achmed said. "As soon as you stepped back through that fire you had changed. It was clearly visible, you had changed physically."

"'E's right, miss," Grunthor agreed. "You sure look different than when we first met you."

The conversation was causing Rhapsody's head to pound. She looked around at the coming night, inhaling the sharp scent of the fire inside the shelter Grunthor had built. "Well, being unable to bathe for what seems like years, wallowing in the mudfilth, has not exactly made any of us more alluring. Trust me, you two don't want to be presented at court any time soon."

"But that's just it," said Achmed, growing impatient, "you do appear more alluring, more intense. You radiate something that captures the attention." He turned to the Bolg Sergeant. "Do you still have that signaling mirror?"

Grunthor sat up straight, pulled his pack over, and began rummaging through it. "O' course, sir, but don't kid yourself. 'Tain't for signaling. Oi only carries it so Oi can do my 'air."

Rhapsody laughed. Achmed took the small piece of silvered metal from Grunthor and handed it to her.

"Here," he said. "Take a look."

Rhapsody took the jagged metal scrap carefully. As with almost everything Grunthor owned, it had been sharpened to an edge that could be utilized as a razor.

In the fading light of the sky she saw her image dimly reflected in the mirror, smeared with dried mud, clumps of dirt in her hair, which had darkened slightly, as it generally did in winter. Her lips looked chapped and sore from the bitter wind they had been walking into. She handed the mirror back in disgust.

"Very funny."

Achmed left the glass in her hand. "I'm serious, Rhapsody; look again."

She sighed aloud, then gave it a final attempt. The detail available from the crude mirror in the dark was negligible. She could see a redness in her cheeks, but little else. Rhapsody shrugged, and gave the mirror to Grunthor. Then a smile of understanding came over her face.

"I've got it now," she said, humor returning to her voice. "No wonder you think I'm more attractive. I look like a Firbolg."

Achmed and Grunthor looked at one another, one thought passing unspoken between them. She has no understandingit's beyond her. Grunthor shrugged.

Rhapsody scraped some of the dirt off her cheek with her fingernail. "I think I'll melt some snow and try to wash my face tomorrow, and at least get one or two layers of grime off."

"Get some sleep," Achmed said. A smile slipped across his uneven mouth as she settled into the back of the den for the night. She would have to learn the same way she had about the fire. She would have to see the results for herself. There was no question that, sooner or later, she would.

The following morning found the three of them lurking in a well-hidden copse of trees, spying on the villagers in the nearest settlement. The day was warm for winter, perhaps portending a thaw, and the farmers seemed out in force, exchanging conversation and sacks of grain and roots. Rhapsody remembered how temperate weather had brought the farmers of the villages around Easton into town more for human contact than commerce. This seemed to be the case here, as well.

To their surprise they found that many common words, notably tree, grain, and marriage, were the same as the words' counterparts in their own tongue. Rhapsody seemed to pick up the rhythms of the language, growing more excited the longer she listened. By the time noon had arrived, Achmed and Grunthor drew her away into a more distant thicket and conferred with her for fear she would give them away.

"It's a form of our language, I'm sure of it," she said when they were far enough away and certain there was no one nearby. "The main rhythms and cadences are exactly the same, and the word patterns are very similar."

"Well, Serenne is a ship-trade language. I guess it's not surprising that they speak it here as well. Or perhaps the farmers here are descended of settlers from a colony that had its roots on the same mainland as the people who colonized Serendair in the Second Age."

Rhapsody nodded. "Whatever the reason, we should look on this as a blessing. It means we may have a chance to understand the language eventually."

The chance came on their fifth day out of the Root. Grunthor and Achmed had gone about the task of procuring food, often by outright theft, and seeking information about the layout of the village and the surrounding settlements. While they were gone, Rhapsody had positioned herself in a hidden place on the outskirts of the town where she could hear the conversations of the travelers coming and going. On this particular morning, in addition to a few farmers consulting about their tactics in an upcoming haggle and a few women gossiping and cursing, she heard a song.

It was by no means the first song she had heard in this place; the farmers commonly sang as a method of herding cattle or to make long, mind-numbing tasks seem to go more quickly. But this day the singer was a child, a young boy who was walking home with a stick in his hand, dragging it so that it drew a line in the snow. It was a simple country folk-tune, sung slightly off-key, but the melody struck her immediately, because it was the same song that she and countless other children in Serendair had sung in their youth.

She listened intently, her stomach growing cold. The words of his song were about a milkweed seed from which the clouds had grown, just as they had been when she sang it as a child. The lyrics were in a strange but recognizable dialect, and as she listened to him sing, like breaking a code, she now understood the mutations and patterns of the language.

Keeping to the tree line, Rhapsody shadowed the boy until he met up with a woman on the road, then listened to their conversation, understanding almost all of it. Her palms grew moist with excitement. She listened as long as she dared, then ran back to camp to tell Achmed and Grunthor.

The next day the two Bolg joined her at the listening post, acquiring a little of the tongue under her tutelage. She translated three conversations before Achmed nodded in the direction of their shelter. They made for the camp with haste.

"So what do you want to do, Rhapsody?" Achmed asked. "I can see you're up to something."

"I think it's time I met one or two and tried to talk to them. There's no way to find a city unless we get directions. We can lurk in the woods forever, but if I don't find a port city, I'll never get home."

"The ramifications of a possible mistake are deadly for the two of us."

The winter wind blew the hair from her eyes, and Rhapsody nodded. "I know," she said. "So you two remain hidden, follow me, and I'll report back to you if I can."

"And 'ow are we supposed to get you out o' there if somethin' 'appens?" asked Grunthor. He was growing visibly upset.

"You aren't," she said simply. "It's a matter of survival now. I know this isn't the best way for the two of you, but we have different goals. You plan to stay in this place; I don't. I want to go home, and I'm willing to risk everything for that, but I don't expect you to. Either way, the two of you should be all right. If there are no problems, we will meet up and I can pass what I've learned on to you. And if something happens, well, break camp and get out of here. Drink a toast to me every now and then, if you care to."

"Naw," Grunthor muttered, "too risky. Can you speak that language, Duchess?"

"Not yet," Rhapsody admitted, "but I should be able to get by for a while until I pick it up."

"Just don't slip and talk to them in Bolgish," Achmed warned. "You want to learn about them, not for them to learn about us."

"Right." She smiled at Grunthor, who was still shaking his head. "You realize it might take a while to get the information we need."

Achmed nodded. "Once we assess that you're safe we'll do some broader scouting, get some real information about this place."

"How will we get back together?" Rhapsody asked.

"We set a time and place. If you're not there, we go looking for you."

"And where would we meet? Here?"

"No. I don't want anyone trailing us back to the Root. Closed or not, I don't want anyone knowing where we came from. Agreed?"

Rhapsody rose in the darkness and came to Grunthor. She sat on his knee and wrapped an arm around his massive neck. "Agreed. We'll pick a place near the next village along the road, and, if you decide it's safe to leave, set up to meet in a few weeks. But don't go leaving me until I give you a sign that I think it's safe, too. I don't want to be counting on you to come and rescue me to find that you're twenty leagues away."

Grunthor sighed reluctantly. "All right, that makes sense. What's the sign?"

Rhapsody whistled a simple trill, and the two Bolg smiled. It was a tune she had hummed when they were able to walk upright in the tunnel, a sign that her mood had improved, if only for a while. "That's the all-clear. Now, if you hear this—" She whistled again, an unmistakable sound of distress, couched in the tones of a larksong. "—it means come if you can and help me."

"Got it, miss."

They laid their plans late into the night. Morning would find them on the road to the next village, a place the two Bolg had determined in their scouting to be larger and more central.

They blazed a marker that was clear and hard to miss, no matter what the weather brought. It would point to their meeting place. Then they settled in to wait. Rhapsody would approach a likely individual and try to make contact while the others watched for a few days or more. If they determined it was safe to leave her, they would meet in a little more than two months' time, under the full moon.

"You realize this is very dangerous," Achmed said as she bade them goodbye. Once she had identified her contact, she would not come back.

Rhapsody turned around and regarded them seriously. "I once was trapped with Michael, the Waste of Breath, for a fortnight, completely at his mercy and unable to escape. I survived that. This is nothing."

Achmed and Grunthor both nodded. They had known Michael. She was not exaggerating.

The thaw had progressed to a stage where the scents of the earth were hinted at in the air again. The snowpack was still deep, and showed little sign of abating, but the wind was a little warmer, and around the bases of the trees a thin ring of ground could be seen. Children were out more frequently, and the townsfolk of the villages along the road could be found making repairs to cottages and barns or gathering additional stores of wood in the forest before the return of bitter weather. The forays of the villagers into the woods made hiding more difficult.

The three travelers stood in a shaded vale, obscured by thick vines that would be impenetrable in summer when in leaf, not far from the village entrance on the road. Grunthor had pointed out a number of children who were alone at times, but Rhapsody was uncomfortable approaching any of them for fear she might bring punishment on them. Finally, toward noon, a group of farmers congregated on the road, awaiting something coming from the west. The three moved closer to observe.

As the sun crested the apex of the sky, one of the men looked down the road and pointed. The person approaching on a silver-gray horse was an older man, tall and barrel-chested, with a large, pocked nose and reddish-brown beard that was streaked with white. As he came into view more of the villagers assembled, some running forth to meet him, others hanging back to wait.

The man was dressed in woolen robes that had been dyed the color of earth, probably with butternut hulls, Rhapsody noted. He carried a knotted wooden staff, and each person who greeted him did so with reverence, most of them bowing their heads as his hand came to rest on them. His arrival had generated a mild excitement that was tempered with warmth and respect; obviously the farmers knew him well. He dismounted slowly, showing some of the signs of age.

It was clear from the brief benedictions he spoke and the blessings he conferred that this man was some sort of priest. His simple clothes and lack of adornment in Serendair would have indicated a cleric of lowly rank, but Rhapsody noted that the deference shown him was more on the level that would be offered to an abbot or another high-ranking clergyman. Her eyes sparkled excitedly.

"He's the one," she whispered to the two Firbolg.

"No," said Achmed. "Listen."

Rhapsody strained to hear the conversation between the wandering priest and one of the men. It was about snowfall levels and augury of forest animals in predicting the growing season; the signs seemed to indicate that winter would return soon, and with a vengeance in a month or so. They also exchanged a few words about a diseased cow and an injury that the farmer's son had sustained.

Then the priest laid his hand on the farmer's head, and spoke his blessing. Rhapsody's mouth dropped open. Unlike the language they had exchanged in their conversation, the same vernacular she had been hearing all along, the benediction was in the tongue of the Island of Serendair, word for word. It was spoken with a strange accent, with the staccato breaks of a man not using his mother tongue, but clearly and correctly.

"Gods," she said, swallowing hard.

"I don't like it." Achmed's bony hand encircled her upper arm, drawing her back into the thicket.

Rhapsody turned to him in surprise. "Why not? Who would be better to talk to? He speaks our language."

"Perhaps, but I don't want him to know that we do, remember? Bolgish. We speak Bolgish. He's a priest. I don't trust priests."

Rhapsody slid her arm out of his grasp. "Perhaps you've just known bad ones; dark priests, evil gods. One of my favorite people in all the world was a priest, and I knew several kind ones in Easton."

Achmed looked at her in disgust. "First off, all priests have a plan, a design, sometimes their own, sometimes their god's. I am not serving any god's design. Second, how do you know this man isn't a dark priest?"

Rhapsody blinked in astonishment. "Look at him, for goodness' sake—he's blessing children."

The Dhracian's expression melted into amusement. "And you think evil priests walk the land randomly throwing curses around and smiting waifs with their walking sticks? Evil priests do the same things that regular priests do. It's the price that's different, and the tender it's paid in, that's all."

"Well, I think this is the best chance I'm going to get to meet someone who might be able to get me to port. I'm going to risk it."

This time Grunthor took her arm. "Don't take a chance, Duchess."

Rhapsody smiled at the giant. "He looks like a nature priest, Grunthor. What does your tie to the Earth say about him?"

Grunthor looked back through the thicket and closed his eyes. A moment later he opened them with a sigh.

"'E's tied to it, too, in a big way. 'E cares for it, knows about it. You're right, miss, 'e's a nature priest o' some sort."

Rhapsody patted the enormous hand and slid free again. "I've got to chance it. If anything happens, and you can't intervene, I'll understand, and I won't give you away."

Achmed exhaled. "All right. I guess this is as good a time as any. Be careful."

* * *

Khaddyr spoke to the head farmer with as much patience as he could muster. "Now, Severhalt, I know poor old Fawn is getting on in years, but surely she is still performing her religious duties to your community." The look in his eye had a tinge of annoyance to it, but his voice was gentle.

The man's hands came to rest on his hips, and he looked down at the ground. "Services, yes, Father, but we're not gettin' the kind of support we need with the animals anymore. We need someone younger, someone who can handle the winter." Khaddyr sighed. "Well, I certainly understand your frustration, my son, but these are difficult times. I know Fawn isn't as hale as she once was, but she still performs the rites for the congregation, doesn't she?"

"Yes, Father."

"And your village and homesteads are very near the Tree; there are certainly more than enough Filids there to aid you in times of great need if Fawn cannot. The Circle is in a bit of a bind, and unable to spare a new priest at this time. And I'm afraid Llauron granted Fawn the privilege of keeping her congregation here, in proximity to the Tree, as a boon for her years of faithful service. He wants to see her final years be holy ones. You can understand that, can't you?"

Severhalt sighed. "Yes, Father."

Khaddyr smiled. "Let's talk about this again in the spring. I have some acolytes who are spending the winter studying medicine with me. They should, by rights, go on to Gavin to train as foresters next, but perhaps we can reroute them here for a few months to assist with planting and the birthing of the calves. How does that sound?"

The faces of the men who had clustered around lit up, as did Severhalt's. "Wonderful, Father, thank ya. Can ya come in for a spot of supper—Father?" The delight on the farmer's face disappeared, replaced by concern. The Filidic priest was staring into the forest, his face drained of color.

A woman had walked out of the woods, appearing as if from nowhere. For a moment Khaddyr was not sure whether he was imagining her or not. She was caked in long-dried mud and clothed in filthy rags, but she was without question at the same time the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

The hair beneath the clots of clay was as brilliant as the sun, and glistened in the filtered light of the gloomy afternoon. She was slight, but long of line, and walked with a grace that belied her unkempt state. Her eyes, even as far away as she was, were visibly green, deep and dark as a forest glade in the height of summer.

Then she smiled, and it was as if the clouds had cleared suddenly. The warmth in the look she gave him radiated into the coldest places of his heart. Khaddyr feared he might cry for want of her. He instantly began chanting under his breath, throwing himself into his rote religious rituals to ward off whatever spell she had cast on him.

As she approached his heart began to pound, and he leaned on the knotted staff to steady himself. She stopped at a respectful distance and opened her hands in a peaceful gesture of greeting. It was only then that Khaddyr noticed she was armed; a thin, rough-hewn scabbard, seemingly carved from rock, adorned her side. It seemed more decorative than utilitarian, and she was hardly threatening, even equipped as she was.

It took him more than a few moments to find his voice. The farmers with whom he had been conferring were staring, slack-jawed, as well.

"What are you?" he asked. His voice broke, and he cleared his throat in embarrassment. "What are you?" he repeated gruffly. The woman merely blinked. "Can you understand me?"

She nodded. "But you don't speak?" She smiled uncomfortably, and shrugged.

Khaddyr's eyes ran up and down her exquisite, if unbathed, figure, causing his breath to come out more shallowly. Until this moment his vow of celibacy, a pledge not required of any Filid priest but him, had seemed an easy sacrifice in exchange for being sworn as Llauron's Tanist, the ancient leader's religious successor. Suddenly, the privilege of being named Invoker himself one day paled in importance. He cleared his throat again.

"I am Khaddyr. I am a Filidic priest and the Tanist of Llauron, the Invoker." What is this ? he wondered. A wood nymph? A tree spirit? A dryad ? He had heard the legends of forest creatures but did not believe them, at least until now.

The dazzling woman bowed her head. Well, Khaddyr noted, she's respectful, whatever she is. Something else that made her attractive.

"Well," he said finally, "I'm afraid you're a bit beyond my powers of understanding. I have no idea who or what you are, so I suppose I shall have to take you to Llauron and let him have a look at you. Don't be afraid; the Invoker is a kind man. Will you come with me, please?"

The strange woman nodded, and smiled at him again. He held out his hand and allowed it to come to rest, trembling slightly, on her upper arm. Beneath the rotten fabric of the tattered shirt, her skin was deliciously warm. Khaddyr left his hand there long enough to turn her in the appropriate direction, then quickly dropped it down to his side. He turned west himself aswell, only to find a wall of blank-faced townspeople blocking their path back to the Tree.

"I say," he growled, "do clear the path, please." The farmers didn't move. "Ahem," he repeated, glaring at them, "get out of the way."

The woman looked at him, then back at the people obstructing the path, and took a step toward them. Instantly they scattered like leaves, retreating to a safe distance, and continued to stare at her. Khaddyr didn't know how long they would stay at bay, so he took her arm again and led her to the silver-gray horse, lifting her easily off the ground and mounting behind her. He rode away just as the townspeople seemed to recover their wits. A shout went up as a few ran to their own stables, determined to follow him.

Khaddyr was becoming anxious. At each small village or large homestead along the roadway his unintentional caravan had taken on riders and followers on foot, creating crowds that blocked the forest road.

Farmers on the outskirts of the towns along the road had stopped and stared as they rode by. Villagers had swarmed to see the strange, beautiful creature riding before him in the saddle. There were scores of them now, perhaps hundreds, men and women alike, and a fair number of children, all clamoring to see or touch this filthy dryad with the dazzling green eyes.

He fully understood their unnatural desire to do so. Even the continual state of consternation he had been in since leaving Tref-Y-Gwartheg had done little to arrest the light-headedness he was experiencing.

Initially he had ascribed it to trepidation over what Llauron was going to say about the chaos of the surrounding villages and the arrival of some of their occupants on his lands near the Great Tree. After hours had passed, however, and the feeling had not abated, he began to realize that his anxiety about the Invoker's potential displeasure had little to do with it.

It was the giddy sensation of inhaling the surprisingly sweet scent of the filthy creature whose back occasionally pressed up against his chest, causing dark and lascivious thoughts unsuited in a celibate man of the cloth. At one point, to his great embarrassment, she had taken his hand and removed it gently from her breast, not bothering to turn around to face or glare at him. He felt humiliated; he had not even known it was there.

Finally he lost the half-dozen or so determined men who had continued to follow him after he had guided the horse past the crowds. Since the same problem was arising in each village, Khaddyr decided to abandon the road and take the narrower forest trails in the hope of avoiding further difficulty.

At the peak of the afternoon they arrived at their lodging for the night, the hostel of the forester Gavin. One of the same order as Khaddyr himself, Gavin kept the barracks on the eastern border of the deep forest, training the Filidic acolytes in the art of forestry. Upon completion of Gavin's training they served three years as pilgrimage guides, escorting the faithful from their villages to the Tree for holy-day celebrations and religious rites, though these days they had been more often utilized to defend the forest outposts against attack. War is brewing, Khaddyr thought. There was no doubt about it.

Khaddyr brought the horse to a stop outside the main cottage, reserved for the use of Gavin and other senior Filids. The Filidic religion was one of service to nature, and as such did not require its priests to remain celibate, except for him. Most of the Filids, men and women, were married, although acolytes usually refrained from matrimonial ties until their training and forestry service were finished. As a result, many of them lived within the villages that were their congregations or in the main settlements closer to the Tree. He expected the cottage would be empty, and it appeared that he was correct.

His enchanting passenger was looking around, taking in the sights with obvious interest. Khaddyr dismounted, finding some relief in his groin area, which had been experiencing considerable discomfort during their ride. He put his hands up to the strange creature to assist her down from the horse, but she shook her head and dismounted by herself. Swallowing his disappointment, he tied the horse to a slender sapling and nodded curtly to the hut. She followed him inside.

The hut had two low wooden beds topped with stuffed sackcloth mattresses filled with sweet hay and covered with blankets of undyed wool, as well as a sizable wooden table. None of the foodstuffs had been left in the cottage; they would have to eat what he could find out in the root cellar or share his meager dinner, which had gone uneaten in all the excitement. He turned to his odd guest and pointed outside.

"I'm going to see what I can find for us to eat," he said in a slow, exaggerated tone. "Will you be all right in here alone for a few moments?"

The woman smiled and nodded. Khaddyr felt the unwelcome rush of heat and blood again. He took hold of the cord that served as the door's handle.

"Good. Now, make yourself comfortable. I'll be back in a bit." He pointed to one of the two beds and left the hut hurriedly.

When he returned a few moments later, an armload of roots and winter apples in hand, the woman was sound asleep in the bed he had indicated, smiling as if in paradise.

* * *

Rhapsody woke to the warmth of a cracking fire burning peacefully in the small fireplace. She sat up with a start, disoriented in the dark, to see the man who had introduced himself as Khaddyr watching her intently from across the room. Night had fallen while she slept. She had no idea how much time had passed since she had slipped, gratefully, into the first bed she had occupied since the night before the world had been turned upside down an eternity ago in Easton.

The man smiled at her doubtfully. She returned the smile, hoping to assuage whatever concern was plaguing him. He seemed intent on treating her kindly. By now Achmed and Grunthor had undoubtedly caught up with them and were stationed somewhere nearby, or so she hoped. She felt around beneath the blanket and sighed in relief. The sword was still there where she had hidden it.

"Are you hungry?" Khaddyr asked. He had laid a plain meal on the table, one bowl of which had already been eaten. She nodded and rose from the bed, taking the chair opposite him.

The hut itself was simple in its construction, better built than the ones she had seen on the Island, with stone walls and a thatched roof. As they had approached she had seen something resembling barracks off in the near distance, long, thatched buildings with wattle-and-daub walls cased with skins and woven mats of forest brush. The buildings, for all their simplicity, seemed surprisingly solid, and reflected careful thought in their design. The Filids, whoever they were, must have some architectural or engineering knowledge not often seen in farming communities.

Khaddyr watched her as she ate; it made her self-conscious. When she had finished she pointed to the empty bowl and gestured her thanks. The man's forehead wrinkled as he watched her in the firelight.

"What sort of creature are you?" he asked her again, as he had when she first emerged from the forest. Rhapsody had no idea what to say, so she shrugged. She tried to formulate a way to explain that she was a person—perhaps Khaddyr had never seen someone of Lirin extraction—but was blocked in her attempt by a sudden sound of shouting and commotion. The crowd had finally caught up with them.

Khaddyr rose from his seat in consternation, and went to one of the two cottage windows. Even in the light of the waning moon Rhapsody could see his face grow pale. The hunting party of determined villagers must have grown larger in the course of following them.

The priest hurried to the coat pegs near the door. On each of them hung a soft gray forester's cape with a hood and caplet. On a man the size of an average villager it would hang to the top of the thigh. Khaddyr draped it around Rhapsody and exhaled in relief when he saw that it only brushed the backs of her calves. He pulled the hood up over her filthy hair.

"Come with me," he said, urgency in his voice. "We can cut through the woods here to Llauron's." He seized his own staff and cape and held open the back door, which led out to the root cellar. Rhapsody followed him out into the darkness, running from the throng like a fox before the approaching hounds.

It took three days' travel to reach the place in the deep forest to which Khaddyr had been referring. The towns along the main roadway, though seeming to be in a wooded land when she had first seen them, were out in the open compared with the place through which they now traveled.

The forest to the west was virgin, primeval, and thick with stands of dark evergreens that blotted out the light and returned some of the green of the warmer months to the otherwise unbroken blanket of snow.

Their pace was slower than hers had been with the two Bolg. Khaddyr was a much older and fatter man than either Achmed or Grunthor, and so had to rest more frequently, but he had an innate knowledge of the terrain. The forest seemed to welcome him, easing his passage through the heavy underbrush.

More than once Rhapsody had looked off into the distance and caught a glimpse of a dark cape or a large shadow, and sighed in relief. Achmed and Grunthor had caught up and were making that known to her. Though she and Khaddyr seemed to have lost the mass of townspeople for the moment, the presence of the Bolg served to reassure her even as she followed the priest through the deepening woods.

Each morning Rhapsody would wait until Khaddyr had disappeared into a copse of trees to attend to the call of nature before finding a spot from which to sing her dawn devotions. Out of deference to Achmed's concern about revealing their history, she sang wordlessly, maintaining only a melody line without the Ancient Lirin verse. On more than one occasion she had turned around after finishing to find the Filidic priest staring at her as if she were a mythical beast.

At night Khaddyr built a small fire, from which she maintained a respectable distance. Given the way fire often reacted to her, she thought it wise to keep away from it. She could see that her withdrawal from the proximity of the fire caused Khaddyr to assume she had an aversion to it and to make note of this fact. He had ceased trying to question her about what she was, and instead spoke to her only when giving directions.

Finally on the third day they came to a place in the deep woods that appeared to be a large clearing. Dispersed throughout the area were many cottages and huts, some of stone and others of earth with turf roofs, or the wattle-and-daub walls that she had seen in the farming communities. In addition they passed a few very large buildings made of wood, with heavy doors and conical thatched roofs. Smoke rose placidly from the hearths of the buildings.

Above the doors of the huts and cottages were hex signs, similar to the one she had seen back on the road but in far more complex and colorful patterns. Most of the dwellings had sizable gardens or kraals, and had been whitewashed or faced with stone as ornamentation.

The people who milled about did not dress as the farmers and villagers had, but rather were attired in robes of wool similar to Khaddyr's, some dyed with indigo or goldenrod or engilder leaves to bring forth hues of blue or yellow or green. Others, as Khaddyr's, had been soaked in butternut shells or heather, producing tones more earthy, shades of dismal brown and somber gray. Often these robes had cowls like Khaddyr's, which seemed to signify greater rank among the people of this forest community.

In addition to the robed clergy were armed men, carrying bows, spears, axes, and other weaponry of foresters and scouts, and attired in leather armor. These men were often haggard or injured, showing the signs of many months of travel or battle, and their appearance made Rhapsody wonder what might have attacked them in this seemingly peaceful place.

The prospect of war made her stomach twist in anxiety. War had been in the wind back in Easton, and it meant the restriction of travel. If this place was at war or preparing for one, it would complicate her getting to a port and passage home. After coming this far, she was unwilling to face that prospect.

In the late afternoon she heard it, a song deeper and richer than any but one she had ever heard. It was the song of the Tree, Sagia's Root Twin. They must be coming closer to it.

As the sun was beginning to set they came to a vast meadow in the forest and she saw it, its trunk whiter than the snow, with great ivory branches that spread like immense fingers to the darkening sky.

Rhapsody stopped and stared in wonder. The Tree was easily fifty feet across at the base, and the first major limb was more than a hundred feet from the ground, leading up to more branches that formed a expansive canopy she wished she could see in leaf. The last rays of the winter sun glimmered on its bark, giving it an almost ethereal glow.

Around its base, set back a hundred yards from where its great roots pierced the earth, had been planted a ring of trees, one of each species Rhapsody had ever heard of, and many she had not. It resonated a song of ancient power, different from Sagia's but with the same depth and magic. Rhapsody's eyes glistened with tears that did not fall.

Khaddyr was watching her face carefully. He stared at her silently for a long time, then seemed to shake his head as if waking. Finally he spoke to her.

"You respect the Tree?" he asked. Rhapsody nodded, still not taking her eyes off it. Khaddyr smiled. "Well, then, you will be welcome here. Llauron will be very interested to meet you. Come; we are almost to his house." He led her through the meadow, past the outside of the tree ring and beneath the outstretched branches that blocked the sky above them.

On the other side of the meadow stood a great copse of ancient trees, vastly tall and broad, though no match for the Great White Tree in height or breadth. Built throughout and around this grove of trees was a large, beautiful house, simple yet breathtaking in design.

It was set at many odd angles, with sections placed high in the trees or on stilts with windows that faced the Tree. Intricate woodwork dressed the exterior, in particular the large section with a tower that reached high above the forest canopy.

A great stone wall, lined with sleeping gardens, led up to a section on the side of the smaller wing, where a heavy wooden door was guarded by soldiers similar to the ones she had seen before. She turned to Khaddyr and pointed at the house questioningly. The hawk-nosed man smiled.

"This is Llauron's keep, where the Invoker lives. Not much of a rectory for someone of his religious and family stature, but he's comfortable here. Come; I will bring you to him." He led her through the winding gardens and up to the door, nodding to the staring guards, who moved aside as they passed.

* * *

From within the branches of their hiding place Achmed and Grunthor watched as the man knocked and a woman opened the door. After a moment's discussion with the priest she stepped aside and he led Rhapsody into the strange, angular house. The servant shut the door behind them.

Achmed closed his eyes and leaned back against the trunk of a white alder. The taste of the wind was thin and sweet, the silence deafening. The rhythm of Rhapsody's heart was becoming softer the farther into the house she went, leaving only Grunthor's and his own resonating in his skin. This must be what peace feels like, he thought. He was not sure he liked it.

Then, at the edge of his consciousness, he felt another rhythm, and then another, pulsing in the distance, unfamiliar, but not unknown. There were other heartbeats that he could still feel on the wind, but they were very far away. A vague thudding here, a whispering flicker there; somewhere out in the wide world there were still a few hearts whose rhythms registered on his skin, in his blood. Perhaps he was not as severed from his gift as he had believed. He had no idea how this could be, and whether is was a blessing or a curse. He shook off the thought and concentrated on Rhapsody. The other heartbeats fell silent.

They waited longer than planned, wanting to be assured that whoever lived in the strange, angular house would not harm her. Achmed had tracked her heartbeat from the moment she had left; it had been clear and strong in his ears until she entered the woodland keep with the nature priest. Though it was muted, he could still feel it distantly, could still read what it was telling him.

She was nervous, anxious even. After a few moments he felt her initial unease flare into something approaching panic, but it did not seem in response to an attack. Had it been, they would have found a way to intervene, but such action did not prove necessary.

"'Ow long ya want to wait, sir?"

"One more night. Then we'll go."

Her nightmares must have been especially intense. During the night he could feel her pulse begin to quicken from its slow, steady sleeping rhythm, the pattern he had learned over the vast amount of time they had spent in the Root. He was used to the crescendo that her heartbeat reached in the throes of her bad dreams, but this was worse by half again.

When dawn came he felt her leave the keep and walk to the base of the Great White Tree, where she sang her morning devotions. The wind carried the gentle vibrations across the wide field to where they washed over him, soothing his skin. The song was as it always was, though there was a melancholy air he had not heard since the Root, a deep sadness in the tone he could not fathom. But she was not hurt, or in danger. She was all right.

A moment later, he heard the whistled song, the all-clear sign. The tune was shaky, indicating that she was still upset from whatever had distressed her before, but confident enough to let them go. Achmed smiled.

He opened his mouth and let the frosty air whistle in and through it. There was no hideous taste of the demon on the wind, no odious smell; it was one of the first things he had looked for. In the silence all around him was the feel of absolution, of a new beginning, free from the old life and its horrors. They had made it. They had successfully managed to escape. The new challenge of survival paled in the face of what they had left behind.

The sting of the snow on his raggedly soled feet roused him from his musings. He caught Grunthor's eye, now almost open as he woke.

"We'd better find some clothing, then food. Can't eat the Root anymore; need to reprovision. After that, we'll scout around, see where the wind takes us. Maybe we can find Rhapsody her path to the sea."

By nightfall the two Firbolg had found their way out of the thickest part of the forest and were heading west to the sea. Achmed could taste the salt in the air, though it was still many miles away, like distant tears on the wind.

They found an abandoned barn not far from a small farming settlement and made camp there. Despite being a roof over their heads, the ramshackle shelter provided little comfort, as they decided they couldn't risk a fire. The floor was strewn with hay, packed and moldy, lying undisturbed for years, and they burrowed beneath it, seeking warmth and finding very little.

Grunthor had gathered fallen branches of cherry and black fritten wood and spent the better part of the evening sharpening them into arrows to replace the ones he had spent in the fields so long ago and during his time within the Earth. More than once Achmed caught him humming one of the melodies Rhapsody sang to herself while they traveled, gruesomely off-key.

The next morning they set off to scout the village and outlying farmhouses, returning with a handful of eggs and winter roots from a variety of storage sheds, several horse blankets, and some clothes that looked as if they would fit Achmed. They had ranged far and wide, trying to steal only a little in each place to avoid being noticed.

"My, you look lovely, sir," Grunthor joked, watching Achmed's face as he discovered that the tunic he had stolen was actually a dress. He slashed a hole in one of the horse blankets to fashion himself a rough vest. "But you won't be givin' 'Er Ladyship any competition with the young bucks any time soon, Oi'm afraid."

Achmed ripped the bottom of the skirt off, shortening the garment to the length of a long shirt.

"Unless I miss my guess, I doubt the collective charm of every occupant of Madame Parri's Pleasure Palace could compete with her now," he said, donning his new clothes. "Whatever that fire did to her has had a powerful effect; it may prove a valuable tool one day. I was initially concerned that the priest would attempt to compromise her, but he was too intimidated to try anything."

"Ah, yes, Ol' Madame Parri's. Oi ain't thought about them in years. Wonder 'ow ol' Brenda and Suzie are doin'."

Achmed chuckled. "Grunthor, I'm sure they miss you still. I doubt anyone they've come across since has measured up." He tossed the giant a winter apple. "Come on. Let's have a look around."

The makeshift clothes, added to the tatters of their original garments, provided some protection against the frosty air. They had also stolen a few discarded reins and harnesses and had used the leather to patch their boots the best they could, though in this effort they were less successful. The snow still crept into their footgear, making their toes sting and cramp with cold.

A few miles to the west the settlement grew denser and the forest thinner until it could almost be seen as a village. Achmed and Grunthor found thickets to hide in, heavy with blackthorn brambles and scrub, and watched the comings and goings of the villagers, listening as best they could from far away.

Though not as proficient with the language as Rhapsody had been, they could understand enough of it to catch the occasional word or phrase. One word, Avonderre, seemed to be repeated often, usually with some sort of southwesterly directional reference. The Bolg decided that this must be the name of the neighboring area, though whether it was a village, a city, a province, or a nation all its own was unclear.

They had circled the whole of the settlement by mid-afternoon, and were preparing to move on, when a distant vibration on the forest road caught Achmed's attention.

From his hiding place in a copse of silver-barked trees not found on Serendair he closed his eyes and concentrated on the road out of the village. It was no more than a beaten path, scarred with the ruts of wagons and hoofprints, muddy from the mild weather and melting snow. Rhapsody's voice spoke softly in his memory.

Unerring trucker. The pathfinder.

He swallowed and held on to the nearest tree trunk, then loosed his mind. His vision of the road surged, then sped forward, following the sloppy path into the distance at a sickening rate.

Racing over the lightly forested path, his mind's eye hurried along until it came upon the sight of horsemen, armed and drawn, galloping toward the village. There were a dozen or so of them, clad in greenish-black leather and riding roans, red-brown forest horses.

With a lurch the vision came to an end, but not before Achmed had a chance to make note of two things. First: even more noticeable than the strange armor and horses were the shape and coloring of the riders' faces. High cheekbones below large, wide eyes, tapering to chins as severe as their blank expressions. Tones of skin and hair the color of the earth and its flora. Lirin.

Second: they were carrying torches.

Achmed uttered a Bolgish curse and turned to Grunthor.

"Lirin soldiers, armed with fire, heading this way."

Grunthor stared at him blankly.

"Lirin? With fire? Are you sure, sir?"

Achmed nodded as he extricated himself from the underbrush, understanding the Sergeant's bewilderment. Lirin had a natural aversion to fire, particularly the Liringlas, owing to the hazard it posed to their lands. With the exception of Lirinpan, the strain of the race that were city dwellers, Lirin tended to reside in places of forest brush and open field, where wildfires could easily destroy their settlements. Seeing a troop of them wielding fire as a weapon was a disturbing contradiction. But there was no time to ponder it now.

"Come on," he whispered.

Hurriedly they moved through the bracken, taking care to remain hidden, in an arc to the southwest. When they came to a place where the woods were thick with evergreen growth, Achmed scaled a tall pine and hid within its branches, ten or so feet off the ground. Grunthor settled into the underbrush. When Achmed looked down again, he could barely see him.

They had just enough time to settle out of sight when the troop came riding into view. Screams rent the air as farmers and townspeople panicked, scurrying out of the road, dragging children with them. They scattered like a flock of birds before the oncoming mayhem.

Achmed watched, sickened, as the first few soldiers rode past the villagers still within reach, leaving them to their companions in the ranks behind, who clubbed them where they stood. The men in the forefront rode instead to the nearest buildings and torched them, setting the village ablaze within moments.

A few of the farmers fought back with whatever tools or weapons they had been able to lay hands on, but they had no chance against the horsemen. One of the men-at-arms bringing up the rear rode mercilessly down on a villager, the impact sending the child fleeing with him flying onto the roadside near their hiding place where she lay, limp and not moving.

Achmed was staring as the soldier stopped and turned, then started for the child when an arrow whistled near his ear, piercing the Lirin's neck. The horse rode out from under the man as he fell, lifeless, to the ground.

He turned to Grunthor to find the giant nocking two more arrows, the Sergeant's face as grim and resolute as he had ever seen it. Grunthor drew back and let fly again, and another soldier fell into the burning thatch of the roof he was igniting.

A birdcall went up from one of the remaining men-at-arms, and the horsemen stopped in the road. Words were shouted in the calm voice of command, and the soldiers turned and left the village, riding over the body of one of their fallen comrades as they went, without stopping.

Silence fell over the tiny hamlet. Then, as if something shattered, cries and moans rent the air. A sobbing woman ran to the child in the brush and gathered her up, laughing and crying in relief as the little girl opened her eyes, too distracted to notice the face of the Firbolg giant a few inches from her.

When she was gone, Grunthor lowered his bow and leaned forward to get a better look through the thick black smoke that was now beginning to waft their way. He shook his head in amazement.

"What in the name of all that is good was that?" he asked, incredulous.

Achmed shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe all those stories they told us as children about people on the other side of the world walking upside down on their heads were true. If you had told me when we got up this morning that we would witness a Lirindarc slaying party, armed with fire, torching a village in a forest, and leaving behind the bodies of their fallen in the process, I would have told you your brain had curdled." Grunthor nodded in agreement.

They climbed down amid the acrid stench of burning thatch and the sounds of wailing from the village behind them, then carefully made their way through the patchy woods to the west. The smoke billowed over their heads in the wind, covering their exit as they left the scene of the carnage behind.

By the end of the eighth day of their scouting mission, they were all but certain their brains had not only curdled, but had fermented. In place after place, senseless and inexplicable violence erupted.

Sometimes the participants were Lirin, but more often it was humans savaging their fellow humans. The Firbolg were beginning to wonder if they had lost their place as monsters in common belief, to be replaced by those who used to relegate them there.

Equally inexplicable was the aftermath of some of the attacks.

In one town on the border of the forest and the open lands beyond it they observed in amazement the pillagers of the town return to their barracks just around the bend of the road, half a league away. A few of the soldiers from the same quarters even came to help tend to the wounded.

"What is goin' on in this place?" Grunthor asked indignantly as they watched the cleanup from their hiding place behind the granary. "Don't make no sense at all."

Achmed shook his head but remained silent. He could handle war as long as he could tell what the sides, the motives, and the players would be. Here he knew none of these things.

As they came closer to the sea, the thinning snowpack disappeared altogether, leaving brown grass and bare trees in the grip of an icy wind that showed less mercy than the soldiers did. Achmed and Grunthor kept a wider barrier between themselves and any sign of civilization in order to be able to sleep near a sheltered campfire without fear of being spotted. They only approached empty houses or barns when they were acquiring supplies.

They were in Avonderre now. They had overheard enough conversation to deduce that it was the name of the province, and that it bordered the sea. The scent of salt in the air was now strong enough for Grunthor to detect it, and they followed their noses, moving closer to the ocean day by day, week after week, remaining always at the outskirts, avoiding any contact with the inhabitants of this new land.

The settlements and towns had become larger and closer as they approached the port city, eventually beginning to blend in with the wide expanse of buildings that lined the horizon. Where huts and kraals had once housed the populace, now homes fashioned of mud or fire-formed brick appeared, with doors carved from heavy wood and roofs of clay or sealed thatch.

The roadways widened into roads, and eventually streets, lined with ancient stone and cobbled. Grunthor had whistled at the expense that must have been incurred; back home cobblestone streets were only seen in the wealthiest sections of the largest cities, and then only in front of public buildings and temples. Here it appeared that each street of this sprawling city, at least three times the size of Easton, was paved.

Avonderre's wharf was even bigger, stretching north-south along the coastline for as far as the eye could see. Fishing villages made up the extreme edges. Closer in were the docks, designed and built from gleaming stone and wood, with slips and moorings of shining metal. And in the dead center was the sheltered harbor, a colossal port with more ships than Achmed or Grunthor could count.

"Would ya just look at that?" the Sergeant murmured as they watched from a distance the off-loading of a hundred merchant vessels at a time, barrels and crates and horses and wagons working with the precision of an anthill.

"No," Achmed said, tapping his friend on the shoulder and pointing skyward. "You look at that."

Grunthor glanced up from the pile of oilcloth and lump coal he had been pilfering from behind a blacksmith's shop, the most distant building on the city's outer fringe. The sun was going down, and was taking the last of the unbroken sky with it, leaving in its place ominous storm clouds racing to the horizon, swollen with rain and charged with lightning. A moment later the wind picked up in the face of the oncoming storm.

"Blimey. Better get out o' 'ere, then."

Achmed had already scrambled over the low wall behind the smithy, heading north away from the wharf.

"There're some rocky outcroppings at the outskirts of town. That'll be a decent place to hide and find shelter at the same time. Come on. It's going to be a rough one when it hits."

They made their way beneath an angry sky, buffeted by the wind, to the guardian rocks that loomed forbiddingly up from the shore. The waves crashed and roared back into the wind, sending salt spray into the faces of the two men.

Darkness blanketed the sky all the way to the horizon, with rare breaks in the clouds allowing the light of the full moon a moment's glory, then squelching it back again.

"Shall we find ourselves a cave, sir?"

Achmed squinted in the dark, but saw very little except the rocky crags and the roaring waves. Firbolg eyes were suited to the darkness within the Earth, not above the ground.

"Perhaps on the other side of that cliff," he suggested.

Grunthor shook his head, spattering salt water and sweat.

"Naw. Nothin' there—solid rockwalls for a few miles. But down near the shore is an enormous shelter o' some kind."

"You can feel all this through the Earth?"

"Yeah."

Slowly Achmed and Grunthor climbed down until they finally reached the sand of the shoreline. Then both men broke into a run. Drops of rain had started to fall intermittently, stinging their eyes and skin like icy needles from the sky. The beach wound around a large bluff to the north, following an inlet that opened into a small lagoon; they had seen it from afar when they were still up on the precipice. The guardian rocks stretched up endlessly into the black wind above them, like mountain crags.

As they came around the cliff they saw a monstrous edifice surrounded distantly by four other buildings. In the dark and the whipping wind it was almost impossible to see its outline.

"It's a temple," Achmed shouted to Grunthor. "What kind of idiot builds a temple on sand ?"

The Sergeant barely heard him above the noise of the wind. "And so close to the water's edge. Strange, eh? Want to look into it?" His heavy hair, blackened with spray from the pounding surf, hung wet in his eyes.

Achmed hesitated. Temples meant priests; he hated priests. But the towering building alone was dark. There were lights burning in the four more distant ones, undoubtedly the rectories where the clergy lived or places where supplies were stored. They would run less of a risk of being spotted in the basilica itself.

"All right," he muttered, pulling the ragged edges of his hood closer to his face. "But any priest I run into better be able to swim."

Until they came around the northern side of the rocky crags, neither of the men could see anything more than a vast expanse of stone towering in the air above the shoreline. Once on the other side, however, they stopped in their tracks involuntarily, oblivious of the rain.

The temple rose out of the darkness of the crashing wind and surf, its oddly angled spire pointing away from the sea. The base of the structure was formed from enormous blocks of quarried stone, gleaming gray and black in the shadows of the moon, irregular and purposefully shaped, mortared together around tall beams of ancient wood. Carefully tended walkways, formed by great slabs of polished rock embedded in the sand, led up to the front doors.

A shattering breeze ripped through, flapping their makeshift clothing. The rain clouds overhead whisked away from the face of the moon for a moment, and its light came to rest on the structure, illuminating the whole of the building.

The temple had been designed to resemble the bow of a great wrecked ship, jutting from the craggy rocks and sand of the beach at an ominous angle. The immense entrance doors, fashioned from planks of varying lengths with a jagged notched pattern at the top, appeared to depict a vast hole torn in what would have been the keel. The crazily angled spire was the representation of a mast. The colossal ship had been rendered accurately, down to the last nautical apparatus. The moorings and riggings, detailed in exquisitely carved marble, were a half-dozen times their normal size.

Farther off shore was another part of the temple, an annex connected to the main building by a plank walkway. Like much of the annex, the walkway was only visible at low tide, submerging into the sea when the tide came back in. This additional part of the temple evoked the wreckage of the stern. A gigantic anchor, lying aslant on the sandbar between the two buildings, served as its threshold.

Despite the architectural care that had been taken to elicit the feeling of an off-balance wreck unevenly resting on the sand, it was obvious that the enormous edifice was sound and solidly built. It stood, undisturbed, amid the churning waves of the raging sea. Grunthor let out a long, low whistle. "Criton. What ya make o' that, guv?" Achmed was struggling to contain the dislike he felt for the water. In the old days, the sea could mask the heartbeats of his prey with its conundrum of conflicting vibrations and colossal power. It was the only place a victim could hide from him.

"Couldn't say. Perhaps the local worshippers are merchants, or fisherman. Very rich fisherman; its design is superior to anything I've ever seen, and building it must have been a huge undertaking. It certainly took a fair amount of complicated construction. The event it is commemorating must have been very traumatic to have inspired such a monstrosity. Too bad Rhapsody's not here; it might make more sense to her."

"Yeah, Oi think 'er family must have been sailors or worked the wharves in Easton. One night in the Root she was mutterin' about wantin' to see the ocean."

Achmed shook his head. "I doubt Rhapsody was born in Easton, or any other city. She may have picked up the skills to survive in the taverns and alleyways of Easton, but she's not a child of the streets. I suspect she grew up in a farm village or settlement, probably poor, but not destitute. She doesn't have the whetted edge she would if she had been born a guttersnipe." The wind caught the sand from the beach and blasted it across their faces.

"Ya think she's all right?"

Achmed began tying up the ends of his cloak. "Yes. Come on. Low tide won't last long. I want to see what's in the building farther out."

"There comes the rain."

They waited long enough to be sure no guards or worshippers came to the temple. After a few moments it was obvious that the darkness and the approaching storm would keep away anyone who might discover them.

The shrieking of the wind grew louder as sheets of rain began to fall, drenching both men to the skin. The ocean waves, even in ebb, crashed violently against the shoreline, frothing over the rocks at the temple's base.

The light of the moon was now completely gone, replaced by black, racing clouds that muted the sky. Achmed and Grunthor scaled the guardian rocks and ran up the pathway leading to the huge doors of the temple. The tall hooded torches that flanked the entranceway had long since been extinguished by the wind.

Grunthor grasped the great brass handles and pulled; the left door opened without resistance. The men hurried inside, quickly hauling the heavy door closed behind them.

Dripping wet, they took in the cavernous basilica. Its ceiling towered above them, the distant walls arching up to meet it. Great fractured timbers of myriad lengths and breadths were set within the dark stone. It looked a little like the fragmented skeleton of a giant beast, lying on its back, its spine the long aisle that led up forward, ancient ribs reaching brokenly, helplessly upward into the darkness above.

Round windows in the design of portholes were set high in the walls, affording the temple light by day. A single line of translucent glass blocks of great heft and thickness had been inlaid in the walls, about knee-height on Grunthor. The churning sea was diffusely visible through them, bathing the interior of the basilica in a greenish glow. In daylight it would be magnificent; by night, in a storm, there was little Achmed could do to shake off the eerie feeling that had drenched him even more deeply than the rain had.

Grunthor shook his head, spattering the water from his dripping hair onto the floor. There were no benches or seats of any kind, except for a wide circle of marble blocks near the middle of the temple. Despite its proximity to the water and at least part of the floor and lower walls being actually built below water level, the temple was surprisingly dry. They noticed, however, that the surface of the stone that had been used to construct the floor was rough in texture, allowing for better purchase when wet.

Achmed nodded forward, and the two Firbolg started down the aisle, looking around and above them all the while. The immense timbers, though carefully preserved, had been worn and weathered in their previous life, undoubtedly when they were part of the hulls of ships. The variation in the color and condition of the wood seemed to indicate that it had been gathered from many different vessels.

At the midpoint of the aisle the ceiling opened into a tall shaft, a broad tunnel of blackness with small slits cut into the distant top of it. The wind and salt spray whistled through the slits and down the shaft, its howl echoing within the temple.

"Must be the mast," Grunthor noted. Achmed nodded in agreement.

Beneath the opening in the center of the circular stone benches was a small, round fountain carved from blue-veined marble, with several larger basins of the same stone opening into ever-wider circles around it to catch its overflow. A pulsing stream of water bubbled from the font, spraying suddenly in the air, then subsiding again in rhythm with the pounding waves. Occasionally a violent jet would spurt forth, dousing the floor, but far enough from the stone benches for them to remain dry.

At the far end of the great building was another set of doors, wrought in copper and inscribed with patterns too distant to see. The Bolg circumvented the fountain and went to the back of the temple, their footsteps swallowed by the sound of the waves outside the walls.

Two wall sconces flanked the copper doors, their glass domes surrounding a wick of twisted metal. As they approached the door, they could see it was inscribed with runes, writing Achmed couldn't read but in which he thought he recognized a few symbols. They were vaguely similar to the those in the written language of Serendair.

A raised relief of a sword had been wrought into the copper of each door, one pointing up, the other down. Scrolled designs ran down the blades, similar to ocean waves, and the points were flared in a similar pattern.

The background of the relief gave Achmed pause. It was an engraving of a winged lion, a crest he had seen before. It took him a moment to place it.

"This is the coat-of-arms of MacQuieth's family," he said, more to himself than to Grunthor, though the Sergeant had also known of the legendary warrior, the champion of Serendair's king. "What's it doing here, half a world away?"

Grunthor rubbed his chin and stared at the etching on the doors.

"Oi believe MacQuieth came from elsewhere. Didn't they use to call 'im Nagall, the Stranger? Seems to me 'e sailed from some far-off place to come to the Island when 'e was young. Maybe this is where 'is family's from."

Achmed nodded, annoyed with himself. The churning frenzy of the waves around them was muddling his mind, keeping him from thinking clearly.

"Well, that may tell us where we are. I believe he came from Monodiere." He grasped the handle of the left door and pulled, but it was wedged shut. He tried the other, to no avail.

"These must be the doors to the annex," he said, rubbing his hand on his cloak to clear the moisture.

"Allow me," said Grunthor, bowing politely. He spat into his palm and grasped the handle, wrenching the door open with one smooth tug. He stepped back quickly as the salt spray slapped his face.

On the other side of the door, its outer copper surface turned green-blue and corroded from the salt, was a wide stone step that led to the plank walkway. Already the path was beginning to be touched by puddles swelling before the returning tide.

The men shielded their eyes with their forearms and stepped into the gale, Grunthor's hand locked on to Achmed's shoulder. The walkway was long and narrow, crossing the sandbar, and littered with seaweed and the debris left behind when the tide ebbed.

They crossed as quickly as they could, struggling to remain upright in the whipping wind. Grunthor stopped long enough to extricate a large, oddly shaped shell that had gotten itself stuck in the rough wood of the planks.

As they approached the annex they could see it had no door of its own, but rather just a rough archway that left the annex's hollow chamber open to the ravages of the sea and the air. When the tide returned, much of the annex would submerge again, the water high enough to crest Achmed's head. In the sand before the archway lay an immense anchor, rusted and pocked, which served as the doorstep.

When they reached the archway they stepped over the anchor and hurried inside before looking around, then stared at what they saw.

Unlike the temple, which was an edifice built to look like a ship, the annex was a piece of a real one, wedged upright, bow skyward and aslant, in the sand. The ship had been a sizable one, judging by its wreckage, which appeared to be the better part of the stern and midship. Its deck had been stripped away, leaving nothing but the hull, which now formed the walls of the annex. Upon closer inspection, it was evident that the ship had been built of something other than ordinary timber, but the material was not something either of them had seen before. Also wedged into the sand in the center of the annex was a stone table, a block of solid obsidian, gleaming smooth beneath the pools of water that danced across it with each gust of the wind. Two brace restraints of a metal neither man recognized were embedded in the stone, their clasps open and empty. There was not a trace of rust on either one.

The surface of the stone had at one time been inscribed with deep runes that had been worn away over time by the insistent hand of the ocean. Now it was smooth, with only a bleached shadow marring the obsidian where the inscription once had been.

Attached to the front of the stone was a plaque, with raised runes similar to the ones they had seen in the copper doors. Like the braces on its horizontal surface, the marker was unaffected by the scouring waves.

"This looks a little like the written language of Serendair, but only a little," Achmed said, bending to examine the marker. "I wish Rhapsody were here."

"That's twice in ten minutes you said that," Grunthor answered, grinning, "and Oi'm gonna tell 'er."

"She won't believe you, or she'll think I wanted to pitch her into the sea," Achmed said, rising and slinging his pack off his shoulder onto the stone block. Quickly he took out the oilcloth and lump coal they had stolen and stretched the cloth over the runes. Then, with the coal, he made a quick rubbing of the plaque and returned both to his pack. "See—we didn't need her after all. We'd better get out of here, the tide is coming in."

Grunthor nodded. The water was up above his ankles now, which meant the sandbar would soon be barely visible.

Achmed shouldered his pack. As he did, his hand brushed the stone block, and his fingers vibrated gently. He crouched down once more, examining the stone itself. It was plain black obsidian, a slab of impressive size, but otherwise quite unremarkable. Nonetheless there was a hum to it when he touched it, a vibration that was both utterly unknown and oddly familiar. He looked up at Grunthor.

"Does this feel strange when you touch it?"

The Sergeant rested his palm on the stone, considering. A moment later he shook his head.

"Naw. Feels cold, like marble. Smooth from the sea 'ittin' it all the time."

Achmed took his hand away. The vibration ceased, leaving him feeling both relieved and strangely bereft. But there was no time to ponder the meaning of it; the tide was coming in.

They stepped into the screaming wind and waded back through the knee-deep water to the temple. Once inside, Grunthor shoved the copper door back into place. He sighed and looked at his friend.

"Well, whaddaya make o' that?"

Achmed shook his head.

"No idea, but perhaps—" His words choked off and he glared, angry at himself.

Grunthor snorted with laughter. "All right, you don't gotta say it, sir. Per'aps she'll know."

"We best be getting back there, anyway," Achmed said, brushing the water off his shoulders as they walked back through the basilica. "We have a date to meet up with her. With all those strange attacks between here and there, the journey may take longer than it should."

* * *

The front door of the Invoker's keep was ancient and thick, with deeply carved designs that somehow reminded Rhapsody strongly of home.

It had at one time been gilded with a gold-leaf image, which had faded and peeled with age, in the vague shape of a dragon or other mythical beast. It bore the signs of salt spray that had worn some of the surface down to a smooth finish, made even balder by time. It was also marked in the upper right corner with a hex sign unlike any she had seen, a circle formed from a spiral.

Khaddyr rapped loudly on the door with his walking stick. He waited a moment and was about to knock again when suddenly the door opened.

In the entranceway stood a middle-aged woman of mixed blood, a half-caste Lirin like Rhapsody herself, though her coloring was more like that of the forest Lirin from the Island. Her skin was dark and sallow, and her eyes and hair the color of the bark of the chestnut tree. Her temples bore a touch of gray.

She wore a robe of undyed wool, similar to the others Rhapsody had seen, and nodded deferentially to Khaddyr, then turned to look at his guest. Her mouth fell open and she stared blankly. Rhapsody blushed. I must be a horrific sight, she thought, her throat tightening in embarrassment.

Khaddyr's eyes darkened in annoyance. "Ahem," he said, clearing his throat, "Good evening to you, too, Gwen. Is His Grace in?"

The woman blinked, then colored in abashment. "Forgive me, Father, and you as well, miss; I don't know what's come over me. Please come in." She stepped aside from the door and Khaddyr entered the house, taking Rhapsody by the elbow and leading her inside.

They followed Gwen through a hallway crafted from polished wood and adorned with carvings and variegated stone floors. At the last door before a spindled stairway Gwen stopped and knocked politely, then opened the door slightly and called inside.

"Your Grace?"

"Yes?" The voice that answered was a smooth, cultured baritone.

"You have guests, sir." Her eyes returned to Rhapsody.

"It's I, Your Grace," said Khaddyr. He glared at Gwen. "Stop gawking; you're being rude." The woman turned hastily away.

The door opened a moment later and Khaddyr led Rhapsody inside. She looked around at the cozy room, a surprisingly small study with a large, whole-wall hearth on which a fire was burning quietly. As she entered the room the flames blazed in greeting, then settled back down into a steady, insistent incandescence.

The room was filled with odd objects, maps and scrolls, and bookshelves that lined the three remaining walls. There were several comfortable chairs clustered around a low, round table made from a center slice of a wide tree that had been struck by lightning, a liquor chest, and other pieces of furniture that were hidden in the shadows of the firelight.

The door closed quietly behind them. Standing there was a thin, elderly man dressed in simple gray robes. His face was kind and wrinkled, with a good many lines around his eyes, his hair silver and white with heavy brows and a matching mustache, neatly trimmed. His build was tall and somewhat slight, though he appeared in good health. The old man's skin had the weathered look of someone who spent most of his time outdoors.

"Well, well," the man said softly. "What have we here?"

"Your Grace, this woman came to me from out of the forest of Tref-Y-Gwartheg," Khaddyr answered respectfully. "She doesn't speak the language, though she seems to understand it somewhat. She sings to the sunrise as well, though she has placed no words to these songs; her voice is otherworldly in its beauty. I thought perhaps she would interest you, as I am at a loss to define what she is. It occurred to me that she might be a dryad or sylph or some other nature spirit with whom you might be familiar, if anyone was."

Rhapsody stared at Khaddyr in surprise. Initially it was the name of the town that had caught her interest; Tref-Y-Gwartheg, in the tongue of the Island, meant simply Cattle-town.

It was his final comment, however, that caused her some shock. She had thought when the townspeople first started swarming about her that they had never seen a Lirin woman before, but Gwen was proof that her theory there was incorrect. Why would the priest think she was a nature spirit? Was it her wild appearance, or something more? She thought back to Achmed and Grunthor's awkward attempts to explain the way the fire had changed the way she looked. Apparently it made her look freakish.

The old man smiled in amusement. "Thank you, Khaddyr." He came a few steps closer to her and looked into her face. "My name is Llauron," he said, directly and pleasantly. "What may I call you, my dear?"

"Rhapsody," she answered. Khaddyr jumped at the sound of her voice.

"I didn't know she could speak," he said.

"Sometimes it's just a matter of asking questions that one can answer, isn't it, Rhapsody?" His voice, rich and distinguished, had a gentle, disarming tone to it. She couldn't help but smile in return.

"Yes."

"Where are you from?"

Rhapsody's brows drew together as she puzzled over how to answer him. She had agreed not to give much information away, and yet she didn't want to lie, on top of which she was uncertain of her ability to communicate accurately in the dialect. "I don't know what you would call it," she said carefully. "It is far away."

"Yes, I can imagine," the Invoker said. "Well, not to worry. Can I get you something to eat, or perhaps a bath?"

Her face lit up, and with it, the fire; the flames roared in delight. "Yes, a bath would be wonderful," she said slowly. The desire to be clean outweighed all caution.

Llauron opened the door of the study. "Gwen?"

The half-Lirin woman appeared again. "Yes, Your Grace?"

"This is Rhapsody. She is to be our guest, at least for this evening. Please draw her a nice, hot bath with plenty of soap, and set Vera to preparing a supper tray for her." The woman nodded and left. Llauron turned back to them again. "Now, while that is being undertaken, would the two of you like some tea?"

"Yes, thank you," Rhapsody said.

"I would as well, Your Grace."

Llauron gestured to the chairs while he prepared the tea, hanging a pot of water on the hearth. He took three cups out of a cabinet near one of the glass windows and set them before his guests. When the water had boiled he removed it from the fire and poured it into a china teapot with some tea leaves to steep. Then he sat in the chair opposite her.

"Well, Rhapsody, I do hope Khaddyr has been a good host, aside from failing to offer you a bath."

Khaddyr was mortified. "I am sorry, miss," he said to her in embarrassment, "but I didn't want to offend any custom your people might have."

Llauron looked amused. "Come now, Your Grace, surely you've met enough Lirin to know that they bathe." He poured the tea into the cups and offered them the small honey server.

"Lirin?" Khaddyr asked in astonishment.

"Half-Lirin, I would guess. Is that correct, my dear? One of your parents was Liringlas?"

Rhapsody nodded. "My mother." She sipped the tea, reveling in its warmth.

"I thought as much."

A knock sounded on the door, then it opened. "The bath is ready, Your Grace."

Llauron rose. "I imagine that's the thing you desire most in the world right now, isn't it, my dear?"

"Yes." The great exhale of breath in her answer made the Invoker chuckle.

"Well, enjoy your soak. Gwen, please get her anything she needs, and wash her clothes for her while she bathes. I'm sure you can come up with a new robe for her as well, yes?"

"Yes, Your Grace."

"Excellent."

Rhapsody followed Gwen from the room. As they stepped out into the hall and climbed the stairs she could hear the men continuing their conversation.

"A dryad?" Llauron's voice barely contained his mirth. "Really, now."

"I've never seen a Lirin like that," she heard Khaddyr say defensively.

"Apparently not, but I'm sorry to say there are no more nature spirits; the last of them perished with the Island centuries ago—"

The sound of his voice was cut off as Gwen closed the bathroom door.

The bathroom contained a great porcelain tub which had been filled with steaming water and scented with herbs; fennel and lemon verbena, Rhapsody thought with a sigh. She turned to see Gwen watching her, with no apparent intention of leaving.

Self-consciously Rhapsody removed her filthy clothing, leaving the locket around her neck, and eased herself into the tub, feeling an ecstatic rush as the heat of the water closed around her body. She looked up to see Gwen bundle her rags and leave the room, closing the door behind her.

With a deep sigh she slipped even further down into the water, feeling the blissful sensation of shedding the mud that had soaked into the pores of her skin, allowing it to breathe for the first time in as long as she could remember. As she scrubbed the muck from her hair and skin the water lost none of its heat, even as it turned a repulsive gray color. It was as if the tension of the endless time spent in travel was melting off her along with the dirt. She could not bring herself to imagine what the tub would look like when she was finished.

She was drying herself with one of the thick sheets of cloth that had been left beside the tub when Gwen came back, carrying a white wool robe similar to the ones she had seen among the Filids in the forest glen. The servant left the room, and Rhapsody donned the robe, enjoying the feel of a whole garment on her skin. Then she looked down at the sword; it seemed ludicrous to belt it onto the robe, so she decided to carry it in her hand. There was no place to hide it, anyway.

She waited for a few moments, but Gwen did not return. Rhapsody opened the door and peered down the corridor. There was no one in sight. She went down the stairs slowly, her eyes taking in all the angles and details of the marvelous house, from its glowing woodwork to the odd pieces of art that adorned the walls.

The door to the study was open, and she leaned into the doorway. "Hello?" she called.

Llauron's voice answered her, but seemed distant. "Ah, you're done. Come in, my dear."

Rhapsody walked into the study to find the room empty. On the wall that abutted the fireplace was a door she had not seen, standing open. She crossed the room, noting the embers on the hearth leaping in greeting as she walked past, and went into the adjoining room.

It was very similar to the study except for the central piece of furniture. A messy, ornate desk took up much of the room, covered with papers and scrolls that seemed piled randomly on it. Another hearth, a smaller one, was visible between two paned windows. Glass was a luxury that Rhapsody had seen only rarely in the old world and only in this house since arriving in the new one. Llauron rose from the large chair behind the desk and smiled at her.

"Well, now, are you feeling better?" She nodded. "Good, good. Did you recognize the herbs?"

Rhapsody thought for a moment. She did—lavender, fennel, rynlet, lemon verbena, and rosemary—but she was unsure how to say the words in this dialect, and didn't want to speak them in the old language. "Yes," she said.

The Invoker laughed. "Very good. You're something of an herbalist, then?"

She shook her head. "No, I know a little about plants, but not much."

"Well, if you are interested in learning more, this is the place to do it. Our chief herbalist, Lark, is Lirin also, though not Liringlas."

"Perhaps. I'm sure it would be very interesting."

"Indeed. Customarily I have Gwen put rock salt in the bath as well. It soothes sore muscles, or at least I hope it did."

Rhapsody smiled. "Yes, thank you. I feel worlds better."

Llauron opened his hand in the direction of a soft-looking chair. "Khaddyr made his apologies; he is needed at the hospice. Perhaps you'd like to ask me some of the thousand questions you must have, and I admit I have a few of my own. Have a seat by the fire, my dear, and help yourself to the supper tray."

Rhapsody complied, breathing deeply to keep the fire from reacting to her nervousness. It was of little use; the flames leapt to life as she sat in the chair. Llauron didn't seem to notice.

"What is this place?" she asked carefully, trying to keep within the dialect.

Llauron smiled. "You are in the home, the keep, of the Invoker—that's me, of course—of the Filids, the religious order that worships the One-God, the Life-Giver, by tending to the various aspects of nature. My home is at the crest of the Circle, the community where our order lives, trains, and tends the Great White Tree—I imagine you saw it on your way here, it's difficult to miss." Rhapsody nodded. "The name of the holy forest in which it grows, and we live, and you presently are, is Gwynwood."

Rhapsody sat back in her chair. She had never heard the names of any of those places or things before.

Llauron saw her disappointment. "Can you read maps?"

"Fairly well. Mostly sea charts."

"Excellent. Then come over here." The old man rose and led her to a strange orb in the corner suspended from a hinged floorstand. On the orb a map had been painted, showing the landmasses of the known world. He took the round map in his hands and spun it, locating a northern continent with a long, irregular western seacoast.

"This is where we are," Llauron said, pointing slightly inland from the coast. Rhapsody blinked but said nothing. She had seen this landmass before in her studies, but it was thought to be uninhabited.

The Island of Serendair was in the southern hemisphere on the other side of the world. Though she had anticipated this possibility, her throat tightened nonetheless. She was much farther from home than she had hoped.

"May I see the round map?" she asked hesitantly. Her vocabulary was failing her occasionally.

"Certainly. It's called a globe." Llauron swung it over to her on the stand.

Rhapsody turned the globe slowly, making note of some of the places she had seen before, and many more that she hadn't. Carefully she examined each part of the world, trying not to be obvious, her heart pounding. The language with which it was labeled was similar to that of her homeland, but with a few characters she didn't recognize. Finally she was able to turn it to the place where Serendair was, and found the Island in the correct place, on the opposite side of the Earth and sea. But instead of being labeled by its actual name, it was rendered in gray and annotated as The Lost Island.

Her hands grew cold. The Lost Island? It didn't surprise her that the mapmakers of this place were unfamiliar with the geography on the other side of the world, just as the Seren cartographers had been unaware that this place was inhabited. But why call it lost?

Her eyes scanned the globe quickly. She noticed that in addition to its strange appellation, Serendair was also the only landmass colored in gray. She swung the map back to the place Llauron had indicated they now were.

The Invoker was watching her in interest. "Here, let me show you a little of the geography." He went to the high pile of maps on the sideboard and rummaged through them until he came to the one he was looking for, unrolling it for her to see.

"The Tree is here, in the central forest region near the southeastern border of the forest. Gwynwood itself is a religious state, and as such is not aligned with Roland, our neighbor on the southern and eastern sides."

Rhapsody followed his finger, and saw that the seaside province to the south of the forest was labeled Avonderre, and the eastern one Navarne. Across the wide ocean to the left was an area depicted in green, as the areas he was now showing her all were. Part of the mainland across the sea, the other green area was labeled Manosse.

"Avonderre and Navarne are part of Roland?"

"Yes, as are the provinces of Canderre, to the northeast, Yarim, east of that, Bethany, due east of Navarne, which is the Regency seat, and Bethe Corbair, east of Bethany."

Rhapsody studied the map with interest. Avonderre, Navarne, Bethany, Canderre, Yarim, and Bethe Corbair were the provinces of the country of Roland, but were not the only lands depicted in green. The color was used only in the section of the world Llauron was indicating, and nowhere else on the globe.

From the map it appeared that Roland encompassed part of the western seacoast, great rolling hills to the south of Gwynwood, and spread eastward into a vast, wide plain that was labeled The Orlandan Plateau.

It stretched further eastward to the foothills of a sharply broken mountain range, cut by a deep valley. The mountain range was labeled The Manteids. At one time the land around the Manteids had been noted as Canrif, but that had been neatly crossed out and replaced by the hand-written word Firbolg. Rhapsody swallowed hard upon reading the word.

She pointed to a country to the south that bordered on Bethany and Bethe Corbair. It seemed to be mostly composed of the same mountain chain as the Manteids, stretching south into a wide, high desert. This land was also depicted in green. "Is this part of Roland, too?"

"That's Sorbold. It is not part of Roland, but a nation unto itself."

"And this?" She indicated the area labeled Firbolg.

Llauron laughed. "Goodness, no. Those are the Firbolg lands. That's a dark and treacherous place, if ever there was one."

Rhapsody nodded; she could believe that of a land occupied by Firbolg. Her finger traced along the southern edge of the country of Roland, the final area shaded green, unlabeled. "Why does this area seem to have no name?"

Llauron uncurled a corner of the map as it rolled closed. "These are the nonaligned states that were once part of the Cymrian lands." His voice was matter-of-fact, but he watched her intently as he said the word.

Rhapsody's face was blank. The word meant nothing to her. "Cymrian lands? The green ones?"

"Yes, all of Roland and Sorbold, as well as those states that are currently nonaligned, Manosse, on the other continent, and the Firbolg Waste were once part of the lands settled by the Cymrians, spelled with a 'y,' though pronounced as a 'u.'"

"Who were the Cymrians?"

A flicker of surprise crossed Llauron's face. "You've never heard of the Cymrians?"

"No." Her hands began to tremble slightly. Llauron noticed, and patted one comfortingly.

"The Cymrians were the refugees who fled the Island of Serendair prior to its destruction."

Rhapsody heard the words Llauron had spoken: the Island of Serendair prior to its destruction. They slowly took up residence in her brain, settling in her mind like music from a distant orchestra. Its destruction.

A sense of calm descended on her; it was the physical reaction that occurred in her in the advent of great danger or panic. She fought to keep her face placid as the blood rushed from her head, cramping her stomach and leaving her feeling mortally weak.

With a practiced hand she picked up the map and carried it over to the chair she had occupied, and sat down again, balancing the scabbard across her knees and letting the fire warm her suddenly pale face.

"I'd like to hear more about the Cymrians, but will you explain two more lands to me?" she asked, her voice sounding exaggerated in her own ears.

Llauron sat in the chair opposite her. "Of course."

She forced her eyes to focus on a land depicted in yellow to the south of Gwynwood and its southern neighbor, Avonderre. The land seemed to be part of the same enormous forest but, aside from being shown in a different color, was labeled Realmalir. "What is this?"

A smile flickered across the Invoker's elderly face. "Those are the Lirin lands, the Great Forest of Tyrian. The word is Old Cymrian for 'the Lirin kingdom.' The Lirin were indigenous to this land. They were here when the Cymrians landed, and they are here still."

"But not part of Roland?"

"No. During the Cymrian Age the Lirin were allies of the Cymrians, but the Great War changed that."

"Great War?"

Llauron took a deep breath. "When you say you are from far away, I see you are not exaggerating. What is the other land you wanted to ask about?"

Rhapsody pointed numbly to the white lands to the north of Gwynwood and Roland. "What is this?"

"That is the Hintervold. It comprises all the lands to the north and east past the old Cymrian realm. I have some maps if you'd like to see them."

She was beginning to grow nauseated. "Some other time, if you don't mind. Tell me more about the Cymrians, please."

Llauron glanced out the window into the darkness. "Well, I can tell you a little, but it's a rather long story."

"A very long time ago, the last of the Seren kings, whose name was Gwylliam, made the discovery that the island nation of which he was the rightful ruler was doomed to dissolve in fire. The ancient manuscripts I've studied are not clear on how he came to know this, but kings of Serendair were often gifted with foresight, and knew a great many things indisputably." Numbness tingled at Rhapsody's temples. She had never heard of Gwylliam.

"Centuries before, the Island had sustained widespread damage when a star fell from the sky into the sea," Llauron continued. "It caused a great deluge which split the island and buried much of it beneath the waves. It was not hard to believe that something such as that could happen again."

Rhapsody struggled to breathe normally. She was familiar with the legend of the Sleeping Child, the story Llauron was now telling her.

Her mother had told her the Lirin tale of two stars that were sisters, Melita and Oelendra; how Melita had fallen from the sky and into the sea at the land's edge, settling below the waves but still churning with unspent fire. Islands to the north of Serendair, formerly mountaintops, became tropical from the heat, and the seas between them raged, making it treacherous for ships to sail near them.

The star at the bottom of the sea became known as the Sleeping Child. The Lirin believed that one day it might awaken and rise again, taking the rest of the island to the depths with it when it did. The sister star, Oelendra, was said to have fallen in despair, leaving its light still burning in the sky even after its death. She had thought the stories to be myths.

Llauron's voice came back to her as if through a fog. "Gwylliam was, by nature and training, an architect, an engineer, a smith. He refused to accept his kingdom's death knell, and instead decided to find a way to preserve the culture that his royal line had fought so hard to protect."

"He undertook great plans to evacuate the Island, although some of his subjects, notably from the older races, such as the Liringlas, chose to stay behind rather than leave, even in the face of impending disaster. Others chose to travel to nearby landmasses within the shipping lanes that had been plied by Seren sailors for centuries."

"But Gwylliam was not satisfied with either of those alternatives. He wanted to find a place where the Seren culture of all its races could be preserved, a sanctuary for his subjects where they could rebuild their civilization. To that end he chose a sailor, a man of Ancient Seren stock, who was called Merithyn—the Explorer. He was sent out in a small ship, alone, to find a suitable place to relocate the Seren who wanted to flee."

"By the way, let me clarify the difference between Seren and Ancient Seren. Any citizen of what was at the time modern Serendair, regardless of race, was Seren, though since they came here they have been referred to exclusively as Cymrians. The Ancient Seren were a particular race, tall, gold-skinned people from long before the races of man colonized Serendair. They died out, for the most part, well prior to the era I am telling you about." Rhapsody, herself Seren, nodded numbly.

"Eventually Merithyn came to this place, which at the time was the impenetrable realm of a dragon named Elynsynos; that's much too long a story to get into tonight, but if you stay for a while, I will be more than happy to relate it to you."

"At any rate, Elynsynos took to him, and sympathized with the plight of his nation, so she invited them to come and live within her lands, the places you now see, for the most part, in green on the map. Merithyn returned with the news happily, and the Seren came to this land in three fleets of ships."

"Eight hundred and seventy-six ships set out, though considerably fewer landed, and they sailed in three Waves, which all left and landed at different times and in different places. It was harrowing, and difficult, but they survived, and eventually met up again, banding together to form the greatest nation this land has ever seen, and ushered in the most enlightened Age it has ever known. But that civilization has been gone for a very long time."

Rhapsody tried to maintain her composure. "I still don't understand why they were called Cymrians. Didn't you say they were from Serendair?"

The Invoker stood up again and stretched, then crossed the room to a case where a strange, rocklike object was displayed under glass. Rhapsody followed him, fighting rising hysteria. He pointed at the rock, into which runes had been carved. She stared down at the words through the glass.

Cyme we inne frit, fram the grip of deap to lifinne dis smylte land

"Can you read this, my dear?"

Rhapsody nodded. It was written in a combination of what Llauron had referred to as Old Cymrian, the language of her father, the common tongue of her homeland, and the strange language of sailors and merchants that was universally used in shipping trade.

"Come we in peace, from the grip of death to life in this fair land."

Llauron smiled approvingly. "Very good. This was Gwylliam's command to Merithyn, the salutation with which he was to greet anyone in the new land he might find."